Border reiver Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie, together with a number of his men, was hanged on the orders of King James V, on the 5th of July, 1530.
John (Johnnie; Johnny) Armstrong of Gilnockie was youngest son of the Laird of Mangerton and brother of his successor as Clan Chief. He was probably the most famous (infamous) of all the Scottish Border Reivers. If you’re fond of the Robin Hood or Rob Roy MacGregor style of legend, Armstrong was dreaded on the English side of the Border, but dearly loved by his people. Johnnie wasn’t the chief, but he was the accepted leader, at least in war or battle or reiving. The practice of reiving essentially meant plundering and stealing, particularly cattle, from neighbouring territories less well able to defend themselves. It was not confined to the Scots as the English indulged in their fair share over the centuries and ascension ebbed and flowed between the conflicting sides.
During the 16th Century, Johnnie Armstrong and his Scots followers, based on Gilnockie Tower in the Hollows, near Langholme, held dominance. Armstrong, also known as 'Black Jok', specialised in claiming ‘black rent’ (blackmail) from the folks who inhabited the Debateable Lands of the Borders. This contribution was paid to ensure that the inhabitants would be protected from the raids of the Reivers. Despite not being the Clan Chief, Johnnie appeared to be the undisputed ‘King of the Borders’, although he never personally made such claim. It was said that "....from the Scottis bordour to Newcastell of England, thair was not ane of quhatsoevir estate bot payed [blakmeale] to this John Armestrange ane tribut to be frae of his cumber ....and albeit that he was ane lous leivand man, .....he was als guid ane chieftane as evir was upon the borderis....".
It is also said that Armstrong’s successful and lucrative protection racket was confined to English territory. The ‘Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong’ exists to demonstrate that:
“England suld have found me meal and mault,
Gin I had lived this hundred yeir!
Sche suld have found me meal and mault,
And beif and mutton in all plentie;
But never a Scots wife could have said,
That e’er I skaithed her a pure flee.”
Sir Walter Scott seemed to think that distinction was not likely to have been attributed to him without some well known foundation in fact and that’s good enough for me. However, he certainly offended the neighbouring Lords and Earls who had influence with the young King James V. Maybe it was resentment or jealousy or spite, or the fact that the Armstrongs didn’t pay rent to the Lords of the Border Marches. On the other hand, the English King, Henry VIII, had exerted diplomatic pressure on James V to put an end to the lawlessness that permeated the Borders region. There was a truce of sorts in place between England and Scotland at that time and reiving flouted that peace. In a way, Armstrong was an embarrassment to the Scots King and perhaps, his fate was sealed the moment the King’s party rode out of Edinburgh, in late June 1530.
James V tricked Johnnie Armstrong into meeting him at Carlenrig (Caerlanrig) Chapel, about ten miles above Hawick, on the high road to Langholm. Nigel Tranter, in his novel ‘James by the grace of god’, has it that David Lindsay was sent to deliver the ‘invite’ to an ‘audience with the King’. There are no contemporary accounts of the arrangements, but considering Armstrong’s shrewdness, it is unlikely that he would have deliberately submitted himself and his men to the King's authority unless he had received assurances of safe conduct. Unlike the story in some versions of his ‘Ballad’, there was no fight in which he and his men were captured; they were despicably lured to their deaths.
According to the ‘Ballad’, Armstrong made a great show, dressed in his finery as would have befitted any court and accompanied by an entourage of about twenty-four Lairds and retainers, including Elliots, Littles and Irvines. Perhaps the confusion over the actual numbers hanged with Armstrong, twenty-four, thirty-six or fifty, stems whether or not the retainers were also hanged. Johnnie Armstrong sported a hat from which hung nine gold and silver tassels, and but for the sword of honour and a crown, he could have been King. When asked where he got the tassels, Johnnie replied, “I got them in the field fechtin’ as your Royal faither dared what thou durst nae dae, ilk’ ane frae a diff’rent Knight’s helm”.
When it became clear that his life was to be forfeit, Armstrong, who had begun by declaring himself a subject of James his liege, acted with dignity. He asked his brother, Thomas Armstrong of Mangerton, to remember him to his wife, but even more treachery was in store as the Earl of Angus declared they were all to be hanged. The most famous lines, oft quoted by Sir Walter Scott, were uttered by Armstrong, when the extent of the King’s duplicity was revealed:
“To seik hot water beneath cauld yce
Surely it is a great folie
I haif asked grace at a graceless face,
But there is none for my men and me.”
He is also reputed to have said, “Had I known, Sire, that you would take my life this day, I should have stayed away and kept the Border in spite of King Henry and you, both. For I know that Henry Tudor would be a blithe man this day to know that John Armstrong was condemned to die. Which proves who lacks in judgement, does it not?” Nevertheless, all was in vain as he and his men were led to the trees around Carlenrig and hanged from the back of their mounts.
Legend has it that the trees at Carlenrig, where Armstrong and his followers were hanged, withered and died, and none have grown there since. In 1897, a memorial tablet was installed by a wall at Carlenrig in Teviotdale and the gravesite is now owned and maintained by the Armstrong Clan Trust. Some years ago, a farmer working the field opposite Carlenrig Chapel overturned a large stone. An Archaeologist found a mass grave, which contained a large number of bodies, and it is generally accepted that it was the grave of Armstrong and his men.