Waverley, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter XXX

A Skirmish

The reader need hardly be reminded that, after a council of war held at Derby on the 5th of December, the Highlanders relinquished their desperate attempt to penetrate farther into England, and, greatly to the dissatisfaction of their young and daring leader, positively determined to return northward. They commenced their retreat accordingly, and, by the extreme celerity of their movements, outstripped the motions of the Duke of Cumberland, who now pursued them with a very large body of cavalry.

This retreat was a virtual resignation of their towering hopes. None had been so sanguine as Fergus MacIvor; none, consequently, was so cruelly mortified at the change of measures. He argued, or rather remonstrated, with the utmost vehemence at the council of war; and, when his opinion was rejected, shed tears of grief and indignation. From that moment his whole manner was so much altered that he could scarcely have been recognised for the same soaring and ardent spirit, for whom the whole earth seemed too narrow but a week before. The retreat had continued for several days, when Edward, to his surprise, early on the 12th of December, received a visit from the Chieftain in his quarters, in a hamlet about half- way between Shap and Penrith.

Having had no intercourse with the Chieftain since their rupture, Edward waited with some anxiety an explanation of this unexpected visit; nor could he help being surprised, and somewhat shocked, with the change in his appearance. His eye had lost much of its fire; his cheek was hollow, his voice was languid, even his gait seemed less firm and elastic than it was wont; and his dress, to which he used to be particularly attentive, was now carelessly flung about him. He invited Edward to walk out with him by the little river in the vicinity; and smiled in a melancholy manner when he observed him take down and buckle on his sword.

As soon as they were in a wild sequestered path by the side of the stream, the Chief broke out — ‘Our fine adventure is now totally ruined, Waverley, and I wish to know what you intend to do; — nay, never stare at me, man. I tell you I received a packet from my sister yesterday, and, had I got the information it contains sooner, it would have prevented a quarrel which I am always vexed when I think of. In a letter written after our dispute, I acquainted her with the cause of it; and she now replies to me that she never had, nor could have, any purpose of giving you encouragement; so that it seems I have acted like a madman. Poor Flora! she writes in high spirits; what a change will the news of this unhappy retreat make in her state of mind!’

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Disbanded — Painted by John Pettie, Etched by F. Huth

Waverley, who was really much affected by the deep tone of melancholy with which Fergus spoke, affectionately entreated him to banish from his remembrance any unkindness which had arisen between them, and they once more shook hands, but now with sincere cordiality. Fergus again inquired of Waverley what he intended to do. ‘Had you not better leave this luckless army, and get down before us into Scotland, and embark for the Continent from some of the eastern ports that are still in our possession? When you are out of the kingdom, your friends will easily negotiate your pardon; and, to tell you the truth, I wish you would carry Rose Bradwardine with you as your wife, and take Flora also under your joint protection.’ — Edward looked surprised. — ‘She loves you, and I believe you love her, though, perhaps, you have not found it out, for you are not celebrated for knowing your own mind very pointedly.’ He said this with a sort of smile.

‘How,’ answered Edward, ‘can you advise me to desert the expedition in which we are all embarked?’

‘Embarked?’ said Fergus; ‘the vessel is going to pieces, and it is full time for all who can to get into the long-boat and leave her.’

‘Why, what will other gentlemen do?’ answered Waverley, ‘and why did the Highland Chiefs consent to this retreat if it is so ruinous?’

‘O,’ replied Mac-Ivor, ‘they think that, as on former occasions, the heading, hanging, and forfeiting will chiefly fall to the lot of the Lowland gentry; that they will be left secure in their poverty and their fastnesses, there, according to their proverb, “to listen to the wind upon the hill till the waters abate.” But they will be disappointed; they have been too often troublesome to be so repeatedly passed over, and this time John Bull has been too heartily frightened to recover his good-humour for some time. The Hanoverian ministers always deserved to be hanged for rascals; but now, if they get the power in their hands, — as, sooner or later, they must, since there is neither rising in England nor assistance from France, — they will deserve the gallows as fools if they leave a single clan in the Highlands in a situation to be again troublesome to government. Ay, they will make root-and-branch-work, I warrant them.’

‘And while you recommend flight to me,’ said Edward, — ‘a counsel which I would rather die than embrace, — what are your own views?’

‘O,’ answered Fergus, with a melancholy air, ‘my fate is settled. Dead or captive I must be before tomorrow.’

‘What do you mean by that, my friend?’ said Edward. ‘The enemy is still a day’s march in our rear, and if he comes up, we are still strong enough to keep him in check. Remember Gladsmuir.’

‘What I tell you is true notwithstanding, so far as I am individually concerned.’

‘Upon what authority can you found so melancholy a prediction?’ asked Waverley.

‘On one which never failed a person of my house. I have seen,’ he said, lowering his voice, ‘I have seen the Bodach Glas.’

‘Bodach Glas?’

‘Yes; have you been so long at Glennaquoich, and never heard of the Grey Spectre? though indeed there is a certain reluctance among us to mention him.’

‘No, never.’

‘Ah! it would have been a tale for poor Flora to have told you. Or, if that hill were Benmore, and that long blue lake, which you see just winding towards yon mountainous country, were Loch Tay, or my own Loch an Ri, the tale would be better suited with scenery. However, let us sit down on this knoll; even Saddleback and Ulswater will suit what I have to say better than the English hedgerows, enclosures, and farmhouses. You must know, then, that when my ancestor, Ian nan Chaistel, wasted Northumberland, there was associated with him in the expedition a sort of Southland Chief, or captain of a band of Lowlanders, called Halbert Hall. In their return through the Cheviots they quarrelled about the division of the great booty they had acquired, and came from words to blows. The Lowlanders were cut off to a man, and their chief fell the last, covered with wounds by the sword of my ancestor. Since that time his spirit has crossed the Vich Ian Vohr of the day when any great disaster was impending, but especially before approaching death. My father saw him twice, once before he was made prisoner at Sheriff-Muir, another time on the morning of the day on which he died.’

‘How can you, my dear Fergus, tell such nonsense with a grave face?’

‘ I do not ask you to believe it; but I tell you the truth, ascertained by three hundred years’ experience at least, and last night by my own eyes.’

‘The particulars, for heaven’s sake!’ said Waverley, with eagerness.

‘I will, on condition you will not attempt a jest on the subject. Since this unhappy retreat commenced I have scarce ever been able to sleep for thinking of my clan, and of this poor Prince, whom they are leading back like a dog in a string, whether he will or no, and of the downfall of my family. Last night I felt so feverish that I left my quarters and walked out, in hopes the keen frosty air would brace my nerves — I cannot tell how much I dislike going on, for I know you will hardly believe me. However — I crossed a small footbridge, and kept walking backwards and forwards, when I observed with surprise by the clear moonlight a tall figure in a grey plaid, such as shepherds wear in the south of Scotland, which, move at what pace I would, kept regularly about four yards before me.’

‘You saw a Cumberland peasant in his ordinary dress, probably.’

‘No; I thought so at first, and was astonished at the man’s audacity in daring to dog me. I called to him, but received no answer. I felt an anxious throbbing at my heart, and to ascertain what I dreaded, I stood still and turned myself on the same spot successively to the four points of the compass. By Heaven, Edward, turn where I would, the figure was instantly before my eyes, at precisely the same distance! I was then convinced it was the Bodach Glas. My hair bristled and my knees shook. I manned myself, however, and determined to return to my quarters. My ghastly visitant glided before me (for I cannot say he walked) until he reached the footbridge; there he stopped and turned full round. I must either wade the river or pass him as close as I am to you. A desperate courage, founded on the belief that my death was near, made me resolve to make my way in despite of him. I made the sign of the cross, drew my sword, and uttered, “In the name of God, Evil Spirit, give place!” “Vich Ian Vohr,” it said, in a voice that made my very blood curdle, “beware of to-morrow!” It seemed at that moment not half a yard from my sword’s point; but the words were no sooner spoken than it was gone, and nothing appeared further to obstruct my passage. I got home and threw myself on my bed, where I spent a few hours heavily enough; and this morning, as no enemy was reported to be near us, I took my horse and rode forward to make up matters with you. I would not willingly fall until I am in charity with a wronged friend.’

Edward had little doubt that this phantom was the operation of an exhausted frame and depressed spirits, working on the belief common to all Highlanders in such superstitions. He did not the less pity Fergus, for whom, in his present distress, he felt all his former regard revive. With the view of diverting his mind from these gloomy images, he offered, with the Baron’s permission, which he knew he could readily obtain, to remain in his quarters till Fergus’s corps should come up, and then to march with them as usual. The Chief seemed much pleased, yet hesitated to accept the offer.

‘We are, you know, in the rear, the post of danger in a retreat.’

‘And therefore the post of honour.’

‘Well,’ replied the Chieftain, ‘let Alick have your horse in readiness, in case we should be overmatched, and I shall be delighted to have your company once more.’

The rear-guard were late in making their appearance, having been delayed by various accidents and by the badness of the roads. At length they entered the hamlet. When Waverley joined the clan Mac- Ivor, arm-in-arm with their Chieftain, all the resentment they had entertained against him seemed blown off at once. Evan Dhu received him with a grin of congratulation; and even Callum, who was running about as active as ever, pale indeed, and with a great patch on his head, appeared delighted to see him.

‘That gallows-bird’s skull,’ said Fergus, ‘must be harder than marble; the lock of the pistol was actually broken.’

‘How could you strike so young a lad so hard?’ said Waverley, with some interest.

‘Why, if I did not strike hard sometimes, the rascals would forget themselves.’

They were now in full march, every caution being taken to prevent surprise. Fergus’s people, and a fine clan regiment from Badenoch, commanded by Cluny Mac-Pherson, had the rear. They had passed a large open moor, and were entering into the enclosures which surround a small village called Clifton. The winter sun had set, and Edward began to rally Fergus upon the false predictions of the Grey Spirit. ‘The ides of March are not past,’ said Mac-Ivor, with a smile; when, suddenly casting his eyes back on the moor, a large body of cavalry was indistinctly seen to hover upon its brown and dark surface. To line the enclosures facing the open ground and the road by which the enemy must move from it upon the village was the work of a short time. While these manoeuvres were accomplishing, night sunk down, dark and gloomy, though the moon was at full. Sometimes, however, she gleamed forth a dubious light upon the scene of action.

The Highlanders did not long remain undisturbed in the defensive position they had adopted. Favoured by the night, one large body of dismounted dragoons attempted to force the enclosures, while another, equally strong, strove to penetrate by the highroad. Both were received by such a heavy fire as disconcerted their ranks and effectually checked their progress. Unsatisfied with the advantage thus gained, Fergus, to whose ardent spirit the approach of danger seemed to restore all its elasticity, drawing his sword and calling out ‘Claymore!’ encouraged his men, by voice and example, to break through the hedge which divided them and rush down upon the enemy. Mingling with the dismounted dragoons, they forced them, at the sword-point, to fly to the open moor, where a considerable number were cut to pieces. But the moon, which suddenly shone out, showed to the English the small number of assailants, disordered by their own success. Two squadrons of horse moving to the support of their companions, the Highlanders endeavoured to recover the enclosures. But several of them, amongst others their brave Chieftain, were cut off and surrounded before they could effect their purpose. Waverley, looking eagerly for Fergus, from whom, as well as from the retreating body of his followers, he had been separated in the darkness and tumult, saw him, with Evan Dhu and Callum, defending themselves desperately against a dozen of horsemen, who were hewing at them with their long broadswords. The moon was again at that moment totally overclouded, and Edward, in the obscurity, could neither bring aid to his friends nor discover which way lay his own road to rejoin the rear-guard. After once or twice narrowly escaping being slain or made prisoner by parties of the cavalry whom he encountered in the darkness, he at length reached an enclosure, and, clambering over it, concluded himself in safety and on the way to the Highland forces, whose pipes he heard at some distance. For Fergus hardly a hope remained, unless that he might be made prisoner Revolving his fate with sorrow and anxiety, the superstition of the Bodach Glas recurred to Edward’s recollection, and he said to himself, with internal surprise ‘What, can the devil speak truth?’93

93 The following account of the skirmish at Clifton is extracted from the manuscript Memoirs of Evan Macpherson of Cluny, Chief of the clan Macpherson, who had the merit of supporting the principal brunt of that spirited affair. The Memoirs appear to have been composed about 1755, only ten years after the action had taken place. They were written in France, where that gallant chief resided in exile, which accounts for some Gallicisms which occur in the narrative.

‘In the Prince’s return from Derby back towards Scotland, my Lord George Murray, Lieutenant-General, cheerfully charg’d himself with the command of the rear, a post which, altho’ honourable, was attended with great danger, many difficulties, and no small fatigue; for the Prince, being apprehensive that his retreat to Scotland might be cut off by Marischall Wade, who lay to the northward of him with an armie much supperior to what H.R.H. had, while the Duke of Comberland with his whole cavalrie followed hard in the rear, was obliged to hasten his marches. It was not, therefore, possible for the artilirie to march so fast as the Prince’s army, in the depth of winter, extremely bad weather, and the worst roads in England; so Lord George Murray was obliged often to continue his marches long after it was dark almost every night, while at the same time he had frequent allarms and disturbances from the Duke of Comberland’s advanc’d parties.

‘Towards the evening of the twentie-eight December 1745 the Prince entered the town of Penrith, in the Province of Comberland. But as Lord George Murray could not bring up the artilirie so fast as he wou’d have wish’d, he was oblig’d to pass the night six miles short of that town, together with the regiment of MacDonel of Glengarrie, which that day happened to have the arrear guard. The Prince, in order to refresh his armie, and to give My Lord George and the artilirie time to come up, resolved to sejour the 29th at Penrith; so ordered his little army to appear in the morning under arms, in order to be reviewed, and to know in what manner the numbers stood from his haveing entered England. It did not at that time amount to 5000 foot in all, with about 400 cavalrie, compos’d of the noblesse who serv’d as volunteers, part of whom form’d a first troop of guards for the Prince, under the command of My Lord Elchoe, now Comte de Weems, who, being proscribed, is presently in France. Another part formed a second troup of guards under the command of My Lord Balmirino, who was beheaded at the Tower of London. A third part serv’d under My Lord le Comte de Kilmarnock, who was likewise beheaded at the Tower. A fourth part serv’d under My Lord Pitsligow, who is also proscribed; which cavalrie, tho’ very few in numbers, being all noblesse, were very brave, and of infinite advantage to the foot, not only in the day of battle, but in serving as advanced guards on the several marches, and in patroling dureing the night on the different roads which led towards the towns where the army happened to quarter.

‘While this small army was out in a body on the 2Qth December, upon a riseing ground to the northward of Penrith, passing review, Mons. de Cluny, with his tribe, was ordered to the Bridge of Clifton, about a mile to southward of Penrith, after having pass’d in review before Mons. Pattullo, who was charged with the inspection of the troops, and was likeways Quarter-Master-General of the army, and is now in France. They remained under arms at the bridge, waiting the arrival of My Lord George Murray with the artilirie, whom Mons. de Cluny had orders to cover in passing the bridge. They arrived about sunsett closly pursued by the Duke of Comberland with the whole body of his cavalrie, reckoned upwards of 3000 strong, about a thousand of whom, as near as might be computed, dismounted, in order to cut off the passage of the artilirie towards the bridge, while the Duke and the others remained on horseback in order to attack the rear.

‘My Lord George Murray advanced, and although he found Mons. de Cluny and his tribe in good spirits under arms, yet the circumstance appear’d extremely delicate. The numbers were vastly unequall, and the attack seem’d very dangerous; so My Lord George declin’d giving orders to such time as he ask’d Mons. de Cluny’s oppinion. “I will attack them with all my heart,” says Mons. de Cluny, “if you order me.” “I do order it then,” answered My Lord George, and immediately went on himself along with Mons. de Cluny, and fought sword in hand on foot at the head of the single tribe of Macphersons. They in a moment made their way through a strong hedge of thorns, under the cover whereof the cavalrie had taken their station, in the strugle of passing which hedge My Lord George Murray, being dressed en montagnard, as all the army were, lost his bonet and wig; so continued to fight bare-headed during the action. They at first made a brisk discharge of their firearms on the enemy, then attacked them with their sabres, and made a great slaughter a considerable time, which obliged Comberland and his cavalrie to fly with precipitation and in great confusion; in so much that, if the Prince had been provided in a sufficient number of cavalrie to have taken advantage of the disorder, it is beyond question that the Duke of Comberland and the bulk of his cavalrie had been taken prisoners.

‘By this time it was so dark that it was not possible to view or number the slain who filled all the ditches which happened to be on the ground where they stood. But it was computed that, besides those who went off wounded, upwards of a hundred at least were left on the spot, among whom was Colonel Honywood, who commanded the dismounted cavalrie, whose sabre of considerable value Mons. de Cluny brought off and still preserves; and his tribe lykeways brought off many arms; — the Colonel was afterwards taken up, and, his wounds being dress’d, with great difficultie recovered. Mons. de Cluny lost only in the action twelve men, of whom some haveing been only wounded, fell afterwards into the hands of the enemy, and were sent as slaves to America, whence several of them returned, and one of them is now in France, a sergeant in the Regiment of Royal Scots. How soon the accounts of the enemies approach had reached the Prince, H.R.H. had immediately ordered Mi-Lord le Comte de Nairne, Brigadier, who, being proscribed, is now in France, with the three batalions of the Duke of Athol, the batalion of the Duke of Perth, and some other troups under his command, in order to support Cluny, and to bring off the artilirie. But the action was entirely over before the Comte de Nairne, with his command, cou’d reach nigh to the place. They therefore return’d all to Penrith, and the artilirie marched up in good order.

‘Nor did the Duke of Comberland ever afterwards dare to come within a day’s march of the Prince and his army dureing the course of all that retreat, which was conducted with great prudence and safety when in some manner surrounded by enemies.’

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