Football, and football violence, go back a long way in this country, to a distant past of tribal conflict – family against family, clan against clan, ain folk against the world. They are to be found in the Middle Ages among the fighting families of the Anglo-Scottish Border, as George MacDonald Fraser’s book The Steel Bonnets makes clear.[*] His synonymous reivers, raiders or riders used to get off their horses and play the football that became soccer and rugby, and they were not afraid of a few fouls: ‘some quarrel happened betwixt Bothwell and the Master of Marishal upon a stroke given at football on Bothwell’s leg by the Master, after that the Master had received a sore fall by Bothwell.’
[*] Collins Harvill, 404 pp., £6.95, 9 March, 0 00 272746 3. First published in 1971.
Vol. 11 No. 14 · 27 July 1989
Just back from France, I’ve been catching up with my LRBs, and thought Karl Miller’s Diary of 1 June a splendid piece. The link between football and the warring tribes of the Border was enlightening, though to me the names of Milburn and Robson stand for shops in Newcastle rather than footballers. One comment, though – it seemed to me inappropriate to bring in the author of The Waste Land. Eliot, I think, is mainly an English West Country name. Interested as the poet was in his ancestry, and interested as he was in Scotland, I never heard him claiming any descent – nor do I think ‘Eliot’ is a Border spelling: all those I’ve known (like Walter Elliot, who successfully raided the Treasury for school milk), or read of, are spelt with two l’s, and some (like Stevenson’s ‘Auld, auld Elliotts, claycauld Elliotts, dour bauld Elliotts of auld!’) with two t’s. Another thing: Karl Miller points out how Scott and the ballads left out the ugly side of Border reiving. It is worth mentioning the early Buchan story, ‘The Riding of Ninemileburn’ (in the collection The Moon Endureth), where there is reiving and revenging, but no glamour or glory: a poor man’s cow is robbed and his child will die without the milk. The Diary set me speculating: is John Elliott the historian, who has successfully raided the archives of Spain, anything to do with the auld bauld Elliotts? Or Robert Armstrong, who so unsuccessfully raided the law courts of Australia, with the late Johnnie Armstrong? One could go on.
Janet Adam Smith