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Wilson's Border Tales
Gleanings of the Covenant

No. 1. The Grandmother's Narrative


Notwithstanding the researches of Woodrow, and the more recent enlargement and excellent annotations of Dr Burns, we are quite conscious that a volume somewhat interesting might still be collected, of additional and traditional atrocities, of which no written record remains, nor other save the recollections of recollections—in other words, the remembrance which we and a few others possess of the narratives of our grandmothers whilst we were yet children. Our ow’n maternal grandmother died at ninety six—we ourselves are now in our sixtieth year, so that, deducting eight or nine years for our age previous to our taking an interest in such concerns, we have our grandmother existing before (say) 1695, which, deducting eight years of infancy, brings us to 1703, which is only twenty-five years posterior to the conclusion, and fifty-three to the commencement of the atrocious twenty-eight years’ persecution. It is then manifest, from this arithmetical computation, that our own grandmother, on whose truthful intentions we can rely with confidence, came into contact and conversation with those who were contemporaneous with the events and persons she referred to. This surely is no very violent or unsafe stretch of tradition; but, even though it were much more so, we would be disposed to yield to it somewhat more consideration than is generally done. Now-a-days, the pen and the press are almost the only recorders of passing and past events and circumstances, but, in the age to which we refer, this was not the case. The children of Israel were bound by a holy and inviolate law to record verbally to their children, and those again to theirs, what the Lord had done for their forefathers. And on the same principle, and under the same comparative absence of written records, did our grandmothers receive from their immediate predecessors the revolting disclosures which they have handed down to us. There are here but two links in the chain—those, namely, which connect our grandmothers with their parents, and with us, but, had there been twenty—nay, fifty or a hundred links—we should not, on account of the high antiquity of such a tradition, have been disposed to dismiss it as altogether groundless, and not implying even the slightest authority. In illustration of this, we may adduce the facts, sufficiently well known and authenticated, which were disclosed about thirty years ago at Burgh head, the ultimate extent of Roman conquest in Scotland. In that promontory, now inhabited by a scattered population, there remained, from age to age, a tradition that a Roman well had existed on the particular spot. There being a lack of water in the place, the inhabitants combined to have the locality opened, with the view of disclosing so useful and essential an element. They dug twenty, and even thirty feet downwards, but made no disclosures, and were on the point of giving up the search, when the father of the late Duke of Gordon happening to pass, and to ascertain their object and their want of success, very generously supplied them with the means of making a further excavation At last, to their no small surprise and delight, they came to a nicely built and rounded well mouth, with a stair downwards to the bottom, and the bronze statues of Mercury and other heathen gods stuck into niches. This well remains to this hour, and may be visited by the traveller along the Moray Frith, as an indisputable and indelible evidence of the value of traditions, in ages when almost no other means of record existed. True, such traditions are deeply coloured and tinged by the prejudices of the age in which they originated—allowance as to exaggeration must be made for excited feelings and outraged opinions; but still the groundwork may in general be depended on. The old and perhaps vulgar proverb—"There is aye SOME water where the stirkie drowns!" applies in this case with a conclusive force, and we may rely upon it, even from the collateral and written evidence of parties and partisans on all sides, that nothing which mere tradition has hinted at can exceed, in characters of genuine cruelty and downright bloodshed and murder, those historical statements which have reached us.

True, a writer lately deceased—whose memory is immortal, and whose writings will survive whilst national feelings and the vitality of high talent remain—has given us a chivalrous and attractive character of the most in the atrocities of the fearful time; and it is to be more than lamented—to be deplored that an early and habitual, and ultimately constitutional, leaning to aristocratic and chivalrous views, should have induced such a writer as Sir Walter Scott to draw such an interesting picture of the really infamous "Clavers"—of him who , for a piece of morning pastime, could, with his own pistol, blow out a husband’s brains without law or trial—and that in the presence of his wife and infant family! But the great body of historians are on the side of truth and tradition; and the recently published, and still publishing life by Lockhart has unfolded and will yet unfold those leanings of the great novelist which have occasioned so lamentable a deviation from real history.

Under the shelter, then, of these preliminary observations, we proceed with such notices and statements as we have heard repeated, or seen in manuscripts which have (as we believe) never been printed. And we shall give these notices and statements as they were given to us—surrounded by a halo of superstition, and involving much belief, which is now, happily, or unhappily—we do not say which—completely exploded.

"O my bairn! these were fearful times"—(grandmother loquitur)—"ay, and atweel war they. My own mother has again and again made my hair stand on end, and my heart-blood run cold at her relations.

"Ye ken Auchincairn, my bairn, and maybe, whan ye were seeking for hawks’ nests, ye hae searched the Whitestane Cleughs. Aweel, ye maybe hae seen, or maybe no— for young hearts and een like yours (O sirs! mine are now dim and sair!) tak little tent o’ sic like things; but my bonny bairn, though tent it ye didna, true it is and of verity, that, at the very bottom o’ that steep and fearfu linn, there is a rock, a stane like a blue whinstane; and ower that stane the water has run for years and years; and the winds and the rains of heaven have dashed and plashed against it; but still that stane remains—(dear me, I’m amaist greeting!)--it remains stained and spotted wi’ bluid. And that bluid, my dear bairn, is o’ the bluid that rins in yer ain veins—it is the bluid of William Harkness, my own faither’s brother. Weel, and ye shall hear—for my mother used to tell me the lang-syne stories sae aft that I can just repeat them in her ain words—Weel, it was the month of October, and the nights were beginning to lengthen, and the puir persecuted saints that had taen to the outside a’ simmer, and were seldom, if ever, to be seen in the inside, were beginning to pop in again nows an’ thans, when they thought Dalyel, and Johnston, and Clavers, and Douglas, and the rest o’ the murdering gang, war elsewhere. Aweel, as I am telling ye, yer granduncle cam hame to his ain brother’s house—it might be about the dawn o’ the morning, whan a’ the house, except his brother, were sleeping, and he had got a cog o’ crap whey on his knee, wi’ a barley scone—for glad, glad was he to get it; and he had just finished saying the grace, and was conversing quietly like, and in whisper, wi’ his ain brother, when what should he hear, but a rap at the kitchen door, and a voice pouring in through the keyhole—

"‘Willie Harkness, Willie Harkness! the Philistines are upon ye!—they are just now crossing the Pothouseburn.’

"I trow when he heard that, he wasna lang in clearing the closs, and takin doun the shank, straight for the foot of the Whiteside Linn, where the cave was, in which he had for weeks and months been concealed. It was now, ye see, the gray o’ the morning, and things could be seen moving at some distance. Just as my uncle was about to enter the bramble-bushes at the foot o’ the linn, he was met by a trooper, on horseback.

"‘Stand!’ said a voice, in accents of Satan—‘Stand, this moment, and surrender; or your life is not worth three snuffs of a Covenanter’s mull!’

"My uncle kent weel the consequences of standing, and of being taken captive; and ye see, my bairn, life is sweet to us a’—sae he e’en dashed into the thicket, and in an instant o’ time, and ere the dragoon could shoulder his musket, he was tumbling head-foremost (but holding by the branches) towards the bottom of Whiteside Linn. There lay my worthy uncle, breathless, and motionless, and silent, expecting every moment that the dragoon would dismount and secure him. However, the man o’ sin contented himsel wi’ firing several times (at random) into the linn. The last shot which was fired, took effect on my uncle’s knee—the blood sprung from it, and my uncle fainted. As God would have it, at this time no further pursuit was attempted, and my uncle was lame for life. The blood still remains on the stain, as witness against the unholy hand that shed it!—But, alas! we are a’ erring creatures, and who knows but even a dragoon may get repentance and find mercy? God forbid, my wee man, that we should condemn ony ane, even a persecutor, to eternal damnation! It’s awfu—it’s fearfu!—But that’s no a’ ye shall hear. When the trooper came up to the house, and joined his party, he repeated what had passed, and a search was set about in the linn for my uncle; but William had by this time crippen into his cauld, dripping cave; over which the water spouted in a cascade, and thus concealed him from their search; sae, after marking the blood, and almost raving like bloodhounds, with disappointment, they tied up a servant girl—whom they had first abused in the most unseemly and beastly manner—to a tree, and there they left her, incapable, though she had been able, of freeing herself. She was relieved in an hour; but never recovered either the shame or the cruelty: she died, and her grave is in the east corner, near the large bushy tree in Closeburn churchyard. ‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord; for they rest from their labours, and their works do follow them.’

"Muckle better, my dear, was her fate, though seemingly a hard one, than that o’ the ungodly curate o’ Closeburn—o’ him wha was informer against the puir persecuted remnant, and wha, through the instrumentality o’ his spies an’ informers, had occasioned a’ this murder an’ cruelty. Ye shall hear. He—I mean, my bairn, the curate—had been hurlin the folk, whether they would or no, to the kirk, for weeks, in carts and hurdles—for, oh, they liked his cauld, moral harangues ill, and his conduct far waur. He had even got the laird to refuse burial in the kirkyard to ony who refused to hear his fushionless preachings. Puir Nanny Walker’s funeral (she who had been sae horribly murdered) was to tak place on sic a day. The curate had heard o’ this, an’ he was resolved to oppose the interment. But God’s ways, my wean, are not as our ways, nor his thoughts as ours; in his hands are the issues of life and of death; he killeth and he maketh alive—blessed be his name, for ever, amen! Weel, as I was telling ye, out cam the curate, raging, running, and stamping like a madman; coming down his ain entry like a roaring lion, an’ swearing, for he stuck at naething, that Nanny Walker’s vile covenanting heart should never rot in Closeburn kirkyard. Aweel, when he had just reached the kirk-stile, an’ was in the act o’ lifting up his hand against them who were bearing the coffin into the kirkyard, what think ye, my bairn, happened? The ungodly man, with his mouth open in cursing, an’ his hand uplifted to strike, instantly fell down on the flagstanes, uttered but one groan, an’ expired! Ye see, my bairn, what a fearfu thing it is to persecute, an’ then to fall into the hands o’ an angry an’ avenging God. Oh, may never descendant o’ mine deserve or meet wi’ sic a fate! But there is mair to tell ye still. Just at the time when this fearfu visitation o’ Providence took place, the family o’ Auchincairn war a’ engaged wi’ the buik, whan in should rush wha but daft Gibbie Galloway, wha had never spoken a sensible word in his life—for he was a born innocent, he an’ his mither afore him? Weel, an’ to be sure, just about this time, for they compared it afterwards, in Gibbie stammered into the kitchen, whar they were a’ convened, an’ interrupted the guidman’s prayer, wha happened at the time to be prayin to the Lord for venegeance against the ungodly curate:--

"’Haud at him,’ said Gibby—‘haud at him! he’s just at the pit-brow!’

"Ay, fearfu, sirs—thae war awfu times!"


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