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Byways of the Scottish Border
"Jethart's Here!"

ASLANT upon the side of its historic bill, the Dunion, clings the steep street of this gallant old Border town. Picturesque and irregular, with the castle at its head and the river crossing its foot, the place was a fit home for the sturdy burghers whose stout hearts made it famous. A dozen times, in days gone by, was the stronghold harried with fire and sword. But when the harrying was over, the inhabitants, undaunted, only gathered back again like wasps to their byke; and in Border battles to the last the shout of "Jethart ‘s here!" heralded dire havoc and slaughter. For the race who dwelt in Jedburgh knew well, father and son, how to swing their home-wrought battle-axes.

A rough-and-ready race these burghers were, as suited their day. Deeds, not words, made judgment here; while so prompt was its execution that "Jethart justice" rose to be proverbial, and the popular epigram spoke of the burgh as the place—

Where in the morn men hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after.

Here, in feudal times, the Border Warden dealt March law. Close by the town, in August 1388, gathered the forces for that raid into Northumberland which culminated on the moonlit field of Otterbourne; and ten miles out to the south, over the Dunion, lies Carter Ridge, the scene of the conflict between the opposing wardens in 1575, known in history and celebrated in song as "The Raid of the Reidswire "—one of the many contests decided by the timely arrival of the burghers of the Jed.

Among old customs which give a glimpse of the temper of the townsfolk as reflected in the sports of their children, remains to the present day the somewhat rough pastime of "the callants’" or "Candlemas ba’," played once a year through the streets by the "doonies" and the "uppies" among the schoolboys. Formerly the privilege of throwing off the first ball was given to the boy who brought the largest offering to the rector of the grammar school; but some years ago the School Board abolished the custom. The last "king" was Master Celledge Halliburton.

Allan Cunningham has a ballad on the fate of a wandering minstrel of earlier times, which affords a picture alike of the laughing merriment and the sharp justice which characterised the life of Jedburgh in days gone by.


Our Willie‘s away to Jeddart,
To dance on the rood-day;
A sharp sword by his side,
A fiddle to cheer the way.
The joyous tharms o’ his fiddle
Rob Rool had handled rude,
And Willie left New Mill banks
Red-wat wi’ Robin’s blude.

Our Willie ‘s away to Jeddart:
May fleer the saints forbode
That ever sac merry a fellow
Should gang sac black a road!
For Stobs and young Falnash,
They followed him up and down—
In the links of Ousenam Water
They found him sleeping soun’.

Now may the name of Elliot
Be cursed frae firth to firth!
He has fettered the gude right hand
That keepit the land in mirth;
That keepit the land in mirth,
And charmed maids’ hearts frae dool;
And sair will they want him, Willie,
When birks are bare at Yule.

The lasses of Ousenam Water
Are rugging and riving their hair,
And a’ for the sake o’ Willie—
They‘ll hear his sangs nae mair.
Nae mair to his merry fiddle
Dance Teviot’s maidens free:
My curses on their cunning
Wha gar’d sweet Willie dee!

The hero of this ballad, whom Professor Veitch thinks the same personage as Burns’s ‘Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willie,’ and the subject of a love song in Herd’s Ancient Scottish Ballads, was, according to Cunningham, "a noted ballad-maker and brawler," whose "sword-hand was dreaded as much as his bow-hand was admired." His fate was the result of a quarrel with another minstrel, Robin of Rule Water, on the respective qualities of their playing, in which Robin was slain. Scott, in ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel,’ makes the old harper refer to Willie as his master.

"He knew each ordinance and clause
Of Black Lord Archibald’s battle laws,
In the old Douglas day.
He brooked not, he, that scoffing tongue
Should tax his minstrelsy with wrong,
Or call his song untrue.
For this, when they the goblet plied,
And such rude taunt had chafed his pride,
The bard of Reull he slew.
On Teviot’s side in fight they stood,
And tuneful hands were stained with blood;
Where still the thorn’s white branches wave
Memorial o’er his rival’s grave.

Why should I tell the rigid doom
That dragged my master to his tomb;
How Ousenam’s maidens tore their hair,
Wept till their eyes were dead and dim,
And wrung their hands for love of him
Who died at Jedwood Air ?"

At no time has the town long been left without a glint of the light of history, from the day when the Scots King Donald defeated Osbert of Northumbria and the refugee Picts close by on the banks of the Jed. The castle was a favourite residence of the Scottish kings in the prosperous period before the Wars of Independence. Here Malcolm IV., "the Maiden," as he was called, grandson and successor of the wise David I., died in 1165. And here occurred the second marriage of Alexander III., the last of the Celtic royal line.

Regarding this marriage a strange legend has been handed down, which exhibits in tangible shape the national misgiving of that time, and which, as an omen of disaster, forms a curious parallel to the legend of the apparition which was seen, in St Michael’s Kirk at Linlithgow, by James IV. and his court before the departure for Flodden.

Alexander III., the last of his house, was widowed and childless, and the succession to his throne depended upon the fragile life of his granddaughter, the infant Princess of Norway. The king, accordingly, was urged to marry again, and, yielding to the solicitations of his nobles, he at last espoused Joleta, daughter of the Count of Dreux. The nuptials, as has been said, were celebrated at Jedburgh, and on the evening of the marriage day the rejoicings culminated in a great masked ball in the Abbey. In honour of the occasion the nobles and prelates of Scotland put forth their best efforts. Celtic and Cymric, Saxon and Norman chivalry— all the different elements of the kingdom, as yet unfused into one nation by the Wars of Independence—contributed to make up the magnificent spectacle. And in the midst, with his bride, appeared Alexander himself, the wise statesman and warlike king, who, twenty years earlier, at the great Battle of Largs, had freed Scotland for ever from the encroachment of her ancient foes, the Norse. Never had so magnificent an assembly been seen before in Scotland. The occasion was auspicious, and, perceiving in the event of the day fair promise that their fears for the consequences of a disputed succession would presently be set at rest, the Scottish lords, it may be imagined, unbent to the gaiety of the hour; and courtly smiles and gallant speeches surrounded the fair young queen from whom so much was expected. It was when the stately revels were at their height, and the pageant on the floor of the Abbey was at its gayest, that suddenly, to the awe of the onlookers, there became visible the apparition of a ghastly figure. It glided silently amid the throng, seemed to join for some moments in the dance, and then vanished as silently and swiftly as it had appeared. This omen, occurring when it did, was regarded as a dark presage of troubles which were presently to descend upon the kingdom — a foreboding which was all too certainly fulfilled. In the following year, by the fall of Alexander III. over the cliffs at Kinghorn, Scotland was plunged into the longest and most devastating of all its wars.

High behind Jedburgh, over the Dunion, on the cliff above the river at the farm of Lintalee, lie the remains of the impregnable camp held in Bruce’s time by "the good Lord James" of Douglas. Barbour describes it in his famous historic poem.

Now spek we of the Lord of Douglas
That left to kep the marchis was.
He gert set wrychtis that war sleye
And in the halche of Lyntailé
He gert thaim mak a fayr maner:
And quhen the howssis biggit wer
He gert purway him rycht weill thar;
For he thowcht to mak ane infar
And to mak gud cher till his men.

From this eyrie again and again Douglas sallied, at every sally dealing some deadly blow to the enemies of his country, till he had not only brought all the eastern Border to the king of Scotland’s peace, but till the mere mention of his name had become a terror:

The drede of the Lord of Dowglas,
And his renoune, sa scalit was
Throw-out the marchis of Ingland,
That all that thar-in war wonnand
Dreci him as the fell dewill of hell;
And yeit haf Ik herd oft-syss tell
That he sa gretly dred wes than
That quhen wiwys walde childre ban
Thai wald, rycht with an angry face,
Betech thaim "to the Blak Douglas."

After an alien occupation, the burghers themselves, Spartan-like, destroyed Jedburgh Castle in 1409, swearing that their enemies, the English, should never keep a garrison again in their town. The six bastille houses built then in the castle’s stead have also long ago disappeared, though in 1523 they, along with the Abbey, still held out when Norfolk and Dacre had stormed and burned the town. The site of the castle is now marked by the dark walls of the battlemented prison.

Like a gleam of sunshine through the driving storm of Jedburgh story is the episode of Queen Mary’s visit here. Whether one read in it the unreflecting chivalry of the generous Stuart blood, or, as her detractors fain would do, the flame-gust of a guilty passion, there remains about it that charm of romance which ever followed the footsteps of the fair, unfortunate queen. Mary, the story runs, was holding a court of justice in Jedburgh, when tidings arrived that her warden, Lord Bothwell, had, in the execution of Border duty, been wounded seriously in the hand. One can imagine a hundred thoughts as the Queen’s at the news. The Royal authority itself had been insulted in the person of its warden—it was the Royal hand which should vindicate the outrage. Perhaps, alas! the more tender fear of a woman’s heart was there. The Stuart race, however, were ever prompt in action, and, whatever may have been her thoughts, she did exactly what her father, the gallant Fifth James, would have done—closed Court, took horse, and rode to the scene of trouble. Hermitage, where Lord Bothwell lay, was twenty miles distant, and she rode there and back in the same afternoon. No wonder that her strength was exhausted. In a thatched and steep-roofed old house at the town foot, now being fitted up as a storehouse of Border relics, is still to be seen the room where she lay ill for some weeks afterwards. They keep yet, in an attic there, the tattered remains of her chamber arras.

Queen Mary's House
Queen Mary's House

It is a quaint old house, with low stone passages and small deep-set windows, an escutcheon being still legible above the door; and it is not difficult to imagine the fair young queen — she was only twenty-four—in the early days of her convalescence, moving about that sunny riverside garden, with the solicitous chivalry of all her little court about her. Once, at least, amid her later troubles the memory of that time came back, and in bitterness of heart she is said to have exclaimed, "Would that I had died at Jedburgh!

There is another garden somewhere about Jedburgh—the garden of that "Esther, a very remarkable woman," who could "recite Pope’s ‘Homer’ from end to end," whom Burns, on his Border tour, was taken to see. There, as he relates in his diary, he walked apart with that "sweet Isabella Lindsay," in the pleasure of whose conversation— "chit-chat of the tender kind "—the poet discovered that he was "still nearly as much tinder as ever." There he gave her a proof print of his likeness, and records that he was thanked with "something more tender than gratitude." In fact, it was evidently the scene of a very pretty little love affair.

In Jedburgh to the present day the Queen’s judges hold assize; and it was here that the young advocate Walter Scott made his first appearance as a pleader in a criminal court. It is recorded that he got off his man, a veteran poacher, and that when, on hearing the verdict, he whispered to the fellow, "You‘re a lucky scoundrel !" he was naïvely answered, "I’m just a’ your mind, and I‘ll send ye a maukin [hare] the morn, man."

Wordsworth once lodged in Jedburgh—the house is pointed out; and on the eve of his raid into England, in November, 1745, in the flush of his hopes and on the curling foam-crest of his fortunes, the last of the lineal Stuart race, Prince Charles Edward, stayed a night or two in the town. The place claims a line as well in the history of science, for it was the birthplace of Sir David Brewster.

Not the least touching, if perhaps the most recent literary interest of Jedburgh is its connection with Thomas Davidson, who now, through his ‘Life’ by Dr James Brown, occupies a place as the representative of a national type, the Scottish Probationer. Davidson was born at Oxnam, a few miles to the south of the town, and his family lived for a time also at Ancrum, close by; but after his career of brilliant promise at college and as a probationer, or licentiate of the church, it was to his father’s later cottage of Bankend, close to Jedburgh, that he came home to die. Most of his letters—the letters which lend such distinctive charm to his biography—were written from this cottage; and here at last occurred the final episode of his life. Davidson’s connection with Alison Dunlop—the beautiful love-story which forms one of the most touching features in the Probationer’s career—was altogether unknown to his nearest relatives till he was on his death-bed. At last, however, when it was too late, the secret was disclosed, and she was sent for. She arrived from Edinburgh on the day after his death, when the passionate up breaking of her highly wrought nature was a revelation even to the sorrowing parents. As the old father himself has since described it, "Sic grief was never seen."

Davidson, with true poetic feeling, had sung the charm, the spell of the Border hills, and in his lines, ‘And there will I be buried,’ he put into words the last instinct of the Borderer :—

Tell me not the good and wise
Care not where their dust reposes—
That to him in death who lies
Rocky beds are even as roses.
I ‘ye been happy above ground;
I can never be happy under,
Out of gentle Teviot’s sound;
Part us not, then, far asunder.
Lay me here where I may see
Teviot round his meadows flowing,
And around and over me
Winds and clouds for ever going.

Even down to recent times, Jedburgh has ecclesiastical associations of no small importance. It was in the Grammar School here that the famous Samuel Rutherford learned his letters; and Jedburgh was the scene of the labours of the younger Boston, one of the founders of the Relief Kirk in 1757.

Jedburgh Abbey
Jedburgh Abbey

But towering grey and venerable above all the roofs of the town, halfway up the steep main street, rises the ruin of the ancient abbey. Surrounded by pleasant, old-fashioned houses, with quiet gardens, where yellow and pink roses are aflower upon the walls, that great carved cross, mute record of the aspirations of ages long forgotten, raises its sculptured sides in an inclosure of ancient graves. For three hundred and fifty years the rising sun has kissed these broken cornices, and the rain and dew have wept upon that desecrated altar, as if in pity for the glowing souls whose dreams of sculptured beauty are, with these crumbling walls, sinking to decay. The vandal has been here, as at Melrose, and has broken in pieces the beauty he was too rude to understand. But time, with healing touch, has wrought a fuller beauty and meaning than before into the place. Of yore, no doubt, a stillness strange and sweet must have fallen upon the spirit of the warlike burgher of the town as once in a while he knelt on the quiet pavement, while from afar within rose amid the shadows the chime of censers and the chant of priests. But no less to-day, with its added memories of blood and fire, and its silent lesson of the centuries, does the abbey remain a place for reverent thought. Overhead rises the blue span of heaven’s own Norman arch, and for an altar.lamp in the midst swings the dazzling sun-orb itself, burning at the throne of God.

The white-stoled Premonstrentian monks of Jedburgh were men of war as well as of religion, and more than once the great square tower of their abbey played the part of a fortress. It was, how. ever, finally stormed by Evers in 1544 and the marks of its burning may yet be seen on the blackened walls.

Below, in the transept of the abbey, lies the sculptured tomb of the last Marquis of Lothian—a bearded Apollo carved in stone; and at its foot stands a Runic slab which may have lain upon the tomb of the Marquis’s Druid forefathers. For there is reason to believe that the Cars, or Kers, though their name appears on the Norman Roll of Battle Abbey, may count back beyond Norman and Saxon invasions, to a Cymric ancestry. From the tower top of the abbey can be seen, two miles away on the woody edge of the Jed valley, the castle of Fernihirst, feudal home of the family, who were staunch allies long ago of the burghers of the town. Many a signal passed in bygone days between the feudal castle and the abbey tower, when the significant gleam of helm and spear was seen in the glades of the forest around.

The high banks of the Jed on the way to Fernihirst look their richest when tapestried with the reds and browns and dark greens of their autumn foliage. Doves, white and grey, wheel about them; and in the redstone cliffs which here and there show themselves are to be seen several caves which were used, like those at Ancrum and in Roslin glen, for refuge in Border warfare. Here in the narrow green meadow between road and river, its huge branches propped from the ground, stands the famous Capon oak, last remnant of the ancient Jed forest. The American visitor writes his name on its gnarled bark to-day; but Alexander III. may have winded his hunting-horn here before America was dreamed of, as the stag stood at bay below these branches; and it is just possible that its seedling stem shot up green leaves in the forest before Herod was Tetrarch of Galilee. Above, against the sky, on the cliff edge hangs Lintalee with its memories; and a second glance is not needed to show how well-chosen the spot was for the purpose of its occupant. Here, under the open sky, after burning his own castle about English ears, the Good Lord James certainly had his preference, rather "to hear the lark sing than the mouse squeak."

Scenes and associations like these seem to ask for, if they be not enough to make, a poet; and it is no marvel to know that down the road here to school in Jedburgh from Southdean Manse, six miles away, used to trudge, nigh two hundred years ago, James Thomson, the boy who was afterwards to immortalise the beauties of the valley in his poem of ‘Autumn.’ The scenery of the district, indeed, is to be traced constantly in Thomson’s poetry, and once at least he refers to it directly. Describing Scotland, he mentions—

Her forests huge,
Incult, robust, and tall, by Nature’s hand
Planted of old; her azure lakes between,
Poured out extensive, and of wat’ry wealth
Full; winding deep and green, her fertile vales,
With many a cool translucent, brimming flood
Washed lovely, from the Tweed, pure parent stream,
Whose pastoral banks first heard my Doric reed,
With sylvan Jed, thy tributary brook,
To where the north-inflated tempest foams.

Grey among the woods on the right bank towers the donjon of Fernihirst, and probably it would be impossible to find a more typical example of a Borderer’s stronghold and its history. Above the iron-studded door in the deserted courtyard is still to be traced in worn stone the escutcheon of the place’s masters. Often has that courtyard rung with the hoofs of hostile steeds, and the stone door-lintels echoed to the swinging battle-axe. For they were a stormy race, these Kers, and the castle was constantly the scene of attack and reprisal. Hither came home the jolly baron, driving the beeves from Northumberland to be roasted whole in his huge fireplace, the width of the vaulted kitchen. And hither, when the captives were groaning in these grim dungeons, and while in the "halls of grey renown" the revel and rude cheer were at their height, came thundering at the gate the furious owners of the beeves. Cracked crowns unnumbered were got here, and the red blood spirted joyously over many a shirt of mail. High overhead, where the sun strikes the tower, the blood - red spray of Virginia creeper clinging to the parapet might well be the stain of the costly torrent which more than once poured down these walls. Many a life it cost Lord Dacre, when, from the burning of Jedburgh, he rode out to take the place in September, 1523. On that occasion, even after the castle was taken, the Borderers managed to cut loose every horse the victors had, to the number of fifteen hundred—women and men alike seizing them and galloping off to the north. Six years later, the Lord of Fernihirst was one of those imprisoned by way of precaution when James V. rode out to "lay" the Border. Here, in 1549, D’Essé, the French general, took dire vengeance on an alien garrison for their dark deeds among the defenceless women of the countryside.’ And Ker of Fernihirst appears a few years afterwards as one of the most gallant defenders of Queen Mary. Doubtless more than once was Mary herself entertained within these walls.

Not only in feudal times, however, but in all ages has this Borderland been deluged with blood. Only a mile and a half to the east of Fernihirst, at Scraesburgh, lie the traces of a Saxon camp, made probably when that nation came to fight the British Arthur; while the remains of a Roman encampment — another northward-looking eyrie of these old-time eagles of the south—are to be seen at Monklaw, the end of the hill-crest between Teviot and Jed. Every foot of the ground, indeed, recalls some memory of its own. Here the chant of the Runic priests has been silenced by the trampling of the. Roman legions. Here, half-mystical amid the dimness of the early centuries, has ridden the glittering Arthurian chivalry, retreating by degrees before the north - rolling waves of Saxon and Viking arms. Here, far - seen by night across the Border, have blazed the lurid watch fires of the Douglas—warding for his master the gate of the Scottish kingdom. And here, spurred southward on romantic quest, has sped the fleet white palfrey of a fair, fate-followed Queen. The wanderer to-day in the little valley of the Jed may find, at any rate, suggestions enough of the storied past to occupy his thoughts during the quiet hours of a summer afternoon.

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