Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 17

THE eldest son of Robert II was originally called John. But it was a popular remark, that the kings named John, both of France and England, had been unfortunate, and the Scottish people were very partial to the name of Robert, from its having been borne by the great Bruce. John Stewart, therefore, on ascending the Scottish throne, changed his name to that of Robert III(14 Aug. 1390). We shall see, however, that this poor king remained as unfortunate as if his name had still be John.

The disturbances of the Highlands were one of the plagues of his reign. You must recollect that that extensive range of mountains was inhabited by a race of men different in language and manners from the Lowlanders, and divided into families called Clans. The English termed them the Wild Scots, and the French the Scottish Savages; and, in good truth, very wild and savage they seem to have been. The losses which the Low Country had sustained by the English wars had weakened the districts next to the Highlands so much, that they became unable to repress the incursions of the mountaineers, who descended from their hills, took spoil, burned and destroyed, as if in the country of an enemy.

In 1392, a large body of these highlanders broke down from the Grampian mountains. The chiefs were called Clan–Donnochy, or sons of Duncan, answering to the clan now called Robertson. A party of the Ogilvies and Lindsays, under Sir Walter Ogilvy, Sheriff of Angus, marched hastily against them, and charged them with their lances. But notwithstanding the advantage of their being mounted and completely sheathed in armour, the Highlanders defended themselves with such obstinacy, as to slay the sheriff and sixty of his followers, and repulse the Lowland gentlemen. To give some idea of their ferocity, it is told that Sir David Lindsay, having in the first encounter run his lance through the body of one of the Highlanders, bore him down and pinned him to the earth. In this condition, and in his dying agonies, the Highlander writhed himself upwards on the spear, and exerted his last strength in fetching a sweeping blow at the armed knight with his two-handed sword. The stroke, made with all the last energies of a dying man, cut through Lindsay’s stirrup and steel boot, and though it did Not sever his leg from his body, yet wounded him so severely as to oblige him to quit the field.

It happened, fortunately perhaps for the Lowlands, that the wild Highlanders were as much addicted to quarrel with each other as with their Lowland neighbours. Two clans, or rather two leagues or confederacies, composed each of several separate clans, fell into such deadly feud with each other, as filled the whole neighborhood with slaughter and discord.

When this feud or quarrel could be no other wise ended, it was resolved that the difference should be decided by a combat of thirty men of the Clan Chattan, against the same number of the Clan Kay; that the battle should take place on the North Inch of Perth, a beautiful and level meadow, in part surrounded by the river Tay; and that it should be fought in presence of the King and his nobles. Now, there was a cruel policy in this arrangement; for it was to be supposed that all the best and leading men of each clan would desire to be among the thirty which were to fight for their honour, and it was no less to be expected that the battle would be very. bloody and desperate. Thus, the probable event would be, that both clans, having lost very many of their best and bravest men, would be more easily managed in future. Such was probably the view of the King and his counsellors in permitting this desperate conflict, which however, was much in the spirit of the times. The parties on each side were drawn out, armed with sword and target, axe and dagger, and stood looking on each other with fierce and savage aspects, when, just as the signal for fight was expected, the commander of the Clan Chattan perceived that one of his men, whose heart had failed him, had deserted his standard. There was no time to seek another man from the clan, so the chieftain, as his only resource, was obliged to offer a reward to any one who would fight in the room of the fugitive. Perhaps you think it might be difficult to get a man, who, for a small hire, would undergo the perils of a battle which was likely to be so obstinate and deadly. But in that fighting age, men valued their lives lightly. One Henry Wynd, a citizen of Perth, and a saddler by trade, a little bandy-legged man, but of great strength and activity, and well accustomed to use the broadsword, offered himself, for half a French crown, to serve on the part of the Clan Chattan in the battle of that day. The signal was then given by sound of the royal trumpets, and of the great war-bagpipes of the Highlanders, and the two parties fell on each other with the utmost fury; their natural ferocity of temper being excited by feudal hatred against the hostile clan, zeal for the honour of their own, and a consciousness that they were fighting in presence of the King and nobles of Scotland. As they fought with the two-handed sword and axe, the wounds they inflicted on each other were of a ghastly size and character. Heads were cloven asunder, limbs were lopped from the trunk. The meadow was soon drenched with blood, and covered with dead and wounded men.

In the midst of the. deadly conflict, the chieftain of the Clan Chattan observed that Henry Wynd, after he had slain one of the clan Kay, drew aside, and did not seem willing to fight more. “How is this,” said he, “art thou afraid?” “Not I,” answered Henry; “but I have done enough of work for half-a-crown.” “Forward and fight,” said the Highland chief; “he that doth not grudge his day’s work, I will not stint him in his wages.”

Thus encouraged, Henry Wynd again plunged into the conflict, and, by his excellence as a swordsman, contributed a great deal to the victory, which at length fell to the Clan Chattan. Ten of the victors, with Henry Wynd, whom the Highlanders called the Gow Chrom (that is, the crooked or bandy-legged smith, for he was both a smith and saddler, war-saddles being then made of steel), were left alive, but they were all wounded. Only one of the clan Kay survived, and he was unhurt. But this single individual dared not oppose himself to eleven men, though all more or less injured, but, throwing himself into the Tay, swam to the other side, and went off to carry to the Highlands the news of his clan’s defeat. It is said, he was so ill received by his kinsmen that he put himself to death.

Some part of the above story is matter of tra-dition, but the general fact is certain. Henry Wynd was rewarded to the Highland chieftain’s best abilities; but it was remarked, that, when the battle was over, he was not able to tell the name of the clan he had fought for, replying, when asked on which side he had been, that he was fighting for his own hand. Hence the proverb, “Every man for his own hand, as Henry Wynd fought.” In the mean time troubles, to which we have formerly alluded, broke out in the family of Robert III. The King had been lamed in early youth by the kick of a horse, which had prevented his engaging in war. He was by disposition peaceful, religious, and just, but not firm of mind, and easily imposed on by those about him, and particularly by his brother the Duke of Albany, a man of an enterprising character, but crafty, ambitious, and cruel.

This prince, the next heir to the crown, if the king’s children could he displaced, continued to sow strife and animosity betwixt his father and the Duke of Rothsay, the eldest son of Robert III, and heir to his kingdom. Rothsay was young, gay, and irregular, his father old, and strict in his principles; occasions of quarrel easily arose betwixt them, and Albany represented the conduct of the son to the father in the worst light. The King and Queen seem to have been of opinion, that the marriage of the prince might put an end to his idle and licentious course of life. But Albany, whom they consulted, conducted this important affair in a manner disgraceful to the royal family. He proceeded upon the principle, that the prince should marry the daughter of such Scottish noble as was willing to pay the largest sum of money for the honour of connecting himself with the royal house. The powerful George, Earl of March, was at first the largest offerer. But although the prince was contracted to the daughter of that nobleman accordingly, yet the match was broken off by Albany, when a still larger sum was offered by the Earl of Douglas. His predecessor Earl James, killed at Otterburn, had married the King’s sister, and Earl Archibald was now desirous that his own daughter should be even more nearly connected with royalty, by wedding the heir of the throne. They were married accordingly, but in an evil hour.

The prince continued to give offence by the levity of his conduct; Albany continued to pour his complaints into the King’s ear, and Douglas became also the enemy of his royal son-in-law. The history of this reign being imperfect, we do not distinctly know what charges were brought against the Duke of Rothsay, or how far they were true or false. But it seems certain that he was delivered up by his father to the power of his uncle of Albany, and that of his father-in-law the Earl of Douglas, who treated him with the almost cruelty.

A villain named Ramorgny, with the assistance of Sir William Lindsay, was furnished with a warrant for apprehending and confining the person of the heir-apparent of Scotland. Armed with this authority they seized upon him as he was journeying in Fife, without any suspicion — placed him upon an ordinary work-horse, and conducted him to the strong tower, or castle, of Falkland, belonging to Albany. It was a heavy fall of rain, but the poor prince was allowed no other shelter than a peasant’s cloak. When in that gloomy fortress, he was thrown into a dungeon, and for fifteen days suffered to remain without food, under the charge of two ruffians named Wright and Selkirk, whose task it was to watch the agony of their victim till it terminated in death. It is said that one woman, touched with his lamentations, contrived to bring him from time to time thin barley cakes, concealed in her veil, which she passed through the bars of his prison; and that another woman supplied him with milk from her own bosom. Both were discovered, and what scanty resources their charity could afford were intercepted; and the unhappy prince died in the month of March 1402, of famine, — the most severe and lingering mode among the many by which life may be ended. There is no evidence that the old King, infirm and simple-minded as he was, suspected the foul play which his son had received; but vengeance of God seemed to menace the country in which such a tragedy had been acted. The Earl of March, incensed at the breach of the contract betwixt his daughter and the prince, deserted the Scottish cause, and embraced that of England. He fled to Northumberland, and from thence made repeated incursions upon the Scottish frontier. The Earl of Douglas, placing himself at the head of ten thousand men, made an incursion into England, with banner displayed, and took great spoil. But, in returning, he was waylaid by the celebrated Hotspur, who, with George of March and others, had assembled a numerous army. Douglas, with the same infatuation as had been displayed at so many other battles, took his ground on an eminence called Homildon, where his numerous ranks were exposed to the English arrows, the Scots suffering great loss, for which they were unable to repay the enemy (14 Sept. 1402). While they were thus sustaining a dreadfully unequal combat, a bold Scottish knight, named Sir John Swinton, called with a loud voice, “Why do we remain here on this hillside, to be shot like stags with arrows, when we might rush down upon the English, and dispute the combat hand to hand? Let those who will, descend with me, that we may gain victory, or fall like men.” There was a young nobleman in the host, called the Lord of Gordon. The person living whom he most detested was this same Sir John Swinton, because in some private quarrel he had slain Gordon’s father. But when he heard him give such resolute and brave advice in that dreadful extremity, he required to be made a knight at Swinton’s hand; “for,” said he, “from the hand of no wiser leader, or braver man, can I ask that honour.” Swinton granted his desire, and having hastily performed the ceremony by striking the young man on the neck with the flat of his sword, and bidding him arise a knight, he and Gordon rushed down side by side with their followers, and made considerable slaughter amongst the English. But not being supported by other chiefs, they were overpowered and cut to pieces. The Scots lost the battle, sustaining a total defeat; and Douglas, wounded, and having lost an eye, fell into the hands of the English as a prisoner. A singular train of events followed, which belong rather to English than Scottish history, but which it is proper you should know. The Earl of Northumberland, father to Hotspur, associated with other discontented nobles, had determined to rebel against Henry IV, then King of England. To strengthen their forces, they gave Douglas his liberty, and engaged him to assist them in the civil war which was impending. Douglas came accordingly with a band of his countrymen, and joined Henry Percy, called Hotspur. They marched together into England, and fought a memorable battle with the royal forces near Shrewsbury. As Henry IV was personally present in the battle, Douglas resolved to seek him out, and end the contest by killing or making him prisoner. The King had, however, several other champions in the field, armed and mounted exactly like himself. Of these, Douglas killed no less than three, as they appeared one after another; so that when at length he encountered the real king, he called out, with amazement, “Where the devil do all these kings come from?” The Scottish earl attacked Henry himself with the same fury with which he had assaulted those who represented him, overthrew the royal banner, slaying a valiant knight, Sir Thomas Blunt, to whose care it had been committed, and was about to kill the King. But numbers, and especially the brave Prince of Wales, his son, came to the King of England’s assistance; and before Douglas could fight his way forward to Henry, Hotspur was killed by a arrow-shot, and his party were obliged to fly. Douglas at length condescended to fly also, but his horse stumbling in ascending a hill, he was again wounded and taken.

We return to poor King Robert III, who was now exhausted by age, infirmities, and family calamity. He had still a remaining son, called James, about eleven years old, and he was probably afraid to intrust him to the keeping of Albany, as his death would have rendered that ambitious prince next heir to the throne. He resolved, therefore, to send the young prince to France, under pretence that he would receive a better education there than Scotland could afford him. An English vessel captured that on board of which the prince was sailing to France, and James was sent to London(13 March 1405). When Henry heard that the Prince of Scotland was in his power, he resolved to detain him a prisoner. This was very unjust, for the countries of England and Scotland were at peace together at the time. The King sent him to prison, however, saying, that “the prince would be as well educated at his court as at that of France, for that he understood French well.” This was said in mockery, but Henry kept his word in this point; and though the Scottish prince was confined unjustly, he received an excellent education at the expense of the English monarch.

This new misfortune, which placed the only remaining son of the poor old King in the hands of the English, seems to have broken the heart of Robert III, who died about a year afterwards, overwhelmed with calamities and infirmity(4 April 1406).

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