Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Essay's of Hugh Haliburton (James Logie Robertson)
Poachers and Poaching


Conventional usage has established a wide interval between poaching and bagging. Your fine gentleman with a turn for sport estimates his success in the field by the size of his bag; vulgarity, on the other hand, surreptitiously crams his pouch, and is no sportsman, but a poacher. To the etymologist there is no difference between poaching and bagging: to him the words name the same identical actions. Neither is there any difference between the actions to the student of human nature: he sees in both the exercise of the same instinct. The difference that obtains is the creation of legal enactments, and is dependent upon the status of parties. It is therefore convenient to recognise it. Law has caught up the simple, homely, harmless word "poach" from the obscurity of rustic cottages and roadside alehouses, has branded it with a bad meaning, and perpetuated the disgrace by definition and a place in the statute-book. Poaching is illegal. It is known to be an offence against law to the most unenlightened pagan in our country: bloodshed and theft are not more certainly breaches of the law. But the immorality of it is a different question, which the rustic is at any time ready to debate. In his view it is by no mean an immutable and eternal Cudworthian wrong. He has probably a glimmering knowledge of the historical origin of its criminality, and he cherishes a sure faith that after a certain day of some month in a year that is coming it will cease to be a crime. With that knowledge, and in this belief, he goes on poaching himself or conniving at its practice by others. Every young rustic you meet is a very possible poacher, if he is not something more. For the statement may be hazarded that poaching is as common now in the rural districts as it has been any time during the last fifty years or so. The professional poacher, it must be allowed, could hardly survive the Prevention Act of 1862. That Act gave the constable power to search persons suspected of illegally taking game; and it required every dealer to account for the game in his possession—to state where, when, and from whom he got it. These were merciless conditions of life to the man who made his livelihood by poaching. But the Act did not suppress the occasional poacher: it rather put him upon his mettle. He became warier. Poaching became more than ever a game of skill. It rose almost to the rank of a fine art. The policeman as well as the gamekeeper was now to be evaded; suspicion as well as capture-in-the-act was to be avoided ; there could be no further dealings with carriers and cadgers, and only hazardous intercourse with licensed purchasers of game; and in 1870 the necessary payment of ten shillings for the use of a gun for a year made the rustic who ventured upon the luxury a marked man. Meanwhile there was one thing in the poacher's favour. At the same time that these arbitrary laws were being proclaimed against him, a natural law was operating in some measure to his advantage. The rural population was decreasing obediently to the greater attractions of town life; and, of course, the less peopled a district becomes, the better is the opportunity it offers for poaching.

The impulse to pursue and take or entrap wild animals is instinctive. So long as there are sportsmen there will be poachers—who are only a kind of unlicensed sportsmen. What makes the pursuit of game attractive to the peer appeals equally to the same instinct in the peasant. To the gratification of this instinct, his poverty is his only barrier. He refuses to recognise the immorality of its exercise. Poaching may be illegal: he does not regard it as sinful. Even the outcry of rustic respectability against it is not on the score of sin, but that it is exposed to bodily danger, induces the formation of irregular habits, leads to quarrels (the respectable poor are eminently peaceable), and is attended by, or productive of, other evils. It is the belief—quite a universal one among the common country folks—that there is no sin in poaching that makes that breach of the law the common practice it is, and still as common as it has been. The peasant argues that what is your property only while it is in your possession—that is, on your grounds or your estate—may be his when it comes his way; and if you deny it to him in his own croft or kail-yard, or on the public road, or in the neutral elements of air or natural water, he will reserve to himself the right of reprisal to take it wherever and whenever he can conveniently do so. His thesis is that game is no true property. When a cow strays it is pounded; nobody pounds a hare;—I have heard the illustration again and again in such roadside inns as come in anglers' ways. And still more iniquitous, he will tell you, is the law against poaching salmon. His practice has been so long in accordance with his argument that the substitution of a simple trespass law for the obnoxious game laws would now hardly avail to keep the honest poacher on his own side of the hedge. Within quite recent years the rustic mind has had its ideas on the subject of land-tenure very nearly revolutionised. The poacher has been among the foremost to express his satisfaction with the revolution. A humorous illustration of the new attitude of the poacher towards the land question was given not long ago in one of our county courts. Black Rab, a notorious poacher, was "had up," as he himself would have phrased it, "on the auld chairge." He was seen, it was alleged, breaking the law in the moonlight, was chased and escaped, leaving, however, his furs and feathers behind him. Next morning he was apprehended at his work— "blasting" in a quarry—and denied the charge. In court he not only pleaded "Not guilty," but protested with a vehemence he was never before known to show that "the keepers were mista'en i' their man this time—for he was sackless." He advanced an alibi that was not conclusive, and at last, at his wits' end, declared with genuine candour and a confidence that was clearly expected to convince, "In fac', it couldna hae been me, for it wasna on my laund! "

Hares, pheasants, and salmon are, as they have long been, the principal objects of the poacher's quest. To these add rabbits, now that they too are in the game list, though the old opinion of them still lingers among the older peasantry that they are only a sort of ground vermin. This bad opinion of Bunny doubtless arose from his abundance, and his destructiveness to the young crops. Time was when even salmon was regarded by our farm-labourers as they now regard the cheap but wholesome herring, and when they made it a condition of their engagement to have it as an article of diet not oftener than three times a week. There is no prejudice against salmon now; there will soon be none against rabbit. But partridges, snipe, and wild ducks have also a good share of the poacher's attention. The physical features and capabilities of his district determine the nature of his quarry. One district is rich in hares, another swarms with pheasants; and of course all streams are not frequented by salmon. Fifty years ago the tenant-farmer offered little, if any, opposition to the poacher; he may be said to have encouraged him for keeping his lands free of destructive creatures that preyed upon his crops, and were sacred. Those were the days of unfenced fields. But now the trespass law is enforced because there are fences the breaking of which by accident or malice is a sore vexation equally to tenant and laird. The foot of the poacher may do small damage to the enclosed field, but the gap he leaves behind him in the fence, where the paling gave way under his weight, offers an easy inroad to untended sheep and more destructive cattle. The mischief they do to half-grown and ripening crops lies partly in what they devour; but they work greater havoc by trampling and breaking the promised harvest.

The best poaching grounds for a big bag are, of course, in and around preserves. The poacher's victims here are hares, pheasants, woodcocks, and partridges. Hills and lochs furnish snipe, grouse, and wild-duck. Here the chance of a big bag is not so great as there is much less density of game; but there is less likelihood of interruption to the poacher, even though his use of the gun is almost imperative. For personal safety he prefers the open, with such means of escape as the hills afford, to the uncertain cover of the wood. Indeed, the poacher seldom finds it to be either to his safety or his profit to visit the wood. He knows it is a poor place for hares comparatively with the fields adjoining, especially if there is an escape to uplands through whin-bushes and broom. Puss herself prefers the open to the woodland, making her form under the sky among bracken or long grass. Pheasants are the only true wood game, but they too can be taken beyond its boundaries. Of an October night they may be found by fifties feeding on the stubble-field.

The poacher's activity is little restrained by the popularity of the landlord. It is a simple question of personal proclivity and the game supply, into which consideration of the feelings of the most generous of landlords enters only theoretically. If such consideration ever affect the poacher's practice at all, it can only reveal itself by sparing the fences and making a cleaner—that is, a less evident—abstraction of the game. And in the ordinary intercourse of daily life the poacher has still an ingenuous "hat" for the landlord; it is only in rare cases that hatred of the landlord gives additional zest to poaching. But the prime instinct which finds delight in circumventing the creatures of the wild may be reinforced by other means. Various collateral inducements operate to produce the poacher. Among these are poverty or want of work; the love of adventure or " the fun of the thing;" the influence of wild companions, or the opinion of the poaching community. In addition to these motives, the craving of palate and pocket must not be overlooked. Successful poaching furnishes the peasant with a very agreeable change in his rather monotonous dietary; and it may supply him on occasion with a little ready money. The conversion of game by the poacher into the resourceful form of coin is now, however, a very risky transaction. Time was when eighteenpence for a hare or a shilling for a pair of rabbits was "found siller" at the dyke-side of a morning. The journeyman wheelwright or apprentice blacksmith had just to take a short " dander" at the breakfast-hour in the direction of a snare he had set overnight If he knew his art at all, the money was at his feet, or what would be money at the side of the cadger's cart that forenoon. The cadger was just as eager to make the petty disbursement from his "stocking-foot" or leather pouch as the poacher was to take it. There was undisputed division of the value or profit between them—fifty per cent, to each. Seldom or never was there any higgling; that might end in unseemly debate. Neither was the poacher so much at the mercy of the cadger as one might suppose. His refuge from cadger greed was to the competition of the carrier. He would play the one off against the other without coming to the climax of an articulate difference with either.

While all classes of the working rural population included poachers, the crafts or employments that were pre-eminent some fifty years ago in sending them out were those of the blacksmith, the wright, the saddler, the shoemaker (the tailor belonged to a more timorous class), the roadman—who had special facilities for taking a pheasant or lifting a stray hare—the weaver, the small farmer, the field-worker, the ploughman, and the mason. The last-named was a daring and deadly enemy of the game in winter, when frost resisted the chisel and bound the plaster, and his only choice in spending the day was between idleset and poaching. There were also young lads of seventeen or so, who in winter divided their time between poaching and attending the parish school. There was often little work for such lads about the farms from Martinmas to Candlemas; and their fee as arranged at Candlemas was as big as if they fee'd from Martinmas. Even girls innocently engaged in tending kine could make shift to watch a conveniently-set snare. Poaching was by no means confined to the class of ne'er-do-weels. A douce elder of the Kirk would make no scruple to lift a hare from a "girn;" nor would the minister hesitate to eat it if, as sometimes happened, the carcass of puss found its way—semi-anonymously—to the manse kitchen. There were clever fellows among the poachers—not clever only at poaching, but at the various occupations to which they gave the regular hours of the day. Poaching was their pastime: it came as a relief to the tedium of lawful industry.

In Humphrey Clinker, Smollett, in his own inimitable way, gives expression to the peasant's view of poaching in the correspondence of Squire Bramble. That worthy landlord writes from Clifton on the 17th April to his fidus Achates "dear Lewis ":—

"As for Higgins, the fellow is a notorious poacher, to be sure, and an impudent rascal to set his snares in my paddock; but I suppose he thought he had some right, especially in my absence, to partake of what Nature seems to have intended for common use: you may threaten him in my name as much as you please; and, if he repeats the offence, let me know it before you have recourse to justice." On the 20th he writes:—

"I had yesterday a visit from Higgins, who came hither under the terror of your threats, and brought me in a present a brace of hares, which he owned he took in my ground; and I could not persuade the fellow that he did wrong, or that I would ever prosecute him for poaching. I must desire you will wink hard at the practices of this rascallion, otherwise I shall be plagued with his presents, which cost me more than they are worth."

The poacher of fifty years ago might be relegated to one of three classes, according to the means he employed to entrap or take his quarry. He might make use of a dog, trained for the purpose—a collie (commonest of country dogs), or a wicked-eyed terrier, or the deadly lurcher, which to the speed of the greyhound adds the sagacity of terrier or collie, and does its work without din. Or the poacher might put his trust in snares and nets. Or lastly, he might make service of a gun, kept in some outhouse, or secret place in the wilderness, or carried in three portions under a capacious coat to the scene of execution. Another division of the fraternity might be made into poachers who had no faith in partnership, poachers who hunted in couples, and poaching gangs loosely composed for special occasions. In the case of couples or gangs, one would sometimes be detailed to hold the gamekeeper, whose interference was dreaded, in talk at the crossways or at the alehouse, while his confreres were setting or examining the snares. A decayed poaching ne'er-do-weel was never entrusted with this commission; the keeper cold-shouldered such a one at once; but he would talk, not without suspicion, with a respectable lad, of whose intentions he was in some degree of doubt. Dogs and snares were employed to take hares (and rabbits); the gun overreached all kinds of four-footed and winged game. There were lines and leisters for the water. An experienced or well-taught poacher went about his work methodically, and in many instances had no mean knowledge of natural history. His first proceeding was to select a field for his operations. He knew that the hare when startled runs up or across the field. When at her ease, and enjoying the sense of security, Puss "hirples doun the fur," as Burns observed one memorable Sunday morning. Gloaming was the usual time for setting snares; they were looked at in the morning; but sometimes, after the snare was quietly set, the dog was sent to scour the selected  field, and Puss was caught while the poachers waited. The snare was set about one yard from the "slap" of the hunting-field, and outside the field. A raid on. rabbits was commonly conducted on an idle afternoon that favoured the use of dogs. A well-trained terrier, with the delight of sport glowing like a spot of fire in each—it might be in one—shaggy-browed eye, would invade the burrows in business-like style, while a "gash" collie hung on the skirts of the furzy knowe, and snapped up the scuttling fugitives. It was a game of hide-and-seek to the dogs, played on the definite principle of a division of labour. To poor Bunny it was something of a more tragic nature. It was the acme of sport to such young rustics as herd-boys, more especially if they were countenanced by the presence of the farmer's son, or the laird's. It was the apprenticeship of poaching. The herd pieced together his knowledge of the habits of game by watching the practice of gamekeepers. From recognised rabbit-killers he learnt the art of snare-setting.

The poacher had a special equipment to avoid detection. Its simplest form was the wearing of dark clothes. Desperate fellows wore a bandage of crape, or "coomed" their faces, or otherwise disguised their appearance. The tools of the night poacher were nets, guns, brass wires for the construction of snares, and a dog. He generally dispensed with a bag. Tying the feet of his quarry together, he flung the furry or plumy burden over his shoulder; or he hid it near his house, probably in a byre, till he satisfied himself that the coast was clear. There were instances of the poacher marching with his booty into his own house, and find* ing himself in the presence of "gamie," who had dropped in, troubled with suspicions of the inmates, but ostensibly on a social or even friendly visit The smell of hair on the poacher fresh from the fields, and, it might be, a trace of hare's wool sticking here and there to his homespun coat, while hardly incriminating evidence, had the natural effect of confirming the gamekeeper's suspicion. Some rough-and-ready badinage would pass between them on the subject, but they would part with the ordinary courtesies at the door, each resolved to watch the other in future with increased circumspection.

To his acquaintance with natural history the practised poacher added the study of meteorology, topography, and of course human nature, as exhibited in his associates and his enemies. He would train his dog to carry a lamp on its forehead for dark nights, and to run up the furrow for partridges, driving the birds before it to his net on the head-rig. No hares were netted, as a rule, on a bright moonlight night. They scampered and played about over the fields like lambs; but on a dark fresh night with a wind blowing they kept their roads and ran into the snares. There was plenty of moonlight poaching with the gun, Watches were always set on moonlight nights. At those times the regular keepers were assisted by the rabbit-killer on the estate. Pheasants, unless well protected, were easily taken. The poacher, stepping warily in the plantation, with a half-muttered curse to some wake-rife cushat, and a long fearful pause when a rotten branch broke at his elbow with the report of a pistol-shot, would presently come upon a cock, with three or four hens beside him, roosted half-way up an ordinary-sized larch or fir tree. Even on a darkish night, on looking up through the branches, he would make out their forms distinctly outlined against the sky. He had merely to put up his hand and pull them down, tragically stifling all noise with stealthy speed. They were half-tamed, and not soon scared, if their haunt was near the "Big House." The poacher, while he praised their plumpness, had a kind of pitiful contempt for their stupidity. If he was perilously near the Big House, and not many yards even from the bedroom window and lug of the laird, he might try to stupefy them, especially if high roosted, with the fumes of brimstone—"smeek them like bees," as he would say. But this had its own peril: they might only cough, and sneeze, and shift their perch in rather an alarming way. If the laird's window flew up, and a dog came crashing through the brushwood, there followed an exciting time for the baffled poacher.

The instinct of the true sportsman was sometimes shown by the poacher in his free distribution of his night's plunder. We knew an inveterate poacher, a most companionable rascal in many ways, who as often bestowed the fish, which he had painfully poached at midnight, among his poor neighbours, as bartered them with the cadger for brandy or a bladder of unexcised whisky. He would never take money, and would almost have starved rather than eaten fish. He discouraged poaching among the young, and would have no associate. His ordinary gift to a master tradesman at New Year was a small sackful of fish, accompanied with a copy of the Shorter Catechism for each of his three apprentices. The gift was supposed to be anonymous, but it was an open secret that "Auld John" was the donor. He never went to Church, except at the summer sacrament time, when he took his seat in a front pew of the gallery, and looked down with pagan interest upon the mystery of the Communion as celebrated in the "laigh kirk." He showed his respect for religion by regularly doffing to the minister; and he was supposed to be the sender of an occasional very large fish, which mysteriously found its way by night to the manse porch, wrapped in the jacket of a cheap sporting newspaper. It was the newspaper—of which he was the only reader in the little community—that was believed to have betrayed him.

There was not wanting to the life of the poacher a strong dash of poetry. He had necessarily observant eyes, and a sensitiveness of perception which not seldom touched and stirred his feelings. Who of the denizens of the everyday realistic world had his opportunities of spying the wild shy graces of retiring Nature, surprising her in her hours of private abandon, or feeling her close presence in the chamber of midnight woods or cloud-curtained moors? Her dread beauty solemnised him for the moment. He was half daunted by the temerity of his own intrusion. He felt, as indeed he was, in a new world—lifted from the common world of daylight with its three conventional aspects of morning, noon, and evening, such as the respectable people of his hamlet knew and believed to be exhaustive of Nature and the limit of her resources. How little they knew of the lofty majesty of moon-lighted heaven as seen, nay, as felt, from the dark depth of woods that swayed over him, and moaned with the oppression of sweet dreams! How little of the vocal gladness at rising morn of the leafy world of birds, that made him, with the savage leister in his hand, uncover where he stood waist-deep in the water, overpowered and overawed into something like pagan devotion by the clamorous praise of the plantation near him! "The wud was just roarite wi' birds: I bude {behoved) to lift my bonnet to them," was the confession of a romantic poacher whose acquaintance in youth I dearly prized. And what did the non-poaching villagers know of the passion of wailing winds which was shrieked into the night wanderer's very heart, or of the despondency of rain-drenched hills whose gloom entered his soul, and was not to be dispelled by a backfill of game or by many succeeding suns? They sat by their fireside comforts, and shut their doors and their eyes upon one (and the more impressive) half, the night half, of the world of Nature. In this world of natural poetry, to which he was passive but not insensible, the poacher was a ranger. But it was also to him a world of action, adventure, danger, and not seldom conflict with his fellow-men. It was thu fraught with the elements of both natural and human poetry. The poacher, however, kept his experiences of poetical thought, feeling, and situation to himself, or for favoured listeners in the evening of his life. His confessions, when made, were brief, almost half-articulate. He never thought of elaboration, and was guiltless of the arts of metre and rhyme.

The gamekeeper's world was not quite the same as the poacher's. He too, doubtless, was familiar with the nocturnal aspects of rural and savage scenery, and maintained what might be called social relations with thought-suggestive solitude, but not under the same conditions, nor with the same degree of intimacy. Black summer storms of thunder, and the white terror of winter tempest, which invited the poacher, kept him for the most part within doors, or only drew him forth with reluctance. And in his case the element of personal danger, which gives vitality to feeling, and quickens the imagination, was comparatively a-wanting. The gamekeeper ran little risk, except in collision with desperate poachers. On his side was the sense of security arising from the discharge of legal duty. He had nothing to win; his task was to preserve. He acted on the defensive. It was his duty, rather than love of the work, which sent him out to danger or to* storm. And he was himself under the surveillance of the laird, who laid little schemes to test his attentiveness and fidelity. The laird would discharge a pistol at a late hour in some nook of his preserves, as if playing at being poacher, and would await the result, or interrogate the keeper next morning as to his whereabouts at the time of the report.

The humours of poaching have never been related,, and would fill a book. These could not flourish in all circumstances. They require for their growth a humanity or softness of heart on the laird's part, and the absence of malice on the poacher's. The mutual relations were almost friendly. They were tacitly maintained on the principle that he might take who had the skill, and he should keep who could. It was a game, rigorously conducted within certain limits, in which laird and poacher set themselves to outwit each other. Admiration was frankly expressed by the baffled party when the one stole a march on the other. Tam" Mackinlay's testimony may be quoted here. Poaching was a passion with Tam. Poesy was not more a passion with Goldsmith. And, like the poet, Tam indulged it for its own sake, reckless of personal or domestic consequences. He made the same regretful confession as Goldsmith, and almost in the same words—

"It found him poor at first, and kept him so."

On one occasion the gamekeeper rose from behind a bush as Tam was lifting a hare. "Ye've grippit me this time, Patie?  "Will ye tak' wi' 't, then?" asked the keeper. "I maun," said Tam, and walked off home disconsolately. On the way to his cottage he acquainted the blacksmith with his misfortune. "Up to the laird at aince!" counselled Bum-the-win,' "afore the keeper gets word o* him." "It's a sair punishment, whatever way," said Tam; "but it's maybe the best plan." Tam washed his face, and tying a black silk neckerchief round his bare throat to show his respect for the laird, walked in his rags— he had no choice between them and nudity—up to the house, and gravely informed the laird that he was 'grippit." The laird eyed him severely, but was secretly touched at the sight of Tarn's rags. He read him a stern lecture, in the course of which he referred to the evil example he was setting his family. "And you have a large family, I hear?" "Seeven," said Tam. The laird expressed indignation. "Do you know," demanded the laird, to whom the estate had come late, and much burdened with debt; " Do you know that I must be a bachelor?" "Weel, laird," said Tam demurely, "I'm sure it's no' the women's faut!" The remark seemed to please the laird. He wound up by asking Tam if he would be a gamekeeper. Tam refused, vouchsafing no reason but that "he dootit he couldna." The laird thought him diffident of his own ability for the post. "You know the estate, and you know the game, and you know what your duties would be." "A' true," said Tam thoughtfully; "an' as for the estate—I ken it, maybe, better than yersel, laird! But I canna see my way to be a keeper. Na, I canna do 't!" Whereupon the laird dismissed him "for a blind stirk," but with a pardon, the last he would get, and—a terrible warning. Within a couple of months Tam was again taken red-handed. He tried the same tactics of an interview with the laird previous to the report of the keeper. To his astonishment the laird subjected him to a shorter and less severe scolding than on the previous occasion, and let him go! Long afterwards, when age and rheumatics combined to curb Tarn's poaching impulses, and he had removed to a distant parish, it transpired that his refusal of the laird's offer was like the Provost of Dumfermline's when he was obliged to decline an invitation to banquet with the Lord Mayor of London—it was owing to his "want o' claes!" "I had naething but the rags I wrocht in," said the simple fellow; "I wudda (should have) been a disgrace to the laird's toun."

Nick Peetrie was another poaching humorist, not of the broad, genial, almost boyish type to which Tarn Mackinlay belonged, but dry, tart, and taciturn. Tam was really large-hearted, with a giant's strength and a big body to house it; Nick, on the other hand, was short and shrivelled, close-minded, and, if his heart was sound at the kernel, it was only known to the few who managed to get to it. He walked with stooping shoulders and shambling legs, had a peculiar habit of sniffing at short intervals, and peered rather than looked from under the shadow of bushy grey eyebrows. He was a crofter, or small farmer, with about thirty acres on his hand, and lived in a thatched hut like a bee-hive on a lonely brae-side. The brae was rough with furze and stunted birch, and, nearer his homestead, a bush of boor-tree, as a defence from witches; while a bickering burn stirred tall green dockens and floury meadow-sweet at the brae-foot. Nick was known to be a smuggler of whisky of his own distilling, and was shrewdly suspected of relieving his more regular employment with a little poaching. As a smuggler he had made acquaintance with the county jail, but he was never convicted of poaching. He was by his own account nearly caught several times : once in the dusk of a summer evening, when his eldest son, a boy of thirteen, was with him. On that occasion, giving his son hurried instructions to "keep sooth" (south), he boldly cut across country, making northward for a distant wood, and was long but ineffectually followed by the gamekeeper. At the fair of the county town, about a week afterwards, Nick met his enemy, and asked "Whether he had gotten his wind again?" The keeper stared in some bewilderment. "I heard ye had lost it," said Nick, sniffing, and passing on with the air of a man who had been misinformed.

Watty Tod was another humorist of the class, but his humour, like that of ancient AEsop, played round the beasts of the field. He used to report colloquies with the hare, in which there was revealed an eye for dramatic situation, as well as such a characterisation of the creature as indicated a perfect knowledge of its ways and its nature. But the charm of those colloquies lay in Watty's recital. He anticipated by a quarter of a century Uncle Remus's amusing narratives of "Brer" rabbit and his kinsfolk.

Dave Johnson's humour arose from his relations with the jailer. Dave was one of the most persistent and unlucky of poachers. Scarcely a season passed but he was convicted and imprisoned. His experiences of jail-life were disclosed with the utmost frankness. What he most dreaded in imprisonment was the scanty fare of the jail. One of his disclosed secrets was the 4mner menu; every urchin in the village knew it: "Two ounce of beef, or four ounce of a marry-bone!" Dave regarded poaching as the most natural thing in the world. "I wad advise ye a', lads," he would say to a knot of sympathising weavers, "no' to find faut wi' the jailer about your breakfast. If ye anger him, he stirs the parritch a' owre the pat-bottom afore cowpin' them, an' what doesna fa' at ance is carried aff i' the pat. There's no a spunefu' on your plate—an' ye've gotten your allo'ance!"

Poaching had its tragic side. Every district had its tale of manslaughter, and there were even instances of downright premeditated murder. These, of course, got into the public prints, and townspeople with little knowledge, of the country formed their ideas of poachers from the newspaper record of poaching. They regarded all poachers as professional criminals of the most dangerous type. They were believed to be to the country what burglars and garrotters were to the cities. There can be no doubt that in too many instances poaching, commenced in frolic by careless country lads fond of adventure, ended in a life of crime. It was often but a step from the pheasant-preserves to the hen-roost. The man that was at first content with a hare was occasionally found to covet a sheep. Poaching, especially when accompanied with a sense of lost reputation, and—which was usually the case—influenced by the allurements of the alehouse, placed the moral principle in deadly peril. It ruined many a young ardent life. It began by unsettling the habits of early home-training; it produced unsteadiness at regular employment; it sometimes required flight from the locality to avoid a conviction that would bring, not merely personal, but family disgrace. If the young apprentice or journeyman stayed to face and answer an accusation, it was to brazen out his conduct, to lose his good name with the law-abiding community, to drop into evil company, to vex or ruin the hopes of sister or sweetheart; then, with lost character, came recklessness and a red coat In some instances the army reformed him, and he returned to rural life respectable and respected. The character of Adam Mercer in Norman Macleod's famous story of " The Starling " is drawn with sympathetic knowledge of this class of poacher; it might have been—it probably was—drawn from the life. Black Ned, as drawn by Scott with the pencil of Crabbe, furnishes the contrast:—

"Approach, and through the unlatticed window peep-
Nay, shrink not back, the inmate is asleep;
Yes, stupefied by toil and drugged by gin,
The body sleeps: the restless guest within
Now plies in wood and wild his lawless trade,
Now in the fangs of justice wakes dismay'd!
Was that wild start of terror and despair,
Those bursting eyeballs and that 'wildered air,
Signs of compunction for a murdered hare?
Do the locks bristle and the eyebrows arch
For grouse or partridge massacred in March?

"Wild howled the wind the forest glades along,
And oft the owl renewed her dismal song,
The wading moon with storm-presaging gleam
Now gave and now withheld her doubtful beam,
The old oak stooped his arms, then flung them high,
Bellowing and groaning to the troubled sky:
'Twas then that, couched among the brushwood sere,
In Mai wood-walk young Mansel watched the deer;
The fattest buck received his deadly shot,—
The wakeful keeper heard, and sought the spot;
Stout were their hearts, and stubborn was their strife;
O'erpowered, at length the outlaw drew his knife!
Next morn a corpse was found upon the fell—
The rest his waking agony may tell."

The chance of such a fate, if tradition be "an honest woman of her word," was at one time young Will Shakespeare's. Thank heaven! he ran off to London, and became a play-actor.


Return to Book Index Page