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Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter XIV

Dick o' the Cow, and the Laird's Jock.

This chapter tells ye how that Dick
Was jester by his trade;
And how he play'd a funny trick,
And ran a Border Raid.

Throughout the middle ages the clans of Liddesdale were notorious thieves: there was not a beefin, steer, milch-cow, or sheep, that was secure from deportation. Maitland's "Complaint" against these depredators, begins thus:—

"Of Liddisdail the eommoun theifis,
Sa peartlie steillis now and reifis,
That nane may keip Horse, nolt, nor seheip,
Nor yett dar sleip For their miseheifis."

This "Complaint" goes on to enumerate a flagitious synopsis of the "miseheifis" to which the circumjacent districts were subject;—to show that no man in his house was safe from assault at any moment, or could call his possessions his own, with any assurance of certainty, from one hour to another; — and how those who were unable to beat off their sudden invaders, suffered robbery and spoliation as a thing of course.

Such a systematic usage of herriment was not restricted to the Western Marches, but prevailed more or less all along the whole line of the Roman vallation, as is plainly shown by reference to divers musty parchments, on some of which there appear ruinous lists of damages done with no sparing hand;— of castles, peels, strengths, and bastle-houses burnt or subversed, — of religious edifices demolished,—and of. property of every kind carried away from the rightful owners.

In Haynes1 State Papers .there is an account of certain of these forays, and of the ruin that attended them. One list of the places spoliated enumerates as follows :—

"Monasteries and Freehouses 7
Castles, towers, and piles 16
Market townes 5
Villages . . . . . 243
Mylnes 13
Spytells and hospitals 30

A right notable catalogue of iniquities truly ! In the year 1586 a bill was fouled against the Laird's Jock and others, by the deputy of Newcastle, at a warden-meeting, for four hundred head of cattle taken by him in open foray from the Drysike; and in the year following, a complaint was made against this same personage, for the theft of fifty kine and oxen, besides furniture, to the amount of one hundred merks sterling.

Sir Walter of Abbotsford tells us that the Lord Evers and Sir Brian Latoun, during the year fifteen hundred and forty-four, committed the most dreadful ravages, compelling most of the inhabitants, and especially the men of Liddesdale, to take assurance under the king of England.

In August this year, the baron was pleased to harry the whole lands belonging to Buccleuch in West Teviotdale, without any courtesy or consideration whatsoever toward the dwellers thereon. He assaulted the tower of Branxholm, and burnt the barnkin or outworks: he took thirty of the clan of Scott prisoners whom he found therein, and eight others were done to death in the affray: and he carried off a rich booty in horses and sheep.

It is no matter of marvel that such visitations as this should kindle the ire of the attacked and injured party: even in the peaceful, orderly, and self-denying days of the nineteenth century, we could scarcely brook such treatment from our neighbours, but should assuredly feel a whit tetchey against any who should so greet us and our possessions.

The same nobleman ignobly incursed soon after upon the lands of Kale Water, appertaining to the same chieftain; during which raid he plundered the fatness of the soil, even as he had done round about Branxholm, and killed one score and a half of Scotts. The Moss Tower, an especial fortilice near Eckford, was besieged right fiercely, and was " smoked very sore."

The king of England had promised to Evers and Latoun a feudal grant of the country which they had been reducing to a desert; upon hearing which, says the historian Godscroft, Archibald Douglas, the seventh Earl of Douglas, who was mightily incensed against them, because they had desecrated and defaced the tombs of his ancestors at Melrose, swore with terrible oaths that he would shortly write the deed of investiture upon their own skins,—and that, too, with steel pens and bloody ink.

They again entered Scotland, the year after their previous misdoings, at the head of three thousand mercenaries, fifteen hundred English borderers, and seven hundred Scottish mosstroopers, mostly Armstrongs, Turnbulls, and other broken clans, or such as had no acknowledged chieftain; so that if it be conceded that the notorious thieves of Liddesdale had won for themselves a name by their foul practices, there were those also dwelling on the south side of the Border, and who owned to another king, whose evil name merited to be just as flagrant. They set fire to the Tower of Broomhouse; and, according to Lesley, its lady, a noble and aged woman, together with all her family, were piteously consumed in the flames.

In Murdin's State Papers, the sum total of their depredations, as entered in the ledger of the baron stands thus:—

Both Evers and Latoun were killed at the battle of Ancram Moor, and a stop put to their depredations ; but in those days and in those parts, plunderers arose like Hydra heads ; so that no sooner were some cut off, than others speedily started up to supply their place.

The story of Dick o1 the Cow, is of a more peaceful and less malicious cast, because, albeit it was a chevisance of robbery, yet the circumstances attending it, and the manner of its doing, wore the complexion of banter and ludicrousness.

Thomas, Lord Scroop, warden of the Western Marches during the last dozen years of Elizabeth's reign, had a jester called Dick o' the Cow, by some supposed to have been the same with Rieardus Coldall, de Plumpton, a knight and celebrated warrior, but touching whose identity there appears to be very little in proof. This motley dresser and bearer of the bauble and cap-and-bells in my Lord's castle, suffered pillage from the Armstrongs of Liddesdale above Gretna, who one day visited him unexpectedly, as ye shall read.

Johnie Armstrong said to Willie, as they were discoursing together, that as they had been long at feud with England, and as their horses were getting fat and idle in the stable, it was right and fitting that they should arouse themselves from their inactivity, and make an excursion over the border for pleasant pastime and peradventure for booty. This proposal was no sooner broached on one side, than it was incontinently assented to on the other: so they mounted their steeds and pricked over the plain southward.

They first attained to Hutton Hall, a mansion in those parts; and having ridden around it to reconnoitre, they espied nothing but six sheep upon a lee—a prize not worth seizing upon. "I had rather die in England,'' 1 quoth Johnie turning away from them, "than that six sheep should go to Liddesdale with me.—But who was that man," he continued, changing the topic,—"we met even now as we came over the hill?"

"Oh," rejoined the other indifferently, "that same is an innocent fool, and they call him Dick o1 the Cow."

"Then" said the first speaker, "that fool has three good cows of his own as any that be in Cumberland; and betide me life, or betide me death, these kine shall go to Liddesdale with me."

Having hastily proceeded to Dick's abode, they roughly battered at his walls until they had effected a wide breach; here they entered ; and not content with stealing the three devoted cows, they also took three coverlets from his wife's bed.

This deed of great hardiment having been achieved they retraced their way homeward.

But the next morning the jester's wife made a discovery of what she thought to be no jest at all; wherefore she cried sorely with piteous sighs, and filled the empty house with lamentings shrill and long-continued.

"Nay, hold your tongue, gudewife," said he, "and do not let me hear more of this: for you may believe me in sooth, that for every cow that you have lost, I will bring you three." And with these words he hied him away to the Lord Scroop, and told him how the thieves of Liddesdale had been to his house last night, and had robbed him without provocation, and ended by asking his master's permission to return like for like, and go and rob there.

After some chaffering betwixt them, the warden granted him leave to harry his foes, if he would promise to rob no one but those who had robbed him.

"There is my troth and my right hand," cried Dick: "my head shall hang on the hairibee, and I will never cross Carlisle sands again if I steal from any man that has not stolen from me."

He now bought a bridle and a new pair of spurs which he carefully concealed inside the legs of his breeches—for they were not intended to be used during his progress into Scotland, but rather during his progress home again. He merrily mounted his beast, spurred her over the Moss of Solway, through the domains of the present Gretna, then a barren waste covered with furze and heath, and so on till he came to Pudding-burn House, a place of strength held by the Armstrongs, and in which he found no less than thirty-three there assembled.

"Who is this comes hero?" quoth one of the thieves. "Yet he is but an innocent fool, and we are three-and-thirty strong."

But the innocent fool walked boldly up to the head of the board, courteously greeting the mosstroopers in these words;—"Good den, my good Laird's Jock: but the devil bless all your company ! Johnie Armstrong and his billie Willie came to my house last night and stole three cows."

"Ha!" exclaimed the accused Johnie in anger, "we will hang this knave up by the neck that dares to beard us in our own hall."

"Yea," said Willie, the other culprit, "we will forthwith make worms' meat of him."

"Na," interposed another clansman, "we will rather give him a sound cudgelling with the pommel of a Jeddart-staff, and then turn him out."

"Rest you merry," cried the Laird's Jock, who is said to have been the best fellow of the company, "Sit down awhile, Dickie—make yourself well at ease—and I will give you a dainty morsel of your own cow to eat."

But this was a jest which the professional Jester could not swallow; so he withdrew in high dudgeon to a neighbouring peat-house, where he designed to sleep off his anger.

We are assured that the only orison that he prayed as he lay there was,—"I wish I had amends for my three good kine."

It was the custom of Pudding-burn House and at Mangerton, two principal seats pertaining to chiefs of this clan, not to wait dinner for anybody, —a proper custom enough, and one which is now-a-days found to prevail amongst some few modern dinner-givers—but only amongst some few. It was also the custom, that if the company did not punctually attend to the first call, and assemble immediately, no second summons was given; those who lost no time in sitting down to the table had their meal, but those who were unpunetual, were enforced to go hungry, and tarry several hours until the next meal was served. This latter custom has emigrated to the United States of America.

Such a practice served to make every one alert so soon as the welcome subpoena was issued; and on the occasion of which we speak, the hungry horse-boy was no sooner called than he forthwith threw the key "abune the door-head," in his eagerness and precipitation, and hastened to devour his vivers.

This action was not lost upon Dick o1 the Cow, who witnessed it as he lay in the peat-house; for it secured him an entree into the stable amongst all the mettlesome steeds of his foe. So he whispered in his sleeve,—"There will be a booty for me."

When the fitting time of night arrived he repaired thither; he found the stalls occupied by thirty-three noble beasts, that had heretofore borne their masters in many a foray and many a border raid. Thirty of them he "tied with St. Mary's knot,"—that is, he ham-strung them;— a cruel alternative certainly, but the one he was necessitated to resort to, in order that he might effectually prevent pursuit.

This done, he drew forth the new spurs and bridle from their concealments within the recesses of his unmentionables, and tethering two out of the three sound horses, he speedily rode off as invisibly as the north wind that hurries across the heath at night, and passed like a will-o'-the-wisp over the bogs of the Tarras. The single uninjured animal that he left behind, seems to have belonged to the Laird's Jock—that same " best fellow in all the company," who had interposed in his behalf on his arrival; and out of a grateful remembrance of this friendly act, he had consideration for his horse. There was honour amidst thieves in those days.

Now then did the modest goddess Aurora start up from the bed of Tethys, and blush rosy red as she raised her countenance above the eastern hills; and now did the thirty-three marchmen of Pudding-burn House start up from their beds also : but it is likely that they did not blush for shame when they raised their countenances and looked round upon each other.

A vehement burst of execration simultaneously emanated from every throat when the state of affairs in the stable became known; they roared like the artillery of heaven, and they swore till the oak pannels of the hall cracked and split to pieces with the electrifying oaths; they threatened indiscriminate destruction to all whom it might concern, and they raved like men who were devising the quickest means of annihilating the whole earth, and all the planets that wait dute-ously upon the sun. The Laird's Jock declared that Dick was the offender; and, calling for his bay, he mounted to the pursuit, at the same time saying, that he would either fetch him back, or else slay him upon the moor. Expecting a stout resistauce from the jester, he harnessed himself in a quilted jack or doublet, a steel cap, and a long two-handed sword.

By dint of rowel and switch, he succeeded in coming up with Dick on Connobie Lee, a rising ground on the outskirts of Liddesdale.

"Abide, abide, thou traitor thief!" cried be, both loud and hoarse; "turn and stand, for the day is come wherein thou must die."

But the fugitive looked back over his left shoulder without slacking his pace, and coolly inquired, "Whether lie had any company besides himself."

Still coursing on, now nearly side by side, he again addressed his pursuer, not at all convinced of the justice of being called a traitor thief.

"There is a preacher in our chapel," continued he, "that preaches both night and day to the sinners within the penfold of his cure; and there is ne'er a word that I mark, but especially three: "The first is Faith ; the second Conscience; and the third, Never let a traitor escape. But Johnie Armstrong, what faith and conscience was thine, when thou didst foully steal my three kine? And then, forsooth, when thou hadst done me this wrong, thou wert not content till thou hadst made thy confrere pilfer the three coverlets from my wife's bed!"

Stung by this just reproach, and albeit inwardly guilty, yet not one whit penitent, he savagely raised his weapon, and aimed a deadly thrust at the speaker; but the powers above so directed his wicked hand, in such sort, that he only pierced a hole through Dickie's jerkin. A flying skirmish succeeded to this rough greeting, both parties striving hard for the mastery, whilst their horses still held on at full speed. The Englishman at last succeeded in hitting the Scot an ugly blow under one of the eyes, which felled him to the ground, stunned, but not killed.

"Gramercy!" cried the victor; "I had only two horses to carry home, but now of a truth I shall be able to take three!"

He disencumbered the conquered of his steel cap, doublet, and long sword, according to the usages of chivalry; observing to the prostrate moss-trooper, that he would inform his master, Lord Scroop, that he had seen Johnie Armstrong during his visit into Scotland. And with that he departed into Cumberland.

When the other came to his senses and found himself alone and disarrayed of arms, his rage and his shame were neither of them small; he picked himself up as best he could, swearing that he never would fight with a fool again."

Dick o" the Cow hastened to his lord, and shewed him the spoil; but the brow of the Warden darkened, and he declared that he would not dine until he had seen his vassal hung up by the neck; for he could not believe that so considerable a personage as Johnie Armstrong, from whom the jester had taken the horses, could have robbed Dick of his cows.

"Indeed I wot ye lie, my Lord, to say I have stolen from him that stole not from me;" a freedom of speech only warranted by the office of warden-court fool which he held.

After a fuller and more minute explanation of the circumstances of the exploit, the Lord Scroop became more convinced and pacified. "If," said he, "that be true what you tell me, (and I think you dare not tell a lie,) I will give you fifteen pounds for Jock's horse; and besides which, I will give you one of my best milch cows, to maintain your wife and three children; and 1 think that will be an equivalent for any two that you have lost."

"Na," returned the other, shaking his head; "do you think to make a fool of me? I will either have twenty pounds in good lawful money, or I will take him to Morton fair, and stand the hazard of a chance sale."'

And to this demand the nobleman was enforced to submit: so he handed over the twenty pounds and the cow.

Soon afterwards, as Dickie was riding through the streets of Carlisle, (on whose wall the sun shines bright,) he encountered the bailiff, Glozen-burrie, the Warden's brother.

"Welcome my brother's fool!" quoth the latter. "W'here didst thou get that bonny horse? Did he not belong to Johnie Armstrong? Where didst thou get him but steal him I trow? But hark'e, Sir Fool,—wilt thou sell him to me?"

"Ay," was the dry answer, "if thou wilt count me the money down in my lap; for I never will trust thee for a penny."

Thence ensued some chaffering about the price; the bailiff wanting to get the animal for ten pounds, but the jester, with terms little respectful, resolutely fixing it at double the sum, together with another cow. And in the end he triumphed, for the bailiff was compelled to submit to the same terms as the Lord Scroop had done before.

Dick was in high glee at this success, for it appears that he had still retained the best horse of the three for his own use. He hastened home to his wife and instantly gave her forty pounds for the three old coverlets: he gave her the two cows, observing that they were better worth than the three they had lost: and then he shewed her the brawny horse, assuring her that it was quite stout enough to carry them both.

Fearing, however, the vengeance of the Armstrongs, lie shortly after removed his habitation to Burgh, under Stanemuir.

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