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Wilson's Border Tales
Gleanings of the Covenant

No. 6. The Fatal Mistake


Old Elspeth Wallace lived, at the time of which I am about to speak, in a sequestered spot in the parish of Dairy in the district of Carrick, Ayrshire. She was a widow woman, but not in indigent circumstances. Through the kindness of the family of Cassilis, she had a cow’s grass, a small croft, a pickle barley, which, in due time, and under the usual process, was converted into small drink, or tippenny, as it was called in those days.

"Wi’ tippeny, I fear nae evil."

she had, besides, a good large kailyard, from which she contrived to support her cow during the winter season. In fact, Elspeth’s whole riches consisted in her cow and an only daughter, who, however, was out at service in a neighbouring farm town. This cow and Elspeth were constant companions, and it was difficult to say which was most essential to the others happiness The first thing Elspeth did, after her duty to her God, was to attend to Doddy; and the first look Doddy gave over her shoulder, was towards the door through which Elspeth was expected to enter. During the fine days of summer, Elspeth might be seen conversing with her cow as with a rational being, whilst Doddy was engaged in plucking or in ruminating. If Elspeth went for a day from home, Doddy was quite disconsolate, and would roam about the house and park as if in quest of her companion. In fact, these two sentient beings had become, as it were, essential to each other’s happiness. The small circumstance of rationality had been overlooked, and the common instinct of kindly feeling had united them completely. There was just one other inmate of this sequestered apartment—a large, sonsy, gaucy cat. This animal partook in all Elspeth’s meals and movements; ceased purring when Elspeth prayed, and went a-field and returned at Elspeth’s heels, like a colly-dog. To be sure, there was a little jealousy on Doddy’s side, when Pussy seemed to occupy too much attention, for she (videlicet, Doddy) would come up and smell at Pussy as she sat on Elspeth’s knee, and then, shaking her head and snorting, make off quick step to a distance. Nevertheless, these three—we dare not say this triumvirate, for fear of the etymologists—got on exceedingly well, and with fewer disputations and quarrellings than generally occur amongst the same number of rationals. Elspeth had been married for one single year and fifteen days, as she often mentioned. Her husband had been gardener at Collean, and had been killed on the spot by the fall of a tree, which he was assisting in felling. Jenny, or, as she was familiarly called, Jessy Wallace, was born a few days after this mournful accident, and had been reared with much care and affection. Necessity, however, removed her at the age of fifteen from her mother’s roof, but to no great distance; and she would frequently come to visit her mother of a Saturday evening, and return next day to her post of duty. Such was the state of things at Blairquhan, in the year of our Lord 1678, when the Highland Host was let loose upon the Western district of Scotland, in particular. Bonds! bonds! bonds! were then the order of the day; the proprietor must give bond for his tenantry, the tenantry for their servants, the father and mother for their children, and the brother, even, for his sister. These, bonds were certifications to prevent those who were, or were presumed to be, under your authority, from attending conventicles, hill-preachings, and prayer-meetings----in short, from committing any act which could be construed into a resistance to the most despotic and cruel executions that ever vexed an oppressed people. This Highland Host, as it was familiarly called, consisted of an army of half-naked and wholly savage Highlanders of the name and clan of Campbell, from the county of Argyle. Their only object was pillage, their only law the gratification of the lowest propensities, and their only restraint their officers’ pleasure. "When the Highlanders went back," says Woodrow, "one would have thought that they had been at the sacking of some besieged town, by their baggage and luggage. They were loaded with spoil; they carried away a great many horses, cows, and no small quantity of goods out of merchant ships. You would have seen them with loads of bedclothes, carpets, men and women’s wearing apparel, pots and pans, gridirons, shoes, and other furniture," &c. Such was the nature and character of the Highland Host, which, at the date to which we have referred, overspread, and oppressed, and outraged from Greenock to Galloway, front Lanark to the town of Ayr.

Elspeth Wallace and her daughter were sitting, of a Saturday’s night, by the side of a comfortable peat fire. It was a hard frost, moonlight, and in the mouth of February. Their supper consisted of boiled sowans, with a small accompaniment, on such occasions, as that of beer and bannock. Elspeth had just got her pipe lighted, and was beginning to weigh the propriety of her daughter accepting of a proposal of marriage, when the door opened, or rather gave way, and in burst "her nane sel," in all the glory of filth and nakedness. There were two figures on the floor, in Highland plaids; but with a very scanty appointment of nether garments. There was no commanding officer present and these two helpless women were left to the mercy, or rather the merciless pleasure, of these two Highland savages. In vain did Elspeth expostulate and represent the cruelty of their conduct. They but partially understood what she said, and replied in broken English. These actions, however, were sufficiently demonstrative; for the one laid hold of the poor girl, who screamed and expostulated in vain and the other unloosed the cow from the stake, and, tying the old helpless woman to the same stake from which they had unloosed the cow, they immediately began their march up the Glen of Blairquhan. Poor Jessie Wallace soon learned that she was destined for the closet of my Lord Airley, then commanding in the district, who had unfortunately seen her, marked her beauty, and destined her to ruin; and that the cow was the price at which the services of these two savages had been procured. It was difficult to say which of these brothers (for brethren they were, not only in iniquity, but by blood) had the more difficult task—he who dragged onwards the camstairy and unwilling brute, or he who half-dragged, half-carried, the resisting and struggling maiden. The Sabine rape was playwork to this. Donald swore, and Archibald cursed; but still the progress which they made was little, and the trouble and labour which they were subjected to, were immense. At last matters came to a dead stand: Doddy absolutely refused to march one inch further; and Donald proposed that, since "matters might no better be," they should ‘slay te prute’ at once. So, having secured Jessie’s ankles by means of her napkin, and placed her upon a rock in the midst of the mountain stream, with all suitable admonitions respecting the folly of even meditating an escape, Archibald and Donald set to work to carry their deadly purpose into execution on Doddy. But how was this to be effected? Doddy, very unaccountably, as it seemed to her nightly visiters, would neither lead nor drive, nor in any way be art and part in her own destruction. Having held a council of death, and having resolved to carry over the hill as much as they could of Doddy’s flesh, they immediately set to work in compassing the means of destruction. But these were not so much at hand as might have been wished. They had neither nail nor hammer, else they would have given Doddy a Sisera exit; nor had they even an ordinary pocket knife. They were totally destitute of arms, by order of their officer, as their duty was not to kill, but to keep alive; not to conquer, but to spoil. What was to be done? "Deil tak them wha hae nae shifts!" says the old proverb; but then it unfortunately adds, "Deil tak them again that hae owre mony!"—So, at the suggestion of Donald, a large water-worn stone was selected from the channel of the burn, and being tied up firmly into the corner or poke of the Highland plaid, it was judged an efficient instrument of death. Doddy, however, observed, and appeared, at least to Jessy, to understand what was going on, and had taken her measures accordingly. There they stood—Donald holding on by the horns, and Archy swinging and aiming, but hesitating, from the instability of the object to be struck, to inflict the fatal blow. Again and again the stone was swung, and the blow was meditated; but again and again did Doddy twist and twine herself almost out of Donald’s hands. At last, losing all patience, Archy swung the great stone round his head, which, when in mid-air took a different direction from that which was intended—or it might be that the error was owing to the sudden wresting of Doddy—but so it was, and of verity, that the stone came ultimately full swing, not upon the forehead of the cow, but upon the temples of Donald, and felled him to the ground.

"W’ glowering een and lifted hands,"

says Burns,

"Poor Hughoc like a statue stands."

It would be impossible, by any similitude or quotation, to give an accurate picture of Archy Campbell, when he saw Doddy, free as air, taking the bent and crooning defiance, and his own brother lying a corpse at his feet, and all by his own hands. It is needless to say that, in all bosoms, there are sympathies and calls of affection. The trade upon which Donald and Archy were employed was a bad one; but they had great brotherly affection, and it was indeed, as has been repeated to us, an affecting sight to behold Archy’s grief on this occasion. He leant over, he embraced, he kissed his brother; he raised up the dead body to the wind, he braided back the hair, he wiped the foam from the lips, he burst at last into tears, and fell down apparently lifeless on his brother’s corpse. So deeply has God imprinted himself on our natures—nothing, not even Lauderdale-cruelty, could entirely erase his image.

Poor Jessy escaped, in the meantime, to her mother, and was married in the course of a month. The present member of parliament for the Ayr Burghs is her lineal decendant.


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