WILLIAM ARMSTRONG OF KINMONT
Notorious Border Reiver
No-one is sure when Kinmont Willie, as he is affectionately known to this day throughout the Scottish Borders, was born. Nor is it known when he died. It is assumed, with justification, given the dates of his crimes, that he was in his middle fifties when rescued from Carlisle castle in 1596. This would put his birth date about the year 1540. He was still alive at the turn of the seventeenth century, last heard of about 1603.
In fact, he was still raiding in that year and running a protection racket in Scaleby, north-east Cumbria.
He lived in the tower of Morton Rigg, the scant remains of which lie near the Tower of Sark farm buildings of today.
Will was a notorious Border Reiver. Even in his own day the folk of the Border held him in awe because of his boldness, his courage and his enterprise. He raided the lands of northern England and even parts of southern Scotland with regular monotony. There were many who suffered at his hands; many who lived in the fear that they would be next.
Down the years his formidable reputation has become enhanced to the point where, today, he is seen as a larger than life character. Not only was he, according to his reputation, invested with intelligence, guile and an inherent ability to plan his raids down to the last detail, but he had the physical attributes to equal the impressive brain.
Today, Kinmont cannot be thought of without visualising the indomitable set of the face, the keen and alert eyes. The greying and thinning hair only added to the fierce look whilst the cat-like grace, extraordinary height and long limbs invested with whip-cord muscle resulted in the awesome strength for which he was renowned.
Perhaps it is the stuff of myth, enhanced by time and the frequent telling of his exploits throughout the Scottish Borders down the generations.
Will of Kinmont was a notorious member of the clan Armstrong, renowned for their Border Reiving. They lived predominantly, in the southern half of Liddesdale; land which now encompasses present day Newcastleton, known in earlier times, and even today, as Copshaw or Copshawholme.
There were two main graynes (branches) of the Armstrong clan living in southern Liddesdale in Kinmont Will's days: those of Whithaugh and Mangerton. Will belonged to the Mangerton Armstrongs.
The remains of Mangerton Tower are still to be seen next to the bed of the now sadly defunct Waverley railway line just south of Newcastleton, east of Ettleton cemetery. It is sad that the railway has gone; sadder still that some of the stone from this substantial tower were used to form the bed of the railway. Unfortunately there is little to see of Whithaugh Tower either, as it would have been in the reiving days. Now a decaying early nineteenth century mansion envelops its vault. But at least the vault is there.
During the early part of the sixteenth century the power of the Armstrong clan was at its height. It is said they could raise three thousand mounted horsemen, highly skilled with the lance and sword, renowned for their aggression and fierce war-like qualities. They held awesome sway in the Borderlands, and were, indeed, renowned and respected for their cavalry skills, not only by both Scots and English alike, but also by the armies of mainland Europe.
But their power, and the manner in which they used it, became a constant source of embarrassment to a Scottish King, James V, who pursued a policy of friendly relations with his bigger, more powerful neighbour, England, and his counterpart; his uncle, Henry V111.
The Armstrongs were renowned for their forays into England, especially into the valleys of the Tyne and Rede. At the same time they were often at feud with many of the Scottish clans in the Scottish Marches.
...the indomitable set of the face, the keen and alert eyes. The greying and thinning hair only added to the fierce look whilst the cat-like grace, extraordinary height and long limbs invested with whip-cord muscle resulted in the awesome strength for which he was renowned.
In the middle to late 1520's the Scottish Borders were subject to six raids sanctioned by James V to curb the power of his Scottish Borderers. The main thrust was always aimed at Liddesdale and the Armstrongs and Elliots, all most notorious BorderReivers. The raids had a devastating effect; men were hung without trial, whole communities burned to the ground; women and children left to starve; left without breadwinners.
If the purpose of these royal raids was to break the power of the Liddesdale clans then they were a momentous failure. The strength and spirit of the Armstrongs was unbroken. Indeed, it was during this period when James V aimed to teach his Borders a lesson in who ruled in the land of Scotland, that Sim Armstrong, the Laird of Whithaugh, openly stated that there would be no peace in Scotland until it was ruled by an English king; that there was no respect for James V. It was also about the same time that the Archbishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar, in 1525, excommunicated the Border Reivers with his famous Monition of Cursing. The curse was on the Scottish reivers, especially those of Liddesdale.
In 1530 James decided that he would personally lead an expedition into the Borders to subdue the clans.
After warding the principal lairds of the Border clans in Edinburgh to ensure that they could not intervene, he descended to "daunton" the subjects of his southern lands.
In Johnny Armstrong of Gilnockie he saw the biggest threat to his control of the Border. By subterfuge or a ‘loving letter’ or some other means, James enticed Armstrong to Carlenrigg, south of Hawick, where he hanged him and his followers without trial.
It is often said that as a result of this base, despicable act, the power of the Armstrongs was irretrievably broken, but subsequent events would seem to refute this. They still had a considerable presence and power in the Borders.
Kinmont Will, only one generation removed from the events of the 1520's and 30's, would be brought up with knowledge passed on from his father and his father's friends and relations, of the atrocities committed by the Scottish king. He would be weaned and nurtured in hatred of the Scottish monarchy.
By the time he was a young boy he would learn to hate the English with equal ferocity; now with a keener, more subjective edge, as he would actually witness the devastation, death, and destitution that was the legacy of the English punitive raids of the 1540's.
As a young man he would see the whole thing repeated, as again in the 1570's, the English laid waste to the lands of the Border.
Little wonder, that as he grew and matured, he had allegiance to only one cause; that of his family; that of the Armstrongs.
Little wonder that he eventually became a thorn in the side of English authority. His Border Reiver raids into England were numerous, focused, well planned, and hardly ever subject to a reprisal that achieved any meaningful result against him. He had all the angles covered.
It is not known how or when Kinmont Will died. He was alive in 1603, two years after his last known Border Reiving raid on High and Low Hesket, a few miles south of Carlisle. Henry Lord Scrope, West March Warden of England for over thirty years, from 1561 to 1592, was at a loss to bring him to justice.
Kinmont was always ahead of the game.
Thomas Scrope, Henry's son, as shall be seen, would fare no better.