History of John Armstrong, the
famous Border Outlaw.
John Armstrong was'John strong
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
"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
The freebooter he is a volunteer;
In the muster-rolls he has no desire to stay;
He lives by purchase, he gets
* * * * *
"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
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
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
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
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.