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The home of blackmail and bereavement

Updated: May 17

It's probably not a claim that the local tourist board will be putting in their ads, any time soon - but the words "blackmail" and "bereavement" both came from the Borders.

The first term (as Turnbull explains to Antoine in The Trail of Blood) comes from the local word "mail" meaning "rent". Ordinary, legitimate payments to the landowner were known as "white mail", but additional payments to the local warlord (usually the same person) were known as "black mail". In effect these taxes, supposedly for protection from other criminals, were an early extortion racket.

Woodcut of bag of medieval coins

The second term (which is also explained in the book) comes from the old English "bereave", meaning to take away or rob, especially through death. The word "reiver" comes from the same root: ie these bandits were people who bereaved others. Nowadays, of course, the word "bereavement" has been stripped of its connotations of violent robbery, but back then it was associated with the gallop of hooves and the clash of steel.

All of which goes to show that the reivers were really gangsters, before their time.

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