As our headquarters are based in the sunny Scottish Borders, we thought we should take another look at Clan close to home. The almighty Armstrong’s have long been associated with the border regions but this didn’t stop them travelling wide and far, to the moon in fact! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, time to go back for an overview of Clan Armstrong‘s past. Alastair Cunningham from Clans and Castles was kind enough to help us out with this:
The Armstrong’s are perhaps the best known of the reiving names. They’re primarily associated with Liddesdale, ‘the bloodiest valley in Britain’ but also had towers at Langholm, Canonbie and in the ‘Debatable Lands’ round the Solway Firth. The most famous is probably Johnnie Armstrong who rode out in his finery to meet his king, 17 year old James V at Caerlanrig on the Teviot; but the king ordered that Johnnie and his men be strung up and hung on trees. A memorial stone is in the graveyard there. His tower was at Gilnockie which now houses the Clan Armstrong Centre. The heidsman’s tower was at Mangerton by Newcastleton but only low walls now survive. Across the valley is the Milnholm Cross (1320) which commemorates the murder of Alexander Armstrong at Hermitage Castle.
The Devils Dozen
In the 16th century the Armstrong’s were deemed the principal reiving clan of the Borders, one of the thirteen most notorious reiving clans, known locally in the Borders as the “Devils Dozen”. The Bell, Carleton, Dacre, Elliot, Graham, Johnstone, Kerr, Maxwell, Musgrave, Nixon, Storey and Scott families being the other twelve families.
What is a Border Reiver?
The word ‘reive’ means to rob or plunder. Within the Borders, clans mainly focused on raiding livestock but to be honest anything of value, which could be moved with relative ease would be stolen too. Murder, arson and pillaging also became a common occurrences. There was no stigma attached to taking part in these acts and this simply became the way of life.
Despite being based upon the Scottish/English border clans would raid each other without regard to their victim’s nationality. Reiving did extend beyond the region known as the Scottish Borders today and it’s said that the raiding took place anywhere from the outskirts of Edinburgh as far down as Yorkshire. All of this took place between the War of Scottish Independence in 1315 and the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Of course Royalty on both sides of the border appointed wardens to keep things under control but neither side were able to do so successfully.
Due to the constant feuding the Border lands became a bit of a wasteland as farmers were reluctant to plant crops for fear that they would be burned before harvest. This is a real contrast to today where farming is a key industry within the area.
The history of reiving is still present in the minds of many Borderers today, with each of the Border towns celebrating it’s history with an annual festival or common riding. During the turmoil of the Reiver’s, townspeople would ride by horse to protect their boundaries from neighbouring land owners. Of course the marches ceased to be essential many years ago but have lived on to this day, in commemoration of local tradition. In each town principal men are selected to lead the ridings and are given titles such as Standard Bearer (Selkirk), Cornet (Hawick), Callant (Jedburgh), and Reiver in our Local town of Duns. During the Homecoming Scotland celebrations in 2014 this video was created to explain more about the ridings.
Well, there you have it, the Armstrong’s may have had a violent past but they are a lovely bunch really. The Armstrong Clan Association are busy organising their Golden Jubilee Gathering which will take place in Lockerbie on the 19th-21st July 2019 so there’s plenty time to plan your prefect Armstrong tartan outfit. If you can’t wait until then you could always take a trip to the Clan Armstrong Centre to find out more about the clans reiving traditions.