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Tales from Scottish Ballads

The following is from Tales from Scottish Ballads by Elizabeth W. Grierson:

Muckle-Mou'ed Meg

"O wha hasna heard o' the bauld Juden Murray,
  The Lord o' the Elibank Castle sae high?
An' wha hasna heard o' that notable foray,
  Whan Willie o' Harden was catched wi' the kye?"

Of all the towers and castles which belonged to the old Border reivers, there was none which was better suited to its purpose than the ancient house of Harden. It stood, as the house which succeeded it stands to this day, at the head of a deep and narrow glen, looking down on the Borthwick Water, not far from where it joins the Teviot.

It belonged to Walter Scott, "Wat o' Harden," as he was called, a near kinsman and faithful ally of the "Bold Buccleuch," who lived just over the hill, at Branksome.

Wat was a noted freebooter. Never was raid or foray but he was well to the front, and when, as generally happened, the raid or foray resulted in a drove of English cattle finding their way over the Liddesdale hills, and down into Teviotdale, the Master of Harden had no difficulty in guarding his share of the spoil. The entrance to his glen was so narrow, and its sides so steep and rocky, that he had only to drive the tired beasts into it, and set a strong guard at the lower end, and then he and his retainers could take things easily for a time, and live in plenty, till some fine day the beef would be done, and his wife, Dame Mary, whom folk named the "Flower of Yarrow" in her youth, would serve him up a pair of spurs underneath the great silver cover, as a hint that the larder was empty, and that it was full time that he should mount and ride for more.

'Twas little wonder that his five sons grew up to love this free roving life, to which they had always been accustomed, and that they took ill with the change when, in 1603, at the Union of the Crowns, Scotland and England became one country, and King James determined to put down raiding and reiving with a high hand.

It was difficult at first, but gradually a change came about. Courts of justice were established in the Border towns, where law-breakers were tried, and promptly punished, and the heads of the most powerful clans banded themselves together to put down bloodshed and robbery, and a time of quietness bade fair to settle down on the distressed district.

To the old folk, tired of incessant fighting, this change was welcome; but the younger men found their occupation gone, while as yet they had no thought of turning to some more peaceable pursuit. The young Scotts of Harden were no exceptions to this rule, and William, the eldest, found matters, after a time, quite unbearable. Moreover, his father's retainers were growing discontented with their quiet life, and scanty fare, for beef was not so plentiful at Harden now that Border law forbade its being stolen from England; so, without telling either his father or his brothers of his intention, he took a band of chosen men, and rode over, in the gray light of an early spring morning, to the house of William Hogg of Fauldshope, one of the chief retainers of the family.

William was a man of great bravery, and so fierce and strong that he had earned for himself the name of the "Wild Boar of Fauldshope."

He was still in bed when the party from Harden arrived, but rose hastily when they knocked. Great was his astonishment when he saw his young master with a band of armed men behind him.

"What cheer, Master?" he said, "and what doest thou out at this time of day? Faith, it minds me of the good old times, when some rider would come in haste to my door, to tell me that Auld Buccleuch had given orders to warn the water." [To call the countrymen to arms]

"Heaven send that those times come back again," said young Harden piously, "else shall we soon be turned into a pack of old wives. The changes that have come to Harden be more than I can stand, Willie. Not so many years past we were aye as busy as a swarm of bees. When we had a mind, and had nought else to do, we leaped on our horses and headed towards Cumberland. There were ever some kine to be driven, or a house or two to be burned, or some poor widow to be avenged, or some prisoner to be released. So things went right merrily, and the larder was always full. But now that this cursed peace hath come, and King Jamie reigns in London--plague on the man for leaving this bonnie land!--the place is as quiet as the grave, and the horses grow fat, and our men grow lean, and they quarrel and fight among themselves all day, an' all because they have nought else to do. Moreover, the pastures round Harden grow rough for want of eating. We need a drove of cattle to keep them down. So I have e'en come over to take counsel with thee, Will, for thou art a man after mine own heart, and I have brought a few of the knaves at my back. What think ye, man, is there no one we could rob? Fain would I ride over the Border to harry the men of Cumberland, but thou knowest how it is. My kinsman of Buccleuch is Warden of the Marches, and responsible for keeping the peace, and sore dule and woe would come to my father's house were I to stir up strife now that we are supposed to be all one land."

"Ay, by my troth," said Will of Fauldshope, "the fat would be in the fire if we were to ride into Cumberland nowadays; but, Master, the Warden hath no right to interfere with lawful quarrels. There is the Laird o' Elibank, for instance, old Sir Juden. Deil take me if anyone could blame us if we paid him a visit. For all the world knows how often some cows, or a calf or two, have vanished on a dark night from the hillsides at Harden, and though a Murray hath never yet been ta'en red-handed, it is easy to know where the larders o' Elibank get their plenishing. Turn about is fair play, say I, and now that the pastures at Harden are empty, 'tis time that we thought of taking our revenge. Sir Juden was a wily man in his youth, and sly as a pole-cat, but men say that nowadays he hath grown doited, [in his dotage] and does nought but sit with his wife and his three ugly daughters from morning till night. All the same, he hath managed to feather his nest right well. 'Twas told me at Candlemas that he hath no less than three hundred fat cattle grazing in the meadows that lie around Elibank."

Willie o' Harden slapped his thigh.

"This very night we will ride over into Ettrick, and lift a wheen o' them."

"That settles the matter," he cried, with a ring in his voice at the thought of the adventure that lay before him. "Three hundred kye are far too many for one old man to herd. Let him turn his mind to his three ill-faured [plain-looking] daughters, whom no man will wed because of their looks. This very night we will ride over into Ettrick, and lift a wheen [few] o' them. My father's Tower of Oakwood lies not far from Elibank, and when once we have driven the beasts into the Oakwood byres, 'twill take old Sir Juden all his time to prove that they ever belonged to him."

Late that afternoon Sir Juden Murray was having a daunder [gentle walk] in the low-lying haughs which lay along the banks of the Tweed, close to his old tower. His hands were clasped behind his back, under his coat tails, and his head was sunk low on his breast. He appeared to be deep in meditation, and so indeed he was. There was a matter which had been pressing heavily on his mind for some time, and it troubled him more every day.

The fact was, that it was a sore anxiety to him how he was going to provide for his three daughters, for Providence had endowed them with such very plain features that it seemed extremely unlikely that any gay wooer would ever stop before the door of Elibank. Meg, the eldest, was especially plain-looking. She was pale and thin, with colourless eyes, and a long pointed nose, and, to make matters worse, she had such a very wide mouth that she was known throughout the length and breadth of four counties as "Muckle-Mou'ed Meg o' Elibank."

No wonder her father sighed as he thought of her, for, in spite of his greed and his slyness, Sir Juden was an affectionate father, as fathers went in those days, and the lot of unmarried ladies of the upper class, at that time, was a hard one.

He was roused from his thoughts by someone shouting to him from the top of the neighbouring hill. It was one of his men-at-arms, and the old man stood for a moment with his hand at his ear, to listen to the fellow's words. They came faintly down the wind.

"I fear evil betakes us, Sir Juden, for far in the distance I hear bugles sounding at Oakwood Tower. I would have said that the Scotts of Harden were riding, were it not for Buccleuch and his new laws."

Sir Juden shook his grizzled head. "Little cares Auld Wat o' Harden, or any o' his kind, either for Warden or laws, notwithstanding that the Warden is his own kith and kin. As like as not they have heard tell o' my bonnie drove of cattle, and would fain have some of them. Run, sirrah, and warn our friends; no one can find fault with us if we fight in self-defence."

No sooner had the first man disappeared to do his master's bidding, than another approached, running down the hillside as fast as he could. He was quite out of breath when he came up to the Laird, and no wonder, for he had run all the way from Philip-Cairn, one of the highest hills in the neighbourhood.

"Oh, Sir Juden," he gasped, "lose no time, but arm well, and warn well, if thou wouldst keep thine own. From the top of the hill I saw armed men in the distance, and it was not long ere I knew the knaves. 'Tis a band of reivers led by the young Knight of Harden, and, besides his own men, he hath with him the Wild Boar of Fauldshope, and all the Hoggs and the Brydons."

"By my troth, but thou bringest serious tidings," said Sir Juden, thoroughly alarmed, for he knew what deadly fighters Willie o' Harden and the Boar of Fauldshope were, and, without wasting words, he hurried away to his tower to make the best preparations he could for the coming fray.

He knew that even with all the friends who would muster round him, the men of Plora, and Traquair, and Ashiestiel, and Hollowlee, Harden's force would far outnumber his, and his only hope lay in outwitting the enemy, who were better known for their bravery than for their guile.

So when all his friends were assembled, instead of stationing them near the castle, he led them out to a steep hill-side, some miles away, where he knew the Scotts must pass with the cattle, on their way to Oakwood. As the night was dark, he bade each of them fasten a white feather in his cap, so that, when they were fighting, they would know who were their friends and who their foes, and he would not allow them to stand about on the hill-side, but made them lie down hidden in the heather until he gave them the signal to rise.

He knew well what he was doing, for he was as cunning as a fox, and neither the Knight of Harden nor the Wild Boar of Fauldshope, brave though they were, were a match for him.

They, on their part, thought things were going splendidly, for when they rode up in the darkness of midnight to the Elibank haughs, all was quiet; not so much as a dog barked. It was not difficult to collect a goodly drove of fat cattle, and, as long as the animals were driven along a familiar path, all went well. But all the world knows the saying about "a cow in an unca loaning," [a cow in a strange lane or milking-place] and it held good in this case. The moment the animals' heads were turned to the hills that lay between Elibank and Oakwood the trouble began. They broke in confusion, and ran hither and thither in the darkness, lowing and crying in great bewilderment.

"Faith, but this will never do," exclaimed Will of Fauldshope; "if the beasts bellow at this rate, they will awaken old Sir Juden and his sons, and they will set on in pursuit. Not that that would matter much, but we may as well do the job with as little bloodshed as possible. See, I and my men will take a dozen or so, and push on over the hill. If once the way be trodden the rest will follow."

So Will of Fauldshope and his men went their way cheerily up the hill, and over its crest, and down the other side, on their way to Oakwood, with a handful of cattle before them, little recking that Sir Juden and his sons, whom they thought to be sleeping peacefully at Elibank, were crouching among the heather with their friends and retainers, or that they had ridden over a few of them on their way, and that, as soon as they were past, and out of earshot, and young Harden came on with the main body of the stolen cattle, the Murrays would rise and set on him with sudden fierceness, and after a sharp and bloody conflict would take him prisoner, and kill many a brave man.

Nor would Will have heard of the fight at all, until he had arrived at Oakwood, and his suspicions had been aroused by the fact that young Harden did not follow him, had it not been for a trusty fellow called Andrew o' Langhope, who was knocked down in the fight, and who thought that he could serve his master best by lying still. So he pretended to be dead, and lay motionless until the fray was over, and poor young Scott bound hand and foot, and carried off in triumph by the Murrays; then he sprang to his feet, and ran off in pursuit of Will of Fauldshope as fast as his legs could carry him.

Now, if there was one man on earth whom the Wild Boar of Fauldshope and his men loved, it was the young Knight of Harden. He was so handsome, and brave, and debonair, a very leader among men, that I ween there was dire confusion among them when they heard Andrew o' Langhope's tale. A great oath fell from Will's lips as he threw off his jerkin and helmet, to ease his horse, and turned and galloped over the hill again, followed by all his company.

But in spite of their haste they were too late. The dawn was breaking as they reined up on the green in front of Elibank, and the gray morning light showed them that the stout oak door was closed, and the great iron gates made fast. By now young Harden was safe in the lowest dungeon, and right well they knew that only once again would he breathe the fresh air of heaven, and that would be when he was led out to die under the great dule-tree on the green.

Bitter tears of grief and rage filled the Boar of Fauldshope's eyes at the thought, but no more could be done, except to ride over to Harden, and tell old Sir Walter Scott of the fate that had befallen his eldest son.

*       *       *       *       *

"Juden, Juden." It was the Lady of Elibank's voice, and it woke her husband out of the only sound sleep he had had, for he had been terribly troubled with bad dreams all night: dreams not, as one would have imagined, of the fight which he had passed through, but of his eldest daughter Meg, and her sad lack of wooers.

"What is it?" he asked drowsily, as he looked across the room to where his worthy spouse, Dame Margaret Murray, already up and dressed, stood looking out of the narrow casement.

"I was just wondering," she said slowly, "what thou intendest to do with that poor young man?"

"Do," cried Sir Juden, wide awake now, and starting up in astonishment at the question, for his wife was not wont to be so pitiful towards any of his prisoners. "By'r Lady, but there is only one thing that I shall do. Hang the rogue, of course, and that right speedily."

"What," said the Lady of Elibank, and she turned and looked at her angry husband with an expression which seemed to say that at that moment he had taken leave of his senses; "hang the young Knight of Harden, when I have three ill-favoured daughters to marry off my hands! I wonder at ye, Juden! I aye thought ye had a modicum of common sense, and could look a long way in front of ye, but at this moment I am sorely inclined to doubt it. Mark my words, ye'll never again have such a chance as this. For, besides Harden, he is heir to some of the finest lands in Ettrick Forest.* There is Kirkhope, and Oakwood, and Bowhill. Think of our Meg; would ye not like to see the lassie mistress of these? And well I wot ye might, for the youth is a spritely young fellow, though given to adventure, as what brave young man is not? And I trow that he would put up with an ill-featured wife, rather than lose his life on our hanging-tree."

 [* These lands were sold to the Scotts of Buccleuch sometime afterwards, and the Duke of Buccleuch is the present owner.]

Sir Juden looked at his wife for full three minutes in silence, and then he broke into a loud laugh. "By my soul, thou art right, Margaret," he said. "Thou wert born with the wisdom of Solomon, though men would scarce think it to look at thee." And he began to dress himself, without more ado.

Less than two hours afterwards, the door of the dungeon where young Scott was confined was thrown open with a loud and grating noise, and three men-at-arms appeared, and requested the prisoner, all bound as he was, to follow them.

Willie obeyed without a word. He had dared, and had been defeated, and now he must pay the penalty that the times required, and like a brave man he would pay it uncomplainingly, but I warrant that, as he followed the men up the steep stone steps, his heart was heavy within him, and his thoughts were dwelling on the bonnie braes that lay around Harden, where he had so often played when he was a bairn, with his mother, the gentle "Flower of Yarrow," watching over him, and which he knew he would never see again.

But, to his astonishment, instead of being led straight out to the "dule-tree," as he had expected, he was taken into the great hall, and stationed close to one of the narrow windows. A strange sight met his eyes.

The hall was full of armed men, who were looking about them with broad smiles of amusement, while, on a dais at the far end of the hall, were seated, in two large armchairs, his captor of the night before, Sir Juden Murray, and a severe-looking lady, in a wondrous head-dress, and a stiff silken gown, whom he took to be his wife.

Between them, blushing and hanging her head as if the ordeal was too much for her, was the plainest-looking maiden he had ever seen in his life. She was thin and ill-thriven-looking, very different from the buxom lassies he was accustomed to see: her eyes were colourless; her nose was long and pointed, and the size of her mouth would alone have proclaimed her to be the worthy couple's eldest daughter, Muckle-Mou'ed Meg.

Near the dais stood her two younger sisters. They were plain-looking girls also, but hardly so plain-looking as Meg, and they were laughing and whispering to one another, as if much amused by what was going on.

Sir Juden cleared his throat and crossed one thin leg slowly over the other, while he looked keenly at his prisoner from under his bushy eyebrows.

"Good morrow, young sir," he said at last; "so you and your friends thought that ye would like a score or two o' the Elibank kye. By whose warrant, may I ask, did ye ride, seeing that in those days peace is

declared on the Border, and anyone who breaks it, breaks it at his own risk?"

"I rode at my own peril," answered the young man haughtily, for he did not like to be questioned in this manner, "and it is on mine own head that the blame must fall. Thou knowest that right well, Sir Juden, so it seems to me but waste of words to parley here."

"So thou knowest the fate that thy rash deed brings on thee," said Sir Juden hastily, his temper, never of the sweetest, rising rapidly at the young man's coolness. He would fain have hanged him without more ado, did prudence permit; and it was hard to sit still and bargain with him.

"So thou knowest that I have the right to hang thee, without further words," he continued; "and, by my faith, many a man would do it, too, without delay. But thou art young, William, and young blood must aye be roving, that I would fain remember, and so I offer thee another chance."

Here the Lord of Elibank paused and glanced at his wife, to see if he had said the right thing, for it was she who had arranged the scene beforehand, and had schooled her husband in the part he was to play.

Meanwhile young Harden, happening to meet Meg Murray's eyes, and puzzled by the look, half wistful, half imploring, which he saw there, glanced hastily out of the little casement beside which he was standing, and received a rude shock, in spite of all his courage, when he saw a strong rope, with a noose at the end of it, dangling from a stout branch of the dule-tree on the green, while a man-at-arms stood kicking the ground idly beside it, apparently waiting till he should be called on to act as executioner.

"So the old rascal is going to hang me after all," he said to himself; "then what, in Our Lady's name, means this strange mummery, and how comes that ill-favoured maiden to look at me as if her life depended on mine?"

At that moment, old Sir Juden, reassured by a nod from Dame Margaret, went on with his speech.

"I will therefore offer thee another chance, I say, and, moreover, I will throw a herd of the cattle which thou wert so anxious to steal into the bargain, if thou wilt promise, on thy part, to wed my daughter Meg within the space of four days."

Here the wily old man stopped, and the Lady of Elibank nodded her head again, while, as for young Harden, for the moment he was too astonished to speak.

So this was the meaning of it all. He was to be forced to marry the ugliest maiden in the south of Scotland in order to save his life. The vision of his mother's beauty rose before him, and the contrast between the Flower of Yarrow and Muckle-Mou'ed Meg o' Elibank struck him so sharply that he cried out in anger, "By my troth, but this thing shall never be. So do thy worst, Sir Juden."

"Think well before ye choose," said that knight, more disappointed than he would have cared to own at his prisoner's words, "for there are better things in this world than beauty, young man. Many a beautiful woman hath been but a thorn in her husband's side, and forbye [besides] that, hast thou not learned in the Good Book--if ever ye find time to read it, which I fear me will be but seldom--that a prudent wife is more to be sought after than a bonnie one? And though my Meg here is mayhap no' sae well-favoured as the lassies over in Borthwick Water, or Teviotdale, I warrant there is not one of them who hath proved such a good daughter, or whose nature is so kind and generous."

Still young Harden hesitated, and glanced from the lady, who, poor thing, had hidden her face in her hands, to the gallows, and from the gallows back again to the lady.

Was ever mortal man in such a plight? Here he was, young, handsome, rich, and little more than four-and-twenty, and he must either lose his life on the green yonder, or marry a damsel whom everyone mocked at for her looks.

"If only I could be alone with her for five minutes," he thought to himself, "to see what she looks like, when there is no one to peep and peer at her. The maiden hath not a chance in the midst of this mannerless crowd, and methought her eyes were open and honest, as they looked into mine a little while ago."

At that moment Meg Murray lifted her head once more, and gazed round her like a stag at bay. Poor lassie, it had been bad enough to be jeered at by her father, and flouted and scolded by her mother, because of the unfortunately large mouth with which Providence had endowed her, without being put up for sale, as it were, in the presence of all her father's retainers, and find that the young man to whom she had been offered chose to suffer death rather than have her for a bride.

It was the bitterest moment of all her life, and, had she known it, it was the moment that fixed her destiny.

For young Willie of Harden saw that look, and something in it stirred his pity. Besides, he noticed that her pale face was sweet and innerly, [confiding] and her gray eyes clear and true.

"Hold," he cried, just as Sir Juden, whose patience was quite exhausted, gave a signal to his men-at-arms to seize the prisoner, and hurry him off to the gallows, "I have changed my mind, and I accept the conditions. But I call all men to witness that I accept not the hand of this noble maiden of necessity, or against my will. I am a Scott, and, had I been minded to, I could have faced death. But I crave the honour of her hand from her father with all humility, and here I vow, before ye all, to do my best to be to her a loyal and a true man."

Loud cheers, and much jesting, followed this speech, and men would have crowded round the young Knight and made much of him, but he pushed his way in grim silence up the hall to where Meg o' Elibank stood trembling by her delighted parents.

She greeted him with a look which set him thinking of a bird which sees its cage flung open, and I wot that, though he did not know it, at that moment he began to love her.

Be that as it may, his words to Sir Juden were short and gruff. "Sir," he asked, "hast thou a priest in thy company? For, if so, let him come hither and finish what we have begun. I would fain spend this night in my own Tower of Oakwood."

Sir Juden and his lady were not a little taken aback at this sudden demand, for, now that the matter was settled to their satisfaction, they would have liked to have married their eldest daughter with more state and ceremony.

"There's no need of such haste," began Dame Margaret, with a look at her lord, "if your word is given, and the Laird satisfied. The morn, or even the next day might do. The lassie's providing [Trousseau] must be gathered together, for I would not like it said that a bride went out of Elibank with nothing but the clothes she stood in."

But young Harden interrupted her with small courtesy. "Let her be married now, or not at all," he said, and as the heir of Harden as a prospective son-in-law was very different from the heir of Harden as a prisoner, she feared to say him nay, lest he went back on his word.

So a priest was sent for, and in great haste William Scott of Harden was wedded to Margaret Murray of Elibank, and then they two set off alone, over the hills to the old Tower of Oakwood--he, with high thoughts of anger and revenge in his heart for the trick that had been played him;--she, poor thing, wondering wistfully what the future held in store for her.

The day was cold and wet, and halfway over the Hangingshaw Height he heard a stifled sob behind him, and, looking over his shoulder, he saw his little woebegone bride trying in vain with her numbed fingers to guide her palfrey, which was floundering in a moss-hole, to firmer footing.

The sight would have touched a harder heart than Willie of Harden's, for he was a true son of his mother, and the Flower of Yarrow was aye kind-hearted; and suddenly all his anger vanished.

"God save us, lassie, but there's nothing to greet [cry] about," he said, turning his horse and taking her reins from her poor stiff fingers, and, though the words were rough, his voice was strangely gentle. "'Tis not thy fault that things have fallen out thus, and if I be a trifle angered, in good faith it is not with thee. Come," and, as he spoke, he stooped down and lifted her bodily from her saddle, and swung her up in front of him on his great black horse. "Leave that stupid beast of thine alone; 'twill find its way back to Elibank soon enough, I warrant. We will go over the hill quicker in this fashion, and thou wilt have more shelter from the rain. There is many a good nag on the hills at Harden, and, when she hears of our wedding, I doubt not but that my mother will have one trained for thee."

Poor Meg caught her breath. She did not feel so much afraid of her husband now that she was close to him, and his arm was round her; besides, the shelter from the rain was very pleasant; but still her heart misgave her.

"Thy Lady Mother, she is very beautiful," she faltered, "and doubtless she looked for beauty in her sons' wives."

Then, for ever and a day, all resentment went out of Willie of Harden's heart, and pure love and pity entered into it.

"If her sons' wives are but good women, my mother will be well content," he said, and with that he kissed her.

And I trow that that kiss marked the beginning of Meg Scott's happiness.

For happy she always was. She was aye plain-looking--nothing on earth could alter her features--but with great happiness comes a look of marvellous contentment, which can beautify the most homely face, and she was such a clever housekeeper (no one could salt beef as she could), and so modest and gentle, that her handsome husband grew to love her more and more, and I wot that her face became to him the bonniest and the sweetest face in the whole world.

Sons and daughters were born to them, strapping lads and fair-faced lassies, and, in after years, when old Wat o' Harden died, and Sir William reigned in his stead, in the old house at the head of the glen, he was wont to declare that for prudence, and virtue, and honour, there was no woman on earth to be compared with his own good wife Meg.

Dick O' the Cow

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