Oliver by John &
Amongst the flying, broken rabble that represented all that was left of
the Covenanting army after the disastrous business of Bothwell Bridge, a
dismounted Borderer, with one or two other stout hearts by no means
disposed even now to give up the day, continued still to strike fiercely
at Claverhouse's pursuing troopers. But their efforts to stem the tide
of disaster were utterly without avail, and the Borderer, zealously
protesting and struggling, was at length swept off the field by a wild
panic rush of the fugitives. Missing his footing on the broken ground as
the flying mob pressed on to him, the Borderer fell, and, hampered by
the bodies of a couple of wounded and exhausted countrymen, ere he could
again struggle to his feet, the horse of more than one spurring rider
had trampled over him, and he lay disabled and helpless, at the mercy of
any dragoon who might chance to ride that way.
"'The Lord hath afflicted me in the day of His fierce anger,'" groaned
the Covenanter. "'He hath made my strength to fall; the Lord hath
delivered me into their hands, from whom I am not able to rise up.'"
"Aye!" whimpered a wounded man who lay partly across the Borderer's
legs. "'The Lord was as an enemy; He hath swallowed up Israel.' And I'm
thinkin', 'gin He send nae help, and that sune, we're no muckle better
than deid men. Eh! weary fa' the day I left my ain pleugh stilts, an' my
"Na, na, freend. He that setteth his hand to the plough, let him not
look back," answered the Borderer. "'Gin I win oot o' this, I trow I'll
'hew Agag in pieces before the Lord,' or a's dune. We will yet smite the
Philistines, destroy utterly the Amalakites! Aye! smite them hip and
thigh, even from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof!"
This fiery Borderer, Ringan Oliver by name, a man of gigantic strength
and great courage, a strong pillar of the Covenant, was a native of
Jedwater, where he and his fathers before him had for generations
occupied the small holding of Smailcleuchfoot. From the turmoil of the
disastrous flight after the battle of Bothwell Bridge, and from the
close search of the pursuing soldiers, Ringan Oliver did eventually
escape, sore battered, and not without much difficulty and danger, and
for many a month thereafter he lay in hiding; caves, holes in the moors,
and dripping peat hags, were his shelter, heather and ferns his bed,
many a time when the hunt waxed hot. And in 1680, hearing of the return
from Holland of the outlawed Hall of Haughhead, he speedily joined that
noted Covenanter, hiding with him, "lurking as privily as they could
about Borrowstounness and other places on both sides of the Firth of
Forth"; and he was with Hall and "worthy Mr. Cargill" when "these two
bloody hounds, the curates of Borrowstounness and Carriden, smelled out
Mr. Cargill and his companion," and sent to the Governor of
Borrowstounness that information which led to the death of one of the
three Covenanters. Mr. Cargill and Ringan Oliver got clear away from the
house at Queensferry where Colonel Middleton, single-handed, tried to
arrest them, but Hall, severely wounded in the head, was taken, and died
before he could be carried even so far as Edinburgh.
For some years after this we have no record of Ringan's doings; possibly
part of the time he spent on his farm at Smailcleuchfoot. In 1689,
however, he was with General Mackay at Killiecrankie. And again, as at
Bothwell Bridge, sorely against his inclination he experienced the
horrors of headlong flight in company of a broken rabble. Reaching
Dunkeld in an exhausted condition early in the following morning, he and
a few comrades found shelter in the house of a friend. But as they sat,
about to fall to on a much needed meal, down the little street came the
"rat-tat-tat" of a drum, and past the window swaggered an unkempt
Highland drummer, halting at intervals to hurl defiance at all Whigs,
and a challenge to them to fight the famous Highland champion, Rory Dhu
Mhor. And this is something after the fashion of what Ringan and his
weary comrades heard drawled out with fine nasal whine:
"This will pe to pe kiving notice to aal it may pe concerning, tat Rory
Dhu Mhor of ta Clan Donachy will pe keeping ta crown of ta causeway in
ta toun of Tunkel for wan hour and mhore. And he iss civilly tesiring it
to pe known tat if there will pe any canting, poo-hooing, psalm-singing
whig repellioner in ta toun, and he will pe so pould as to pe coming
forth his hiding holes, and looking ta said Rory Dhu Mhor in ta face, ta
said Rory Dhu Mhor herepy kifs promise to pe so ferry condescending as
to pe cutting ta same filthy Whig loon shorter by ta legs, for ta honour
of King Tchames. Ochilow! Cot save King Tchames!"
A few paces behind this tattered herald strutted the champion, Rory Dhu
Mhor, swinging his kilt, and like the wild stag of his native mountains,
haughtily sniffing the breeze.
At this sight, all the fierce old Border blood began to surge through
Ringan Oliver's veins. The contemptuous challenge goaded him to fury;
for the Christianity of our Covenanting ancestors was seldom of that
cast which prompts the turning of the other cheek to the smiter, and
Ringan was one of the most militant of a militant sect.
"God do so to me, and more also," shouted he, springing to his feet,
"'gin I humble not this blethering boaster, and stop his craw, or he
maun stop mine."
"Na, na, Ringan," cried his friends, "haud sae, man, haud sae. Ye'll be
clean dung-ower; ye're ower sair spent to fecht thenow."
But this only goaded Ringan the more.
"As the Lord liveth, he shall lick the dust. Hinder me not, friends,
withstand me not; I maun do battle with this Philistine."
And with that, he rushed into the street, broadsword in hand.
"Diaoul! Fwhat will this creatur pe tat will pe approaching in such ways
and manners pefore a Hieland shentleman?" cried the Highlander with a
snort, giving an extra cock to his bonnet.
"I am an unworthy follower of Christ, our spiritual Redeemer, and a
soldier of King William, our temporal deliverer; and I stand here to bid
you make good your profane boasting."
"Fhery goot inteet! Fhery goot inteet! you haf peen suppering at
Killiecrankie, and now you would pe after breakfasting at Tunkeld? By
Cot, you shall haf it!"
And Rory drew his claymore. They were not ill-matched. Both were big
men, both of gigantic strength, both skilled swordsmen. But the
Highlander had by far the greater experience of duelling; it was, in
fact, the pride of his life to pick a quarrel and to slay his
antagonist. Moreover, he had his target, which was of immense assistance
in warding off blows; and Ringan had no guard other than his sword,
which fact, in itself, made the combat unequal. And, to crown all, the
Highlander was infinitely the fresher. But the dour, fiery, old Border
blood had brought Ringan to this pass, when he was in no way fit to
fight, and, whatever the cost, he must now go through with it.
So to it they fell. Long they fought, and fiercely, till the breath came
hard-drawn and short, and the red blood ran fast from both combatants.
Only, the Highlander was less distressed than Ringan, his wounds fewer
and less serious. Still, they kept on without pause, till to the fierce
joy of the Highland onlookers, and the dull misery of others, it became
quite plain that Ringan's time had come. Human nature could do no more;
he was beaten, and was being driven slowly back and back, his defence
each minute getting less vigorous and confident, his attack less to be
dreaded. Loud rang the exulting Gaelic yells to Rory to finish him, to
"give his flesh to the eagles."
And now Ringan, blood flowing from a dozen gashes, was down on one knee,
but still almost mechanically guarding head and body from the whirlwind
final attack of the Highlander. Sick at heart, the Lowland onlookers
turned their looks aside; they hated to see such an end of a brave
comrade, and they were too few to avenge him. Suddenly, and with bent
heads, they turned away from looking at the figure of the wearied
Borderer, beaten down on to his knee, away from sight of the flashing
claymore that was now so near to tasting their friend's life-blood. And
then to their ears came a roar, as of the routing of some mighty bull of
Bashan. Glancing back quickly, their astonished eyes saw Rory Dhu Mhor
standing rigidly erect and stiff, an expression of blank wonder on his
hairy face, and the point of Ringan's broadsword appearing out between
the Highlander's shoulders. Then, with another mighty roar, as the sword
was withdrawn, he sprang convulsively off the ground, and with a clatter
fell heavily on his target, dead. It was a spent man that he was dealing
with, he had rashly thought. Too well he knew the game; he had played it
successfully so often before. It needed but to go in now and slay. In
his over confidence the Highlander neglected for one moment to be
cunning of fence, and during that moment he exposed his body. It was
enough for a swordsman so skilled as Ringan Oliver. Exhausted as he was,
like a flash his weapon leapt forward, and the great Highland champion
had fought his last fight.
It was near to being a dearly bought victory. Murder was in the hearts
of the Highlanders, as for the moment they stood in savage silence,
hungering for the life of their champion's overthrower. And Ringan was
fainting from loss of blood, unable to raise himself from the trampled,
muddy ground on which he had fallen. Things indeed looked ill for him
and for his friends. And ill, no doubt, it would have fared with them,
if just then it had not chanced that the certain news reached the
Highlanders in Dunkeld of the death of him they called "Ian Dhu nan
Cath" (Black John of the Battles), John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount
Dundee, slain the previous day in Killiecrankie fight. Thus it happened
that, instead of falling sword in hand on the little party of
Lowlanders, the dismayed clansmen began to slip away, and Ringan's
friends succeeded in getting their sorely wounded comrade into safety.
It was some time after this, when life had become less stormy, that
Ringan again took up his residence at Smailcleuchfoot. Here he continued
to live till he was quite an old man. It was here, too, that the
incident befell which gave rise to the ballad written by Mr. James
Telfer early in last century.
Ringan had ever been known as well for his rigid ideas of faith and
honour as for his great strength and undaunted courage, and these
qualities had brought him greatly into the esteem and friendship of his
landlord, one of the earliest of the Marquesses of Lothian. It is said
that when the Marquess, towards the end of his life, found it necessary
to take what was then the tedious and toilsome journey to London, he
sent for Ringan, and giving him the key of a room in Ferniehurst in
which were kept important and valuable deeds and family papers, charged
him on no account to allow anyone to enter the room or to interfere with
the papers until he (the Marquess) should return. It happened, however,
shortly after Lord Lothian's departure that his heir had occasion to
wish to enter this locked room, and he sent to demand the key from
Ringan. The old man, naturally and rightly, refused to depart from the
instructions he had received when the key was delivered to him, and the
reply he sent to the young lord may probably have been somewhat blunt
and uncompromising. In any case, hot words passed between him and the
indignant heir, who considered, perhaps not unnaturally, that
prohibition to enter the locked room, to whomsoever else it might apply,
certainly could not under any circumstances apply to him. Perhaps had he
gone in the first instance himself to Ringan and explained matters the
affair might without much difficulty have been arranged. But he had
taken the other course, and had demanded the key as a matter of right.
Hence came hot words between the two, and the upshot was that the
younger man left boiling with resentment at the "old Cameronian devil,
Ringan Oliver," and threatening to pay him out.
No very long time after this the old Marquess died, and Ringan's enemy
reigned in his stead. Nor was it long ere he began to show that no
portion of the wrath conceived by him against the old man had been
allowed to die for want of nursing. One September day, when Ringan's
crop was all but ready to cut, there came across the water from
Ferniehurst the new Marquess accompanied by several mounted men,
servants, and others, with dogs. Soon the party began riding over the
farm, ostensibly looking for hares; finally, they all went into the
standing crop, trampling it down wantonly, hallooing their dogs here,
there, and everywhere, and galloping furiously about wherever the corn
stood thickest. Ringan had been rapidly becoming more and more angry as
he found that the damage done was so manifestly wilful damage; and at
last, finding remonstrance to be so much waste of breath, he snatched up
an old musket, which possibly had not seen the light since
Killiecrankie, and shot one of the dogs.
That was enough for the Marquess; he had got the old man in the wrong
now. Off he went at once and lodged with the Sheriff of Roxburghshire a
complaint against Ringan, and a summons was issued. Ringan refused to
appear in court.
"Na!" he said. "I've done nae wrong. I daur them to lay a hand on me."
But the Law was not to be thus flouted. If he wouldn't come freely, then
he must be made to come, said the sheriff. Here a difficulty arose.
Ringan's reputation for gigantic strength and utter fearlessness still
survived, and no one dared even attempt to apprehend the old man. In
such circumstances the sheriff pressed into his service the Marquess
and his men, and this party set off for Smailcleuchfoot. Friends warned
Ringan of their coming and counselled him to fly. But the dour old
Cameronian's spirit refused to let him do aught that might even remotely
suggest a doubt as to his being absolutely in the right. He only retired
into his house, and resolutely set about barring doors and windows; and
when that was done—
"Let them touch me that daur," he cried, taking up and carefully loading
the same old musket with which he had shot the dog.
Soon came the sheriff's summons, to which Ringan paid no heed, beyond
letting the party know that he was at home, and had no intention of
surrendering. There was in the house with him at this time a young girl
(whether an adopted daughter or merely a maid who cooked and looked
after the old man's house, one does not know), but she had refused to
leave when he began to barricade the place, and Ringan's sole anxiety
was now apparently for her. Of his own safety or that of his house, he
seemed to think not at all; the grim old dourness and determination that
had distinguished him at Bothwell Bridge and elsewhere were again
smouldering, ready to burst into flame.
"Keep oot o' the licht, lass, and rin nae risk; gang in ahint yon press
door," he said to the girl, when the men outside began firing at the
Then he, too, began to fire back at his enemies, and for a time he was
too much absorbed in his practice to pay attention to what the girl
might be doing. Thus, he had just fired a shot which clipped away one of
the curls from the Sheriff's wig, when a gasp, and the sound of a heavy
fall on the floor behind him, caused the old man hastily to look round.
Curiosity had overcome her caution; the girl had ventured from her
shelter, and, standing behind Ringan, had been trying to see, past the
edge of the window, how things were going outside. Perhaps she had a
lover in the attacking party, and feared for his safety. Anyhow, as she
lent forward, forgetting her own danger, a bullet meant for the old man
found its billet in her throat. For a moment Ringan stood aghast, then
knelt by the dying girl, striving in vain to staunch the blood that
gushed from her wound. And as he realised that such a hurt was far
beyond his simple skill, the lust to kill was born again in the old
man's breast. He forgot that he was old, forgot how the treacherous
years had stolen from him the vigour and spring that had been his,
forgot everything but the half-crazy desire for vengeance.
With the roar of a wounded tiger he tore down the barricades fixed by
himself not an hour before, snatched from its place over the fire the
trusty old broad-sword that had served him so well in former days, flung
wide the door, and charged blindly out on his enemies. Alas for Ringan
Oliver! Even as he crossed the threshold, a rope, or some part of his
discarded barricade, caught his foot, and like the Philistines' mighty
god Dagon lang syne before the Ark of the Lord, he fell prone on his
face, and the enemy was on him in an instant.
Even then, disarmed and smothered by numbers as he was, the struggle for
a time was by no means unequal, and more than once, with gigantic
effort, he had all but flung off his captors. Perhaps, in the end, the
task might even have been too much for the sheriff's party had it not
been that a treacherous tinker, named Allan, with a hammer struck the
old man a heavy blow on the face, fracturing the jaw and partially
stunning him. Then, bound hand and foot, Auld Ringan was carried to
Edinburgh. There, in the Tolbooth, he lay for eight long years,
suffering tortures, first from his broken jaw, and later from old wounds
that now broke out afresh. He that had lived so long a life in the pure
fresh air of the Border, who had loved more to hear the lark sing than
the mouse cheep, now languished in a foul, insanitary prison, and it was
but the ghost of his former self that at the end of his long confinement
crept away to pass the brief remainder of his days in a house in the
Auld Ringan Oliver died in 1736. He sleeps among the martyrs in