The Ghost of
Percival Reed by
John & Jean Lang
When we look back on the past history of the Border, we might almost
think that St. Andrew and St. George, who are supposed to keep watch and
ward over North and South Britain, had overlooked that hilly stretch of
country that lies between the Solway and the Tyne, leaving the heathen
god Mars to work his turbulent will with it. From the days of the Roman
Wall it was always a tourney-ground, and in the long years when English
and Scots warred against each other, scarcely one day in any year went
past without the spilling of blood on one or other of its hills or
moors. Not only did the Borderers fight against those of other nations.
Constantly they fought amongst themselves. A quick-tempered, revengeful
lot were the men of those Border clans. On the Northumberland side the
quarrels were as frequent as they were amongst those hot-headed
Scots—Kers and Scotts, Elliots and Turnbulls and Croziers.
In the sixteenth century one of the most powerful of the clans in the
wild Northumbrian country was that of the Reeds of Redesdale. Even now
it is a lonely part of the south land, that silent valley down which,
from its source up amongst the Cheviots, the Rede flows eastward. Bog
and heather and bracken still occupy the ground to right and to left of
it, and there are few sounds besides the bleat of sheep or the cries of
wild birds to break the silence of the hills and moors. But when the
Reeds held power the hills often echoed to the lowing of driven cattle,
to the hoof-beat of galloping horses, and to the sounds of a fight being
fought to the death. A foray into England brought many a sturdy Scottish
reiver riding over the Carter Bar; and Reeds, and Halls, and Ridleys
were never averse from a night ride across the English Border when a
Michaelmas moon smiled on the enterprise. The Reeds were a strong clan,
but in power and in reputation they took only a second place, for the
family of the Halls was stronger still. The head of the Hall clan lived
at Girsonfield, a little to the north of Otterburn, a farmhouse which
had belonged to the proprietors of Otterburn Castle since the time of
Queen Elizabeth. Only a few stones of it now remain, and the new house
stands on a much more exposed situation; but when Hall was its occupant,
Girsonfield stood on a plot of rich green sward on the east side of the
Now it must have seemed to Hall of Girsonfield, the head of the chief of
the northern clans, a very clear error in judgment for any of the powers
that existed to pass him over and appoint as keeper of Redesdale his
friend and neighbour, Percival Reed. To have to bow to Reed's authority,
to obey his summons when called on to help to intercept a party of
reiving Scots or to pursue them, hot trod, into Scotland, to hear the
praises of Percival Reed in all mouths—these were bitter things to be
swallowed by him who has come down to us as "the false-hearted Ha'." And
so, having opened the door of his heart for the messengers of Satan to
come in, Hall of Girsonfield had not long to wait for his tenants.
Clearly Percival Reed had no right to be keeper, but as he did his
duties bravely and well, there was no chance of his being deposed, save
by death. Never a day or a night was there when Hall and his friend Reed
cantered together to meet some of the Scott or Elliot clan, or to rescue
a drove of cattle or sheep from them, or from some of the Croziers or
Turnbulls, but what Hall rode with murder in his heart. Reed was utterly
unconscious. There was no scheme that he did not confide to him whom he
took for his loyal friend, no success for which he did not jubilantly
claim Hall's sympathy and congratulations. He laid bare the whole of his
innocent heart, and Hall hated him all the more bitterly because of it.
"If he were not so handy with his Ferrara," brooded Hall…. "If only he
had been a little slower that time in getting out his dag when Nixon had
covered him." … "If only his mare had not only stumbled, but had
fallen there by the peat hag when Sandy's Jock so near had him…."
To Hall of Girsonfield Providence seemed to take special care of
Percival Reed, for no other reason than to goad him to extremity. The
devils who possessed him were skilfully nursing their prey.
There came at last a day, when no raids were afoot, when Hall met some
of the Crozier clan, and opinions were frankly expressed with regard to
the keeper of Redesdale. Things had been going badly with the Croziers.
Their beef-tubs were empty. The Borders were evidently going to the
dogs. It was no longer possible for any hard-working reiver to make a
living on them. Percival Reed would have to get his leave, or it was all
up with reiving in Redesdale. To all of these complaints Hall lent a
willing ear; nay, more, to their surprise, a sympathetic one. Apparently
he, too, had some little schemes afoot, with which the keeper's
over-vigilance had seriously interfered. What a merry jest it would be,
next time the Croziers crossed the Border by moonlight, if the keeper's
plans for that night were known to them, and if, instead of finding in
the clan Hall enemies, they found them allies. The Croziers might have
all the spoil, but the Halls would share the joke, and Percival Reed
would crow less crouse for the future.
It was a quite simply arranged affair. The Halls entered with zest into
the plot. Second place was not good enough for them, and the Reeds had
boasted long enough.
And Percival Reed, in all innocence, soon heard rumour of a foray by
the Croziers, and confided in his friend Girsonfield exactly how he
meant to meet it. This information speedily found its way to the
Scottish side of the Border, and in Hall of Girsonfield Reed found a
more than usually willing supporter. The appointed night came, and ere
they started in the uncertain light of a misty moon the keeper of
Redesdale supped at Girsonfield. "Ye're loaded, are ye, Parcy?" asked
the genial host in the burring Northumbrian voice we know so well even
to-day. "I'll give a look to our primings while ye drink a stirrup-cup."
More than a look he gave. Strong spirit from the Low Countries might be
good jumping powder for the Keeper of Redesdale, but it was a damping
potion for the keeper's musket when gently poured on its priming. At
Batenshope, on the Whitelee ground, Reeds and Halls and Croziers met,
and a joyous crew were the Croziers that night as they homewards rode up
the Rede valley. For at the first fire of Percival Reed's musket it
burst, and he dropped from his horse a murdered man. The Reeds knew it
for treason, and the subsequent conduct of the Halls left them no room
for doubt. It was, indeed, a fine foundation for a family feud, and for
generation after generation the feud went on.
What was the end of Hall of Girsonfield no one has chronicled; it is not
hard to imagine the purgatory of his latter years.
But it is not of him but of his innocent victim that tales are still
told in the Rede valley.
From the night when his spirit was by treachery and violence reft from
his body, there was no rest for Percival Reed.
In the gloaming, when trees stand out in the semblance of highway
robbers, and a Liddesdale drow meets a North Sea haar, his sorrowful
spirit was wont to be seen by the lonely traveller, making moan, seeking
rest. Far and near, through all that part of the Border that he had so
faithfully "kept," the spirit wandered. A moan or sigh from it on the
safe side of the Carter Bar would scatter a party of Scottish reivers
across the moorland as no English army could have done. Any belated
horseman riding out of the dark would take the heart out of the most
valiant of Northumbrians because they feared that they saw "Parcy Reed."
Not always in the same form did the Keeper appear. That was the terror
of it. At times he would come gallantly cantering across the moorland as
he had done when blood ran warm in his veins. At other times he would be
only a sough in the night wind. A feeling of dread, an undefinable
something that froze the marrow and made the blood run cold. And yet,
again, he would come as a fluttering, homeless soul, whimpering and
formless, with a moaning cry for Justice—Justice—Judgment on him who
had by black treachery hurried him unprepared to his end. The folk of
Redesdale bore it until they could bear it no longer. The blood of many
a Hall was spilt by the men of Percival Reed's clan without giving any
ease to that clamouring ghost. At last they sought the help of a
"skeely" man. He was only a thatcher, but whilst he plied his trade of
covering mortal dwellings with sufficient to withstand the blasts of
heaven, he had also studied deeply matters belonging to another sphere.
"Gifted," says his chronicler, "with words to lay it at rest," he
summoned the ghost to his presence, and "offered it the place and form
it might wish to have."
Five miles of land did that disembodied spirit of the Keeper of
Redesdale choose for his own. As might be guessed, he fixed on the banks
of the Rede, and he chose that part of it that lies between Todlawhaugh
and Pringlehaugh. The fox that barks from the bracken on the hillside at
early morning, the grouse that crows from the heather, the owl that
hoots from the fir woods at night, to those did the ghost of Percival
Reed act as keeper. By day he roosted, like a bat or a night bird, on
some tree in a lonely wood. By night he kept his special part of the
marches. Still the Keeper of Redesdale was Percival Reed. Todlaw Mill,
in ruins long ago, was his favourite haunt, and there, as the decent
folk of the valley went on the Sabbath to the meeting-house at Birdhope
Cragg, they often saw him, a dreary sight for human eyes, patiently
awaiting his freedom. The men would uncover their heads and bow as they
passed, and the Keeper of Redesdale, courteous in the spirit as in the
body, would punctiliously return their salutations.
Thus did the years wear on until the appointed days were fulfilled, and
the Rede Valley knew its Keeper no more. On the last day of the time
fixed by him, the skeely man was thatching a cottage at the Woollaw.
Suddenly he felt something touch him, as though the wing of a bird had
brushed by. He came down the ladder on which he stood, and it seemed as
though the bird's feathers had brushed against his heart, and had come
from a place where the cold and ice are not cold and ice as mortals know
them, for "he was seized," says the chronicler, "with a cold trembling."
Some power, too strong for his own skill to combat, had laid hold on
him, and shivering, still shivering, he fell into the hands of Death.
Such was the passing of Percival Reed, Keeper of Redesdale, who took
with him, when at length he relinquished his charge, a humble henchman,
a hind of the Rede Valley.