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Wilson's Border Tales
Polwarth on the Green


Peradventure there are few of our readers who have not heard of "Polwarth on the Green" and the "Polwarth Thorn." The song bearing the former title is certainly founded upon one of the most popular traditions on the Borders. Since the commencement of this publication, we have been many times requested to write a tale upon the subject, and not less than thrice from different quarters within the last seven days; and, as we are at all times anxious to meet the wishes of our readers, we shall now endeavour to fulfil the request which has been made to us.

There are none to whom the traditions of other days are not interesting. They save from oblivion the memory, the deeds, and the manners of our fathers. No nation is so sunk in barbarity as to disregard them: the civilized European, and the Indian savage, alike cherish them; and the poets of every land have wed them with song. Yet nowhere are traditions more general or more interesting than upon the Borders. Every grey ruin has its tale of wonder and of war. The solitary cairn on the hillside, speaks of one who died for religion, or for liberty, or belike for both. The very schoolboy passes it with reverence, and can tell the history of him whose memory it perpetuates. The hill on which it stands, is a monument of daring deeds, where the sword was raised against oppression and where heroes sleep. Every castle hath its legends, its tales of terror and of blood, "of goblin, ghost, or fairy." The mountain glen, too, hath its records of love and war—there history has let fall its romantic fragments, and the hills enclose them. The forest trees whisper of the past; and, beneath the shadow of their branches, the silent spirit of other years seems to sleep. The ancient cottage, also, hath its traditions, and recounts

"The short and simple annals of the poor."

Every family hath its legends, which record to posterity the actions of their ancestors, when the sword was law, and even the payment of rent upon the Borders was a thing which no man understood; but, as Sir Walter Scott saith, "all that the landlord could gain from those residing upon his estate, was their personal service in battle, their assistance in labouring the land retained in his natural possession, some petty quit-rents of a nature resembling the feudal casualties, and perhaps a share in the spoil which they acquired by rapine." Many of those traditions are calculated to melt the maiden’s heart, to fill age with enthusiasm, and youth with love of country.—But to our story.

In the year 1470, John Sinclair of Herdmanstone, in East Lothian, who was also Lord of Kimmerghame and Polwarth, dying without male issue, the estate of Kimmerghame descended to his daughter Marion, and that of Polwarth to her sister Margaret. His heir-male was his brother, Sir William Sinclair, to whom the estate of Herdmanstone fell. Sir William, as the uncle of the co-heiresses, though not appointed as their guardian by their father, for they were both well nigh of woman’s estate when he died, craftily took upon himself that duty. He whispered to them that their estates were not managed as they ought to be—that their bondmen did not perform the duty required of them—that those they had set over their estates as stewards, did not render them a faithful account of their stewardship. He insinuated a thousand suspicions into their young minds, until their affairs gradually fell into his hands, and he at length succeeded in gaining the entire management of their estates; and he now required only to have the disposal of their personal freedom. Men of power in those days were not very scrupulous as to the means which they employed to obtain their object; he who had a score of retainers, weighed the scales of life and death in his hands. Nevertheless aware of the rank which his nieces held in the estimation of his country, Sir William knew that it would not be safe to venture upon making them prisoners by open violence. He, therefore, courteously invited them to his house at Herdmanstone, where he stated that the gayest and proudest company in broad Scotland would be present to delight them. Marion, who was fond of amusements, was overjoyed at the invitation; but her sister Margaret, who was of a graver disposition, said—

"Well, sister, I like not your uncle’s kindness—something sinful seems to laugh in his looks; the very movement of his lips bespeaks more than it reveals; confide in me, dear sister, and distrust him. When I was but a child, playing round our mother’s knee, I have heard her say unto my father—‘Ah, John! I like not your brother; there is a cunning in his looks, in his very words; he cannot meet you with the straightforward gaze of an honest man; and methinks he looks upon me as though he distrusted and hated me; yea, I have often thought as though he were plotting evil against me.’ So our mother was wont to say; and our father would reply— ‘Dear Elizabeth, think not so cruelly of one who is so near and dear to me; trust me, that he loves you and yours.’ ‘It may be so,’ she would reply, ‘but there is that in his manner which I cannot overcome.’ Then our father would remain silent for a time, and add—Well, there is a want of frankness in Sir William which becomes not a brother.’"

"Lull your suspicions, my demure sister," the light-hearted Marion replied; "a thousand times have I heard him say that no one but the boldest baron in all Scotland should wed his niece, Marion."

"And he said truly," replied Margaret; "for if he have us once within his power, not even the boldest knight in Scotland will be able to receive our hands, unless he sue for it with gallant bowmen at his back, and the unsheathed sword to enforce his suit."

"Oh, then, sister," subjoined Marion, "I suppose you have a knight at hand who would delight in such handiwork; for is not Sir Patrick Hume of Wedderburn reputed to be the most valorous knight upon the Borders, and withal the humble worshipper of fair Margaret Sinclair of Polwarth."

And as the maiden spoke she laughed, and tapped her sister good-naturedly upon the cheek. Margaret blushed, and playfully replied—"Well, sister, is there no valorous knight at Wedderburn but Sir Patrick? What think ye of George Hume?"

"No more of this," cried Marion; "let us accept our uncle’s invitation, and mingle with the gay company he has invited to meet us."

"If you will have it so, let it be so," replied Margaret; "but trust me, I fear that good will not come of it."

On the following day they set out upon their journey towards Herdmanstone, accompanied with only two men-servants. Their uncle received them with a show of cordial friendship; but the guests whom they expected to meet, they saw not, and they had been but a few minutes beneath his roof, when they found themselves prisoners, secured by gratings, bolts, and bars. On discovering the situation into which they had been entrapped, Marion wept aloud, and accused herself of being the unwitting author of her sister’s captivity.

"Fear not," said Margaret; "our uncle is a stern man, he is a man of blood, but there are as strong hands as his, that will be raised to deliver the sisters of Kimmerghame and Polwarth, when their captivity becomes known."

"But how will it be known?" asked Marion; "for who knows that we are here?"

"Let us trust to Him who is the orphan’s father," replied her sister, "and leave all to His good providence."

"Amen," said the other; but she sobbed bitterly as she spoke.

On the second day of their imprisonment, their uncle entered the apartment where they were confined.

"Weel, maidens," said he sternly, "how like ye your abode at Herdmanstone? I have observed the slightfu’ een with which baith o’ you have looked upon your uncle, and now that ye are in my power, ye shall repent the airs o’ disdain that ye hae taken upon you. It becomes nae the blood o’ Polwarths to assume a superiority over the house o’ Sinclair. So choose ye—there are twa cousins who are not very auld, but they’re growing; ye shall hae yer choice to marry them, or the deepest dungeon in Herdmanstone shall be your doom. Your destiny is placed in your own hands—decide it as will; but remember that it is a Sinclair that never broke his word, that wags the finger o’ fate over your heads. Eight days! eight days! Remember!" he repeated, and left them.

"Now, you will despise me, Margaret," said Marion, "for my maiden ambition has led us into this trouble, yet will I rather be an inmate in our uncle’s dungeon, than be the wife of the boy-husband he would assign me. Sister, will you not upbraid me?"

"Upbraid you?" said the calm and gentle Margaret, "stern as is our uncle, deadly as is his wrath, I fear him not. The other day you spoke to me jeeringly of Sir Patrick Hume—in the same strain I answered you respecting his brother George. Eight days will not pass until Sir Patrick miss me from Polwarth, and powerful as my uncle may be, bold and desperate as he is, I know that one stone of Herdmanstone Castle will not be left standing upon another till we are freed."

"You have a brave heart, sister," said Marion, ‘but it is small comfort to me, who must look upon myself as the author of this disaster. And how think ye that Sir Patrick or his brother George (if ye will speak o’ him) are to hear of our confinement? Wot ye not, that they know not where we are; or if they should know, they will not apprehend that evil could befal us in the house of our relative!"

"I believe, Marion," answered Margaret, "that within the eight days which our uncle has named, we shall either be at liberty, or have ceased to live. It is our lives that he seeks, not that we should be the wives of his sons; rather than be so wed, I will die—so will you. But, if we should die, our deaths would not be unavenged. He would neither enjoy our estates, nor the triumph of his guilt. Ye have heard the names of Patrick and George Hume of Wedderburn spoken of as sounds of terror upon the Borders —their swords have avenged the injured, and released the captive Marion! they will avenge our wrongs—dear sister, be not afraid."

It was about daybreak on the fourth day after their imprisonment, that a musician, who played upon the Union or Northumbrian pipe of those days, approached beneath the window of their apartment, and softly playing an air, accompanied it with his voice, as follows:—

My heart is divided between them,
I dinna ken which I wad hae;
Right willing my heart I wad gie them—
But how can I gie it to twa?
There’s Meggy, a fairer or better
I’m certain there couldna weel be;
Dumfounder’d the first time I met her,
What was sweet Marion to me!

Yet Marion is gentle and bonny,
I liked her ere Meggy I saw,
And they say it is sinfv.’ for ony
Man upon earth to like twa,
My heart it is rugg’d and tormented,
I’d live wi’ or die for them baith;
I’ve dune what I’ve often repented,
To baith I have plighted my faith.

And oft when I’m walking with Meggy,
I’ll say "Dear Marion," and start;
While fearfu’ she’ll say, "Weel, I ken ye
Hae ithers mair dear to your heart."
Was ever a man sae confounded?
I dinna ken what will be dune.
Baith sides o’ my bosom are wounded,
And they’ll be the death o’ me sune.

"Hark!" said Marion, as she listened to the strain of the minstrel, "it is the song of the Egyptian thief, Johnny Faa, Mind ye since he sang it beneath our window at Kimmerghame?"

"I remember it weel," replied Margaret; "but dinna call him thief, sister; for, be Johnny a king or no a king, he is one that King James is glad to lift his bonnet to; and I am sure that he means weel to us at present. Wheesht ye, Marion, and I will whisper to him a low chaunt over the window." And in a low voice, she sung—

Oh, saw ye my laddie comin’, Johnny?
Oh, saw ye my laddie comin’?
If ye’ve no seen him, tell him frae me,
That I’m a wofu woman.
We here are sisters twa, Johnny,
Confined within this tower;
And ilka time the sun gaes down
It points to our death hour.

"I heard it rumoured, gentle maiden," said the gipsy, gazing eagerly towards the window from whence they looked, "that no good was intended ye in this place; and though it be not in the power of Johnny Faa to bring to ye the assistance of his own men, yet it strikes me there is ane, if no twa, maidens, that I could bring to your rescue, and that wad make a clap o’ thunder wring through the deepest cell in Herdmanstone."

"Thank ye, Johnny," replied Margaret; "ye’re kind— ye’re very kind; and if ye wad carry a bit scrap o’ paper to Wedderburn Castle, greatly would ye aid a distressed damsel."

"I thank ye, my doo for relying on the word and promise o’ John, king and lord o’ little Egypt. Little do they ken me, and less is their knowledge o’ our race, who thinks that we would look upon those who are wronged without seeing them righted. How I heard of your imprisonment, or the wrong intended ye, never fash your thumb; though a bird waffed it in my lugs wi’ its wings, though it chirped it in them as it chirmed past me, it is enough that I ken of your wrongs, and that I will assist ye. Trust me, maidens."

"I will trust ye," answered Margaret.

"Dinna trust him, sister," said Marion; "he may be some spy of our uncle’s."

"Of being a spy," cried the other, "I dinna believe him capable. Stop, Johnny, or king, or whatever ye be," she added, "and I will throw ye a word or two to carry to Sir Patrick Hume of Wedderburn."

She addressed to him a few words, and threw the paper which contained them into the hands of the gipsy.

"Bless ye for your confidence, my bonny lassie!" said. Johnny Faa; "and before the sun gae down, Sir Patrick Hume shall ken that there’s ane that likes him pining in a captive’s prison, wi’ none but ane that his brother likes to bear her company."

The gipsy king was mounted on an active pony, and although it was without a saddle, and reined only by a hempen bridle, he dashed off with it, at the pace of a fleet racer, and directed his course towards the Lammermoors.

It was not noon when he arrived at the Castle of Wedderburn. The porter at the gate retreated in terror as he beheld him, for the name of the Faa king had become terrible on the Borders, and even the king had been glad to grant him terms on his own choosing. On being admitted to the presence of the knight—"What is it, ye vagrant loon," asked Sir Patrick, "that brings ye to venture within the roof o’ honest men?"

"Honest!" said the gipsy—"ha! ha! ha! I daresay your honesty and mine is muckle about a par. Between us two it is, take who can. Ye hae the bit land, Sir Patrick, but ye ha’vena a stronger or a more cunning hand, nor yet a sharper sword than the lord o’ little Egypt. Therefore, speak at evens with me, lest ye rue it."

"And wherefore should I speak at evens," answered Hume, "with the like o’ you, who are at best but the king o’ gaberlunzie men."

"The mischief light on ye!" said the gipsy; "ye have provoked me sair, and I have tholed wi’ your slights and taunting; but try me not wi’ another word, lest ye rue it, Sir Patrick Hume, and your brother rue it, and every Hume o’ the house o’ Wedderburn shall be brought to cry dool, for refusing to listen to the words o’ Johnny Faa."

"And what wad ye say if ye had your will, ye braggart knave?"cried the knight.

"Merely," retorted the gipsy, "that there is a bonny lassie, ane who is owre guid to be the bride o’ sic uncivil an individual as yoursel’, now lying in durance, wi’ death or perpetual imprisonment before her, while ye havena the courage to lift your hand to her rescue."

"Of whom speak ye?" vociferated the laird of Wedderburn.

"Who," rejoined the gipsy, slily, "is nearest to your heart?—who nearest to your door? Have you seen her within these four days?"

"What!" exclaimed Sir Patrick, "speak ye of my Margaret?"

"Of whom does your heart tell you that I speak?" said Faa.

"It is then to her that you allude?" cried Sir Patrick.

"Ay, it is to her," was the reply; "and what knight are ye that would remain here idly within your castle, while death threatens the maiden of your love?"

"Pardon me, stranger," said Sir Patrick; "tell me where she is."

"Ye asked me to pardon ye now," answered the gipsy proudly; "ye knew me before, when the insult was offered, ye know me still. It is not because ye bear a name powerful in arms, nor yet that I have heard of your deeds of war that I come to you; but it is because of the maiden who loves you as the Mayfly does the summer sun. Margaret Sinclair and her sister are the prisoners of their uncle, Sir William Sinclair of Herdmanstone. He has looked with an eye of covetousness upon their estates—he longs to possess them; and, if they be not yielded to him, the life of the fair owners now in his power must pay the forfeit."

The knight clasped the hand of the gipsy. "Thank ye, thank ye," he cried; "I will reward ye for this act of kindness."

"You reward me!" shouted the gipsy king, disdainfully, "think ye that when the king of Little Egypt does an act of humanity or generosity, he is to be rewarded for it by a Scottish knight! Away with ye, man! I spurn your thanks! I am as far above them as the moon is above the glow-worm that glimmers on the ground—ay, as the sun above the foetid matter from which it draws life. Know, then, that Margaret Sinclair and her sister will die unless ye have courage to release them, and that before another Sabbath shine a holiday to you."

Wedderburn held his hand in thankfulness. "Forgive me, forgive me," he cried; "I have spoken unjustly to one that has a soul within him, and who has sympathised for those in whom my happiness is bound up. Again, I say, forgive me."

"Ye are forgiven," said the Faa; "and if assistance be needed in the hour of peril, ye shall find willing hands ready to help ye, though ye deserve it not."

So saying, the Faa beckoned his hand, and withdrew from the presence of Hume. Sir Patrick bore the tidings instantly to his brother; and, within two hours, a hundred of their retainers stood armed around Wedderburn Castle. "To Herdmanstone!" was the cry; "and the rescue of the lady love of the Lord of Wedderburn!"

"Ay, and for Marion, the maid of Kimmerghame!" cried George, the brother of Sir Patrick; "and the Sinclairs shall wear stout bucklers and belts to boot, that this sword pierce not."

The party being marshalled, they took their way across the Lammermoors with the brothers Sir Patrick and George Hume at their head. It was shortly after daybreak when they appeared before Herdmanstone Castle; and the Lady Margaret was the first to perceive their approach.

"Sister!" she cried; "see! see! aid is at hand—the banner of the Humes is waving over the fields of Herdmanstone."

"Ye dream, sister!" said Marion, starting from her couch.

"Nay, I dream not," retorted Margaret. "Arise; through the grey light I perceive the plume of Sir Patrick Hume, and the gay jack which my sister wrought for his brother."

Marion sprang forward to the window where her sister stood; they thrust their hands from the window, to encourage their deliverers to the rescue, while Sir Patrick and his brother answered them back, crying—"We come! we come! The haughty and cruel Sinclair shall repent in blood."

The trumpets of the Humes sounded; and, as if prepared for the approaching conflict, within a few minutes, more than fifty retainers of Sir William Sinclair were in arms. Ignorant of the number of their foes, they rushed forth to meet them, hand to hand, and sword to sword. Long the strife was desperate—it was even doubtful; but, at length, superiority of numbers, on the part of the Humes, prevailed; the retainers of Sir William were routed in all directions, and his castle was assailed, even to its threshold. "To the rescue of the fair maidens!" shouted the Humes. Independent of the immediate retainers of Sir William Sinclair, however, his neighbours came to his aid, and although they were, at first, as two to one, the conflict had not lasted long when the Humes became the weaker party. The battle raged keenly—swords were broken in the grasp of their owners—the strong warhorse kicked upon the ground, in the agony of death, indenting the earth with its hoofs as it died, leaving the impression of its agony—their wounded men grappled with, and reviled each other, as though they had been foreigners or aliens—spears were broken, and shields clanked against each other—while the war-shout and the dying groan mingled together. Victory seemed still to be doubtful; for though the Humes fought bravely, and their leaders led them on as with the heroism of despair, yet every minute the numbers of their adversaries increased, while theirs, if the expression might be used, became fewer and more few.

Yet there were two spectators of the conflict who beheld it with feelings that may not, that cannot be described. Now the one beheld the plume which she had adorned for her betrothed husband, severed by the sword of an enemy; while the other saw the gay jerkin, which she had weaved tarnished with blood. They perceived, also what we might term the ebbing and the flowing of the deadly feud—the retreating and the driving back; and they were spectators also of the wounded, the dying, and the dead. They saw the party in whom their hopes were fixed, gradually over-powered—they beheld them fall back beneath the swords of their opponents, disputing inch by inch as they retired, and their hearts fell within them. When hope, fear, and anxiety were wrought to their highest point of endurance, and the party in whom their trust lay seemed to be vanquished, and were driven back, at that period, Johnny Faa, and a number of his followers rushed to their succour.

"Hurra!" exclaimed the wanderers, "for the braw lasses o’ Polwarth and Kimmerghame! Fight, ye Humes! Fight! There is a prize before ye worthy a clour on the crown, or even a stab through the brasket."

The approach of the Faa king turned the tide of victory, and his followers shouted—"The bonny lasses o’ Polwarth and Kimmerghame shall be free!"

"For ever, ay, and a day after it," cried Sir William, "shall the man inherit a cow’s mailing, and a cow to boot, upon the Lands o’ Herdmanstone, who this day brings me upon his sword, the head o’ one o’ the birkies o’ Wedderburn." Sir William, however, became a suppliant for mercy beneath the red sword of Patrick Hume; and his life being granted, the Sinclairs gave their arms into the hands of their opponents. The young brothers each rushed into the house, to the rescue of the captive damsels; and Margaret and Marion each fell upon the neck of the man she loved.

On arriving at Polwarth, they were met by the glad villagers with whom the fair ladies joined hands, and they danced together in gleeful joy around a thorn tree, upon the village green.

In a few weeks, each of the maidens gave her hand to her deliverer—Margaret to Sir Patrick, and Marion to his brother George. On their marriage-day, the dance around the thorn upon the green was resumed, and a festive crowd tripped joyously around it, blessing the bride of Polwarth and her fair sister, Marion of Kimmerghame; and the music to which they that day danced, proceeded from the pipes of king Johnny Faa, who, with half-a-dozen of his people, sat each with a pair of union pipes beneath his arm, and discoursing "most eloquent music," without "fee, favour, or reward," save that they were partakers of the good things which were that day plentifully circulated upon Polwarth green.

In concluding this account of the co-heiresses of Polwarth and Kimmerghame, it is only necessary to add that, from her union with Hume of Wedderburn, the fair Margaret became the progenitor of the future Earls of Marchmont.


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