Border Reivers-Christie’s Will Armstrong

In the times of the Border Reivers, mainly late 13th to the 17th centuries, many men had ‘to’ names, familiar names or nicknames. This evolved because men of the same clan or surname also bore the same Christian name and the use of ‘to’ names became a way of identifying individual characters. This practice often carried forward to the third generation as in Gibb’s Geordie’s Francis or Patie’s Geordie’s Johnnie.

This little story is about William Armstrong, son of Christie. He was a lineal descendant of Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie who was hanged without trial by the seventeen year old King of Scotland, James V in 1529/30. He lived in the reign of Charles 1, 1625 – 1649. He was known as Christie’s Will.

gilnockie tower

gilnockie tower

In the ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ written by Sir Walter Scott and published in 1802, one can find the ballad of ‘Christie’s Will’. Extracts from it will appear throughout this story.

Although by the reign of Charles 1 who was king of both Scotland and England, Border Reiving, the robbing and murder, the feud and blackmail, had been almost eradicated from the English/Scottish Border lands, old habits died hard in some areas and with some of the more recalcitrant inhabitants of Border society.

One such person, who held to the old ways, in a defiant, almost last stand against all authority, was Christie’s Will.

On one of his fierce-some raids he was eventually captured and imprisoned in the tollbooth in Jedburgh.

Whilst he languished and slowly festered and awaited the outcome of his capture, be it death or long sentence, a very distinguished person happened to visit. It was none other than the Earl of Traquair, Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, who, like most folks in the Border country, be they high or low born, had heard of Christie’s Will and his formidable prowess as a Border Reiver.

The Scottish BordersHe asked that he might see Will, and in deference to his exalted position, was granted a visit. Traquair was much taken by the Reiver’s droll humour especially when he explained why he was banged up in Jedburgh. Will told him that he had stolen the halters of two horses. The Lord was stupefied – surely such a theft did not justify a long confinement and the threat of the rope? Will explained that there might be other crimes to take in to account though evidence for them was somewhat circumstantial but pointed out that he had forgotten to say that the two halters each had a bonny horse in tow.

The Earl laughed loudly at Will’s sardonic turn of mind. He liked the man and, using his influence, had Will freed.

A little later a lawsuit involving the Earl was to be heard in the Court of Sessions. The Earl believed that the outcome would be decided on the casting vote of the judge and would go against him. There seemed to be no love lost between the Earl and the Lord of the Sessions appointed to deal with the case.

Accordingly he thought long and hard how he should deal with situation and eventually came to the conclusion that he must make sure that the judge should not preside at the Court of Sessions on the appointed day. But how was this to be achieved? He must not be implicated should the attempt to kidnap the judge go awry. He dare not ask any of his friends to take such a risk. A friend, he deliberated, could soon be an enemy should the clink of gold become a temptation.

Who then? The answer came slowly but the more he thought of it, the more he liked it. He would approach Christie’s Will with whom he had no obvious links. Moreover, Will owed him a favour for obtaining his release from Jedburgh and, true to the code of the Border Reivers, nothing would ever be said of any involvement with the Earl should Will be captured in the attempt.

Will, forever in the debt of Traquair, had no hesitation in offering his services and confidentiality. He was animated by the thought of taking another swipe at high authority.

Will began following the judge, who it might as well be stated now, was Alexander Gibson, the illustrious Lord Durie. He was made a lord of the session in 1621 and died in 1642.

He soon learned that the judge was wont to take the air whilst riding his horse on Leith Sands (Edinburgh). He was always unaccompanied and rode always on a Saturday afternoon if the weather was clement. Will noted carefully that the man was more often than not lost in some reverie and concluded that he took great pleasure in time away from the courts, officialdom and the decisions that determined a man’s destiny.

Will soon struck up a conversation with the judge who was delighted by the humour and lively discourse of his new-found friend; he was unaware that he rode peacefully along the sands with one of the last of the awesome Border Reivers.

After a few meetings, Will enticed the goodly Durie into a little frequented area known as the Frigate Whins, a sheltered and much secluded spot. There he dashed him from his horse and enveloped his unconscious body with a voluminous cloak and rode off with him over his saddle.

Following many a lonely path familiar only to the reiving fraternity, he arrived at the Tower of Graham, not far from Moffat (Scottish Borders), on the Water of Dryfe. There he deposited the luckless, terrified judge with the inmates of the Tower who had already agreed, for a price, to securely house a gentleman of wealth of whom they knew nothing.

On the same day as this daring abduction, the judge’s horse was found contentedly grazing on the grasses behind the beach. It was concluded that the creature had been startled, bucked and thrown its rider into the Firth of Forth.

In due course a successor was appointed to the office formerly held by Lord Durie. The appointment was made by the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland; none other than the Earl of Traquair!

In the Tower of Graham the judge was held in solitary confinement; even his food was pushed through a hole in the dungeon wall. He had no contact with the human race – left to dwell on his fate, alone, uncared for. The only voices he heard were when a shepherd called for his dog Batty or a female servant called up Maudge, the cat.

About three months later, the lawsuit was decided in favour of Lord Traquair, a forgone conclusion one might say, as the presiding judge, as we have already noted, was appointed by the Lord High Treasurer.

Will was asked to set the judge free. He did so at dead of night. He once more muffled the terrified President of the Court of Sessions and rode hard back to Leith Sands in total darkness and dropped the judge on the very spot where he had captured him.

Eventually, much to the pleasure of both family and friends who had gone into mourning at his loss, and the annoyance of his short-lived successor, he reclaimed his office and the honours that went with it.

He let it be known that he had been spirited away by witchcraft; all agreed. They lived in a superstitious age.

A few years later the good Lord Durie happened to be travelling through Annandale, down the Water of Dryfe. As he rode past the Tower of Graham, he was amazed to hear the call of a shepherd for a dog named Batty and the higher, more feminine tones which endeavoured to entice a cat named Maudge back to the Tower.

The story was soon out with the humiliating conclusion that it was not witchcraft that had taken the unfortunate Lord, but the hand of man. Many years afterwards it became known that an Earl of the realm in association with a nefarious Border Reiver were responsible.

Border Reiver Re-Enactment at Hawick,Scottish Borders. The March Warden stands between his Land-Seargents.

Border Reiver Re-Enactment at Hawick,Scottish Borders. The March Warden stands between his Land-Seargents.

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4 thoughts on “Border Reivers-Christie’s Will Armstrong

  1. Robin Bowles

    Hi, here I am in Australia, a direct descendant of Kinmont Willie Armstrong through my mother’s family (Kinmonts Armstrongs and Moirs). My gradfather was John Kinmont Moir a noted collector of literature, etc. (qv). Really enjoyed reading your article. I am a writer ( and am currently researching te whole family as a project that may become a ‘blockbuster’ saga one day!

    Love to hear any extra info you may have on Kinmont Willie and his descendants. I guess you are one as well?



  2. Muriel E Gisby

    My Gr grandfather was a William Hall from a Boarder Famil,y looking up the Boarder Rivers I see that the were a notorious clan on both sides of the boarder they have a crest and a tartan based on the Douglas tartan I was quite surprised when i found out this as i though they were froin North Yorkshire

  3. Sheldon Pasquino

    J. Alan Armstrong, Chairman, Clan Armstrong Trust to Dennis Armstrong, Administrator, Armstrong Genealogy History Center The principal purpose of the Trust apart from its place as the acknowledged Armstrong Clan Society in Scotland is to advance public education in the history and culture of the Scottish Border Area. Much has been written which is historically incorrect, some sheer fantasy, based on the writings of numerous Victorian writers to whom, many of the records now available to us were not then available.


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