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Wilson's Border Tales
Gleanings of the Covenant

No. 15. The Curlers


Winter 1684-5 was, like the last, cold, frosty, and stormy. The ice was on lake and muir from new year’s day till the month of March. Curling was then, as it is still, the great winter amusement in the south and west of Scotland. The ploughman lad rose by two o’clock of a frosty morning, had the day’s fodder threshed for the cattle, and was on the ice, besom in hand, by nine o’clock. The farmer, after seeing things right in the stable and the byre, was not long behind his servant. The minister left. his study and his MS., his concordance and his desk, for the loch, and the rink, and the channel-stane. Even the laird himself was not proof against the temptation, but often preferred full twelve hours of rousing game on the ice, to all the fascinations of the drawing or the billiard-room, or the study. Even the schoolmaster was incapable of resisting the tempting and animating sound; and, at every peal of laughter which broke upon his own and his pupils’ ears, turned his eyes and his steps towards the window which looked upon the adjoining loch; and, at last, entirely overcome by the shout over a contested shot, off he and his bevy swarmed, helter-skelter, across the Carse Meadow, to the ice. From all accounts which I have heard of it, this was a notable amongst many notable days. The factor was never in such play; the master greatly outdid himself; the laird played hind-hand in beautiful style; and Sutor John came up the rink "like Jehu in time o’ need." Shots were laid just a yard, right and left, before and behind the tee; shots were taken out, and run off the ice with wonderful precision; guards, that most ticklish of all plays, were rested just over the hog-score, so as completely to cover the winner; inwicks were taken to a hair, and the player’s stone whirled in most gracefully, (like a lady in a country dance,) and settled three-deep-guarded, upon the top of the tee. Chance had her triumphs as well as good play. A random shot, driven with such fury that the stone rebounded and split in two, deprived the opposite side of four shots, and took the game. The sky was blue as indigo, and the sun shot his beams over the Keir Hills in penetrating and invigorating splendour. Old women frequented the loch with baskets; boys and young lads skated gracefully around; the whisky-bottle did its duty; and even the herons at the spring-wells had their necks greatly elongated by the roaring fun. It was a capital day’s sport. Little did this happy scene exhibit of the suffering and the misery which was all this while perpetrated by the men of violence. Clavers, the ever-infamous, was in Wigtonshire with his lambs; Grierson was lying in his den of Lag, like a lion on the spring; Johnson was on the Annan; and Winram on the Doon; whilst Douglas was here, and there, and everywhere, flying, like a malevolent spirit, from strath to strath, and from hill to dale. The snow lay, and had long been lying, more than a foot deep, crisp and white, over the bleak but beauteous wild; the sheep were perishing for want of pasture; and many poor creatures were in absolute want of the necessaries of life. (The potato, that true friend of the people, had not yet made its way to any extent into Scotland.) Caves, dens, and out-houses were crowded with the persecuted flock. The ousted ministers were still lifting up their voice in the wilderness, and the distant hum of psalmody was heard afar amongst the hills, and by the side of the frozen stream and the bare hawthorn. What a contrast did all this present to the fun, frolic, and downright ecstasy of this day’s sport! But the night came, with its beef and its greens, and its song, and its punch, and its anecdote, and its thrice-played games, and its warm words, and its half-muttered threats, and its dispersion about three in the morning.

"Wha was yon stranger?" said John Harkness to Sandy Gibson, as they met next day on the hill. I didna like the look o’ him; an’ yet he played his stane weel, an’ took a great lead in the conversation. I wish he mayna be a spy, after a’; for I never heard o’ ony Watsons in Ecclefechan, till yon creature cast up."

"Indeed," said lang Sandy, "I didna like the creature—it got sae fou an’ impudent, late at nicht; an’ then that puir haverel, Will Paterson, cam in, an’ let oot that the cave at Glencairn had been surprised, an’ the auld minister murdered. If it be in the case—as I believe it isna hitherto—there was enough said last night to mak it necessary to hae the puir, persecuted saint informed o’ his danger."

"An’ that’s as true," responded John; "an’ I think you an’ I canna do better than wear awa wast o’er whan the sun gaes down, an’ let honest Mr Lawson ken that his retreat is known. That Watson creature—didna ye tent?—went aff, wi’ the curate, a wee afore the lave; they were heard busy talking together, in a low tone of voice, as they went hame to the manse. I wonder what maks the laird—wha is a perfect gentleman, an’ a friend, too, o’ the Covenanted truth—keep company, on the ice or off it, wi’ that rotten-hearted, roupit creature, the curate o’ Closeburn."

"Indeed," replied the other, "he is sae clean daft aboot playing at channel-stane, that, I believe, baith him, an’ the dominie, an’ the factor—forby Souter Ferguson—would play wi’ auld Symnie himsel, provided he was a keen and a guid shot! But it will be mirk dark—an’ there’s nae moon—ere we mak Glencairn cave o ‘t."

John Harkness and Sandy Gibson arrived at Monyaive, in Glencairn, a little after dark. The cave was about a mile distant from the town; and, with the view of refreshment, as well as of concerting the best way of avoiding suspicion, they entered a small alehouse, kept by an old woman at the farther end of the bridge. They were shown into a narrow and meanly-furnished apartment, and called for a bottle of the best beer, with a suitable accompaniment of bread and cheese. The landlady, by and by, was sent for, and was asked to partake of her own beverage, and questioned, in a careless and incidental manner, respecting the news. She looked somewhat embarrassed; and, fixing her eyes upon a keyhole, in a door which conducted to an adjoining apartment, she said, in a whisper—

"I ken brawly wha ye are, an’ maybe, too, what ye’re after; but ye hae need to be active, lads; for there are those in that ither room that wadna care though a’ yer heads, as well as those o’ some ither folks that shall be nameless, were stuck on the West Port o’ Edinbro."

In an instant, the two young farmers were butt the house, and beside Tibby Haddo’s peat-fire. In the course of a short, and, to all but themselves, an inaudible conversation, they learned that Lag himself, disguised as a common soldier, was in the next room, in close colloquy with a person clothed in gray duffle, with a broad bonnet on his head. From the description of the person, the two Closeburnians had no manner of doubt that the information obtained last night, in regard to the existence of a place of refuge in Glencairn, was now in the act of being communicated.

"At one o’clock!" said a well-known voice—it was that of Lag, to a certainty.

"Yes, at one," responded the stranger, Watson—whose voice was equally well-known to the farmers—"at one!" I And they parted—the one going east, and the other west— and were lost in the darkness of night.

It was now past seven, with a clear, frosty night. What was to be done? It was manifest that the cave was betrayed—at least, that the whereabouts was known—and it was likewise necessary that this information should be conveyed to the poor inmate. But where was he to find a refuge, after the cave had been vacated? It struck them in consulting, that, if they could get the old woman to be friendly and assisting, the escape might be effected before the time evidently fixed upon for taking the cave by surprise. This was, however, a somewhat dangerous experiment; for, although Tibby M’Murdo was known to be favourable—as who amongst the lower classes was not?— to the non-conformists, yet she might not choose to run the immense risk of ruin and even death, which might result from her knowingly giving harbour to a rebel. So, by way of sounding the old woman—who lived in the house by herself, her granddaughter, who was at service in the town, only visiting her occasionally—they proposed to stay all night in the house, as they were in hourly expectation of a wool-dealer who had made an appointment to meet them here; but who, owing to the heavy roads, had manifestly been detained beyond the appointed time. The old woman had various objections to this arrangement; but was at last persuaded to make an addition to her fire, to put half-a-dozen bottles of her best ale on the table, with a tappit hen, with what she termed "a wee drap o’ the creature," and to retire to rest, about eight o’clock, her usual hour, they having already paid for all, and promised not to leave the house till she rose in the morning. At this time, about eight o’clock, the night had suddenly become dark and cloudy, and there was a strange noise up amongst the rocks overhead. It was manifest that there was a change of weather fast approaching. At last the snow descended, the wind arose, and it became a perfect tempest. Next morning, there were three human beings in Tibby’s small ben, busily employed in discussing the good things already purchased, as well as in higgling and bothering about the price of wool. The weather, which had been exceedingly boisterous all night, had again cleared up into frost, and the inhabitants of Monyaive were busied in cutting away the accumulated snow from their doors, when in burst old Tibby’s granddaughter, and, all at once, with exceeding animation, made the following communication:—

"Ay, granny, ye never heard what has taen place this last nicht! I had it a’ frae Jock Johnston. Ye ken Jock—he’‘s our maister’s foreman, an’ unco weel acquaint wi’ the dragoons that lodge in the Spread Eagle. Weel, Jock tells me that Lag was here last nicht, in disguise like, an that they had gotten information, frae ane o’ their spies like, aboot a cave up by yonder where some o’ the puir persecuted folks is concealed; and that, about ane o’clock o’ this morning—an’ an awsome morning it was—they had marched on, three abreast, through the drift, carrying strae alang wi’ them, an’ lighted matches; and that they gaed straight to the cave, an’ immediately summoned the puir folks to come out and be shot; and that they only answered by a groan, which telt them as plainly as could be, that the puir creature was there; and that they immediately set fire to the strae at the mouth of the cave, and fairly smoked him (Jock tells me) to death. Did ye ever hear the like o’t?"

"O woman!" responded the grandmother; "but that is fearfu’!—these are, indeed, fearfu’ times; there is naebody sure o’ their lives for half-an-hour thegither, wha doesna gae to hear the fushionless curates!"

At this instant, one of the dragoons drew up his horse at the door, asking if a man such as he described, with a blue bonnet and a gray duffle coat, had returned late last night, or rather this morning, to bed. Old Tibby answered, in a quavering voice, that the man mentioned had left her house about eight o’clock, and had not yet returned. The dragoon appeared somewhat incredulous; and, giving his horse to the girl to hold, he dashed at once and boldly into the room, where the three persons already mentioned were seated. The young farmers questioned immediately the propriety of his conduct; but he drew his sword, and swore that he would make cats-meat of the first that should lay hold upon him. He had no sooner said so, than a man sprung upon him from the fireside, and, striking his sword-arm down with the poker, immediately secured his person by such means as the place and time presented. The fellow roared like a bull, blaspheming and vociferating mightily of the crime of arresting a king’s soldier in the discharge of his duty. But he was hurried into a concealed bed, tied firmly down with ropes and even blankets, and made to know that, unless he was silent, he might have to pay for his disobedience with his life. When old Tibby saw how things were going on, and that her house might suffer by such transactions, she sallied forth as fast as her feeble limbs and well-worn staff would carry her, exclaiming as she went—"We’ll a’ be slain— we’ll a’ be slain!—the laird o’ Lag will be here—and Clavers will be here—and the King himself will be here—an’ we’ll a’ be murdered—we’ll a’ be murdered!" At this moment the trooper appeared in his regimentals, mounted his horse, and was off at full gallop. The granddaughter, now relieved from holding the dragoon’s horse, followed her grandmother, and brought her lamp to the house; but, to their infinite surprise, there was nobody there save the very cursing trooper whom she had seen so recently ride off. His voice was loud, and his complainings fearful; but neither Tibby nor her granddaughter durst go near him, as they were fully convinced that he was the devil, and no man, since he had the power at once of mounting a horse and flying rather than riding away, and, at the same time, of lying cursing and swearing in a press bed in the ben. At last a neighbour heard the tale, and being less superstitious, relieved the unfortunate prisoner from his rather awkward predicament. He swore revenge, and to cut poor old Tibby into two with his sword; but he found, upon searching for his weapon, that it was absent, as well as his clothes, which had been forcibly stripped from him when he was tied— and that without leave—and that he had nothing for it but to thrust himself into canonicals—in which garb he actually walked home to his quarters, amidst the shouts of his companions, and to the astonishment of all the staring villagers.

As he was making the best of his way to hide his disgrace in the Spread Eagle, he was told that his commanding officer, Sir Robert Grierson, had been wishing to speak with him for some time past. Upon appearing immediately in the presence of authority, he was questioned in regard to the mission on which he had been despatched, and was scarcely credited when he narrated the treatment which he had met with, and the loss which he had sustained. A detachment was immediately despatched in quest of the thief, the wool-merchant, who had so cleverly supplied himself with a passport from the king; and, after our soldier’s person had been unrobed, and attired for the present in his stable undress, Lag set out with a few followers to examine the cave, in order to be assured of Mr Lawson’s death. "They may gallop off with our horses," said Lag, in a jocular manner, by the way; "but they will not easily gallop off with the old choked hound, who has led us so many dances over the hills of Queensberry and Auchenleck." At last, they arrived at the mouth of the cave and entered. Black and blue, and severely bruised, lay the dead body before them. "Ah, ha!" said Lag, making his boot, as he expressed it, acquainted with old Canticle’s posteriors. "Ah, had my fleet bird of the mountain, and we have caught you at last, and caught you napping—ha, ha! Why don’t you speak, old fire and-brimstone? What! not a word now!—and yet you had plenty when you preached from the Gouk Thorn, to upwards of two thousand of your prick-eared, purse-mouthed, canting followers. Come, my lads, we have less work to do now; we will e’en back to quarters, and drink a safe voyage into the Holy Land, to old Dumb-and-flat there!" So saying, he reined up his horse, and was on the point of withdrawing the men, when one of them, who had eyed the body, which was imperfectly seen in the dark cave, more nearly than the rest, exclaimed— "And, by the Lord Harry, and we are all at fault, and the game is off, on four living legs, after all—off and away! and we standing drivelling here, when we should be many miles off in hot pursuit of this cunning fox who has contrived to give us the slip once more."

"What means the idiot?" vociferated Grierson.

"Mean!—why, what should I mean, Sir Robert, but that this here piece of carrion is no more the stinking corpse of old Closeburn, than I am a son of the Covenant!"

It turned out, upon investigation, that this was the body of the informer Watson, who had preceded Lag to the cave during the terrible drift; had been observed by John Harkness and Sandy Gibson, who were then employed in removing Lawson to the small inn; and, after a drubbing, which disabled him from moving, he had been left the only tenant of the cave. When Grierson came, as above mentioned, from the drift and the cold, as well as the beating, he was unable to speak; but his groans brought his miserable death upon him; and Lawson, by assuming the dragoon’s garb and steed, was enabled to escape, and to officiate, as has been already mentioned in a former paper, for several years before his death, in his own church, from which he had been so long and so unjustly driven. Thus did it please God to punish the infamous conduct of Watson, and to enable his own servant to effect his escape. The dragoon’s horse was found, one morning at day-light, neighing and beating the hoof at old Tibby’s door. It soon found an owner, but told no stories respecting its late occupant, who was now snugly lodged in William Graham’s parlour in the guid town of Kendal. Graham and he were cousins-german.


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