English Border Towns – Tweed, St. Boswells, Dryburgh, Newstead, And The Leader

WE now return from Teviotdale to Tweed, which we left at Kelso. The river passes through one of its rock-fenced and narrow defiles at the Trows of Makerstoun, (accent the penultimate,) itself the home from ancient days of a branch of the once great Argyll clan—and generally western clan—of Macdougal. How they came so far from their Celtic kindred, potent in Dalriadic Scotland before the Campbells came to the front as allies of Robert Bruce, is not known to me. As foes of Bruce, the Macdougals of Lorne suffered much loss of lands after the king’s triumph. At the Trows the river splits into very deep and narrow channels, and to shoot one of them in a canoe needs a daring and a fortunate paddler.

In former years there were four of these channels, two of very great depth—thirty feet and more, it is said—but so narrow that, with the river at summer level, it was possible for an active man to jump from stone rib to stone rib, across the swift rushing stream. The feat was attempted once too often, however, with fatal result, and since then the middle rib has been blasted out, so that it is no longer possible for any one to tempt fate in this manner. Even an expert and powerful swimmer, falling in there, would have but a slender chance of coming out alive, for if he were not sucked under by the eddies of that boiling current and jammed beneath some sunken ledge, the odds would be very great on his brains being knocked out amongst the rocks that thrust their ugly fangs here and there above the surface of the stream. Both below and above the Trows, the trout fishing—for those who may fish—is extremely good, but the wading is ticklish; pot-holes, ledges, and large boulders are apt to trap the unwary to their undoing. There are, too, some excellent salmon casts in the Makerstoun Water, and it was in one of them that the famous Rob o’ the Trows—Rob Kerss, a great character in Sir Walter’s day,—nigh on a hundred years ago landed a fish so huge, that even a master of the art so skilled as Rob,—Stoddart says he had few equals as a fisher—was utterly spent when at length his silvery prize lay gasping on the bank. Before taking the fly from its mouth, Rob turned half aside to pick up a stone which might conveniently be used as a “priest”; but even as he turned, out of the tail of his eye he saw the monster give a wallop. Rob leapt for the fish. – Alas ! as he jumped, his foot caught the line and snapped it, and walloping fish and struggling man plunged together off a shelf into the icy water,—from which Rob emerged alone. The rod with which Kerss killed so many hundreds of fish is still in the possession of one of his descendants, near Beattock. Compared with present-day masterpieces of greenheart or split cane, it is a quaint and clumsy weapon, of extraordinary thickness in the butt, and of crushing weight. The writer has handled it, and he is convinced that one hour’s use could not fail to choke off for the rest of the day even the most enthusiastic of modern salmon fishers.

It is not often that ancient weapons are found in Tweed, but some years ago, when the river was unusually low, a moss-trooper’s spear was recovered at a spot a little above Makerstoun. It was lying at the bottom, below what used to be a ford of sorts across the river. Curiously enough, shaft and head were both intact, and in fair preservation after their long immersion. If the spear was not used by some trooper in days when fighting was the Borderer’s chief delight and occupation, it is difficult to imagine to what use it could have been put. Salmon cannot be successfully speared with a single-pointed unbarbed weapon ; so that it is certain this was no poacher’s implement.

Above Makerstoun is Rutherford, once the home of the Rutherfurds of that Ilk, but now it knows them no more. A like doom, as I write, hangs over Mertoun, long the beautiful home of the Scotts of Harden, Lord Polwarth’s family.

” And Minstrel Burne cannot assuage His grief, while life endureth, To see the changes of this age, That fleeting Time procureth ; For mony a place stands in hard case, Where Blythe folk ken’d nae sorrow, Wi’ Homes that dwelt on Leader-side, And Scotts that dwelt in Yarrow ! ”

Mertoun is a modern house; hard by it, across the river, the strong ruins of Littledean tower (once the Kers’) speak of old Border wars.

Following the curves of Tweed we reach St. Boswells, named after an Anglo-Saxon saint to whom St. Cuthbert came, laying down his spear, and entering religion. At St. Boswells are sheep fairs ; Hogg preferred to attend one of these festivals rather than go to London and see the Coronation of George IV. My sympathies are with the shepherd ! The paths near Lessudden, hard by, are haunted by a quiet phantasm, in costume a minister of the Kirk of the eighteenth century. I know some of the percipients who have seen him individually and collectively. There is no tradition about the origin of this harmless appearance, a vision of a dream of the dead; walking “in that sleep of death.”

Above Lessudden the Tweed winds round and at the foot of the beautiful ruins of Dryburgh Abbey, softly mourning for him who lies within that sound “the dearest of all to his ear,” Sir Walter Scott. The great Magician lies, with Lockhart at his feet, within the ruined walls, in the place which, as he wrote to his bride that was to be, he had already chosen for his rest. The lady replied with spirit that she would not endure any such sepulchral reflections. This is one of the most sacred places, and most beautiful places in broad Scotland.

Approaching Dryburgh, not from the riverside but from the road, we come by such a path through a beautiful wood as that in which proud Maisie was ” walking so early,” when ” bold Robin on the bush singing so rarely,” spaed her fortune. The path leads to a place of such unexpected beauty as the ruinous palace where the Sleeping Beauty slumbered through the ages. The beauty is that of Dryburgh itself, delicately fair in her secular decay ; fallen from glory, indeed, but still the last home of that peace which dwelt in this much harried Borderland in the days of the first White Friars, and of good St. David the king. They were Englishmen out of Northumberland, teachers of good farming and of other good works. What remains of their dwellings is of the age when the round Norman arch blended with the pointed Gothic, as in the eastern end of the Cathedral of St. Andrews. Thrice the English harmed it, in the days of Bruce (1322) during a malicious and futile attack by Edward II ; again, under Robert II, when Richard II played the Vandal ; and, lastly, during the wasting of the Border in 1544, which was the eighth Henry’s rough wooing for his son, of the babe Mary Stuart. The grounds, the property of a member of the House of Scott’s eccentric Earl of Buchan, are kept in charming order. The Earl was the only begetter of a huge statue of Sir William Wallace, who used Ettrick Forest now and again in his guerilla warfare, and from the Forest drew his archers, tall men whom in death the English of Edward I admired on the lost field of Falkirk.

The said Earl of Buchan rather amused than consoled Scott, during a severe illness, by promising to attend to his burial in the place so dear to him, which, till the ruin of his paternal grandmother, had belonged to the Haliburtons, also in old days the lords of Dirleton castle. Readers of Lockhart re-member the great Border gathering at the funeral of the latest minstrel, and how his horses, which drew the hearse, paused where they had been wont to rest, at a spot where it had been Sir Walter’s habit to stop to admire the landscape. His chief, the young Duke of Buccleuch, was prevented by important business from being an attendant. You would never guess what the business was ! No man knows but I only; and if Scott could have known, I doubt whether he would have drawn his shaggy brows into a frown, or laughed ; for the business was but I must not reveal so ancient a secret !

Moving up the river on the left bank, we reach that ancient House concerning which Thomas of Ercildoune’s prophecy is still unbroken.

” Betide, Betide, whate’er betide, There shall aye be a Haig in Bemersyde.”

The family were at home in Bemersyde in the days of Malcolm the Maiden. One of them was condemned to pay a dozen salmon yearly to the monastery of Melrose, for some scathe done to the brethren. It must have been an ill year for the angler when Haig expressed a desire to commute the charge for an equivalent in money as he could not get the fish. There was scarce a Border battle in which the Haigs did not leave a representative on the field of honour. Here, too, befell ” the Affliction of Bemersyde,” when the laird, after a long fight with a monstrous salmon, lost him in the moment of victory. The head of the fish would not go into the landing net, his last wallop freed him ; he was picked up dead, by prowlers,—and he weighed seventy pounds. Probably no salmon so great was ever landed by the rod from Tweed. Only the Keep of the mansion is of great antiquity.

It may be worth while to leave the river and climb to Smailholme Tower, where Scott’s infancy was passed. The tower, standing tall and gaunt above a tarn, is well known from Turner’s drawing, and is the scene of Scott’s early ballad, The Eve of St. John. Perhaps the verses which have lingered longest in my memory are those which tell how

” The Baron of Smailholme rose with clay, And spurred his charger on, Without stop or stay down the rocky way That leads to Brotherton.”

He did not go, as we remember, to Ancrum fight, but he returned with armour sorely dinted, having slain in private quarrel a knight whose cognisance was

” A hound in a silver leash bound And his crest was a branch of the yew.”

And that sanie eve the dead man was seen with the lady of Smailholme. The story is a version of that ancient tale, the Beresford ghost story, which can be traced from the chronicle of William of Malmesbury to its Irish avatar in the eighteenth century—and later. Do ghosts repeat themselves? It looks like it, for the Irish tale is very well authenticated.

It was not actually in the tower, but in the adjacent farm-house of Sandyknowe, his grandfather’s, that Scott, at first a puny child, passed his earliest years, absorbing every ballad and legend that the country people knew, and the story of every battle fought on the wide landscape, from Turn Again to Ancrum Moor.

We have reached the most beautiful part of Tweed, dominated by the triple crest of the pyramidal Eildons, where the river lovingly embraces the woods of Gladswood and Ravens-wood, and the site of Old Melrose, a Celtic foundation of Aidan, while as yet the faith was preached by the Irish missionaries of St. Columba. This is the very garden of Tweed, a vast champaign, from which rise the Eildons, and far away above Rule Water ” the stormy skirts of Ruberslaw,” with the Lammermuir and Cheviot hills blue and faint on the northern and southern horizons.

On the ground of Drygrange, above Bemersyde, but on the right bank of Tweed at Newstead, the greatest stationary camp in Scotland of Agricola’s time has been excavated by Mr. Curie, who also describes it in a magnificent and learned volume. Here were found beautiful tilting helmets, in the shape of heads of pretty Greek girls, and here were the enamelled brooches of the native women who dwelt with Roman lovers. But these must be sought, with coins, gems, pottery, weapons and implements of that forgotten day, in the National Museum in Edinburgh.

The chief tributary on the northern side as we mount the stream is Leader Water, “where Homes had, aince commanding.”

Sing Erslington and Cowdenknowes, Where Humes had aince commanding ; And Drygrange, with the milk-white yowes, Twixt Tweed and Leader standing : The bird that flees through Redpath trees And Gladswood banks ilk morrow, May chant and sing sweet Leader Haughs And bonnie howms of Yarrow.

It is scarcely possible to conceive a scene more beautiful than that where Leader winds her cheery way through the woods of Drygrange. When the Borderland is starred thick with primroses, and the grassy banks of Leader are carpeted with the blue of speedwell and the red of campion ; when a soft air and warm sun hatch out a multitude of flies at which the trout rise greedily, then is the time to see that deep, leafy glen at the bottom of which sparkles the amber-clear water over its gravelly bed. In cliff or steep bank the sides tower up perhaps to the height of a couple of hundred feet, thick clad with rhododendrons and spreading undergrowth, and with mighty larch, beech, elm, or ash, and everywhere the music of Heaven’s feathered orchestra smites sweetly on the ear. It is, I think, to this Paradise that good birds go when they die, where the ruthless small boy’s raiding hand is kept in check, and every bird may find ideal nesting place.

The district is most famous in ballad, song and story, Leaderdale, being apparently equivalent to Lauderdale, giving a title to the Earl of Lauderdale, the chief of the Maitlands. ” They call it Leader town,” says the enigmatic ballad of Auld Maitland, speaking of the stronghold of a Maitland of the days of Wallace, a shadowy figure still well remembered in the folk lore of the reign of Mary Stuart. The ballad has some good and many indifferent verses. It was known to the mother and uncle of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. He copied it out for Will Laidlaw, Scott’s friend and amanuensis, and this began the long and valuable association of Hogg with the Sheriff. The authenticity of the ballad has been impugned, Hogg and Scott, it has been asserted, composed it and Scott gave it to the world as genuine. This is demonstrably an erroneous conjecture, (as I have shown in Sir Walter Scott and the Border Minstrelsy). Letters which had not been published refute all suspicions of forgery by Hogg or Scott or both. But the ballad had, apparently, been touched up, perhaps in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, probably by one of the witty and literary family of Maitland. It came to Hogg’s mother from ” auld Babby Metlan,” (Maitland,) housekeeper to the last of the Scotts of Tushielaw ; herself perhaps a reduced member of the impoverished family of the flower of the wits of Scotland,” Queen Mary’s Secretary of State, Maitland of Lethington.

Though the legendary ” Maitland or auld beard grey ” may have stoutly held his house of Thirlestane against. Edward I, (as he does in the ballad of Auld Maitland), I have found no record of the affair in the State Papers of the period. There-after the Maitlands of Lethington, though a family of ancient origin, play no conspicuous part in Scottish history, till we reach old Sir Richard, who died at the age of ninety in 1586. He was not openly recalcitrant against, but was no enthusiast for, the new doctrines of Knox and his company. A learned, humorous, peaceful man, he wrote Scottish ‘verses and collected and preserved earlier poetry in manuscripts.

Of his sons the eldest, William, was—setting Knox aside—the most extraordinary Scot of his time. Knox was essentially Scottish in the good and not so good of his character, and was essentially an extreme Calvinist of his period ; ” judged too extreme,” he says, by his associates. Young Maitland of Lethington, on the other hand, might have been French or Italian, hardly English. He was an absolutely modern man. In religion, even before the revolution of 1559, he was in favour of the new ideas, but also in favour of compromise and, if possible, of peace. We first meet him in private discussion with Knox,–pleading for compromise, but yielding, with a smile, or a sigh, to the amazingly confident fallacies of the Reformer. He serves the Queen Mother, Mary of Guise, a brave unhappy lady, as Secretary of State, till he sees that her cause is every way impossible, and goes over to the Reformers, and wins for them the alliance of England, and victory. He had a great ideal, and a lofty motive, a patriotic desire for honourable peace and alliance with England. On all occasions when he encountered Knox, he met him with the ” educated insolence” of his wit, with the blandest persiflage; Knox writhed and reports his ironies, and—Knox, in the long run, had the better of this smiling modern man, no fanatic, no believer in any preacher’s infallibility.

Maitland served Queen Mary loyally, while he might ; when things went otherwise than he wished, was behind the scenes of the murder of Riccio ; but was frankly for-given as the husband of the dearest of the Four Maries, Mary Fleming, and as indispensable. Ile and his brother John, later the able minister of James VI, were in the conspiracy to murder Darnley ; that is the central mystery in his career, his part in that brutal, blundering needless crime. He was partner with the violent Bothwell, a brute of culture, who hated, captured, bullied, and threatened him ; for Maitland discountenanced, with remarkable and solitary courage, Bothwell’s marriage. Escaping from Bothwell’s grip, he fled to the nobles who had risen against Bothwell ; he corrupted Mary’s commander in Edinburgh Castle ; when she was a captive, he is said, by the English agent, Randolph, to have urged that she should be slain,–for, as she said, ” she had that in black and white which would hang Lethington.” She escaped, and his policy was, in his own interests, to appear to prosecute her, and secretly to advise and aid her ; to win, if not her forgiveness, an amnesty, if she returned to power, which he believed to be inevitable. She hated no man more bitterly, but she needed no man so much. As he had lost for her Edinburgh Castle, he gained it for her once more by winning to her cause the gallant Kirkcaldy of Grange, commanding therein for her enemies. He lived, a disease-stricken man, through the siege of the castle, meeting Knox once or twice with the old insolent smooth-spoken disdain of the prophet. He escaped the gibbet by a natural death, when the castle surrendered and Kirkcaldy was hanged. This ” Michael Wiley,” (Scots for Macchiavelli,) had trusted too absolutely to his own wit, his own command over violent men,—trusted too much to sheer intellect; been too contemptuous of honour. There is no one who at all resembles him in the history of Scotland; he fascinates and repels us; one likes so much in him, and detests so much.

From a brother’s descendants came the notorious Lauderdale of the Covenant and the Great Rebellion ; a scholar ; at one time professedly godly ; the natural and deadly opposite of the great Montrose, the coarse voluptuary and greedy governor of Scotland, and the servile buffoon of Charles II during the Restoration. He paid a trifling pension to the descendants of Lethington, who are so impoverished that I guess at one of them in “auld Babby Metlan,” “other than a gude ane,” who handed on the ballad of Auld Maitland and was housekeeper to the last Scott of Tushielaw on upper Ettrick.

These two are the great men of Leader Water (an ideal trout stream if not poached out), Lethington and — St. Cuthbert ! It was while he watched his flocks by night on the braes of Leader that Cuthbert saw, either some meteoric phenomenon which he misconstrued, or the soul of Bishop Aidan passing heavenward in glory. Next day he walked or rode to Old Melrose, leaned his spear on the wall at the portal, and confided to Boisil (St. Boswells) his desire to enter into religion. From his noble biography by the Venerable Bede (he has “got his step” now, I think, and is Blessed Bede, beatus), we know this great and good man, Cuthbert, chief missionary on the violent Border, who sleeps in Durham Cathedral. The English have captured him, the great glory of Leader Water, but in his region, in his day, the people were already English by blood to a great degree, and in language. Cuthbert, despite the Reformation, continued to be a favourite Christian name north of Tweed, witness Cuddie Headrig, whose mother, Mause, had nothing papistical in her convictions !

By a burn that takes its rise far up Leader near a summit of the Lammermuirs called Nine Cairn Edge, is the Well of the Holy Water Cleuch. It was here that St. Cuthbert spent his shepherd boyhood ; here that he saw the vision which sent him to Mailros. And here, after Cuthbert’s death, they built in ‘ his honour, beside the Holy Well, the Childeschirche, the name of which survives to us now as Channelkirk.

Were one of Border birth to quit “sweet Leader Haughs,” leaving unnoticed ” True Thomas,” Thomas of Ercildoune, I do not know how he might again face his fellow Borderers. For, though Thomas may not have been a great man, in the same sense that St. Cuthbert and Lethington were great, yet to most of his countrymen he is better known than either. For one at the present day to whom the name of Cuthbert is familiar, or one to whom ” Lethington ” conveys any very definite idea, you will find a hundred who take an intelligent interest in Thomas the Rhymer, and who believe with Spottiswoode, who wrote of him early in the seventeenth century : “Sure it is that he did divine and answer true of many things to come.” Fact regarding the Rhymer is so vague, and so beautifully blended with fiction, that I doubt if most Borderers do not more than half persuade themselves still to accept as fact much of the fiction that they learned of him in childhood. To Border children, not so very long ago, nothing was more real than the existence of a tree, still alive and growing somewhere about the enchanted land of Eildon, which must necessarily be the Eildon Tree :

” Syne he has kissed her rosy lips All underneath the Eildon Tree ; ”

nothing was more certain than that True Thomas, at the call of the Queen of Faery, rose and obediently followed the hart and the hind into the forest, and returned no more.

” First he woxe pale, and then woxe red, Never a word he spake but three ; `My sand is run, my thread is spun, This sign regardeth me.’ ”

No spot was looked on, in early youth, with more awe than that Bogle Burn whose stony bed crossed over the St. Boswells and Melrose road in the cheerless hollow beside a gloomy wood ; it was here that True Thomas beheld things unseen by mere mortal eye. Who could doubt? Was there not still standing in Earlston the remains of his old tower to confute all scoffers !

” The hale salt kittle on my hearth stane, And there never will be a Laird Learmont again.”

And, a hundred years ago and more, did not a hare actually produce its young on the shattered, grass-grown hearth-stone of the Rhymer’s dwelling? So everybody believed. But if doubt yet lingered anywhere regarding some portion of True Thomas’s story, it was easily set at rest by the words cut on that old stone built into the wall of the church at Earlston.

” Auld Rymer’s race Lyes in this place,”

it says ; and somehow it gave one a peg to hang one’s faith upon. The whole, or at least a sufficient part of it, is quite real in that countryside by the Rhymer’s Glen where True Thomas lay “on Huntlie bank,” and where flourished the Eildon Tree ; and that True Thomas’s still unfulfilled prophecies will yet one day come to pass, is a sound article of belief. Though how the ruthless prediction is to come about regarding the house of Cowdenknowes, (which is not far removed from the Rhymer’s old tower,) one does not quite see. But it was a doom pronounced against a pitiless Home who there ” had aince commanding.” And the Homes are gone.

” Vengeance ! Vengeance ! when and where? On the house of Coldingknow, now and ever mair ”

Perhaps, too, that was not of True Thomas’s foretelling. One prefers rather to think of Cowdenknowes in connection with the ballad :

” O the broom, and the bonny, bonny broom, And the broom of the Cowdenknowes ! And aye sae sweet as the lassie sang, I’ the bught, milking the ewes.”