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Wilson's Border Tales
Gleanings of the Covenant

No. 13. Porter's Hole


In the west corner of the churchyard of Dalgarno—now a section of the parish of Closeburn—there is a small, but neat headstone, with two figures joining hands, as if in the attitude of marrying. Beneath is written, and still legible— "John Porter and Augnas Milligan. They were lovely in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided." There is neither date nor narrative; but, as this part of the churchyard has not been used as a burial-ground since the union of the parishes, in the reign of Charles the Second, the date must have been sometime betwixt 1660 and 1684. This beautiful and sequestered churchyard, all silent and cheerless as it is, lies upon the banks of the Nith, immediately upon its union with the ocean; and near to the most famous salmon-fishing pool in the whole river, called Porter’s Hole. Whilst yet a boy, and attending Closeburn school, our attention was, one sunny afternoon, (when the trouts were unwilling to visit the dry land,) drawn to the little stone in the corner, of which we have just made mention, and recollecting, at the same time, that Porter was the name of the pool, as well as of the person buried, we began to speculate upon the possibility of there being some connection betwixt the two circumstances—the name of the individual, and the well-known designation of the blackest and deepest pool in the Closeburn part of the river. Near to this solitary resting-place of the ashes of our forefathers— the Harknesses, the Gibsons, and the Watsons of Closeburn from time immemorial—there stood, at that time, an old cottage, straw or rather grass-thatched, (for it was covered with green chickenweed,) where dwelt in single solitude, Janet M’Guffoch—whether any relation of the celebrated individual of that name mentioned by Sir Walter Scott, we know not—but there dwelt Janet a discontented old waspish body of one hundred years of age, according to general belief; and being accompanied by a black cat and a broom besom, was marked by us boys, as a decided witch. We never had any doubt about it, and the thing was confirmed by the laird of Closeburn’s gamekeeper, who swore that he had often hunted hares to Janet’s door; but never could start them again. Under all these circumstances, it required no common impulse to induce us to enter the den of this emissary of Satan; but our curiosity was excited by the similarity of the names "Porter’s Grave" and "Porter’s Hole," (as the pool was familiarly named,) and we at length mustered faith, and strength, and courage to thrust ourselves past a bundle of withered twigs, which served Janet as a door in summer, and a door-protector in the blasts of winter, Janet was as usual at her wheel, and crooning some old Covenanting ditty, about—

"Oh, gin Lag were dead and streekit,
An’ that his ha’ wi’ mools was theekit!"

when, by means of a six-inch-square skylight, our physiognomy became visible to Janet.

"And what art thou, that’s creeping into an old body’s dark den, and leaving ahint thee the guid sunshine?"

We responded by mentioning our name.

"Ay, ay," said Janet, "come away and sit thee down on the creepy there, beside the heidstane --thou art freely welcome, for thou art o’ the seed o’ the faithful, the precious salt of the earth; and the blessing of the God of the Covenant will rest upon his children, even to the third and the fourth generation!" Thus welcomed, we took our position as requested, eyeing all the while the large black cat with a somewhat suspicious regard.

"The beast winna stir thee," said Janet. "it has, like its auld mistress, mair regard for the martyr’s seed."

Having hereupon taken advantage of a pause in Janet’s discourse, we at once stated the subject of our inquiry.

"Ay, ay," said Janet; "and atweel there is a connection betwixt that bonny angel stane, and the pool ca’ed Porter’s Hole. Ay, is there; an’ an awfu connexion it is. But what comes thou here for to torment an auld body like me, wi’ greetin and groanin at my time o’ life? Gae awa, gae awa—I canna thole the very thochts o’ the story whilk thou ettles to ken."

This only increased our curiosity, and, after some flattering language about Janet’s good-nature, retentive memory, and Covenanting lineage, the old crone proceeded to the following purpose; and, as nearly as we can mind, (for it is a tale of fifty years) repeated it in the following words:—

"Thou kens the auld ruin, bairn, the auld wa’s out by there. That’s the auld farm-house o’ Dalgarno, ere the new one at the path-head was biggit; and there, within the wa’s, was ance a warm hearth, and twa as leal hearts as ever beat against pin or button. John Porter was young, handsome, and the tenant o’ the best farm in the parish o’ Dalgarno; but he was nae frien to the vile curate, and a marked bird, as they Ca it, by Grierson o’ Lag, in particular, who had been heard to say, that he would decant his porter for him someday yet, in the shape and colour of heart’s bluid. Agnes Milligan was an orphan, brought up at Dalgarno—a sister’s son of the auld Dalgarno, and a fu’ cousin, ye ken, o’ the young farmer. They had baith fed frae the same plate; sleeped under the same roof; played at the same sports; and dabbled in the same river—the bloody, bloody Nith!—from infancy to youth. Oh, sirs! but I canna get on ava" –Here Janet sorted her wheel, and apparently shed a tear, for she moved her apron corner to her eye. "Aweel, this was the nicht o’ the wedding, bairn—no this nicht, like; but I think I just see it present, for I was there mysel, a wee bit whilking lassie. Lawson, guid godly Lawson, had tied the knot, an’ we war a’ merry like; but it was a fearfu spate, and the Nith went frae bank to brae. ‘They are comin!’ was the cry. I kenna wha cried it, but a voice said it, an’ twenty voices repeated it. ‘Lag an’ his troop’s comin; they’re gallopin owre the Cunning-holm at this moment.’ John Porter flew to his bonnet, an’, in an instant, was raised six or seven feet high on his long stilts, with which he had often crossed the Nith when nae mortal could tak it on horseback. Agnes Milligan was out and after; the moon shone clear through a cloud, and she saw the brave man tak the water at the broadest. On he went—for we a’ witnessed what he did— on he went, steady, firm, an’ unwaverin; but, alas! it was hin’ harvest, an’ some sheaves o’ corn had been carried off the holms by the spate. Ane o’ them crossed his upper stilt, an’ in a moment, his feet went frae him, an’ doon he cam into the roarin flood. He was still near the Closeburn bank, an’ we a’ ran down the side to see if we could help him out. Again and again he rose to his feet; but the water was mighty, it was terrible, it juist whumbled him owre, an’ we saw nae mair o’ him. Agnes ran for Porter’s Hole, (then only kent as the salmon pool,) an’ stood watchin’ the eddy, as it whirled straw an’ corn, an’ sic like rubbish, aboot. Her husband’s head appeared floating in the whirl—she screamed, leaped into the deep, deep pool, an’ next day they were found clasped in each other’s arms. Oh, my bairn, my bairn!—what brocht ye here the day?"

Janet was found, next morning, dead in her bed—the exertion and excitement had killed her.


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