The Escape of the Earl of Argyll
Perhaps of all the stories that have come down to us of that pitiful period of Scottish history, known so appropriately as “The Killing Times,” none is more remarkable than that which records how a dream which came to William Veitch, the famous Covenanter, enabled the Earl of Argyll to make good his escape from peril of certain death. As in all probability no such similar experience has been recorded before or since, the peculiar features of the affair are worth recalling.
On a bitterly cold morning towards the end of December, 1681, a sturdy, fair haired lad of, perhaps, eleven or twelve was keeping watch over the surrounding country from the summit of one of the numerous hills which divide the valleys of the rivers Gala and Tweed. He was not alone in his occupation, as on several other hills, and at vantage points in the vicinity of likely hiding-places spread over a wide area, there were others also on the look-out for the enemy which had appeared so unexpectedly amongst them. For years now the people in the south of Scotland had suffered cruel persecution for their religious beliefs at the hands of such men as Urquhart of Meldrum and Ker of Graden, but the terrible treatment to which they were now being subjected came from another source. It was the immediate result of a remarkable exploit.
On the 20th of the month the Earl of Argyll, who lay under sentence of death in Edinburgh Castle, had made good his escape disguised as a lackey in attendance on his step-daughter. Lady Sophia Lindsay, and had managed, with the assistance of trusty friends, to reach in safety the stronghold of his old friend, George Pringle of Torwoodlee, near Galashiels. The news of his escape and destination, however, had quickly reached the ears of the authorities and they had immediately despatched a number of mounted troops to try to recapture him. Owing to their late arrival at Torwoodlee they failed to accomplish their purpose and had since spent their time in relentlessly combing the country in search of the fugitive. In many cases their conduct had been unspeakable.They had maltreated women and children in their efforts to obtain information; they had stolen food and clothing; set fire to houses;
and they had taken as prisoners a number of men on the mere pretext that they might have been concerned in the escape. But it had profited them nothing. An elaborate system of spying and communication by those who knew every inch of the country had rendered abortive all their attempts.
The lad on the hill-top, David Hyslop, young though he was, had already had considerable experience as a scout. Fleet of foot and keen of vision, he had acted several times as a sentinel at such great Conventicles as those held at Blue Cairn in Lauderdale, and at Lilliesleaf Moor. This morning, clad in coarse but warm garments, he had sat huddled up under a couple of sheep-skins in a small hollow which had been scraped out and surrounded with sods and bracken like some strange bird’s nest since before the stars had faded out and the grey light of the dawn had rendered visible the contours of the surrounding hills.
The excitement and novelty of his occupation had been pleasurable at first but with the passing of time he was beginning to weary of it, as beyond the flight of a few birds overhead and the barking of a dog fox in the distance there had been nothing to be seen or heard to break the monotony. Quite involuntarily he found himself wishing that he could sleep. But not for long, as he remembered almost immediately that the liberty, and perhaps, even the life of his father might depend upon his vigilance. So he cast out the thought as being a temptation of the evil one and felt ashamed at having entertained it.
Almost as though it were an award for his loyalty an intuitive feeling that something definite was soon about to happen brought all his senses to the alert. Without quite knowing why he turned round and watched carefully a small valley below him. At first there was nothing unusual to be seen; but, sure enough, within a few moments a mounted figure came into view and made its way very slowly along it. The lad’s interest became acute and he stared and stared.
“What should he do?” he wondered. “Give the alarm or wait?” He carefully weighed the pros and cons. His instructions had been definite of course. But – well, there might be more to it than this solitary figure that had appeared and he was certain that he would still have time to warn his parents. Assuredly, the more information he could gain the better and accordingly he decided to remain. He was soon glad that he had done so because, even as he watched, he saw the horseman draw up, turn round and stop. It was apparent that he was watching and listening, no doubt suspicious that he was being followed.
Like most of the Covenanters and their families in the neighbourhood, David had heard that the Earl of Argyll had made his way south with Torwoodlee’s henchman, Black Tam, (so called to distinguish him from his father. Red Tam Turnbull) as a guide and he was aware that news of Tam’s return was anxiously awaited by his master. They had been gone for days and no one knew what had happened; and so if by any chance this should prove to be he
there was no doubt as to where his duty lay. He had already had Tam pointed out to him at a Conventicle and felt certain that he would know him again. At that distance, of course, it was impossible to identify the man but when he noticed that he had now altered his direction and was coming slowly up the hillside directly toward him, what had seemed to be merely a possibility became almost a certainty. David’s hopes rode high and when the rider’s nearer approach resolved the last of his doubts it was with difficulty that he restrained himself from shouting. But he realised the possible consequences and contented himself with a wave of his arm and then hurried speedily downwards to meet them.
Never before had he seen a man and horse in such a state of utter exhaustion. Caked mud and dirty vegetation covered them both from their shoulders down; the horse was flecked with foam and sweat and it was clearly obvious that it had practically come to the end of its strength. Just when he had almost reached them, the man dismounted and staggered for a moment and then fell, whilst the horse stood apathetically motionless. David sprang forward.
“O, sir,” he cried, “Ye’re no’ wounded, are ye?” and he made an effort to raise the recumbent figure. The man listlessly shook his head. “No, lad. No’ wounded,” he whispered in an almost inaudible voice, “but I’m weary. 0, sae weary. Let me be.”
For some little time he lay still, with only the slight movement of his chest to show he was alive at all; and then he slowly opened his eyes, bloodshot and heavy with the lack of sleep, and with David’s assistance struggled to his feet. He shook his head slowly, as though to clear his brain, and then he smiled. “That’s better,” he said. “I’m a’ richt again. Aye, a’ richt. I was sair trashed, but the Lord has renewed my strength to spread the glad tidings, for what a tale I have to tell. A tale that will gie courage to the oppressed for a’ time to come. The net has been spread in vain. Torwoodlee will hae cause to rejoice. Is a’ thing weel wi’ him?”
“Aye, I think sae,” replied David. “He has had to flee his castle, of course; but my father kens his whereabouts. But now ye’d best come wi’ me to our hoose, where ye’ll be as safe as can he; and the sooner I get back to watching again the better.”
David’s home, a small, low, mud and stone constructed bothy thatched with heather, was quite invisible in the wild tangle of whins and birch and young ash trees which seemed to fill completely a nearby glen, until one was almost upon it. But despite its hidden position, watch from it must have been also kept, because as they approached, a tall, bright-eyed, middle-aged woman had already left the door to meet them. It was apparent that she recognised her son’s companion.
“O sir, but it is gude to see you again,” she greeted him. “God be praised for your safe return. Has a’ gane weel? Come awa’ in. My gudeman will be here shortly,” And she led the way.
“Thank ye, dame,” replied Turnbull. “A’s gane weel. Aye, and mair than weel, for the Lord in His mercy has seen fit to intervene, and His servant is safe away.”
Whilst David took the horse to what was in reality merely a continuation of the ramshackle building, his mother placed such food as was available before her guest, and then insisted that he should lie down and sleep. It was not until night that he awoke, and when he did so, he found that a number of people had crowded into the small hut, and that Torwoodlee himself was one of them. No urging was needed to get him to launch on his amazing story, and those who heard it never forgot.
He commenced by recounting, with a touch of humour, his inability to remember at first that his companion was no longer his lordship, the Earl of Argyll, but just plain ordinary citizen, “Mr Hope,” travelling south on private business, and he told of how his forgetfulness at one time had almost betrayed them. He then described the route they had taken. Down Bowmont Water, through Kirk Newton, where they had first heard that even in Northumberland soldiers were already hunting for the escaped prisoner, and so to Hedgeley Moor where they had had to lie hidden for some considerable time. He then told of their arrival at Stantonhall, and of the terrible disappointment that had awaited them there. The sole possible chance of escape for “Mr Hope” depended on assistance which only the Rev. William Veitch could give and they discovered that he had been away from home for several days. They dared not go back and to have gone forward without his help would have been madness. So they had accordingly gone into hiding once more and they had prayed. “And then,” Turnbull continued, “Mr Veitch came. He had been sent by the Lord, as you will hear. He had been at Berwick, and was still there when he first heard o’ the Earl’s, I mean, Mr Hope’s escape. It was the Mayor o’ the toon that tell’t him o’t and, may heaven bless him! helped him to get away oot o’ danger. For ye see the sodgers had a’ been wairned, and they had taen a’ the ships in the harbour, and were starting to search a’ the hooses. They had steiked the toons yetts*, and they had men on the brig. As the Mayor tell’t him, even although he kenned naething aboot the affair, he’d be sure to be suspected; and so he got him to hide. Then at nicht he got a wee boat for him and he managed to slip ower to Tweedmouth without being seen. He borrit a horse there and set off to Mr Ogle’s hoose at Etal where he thocht he’d be safe.
Now, mind, that was on Thursday nicht and just hearken to what happened. His auld friend Mr Ogle was at hame and awfu’ glad to see him. They sat cracking till late and before going to bed Mr Ogle had got him to promise that he wad bide till the Sunday at least and preach in Etal kirk. But” and here Turnbull looked round to make sure that he had everyone’s attention, “that didna happen, for nae sooner had Mr Veitch fa’en asleep than he was racked wi’ a terrible dream. In it, his bonny hoose at Stantonha’ was a’ in a bleeze. The whole nicht was lichted up wi’ the flames
o’t; the wa’s kept crashing doon; strange faces looked on; but no’ a trace o’ his wife and bairns could he see.
He awoke trembling frae head to fit, wi’ the awfu’ sicht stamped on his mind. He got up for a while and after he had calmed doon a bit lay doon again and managed to fa’ asleep ance mair. But no’ for lang. For the same dream came back again. The verra same dream, but worse. Again his hoose was bleezing, the burning theek and sparks were fleeing a’ bit, the wa’s fell in again and strangers glowered at it; but no’ a sign o’ his dear anes could he see. Shuddering with horror, and a’ weet wi’ sweat, he got up ance mair and sought out Mr Ogle. It was a sign that had been sent, he felt sure o’ that, and he couldna settle doon any langer in peace. Like reasonable men they tried to laugh at it for a bit, but it had gripped Mr Veitch ower sair and he asked relief frae his promise to bide. Mind ye, he didna ken that we were at Stantonha’ and that we were as gude as dead men if he didna turn up soon. But he did.”
Turnbull ceased speaking, and for minutes there was a silence in the crowded little room. Then Torwoodlee, in tones which betokened his emotion, gave voice to what was in the thoughts of all: “God moves in a mysterious way,” he said; “To Him our thanks and praise.”
That Veitch was successful in getting the Earl of Argyll out of his immediate danger and that he and George Pringle of Torwoodlee had in consequence of their part in the affair also to flee the country and join their friend in Holland is, of course, a matter of history. But – one cannot but wonder how different the course of history might have been if the Rev. William Veitch had spent a dreamless night at Etal.
* Shut the town’s gates.