Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

The Ghost of Percival Reed

When we look back on the past history of the Border, we might almost think that St. Andrew and St. George, who are supposed to keep watch and ward over North and South Britain, had overlooked that hilly stretch of country that lies between the Solway and the Tyne, leaving the heathen god Mars to work his turbulent will with it. From the days of the Roman Wall it was always a tourney-ground, and in the long years when English and Scots warred against each other, scarcely one day in any year went past without the spilling of blood on one or other of its hills or moors. Not only did the Borderers fight against those of other nations. Constantly they fought amongst themselves. A quick-tempered, revengeful lot were the men of those Border clans. On the Northumberland side the quarrels were as frequent as they were amongst those hot-headed Scots—Kers and Scotts, Elliots and Turnbulls and Croziers.

In the sixteenth century one of the most powerful of the clans in the wild Northumbrian country was that of the Reeds of Redesdale. Even now it is a lonely part of the south land, that silent valley down which, from its source up amongst the Cheviots, the Rede flows eastward. Bog and heather and bracken still occupy the ground to right and to left of it, and there are few sounds besides the bleat of sheep or the cries of wild birds to break the silence of the hills and moors. But when the Reeds held power the hills often echoed to the lowing of driven cattle, to the hoof-beat of galloping horses, and to the sounds of a fight being fought to the death. A foray into England brought many a sturdy Scottish reiver riding over the Carter Bar; and Reeds, and Halls, and Ridleys were never averse from a night ride across the English Border when a Michaelmas moon smiled on the enterprise. The Reeds were a strong clan, but in power and in reputation they took only a second place, for the family of the Halls was stronger still. The head of the Hall clan lived at Girsonfield, a little to the north of Otterburn, a farmhouse which had belonged to the proprietors of Otterburn Castle since the time of Queen Elizabeth. Only a few stones of it now remain, and the new house stands on a much more exposed situation; but when Hall was its occupant, Girsonfield stood on a plot of rich green sward on the east side of the Otter.

Now it must have seemed to Hall of Girsonfield, the head of the chief of the northern clans, a very clear error in judgment for any of the powers that existed to pass him over and appoint as keeper of Redesdale his friend and neighbour, Percival Reed. To have to bow to Reed's authority, to obey his summons when called on to help to intercept a party of reiving Scots or to pursue them, hot trod, into Scotland, to hear the praises of Percival Reed in all mouths—these were bitter things to be swallowed by him who has come down to us as "the false-hearted Ha'." And so, having opened the door of his heart for the messengers of Satan to come in, Hall of Girsonfield had not long to wait for his tenants.

Clearly Percival Reed had no right to be keeper, but as he did his duties bravely and well, there was no chance of his being deposed, save by death. Never a day or a night was there when Hall and his friend Reed cantered together to meet some of the Scott or Elliot clan, or to rescue a drove of cattle or sheep from them, or from some of the Croziers or Turnbulls, but what Hall rode with murder in his heart. Reed was utterly unconscious. There was no scheme that he did not confide to him whom he took for his loyal friend, no success for which he did not jubilantly claim Hall's sympathy and congratulations. He laid bare the whole of his innocent heart, and Hall hated him all the more bitterly because of it. "If he were not so handy with his Ferrara," brooded Hall. . . . "If only he had been a little slower that time in getting out his dag when Nixon had covered him." . . . "If only his mare had not only stumbled, but had fallen there by the peat hag when Sandy's Jock so near had him. . . ."

To Hall of Girsonfield Providence seemed to take special care of Percival Reed, for no other reason than to goad him to extremity. The devils who possessed him were skilfully nursing their prey.

There came at last a day, when no raids were afoot, when Hall met some of the Crozier clan, and opinions were frankly expressed with regard to the keeper of Redesdale. Things had been going badly with the Croziers. Their beef-tubs were empty. The Borders were evidently going to the dogs. It was no longer possible for any hard-working reiver to make a living on them. Percival Reed would have to get his leave, or it was all up with reiving in Redesdale. To all of these complaints Hall lent a willing ear; nay, more, to their surprise, a sympathetic one. Apparently he, too, had some little schemes afoot, with which the keeper's over-vigilance had seriously interfered. What a merry jest it would be, next time the Croziers crossed the Border by moonlight, if the keeper's plans for that night were known to them, and if, instead of finding in the clan Hall enemies, they found them allies. The Croziers might have all the spoil, but the Halls would share the joke, and Percival Reed would crow less crouse for the future.

It was a quite simply arranged affair. The Halls entered with zest into the plot. Second place was not good enough for them, and the Reeds had boasted long enough.

And Percival Reed, in all innocence, soon heard rumour of a foray by the Croziers, and confided in his friend Girsonfield exactly how he meant to meet it. This information speedily found its way to the Scottish side of the Border, and in Hall of Girsonfield Reed found a more than usually willing supporter. The appointed night came, and ere they started in the uncertain light of a misty moon the keeper of Redesdale supped at Girsonfield. "Ye're loaded, are ye, Parcy?" asked the genial host in the burring Northumbrian voice we know so well even to-day. "I'll give a look to our primings while ye drink a stirrup-cup." More than a look he gave. Strong spirit from the Low Countries might be good jumping powder for the Keeper of Redesdale, but it was a damping potion for the keeper's musket when gently poured on its priming. At Batenshope, on the Whitelee ground, Reeds and Halls and Croziers met, and a joyous crew were the Croziers that night as they homewards rode up the Rede valley. For at the first fire of Percival Reed's musket it burst, and he dropped from his horse a murdered man. The Reeds knew it for treason, and the subsequent conduct of the Halls left them no room for doubt. It was, indeed, a fine foundation for a family feud, and for generation after generation the feud went on.

What was the end of Hall of Girsonfield no one has chronicled; it is not hard to imagine the purgatory of his latter years.

But it is not of him but of his innocent victim that tales are still told in the Rede valley.

From the night when his spirit was by treachery and violence reft from his body, there was no rest for Percival Reed.

In the gloaming, when trees stand out in the semblance of highway robbers, and a Liddesdale drow meets a North Sea haar, his sorrowful spirit was wont to be seen by the lonely traveller, making moan, seeking rest. Far and near, through all that part of the Border that he had so faithfully "kept," the spirit wandered. A moan or sigh from it on the safe side of the Carter Bar would scatter a party of Scottish reivers across the moorland as no English army could have done. Any belated horseman riding out of the dark would take the heart out of the most valiant of Northumbrians because they feared that they saw "Parcy Reed." Not always in the same form did the Keeper appear. That was the terror of it. At times he would come gallantly cantering across the moorland as he had done when blood ran warm in his veins. At other times he would be only a sough in the night wind. A feeling of dread, an undefinable something that froze the marrow and made the blood run cold. And yet, again, he would come as a fluttering, homeless soul, whimpering and formless, with a moaning cry for Justice—Justice—Judgment on him who had by black treachery hurried him unprepared to his end. The folk of Redesdale bore it until they could bear it no longer. The blood of many a Hall was spilt by the men of Percival Reed's clan without giving any ease to that clamouring ghost. At last they sought the help of a "skeely" man. He was only a thatcher, but whilst he plied his trade of covering mortal dwellings with sufficient to withstand the blasts of heaven, he had also studied deeply matters belonging to another sphere. "Gifted," says his chronicler, "with words to lay it at rest," he summoned the ghost to his presence, and "offered it the place and form it might wish to have."

Five miles of land did that disembodied spirit of the Keeper of Redesdale choose for his own. As might be guessed, he fixed on the banks of the Rede, and he chose that part of it that lies between Todlawhaugh and Pringlehaugh. The fox that barks from the bracken on the hillside at early morning, the grouse that crows from the heather, the owl that hoots from the fir woods at night, to those did the ghost of Percival Reed act as keeper. By day he roosted, like a bat or a night bird, on some tree in a lonely wood. By night he kept his special part of the marches. Still the Keeper of Redesdale was Percival Reed. Todlaw Mill, in ruins long ago, was his favourite haunt, and there, as the decent folk of the valley went on the Sabbath to the meeting-house at Birdhope Cragg, they often saw him, a dreary sight for human eyes, patiently awaiting his freedom. The men would uncover their heads and bow as they passed, and the Keeper of Redesdale, courteous in the spirit as in the body, would punctiliously return their salutations.

Thus did the years wear on until the appointed days were fulfilled, and the Rede Valley knew its Keeper no more. On the last day of the time fixed by him, the skeely man was thatching a cottage at the Woollaw. Suddenly he felt something touch him, as though the wing of a bird had brushed by. He came down the ladder on which he stood, and it seemed as though the bird's feathers had brushed against his heart, and had come from a place where the cold and ice are not cold and ice as mortals know them, for "he was seized," says the chronicler, "with a cold trembling." Some power, too strong for his own skill to combat, had laid hold on him, and shivering, still shivering, he fell into the hands of Death.

Such was the passing of Percival Reed, Keeper of Redesdale, who took with him, when at length he relinquished his charge, a humble henchman, a hind of the Rede Valley.