The Saxon and the Gael

Sir Walter Scott

So toilsome was the road to trace,
The guide, abating of his pace,
Led slowly through the pass's jaws,
And ask'd Fitz-James1 by what strange cause
He sought these wilds? traversed by few,
Without a pass from Roderick Dhu.
"Brave Gael, my pass, in danger tried,
Hangs in my belt, and by my side;
Yet sooth to tell," the Saxon said,
"I dreamed not now to claim its aid.
When here but three days since, I came,
Bewildered in pursuit of game,
All seemed as peaceful and as still
As the mist slumbering on yon hill:
Thy dangerous chief was then afar,
Nor soon expected back from war."
"But, Stranger, peaceful since you came,
Bewildered in the mountain game,
Whence the bold boast by which you show
Vich-Alpine's vowed and mortal foe?"
"Warrior, but yester-morn, I knew
Nought of thy Chieftain, Roderick Dhu,
Save as an outlaw'd desperate man,
The chief of a rebellious clan,
Who in the Regent's court and sight,
With ruffian dagger stabbed a knight;
Yet this alone might from his part
Sever each true and loyal heart."
Wrathful at such arraignment foul,
Dark lowered the clansman's sable scowl.
A space he paused, then sternly said,--
"And heard'st thou why he drew his blade?
Heards't thou that shameful word and blow
Brought Roderick's vengeance on his foe?
What reck'd the Chieftain if he stood
On Highland-heath, or Holy-Rood2?
He rights such wrong where it is given,
If it were in the court of heaven."
"Still was it outrage:--yet, 'tis true,
Not then claimed sovereignty his due;
While Albany3, with feeble hand,
Held borrowed truncheon of command,
The young King mew'd in Stirling tower,
Was stranger to respect and power.
But then, thy Chieftain's robber life!
Winning mean prey by causeless strife,
Wrenching from ruined lowland swain
His herds and harvest reared in vain,
Methinks a soul like thine should scorn
The spoils from such foul foray borne."
The Gael beheld him grim the while,
And answered with disdainful smile,--
"Saxon, from yonder mountain high,
I marked thee send delighted eye
Far to the south and east, where lay
Extended in succession gay,
Deep waving fields and pastures green,
With gentle slopes and groves between:--
These fertile plains, that softened vale,
Were once the birthright of the Gael;
The stranger came with iron hand,
And from our fathers reft the land.
Where dwell we now? See, rudely swell
Crag over crag, fell over fell.
Ask we this savage hill we tread,
For fattened steer or household bread;
Ask we for flocks these shingles dry,
And well the mountain might reply,--
"To you, as to your sires of yore,
Belong the target and claymore!
I give you shelter in my breast,
Your own good blades must win the rest."
Pent in this fortress of the North,
Think'st thou we will not sally forth,
To spoil the spoiler as we may,
And from the robber rend the prey?
Aye, by my soul!--While on yon plain
The Saxon rears one shock of grain;
While of ten thousand herds, there strays
But one along yon river's maze,--
The Gael, of plain and river heir,
Shall, with strong hand, redeem his share.
Where live the mountain Chiefs who hold
That plundering Lowland field and fold
Is aught but retribution true?
Seek other cause 'gainst Roderick Dhu."
Answered Fitz-James--"And, if I sought,
Think'st thou no other could be brought?
What deem ye of my path waylaid,
My life given o'er to ambuscade?"
"As of a meed to rashness due:
Hadst thou sent warning fair and true,--
I seek my hound, or falcon strayed.
I seek, good faith, a Highland maid.--
Free hadst thou been to come and go;
But secret path marks secret foe.
Nor yet, for this, even as a spy,
Hadst thou unheard, been doomed to die,
Save to fulfil an augury."
"Well, let it pass; nor will I now
Fresh cause of enmity avow,
To chafe thy mood and cloud thy brow.
Enough, I am by promise tied
To match me with this man of pride:
Twice have I sought Clan-Alpine's glen
In peace: but when I come again,
I come with banner, brand, and bow,
As leader seeks his mortal foe.
For love-lorn swain, in lady's bower,
Ne'er panted for the appointed hour,
As I, until before me stand
This rebel Chieftain and his band."
"Have, then, thy wish!"--he whistled shrill,
And he was answered from the hill:
Wild as the scream of the curlew,
From crag to crag the signal flew.
Instant, through copse and heath, arose
Bonnets and spears, and bended bows.
On right, on left, above, below,
Sprung up at once the lurking foe;
From shingles grey their lances start,
The bracken bush sends forth the dart.
The rushes and the willow wand
Are bristling into axe and brand,
And every tuft of broom gives life
To plaided warrior armed for strife.
That whistle garrison'd the glen
At once with full five hundred men,
As if the yawning hill to heaven
A subterraneous host had given.
Watching their leader's beck and will,
All silent there they stood and still.
Like the loose crags whose threatening mass
Lay tottering o'er the hollow pass,
As if an infant's touch could urge
Their headlong passage down the verge,
With step and weapon forward flung.
Upon the mountain-side they hung.
The mountaineer cast glance of pride
Along Benledi's living side,
Then fixed his eye and sable brow
Full on Fitz-James--"How says't thou now?
These are Clan-Alpine's warriors true,
And, Saxon,--I am Roderick Dhu!"
Fitz-James was brave:--Though to his heart
The life-blood thrilled with sudden start,
He mann'd himself with dauntless air,
Returned the Chief his haughty stare,
His back against a rock he bore,
And firmly placed his foot before:--
"Come one, come all! this rock shall fly
From its firm base as soon as I."
Sir Roderick marked--and in his eyes
Respect was mingled with surprise,
And the stern joy which warriors feel
In foemen worthy of their steel.
Short space he stood--then waved his hand;
Down sunk the disappearing band:
Each warrior vanished where he stood,
In broom or bracken, heath or wood:
Sunk brand and spear, and bended bow,
In osiers pale and copses low;
It seemed as if their mother Earth
Had swallowed up her warlike birth.
The wind's last breath had tossed in air
Pennon, and plaid, and plumage fair,--
The next but swept a lone hill-side,
Where heath and fern were waving wide;
The sun's last glance was glinted back,
From spear and glaive, from targe and jack,--
The next, all unreflected, shone
On bracken green and cold grey stone.
Fitz-James looked round--yet scarce believed
The witness that his sight received;
Such apparition well might seem
Delusion of a dreadful dream.
Sir Roderick in suspense he eyed,
And to his look the Chief replied,
"Fear nought--nay, that I need not say--
But--doubt not aught from mine array.
Thou art my guest:--I pledged my word
As far as Coilantogle ford:
Nor would I call a clansman's brand,
For aid against one valiant hand,
Though on our strife lay every vale
Rent by the Saxon from the Gael.
So move we on;--I only meant
To show the reed on which you leant,
Deeming this path you might pursue
Without a pass from Roderick Dhu."

*****

The Chief in silence strode before,
And reached that torrent's sounding shore,
Which, daughter of three mighty lakes,
From Vennachar in silver breaks
Sweeps through the plain, and ceaseless mines,
On Bochastle the mouldering lines.
Where "Rome, the Empress of the world4.
Of yore her eagle wings unfurl'd.
And here his course the Chieftain staid;
Threw down his target and his plaid,
And to the Lowland warrior said:--
"Bold Saxon! to his promise just,
Vich-Alpine has discharged his trust.
This murderous Chief, this ruthless man.
This head of a rebellious clan,
Hath led thee safe, through watch and ward,
Far past Clan-Alpine's outmost guard.
Now, man to man, and steel to steel,
A Chieftain's vengeance thou shalt feel,
See, here, all vantageless, I stand,
Armed like thyself, with single brand:
For this is Coilantogle ford,
And thou must keep thee with thy sword."
The Saxon paused:--"I ne'er delayed,
When foeman bade me draw my blade;
Nay more, brave Chief, I vow'd thy death:
Yet sure thy fair and generous faith,
And my deep debt for life preserved,
A better meed have well deserved:--
Can nought but blood our feud atone?
Are there no means?"--"No, stranger, none!
And hear,--to fire thy flagging zeal,--
The Saxon cause rests on thy steel;
For thus spoke Fate by prophet bred
Between the living and the dead:
"Who spills the foremost foeman's life,
His party conquers in the strife."--
"Then by my word," the Saxon said,
"The riddle is already read.
Seek yonder brake beneath the cliff,--
There lies Red Murdoch, stark and stiff.
Thus Fate has solved her prophecy,
Then yield to Fate, and not to me.
To James, at Stirling, let us go,
When, if thou wilt be still his foe,
Or if the King shall not agree
To grant thee grace and favour free,
I plight mine honour, oath, and word,
That, to thy native strengths restored,
With each advantage shalt thou stand,
That aids thee now to guard thy land."--
Dark lightning flashed from Roderick's eye--
"Soars thy presumption then so high,
Because a wretched kern ye slew,
Homage to name to Roderick Dhu?
He yields not, he, to man nor Fate!
Thou add'st but fuel to my hate:--
My clansman's blood demands revenge.--
Not yet prepared?--By Heaven, I change
My thought, and hold thy valour light
As that of some vain carpet-knight,
Who ill-deserved my courteous care,
And whose best boast is but to wear
A braid of his fair lady's hair."--
"I thank thee, Roderick, for the word!
It nerves my heart, it steels my sword;
For I have sworn this braid to stain
In the best blood that warms thy vein.
Now, truce, farewell; and ruth, begone!
Yet think not that by thee alone,
Proud Chief! can courtesy be shown:
Though not from copse, or heath, or cairn,
Start at my whistle, clansmen stern,
Of this small horn one feeble blast
Would fearful odds against thee cast.
But fear not--doubt not--which thou wilt--
We try this quarrel hilt to hilt."--
Then each at once his faulchion drew,
Each on the ground his scabbard threw,
Each looked to sun, and stream, and plain,
As what they ne'er might see again:
Then foot, and point, and eye opposed,
In dubious strife they darkly closed.
Ill-fared it then with Roderick Dhu,
That on the field his targe he threw,
Whose brazen studs and tough bull-hide
Had death so often dashed aside:
For, trained abroad his arms to wield,
Fitz-James's blade was sword and shield.
He practised every pass and ward,
To thrust, to strike, to feint, to guard;
While less expert, though stronger far,
The Gael maintained unequal war.
Three times in closing strife they stood,
And thrice the Saxon blade drank blood:
No stinted draught, no scanty tide,
The gushing flood the tartans dyed.
Fierce Roderick felt the fatal drain,
And showered his blows like wintry rain;
And, as firm rock or castle-roof,
Against the winter shower is proof,
The foe invulnerable still
Foiled his wild rage by steady skill;
Till, at advantage ta'en, his brand
Forced Roderick's weapon from his hand,
And, backward borne upon the lea,
Brought the proud Chieftain to his knee.
"Now, yield thee, or, by Him who made
The world, thy heart's blood dyes my blade!"--
"Thy threats, thy mercy, I defy!
Let recreant yield, who fears to die."--
Like adder darting from his coil,
Like wolf that dashes through the toil,
Like mountain-cat who guards her young,
Full at Fitz-James's throat he sprung,
Received, but reck'd not of a wound,
And locked his arms his foeman round.--
Now gallant Saxon, hold thine own!
No maiden's hand is round thee thrown!
That desperate grasp thy frame might feel,
Through bars of brass and triple steel!--
They tug, they strain!--down, down they go,
The Gael above, Fitz-James below.
The Chieftain's gripe his throat compress'd,
His knee was planted on his breast;
His clotted locks he backward threw,
Across his brow his hand he drew,
From blood and mist to clear his sight,
Then gleam'd aloft his dagger bright!
--But hate and fury ill supplied
The stream of life's exhausted tide,
And all too late the advantage came,
To turn the odds of deadly game;
For, while the dagger gleam'd on high,
Keeled soul and sense, reeled brain and eye,
Down came the blow! but in the heath
The erring blade found bloodless sheath.
The struggling foe may now unclasp
The fainting Chief's relaxing grasp;
Unbounded from the dreadful close,
But breathless all, Fitz-James arose.

1 Fitz-James is James V in disguise.

2 Holy Rood, or Holy Cross, where was the royal palace of the Scottish kings.

3 Albany. The Duke of Albany, who was regent of Scotland during part of the minority of James V.

4 Where Rome, the Empress, &c. And where remnants of Roman encampments are still to be traced.

Note that the copyright on this eBook has expired and it is free to copy.


Copyright Scotland from the Roadside 2016