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Armstrong Clan Society

A Brief History of the ARMSTRONG Family


"Armstrong" first appears as a formal name in written records in 1235. It is believed to have originated much earlier. Legend is that “Armstrong” was bestowed by a grateful King of Scots upon his armor bearer one Siward Fairbeorn as a reward for rescuing the King from a battlefield and getting him upon another horse after his first horse was killed in battle in the early 1000s. Siward, was of Danish (Viking) extraction, he granted this name and lands along the Border between England and Scotland by the King for his efforts.

In the mid-1000s, Siward became the Earl of Northumberland, one of the five great Earldoms established by King Cnute. Siward figures prominently in Scottish history, defeating Macbeth at Dunsinane and putting his blood relative Malcolm on the Scottish throne. It is from this Siward the name Armstrong has evolved.

By the 1300s, the Armstrongs were located in "the Borderlands" which directly abutted England. Originally in Liddesdale, then in Eskdale and Ewesdale as well as large parts of The Debatable Lands whose nationality was in question. Located along the primary invasion routes between England and Scotland, the Armstrongs were victims of, and party to, almost continuous conflict from the 1300s to the early 1600s. They became one of the most feared of the Scottish Border Riding Clans. In the early 1500s, the Armstrongs could bring 3,000 horsemen into battle. Fiercely independent and looking after their own first and foremost, they had little regard for meddling from Edinburgh or London. Mangerton, is located just south of current Newcastleton, and was the center of Armstrong reiving activities. It was the seat of ten successive Armstrong Chieftains, or "Lords (Lairds) of Mangerton". During this time, some of the most colorful characters in the family's history made their appearances. Two in particular were Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie and Willie Armstrong of Kinmont (Kinmont Willie).

Johnnie of Gilnockie was one of the most successful of the Border Reivers ever. He was regarded by many as a sort of "Robin Hood". He was invited to a meeting in about 1529 at Caerlanrig by the 17 year old King James V of Scotland. King James was jealous of Johnnie's successes and regard. He treacherously turned on Johnnie and his men, declaring them “outside the law’ and hanged him and 30 of his followers..

Kinmont Willie, a descendant of Johnnie, was also a powerful reiver. He was illegally captured by the English Warden (like a sheriff) during a truce day and imprisoned in Carlisle Castle, England in 1596. A handful of his clansman and friends, led by one Walter Scott of Buccleuch, secretly broke into the “impregnable castle” and rescued Willie.

These two events; the "Murder of Johnnie Gilnockie" and the "Rescue of Kinmont Willie", are the subject of at least two of the most famous Border Ballads. They are part popular part of those collected and preserved by Sir Walter Scott. There were more than a dozen Border Ballads are about Armstrongs.

When Queen Elizabeth I of England died in 1603, King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England uniting the two crowns and countries. This was the same “King James” who ordered a new version of the Christian bible. He set about immediately to end the reiving on the Borders. His first act was to declare any Scottish Borderers riding into England were guilty of treason. The "Border Clearances" had begun, and over the next decade King James’ army destroyed most the Border riding clans. Their lands were confiscated and given to the kings favorites. All Armstrong lands, including Mangerton, were lost to the clan forever.

In 1610, Archibald Armstrong, the Tenth Laird of Mangerton, with 23 followers, made one last raid on English estates which once were theirs. They were captured, denounced as rebels, and sentenced to death! Sentence was carried out in that same year in Edinburgh. He was the last to bear the title Lord of Mangerton. His eldest son Archibald, also listed as an outlaw and rebel, sought secret refuge in England and vanished. To this day, no rightful successor has yet been proved and the Armstrongs have been without a chief.

Routed out of their ancestral homelands, the Armstrongs dispersed. A few remained in Scotland, some changes their names, many went into England in Cumberland and Northumberland, some went to fight as cavalry in the Low Countries.

Many more crossed over to Ireland, settling primarily in County Fermanagh near Enniskillen. There too they were soon oppressed by their English overlords, and in the early to mid 1700s, many Armstrongs joined the thousands of Scotch-Irish migrating to the Colonies of America.

Some at first went to New England, then on to the Pennsylvania frontier, and from there on to the south and west. Others came in through Carolina ports. The first US Census (1790) listed 311 Armstrong households totaling 1,367 people. Nearly a third were in Pennsylvania, but every state at the time counted some Armstrongs as resident.

To have survived and prevailed with such a turbulent history, there could be no better motto for the Armstrongs than that which appears on our clan name and society’s crests:


armstrong sheild


The above text was modified from an unsourced handout possible prepared by the Clan Armstrong Trust of Scotland.

Armstrong Clan

Gaelic: Mac Ghillieláidir
Crest: An arm from the shoulder, armed, Proper
Motto: Invictus Maneo (I remain unvanquished)
Armstrong Clan Society Motto: Semper Invictus (Always unvanquished)
Lands: Liddesdale
Seat: Gilnockie Tower
Origin of Name: Strong arm