Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

The Murder of Colonel Stewart of Hartrigge

Since a time long prior to the Raid of the Redeswire—when on Caterfell the rallying cry, "Jethart's here," fell like sweetest music on the ears of a sore-pressed little band of armed Scots, fighting for their lives, and giving back sullenly before superior English strength—the worst enemies of Jedburgh have never been able to taunt her with apathy, or with want of strenuousness. In the fighting of days long gone by, in questions social or political of more modern times, lack of zeal has not been one of her characteristics; nor, perhaps, in past times have her inhabitants, or those resident in the district, been conspicuous for tolerance of the religious or political convictions of neighbours who might chance not to see eye to eye with them in such matters.

The first half of the eighteenth century was a time more fully charged than most with questions which, on the Border as elsewhere, goaded men to fury. There was, for example, the Union; there had been, prior to that, the unhappy Darien Scheme, which ruined half Scotland and raised hatred of England to white heat; there was, later, the advent of George the First and his "Hanoverian Rats," to the final ousting of the rightful King over the water; there was the Rising of 1715, and, finally, there was the gallant attempt by Bonnie Prince Charlie to regain his father's crown in 1745. Thus they had, indeed, a superfluity of subjects over which men might legitimately quarrel. And when it is remembered that gentlemen in those days universally carried swords, and as a rule possessed some knowledge of how to use them, and that the man who did not habitually drink too much at dinner was a veritable rara avis—a poor creature, unworthy to be deemed wholly a man—the wonder will be, not that so many, but rather that so few, fatal quarrels took place.

Whatever in other respects might be their failings—and these were, indeed, many and grave—Scottish inns in those days were noted for the goodness of their claret. As a consequence of our ancient alliance and direct trade with France, that wine was not only good, but was plentiful and cheap—cheap enough, indeed, to become almost the national drink—and vast quantities were daily consumed; though there were not wanting those who, protesting that claret was "shilpit" and "cauld on the stomach," called loudly for brandy, and with copious draughts of that spirit corrected the acidity of the less potent wine.

Possibly the very depth of the drinking in those days guarded many a life from sacrifice; the hand is not steady, nor the foot sure, when the brain is muddled by fumes of wine, and it was perhaps more often chance than design that guided the sword's point in some of these combats. Still, even so, Death too often claimed his toll from such chance strokes.

A duel between opponents equally armed was fair enough, provided that the skill and sobriety were not unequally divided, and that one of the fighters did not chance to be unduly handicapped by age. If a man wore a sword, he knew that he might be called upon to use it—even the most peace-loving of men might not then, without loss of honour, always succeed in avoiding a brawl; the blame was his own if he had neglected to make himself proficient in the use of his weapon. At that period the tongue of the libeller was not tied by fear of the law; for the man insulted or libelled there existed no means of redress other than that of shedding, or trying to shed, his insulter's blood. It was a rough and ready mode of obtaining justice; and if it had its manifest disadvantages, it was at least not wholly unsuited to the rough and ready times.

But cases, unhappily, were not unknown in which one or other of the tipsy combatants—in his sober moments possibly an honourable and kindly-natured man—thrust suddenly and without warning, giving his opponent small time to draw, or even, perhaps, to rise from his chair, a course of action which, even under the easy moral code of those days, was accounted as murder.

Such a case occurred at Jedburgh in the year 1726. Sir Gilbert Eliott of Stobs and Colonel Stewart of Stewartfield (now called Hartrigge) were the principals in the affair.

Sir Gilbert (father of the General Eliott afterwards so famed for his defence of Gibraltar in the great siege of 1779-83) was a man who had spent some part of his youth in London, a place then, as ever, little calculated to repress leanings towards conviviality in young men possessing the command of money. Probably the habits there contracted were emphasized later, when ebbing fortune consigned him for good to what no doubt then seemed to him the deadly dull life of a dull country-side. More than likely, too, he was a little scornful of his neighbours who knew not the delights of London, a trifle contemptuous of their country manners, and possibly he may have been of quarrelsome disposition, when in his cups quick to take offence and to see slights where none existed. In any event, if one may judge from the evidence given later at an inquiry held in Jedburgh, throughout the affair with Colonel Stewart, Sir Gilbert Eliott was the aggressor. Possibly, after the fashion of the day, both were more or less tipsy; certainly, without any doubt, Sir Gilbert was greatly the worse of liquor, and did not carry that liquor as a gentleman was expected to carry it. He persistently forced a quarrel on the Colonel.

It was in the old Black Bull Inn at Jedburgh that the meeting took place. There had been a Head Court that forenoon to determine the list of voters for the year, and a large and already somewhat convivial company assembled afterwards in the dining-room of the Black Bull. Wine flowed, and as the evening waned, guest after guest prudently took himself off, till of the original party there were left but five—Sir Gilbert, Colonel Stewart, two officers of the Royal Regiment of North British Dragoons (the Scots Greys), and the proprietor of Timpendean—the latter described in the evidence as being "very noysie."

It is easy to imagine the scene. The long, low-ceilinged room, lit by candles, reeking of dinner and of wine. Eliott, still brooding over his defeat in the recent parliamentary election, bent on picking a quarrel; Stewart, amiable and for a time conciliatory, till goaded beyond endurance; the two officers, very red in the face, laughing and treating the whole affair as a huge joke; and Timpendean, the while, in a monotonous loud bawl, chanting, very much out of tune, a song, most of the verses of which he forgot before he had sung two lines, ever starting afresh ad nauseam, after the manner of drunken men. It was not a seemly spectacle, but it was the fashion of the day, and but for Eliott all might have ended with no worse effect than a bad headache next morning. But for Eliott—unfortunately. Nothing, apparently, would satisfy that gentleman. Colonel Stewart had let fall words which were twisted into an affront. The Colonel assured him that no such words had passed his lips; but that if he had by chance uttered anything which could be construed as an insult, or if anything said by him had hurt Sir Gilbert's feelings, he was sorry for it, and he willingly apologised.

Then Sir Gilbert must needs drag in politics. There was the burning question of the late election. Why had Colonel Stewart voted against him? He would have expected the Colonel's vote sooner than anybody's, and he took it ill that it had not been given to him. Colonel Stewart explained that as he lay under very great obligations to Sir Patrick Scott and his family, he considered that he had no choice but to vote as he had done; but this did not satisfy Sir Gilbert; the vote should  have been his by rights, and all the efforts of Captain Ross as peacemaker could not keep him from harping on this one string—the supposed slight put upon him in the matter of the vote. Colonel Stewart was more than willing to drop the subject, and at last Captain Ross, thinking the matter settled, momentarily turned away, in an endeavour to stop the monotony of Timpendean's tuneless, dreary song.

And then the mischief began. Sir Gilbert used words which, owing to Timpendean's noise, Ross did not catch, but he heard Colonel Stewart's reply: "Pray, Sir Gilbert, you have said a great deal already to provoke me; don't provoke me further." Then more hot words from Eliott, and Colonel Stewart threw a glass of wine in the baronet's face. With that, Eliott started to his feet, drew his sword, and plunged it into Stewart's stomach before the latter could rise from his chair or defend himself in any way.

Thereupon arose a babel of sound—a shout, the scuffle and tramp of unsteady feet, noise of chairs pushed aside and overturned on the bare boards, servants running to and fro. And Colonel Stewart, with clammy brow and failing limbs, sat silent in his chair, a dying man.

Captain Ross and his brother officer secured the swords of both men—shutting the stable door, indeed, after the steed was stolen; in hot haste doctors were sent for; and 'mid the bustle and "strow" Eliott stumbled from the room and down the stair, "wanting his wig," as the landlady, whom he passed on the way, deponed. Sir Gilbert's old and faithful servant hurried his master out of the inn, and behind a great tombstone in the Abbey churchyard hid him till the cool night air gave him sense to attempt escape.

In a thick wood near the head of Rulewater Sir Gilbert Eliott lay concealed, till his friends succeeded in smuggling him aboard a small craft off the coast of Berwickshire, and an outlaw, with a warrant out against him, he lived an uneasy life in Holland for some years, until influential friends with difficulty got him pardon, and enabled him again to return to the Border.

That is the story as it is usually known. But it is fair to add that the tale is differently told in Chambers' Domestic Annals of Scotland, where it is stated that Colonel Stewart was "a huffing, hectoring person," and that he had given "great provocation, and gentlemen afterwards admitted that Stobbs was called upon by the laws of honour to take notice of the offence." Evidence given at the inquiry, however, hardly seems to favour this view. Possibly neither side was quite free from blame; wine has other effects than to make glad the heart of man.