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Wilson's Border Tales
A Scrap of the Covenant


It is a fact well known to Dr Lee, and to many besides, that, notwithstanding the extensive researches of Woodrow and others, there have died away in the silent lapse of time, or are still hovering over our cleuche and glens, in the aspect of a dim and misty tradition, many instances of extreme cruelty and wanton oppression, exercised (during the reign of Charles II) over the poor Covenanters, or rather non-conformists, of the south and west counties of Scotland. In particular, although the whole district suffered, it was in the vale of the Nith, and in the hilly portion of the parish of Closeburn, that the fury of Grierson, Dalzell, and Johnstone—not to mention an occasional simoom felt on the withering approach of Clavers with his lambs—was felt to the full amount of merciless persecution and relentless cruelty. The following anecdote I had from a sister of my grandmother, who lived till a great age, and who was lineally descended from one of the parties. I have never seen any notice whatever taken of the circumstances; but am as much convinced of its truth, in all its leading features, as I am of that of any other similar statements which are made in Woodrow, "Naphtali," or the "Cloud of Witnesses."

The family of Harkness has been upwards of four hundred years tenants on the farm of Queensberry, occupying the farm-house and steading situated upon the banks of the Caple, and known by the name of Mitchelslacks. The district is wild and mountainous, and, at the period to which I refer, in particular, almost inaccessible through any regularly constructed road. The hearts, however, of these mountain residents were deeply attuned to religious and civil liberty, and revolted with loathing from the cold doctrines and compulsory ministrations of the curate of Closeburn. They were, therefore, marked birds for the myrmidons of oppression, led on by Claverhouse, and "Red Rob," the scarlet-cloaked leader of his band.

It was about five o’clock of the afternoon in the month of August, that a troop of horse was seen crossing the Glassrig—a flat and heathy muir—and bearing down with great speed upon Mitchelslacks. Mrs Harkness had been very recently delivered of a child, and still occupied her bed, in what was denominated the chamber, or cha’mer—an apartment separated from the rest of the house, and set apart for more particular occasions; her husband, the object of pursuit, having had previous intimation, by the singing or whistling of a bird, (as was generally reported on such occasions,) had betaken himself, some hours before, to the mountain and the cave—his wonted retreat on similar visits. From this position, on the brow of a precipice, inaccessible by any save a practised foot, he could see his own dwelling, and mark the movements which were going on outside. The troop, having immediately surrounded the houses, and set a guard upon every door and window, as well as an outpost, or spy, upon an adjoining eminence, immediately proceeded with the search—a search conducted with the most brutal incivility, and even indelicacy; subjecting every child and servant to apprehensions of the most horrid and revolting character. It would be every way improper to mention even a tithe of the oaths and blasphemy which were not only permitted, but sanctioned and encouraged, by their impious and regardless leader. Suffice it to say, that, after every other corner and crevice was searched in vain, the cha’mer was invaded; and the privacy of a female, in very interesting and delicate circumstances, rudely and suddenly entered.

"The old fox is here," said Clavers, passing his sword up to the hilt betwixt the mother and her infant, sleeping unconsciously on her arm, and thrusting it home with such violence that the point perforated the bed, and even penetrated the floor beneath.

"Toss out the whelp," vociferated Red Rob—always forward on such occasions—"and the b—ch will follow." And, suiting the action to the word, he rolled the sleeping, and happily well-wrapped, infant on the floor.

"The Lord preserve my puir bairn," was the instantaneous and instinctive exclamation of the agonised and now demented mother—springing at the same time from her couch, and catching up her child with a look of the most despairing alarm. A cloud of darkened feeling seemed to pass over the face and features of the infant, ["In the light of heaven its face, Grew dark as they were speaking."] and a cry of helpless suffering succeeded, at once to comfort and to madden the mother. "A murderous and monstrous herd are ye all," said she, again resuming her position, and pressing the affrighted, rather than injured, child to her breast. "Limbs of Satan and enemies of God, begone! He whom ye seek is not here; nor will the God he serves and you defy, ever suffer him, I fervently hope and trust, to fall into your merciless and unhallowed hands."

At this instant a boy about twelve years of age was dragged into the room, and questioned respecting the place of his father’s retreat, sometimes in a coaxing, and at others in a threatening manner. The boy presented to every inquiry the aspect of dogged resistance and determined silence.

"Have the bear’s cub to the croft," said Clavers, "and shoot him on the spot."

The boy was immediately removed; and the distracted mother left, happily for herself in a state of complete insensibility. There grew, and there still grows, a rowan tree in the corner of the garden or kailyard of Mitchelslacks; to this tree or bush the poor boy was fastened with cords, having his eyes bandaged, and being made to understand, that, if he did not reveal his father’s retreat, a ball would immediately pass through his brain. The boy shivered, attempted to speak, then seemed to recover strength and resolution, and continued silent.

"Do you wish to smell gunpowder," ejaculated Rob, firing a pistol immediately under his nose, whilst the ball perforated the earth a few paces off.

The boy uttered a loud and unearthly scream, and his head sunk upon his breast. At this instant, the aroused and horrified mother was seen on her bended knees, with clasped hands, and eyes in which distraction rioted, at the feet of the destroyers. But nature, which had given her strength for the effort, now deserted her, and she fell lifeless at the feet of her apparently murdered son. Even the heart of Clavers was somewhat moved at this scene; and he was in the act of giving orders for an immediate retreat, when there rushed into the circle, in all the frantic wildness of a maniac, at once the father and the husband. He had observed from his retreat the doings of that fearful hour; and, having every reason to conclude that he was purchasing his own safety at the expense of the lives of his whole family, he had issued from the cave, and hurled himself from the steep, and was how in the presence of those whom he deemed the murderers of his family.

"Fiends—bloody, brutal, heartless fiends—are ye all!— and is this your work, ye sons of the wicked and the accursed one? What! could not one content ye? Was not the boy enough to sacrifice on your accursed temple to Moloch, but ye must imbrue your hands in the blood of a weak, an infirm, a helpless woman? Oh, may the God of the covenant," added he, bending reverently down upon his knees, and looking towards heaven, "may the God of Jacob forgive me for cursing ye! And thou man of blood," (addressing Clavers personally,) "think ye not that the blood of Brown, and of my darling child, and my beloved wife—think ye not, wot ye not, that their blood, and the blood of the thousand saints which ye have shed, will yet be required, ay, fearfully required, even to the last drop, by an avenging God, at your hands?"

Having uttered these words with great and awful energy, he was on the point of drawing his sword, concealed under the flap of his coat, and of selling his life as dearly as possible, when Mrs Harkness, who had now recovered her senses, rushed into his arms, exclaiming—

"O Thomas, Thomas, what is this ye hae done? Oh, beware, beware! I am yet alive and unskaithed. God has shut the mouths of the lions; they have not been permitted to hurt me. And our puir boy, too, moves his head, and gives token of life. But you, you, my dear, dear, infatuated husband—oh, into what hands have ye fallen, and to what a death are ye now reserved!"

"Unloose the band," vociferated Clavers—"make fast your prisoner’s hands, and, in the devil’s name, let us have done with this drivelling!"

There was a small public-house, at this time, at Closeburn mill, and into this Clavers and his party went for refreshment, whilst an adjoining barn, upon which a guard was set, served to secure the prisoner. No sooner was Mr Harkness left alone, and in the dark—for it was now nightfall—than he began to think of some means or other of effecting his escape. The barn was happily known to him; and he recollected that, though the greater proportion of the gable was built of stone and lime, yet that a small part towards the top, as was sometimes the case in these days, was constructed of turf; and that, should he effect an opening through this soft material, he might drop with safety upon the top of a peat-stack, and thus effect his escape to Creechope Linn, with every pass and cave of which he was intimately acquainted. In a word, his escape was effected in this manner; and, though the alarm was immediately given, and large stones rolled over the precipices of the adjoining linn, he was safely ensconsed in darkness, and under the covert of a projecting rock; and ultimately (for, in the course of a few days, King William and liberty were the order of the day) he returned to his wife and his family, there to enjoy for many years that happiness which the possession of a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man is sure to impart. The brother, however, of this more favoured individual, was not so fortunate, as may be gathered from Woodrow, and the "Cloud of Witnesses;" for he was executed ere the day of deliverance, at the Gallowlee, and his most pathetic and eloquent address is still extant.

Let us rejoice with trembling, that we live in an age and under a government so widely different from those now referred to; and whilst on our knees we pour forth the tribute of thankfulness to God, let us teach our children to prize the precious inheritance so dearly purchased by our forefathers.


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