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Wilson's Border Tales
The Siege of Cocklaws


Cocklaws, a small insignificant Border tower, which reared its little armed battlements in proud perching majesty, about the time of the regency of the deceitful Albany, was, as is pretty well known, the scene of a siege, memorable for the object with which it was undertaken, and not less so for the ludicrous circumstances with which it was attended.

This warlike bantam, so appropriately termed Cocklaws, was owned by John Greenlaw, a person not unlike, in his physical attributes, to the little tower of which he was proprietor. He was a man about five feet in height, with gray eyes, which had a peculiar fiery brilliancy, indicative of the spirit with which he was endowed. Active and nimble, he was as restless as an imprisoned popinjay, and did not fail to escape from the small tower which he called the seat of his strength, to imitate the great robbers of the time, in making free with the property of his neighbours, under the shade of the disorders which prevailed at that unhappy period.

Though small and insignificant in his person, Greenlaw considered himself a very powerful man, and nothing annoyed him more than being neglected as a person whom it was beneath the dignity of elevated revenge to chastise. His excursions were like those of a hornet. He did little execution, but made a great noise. His tower was so insignificant, that he had nowhere to put his spoil, even when it was secured; but this did not prevent him from exercising eternal "herschips," all around him, not, indeed, to any extent sufficient to draw upon him the attention of the great, but still sufficient to goad, while there was no power to destroy. Nothing, however, would have given the Laird of Cocklaws greater pleasure, than to have seen the Earl of Douglas, or some such great personage, stoop to notice his aggressions. He laboured incessantly to be thought a great Border raider, but found himself still classed among the insignificant herd of petty depredators.

He did not fail to make himself well known, for his clever, fiery bickerings, and pertinacious excursions, carried his name everywhere, but his fame nowhere. His ambition to be thought a great "king of the foray," was notorious;—the common people smiled at his weak and innocuous vanity, while the great barons looked upon him as a bumming wasp, which, though a little annoying, did not deserve to be killed by the honourable arm of a knight. Occasionally, he was honoured with a hearty chastisement from some of the common people, when he ventured to meddle with their property; but when this happened, he saved his honour, by pretending that the proprietor of Cocklaws considered it beneath him to give battle to a person who could not even boast of being a simple esquire.

Occasionally he made an attack upon the castles of the great barons; but he did this merely to gain a character, and to keep up his self-deception of being a great Border warrior. It was seldom that much attention was paid to his skirmishes; it was sufficient that the attack was made by Greenlaw; and if any fears were entertained that he might terrify the women, it was only necessary to send out a few men, who very seldom had much trouble in making the little warrior retire, which he generally did with the nimblest celerity, giving out as his apology, that if the baron did not choose to head his men, he could not expect a fair battle from Cocklaws.

Like other little men, Cocklaws had a large wife, she was the very opposite, in every respect, to her husband—a fat, gaucy, good-humored Englishwoman, who looked upon the warlike bantam, with whom she was mated, when very young, by the command of her father, with the determination to be amused with what she could not get rid of. When he came in from his forays, he generally made a tremendous clamour for refreshment, stating, that the soldier was surely worthy of his hire, and that, if he devoted himself to the hardships and dangers of war, she might, at least, contribute to assuage, in so far as lay in her power, the pains and sufferings of the warrior, when he returned to his castle. The lady was, by no means, awanting in attention to her domestic duties, and knew that her husband had recourse to these compliments, to make him appear, in her eyes, a person of importance in the country, who drained his blood and exhausted his strength in Border warfare.

The good-natured lady heard these murrnurings with the greatest good humour, and contrived to extract from the foibles of a person, who had no other qualities calculated to give her any satisfaction, as much amusement as she could. He had seldom any wounds to show, except occasionally a puncture with a lance or sword in the back; and when such required to be dressed by his wife, her operation was always accompanied by expressions of admiration on her part of the extent of the injury, and of the fortitude with which he could bear it; and, by long apologies by him, as to the locality of the wound, mixed up with big curses against the white livered caitives, who would not fight a man face to face, but basely got behind him and wounded him, while he was engaged in dealing out death against his enemies in front.

Sometimes she complimented him on the success of exploits which she knew had turned out unfortunate; and then, with the greatest adroitness, she would make an allusion to the tower which, she supposed, owed its safety entirely to the terror of his name. This was a very sensitive point with Cocklaws. He could get no one to attack his stronghold. It was so insignificant a turret, that no person would be at the pains to carry a mangonell to batter it to the earth; and then, like all the rest of these small erections, it could easily defy the force of ordinary arms. Nobody meddled with it, while the laird’s depredations were confined to his mock system of noisy innocuous warfare. The lady adroitly found a cause for this in the terror of his name. He allowed her to retain this idea, which, indeed, had been suggested by himself; but he secretly wished for nothing more ardently than an attack, not that he courted an opportunity to fight in a serious deadly way, but that he might derive some eclat and status, from his place being considered worthy of that notice, and have an opportunity of shewing his wife that, though a small man, he was possessed of the mettle of a great warrior.

His boastings were in proportion to his ambition of being considered brave and terrible. He was particularly fond of having a hit at the English; not that he wished to oppose himself to the Lady of Cocklaws, an Englishwoman, in whose eyes, like every well-disposed husband, he wished to appear deserving of her affection; but he depreciated the neighbouring nation, because he might thereby have an opportunity of forming a contrast—he being the representative of one of the contrasted parties. He could see no merit in Percy or Owen Glendower, or even in Henry of Lancaster himself, and dared his wife to shew where it lay.

"There’s naething I wish mair fervently," said he, "than to hae a tourney wi’ some o’ thae Southerns; and mair especially wi’ that brainwud cratur, Harry Percy, whom they ca’ Hotspur. He wadna escape the point o’ my lance, as he did Douglas’s at Otterbourne; and I canna but think it was a sad disgrace to oor nation, that they allooed him the advantage he got at Homildon-hill. If the Regent had called upon me at my castle, and offered me fair terms, or even if he had graciously asked the assistance o’ the representative o’ the ancient famIly o’ Greenlaw o’ Cocklaws, I micht hae been prevailed upon to gin them the benefit o’ a day’s wark o’ my airm; but, I suppose Albany was afraid I micht acquire owre muckle power, by shewin’ the contrast between me and other men, and prudently did without me. But hoo did he do? He got a’ his army pierced wi’ the cloth-yard shafts o’ England. Hoo foolish people are, to sacrifice themsels to illiberal suspicions! I wadna hae made a bad use o’ my superiority. A’ I micht hae asked, wad hae been to mak me a knicht, Sir John Greenlaw o’ Cocklaws. I may yet hae an opportunity o’ measuring arms wi’ Percy; or, may be, that renegade March, wha has sauld his country to the ungratefu’ Lancaster."

"It is very extraordinary," said the Lady of Cocklaws, "that, in all these Border feuds, neither English nor Scots shew themselves before our castle. It’s very honourable to your courage, and the character of your powers of defence; yet, my dear Cocklaws, I doubt much if, with all the superiority of your warlike qualities you could stand out against the armies of my countrymen. I mean, of course, if they were very numerous."

"Let them be as numerous as locusts," cried Cocklaws—"ay the motes that dance i’ the noonday sun; I an’ my auld castle wud be a match for them a’. What! woman, is that a’ your boasted sense, is that a’ the knowledge ye hae o’ yer husband, is that a’ the respect ye hae for the blaid o’ the Cocklaws, an’ the honour o’ Scotland? Let Percy and Douglas try their hand at opening the door o’ the castle o’ Cocklaws. Stane and lime, though put thegither as firmly as in the castle o’ Jedburgh, are naething without the saul within. Nae castle could be stormed wi’ me in’. It’s impossible, my Lady Cocklaws. Our faces ken that too, or why have they no tried their mangonells on my towers lang ere this? They’ve mair sense. Percy winna face me, I warrant him."

Some days after this conversation, in which Lady Cocklaws yielded a dutiful assent, her only object in opposing her husband being merely to draw him out for her own humour, a messenger came running up to the tower in breathless haste, and said, that the whole English army was marching to besiege Cocklaws. The lady smiled at the intelligence, thinking it was some device of her husband to produce a fear which he would have the merit of contrasting, with his coldness and courage. She observed in Cocklaws, however, no indication of a previous knowledge of the fact; and his manner, which exhibited more solicitude than ordinary, rather falsified her suspicions. Her doubts were soon put an end to by the appearance of the army before the tower. The whole English troops seemed to have collected at that spot. The number seemed equal to the taking of all Scotland. What did they mean by directing the strength of an elephant in crushing a gnat? The matter seemed incomprehensible to the lady, and even Cocklaws himself could not conceal that he thought there was some chance of his being obliged to succumb. While hesitating what step to take, a messenger delivered to him a message from the regent Albany, to hold out until succours were sent him, which would be soon; and Cocklaws’ men thought that all the indifference with which he had been formerly treated was to be made up by the immense accumulation of honour now heaped upon him.

"What are you going to do, Cocklaws?" inquired his lady.

"Fecht them to be sure, sae lang as there’s a drap o’ bluid in the kame o’ our cock’s crest," answered the little warrior. "The Regent Albany has sent me a confidential message, desiring me to hauld out as lang as I can. My castle is to be the bane o’ contention between the twa kingdoms. Cocklaws will decide the strife. Percy and Albany will shake hands owre my table, an’ I canna fail to be knighted by them baith."

This communication appeared to the lady more remarkable still. There must be some humour in the case she thought. The Duke of Albany write to Cocklaws to oppose his cockle-shell of a castle to the army of England! The thing appeared so utterly absurd, that, were it not verified by the absolute presence of Hotspur and Douglas, with their army sitting before the tower like a swarm of locusts, about to attack a single stalk of barley, she would at once have set it down to the credit of her husband’s ingenuity in devising modes of enhancing his warlike character. The supposition of an attempt to turn her husband’s weakness to account of frolic or amusement, was as much out of the question as the seriousness of the intended attack. Armies are often collected, marched for hundreds of miles, and supported by food snatched from the hungry mouths of the inhabitants of an enemy’s country, often to please the whim, or humour the caprice of an absolute monarch; but so much trouble is seldom taken to make a conquest of a little fun or merriment, at the expense of so insignificant a being as Cocklaws. This supposition appeared to the lady equally hostile to reason and common sense. What other supposition could she imagine? There was none. The affair was beyond the wits of a woman to understand, and she therefore trusted to the chapter of consequences for an explanation. She continued to watch the motions of the army from the loop-hole adjacent to her bed-room.

The English proceeded to make preparation for attacking the little march tower. The hero of Homildon Hill sent his herald to blow his horn, almost sufficient to blow the cockle-shell to pieces, and demand the master of Cocklaws to surrender his tower to the arms of Henry of Lancaster, King of England. This extraordinary announcement greeted the ears of the lady, and she listened to hear the answer that would be given by her husband. Cocklaws, who placed himself in such a position as his wife could have no difficulty in hearing him, and perched upon one of the little jutting lateral turrets of the fortification, like a jack-daw on an old chimney top, cried out, in the affected and jaunty tone of a true knight—

"Gae and tell your master, Percy, commonly called Hotspur, to tell Henry o’ Lancaster, wha sits on a throne that belangs to Richard the Second, and to which he has nae mair richt than I hae to the throne o’ Scotland—or maybe less, if the pedigree o’ the Cocklaws were traced—that the laird and governor o’ Cocklaws has nae intention o’ desertin’ his country, his wife, his castle, or his honour, an’ that he will defend them a’ wi’ the last drap o’ the bluid that can be wrung frae the cock’s kame o’ his auncient crest."

"Bravo, Cocklaws!’ cried the herald, unable to retain the severe and serious tone of his office, while the good lady sat smiling through the loophole—"This is a right noble speech," thought she, "and worthy of a better cause. That immense army surely cannot seriously intend to injure us, and our small fortified hut. The nobility of the lion disdains the small victims of humbler animals. Hotspur and Cocklaws! Such a combination of sounds! Sure1y there can be no intention of an attack."

The lady’s thoughts deceived her. In a short time, every preparation seemed making for a serious attack. The castle of Jedburgh itself could not have been the object of more serious displays of hostility. There was, in the first place, hurled up opposite the tower, a number of these fierce looking engines, more terrible in their aspect than the catapultas and battering-rams of Roman celebrity, called trebuchets and mangonells. It seemed as if one stroke of these engines would be enough for the destruction of the turret; and the disproportion between the numbers of the besieging army, and the few men contained in the fortified place was not greater than that between these engines of destruction and the thing to be destroyed.

The ambition of Cocklaws was now about to be gratified. He looked down upon the terrible display of power with the highest pride. "Nae wonder," he said, "that my stronghold has been sae lang o’ gettin’ a visit. It cost nae sma’ pains to bring thae engines to Cocklaws. I suppose they hae been made on purpose. The English hae at last been obliged to acknowledge my importance; and I only wonder they did not try to conciliate me by bribes and promises, and thereby endeavour to get me to gie up my allegiance, and carry owre my knowledge and experience o’ war, wi’ my extraordinary courage, to mak up the deficiency o’ the renegade March, and cast the balance o’ war in favour o’ England. But they hae judged better o’ their man. They kenned I wadna surrender, and sae they hae prepared this immense array o’ unwieldy engines, ignorant that they want the saul that animates my castle."

The engines having been erected, the army approached, and the twang of the cloth shafts leaving the cords, and the booming of the engines upon the wall, announced the beginning of the attack. Cocklaws was upon the tower, in the midst of his men, exhibiting the courage of a terrier, in attacking a bull. He let fly his arrows at the English, and made a noise in crying and bellowing to his adherents which was intended to reach the ears of his wife, whom he visited at intervals, with a view to keep up her courage, saying, "We shall beat them a’, Marjory, my dear. They will soon see the man they hae to deal wi’, if they haena already felt the force o’ my arrows."

The noise increased; and there appeared, both without and within, all the haste and confusion of a regular siege. The lady, however, was astonished to find that the battering of the engines produced no effect on the walls, and the arrows and missiles killed none of the besieged. Her astonishment increased, when, in a little time, the battering ceased—the army, deserting the attack, fell back—and the siege seemed for a time, at least, to be abandoned. The moment this occurred, Cocklaws ran to his wife, exclaiming—"Noo, ye see, my love, the effecks o’ true courage. Thae men, wi’ their steel jackets, their braw armour, their trebuchets, an’ batterin-rams, want heart. Ae perfeck warrior, wi’ the assistance o’ a handfu’ o’ men, has put to the rout the hail army o’ England.—I wunner if they’ll try me again."

"I think they will better let you alone, Cocklaws," replied the lady, whose astonishment was still unabated. "How many have you killed do you think?"

"I couldna count them--they were sae numerous," replied Cocklaws. "I saw them fa’in’ either in death or fright on ilka side, as thick as sparrows peppered wi’ sparrow hail. I wunner if Albany will mak me a lord, without stoppin’ at the knight?"

The next day the attack was renewed with the same display of power. The farce of the previous day was repeated. A battering was kept up for a time—a number of arrows discharged, and then a recession, the very same as the day before. Cocklaws’ pride waxed stronger and stronger. He was already, in imagination, Lord Cocklaws!

In the evening, the herald’s trumpet sounded a parley; and a request was made that Cocklaws would allow Hotapur and Douglas to visit him in the tower, with a view to adjust terms of peace. The request was admitted; and the proud governor waited the arrival of his humbled enemies.

The parties arrived, and, along with them, the Duke of Albany, Regent of Scotland. Cocklaws received them with the condescension and kindness that was due to brave men whom he had beaten.

After the warriors had taken seats, the conqueror conceived that it was incumbent upon him to shew the expected generosity of the lion. It was, he thought, a noble opportunity for a display of that feeling which, from the days of Alexander and Caesar, had been exhibited in the hour of triumph and victory, by all conquerors, to the victims of their arms. He thought he saw, in the bright eye of Albany, a lurking request of forgiveness and pity towards the heads of the besieging army; and he did not hesitate to give the Regent as much encouragement on this delicate subject as he considered consistent with the dignity of his character, and the peculiarity of the position in which he stood. The Regent of Scotland was one individual—doubtless a great one—seeing he had the power of making, as he no doubt would, John Greenlaw Lord Cocklaws; but the respect due to a person having so much authority must, he saw, be tempered, at least, in the presence of those whom he had conquered, as any improper display of it would at once lower his dignity and depreciate the boon of mercy he intended to vouchsafe to them. After looking, therefore, to Albany with a condescending kindness, enough to shew, that, while he would grant his request of mercy and forgiveness, he would only do it on condition of its being appropriately and humbly solicited; he turned his little twinkling orbs on Hotspur and Douglas, with just enough of fire and fury to shew them that he had not altogether forgotten the insult which they had offered and he had chastised; and to impress upon their minds a recollection of his extraordinary character, and a memory of the warlike energies which had overcome them, and which they were soon to set changed for the placable indications of a kind and forgiving spirit.

While these thoughts were passing through the mind of Cocklaws, very different were the cogitations of his visiters. Albany was unfolding a paper; and the three greatest men of their time were, with grave faces and serious thought; whispering some important things to each other, which they did not wish Cocklaws to hear. As they were not in any flurry to leave off these rather unpolite indications, Cocklaws attributed their conduct to irresolution and delicacy in presuming to approach the subject of their errand. He therefore thought himself bound to assist their bashfulness; and, rising from his chair, he said, with much show of condescension—"My Lords—Dinna think I’m unable to appreciate the feelins wi’ which yer noble breasts are nae doot at present filled. He wha fechts best can best forgie; an’ there’s nane sae guid at askin’ as he wha has experienced the pleasure o’ grantin’. I hae na wish that ye should think I’m incapable, in the hour o’ victory, an’ in the exultation o’ triumph, o’ feelin’ for the situation o’ my enemies, wham the fortune war has put in my power. Though I, mysel, am ignorant o’ what it is to be beaten, I can easily conceive that the situation is far frae bein’ pleasant; an’ it’s no my wish to mak it mair disagreeable than ye already seem to feel it. Ye need, therefore, hae nae hesitation or fear in tellin’ me yer minds. Cocklaws’ bark is waur than his bite; and ye already ken the sound o’ the ane as weel as the force o’ the ither."

On hearing this speech, Hotspur was clearly inclined to carry on the joke; and was actually, according to his rapid manner, about to throw himself at Cocklaws’ feet to ask for mercy, when the grave and austere Albany, having seized him by the arm, and whispered something which made him desist, proceeded to accost Cocklaws, as follows:—

"Cocklaws," said he, "your good sense will tell you that the English have not been serious in this attack upon your castle. One proper blow of one of these mangonells would shatter this tower to atoms. The object of this sham siege is, to make Henry of England believe, that his Generals, Hotspur and Douglas, have seriously attacked Scotland, while they, with my co-operation, and we being all friends, have a very different object in view. As my subject, then, I request of you to sign this treaty, whereby you promise, unless relieved by me within six weeks, to surrender your tower to the English. We will explain to you, afterwards, our intentions more fully; and I shall take care to reward you for the part you have already played."

The request of a sovereign cannot be denied. The thunder-struck Cocklaws signed the treaty, and the Generals departed. He afterwards heard, what became known to the world, that this farce was acted, with a view to blind Henry, King of England, and to operate as a cover for the rebellion which soon broke out in the north of England, and which ended in the famous battle of Hartlefield, where Percy was slain. It has generally been supposed that Cocklaws should have been knighted, but, Albany, when the subject was mentioned to him, expressed his displeasure at being put in mind of a circumstance which was, in the end, unfavourable to Scotland.


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