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Wilson's Border Tales
Gleanings of the Covenant

No. 8. The Eskdalemuir Story


In the rural retreats of Eskdalemuir, the following narrative still exists in tradition.

A soldier belonging to Johnstone of Westerhall’s company, had a fall from his horse, in consequence of which he was disabled for a time from service. He was committed to the charge of a poor but honest family in Eskdalemuir, near Yettbyres, where he was carefully nursed and well attended to. This family consisted of a mother, a daughter, and two sons, who were shepherds on the property of Yettbyres. The daughter’s name was Jean Wilson; and the soldier’s heart was lost to Jean, ere he was aware. In truth, Jean was a beauteous rose-bud, a flower of the wilderness, in her seventeenth year, and most kind and attentive to their guest. To own more truth, Jean was likewise in love with the brave and manly figure and bearing of her patient; but she never told him so, being greatly averse to his profession and his politics—for he was one of the persecutors of God’s people, and Jean’s father had been shot on Dumfries sands for his adherence to the Covenant. At last, however, and I after many fruitless attempts on Jean’s part to convert the soldier, and convince him of the evil of his profession, he was again summoned to his post—and the sheiling of Yettbyres assumed its wonted peaceful aspect.

In the midst of the Eskdale mountains, a scene was exhibited of no ordinary interest. A poor captive stood bound and blinded; a party of five soldiers, under the command of a sergeant, was ordered out to shoot him. The poor man had asked for five minutes of indulgence, which was granted; during which time he had sung some verses of a psalm and prayed. It was night, and full moon. It was in the midst of a mountain glen, and by the side of a mountain stream; all was still, and peaceful, and lonely around—but the passions of men were awake. There was a voice—it was the voice of Johnstone of Westerhall— which commanded the men to do their duty, and to blow out the brains of the poor kneeling captive. "If I do, may I be hanged!" exclaimed the sergeant, standing out before his men, and looking defiance on his captain. "What?" exclaimed Jonnstone," do you dare to disobey my orders? Soldiers, seize Sergeant Watson and bind him!" In the meantime, partly through the connivance of the men, and partly from the confusion which ensued, the captive had made his escape. To him the localities of this glen were all familiar; and, by esconcing himself beneath and beyond a sheet of foaming water which was projected from an apron fall in the linn, John Wilson effected his escape for the time.

The sergeant was immediately carried to headquarters at Lockerbie, and tried by a court-martial for disobedience of orders. The court consisted of Grierson of Lag, Winram of Wigton, Douglas of Drumlanrig, and Bruce of Bunyean. The fact of disobedience was not denied—but the soldier pled the obligations which he had been under to the Wilson family, during his distress; and his consequent unwillingness to become the instrument of John Wilson’s murder. Even Clavers was somewhat softened by the statement, and was half inclined to sustain the reason, when Johnstone struck in, and urged strongly the necessity of preserving subordination at all times in the army—and particularly in these times, when instances of disobedience to orders were anything but uncommon. Douglas of Drumlanrig seemed likewise to be on the point of yielding to the better feelings of humanity, when Grierson, Winram, and Bruce decided, by a majority, that Sergeant Watson should be carried back to the ground where the act had been committed, and shot dead on the spot.

The poor sargeant’s eyes were tied up, and the muskets of four soldiers levelled at his head, when a scream was heard—and a lovely girl, in the most frantic manner, threw herself into the arms of the victim.

"You shall not murder him!" she exclaimed; "or, if ye do, ye shall murder us both. What!—did he not save the life of my poor brother, and shall I scruple to lay down my life for him? Oh, no, no! Level your murderous weapons, and bury us both, when your wish is done, in one grave. Oh, you never knew what woman’s love was till now." He strained her to his bosom in reply.

"Keep off, keep off!" exclaimed a man’s voice from behind. "Save, for Heaven and a Saviour’s sake—oh, save innocent life! I am the victim you are in quest of—bind me, blindfold me, shoot me dead—but spare, oh, spare, in mercy and in justice, youth and innocence, the humane heart, and the warm young bosom. Is not she my sister, ye men of blood!—and have none of ye a sister? Is not he my saviour, ye messengers of evil?—and have none of ye gratitude for deeds of mercy done? Surely, surely"—addressing himself to Westerhall—"ye will not, ye cannot pronounce that fearful word which must prove fatal to three at once; for, as God is my hope, this day and on this spot will I die, if not to avert, at least to share the fate of these two."

It was remarked that a tear stood in the eye of Clavers, who turned his horse’s head about, and galloped off the field, the men looked to Westerhall for orders; but he had turned his head aside, to look after his superior officer. It was evidently a fearful moment of suspense. The muskets shook in the men’s hands; and without saying one word, Johnstone turned his horse’s head around, and rode over the hill after his superior.

The case was tried at Dumfries, and, hardened as bosoms were in these awful times, many an eye, unwont to weep, was filled with tears, as the circumstances of this fearful case unfolded themselves. Jean Wilson never looked so lovely as when, with a boldness altogether foreign to her general conduct, she confessed and exulted in her crime. The sergeant admitted the justice of his sentence, but pled his inability to avoid the guilt. John Wilson admitted his want of conformity, and urged his father’s murder as sufficient ground for his rooted hatred of the murderers. The jury were not divided. They pronounced a sentence of acquittal, and the court rang with shouts of applause. From that day and hour, Johnstone of Westerhall resigned his commission, and, betaking himself to private life, is said to have exhibited marks of genuine repentance.

The woods around Closeburn Castle are indeed most beautiful; and that winding glen which leads to Gilchristland, is romantic in no ordinary degree. That is the land of the Watsons, the lineal descendants of this poor sergeant, who, immediately after the trial, married sweet Jeanie Wilson, and settled ultimately in the farm of Gilchristland, where they and theirs, many sons and daughters, have lived in respectability and independence ever since. That three-storey house which overlooks the valley of the Nith, and is visible from Drumlanrig to the Stepends of Closeburn, is tenanted by Alexander Watson, one of the wealthiest farmers and cattle-dealers in the South of Scotland.


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