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Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter XIII


History of John Armstrong, the famous Border Outlaw.

John Armstrong was'John strong i'th' arm,
And lived upon the borders;
It seems he thought there was no harm
In stirring up disorders.

The Debateable Land and a great part of Liddesdale constituted the ancient territories pertaining to the powerful clan of the Armstrongs. The chief was Armstrong of Mangertoun, until, at a later period it became what was termed a broken clan, or one not having any lawful head who could become surety for the good behaviour of all the rest.

Johnie Armstrong, the hero of this chapter, was the brother of the Laird of Mangertoan, and dwelt in a turreted building at the Hollows, a few miles from Langholm. The roofless, but picturesque ruins of this tower are yet to be seen in the vale, overgrown with fern and moss, and surrounded by wild and delightful scenery.

During the greater part of the reign of James V., the era to which we refer, the kingdom of Scotland was in a most troublous state of misgovernmcnt— not so much from the ignorance or deficiency of the king himself, as from the ambitious and turbulent servants by whom he was encompassed.

The dissensions prevailing amongst the nobles, who directed the affairs of the nation during his minority, began to grow to such an insufferable pitch, that all orders—and even disorders of men —became wearied and disgusted; wherefore they compelled these unwise rulers to give up their trust, wherein they could no longer be trusted, and to put the reins of guidance into the hands of the youthful prince, who discovered at an early age a most rare and vigorous intellect.

The activity and intrepidity of James's character led him to embrace this proposition with great good will; but on leaving Stirling, where he had been educated, and repairing to his capital, he discovered that he was to be sorely shackled in the exercise of the sovereign authority by four associates, in the persons of my Lord Hamilton, the Archbishop Beaton, and the Earls of Lennox and Angus.

These haughty peers, much to his chagrin, enforced him to dismiss from his society, his early preceptor Sir David Lindsay, and his much loved friend Bellenden, together with divers others toward whom they bore feelings both of jealousy and envy.

Howbeit, these rapacious governors in a short-time clashed amongst themselves and achieved their own ruin,—a spirit and practice of contention that ended in the ascendancy of Angus, and the banishment of all the others from Court.

This Earl, now finding himself alone, and holding the monarch but as a mere child, soon became far too oppressive, too despotic, and too imperious in fiis deportment for endurance. The prince succeeded in secretly fomenting two several rebellions in his own favour; and at last, in a moment of intermitted watchfulness, he contrived, in his fifteenth year, to break from his keepers and fly to the Castle of Stirling back again.

Shutting himself up there, he sent for many of the chief barons of his kingdom, and laid before them the hateful state of subjection in which he had been held by Angus and his kinsmen; declared that now he had escaped from his tyranny, he would eschew it for ever: and "vowed that Scotlande sould naholdthame both."

There was a display of vast resolve and determination in this; and it is not a matter of marvel, that these lords, angered at the recollection of former neglect and former wrong, worked upon them by Angus, should protest violent loyalty for their king, and advise vengement to be done to their enemy.

At their recommendation, this puissant earl and his kinsmen were cited to abide the issue of a legal trial; but having failed to appear to answer the charges against them, the whole race of Douglas was banished the realm for treason towards the king's majesty.

James was now his own master—a position in which all men love to stand.

Notwithstanding his extreme youth, the acuteness of his judgment, the decision of his mind, and the vigor of his understanding, enabled him, without the tutorage of instructors, to recover the country from disorder, to rescue his people from oppression, and to dispense order amongst all grades of men. The wisdom of his measures, the firmness of their decision, and the promptitude of their execution, rise up as a subject of just wonder, when we take into consideration his tender years, and the difficulties which he had to encounter.

He was of opinion, that his own presence in various parts of the country, where the disorders were greatest, would serve better than any other plan whatsoever, for the more speedy and decided administration of justice, for the apprehension of the vile banditti that ravaged the Border most especially, and for the extermination, in other districts, of certain bands of outlaws, plunderers, and such like.

Wherefore, to this end, he now made a beginning. He did not blazon his purpose abroad; but rather made it his policy to harbour his intentions within his own bosom, giving out that he dearly loved hunting and hawking, and that for the better enjoyment of these sports, he would visit the distant wildernesses of the land. Collecting, then, a large body of nobles about him, together with their numerous vassals, he made certain progresses into those places where the quarry might be most abundant.

Of his progress into Liddesdale, we have more particularly to discourse on; and the quarry on which he here swooped so dispiteously, was the evil-fated Johnie Armstrong.

The rapacity of this clan, and of their allies the Elliots, had, in time become proverbial in the mouths of men: "Elliots and Armstrongs," said they, "ride thieves all." That, however, they should have been thieves all, appears to have been a fact not very extraordinary, and Sir Walter Scott shrewdly inquires to what family there, it would not apply: —" But to what Border family of note, in former days," says he, "would not such an adage have been equally applicable ?"

The ruins of their numerous towers and other strong places of abode, are still discoverable along the banks of the Liddel: but on these fastnesses they did not by any means rely, when danger, in the form of a powerful foe, might visit this glen. Then, indeed, they abandoned their habitations, and retired into the neighbouring morasses, through the intricacies of such narrow paths as were known only to themselves.

Tarras Moss, so called, is allowed to have been one of their chiefest places of refuge; a moss through which a small rivulet takes its course, aud all around abounding in desolation and dreariment.

Some few patches of dry and available ground lie scattered along its banks, and upon these the outlaws and their families lived in their temporary sheds or tents, until such time as the storm should be overblown. So deep is the moss, that, according to an ancient warrior's very natural mode of admeasurement, we are told that at the era in question, not two spears tied together, could pierce through it down to the bottom.

In a skirmish on this spot in 1588, with the Earl of Angus, the Armstrongs eluded every exertion of the peer against them, albeit he prided himself not a little in his supposed skill in hunting thieves; and they succeeded in driving him off, and of capturing his relation, Douglas of Ively.

But good fortune is a blessing of uncertain tenure, and those who feast upon it to-day, may perchance fast to-morrow.

Surely Sir Robert Cary, sometime Warden of the West Marches, relates how he went out and encamped against them, and how he desisted not until he had done them grievous evil.

In one of their incursions, they had made pastime by plundering the town of Haltwhistle, on the confines of Cumberland; so that the English knight sent to the king of Scotland to advertise him thereof, and to demand satisfaction for an outrage so very unwarrantable. But the king, not over proud of such subjects, would not confess them as. his own: he said that these moss-troopers did not belong to him, and that if they had offended the English, Sir Robert might take upon himself to chide them if he would.

So much did this vow terrify the inhabitants of all the English towns -in those parts, that the chief men in them conferred together, and went in a body to Sir Robert Cary, Warden of the West Marches at this notable time, to wit, in the year 1598, and declared unto him, that unless he would assist them in some effectual mode to countercheck these ravagers during the summer, and before the dreaded winter should arrive, that they would not abide the bloody hazard of remaining in their dwellings, but would fly the country and seek their own safety.

Upon this complaint, . the warden called the country gentlemen of note to his castle, and debated with them what was best to be done in such a stress; when it was unanimously agreed, that nothing was left but to proceed to hostile measures. Their counsels further urged the warden to accept of one hundred horsemen pertaining to the Lord Ewrie, in addition to his own guard of forty; and as this would scantly be sufficient, to petition her majesty the Queen Elizabeth, for one hundred more, to be sent down from London city to them.

Some of these advices w ere embraced and others eschewed; but, as many lusty juvenals of gentle blood, to whom the spirit of chivalry had been bequeathed by their paladin fathers, flocked to the knight's banner, and enrolled themselves as volunteers, he took the field at the head of two hundred horsemen, well accoutered with halberds, rapiers, handguns, and petronels.

The chief of .the outlaws was ycleped Sim of the Whitram, an ancient man yet sturdy, who had five or six brawny sons, and whose followers amounted in number to more than the force of Sir Robert Cary himself.

On the appointed day they marched into the Wastes, and were joined by the foot of Liddesdale above Gretna, a company composed of the garrison of Hermitage Castle in Scotland, belonging to King James the Sixth then reigning; for, on this occasion, the Scotch united with the English in the same campaign, as the Armstrongs were outlaws to both nations.

This being the case, they had enough to do to ward off the arms of chastisement lifted against them by two realms at once.

In the vicinage of Tarras Moss the English warden and his allies built a goodly fortilice, compassed about with lines of vallation, and mounted with divers smoky crackis of war : cabins wherein to dwell they also built, and every one brought his bed and his mattress to lie on.

Thus established, they abode patiently in the wilderness waiting for the enemy,' from the middle of June until nearly the end of August in the aforesaid year 1598.

The outlaws, secure in the labyrinths of the moss, which was beset with many dangerous bogs and marsh 'grounds, troubled not themselves for the forces of either England or Scotland, singly or both together: for they knew that he who essayed to follow them, being ignorant of the safe places to tread, would walk in the same peril as one walking blindfold amongst fiery ploughshares.

Sir Robert Cary, in his own quaint narrative of this expedition, sets forth how they sent certain messages to him, as he lay there encamped, full of wit and infinite insolency; as, forsooth, that he (Sir Robert) was like the first puff of a haggis, hottest at first, when it is taken out of the pot and cut open ; and that they bade him stay there until he should cool down by the winter's snow. As for themselves, they said that they would tarry in Tarras Wood till lie was wearied of lying in the Waste : and that when he had had his time out, and they no whit the worse, they would then play their parts toward him, such as should keep him waking all the next winter.

But victories are not gained by bluster or boast, or any particular show of great manhood:—the truth of this was bewrayed by the event.

However sure the warden felt within himself, that the force he had with him was fully sufficient to cope with his foes, he, nevertheless, declares that his friends in England who had not joined him, where somewhat less confident, and doubted of his success.

He was not idle during the time he stayed at the fort; but diligently busied both himself and his men in exploring all the paths that led over the morasses, and in casting about how to assail the red-shanked Scots to a vantage.

Through the safe conduct of a muffled man, that is, a guide in disguise, he succeeded in sending a hundred and fifty horsemen thirty miles up the country, round the further side of the Tarras, with great secresy and speed : and this manoeuvre afterwards served him in good stead, for it effectually prevented all escape on that side, and not a little contributed to his victory.

These horsemen were divided into three parts, and stationed at the openings of three passages of which the Armstrongs had thought themselves quite secure, as a means of retreat further into Scotland on the north; but so privily had this been done, that it was; never discovered until too late to disregard.

A strong force from England now crossed over the Debateable Land, to join and co-operate with the first, the whole amounting to three hundred horse and one thousand foot; and these proceeded to attack the Tarras on the opposite side from where the other ambushes lay.

The scouts which the Armstrongs had placed round about on the tops of the hills to keep a look-out, incontinently gave the alarm. The English broke into the wood, and commenced the skirmish right hotly, so that the outlaws were enforced to retreat before them and leave their goods behind; they, however, held themselves to be in no great peril, as they purposed to make their way to Scotlandward by the other paths.

But, on emerging from the mouths of these, that they might attain to the mountains, they were stricken with infinite dismay when the horsemen started out of their concealments and set upon them.

Some fought, and some ran away into the perilous bogs, whither Sir Robert's men durst not follow for fear of losing themselves and getting smothered in the mud ; but fivo of the principal of the outlaws were presently taken, amongst whom were two sons of Sim of Whitram.

These offenders were taken to the fort, together with a quantity of baggage, and many sheep and kine that had been stolen from the gentlemen dwelling in their bastle-houses in those parts.

As these prisoners were held in great consideration amongst the outlaws, the warden was now enabled to bind them over securely to peaceable behaviour in all time coming : and having made them pledge themselves by bonds, as also many Scottish gentlemen of turbulent spirit, they were immediately restored to their liberty.

The fort was broken up, the whole forces marched away, and every man betook himself to his own home.

From this narrative of Card's Raid, so called, and such other matters as have appeared in this chapter, the reader will understand how powerful a clan the Armstrongs were at so late a period; and it was not without reason that Johnie of Gilnockie was dreaded all along the border by those who opposed or angered him.

He levied black mail, or protection and forbearance money, upon the landowners for many miles round ; since they, in their desire to conciliate him and the band of freebooters at his command, were fain to submit to this tax. His fame—or, under correction, his notoriety—had extended itself as far as Newcastle, and Johnie Armstrong was looked upon as the prince of moss-troopers.

In the year 1529, James V. progressed towards the Solway, with the specious design of chasing the red deer through the brake, but with the actual intention of quelling the turbulent and of reducing the disobedient to order. In this instance, of which we now record the facts, he made a more warlike display; and, previously to setting out, he secured and imprisoned divers powerful barons that dwelt on the Marches, whom he suspected of countenancing the ravages of the outlaws, and, peradventure, of sharing the booty which they ofttimes took. Thus, the Earl of Bothwell of that day, was forfeited and confined in the castle of Edinburgh ; the Lords of Home and Maxwell, the Lairds of Buccleuch, Fairni-herst, and Johnston, were committed to ward; and Cockburn of Henderland, and Adam Scott of Tushielaw, commonly called the King of the Border, were publicly executed.

James then marched rapidly forward, at the head of a flying army of ten thousand men, through Ettrick Forest, Ewsdale, and other districts, dispensing admonition and correction to his subjects.

The ftronptUll saith that the king wrote a loving letter to Armstrong with his own hand full tenderly, and begged that he would come and speak with him ; and that after a conference held between his elan and the Eliots, it was unanimously decided that they should present themselves before his majesty, and conduct him joyfully to Gilnockie.

They felt no fear for their safety; first, because they went voluntarily of their own free will, and not constrainedly or culpably, as if they had been prisoners of war; and, secondly, because their depredations, although not sanctioned by the laws, had always been carried on, not against their own countrymen, but against the English, the ancient enemies of Scotland.

Even the soberest of Scottish historians are at a loss how to justify James in the course be took in this affair; as for ourselves, we will but briefly relate the facts, and leave the reader to exculpate or condemn the king, as it shall seem fit.

Tradition avows that certain evil counsellors advised Johnie to undertake his visit, fully aware of the peril into which he was journeying. Be this as it may, he determined to go, and made great preparations accordingly.

He directed that capon, rabbit, and venison, together with a store of plentiful hospitality, should be prepared at Gilnockie Tower for a banquet to be set before the royal guest: and then, placing himself at the head of thirty-six horsemen, mounted and arrayed in all the pomp of border chivalry, he sought the King's presence.

"When he entered in before the kinge," says

Pitscottie, "lie cam verie reverentlie with xxiv* well-horsed able gentlmen withe him, verie riehlie apparelled, trusting, that in respect he had cum to the kingis grace willinglie and voluntarilie, not being tain nor apprehendit be the kiuge, he sould obtain the mair favour.

"Bot when the kiuge saw him and his men so gorgeous in their apparell, and so manie braw men under ane tirrantis commandment, throward-lie he turned about his face, and bad tak that tirrant out of his sight, saying, ' Quhat wants yon knave that a kinge sould have P1

"Bot when Johne Armstrange perceaved that the kinge kindled in ane furie against him, and had no hop of his lyff, notwithstanding of manie great and fair offeris quhelk he offered to the kinge, that is, that he sould sustene himselfe- with fortie gentlmen ever readie to awaitt upon his majestie's service, and never to tak a pennie of Seotlande nor Scottismen; seeondlie, that thair was not ane subject in Englande, duik, earle, lord, or baron, bot within ane certain day, he sould bring ony of thame to his majestie, aither quick or dead; he, seeing no hop of the kingis favour towards him, said verrie proudlie, ' I am bot ane fool to seik grace of ane gracelesse face. Bot had 1 known, syr, that ye would have takyn my lyff this daie, I sould have leived uppon the bor-deris in despyte of Kinge Harrie [the Eighth] and you baith: for I know Kinge Harrie would down weigh my best hors with gold, to know that I war condemned to die this daie.111 '

Without a hearing, without a chance given him for vindication, this chief was hurried away with his company, and hanged upon the living trees that grew thereby:

"Quhilk" adds, the historian, "monie Scottis-men heavilie lamented ; for he was ane doubted man, and als gude ane chieftaine as evir was uppon the borderis, aither of Scotlande or Englande. And albeit he was ane lous leivand man, he nevir molested no Scottisman ; bot 'tis said, that, from the Scottis border to Newcastle of Inglande, thair was not ane of quhatsoever estate bot paid to this Jolme Armstrange' ane tribut to be fre of his cumber, he was soe doubtit in In-glande."

The fate of this chief has perplexed, and indeed grieved, many persons since the black day on which it was perpetrated,—not only Scottish-men, who possibly might be prejudiced in his favour through national affection, but also by the sons of other soils, who could do no other than decide on the case from the facts laid before them. Either some false friend treacherously counselled him to repair to the king's presence, foreknowing the risk ; or else Johnie's evil genius invisibly urged him to the step, unwittingly, unconsciously on his part; or else some secret enemy instigated James to the act; or else James himself was in an ill humour that morning, and vented his spleen too precipitately on the first individual that came into his power; or else half-a-dozen other elses—no matter; but, certain it is, all chroniclers agree that something was wrong, and that the course of justice in the fair investigation of his past life and extent of crime, was not permitted to run on as it should have done.

The writers of that day were fond of singing his praises, and of bewailing his sad hap ; a proof that he was held in great note whilst living, and grieved for when dead.

Sir David Lindsay of the Mount, in the curious play published by Mr. Pinkerton from the Ban-natyne MS., introduces a pardoner, or knavish dealer in relies, who produces, among his holy rarities—

" —The cordis, baith grit and lang,
Qukilk hangit Johnie Armstrang,
Of gudc hcinpe, soft and sound,
Glide haly pepil, I stand ford,
Wha 'ever beis hangit in fliis cord
Neidis never to be drowned!"

When he set out on his way to the king, together with his horsemen, the ladies waved their kerchiefs to them from their windows, and bid them a happy return. Such was the splendour of their appointments, that James, taking them for the retinue of some great ambassador, and he at the head of them the plenipotentiary, raised his bonnet at their approach, to do them courteous reverence ; but when the visitor's name was pronounced, the king was undeceived — and so was John Armstrong wofully himself.

"John wore a girdle about his middle,
Imbroidered o'er wi' burning gol;
Bespangled wi' the same metal,
Maist beautiful was to behold."

"There hang nine targets (tassels) at Johnnie's hat,
And ilk ane worth three hundred pound.'"

Such is the notice of his gordeous apparel in the ballad—a ballad that was taken down from the recitation of John's sixth lineal descendant, exactly preserved in the family as it had been composed soon after the catastrophe.

This severe act contributed to one end at all events: it produced tranquillity on the borders. Its very severity, perhaps, was the principal reason why it did so do; for it struck an unusual panic into the bosoms of all the freebooters in the country, and terrified them into silence, when, perchance, a less hard doom might only have aroused them.

"Thereafter there was great peace and rest a long time," says Pitscottie in alluding to this transaction, "wherethrough the king had great profit: for he had ten thousand sheep going in the Ettrick forest, in keeping by Andrew Bell, who made the king so good count of them, as they had gone in the bounds of Fife."

Such a mode of getting through the tedium of legal proceedings, obtained the proverbial phrase of Jeddart Justice, which signified trial after execution. On the far margin of the Atlantic shore, in modern times, the same thing is ycleped Lynch Law, after a certain judge of that name, who found it the quickest way of getting through a press of business. A similar proverb in England, of the same interpretation, is Lydford Law, derived from Lydford, a corporation in Devonshire, where, it seems, the same love of expedition prevailed. In Wescott's History of this county, the following lines occur:—

"I oft have heard of Lydford Law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after."

Satchells, who lived at such time when the Armstrongs were held in estimation for their power, thus speaks of them :—

"On that border, was the Armstrongs, able men ;

Somewhat unruly, and verie ill to tame.
I would have none thinke that I call them thieves,
For if I did it would be arrant lies."

By this he means, that they were only freebooters, and that the fat beeves of which they relieved their neighbours, were lawful prizes, especially as they were mostly taken from the English", their enemies.

He continues:—

"Near a border frontier, in the time of war,
There's ne'er a man but he's a freebooter.

* * * * *

"Because, to all men it may appeare,
The freebooter he is a volunteer;
In the muster-rolls he has no desire to stay;

He lives by purchase, he gets no pay.

* * * * *

"It's most clear, a freebooter doth live in hazard's train;
A freebooter's a cavalier that ventures life for gaine:
But since Kinge James the Sixth to lnglande went,
There has been no cause of grief;
And he that hath trangressed since then Is no Freebooter, but a Thief."

This is a nice distinction between the two callings; the one being, according to him, just, fair, and honourable, whilst the other was highly disreputable.

The notion of meum and tuum, howbeit, of might over right, and the fact, that the possession only of a thing,—no matter how come by,—constituted a legal tenure, together with one or two other such trifling distinctions, had become so impressed upon the belief of these liberty boys, that no sense of wrong was attached to the practice of a life of robbery and spoliation. By time, habit, necessity, and the tutorage of their sires, it had become the essence of their creed—a part of their natures; and we are assured that they never told their beads so diligently and so earnestly, as when they were on the eve of an expedition.

In. the old drama of Sir David Lindsay, we perceive a notice of the long well known and universally admitted fact, that the inhabitants all around about Gretna—of the vales of Annan, Esk, Sark, and divers others—were noted thieves. One of these offenders, having fallen into the hands of justice, makes the following last dying speech to his fellows in crime :—

"Adew ! my bruthir Annan Thieves,
That holpit mc in my misclicvi ;
Adew ! Grossars, Nieksonis, and Bells,
Oft have we faime owrthreneh the fells:
Adew! Robsons, Howis, and Pylis,
That in our craft-has mony wilis:
Littlis, Trumbclls, and Armcstranges ;

'Adew ; all theeves that me belangis;
Bailowes, Erewynis, and Elwandis,
Speedy of Hicht, and-slicht of handis;
The Scotts of Eisdalc, and the Gramis.
I haif na time to tell your nameis."

Verily, this is a truly pathetic farewell from one who was making his last dying speech and confession, even with the halter about his neck.

Common Thift, the character in this play who is thus executed, and in whom is centred the attributes of robbery, violence, and raptation, is thus lamented by his brother Falset (Falsehood), who is also brought out for condign punishment— videlicet:—

"Waes me for thee, gude Common Thift!
Was never man made more honest chift,
His living for to win:
There was not in all Liddesdaill,.
hat ky mair craftily could steil,
Whar thou hangis on that pin !"

According to Sir Walter Scott, one of the last Border-rievers was of this family, and lived so late as the beginning of th6 last century. After having made himself dreaded over the whole country, he at last came to an untimely, if merited, end. A person of large property lost twelve cows in one night; and, aroused up to action by a robbery so heavy, he called about him a posse from round about Teviotdale, and succeeded in tracing the felons to the house of this Armstrong, commonly called Willie of Westburnflat, from the place of his residence, on the banks of Hermitage water. Fortunately for the pursuers, he was then asleep, so that he was secured, along with nine of his friends, without much resistance.

He was brought to trial at Selkirk, not according to jeddart-justice, which by this time had grown somewhat fusty and obsolete, but according to the more modern process of jury, counsel, and judge, and a verdict of guilty pronounced against him and his accomplices.

When sentence was pronounced, Willie arose; and, seizing the oaken chair on which he was placed, broke it into pieces by main strength, and offered it to his companions; declaring, that if they would stand by him he would fight his way out of Selkirk with these weapons. But they held his hands, and besought him to let them die like Christians. They were accordingly executed in form of law.

The people of Liddesdale still consider the sentence as iniquitous; and, adds Sir Walter, " perhaps not erroneously and they also aver, that the prosecutor never throve afterwards, but came to beggary and ruin with his whole family.


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