‘The Battle of Airsmoss’ #History #Scotland #Poetry

Airds Moss Monument

The martyrdom of the outlawed minister Richard Cameron at the battle of Airdsmoss in July 1680 was turned into poetry by the Reverend James Dodds in the nineteenth century. His poem on the battle, which was loosely based on accounts of it, was published in Lays of the Covenanters (1880), 174-180.

Dodd’s followed in the poetic footsteps of James Hyslop, who composed an acclaimed poem on the same subject in 1820.

Fought in July, 1680.

‘Tis morn, the broad red sun
Gleams through his misty covering;
The plover and the wild curlew
On fitful wing are hovering.
The wearied ones have laid them down,
If but a moment they may rest;
Earth! they shall soon be all thine own,
Then take them gently to thy breast!

Scarce have their eyelids closed
When the watcher’s warning cry is heard,
And each with a sudden bound
Starts from sleep, and grasps his sword.
Along the dark, outstretching heath,
Sullen and fierce the troopers come,
With helmets’ glare, with cries of rage.
With loud harsh clang of trump and drum.

One moment, stern and still,
The martyrs view them gathering nigh;
One moment, with an earnest look,
Each on his brother turns his eye.
But Danger’s hour is Freedom’s birth,
No fear or craven look is there;
All circle round the man of God,
Who calmly pours their latest prayer.

Cameron’s Last Prayer.

Shepherd that didst Joseph lead!
Helper in the hour of need!
Treader in the winepress! we
Lift our waiting eyes to Thee!
On rush the foeman like a flood.
And the desert gapes for blood.
Lord! spare the green, the ripest take
Hear us for Thine own name’s sake!

Here stand we, on the last retreat
That earth will yield our weary feet;
From rocky cave to mountain chas’d.
From mountain to the desert waste;
From the waste to heaven we soar,
Sinless, painless evermore.
Lord! spare the green, the ripest take:
Hear us for Thine own name’s sake!

With a longing strong and deep,
With a bridegroom’s joy we leap;
We have panted for this hour,
To grasp the tyrant in his power;
And write in blood our legacy
To nations struggling to be free.
Lord! spare the green, the ripest take
Hear us for Thine own name’s sake!

Through the floods be Thou our guide,
In the flames be at our side;
Purge us from our drossy clay,
Wash our mortal stains away:
Christ our King hath pass’d before;
Bloody sea, but blessed shore!
Bearer of the eternal keys,
Bear us through our agonies!

How long, O Lord! shall Zion lie
A scorn to all the passers-by?
Shall godless heart and gory hand
For ever scourge Thine ancient land?
Awake, arm of the Lord! ‘tis time,
The earth is drunk with blood and crime.
And crush the thrones that will not fear Thee
Smite the lands that will not hear Thee!

Now for the onset! Brothers, kneel!
Lord, give us faith and holy zeal;
Loose the ties that gently bind us,
Heal the hearts we leave behind us;
May we die as die the brave,
And Freedom yet spring from our grave!
Treader in the winepress! we
Rise to be evermore with Thee!

By the black and weltering swamp,
A small green mound uplifts its brow,
‘Twas the altar whence their incense rose:
‘Tis their camp and battle-fortress now!
The startled hare hath fled the brake,
No lark remains to greet the morn;
The raven only flaps his wing,
And whets his beak on the gnarled thorn.

“Down with the cut-eared dogs!”
The troopers gnash their teeth and cry:
“God is our refuge and our strength!”
Is the brief and sternly-breathed reply.
With hunger, toil, oppression worn,
Their numbers few, their weapons rude,
In firm and close array they stand
Against that ravening multitude.

The blades like lightning flash,
And volleyed thunders rend the sky;
The war-steeds paw the heathery sod,
Aloft the glittering pennons fly.
But, as from Ailsa’s sea-beat cliff,
The howling surge is backward toss’d;
Even so these fierce battalions reel.
Stemmed by that firm, devoted host.

Though few and scant equipped.
Eight forth they burst with one loud cheer,
And many an empty saddle tells
The fate of many a cavalier.
Before that storm of peasant strength,
Dark sweeping as the northern blast.
White plume and glittering pennon whirl.
In one wild wreck and ruin cast.

High on his gallant roan.
From rank to rank Rathillet flies;
Where he rushes terror spreads.
Where he strikes a foeman dies.
But what avails the lion’s might
When crowding hunters round him close?
Pierced from behind, Rathillet falls,
Amid the yell of deadly foes.

“Shame on the coward arm!”
Young Chryston cries, and, like a dart,
Flies to avenge Rathillet’s fall;
An eagle, young and strong of heart.
Whose nest is on the Calder banks;
On fierce and fiery wing he rushes,
And in one glorious hero-burst,
Forth from its fount his young heart gushes.

And Cameron, soul of fire!
What quenches others quickens thee!
In the tumult still his voice is heard,
“For Scotland’s faith and liberty!”
Priest of the outcast! down he sinks.
The shepherd ‘mid his slaughtered flock.
Brave one! thy Master calls thee home.
Then soar through blood and battle-smoke!

Long rolls the unequal strife.
And men and horse like foam are driven;
And shouts and shrieks, curses and prayers,
Ring wide through all the vault of heaven.
At length, in threefold numbers ranged.
On press the foe with rage and pride.
Till one by one the martyr-band
Drop by their faithful pastor’s side.

Like reapers dropping down,
Their sheaves around them thickly strewn;
So drop the soldiers of the Cross,
By numbers crushed, and toil alone.
Silence again is on the heath,
The war-steed’s neigh comes faint and far.
Ye chosen ones, to glory rise!
The harp, the crown, the morning star!

By the black and weltering swamp,
A small green mound uplifts its brow;
‘Twas their altar, ‘twas their battle-ground,
‘Tis their martyr-spot and death-bed now!
There, shrouded in their own heart’s blood.
Their bodies rest upon the field.
Till pious hands shall make their tomb,
And lay them where their truth was sealed.

For their rights and faith they fell!
They fell that these might ever stand.
Men of a race that shall ne’er forget
What they owe to that dauntless martyr-band.
Then rear for them no sculptur’d pile,
Set a rough grey stone on the lonely heath!
Not a hind or child in Scotland all
But can tell right well who lie beneath!’


For more on Richard Cameron, see here.

For more on literature inspired by the Covenanters of the 1680s, see here.

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~ by drmarkjardine on July 28, 2016.

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