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Byways of the Scottish Border
Down Watling Street


Kelso Abbey THROUGH the open casement, all night long, drifted the river’s murmur, like a lullaby. No moon was there in the midnight sky wherewith to "view aright" the witchery of "fair Melrose;" but the gentle airs which came sighing, ever and again, across the abbey close, brought with them plaintive memories of the place. No bell, it is true, tinkled its summons there at vesper-time; no glory of altar lights within flamed through the mullioned oriels; and on the listening night arose no harmony of monkish voices chanting their evensong. Only the faint whispering of the abbey trees at times recalled the fact that, close by, abbot and priest lay asleep under the aisles which their sandalled feet once trod, filling the heart with a strange awe and pity at the nearness and the oblivion now of that once warmbreathing dust. Alas, the murmur of river and sigh of night-wind tell us nothing of the dreams of those who sleep so soundly and so long.

But morning has come—morning, with the crowing cock and the waking town—a sunny morning, the inspiration of a pedestrian; with the promise of a glorious day, though the mist lies grey yet in the meadows.

Two miles and a half to the east, towards Dryburgh, on a little peninsula washed by the Tweed, lies the site of Old Melrose, with, on the way to it by the river, the quiet village of New-stead, famous for its sundials.

It was at Old Melrose that the original monastery stood, the home of St Cuthbert, and the contemporary of lona and Lindisfarne. By Bede it is stated to have become an establishment of great celebrity so early as the year 664; and Nennius, who lived in 853 A.D., mentions its destruction by pagan Danes. To this spot, from its situation, as will be seen, more properly belongs the name, derived probably from the Celtic mull ross, or "bare promontory," transferred afterward to the later settlement. For the modern Melrose was anciently known as Little Fordel.

But at Old Meirose little is left of the ancient hamlet or of its Culdee monastery, which was probably built only of wood; and the spot, with most of the countryside—river and tower and town — will be very well seen from the top of Eildon Hill. A last look, then, at the ruined pile in the quiet abbey close, a drink from the famous St Dunstan’s Well, a glance at the quaint old market-cross of the town, with its slender shaft and curious crest, whose upkeep forms the quit-rent of a ridge of land close by; and then away for the top of the three-peaked hill.

The supernatural lore with which the whole countryside is invested has a legend to account for the strange shape of the mountain. It seems that Michael Scot at one time found himself compelled to provide occupation for a certain troublesome fiend. First he set the latter to build a dam across the Tweed. This behest, however, to the wizard’s surprise and dismay, was accomplished by the fiend in a single night. The result is still to be seen near Kelso. A more formidable command seemed to be to "cleave Eildon Hill in three." But the too energetic familiar accomplished this second herculean feat likewise in a night; and he was only found in constant employment finally by being set the somewhat unsatisfactory task of manufacturing ropes out of sea-sand.

In the same way, popular legend assigns Eildon Tree on the hillside just above Newstead as the spot at which Thomas of Ercildoune first met the Queen of Faerie. Eildon Tree itself has now disappeared, but the spot is marked by a large stone, known as Eildon Tree Stone. Here True Thomas is popularly believed to have had that encounter with the elfin queen which resulted in his acquisition of prophetic power. The account of his adventure contains the boldest and most striking picture extant of the enchanted middle world.

Rhymer's Tower

THOMAS THE RHYMER.

True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank;
A ferliehe spied wi’ his e’e;
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by the Eildon tree.

Her shirt was o’ the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o’ the velvet fine;
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane,
Hung fifty siller bells and nine.

True Thomas, he pulled aff his cap,
And louted low down to his knee,
"All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see."

"O no, O no, Thomas," she said,
"That name does not belang to me;
I am but the queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee."

"Harp and carp,Thomas," she said,
"Harp and carp along wi’ me;
And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your body I will be."

Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunton me."
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips,
All underneath the Eildon tree.

"Now, ye maun go wi’ me," she said;
"True Thomas, ye maun go wi’ me;
And ye mann serve me seven years,
Through weal or woe as may chance to be.’

She mounted on her milk-white steed;
She’s ta’en True Thomas up behind;
And aye, whene’er her bridle rung,
The steed flew swifter than the wind.

O they rade on, and farther on;
The steed gaed swifter than the wind;
Until they reached a desert wide,
And living land was left behind.

"Light down, light down now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies three.

"O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Though after it but few enquires.

And see ye not that braid braid road,
That lies across that lily leven ?
That is the path of wickedness,
Though some call it the road to heaven.

"And see not ye that bonnie road,
That winds about the ferny brae;
That is the road to fair Elfiand,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

"But, Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue,
Whatever ye may hear or see;
For, if you speak a word in Elflyn land,
Ye’ll ne’er get back to your am countrie."

O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded through rivers abune the knee,
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.

It was mirk mirk night, there was nae stern light,
And they waded through red bluid to the knee;
For a’ the bluid that’s shed on earth
Rins through the springs o’ that countrie.

Sync they came to a garden green,
And she pu’d an apple frae a tree—
Take this for thy wages, True Thomas;
It will give thee the tongue that can never lee."

"My tongue is mine am," True Thomas said;
A gudely gift ye wad gi’e to me!
I neither doughti to buy nor sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.

I dought neither speak to prince or peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair lady."
Now hold thy peace!" the lady said,
For as I say, so must it be."

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth,
And a pair of shoes of velvet green;
And till seven years were gane and past,
True Thomas on earth was never seen.

The hero of this ballad is remembered throughout the Border to the present day, both as a poet and as a prophet. Again and again during the middle centuries, down indeed to the reign of James VI., his supposed prophecies regarding public affairs were a force to be counted on in the politics of the hour. If anyone wishes to consult them at the present day, a considerable number are to be found in a small volume published at Edinburgh by Andrew Hart in 1615. Prophecies of more local import are probably current yet on the Border side.

One of these local prophecies contains a somewhat pathetic reference to the fortunes of his own house—

The hare sail kittle on my hearth stane,
And there will never be a laird Learmont again.

Regarding another, Scott, in his note to the ballad in his Minstrelsy, tells a curious story. The ownership of an estate in this neighbourhood was the subject of one of the Rhymer’s prophecies

Tide may tide whate’er betide,
Haig shall be Haig of Bemersyde.

This couplet had always been considered oracular, but towards the end of last century the line of Haig seemed about to fail. The laird of Bemersyde had been wedded for some twelve years without the appearance of an heir, and the credit of prophet and prophecy seemed about" to suffer. At last, however, past all expectation, the lady of Bemersyde presented her husband with a son, and the circumstance confirmed the popular confidence in the Rhymer’s prophetic power tenfold.

The prophecies of Thomas are mentioned with all respect in Barbour’s Bruce, in Wyntoun’s Cronyhil, and in the Scala Chronicon; and Thomas himself is mentioned by Henry the Minstrel as residing in a religious house, the Faile, near Ayr, when the hero Wallace was cast for dead over the wall of the prison in that town. He is pictured upon that occasion by the Minstrel, as refusing stoutly, out of his supernatural knowledge, to believe in the death of the future champion—a refusal which was presently justified by Wallace’s nurse presenting the hero alive.

The reputation of Thomas as a prophet, however, is rivalled by his fame as a poet. Ercildoune stood upon the border of that ancient Cymric kingdom between the Roman walls—the country of Arthur and Gawain and Lancelot—to which reference has already more than once been made. The traditions of that kingdom were still, probably, in his day the common property of the country-side, as they already, in the mouths of minstrels, formed the subjects of a whole cycle of courtly romance. As a singer of these chivalric and romantic traditions, as well as an interpreter of the spirit of the ancient race, Thomas must be regarded as the successor of the Cymric Merlin himself. Partly, it appears probable, from earlier compositions, and partly from local tradition, the Rhymer composed ‘Sir Tristrem,’ the finest of the extant mediaeval romances regarding the Cymric heroes. He is also believed to be the author of the first part of a romantic poem in three fytts or cantos, which contains a series of prophecies in chronological order regarding the events of Scottish history for several centuries. It is of the first fytt of this poem that the ballad above printed is the popular traditional version. Jamieson, in his Popular Ballads of Scotland, suggested that in order to gain credence for his predictions, which seem all to have been calculated for the service of his country, Thomas pretended to an intercourse with the elfin queen, as Numa Pompilius did with the nymph Egeria. There is reason, however, to suppose that the story of the Rhymer’s meeting with the elfin~ queen may represent some strange legend of a still earlier time. For the hillside here, facing the mystic east, was probably the scene of pagan rites as early as the days when Saul had dealings with the Witch of Endor.

Upon many a strange historic scene has the silent mountain looked down, though the record has been all but lost. Northward, wave after wave across its foot, have come the tramplings of many nations. A great Caledonian tumulus and the remains of a Roman encampment rest on the mountain; in the Leader valley near, the British Arthur is said to have fought his eighth great battle ; and under the shadow of the hill, in Dryburgh, the Druids buried their dead. Like Ben Ledi, the "Hill of God," in the north, Eildon would seem to have been consecrated by the ashes of primeval altars.

In a grove on the north side of the middle hill the Druids, according to tradition, offered their sacrifices. Underground, too, in the hidden caverns of the mountain, according to the mythic legends which in course of time invested the fate of the hero, King Arthur, and his knights, brought hither by magic means after the last great battle at Camelon, near Falkirk, in which they fell, lie in their armour, waiting for the bugle call that shall break their enchanted sleep and restore them to earthly life once more.

Beside each coal-black courser sleeps a knight,
A raven plume waves o’er each helmed crest,
And black the mail which binds each manly breast.

Say, who is he, with summons strong and high,
That bids the charmed sleep of ages fly,
Rolls the long sound through Eildon’s caverns vast,
While each dark warrior rouses at the blast,
His horn, his falcion grasps with mighty hand,
And peals proud Arthur’s march from Fairyland?

No better view of the Borderland is to be had than that from the top of the Eildons; and it was hither, as to the Delectable Mountains, that Scott brought Washington Irving and many another guest to look upon the scene of ancient fire and foray.

Does not the storied vale of Tweed stretch away to the eastward, by Kelso and Coldstream, to Berwick on its purple verge, and dusky Flodden, where so dark a harvest once was reaped? Southward roll the Cheviots, mindful of Otterbourne and Chevy Chase—those dire raids of the Black Douglas and the Red—away to the hills of Liddesdale and Eskdale in the direction of Merrie Carlisle. Due westward lies the pastoral vale of Yarrow, home of so much romance. And to the north, beyond the smoke of Galashiels, rise the Muirfoot Hills and the lonely Lammermuirs. Almost at the mountain foot, too, stand the abbey ruins of Melrose, and of Dryburgh among its woods? And, further off, Sir Walter could point out Smailholm Tower, and tell how, in his grandfather’s farmhouse of Sandyknowe at its foot, he, when a lame child, had listened long nights by the ingleside to ballad and legend of his ancestors. He himself early invested that ancient tower with a weird interest, by making it the scene of his tragic ‘Eve of St John.’

By Smailholm, too, at Earlston, stands the ruin of the tower of True Thomas, disposed of, with its lands, to the convent of Soltra by the Rhymer’s son in 1299. And nearer lies the scene of a well-known ballad, as romantic as, it is to be feared, it has been mischievous —‘ The Broom o’ the Cowdenknowes.’

Quiet and beautiful at this time of year lies the road through the woods down to Dryburgh. Under its swinging wire foot-bridge the river runs clear and swift and broad; and the red fallen beech-leaves make the path in front appear as if stained with blood—the blood, it might be, of monks slain long ago in defence of their abbey.

The priests of all ages have chosen the sites of their temples well. Here, in Dryburgh (perhaps Dryad, perhaps Druid burgh), on the rich alluvial level in the depths of the primeval forest, girdled by the swift and silvery Tweed, and on the ruined shrine, it may be, of some older worship, the Druids reared an altar. No rude barbarians were these, though they have left no books to tell us of their faith. Rather, indeed, may they have been missionaries who brought to these islands the lore of ancient Chaldea. The soul, we know from Ceasar, they deemed immortal, and Bel they worshipped in the image of the sun. Their cup-hollowed stones may have held water-mirrors for the reading of the heavens; and their circles of monoliths, ranged suggestively in the distance-order of the planets, formed dials of the time of year and day. Here, then, if the urn-shaped stones which have come again to light after buried centuries could speak, might be told many a tale of mystic rites performed to moon and sun two long millenniums ago, and commemorated now only by the place’s name.

[Due consideration has hardly yet been given to existing evidences of Druid lore. The late researches of Rawlinson and others in the east have brought to light the fact that the menhirs and cromlechs and circles of Scotland have an exact counterpart in the stone remains existing in what was once Chaldea. It would appear, therefore, that in order to discover something of the rites which took place in prehistoric times beside these Scottish monuments, Ezekiel and other Bible writers may be consulted, with their allusions to the rites around the "fire-stones of Tyre." The late Dr Wylie, in his "History of Scotland" (vol. I., chap. xi.), described a custom surviving, to his knowledge, among the boys of Aberdeenshire. On Beltane day they kindle a fire and bake a cake; then, breaking the cake into pieces, they blacken one piece in the fire. All the pieces are then placed in a bonnet, and the boy who draws the burnt piece from the bonnet is called "devoted," and must leap three times through the flames. Here would appear to exist a remnant of the custom alluded to in Scripture, of passing children through the fire to Moloch or Baal. We are also aware that in early Scotland, upon Beltane eve, the first of May, the flame of every hearth was extinguished, and the Druids, assembled on Ben Ledi (the Hill of God, as the name signifies), waited for the new fire to descend from heaven and rekindle their altar. A trench still exists across the top of the mountain, which may have borne some part in this ceremony. Again in the construction of the cairns at Clava, near Culloden, a peculiarity has been pointed out to the present writer by an enthusiastic antiquary, Mr George Bain, of the Nairnshire Telegraph, which is certainly suggestive. Each cairn consists of a chamber covered by a heap of stones and surrounded by several con- centric rings of monoliths. The peculiarity consists in the fact that the distance from the centre of the chamber to its walls, from the walls to the outer edge of the cairn, from there to the first ring of stones, and so on, corresponds to our modern knowledge of the distance-order of the various planets from the sun. Further, by a nautical observation taken on the spot, it was ascertained that two paved ways, observed within several of the circles, marked the shadow of the southernmost stone as cast by the sun at the spring and autumn equinox respectively, denoting, perhaps, the seasons of seedtime and harvest. Facts like these would seem to point to the existence among the prehistoric priesthood of Scotland of an astronomical knowledge of hitherto unsuspected extent, and they furnish striking corroboration of the statement of Caesar (De. Bell. Gall., vi. 14): "Multa praeterea de sideribus, atque eorum motu, de mundi ac terrarum magnitudine, de rerum natura, de deorum immortalium vi ac potestate disputant, et juventuti tradunt."]

Here, later, came the iron Roman, and left his ashes in coffin of stone, far from his home by the yellow Tiber.’ Presently, in their turn, the simple Culdees brought hither the elements of Christian faith. And, last of all, the lord of Lauderdale, Hugh De Moreville, in 1141 founded on the spot a house of the White Canons. This same Moreville or his son, it may be remembered, was one of those four avenging barons who secretly left Henry II.’s court in Normandy, hurried over to England, and, on Dec. 29, 1170, transacted that dark scene in the cathedral at Canterbury, the assassination of Thomas a Becket.The founder’s grave is marked with a circle drawn on the earthen floor of the Chapter House.

And here, among the ashes of his ancestors, rest the remains of the author of ‘Waverley.’ For Dryburgh, now owned by the Earls of Buchan, had belonged to the family of Scott’s grandmother, the Haliburtons of Newmains. The poet lies under the last fragment of the groined roof in St Mary’s aisle, his wife and his soldier son by his side, and his son-in-law, Lockhart, at his feet—a tranquil and appropriate rest for one who loved so much to dwell amid the glories of bygone days.

Daws preen their wings in the ruins now, and wild wood-doves rustle at home in the trees close by; but the pilgrim comes hither still to worship at the shrine of the past, and, under the ancestral cedars and sycamores, feels something gather upon him of the awe of lost religions.

Through a rich cultivated loneliness the road winds back across the Tweed and down the country southwards from St Boswells. Partly following the line of the ancient Roman road, or Watling Street, its character, on a still day of late autumn, suits well with the mood of the reminiscent pedestrian. From the quiet fields the harvest has been gathered in; only sometimes in the distance there is heard the creaking of a loaded cart bearing the last sheaves home. Among the woods, where the air is heavy with scents that recall old garden memories, the brown road rises between hedges of glowing russet red, deep yellow, and fading green; overhead in the avenues the branches of the stirless trees are stained, like cathedral clerestories at afternoon, with the rich splendours of their autumn colour; and from the woodland depths on either hand only sometimes is the stillness broken by the whistle of a bird.

Slowly the country ascends to Lilliard’s Edge, the watershed between Tweed and Teviot. Here, just on the ridge, in the heart of the plantation to the left of the road, lies a lonely walled grave with a history. It is quaintly inscribed, "To a’ true Scotsmen. I hae mendit it. To you I commend it." In the hollow of Ancrum Moor just beyond, it was, that, three hundred years ago, was fought a great battle of the Borders. Following the devastating raid of Lord Hertford, already referred to in connection with the destruction of Melrose Abbey, Henry VIII. had assigned to Sir Ralph Evers and Sir Brian Laitoun possession of whatever lands they might capture in Scotland; and, in 1544, these filibustering barons had laid waste with dreadful havoc the valleys of Merse and Teviotdale. In 1545 they came north again with 5200 men, and, ravaging as they went, had reached Meirose, where, the abbey itself being already destroyed, they vented their spirit in mutilating the memorials of the dead — among others, the tombs of the Dark Knight of Liddesdale and of the Douglas who fell at Otterbourne. Presently, however, they heard that the Earl of Angus, breathing vengeance for the destruction of these tombs of his race, was, with Albany, the Regent of Scotland, gathering a force to oppose them. At these tidings they retired towards Jedburgh; and Angus, with but a fifth of their force, was not able to do more than hang upon their rear. On Ancrum Moor close by here, however, the earl was reinforced by Norman Leslie, Master of Rothes, with three hundred spearmen from Fife ; and Scott of Buccleugh came galloping up to say that his Borderers were rising. Angus then invented a strategy. Dismounting his men, he made the camp-boys ride back on the horses up the hillside here behind him. Evers perceiving this, and believing the Scots to be in retreat, made hasty pursuit, and his troops, coming precipitately over the brow of the next hill, with the afternoon sun blazing full in their faces, almost ran upon the spear-points of the compact little company of the north. A long account was due for the ravages Evers had been making in Scotland, and it was settled then. A thousand of his men, with Laitoun and himself, were slain, and almost as many were made prisoners; small mercy being granted to foes who, in their time of power, had shown none. Many gallant deeds were done on the field that day, and many hard blows given and taken. But the greatest credit of all in the fight was won by a Scottish maid. This young woman, tradition runs, had followed her lover from the village of Maxton, close by, and seeing him fall, she rushed with Amazonian courage to avenge him, dealing her blows right and left to such good purpose that she was largely the means of turning the fight, and her name was given to the battle-field. The ancient epitaph re-inscribed upon her tomb reads :—

Fair maiden Lilliard lies under this stane;
Little was her stature, but muckle was her fame.
Upon the English loons she laid mony thumps,
And when her legs were cuttit off she fought upon her stumps.

The conditions under which she continued the struggle are somewhat similar, it will be noticed, to those recorded of Squire Withington at the battle of Chevy Chase. Poor lass! if the story be true, hers was a doughty way of expressing her grief. At the same time there must be taken into account the fact, pointed out by Skene, that the name Lilliard’s Edge may be no more than a modification of Lilisyhater, the name of the spot in the 12th century.

Downhill from Lilliard’s Edge the road runs to Teviotside through forests lone and fair, with hamlet and cottage sometimes in leafy glade and on open hillside. Yellow canariensis and purple clematis flower late on the walls of these; but the crimson tropeolum has seeded by October, and the blue convolvulus is withered.

Historic associations are crusted thick upon the landscape here. A little way down the road which branches off to the right lies Ancrum village. An ancient appanage of the bishopric of Glasgow, it enjoyed the distinction of being burned by the Earl of Rutland, when pursuing D’Esse, the French ally of the Scots, in 1549. The place has a cross of the date of Alexander III., and extensive remains of a hospital of the Knights of St John. There are the ruins near it, too, of a Pictish fort, and of one of the monasteries of David I., besides fifteen caves of refuge in the rocky banks of the Ale Water, similar retreats to the caves at Rosslyn used by Ramsay of Dalhousie in the wars of David Bruce.

But Jedburgh is still two miles away, and already it is growing dusk. There is time only for a glance at the deer in the forest-park about Ancrum House. The place was the favourite residence of William De Bondington, Bishop of Glasgow in the thirteenth century; and he died here, after resigning his bishopric, like Abbot Boniface, in 1258. About the house, in the twilight, a mighty cawing of rooks fills the air, and the moss-grown gateway looks ancient enough to have seen the entry of the good prelate himself. On, however, across the stone bridge of the Teviot, with its quaint pointed pillars; and up the quiet little valley of the Jed. And as the gloaming at last deepens into mirk, it is pleasant to hear the bells of Jedburgh ringing the quarter-chimes.


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