The Tale of Kinmont Willie

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On 13th April in 1596, Kinmont Willie was rescued from Carlisle Castle in a daring rescue mission led by the Bold Buccleuch(1).

'Kinmont' William Armstrong (b. 1550) was a notorious Border Reiver and outlaw, descended from ‘ill Will’. He was captured by the forces of the English Warden of the West March in violation of a truce day. During 'truce day' all who attended to witness criminal trials were granted safe conduct for that day until the following sunrise. Kinmont, a witness to the trials, was taken against the 'safe conduct' and imprisoned in Carlisle Castle by Thomas Salkeld.

Walter Scott of Buccleuch (the Bold Buccleuch), keeper of Liddesdale on whose land the arrest had been made, protested to the English Warden, Thomas Scrope, 10th Baron Scrope of Bolton. When Scrope refused to release Armstrong, Buccleuch led a party of men on a daring raid into England to break Willie out of the castle. Buccleuch raised a party comprised of Scotts, Armstrongs, Grahams, Bells, and informant English spies. Accounts vary, but many believe that Buccleuch bribed guards inside the tower to betray the location of Kinmont Willie within their walls. A dreich mist gathered around the castle and as the party approached and many of the English guards went inside to gain cover from the weather. The men succeeded in pulling off what was a daring rescue.

Queen Elizabeth I of England was furious that one of her Border fortresses had been broken into at a time when peace existed between England and Scotland. Her relationship with James VI of Scotland was tested to the point where James thought he might lose succession to the English throne. He had been all but promised this and a pension from the English in 1586. Elizabeth demanded that Buccleuch should be handed over to the English for punishment. James was caught between allegiance to the Scots who were adamant Buccleuch had done no wrong in rescuing a man who was captured illegally, and his desire to pander to his royal benefactor. Buccleuch was eventually 'warded' in England although no action was taken against him.

Little is known about Kinmont Willie's background apart from his obvious link to Clan Armstrong, a family with origins in Cumbria who had played an important role in the development of southern Scotland during centuries of cross-border conflict. In 1569 Kinmont Willie was ‘of Morton Tower’ when he pledged to obey the Wardens of the disputed Borderlands, with Lord Maxwell as surety. In 1579 he appeared before the King's Privy Council in relation to a feud with Thomas Turnbull of Bedrule. That same year he and 400 Armstrong followers are said to have killed Uswold Dod, and stole 800 cattle and 1,000 sheep.

In 1583 Lord Scrope demanded, unsuccessfully, that the Laird of Johnstone (Scottish Warden) hand Willie over; he was said to be responsible for 600 murders and the stealing of 400 cattle, 400 sheep and 30 horses. He is listed in 1585 (among a huge number of men in the lands that had Lord Maxwell as superior) who had remission for their former crimes; he is recorded there as ‘William Armestrang callit Kynmont’. His sons ‘Johne, Geordie, Francie, Thome, Sandie, Jhonn and Ringane’ are also listed, as well as his brother ‘Serge’ and Martin MacVitie, his ‘writer’ (i.e. legal clerk, suggesting he held a position of some importance). This is probably related to having been on the expedition to Stirling against the Earl of Arran, when he and his sons ransacked the town.

In 1587 Kinmont was imprisoned but escaped, and by 1590 he appears on the Privy Council’s list of men allowed to rent land in the ‘debateable land’. Lord Maxwell again acted as surety for his good behaviour in 1591. By 1594 he had an agreement with Thomas, Lord Scrope, where he assumed responsibility for 300 men, known as 'Kinmont's bairns'.

Kinmont Willie caused another international incident in 1600, when he bought a mare that had been stolen from the English side of the Border. This led to a raid by 200 English horsemen and 80 foot soldiers, with a skirmish at Kinmont Tower. He is last recorded in 1603 when Scrope complained that Kinmont had raided the towns of High and Low Heskett in Cumberland. He is said to have died of old age sometime between 1605 and 1611, and is buried at Sark.

The Ballad of Kinmont Willie has since been immortalised by Sir Walter Scott, published in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders.

1.  Walter Scott, 5th of Buccleuch, 1st Lord Scott of Buccleuch (1565 – 15 December 1611), known as the "Bold Buccleuch" was the son of Sir Walter Scott, 4th of Buccleuch (himself grandson of Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch) and Margaret Douglas.

See also:
 The Border Marches
 The Debatable Lands



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    Last modified: Tuesday, 01 February 2022