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.
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’
And doun wi’ the Earl o’
And up wi’ a’ the
That sew the single-soled shoon.
Fye upon yellow and
And fye upon yellow and
But up wi’ the true
blue and scarlet,
And up wi’ the
Up wi the Souters o’
For they are baith trusty
And up wi’ the men o’
And doun wi’ the Merse to
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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.
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
And trampled the Apostate’s
The moonbeam kissed the
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
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 :—
would’st view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale
For the gay beams of
Gild, but to flout, the
When the broken arches
are black in night,
And each shafted oriel
When the cold light’s
Streams on the ruined
When buttress and
Seem framed of ebon and
When silver edges the
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
Then view St David’s
And home returning,
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.