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Wilson's Border Tales
Gleanings of the Covenant

No. 12. The Cairny Cave of Gavin Muir


There is a wild, uninhabited district, which separates Nithsdale from Annandale, in Dumfriesshire. It is called Gavin Muir; and, though lonely, and covered with spret and heather, exhibits some objects which merit the attention of the traveller in the wilderness. There is the King’s Loch, the King’s Burn, and the King’s Chair, all records of King James V.’s celebrated raid to subdue the thieves of Annandale. Tradition says, what seems extremely likely, that he spent a night in the midst of this muir; and hence the appellations of royalty which adhere to the objects which witnessed his bivouac. But, although the localities referred to possess an interest, they are exceeded, in this respect, by a number of "cairns," by which the summits of several hills, or rising grounds, are topped. These cairns, which amount to five or six, are all within sight of each other—all on eminences, and all composed of an immense mass of loose, water-worn stones. And yet the neighbourhood is free from stones, being bare, and fit for sheeppasturage only. Tradition says nothing of these cairns in particular; or, indeed, very little of any similar collections, frequent as they are in Scotland and throughout all Scandinavia. Stone coffins, no doubt, have been discovered in them, and human bones; but, beyond this, all is surmise and uncertainty. Often, when yet a boy, and engaged in fishing in the King’s Burn, have we mounted these pyramids, and felt that we were standing on holy ground. "Oh," thought we, "that some courteous cairn would blab it out what ‘tis they are!" But the cairns were silent; and hence the necessity we are under of professing our ignorance of what they refused to divulge. But there is a large opening in the side of one of these cairns, respecting which tradition has preserved a pretty distinct narrative, which we shall now venture, for the first time, to put under types, for the instruction of our readers.

The whole hill country, in Dumfriesshire and Galloway in particular, is riddled, as it were, with caves and hiding-places. These, no doubt, afforded refuge, during the eight-and-twenty years of inhuman persecution, to the poor Covenanter; but they were not, in general, constructed for or by him. They existed from time immemorial, and were the work of the sons of night and darkness—the smuggler, who, in passing from the Brow at the mouth of the Nith, from Bombay, near Kirkcudbright, or from the estuary of the Cree, with untaxed goods from the Isle of Man—then a separate and independent kingdom—found it convenient to conceal both his goods and himself from the observation of the officers of excise. So frequent are these concealed caves in the locality to which we refer, that, in passing through the long, rank heather, we have more than once disappeared in an instant, and found ourselves several feet below the level of the upper world, and in the midst of a damp, but roomy subterraneous apartment of considerable extent. We believe that they are now, in these piping times of peace and preventive service, generally filled up and closed by the shepherds, as they were dangerous pitfalls in the way of their flocks. In the time, however, to which we refer—namely, in the year 1683—they were not only open, but kept, as it were, in a state of repair, being tenanted by the poor, persecuted, remnant (as they expressed it) of God’s people. That the reader may fully understand the incidents of this narratives it will be necessary that he and we travel back some hundred and fifty years, and some miles from the farm-house of Auchincairn, that we may have ocular demonstration of the curious contrivances to which the love of life, of liberty, and of a good conscience, had compelled our forefathers to have recourse. The cairn which appears so entire and complete, of which the stones seem to have been huddled together, without any reference to arrangement whatever, is, nevertheless, hollow underneath, and on occasions you may see—but only if you examine it narrowly—the blue smoke seeking its way in tiny jets through a thousand apertures. There is, in fact, room for four or five individuals. Beneath, there are a few plaids and bed-covers, with an old chair, a stool, and seats of stone. There is likewise a fire-place and some peats, extracted from the adjoining moss. But there is, in fact, no entrance in this direction. You must bend your course round by the brow of that hollow, over which the heather hangs profusely; and there, by dividing and gently lifting up the heathy cover, you will be able to insert your person into a small orifice, from which you will escape into a dark but a roomy dungeon, which will, in its turn, conduct you through a narrow passage, into the very heart or centre of this seemingly solid accumulation of stones. When there, you will have light such as Milton gives to Pandemonium—just as much as to make darkness visible, through the small, and, on the outside, invisible crevices betwixt the stones. Should you be surprised in your lighted and fire apartment—should any accident or search bring a considerable weight above you, so as to break through your slightly supported roofing—you can retreat to your ante-room or dungeon, and from thence, if necessary, make your way into the adjoining linn, along the bottom of which, you may ultimately find skulking-shelter, or a pathway into a more inhabited district. Now that you have surveyed this arrangement, as it existed a hundred and fifty years ago, we may proceed to give you the narrative which is connected with it.

In the year above referred to, the persecution of the saints was at its height—Clavers, in particular, went about the country with his dragoons, whom he designated (like the infamous Kirk) his Lambs, literally seeking to hurt and destroy in all the hill country, in particular of Dumfriesshire and Galloway. Auchincairn was a marked spot; it had often been a city of refuge to the shelterless and the famishing; but it had so frequently been searched, that every hole and corner was as well known to Clavers and his troop as to the inhabitants themselves. There was now, therefore, no longer any refuge to the faithful at Auchincairn; in fact, to come there was to meet the enemy half-way--to rush as it were into the jaws of the lion. In these circumstances, old Walter Gibson, a man upwards of seventy years of age, who, by his prayers and his attending conventicles, had rendered himself particularly obnoxious, was obliged to prolong a green old age by taking up his avode in the cave, and under the cairn which has already been described. With him were associated, in his cold and comfortless retreat, the Rev. Robert Lawson, formerly minister of the parish of Closeburn; but who, rather than conform to the English prayer-book and formula, had taken to the mountain, to preach, to baptize, and even to dispense the Sacrament of the Supper, in glens, and linns, and coverts, far from the residence of man. Their retreat was known to the shepherds of the district, and indeed to the whole family of Auchincairn; but no one ever was suspected of imitating the conduct of the infamous Baxter, who had proved false, and discovered a cave in Glencairn, where four Covenanters were immediately shot, and two left hanging upon a tree. On one occasion, a little innocent girl, a granddaughter of old Walter, was surprised whilst carrying some provisions towards the hill retreat, by a party of Clavers’ dragoons, who devoured the provisions, and used every brutal method to make the girl disclose the secret of the retreat; but she was neither to be intimidated nor cajoled, and told them plainly that she would rather die, as her granduncle had done before her, than betray her trust. They threw her into a peat-hag filled with water, and left her to sink or swim. She did not swim, however, but sank, never to rise again. Her spirit had been broken, and life had been rendered a burden to her. She expressed to her murderers, again and again, a wish that they would send her to meet her uncle (as she termed it) William. Her body was only discovered some time after, when the process of decomposition had deformed one of the most pleasing countenances which ever beamed with innocence and piety.

"The old hound will not be far off, when the young whelp was so near," exclaimed Clavers, upon a recital of the inhuman murder. "We must watch the muirs by night; for it is then that these creatures congregate and fatten. We must continue to spoil their feasting, and leave them to feed on cranberries and moss-water." In consequence of this resolution, a strict watch was set all along Gavin Muir; and it became almost impossible to convey any sustenance to the famishing pair; yet the thing was done, and wonderfully managed, not in the night-time, but in the open day. One shepherd would call to another, in the note of the curlew or the mire-snipe, and, without exciting suspicion, convey from the corner of his plaid the necessary refreshments, even down to a bottle of Nantz. The cave was never entered on such occasions; but the provisions were dropped amidst the rank heather; and a particular whistle immediately secured their disappearance. Night after night, therefore, were these prowlers disappointed of their object, till at last, despairing of success, or thinking, probably, that the birds had escaped, they betook themselves, for the time, elsewhere, and the cairn was relieved from siege. Clavers, in fact, had retired to Galloway, along with Grierson and Johnstone, and the coast was clear, at least for the present.

It was about the latter end of October, when Mr Lawson was preaching and dispensing the Sacrament to upwards of a hundred followers, in the hollow where stood the King’s Chair. This locality was wonderfully well suited for the purpose—it was, in fact, a kind of amphitheatre, surrounded on all sides by rising ground, and in the centre of which three large stones constituted a chair, and several seats of the same material were ranged in a circular form around. The stones remain to this hour, and the truth of this description can be verified by any one who crosses Gavin Muir. It was a moonlight night—a harvest moon—and Mr Lawson, having handed the Sacramental cup around, was in the act of concluding with prayer, when the note of a bird, seemingly a plover, was heard at a great distance. It was responded to by a similar call, somewhat nearer; and, in an instant, a messenger rushed in upon their retreat, out of breath, and exclaiming, "You are all lost!—you are all dead men!—C1avers is within sight, and at full gallop, with all his troop at his back."

One advantage which the poor persecuted had over their persecutors, was a superior knowledge of localities. In an instant the hollow was tenantless; for the inmates had fled in all directions, and to various coverts and outlets into the vale of Annan. The minister alone remained at his post, continuing in ejaculatory prayer, and resisting all persuasion even to take advantage of the adjoining cairny-cave. In vain did Walter Gibson delay till the last moment, and talk of his farther usefulness. Mr Lawson’s only answer was—"I am in the hands of a merciful Master, and, if He has more service for me, He himself will provide a way for my escape. I have neither wife nor child, nor, I may say, relation, alive. I am, as it were, a stranger in the land of duty. If the Lord so will it that the man of blood shall prevail over me, He will raise up others in my stead, fitter to serve Him effectually than ever I have been; but, Walter, you have a bonny family of grandchildren around you, and your ain daughter, the mother of them a’, to bless you, and hear you speak the words of counselling and wisdom; so, make you for the cave and the cairn out by yonder—I will een remain where am, and the Lord’s will be done!" Seeing that all persuasion was unavailable, and that, by delaying his flight, he would only sacrifice his own life, without saving that of his friend, Walter appeared to take his departure for his place of refuge. It was neither Clavers, however, nor Lag, nor Johnstone, nor Winram, who was upon them; but only Captain Douglas, from Drumlanrig, to which place secret information of the night’s wark, as it was termed, had been conveyed. Captain Douglas’ hands were red with blood; he had shot poor Daniel M’Michan in Dalveen Glen, and had given the word of command to blow out his brother’s brains, as has been already recorded in the notices of these times. One of his troop had been wounded in the affair at Dalveen, and he was literally furious with rage and the thirst of blood. Down, therefore, Douglas came with about half-a-dozen men, (the rest being on duty in Galloway), determined to kill or be killed—to put an end to these nightly conventicles, or perish in the attempt.

Mr Lawson had taken his position in the King’s Chair, which, as was formerly described, consisted of three large stones set on end, around one in the centre, which served as a seat; and when Douglas came in sight, nothing appeared visible in the moonshine but these solitary stones.

"They are off by G—!" exclaimed Douglas; "the fox has broken cover—we must continue the chase; and Rob," added he, to one who rode near him, "blaw that bugle till it crack again. When you start the old fox, I should like mightily to be in at the death. But so—ho!—what have we here?—why, here are bottles and a cup, by Jove! These friends of the covenant are no enemies, I perceive, to good cheer"—putting the bottle to his mouth, and making a long pull— "by the living Jingo! most excellent wine. Here, Rob," emptying what remained into the silver goblet or cup, "here, line your weasan with a drop of the red, and then for the red heart’s blood of these psalm-singing, cup-kissing gentry. So ho—so ho!—hilloa—one and all— the fox is under cover still," (advancing towards the stone chair), "and we thought him a-field, too. Stand forth, old Canticles, 5 and 8th, and let us see whether you have got one or five bottles under your belt. What! you won’t, or you can’t stand! Grunt again!—you are made of stone, are you?—why, then, we will try your qualities with a little burnt powder and lead. Gentlemen of the horse-brigade, do you alight, and be d—d to you, and, just by way of experiment, rattle me half a dozen bullets in the face of that there image of stone, which looks so mighty like the parson of Closeburn that one might easily mistake the one for the other."

The men had alighted with their holster pistols, and had arranged themselves, as directed, in the front of the stone chair, and with a full view of the figure which occupied the seat, when, at this very critical juncture, a band of upwards of fifty horses, with panthers on their backs, came up at a smart trot.

"Stop your hellish speed!" said a voice from the front of the band; "or, by this broadsword, and these long six-footers, you are all dead men, ere you can say, Present, fire!" Instantly, Douglas saw and comprehended his position—"To horse!" was his short exhortation, and, in an instant, his five followers and himself had cleared the brow of the glen, and were out of sight at full speed. "Shed not their blood!— shed not their blood!" continued to exclaim a well-known voice amongst the band of smugglers—for such the reader may have guessed they were. It was the voice of Walter Gibson, well known to many of the smugglers; for again and again they had supplied Auchincairn with Hollands and Nantz. "Shed not one drop of blood, I say; but leave them to Him who has said, ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will repay it;’—He will find His own time of revenging the death of my poor murdered bairn, whom they drowned in the King’s Moss owre by there. But, dear me, Mr Lawson, are ye dead or living, that ye tak nae tent o’ what’s going on?" In fact, Mr Lawson, having given himself up as lost, had committed himself, with shut eyes, so intently to prayer, that he had but a very confused notion of what had happened.

"The Lord’s will be done!" he exclaimed at last; "and is this you, Walter Gibson?—fearful! Fearful!—are these the Philistines around you?—and are you and I to travel hand in hand, into Immanuel’s land?—or, but do my poor eyes deceive me, and are these only our good friends, the fair traders, come to the rescue, under God and his mercy, in the time of our need?"

"Indeed," responded a known voice—that, namely, at whose bidding the work of death had been staid—"indeed, Mr Lawson, we are friends and not foes; and, whilst our cattle, which are a little blawn, with the haste into which they were hurried by old Walter here—until the beasts bite, I say, and eat their corn, we will e’en thank God, and take a little whet of the creature. You know, such comforts are not forbidden in the laws of Moses, or, indeed, in any laws but those of this persecuted and oppressed land."

So saying, he disengaged from a hamper a flagon of Nantz, and was about to make use of the Sacramental cup, which Douglas had dropped, to convey it around, when his arm was arrested by the still strong hand of Walter.

"For the sake of God and his Church—of Him who shed His blood for poor sinners—profane not, I beseech you, the consecrated, the hallowed vessel which I have so lately held in these vile hands as the emblem of my purification through the blood of sprinkling—profane not, I say, that vessel which, when all worldly goods were forfeited and relinquished as things of no value, our worthy pastor has borne along with him—being the gift of his parishioners—to the mountain and the glen—to the desert and the wilderness!"

There needed no further admonition; the cup was deposited in the hands of its owner, and the whole posse comitatus spread themselves out on the grass—for, though all around was heath, this little spot was green and lovely—and, by applying the vessel directly to their lips, each one took a draught so long and hearty that the captain or leader had again and again to replenish the measure. Nor were Lawson and old Walter Gibson behind in this work of refreshment. Many a day they had laid themselves down to rest in the damp and cold cave, with little of food, and with nothing to cheer and support them but a mouthful, from time to time, of the Solway waters—viz., smuggled brandy. We are all the children, to a great amount, of circumstances; and the very men who, but a little ago, were engaged in the most solemn act of religion, and counted themselves as at the point of death— these very men were now so much cheered, and even exhilarated, by the reviving cordial, that they forgot for the time their dangers and their privations, and were not displeased to hear the smugglers sing the old song, "We are merry men all," when a figure approached, out of breath, exclaiming—

"The gaugers! the gaugers!—the excisemen from Dumfries!"

In an instant the whole troop stood to arms. They had been well disciplined; and the horses, along with the parson and Walter, were stowed away, as they called it, behind. They spoke not; but there was the click of gunlocks, and a powerful recover, on the ground, of heavy muskets, with barrels fully six feet long, which had been used by their forefathers in the times of the first Charles and the civil commotion. The enemy came up at the gallop; but they had plainly miscalculated the forces of their opponents — they were only about fifteen strong; so, wheeling suddenly round, they took their departure with as much despatch as they had advanced.

"We must off instantly!" exclaimed the leader of this trading band. We must gain the pass of Enterkin ere day dawn; for these good neighbours will make common cause with the King’s troops, whenever they meet them, and there will be bloody work, I trow, ere these kegs and good steeds change masters."

So saying, the march immediately proceeded up Gavin Muir, and the minister and Walter took possession of their usual retreat—the Cairny Cave I have so often referred to.

Douglas was not thus, by accident, to be foiled in his object; for having, in the course of a few days, obtained additional forces from Galloway, he returned to the search in Gavin Muir, where he had, again and again, been told meetings still continued to be held, and some caves of concealment existed. Old Lauderdale in council had one day said—"Why, run down the devils, like the natives of Jamaica, with bloodhounds." And the hint was not lost on bloody Clavers—he had actually a pair of hounds of this description with him in Galloway at this time; and, at his earnest request, Douglas was favoured with one of them. Down, therefore, this monster came upon Gavin Muir, not to shoot blackcocks or muirfowl, in which it abounded, but to track, and start, and pistol, if necessary, poor, shivering, half-starved human beings, who had dared to think the laws of their God more binding than the empire and despotism of sinful men. The game was a merry one, and it was played by "merry men all:" forward went the hound through muirs and mosses; onward came the troop, hollowing and encouraging the animal in the pursuit of its horrid instincts. As they passed the moss hole in which the poor granddaughter of Walter had been suffocated, the jest, and the oath, and the merriment were at their utmost.

"Had we but a slice of the young pup," said one, "to flesh our hound with, he would soon scent out the old one—they are kindred blood, you know. But what do I see?— old Bloody, is it, on the top of the cairn yonder!—and scooping, nosing, and giving tongue most determinedly. By the holy poker!—and that’s a sanctified oath—I will on, and see what ‘s agoing here." Thus saying, he put spurs to his horse, and, waving his sword round his head, "Here goes for old Watty!—and may the devil burn me if I do not unearth the fox at last!" Onwards they all advanced at the gallop; but Jack Johnston was greatly in front, and had dashed his horse half-way up the steep cairn, when, in an instant, horse and man rushed down, and immediately disappeared.

"Why," said Douglas, "what has become of Jack?I—has old Sooty smelt him, and sent for him, on a short warning, to help in roasting Covenanters?—or have the fairies, those fair dames of the green knowe and the gray cairn, seen and admired his proportions, and made a young ‘Tam Lean’ of poor Jack Johnston? Let us on and see."

And see to be sure they did; for there was Jack, lying in the last agonies of death, under his horse, which itself was lamed and lying with feet uppermost. The horrid hound was lapping, with a growl, the blood which oozed from the nose and lips of the dying man, and, with a dreadful curse, the terrible being expired just as the party came within view. He had tumbled headlong, owing to the pressure from the horse’s feet, through the slight rafter-work beneath, and had pitched head-foremost against a stone seat, in consequence of which his skull was fractured, and his immediate death ensued. Douglas looked like one bewildered; he would scarcely credit his eyes; but his companion in arms did the needful; and Jack Johnston’s body was removed, his horse shot through the brain, and the whole band returned, drooping and crest-fallen, to Drumlanrig. Throwing his sword down on the hall table when he arrived, he was heard to say, looking wildly and fearfully all the while, "The hand of God is in this thing, and I knew it not." It is a curious fact, but one of which my informant had no doubt, that the very Douglas became, after this, quite an altered man. Mr Lawson, who lived some years after his death, attended upon him in his last illness. "God only knows the heart," would he say; "but to all outward appearance, William Douglas was a cleansed and a sanctified vessel: the mercy of God is infinite—it even extended to the thief on the Cross."


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