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Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter XV


Feat of the Blind Harper of Loehmaben.

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 achievements.

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 contemplation.

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 success.

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 way home.

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 flying breezes.

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 your eye."

"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 year before.

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 before.

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 Scot.

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 Wanton Brown.

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.


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