Mess John: James Hogg’s Ballad on the Society People’s Killing of a Curate

It is not every day that you come across a ballad on the Society people’s war of assassinations of late 1684 to early 1685… Especially when it is such a good one.

The ballad ‘Mess John’ appears in A Mountain Bard (1807), the first published work of ‘the Ettrick Shepherd’, James Hogg. Like much of Hogg’s best work, it is wonderfully impolite by the standards of the age. Later versions of it were “refined” for public taste.

St Mary's Loch from St Mary's GraveyardSt Mary’s Loch from St Mary’s Chapel © Trevor Littlewood and licensed for reuse.

The ballad is set around St Mary’s Loch and the Moffat Water.

Mess John’, i.e., Mass John, is an irreverent name used in ballads for a priest, but the ballad is about a minister or episcopal “curate” of St Mary’s Chapel in Yarrow parish, Selkirkshire.

James Murray, the minister of Yarrow in the 1680s, was not assassinated by the Society people. However, he almost certainly did encounter them. After the Revolution, he was accused of not reading the Convention of Estates’ proclamation that forfeited James VII and declared William of Orange king, and of failing to pray for William and Mary. He was acquitted by the authorities, but that judgement was not accepted in Yarrow parish. In 1691, he was rabbled, i.e., forcefully driven out of his charge, probably by locals and the Society people. (Fasti, II, 196.)

St Mary’s Chapel had been abandoned long before 1685, as the parish church moved down the Yarrow Valley in 1640. The chapel sat in what is now St Mary’s graveyard.

Map of St Mary’s Kirk

On a personal note, I like Mess John because it is set next to Dryhope where my Aunt May, Uncle Jim and three Robertson cousins lived.

The highlighted lines link to Hogg’s notes.

Mess John

‘Mess John stood in St. Mary’s kirk,
And preached and prayed so mightilye;
No priest nor bishop monk through the land,
Could preach or pray so well as he.

The words of peace flowed from his tongue,
His heart seemed rapt with heavenly flame,
And thousands would the chapel throng,
So distant flew his pious fame.

His face was like the rising moon,
Imblushed with evening’s purple dye;
His stature like the graceful pine,
That grew on Bourhop hills so high.                [Bowerhope by St Mary’s Loch]

Mess John lay on his lonely couch,
And oft he sighed and sorely pined;
A smothered flame consumed his heart,
And tainted his capacious mind.

It was not for the nation’s sin,
Nor kirk oppressed, that he did mourn;
’Twas for a little earthly flower—
The bonny Lass of Craigyburn.                       [Craigieburn, Moffat parish.]

Whene’er his eyes with her’s did meet,
They pierced his heart without remede;
And when he heard her voice so sweet,
Mess John forgot to say his creed.

“Curse on our stubborn law,” he said,
“That chains us back from social joy;
Those sweet desires, by nature lent,
I cannot taste without alloy!

“Give misers wealth, and monarchs power;
Give heroes kingdoms to o’erturn;
Give sophists latent depths to scan—
Give me the lass of Craigyburn.”

Pale grew his cheek, and howe his eye,
His holy zeal, alas! is flown;
A priest in love is like the grass,
That fades ere it be fairly grown.

When thinking on her cherry lip,
Her maiden bosom fair and gay,
Her limbs, the ivory polished fine,
His heart, like wax, would melt away!

He tried the sermons to compose,
He tried it both by night and day;
But all his lair and logic failed,
His thoughts were ay on the bonny May.

He said the creed, he sung the mass,
And o’er the breviary did turn;
But still his wayward fancy eyed
The bonnie lass of Craigyburn.

One day, upon his lonely couch
He lay, a prey to passion fell;
And aft he turned—and aft he wished—
What ‘tis unmeet for me to tell.

A sudden languor chilled his blood,
And quick o’er all his senses flew;
But what it was, or what the cause,
He neither wished to know, nor knew:

But first he heard the thunder roll,
And then a laugh of malice keen;
Fierce whirlwinds shook the mansion-walls,
And grievous sobs were heard between:

And then a maid, of beauty bright,
With bosom bare, and claithing thin,
And many a wild fantastic air,
To his bedside came gliding in.

A silken mantle on her feet
Fell down in many a fold and turn:
He thought he saw the lovely form,
Of bonny May of Craigyburn!

Though eye and tongue and every limb
Lay chained as the mountain rock,
Yet fast his fluttering pulses played,
As thus the enticing demon spoke:—

“Poor heartless man! and wilt thou lie
A prey to this devouring flame?
That thou possess not bonny May,
None but thyself hast thou to blame.

“You little know the fervid fires
In female breasts that burn so clear;
The forward youth of fierce desires,
To them is most supremely dear.

“Who ventures most to gain their charms,
By them is ever most approved;
The ardent kiss, and clasping arms
By them are ever best beloved.

“Then mould her form of fairest wax,
With adder’s eyes, and feet of horn;
Place this small scroll within its breast,
Which I, your friend, have hither borne.

“Then make a blaze of alder wood,
Before your fire make this to stand;
And the last night of every moon
Your bonny May’s at your command.

“With fire and steel to urge her weel,
See that you neither stint nor spare;
For if the cock be heard to crow,
The charm will vanish into air.”

Then bristly, bristly, grew her hair,
Her colour changed to black and blue;
And broader, broader, grew her face,
Till with a yell away she flew!

The charm was gone: Upstarts Mess John,
A statue now behold him stand;
Fain, fain he would suppose’t a dream
But, lo, the scroll is in his hand.

Read through this tale, and, as you pass,
You’ll cry, alas, the priest’s a man!
Read how he used the bonny lass,
And count him human if you can.

— . —

“O Father dear! what ails my heart?
Ev’n but this minute I was well;
And now, though still in health and strength,
I suffer half the pains of hell.”

“My bonny May, my darling child,
Ill wots thy father what to say;
I fear ’tis for some secret sin
That Heaven this scourge on thee doth lay;

“Confess, and to thy Maker pray;
He’s kind; be firm, and banish fear;
He’ll lay no more on my poor child
Than he gives strength of mind to bear.”

“A thousand poignards pierce my heart!
I feel, I feel, I must away;
Yon holy man at Mary’s kirk
Will pardon, and my pains allay.

“I mind, when, on a doleful night,
A picture of this black despair
Was fully open to my sight.
A vision bade me hasten there.”

“O stay, my child, till morning dawn,
The night is dark and danger nigh;
Yon persecuted desperate bands                               [i.e., the Society people]
Will shoot thee for a nightly spy.

Where wild Polmoody’s mountains tower,                                 [Polmoodie]
Full many a wight their vigils keep;
Where roars the torrent from Loch-Skene,              [The Grey Mare’s Tail]
A troop is lodged in trenches deep.              [The Giant’s Grave earthwork]

“The howling fox and raving earn
Will scare thy reason quite away;
Regard thy sex, and tender youth,
And stay, my child, till dawning day.”

“I burn!—I rage!—my heart, my heart!”
Then, with a shriek, away she ran.
Hope says she’ll lose her darkling way,
And never reach that hated man.

But lo! a magic lanthorn bright
Hung on the birks of Craigyburn;             [The birch wood of Cragieburn]
She placed the wonder on her head,
Which shone around her like the sun.

She ran, impelled by racking pain,
Through rugged ways and waters wild;
Where art thou, guardian spirit, fled?
O haste to save an only child!

Hold!—he who dotes on earthly things,
’Tis fit his frailty should appear;
Hold!—they who providence accuse,
’Tis just their folly cost them dear.

The God who guides the gilded moon,
And rules the rough and rolling sea,
Without a trial ne’er will leave
A soul to evil destiny.

When crossing Meggat’s highland strand,
She stopt to hear an eldritch scream;
Loud crowed the cock at Henderland,                                        [Henderland]
The charm evanished like a dream!

The magic lanthorn left her head,
And darkling now return she must.
She wept, and cursed her hapless doom;
She wept—and called her God unjust.

But on that sad revolving day,
The racking pains again return;
Ah, must we view a slave to lust,
The bonny lass of Craigyburn?

Or see her to her father’s hall,
Returning, rueful, ruined quite;
And still, on that returning day,
Yield to a monster’s hellish might?

No—though harrassed, and sore distressed,
Both shame and danger she endured;—
For heaven in pity interposed,
And still her virtue was secured.

But o’er the scene we’ll draw a veil,
Wet with the tender tear of woe;
We’ll turn, and view the dire effects
From this nocturnal rout that flow;

For every month the spectre ran,
With shrieks would any heart appal;
And every man and mother’s son,
Astonished fled at evening fall.

A bonny widow went at night
To meet the lad she loved so well;
“Ah, yon’s my former husband’s sprite!”
She said, and into faintings fell.

An honest taylor leaving work,
Met with the lass of Craigyburn;
It was enough—he breathed his last
One shriek had done the taylor’s turn.

But drunken John of Keppelgill,                                                [Capplegill]
Met with her on Carrifran Gans;                           [Carrifran Gans, a hill]
He, staggering cried, “Who devil’s that?”
Then plashing on, cried,“Faith, God kens!”

A mountain-preacher quat his horse,
And prayed aloud with lengthened phiz;
The damsel yelled—the father smelled—
Dundee was but a joke to this.                                              [Claverhouse]

Young Linton of the Chapelhope,                                        [Chapelhope]
Enraged to see the road laid waste,
Waylaid the damsel with a gun,
But in a panic home was chaced.

The Cameronians left their camp,                               [or Society people]
And scattered wide o’er many a hill;
Pursued by men, pursued by hell,
They stoutly held their tenets still.

But at the source of Moffat’s stream,                             [i.e., Dob’s Linn]
Two champions of the cov’nant dwell,                            [the Covenants]
Who long had braved the power of men,
And fairly beat the prince of hell:

Armed with a gun, a rowan-tree rung,
A bible, and a scarlet twine,
They placed them on the Birkhill path,             [Birkhill and Path Knowe]
And distant saw the lanthorn shine.

And nearer, nearer, still it drew,
At length they heard her piercing cries;
And louder, louder, still they prayed,
With aching heart, and upcast eyes!

The Bible, spread upon the brae,
No sooner did the light illume,
Than straight the magic lanthorn fled,
And left the lady in the gloom.

With open book, and haggart look,
“Say what art thou?” they loudly cry;
“I am a woman:—let me pass,
Or quickly at your feet I’ll die.

“O let me run to Mary’s kirk,
Where, if I’m forced to sin and shame,
A gracious God will pardon me;—
My heart was never yet to blame.”

Armed with the gun, the rowan-tree rung,
The bible, and the scarlet twine,
With her they trudged to Mary’s kirk
This cruel sorcery out to find.

When nigh Saint Mary’s isle they drew,
Rough winds and rapid rains began;
The livid lightning linked flew,
And round the rattling thunder ran:

The torrents rush, the mountains quake,
The sheeted ghosts run to and fro;
And deep, and long, from out the lake,
The Water-Cow was heard to low.                  [A denizen of St Mary’s Loch]

The mansion then seemed in a blaze,
And issued forth a sulphurous smell;
An eldritch laugh went o’er their heads,
Which ended in a hellish yell.

Bauld Halbert ventured to the cell,
And, from a little window, viewed
The priest and Satan, close engaged
In hellish rites, and orgies lewd.

A female form, of melting wax,
Mess John surveyed with steady eye,
Which ever and anon he pierced,
Forcing the lady loud to cry.

Then Halbert raised his trusty gun,
Was loaded well with powder and ball;
And, aiming at the monster’s head,
He blew his brains against the wall.

The devil flew with such a clap,
On door nor window did not stay;
And loud he cried, in jeering tone,
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, poor John’s away!”

East from the kirk and holy ground,
They bare that lump of sinful clay,
And o’er him raised a mighty mound,
Called Binram’s Corse unto this day.                                  [Binram’s Cross]

An’ ay when any lonely wight,
By yon dark cleugh is forced to stray,
He hears that cry at dead of night,
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, poor John’s away!”’

St Marys Chapel YarrowBinram’s Cross

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Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to or retweet this post, but do not reblog without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine

~ by drmarkjardine on February 18, 2014.

2 Responses to “Mess John: James Hogg’s Ballad on the Society People’s Killing of a Curate”

  1. […] also indirectly links Davie Din to the killing of the curate of Yarrow in his ballad Mess John. The assassination of the curate is […]

  2. […] 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 […]

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