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Wilson's Border Tales
Home and the Gipsy Maid


I have been at school and college, I have read considerably in books, and have attended debating societies to satiety. Thus I have picked up a deal of what the world calls useful knowledge and worldly wisdom. But there is one branch of education to which I am more indebted than to any other whatever. I was born in the retired solitude of a mountain glen. I was myself alone amongst the mountains, with my mother and two old women, my relatives. I did not know, at the time, that I was any way peculiarly situated. I felt joyous and happy from morn to night; but the cause of all this happiness was no matter of inquiry. In fact, I never thought of causes at all. I took nature as she appeared, and put no impertinent questions to her. There I lay by a little stream, which, after dancing gaily down a steep and broken rock, became, all at once, a deep bumbling pool. There I lay, amidst the daisies and buttercups of spring, on the green plot, listening to the song of a thousand throats, and marking the suspended trout, as it rose to the fly, or floated along in the watery sunshine. At intervals, I would stretch myself supine; and, with my eyes half-closed, convert the clouds which covered in our little valley, into what shapes and forms my fancy pleased. The wild bee passed in his hum; but I saw him not. The grasshopper chirruped from the adjoining grass; but I marked not his form or his locality. The buzz of insect life was in the air, and on the earth. I was not alone, and I felt it; my companions were the happy, the lively, the rejoicing, the exulting; and I partook of all their sentiments. I was, in fact, a unity lost in the midst of countless beings—a single throb in the great framework of animated nature. And, then, there were the woods which embanked and enclosed me all around. The oak, with its spread stole and broad leaf; the glorious birch, rising in pillows of green fragrance, and overtopping all; the hazel, in its less aspiring nature, peeping from betwixt the trees; and the sweet hawthorn, bestudding the brae, arrayed in a wedding suit of purest white. The tall ash tree was there; and the rowan-tree, and the sloe-thorn, and the raspberry, and the bramble. The whole valley was my own orchard; and I selected, at pleasure, without check or restraint, the nut, the sloe, and the hynd-berry. Upon the top of the tall ash, there I sat with the mavis for my companion on one side, and the blackbird on the other. With all manner of birds I was familiar; from the pyat to the waterwag-tail. The searching for nests was my spring recreation, from April till July—I could tell at once the inmate from the construction of its abode. The eggs of the linnet, goldfinch, yorling, laverock, robin, tilting, thrush, and blackbird, were as familiar to me as the letters of the alphabet. And if I wandered but a mile-and-a-half up the glen, I was in the midst of barrenness and solitude. The shepherd loomed from the distant horizon—the sheep roved along the steep—the goats clung to the cliffs. There the hawk and the raven had their abode; and there hung their nests from the projecting rock, or the horizontal tree. The heath was the nursery of its wild inmates. The whaup, and plover, and lapwing piped, and whistled, and fluttered around me. I was in the midst of their nesting-ground; and they seemed disposed to sacrifice me to their fears. Overhead were the lofty peaks of Queensberry—the greater and the less twin pillars—over which the pediment of heaven was spread. The mist trailed and deepened. I beheld its approach; and witnessed its breaking up into shreds and patches. I saw the first gleam of the sunshine, as it struggled through the density, and stood revealed in all the glory of a full effulgence of sunlight. My fishing-rod, a hazel sapling, was in my hand, and I pulled, from streams and gullets of the most tiny dimensions, large black and yellow trouts. There they lay, amidst the wet spret, or on the velvet fringe of the streamlet, in all the glory of scale and fin. My soul leaped in unison to their motions; and I absolutely danced in ecstasy. When I gained the mountain summit—O my God! what impressions I have had of beauty and sublimity! On the one hand, the dark southern range, ranging away eastward, in barren magnitude; on the other, the green and softly-outlined Leadhills, rounded into magnificence. Before me, and stretching far southward, the distant Criffel, lumbering on the horizon; the sunny Solway, gleaming in light; the Nith, winding and couqetting with its fertile banks and fruitful plains; the Annan, a younger but scarcely less lovely sister, running its lateral course to the same ultimate destiny; the nascent feeders of the Clyde, Carsehope, and Darr, bursting from their mossy cradles, into the wilderness around them, rejoicing in their solitudes, and in their numerous and undisturbed inmates. Oh, what is education—the alphabet in all its combinations and significations—to this! When in after life I have had occasion to animate my public addresses with simile, or to inspire them with sentiment—when at the desk, and with the pen in my hand, I have fished in my brain for metaphor or illustration—I have constantly recurred to my infant, my boyish home; to my native glen, and woods, and streams, and cliffs, and mountains; and when I have once seated myself on the Cat-craig, or on a branch of the oak or the birch, I feel myself quite at home. I can, indeed, call spirits, as I do now, from the depths of imagination and feeling—I can ascend, in the spiral movements of that blue smoke, which lies so soft and silky between me and the opposite greensward. I can sympathise with those devout and happy hearts, which, in simple female habiliments, are now plying the wheel, or preparing the frugal repast within. I see the domestic fowls in their sunny happiness, flapping their wings in the dusty corner of the kail-yard, or crowing in frolic till the echoes are awakened. There is but one world—one sinless, sorrowless, painless world—and this is it. Where then were the cares of the great world, which has absorbed this one? Where the jarrings of envy—the justlings of competition—the dread of disappointment—the frenzy of hope—the fever of love—the whole bevy of passions, which form the Corrievrecken of the heart! They were then, like Abraham’s posterity, in Abraham’s loins; they were possibilities, mere futurities—sleeping undisturbed and undisturbing in the limbs of contingencies. Alas! that ever my soul awoke from this dream!—that ever, one fine summer evening, I discovered that a change had come over my nature—that I had crept unknowingly into youth—that there was a soft delicious fire in my blood, which made me look beyond my humble cottage, with its aged inmates, for gratification and happiness! Oh, the exquisite, the ecstatic delight of this first awakening into the manhood of feeling!—when the passion flower is just opening—when the nerves are troubled, for the first time, by the sensibilities of sex—when the blooming cheek, the rosy lip, the inviting glance, and the happily moulded rotundities of the female form, become, for the first time, an object of fearful, of indescribable, of trembling interest! I ask any one of my readers, male and female, Was it not thus with you? Did not your first perceptions of the full compass of your nature come upon you at once? Come, no blushing now—no shuffling—it was even so; but you never liked to speak of it to any one. You thought that, in this respect, you were singular; but now that you see I have turned king’s evidence, you are conscious that what I aver is true. Here, then, I fix my land-mark, with the age of puberty; all on this side is school, college, society, the world, care, troubles, and anxieties; all before this was that paradise from which I still pluck, as on this occasion, an apple or two, to refresh you and me as we journey along. Come, now, good-natured reader, and I will tell you a tale or anecdote of this primeval state of my being.

In one of my early fishing excursions, I had the misfortune to lose myself in a dense fog or mist. I wandered on and on, not knowing well where I was, (for it is well known that, in such circumstances, the most familiar objects assume a strange and unknown aspect,) till at last I sat myself down on the brow of a peat-hag, not knowing well whether to cry or laugh at my wanderings. Twice had I come upon a tethered horse, and twice upon a thorntree with a solitary nest in it; so I found that I was assuredly walking in a circle, the centre of which, for anything that I could learn to the contrary, might very probably be my own habitation. Whilst employed in listening for the response of a mountain stream by which I might be directed, as by an old acquaintance, to a more familiar locality, I thought I heard a kind of strange, unearthly noise, coming from—I could not well tell by the ear—what quarter. I listened again, and all was silent, and I began to think that the noise had proceeded from some bird or beast in my immediate neighbourhood. Again, however, as I moved cautiously across the moss, the sound came upon me more distinctly—it was manifestly the sound of wailing and moaning, intermingled with much and hysterical sobbing. What could this mean? Night was at hand, the mist was manifestly mingling with the coming darkness, and here I was alone, in the presence, seemingly, of some unearthly being. My head was full of fairies and brownies, and such like supernaturals; and my heart, under such apprehensions, was as that of the bird taken in a snare. It immediately occurred to me that this must be some decoy fairy, employed in entrapping me into that unchristian brotherhood. The story of young "Tam Lean," which my mother had often repeated to me, occurred opportunely to augment my apprehensions and increase my agitation. I already felt as if mounted on a fairy-steed—I was "pawing the light clouds," and shaking my belied bridle over my native dwelling, without the power of returning to it. Whilst such meditations as these shook my whole frame, the awful voice of woe was manifestly approaching me; and I immediately took to my heels, "with all convenient speed, according to the rules of terror." But, in endeavouring to increase the distance betwixt the object of my fears and myself, I ran immediately and directly in upon it; and had all but fainted, as I saw immediately before me a small female figure running about, and crying piteously. The form came upon my vision very indistinctly, and induced me to reverse my steps, and set off in double swift time in a direction opposite to that in which I had advanced. To my utter horror and amazement, the thing pursued me swiftly, and screaming at the top of its voice. This was indeed appalling, and I already felt as if I had taken up my residence in the dark recesses of a fairy-knowe. I ran and screamed, whilst it ran screaming too. Through moss and pool, and spret and heath, there we coursed it along—startling the whaups and miresnipes with our music. At last I was fairly overcome, and threw myself head foremost into a peat hag, whilst my pursuer halted immediately over my person. Oh, I could have wished to have concealed myself, at this moment, somewhere near the centre of the earth; when a couple of shepherd’s curs appeared, and instantly afterwards James Hogg, the Mitchelslacks hind, (since better known as the Ettrick Shepherd), stood before me.

"What’s a’ this o’t, sirs?" said Hogg, eyeing my tormentor and myself with a look of perplexed inquiry. "What’s the matter wi’ ye, Tam, that ye’re derned that gate into the throat o’ a moss-hole? Get up, man, an’ tell me whar ye fell in wi’ this bit puir lassie."

The lassie, in the meantime, had clung to the shepherd’s knees, and was endeavouring but unsuccessfully to speak.

"It’s a fairy ! I exclaimed. "O Jamie Hogg, it’s a fairy!—hae naething to do wi’t; it has pursued me this hour past;" (not in reality above two minutes!) "and I saw a great many more fairies up by yonder. O Jamie dinna meddle wi’t; it’s uncanny, I’m sure."

Hereupon the fairy began to give utterance, in tones quite human, to a fearful statement, implying that she had been carried off from Annan by some gypsies, and carried away by them to the wild hills; and that, about an hour ago, she had run away in the mist, and had fairly escaped, but become alarmed as the darkness approached, and had followed me, as her only guide and protector in these wild hills. I cannot tell how much I felt relieved by this statement; and, as I began to gather up my members into a human shape, I saw plainly that my pursuer was a fine, well-thriven lassie, about ten or eleven years of age, and no unearthly fairy, as I had so lately believed. Hogg laughed heartily at my mistake, telling me that I wad find the lasses, by an’ by, muckle waur than the fairies; and that, instead o’ rinnin awa frae them, I wad be rinnin after them. At the time when these words were spoken, I did not rightly understand their meaning; but, reading them through the spectacles of future experience, I now understand them to the letter.

Just as this conversation was finished, a great, tall, lumbering, but most athletic fellow, bore done upon us, through the mist. At sight of him the poor girl screamed piteously, and clung to Hogg, and begged most imploringly that she should not be given up to that "terrible man." Hogg had just thrown off his plaid, adjusted his staff, and put himself determinedly betwixt the stranger and the girl, when down came two brother shepherds, attracted, in all probability, by the noise, and guessing immediately that a battle was about to ensue. When the tinker saw that the odds were thus against him, he bent his course, as if he had mistaken his way, in another direction, and was immediately lost in obscurity. Home to my mother’s was this poor girl conducted by Hogg and me; and for three days and nights she partook of my home and board. Her story was simple and consistent. She had been out pulling rushes, to make a rush-cap, in a wood adjoining to the town of Annan, when she was accosted by a woman, who was exceedingly kind to her, giving her some sugar-bools, and decoying her by fair words into the centre of the forest. There she found four or five men, with a great many women, children, asses, &c., employed in making spoons, pans, &c., at a fire lighted in the open air. The children immediately gathered around her, and endeavoured to engage her in some games, whilst the "terrible man," as she always designated the chief of the gang, patted her on the cheek, and said,—

"You must come along with me, and be my daughter."

Meantime the whole party were in motion, and the poor child was tossed into a pannier, on the back of an ass, and, being bound down with cords, was carried all night long, she knew not whither. By daybreak she found herself on the banks of a mountain stream, and no human habitation within view. In this station, she had remained for three days, being always kindly used; but observing fearful scenes and hearing dreadful expressions. At last, being worn out with crying, and partly gained over by the companionship of her playmates, she had assumed a more resigned and contented appearance, in consequence of which she ceased to be watched with so much vigilance. Taking advantage, however, of the mist, and of the absence of the greater part of the women, she had edged into the stream, along the almost dry channel of which she had run, till she lost sight of the encampment, and had taken at once to the hill without knowing whither she was flying. Fatigued, however, at last, and terrified, she had even resolved, to retrace, if possible, her steps, when the occurrence above mentioned brought her refuge and safety.

I shall never forget the scene which took place on the occasion of the restoration, of this sweet girl to her parents, who were immediately informed by Hogg of the asylum which the poor wanderer had found. But, as every breast in which the genuine feelings of humanity are implanted, will immediately conceive what such a meeting must have been, I shall not attempt to describe it. We were all in tears, and the poor mother fainted outright, as she grasped convulsively her lost lamb (as she tenderly termed it) to her bosom.

I have lived long, and so has Jeanie Paton, the now respected mother of a large family, and the wife of honest Willie Paton, the best fisher and the best weaver in all Annandale. When I take my annual excursions south, their house is my home, and a day’s fishing with Willie in the Annan is to me a treat of no ordinary delight—Jeanie welcomes us with her best, though to be sure I occasionally rub her a little too hard, in reference to the circumstance which made us first acquainted.


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