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Johnnie Armstrong

[ Roud 76 ; Child 169 ; Ballad Index C169 ; Bodleian Roud 76 ; trad.]

Jack Davenport played the tune Johnnie Armstrong on Northumbrian small pipes in 1964 on the album Northumbrian Minstrelsy.

The High Level Ranters played the tune Johnny Armstrong in 1969 on their Topic album The Lads of Northumbria.

Andy Hunter sang Johnnie Armstrong in 1984 on his Lismor album King Fareweel.

Willie Beattie of Donegal sang Johnny Armstrong at his home in Caulside, Dumfriesshire, in 2000 to Mike Yates. This recording was included in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs and tunes from the Mike Yates Collection, Up in the North and Down in the South, and in 2004 on the Kyloe album of ballads, songs and tune from the Scottish borders, Borderers. Mike Yates commented in the first album's accompanying booklet:

This great ballad tells of the betrayal and death of John Armstrong of Gilnockie. The Armstrongs had lived as reivers in Liddesdale since the 14th century and, by the 16th, had become extremely powerful; so much so that King James V of Scotland decided, in 1530, that it was time for him to take a stand against their leader. Accounts differ as to how Johnny was captured, there are several reports of him being ambushed by the King's troops, but other accounts suggest that he was lured into the King's presence with the promise of a pardon. Once there, he was overpowered and quickly condemned to die.

A contemporary account gives the following retort from Johnnie before he was led away to the gallows. “He seeing no hope of the King's favour towards him, said very proudly, ‘I am but a fool to seek grace at a graceless face. But had I known, sir, that you would have taken my life this day, I should have lived on the Borders in spite of King Harry and you both, for I know King Harry would down-weight my best horse with gold to know that I were condemned to die this day.’ ”

According to Professor Child, Ihonne Ermistrangis dance* was composed shortly after the event (incorporating the line “to seek grace from a graceless face”) and is first mentioned in The Complaynt of Scotland (1549). A white-letter broadside, John Armstrong's Last Good-Night (now in the British Museum – B.M. 1346.m.7), was printed in Aberdeen sometime between May 1775 and June 1776. [* Ihonne Ermistrangis dance is, of course, how Johnnie Armstrong's dance was printed in the Complaynt of Scotland. None of your Standard English in those days; they were still writing as they spoke.] In 1964 John Arden based his successful play Armstrong's Last Goodnight on the same story.

Willie learnt the ballad from Dick Wilson of Newcastleton, who was a former police-officer. Although Roud list 36 instances, this is the only time it has ever been recorded. A transcript of the ballad can also be found in Come Gie's a Sang by Sheila Douglas, Edinburgh, 1995.

Katherine Campbell sang Johnnie Armstrong in 2014 on the Springthyme album of ballads and songs from the unique family repertoire of sisters Amelia and Jane Harris, The Songs of Amelia and Jane Harris. The Harris sisters inherited a wealth of ballads and songs from a Perthshire family tradition dating back to the mid 1700s. The CD is a companion to the book The Song Repertoire of Amelia and Jane Harris, edited by Emily Lyle, School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh University, with Kaye McAlpine and Anne Dhu McLucas (2002). The album's notes commented:

The Armstrongs were a notable family in Liddesdale in the Scottish borders from the 14th century onwards. By the early 1500s they had become a powerful independent force. In the summer of 1530 King James the Fifth mounted an expedition to pacify his border country. It is probable that John Armstrong and his men were tricked into meeting the king with a promise of pardon, but instead, John and his band (who included other famous border names such as Scott and Elliot as well as Armstrong) were taken and hung, probably at Carlenrig north of Canonbie.

The ballad (Child 169) tells how the king writes a letter to John inviting him to pay him a visit in Edinburgh. Johnnie and his eight score of men dress in their finest and ride north to Edinburgh.

He dressed his merry men all in green,
And he himself in the scarlet red;
And every man had a milkwhite steed,
And hats and feathers all alike.

When John comes before the king he asks for pardon but is told that “tomorrow before I taste meat or drink, high hanged shall your eight score o men and you be.” They fight courageously “till they left not a man in the king's lifeguard, never a man but barely three.” Then “a cowardly man cam John behind, and run him through his fair body,” whereupon Johnnie calls on his men to “fight on, fight on my merry men, I am a little hurt but I am not slain, so here I'll lie and bleed a while, and rise and fight with you again.” However, Johnnie and his men are defeated, a gallows is set up on the plain “and there they hanged Johnnie Armstrong and fifty of his warlike men.” Back home, Johnnie's lady is looking over her castle wall and sees “a bonnie little boy, coming riding speedily” and the boy gives the news that “Johnnie Armstrong you'll never see.” The last verse seems muddled, as it should not be the pretty little boy and his son who would “be the heir to a' my lands” but Johnnie's own son, who lived to be known as Johnnie's Christy. Child B finishes with:

O then bespoke his little son,
As he was set on his nurses knee:
“If ever I live to be a man,
My fathers blood revenged shall be.”

The rather excellent Harris version of the ballad is now published for the first time in Emily Lyle's Harris Repertoire. Although Child had access to the Harris text he seems to have mislaid the source of his copy and assumes (wrongly) that “it is probably a transcript from recent print” (Child III, p 363). He adds that “both forms of the ballad [his A, B as opposed to C] had been too long printed to allow validity to any known recited copy.” He then prints two verses from this copy and notes that “it diverges from the ordinary text more than any I have seen.” Bronson includes the Harris tune (169.7) with just a single stanza.

Steeleye Span sang Johnnie Armstrong on their 2016 CD Dodgy Bastards. They commented:

[Johnnie Armstrong] was a reiver on the Scottish borders raiding and plundering ever more frequently on the English side of the Anglo/Scottish border. King James was becoming increasingly vexed by the situation and invited Johnnie Armstrong to meet him. Johnnie was fooled into thinking that the King would grant him a pardon for his activities but on arrival, when Johnnie asked for the pardon, the King refused. A battle ensued and Johnnie and his men were eventually hanged at Caerlanrig.

Rick [Kemp] found a book with the traditional tune for this ballad which we developed and we also wrote a new refrain for the King's repost to Armstrong's entreaty for a pardon.

Lori Watson sang Johnny Armstrang in February 2017 as the first single of her project Yarrow Acoustic Sessions.


Willie Beattie sings Johnny Armstrong

Some speak as oor lords, some speak as oor lairds,
And sic-like men o' high degree.
Of a gentleman I sing a song,
Sometimes called Laird o' Gilnockie.

The king he writes a loving letter,
Wi' his ain hand sae tenderly;
And he has sent it tae Johnny Armstrong,
Tae come and speak wi' him speedily.

The Eliots and Armstrongs did convene,
They were a gallant company;
“We'll gang and meet our royal king,
And bring him safe tae Gilnockie.”

“Make kinnon and capon ready then,
And venison in great plenty;
We'll welcome hame our royal king,
I hope he'll dine on Gilnockie.”

When Johnny came before the king,
Wi' a' his men sae brave tae see;
The king he movit his bonnet tae him,
He weened he was a king as well as he.

“May I find grace, my sovereign liege,
Grace for my loyal men and me?
For my name is Johnny Armstrong,
And subject of yours, my liege”, said he.

“Away, away, thou traitor strang,
Out of my sight thou may soon be;
I granted never a traitor's life,
And now I'll not begin wi' thee.”

“Grant me my life, my liege, my king,
And a bonny gift I'll gie tae thee;
Full four and twenty milk-white steeds,
Were a' foaled in a year tae me.”

“Away, away, thou traitor strang,
Out of my sight thou may soon be;
I granted never a traitor's life,
And now I'll not begin wi' thee.”

“Grant me my life, my liege, my king,
And a brave gift I'll gie tae thee;
All between here and Newcastle town,
Shall pay their yearly rent tae thee.”

“Away, away, thou traitor strang,
Out of my sight thou may soon be;
I granted never a traitor's life.
And now I'll not begin with thee.”

“Tae seek het water frae cold ice,
Surely it is a great folly;
For I have asked grace of a graceless face,
But there is nane for my men and me.”

“Had I my horse and harness guid,
And riding as I want tae be;
It sall hae been told this hundred years,
The meeting of my king and me.”

“Fareweel, thou bonny Gilnock Hall,
Where on Esk-side thou standest stout.
Gin I had lived but seven mair years,
I would hae gilt thee round about.”

John murdered was at Carlin Rigg,
Wi' a' his gallant company;
But Scotland's hairt was ne'er sae wae,
Tae see sae mony brave men dee.

Because they loved their country dear,
Frae Englishmen, nane were sae bold;
When Johnny lived on the border-side,
Nane o' them daur come near his hauld.

Steeleye Span sing Johnnie Armstrong

Some speak of lords, some speak of lairds,
Some speak of men of high degree.
Of a gentleman I sing a song,
Sometimes called Lord of Gilnockie.
The King he writes a loving letter,
With his own hand so tenderly;
And he has sent it to Johnnie Armstrong,
To come and speak with him speedily.

The Elliots and Armstrongs did converse,
They were a gallant company;
“We'll ride and meet our lawful King,
And bring him safe tae Gilnockie.
Make kinnen and capon ready then,
And venison in great plenty;
We'll welcome home our royal King,
And hope he'll dine at Gilnockie.”

Now John he is for Edinburgh bound
And his eight score men so gallantly,
And each upon a milk white steed
And buckles and swords hanging down to their knees.
Wehen johnnie came before the King
He fell down upon his knee.
“Oh pardon, my sovereign liege,” he said,
Pardon my eight score men and me.”

“Away, away, thou traitor strong,
Out of my sight you soon will be;
I have never granted a traitor's life
And I'll not begin with thee.
Away, away, thou traitor strong,
Out of my sight you soon will be;
For tomorrow morning by the ten of clock
You shall hang from the gallows tree.”

“Grant me my life, my liege, my King,
And a bonnie gift I'll give to thee;
Four and twenty mills complete,
That work all round the year for me.
Grant me my life, my liege, my King,
And a great gift I'll give to thee;
All between here and Newcastle town
Shall pay their yearly rent to thee.”

Well, John looked over his shoulder
And to his men said he,
“I have asked grace of a graceless face,
No pardon for you or me.”
Then John pulled out his nut brown sword,
It was made of metal so free.
Had not the king moved his foot as he did
John would have taken his head from his body.
“Come follow me my merry men,
We'll scorn one foot to flee.
It shall never be said we were hange like dogs,
We will fight most manfully.”

Johnnie murdered was at Caerlanrig,
And all ' his gallant company;
But Scotland's heart was never so broke,
To see so many brave men die.
“Farewell, my bonny Gilnock Hall,
Where on Esk-side thou standest stout.
If I had lived but seven years more,
I would have gilded thee round about.”