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Old World Scotland
Chapter XI. The Border Riever


THE reason why the border never was generally a Scot is chiefly geological: England being a level country was easily robbed, while southern Scotland, with its hills and dales, its ravines and morasses, at once rendered the work of spoiling difficult, and afforded to the native never good hiding and safe shelter. In the palmy days of freebooting the Borderer was an ideal robber. Unsurpassed in daring and artifice he was thoroughly respectable as well—as respectable and even pious as the border yeoman of to-day. It was reputed of him that he never said his prayers more fervently nor told his beads with a more devout recurrence, than when his thoughts were also turned towards a contemplated quest for booty. Nor was the ardour of his devotions in any degree affected by a secret consciousness of wrong-doing. He had no such consciousness. lie knew not of hypocrisy. The intricacies of moral dialectics were beyond his understanding. His code, if not specially refined or exalted, was neither subtle nor complicated, and he adhered to it with strict and conscientious loyalty, lie made no pretence of being aught else than a never. He knew of no calling or profession to be esteemed so highly; lie could conceive no prouder ambition than to excel in it.

Originally he was rather warrior than thief—his booty was spoil from an enemy. Yet he was not an enthusiastic patriot. In his heart of hearts he may well have cared nothing for country and king. He had small reason—he owed little to one or other. When the Southron armies wrought havoc in the Scottish dales he was left their first prey; he received from country and king neither defence nor compensation. He had to rely on his own strategy and skill for safety and subsistence, so that he became a law unto himself and fought for his own hand. Except for the aid he was only too willing to render in the wars against England, the border chief claimed entire independence of action, and he even aspired to a certain joint sovereignty with the Scottish king. Thus the minstrel of Johnnie Armstrong :-

"When Johnnie cam before the king
Wi' a' his men sae brave to see,
The king he movit his bonnet to him,
He weened he was a king as weel as he."

Properly to gauge his character it must be recognised that circumstances made robbery compulsory—on other conditions or by other means it was impossible to live.

"Since in time of war," wrote Bishop Leslie, "through invasion of enemies they are brought to extreme poverty; in time of peace the ground, albeit fertile enough, they utterly contemn to till, fearing that shortly the wars oppress them. Wherefore it comes to pass that they seek their meat by stealing and rieving." In the beginning their victims were chiefly the English; but, the thieving habit once acquired, they soon came to the conclusion that it mattered comparatively little whether they thieved from Sonthron or Scot. In a word, they were Fabians with the courage of their convictions : they were "persuaded that all the goods of all men in time of necessity, by the law of Nature, were common to them and others." At the same time these primitive Socialists were unfretted by that blood thirst which (theoretically) characterises so many propagandists of Socialism. They abhorred the shedding of blood except in time of actual war, and conceived that not even for the necessities of life would they be justified in the slaughter of Englishman or Scot. They had, therefore, to substitute skill and sublety for force, and they achieved such a perfection ill art of thieving as has never perhaps been paralleled. In their case, indeed, you have a much more striking illustration of conscientious perS even t1ce and its triumph over adverse circumstances than any recorded in the irreproachable books of Dr. Smiles. The adaptation of means to ends was consummate. In its absolute simplicity of construction—its sagacious regard to essentials and its rigid rejection of the superfluous—the border peel was a veritable architectural triumph. The aboriginal peel was wholly Of earth, and, being completely fireproof, could be destroyed only at the cost of more Labour than the task was worth. Those of stone—intended chiefly for defence--were a later invention, the most of them being put up iii accordance with an Act of 1535, which provided that they should be "threescore futis of the square, ane eln thick, and six Ones heicht." The primal peel was not intended for defence, and was absolutely unfurnished, nothing being left in it either to take or to destroy. c If they but have a swift horse," says Leslie of the peel- dwellers, "and whereto they may dress themselves and their wifes, they are not meikle careful for the rest of the household gear." Even the common domestic utensils were a-wanting, the only piece resembling a pot or pan being a "broad Plate of metal" used for baking the oaten. cake. The never grew no vegetables, nor had he store of ale or wine. His diet, alike at home and on the march, was veritably Spartan. He boiled his meat in the paunch of its original wearer; he baked the oaten cake, which served for vegetables and bread alike, on the "broad plate of metal " slung at his saddle-bow; yet he cherished no disdain towards milk and cheese if they were on hand, and for the nonce could dine contentedly on sodden barley. It was chiefly this rigid simplicity that made him invincible. He laughed to scorn both Scots attempts at repression and English endeavours at revenge. When the need-fires warned him of the coming of armed hosts lie leapt into the saddle, and with his children in front of him and his wife at his stirrup made off to the hills or to the woods. If the enemy approached his lair he took to the moss, and led him a wild-goose chase from which he was lucky if he escaped with a ducking. Unlike the Highlander, he was always a rider. An absolute knowledge of every peculiarity of hill and dale and stream far and near was an essential accomplishment. Having made his way unseen to the near neighbourhood of a byre or field of cattle he lay in hiding till dark, seized his booty in the dead of night, and made off with it along a line of retreat so adroitly contrived that pursuit was well-nigh hopeless.

Thus moral standard was defective; but he possessed in high perfection many noble and manly qualities modern business methods are not conspicuously successful in developing. In bodily hardihood lie was unsurpassed, and none could bear the "stings and arrows of misfortune' 'with a calmer or more constant heart. He had also his own code of honour, which was never broken. Unless in revenge of injury he was guilty of no wanton wrong. To family and kindred his devotion was undying, and to all—friend or foe—his promise was inviolate. It may be, too, that his methods were not inherently more dishonest than many of those tricks of trade the law winks at and the tame Briton endures. What was best in his mode of life is mirrored in the spirit, the fire, the wild pathos of the ballads he inspired; and most assuredly the generous and heroic must have predominated over the mean and selfish elements in a mode of life which could inspire such genuine and affecting strains.


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