English Border Towns - Selkirk
( Originally Published 1914 )
Two miles up the river from Lindean you But this is not the route by which that approached ; by the Galashiels road, one is Selkirk almost before one is aware of any properly the old royal burgh clinging to the hill, and to realise the beauty of its situation, come from Galashiels up Tweed by the road diverging at Rink. Thence cross Yair Bridge, go by that beautiful highway through the shaggy woods of Sunderland Hall, past Ettrickbank and the Nettley Burn, down by Linglie, across Ettrick by the old bridge, and so up into the Market Place of Selkirk by the Green, (which is not anything in the nature of a lawn, but, on the contrary, a rather steep road).
This is a route longer, but to those not pressed for time, one infinitely more pleasant and beautiful than the direct way between the two towns. By it you see the exquisite bit of Tweed valley that lies between the junction and Yair Bridge, and, pausing as you cross that bridge, you have on either hand a prospect infinitely fair of heathery hill, green, leafy wood, and glorious river, the latter, above you on the right, hurrying down from Yair Cauld, a glittering sheet of eddying water, sweeping in magnificent curve past its elms at the foot of a mighty tree-clad brae ; then passing beneath your feet, chafing and hoarsely roaring, it plunges through between imprisoning come to Selkirk. town should be in the heart of streets. To see steep side of its it is necessary to rocks, till once more comparative peace is gained in reaches dear to the heart of salmon fishers. Then you leave the bridge at Yair, and climbing an easy gradient, pass along by a pleasant, shady road through rich woods, over the hill to Ettrickbank, where tradition says Queen Mary crossed the Ettrick on her way to Jedburgh in 1566.
In itself, Ettrickbank possesses no feature of interest, but it recalls to mind the fact that here, in 1818, two harmless-looking hawkers with a cart were wont to call at intervals, ostensibly to sell fish. Had their real errand been known, it is little fish they would have sold, and short would have been their shrift at the hands of the roused and horrified country-folk. They were Burke and Hare, the notorious body-snatchers, and the real purpose of the cart in which they brought fish was to carry back to Edinburgh the bodies they might procure in the country.
Burke and Hare ! Still, after the lapse of close on a century their memory is held in execration in the Border, still is their name a kind of vague horror even to those to whom it may convey little else, and who are almost wholly ignorant of what hideous crimes were committed by the pair. It was, of course, not only dead bodies that they took. These they ravished from new made graves ; but they took also living men, drugged or filled with drink, and murdered them for the sake of the price their corpses would bring as subjects for dissection by some of the doctors of that day. Hare turned king's evidence. After the trial and execution of his accomplice, he was smuggled away to the United States. There his identity was discovered, and an infuriated mob threw him into a lime-kiln, where he was badly burned and his eye-sight destroyed. After a time, when the rage and horror aroused by his misdeeds might to some extent be supposed likely to have died away, he returned to England, and as late as 1855 he was alive and in London. A blind, white-haired, frouzy, ragged old man, led by a dog, used. daily to slouch up Oxford Street, turn at the Circus towards ortland Place, post himself near where the Langham Hotel stands, and beg there from charitable passers-by. How many of them would have given, had they known that this old man was Hare, a ruffian stained with the blood of perhaps half a score of victims ? How many of them, shrinking aside, would have stepped into the foulest gutter rather than be contaminated by even brushing against the hen of his filthy old garments ? Few then knew who he was ; but there are men yet alive who may possibly remember having seen him. An eminent London surgeon, who died, comparatively speaking, but the other day, very well re-membered, and occasionally spoke of, the grizzly old ruffian who stood, with tapping stick, holding a bowl for alms. The late Mr. Serjeant Ballantine, too, in his Reminiscences describes the appearance of the man.
Immediately after passing Ettrickbank, the road, coming suddenly out from a clump of trees, breaks into view of a wide and pleasant valley, with a goodly prospect of wood and heathery hill stretched far to the west and south. Down this valley sweeps the gravelly bed of Ettrick ; on its farther bank, on the flat haugh, stand a long line of mills and the station of a branch line of railway. Above, rising abruptly, tier upon tier in cheerful succession, trees and houses that blend into the smiling face of Selkirk. And perhaps it is by reason of the width of the setting in which they are placed, or because down the mighty funnel of the valley comes rushing the west wind that sweeps all smoke away, but somehow it seems that the mills on the haugh below the town give no air of squalor or of dirt to the landscape.
Would that one could say the same with regard to the effect of their dyes and refuse on the condition of the river. By a steep red "scaur" below Linglie there once was a pool clearer than amber, across which in summer weather small boys, breathless but greatly daring, essayed to swim. Farther down, at the back of Lindean Flour Mill, was another, where in the long twilights of June,
" . . trout beneath the blossom'd tree,
and whence many a pounder and half-pounder was drawn by eager young fishers. Where is that seductive amber-clear water now? Alas ! in these days it is of a sickly blue tint, smelling evilly ; and the stones in its bed, that once were a clear, warm grey, with yellow boulders interspersed that flashed in the stream of a sunny day like burnished copper,—they are slime-covered and loathsome, things to be shunned. Surely more can be done to check this pollution of our beautiful streams. So far as can be ascertained, there is but one of the mills of Selkirk that strives (and I believe it strives successfully,) so to deal with its refuse that the water it uses may be returned to Ettrick in a condition that does not defile that stream.
Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that during the autumn floods salmon do run the gauntlet of Ettrick's lower reaches, and in countless numbers congregate below Selkirk Cauld (or weir), where the difficulty of ascent acts as a partial check on their continued migration. On a day in the month of November, if there should happen to be a consider-able flood in the river, this cauld is a sight worth going a long way to look at. A wide rushing sea of tawny, foaming water—a hundred yards from bank to bank—races over the sloping face of the cauld, and, where it plunges into the deep pool at foot, rears itself in a mighty wave, with crest that tosses in the wintry breeze " like the mane of a chestnut steed." From daylight till dark you may watch the fish,—big and little, from the thirty-pound leviathan to the little one or two-pound sea trout—in their eagerness to reach the spawning-beds of the upper waters, hurl themselves high in air over this great barrier-wave, then, gallantly struggling, continue for a while their course up the rushing torrent, till gradually they lose way and come tumbling back, head over tail, into the pool from which half a minute before they had emerged. It is like standing by one of the jumps in an endless kind of finny Grand National Steeple-chase ; so many fish are in the air at once at any given moment that one becomes giddy with watching them. Probably a good many do in time accomplish the ascent, or perhaps get up by the salmon-ladders in mid-stream, but the great majority are swept back, over and over again. Those that make their attempt near the side, in the shallow water out of the main force of the current, are frequently taken in landing-nets (by water-bailiffs stationed there for the purpose), and are carried up and set at liberty in the smooth water above the cauld. It must be confessed that a considerable number are also taken in this way, or with the help of a- " cleek," by poachers. The bailiffs cannot be everywhere ; and a salmon is a temptation before which (in the Border) almost the most virtuous of his sex might conceivably succumb. The average Borderer, indeed, I believe would cheerfully risk his life sometimes, rather than forego his chance of "a Fish."—"The only crime prevalent [in Selkirk] is that of poaching," says the Rev. Mr. Campbell, minister of the parish for fifty years, writing in 1833. There was one, greatly sinning in this respect, of whom nevertheless, because of his gallant end, I cannot think without a feeling almost of affection. He—with a fish where no fish should have been—was hopelessly outmanoeuvred by the bailiffs, escape cut off on every side, and only the river, red, swollen, and cold as ice, open to him. " Here's daith or glory for Jockie " he cried, and plunged into a torrent from which he came no more alive.
A little higher up than the cauld is the Piper's Pool, where, until he was hit by a chance bullet that brought him rolling like a shot rabbit down the brae into the water, a piper stood piping that September morning of 1645, when Montrose and Leslie were striving for the victory. On the bank above, those inhabitants of Selkirk who cared to run some risk--which was probably the whole community--took up their position and watched the fight as from a grand stand. There is no better vantage point imaginable.
Leslie, I suppose, crossing opposite the gap called Will's Nick, (not far from Lindean), came up the left bank of Ettrick and, hidden by the fog, skirted along the edge of the hills till he was within striking distance of the Royal camp, when he took them, no doubt, both in flank and in rear. But how did a man of Montrose's experience allow himself to be thus fooled ? Montrose passed the night in Selkirk, and he received no information whatever of any hostile movement. It was too late when he and what mounted men he could hastily collect came thundering and foaming through the shallow stream next morning, and went spurring over the flat haugh against the enemy. Someone besides Traquair must have played him false. It is inconceivable that he had no pickets out, or employed none of his cavalry on outpost duty. If they were out, in spite of the fog they could not fail to have got in touch with some part of Leslie's force. No large body of troops could have come undetected by a route so obvious, if those on the look-out for them were doing their duty.
Selkirk on this occasion saw war, as it were from the dress circle. The town was burned to the ground by the English after Flodden, and at various other odd times, but I do not think that it ever saw much actual street fighting such as was the experience of Jedburgh again and again. Selkirk was out of the main current of invasion, and it was only odd " spates " that came her way, such as when, in 1304, Edward I passed through the town on his march back to England ; and again when in 1309 Edward II, following an unexpected route to the north, took her on his way. Still, Selkirk had always been familiar with at least the pomp and circumstance of war. The town was old when Earl David founded its abbey in 1 113 ; probably it had always been a headquarters of the Scottish Kings and their retinue, when hunting in the Forest. Certainly William the Lion, Alexander II, and Alexander III all passed a good deal of time in its castle, which of old stood on an eminence in what are now the grounds of Haining, near the "head" of the town. Probably the Court came here chiefly for the purpose of hunting; the Forest of Ettrick was famed for its deer, as its men—unlike the majority of their countrymen were famed for their archery. At Falkirk, in 1298, the English themselves bore witness to the warlike prowess of the men of Selkirk, as well as to their stature and fine appearance. At Bannockburn the sons of the forest distinguished themselves. And again at Flodden.
Regarding the part borne by her sons in the last-named great struggle, there are many traditions to which the inhabitants of Selkirk cling tenaciously. Some, I fear, will not bear too close investigation. Traditions are mis-chancey things to handle ; it does not always do to enquire too closely if one would retain one's faith. A large body of the men of Selkirk and the Forest went to Flodden, and they fought as they always did fight. That much, at least, is certain. But who shall say how many returned from that fatal field ? The Burgh Records are silent. There is a mournful gap of two months in the history of the town ; not an entry of any sort for eight weeks in the autumn of 1513. And, says Mr. Craig-Brown in his History of Selkirkshire, "Quite as mournful and significant are the frequent services of heirs recorded after the battle." Selkirk suffered severely at Flodden. There, as else-where, her sons did their duty ; and they fell gloriously. One could wish that that might suffice ; it is an ungrateful task to rake among the dead cinders of time-honoured traditions. But it is the detestable habit of the day to leave none of our ancient beliefs unassailed ; the more beloved the tradition, the more likely is some one to remain unsatisfied till he has upset it. Yet it must be admitted that few of our cherished legends emerge triumphant when assailed by the scoffer. That, for instance, of Fletcher and the English standard captured at Flodden, which has been revered in Selkirk by so many generations of Souters, I fear, when it is investigated, must crumble into dust.
Certainly the tradition regarding the origin of the town's Arms is impossible of maintenance. The figures are so obviously those of the Virgin and Child ; the halo and the glory round their heads forbid any other interpretation. But it is easy to imagine that after the Reforrnation no Scottish town would care to acknowledge any connection, however remote, with the detested Church of Rome. Hence probably the legend of the dead woman and her still living baby who were found at the Lady-wood Edge by the Selkirk survivors of Flodden. Such a body, of course, may quite possibly have been discovered, and the tradition would be used later to account for the figures that appear in the town's Arms. Just in the same way is a gargoyle in Melrose Abbey, beside the reputed grave of Michael Scott, now pointed out to American and English tourists as an authentic representation in stone of that mighty Wizard.
As to the " Souters of Selkirk," there can be no proof either way; but I prefer to believe that the song is old, almost as old as Flodden. Perhaps I have misread Mr. Craig-Brown, and am wrong in believing that he regards it as commemorating a famous football match played in 1815 between Souters and men under the leadership of Lord Home. If that were so, it could not have been sung at Dalkeith in 1804, when the Selkirkshire Yeomanry were present at a banquet there after the False Alarm. We read that Lord Home called for the song on that occasion, but that none of the Yeomanry cared to sing it before a man on whose ancestor it reflects, whereupon, amid rapturous applause, Lord Home sang it himself. If it refers to a football match, it must be to one of very ancient date, but one that surely could not fail to have left some mark on the minds of the Souters. Mr. Plummer, of Sunderland Hall, Sheriff Depute of the county prior to Sir Walter Scott, writing in 1793 says that though he had lived all his life within two miles of Selkirk and had known the song from his boy-hood, there was not in his day, and he believed there never had been, any tradition connecting the song with anything of the nature of a football match. The verses may not have been written, probably were not written, immediately after the battle, but I am confident that it refers to Floddenin spite of the fact that there was then no Earl of Home. No doubt the song has had variants from time to time; probably there was no allusion to an " Earl" in the original verses. Popular calumny shortly after Flodden taxed Lord Home with having been the cause of James's defeat and death ; he was unable, as we know, to come to his Sovereign's aid. This popular belief, coupled with the fact that Selkirk's representatives suffered more cruelly than did Lord Home's men—and there-fore, of course local prejudice would infer, did their duty better—would be quite sufficient to give rise to the sentiment : " Down wi' the Merse to the Deil." In his letter of 1793, referred to above, Mr. Plummer says : "At election dinners, etc., when the Selkirk folks begin to get fou' they always call for music, and for that tune in particular. At such times I never heard a Souter hint at the football, but many times speak of the battle of Flodden." So far as it goes, there is nothing in the evidence to suggest a football origin for " The Souters of Selkirk."
It has always seemed to me, (who, being a native, am on that account possibly no impartial witness,) that the people of Selkirk have ever possessed in greater degree than their neighbours the true Spirit of the Sportsman. Of the inhabitants of Yarrow and Selkirk, a seventeenth-century writer recorded that " they are ingenuous, and hate fraud and deceit ; theft or robbery are not heard among them, and very rarely a Ly to be heard in any of their mouths, except among them of the baser sort." There has always been in them, I think, little of that " win, tie, or wrangle " disposition which is usually to be found among small communities ; and they were never of the sort who "heave half a brick at the head" of the outland wayfarer. In their dealings with the French officers, prisoners of war on parole, who were quartered in the old town from 181r to 1814, the Selkirk people displayed an admirable generosity and a gratifying amount of good feeling,— though in that respect none of our Border towns can be said to have been lacking. One of these French prisoners afterwards, when an old man, published most interesting reminiscences of his stay, and he writes of his involuntary hosts with appreciation, and almost with affection. In 1811, when the accumulation of prisoners of war in England had become very great, it was decided to distribute a large part of them throughout Scotland. To Selkirk, as its share, came a hundred and ninety men.
How it may be now, I cannot say, but in the writer's boyhood the memory of these prisoners still lived, and old people told innumerable tales of the strange habits of " thae Frainch." " They made tea oot o' dried whun . (furze) blossoms, an' they skinned the very paddas (frogs)," said one old man. The writer of the reminiscences referred to above makes no allusion to " paddas," but he does mention that " a lake in the neighbour-hood supplied abundance of very delicate pike." This lake may have been the Raining Loch, a picturesque sheet of water over which, however, there is, or used to be, at times a nasty vegetable scum. " One of the most beautiful and peaceful lakes that ever was seen," is Sir Thomas Dick Lauder's description of it as it was in his day. I think, however, that the French writer probably refers to the Pot Loch, a small and once very deep lochan, or pond, nestling in a hollow at the foot of the pleasant heathery hills on which is now the Selkirk Golf Course. It is a much more likely spot than the Raining for the prisoners to frequent. The former is on the town's property, the latter on an estate in private hands. And in the former there are, or at least there certainly used to be, many pike of no great size. It was here, too, that tradition told us the prisoners went to catch frogs. That Frenchmen in their own land lived chiefly on a diet of frogs was the firm belief of a majority of the town's inhabitants, (" French frogs" of course was a term of contemptuous reproach,) and that the prisoners went to the Pot Loch for any other purpose than to obtain supplies of what seemed to the townsfolk to be a very loathsome dainty, would never occur to them. The fact that the edible frog did not exist there, would make no difference in their belief. That was no difficulty ; frogs were frogs all the world over ; and frogs of course included toads. The French ate them all.
The writer of the reminiscences, M. Doisy de Villargennes, tells us that some of the prisoners were "passionately fond of fishing, and excelled in it,"—national prejudice of course forbids that we should accept the latter part of the statement as correct !—and that they used to fish in Ettrick and Tweed. Part of the former, close to the town, would be within their "bounds," but the Tweed is far outside the mile radius which was their limit of liberty. On every road, one mile from the town, was placed a post bearing the words "Limit of the Prisoners of War"; down the road which leads towards Bridgelands there is still a memorial of these unfortunates, — a thorn bush, called the Prisoner's Bush, which marked their limit in that direction. Any prisoner found outside the boundary was liable to be fined one guinea-a process, one would imagine, something akin in certain cases to getting blood from a stone--and the fine was supposed to go to the person who informed on the delinquent. To the credit of Selkirk it must be recorded that no one ever claimed this reward ; even when a prisoner uprooted a notice post and carried it a mile farther along the road, it was, we are told, only "to the amusement of the inhabitants," who, M. Doisy adds, "never on any occasion took advantage of a regulation in virtue of which who-ever might see us outside the fixed limits was entitled to one guinea, payable by the delinquent." He himself, he says, " frequently went fishing several miles down the Tweed," and was never fined, never in any way molested. In fact, great and small in Selkirk, from the Sheriff Depute of the county down to the town's bellman, and the " drucken " ne'er-do-weel who is to be found in every small town, and whom one would scarcely expect to be proof against a bribe that would provide him with the wherewithal for a royal spree, all combined to wink at these infringements of the regulations. Sir Walter himself, indeed, who was then living at Abbotsford, used frequently to have some of the prisoners to dine and spend the evening there. It is interesting to read the account of these visits, and to note how Sir Walter impressed his foreign visitors. Says the writer of the Reminiscences : "There was one person just at this time whom I did not then appreciate as I afterwards did—Sir Walter Scott, then plain Mr. Scott. Probably no one knew, unless his publishers, or ever suspected him of being " The Great Unknown," the author of " Waverley." As for us we only saw in Mr. Scott, the Sheriff of Selkirkshire, a lawyer of some repute in Edinburgh. As sheriff he frequently came to Selkirk, he having his home at Abbotsford, little more than three miles distant from Selkirk.
" Mr. Scott became acquainted with one of our comrades, named Tarnier, a young man of brilliant talent, excellent education, and of remarkably exuberant spirits. Shortly after, without the knowledge of the Government agent, or rather, with his tacit approval, Tarnier was invited to Abbotsford, and he gave us on his return a vivid description of his reception there. Later, probably at our countryman's suggestion, he was requested by Mr. Scott to bring with him three of his friends each time he was invited to dinner at Abbotsford. Thus I was present on two or three occasions, invited, not by the host himself, but by my comrade Tarnier.
"It would be, as far as I can remember, about the month of February, 1813, and our mode of procedure was as follows :—In the twilight, those who were invited repaired to the boundary—the milestone already mentioned-there a carriage awaited us, which took us at a good pace to Abbotsford, where we were most graciously received by our host. We only saw Mrs. Scott during the few moments before the announcement of dinner, at which she was not present. Mrs. Scott was, as we supposed, French, or of French extraction; in fact, she spoke French perfectly : Mr. Scott had married her at Carlisle. . Our host appeared to us in quite a different aspect to that under which we had known him passing in the streets of Selkirk. There he gave us the impression of being a cheery good-natured man, whose face was rather ordinary, and whose carriage somewhat common, and halting in his gait, this probably due to his lameness. At Abbotsford, on the contrary, we found him a gentleman full of cordiality and gaiety, receiving his guests in a fashion as amicable as it was delicate. The rooms were spacious and well lighted ; the table, without being sumptuous, was on the whole recherché. One need not expect me to describe very exactly the surroundings of Abbotsford, as on the occasions I was privileged to be there, we arrived in the twilight, and we returned when it was quite dark by the same means of locomotion. Thus, with the exception of the dining room; and a short glimpse of the salon, all that I know about Abbotsford has been derived from publications which everyone has read. Neither should it be expected that I can give details of repasts to which I was invited sixty-five years ago. But the general theme of our conversation has remained immutably fixed in my memory. The principal subject of our discussion did not ordinarily turn on politics, but on minute details concerning the French army. All that particularly referred to Napoleon, and above all, traits and anecdotes, appeared to interest our host in the highest degree, who always found the means, we observed, to bring round the conversation to this subject if it happened to have diverged in any way. As can be imagined, we took good care to repeat nothing unfavourable regarding the character of our beloved Emperor. We little suspected that our host was gathering material for a work published ten years later under the title of ` A Life of Napoleon Bonaparte.' " That Sir Walter's estimate of the Emperor greatly displeased M. Doisy, goes almost without saying. It will be remembered, also, that the French General, Gourgaud, was so bitterly incensed by some statements in this book that a challenge to Sir Walter was fully expected ; and assuredly it would have been accepted if given.
Selkirk in the time of the French prisoners was a small place of two thousand inhabitants or less, the houses nearly all picturesquely thatched, very few roofed with slate as at present. It must have been matter of no small difficulty in such a community suitably to house a sudden influx of strangers. Indeed there was very great difficulty, until it was discovered that the Frenchmen were to pay for their accommodation, and then the difficulty vanished. But it would be hard at the present day to find in Selkirk lodgings of any sort at the rate (2s. 6d. a week) which then satisfied owners of houses.
The following is the French prisoner's description of Selkirk : "The town is encircled by beautiful hills on all sides; in the centre it had a large square adorned with a fountain ; a very fine bridge crossed the Ettrick. An ordinary-looking building belonging to the National Church and a much larger one owned by the Presbyterians, or rather the sect known by the name of Anti-Burghers, who had for their pastor an excellent and venerable man named Lawson, were the only two buildings in Selkirk worthy of notice."
The hills are still beautiful; perhaps, owing to extensive tree planting, more beautiful now than then ; still within a step of Selkirk is the purple heather, and the heartsease and blue-bell a-swing in the summer breeze ; still on every side the view lies wide and glorious. And even in the winter, when snow first " grimes " the hills, or when the northern blast has wrapped them in its winding sheet, one can gaze, and repeat with heartfelt and perfect sincerity :
" By Yarrow's stream still let me stray,
" In the centre it had a large square adorned with a fountain." The " square " of Selkirk is, in effect, a triangle, (in which now stands Sir Walter Scott's monument,) but as to the "fountain," I should have doubts ; it was probably what used to be called the " Pant Well," whence was drawn water (supplied from the Haining Loch) of a body and bouquet indescribable. " Hoots ! " scornfully cried, in later days, an old woman, apropos of a new and irreproachable supply which had been got for the town from another source, " Hoots ! It has naether taste nor smell ! " Alas ! that one should record the fact,—in old days the drainage of the upper town (what there was of drainage in those times, that is to say), fell into the Haining Loch not a hundred yards from the spot where the town's supply was drawn off ! And yet people lived in Selkirk to unusually great ages. Our ancestors were hardy persons ; but perhaps it was only the very fit who then survived.
It must have been a dull, uneventful, depressing life, that of the prisoners in Selkirk, more especially in those months between October and March, when darkness cornes early and the days are chill and grey. What news they got was chiefly of fresh disasters to their country's arms in Spain, and the rejoicing of the townsfolk over Wellington's victories was of necessity exceedingly bitter to the Frenchmen. It was execrable taste on the part of the inhabitants of Selkirk thus to show their joy, says the writer of the Reminiscences—" indelicate," he calls it. But the chances are that they were chiefly mannerless schoolboys who thus misbehaved. I fear he looked for more than poor fallen human nature is prepared to give, if he expected the townspeople entirely to suppress their pleasure. Many a heart in Selkirk was then following with dire anxiety the movements of our Army in the Peninsula, dreading the news that any hour might bring of mishap or death to son, brother, or friend ; every soul in the place took the profoundest interest in the welfare of those men who had gone from their little community " to fecht the Frainch " and, however desirable it might be that the feelings of prisoners should not be lacerated, it seems too much to expect that the townsfolk should go apart in secret places in order to express, without offence, the joy they must feel when those they loved were covering themselves with glory.
Provided that no one was ill-mannered enough to jeer at or to taunt the prisoners, I hardly think they had a right to complain, more especially as they themselves had already sinned in respect of rejoicing openly over victory. On a certain occasion they heard of a great French success in Russia. Two prisoners concealed themselves and were locked up in the church one Sunday after evening service ; about midnight these men admitted their comrades, and together they roused sleeping Selkirk by a terrific joy-peal of bells. Honours were easy between the two nations, I think. Both acted under strong feeling ; those were strenuous days, and feeling naturally ran high.
In the writer's possession are letters sent from Spain to Selkirk at this period by his grand-uncle, an ensign in the Scots Brigade, now the 94th Regiment. One, which gives a vivid picture of the storming and capture of Ciudad Rodrigo on 19th January, 1812, could not have failed to arouse intense enthusiasm in the town. In so small and friendly a community, no doubt everybody was in possession of the chief details of this letter, (and of any other that might chance to come from a soldier at the front,) within a few hours of its receipt, and that a towns-man's regiment should be the first to enter the besieged town would be legitimate ground for extreme pride. The following is an extract from the letter "About 5 in the afternoon orders came that we were to make the attack at 7 in the Evening, the Light Division at one Breach and ours at another. Picks and axes were given to the front rank of the Grenadiers, and to the first Company of our Regt., and also Ropes to swing us down into the Ditch, which we were to clear of any obstructions that were supposed would be laid in our way. Accordingly we moved off about dusk, and got under cover of a Convent, to a short distance from the Ditch ; there we remained till the hour of attack ; it being come, and everything ready, we rushed forward as fast as our legs could carry us, cheering all the way. On reaching the Ditch, we found it only about six feet high, so we leaped down as quick as possible and made to the Breach with all possible speed, and met with no obstacles. After getting to it, we found ourselves to be the first there ; on the front rank getting to the top of it, the Enemy saluted us with a volley of grape shot and shells (the latter they had laid across the top in rows) the explosion of which was so dreadful that I thought we should have been all blown up in the air together. . . . Some of the Men that had got up to the top came tumbling down, dead as herrings. It stunned us for a moment, but we gave another cheer and rushed on, scrambled to the top and drove the fellows from the Guns opposite the Breach. Our Regt. was about five minutes in the Town (and it is only 200 Men strong) before any other Regt. came to its support ; at last the 5th came, and the others followed. The French dogs kept peppering at us with Musketry and Hand-grenades at such a rate that I well thought we would all have been slain together. At last we drove them from the Ramparts into the Town, and then they threw down their Arms and surrendered. . . . I went down from the Ramparts into the Town, but such a scene of confusion I never beheld ; there were our troops plundering the houses as fast as they were able, one fellow to be seen with two or three Loaves stuck on his Bayonet, another with as much Pork, and in another place a parcel of fellows knocking out the end of a Wine Cask with their Firelocks and drinking away with the greatest fury ; some ravishing the Women, others breaking open doors, and into all such a noise, altogether inconceivable. This continued four or five hours, and our Brigade was shortly after moved out of the Town, at which I was very glad. . . We had two Captains killed, but immediately on their falling a Sentry was placed over them, to guard them from being strip't, and had them afterwards brought to the Camp and decently buried. . . . The Enemy that night blew up the Mines, which killed a great many, both of their own Men and ours. It was a shocking spectacle, the sight of the dead bodies lying at the place where it happened, all bruised and burnt quite black, some wanting both Legs, others blown all to pieces, Legs and Arms mixed together in con-fusion ; it was there where Gen'. M'Kinnon was killed. You were always wishing to hear of our Regt. doing something great; Now I think it has done a great deal, but I fear much it will not receive the praise due to it, as it was not intended that it should be the first that should enter the Breach, it was only meant that it should clear the way for the other Brigade ; but somehow or other we got to it before them, and of course did not wait their coming."
Except on this occasion of the bell-ringing, and one other, when the French officers with some difficulty had induced certain of the townsfolk to drink to the health of the Emperor, and to shout " Vive l'Empereur," friendly relations were unbroken. But the latter unpleasantness at one time had threatened to ripen into a very ugly affair. Bloodshed was narrowly averted. Friendship, however, was restored, and the prisoners continued to make the best of their situation. They obtained a billiard table from Edinburgh ; they started a café, they opened a theatre, with an excellent orchestra of twenty-five performers "superior to all those to which the echoes of our Scottish residence had ever till then resounded." This theatre was established in a barn which then belonged to the writer's grandfather. Frescoes on the walls, which had been painted by the prisoners, were still fairly fresh in colour though hopelessly obscure as to design, when the writer saw them in his early boyhood.
In connection with the time when Peace was proclaimed and the prisoners were being sent back to France, it is pleasant to have to record an incident greatly to the credit of Selkirk. The pockets of the Frenchmen were naturally, in their situation, not very well filled ; indeed, amongst the hundred and ninety they could raise no more than 260, a sum not nearly sufficient to provide transport to the sea-port of Berwick for the entire party. They resolved, therefore, to march on foot, using what money they had to hire carriages for the few among them who were in bad health. After au excited night (spent by most of the ex-prisoners in the Market-place, where they shouted and sang till daylight, like a pack of schoolboys), just as they were preparing to set out on their long tramp to Berwick, " an altogether unexpected and pleasant sight met our view," writes M. Doisy. "Vehicles of all kinds came pouring in by the streets converging on the centre of the town, carriages, gigs, tilburys, carts, and a few saddle-horses, all of which had been sent by the inhabitants of the surrounding parts to convey us free of expense as far as Kelso, about half-way to Berwick. This delicate attention had been so well calculated, and so neatly accomplished, that we could not do otherwise than avail ourselves of it with many thanks. We therefore separated from our Selkirk friends without carrying away on the one part or the other any particle of grudge that might previously have existed between us."
Similar good feeling, however, appears to have been very general between the French prisoners and the people of the many Border towns where the former were quartered—though it was almost too much to expect that no unpleasantnesses should ever occur, when we remember how great a bogie the Emperor Napoleon then was to the majority of British people, and how to hate the French was looked on as almost a virtue. " Bless us, and save us, and keels the French from us," was a common form of invocation, then and later. Persons more ignorant or prejudiced than their neighbours were sure, sooner or later, to overstep the mark, and bring disgrace on their nation by boorish or brutal conduct to the defenceless prisoners. Thus, at Jedburgh for instance, not only did schoolboys sometimes jeer at and stone the Frenchmen, but one bitter old man, who no doubt thought that in hating the French he was only carrying out a manifest duty, actually pointed his gun at, and threatened to shoot, a prisoner whom he found outside the mile limit. A very regrettable incident occurred, too, in the same town during rejoicings over a great British victory. An effigy of the Emperor, mounted on a donkey, was paraded by torchlight through the streets and was then publicly burned, in full view of the deeply-pained French officers. Whatever the faults of the Emperor, he was at least adored by his army, and such instances of brutal ill-manners were bound to lead to bad blood and to reprisals.
Amongst themselves, the prisoners do not seem to have been quarrelsome, nor were duels common—for which fact, of course, the lack of suitable weapons may probably have been responsible. There was, however, a duel at Lauder between two of the prisoners quartered in that town, and one cannot help thinking that it must have suggested to Stevenson the duel in "St. Ives," between prisoners in Edinburgh Castle. In Stevenson's novel, they fought with the separated blades of scissors, securely lashed to sticks. At Lauder, they used the blades of razors secured in similar fashion. But, whereas in " St. Ives " the result was the death of one combatant, in the real duel at Lauder no greater harm came of it than slashed faces. It might be bloody enough, a duel with razor-blades, but it could not be very dangerous, except to the tips of noses.
It might perhaps be unseemly to quit the subject of Selkirk without making at least some mention of a custom which has prevailed there for something like four centuries. The great day of the whole year in Selkirk is that of the Common Riding, the Riding of the Marches of the town's property. The custom as yet gives no sign of waning in popularity ; indeed, as the years pass, it seems to rise steadily in favour, and where one rode fifty years ago there must now be a good half dozen who follow the cavalcade. It is a cheerful ride and a beautiful, in the sweet air of a sunny June morning. Selkirk needs no awakening that day by the shrill fifes that are so early afoot in the streets ; even the old and the scant of breath rise from their beds betimes, and make a push to see the muster of riders in the Market Place. Then it is through the shallows of the gushing river, and away over the breezy hills, for horsemen all filled with enthusiasm if not in all cases very secure of seat. It is a pleasant ride,—away over the hill by "Tibbie Tamson," the lonely grave of a poor eighteenth century Suicide, a Selkirk woman, the victim of religious despair. Of unpardoned sinners the chief, as she imagined, in a pious frenzy she took her own life ; therefore must her body be denied Christian burial and the poor privilege of lying beside her friends in "the auld Kirk yaird." Bundled into a pauper's coffin, she was carted out of Selkirk under a hail of stones and of execrations from her righteous neighbours, and here, on the quiet hill, her body found rest.
Then the route runs across the heather—where whaups wail eerily and the grouse dash out with sudden whir that sets some horses capering and away to the cairn of the Three Brethren, overlooking Tweed and Fairnilee ; then down by the Nettley Burn and across Ettrick where Queen Mary is said to have forded it, and so home by the Shawburn, to see the Colours "cast" in the Market Place. And then to breakfast with an appetite that in ordinary circumstances comes only " when all the world is young." It is two hundred years and more since it was ordained that the Marches be ridden on the first Tuesday of June in each year—formerly, August had been the month—and that the Deacons of all the Crafts in Selkirk were not only to attend themselves, with their horses, but that they were to see that every man of their trade who had a horse should also ride, "all in their best equipage and furniture." Why the change was made from August to June, I do not know,—unless it was to permit of the introduction of those immense and very famous gooseberry-tarts which are so conspicuous a feature in Common Riding rejoicings. The day's arrangements then and earlier, were much as they are now, no doubt. But there are no Kers now to slay the Provost, as in the sixteenth century days of Provost Muthag. The only danger in these times is that some of the horsemen--unseasoned vessels—may be induced to swallow one or more of the glasses of raw whisky which are passed round with liberal hand as the cavalcade sets out from Selkirk. Whether this is a practice ordained of old with the laudable object of counteracting any possible risk of chill from the nipping air of the early morning, or whether it is done in order to inspire courage in the possible John Gilpins of the assemblage, I know not. Yet of those who partake, the major part seem to thrive well enough on it ; they are none the worse in the afternoon, when the great body of the townsfolk stream out southward over the hill to the Gala Rig. Here horse races are run, over a course most gloriously situated, where a matchless view lies widespread to the Cheviots and down to far Liddesdale, and away up among the dim blue hills of Ettrick and Yarrow. There were races held here at least as early as 1720, and I suppose races of a sort have probably taken place annually on the same ground ever since.