The Reivers and the Armstrongs

The Scottish Borderland follows the Cheviot Hills. It is quite a beautiful part of Britain. Nearby is Hadrian’s Wall a symbol that even the Romans could not control this wild area at the edge of their empire. Between the 13thand 17thcenturies the Scottish Borders was a no-go area controlled by the Reivers, it’s local war-lords. They were mostly of English descent, surprisingly, and identifiable by the family or clan names. Among them were the Armstrongs.

The Scots and English were at war for a great part of this time. Thus, the Border was a frontier and served as a buffer zone between the two warring nations. However, it meant the Reivers made their own laws and survived in a state of war with neither the English or Scottish controlling them.

The Reivers were superior horsemen who survived by raiding the lands of the other clans for food. The raids were usually no longer than a day’s ride and were often at night and in mid-winter when the crops were in storage and the cattle fat.

The Reivers rode wiry horses and wore light armour. Proficiency in this early form of guerrilla war made the Rievers highly sought after as mercenaries. Queen Elizabeth I is quoted as having said that “with ten thousand such men, James VI could shake any throne in Europe”. However the Reivers had no loyalty to their nominal leaders. They were even known to change sides in battles. During one battle the Scottish Reivers and English Reivers were matched against each other and were seen to be chatting but, once noticed, put on a sham battle.  Although they were foes they had a closer bond than to England or Scotland because of intermarriage between the clans.

Constant warring created a certain type of society. The people were shaped by cruelty and brutality. It bred a tough and hardy people. One of the great Reiver clans were the Armstrongs. The name is said to have been given to the clan when an ancestor saved the Scottish king’s life in battle by hoisting him on to his own horse with his one uninjured arm.

From this family came Neil Armstrong, the man who first set foot on the moon, one of the great pioneers of space flight. Because of his humility we perhaps never appreciated how big was his achievement, never saw the strength of character and steely nerve and we certainly did not understand the technical skills he possessed to land the crude machine on the surface of the moon. But understanding where his ancestors came from we can perhaps understand the type of man that was needed to be the first man on the moon.