Clan Armstrong: History, Crest, Tartan & History
Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 14th April 2015, last updated: 14th April 2022
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.
Milnholm Cross. Photo by Walter Baxter / CC BY-SA 2.0
The Armstrong tartan is predominantly green and navy, striped with thick red lines and thinner black lines.
Its design can be traced back to 1842, when it was described in Vestiarium Scotorum, published by the Sobieski Stewarts.
Photo by Joseph Shelby / Public Domain.
The Armstrong crest was a symbol of allegiance, used by clan members to show allegiance to their clan chief. The Clan Armstrong’s crest features an arm from the shoulder, armed, in the centre of the strap and buckle, framed by the motto Invictus maneo, latin for I remain unvanquished.
Photo by Celtus / CC BY-SA 3.0
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.
The Reiver Momunment by Thomas J. Clapperton, in Galashiels. Photo by Kim Traynor / CC BY-SA 2.0
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, 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. Those 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.
Alexander 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.’
Hermitage Castle in the Scottish Borders. Photo by Postdlf / CC BY-SA 3.0
James V, The Teenage King, and the Clan Armstrong
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.
James V of Scotland. Photo by PD-Art / Public Domain.
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 picture to the left shows the pathway to the stone, marking the mass grave of those killed by James V in 1530.
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.
A 16th Century leather ‘jack’ worn by reivers. Photo by Kim Traynor / CC BY-SA 3.0
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.
Common Riding event at Selkirk. Photo by Retro junkies / Public domain.
Clan Armstrong Descendants
With the last of the Armstrong lairds being hung in Edinburgh in 1610, for having lead a raid on Penrith, England, the rest of clan fled the Borders and a lot of Armstrong families settled in Ulster. These days, Armstrong is amongst the fifth most common surname in Ulster. Moreover, since the clan was dispersed in the 17th century, there has been no trace of the Armstrong chiefs.
A Famous Armstrong
A Famous indomitable Armstrong: Neil Armstrong.
The American astronaut and aeronautical engineer was born in 1930, in Wapakoneta, Ohio, is mostly known for being the first person to walk on the Moon.
A year after successfully landing on the Moon, Neil visited his ancestral home in Scotland.
Neil Armstrong. Photo by NASA / Public domain.
Armstrongs with Highland Titles
As of April 2022, there are over 650 plots in the Highland Titles Land Register under the Armstrong name.
Accessorise like a true Armstrong
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