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Issue 89 - The Clans Armstrong & Elliot

Scotland Magazine Issue 89
October 2016


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The Clans Armstrong & Elliot

Life was hard for the Border clans. James Irvine Robertson tells us more

For centuries, Liddesdale in southwest Scotland may have been the most dangerous place to live in Europe. Today this seems preposterous; a visitor sees a tranquil undulating valley with lots of sheep, little human habitation and one particularly grim stronghold: Hermitage Castle. But at one time this 20-mile stretch had the Armstrongs at its head, the Elliots further down and, still lower, their associated families of Crozier and Nixon. A map of 1654 shows an impressive 154 fortified peel towers and houses, a sure sign that a strong defence was a necessity. The cause of the perils of living in this area could be found to the southeast, just across Bell’s burn. For there lies England.

It was started by Edward I. When he rolled his armies over the border at the end of the 13th Century, he broke a long peace and created a frontier between England and Scotland that would be at war for three centuries. On either side of the national boundary, 12 generations lived under the shadow of conflict and it bred a lawless way of life that was uniquely terrible. In order to survive, the people of this land had to embrace violence, cunning, ruthlessness, cruelty and treachery. And along the 96-mile frontier, nowhere bred tougher people or was more perilous than Liddesdale. Usually the men of Liddesdale fought together. The Armstrongs were the most numerous and could sometimes field 3,000 followers, although numbers were more often no more than two dozen. These people were light cavalry, armed with lances and protected by steel bonnets. During the riding season in autumn and early winter they could range across the whole of northern England. These men knew their country – every wrinkle in the hills that could hide a herd of stolen cattle, every tortuous path through the innumerable bogs. It was never a straightforward Scotland versus England. The people of Liddesdale married across the frontier by choosing spouses from other riding clans whom they met at markets or at the truce days.

Loyalty was to those with whom you rode, then to the clan, then to Liddlesdale, and, finally, to Scotland. Certainly the Elliot chief Robert was killed at Flodden in 1513, but the men of Liddesdale followed the shattered Scots army north after the battle of Solway Moss in 1542, picking off stragglers and plundering what had not been already lost. The Elliots received a subsidy from Elizabeth I to prosecute a feud against the Scotts, and the Armstrongs were also frequently in the pay of England. But, save in the case of feud, it was frowned upon to fight too vigorously against one’s fellow Borderers when part of an enemy’s force. Often, magnates leading armies against each other for the very best reasons found their Border contingents smartly changing sides if the outcome seemed more propitious for their opponents.

In 1531, when he felt that the Borders were becoming even more fractious than usual, James V took 10,000 soldiers south to sort things out. Johnnie Armstrong, son of the chief and the most successful reiver of his time, collected 36 of his followers – including some Elliots – who put on their best clothes and jingled their way to meet with the king, under safe conduct, to ask for pardons for past misdeeds. The king expected humble supplicants for his favour and did not approve of their arms, their arrogant postures and lack of humility. So he hanged them without trial. It was little wonder Borderers showed scant respect for lawful authority. Later in the century the most influential of the Liddesdale leaders was Martin Elliot of Braidley.

The Armstrongs had feuds with the Johnstones, Bells, Robsons, Ridleys, Turnbulls and Taylors. Similarly, the Elliots had hostile relations with the Dodds, Pringles, Fenwicks, Robsons, Ogles and, most bitterly, with the Scotts. These names were on both sides of the border and it took killings, rather than a simple raid, to begin a feud.

In 1596, Kinmont Willie Armstrong was arrested by Lord Scrope, English warden of the Western March. This annoyed his counterpart, Walter Scott of Buccleuch, as it was a truce day. He complained, but the authorities took no notice – so he organised a breakout. Normally a raid would be marked by beacons on hilltops, or white sheets spread over bushes, but Scott negotiated a free passage through the reiving clans of northern England. His 30 men broke into Carlisle Castle and spirited Kinmont Willie home, leaving the English authorities powerless to retaliate.

Visitor Information
Hermitage Castle
Newcastleton, Hawick, TD9 0LU

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