The Lament of the Border Cattle Thief

(notes by John McGivering)

Publication history

First published in The Week’s News of 21 January 1888 as “The Border Cattle Thief.” See ORG, Volume 8, page 5192 (Verse No. 289.) and collected as “The Lament of the Border Cattle Thief” in:

  • Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses
  • Inclusive Verse
  • Definitive Verse
  • The Sussex Edition, Volume 32, page 272
  • The Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library.)

See the new (February 2010) Bibliography by David Alan Richards pp. 74, and 527 for further details of publication.


This is a ballad of the border between what was then British India and Afghanistan in the manner of the Anglo-Scottish Border Ballads. The narrator, a cattle thief in prison, tells of his disgust at being captured and convicted. He plans to have his revenge on the policeman who arrested him and the victims who gave evidence against him in court.


Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

Bar: in this context, probably the border between Afghanistan and British India, the North-West Frontier.

Jezail: an Afghan musket.

Sabre: a cavalry sword having a curved blade specially adapted for cutting.

kine: archaic word for ‘cattle’.

[Verse 3]

steer: in this context, a young ox, especially one which has been castrated.

low: in this context, the sound uttered by an ox or cow.

byre: a barn or cowshed

Jat: an Indo-Aryan tribal group native to the Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. One of them plays a prominent part in Kim, Chapter 11 onwards.

[Verse 5]

grinching: making a harsh grating noise.

quern: a hand-mill for grinding corn etc.

leg-bar: usually leg-irons – fetters that fit around the ankles for securing prisoners. See Kim, p. 86.

[Verse 7]

hold: in this context a castle or other stronghold.

reive: or ‘reave’ – carry off by force – steal.

[Verse 8]

lowe: a word of several meanings – in this instance a fire.

tow: here meaning flammable fibres for starting a fire.

twain: two.

[Verse 9]

Abazai: See “The Ballad of the King’s Mercy” line 28:

Ye have heard the song—How long ? How long ? Wolves of the Abazai!

Khattacks: (the spelling varies) a footnote in the collected versions defines this as a tribe on the Indian frontier. It is indeed a Pashtun tribe from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of Pakistan who live along the Western bank of the river Indus from Sammah. Their capital is Akora Khattak, a town 31 miles (50 kilometres) east of Peshawar.

Some believe them to be descended from one of the ‘Lost Tribes of Israel’, the tribes of ancient Israel that formed the Kingdom of Israel and disappeared from the Biblical account after the kingdom was destroyed in about 720 BCE by ancient Assyria. Many groups have traditions concerning the continued hidden existence of these tribes.
[See Wikipedia . See also “The Propagation of Knowledge” in Debits and Credits p. 284, line 14.]

Bonair: See “The Ballad of East and West”
lines 13-14.

“At dusk he harries the Abazai – at dawn he is into Bonair,
“But he must go by Fort Bukloh to his own place to fare.<

[Verse 11]

Zukka Kheyl:  See “The Ballad of the King’s Mercy” line 52:

Ye have heard the song—How long ? How long ? Wolves of the Zukka Kheyl!

[Verse 12]

the foul pig’s flesh: Muslims regard this animal as unclean.

[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved