The author has stated, in the preface to the Chronicles of the Canongate, 1827, that he received from an anonymous correspondent an account of the incident upon which the following story is founded. He is now at liberty to say, that the information was conveyed to him by a late amiable and ingenious lady, whose wit and power of remarking and judging of character still survive in the memory of her friends. Her maiden name was Miss Helen Lawson, of Girthhead, and she was wife of Thomas Goldie, Esq. of Craigmuie, Commissary of Dumfries.
Her communication was in these words:—
“I had taken for summer lodgings a cottage near the old Abbey of Lincluden. It had formerly been inhabited by a lady who had pleasure in embellishing cottages, which she found perhaps homely and even poor enough; mine, therefore, possessed many marks of taste and elegance unusual in this species of habitation in Scotland, where a cottage is literally what its name declares.
“From my cottage door I had a partial view of the old Abbey before mentioned; some of the highest arches were seen over, and some through, the trees scattered along a lane which led down to the ruin, and the strange fantastic shapes of almost all those old ashes accorded wonderfully well with the building they at once shaded and ornamented.
“The Abbey itself from my door was almost on a level with the cottage; but on coming to the end of the lane, it was discovered to be situated on a high perpendicular bank, at the foot of which run the clear waters of the Cluden, where they hasten to join the sweeping Nith,
‘Whose distant roaring swells and fa’s.’
As my kitchen and parlour were not very far distant, I one day went in to purchase some chickens from a person I heard offering them for sale. It was a little, rather stout-looking woman, who seemed to be between seventy and eighty years of age; she was almost covered with a tartan plaid, and her cap had over it a black silk hood, tied under the chin, a piece of dress still much in use among elderly women of that rank of life in Scotland; her eyes were dark, and remarkably lively and intelligent; I entered into conversation with her, and began by asking how she maintained herself, etc.
“She said that in winter she footed stockings, that is, knit feet to country-people’s stockings, which bears about the same relation to stocking-knitting that cobbling does to shoe-making, and is of course both less profitable and less dignified; she likewise taught a few children to read, and in summer she whiles reared a few chickens.
“I said I could venture to guess from her face she had never been married. She laughed heartily at this, and said, ‘I maun hae the queerest face that ever was seen, that ye could guess that. Now, do tell me, madam, how ye cam to think sae?’ I told her it was from her cheerful disengaged countenance. She said, ‘Mem, have ye na far mair reason to be happy than me, wi’ a gude husband and a fine family o’ bairns, and plenty o’ everything? for me, I’m the puirest o’ a’ puir bodies, and can hardly contrive to keep mysell alive in a’ the wee bits o’ ways I hae tell’t ye.’ After some more conversation, during which I was more and more pleased with the old womans sensible conversation, and the naivete of her remarks, she rose to go away, when I asked her name. Her countenance suddenly clouded, and she said gravely, rather colouring, ‘My name is Helen Walker; but your husband kens weel about me.’
“In the evening I related how much I had been pleased, and inquired what was extraordinary in the history of the poor woman. Mr. —— said, there were perhaps few more remarkable people than Helen Walker. She had been left an orphan, with the charge of a sister considerably younger than herself, and who was educated and maintained by her exertions. Attached to herby so many ties, therefore, it will not be easy to conceive her feelings, when she found that this only sister must be tried by the laws of her country for child-murder, and upon being called as principal witness against her. The counsel for the prisoner told Helen, that if she could declare that her sister had made any preparations, however slight, or had given her any intimation on the subject, that such a statement would save her sister’s life, as she was the principal witness against her. Helen said, ‘It is impossible for me to swear to a falsehood; and, whatever may be the consequence, I will give my oath according to my conscience.’
“The trial came on, and the sister was found guilty and condemned; but in Scotland six weeks must elapse between the sentence and the execution, and Helen Walker availed herself of it. The very day of her sister’s condemnation she got a petition drawn, stating the peculiar circumstances of the case, and that very night set out on foot to London.
“Without introduction or recommendation, with her simple (perhaps ill-expressed) petition, drawn up by some inferior clerk of the court, she presented herself, in her tartan plaid and country attire, to the late Duke of Argyle, who immediately procured the pardon she petitioned for, and Helen returned with it on foot just in time to save her sister.
“I was so strongly interested by this narrative, that I determined immediately to prosecute my acquaintance with Helen Walker; but as I was to leave the country next day, I was obliged to defer it till my return in spring, when the first walk I took was to Helen Walker’s cottage.
“She had died a short time before. My regret was extreme, and I endeavoured to obtain some account of Helen from an old woman who inhabited the other end of her cottage. I inquired if Helen ever spoke of her past history — her journey to London, etc., ‘Na,’ the old woman said, ‘Helen was a wily body, and whene’er ony o’ the neebors asked anything about it, she aye turned the conversation.’
“In short, every answer I received only tended to increase my regret, and raise my opinion of Helen Walker, who could unite so much prudence with so much heroic virtue.”
This narrative was inclosed in the following letter to the author, without date or signature —
“Sir — The occurrence just related happened to me twenty-six years ago. Helen Walker lies buried in the churchyard of Irongray, about six miles from Dumfries. I once proposed that a small monument should have been erected to commemorate so remarkable a character, but I now prefer leaving it to you to perpetuate her memory in a more durable manner.”
The reader is now able to judge how far the author has improved upon, or fallen short of, the pleasing and interesting sketch of high principle and steady affection displayed by Helen Walker, the prototype of the fictitious Jeanie Deans. Mrs. Goldie was unfortunately dead before the author had given his name to these volumes, so he lost all opportunity of thanking that lady for her highly valuable communication. But her daughter, Miss Goldie, obliged him with the following additional information:—
“Mrs. Goldie endeavoured to collect further particulars of Helen Walker, particularly concerning her journey to London, but found this nearly impossible; as the natural dignity of her character, and a high sense of family respectability, made her so indissolubly connect her sister’s disgrace with her own exertions, that none of her neighbours durst ever question her upon the subject. One old woman, a distant relation of Helen’s, and who is still living, says she worked an harvest with her, but that she never ventured to ask her about her sister’s trial, or her journey to London; ‘Helen,’ she added, ‘was a lofty body, and used a high style o’ language.’ The same old woman says, that every year Helen received a cheese from her sister, who lived at Whitehaven, and that she always sent a liberal portion of it to herself, or to her father’s family. This fact, though trivial in itself, strongly marks the affection subsisting between the two sisters, and the complete conviction on the mind of the criminal that her sister had acted solely from high principle, not from any want of feeling, which another small but characteristic trait will further illustrate. A gentleman, a relation of Mrs. Goldie’s, who happened to be travelling in the North of England, on coming to a small inn, was shown into the parlour by a female servant, who, after cautiously shutting the door, said, ‘Sir, I’m Nelly Walker’s sister.’ Thus practically showing that she considered her sister as better known by her high conduct than even herself by a different kind of celebrity.
“Mrs. Goldie was extremely anxious to have a tombstone and an inscription upon it erected in Irongray Churchyard; and if Sir Walter Scott will condescend to write the last, a little subscription could be easily raised in the immediate neighbourhood, and Mrs. Goldie’s wish be thus fulfilled.”
It is scarcely necessary to add that the request of Miss Goldie will be most willingly complied with, and without the necessity of any tax on the public.1 Nor is there much occasion to repeat how much the author conceives himself obliged to his unknown correspondent, who thus supplied him with a theme affording such a pleasing view of the moral dignity of virtue, though unaided by birth, beauty, or talent. If the picture has suffered in the execution, it is from the failure of the author’s powers to present in detail the same simple and striking portrait exhibited in Mrs. Goldie’s letter.
Abbotsford, April 1, 1830.
Although it would be impossible to add much to Mrs. Goldie’s picturesque and most interesting account of Helen Walker, the prototype of the imaginary Jeanie Deans, the Editor may be pardoned for introducing two or three anecdotes respecting that excellent person, which he has collected from a volume entitled, Sketches from Nature, by John M’Diarmid, a gentleman who conducts an able provincial paper in the town of Dumfries.
Helen was the daughter of a small farmer in a place called Dalwhairn, in the parish of Irongray; where, after the death of her father, she continued, with the unassuming piety of a Scottish peasant, to support her mother by her own unremitted labour and privations; a case so common, that even yet, I am proud to say, few of my countrywomen would shrink from the duty.
Helen Walker was held among her equals pensy, that is, proud or conceited; but the facts brought to prove this accusation seem only to evince a strength of character superior to those around her. Thus it was remarked, that when it thundered, she went with her work and her Bible to the front of the cottage, alleging that the Almighty could smite in the city as well as in the field.
Mr. M’Diarmid mentions more particularly the misfortune of her sister, which he supposes to have taken place previous to 1736. Helen Walker, declining every proposal of saving her relation’s life at the expense of truth, borrowed a sum of money sufficient for her journey, walked the whole distance to London barefoot, and made her way to John Duke of Argyle. She was heard to say, that, by the Almighty strength, she had been enabled to meet the Duke at the most critical moment, which, if lost, would have caused the inevitable forfeiture of her sister’s life.
Isabella, or Tibby Walker, saved from the fate which impended over her, was married by the person who had wronged her (named Waugh), and lived happily for great part of a century, uniformly acknowledging the extraordinary affection to which she owed her preservation.
Helen Walker died about the end of the year 1791, and her remains are interred in the churchyard of her native parish of Irongray, in a romantic cemetery on the banks of the Cairn. That a character so distinguished for her undaunted love of virtue, lived and died in poverty, if not want, serves only to show us how insignificant, in the sight of Heaven, are our principal objects of ambition upon earth.
1 On Helen Walker’s tombstone in Irongray churchyard, Dumfriesshire, there is engraved the following epitaph, written by Sir Walter Scott:
THIS STONE WAS ERECTED
BY THE AUTHOR OF WAVERLEY
TO THE MEMORY
WHO DIED IN THE YEAR OF GOD 1791.
THIS HUMBLE INDIVIDUAL PRACTISED IN REAL LIFE
WITH WHICH FICTION HAS INVESTED
THE IMAGINARY CHARACTER OF
REFUSING THE SLIGHTEST DEPARTURE
EVEN TO SAVE THE LIFE OF A SISTER,
SHE NEVERTHELESS SHOWED HER
KINDNESS AND FORTITUDE,
IN RESCUING HER FROM THE SEVERITY OF THE LAW
AT THE EXPENSE OF PERSONAL EXERTIONS
WHICH THE TIME RENDERED AS DIFFICULT
AS THE MOTIVE WAS LAUDABLE.
RESPECT THE GRAVE OF POVERTY
WHEN COMBINED WITH LOVE OF TRUTH
AND DEAR AFFECTION.
Erected October 1831.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13