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Wilson's Border Tales
The Sabbath Wrecks


It was a beautiful Sabbath morning in the autumn of 1577: a few small clouds, tinged with red, sailed slowly through the blue heavens, the sun shone brightly, as if conscious of the glory and goodness of its Maker, diffusing around a holy stillness and tranquillity, characteristic of the day of rest; the majestic Frith flashed back the sunbeams, while on its bosom slowly glided the winged granaries of commerce; there, too, lay its islands, glorying in their strength—the May, shrouded in light, appeared as a leviathan sunning in its rays—and the giant Bass, covered with seafowl, rose as a proud mountain of alabaster in the midst of the waters. A thousand boats lay along the shores of Dunbar. It was the herring-season—and there were many boats from the south and from the north, and also from the coast of Holland.

Now, tidings were brought to the fishermen that an immense shoal was upon the coast; and, regardless of its being Sabbath morning, they began to prepare their thousand boats, and to go out to set their nets. The Rev. Andrew Simpson, a man possessed of the piety and boldness of an apostle, was then minister of Dunbar; and, as he went forth to the kirk to preach to his people, he beheld the unhallowed preparation of the fishermen on the beach; and he turned and went amongst them, and reproved them sternly for their great wickedness. But the men were obdurate—the prospect of the great gain was before them, and they mocked the words of the preacher. Yea, some of them said unto him, in the words of the children to the prophet—"Go up, thou bald head." He went from boat to boat, counselling, entreating, expostulating with them, and praying for them.

"Surely," said he, "the Lord of the Sabbath will not hold ye guiltless for this profanation of his holy day." But at that period vital religion was but little felt or understood upon the Borders, and they regarded not his words.

He went to one boat, which was the property of members of his own congregation, and there he found Agnes Crawford, the daughter of one of his elders, hanging upon the neck of her husband, and their three children also clung around him, and they entreated him not to be guilty of breaking the Sabbath for the sake of perishing gain. But he regarded not their voice; and he kissed his wife and his children, while he laughed at their idle fears. Mr. Simpson beheld the scene with emotion, and approaching the group—"John Crawford," he exclaimed, addressing the husband, "you may profess to mock, to laugh to scorn the words of a feeble woman; but see that they return not like a consuming fire into your bosom when hope has departed. Is not the Lord of the Sabbath the Creator of the sea as well as of the dry land? Know ye not that ye are now braving the wrath of Him before whom the mightly ocean is a drop, and all space but a span? Will ye then glory in insulting His ordinances, and delight in profaning the day of holiness? Will ye draw down everlasing darkness on the Sabbath of your soul? When ye were but a youth, ye have listened to the words of John Knox—the great apostle of our country—ye have trembled beneath their power, and the conviction that they carried with them; and when ye think of those convictions, and contrast them with your conduct this day, does not the word apostate burn in your heart? John Crawford, some of your blood have embraced the stake for the sake of the truth, and will ye profane the Sabbath which they sanctified? The Scotsman who openly glories in such a sin forfeits his claim to the name of one, and publishes to the world that he has no part or communion with the land that gave him birth. John Crawford, hearken unto my voice, to the voice of your wife, and that of your bairns (whose brining up is a credit to their mother), and be not guilty of this gross sin." But the fisherman, while he regarded not the supplications of his wife, became sullen at the words of the preacher, and, springing into the boat, seized an oar, and with his comrades, began to pull from the shore.

The thousand boats put to sea, and Mr. Simpson returned sorrowful from the beach to the kirk, while Agnes Crawford and her children followed him. That day he took for his text, "Remember the Sabbath-day to keep it holy;" and, as he fearlessly and fervidly denounced the crime of Sabbath-breaking, and alluded to the impious proceedings of the day, his hearers trembled, but poor Agnes wept aloud, and her ohildren clung around her, and they wept also, because she wept. But, ere the service had concluded, the heavens began to lower. Darkness fell over the congregation—and first came the murmur of the storm, which suddenly burst into the wild howl of the tempest. They gazed upon each other in silent terror, like guilty spirits stricken in their first rebellion by the searching glance of the Omniscient. The loud voice of Psalms was abruptly hushed, and its echo mingled with the dreadful music of the elements, like the bleating of a tender lamb, in the wind that sweepeth howling on the mountains. For a moment, their features, convulsed and immovable, were still distended with the song of praise; but every tongue was silent, every eye fixed. There was no voice, save heaven’s. The church seemed to rock to its foundations, but none fled—none moved. Pale, powerless as marble statues, horror transfixed them in the house of prayer. The steeple rocked in the blast, and, as it bent, a knell untold by human hands, pealed on the ears of the breathless multitude. A crash followed. The spire that glittered in the morning sun lay scattered in fragments, and the full voice of the whirlwind roared through the aisles. The trees crouched and were stripped leafless; and the sturdy oak, whose root had embraced the earth for centuries, torn from the deep darkness of its foundations, was uplifted on the wings of the tempest. Darkness was spread over the earth. Lightnings gathered together their terrors, and, clothed in the fury of their awful majesty, flashed through the air. The fierce hail was poured down as clouds of ice. At the awful voice of the deep thunder the whirlwind quailed, and the age of the tempest seemed spent.

Nothing was now heard save the rage of the troubled sea, which, lashed into foam by the angry storm, still bellowed forth its white billows to the clouds, and shouted its defiance loud as the war-cry of embattled worlds. The congregation still sat mute, horrified, death-like, as if waiting for the preacher to break the spell of the elements. He rose to return thanks for their preservation, and he had given out the lines—

"When in thy wrath rebuke me not,
Nor in thy hot rage chasten me,"

when the screams and the howling of women and children rushing wildly along the streets rendered his voice inaudible. The congregation rose, and hurrying one upon another, they rushed from the church. The exhortations of the preacher to depart calmly were unheard and unheeded. Every seat was deserted, all rushed to the shore, and Agnes Crawford and her children ran, also, in terror, with the multitude.

The wrecks of nearly two hundred boats were drifting among the rocks. The dead were strewed along the beach, and amongst them, wailing widows sought their husbands, children their fathers, mothers their sons, and all their kindred; and ever and anon, an additional scream of grief arose as the lifeless body of one or other such relations was found. A few of the lifeless bodies of the hardy crews were seen tossing to and fro; but the cry for help was hushed, and the yell of death was heard no more.

It was, in truth, a fearful day—a day of lamentation, of warning, and of judgment. In one hour, and within sight of the beach, a hundred and ninety boats and their crews were whelmed in the mighty deep, and, dwelling on the shore between Spittal and North Berwick, two hundred and eighty widows wept their husbands loss.

The spectators were busied carrying the dead, as they were driven on shore, beyond the reach of tide-mark. They had continued their melancholy task for near an hour, when a voice exclaimed—"See! see!—one still lives, and struggles to make the shore!"

All rushed to the spot from whence the voice proceeded, a young man was perceived, with more than mortal strength, yet labouring in the whirling waves. His countenance was black with despair. His heart panted with suffocating pangs. His limbs buffeted the billows in the strong agony of death, and he strained, with desperate eagerness, towards the projecting point of a black rock. It was now within his grasp, but in its stead, he clutched the deceitful wave that laughed at his deliverance. He was whirled around it, dashed on it with violence, and again swept back by the relentless surge. He threw out his arms at random, and his deep groans and panting breath were heard through the sea’s hoarse voice. He again reached the rock—he grasped, he clung to its tangled sides. A murmur moaned through the multitude. They gazed one upon another. His glazed eyes frowned darkly upon them. Supplication and scorn were mingled in his look. His lips moved, but his tongue uttered no sound. He only gasped to speak—to implore assistance. His strength gave way—the waters rushed around the rock as a whirlpool. He was again uplifted upon the white bosom of the foam, and tossed within a few yards of the wailing but unavailing crowd.

"It is John Crawford!" exclaimed those who were enabled to recognise his features. A loud shriek followed the mention of his name—a female rushed through the crowd, and the next moment the delicate form of Agnes Crawford was seen floating on the wild sea. In one instant, a hundred plunged to her rescue; but, before the scream of horror and surprise raised by the spectators when they beheld her devoted but desperate purpose had subsided, she was beyond the reach of all who feared death. Although no feminine amusement, Agnes had delighted in buffeting the waters from a child, as though she felt a home upon their bosom; and now the strength of inspiration seemed to thrill through her frame. She was hidden from the gaze of the marvelling spectators, and a deep groan crept along the shore. She again appeared, and her fair hand grasped the shoulder of the drowning man! A shout of wild joy rang back on the deserted town. Her father, who was amongst the multitude, fell upon his knees. He clasped his hands together—"Merciful Heaven!" he exclaimed, "Thou who stillest the tempest, and holdest the waters in the hollow of Thy hand, protect—protect my child!"

The waters rioted with redoubled fury. Her strength seemed failing, but a smile of hope still lighted up her features and her hand yet grasped her apparently lifeless burden. Despair again brooded on the countenances of her friends. For a moment she disappeared amongst the waves; but the next, Agnes Crawford lay senseless on the beach, her arm resting on the bosom of him she had snatched from a watery grave—on the bosom of her husband.

They were borne to their own house, where, in a few minutes, she recovered; but her husband manifested no sign of vitality. All the means within their power, and that they knew, were resorted to, in order to effect his resuscitation. Long and anxiously she wept over him, rubbing his temples and his bosom, and at length, beneath her hand his breast first began to heave with the returning pulsation of his heart.

"He lives!—he breathes!" she exclaimed, and she sank back in a state of unconsciousness, and was carried from the room. The preacher attended by the bedside, where the unconscious fisherman lay, directing and assisting in the operations necessary for restoring animation.

As John Crawford began to recover, the film of death that had gathered over his eyes began to melt away, and he gazed around in bewilderment, but unconscious of where he was, and he sank into a troubled sleep; and, as he so slept, and his strength returned, he cast forth his arms, in imagination, yet grapling with death. He dreamed, and in his dream, he shouted for help. He prayed, and in the same breath he blasphemed and reviled the trembling spectators that his troubled fancy still pictured on the beach.

In a few hours the fisherman awoke from his troubled sleep, which many expected would have been the sleep of death. He raised himself in the bed—he looked around wistfully. Agnes, who had recovered, and returned to the room, fell upon his bosom. "My Agnes!—my poor Agnes!" he cried, gazing wistfully in her face—"but, where—where am I?—and my bairnies, where are they?"

"Here, faither, here!" cried the children stretching out their little arms to embrace him.

Again he looked anxiously around. A recollection of the past, and a consciousness of the present, fell upon his mind. "Thank God!" he exclaimed, and burst into tears; and when his troubled soul and agitated bosom had found in them relief, he inquired eagerly—"But, oh, tell me, how was I saved?—was I cast upon the beach? There is a confused remembrance in my brain, as though an angel grasped me when I was sinking, and held me. But my head is confused, it is fearfully confused, and I remember naething but as a dream; save the bursting awa o’ the dreadful storm, wi’ the perishing o’ hunders in an instant, and the awfu’ cry that rang frae boat to boat—‘A judgment has come owre us!’ And it was a judgment indeed! O Agnes! had I listened to yer words, to the prayers o’ my bits o’ bairns, or the advice o’ the minister, I wad hae escaped the sin that I hae this day committed and the horrors wi’ which it has been visited. But tell me how or in what manner, I was saved?"

"John," said the aged elder, the father of Agnes, "ye was saved by the merciful and sustaining power o’ that Providence which ye this morning set at nought. But I rejoice to find that your heart is not hardened, and that the awful visitation—the judgment, as ye hae well described it—which has this day filled our coast with widows and with orphans, has not fallen upon you in vain; for ye acknowledge your guilt, and are grateful for your deliverance. Your being saved is naething short o’ a miracle. We a’ beheld how long and how desperately ye struggled wi’ the raging waves, when we knew not who you were, and when it wasna in the power o’ ony being upon the shore to render ye the slightest assistance. We saw how ye struggled to reach the black rock, and how ye was swept round it; and, when ye at last reached it, we observed how ye clung to it wi’ the grasp o’ death, until your strength gave way, and the waves dashed you from it. Then ye was driven towards the beach, and some of the spectators recognised your face and they cried out your name. A scream burst upon my ear—a woman rushed through the crowd—and then John—oh, then!"—But here the feelings of the old man overpowered him. He sobbed aloud, and pausing for a few moments, added—"Tell him, some o’ ye." "O, tell me," said the fisherman, "a’ that my faither-in-law has said, I kenned before. But how was I saved?—or by whom?"

The preacher took up the tale. "Hearken unto me, John Crawford," said he. "Ye have reason this day, to sorrow, and to rejoice, and to be grateful beyond measure. In the morning ye mocked my counsel, and set at nought my reproof. True, it was not the speaker, but the words of truth that were spoken, that ye ought to have regarded—for they were not my words, and I was but the humble instrument to convey them to ye. But ye despised them, and as ye sowed, so have ye reaped. But, as your father-in-law has told ye, when your face was recognised from the shore, and your name mentioned, a woman screamed—she rushed through the multitude—she plunged into the boiling sea, and in an instant she was beyond the reach of help!"

"Speak!—speak on!" cried the fisherman eagerly; and he placed his hands on his heaving bosom, and gazed anxiously, now towards the preacher, and again towards his Agnes, who wept upon his shoulder.

"The Providence that had till then sustained you, while your fellow-creatures perished around you," added the clergyman, "supported her. She reached you—she grasped your arm. After long struggling, she brought you within a few yards of the shore; a wave overwhelmed you both and cast you upon the beach, with her arm—the arm of your wife that saved you—upon your bosom!"

"Gracious Heaven!" exclaimed the fisherman, pressing his wife to his bosom—"my ain Agnes!—was it you?—was it you?—my wife!—my saviour!" And he wept aloud, the his children wept also. "There is nae merit in what I’ve dune," replied she, "for wha should have attempted to save ye, had I no! Ye were everything to me, John, and to our bairns."

But the feelings of the wife and the mother were too strong for words. I will not dwell upon the joy and gratitude of the family to whom the husband and father had been restored as from the dead. It found a sorrowful contrast to the voice of lamentation and of mourning, which echoed along the coast like the peal of an alarm bell. The dead were laid in heaps upon the beach, and, on the following day, widows, orphans, parents, and brothers, came from all the fishing-towns along the coast, to seek their dead amongst the drowned that had been gathered together; or, if they found them not, they wandered along the shore to seek for them where the sea might have cast them forth. Such is the tale of the Sabbath wrecks—of the lost fishermen of Dunbar.

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