Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 15

Quantum in nobis, we’ve thought good

To save the expense of Christian blood,

And try if we, by mediation

Of treaty, and accommodation,

Can end the quarrel, and compose

This bloody duel without blows.

Butler.

The increased pace of the party of horsemen soon took away from their zealous captives the breath, if not the inclination, necessary for holding forth. They had now for more than a mile got free of the woodlands, whose broken glades had, for some time, accompanied them after they had left the woods of Tillietudlem. A few birches and oaks still feathered the narrow ravines, or occupied in dwarf-clusters the hollow plains of the moor. But these were gradually disappearing; and a wide and waste country lay before them, swelling into bare hills of dark heath, intersected by deep gullies; being the passages by which torrents forced their course in winter, and during summer the disproportioned channels for diminutive rivulets that winded their puny way among heaps of stones and gravel, the effects and tokens of their winter fury; — like so many spendthrifts dwindled down by the consequences of former excesses and extravagance. This desolate region seemed to extend farther than the eye could reach, without grandeur, without even the dignity of mountain wildness, yet striking, from the huge proportion which it seemed to bear to such more favoured spots of the country as were adapted to cultivation, and fitted for the support of man; and thereby impressing irresistibly the mind of the spectator with a sense of the omnipotence of nature, and the comparative inefficacy of the boasted means of amelioration which man is capable of opposing to the disadvantages of climate and soil.

It is a remarkable effect of such extensive wastes, that they impose an idea of solitude even upon those who travel through them in considerable numbers; so much is the imagination affected by the disproportion between the desert around and the party who are traversing it. Thus the members of a caravan of a thousand souls may feel, in the deserts of Africa or Arabia, a sense of loneliness unknown to the individual traveller, whose solitary course is through a thriving and cultivated country.

It was not, therefore, without a peculiar feeling of emotion, that Morton beheld, at the distance of about half a mile, the body of the cavalry to which his escort belonged, creeping up a steep and winding path which ascended from the more level moor into the hills. Their numbers, which appeared formidable when they crowded through narrow roads, and seemed multiplied by appearing partially, and at different points, among the trees, were now apparently diminished by being exposed at once to view, and in a landscape whose extent bore such immense proportion to the columns of horses and men, which, showing more like a drove of black cattle than a body of soldiers, crawled slowly along the face of the hill, their force and their numbers seeming trifling and contemptible.

“Surely,” said Morton to himself, “a handful of resolute men may defend any defile in these mountains against such a small force as this is, providing that their bravery is equal to their enthusiasm.”

While he made these reflections, the rapid movement of the horsemen who guarded him, soon traversed the space which divided them from their companions; and ere the front of Claverhouse’s column had gained the brow of the hill which they had been seen ascending, Bothwell, with his rearguard and prisoners, had united himself, or nearly so, with the main body led by his commander. The extreme difficulty of the road, which was in some places steep, and in others boggy, retarded the progress of the column, especially in the rear; for the passage of the main body, in many instances, poached up the swamps through which they passed, and rendered them so deep, that the last of their followers were forced to leave the beaten path, and find safer passage where they could.

On these occasions, the distresses of the Reverend Gabriel Kettledrummle and of Mause Headrigg, were considerably augmented, as the brutal troopers, by whom they were guarded, compelled them, at all risks which such inexperienced riders were likely to incur, to leap their horses over drains and gullies, or to push them through morasses and swamps.

“Through the help of the Lord I have luppen ower a wall,” cried poor Mause, as her horse was, by her rude attendants, brought up to leap the turf enclosure of a deserted fold, in which feat her curch flew off, leaving her grey hairs uncovered.

“I am sunk in deep mire where there is no standing — I am come into deep waters where the floods overflow me,” exclaimed Kettledrummle, as the charger on which he was mounted plunged up to the saddle-girths in a well-head, as the springs are called which supply the marshes, the sable streams beneath spouting over the face and person of the captive preacher.

These exclamations excited shouts of laughter among their military attendants; but events soon occurred which rendered them all sufficiently serious.

The leading files of the regiment had nearly attained the brow of the steep hill we have mentioned, when two or three horsemen, speedily discovered to be a part of their own advanced guard, who had acted as a patrol, appeared returning at full gallop, their horses much blown, and the men apparently in a disordered flight. They were followed upon the spur by five or six riders, well armed with sword and pistol, who halted upon the top of the hill, on observing the approach of the Life-Guards. One or two who had carabines dismounted, and, taking a leisurely and deliberate aim at the foremost rank of the regiment, discharged their pieces, by which two troopers were wounded, one severely. They then mounted their horses, and disappeared over the ridge of the hill, retreating with so much coolness as evidently showed, that, on the one hand, they were undismayed by the approach of so considerable a force as was moving against them, and conscious, on the other, that they were supported by numbers sufficient for their protection. This incident occasioned a halt through the whole body of cavalry; and while Claverhouse himself received the report of his advanced guard, which had been thus driven back upon the main body, Lord Evandale advanced to the top of the ridge over which the enemy’s horsemen had retired, and Major Allan, Cornet Grahame, and the other officers, employed themselves in extricating the regiment from the broken ground, and drawing them up on the side of the hill in two lines, the one to support the other.

The word was then given to advance; and in a few minutes the first lines stood on the brow and commanded the prospect on the other side. The second line closed upon them, and also the rear-guard with the prisoners; so that Morton and his companions in captivity could, in like manner, see the form of opposition which was now offered to the farther progress of their captors.

The brow of the hill, on which the royal Life-Guards were now drawn up, sloped downwards (on the side opposite to that which they had ascended) with a gentle declivity, for more than a quarter of a mile, and presented ground, which, though unequal in some places, was not altogether unfavourable for the manoeuvres of cavalry, until near the bottom, when the slope terminated in a marshy level, traversed through its whole length by what seemed either a natural gully, or a deep artificial drain, the sides of which were broken by springs, trenches filled with water, out of which peats and turf had been dug, and here and there by some straggling thickets of alders which loved the moistness so well, that they continued to live as bushes, although too much dwarfed by the sour soil and the stagnant bog-water to ascend into trees. Beyond this ditch, or gully, the ground arose into a second heathy swell, or rather hill, near to the foot of which, and’ as if with the object of defending the broken ground and ditch that covered their front, the body of insurgents appeared to be drawn up with the purpose of abiding battle.

Their infantry was divided into three lines. The first, tolerably provided with fire-arms, were advanced almost close to the verge of the bog, so that their fire must necessarily annoy the royal cavalry as they descended the opposite hill, the whole front of which was exposed, and would probably be yet more fatal if they attempted to cross the morass. Behind this first line was a body of pikemen, designed for their support in case the dragoons should force the passage of the marsh. In their rear was their third line, consisting of countrymen armed with scythes set straight on poles, hay-forks, spits, clubs, goads, fish-spears, and such other rustic implements as hasty resentment had converted into instruments of war. On each flank of the infantry, but a little backward from the bog, as if to allow themselves dry and sound ground whereon to act in case their enemies should force the pass, there was drawn up a small body of cavalry, who were, in general, but indifferently armed, and worse mounted, but full of zeal for the cause, being chiefly either landholders of small property, or farmers of the better class, whose means enabled them to serve on horseback. A few of those who had been engaed in driving back the advanced guard of the royalists, might now be seen returning slowly towards their own squadrons. These were the only individuals of the insurgent army which seemed to be in motion. All the others stood firm and motionless, as the grey stones that lay scattered on the heath around them.

The total number of the insurgents might amount to about a thousand men; but of these there were scarce a hundred cavalry, nor were the half of them even tolerably armed. The strength of their position, however, the sense of their having taken a desperate step, the superiority of their numbers, but, above all, the ardour of their enthusiasm, were the means on which their leaders reckoned, for supplying the want of arms, equipage, and military discipline.

On the side of the hill that rose above the array of battle which they had adopted, were seen the women and even the children, whom zeal, opposed to persecution, had driven into the wilderness. They seemed stationed there to be spectators of the engagement, by which their own fate, as well as that of their parents, husbands, and sons, was to be decided. Like the females of the ancient German tribes, the shrill cries which they raised, when they beheld the glittering ranks of their enemy appear on the brow of the opposing eminence, acted as an incentive to their relatives to fight to the last in defence of that which was dearest to them. Such exhortations seemed to have their full and emphatic effect; for a wild halloo, which went from rank to rank on the appearance of the soldiers, intimated the resolution of the insurgents to fight to the uttermost.

As the horsemen halted their lines on the ridge of the hill, their trumpets and kettle-drums sounded a bold and warlike flourish of menace and defiance, that rang along the waste like the shrill summons of a destroying angel. The wanderers, in answer, united their voices, and sent forth, in solemn modulation, the two first verses of the seventy-sixth Psalm, according to the metrical version of the Scottish Kirk:

“In Judah’s land God is well known,

His name’s in Israel great:

In Salem is his tabernacle,

In Zion is his seat.

There arrows of the bow he brake,

The shield, the sword, the war.

More glorious thou than hills of prey,

More excellent art far.”

A shout, or rather a solemn acclamation, attended the close of the stanza; and after a dead pause, the second verse was resumed by the insurgents, who applied the destruction of the Assyrians as prophetical of the issue of their own impending contest:—

“Those that were stout of heart are spoil’d,

They slept their sleep outright;

And none of those their hands did find,

That were the men of might.

When thy rebuke, O Jacob’s God,

Had forth against them past,

Their horses and their chariots both

Were in a deep sleep cast.”

There was another acclamation, which was followed by the most profound silence.

While these solemn sounds, accented by a thousand voices, were prolonged amongst the waste hills, Claverhouse looked with great attention on the ground, and on the order of battle which the wanderers had adopted, and in which they determined to await the assault.

“The churls,” he said, “must have some old soldiers with them; it was no rustic that made choice of that ground.”

“Burley is said to be with them for certain,” answered Lord Evandale, “and also Hackston of Rathillet, Paton of Meadowhead, Cleland, and some other men of military skill.”

“I judged as much,” said Claverhouse, “from the style in which these detached horsemen leapt their horses over the ditch, as they returned to their position. It was easy to see that there were a few roundheaded troopers amongst them, the true spawn of the old Covenant. We must manage this matter warily as well as boldly. Evandale, let the officers come to this knoll.”

He moved to a small moss-grown cairn, probably the resting-place of some Celtic chief of other times, and the call of “Officers to the front,” soon brought them around their commander.

“I do not call you around me, gentlemen,” said Claverhouse, “in the formal capacity of a council of war, for I will never turn over on others the responsibility which my rank imposes on myself. I only want the benefit of your opinions, reserving to myself, as most men do when they ask advice, the liberty of following my own. — What say you, Cornet Grahame? Shall we attack these fellows who are bellowing younder? You are youngest and hottest, and therefore will speak first whether I will or no.”

“Then,” said Cornet Grahame, “while I have the honour to carry the standard of the Life-Guards, it shall never, with my will, retreat before rebels. I say, charge, in God’s name and the King’s!”

“And what say you, Allan?” continued Claverhouse, “for Evandale is so modest, we shall never get him to speak till you have said what you have to say.”

“These fellows,” said Major Allan, an old cavalier officer of experience, “are three or four to one — I should not mind that much upon a fair field, but they are posted in a very formidable strength, and show no inclination to quit it. I therefore think, with deference to Cornet Grahame’s opinion, that we should draw back to Tillietudlem, occupy the pass between the hills and the open country, and send for reinforcements to my Lord Ross, who is lying at Glasgow with a regiment of infantry. In this way we should cut them off from the Strath of Clyde, and either compel them to come out of their stronghold, and give us battle on fair terms, or, if they remain here, we will attack them so soon as our infantry has joined us, and enabled us to act with effect among these ditches, bogs, and quagmires.”

“Pshaw!” said the young Cornet, “what signifies strong ground, when it is only held by a crew of canting, psalm-singing old women?”

“A man may fight never the worse,” retorted Major Allan, “for honouring both his Bible and Psalter. These fellows will prove as stubborn as steel; I know them of old.”

“Their nasal psalmody,” said the Cornet, “reminds our Major of the race of Dunbar.”

“Had you been at that race, young man,” retorted Allan, “you would have wanted nothing to remind you of it for the longest day you have to live.”

“Hush, hush, gentlemen,” said Claverhouse, “these are untimely repartees. — I should like your advice well, Major Allan, had our rascally patrols (whom I will see duly punished) brought us timely notice of the enemy’s numbers and position. But having once presented ourselves before them in line, the retreat of the Life-Guards would argue gross timidity, and be the general signal for insurrection throughout the west. In which case, so far from obtaining any assistance from my Lord Ross, I promise you I should have great apprehensions of his being cut off before we can join him, or he us. A retreat would have quite the same fatal effect upon the king’s cause as the loss of a battle — and as to the difference of risk or of safety it might make with respect to ourselves, that, I am sure, no gentleman thinks a moment about. There must be some gorges or passes in the morass through which we can force our way; and, were we once on firm ground, I trust there is no man in the Life-Guards who supposes our squadrons, though so weak in numbers, are unable to trample into dust twice the number of these unpractised clowns. — What say you, my Lord Evandale?”

“I humbly think,” said Lord Evandale, “that, go the day how it will, it must be a bloody one; and that we shall lose many brave fellows, and probably be obliged to slaughter a great number of these misguided men, who, after all, are Scotchmen and subjects of King Charles as well as we are.”

“Rebels! rebels! and undeserving the name either of Scotchmen or of subjects,” said Claverhouse; “but come, my lord, what does your opinion point at?”

“To enter into a treaty with these ignorant and misled men,” said the young nobleman.

“A treaty! and with rebels having arms in their hands? Never while I live,” answered his commander.

“At least send a trumpet and flag of truce, summoning them to lay down their weapons and disperse,” said Lord Evandale, “upon promise of a free pardon — I have always heard, that had that been done before the battle of Pentland hills, much blood might have been saved.”

“Well,” said Claverhouse, “and who the devil do you think would carry a summons to these headstrong and desperate fanatics? They acknowledge no laws of war. Their leaders, who have been all most active in the murder of the Archbishop of St Andrews, fight with a rope round their necks, and are likely to kill the messenger, were it but to dip their followers in loyal blood, and to make them as desperate of pardon as themselves.”

“I will go myself,” said Evandale, “if you will permit me. I have often risked my blood to spill that of others, let me do so now in order to save human lives.”

“You shall not go on such an errand, my lord,” said Claverhouse; “your rank and situation render your safety of too much consequence to the country in an age when good principles are so rare. — Here’s my brother’s son Dick Grahame, who fears shot or steel as little as if the devil had given him armour of proof against it, as the fanatics say he has given to his uncle. 21

He shall take a flag of truce and a trumpet, and ride down to the edge of the morass to summon them to lay down their arms and disperse.”

“With all my soul, Colonel,” answered the Cornet; “and I’ll tie my cravat on a pike to serve for a white flag — the rascals never saw such a pennon of Flanders lace in their lives before.”

“Colonel Grahame,” said Evandale, while the young officer prepared for his expedition, “this young gentleman is your nephew and your apparent heir; for God’s sake, permit me to go. It was my counsel, and I ought to stand the risk.”

“Were he my only son,” said Claverhouse, “this is no cause and no time to spare him. I hope my private affections will never interfere with my public duty. If Dick Grahame falls, the loss is chiefly mine; were your lordship to die, the King and country would be the sufferers. — Come, gentlemen, each to his post. If our summons is unfavourably received, we will instantly attack; and, as the old Scottish blazon has it, God shaw the right!”

21 Cornet Grahame. There was actually a young cornet of the Life-Guards named Grahame, and probably some relation of Claverhouse, slain in the skirmish of Drumclog. In the old ballad on the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, Claverhouse is said to have continued the slaughter of the fugitives in revenge of this gentleman’s death.

“Haud up your hand,” then Monmouth said;
“Gie quarters to these men for me;”
But bloody Claver’se swore an oath,
His kinsman’s death avenged should be.

The body of this young man was found shockingly mangled after the battle, his eyes pulled out, and his features so much defaced, that it was impossible to recognise him. The Tory writers say that this was done by the Whigs; because, finding the name Grahame wrought in the young gentleman’s neckcloth, they took the corpse for that of Claver’se himself. The Whig authorities give a different account, from tradition, of the cause of Cornet Grahame’s body being thus mangled. He had, say they, refused his own dog any food on the morning of the battle, affirming, with an oath, that he should have no breakfast but upon the flesh of the Whigs. The ravenous animal, it is said, flew at his master as soon as he fell, and lacerated his face and throat.

These two stories are presented to the reader, leaving it to him to judge whether it is most likely that a party of persecuted and insurgent fanatics should mangle a body supposed to be that of their chief enemy, in the same manner as several persons present at Drumclog had shortly before treated the person of Archbishop Sharpe; or that a domestic dog should, for want of a single breakfast, become so ferocious as to feed on his own master, selecting his body from scores that were lying around, equally accessible to his ravenous appetite.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29