in Tweeddale by
John & Jean Lang
"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.