By Jon Tait
Sim Armstrong of Whithaugh
He was Scottish organised crime’s Mr. Big TWO CENTURIES before the Sicilian
mafia was formed.
With links to cattle and sheep rustling, coin counterfeiting, robberies, protection
rackets and murders, Sim Armstrong of Whithaugh was one of the most dangerous
and notorious reivers from just over the border in the lonely Liddesdale valley.
Armstrong’s crime empire was inherited from his father Lance, who was himself a
cross-border raider of repute, and included stealing not only from Cumberland and
Northumberland but plundering his own country up as far as the ports at Edinburgh.
Sim was declared an outlaw after beating up servants and setting fire to doors in
Holyrood palace as one of a mob put together by the Earl of Bothwell that attempted
to intimidate King James 1 into an agreement during a night-time break-in.
Sim could be considered something of a sixteenth century Tony Soprano and the
Whithaugh gang that he headed-up were among the most powerful and violent of all
the reiving gangs. In the 1580s it wasn’t unusual for the crew to be involved in raids
with around 600 men into England to steal beasts, money, anything else they could
get their hands on while also taking hostages to ransom back.
Armstrong was taken as a pledge for the good behaviour of the Whithaugh Tower
Mob by the crime Godfather Walter Scott of Buccleuch in 1596. Scott was the Keeper
of Liddesdale and responsible for justice in the valley but was himself also personally
involved in at least 30 murders before he was 30-years-old.
Fifty-three other men representing the worst of the Border crime families, from each
side of the line, were also demanded by the respective nations as they attempted to
break the stranglehold that the mafia had exercised over the lawless area for at least
two hundred years.
Armstrong was detained in York castle with a number of other Scottish pledges who
were mostly Sir Robert Kerr’s enforcers from the area around Kelso and Jedburgh.
They attempted a jailbreak in 1598 but were ratted out and recaptured after a daring
leap from the castle’s walls. Armstrong, however, did escape along with his fellow
Liddesdale pledge and raiding companion Will Elliot of Hartsgarth in 1600 when an
infamous thief called Geordie Simpson, who was a member of the Elliot of Redheugh
mob, sprung them on the pretence of bringing cash for their food and water while they
were held in irons in the cells.
After Sim had escaped he promised that any English or Scottish outlaws that joined
with him would be protected by him in their raiding against both countries in a total
display of mafia power. Neither Edinburgh nor London were in charge in the Borders
— it was the local crime lords that held all the cards. Two years later Sim and his sons
Archie and young Lance, with around 20 others, committed a brutal murder when
they mutilated a shepherd called John Wilson as he lay in his bed.
Sim was charged with poaching game and chopping down woods in the Kidland
Forest in Northumberland in 1605 and was hanged by the Border Commissioners as
they clamped down heavily to ‘Pacify the Borders’ two years later despite his family
ties to Thomas Musgrave, the captain of Bewcastle, who was accused of ‘readily
undertaking the apprehension of offenders in that charge, but slenderly performing it.’
One of his daughters was married into the Whithaugh gang.
Armstrong met his end on a rope in Newcastle and may be buried in the churchyard at
St. John’s in the city, not far from the Central Station. The Border Mafia was finally
broken by mass arrests, banishments, hangings, drownings, and men being declared
outlaws at Justice Courts in Dumfries, Jedburgh, Carlisle, Morpeth, Hexham and
Newcastle, which continued for at least another 30 years after.
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Bio: Jon Tait is a UK-based journalist and the author of the historic true crime book ‘Dick the Devil’s Bairns : Breaking the Border Mafia’ about the notorious Anglo-Scottish border reivers. His book can be found HERE. If you live in England it can be found HERE. If you live in Canada it can bought HERE. If you are in Australia you find it HERE.
The Yard: Crime Blog will be posting several more Historical True Crime articles by Jon, in the very near future.