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Sir Walter Scott
The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border
Johnie Armstrong

There will be such frequent occasion, in the course of this work, to mention the clan, or sept, of the Armstrongs, that the Editor finds it necessary to prefix to this ballad some general account of that tribe.

The Armstrongs appear to have been at an early period in possession of great part of Liddesdale, and of the Debateable Land. Their immediate neighborhood to England rendered them the most lawless of the Border depredators; and as much of the country possessed by them was claimed by both kingdoms, the inhabitants, protected from justice by the one nation, in opposition to the other, securely preyed upon both. The chief was Armstrong of Mangertoun, but, at a later period, they are declared a broken clan, i.e. one which had no lawful head, to become surety for their good behavior. The rapacity of this clan, and of their allies, the Elliots, occasioned a popular saying, "Elliots and Armstrongs ride thieves all." But to what Border family or not, in former days, would not such an adage have been equally applicable? All along the river Liddel may still be discovered the ruins of towers, possessed by this numerous clan. They did not, however, entirely trust to these fastnesses; but, when attacked by a superior force, abandoned entirely their dwellings, and retired into morasses, accessible by paths known to themselves alone. One of their most noted places of refuge was the Tarrass Moss, a desolate and horrible marsh, through which a small river takes its course. Upon its banks are found some dry spots, which were occupied by these outlaws, and their families, in case of emergency. The stream runs furiously among huge rocks, which has occasioned a popular saying, - "Was ne'er ane drown'd in Tarras, nor yet in doubt, For ere the head can win down, the harns (brains) are out." The morass itself is so deep, that, according to an old historian, two spears tied together would not reach the bottom. In this retreat, the Armstrongs, anno 1588, baffled the Earl of Angus, when lieutenant on the Border, although he reckoned himself so skilful in winding a thief, that he declared, "he had the same pleasure in it, as others in hunting a hare." On this occasion he was totally unsuccessful, and nearly lost his relation, Douglas of Ively, whom the freebotters made prisoner. _ GODSCROFT, vol.ii p.411.

Upon another occasion the Armstrongs were less fortunate. They had, in one of their incursions, plundered the town of Haltwhistle, on the borders of Cumberland. Sir Robert Carey, Warden of the West Marches, demanded satisfaction from the King of Scotland, and received for answer that the offenders were no subjects of his, that he might take his own revenge. The English Warden accordingly entered Liddesdale, and ravaged the lands of the outlaws; on which occasion, Sim of the Cathill (an Armstrong) was killed by one of the Ridleys of Haltwhistle. This incident procured Haltwhistle another visit from the Armstrongs, in which they burnt great part of the town, but not without losing one of their leaders, by a shot from a window.

"The death of this young man," says Robert Carey, "wrote (wrought) so deep an impression upon them (the outlaws) as many vowes were made, that before the end of next winter, they would lay the whole Border waste. This (the murder) was done about the end of May (1598). The chiefe of all these outlaws was old Sim of Whitram. He had five or six sonnes, as able men as the Borders had. This old man and his sonnes had not so few as two hundred at their commands, that were ever ready to ride with them to all actions, at their beck.

"The high parts of the marsh (march) towards Scotland were put in a mightly fear, and the chiefe of them, for themselves and the rest, petitioned to mee, and did assure mee, that unless I did take some course with them by the end of that summer, there was none of the inhabitants durst, or would, stay in their dwellings the next winter, but they would fley the countrey, and leave their houses and lands to the fury of the outlawes. Upon this complaint, I called the gentlemen of the countrey together, and acquainted them with the misery that the highest part of the marsh toward Scotland were likely to endure, if there were not timely prevention to avoid it, and desired them to give mee their best advice what course were fitt to be taken. They all showed themselves willing to give mee their best counsailes, and most of them were of opinion, that I was not well advised to refuse the hundred horse that my Lord Euers (Ewie or Evers) had; and that now my best way was speedily to acquaint the Quene and counsaille with the necessity of having more soldiers, and that there should not be less than a hundred horse sent down for the defence of the countrey, besides the forty I had already in pay, and there was nothing but force of soldiers could keep them in awe; and to let the counsaile plainly understand, that the marsh, of themselves, were not able to subject, whenever the winter and long nights came in, unlesse present cure and remedy were provided for them. I desired them to advise better of it, and see if they could find out any other means to prevent their mischievous intentions, without putting the Quene and countrey to any further charge. They all resolved that there was no second means. Then I told them my intention what I meant to do, which was, that my self, with two deputies, and the forty horse that I was allowed, would, with what speed we could, make ourselves ready to go up to the Wastes, and there wee would entrench ourselves, and lye as near as we could to the outlawes: and if there were any brave spirits among them that would go with us, they should be very welcome, and fare and lye as well as myselfe; and I did not doubt, before the summer ended, to do something that should abate the pride of these outlawes. Those that were unwilling to hazard themselves, liked not this motion. They said, that, in so doing, I might keep the country quiet the time I lay there, but, when the winter approached, I could stay there no longer, and that was the theeves' time to do all their mischiefe. But there were divers young gentlemen that offered to go with mee, some with three, some with four horses, and to stay with mee as long as I could there continue. I took a list of those that offered to go with mee, and found, that, with myselfe, my officers, the gentlemen, and our servants, wee should be about two hundred good men and horse; a competent number, as I thought, for such a service.

"The day and place was appointed for our meeting in the Wastes, and by the help of the foot of Liddisdale and Risdale, wee had soone built a pretty fort, and within it we had all cabines made to lye in, and every one brought beds or mattresses to lye on. There wee stayed from the middest of June, till almost the end of August. We were betweene fifty and sixty gentlemen, besides their servants and my horsemen; so that we were not so few as two hundred horse. Wee wanted no provisions for ourselves nor our horses, for the countrey people were well paid for any thing they brought us; so that wee had a good market every day, before our fort, to buy what we lacked. The chiefe outlawes, at our coming, fled their houses where they dwelt, and betooke themselves to a large and great forest (with all their goodes,) which was called the Tarras. It was of that strength, and so surrounded with bogges and marish grounds, and thicke bushes and shrubbes, as they feared not the force nor the power of England nor Scotland, so long as they were there. They sent me word, that I was like the first puffe of a haggasse,* hottest at the first, and bade me stay there as long as the weather would give me leave. They would stay in the Tarras Wood till I was weary of lying in the Waste; and when I had had my time, and they no whit the worse, they would play their parts, which should keep me waking the next winter. Those gentlemen of the country that came not with mee, were of the same minde; for they knew (or thought at least) that my force was not sufficient to withstand the furey of the outlawes. The time I staid at the fort I was not idle, but cast, by all means I could, how to take them in the great strength they were in. I found a meanes to send a hundred and fiftey horsemen into Scotland (conveighed by a muffled man**, not known to one of the company,) thirty miles within Scotland, and the business was carried so, that none in the countrey tooke any alarm at this passage. They were quietly brought to the backside of the Tarras, to Scotland-ward. There they divided themselves into three parts, and took up three passages which the outlaws made themselves secure of, if from England side they should at any time be put at. They had their scoutes on the tops of hills, on the English side, to give them warning if at any time any power of men should come to surprise them. The three ambushes were safely laid, without being discovered, and, about four o'clock in the morning, there were three hundred horse, and a thousand foot, *** that came directly to the place where the scoutes lay. They gave the alarm; our men brake down as fast as they could into the wood. The outlawes thought themselves safe, assuring themselves at any time to escape; but they were so strongly set upon, on the English side, as they were forced to leave their goodes, and betake themselves to their passages towards Scotland. There was presently five taken of the principal of them. The rest, seeing themselves, as they thought, betrayed, retired into the thicke woodes and bogges that our men durst not follow them, for fear of loosing themselves. The principall of the five that were taken, were two of the eldest sonnes of Sim of Whitram. These five they brought to mee to the fort, and a number of goodes, both of sheep and kine, which satisfied most part of the country that they had stolen them from.

"The five, that were taken, were of great worth and value amongst them; insomuch, that for their liberty, I should have what conditions I should demand or desire. First, all English prisoners were set at liberty. Then had I themselves, and most part of the gentlemen of the Scottish side, so strictly bound in bondes to enter to mee, in fifteen dayes warning, any offendour, that they durst not for their lives break any covenant that I made with them; and so, upon these conditions, I set them at liberty, and was never after troubled with these kind of people. Thus God blessed me in bringing this great trouble to so quiet an end; wee brake up our fort, and every man retired to his own house." - CAREY'S Memoirs, p. 151.

From this narrative, the power and strength of the Armstrongs, at this late period, appear to have been very considerable. Johnie Armstrong of Gilnockie, the hero of the following ballad, is a noted personage, both in history and tradition. He was, it would seem from the ballad, a brother of the Laird of Mangertoun, chief of the name. His place of residence (now a roofless tower) was at the Hollows, a few miles from Langholm, where its ruins still serve to adorn a scene, which in natural beauty, has few equals in Scotland. At the head of a desperate band of freebooters, this Armstrong is said to have spread the terror of his name almost as far as Newcastle, and to have levied black-mail, or protection and forbearance money, for many miles round. 

* A haggis (according to Burns, "the chieftain of the pudding race") is an olio, composed of the liver, heart, &c. of a sheep, minced down with oatmeal, onions, and spices, and boiled in the stomach of the animal, by way of bag. When this bag is cut, the contents of this savoury dish be well made, should spout out with the heated air. This will explain the allusion.
** A Muffled Man means a person in disguise; a very necessary precaution for the guide's safety; for, could the outlaws have learned who played them this trick, beyond all doubt it must have cost him dear. 
*** From this it would appear, that Carey, although his constant attendants in the fort consisted only of 200 horse, had upon this occasion, by the assistance, probably, of the English and Scottish royal garrisons, collected a much larger force.


Johnie Armstrong Sum speikis of lors, sum speikis of lairds,
And sick lyke men of hie degrie;
Of a gentleman I sing a sang
Sum tyme called Lair of Gilnockie.

The King he wrytes a luving letter,
With his ain hand sae tenderly,
And he hath sent it to Johnie Armstrang,
To cum and speik with him speedily.

The Eliots and Armstrangs did convene;
They were a gallant cumpanie-
"We'll ride and meit our lawful King,
And bring him safe to Gilnockie.

"Make kinmon and capon ready, then,
And venison in great plenty;
We'll wellcum here our royal King;
I hope he'll dine at Gilnockie!"-

They ran their horse on the Langholme howm,
And brak their spears wi' mickle main;
The ladies lukit frae their loft windows -
"God bring our men weel hame agen!"

When Johnie cam before the King,
Wi' a' his men sae brave to see,
The King he movit his bonnet to him;
He ween'd he was a King as well as he.

May I find grace, my sovereign liege,
Grace for my loyal men and me?
For my name it is Johnie Armstrang,
And a subject of yours, my liege," said he.

"Away, away, thou traitor strang!
Out o' my sight soon mayst thou be!
I grantit never a traitor's life,
And now I'll not begin wi' thee." -

"Grant me my life, my liege, my King!
And a bonny gift I'll gie to thee -
Full four-and-twenty milk-white steids,
Were a' foal'd in ae yeir to me.

"I'll gie thee a' these milk-white steids,
That prance and nicker at a speir;
And as mickle gude Inglish gilt,
As four w' their braid backs dow bear."

"Away, away, thou traitor strang!
Out o' my sight soon mayst thou be!
I grantit never a traitor's life,
And now I'll not begin wi' thee!"-

"Grant me my life, my liege, my King!
And a bonny gift I'll give to thee -
Gude four-and-twenty ganging mills, 
That gang thro' a' the yeir to me.

"These four-and twenty mills complete
Sall gang for thee thro' a' the yeir;
And as mickle of gude reid wheit,
As a' thair happers dow to bear." -

"Away, away, thou traitor strang!
Out o' my sight soon mayst thou be!
I grantit never a traitor's life,
And now I'll not begin with thee." -

"Grant me my life, my liege, my King!
And a great great gift I'll gie to thee -
Bauld four-and twenty sisters' sons,
Sall for thee fecht, tho' a' should flee!"

"Away, away, thou traitor strang!
Out o' my sight soon mayst thou be!
I grantit never a traitor's life,
And now I'll not begin with thee." -

"Ye lied, ye lied, now, King," he says,
"Altho' a King and Prince ye be!
For I've luved naething in my life,
I weel dare say it, but honesty -

"Save a fat horse, and a fair woman,
Twa bonny dogs to kill a deir,
But England suld have found me meal and mault,
Gif I had lived this hundred yeir!

"She suld have found me meal and mault ,
And beef and mutton in a' plenty;
But never a Scots wife could have said,
That e'er I skaith'd her a puir flee.

"To seik het water benieth cauld ice,
Surely it is a greit folie -
I have asked grace at a graceless face,
But there is nane for my men and me!"*

"But had I kenn'd ere I cam frae hame,
How thou unkind wadst been to me!
I wad have keepit the Border side,
In spite of all thy force and thee.

"Wist England's King that I was ta'en,
O gin a blythe man he wad be! 
For anes I slew his sister's son,
And on his breist bane brak a trie." -

John wore a girdle about his middle,
Imbroider'd ower wi' burning gold,
Bespangled wi' the same metal,
Maist beautiful was to behold.

There hang nine targets ** at Johnie's hat,
And ilk ane worth three hundred pound -
"What wants that knave that a King suld have,
But the sword of honour and the crown?

"O where got thou these targats, Johnie,
That blink sae braly abune they brie?"
"I gat them in the field fechting,
Where, cruel King, though durst not be.

"Had I my horse, and harness gude,
And riding as I wont to be,
It suld have been tauld this hundred yeir,
The meeting of my King and me!

"God be with thee, Kirsty, my brother,
Lang live thou Laird of Mangertoun!
Lang mayst thou live on the Border side,
Ere thou see thy brother ride up and down!

"And God be with thee, Kirsty, my son,
Where thou sits on thy nurse's knee!
But an thou live this hundred yeir,
Thy father's better thou'll never be.

"Farewell! My bonny Gilnock hall,
Where on Esk side thou standest stout!
Gif I had lived but seven years mair,
I wad hae gilt thee round about."

John murder'd was at Carlinrigg,
And all his gallant companie;
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 sa bauld,
Whyle Johnie lived on the Border syde,
Nane of them durst cum neir his hauld.

* This and the three preceding stanzas were among those Sir Walter Scott most delighted to quote. 
** Targats - tassels

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