Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

The Kidnapping of Lord Durie

"It is commonly reported that some party, in a considerable action before the Session, finding that Lord Durie could not be persuaded to think his plea good, fell upon a stratagem to prevent the influence and weight which his lordship might have to his prejudice, by causing some strong masked men to kidnap him, in the Links of Leith, at his diversion on a Saturday afternoon, and transport him to some blind and obscure room in the country, where he was detained captive, without the benefit of daylight, a matter of three months (though otherwise civilly and well entertained); during which time his lady and children went in mourning for him as dead. But after the cause aforesaid was decided, the Lord Durie was carried back by incognitos, and dropt in the same place where he had been taken up." (Forbes's Journal of the Session, Edinburgh, 1714.)

With the early part of the seventeenth century, moss-trooping in the Border country had not yet come to an end. Its glory, no doubt, and its glamour, had begun to fade before even the sixteenth century was far spent, and where were now to be found heroes such as the far-famed Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie? Yet, as a few stout-hearted leaves, defiant of autumn's fury, will cling to the uttermost branches of a forest tree, so, in spite of King or Court, there were even now some reckless souls, scornful of new-fangled modern ways and more than content to follow in the footsteps of their grandsires, who still held fast to precept and practice of what seemed to them "the good old days." It is true their reiving partook now somewhat more of the nature of horse-stealing pure and simple. No longer were fierce raids over the English Border permissible; not now could they, practically with impunity, "drive" the cattle of those with whom they were at feud, and live on the stolen beeves of England till such time as the larder again grew bare. The times were sadly degenerate; Border men all too quickly were becoming soft and effeminate.

Yet in Eskdale there was one patriot, at least, who boasted himself that as his fathers had been, so was he. Willie Armstrong of Gilnockie was that man—"Christie's Will," he was commonly called, a great-grandson of the famous Johnnie, and not unworthy of his descent. Had he lived when Johnnie flourished, there might indeed have been two Armstrongs equally famous. As it was, Willie spent his days at constant feud with the law, and even the strong walls of Gilnockie were not for him always a secure shelter. Once it befell that the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, the Earl of Traquair, visiting Jedburgh, there found Willie lying in the "tolbooth."

"Now, what's broucht ye to this, Gilnockie?" the Earl inquired.

"Oh, nocht but having twa bit tethers in my hand, my lord," said Willie. But: "Weel, I wadna say but there micht mebbes hae been twa cowt at the tae end o' the tethers," he admitted, on being pressed by the Earl.

Now, it happened that Willie was well known to Lord Traquair—had, in fact, more than once been of considerable service to his lordship; and it was no failing of the Earl to desert a friend in trouble, if help might be given quietly and judiciously. So it came about that the prison gates swung back for Christie's Will, the halter no longer threatened his neck, and Lord Traquair acquired a follower who to repay his debt of gratitude would stick at nothing.

Some little time later it chanced that a great lawsuit fell to be decided in the Court of Session. In this lawsuit Lord Traquair was deeply concerned. A verdict in his favour was of vital importance to him, but he very well knew that the opinion of the presiding judge was likely to be unfavourable to his claim, and that should Lord Durie preside, the case in that event would almost certainly go against him. Could that judge, however, by any means be quietly spirited away from Edinburgh before the date fixed for the trial, with almost equal certainty he might count on a favourable verdict. In this predicament Lord Traquair turned his thoughts to Christie's Will; if anyone could aid him it must be the bold Borderer.

"'Bethink how ye sware, by the salt and the bread,

By the lightning, the wind, and the rain,

That if ever of Christie's Will I had need,

He would pay me my service again.'"

And Lord Traquair did not plead in vain. It was a little thing to do, Will thought, for one who had saved him from the gallows tree.

"'O mony a time, my lord,' he said,

'I've stown the horse frae the sleeping loon;

But for you I'll steal a beast as braid,

For I'll steal Lord Durie frae Edinboro toon.'"

A light northerly breeze piped shrill through the long bent grass beyond Leith Links, sweeping thin and nippingly across shining sands left bare by a receding tide; down by the rippling water-line, as the sun of a late spring day neared his setting, clamouring gulls bickered noisily over the possession of some fishy dainty. Out from near-lying patches of whin, and from the low, wind-blown sand-hills, rabbits stole warily, nibbling the short herbage now and then, but ever with an air of suspicion and manifest unease, for behind a big clump of whin, during half the day there had lain hid a thick-set, powerfully built man.

"De'il tak' the body!" he grumbled, sitting up and stretching himself as he glanced along the beach; "he's lang o' comin'."

As he gazed, the sight of a distant horseman riding westward brought him sharply to his feet, and snatching up a long cloak that lay by his side, he walked leisurely through the yielding sand till he reached the firm beach within tide mark, along which the horseman was now quietly cantering.

"Ye'll be Lord Durie, I'm thinkin'," he cried, raising his hand to stay the rider, a middle-aged, legal-faced man, who sat his sober steed none too confidently, with thighs but lightly wed to the saddle.

"Yes, I'm Lord Durie. What can I do for you?"

"Weel, my lord, I've come far to see ye. They say there's no' a lawyer leevin' or deid that kens mair nor you on a' thing. It's jist a bit plea that I've gotten," said the man, laying a hand on the horse's neck and sidling along close to his rider's knee. "For onny advice on kittle points o' law, ye maun go to counsel, my friend. I'm a judge, no' an advocate. Gude e'en to ye."

"Ay, but, my lord," said the man, laying a detaining left hand on the near rein, "it's this way it is; ye see—" and at that, with a sudden powerful upward push of the unskilled rider's leg, Lord Durie was hurled from the saddle and lay sprawling on his back on the wet sand, as the horse sprang forward with a startled bound.

"Goad's sake! what's this o't?" cried the poor judge, already tangled in the folds of the long cloak, and struggling to rise. "Wad ye murder are o' his Majesty's judges!"

"Lie still, my lord, lie still! There's no skaith will come to ye 'gin ye but lie still. De'il's i' the body; wull the auld lurdane no hand sae!"

Of small avail were the judge's struggles; as well might an infant struggle in the folds of a python. Ere even an elderly man's scant breath was quite spent, he lay among the whins, bound hand and foot, trussed like a fowl, and with the upper part of his body and his head wrapped in the stifling folds of the great cloak.

That was the last of the outer world that Lord Durie knew or saw for many a long day. His horse, with muddied saddle, and broken reins trailing on the ground (muddied and broken, no doubt, by the horse rolling), was found next day grazing on the links. But of the judge, no trace. He might—as some, with the superstition of the day, were disposed to believe—have been spirited away by a warlock; or, perhaps, even like Thomas the Rhymer, he had vanished into Fairyland. Tidings of him there were none. The flowing waters of the Forth had effectually wiped out his horse's tracks along the shore, and during the night a rising wind had effaced the footsteps of his captor in the dry loose sand between tide-mark and links. Thus every trace of him was lost. His body, maybe, might have drifted out to sea; perhaps it lay now by the rocks of some lonely shore, or on the sands, with mouth a-wash and dead hands playing idly with the lapping water. Wife and family mourned as for one dead. And after the first nine days' wonder, even in Parliament House and Law Courts, for lack of food speculation as to his fate languished and died. A successor filled his office.

Meantime, bound to the saddle in front of his captor, by little-known hill paths the judge had been borne swiftly through the night. The long, melancholy wail of a whaup, the eerie hoot of an owl, at times smote dully on his ear; but to all his entreaties and his questions no human voice made answer; in stony silence his abductor rode steadily on. Over hill and dale, over rough ground and smooth, splashing through marshy soil where the hoofs of the heavily laden horse sucked juicily, through burns, and across sodden peaty moor where the smell of swamp rose rank on the night air, they floundered; and once the homely smell of peat reek told the unhappy judge that they passed within hail of some human dwelling. But throughout the night he saw nothing, and gradually the long strain, the discomfort of being pitched forward or back as the horse scrambled up or down where the ground was extra rough and broken, the pain of sitting half in, half out, of a saddle, told upon a frame unaccustomed to much exercise, and at intervals he wholly or partially lost consciousness. Thus unutterably distressed in body and broken in spirit, in one of these partial lapses it seemed to the judge—as it might be in some disordered nightmare—that there came a respite from the torment of ceaseless motion, and that by means of some unknown agency he lay in heavenly peace, stretched full length on a couch or bed. He thought—or did he dream?—that he had heard, as it were far off, the muffled trairip of feet and the murmur of low voices; and it seemed almost as if his body, after falling from some vast height, had been lifted and gently swung in the air. But exhaustion of mind and body was so great that the problem of what might be happening was quite beyond solution; let him only rest and sleep.

Then, later, it seemed to him that he woke from broken, tossing slumber. But it was dark, and he fell again into an uneasy doze, in which every muscle and bone in his harassed old body ached pitifully, every spot of sorely chafed skin stung and burned, till the multitude of pains put an end to sleep. Where was he, and how had he got there? On a low couch, free and unbound, he lay; by his side, on a rude table, was food and a jack of small-beer. Whether the time was morning or evening he could not tell, but it was very dark; what little light entered the room came through a narrow slit, high up in the wall, and all things smelled strangely of damp. Somewhere he could hear faintly a slow, shuffling step and the rustle of a dress; then the mew of a cat. Where was he?

Few, very few, persons at that day were above the weakness of a firm belief in witchcraft; even a judge of the Court of Session would not dare openly to question the justice and humanity of the Mosaical law: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Superstition was rampant, and to Lord Durie there had ever seemed nothing incongruous in accepting belief in the undoubted existence of both witches and warlocks. Could it be that he was now actually in the power of such beings? His mind was yet in a whirl, and he could form to himself no connected account of yesterday's happenings, if indeed it was really yesterday, and not in some remote, far-away time, that he had last ridden along the sands of Leith. Thirst consumed him, but he hesitated to drink; if he were now in the hands of those wretches who, it was well known, that they might work evil sold themselves to the Prince of Darkness, then might it not be that by voluntarily drinking, his soul would be delivered into the clutches of the Evil One? The thought brought him painfully to his feet with many a groan, and roused him to a careful examination of his gloomy prison. Rough stone walls, oozing damp, an earthen floor, three stone steps leading up to a heavy iron-studded door in a corner of the room; and nothing else. The one small window was far out of his reach. A feeling of faintness crept over him; it might be a wile of Satan, or a spell cast over him by supernatural powers, but the time was past for hesitation, and he drank a great draught from the jack, sank feebly on the couch, and slept profoundly.

When the judge again awoke it was in a prison somewhat less gloomy, for a thin splash of pale sunlight now struck the wall, and gave light sufficient to show every corner of the room. Again Lord Durie went through his fruitless search, and then, feeling hungry, and having suffered no visible ill effects from his first incautious draught of small-beer, he ate and drank heartily. From the way in which the patch of sunlight crept up the wall, it was easy to tell that the time was evening. Could it indeed be that no more than twenty-four hours back he had ridden, secure and free from this horrible care, along the shining sands by the crisp salt wavelets of the Forth?

What was that voice that he now heard, thin and hollow, on the evening air? "Far yaud! far yaud!" and then, with eldritch scream, "Bauty," it cried. Such sounds, coming from he knew not where, fell disturbingly on the unaccustomed ears of a seventeenth-century Judge of Session, and Lord Durie's sleep that night was broken by grim dreams.

Day followed day, week pressed on the heels of week, and still never a human face smiled on the unhappy judge. Each morning he found on his little table a supply of food and drink, all good of their kind and plenty—boiled beef or mutton, oaten cakes, pease bannocks, and always the jack of small-beer—but never did he see human hand place them there, never did human form cheer him by its presence.

The solitary confinement and the utter want of occupation told on a nervous, somewhat highly strung temperament; and in the judge's mind superstition began to hold unquestioned sway. Things taught him in childhood by an old nurse, things which now folks, indeed, still believed, but which he himself had to some extent given up or dismissed from his thoughts, began to crowd back again into his brain. No mere human power, surely, could have brought him here as he had been brought. Was it in the dungeon of some sorcerer, of some disciple of the Devil, that he now lay? Then, the shuffling old step that he heard so frequently, the thin voice calling, "Hey! Maudge," followed always by the mewing of a cat—what could that be but some old hag, given over to evil deeds, talking to her familiar? It was but the other day that, with his own eyes, he had seen nine witches burned together on Leith Sands, and all, ere they died, had confessed to the most horrid commerce with the Devil. It was no great time since a witch, under torture, had revealed in her confession the terrible truth, of how two hundred women had been wont to flock at night to a certain kirk in North Berwick, there to listen eagerly to Satan preaching blasphemy and denouncing the King. Even a judge was not safe from their malice. And could he but escape from the snare in which he now lay entangled, assuredly, Lord Durie thought, there should be more witch-burnings.

So the weeks dragged past, and Lord Durie lost all reckoning of the flight of time; but ever the belief strengthened that it was no mere human power that held him in bondage. And this belief received confirmation at last, for he awoke one night from confused and heavy sleep, to find himself once more bound, and wrapped, body and head, in the thick folds of a cloak. Then, seemingly without moving from his bed, he was borne through the air and set upon a horse; and again began that awful journey which once before he had endured. This time, too, in confirmation of his theory of the supernatural, when he came to his full senses it was to find himself lying behind a clump of whins by the sands of Leith, near to the very spot where, ages before, he had met a strange-looking man who tried to draw him into conversation on law. And nowhere was any cloak to be seen, nor trace of human agency. Only, he ached sorely, and his legs almost refused to bear the weight of his body, and in his head was the buzzing as of a thousand bees.

It was warlocks who had dealt with him—so his family and all his friends agreed when his tale was told. But his successor in office mourned, perhaps, that their dealings had not been more effectual, for he liked ill to give up a post he had filled with ability for an all too short three months.

To Lord Durie's regret, his return was too late to enable him to preside in the famous case which was about to come on shortly after the date of his disappearance. That had already been decided in a manner of which he could not have failed to disapprove, and Lord Traquair had secured a verdict.

For long the judge held to the warlock theory, and he was not averse, after dinner, over a bottle, from telling at great length the story of his terrible experiences during those mysterious three months of captivity. Younger men, indeed, began to find the tale somewhat boring, and in private some had been known to wish that the devil had flown away permanently with Lord Durie. But those scoffers were chiefly a few rising young advocates; the judge's family and his friends accepted the tale in its entirety. Nor ever did any man, to the end of his days, actually hear Lord Durie express doubt as to the supernatural nature of his adventure.

Yet something did happen, later, which at least seemed in some measure to have shaken his faith, and it was noticed that, towards the end of his life, he was not fond of dwelling on the subject—had even been known, in fact, to become irritable when pressed to tell his story. It fell out, a year or two after the events which he had loved to narrate, that Lord Durie had occasion to visit Dumfries. On the way back to Edinburgh, travelling with some colleagues, it chanced that a heavy storm caught them, and necessity drove them to take shelter for the night in a farmhouse near to an old peel tower which stood on the verge of the wild moorland country beyond Moffat.

That night Lord Durie, in his stuffy box-bed, dreamed a terrible dream. He was once more in the power of the wizard or warlock; and it seemed to him that in his dream he even heard again those mysterious words that had once so haunted him. With a start he woke, bathed in perspiration, to find that day had broken, and that from the hillside echoed the long-drawn cry: "Far yaud! Far yaud! Bauty!"  While, ben the house, he could hear a slow, shuffling step, and a thin old voice quavering: "Hey, Maudge!" to a mewing cat.

"What was yon cry oot on the hill? Oh, jist oor Ailick cryin' on his dowg, Bauty, to weer the sheep," said the grey-haired, brown-faced old woman to whom they had owed their shelter for the night.

"Veesitors?" she continued, in reply to further questions. "Na. We hae nae veesitors here. There was aince a puir sick man lay twa three months i' the auld tower yont by, a year or twa back, but there's been nae veesitors. They said he was daft, an' I was kind o' feared whiles to gie him his meat. But, oh, he wad be jist a silly auld body that did naebody hairm. Na, I never richtly got sicht o' his face, for I aye put his bit meat an' drink doon beside him whan he was sleepin'. An' them that broucht him took him awa again whan they thoucht he was some better."

It was noted that after this visit Lord Durie no longer pursued the subject of warlocks.

[NOTE.—The story of Lord Durie's abduction and captivity is differently told by Chambers in his Domestic Annals of Scotland, as far, at least, as the instigator of the kidnapping and its accomplisher are concerned. It is there recorded that the maker of the plot to kidnap the judge was George Meldrum the Younger of Dumbreck. Accompanied by two Jardines and a Johnston—good Border names—and by some other men, Meldrum seized Lord Durie and a friend near St. Andrews, robbed them of their purses, then carried the judge across the Firth of Forth to the house of one William Kay in Leith, thence past Holyrood, and, by way doubtless of Soutra Hill, to Melrose, from which town he was hurried over the Border to Harbottle, and there held prisoner. An account of the trial of the perpetrators of the abduction is to be found in Pitcairns' Criminal Trials.  Sir Walter Scott, however, in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, gives to Will Armstrong of Gilnockie the credit, or discredit, of carrying out the abduction single-handed. Will was certainly a much more picturesque ruffian than ever was Meldrum, and many a wild deed might be safely fathered on him.

Tradition tells of his long ride to convey important papers from Lord Traquair to King Charles I, and of his perilous return journey, bearing a reply from his Majesty. Tidings of his mission had come to the ears of the Parliamentarians, and orders were issued to seize him at Carlisle. In that town, Will, unwitting of special danger, had halted an hour to refresh man and beast, and as he proceeded on his journey, and was midway over the high, narrow bridge across the Eden, the sudden clatter of horses' feet and the jingle of accoutrements at either end of the bridge showed him that his way was effectually blocked by the Roundhead troopers. Without a moment's hesitation, Will faced his horse at the parapet, and with a touch of the spur and a wild cheer over went the pair into the flooded river, disappearing in the tawny, foaming water with a mighty splash. Instead of hastening along the bank, Cromwell's troopers crowded on to the bridge, gazing with astonishment into the raging torrent. Thus, when Will and his horse, still unparted, came to the surface a considerable way down, there was time for them to reach the bank. But the bank was steep and the landing bad, and the weight of Will's saturated riding-cloak was the last straw that hindered the horse from scrambling up. With a curse Will cut the fastening that held the cloak about his neck, and, relieved from the extra weight, the animal with a desperate struggle gained the top of the bank and got away well ahead of the pursuing troopers. Had it not been for the speed and stamina of his horse, Will had surely been taken that night. As it was, ere they reached the Esk, one trooper was already far in front of his comrades, and thundering on Will's very heels. But a pistol pointed at his head by Will, a pistol with priming saturated, and incapable of being fired—had the man only thought of it—caused the trooper to draw back out of danger, and Will gained Esk's farther bank in safety, where, regardless of possible pistol shots, he waited to taunt his baffled pursuers.