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Wilson's Border Tales
Gleanings of the Covenant

No. 14. Old Isbel Kirk

Isbel Kirk lived in Pothouse, Closeburn, in that very house where that distinguished scholar, the late Professor Hunter of St. Andrew’s, was born. She had never been married, and lived in a small lonely cottage, with no companions but her cat and cricket, which chirped occasionally from beneath the hudstone, against which her peat-fire was built. There sat old, and now nearly blind, Isbel Kirk, spinning or carding wool, crooning occasionally an old Scotch song or, it might be, one of David’s psalms, and enjoying at intervals her pipe. A visit from her next neighbour Nanny Nivison, or her champit-potatoes—a luxury which the west country, and that alone, has hitherto enjoyed. Two old Irish women had settled some time before this on the skirts of the oppostie brae, where they had built a small turf cabin, and lived nobody could well tell how. They were generally understood to make a kind of precarious living, by going about the country periodically, giving pigs or crockery ware in exchange for wool. Isbel Kirk was a most simple, honest creature, living on little, but procuring that little by her industry in spinning sale yarn, weaving garters, and using her needle occasionally, to assist the guidwife of Gilchristland in shirt-making for a large family. But the M’Dermots were the aversion of everybody, and seldom visited even by the guidman of Barmoor, on whose farm, or rather on the debatable skirts of it, they had sat down, almost in spite of his teeth. H e was a humane man; and, though he loved not such visitors, yet he tolerated the nuisance, as his wife reckoned them skilled in curing children’s diseases, and in spaeing the young women’s fortunes. John Watson pastured sheep, where corn harvests now wave in abundance; and his flocks spread about to the door of the M’Dermots and Isbel Kirk. These flocks gradually decreased, and much suspicion was attached to his Irish and heathenish neighbours—for they attended no place of worship, not even the conformed Curate’s; but there was no proof against them. At last, a search was suddenly and secretly instituted under the authority of the Laird of Closeburn; and, although much wool was found, still there were no entire fleeces, nor any means left of bringing it home to the M’Dermots.

"Na, na,, guidman," siad the elder of the two Harridans, "Na, na, needna stir about the kail-pot in that way—ye’ll find naething there, but a fine bit o’ the dead braxy I gat frae the guidman o’ Gilchristland, for helping the mistress wi’ her kirn, that wadna mak butter; but there are folks that ye dinna suspect, and that are maybe no that far off either, wha could very weel tell ye gin they liked whar yer braw gimmer yows gang till."

Being pushed to be more particular, they were seemingly compelled at last to intimate that auld Isbel Kirk, she and her friend Nanny Nivison, could give an account of the stolen sheep, if they liked. The guidman would not credit such allegations; but the old women persisted in their averment, and even offered to give the guidman of Barmoor ocular demonstration of the guilt o’ the twa saunts as they called them. A few days passed, and still a lamb or an old sheep would disappear—they melted away gradually, and the guidman began to think that his flocks must be bewitched, and that the devil himself must keep a kitchen somewhere about the Chaise Craig, over which Archy Tait had often seen the old gentleman driving six in hand about twelve o’clock at night. Returning, therefore, one morning to the M’Dermots, and renewing the conversation respecting Isbel Kirk and Nanny Nivison, it was agreed that one of the Irish sisterhood should walk over to Isbel’s with him next forenoon, and that she would give him evidence of the fate of his flocks. Isbel was sitting before her door, in the sunshine of a fine spring morning, when the guidman and Esther M’Dermot arrived. She welcomed them kindly into her small but clean and neat cottage; and, with all the despatch which her blindness would permit of, dusted for their use an old-fashioned chair, and a round stool, which served the double purpose of stool and table. The conversation went on as usual about the weather, and the last sufferer in the cause of the Covenant, when Esther M’Dermot went into a dark corner, and forthwith drew out into the guidman’s view, and to his infinite astonishment, a sheep’s head, which bore the well-known mark of the farm on its ears.

"Look there, guidman," said Esther, "isna that proof positive of the way in which your braw hirsel is disposed of? By Jasus and the holy St Patrick! and here is a foot too, and twa horns!"

Poor Isbel Kirk could scarcely be made to apprehend the meaning of all this—indeed she could scarcely see the evidences of her guilt—and assured the guidman, in the most unequivocal manner imaginable, that she was innocent as the child unborn; indeed she said, what should she do with dead sheep, or how should she get hold of them, seeing she was old and blind, and had not enjoyed a bit of mutton, or any other flesh meat, since the new year.

"Ay," responded old Esther; "but ye hae friends that can help ye; dinna I whiles see, after dark, twa tall figures stealing o’er your way frae the Whitside linn yonder? I’ll warrant they dinna live on deaf nits, after lying a’ day in a dark and damp cave." Isbel held up her hands in prayer, entreating the Lord to be merciful to her and to his sin inheritance, and to discomfit the plans of his and her enemies.

"Ye may pray," said Elspat, "as ye like, but ye’ll no mak the guidman here distrust his ain een, wi’ yer praying and yer Whiggery." This last suggestion of the nightly visitors staggered Mr Watson not a little; he well knew how friendly old Isbel was to the poor Covenanters, and brought himself to conclude, under the weighty and conclusive evidence before him, that Isbel might have persuaded herself that she was rendering God good service by feeding his chosen people with the best of his flock. Isbel could only protest her innocence and ignorance of the way in which these evidences against her came there; whilst the guidman and Esther took their leave; he threatesning that the matter should not rest where it was, and the old Irish jade pretending to commiserate Isbel on the unfortunate discovery.

Next morning, the pothouse was surrounded, and carefully searched by a detachment of Lag’s men, to whom information of Isbel’s harbouring rebels had been (the reader may guess how) communicated. Having been unsuccessful in their search, they put the poor blind creature to the torture, because she would not discover, or, perhaps, could not reveal, the retreat of the persecuted people. A burning match was put betwixt her fingers, and she was firmly tied to a bedpost, whilst the fire was blown into a flame by one of the soldiers. Not a feature in Isbel’s countenance changed; but her lips moved, and she was evidently deeply absorbed in devotional exercise.

"Come, come, old Bleary," said one, "out with it! or we will roast you on the coals, like a red herring, for Beelzebub’s breakfast."

"Ye can only do what ye’re permitted to do," said the poor sufferer, now writhing with pain, and suffering all the agonies of martyrdom. "Ye may burn this poor auld body, and reduce it to its natural dust; but ye will never hear my tongue betray any of the poor persecuted remnant."

It is horrible to relate, but the fact cannot be disputed, that these monsters stood by and blew the match till the poor creature’s fingers were actually burnt off—yet she only once cried for mercy; but, when they mentioned the conditions, she fainted; and thus nature relieved her from her sufferings. When she came again to herself, she found that they had killed the only living creature which she could call companion, and actually hung the body of the dead cat around her neck; but they were gone, and her hands were untied.

During the ensuing night a watch was set upon poor Isbel’s house, thinking, as the persecutors did, that they would catch the nightly visitants, who were yet ignorant of their friend’s sufferings in their behalf. The men lay concealed among brackens, on the bank opposite to the pot-house, and near to Staffybiggin, the residence of the M’Dermots. To their surprise, a figure, about twelve o’clock, came warily and stealthily around a flock of sheep which lay ruminating in the hollow. It was a female figure, if not the Devil in a female garb. They continued to keep silent and lie still. At last they saw the whole flock driven over and across a thick-set bush of fern. One of the sheep immediately began to struggle; but it was manifestly held by the foot—in a few instants, two figures were seen dragging it into M’Dermot’s door. This naturally excited their surprise, and, rushing immediately into the hut, they found the two old women in the act of preparing in a pit—which, during the day time, was concealed—mutton for their own use. The murder was now out. These wretched women had been in the habit, for some years, of supplying themselves from the Barmoor flocks; the one lying flat down on her back amongst the furze, and the other driving the sheep over her breast. Thus the sister who caught, had an opportunity of selecting; and the best of the wedders had thus from time to time disappeared.

Poor Isbel Kirk!—her innocence was now fully established; but it was too late. Her kind friend Nanny Nivison attended her in her last illness, and the guidman of Barmoor paid every humane attention. But the ruffians of a mistaken and ill-advised government had deranged her nervous system. Besides, the burn never properly healed; it at last mortified, and she died almost insensible, either of pain or presence. Her soul seemed to have left its frail tabernacle ere life was extinct. The example we have here given is taken from that humble source, which the historian leaves open to the gleaner. Indeed, the histories of those times give but a very imperfect idea of the atrocities of that remarkable period. The cottage door must be opened to get at the truth; but the stately political historian seldom enters.

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