The border Reivers’ resemblance to the Italian Mafia is highlighted in a new book by a Carlisle author.

Jon Tait is a postman and writer who comes from a long line of killers and cattle rustlers. Jon’s Reiver heritage was the inspiration for his new book.

Dick the Devil’s Bairns: Breaking the Border Mafia focuses on the English and Scottish authorities’ clampdown on the Reivers in 1597.

Warring gangs made the Anglo-Scottish border a virtual warzone for about 300 years.

Following a treaty signed at Carlisle in 1597, 54 men from the wildest Reiver clans were demanded as ‘pledges,’ or hostages.

The plan was for them to be locked up to dissuade their clans and families from committing further violent crime.

Jon’s book follows the fate of those such as ‘Dick the Devil’ who were selected by their respective nations as doing the most damage by raiding.

It also examines the criminal activities carried out by their families and followers.

Jon explores the gangs’ roles in the context of wider Reiver society and the part played by their ‘godfathers’ in creating the first Mafia-style organisations, and their eventual downfall.

“The book was very much influenced by Gomarrah - Roberto Saviano’s excellent exposé of the Neapolitan Camorra,” says Jon.

“I saw a number of similarities between the way the gangs in Naples operate and the historical activities of the Reivers.

“Further investigation pointed more closely to the less well-known Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, who are involved in more rural criminal enterprises on family lines. The parallels were quite striking.

“In fact the Sicilian Mafia, La Cosa Nostra, had sprung up from cattle rustling and citrus grove protection rackets some 200 years after the Reivers had been mostly subdued.

“So the Reivers - with the possible exception of the Japanese Yakuza, who sprung up around the 16th century - were possibly one of the first Mafia-style organisations in the world.

“When you see the mass arrests and trials that the Mafia have undergone in recent years, you could apply the same kind of scene to a Jedburgh law court in reiving times.

“Some Reivers were imprisoned, others hanged or beheaded, drowned in rivers, branded on the cheek or hand. Those not turning up were declared outlaws and banished.

“Most of these men were not one-off offenders. They had 30- and 40-year careers as criminals, as had their fathers before them.”

Jon lives in Denton Holme and is originally from the Coquet Valley in Northumberland.

He spent about eight years researching all the criminal records that he could find from the time. He also drew on family connections.

“I am directly related to a number of the families that were involved in reiving. I have Taits, Scotts, Davisons, Robsons, Nixons, and Armstrongs in my not-too-distant ancestral line.

“My wife Sally has many as well. Hers are mostly Northumbrian while mine are generally Scottish. I was able to maintain an ‘insider’ view of what was going on.

“I grew up with people from almost every surname that was involved in reiving. Some of them have been on the same farms since the reiving days. I know them and I understand them.”

He also feels that their influence lives on in him.

“Some of the darker aspects of my own personality - the ability to bear long grudges, a lust for revenge, a flash temper and grim gallows humour - were all in there.

“A friend looked at the list of Reiver surnames that I worked on and commented that it ‘looked like the list from the Wallsend Pubwatch scheme.’”

Jon stresses that his book is intended as a readable account of historic true crime rather than a piece of academia.

“I hope it brings the characters back to life and tells their story from their view. I’m trying put a head back in the steel helmets that lie empty in museums.

“I approached it as a crime writer. The Reivers weren’t just stealing livestock; they were involved in protection rackets, burglaries, kidnapping, over-inflated and fraudulent insurance claims, murders and blood feuds.

“It wasn’t just a case of Scotland v England either. Criminals from both sides of the line would regularly join together. English raiders hit England and Scottish raiders hit Scotland, as well as crossing over the border.

“The Scottish raiders were happy to take English pay to burn their own country, as were the English. My grandma, a Scott, had a saying: ‘The English don’t want us, and the Scottish won’t have us.’

“I think that remains pertinent to the Borders today. We were burned out and killed by the crowns of both sides.

“In the aftermath of the battle at Flodden Field [in 1513], English and Scottish borderers joined together to rob the camps of both armies. It’s always been family and friends first and sod the rest.”

A desire to be different to previous books about the Reivers is one reason why Jon focused on the 1597 demand for hostages as an attempt to break the Reivers’ power.

He says: “One of the popular misconceptions about the Reivers is that their grip was broken in 1603 when the Scottish King James VI ascended to the English throne.

“But there had been major efforts to break them in the years leading up to that point, and the hangings, banishments and outlawry continued for at least 40-odd years after. The reiving culture did not die overnight. It was a long and drawn-out process.

“Reiving was about earning money, maintaining land, power and title as much as anything. Most Reivers were protected by the more powerful landowners that sat on juries and wouldn’t convict their friends.

“Many of those jurors were raiders themselves. It was a thoroughly corrupt system as the Borderers exploited the March Laws that applied here in the Six Marches - and nowhere else in the country - to their own ends. Raiding was organised crime.”

Jon’s previous books include the best-selling travel guide Northumberland: 40 Coast and Country Walks.

His other works include novels, poetry collections and books about football. His latest work feels particularly personal.

“Many other writers have penned books on the border Reivers. But I’m a borderer who has lived on the border all my life, and can draw a straight line back to them.

“It’s probably as close as you’re likely to get to an insider confessional.”

* Dick the Devil’s Bairns: Breaking the Border Mafia is published by Fyrebrand.