Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Armstrong, John (d.1528)

For works with similar titles, see John Armstrong.

ARMSTRONG, JOHN, or JOHNIE, of Gilnockie (d. 1528), a famous freebooter of the border-country, lived at the Hollows, a stronghold near Langholm, whence he was accustomed to ride abroad with twenty-four able gentlemen well horsed. He never molested any Scot, but from the borders to Newcastle he was a name of terror. On 28 March 1528 James V held a parliament at Edinburgh in which he consulted with his lords and barons as to what measures should be taken to 'stanch all theft and reving within his realm;' and proclamation was made that all lords, barons, andgentlemen should appear at Edinburgh, with a month's victual, to accompany the king on an expedition against the freebooters of Teviotdale, Annandale, and Liddisdale. Hoping to gain favour by submission,Armstrong, with thirty-six followers, came into the king's presence. But the king 'bade take the tyrant out of his sight,' saying, 'What wants this knave that a king should have?' Armstrong offered to maintain himself and forty followers always ready at the king's service, without doing injury to any Scot, and undertook to bring any English subject, duke, earl, or baron, before the king within a fixed number of days. Seeing that his offers were vain, he exclaimed proudly, 'It is folly to seek grace at a graceless face. But had I known this, I should have lived in the borders in despite of King Harry and you both; for I know that Harry would downweigh my best horse with gold to know that I were condemned to die this day.' Then he and his followers were hanged on trees at Carlanrigg Chapel, on the high road to Langholm. Such is the account given in Pitscottie's 'History of Scotland,' p. 145. According to the old Scotch ballad, the king wrote to Armstrong 'to cum and speik with him speidily;' whereupon the Eliots and Armstrongs gathered a 'gallant company'and rode out to bring the king on his way to Gilnockie. At their approach the king turned fiercely on Armstrong—

Away, away, thou traytor strang,
Out of my sicht thou mayst sune be.
I grantit never a traytor's lyfe,
And now I'll not begin with thee.

He makes large promises to the king, but all to no purpose; and so

John murdred was at Calinrigg,
And all his galant companie;
But Scotland's heart was never sae wae
To see so many brave men die.
Because they saved their country deir
Frae Englishmen; nane were sae bauld,
Quhyle Johnie lived on the border-syde
Nane of them durst cum neir his hald.

Buchanan represents Armstrong to have been dreaded alike by Scots and English, and says that, being enticed to seek the king, he rode out with fifty unarmed knights, fell into an ambush, and was brought a prisoner before the king. Bishop Leslie adds that his brother, George Armstrong, saved his life by turning informer.

Armstrong is also the hero of an English ballad and chap-book. These make him to have lived at Giltnock Hall, in Westmoreland, where he entertained eight score followers. After the battle of Bannockburn the king summoned him to Edinburgh under the pretence of conferring honour upon him. Coming, bravely attended, into the king's presence, he was denounced as a traitor. A desperate fight ensued, in which the streets of the city ran with blood; but at length Armstrong and his men were slain by the king's guards, a page alone escaping to take the news to the widow. The chap-book prefaces the narrative by an account of Armstrong's youthful adventures in the Holy Land.

The Scotch ballad was first published by Allan Ramsay in his 'Evergreen,' who says he took it down from the mouth of a gentleman called Armstrong, of the sixth generation from John. It bears every mark of a high antiquity. The English ballad, which no doubt belongs to the middle of the seventeenth century, is preserved among the 'Bagford' and 'Roxburghe Ballads,' and has been published by Ritson and others. There are several editions of the chap-book, which seems to have been composed early in the last century.

[Ritson's Scottish Songs and Ballads; Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border; Ritson's Select Collection of English Songs; The History of Johnny Armstrong of Westmoreland, n. d. (chap-book); Burton's History of Scotland, iii. 144-6, second edition.]

A. H. B.