On this day, 20th of July 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon. His name is now the stuff of history but the astronaut’s ancestors had an equally adventurous time on earth…
Originally, all Armstrongs came from the wild hill country that straddles England’s border with Scotland. During the Middle Ages and Tudor periods, this ‘Debateable Land’ was a lawless battleground and the chief occupations of the local inhabitants were stealing each other’s cattle and engaging in bitter blood feuds. These border families were known as ‘reivers’ (‘to be killed by reivers’ has given us the modern word ‘bereaved’) and one of the most famous of these romantic rogues was William Armstrong of Kinmont.

‘Kinmont Willie’ was born around 1550 on the Scottish side of the border and, though he was descended from a titled aristocrat, he became one of the most notorious reivers. Eventually Lord Scrope, the English ‘Warden of the Marches, became so fed up with Willie’s raids he set a trap.

One of the regular features of medieval and Tudor border life were the ‘Truce Days’ which allowed the reiving families to meet and settle their differences peaceably. These truces were often accompanied by fairs and those attending were immune from arrest until sundown. On the 17th March 1596, Kinmont Willie Armstrong attended one such Truce Day but, as he forded the River Eden which marked the border, he was ambushed by Lord Scrope’s men. Though he was a renowned fighter, and highly skilled with a sword, Willie was outnumbered so he had little choice but to surrender.

Loaded with chains, Kinmont Willie was taken to nearby Carlisle Castle and thrown into a dungeon but the breach of the Truce Day caused outrage on the Scottish side of the border. The Scottish Lord Buccleuch vowed to help his kinsman and on the night of the 13th of April 1596 "Bold Buccleuch" crossed into England with 80 men. Though Carlisle Castle was one of the strongest fortresses in the border country, Buccleuch’s men attacked under cover of darkness and quickly overpowered the sentries before releasing Kinmont Willie from his prison. Within a few hours the fugitives were safely back over the river but this daring escape brought England and Scotland to the brink of war.

Lord Scrope immediately set off in pursuit and burned the Scottish towns of Dumfries and Annan as he searched for Kinmont Willie. In a letter to Queen Elizabeth I, Scrope claimed that Carlisle had been attacked by an army of 500 Scots whereupon Elizabeth wrote to the King of Scotland, her cousin James VI, demanding Buccleuch’s punishment. James duly arrested Buccleuch and sent him to London but Elizabeth found the dashing Scottish laird so charming she forgave him!

Willie Armstrong was never recaptured and he died in his bed in 1610 but, by this time, the days of the reivers were numbered. When the childless Elizabeth died, in 1603, her crown passed to the same James VI of Scotland (who confusingly is called James I in England) who’d ordered Buccleuch’s arrest and extradition. This union of the English and Scottish crowns meant that the reivers could no longer escape justice by simply slipping over the border when it suited them. Moreover, James was so determined to bring peace to his new realm (which he dubbed Great Britain) he exiled the most infamous of the reiving families to Ireland.

Thousands of border families including Elliots, Scotts, Bells, Herons, Grahams and Armstrongs, were forcibly resettled in the Irish Province of Ulster but this was not the end of their adventures. In later centuries many of these Ulster-Scots crossed the Atlantic to forge a new life in the New World and among these emigrants were the Irish ancestors of Neil Alden Armstrong. Whether the astronaut is a direct descendant of Kinmont Willie Armstrong is a matter for genealogists to decide but there can be no doubt that it was the same spirit of daring and adventure, which made the reivers so famous, that took Neil Armstrong all the way to the Moon.

To read the traditional Borders’ poem, The Ballad of Kinmont Willie [edited by Sir Walter Scott c.1802] click here
For more about Neil Armstrong’s Irish roots: click here

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