Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

A Private of The King's Own Scottish Borderers

As the evening closed in, the heavy south-westerly gale that had raged throughout the long-drawn summer's day gradually dropped, and blew now only in fitful gusts. Instead of the sullen, unending roar of artillery, which till past mid-day had stunned the ear, there was now to be heard only the muttering of distant thunder; the flash of guns was replaced by the glare of lightning flickering against the dark background of heavy cloud that hung low on the horizon; and, except for an irregular splutter of musketry, or an occasional dropping shot from direction of the town, the ominous, sustained rattle of small-arms had now entirely ceased.

The night of the 31st July 1759 had seen the French army march out beyond the ramparts of Minden, to take up position against the Allied Forces under Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick. So fiercely blew the gale then that it drowned the sound of the town clocks striking midnight; so furiously raged the storm with the coming of day that, to windward, even the roar of cannon could not be heard, and it was only the dense clouds of smoke that told they were engaged.

As day broke on the 1st of August the French, under a heavy artillery fire, had attacked with fury, but now, repulsed and broken at every point, they were driven back to their old position behind the town ramparts, where for a few hours longer they staved off surrender.

On the Allied right, where fighting had been hottest and most stubborn, the chief brunt of the action fell on six regiments of British infantry, supported by three battalions of Hanoverians. Never have troops of any nation reaped greater glory, nor earned more lasting fame, than that day fell to the lot of those battalions.

In the first line were the 12th, 37th, and 23rd Regiments; in the second line, the 20th, 51st, and 25th, the latter that famous regiment raised in Scotland in the year 1688 by the Earl of Leven, and then called "Leven's" or the Edinburgh Regiment. At Minden it fought as Sempil's Regiment, later it was known as the King's Own Borderers, and now it is familiar to all as the King's Own Scottish Borderers. Entirely unsupported, these two lines of scarlet-clad men marched steadily against a mass of cavalry, the flower of the French army. Without haste, without even a sign of hesitation or of wavering, over ground swept by the fire of more than sixty cannon, they moved—a fire that ploughed through their ranks and mowed down men as the hurricane blast smites to the earth trees in a forest of pines. Not till the threatening squadrons of horse began to get into motion did these British regiments halt, and then, pausing coolly till the galloping ranks were all but within striking distance, they fired a volley so withering that men and horses fell in swathes, while the survivors reeled in confusion back on their supports. Never before had volley so crushing been fired by British troops. Up to that day, musketry had seldom been blasting in effect; firelocks then in use were singularly clumsy weapons, noted for anything but accuracy, and, to add to their inefficiency, it was not the practice to bring the cumbersome piece to the shoulder, and thus to take aim, but rather, the method was to raise the firelock breast high and trust to chance that an enemy might be in the line of fire. Now all was changed. During the Peace troops had been taught to aim from the shoulder, and Minden showed the effect.

In spite of their losses, however, the French horse rallied and came again to the attack, this time supported by four brigades of infantry and thirty-two guns. "For a moment the lines of scarlet seemed to waver under the triple attack; but, recovering themselves, they closed up their ranks and met the charging squadrons with a storm of musketry which blasted them off the field, then turning with equal fierceness upon the French infantry, they beat them back with terrible loss."

Yet again the enemy came on; squadrons that up to now had not encountered those terrible islanders, thundered down upon them, undaunted. Through the first line this time the horsemen burst their way, and surely now they must carry all before them. But no farther went the measure of their success; the second line shattered them to fragments, and all was over. Back behind the ramparts fell the French, crushed and dispirited, for nothing now remained to them but surrender. And for this great victory Prince Ferdinand's thanks were chiefly bestowed on those British regiments whose magnificent valour and steadiness had alone made it possible.

But the British cavalry, under Lord George Sackville, did not come in for equal commendation. Lord George and the Prince had long been at daggers drawn. Hence, probably, it may have been, that when the French were broken and in full flight, and Prince Ferdinand's repeated orders to bring up his cavalry reached Lord George, that officer ignored or wilfully disobeyed them. The Marquis of Granby, Lord George's second in command, had already begun to move forward with the Blues, and behind were the Scots Greys and other famous regiments, thirsting to be at the throats of the French. But Lord George Sackville's peremptory orders brought them to a grudging and reluctant halt. Thus, throughout an engagement which brought honour so great to their countrymen, the British cavalry stood idle in the rear, chafing at their inaction and openly murmuring.

And now that all chance of further fighting was over for the day, parties of the men, irritated and bent on picking a quarrel, had strayed from their own lines, and made their way over to the bivouacs of the British infantry regiments, where already camp fires were twinkling, and the men around them slaking with wine throats parched by long hours of marching and fighting.

Those were days when, after a victory, discipline went to the wall and was practically non-existent; they were days when the bodies of those who were killed in action were robbed, almost as they fell—nay, when even the wounded, as they lay helpless, were stripped naked by their own comrades and left to perish on the field (though that, indeed, was common enough amongst our troops even in the Peninsular War half a century later). And now, here at Minden, as ever after a great engagement, when villages or towns are sacked, much plunder had fallen into the hands of the victorious army; wine and brandy from the wine-houses of the wrecked villages was being poured recklessly down the ever-thirsty throats of the men, and soldiers, already half drunk, were to be seen knocking out the heads of up-ended wine-casks the quicker to get at their contents, whilst others, shouting and singing, reeled about, many of them perhaps with a couple of loaves, or a ham, or what not, stuck on their bayonets. Such scenes, and scenes worse by far, were but too common in those days, and even the authority of officers was of small avail at such a time.

Into the midst of such a pandemonium as this came small parties of the cavalry, most of them already excited with drink and ready for any devilry. Among the noisiest and most quarrelsome of the dragoons were two non-commissioned officers—brutal-looking ruffians both of them—who made their way from group to group, drinking wherever the chance offered, shouting obscene songs, and making themselves insufferably offensive whenever a man more quietly disposed than his comrades happened to be met. Boastful and quarrelsome, these two, with a few dragoons of different regiments, at length attached themselves to Sempil's Regiment, amongst whom it chanced that a group of men, more quiet and well-behaved than the general run, sat around a fire, cleaning their arms or cooking rations, and discussing the battle and the heavy losses of the regiment. It was not difficult to guess that the majority of the group were men bred among the great, sweeping, round-backed hills of the Scottish Border—from "up the watters" in Selkirk or Peeblesshires, some of them, others again perhaps from Liddesdale, Eskdale, or Annandale, or one of the many dales famous in Border history; you could hear it in their tongue. But also there was in those quiet, strongly-built men something that spoke of the old, dour, unconquerable, fighting Border stock that for so many centuries lived at feud with English neighbours. Many of them had joined the regiment four years earlier, when it had passed through the Border on its march from Fort William to Buckinghamshire.

But if they had seen much service since then, never had they seen anything to approach this famous day of Minden, and as the long casualty list was discussed, many were the good Border names mentioned that belonged to men now lying stiff and cold in death, who that morning when the sun rose were hale and well.

"Rob Scott's gane," said one.

"Ay, and Tam Elliot," said a grizzled veteran. "I kenned, and he  kenned, he wad never win through this day. He telled me that his deid faither, him that was killed at Prestonpans, had twice appeared tae him. And we a' ken what that  aye means. Some o' you dragoon lads maybe saw as muckle as ye cared for o' auld Scotland that day o' Prestonpans?"

"And if we did, Scottie, we made up for it later," bawled one of the two dragoon non-commissioned officers.

"Ay? And whan was that, lad? At Falkirk, belike!"

"No, it wasn't at Falkirk, Scottie. But fine sport we had when we went huntin' down them rebels about your Border country, after Culloden had settled their business. By G——! I mind once I starved an old Scotch witch that lived up there among your cursed hills. She was preaching, and psalm-singing, and bragging about how the Lord would provide for the widowed and fatherless, or some cant of that sort. But I  soon put her to the test."

"Ay?" said a stern-faced, youngish man, dressed in the uniform of a private of Sempil's Regiment, jumping up hurriedly in front of the dragoon, "ay? And what did ye do?"

"Do?" replied the cavalryman; "why, I just sliced the throat of the old witch's cow, and I cut all her garden stuff and threw it into the burn. I'm thinking it would take a deal o' prayer to get the better o' that! But, oh! no doubt the Lord would provide, as she said," sneered the man.

"And was that in Nithsdale?" asked the young Borderer.

"It was," said the dragoon.

"An' ye did that, an' ye hae nae thocht o' repentance?"

"Repentance! What's there to repent? D—— you, I tell you she was a witch, and I gave her no more than a witch deserves," roared the half-tipsy dragoon.

"Then, by God! I tell you  it was my mother that you mishandled that day. Draw! you bloody dog! Draw!" shouted the now thoroughly roused Borderer, snatching from its scabbard the sabre of a dragoon who stood close at hand.

It was no great fight. The cavalryman had doubtless by far the greater skill with the sabre; but drink muddled his brain and hampered his movements, and the whirlwind attack of the younger man gave no rest to his opponent nor opportunity to steady himself. In little more than a minute the dragoon lay gasping out his life.

"Had ye rued what ye did, ye should hae been dealt wi' only by your Maker," muttered the Borderer as the dead man's comrades bore away the body. "Little did I look to see you  this day after a' they years, or to have your  bluid on my hands. It was an ill chance that brought us thegither again, and an ill day for me an' mine that lang syne brought you into our quiet glen."

But the incident did not end here. The private soldier had slain his superior in rank, and but for the strenuous representations of his company commander and sure friend, a native of his own part of the Border, it had gone hard with Private Maxwell.

The story, as told to his captain, was this. Maxwell, then a half-grown boy, lived with his mother in a lonely cottage in a quiet Dumfriesshire glen. They came of decent folk, but were very poor, sometimes in the winter being even hard put to it to find sufficient food. The father, and all the family but this one boy, were dead; the former had perished on the hill during a great snowstorm, and the sons, long after, had all died, swept off by an outbreak of small-pox. Thus the widow and her one remaining boy were left almost in destitution; but by the exercise of severe economy and by hard work, they managed to cling to their little cottage.

One morning—it was a day in the summer of 1746; the heather was bursting into bloom, shadows of great fleecy clouds trailed sleepily over the quiet hillsides, larks sang high in the heavens, blue-bells swung their heads lazily in the gentle breeze, and all things spoke of peace—there came the tramp of horses down the glen, past the rocks where the rowan-trees grew, and so up to the cottage door.

"Hi, old lady!" shouted the sergeant in charge of a half-dozen dragoons, "we must ha' some'at to eat and drink. We've been scouring them infernal hills since break o' day, and it's time we picked a bit."

"Weel, sirs," said the poor widow, "it's but little I hae gotten, but that little ye shall freely hae." And she brought them "lang kale" and butter, and for drink offered them new milk, saying, as she handed it to the man, that this was her whole stock.

"Whole stock!" growled one who did not relish such food, "whole stock! A likely story! I daresay, if the truth was known, the old hag's feeding a rebel she's got hidden away in some snug hole hereaway."

"'Deed, sirs, there's no rebels here. An' that's a' my son an' me has to live on."

"How do you live in this outlandish spot all the year round, then, mistress?"

"Indeed, sir," said the woman, "the cow and the kailyaird, and whiles a pickle oat meal, wi' God's blessing, is a' my mailen. The Lord has provided for the widow and the faitherless, and He'll aye provide."

"We'll soon see about that," said the ruffian. With his sabre, and paying no heed to the helpless woman's lamentations or to the half-hearted remonstrances of his comrades, he killed the poor widow's cow; then going to the little patch of garden, he tore up and threw into the burn all the stock of kail.

"There, you old rebel witch," said he, with a heartless laugh, as the party set forward again, "you may live on God's blessing now."

It broke the poor toil-worn widow's heart, and she died ere the summer was ended. Lost to the ken of his few friends, her boy wandered sorrowfully to another part of the country, and winter storms soon left but the crumbling walls and broken roof of what had been his home.

Thirteen years, almost to a day, passed ere fate brought together again the man who committed that foul wrong and his surviving victim. If retribution came with halting foot, it came none the less surely, for "though the mills of God grind slowly, they grind exceeding small."