Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

The Vampires of Berwick and Melrose

At Berwick-on-Tweed a man had died. In life he was a man of much weight, one of the wealthiest of the freemen. He did his good deeds with pomp. The devoutness of his religion was visible for every man to see, and his look of sanctity as he went to pray was surely an example and a reproach to every rough mariner whose boat was moored in the harbour beneath the walls.

But when death came to him, an evil thing befell the reputation of that holy man of means.

Those tongues that had been tied in his lifetime began to wag. The dark passages of his history, of the doors to which he had held the keys, were thrown open. And a horrified town discovered that their respected fellow-citizen had been a man of foul life, guilty of many a fraud and of many a crime, and that a dog's death had been too good a death for him. What wonder that every decent person in the town spoke of him with horror? But the horror they had of him who had so deceived them was but a little thing when compared with the hideous dread that the impostor inspired ere he had lain for a week in his grave in Berwick. Men who lived in those days had many an evil thing to dread, for wolves, ghouls, and vampires were as terribly real to them as in our day are the microbes of cancer, of fever, or of tuberculosis. And when a man who was notoriously a sinner came to his end, there was in the grave no rest for him, nor was there peace for his fellow-men. Night after night he was sure to rise from his tomb and go a-hunting for a human prey. He sucked blood, and so drained the life of the innocent clean away. He devoured human flesh. He chased his victims as though he were a mad dog, sending them crazed by his bite, or worrying and mangling them to a dreadful death.

This citizen, then, was not likely to rest in peace, and but a night or two after the earth had been heaped over his grave, he was up and out and rushing through the dark streets where his decorous footsteps had so often fallen solidly by day, so often slunk stealthily by night.

By Satan's agency he was set free, all men averred, yet the master that he had faithfully served did but little to pleasure him. For all the night through, as long as darkness lasted, the dead sinner was hunted through the deserted streets by a pack of baying hell-hounds. Round the walls, down by the quay, up Hyde Hill, through the Scots Gate, down lanes and byeways and back again round the walls—a weariful hunt it was. Thankfully must the quarry have welcomed the first streaks of light on the grey sea line, when the chase was ended and he was permitted to rest in his coffin once more.

Only the bravest durst venture out of doors after dusk, and the good people of Berwick lay a-trembling in their beds as the hunt swept past their very doors, and the blood-curdling howls of the hounds turned their hearts to water within them.

But always, in such a case, there are to be found one or two bold spirits, or one or two so heedless of what is passing around them that they rush into danger unawares. Such there were at Berwick-on-Tweed, and to them the hunted soul spoke as he fled past, the hell-hounds slavering at his heels. "Until my body is burnt," he cried, "you folk of Berwick shall have no peace!" And as they rushed for sanctuary into the nearest dwelling they fancied they could still hear the tormented wretch's shriek, shrill above the baying of the dogs—"Burn! burn! Peace! peace!"

So the people of the town took counsel together, and having solemnly concluded that "were a remedy further delayed, the atmosphere, infected and corrupted by the constant whirlings through it of the pestiferous corpse, would engender disease and death to a great extent," they resolved to follow the vampire's own suggestion. Ten young men, "renowned for boldness," were appointed to lay the Horror. They went to the grave, dug up the corpse, cut it limb from limb, then burned it until a little heap of white ash was all that remained of the man of evil life, whose shade had brought dread to all the citizens of Berwick. But their wise action must, unfortunately, have been taken too late. Very soon afterwards a great pestilence arose, and decimated the town's population. "Never did it so furiously rage elsewhere," says William, Canon of Newburgh, the learned churchman, who has chronicled for us the tale, "though it was at that time general throughout all the borders of England." According to him, the vampire had done his evil work. And as man, woman, and child were carried by night to the graves prepared for the plague-stricken, there were those who vowed they could still hear the distant sound of baying hounds, and above them the shrill scream of the man who in life had seemingly walked so godly a walk, and who had given example to the rough mariners down at the quay as he daily went to pray.

Such is the story of the vampire at Berwick, and of the way in which valiant men laid him. But the old Canon of the Austin Friars has yet another tale to tell of a vampire on the Border. Destruction by fire was not the only means of laying the unholy spirit that "walked" to the hurt of its fellow-creatures. When a suicide was buried, or when one who was a reputed witch, warlock, or were-wolf, or who had been cursed by his parents or by the church, was laid in the grave, it was always well to take the precaution of driving a stake through the body. Such a stake (in Russia an aspen) driven at one blow bereft the evil thing of all its power. Only in the reign of George IV was the custom in the case of suicides abolished. If the precaution had not been taken at burial, in all probability when the vampire had already done some harm, the corpse was exhumed and the ghastly ceremony gone through. And always, so it was declared, the body of the vampire was found with fresh cheeks and open, staring eyes, well nourished by the blood of his victims. In such condition was found the vampire of Melrose, whose tale is also told by William of Newburgh.

Many a holy man has chanted the Psalms under the arches of Melrose Abbey, but the vampire priest had never lived aught but a worldly, carnal life. He held a post that suited him well, as chaplain to a certain illustrious lady whose property lay near the Eildons, and who, so long as her Mess John performed his duties as family priest, paid no heed to his mode of occupying his time when these were performed.

The chaplain was of the type of the sporting parson of later days. He loved the hunt. He loved a good bottle, a good horse, a good dog. "The Hundeprest"  was the name he went by. Other things he also loved that made not for sanctity, and when, at last, he died, his death was no more holy than his selfish, sensual life had been. No protecting aspen stake had been driven through his body, and so when he was laid to rest under the shadow of the monastery, for him rest there was none. The holy brothers inside the walls protected themselves from him, when he came a-wandering, by vigils and by prayers. The lady whose chaplain he had been was less well protected, and when, night after night, her sleep was broken by horrible groans and murmurings from a thing that always seemed just without her room, and almost about to enter, she became nearly frantic. She came to Melrose, and with tears besought the holy fathers, who owed much to her bounty, to wrestle for her in prayer and drive this evil thing away. The monks of Melrose did for her what they could. Not only did they pray, but two stout-hearted friars and two powerful young laymen all well armed were appointed to guard the grave of the lady's late chaplain, and to go on duty that very night.

It was chill autumn, and as they paced the damp grass of the graveyard there was a smell of dead leaves in the air, and a grey mist crept up from the Tweed that moaned as it bore its flooded waters to the sea. When midnight came they expected to see the Hundeprest, but midnight passed in safety, and in "the wee, sma' hours" the two laymen and one of the monks went into the nearest cottage to warm their icy feet. Now came the chance of the vampire. With "a terrible noise" the Hundeprest suddenly appeared, a thing of horror, and rushed at the monk who was slowly pacing towards the grave. The holy man bravely stood the charge, and, as the monster was almost touching him, he swung the axe which he carried, and drove it with all his might into the body of his diabolic adversary. With a groan, the vampire turned and fled away, and the friar, the tables turned, ran in pursuit until the grave of the Hundeprest was reached, and the horror vanished.

Nothing of the encounter was to be seen when the other three watchers returned, but grey dawn was near, and at the first sign of light the four men, with pick-axe and spade, opened up the grave. Even as they dug their spades turned up mingled blood and clay, and when they came to the corpse of the Hundeprest, they found it fresh as on the day he died, but with a terrible wound in the body, from which the blood still oozed away.

With horror they bore it out of sight of the monastery of which he had been so unworthy a brother. A cleansing fire burned it to ashes, and a shrewd, clean wind that blew from over the Lammermoors swept away all trace of the accursed thing. No pestilence came to Melrose. Perchance in the twelfth century it was by prayer and fasting that the holy men won the day.