Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter IX

Border feuds: Percy and Douglas.

A skirmish up in Annan glen,
In which the English played
The devil with the Scottish men—
But were at last repaid.

In the iron age of Gretna, there befel a most piteous matter in those parts.

The innocent waters of the Sark ran blood, and the shame of the English was dyed in sorrowful hues, blushed over with crimson for the Scots harvested glory with their martial rcap-hooks, and drove their foes before them like bolts from a catapult.

Forays and raids for plunder, inccndiarism, and such like, were of nightly perpetration, mutually carried on between the marchmen of the two countries; not only for the absolute purpose of furnishing their larders with store of good beefins and kine, being that which none can live without; but furthermore for the wanton purpose of making pastime and promoting good neighbourhood. A community of effects was the custom of all those who were puissant enough to enforce it; that is, of all those who needed, and were puissant enough to take from the rich : and that which a moss-trooper thus seized on, he held without any pangs of compunction, considering it morally his own rightful property until — when ? why, until a stronger than he snatched it from him, against his ability to resist; and then he resigned it, even with the same grace as it had been resigned to him by the former possessor— swearing oaths that would split oak-planks two inches thick, and vowing revenge in time to come.

Edward I. had sown the poisonous germens of a deep-rooted animosity between the two kingdoms, when he so unamiably usurped the dominion of Scotland; for, before that fatal era, it is noted in history, and, still better, in tradition, that the deadly feuds, and predatory inroads, had not commenced. His preposterous demands, so rudely urged, called the rankest simples out of the congeries of passions whereof the human mind is made up, from their hiding-places into action; and, when the devil in man has been awaked, passing strong must be the narcotic that shall be able to put him to sleep again. Hence it is, that he slumbered not on the frontier from the days of the first Edward of" England, till the translation of the last James of Scotland; but raved like the foul fiend up and down the land, late, early, night, morning, at all tides and seasons, knowing no peace, and seeking no quietude.

The hereditary devil of hatred was awake upon the borders. In the particular year, 1380, an evil conjunction of fifteen thousand English took their hostile way right over Carlisle sands, the great Moss, and the district of Gratney at the head of the Firth, directing their course northward along the banks of the rivers where the best pasture grew, and consequently where the fattest beeves were wont to browse. Many were the bastle-houses and peels walled round about with their yard-thick barnkin, that stood upon the strongest braes rising above the torrent, wherein dwelt the head of the clan, or some principal laird of the wilderness. Such of these they attacked as seemed fitting: in some they found not a soul to dispute their entry, as the occupiers had fled to the labyrinths of Tarras Moss, or some other wild ; so they set fire to the building and went their way : in others they found the barnkin secured, and the turrets covered with spearmen, speaking javelins, and also tossing them down.

These bastle-houses, as they were called, differed essentially from the baronial castles of the lordly English, being neither so extensive in their ranges of buildings, towers, or battlemented walls, nor so largely stored in provisions as to enable the garrison to resist a protracted siege; but were rather peels of compact build, massive and well cemented, and placed upon crags or eminences, or other situations wisely chosen for natural strength. The less wealth of the lairds, as compared with the possessions of the Neustrian peerage from the south,—their less expanded ideas of chivalrous luxury,—their smaller knowledge of the pomps, splendour, refinement, and exclusiveness of the feudal system of the Normans as more thoroughly established in England, and their more inveterately confirmed habits of predation, as judged with their more civilized neighbours,—these were in a great measure the reasons that directed the inferior architecture of their fortresses.

The lands, also, in the vicinage, were less carefully tilled, than with the Southrons of that day; since they depended for subsistence rather upon the cattle of those whom they chose to plunder, than on the vegetable productions of the soil; and thus it was, that on the approach of an invading enemy, they either shut themselves up with bolts and bars, and defended themselves against a short, though fierce assault, such as they thought they could repel, or else, if the invaders appeared too numerous for them, or seemed to purpose a system of protracted warfare, they hastily retired to the mountains, driving their sheep and beeves along with them.

In this case they left their lands to be wasted and their dwellings to be burnt—but we are told that neither the wasting nor the burning chagrined them much; for, in the first place, the indifferently cultivated state of the country left very little to destroy; and, in the second place, such was the massiveness of their masonry, that the fire did but very little injury to their walls ; the only damage being the destruction of the floors and roof. These, being made in a rude fashion, were easily reconstructed when the spoilers had retired.

Hence, it is not to be wondered at, that the borders for centuries, and to a very late period, continued to be more barren and more neglected than any other inhabited part of the two kingdoms whatsoever; for the practice of incursion, incendiarism, and ruination, was not of rare occurrence, befalling as it may be peradventurc, once or so in the generation of a man, but on the contrary, came to the moss trooper as naturally as the setting of the evening sun, so that blind indeed was that owl who opened his eyes at cock-shut time, if he did not witness preparations for a raid regularly every night.

On the occasion of which we speak in this especial chaptcr, the incursors principally ravaged Annandale and Nitlisdale, together with the other dells and dales that lay on their line of transcursion; and here, from their irresistible numbers, they should seem to have had their own way, and to have wrought their own will with the riches of the land, such as they found.

The Scoto-Saxon "Red-shanks" as they were termed, owing to their going bare-legged, and owing to the severity of the climate, which turned them of that numb-cold hue, had adopted a system of tactics much like what we find to obtain in the present day amongst the savages of the back-woods. They avoided decided pitched battles in the open plain, and rather preferred what is termed bush fighting in the forest and on the prairie. They employed a wasting, desultory, scattered, ambush-laying method, by which their foes "were harassed, surprised, or perplexed: where they had previously put grain into the ground, they destroyed it with vast assiduity, thus leaving no harvests to be reaped by those who did not sow; and as they retreated off these fields to the hills with their cattle, they viewed with little concern any further works of devastation which might be perpetrated by the new comers.

Secured in these inaccessible places, they cunningly watched their opportunity for taking vengeance and making a full retaliation : they allowed their foes to work their will; they suffered them to plunder whatsoever they had been unable to carry to the mountains, and to burn the floors and roofs of their bastle-houses; they let them overrun the plains without impediment, feeling they could do small injury where everything was desert; and then, when the time came, they rushed into England with incredible fury, and there enacted the same horrors which had before been enacted in Scotland.

This ferocious and uncompromising mode of warfare had been strongly recommended in the rhymes considered as a legacy from Robert Bruce to his successors, and which indeed do, at this very day, comprise the most effectual and almost the only defensive measures which can be adopted by a poor and mountainous country, when invaded by the overpowering armies of a wealthy neighbour.

The learned Fordun, in his Scotichronieon, sets forth in "quaint Inglis" the practices of his countrymen in such pastimes, showing how they should rather fight on foot than on horseback, as being then more able in the glen to flit from rock to rock, or the foe by retiring into secret places; that a bow and a spear were the best walls of protection that a man could have; that it was their usage to secrete their stores in unknown retreats, whilst they laid bare the extended valley when their enemies approached,— and that, by loud alarums in the night, they would terrify these enemies off their land. "This," says Fordun, "is the sage counsel of King Robert's testament:—

"This is the eounsell and intente
Of goode Kinge Robert's testamente."

But let us to the point—

So numerous was the host of English that now forded the Sark and penetrated up the glens of the Annan and the Nith, in comparison with the weaponshaw which the natives could hastily collect on the instant, that they wisely slunk away on their approach, scattering themselves about in the thickets so as to prevent the possibility of being surrounded and overwhelmed at one fell swoop, and securing to themselves by this dispersedness, the means of keeping good watch, until the time should present itself when they might rush from their concealments, and return the favour with a wannion. They were even pleased, not only to destroy the crops that grew upon the bosom of Mother Earth, that their foes should not gather, but they also dismantled their dwellings as they retired, 'sometimes burning away the interior, leaving only a smoky and blackened shell, and at others, going so far as to demolish the walls, and eradicate the very foundations from the rock out of which they sprung. For they had long discovered that, albeit they lacked nothing of animal courage when debating it hotly with crossed blades hand to hand, still in systematic invasions, they were far inferior in scientific stratagem to the belted knights of England ; that they succeeded best in hasty attack, precipitate escalade, and fierce charge; that they were deficient in the strict ^discipline which would take them. step by step patiently through a long campaign ; and that though they could beat off their besiegers from a short assailment upon their fortlets, they were, owing to their slender resources in an impoverished district, and their deficiency of discipline amongst themselves, rarely able to withstand the tedious approaches of a regular blockade. The existence of* peel-houses, therefore, along the border, they found to be rather a detriment to their safety than otherwise, since not being strong enough to retain them to themselves, they found that they had only been building them for their enemies. They were truly the sparrows who built their nests, whilst the English were the cuckoos who turned them out and dwelt in them.

The good Lord James Douglas—he who was commissioned to carry the heart of his King to Jerusalem, but which he flung at the Moors during the onset of a battle with them in Spain on his way eastward—the good Lord James Douglas surprised his own castle in Lanarkshire three several times, it haying been as frequently taken from him and garrisoned by these superior disciplinarians, and on each occasion, that they should not play the cuckoo thus with him, he was at the pains of demolishing it.

The military system of Wallace was on the same principle ; and in fine, with very few exceptions, th£ strong and extensive fortresses which had arisen on the Scottish side of the Marches during the better times preceding. the usurpation of Edward I., were levelled with the ground when the troublous period of the thirteenth century commenced.

These facts have been acutely commented on by that interminable writer, Sir Walter of Abbots-ford; and he further assures us, in language of most pleasant reading, that the castles of Roxburgh, Jedburgh, and divers others, erected in " the good old times," were infinitely more extensive than any which were built in after days, —that they could not be pulled down, such was their massive solidity, and such the unskilfulness of the Scotch in the arts of destruction,—and that, to raze the stronghold of Jedburgh, it could scarcely be done without so much time and labour as would render it necessary to impose a tax of two pennies upon every hearth in the land to defray the expense. But the Duke of Albany, then Regent, perceiving the unpopularity of the impost, drew the required sums out of the Crown revenues. But we forget ourselves again :

We have told the most forbearing reader, that an immense body of men out of Cumberland had entered over the gentle soil where Gretna lies, and were, beginning a ferocious herriment of all the parts adjacent.

Up Nithside they went without let or hinderance, not because the dalesmen took pleasure at their coming, or welcomed them with accolades and tender embracements about the neck, but because they were impotent to oppose so large a company, and therefore were enforced to let them have their own way. This expedition seems to have been a pay-off against the Scots, who had been latterly intruding without invitation into several of the counties lying south of the works of Hadrian not pertaining to them, or shaded under the folds of that banner which bears Azure, a Sal-tire Argent, for St. Andrew: for a fierce animosity had lately arisen out of a murder committed at Roxburgh fair in a scuffle, when a servant of the Earl of March fell dead, because a long piece of cold steel had been spitted right through his delicate viscera—and men's viscera can in no wise endure such usage.

To retaliate for this, the said Earl, together with his brother german, the ditto of Moray, assembled their followers, and duly attending the next fair at Roxburgh, slew all of the offending party they could come within weapon's length of, and then set fire to the town. The English, having suffered greatly on this occasion, thought fit to invade Scotland forthwith, for the purpose of taking vengeance on the Earls; and in their way they ruined the estate of Sir John Gordon, a man of vast property thereabout: and as nothing tries the equanimity of people's tempers so much as having their property wantonly destroyed before their faces, we must not marvel if Sir John was a little ruffled afterwards. Certain it is, he lost no time in rushing wrathfully into England, where he made himself master of a large booty in cattle and prisoners without commiseration, and savagely slew all and every one who opposed him.

Lord Percy then drew together seven thousand spears and bowmen, wherewith he ran a like career ; and the consequence was, that the border war raged inveterately on both sides—and continued to do so uninterruptedly for several years. Roxburgh fair again became foul with deeds of slaughter ; the peers of each nation visited, reciprocally, sometimes the lands of the one and sometimes the lands of another, dispensing their favours to all in succession; and not long before the expedition into Dumfrieshire, of which we have been endeavouring to speak throughout this chapter, we find the Percy, now Earl of Northumberland, hurling desolation around him at the head of ten thousand slaughtermen.

When the English" had burnt and destroyed, to their numerous hearts' contents, everything the}7 came near in the dales of Nitli and Annan, they turned about and directed their steps homeward, carrying a rich booty along with them. Being big with success and assured of their triumph, they paced it easily right over the territory of Gretna Green, until they neared the disemboguement of the Sark into the Firth. As it had now become night, their progress was necessarily retarded, first by the obscurity, and next by the badness of the ground near the vicinage of the dangerous moss; but behold, these mighty victors were incontinently stricken with a sore panic, so that their haughty souls began to give way, and their stalwart limbs to tremble : for, there as they stood round about where the toll-gate near the bridge may be seen, and of which hereafter, the drums of their ears were dinned by the sudden sound of many voices shouting in the dark.

At this the hitherto conquerors quailed piteously, and not knowing how to cuff an invisible foe. betook themselves to precipitate and ignoble flight. A handful of five hundred Scots rushed in upon the host of fifteen thousand English, and taking them much as Gideon and his men had taken the Midianites of old, indiscriminately slew great numbers of the Southrons, driving the rest like feathers before a whirlwind. And the English ran—oh ! how they ran—and in their terror they jumped into the briny surges of the Solway, leaving their plunder and their many dead behind, divers of them becoming unwilling divers into the waters, where they perished because they could not breathe so inspissated an element. Still the Scots fought, and the English fought, but the Scots prevailed, and the English failed; and the Scots recovered the lost treasure again, and took prisoners not a few over and above. Some managed, by dint of much floundering, to gurgle their way across the Firth and the Sark, till they crept out, somewhat humid, upon the opposite bank ; and, without tarrying there for a change of dry linen, they ran on the nine miles to Carlisle with the water rolling in their ears, and their hair wetting their shirt collars; where they narrated to the Cumberlanders therein dwelling, all the circumstances of their mishap.

Return to our Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus