Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Armstrong, William (fl.1596)

ARMSTRONG, WILLIAM (fl. 1596), a famous border mosstrooper, was generally known as Kinmont Willie, from his castle of Morton Tower or Kinmont, afterwards called Sark, on the Sark water, in the parish of Canonbie, Dumfriesshire. He is said to have been a near relation of the equally famous John Armstrong, of Gilnockie, and in the 'Register of the Privy Council of Scotland' (iv. 796) he is mentioned as one of the principals of the clan Armstrong. The earliest notice of him is under date 22 Oct. 1569 as entering a pledge for himself and kin (ii. 44), and he again appears, 5 March, 1570, as making submission in respect of feuds between him and the Turnbulls (iii. 169). Will is said to have been of great size and strength — 'the starkest man in Teviotdale' — and he and his sons brought together as many as three hundred men, who were the dread of the English border. With his followers he accompanied the Earl of Angus to Stirling in 1585 to displace the Earl of Arran, when it is reported that, not satisfied with emptying the stables and pillaging the town, they tore off the iron gratings from the windows and carried them away. In 1587 his capture and that of Robert Maxwell, natural brother to Lord Maxwell, formed the object of a royal expedition to Dumfries; but the freebooters succeeded in escaping at Tarras Moss. The conjecture of Sir Walter Scott that Armstrong originally held some connection with the Maxwells, the hereditary enemies of the Scotts of Buccleugh, is fully corroborated by the 'Register of the Privy Council,' which shows that in 1569 Lord Maxwell was his surety (ii. 44), while in 1590 he is mentioned as his landlord (iv. 796). On 14 Aug. of the same year, in a proclamation for the peace of the borders, it is declared that lands debateable within the West Marches shall be 'sett heritablie or in long takkis or rentale' to certain persons; Willie Armstrong among the number (iv. 799). The effect of this arrangement was only temporary. Armstrong, by his continued depredations, so tantalised the English borderers, that his capture came to be regarded as of prime importance. Accordingly, while returning in 1596 from a warden court held by the English and Scotch deputy wardens, he was pursued by 200 English borderers, brought before the English warden, and by him imprisoned in Carlisle Castle. Scott of Buccleugh, the Scotch warden, demanded his release of Lord Scrope, on the ground that the capture was made during a truce, and, receiving no satisfactory reply, arrived on a dark tempestuous night with two hundred men before the castle, and, undermining a postern gate, carried him off unperceived by the guards. Notwithstanding the bloodless character of the daring exploit, it almost led to a rupture between the two kingdoms, and was the subject of a considerable amount of correspondence, which is given in the State Papers. On account of it Buccleugh had for a time to go into ward in England [see Scott, Walter, first Lord of Buccleugh]. The ultimate fate of Armstrong is not known. The only further notice of him is in the list of border clans in 1597 as, along with Krystie Armstrong and John Shynbank, leader of a band of Armstrongs called 'Sandie's Bairns.' The tombstone of a William Armstrong, discovered in an old churchyard at Sark, is stated by W. Scott, who gives an engraving of it in 'Border Exploits' (1832), p. 329, to be that of Kinmont Willie. The tombstone was presented to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, but, as is pointed out in their 'Proceedings' (new series, viii. 234), the Armstrong to whom it refers, having died in 1658 at the age of 56, must be a different person from this noted border mosstrooper. The rescue of Armstrong from Carlisle Castle is the subject of the ballad of 'Kinmont Willie,' first printed by Sir Walter Scott in his 'Scottish Minstrelsy,' who states that it was preserved by tradition, but has been much mangled by reciters. It is also included in Ayton's 'Ballads of Scotland.'

[Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border; Scot of Satchells, a true history of several honourable families of the name of Scot (1776); Scott, Border Exploits, p. 325-329; Spottiswoode, History of the Church of Scotland, iii. 1-5; Tytler's History of Scotland; Fraser, The Scotts of Buccleugh (1878), i. lxvi, 169, 180-202, 206, 209, 222; Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, ii. 44, iii. 169, iv. 796, 799, 804, 805, v. 290, 298-9, 300, 323-4, 361, 423, 761.]

T. F. H.