Feat of the Blind Harper of
The Harper of Loehmaben town
Goes harping at Carlisle:
He steals the Warden's Wanton Brown
With cunning craft and guile.
The noble castle of Lochmaben
is based on a peninsula, which projects into one of the four lakes that lie
contiguous to each other in these parts. In former days it was the abode of
Robert Bruce, when he was Lord of Annandale above Gretna. Four indifferent
villages lie round about the fortress, called "The Four Towns of Lochmaben."
The present inhabitants of these, are said to be the descendants of Bruce's
feudal vassals and retainers, whom he located severally on small portions of
land, in reward of their faithful services done for him in certain hazardous
Here, long ago, lived a
harper, the last of his race, for harps in those parts were going out of
fashion, to make way for that ever-out-of-time instrument the bag-pipe. And
this harper was blind, and many called him silly; but that was a mistake—he
was no fool.
The borderers on both sides
of the Debateable Land having, from remote times, kept up a regular system
of depredation and reprisal towards each other, held it a meritorious sort
of thing if any one could succeed in injuring the enemy, either by the
capture or destruction of any individual by stratagem or combat, or else by
the theft and deportation of their cattle, or other moveable property.
These aggressions, practised
on each other, too, were suddenly undertaken without any immediately
preceding provocation. The other nation, no matter which, lying on the other
side of the border, being considered hostile, as forsooth it generally was,
lay open to attack at any moment whensoever it might be most convenient for
the offensive party : and that offensive party might be Southrons, prowling
northward with evil intent; or it might, on the otther hand, be rough-footed
Picts coming south with purposes equally bad.
The case of which we are
about to speak was of the latter: but the blind harper went to practise
cunning; and, eschewing all violence, to try and pilfer his entertainers,
who were listening enraptured to his dulcet tones. His plan was, to steal a
certain steed belonging to the Lord Warden of the Western Marches, who, at
that time, was dwelling in the Castle of Carlisle : and to this end he
determined to follow the example of Alfred the Saxon, and Anlaff the Dane,
who severally entered into the presence of those on whom they had evil
designs, and by the sound of their music, turned their hosts'1 suspicions
aside from the true motive of their visits.
Wherefore, the blind harper
of Lochmaben, like a good husband as he was, first went to his wife, and in
terms somewhat darksome, discoursed to her of the journey that he had in
But the harper himself was
duly seized of a gude gray mare, together with a foal—a circumstance of
which his wife reminded him, at the same time adding, that if he purposed a
journey to England, he had better mount on the said mare, but leave the foal
at home with her.
The harper mounted his gude
gray mare, and started for Carlisle city with every possible expedition : he
went right through the parish of Gretna, and crossed the river Sark, near
where it falls into the Firth, about the place where the stone bridge
stands: he did not go much lower down, because the water is there too deep
and not fordable. He then sped over Solway Moss ; and having crossed the
Debateable Land, which, as we have before said, was not worth debating
about, he eame to the marshy mouths of the rivers Eden, Petteril, and Caude;
these he waded through, and in time came in view of the castle.
He made right on for the
drawbridge with all confidence ; and to say the truth, he received that
encouragement which was due to his estate, and for which he looked; harpers,
minstrels, joeulators, japers, or any of that tribe being ever right welcome
in the halls of the ignorant nobles, who, unable to read or write, dearly
loved pastime and good company.
On arriving at the gate, he
met the Lord Warden himself, who incontinently cried, " Come into my hall
thou silly blind harper, and let me hear of thy harpingan invitation to
which the new comer did not definitively reply, but expressed a wish that
his mare might be led to some stable and eared for.
This was readily assented to
; the baron looked over his left shoulder, and calling to his groom, charged
him to perform this hostlike duty, and moreover, to tie the mare beside his
"Wanton Brown,"—apparently the favourite horse of the stud.
This done, he repaired to the
hall, wherein was assembled a right fair company of nobles, to whom he
played and sang his best; and so delighted were they at the pastime, that
they all started from their seats and "footed the floor" with goodly gree.
The groom also, in his haste
to enjoy the sport, quite forgot to secure the stable-door;—an omission that
helped out the completion of the harper's design not a little.
Now when he had sung and
played all the nobles to sleep, it should appear by the legend, that he
himself, was still "wide awake, albeit he could not see; for,
notwithstanding that blind people do not see any more when they are awake
than others do when they shut their eyes and doze, still they have, in
common with those others both their waking moments and their sleeping
moments. When they sleep, an it be that they do not shut out a view of the
world around them, or do not darken their eyes by closing them, since they
were dark before, they at all events "steep their senses in forgetfulness."
So, the blind harper, not
having steeped his senses in anything of the sort, now prepared to compass
the main object of his visit into English ground, even whilst the wits of
his entertainers were macerating.
He put the shoes from off his
feet, that the sound of his footsteps might not pierce the hollows of their
ears, and then softly crept down stairs.
Just fancy him at midnight,
groping along in the dark, through the intricate passages of a baronical
castle belonging to an enemy ; but never mind fancies now, let us stick to
the narrative and go on.
He stole forwards toward the
stable with such "a step as would ne'er wear out the everlasting flint;"
wary, light, deliberate; and when he felt that he had arrived at the door,
he discovered to his satisfaction that indeed it was unbarred. How did this
befall ? Why, ye remember that the groom, in his desire to mingle in the
pastime in the hall, and to listen to the Gleeman's jonglerie, quite forgot
the door, and omitted to secure it.
It was but the work of a
moment, therefore, to push it open, and to stalk in; and having done so, he
discovered that the stable contained no less than thirty-three horses.
The next thing was, to
discover his own gray mare amongst them all,—a matter which he probably
achieved without much long or wearisome search, — at least, the ancient
chroniclers of this exploit do not linger upon the recordation of any great
delay, but rather seem to infer, that he proceeded with an astonishing
He found her beside the
Wanton Brown, even as the Lord Warden had directed, even beside the very
steed against which his purposes were levelled.
His next operation was to
take a colt halter from his hose—for it should appear that he had not
quitted the republic of Lochmaben unprepared ; and this he deftly slipped
over the Wanton's nose, at the same time tying the other end of the said
halter securely to the tail of his own mare. Thus, they were united head to
stern, like one vessel to another, that is towed behind on the water.
He led them from the stable
to the castle-gate, and here he set them both loose, leaving it to the well
known discretion or wisdom of his old gray, as to how they should find their
Of a truth, the ballad
assures us that the mare started off with the swiftness of an arrow from a
Saxon bow, right away north over the flats of the Eden, over the Picts'
wall, over the Debateable Land, through Gretna Green, with the rapidity of
modern post horses that are yoked to such vehicles as carry run-away lovers,
all over moor, over moss, still dragging behind her the Lord Warden's most
especial favourite, the Wanton Brown. To have seen this, it would have been
"good for sore eyes,"—any eyes but the harper's.
She gave no rest to the
war-horse behind her ; she stopped not, she slackened not, she tarried not
by the way; but on, on, on, was her cry, even with the swiftness of the
She knew her course, and she
kept it, albeit the night was dark and the region savage; and she arrived at
the gate of Lochmaben a full three hours before daylight had begun to glare
about over the land.
When she got to the harper's
door, she neighed and snorted right lustily; so that the good wife
withinside, incontinently starting up out of her dreams, began to cry out
with a voice passing loud to the serf-maiden that dozed near at hand.
"Rise up, thou lazy lass,"
quoth she; "and let in thy master and his mare."
At this the damsel bounced
out of her comfortable couch, thinking, with her mistress, that the harper
had surely arrived. But being either of a timid temperament, or of a careful
nature, or being awake to the danger and rudeness of the times in which it
had pleased heaven she should be born, she did not rashly throw open the
door, but shrewdly looked through the key-hole to discover who was without.
And much indeed did she marvel at what she saw, as her exclamation, which
has been duly noted down by historiographers, fully proves.
"Oh, by my sooth!" cried she,
in wonderment; "our mare has gotten a braw brown foal !"
"Hold your tongue, you silly
wench," was the gude wife's prompt reply; "the morning is but glancing in
"I'll bet my whole wages to a
groat," returned the girl, "but he is bigger than ever our foal will be."
Leaving these two gossips to
clear up this mystery as best they may, let us return back again over the
Border to Carlisle, and see how speeds the harper in the castle.
He had sung and played the
lordlings to sleep before he stole down stairs to the stable, as we have
already advertised ye; and it appears that he returned back into the midst
of them, after having performed his chevisance, without so much as ever
having been missed.
On arousing themselves from
their slumbers, and still finding him there, they once more cried out for
music: nothing could they do but listen to him ; and he played on through
the night, aye, even until the day-dawn began to light up the eastern hills.
Daylight often makes strange
discoveries to many of us. In this instance, when the sun had mounted up
into the blue heavens, and when the inmates of the fortress had set
themselves about their various morning occupations, and when the groom,
amongst others, had gone to the stable to look after his horses, he there
made a discovery that the favourite barb, the most especial Wanton Brown,
pertaining to the most puissant baron, the Lord Warden of the Western
Marches, was missing, was gone, actually gone ! Here was matter of
marvel—here was food for speculation!
This, howbeit, only concerned
the Lord Warden. They found that the blind harper's gray mare was missing
also. On the announcement of this disclosure, the said harper gave vent to a
most boisterous fit of lamentation. He wept the hour that ever he had left
his home to come there ; he bewailed certain losses that he had previously
sustained, especially the loss of a colt a short space before : and by way
of crowning his calamities and succumbing him to the very dust, he now
declared that in England they had stolen his gude gray mare.
It is a curious trait in
human nature, that when a person has sustained any great calamity, he is not
content to bewail that calamity singly, but turns to, and must needs
recapitulate a host of others that have previously happened.
If a man by any misfare,
chances to lose a thousand pounds to-day, he does not simply speak of this
bad hap, but he taxes his speech to assure his friends that he lost so much
money last year, or peradventure that he was cheated of twice as much the
In the same way, the harper
not only declares his present bereavement, but likewise proclaims in loud
accents that he had lost a colt foal in Scotland not long in aforetime.
Perhaps the recapitulation of
so many disasters may serve to augment the magnitude of the last; for it is
certain, that although a man may endure to lose a thousand pounds to-day,
still, if he had been losing a thousand pounds every year ever since he was
born, he might find that the last loss would bring even a rich man low, and
be a final clencher.
The harper, however, received
both pity and consolation. They laughed at him for his bewailments it is
true ; but they told him to cease repining ; that they desired more of his
harmony; and that if he would again play to them, they would both indemnify
him for his colt, and give him a far better mare than he had ever possessed
Truly he brightened up at
this : he sang his best lays and romances, and he drew from his harp-strings
a burst of sweeter sounds than ever.
Light is the heart whose
desires are gratified: quick is the step that moves on a willing errand :
and sweet is the labour that is done for those we love. Sweet also is labour,
that is done for good pay; and it was the anticipation of an ample, though
unmerited reward, that brought this last strain so readily from the wily
With shame be it recorded, he
had never lost the colt at all; only, it should seem, that by mentioning a
former calamity, lie wished to excite a greater degree of commiseration for
the subsequent one.
They paid him for this colt
of which he had never been bereaved; and they gave him three times the value
of his mare, which was now comfortably at home along with the Lord Warden's
Having settled his affairs in
this way, it is possible that he was not long in wending back again over the
border, through Gretna and home.
And so much for the Blind
Harper of Lochmaben.