Dick o' the Cow, and the
This chapter tells ye how
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
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
Castles, towers, and piles 16
Market townes 5
Villages . . . . . 243
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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.