The Scottish textile town of Langholm still celebrates a very special day in its life and work during the month of March dating back to an extraordinary March in 1972 when the town was visited by the American astronaut Neil Alden Armstrong. The day was one many people in the community will remember for many a year, and all relates to the astronaut visiting his ancestral home town.
That said, it appears that the man who was the first person to walk on the surface of the Moon was more or less lost for a reply, the day he become the first Freeman of the town of Langholm.
During July 2019, Gilnockie Tower and the town of Langholm, both small communities in Dumfries and Galloway on the southern Scottish Border, will hold a series of events to commemorate the life of Neil Armstrong. Why, you may wonder, is a location with a population of just 2,500 inhabitants celebrating the life of an American astronaut?
The incentive is straightforward: the town claimed the Armstrong as one of their own kinfolks, and to the towns surprise Neil accepted. The Esk Valley is the established seat of the Armstrong Clan; and in turn it could potentially be the Moon Walkers ancestral home town.
During the Apollo 11 project and the consequent moon landing, Langholms town clerk Eddie Armstrong wrote to Armstrong inviting him to become the town’s first and only Freeman. To the astonishment of the town’s people, the NASA team member accepted that very important invite.
Less than three years after the ground breaking NASA Apollo 11 Mission to the moon the quietly spoken engineer, a legendary figure in aviation exploration, was invited to become the first Freeman of Langholm, the area of Scotland which was the stronghold of family clan.
Armstrong was due to deliver the Mountbatten lecture in the city of Edinburgh, and part of his journey would incorporate a visit to Langholm. With the invitation accepted, the town clerk of the time, Eddie Armstrong, was to head up an organising group that would work and experience a steep learning curve to ensure that the day would be a success for the township.
The event was something that everyone in the area wanted to attend and the principal building at that time was the Langholm Parish Church. Even that building couldn’t hold everyone who wanted to attend so it was a difficult time selecting who could, and could not attend.
External catering teams were employed to provide for the huge numbers attending. An artisan from Dumfries and Galloway designed and manufactured a custom-built wood carving of Johnnie Armstrong’s stronghold near to Canonbie, Gilnockie Tower, and that would hold Langholms first Freeman’s scroll when presented.
Many Langholmites memory of the day is still infused with all the excitement that the town experienced during his visit. A new bagpipe tune was written to honour his visit and aptly named Commander Neil Armstrong’s Moon-step.
Neil and his wife Janet arrived in Langholm a little between 10am and 11am to a tumultuous welcome. The flags were out and the Langholm Pipe Band in attendance producing a genuine celebratory occasion.
Opening the event was a short visit to the Langholm Town Hall for refreshments and to meet with local dignitaries, then travelled to the church for the official ceremony in a carriage drawn by two grey horses, escorted by two smartly dressed Halberdiers.
The church organist played with enthusiasm See The Conquering Hero Com as the official party entered the church.
The astronaut was invited to take the oath of allegiance, and his burgess ticket produced on white vellum, was presented to him in the artisans model of Gilnockie Tower.
Leaving the church Armstrong walked to the lunch at the Buccleuch Hall (now renamed the Buccleuch Centre) and although a man of few words, he was enthusiastically meeting the people who had lined the Langholm streets to witness this great event. Shaking hands, talking to people and signing autographs, many are treasured reminders of a historical visit that will long be remembered by the folks in Langholm.
A new tartan was commissioned for this visit, aptly called the Lunar tartan, a new and vibrant tartan that had been designed and woven in Langholm. The design colours were developed and encouraged by the pioneer’s journey to the Moon. Black, brown and grey were taken from the lunar or moon rock brought back to earth, and the red was for the Apollo rocket flame.
Even today Americans are visiting the Esk Valley searching for their roots, the tremendous amount of publicity generated by Neil Armstrongs visit lives on 50 years after the event.
Climbing to the top of Gilnockie Tower, a16th century pele tower guarding the Esk Valley was an experience that allowed him to witness first hand, where the roots of his Armstrong Family were, before moving on to Drumlanrig Castle as the guest of the Duke of Buccleuch.
A short film made during his visit recorded Neil Armstrong’s speech following the Freeman presentation and points towards his real delight at the towns welcome. In it, he declares, “The most difficult place to be recognised is in one’s own home town – and I consider this now my home town.”
The Clan Armstrong Centre at Gilnockie Tower, which is based 4 miles south of Langholm on the A7 Carlisle to Edinburgh Visitor Route, have reported that his commitment to the town of Langholm has kindled a special pride in the Armstrong family all over the world, which includes an in-depth interest in the education of their ancestral hometown.
The visit to Langholm may have been a very small step for Armstrong; it was a colossal event for the gateway to Scotland, the Esk Valley and Langholm.
The owner of Gilnockie Tower will be hosting a special event at Gilnockie Tower 20th and 21st July, all Armstrong family members are cordially invited