Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

Lady Stair's Daughter

The story of the Bride of Lammermoor is one that all the world knows, but how many are there who realise that the tragedy which Sir Walter Scott's genius has given to the world is in truth one of the annals of a noble Scottish family? Possibly among all the "old, unhappy, far-off things" there is none more pitiful than the tale of the Earl of Stair's daughter and her luckless lover, Lord Rutherfurd.

They were never laggards either in love or in war, those Border Rutherfurds. "A stout champion," according to contemporary history, was Colonel Andrew Rutherfurd, Governor of Dunkirk, and afterwards of Tangier, ennobled for his doughty deeds in foreign lands under the title of Earl of Teviot, and when, in 1664, he was slain by the Moors, his distant relative, Lord Rutherfurd, inherited most of his fortune. Presumably the fortune was not great, and even in the old reiving days no Rutherfurd ever rolled in wealth. Moreover, Lord Stair was a staunch Whig, and Rutherfurd an ardent Jacobite, and so it was that when the young lord became a suitor for the hand of Janet Dalrymple, daughter of that famous lawyer, James Dalrymple, first Lord Stair, neither her father nor her mother smiled on his suit.

Sir James Dalrymple was made a baronet in the same year that Andrew Rutherfurd got his title, and both he and his wife, Dame Margaret, a daughter of Ross of Balniel, were ambitious folk. The worldly success in life of her husband and of all her family was what Lady Stair constantly schemed and planned and worked for. A clever, hard, worldly woman, with a witty and unsparing tongue, was Lady Stair, but obviously she was not a popular member of the society in which she lived, and when her plans succeeded in spite of all obstacles, there were many who were ready to say that she belonged to the blackest sisterhood of her day, and that to be "worried at the stake" and burned would only be the fate that she deserved.

Lady Stair's daughter was singularly unlike the mother who bore her, for the beautiful Janet Dalrymple was a gentle, shrinking, highly strung girl, who was like wax in the hands of one who ruled her household with a rod of iron. As a child her will had always had to bend to her mother's. Scarcely had she dared to hold an opinion on anything save under her mother's direction, and so when it came about that the tricksy god of love made her give her heart passionately and utterly to a man of whom her parents disapproved, poor Janet Dalrymple must have felt as though she were the victim of a sort of moral earthquake. Naturally she could see no reason why the man who in her eyes was peerless was not approved by her parents. Surely his politics did not matter. He had money enough for all their needs, and he would make her the Lady Rutherfurd; and, besides, what more could they want than just this—that he loved her and she loved him, and they would love each other until death—and after it.

These reasons given to a woman of Lady Stair's type were scarcely likely to be listened to with much patience, and Janet Dalrymple and Lord Rutherfurd soon saw that all their love-making must be done under the rose, and that they must wait as best they could for the obdurate parents to change their minds. Together they broke a gold coin, of which each wore a half, and solemnly called upon God to witness them plighting their troth, and together imprecated dreadful evils upon the one who should prove faithless. Doubtless Lady Stair was too clever a woman not to have a shrewd suspicion that her daughter's attachment to Lord Rutherfurd was something more than a mere piece of girlish sentiment; but if she did know, the knowledge did not overburden her. Obviously another suitor must be provided without loss of time. The expulsive power of a new affection must promptly be tried on the love-sick girl, whose pale face was in itself enough to betray the condition of her heart.

To Lord Stair belonged the credit of finding one who was approved of by Lady Stair as an entirely suitable match. David Dunbar, younger, of Baldoon in Wigtonshire, a solid young man with a good, solid fortune, was the son-in-law of their choice; and Lady Stair found no difficulty in getting him to see that her beautiful daughter was undoubtedly the right wife for him.

Contemporary history furnishes us with no description of Andrew, Lord Rutherfurd, but we learn from the Edinburgh printer who furnished the Dunbar family with an enthusiastic elegy on the death of David Dunbar of Baldoon that apparently he was a little red-faced man, ardently keen about agricultural pursuits, and deeply interested in the breeding of cattle and horses. Moreover, he was a student, well versed in modern history and in architecture, and with a good head for arithmetic (did he add up the figures of the fortune of Janet Dalrymple entirely to his own satisfaction?), and he had the additional amazing distinction chronicled by his eulogising biographer—

"He learned the French, be't spoken to his praise, In very little more than forty days."

It is impossible to tell how much of the love story of the girl whom he proposed to make his wife was known to young Baldoon. Possibly he had had it lightly sketched to him by Lady Stair's skilled hand, as a mere girlish fancy, likely to be very soon past and already entirely on the wane. In any case, Baldoon evidently saw no more difficulties in the way of his nuptials than did Lord and Lady Stair. The fact that the bride "canna thole the man" must ever be a purely secondary consideration in such matrimonial arrangements. Meantime the unhappy bride-elect had the scheme laid before her, and in spite of her sobbing protests, was commanded to conform to the wishes of her parents.

The news of Lady Stair's triumph was not long in coming to Lord Rutherfurd's ears, and he at once wrote to Janet Dalrymple to remind her that she was pledged to him by everything that they both considered holy. No reply came from the unhappy girl, but a letter from Lady Stair informed the distracted lover that her daughter was fully sensible of the grave fault of which she had been guilty in entering into an engagement without the sanction of her parents, and that she now retracted her vows, and was about to give her hand to Mr. David Dunbar of Baldoon. Such an answer, written by the mother of his betrothed, and not by the girl herself, was scarcely likely to be received with meekness by one of the Rutherfurds of that ilk. Lord Rutherfurd demanded an interview with Janet Dalrymple, and absolutely declined to accept any reply that did not come to him from her own lips. It was a struggle between a high-spirited, determined man, deeply in love with her that he strove for, and a woman whose heart was as hard as her brain was keen, and who did not scruple to use any means, fair or foul, by which to gain her own ends. The lion and the snake are unequal combatants, and in this case the lion was worsted indeed. Lady Stair granted the interview, but took care that not for one moment was her daughter permitted to be alone with her lover. Lord Rutherfurd had many arguments that he had deemed unanswerable, but the lady's nimble wits and ready tongue found an answer for each one.

It must have been a strange scene that took place that day in the old mansion of Carsecreugh. The girl herself was present, but, had the tales of Lady Stair's dealings with the Evil One been true, she could not have substituted for her beautiful, happy daughter any witch-made thing that looked more lifeless than the poor, white-faced creature that sat with silent lips and down-cast eyes, terror-ridden, broken-hearted.

With every impassioned word he spoke Rutherfurd hoped to bring some sign of life to her, to glean a look from her eyes that showed that her love was still his, but he pled in vain. As for his arguments, Lady Stair could quote Scripture with any minister in the land, and the texts she hurled at him were fearful missiles for one who had not the book of Numbers at his fingers' ends.

"If a woman vow unto the Lord, and bind herself by a bond, being in her father's house in her youth; and her father hear her vow, and her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father shall hold his peace at her: then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand. But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth; not any of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand: and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father disallowed her."

So quoted the pitiless voice. Even the devil, they say, can quote Scripture for his own ends. Finally, the mother, again telling Rutherfurd that her daughter acknowledged the wrongness of her conduct and desired to hold no further intercourse with him, turned to the white, marble creature, who seemed to hear nothing, to understand nothing, and commanded her to restore the broken half of the golden coin to him who had bestowed it. For the fraction of a second her icy fingers touched Lord Rutherfurd's, and yet she spoke no word.

To the fiery Borderer it was an insupportable situation. His temper went. The broken coin was cast to the ground, and with furious words he poured out on Lady Stair all his long pent-up anger. Then, turning to her who, so short a time before, had been all the world to him, he cast on her the curse, "For you, madam, you will be a world's wonder," and strode from the room, his face ablaze with wrath, black murder in his heart. Scotland was no longer a friendly home for Andrew, Lord Rutherfurd. He went abroad, and died there sixteen years later.

Meantime the preparations for the marriage of young Baldoon with Lord Stair's daughter went on apace. The bride showed no active dislike to the bridegroom her parents had provided, but behaved as a mere lay figure on which wedding garments were fitted, and which received with cold unresponsiveness all the attentions of the man who was to be her husband. When the wedding day—August 24th, 1669—arrived, a large assemblage of relations and friends of both bride and bridegroom mustered at Carsecreugh. And still the white-faced lay figure mechanically went through all that was required of her, received the compliments and jests of the company with chill politeness, but with never a smile—a bride of marble, with a heart that had turned to stone. She rode pillion to church behind a young brother who afterwards said that the hand which lay on his as she held her arm round his waist was "cold and damp as marble." "Full of his new dress and the part he acted in the procession, the circumstance, which he long afterwards remembered with bitter sorrow and compunction, made no impression on him at the time."

Great were the festivities that Lord and Lady Stair had prepared for the wedding of their daughter with so eligible a suitor as the young laird of Baldoon, and when the ceremony in the church was over, there were great doings at Carsecreugh. Baldoon must either have been a very stupid man or a wilfully blind one, for his bride of snow seemed to look on everything that took place with vacant, unseeing, unsmiling eyes, and spoke and acted as one in a dream.

In the evening there was a dance. One can see the bright lights, the gaily-coloured wedding garments of the festive company, hear the sound of clarionet and of fiddle gaily jigging out country dances, and the loud hum of talk and laughter of the many guests. Baldoon, a proud husband, tricked out in all the finery of a bridegroom of that day, leads out his bride, the beautiful Janet, in her white bridal robe. Can he not feel the clammy chill of the little hand he takes in his? Why does he not understand the piteous look in the eyes of the girl whose feet are treading so gay a measure? No trapped bird with broken wing was ever more pitiful.

While the guests still were making merry, the bride and her bridesmaids went up to the bridal chamber. The virgins who prepared Iphigenia for her sacrifice had a task no less terrible. Then, amidst the animal jocularities that were looked on as wit in that day, the bridegroom followed, and the best man locked the door on the married pair and put the key in his pocket.

The dance went gaily on, but not for long. High above the sound of the violins, the laughter that grew more unlicensed as the night wore on, the sound of voices, the thud of feet, the tap of heels and rustle of brocades on a polished floor, came terrible shrieks and groans that made the heart of each wedding guest stand still. There could be no doubt from which room they came, and the panic-struck company dashed upstairs like a breakaway mob of cattle. The best man, livid-faced and with a shaking hand, unlocked the door, and on the threshold stumbled over the body of the bridegroom, terribly wounded and streaming with blood. At first they could see no bride, and then, in the corner of the wide chimney, they found her crouching, with no covering but her shift, and that dabbled with gore.

"She sat there grinning at them, mopping and mowing," so says Sir Walter Scott—"in a word, absolutely insane."

"Tak' up your bonny bridegroom!" she screamed, with hysterical laughter, and pointed mockingly at what seemed to be the corpse of young Baldoon.

Sick in body she was, as well as sick in mind, and on September 12th, 1669, a little over a fortnight from the day she was married, the Bride of Baldoon died.

David Dunbar of Baldoon recovered from his wounds, but during the thirteen years that remained for him to live, he declined to help the curious to elucidate the mystery of his attempted murder. In the words of Sir Walter Scott: "If a lady, he said, asked him any question upon the subject, he would neither answer her nor speak to her again while he lived; if a gentleman, he would consider it as a mortal affront, and demand satisfaction as having received such."

Many, of course, were the explanations given by the general public as to the real happenings on that tragic wedding-night. The majority inclined to think that the bride herself, crazed by grief at the loss of her lover, tried to kill her husband rather than be his wife in anything save legal formality. Others swore that the assailant was none other than the discarded lover, and that Lord Rutherfurd, having left Baldoon for dead, had escaped by the chimney where the unfortunate bride was crouching. But in those days there was bound to be yet another factor brought into the tale. Witches were held responsible for many a crime in Scotland in the seventeenth century, and of course Lord Stair's "auld witch wife" was adjudged guilty of the whole tragedy. In a sense, doubtless, so she was, but the description given by the credulous of how, on her marriage night, Janet Dalrymple was "harled" through the house by evil spirits in such a way as to cause her death shortly afterwards, is slightly at variance with the actual facts. Yet others there were who said that she who had sworn solemnly by all that was holy to keep her plighted troth with Andrew Rutherfurd, had obviously handed herself over, body and soul, to Satan when the troth was broken, and that he who would have slain David Dunbar was the Evil One himself.

"He threw the bridegroom from the nuptial bed, Into the chimney did so his rival maul, His bruised bones ne'er were cured but by the fall."

The "fall" referred to by this scurrilous lampoon, written by Sir William Hamilton, a bitter enemy of Lord Stair, was the accident by which Dunbar of Baldoon met his death. While riding from Leith to Holyrood on March 27, 1682, his horse fell with him. His injuries proved fatal, and he died next day, and was buried in Holyrood Chapel.

Of the other actors in the tragedy there is little to tell. That great and able lawyer, Viscount Stair, has left behind him permanent record of the ability that brought him his title. For fifty years his wife and he lived together, and history tells us that "they were tenderly attached to the last." A witty, brilliant, worldly woman, she had the power of keeping the love of her husband fresh and living to the very end. She it was who is reported by a local historian, whose standard possibly may not have been of the very highest, to have made "one of the best puns extant." "Bluidy Clavers" was Sheriff of Wigtown in her day, and in her presence he dared to inveigh against one who was still the idol of Presbyterian Whigs, John Knox.

"Why are you so severe on the character of John Knox?" asked the Lady Stair. "You are both reformers: he gained his point by clavers; you attempt to gain yours by knocks."

When the lady died, in the year 1692, she left an order regarding the disposal of her body which entirely confirmed the popular belief that, early in life, she had bargained with the Evil One for the worldly success of herself and her descendants, and had paid her soul as price.

She asked that her body might not be buried underground, but that the coffin containing her should be stood upright in the family vault of Kirkliston. While she remained so placed, she said, the Dalrymples should flourish. But woe betide the line when that coffin should be moved and laid on common earth as those of common people. Her orders were carried out. Does she, a dismal sentry, keep guard there still? And what sort of a Purgatory has her poor soul had to pass through to atone for the cruel murder of the child she bore?