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Wilson's Border Tales
John Turnbull


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 Turnbull’s men in a haugh a little above Yetholm—and, 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 God’s 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!"

Gray’s 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 Umfraville’s 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 it a 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 his design.

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 him—his wallet lay beside him—and his long staff was stuck, by means of a pike in the end of it, into the green sod, and stood like a soldier’s 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 Turnbull’s resort, and the best means of getting within arms’ length of him; all, as he thought, he required to insure him of his reward.

"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 Borders."

"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?"

"Carey Haggerstone," 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 it’s an ill wind that blaws naebody guid; the folk pity my short breath, and drap something in my wallet to keep it in."

"I’ve 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 richt ee?"

"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 piper’s 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, I hae 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 beggar’s 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 great seclusion.

"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 a gold piece for you!"

"You will better keep the siller thegither, sir," replied Turnbull, smiling. "It’s needless to mak twa bites o’ a cherry, as they say in our country. I’ll 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 Englishman’s 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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