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Wilson's Border Tales
The Guid Wife of Coldingham
Chapter 1


Near where St. Abb stretches in massive strength into the sea, still terrible, even in ruins, may be seen the remains of Fast Castle, one of the most interesting in its history—as it is the most fearfully romantic in its situation—of all the rnouldering strongholds which are still to be traced among the Borders, like monuments of war, crumbling into nothingness beneath the silent but destroying touch of time. After the death of the bluff Harry the Eighth of England, who had long kept many of the corruptible amongst the Scottish nobility and gentry in his pay, the ambitious Somerset, succeeding to the office of guardian of the young king, speedily, under the name of Protector, acquired an authority nothing inferior to the power of an absolute monarch. He had not long held the reins of government when he rendered it evident that it was a part of his ambition to subdue Scotland, or the better portion of it, into a mere province of England.

The then governor of Scotland, Hamilton, Earl of Arran (for Queen Mary was but a child), was not ignorant of the designs of Somerset, and every preparation was made to repel him on his crossing the Borders. It was drawing towards evening on the first of September, 1547, when the Protector, at the head of an army of eighteen thousand men, arrived at Berwick; and nearly at the same instant, while the gloaming yet lay light and thin upon the sea, a fleet, consisting of thirty four vessels of war, thirty transports, and a galley, were observed sailing round Emmanuel’s head—the most eastern point of Holy Island. On the moment that the fleet was perceived, St. Abb’s lighted up its fires, throwing a long line of light along the darkening sea, from the black shore to the far horizon: and scarce had the first flame of its alarm-fire waved in the wind, till the Dow Hill repeated the fiery-signal; and, in a few minutes, Domilaw, Dumprender, and Arthur’s Seat, exhibited tops of fire as the night fell down upon them, bearing the tidings, as if lightnings flying on different courses revealed them through Berwickshire and the Lothians, and enabling Roxburghshire and Fife to read the tale; while Binning’s Craig, repeating the telegraphic fire, startled the burghers of Linlithgow on the one hand, and on the other aroused the men of Lanarkshire.

Before, therefore, the vessels had arrived in the bay, or the Protector’s army had encamped in the Magdalen Fields around Berwick—Berwickshire, Roxburgh, the Lothians, Fife, and Lanark, were in arms. The cry from the hills, and in the glens was, "The enemy is come!—the English!—to arms!" The shepherd drove his flocks to the inaccessible places in the mountains; he threw down his crook and grasped his spear.

At the same time that Somerset crossed the Borders on the east, the Earl of Lennox, who, from disappointed ambition, had proved traitor to his country, entered it at the head of another English army to the west.

But I mean not to write a history of Somerset’s invasion—of the plausible proposals which he made, and which were rejected—nor of the advantages which the Scots, through recklessness or want of discipline, flung away, and of the disasters which followed. All the places of strength upon the Borders fell into his hands, and he garrisoned them from his army, and set governors over them. The first place of attack was Fast Castle; in which, after taking possession of it, he left a governor and strong garrison, composed of English troops and foreign mercenaries, causing also the people around, for their own safety, to take to him an oath of fealty, renouncing their allegiance to the young queen. But while there were many who obeyed his command with reluctance, there were others who chose rather to endanger or forfeit their lives and property than comply with it. It had not, however, been two years in the hands of the English, when, by a daring and desperate act of courage, it was wrested from them.

A decree went forth from the English governor of the castle, commanding them to bring into it, from time to time, all necessary provisions for the use of the garrison, for which they should receive broad money in return; for Somerset and his chief officers—the Lord Grey and others—had caused it to be published, that they considered the inhabitants of that part of Scotland, as the subjects of young Edward, in common with themselves, and not as a people with whom they were at war, or from whom their soldiers might collect provisions, and pay them with the sword.

The English, indeed, paid liberally for whatsoever they received; and there was policy in their so doing, for there were not a few who preferred lucre to their country, and the effigy of a prince upon a coin to allegience to their lawful monarch. But, while such obeyed with alacrity the command of the governor of Fast Castle to bring provisions to his garrison, there were many others who acquiesced in it reluctantly, and only obeyed from the consciousness that disobedience would be the price of their lives.

At this period, there dwelt in Coldingham a widow named Madge Gordon. She was a tall and powerful woman, and her years might be a little below fifty. Daily she indulged in invectives against the English, and spoke contemptuously of the spirit of her countrymen, in submitting to the mandate of the governor of Fast Castle. She had two cows and more than a score of poultry; but she declared that she would spill the milk of the one upon the ground every day, and throw the eggs of the other over the cliffs, rather than that either the one or the other should be taken through the gates of the Castle while an English garrison held it.

Often, therefore, as Madge beheld her neighbours carrying their baskets on their arms, their creels or sacks upon their backs, or driving their horses, laden with provisions, towards the Castle, her wrath would rise against them, and she was wont to exclaim—

"O ye slaves!—ye base loun-hearted beasts o’ burden!— hoo lang will ye boo before the hand that strikes ye, or kiss the foot that tramples on ye? Throw doun the provisions, and gang hame and bring what they better deserve— for, if ye will gie them bread, feed them on the point o’ yer faithers’ spears."

Some laughed as Madge spoke; but her words sank deep into the hearts of others; and a few answered—

"Ye are as daft as ever, Madge—but a haverel woman’s tongue is nae scandal, and ye ken that the governor winna tak cognizance o’ ye.

"Me ken or care for him, ye spiritless coofs, ye!" she replied; "gae tell him that Madge Gordon defies him and a’ his men, as she despises you, and wad shake the dirt frae her shoon at baith the ane and the other o’ ye. Shame fa’ ye, ye degenerate, mongrel race! for, if ye had ae’ drap o’ the blood o’ the men in yer veins wha bled wi’ Wallace and wi’ Bruce, before the sun gaed doun, the flag a’ bonny Scotland wad wave frae the Castle towers."

"Mother! mother!" said an interesting-looking girl of nineteen, who had come to the door as the voice of Madge waxed louder and more bitter—"dinna talk foolishly—ye will bring us a’ into trouble."

"Trouble! ye silly lassie, ye!" rejoined Madge; "these are times indeed to talk o’ the like o’ us being brought into trouble when our puir bluiding country is groaning beneath the yoke o’ an enemy, and we see them harrying us not only oot o’ hoose and ha’, but even those that should be our protectors oot o’ their manhood! See," added she, "do ye see wha you is, skulking as far as he can get frae our door, wi’ the weel-filled sack upon his shouthers? It is yer ain dearie, Florence Wilson! O the betrayer o’ his country!—He’s a coward, Janet, like the rest o’ them, and shall ne’er ca’ ye his wife while I live to ca’ ye daughter."

"O mother!" added the maiden, in a low and agitated voice—"what could poor Florence do? It isna wi’ a man body as it is wi’ the like o’ us. If he didna do as the lave do, he wad be informed against, and he maun obey or die!"

"Let him die, then, as a man, as a Scotchman!" said the stern Guidwife of Coldingham.

Florence Wilson, of whom Madge had spoken, was a young man of three or four and twenty, and who then held, as his fathers had done before him, sheep-lands under the house of Home. He was one of those who obeyed reluctantly the command of the governor to bring provisions to the garrison; and until the day on which Madge beheld him with the sack upon his shoulders, he had resisted doing so. But traitors had whispered the tale of his stubbornness and discontent in the Castle; and in order to save himself and his flocks, he that day took a part of his substance to the garrison. He had long been the accepted of Janet Gordon; and the troubles of the times alone prevented them, as the phrase went, from "commencing house together." He well knew the fierce and daring patriotism of his intended mother-in-law, and he took a circuitous route, in order to avoid passing her door laden with a burden of provisions for the enemy. But, as has been told, she perceived him.

In the evening, Florence paid his nightly visit to Janet.

"Out! out! ye traitor!" cried Madge, as she beheld him crossing her threshold; "the shadow o’ a coward shall ne’er fall on my floor while I hae a hand to prevent it."

"I’m nae coward, guidwife," retorted Florence, indignantly.

"Nae coward!" she rejoined; "what are ye, then? Did not I, this very day, wi’ my ain een, beheld ye skulking and carry provisions to the enemy!"

"Ye might," said Florence—"but ae man canna tak a castle, nor drive frae it five hundred enemies. Bide ye yet. Foolhardy courage isna manhood; and, had mair prudence and caution, and less confidence, been exercised by our army last year, we wouldna hae this day to mourn owre the battle o’ Pinkie. I tell ye, therefore, again, just bide ye yet."

"Come in, Florence," said Madge; "draw in a seat and sit doun, and tell me what ye mean."

"Hoots, Florence," said Janet, in a tone partaking of reproach and alarm; "are ye gaun to be as daft as my mother? What matters it to us wha’s king or wha’s queen?—it will be lang or either the ane or the ither o’ them do onything for us. When ye see lords and gentry in the pay o’ England, and takin its part, what can the like o’ you or my mother do?"

"Do! ye chicken-hearted trembler at yer ain shadow!" interrupted Madge—"though somewhat past its best, I hae an arm as strong and healthy as the best o’ them, and the blood that runs in it is as guid as the proudest o’ them."

Now, the maiden name of Madge was Home; and when her pride was touched, it was her habit to run over the genealogical tree of her father’s family, which she could illustrate upon her fingers, beginning on all occasions—"I am, and so is every Home in Berwickshire, descended frae the Saxon kings o’ England and the first Earls o’ Northumberland." Thus did she run on, tracing their descent from Crinan, chief of the Saxons in the north of England, to Maldredus his son, who married Algatha, daughter of Uthred, prince of Northumberland, and granddaughter of Ethelrid, king of England; and from Malredus to his son Cospatrick, of whose power William the Conqueror became jealous, and who was, therefore, forced to fly into Scotland in the year 1071, where Malcolm Canmore bestowed on him the manor of Dunbar, and many baronies in Berwickshire. Thus did she notice three other Cospatricks, famous and mighty men in their day, each succeeding Cospatrick, the son of his predecessor; and after them a Waldreve, and a Patrick, whose son William marrying his cousin, he obtained with her the lands of Rome, and, assuming the name, they became the founders of the clan. From the offspring of the cousin, the male of whom took the name of Sir William Home, and from him through eleven other successors, down to George, the fourth Lord Home, who had fallen while repelling the invasion of Somerset a few months before, did Madge trace the roots, shoots, and branches of her family, carrying it back through a period of more than six hundred years; and she glowed, therefore, with true aristocratic indignation at the remark of her daughter to Florence—"What can the like o’ you or my mother do?" And she concluded her description of her genealogical tree, by saying—"Talk noo the like o’ yer mother, hizzy!"

"Aweel, mother," said Janet, mildly—"that may a’ be, but there is nae cause for you fleeing into a tift upon the matter, for nae harm was meant. I only dinna wish Florence to be putting his life in jeopardy for neither end nor purpose. I’m sure I wish that oor nobility would keep to their bargain, and allow the queen, though she is but a lassie yet, to be married to young King Edward, and then we might hae peace in the land, and ither folk would be married as weel as them."

"We shall be married, Janet, my doo," said Florence, gazing on her tenderly—"only ye bide a wee."

Now, it must not be thought that Janet loved her country less than did her mother or her betrothed husband; but, while the land of blue mountains was dear to her heart, Florence Wilson was yet more dear; and it was only because they were associated with thoughts of him that they became as a living thing, as a voice and as music in her bosom. For, whence comes our fondness for the woods, the mountains, the rivers of our nativity, but from the fond remembrances which their associations conjure up, and the visions which they recall to the memory of those who were dear to us, but who are now, far from us, or with the dead? We may have seen more stupendous mountains, nobler rivers, and more stately woods—but they were not ours. They were not the mountains, the rivers, and the woods, by which we played in childhood, formed first friendships, or breathed love’s tender tale in the ear of her who was beautiful as the young moon or the evening star, which hung over us like smiles of heaven; nor were they the mountains, the woods, and the rivers, near which our kindred, the flesh of our flesh, and the bone of our bone, SLEEP! But I digress.

"Tell me, Florence," said Madge, "what mean ye by ‘bide a wee?’ Is there a concerted project amongst ony o ye, an’ are ye waiting for an opportunity to carry it into effect?"

"No," answered he, "I canna say as how we hae devised ony practicable scheme o’ owercoming our oppressors as yet; but there are hundreds o’ us ready to draw our swords an’ strike, on the slightest chance o’ success offering—and the chance may come."

"An’ amongst the hundred o’ hands ye speak o’," returned Madge, "is there no a single head that can plot an’ devise a plan to owercome an’ drive our prosecutors frae the castle?"

"I doot it—-at least I hae ne’er heard ony feasible-like plan proposed," said Florence, sorrowfully.

Madge sat thoughtful for a few minutes, her chin resting on her hand. At length she inquired— "When go ye back to sell provisions to them again?"

"This day week," was the reply.

"Then I shall tak my basket wi’ eggs an butter, an gae wi’ ye," answered Madge.

"O mother! what are ye sayin’?" cried Janet; "ye maun gang nae sic gate. I ken yer temper wad the moment ye heard a word spoken against Scotland, or a jibe broken on it; an’ there is nae tellin’ consequence."

"Leave baith the action an’ the consequence to me, Janet, my woman," said the patriotic mother; "as I brew, I will drink. But ye hae nothing to fear; I will be as mim in the Castle as ye wad be if gieing Florence yer hand in the kirk."

The day on which the people were again to carry provisions to the garrison in Fast Castle arrived; and to the surprise of every one, Madge, with a laden basket on each arm, mingled amongst them. Many marvelled, and the more mercenary said—

"Ay, ay!—Madge likes to turn the penny as weel as ither folk. The English will hae guid luck if ony o’ them get a bargain oo’t o’ her baskets."

She, therefore, went to the Castle bearing provisions with the rest of the peasantry; but, under pretense of disposing of her goods to the best advantage, she went through and around the Castle, and quitted it not until she had ascerntained where were its strongest, where were its weakest points of defence, and in what manner, it was guarded.

When, therefore Florence Wilson again visited her dwelling, she addressed him, saying—

"Noo, I hae seen oor enemies i’ the heart o’ their strength; an’ I hae a word to say to ye that will try yer courage, an’ the courage o’ the hunders o’ guid men an’ true that ye hae spoken o’ as only bidin’ their time to strike. Noo, is it yer opinion that, between Dunglass an’ Eyemouth, ye could gather a hundred men willing an’ ready to draw the sword for Scotland’s right, an’ to drive the invaders frae Fast Castle, if a feasible plan were laid before them?"

"I hae nae doot o’t," replied he.

"Doots winna doo," said she; "will ye try it?"

"Yes," said he.

"Florence, ye shall be my son," added she, taking his hand—"I see there is spirit in ye yet."

"Mother," said Janet, earnestly, "what dangerous errand is this ye wad set him upon?—what do ye think it could matter to me wha was governor o’ Fast Castle, if Florence should meet his death in the attempt?"

"‘Wheesht! ye silly lassie, ye," replied her mother; "had I no borne ye, I wad hae said that ye hadna a drap o’ my bluid i’ yer veins. What is’t that ye fear? If they’ll abide by my counsel, though it may try their courage, oor purpose shall be accomplished wi’ but little scaith."

"Neither fret nor fear, dear," said Florence, addressing Janet; "I hae a hand to defend my head, an’ a guid sword to guard baith." Then turning to her mother, he added—"An’ what may be yer plan, that I may communicate it to them, that I ken to be zealous in oor country’s cause?"

"Where I to tell ye noo," said she, "that ye might communicate it to them, before we were ready to put it in execution, the story wad spread frae the Tweed to John o’ Groat’s, and frae St. Abb’s to the Solway, and our designs be prevented. Na, lad, my scheme maun be laid before a’ the true men that can be gathered together, at the same moment, an’ within a few hours o’ its being put in execution. Do ye ken the dark copse aboon Houndwood, where there is a narrow and crooked opening through the tangled trees, but leading to a bit o’ bonny green sward, where a thousand men might encamp unobserved?"

"I do," answered Florence.

"And think ye that ye could assemble the hundred men ye speak o’ there, on this night fortnight?"

"I will try," replied he

"Try then," added she, "and I will meet ye there before the new moon sink behind Lammermoors."

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