Thursday, February 5, 2015

Border Reivers-Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie

by Tom Moss

The history of the Border Reivers has been much tainted with a certain romanticism since their demise in the first half of the seventeenth century.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, on the arrival of James V1 of Scotland to claim the throne of England and thus become James V1 of Scotland and 1 of England, The Border Reivers were hounded out of their homelands; the lairds and heidsmen(leaders) summarily executed, the families deported to the bogs of Roscommon in Ireland and thus to a life of penury. Those males who were young and strong were forced to join the English armies in the garrisons of the 'cautionary' towns in the Lowlands of Europe in their fight with the might of Catholic Spain.

Their homelands went to the toadies who buttered up to the new king James 1, including the Duke of Cumberland who had his lustful eye on the lands of southern Eskdale.

Thus the ordinary folk of the Borderlands of England and Scotland, caught in the maelstrom of confrontation, aggression and avarice were thus 'replanted' into infertile land in Ireland - much abused and exploited.

Many managed to remain in their homelands and handed down from generation to generation the poems, verses and ballads learned at the knees of their parents on a winter's night about the prowess of their Reiver forebears, be it love, achieved or unrequited, war, raid or feud with other families.

The Border Reivers left us little of the written word, there are very few instances where their thoughts about their lives are left to us in documentary form. They did leave, though, a rich heritage of ballad and chant handed down from generation to generation in the farming communities of Northumberland, Cumbria and southern Scotland.

It was Sir Walter Scott, who early in the nineteenth century, visited the farms of the Borderlands, both Scottish and English, and listened to the verse and chant of their inmates and recorded it for posterity. Not only him, but others, yet it is Scott who has left us with another aspect of the Reiving times - the romance.

One of the ballads, originally and anonymously put down in the 1530's records the story of Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie. It has been much embellished.

Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie was an infamous Scottish Border Reiver. His rule of the Borderlands from the lands of the river Esk at Langholm in the west of the Scottish Border lands to Newcastle on the east coast was resented by the Scottish king, James V. Moreover Johnnie became rich beyond imagination as a result of the protection money extorted from the English within this, his vast domain. James V, barely seventeen years old, and finally free of the self-serving regents who had ruled in his minority, resented both the affluence and power of Johnnie Armstrong. He was determined on bringing the great Scottish Border Reiver to heel.

Hollows Tower also known as Gilnockie.

Of all the characters that were centre stage in the times of the Border Reivers none excites more feeling than that of John Armstrong of Gilnockie. Very little is known of his early life; there were rumours he had made a fortune in the years that he was absent from his native valley of the Esk, probably at sea; on his return he soon established himself as a man of power in the region, gathering many followers and embarking on the protection racket which would lead him to wealth. Thus to modern eyes he might appear as a reprehensible character who deserves little thought or sympathy, but in his death, even today, we experience a whole gamut of emotion from feelings of rank injustice and aggression to bitterness and sadness. All as a result of the ballad which records his death.

John Armstrong and twenty-four of his followers were executed without trial at Carlenrig, south of Hawick in the Scottish Borders.

His Background and Relationship with Scottish Authority

John Armstrong, also known as 'Black Jok' was a Border Reiver who specialised in blackmail or black rent. It is said that there was not one English place of prominence between his home at Hollows Tower (often known as Gilnockie) and east to Newcastle which did not pay protection money to 'Black Jok'- surety that they would be protected from his and other Border Reiver raids.

He was a man whose influence and reputation was embarrassing to the Scottish monarchy. It endeavoured to maintain the truce which existed between Scotland and England at the same time as Armstrong enjoyed the lucrative fruit of his harassment of the English of the Border. Yet this is only part of the story; James V wanted to subjugate the power of the Scottish Border clans – the thieves known as the Border Reivers.

James V, King of Scotland, is determined to subdue his Border Clans

James V moved south to the Scottish Borders in June 1530 intent on proving to his Border clans that he ruled in Scotland. After capturing William Cockburn of Henderland and Adam Scott of Tushielaw, known as the ‘King of Thieves’ and despatching them to Edinburgh for summary execution, he moved even further south intent on a reckoning with Armstrong. He sent word to Johnnie that he would grant an audience at Carlenrig. Reasons for the call range from a 'loving letter' inviting John to hunt with the King, to the supposition, unknown to John, that James V was in league with the Scottish West March Warden, Maxwell, who, it could be surmised, wanted Johnnie’s lands bordering the river Esk. To add to his concern Henry V111 of England had demanded that he take control of Armstrong as his incursions into England were a threat to the peace.

Armstrong and the King meet at Carlenrig

John Armstrong rode north to Carlenrig from Hollows Tower, still standing south of the Border town of Langholm, apprehensive yet high in hopes that he would be well received by the young King and his large and well-armed retinue, a veritable army in fact, yet posing as a hunting party. He and his men were dressed in their best finery, a sign of their wealth and status, a dress, they thought, most fitting to welcome their sovereign to the Border lands:

The Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong, by an author whose name is lost in time, was rescued by Sir Walter Scott almost three centuries later. His adaption of the Ballad admirably describes the meeting:

There hang nine targats (tassels) at Johnnie’s hat,
And ilk ane worth three hundred pound- (each worth)
The great show of opulence served only to incense the rash and impetuous King:-
'What wants yon knave that a king should have'?
The wild and reckless James made clear his intentions,
'Away, away thou traytor strang (strong)
Out of my sicht (sight) thou mayst sune be!
I granted nevir a traytor's lyfe
And now I'll not begine with thee.'

John Armstrong pleaded his case; he had never harmed a Scotsman, his wrath was directed at those English who at every opportunity had raided and thieved (reived) from his fellow Scotsman. He offered help and support to the young King, but James would have none of it. Eventually he and his followers were resigned to their fate. They knew they had been drawn into a trap and were about to die. John turned to the King and said:-

'To seik hot water beneath cauld yce ( cold ice)
Surely it is a great folie-
I haif asked grace at a graceless face,
But there is none for my men and me.'

All but one of the Border Reivers were led to the trees around Carlenrig and hanged without any form of a trial. The one who did not hang was burned to death. He had been recognised as a Border Reiver who had burned a smallholding in a raid. A mother and son were supposedly to have died as a result.
Even in the midst of any sympathy for Johnnie and his followers, the reality of life in the Scottish English Border strikes home. It was a land where life and death were of little significance, where conscious was appeased in the old moral of an ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’.

The Memorial to Johnie Armstrong and his Followers at Carlenrig

Yet this vile and unlawful act by the seventeen year old King proved that he was little different to the people whom he wished to rule. The rash and impetuous act at Carlenrig demonstrated only that the anointed sovereign of the realm of Scotland had no love for his Border folk, nor the nous to understand the reaction that would ensue. As a result James lost the affiliation of his Border people and would live to regret that fateful meeting of July 1530 with one of the most powerful Border Lords.


Twelve years later, in 1542, James V was to die, some say of a broken heart, following the rout of the Scottish army at the Battle of Solway Moss and eight days after the news that a daughter had been born to him- the future Mary, Queen of Scots. Some of the Armstrongs of Liddesdale (Scottish Borders) joined the English army in dealing a mortal blow at the Scots as they vainly tried to cross the river Esk at Longtown.
It was the Armstrongs who picked off the remnants of the Scots army as they fled in panic north through Liddesdale.

Perhaps now I should try and give a little of the history behind this base and senseless act which was perpetrated on the orders of James V of Scotland, a rash, impetuous seventeen year old who was present at Carlenrig, a few miles south of Hawick, when the executions took place.

In May 1530 James V decided that he would bring the people of the Scottish Borders under his firm control - in the words of the time, he would 'daunton' the Border folk. He would teach them a lesson in who ruled in Scotland. He had the might and the resources to demonstrate to the Border folk that he was not to be trifled with.

The Border Reivers swore allegiance only to their own lords, their own clans. They had no truck, were completely indifferent to the royalty that ostensibly ruled within their lands. And with good reason. Scottish kings had done little to protect them during the centuries old wars with England, sometimes encouraged their depradations along the Scottish English frontier, sometimes viewed them with aggression when peace between the countries might be achieved.

In !529/30 James V tired and frustrated by the lack of success with his Border Lords in bringing the Reiver fraternities to heel, ordered that they should be held in ward whilst he pacified the Borders. The leaderless clans, without the direction of their lords, would be easier meat.

Accordingly, Bothwell, Home, Maxwell, Johnston, Buccleuch, Drumlanrig, Wamfray, Mark Ker of Dolphinstoune, John Home of Coldenknowes, a son of the Kers of Ferniehirst, and a son of Hennerland (Henderland) were all placed in ward.

Ferniehirst Castle the Tower of the Kerrs

A meeting of the Scottish Council, at which unsurprisingly, there was only one representative from the Scottish Borders, tells us that the king, accompanied by the true barons and lieges should ride 'in propir persoun for the punishment of the malefactors and the pacifying of the country, and that the nobles and barons in ward should remain in the same during the king's pleasure'. ( The History of Liddesdale, Eskdale, Ewesdale, Wauchopdale and the Debateable Land by Robert Bruce Armstrong).

Caerlaverock Castle the Main Seat of the Maxwell Clan Overlords

The expedition south set out for the Border at the end of June and arrived at Carlenrig in Teviotdale about the 5th of July.

James was aware that not many miles to the south lived Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie who was feared by the English along the whole length of the English Border lands from Kershope Foot to Newcastle and who bought their peace by paying him blackmail. Such was particularly embarassing to James who was endeavouring to create amity and friendly relations with his uncle, King Henry V111 of England.

Armstrong was enticed to meet the king at Carlenrig a few miles south of Hawick in the Scottish Borders, some say by a 'loving letter', an invitation to hunt. However, this does not ring true to me. I think Johnnie of Gilnockie would have been fully aware of the king's designs, his obssession to pacify the Borders. It is also well known and recorded that many of the Border Reivers were wily, shrewd and cautious. He would also know that his liege lord, Robert, Lord Maxwell, was in ward. I prefer to think that Armstrong headed north from Langholm to Carlenrig with great trepidation, bent on making peace, coming to some compromise over his future, with the Scottish king.

Some points of this history are worthy of a further study.

In 1525 Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie signed a bond of 'manrent' with Robert, Lord Maxwell. A bond of 'manrent' was a means by which a weaker man, in return for protection, pledged to serve a stronger lord or clan in peace and war.

The bond made on 2nd November 1525 clearly states that "I Johne Armstrang, bindis and oblissis me and myne airis (heirs) in manrent and service to the said Robert, Lord Maxwell and his airis for ever mare (more) first and before all utheris (others), myne allegiance to our soverane lord the king allanelly (alone) except".

For this bond of manrent Robert, Lord Maxwell, Warden of the West Marches of Scotland, granted the "landis (lands) of Dalbeith, Scheild, Dalblane, Stapilgorton, Langholme and Crwsnowt with their pertinentes, liand (lying) in the lordschip of Eskdale".

Robert, Lord Maxwell, who came to fear Armstrong's burgeoning power between 1525 and 1530, certainly benefited from Armstrong's death. On 8th July 1530, three days after the death, a letter from the king stated that Maxwell received into his hands all the property that had belonged to "umquhile (deceased) Johnnie Armstrang, brother to Thomas Armstrang of Mangertoune".

Obviously there is a certain inference here that the death of Johnnie was engineered. Whether it was intentional, collusion between the king and Maxwell, will never be known. To balance the whole affair it has to be said that the friendship between the Armstrongs and Maxwells lasted for many years after the death of Johnnie.

James V and the Stuarts who followed him would never again be trusted by the Armstrongs, indeed many of the Scottish Border clans.

Here is a poem written by a great worthy of Newcastleton in Liddesdale. I adore this man's ability both in prose and poem- an ordinary and unsung working man with a great love of Border history and the Vale of the River Liddel. He was affectionately known as 'Bluebell' in his day, real name John Byers. Long may his memory remain in the hearts and minds of the Scottish Borderers. His history of Liddesdale, written in the 1960's I think, is a great read, the narrative is poetic, has a lovely lilt to it. I wish I could have known this man- so unassuming I am told and I believe it, yet so passionate about his homeland.

Johnnie Armstrong

Unlucky day for Armstrong when he cantered thro' Ewes Doors, ( a hill pass in Ewesdale)
And faced a royal tyrant where the Teviot water pours;
Ah! little deem'd bold Armstrong as he brushed the early bloom
'Twas farewell to fair Gilnockie and a gallop to his doom.

A dismal day for Armstrong and woe for all his clan,
And ominous the plotting where the silvery Teviot ran;
On Caerlanrig's old chapel grey the summer sun shone down,
As forth he sped to meet his king-a Judas with a crown.

Short was the shrift for Armstrong-a halter and a tree,
And Borderers mourned his tragic fate and scented treachery;
Bare and leafless stood the trees to blossom never more,
And far and wide the cruel tale the whisp'ring hill winds bore.

The Teviot played sad requiem around his lonely tomb,
The plover piped its numbers in notes of solemn gloom;
Sorrow searched the marches wide in many a ballad strain,
And loyal clansmen mourned the chief who ne'er would lead again.

Off rode the haughty monarch the Border hills across,
But sorrow quenched ambition on fatal Solway Moss. (The defeat of the Scottish army in 1542)
Gilnockie take your warrior rest, a page of history claims
Proud homage from the Border heart denied to Royal James.


I live in north­east Cumbria in the delightful village of Walton with Tina, my partner of many years. Walton is just a few miles south of the English Scottish Borders.

I have always had a great love of British history, particularly that of the kingdoms of Strathclyde Cumbria and Northumbria and the formation and development of Scotland and its subsequent struggle for independence from England.

No such study can be undertaken without encountering the lives and times of the Border Reivers, both Scottish and English, who dominated the lands north and south of the English Scottish Border for almost three centuries, between the 13th and 17th. I am fascinated by their history, its uniqueness, passion and violence and the abject weakness and inability of monarchy and authority to bring them to heel.

I was born in Northumberland but moved, as a boy, to Lancashire, changing the rolling hills and valleys of the north­east for the huge textile mills of the textile towns. To my mind, both have their own attractions. I still love both. After studying textile technology for many years I moved back north to the Scottish Borders town of Hawick where I worked in cashmere production. More recently I moved to Carlisle still working in textile production. My work is far removed from my passion for history yet, I feel, each compliments the other, are refreshing alternatives which make up my life.

I have written a book about the illegal capture by the English of the most infamous of the Scottish Border Reivers and his subsequent rescue by a small party of Scots from the mighty defence of Carlisle castle. His name was William Armstrong of Kinmont, known to us today as Kinmont Willie.

Currently I am working on another two books, one about the Rising of the North of 1569 and another on the Border Reivers.

My website is It contains pages on short stories I have written on the Reivers and my blog which can be found at


  1. Great article. If you want to encounter the reivers in fiction I commend Andrew Greig's latest novel Fair Helen. A gutsy read!

  2. May I recommend Fair Border Bride - by me?

  3. The ultimate factual resource for anyone interested in The Borders or the Border Reivers is The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser.

  4. The ultimate factual resource for anyone interested in The Borders or the Border Reivers is The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser.


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