The story of a boy and his two collie dogs set in the Killing Times…
The Standard Bearer by S. R. Crockett (1897) is a novel based on the life of the post-Revolution Covenanter, the Reverend John MacMillan, leader of the McMillanites.
It also features other Society people from the 1680s: Alexander Gordon of Earlstoun, his daughter Mary Gordon, who married MacMillan, Lady Earlstoun and her sister Jean Hamilton.
One source Crockett used was Reid’s A Cameronian Apostle: Being Some Account of John MacMillan of Balmaghie, which was published the year before The Standard Bearer. From it, it is not clear where MacMillan was brought up, but it was almost certainly either in the parishes of Minnigaff, Dalry or Kells.
Tradition favours his birth in 1669 at ‘Barncauchlaw’, now Barncaughla, in Minnigaff parish, but his birth easily could have been both later and elsewhere. Crockett sets the family home of ‘Ardarroch’ by Bennan, above Loch Ken, in Kells parish. The area is now heavily forested and part of the Galloway Forest Park.
View from Bennan © Anthony O’Neil and licensed for reuse.
The Standard Bearer opens with a fictional field shooting by the notorious Grierson of Lag:
‘This is what I, Quintin MacClellan, saw on the grassy summit of the Bennan — a thing which, being seen and overpast in an hour, changed all my life, and so in time by the grace of God and the chafe of circumstances made me for good or evil the man I am.
I was a herd laddie at the time, like David, keeping my father’s flocks and kicking up my heels among the collie tykes, with many another shepherd-boy in the wide moorish parishes of Minnigaff, Dalry and the Kells.
Now my father (and his father before him) had been all his life “indweller” in the hill farm of Ardarroch which sits on the purple braeface above the loch of Ken, with a little circumambient yard enclosed by cattle-offices and a dozen red-stemmed fir trees, in which the winds and […]
For I must tell of myself and what befell me on the Bennan top the twenty-first day of June — high Midsummer Day of the Year Terrible, and of all that it brought to me. […]
I suppose that all the afternoon the whaups had piped and “willywhaaed,” the snipes bleated and whinnied overhead, and that the peewits had complained to each other of the question boy-beast below them, which ran on two legs and waved other two so foolishly in the air. But I did not hear them. My ears were dulled. The moorland sounds melted deliciously into the very sough and murmur of reposefulness. I was already well on my way to Drowsieland. I heard my mother sing me a lullaby somewhere among the tranced fields. Suddenly the cradle-song ceased. Through shut eyelids I grew conscious of a disturbing influence. Though my face nestled deep down in the crook of my arm I knew that Ashie and Gray had all suddenly sat up.
“Ouf-f!” quoth Ashie protestingly, deep in his stomach so that the sound would carry no further than his master’s ear.
“Gur-r-r!” growled Gray, his sister, yet more softly, the black wicks of her mouth pulled away from her wicked shining eye-teeth.
Thinking that the sheep were straying and that it might be as well by a timely shout to save myself miles and miles of hot chase over the heather, I sat up, ungraciously discontented to be thus aroused, and yet more unreasonably angry with the dogs whose watchfulness had recalled me to the realities of life. As I raised my head, the sounds of the hills broke on my ear suddenly loud — indeed almost insolently insistant. The suppressed far-away hush of Dreamland scattered itself like a broken glass before the brisk clamour of the broad wind-stirred day.
I glanced at the flock beneath me. They were feeding and straying quietly enough — rather widely perhaps, but nothing to make a fret about.
“Restless tykes!” I muttered irritably, striking right and left at the dogs with my staff. “De’il take you, silly beasts that ye are!”
“Ouf-fl” said Ashie, warningly as before, but from a safer distance, his nose pointing directly away from the hefting lambs. Gray said nothing, but uncovered her shining teeth a little further and cocked her ears more directly towards the summit of the Bennan behind me.
I looked about me high and low, but still I could see no cause for alarm.
“Daft brutes! Silly beasts!” I cried again more crossly than ever. And with that I was about to consign myself to sleep again, or at least to seek the pleasant paths of the day-dreamland from which I had been so abruptly recalled.
But the dogs with bristling hair, cocked ears and proudly-plumaged tails were already ten yards up the slope towards the top of the fell, sniffing belligerently as though they scented an intrusive stranger dog at the entering in of the sacred enclosure of the farmyard of Ardarroch.
I was reaching for my stick to deal it liberally between them when a waft of warm summer wind brought to my ear the sound of the distant crying of men. Then came the clear, imperative “Crack! Crack!” of musket shots — first two, and then half-a-dozen close together, sharp and distinct as an eager schoolboy snapping his finger and thumb to call the attention of the master to whom he has been forbidden to speak.
Then, again, on the back of this arrived silence, issuing presently in a great disturbed clamour of peewit flocks on the table-lands above me, clouds of them stooping and swooping, screaming and scolding at some unlicensed and unprincipled intruders by me unseen.
I knew well what it meant in a moment. The man-hunt was afoot. The folk of God were once more being pursued like the partridge upon the mountain. It might be that the blood of my own father was even now making another crimson blossom of martyr blood upon the moors of Scotland.
“Down, down, Ashie!” I cried, but under my breath. “Come in to my foot, Gray!” And, knowing by the voice that I was much in earnest, very obediently the dogs slung behind with, however, many little protesting “gurrs” and chest rumblings of muffled rage.
“It must be Lag himself from the Garryhorn,” I thought; “he will be at his old work of pursuing the wanderers with bloodhound and troop-horse.”
Then, with the craft which had perhaps been born in me and which had certainly been fostered by the years of watching and hiding, of open hatred and secret suspicion, I crept cautiously up the side of the fell, taking advantage of every tummock of heather and boss of tall bent grass. Ashie and Gray crawled after me, stiff with intent hate, but every whit as flatly prone and as infinitely cautious as their master.
For they, too, had been born in the Days of Fear, and the spirit of the game had entered into them ere ever they emerged from the blindness of puppydom.
As we ascended, nearer and nearer sounded the turmoil. I heard, as it were, the sound of men’s voices encouraging each other, as the huntsmen do on the hillsides when they drive the red fox from his lair. Then came the baying of dogs and the clattering of irregular musketry.
Till now the collies and I had been sheltered by the grey clints and lichened rocks of the Bennan, but now we had to come out into the open. The last thirty yards of ascent were bare and shelterless, the short, mossy scalp of turf upon them being clean shaven as if cut with a razor.
My heart beat fast, I can tell you who read this tale so comfortably by the ingle-nook. I held it down with my hand as I crept upwards. Ashie and Gray followed like four-footed guardian angels behind, now dragging themselves painfully yard by yard upon their bellies, now lying motionless as stone statues, their moist jowls pressed to the ground and their dilated nostrils snuffing the air for the intelligence which only my duller eyes could bring me.
Yet I knew the risks of the attempt. For as soon as I had left the shelter of the boulders and scattered clumps of heather and bent, I was plain to the sight as a fly crawling over the shell of an egg.
Nevertheless, with a quick rush I reached the top and set my head over.
The broad, flat table-top of the Bennan summit spread out before me like an exercise ground for troops or a racecourse for horses.
Yet not all barren or desolate, for here and there among the grey granite peeped forth the bloom of the young heather, making a livelier purple amid the burnt brown of the short grass, which in its turn was diversified by the vivid emerald green circling the “quacking-quaas” or bottomless moss-holes of the bogs beneath.
Now this is what I saw, lying on my face, with no more than my chin set over the edge — two men in tattered, peat-stained clothing running for their lives towards the edge of the little plateau farthest from me.
Between me and them twenty or thirty dragoons were urging their horses forward in pursuit, weaving this way and that among the soft lairy places, and as many more whose steeds had stuck fast in the moss were coursing the fugitives on foot as though the poor men had been beasts of the field.
Every now and then one of the pursuers would stop, set his musket to his shoulder and blaze away with a loud report and a drift of white smoke, shouting joyously as at a rare jest whether he hit or missed. And I thought that the poor lads would make good their escape with such sorry marksmen. But even whilst I was putting up a prayer for them as I lay panting upon the manifest edge, a chance shot struck the smaller and more slender of the wanderers. He stumbled, poor wretch, and fell forward upon his face. Then, mastering himself, and recognising his grievous case and how much of mercy he had to look for if his enemies came up with him, his strong spirit for an instant conquered his bodily hurt.
He rose immediately, set his hands one over the other upon his side, doubtless to stay the welling gap the bullet had riven there, and ran yet more determinedly after his companion. But close to the further verge his power went from him. His companion halted and would have come back to aid him, or more likely to die with him. But the wounded man threw out his hand in vehement protest.
“Run, Sandy,” he cried, so loudly and eagerly that I could easily hear him through
all the shouting and pother. “It will do no good. I am sped. Save yourself — God have mercy — tell Margaret!”
But what he would have told Margaret I know not, for even then he spread out his arms and fell forward on his face in the spongy moss.
At this his companion turned sharply and ran on by himself, finally disappearing among the granite boulders amid a brisk crackling of the soldiers’ pieces.
But their marksmanship was poor, for though they were near to him, what with the breathless race and the unevenness of the ground, not a shot took effect. Nor showed he any sign of scathe when last I saw him, leaping nimbly from clump to clump of bent, where the green slimy moss wet with the peat-brew keeps all soft as a quicksand, so that neither hoof of a charger nor heavy military boot dare venture upon it, though the bare accustomed foot of one bred to the hills may carry him across easily enough. So the fugitive, a tall, burly man, cumbered with little besides a doublet and short hose, disappeared out of my sight, and the plain was bare save for the disappointed dragoons in their red coats and the poor man left fallen on his face in the morass.
I could never see him move hand or foot after he fell; and, indeed, it was not long that he had the chance. For even as I continued to gaze fascinated at the scene of blood which so suddenly had broken in upon the pastoral peace of our Kells hills, I saw a tall, dark soldier, one evidently of some authority among them, stride up to the fallen man. He strove to turn him over with his foot, but the moss clung, and he could not. So without a moment’s hesitation he took a musket from the nearest dragoon, glanced coolly at the priming of the touch, set the butt to his shoulder, and with the muzzle within a foot shot the full charge into the back of the prostrate man.
At this I could command myself no longer. The pursuit and the shooting at the fugitives, even the killing when at least they had a chance for their lives, seemed nothing to this stony-hearted butchery. I gat me up on my feet, and in a boyish frenzy shouted curses upon the murderer.
“God shall send thee to hell for this, wicked man, black murderer that thou art!” I cried,
shaking my clenched hand, like the angry impotent child I was.
The soldiers who were searching here and there, as it were, for more victims among the coverts turned their heads my way and gazed, hearing the voice but seeing no man. Others who stood upon the verge, taking shots as fast as they could load at the man who had escaped, also turned. I yelled at them that they were to show themselves brave soldiers, and shoot me also. The tall, dark buirdly man in the red coat who had fired into the wounded man cried to them “to take a shot at the damned young Whig.” But I think the men were all too much surprised at my bold words to do it, for none moved, so that the speaker was obliged to snatch a pistol from his own belt, and let fly at me himself.
The whistle of the pistol ball as it sped harmlessly by waked me as from a dream. A quick horror took me by the throat. I seemed to see myself laid face down on the turf and the murderer of the poor wanderer pouring shot after shot into my back. I felt my knees tremble, and it seemed (as it often does in a nightmare) that if he pursued I should be unable to move.
But even as I saw the man in red reach for his other pistol the power came back to my limbs.
I turned and ran without knowing it, for the next thing I remember was the scuff of the wind about my ears as I sped recklessly down the steepest slope, with no feeling that my feet were touching the ground at all. I saw Ashie and Gray scouring far before me, with their tails clapped between their legs, for I suppose that their master’s fear had communicated itself to them. Yet all the time I knew well that a single false step, a stumble upon a twisted root of burnt heather, a treacherous clump of grass amid the green slime of the morass, and the fate of the fallen martyr would be mine.
But ere I passed quite out of range I heard the rattle of a dropping fusillade from the edge of the hill above me, as a number of the soldiers let off their pieces at me, firing, I think, half in sport and half from a feeling of chagrin that they had let a more important victim escape them. I heard the whisk-whisk of the balls as they flew wide, and one whizzed past my ear and buried itself with a vicious spit in the moss a yard or two before me as I ran — but all harmless, and soon I was out of range. For I think it was more in cruel jest and with raffish laughter than with any intent to harm me that the soldiers fired.
Nevertheless, my boy’s heart was full of wild fear. I had seen murder done. The wholesome green earth was spotted black with crime. Red motes danced in the sunshine. The sun himself in the wide blue heavens seemed turned to blood. […]’
For more stories and poems on the Covenanters of the 1680s, see here.