Back in the Borders again. The Reiver Clan Armstrong were once one of the mightiest clans in Southern Scotland, capable of raising 3,000 men at the height of their power, however, their troublemaking caught up with them in the end and the clan scattered around the world. Here we look at a little of the history of Clan Armstrong as well as some notable members of the clan.
The Name Game
While the clan claims descent from Siward, Earl of Northumbria a Scandinavian warrior who fought against MacBeth and has been immortalised in the play of the same name, there is a fascinating story of how the clan came to take the name Armstrong. The tradition has it that an early member of the clan was a bloke named Fairbairn. Fairbairn was employed as an armour bearer for one of the early kings of Scotland, although the story does not make clear which one it might have been. Anyway, while in battle one day, Fairbairn and the King were fighting side by side when the King’s horse was killed beneath him, causing the King to tumble to the floor. With the king facing certain death at the hands of the enemy, Fairbairn acted quickly, leant down and with one arm, hoisted the king up behind him onto his own horse, thus saving the king’s life. As you would imagine, the king was pretty well overcome with gratitude for Fairbairn and gave him land in the Borders as well as the name Armstrong. So, if you ever find yourself challenged to an arm-wrestle by a member of this clan, perhaps it would be worth you making an excuse and leaving quietly.
The Ballad of John Armstrong
As mentioned above, the Armstrongs were a powerful clan of Reivers with none more powerful or famous than John (Johnnie) Armstrong. John operated out of Gilnockie Tower in Dumfries and commanded more than 150 men, although he raised no money from rents he supported his men through his reiving activities which were seemingly quite lucrative. Johnnie carried on looting and thieving along the border quite happily for many years, stealing from the English or Scottish depending on the political climate. However, the unruly nature of the borders was starting to become a problem for king James V, his inability to bring order to the area made him look weak, so he decided to take matters into his own hands. He, apparently, sent a letter to Johnnie asking him and his men to his court where they would be given safety. Johnnie and his men were so flattered by the request that they got themselves all dressed up in the finest clothes they could find and set off to meet the king. Unfortunately, Johnnie and his men realised to late that they had walked into a trap and the king had Johnnie and his 36 men hanged. However, this did not bring about the order the king had envisaged as the treachery caused further rebellion and unrest in the borders. The story of Johnnie Armstrong is immortalised by Child Ballad 169.
After a successful attempt to bring peace to the Borders, many of Clan Armstrong’s members fled to Ulster and subsequently to the rest of the world. Among the diaspora Armstrong population, we can find noted musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Dido and Billie Joel Armstrong of Green Day as well as a less notable cyclist, the host of that mainstay of daytime television – Pointless- and the first man on the moon. Neil Armstrong was very aware of his Scottish ancestry, rumour has it he took a piece of Armstrong tartan with him to the moon and even visited the Border town of Langholm, the clan’s traditional seat, where he was made a freeman of the burgh – sort of like getting the key to the city.
Is that enough Clan Armstrong for you? Probably not, right? Well, you could always visit our clan Armstrong page and, like the first man on the moon, take a bit of its tartan with you. If you want some more or have any other information about this clan that you would like to share with us, don’t hesitate to get in touch.