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    Dumfries Museum

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My hands are tied but my tongue is free: Swords with songs and Kinmont Willie


Linked to the Dumfries Museum exhibition ‘Swords in the Stories’, this talk considers the story, remembered in song, of ‘Kinmont’ Willie Armstrong. A recently discovered sword, allegedly belonging to Willie, inspired the exhibition, and is its star item. This sword came complete with its own song. The ballad of ‘Kinmont Willie’ (Ch 186) was first printed in Walter Scott’s ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ in 1802.

The ballad tells the story of Willie Armstrong of Kynmont known for his violent behaviour and guilty of ‘grievous murders’; a ‘rank reiver’ according to the ballad. Willie was captured during a day of truce, on 17th March 1596—this is a matter of historical record. In the ballad he is taken, bound, ‘o’er the Liddel-rack’ to Carlisle Castle, where he defies the Warden of the English Welsh March, Lord Scrope, proclaiming ‘My hands are tied, but my tongue is free’. Despite the best diplomatic efforts of his superior, Walter Scott of Buccleuch, Keeper of Liddesdale, Willie was held prisoner in the castle, until the night of 13th April 1596, when Buccleuch and his men broke into the jail, and took Willie back home over the Border.

Ballad scholar Dr Valentina Bold will consider the song, and story of Kinmont Willie, as well as the significance of the song. She will set it in the context of linked Border ‘riding’ ballads like ‘Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead’ (Ch 190) and ‘Johnnie Armstrong’ (Ch 169) which also appeared in the Minstrelsy. She will, furthermore, suggest that the ballad is largely—perhaps wholly–the composition of Scott, as a spirited tribute to the Duke of Buccleuch, to whom the Minstrelsy is dedicated.

The event is free but pre booking is required. Please contact Dumfries Museum on 01387 253374 to book your place.


Dr Valentina Bold,
University of Edinburgh

Bookings Phone Line: 01387 253374