Armstrong Family Tour
On Friday 17th August Mark met with Craig and Becci Speers and their family to trace the family roots of her Armstrong family.
They now reside in Southport and were keen to find out how their family ended up in that area.
Of course we know that the Armstrongs were a powerhouse in the days of the Border Reivers and dominated the landscape of the Borderlands where many a story and artifact exists.
The Armstrong Clan is a very active association with worldwide membership that strive to keep the family history alive that have aided in these attractions being accessible today.
In the present time the Armstrongs are spread out though out the world far and wide and have played an influential part of modern history, such as Neil Armstrong and many famous writers, journalists and scientists who all bare the Armstrong name.
Here are the sites we visited on our wee tour…..
Mangerton Tower is situated 1 mile south of Newcastleton.
The Laird of Mangerton is noted in history in the 1370s as Alexander Armstrong and Armstrongs have held the title deeds to this land until the 17th Century.
It was the home of the chief of the Armstrongs and was where many Armstrongs grew up before sons found their own home or other generations inhabited the tower. There is evidence of the tower being rebuilt and improved on many occasions.
The tower its self was built very defensively for not only humans but also to store sheep and cattle for protection against raiders. The tower its self sits in low lying ground with only a small look out post. This could signify arrogance in the belief that the tower is impenetrable, or the fact it was the feared Armstrongs that resided there and nobody in their right mind would think about taking them on.
A couple sad stories surround this tower in its later life.
In the 17th Century the ownership of the tower and land “passed” into the hands of the Scott Family (Duke of Beccleuch), the reason for this can be found in our video Pacification of the Borders (link)
Also during the building of the Carlisle to Edinburgh Railway in the 1850s the tower stood high even though in a ruinous state, where it was pulled down by the railway navies as a bedrock for the embankment on marshy land.
The Carlisle to Edinburgh line succumbed to the Beeching act in the 1960s where the line was pulled up.
What is left of the tower is now only a grassy bank with a few foundations, although what is left is still up kept by Clan Armstrong.
We then traveled as small distance along the road where the Milnholm Cross is situated.
This cross is one of the most important relics in Armstrong History.
This cross commemorates the murder of Alexander Armstrong the 2nd laird of Mangerton, at Hermitage Castle by a member of the infamous de Soulis family in the 1320s.
It is likely that Alexander is resting below the cross.
The cross is 8ft high with emblems of the Armstrongs and a sword that are a tad worn these days.
This is a well visited site on the reivers trail and a must for any Armstrong to pay homage to their ancestors.
A quaint moment happened on visiting the cross.
At the point of leaving the area a farmer driving his sheep along the road on his quad shouted over to us to stand at a certain place to aid in shooing the sheep into the field. Just normal country life to some.
After the sheep were safely in the field he came over to chat with us, in his best Borders tongue he asked “Are you Elliots?” “No, Armstrongs” replied the family to the sheer dismay of the farmer judging by his reaction.
It just shows the feeling of the Border Reiving Families still lives on in this day and age!
Sark Tower Graveyard
We then drove a longer distance from the Newcasleton area to Canonbie.
Sark Tower is noted on maps in the 1590s and is likely to be one of the homes of William Armstrong, otherwise known as Kinmont Willie.
Other names for the tower are Kinmont tower or Morton Tower.
Kinmont Willie is one of the most famous of Borders Reivers having been romanticised in Sir Walter Scotts writings and Border Ballards.
You can find out Marks video and take on the story of Kinmont Willie here (Link).
Nothing remains of the tower to this day and is likely been built on by the small farming village of Sark.
What does remain is an old graveyard that is very off the beaten track and its up keep is probably not up to the standard of a municipal graveyard (unless you live in Hawick). There is likely to have been a small chapel on this site at one stage too.
In this graveyard rests Kinmont Willie in an unmarked grave. Willie died of old age and was able to survive his many trials and tribulations his life gave him. A yew tree and a plague were erected in 2000 by Clan Armstrong.
The Worst Reiver Ever
On the way to Canonbie it would of been rude to not stop off and visit the stone statue of Lang Sandy Armstrong.
Lang Sandy was 6ft tall which was considered a giant in the 1600s
He stands in the modern small mining village of Rowanburn. Sandy and his family resided in Cleughfoot Tower which would of been a very remote place in its day and close to where Rowanburn is today.
He was known as the “Worst Reiver Ever”, not because he was bad at it, but because he carried out the most raids and gained the most bootleg, and to be honest he was an expert at his trade!
Eventually his trade caught up with Sandy where he was hanged in Edinburgh for the murder of Sir John Carmichael, who the Armstrongs had previous dealings with, usually in a form of law as Sir John was a warden in the Scottish West March. The family ambushed Sir John Carmichael which ultimately led to his death. It is unsure if Sandy took part in this, but at a later trial he admitted his involvement, be it truth or a way to protect the family. Subsequently he had his right hand chopped off and hanged at the merket cross in Edinburgh where his body was left to hang on chains.
The current statue is not the original statue, as the original was made from wood and suffered the elements. The stone statue was commissioned and put in it place. The wooden statue was moved to the clan Armstrong centre in Langholm which is believed to be closed so we are not sure (at the time of writing) where the wood statue is being kept at this moment.
It was noted that one of Craig and Becci’s sons had similar features to Sandy, maybe not the height yet but who knows??
It was now time for a spot of lunch where we stopped off at the Cross Keys Inn at Canonbie
A 1700s coaching Inn that sat on the old road to Edinburgh from Carlisle, it is one of Scotlands oldest Inns.
Soft drinks all round, and gourmet sandwiches and soup were consumed off their lunch menu. A game of pool was squeezed in by the young lads.
Great staff and fast service – Highly recommended!
Gilnockie Tower was home to Johnnie Armstrong – Another (in)famous Border Reiver
Johnnie Armstrong Story (Link)
This tower was build in 1520, possibly on top of an older Armstrong dwelling.
It is in the fashion of a peel tower specifically found throughout the Border Lands.
The tower its self signifies wealth for the occupant and would probable have been an outer defense with a sort of harbour access to the river.
The tower has been burnt, attacked and rebuilt on a couple occasions with additions of the parapet walkway and a façade of decorations.
The tower became ruinous with only the outer walls surviving, no floors or roof. Then in 1978 it was bought and restored as a modern day dwelling. The walls were repointed and plastered to make the building livable and electric & water were installed.
As of lately a new owner has bought the property and set about making the tower more authentic to the time it was build. Stripping plaster to reveal the brick work, correcting pointing, re-strengthening floors, wood work replacement and sourcing authentic furniture.
It is the new home of the Clan Armstrong Centre and just opened its doors in April. Many artifacts from old and modern Armstrongs are kept in the tower, along with information boards and a in-ear tour guide as you progress through the building.
On the day we visited we were lucky enough to be taken on a private tour by the project manager of the towers restoration. As well as being a historian he led us through some great and interesting talks of the Armstrongs and restoration of the tower. There has certainly been new life breathed into the building again with many more projects expected for people interested in border reivers and Armstrongs alike.
The tower is still throwing up surprises, on the day we visited, just that morning a new fascinating find was found in the grounds by the workmen who are carrying out work.
I will no divulge what it is yet until its officially announced by the tower.
Our last stop took 10-15 miles up the A7 from Canonbie to a small hamlet called Carlenrig not far south of Hawick.
Here is another tragic story that lives on in the Armstrong Family.
At this spot in 1530, Johnnie Armstrong and 32 of his men were hanged.
Again, I urge you to watch the full video by Mark on Johnnie Armstrong (Link)
As you can imagine, Johnnie was a powerful man. It is said that he was able to front 3000 men in field.
Because of this he was called upon by the King in raising an army, and played a big part in keeping the English out of Scotland.
Although the men he raised were not disciplined army regulars, they had the skills and fight in them to be very useful on the battlefield, they were of reiving stock.
This side of Johnnie was run as a business for him and his men. Who ever paid the right amount of money is usually who they worked for.
It is also said that reiving men didn’t have respect for commanders, follow orders and would sometimes swap sides depending on cross-border family ties or a battle was being lost. There is even talks of him serving in Europe and at seas as a pirate.
Johnnies main way of life was first and foremost a reiver, a way of life that was needed to survive in the Borderlands that had been stripped of it recourses and was on the front line of the Battles between England and Scotland. Of course this way was illegal even in those days.
Johnnie also worked for the crown as a tax collector, collecting rents and taxes but in his own way, and of course he ensured he skimmed those monies before he passed them on.
Because of Johnnies business interests he met some powerful people along the way and pulled in favours that pardoned him from his illegal ways of working.
On this particular occasion, diplomatic talks were being conducted between the 2 kingdoms, and Johnnies actions were severely hampering relations. Not only that Johnny was given a pardon from the Archbishop of Glasgow as well as Chancellor of Scotland.
This made the central powers seam weak to its opponents and King James V took control of the situation personally.
King James V summoned Johnnie and his men to meet. This was taken by Johnnie as a form that the King himself was granting Johnnie with safe passage.
Dressed up in all his finery, Johnnie procceded to the meeting point at Carlenrig. It soon became apparent the King and his men weren’t there for that reason and tried to capture Johnnie and his men. Johnnie ordered his men to fight, but they were soon over powered and slain, hanged and murdered.
As you can imagine, this didn’t flavour the Armstrongs and many Border men with allegiance to them.
The King summoned the Armstrongs to battle on the Scottish side against England at Solway Moss.
They turned up, formed up and waved goodbye to the King as battle commenced leaving the King short handed and in turn lost the battle.
The King died a few days later, writing in history as embarrassment. It was more likely suicide or some sexually transmitted disease as some sources suggest.
A memorial stone was erected in the kirkyard in the 1800s to commemorate Johnnie and his men.
In later years, when the farmer was ploughing the field next to the kirkyard he came across the marker stone to the bodies of Johnnie and his men. This was excavated and bones which could equate to the 33 men were found, confirming the whereabouts of the story.
The stone is now placed upright with a walk way leading up to it and information boards.
The land is also now consecrated.
We hope we gave the family a great insight into their family history and enjoyed discovering these preserved sites on the way.
The family also followed up some leads in Carlisle and Wigtown as to why their family arrived in Merseyside.
Do you fancy your own personal tour of the Borders with Mark as your guide?
Give us a shout on our contact page