Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

Highwaymen in the Border

It can scarcely be said that the Border, either north or south of Tweed, has ever as a field of operations been favoured by highwaymen. Fat purses were few in those parts, and if he attempted to rob a farmer homeward bound from fair or tryst—one who, perhaps, like Dandie Dinmont on such an occasion, temporarily carried rather more sail than he had ballast for—a knight of the road would have been quite as likely to take a broken head as a full purse.

There has occasionally been some disposition to claim as a north country asset, Nevison, the notorious highwayman, who is said to have been the true hero of the celebrated ride to York, which, in his novel, Rookwood, Mr. Harrison Ainsworth assigns to Dick Turpin. Nevison, however, was a north countryman only in the sense that he was born in Yorkshire, and he never did frequent any part of the north country, but confined his operations chiefly to districts adjacent to London, where he flew at higher game than in those days was generally to be found travelling Border roads. Nor in reality was it he who took that great ride to York. The feat was accomplished in the year 1676 by a man named Nicks, if Defoe's account is to be relied on. Nicks committed a robbery at Gadshill, near Chatham, at about four o'clock one summer's morning. Knowing that, in spite of his crape mask, his victim had recognised him, Nicks galloped to Gravesend, where, together with his mare, he crossed the Thames by boat, then swung smartly across country to Chelmsford, and thence on, with only necessary halts to bait his horse, by way of Cambridge, through Huntingdon, and so on to the Great North Road. Without ever changing his mount, he reached York early that evening, having taken only fifteen hours for a journey of two hundred miles. If the time is correct, she must have been a great mare, and he a consummate horse-master. At his subsequent trial, as it was proved beyond question that in the evening of the day on which the robbery took place he had played bowls in York with well-known citizens, the jury, holding it to be impossible that any person could have been on the same day in two places so far apart as Gadshill and York, on that ground acquitted the prisoner.

But if Nevison, nor Nicks, nor Turpin, ever crossed into Scotland, there were others, less known to fame, who occasionally tried their fortune in that country. In the early part of the year 1664, robberies, highway and otherwise, were of extraordinary frequency in Scotland, and this was attributed to the great poverty then prevalent amongst the people, owing to "the haill money of the kingdom being spent by the frequent resort of our Scotsmen at the Court of England."

In 1692-3 there seems to have been what one might almost call an epidemic of highway robbery over the southern part of Scotland, and he was quite a picturesque ruffian who robbed William M'Fadyen near Dumfries on 10th December 1692. Or, rather, there were two ruffians engaged in the affair. M'Fadyen was a drover who had been paid at Dumfries a sum of 150 for cattle sold. Sleeping overnight in the town, the drover started for home next morning before daylight. Possibly he had seen at the inn the previous evening some one whose appearance or manner made him uneasy, and being a cautious man, with a good deal of money in his possession, he had hoped by an early start to give this suspected person the slip.

A clear, cold December morning, stars winking frostily in a cloudless sky, and a waning moon casting sharp black shadows over the whitened ground, saw him out of Dumfries, and well on his homeward road. And, as he blew on his fingers, and beat his unoccupied hand briskly against his thigh, to warm himself withal, M'Fadyen chuckled to think how cleverly and quietly he had slipped unnoticed from the inn and through the town. They must be up early indeed who would weather on him! And so, ruminating somewhat vain-gloriously, he pushed on over the ringing ground, his horse snorting frosty breaths on the chill air, and inclined to hump his back and squeal on the smallest excuse. Mile after mile slipped easily behind him, and the sun began to show a blood-red face over the hill; a "hare limped trembling through the frozen grass," and crows cawed hungrily as they flew past on sluggish, blue-black wing, questing for food. The world was awake now, and M'Fadyen reckoned that by a couple of hours after noon he should be safe home with his money. Only—who was that on the road ahead of him? A soldier by his coat, surely, with his servant riding behind. Well, so much the better; that would be company for him over the loneliest part of his ride, across the moor which bore an evil name. So M'Fadyen pressed on, and soon he caught up the two riders, first the servant, "mounted upon ane dark grey horse" and armed with a "long gun"; then the master, also riding a dark grey horse, and dressed in a scarlet coat with gold-thread buttons. A tall man, the latter—a striking-looking man, quite a personage, with thin refined face and high Roman nose; instead of a wig he wore his own brown hair tied in a cue behind, and over one eye he had a notable peculiarity, "a wrat (wart) as big as ane nut." In his holsters this gentleman carried a brace of pistols.

Surely here was good fortune for M'Fadyen! A party so well armed could afford to look with contempt on any highwayman that ever cried "Stand and deliver" over all broad Scotland. And it was not long before the honest drover, in the joy of his heart at finding himself in such goodly company, had expressed to the red-coated stranger the pleasure it would give him if he might be granted the escort across the moor of a gentleman so well armed and mounted; "for," said he, "in sic ill times it was maist mischancey wark to ride far ane's lane." Little objection had the tall gentleman in red to make to such a proposition, and on they rode, amicably enough, with just such dryness of manner on the stranger's part as the humble drover might expect from an army officer, yet nothing to keep his tongue from wagging. "It was a gey kittle bit they were comin' to, where the firs stude, and he wad hae liked ill to be rubbit. Muckle? O—oo, no; just a wee pickle siller, but nae man likit to lose onything. And folk said they highwayman wad skin the breeks aff a Hielandman. No that he was a Hielandman, though his name did begin wi' a "Mac."

And so chattering, they had already won half-way across that lonely stretch of moor regarding which the drover had had misgivings. And even as they came abreast of that thick clump of stunted firs, up to M'Fadyen rode the servant, pointing towards the trees, and saying: "This is our way. Come ye wi' me."

There were few roads—such as they were—in the south of Scotland with which M'Fadyen's business as a drover had not made him familiar, and naturally he refused now to leave a track which he knew to be the right one. Whereupon the servant up with his "long-gun" and struck him heavily over the head with the butt; and as M'Fadyen strove to defend himself and to retaliate, up rode the master, clapped a pistol to his breast, and forced him to go with them behind the clump of trees. The last M'Fadyen saw of his pleasant escort was the two knaves cantering over the heath, bearing with them his cloak-bag containing his 150.

A great fuss was made over this robbery, and the Privy Council took the matter up. The chief robber was undoubtedly an officer, said M'Fadyen, and besides the large wart over his eye, there were other marks which made him noticeable—for example, "the little finger of his left hand bowed towards his loof." Notwithstanding these tell-tale marks, neither robber was ever found; M'Fadyen and his hard-earned 150 had parted company for ever. And though the Privy Council went so far as to "recommend Sir James Leslie, commander-in-chief for the time being of their Majesties' forces within this kingdom, to cause make trial if there be any such person, either officer or soldier, amongst their Majesties' forces, as the persons described," no one was ever brought to book, either amongst the troops in Scotland, or amongst "the officers which are come over from Flanders to levy recruits."

Not so fortunate as this scarlet-coated gentleman was Mr. Hudson, alias  Hazlitt, who in 1770 stopped a post-chaise on Gateshead Fell, near Newcastle, and robbed the occupant, a lady who was returning to Newcastle from Durham. A poor-spirited creature was this Hudson, a little London clerk gone wrong, and he trembled so excessively when robbing the lady that she plucked up spirit, and, protesting that half a guinea was all she had, got off with the loss of that modest sum, not even having her watch taken. Despite his pistol, one cannot but feel that of the two the lady was the better man, and that, had it occurred to her, she might very readily have bundled the highwayman neck and crop into her chaise, and handed him over to the authorities.

His career, however, was almost as brief as if she had done so. That same evening he robbed a mounted postman of his mail-bags—having first ascertained that the postman was unarmed. And here Hudson came to the end of his tether. The postman gave the alarm, and the robber was arrested in Newcastle the following day, some of the property lost from the mail-bags still in his possession. At his trial the following week at Durham Assizes he did not attempt to make any defence, but after conviction, by confessing where the booty was hid, he made what reparation lay in his power. Poor wretch! He had not even the posthumous satisfaction of going down to posterity as a bold, bad man, a hero of the road. Not for him was it to emulate Jack Shepherd or Dick Turpin; he was of feebler clay, unfitted to excel in evil-doing.

After the barbarous fashion of the day, they hanged his body in chains on the scene of his poor, feebly-executed crimes; and there, on Gateshead Fell, through many a dreary winter's night, fringed with loathly icicles, lashed by rains, battered by hail, dangled that pitiful, shrunken figure, creaking dolefully, as it swung to and fro in the bitter blasts that come howling in from a storm-tossed North Sea. And far from acting as the warning intended to others, so little was this gruesome thing a "terror to evil-doers," that the vicinity of the gibbet actually became a place noted for the frequency of crimes of violence.

There have been others, of course, who might perhaps be recognised as Border highwaymen, though not many of them could claim to have achieved even moderate notoriety. Drummond, who was hanged at Tyburn in 1730, certainly began his infamous career in the north, but that was quite a petty beginning, and—at least after his return from transportation to the Virginian Plantations—his chief haunts were Hounslow or Bagshot Heaths, or other places in the neighbourhood of London.

But at least there was one Border highwayman—or is "footpad" here the more correct term?—who, if the story is true, may surely claim to have been the most picturesque and romantic of criminals. In this instance the malefactor was a woman, not a man, and her name was Grizel Cochrane, member of (or at least sprung from) a noble family, which later produced one of the most famous seamen in the annals of naval history. Her story is very well known, and it may therefore be sufficient to say here that her father, having been concerned in one of the many political conspiracies which in those days were judged to merit death, lay in prison under sentence, and that, to save his life, the brave lady, disguised as a man, on two separate occasions, on Tweedmouth moor, robbed the mail by which her father's death warrant was being conveyed from London to Edinburgh. Thus she twice prevented the sentence from being carried out, and eventually the prisoner was pardoned.

The greater number of highway robberies in the Border, however, were accomplished without the aid of a horse or the disguise of a crape mask. The Border highwayman, as a rule, was no picturesque Claude Duval, no chivalrous villain of romance who would tread a measure in the moonlight with the lady whose coach he had plundered, thereafter returning her jewels in recompense for the favour of the dance. He was much more often of the squalid type—in a word, a footpad—frequently a member of some wandering gipsy gang, who, attending country fair or tryst, had little difficulty in ascertaining which one of the many farmers present it would be easiest and most profitable to rob as he steered his more or less devious course homeward in the evening across the waste. What the farmer had that day been paid for his cattle or sheep he usually carried with him, probably in the form of gold; for in those days there were of course no country agencies of banks in which the money might be safely deposited. Not unusually, too, the farmer had swallowed enough liquor to make him reckless of consequences; and the loneliness of the country-side, and the absence of decent roads, too often combined with the condition of the farmer to make him an easy prey to some little band of miscreants who had dogged him from the fair.

Frequently, too, these robbers were in league with the keepers of low roadside public-houses, where passengers on their homeward way were encouraged—nothing loth, as a rule—to halt and refresh steed and rider, and possibly whilst they drank their pistols were tampered with. Who does not remember the meeting of Harry Bertram and Dandie Dinmont in such a place? And who has not read in the author's notes to Guy Mannering, Sir Walter's account of the visit to Mump's Ha' of Fighting Charlie of Liddesdale, and what befell him thereafter? In spite of a head that the potations pressed on him by an over-kind landlady had caused to hum like an angry hive of bees, Charlie had sense enough, after he had travelled a few miles on his homeward way, to examine his pistols. Finding that the charges had been drawn and tow substituted, Charlie, now considerably sobered, carefully reloaded them, a precaution which certainly saved his money, and possibly his life as well, for he was presently attacked by a party of armed men, who, however, fled on finding that "the tow was out."

Mump's Ha' was in Cumberland, near Gilsland. In olden days it was a place of most evil repute, but one may question if in ill name it could take precedence of a similar establishment which in the days of our great-grandfathers stood on Soutra Hill, on the Lauder road. Travellers had need to give this place a wide berth, for it was a veritable den—indeed "Lowrie's Den" was the name by which it was known, and feared, by every respectable person. Many a bloody, drunken fight took place there, many were the evil deeds done and the robberies committed; not even was murder unknown in its immediate vicinity.

Well for us that in our day we know of such places only by ancient repute. When we talk regretfully of "the good old days," we are apt to leave out of the reckoning those Mump's Ha's and Lowrie's Dens of our forefathers' times; we forget to add to the burden of a journey such items as indifferent roads and highway robbers, and the possibility of reaching one's destination minus purse, watch, or rings. From an encounter with highwaymen, few passengers emerged with flying colours, having had the best of the deal. Not to many persons was such fortune given as fell to the lot of a country lass near Kelso one winter's evening. She had little enough to lose in the way of money or valuables, and it was "bogles," more than the fear of footpads that disturbed her mind as she stumped along that muddy road in the gathering gloom. Consequently, after one terrified shriek, it was almost a relief to her to find that the two figures which bounced out on her from the blackness, demanding her money, were flesh and blood like herself, and not denizens of another world. Five or six shillings was all that the poor lass possessed, but they took that paltry sum. Only, when she pled hard that they should leave her at least a trifle to take to her mother, who was very poor, one of the footpads relented, and with a gruff, "Hey, then!" thrust three coins back into her not unwilling hand. With a mixture of joy and fear the girl fled into the darkness, but as she ran, she thought she heard a shout, and soon, to her consternation, she made certain that hurrying footsteps were coming up behind her. In dire terror now, she left the road, and crept into some bushes in an adjacent hollow. There, with thumping heart, she cowered whilst two men ran past, and presently, whilst she still lay hid, they returned, vowing loud vengeance on some person who had "done" them. It was long ere the poor girl dared leave her shelter, late ere she got home to tell her tale to an anxious mother. But when the three rescued shillings were produced, the cause of the robbers' anger was not far to seek; they were not shillings that came this time from the depths of a capacious pocket, but three golden guineas.