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Kinmont Willie

[ Roud 4013 ; Child 186 ; Ballad Index C186 ; trad.]

Ross Kennedy sang the Border ballad Kinmont Willie in 1998 on the Fellside CD Fyre and Sworde: Songs of the Border Reivers. The album’s sleeve notes commented:

The events of 1596 and the rescue of ‘Kinmont’ Willie Armstrong represent a daring swashbuckling adventure. The fact that Kinmont led one of the most notorious bands of cut-throats ever to roam the Debateable Land seems to be irrelevant and in the tradition of the Border ballads we are to view him as a hero. His notoriety and activities were such that the Warden of the West Marsh’s deputy, Salkeld, captured Kinmont as he returned from a Truce Day at the Dayholm of Kershope. Kinmont was taken to Carlisle. According to Border Law it should not have happened on a Truce Day and Walter Scott of Buccleuch (keeper of Liddesdale on whose land the arrest had been made) protested to the Warden, Lord Scrope. When Scrope refused to return Kinmont, Buccleuch became concerned that Scrope was anxious to hang Kinmont on the gallows at Harraby and so assembled a motley bunch of Elliots, Scotts, Armstrongs and Grahams to effect a rescue. Oral tradition has meant that the numbers vary from 40 to 200. The weather was atrocious which made crossing the River Eden very dangerous, but it did mean that the castle watch had taken shelter. Buccleuch left a group to cover the retreat and led the raiding party himself. Popular opinion has it that they must have had support from the inside because they entered the castle quickly. Thus with the aid of a sturdy Reiver, Red Rowan, Kinmont made his escape.

The Armstrongs feature in a number of ballads, Jock o’ the Side, Johnny Armstrong etc. which reflects their significance in the Reivers story.

Willie Beattie of Caulside, Dumfriesshire, sang Kinmont Willie to Mike Yates in 2000. This recording was included in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of song and music from the Mike Yates Collection, Up in the North and Down in the South. Yates commented in the album’s booklet:

On 17 March 1596, a truce-day was held in the Borders, so that Scots and English could meet freely to discuss matters of mutual interest. One person attending the meeting from the Scottish side was William Armstrong of Kinmont—‘Kinmont Willie’—perhaps the most notorious of the Border reivers, who had been active since 1583. Following the meeting, as Willie was riding home to his tower at Morton Rigg, to the north of Carlisle, he was captured by a band of Englishmen who took him to Carlisle Castle, where he was imprisoned. In doing so, the English had broken the terms of the truce-day and diplomatic letters were soon flying between Edinburgh and London, but to no avail. Willie remained a prisoner of the English. The English Deputy, Salkeld—‘fause Sakeld’ in the ballad—hould have ordered Willie’s immediate release, but did not do so.

The Warden, Lord Scrope—‘Lord Scroope’ in the ballad—was away at the time, but, on his return, he too felt unable to release such an important prisoner without permission of Queen Elizabeth. Matters dragged on until the Keeper of Liddesdale, Scott of Buccleuch, made up his mind to rescue Willie. Using his ‘great friends’, the Grahams of Eske, and English associates of the Grahams, (a fact conveniently omitted from the Scottish ballad!) Buccleuch’s party of about eighty men entered the castle on Sunday, 13 April, and rescued Willie from the English, much to the delight of the Scots. Lord Scrope’s subsequent report suggested that Buccleuch had an army of over five hundred men—well, it would, wouldn’t it!—and continues, “The watch, as yt shoulde seeme, by reason of the stormye night, were either on sleepe or gotten under some covert to defende them-selves from the violence of the wether, by meanes whereof the Scottes atcheived theire enterprise with lesse difficultie.”

Following his release, Kinmont Willie continued his life as a reiver—he was last heard of in 1604—and, surprisingly, probably died of old age in his own bed. For those interested in the story of the Border reivers, I suggest that George MacDonald Frazer’s excellent, and very readable, The Steel Bonnets (1986. Reprinted) be consulted.

Willie Beattie, like many of his neighbours, has known the story of Kinmont Willie (or Kinmount Willie to use his pronunciation) for most of his life. He did not, however, have a tune for the ballad, and so made up his own, which fits the ballad as tight as Kinmont Willie’s glove. As with Johnny Armstrong, this is the only know sound recording of this ballad.


Willie Beattie sings Kinmont Willie

O hae ye no heard o’ the fause Sakelde?
O hae ye no heard o’ the keen Lord Scroope?
How they hae ta’en bauld Kinmount Willie,
On Haribee to hang him up?

Had Willie had but twenty men,
But twenty men as stout as he,
Fause Sakelde would never the Kinmount ta’en,
Wi’ eight score in his company.

They band his legs beneath the steed,
They tied his hands behind his back.
They guarded him, fivesome on either side,
And they led him through the Liddel-rack.

They led him through the Liddel-rack,
And also through the Carlisle sands;
They took him tae Carlisle Castle,
To be at my Lord Scroope’s commands.

“My hands are tied, but my tongue is free,
play Sound Clip And whae will dare this deed avow?
Or answer by the Border law?
Or answer tae the bauld Buccleuch?”

“Now haud thy tongue, thou rank reiver.
There’s never a Scot shall set thee free:
Before ye cross my castle gate,
I trow ye shall take farewell of me.”

Now word has gane tae the bauld keeper,
In Branksome Ha’, where that he lay,
That Lord Scroope has ta’en the Kinmount Willie,
Between the hours of night and day.

And here detained him, Kinmount Willie,
Against the truce of Border tide.
And forgotten that the bauld Buccleuch
Is keeper on the Scottish side?

“Had there been war between the lands,
As well I wot that there is nane,
I would slight Carlisle Castle high,
Though it were built of marble stane.”

“I would set that castle in a lowe,
And sloken it wi’ English blood.
There’s never a man in Cumberland,
What kent where Carlisle castle stood.”

“But since nae war’s between the lands,
And here is peace, and peace should be;
I will neither harm English lad or lass,
And yet the Kinmount shall be free.”

And as we crossed the Debatable land,
And tae the English side we held,
The first of men that we met wi’,
Whae should it be but fause Sakelde?

“Where ye be gaun, ye broken men?”
Quo’ fause Sakelde; “Come tell to me?”
Now Dickie o’ Dryhope led that band,
And there never a word of lear has he.

And as we left the Staneshaw-bank,
The wind began full loud tae blaw;
But ’twas wind and weet, and fire and sleet,
When we came beneath the castle wa’.

They thought King James and a’ his men
Had won the house wi’ bow and spear;
It was but twenty Scots and ten,
That put a thousand in sic a steir!

And as we reached the lower prison,
Where Kinmount Willie he did lie,
“O sleep ye, wake ye, Kinmount Willie,
Upon the morn that thou’s to die?”

Then shoulder high, with shout and cry,
We bore him doon the ladder lang;
At every stride Red Rowan made,
I wot the Kinmount’s airns play’d clang!

He turn’d him on the other side,
And at Lord Scroope his glove flung he.
“If ye na like my visit in merry England,
In fair Scotland come and visit me!"”

All sair astonished stood Lord Scroope,
He stood as still as rock of stane;
He scarcely dared tae trew his eyes,
When through the water they had gane.

“He is either himsel’ a devil frae hell,
Or else his mother a witch maun be;
I wadna hae ridden that wan water,
For a’ the gowd in Christendie.”