Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

Sheep-Stealing in Tweeddale

"The cattle thereof shall ye take for a prey unto yourselves." (Josh. viii. 2.)

"The men are shepherds, for their trade hath been to feed cattle." (Gen. xlvi. 32.)

In days even earlier than those of the early Israelites, to a certain class of persons the flocks and herds of a neighbour have been an irresistible temptation. The inhabitants of few, if indeed of any, lands have been quite free from the tendency to "lift" their neighbour's live-stock (though probably it has not been given to many, in times either ancient or modern, to emulate the record in "cattle duffing" of Australia and Western America). In the Scottish Border in the days of our not very remote forefathers, to take toll of the Southron's herds was esteemed almost more a virtue than a vice, and though times had changed, even so recently as a couple of centuries back it may have seemed to some no very great crime to misappropriate a neighbour's sheep. March dykes or boundary fences were then things unknown; the "sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill." What, therefore, so natural as that the flocks should in time draw together and blend; what so easy for a man, dishonestly inclined, as to alter his neighbour's brand and ear-mark, hurry off to some distant market, and there sell a score or two of sheep to which he had no title? The penalty on conviction, no doubt, was heavy—at the least, in Scotland, flogging at the hands of the common hangman, or banishment to the Plantations; but more commonly death. The fear of punishment, however, has never yet put an end to any particular form of crime, and here detection was improbable if the thief were but clever. He might be aided, too, by a clever dog, for "some will hund their dowg whar they darna gang themsel'," and a really clever dog may be taught almost anything short of speaking.

In the year 1762 men's minds, in the upper reaches of the Tweed, began to be sore perplexed by an unaccountable leakage in the numbers of their sheep. Normal losses did not greatly disturb them; to a certain percentage of loss from the "loupin' ill," from snowstorm, from chilly wet weather during lambing, they were resigned. But the losses that now disquieted them were quite abnormal. It was not as if the sheep were perishing on the hillside; then at least their skins would have been brought in, and the element of mystery would not have agitated the minds of owners. But here were sheep constantly vanishing in large numbers without leaving even a trace of themselves. Something must be very far wrong somewhere. They were angry men, the Peeblesshire hill farmers, that summer of 1762, angry and sore puzzled, for up Manor Water and the Leithen, by Glensax Burn and the Quair, and over the hills into Selkirkshire, the tale was ever the same, sheep gone, and never a trace of them to be found.

In Newby was a tenant, William Gibson, whose losses had been particularly severe, and, not unnaturally, Gibson was in a very irritable frame of mind; so upset, indeed, was he that, before the faces of the men, he blurted out on one occasion the statement that in his opinion these continued losses were due chiefly to carelessness or ignorance of their work, if not to something even worse, on the part of the shepherds. Now, to throw doubt on their knowledge or skill was bad enough, but any insinuation as to their honesty was like rubbing salt on open wounds. It touched them on the raw, even though no direct accusation had been made, for a finer, more capable, careful, and honest class of men than the Border shepherd has never existed anywhere. Deep, therefore, was their anger, wrathful the mutterings that accompanied them in their long tramps over the windy hills; it would have gone ill with any one detected in possession of so much as a lamb's tail to which he might fail to establish his legal right.

Eyes sharpened by resentment were continually on the watch, yet the losses continued, now less, now more, but always a steady percentage, and it seemed beyond mortal power to guess how and when these losses occurred. But at last it chanced one day that Gibson, for some purpose, had mustered his ewes and lambs, and as the men went about their work, one of the older shepherds, Hyslop by name, halted abruptly as a lamb ran up to a certain ewe, and suckled.

"Dod!" cried Hyslop, "thon's auld Maggie an' her lamb!"

Now "Maggie" was a black-faced ewe, so peculiarly speckled about the face that no one, least of all a Border shepherd, could possibly make any mistake as to her identity. She had been missing for some days, and was given up as lost for good and all. Yet here she was suckling her lamb as if she had never been away.

Something prompted Hyslop to catch the ewe. Then he whistled long and low, and swore beneath his breath.

"Hey!" he cried to Gibson. "What d'ye think o' that?"

"God! It canna be," muttered Gibson.


"Aye! That's  gey queer like!" chorused the other shepherds.

What had caught the quick eye of old Hyslop was a fresh brand, or "buist," on the ewe's nose; the letter "O" was newly burned there, nearly obliterating an old letter "T." The latter was Mr. Gibson's fire-brand; "O" that of his not distant neighbour, Murdison, tenant in Ormiston. Gibson and Murdison were on friendly terms, and both were highly respectable and respected farmers. Necessarily, this discovery anent the brands was most disturbing, and could not fail to be difficult of satisfactory explanation. Gibson did not wish to act hastily, but all his private investigations pointed only to the one conclusion, and there was no room for doubt that the ewe had been seen by shepherds on other farms making her way across the lofty hills that lie between Newby and Wormiston, as the latter place was locally called. Still, he hesitated to act in so ugly looking an affair, and it was only after long and painful consultation with a neighbour, himself of late a heavy loser, that Gibson went to Peebles in order to get the authority necessary to enable him to inspect the flocks on Ormiston.

With heavy heart, Gibson, accompanied by Telfer, a well-known Peebles officer of the law, trudged out to Ormiston. As they neared the farm-house a shepherd, leaning against an outbuilding, turned with a start at sight of them, slipped suddenly round a corner of the outhouse, and presently was seen, bent nearly double, in hot haste running for a field of standing corn.

"Aye! yon's John Millar awa'. I'm feared things looks bad," muttered Gibson to his companion as they approached the door of the farm-house. "You keep ahint in the onstead, John Telfer, and I'll get Murdison to come oot. We'll never can tell him afore his wife."

"Wulliam Gibson! Hoo are ye? Man, this is a sicht for sair een," cried Murdison heartily to his visitor. "Come awa' in ben, and hae a glass."

A greeting so friendly brought a lump into Gibson's throat that he found it hard to swallow.

"Na, I canna come in," he answered in a low voice; "John Telfer's ahint the onstead, wantin' to speak to ye."

"John Telfer! what can he  want wi' me?" cried Murdison, going grey in the face. "Oh, aye! In one minute," he said, hastily stepping back into the kitchen and whispering a few words to his wife. Gibson did not hear the words, but his heart sank like lead as he noticed Mrs. Murdison fling herself into a chair, bury her face in her hands, and wail, "Oh God! my heart will break."

"Alexander Murdison, I hae a warrant here, and I maun hae a bit look at a wheen o' your sheep," said the officer of the law when Murdison came with Gibson into the Steading.

Quite enough was soon seen to make it necessary for Murdison and Millar, his shepherd, to be taken to Peebles, where bail was refused. The case came on a few months later, in Edinburgh, before Lord Braxfield, and it created intense interest, not only throughout the Border but amongst the entire legal faculty. It was proved that thirty-three score of sheep were found on Ormiston bearing Murdison's buist branded over, and, as far as possible, obliterating, the known buists of other farms. None of these sheep had been sold to the prisoners. Many of the animals were known, and were sworn to, by the shepherds on sundry farms, in spite of brands and ear-marks having been altered with some skill. It was proved also that Murdison had sold to farmers at a distance many scores of sheep on which the brands and ear-marks had been "faked." Evidence in the case closed at 5 P.M. on a Saturday, the second day of the trial; speeches of the counsel and the judge's summing up occupied until 11 P.M. of that day; and the jury sat till 5 o'clock on Sunday morning, when they brought in a verdict, by a majority, against Murdison, and an unanimous verdict against Millar, his shepherd. Both prisoners were sentenced to death, and though an appeal was made on various grounds, the sentences were eventually carried out.

Whilst he lay in prison under sentence Millar confessed the whole affair to a friend, and the story, as told by the shepherd, possessed some very curious features. He and his master, Murdison, had jointly conceived a scheme by means of which it seemed possible to defraud their neighbours almost with impunity. And, indeed, but for some mischance against which no one could guard, such as happened here when the ewe made back to her old home and her lamb, they might have gone undetected and unsuspected for an indefinite time. The shepherd owned an extraordinarily clever dog, without whose help the scheme could not possibly have been worked, and operations were carried out in the following manner.

Murdison knew very well what sheep his neighbours possessed, and where on the hills they were likely to be running. Millar, with his dog "Yarrow," was sent by night to collect the sheep which master and man had determined to steal, and to one so familiar with the hills this was no difficult task. The chief danger was that in the short nights of a Scottish summer he might be seen going or returning. Therefore, when daylight began to appear, if the sheep had already been got well on their way towards Ormiston, Millar would leave "Yarrow" to finish the drive single-handed, a task which the dog always carried out most successfully if it could be done reasonably early, before people began to move abroad out of their houses. But as soon as the dog caught sight of strangers he would at once leave the sheep and run home by a circuitous route. One such instance Millar particularly mentioned.

He had collected a lot of old ewes one night, but had utterly failed, even with "Yarrow's" help, to get them down a steep hill and across Tweed in the dark. Accordingly, as usual when day broke, he left the ewes in charge of the dog, and by low-lying ways, where he would be little likely to attract attention, he betook himself home. From a spot at some distance Millar looked back and for a time watched "Yarrow," in dead silence, but with marvellous energy, trying to bustle the ewes into the river. Time and again he would get them to the edge of the pool and attempt to "rush" them in; time and again he failed, and the ewes broke back—for of all created creatures no breathing thing is so obstinate as an old ewe. Finally, the dog succeeded in forcing two into the water, but no power on earth could drive the others farther than the brink, and the only result was that by their presence they effectually prevented those already in the water from leaving it, and in the end the two were drowned. At last "Yarrow" seemed to realise that he was beaten, and that to persevere farther would be dangerous, and he left the ewes and started for home. The sheep were seen later that day making their way home, all raddled with new keel with which Millar had marked them in a small "stell" which he had passed when the ewes were first collected.

"Faking" the brands, Millar confessed, used to be done by him and his master on a Sunday, in the vault of a neighbouring old peel tower, and at a time when everyone else was at church. It was easy enough, without exciting suspicion, to run the sheep into the yards on a Saturday night, and thence to the vaults, and no one would ever see the work of altering the buists going on, for "Yarrow" sat outside, and always, by barking, gave timely notice of the approach of any undesirable person.

The report was current in the country after the executions that the dog was hanged at the same time as his master, a rumour probably originated by the hawking about Edinburgh streets of a broadside, entitled the "Last Dying Speech and Confession of the Dog Yarrow." In reality "Yarrow" was sold to a farmer in the neighbourhood of Peebles, but, strange to say, though as a thief he had been so supernaturally clever, as a dog employed in honest pursuits his intelligence was much below the average. Perhaps he was clever enough to be wilfully stupid; or maybe he had become so used to following crooked paths that the straight road seemed to him a place full of suspicion and dread.

In his Shepherd's Calendar  Hogg tells several tales of dogs owned by sheep-stealers, to which he says he cannot attach credit "without believing the animals to have been devils incarnate, come to the earth for the destruction of both the souls and bodies of men." And certainly there was something uncanny, something almost devilish and malevolent, in the persistency with which they lured their masters on to crime. One young shepherd, for instance, after long strivings succumbed to the temptation to steal sheep from a far-distant farm, where at one time he had been employed. Mounted on a pony, and accompanied by a dog, the young man arrived at the far-off hill one moon-lit night, mustered the sheep he meant to steal, and started to drive them towards Edinburgh. Then, before even he had got them off the farm, conscience awoke—or was it fear of the consequences?—and he called off his dog, letting the sheep return to the hill. Congratulating himself on being well out of an ugly business, he had ridden on his homeward way a matter of three miles when again and again there came over him an eerie feeling that he was being followed, though when he looked back nothing was to be seen but dim moor and hill sleeping in the moonlight. Yet again and again it returned, that strange feeling, and with it now something like the whispering of innumerable little feet brushing through bent and heather. Then came a distant rushing sound and the panting as of an animal sore spent, and hard on the shepherd's tracks there appeared over a knoll an overdriven mob of sheep flying before the silent, demoniacal, tireless energy of his own dog. He had never noticed that the animal had left him, but now, having once more turned the sheep towards their home, and severely chid his dog, he resolved that it should not again have the chance to play him such a trick. For a mile all went well, then suddenly the beast was gone. Dawn was breaking; he dared not stop where he was, nor dared to return to meet the dog. All that he could do was to take a route he was certain his dog did not know, and so would be sure not to follow, and thus he might abandon the animal to its own devices, hoping that he himself might not be compromised. For in his own mind he was very sure that the dog had once more gone back to collect the sheep. By a circuitous route which he had never followed before, going in at least one instance through a gate, which he securely fastened behind him, the shepherd at length reached a farm-house, where, as it chanced, both his sister and his sweetheart were in service. Here he breakfasted, and remained some time, and still there was no sign of the dog. All was no doubt well; after all, the beast must have somehow missed him in the night and had gone home; after the punishment he had received he would never have gone back again for the sheep. So, comparatively light of heart, the shepherd was just about to start on his journey, when up there came to him a man:

"Ye'll hae missed your dowg, I'm thinking? But ye needna' fash; he's waitin' for ye doon by the Crooked Yett, wi' a' your yowes safe enough."

It was useless after this. The wretched man gave in; he struggled no more, but actually went off with the sheep and sold them. And the gallows ended his career. But how the dog followed him is a mystery, and why he waited for him at the "Crooked Yett." For miles he must have tracked him by the scent of the feet of the pony the shepherd rode. But he never came within sight of the farm-house, and how did he know to wait at the gate?

Instances of depravity amongst animals are not altogether unknown, though they are rare. A case is mentioned in Blackwood's Magazine  of October 1817, where a lady walking along a London street had her bag snatched from her by a drover's dog. The animal, apparently without any master, was noticed lying, seemingly asleep, by the pavement-side, but on the approach of the lady it sprang suddenly up, snatched from her hand what is described as her "ridicule," and made off at full gallop. On inquiry it was ascertained that the dog was well known as a thief, and that his habit was to lie in the street, apparently taking no notice of passers-by until a lady with a bag, or some poor woman carrying a bundle, came by, when he would jump up, snatch the bag or bundle from its bearer's hand, and make off, no doubt to join a master who waited in security whilst his dog stole for him. On the special occasion here mentioned the lady lost with her bag one sovereign, eighteen shillings in silver, a pair of spectacles, and various papers and small articles.

There is also on record the case of a good-looking spaniel which was bought in London from a dog-fancier by a wealthy young man. The new owner soon observed that, when out with the dog, if he entered a shop the animal invariably remained outside for a time, and that, when at last he did follow his master, the presence of the latter was persistently ignored, nor would the spaniel take any notice when his master left the shop, but continued unconcernedly to sniff about; or else he would lie down and seem to fall asleep. Invariably after this the animal would turn up at home, carrying in his mouth a pair of gloves, or some other article which his master had happened to handle whilst in the shop. By going to establishments where he was known, and giving notice of what he expected to happen, the owner of the dog was enabled to try a series of experiments, and he found that the spaniel would sometimes remain quietly in a shop for hours until the door chanced to be left open, when, if no one appeared to be watching him, he would jump up on the counter, seize some article, bolt with it down the street, and make his way home.

There was also known to the writer, some years ago, a big, honest-looking, clever mongrel, which was taken by his master to India. "Sandy" became quite a regimental pet, but, though friendly with the whole regiment, he clung throughout faithfully to his master. He was a big, heavy dog, with a good deal of the bull in him, and more than a suspicion of collie. The combination of these two breeds made him an exceptionally formidable fighter. Nothing could flurry him, and his great weight and powerful jaw gained him an easy victory over anything he ever met, even when tackled one dark night by a young panther. Unfortunately he developed a passion for killing everything that walked on four legs—short of a horse or an elephant—and of domestic pets and of poultry he took heavy toll. Nothing could break him of this propensity; he would take any punishment quite placidly, and then straightway repeat the offence at the first opportunity. And he developed also a curious habit of tracking his master when he dined out. No matter how "Sandy" was fastened up in barracks, before the meal was half over in the bungalow where his master happened to be dining, in would march the dog, quite calm and apparently at home, and would make willing friends with everyone at table, except with his master, whom he would steadily ignore throughout the evening. Though "Sandy" was very far from being a lady's dog, and though at ordinary times he would take small notice of ladies, yet now he would most gently and affectionately submit to be caressed and fondled by all the ladies at table, and would apparently in reality be the "sweet," good-natured "pet" they styled him; yet too well his master knew from bitter experience that already that evening had Death, in the shape of "Sandy," stalked heavy-footed amongst the domestic pets and poultry of that bungalow. And morning always revealed a formidable list of dead. "Sandy's" bite was sure; he left no wounded on the field of his labours.