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Grisell Home, A Seventeenth Century Heroine

by John & Jean Lang

The Merse has given many a gallant man to the mother-country, oftentimes a fighter, now and again a martyr, but no fairer flower has ever blossomed in that stretch of land that has the North Sea for one of its boundaries, and looks across fertile plains to the long, blue line of Cheviots in the south, than one whose name must ever find a sure place in the hearts of those whom courage and fortitude, sweetness and merry humour, exquisite unselfishness, and gay uncomplainingness in the face of dire emergency are things to be honoured and held dear.

Grisell Home was the eldest of eighteen children, two of whom died in infancy. She was born at Redbraes Castle—now Marchmont—on December 25, 1665. There is a belief that Christmas babies always have an extra large share of the nature of Him who was born on Christmas Day; and truly Grisell Home was one of those who never seemed to know the meaning of Self. Her father, Sir Patrick Home, a man of strong character and large fortune, was known to be a rigid Presbyterian, no friend to the house of Stuart, and he was regarded by the Government of his day as "a factious person." His great friendship with his neighbour, Robert Baillie of Jerviswoode, in no way increased the favour with which either of those good men was regarded in high places. Jerviswoode and Home were "suspects," and being known as close allies, where one was supposed to be plotting, the other was always expected to be at his back.

To be the eldest of so large a brood must have been a sobering thing for any little girl, but Grisell shouldered her responsibilities with a happy heart, and united with that happy, child-like heart the wisdom and discretion of a woman. She was only twelve when she was chosen as messenger from her father to his friend Mr. Baillie, who was then in prison in Edinburgh. Over lonely Soutra Hill (where highway robbery and murder were things not unknown), it was no easy or pleasant ride from Marchmont to the Port of Edinburgh; and here the bleaching skulls of martyred covenanters gave to those who entered the town grim warning of the risks of nonconformity. Doubtless little Grisell had been provided by her parents with a suitable escort, but, even so, her heart must have beat faster as she went up the High Street to where the "Heart of Midlothian" then stood, and asked to see Mr. Robert Baillie, her father's friend. The bright-eyed, slim little maid, with her chestnut hair and exquisite complexion, must have been as unexpected a sight in that gloomy place as a wild rose in a desert. None could suspect her of meddling with affairs of State, or of tampering with the prisoners of his gracious Majesty. Thus Grisell Home was able successfully to carry a letter of advice and information, and to bring back to her father in the Merse tidings of a blameless martyr.

With his father in prison that day was Baillie's son, George, a boy one year older than Grisell. He had been, as were many of the well-born lads of his time, at his studies in Holland, reading law, when his father was put in prison, but hastened home on hearing the news. Boys wore swords, and not Eton jackets, in George Baillie's day. He had, as his daughter afterwards wrote of him, "a rough, manly countenance"; and from that day until the day of her death that face, which she knew first as a boy's, was more beautiful to Grisell Home than any other face on earth. Several times afterwards was Grisell sent as bearer of important letters from her father to him whose son, in days still long to come, was to be her husband, and never once was the douce little messenger suspected.

Not many months later her own father was a prisoner in Dumbarton Castle, and during the fifteen months in which he lay there, Grisell was still the messenger, not only to him, but to his friends in various parts. Her early childhood may have been unharassed, but Grisell Home's girlhood was a careful and anxious one. On the discovery of the Rye House Plot, Baillie of Jerviswoode and Home of Polwarth, innocent men both, were denounced as traitors to their King. Baillie was taken, and after several months of imprisonment in London, so heavily loaded with chains that his health completely broke down, he was brought by sea to Edinburgh in stormy November weather which kept the ship a fortnight on its way. A dying man when he was put in the Tolbooth, he yet had to undergo many exhausting examinations and a farcical trial, with "Bluidy Mackenzie" for chief inquisitor, and on Christmas Eve, 1684, he gallantly and cheerfully met a martyr's death at the Market Cross of Edinburgh.

Sir Patrick Home's denunciation was longer in coming than that of his friend, and not until November 1684 was the warrant for his apprehension issued. He, good man, had no desire for martyrdom; moreover, at that time he already possessed ten children, whose future as orphans was likely to be wretched, and so Sir Patrick sought concealment from the hounds of the law. Foiled in laying hold of him, the law seized his eldest son, Patrick, and cast him into prison. Two days after Jerviswoode's death, the lad petitioned the Privy Council for release. He was but "a poor afflicted young boy," he said, loyal to his principles and with a hatred of plots, and only craved liberty that he might "see to some livelihood for himself" and "be in some condition" to help and serve his disconsolate mother and the rest of his father's ten starving children. Most grudgingly was the boon bestowed, and not until the boy had obtained security for his good behaviour to the extent of two thousand pounds sterling was he allowed to return to the Merse.

Meantime Redbraes Castle was constantly kept under supervision. Scarcely a week passed without a party of redcoats clattering up the drive, interrogating the servants, tramping through all the rooms, hunting round the policies, and doing everything in their power to make things unpleasant for the wife and children of this attainted rebel. To only two people in the house, and to one out of it, was the secret of Sir Patrick Home's hiding-place known. With the help of a faithful friend and retainer, Jamie Winter, the carpenter, Lady Home and her daughter Grisell had one dark night carried bed and bedclothes to the burying-place of the Homes, a vault under Polwarth Church, a mile from Redbraes. A black walnut folding-bed, exactly underneath the pulpit from which the minister of Polwarth preached every Sunday, was the fugitive's resting-place at night, while for a month he saw no more daylight than was able to reach him from a slit at one end of the vault. The ashes of his ancestors were scarcely lively company, but Sir Patrick found "great comfort and constant entertainment" by repeating to himself Buchanan's Latin Version of the Psalms. Each night, too, the prisoner was cheered by a visit from his daughter Grisell. Through an open glen by the Swindon Burn, down what is called The Lady's Walk, Grisell nightly came to the vault with her little store of provisions. She was an imaginative, poetic little maid, and the whisper of the wind in the lime trees that grew on either hand would make her shiver, and yet more loudly would her heart thump when in the darkness she stumbled over the graves in the kirkyard, and remembered all the tales she had ever heard of bogles and of ghosts. That lonely walk in the night must always have been full of terrors, yet Grisell's love for her father was so great that she steadfastly braved them all. One fear only she had—that of the soldiers. The wind moaning through the trees or rustling the long grass, the sound of a rabbit or some other wild thing in the bracken, the sudden bark of a dog,—all these made her sure that some spy had found out her secret, and sent her running as fast as her little legs could carry her to try to save her father from his captors. The first night she went was the worst, for the minister kept dogs, and the manse was near the church, and even her light footfall was sufficient to set every one of them a-barking. But Lady Home sent for the minister next day, and upon the pretence of one of them being mad, persuaded their owner to hang them all. Grisell and her father had the same sunny nature, and both dearly loved a joke, and each amusing little incident of the day was saved up by the former to be told while the prisoner made a meal on the food which she brought with her. Many a hearty laugh they had together in that dark, dismal place, and often Grisell stayed so late that she had to run up the glen, so as to get home before day dawned. The difficulties she encountered in securing food enough for her father without arousing the suspicion of the servants was always a subject for jest, for, more often than not, the only possible means of getting the food was by surreptitiously conveying it, during a meal, from her own plate into her lap. Her amazing appetite was bound to be commented upon, but never did she surprise her brothers and sisters more than on a day when the chief dish at dinner was her father's favourite one—sheep's head. While the younger members of the family were very busy over their broth, Grisell conveyed to her lap the greater part of the head. Her brother Sandy, afterwards Lord Marchmont, dispatched his plateful first, looked up, and gave a shout of amazement.

"Mother!" he cried, "will ye look at Grisell! while we have been eating our broth, she has eaten up the whole sheep's heid!"

"Sandy must have an extra share of the next sheep's heid," said the laughing father when he heard the tale.

During the month that Sir Patrick Home lay hid in the vault, it was not only by collecting food for him by day, and by taking it to him by night, that his young daughter gave proof of her devotion. In a room of which Grisell kept the key, on the ground floor at Redbraes Castle, she and Jamie Winter worked in the small hours, making a hiding-place for the fugitive. Underneath a bed which drew out they lifted up the boards, and with their hands, scraped and burrowed in the earth to make a hole large enough for a man to lie in. To prevent making a noise they used no tools, and as they dug out the earth it was packed in a sheet, put on Jamie's back, and carried, Grisell helping, out at the window into the garden. Not a nail was left upon her fingers when the task was completed, and a sorely unslept little maid she must have looked at the end of a month's foraging by day and hard work by night, with that nerve-tearing walk as a beginning to her nightly labours. The hole being ready, Jamie Winter conveyed to it a large deep wooden box which he had made at home, with air-holes in the lid, and furnished with mattress and bedding, and this was fitted into the place made for it. It was then Grisell's duty to examine it daily, and to keep the air-holes clean picked, and when it had for some weeks stood trial of no water coming into it from its being sunk so low in the ground, Sir Patrick one night came home. For a couple of weeks only was Redbraes his sanctuary, for, on Christmas Day, upon Grisell lifting the boards as usual to see that all was well with the lair that her father was to retire to in case of a sudden surprise, the mattress bounced to the top, the box being full of water. The poor child nearly fainted from horror, but Sir Patrick remained quite calm.

"Obviously," he said to his wife and daughter, "we must tempt Providence no longer. It is now fit and necessary for me to go off and leave you." Later in the day, news brought by the carrier confirmed him in his resolution. Baillie of Jerviswoode had been hanged in Edinburgh on the previous day, and his head now adorned a spike on the Nether Bow. The death of his best friend was a great shock to Sir Patrick, perhaps an even greater one to Lady Home, and to little Grisell, for could not their imagination readily paint a picture of their dear "traitor" hanging where his friend had hung. No time was to be lost, and Grisell at once began work on her father's wardrobe, and in the coming days and nights, with anxious fingers, made such alterations in his clothing as seemed necessary for a disguise.

Meantime a friend and neighbour of Sir Patrick's, John Home of Halyburton, had "jaloused" that his namesake was not hidden so far afield as some imagined, and when, one cold January afternoon, he heard the clatter of hoofs on the high-road and saw the red coats of the dragoons, he had a stab at his heart at the thought of another good son of the Merse going to martyrdom.

"Where do you ride to-day?" he asked, when the party came up.

"To take Polwarth at Redbraes," they said.

"Is it so?" said Home. "Then I'll go with you myself and be your guide. But come your ways into the house and rest you a little, till I get ready for the road."

Nothing loth, the troopers followed him, and were still contentedly testing the quality of the contents of his big case-bottles when a groom galloped off to Redbraes. Halyburton's message to Lady Home of Polwarth was a brief one, for when she opened his envelope there was nothing there to read—only a little feather fluttered out, giving as plainly the advice to instant flight as pages of words might have done.

There was nothing for it but to take another into their secret. John Allen, the grieve, was sent for, and fainted dead away when he heard that his master was in the house instead of being in safety in foreign lands, and that the dragoons were even then on his tracks. He, too, had visions of a figure dangling from a gibbet, and of a head on the Nether Bow—and small blame to him, worthy man.

It was then the darkening, and Allen's instructions were at once to tell his fellow-servants that he had received orders to sell three horses at Morpeth Fair, and to be off on the road without further delay.

Sir Patrick took farewell of his wife and of Grisell, climbed out of a window, met the grieve near the stables, and was off in the darkness, with as little noise as might be. It was a sorrowful parting, but when, not long after he was gone, the dragoons rode up to Redbraes, Lady Home and her daughter were glad indeed that he was away.

Somewhat regretting their prolonged enjoyment of the hospitality of Home of Halyburton, the search-party thoroughly ransacked every hole and corner of Redbraes Castle. Inside they could find no trace nor pick up one crumb of information, but from an outside servant they heard of John Allen's departure, Morpeth way, with three horses.

"Horses, indeed! for Morpeth Fair?" the dragoon officer hooted at the thought. "Boot and saddle, lads!" he called to his men; "we'll run the traitorous fox to earth long before he gets to Berwick!" At a canter they were off down the drive, the contents of Halyburton's case-bottles still warming their hearts and giving extra zest to their enterprise. It was a dark night, and they were thick black woods that they rode between, but they had not ridden very many miles when they were able to make out, some way in front of them, the outlines of two horses.

"We've got him, lads!" cried the officer; "run him down at last. Worry, worry, worry!"

But instead of the horses in front breaking into a gallop at the sound of pursuit, they were pulled up short by the roadside, and instead of there being two riders there was only one, leading an unsaddled horse. More exasperating than all to the ardour of the hunters was the fact that in place of the thin, clever face of Sir Patrick Home being the one to confront them, the round, scared face of a Berwickshire peasant stared at them in dismay. In vain did the officer question, bully, cross-examine. John Allen was unshakeable. He was gaun tae Morpeth Fair tae sell the horse. Na, he didnae ken where the maister was. Sure's daith he didnae ken. Aye, he left Redbraes mebbes twa hour sin', in the darkening. No amount of hectoring, no quantity of loudly—shouted oaths could move the grieve from his tale. "A wuss a did ken whaur he is," he said, "but a dinnae ken." Finally he had to be given up as hopeless, and the dragoons rode back, a little shamefacedly and cursing their luck. John Allen, his honest face still full of scared amazement, rode slowly on. Every now and again he would check his horse, look round and listen, mutter to himself bewilderedly, shake his head, and go on once more. The clatter of the dragoons had not long died away when, coming towards him from the other direction, he heard the regular beat of a horse's hoofs. It was no strange horse, he soon realised, nor was the rider a stranger. The gay smile that his face so often wore irradiated Home of Polwarth's when he heard his servant's greeting.

"Eh, losh me, Polwarth!" he said, "a never had sic a gliff in a' ma days! Here a' em, thinking aye that ye was riding no far ahint us, and when a hears a gallopin' an' turns roond, ye've santed, an' here's a pack o' thae bluidy dragoons that wad blast ye black in the face an' speir the inside oot o' a wheelbarra. Man, where were ye? It's naething short o' a meericle?"

Nor was it much short of a miracle, as Sir Patrick acknowledged. He had followed Allen at first as the grieve had thought, but his mind was full of the parting he had just gone through and of the misty future before him, and when his thoughts came back with a jerk to the actualities of the present, he heard the rush of a winter river and found that he was close by the side of the Tweed. It was some time before he could exactly find his bearings, but he did so at last, and, after some reconnoitring, found a place that could be safely forded. Once across the river, he rode quickly back towards Redbraes, hoping that by good fortune he might yet meet with Allen, and so neatly escaped the soldiers who pursued him. The high-road after this was no longer deemed safe, and the rest of his ride to London was done on bye-ways and across the moors. In two days honest John returned to Redbraes and brought to the sad hearts of Lady Home and Grisell the joyful news that Sir Patrick had not fallen into the hands of the dragoons, as they had greatly feared, but was now safely on his way to England. As a travelling surgeon, calling himself Dr. Wallace, Sir Patrick Home worked his way south, bleeding patients when need be, prescribing homely remedies when called upon to do so. None ever penetrated his disguise, and he was able to cross from London to France and journey, on foot from France to Holland with complete success.

Years afterwards, when Sir Patrick was Earl of Marchmont, Chancellor of Scotland, and President of the Privy Council, it was his lot to have to try for his life a certain Captain Burd. And during the trial there came back to him like a flash the old days when, in company with another wayfarer, he tramped the long French roads, unwinding themselves like white ribbons before him, between the avenues of stiff, tall, silvery poplars on to the flat, windmill-dotted Dutch country, with the brown-sailed boats that seemed to sail along the fields. And here, in Captain Burd, he recognised the companion of those often weary, often hungry days, when pockets were empty, fortunes at dead-low tide, and Scotland and wife and children very far away. In public the Chancellor treated his old friend with severity, but arranged with his son, Sir Andrew Home, then a young lawyer, to see Captain Burd alone. Timidly and nervously, with downcast eyes, the poor man repeated the tale to which the Chancellor had already listened. In silence he heard it again, and then: "Do you not know me?" he asked, smiling.

"God's wounds! Dr. Wallace!" cried Captain Burd, and fell with tears of joy on the neck of the Chancellor, who was readily and gladly able to prove the innocence of his old companion.

No sooner had Sir Patrick Home left Scotland than his estates were forfeited and given to Lord Seaforth, and although Lady Home went by sea to London, and there for a long time did all possible to obtain from Government an adequate allowance for the support of her family of ten, £150 a year was all that she was able to secure. Of course Grisell was her companion there, and her companion also when she sailed to Holland to join Sir Patrick. Of the ten, a little girl, Julian by name, had to be left behind with friends as she was too ill to travel, and when Grisell had safely handed over her mother and brothers and sisters to her father's care, she returned to Scotland alone, to act as escort to the little sister, "to negotiate business, and to try if she could pick up any money of some that was owing to her father." The brave and capable little woman of business, having managed affairs to her satisfaction, secured, for the passage, a nurse for the sister, who was still a weakly invalid. Moreover, the voyage to Holland, being in those days more than just the affair of a night, a cabin-bed—the only one in the ship, apparently—was engaged for Julian, and a good store of provisions laid in. But when the ship had sailed, Grisell found that the cabin-bed had been separately engaged and paid for by four other ladies, and at once these four began a violent dispute as to which should have it. "Let them be doing," said a gentleman, who had to share the cabin with the rest, "you will see how it will end."

So the disappointed little maid had to arrange a bed on the floor as best she could for herself and her sister, with a bag of books that she was taking to her father for pillow, while two ladies shared the bed and the others lay down where they could find room. Any place where they could lie flat must have been welcome, for a storm was brewing, and as a cradle the North Sea usually leaves a good deal to be desired. As they all lay, in fairly sickening discomfort, in the cabin, lit only by an evil-smelling oil-lamp that swayed back and forwards with each roll, the heavy step of the captain was heard coming down the companion way. Grisell had expected honesty from her fellow-travellers, and her store of provisions was laid out in what she had considered a convenient place. It did not take the captain long to devour every scrap of what had been meant to last the girls and their maid for days. His gluttonous meal over, he tramped up to the bed.

"Turn out! turn out!" he said to the women who lay there, and having undressed himself lay down to snore in that five time's paid for sleeping-place. It must have been somewhat of a comfort—if, indeed, comfort was to be found in anything that night—that the captain did not long enjoy his slumbers. A fierce gale began to blow, and during the furious storm that never abated for many an hour to come, the captain had to remain, drenched to the skin, on deck, working and directing with all his might, in order to save his ship. They never saw him again until they landed at the Brill. That night the two girls set out on foot to tramp the weary miles to Rotterdam, a gentleman refugee from Scotland, who had come over in the same boat, acting as their escort. The stormy weather of the North Sea had followed them to land. It was a cold, wet, dirty night, and Julian Home, still frail from illness, soon lost her shoes in the mud. There was but one solution to the difficulty. The gentleman shouldered their baggage along with his own; Grisell shouldered her sister, and carried her all the rest of those weary miles. At Rotterdam they found Sir Patrick Home and his eldest son awaiting them, to take them on to their new home in Utrecht, and wet and cold and tiredness were all forgotten at the sight of those dear faces, and Grisell "felt nothing but happiness and contentment."

For three years and a half they lived in Utrecht, and once again during that time Grisell voyaged to Scotland to see to her father's business affairs. It is difficult to discover what, during the rest of that time, she did not do for her parents and family. There were many Scottish refugees then in Holland, and the Homes kept open house, and spent nearly a fourth part of their income on a mansion sufficiently commodious to allow of their hospitalities. This made it impossible for them to keep any servant save a little girl who washed the dishes, and consequently Grisell acted as cook, housekeeper, housemaid, washerwoman, laundress, dressmaker, and tailoress. Twice a week she sat up at night to do the family accounts. Daily she rose before six, went to the market and to the mill to see their own corn ground, and—in the words of her daughter, who proudly tells the tale—"dressed the linen, cleaned the house, made ready the dinner, mended the children's stockings and other clothes, made what she could for them, and in short did everything." She was very musical and loved playing and singing, but when, for a small sum, a harpsichord was bought, it was her younger sister, Christian, who was the performer, and by it "diverted" her parents, and the girls had many a joke over their different occupations. Yet even with all her other work she found time to take an occasional lesson in French and Dutch from her father along with the younger ones, and even wrote a book of songs—many of them half written, broken off in the middle of a sentence as a pot boiled over or an iron grew hot enough to use. Some of them are dear to us still. Do we ever think of all the hardships that were nobly endured by a Scottish girl two hundred years ago when we quote the words of her exquisite song?—

"Were na my heart licht, I wad dee."

Of all her brothers and sisters, her eldest brother, Patrick, was her closest friend, and, when he became one of the Prince of Orange's Guards, Grisell had extra labours, for the Guards wore little point-lace cravats and cuffs, and many a night she sat up to have these in such perfect order that no dandy officer in the service could compete with the young Scottish soldier. An added happiness to those happy, busy days came to Grisell through her brother's fellow-guardsman and greatest friend, for George Baillie, the lad she first met in the Tolbooth, gave his heart to her that day within the gloomy prison walls, and they were lovers still when, after forty-eight years of married life, death came to part them.

With the accession of the Prince of Orange the merry, light-hearted days in Holland came to an end. There was probably no poorer Scottish family to be found in all Holland. There was certainly no happier one. When they came home they were prosperous once again, and honours were showered upon Sir Patrick Home. Grisell was asked to become a maid of honour to the Princess but she preferred to go back to the quiet country life at Redbraes. Already, during their least prosperous days, Grisell's beauty and charm had made at least two Berwickshire gentlemen "of fortune and character" beg for her hand, and it was to her parents' regret that she refused them both, because her heart was already in the keeping of a penniless guardsman in the Dutch service. Only poverty kept them apart, and when King William gave back to George Baillie his lands, there was no other obstacle in the way, and they were married forthwith. They were man and wife for forty-eight years, "in all of which time," writes their daughter, "I have often heard my mother declare that they never had the shadow of a quarrel, or misunderstanding, or dryness betwixt them—not for a moment"; and that, "to the last of his life, she felt the same ardent and tender love and affection for him, and the same desire to please him in the smallest trifle that she had at their first acquaintance." To the day his last illness began, her husband never went out without her going to the window to watch him till he was out of sight of those kind, bright, beautiful eyes, through which shone as beautiful a soul as any that ever made the earth a better and a happier place for having been in it.

Grisell Home was Lady Grisell Baillie when, in 1703, her mother died.

"Where is Grisell," she asked, almost with her latest breath. And when Lady Grisell came and held her hand the old lady said, "My dear Grisell, blessed be you above all, for a helpful child you have been to me."

Lady Grisell Baillie lived through the '15 and the '45, and those who suffered in the first of those years had the kindest of friends and helpers in her large-minded husband and in herself. She was eighty at the time of the '45, but during that year and during the next, when her death took place, she helped by every means in her power those who had suffered from fighting for a cause that was dear to their hearts. She always remembered what she herself had gone through. "Full of years, and of good works," as her somewhat pompous epitaph has it, Lady Grisell Baillie died in December 1746, and was buried at Mellerstain on the day upon which she should have celebrated her eighty-second birthday. And surely the angels who, on that first Christmas Eve, long, long ago, sang of "Peace on earth—goodwill towards men," must have been very near when she, who was a Christmas baby, and whose whole long life had been one of love and of peace, of goodwill and of charity to others, was laid in the earth as the snowflakes fell, on Christmas Day, one hundred and sixty-eight years ago.