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Significant Scots
John Armstrong

ARMSTRONG, JOHN, of Gilnockie.—In the history of every country, however renowned, there is a period when its best men, or at least those who were reckoned so, were nothing but robbers or pirates. And yet they became the demigods of the country’s worship, the heroes of its most cherished traditions, or the founders of its most illustrious families. It is not necessary to go so far back as the expedition of the Argonauts, or the exploits of Romulus, for an illustration of this great general fact. Later periods, and events more closely connected with ourselves, show, that such was also the case in Britain, so that, however edifying, it would be no very grateful task to investigate the characters of those men who "came in with William the Conqueror," or detail the doings of those who were the ancestors of our border nobility. But these men were needed in their day and generation, and they merely took the lead in that congenial society amidst which their lot had been cast. It was not wonderful, therefore, that their exploits should have been so highly admired, and their names so affectionately remembered. With these remarks we think it necessary to premise our introduction to the reader of such a man as John Armstrong, a mere border freebooter; and we introduce him the more readily, as he was the choice type and specimen of a class of men with whom Scotland especially abounded, and who continued to flourish in rank abundance, from the commencement of the war of Scottish independence against Edward I., to the Union of the two kingdoms, when the strong hand of the law could be extended over the whole island to quell or exterminate the turbulent, and reduce all to a common rule.

The name of Armstrong, like many others, was probably at first nothing more than a nickname. The race who bore it inhabited a large part of Liddesdale, and that territory called the Debatable Land, lying between the rivers Sark and Esk. This Debatable Land, as its name may intimate, was claimed by both kingdoms—a misfortune of which the Armstrongs seem to have frequently availed themselves, by plundering the people of both countries indifferently, and thus reaping a double harvest. As they were very numerous, their retainers extended far along the banks of the Liddel, in which the several captains of the clan sought, not a home, but a mere shelter from the enemies they provoked; and when these recesses could no longer defend them, they took refuge among morasses and swamps, the secure by-ways to which were only known to themselves, and where they could safely laugh at the pursuer. In consequence of their inroads upon English and Scots, they were finally proclaimed a broken clan, and were outlawed both by England and Scotland; but at the time of which we write, they were under the command of a chief called Armstrong of Mangertoun. John, the hero of the family, was a younger brothem of Christopher Armstrong, its chief, and had his strong-hold at the Hollows, within a few miles of Langholm, where the ruins of the tower are still visible. To have acquired such a band of followers as rode at his bidding, and become so terrible to his enemies, as well as endeared to his friends, implies no small portion of courage, hardihood, and skill, manifested by many a bordb inroad. These achievements, unlike those of Robin Hood, appear to have passed away, having no gleeman to chronicle them to posterity; but such was their effect, that his name was terrible over the Northumberland border, and well nigh to the gates of Newcastle, while for many miles the country was glad to pay him black mail, as the price of his protection or forbearance. It is gratifying, however, to find, that John was a staunch patriot after a fashion of his own, and that all the harm he wrought was against the enemies of his country. Such, at least, was his declaration to the king in the ballad that narrates his death; and it was not likely to have been attributed to him without some well-known foundation in fact:—

England suld have found me meal and mault,
Gin I had lived this hundred yeir!

Sche suld have found me meal and mault,
And beif and mutton in all plentie;
But never a Scots wife could have said,
That e’er I skaithed her a pure flee."

When James V. had emancipated himself from the thraldom of the Douglasses, and effected the downfall of that powerful family, he next turned his attention to those border chiefs who were every whit as dangerous. If Scotland was to be brought abreast with the other nations of Europe, and enabled to keep pace with them in that march of improvement which had now commenced, the existence of these men was incompatible with such a purpose. The king was well aware of this, and he resolved by the most summary measures either to break their power, or sweep them from his path. The plan he adopted to accomplish this was highly daring and picturesque. He issued a summons to all his earls, lords, barons, freeholders, and gentlemen, to assemble at Edinburgh with a month’s provisions, and bring with them their best dogs, for a royal. hunting expedition in the bounds of Teviotdale and Annandale. But it was intended to be a hunt in the fashion of Nimrod, and this John Armstrong was soon to experience. The royal cortege amounted to at least 10,000 men, and eighteen score of deer had already been struck down; but the "stag of ten" was still free and at large. The difficulty now was to bring Armstrong within their reach. He was therefore prevailed upon by some of the chief of the royal followers to wait upon the king, with the assurance that such a visit would be attended with no danger; and, without stipulating for pass or safe-conduct, he came in such a style of splendour as few border nobles could have equalled. Fifty well-horsed gentlemen, we are told, rode in his train, whose gallant bearing was well set off by the richest apparel and ornaments; and the king, unprovided for such a coming, and astonished at its splendour, imagined that at least some high dignitary of England, or foreign ambassador, was approaching his presence. He therefore bowed, and raised his plumed cap to the laird of Gilnockie; but no sooner did he understand that this was no other than the prince of border thieves, than he turned to his courtiers, and exclaimed in a burst of wrath and rhyme—

"What wants you knave,
That a king should have?"

Armstrong soon perceived that he had not only approached the royal presence uninvited, but was to be made the victim of royal resentment. His train was unarmed, and retreat was impossible. He then had recourse to such offers for the ransom of himself and his followers, as give us a wondrous idea of his power and resources. The chief of these were, that he would support himself and forty gentlemen for the king’s service, and never take a penny from Scotland or a Scottish man; and that there was not a subject of England, duke, earl, lord, or baron, but within a certain day he would bring him to his majesty, either alive or dead. But to every offer the king was inflexible, so that Armstrong, seeing there was no further hope, drew himself up proudly, and exclaimed, "I am but a fool to seek grace of a graceless face. But had I known, sir, that you would have taken my life this day, I should have lived upon the Borders, in despite both of you and King Harry; for I know that King Harry would down-weigh my best horse with gold, to know that I was condemned to die this day."

This singular interview between the stern royal justiciary and the border freebooter, ended in the execution of the latter and his gallant retinue. The place at which it occurred was called Carlenrig Chapel, about ten miles above Hawick, on the high road to Langholm; and so much was the deed abhorred, that the growing trees on which they were hanged were declared by the common people to have withered away. After execution, the bodies were buried in a deserted church-yard, where their graves are still pointed out to strangers. The ballad from which we have already quoted, shows the undue national importance that was attached by the common people to his death; but it evinces also, that on more than one occasion he had done his country good service:--

"John murdered was at Carlinrigg,
And all his gallant cumpanie;
But Scotland’s heart was ne’er sae wae,
To see sae mony brave men die—

"Because they saved their country deir,
Frae Englishmen. Nane were sae bauld,
Whyle Johnie lived on the Border syde,
Nane of them durst came near his hauld."

Pitscottie, a still better authority, thus sums up the bold borderer’s history:—"After this hunting, the king hanged John Armstrong, laird of Gilnockie, which many Scottish men heavily lamented; for he was a doubted man, and as good a chieftain as ever was upon the borders, either of Scotland or of England. And albeit he was a loose-living man, and sustained the number of twenty-four well-horsed, able gentlemen with him, yet he never molested no Scottish man. But it is said, from the Scottish border to Newcastle of England, there was not one of whatever estate but payed to this John Armstrong a tribute to be free of his cumber, he was so doubted in England." It is only necessary to add, that his descendants continue to the present day, and feel a justifiable pride in the good qualities of their border ancestor.

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