Linked to the Dumfries Museum exhibition Swords in the Stories, this talk considered 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 Borders 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 17 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 Western 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 13 April 1596, when Buccleuch and his men broke into the jail, and took Willie back home over the Border.
Ballad scholar Dr Valentina Bold considered the song, and story of Kinmont Willie, as well as the significance of the song. She set it in the context of linked Border ‘riding’ ballads such as Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead (Ch 190) and Johnnie Armstrong (Ch 169) which also appeared in the Minstrelsy. Furthermore, she suggested 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.
Dr Bold was accompanied by well-known singer of traditional songs, Kathy Hobkirk, who performed Sir Walter Scott’s Ballad of Kinmont Willie.
Dr Valentina Bold,
University of Edinburgh