Tales from Scottish Ballads
The following is from Tales from Scottish Ballads by Elizabeth W. Grierson:
And so thou hast seen the great cauldron at Skelf-hill, little Annie, standing high up on the hillside, and thou wouldst fain hear its story.
'Tis a weird tale, Sweetheart, and one to make the blood run cold, for 'tis the story of a cruel and a wicked man, and how he came by a violent and a fearsome death. But Grannie will tell it thee, and when thou thinkest of it, thou must always try to remember how true it is what the Good Book says, that "all they that take the sword, shall perish with the sword," which means, I take it, that they who show no mercy need expect none at the hands of others.
'Tis a tale of spirits and of witchcraft, child, things that in our days we do not believe in; but I had it from my grandfather, who had heard it when he was a laddie from the old shepherds out on the hills, and they believed it all and feared to pass that way in the dark.
But to come to the story itself. Long, long ago, in far bygone days, William de Soulis, Lord of Liddesdale, kept high state in his Castle of Hermitage. The royal blood of Scotland flowed in his veins, for he was sixth in descent from Alexander II., and could an ancestress of his have proved her right, he might have sat on the throne of Scotland.
Besides owning Liddesdale, he had lands in Dumfriesshire, and in the Lothians, and he might have been like the "Bold Buccleuch," a succourer of widows, and a defender of the oppressed and the destitute.
But instead of this he worked all manner of wickedness, till his very name was dreaded far and near. He oppressed his vassals; he troubled his neighbours; he was even at enmity with the King himself. And because he feared that his Majesty might come against him with an army, he had fortified his castle with much care. In order to do this thoroughly, he forced his vassals to work like beasts of burden, putting bores [yokes] on their shoulders, and yoking them to sledges, on which they drew all kinds of building material to the castle.
No wonder, then, that he was hated by rich and poor alike, and no wonder that his heart would quail at times, reckless and hardened though he was, for it is an ill thing not to have a friend in this world. Servants may be hired for money, but 'tis love, and love only, that can buy true friendship. Aye remember that, little Annie, aye remember that.
I say that he had no friends, but I am mistaken. 'Twas said he had one, and mayhap he would have been as well without him. For men would have it that Hermitage Castle was haunted by a familiar spirit.
As a rule he dwelt in a wooden chest, bound with rusty bars of iron; but occasionally, when Lord Soulis was alone, he would come out and talk with him. "Old Redcap," the country folk used to call him, and they said that he was a wee, wee man, with a red pirnie [nightcap] and twisted legs; but whether that be true or no, 'tis not for me to say.
'Twas also said that, one day, when Soulis and his uncanny friend were alone, Soulis asked him what his end would be; if he would die at home in his bed, or out on the hillside in fair fight with his foes? And Redcap made answer that he would throw his spell over him, and that that spell would keep him from all common dangers, from all weapons of war, and from all devices of peace; from arrows, and lances, and knives; from chains, and even from hempen ropes. He would be safe from all these, but there was one thing, and one thing alone, which the charm could not do, and that was to save him if ever men could take him and bind him with ropes of sifted sand.
Methinks I can hear Lord Soulis' laugh as Redcap told him this. "Ropes of sand, forsooth!" he would say. "Did ever man hear of ropes of sand?"
But he had forgotten that the Wizard of the North, Sir Michael Scott of Balwearie--the same who studied the wisdom of the East under the Moors at Toledo, in Spain, who could read the stars, and command familiar spirits to come and go at his bidding--had found out the way to forge ropes out of sand, and that, though Michael was dead, his Spae-book yet remained, in which he had written down all his magic.
"Moreover," added Redcap, "if ever danger threatens thee, knock thrice on this old chest, and the lid will rise, and I will speak; but beware lest thou lookest into it. When the lid begins to rise, turn thine eyes away, or the spell will be broken."
Now it chanced soon after this, that one morning, just as the day was breaking, Lord Soulis, as was his wont, sent one of his little pages up to the top of the tower, to look out over the country far and near, to see if there were any travellers who took the road to Hermitage. At first the boy saw nothing, but, as it grew lighter, the figure of a horseman, clad in the royal livery, appeared, riding down the hillside.
"Now what may thine errand be?" cried the page.
"I carry a message to Soulis of Hermitage from the King of Scotland," replied the stranger; "and he bids me tell that cruel Knight, that the report of his ill deeds has come to his Majesty's ears at Holyrood House, and that if ever again such stories reach him, he will send his soldiers to burn the castle, and put its lord to death."
Then the page hasted, and ran, and delivered this message to his master, whose face grew white with rage when he heard it. For he was an awful man, little Annie, an awful man, who in general feared neither God nor the King, and who could not brook to be reproved.
Under the castle there was a deep dungeon, cut out of the solid rock, and the entrance to it was by a hole in the courtyard, which was covered by a great flat stone. The stone rested on beams of oak, and Lord Soulis gave orders that the guards were to keep the King's messenger waiting outside the gate, and pretend to be very kind to him, giving him a tankard of ale, and a hunch of bread, until some of the men inside the castle had cut away those great oak beams.
Then they opened the gate, and told the poor man that Lord Soulis would speak with him if he would ride into the courtyard; and he rode in, and as soon as his horse stepped on the big flat stone that covered the mouth of the dungeon, it gave way beneath its weight, and both man and horse fell down, and were crushed to pieces on the hard stone floor, full thirty feet below.
The King was right wroth when he heard how his messenger had been treated, but before he could set off for Liddesdale to punish Lord Soulis, the punishment came from nearer home.
It chanced that the young Lord of Buccleuch wooed a lovely lady called May o' Gorranberry. 'Twas said that she was the bonniest lass in all Teviotdale, and in all Liddesdale, and the wedding day was fixed. But the wicked Lord Soulis, puffed up with pride at the way in which he had got rid of the King's messenger, and relying, doubtless, on Redcap's charm to protect him from danger, took it into his sinful head that he would like May o' Gorranberry for his wife.
And he sent, and took her, as she was walking on the hillside above her father's house, and brought her to his grim old Castle of Hermitage.
The poor lassie was almost mad with terror, and tore her hair, and cried continually for her lover, until the cruel man threatened that if she did not hold her tongue he would send men to burn down Branksome Tower, and kill all its inmates.
And next morning, because she would not stop weeping, he called his chief man-at-arms, a brave, fearless fellow called Red Ringan, and told him to gather a band of spearmen, and ride over the hills to Teviotdale, and attack the old castle which was the home of the Lords of Buccleuch.
Now it chanced that that very morning, young Buccleuch set out alone to hunt the roe-buck and the dun deer which roamed in the woods that surrounded his castle. He had fine sport, and he went on, and on, and never noticed how far up among the hills he was getting, or how fast the day was passing, until it began to get dark.
Suddenly he looked up, and, to his astonishment, he saw, riding down the glen to meet him, a company of spearmen. He thought they were his own retainers, and walked boldly up to them, and never knew his mistake until he was seized, and bound hand and foot. They were really Lord Soulis' men, with Red Ringan at their head, and Red Ringan had thrown a glamour over his eyes, so that he could not distinguish between friends and foes. Of course Red Ringan was delighted at this piece of good luck, and he set the poor young man on a horse, and sent him over the hills to Hermitage, guarded by a handful of spearmen, while he rode on with the rest of his troop to Branksome, to see what mischief he could work there.
Thou canst think with what triumph my Lord Soulis would greet his prisoner, and with what bitter tears May o' Gorranberry would see him brought in, for she would know about the dungeon, and shudder to think what his fate would be.
'Twas said that the cruel lord mocked at young Buccleuch as he rode under the archway, and cried out to him, as if in jest--
"Thrice welcome, Buccleuch, thrice welcome to my castle. Nathless 'tis as a wedding guest thou comest. Certs, my bonnie May well deserves such a gallant groomsman."
Next morning the sun rose blood red, and just as its rays touched the gray stones of the grim old keep, the page came running to say that Red Ringan was riding down the hillside all alone. Methinks the wicked lord's heart gave a throb of fear, as he hurried out to the gate to meet his henchman.
"Where have ye stabled my gallant steeds?" he cried, "and wherefore do thy comrades tarry, whilst thou ridest home all alone?"
Red Ringan shook his head mournfully. "I bring thee heavy tidings, Master," he said. "The steeds are stabled, sure enough, but 'tis in a stable where they will rest till the Crack of Doom, and their riders lie beside them. Thou knowest Tarras Moss, and how fair and pleasant it lies, and how deep and cruel it is? My men mistook the path in the dark, and rode right into it, and, had it not been for my good brown mare, not one of us had been left to tell the tale. She struggled to firm footing right nobly, and brought me out alive on her back; but when I looked around me, I was all alone, Master, I was all alone."
Lord Soulis made no reply. With heavy steps he sought the low dark room where the great chest stood, with its iron bands, and its three rusty locks.
He shut the door behind him, and then, with clenched fist, he knocked thrice on the heavy lid. The first time he knocked, and the second time, such a groan came from the chest that his very blood ran cold; but at the third knock the locks opened, and the lid began to rise.
Lord Soulis turned away his head as Redcap had told him to do, and stood listening with all his might. A strange sullen muttering came from the chest, of which he could only distinguish these mysterious words, "Beware of a coming tree," and then the lid shut as slowly as it had opened, and the locks were locked with a jerk, as if by unseen hands.
Meanwhile, over the hills in Teviotdale there had been confusion and dismay when the young Lord of Buccleuch failed to return, and when news came by the country folk that he had been seen, bound hand and foot, being taken to Hermitage by Lord Soulis' men, the anger of the whole clan knew no bounds. For, as it is to-day, little Annie, so it was then. The Scotts of Buccleuch were strong and powerful, and held in honour far and near.
The young lord had one brother, Bold Walter by name. He was a mighty fighter and a right strong man, who carried a bow that no other man could bend, and who loved nothing better than to ride on a foray with all his father's moss-troopers at his back. Methinks Lord Soulis had forgotten Bold Walter when he meddled with his brother and his bride.
It did not take this brave knight long, when he heard the news, to send his riders out to North, and South, and East, and West, to call on his friends and clansmen to ride with him to the fray. And because he had heard of Old Redcap, and knew that Lord Soulis would be protected by his charms, he sent all the way to the Tower of Ercildoune for True Thomas, that wondrous Rhymer, who had been for seven years in Fairyland, and who, on his return to earth, had gone to the Abbey Church of St Mary, at Melrose, and had taken Sir Michael Scott's Spae-book from its dread hiding-place, for its writer had been buried with it in his arms.
So, before the next sun had set, Bold Walter had raised as fair an army as that which the King in Edinburgh had thought to send to Hermitage. The news of this army spread like wildfire over the country, ay, and over the hills to Hermitage, and I ween Lord Soulis' heart sank still lower when he heard of it, and once more he went for counsel to the magic chest. Again he knocked, and again the hollow groan rang out; but as the lid lifted, he forgot in his haste to turn his eyes away, and in a moment the charm was broken. The spirit spoke indeed, but it spoke sullenly and angrily.
"Alas," it said, "thou art undone. Thou hast forgotten my warning, and, instead of turning away thy head, thou hast raised thine eyes to look on me. Therefore thou must lock the door of this chamber, and give the key into my keeping, and for seven long years thou must not return, and I must remain silent."
The wicked may flourish like the green bay tree, little Annie, but vengeance will always overtake them at last; and I trow that Lord Soulis felt that vengeance was close on his heels, as he left that mysterious chamber, and locked the door, and drew the key from the lock, where it had always rested, in his life-time at least, and threw it over his left shoulder, which is, men say, the right way to give things to wizards and witches, and such-like beings.
The key sank in the ground, and there it remains for aught I know, and 'tis said that even to this day, at the end of every seven years, if anyone cares to listen, they may hear strange and awful sounds coming from that long-locked chamber.*
[* "Somewhere about the autumn of 1806, the Earl of Dalkeith, being encamped near the Hermitage Castle, for the amusement of shooting, directed some workmen to clear away the rubbish from the door of the dungeon in order to ascertain its ancient dimensions and architecture. To the great astonishment of the labourers, a rusty iron key of considerable size was found among the ruins a little way from the dungeon door. The well-known tradition passed from one to another, and it was generally agreed that the malevolent demon who had so long retained possession of the key of the castle dungeon now found himself obliged to resign it to the heir-apparent of the domain."--Note on "Lord Soulis" in Leyden's Life and Works.]
Yet Lord Soulis' heart was not humbled, and he made up his mind, that, come what might, young Buccleuch should die. And in the wickedness and cruelty of his heart he determined that he himself should choose the manner of it.
So he had him brought before him. "What wouldst thou do, young Scott, if thou hadst me as I have thee?" he asked, in his cruel mocking voice.
"I would take thee to the good greenwood," answered Buccleuch haughtily, "and I would hang thee there, and I would make thine own hand wale [choose] the tree."
"Good," answered Lord Soulis; "then thou shalt do as thou hast said, and if bonnie May refuse to marry me, then she shall hang on a bush beside thee."
So they led him out to a wood full of tall trees, far up on whose upper branches sat hooded crows, looking down on them in solemn silence.
The first tree that Lord Soulis made his men halt under was a fir.
"Say, wilt thou hang on a fir tree, and let the hooded crows pick thy bones?" he asked roughly.
Young Buccleuch shook his head. "Nay, not so, my Lord of Soulis," he answered in mock humility, "for on windy nights at Branksome, the fir trees rock by the old towers, and the fir cones come pattering to the ground like rain. I heard them when I was a bairn, as I lay awake at night in my cot. Thou surely wouldst not have the heart to hang me on a tree which I have loved all my life."
Then Soulis told his men to pass on, and as they went through the wood their prisoner kept peeping and peering from side to side, and muttering to himself, as if he were looking for something. The men-at-arms could not hear what he was saying, and methinks they would have been much astonished if they had. For he knew the spirit that his brother was of, and he knew that he would not let him hang without an attempt at rescue, and he was saying over and over again to himself, "This death is no' for me, this death is no' for me."
At last they halted again under an aspen tree, whose leaves were quivering mournfully in the wind. Lord Soulis was growing impatient.
"Choose, and choose quickly," he cried, "or methinks I must choose for thee."
But again Buccleuch shook his head. "Not on an aspen tree, my lord, not on an aspen tree. I love its gray leaves better than any other, for it was under their shade that May o' Gorranberry and I first plighted our troth."
So on they went, and still the young man peered and looked, first in this direction, then in that, until at last he saw what seemed to be a bank of hazel branches pressing through the trees towards them. Then he gave a great shout, and leaped high in the air. "Methinks I spy a coming tree," he cried, and at the words Lord Soulis' face grew pale, for they recalled to him Redcap's warning, and he feared that his hour had come.
Everyone soon saw what the strange thing was which was coming towards them. It was Bold Walter of Buccleuch and his men, and each of them had stuck a branch of witch's hazel in his basnet, for 'tis said that a twig of hazel protects its wearer from the arts of magic, and they had no mind to be bewitched by the Lord of Hermitage.
So this was the coming tree that Redcap had warned Lord Soulis to beware of, and it had come in right earnest.
But Soulis remembered the charmed life that he bore, and he tried to shake fear from his heart.
"Ay, many may come, but few shall go back," he cried defiantly; "besides, ye come on a bootless errand. There is not a man in broad Scotland who hath the power to wound me."
"By my troth," replied Bold Walter, "but we shall soon prove that," and, drawing his bow, he sent an arrow straight in Lord Soulis' face.
Sure enough it fell harmless to the ground, and there was not even a scratch on the wicked lord's skin, and for a moment Buccleuch was baffled.
But Thomas of Ercildoune stepped forward. "He is bewitched, Sire," he said, "and protected by the charms of Redcap. No steel can break that charm, but mayhap if thy men bore him down with their lances, he might be taken."
In vain the spearmen crowded round, and struck him to the earth. The lances glanced harmlessly off his body, and never left so much as a markon him.
Then they bound him hand and foot with hempen ropes, but, to their amazement, he burst them as if they had been threads of wool. Then someone brought chains of forged steel, and they bound those round his limbs, thinking that now they surely had him in their power; but he burst them as easily as if they had been made of tow.
At this everyone was daunted, and would have let him go, but Thomas of Ercildoune cried cheerily, "We'll bind him yet, lads, whatever betide."
As he spoke, he drew out from his bosom a little black leather-covered book, and at the sight of it all the spearmen fell back in awe. For it was Sir Michael Scott's "Book of Might," and, as I have said, Sir Michael was a wizard himself, and knew all about warlocks and witches, with their charms and spells, and he could undo everyone of them, and he had written all this knowledge down in his black Spae-book. When he died, the book had been buried deep in his grave in the Abbey at Melrose, and True Thomas had gone there, and recovered it, and he had brought it with him to aid Bold Walter of Buccleuch in rescuing his brother.
He turned over the leaves, and at last he found the place where Sir Michael had told how it was possible to bind a charmed man.
"Ye cannot bind a wizard with ropes," he read, "unless they be ropes of sifted sand."
"Where can we get some sifted sand?" he asked, and everyone looked round in dismay, for there was no sand there, under the trees.
"Come to the Nine-stane Rig," cried a man; "there is a burn [stream] runs past the bottom of it, and we will find plenty of sand there."
Thou knowest the Nine-stane Rig, little Annie, the hill that slopes down to Hermitage Water, with the circle of great stones standing on it, which, 'tis said, were placed there by wild and heathen men, hundreds of years ago. Well, they carried Lord Soulis there, and hurried him down to the burn, and they shaped ropes out of the sand that lies smooth and clean by the water-side.
But, shape the ropes as they might, they would neither twist nor twine; the dry sand just ran through their fingers, and once again they were baffled. Once more True Thomas turned to the spae-book, and this time he found that the sand would twist more easily if it were mixed with barley chaff, and the men of Teviotdale ran down the valley until they came to a field of growing barley. They pulled the ripe grain and beat it in their hands, and it was not long ere they returned with a napkin full of chaff. They mixed nine handfuls of it with the sand, for it was thus the "Book of Might" directed, and once more they tried to twist the ropes, but once more they failed.
"This is some of the wee man's work," muttered the country folk, who were standing looking on; and they were right. Old Redcap had not deserted his master, although the spell which caused the magic chest to open was broken, and he was at hand, doing his utmost to save him, though unseen by mortal eyes.
Again True Thomas turned over the leaves of Sir Michael's book, in the hope of finding something which would break even the most powerful spell, and at last he came to a page where it told how, if all else failed, the wizard must be boiled in lead.
Ay, thou mayst well shudder, little Annie, and hide thy face in my gown.
'Twas a terrible thing to do, but they did it.
They kindled a fire on the Nine-stane Rig, in the middle of the old Druid stones, and there they placed the great brass cauldron. They heated it red hot, and some of them hasted to Hermitage Castle, and stripped a sheet of lead from the roof, and they wrapped the wicked lord in it, and plunged him in, and stood round in solemn silence till the contents of that awful pot melted--lead, and bones, and all--and nought remained but a seething sea of molten metal.
So came the sinful man by his end, and to this day the cauldron remains, as thou knowest, child. It was brought over to the Skelf-hill, and there it stands, a fearful warning to evil-doers, while, on the spot where it was boiled, within the circle of stones on the Nine-stane Rig, the ground lies bare and fallow, for the very grass refuses to grow where such a terrible deed was done.