Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

Kinmont Willie

A venerable and highly respected Scottish professor of literature was once asked what was his ruling passion—his heart's desire? If the secrets of his soul could be laid bare, what, above all, would be found to be his predominant wish? The question was an indiscreet one, but he was tolerant. He tightly compressed his gentle mouth, and firmly readjusted his gold-rimmed glasses.

"I wish"  said he, "to be a corsair."

It would have been interesting to know how many of a following he would have had from sedate academic circles had he been given his heart's desire and had sailed down the Clyde with the raw head and bloody bones showing on the black flag that flew at his mast-head. How many of us are there with whom law-abiding habits, decorous respectability, form but a thin covering of ice over unplumbed depths of lawless desire? Not long since, when a wretched criminal case in which the disappearance of a pearl necklace was involved, was agitating every Scottish club and tea-table, a charming old Scottish lady, whose career from childhood up has been one of unblemished virtue, was heard to bemoan the manner of commission of the crime. "She did it very  stupidly. Now, if I  had been doing it I should"—And her astounded auditors listened to an able exposition of the way in which she would successfully have eluded justice. Is it the story of the villain who is successfully tracked to his doom that attracts us most? or that of the great Raffles and his kind whose villainies almost invariably escape detection, and who burgles with a light and easy touch and the grace and humour of a Claude Duval? Let us be honest with ourselves. How many of us really wish to be corsairs? Which of us would not  have been a reiver in the old reiving days? Have we not noticed in ourselves and other Borderers an undeniable complacency, a boastful pride in a mask of apology that would not deceive an infant, when we say, "Oh yes; certainly a good many of my ancestors were hanged for lifting cattle." And, however "indifferent honest" we ourselves may be, which of us does not lay aside even that most futile mask and boast unashamedly when we can claim descent from one of those princes among reivers—Wat o' Harden, Johnnie Armstrong, or Kinmont Willie?

William Armstrong, better known as Kinmont Willie, lived in the palmiest days of the Border reivers. The times of purely Scottish and purely English kings were drawing to a close, and with one monarch to rule over Britain the raider could no longer plead that he was a patriot who fought for king and country when he made an incursion over the Cheviots, burned a few barns and dwelling-houses, lifted some "kye and oxen," horses, and goats, and what household gear and minted money he could lay hands on, slew a man or two, and joyously returned home.

But with Elizabeth still on the English throne, and with Queen Mary, and afterwards her son, reigning in Scotland, the dance could go merrily on, and when we look at those days in retrospect it seems to us that the last bars of the music, the last turns in the dance, went more rapidly than any that had gone before.

In Kinmont Willie's lifetime the Wardens of the Marches had but little leisure. It was necessary for them to be fighting men with a good head for figures, for on the days of truce when the Wardens of the Scottish and English Marches met to redd up accounts, not only had they to work out knotty arithmetical problems with regard to the value of every sort of live stock, of buildings, of "insight," and the payment of such bills, but they had to have expert knowledge in fair exchange of a Scottish for an English life, an English for a Scotch. Little wonder if their patience sometimes ran short, as did that of a Howard of Naworth upon one famous occasion. He was deeply engrossed in studies that had no bearing upon Border affairs when an officer came to announce the capture of some Scottish moss-troopers, and to ask for the Warden's commands with regard to them. The interruption was untimely, and Lord Howard was exasperated. "Hang them, in the devil's name!" he said angrily, and went on with his studies. A little later he felt he could better give his mind to the consideration of the case, and sent for his officer. "Touching the prisoners," said he, "what have you done with them?"

Proud of being one of those who did not let the grass grow beneath their feet, the officer beamingly responded: "Everyone o' them's hangit, my lord!"

It was a March day in 1596, when a Wardens' meeting took place at Dayholm, near Kershopefoot. The snow was still lying in the hollows of the Cheviots, the trees were bare, the Liddel and the Esk swollen by thaws and winter rains; but weather was a thing that came but little into the reckoning of the men of the Marches unless some foray was afoot. They got through the business more or less satisfactorily, and proceeded to ride home before the day of truce should be ended. From sunrise on the one day until sunset on the next, so the Border law ordained, all Scots and Englishmen who were present at the Wardens' meeting should be free of scathe. Now the Warden of Liddesdale at that time was Sir Walter Scott of Branxholme, laird of Buccleuch. He was one of the greatest men of his century; a "fyrebrande," according to Queen Elizabeth, and a fierce enemy according to those who incurred his enmity; but, according to all others, a man of perfect courage, stainless loyalty and honour, charming wit, and great culture. He never spared an enemy nor turned his back on a friend, and he was a born winner of hearts and leader of men. Amongst his retainers was Kinmont Willie, and as Willie rode from the Wardens' meeting, along the banks of the Liddel, in company with only three or four men, a body of two hundred English horsemen, commanded by Salkeld, Warden of the Eastern March, marked him from across the water. Truce or no truce, the chance seemed to them one that was too good to lose. Speedily some of them pushed on ahead, and an ambush was laid for Kinmont Willie. He and his friends were naturally totally unprepared for such a dastardly attack, but it took them but little time to gather their wits, and Willie gave them a good run for their money. For nearly four miles they chased him, but ran him down at length. After some hard giving and taking, he had to acknowledge his defeat, and, pinioned like a common malefactor—arms tied behind him, legs bound under his horse's belly—they rode with him into Carlisle town.

The news of the treacherous taking of his follower was not long in reaching Buccleuch, who at once raised an angry protest. Scrope, the English Warden, received this with an evasive and obviously trumped-up counter-charge of Kinmont Will having first broken truce. Moreover, he said, he was a notorious enemy to law and order, and must bear the penalty of his misdeeds. This was more than the bold Buccleuch could stomach.

"He has ta'en the table wi' his hand,

He garr'd the red wine spring on hie—

'Now Christ's curse on my head,' he said,

'But avenged of Lord Scrope I'll be!

O, is my basnet a widow's curch?

Or my lance a wand o' the willow-tree?

Or my arm a ladye's lilye hand,

That an English lord should lightly me?'"

No time was lost in making an appeal to King James, which resulted in an application to the English Government. But while the English authorities quibbled, paltered, and delayed—with a little evasion, a little extra red-tapism, a little judicious procrastination—the days of Kinmont Willie were being numbered by his captors. The triumph of putting an end to the daring deeds of so bold a Scottish reiver when they had him safely in chains in Carlisle Castle, was one that they were not likely lightly to forego. It would be indeed a merry crowd of English Borderers that flocked to Haribee Hill on the day that Will of Kinmont dangled from the gallows.

Buccleuch saw that he had no time to lose. He himself must strike at once, and strike with all his might.

The night of April 13, 1596, was dark and stormy. All the Border burns and rivers were in spate; the winds blew shrewd and chill through the glens of Liddesdale, and sleet drifted down in the teeth of the gale. The trees that grew so thick round Woodhouselee bent and cracked, and sent extra drenching showers of rain down on the steel jacks of a band of horsemen who carefully picked their way underneath them, on to the south. Buccleuch was leader, and with him rode some forty picked men of his friends and kinsmen, to meet some hundred and fifty or so of other chosen men. Scotts, Elliots, Armstrongs, and Grahams were there, and although Buccleuch had requested that only younger sons were to risk their lives in the forlorn hope that night, Auld Wat o' Harden and many another landowner rode with their chief. "Valiant men, they would not bide," says Scott of Satchells, whose own father was one of the number. Kinmont Willie's own tower of Morton, on the water of Sark, about ten miles north of Carlisle, was their rallying point. Buccleuch had arranged every detail most carefully at a horse-race held at Langholm a few days before, and one of the Grahams, an Englishman whose countrymen were not yet aware that the Graham clan had allied themselves to that of the Scotts, had conveyed his ring to Kinmont Willie to show him that he was not forgotten by his feudal lord. One and all, the reivers were well armed, "with spur on heel, and splent on spauld," and with them they carried scaling ladders, picks, axes, and iron crowbars. The Esk and Eden were in furious flood, but no force of nature or of man could stay the reivers' horses that night.

"We go to catch a rank reiver

Has broken faith wi' the bauld Buccleuch."

That was the burden of their thoughts, and although they well knew that ere the dawning each one of them might be claiming the hospitality of six feet of English sod, their hearts were light. To them a message that the fray was up was like the sound of the huntsman's horn in the ears of a thoroughbred hunter.

"'Where are ye gaun, ye mason lads,

Wi' a' your ladders, lang and hie?'

'We gang to berry a corbie's nest,

That wons not far frae Woodhouselee.'"

No light matter was it to harry that corbie's nest. Carlisle Castle was a strong castle, strongly garrisoned, and to make a raid on an English town was a bold attempt indeed. But fear was a thing unknown to the Border reivers, and the flower of them rode with Buccleuch that night—close on his horse's heels Wat o' Harden, Walter Scott of Goldielands, and Kinmont's own four stalwart sons—Jock, Francie, Geordie, and Sandy. As the dark night hours wore on, sleet and wind were reinforced by a thunderstorm.

"And when we left the Staneshaw-bank,

The wind began full loud to blaw,

But 'twas wind and weet, and fire and sleet,

When we came beneath the castle wa'."

When the besiegers reached the castle they found some of the watch asleep, and the rest sheltering indoors from the storm. The outside of the castle was left to take care of itself. It was dismaying to find the scaling ladders too short to be of any use, but a small postern gate was speedily and quietly undermined. Drifting sleet, growling thunder, and the wails of the wind drowned all sounds of the assault, and soon there was no further need for concealment, for the lower court of the castle was theirs. The guard started up, to find sword-blades at their throats; two of them were left dead, and the rest were speedily overpowered. Buccleuch, the fifth man in, gave the command to proclaim aloud their triumph:

"'Now sound out trumpets!' quoth Buccleuch;

'Let's waken Lord Scroope right merrilie!'

Then loud the Warden's trumpet blew—

'O wha daur meddle wi' me?'"

While Buccleuch himself kept watch at the postern, two dozen stout moss-troopers now rushed to the castle gaol, a hundred yards from the postern gate, forced the door of Kinmont Willie's prison, and found him there chained to the wall, and carried him out, fetters and all, on the back of "the starkest man in Teviotdale."

"Stand to it!" cried Buccleuch—so says the traitor, a man from the English side, who afterwards acted as informer to the English Warden—"for I have vowed to God and my Prince that I would fetch out of England, Kinmont, dead or alive."

Shouts of victory in strident Scottish voices, the crash of picks on shattered doors and ruined mason-work, and that arrogant, insolent, oft-repeated blast from the trumpet of him whom Scrope described in his report to the Privy Council as "the capten of this proud attempt," were not reassuring sounds to the Warden of the English Marches, his deputy, and his garrison. Five hundred Scots at least—so did Scrope swear to himself and others—were certainly there, and there was no gainsaying the adage that "Discretion is the better part of valour." So, in the words of the historian, he and the others "did keip thamselffis close."

But no sooner had the rescue party reached the banks of the Eden than the bells of Carlisle clanged forth a wild alarm. Red-tongued flames from the beacon on the great tower did their best, in spite of storm and sleet, to warn all honest English folk that a huge army of Scots was on the war-path, and that the gallows on Haribee Hill had been insulted by the abduction of its lawful prey.

"We scarce had won the Staneshaw-bank,

When a' the Carlisle bells were rung,

And a thousand men on horse and foot,

Cam' wi' the keen Lord Scroope along.

Buccleuch has turn'd to Eden Water,

Even where it flow'd frae brim to brim,

And he has plunged in wi' a' his band,

And safely swam them through the stream.

He turned them on the other side,

And at Lord Scroope his glove flung he—

'If ye like na' my visit in merry England,

In fair Scotland come visit me!'

All sore astonished stood Lord Scroope,

He stood as still as rock of stane;

He scarcely dare to trew his eyes,

When through the water they had gane.

'He is either himsel' a devil frae hell,

Or else his mother a witch maun be;

I wadna' have ridden that wan water

For a' the gowd in Christentie.'"

At a place called "Dick's Tree," not far from Longtown, there still stands the "smiddy" where lived the blacksmith who had the honour of knocking off Kinmont Willie's fetters. Sir Walter Scott has handed on the story of the smith's daughter who, as a little child, was roused at daybreak by a "sair clatter" of horses, and shouts for her father, followed, as the smith slept soundly, by a lance being thrust through the window. Looking out in the dim grey of the morning, the child saw "more gentlemen than she had ever seen before in one place, all on horseback, in armour, and dripping wet—and that Kinmont Willie, who sat woman-fashion behind one of them, was the biggest carle she ever saw—and there was much merriment in the party."

Furious was the hive of wasps that Buccleuch brought about his head by thus insultingly casting a stone into the English bike. The wrath of Queen Elizabeth was unappeasable. Scrope found it sounded better to multiply the number of the raiders by five, but Scottish tongues were not slow to tell the affronting truth, and the Englishmen of Carlisle had the extra bitterness of being butts for the none too subtle jests of every Scot on the Border. The success of so daring a venture made the Scottish reivers arrogant. Between June 19 and July 24 of that year, the spoils of the western Marches were a thousand and sixty-one cattle and ninety-eight horses, and some thirty steadings and other buildings, mostly in Gilsland, were burned. The angry English made reprisals. It was in one of them that the Scots who were taken were leashed "like doggis," and for this degradation Buccleuch and Ker of Cessford made the English pay most handsomely. Together those "twoo fyrebrandes of the Border" led an incursion into Tynedale, where, in broad daylight, they burned three hundred steadings and dwelling-houses, many stables, barns, and other outhouses, slew with the sword fourteen of those who had been in the Scottish raid, and brought back a handsome booty.

King Jamie was in a most uncomfortable position. Queen Elizabeth demanded Buccleuch's punishment, and he argued. She nagged, and he wriggled. Finally, after continual angry remonstrances from the insulted English monarch, he had to give in, and Buccleuch and Ker had both, at different periods, to suffer imprisonment for the sin, in the virgin Queen's eyes, of the rescue of Kinmont Willie, and of its bloody consequences. We realise what was the reputation of Buccleuch and of his followers when we see into what a state of panic the mere prospect of having the Border chieftain as prisoner at Berwick-on-Tweed threw Sir John Carey, the governor. To Lord Hunsdon he wrote: "I entreat your Lordship that I may not become the jailor of so dangerous a prisoner or, at least, that I may know whether I shall keep him like a prisoner or no? for there is not a worse or more dangerous place in England to keep him than this; it is so near his friends, and, besides, so many in this town willing to pleasure him, and his escape may be so easily made; and once out of this town he is past recovery. Wherefore I humbly beseech your honor, let him be removed from hence to a more secure place, for I protest to the Almightie God, before I will take the charge to kepe him here, I will desire to be put in prison myself, and to have a keeper of me. For what care soever be had of him here, he shall want no furtherance whatsoever wit of man can devise, if he himself list to make an escape. So I pray your Lordship, even for God's sake and for the love of a brother, to relieve me from this danger." But there was no attempt at a rescue of Buccleuch. He did not desire it. Not as a criminal, but as a state prisoner he gave himself up to the English governor, and, having given his parole, he kept it, like the gentleman of stainless honour that he was.

Two years after his imprisonment at Berwick-on-Tweed, Buccleuch, on his way with two hundred followers to serve with Prince Maurice of Nassau in the Low Countries—a raid from which many a Borderer never returned—was sufficiently received into favour to be permitted to go to London and kiss the hand of her most gracious Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. The remembrance of Kinmont Willie still rankled in that most unforgiving of royal breasts.

"How dared you," she imperiously demanded, "undertake an enterprise so desperate and presumptuous?"

"Dared?" answered Buccleuch; "what is it that a man dares  not do?"

Elizabeth turned impetuously to a lord-in-waiting. "With ten thousand such men," she said, "our brother of Scotland might shake the firmest throne in Europe."

That Kinmont Willie avenged himself not once, but many times, on those who had treacherously trapped him and done their best to make him meat for the greedy English gibbet, is not a matter of surmise, but one of history. His ride into Carlisle on that bleak March day, and the long days and dreary nights he spent in chains in the English gaol, were little likely to engender a gentle and forgiving spirit in the breast of one of the most fiery of the "minions of the moon." When, in 1600, he raided Scrope's tenants, they were given good cause to regret the happenings in which Scrope had taken so prominent a part.

We have no record of the end of Kinmont Willie, and can but hope, for his sake, that he died the death he would have died—a good horse under him almost to the end, a good sword in his hand, open sky above him, and round him the caller breeze that has blown across the Border hills. In a lonely little graveyard in the Debatable Land, close to the Water of Sark, and near the March dyke between the two countries, his body is said to rest. Does there never come a night, when the moon is hidden behind a dark scud of clouds, and the old reiver, growing restless in his grave, finds somewhere the shade of a horse that, in its day, could gallop with the best, and rides again across the Border, to meet once more his "auld enemies" of England, and, to the joyous accompaniment of the lowing of cattle and the jingle of spurs, returns to his lodging as the first cock crows, and grey morning breaks?

"O, they rade in the rain, in the days that are gane,

In the rain and the wind and the lave;

They shoutit in the ha' and they routit on the hill,

But they're a' quaitit noo in the grave."