Plans are afoot, come wind, come weet

Looking out on a particularly dismal Easter Sunday this year, the occasional driving rain reminds me that some 420 years ago, similar weather was about to play an important part in one of the most audacious acts – and there are many to count – ever undertaken on the Scottish Borders.

But let the scene be set …

On the 17th March 1596, a day of truce was set between the English Middle March, which was under the Wardenship of Thomas Scrope and the Keeper of Liddesdale (Walter Scott of Buccleuch), to try to settle a matter of “redress and delivery” regarding an “offender” wanted by Buccleuch. Neither Scrope nor Buccleuch were present in person, it seems.

The matter had been delayed, according to Scrope because Buccleuch also wanted the “accessarie” handed over, but this was a man who whom Buccleuch “bore malice”, and so the process had been delayed and postponed. On the 17th March, however, the meeting was set, but Buccleuch refused to keep to the terms of truce. Buccleuch had good reason.

That was the day that William Armstrong of Kinmont also known as Will of Kynmonth, was taken and brought into Scrope’s jurisdiction. Scrope was at pains to explain his own men’s actions, knowing that the contentious matter of Border Truce could render the taking of a man, protected under laws of a Truce Day an illegal act. He stated that Armstrong had broken the truce himself, and therefore it was right that he should be punished; that he was an enemy of the Wardenship (something which should not be argued, but he was still under the laws of Truce); that his followers had committed recent raids; that Buccleuch’s jurisdiction and protection did not apply to Kinmont, as he lived outwith the bounds of Liddesdale; and where he was taken was ‘beyond the limits’ of Buccleuch’s ‘charge’ …  Scrope knew what had occurred was contentious:


How Kynmont was taken will appear by the copy of the attestation by his takers, which if true, it is held that Kynmont did thereby breake th’assurance that daye taken, and for his offences ought to be delivered to the officer against whom he had offended, to be punished according to discreation.” Another reason for detaining him is his notorious enmity to this office, and the many outrages lately done by his followers. He appertains not to Buccleuch, but dwells out of his office, and was also taken beyond the limits of his charge, so Buccleuch makes the matter a mere pretext to defer justice and do “further indignities.”
The above day for redress and delivery was the 17th of this month—which night Kynmont was taken and brought here, where I detain him, thinking it best to do so till good security be given for better behaviour of him and his in time coming, and recompense of damages lately done to the people here.

So wrote Scrope to Burghley, on the 18th March 1596. He could not have dreamt, during his most restless nights (of which we must suspect there were many), what was already being plotted against him.


Remaining an infidel

On 24th  January 24, 1799, MJ ‘Monk’ Lewis wrote to Scott, having written previously regarding certain ballads, namely ‘Glenfinlas’ and ‘The Eve of St John’. Lewis, as in previous correspondence, remarked on several aspects of Scott’s poetical style, including words which, in his consideration, did not rhyme. Having evidently discussed the matter with an acquaintance, Lewis wrote this to Scott.

I must not omit telling you, for your own comfort,

and that of all such person as are wicked enough to

make bad rhymes, that Mr Smythe (a very clever

man at Cambridge) took great pains the other day

to convince me, not merely that a bad rhyme might

pass, but that occasionally a bad rhyme was better

than a good one!!!!!! I need not tell you that he left

me as great an infidel on this subject as he found me.

Ever yours,

(Signed) M. G. Lewis

‘Tis 200 years since

A little diversion into the realms of modern life, I fear. Those of a more delicate constitution may wish to steel their nerves, as we tread the causewaystones of George IV Bridge.

May we encourage any gentle reader to make their way, if possible, to the National Library of Scotland, where the MS of Waverley is now on display, along with associated documents. A visual representation is also available through this internet sorcery, at

Collecting ballads: Don’t forget your screwdriver

Francis James Child is a name well-known to ballad singers and scholars alike; William Macmath less so. However had the latter not given up his summer holidays in the months of July and August, 1890, Child’s seminal ballad collection “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads” would not have had the benefit of several transcriptions of ballad manuscripts used in the preparation of Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802)


One small bookcase in the Library, which contains Ballads, can only be opened by the use of a screw driver. No wonder, therefore, that David Laing and Thomas Carlyle could do nothing. Writing letters of of no avail. Personal presence is required, to sit down before the place, and pointing say in effect, but more politely, I must have that book out, please get the screw driver, as I can’t go away without seeing the volume.”

Macmath – Child, in Montgomerie, “Macmath and the Scott Ballad Manuscripts”, Studies in Scottish Literature, no. 1, July 1963.

Etiquette for the dead

When one considers that the among other more recognisable epithets, the French once referred to Scotland as ” The Land of Phantoms”, we should, perhaps, not be so taken aback by a tale such as follows. In his introduction to the ferocious ballad Young Benjie, our friend Sir Walter notes the following:

In former times, a man and his wife lived in a solitary cottage, on one of the extensive border fells. One day, the husband died suddenly; and his wife, who was equally afraid of staying alone by the corpse, or leaving the dead body by itself, repeatedly went to the door, and looked anxiously over the lonely moor, for the sight of some person approaching. In her confusion and alarm, she accidentally left the door ajar, when the corpse suddenly started up, and sat in the bed, frowning and grinning at her frightfully. She sat alone, crying bitterly, unable to avoid the fascination of the dead man’s eye, and too much terrified to break the sullen silence, till a Catholic priest, passing over the wild, entered the cottage. He first set the door quite open, then put his little finger in his mouth, and said the paternoster backwards, when the horrid look of the corpse relaxed, it fell back on the bed, and behaved itself as a dead man ought to do.

It is refreshing to note that the dead should abide by certain standards of etiquette, among which list, not terrifying one’s wife should be the primary concern. Behaving oneself properly, at least according to the renowned Sir Walter, continues beyond one’s last breath.

We should add that readers of a gentle disposition should not seek out Young Benjie without having a stalwart companion by their side: what that steadfast supporter may be is left to their own discretion. This ballad, despite its charming title, is notable for the following: murder, a reanimated corpse, and a brutal revenge.

The Day After Flodden


Dool and wae for the order, sent our lads to the border

This day, for a moment, let us think on all those Jocks and Dands, Antons and Hobs, Robins and Jacks and Edmunds Olivers and Johns, who lay still and dead on Flodden’s field – and estimated 10 000 Scottish dead in around 2 ½-3 hours, and thousands more on the English side.

This would have been the day when the full horror began to unleash itself upon the Scottish Border, when the fathers and the brothers and the sons did not come home, when Fletcher had made his exhausted, distressed way back to Selkirk – the only man to return, so the story has it.

Of those others, stumbling home or marching in order, there would be combatants carrying  hurts and sores which would cause them to succumb days or weeks later – slowly killed as  crushed muscles and fractured bones leached toxins and cellular content into the bloodstream and slowly killed them: no antibiotics, no cutting-edge research, to help these soldiers.

This would have been the day that the decapitation of Scotland’s nobility, royal house and power base was becoming brutally obvious. The aftermath of Flodden can be said to be the moment when Scotland’s stance in Europe undertook a seismic shift, but let us think on all those families and lovers and friends who had only started their grieving today. It would not be until the mechanised slaughter of the Somme that so many soldiers died in such a small amount of time.

Footnotes and Military History

Surely a military leader’s prowess rest on two primary points of understanding – identifying the enemy’s strengths, and understanding his own force’s collective demeanour. In a recent foray through the Introduction to Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, two notable remarks  caught the ardent reader’s eye. The first was that often quoted phrase attributed to Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. Following the harrying of Jedburgh on the 23rd September of 1523, when the town was all but destroyed – Howard notes that “which town is so burnt that it must be rebuilt before new garrisons are lodged there. The burning was committed to two sure men, Sir William Bulmer and Thos. Tempest. The town was much stronger than he expected. It had twice as many houses as Berwick, and could have lodged 1,000 horse in garrison. It had six good towers, now completely thrown down”

The Scots, however, did not simply give up without a fight or  let the English ride over the border unchallenged. Jedburgh’s inhabitants had hauled the thatch off their own roofs and set it a-flame in the street, causing Surrey to note that the“smoke was very noisome.”

Neither did the next day’s assault on Ker of Fernihurt’s stronghold did not go entirely to plan – “Fernherst stood marvellously strong within a great wood,” notes a letter from Surrey to Wolsey. This English force was led by Sir Arthur Darcy and Sir Marmaduke Constable, who had 700 men and some ordnance at their disposal. They chose to enter that great wood with 300 of their men, plus the ordnance. In the wood they “were sorely handled by hardy men that would not budge a foot.” The English finally got control of Ferniehurt and “threw it down”, but the resistance was not yet over.

Surrey had Lord Dacre within the main force, but Dacre would not make camp with the others, despite Surrey’s orders against this, and good provision of land having been made for Dacre and his men. In the night, after Surrey’s assault on Jedburgh Abbey, the horses of Dacre’s force:

broke loose, and ran from the field, creating great alarm among the standing watch, who shot at them divers guns, and above a hundred sheaf of arrows. At last they ran madly into the field, to the number of 1,500. Above fifty fell over a great rock, more than 250 ran into the town [Jedburgh], being on fire, and were carried off by the women badly burnt. Thinks about 800 horses are lost by this folly, by not lying within the camp. “I dare not write the wonders that my lord Dacre and all his company do say they saw that night, six times, of sprights and fearful sights.” They all say the devil was among them six times. “I assure your grace, I found the Scots at this time the boldest men and the hottest that ever I saw in any nation,” keeping them in a continual skirmish. If they could muster 40,000 men as good as the 1,500 or 2,000 he saw, it would be hard to encounter them.”

Surrey, therefore, could recognise a tenacious enemy, even if that enemy was defeated. We should wonder how those horses came to get loose, and just how devilish the Scots around stricken Jedburgh were those days and nights.

Contrast this with the remarks attributed to the captain of a band of mercenaries, who had been hired to bolster the forces of the Borders chiefs and exiled lords, who sought to put an end to Arran’s rule over the young King James VI. They attacked Stirling, complete with those mercenaries. In one of his fine footnotes to the history he presents, Scott notes a point highlighted by Godscoft: those mercenaries had firearms, rather than the preferred weapon of the Border spearmen. However, they were “such bad masters of their craft, that their captain was heard to abserve, ‘that those who knew his soldiers as well as he did, would hardly chuse to march before them.’” Another man, who no doubt lived to fight another day – in this case not by knowing his enemy but his men.

To avoid Scott’s introductions is to deprive oneself of such wry smiles as such digressions encourage, so avoid them at your peril.