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Women in History of Scots Descent
Helen Walker

The town of Dumfries, in southern Scotland, lies about ten miles inland from the Solway Firth. The river Nith on which it stands flows beneath a bridge said to be the oldest in Scotland; it was built, we are told by the Lady Devorgilla, mother of that John Baliol who was a rival of Robert Bruce in claiming the Scottish throne. Dumfries is therefore an ancient town of many historical associations; and standing as it does at the sea-ward end of Nithsdale it was a great centre of farm produce; for centuries past the inland hills and the valleys which lead to them have pastured sheep and cattle, the property of small farmers dwelling in hamlets beside the streams which swell the Nith.

Let us travel in imagination along the valley of the Nith, northwards to a point where a tributary, the Cluden, flows into it. A half ruined abbey looks down from its hillock on the village of Irongray, a pastoral place such as the district well knows. Here in the early eighteenth century there were living two sisters Helen and Isabella Walker, the daughters of a cottar or farm-labourer: both father and mother were dead at the time of which we are writing, and Helen, much older than Isabella, looked after her young and gayer sister with motherly devotion. They earned their living by spinning and knitting wool and by selling the produce of their chickens, a simple, homely, happy life, as we picture it.

But the peace of it was broken up one summer by a terrible shock of fear and shame, when the younger sister, Isabella (or ‘Tibby ‘as her pet name went) was arrested by officers from Dumfries, and imprisoned on the charge of child-murder.

The agony of mind for Helen must have been such as we can hardly imagine; for she was a deeply religious and upright woman, her family highly respected, her own sense of truth and goodness such as to make her even a trifle too hard on those who fell below her standards. Therefore, when the day of trial came, Helen gave her evidence with simple honesty; no single word could she utter, for truth’s sake, that might help to lessen the penalty of the law.

And when the death sentence on Isabella was pronounced, and the poor girl was led from the dock, she turned towards her sister with bitter words, ‘Oh! Nellie, ye’ve been the cause of my death.’

But Helen had a plan in her mind; she had heard it said, ‘The King of England can grant pardons’; why should not she, Helen, go herself to London, present a petition to the King, and save her sister’s life? And so the thing took shape in that faithful, loving, courageous spirit, and quite a practical shape.

Helen procured from a friend a properly worded and written petition such as could be fitly presented to King George II.; she learned that she must first approach a certain nobleman who was at that period (about the year 1788) Commissioner for Scotland, namely John, Duke of Argyll and Greenwich, and ask him to present the petition. And she must go herself, and plead with him herself.

Did she, we wonder, realize the difficulties facing her? A distance of 300 miles; no means of travelling in those days except on foot for those who could afford neither private nor public coach, nor horseback, few bridges, few fords, roads often all but impassable: her Scots speech and appearance very strange to English folk, as their speech and ways to her. Much of this, no doubt, she did realize, but her love swept all aside.

The day after the trial she set out, a short sturdy ‘figure of a woman’ in woollen skirt, above her bare ankles and feet; a plaid wrapping chest and shoulders, her dark hair covered with a black silk hood beneath which shows the edge of a snowy cap; the eyes looking out at us are dark, keen, and shrewd. She carries a bag filled with a few simple necessaries, food for her first stage of journey, shoes and stockings for use in London town, her precious money, borrowed from a kind friend, sewed into a linen bag within her clothing.

After leaving Dumfries she must have followed an easterly road, perhaps only a pack-horse track to a bridge across the Esk, at an ancient Border crossing-spot, Lochmaben. There had long been a good ford there; probably by 1788, a bridge.

Thence a road to Carlisle would bring the traveller to lower ground between the hills where a track runs eastward to Newcastle. These roads are marked on a map of the seventeenth century, and we are, therefore, sure that these at least would be available to Helen for the first important stage of her journey. From Newcastle to London there runs what we still call the Great North Road, the Ermyn Street made by the Romans; along this the Roman legions marched on their way between London and the wall of Hadrian.

But during the Middle Ages these splendid roads, made by the Romans, were neglected; only in the seventeenth century was there a revival of the art of road making. So from Newcastle as far south as Grantham the old Roman road was but a causeway where a coach might barely pass. Along this causeway Helen walked day after day, often meeting strings of pack-horses laden with goods, and now and then a coach, a wonderful sight to her. She would possibly, now and again, allow herself a stage of riding in a public coach; we know that her feet were ‘sorely blistered’ and also that it took her only fourteen days to accomplish the distance.

And as she gets nearer the city of her hope and fear we can imagine even her own courage and faith more greatly tried. For it was not the bodily effort and weariness that told on her, but rather the anxiety lest her mighty effort should be after all in vain.

Let us picture as well as we can the little London of the early eighteenth century; vast to a peasant Scotswoman, very small to us.

On the north, London was bounded by moor-fields, just outside the old wall; to the south there was little of the town beyond St. George’s in Southwark; London Bridge, the only link between the banks of Thames. On the west ‘Buckingham House’ was the farthest towards the country village of Kensington; on the east the gate called Aldgate led out to open spaces, farms, and, cottages along the village street of Mile End.

Helen Walker, approaching London from the north, would travel by lanes between fields where horses and cattle grazed and where stiles and gates led to field-paths. These are shown clearly on old picture-maps of the eighteenth century. Her way into the city would be along Bishopsgate, and if it were dusk she would see every citizen’s house lighted by a horn lanthorn without, as ordered by law. London was more crowded in 1738 than it had been in the last thirty years of the previous century, because after the Great Fire, many open spaces and private gardens had been built upon to give house-room to the growing population. A noisier town also, for hackney coaches now rattled over the cobblestones where only foot-passengers and pack-horses had jostled each other sixty or seventy years before.

To Helen Walker—fresh from the wide horizons and purple distances of southern Scotland and from the quiet market-place of Dumfries—London, even then, must have seemed bewildering in its crowded streets. We may suppose that she found a lodging in some good-natured citizen’s house, and that there she would find out by enquiry how to reach the house of the Duke of Argyll.

As Commissioner for Scotland and a member of the House of Lords it is likely that the Duke had a residence in Westminster. It was but a village then, linked to London City by Fleet Street and the Strand, beyond the market cross of Charing.

Thither Helen was directed on the day after her arrival. In her picturesque Scottish dress, but with shoes and stockings on her feet, she set out along Bishopsgate, past the great pile of St. Paul’s, now fresh from the plans of Sir Christopher Wren, down Ludgate Hill, across the bridge over the Fleet, and so along the Strand towards Charing and the river.

Now at last she comes upon houses which look like those of noblemen; and she is directed to the one belonging to the Duke of Argyll.

Her goal is before her; her last effort of courage and faith is needed.

* * * * * *

Why does she hesitate? Is it lack of courage which makes her stand simply gazing at that door, beyond which lies the answer to all her agonized effort and fear? Far from it; the shrewdness of her mother-wit has told her long ago that no servant’s message, no lackey’s announcement will be likely to procure for such as she an audience of a Minister of State. She will wait and wait till she can make her appeal with personal directness.

So, all that first day and until night-fall she waits; and no sign is given of the great man’s approach. And again a second day passes in like disappointment. But on the third day, a coach draws up; no one alights from it; will the Duke appear?

And now that patient watcher is rewarded; the door of the house opens, a figure emerges; Helen is before him. She thrusts the petition into his hands, and falling on her knees implores him, in her soft Scots speech, for the love of God and, of human kind, to read the paper and to consider its prayer.

She is not repulsed; her simplicity, her obvious honesty, the pathos of her tale are enough to touch any man’s heart; she goes back to her lodging with a promise that all possible effort will be made on behalf of her sister.

* * * * * *

Two days later Helen received the paper containing a pardon signed by the King and an order for her sister’s release. With these she returned to Scotland just as she had come, walking again those weary miles—but now, with such joy and thankfulness in her heart as we, perhaps, can hardly picture.

* * * * * *

There is little more to tell. Isabella Walker went to live with her husband at Whitehaven in Cumberland, whence each year, Helen used to receive some homely gift, a cake or a cheese of her sister’s making. Helen returned to her own village—Irongray—where, though well-known and greatly respected, she had the reputation of being ‘a wily body, for whene’er ony o’ the neebors asked onything aboot the journey to London she aye turned the conversation.’

There were, however, two persons who knew all the facts, but kept their own counsel so long as Helen lived. These were—a gentleman who owned the land on which Helen’s cottage stood, and a Mrs. Goldie whose husband was a high official in the town of Dumfries. Helen died in 1791, and, nearly forty years later, Sir Walter Scott heard this story from Mrs. Goldie, who had seen and talked to Helen Walker when herself on a visit to Irongray village.

To Sir Walter, keenly alive to the value of the failings and the heroisms of human souls, the personality of Helen seemed worthy indeed of an enduring record. And so it comes about that Helen Walker is the historical character from whom Scott has drawn the Jeanie Deans who is the heroine of ‘The Heart of Midlothian.’

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