THE MADNESS OF THE BULL OF EARLSTOUN
How they carried me to Edinburgh I cannot stop to tell, though the manner of it was grievous enough. But in my heart all the way there remained the fear that while I was laid up in Edinburgh, Robert Grierson, the wild beast of Galloway, might come and take my mother and Maisie. And do so with them even as he had done with Margaret Lauchlison and our little Margaret of Glen Vernock. And this vexed me more than torments.
In Edinburgh they cast me into an inner den of the prison, where in the irons there were ten men already. Then when my name was made known, through the darkness and the fearsome stench of the place, where no fresh air had come for years, what was my joy to hear the voice of Anton Lennox bidding me be of good cheer—for that our Lord was a strong Lord, and would see me win with credit from off the stage of life.
At this I took heart of grace at the kenned voice and face, and we fell to discoursing about Maisie Lennox and how she did. He told me that to the honour of the King's service the soldiers had treated him kindly, and had given him the repute of being a man honourable above most. Nevertheless, the warrant for his execution was daily expected from London. He told me also that my brother Sandy was in Blackness Castle, but that it was reported again that he was soon to be examined by torture. Indeed there was a talk among the guard that I was to share this with him, which made them the more careful of me, as one whom the Council had an eye upon.
But it was not long before this matter was brought to a probation. About three of the clock on the following day, there came officers to the Tolbooth Port and cried my name, to which I answered with a quaking heart—not for death, but for torture. So they took me out and delivered me to the guard, who haled me by back ways and closes to a little door let into the side of a great hulk of grey wall.
Along stone passages very many, all dripping with damp like a cellar, they dragged me, till beside three doors hung with red cloth they stopped. Then instead of swearing and jesting as they had done before, the officers talked in whispers.
Presently a door swung open very silently to admit me, and I set my feet upon a soft carpet. Then, also without noise, the door swung to again. I found myself alone in a cage, barriered like the cage of a wild beast. It was at one end of a vast room with black oaken ceiling, carven and panelled. Before me there was a strong breastwork of oak, and an iron bar across, chin high. Beside me and on either hand were ranged strange-looking engines, some of which I knew to be the ‘boots’ for the torture of the legs, and the pilniewinks for the bruising of the thumbs. Also there stood at each side of the platform a man habited in black and white and with a black mask over his face. These men stood with their arms folded, and looked across the narrow space at one another as though they had been carven statues.
The rest of the great room was occupied by a table, and at the table there sat a dignified company. Then I understood that I stood in the presence of the Privy Council of Scotland, which for twenty-five years had bent the land to the King's will. At the head sat cruel Queensberry, with a face louring with hate and guile—or so it seemed, seen through bars of oak and underneath gauds of iron.
Still more black and forbidding was the face of the ‘Bluidy Advocate,’ Sir George Mackenzie, who sat at the table-foot, and wrote incessantly in his books. I knew none other there, save the fox face of Tarbet, called the Timeserver.
When I was brought in, they were talking over some slight matter concerning a laird who had been complaining that certain ill-set persons were carrying away sea tangle from his foreshore. And I was not pleased that they should have other thoughts in their minds, when I was before them in peril of my life.
At last Sir George Mackenzie turned him about and said, ‘Officer, whom have we here?’
The officer of the court made answer very shortly and formally, ‘William Gordon, son of umquhile William Gordon of Earlstoun in Galloway, and brother of the aforementioned Alexander Gordon, condemned traitor from the prison of Blackness, presently to be examined.’
‘Ah!’ said Mackenzie, picking up his pen again, ‘the Glenkens messan! We'll wait for the muckle hound and take both the lowsy tykes thegether!’
But Queensberry, as was his custom at Council, ran counter to the advocate in his desire, and commanded presently to interrogate me.
The Duke asked me first if I had been at the wounding of the Duke Wellwood.
I answered him plainly that I had. But that it was a fair fight, and that the Duke and his men had made the first onslaught.
‘You have proof of that at your hand, no doubt,’ said he, and passed on as though that had been a thing of little import—as indeed, in the light of my succeeding admissions, it was.
‘You were at Sanquhar town on the day of the Declaration?’ he said, looking sharply at me, no doubt expecting a denial or equivocation.
Now it seemed to me that I must most certainly die, so I cared not if I did it with some credit. For the whiner got even less mercy from these men, than he that defied and outfaced them.
‘I was at Sanquhar, and with this hand I raised the Banner of Blue!’ I said.
‘Note that, advocate,’ said Tarbet, smiling foxily. ‘The King hath a special interest in all that took his name in vain at Sanquhar.’
Mackenzie glanced with a black, side-cocking look of interest at the hand I held up, as if to say, ‘I shall know that again when I see it on the Netherbow!’
‘You were at Ayrsmoss, and won clear?’ was the next interrogatory.
‘I was one of two that broke through both lines of the troops when we came to the charge!’ I said, with perhaps more of the braggart than I care now to think on.
Then all the Council looked up, and there was a sudden stir of interest.
‘Blood of St. Crispin!’ said Queensberry, ‘but ye do not look like it. Yet I suppose it must be so.’
‘It is so,’ said Sir George the Advocate shortly, flicking a parchment with the feather of his quill pen. He had the record before him.
‘Is there anything more that ye were in? Being as good as headed already, a little more will not matter. It will be to your credit when the saints come to put up your tomb, and scribe your testimony on it.’
‘I am no saint,’ said I, ‘though I love not Charles Stuart. Neither, saving your honourable presences, do I love the way that this realm is guided. But if it please you to ken, I have been in all that has chanced since Bothwell. I was at Enterkin the day we reft the prisoners from you. I was in the ranks of the Seven Thousand when, at the Conventicle at Shalloch-on-Minnoch, the hillmen made Clavers and Strachan draw off. I was taken at the Tolbooth of Wigtown trying to deliver a prisoner, whom ye had reprieved. And had there been anything else done, I should have been in it.’
The Council leaned back in their chairs almost to a man, and smilingly looked at one another. The President spoke after a moment of silence.
‘Ye are a brisk lad and ill to content, but your sheet is gallantly filled. So that I think ye deserve heading instead of hanging, which is certainly a great remission. I shall e'en take the liberty of shaking hands with you and wishing you a speedy passage and a sharp axe. Officer, the prisoner is in your care till his warrant comes from London.’
And to my astonishment Queensbury turned round and very ceremoniously held out his hand to me, which I took through the bars.
‘I shall never again deny that Gordon blood is very good blood,’ he said.
Then they brought in Sandy, looming up like a tower between the warders. He had a strange, dazed look about him, and his hair had grown till he peered out of the hassock, like to an owl out of an ivy bush, as the proverb says.
They asked a few questions of him, to which he gave but mumbled replies. If he saw me he never showed it. But I knew him of old, and a sly tod was Sandy.
Then Sir George Mackenzie rose, and turning to him, read the King's mandate, which declared that, in spite of his underlying sentence of death, he was to be tortured, to make him declare the truth in the matter of Fergusson the plotter, and the treason anent the King's life.
Then, the black wrath of his long prisonment suddenly boiling over, Sandy took hold on the great iron bar before him and bent his strength to it—which, when he was roused, was like the strength of Samson. With one rive he tore it from its fastenings, roaring all the while with that terrible voice of his, which used to set the cattle wild with fear when they heard it, and which even affrighted men grown and bearded. The two men in masks sprang upon him, but he seized them one in each hand and cuffed and buffeted them against the wall, till I thought he had splattered their brains on the stones. Indeed, I looked to see. But though there was blood enough, there were no brains to speak of.
Then very hastily some of the Council rose to their feet to call the guard, but the door had been locked during the meeting, and none for a moment could open it. It was fearsome to see Sandy. His form seemed to tower to the ceiling. A yellow foam, like spume of the sea, dropped from his lips. He roared at the Council with open mouth, and twirled the bar over his head. With one leap he sprang over the barrier, and at this all the councillors drew their gowns about them and rushed pell-mell for the door, with Sandy thundering at their heels with his iron bar. It was all wonderfully fine to see. For Sandy, with more sense than might have been expected of him, being so raised, lundered them about the broadest of their gowns with the bar, till the building was filled with the cries of the mighty Privy Council of Scotland. I declare I laughed heartily, though under sentence of death, and felt that well as I thought I had borne myself, Sandy the Bull had done a thousand times better.
Then from several doors the soldiery came rushing in, and in short space Sandy, after levelling a file with his gaud of iron, was overpowered by numbers. Nevertheless, he continued to struggle till they twined him helpless in coils of rope. In spite of all, it furnished work for the best part of a company to take him to the Castle, whither, ‘for a change of air,’ and to relieve his madness he was remanded, by order of the Council when next they met. But there was no more heard of examining Sandy by torture.
And it was a tale in the city for many a day how Sandy Gordon cleared the chamber of the Privy Council. So not for the first time in my life I was proud of my brother, and would have given all the sense I had, which is no little, for the thews and bones to have done likewise.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.