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Wilson's Border Tales

Kirkyards are to me exceedingly interesting. Alas! Those nearest and dearest to me are now the tenants of these silent retirements. They contain subjects of intense and protracted recollection. Whenever I have an hour to spare after dinner in my pedestrian wanderings, I am sure to deviate into a churchyard, and there to spell and stumble my way through and over a multiplicity of graves and monuments. But, instead of dealing in generalities, I shall speak of two particular cases, known to myself, in the churchyard of the parish of Closeburn. One is on your right hand as you enter and pass Elder Boe, on Sunday, at the church stile. The stone is merely an erect headstone, and of considerable dimensions. The inscription is—"Here lies Richard Reid, aged 16, who perished in crossing the water of Nith in 1794." Richard, as well as his brother Stephen, now Colonel Reid, were my particular companions at Wallacehall school. We were class-fellows. Oh! what fun and frolie we have had together! The Castle Wood, Barmuir Wood, Gilehrist Land Wood, the Pothouse Wood, the Whitston Cleughs and the Gravel Walk, could tell, if they were permitted, many tales of us three. What nests did we not find! what nuts did we not gather! what sloes did we not pocket! what brambles did we not eat! and what hind or raspberries did we not bruise and convert into red wine. And, then, what tree so tall as not to admit our ascent! what thicket so dense as not to be penetrated? What eel so lively as not to be decapitated and skinned! and what trout so cunning as to escape the temptation of our nicely-prepared baits! At England and Scotland, too—that most expressive game of former Border feuds—we were most expert; and have seen many suns descend on our protracted contest at shinty. But, alas! harvest arrived, and with it the vacation; the oats ripenened, and so did the hazel nuts. The report was, that the Barjarg Woods were most plentifully supplied with ripe and brown leamers. We could not—we never tried to resist the temptation. But the rapid river Nith lay betwixt us and the object of our travel. It had rained, but was now fair; and the water, when we arrived at its banks, did not seem even moved or swollen. Stephen and I hesitated; Richard was a bold, manly lad, somewhat older. He plunged at once into the stream, and bade us follow; so, indeed, we did. Ere we had gained one-third of the way, upon the stream we observed bits of wood, and various floating substances in it. We became alarmed, and called, aloud on Richard; but he turned, round and laughed us to scorn. We would not stand this, but pushed on, he still keeping in advance. The powerful current had now reached his waist, and, even though he had wished to turn, he could not. The stones were beginning to creep from beneath our feet. All at once, a large piece of floating timber came down upon poor Richard’s position, and he was borne away by the united force of the obstructed wood and the stream. He fell; the timber floated over him, and he again arose; but he was in much deeper water, and manifestly apprehended danger. He screamed aloud, and we rushed forward—his brother Stephen and I—to the rescue; but we were all instantly hurled along into a deep and whirling pool. Over the banks, of this eddy there grew, and hung a broom bush; more by accident than management, I got a hold of it. Stephen was struggling near me, and I caught him with the other hand. I struggled desperately, and got myself and my companion into the face of a soft and clay brow. I held like grim death, and, at last, surmounted the steep. Though stupified, I saw that one was awanting, and I rushed—for Stephen was insensible—along the brink of the pool. At the foot of it, and where the water began to shallow, I saw poor Richard tumbling over without any signs of life. In an instant I had a hold of his garment, and had actually pulled him considerably to one side, when, my feet coming in contact with a large stone, I fell backwards, lost my hold, and the body of poor Richard was found, next day, a mile and a half below, at the bottom of Porter’s Hole.

On the opposite side of this churchyard, there is a flat flag-stone, with the following inscription—"Here lie the mortal remains of William Herdman, Weaver in Auldwa’s of Gilchristland."

Poor Willie Herdman! What associations do not these two magic words awaken! When Gibraltar stood nobly out, under the command of an Elliot, against the combined strength of France and Spain, thou wast there to send the hissing hot cannon balls into the hulls of the enemy’s floating batteries. But, on returning to thy native Nottingham, to taste of its pure and salubrious ales, thy house was desolate—father, mother, and sister, all—and the place which knew them owned another tenant. Thy heart sank within thee; and having been bred weaver in thy youth, though didst’ take the road for Glasgow; but, at Brownhill, chance brought thee, acquainted with Archy Tait of Auldwa’s, and with him didst thou ply thy trade till the mournful end of thy days. But it was neither as a soldier, nor as a weaver, that I remember thee with so much interest. It was as the best bait-fisher in the south of Scotland—it was as my first preceptor in that most delightful art. I see thee still, before sunrise, ten miles amidst the mountains, and I hear the plash of the large new-run sea-trout, as it "turns up its silver scaling to the light" amidst the dark brown flood. At all times, and almost in all states of the weather and the water, thy skill was triumphant, and from thee I derived that art which no man knows, unless instructed by me, to this hour—the art of fishing up, and not down a mountain stream, with prepared bait. But the hour of thy destiny at last arrived, and it was a mournful one. It was one of thy triumphs to kill a dish of trouts, even in the midst of frost, and at New-Year’s Day. A wager was laid, and a considerable sum of money was risked, on thy killing a dozen for a New-Year’s Day feast. On the last day of the old year, as the time approached, the weather had become boisterous, and snow blasts, mixed with hail, were coursing along the skirts of Queensberry. I was a stout lad in the high dais then, and, being in the constant habit of accompanying thee on thy fishing expeditions, I made a point of not being absent on this critical trial of thy skill. Accordingly, when the last day of December, 179— dawned, I was by thee aroused from my slumbers, and, in spite of all maternal remonstrances, I agreed to accompany thee to Caple. The day was dark and somewhat cloudy; but there was only a sprinkling of snow on the lower grounds, though the higher seemed to be much whiter. To fortify himself against the inclemency of the weather, poor Willie had provided himself with a supply of what he used to term "his comforter"—namely, some whisky in a bottle. We fished for about two hours in the deeper and unfrozcn pools of Caple, and with amazing success. Willie had just killed his eleventh trout, when he turned up the bottom of a pint bottle quite empty. He was not intoxicated, but confused. I had not enjoyed the advantage of "the comforter," and was, consequently, much more collected, and aware of our danger. It was betwixt twelve and one when the day suddenly darkened down, and a terrible snow drift came up the glen. Mitchelslacks was at about a mile and a half’s distance. I strongly urged our retreat to that hospitable mansion in the wilderness; but Willie wanted one trout of his tale, and he persevered for about half an hour longer, when he was so fortunate as to complete his number. But by this time the snow drift and wind were absolutely choking, and I could see that his eyes were half shut. He was manifestly in a state of approaching stupor or sleep. I became exceedingly alarmed when he sat, or rather fell, down suddenly beneath a projecting rock, saying that he would rest and sleep for a little, and then he would accompany me to Mitchelslacks, as I proposed. I tried to pull him along; but, he was incapable of motion. What was to be done?—Poor Willie, who had taught me to fish, and told me so many stories about the wars, and about Nottingham, and England, and who was really a kind-hearted, good-natured creature—poor Willie to perish thus helpless in the drift!—I sprang on with renewed strength; but when I reached Mitchelslacks I fainted, and it was not till I recovered that Willie’s dangerous state was learned. Three shepherds, with Mr. Harkness at their head, and a suitable accompaniment of dogs, sallied forth, and in a short time reached the spot, but it was too late. There was still heat in the interior, but no motion; the pulse had stopped, and the body was sitting in a reclining position, leaning against the stone. There were no marks of previous suffering—the eyes shut, and the hands reposing on the fish-basket, as if the last thing he had done was to count his fish!—He was dead.

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