Johnny Armstrong: The Most Famous of the Scottish Border Reivers

The Border Reivers lived fought and raided within a few miles of either side of the border between Scotland and England in the Middle Ages. These fighting gangs were revered and spent most of their time thieving and raiding farms and villages along the border. One of the most famous men of the Scottish gangs was a man named Johnny Armstrong. So, who was this man and what was his story?

A Legend in the Making

Johnny Armstrong was born around 1480 in Gilnockie and was the youngest son of the Laird of Mangerton, the chief of the clan.  Armstrong was the most famous of the Border Reivers as he was both feared and revered by the English on the other side of the border. Armstrong was however admired by his own people gaining respect from his peers and comrades alike and was considered to be a highly intelligent strategist. Johnny achieved legendary status although it depended on which side of the border you lived as to whether you would consider him a hero! Poets would eventually write romantic ballads about him as is usually the way with such characters.

The Armstrong family were very powerful and the most prestigious of the Border Reivers families. Their base was located in the bogs of Dumfriesshire where the Gilnockie Tower, built by Johnny Armstrong, can still be seen today. Johnny was one of the first racketeers who ran a protection racket as far south as Tyneside in England. What were the people paying him for? They were paying for their safety in the main and Armstrong made a good deal of money from this business. His own small army had a fearsome reputation as this gang of Reivers were not averse to murder if they didn’t receive their protection money.

The Armstrong Reivers were able to get away with murder, blackmail and racketeering as they had helped Robert 5th lord of Maxwell who was the English West March Warden fight off his enemies. Maxwell let the Armstrong’s, a fairly lawless group by now, loot and pillage without interference. This was not to last however as the new West March Warden installed in 1528 was not to be bought and was determined to do battle with the Armstrong gang.

1528 Onwards

The new Warden of the English West March was William Lord Dacre who had some two thousand men at his disposal and planned to attack the Armstrongs. Unfortunately for Dacre Armstrong was tipped off by some of the English and was ready for the onslaught that was to follow. Dacre received a shattering blow and had to retreat. Dacre was not however deterred and he returned to attack the Armstrong’s along with artillery destroying the Armstrong Tower that stood close to the River Esk. Meanwhile the Armstrong’s were sacking Dacres Mill in Netherby North Yorkshire.

Tit for tat incursions continued for much of that year and strangely enough it was Dacres banning of the Armstrong’s from the town of Carlisle during daytime hours that brought things to a head. With raids happening at an alarming rate King James V of Scotland decided to take matters into his own hands and imprisoned all the border lords as punishment. He then gathered an army of some ten thousand men and attacked the Armstrong’s and their allies which resulted in the Armstrong clan surrendering by walking into the kings camp unarmed dressed in fine clothing and accessories. This only served to rile the king as he saw this bold undertaking as a sign of arrogance from the Reivers.

Armstrong Meets His Fate

Johnny Armstrong tried to bargain with the king but to no avail as King James had already decided that the fate of this Reiver clan would be held up as a warning to other gangs in the borders not to mess with the king. James ordered Johnny Armstrong to be hanged and as the story goes the tree from which he was hanged withered and died. How true this was we will never know as there is plenty of romanticized legend surrounding Johnny’s fate by this stage. This was to be the pivotal event that signaled the end of the Border Reivers. How Johnny Armstrong is viewed today is a matter up for discussion with some viewing him as a legend while others are more realistic in that basically he was a murderer, outlaw and extortionist who lived by the sword and as the saying goes died by the sword, or hanging in this case.

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