THE LEVELLERS' COUNTRY
IF we leave Laurieston on some still summer evening in the
slack between hay and harvest, the Galloway moors will rise before us in
long purple ridges to the west The sun has set, and in the hollows pools of
mist are gathering, islanded with clumps of willow. The “maister" has made
his nightly rounds, and is now meditatively taking his smoke, leaning on the
gate at the head of the loaning, and looking over a green cornfield, through
the raw colour of which the first yellow is beginning to glimmer. “From the
village half a mile away he can hear the clink of the smith's anvil. A
little farther on, past a well of delicious water, we come to the mill.
M’Lurg's Mill, where the children lived, was a tumbledown erection,
beautiful for situation, set on the side of the long loch of Kenick. The
house had once been a little farmhouse, its windows brilliant with geraniums
and verbenas; but in the latter days of the forlorn M'Lurgs it had become
betrampled as to its doorsteps by lean swine, and bespattered as to its
broken floor by intrusive hens.
“The mill has now recovered its attractiveness, and shines
white above the loch. In the bright June meadows the hemlock has not yet
been overtopped by the meadow-sweet, as in a week or two it will be. Below
lies the loch, rippleless and azure as the blue of a jay's wing. The air
from off the heather is warm and honey-scented." 1
Beyond Blatesmill we are at once in the Levellers' country.
Few movements were more foolish, more hopeless, but at the same time more
eminently Scottish and sympathetic than this. It was the uprising of the
helpless Many against the strong Few, and though defeated and well-nigh
forgotten, it contains the root-matter of many modem and world-wide
The movement extended all over Galloway, but was brought to
a close in the Duchrae wood, where at the turning of the road, before coming
in sight of New Galloway Station, the travellers must climb up a steep bank
to find" the Roman Camp "–which is no Roman camp, but the last entrenchments
of the Levellers
in Galloway. There is a deep ditch, much overgrown, a wide
mound, and a gap through which, in my own day, the waters of the ditch were
let out, to facilitate the escape of the Duchrae bull! Jock had fallen into
the ditch and for days his roarings were heard afar, long before any could
locate his place of imprisonment. He was up to the dewlap in water,
therefore not at all thirsty. But he had eaten all the leaves of the trees
within reach, and even tried the gorse and bramble on the nearer slopes.
But the Levellers of Galloway deserve more than a passing
notice. About 1720 the same thing was happening in the Lowlands which
happened a quarter of a century later in the Highlands. The common folk of
Galloway recognised, indeed, that the land belonged in some sort to the
lairds, but they had not got rid of the ancient idea that it was held by the
chief of the sept or clan, in trust for his people. Especlally was this so
with regard to the moors and wide unenclosed hIlls incapable of cultivation.
These had always been considered common grazing ground for the poor folks'
sheep and cattle, and every
1 "The Stickit Minister," pp. 114, 205, 220. (T. Fisher Unwin.)
little valley and green gusset of meadow-land sheltered its
croft or holding where in times gone by a family had squatted, and by
centuries of labour had won a few scanty "grass parks" from the surrounding
wilderness of bog and heather.
But all was now changed. The lairds were no more of the
people. They had taken the side of what all Galloway considered as an alien
and persecuting sect, during the reigns of the second Charles and James his
brother. Thus in most cases they had been divorced in sympathy from the clan
or sept with which they were lineally connected.
Add to this that many of the original landlords had either
been dispossessed as disloyal to one party or the other during the long
troubles, or had been driven to sell their lands to strangers from a
distance. Hardly ever had this property returned into the hands of a
Galloway man of aboriginal stock.
The new-comers, of course, considered these settlers and
hillside crofters simply as so many encumbrances. They set their lawyers to
work, and, soon discovering that the poor folk possessed no claims to their
little holdings (save that of having entirely created them, built up every
stone and sod of offices and dwelling-house, and cultivated in peace their
two or three scanty parks and meadows of rough grass for centuries),
proceeded to clear their borders of them and all their works.
A few of the more kindly disposed–having human hearts
within them–gave sites whereon the dispossessed were permitted to erect
other cottages, huddled more closely together. And this was the origin of
several of our most notable Galloway villages of to-day. But the greater
landlords did not desire any such settlements near their borders, regarding
them solely as refuges for the disaffected, or at least as nurseries of
poaching, smuggling, and general unprofitableness.
So the edict “To be Banished Furth of Scotland" began to
figure at every court of justice, at which the least resistance to enclosure
was reported. And poor families, expelled from their little cottages, had to
wander into England or endeavour to find some ship's captain, who, in return
for the right to dispose of their services in the colonies for a period of
five years, was willing, as a speculation, to transport them to
Massachusetts, Connecticut, or the growing settlement of New Amsterdam,
farther to the south.
But naturally there were many–young fellows of high heart and
courage–accustomed to the use of rude weapons with muscles hardened by field
labour, who could not be brought tamely to submit. And when the more
militant landlords,by arrangement with the Government, proceeded to carry
out the policy of “Thorough,”. naturally also they had to face such roving
bands, offered frequently by some old Covenanter who bad trudged into
Edinburgh to defend the Convention of '89 against the troopers of Clavers
and the more dangerous parchment bonds of the Bluidy Mackenzie.
But there was little chance, unless a true leader chanced
to appear, to draw the Levellers into some kind of cohesion, that they could
make any head against regular soldiers. And in the meantime there were many
searchings of heart and waggings of head throughout the wilds of Galloway,
when the “hated red - coats" were again seen crossing the moors to visit a
solitary cothouse, or beating the heather-bushes and searching the moss-hags
for some celebrated fugitive.
As an old Cameronian meditated, looking down from his
herding on the side of the Bennan Hill, and watching the scarlet jackets of
the dragoons filing up the side of the Loch of Ken, he might say, "Verily do
I remember what guid Maister Alexander Peden, that remarkable seer of things
to come, prophesied, as I myself heard him by the thorn-buss o' Friarminion,
‘A bluidy Sword for Thee, 0 Scotland, that shall pierce to the hearts of
many! Many miles shall ye travel, and see nothing but desolation and ruinous
wastes. Mony a conventicle has God weared on thee, puir Scotland, but now
God will make a covenant with thee that will make the world tremble!' “1
For the credit of Galloway be it said that the chief of
these oppressors were incomers and Englishmen. Now these gentlemen, eager
for progress and diligent to lay field to field, forgot in their haste that
measures which had succeeded well enough with the more obedient and servile
peasantry of the southern English shires, were foredoomed to failure with a
population so fierce and turbulent as that of Galloway–the natural wildness
of whose nature had received a stem and solemn twist in the direction of
fanaticism from the ill-judged severity of the second Charles and his
In these religious struggles the local lairds had, with but
few exceptions, separated themselves from the common folk, and,
1 “The Dark o' the Moon," chapter xxix. (Macmillan &: Co.)
instead of taking the hills with Peden and Alexander Gordon,
had chosen to remain and drink to the death of rebe!s and the confusion of
all Whigs, in company with rough-riding Lag and Captain Windram–that
admirable, hard-drinking, six-bottle man who at Kirdcudbright commanded in
the interests of King Charles the Second's right to appoint bishops over the
flock of God in Scotland.
And now, fifty years afterwards, the Galloway lairds were
paying the penalty for the sins of their predecessors. And part of the
price–the first instalment, as it were–was to be paid on the night of the
Muster of Rascarrel.
"It was a curious sight, and one long memorable in the
annals of cothouse and farm-ingle.
"The cross-roads of Rascarrel were no more than the
meeting-place of two green tracks that wimpled and lingered among the
heather, by day a little greener and smoother on either side, and in the
midst worn more rough and red by the plunging hooves of cattle and the
pattering trotters of droving sheep; but by night scarce to be distinguished
from the leagues of circumambient heather.
"But there was a great boulder in one of the angles made by
the meeting ways, which gave the place its alternative name of ' the
Standing Stanes of Rascarrel.'
"The gathering was not without a certain rude pomp of its
own. High on the standing stone was seated a figure dressed in a strange
garb, looking, in the flickering light of torches, and the brief glimpses of
the moon as the fleecy clouds scudded across her face, like a monstrous
witch playing before the Master of Witches himself.
“A huge poke-bonnet covered features, which, moreover, were
carefully blackened, and the whole figure was wrapped in a ludicrous parody
of feminine attire, designed in sackcloth or the bags in which meal was
carried to market And this Witch of Endor, high placed above the throng,
elbowed and smirked as with infinite lilt of grace-notes borrowed from the
Celtic pipes, she played ‘The tailor fell through the bed, needles an' a','
‘The Broom o' the Cowdenknowes,' ‘The wind that shakes the Barley,' and
other fast-running, jigging tunes.
"Thereafter the chosen leader of the Levellers, one Captain
Dick, initiated the remaining divisions of his forces into the secret and
mystery of the 'ox poles.' Two or three of these were to be lashed firmly
together. A company of twenty or thirty able-bodied rebels was told off, ten
to each pole. Then at a given word the whole of these were to put forth
their strength as one man, and the hated fences would be levelled with the
ground. This they pledged themselves to do as often as the landlord
continued to rebuild them.
"At last they stood at the place where the campaign was to
begin. The laird's new drystone dyke stretched away east and west, looming
up under the clouded moon vast as the Great Wall of China–though, indeed, it
was in no place much more than six or seven feet high.
“In silence the Levellers took their places, swank young
herds and horny-fisted working-women of the fields, all attired in the same
absurd and outlandish costume. They manifested the utmost confidence in
their leader, and obeyed his orders without scruple. Probably this would not
have been the case had the men concerned in the affairs been the elders of
the cause. But as most were young, and the element of adventure entered
largely into their motives, they were ready without question to follow so
gallant a captain wherever he wished to lead them.
"I Order out the bars! ' cried Dick of the Isle.
"The huge poles were placed in position behind the dykes.
“’Man the bars!'
“Thirty of the Levellers set themselves in position to push
“’When I say three–let go, all!_One, Two, Three!'
“’And over she goes!' chorussed the Levellers hoarsely at
“The huge, sky-mounting ridge of newly-built dyke, not yet
settled down on its foundations, swayed a moment uncertainly, a few stones
toppled over upon the feet of the attacking force, and then with a slow,
majestic bend, almost like that of a breaking wave, a furlong of it fell
over in one piece, with a far-resounding crash, and lo! the green hillside
again stretched from horizon to horizon unbroken under the moon."1
When Mr. Cuninghame visited Hensol sixty years after the
troubles, he found the traditions of the last defence of the Levellers
against the king's troops still fresh in the memories of the countryside.
The story seems to have been told him by the M’Clellans, who were then
tenants of the Duchrae. So that there is little doubt of its general
accuracy, though possibly in sixty years some frills may have been added to
the narrative. About two points, however, there is a manifest agreement.
First, the place of final defence was the Duchrae Moat Wood. And, secondly,
the commander of the regular troops was very lenient to the Levellers–much
more so than the lairds and "enclosers" of the time approved of.
The general disposition of the Camp of the Levellers is
thus told (imaginatively) by one who viewed it from the Crae Hill opposite;–
"Captain Tredennis could discern a line of sentinels drawn
from a point a little below the stepping-stones by which he had crossed up
to Mount Pleasant, a wooded hill, bare at the top, overlooking the Cave and
the head of the Loch of Grenoch. Beneath he could see in its completeness
the camp in the wood. The situation was naturally a strong one–that is, if,
as was most likely, it had to be attacked only by cavalry or by an irregular
force operating without artillery.
"In front the Grenoch Lane was still and deep, with a
bottom of treacherous mud. Swamps encircled it to the north, while behind
there was a good mile of broken ground, with frequent marshes and moss-hags.
Save where the top of the camp mound was cleared to admit of the scanty
brushwood huts and patchwork tents
1 “The Dark o’ the Moon." chapter xiv. (Macmillan & Co.)
of the Levellers, the whole position was further covered (and
defended) by a perfect jungle of bramble, whin, thorn, sloe, and hazel,
through which paths had been opened in all directions to the best positions
“Here and there, out on the opener country towards the
east, where the camp was not defended by the river and marshes, the king's
officer could see that trenches had been made and earthworks raised, with
loopholes regularly constructed of wood and stone for the defenders to fire
upon any assailant. The main camp itself was encircled with a fosse very
wide and deep, but even from his elevated station on the side of the
opposite hill Austin Tredennis could see nothing of the immediate defences
of the position.
“The eminence on which the main fortifications had been
erected rose high above his head, and he could only look up the steep slope
and observe that it had been carefully levelled to form a glacis, and
furnished with earthen bastions at the corner to provide stances for
cross-fire in case of direct assault.
“Down on a little smooth piece of meadow within the outer
lines, yet convenient to the water-edge, several great fires were burning.
Sometimes Austin could almost feel the warmth of the blaze as great
quantities of fresh brushwood were continually thrown on. It was, after all,
a kind of play to many of these lads, and scores of them laboured
incessantly, joking and laughing as they did so, at bringing dried wood,
branches, heather roots, and other light fuel to add to the
flames-oftentimes even embarrassing the cooks by their endeavours, and in
one case actually setting fire to the tripod upon which the stewpot was
“Upon a felled tree which formed part of the defence on the
land side a group of older men was seated, talking soberly together,
evidently discussing plans, and, in the intervals of speech, cleaning such
arms as they possessed.
“Tredennis was astonished to see how many excellent pieces
there were in the hands of the Levellers. He did not know that the folk of
Scotland, like the Spaniards, were naturally an armed people, security
having only of late come into these northern straths. In addition to the
guns, there were smugglers' jocktelegs, made longer than had been intended
by the original Jacques de Liege, whose name was still stamped on the
blades. These were possessed by all, but some had also whingers, or short
swords like cutlasses, while pistols of all kinds were common, from the
miniature article made to swing at a horseman's wrist so as not to interfere
with the reins or break his sword-stroke in a charge, up to the mighty
horse-pistol with its bell mouth and charge of powder like a blunderbuss. He
noted, also, the pitchforks and Irish pikes brought by a few of the
Wigtonshire men, while as an additional weapon of offence many of the lads
had mounted the prongs of a pitchfork upon the muzzles of their guns, in
such a way as not to interfere with the firing of the piece, forming a rude
but highly effective sort of bayonet.
“Presently there came again the bugle signal from the
Levellers' headquarters upon the summit of the main camp, and therefore out
of sight of Tredennis. At the sound there ensued a great running to and fro,
and crying of names and numbers, all which diverted him exceedingly. Then,
in a trice, and with an alacrity which the old soldier could not but admire,
the men fell into messes of about ten, and rations were served out.
“There was a hot word or two occasionally among the younger
men, evidently having relation to charges of unfair division, which could
hardly fail to occur when so large a portion of the provender consisted of
the rabbits which abound all about the Duchrae Bank, and scurry and patter
within the limits of the camp itself." 1
How the Levellers fought and escaped may be read in the
final chapters of “The Dark O' the Moon "–where the conclusion of the matter
is described with some truth and accuracy, save in that which concerns
Silver Sand, whose history (I write the words with regret) is entirely of
1 "The Dark o' the Moon," chap. xiiv. (Macmillan & Co.)