Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 9

When King Edward the First heard that Scotland was again in arms against him, he marched down to the Borders, as I have already told you, with many threats of what he would do to avenge himself on Bruce and his party, whom he called rebels. But he was now old and feeble, and while he was making his preparations, he was taken very ill, and after lingering a long time, at length died on the 6th July, 1307, at a place in Cumberland called Burgh upon the Sands, in full sight of Scotland, and not three miles from its frontier. His hatred to that country was so inveterate, that his thoughts of revenge seemed to occupy his mind on his deathbed. He made his son promise never to make peace with Scotland until the nation was subdued. He gave also very singular directions concerning the disposal of his dead body. He ordered that it should be boiled in a cauldron till the flesh parted from the bones, and that then the bones should be wrapped up in a bull’s hide, and carried at the head of the English army, as often as the Scots attempted to recover their freedom. He thought that he had inflicted such distresses on the Scots, and invaded and defeated them so often, that his very dead bones would terrify them. His son, Edward the Second, did not choose to execute this strange injunction, but caused his father to be buried in Westminster Abbey; where his tomb is still to be seen, bearing for an inscription, HERE LIES THE MANNER OF THE SCOTTISH NATION. And, indeed, it true, that during his life he did them as much injury as a hammer does to the substances which it dashes to pieces.

Edward the Second was neither so brave nor so wise as his father; on the contrary, he was a weak prince, fond of idle amusements, and worthless favourites. It was lucky for Scotland that such was his disposition. He marched a little way into Scotland with the large army which Edward the First had collected, but went back again without fighting; which gave great encouragement to Bruce’s party.

Several of the Scottish nobility now took arms in different parts of the country, declared for King Robert, and fought against the English troops and garrisons. The most distinguished of these was the Good Lord James of Douglas, whom we have often mentioned before. Some of his most memorable exploits respected his own castle of Douglas, in which, being an important fortress, and strongly situated, the English had placed a large garrison. James of Douglas saw, with great displeasure, his castle filled with English soldiers, and stored with great quantities of corn, and cattle, and wine, and ale, and other supplies which they were preparing, to enable them to assist the English army with provisions. So he resolved, if possible, to be revenged upon the captain of the garrison and his soldiers.

For this purpose, Douglas went in disguise to the house of one of his old servants, called Thomas Dickson, a strong, faithful, and bold man, and laid a scheme for taking the castle. A holiday was approaching, called Palm Sunday. Upon this day, it was common, in the Roman Catholic times, that the people went to church in procession, with green boughs in their hands. Just as the English soldiers, who had marched down from the castle, got into church, one of Lord James’s followers raised the cry of Douglas! Douglas!, which was the shout with which that family always began battle. Thomas Dickson, and some friends whom he had collected, instantly drew their swords, and killed the first Englishman whom they met. But as the signal had been given too soon, Dickson was borne down and slain. Douglas and his men presently after forced their way into the church. The English soldiers attempted to defend themselves; but, being taken by surprise and unprepared, they were, for the greater part, killed or made prisoners, and that so suddenly, and with so little noise, that their companions in the castle never heard of it. So that when Douglas and his men approached the castle gate, they found it open, and that part of the garrison which were left at home, busied cooking provisions for those that were at church. So Lord James got possession of his own castle without difficulty, and he and his men eat up all the good dinner which the English had made ready. But Douglas dared not stay there, lest the English should come in great force and besiege him; and therefore he resolved to destroy all the provisions which the English had stored up in the castle, and to render the place unavailing to them. It must be owned he executed this purpose in a very cruel and shocking manner, for he was much enraged at the death of Thomas Dickson. He caused all the barrels containing flour, meal, wheat, and malt, to be knocked in pieces, and their contents mixed on the floor; then he staved the great hogsheads of wine and ale, and mixed the liquor with the stores; and, last of all, he killed his prisoners, and flung the dead bodies among this disgusting heap, which his men called, in derision of the English, the Douglas Larder. Then he flung dead horses into the well to destroy it — after which he set fire to the castle; and finally marched away, and took refuge with his followers in the hills and forests. “He loved better,” he said, “to hear the lark sing than the mouse squeak.” That is, he loved better to keep in the open field with his men, than to shut himself and them up in castles. When Clifford, the English general, heard what had happened, he came to Douglas Castle with a great body of men, and rebuilt all the defences which Lord James had destroyed, and cleared out the well, and put a good soldier, named Thirlwall, to command the garrison, and desired him to be on his guard, for he suspected that Lord James would again attack him. And, indeed, Douglas, who did not like to see the English in his father’s castle, was resolved to take the first opportunity of destroying this garrison, as he had done the former. For this purpose he again had recourse to stratagem. He laid a part of his followers in ambush in the wood, and sent fourteen men, disguised like countrymen, driving cattle past the gates of the castle. As soon as Thirlwall saw this, he swore that he would plunder the Scots drovers of their cattle, and came out with a considerable part of his garrison, for that purpose. He had followed the cattle past the place where Douglas was lying concealed, when all of a sudden the Scotsmen threw off their carriers’ cloaks, and appearing in armour, cried the cry of Douglas, and, turning back suddenly, ran to meet the pursuers; and before Thirlwall could make any defence, he heard the same war-cry behind him, and saw Douglas coming up with those Scots who had been lying in ambush. Thirlwall himself was killed, fighting bravely in the middle of his enemies, and only a very few of his men found their way back to the castle. When Lord James had thus slain two English commanders or governors of his castle, and was known to have made a vow that he would be revenged on any one who should dare to take possession of his father’s house, men became afraid; and the fortress was called, both in England and Scotland, the Perilous Castle of Douglas, because it proved so dangerous to any Englishman who was stationed there. Now, in those warlike times, Master Littlejohn, you must know, that the ladies would not marry any man who was not very brave and valiant, so that a coward, let him be ever so rich or high-born, was held in universal contempt. And thus it became the fashion for the ladies to demand proofs of the courage of their lovers, and for those knights who desired to please the ladies, to try some extraordinary deed of arms, to show their bravery and deserve their favour. At this time we speak of, there was a young lady in England, whom many knights and noblemen asked in marriage, because she was extremely wealthy, and very beautiful. Once upon a holiday she made a great feast, to which she asked all her lovers, and numerous other gallant knights; and after the feast she arose, and told them that she was much obliged to them for their good opinion of her, but as she desired to have for her husband a man of the most incontestable bravery, she had formed her resolution not to marry any one, save one who should show his courage by defending the Perilous Castle of Douglas against the Scots for a year and a day. Now this made some silence among the gentlemen present; for although the lady was rich and beautiful, yet there was great danger in placing themselves within the reach of the Good Lord James of Douglas. At last a brave young knight started up and said, that for the love of that lady he was willing to keep the Perilous Castle for a year and a day, if the King pleased to give him leave. The King of England was satisfied, and well pleased to get a brave man to hold a place so dangerous. Sir John Wilton was the name of this gallant knight. He kept the castle very safely for some time; but Douglas at last, by a stratagem, induced him to venture out with a part of the garrison, and then set upon them and slew them. Sir John Wilton himself was killed, and a letter from the lady was found in his pocket. Douglas was sorry for his unhappy end, and did not put to death any of the prisoners as he had formerly done, but dismissed them in safety to the next English garrison.

Other great lords, besides Douglas, were now exerting themselves to attack and destroy the English. Amongst those was Sir Thomas Randolph, whose mother was a sister of King Robert. He had joined with the Bruce when he first took up arms. Afterwards being made prisoner by the English, when the King was defeated at Methven, as I told you, Sir Thomas Randolph was obliged to join the English to save his life. He remained so constant to them, that he was in company with Aymer de Valence and John of Lorn, when they forced the Bruce to disperse his little band; and he followed the pursuit so close, that he made his uncle’s standard-bearer prisoner, and took his banner. Afterwards, however, he was himself made prisoner, at a solitary house of Lyne-water, by the Good Lord James Douglas, who brought him captive to the King. Robert reproached his nephew for having deserted his cause; and Randolph, who was very hot-tempered, answered insolently, and was sent by King Robert to prison. Shortly after, the uncle and nephew were reconciled, and Sir Thomas Randolph, created Earl of Murray by the King, was ever afterwards one of Bruce’s best supporters. There was a sort of rivalry between Douglas and him, which should do the boldest and most hazardous actions. I will just mention one of two circumstances, which will show you what awful dangers were to be encountered by these brave men, in order to free Scotland from its enemies and invaders.

While Robert Bruce was gradually getting possession of the country, and driving out the English, Edinburgh, the principal town of Scotland, remained, with its strong castle, in possession of the invaders. Sir Thomas Randolph was extremely desirous to gain this important place; but, as you well know, the castle is situated on a very steep and lofty rock, so that it is difficult or almost impossible even to get up to the foot of the walls, much more to climb over them.

So while Randolph was considering what was to be done, there came to him a Scottish gentleman named Francis, who had joined Bruce’s standard, and asked to speak with him in private. He then told Randolph, that in his youth he had lived in the castle of Edinburgh, and that his father had then been keeper of the fortress. It happened at that time that Francis was much in love with a lady, who lived in a part of the town beneath the castle, which is called the Grassmarket. Now, as he could not get out of the castle by day to see his mistress, he had practiced a way of clambering by night down the castle rock on the south side, and returning at his pleasure; when he came to the foot of the wall, he made use of a ladder to get over it, as it was not very high at that point, those who built it having trusted to the steepness of the crag; and, for the same reason, no watch was placed there. Francis had gone and come so frequently in this dangerous manner, that, though it was now long ago, he told Randolph he knew the road so well, that he would undertake to guide a small party of men by night to the bottom of the wall; and as they might bring ladders with them, there would be no difficulty in scaling it. The great risk was, that of their being discovered by the watchmen while in the act of ascending the cliff, in which case every man of them must have perished.

Nevertheless, Randolph did not hesitate to attempt the adventure. He took with him only thirty men (you may be sure they were chosen for activity and courage), and came one dark night to the foot of the rock, which they began to ascend under the guidance of Francis, who went before them, upon his hands and feet, up one cliff, down another, and round another, where there was scarce room to support themselves. All the while, these thirty men were obliged to follow in a line, one after the other, by a path that was fitter for a cat than a man. The noise of a stone falling, or a word spoken from one to another, would have alarmed the watchmen. They were obliged, therefore, to move with the greatest precaution. When they were far up the crag, and near the foundation of the wall, they heard the guards going their rounds, to see that all was safe in and about the castle. Randolph and his party had nothing for it but to lie close and quiet each man under the crag, as he happened to be placed, and trust that the guards would pass by without noticing them. And while they were waiting in breathless alarm, they got a new cause of fright. One of the soldiers of the castle, willing to startle his comrades, suddenly threw a stone from the wall, and cried out, “Aha, I see you well!” The stone came thundering down over the heads of Randolph and his men, who naturally thought themselves discovered. If they had stirred, or made the slightest noise, they would have been entirely destroyed; for the soldiers above might have killed every man of them, merely by rolling down stones. But being courageous and chosen men, they remained quiet, and the English soldiers, who thought their comrade was merely playing them a trick (as, indeed, he had not other meaning in what he did and said), passed on, without farther examination. Then Randolph and his men got up, and came in haste to the foot of the wall, which was not above twice a man’s height in that place. They planted the ladders they had brought, and Francis mounted first to show them the way; Sir Andrew Grey, a brave knight, followed him, and Randolph himself was the third man who got over. Then the rest followed. When once they were within the walls, there was not so much to do, for the garrison were asleep and unarmed, excepting the watch, who were speedily destroyed. Thus was Edinburgh castle taken in March, 1312–13. It was not, however, only by the exertion of great and powerful barons, like Randolph and Douglas, that the freedom of Scotland was to be accomplished. The stout yeomanry, and the bold peasantry of the land, who were as desirous to enjoy their cottages in honourable independence, as the nobles were to reclaim their castles and estates from the English, contributed their full share in the efforts which were made to deliver their country from the invaders. I will give you one instance among many.

There was a strong castle near Linlithgow, or Lithgow, as the word is more generally pronounced, where an English governor, with a powerful garrison, lay in readiness to support the English cause, and used to exercise much severity upon the Scots in the neighbourhood. There lived at not great distance form this stronghold, a farmer, a bold and stout man, whose name was Binnock, or as it is now pronounced, Binning. This man saw with great joy the progress which the Scots were making in recovering their country from the English, and resolved to do something to help his countrymen, by getting possession, if it were possible, of the castle of Lithgow. But the place was very strong, situated by the side of a lake, defended not only by gates, which were usually kept shut against strangers, but also by a portcullis. A portcullis is a sort of door formed of cross-bars of iron, like a grate. It has not hinges like a door, but is drawn up by pulleys, and let down when any danger approaches. It may be let go in a moment, and then falls down into the door-way; and as it has great iron spikes at the bottom, it crushed all that it lights upon; thus in case of a sudden alarm, a portcullis may be let suddenly fall to defend the entrance, when it is not possible to shut the gates. Binnock knew this very well, but he resolved to be provided against this risk also when he attempted to surprise the castle. So he spoke with some bold courageous countrymen, and engaged them in his enterprise, which he accomplished thus. Binnock had been accustomed to supply the garrison of Linlithgow with hay, and he had been ordered by the English governor to furnish some cart-loads, of which they were in want. He promised to bring it accordingly; but the night before he drove the hay to the castle, he stationed a party of his friends, as well armed as possible, near the entrance, where they could not be seen by the garrison, and gave them directions that they should come to his assistance as soon as they should hear him cry a signal, which was to be, — “Call all, call all!” Then he loaded a great waggon with hay, but in the waggon he placed eight strong men, well armed, lying flat on their breasts, and covered over with hay, so that they could not be seen. He himself walked carelessly beside the waggon; and he chose the stoutest and bravest of his servants to be the driver, who carried at his belt a strong axe or hatchet. In this way Binnock approached the castle early in the morning; and the watchman, who only saw two men, Binnock being one of them, with a cart of hay, which they expected, opened the gates, and raised up the portcullis, to permit them to enter the castle. But as soon as the cart had gotten under the gateway, Binnock made a sign to his servant, who with his axe suddenly cut asunder the soam, that is, the yoke which fastens the horses to the cart, and the horses finding themselves free, naturally started forward, the cart remaining behind under the arch of the gate. At the same moment, Binnock cried as loud as he could, “Call all, call all!” and drawing the sword, which he had under his country habit, he killed the porter. The armed men then jumped up from under the hay where they lay concealed, and rushed on the English guard. The Englishmen tried to shut the gates, but they could not, because the cart of hay remained in the gateway, and prevented the folding-doors from being closed. The portcullis was also let fall, but the grating was caught on the cart, and so could not drop to the ground. The men who were in ambush near the gate, hearing the cry, “Call all, call all,” ran to assist those who had leaped out from among the hay; the castle was taken, and all the Englishmen killed or made prisoners. King Robert rewarded Binnock by bestowing on him an estate, which his posterity long afterwards enjoyed. Perhaps you may be tired, my dear child, of such stories; yet I will tell you how the great and important castle of Roxburgh was taken from the English, and then we will pass to other subjects. You must know Roxburgh was then a very large castle, situated near where two fine rivers, the Tweed and the Teviot, join each other. Being within five or six miles of England, the English were extremely desirous of retaining it, and the Scots equally eager to obtain possession of it. I will tell you how it was taken.

It was upon the night of what is called Shrovetide, a holiday which Roman Catholics paid great respect to, and solemnized with much gaiety and feasting. Most of the garrison of Roxburgh castle were drinking and carousing, but still they had set watches on the battlements of the castle, in case of any sudden attack; for, as the Scots had succeeded in so many enterprises of the kind, as Douglas was known to be in the neighbourhood, they conceived themselves obliged to keep a very strict guard.

An Englishwoman, the wife of one of the officers, was sitting on the battlements with her child in her arms; and looking out on the fields below, she saw some black objects, like a herd of cattle, straggling near the foot of the wall, and approaching the ditch or moat of the castle. She pointed them out to the sentinel, and asked him what they were. — “Pooh, pooh,” said the soldier, “it is farmer such a one’s cattle” (naming a man whose farm lay near to the castle); “the good man is keeping a jolly Shrovetide, and has forgot to shut up his bullocks in their yard; but if the Douglas come across them before morning, he is likely to rue his negligence.” Now these creeping objects which they saw from the castle wall were no real cattle, but Douglas himself and his soldiers, who had put black cloaks above their armour, and were creeping about on hands and feet, in order, without being observed, to get so near to the foot of the castle wall as to be able to set ladders to it. The poor woman, who knew nothing of this, sat quietly on the wall, and began to sing to her child. You must know that the name of Douglas had become so terrible to the English, that the women used to frighten their children with it, and say to them when they behaved ill, that they “would make the Black Douglas take them.” And this soldier’s wife was singing to her child,

“Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye,

Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye,

The Black Douglas shall not get ye.”

“You are not so sure of that,” said a voice close beside her. She felt at the same time a heavy hand, with an iron glove, laid on her shoulder, and when she looked round, she saw the very Black Douglas she had been singing about, standing close beside her, a tall, swarthy, strong man. At the same time, another Scotsman was seen ascending the walls, near to the sentinel. The soldier gave the alarm, and rushed at the Scotsman, whose name was Simon Ledehouse, with his lance; but Simon parried the stroke, and closing with the sentinel, struck him a deadly blow with his dagger. The rest of the Scots followed up to assist Douglas and Ledehouse, and the castle was taken. Many of the soldiers were put to death, but Douglas protected the woman and the child. I dare say she made no more songs about the Black Douglas. While Douglas, Randolph, and other true-hearted patriots, were thus taking castles and strong-holds from the English, King Robert, who had now a considerable army under his command, marched through the country, beating and dispersing such bodies of English as he met on his way. He went to the north country, where he conquered the great and powerful family of Comyn, who retained strong ill-will against him for having slain their relation, the Red Comyn, in the church at Dumfries. They had joined the English with all their forces; but now, as the Scots began to get the upperhand, they were very much distressed. Bruce caused more than thirty of them to be beheaded in one day, and the place where they are buried is called “the Grave of the headless Comyns.”

Neither did Bruce forget or forgive John M’Dougal of Lorn, who had defeated him at Dalry, and very nearly made him prisoner, or slain him, by the hands of his vassals, the M’Androssers, and had afterwards pursued him with a blood-hound. When John of Lorn heard that Bruce was marching against him, he hoped to defend himself by taking possession of a very strong pass on the side of one of the largest mountains in Scotland, Cruachen Ben. The ground was very strait, having lofty rocks on the one hand, and on the other deep precipices, sinking down on a great lake called Lochawe; so that John of Lorn thought himself perfectly secure, as he could not be attacked except in front, and by a very difficult path. But King Robert, when he saw how his enemies were posted, sent a party of light-armed archers, under command of Douglas, with directions to go, by a distant and difficult road, around the northern side of the hill, and thus to attack the men of Lorn in the rear as well as in front; that is, behind, as well as before. He had signals made when Douglas arrived at the place appointed. The King then advanced upon the Lorn men in front, when they raised a shout of defiance, and began to shoot arrows and roll stones down the path, with great confidence in the security of their own position. But when they were attacked by the Douglas and his archers in the rear, the soldiers of M’Dougal lost courage and fled. Many were slain among the rocks and precipices, and many were drowned in the lake, and the great river which runs out of it. John of Lorn only escaped by means of his boat, which he had in readiness upon the lake. Thus King Robert had full revenge upon him, and deprived him of a great part of his territory. The English now possessed scarcely any place of importance in Scotland, excepting Stirling, which was besieged, or rather blockaded, by Edward Bruce, the King’s brother. To blockade a town or castle, is to quarter an army around it, so as to prevent those within from getting provisions. This was done by the Scots before Stirling, till Sir Philip Mowbray, who commanded the castle, finding that he was like to be reduced to extremity for want of provisions, made an agreement with Edward Bruce that he would surrender the place, providing he were not relieved by the king of England before midsummer. Sir Edward agreed to these terms, and allowed Mowbray to go to London, to tell King Edward of the conditions he had made. But when King Robert heard what his brother had done, he thought it was too great a risk, since it obliged him to venture a battle with the full strength of Edward II, who had under him England, Ireland, Wales, and great part of France, and could within the time allowed assemble a much more powerful army than the Scots could, even if all Scotland were fully under the King’s authority. Sir Edward answered his brother with his naturally audacious spirit, “Let Edward bring every man he has, we will fight them, were they more.” The King admired his courage, though it was mingled with rashness. —— “Since it is so, brother,” he said, “we will manfully abide battle, and assemble all who love us, and value the freedom of Scotland, to come with all the men they have, and help us to oppose King Edward, should he come with his army to rescue Stirling.”

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