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Wilson's Border Tales
The Highland Boy

Strange, sometimes, are the destinies of men, and mysterious the ways of Providence. In these expressions there is nothing new, for they have been repeated a thousand times before; but we are not sure that they have often been more strikingly illustrated than in the following short narrative—alas! "ower true a tale!" Within a short distance of the town of Inveraray, in Argyleshire, there lived, towards the middle of last century, a person of the name of M’Lauchlane. He was a miller to business; but, if any idea be formed of his circumstances as such, or of the general condition and appearance of his establishment, from those of the "Jolly millers" of the low country, with their large, well-built, slated mills, filled with expensive machinery—their comfortable houses, and rough and round abundance—it will be a very erroneous one. The Highland miller—he, at any rate, of the last century—was a very different person, and very differently circumstanced. His business was trifling, as it must, of necessity, have been, in a country yielding but little corn—just sufficient, and barely so, to support, with other aids its thin and widely-scattered population. His mill was a small, thatched, crazy building; and its machinery, (almost all of wood,) the clumsy, rude workmanship of the miller himself. Such, at any rate, was M’Lauchlane’s establishment—a very poor affair; and very poor, though very industrious, and an honest and upright man, was M’Lauchlane himself. Yet, strange as it may seem in a person in his situation in life, he was not only an upright man, but a man of some education, of a grave and intelligent cast of countenance, and of a tall and athletic form.

For fifteen years, M’Lauchlane toiled on his little farm with unwearied assiduity, struggling with a barren soil, that scarcely yielded a subsistence for his family, leaving no surplus for sale, the rent being paid by a few black cattle reared for the purpose; and more than half of that time dividing this labour with attendance on his little mill; and other fifteen years, had he lived so long, would, in all probability, have found him still thus employed, had not a circumstance occurred which suddenly changed his destiny. He quarrelled with his landlord, and resolved suddenly, in a fit of exasperation, upon leaving his mill. He never gave any further particulars of the occurrence which had galled his proud spirit. He never said what was the cause of quarrel between him and his laird; but the fancied disgrace of some harsh word which the latter had used towards him, preyed on his mind, and, in less than a fortnight after, he resigned his mill and his farm, and proceeded to the low country in search of employment. This he found in Edinburgh, where he had some friends, in the humble capacity of a caddie, or chairman.

On leaving the place of his residence in the Highlands, M’Lauchlane left behind him, until he should fall into some way of earning a subsistence, his wife, a son, and two daughters. The former was, at this period, about fifteen years of age; a fine, manly-looking boy, of kind and amiable dispositions, the pride of his mother’s heart, and the stay of his father’s hopes. It was not doubted that, on the latter’s obtaining employment, he would succeed in procuring some situation or other in Edinburgh for his son also; and, with these, and sundry other little plans and prospects, the family of M’Lauchlane, including himself, looked forward to the enjoyment of some happy days. Having obtained employment for himself, M’Lauchlane lost no time in looking out for an engagement for his son; and, at length, found an opening for him in a merchant’s counting-house in Leith. This good fortune he speedily communicated to his family, desiring that James should immediately set out for Edinburgh. James, however, had been already unexpectedly provided for, although not altogether to his liking. He had been engaged to assist some salmon-curers who had an establishment in the neighbourhood; and with these he was now employed. The wages, however, were small, and the work heavy; but it was considered by the dutiful boy himself a desirable situation, as it enabled him to reside with his mother, whom he tenderly loved, and to contribute more promptly and efficiently to her support than if he were at a distance. On these accounts, therefore, he determined to remain in his present employment for some time at least— this was till the ensuing term, when it was proposed that the whole family should proceed to Edinburgh, to join their head; and this was stated in reply to James’ father, who, though he longed to have his boy with him, acquiesced in its propriety; and thus matters stood for several weeks, when it was found that James’ strength was unequal to the labour imposed on him. The poor lad was long unwilling to admit this, even to himself, and continued to toil on with uncomplaining perseverance; but a mother’s anxiety and scrutinising solicitude soon discovered what he would have concealed. She saw, from his wan cheek and sunken eye, that he was tasked beyond his strength, and that a continuance much longer in his present employment might even endanger his life. Impressed with this idea she insisted on him quitting it, and proceeding immediately to Edinburgh to join his father.

"But, mother," said the affectionate boy, "what will you do without me? My wages, though small, are a great help to you."

"They are, James, no doubt," replied his mother; "but what are your wages, or what would all the gold and silver in the world be to me, compared to your life, my child? Think ye that anything could compensate that to your mother, James? No, no; all the wealth of the Indies, my son, would be nothing to me, if anything was to happen you. Besides, you can help me even where you are going. You can remit me a little of your wages, along with what your father sends from his; and, at the term, you know, which is now only four months’ distant, we will all be together again, and as happy as the day’s long."

Thus reasoned with, and feeling his own physical inadequacy to continue in his present employment, the boy finally consented to leave it, and to proceed to Edinburgh to join his father. It was not thought necessary to give the latter any previous intimation of this change in his son’s views; and no communication, therefore, took place on the subject.

The day fixed for the boy’s departure having arrived, a little bundle, containing some small articles of wearing apparel, and some bread and cheese, was made up for him by the hands of his doting mother, whose tears fell fast and thick on the little, humble package, as she tied it up. This completed, the boy took down a staff from amongst many that were hung to the roof of the cottage, thrust one end of it through the bundle, shouldered it manfully, clapped his bonnet on his head, and was about suddenly to rush out of the house, finding that he could not stand a more deliberate parting, when his mother, flying after him, caught him by the arm just as he had reached the door, and, murmuring his name, clasped him in her arms, and, in silent anguish, pressed him convulsively to her bosom. The weeping boy returned the fond embrace of his mother; but, at length, tore himself away, and hurried off, with a speed that soon carried him out of her sight.

The lad had now a long journey before him, not less than a hundred and fifty miles, the whole of which was to be performed on foot, for there were then no conveyances on his intended route; and, although there had, he had no money to pay for their use; but, as he was active and vigorous, and accustomed to rove over his native hills like a young deer, a journey on foot of even a hundred and fifty miles had nothing formidable whatever in it for him; and it was, therefore, with a fearless heart and bounding step that he now took the long, wild, and dreary Highland road, that was to conduct him to the city in which his father resided.

In about four months after the boy had left home to join his father in Edinburgh, his mother, with her two daughters, also proceeded to that city, and for the same purpose; the period having arrived which, according to previous understanding, was to see the family once more united under one roof. We will not attempt to describe the poor mother’s feelings of joyous anticipation on this occasion, as she looked forward to the exquisite happiness of embracing the two objects whom she loved best on earth, her husband and son. These feelings were such as the reader can imagine for himself without our aid or interference.

On M’Lauchlane’s wife and daughters arriving, which they did in due time and in safety, at the humble domicile which the farmer’s dutiful affection had provided for them in Edinburgh, the first question she asked of her husband, and she put it ere she had yet fairly entered his door, was—"Where is James? Where is my dear boy, Fergus?"

"Why, Margaret," replied M’Lauchlane, laughingly, "you should know that fully better than I do. Where did you leave him?" The boy had never reached his father’s house.

"Come, come, now, Fergus, none of your tricks," said his wife, smiling. "Tell me where my boy is—I cannot rest till I see him."

"Ha, ha!" rejoined her husband, now laughing outright, "you keep up the farce very well, Margaret; but, come, now, let James be produced; for I am impatient to see him. You want to tantalise me a little."

"Or rather it is you that wish to tantalise me, Fergus," replied his wife, good-humouredly; "but do not keep me longer in pain, I beseech you. Go and bring James to me immediately. Do now, I entreat of you."

"Margaret," said M’Lauchlane, now somewhat alarmedly—for the earnest manner of his wife struck him as very strange, and as carrying very little of jocularity in it—"Margaret," he said, gravely, "is this jest or earnest? Is James not with you?—and, if he is not, where is he?"

"Gracious heavens!" exclaimed his wife, in an agony of horror—she in turn having marked the serious manner of her husband—"what is this come over us? O Fergus, Fergus," she said, in dreadful agitation, and flinging her arms around her husband in wild despair, "has not James been with you for these three months past? He left home to come to you then, and I always believed him to be with you. O my God, my God! where is my child? What has come over my boy?" And she gave way to a fearful and uncontrollable paroxysm of grief.

During this scene, her husband sat silent and motionless, but there were dreadful workings going on in his bosom. His face was deadly pale, and his lips quivered with agonising emotion.

"I have never seen him, Margaret," he at length said, in a slow and solemn tone—"never seen him. What has come over my boy?" And the strong man burst into tears. We need not prolong our description of the scene of misery which ensued on the appalling discovery being made, as it now was, that the poor boy had never reached his destination. His distracted father instantly set about the apparently hopeless task of ascertaining what had been his fate but, for some weeks after, all remained as great a mystery as ever; and no exertions or inquiries he could make, led to the slightest elucidation of the fact. At length, however, a clue to the mystery was obtained. It was gradually unwarped, and a train of circumstances finally unfolded the dreadful tale. In disclosing this tale to the reader, however, we have no occasion whatever to go through the tedious and digressive processes by which M’Lauchlane ultimately arrived at the history of his unfortunate son’s fate. Ours is a much simpler and much easier task. It is merely to place the facts in their order, divested of all extraneous matter; and this will be best done by our retro-gressing a little, and resuming the history of the unhappy boy’s proceedings after leaving his mother, at the point where we left it.

On the evening of the second day after his departure, the lad arrived at Stirling, and had thus accomplished about half his journey. On reaching this town, where he intended remaining for the night, young M’Lauchlane repaired to a certain public-house, which he knew, by report, to be much frequented by his countrymen, when going to and from the Highlands and the low country. This house was usually crowded with guests, but it happened that it contained but one on the night of his arrival. The solitary stranger was an Irishman, on his way to Edinburgh, as he said, to look for employment. Between young M’Lauchlane and this person—they being the only two guests in the house—a familiar footing was soon established, chiefly through the advances of the latter, who affected a sudden and strong liking for his young companion, whom he insisted on treating with some liquor. In the morning, they breakfasted together, and, immediately after, set out together for Edinburgh—M’Lauchlane delighted with the kindness and rattling off-hand glee of his companion, who seemed, to his unsuspicious and unsophisticated nature, one of the best and merriest fellows he had ever met with. In place, however, of showing an anxiety to prosecute the journey with the expedition natural to those seeking a distant destination, M’Lauchlane’s companion seemed bent on living by the way. Every mile, and often within shorter distances, he insisted on his young friend’s taking some refreshment with him. He would, in truth, scarcely pass a single public-house on the road; but he paid, in every instance, for the entertainment to which he invited his companion. Two consequences resulted from this manner of proceeding. These were—young M’Lauchlane’s getting, for the first time in his life, somewhat intoxicated; and the expiry of the day, before they had completed their journey that comprehended the distance between Stirling and Edinburgh. The shades of evening were thus just beginning to gather, as the travellers reached a small village about six or seven miles from Edinburgh; and it had become pretty dark by the time they had got midway between the two places just named. At this particular locality, young M’Lauchlane and his companion passed a well-dressed, respectable looking, elderly man, on the road, who was going in the same direction with themselves. On having gone beyond him about the distance of a hundred yards or so, the Irishman suddenly stopped, and, addressing his young friend, said—"I owe that old rascal that we passed just now, a grudge, and have a good mind to go back and give him a taste of this twig, by way of recompense" shaking a stout cudgel that he carried in his hand. "Will you lend me a hand?"

Stupified, or rather, perhaps, distracted with the drink which he had swallowed, the poor, unreflecting boy at once agreed to assist his friend in revenging the injuries of which he complained. What these were, or when, where, or how they had taken place, he never thought of inquiring. It was enough for him that his companion had been injured, and enough also for him was the assertion of the latter that he had been so, and that the old man they had just passed was the inflictor of this injury.

In a minute after, the old man, whom they had now approached; was knocked down by the bludgeon of the Irishman—young M’Lauchlane standing close by. On his falling—"Tip his watch there," said the former, in a hurried whisper to his companion, at the same time nudging him with his elbow; "and feel if the old fellow has any clink in his pockets. Out with it if he has. He owes me ten times more than he has about him, let that be what it may."

Without a moment’s thought or hesitation, the unthinking boy, doing as he was desired, flung himself on the prostrate old man, seized his watch chain, and had just dragged it from its pocket, when he was seized by the collar from behind. On turning round, he found himself in the custody of two men, who had come up accidentally, unheard and unobserved, at least by him; but not by his companion, who, aware of their approach, had, without giving the unfortunate lad warning, darted through a hedge, and disappeared. It was in vain that the unhappy youth, on perceiving the dreadful predicament in which he stood, urged the extenuating facts of the case to his captors. All the circumstances of a highway robbery, aggravated by personal violence, were too apparent, and too clearly referable to M’Lauchlane as the perpetrator, to allow of anything he might assert to the contrary being for an instant believed.

On the recovery of the old man (whose face was streaming with blood) from the temporary stupefaction which the blow he had been struck had caused, M’Lauchlane was conveyed a prisoner to Edinburgh, handed over to the police, and eventually thrown into jail on a capital charge.

We may here pause a moment to remark that, at the period of our tale, the penal code of this country was enforced, with the most unrelenting ferocity, against all offenders, who came within the reach of its sanguinary enactments. Mercy was then unknown in the dispensation of the criminal laws, which, written in blood were executed to the letter, without regard to any of those considerations which are now permitted to have their influence on the side of clemency. The ultimate fate of the poor Highland boy may be anticipated; and this the more certainly, that his seducer was never taken, or even heard of; so that no chance was left him of the facts of his unhappy case being ascertained.

Shortly after being committed to prison, he was capitally indicted to stand trial before the court, which happened to be held in Edinburgh about six weeks after his apprehension; and, on the evidence of the old man and the two persons who had assisted in his capture, he was convicted of highway robbery, condemned to death, and actually executed at the usual place of execution; neither the boy’s extreme youth, nor the extenuating circumstances connected with his case, (which, indeed, the Court was not bound to believe, seeing there was only his own bare, unsupported assertion of the facts,) having the slightest effect on his judges, who, partaking at once of the spirit of the times and of the laws, were sternly rigorous in the execution of what they conceived to be their duty—seeing no safety for society but in a frequent and unsparing use of the gibbet.

We have now to explain the most extraordinary part of this piteous case—and that is, how it was that the poor boy’s parents knew nothing of his miserable fate till it was discovered by the inquiry of which we shall shortly speak. In the first place, his father took it for granted that he was at home with his mother, and his mother believed that he was with his father, and thus his absence was known to neither, and, therefore, no unusual interest regarding him was excited. During, his confinement, and at all his precognitions, the infatuated boy steadily refused— though for what reason, we know not—to give up his name, or to give any account of himself whatever. He would neither tell where he came from, where or to whom he was going, nor what nor who were his parents; and in this resolution he remained to the last; and, as no one knew him, he was thus finally executed, without any single particular being known regarding him, excepting that for which he suffered. Neither could he be prevailed upon to make known his situation to any of his friends. In short, he seemed to have determined to prevent his fate from ever being associated with his identity.

What his motives were for this extraordinary conduct—whether it arose from a fear of disgracing his family, or from tenderness to the feelings of his parents—we cannot tell, nor will we trouble the reader with conjectures which he can make as well for himself. We content ourselves with relating the facts of the melancholy case, as they actually and truly occurred.

It was by an inquiry at the police-office of Edinburgh, whither he had gone, as a last expedient, to endeavour to find some trace of his son, that M’Lauchlane obtained the intelligence that led to the discovery of his unhappy fate. He had gone to the office, however, without the most remote idea that he should there learn anything of his boy as a violator of the laws, but merely as a repository of general intelligence on such subjects as that in which he was at the moment interested. Having stated his errant to two officers whom he found there; they asked him to describe the boy. This he did; when the men looked significantly at each other. Poor M’Lauchlane observed the look and he felt his heart failing him, as he imagined, and too truly, that he saw in it something ominous.

"Do you know anything of my boy?" he said, looking piteously at the officers.

They made no reply; but seemed a good deal discomposed. They felt for the unfortunate father—having little or no doubt, from the personal description, and other particulars he gave of the boy, that it was he who had been executed for the robbery on the Stirling road.

"Tell me, for God’s sake, if you know anything of my son," said the poor father, imploringly, after waiting some time in vain for an answer to his first inquiry of a similar kind.

The men would have still evaded a reply, and were, indeed, both edging out of the apartment, to avoid being further pressed on the subject, when M’Lauchlane seized one of them by the arm, and besought him not to leave him, without giving him what information he possessed on the subject of his inquiry. "Has any accident happened him?" said the miserable father. "Is he dead? Tell me, for Heaven’s sake, tell me the worst at once. I can bear it. If he is dead, I say, God’s will be done. Is it so or not, my friend?" again said M’Lauchlane, with a look of wretchedness that the man could not resist.

"I am afraid he is," was the reply.

"Still, I say God’s will be done!" said M’Lauchlane, endeavouring to display a composure he was very far from feeling. He next inquired into the time and manner of his death. On being informed, the unhappy man instantly sank down on the floor in a state of insensibility. He had little dreamt of such a horrible catastrophe; and, however resigned he might have been to his boy’s having met with a natural death, his fortitude was unequal to the dreadful trial it was now called on to sustain. On coming again to himself, the unfortunate man left the office without exchanging a word with any one, and returned to his own house. When he entered, his wife, as was her usual practice, eagerly inquired if he had yet heard any tidings of their son; but she soon saw that she had no occasion whatever to put the question. The haggard countenance in which the utmost depth of human misery was strongly depicted—assured her at once that tidings had been heard of the boy, and that these were of the most dismal kind.

"He’s dead, then," she screamed out, on looking on the wo-begone, or rather horror-stricken face of her husband—"my boy is gone." And she flung herself on the floor in a paroxysm of grief and despair.

To his wife’s exclamations, M’Lauchlane made no reply, but threw himself on a bed, and buried his head beneath the clothes. But this covering did not conceal the dreadful writhings of the crushed spirit beneath. The bed-clothes heaved with the violent emotions that shook the powerful frame of the miserable sufferer. From that bed M’Lauchlane never again rose. He never, however, told his wife of the unhappy death her son had died; steadily and even sternly resisting all the importunities on that appalling subject; and whether she ever learned it, we are not aware.

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