THIS week there has been much nonsense aired about the boundary between the two larger countries of the island of Great Britain. If some Unionist politicians and pundits were more aware of the history surrounding the Border they would perhaps be more circumspect in their utterings – then again, given the intellectual capacity of most of them, a serious knowledge of history is beyond their grasp.

For instance, whatever Prime Minister Boris Johnson thinks, there has been a clear and defined Border between Scotland and England for at least 468 years, and the line between the Rivers Tweed and Solway was accepted as the Border for centuries before that. The Border was finalised when the Scots Dike was laid down in the area known as the Debatable Lands north of Carlisle in 1552. It has not changed since.

That very phrase the Debatable Lands is evidence of how both sides of the Border were the subject of long and often violent disputes between monarchs and local lords for centuries. The very fact that the Border was often a movable feast meant that the people on either side of the Border tended to owe their first allegiance to local lairds and clan chiefs rather than the monarchs of Scotland or England.

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And those very disputes meant that armed men were able to impose their might on specific areas and raid back and forth into northern England and southern Scotland.

For many decades a particular breed of people grew up around the Border, on both sides of it, who were renowned for the lawlessness they practised – the Borders Reivers, notorious bands of men, mainly on horses, who raided, plundered and stole goods and cattle.

I will cover the history of the Borders Reivers in greater detail in future Back In The Day columns in The National as their history is both fascinating and instructive, not least because the Borders and the people of that region played such an important part in Scottish history over the centuries.

Today, however, I want to concentrate on the story of perhaps the most famous reiver of them all, Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie, who has fair claim to be the Robin Hood of the Borders, only that Armstrong, unlike Hood, was a real person and, also unlike Hood, he got caught and was hanged, an event that took place on this date in 1530.

Depending on who you believe, Armstrong was either a genuine Robin Hood type who was generous to the poor, or the nastiest Scottish outlaw of them all, a robber and thief who made Rob Roy MacGregor look like a choirboy.

He may well have been both, for the bare facts of his life indicate that while he was a fierce and deadly reiver, he also cared for his extended family and the people who occupied the land around his base at Gilnockie.

It’s important to know that contrary to the legend, Johnnie Armstrong was not the last chief of the clan of that name, not least because the Armstrongs were a “broken” clan with various factions and no supreme leader. Yet by sheer dint of savage expertise, Johnnie became the leader of a large gang of Armstrongs and their associates and amassed spectacular wealth.

They were based at what is now Gilnockie Tower, just over a mile north on Canonbie in modern-day Dumfries and Galloway. From there Johnnie set up a lucrative business that we would now call a protection racket – landowners and farmers were forced to pay “blackmeale” (blackmail) or else Armstrong and his crew would raid their lands and remove their cattle. That’s one reason why he was called “Black Jock”.

It was written of him:

“...from the Scottis bordour to Newcastell of England, thair was not ane of quhatsoevir estate bot payed [blakmeale] to this John Armestrange ane tribut to be frae of his cumber ...and albeit that he was ane lous leivand man, ...he was als guid ane chieftane as evir was upon the borderis...”.

By the 1520s, the English and Scottish governments of the day had appointed Wardens of the Marches, whose job was to keep the peace around the Border. Armstrong carried on regardless, as he had the protection of nobility including the powerful Lord Maxwell in exchange, we can presume, for doing his lordship’s dirty work. The other Lords of the Marches were none too happy about Armstrong’s activities, especially when he raided and burned Netherby, now in Cumbria, in 1527, with March Warden Lord Dacre burning the Armstrong stronghold of Canonbie in retaliation.

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Armstrong was now an embarrassment to Scotland’s teenage king James V who was anxious to keep the peace with Henry VIII of England.

The church also detested Armstrong, with Archbishop Gavin Dunbar of Glasgow issuing his famous long curse against Armstrong and his fellow reivers:

“I curse thair wiffis, thair barnis, and thair servandis participand with thaim in thair deides. I wary [curse] thair cornys, thair catales, thair woll, thair scheip, thair horse, thair swyne, thair geise , thair hennys, and all thair quyk gude [livestock].”

The curse seems to have worked because in 1530, James V decided to stop Armstrong once and for all. He headed south from Edinburgh with a massive army and sent a letter to Armstrong to meet him at Caerlanrig Chapel.

The bold Johnnie turned up dressed to the nines with perhaps 30 or 40 of his men also attired in their best. James apparently took umbrage at their show of finery and condemned them all to death on the spot.

Armstrong reputedly said: “Had I known, Sire, that you would take my life this day, I should have stayed away and kept the Border in spite of King Henry and you, both.”

On July 5, 1530, Armstrong and his men were hanged from the trees around the chapel. Their mass grave was only found 30 years ago.

It was only the start of his legend, which was enunciated in a ballad that is popular on the folk scene and contains this verse:

John murdered was at Carlinrigg,

And all his gallant cumpanie;

But Scotland’s heart was near sae wae,

To see sae mony brave men die.