The Armstrongs are a ‘heidless clan’. The last chief, a Laird of Mangerton was hanged in 1611, yet they have populated the world and their spirit lives on. ‘I Remain Unvanquished’ is their hopeful motto. Legend has it the Armstrongs got the name after a man rescued a fallen king in battle and raised him back onto his horse. The Armstrong crest features an arm grasping a leg in armour. From the 13th century, Armstrongs settled in the Borderlands between England and Scotland, becoming the most feared family on the divide.
The Armstrong were known as ‘reivers’. These riders and raiders survived by stealing. Blackmail was a stock in trade, with fighting instilled from birth. When a child was christened, his right hand was left out of the ceremony, so he might grow up to ‘strike unhallowed blows’ on his enemies. One of the most famous Armstrongs include the legendary Johnnie of Gilnockie. Scottish rulers liked to have reivers like him on the edges of their kingdom; they served as a line of defence against the English. But when men got too powerful, kings got worried. The boy king James V perceived the power of the Armstrongs as a threat. He tricked Johnnie into meeting him at Hawick in 1530 where he and 36 of his men were executed. His story was immortalised by Walter Scott in a ballad.
Famous latter day Armstrongs include Victorian industrialist Lord William Armstrong, Edwin Armstrong who invented FM radio, celebrated jazz musician Louis Armstrong and perhaps most famously NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 became the first man to walk on the surface of the Moon.
Armstrong sites to visit
A stunning example of a Scottish pele tower, Gilnockie Tower was built some 500 years ago as the home of Johnnie Armstrong, a notorious border reiver. He was the powerful chieftain hanged by the Scottish kind in 1530 and commemorated by the great writer Walter Scott. Once a roofless ruin, the tower has been completely refurbished, and is now a fascinating visitor centre, housing the Clan Armstrong Centre, which features reiving artefacts and the world’s largest collection of Armstrong archives.
Glenockie Tower’s website contains a map of the 50 miles long ‘Reiver Trail’ - a must for Armstrong clansmen in search of their roots. This route through Eskdale and Liddesdale goes through stunning Borderland countryside.
The museum located in the old Townfoot Kirk recounts the story of the history of Liddesdale from the Reivers in which Armstrongs promimently featured to the advent of the railway. It includes displays on the weaving, farming and forestry which have been so crucial to the area through the generations, and also offers family research information.
Mighty Hermitage Castle near Newcastleton in Roxburghshire is a vast and haunted ruin known as the ‘guardhouse to the bloodiest valley in Scotland.’ It is said to have been built in 1240 by the Norman knight Nicholas De Soulis, to control the ‘troublesome Armstrongs’. In the nearby town of Newcastleton is the MIlnholm Cross, erected around 1300. This is said to be the oldest monument to Clan Armstrong, and commemorates clan chief Alexander Armstrong, who died at the hands of William De Soulis. Also nearby is Ettleton Kirkyard are ancient Armstrong headstones.
The town of Langholm in Dumfries & Galloway is the traditional seat of Clan Armstrong. The town’s now ruined Peel Tower was once the home of the Armstrong Clan. Langholm is a textile centre with narrow twisting streets to explore. The moon played an important part in the clan’s cattle raiding plans, since the phrase 'there will be moonlight again' was the signal for the next raid. This is a wonderful lunar link here, in that following the 1969 NASA moon landing, astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was invited to become the town’s one and only Freeman. To the delight of the townspeople, he accepted and visited the town in 1972 to accept the honour.
Just a few miles south of Hawick is Teviothead. Johnnie Armstrong, the youngest son of the Laird of Mangerton provided safety and protection to the people on both sides of the border between Scotland and England in the 1520s. All paid tribute to him and the Armstrongs became a very wealthy and respected family. The site of Johnnie Armstrong's grave is at Caerlanrig, a short distance from Teviothead. The grave site is now looked after by the Armstrong Clan Trust.