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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XXV - On Lammer Law


EARLY one morning of last spring I pushed my bicycle along the Haugh at Haddington, planning to cross right over the top of Lammer Law. No great effort, in sooth, for the Lammermuirs are gentle hills, and Lammer Law, reputed the highest, is scarce 1800 feet, but the freshness of the time, the prospect of a day in the woods and fields and hills, gave that inspiring touch of romance which attaches to the beginning of a journey, be it great or small. As I passed over the wooden footbridge across the Tyne I looked at the channel filled with gravel and the green islands in midstream; the familiar note of the water is distinctly in my ears as I think of the easy, gliding river. "You hear her streams repine," says Scott, exactly hitting off the voice of the water nymph. I have long known the particular spot as the "Stanners Heids." The term puzzled me for years. Was it rightly placed there, or did it belong to another part of the river, and what did it mean? And then one day I happened to look into Gawin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld, himself a county man, and there, in one of the "Prologues" with which he adorns and beautifies his translation of the Æneid, was the word "Stanners." As the glossary explained, it was gravel in the bed of a stream. I saw what it meant, and why it fitted more than one place on the Tyne. This by the way.

I moved on, and was soon skirting the park wall of Lethington, or Lennoxlove as it is now called. I could just see the old grey keep of the Maitlands through the trees. There abode the two Lord Chancellors Maitland and their more famous son and brother, Secretary Maitland, who, when his own cause and Queen Mary’s cause went hopelessly to ruin, was thought to have ended himself, "as the auld Romans were wont to do," to avoid an ignominious death on the scaffold. But the Maitlands, and even their successors, are gone; and if you stop to muse over those old-world stories you progress not at all. So I swung round by Grant’s Braes and Eaglescairnie—delightful name for a quaint little mansion and estate. It was one of those bright spring days that carry with them the presage of rain. "The distant hills are looking nigh," the whole Lammermuir range seemed close at hand. Lammer Law, Cairn and all was right above my head. I felt as if I could throw a stone on to one of the snow patches that dotted its shoulders and gave an Alpine touch to my little adventure. A few minutes and I was in the small hamlet of Bolton. If you are anything of a Burns enthusiast you will not pass without turning aside to the churchyard. Not that Burns was, as far as one can learn, ever in the parish at all, but his mother, his elder brother Gilbert, one of his sisters, and many nephews and nieces lie there. The stone that records their names and dates records no more. There is a touch of the antique Scots reticence and simplicity about stone and words alike. You will not wonder there is no reference to the world-famous poet. In 1820 and 1827, the dates of the deaths of the mother and the brother (who was long factor at Lennoxlove), the fame of Burns was not what it is now; the last dark days in Dumfries still cast their black shadow over his name, and a number of things were said about him that seem to us now curiously irrelevant. But whatever his reputation had been it would not have occurred to those pious and simple souls to record it there.

A little beyond Bolton the way deserts the main road. You climb to the uplands through a delightful succession of woods and fields and pastures, and burns and dells and braes. It is rustic but not savage. The woods and fields are equally trim and exact, the strong, well-kept horses draw the plough under the skilful guiding hand in miraculously straight furrows, the sheep look as if their fleeces had been combed, the fences are in trim repair, and far up the hillside man wrestles with Nature to reclaim the soil, to wring a little oats or what not from the barren slope before he abandons it as mere mountain pasture. Ever on the rise, you pass farm after farm—" toun" in the old Scots phrase. The summits became more and more imminent. A little rain fell now and again, the hills loomed black and bare and desolate, the wind whistled keen and shrill, and one thought of the dark days and nights of winter, and you saw why the houses were built so strong, and everything had the mark of energy and endurance upon it, for the sharp weather stings to activity all that work and labour there. But the spring reasserted itself; the sky cleared, the light and play of the shadows raced across the hills, the sun changed the sombre hues to bright colours.

The road led me by Humbie House, and a little way from Humbie church and Humbie village I descended into the lovely dell where Humbie Mill uses the waters of the passing burn. Here was a pastoral interlude. A boy sat in a cart, stationary before the mill door, and discoursed on a flute with some skill a fantasia of Scotch airs, simple, popular things, that went excellently well with the lambs skipping on the hillside, and the light and play of shadows, and the plaintive note of the burn, and the order of the woods and the fields. I suppose you must always take the native song and tune of a country in the country itself. The tarantella of Sicily had sounded thin and fantastic on this sober countryside.

At Upper Keith I noted again a house far up the hillside; it occurred here and there with a certain odd persistency, but perhaps I read into it what I knew of its history. You would put it down at first for a shepherd’s hut, or even powder magazine; it is all that remains of the magnificent twelfth-century mediaeval foundation of the old Scots King Malcolm, called the Maiden, for travellers and poor folk. Here was in distant days dispensed that strange mediaeval charity which fell like the rain and sunbeam of heaven on the just and unjust, and ministered to the wayfarer and the beggar according to their needs and not according to their deserts. When the old order changed for the new at the Reformation the place was left to go to wreck and ruin, and yet you fancy it as still a majestic ruin, for it was long a quarry for the neighbourhood. Some fifty or sixty years ago the folk rose by one common impulse and carried the remains away for use in every base and common purpose. As yet there was no ancient monument preservation spirit in the land. Pringle of Goodman’s Acre had built a sort of vault as burying-place out of the ruins over two centuries ago. This is called Soutra Aisle, and is to-day the sole sign of Malcolm’s foundation, except for the crop of nettles that marks the site of the old burying-place. And then again there is a legend about Goodman’s Acre, of how the wife of an old-time Pringle, by the exercise of a little timely hospitality to a presumably unknown but suspected stranger, obtained a grant of the ground from that Scots Haroun Al-Raschid, James V.

You now pass Johnstonburn and Woodcote, and come on the main road, which crosses the Lammermuirs at the lowest point right over Soutra Hill. A beautifully-engineered road this is, made just before the railways; but the posts at the roadside, placed to show the track in the time of snows, hint that there are still lingering elements of uncouthness. Till you are right across the hill there is but one dwelling, called, oddly, Lowry’s Den. In the old time of the footpad and the smuggler it had an evil repute, and even to-day in the sunlight it looks sinister, but its looks are the worst of it. And now you are on the edge of the Berwickshire slope and you have a swift rush down till you reach Carfrae Mill, where you leave the high road and address yourself to the serious effort of the day. You must now follow a mere bridle track through the centre of the hills. It is ten miles to Gifford and only three or four are rideable; the rest is mere sheep-walk through heather. You begin fairly enough where the road is plain beside the mountain burn, but you soon take to stiff hill climbing, and when you leave the solitary shepherd’s house, half-way up your first hill, you do not meet another human habitation for six miles or so. I had passed this way before on a golden autumn afternoon when the very air seemed to sleep, and the heather was fragrant, and the silence of the hills had something magic about it; but now the sky was dark, and the rain gathered strength, and the wind whistled, and the whaups screamed in sad unison. The whole scene was inexpressibly dreary. The track was sometimes lost in snow (some land here is held in blench tenure on paying a "snowball in June "—no impossibility at any rate), and again it wound through the midst of bogs and morasses, and I was fain to turn back, only it seemed easier to go on. Yet this was after all the more ordinary aspect of the. place, and I thought how scenes like this form the character of men who live among them. In such moors and solitudes Border shepherds and Highland clansmen, and Moss-trooper and Covenanter, and many other typical Scots folk, had passed their days, and from them, perhaps, came the sharp touch of Calvinistic theology, and the cruelty of savage deeds and the reticence of speech and hardy endurance of hard conditions; for I was wandering through a dreary wilderness with no outlook beyond the near heights. However, the Cairn on Lammer Law, which had a little before appeared over the shoulder of a hill, my one star of hope, was now growing larger in the desolation. The track passes close to the summit, and I left my bicycle and climbed thereto through a piece of vile, boggy ground. Alas! what could I see through the rain and the driving mist? Not those pleasant, happy fields I had gazed on once before, that delightful landscape, that in its gentle rise and fall has something of the stately and alluring rhythm of the Virgilian hexameter. And the ground was historic. You looked towards battlefields like Pinkie and Preston-pans and Dunbar, and islets like the Bass, and there was the smoke of Edinburgh, and the fields of Fife, and the shadow of the Highland hills, for, in sooth, from there you survey the theatre of a good half of Scots history; but the curtain was drawn over it that day, and I had nought to do but to get me down the hillside through the ever-increasing rain. I was tempted by a few yards of better road to try the bicycle. I was promptly thrown for my pains, though possibly ultimately to my advantage. The gloom increased, the mist shifted uneasily on the hilltops, and I thought how fitly godly Mr Alexander Peden had prayed in cruel times for a lap of the Lord’s cloak when the dragoons were at his heels, and the mist in their faces seemed a sufficient and immediate response.

These places do not strike those who work in them quite as they strike you. One man I met on the hillside, and, of course, I stopped for a "crack." You stop to greet the traveller in such a solitude as naturally as two caravans do that encounter one another in the desert. He was not a traveller, but a shepherd, and at that lambing season he spent his days, and often his night; on the hillside. He stared when I asked him if it was not lonely or dreary. The idea had not occurred to him; the scene of his daily labours had a touch of cheerful commonplace about it. Perhaps his dog was sufficient company. I am sure his plaid protected him well against the weather, and his staff, it may be, guided him as ably as ever that of the old-time warlock, Major Weir, guided him. But the hillside is not the place to discuss such curious questions. The rain still pursued me as I hurried ever downwards, but now on comfortable ordinary, macadamized roads, through Long Yester and by pleasant green Chesters, and then through trim, neat Gifford. That day I turned not aside to view Hobgoblin Hall, "wrought by words of charm" by that mysterious old warlock, Hugo de Gifford. And though I skirted the policies of Coalstoun I did not even think of the magic pear to which tradition has tied the fate of the family. The primitive cravings for food and rest and dryness and warmth were strong within me as I crept with a sigh of relief under the shadow of the old church tower at Haddington, and so to my night’s lodging.


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