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 Linrary.)

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 round 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 Pukhtoonkhwa of Pakistan which lives 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