Carlenrig is one of the most wild and poignant sites on the Border Reiver Trail. It was here that a notorious Armstrong fell foul of a teenage King - and a border legend was born. It was 1530 and James Vth of Scotland had decided to tame the unruly edges of his land. After imprisoning various chieftains - among them, Humes, Maxwells, Johnstones, Kerrs, Douglases and Scotts - he rode south to tackle the remaining families. Chief among his targets was Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie.
Johnnie was a reiver who ran a protection racket right across the borderline. He has a place in border history to match that of Robin Hood in England. From his tower in Canonbie, Johnnie became rich and powerful, and while Kings liked to have such men defending the edges of their land, when they got too strong, Kings got nervous. James invited Johnnie to a meeting. But when Johnnie reached the kirkyard at Carlenrig, the only welcome he found was a noose on a tree.
'The trees on which the Armstrongs deed. Wi' summer leaves were gay
But lang before the harvest tide. They wither'd a' away'
Johnnie pleaded for his and the lives of his 50 followers, among them Elliots, Littles and Irvings. He swore he never robbed in Scotland, but he was led to his death, 'a fool to ask for grace at a graceless face'.
Did you know?
The Scottish reiver Johnnie Armstrong met his death here and history records 'the englishe were glad’. As one writer says: 'So might America have received the news of the death of Al Capone'. Johnnie and his followers were hanged without trial and thrown into a pit, now marked by a stone. Centuries later a monument to this border chieftain was put up in the nearby kirkyard.
'Johnnie murd'red was at Carlinrigg And all his gallant companie
But Scotland's heart was ne'er sae wae To see sae mony brave men die'
But Johnnie was popular locally. Other reivers saw him as being 'as guid ane chietaine as evir was upon the borderis' and his death was seen as most unfair. So, more than a decade later, when the same King came to do battle with the English 30 miles south of here, the Scottish borderers who knew the land, refused to turn out to fight. Solway Moss was one of Scotland's greatest defeats. Their large army was defeated by just 1000 Englishmen. Some say Johnnie Armstrong had his revenge.
Other local clans
Down the valley from here is a place called Meikledale and this was home to the Chiefs of Clan Little. 'Little in name but not in spirit', they were another formidable reiving family. A branch of the Johnstones lived near Langholm and the Scotts of Buccleuch operated from nearby Branxholme Castle. Wicked Wat Scott of Harden was married three times; he was outlawed and often conveniently 'abroad', but he made the most of his job as Warden of the Scottish Middle March by capturing other reivers and claiming their land for the King, but keeping it for himself. Wat was eventually murdered in Edinburgh by a party of Kerrs, Humes and Pringles.
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