Reclaiming the Reiver: the Carr Clan

I inherited much from my father beyond a name. Three things that spring immediately to mind: blue eyes, fleshy lips, and a gap between my front teeth. I was fortunate to inherit only the gap: my father had a small extra tooth, a mesiodens in dentist-speak.

dad

My dad with his third tooth. He was an RCAF tail-gunner in WWII.

These traits I passed on to my son. But the physical is superficial–it can be masked, bent, and altered, until we are cosmetic replicas of the original.

What is more difficult to change are the invisible propensities that define us. Of these, I inherited a tobacco addiction, the need for natural solitude, and a spiritual quest to understand the soul, perhaps even to know God.

There was a time I did not want my father’s name and cast it off. A relic of the patriarchy, it did nothing but remind me of the war we fought when I was a wild and raging teen and he a bewildered controlling father. But time passes, wounds heal, and perceptions change.

 

This summer, I stood atop a rise 100 kilometres east of Toronto and surveyed a vast expanse of farmland and pocketed forest running south all the way to Lake Ontario. By chance, I had booked an Airbnb north of the town of Cobourg, near the village of Baltimore. It was a long weekend and everywhere else was booked. I knew from my ancestry research that my father’s family, the Carr clan, had farmed in Cobourg for 150 years. As kids we’d visited a cousin there. The Carr farm was located at the corner of Concession 4 Lot 3 Baltimore, north of Cobourg. What I didn’t know was that I was standing virtually on top of that land. Nothing happens by chance.Cobourg Land.jpg

If you believe, as I do, that the natural landscape absorbs and holds the memory of all it experiences; then you must also appreciate that we can feel those memories when immersed in that landscape. As I stood there, I felt them. A tickling in my consciousness,

a gentle nudge, a whisper that said, “You know this land. This is the place of your people.”

Of course, the Carr clan didn’t start here. This is where they ended up.

Stephen Carr moved to Cobourg from Yorkshire, England sometime between 1850 and 1860. He married Margaret Carr in Cobourg on 27 November 1861. He was 30 at the time and Margaret was his 17-year-old cousin. My great-grandfather, Mathias John was born in Cobourg on 08 Dec 1861. Error or very pregnant cousin?

Carr is a common Celtic name in Ireland, Scotland, and Yorkshire. I’ve traced my Carr clan through parish records back to 1600 where they farmed near a village named Bolton-by-Bowland in the Ribble Valley for several generations. The village is due west of York and just downriver from the Scottish border.

The Carr Clan in Yorkshire were known as “Border Reivers” —  a lawless gang who ravaged the border towns between Scotland and England.

 

As a surname Carrs are commonest in Scotland and the north of England where they were once a notorious border reiving clan. Like most border folk of the Elizabethan period, the Carrs lived in fortified houses called pele towers. Pele towers were virtually impregnable stone built tower houses with walls three to four feet thick. The peles had two or three upper storeys accessed by a narrow spiral staircase, which in most cases ran upwards in a clockwise direction. This gave an advantage to right-handed swordsmen defending their peles. The Carrs were different, they were noted for being left-handed, so their stairs ran in an anti-clockwise direction.

Similar to the Reavers in the film Serenity, the Border Reivers were outlaws who survived by raiding not by nation, but by necessity. Cattle, sheep and anything moveable was fair game on both sides of the English-Scottish border. After years of plunder by the armies of both nations they had nothing left, and a man must provide for his family.

When James I took the English throne in 1603, he determined to put an end to three hundred years of reiving and conducted mass hangings along the border. The reivers who did not submit to the English King, lost their land, their homes, and their lives. Those who survived were forced to flee.

These are my father’s people. From rustlers and thieves emerged farmers; ever resilient, creative, and independent, they found a new home and a means to survive.

For now, I think I’ll keep the name. The Carr in me has tales to tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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