Border Reivers-West March Warden is Murdered by the Armstrongs.

Sir John Carmichael of that Ilk was murdered in June 1600 by a party of Scottish Reivers as he rode from Langholm to Lochmaben to attend a Warden Court.



Sir John was born in 1542, son to an illustrious family which hailed from Lanarkshire. He was a direct ancestor of the Earls of Hindford.

He was Scottish Deputy March Warden at the ‘Day of Truce’ which was held on the Border in the hills aside present day Carter Bar in July 1575. The Day of Truce, a meeting to try the perpetrators of crime, both English and Scottish, was enshrined in Border Law. March Wardens from each side of the Border presided over the affairs and were charged with bringing the criminals for trial; juries were a mix of both Scots and English. Yet the ‘Day’ was a time when many men attended from both England and Scotland to witness that fair play presided throughout.

In 1575 numbers who attended were limitless; it was not unusual for a thousand men from each country to witness the events. Thus it was nigh on impossible to bring Scots and English together without inviting many who were at feud. Such was the turmoil that reigned in the Border country that even blood-feud prevailed as men from the same clans and same side of the Border rubbed shoulders at the Truce but smarted for revenge at the sight of an adversary with whom they were at odds. The atmosphere was charged with belligerence and aggression, yet there was little alternative. All invited might ostensibly be there to see fair play but there was another reason, unspoken yet acknowledged by all. Their presence was some insurance that neither side would take advantage of the other, nor resort to violence should any judgement be deemed unfair by family or friend of the accused. All who attended the Truce were to arrive unarmed but the reality was so different. No man would have been so foolish as to adhere to this code in the cauldron of ill feeling which prevailed. The Wardens turned a blind eye to the steel which swung at each man’s belt.

All took an oath to honour the precept of the Truce. They swore that they would not offend ‘by word, deed or countenance’.



At the Raid of the Redeswire Carmichael fell victim to the invective and guile of Sir John Forster, seventy-five years old, and English Middle March Warden. Reaction to the aggressive exchanges of the two Wardens soon spilled over to the men of both sides who attended and all hell let loose.

The Redeswire affair was the last battle between English and Scottish Border Reivers and the last time that the English used the longbow in warfare. The English came off the worse in this encounter and Carmichael was warded in York in an effort to appease the wrath of Elizabeth l of England. Sir George Heron of Chipchase in Tynedale, Northumberland was murdered in the affray.

There was at least one other occasion where Sir John Carmichael played a prominent part. In the Raid of Ruthven in 1582 the sixteen year old king of Scotland, James Vl, was captured by William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, and confined for ten months. Gowrie was unhappy at the influence of Catholicism and the effect this might have on the young king. Carmichael held the same views and readily espoused the cause of ridding the nation of the pro-catholic and pro-French influences epitomised in the young king’s cousin, Esme Stuart.

Carmichael was soon pardoned for his part in the affair. In 1588 he was one of the ambassadors sent to Denmark to negotiate the marriage between James Vl and Anne, daughter of the king of Denmark.

When Carmichael was made Warden of the Scottish West March in 1598 he had come of age. For all his turbulent past he was respected as a Warden who would see fair play between the English and Scots. There were many in the Scottish Border Lands who resented his impartial approach; none more so than the Armstrongs of Liddesdale.



In 1600 Carmichael made it plain that he would use his power as March Warden even against his own people and especially the Armstrongs whose raids south of the Border were a particular embarrassment to a man dedicated to bringing peace to the Borders. The Armstrongs decided to plead for leniency on the promise of amendment to their nefarious ways and sought an audience with Sir John. They sent a brother of William Armstrong of Kinmont to parley with Carmichael, one Alexander Armstrong, known as Sandeis Ringane. Carmichael had heard the promises too many times before and would have no truck with the Armstrong clan. Their past outrages deserved the punishments he held in store.



At the meeting with Carmichael were a few of his young followers. They began to taunt the elderly Armstrong and endeavoured to humiliate him at every opportunity. It would seem that Carmichael did little to curb their youthful pranks and overt hostility to the once powerful warlord. At one stage they removed his sword and filled his scabbard with egg yolks. Having replaced the sword it was now impossible to remove it from the scabbard.

Sandeis Ringane was besides himself with fury and swore that should any of the present company of Carmichael ever stray on Armstrong land he would have no compunction in pulling his sword and ridding the world of their odious presence.  The meeting broke up with acrimony.

On his return home Sandeis Ringane told his sons of his mistreatment. His eldest son, Thomas Armstrong, said little in the way of comfort to calm the distress and shame of his unfortunate father but the thought of revenge was soon at the forefront of his mind.

He knew that next morning Sir John Carmichael was to leave Langholm and ride for Lochmaben where he was to preside over a Warden Court. The journey, through hilly woodland, would surely present the perfect opportunity to confront the illustrious March Warden.



Accordingly next morning a party of Armstrongs including Thomas Armstrong and his father along with a Taylor, a Forrester, a Scott and a Graham lay in wait for Carmichael at a place still known to this day as the Raesknowes, on the way to Lochmaben. As the March Warden passed the ambush party a number of hagbutts rang out and Carmichael fell dead.

The ambush party scattered and sought refuge at the homes of friends who had been apprised of the intention to kill Carmichael but they were relentlessly pursued on the orders of King James.

Carmichael was a king’s Warden of the Marches and the perpetrators of the murder were therefore considered as traitors. Murder in the Border lands was pretty commonplace in the 16th century but this one was different. Murder of a man appointed by the King himself was not to be tolerated. The wrongdoers would pay the ultimate price for their rash and impetuous crime against a King’s man.

In 1601 Thomas Armstrong, son to Sandies Ringane, was apprehended, taken to the Mercat Cross at Edinburgh and hanged. Before he stood the drop that ended his life his right hand was cut off. Subsequently his body was wrapped in chains, the lifeless corpse hung up at the Borroughmuir.

‘And Thomas Armstrang, “sone to Sandeis Ringane” was condemned to be “tane to the mercat croce of Edinburgh, and thair his richt hand to be stricken fra his arme; and thaireeftir, to be hanget upoune ane gibbet, quhill he be deid; and thaireefter, to be tane to the Gallows on the Burrowmure, and thair his body to be hangit in irn chains…

Thomas Armstrong was the first man ever to be hanged in chains after death; at least he is the first recorded as such in the Scottish records. Even in death he was to suffer for his crime, his body subject to the butt of endless atrocity by the Edinburgh populace.

One man evaded capture until 1606.

Should you ever find yourself taking the road from Canonbie to Newcastleton in the Scottish Borders, you will come across a statue to Lang Sandy as you pass through the village of Rowanburn. It is on your right as you pass through the village.

Lang Sandy, as his name implies, was a huge man. His real name was Alexander Armstrong, the board at his feet simply declaring that he was hanged in 1606.

He took part in the ambush and murder of Sir John Carmichael in June 1600 but was not caught until six years later.

At his trial he admitted the murder but not before saying that the crime was brought on against his will.

The murder of Sir John Carmichael would herald the end of the Armstrongs as the superior force in the Scottish Border Lands. Within three years of the murder, James Vl of Scotland would also rule in England on the death of Elizabeth l. He would not forget the atrocity committed by a clan that had often been the bane of his endeavours to cement a lasting and firm relationship with the English queen before her death. Many of the Armstrongs would be unjustly hounded and persecuted, evicted from their lands, deported and executed without trial.

Carmichael‘s death would signal their demise.



Border Reivers

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