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Armstrong Clan History: Crest, Tartan & History

Written by: attacat user

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Armstrong Clan History & Violent Reputation

On the marches, the border between England and Scotland life was difficult. From the earliest medieval times the people who farmed these lands were always at a disadvantage. They were living on the front line of a war that lasted many centuries. Armies from England marched through with regular mayhem, killing livestock and taking what they wanted on their way to battles further north. If that wasn’t bad enough other Scottish clans marching south would often do the same. Of all the clans who lived in and defended the lands that bordered Scotland, few were as indomitable or just plain scary as Clan Armstrong.

Their reputation for ferocity grew over the centuries, due in large part to the constant need to defend their territory – practise makes perfect. Clan Armstrong came to be of great importance to the Royal House of Stuart, as Scotland didn’t have a regular standing army, and often relied on the border clans for military aid. The Armstrongs, it was said in 1528, could muster 3000 armed horsemen to the field at very short notice.

The Armstrong Sword in Stone

Milnholm Cross (a sword in a stone) erected circa 1300, is the oldest monument to Clan Armstrong. It commemorates clan chief, Alexander Armstrong, who died at the hands of William De Soulis (of which more below). Today it looks over the peaceful valley of Liddersdale, once one of the most dangerous and lawless places in the British Isles, the Medieval equivalent of Helmand Province.
Armstrong Clan

Milnholm Cross

Armstrong Family Crest

Armstrong

Clan Armstrong Buckler bearing the Latin motto, Invictus Maneo: ‘I remain undefeated’.

Armstrong Tartan

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A Reiving Scottish Clan

Before the 1300s the Armstrongs originated from the south side of the borders in Cumberland, but came to settle in Liddersdale, making Mangerton the seat of their chief. Throughout the borders there was a reiving tradition among those who lived there. Reiving is an old word that means ‘raiding’, and this became necessary to their survival. An Armstrong wife whose cupboard was empty would serve the men a platter of spurs for their supper, which meant: get out there and steal some cattle, we are on the edge of starvation!

The reiving tradition, though it strikes our modern sensibilities as criminal, was really the result of being constantly invaded by both sides of the border. Farmers had no choice but to supplement their battered harvests. Loyalties to either country were shot to pieces by the need to ensure the survival of the clan. They even carried a double sided flag: English on one side and Scottish on the other, to present to whichever army apprehended them! It was said the Armstrongs, like other reiving clans, were ‘Scottish when it suited them and English at their pleasure.’

With the reiving tradition the Armstrong clan developed an extremely skilled horsemanship. To be a border reiver was a young boy’s dream. Much more exciting than being a farmer. It wasn’t just a career for vagrants; clan chiefs and noble families embraced the reiving tradition. Riding out to protect your own and take back what had been stolen was an honourable pursuit.

Map of Scottish and English Marches

Armstrong

Map of the Marches c16th Century

March Laws

In such a violent place as the marches it is incredible to think that there were laws, wardens, and codes of conduct. Border Laws, also called March Laws were set up around reiving. For example, if your family had been raided, you had the right to counter with your own raid within 6 days, even across the border. Anyone who happened to wander into the path of this counter-raid had to join in or be considered complicit with the raiders. If you’re not with us you’re against us was the attitude. This counter-raid was termed the Hot Trot, and had to be announced with a piece of burning turf held up high, and with ‘hound and horne, hue and cry’.

Sleuth Hounds

Sleuth hounds, Scottish dogs bred for the purpose, would follow the trail and horses would pursue. After 6 days it was termed a ‘Cold Trot’ and had to be specially sanctioned. But always the threat of lawlessness and anarchy was present. The laws existed during peace time, but during times of war it was every clan for itself. Such a situation couldn’t remain long within the bounds of legality when blood feuds often motivated the reivers.

A Scottish Sleuth Hound looked very similar to a bloodhound, but originally there were differences between the two breeds, a sleuth hound being red or black with small spots. Since about 1700 they have no longer existed as a separate species. sleuth houndThose who dared to deny entry to a sleuth hound on a “hot trot” were deemed guilty of complicity.

Building Towers and Retailiation

Protectionism became rife. At the height of their powers the Armstrong Border reivers made Al Capone look like an actual violin player. By 1526, Clan Armstrong seized control of most of the ‘Debatable lands’ and built towers, beginning with Hollows Tower which was built by John Armstrong of Gilnockie. The English deemed this illegal. Consequently, in 1528 the English warden at that time, Lord Dacre, took a small army to attack the area’s inhabitants. As a result, they burned down Hollows Tower. The Armstrong Clan retaliated by burning his home town of Netherby in Cumberland.

Dumbarton Castle: The Legend

In the hills above Langholm, the forbidding Hermitage castle was built in 1240 by the Norman knight Nicholas De Soulis, to control the ‘troublesome Armstrongs’. So even then, they were a force to be feared. By 1320 it was in the hands of William De Soulis, who declared his God-given right to deflower the local virgins. He had been getting away with that for a while, but then he made the mistake of ensnaring a prominent Armstrong maid. She was saved by her family and revenge was swift. They captured De Soulis and threatened to kill him.
Armstrong - Hermitage CastleAlexander Armstrong, as clan chief, forbade them to do this, however, and showed mercy to De Soulis. For this act of kindness De Soulis invited Alexander to his castle and murdered him! The story goes that the Armstrongs captured the castle and boiled De Soulis in molten lead. But, the veracity of this tale, though compelling, is in doubt. There is evidence that De Soulis died a prisoner in Dumbarton Castle. Legend has it he practised the ‘dark arts’, and a demon he conjured still haunts the Castle. Similarly, the writer and historian Walter Elliot says the Hermitage Castle, ‘is an evil place, it feels evil.’

James V: The Teenage King

James V inherited his throne in 1513, at the tender age of 17 months, after his father was killed at the Battle of Flodden Field. The country was ruled by regents until 1524 until he dismissed them, and began to rule outright as a boy king. With the feuds raging in the marches, and his uncle Henry VIII of England criticising his failure to stop them, James V needed to take decisive action. Hence, the Armstrong clan was an obvious target to set up as an example.

In 1530 James V invited Johnny Armstrong of Gilnockie to have talks with him. They were to meet the Royal hunting party at Caerlanrig. Johnny and his men, not sensing any danger, went out from Gilnockie Tower unarmed and dressed themselves in their best finery, befitting a meeting with a monarch. What the king didn’t tell them was that there was an army of 10,000 men waiting to ambush them. On seeing Johnny and his men finely dressed, the teenage king was alleged to utter with great indignance ‘what wants this knave that a king should have?’ meaning, why are these men dressed like kings?  He immediately ordered their execution. He’d had no intention of talking to them. He considered them traitors. Armstrong and his men were hanged. Johnny Armstrong, horrified at this betrayal of trust said before he died, that he had been a fool to ‘seek grace’ in a ‘graceless face’. The Armstrongs clan may have been guilty of many things, but to their proud minds, duplicity, was repugnant.

Read more about James V and other monarchs of Scotland here.

Armstrong Gravestone

Pathway to the stone marking the mass grave of those killed by James V in 1530. The gravestone was discovered by a farmer about 30 years ago. While tilling the field he unearthed a large stone with markings on it. The Armstrong Association were informed, as its position opposite Caernlarig Chapel meant it could well be that of Armstrong and his men. Dowsers were employed to begin dowsing at the four corners of the field and slowly walk together. Their rods all reacted at the same spot where, later, an Archeologist found skeletal remains buried beneath. The stone has been re-erected at that same spot.

The End of Reiving

The Armstrongs continued to hold power in the lands of what is now South Roxburghshire. During the reign of Elizabeth I, reivers from Clans like Armstrong, Graham, and Elliot kept up such sustained raids on the south that the English parliament considered rebuilding Hadrian’s Wall to keep them out. Then, in 1603 everything changed. James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I. It was the dawn of a new age, a new United Kingdom. It signaled the end of reiving and a whole way of life for the border clans.

The Armstrongs were just one of the targets for James’ euphemistically named policies for the pacification of the Borders. Due to this, all borderers were ordered to become farmers. The worst offenders charged to throw themselves on the king’s mercy for the ‘foul and insolent outrages’ previously seen in the borders (by which he meant reiving). The towers in the debatable lands were torn down and the wardens ejected. Consequently, the area was renamed the ‘Middle shires’ and it became an offence to call them the Borders.

Reiver Armour

Armstrong

A 16th Century Reiver ‘jack’ worn on the upper body

Most notably, members of Clan Armstrong, among others, were forbidden to carry weapons or own horses of a higher than minimal value. Certainly, the more expensive light cavalry horses favoured by reivers were no longer allowed. For a culture based entirely on equestrian virtues this was a terrible blow, the end of their cultural heritage. Therefore, Reiver families who resisted these changes were forced from their lands and homes, hunted down, and deported or killed. The goal of James’s policy was to consign the whole reiving tradition to the pages of history. It had no place in the new ‘Jamesian’ world. Today, we would call it Ethnic Cleansing. Many were tried and hanged in Carlisle or Newcastle. Towns like Rowanburn, once strongly populated with Armstrongs, were in a few short years markedly absent of that surname in their town records. By the 1640s any reivers left from the border clans were just outlaws living in gangs and terrorising the countryside. The common people, wanting finally to live in peace, no longer gave them shelter or aid.

Common Riding Tradition

Today, in border towns like Jedburgh, Hawick, Langholm and Selkirk, the reiving tradition is still remembered. These towns celebrate the annual festival of the ‘Common Riding’, a celebration of horsemanship that brings many flocking into town. This goes back to the 13th Century: local clans would ride around their land boundaries to weed out any encroachment by neighbouring landowners. Though this is no longer necessary, the border towns have kept the tradition alive. The Common Riding is an impressive series of festive events across the border counties, sometimes with events spanning several days. Horsemanship is always at the top of the agenda, in commemoration of those gallant reivers of old who risked their lives to protect their clan.

Armstrong

Common Riding event at Selkirk

Famous Armstrong Descendant

A Famous indomitable Armstrong: Neil Armstrong. Neil Armstrong A year after successfully landing on the Moon, Neil visited his ancestral home in Scotland.

 

You can become a Laird, Lord, or Lady of Glencoe* with Highland Titles by buying a plot of Scottish Land!


About the author

Written by: attacat user


Comments on this post

  • Dennis Baylis
    15/06/15 - 03:02

    WOW History I was not taught. Please lets have more.

  • Louise Levy
    02/09/15 - 08:32

    Really fascinating – my husbands mother is an Armstrong and one of our children identify very closely with this clan! We are also of clan Donald!

  • Thursa Wilde
    02/09/15 - 15:30

    You have some quality blood in your veins Louise!

  • Jack Armstrong
    17/10/15 - 17:14

    Well done. This is the most thorough history of the early Armstrongs I’ve seen. Thank you!

  • Thursa Wilde
    20/10/15 - 17:37

    Thank you Jack. 🙂

  • owen jones
    20/01/16 - 01:23

    on my mothers ancestry the Armstrongs are direct thru her aunty eliza Armstrong who emigrated to Australia or were sent here from Ireland.some of the clan were deported to fermanagh after the wars as Presbyterians,in one clash on the border wars 28 men were killed by English arrows,today, armstrong is a prevalent surname in this part of Ireland,find more on this in the annual gatherings of sports catalogues.

  • Hannah Petty
    15/03/16 - 18:38

    I need to come take a visit. My Dad’s side has been traced back to the Armstrong clan of Scotland. I can see where I get my personality from!

  • Michael Buzan
    04/09/16 - 15:55

    my Mother and Grandfather are Armstrongs and I hope to find out more about her side of my family.

  • Greg Johnson
    15/03/17 - 03:58

    Hi, I have a question?
    As a result of the betrayal of clan Armstrong by James V and James VI, is there lasting enmity between Clan Stuart and Clan Armstrong?

    • Peter
      05/04/17 - 08:57

      Hi Greg
      Not to my knowledge.

  • Leah Armstrong
    14/04/17 - 13:52

    Thank you so much for this history! A proud Armstrong, I am. American born but Scotland is in my heart & my veins!

  • Michael Ivor Armstrong
    01/06/17 - 22:22

    We live near Preston, close enough to the Borders to visit easily. The lands aroundJedburgh feel like home.
    My wife and I have two daughters and three sons, all of whom are very fiercely proud of the clan. My daughters, who both live in Germany, have refused to give up the name and, like the rest of the family, close ranks at the slightest thing. I think it’s in the blood. I spent 30 years with Police, 25 of them with horses on the moited branch. By sheer coincidence I was a Skill at Arms champion, winning the Wilkinson Sword of Honour at the Royal Tournament 5 times.
    Invictus Maneo.

  • Vickie Russo
    18/06/17 - 03:19

    Thank you so much for the information on this site! I have been researching my ancestry for several years and some of the bits and pieces of a few stories have been solidified! I am a direct descendant of the Lairds of Mangerton Castle as well as Johnnie of Gilnockie. Johnnie of Gilnockie is my 12X great-grandfather. I am leaving the US soon to visit Scotland, Mangerton Castle, and the surrounding area. I am excited to see the beautiful land of my ancestors, but saddened to be at the place where they lived such a difficult life that often ended in a horrific death. Invictus Maneo!

  • Greg Johnson
    06/09/17 - 00:20

    Hi Peter

    James V and V1 were treacherous, incompetent and foolish Kings. They betrayed the Border clans. James V1 conducted a campaign in the Borders that today would be described as ethnic cleansing. After hundreds of years of loyal service to Scotland the people of the Borders were treated in this way is contemptible and a blight on both Scotland and especially the House of Stuart.
    James V1 initiated union with England that was a disaster for him and Scotland. The English Parliament played with him. His son Charles 1st was executed by the parliament and within a few generations the English were rid of the Stuart royals altogether. But the English owned Scotland and still do, it is a subject country. Essentially James V1 divided his own country and helped England conquer it. Well done!
    England has impoverished Scotland, closed their industries and relegated the population to social security to survive. They are dependent on English hand-outs, treated as second class citizens. The English Royal family has a great time at their Balmoral Estate every year.

  • Beverlee Armstrong Brown
    08/09/17 - 21:03

    Hi,
    James VI of Scotland was James I of England and it’s too simplistic to blame the English for everything that Scotland feels has been done to them. As a Canadian first, of Scottish descent for which I’m very proud, we can’t go through life pointing fingers and laying fault. Over 700 years of heritage cannot and should not be encapsulated into a few sentences. We carry our past is our heads and our present in our hearts….who knows what our future brings. Teaching our descendants to be good caring people is our sole job and holding onto grudges is not part of that. The history of Scotland and England has brought us to today; the relationship has evolved and will continue to grow, expanding their future into what they want. I’m 74 and a visit to Scotland is the last item on my bucket list not completed. I’m hopeful I’ll make it but to all the other Armstrongs out there……hi cuss!

  • Laura Armstrong
    10/09/17 - 03:28

    Thank you so much for the comprehensive history of my clan! My father was very proud of his heritage…to honor that I kept my name when I got married…to a Graham no less! I’m a teacher in Wisconsin at an elementary school called Cumberland. Ironic, right?

  • Bella Boudoir
    12/09/17 - 10:53

    I too am a jack Armstrong. How funny it is our clan mannerisms still remain centuries later. I am a keen and compitent rider who has mustered many cattle in my early days. I also have a strange resilience to hold strong no matter the circumstance. Also an even stronger desire to not conform and feircly protect what is mine!. Yip defiantly an Armstrong
    Jacqui New Zealand

  • Therese Marie Armstrong
    28/10/17 - 02:08

    I visited the lands of my ancestors in 2007 ,I attended a gathering of the Armstrong Clan in Lockerbie,what a wonderful experience to walk upon the land of my ancestors and visit Hermitage castle .I wept when I had to return to Australia.This is the best summary of the history of the Armstrong’s that I have read.Invictus Maneo.Thank You.

  • Elizabeth QUINN (nee Armstrong)
    07/12/17 - 16:15

    Hi
    Thanks for this great history. I am aware that I have a relative common to both sides of my family Armstrong/ Nelson and Bryant / Cranston and that one of my relatives was in the grenadier guards.

  • David Paul Armstrong
    25/01/18 - 22:34

    I love this history, but am sadden by the death of so many Armstrongs at the hand of King James V, and King James VI. My ancestry has been traced way back, and I Johnnie of Gilnockie is my 13x great- grandfather. Reading this I it made me laugh at times, and sad a bit too, but I can surely see where some of my personality come from. Do not mess with an Armstrong, because that fierceness is still there. I have never been to Scotland, but hope to see it before I die.
    Invictus Maneo!

  • Olga Armstrong
    05/03/18 - 19:15

    My great grand father Jack Armstrong migrated from Scotland to Cote D’Ivoire as a British Merchant over 100 years ago. I’m so keen to know if l still have any surviving relatives. I need help to trace my ancestors.

  • Sarah Armstrong
    25/03/18 - 06:29

    As a direct descendant from my father’s side, this is the most fascinating discovery I could make. Using ancestry helped a lot. Kids used to tease me that I’m related to Neil Armstrong, because of my last name. But now I know, I really am! Invictus Menao.

  • Linda Weber
    04/05/18 - 13:37

    I am descended from the Armstrongs on my mothers side. After reading this post, I can definitely see that I have inherited the tendency to resist conforming, fight for what is right and not back down even when the odds are against me – NOW I know where I got it – all hail the Armstrongs! My mother and sister visited Scotland last year and were fascinated. We always laugh about sharing these same personality traits.

  • Tom Armstrong
    04/06/18 - 18:21

    My cousin traced our name back to the clan (circa 1400) days but, he may have taken some leaps of faith. We do have solid info about our recent ancestors. Our closest proven information is from the early 1800s and shows our family in Georgia. We eventually migrated to Texas in the mid 1800s (post civil war) and have been there ever since. We have always wondered if our family was sent to Georgia as convicts. Georgia (like Australia) was at one time supposed to be a penal colony. The narrative certainly fits the history and treatment of Armstrongs. Has any work been done on whether the Armstrong clan was treated as such? That is the story we tell, true or not. As my dad said, real Texans do not let the truth stand in the way of a good story.

  • Jack E. Armstrong
    17/06/18 - 00:43

    Hard to find proof of where my family heritage is from.

  • Campion Armstrong
    11/07/18 - 00:04

    Outstanding research and a great story to boot.
    We can trace back to the borderlands but with leaps of faith. We are more confident of our migration from Ireland straight to Cincinnati Ohio USA, where as luck would have it a Catholic Armstrong and a Protestant Armstrong met and married. The daughter’s father (William) owed a shoe shop for humans and horses in the early 1800’s. When the Protestant , named William too, arrived into Cincinnati he saw the Armstrong signage and went in to ask for a job… he got the job and a wife too. They had a large family. Some stayed in Cincinnati and others went to northern Ohio Wapakoneta where Niel Armstrong is from. And to this day in Ohio Armstrong’s in the know will ask another Ohio Armstrong , “ are you from the northern or southern Ohio Armstrong. So I am told. Can’t wait to take my family to Scotland do you know what time of year the festivals take place there I’d love to go. Thanks Invictus Maneo

  • Barry Armstrong
    29/07/18 - 09:36

    I and my three children are redheads as are most of my cousins. When I had skin cancer a few years ago the consultant saw my name and hair colour and said I have Celt and Viking DNA.
    Explains a lot about my temperament.

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