Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

Sewingshields Castle, and the Sunken Treasure of Broomlee Lough

The old castle of Sewingshields is one of which there are many legends. If local tradition might be accepted as a guide, we should find that Arthur the King lived there once on a time. But surely another Arthur than him of whom Tennyson sang. One,

"Not like that Arthur, who, with lance in rest,

From spur to plume a star of tournament,

Shot through the lists at Camelot, and charged

Before the eyes of ladies and of kings,"

but a being even more mythical than that Arthur to whom, with his knights, legend assigns so many last resting-places—in that vast hall beneath the triple peak of Eildon, here in a cavern below the rocks at Sewingshields, and in many a spot besides. This Arthur of Sewingshields in his feats was indeed more akin to the old Norse gods and heroes. And it is told that, as he talked with his Queen one day when they sat on those great rocks to the north of the castle, which still bear as names the King's and the Queen's Crag, Guinevere chanced to let fall a remark which angered Arthur; whereupon he, snatching up a rock that lay ready to his hand, hurled it at his royal consort. Now, Guinevere at the moment was combing her long, fair locks; but she saw the stone come hurtling through the air, and, with remarkable presence of mind and dexterity, with her comb she fended off the missile, so that it fell between them, doing no harm. And if anyone should presume to disbelieve this tale, there lies the rock to this day, and the marks of the teeth of the Queen's comb are on it still for all to see. The distance that the King hurled this missile is not above a quarter of a mile, and the pebble itself may weigh a trifle of twenty tons or so.

Local tradition tells also how once on a time there came to Sewingshields, to visit Arthur, a great chieftain from the wild north, one named Cumin. And when Cumin departed from the castle to go back to his own land, he bore with him a certain gold cup that Arthur, in token of friendship, had given to him. But sundry of the King's retainers, having learned that the Scot was bearing away with him this cup, greatly desired that they might themselves possess it, and they pursued Cumin, and slew him ere he had gone many miles. Wherefore Arthur caused a cross to be erected there on the spot where the slain man fell; and the place is called Cumming's Cross to this day.

Of the building of the castle of Sewingshields, or Seven-shields, there is the legend told in Harold the Dauntless:

"The Druid Urien had daughters seven,

Their skill could call the moon from heaven;

So fair their forms and so high their fame,

That seven proud kings for their suitors came.

King Mador and Rhys came from Powis and Wales,

Unshorn was their hair, and unpruned were their nails;

From Strath-Clywd came Ewain, and Ewain was lame,

And the red-bearded Donald from Galloway came.

Lot, King of Lodon, was hunchback'd from youth,

Dunmail of Cumbria had never a tooth;

But Adolph of Bambrough, Northumberland's heir;

Was gay and was gallant, was young and was fair.

There was strife 'mongst the sisters, for each one would have

For husband King Adolph, the gallant and brave;

And envy bred hate, and hate urged them to blows,

When the firm earth was cleft, and the Arch-fiend arose!

He swore to the maidens their wish to fulfil—

They swore to the foe they would work by his will,

A spindle and distaff to each hath he given,'

Now hearken my spell,' said the Outcast of Heaven.

'Ye shall ply these spindles at midnight hour,

And for every spindle shall rise a tower,

Where the right shall be feeble, the wrong shall have power,

And there shall ye dwell with your paramour.'

Beneath the pale moonlight they sate on the wold,

And the rhymes which they chaunted must never be told;

And as the black wool from the distaff they sped,

With blood from their bosom they moisten'd the thread.

As light danced the spindles beneath the cold gleam,

The castle arose like the birth of a dream—

The seven towers ascended like mist from the ground,

Seven portals defend them, seven ditches surround.

Within that dread castle seven monarchs were wed,

But six of the seven ere the morning lay dead;

With their eyes all on fire, and their daggers all red,

Seven damsels surround the Northumbrian's bed.

'Six kingly bridegrooms to death we have done,

Six gallant kingdoms King Adolf hath won;

Six lovely brides all his pleasure to do,

Or the bed of the seventh shall be husbandless too.'

Well chanced it that Adolf the night when he wed

Had confessed and had sain'd him ere boune to his bed;

He sprung from the couch, and his broadsword he drew,

And there the seven daughters of Urien he slew.

The gate of the castle he bolted and seal'd,

And hung o'er each arch-stone a crown and a shield;

To the cells of St. Dunstan then wended his way,

And died in his cloister an anchorite grey.

Seven monarchs' wealth in that castle lies stow'd,

The foul fiends brood o'er them like raven and toad.

Whoever shall questen these chambers within,

From curfew to matins, that treasure shall win.

But manhood grows faint as the world waxes old!

There lives not in Britain a champion so bold,

So dauntless of heart, and so prudent of brain,

As to dare the adventure that treasure to gain.

The waste ridge of Cheviot shall wave with the rye,

Before the rude Scots shall Northumberland fly,

And the flint cliffs of Bambro' shall melt in the sun

Before that adventure be perill'd and won."

Long afterwards, when Harold the Dauntless entered the castle, the seven shields still hung where Adolf had placed them, each blazoned with its coat of arms:

"A wolf North Wales had on his armour coat,

And Rhys of Powis-land a couchant stag;

Strath Clwyd's strange emblem was a stranded boat;

Donald of Galloway's a trotting nag;

A corn-sheaf gilt was fertile Lodon's brag;

A dudgeon-dagger was by Dunmail worn;

Northumbrian Adolf gave a sea-beat crag;

Surmounted by a cross,—such signs were borne

Upon these antique shields, all wasted now and worn."

And within the castle, in that chamber where Adolf repelled the embarrassing advances of that most unmaidenly band of sisters, and did "a slaughter grim and great":

"There of the witch brides lay each skeleton,

Still in the posture as to death when dight;

For this lay prone, by one blow slain outright;

And that, as one who struggles long in dying;

One bony hand held knife, as if to smite;

One bent on fleshless knees, as mercy crying;

One lay across the floor, as kill'd in act of flying."

Perhaps it is part of the wealth of those "seven monarchs" that now lies sunken in Broomlee Lough. Did some one, greatly daring, "adventure that treasure to win," and succeed in his attempt? Tradition tells that a dweller in Sewingshields Castle, long ago, being compelled to flee the country, and unable to bear away with him his hoard of gold, resolved to sink it in the lough. Rowing, therefore, far out into deep water, he hove overboard a chest containing all his treasure, putting on it a spell that never should it be again seen till brought to land by aid of "Twa twin yauds, twa twin oxen, twa twin lads, and a chain forged by a smith of kind."

Long centuries the treasure remained unsought; yet all men might know exactly where lay the chest beneath the waves, for it mattered not how fierce blew the gale, above the gold the surface of the water was ever unbroken. At last there came one who heard the tradition, and set about the task of recovering the sunken chest. The twin horses, twin oxen, and twin lads he procured readily enough, but to find a smith of kind was not so easy—"a smith of kind" being a blacksmith whose ancestors for six generations have been smiths, he himself being the seventh generation. But this, too, at length was found, and the smith forged the necessary length of chain. Then, taking advantage of a favourable day, when breeze sufficient blew to reveal the tell-tale spot of calm water, the treasure-hunter started in his boat, leaving one end of the chain on shore and paying out fathom after fathom as his boat swept round the calm and again reached shore. Now hitching the yauds to one end and the oxen to the other, the animals were cautiously started by the twin drivers. Slowly the chain swept over the bed of the lough, and tightened, fast in something heavy that gave and came shoreward in the bight of the chain. Cannily the drivers drove, and ever came the weight nearer to dry land. Already the treasure-seeker in his boat, peering eagerly down into the quiet water, fancied that he was a made man; he could almost see  that box. But a few more yards and it was his. Alas! In his eagerness to secure "a smith of kind" he had made insufficient inquiries into that smith's ancestry. There was (as he discovered when too late) a flaw in his pedigree! Some ancestress, it was said, could not show her marriage lines, or something else was wrong. At any rate, there was a flaw, and that was sufficient to upset the whole thing, for the chain, not being made by a smith of kind, was of course not of the true temper. Hence, just when success was about to crown their efforts, the horses made a violent plunge forward—and the chain parted at a weak link! No further attempts to ascertain the exact bearings of that box have ever been successful. It is, as of old, at the bottom of the lough—at least so says tradition.

And Sewingshields Castle is now no longer a castle; its very vaults and its walls have disappeared.

"No towers are seen

On the wild heath, but those that Fancy builds,

And save a fosse that tracks the moor with green,

Is nought remains to tell of what may there have been."