Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 16

With many a stout thwack and many a bang,

Hard crab-tree and old iron rang.


Cornet Richard Grahame descended the hill, bearing in his hand the extempore flag of truce, and making his managed horse keep time by bounds and curvets to the tune which he whistled. The trumpeter followed. Five or six horsemen, having something the appearance of officers, detached themselves from each flank of the Presbyterian army, and, meeting in the centre, approached the ditch which divided the hollow as near as the morass would permit. Towards this group, but keeping the opposite side of the swamp, Cornet Grahame directed his horse, his motions being now the conspicuous object of attention to both armies; and, without disparagement to the courage of either, it is probable there was a general wish on both sides that this embassy might save the risks and bloodshed of the impending conflict.

When he had arrived right opposite to those, who, by their advancing to receive his message, seemed to take upon themselves as the leaders of the enemy, Cornet Grahame commanded his trumpeter to sound a parley. The insurgents having no instrument of martial music wherewith to make the appropriate reply, one of their number called out with a loud, strong voice, demanding to know why he approached their leaguer.

“To summon you in the King’s name, and in that of Colonel John Grahame of Claverhouse, specially commissioned by the right honourable Privy Council of Scotland,” answered the Cornet, “to lay down your arms, and dismiss the followers whom ye have led into rebellion, contrary to the laws of God, of the King, and of the country.”

“Return to them that sent thee,” said the insurgent leader, “and tell them that we are this day in arms for a broken Covenant and a persecuted Kirk; tell them that we renounce the licentious and perjured Charles Stewart, whom you call king, even as he renounced the Covenant, after having once and again sworn to prosecute to the utmost of his power all the ends thereof, really, constantly, and sincerely, all the days of his life, having no enemies but the enemies of the Covenant, and no friends but its friends. Whereas, far from keeping the oath he had called God and angels to witness, his first step, after his incoming into these kingdoms, was the fearful grasping at the prerogative of the Almighty, by that hideous Act of Supremacy, together with his expulsing, without summons, libel, or process of law, hundreds of famous faithful preachers, thereby wringing the bread of life out of the mouth of hungry, poor creatures, and forcibly cramming their throats with the lifeless, saltless, foisonless, lukewarm drammock of the fourteen false prelates, and their sycophantic, formal, carnal, scandalous creature-curates.”

“I did not come to hear you preach,” answered the officer, “but to know, in one word, if you will disperse yourselves, on condition of a free pardon to all but the murderers of the late Archbishop of St Andrews; or whether you will abide the attack of his majesty’s forces, which will instantly advance upon you.”

“In one word, then,” answered the spokesman, “we are here with our swords on our thighs, as men that watch in the night. We will take one part and portion together, as brethren in righteousness. Whosoever assails us in our good cause, his blood be on his own head. So return to them that sent thee, and God give them and thee a sight of the evil of your ways!”

“Is not your name,” said the Cornet, who began to recollect having seen the person whom he was now speaking with, “John Balfour of Burley?”

“And if it be,” said the spokesman, “hast thou aught to say against it?”

“Only,” said the Cornet, “that, as you are excluded from pardon in the name of the King and of my commanding officer, it is to these country people, and not to you, that I offer it; and it is not with you, or such as you, that I am sent to treat.”

“Thou art a young soldier, friend,” said Burley, “and scant well learned in thy trade, or thou wouldst know that the bearer of a flag of truce cannot treat with the army but through their officers; and that if he presume to do otherwise, he forfeits his safe conduct.”

While speaking these words, Burley unslung his carabine, and held it in readiness.

“I am not to be intimidated from the discharge of my duty by the menaces of a murderer,” said Cornet Grahame. —“Hear me, good people; I proclaim, in the name of the King and of my commanding officer, full and free pardon to all, excepting”—

“I give thee fair warning,” said Burley, presenting his piece.

“A free pardon to all,” continued the young officer, still addressing the body of the insurgents —“to all but”—

“Then the Lord grant grace to thy soul — amen!” said Burley.

With these words he fired, and Cornet Richard Grahame dropped from his horse. The shot was mortal. The unfortunate young gentleman had only strength to turn himself on the ground and mutter forth, “My poor mother!” when life forsook him in the effort. His startled horse fled back to the regiment at the gallop, as did his scarce less affrighted attendant.

“What have you done?” said one of Balfour’s brother officers.

“My duty,” said Balfour, firmly. “Is it not written, Thou shalt be zealous even to slaying? Let those, who dare, now venture to speak of truce or pardon!”

Claverhouse saw his nephew fall. He turned his eye on Evandale, while a transitory glance of indescribable emotion disturbed, for a second’s space, the serenity of his features, and briefly said, “You see the event.”

“I will avenge him, or die!” exclaimed Evandale; and, putting his horse into motion, rode furiously down the hill, followed by his own troop, and that of the deceased Cornet, which broke down without orders; and, each striving to be the foremost to revenge their young officer, their ranks soon fell into confusion. These forces formed the first line of the royalists. It was in vain that Claverhouse exclaimed, “Halt! halt! this rashness will undo us.” It was all that he could accomplish, by galloping along the second line, entreating, commanding, and even menacing the men with his sword, that he could restrain them from following an example so contagious.

“Allan,” he said, as soon as he had rendered the men in some degree more steady, “lead them slowly down the hill to support Lord Evandale, who is about to need it very much. — Bothwell, thou art a cool and a daring fellow”—

“Ay,” muttered Bothwell, “you can remember that in a moment like this.”

“Lead ten file up the hollow to the right,” continued his commanding officer, “and try every means to get through the bog; then form and charge the rebels in flank and rear, while they are engaged with us in front.”

Bothwell made a signal of intelligence and obedience, and moved off with his party at a rapid pace.

Meantime, the disaster which Claverhouse had apprehended, did not fail to take place. The troopers, who, with Lord Evandale, had rushed down upon the enemy, soon found their disorderly career interrupted by the impracticable character of the ground. Some stuck fast in the morass as they attempted to struggle through, some recoiled from the attempt and remained on the brink, others dispersed to seek a more favourable place to pass the swamp. In the midst of this confusion, the first line of the enemy, of which the foremost rank knelt, the second stooped, and the third stood upright, poured in a close and destructive fire that emptied at least a score of saddles, and increased tenfold the disorder into which the horsemen had fallen. Lord Evandale, in the meantime, at the head of a very few well-mounted men, had been able to clear the ditch, but was no sooner across than he was charged by the left body of the enemy’s cavalry, who, encouraged by the small number of opponents that had made their way through the broken ground, set upon them with the utmost fury, crying, “Woe, woe to the uncircumcised Philistines! down with Dagon and all his adherents!”

The young nobleman fought like a lion; but most of his followers were killed, and he himself could not have escaped the same fate but for a heavy fire of carabines, which Claverhouse, who had now advanced with the second line near to the ditch, poured so effectually upon the enemy, that both horse and foot for a moment began to shrink, and Lord Evandale, disengaged from his unequal combat, and finding himself nearly alone, took the opportunity to effect his retreat through the morass. But notwithstanding the loss they had sustained by Claverhouse’s first fire, the insurgents became soon aware that the advantage of numbers and of position were so decidedly theirs, that, if they could but persist in making a brief but resolute defence, the Life-Guards must necessarily be defeated. Their leaders flew through their ranks, exhorting them to stand firm, and pointing out how efficacious their fire must be where both men and horse were exposed to it; for the troopers, according to custom, fired without having dismounted. Claverhouse, more than once, when he perceived his best men dropping by a fire which they could not effectually return, made desperate efforts to pass the bog at various points, and renew the battle on firm ground and fiercer terms. But the close fire of the insurgents, joined to the natural difficulties of the pass, foiled his attempts in every point.

“We must retreat,” he said to Evandale, “unless Bothwell can effect a diversion in our favour. In the meantime, draw the men out of fire, and leave skirmishers behind these patches of alderbushes to keep the enemy in check.”

These directions being accomplished, the appearance of Bothwell with his party was earnestly expected. But Bothwell had his own disadvantages to struggle with. His detour to the right had not escaped the penetrating observation of Burley, who made a corresponding movement with the left wing of the mounted insurgents, so that when Bothwell, after riding a considerable way up the valley, found a place at which the bog could be passed, though with some difficulty, he perceived he was still in front of a superior enemy. His daring character was in no degree checked by this unexpected opposition.

“Follow me, my lads!” he called to his men; “never let it be said that we turned our backs before these canting roundheads!”

With that, as if inspired by the spirit of his ancestors, he shouted, “Bothwell! Bothwell!” and throwing himself into the morass, he struggled through it at the head of his party, and attacked that of Burley with such fury, that he drove them back above a pistol-shot, killing three men with his own hand. Burley, perceiving the consequences of a defeat on this point, and that his men, though more numerous, were unequal to the regulars in using their arms and managing their horses, threw himself across Bothwell’s way, and attacked him hand to hand. Each of the combatants was considered as the champion of his respective party, and a result ensued more usual in romance than in real story. Their followers, on either side, instantly paused, and looked on as if the fate of the day were to be decided by the event of the combat between these two redoubted swordsmen. The combatants themselves seemed of the same opinion; for, after two or three eager cuts and pushes had been exchanged, they paused, as if by joint consent, to recover the breath which preceding exertions had exhausted, and to prepare for a duel in which each seemed conscious he had met his match.

The Duel
The Duel

“You are the murdering villain, Burley,” said Bothwell, griping his sword firmly, and setting his teeth close —“you escaped me once, but”—(he swore an oath too tremendous to be written down)—“thy head is worth its weight of silver, and it shall go home at my saddle-bow, or my saddle shall go home empty for me.”

“Yes,” replied Burley, with stern and gloomy deliberation, “I am that John Balfour, who promised to lay thy head where thou shouldst never lift it again; and God do so unto me, and more also, if I do not redeem my word!”

“Then a bed of heather, or a thousand merks!” said Bothwell, striking at Burley with his full force.

“The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!” answered Balfour, as he parried and returned the blow.

There have seldom met two combatants more equally matched in strength of body, skill in the management of their weapons and horses, determined courage, and unrelenting hostility. After exchanging many desperate blows, each receiving and inflicting several wounds, though of no great consequence, they grappled together as if with the desperate impatience of mortal hate, and Bothwell, seizing his enemy by the shoulder-belt, while the grasp of Balfour was upon his own collar, they came headlong to the ground. The companions of Burley hastened to his assistance, but were repelled by the dragoons, and the battle became again general. But nothing could withdraw the attention of the combatants from each other, or induce them to unclose the deadly clasp in which they rolled together on the ground, tearing, struggling, and foaming, with the inveteracy of thorough-bred bull-dogs.

Several horses passed over them in the melee without their quitting hold of each other, until the sword-arm of Bothwell was broken by the kick of a charger. He then relinquished his grasp with a deep and suppressed groan, and both combatants started to their feet. Bothwell’s right hand dropped helpless by his side, but his left griped to the place where his dagger hung; it had escaped from the sheath in the struggle — and, with a look of mingled rage and despair, he stood totally defenceless, as Balfour, with a laugh of savage joy, flourished his sword aloft, and then passed it through his adversary’s body. Bothwell received the thrust without falling — it had only grazed on his ribs. He attempted no farther defence, but, looking at Burley with a grin of deadly hatred, exclaimed —“Base peasant churl, thou hast spilt the blood of a line of kings!”

“Die, wretch! — die!” said Balfour, redoubling the thrust with better aim; and, setting his foot on Bothwell’s body as he fell, he a third time transfixed him with his sword. —“Die, bloodthirsty dog! die as thou hast lived! — die, like the beasts that perish — hoping nothing — believing nothing —”

“And fearing nothing!” said Bothwell, collecting the last effort of respiration to utter these desperate words, and expiring as soon as they were spoken.

To catch a stray horse by the bridle, throw himself upon it, and rush to the assistance of his followers, was, with Burley, the affair of a moment. And as the fall of Bothwell had given to the insurgents all the courage of which it had deprived his comrades, the issue of this partial contest did not remain long undecided. Several soldiers were slain, the rest driven back over the morass and dispersed, and the victorious Burley, with his party, crossed it in their turn, to direct against Claverhouse the very manoeuvre which he had instructed Bothwell to execute. He now put his troop in order, with the view of attacking the right wing of the royalists; and, sending news of his success to the main body, exhorted them, in the name of Heaven, to cross the marsh, and work out the glorious work of the Lord by a general attack upon the enemy.

Meanwhile, Claverhouse, who had in some degree remedied the confusion occasioned by the first irregular and unsuccessful attack, and reduced the combat in front to a distant skirmish with firearms, chiefly maintained by some dismounted troopers whom he had posted behind the cover of the shrub-by copses of alders, which in some places covered the edge of the morass, and whose close, cool, and well-aimed fire greatly annoyed the enemy, and concealed their own deficiency of numbers — Claverhouse, while he maintained the contest in this manner, still expecting that a diversion by Bothwell and his party might facilitate a general attack, was accosted by one of the dragoons, whose bloody face and jaded horse bore witness he was come from hard service.

“What is the matter, Halliday?” said Claverhouse, for he knew every man in his regiment by name —“Where is Bothwell?”

“Bothwell is down,” replied Halliday, “and many a pretty fellow with him.”

“Then the king,” said Claverhouse, with his usual composure, “has lost a stout soldier. — The enemy have passed the marsh, I suppose?”

“With a strong body of horse, commanded by the devil incarnate that killed Bothwell,” answered the terrified soldier.

“Hush! hush!” said Claverhouse, putting his finger on his lips, “not a word to any one but me. — Lord Evandale, we must retreat. The fates will have it so. Draw together the men that are dispersed in the skirmishing work. Let Allan form the regiment, and do you two retreat up the hill in two bodies, each halting alternately as the other falls back. I’ll keep the rogues in check with the rear-guard, making a stand and facing from time to time. They will be over the ditch presently, for I see their whole line in motion and preparing to cross; therefore lose no time.”

“Where is Bothwell with his party?” said Lord Evandale, astonished at the coolness of his commander.

“Fairly disposed of,” said Claverhouse, in his ear —“the king has lost a servant, and the devil has got one. But away to business, Evandale — ply your spurs and get the men together. Allan and you must keep them steady. This retreating is new work for us all; but our turn will come round another day.”

Evandale and Allan betook themselves to their task; but ere they had arranged the regiment for the purpose of retreating in two alternate bodies, a considerable number of the enemy had crossed the marsh. Claverhouse, who had retained immediately around his person a few of his most active and tried men, charged those who had crossed in person, while they were yet disordered by the broken ground. Some they killed, others they repulsed into the morass, and checked the whole so as to enable the main body, now greatly diminished, as well as disheartened by the loss they had sustained, to commence their retreat up the hill.

But the enemy’s van being soon reinforced and supported, compelled Claverhouse to follow his troops. Never did man, however, better maintain the character of a soldier than he did that day. Conspicuous by his black horse and white feather, he was first in the repeated charges which he made at every favourable opportunity, to arrest the progress of the pursuers, and to cover the retreat of his regiment. The object of aim to every one, he seemed as if he were impassive to their shot. The superstitious fanatics, who looked upon him as a man gifted by the Evil Spirit with supernatural means of defence, averred that they saw the bullets recoil from his jack-boots and buff-coat like hailstones from a rock of granite, as he galloped to and fro amid the storm of the battle. Many a whig that day loaded his musket with a dollar cut into slugs, in order that a silver bullet (such was their belief) might bring down the persecutor of the holy kirk, on whom lead had no power.

“Try him with the cold steel,” was the cry at every renewed charge —“powder is wasted on him. Ye might as weel shoot at the Auld Enemy himsell.” 22

But though this was loudly shouted, yet the awe on the insurgents’ minds was such, that they gave way before Claverhouse as before a supernatural being, and few men ventured to cross swords with him. Still, however, he was fighting in retreat, and with all the disadvantages attending that movement. The soldiers behind him, as they beheld the increasing number of enemies who poured over the morass, became unsteady; and, at every successive movement, Major Allan and Lord Evandale found it more and more difficult to bring them to halt and form line regularly, while, on the other hand, their motions in the act of retreating became, by degrees, much more rapid than was consistent with good order. As the retiring soldiers approached nearer to the top of the ridge, from which in so luckless an hour they had descended, the panic began to increase. Every one became impatient to place the brow of the hill between him and the continued fire of the pursuers; nor could any individual think it reasonable that he should be the last in the retreat, and thus sacrifice his own safety for that of others. In this mood, several troopers set spurs to their horses and fled outright, and the others became so unsteady in their movements and formations, that their officers every moment feared they would follow the same example.

Amid this scene of blood and confusion, the trampling of the horses, the groans of the wounded, the continued fire of the enemy, which fell in a succession of unintermitted musketry, while loud shouts accompanied each bullet which the fall of a trooper showed to have been successfully aimed — amid all the terrors and disorders of such a scene, and when it was dubious how soon they might be totally deserted by their dispirited soldiery, Evandale could not forbear remarking the composure of his commanding officer. Not at Lady Margaret’s breakfast-table that morning did his eye appear more lively, or his demeanour more composed. He had closed up to Evandale for the purpose of giving some orders, and picking out a few men to reinforce his rear-guard.

“If this bout lasts five minutes longer,” he said, in a whisper, “our rogues will leave you, my lord, old Allan, and myself, the honour of fighting this battle with our own hands. I must do something to disperse the musketeers who annoy them so hard, or we shall be all shamed. Don’t attempt to succour me if you see me go down, but keep at the head of your men; get off as you can, in God’s name, and tell the king and the council I died in my duty!”

So saying, and commanding about twenty stout men to follow him, he gave, with this small body, a charge so desperate and unexpected, that he drove the foremost of the pursuers back to some distance. In the confusion of the assault he singled out Burley, and, desirous to strike terror into his followers, he dealt him so severe a blow on the head, as cut through his steel head-piece, and threw him from his horse, stunned for the moment, though unwounded. A wonderful thing it was afterwards thought, that one so powerful as Balfour should have sunk under the blow of a man, to appearance so slightly made as Claverhouse; and the vulgar, of course, set down to supernatural aid the effect of that energy, which a determined spirit can give to a feebler arm. Claverhouse had, in this last charge, however, involved himself too deeply among the insurgents, and was fairly surrounded.

Lord Evandale saw the danger of his commander, his body of dragoons being then halted, while that commanded by Allan was in the act of retreating. Regardless of Claverhouse’s disinterested command to the contrary, he ordered the party which he headed to charge down hill and extricate their Colonel. Some advanced with him — most halted and stood uncertain — many ran away. With those who followed Evandale, he disengaged Claverhouse. His assistance just came in time, for a rustic had wounded his horse in a most ghastly manner by the blow of a scythe, and was about to repeat the stroke when Lord Evandale cut him down. As they got out of the press, they looked round them. Allan’s division had ridden clear over the hill, that officer’s authority having proved altogether unequal to halt them. Evandale’s troop was scattered and in total confusion.

“What is to be done, Colonel?” said Lord Evandale.

“We are the last men in the field, I think,” said Claverhouse; “and when men fight as long as they can, there is no shame in flying. Hector himself would say, ‘Devil take the hindmost,’ when there are but twenty against a thousand. — Save yourselves, my lads, and rally as soon as you can. — Come, my lord, we must e’en ride for it.”

So saying, he put spurs to his wounded horse; and the generous animal, as if conscious that the life of his rider depended on his exertions, pressed forward with speed, unabated either by pain or loss of blood. 23

A few officers and soldiers followed him, but in a very irregular and tumultuary manner. The flight of Claverhouse was the signal for all the stragglers, who yet offered desultory resistance, to fly as fast as they could, and yield up the field of battle to the victorious insurgents.

22 Proof against Shot given by Satan. The belief of the Covenanters that their principal enemies, and Claverhouse in particular, had obtained from the Devil a charm which rendered them proof against leaden bullets, led them to pervert even the circumstances of his death. Howie of Lochgoin, after giving some account of the battle of Killicrankie, adds:

“The battle was very bloody, and by Mackay’s third fire, Claverhouse fell, of whom historians give little account; but it has been said for certain, that his own waiting-servant, taking a resolution to rid the world of this truculent bloody monster, and knowing he had proof of lead, shot him with a silver button he had before taken off his own coat for that purpose. However, he fell, and with him Popery, and King James’s interest in Scotland.”— God’s Judgment on Persecutors, p. xxxix.

Original note. —“Perhaps some may think this anent proof of a shot a paradox, and be ready to object here, as formerly, concerning Bishop Sharpe and Dalziel —‘How can the Devil have or give a power to save life?’ Without entering upon the thing in its reality, I shall only observe, 1st, That it is neither in his power, or of his nature, to be a saviour of men’s lives; he is called Apollyon the destroyer. 2d, That even in this case he is said only to give enchantment against one kind of metal, and this does not save life: for the lead would not take Sharpe or Claverhouse’s lives, yet steel and silver would do it; and for Dalziel, though he died not on the field, he did not escape the arrows of the Almighty.”— Ibidem.

23 Claverhouse’s Charger. It appears, from the letter of Claverhouse afterwards quoted, that the horse on which he rode at Drumclog was not black, but sorrel. The author has been misled as to the colour by the many extraordinary traditions current in Scotland concerning Claverhouse’s famous black charger, which was generally believed to have been a gift to its rider from the Author of Evil, who is said to have performed the Caesarean operation upon its dam. This horse was so fleet, and its rider so expert, that they are said to have outstripped and coted, or turned, a hare upon the Bran-Law, near the head of Moffat Water, where the descent is so precipitous, that no merely earthly horse could keep its feet, or merely mortal rider could keep the saddle.

There is a curious passage in the testimony of John Dick, one of the suffering Presbyterians, in which the author, by describing each of the persecutors by their predominant qualities or passions, shows how little their best-loved attributes would avail them in the great day of judgment. When he introduces Claverhouse, it is to reproach him with his passion for horses in general, and for that steed in particular, which was killed at Drumclog, in the manner described in the text:

“As for that bloodthirsty wretch, Claverhouse, how thinks he to shelter himself that day? Is it possible the pitiful thing can be so mad as to think to secure himself by the fleetness of his horse, (a creature he has so much respect for, that he regarded more the loss of his horse at Drumclog, than all the men that fell there, and sure there fell prettier men on either side than himself?) No, sure — could he fall upon a chemist that could extract the spirit out of all the horses in the world, and infuse them into his one, though he were on that horse never so well mounted, he need not dream of escaping.”— The Testimony to the Doctrine, Worship, Discipline, and Government of the Church of Scotland, as it was left in write by that truly pious and eminently faithful, and now glorified Martyr, Mr John Dick. To which is added, his last Speech and Behaviour on the Scaffold, on 5th March, 1684, which day he sealed this testimony. 57 pp. 4to. No year or place of publication.

The reader may perhaps receive some farther information on the subject of Cornet Grahame’s death and the flight of Claverhouse, from the following Latin lines, a part of a poem entitled, Bellum Bothuellianum, by Andrew Guild, which exists in manuscript in the Advocates’ Library.


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