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Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders

The following is from the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders by Sir Walter Scott:

Notes on The Lochmaben Harper

The only remark which offers itself on the foregoing ballad seems to be, that it is the most modern in which the harp, as a border instrument of music, is found to occur.

I cannot dismiss the subject of Lochmaben, without noticing an extraordinary and anomalous class of landed proprietors, who dwell in the neighbourhood of that burgh. These are the inhabitants of four small villages, near the ancient castle, called the Four Towns of Lochmaben. They themselves are termed the King's Rentallers, or kindly tenants; under which denomination each of them has a right, of an allodial nature, to a small piece of ground. It is said, that these people are the descendants of Robert Bruce's menials, to whom he assigned, in reward of their faithful service, these portions of land, burdened only with the payment of certain quit-rents, and grassums or fines, upon the entry of a new tenant. The right of the rentallers is, in essence, a right of property, but, in form, only a right of lease; of which they appeal for the foundation on the rent-rolls of the lord of the castle and manor. This possession, by rental, or by simple entry upon the rent-roll, was anciently a common, and peculiarly sacred, species of property, granted by a chief to his faithful followers; the connection of landlord and tenant being esteemed of a nature too formal to be necessary, where there was honour upon one side, and gratitude upon the other. But, in the case of subjects granting a right of this kind, it was held to expire with the life of the granter, unless his heir chose to renew it; and also upon the death of the rentaller himself, unless especially granted to his heirs, by which term only his first heir was understood. Hence, in modern days, the kindly tenants have entirely disappeared from the land. Fortunately for the inhabitants of the Four Towns of Lochmaben, the maxim, that the king can never die, prevents their right of property from reverting to the crown. The viscount of Stormonth, as royal keeper of the castle, did, indeed, about the beginning of last century, make an attempt to remove the rentallers from their possessions, or at least to procure judgment, finding them obliged to take out feudal investitures, and subject themselves to the casualties thereto annexed. But the rentallers united in their common defence; and, having stated their immemorial possession, together with some favourable clauses in certain old acts of parliament, enacting, that the king's poor kindly tenants of Lochmaben should not be hurt, they finally prevailed in an action before the Court of Session. From the peculiar state of their right of property, it follows, that there is no occasion for feudal investitures, or the formal entry of an heir; and, of course, when they chuse to convey their lands, it is done by a simple deed of conveyance, without charter or sasine.

The kindly tenants of Lochmaben live (or at least lived till lately) much sequestered from their neighbours, marry among themselves, and are distinguished from each other by soubriquets, according to the ancient border custom, repeatedly noticed You meet, among their writings, with such names as John Out-bye, Will In-bye, White-fish, Red-fish, &c. They are tenaciously obstinate in defence of their privileges of commonty, &c. which are numerous. Their lands are, in general, neatly inclosed, and well cultivated, and they form a contented and industrious little community.

Many of these particulars are extracted from the MSS. of Mr. Syme, writer to the signet. Those, who are desirous of more information, may consult Craig de Feudis, Lib. II. dig. 9. sec. 24. It is hoped the reader will excuse this digression, though somewhat professional; especially as there can be little doubt, that this diminutive republic must soon share the fate of mightier states; for, in consequence of the increase of commerce, lands possessed under this singular tenure, being now often brought to sale, and purchased by the neighbouring proprietors, will, in process of time, be included in their investitures, and the right of rentallage be entirely forgotten.

The Lochmaben Harper


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