Johnnie Armstrong

Johnny Armstrong of Gilnockie was youngest son of the Laird of Mangerton, the clan chief.

He was probably the most famous of all the Border reivers, dreaded on the English side of the Border, but dearly loved by his people, a highly respected and gifted chief.

Long before the days of Chicago, he had established a very successful and lucrative protection racket which extended into England as far south as the River Tyne. All within this region paid tribute to him for their own safety and protection.

In 1530 disorder was widespread. The king made determined efforts to establish the rule of law. From Edinburgh, escorted by a strong force, he set off to go hunting in Ettrick forest. On the way, several prominent outlaws were caught and sent back to Edinburgh where they were executed.

Eventually, the king encamped at Caerlanrig near Teviothead, and invited the principals of the reiving clans to meet him with promises that their lives would be spared if they were prepared to submit themselves to their king. 

Gilnockie, apparently, was among those invited. Considering his experience and astuteness,
he must have been quite sure of the assurances of his safety he received.                        

Confidently, Gilnockie set off from Langholm Castle accompanied by an entourage of about 50 men, included Elliots, Littles and Irvines.

They prepared well for the meeting equipping themselves in the very best attire and rode north.

Passing through the narrows of Moss Paul they were ambushed by detachment of the king's horsemen who escorted them to Caerlanrig.


At Caerlanrig, they were brought before James who, when he saw them so finely attired, expressed his anger that they should surpass the king in finery, and said;' What wants yon knave that a king should have'. 

In the confrontation that followed it soon became clear that the king had no intention of granting any pardon and he ordered that Gilnockie and his companions be taken away and hanged. 

Gilnockie did not plead for their lives but he did offer many inducements if their lives were spared as he was a powerful chief and could offer much.

However, it became clear that the king would not be swayed and proudly he said: 'I am but a fool to seek grace in a graceless face, but if I had known, sir, that you would have taken my life this day, I would have lived upon the Border in spite of King Harry (Henry VIII) and you both and would have don my best horse with gold to know that I was condemned to die this day. And so they were led away outside and he and all his men were hanged.

There is no official record in Scotland or in London of a trial, and it is quite clear that no trial took place.

The previous year, 1530, the people of Eskdale had received remission and there is no reason for believing that any further charges had been brought against Gilnockie. He and his followers were reprehensibly betrayed and were hanged without any pretext of a trial.

At Caerlanrig, beside the church and within a railed enclosure are the graves of Johnny Armstrong and his numerous followers, hanged without trial by the boy king James V in 1531.


'Ye lied, ye lied, now King,' he says
'Altho' a King and Prince ye be!
For I've luved naething in my life'
I weel dare say it, but honesty!'


Death of Gilnockie occurred in November 1531

The murder of Gilnockie and his men caused, first, disbelief and then rage, not only with the local clans but throughout much of the borders. Clans came out in open rebellion against James. Even the Border barons turned against him. 

This was an act of supreme treachery and recognised as such by so many.

Gilnockie was a shrewd and wily chief and a great survivor. While there are no contemporary account of the arrangements that may have been made, it is impossible to believe that he would have deliberately submitted himself, and his men, to the king's authority unless he had received irrefutable assurances from the king of safe conduct.

The fact that this act resulted in widespread revulsion and condemnation by so many, even  those close to the king, adds force to the theory that the Gilnockie party were lured  to their deaths by an amoral, treacherous king.

James V had had a disturbed childhood and was a sulky teenager. His bad judgments and injustice has earned him the contempt of many.

He died when only 30, it is said, of shame.

He left a week old daughter who became Mary, Queen of the Scots.




Read the version by the historian Pitscottie