The Armstrong Trust Museum

2 09 2013


My son and I went on a much-anticipated trip to the UK and France this summer and clearly one of the highlights was a visit to The Armstrong Trust Museum in Langholm, Scotland. I have never met kinder and more welcoming people in any other museum I have visited in various nations. While we were looking around outside the curator came to the door to welcome us and to invite us in. He was quick to engage my son by opening exhibits so he could hold old pistols, dirks and a cannon ball. Then, he dressed up James in an Armstrong kilt and wrap, along with putting an ancient broadsword into his hands. The other item my son donned was a steel bonnet. These were worn by border peoples (Scottish/English) who warred and feuded for hundreds of years, before James VI of Scotland became James I of Great Britain and Ireland. I put the items on too, and got a feel for what my ancestors used to wear. It was about this time that another friendly Armstrong came into the museum and asked me my name. When he heard ‘Burn’ he and the curator laughed and asked me what other surnames were in the mix. When I mentioned ‘Johnston’ and ‘Robson’ they laughed and one commented, “None of those families sat well with us.” The only name they did not recognize was ‘Wardle’, as that branch of our family moved from Durham to the border country at some point. Anyway, very many of our ancestors feuded with the Armstrongs and sometimes the Armstrongs would team up with the Johnstons’ arch enemies, the Maxwells. The Maxwells were based around Dumfries and the Armstrongs around Langholm, with the Johnstons sandwiched between the two around Lockerbie. To give you an idea of how vicious the border feuding was, I was told, “When the Johnstons caught Maxwells, they would boil them alive. And, when the Maxwells got hold of Johnstons they would flay (skin) them to death.” The fighting finally came to a stop when James I laid down the law and forced many of the primary border reivers into military service or deported them to Ireland. The poor Grahams were expelled entirely, and found it hard to sneak back in. Many border reivers were executed, by hanging and drowning. Not a few Armstrongs and other border peoples moved away, to become very successful. For example, Alexander Graham Bell had two border names to his credit. Richard Nixon was of border reiver stock (obviously). Notably, Neil Armstrong, who the Armstrongs call ‘Moon Man’, had roots in the Langholm area and he helped to fund the museum. He also left a legacy to continue its funding, after his death. The Armstrongs were the most powerful of all the border reiver families, being able to put up to 3,000 horsemen into the field if the need arose. This created conflicts because although Scottish kings liked to have strong families along the border with England, they did not want the Armstrongs to get too powerful. This led to James V luring Johnnie Armstrong into a trap in 1530. The king had assured him safe conduct, inviting him on a hunting expedition. James V cruelly had Johnnie and 36 of his men hanged at a chapel north of Hawick. A memorial to Johnnie Armstrong and his men is in the chapel’s graveyard. It seems that the kings of the era were somewhat hypocritical, yes? While travelling around Cumbria and Dumfriesshire I did not run into any Burn people, but I did pass by places named for us – Burnhill, Burn’s Farm, etc. There are still some Burns about, however, so our name lives on in the border regions.