HIDING WITH THE HEATHER-CAT
As for me, when I had seen this, thinking it to be enough, I put spurs to my little Galloway, and we were soon at speed over the moss-hags. My beast was well acquainted with moss running, for it had not carried me so often over the moor to Lochinvar for nothing. I heard tempestuous crying, as of men that pursued, and, strangely and suddenly, behind me the roar of battle sank into silence. Once I glanced back and saw many footmen running and horsemen rising and falling in their saddles. But, all being lost, I left the field of Ayrsmoss behind me as fast as I might, and set my horse's head over the roughest and boggiest country, keeping toward Dalmellington, for the wilderness was now to be my home. For the time I had had enough of rebellion under arms. I was not unfaithful to the cause, nor did I regret what I had done. But I judged that, for some time to come, it were better for me not to see company, for I had no pleasure in it.
Now, in further telling my tale I must put together all the incidents of my fleeing to the heather—for that being a thing at the time very frequently resorted to, it became at last a word in Scotland that ‘to take to the heather was to be in the way of getting grace.’
Now, when I sped away to the south-east from Ayrsmoss, the folk I loved were all killed, and I had no hope or hold of any present resistance to the King. But my Galloway sheltie, being nimble on its feet, took me bravely over the moss-hags, carrying me lightly and willingly as if I had been hare-coursing on the green holms of the Ken.
As I fled I kept glancing behind me and seeing the soldiers in red clothes and flashing arms still pursuing after. I saw also our foot (that had stood off when we charged, and only fired as they saw need) scattering through the moss, and the enemy riding about the borders wherever their horses could go, firing at them. Yet I think that not many of them were hurt in the pursuit, for the moss at that place was very boss, and full of bottomless bogs, like that from which Patrick Laing drew the redoubtable persecutor Captain Crichton. This incident, indeed, bred in the breasts of the dragoons a wholesome fear of the soft boggish places, which made greatly in many instances for the preservation of the wanderers, and in especial favoured me in my present enterprise.
In a little after, two of the four dragoons that followed me, seeing another man running like to burst through the moss, turned aside and spurred their horses after him, leaving but two to follow me.
Yet after this I was harder put to it than ever, for the sun was exceedingly hot above and the moss as difficult beneath. But I kept to it, thinking that, after all, by comparison I was in none such an evil case. For, though my head ached with the steel cap upon it and my horse sweated, yet it must have been much more doleful for the heavy beasts and completely accoutred dragoons toiling in the rear. So over the broken places of the moor I went faster than they, though on the level turf they would doubtless soon have ridden me down. But then, after all, they were but riding to kill one Whig the more, while I to save my neck—which made a mighty difference in the earnestness of our intents on that day of swithering heat.
Many a time it came to me to cast myself from my beast and run to the side, trusting to find a moss-hag where I might lie hidden up to my neck among the water with my head among the rushes. I saw many good and safe places indeed, but I remembered that my sheltie would be an advertisement to the pursuers, so I held on my way. Besides, Donald had been a good friend to me, and was the only one of our company that had ever been on the bonny holms of Earlstoun. So that I was kindly affectioned to the beast, and kept him to his work though the country was very moorish and the sun hot on my head.
Once I was very nearly taken. For as I went, not knowing the way, I came to a morass where in the midst there was a secure place, as it seemed to me. I put Donald at it, and when I reached the knoll—lo, it was only some nine or ten yards square—the bottomless swelter of shaking bogs girding it in on the further side. Donald went to the girth at the first stride on the other side, so that there was nothing for it but to dismount and pull him out.
Then up came the dragoons, riding heavily and cursing the sun and me. They rode round skirting the moss; for, seeing the evil case I was in, they dared not come nearer for fear of the same or worse. They kept, therefore, wide about me, crying, ‘Come out, dog, and be shot!’
Which, being but poor encouragement, I was in no wise eager to obey their summons.
But by holding on to the heather of the moss—by the kind providence of God, it was very long and tough—I managed to get Donald out of his peril. He was a biddable enough beast, and, being a little deaf, he knew not fear. For reesting and terror among horses are mostly but over-sharpness in hearing, and an imagination that they were better without. But Donald had no good hearing and no bad forebodings. So when I pulled him among the long heather, and put his head down, he lay like a scent-dog, cowered along by the side of the moss-hags. Then the pair by the edge of the morass began to shoot at me, for the distance was within reach of a pistol-ball. The first bullet that came clipped so close to my left ear that it took away a lock of my hair, which, contrary to my custom, had now grown longish.
All this time they ceased not for a moment to cry, ‘Come out, dog, and be shot!’ They were ill-mannered rampaging lowns with little sense, and I desired no comings and goings with them. So in no long time I tired of this, and also of lying still to be shot at. I bethought me that I might show them a better of it, and afford some sport. So very carefully I charged both my pistols, and the next time they came near, riding the bog-edge to fire at me, I took careful aim and shot at the first of them. The ball went through the calf of his leg, which caused him to light off the far-side of his horse with a great roar.
‘You have killed me,’ he cried over to me complainingly, as if he had been a good friend come to pay me a visit, to whom I had done a treachery. Then he cursed me very resentfully, because forsooth (as he said) he was about to be made a sergeant in the company, and, what with lying up with his wounded leg, some other (whom he mentioned) would get the post by favour of the captain.
‘See what you have done!’ said he, holding up his leg.
But I took aim with the other pistol and sent a ball singing over his head, very close.
‘Trip it, my bonny lad,’ I cried, ‘or there will be a hole of the same size in your thick head—which will be as good as a cornet's commission to you in the place to which it will send you!’
Then I charged my pistols again and ordered them away. The trooper's companion made bold to leave his horse and come towards me crawling upon the moss. But I turned my pistols so straightly upon him, that he was convinced that I must be a marksman by trade and so desisted from the attempt.
All this made me proud past reasoning, and I mounted in their sight, and made a work of fastening my accoutrements and tightening Donald's girths.
‘So good-day to you!’ I cried to them, ‘and give my compliments to your captain and tell him from me that he hath a couple of varlets in his company very careful of their skins in this world—which is, maybe, as well—seeing that in the next they are secure of getting them well paid.’
Now this was but the word of a silly boy, and I was sorry for taunting the men before ever I rode away. But I set it down as it happened, that all may come in its due place, nothing in this history being either altered or extenuated.
So all that night I fled and the next day also, till I came into my own country of the Glenkens, where near to Carsphairn I left Donald with a decent man that would keep him safe for my mother's sake. For the little beast was tired and done, having come so far and been ridden so hard. Yet when I left him out in the grass-park, there was not so much as the mark of a spur upon him, so willingly had he come over all the leagues of heather-lands.
While life lasts shall I not forget Donald.
My father used often to tell us what Maxwell of Monreith said when he lit off his grey horse at the stable-door and turned him out after riding him home from Rullion Green: ‘Thou hast done thy day's work, Pentland. There is a park for thee to fill thy belly in for the rest of thy days. No leg shall ever cross thy back again!’
So when I came to my own in the better days, I made it my care that Donald was not forgotten; and all his labour in the future, till death laid him low, was no more than a gentle exercise to keep him from over-eating himself on the meadow-lands of Afton.
After the great day of dule, when Cameron was put down at Ayrsmoss and I escaped in the manner I have told of, I made my way by the little ferry-port of Cree, which is a sweet and still little town, to Maryport, on the other side of the Solway, and thence in another ship for the Low Countries.
When we came within sight of the land we found that it was dismally grey, wearisome looking, and flat. The ship-men called it the Hook of Holland. But this was not thought right for the port of our destination, so we put to sea again, where we were too much tossed about for the comfort of my stomach. Indeed, every one on board of the ship felt the inconvenience; and two exceedingly pious women informed me that it interfered with their religious duties. It was upon a Thursday night, at six o'clock, that we arrived at an outlandish place called, as I think, Zurichsee, where we met with much inhumanity and uncourteousness. Indeed, unless a Scots merchant, accustomed to adventuring to the Low Countries, had been of our company, it might have gone hardly with us, for the barbarous folk had some custom of ill-treating strangers who arrive upon a day of carnival. They entered our bark and began to ill-treat us even with blows and by taking from us what of money we had. But mercifully they were restrained before I had put my sword into them, which, in their own country and engaged in ungodliness, it had been no little folly to do.
Then also it grieved us very sore that we had five soldiers who had come from Scotland with us—the very scum of the land. They called themselves Captain Somerville's band; but if, indeed, they were any soldiers of his Majesty's, then God help their captain in his command, for such a pack of unwashed ruffians it never was my hap to see.
Specially did these men disquiet us upon the Sabbath-day. So dreadful were their oaths and curses that we feared the boat would sink because of their iniquities. They carried themselves so exceeding wickedly—but more, as I think, that we, who desired not their company, might take note of them. For at least three of them were but sullen, loutish boys, yet the others led them on, and praised them when they imitated their blasphemies and sculduddery.
At last about eight o'clock in the evening we came to Rotterdam, where we quartered with a good merchant, Mr. Donaldson, and in the morning we went to a Mr. Hay's, where from that good man (whom may God preserve) we met with inexpressible kindness.
Thence we went to Groningen, where many of the Covenant already were. To be brief—that part of my life for the present not coming into the history—I spent four years there, the most of it with a young man named James Renwick, a good student, and one very full of great intents which were to make Scotland strong against the House of Stuart. He came from Minnyhive, a village on the borders of Galloway and Dumfries, and was a very decent lad—though apt, before he learned modesty on the moors, to take too much upon him. We were finally summoned home by a letter from the United Societies, for they had made me a covenanted member of standing because of Ayrsmoss, and the carrying of the banner at Sanquhar.
While at Groningen I got a great deal of civility because of Sandy, my brother, whose name took me everywhere. But I think that, in time, I also won some love and liking on my own account. And while I was away, I got many letters from Maisie Lennox, chiefly in the name of my mother, who was not good at writing; for her father, though a lord of session, would not have his daughters taught overly much, lest it made them vain and neglectful of those things which are a woman's work, and ought to be her pleasure so long as the world lasts.
But though I went to the University, I could not bring myself to think that I had any call to the ministry. I went, therefore, for the name of it, to the study of the law, but read instead many and divers books. For the study of the law is in itself so dreary, that all other literature is but entertainment by comparison. So that, one book being easy to substitute for another, I got through a vast deal of excellent literature while I studied law at the University of Groningen. So did also, even as I, all the students of law whom I knew in Holland and elsewhere, for that is their custom.
But when at last I was called home, I received a letter from the United Societies, written in their name, from a place called Panbreck, where their meeting was held. First it told me of the sadness that was on Scotland, for the many headings, hangings, hidings, chasings, outcastings, and weary wanderings. Then the letter called me, as the branch of a worthy family, to come over and take my part, which, indeed, I was somewhat loath to do. But with the letter there came a line from Maisie Lennox, which said that they were in sore trouble at the Earlstoun, sometimes altogether dispossessed, and again for a time permitted to abide in safety. Yet for my mother's sake she asked me to think of returning, for she thought that for me the shower was surely slacked and the on-ding overpast. So I took my way to ship-board with some desire to set my foot again on the heather, and see the hills of Kells run blue against the lift of heaven, from the links of the Ken to the headend of Carsphairn.
It was the high time of the killing when I came again to Scotland, and landed at Newcastle. I made for Galloway on foot by the tops of the Cheviots and the Border hills. Nor did I bide more than a night anywhere, and that only in herds' huts. Till I saw, from the moors above Lochinkit, the round top of the Millyea, which some ill-set people call an ugly mountain, but which is to me the fairest hill that the sun shines on. So at least it appeared, now returning from the Lowlands of Holland, where one can make the highest hill with a spade in an afternoon. Ay, for I knew that it looked on Earlstoun, where my mother was—whom I greatly desired to see, as was most natural.
Yet it was not right that I should recklessly go near Earlstoun to bring trouble on my mother without knowing how the land lay. So I came down the west side of the water of Ken, by the doachs, or roaring linn, where the salmon sulk and leap. And I looked at the house from afar till my heart filled, thinking that I should never more dwell there, nor look any more from my mother's window in the quiet hour of even, when the maids were out milking the kye. Even as I looked I could see the glint of scarlet cloth, and the sun sparkling on shining arms, as the sentry paced from the wall-gate to the corner of the wall and back again. Once I saw him go within the well-house for a drink, and a great access of desire took me in my stomach. I remembered the coolness that was there. For the day was exceedingly hot, and I weary and weak with travel.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.