The Legends and traditions of this powerful Borders
family hold that the first of the name was Siward Beorn ( 'sword warrior'), also known as Siward
Digry ( 'sword strong arm' ), who was the last Anglo-Danish Earl of Northumberland and a nephew of King Canute, the
danish King of England who reigned until 1035. The family is said to have been related by marriage both to Duncan, King
of Scots and William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England. The name was common over the whole of Northumbria
and the Borders, and the Armstrong's became a powerful and warlike border clan in Liddesdale
and the debateable borderland.
The Armstrong's are a significant border clan whose origins lie in Cumberland,
south of the frontier between Scotland and England that was officially established in 1237. The Armstrong
name has a mythological origin, in that it is said their heroic progenitor, Fairbairn, saves his King of Scotland
in battle, and not from a wild beast as is the case with another Border clan - the Turnbulls. It is said, dressed in
full armour, he lifted the King onto his own horse with one arm after the King's horse had been killed under him in battle.
The family crest records this act of heroism that was to be rewarded with a grant of lands in the Borders and the famous Armstrong
The first specific reference locating them in Liddesdale, that would become their family seat,
as in 1376. It was also the seat of their unquestioned power in the region that allowed them to expand into Annadale
and Eskdale to accommodate their growing population. it is reputed that, by 1528, they were able to put 3000 horseman
in the field.
The Armstrong's relationship with subsequent Scottish Kings was turbulent to
say the least. The most notorious event in this uneasy relationship occured in 1530. John Armstrong, known in
history as 'Gilnockie', was persuaded to attend a meeting at Carlingrigg with King James V who, unknown to Gilnockie, had
the malicious intent to silence the rebellious Borderers. The ruse succeeded as Gilnockie and fifty followers were captured.
The Royal order to hang them was issued and despite several pleas for the King to lenient in exchange for obedience, it was
carried out. defiant to the last, Gilnockie said these words directly to King James V:
" 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 and you both."
His defiance is commemorated and echoed in the soulful popular Border ballad, "Johnnie Armstrong":
" Farewell ! my bonny Gilnock Hall
Where on Esk thou standest stout !
If I had lived but seven yeirs mair
I wad a gilt thee round about
John Murdured was at Carlinrigg
And all his gallant companie;
But Scotland's heart was ne'er sae wae
To see sae mony brave men die."
The union of the Crowns in 1603 brought an official end to the Anglo-Scottish border wars and
the last of the Armstrong lairds was hanged in Edinburgh in 1610 for leading a reiving raid on Penrith. A ruthless campaign
followed as the crown attempted to pacify the borders. The families were scattered and many sought new homes in Ulster,
particularly in Fermanagh. Armstrong is now among the fifty most common Ulster surnames.
The clan's authority resided intact at Mangerton in Liddesdale, a succession of Armstrongs
retaining the ' Laird of Mangerton ' title, until 1610 when Archibald Armstrong was ' put to the
horn ' as a rebel. After this, the Armstrong lands passed into the hands of the Scotts. There
has been no trace of the Armstrong chiefs since the dispersal of the clan in the seventeenth century, but
a powerful and active clan association is in existence and the Clan Armstrong Trust was estabilshed
(Source: David Armstrong)
Return to Page - Clan Armstrong