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Wilson's Border Tales
The Faithful Wife


There is very prevalent, along the Borders, an opinion, that the arms of the town of Selkirk represent an incident which occurred there at the time of the battle of Flodden. The device, it is well known, consists of a female bearing a child in her arms, seated on a tomb, on which is also placed the Scottish lion. Antiquaries tell us that this device was adopted in consequence of the melancholy circumstance of the wife of an inhabitant of the town having been found, by a party returning from the battle, lying dead at the place called Ladywood-edge, with a child sucking at her breast.

We have not the slightest wish to disturb this venerable legend. It commemorates, with striking force, the desolation of one of Scotland’s greatest calamities; and, though the device is rudely and coarsely imagined, there is a graphic strength in the conception, which, independently of the truth of the story, recommends it to the lover of the bold and fervid genius of our countrymen. We must, at same time, be allowed to say, that the very same story, with some changes of circumstances and localities, is to be found in the legends of others of the Scottish towns which have suffered by the chariot wheels and scythes of war. Thus, it is reported, that the first thing that put an end to the indiscriminate murder which the soldiers of Monk, in their fury, committed in the storming of Dundee, was the corpse of a female, found lying in the street of that town, called the Murraygate, with an infant sucking at her breast. We do not mean to say that the one story destroys the authenticity of the other. Two corpses might have been found in these situations, and under these circumstances; but the generality of legends of that kind must, in the minds of lovers of truth, detract, in some degree, from their authenticity; and as regards that of Selkirk, we are the more inclined to call it in question, in consequence of having heard another version of the story possessing more of romance in its composition, and not much less of absolute probability than that which is so generally credited.

This new version we intend, shortly, now to lay before the public, without vouching for its superiority of accuracy over its more favoured and cherished brother; and rather, indeed, cautioning the credulous lovers of old legends to be upon their guard, lest Dr. Johnson’s reproof of Richardson be applicable to us, in saying that we have it upon authority.

When recruits were required by King James the Fourth for the invasion of the English territory, which produced the most lamentable of all our defeats, it is well known that great exertions were used in the cause by the town-clerk of Selkirk, whose name was William Brydone, for which King James the Fifth afterwards conferred on him the honour of knighthood. Many of the inhabitants of Selkirk, fired with the ardour which the chivalric spirit of James infused into the hearts of his people, and with the spirit of emulation which Brydone had the art of exciting among his townsmen, as Borderers, joined the banners of their provost. Among these was one Alexander Hume, a shoemaker, a strong, stalwart man, bold and energetic in his character, and extremely enthusiastic in the cause of the King. He was deemed of considerable importance by Brydone, being held the second best man of the hundred citizens who are said to have joined his standard. When he came among his companions he was uniformly cheered. They had confidence in his sagacity and prudence, respected his valour, and admired his strength.

If Hume was thus courted by his companions, and urged by Brydone to the dangerous enterprise in which the King, by the wiles and flattery of the French Queen, had engaged he was treated in a very different manner by Margaret, his wife, a fine young woman, who, fond to distraction of her husband, was desirous of preventing him from risking his life in a cause which she feared, with prophetic feeling, would bring desolation on her country. Every effort which love and female cajolery could suggest, were used by this dutiful wife to keep her husband at home. She hung round his neck, held up to his face a fine child, five months old, whose mute eloquence softened the heart, but could not alter the purpose of the father--wept, prayed, implored. She asked him the startling question—who, when he was dead, and die he might, would shield her from injury and misfortune, and cherish, with the tenderness and love which its beauty and innocence deserved, the interesting pledge of their affection? She painted, in glowing colours—which the imagination, excited by love, can so well supply--the situation of her as a widow, and her child as an orphan. Their natural protector gone, what would be left to her but grief, what would remain for her child but destitution? His spirit would hear her wails; but beggary would array her in its rags, and hunger would steal from her cheek the vestiges of health, had the lineaments of beauty.

These appeals were borne by Hume in the panoply of resolution. He loved Margaret as dearly, as truly, as man could love woman, as a husband could love the partner of his life and fortunes. He answered with tears and embraces; but he remained true to the cause of his King and country.

"Would you hae me, Margaret," he said, "to disgrace mysel’ in the face o’ my townsmen. Doesna our guid King intend to leave his fair Margaret, and risk the royal bluid o’ the Bruce, for the interests o’ auld Scotland; and doesna our honoured provost mean to desert, for a day o’ glory, has braw wife, that he may deck her wimple wi’ the roses o’ England, and her name wi’ a Scotch title? Wharfore, then should I, a puir tradesman, fear to put in jeopardy, for the country that bore me, the life that is hers as weel as yours, and sacrifice, sae far as the guid that my arm can produce the glory o’ my king, and the character o’my country? Fair as yer face is, Maggy, and dear as is to me the licht o’ that bonny blue e’e, reflectin, as it does, the smile o’ that bonny bairn, I canna permit ye to wile frae me the faith and the troth I hae pledged to my companions, and the character o’ loyalty I hae already earned in the estimation o’ the brave men o’ the Border.

M argaret heard this speech with the most intense grief. She was incapable of argument. What loving woman is? She was inconsolable. Her husband remained inexorable, and entreaty gave way to anger. She had adopted the idea that Hume was buoyed up with the pride of leadership; and she told him, with some acrimony, that his ambition of being thought the bravest man of Selkirk, would not, in the event of his death supply the child he was bound to work for, with a bite of bread. Her love and anger carried her beyond bounds. She used other language of a harsher character, which forced her good natured husband to retaliate in terms unusual to him, unsuited to the serious subject which they had in hand, and far less to the dangerous separation which they were about to experience. The conversation got more acrimonious. Words of a high cast produced expressions stronger still, and Hume left his wife in anger, to go to the field from which he might never return.

Regret follows close upon the heels of incensed love. Alexander Hume had not been many paces from his own house, when his wife saw, in its proper light, the true character of her situation. Her husband had gone on a perilous enterprise. He might perish. She had, perhaps, got her last look of him who was dearest to her bosom. That look was in anger. The idea was terrible. Those who know the strength and delicacy of the feelings of true affection, may conceive the situation of Margaret Hume. Unable to control herself, she threw her child into its crib, and rushed out of the house. One parting glance of reconciliation was all she wanted. She hurried through the town with an excited and terrified aspect, searching everywhere for her husband. He had departed with his companions; and Margaret was left in the agony of one whose sorrow is destined to be increased by the workings of an excited fancy, and the remorseful feelings of self-impeachment.

In the meantime, Hume having joined his companions, proceeded to the main army of the King, which was encamped on the hill of Flodden, lying on the left of the river Till. The party with which he was associated, put themselves under the command of Lord Home; who, with the Earls of Crawford and Montrose, led the left of the van of the Scottish army. This part of the King’s troops, it is well known, was opposed to Sir Edmund Howard. They were early engaged, and fought so successfully, that Howard soon stood in need of succour from Lord Dacre, to save him from being speared on the field.

In this struggle, Alexander Hume displayed the greatest prowess. He was seen, in every direction, dealing out death wherever he went. He was not, however, alone. His companions kept well up to him; and, in particular, one individual, who had joined the party as they approached the field, fought with a bravery equal to that of Hume himself. That person kept continually by his side, and seemed to consider the brave Borderer as his chosen companion in arms, whom he was bound to defend through all the perils of the fight. A leather haubergeon, and an iron helmet, in which there was placed a small white feather, plucked from a cock’s wing, constituted the armour of this brave seconder of Hume’s gallantry. When Hume was attacked by the English, with more force than his individual arm could sustain, no one of his companions was more ready to bring him aid than this individual. On several occasions he may be said to have saved his life; for Hume’s recklessness drew him often into the very midst of the fight, where he must have perished had it not been for the timely assistance of his friend. On one occasion, in particular, an Englishman came behind him, and was in the very act of inserting his spear between the clasps of his armour, when his companion struck the dastardly fellow to the earth, and resumed the fight in front of the battle.

This noble conduct was not unappreciated by Hume; for where is bravery found segregated from gratitude and generosity? He called upon him, even in the midst of the battle, for his name, that he might, in the event of their being separated, recollect and commemorate his friendship. The request was not complied with; but the superintending and saving arm of the stranger continued to be exercised in favour of the Borderer. They fought together to the end of the battle. The result of the bloody contest is but too well known. The strains of poetry have carried the wail of bereavement to the ends of the earth; and sorrow has claimed the sounds as its own individual expression.

The Scottish troops took their flight in different directions. Hume and his companions were obliged to lie in secret for a considerable time in the surrounding forests. He made many inquiries among his friends for the individual who had fought with him so bravely, and saved his life. He could find no trace of him, beyond the information that he had disappeared, when Hume had given up the fight. The direction in which he went was unknown, nor could any one tell the place from whence he came.

The people of Selkirk, who had been in the fight, sought their town as soon as they could with safety get out of the reach of the English. Their numbers formed a sorry contrast to those who had, with light hearts and high hopes sought the field of battle; and it has been reported that when the wretched wounded and blood-stained remnant entered the town, a cry of sorrow was raised by the inhabitants collected to meet them, the remembrance of which remained on the hearts of their children long after those who uttered it had been consigned with their griefs to the grave.

Hume, who had also grievously repented of the harsh words he had applied to his beloved wife on the occasion of their separation, was all impatience to clasp her to his bosom and seal their reconciliation with a kiss of repentance and love. Leaving his companions as they entered the town, he flew to the house. He approached the door. He reached it with a trembling heart. He had prepared the kind words of salutation. He had wounds to show, and to get dressed by the tender hand of sympathy. Lifting the latch, he entered. No one came to meet him. No sound, either of wife or child, met his ears. On looking round, he saw, sitting in an arm chair, the person who had accompanied him in battle, wearing the same haubergeon, the same helmet, the individual white feather that had attracted his attention. That person was Margaret Hume. She was dead. Her head reclined on the back of the chair, her arms hung by her side, the edge of her haubergeon was uplifted, and at her white bosom, from which flowed streams of blood, her child sucked the milk of a dead mother.

On making inquiry, the disconsolate Hume found that his wife had, shortly after he went away, borrowed the armour from one of the bailies of the burgh, on the pretence that it was wanted by a young person who intended to join her husband in the expedition. She left her babe in the charge of her mother, with directions to take the greatest care of it till her return. The part of the story comprehending the battle has been told. When she came back, her mother had gone out to make inquiry as to the issue of the fight. The child was lying in the cradle. The wounded mother, forgetful of her own preservation, in the love she bore to the child, had, to stop its crying, attached it to her wounded bosom. The milk and the blood flowed together. The child was saved. The mother perished.

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