Border Reivers-Kinmont Willie Armstrong

William Armstrong of Kinmont, a Scottish Border Reiver, was notorious for his raids into England. He was captured by the English in March 1596 contrary to the Border Law.

Kinmont was well prized by the English who had no answer to his constant raids into northern England. His organised forays south of the English Scottish Border Line, coupled with his contempt for English authority and its hapless attempts to curtail his reiving, had made him enemy number one to the Lord Scropes. They were members of the English aristocracy who, father and son, were Wardens of the English West March from 1561 to 1603.

Kinmont raided Tarset in Tynedale, Northumberland on more than one occasion and was party, in these particularly vicious forays, to the murder of many men. One of these raids was carried out in daylight, unusual in itself as the reivers usually operated at night, and contained over a thousand men from the valleys of southern Scotland. They returned to the Scottish Border valleys with thousands of sheep and cattle and left homelessness and destitution in their wake.

Border Marches showing the Border Line

Border Marches showing the Border Line

The ‘Day of Truce’ at the Dayholme of Kershope.

In March 1596 a ‘Day of Truce’ was held near Kershopefoot on the Border of England and Scotland. It was a day purportedly to be held at monthly intervals in each of the East, Middle and West Marches of both countries; a day when felons were brought to the very Border Line to answer for their crimes in an open-air venue. Many men, both English and Scottish, were requested to attend the court and witness that the proceedings were both honourable and fair and upheld the principle and spirit of the Border Law. All who attended were granted safe conduct whilst the Truce lasted through the medium of the ‘Assurance of the Truce’. Such a measure was necessary as both the Scots and English invited to attend as witnesses might, outside the Truce, be at Feud or deadly enemies of each other, the result of previous reiving or family disagreement. Many a man viewed his neighbour of the day with suspicion, hatred or scorn.

Theft of cattle, sheep and ‘insight’, i.e. household and farming goods and tools, were the most common reasons for trial but murder, the result of constant feud and searing animosity against neighbour or enemy from across the Border Line, was ever present. Murder was the inevitable outcome of the hatred that hardened in men’s hearts. It mattered not a whit should such enmity concern a fellow countryman. The product of the Feud often encompassed many generations.

Kinmont Willie is Present at the Truce

Kinmont Willie was called by the Keeper of Liddesdale, Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch, to attend the ‘Day of Truce’ at the Dayholme of Kershope to represent the Scots. The trials of the Border Reivers on the day went without incident and both Deputy Wardens, presidents of the proceedings, were satisfied that justice had been achieved. Just before sunset both English and Scottish parties began to make their way home. The safe conduct or ‘Assurance’ of the Truce was enshrined in Border Law and lasted until sun-up of the following day. Thereby all who had attended were confident that they could make their way home unmolested by erstwhile enemies who, on this occassion, were required to honour the Law.

Kinmont Willie is Captured by the English.

As Kinmont Willie rode down the Scottish bank of the river Liddel, he was seen by a party of English making their way home on the opposite side of the river, down the English bank. They could not resist the temptation of seeing the greatest Reiver of the age tantalisingly within their grasp. Safe conduct and ‘Assurance’ thrown to the wind, they turned and rode hard across the river Liddel and chased Kinmont down. He was bound and taken to Carlisle castle where he was imprisoned.

War of Words leads to Deadlock

When Buccleuch, Keeper of Liddesdale, learned that Kinmont Willie was in prison as a result of being taken against the honour of the ‘Assurance of the Truce’, he was incandescent with rage. He took no time in writing to the English March Warden, Thomas Lord Scrope, demanding Kinmont’s immediate release. Scrope, like his father Henry before him as Warden, so coveted the neck of the much vaunted Reiver that he refused to succumb to Buccleuch’s forthright petitions. Rather he met the fury with measured indifference and cited more than one spurious reason why he would not comply. Even James Vl of Scotland and Elizabeth l became embroiled in the acrimonious affair.

Eventually tiring of the impasse, Buccleuch resolved to breach the defences of Carlisle castle and rescue Kinmont. He was heartened by the fact that he would have inside help from members of the English garrison of the castle who had tired of Thomas Lord Scrope’s dictatorial rule as well as aid from the premier English clan, the Grahams of Netherby and Mote.

Branxholme-the Nesby Tower-Home of Walter Scott

Branxholme-the Nesby Tower-Home of Walter Scott

A Small Rescue Party achieves its Aims

On 13th April 1596 the rescue party led by Buccleuch and consisting mainly of Armstrongs, moved south through English territory to Carlisle. It was a horrendous night of heavy rain and thick cloud. They were adeptly aided by members of the Grahams who had been at odds with the Scropes for years.

The rescue was achieved with an ease that defied logic. A postern gate was opened from the inside by one of the friends of the English Carletons, another family who had vowed to see the end of Thomas Lord Scrope. Having previously been told exactly where Kinmont was warded, the five of the rescue party who entered the castle lost little time in freeing the great Scottish Reiver. The remainder of the rescue band were outside the castle walls banging on drums, blowing trumpets at a strident pitch and making such a discordant noise that the English garrison, already sheltering under coverlets from the veritable downpour, refused to stir. They thought there was an army outside the walls.

Kinmont was soon across the river Eden and heading north sheltered by his comrades in arms. He was to lie low in the valley of the Ewes, north of Langholm.

The Aftermath

Elizabeth l was furious when she received the news of the rescue. How dare any Scot attack one of her premier Border fortresses when peace existed between the two countries? The diplomatic wrangle between various ambassadors and the two monarchs went on for over a year. Elizabeth demanded that Buccleuch be handed over to the English for punishment as he was the one who had orchestrated the affair. James Vl, reluctant to upset his countrymen who to a man applauded Buccleuch’s outrageous actions, refused to do so.

Tomb of Thomas Lord Scrope in the Village of Langar, Nottinghamshire

Tomb of Thomas Lord Scrope in the Village of Langar, Nottinghamshire

As was usual in the Borders of the times where a catalogue of crime superceded the event, the heat finally went out of the situation but not before the strained allegiance between England and Scotland was severely tested.

Kinmont Willie? He went on to reive for many another day and died in his bed about 1603.

Sark Churchyard-Burial Place of Kinmont Willie.

Sark Churchyard-Burial Place of Kinmont Willie.

Sark Churchyard-Burial Place of Kinmont Willie.

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