Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 14

The English, a more powerful and richer nation, better able to furnish forth and maintain large armies, often gained great victories over the Scots; but, in return, the Scots had a determined love of independence, and hatred of foreign tyranny, which induced them always to maintain their resistance under the most unfavourable circumstances, and to repair, by slow, stubborn, and continued exertions, the losses which they sustained. Throughout the whole country of Scotland, only four castles and a small tower acknowledged the sovereignty of David Bruce, after the battle of Halidon; and it is wonderful to see how, by their efforts, the patriots soon afterwards changed for the better, that unfavourable and seemingly desperate state of things. In the several skirmishes and battles which were fought all over the kingdom, the Scots, knowing the country, and having the good-will of the inhabitants, were generally successful, as also in surprising castles and forts, cutting off convoys of provisions which were going to the English, and destroying scattered parties of the enemy; so that, by a long and incessant course of fighting, the patriots gradually regained what they lost in great battles. I will tell you one or two of the incidents which befell during this bloody war. Lochleven castle, situated on an island upon a large lake, was one of the four which held out in name of David the Bruce, and would not submit to Edward Baliol. The governor was a loyal Scotsman, called Alan Vipont, assisted by Jaques or James Lamby. The castle was besieged by Sir John Stirling, a follower of Baliol, with an army of English. As She besiegers dared not approach the island with boats, Stirling fell on a singular device to oblige the garrison to surrender. There is a small river, called the Leven, which runs out of the eastern extremity of the lake, or loch. Across this stream the besiegers reared a very strong and lofty mound, or barrier, so as to prevent the waters of the Leven from leaving the lake. They expected that the waters of the lake would rise in consequence of being thus confined, and that they would overflow the island, and oblige Vipont to surrender. But Vipont sending out at dead of night a small boat with four men, they made a breach in the mound; and the whole body of water, breaking forth with incredible fury, swept away the tents, baggage, and troops of the besiegers, and nearly destroyed their army. The remains of the English mound are shown to this day, though some doubt has been expressed as to the truth of the incident. It is certain the English were obliged to raise the siege with loss (19/6/1335).

While these wars were proceeding with increased fury, the Knight of Liddesdale, and Sir Andrew Murray of Bothwell, returned to Scotland, having been freed from their imprisonment, by paying a large ransom; the Earl of March also embraced the party of David Bruce. An equally brave champion was Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalwolsy, who, placing himself at the head of a gallant troop of young Scotsmen, chose for his residence the large caves which are still to be seen in the glen of Roslin, from which he used to sally forth, and fight with Englishmen and their adherents. From this place of refuge he sometimes made excursions as far as Northumberland, and drove spoil from that country. No young Scottish soldier was thought entitled to make pretension to any renown in arms, unless he had served in Ramsay’s band. A considerable battle was fought in the North of Scotland, which turned to the advantage of the young King. Kildrummie castle was one of the four which held out for David Bruce. It was defended by King David’s aunt, a venerable matron, Christian Bruce, the wife of Sir Andrew Murray, and the sister of the brave King Robert; for in those warlike days women commanded castles, and sometimes fought in battle. This castle, which was one of the last places of refuge for the patriots, was besieged by David Hastings, the Earl of Athole, one of the disinherited lords, who, having changed sides more than once during the war, had at length turned entirely to the English party. Sir Andrew Murray of Bothwell, who had resumed his office of Regent, resolved to assemble the strongest force which the patriots could muster, and calling together the Knight of Liddesdale, Ramsay, and the Earl of March, he moved against the Earl of Athole, to compel him to raise the siege of Kildrummie, and relieve its heroic defender. All these great nobles were unable to raise above one thousand men, while Athole had three times that number under his command. But as the Scots approached the territory of Kildrummie, they were joined by one John Craig. This gentleman belonged to the royalists of Scotland, but having been made prisoner by the Earl of Athole, he had agreed to pay a large ransom, and the morrow was the time appointed for producing the money. He was, therefore, anxious to accomplish the defeat or death of Athole before the money was paid to him, and thus to save his ransom. With this purpose, he conducted the Scotsmen through the forest of Braemar, where they were joined by the natives of that territory, and thus came suddenly on the Earl of Athole, who lay encamped in the forest. Athole started up in surprise when he saw his enemies appear so unexpectedly; but he was a stout-hearted man, though fickle in his political attachments. He looked at a great rock which lay beside him, and swore an oath that he would not fly that day until that rock should show him the example. A small brook divided the two parties. The Knight of Liddesdale, who led the van of the Scots, advanced a little way down the bank on his side, then taking his spear by the middle, and keeping his own men back with it, he bade them halt, which occasioned some murmurs. The Earl of Athole, seeing this pause, exclaimed, “These men are half discomfited,” and rushed to charge them, followed by his men in some disorder. When they had passed the brook, and there ascending the bank on the other side, — “Now is our time,” said the Knight of Liddesdale, and charged down hill with levelled lances, bearing Athole’s followers backwards into the ford. The earl himself, disdaining quarter, was slain under a great oak-tree. This was the battle of Kilblene, fought on Saint Andrew’s day, 1335.

Among the warlike exploits of this period, we might not forget the defence of the castle of Dunbar by the celebrated Countess of March. Her lord, as we have seen, had embraced the side of David Bruce, and had taken the field with the Regent. The countess, who from her complexion was termed Black Agnes, by which name she is still familiarly remembered, was a high-spirited and courageous woman, the daughter of that Thomas Randolph, Earl of Murray, whom I have so often mentioned, and the heiress of his valour and patriotism. The castle of Dunbar itself was very strong, being built upon a chain of rocks stretching into the sea, and having only one passage to the mainland, which was well fortified. It was besieged by Montague, Earl of Salisbury, who employed to destroy its walls great military engines, constructed to throw huge stones, with which machines fortifications were attacked before the use of cannon. Black Agnes set all his attempts of defiance, and showed herself with her maids on the walls of the castle, wiping the places where the huge stones fell with a clean towel, as if they could do no ill to her castle, save raising a little dust, which a napkin could wipe away.

The Earl of Salisbury then commanded his engineers to bring forward to the assault an engine of another kind, being a sort of wooden shed, or house, rolled forward on wheels, with a roof of peculiar strength, which, from resembling the ridge of a hog’s back, occasioned the machine to be called a sow. This, according to the old mode of warfare, was thrust close up to the walls of a besieged castle or city, and served to protect from the arrows and stones or the besieged a party of soldiers placed within the sow, who, being thus defended, were in the mean while employed in undermining the wall, or breaking an entrance through it with pickaxes and mining tools. When the Countess of March saw this engine advanced to the walls of the castle, she called out to the Earl of Salisbury in derision and making a kind of rhyme, —

“Beware, Montagow,

For farrow shall thy sow.”

At the same time she made a signal, and a huge fragment of rock, which hung prepared for the purpose, was dropped down from the wall upon the sow, whose roof was thus dashed to pieces. As the English soldiers, who had been within it, were running as fast as they could to get out of the way of the arrows and stones which were discharged on them from the wall, Black Agnes called out, “Behold the litter of English pigs!”

The Earl of Salisbury could jest also on such serious occasions. One day he rode near the walls with a knight dressed in armour of proof, having three folds of mail over an acton, or leathern jacket; notwithstanding which, one William Spens shot an arrow from the battlements of the castle with such force, that it penetrated all these defences, and reached the heart of the wearer. “That is one of my lady’s love-tokens,” said the earl, as he saw the knight fall dead from his horse. “Black Agnes’s love-shafts pierce to the heart.” Upon another occasion, the Countess of March had wellnigh made the Earl of Salisbury her prisoner. She caused one of her people enter into treaty with the besiegers, pretending to betray the castle. Trusting to this agreement, the earl came at midnight before the gate, which he found open, and the portcullis drawn up. As Salisbury was about to enter, one John Copland, a squire of Northumberland, pressed on before him, and as soon as he passed the threshold, the portcullis was dropped, and thus the Scots missed their principal prey, and made prisoner only a person of inferior condition.

At length the castle of Dunbar was relieved by Alexander Ramsay of Dalwolsy, who brought the countess supplies by sea both of men and provisions. The Earl of Salisbury, learning this, despaired of success, and raised the siege, which had lasted nineteen weeks. The minstrels made songs in praise of the perseverance and courage of Black Agnes. The following lines are nearly the sense of what is preserved:

“She kept a stir in tower and trench, That brawling boisterous Scottish wench;

Came I early, came I late, I found Agnes at the gate.”

The brave Sir Andrew Murray of Bothwell, the Regent of Scotland, died in 1338, while the war was raging on all sides. He was a good patriot, and a great loss to his country, to which he had rendered the highest services. There is a story told of him, which shows how composed he could be in circumstances of great danger. He was in the Highlands with a small body of followers, when the King of England came upon him with an army of twenty thousand. The Regent learned the news, but, being then about to hear mass, did not permit his devotions to be interrupted. When mass was ended, the people around him pressed him to order a retreat. “There is no haste,” said Murray, composedly. At length his horse was brought out, he was about to mount, and all expected that the retreat was to commence. But the Regent observed that a strap of his armour had given way, and this interposed new delays. He sent for a particular coffer, out of which he took a piece of skin, and cut and formed with his own hand, and with much deliberation, the strap which he wanted. By this time the English were drawing very near, and as they were so many in number, some of the Scottish knights afterwards told the historian who relates the incident, that no space of time ever seemed so long to them as that which Sir Andrew employed in cutting the thong of leather. Now, if this had been done in a mere vaunting or bragging manner, it would have been the behaviour of a vainglorious fool. But Sir Andrew Murray had already fixed upon the mode of retiring, and he knew that every symptom of coolness and deliberation which he might show would render his men steady and composed in their turn, from beholding the confidence of their leader. He at length gave the word, and putting himself at the head of his followers, made a most masterly retreat, during which the English, notwithstanding their numbers, were unable to obtain any advantage over him, so well did the Regent avail himself of the nature of the ground. You may well imagine, my dear child, that during those long and terrible wars which were waged, when castles were defended and taken, prisoners made, many battles fought, and numbers of men wounded and slain, the state of the country of Scotland was most miserable. There was no finding refuge or protection in the law, at a time when every thing was decided by the strongest arm and the longest sword. There was no use in raising crops, when the man who sowed them was not, in all probability, permitted to reap the grain. There was little religious devotion where so much violence prevailed; and the hearts of the people became so much inclined to acts of blood and fury, that all laws of humanity and charity were transgressed without scruple. People were found starved to death in the woods with their families, while the country was so depopulated and void of cultivation, that the wild-deer came out of the remote forests, and approached near to cities and the dwellings of men. Whole families were reduced to eat grass, and others, it is said, found a more horrible aliment in the flesh of their fellow-creatures. One wretch used to set traps for human beings as if for wild beasts, and subsisted on their flesh. This cannibal was called Christian of the Cleek, from the cleek or hook which he used in his horrid traps. In the middle of all these horrors, the English and Scottish knights and nobles, when there was any truce between the countries, supplied the place of the wars in which they were commonly engaged, with tournaments and games of chivalry. These were meetings not for the express purpose of fighting, but for that of trying which was the best man at-arms. But instead of wrestling, leaping, or running races on foot or horse, the fashion then was that the gentlemen tilted together, that is, rode against each other in armour with their long lances, and tried which could bear the other out of the saddle, and throw him to the ground. Sometimes they fought on foot with swords and axes; and although all was meant in courtesy and fair play, yet lives were often lost in this idle manner as much as if the contest had been carried on with the purpose of armed battle and deadly hatred. In later days they fought with swords purposely blunted on the edge, and with lances which had no steel point; but in the times we speak of at present, they used in tilts and tournaments the same weapons which they employed in war.

A very noted entertainment of this kind was given to both Scottish and English champions by Henry of Lancaster, then called Earl of Derby, and afterwards King Henry IV of England. He invited the Knight of Liddesdale, the good Sir Alexander Ramsay, and about twenty other distinguished Scottish knights, to a tilting match, which was to take place near Berwick. After receiving and entertaining his Scottish guests nobly, the Earl of Derby began to enquire of Ramsay in what manner of armour the knights should tilt together. “With shields of plate,” said Ramsay, “such as men use in tournaments.”

This may be supposed a peculiarly weighty and strong kind of armour, intended merely for this species of encounter.

“Nay,” said the Earl of Derby, “we shall gain little praise if we tilt in such safety; let us rather use the lighter armour which we wear in battle.” “Content are we,” answered Sir Alexander Ramsay, “to fight in our silk doublets, if such be your lordship’s pleasure.”

The knight of Liddesdale was wounded on the wrist by the splinter of a spear, and was obliged to desist from the exercise. A Scottish knight called Sir Patrick Grahame tilted with a warlike English baron named Talbot, whose life was saved by his wearing two breastplates. The Scottish lance pierced through both, and sunk an inch into the breast. Had he been only armed as according to agreement, Talbot had been a dead man. Another English knight challenged the Grahame at supper time, to run three courses with him the next day. “Dost thou ask to tilt with me?” said the Grahame; “rise early in the morning, confess your sins, and make your peace with God, for you shall sup in paradise.” Accordingly, on the ensuing morning, Grahame ran him through the body with his lance, and he died on the spot. Another English knight was also slain, and one of the Scots mortally wounded. William Ramsay was borne through the helmet with a lance, the splinter of the broken spear remaining in his skull, and nailing his helmet to his head. As he was expected to die on the spot, a priest was sent for, who heard him confess his sins, without the helmet being removed. “Ah, it is a goodly sight,” quoth the good Earl of Derby, much edified by this spectacle, “to see a knight make his shrift” (that is, confession of his sins) “in his helmet. God send me such an ending!”

But when the shrift was over, Sir Alexander Ramsay, to whom the wounded knight was brother, or kinsman, made him lie down at full length, and, with surgery as rough as their pastime, held his friend’s head down with his foot, while, by main strength, he pulled the fragment of the spear out of the helmet, and out of the wound. Then William Ramsay started up, and said, “that he should do well enough.”

“Lo! what stout hearts men may bear!” said the Earl of Derby, as much admiring the surgical treatment as he had done the religious. Whether the patient lived or died, does not appear. In fixing the prizes, it was settled that the English knights should decide which of the Scots had done best, and the Scots should, in like manner, judge the valour of the English. Much equity was shown in the decision on both sides, and the Earl of Derby was munificent in distribution of gifts and prizes. This may serve to show you the amusements of this stirring period, of which war and danger were the sport as well as the serious occupation.


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