by John & Jean
A venerable and highly respected Scottish professor of literature was
once asked what was his ruling passion—his heart's desire? If the
secrets of his soul could be laid bare, what, above all, would be found
to be his predominant wish? The question was an indiscreet one, but he
was tolerant. He tightly compressed his gentle mouth, and firmly
readjusted his gold-rimmed glasses.
"I wish" said he, "to be a corsair."
It would have been interesting to know how many of a following he would
have had from sedate academic circles had he been given his heart's
desire and had sailed down the Clyde with the raw head and bloody bones
showing on the black flag that flew at his mast-head. How many of us are
there with whom law-abiding habits, decorous respectability, form but a
thin covering of ice over unplumbed depths of lawless desire? Not long
since, when a wretched criminal case in which the disappearance of a
pearl necklace was involved, was agitating every Scottish club and
tea-table, a charming old Scottish lady, whose career from childhood up
has been one of unblemished virtue, was heard to bemoan the manner of
commission of the crime. "She did it very stupidly. Now, if I had
been doing it I should"—And her astounded auditors listened to an able
exposition of the way in which she would successfully have eluded
justice. Is it the story of the villain who is successfully tracked to
his doom that attracts us most? or that of the great Raffles and his
kind whose villainies almost invariably escape detection, and who
burgles with a light and easy touch and the grace and humour of a Claude
Duval? Let us be honest with ourselves. How many of us really wish to be
corsairs? Which of us would not have been a reiver in the old reiving
days? Have we not noticed in ourselves and other Borderers an undeniable
complacency, a boastful pride in a mask of apology that would not
deceive an infant, when we say, "Oh yes; certainly a good many of my
ancestors were hanged for lifting cattle." And, however "indifferent
honest" we ourselves may be, which of us does not lay aside even that
most futile mask and boast unashamedly when we can claim descent from
one of those princes among reivers—Wat o' Harden, Johnnie Armstrong, or
William Armstrong, better known as Kinmont Willie, lived in the palmiest
days of the Border reivers. The times of purely Scottish and purely
English kings were drawing to a close, and with one monarch to rule over
Britain the raider could no longer plead that he was a patriot who
fought for king and country when he made an incursion over the Cheviots,
burned a few barns and dwelling-houses, lifted some "kye and oxen,"
horses, and goats, and what household gear and minted money he could lay
hands on, slew a man or two, and joyously returned home.
But with Elizabeth still on the English throne, and with Queen Mary, and
afterwards her son, reigning in Scotland, the dance could go merrily on,
and when we look at those days in retrospect it seems to us that the
last bars of the music, the last turns in the dance, went more rapidly
than any that had gone before.
In Kinmont Willie's lifetime the Wardens of the Marches had but little
leisure. It was necessary for them to be fighting men with a good head
for figures, for on the days of truce when the Wardens of the Scottish
and English Marches met to redd up accounts, not only had they to work
out knotty arithmetical problems with regard to the value of every sort
of live stock, of buildings, of "insight," and the payment of such
bills, but they had to have expert knowledge in fair exchange of a
Scottish for an English life, an English for a Scotch. Little wonder if
their patience sometimes ran short, as did that of a Howard of Naworth
upon one famous occasion. He was deeply engrossed in studies that had no
bearing upon Border affairs when an officer came to announce the
capture of some Scottish moss-troopers, and to ask for the Warden's
commands with regard to them. The interruption was untimely, and Lord
Howard was exasperated. "Hang them, in the devil's name!" he said
angrily, and went on with his studies. A little later he felt he could
better give his mind to the consideration of the case, and sent for his
officer. "Touching the prisoners," said he, "what have you done with
Proud of being one of those who did not let the grass grow beneath their
feet, the officer beamingly responded: "Everyone o' them's hangit, my
It was a March day in 1596, when a Wardens' meeting took place at
Dayholm, near Kershopefoot. The snow was still lying in the hollows of
the Cheviots, the trees were bare, the Liddel and the Esk swollen by
thaws and winter rains; but weather was a thing that came but little
into the reckoning of the men of the Marches unless some foray was
afoot. They got through the business more or less satisfactorily, and
proceeded to ride home before the day of truce should be ended. From
sunrise on the one day until sunset on the next, so the Border law
ordained, all Scots and Englishmen who were present at the Wardens'
meeting should be free of scathe. Now the Warden of Liddesdale at that
time was Sir Walter Scott of Branxholme, laird of Buccleuch. He was one
of the greatest men of his century; a "fyrebrande," according to Queen
Elizabeth, and a fierce enemy according to those who incurred his
enmity; but, according to all others, a man of perfect courage,
stainless loyalty and honour, charming wit, and great culture. He never
spared an enemy nor turned his back on a friend, and he was a born
winner of hearts and leader of men. Amongst his retainers was Kinmont
Willie, and as Willie rode from the Wardens' meeting, along the banks of
the Liddel, in company with only three or four men, a body of two
hundred English horsemen, commanded by Salkeld, Warden of the Eastern
March, marked him from across the water. Truce or no truce, the chance
seemed to them one that was too good to lose. Speedily some of them
pushed on ahead, and an ambush was laid for Kinmont Willie. He and his
friends were naturally totally unprepared for such a dastardly attack,
but it took them but little time to gather their wits, and Willie gave
them a good run for their money. For nearly four miles they chased him,
but ran him down at length. After some hard giving and taking, he had to
acknowledge his defeat, and, pinioned like a common malefactor—arms
tied behind him, legs bound under his horse's belly—they rode with him
into Carlisle town.
The news of the treacherous taking of his follower was not long in
reaching Buccleuch, who at once raised an angry protest. Scrope, the
English Warden, received this with an evasive and obviously trumped-up
counter-charge of Kinmont Will having first broken truce. Moreover, he
said, he was a notorious enemy to law and order, and must bear the
penalty of his misdeeds. This was more than the bold Buccleuch could
"He has ta'en the table wi' his hand,
He garr'd the red wine spring on hie—
'Now Christ's curse on my head,' he said,
'But avenged of Lord Scrope I'll be!
O, is my basnet a widow's curch?
Or my lance a wand o' the willow-tree?
Or my arm a ladye's lilye hand,
That an English lord should lightly me?'"
No time was lost in making an appeal to King James, which resulted in an
application to the English Government. But while the English authorities
quibbled, paltered, and delayed—with a little evasion, a little extra
red-tapism, a little judicious procrastination—the days of Kinmont
Willie were being numbered by his captors. The triumph of putting an end
to the daring deeds of so bold a Scottish reiver when they had him
safely in chains in Carlisle Castle, was one that they were not likely
lightly to forego. It would be indeed a merry crowd of English Borderers
that flocked to Haribee Hill on the day that Will of Kinmont dangled
from the gallows.
Buccleuch saw that he had no time to lose. He himself must strike at
once, and strike with all his might.
The night of April 13, 1596, was dark and stormy. All the Border burns
and rivers were in spate; the winds blew shrewd and chill through the
glens of Liddesdale, and sleet drifted down in the teeth of the gale.
The trees that grew so thick round Woodhouselee bent and cracked, and
sent extra drenching showers of rain down on the steel jacks of a band
of horsemen who carefully picked their way underneath them, on to the
south. Buccleuch was leader, and with him rode some forty picked men of
his friends and kinsmen, to meet some hundred and fifty or so of other
chosen men. Scotts, Elliots, Armstrongs, and Grahams were there, and
although Buccleuch had requested that only younger sons were to risk
their lives in the forlorn hope that night, Auld Wat o' Harden and many
another landowner rode with their chief. "Valiant men, they would not
bide," says Scott of Satchells, whose own father was one of the number.
Kinmont Willie's own tower of Morton, on the water of Sark, about ten
miles north of Carlisle, was their rallying point. Buccleuch had
arranged every detail most carefully at a horse-race held at Langholm a
few days before, and one of the Grahams, an Englishman whose countrymen
were not yet aware that the Graham clan had allied themselves to that of
the Scotts, had conveyed his ring to Kinmont Willie to show him that he
was not forgotten by his feudal lord. One and all, the reivers were well
armed, "with spur on heel, and splent on spauld," and with them they
carried scaling ladders, picks, axes, and iron crowbars. The Esk and
Eden were in furious flood, but no force of nature or of man could stay
the reivers' horses that night.
"We go to catch a rank reiver
Has broken faith wi' the bauld Buccleuch."
That was the burden of their thoughts, and although they well knew that
ere the dawning each one of them might be claiming the hospitality of
six feet of English sod, their hearts were light. To them a message that
the fray was up was like the sound of the huntsman's horn in the ears of
a thoroughbred hunter.
"'Where are ye gaun, ye mason lads,
Wi' a' your ladders, lang and hie?'
'We gang to berry a corbie's nest,
That wons not far frae Woodhouselee.'"
No light matter was it to harry that corbie's nest. Carlisle Castle was
a strong castle, strongly garrisoned, and to make a raid on an English
town was a bold attempt indeed. But fear was a thing unknown to the
Border reivers, and the flower of them rode with Buccleuch that
night—close on his horse's heels Wat o' Harden, Walter Scott of
Goldielands, and Kinmont's own four stalwart sons—Jock, Francie,
Geordie, and Sandy. As the dark night hours wore on, sleet and wind were
reinforced by a thunderstorm.
"And when we left the Staneshaw-bank,
The wind began full loud to blaw,
But 'twas wind and weet, and fire and sleet,
When we came beneath the castle wa'."
When the besiegers reached the castle they found some of the watch
asleep, and the rest sheltering indoors from the storm. The outside of
the castle was left to take care of itself. It was dismaying to find the
scaling ladders too short to be of any use, but a small postern gate was
speedily and quietly undermined. Drifting sleet, growling thunder, and
the wails of the wind drowned all sounds of the assault, and soon there
was no further need for concealment, for the lower court of the castle
was theirs. The guard started up, to find sword-blades at their throats;
two of them were left dead, and the rest were speedily overpowered.
Buccleuch, the fifth man in, gave the command to proclaim aloud their
"'Now sound out trumpets!' quoth Buccleuch;
'Let's waken Lord Scroope right merrilie!'
Then loud the Warden's trumpet blew—
'O wha daur meddle wi' me?'"
While Buccleuch himself kept watch at the postern, two dozen stout
moss-troopers now rushed to the castle gaol, a hundred yards from the
postern gate, forced the door of Kinmont Willie's prison, and found him
there chained to the wall, and carried him out, fetters and all, on the
back of "the starkest man in Teviotdale."
"Stand to it!" cried Buccleuch—so says the traitor, a man from the
English side, who afterwards acted as informer to the English
Warden—"for I have vowed to God and my Prince that I would fetch out of
England, Kinmont, dead or alive."
Shouts of victory in strident Scottish voices, the crash of picks on
shattered doors and ruined mason-work, and that arrogant, insolent,
oft-repeated blast from the trumpet of him whom Scrope described in his
report to the Privy Council as "the capten of this proud attempt," were
not reassuring sounds to the Warden of the English Marches, his deputy,
and his garrison. Five hundred Scots at least—so did Scrope swear to
himself and others—were certainly there, and there was no gainsaying
the adage that "Discretion is the better part of valour." So, in the
words of the historian, he and the others "did keip thamselffis close."
But no sooner had the rescue party reached the banks of the Eden than
the bells of Carlisle clanged forth a wild alarm. Red-tongued flames
from the beacon on the great tower did their best, in spite of storm and
sleet, to warn all honest English folk that a huge army of Scots was on
the war-path, and that the gallows on Haribee Hill had been insulted by
the abduction of its lawful prey.
"We scarce had won the Staneshaw-bank,
When a' the Carlisle bells were rung,
And a thousand men on horse and foot,
Cam' wi' the keen Lord Scroope along.
Buccleuch has turn'd to Eden Water,
Even where it flow'd frae brim to brim,
And he has plunged in wi' a' his band,
And safely swam them through the stream.
He turned them on the other side,
And at Lord Scroope his glove flung he—
'If ye like na' my visit in merry England,
In fair Scotland come visit me!'
All sore astonished stood Lord Scroope,
He stood as still as rock of stane;
He scarcely dare to trew his eyes,
When through the water they had gane.
'He is either himsel' a devil frae hell,
Or else his mother a witch maun be;
I wadna' have ridden that wan water
For a' the gowd in Christentie.'"
At a place called "Dick's Tree," not far from Longtown, there still
stands the "smiddy" where lived the blacksmith who had the honour of
knocking off Kinmont Willie's fetters. Sir Walter Scott has handed on
the story of the smith's daughter who, as a little child, was roused at
daybreak by a "sair clatter" of horses, and shouts for her father,
followed, as the smith slept soundly, by a lance being thrust through
the window. Looking out in the dim grey of the morning, the child saw
"more gentlemen than she had ever seen before in one place, all on
horseback, in armour, and dripping wet—and that Kinmont Willie, who sat
woman-fashion behind one of them, was the biggest carle she ever
saw—and there was much merriment in the party."
Furious was the hive of wasps that Buccleuch brought about his head by
thus insultingly casting a stone into the English bike. The wrath of
Queen Elizabeth was unappeasable. Scrope found it sounded better to
multiply the number of the raiders by five, but Scottish tongues were
not slow to tell the affronting truth, and the Englishmen of Carlisle
had the extra bitterness of being butts for the none too subtle jests of
every Scot on the Border. The success of so daring a venture made the
Scottish reivers arrogant. Between June 19 and July 24 of that year, the
spoils of the western Marches were a thousand and sixty-one cattle and
ninety-eight horses, and some thirty steadings and other buildings,
mostly in Gilsland, were burned. The angry English made reprisals. It
was in one of them that the Scots who were taken were leashed "like
doggis," and for this degradation Buccleuch and Ker of Cessford made the
English pay most handsomely. Together those "twoo fyrebrandes of the
Border" led an incursion into Tynedale, where, in broad daylight, they
burned three hundred steadings and dwelling-houses, many stables, barns,
and other outhouses, slew with the sword fourteen of those who had been
in the Scottish raid, and brought back a handsome booty.
King Jamie was in a most uncomfortable position. Queen Elizabeth
demanded Buccleuch's punishment, and he argued. She nagged, and he
wriggled. Finally, after continual angry remonstrances from the insulted
English monarch, he had to give in, and Buccleuch and Ker had both, at
different periods, to suffer imprisonment for the sin, in the virgin
Queen's eyes, of the rescue of Kinmont Willie, and of its bloody
consequences. We realise what was the reputation of Buccleuch and of his
followers when we see into what a state of panic the mere prospect of
having the Border chieftain as prisoner at Berwick-on-Tweed threw Sir
John Carey, the governor. To Lord Hunsdon he wrote: "I entreat your
Lordship that I may not become the jailor of so dangerous a prisoner or,
at least, that I may know whether I shall keep him like a prisoner or
no? for there is not a worse or more dangerous place in England to keep
him than this; it is so near his friends, and, besides, so many in this
town willing to pleasure him, and his escape may be so easily made; and
once out of this town he is past recovery. Wherefore I humbly beseech
your honor, let him be removed from hence to a more secure place, for I
protest to the Almightie God, before I will take the charge to kepe him
here, I will desire to be put in prison myself, and to have a keeper of
me. For what care soever be had of him here, he shall want no
furtherance whatsoever wit of man can devise, if he himself list to make
an escape. So I pray your Lordship, even for God's sake and for the love
of a brother, to relieve me from this danger." But there was no attempt
at a rescue of Buccleuch. He did not desire it. Not as a criminal, but
as a state prisoner he gave himself up to the English governor, and,
having given his parole, he kept it, like the gentleman of stainless
honour that he was.
Two years after his imprisonment at Berwick-on-Tweed, Buccleuch, on his
way with two hundred followers to serve with Prince Maurice of Nassau in
the Low Countries—a raid from which many a Borderer never returned—was
sufficiently received into favour to be permitted to go to London and
kiss the hand of her most gracious Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. The
remembrance of Kinmont Willie still rankled in that most unforgiving of
"How dared you," she imperiously demanded, "undertake an enterprise so
desperate and presumptuous?"
"Dared?" answered Buccleuch; "what is it that a man dares not do?"
Elizabeth turned impetuously to a lord-in-waiting. "With ten thousand
such men," she said, "our brother of Scotland might shake the firmest
throne in Europe."
That Kinmont Willie avenged himself not once, but many times, on those
who had treacherously trapped him and done their best to make him meat
for the greedy English gibbet, is not a matter of surmise, but one of
history. His ride into Carlisle on that bleak March day, and the long
days and dreary nights he spent in chains in the English gaol, were
little likely to engender a gentle and forgiving spirit in the breast of
one of the most fiery of the "minions of the moon." When, in 1600, he
raided Scrope's tenants, they were given good cause to regret the
happenings in which Scrope had taken so prominent a part.
We have no record of the end of Kinmont Willie, and can but hope, for
his sake, that he died the death he would have died—a good horse under
him almost to the end, a good sword in his hand, open sky above him, and
round him the caller breeze that has blown across the Border hills. In a
lonely little graveyard in the Debatable Land, close to the Water of
Sark, and near the March dyke between the two countries, his body is
said to rest. Does there never come a night, when the moon is hidden
behind a dark scud of clouds, and the old reiver, growing restless in
his grave, finds somewhere the shade of a horse that, in its day, could
gallop with the best, and rides again across the Border, to meet once
more his "auld enemies" of England, and, to the joyous accompaniment of
the lowing of cattle and the jingle of spurs, returns to his lodging as
the first cock crows, and grey morning breaks?
"O, they rade in the rain, in the days that are gane,
In the rain and the wind and the lave;
They shoutit in the ha' and they routit on the hill,
But they're a' quaitit noo in the grave."