A mystery in literature for you…
James Hogg’s The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818) contains one of my favourite stories based on the Killing Times of 1685.
It is about John Graham of Claverhouse interviewing Old John Hay, a shepherd in Muchra, about a field preaching by James Renwick and who had killed some soldiers near the Yarrow Valley.
Shepherds were interviewed by army officers for the information they held about fugitive Society people/Covenanters. However, the background to Hogg’s story was probably derived from interviews before the Privy Council in Edinburgh found in Cloud of Witnesses and field interviews found in Wodrow’s History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland.
The story is set in the autumn of 1685. However, its historical setting is before mid June, 1685, as it mentions the Argyll and Monmouth Risings in the middle of that year.
Hogg says the shepherd lived at Muchra (see above).
A little background. John Hay worked for the Linton or Laidlaws of Chapelhope. In the story, Walter Laidlaw is said to have rented Chapelhope from the laird of Drummelzier. The story takes place immediately after the capture of Marion Linton and her family. In the notes to Mountain Bard (1807), Hogg claimed the Lintons of Chapelhope hid fugitives. Young Linton of Chapelhope is also mentioned in his sublime ballad, ‘Mess John’, which is, in part, about the assassination of a curate by the Society people/Covenanters and set in late 1684 or early 1685. If any ballad deserves to be better known, it is Mess John.
From Hogg’s The Brownie of Bodsbeck:
‘The soldiers had by this time taken old John of the Muchrah and another of Laidlaw’s shepherds prisoners, who had come to assist their master with the farm-work that day. All these Clavers examined separately; and their answers, as taken down in short-hand by Mr Adam Copland, are still extant, and at present in my possession. The following are some of them, as decyphered by Mr J. W. Robertson, whose acquaintance with ancient manuscripts is well known.
John Hay, shepherd in Muchrah, aged fifty-six, sworn and examined.
“Do you know such a man as the Rev. James Renwick?”
“Yes. I once heard him pray and preach for about the space of two hours.”
“Was it on your master’s farm that he preached?”
“No, it was in a linn on the Earl Hill, in the march between two lairds’ lands, that he preached that day.”’
In other texts Hogg also records James Renwick preaching at Riskinhope /the lands of Riskinhope, which lie next to Earl’s Hill.
Old John was in ‘the Hope’ on the day that some of the King’s soldiers were killed, their bodies were found lying at the bottom of a linn in ‘a deep cleuch’ with of a foot-wide sheep rodding above it.
The night before, Old John is said by Claverhouse to have viewed ‘an apparition at the place the night before’. However, where Old John was on that night, and where Renwick preached, appear to be two separate locations. Like the location of the suicide’s grave in Confessions of A Justified Sinner, that ambiguity is typical of Hogg. (See Robin Ruisseaux in ‘The One O’Clock Gun’.)
‘“How durst you go to an unlawful conventicle?”
“I didna ken there was a law against it till after—it’s a wild place this—we never hear ony o’ the news, unless it be twice a year frae the Moffat fairs. But as soon as I heard him praying and preaching against the king I cam aff an’ left him, an’ brought a’ my lads an’ lasses wi’ me; but my wife wadna steer her fit—there she sat, shaking her head and glooming at me; but I trow I cowed her for’t after.”
“What did he say of the king?”
“O, I canna mind—he said nae muckle gude o’ him.”
“Did he say that he was a bloody perjured tyrant?”
“Ay, he said muckle waur nor that. He said some gayan ill-farr’d things about him. But I cam away and left him; I thought he was saying mair than gude manners warrantit.”
“Were you in the Hope, as you call it, on that day that the king’s soldiers were slain?”
“Ay, that I was; I was the first wha came on them whan they war just new dead, an’ a’ reeking i’ their warm blude— Gude keep us a’ frae sic sights again!—for my part, I never gat sic a confoundit gliff sin’ I was born o’ my mother.”
“Describe the place where the corpses were lying.”
“It is a deep cleuch, wi’ a sma’ sheep rodding through the linn not a foot wide; and if ye war to stite aff that, ye wad gang to the boddom o’ the linn wi’ a flaip.”
“Were the bodies then lying in the bottom of that linn?”
“Odd help ye, whar could they be lying else?—D’ye think they could lie on the Cleuch-brae? Ye might as weel think to lie on the side o’ that wa’ gin ye war dead.”
“How did it appear to you that they had been slain—were they cut with swords, or pierced with bullets?”
“I canna say, but they war sair hashed.”
“How do you mean when you say they were hashed?”
“Charapit like—a’ broozled and jurmummled, as it war.”
“Do you mean that they were cut, or cloven, or minced?”
“Na, na—no that ava—But they had gotten some sair doofs—They had been terribly paikit and daddit wi’ something.”
“I do not in the least conceive what you mean.”
“That’s extrordnar, man—can ye no understand folk’s mother-tongue?—I’ll mak it plain to you. Ye see, whan a thing comes on ye that gate, that’s a dadd—sit still now. Then a paik, that’s a swapp or a skelp like—when a thing comes on ye that way, that’s a paik. But a doof’s warst ava —it’s”
“Prithee hold; I now understand it all perfectly well.—What, then, is your opinion with regard to these men’s death? How, or what way do you think they were killed?”
“O, sir, there’s naebody can say. It was some extrordnar judgment, that’s out of a’ doubt. There had been an unyerdly raid i’ the Hope that day.”
“What reason have you for supposing such a thing?”
“Because there wasna a leevin soul i’ the hale Hope that day but theirsels—they wadna surely hae felled ane another—It’s, by an’ attour, an awsome bit where they war killed; there hae been things baith seen and heard about it; and I saw an apparition there mysel on the very night before.”
“You saw an apparition at the place the night before, did you? And, pray, what was that apparition like?”
“It was like a man and a woman.”
“Had the figure of the woman no resemblance to any one you had ever seen before? Was it in any degree, for instance, like your master’s daughter?”
“No unlike ava.”
“Then I think I can guess what the other form was like—Had it a bonnet on its head?”
“Not a bonnet certainly, but it had the shape o’ ane.”
“I weened as much—And was it a tall gigantic figure?”
“Na, na, sir; the very contrair o’ that.”
“Are you certain of that you say? Was it not taller than the apparition of the woman?”
“No halfsae tall, sir.”
“Had it not some slight resemblance to your master, little as it was? Did that not strike you?”
“Na, na, it was naething like my master, nor nae yerdly creature that ever was seen; indeed it was nae creature ava.”
“What then do you suppose it was?”
“Lord kens!—A wraith, I hae little doubt. My een rins a’ wi’ water whan I think about it yet.”
“Wraiths are quite common here, are they?”
“O yes, sir!—oure common. They appear aye afore death, especially if the death be to be sudden.”
“And what are they generally like?”
“Sometimes like a light—sometimes like a windin-sheet—sometimes like the body that’s to dee, gaen mad—and sometimes like a coffin made o’ moon-light.”
“Was it in the evening you saw this apparition?”
“It was a little after midnight.”
“And pray, what might be your business in such a place at that untimely hour ?— Explain that fully to me if you please.”’
‘“I sail do that, sir, as weel as I can :— Our ewes, ye see, lie up in the twa Grains an’ the Middle a’ the harst—Now, the Quave Brae again, it’s our hogg-fence, that’s the hained grund like; and whenever the wind gangs easterly about, then whan the auld luckies rise i’ the howe o’ the night to get their rug, aff they come, snouckin a’ the way to the Lang Bank, an’ the tither end o’ them round the Piper Snout [i.e., Paper Hill], and into the Quave Brae to the hained grund; an’ very often they think naething o’ landing i’ the mids o’ the corn.’
The ‘hogg fence’ lay between the Quave Brae and the low-lying enclosed ground around Chapelhope.
The ewes usually ended up beyond Chapelhope at the Lang Bank, aka., the Long Bank, on the west side of the Loch of The Lowes.
‘Now I never mindit the corn sae muckle; but for them to gang wi’ the hogg fence, I coudna bide that ava; for ye ken, sir, how coud we turn our hand wi’ our pickle hoggs i’ winter if their bit foggage war a’ riven up by the auld raikin hypalts ere ever a smeary’s clute clattered on’t?”
Though Clavers was generally of an impatient temper, and loathed the simplicity of nature, yet he could not help smiling at this elucidation, which was much the same to him as if it had been delivered in the language of the Moguls; but seeing the shepherd perfectly sincere, he suffered him to go on to the end.
“Now, sir, ye ken the wind very often taks a swee away round to the east i’ the night time whan the wather’s gude i’ the harst months, an’ whanever this was the case, and the moon i’ the lift, I had e’en aye obliged to rise at midnight, and gang round the hill an’ stop the auld kimmers— very little did the turn—just a bit thraw yont the brae, an’ they kend my whistle, or my tike’s bark, as weel as I did mysel, still they wadna do wantin’t. Weel, ye see, sir, I gets up an’ gangs to the door—it was a bonny night—the moon was hingin o’er the derk brows o’ Hopertoody, an’ the lang black scaddaws had an eiry look—I turned my neb the tither gate, an’ I fand the air was gane to the eissel; the se’en starns had gaen oure the lum, an’ the tail o’ the king’s el wand was just pointin to the Muchrah Crags.’
A portent? The ‘Hopertoody’ links to the Happertutie Burn to the west of Muchra, where Claverhouse is said to have summarily executed four Covenanters. The ‘Muchrah Crags’ indicates East Muchra Hill, east of Muchra and beyond which lies Riskinhope.
‘It’s the very time, quo’ I to mysel, I needna think about lying down again— I maun leave Janet to lie doverin by hersel for an hour or twa [at Muchra]—Keilder, my fine dog, where are ye?—He was as ready as me— he likes a play i’ the night-time brawly, for he’s aye gettin a broostle at a hare, or a tod, or a foumart, or some o’ thae beasts that gang snaikin about i’ the derk. Sae to mak a lang tale short, sir, off we sets, Keilder an’ me, an’ soon comes to the place. The ewes had been very mensefu’ that night, they had just corned to the march and nae farther; sae, I says, puir things, sin’ ye hae teen sae leifu’, we’ll sit down an’ rest a while, the dog an’ me, an’ let ye tak a pluck an’ fill yersels or we turn ye back up to your cauld lairs again. Sae down we sits i’ the scaddaw of a bit derksome cleuch-brae— naebody could hae seen us; and ere ever I wats, I hears by the grumblin o’ my friend, that he outher saw or smelled something mair than ordinar. I took him in aneath my plaid for fear o’ some grit brainyell of an outbrik; and whan I lookit, there was a white thing and a black thing new risen out o’ the solid yird! They cam close by me; and whan I saw the moon shinin on their cauld white faces, I lost my sight an’ swarfed clean away. Wae be to them for droichs, or ghaists, or whatever they war, for aye sin’ syne the hogg-fence o’ the Quave Brae has been harried an’ traisselled till its little better nor a drift road—I darna gang an’ stop the ewes now for the saul that’s i’ my bouk, an’ little do I wat what’s to come o’ the hoggs the year.”
“Well now, you have explained this much I believe to your own satisfaction— Remember then, you are upon oath—Who do you think it was that killed these men?”
“I think it was outher God or the deil, but whilk o’ them, I coudna say.”
“And this is really your opinion?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Have you seen any strangers about your master’s house of late?”
“I saw one not long ago.”
“What sort of a man was he?”
“A douse-looking man wi’ a brown yaud; I took him for some wool-buyer.”
“Was he not rather like a preacher?”
“The man might hae preached for aught contrair till’t in his appearance—I coudna say.”
“Are you certain it was not Mr Renwick?”
“I am certain.”
“Is your master a very religious man?”
“He’s weel eneugh that way—No that very reithe on’t; but the gudewife hauds his neb right sair to the grindstane about it.”
“Does he perform family worship?”
“Is he reckoned a great and exemplary performer of that duty?”
“Na, he’s nae great gun, I trow; but he warstles away at it as weel as he can.”
“Can you repeat any part, or any particular passage of his usual prayer?”
“I’m sure I might, for he gangs often aneuch oure some o’ them. Let me see— there’s the still waters, and the green pastures, and the blood of bulls and of goats; and then there’s the gos-hawk, and the slogy riddle, and the tyrant an’ his lang neb; I hae the maist o’t i’ my head, but then I canna mouband it.”
“What does he mean by the tyrant and his long neb?”
“Aha! But that’s mair nor ever I could find out yet. We whiles think he means the Kelpy—him that raises the storms an’ the floods on us, ye ken, and gars the waters an’ the burns come roarin down wi’ bracks o’ ice an’ snaw, an’ tak away our sheep. But whether it’s Kelpy, or Clavers, or the Deil, we can never be sure, for we think it applies gay an’ weel to them a’.”
“Repeat the passage as well as you can.”
“Bring down the tyrant an’ his lang neb, for he has done muckle ill this year, and gie him a cup o’ thy wrath; an’ gin he winna tak that, gie him kelty.”
“What is meant by kelty?”
“That’s double—it means twa cups— ony body kens that.”
“Does he ever mention the king in his prayer?”
“O yes: always.”
“What does he say about him?”
“Something about the sceptre of righteousness, and the standard of truth. I ken he has some rhyme about him.”
“Indeed! And does he likewise make mention of the Covenant?”
“Ay, that’s after—that’s near the end, just afore the resurrection. O yes, he harls aye in the Covenant there. The bond o’ the everlasting Covenant, as he ca’s it, weel ordered in all things, and sure.”
“Ay, that’s very well; that’s quite sufficient. Now, you have yourself confessed, that you were at an unlawful and abominable conventicle, holding fellowship with intercommuned rebels, along with your wife and family. You must be made an example of to the snarling and rebellious hounds that are lurking in these bounds; but as you have answered me with candour, though I might order you instantly to be shot, I will be so indulgent as to give you your choice, whether you will go to prison in Edinburgh, and be there tried by the Council, or submit to the judgment which I may pronounce on you here?”
“O, sir, I canna win to Edinbrough at no rate—that’s impossible. What think ye wad come o’ the sheep? The hogg-fence o’ the Quave Brae is maistly ruined already; and war I to gae to the prison at Edinbrough, it wad be mair loss than a’ that I’m worth. I maun just lippen to yoursel; but ye maunna be very sair on me. I never did ony ill designedly; and as for ony rebellion against the Bruce’s blood, I wad be hangit or I wad think o’ sic a thing.”
“Take the old ignorant animal away— Burn him on the cheek, cut off his ears, and do not part with him till he pay you down a fine of two hundred merks, or value to that amount. And, do you hear, make him take all the oaths twice; and a third oath, that he is never to repent of these. By G—, if either Monmouth or Argyle get him, they shall have a perjured dog of him.”
As John was dragged off to this punishment, which was executed without any mitigation, he shook his head and said, “Ah, lak-a day! I fear things are muckle waur wi’ us than I had ony notion o’! I trowed aye that even down truth an’ honesty bure some respect till now—I fear our country’s a’ wrang thegither.”—Then looking back to Clavers, he added, “Gude-sooth, lad, but ye’ll mak mae whigs wherever ye show your face, than a’ the hill preachers o’ Scotland put thegither.”
The punishment given to Old John recalls that allegedly given to James Gavin in Douglas parish, who was said to have had his ears cropped with shears by Claverhouse in the field. In fact, the historical sources confirm that Gavin had his ears cropped in Edinburgh, i.e., not by Claverhouse, in 1685. In chronological terms, Hogg’s story of Old John precedes that of the “tradition” found in Simpson of Gavin’s ear-clipping in the fields. Did Hogg influence the tradition of Gavin?
In Old John’s story, did Claverhouse confuse where ‘the Hope’ was? Was it Riskinhope or was it Chapelhope? The sheep wandered around Chapelhope. Renwick preached at a linn near Earl’s Hill close to Riskinhope. Who can unravel Hogg? Dear Reader, I leave it to you.
For more on James Hogg and the Covenanters, see here.
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