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Byways of the Scottish Border
In the Wizard's Country


PLACE with memories enough and an atmosphere all its own, is the pleasant Border town of Selkirk. Here of a sunny morning, it seems strange to realise that one is in the capital of Ettrick Forest, the ancient home of romance and outlawry, of eager valour and of storied sorrow.

Selkirk
Selkirk

A thriving little Border town it is, with its tweed mills down by the river. Nor is it unmindful of its past, or of those who spread its fame. Does not the statue of Sir Walter Scott, who was at one time its sheriff, stand there in the Market Place? And has it not set up a monument to Mungo Park, the explorer of Africa, with the scroll in his hand bearing his last bodeful words, "Die on the Niger?" "Up wi’ the Souters o’ Selkirk" was a well-known gathering cry long ago in many a Border fight, and something of the stirring spirit of the townsfolk is to be read in their ancient local rhyme :—

Up wi’ the souters o’ Selkirk.
And doun wi’ the Earl o’ Home!
And up wi’ a’ the braw lads
That sew the single-soled shoon.

Fye upon yellow and yellow,
And fye upon yellow and green!
But up wi’ the true blue and scarlet,
And up wi’ the single-soled shoon.

Up wi the Souters o’ Selkirk,
For they are baith trusty and leal!
And up wi’ the men o’ the Forest,
And doun wi’ the Merse to the deil!

Gallantly, if in vain, was the blood of the town spilt for the heroic Wallace on the fatal day at Falkirk in 1298, when the champion of freedom was finally defeated. Upon that occasion, it is said, the men of the district who were found among the slain were recognised by their stalwart forms. Some eighty of Selkirk’s best, too, the far-famed "Flowers of the Forest," fell on Flodden Field. For the valour of these last a fearful vengeance was wreaked upon the town by the victors; fire, sword, and rapine making the place a desert. That valour, however, as well as its terrible penalty, was warmly recognised by James V. by new charter rights and princely grants of land. An English standard captured at Flodden and brought home by the survivors was long the property of the Weavers’ Corporation of the burgh, and is still proudly exhibited ; and a townsman still keeps the sword of his ancestor, William Brydone, the gallant town-clerk, who, on that dire field, as leader of the little band, received the honour of knighthood from James IV. Selkirk, indeed, has a tender place in the hearts of all Scotsmen, for there is none but has felt the sweet pity of forgotten sorrow stir within him at the singing of its lament.

THE FLOWERS O’ THE FOREST.

I’ve beard them lilting at the ewe-milking,
Lasses a-lilting before the dawn of day;
But now there is moaning In ilka green loaning;
The flowers O’ the forest are a’ wede away.

At bughts in the morning nae blythe lads are scorning;
Lasses are lanely and dowie and wae;
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighing and sabbing;
Ilk ane lifts her leglin and bies her away.

In hairst at the shearing nae youths now are jeering;
Bandsters are runkled and lyart and grey;
At fair or at preaching nae wooing, nae fleeching;
The flowers o’ the forest are a’ wede away.

At e’en in the gloaming nae younkers are roaming
Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play;
But ilk maid sits dreary, lamenting her deane—
The flowers o’ the forest are a’ wede away.

Dule and wae for the order sent our lads to the Border;
The English for ance by guile wan the day:
The flowers o’ the forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land, are cauld in the clay.

We’ll hear nae mair lilting at the ewe-milking,
Women and balms are heartless and wae;
Sighing and moaning in ilka green loaning—
The flowers o’ the forest are a’ wede away.’

Perhaps the latest echo of the sorrow of that woeful time is to be found in a fine poem contributed to Blackwood’s Magazine in November, 1885, by "J. B. Selkirk," a writer in whose work are represented with singular faithfulness alike the spirit and the powers of the ancient Forest singers.

SELKIRK AFTER FLODDEN.

It’s but a month the morn,
Sin’ a’ was peace and plenty;
Our hairst was halflins shorn,
Eident1 men, and lasses denty;
But noo it ‘s a’ distress—
Never mair a merry meetin’;
For half the bairns are faitherless,
And a’ the women greetin’.
O Flodden Field!

Miles and miles round Selkirk toun,
Where Forest flowers are fairest,
Ilka lassie’s stricken doun,
Wi’ the fate that fa’s the sairest.
A’ the lads they used to meet
By Ettrick braes or Yarrow,
Lyin’ thrammelt’ head and feet
In Brankstone’s deadly barrow!
O Flodden Field!

Frae every clenchand clan,
The best o’ the braid Border
Rose, like a single man,
To meet the royal order.
Our burgh tounitsel
Sent its seventy doun the glen;
Ask Fletcher how they fell,
Bravely fechtin’, ane to ten!
O Flodden Field!

Round about their gallant king,
For country and for croun,
Stude the dauntless Border ring,
Till the last was hackit doun.
I blame na what has been—
They maun fa’ that canna flee—
But oh, to see what I hae seen,
To see what now I see!
O Flodden Field!

There stands the gudeman’s loom
That used to gang sae cheerie,
Untented noo, and toom,
Makin’ a’ the hoose sae eerie,
Till the sicht I canna dree;‘
For the shuttles lyIn’ dumb
Speak the loudlier to me
O him that winna come.
O Flodden Field!

Sae at nicht I cover ‘t o’er
Just to haud it frae my e’en,
But I haena yet the power
To forget what it has been;
And I listen through the hoose
For the chappin’ o’ the lay,
Till the scrapin’ o’ a moose
Taks my vera braith away.
O Flodden Field!

Then I turn to sister Jean,
And my airms aboot her twine;
And I kiss her sleepless een,
For her hairt’s as sair as mine—
A hairt ance fu’ o’ fun,
And bands that ne’er were idle,
Wi’ a’ her cleedin’spun
Against her Jamie’s bridal.
O Flodden Field!

Noo we’ve naither hands nor bairt—
In our grief the wark’s forgotten,
Though it’s wanted every airt,
And the craps are lyin’ rotten.
War’s awesome blast’s gane by
And left a land forlorn;
In daith’s dool hairst they lie,
The shearers and the shorn.
O Flodden Field !

It would be difficult for the dwellers themselves in such a town ever to become altogether sordid while a scene of such natural loveliness and historic interest lies spread under their eyes. One wonders what objection to the spot the monks of old could cherish when they petitioned and had their house removed to Kelso. For the Abbey of Kelso was once the Abbey of Selkirk. Even its commerce contributes something of picturesqueness to the place, as, in the clear morning light, the grey smoke, rising from the mills below, floats softly down the valley.

Growing originally around a hunting-seat of the early Scottish kings, "the Kirk of the Shielings," or Schelechyrch, as it once was written (or, perhaps, Selechyrch, "The Kirk of the Wood "), was for a time two hamlets, Selkirk Regis and Selkirk Abbatis. Upon the remoyal of the monastery in 1126, however, this distinction passed away. Hardly to be surpassed, as it must always have been, for situation, the town clings, like some ancient Italian city, to its steep hillside, over-hanging the river. Opposite, in a hollow of the wooded hills, lies the scene of Leslie’s victory over the "Great Marquis;" and the Ettrick between flows away fair and broad to meet, the Tweed above Abbotsford.

Until some fifty years ago the house was still standing in Selkirk where Montrose slept on the night before that fatal 13th of September; and it is easy to imagine the scene in the little town when, roused by the firing which told that the camp of his infantry beyond the Ettrick had been surprised, the Royalist general hastily gathered his cavalry together and galloped out of the place in the vain hope of retrieving the day. Alas for Marquis! alas for King! Here, as frequently elsewhere in life, a single error of judgment undid the brilliant work of years.

A memorial granite slab in the wall by the road, marks the site of the old Forest Inn, where, "after a miserable day’s wet riding," Robert Burns slept a night on his Border tour in 1787, and where he wrote his humorous poem to William Creech. So much interest is attached even to the passing of one of the master-singers. The tablet may serve to remind the wayfarer that the Ayrshire bard was by no means the untravelled and unlettered peasant he is too often supposed to have been. The man who never went to the plough but with a copy of one of the poets in his pocket was also no inconsiderable traveller for that time, both on the Scottish Border and in the Highlands.

It was upon another occasion in Selkirk that a characteristic incident, which has been chronicled by Dr Russell in his Reminiscences, befell the poet. Burns had walked over from Kelso with his friend Ainslie, and, tired and hungry, they were taking some refreshment here, when they heard sounds of hilarious mirth from an apartment overhead. The poet seldom neglected possibilities of good-fellowship, and, with a view to discover what was going on, he addressed the waiter. "My lad," he said, "you seem to have a prayer.meeting upstairs." "O na, sir," replied the youth; "it’s just a wheen o’ the fermers and their frien’s met thegither and enjoyin’ themsel’s at a kind o’ club they have." "Go up, then," said the poet, "present the cornpliments of two visitors, strangers to the town, who have just arrived, and say we would be glad to join the company, if agreeable to them." Upstairs, however, the message was received some-what coldly. Enquiries were made as to what the strangers were like; and on the waiter describing them as "very like country drovers," a reply was sent back that it would not be convenient to receive them. It was not till next day that the members of the club discovered how, through their own refusal, they had missed their first and probably their last opportunity of "a nicht wi’ Burns."

Flock after flock of sheep, on a market morning, may be met on their way up into the town, each attended by one of the shepherds of Yarrow and his faithful collie. Tall men these shepherds are, every one, spare in build, with kindly eyes and a pleasant speech; clad in rough, homely tweeds, and with the native "shepherd tartan" plaid of black and white thrown over the shoulder. Some have come far, and are warm with the dust and the sunshine. Noticing them as they come across the bridge, together with the "eident" anglers plying their craft in the deep pool below, one perceives that the Sons of the Forest are still a stately race.

The road to Abbotsford keeps the south side of the river, and, past the joining of Ettrick and Tweed, leads through quiet woodland aisles, where the trees overhead are aflame with their autumn glories. The sunshine, striking through the branches, chequers the floor of these silent avenues with gold. Here and there, through the foliage on the left, a glimpse is caught of the river flowing cool and clear below, while on the further sunny hillside a pleasant modern mansion once and again appears. On that hillside, silent and strange contrast to the elegance of new-clipt hedge and shrubbery, survives a remnant of an ancient national barrier, the Catrail, the frontier defence of the northern Picts against the Cymric kingdom of Strathclyde.

But here at last, the Mecca of many a pilgrimage, beautiful amid its quiet walled lawns and coloured flowerbeds, in a hollow below the road, lies Abbotsford, a house of crow-stepped gables, octagonal towers, and sunny doorways—the fair "romance in stone and lime" conjured out of the river bank by the great "Wizard." About it the trees planted by himself still stand, withering into another autumn, and motionless, as if they remembered. And below, amid the stillness, may be heard the ripple of the waters which he loved to hear as he sat at work by the open window of his study.

Amid all the sadness of the spot, the energising influence of a wholesome genius breathes yet in the air of Abbotsford. Here Scott realised his ideals, as, it is well to remember, other men may who, like him, cherish their early enthusiasm and keep the iron out of their souls. Here he won his baronetcy, acquired broad lands, and founded a family. And here, at the acme of his fame, and the summit of his ambition, fell upon him the blow of undeserved disaster. A mournful memory, withal, lingers about the silent rooms, where they keep so many relics of the noble dead. Was it not within them, and for the sake of this, his home, that he fought his almost hopeless battle against ruin, wearing out his generous heart in the effort to retrieve what others had lost? In a little oratory they preserve a cast of his head taken after death; and it is past all pitying to see the drawn look of the once genial face. Close by still rests the desk on which he wrote his wondrous prose—laughing, tender, terrible. On the wall at hand hangs the portrait of his wife, the Margaret Charlotte Charpentier who, for nearly thirty years, shared the honours of him who could win and use honour so chivalrously—a sweet face, with cherry lips, dark hair, and large eyes, looking out of the past. And in the dining-room here, as his son-in-law, Lockhart, tells, on the 21st September, 1832, about half-past one of the afternoon, while the warm autumn air was coming in at the great window, and the gentle murmur of the Tweed was heard on its pebbles below—his tremendous task accomplished and his honour saved—with all his family about him, Sir Walter Scott died. Well may Scotsmen bow their heads reverently in this chamber, for to the soul which passed away within its walls Scotland owes more for the perpetuation of her glory and of the high-hearted chivalry of her past than she owes to any other man.

Something tragic belongs to the memory of the boundless hospitality which was lavished here upon visitors of all nations by the great Borderer. Even to the end that hospitality was exercised, and Wordsworth has left an account of his own late visit to, the house in the autumn of 1831, from which may be formed some idea of the life at Abbotsford. It was after Scott’s great misfortunes, and his heroic effort to overcome them, had sorely broken the poet both in body and mind, and on the eve of his departure for Naples, in the vain hope of recovering health. Wordsworth says, describing his own arrival at the house, "The inmates and guests we found there were Sir Walter, Major Scott, Anne Scott, and Mr and Mrs Lockhart; Mr Liddell, his lady and brother, and Mr Allan the painter; and Mr Laidlaw, a very old friend of Sir Walter’s. One of Burns’s sons, an officer in the Indian service, had left the house a day or two before, and had kindly expressed his regret that he could not await my arrival, a regret that I may truly say was mutual. In the evening, Mr and Mrs Liddell sang, and Mrs Lockhart chanted old ballads to her harp; and Mr Allan, hanging over the back of a chair, told and acted odd stories in a humorous way. With this exhibition, and his daughter’s singing, Sir Walter was much amused, as indeed were we all as far as circumstances would allow." Notwithstanding the state of his health, Scott was still scrupulous in attention to his guests. "On Tuesday morning," continues Wordsworth, "Sir Walter Scott accompanied us and most of the party to Newark Castle, on the Yarrow. When we alighted from the carriages he walked pretty stoutly, and had great pleasure in revisiting those, his favourite haunts. On our return in the afternoon we had to cross the Tweed directly opposite Abbotsford. The wheels of our carriage grated upon the pebbles in the bed of the stream, that there flows somewhat rapidly; a rich but sad light of rather a purple than a golden hue was spread over the Eildon Hills at that moment; and thinking it probable that it might be the last time Sir Walter would cross the stream, I was not a little moved."

The Lake poet expressed his feelings of that moment in one of his finest sonnets, which may fitly be read on the spot where it was inspired.

ON THE DEPARTURE OF SIR WALTER SCOTT
FROM ABBOTSFORD FOR NAPLES.

A trouble, not of clouds, or weeping rain,
Nor of the setting sun’s pathetic light
Engendered, hangs o’er Eildon’s triple height:
Spirits of power, assembled here, complain
For kindred power departing from their sight;
While Tweed, best pleased in chanting a blithe strain,
Saddens his voice again, and yet again.
Lift up your hearts, ye mourners! for the might
Of the whole world’s good wishes with him goes;
Blessings and prayers, in nobler retinue
Than sceptred king or laurelled conqueror knows,
Follow this wondrous potentate. Be true,
Ye winds of ocean, and the midland sea,
Wafting your charge to soft Parthenope!

All sorts of interesting relics, gathered by its first owner, remain strewn throughout the house of. Abbotsford. Here are the portraits of Prince Charles Edward, from which the descriptions of the Chevalier, in ‘Waverley,’ were evidently taken; with the keys of Loch Leven Castle, flung into the water by Willie Douglas as he effected Queen Mary’s escape; also, the sword of Montrose, the gun of Rob Roy, the quaich of Burns, and the silver brooch of Flora Macdonald. Outside, too, at the gate, hang the jougs, emblem of baronial power, from Thrieve Castle, in Galloway, one of the ancient strongholds of the Douglas.

Relics of vivid interest, all these, to the modern visitor; yet it is instructive to think how much of that interest is owing to the work of their collector himself. Who would now remember the Highland cateran but for the romance of ‘Rob Roy’? and even the glamour which hangs about the name of Charles Stuart might have been half forgotten but for the pen of the master of Abbotsford. One realises more fully at this consideration how royal was the heritage of thought created and bequeathed to the world by this last of the Border minstrels.

Abbotsford
Abbotsford

Many of the historic scenes in the neighbourhood owe their preservation entirely to Sir Walter. He extended the grounds of Abbotsford to include the Rhymer’s Glen to the eastward, where it is said that True Thomas used to meet the Queen of Faërie,1 [1 At the foot of the Rhymer’s Glen stands the somewhat romantic Chiefswood, where Lockhart, Scott’s son-in-law and biographer, lived. In Chlefswood are preserved many pieces of furniture interesting for their association with the great novelist, among them being included the bureau on which he wrote ‘The Pirate.’ ] and he enclosed the scene of the battle of Melrose, at Darnick Bridge, where, in 1526, Scott of Buccleugh sought to wrest the person of the youthful James V. from the hands of the Earl of Angus—the last great feudal battle of the Borders, and the fight in which, almost by an accident, at the close of the strife, occasion was given for one of the bitterest of family enmities :—

"The gallant Cessford’s life-blood dear
Reeked on dark Elliot’s Border spear."

His estate, too, came down to the little village whose ruined peel-tower, now a museum, was probably in feudal times the residence of some church vassal, and from the name of which Scott’s friends used in pleasantry to call him Duke of Darnick.

It is not difficult to imagine the Laird of Abbotsford on a sunny afternoon, when his morning’s work was over, strolling hither with some guest, dilating as he went on the points of interest in sight, and ending his walk in the Abbey below. The latter’ lies no great distance away, and within the walls a fragment of stone is still pointed out which was his frequent and favourite resting-place.

Cistercian Melrose, russet-grey, hemmed by river and town! For nigh three hundred and fifty years the voice of the ancient faith has been silent amid its ruins; but sweet enough once was the sound of its bells, as the angelus floated out over flood and field, and the rude Borderer in the saddle and the simple peasant on the lea stopped to listen and cross themselves and murmur a prayer. Here, and in convent and monastery elsewhere, though the fact is too often forgotten, the flickering light of civilisation was kept alive, sheltered within the quiet cloisters, through a dark and stormy age. Arts, letters, commerce, and agriculture, as well as religion, alike owe their preservation to the men who dwelt long ago in these religious houses. In Melrose Abbey David I., it is said, gathered the learned men from all parts of Europe who compiled his famous code of laws; and in Melrose was written by successive monkish hands the account of Scots affairs from 735 to 1270, known as the Chronica de Mailros. The still monastic life of ancient times has passed from these walls for ever; but its effects, none the less real, are to be counted with to the present day.

Meirose Abbey was one of the numerous religious houses founded in the twelfth century by David I., and, owing largely to the example set by the monarch’s benefactions it became presently perhaps the finest and richest monastery in Scotland. Indeed, for his lavish endowment of these houses in crown lands and privileges, David was said by one of his successors to have been "a sair sanct to the crown," and it is only of recent years that the wisdom of his action has been recognised. By placing so large a proportion of the lands of the country under the rule of the church he exempted them almost entirely from the harassing burden of feudal service, and afforded them for more than a century and a half the immunity which religious property enjoyed in time of war. His far-seeing polity in this respect—a polity which directly benefitted his country for four centuries, and by which its civilisation was preserved and permanently moulded in many ways—David must be considered one of the greatest statesmen who have ruled Scotland.

David’s abbey stood till 1322. In that year Edward II., returning with his balked and starving army from a futile expedition against Robert the Bruce, first broke the tradition of the sacredness of religious houses, and gratified his feelings of revenge, by attacking and destroying the defence-less monastery. Upon that occasion the prior and many of the monks were slain by the rude soldiery, the silver pix was carried off, and the bell of the church was thrown into the Tweed at Maxwheel, where it is said still to remain.

King Robert rebuilt and further endowed the abbey on a scale of royal magnificence, and it is practically his erection whose ruins remain at the present day. The architect was John Morvo or Morow—probably a member of the Scottish family of Murray, notwithstanding the inscription on one of the walls which states that he was born in "Parysse." Regarding the execution of the beautiful eastern window—perhaps the finest remaining part of the ruins—a tradition exists which affords a very fair example of the popular tendency to invest fact with the glamour of the marvellous. The legend is somewhat similar to that related of the Prentice Pillar at Roslyn Chapel. The window is called the Prentice Window, and the tradition runs that the master-builder of the abbey found this part of the work beyond his powers. In order to consult the brothers of his craft he proceeded to Rome. During the master’s absence, however, his apprentice finished the window, and, with natural pride, cut near it on the wall the lines,

The best mason of masonry.
Except the man that learned me.

Upon the master’s return his astonishment at the accomplishment of the task was only equalled by chagrin that he should have been outdone in skill by his subordinate. Catching sight at the same moment of the inscription, and taking time to read no more than the first line, he conceived himself not only outdone but flouted to his face, and forthwith he turned to the apprentice, who was standing by, waiting eagerly for his approval, and in a frenzy of wrath dashed out his brains. It was only later that he read the second line of the inscription, when his sorrow and remorse over his act may be understood.

For sixty years the abbey remained as it was left by Bruce, enjoying its stately rent - roll in kind—its payments of corn and ale and wine, its princely lordships, and its many rights of toll and fisheries. But in 1384, when the English forces under Richard II., once more starved and balked by similar tactics to those of King Robert, were in disastrous retreat, they took and burned the place. It was rebuilt, however, and in good repair in the time of James IV., when its inhabitants numbered no fewer than one hundred monks, besides lay brothers, and great dignitaries of the church. It stood then till 1544. In 1543 the proposals of Henry VIII. for the marriage of Mary, the infant Queen of Scots, to his son, had been rejected by the Regent and nobles of Scotland, and forthwith the English king proceeded to wreak a brutal revenge on the fairest provinces of the north. Lord Hertford and an English army swept the Merse and the Lothians with sword and fire, leaving behind them nothing but the desolation of a blackened waste, destroying kirk and barn and tower, burning town and abbey, and laying in ashes even Holyrood and Edinburgh. The barbarity of Henry and his agents in these proceedings has probably never been matched by the deeds of any other power calling itself civilized. Men, women, and children were put to the sword, or, taken unawares, were suffocated and burned in their beds, and something of the havoc done may be gathered from the fact that one list submitted to the English king mentions one hundred and ninety-two "towns, towers, barnekynes, parysche churches, and bastill houses, burned and destroyed," while from the sack of Jedburgh the spoil carried away laded five hundred horses.’ These doings were the subject of pious congratulations and thanks to God on the part of the ravagers, while, owing to the internal distractions of Scotland at the time, the Border lords—Seton, Home, and Buccleuch— could only look on, powerless, from their mountain fastnesses.

By the ruthless proceedings of the invaders then Melrose was left a roofless ruin, and from that destruction it never recovered. Its last abbot was the eldest son of James V. He died in 1559, and in the ensuing scramble of the Reformation the abbey lands and heritages were partitioned among the temporal lordships of the l3order. So fell the greatest and most famous of the religious houses of Scotland.

The ruins as they stand are pregnant with the memories of the deeds and the names which moulded nations. In the chapter - house of the Abbey it was, that, in 1215, the barons of Yorkshire swore fealty to Alexander II. Here, through the great eastern window, sometimes, the moonlight falls on the "Rest of the Heart of Robert the Bruce." Close by sleep the great lords of Douglas, one of them being the brave and chivalrous young earl who fell at Otterbourne; and among records of other old names of the Border on these walls, may be read the inscription, "Heir lyis the Race of the Hous of Zair," a memorial which struck Emerson profoundly with its simple dignity. It is needless to recall all the network of romance woven about these ruins by the author of ‘Waverley.’ ‘The Monastery’ and the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’ are in the hands of all, and have peopled the fallen pile with scenes and persons hardly less real than those of actual history. Who does not remember how, in the refeotory here, the good Abbot Boniface feasted and granted his too frequent benevolences; and how, through yonder iron - studded door from the cloisters, came William of Deloraine for the book from the tomb of Michael Scot, when he was startled to find the blood-red cross of the window above cast full on the wizard’s grave?

The moon on the east oriel shone
Through slender shafts of shapely stone,
By foliaged tracery combined.
Thou would’st have thought some fairy’s hand
‘Twixt poplars straight the ozier wand
In many a freakish knot had twined,
Then framed a spell, when the work was done,
And changed the willow wreaths to stone.
The silver light, so pale and faint,
Shewed many a prophet, and many a saint,
Whose image on the glass was dyed.
Full in the midst, his cross of red
Triumphant Michael brandished,
And trampled the Apostate’s pride.
The moonbeam kissed the holy pane,
And threw on the pavement a bloody stain.

Among the other storied graves of this Valhalla, this of Michael Scot possesses some of the most suggestive associations. Beside the tombs of military kings and of priestly bishops and abbots, his grave appears, the representative of the royalty of intellect, and a reminder of the homage which, even amid the darkness of an early time, popular intuition accorded to the master minds of letters and of science.

Sir Walter Scott in a note to ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’ has recorded some of the legends current regarding this forebearer of his name. The wizard, it seems, was in the habit of displaying his powers, and at the same time feasting his guests, by setting before them the choicest dishes which they might fancy, transferred on the instant by his magic arts from the kitchens of the King of France. Upon one occasion also, mounted on a coal-black demon steed, he is said to have paid a visit to the French court, where by the terrible portents which followed each stamp of his horse’s hoof, he induced the French king to surrender at discretion to his demands. Something of the awe of his reputation even in the time of the Stewarts may be gathered from the verse of a ballad quoted by Professor Veitch. The troops who have been quartered for a night in the tower where Scot was born are asked,

What gars ye gaunt,my merrymen a’?
What gars ye look sae eerie?
What gars ye hing your heids sae sair
In the Castle o’ Baiwearie?

His performances, it would appear, are almost as well known in the traditions of Italy and Spain as in those of Scotland. Some of his exploits are recited in Folengo’s macaronic poem ‘Merlin Coccaius.’ Dante, in his ‘Inferno’ (cant. xx., 116), places Scot among the magicians and soothsayers; Boccaccio mentions him in the same relationship; and an indictment against him for the practice of unholy arts appears in the work on astrology by John Pico de Mirandola. Scottish tradition identifies him with Sir Michael Scot of Balwearie in Fife who, after the death of Alexander III., was one of the ambassadors sent to bring home the Maid of Norway. As, however, the wizard is said to have been born in 1190, and as references by Jourdain and Vincent de Beauvais corroborate this date, the ambassador was probably his son. Scot appears to have been a scholar of prodigious attainments. He is said to have studied at Oxford and Paris, he learned Arabic at Toledo, and he was a past master in astrology, alchemy, and medicine, Many of his works are still extant. His chief original writings, undertaken, as they expressly state, at the request of the emperor Frederick II., are the treatise ‘Super Auctorem Spherae,’ printed at Bologna in 1495, and that ‘De Physiognomia et de Hominis Procreatione,’ which ran through eighteen editions between 1477 and 1660. At the request of Frederick he also undertook a new translation of Aristotle from the Arabic, the tongue through which the philosopher was then known, together with the commentaries of Averroes. By these works Scot appears entitled to be considered one of the earliest pioneers of the great mediaeval awakening of intellect and learning, and one of the conspicuous examples of that Cymric power of initiative to which the world has owed so much. Probably it was partly owing to his connection with Frederick and Averroes, both of uncanny repute in the Middle Ages, as well as to his own alchemical attainments, that Michael Scot owed his universal reputation of wizard. He is said to have foretold the place of Frederick’s death in 1250, and Italian tradition relates that he himself died in Sicily not long afterwards. More general tradition, however, bears that he returned home to Scotland in something like a royal progress. In particular, it is said that on his way to the north he was received with great honour at the English Court by Edward I. One legend states that he was buried at Holme Cultram in Cumberland, but it is more generally believed that he was finally laid to rest in Melrose Abbey.

In 1812, in a small aisle south of the chancel here two stone coffins were found. One of them bore the carving of a St John’s cross, and inside was discovered the skeleton of a tall man, six feet in length. The bones thus laid bare after the lapse of six centuries were identified by tradition as those of Michael Scot. The wizard’s resting place is now pointed out under the lofty eastern window, close to the high altar, and beside the tomb of Alexander II. and the burial spot of the heart of Bruce.

It was a beautiful idea of the monks of old, to make the windows through which the light of day fell into their churches emblems of the means by which spiritual light had fallen upon the world. Hardly could anything be poetically or architecturally finer than the crown-of-thorns window in the north transept here, or the windows with three curved mullions to represent the Trinity. Scott’s description of the beauty of these details is much hackneyed, but remains unrivalled, and cannot be passed over :— 

If thou would’st view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight;
For the gay beams of lightsome day
Gild, but to flout, the ruins grey.
When the broken arches are black in night,
And each shafted oriel glimmers white;
When the cold light’s uncertain shower
Streams on the ruined central tower;
When buttress and buttress, alternately,
Seem framed of ebon and ivory;
When silver edges the imagery
And the scrolls that teach thee to live and die;
When distant Tweed is heard to rave,
And the owlet to hoot o’er the dead man’s grave,
Then go—but go alone the while—
Then view St David’s ruined pile;
And home returning, soothly swear
Was never scene so sad and fair!

Sorrowful indeed is the ruin now, where profane feet tread upon the tombs of kings, and the fair and loving handiwork of many a gentle artist soul is crumbling to decay. Well it is for king and sculptor that their immortality rests not with stone and lime and name. An English baron may fire the abbey of David and Bruce, the roof may fall and the walls moulder to dust; but the spirit of the dead kings lives for ever in the fresh springing seed of generous thought sown by their deeds long ago in the hearts of men.


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