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Wilson's Border Tales
Gleanings of the Covenant

No. 9. The Douglas Tradegy


Upon the banks or shore of the Frith of Cree, at that point where it would be difficult to say whether the sea or the river prevailed, stood, in old times, a mud cottage, surrounded by a clump of trees. It was quite a nest of a thing; and beautifully did the blue smoke ascend, strongly relieved and brought out by the dark woodland. The ships, in passing and repassing, sailed close to the door of this lonely dwelling, and would often, in fine weather, exchange salutations with its inmates. These inmates were Janet Smith and Nanny Nivison—the one old, and almost bed-rid—the other young, and beautiful, and kind-hearted. Nanny, who was an orphan, lived with her grandmother; and, whilst she discharged the duties of a nurse, she was extremely efficient in earning their mutual subsistence. In these days, spinning-jennies were not; and many a fireside was enlivened by the whirr of the "big" or the birr of the "wee" wheel. The check-reel, with its cheerful click or challenge at every sixtieth revolution, was there and the kitchen rafters were ornamented by suspended hanks of sale yarn. There sat, by a good, warm, peat fire, the aged and sleepy cat, winking contentment in both eyes, and prognosticating rain, by carefully washing her face with her fore-paw. There, too, in close alliance and perfect peacefulness, lay a blind cur-dog, who had known other days, and had followed to the field, if not some warlike lord, at least one of the lords of the creation, in the shape of John Nivison, who had been shot on the south range of the Galloway Hills, for his adherence to the Covenant. His son Thomas, the brother of Nanny, had been long outlawed, and was supposed, even by his sister— his only sister—to have effected his escape to America. It was a beautiful and peaceful evening in the months of harvest—all was cheerfulness around. The mirthful band was employed, at no great distance, in cutting down and collecting into sheaves and stooks the abundant crop; and the husbandman, with his coat deposited in the hedge at the end of the field, was as busily employed as any of his band. The voice of man and woman, lad and lass, master and servant, was mixed in one continuous flow of rustic wit and rural jest. The surface of the Frith was smooth as glass, and the Galloway Hills looked down from heaven, and up from beneath, with brows of serenity and friendship. One or two vessels were tiding it up in the midst of the stream, with a motion scarcely perceptible. They had all sails set, and looked as if suspended in a glassy network, half-way betwixt heaven and earth. The sun shone westward, near to his setting, and the white and softly-rolled clouds only served to make the blue of a clear sky still more deep and lovely. The lassie wi’ the lint-white locks, spread over an eye of bonnie blue—

"The little halcyon’s azure plume
Was never half so blue"

—might well assimilate to this sunny sky. Nature seemed to say to man, from above and from beneath—from hill and from dale—from land and from sea—from a thousand portals of beauty and blessedness—"Thou stranger on earth, enjoy the happiness which thy God prepares for thee. For thee, He has hung the heavens in a drapery of light and love—for thee, He hath clothed the earth in fragrance and plenty—for thee, He hath spread out the waters of the great sea, and made them carriers of thy wealth and thy will from land to land, and from the broad sea to the city and the hamlet on the narrow Frith." Thus spake, or seemed to speak, God to man, in the beautiful manifestations of His love. But what said "man to man?" Alas! true it is, and of verity, that

"Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn."

The whole of the south of Scotland was, at this peaceful hour, overrun with locusts and caterpillars—with all that can hurt and destroy—that can mar, mangle, and torture— with rage, persecution, and violence—profanity, bloodshed, and death. Oh, what a contrast!—Look, only look, on this picture, and on that:—Here all peace; there, Douglas, Grierson, Johnstone, Clavers: here, all mercy and love; there, the red dragoons, stained and besmeared with blood and with brains: here, the comforts, and fellowship, and affection of home and of kindred; there, the mountain solitude, the trembling refugee, the damp cave, and the bed of stone! Truly, God hath made man in innocence, but he hath found out many inventions, and, amongst others, the instruments of torture and of death—the bloody maiden—the accursed boots—and the thumbikin and torch, to twist and burn with anguish the writhing soul. And all this, for what? To convert the nation into a land of hypocrites—to stifle the dictates of conscience—to extinguish liberty, and establish despotism. But, tempora mutantur, thank God! it is otherwise now with the people of Scotland—and the sword of oppressive violence has been sheathed for ever.

It was night, it was twelve o’clock, and all was silence, save that, at intervals, the grating crave of the landrail or corncraik was heard, like some importunate creditor craving payment, from breath to breath, of his due. An image stood in the passage of the clay-built dwelling—it was not visible, but there was silence and a voice—it was a well-known voice. "Oh, my God, it is my brother!" Thus exclaimed Nanny Nivison, whilst she threw herself, naked as she was, into the arms of her long-lost and sore-lamented brother. The old woman was gradually aroused to a conception of what was going forward; but her spirit was troubled within her, and she groaned, whilst she articulated—"Beware, I pray ye! beware what ye’re doing!—Douglas is as near as Wigton with his band of murderers. They have shot the father—and they will not scruple to murder, by law or without law, the son. O sirs, I’m unco distressed to think o’ the danger which this unexpected visit must occasion!" Thomas Nivison had, indeed, sailed for America; but he had been shipwrecked on the Isle of Arran, not far from the coast of Ireland, and had lived for months with the fishermen, by assisting them in their labour. But hame is hame—

"Oh, hame, hame, hame, fain wad I be!
Oh, hame, hame, hame, to my ain countrie!"

So breathes, in perfect nature and simplicity, the old song, and so feels, amidst the bare rocks and stormy inlets of Arran, poor Thomas Nivison. And, for the sake of this humble home, this poor outlaw, upon whose head a price had been set, (as he had wounded, almost to death, one of his father’s murderers,) had run, and was now running, incalculable risks. Long ere daylight, Thomas Nivison had betaken himself to a hiding-place in the linns of Cree; but his visit had not escaped observation. A smuggler of brandy and tea from the Isle of Man, being engaged in what he denominated the free trade, chanced to mark his approach, and fled immediately with the news to Douglas at Wigton. The troop surrounded the house by break of day; but the bird was flown.

What a scene was exhibited in a few days, on this peaceful shore! Two women — the one old and scarcely able to support her head, and the other young, beautiful, but stripped down to the waist, and tied to a stake within flood-mark on the Frith of Cree; a guard of dragoons surrounding the spot, and an officer of rank riding, ever and anon, to the saddlegirths, into the swelling flood, and questioning. the poor sufferers very hard. But it was all in vain; Thomas Nivison was neither betrayed by sister nor by grandmother. In fact, they knew not, though they might have their suspicions, of his retreat. Can it be believed in the present times—and yet this is a fact attested by history as well as by tradition—that these two helpless and guiltless beings were permitted to perish, to be suffocated by inches and gulps amidst the tide! The poor old woman died first. Her stake was mercifully sunk farther into the stream. She died, however, speaking encouragement to her grandchild. "It will soon be over, Nanny— it will not last long—it will not be ill to bear—and there we shall be free"—looking up to heaven—"there, there is nothing to hurt or to destroy; and my father is there, Nanny; and my mother is there; and my son—oh, my poor murdered boy!—is there! and you and I will be there, and he too will soon, soon follow; but his blood be on the guilty, Nanny, and not on us! We will not shed one drop of it for all that man can give—for all that man can do—

‘For anything that man can do
I shall not be afraid.’"

These were the last words which she spoke, at least which were heard; for, in the beautiful language of Scripture, "she bowed her head and gave up the ghost." She was not drowned, but chilled to death. The case was different with youth, strength, and beauty. Again and again was the offer made to her, to spare her life, on condition of her betraying a brother. Nature pled hard for life and length of days; and one of the dragoons, more humane, or rather less brutal than the rest, was heard to exclaim—

"Oh, sir, she has said it—she has said it!"

"Said what?" responded Douglas, in a sharp voice.

"Has she said where her renegade brother is to be found?"

Hearing the question thus fearfully put, she exclaimed, in an agony— "Oh, no—no—no!—never—never! Let me go—let me go!"

"The waters wild
Came o’er the child "


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