The Black Dwarf, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 1


Hast any philosophy in thee, Shepherd?

As You Like It.

It was a fine April morning (excepting that it had snowed hard the night before, and the ground remained covered with a dazzling mantle of six inches in depth) when two horsemen rode up to the Wallace Inn. The first was a strong, tall, powerful man, in a grey riding-coat, having a hat covered with waxcloth, a huge silver-mounted horsewhip, boots, and dreadnought overalls. He was mounted on a large strong brown mare, rough in coat, but well in condition, with a saddle of the yeomanry cut, and a double-bitted military bridle. The man who accompanied him was apparently his servant; he rode a shaggy little grey pony, had a blue bonnet on his head, and a large check napkin folded about his neck, wore a pair of long blue worsted hose instead of boots, had his gloveless hands much stained with tar, and observed an air of deference and respect towards his companion, but without any of those indications of precedence and punctilio which are preserved between the gentry and their domestics. On the contrary, the two travellers entered the court-yard abreast, and the concluding sentence of the conversation which had been carrying on betwixt them was a joint ejaculation, “Lord guide us, an this weather last, what will come o’ the lambs!” The hint was sufficient for my Landlord, who, advancing to take the horse of the principal person, and holding him by the reins as he dismounted, while his ostler rendered the same service to the attendant, welcomed the stranger to Gandercleugh, and, in the same breath, enquired, “What news from the south hielands?”

“News?” said the farmer, “bad eneugh news, I think; — an we can carry through the yowes, it will be a’ we can do; we maun e’en leave the lambs to the Black Dwarfs care.”

“Ay, ay,” subjoined the old shepherd (for such he was), shaking his head, “he’ll be unco busy amang the morts this season.”

“The Black Dwarf!” said My Learned Friend and Patron, Mr. Jedediah Cleishbotham, “and what sort of a personage may he be?”

[We have, in this and other instances, printed in italics some few words which the worthy editor, Mr. Jedediah Cleishbotham, seems to have interpolated upon the text of his deceased friend, Mr. Pattieson. We must observe, once for all, that such liberties seem only to have been taken by the learned gentleman where his own character and conduct are concerned; and surely he must be the best judge of the style in which his own character and conduct should be treated of.]

“Hout awa, man,” answered the farmer, “ye’ll hae heard o’ Canny Elshie the Black Dwarf, or I am muckle mistaen — A’ the warld tells tales about him, but it’s but daft nonsense after a’— I dinna believe a word o’t frae beginning to end.”

“Your father believed it unco stievely, though,” said the old man, to whom the scepticism of his master gave obvious displeasure.

“Ay, very true, Bauldie, but that was in the time o’ the blackfaces — they believed a hantle queer things in thae days, that naebody heeds since the lang sheep cam in.”

“The mair’s the pity, the mair’s the pity,” said the old man. “Your father, and sae I have aften tell’d ye, maister, wad hae been sair vexed to hae seen the auld peel-house wa’s pu’d down to make park dykes; and the bonny broomy knowe, where he liked sae weel to sit at e’en, wi’ his plaid about him, and look at the kye as they cam down the loaning, ill wad he hae liked to hae seen that braw sunny knowe a’ riven out wi’ the pleugh in the fashion it is at this day.”

“Hout, Bauldie,” replied the principal, “tak ye that dram the landlord’s offering ye, and never fash your head about the changes o’ the warld, sae lang as ye’re blithe and bien yoursell.”

“Wussing your health, sirs,” said the shepherd; and having taken off his glass, and observed the whisky was the right thing, he continued, “It’s no for the like o’ us to be judging, to be sure; but it was a bonny knowe that broomy knowe, and an unco braw shelter for the lambs in a severe morning like this.”

“Ay,” said his patron, “but ye ken we maun hae turnips for the lang sheep, billie, and muckle hard wark to get them, baith wi’ the pleugh and the howe; and that wad sort ill wi’ sitting on the broomy knowe, and cracking about Black Dwarfs, and siccan clavers, as was the gate lang syne, when the short sheep were in the fashion.”

“Aweel, aweel, maister,” said the attendant, “short sheep had short rents, I’m thinking.”

Here my Worthy and Learned patron again interposed, and observed, “that he could never perceive any material difference, in point of longitude, between one sheep and another.”

This occasioned a loud hoarse laugh on the part of the farmer, and an astonished stare on the part of the shepherd.

“It’s the woo’, man — it’s the woo’, and no the beasts themsells, that makes them be ca’d lang or short. I believe if ye were to measure their backs, the short sheep wad be rather the langer-bodied o’ the twa; but it’s the woo’ that pays the rent in thae days, and it had muckle need.”

“Odd, Bauldie says very true — short sheep did make short rents — my father paid for our steading just threescore punds, and it stands me in three hundred, plack and bawbee. — And that’s very true — I hae nae time to be standing here clavering — Landlord, get us our breakfast, and see an’ get the yauds fed — I am for doun to Christy Wilson’s, to see if him and me can gree about the luckpenny I am to gie him for his year-aulds. We had drank sax mutchkins to the making the bargain at St. Boswell’s fair, and some gate we canna gree upon the particulars preceesely, for as muckle time as we took about it — I doubt we draw to a plea — But hear ye, neighbour,” addressing my Worthy and Learned patron, “if ye want to hear onything about lang or short sheep, I will be back here to my kail against ane o’clock; or, if ye want ony auld-warld stories about the Black Dwarf, and sic-like, if ye’ll ware a half mutchkin upon Bauldie there, he’ll crack t’ye like a pen-gun. And I’se gie ye a mutchkin mysell, man, if I can settle weel wi’ Christy Wilson.”

The farmer returned at the hour appointed, and with him came Christy Wilson, their difference having been fortunately settled without an appeal to the gentlemen of the long robe. My Learned and Worthy patron failed not to attend, both on account of the refreshment promised to the mind and to the body, although he is known to partake of the latter in a very moderate degree; and the party, with which my Landlord was associated, continued to sit late in the evening, seasoning their liquor with many choice tales and songs. The last incident which I recollect, was my Learned and Worthy patron falling from his chair, just as he concluded a long lecture upon temperance, by reciting, from the “Gentle Shepherd,” a couplet, which he right happily transferred from the vice of avarice to that of ebriety:

He that has just eneugh may soundly sleep,

The owercome only fashes folk to keep.

In the course of the evening the Black Dwarf had not been forgotten, and the old shepherd, Bauldie, told so many stories of him, that they excited a good deal of interest. It also appeared, though not till the third punch-bowl was emptied, that much of the farmer’s scepticism on the subject was affected, as evincing a liberality of thinking, and a freedom from ancient prejudices, becoming a man who paid three hundred pounds a-year of rent, while, in fact, he had a lurking belief in the traditions of his forefathers. After my usual manner, I made farther enquiries of other persons connected with the wild and pastoral district in which the scene of the following narrative is placed, and I was fortunate enough to recover many links of the story, not generally known, and which account, at least in some degree, for the circumstances of exaggerated marvel with which superstition has attired it in the more vulgar traditions.

[The Black Dwarf, now almost forgotten, was once held a formidable personage by the dalesmen of the Border, where he got the blame of whatever mischief befell the sheep or cattle. “He was,” says Dr. Leyden, who makes considerable use of him in the ballad called the Cowt of Keeldar, “a fairy of the most malignant order — the genuine Northern Duergar.” The best and most authentic account of this dangerous and mysterious being occurs in a tale communicated to the author by that eminent antiquary, Richard Surtees, Esq. of Mainsforth, author of the History of the Bishopric of Durham.

According to this well-attested legend, two young Northumbrians were out on a shooting party, and had plunged deep among the mountainous moorlands which border on Cumberland. They stopped for refreshment in a little secluded dell by the side of a rivulet. There, after they had partaken of such food as they brought with them, one of the party fell asleep; the other, unwilling to disturb his friend’s repose, stole silently out of the dell with the purpose of looking around him, when he was astonished to find himself close to a being who seemed not to belong to this world, as he was the most hideous dwarf that the sun had ever shone on. His head was of full human size, forming a frightful contrast with his height, which was considerably under four feet. It was thatched with no other covering than long matted red hair, like that of the felt of a badger in consistence, and in colour a reddish brown, like the hue of the heather-blossom. His limbs seemed of great strength; nor was he otherwise deformed than from their undue proportion in thickness to his diminutive height. The terrified sportsman stood gazing on this horrible apparition, until, with an angry countenance, the being demanded by what right he intruded himself on those hills, and destroyed their harmless inhabitants. The perplexed stranger endeavoured to propitiate the incensed dwarf, by offering to surrender his game, as he would to an earthly Lord of the Manor. The proposal only redoubled the offence already taken by the dwarf, who alleged that he was the lord of those mountains, and the protector of the wild creatures who found a retreat in their solitary recesses; and that all spoils derived from their death, or misery, were abhorrent to him. The hunter humbled himself before the angry goblin, and by protestations of his ignorance, and of his resolution to abstain from such intrusion in future, at last succeeded in pacifying him. The gnome now became more communicative, and spoke of himself as belonging to a species of beings something between the angelic race and humanity. He added, moreover, which could hardly have been anticipated, that he had hopes of sharing in the redemption of the race of Adam. He pressed the sportsman to visit his dwelling, which he said was hard by, and plighted his faith for his safe return. But at this moment, the shout of the sportsman’s companion was heard calling for his friend, and the dwarf, as if unwilling that more than one person should be cognisant of his presence, disappeared as the young man emerged from the dell to join his comrade.

It was the universal opinion of those most experienced in such matters, that if the shooter had accompanied the spirit, he would, notwithstanding the dwarf’s fair pretences, have been either torn to pieces, or immured for years in the recesses of some fairy hill.

Such is the last and most authentic account of the apparition of the Black Dwarf.]

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00