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Wilson's Border Tales
Phillips Grey

"Death takes a thousand shapes—
Borne on the wings of sullen slow disease,
Or hovering o’er the field of bloody fight,
In calm, in temper, in the dead of night,
Or in the lightning of the summer moon;
In all how terrible!"

Phillips GreyAmong the many scenes of savage sublimity which the Lowlands of Scotland display, there is none more impressive in its solitary grandeur, than that in the neighbourhood of Loch Skene, on the borders of Moffatdale. At a considerable elevation above the sea, and surrounded by the loftiest mountains in the south of Scotland, the Loch has collected its dark mass of waters, astonishing the lover of nature by its great height above the valley which he has just ascended, and, by its still and terrible beauty, overpowering his mind with sentiments of melancholy and awe. Down the cliffs which girdle in the shores of the loch, and seem to support the lofty piles of mountains above them, a hundred mountain torrents leap from rock to rock, flashing and roaring, until they reach the dark reservoir beneath. A canopy of grey mist almost continually shrouds from the sight the summits of the hills, leaving the imagination to guess at those immense heights which seem to pierce the very clouds of heaven. Occasionally, however, this veil is withdrawn, and then you may see the sovereign brow of Palmoodie encircled with his diadem of snow, and the green summits of many less lofty hills arranged round him, like couriers uncovered before their monarch. Amid this scene, consecrated to solitude and the most sombre melancholy, no sound comes upon the mountain breeze, save the wail of the plover, or the whir of the heath-cock’s wing, or, haply, the sullen plunge of a trout leaping up in the loch.

At times, indeed, the solitary wanderer may be startled by the scream of the grey eagle, as, dropping with the rapidity of light from his solitary cliff, he shoots past, enraged that his retreat is polluted by the presence of man, and then darts aloft into the loftiest chambers in the sky; or, dallying with the piercing sunbeams, is lost amid their glory. [Round about the shores of Loch Skene the Ettrick Shepherd herded the flocks of his master, and fed his boyish fancies with the romance and beauty which breathes from every feature of the scene. One day,when we were at Loch Skene on a fishing excursion with him, he pointed up to the black crag overhanging the water, and said—"You see the edge o’ that cliff; I ance as near dropped fracit intil eternity as I dinna care to think o’. I was herdin’ abcot here, and lang and lang I thoucht o’ speelin’ up to the eyry, frae which I could hear the young eagles screamin’ as plain as my ain bonny Mary Gray, (his youngest daughter,) when she’s no pleased wi’ the colley; but the fear o’ the auld anes aye keepit me frae the attempt. At last, ae day, when, I was at the head o’ the cliff, and the auld eagle away frae the nest, I took heart o’ grace, and clambered down, (for there was nae gettin’ up.) Well, sir, I was at the maist kittle bit o’ the craig, wi’ my foot on a bit o’ ledge just wide enough to bear me, and sair bothered wi’my plaid and stick, when guid saf’s! I heard the boom o’ the auld eagle’s wings went whaff, whaffing through the air, and, in a moment o’ time, she brought me sic awhang wi’ her wing, as she rushed enraged by, and then turning short again and fetching me anither, I thought I was gane forever; but Providence gae me presence o’ mind to regain my former restingplace, and there flinging off my plaid, I keepit aye nobbing the bird wi’ my stick till I was out o’ danger. It was a fearsome time!" It would have been dreadful had the pleasure which, "Kilmeny," "Queen Hynde," and the hundred other beautiful creations which the glorious old bard has given us, been all thus destroyed "at one fell swoop."] At the eastern extremity of the loch, the superfluous waters are discharged by a stream of no great size, but which, after heavy showers, pours along its deep and turbid torrent with frightful impetuosity.

After running along the mountain for about half a mile, it suddenly precipitates itself over the edge of a rocky ridge which traverses its course, and, falling sheer down a height of three hundred feet, leaps and bounds over some smaller precipices, until, at length, far down in Moffatdale, it entirely changes its character, and pursues a calm and peaceful course through a fine pastoral country. Standing on the brow of a mountain which overlooks the fall, the eye takes in at once the whole of the course which we have described; and, to a poetical mind, which recognises in mountain scenery the cradle of liberty and the favourite dwelling-place of imagination, the character of the stream seems a type of the human mind: stormy, bounding, and impetuous, when wrapped up in the glorious feelings which belong to romantic countries; peaceful, dull, and monotonous, amid the less interesting Lowlands. Yet, after indulging in such a fancy for a time, another reflection arises, which, if it be less pleasing and poetical, is, perhaps, more useful—that the impetuous course of the mountain torrent, though gratifying to the lover of nature, is unaccompanied with any other benefit to man, while the stream that pursues its unpretending path through the plains bestows fertility on a thousand fields. Such thoughts as these, however, only arise in the mind when it has become somewhat familiar with the surrounding scenes. The roar of the cataract, the savage appearance of the dark rocks that border the falling waters, and that painful feeling which the sweeping and inevitable course of the stream produces, at first paralyze the mind, and, for some time after it has recovered its tone, occupy it to the exclusion of every other sentiment.

And now, gentle reader, let us walk toward the simple stone seat, which some shepherd boy has erected under yon silvery stemmed birch tree, where the sound of the waterfall comes only in a pleasant monotone, and where the most romantic part of old Scotland is spread beneath our feet. There you see the eternal foam of the torrent, without being distracted with its roar; and you can trace the course of the stream till it terminates in yon clear and pelucid pool at the foot of the hill, which seems too poor for aught but –

"A mirror and a bath for beauty’s youngest daughters;"

yet, beautiful in its purity as it seems, it is indeed the scene of the following true and terrible tale:—

Philips Grey was one of the most active young shepherds in the parish of Traquair. For two or three years he had carried off the medal given at the St. Ronan’s Border Games, to him who made the best high leap; and, at the last meeting of the games, he had been first at the running hop-step-and-jump; had beat all competitors in running; and, though but slightly formed, had gained the second prize for throwing the hammer—a favourite old Scottish exercise, but almost unknown in England. Athletic sports were, indeed, his favourite pursuit, and he cultivated them with an ardour which very few of our readers will be able to imagine. But among the shepherds, and, indeed, all inhabitants of pastoral districts, he who excels in these sports possesses a superiority over his contemporaries, which cannot but be gratifying in the highest degree to its possessor. His name is known far and wide; his friendship is courted by the men; and his hand, either as a partner in a country dance, or in a longer "minuet of the heart," marriage, is coquetted for by the maidens: he, in fact, possesses all the power which superiority of intellect bestows in more populous and polished societies. But it is by no means the case, as is often said, that ardour in the pursuit of violent sports is connected with ignorance or mediocrity of intellect. On the contrary, by far the greater number of victors at games of agility and strength, will be found to possess a degree of mental energy, which is, in fact, the power that impels them to corporeal excitement, and is often the secret of their success over more muscular antagonists. Philips Grey, in particular, was a striking instance of this fact. Notwithstanding his passion for athletic sports, he had found time, while on the hill side tending his flock, or in the long winter nights, to make himself well acquainted with the Latin classics. This is by no means uncommon among the Scottish peasantry. Smith, and Black, and Murray, are not singular instances of self-taught scholars; for there is scarce a valley in Scotland in which you will not hear of one or more young men of this stamp. Philips also played exquisitely on the violin, and had that true taste for the simple Scottish melody which can, perhaps, be cultivated nowhere so well as among the mountains and streams which have frequently inspired them. Many a time, when you ask the name of the author of some sweet ballad which the country girl is breathing amongst these hills, the tear will start into her eye as she answers—"Poor Philips Grey, that met a dreadful death at the Grey Mare’s Tail." With these admirable qualities, Philips unfortunately possessed a mood of mind which is often an attendant on Genius—he was subject to attacks of the deepest melancholy. Gay, cheerful, humorous, active, and violent in his sports as he was, there were periods when the darkest gloom overshadowed his mind, and when his friends even trembled for his reason. It is said that he frequently stated his belief that he should die a dreadful death. Alas! that this strange presentiment should have indeed been prophetic! It is not surprising that Philips Grey, with his accomplishments, should have won the heart of a maiden somewhat above his own degree, and even gained the consent of her father to his early marriage. The old man dwelt in Moffatdale; and the night before Philips’ wedding day, he and his younger brother walked over to his intended father-in-law’s house, in order to be nearer the church. That night the young shepherd was in his gayest humour; his bonny bride was by his side, and looking more beautiful than ever; he sang his finest songs, played his favourite tunes, and completely bewitched his companions. All on a sudden, while he was relating some extraordinary feat of strength which had been performed by one of his acquaintances, he stopped in the middle of his story, and exchanged the animation with which he was speaking, for silence and a look of the deepest despair. His friends were horror-struck: but as he insisted that nothing was the matter with him, and as his younger brother said that he had not been in bed for two nights, the old man dismissed the family, saying—"Gang awa to bed, Philips, my man, and get a sound sleep; or if ye do lie wauken a wee bittie, it’s nae great matter: odd! it’s the last nicht my bonny Marion ‘ll keep ye lying wauken for her sake. Will’t no, my bonny doo?"

"Deed, faither, I dinna ken," quoth Marion, simply, yet archly; and the party separated.

Philips, however, walked down the burn side, in order to try if the cool air would dissipate his unaccountable anxiety. But, in spite of his efforts, a presentiment of some fatal event gathered strength in his mind, and he involuntarily found himself revolving the occurrences of his past life. Here he found little to condemn, for he had never received an unkind word from his father, who was now in the grave; and his mother was wearing out a green and comfortable old age beneath his own roof. He had brought up his younger brothers, and they were now in a fair way to succeed in life. He could not help feeling satisfied at this, yet why peculiarly at this time he knew not. Then came the thought of his lovely Marion, and the very agony which at once rushed on his heart, had well-nigh choked him. Immediately, however, the fear which hung about him seemed to vanish; for, strange and mysterious as it was, it was not sufficiently powerful to withstand the force of that other horrible imagination. So he returned to the house, and was surprised to find himself considering how his little property should be distributed after his death. When he reached the door, he stopped for a moment, overcome with this pertinacity in the supernatural influence which seemed exercised over him; and, at length, with gloomy resolution, entered into the house. His brother was asleep, and a candle was burning on the table. He sank down into a chair, and went on with his little calculations respecting his will. At length, having decided upon all these things, and having fixed upon the churchyard of St Mary’s for his burial place, he arose from his chair, took up the candle and crossed the room towards his brother, intending to convey his wishes to him.

The boy lay on the front side of one of those beds with sliding doors, so common in Scotland; and beyond him there was room for Philips to lie down. Something bright seemed gleaming in the dark recess of the bed. He advanced the candle, and beheld—oh, sight of horror!—a plate upon what bore the shape of a coffin, bearing the words—"Philips Grey, aged 23." For a moment he gazed steadily upon it, and was about to stretch out his hand towards it, when the lid slowly rose, and he beheld a mutilated and bloody corpse, the features of which were utterly undistinguishable, but which, by some unearthly impulse, he instantly knew to be his own. Still he kept a calm and unmoved gaze at it, though the big drops of sweat stood on his brow with the agony of his feelings; and, while he was thus contemplating the dreadful revelation, it gradually faded away, and at length totally vanished. The power which had upheld him seemed to depart along with the phantom; his sight failed him, and he fell on the floor.

Presently he recovered, and found himself in bed, with his brother by his side chafing his temples. He explained everything that had occurred, seemed calm and collected, shook his head when his brother attempted to explain away the vision, and finally sank into a tranquil sleep.

Whether the horrible resemblance of his own coffin and mutilated corpse was in reality revealed to him by the agency of some supernatural power, or whether it was, (as sceptics will say,) the natural effect of his hypochondriac state of mind, producing an optical deception, we will not take upon us to determine; certain, however, it is, that with a calm voice and collected manner, he described to his brother, James, a scene, the dreadful reality of which was soon to be displayed.

In the morning, Philips awoke, cheerful and calm, the memory of last night’s occurrences seeming but a dreadful dream. On the grass before the door, he met his beloved Marion, who, on that blessed Sabbath, was to become his wife. The sight of her perfect loveliness, arrayed in a white dress, emblem of purity and innocence, filled his heart with rapture; and as he clasped her in his arms, every sombre feeling vanished away. It is not our intention to describe the simplicity of their marriage ceremony, or the happiness which filled Philips Grey’s heart during that Sabbath morning, while sitting in the church by the side of his lovely bride.

They returned home, and, in the afternoon, the young couple, together with James Grey and the bride’s-maid, walked out among the glades of Craigieburn Wood, a spot rendered classic by the immortal Burns. Philips had gathered some of the wild flowers that sprang among their feet—the pale primrose, and fair anemone, and the drooping blue bells of Scotland—and wove them into a garland. As he was placing them on Marion’s brow and shading back the long flaxen tresses that hung across her cheek, he said, gaily—"There wants but a broad water lily to place in the centre of thy forehead, my sweet Marion; for where should the fairest flower of the valley be, but on the brow of its queen? Come with me, Jamie, and, in half an hour, we will bring the fairest that floats on Loch Skene." So, kissing the cheek of his bride, Philips and his brother set off up the hill with the speed of the mountain deer. They arrived at the foot of the waterfall, panting, and excited with their exertions. By climbing up the rocks close to the stream, the distance to the loch is considerably shortened; and Philips, who had often clambered to the top of the Bitch Craig, a high cliff on the Manor Water, proposed to his brother that they should "speel the height." The other, a suppel agile lad instantly consented. "Gie me your plaid then, Jamie, my man—it will maybe fash ye, said Philips; and gang ye first, and keep weel to the hill side." Accordingly the boy gave his brother the plaid and began the ascent. While Philips was knotting his brother’s plaid round his body, above his own, a fox peeped out of his hole half way up the cliff, and thinking flight advisable, dropped down the precipice. Laughing till the very echoes rang, Philips followed his brother. Confident in his agility, he ascended with a firm step till he was within a few yards of the summit. James was now on the top of the precipice, and looking down on his brother, and not knowing the cause of his mirth, exclaimed—"Daursay, callant, ye’re fey." ["Fey," a Scottish word, expressive of that unaccountable, and violent mirth which is supposed frequently to portend sudden death.] In a moment the memory of his last night’s vision rushed on Philips Grey’s mind, his eyes became dim, his limbs powerless, he dropped off the very edge of the giddy precipice, and his form was lost in the black gulf below. For a few minutes, James felt a sickness of heart, which rendered him almost insensible, and sank down on the grass, lest he should fall over the cliff. At length, gathering strength from very terror, he advanced to the edge of the cataract and gazed downwards. There, about two-thirds down the fall, he could perceive the remains of his brother, mangled and mutilated; the body being firmly wedged between two projecting points of rock, whereon the descending water streamed, while the bleeding head hang dangling, and almost separated from the body—and, turned upwards, discovered to the horrified boy, the starting eye-balls of his brother, already fixed in death, and the teeth clenched in the bitter agony which had tortured his passing spirit.

It is scarcely necessary to detail the consequences of this cruel accident. Assistance was procured, and the mangled body conveyed to the house of Marion’s father, whence, a few short hours ago, the young shepherd had issued in vigour and happiness. When the widowed bride saw James Grey return to them with horror painted on his features, she seemed instantly to divine the full extent of her misfortune; she sank down on the grass, with the unfinished garland of her dead lover in her hand, and in this state was carried home. For two days she passed from one fit to another; but on the night of the second day she sank into a deep sleep. That night, James Grey was watching the corpse of his brother; the coffin was placed on the very bed were they had slept two nights ago. The plate gleamed from the shadowy recess, and the words—"Philips Grey, aged 23," were distinctly visible. While James was reflecting on the prophetic vision of his brother, a figure, arrayed in white garments, entered the room and moved towards the dead body. It was poor Marion.

She slowly lifted the lid of the coffin, and gazed long and intently on the features of her dear husband. Then turning round to James, she uttered a short shrill shriek, and fell backwards on the corpse. She hovered between life and death for a few days, and at length expired. She now lies by the side of her lover, in the solitary burial ground of St Mary’s.

Such is the event which combines, with others not less dark and terrible, to throw a wild interest around those gloomy rocks. Many a time you will hear the story from the inhabitants of those hills; and, until fretted away by the wind and rain, the plaid and the bonnet of the unfortunate Philips Grey hung upon the splintered precipice, to attest the truth of the tale.

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