Lang Sandy Armstrong of Rowenburn
To get the title of ‘The Worst Reiver Ever’ you must have been really bad, the worst of the worst. Lang Sandy Armstrong of Rowanburn is known as ‘The Worst Reiver Ever’. He gained this nickname mostly because of his height he was well over six foot tall which was a giant 400 years ago. He also was one of the most successful and daring freebooters of his clan – Clan Armstrong.
Clan Armstrong were the most dangerous and feared riding clan on the whole Scottish Borders. They could put 3,000 men into the saddle and are reputed to have done more damage by foray than any other border clan. Clan Armstrong were now broken and without a leader. Their last chief, Alexander Armstrong of Mangerton, died about 1610.
Alexander Armstrong was known as ‘Lang (Long) Sandy’. He and his family lived in a tower house in the nearby fields at Cleughfoot. It was generally known by the name of “Lang Sandy’s Keep,” and was situated on the side of the Tarras, about ten miles from Langholm.
The village of Rowenburn and Cleughfoot in the borders was part of the notorious Debateable Land, one of the most dangerous places in Europe.
Sir John Carmichael (1542-1600) was described by the Bishop of Durham as “the most expert borderer.” Known as an honest official. But to the reiver he was a thorn in their side, he was made Warden of the Scottish West March in 1598. It was his job to police the area – to bring law especially to the Armstrong Clan. In 1600 Carmichael tried meeting with The Armstrong Clan sent one of Kinmont Willie Armstrong’s brothers. Alexander Armstrong was known as Sandeis Ringan. Some of Carmichael’s men set about humiliating Ringan. At some point in proceedings for a jest Ringan’s sword was removed from its scabbard and egg yolks put in. The sword was returned and became stuck. Not surprisingly Sandeis Ringane was furious and swore vengeance. The meeting did not finish on a positive note. In June that same year Carmichael was ambushed by a party of Armstrongs including Thomas Armstrong and his father along with a Taylor, a Forrester, a Scott and a Graham at Raesknowes, on the way to Lochmaben. Richard Lowther commented that it was the third warden that had been killed in Scotland.
The Armstrongs then proceeded to raid Stanwix, just across the river and up the hill from Carlisle Castle. As the bishop preached his sermon – the Armstrongs were helping themselves to the available horses. They then moved on to Linstock for some cattle. In 1601 Thomas Armstrong, son to Sandies Ringane, was tried for his part in the murder, had his right hand cut off and was then hanged at the Mercat Cross at Edinburgh. His body was left to hang in chains. In 1606 Lang Sandy Armstrong of Rowanburn.
evaded capture for his part in Carmichael’s murder until 1606. He was hung together with all eleven of his sons and Willie Kang was indicted. Lang Sandy agreed that he’d taken part in the murder but added that he felt forced to the act of violence.
“To the men that hangit the theves in Canonbie, be the king’s command, 13 shillings.
The following verses are said to have been composed by one of the Armstrongs, probably Thomas, executed for the murder of Sir John Carmichael, of Edrom, Warden of the Middle Marches.
This night is my departing night,
For here nae langer must I stay;
There’s neither friend nor foe o’ mine,
But wishes me away.
What I have done thro’ lack of wit,
I never, never can recall;
I hope ye’re a’ my friends as yet;
Goodnight, and joy be with you all!
In 1603, Scotland’s King, James VI, travelled south to be crowned King James I of England, and that coronation was the beginning of the end of reiving as it had been known. What had once been to some extent tolerated on James V’s southern boundaries of his Scottish kingdom was no longer acceptable during the reign of James I of England, with the Anglo-Scottish Border an important hub in his new kingdom.
In the purported ‘pacification’ of the Anglo-Scottish Borders, Reivers were rounded up so that James could return this particular part of his kingdom to a state of peace. Armstrongs, Elliots, Grahams, Little’s and many other border families were either eradicated in a variety of disposal procedures of the time, shipped to Northern Ireland, or sent to fight in Europe.
A life sized red sandstone figurine of Lang Sandy can be seen during your tour in the village of Rowanburn. The original wooden statue stands guard at the entrance of the Armstrong Museum in Langholm.