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Wilson's Border Tales
The Monks of Dryburgh


These worthies were celebrated for "guid kail;" but they were no less remarkable for their ingenuity in directing the wealth of their neighbours and dependents into their own coffers.

In common with others of their profession, they assailed the deathbeds of the wealthy, and persuaded the dying sinner that he had no chance of Heaven, unless he came handsomely down for their holy brotherhood before his departure.

They were thus constantly on the alert when the death of a person in good circumstances was reported to be at hand. This intelligence no sooner reached them—and they were always well informed on such subjects—than they hastened to the couch of the dying person, at once to prepare him, by spiritual discourse, for the approaching change, and to secure what they could of the sinner’s temporal possessions in return.

It was for such purposes as these that two of the brethren of Dryburgh set out, one day, in great haste, to visit the old Laird of Meldrum, whom, they had been informed, was suddenly brought to the point of death; and the information was but too true—for the old man had not only arrived at the point of death, but had passed it, and that ere they came. In other words, the laird was dead when they arrived, and their services, of course, no longer required.

This was a dreadful disappointment to the holy men; for they had reckoned on making an excellent thing of the job, as the laird had been long in their eye, and had been carefully trained up for the finale of a handsome bequest.

It was with long faces, therefore, and woful looks, that the monks returned to their monastery, and reported the unlucky accident of the laird’s having slipped away before they had had time to make anything of him in his last moments. The disappointment was felt by all to be a grievous one for the laird had been confidently reckoned upon as sure game. While in this state of mortification, a bright idea occurred to one of the brethren, and he mentioned it to the rest, by whom it was highly approved of.

This idea was to conceal the laird’s death for a time, to remove his body out of the way, and to procure some one to occupy his bed, and pass for the laird in a dying state; then to procure a notary and witnesses; having previously instructed the laird’s representative how to conduct himself—that is, to bequeath all his property to the monastery; this done, the living man to be secretly conveyed away, the dead one restored to his place again, and his death publicly announced.

This ingenious scheme of the monk met with universal approbation, and it was determined that it should be instantly acted upon.

Fortunately, so far, for the monks, there was a poor man, a small farmer in the neighbourhood, of the name of Thomas Dickson, who bore a singularly strong personal resemblance to the deceased—a circumstance which at once pointed him out as the fittest person to act the required part. This person was, accordingly, immediately waited upon, the matter explained to him, and a handsome gratuity offered him for his services.

"A bargain be’t," said Thomas, when the terms were proposed to him; "never ye fear me. If I dinna mak a guid job o’t, blame me. I kent the laird weel, and can come as near him in speech as I’m said to do in person."

The monks, satisfied with Thomas’s assurances of fidelity, proceeded with their design; and, when everything was prepared—the laird’s body removed out of the way, Thomas extended on his bed, and the curtains closely drawn round him—they introduced the notary, to take down the old man’s testament, (having previously intimated to the former that he was required by the latter for that purpose,) and four witnesses to attest the facts that were about to be exhibited.

Everything being in readiness—the lawyer with pen in hand, and the witnesses in the attitude of profound attention—one of the monks intimated to the dying man that he might now proceed to dictate his will.

"Very well," replied the latter, in a feeble, tremulous tone. "Hear me, then, good folks a’. I bequeath to honest Tammas Dickson, wham I hae lang respeckit for his worth, and pitied for his straits, the hail o’ my movable guids and lyin’ money. Put doon that." And down that accordingly went. But, if the house had flown into the air with them, or the ghosts of their great-grandfathers had appeared before them, the monks could not have expressed more amazement or consternation than they did, at finding themselves thus so fairly outwitted, by the superior genius of the canny farmer. They dared not, however, breathe a word of remonstrance, nor take the smallest notice of the trick that was about being played them; for their own character was at stake in the transaction, and the least intimation of their design on the laird’s property would have exposed them to public infamy—and this Thomas well knew. It was in vain, therefore, that they edged round towards the bed—concealing, however, their movements from those present—and squeezed and pinched the dying laird. He was not to be so driven from his purpose. On he went, bequeathing first one thing and then another, to his honest friend, Thomas Dickson, till Thomas was fairly put in possession of everything the laird had worth bequeathing. Some trifles, indeed, he had the prudence and discretion to bestow upon the monks of Dryburgh; but trifles they were, truly, when compared to the valuable legacy he left to himself.

When the dying laird had disposed of everything he had, the scene closed. The discomfited monks returned to their monastery—the notary and the witnesses departed—and Thomas Dickson, in due time, stepped into a comfortable living, and defined the monks of Dryburgh, on the peril of their good name even to dare to hint how he had come by it.


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