It has generally been
supposed that the hero of Scottish history, Wallace, killed a greater
number of men with his single arm than any other of the fierce warriors
whom tortured Scotland produced in her labouring struggles for freedom.
Bruce has also been cited as a great executioner; and many other leaders
have been mentioned as carrying off the palm of individual death-dealing
prowess. The truth, however, would seem to be, that the greatest
destroyers of mankind, speaking of mere personal exertions, are more
likely to be found in veterans who have never risen above the ranks, than
in leaders, however daring; or, perhaps, with a still greater
approximation to the truth, in small skirmishing chiefs, whose character
of chieftainship requires to be sustained as well by individual example as
by wisdom in direction.
Of this last class, the
famous John Turnbull, commonly called, "Out-wyth-Swerd," who figured on
the Borders in the reign of Robert III., may perhaps be cited as the most
illustrious killer that ever figured in the shambles of war. He acquired
his ominous name from the consequences which generally followed the act it
expresses. His sword was of enormous length and weight, rivalling the
famous weapon of King Robert. It would seem that the proprietor of it
looked upon the instrument himself with a deep impression of its awful
character; for it was not until he was strongly roused that he would
consent to draw it; but once out, it was scarcely possible to get him to
consign it again to the scabbard. His fury calmed with a slowness and
difficulty proportioned to the tardiness of its excitement; and woe to the
Englishman on the Borders who came within the reach of his sword while it
lasted. These circumstances might have aided in the formation of his
strange title, by which he was well known in England, as well as Scotland,
where his memory was long cherished, and many stories told of his prowess.
On one occasion, Turnbull,
with a number of his followers, revenged some insult offered him by Sir
Thomas Gray, the governor of Wark Castle, by resorting thither when the
governor was absent, razing the fortress to the ground, and putting the
inhabitants to the sword. This exploit was one of those in which Turnbull
delighted that is, where there was a clean sweep, no stone left standing
on another, and no life saved to enable one survivor to carry the
melancholy tidings of the catastrophe to the friends of those who
perished. When Sir Thomas Gray heard of this daring and cruel act, he
resolved on following the dreaded chief, and executing, if possible, an
adequate revenge. To a certain extent he succeeded. A large body of
English soldiers surprised Turnbulls men in a haugh a little above
Yetholmand, in the absence of their chief who had gone secretly to visit
a neighbouring laird, put the greater number of them to the sword.
"It was Gods providence to
the knight," said those who heard of the defeat, "that Out-wyth-Swerd was
that day dining with Thomas Kerr of Yetholm; for a single hour of his
sword would have done the work of thirty years of destroying time, and
left neither Gray nor his men a living tongue to tell their defeat!"
Grays vengeance was not
glutted. Emboldened by his success, he offered to any man on the English
side of the Borders a purse of gold containing a hundred pieces for the
head of Turnbull. The bribe was not, however sufficient to overcome the
fear with which Out-wyth-Swerd had filled the hearts of the people. No one
living in those parts would undertake the task; and it was left for a
powerful man, called Thomas Bardolph, a soldier in Sir Thomas Umfravilles
regiment, lately arrived from the southern counties, to attempt an
achievement, the danger of which ignorance and avarice concealed from his
view, and great pride of unrivalled strength made him deprecate. He had
adopted an idea, that the Scottish people, of whom he was supremely
ignorant, would, from their supposed fondness of money, be induced to do
anything for lucre, and, making ita condition that one half of the
reward should be advanced to him on the security of his commander, (who
wished to befriend him,) to repay it in case of failure, a bargain was
struck with Sir Thomas Gray, who paid down the moiety of the cash; and
Bardolph, with the gold in his possession, crossed the Tweed to execute
He had not proceeded far,
when he came upon a stalwart gaberlunzie, lying extended at full length
upon the banks of the Tweed. He wore a long grey beard, which, with
whiskers of the same colour, covered the greatest part of his face,
leaving apparently only as much space as afforded room for a bold nose to
put forth its striking promontory, and two keen eyes to glance from under
his arched brow. His blue cloak was wrapped around himhis wallet lay
beside himand his long staff was stuck, by means of a pike in the end of
it, into the green sod, and stood like a soldiers halbert beside the
weary warrior. The idea at once struck Bardolph that a gaberlunzie was the
most eligible person he could meet for giving him information as to the
locality of Turnbulls resort, and the best means of getting within arms
length of him; all, as he thought, he required to insure him of his
"Good old man," began the
Englishman, "I presume from your years and your habits, you are well
acquainted with these parts, as well as the inhabitants of the Scottish
"I ken them baith maybe
owre weel," replied the beggar.
"Whereby, I suppose, you
mean," continued Bardolph, "that you have not got your reward from the
inhabitants of these districts. Sometimes strangers are our best friends,
and age borrows with most grace from youth. What is your name?"
replied the beggar; "wha doesna ken Carey the piper o Gretna, wha, in his
day, now nearly gane, has blawn mair spirit into the hearts o the dancing
damsels o the Borders, than a the stells o peat-reek i the country
ever infused into the breasts o Lowland topers?"
"I doubt not you have been
a merry fellow in your day," replied the Englishman, "and that day I hope
is not yet done. I have heard it stated, as a Scottish saying, that empty
bagpipes make an empty wallet. Why have you relinquished your calling?"
"A piper nae mair than a
sailor, has ony chance o earning a livelihood without wind," replied
Carey. "I blew till I blew awa my lungs; an it was time, I think, to blaw
awa my bagpipes when I was nae langer able to blaw them up. An ill-filled
bag, like an ill-filled wame, maks a waefu sound. But its an ill wind
that blaws naebody guid; the folk pity my short breath, and drap something
in my wallet to keep it in."
"Ive got a wallet, too,
good man," said the Englishman, taking out his purse, "and would have no
objection to transfer some of its contents into yours, provided I received
at your hands some adequate service."
"An what may that be?"
said the gaberlunzie.
"Know you John Turnbnll,
commonly called Out-wyth-Swerd?" said Bardolph.
"Brawly do I ken that
stouthrieving vagabond," answered the beggar. " See ye that mark owre my
"I do see a mark as of a
wound there," answered the Englishman.
"Ask that if it kens the
lang sword o the hame-sucking chief o the Turnbulls?" continued the
beggar. "I piped the frog cam to the mill door, to him an his gang, as
they cam frae the sacking o Wark Castle; an because I asked him fer
pipers fees, he laid open my brew for baith pains an pay."
"Then you are no friend of
his?" said the Englishman.
"Freend o your enemy!"
cried the beggar, laughing. "We ken little o these things on the Borders.
Freend to freend an fae to fae, is our watchword; but, alas! for age, Ihae nae pith to prove, far less to gratify my hatred."
"But if you had the power,"
said the Englishman, "have you knowledge enough of the place of his
retreat to enable you to come at him?"
"Does the auld wolf forget
the lair o the lamb he hasna power to kill?" cried the beggar. "He is
even now skulking frae Sir Thomas Gray; an weel ken I whar he lies. But
what signifies knowledge whar age has taen awa the power o using it."
"And if you knew that Sir
Thomas Gray would reward you," said the Englishman, "would you give
information to enable one to discover him?"
"Money an revenge are
powerfu when they work thegither," replied the beggar.
"How much would you take to
lead me to the lair of Turnbull?" asked Bardolph.
"Naething, sir," answered
the beggar, with spirit, "beyond a beggars fees. I hate bribery, but
winna reject an awmous. Follow me, an see if revenge in an auld man has
lost the scent o his enemy."
The gaberlunzie seized, as
he spoke, his long staff, and having thrown his wallet over his back,
strode on with long steps before the Englishman, who followed close
behind. They proceeded in this manner for about a furlong, when the beggar
turned quickly into a thicket, and beckoned Bardolph to follow him,
making, at same time, signs to walk softly and with as little noise as
possible. The conductor now walked very slowly, and with great
circumspection, standing at times to look around him, and to listen if he
heard any sounds. They came at last to an open space in the thickets, in
the form of an amphitheatre, covered with a fine sward, and surrounded
with trees and bushes in such a manner as to present the appearance of
"Now, sir," said the
beggar, throwing off his cloak, and rugging off, in an instant, with his
left hand, his beard, while he clutched with his right an immense sword,
which he had drawn from his cloak"Behold John Turnbull, commonly called
Out-wyth-Swerd. He resigns himself entirely to your most unqualified
service, and begs to know what are your commands."
"You shall soon know my
errand," replied Bardolph, unsheathing his sword, as his courage revived.
"I have two objects in view; first, to pay you the alms I promised you;
and, secondly, to take home with me that head, whose lying tongue has
deceived me to my advantage. There is agold piece for you!"
"You will better keep the
siller thegither, sir," replied Turnbull, smiling. "Its needless to mak
twa bites o a cherry, as they say in our country. Ill get a in guid
time. As for my head, I can carry it mair easily on my shoulders than you
can do in your hands; but an auld piper has little breath to spend on
useless speech; for fechting, as weel as piping, needs wind. Come on."
The battle did not last
more than a few minutes. The fatal sword did its work in its accustomed
time; one stroke severed the Englishmans head from his body. Turnbull
quietly resumed his disguise, and put into his wallet the purse containing
the half of the price of his head.
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