CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
THE LAST CHARGE AT AYRSMOSS
The morning of the twenty-second of July dawned solemnly clear. It promised to be a day of slumberous heat, for the haze lay long in the hollows, hesitating to disappear, and there was the brooding of thunder in the air. We that were of Cameron's little company found ourselves in a wild place on the moors. Most of our Galloway men had betaken themselves home, and they that had come out of Lanarkshire and Ayr were the greater part of the scanty company. The name of the place where we sojourned was Ayrsmoss. We had lain sleepless and anxious all night, with watchers posted about among the moss-hags. Richard Cameron spoke often to us, and told us that the matter had at last come to the narrow and bitter pass.
‘It is the day of the Lord's anger,’ he said, ‘and it is expedient that some men should die for the people!’
We told him that we were ready, and that from the beginning we had counted on nothing else. But within me I felt desperately ill-prepared: yet, for the sake of the banner I carried, I tholed and said nothing.
It was about ten of the day, and because we heard not from our folk who had been posted to give warning, we sent out other two to find them. Then having taken a meal of meat for the better sustaining of our bodies, we lay down to sleep for an hour on a pleasant green place, which is all surrounded by morasses, for we had gotten no rest the night before.
Now I think we were all fey at this time, for we laid us down on the edge of the moss in a place that is open to all. And this when we might have withdrawn ourselves deep into the bog, and so darned ourselves among the ‘quakking quas’—dangerous and impassable flowes, so that no dragoons in the world could have come at us. But this we did not, for the word and doom were written. It was our enemies' day. As Cameron said that morning as we passed the house of William Mitchell in Meadowhead, and when they brought him out a basin and water to wash his hands, also a towel wherewith to dry them:
‘This is their last washing. My head and hands are now cleansed for the offering!’
So we laid us down among a great swirling of whaups and crying of peesweeps. For the season of their nesting was hardly over, and all the moorland was astir with their plaintive notes.
After a long time I awoke, dreaming that Maisie Lennox stood by my bedside and took my hand, saying, ‘The kye are in the corn!’ I sat up, and, lo, there within half a mile, and beating the moor in search of us, were two companies of dragoons, of the number of about one hundred and twenty, as near as at a glance I could reckon. My heart gave a stound, and I said to myself, ‘This is surely thy death-day, William Gordon!’ And the word sounded strangely in my heart, for I had begun to think my life worth living in these latter days, and was none so keen upon the dying as were some others of our company.
But on the instant I awakened Cameron and his brother Michael, and also David Hackstoun of Rathillet, that was a soldier most stern, but yet a just man according to his lights. And they sat up and saw the soldiers sweeping the moor. But, as I say, we were all fey. For even then it was within our power to have escaped the violence of the men of war. Very easily could we have left our horses, and betaken us into the deepest parts of the bottomless shaking bogs, where no man could have followed us. But the thought came not to us at the time. For God had so ordered it, that Scotland was best to be served that day by the death of many of His servants.
There were in our company twenty-three that had horses and forty that had none. But we were all armed in some sort of fashion.
Now, this Richard Cameron had in him both the heart of a fighter and the fearlessness of a man assured of his interest. He cried out to inquire of us if we were firmly set in our minds to fight, and with one voice we answered him, ‘Ay!’ We were of one heart and one mind. Our company and converse had been sweet in the darkness, and now we were set to die together in the noonday, gladly as men that have made them ready for the entering in of the bride-chamber.
So in that sullen morning, with the birds crying and the mist drawing down into thunder-clouds, we rose to make our last stand. I had given up all thought of escape, and was putting in hard steeks at the praying. For the sins that were on my soul were many, and I had too recently taken to that way of thinking to have the comfort and assurance of my elders.
Now, the soldiers that came against us were the finest companies of Airly's and Strachan's dragoons—gallant lads all—newly brought to that country-side and not yet inured to the cruel riding and shooting, as other companies were. I have not a word to say against the way they fought, though as their duty was, they came against us with haste and fury. Our quarrel was not with them, but with their master.
They rode gallantly enough this way and that through the morasses, and came on bravely. Bruce of Earlshall was over them, but John Crichton was their best fighter. A stark and cruel man he was, that would have hunted us all down if he could. He fought that day with his blade swinging all the time, damning and cursing between every blow. But, for all that, he was sick and sorry ere he left this field. For if ever man did, he met his match when he crossed swords with the Lion of the Covenant. It was Rathillet who chose the place of strength for us to make our stand, and as it seemed and mostly proved, to take our deaths upon. There was little time for the Word and the Prayer. But, as was our custom, we sang a cheerful psalm, and lifted up our bonnets while Cameron prayed:
‘Lord, spare the green, and take the ripe!’ That was the whole matter of his supplication. ‘We may never be in better case to die. I see the gates of heaven cast wide open to receive us.’
And I noted that all the time of our singing, David Hackstoun of Rathillet was looking to the priming of his pistols, and drawing the edge of his sword-blade along the back of his hand, as one that tries a razor ere he sets it to his chin. Then the companies of the enemy halted on the edge of the moss where the ground was yet firm. They seemed not disinclined for a parley.
‘Do you own the King's authority?’ cried one among them. It was Bruce of Earlshall, a buirdly chiel and one not greatly cruel; but rather like Monmouth, anxious to let the poor remnant have its due.
‘Ay!’ cried Cameron, ‘we own the King's authority.’
‘Wherefore, then, stand ye there in arms against his forces?’ came the answer back. ‘Yield, and ye shall have quarter and fair conduct to Edinburgh!’
The man spake none so evilly for a persecutor, and in my heart I liked him.
‘I thank you, Captain Bruce, for your fair speech,’ said Cameron, ‘but I wot well you mean fair passage to the Grassmarket. The King we own is not King Charles Stuart, and it liketh us to go to our King's court through the crash of battle, rather than through the hank of the hangman's twine.’
‘This preacher is no man of straw—fight he will,’ I heard them say one to the other, for they were near to us, even at the foot of the opposite knoll.
Then our horsemen, of whom I was one, closed in order without further word, and our foot drew out over the moss in readiness to fire. David Hackstoun was with us on the left, and Captain Fowler on the right. But Richard Cameron was always a little ahead of us all, with his brother Michael with him on one side, and I, riding my Galloway nag, close upon his right flank—which was an honourable post for one so young as I, and served withal to keep my spirits up.
Just before he gave the word to charge, he cried out to us, pointing to the enemy with his sword:
‘Yonder is the way to the good soldier's crown!’
The day had been clouding over, the heat growing almost intolerable. It was now about two in the afternoon. It was easy to see, had we had the eyes to observe it, that a thunderstorm was brewing, and even as Richard Cameron stretched out his sword over his horse's head, and cried on to us to charge in the name of the Lord, the first levin-bolt shot down, glittering into the moor like a forked silver arrow. And over our head the whole firmament raired and crashed.
‘The Captain of our Salvation calls for us!’ cried Cameron. ‘Who follows after, when the Son of God rides forth to war!’
So with that we lowered our sword-points and drave at them. I think I must have ridden with my eyes shut, down that little green knowe with the short grass underfoot. I know that, even as we rode, the thunder began to roar about us, girding us in a continuous ring of lightning-flashes.
Yet, at the time, I seemed to ride through a world of empty silence, even when I struck the red broil of battle. I could see Cameron crying out and waving his sword before us as our horses gathered way, but I remember no more till the shock came and we found ourselves threshing headlong among them. I fired my pistols right and left, and set them in my belt again, though the habit was to throw them away. I had my sword dangling by a lingel or tag at my right wrist, for I had learned from Wat Gordon how to fight it upon horseback when it came to the charge. The first man that I came against was a great dragoon on a grey horse. He shouted an oath of contempt, seeing me so slender and puny. Yet, for all his bulk, I had him on the wrong side, so that he could not use his sword-arm with advantage. And as I passed on my stout little nag, I got my sword well home under his armpit and tumbled him off into the mire.
The stoutness of our charge took the enemy entirely by surprise. Indeed, afterwards they gave us all the testimony of being brave, resolute men; and, like soldiers and gentlemen as they were, they used them that were taken very civilly. I could see Cameron before me smiting and slaying, slaying and smiting, rising in his stirrup at every blow and calling on his men. It was a wild, fierce time, all too short—a happy turmoil of blows wherein I drank for the first time the heady delight of battle. All over the wild moss of Ayr that great day the swords flickered like lightning-flashes, and the lightnings darted like sword-blades. Oh, how many quiet times would I not give for such another glorious wager of battle!
Overhead all the universe roared as we fought, and I had no thought save of the need to keep my point up—thrusting, parrying, and striking as God gave me ability.
Right in the midst of the press there came two at me from opposite sides; and I saw very well that, if I got no help, there was no more of life for me. ‘Richard!’ I cried, and the shout must have gone to our leader's ear, though I myself could not hear it, so great was the clangour and the din.
Cameron had been smiting with the strength of ten immediately on my front. In a moment more he cleared his point, pierced his man, and turned. The man on my left swerved his horse out of his way, for Cameron came with a surge. But the other, whom I took to be Crichton, met him fair, blade to blade. The first clash of the swords was mighty. These two lowering black men met and knew each other, soon as they looked one another in the eyes.
But I could see that Cameron was ever the stronger and swifter, though Crichton had somewhat the more skill. Crichton tried to pass him a little, that he might get arm-play for his famous back-strokes, wherewith he was renowned to have cut off a man's head at a blow; but Cameron measured his guard and the blow whistled harmless past his ear. Then came the return. The preacher's sword streaked it out straight and level, and for a moment seemed to stand full mid-blade in the dragoon's side.
The next moment we too found ourselves outside their first line. We had broken our way through, and the enemy were in confusion behind us. I saw many single combats going forward, and in especial a most noble fight between David Hackstoun of Rathillet and one of his own acquaintances, by name David Ramsay, a gentleman of his country. As they fought I could hear Hackstoun, whom nothing could daunt or disturb, asking Ramsay all the news of the country-side, and how such a one did, what wife had gotten another child and whether it were a lad or a lass. Which is a thing I should never have believed if any man had told me. And when I set it down here I expect not to be believed of any, save by those who have been in the thick of a civil war themselves. But all that knew David Hackstoun of Rathillet will believe that this thing is true of him.
So he fought, clashing swords and talking at his ease, without change of countenance, till he was stricken down with three coming on him at once from behind.
Then, seeing our horsemen scattered, Cameron cried them to him, and we galloped towards their second line that came riding unbroken towards us. Now it was our misfortune that the dragoons were stark fellows and had seen service, so that they gave not back as others might have done, seeing us come on so determinedly. Rather they reserved their powder till we were almost at the sword's length. Then they fired, and I saw our men falling over in twos and threes. But Richard Cameron still rode steadily with Michael and myself behind him. His horse had once been white, but now was mostly dripping red—a fearsome sight to see. I heard afterwards from old soldiers that had been in the fights of the ancient days, that no such terrifying figure had they ever seen in the wars, since Noll led on the Ironsides at Marston Moor.
But Cameron's case was far more desperate than had ever been that of Oliver.
‘Smite! Smite!’ he cried, ‘The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!’
Over all the field there was only the whinnying of swords as they whistled through the air, and at the edges of the fray the dropping rattle of the musketry. As we touched their second line we seemed to ride in upon a breast-high wave of flame, which might have been Earlshall's flashing muskets or God's own level lightnings. I rode as best I could behind Cameron, striking when I had opportunity and warding as I had need. But, though I was here in the forefront of the battle, I was in the safest place. For Richard Cameron ploughed a lane through their company, sending them to right and left before him as the foam is ploughed by a swift vessel.
But our desperate riders were now wearing few. I looked behind us, and only two seemed to be in the saddle—James Gray of Chryston and Michael Cameron, who had both promised to ding the stoor that day out of his Majesty's red-clouts. I could see Chryston striking, and grunting as he struck, exactly like a man hagging hard wood with a blunt axe.
So I found myself out at the side of the fight. But, just when I thought myself clear, there came a blow on my steel cap that nearly dang me out of the saddle, and I drew out further again. Cameron also had won clear; but, seeing his brother Michael hard beset, he turned rein and drave in among the smother again, raging like the lion he was. How his horse kept his feet on the moss I know not, for Cameron seemed constantly to be standing up in his stirrups, leaning forward to give his blade more play. So he rode into the midst of them, till he was brought to a stand in what seemed a ring of foes. Even there I could see his arm rise and fall, as steadily as a man that flails corn in a barn. And wherever he struck was a gap, for there a man went down. But more and more of them gathered about, threshing at him with their swords, some on horse and some on foot, like boys killing wasps at the taking of a byke.
Then when Richard Cameron saw that he could do no more, and that all the men were down that had followed him, his brother Michael also dying at his feet, he swept his sword every way about him to clear a space for a moment. Then he swung the brand over his head high in the air, casting it from him into the sky, till it seemed to enter into the dark cloud where the thunder brooded and the smoke of powder hung.
‘God of battles, receive my sinful soul!’ he cried.
And with that he joined his hands like a man that dives for swimming; and, unwounded, unhurt, yet fighting to the last, Richard Cameron sprang upon a hundred sword-points. Thus died the bravest man in broad Scotland, whom men called, and called well, the Lion of the Covenant.
And, even as he passed, the heavens opened, and the whole firmament seemed but one lightning-flash, so that all stood aghast at the marvellous brightness. Which occasioned the saying that God sent a chariot of fire with horses of whiteness to bring home to Him the soul of Richard Cameron. Whereof some men bear testimony that they saw; but indeed I saw nothing but a wondrous lightning-flash over the whole heaven. Then, a moment after, the thunder crashed like the breaking up of the world, and there was an end.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.