59 The Scottish Chiefs - Chapter 29 - The Barns of Ayr

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The Scottish Chiefs
Chapter 29 - The Barns of Ayr


WHILE the little bark bounded over the waves towards the main land, the poor pilgrims of earth who were its freight-age, with heavy hearts bent towards each other, intent on the further information they were to receive.

"Here is a list of the murdered chiefs: and of those who are in the dungeons, expecting the like treatment;" continued Graham, holding out a parchment; "it was given to me by my faithful servant." ‘Wallace took it, but seeing his grandfather’s name at the top, be could look no further: closing the scroll, "Gallant Graham," said he, "I want no stimulus to urge me to the extirpation I meditate. If the sword of Heaven be with us, not one perpetrator of this horrid massacre, shall be alive to-morrow to repeat the deed."

"What massacre?" Edwin ventured to inquire. Wallace put the parchment into his hand. Edwin opened the roll, and on seeing the words, "A list of the Scottish Chiefs murdered on the 18th of June, 1297, in the Judgement-Hall of the English Barons at Ayr," his cheek, paled by the suspense of his mind, now reddened with the hue of indignation; but when the venerated name of his general's grandfather, met his sight, his horror-struck eye sought the face of Wallace: it was dark as before; and he was now in earnest discourse with Graham.

Forbearing to interrupt him, Edwin continued to read over the, blood-registered names. In turning the page, his eye glanced to the opposite side; and he saw at the head of "A list of prisoners in the dungeons of Ayr," the name of "Lord Dundaff," and immediately after it, that of "Lord Ruthven!" He uttered a piercing cry; and extending his arms to Wallace, who turned round at so unusual a sound, the terror-struck boy exclaimed, "My father is in their bands, !—Oh! if you are indeed my brother, fly to Ayr, and save him !"

Wallace took up the open list which Edwin had dropped ; he saw the name of Lord Ruthven’s amongst the prisoners; and folding his arms round this affectionate son, "Compose yourself" said he, "it is to Ayr I am going: and if the God of justice be our speed, your father, and Lord Dundaff shall not see another day in prison."

Edwin threw himself on the neck of his friend: "My benefactor !" was all he could utter. Wallace pressed him silently to his bosom.

"Who is this youth ?" inquired Graham; "to which of the noble companions of my captive father, is he son?"

"To William Ruthven," [This William Ruthven, Baron of Ruthven on the Spey, and Lord of the Castle of Hunting-tower, which stands on the Tay, two miles from Perth, was the ancestor of the Earls of Gowrie; and of the renowned Ruthven, Earl of Forth and Brentford, who so greatly signalised himself in the armies of Gustavus Adolphus. William Lord Ruthven, who with his.family were the fast friends of Wallace, performed services to Scotland more numerous than the disposition of this volume affords room to recount. And, to pay this tribute to the memory of the ancestor of two brave brothers, right worthy of their origin,—once the dearest friends of the family of the writer, and now in a better world, —embalms the tear, that time can never dry.—(1809)] answered Wallace; "the valiant Lord of the Carse of Gowrie. And it is a noble scion from that glorious root. He it was, that enabled me to win Dumbarton. Look up, my brother!" cried Wallace, trying to regain so tender a mind, from the paralysing terrors which had seized it: "Look up, and hear me recount the first fruits of your maiden arms, to our gallant friend?"

Covered with blushes, arising from anxious emotion, as well as from a happy consciousness of having won the praises of his general, Edwin rose from his breast, and bowing to Sir John, still leaned his head upon the shoulder of Wallace. That amiable being, who, when seeking to wipe the tear of affliction from the cheek of others, minded not the drops of blood which were distilling in secret from his own heart, began the recital of his first acquaintance with his young Sir Edwin. He enumerated every particular; his bringing the detachment from Bothwell, through the enemy-encircled mountains; to Glenfinlass; his scaling the walls of Dumbarton, to make the way smooth for the Scots to ascend; and his after prowess in that well-defended fortress. As Wallace proceeded, the wonder of Graham was raised to a pitch, only to be equalled by his admiration; and taking the hand of Edwin "Receive me, brave youth," said he, "as your second brother; Sir William Wallace is your first; but, this night, we shall fight side by side for our fathers; and let that be our bond of kindred."

Edwin pressed the young chief’s cheek, with his innocent lips: "Let us, together, free them ;" cried he; "and then we shall be born twins in happiness."

"So be it," cried Graham; "and Sir William Wallace, be the sponsor of that hour!"

Wallace smiled on them; and turning his head towards the shore, when the vessel doubled a certain point, he saw the beach covered with armed men. To be sure they were his own, he drew his sword, and waved it in the air. At that moment a hundred falchions flashed in the sunbeams, and the shouts of "Wallace !" came loudly on the breeze.

Graham and Edwin started on their feet; the seamen plied their oars; the boat dashed into the breakers—and Wallace, leaping on shore, was received with acclamations by his eager soldiers.

He no sooner landed, than he commenced his march. Murray joined him on the banks of the Irwin; and as Ayr was no very great distance from that river, at two hours before midnight the little army entered Laglane wood; where they halted, while Wallace, with his chieftaiis proceeded to reconnoitre the town, The wind swept in gusts through the frees, and seemed by its dismal yellings, to utter warnings of the dreadful retributions he was about to inflict. He had already declared his plan of destruction and Graham, as a first measure, went to the spot he had fixed on with Macdougal, his servant, as a place of rendezvous. He returned with the man; who informed Wallace, that in honour of the sequestrated lands of the murdered chiefs having been that day partitioned by De valence amongst certain Southron lords, a grand feast was going on in the governor’s palace. Under the very roof where they had shed the blood of the trusting Scots, they were now keeping this carousal!

"Now, then, is our time to strike !" cried Wallace: and ordering detachments of his men to take possession of the avenues to the town, he set forth with others, to reach the front of the castle gates, by a less frequented path than the main street. The darkness being so great that no object could be distinctly seen, they had not gone far, before Macdougal who had undertaken to be their guide, discovered by the projection of a hill on the right, that he had lost the road.

"Our swords will find one !" exclaimed Kirkpatrick.

Unwilling to miss any advantage, in a situation where so much was at stake, Wallace gladly hailed a twinkling light, which gleamed from what he supposed the window of a distant cottage. Kirkpatrick, with Macdougal, offered to go forward, and explore what it might be. In a few minutes they arrived at a thatched building; from which, to their surprise, issued the wailing strains of the coronach. [Coronach, a national dirge sung over the body of a dead chief.— 1809.)] Kirkpatrick paused. Its melancholy notes were sung by female voices. Hence, there being no danger in applying to such harmless inhabitants, to learn the way to the citadel, he proceeded to the door; when, intending to knock, the weight of his mailed arm burst open its slender latch, and discovered two poor women, in an inner apartment, wringing their hands over a shrouded corse. While the chief entered his friends came up. Murray and Graham, struck with sounds never breathed over the vulgar dead, lingered at the porch wondering what noble Scot could be the subject of lamentation in so lowly an abode. The stopping of these two chieftains impeded the steps of Wallace; who was pressing forward, without eye or ear for anything but the object of his march. Kirkpatrick at that moment appeared on the threshold, and without a word, putting forth his hand, seized the arm of his commander and pulled him into the cottage. Before Wallace could ask the reason of this, he saw a woman run forward with a light in her hand; the beams of which falling on the face of the knight of Ellerslie, with a shriek of joy she rushed towards him, and threw herself upon his neck.

He instantly recognised Elspa, his nurse; the faithful attendant on his grandfather’s declining years; the happy matron who had decked the bridal bed of his Marion! and with an anguish of recollections that almost unmanned him, he returned her affectionate embrace.

"Here he lies!" cried the old woman, drawing him towards the rushy bier; and before he had time to demand, "Who?" she pulled down the shroud, and disclosed the body of, Sir Ronald Crawford. Wallace gazed on it, with a look of such dreadful import, that Edwin, whose anxious eyes then sought his countenance, trembled with a nameless honor. "Oh," thought he, "to what is this noble soul reserved! Is he alone doomed to extirpate the enemies of Scotland, that every ill falls direct upon his head!"

"Sorry, sorry bier, for the good Lord Ronald!" cried the old woman; "a poor wake [Wake is a ceremony still used by the friends of the dead, in the highlands of Scotland. They sit up with the body to lament over it; and dluring their time of mourning, regale themselves with sumptuous feasts.-(1809.)] to mourn the loss of him who was the benefactor of all the country round! But had I not brought him here, the salt sea must have been his grave." Her sobs prevented her utterance; but after a short pause, with many vehement lamentations over the virtues of the dead, and imprecations on his murderers, she related, that as soon as the woeful tidings were brought to Monktown kirk, (and brought too by the Southron who was to take it in possession!) she and the clan’s-folk who would not swear fidelity to the new lord, were driven from the house. She hastened to the bloody theatre of massacre; and there beheld the bodies of the murdered chiefs, drawn on sledges to the sea-shore. Elspa knew that of her master, by a scar on his breast, which he had received in the battle of Largs. When she saw corse after corse, thrown, with a careless band, into the waves; and the man approached who was to cast the honoured chief of Monktown, to the same unhallowed burial, she, threw herself frantically on the body; and so moved the man’s compassion, that, taking advantage of the time when his comrades were out of sight, he permitted her to wrap the dead Sir Ronald in her plaid, and so carry him away between her sister and herself. But ere she had raised her sacred burden, the man directed her to seek the venerable head from amongst the others, which lay mingled in a sack; drawing it forth, she placed it beside the body; and then hastily retired with both, to the hovel where Wallace had found her. It was a shepherd’s hut, from which the desolation of the times having long ago driven away its former inhabitant, she had hoped that in so lonely an obscurity, she might have performed without notice, a chieftain’s rites, to the remains of the murdered lord of the very lands on which she wept him. These over, she meant he should be interred in secret by the fathers of a neighbouring church, which he had once richly endowed. With these intentions, she and her sister were chanting over him the sad dirge of their country, when Sir Roger Kirkpatrick burst open the door.—

"Ah !" cried she, as she closed the dismal narrative; "though two lonely women were all they had left of the lately thronged household of Sir Ronald Crawford, to raise the last lament over his revered body; yet in that sad midnight hour, our earthly voices were not alone; the wakeful spirits of his daughters, hovered in the air, and joined the deep coronach !"

Wallace sighed heavily as he looked on the animated face of the aged mourner. Attachment to the venerable dead, seemed to have inspired her with thoughts beyond her station; but the heart is an able teacher, and he saw that true affection speaks but one language.

As her ardent eyes withdrew from their heavenward gaze, they fell upon the shrouded face of her master. A napkin concealed the wound of decapitation. "Chiefs" cried she, in a burst of recollection; "ye have not seen all the cruelty of these murderers I" At these words she suddenly withdrew the linen, and lifting up the pale head, held it woefully towards Wallace: "Here;" cried she, "once more kiss these lips! They have often kissed yours, when you were a babe; and as insensible to his love, as he is now to your sorrow."

Wallace received the head in his arms; the long silver beard, thick with gouts of blood, hung over his hands. He gazed on it, intently, for some minutes. An awful silence pervaded the room: every eye was riveted upon him.

Looking round on his friends, with a countenance, whose deadly hue gave a sepulchral fire to the gloomy denunciation of his eyes; "Was it necessary," said he, "to turn my heart to iron, that I was brought to see this sight?" All the tremendous purpose of his soul was read in his face, while he laid the head back upon the bier. His lips again moved, but none heard what he said. He rushed from the hut; and, with rapid strides, proceeded in profound silence towards the palace. [The parallel scene to this, in blind Harrie’s poem, is yet more horribly described: its painting might have been too strong for a work of this kind; but the simple and pathetic lamentations of the nurse in the old poem, are not to be equalled by any copy in modern prose._(1809)]

He well knew that no honest Scot could be under that roof. The building, though magnificent, was altogether a structure of wood; to fire it, then, was his determination. To destroy all, at once, in the theatre of their cruelty; to make an execution; not engage in a warfare of man to man was his resolution: for they were not soldiers he was seeking, but assassins: and to pitch his brave Scots in the open field, against such unmanly wretches, would be to dishonour his men; to give criminals a chance for the lives they had forfeited.

All being quiet in the few streets through which he passed, and having set strong bodies of men at the mouth of every sally-port of the citadel, he made a bold attack upon the guard at the barbican-gate; and, ere they could give the alarm, all being slain, he and his chosen troop entered the portal, and made direct to the palace. The lights which blazed through the windows of the banqueting-hall showed him to the spot; and, having detached Graham and Edwin to storm the keep, where their fathers were confined, he took the half-intoxicated sentinels at the palace-gates by surprise, and striking them into a sleep from which they would wake no more, he fastened the doors upon the assassins. His men surrounded the building with hurdles, filled with combustibles, which they had prepared according to his directions; and, when all was ready, Wallace, with the mighty spirit of retribution nerving every limb, mounted to the roof, and tearing off the shingles; with a flaming brand in his hand, showed himself to the affrighted revellers beneath; and, as he threw it blazing amongst them, he cried aloud, "The blood of the murdered, calls for vengeance, and it comes."

At that instant, the matches were put to the faggots which surrounded the building; and the party within springing from their seats, hastened towards the doors. All were fastened on them; and retreating into the midst of the room, they fearfully looked towards the tremendous figure above, which, like a supernatural being, seemed indeed come to rain fire upon their guilty heads. Some shook with superstitious dread; others, driven to atheistical despair, with horrible execrations, again strove to force a passage through the doors. A second glance, told De Valence whose was the hand which had launched the thunderbolt at his feet; and, turning to Sir Richard Arnulf, he cried, in a voice of horror, "My arch-enemy is there!"

Thick smoke, rising from within and without the building, now obscured his terrific form. The shouts of the Scots, as the fire covered its walls, and the streaming flames, licking the windows, and pouring into every opening of the building, raised such a terror in the breasts of the wretches within, that, with the most horrible cries, they, again and again, flew to the doors to escape. Not an avenue appeared: almost suffocated with smoke, and scorched by the blazing rafters which fell from the burning roof, they at last made a desperate attempt to break a passage through the great portal. Arnulf was at their head; and sunk to abjectness by his despair, in a voice which terror rendered piercing, he called aloud for mercy. The words reached the ear of Sir Roger Kirkpatrick, who stood nearest to the door. In a voice of thunder, he replied, "‘That ye gave, ye shall receive. Where was mercy, when our fathers and our brothers fell beneath your murderous axes!"

Aymer de Valence came up at this moment, with a wooden pillar which he, and the strongest men in the company had torn from under the gallery that surrounded the room; and, with all their strength, dashing it against the great door, they at last drove it from its bolts. But now a wall of men opposed them. Desperate at the sight, and with a burning furnace in their rear, it was not the might of man that could prevent their escape; and with the determination of despair, rushing forward, the foremost rank of the Scots fell. But ere the exulting Southrons could press out into the open space, Wallace himself had closed upon them; and Arnulf, the merciless Arnulf, whose voice had pronounced the sentence of death upon Sir Ronald Crawford, died beneath his hand.

Wallace was not aware that he had killed the governor of Ayr, till the terror-struck exclamations of his enemies informed him, that the ruthless instigator of the massacre was slain. This event was welcome news to the Scots; and hoping that the next death would be that of De Valence, they pressed on with redoubled energy.

Aroused by so extraordinary a noise, and alarmed by the flames of the palace, the soldiers quartered near, hastened half-armed to the spot. But their presence rather added to the confusion, than gave assistance to the besieged. They were, without leaders; and not daring to put themselves to action, for fear of being afterwards punished (in the case of a mischance) for having presumed to move without their officers, they stood dismayed and irresolute; while those very officers, who had been all at the banquet, were falling in heaps under the swords of the exterminating Scots.

Meanwhile, the men who guarded the prisoners in the keep, having their commanders with them, made a stout resistance there. And one of the officers, seeing a possible advantage, stole out; and gathering a company of the scattered garrison, suddenly taking Graham in flank, made no inconsiderable havoc amongst that part of his division. Edwin blew the signal for assistance. Wallace heard the blast; and seeing the day was won at the palace, he left the finishing of the affair to Kirkpatrick and Murray; and, drawing off a small party to reinforce Graham, he took the Southron officer by surprise. The enemy’s ranks fell around him, like corn beneath the sickle; and grasping a huge battering ram which his men had found, he burst open the door of the keep. Graham and Edwin rushed in; and Wallace, sounding his own bugle with the notes of victory, his reserves (whom he had placed at the ends of the streets) entered in every direction, and received the flying soldiers of De Valence upon their pikes. Dreadful was now the carnage; for the Southrons, forgetting all discipline, fought every man for his life; while the furious Scots, driving them into the far-spreading flames, what escaped the sword would have perished in the fire, had not the relenting heart of Wallace pleaded for bleeding humanity, and he ordered the trumpet to sound a parley. He was obeyed; and, standing on an adjacent mound, in an awful voice he proclaimed, that, "whoever had not been accomplices in the horrible massacre of the Scottish chiefs, if they would ground their arms, and take an oath never to serve again against Scotland, their lives should be spared."

Hundreds of swords fell to the ground; and their late holders, kneeling at his feet, took the oath prescribed. At the head of those who surrendered, appeared the captain who had commanded at the prison. He was the only officer of all the late garrison who survived: all else had fallen in the conflict, or perished in the flames; and when he saw that not one of his late numerous companions existed, to go through the same humiliating ceremony, with an aghast countenance he said to Wallace, as he presented his sword, "Then I must believe that, with this weapon, I am surrendering to Sir William Wallace the possession of this castle and the government of Ayr. I see not one of my late commanders-all must be slain; and for me to hold out longer, would be to sacrifice my men, not to redeem that which has been so completely wrested from us. But I serve severe exactors; and I hope that your testimony, my conqueror, will assure my king I fought as became his standard."

[The narrator of this terrible event, would be stripping herself of one of the brightest leaves in the evergreen wreath which the beloved. "land of the holly" has given to her, did she deny herself the pleasure of expressing, here, to Mrs. Joanna Baillie, her just appreciation of that lady’s honouring opinion on the above-described scene.—She, whom so many countries have united in recognising as the true dramatic "sister of Shakspeare," has said—that Miss Porter’s account, in her "Scottish Chiefs," of the burning of the Barns of Ayr, and of Wallace’s appearance in the conflagration, was one of the sublimest descriptions she had ever read. The reader may find her eloquent words on the subject, in a note annexed to a poem, which forms part of Mrs. Joanna Baillie’s historical volume of "Metrical Legends."

Sir Walter Scott, too, has not been backward in awarding his invaluable testimony on the merit of this scene, by making it appear as reflected again in one of his works, the beautiful poem of "Rokeby;" where the adoption of her description of the burning palace of Ayr, and of Sir William Wallace in the flaming rafters, has been often pointed out to the authoress of "The Scottish Chiefs." A spirit for literary forray has so repeatedly been playfully and frankly avowed by him, in different pages of his magic books, that no one need be surprised at such transfers: and, surely, no wandering shepherdess could see a sheep of hers gathered into that mighty wizard’s fold, without feeling pride rather than loss, in the selection !—(Note, appended to an edition in 1828.)]

Wallace gave him a gracious answer; and committing him to the generous care of Murray, he turned, to give orders to Ker respecting the surrendered, and the slain. During these momentous events, Graham had deemed it prudent that, exhausted by anxiety and privations, the noble captives should not come forth to join in the battle; and not until the sound of victory echoed through the arches of their dungeons, would he suffer the eager Dundaff to see and thank his deliverer. Meanwhile, the young Edwin appeared before the eyes of his father, like the angel who opened the prison-gates to Peter. After embracing him with all a son’s fondness; in which for the moment he lost the repressing idea, that he might have offended by his truancy; after recounting, in a few hasty sentences, the events which had brought him to be a companion of Sir William Wallace; and to avenge the injuries of Scotland in Ayr, he knocked off the chains of his amazed father. Eager to perform the like service to all who had suffered in the like manner, and accompanied by the happy Lord Ruthven, (who gazed with delight on his-son, treading so early the path of glory,) he hastened around to the other dungeons; and gladly proclaimed to the astonished inmates, freedom and safety. Having rid them of their shackles, he had just entered with his noble company, into the vaulted chamber which contained the released Lord Dundaff, when the peaceful clarion sounded. At the joyful tidings, Graham started on his feet: "Now, my father, you shall see the bravest of men!"


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