The tale of Kinmont Willie

Born William Armstrong, of Kinmont in around 1550, but better known as Kinmont Willie; was a Scottish border reiver, freebooter and outlaw active in the rough Scottish Borderlands during the late 1500’s, whose first recorded raid had taken place in August of 1583, against one of the two most formidable of English border families; the Milburn’s of Tynedale; the other being the Charltons, both of whom had fast roots within Northumberland during that time. Yet despite their supposed might, such an act of aggression would not have been at all surprising, for this was the age of the horse-bound border reiver; with the people of Tynesdale just as apt to carry out similar raids on the lands of Liddlesdale, north of the border in Scotland.

Scottish border reivers
Scottish border reivers

And during this time, and despite the peace between Scotland and England, it would not have been all that uncommon to happen across one of a dozen small battles being waged all across the Borderlands, from Annandale down through to Carlisle and everywhere in between; the countryside filled with troops of rogue cavalrymen, armored in steel and with lance in hand; their spear, sword, and axe strapped fast to their saddles, and flags and banners flying in rebellious irreverence. Many among their number would have been veteran soldiers, or sons born to the trade, but all united in rustling and banditry regardless. In a way, the Borders were akin to the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy; a truly lawless place, wherein neither Scotland’s King, nor England’s Queen held any authority over the rough men inhabiting it. Though despite the peace between the Kingdoms of Scotland and England, no doubt due in large part to the latter’s warring with Spain; Scotland itself was still party to the sort of infighting of which it had long grown accustomed. Such internal strife however, was not to last, as by October of 1585, the Earl of Angus, and many other Scottish exiles, had finally been granted permission to return from their refuge in England, and assist in the ousting of the Earl of Arran and his regime; major contributors of the aforementioned infighting. And it was in this ousting campaign, that one Kinmont Willie was involved.

With the successful capture of the town and castle of Stirling, sometime in early November, which had culminated in Arran’s defeat, and the restoring of many ancestral lands to their rightful owners, as well as signaling Arran’s opponents as being back in the Royal favor; it is clear that Kinmont was, if anything, an experienced soldier familiar with both raiding, and actual organized fighting. And so it should come as no surprise that eight years after that incident, he was next spotted back down in Tynedale, and this time with around one thousand men, carrying off over two thousand beasts, and some three hundred pound’s in loot. To say that his was a long and successful career, is perhaps an understatement, as even up until the turn of the century he was often said to continue undertaking large scale raids into England at the head of a band of around three hundred men known as “Kinmont’s bairns“, and that by the mid-1590s (fifteen or so years before his death) he had become the most wanted man on either side of the border; with the English especially keen to get their hands on him.

Now, during that era, it was common, every once in a while, for such events as ‘Truce Days’, or ‘Days of truce’ to occur; social gatherings that soon became great fairs attended by many a reiver family; an event where all could come together to socialize and discuss issues of mutual interest in a neutral environment, whilst also having the added bonus of allowing family and friends, normally separated by the border, to catch up safely. And it was whilst attending one such Truce Day, on 17 March 1596, that our man Kinmont, despite his ‘safe conduct’ order, was illegally, and without warning, set upon and arrested by the men of the English Warden of the West March, Sir Thomas Scrope, before being taken swiftly to Carlisle Castle in chains, where he was then imprisoned. As you might have guessed, this act of treachery did not sit very well with Kinmont’s bairns. And thus, an audacious rescue plan was soon hatched by one, Walter Scott of Buccleuch ‘the Bauld Buccleuch‘, keeper of Liddesdale, and on whose land our man had been unjustly captured.

Side note: Before I go on, I should explain that the fighting amongst the border reivers wasn’t always Scotland versus England, but rather, Scotsmen and Englishmen acting for the sake of booty and coin alone; if your target just so happened to be an Englishman, then it was his wealth which compelled you into attacking him, and not necessarily his nationality. These men really owed no nations monarch their allegiance, but, they were still more than ready to come to the aid of their own homelands should they be required to do so, as was the case with many a latter day Moss-trooper during Cromwell’s invasion. If it could be plundered, then they would take it regardless of where it lay; but if the English invaded Scotland, or vice versa, then such bandits could swiftly become a seasoned troop of cavalrymen at a moment’s notice.

And so, after much fruitless negotiating and endeavoring on the part of Buccleuch, between him and the English warden, and which had amounted to nothing more than Warden Scrope pointedly refusing to release Kinmont. The Keeper of Liddesdale resolved then to commit himself to a more direct course of action. And, on the 13 April, 1596, he did just that; personally leading a daring band of eighty men across the border, and into England; intent on securing our man’s release from his prison within Carlisle castle. Now, such a blatant act as this, of which had rarely been undertaken beforehand, would go on to have serious ramifications for the relationship between the Kingdoms of Scotland and England, than perhaps any involved had then considered; and certainly they could not have foreseen that their intrepid foray might very well have sparked a war between both countries as a result.

The rescue of Kinmount Willie by Angus Mcbride
The rescue of Kinmont Willie: Angus McBride

Now, the details are vague in regards to what occurred during the rescue, with some sources claiming that the castle guards were bribed into allowing Buccleuch and his men into the castle, whilst others maintain that the guards were actually subdued by force. As it stands, I really have no idea, but would imagine that were it men of an English reiver family guarding the prison, then perhaps a bribe really would have been all it took to gain admittance. Otherwise, eighty men either scaling a wall, or just simply infiltrating a castle likewise would not have been unheard of. Regardless of how, the bold Kinmont Willie was once again a free man at the end of it all. And, having very much captured a major English stronghold, our plucky Scots simply wheeled their steeds noses northward, and then rode back for Scotland. All in a nights work.

And there you have it; we’ve now reached the end of Kinmont’s tale, and despite the warden Scrope having hunted for him far and wide; ceaselessly upturning the surrounding land in a desperate and relentless effort to recapture his ill-gotten prisoner; raising the lands of Annan and Dumfries as he did so; Kinmont Willie was never again recaptured. In 1600; he was free to attack the village of Scotby, burning it down with one hundred and forty riders. And again, in 1602, he was still a free enough man to have mounted his last major foray into England, going so far south as to have passed Carlisle. His four sons, who had all helped in his earlier rescue, also survived the Wardens reprisals, for they were frequently named as having taken part in later Border raids. Kinmont died peacefully in his own bed in around 1610, at the age of 60.

But, our the chain of events sparked by his rescue dont end there, for in the immediate aftermath of the incident, so enraged by the peacetime incursion against one of her border fortresses was Queen Elizabeth I of England, furious with Scotland’s King James VI; who was the recipient of not only a promise of a generous pension, but the very throne of England itself; had vigorously set about demanding an explanation for the unwarranted hostility; and no doubt threatening war and all manner of other nasty reprisals if it wasn’t resolved satisfactory. King James VI, caught between popular will and his allegiance to his own people, with that of his vital relationship with the Queen, and his sizable pension; was ultimately left with no other choice but to relent, even managing to convince our Bold Buccleuch to go and travel down to England, meet with the Queen herself, and then see if he couldn’t go and smooth out the now incredibly strained Royal relationship; perhaps even thwart a war between the Kingdoms whilst he was at it. And, being the daring soul that he was, Buccleuch agreed; for the safety of his country, he would travel to a hostile court, and give an account of himself to none other than the Queen of England.

And needless to say, and to cut a long story short, our man did indeed go down and speak to the Queen, and so enamored was she said to have been with that ‘dashing‘ and ‘charming‘ man, that she forgave his trespass outright; as simple as that. No war, no strife, nor struggle; she simply forgave him. And that, is the story of how a winning smile was all it took to stop a war between Scotland and England.

Walter Scott of Buccleuch
The dashing Walter Scott of Buccleuch

P.S: before I go, I want to leave you with an account of an incident which had taken place between a group of Scottish and English reivers. Now, I can’t quite recall the exact details, or where I read it, though I think it may have taken place in some skirmish between that of Scotland and England. Anyway; apparently, whilst in the midst of the battle, when they should have been hacking and stabbing at one another; both factions were found to have been having a casual conversation, right there in the heat of battle! And, when they realized they had been rumbled, had halfheartedly pantomimed a fight until the coast was once again clear, before quickly lowering their weapons to continue chatting amongst themselves.