William Armstrong of Kinmont, immortalised by Sir Walter Scott in his ‘Ballad of Kinmont Willie’, was the most notorious Scottish Border Reiver of the 16th century.
He raided the lands of English Tynedale in Northumberland on many an occasion, one time stealing over two thousand cattle and sheep, in another leaving many men dead.
He was a thorn in the side of the English West March Wardens, the men set in place by royal appointment to defend the English Borders against the relentless incursions of the Scottish Border Reivers.
Kinmont’s raids into England were organised and always one step ahead of English authority. He was loathed by the English, adored by the Scots and renowned by both for his fierceness and martial prowess.
The English under the guidance of Henry Lord Scrope of Bolton, West March Warden for over thirty years to the early 1590’s, endeavoured by every legal means to secure Kinmont’s capture with no success.
By 1596 the son of Henry Lord Scrope, Thomas, was English West March Warden. He was a young man of twenty six and embraced his new position with relish, determined to succeed where his father had failed.
Capture and release
In March 1596 Kinmont Willie Armstrong was illegally captured following a ‘Day of Truce’ and confined in the castle of Carlisle. His capture broke the principle of Border Law that granted safe conduct to all men called as witnesses to the trials of the criminals apprehended and brought to the ‘Truce’ for sentencing.
The young Thomas Lord Scrope rebuffed all the legal efforts by the Scots to set Kinmont free. Even the two monarchs of England and Scotland became involved.
The tortuous diplomacy achieved nothing and Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, Keeper of Liddesdale resolved to attack Carlisle castle and free Kinmont.
This he achieved with ease, aided and abetted by English Lords who had little time for Thomas Lord Scrope. Both they and Buccleuch committed treason in the rescue but were never brought to trial.
Thomas Lord Scrope, ridiculed and embarrassed by the ease of the rescue, went on to become a Knight of the Garter in 1599.
Kinmont Willie carried on his reiving and all was as normal in the tumultuous times of the Border Reivers.
Kinmont disappears from history about 1603 and is thought to have died in his bed, a wonderful end for a man who was the scourge of the English for decades. He is buried, it is said, in the ancient churchyard of Sark near where once stood his fortified tower of Morton Rig in the Debateable Land. His memorial lies under the sod but was exposed in the latter half of the twentieth century, if only for a short while.
Thomas Lord Scrope died at Langar, a village in Nottinghamshire, in 1609. His memorial is magnificent. The effigy surmounting his tomb portrays him in the robes of a Knight of the Garter. His wife, Philadelphia Carey lies at his side. Their son Emmanuel kneels between them.
This article was written for us by Tom Moss, author of “Deadlock and Deliverance” the story of the capture and rescue of Kinmont Willie Armstrong.
Deadlock and Deliverance – Book Review
Carlisle Castle – Official English Heritage web pages
Reiver History– Find out more about the Border Reivers