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A Group of Scottish Women
Chapter 2 - Some Scottish Amazons - "Black Agnes of Dunbar" (1313 - 1369)


Up to the commencement of the eighteenth century the domestic annals of Scotland strike one as being singularly squalid. Deeds of violence abound on every page. Human life is held to be of little value, and murder is a crime of such frequent occurrence as scarcely to call for comment or excite attention. The early Scottish chronicles comprise for the most part descriptions of the public torture of criminals, the commission of “agrarian” outrages (as we should call them nowadays), the forcible abduction of desirable heiresses, the “sequestration” of undesirable wives, and the worrying of witches. They are largely devoted to unedifying accounts of family feuds, of forays, of brawls between rival clans and rival factions. “For a long series of centuries,” as Sir Walter Scott says, “the hands of rapine were never folded in inactivity, nor the sword of violence returned to its scabbard.” [Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, p. xlviii.] And though he was referring particularly to the Border, the same words apply with equal truth to the rest of Scotland, and more especially to the Highlands.

The lust of blood was a vice common to both noble and peasant. It was not confined to the uncivilised or uneducated half of the population. In October of the year 1396, for instance, the King of Scotland and all his court assembled of the bank of the river Tay to witness a duel to the death between two bodies of Highlanders, each thirty in number. The combatants were armed with dirk and claymore, and so bloody was the fray that at the end only one man remained alive on the one side, and on the other only ten, all of whom were grievously wounded. Such an affair as this was probably the result of a clan feud, a form of hostility too often marked by a cruel and vindictive spirit expressing itself in deeds of the foulest treachery. Thus at the beginning of the seventeenth century we read of the Macleods driving the Macdonalds to the shelter of a cave in the Island of Eigg, and deliberately smoking them all to death. [Sir Walter Scott visited the scene of this slaughter two hundred years later, and took away a woman’s skull as a memento.] Again, in the raid of the Clanranald against the Mackenzies of Kintail, as late as 1603, a whole congregation of the latter was burnt alive in the Church of Gilchrist, while the Macdonald pipers marched round the building drowning the cries of the unfortunate victims with inappropriate music. In this same year, too, the Clan Gregor decimated the Colquhouns of Luss in Glenfruin in the Lowlands – Tobias Smollet, the novelist’s ancestor, being among the slain – in what was probably the last savage battle fought between the clans.

In early days the passions of Celtic feudalism could not be restrained from acts of bloodshed and devastation. They found a satisfactory outlet in this ceaseless battling of clan with clan. There was a perpetual feud between the Lindsays and the Ogilvies, between the Grants and the Gordons, between the Scotts and the Kers. The hatred of the Maclaurins of Balquhidder for the Lenies of Callander was only one degree less violent than that of the Maxwells for the Johnstones. The Macleans were for ever quarrelling with the Campbells, the Campbells with the Macdonalds. The Macdonalds and the Macgregors combined against the Drummonds, and the Drummonds themselves were busy harrying the Murrays. [Most people will agree with the sentiment expressed by Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, who, writing to a friend in 1805, apropos of Sir Walter Scott’s Border Minstrelsy, says: “I like the Border stories, I own, better than the very Highland ones of Macleans and Macdonalds, which never go beyond their own hills; and I like the hills themselves better then the traditions of a Maclean kicking a Macdonald down one of them, or vice versa.” (Antiquarian Notes, by C. Fraser-Mackintosh, p.266.)]

In such squabbles as these, women – “generally the witnesses of men’s imbecility,” as Dr. Chalmers declares – took an active share. They were, indeed, in many instances the very cause and object of the strife. The system of “hand-fasting,” which allowed two persons to contract a temporary connubial alliance, terminable at the end of a year, was another prolific source of bloodshed. [A feud ensued between the clans of Macdonald of Sleat and Macleod of Dunvegan, because the chief of the former availed himself of this licence to send back the sister of the Macleod after the expiration of the probationary period.]

The dames of bygone days did not spend their whole time at the distaff. They were not all the timid, retiring ladies of whom we are accustomed to read in romantic fiction. Some, indeed, like Lady Bridekirk, seem to have been almost too bold and masculine. This good lady was long famous in the Annandale border both at the bowl and in battle. She could drink a Scots pint of brandy with ease, and “when the men grew obstreperous in their cups, could either put them out of doors, or to bed, as she found most convenient.” [Autobiography of Alexander Carlyle, edited by J. H. Burton, p.24.]  Lady Brux provides a good example of the implacable, vindictive spirit common to the women of the sixteenth century. Her husband, Cameron of Brux, had agreed to meet one Muat of Abergeldie, with whom he was at feud, each being attended by twelve horse only. Muat treacherously took advantage of the literal meaning of the words, and provided each of his twelve horses with two riders. In the fight that ensued at Drumgaudrum, near the Don, Brux and his party were outnumbered and slain. His widow thereupon offered the hand of her daughter, now heiress of the Brux estates, to whomsoever should avenge her husband’s death. A young gallant named Robert Forbes challenged Muat to single combat, and killed him. On presenting himself to Lady Brux, that bloodthirsty old lady clasped him to her bosom, declaring that the marriage should take place at once, while Muat’s gore was yet reeking upon the bridegroom’s knife. [Don: A Poem, p.16. (London, 1655.)]

Lady Johnstone is another instance of a similar type of Scottish Amazon. The Johnstones and the Maxwells were fighting outside the gates of Lockerby Castle, where Lady Johnstone anxiously awaited the result of the struggle. Becoming impatient to receive news of her husband’s safety, she sallied forth to the scene of the fight, armed only with the keys of the fortress. Among the dead and wounded on the field of battle she found Lord Maxwell, chief of the rival clan, slowly bleeding to death. The old man begged for mercy, but in vain, Lady Johnstone’s only reply being to raise her heavy bunch of keys and dash out his brains. Again, during a feud between the clans of Gordon and the MacIntosh, the chief of the latter, finding that he was getting distinctly the worst of the argument, decided to submit himself to the goodwill of Lord Huntly, chief of the Gordons. While the marquis was away from home, the MacIntosh took the opportunity of surrendering himself to the tender mercies of Lady Huntly. As a sign of complete submission, he laid his head on a butcher’s block which chanced to be in the kitchen where the interview took place. His hopes that such a token of humiliation would melt her heart were not fulfilled, for the marchioness calmly gave an order to the cook, and the wretched MacIntosh was neatly decapitated on the spot.

When from time to time Scotsmen agreed to sink their private differences in order to unite against their own kings or a common Southron foe, women continued to play a prominent part in the proceedings. It was the murder of his wife by the English at Lanark that increased the fury of William Wallace, and made him vow never to rest until he had slain the man who was guilty of this deed. And an old historical legend long attributed the murder of the Regent Murray to Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh, who, sentenced to forfeit his property as a traitor to James VI., saw his wife turned out of the house in an almost naked condition – an outrage which drove her insane – and found a speedy means of avenging the tyrant’s brutality.

The Scot, like Robert Browning, was “ever a fighter.” He could always agree with that old Earl of Buchan who declared, in his letter to Pitt, that “if the privileges of Scotland are endeavoured to be violated, I shall know how to make my porridge in my helmet, and stir it with my sword!” And his womankind naturally inherited much of that admirable patriotic spirit. It was not required of every one of them to emulate the achievements of that unknown Amazon who, in the disguise of a knight, accompanied Guy, Count of Namur, when he marched upon Edinburgh to fight the Earls of Moray and March on the Borough-muir, in the early part of the fourteenth century, and engaged with a Scottish squire in single combat which proved fatal to both. But the women of that age were reared in an atmosphere of stress and turmoil; the familiar din of battle and the clash of arms to which their ears were ever accustomed helped to strengthen their characters, and rendered them fit mates for warrior chieftains.

Women were often to be seen upon the battlefields of those days. King Edward I. of England used, it is said, to summon the ladies, as well as the earls and barons of his kingdom, to attend him in war. In the year 1291 he called upon the ladies of Cumberland and Westmoreland to meet him at Noreham, a village near the Scottish border, provided with horses and accoutred with arms, “the consequences of which summons,” says a chronicler, “it is believed Scotland will never forget.” [An Inquiry into the Origin and Limitations of the Feudal Dignities of Scotland, by William Borthwick. (Edinburgh, 1775.) ]  And the list of ladies of Scotland who at that time swore allegiance to the English king, of which the original is preserved at the Tower of London, contains over a score of well-known Scottish names.

The women of that violent period of history were, indeed, imbued with the universal spirit of martial ardour which then pervaded Scotland, and have handed it down as an heirloom to their descendants. [Near the border, betwixt the parishes of Maxton and Ancrum, there is a ridge of hill called Lilliard Edge. Here, in 1547, a battle was fought between English and Scots, wherein the latter obtained a victory, though inferior in number. The success was ascribed to a young woman named Lilliard, who fought with great courage on the Scottish side. Some remains of a tombstone erected upon her grave on the field of battle can still be seen, with this inscription:-

“Fair maiden Lilliard lies under this stane,
Little was her stature, but great was her fame;
On the English lads she laid many thumps,
And when her legs were off, she fought upon her stumps.”

(See Life in Scotland 100 Years Ago, by J. Murray, p.268. Cf. The Ancient Ballad of Chevy Chase, fytte ii. st.30)]

Even as late as the middle of the eighteenth century, we find an example of a woman taking a personal part in actual warfare. During the rebellion of ’45, the MacIntosh of MacIntosh, laird and chief of the clan, remained loyal to the reigning sovereign, and held a commission in Lord Loudon’s army. But his wife, Anne, a daughter of Farquharson of Invercauld, was one of the Pretender’s most active partisans, even going so far as to raise a small body of troops to uphold his cause. “Colonel Anne,” as she was nicknamed, led this corps in person, and a story is told of the MacIntosh being captured by the insurgents and brought as a prisoner to his wife’s headquarters. “Your servant, captain,” said the fair lady, as the captive was led into her presence. “Your servant, colonel,” was the laird’s laconic reply. [History of the Rebellion of ’45, by R. Chambers]  Charles Edward remarked at the time that the prisoner “could not be in better security of more honourably treated,” and subsequently favoured the gallant “Colonel Anne” with a visit to Moy.

Many a zealous adherent did the Young Pretender find among the ranks of women. The Duke of Perth would never have espoused Prince Charles’s cause so warmly but for his mother, the duchess, who proclaimed the Chevalier from the battlements of Castle Drummond and recruited a regiment on his behalf. She herself accompanied the Scottish army to England, and at Carlisle, when the expected reinforcements failed to put in an appearance, threatened to lead the troops in person against the enemy. She was finally taken prisoner at Culloden, a fate which she shared with another Scottish woman – the short-tempered but courageous Lady Ogilvy.

Since that day more that one Scotswoman has turned amateur recruiting sergeant. The regiment of Gordon Highlanders was raised by a woman, Jane, Duchess of Gordon. Another duchess, Elizabeth, Duchess-Countess of Sutherland, when a girl of twelve years old, raised a Sutherland regiment, at the time of the American Declaration of Independence, declaring that she was only sorry she could not herself command it. This brave child subsequently reviewed her troops, one thousand strong, from the windows of her aunt’s house in Edinburgh, and later, in 1793, when she had reached womanhood, exerted herself to raise another corps of “Fencibles” which was eventually embodied in the famous “93rd” Regiment. In our own time the successful enlistment of a body of Scottish Horse, which did splendid work in South Africa during the war, was largely due to the exertions and influence of a woman.

Of such women as these it may truly be said that they inherited something of that spirit of courage and patriotism which more than four centuries ago inspired two successive Countesses of March in their celebrated defence of the castle of Dunbar.

The history of the castle is a romantic and interesting one. The antiquity of the fortress is unknown, but must be considerable, for we hear of its being burnt and levelled to the ground by Kenneth, King of Scotland, as long ago as the year 856 A.D. Two hundred years later, when the stronghold had been rebuilt and fortified by all the artificial means then known, it was given by another Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore, to Patrick, Earl of Northumberland, who fled thither from England after the Conquest.

Built on a cluster of high rocks, round which the sea beat fiercely at high water, Dunbar Castle was, by reason of its natural situation, practically impregnable. It came consequently to be regarded as the key to the eastern portion of Scotland, and played an important part in the martial history of that country. In 1296, during the wars of Bruce and Baliol, when Edward I. occupied the throne of England, the governor of the fortress, Patrick, 8th Earl of Dunbar and March, seceded to the English side and fought in the army of King Edward. But his wife, Margery Comyn, who hell the castle in the absence of her lord, regarded the English with feeling of deadly hatred, and entered into secret negotiations with the Scottish leaders to deliver her charge into their hands. Margery was forced to choose between disloyalty to her country and the betrayal of her husband, and readily chose the latter. The Scottish besiegers, assisted as they were by the chatelaine of the castle, found little difficulty in capturing it, and expelling the few defenders who still remained true to England. Hearing of the treacherous surrender of Dunbar, Edward I. at once despatched the Earl of Surrey with a force of 10,000 foot and 1,000 horse to recover the fortress. But the Scottish garrison were not easily to be daunted into submission, and for some time succeeded in repelling the English attack. Margery Comyn and her Scottish men-at-arms meanwhile stood on the battlements and hurled insults at the Earl of Surrey’s soldiers. “Come on, ye long-tailed hounds!” they shouted, “and we will cut off your tails for you!” In spite, however, of these suggestive taunts, the English force persevered in the siege, and was eventually rewarded by the capitulation of the fortress and the unconditional surrender of its garrison.

Patrick, 10th Earl of Dunbar and March, has been described by one historian [John Major] as “at that time the most outstanding man among the Scots,” and by another as a noble who stood “almost alone” in the position of a man “whom no promises could entice, nor any dangers force to submit to the English.” [Buchanan’s History of Scotland, p.483] Yet he seems to have had some difficulty in fixing his allegiance permanently to the cause of any particular monarch. His sympathies were at first entirely on the side of the English, and he allowed Edward II. to take refuge at Dunbar after the battle of Bannockburn, and thence to escape to Berwick by sea. Later on, however, he tendered his allegiance to Robert Bruce, fought in command of the Scottish troops, and was appointed governor of Berwick Castle. But in 1333, after the battle of Halidon Hill, he surrendered once more to the English, and became a loyal subject of Edward III., a temporary allegiance which he renounced in the following year, when he was once more to be found fighting on the side of the Regent of Scotland.

In the earl’s absence on the field of battle, the castle of Dunbar was left in the charge of his second countess. [The practice of leaving a woman in sole charge of the fortress was then habitual. On one occasion at least it resulted in an amusing incident which shows how deserving were the women of those days of their husbands’ confidence. In July 1474, James II. informed Lord Somerville, who was then at court, that he proposed paying his lordship a visit at his country seat. Lord Somerville at once sent a messenger home with a letter to his wife in which, according to his invariable custom whenever he was bringing guests to stay, he wrote a postscript consisting of the two words, “Speates and Raxes” (spits and ranges), thereby suggesting that the kitchen muniments should be prepared. Lady Somerville was unable to read, but her steward, a new man, who was unacquainted with his master’s handwriting, deciphered the words as “Spears and Jacks.” From this Lady Somerville concluded that trouble was brewing, at once set out to collect and arm all the tenantry, and by 8A.M. next morning a body of 200 of her men were well on the road to Edinburgh. This force was met by King James and his retinue on their way out. For a moment the King suspected treachery, fearing a plot to seize his person, but when the meaning of the cavalcade was explained to him, he was much delighted, and commended Lady Somerville for her diligence and activity in having raised a force so quickly. (See Memories of the Somervilles, vol i. p.241)]

“Black Agnes,” so called from the darkness of her complexion, was a daughter of the famous Randolph, Earl of Moray, and the alleged grand-niece of Robert Bruce, and in her capable hands the fortress was safe against the attacks of the most persistent foes. A powerful English force, under the command of Montagu, Earl of Salisbury, proceeded to besiege it, and for five long months sought in vain to accomplish its capture. A cordon of troops was drawn up around the fortress, closing in upon it from day to day, while two Genoese galleys were ordered to manoeuvre in concert with the land force, and watch that side of the stronghold which overlooked the sea. But the problem of its capture was not so easy as Montagu had perhaps imagined. The defender of Dunbar – though only a young woman of twenty-five – was a foe worthy of his steel, resolute and fearless, if (as an early bard would have us believe) she was not altogether without pity.

[“In her fair hands she grasp’d a spear,
A baldrick o’er her shoulders flung;
While loud the bugle-note of war
And Dunbar’s cavern’d echoes rung.

Then to the Castle yard she sped,
Where her worn troops in order stood;
‘Spare all you can, my friends,’ she said,
‘Nor idly dip your dirks in blood.’”

----Black Agnes, or The Defence of Dunbar (1804)]

The castle of Dunbar was boldly situated on two rocks which projected far into the ocean, and were connected by a natural reef of stone consisting of two archways, through one of which, serving as a port to the water-gate, the Bass Rock might be seen in the dim distance. It was the Earl of Salisbury’s intention to prevent any friendly force from coming to the rescue of the beleaguered garrison, and thus he hoped in time to reduce the defenders to starvation. He had to reckon, however, with the courage and determination of a particularly determined and courageous guardian of the fortress. “Black Agnes” was a born leader of men, valiant and full of resource. “She performed all the duties of a bold and vigilant commander,” says an enthusiastic of chronicler; “animating the garrison by her exhortation, munificence, and example,” [The Antiquities of Scotland, by Francis Grose. (1797.)] and extorted even the praise of her enemies by her warlike bearing. In the words of one of the English minstrels of the time:-

“She kept a stir in tower and trench,
That brawling, boisterous Scottish wench;
Came I early, came I late,
I found Agnes at the gate.”

Day after day she exposed herself fearlessly upon the battlements, deriding (like her predecessor Margery Comyn) the futile onslaughts of the English invaders, and rousing them to the fever pitch of fury by the fierce and ceaseless witticisms in which she indulged at their expense. When the huge stones from the besiegers’ catapults struck upon the castle walls, “Black Agnes” would scornfully send one of her women to wipe off the dust with a white napkin – a particularly felicitous manner of displaying her indifference to their attacks.

Salisbury at last brought up a huge military engine called the “Sow,” which had been used with great success at other sieges, and which he now hastened to erect against the walls of this stubborn fortress. This machine resembled the Roman Testudo, and consisted of a vast wooden shield, under cover of which the besieging force was intended to advance and undermine the foundations of the castle. The arrival of this contrivance inspired Black Agnes to burst into verse for probably the first and (let us hope) the last time. Stepping forward onto an overhanging parapet, she shouted out the following couplet – in which, claiming the licence of the true poet, she sacrificed the correct pronunciation of her adversary’s name to the exigencies of rhyme –

“Beware, Montagow” (she cried),
“For farrow shall thy sow!”

As she uttered this masterpiece, “Black Agnes” gave a preconcerted signal, and the defenders paused in the admiration of their leader’s poetic gifts sufficiently long to allow them to drop an enormous rock on to the top of the “Sow,” crushing it to pieces, and killing a number of the unfortunate soldiers who were sheltering beneath it. As the bruised and wounded Englishmen fled from the wreck of their machine, “Black Agnes” added insult to injury by jeering loudly at them, declaring that her metrical prophecy had been fulfilled, and that they reminded her of nothing in the world so much as a new-born litter of pigs.

Finding that force was unavailing, the Earl of Salisbury determined to try other means to secure the downfall of the castle. He sent to England for the Earl of Moray, “Black Agnes’s” brother, who was a prisoner there, and, displaying him to the defenders of Dunbar, declared that he would kill him before their eyes unless they surrendered immediately. The countess was not to be moved by such a threat. She retorted that the castle was not her property but that of her husband, and that she could not, therefore, deliver it without his authority, however much she might desire to do so. “If you slay my brother,” she added coldly, “I shall be the heiress of the earldom of Moray!” Salisbury was humane enough to appreciate the truth of her argument, and refrained from putting his prisoner to death. Moray was sent back to England, and survived to fight at the battle of Durham, where he was killed in 1346.

The scheme of terrorising the defenders having failed ignominiously, Salisbury now had recourse to guile. He bribed the warden of one of the castle gates to admit a portion of the English into the fortress at nightfall. This the man readily consented to do, but wisely omitted to inform the earl that he had every intention of betraying this typically southron scheme to his Scottish mistress. When, therefore, the scene was wrapped in darkness, a body of the besiegers crept stealthily up to the gate and gave the signal which was to secure their admittance. The portcullis was silently raised and the English made their way quietly into the fortress. Suddenly the defenders, who had been watching events from a hiding-place on the battlements, gave a loud shout, the portcullis was once more dropped into position, and the invaders found themselves caught in a trap. The Earl of Salisbury happened to step back just as the gate was lowered and so managed to get away, the defenders having mistaken one of his men-at-arms, Copeland by name, for the commander, and let down the portcullis a moment too soon. As he made good his escape, “Black Agnes” called after him, begging him earnestly to come back and sarcastically expressing her regret that his lordship could not stay to give her the pleasure of his company at supper. She had a strong sense of humour, a quality which Salisbury no doubt appreciated, as he was not himself wholly deficient in it. One morning, when he was riding near the wall in company with a knight in full armour, a Scottish archer, named William Spens, shot an arrow from the battlements and stretched the knight dead at his feet. “That is one of my lady’s tiring-pins,” said the earl, with a smile, as he withdrew the arrow from the corpse of his companion. “Black Agnes’s love-shafts pierce to the heart!”

For five weary months the siege continued, until at length the garrison was reduced to extremities. The supply of food began to run short, and things looked bad for the gallant defenders of Dunbar. But the celebrated Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalwolsey [Sheriff of Teviotdale. He ended an adventurous career in Hermitage Castle, where he was confined by his enemy, William Douglas, Lord of Galloway, and died of starvation in 1342.] heard of the straits in which the castle was placed and made up his mind to attempt its relief. Ramsay had collected a small band of Scottish swashbucklers, and was lurking in the caves of Hawthornden, whence he issued now and then to harry or cut off detached parties of the English. Being a chivalrous man as well as a brave one, he lost no time in arranging plans for the relief of “beauty in distress,” as exemplified by the chatelaine of Dunbar. Secure within the caverns of Hawthornden, he concocted an elaborate scheme for turning the tables upon the hated English and rescuing the hard-pressed countess and her little band of men-at-arms.

Hawthornden was a perfect hiding-place for such a man as Alexander Ramsay. It is famous in Scottish history as the refuge of many early patriots. It is still more famous perhaps as being the residence of the poet and historian, Drummond. Hither in the year 1618 Ben Jonson walked all the way from London on purpose to visit his Scottish friend, an occasion on which their greetings took the form of an impromptu couplet:-

D. – “Welcome, welcome, Royal Ben!”

J. -  “Thank ye, thank ye, Hawthornden!”

Which has acquired (though it scarcely seems to have deserved) immortality. The house itself was the scene of many a memorable conflict in the past. On the gable of the old mansion was a tablet with the inscription: “To the memory of Sir Lawrence Abernethy of Hawthornden, a brave and gallant soldier, who, at the head of a party, in 1338, conquered Lord Douglas five times in one day, yet was taken prisoner before sunset.” [Fordun, book xii. Chap. 44.]  The caverns, known as “Bruce’s bedchamber” and “Bruce’s Library,” which were close to the house, have been considered by archaeologists to date their origin to very early times, when they were perhaps the stronghold of the old Pictish kings. It was from these caves that Sir Alexander Ramsay and his forty resolute followers emerged to the rescue of “Black Agnes.” Contriving by some means or other to get into communication with the defenders of the fortress, one dark and stormy night, at the head of his gallant little force, Ramsay eluded the vigilance of the Genoese galleys, approached the castle from the sea, and was gratefully admitted at the Water Gate by “Black Agnes” herself.

[“O’erjoyed, the Countess scarce could speak,
But straight her beaver up she flung,
Survey’d and wip’d his sea-beat cheek,
And on his neck her broadsword hung.”

     --Black Agnes.]

Next morning, before the besiegers had time to realise the addition that had thus been made to the garrison, the latter sallied forth under Ramsay’s command and inflicted a serious defeat upon the Earl of Salisbury’s troops, on the same ground where, three hundred years later, Cromwell defeated the Scottish Covenanters. The English now acknowledged themselves foiled by a woman’s wit, determined to abandon the siege, and made a truce favourable to the defenders.

There are numerous other instances in Scottish history of women who have defended hearth and home at the point of the sword. In 1336 king Edward III. made a successful expedition to relieve the beleaguered Countess of Athole and her garrison in the castle of Lochindorb. Sixty years later the castle of Fyvie in Aberdeenshire was held by Margaret Keith, wife of Sir James Lindsay and daughter of Sir William Keith, Great Marischal of Scotland, against the attacks of her nephew, Robert de Keith, who was the centre of a family quarrel. [Anderson’s Scottish Nation.] And in the Privy Council Records at the General Register House at Edinburgh there is an account of how “Dame Isobel Hepburn, Lady Bass,” and her son, George Lauder, defied their creditors from the safe shelter of an impregnable tower on the Bass Rock, where they long remained, bankrupt but undaunted, “presuming to keep and maintain themselves, so as to elude justice and execution of the law.”

Of “Black Agnes” we hear little more. Her husband changed his mind once again, in 1363, when he rebelled against King David. He was speedily suppressed, however, and five years later resigned his earldom. Some say that he and his countess had no children; others that their daughter Agnes became mistress to David Bruce and was perhaps the cause of that monarch’s divorce of Margaret Logie. Patrick died about 1639 at the age of eighty-four, and his death was shortly followed by that of his wife.

The castle of Dunbar is now nothing but a ruin on the seashore. If the old stones could speak, what strange stories they would have to tell of “far-off things and battles long ago.” A thousand romantic memories cling to the fallen battlements. It was at Dunbar that the luckless Mary sought refuge after Rizzio’s death, and from the gates of this castle she set forth to the disastrous Carberry Hill where she surrendered. But there is nothing more stirring of remarkable in the annals of its history than that lengthy defence maintained by the gallant body of Scotsmen who owed their success and safety to the intrepid leadership of “Black Agnes” of Dunbar.


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