The Armstrongs. Noted Clan of Border Reivers

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Around the Scottish Borderland the pen of Sir Walter Scott has woven a romantic glamour. He has told of the mighty deeds of the great Border clans, the Scotts, Kerrs, Maxwells, and Johnstons, of their feuds, and of their forays ayont the Tweed. That these clans had a considerable influence on the history of the country there can be no doubt. Their sphere of activity extended far beyond the confines of their own territory. So powerful did these families become that leading members of them were enrolled among the Scottish peerage, a Scott and a Kerr attaining ducal rank. For over three centuries the Scottish Border was in a state of chaos owing to the depredatory raids of the English, the turbulence of the Border tribes, and the feebleness of the central Government.


On the English side matters were no better. The Scotsmen often penetrated far into England, and returned to their own land well laden with the possessions of the "auld enemy." In the Middle and the West Marches, owing to the mountainous nature of the land, reiving flourished, and its chief centre was in Liddesdale. That region was peopled principally by two clans,, the Armstrongs and the Elliots. So notorious did the district become that Maitland, in his Complaynt Against the Thieves of Liddesdale," wrote:—

"Of Liddesdale the common thieves

Sae pertly steals now and reives,

That nane may keep

Horse, nolt, nor sheep,

For their mischieves."

The Armstrongs, whose original name is stated to have been Fairbairn, did not enter Liddesdale much before the middle of the fourteenth century, nor, were they freebooters at that. time. In ancient charters dated between the years 1361 and 1371, they are frequently mentioned. Gilbert Armstrong became a canon of the Cathedral Chapter of Elgin, and was one of the Commissioners sent to negotiate with the English monarch for the release of David II, who was held to ransom.


The chief of the Armstrongs, writes W, A Richardson, F.S.A. (Scot.)in the "Edinburgh Evening News" was the laird of Mangerton, in Liddesdale, and the next clans man in importance was the laird of Whitehaugh. During the sixteenth century the clan became so numerous they spread into Eskdale, Ewesdale, and Wauchopedale. In 1528 the Armstrongs and their adherents could put in the field 3000 horsemen. By that time they and the neighbouring clan Elliot, had earned an unenviable reputation. When the Earl of Both well succeeded to the lordship of Liddesdale, he deputed the Master of Hailes to get from the clans there an undertaking to keep the peace, and Hailes secured the pledge from all save the Armstrongs. The Earl of Arran led an expedition into Liddesdale, but met with little success. In 1524 the Earl of Angus, who had been appointed Warden of the East and Middle Marches, marched south, and, taking the Armstrongs unawares, carried off 600 cattle, 3000 sheep, 500 goats, and many horses. Angus returned shortly afterwards, killed seventeen Armstrongs, hanged thirteen, and conveyed a number to Edinburgh.


Notwithstanding these oppressive measures, the persecuted clan continued to flourish. At this time the famous " Johnie " Armstrong came upon the scene. He was a brother of the laird of Mangerton, but his seat was the Hollows Tower, on the Esk. So great was "Johnie's" fame as a reiver that he was feared throughout Northumberland. The English Warden, Lord Dacre, led a force against " Johnie," and burned the Hollows Tower, but on that very day "Johnie" retaliated by burning Netherby, the Warden's Cumberland stronghold. The exploits of "Johnie" Armstrong are still told on the Borders in song and story, and his betrayal is narrated in a ballad. In June, 1530, James V. requested "Johnie" to visit him at Caerlanrig, in Teviotdale, and, along with thirty-six horsemen, "Johnie" appeared. The King's men immediately laid hands on the band, and, although "Johnie" protested that they were loyal subjects of the Scots' Sovereign, they were all hanged without trial.


James granted the Armstrongs' lands to the Maxwells, but that act only served to extend the sphere of the depredations of the reiving Armstrongs. In 1569 the Regent Murray reduced everything in Liddesdale to ruin, destroying no fewer than fifty keeps and castles of the Armstrongs and Elliots. Cary, the English Warden, led 1000 men against the Armstrongs, and for two months held their lands. The Armstrongs took refuge in Tarras Moss, and from there set out and plundered the Warden's land in England. On their return they sent him one of his own cows, telling him that in case he was short of provisions they were sending him some English beef. On another occasion a well-known reiver was taken prisoner when on a raid into Northumberland, and cast into jail in Newcastle. A party of Armstrongs, led by the Laird of Mangerton, set out for Newcastle with their horses shod the wrong way. They fought their way past the guards, and succeeded in getting away with the prisoner, whom they conveyed safely back to Liddesdale.


When James VI. passed towards London to receive the English crown, 300 mounted Armstrongs made a raid into England as far as Penrith. The King ordered the Governor of Berwick to raise all the Border clans against the reivers. The upshot was that the strongholds of the Armstrongs were razed to the ground, and the leading members of the clan were executed at Carlisle. Thus, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Armstrongs disappeared from Border history, and today there are as many families of the name in Northumberland and Cumberland as in the Scottish Border counties.

The other notorious reiving clan, the Elliots, had a different fate. They sided with the Scotts when the power of the Douglases waned, and acquired lands formerly belonging to the Turnbulls and the Rutherfurds in Teviotdale. The Elliots, thus, continued to play an important part on the Border for centuries after the Armstrongs had been scattered

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Newspaper clippings with article about the Armstrongs, one of the oldest Scottish clans.
Two pieces measuring 50 x 6.5 cm.Undated. Unknown publication.
From Armstrong family collection.
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The Armstrongs. Noted Clan of Border Reivers

Newspaper clippings with article about the Armstrongs, one of the oldest Scottish clans.
Two pieces measuring 50 x 6.5 cm.Undated. Unknown publication.