Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 37

We are nest to examine the effect which James’s accession to the throne of England had upon those lawless parts of his kingdom, the Borders and the Highlands, as well as on the more civilized provinces of Scotland — of which I shall take notice in their order.

The consequences of the union of the crowns were more immediately felt on the Borders, which, from being the extremity of both countries, were now converted into the centre of the kingdom. But it was not easy to see, how the restless and violent inhabitants, who had been for so many centuries accustomed to a lawless and military life, were to conduct themselves, when the general peace around left them no enemies either to fight with or plunder.

These Borderers were, as I have elsewhere told you, divided into families, or clans, who followed a leader supposed to be descended from the original father of the tribe. They lived in a great measure by the rapine which they exercised indiscriminately on the English, or their own countrymen, the inhabitants of the more inland districts, or by the or by the protection-money which they exacted for leaving them undisturbed. This kind of plundering was esteemed by them in the highest degree honourable and praiseworthy; and the following, as well as many other curious stories, is an example of this:—

A young gentleman, of a distinguished family belonging to one of these Border tribes, or clans, made, either from the desire of plunder, or from revenge, a raid, or incursion, upon the lands of Sir Gideon Murray of Elibank, afterwards deputy-treasurer of Scotland, and a great favourite of James VI. The Laird of Elibank, having got his people under arms, engaged the invaders, and, encountering them when they were encumbered with spoil defeated them, and made the leader of the band prisoner. He was brought to the castle of his conqueror, when the lady enquired of her victorious husband, “what he intended to do with his captive?” —“I design,” said the fierce baron, “to hang him instantly, dame, as a man taken red-hand in the act of robbery and violence.” — “That is not like your wisdom, Sir Gideon,” answered his more considerate lady. “If you put to death this young gentleman, you will enter into deadly feud with his numerous and powerful clan. You must therefore do a wiser thing, and, instead of hanging him, we will cause him to marry our youngest daughter, Meg with the meikle mouth, without any tocher”(that is, without any portion). The laird joyfully consented; for this Meg with the large mouth was so ugly, that there was very little chance of her getting a husband in any other circumstances; and, in fact, when the alternative of such a marriage, or death by the gallows, was proposed to the poor prisoner, he was for some time disposed to choose the latter; nor was it without difficulty that he could be persuaded to save his life at the expense of marrying Meg Murray. He did so at last, however; and it is said, that Meg, thus forced upon him, made an excellent and affectionate wife; but the unusual size of mouth was supposed to remain discernible tin their descendants for several generations. I mention this anecdote, because it occurred during James the Sixth’s reign, and shows, in a striking manner, how little the Borderers had improved in their sense of morality, or distinctions between right and wrong.

A more important, but not more characteristic event, which happened no long afterwards, shows, in its progress, the utter lawlessness and contempt of legal authority which prevailed on the Borders in the commencement of this reign, and, in its conclusion, the increased power of the monarch after the Union of the Crowns.

There had been long and deadly feud, on the West Borders, betwixt the two great families of Maxwell and Johnstone. The former house was the most wealthy and powerful family in Dumfriesshire and its vicinity, and had great influence among the families inhabiting the more level part of that county. Their chieftain had the title of Lord Maxwell, and claimed that of Earl of Morton. The Johnstones, on the other hand, were neither equal to the Maxwells in numbers nor in power; but they were a race of uncommon hardihood, much attached to each other and their chieftain, and who, residing in the strong and mountainous district of Annandale, used to sally from thence as from a fortress, and return to its fastnesses after having accomplished their inroads. They were, therefore, able to maintain their ground against the Maxwells, though more numerous than themselves.

So well was this known to be the case, that when, in 1585, the Lord Maxwell was declared to be a rebel, a commission was given to the Laird of Johnstone to pursue and apprehend him. In this, however, Johnstone was unsuccessful. Two bands of hired soldiers, whom the Government had sent to his assistance, were destroyed by the Maxwells; and Lochwood, the chief house of the laird, was taken and wantonly burnt, in order, as the Maxwells expressed it, that Lady Johnstone might have light to put on her hood. Johnstone himself was subsequently defeated and made prisoner. Being a man of a proud and haughty temper, he is said to have died of grief at the disgrace which he incurred; and thus there commenced a long series of mutual injuries between the hostile clans.

Shortly after this catastrophe, Maxwell, being restored to the King’s favour, was once more placed in the situation of Warden of the West Borders, and an alliance was made betwixt him and Sir James Johnstone, in which they and their two clans agreed to stand by each other against all the world. This agreement being entered into, the clan of Johnstone concluded they had little to apprehend from the justice of the new Lord Warden, so long as they did not plunder any of the name of Maxwell. They accordingly descended into the valley of the Nith, and committed great spoil on the lands belonging to Douglas of Drumlanrig, Creichton Lord Sanquhar, Grierson of Lagg, and Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, all of them independent barons of high birth and great power. The injured parties pursued the depredators with forces hastily assembled, but were defeated with slaughter in their attempt to recover the prey. The despoiled and injured barons next carried their complaints to Maxwell the warden, who alleged his late alliance with Johnstone as a reason why he could not yield them the redress which his office entitled them to expect at his hands. But when, to make up for such risk as he might incur by renewing his enmity with the Johnstones, the barons of Nithsdale offered to bind themselves by a bond of manrent, as it was called, to become the favourers and followers of Lord Maxwell in all his quarrels, excepting against the King, the temptation became too strong to be overcome, and the ambitious warden resolved to sacrifice his newly formed friendship with Johnstone to the desire of extending his authority over so powerful a confederacy.

The secret of this association did not long remain concealed from Johnstone, who saw that his own destruction and the ruin of his clan were the objects aimed at, and hastened to apply to his neighbours in the east and south for assistance. Buccleuch, the relative of Johnstone, and by far his most powerful ally, was then in foreign parts. But the Laird of Elibank, mentioned in the last story, bore the banner of Buccleuch in person, and assembled five hundred men of the clan of Scott, whom our historians term the greatest robbers and fiercest fighters among the Border clans. The Elliots of Liddesdale also assisted Johnstone; and his neighbours on the southern parts, the Grahams of the Debateable Land, from hopes of plunder and ancient enmity to the Maxwells, sent also a considerable number of spears.

Thus prepared for war, Johnstone took the field with activity, while Maxwell, on the other part, hastily assembling his own forces, and those of his new followers, the Nithsdale barons, Drumlanrig, Lagg, Closeburn, the Creichtons, and others, invaded Annandale with the royal banner displayed, and a force of upwards of two thousand men. Johnstone, unequal in numbers, stood on the defensive, and kept possession of the woods and strong ground; waiting an opportunity of fighting to advantage; while Maxwell, in contempt of him, formed the siege of the castle or tower of Lockerby, the fortress of a Johnstone, who was then in arms with his chief. His wife, a woman of a masculine disposition, the sister or daughter of the laird who had died in Maxwell’s prison, defended his place of residence. While Maxwell endeavoured to storm the castle, and while it was bravely defended by its female captain, the chief received information that the Laird of Johnstone was advancing to its relief. He drew off from the siege, marched towards his feudal enemy, and caused it to be published through his little army that he would give a “ten-pound land,” that is, land rated in the cess-books at that yearly amount, “to any one who would bring him the head or hand of the Laird of Johnstone.” When this was reported to Johnstone, he said he had not ten-pound lands to offer, but that he would bestow a five-merk land upon the man who should bring him the head or hand of Lord Maxwell.

The conflict took place close by the river Dryfe near Lochmaber, and is called the Battle of Dryfe Sands. It was managed by Johnstone with considerable military skill. He showed at first only a handful of horsemen, who made a hasty attack upon Maxwell’s army, and then retired in a manner which induced the enemy to consider them as defeated, and led them to pursue in disorder with loud acclamations of victory. The Maxwells and their confederates were thus exposed to a sudden and desperate charge from the main body of the Johnstones and their allies, who fell upon them while their ranks were broken, and compelled them to take to flight. The Maxwells and the confederated barons suffered grievously in the retreat — many were overtaken in the streets of Lockerby, and cut down or slashed in the face by the pursuers; and kind of blow, which to this day is called in that country a “Lockerby lick.”

Maxwell himself, an elderly man and heavily armed, was borne down from his horse in the beginning of the conflict; and, as he named his name and offered to surrender, his right hand, which he stretched out for mercy, was cut from his body. Thus far history; but family tradition adds the following circumstance: The Lady of Lockerby, who was besieged in her tower as already mentioned, had witnessed from the battlements the approach of the Laird of Johnstone, and as soon as the enemy withdrew from the blockade of the fortress, had sent to the assistance of her chief the few servants who had assisted in the defence. After this she heard the tumult of battle, but as she could not from the tower see the place where it was fought, she remained in an agony of suspense, until, as the noise seemed to pass away in a westerly direction, she could endure the uncertainty no longer, but sallied out from the tower, with only one female attendant, to see how the day had gone. As a measure of precaution, she locked the strong oaken door and the iron-grate with which a Border fortress was commonly secured, and knitting the large keys on a thong, took them with her, hanging on her arm.

When the Lady of Lockerby entered on the field of battle, she found all the relics of a bloody fight; the little valley was covered with slain men and horses, and broken armour, besides many wounded, who were incapable of further effort for saving themselves. Amongst others, she saw lying beneath a thorn-tree a tall, grey-haired, noble-looking man, arrayed in bright armour, but bare-headed, and bleeding to death from the loss of his right hand. He asked her for mercy and help with a faltering voice; but the idea of deadly feud in that time and country closed all access to compassion even in the female bosom. She saw before her on the enemy of her clan, and the cause of her father’s captivity and death; and raising the ponderous keys which she bore along with her, the Lady of Lockerby is commonly reported to have dashed out the brains of the vanquished Lord Maxwell.

The battle of Dryfe Sands was remarkable as the last great clan battle fought on the Borders, and it led to the renewal of the strife betwixt the Maxwells and Johnstones, with every circumstance of ferocity which could add horror to civil war. The last distinguished act of the tragedy took place thus:—

The son of the slain Lord Maxwell invited Sir James Johnstone to a friendly conference, to which each chieftain engaged to bring one friend only. They met at a place called Auchmanhill, on the 6th August, 1608, when the attendant of Lord Maxwell, after falling into bitter and reproachful language with Johnstone of Gunmanlie, who was in attendance on his chief, at length fired his pistol. Sir James Johnstone turning round to see what had happened, Lord Maxwell treacherously shot him through the back with a pistol charged with a brace of poisoned bullets. While the gallant old knight lay dying on the ground, Maxwell rode round him with the view of completing his crime, but Johnstone defended himself with his sword till strength and life failed him.

This final catastrophe of such a succession of bloody acts of revenge, took place several years after the union of the crowns, and the consequences, so different from whose which ensued on former occasions, show how effectually the King’s authority, and the power of enforcing the course of equal justice, had increased in consequence of that desirable event. You may observe, from the incidents mentioned, that in 1585, when Lord Maxwell assaulted and made prisoner the Laird of Johnstone, then the King’s warden, and acting in his name, and committed him to the captivity in which he died, James was totally unequal to the task of vindicating his royal authority, and saw himself compelled to receive Maxwell into favour and trusts, as if he had done nothing contrary to the laws. Nor was the royal authority more effectual in 1593, when Maxwell, acting as royal warden, and having the King’s banner displayed, was in his turn defeated and slain, in so melancholy and cruel a manner, at Dryfe Sands. On the contrary, Sir James Johnstone was not only pardoned, but restored to favour and trust by the King. But there was a conspicuous difference in the consequences of the murder which took place at Auchmanhill in 1608. Lord Maxwell, finding no refuge in the Border country, was obliged to escape to France, where he resided for two or three years; but afterwards venturing to return to Scotland, he was apprehended in the wilds of Caithness, and brought to trial at Edinburgh. James, desirous on this occasion to strike terror, by a salutary warning, into the factious nobility and disorderly Borderers, caused the criminal to be publicly beheaded on 21st May, 1613.

Many instances might be added to show that the course of justice on the Border began, after the accession of James to the English throne, to flow with a less interrupted stream, even where men of rank and power were concerned.

The inferior class of freebooters was treated with much less ceremony. Proclamations were made, that none of the inhabitants of either side of the Border (except noblemen and gentlemen of unsuspected character) should retain in their possession armour or weapons, offensive or defensive, or keep any horse above the value of fifty shillings. Particular clans, described as broken men, were especially forbid the use of weapons. The celebrated clan of Armstrong had, on the very night in which Queen Elizabeth’s death became public, concluding that a time of such misrule as that in which they had hitherto made their harvest was again approaching, and desirous of losing no time, made a fierce incursion into England, extending their ravages as far as Penrith, and done much mischief. But such a consequence had been foreseen and provided against. A strong body of soldiers, both English and Scots, swept along the Border, and severely punished to marauders, blowing up their fortresses with gunpowder, destroying their lands, and driving away their cattle and flocks. Several of the principal leaders were taken and executed at Carlisle. The Armstrongs appear never to have recovered their consequence after this severe chastisement; nor are there many of this celebrated clan now to be found among the landholders of Liddesdale, where they once possessed the whole district.

The Grahams, long the inhabitants of the Debateable Land which was claimed both by England and Scotland, were still more severely dealt with. They were very brave and active Borderers attached to England, for which country, and particularly in Edward VI’s time, they had often done good service. But they were also very lawless plunderers, and their incursions were as much dreaded by the inhabitants of Cumberland as by those of the Scottish frontier. Thus their conduct was equally the subject of complaint on both sides of the Border; and the poor Grahams, seeing no alternative, were compelled to sign a petition to the King, confessing themselves to be unfit persons to dwell in the country which they now inhabited, and praying that he would provide the means of transporting them elsewhere, where his paternal goodness should assign them the means of subsistence. The whole clan, a very few individuals excepted, were thus deprived of their lands and residences, and transported to the county of Ulster, in Ireland, where they were settled on lands which had been acquired from the conquered Irish. There is a list in existence, which shows the rate at which the county of Cumberland was taxed for the exportation of these poor Borderers, as if they had been so many bullocks.

Another efficient mode of getting rid of a warlike and disorderly population, who, though an admirable defence of a country in time of war, must have been great scourges in time of the profound peace to which the Border districts were consigned after the close of the English wars, was the levying a large body of soldiers to serve in foreign countries. The love of military adventure had already carried one legion of Scots to serve the Dutch in their defence against the Spaniards, and they had done great service in the Low Countries, and particularly at the battle of Mechline, in 1578; where, impatient of the head of the weather, to the astonishment of both friends and enemies, the Scottish auxiliaries flung off their upper garments, and fought like furies in their shirts. The circumstance is pointed out in the plan of the battle, which is to be found in Strada’s history, with the explanation, “Here the Scots fought naked.”

Buccleuch levied a large additional force from the Border, whose occupation in their native country was gone for ever. These also distinguished themselves in the wars of the Low Countries. It may be supposed that very many of them perished in the field, and the descendants of others still survive in the Netherlands and in Germany.

In addition to the relief afforded by such an outlet for a superfluous military population, whose numbers greatly exceeded what the land could have supplied with food, and who, in fact, had only lived upon plunder, bonds were entered into by the men of substance and family on the Borders, not only obliging themselves to abstain from depredations, but to stand by each other in putting down and preventing such evil doings at the hand of others, and in making common cause against any clan, branch, or surname, who might take offence at any individual for acting in prosecution of this engagement. They engaged also to the King and to each other, not only to seize and deliver to justice such thieves as should take refuge in their grounds, but to discharge from their families or estates all persons, domestics, tenants, or others, who could be suspected of such offences, and to supply their place with honest and peaceable subjects. I am possessed of such a bond, dated in the year 1612, and subscribed by about twenty landholders, chiefly of the name of Scott.

Finally, an unusually severe and keen prosecution of all who were convicted, accused, or even suspected, of offence against the peace of the Border, was set on foot by George Home, Earl of Dunbar, James’s able but not very scrupulous minister; and these judicial measures were conducted so severely as to give rise to the proverb of Jeddart (or Jedburgh) justice, by which it is said a criminal was hanged first and tried afterwards: the truth of which is affirmed by historians as a well-known fact, occurring in numerous instances.

Cruel as these measures were, they tended to remedy a disease which seemed almost desperate. Rent, the very name of which had till that period scarcely been heard on the Border, began to be paid for property, and the proprietors of land turned their thoughts to rural industry, instead of the arts of predatory warfare. But it was more than a century ere the country, so long a harassed and disputed frontier, gained the undisturbed appearance of the civilized land.

Before leaving the subject of the Borders, I ought to explain to you, that as the possession of the strong and important town of Berwick had been long and fiercely disputed between England and Scotland, and as the latter country had never surrendered or abandoned her claim to the place, though it had so long remained as English possession, James, to avoid giving offence to either nation, left the question undecided; and since the union of the Crown the city is never spoken of as part England or Scotland, but as the King’s Good Town of Berwick-upon-Tweed; and when a law is made for North and South Britain, without special and distinct mention of this ancient town, that law is of no force or avail within its precincts.


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