Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My Grahams of the Borders - Ne Oublie!

My family traces its Graham line back to Robert Graham, who was born in County Down, Ireland, in 1749/50. Although born in Northern Ireland, Robert was of Scottish descent. There were many of these Scots-Irish families in Northern Ireland. Like mine, many of them migrated towards the colonies and heartily participated in the American Revolution. It's a very interesting history, and one of the triggers to my personal family history obsession.

Still, I wonder: just what brought Robert's ancestors to Ireland from Scotland? I've done only a small bit of research on Scottish/English history. I've also been in touch with the genealogist from the Clan Graham Society, Nellie Lowry.

There was a group of Graham's who inhabited what was termed the "Debatable Lands" between the Scottish and English border. They who lived there were known as "border reivers." It's Nellie's opinion that my Graham's probably come from this border area.

The following are excerpts from Nellie's article about the Graham's of the Borders in the Clan Graham News, Vol. 14, Number 2 Summer 1998:

"By 1552 the Debateable Land had already been partitioned between England and Scotland. Scots Dyke is the modern name of the dividing line. This border was closely watched every night by many men. The Grahams of Netherby and Mote made their "fair livings" by the service of having their horses ready and keeping the night watches of the border.

In 1583 there appear to be three Graham clans in this tiny area:

Grahams of the Leven lived on the banks of the Lyne from Solport to its junction with the Esk. These were "great riders and ill-doers to both the realms".

Another great clan of Grahams—the Grahams of the Esk—occupied the banks of that river from the Mote Scar, where the Liddel joins it, down to the sea. There they feuded with the Story family and took their land.

Out west, on the edge of the Debateable Land, dwelt the Grahams of the Sark, English on this side of the stream, Scottish on the other.

According to family tradition, the Grahams had been banished from Scotland and settled along the banks of the Esk and Lyne Rivers (just north of Carlisle) and from there into Northumberland. By the middle of the sixteenth century they were 500 armed men strong under William "Lang Will" Graham of Stubhill, to whose son, Fergus of the Mote, arms were granted some three years later. By the end of the century it was estimated that Rob Graham alone commanded 2,000-3,000 men useful to England.

Not only did intermarriage and self-interest enable the Grahams, from their base in the Debatable Lands, to be useful to England or to Scotland at will, but their loyalties seem to have been curiously divided even among themselves!

The Borderers were happy to fight each other for their own ends; their natural cussedness would become evident. They might be led, but on no account would they be driven, least of all by officialdom to whom they were naturally allergic. It was often difficult to know on whose side a particular surname might be operating. Thomas Musgrave wrote "They are a people that will be Scottish when they will and English at their pleasure." The Grahams were known as a clan with a soul above nationality and an eye directed almost exclusively to the main chance. They obeyed no master unless it happened to suit them.

Since 1548 when the young Queen of Scots set sail for France, the Border had been the scene of constant bloodshed and pillage by rival factions. Robbery, murder, blackmail and kidnapping; the Grahams indulged in them all....

...The Grahams had lots of friends: in 1597 two notorious thieves, Jock Graham of the Peartree and Will of the Lake of Esk, were sent to the Queen's gaol here, yet the gaoler kept them in his house, and the next day, his friends came and took away the prisoners, having horses ready, while others with guns and dags lay in wait outside the city gate, to shoot any who should pursue, and followed to protect their retreat...

...Finally the Grahams saw the handwriting on the wall and tried to appease the government but when James I came to the throne, he showed the utmost zeal and determination in uprooting the landed families of Liddel, against whom he naturally bore a grudge. He arranged for their passage to Ireland from the port at Workington, County Cumberland, England to Roscommon, Ireland at the expense of the county.

The whole sept of the Grahams, under their chief Walter, the gude man of Netherby, was exported to Ireland. The reason stated was because they had been troublesome on the Scottish border. The sept at this time consisted of 124 persons, nearly all bearing the surname of Graeme or Graham. Their land was forfeited, and was sold in 1629 to Richard Graham, second son of Richard Graham, of Plomp, son of Matthew Graham of Springhill, beyond which it is impossible to trace the present family of Graham of Esk and Netherby.

Not all of the troublesome Grahams were deported to Ireland. Many had taken refuge among their friends and relations and many had defenders in the family. Even the Earl of Montrose came forward to protest the arrest of his cousin in the borders.

Since they were exported to Ireland in 1606, they were not long in the Cumberland area, yet many of the Grahams didn't stay in Ireland a year. Some came back to the borders, others went into Scotland, some to Yorkshire and Northumberland and others to the New World within a few years. All tried to hide their identity and some even changed their names! The Border Reivers were not "nice guys". They seemed to get into lots of trouble in the few short years that they lived in the area."

It's a fascinating history, and one I plan to learn more about in the future. Not only do I want to learn about the history of this place and its people, but one of my long term research goals is to trace Robert Graham's ancestry further back. My dad has taken a Y-DNA 67 marker test and has had his results submitted to the Graham DNA Project. As more Graham men have their results submitted, the more likely we will be able to make some of these ancient connections.

For further reading:


  1. Thanks so much for the information here.
    I am researching my husband's family GRAHAM.
    Unfortunately I have only been able to go back to 1800 in Fernmanagh Northern Ireland.
    Richard Graham born 1840 came to Australia with his elder brother unaccompanied, they were 12 and 14 respectively! They are listed on the ships passenger list as 18 and 20 years!!
    Richard became a man of distinction. A settler, hotelier, mail and goods carrier, breeder of fine horses.
    He is my grand childrens 5xggfather.
    I can believe they were wild men and independent. It has come through in the genes.
    but I must say they are law abiding!!!!
    They hunt wild boar with dogs and knives, are excellent horsemen and love the 'bush' and outdoors. They are survivors.
    Once again many thanks for your site and God bless you, I am a cancer survivor also. Praise God.

  2. Richard's elder brother was William. He ended up with a small farm on the Namoi river between Wee and Narrabri in north western NSW. It's now part of a cotton farm. Some of William's descendants were pretty wild. And many were also very successful.

  3. Nice write-up Tonya ! I'm a Graham as well. I have done the Y-DNA Testing with FTDNA. If you would care to exchange notes about " Graham History" etc ., I would love tohear from you at :-; look forward to your contact then....Cheers the 'noo, Bruce Graham!

  4. Just came across your blog and wondering if you are still at work searching the Grahams. I too am a Graham descendant. I can prove back to the 1700s in Armagh, Northern Ireland. I would love to prove back to where they were in Scotland and when then came to Ireland. Diane Drake