‘Swords in the Stories: A Nineteenth Century Mystery’, Dr Valentina Bold


Image: ‘Kinmont Willie’s Sword’ © Dumfries and Galloway Museums Service

A story of serendipity

Sometimes research leads are hard to find. Sometimes they find you. This is a story of the second kind.  It concerns a museum, a curator, a sword and a song, serendipity and speculation.

Two years ago, I was giving a talk at Dumfries Museum about Annan antiquarian Frank Miller. Afterwards, curator Siobhan Ratchford approached me. She told me about a recent find, in the Annan Museum collection: an intriguing blade discovered within a set of agricultural equipment. The thing that marked it out was its rather weathered label. Only three words were intelligible: ‘Kinmont’, ‘Willie’ and ‘freebooter’. Siobhan had my full attention.

The Unknown Antiquarian

The Label’ © Dumfries and Galloway Museums Service

I knew the ballad of ‘Kinmont Willie’ from Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-03).  Willie Armstrong (c.1550-c.1610) was a notorious Border outlaw, best known for having been illegally captured on a day of Truce, in 1596 and rescued in daring Carlisle jail-break led by Walter Scott of Buccleuch. Could this be Kinmont Willie’s sword?

The Museum had already taken the label to the University of Strathclyde, to be examined with a high-spec scanner. Maybe something could be found out about the person who wrote it or, as I came to think of him, ‘the Unknown Antiquarian’. Infuriatingly, the scan did not reveal much. The ink had rubbed off with age. This really was a mystery story in the making.

A story of opportunities

When Siobhan offered to show me the sword, and its label, I jumped at the chance. For one of the few times in my life, I was struck completely silent.  Having spent the last thirty years writing about nineteenth century poetry and song, I can honestly say this was one of my best moments ever.

Valentina Bold with the Sword ©Dumfries Museum

As I handled the (surprisingly light), rusty sword, I was acutely aware of its significance. Whether this was actually Kinmont Willie’s or not  someone, at some point in the past, had reason to believe it might have done. It was, then, a sword that was part of a story—but whose story and what?

Finding the Story

Like Siobhan and her colleague, Fiona Wilson, I felt sure this was a story worth telling.  I am particularly grateful for a The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s grant, which allowed me to conduct archival and field research on the sword and its stories, over 2017. I appreciate, too, support from Kate Kennedy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Outreach programme, which sponsored me to lecture on the sword in Dumfries and Annan:

https://www.rse.org.uk/event/hands-tied-tongue-free-swords-songs-kinmont-willie/ and


Fiona secured funding from the Festival of Museums for a weekend of activities with a related exhibition, ‘Swords in the Stories’, held in Dumfries and Annan over the summer of 2017, featuring other swords with stories from the regional collections, including a sword belonging to polar explorer Sir John Ross, another from the Napoleonic wars and Robert Burns’ excise sword.

I was helped in my research by many people including, satisfyingly, three of my former students: Ian Martin at Gilnockie Tower, John Bonner at Carlisle Castle and Kathy Hobkirk at Hawick Heritage Hub. I would also like to thank David Hill of Hawick Museum and David Caldwell, President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and formerly of the National Museums of Scotland, and George Dalgleish, also of the Society and formerly of NMS. Dumfries and Galloway’s regional archaeologist, Andy Nicholson, was immensely helpful.

Dumfries and Galloway’s Regional Archivist, Graham Roberts amazingly, and  successfully, managed to decipher the label, discerning references in the writing to two printed texts: Roberti Johnstoni Scoto-Britanii Historiarum (1642) and Scott’s Minstrelsy. These meant the label had to be early nineteenth century, at the very earliest.

I started looking for references to the sword in the writings of known collectors of ballad-related items, including Walter Scott, and Dumfries and Galloway-based antiquarians like Joseph Train, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe. William Motherwell, the Kirkcudbright-born ballad scholar William Macmath, who collected materials for Francis James Child, and Miller himself (who died in 1949) were later candidates but I could not find anything concrete to suggest that any of these people were aware of the sword. The best I can suggest is that this was a prized item in a hitherto unknown collection.

It is possible this unknown person had their interest in the sword piqued by the rise of the ‘celebrity sword’, which began in Scotland with Scott’s use of the Marquis of Montrose’s sword (lent to his cousin) in the ceremonials of 1822 during the royal visit to Edinburgh. The William Wallace sword (probably not earlier than the fifteenth century), now on display in Stirling, was sent to London for repairs in 1825.

The nineteenth century was a period, too, when attention was given more broadly to swords with stories, in Britain and in Europe: Arthur’s Excalibur, Charlemagne’s Joyeuse, Roland’s Durandal, El Cid’s Tizona. Perhaps the Annan sword’s owner (an Armstrong?) had taken a fresh look at it a family-held item at some point from the 1820s onwards—perhaps, too,  that person’s descendants had lost interest in the object, relegating it to storage.

The Sword

So much for the provenance—what of the sword? If it belonged to its identified owner, it would have to be from the late sixteenth century, when he was active. The question of authenticity was one of the first we had to consider. David Caldwell (although he has not seen the sword, only photographs) thinks the date is possible, based on key features. First, the blade and pommel (plummet, in Scots) are characteristic of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. The pommel, too, is of a type used on basket hilts—unfortunately our hilt is missing. There is also, significantly, a ricasso –the blunt section at the top of the blade—and fullers, or grooves, on the blade.

‘A Sword with a Story’ © Dumfries and Galloway Museums Service

The Story: Kinmont Willie Armstrong

Kinmont Willie Armstrong was a man with a dark and heavily documented (for all the wrong reasons) past. He lived at the Tower of Sark, also known as Morton Rig. It is eleven miles from Carlisle, three from Longtown and three from Gretna Green; well positioned then, close to the border. It was referred to as ‘Sande Armstrong’s new hous’ in 1547, and ‘Kinmont’s Towre’ in 1590.

The tower is no longer there, but the site is marked with a small structure raised in 1996 and unveiled by the Duke of Buccleuch.  My thanks to Adam Armstrong-Crisp, of Armstrong Border Tours, who accompanied me to Morton Rig, and in retracing Kinmont Willie’s routes on both sides of the Border.

Morton Rig © Valentina Bold

Willie was the great grandson of Thomas Armstrong, the fifteenth century laird of Mangreton, grandson of ‘Ill Will’ Armstrong, and son of Sandy Armstrong, notorious for his gang of reivers, ‘Sandy’s Bairns’. This made him the second cousin of ‘Black’ Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie, his father’s cousin, and famous in ballad. Hanged by James V at Carlenrig, his last words, in his ballad, were ‘I am but a fool to seek grace at a graceless face’. Willie was also, significantly for his story, married to the daughter of another well-known reiver, Hutcheon Graham (of whom more presently).

These were notorious, violent men, and Kinmont Willie was one of the worst.  In a 1583 raid on Tynedale, he attacked eight villages, killed six men, wounded eleven more, took 30 prisoners, stole 800 cattle and £200 worth of goods.  He returned a year later, attacking eight villages, stealing 80 cattle and oxen, 60 horses and mares and 500 sheep, burning 60 houses, causing £2000 sterling-worth of destruction and killing ten men. In 1585 he rode out with the Earl of Bothwell against King James VI at Stirling , pillaging in the area and taking back substantial booty. In 1592 he was described as having 100 followers in his private army. He was, in short, the bane of the Western March.

On the 17th of March 1596, Willie rode home from a meeting at Kershopefoot, on the Border of the West March. He was part of a Scottish group which had met with a party under Thomas Salkeld, deputy to the Warden of the English West Marches, Lord Scrope.

Kershopefoot @ Valentina Bold

With a small group of around twenty followers, Willie would have felt protected by the day of Truce. This allowed those who attended till sunrise the next day to reach home. He had only a handful of miles to cross. However, as he rode north along the Liddle Water, he passed two hundred English soldiers, riding south.

What happened next is a little vague. There may have been a fray but, heavily outnumbered, Armstrong was taken across the border. According to the ballad, he was bound to a horse, with his hands tied behind. Under a heavy guard, he was taken on to Carlisle Castle, in an action which broke Border law.

Amidst public outrage the Keeper of Liddesdale, Walter Scott of Branxholme, laird of Buccleuch, demanded Willie’s release. He sent a letter of complaint to Salkeld, who referred the matter on to Scrope. The English Warden offered no satisfaction, until ‘good security’ was given for Willie’s behaviour. Nor was Robert Bowes, the English ambassador, able to resolve the matter.

Buccleuch decided to take direct action. He allegedly sent a woman into Carlisle Castle to assess how Willie was being held. There was a four-hour long meeting at Archerbreck, attended by various men including Grahams, Gilbert Elliot and Auld Wat Scott of Harden (Sir Walter Scott’s ancestor) and even some officers of the English West March, Thomas and Lancelot Carleton.

Buccleuch was then seen at the Langholm horse races talking to several English Grahams. Salkeld, incidentally, was also (like Willie) related to the Grahams by marriage. It is, then, likely that there was inside help (possibly even from members of the Castle Guard) in what happened next. Buccleuch later said, ‘I could nought have done in that matter without the great friendship of the Grahams of Eske’.

On Sunday the 13th of April 1596, Buccleuch  and his supporters assembled at Kinmont Willie’s home.  Their numbers have been estimated at forty (in the ballad), eighty (according to Buccleuch), two hundred, or even five hundred (according to Scrope). The raiding party included men best described as reiving royalty, such as Armstrong’s relatives Lang Sandy and Hutcheon Graham, the man associated, in 1606, with the first written use of the word ‘blackmail’.

Carrying ladders, crowbars, pickaxes and sledgehammers, ‘like a mason gang’, as the ballad puts it, the men rode through the Debateable Lands, across the Border through Graham territory and stormy weather. At Carlisle Castle, they attempted to scale the walls—according to some accounts, their ladders were too short and so they broke down the postern gate.

Carlisle Castle ©Valentina Bold

In the ballad, they use ‘coulters’ and ‘forehammers’ to break through to the prison, overpowering the Castle Guards to break down Willie’s door and set him free, sounding a trumpet to give the appearance of a larger force. Scrope and Salkeld took refuge, barricading themselves in.

The raid was finished by daybreak and, as signal beacons were lit in Carlisle, the rescue party escaped. It was said that a thousand men pursued them, but the raiding party crossed the Eden Water. In the ballad, Buccleuch flings his glove at Scrope and mocks him: “If ye like na my visit in merry England, / In fair Scotland come visit me!”.

The door was certainly broken—there are contemporary accounts of the cost of its replacement, with something extremely sturdy. Scrope wrote about the rescue, too, ‘in the dead time’ of night, the next day, despairing of the  watchmen who, ‘by reason of the stormy night were either on sleep or gotten under some cover to defend themselves from the violence of the weather’.

‘The Postern Gate’, Carlisle Castle © Valentina Bold

Perhaps, though, this rescue was not all that it seemed.  John Bonner of Carlisle Castle pointed out to me that Willie was not in the most secure part of the castle—it is very possible that this was intentional, and conspiratorial. Rather than placing him, for instance, in secure cells, or in the oubliette, he was held in a wooden structure just inside the castle wall.

The oubliette, Carlisle Castle © Valentina Bold

Whilst Scrope, it seems, never fully recovered from the shame of this notorious incident Willie continued his career of depradation. He rode out again later in 1596 with Wat of Harden. In 1597 he captured the Captain of Bewcastle among seventeen prisoners for ransom and stole 24 horses—he also experienced a raid from the English side, with his house sacked and burned, 300 beasts being stolen, and 2 men from his household killed.  At the head ‘Sandy’s Bairns’, he attacked Scotby in 1600 with 140 men, stealing over 100 cattle and taking prisoners; on the same night he attacked Carlisle, causing damage in the town and only leaving when the warning beacon was lit in town. His last raid was in 1602, south of Carlisle around Low and High Hesket. He died in his bed, about 1603 and is buried in the graveyard at Sark.

Graveyard at Sark © Valentina Bold

The Sword in the Story

This sword, as part of this story, puts us within touching distance of the past. For the collector, who labelled it, it was a celebrity item, with a sobering frisson  of reiving attached to it. This is a story of the Scotts, as much as it is a story of the Armstrongs—of the Bold Buccleuch, and of Sir Walter. It is a significant item, embodying messages about the ways we remember the past, its villains as well as its heroes. I explore these ideas further, and in detail, in a booklet I’m currently writing, the tangible output of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s generous funding. This will be launched in Dumfries in late 2018.

Fiona Wilson and Valentina Bold ©Dumfries Museum

Dr Valentina Bold is Principal Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Strathclyde and teaches ‘Enlightenment to Romanticism’.  In addition, she teaches within the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures. She has published widely on literature, song and cultural heritage, with books including James Hogg: A Bard of Nature’s Making, Smeddum: A Lewis Grassic Gibbon Anthology and Robert Burns’ Merry Muses of Caledonia and, with Andrew Nash, Gateway to the Modern: Resituating J.M.Barrie.