Elizabeth Wilson Grierson.

Tales From Scottish Ballads online

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Walter. "Hitherto our walls have been our shelter; without them we could
not stand a moment, for we are outnumbered by the English a score of
times over. These sows, as men name them, are great wooden buildings,
which can hold at least forty men inside, and with a platform above
where other thirty can stand. They be mounted on two great wheels, and
can be run close up to the walls, and as they are oft as high as a
house, 'twill be an easy matter for the men who stand on the platform to
set up ladders and scale our walls, and after that what chance will
there be for our poor handful of men? 'Tis not for myself I fear," he
went on, "nor yet for the men. We are soldiers and we can face death;
but if thou wouldst not fall into the hands of this English Earl, my
lady, I would advise that thou, and Marian, and little Mistress Marjory
and Mistress Jean, should set out in the boat the first dark night, when
it is calm. 'Tis but ten miles to the Bass, and thou couldst aye find
shelter there."

Thus spake honest Walter, who was, as I have said, ever timorous where
my lady was concerned; but at his words she shook her head.

"And leave the Castle, Walter?" she said. "That will I never do till I
open its doors to my own true lord. As for this English Earl and his
sows - tush! I care not for them. If they have wood we have rock, my lad,
and I warrant 'twill be a right strong sow that will stand upright after
a lump of Dunbar rock comes crashing down on its back; so keep up thy
courage, and get out the picks and crowbars. If they build sows by day,
we can quarry stones by night."

So saying, my lady shook her little white fist, by way of defiance, in
the direction of the tents which studded the greensward opposite, while
Walter went off to do her bidding, muttering to himself that the famous
Randolph himself was not better than she, for she had been born with the
courage of Bruce, and the wisdom of Solomon.

So it came about, that, while the English gave over wasting arrows for a
time, and turned their attention to the building of two great clumsy
wooden structures, we would steal down in a body on dark nights to the
little postern that opened on the shore, when the waves were dashing
against the rocks, and making enough noise to deaden the sound of the
picks, and while we women held a lanthorn or two, the men worked with
might and main, hewing at the solid rock which stretched out to seaward
for a few yards at the foot of the Castle wall. Then, when some huge
block was loosened, ropes would be lowered, and with much ado, for our
numbers were small, the unwieldy mass would be hoisted up, and placed in
position on the top of the Castle, hidden, it is true, behind the
battlements, but with the stones in front of it displaced, so that it
could be rolled over with ease at a given signal.

We all took a turn at the ropes, and our hands were often raw and frayed
with the work. 'Twas my lady who suffered most, for her skin was fine,
and up till now she had never known what such labour meant.

At last the day came when the English mounted their great white sows on
wheels, and filled them with armed men, and loaded the roofs of them
with broad-shouldered, strapping fellows, who carried ladders and irons
with which to scale our walls. When all was ready the mighty machines
began to move forward, pushed by scores of willing arms, while we
watched them in silence.

My lady and I were hidden in old Andrew's tower, for no word that Walter
Brand could say could persuade her to go down beside Mistress Marjory,
and Mistress Jean, and the serving wenches.

Instead of shooting, our archers stood motionless, stationed in groups
behind the great boulders of rock, ready for Walter's signal.

On came the sows, until we could look down and see the men they carried,
with upturned faces, and hands busy with the ladders they were raising
to place against the walls. They were trundled over the narrow strip of
land which connected us with the mainland, and stood still at last,
close to our very gates.

"Now, lads," shouted Walter, and before a single ladder could be placed,
our great blocks of rock went crashing down on them, hurling the top men
in all directions, and driving in the wooden roofs on those who were

Woe's me! Although they were our enemies, our hearts melted at the
sight. The timbers of the sows cracked and fell in, and we could see
nought but a mass of mangled, bleeding wretches. Had it not been that my
lady feared treachery, and that she had sworn not to open the gates
except to her husband, I ween she would fain have taken us all out to
succour them.

As it was, we could only watch and pity, and keep the bairns in the
chambers that looked on the sea, so that their young eyes should not
gaze on so ghastly a scene.

And when night fell, and there was no light to guide our archers to
shoot, though I trust that, in any case, mercy would have kept them from
it, the English stole across the causeway, and pulled away the broken
beams, and carried off the dead and wounded, and burned what remained of
the sows.

After that day we had no more trouble from any attempts to storm the

But what force cannot do, hunger may. So my Lord of Salisbury, still
sitting in front of our gates with his army, in order to prevent help
reaching us from the land, set about starving us into submission. As yet
we had had no need to trouble about food, for, as I have said, we had a
store of grain, enough to last for some weeks yet, in the dungeon, and,
long ere it was done, we looked for help reaching us by the sea, if it
could not reach us by land.

It was soon made plain to us, however, that not only my Lord of
Salisbury, but his royal master, King Edward, was determined that the
"Key of Scotland" should fall into his hand, for one fine March morning
a great fleet of ships came sailing round St Abb's Head, and took up
their station betwixt us and the Bass Rock, and then we were left,
without hope of succour, until our stock of provisions should be eaten
up, and starvation forced us to give in.

Ah me! but it was weary work, living through the ever-lengthening days
of that cold bleak springtime, waiting for the help which never came,
which never could come, so it seemed to us, with that army watching us
from the land, and that fleet of ships girding us in on the sea.

And all the time our store of food sank lower and lower, and the
wenches' faces grew white, and the men pulled their belts tighter round
their middles, and poor little Mistress Jean would turn wearily away
from the water gruel which was all we had to give her, and moan and cry
for the white bread and the milk to which she was accustomed. Mistress
Marjory, on the other hand, being five years old, and wise for her
years, never complained, though oft-times she would let the spoon fall
into her porringer at supper-time, and, laying her head against my
sleeve, would say in a wistful little voice that went to my very heart,
"I cannot eat it, Marian; I am not hungry to-night."

As for my lady, she went about in those days in silence, with a stern,
set face. It must have seemed to her that when the meal was all gone she
must needs give in, for she could not see her children die before her

But Providence is aye ready to help those who help themselves, and, late
one evening, towards the latter end of May, when we had held the castle
for five long months, I chanced to be sitting alone in my chamber, when
the Countess entered, looking very pale and wan.

"Wrap a plaid round thee, and come to the top of the tower, Marian," she
said. "I cannot sleep, and I long for a breath of fresh air. It doth me
no good to go up there by day, for I can see nothing but these English
soldiers in front, and these English ships behind. But by night it is
different. It is dark then, and I forget for a time how closely beset we
are, and how few handfuls of meal there are in the girnels.[16] I will
tell thee, Marian," and here her voice sank to a whisper, "what as yet
only myself and Walter Brand know, that if help doth not come within a
week, we must either open our gates, or starve like rats in a hole."

[Footnote 16: Meal-barrels.]

"But a week is aye a week," I said soothingly, for I was frightened at
the wildness of her look, "and help may come before it passes."

All the same my heart was heavy within me as I threw a wrap round my
head, and followed her up the narrow stone stairs, and out on to the
flat roof of the tower.

The footing was bad in the darkness, for although the battlements had
been built up again since the day that we destroyed the sows, there were
stones and pieces of rock lying about in all directions, and not being
so young and light of foot as I once had been, I stumbled and fell.

"Do not stir till I get a light," cried my lady; "it is dangerous up
here in the dark, and a twisted ankle would not mend matters."

She felt her way over to Andrew's watch-tower, and the old man lighted
his lanthorn for her, and she came quickly back again, holding it low in
case the enemy should see it, and send a few arrows in our direction. By
its light I raised myself, and we went across to the northern turret,
which looked straight over to the Bass Rock, and stood there, resting
our arms on the wall.

Suddenly a speck of light shone out far ahead in the darkness. It
flickered for a second and then disappeared. In a moment or two it
appeared again, and then disappeared in the same way. I drew my lady's
attention to it.

"'Tis a light from the Bass," she said in an excited whisper. "Someone
is signalling. It can hardly be to the English, for the Rock is held by
friends. Is it possible they can have seen our lanthorn? Let us try
again. The English loons are likely to be asleep by now; they have had
little to disturb their rest for some weeks back, and may well have
grown lazy."

Cautiously she raised the lanthorn, and flashed its rays, once, twice,
thrice over the waves. It was only for a second, but it was enough. The
spark of light appeared three times in answer, and then all was dark

"Run and tell Walter," whispered my lady, and her very voice had
changed. It was once more full of life and hope. The Bass Rock was but
ten miles off, and if there were friends there watching us, and
doubtless making plans to help us, was not that enough?

When Walter came we tried our test for the fourth time, and the answer
came back as before.

"We must watch the sea, my lady," he said, when we were safely down in
the great hall again. "Help will only come that way, and it will come in
the dark. Heaven send that the English sailors have not seen what we
have, and keep a double watch in consequence."

After that, we hardly slept. Night after night, we strained our eyes
through the darkness in the direction of the Bass, and for five nights
our watching was in vain.

But on the sixth, a Sunday, just on the stroke of twelve, the silence
which had lasted so long was broken by the sound of shouting, and lights
sprang up all round us, first on the ships and then on the land.

With anxious hearts we crowded round the loopholes, for we knew that
somewhere, out among the lights, brave men were making a dash for our
rescue, and we women, who could do nothing else, lifted up our hearts,
and prayed that Heaven and the Holy St Michael would aid their efforts.

Meanwhile, the men manned the walls, ready to shoot if the English ships
came within bow-shot, which they were scarce likely to do, as the coast
was wild and rocky, and fraught with danger to those who were
unacquainted with it.

Presently Walter called for wood to make a fire outside the little
postern which opened on the rocks, and we ceased our prayers, and fell
to work with a will, with the kitchen-wenches' choppers, on the empty
barrels which were piled up in a corner of a cellar. We even drained our
last flagon of oil to pour over them, and soon a fire was blazing on the
rudely-cut-out landing-stage, and throwing its beams far out over the

And there, dim and shadowy at first, but aye coming nearer and nearer,
guided by its light, we saw a boat, not cut in any foreign fashion, but
built and rigged near St Margaret's Hope. It was full of men; we could
hear them cheering and shouting in our own good Scots tongue, which fell
kindly on our ears after the soft mincing English which had been thrown
at our heads for so many months.

They were safe now, for, as I have said, the ships through which they
had slipped dare not follow them too near the coast, in case they ran
upon the rocks, and the Castle sheltered them from any arrows which
might be sent from the land. It sheltered us too, and we crowded down to
the little landing-stage, and watched with breathless interest the boat
which was bringing safety and succour to us.

"Bring down the bairns, Marian," said my lady. "Marjory at least is of
an age to remember this."

I hastened to do her bidding, and, calling one of the wenches, we ran up
and roused the sleeping lambs, telling them stories of the wonderful
boat which was coming over the sea, bringing them nice things to eat
once more; for, poor babes, the lack of dainty fare had been the hardest
part of all the siege for them.

We had hardly got downstairs again, when the boat ran close up to our
roughly constructed landing-stage, which was little more than a ledge of
rock, and willing hands seized the ropes which were flung out to them.

Then amidst such cheering as I shall never forget, her crew jumped out.
Forty men of them there were, strong, stalwart, strapping fellows,
looking very different from our own poor lads, who were pinched and thin
from long watching, and meagre fare. Their leader was Sir Alexander
Ramsay of Dalhousie, one of the bravest of Scottish knights, and most
chivalrous of men, who had risked his life, and the lives of his men, in
order to bring us help.

"Now Heaven and all the Saints be thanked, we are in time," he cried, as
his eyes rested on my lady, who was standing at the head of the steps
which led up to the little postern, with one babe in her arms, and the
other clinging to her gown, "for dire tales have reached us of
pestilence and starvation which were working their will within these

Then he doffed his helmet, and ran up to where she was standing, and I
wot there was not a dry eye in the crowd as he knelt and kissed her

"Here greet I one of the bravest ladies in Christendom," he said, "for,
by my troth, as long as the Scots tongue lasts, the story of how thou
kept thy lord's castle in his absence will be handed down from father to

"Nay, noble sir," she answered, and there was a little catch in her
voice as she spoke, "it hath not been so very hard after all. My men
have been brave and leal, my walls are thick, and although the wolf hath
come very near the door, he hath not as yet entered."

"Nor shall he," said Sir Alexander cheerily, as he picked up Mistress
Marjory and kissed her, "for we have brought enough provisions with us
to victual your Castle twice over."

And in good sooth they had. It took more than half an hour to unload the
boat, and to carry its contents into the great hall. There had been kind
hands and thoughtful hearts at the loading of it. There was milk for the
bairns, and capons, and eggs. There was meat and ale for the men, and
red French wine and white bread for my lady, and bags of grain and meal,
and many other things which I scarce remember, but which were right
toothsome, I can tell you, after the scanty fare on which we had been

And so ended the famous siege of Dunbar Castle, for on the morrow, the
English, knowing that now it was hopeless to think of taking it, struck
their camp, and by nightfall they were marching southwards, worsted by a

And ere another day had passed, another band of armed men came riding
through the woods that lie thickly o'er the valley in which lies the
Lamp of Lothian;[17] but this time we knew right well the device which
was emblazoned on the banners, and the horses neighed, as horses are
wont to do when they scent their own stables, and the riders tossed
their caps in the air at the sight of us.

[Footnote 17: The Abbey of Haddington (an old name for it).]

And I trow that if my lady had wished for reward for all the weary
months of anxiety which she had passed through, she had it in full
measure when at long last she opened the Castle gates, and saw the look
on her husband's face, as he took her in his arms, and kissed her, not
once, but many times, there, in the courtyard, in the sight of us all.


"True Thomas lay on Huntly bank;
A ferlie he spied with his e'e;
And there he saw a ladye bright,
Came riding down by the Eildon tree."

More than six hundred years ago, there lived in the south of Scotland a
very wonderful man named Thomas of Ercildoune, or Thomas the Rhymer.

He lived in an old tower which stood on the banks of a little river
called the Leader, which runs into the Tweed, and he had the marvellous
gift, not only of writing beautiful verses, but of forecasting the
future: - that is, he could tell of events long before they happened.

People also gave him the name of True Thomas, for they said that he was
not able to tell a lie, no matter how much he wished to do so, and this
gift he had received, along with his gift of prophecy, from the Queen of
the Fairies, who stole him away when he was young, and kept him in
fairyland for seven years and then let him come back to this world for a
time, and at last took him away to live with her in fairyland

I do not say that this is true; I can only say again that Thomas the
Rhymer was a very wonderful man; and this is the story which the old
country folk in Scotland tell about him.

One St Andrew's Day, as he was lying on a bank by a stream called the
Huntly Burn, he heard the tinkling of little bells, just like fairy
music, and he turned his head quickly to see where it was coming from.

A short distance away, riding over the moor, was the most beautiful lady
he had ever seen. She was mounted on a dapple-gray palfrey, and there
was a halo of light shining all around her. Her saddle was made of pure
ivory, set with precious stones, and padded with crimson satin. Her
saddle girths were of silk, and on each buckle was a beryl stone. Her
stirrups were cut out of clear crystal, and they were all set with
pearls. Her crupper was made of fine embroidery, and for a bridle she
used a gold chain.

She wore a riding-skirt of grass-green silk, and a mantle of green
velvet, and from each little tress of hair in her horse's mane hung nine
and fifty tiny silver bells. No wonder that, as the spirited animal
tossed its dainty head, and fretted against its golden rein, the music
of these bells sounded far and near.

She appeared to be riding to the chase, for she led seven greyhounds in
a leash, and seven otter hounds ran along the path beside her, while
round her neck was slung a hunting-horn, and from her girdle hung a
sheaf of arrows.

As she rode along she sang snatches of songs to herself, or blew her
horn gaily to call her dogs together.

"By my faith," thought Thomas to himself, "it is not every day that I
have the chance of meeting such a beauteous being. Methinks she must be
the Virgin Mother herself, for she is too fair to belong to this poor
earth of ours. Now will I hasten over the hill, and meet her under the
Eildon Tree; perchance she may give me her blessing."

So Thomas hasted, and ran, and came to the Eildon Tree, which grew on
the slope of the Eildon Hills, under which, 'tis said, King Arthur and
his Knights lie sleeping, and there he waited for the lovely lady.

When she approached he pulled off his bonnet and louted[18] low, so that
his face well-nigh touched the ground, for, as I have said, he thought
she was the Blessed Virgin, and he hoped to hear some words of benison.

[Footnote 18: Bowed.]

But the lady quickly undeceived him. "Do not do homage to me," she said,
"for I am not she whom thou takest me for, and cannot claim such
reverence. I am but the Queen of Fairyland, and I ride to the chase with
my horn and my hounds."

Then Thomas, fascinated by her loveliness, and loth to lose sight of
her, began to make love to her; but she warned him that, if he did so,
her beauty would vanish in a moment, and, worse still, she would have
the power to throw a spell over him, and to carry him away to her own
country. But I wot that her spell had fallen on Thomas already, for it
seemed to him that there was nothing on earth to be compared to her

"Here pledge I my troth with thee," he cried recklessly, "and little
care I where I am carried, so long as thou art beside me," and as he
said this, he gave her a kiss.

What was his horror, as soon as he had done so, to see an awful change
come over the lady. Her beautiful clothes crumbled away, and she was
left standing in a long ash-coloured gown. All the brightness round her
vanished; her face grew pale and colourless; her eyes turned dim, and
sank in her head; and, most terrible of all, one-half of her beautiful
black hair went gray before his eyes, so that she looked worn and old.


A cruel smile came on her haggard face as she cried triumphantly, "Ah,
Thomas, now thou must go with me, and thou must serve me, come weal,
come woe, for seven long years."

Then she signed to him to get up behind her on her gray palfrey, and
poor Thomas had no power to refuse. He glanced round in despair, taking
a last look at the pleasant country-side he loved so well, and the next
moment it vanished from his eyes, for the Eildon Hills opened beneath
them, and they sank in gloomy caverns, leaving no trace behind.

For three days Thomas and the lady travelled on, in the dreadful gloom.
It was like riding through the darkness of the darkest midnight. He
could feel the palfrey moving beneath him; he could hear, close at hand,
the roaring of the sea; and, ever as they rode, it seemed to him that
they crossed many rivers, for, as the palfrey struggled through them, he
could feel the cold rushing water creeping up to his knees, but never a
ray of light came to cheer him.

He grew sick and faint with hunger and terror, and at last he could bear
it no longer.

"Woe is me," he cried feebly, "for methinks I die for lack of food."

As he spoke these words, the lady turned her horse's head in the
darkness, and, little by little, it began to grow lighter, until at last
they emerged in open daylight, and found themselves in a beautiful

It was full of fruit trees, and Thomas feasted his eyes on their cool
green leaves and luscious burden; for, after the terrible darkness he
had passed through, this garden seemed to him like the Garden of

There were pear trees in it, covered with pears, and apple trees laden
with great juicy apples; there were dates, and damsons, and figs, and
grapes. Brightly coloured parrots were flitting about among the
branches, and everywhere the thrushes were singing.

The lady drew rein under an apple tree, and, reaching up her hand, she
plucked an apple, and handed it to him. "Take this for thine arles,"[19]
she said; "it will confer a great gift on thee, for it will give thee a
tongue that cannot lie, and from henceforth men shall call thee 'True

[Footnote 19: Money paid at the engagement of a servant.]

Now, I am sorry to say that Thomas was not very particular about always
being truthful, and this did not seem to him to be a very enviable gift.
He wondered to himself what he would do if ever he got back to earth,
and was always obliged to tell the truth, whether it were convenient or

"A bonnie gift, forsooth!" he said scornfully. "My tongue is my own, and
I would prefer that no one meddled with it. If I am obliged always to
tell the truth, how shall I fare when I once more go back to the wicked
world? When I take a cow to market, have I always to point out the horn
it hath lost, or the piece of skin that is torn? And when I talk to my
betters, and would crave a boon of them, must I always tell them my real
thoughts, instead of giving them the flattery which, let me tell you,
Madam, goes a long way in obtaining a favour?"

"Now hold thy peace," said the lady sharply, "and think thyself favoured
to see food at all. Many miles of our journey lie yet before us, and
already thou criest out for hunger. Certs, if thou wilt not eat when

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Online LibraryElizabeth Wilson GriersonTales From Scottish Ballads → online text (page 10 of 17)