During the early years, the family was reasonably law abiding. But in the 16th century, there was a dramatic change. It was a time of bad weather and poor harvests, combined with increased populations in Liddesdale. And, as in most famines, unrest and turmoil were rife, with men desperate to feed their families. And so they began to ride and raid. English fighting Scot, Scot fighting English, English against English and Scot against Scot. Such was the system of lawlessness that built up along the border.
The Steel Bonnets
The riders were known as Reivers, going out by day and night to steal and pillage. Fantastic horsemen, they were once called the finest light cavalry in all of Europe. Wearing steel breast and back plates, bonnets of steel, and carrying long lances and long bows and arrows, they were a fearsome sight. Of all the Reivers, the Armstrongs were the most dangerous, ruling by fear and solidarity. Every border family, among them the Elliots, Scotts, Grahams, Bells and Irvings, was lawless, but as the raiding increased, Armstrongs tended to get the most blame, partly because they were the most numerous.
By the 16th century, the family had expanded into the vales of Esk, Ewes and Wauchope. And Armstrongs also lived in what were known as the Debatable Lands, a large area between the Solway and Langholm. It got its name because both England and Scotland laid claim to it. Armstrongs were also numerous in Bewcastledale in Cumbria. By the 1520's the Armstrongs had become a law unto themselves.
Murder, blackmail robbery - they were involved in all of these. Such was the wickedness of the Reivers, the church put a great curse on them... '…I CURSE EVERY PART OF THEIR BODY… MAY THE EARTH CLEAVE, OPEN UP AND SWALLOW THEM DOWN TO HELL! The Archbishop of Glasgow ordered the words read out from every church pulpit on the border.
The Armstrongs were not there to hear them. They were instead playing a football match.
Soccer was a popular game in the 16th century. And what a game it was! The final score, after an ambush afterwards, was two dead and thirty taken prisoner!
Another ARMSTRONG LEGEND was KINMONT WILLIE ARMSTRONG OF MORTON AND SARK. Willie was captured on a Day of Truce, when all men had freedom to go about their business. Despite that, he was taken in chains to Carlisle Castle, where he was due to hang. There followed a daring rescue, as a band of loyal men, among them Armstrongs, Irvings and Bells, all led by the fearless Scott of Buccleuch, found their way into the castle. They freed Willie, brought him out and took him back across the border again.
Willie's grave is still there in Sark graveyard - but it's kept covered with sods to preserve it from acid rain. And today, there are border ballads to both Johnie and Willie - two of the most colourful of the border characters.
But time was pressing on and in 1603, as the English Queen, Elizabeth 1st, lay dying, the Armstrongs and other border clans, tried to stir up war by raiding into Cumbria during Ill Week. They were hoping to discredit James V1 of Scotland and so prevent the Union of the Crowns. They failed.
That same year, James went down to London to become James 1st of England. He was determined to have no further trouble at the centre of his Kingdom. And so began what was called the Pacification of the Borders. Armstrongs, Grahams - the borderers were rounded up. The Armstrong Laird was declared outlaw. He was later captured and hanged in Edinburgh's Grassmarket. His young son fled into Cumbria and disappeared.
To this day, the Armstrongs have no acknowledged chief, for after Archibald fled, the chiefship passed to the second house of Whithaugh. James continued his purge on what he called the 'Middle Shires'. Fortified houses on either side of the border were destroyed. Families were rounded up and despatched to Ireland and other places. Some men were encouraged to fight in the Netherlands in various wars going on at that time. Oh, if we had been like other border families like the Scotts. They put down the sword and took to the pen, becoming writers, lawyers, landowners and powerful men...
And so it continued through the years... In the 18th century, land clearances removed the Armstrongs from their smallholdings and farms and they dispersed into northern England. The village of Newcastleton was established in 1793. The Northern Ireland Armstrongs and those who'd served in the Netherlands, did very well. Later, many left for America and other British colonies. Many of their descendants reached fame and fortune in the wider world, as bishops, generals, governors.... One pioneered hydraulics, LORD WILLIAM GEORGE. One radio, EDWIN ARMSTRONG. And one walked on the moon... NEIL ARMSTRONG.
Legends and tradition have their place - and what a colourless place the world would be without them. But we want to give you the facts too... All our information is taken from historical papers and other documents from all over the world. To learn more about the Armstrongs, join the CLAN ARMSTRONG TRUST... We welcome your views and we would like you to work with us.