“The Armstrongs were the most feared and dangerous riding clan on the whole frontier. [...] In Johnnie Armstrong’s day they could put 3,000 men in the saddle and probably did more damage by foray than any other two families combined, both in England and Scotland.” So says George Macdonald Fraser in his history of Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers, The Steel Bonnets.
The Armstrongs once dominated Scotland’s West March, occupying the territories of Liddesdale, Eskdale, and Annandale for much of the middle ages. A powerful and imposing family, they effectively ran a protection racket in the north of England, and were a semi-permanent scourge on the city of Carlisle and its surrounding area. In 1596, William Armstrong, known as ‘Kinmont Willie’, was the subject of a famous rescue mission which saw contingents from several powerful Border families, led by Walter Scott ‘the Bold Buccleuch’, break Willie free from his imprisonment in Carlisle Castle. Another notable Armstrong reiver was Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie, a scurrilous bandit with few morals, whose endless raiding along the border won him the attention of the newly-ascended King James V. The diplomatic abilities of the Scottish nobility with their English counterparts were believed to be hampered by Johnnie’s misdeeds, and so following excommunication by the Archbishop of Glasgow, Johnnie was lured to the chapel at Caerlenrig (now Teviothead), with the promise of leniency should he submit to the King. Upon arrival, however, he and his entire retinue (bar one, legend has it) were put to death by hanging. Armstrongs and Borderers alike saw the act as a betrayal, and for generations afterward held a deep distrust and hatred for the Crown.
The Armstrong surname is reputed to have originally been bestowed by “an ancient (sic) king of Scotland” upon “Fairbairn, his armour-bearer” following an act of strength in battle. The strongholds of the Armstrong reivers included Gilnockie Tower, still in excellent condition, which was built by Johnnie Armstrong around 1520, ten years before his capture and execution.