The first Johnstone known to the historic record was Gilbert, son of John, who received use of a small parcel of land in southern Annandale from William Bruce, Lord of Annandale, between 1195 and 1214. Gilbert was soon knighted, and witnessed various charters as ‘Sir Gilbert de Joneston’. In 1296, Sir John Johnstone was a signatory of the Ragman Rolls, the infamous pledges of fealty made by Scottish nobles to the English king, Edward I, known as ‘Longshanks’. Later Johnstone lairds fought the English at the Battle of Solway in 1378, and the Battle of Otterbourne in 1388. In the 16th and early-17th centuries, Lairds of Johnstone served as Wardens of the West March.

One of the most powerful, notorious, and feared reiving families of Border fame, the Johnstones dominated the Scottish West March from their seat in Annandale for over six-hundred years. Reputedly, the Johnstones rarely (if ever) raided their neighbours’ lands, choosing instead to focus their reiving pursuits on lands south of the border. They did, however, hold feuds with two other prominent Scottish reiving families: namely, the Maxwells and the Moffats. The Maxwell feud culminated in the death of the Maxwell chief, at the Battle of Dryfe Sands, in 1593. (Though, tensions continued to run high, and in 1608 a cold-revenge was taken by the Maxwells, who had the Johnstone chief executed. In response, the then Lord Maxwell was captured and hanged.) The Johnstones’ feud with the Moffats was defined by similar bloodiness. In 1557, it climaxed with murder of the Moffat chief, Robert Moffat. The Johnstones then went on to burn the local church with the most important members of the Moffat family inside, slaughtering anyone who tried to escape. Clan Moffat was almost wiped out, and seventy years later all of their lands were passed to the Johnstones as a means of clearing debts.

A monument at the Devil’s Beef Tub, a vast, sinister-looking hollow near the source of the Annan River, in the heart of Johnstone territory, records that the Johnstones formerly used the place “to hide cattle stolen in predatory raids.” Sir Walter Scott, in his Waverley novel The Fair Maid of Perth (or St. Valentine’s Day) (1828), offers a wonderful picture of Johnstone reivers:

‘I guess him, by his trotting hobbler, his rusty head-piece with the cock’s feather, and long two-handed sword, to be the follower of some of the southland lords [i.e. Johnstones] — men who live so near the Southron that the black jack is never off their backs, and who are as free of their blows as they are light of their fingers.’

The Johnstone Clan’s primary stronghold was that of Lochwood Tower (also known as Lochwood Castle), a strong L-shaped motte-and-bailey castle, of which little more than the vaulted basement now remains. It was in 1593 burned by the Maxwells, part of the feud between the two families. The Johnstone Clan’s heraldic symbol is a winged spur, and their motto is Nunquam non paratus (‘Never not ready’).