Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
An Old Coaching Inn
"Riftam tiftam, try my
'Twill make your road a great deal shorter;
And if you chance to return this way,
You'll find here plenty of corn and hay."
IT STANDS TO-DAY, ON THE
GREAT LONDON road, beaking in the sun, with its step gables and many
chimneys, its ekes and its entry, its red-tiled roofs and range of
stables—the old coaching inn of Fairshiels. No longer do the post-boys
wind their horns at the door, or the many-coated drivers of the "Flying
Scotsman" or the "Royal Mail" gather up the reins of their teams and make
a brave show as they start out in summer sunshine or winter snows. The
coaching days and the old ways are all gone, and a solitary hen walks
across the grass-grown courtyard to-day in the sun, croaking and
scratching between the cobblestones for one seed of the farmer's grain.
But this same old inn of
Fairshiels has known great days. Being the first stage from Edinburgh on
the east road to London town, many a famous man has paid the lawing to the
host after a royal night in the great parlour and a sound sleep between
the lavender-scented sheets.
There is a sough of Queen
Mary about the whole countryside, with Borthwick Castle just over the hill
yonder, and Cakemuir Castle with its Queen Mary room in the keep hard by.
Prince Charlie himself passed up the road, after his brave but
tarry-fingered highlanders had stolen cream and honey, down by at Ford, to
make Atholl brose. King James hunted over the moor, but a step or two from
the inn, where there still stands the gable end of the royal hunting box
which we call now The Luggie. And it is a hard thing for a Scotsman to
believe that any of the dram-drinking Stuarts could give the old coaching
inn at Fairshiels the go-by without passing the time of day with mine
In olden times, when men
and maids were hastier in love than they are now, many a young couple
arrived at Fairshiels inn and clamoured for blacksmith or host to tie the
It was on a dull, quiet
November day—the nineteenth of the month—of the year 1772, that a
coach-and-four swept over Soutra Hill and came thundering down the road to
the inn door. With a shout for the ostler, a fair young man of twenty-one,
dressed in a claret-coloured coat with ruffles at neck and wrists, thrust
out his head at the coach window and called for James Fairbairn the
"How far are we, landlord,
from the royal town of Edinburgh?"
"Fifteen miles, sir, if you
"Ha! Bessie, my love," said
he, looking round at a pretty girl who was listening to every word in the
dark interior of the coach, "it is too far to risk it. Let us get out here
and send for a parson to weld the golden chain, my dear, for I've heard
that at Fairshiels they have tied some bonny knots ere this."
"Certainly, my lord—we have
a guid repute for making young folks happy here!" chimed in the wily
landlord, with a wink.
And with that the young
lady got out.
He was plain John Scott in
those days, but he was already an Oxford scholar, and had been born in
Love Lane, Newcastle—surely a right appropriate place for one whose heart
was hot with romance. And she, the beautiful Elizabeth Surtees, at John
Scott's bidding and with her own heart in the great ploy, had escaped by a
ladder from her father's house in England, and made off across the Border
in a coach-and-four with her lover, young John Scott of University
College, Oxford. Twenty-one and eighteen, youth and beauty, with nothing
but true love and a dooms empty purse between them—they laughed at
to-morrow, and galloped up with a laugh to Fairshiels inn that day.
"Jack Scott," said a friend
on hearing it, "has run off with Bessie Surtees, and the poor lad is
No fear of that. For after
James Fairbairn, the land-lord of the inn at Fairshiels, had sent for the
parson at Haddington, because the parish minister bogled at the job, John
Scott and Elizabeth Surtees were married in the inn parlour, James and
William Fairbairn, the innkeeper and the smith, being the witnesses and
signing the certificate. Then, returning quietly to Oxford, they lived for
a year on his scholar's pay.
They were, from the first,
a well-matched, happy pair; but after a year at tutoring, John Scott took
to the Law. From one step of the ladder to another the lad climbed up,
until, as Solicitor-General, Attorney-General, Chief Justice, and last of
all Lord Chancellor, the world knew him as Lord Eldon with the pretty wife
He had found it hard enough
to pay for the hired coach-and-four when he galloped off at twenty-one
with his bonny bride. But when he died, an old man of eighty-seven, he
left behind him half a million pounds; and the folk said that his lifelong
devotion to Bessie was the most beautiful thing in his siccar life.
Fairshiels was a thrang
place in those days, and no mistake. For scarcely had Jack Scott and his
bride left, on the 20th of November, when Samuel Johnson and James Boswell
arrived from Sir John Dalrymple's castle of Oxenford on the 23rd!
The great lumbering man
rolled in at the inn door, with a laugh to Boswell about Lady Hungry's
seven-year-old sheep and the spoiled dinner.
And that Sabbath night,
when Samuel Johnson called for his thirteenth cup of tea, the landlord
slyly remarked, "So ye have been to sup with Lady Bess doon by?"
"Why, yes—we had that
honour. But,do you know her ladyship?"
"Eh, sirs! Surely we a' ken
Lady Bess hereaboots —for she was oor ain auld Laird's only bairn, and she
made a run-away match wi' Sir John mony years syne."
"Do you have many irregular
Scots weddings here, then?" asked the great man, with a touch of sarcasm
in his voice.
"Ay—but they are maistly
English bodies," replied James Fairbairn, with a look out of the corner of
one eye at Samuel Johnson. "We had one but three or four days syne in this
very parlour—John Scott, an Oxford scholar,and a bonny bit English lass
called Elizabeth Surtees."
"Is it possible?" cried
Johnson. "I know Jack Scott very well!"
So after drinking a
fourteenth cup of tea that Sunday night he went to bed. But Boswell
remained in the parlour writing in his portfolio, and James Fairbairn
brought him something in a greybeard that was not tea.
On the Monday morning,
Johnson left Scotland in the Royal Mail coach, and never again returned to
the country or people that he could not understand. And the Monday
following he went down to Oxford and drank a dish of tea—or was it
more?—with young John Scott and his wife, and held a close collogue with
them about Fairshiels inn and irregular Scots weddings.
The very last to put up an
old family coach, with a dickey and rumble, at Fairshiels inn, was another
of the Scott clan—Lady John Scott of Spottiswood, in the parish of
Westruther. The slight, jimp girl, who had inherited the fair curly hair
and the heavy-lidded blue eyes of the Wauchopes of Niddry from her mother,
married Lord John Scott, the only brother of the Duke of Buccleuch. Guid
gear gangs in wee buik, and this denty Scots gentlewoman was full of music
and poetry and that sough of old romance which gars the thought of ancient
times and things bring tears to the eyes in the sunset or the gloaming. It
was this same Lady John who wrote the song of "Bonnie Annie Laurie," and
put a tune to it out of her own romantic soul, as she sat with her fingers
drawing music from the strings of her harp.
She was a stout Jacobite,
hated English ways, and would not travel in a railway train. Many a time
she stood in a dwam of delight at Spottiswood, watching the London coaches
rolling up and down the Great North Road two miles away—but that was
before the present woods were planted. From her wedding day till her
burial she was always out in the shine or storm of her beloved Lammermoors.
For her bridal trip was a drive from Spottiswood to Bowhill on the
afternoon of 16th March 1836, and the coach ran into a drift of snow. When
her last song had been sung, and they carried her shoulder-high to the
Auld Kirk of West-ruther,on the sixty-fourth anniversary of her wedding
day, the little black procession was caught in a blinding snowstorm. It
was what she would have liked best of all, for she once said to her
grandniece at Spottiswood," Heaven won't seem heaven if I don't see those
benty fields and tufts of rushes there!" The wind of the Lammermoors was
the breath of her soul.
But she was old and done
when she crossed Soutra for the last time, and put up her antique family
coach at Fairshiels inn for a change of horses. There are those living
this very day who heard the clatter of her horses on the cobbles of the
yard, and saw my Lady John set out again for the palace of the Duke at
Dalkeith; and yet she herself had spoken to those who had often held
converse with Prince Charlie. So much good Scots history had passed before
the blue eyes of this auld-farrant gentlewoman!
And as we look at the old deserted inn to-day, beaking in the lown, we
seem to see a little old lady with peach-bloom cheeks, dressed in a
scarlet shawl and wearing doeskin gloves with Vandyke gauntlets, walking
up and down the pleasaunces at Spottiswood.
We hear, too, the thin,
quavering voice singing this "Song of Durrisdeer," which she wrote so long
ago in the old kirkyard where her lover-lord was buried— and both voice
and song are set most sweetly to the tinkle of the harp which she loved
all her life—
"We'll meet nae mair at
sunset, when the weary day is dune,
Nor wander hame thegither, by the lee-licht o' the mune!
I'll hear your step nae longer amang the dewy corn,
For we'll meet nae mair, my bonniest, either at eve or morn.
The yellow broom is waving
abune the sunny brae,
And the rowan berries dancing where the sparkling waters play.
Tho' a' is bright and bonny, it's an eerie place to me,
For we'll meet nae mair, my dearest, either by burn or tree.
Far up into the wild hills,
there's a kirkyard auld and still,
Where the frosts lie ilka morning, and the mists hang low and chill,
And there ye sleep in silence, while I wander here my lane,
Till we meet ance mair in heaven, never to part again."
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