Johnnie Armstrong and the Border Reivers

Gilnockie Tower

Gilnockie Tower

Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie was once one of the most popular, powerful, and feared clan chiefs in the Scottish borders. However, after his execution in 1530 by order of James V, Clan Armstrong have been without a chief for over 450 years.

The Border Reivers were a band of raiders along the Scottish-English border from the late 1400s to the beginning of the 1600s, with their heyday arguably during the last 100 years of their existence. They consisted of families from both sides of the border, and one of the most significant and powerful of these border clans was the Armstrongs.

The Armstrongs had a rather uneasy relationship with the Scottish monarchy for a long time, and one of the most notable incidents between the two was the execution of Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie along with a number of his men.

Johnnie Armstrong was a popular character who had a lot of followers, and he was also a wealthy man, having amassed great wealth. There has been a lot of speculation as to how Armstrong gained such a fortune in which he was able to maintain his high style of living. It is said that after disappearing for a number of years he reappeared with immense wealth, which allowed him to pay his brother a commission to build Langholm Castle.

It is generally considered that a lot of his fortune came from reiving throughout the lands just south of the border, into England, though there is not a single complaint of reiving recorded. It has also been suggested that Armstrong’s wealth came from piracy.

Langholm Castle today

Langholm Castle today

Some say that Johnnie Armstrong specialised in black mail or black rent, and that there was no town of prominence between his home Gilnockie Tower and Newcastle, that did not pay protection money to him. This protection racket Johnnie had was there to act for security for each town so they would not be attacked by the Border Reivers.



Armstrong’s power and influence was considered an embarrassment to the Scottish monarchy, and this enraged the 17 year old King James V. 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.

Mosspaul - in the narrow defile on the A7 Johnnie and his followers were ambushed on their way to join the King

Mosspaul – in the narrow defile on the A7 Johnnie and his followers were ambushed on their way to join the King

James V decided that he would hold talks with Johnnie Armstrong, sending a letter to Armstrong inviting him to meet up 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, and hoping that they would be well recieved by the king, they were all unarmed. But they were greeted by an ambushed of the king’s accompanying army, which was said to have been 10,000 men strong, and the demonstration of wealth did nothing but infuriate the short tempered and education deprived young James V especially since he was said to not have been dressed as well.

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.”

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 unequivocal assurance that he 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 Johnnie Armstrong’s sons managed to escape the scene 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 Johnnie 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 mass grave of Johnnie Armstrongs and his followers was discovered

The mass grave of Johnnie Armstrongs and his followers was discovered

A memorial stone to Johnnie Armstrong

A memorial stone to Johnnie Armstrong

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 unusal 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.

There have been stories as to what happened to Johnnie Armstrong’s vast fortune. One of the most prominent stories 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.

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10 thoughts on “Johnnie Armstrong and the Border Reivers

  1. Charles Armstrong

    I am so very grateful to whomsoever for this peice of news.

    It has always bothered me thinking of what became of Johnny Armstrong.

    Also, The question as to how his wealth was accumulated is no longer such a speculatrion.

    With much appreciation for your research and the efforts put in to publishg this.

    Best Regards,


  2. Tom Moss

    Really enjoyed the article on Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie.

    There are a number of variations to this story. I think one of the most significant is that Johnnie had twenty-four followers who were, with the exception of one, hanged with him.That reiver was burned at the stake because he was recognised as a man who had previously burned to death a poor widow and her son during a vicious raid.

    Apparently, according to the chroniclers of the time, there was much rejoicing in England on the news of Johnnie’s death. He had been the bane of the English from Gilnockie to Newcastle with his blackmail and extortion.

    I think it is also significant to remember that Johnnie had held lands under a bond of manrent from Lord Maxwell since 1528 if I remember correctly.

    Maxwell and the other Border lords had been warded in Edinburgh by James V before his sojourn to the Border purportedly to hunt.

    Within a few days of Johnnie’s death these lands resorted to Maxwell.Co-incidence? I don’t think so!

    Johnnie was not the first to suffer on James V coming south to ‘daunton’ the Borders.

    Adam Scott, known as the King of Thieves was to die at James’ hands as was Cockburn of Henderland. Scott resided at Tushielaw Tower, the remains of which can still be seen; Henderland is in the vicinity of St.Mary’s Loch.

    According to folklore both these men were hanged over their own doorways but the reality is they were packed off to Edinburgh for execution.

    The story of Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie is filled with pathos and a feeling of treachery.

    James V was to get his come-uppance twelve years later in 1542 when his Scottish army would be defeated by an inferior English one at the Battle of Solway Moss. James died a few days later, some say as a result of the humiliation of the rout near Longtown, Cumbria. He left a daughter who was but a few days old. She would become Mary, Queen of Scots.

  3. Tom Moss

    If you would like to read the ballad about Armstrong of Gilnockie then have a look at the ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ by Sir Walter Scott.

    The ‘Minstrelsy’ was Scott’s first published work in about 1802.

    Many of the ballads are about the Scottish Borders.

    Scott spent the last years of the 18th century listening to the tales, folklore and anecdotes of the people of the Scottish Border valleys, hardly any of which were written down. There is no doubt that Scott ‘doctored’ all he heard but the ‘Ballads’ are great, full of image, pace and power. I think all Scots should be proud of this work. It brings to the mind the lives and loves of people now long forgotten.

    Another work to look for which tells the story of Gilnockie is by a Liddesdale man called Robert Bruce Armstrong. He set out to write the history of Liddesdale, Eskdale, Ewesdale, Wauchopedale and the Debateable Land in four parts. Unfortunately he never finished it but Part 1 is in print and takes the history up to 1530. The story of Gilnockie is well recorded in the book.

  4. Trish MacDonnell

    Hi, lovely article, many thanks for publishing it. My granny was an Armstrong and I grew up listening to the story of Johnnie.

  5. John Coster

    I am descended from General John Armstrong, a member of the American Revolutionary Army whose son, John, was also in the war and became ambassador to France. I still have some papers from them. The elder John emigrated from Ireland as a young man in the early 18th century and worked in Pennsylvania as a surveyor with George Washington on the frontier. He led a daring raid against the French and Indians which earned him considerable renown. Family tradition and some early articles I have found state that he was directly descended from Johnnie Armstrong. I know nothing of the gap between 1530 and John’s arrival in America, but it does seem that fighting the English was a well established family tradition.

    • Snowskeeper

      The problem with this statement being that this Johnnie Armstrong was fighting the Scottish, not the English. V_V;

      • Gloria Hamilton

        A Mike Armstrong replied to John Coster in 2014. I replied to him in regard to his grandfather, James, brother of General John. I haven’t been able to return and see if he replied. If he’s still out there, I’d still like to speak to him.

  6. Esther Armstrong

    However, after his execution in 1530 by order of James V, Clan Armstrong have been without a chief for over 450 years.
    The above statement is not true. The last Chief wss Archibald Armstrong, Died 1610. At the time of Jonnie’s death there were 4 chiefs. The main one being Thomas Armstrong at Mangerton Castle.

  7. fiona gibson

    Thanks for all the information. I am gathering info for my mum (Margaret)whose Mother (Annie) was an Armstrong. My Mum grew up in the Borders and told us stories of her famous Reiver forebear Johnny Armstrong whose castle still stands (well, only sort of from the picture you provided)at Gilnockie. Thanks again, Fiona


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