Johnny Armstrong and The Missing Heir

Gilnockie Tower

Gilnockie Tower

The Armstrong Clan has been without a chief for over 450 years, the story behind this is one laced with intrigue, murder, piracy and even hidden treasure. The stuff movies are made from.
The story is set around Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie and the Border Reivers in the 16th Century. Johnnie Armstrong was the last Chief of Clan Armstrong. He was popular and powerful, as well as one of the most feared clan chiefs in the Scottish Borders.
The Armstrongs played an active and powerful role within The Border Reivers, a band of raiders along the Scottish-English border from the late 1400s to the beginning of the 1600s. the band consisted of a collection of border clan families from both sides of the borders. The hayday of the border Reivers was during the time of the infamous Johnny Armstrong. James V was on the throne, the Armstrongs held a very uneasy relationship with the Scottish Monarchy to say the least. This culminated in an incident which sent the Armstrong family into hiding, well those that were left after the army of James V wiped out nearly the entire Clan.

Johnny Armstrong had a great number of followers, this in itself would have threatened James V, Armstrong had also amassed great wealth and with wealth comes power. The source of his wealth has caused great speculation, he had disappeared for a number of years returning with many riches, enough to commission his brother to build Langholm Castle. Some say his wealth came from Reiving others say his fortune came from piracy, taken from the Spanish. Johnny was also believed to have been running a protection racket, or what was called back then ‘black rent’. He would threaten townships so they would pay protection money to him guaranteeing their safety against The Reivers. There is no evidence where his money came from – but it was well known that Johnnie Armstrong lived the life of a rich, positively flaunting his wealth, this again would have enraged James V.

Langholm Castle

Langholm Castle

Armstrong’s power and influence was considered an embarrassment to the Scottish monarchy, the very angst riddled 17 year old King James V became obsessed with this. James V was known throughout the land for his short temper. The Scottish king had already been under some pressure to put an end to the raids that were encroaching south-of-the-border by his English counterpart Henry VIII because they were threatening the peace between the two countries.

The day came when Johnny Armstrong receives a Royal notice from James V inviting him to meet with the royal hunting party at Carlinrigg Chapel. Johnnie rode north from Gilnockie Tower with his men to Carlinrigg dressed in their fine clothes which was to show their wealth and status, believing they would be well received by the king, they were all unarmed. But as they rode over through the valley of Mosspaul they were ambushed of the King’s army. The Army were said to have been 10,000 men strong, Johnny Armstrong and his men were imprisoned.

It became clear to Johnnie Armstrong that the king had no intention of holding talks, and knowing that his life was in danger he attempted to bribe the king, and even make reassurances that he never killed a fellow Scotsman. But these promises of wealth did nothing for the king and he ordered the execution of Armstrong and all of his men.
In a final act of defiance it is claimed that Armstrong said directly to James these words,
“I am but a fool to seek grace at a graceless face, but had I known you would have taken me this day, I would have lived in the Borders despite King Harry (Henry VIII) and you both.”

The Mass Grave of Armstrong & His Followers

The Mass Grave of Armstrong & His Followers

Johnnie Armstrong and his men (figures range between 24, 36, and 50+) were all taken out and hanged from the trees, and then buried in a mass, unmarked grave. It is believed that Armstrong only attended such a meeting with the King because he had given assurance that he and his men would be safe. In the king’s official statement he said the reason for the hanging was because Johnnie Armstrong attended their meeting better dressed than himself which was a public display of disrespect for his King.

History states that one of Johnny Armstrong’s sons managed to escape being captured at Mosspaul and fled to England where he settled under a different name. It was not uncommon for some of the border reivers to flee and change there names by either adopting something completely different such as Blackburn or Walker, but they have even been known to have simply just spelt their name backwards to avoid detection. So a blood line of the last Chief of the Armstrong’s exists.

Even though over the years a lot of the border families fought amongst each other, even to the point of death, whenever one of them was attacked by an outsider they would stand shoulder to shoulder, united. The death of the popular Johnny Armstrong by James V caused great indignation throughout the border clans. The King’s actions were considered underhand and unjust, especially since Armstrong and his men were unarmed, and the King’s popularity along the borders hit a low.

The grave of Johnnie Armstrong and his men remained undiscovered until around 30 years ago when a farmer working the field opposite Carlinrigg Chapel overturned a large stone. The stone was rectangular in shape and had unusual markings. The farmer contacted the Armstrong Association who were excited at the thought that he may have found discovered the final resting place of the infamous Johnnie Armstrong. A group of dowsers were brought in and positioned at different points of the field. They all set off, each of them finally came to a hot point at the same place -where the stone sat. Archaeologist arrived to survey the area and a mass grave was found at the point of the stone, which contained a large number of men, and it is generally accepted to be the grave of Armstrong and his men.

The border reivers finally came to an end around the time of the Union of the Crowns in 1603. James VI, the grandson of James V, forcefully put an end to the raids by splitting up the families and deporting them to Ulster, or conscripting them off to Holland, or just executing them.

Since the death of Johnny Armstrong there have been many stories as to what happened to his vast fortune. One rarely spoken story is that it is in fact buried at Langholm Castle, under a point where there is a risen part of the ground where a vault could easily be hidden. What secrets lie under it may go undiscovered but the tale of Johnny Armstrong will live forever.

Related Blog Posts to Johnny Armstrong


Johnnie Armstrong and the Border Reivers

Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie was once one of the most popular, powerful, and feared clan chiefs in the Scottish borders ...
Read More
Sark Churchyard-Burial Place of Kinmont Willie.

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 ...
Read More