Legend suggests the name of Armstrong had a very literal origin. It was bestowed on Fairbairn, a royal armour-bearer, after he had used his strength to rescue the King of Scotland in battle. Nevertheless, the Armstrongs are generally recognized as being descended from P-Celtic Welsh-speaking families who had settled along the Cumberland/Annandale areas, long before the Anglo-Saxons ever thought of emigrating to a Celtic Britain.
The Picto-Scottish clan system became a necessary means of survival for all rural people in Albann/Scotland after the final union of the two crowns in 843AD, under Kenneth MacAlpine. The tribal way of life was as firmly established in the border areas as in the Hebrides within a few hundred years. The Armstrongs were as much of a clan as was Clan Gregor, and would at times, act quite independently of the Scottish king, or anyone else for that matter.
They were first noted as living south of the present border, where P-Celtic peoples (the southern Picts) had also settled centuries before. It was not uncommon for old Celtic families to be allotted English names after the usurpation of the Gaelic-speaking line by the Norman Bruces, then continued under the Stewarts.
It was not until 1237 that the border between Scotland and England was settled by treaty, and then as late as the 16th century, sections were still debatable, and were frequently hotly contested. The Armstrongs were the most turbulent, powerful, and feared of all the border clans, being able to quickly muster 3,000 horsemen. Theirs was an unenviable task of defending a large portion of the border against English incursions, which they did well, when their own monarch was not executing their chiefs.
The territory occupied by the Armstrongs was fertile, but not extensive. It comprised the southern half of Liddesdale, bounded on the south-east by the English border, and on the west by the river Esk, and on the north by Elliot lands. Between 1361 and 1373, there is mention of a Gilbert Armstrong who was the Provost of the Cathedral of St. Andrew. By 1376, 'Alexandir' Armstrong held the lands of Mangerton, which continued to be their seat until the 17th century.
From Liddesdale, they expanded into Annandale and Eskdale; and it is here, along the reaches of the river Esk, that their most romantic memorials are still to be seen.
In 1320, Alexander, the 2nd Laird of Mangerton, was treacherously murdered by his enemies, the Soulis family at a banquet where he had been invited. Milnholm Cross marks his grave. In 1398, the Armstrongs had come under the protection of the powerful Earl of Douglas. In 1482. Thomas Armstrong, 5th Earl of Mangerton, surrendered his lands to the Earl of Angus, but that arrangement was short-lived as the Armstrong Chiefs continued to maintain their lands.
During the civil strife that ended with the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488, the Armstrongs supported the house of Douglas against James III. Despite this failure, their star was in ascent, and the following century would see their power oust that of the king himself in Liddesdale, only to collapse in utter ruin in 1603.
After the Scots defeat at Flodden in 1513, the English harried Eskdale and lower Annandale - assisted by the Armstrongs. to whom clan politics were more important than patriotism. By 1524, the Earl of Angus, who had been appointed Warden of the Middle and East Marches, launched a surprise attack on the Armstrongs, capturing a dozen Armstrongs although no harm came to them. The booty of 3,000 sheep, 600 cattle, and 500 goats was enough punishment.
In 1529, the Armstrongs of Liddesdale were said to have declared they would not take orders from either the King of Scotland or the King of England. John Armstrong of Gilnockie, had colonized he debatable lands along the border thumbing his nose at the English. The English Warden, Lord Dacre, retaliated in 1528 by burning Hollows Tower, John's stronghold on the Esk. In revenge, Armstrong burned Netherby, in Cumberland.
In the summer of 1530, King James V went to the border area and halted at Carlanrig, half a mile south-west of Teviothead. Armstrong rode out confidently to meet him, with 50 horsemen in attendance. Enraged, James summarily ordered the hanging of Armstrong and his followers. Armstrong and his 50 horsemen were buried at Carlanrig, and were remembered by a simple stone in the wall of the churchyard in 1897.
The power of the Armstrongs went into decline. However, they maintained their old ways, and in 1541, they challenged the Grahams to mortal combat. Nothing came of it, and the two families were soon back on friendly terms. After the Scottish Rout of Solway Moss in 1542, and the death of James V, their old enemy, the Armstrongs became English pensioners, and joined in the harrying of southern Scotland.
Throughout 1543, under a treaty with England, the Armstrongs burned 124 homesteads, took thousands of cattle, horses, sheep and goats, as well as over 400 prisoners. In 1545, the Armstrongs allowed the English to garrison an Armstrong fortress. Archibald, the 8th Laird of Mangerton, was an opponent of Lord Bothwell, Mary Queen of Scot's husband.
In 1569, the Regent, Bothwell over-nighted at Mangerton, then ordered it blown up the next morning. After the death of Bothwell in 1570, the Armstrongs took on a more patriotic stance and devastated the English side of the border, allegedly to avenge the imprisonment of their Queen.
Simon, the 9th Laird rebuilt Mangerton in 1583 but was captured by the English in his own castle. Simon was treacherously killed by the Douglases, and his successor, Archibald, 10th Earl of Mangerton, was destined to be the last Armstrong chief. In 1603, dismayed by the succession of James VI to the English throne, he invaded England with 200 horsemen in a futile attempt to prevent the union of the Crowns.
Inevitably he failed, and James VI took a terrible revenge, razing most of Armstrong's fortresses in Liddesdale to the ground. Fleeing the royal wrath, Archibald, his son and heir, fled to an unknown refuge. That was the inglorious end of what had been the greatest border clan of all. One that thumbed its nose at both the Kings of Scotland and England to serve their family's own purposes.
However, centuries later, the Armstrongs can boast of one of the most daring feats of mankind. One of their own, Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon, left a piece of Armstrong tartan fabric to attest forever that Clan Armstrong is the most traveled of all Scottish Clans. Somewhere on the surface of the moon, there lies a piece of the Clan Armstrong, defiant, in its splendid isolation, looking down on the temporal passage of men and machines.