- Ministrelsy of the Scottish Border, Vol. I (The Lochmaben Harper.) by Sir Walter Scott
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Ministrelsy of the Scottish Border, Vol. I
The Lochmaben Harper.

by Sir Walter Scott


The castle of Lochmaben was formerly a noble building, situated upon a peninsula, projecting into one of the four lakes which are in the neighbourhood of the royal burgh, and is said to have been the residence of Robert Bruce, while lord of Annandale. Accordingly, it was always held to be a royal fortress, the keeping of which, according to the custom of the times, was granted to some powerful lord, with an allotment of lands and fishings, for the defence and maintenance of the place. There is extant a grant, dated 16th March, 1511, to Robert Lauder of the Bass, of the office of captain and keeper of Lochmaben castle, for seven years, with many perquisites. Among others, the "land, stolen frae the king," is bestowed upon the captain, as his proper lands.—What shall we say of a country, where the very ground was the subject of theft?
O heard ye na o' the silly blind Harper,
How lang he lived in Lochmaben town?
And how he wad gang to fair England,
To steal the Lord Warden's Wanton Brown!

But first he gaed to his gude wyfe,
Wi' a' the haste that he could thole—
"This wark," quo' he, "will ne'er gae weel,
Without a mare that has a foal."

Quo' she—"Thou hast a gude gray mare,
That can baith lance o'er laigh and hie;
Sae set thee on the gray mare's back,
And leave the foal at hame wi' me."

So he is up to England gane,
And even as fast as he may drie;
And when he cam to Carlisle gate,
O whae was there but the Warden, he?

"Come into my hall, thou silly blind Harper,
And of thy harping let me hear!"
"O by my sooth," quo' the silly blind Harper,
I wad rather hae stabling for my mare."

The Warden look'd ower his left shoulder,
And said unto his stable groom—
"Gae take the silly blind Harper's mare,
And tie her beside my Wanton Brown."

Then aye he harped, and aye he carped [128],
Till a' the lordlings footed the floor;
But an' the music was sae sweet,
The groom had nae mind of the stable door.

And aye he harped, and aye he carped,
Till a' the nobles were fast asleep;
Then quickly he took aff his shoon,
And saftly down the stair did creep.

Syne to the stable door he hied,
Wi' tread as light as light could be;
And when he opened and gaed in,
There he fand thirty steeds and three.

He took a cowt halter [129] frae his hose,
And o' his purpose he did na fail;
He slipt it ower the Wanton's nose,
And tied it to his gray mare's tail.

He turned them loose at the castle gate,
Ower muir and moss and ilka dale;
And she ne'er let the Wanton bait,
But kept him a-galloping hame to her foal.

The mare she was right swift o' foot,
She did na fail to find the way;
For she was at Lochmaben gate,
A lang three hours before the day.

When she cam to the Harper's door,
There she gave mony a nicker and sneer— [130]
"Rise up," quo' the wife, "thou lazy lass;
Let in thy master and his mare."

Then up she rose, put on her clothes,
And keekit through at the lock-hole—
"O! by my sooth," then cried the lass,
Our mare has gotten a braw brown foal!"

"Come, haud thy tongue, thou silly wench!
The morn's but glancing in your e'e."—
I'll [131] wad my hail fee against a groat,
He's bigger than e'er our foal will be."

Now all this while, in merry Carlisle,
The Harper harped to hie and law;
And the [132] fiend thing dought they do but listen him to,
Until that the day began to daw.

But on the morn, at fair day light,
When they had ended a' their cheer,
Behold the Wanton Brown was gane,
And eke the poor blind Harper's mare!

"Allace! allace!" quo' the cunning auld Harper,
"And ever allace that I cam here!
In Scotland I lost a braw cowt foal,
In England they've stown my gude gray mare!"

"Come! cease thy allacing, thou silly blind Harper,
And again of thy harping let us hear;
And weel payd sall thy cowt-foal be,
And thou sall have a far better mare."

Then aye he harped, and aye he carped;
Sae sweet were the harpings he let them hear!
He was paid for the foal he had never lost,
And three times ower for the gude GRAY MARE.


The only remark which offers itself on the foregoing ballad seems to be, that it is the most modern in which the harp, as a border instrument of music, is found to occur.

I cannot dismiss the subject of Lochmaben, without noticing an extraordinary and anomalous class of landed proprietors, who dwell in the neighbourhood of that burgh. These are the inhabitants of four small villages, near the ancient castle, called the Four Towns of Lochmaben. They themselves are termed the King's Rentallers, or kindly tenants; under which denomination each of them has a right, of an allodial nature, to a small piece of ground. It is said, that these people are the descendants of Robert Bruce's menials, to whom he assigned, in reward of their faithful service, these portions of land, burdened only with the payment of certain quit-rents, and grassums or fines, upon the entry of a new tenant. The right of the rentallers is, in essence, a right of property, but, in form, only a right of lease; of which they appeal for the foundation on the rent-rolls of the lord of the castle and manor. This possession, by rental, or by simple entry upon the rent-roll, was anciently a common, and peculiarly sacred, species of property, granted by a chief to his faithful followers; the connection of landlord and tenant being esteemed of a nature too formal to be necessary, where there was honour upon one side, and gratitude upon the other. But, in the case of subjects granting a right of this kind, it was held to expire with the life of the granter, unless his heir chose to renew it; and also upon the death of the rentaller himself, unless especially granted to his heirs, by which term only his first heir was understood. Hence, in modern days, the kindly tenants have entirely disappeared from the land. Fortunately for the inhabitants of the Four Towns of Lochmaben, the maxim, that the king can never die, prevents their right of property from reverting to the crown. The viscount of Stormonth, as royal keeper of the castle, did, indeed, about the beginning of last century, make an attempt to remove the rentallers from their possessions, or at least to procure judgment, finding them obliged to take out feudal investitures, and subject themselves to the casualties thereto annexed. But the rentallers united in their common defence; and, having stated their immemorial possession, together with some favourable clauses in certain old acts of parliament, enacting, that the king's poor kindly tenants of Lochmaben should not be hurt, they finally prevailed in an action before the Court of Session. From the peculiar state of their right of property, it follows, that there is no occasion for feudal investitures, or the formal entry of an heir; and, of course, when they chuse to convey their lands, it is done by a simple deed of conveyance, without charter or sasine.

The kindly tenants of Lochmaben live (or at least lived till lately) much sequestered from their neighbours, marry among themselves, and are distinguished from each other by soubriquets, according to the ancient border custom, repeatedly noticed You meet, among their writings, with such names as John Out-bye, Will In-bye, White-fish, Red-fish, &c. They are tenaciously obstinate in defence of their privileges of commonty, &c. which are numerous. Their lands are, in general, neatly inclosed, and well cultivated, and they form a contented and industrious little community.

Many of these particulars are extracted from the MSS. of Mr. Syme, writer to the signet. Those, who are desirous of more information, may consult Craig de Feudis, Lib. II. dig. 9. sec. 24. It is hoped the reader will excuse this digression, though somewhat professional; especially as there can be little doubt, that this diminutive republic must soon share the fate of mightier states; for, in consequence of the increase of commerce, lands possessed under this singular tenure, being now often brought to sale, and purchased by the neighbouring proprietors, will, in process of time, be included in their investitures, and the right of rentallage be entirely forgotten.


[129] Cowt halter—Colt's halter.

[130] Nicker and sneer—Neigh and snort.

[131] Wad my hail fee—Bet my whole wages.

[132] Fiend thing dought—Nothing could they do.

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