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Byways of the Scottish Border
East of the Ballad Country


THE country about the lower reaches of the Tweed, though perhaps less illustrious with song than the upland vale of Yarrow and St Mary’s Loch, is rich with vivid memories of historic events. The difference appears to be that while the upland sources of Ettrick, Yarrow, and Tweed seem haunted by the spirit, mystic and poetic chivalrous, and withal sad, of the ancient Cymric race who had their fastnesses there, this lower champagne country has associations rather of the iron deeds of later history, the warlike aggressions in turn, of Saxon, and Dane, and Norman, and the more modern struggles of the Scottish nation against the masterful attempts of Plantagenets and Tudors. Thriving towns there are upon the river banks, trim, fresh, and pleasant, where the agricultural and pastoral products of the district find a market-place But it is not in the modern aspect of these towns that the interest centres. Curiously significant it seems that, even in this age of wealth-worship, human nature pays its instinctive homage, not to the places redolent of keen bargainings, but to the scenes of ancient valour and chivalry and learning—not to the exchange or the counting-house, as might be expected, but to ruined castle or cloister or the scene of some old and mournful story. From which it would appear that it may not be gold after all, nor even cleverness in getting it, that makes life glorious or worth remembering.

In this way Coldstream as a modern market-town possesses little interest for the visitor. It is Coldstream as a place of suggestive memories that the pilgrim pauses to see.

A famous ford in ancient times, it was here that the hostile armies of England and Scotland perhaps most frequently crossed the Tweed into each other’s territory. Here, about the year 1150, an abbey of the white - robed Cistercian nuns was founded by Cospatrick, fourth Earl of Dunbar, and his countess, Derder. Here, in 1491, three years after the death of James III. at Sauchieburn, the plots of Henry VII. against the young King of Scots were stopped for a time by the signing of a treaty between Scotland and England. And here, during Cromwell’s wars, General Monk spent a winter, and raised his famous regiment, the Coldstream Guards. One additional fact which is, perhaps, not generally known regarding the bright little place, may also be recorded. It was formerly, and probably still is, on the east Border what Gretna Green was on the west, a recognised resort for the celebration of Scots marriages.

To the present day in any part of Scotland, a simple declaration before witnesses constitutes a legal marriage. The superior advantage of executing that declaration at Gretna, and perhaps also at Coldstream, was that a record of the occurrence was preserved. Accordingly, in the books at Gretna are still to be seen the names of hundreds—peers, naval and military officers, and all sorts and conditions of men — who during the last century and a half have come there to seal the fate of their lives with stolen or romantic brides. Despatch and secrecy were the chief advantages of these Border marriages, there being available at each of the well-known stations, at any hour of the day or night, a "blacksmith," so called from his readiness to strike while the iron was hot. No fewer than three Lord Chancellors—Erskine, Brougham, and Eldon—made runaway Border marriages of this sort, one at least of the three, Lord Brougham, being married at Coldstream.1 [1 See The Gretna Green Memoirs, by Robert Elliot, the Gretna Green "blacksmith" of his day.] At the northern end of the bridge over the Tweed at the latter place stands a little house in which the run- away couples of Northumberland and Yorkshire used to find an opportunity of declaring themselves man and wife. Some thirty or forty years ago the ancient facility was still made use of by farm-servants and others of these neighbouring counties, who after enjoying the amenities of a cheap wedding at the bridge, were wont to be escorted in state through the town by a happy procession of pipers, ragamuffins, and children.

The most heroic memories of Coldstream, however, are probably those connected with the famous castle of Wark. On the Tweed, a mile above Coldstream, stands the castle; and though late evening is not the time usually chosen for sightseeing, there is a peculiar charm of solitude then in the air, which suits at least this storied country well.

The road from the town is dusk enough when the moon is obscured, and from the river bank no more than a ghostly gleam of light can be seen on the dark water swirling below, sullen and deep, and suggestive of tragedy. Then there is the ferry to be hallooed for, in primitive fashion, till a light appears high among the trees of the opposite bank, and winds its flickering way down towards the boat. Meanwhile there is time to reflect that on the spot where one stands, during the last unsuccessful campaign of the vacillating Regent Albany in 1523, Ker of Fernihirst, with Buchanan the historian and future reformer in his train, planted the Scottish cannon against the castle. [See the Life of George Buchanan prefixed to the transladon of his History of Scotland, by James Aikman, Glasgow. 1827.] A lonely enough place it is now. Not a sound is to be heard in the darkness but the creak of oars as the ferry makes its way across, and the waters of the river, as they lap with a gentle murmur against the bows. Strange, too, to step ashore, a single adventurer, under that frowning shadow. Might not the dead sentinels wake?

Wars ebbed and flowed continually of old round the walls of this great fortress, and it played its part more than once in the rise and fall of kingdoms. But its chief fame rests with the legend that a lady dropped her garter here five hundred years ago. Tradition relates how, in 1349, when Edward III., on one of his warlike expeditions to Scotland, was holding a court at Wark, the fair Countess of Salisbury, wife of the castelan, let fall a garter in the presence of the king. Not a courtier essayed to restore it to its embarrassed owner, until Edward himself stooped gallantly and picked it up. At this a titter ran round the brilliant ring; whereupon, it is said, the king, with the haughty words, "Honi soit qui mal y pense," fastened the ribbon round his own royal knee, and thus instituted the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Allan Ramsay, in his Morning Interview, apostrophises the incident:

A lady’s garters, earth! their very name,
Though yet unseen, sets all the soul on flame.
The royal Ned knew well their mighty charms,
Else he’d ne’er hooped one round the English arms.
Let barb’rous honours crowd the sword and lance,
Thou next their king does British knights advance.
O Garter!
Honi soit qui mal y pense."

But of Wark Castle there remains only a great mound, overgrown with foliage, and silent against, the sky—all that is left of the halls where chivalry was wont to pace, where a light word once made history, and the lovely Salisbury smiled on the warrior king.

Nothing further is to be seen about the spot, and the pilgrim, lingering a while, at last must take the road over the hill to the wayside station. And away presently through the cool night air and the darkness, by the Tweedside, eastward, runs the journey of the rumbling wheels.

Everywhere along the route the scents of the fresh country come in at the open window—scents reminiscent of the silent pastures and the storied woodlands. Here may be felt most strongly the mysterious charm of passing through a historic country by night. The names of the places are themselves every one full of suggestion, and the imagination is free to form its own romance as to the scenery amid which they are set. When rustic labourers, earth-stained and smelling of the soil, come in out of the darkness at Twizel station, it is curious to discover that these men have plodded every day of their lives over the bridge there without a thought that once upon its crossing hung the destiny of Scotland. Not but that the darkness and the mystery of the moonlight are tantalising enough at times. Norham tower - and town here, its church and castle and market-cross, its quaint inns and curious houses, pass like a dream in the night.

Day set long ago on the living glory of that "castled steep," but the fame of the deeds done there in ancient days is not likely soon to be forgotten. Of the feudal fortress itself by "Tweed’s fair river broad and deep," a massive ruin still keeps ward upon the Border, and castle and church and village alike are full of reminiscence of history and romance.

David I., in 1138, when marching against the usurper Stephen, to support the right of the Empress Matilda to the English throne, took the castle from Flambard, its Northumbrian bishop-lord; and though presently it returned to English hands, its keeping proved no easy task. The holding of that great red-stone keep of Norham, indeed, on its steep, tree-grown bank, was for centuries afterwards a gage of chivalry. Hither, in 1318, there came from Lincoln an actual Sir William Marmion, helmed with gold, it is said, under pledge to win his lady-love by defending Norham "for a year and a day." Alas for the gallant! however, the Scots Borderers proved too warlike for him, and he lost his gage, his lady, and his life, in a single ambuscade. Here, on 10th May, 1291, Edward I. met the Wardens of Scotland to arrange the succession to the Scottish crown—by which "arrangement" the crafty English king sowed the seeds of the dire Wars of Succession in the northern kingdom. And it was in the green meadow opposite the castle that on 13th June of the same year most of the great nobles of Scotland took, upon the Gospels, oath of allegiance to the English king.

After many capturings by Scots and English in turn, the fortress was besieged by James IV. in 1497; and it was finally taken by the same king just before the battle of Flodden. At one of these sieges the famous cannon, Mons Meg, brought from Edinburgh for the purpose, battered the walls with her stone projectiles. In the village church, too— the ancient place of worship, with its massive Norman tower, in the quiet burial-ground beside the Tweed—the marriage treaty of 1551 was signed between Edward VI. and the infant Scots queen, Mary. The story of that treaty is well told by Scott in his Tales of a Grandfather. Mary was but nine years old at the time, and the rapacity of Henry VIII. in insisting upon the betrothal was resented by the Scottish nobles. Henry, however, threatened war, which, in the distracted state of Scotland just then, would have proved disastrous. Immediate trouble was finally avoided upon the advice of a Scottish councillor who told his fellow statesmen a story. It was the story of a certain sultan who, upon pain of death for refusal, commanded his court physician to teach a donkey to speak. The physician undertook the task, but stipulated for ten years in which to accomplish it, and when rallied by his fellow courtiers upon the impossibility of his undertaking, proved his wisdom by his answer — in ten years the ass might die, the sultan might die, or he himself might die, whereas, had he refused the command outright, his immediate death would have been ensured. So Henry VIII. was satisfied by the treaty of Norham, which, as the wisdom of its Scots supporters foresaw, was nullified by the early death of Edward VI.

Events like these, though past, are not forgotten, and by reason of them the single little street of the village by the river, with the great Norman donjon rising at its end, remains a place of national interest.

Soon after passing Norham the cool wind is felt coming from the sea, while the shining lights of Tweedmouth and Berwick appear scattered along the shores of the narrow firth. And presently, steaming over the bridge on which the engineer Stephenson wrote in letters of gold, "THE LAST ACT OF THE UNION," the train stands still in the ancient capital of the Bernician kings.

From the remotest past Berwick has been a place of name and story. The county formed part of the Roman province of Valentia, and Bede has recorded that it was Christianized towards the close of the fourth century by Ninias, "a most reverend bishop and holy man of the British nation." According to the mediaeval romance-legends which echoed the history of early British times, Berwick was presently the Joyeuse Garde, the stronghold of the renowned Lancelot. Later, when the Saxon Ida, landing on the coast and driving back the British and Pictish inhabitants, founded his kingdom of Northumbria in 547, Berwick must have been one of his chief towns. Upon his death, at any rate, at the hands of Owen, a noble Briton, in 549, when his kingdom was divided into two, Deira and Bernicia, Berwick became the capital of the district between the Tyne and the Forth. In turn the Saxons were invaded by the sea-roving Danes, who, when they burned Coldingham and Lindisfarne, doubtless found Berwick one of their richest prizes. Torfaeus, as an evidence of wealth, narrates how, when the wife of Cnut the Opulent, one of the town’s merchants, returning from a pilgrimage, was taken by pirates, that magnate was able to set off in pursuit with a fleet of fourteen sail in full array of war. The place’s position at the deep river mouth must always have made it a good harbour, the first essential for maritime prosperity.

In 1020, reunited Northumbria having sunk to an earldom, the district north of Tweed was ceded to Malcolm II., King of Scots, and Berwick for the first time became a Scottish town. Many, after that, were its turns of fortune. Surrendered to England by William the Lion in order to regain his liberty after the battle of Alnwick in 1174, it, with Roxburgh, was restored to the Scottish king by Richard Coeur de Lion in 1189, for a payment of ten thousand merks, when Richard was raising funds for his crusade. Richard’s successor, John, bore Berwick an especial grudge, and, to overawe it, built at Tweedmouth across the river a fortress which William the Lion promptly pulled down. After the death of the Scots king, however, John took and burned the town, torturing the inhabitants by way of reprisal, on his raid into the north in 1215.

Notwithstanding such sudden vicissitudes, Berwick had become in the thirteenth century the principal port in Scotland, and was described in the Chronicle of Lanercost as a "city so populous and of such trade that it might justly be called another Alexandria, whose riches were the sea and the waters its walls." The wealth of the place, however, probably as much as its strategic importance, made it too great a prize, and its inhabitants in consequence had to suffer some terrible experiences.

Just before the fall of the first Baliol, when that unhappy prince found his vassalage to Edward I. becoming intolerable, the town was attacked and carried at the point of the sword, in his interest, by three hundred gentlemen from Fife. The consequent fate of the place at the hands of the English king—a fate secured by a stratagem always considered dishonourable in war — is tersely described in Wyntoun’s Cronykil of Scotland. Finding open assault of no avail, Edward struck his tents and marched away. Shortly afterwards, at sun-rising, the besieged saw what they took to be their expected succours of the north, an army with Scottish banners, coming towards them. But upon the gates being thrown open the disguised enemy rushed in, and began an immediate and merciless slaughter which lasted an entire day.

The English men there slew down
All hale the Scottish nation
That within that town they fand.
Of all condition nane sparand;
Learned and lewd, nun nnd frere,
All was slain with that powere;
Of allkyn state, of ailkyn age,
They spared neither carl nor page;
Baith auld and young, men and wives,
And sucking balms there tint their lives.
Yeoman and gentlemen alsa,
The lives all they took them fra.

Thus they slaying were sa fast
All the day, till at the last
This King Edward saw in that tide
A woman slain, and of her side
A bairn he saw fail out, sprewland
Beside that woman slain lyand.
"Laissez, laissez!" then cried he;
"Leave off, leave off," that word should be.

Seven thousand and five hundred were
Bodies reckoned that slain were there.
Two days out, as a deep flood,
Through all the town there ran red blood.

Berwick was presently retaken by Sir William Wallace after his victory at Stirling Bridge. It soon, however, fell again into the hands of the English king, and it was in the castle there, a few years later, that Edward did another altogether unpardonable thing. From time immemorial it had been the hereditary duty of the earls of Fife to crown the Scottish kings. Following this rule, Isabella, Countess of Buchan, had, in default of her brother, the Earl of Fife, who was then on the English side, placed the golden circlet of royalty on the head of Robert the Bruce; and for her act of romantic patriotism the English king caused her to be shut up on the walls of Berwick in a wooden cage, where, according to one account, she hung exposed for seven years.

Berwick Castle was the last fortress held in Scotland by the English after Bannockburn. It was captured in 1318 by Douglas and the Earl of Moray, and the story of its subsequent lengthy defence by Walter Stewart against the attempt of Edward II. forms, as related in Barbour’s Bruce, one of the best extant pictures of a mediaval siege. Ten years later the great treaty of Northampton, which crowned the triumphs of Bruce with an ample declaration of the independence of Scotland, was sealed at Berwick by the marriage, with great joy and magnificence, of Bruce’s five year old son, David, to the almost equally juvenile Johanna, sister of Edward III. Bruce himself, on account of his increasing disease, we are informed by the chroniclers, was unable to be present, but he was represented by Randolph and Douglas, while on the English side appeared the Queen Dowager, the High Chancellor of England, the Bishop of Lincoln, and a splendid retinue. The promise of that day, it may be supposed, was welcomed by the long-harassed burghers of the town, but it was a promise fated to have only scant fulfilment.

Still another episode belonging to the same period, relating to the place, which illustrates vividly the ruthless cruelty of the age, is narrated at length by Wyntoun. In 1333, when Edward III. was besieging Berwick, of which Sir Alexander Seton was governor, the town, being hard pressed, made a covenant with the besiegers that unless relieved within three months it should be yielded up. In token of good faith the governor handed over as a hostage to the English king his son and heir Thomas Seton. Upon tidings of the compact, the Warden of Scotland, Lord Archibald of Douglas, gathered an army and marched to raise the siege. Fearing the success of that attack, the English, though the three months had not expired, demanded delivery of the town. This, as a breach of contract, Seton indignantly refused, whereupon the besiegers erected a tall gallows within sight of the walls, and actually hanged young Seton upon it before the eyes of his father and mother. It adds to the tragedy of the episode that the sacrifice did not save the town, for the Scots succours were presently defeated at Halidon Hill, all the prisoners, at Edward’s command, being put to death; and the whole country fell into the English hands, excepting four castles and a peel tower.

By way of contrast to those barbarities, under the walls of Berwick in 1338 was held a great and famous jousting, in which the knights of both English and Scottish sides, commanded respectively by Henry of Lancaster and Sir Alexander Ramsay, displayed no less courage and address than noble chivalry and high - hearted honour. The tournament, of which a very full description is given by Wyntoun, is chiefly memorable for the redoubtable jousting of Sir Patrick Graham.

A hundred and fifty years later, in 1482, Richard of Gloucester, with twenty-two thousand men, laid siege to Berwick, and took the town, but found the castle impregnable, under its governor, the stout Lord Hales. Nevertheless, shortly afterwards castle and town were ceded to England by the Scottish king. By that final cession, Berwick obtained some relief from harassment of war, and presently regained its ancient prosperity. By statute of Edward IV. it was made the channel of all merchandise passing from Scotland to England. Bounties also were granted to the monks of Melrose and others upon the shipments of wool, &c., which they might make from the port.

At last, in 1551 Berwick, after many changes of masters, was made a free town, part neither of England nor of Scotland, and in Acts of Parliament till recent years it had special mention as "the good town of Berwick."

Such were the vicissitudes of an old Border fortress. At no time in its history was the governor’s post here a sinecure. A striking, picture the place must often have made from the sea by night in troublous times, when, as the alarm bells went clashing in the town below, and the burghers went hurrying along the narrow streets to their places on the battlements, red fire began to pour from the walls and the castle ramparts, and a tongue of flame from the beacon - turret above shot up its warning to the Borders. Long ago, however, Berwick castle, notwithstanding its thrilling and warlike memories, was dismantled and demolished, and in its place now stands the railway station—fit type of the changes which the years have brought.

It is difficult on a warm Sunday morning, when the kirk bells are ringing and the quiet folk are moving in little knots to service across the steep clean streets, to realise that the place has so often been drenched with blood, that furious men have rushed through its narrow ways with torch and sword, while thatch and rafter flamed up to heaven, and the air rang full of the shouts of the victors, the hoarse oaths of the vanquished, and the shrieks of women in peril.

The grey old walls of the town still stand, and with the surrounding earthworks might yet, if fortified, make Berwick formidable to an invader. It was across Berwick bridge that, in 1603, James VI. of Scotland passed to the kingdom and throne of Elizabeth; and, before he did so, it is recorded that he inspected these walls and fortifications. One can picture him easily, the timid king of Scott’s Fortunes of Nigel, stepping quaintly round the ramparts and giving a wide berth to the cannon fired in his honour. On these walls, too, as he walked round them one May morning in 1787, Robert Burns records in the diary of his Border tour that he met Lord Errol, and "was much flattered" by his lordship’s notice.

After kirk-time this, as well as the breakwater running out to the lighthouse half a mile at sea, continues a favourite strolling ground with the townsfolk. These old ramparts form a choice resort for the long quiet talks of friendship, and this use of them appears to be by no means neglected either by the grey seniors or by the happy loiterers with whom it is still pairing-time. Tempted by the dry path and the sunshine, many an octogenarian may be seen taking the air along these walls, and as one passes knot after knot and couple after couple of interested younger folk, it would be difficult to say whether the rosy blush seen there upon a comely face were answer to the warm word of a lover, or only to the cool strong kiss of the sea.


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