THE SANDS OF WIGTOWN
The morning of the eleventh of May came as calm and sweet as the night had been, which had proved so disastrously clear for us. I slept little, as men may guess, thinking on the poor lassies; and sometimes also on the torture in the prison, and the death on the scaffold. For I knew that though there might be delay, there could be no such thing as pardon for one that had carried the standard at Sanquhar, charged the storming fray of Ayrsmoss, and sole of all in Cameron's muster had gotten clear away.
From early morning I could hear on the street the gathering of the folk from the country-side far and near. And then the soldiers came clattering by to their stations, laughing as they went like people going to look upon a show.
‘There are but two of them to be 'pitten doon,' after all,’ I heard one of the soldiers say. ‘Gilbert Wilson has paid a hundred pound to get off his bit lassie Agnes.’
And that was the first intimation I had that only the elder woman, Margaret Lauchlison, whom I had seen in the Thieves' Hole with her head on her hands, and our own sweet Margaret were to be drowned within the flood-mark of the Blednoch.
Black, black day! Would that I could blot it out of my memory. Yet that men in after times may see what weak maids and ailing women bore with constancy in the dark years, I set down that day's doings as I saw them—but briefly, neither altering nor suppressing, because of this matter I cannot bear to write at large. It was but half an hour before the binding of the women that Lag sent for me—in order that I might see the thing which was done, and, as he said, carry the word to Sandy and the rest of the saints at Edinburgh.
And this, as I told him, with all constancy I should be very fond to do.
Now the Blednoch is a slow stream, which ordinarily flows in the deep ditch of its channel, wimpling and twining through the sands of the bay of Wigtown. The banks are but steep slopes of mud, on which if one slips he goes to the bottom with a slide. Up this deep channel the sea comes twice every day, damming back the sluggish stream and brimming the banks at full tide. When Lag's men took me down to the water edge, I saw the two women already tied to stakes set in the ooze of the Blednoch bank. At the sight my heart swelled within me at once sick and hot. Margaret Lauchlison was tethered deepest down, her stake set firm in the bottom and the post rising as high as her head.
Nigh half way up the steep bank stood our little Margaret, loosely reeved to a sunken stob, her hands clasped before her. She still wore the gown that I remember seeing upon her when she dwelt with us among the hills. But even in this pass she was cheerful, and lifting her eyes with a smile she bade me be so likewise, because that for her there was no fear and but a short pain. Also she called me very sweetly ‘William,’ and asked me to commend her to Maisie Lennox—a thing which more than all went to my heart. For it told me by the way she said it, that Maisie and she had talked together of loves and likings, as is all maidens' wont. The women were not tightly tied to the posts, but attached to them with a running rove of rope, by which they could be pulled close to the stakes, or else, at the will of the murderers, drawn up again to the bank, as one might draw a pitcher from a well.
Already was the salt tide water beginning to flow upwards along the Blednoch channel, bearing swirls of foam upon its breast.
Margaret Lauchlison, being an aged woman of eighty years, said no word as the tide rose above her breast, where lowest in the river bed she stood waiting. Her head hung down, and it was not till the water reached her lips that she began to struggle, nor did I see her make so much as a movement. Yet she was determined to die as she had lived, an honest, peaceable, Christian woman of a good confession—not learned, save in the scholarship of God, but therein of high attainment and great experience. And all honour be to her, for even as she determined, so she died.
Then, when some of the soldiers were for fleeching with her to take the Test, Lag cried out (for he ever loved his devil's-broth served hot):
‘Bide ye there! 'Tis needless to speak to the old besom! Let her go quick to hell!’
But Provost Coltran, sober enough this morning, and with other things to think of than the crows, come to the bank edge. And standing where his feet were nearly on a level with our little Margaret's head, he said to her:
‘What see ye down there, Margaret Wilson? What think ye? Can you with constancy suffer the choking of the salt water when it comes to your turn?’
Now, though Coltran was a rude man, and pang full of oaths, he spoke not so unfeelingly. But to him Margaret replied, in a sweet voice that wafted up like the singing of a psalm, from the sweltering pit of pain:
‘I see naught but Christ struggling there in the water in the person of one of His saints!’
Then the Provost came nearer still, and bending down like an elder that gives counsel, said to her, ‘Margaret, ye are young and ken no better. We will give you your life gin ye pray for the King. Will ye say aloud 'God save the King'?’
‘I desire the salvation of all men,’ Margaret said. ‘May God save him an He will!’
Coltran rose with a flush of triumph in his eye. He was none so bad a man, only dazed with drink and bad company.
‘She has said it!’ he cried, and from far and near the people took up the cry ‘She has said it, she has said it!’ And some were glad and some shook their heads for what they counted the dishonour of the submission.
Now, Blednoch sands under Wigtown town were a sight to behold that day. They were black with folk, all in scattering, changing groups. There were many clouds of folk on the sands when the lassies were ‘pitten doon,’ and in every little company there was one praying. Through them patrolled the soldiers in fours, breaking up each little band of worshippers, which dissolved only to come together again as soon as they had passed.
Then the town officer, a cruel and ill-liked man, who never did well afterwards all his days, took his long-hafted halbert, and, standing on the verge of the bank, he set the end of it to Margaret Lauchlison's neck.
‘Bide ye doon there and clep wi' the partans, Margaret, my woman!’ he said, holding her head under water till it hung loose and the life went from it.
The elder woman thus having finished her course with joy, they unrove the nether rope and drew little Margaret up to the bank, exhorting her to cry aloud ‘God save the King!’ and also to pray for him, that she might get her liberty.
For they began to be in fear, knowing that this drowning of women would make a greater stir in the world than much shooting of men.
‘Lord, give him repentance, forgiveness, and, salvation!’ she said fervently and willingly.
But Lag cried out in his great hoarse voice, ‘Out upon the wretch! We want not such oaths nor prayers. Winram, get the Test through her teeth—or down with her again.’
But she steadfastly refused the wicked Test, the oath of sin. As indeed we that loved Scotland and the good way of religion had all learned to do.
‘I cannot forswear my faith. I am one of Christ's children. Let me go to Him!’ she said, being willing to depart, which she held to be far better.
‘Back with her into the water!’ cried Lag. ‘The sooner she will win to hell! 'Tis too good for a rebel like her!’
But Coltran said, ‘Ye are fair to see, Margaret, lass. Think weel, hinny! Hae ye nane that ye love?’
But she answered him not a word, being like one other before her, like a lamb led to the slaughter.
So they tied her again to the stake, where the water was deeper now and lappered on her breast, swirling yellow and foul in oily bubbles.
Her great head coverture of hair—which, had I been her lad, I should have delighted to touch and stroke—now broke from the maiden's snood, and fell into the water. There it floated, making a fair golden shining in the grimy tide, like the halo which is about the sun when he rises. Also her face was as the face of an angel, being turned upward to God.
Then they began to drive the folk from the sands for fear of what they might see—the beauty of the dying maid, and go mad with anger at the sight.
Whereupon, being in extremity, she lifted her voice to sing, calm as though it had been an ordinary Sabbath morning, and she leading the worship at Glen Vernock, as indeed she did very well.
It was the twenty-fifth Psalm she sang, as followeth. And when she that was a pure maid sang of her sins, it went to my heart, thinking on my own greater need.
‘My sins and faults of youth Do Thou, O Lord, forget; After Thy mercies think on me, And for Thy goodness great.’
It was a sweet voice and carried far. But lest it should move the hearts of the people, Lag garred beat the drum. And as the drums began to roll, I saw the first salt wave touch the bonny maiden lips which no man had kissed in the way of love.
Then the guards plucked me by the arm roughly and dragged me away. The drums waxed still louder. But as we went farther away, the voice of the maiden praising God out of the floods of great waters, broke through them, rising clearer, besieging the throne of God and breaking down the hearts of men. I saw the tears hopping down many a rude soldier's cheek.
Nevertheless, they swore incessantly, cursing Lag and Winram back and forth, threatening to shoot them for devils thus to kill young maids and weakly women.
But once again in the pauses of the drums the words of Margaret's song came clear. Forget them shall I never, till I too be on my death-bed, and can remember nothing but ‘The Lord's my Shepherd,’ which every Scot minds on his dying day. These were the words she sang:
‘Turn unto me Thy face, And to me mercy show; Because that I am desolate, And am brought very low.
‘O do Thou keep my soul, Do Thou deliver me; And let me never be ashamed, Because I trust in Thee.’
After the last line there was a break and a silence, and no more—and no more! But after the silence had endured a space, there arose a wailing that went from the hill of Wigtown to the farthest shore of the Cree—the wailing of a whole country-side for a young lass done to death in the flower of her youth, in the untouched grace and favour of her virginity.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.