Wilson is little known in England - he was from Berwick-upon-Tweed - but there is quite a revival of interest in him in Scotland and several Scottish storytellers are using his tales as a source. Many of his stories were based on folktales or folksongs, such as Polworth on the Green. I am not too certain whether this is for you but, as I say, there is a lot of new interest in Wilson, and researchers may be drawn to Musical Traditions and the article, which is, I believe, unique. Ed.
Sir Walter Scott: Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field
The writer John MacKay Wilson lies buried beneath a memorial stone in Tweedmouth churchyard, on the south bank of the Tweed estuary. The stone now stands in a state of disrepair and is in urgent need of restoration. When Wilson died in 1835 he was considered to be an important writer, one who's Tales of the (Scottish) Borders were almost as popular as the works of Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg. And yet, today, he is little known and, like his memorial stone, has almost faded into obscurity. Wilson was born in 1804. Frail from birth, he died thirty-one years later, at a time when his works, especially his stories, were becoming well-known throughout England and Scotland and, indeed, in many of the countries where the Scots had settled.
This short piece chronicles all that is known today about Wilson's brief life. It lists all of Wilson's stories that appeared in the Tales and discusses Wilson's sources and influences, including folk songs and folk tales. This is followed by an account of what happened to the Tales following Wilson's untimely death and gives short biographical details of the writers whose work appeared in later issues of the Tales. There is also a listing of the principal published versions of Wilson's Tales, together with one of Wilson's stories, The Seven Lights, which did not appear in the Tales.
John MacKay Wilson's Tales tell of a different age, one where there was no television, radio or cinema, and one where people had to find their own entertainment, often sitting at home together, listening to stories that were read from books, local papers or weekly magazines. It is now, perhaps, difficult for us to understand just how important such stories were to their readers. But, important they were!
Copies of John MacKay Wilson's Tales may still be found in second-hand and antiquarian bookshops throughout the Borders today. The stories are written in a style that may now be unfamiliar to many readers, but they are still well worth reading. I only hope that this short treatise may encourage others to seek out and enjoy Wilson's stories as much as I do.
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!John MacKay Wilson, the son of William Wilson, (died 4th April, 1844) a sawyer or millwright, from Duns, in Scotland, and Jane Wilson (died 1844), was born on 15th August, 1804 in Tweedmouth, Northumberland, a village on the south side of the Tweed Estuary and a few hundred yards from the ancient Border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. He had two brothers and one sister and all the children were educated at the local Presbyterian Church school by a schoolmaster named Elliot. England was then at war with France and there was social unrest across the country. James Good's Berwick Directory of 1806 lists no persons named Wilson then living in Tweedmouth, though it may be that Good was actually reprinting a list that had been compiled in 1801, and William Wilson may not then have been living in Tweedmouth. According to John Tait, “Tweedmouth, where the river Tweed meets with the ocean, consists of a clump of houses many of them with red tiled roofs, and from the Berwick side, looking as if the ancient borough had burst the boundaries of its encircling wall, and thrown an outpost across the Tweed, by the long, low, narrow, and quaint bridge (1164 feet in length), with fifteen arches, which here spans the mighty Border river. On closer inspection, Tweedmouth is found to be astir with sea-faring men, with boat-building yards, and works of boiler-makers and agricultural implement makers. There is also the great salmon-fishing industry, which employs many hands. It is a confused, busy, breezy, and somewhat odoriferous place…It is natural to suppose that in his leisure hours Wilson wandered often by Tweedmouth Moor, or up the sides of the river to Norham on the one side or Paxton on the other. Doubtless he had pleasure in surveying the landscape, as it can be grandly seen from various coigns of vantage in the immediate neighbourhood. He could easily see the outline of the Lammermoors, the top of lofty Cheviot, Hume Castle, and the Eildons three; and fancy, doubtless, carried his thoughts still farther to the towns and hills famous in Border story, even as far up as the Bield where:
Sir Walter Scott: The Lay of the Last Minstrel
You have all heard of the Cheviot mountains. They are a rough, rugged, Majestic chain of hills, which a poet might term the Roman wall of Nature; crowned with snow, belted with storms, surrounded by pastures and fruitful fields, and still dividing the northern portion of Great Britain from the southern. With their proud summits piercing the clouds, and their dark rocky declivities frowning upon the glens below, they appear symbolical of the wild and untamable spirits of the Borderers who once inhabited their sides.
From John MacKay Wilson's story The Vacant Chair
Tweed, Annan, and Clyde,“His early days were spent in peace and happiness under his parental roof, and were marked with a kind of native thirst for knowledge.”2
Come out o ae hill-side.1
One of Wilson's poems, The Tweed near Berwick, which was unpublished during Wilson's lifetime, concerns the youthful love for nature and place that he discovered during his walks along the Tweed's side.
On thy banks, classic Tweed, still my fancy shall wander,John Mackay Wilson was eleven years old when the French wars ended at the battle of Waterloo. It was also the time when Wilson obtained his first job with a firm of printers owned by William Lochhead of High Street, Berwick-upon-Tweed. Lochhead appears to have specialized in printing Bibles and history books and John became an apprentice printer, working in Lochhead's Stoddart's Yard premises. Apparently John was a keen reader and was able to further his education by reading the books that Lochhead printed. When he was fifteen years old, Lochhead printed 100 copies of one of John's early poems A Glance at Hinduism. The poem begins with a dedication that is taken from the Biblical Psalms, 'The dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty', and concerns itself with the Indian practice of suttee, where a widow was burned on the funeral pyre of her late husband. Clearly the practice was found to be abhorrent by Wilson, who offered the following advice:
Though far from the Land of the Thistle and thee,
And follow thy course to its latest meander,
The place of my birth where thou meetest the sea.
'Though the memory of those early friendships did cherish,
Will fade and is fading, thou still art the same,
For though dear to remembrance young feelings must perish
And the friends of our youth will exist but in name.
But there is a language in thee, sweeping river,
A voice in the woodlands that shadow thy braes,
A home and a heart by thy side that shall ever
Be one with existence, be dear to my lays.
'Midst the daydream of boyhood, ere glowing ambition
Had sung the fond thrillings of beauty and love,
Thy banks were my study - my only tuition
The sounds of thy waters, the coo of thy dove.
Stream of maturity, can I forget thee
When my birthplace's threshold thy waters will lave?
Forget thee! When Nature's omnipotent set thee
To wash the green sod by my forefather's grave?
Yet if these were forgot thou art witness with heaven
Of my vow on the breath of thy murmurs conveyed,
When, pure as the fountain, confiding was given
To me the fond heart of my Favourite Maid.
In this, deep and keenly, my soul's dearest feeling
Now tells me that thou art remembered indeed,
For to think of the Maid of my Heart is revealing
A tale that revisits the banks of the Tweed.3
Shed Gospel light upon Hindostan's sonsWilson's Christianity is well to the fore in this poem. Throughout his life he supported the Methodist Church and was especially friendly with James Everett, a Manchester-based (later Newcastle-based) bookseller and Methodist preacher. Later, in 1834 when Wilson was living in Berwick, he was able to say to Everett:
And dissipate their darkened mental gloom.
Make pagan folly (cruel, delusive dream)
Be seen by them in all its odious forms.
Lead them from penance to the prayers of faith
And faith in Christ, in Christ God's only son.
I am holding out to your admirers here that they in all probability will have the pleasure of hearing you preach here in the course of the Spring or Summer -and I am resolved you shall preach, - we won't let you leave Berwick without doing so.4A few months later, Wilson made the following observation to Everett:
Had my paper and time permitted, I intended to have said something about the dissensions which seem to be arising in your most respected body. I don't like the conduct of the Ashton man, he is too much of voluntary for me; while on the other hand, so far as I can perceive the Rev Jabez Bunting and others seem too strongly to lean to episcopacy - I never like to hear the subject mentioned.5At the time that he wrote A Glance at Hinduism Wilson was courting a girl called Sarah Sanderson, who lived at Gainslaw Hill, near the junction where the Tweed meets the Whitadder, some couple of miles to the west of Berwick. However, Sanderson rejected Wilson in order to marry a Gentleman's manservant who lived nearby; and so Wilson left his printer's apprenticeship and headed south to London where, like many others, he no doubt sought fame and fortune. Sadly, both were conspicuous by their absence, and Wilson was forced to sleep rough in various parks and open spaces. Some writers have stated that Wilson spent his last two shillings buying a ticket to see the famous actress Sarah Siddons.6 Mrs Siddons final stage performance was on 9th of June 1819, when Wilsion would have only been fifteen years of age, but she did continue to give public readings until her death in 1831, and it may have been at one of these events that Wilson saw Mrs Siddons. It is thought that Wilson did find employment in London with a firm of lawyers, where he worked copying legal documents, although this work did not last for long. Several of Wilson's later stories contain incidents of poverty and are probably based on his own experiences. Luckily Wilson was rescued by James Sinclair, an agent for Lloyds at Berwick, who happened to be visiting London. Walking one day in a park, Sinclair saw the name 'John Mackay Wilson' written above an alcove. After some searching, Sinclair found Wilson and was able to offer financial help so that Wilson could return to Tweedmouth, where he married Miss Sarah Gladstone, who was described as 'a lady of humble means'. Wilson then moved to Edinburgh where he worked on the staff of the Literary Journal. In 1829 his melodrama The Gowrie Conspiracy was performed in Edinburgh to some acclaim. It was soon followed by other stage plays, such as The Highland Widow and Margaret of Anjou. Wilson then wrote The Poet's Progress, The Border Patriots and The Sojourner, “a Poem of considerable length, in the Spenserian stanza but not being able to meet with a publisher, he commenced writing his 'Lectures on Poetry', with 'Biographical and Individual Sketches', which he completed in three manuscript volumes. These lectures he continued to deliver, with various success, in the principal towns of Scotland and England, till, about three years ago, he rested from his wanderings in his native village, among his friends and early associates”.7
John MacKay Wilson returned to Berwick in 1831 and began helping to edit The Border Magazine. Many of Wilson's poems and lectures were included in the early editions, together with his story The Vacant Chair, which was later to become the first of a series of Tales of the Borders. Apparently it was Wilson's favourite story and is the only one of his Tales that was printed in America as a separate pamphlet.
In February, 1832, Wilson had moved to 15, Byrom Street in Manchester. His financial situation was still precarious, as this letter, dated 4th February, to James Everett, shows:
I trouble you with this under much perplexity and painful feeling ... Now as I have stated before I can go I must sell the copyright of my work. I wrote to my friend Pringle upon the subject and he and his friends are to assist me; but in order to accomplish my object as early as I wish, they consider it necessary that I should be in London to push the business personally. Now I know this is necessary - that I must do so at whatever sacrifice. But I may have to remain two or perhaps three weeks in London before I obtain a settlement. And upon the cheapest calculation which I can make, I find it would require about two pounds more than I am in possession of. It is absolute agony for me to request you if you could befriend me with the loan of this sum till I am enabled to pay you on my return. Let the pain of my feelings and the pressure of my situation be my excuse in making a request at which my very soul blushes.8Wilson continued:
I leave Mrs Wilson here and am most anxious to set off on Monday night if possible. I will have considerable literary backing; and have again written to Jerdan, announcing my intention and the nature of my visit requesting also his influence, and reminding him of the kindness with which he offered to aid in promoting my views about six years ago. But though I should sell it at the Minerva Press price of £15 a volume, it must go. But I hope its superiority over other works of its kind will save it from such a fate. I care not when they publish it, providing they give part payment in hand. What I do I must do speedily. They call upon me to come to Berwick, and with all my anxiety I am unable to comply with the demand, and without your aid to enable me to effect it by the only means in my power, I fear my hope must perish. I suppose you will not get this till Monday - so do let me have your answer as early as possible, - I would have called on you, - but I could not - it is with pain I have written this, - and spoken it, I could not. If you can serve me in this matter, I will not talk of gratitude - for I have this day found, that words of kindness and gratitude are a false and a hollow sound. Believe me I would not forget your friendship. Let me have your answer as early as possible, and Believe to be yours in much confusion, But sincerity.9Wilson was clearly aware that things would not necessarily go his way in London:
Colburn and Bentley have informed me that owing to their present engagements being so numerous they could not undertake the publication of my work with any hope of doing it justice, until next season. This is as useless and profitless a hope to me as preaching repentance to a dead man.10He also makes mention of his poor health, the reason why he apparently had to give up lecturing to the public for the time being. “Had I been able still to Lecture, this might have done, but I feel that to risk doing so would almost be wilfully to destroy my own life.”11 But things were soon to change for the better. By February, 1832, Wilson had been approached to become Editor of the weekly Berwick paper, The Berwick Advertiser:
Until I obtain a settlement with a publisher, I cannot go to Berwick to undertake the Editorship of the paper without incurring obligations which would make me rather the slave of the proprietor than the conductor of the journal. This I could not do and must avoid. But the prospect which that situation holds out of being always at home having a certain income, and independence, with a large portion of literary leisure, makes me tenfold more anxious to embrace the offer of it than ever I was to obtain anything on this earth. My brother is to manage it for two or three weeks till I can arrive; but in political matters he is wholly unskilled.12Wilson returned to London in early February, 1832, and later told Everett that things had not changed there:
I found the London market at a standstill, and it is an understood thing among the trade that scarce any work will be brought out until after the settlement of the reform question. All the principal writers are of necessity resting upon their oars, and waiting for the turning of the tide. And there is not one of the second rate and inferior houses reckoned safe. Three publishers who have seen the MSS. have engaged to make me offers for it as soon as the state of things will justify them in doing so. But at present all say they could not give any price. The three are Bull, - Kidd, - & Cochrane. I could not see Jerdan, but wrote him again.13In other words, Wilson, still being short of money, agreed to take Editorship in Berwick, although he would have to lecture in order to raise some money for his journey, or, at least, for a part of his journey. “I must be in Berwick in about a fortnight or less, - and it will cost me much labour to do that as we shall walk to Newcastle - and I will stop in Leeds for a day or two and deliver my Lectures, and then wither walk it or coach it.”14
Wilson had returned from London to Manchester on the 25th February, 1832, where he was offered the job as Editor of The Manchester Chronicle. Wilson clearly wanted to take up this offer, but felt duty-bound to move to Berwick, having given his undertaking to edit the Berwick paper:
Just after my return Mr Catherall sent for (me) yesterday afternoon, and informed me I have his place as Editor of the Chronicle. Had this been told me a month ago, - but I have affixed my signature to the articles regarding the Berwick paper, - and cannot draw back without self-reproach and disgrace. However Mr Catherall says he will not leave until June, & I believe he has spoken of me to Mr Wheeler, the salary would be three guineas a week. Now should I find after a trial at the Berwick paper that its advantages would not equal this, - I could leave it according to agreement by giving a month's notice. Now I will from time to time let you know my feelings and prospects thereon, which you can communicate to Mr C. so that the second string of the bow be not broken, but kept unstrung for a time, - and if I find it would be advisable, I could about June find my way back to Manchester. Yet health - and home are powerful magnets to draw me to the North and keep me there.15Berwick, it must be said, was not the most ideal of places for a person suffering from ill health. There were frequent outbreaks of cholera, for example, and this account, taken from a report in 1849, no doubt reflects the conditions that existed when Wilson returned to Berwick in 1832:
“The borough of Berwick-upon-Tweed is not so healthy as it may be, on account of undrained streets, imperfect privy accommodation, crowded courts, houses, room-tenements, and large exposed middens and cesspools … Excess of disease has been distinctly traced to the undrained and crowded districts, to deficient ventilation, and to the absence of a full water-supply, and of sewers and drains generally.”16In March, 1832, Wilson became editor of The Berwick Advertiser, a paper that included an original political leader each week - to be written by Wilson - alongside national and foreign news. During periods when news was scarce, Wilson would include one of his own stories, in verse or prose. Again, Wilson was unwell when he moved into the Editor's chair, although, by November of that year, his health appeared to be on the mend:
You know I was ill when I left Manchester, but it grew worse - much worse and for the first four or five months of my Editorship the thread of life quivered as if every hour it might be expected to break asunder. I grew unable to walk across the room, or to lie save upon one side. Every person thought I was dying - but myself. Many of their cheering prophecies reached my ear, and though I knew my days were numbered I did not believe that they had from my ghostly looks and wasted form been able to read the number. At length I began to recover, - and I did recover most rapidly. Yea when I again felt health in my veins and gasped in the pure air of heaven amidst my native fields, where the larks poured down their tide of song, I seemed to swallow life, air, music and all! - Everything teemed with delight, - I felt it in my veins, in the breeze, upon my cheek, in the leaves, the trees, and the waving grass, - I never felt the gowan beneath my foot before! The sensation was enough to repay the sickness of years.17But Wilson now had a purpose in life and he began to find some of the recognition that had so far eluded him:
As I understand you still get the paper, you must tell me how you like it, and wherein you think it might be improved. It was in a miserable condition when I took it in hand. Talent or spirit it never had, and its sale was rapidly decreasing. Within a fortnight I obtained them about a hundred additional subscribers, - its circulation rose higher than it ever was during the five and twenty years of its existence and it continues weekly to increase. In fact when I took the helm of their wreck, I found her timbers rotten and floundering among rocks, - refitted her and steered her into the haven of profit and popularity. For this service you will no doubt think the proprietors are generous and grateful. If they are they have neither shown it nor said it. They fear me rather than love me. You may ask how can this be? - With the public they have become as nobody, and in town and country it is called Mackay Wilson's paper. Now my salary mainly was to rest on the success of the paper at the end of twelvemonths - there is but three months of the twelve to run, and they have never hinted directly or indirectly at that part of our bargain. However I shall say nothing till the three months be out; but I would have been more satisfied with some token of generosity on their side. Indeed I have never had a single paper since I became Editor without paying sevenpence for it, the same as another subscriber! In the entire management of it however they have never ventured to interfere with me in the slightest! - I have urged them to get me new types, and make it the one half larger but as it is it is bringing them in a handsome profit at a cheap rate and they cannot find it in their hearts to expend a shilling on it. If this narrow spirit continues - they and I must shake hands, - the old types and the older press are theirs, but the readers are mine, and if they encourage me not according to my exertions, next year I would feel it my duty to become printer and Editor of an opposition journal, - for no one shall grow fat on the sweat of my brains, unless I am an equitable sharer in the profits.18Wilson clearly had plans for the local newspaper. Here he is asking Everett if he may include the latter's poem The Mount in a special edition of the paper:
What are you doing? Is the “Mount” finished? Respecting it, I have a favour to ask, - will you send me and allow me to print in my columns, the stanzas descriptive of the scene from the Mount, - and also the stanzas which describe the Maniac? - You really must. Without leave you will perceive I have printed the only two stanzas I had. I expect pieces from Hogg, Pringle and several others, and intend to make a show number like the Athenaeum.19At one point, towards the end of November, 1832, Wilson had considered taking on the failing Border Magazine as part of his work-load. This was the magazine that he had previously worked for in 1831.
The Border Magazine will voluntarily give up the ghost next month. Some wish me to take it up as a purely literary publication, under the title of “Wilson's Border Magazine”. I will think twice - yea thrice about it before I do - for I have not so much time to spare as you would imagine, and after paying publishers & the printer, it would leave very little for me. I think I shan't.20And, if that was not enough, Wilson was also working on his own books:
I am at present on the extreme tenter hooks of anxiety; for four weeks I have been expecting a letter every day from my friend Mr Pringle to say how much he has got for my novel. It must sing or swim before the next year. I have three volumes more ready to bring out on the back of it. But if this bargain is not to my satisfaction, I shall print the others here.21But, life was not all work. Wilson did seem to have some sort of private life and he was still in good health, despite an outbreak of cholera that had occurred in Berwick.
I am very comfortable here, in as far as we have enough to satiate every reasonable desire. But periodicals are old before I see them. Books are difficult to come at - that is useful books - for the libraries are filled with trash; - and literary society there is not even the shadow of. Save at two public dinners, and I have not been in the company of either one kind or another public or private since I arrived here. I have had many invitations, - but I have no taste for their society and it is my humour to appear as “a voice crying in the wilderness” … My “Vacant Chair” has appeared a year behind its time in the “Forget Me Not”. I had applications from three others, but from the weak state of my health at the time I was unable to comply. I never enjoyed such excellent health as I do now, and I have to thank my Maker that the months of illness endured have taught me to feel how delightful health is. - I need not inform you we have cholera here, - but I believe it is now extinct, or very nearly so. The deaths I believe amounted to about 260.221832 was also the year that the Reform Act was passed and Wilson used the Advertiser's pages to promote his support for reform. This was a period of English history that saw many people questioning the status quo. A young MP, Thomas Babington Macaulay wanted political reform to protect the rule of law “from the exercise of arbitrary power”. During the period 1760 - 1810 no fewer than sixty-three new capital offences had been added to the statute books. According to Macaulay, “People crushed by law have no hopes but from power. If laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to laws”.23 Macaulay was probably aware of Oliver Goldsmith's earlier couplet:
Each wanton judge new penal statutes draw,According to the English historian E P Thompson, “In the decades after 1795 there was a profound alienation between classes in Britain, and working people were thrust into a state of apartheid whose effects - in the niceties of social and educational discrimination - can be felt to this day. England differed from other European nations in this, that the flood-tide of counter-revolutionary feeling and discipline coincided with the flood-tide of the Industrial Revolution; as new techniques and forms of industrial organization advanced as political and social rights receded. The 'natural' alliance between an impatient radically-minded industrial bourgeoisie and a formative proletariat was broken as soon as it was formed.”24 One glaring form of inequality was the fact that only a handful of land-owners had the right to vote. The 1832 Reform Act was the first stage in rectifying this inequality.
Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law …
But, during all the time spent working for Reform, Wilson was still able to find time to compose some of his best poems, including the poem Midnight, which was published in 1832 in The Literary Gazette of London:
The sea is silent, and the winds of GodWilson spent the next years editing the Advertiser and, presumably, working on more of his own writings. On January 1st, 1834, he was able to send copies of his new work, The Enthusiast, to his subscribers:
Stir not its waters; on its voiceless waves
Thick darkness presses as a mighty load,
Weighing their strength to slumber. O'er earth's graves
One lonely star is watching; and the wind,
Benighted on the desert, howls to find
Its trackless path, as would a dying hound.
The thick clouds, wearied with their course all day,
Repose like shrouded ghosts on the black air,
Or, in the darkness having lost their way,
Await the dawn! 'Tis midnight reigns around -
Midnight, when crime and murder quit their lair -
When maidens dream of music's sweetest sound,
And mother weeping, breathe the yearning prayer.
With this comes the “Enthusiast”. I hardly know how I shall get the copies forwarded, as we have no coach direct to Manchester, - but I will try to get the parcel away somehow or other and it must take its chance….I have been exceedingly fortunate with the publication. The copies which I have sent out on order on Saturday and to-day amount to above sixty pounds, - but it puzzles me to know how I am to get the money collected being from nearly three hundred individuals in different parts of the country, but all respectable … He is a silly man who cannot form an opinion of his own works and to you I do not hesitate to say that I think it a volume of good poetry. But you must judge for yourself, and in the Eclectic, Imperial and Manchester papers, say whatever honesty dictates putting friendship out of the question - I would be ashamed to call myself your friend if I were capable of speaking of your next work when it comes to hand in any other manner … I am certain of gaining some money by the publication, and I expect a portion of popularity.25Wilson was not alone in his admiration for this work. “Within these few weeks I have received very complementary letters respecting the “Enthusiast” from H.R. the Duke of Sussex, old Earl Spencer, the Earl of Tankerville, Lord Howick, Sir Rufus Donkin and others.”26 But, as ever, there were still problems with the owners of the Advertiser: “The “Annual humbugs” have jerked me this year and not paid me yet.”27
Nor was this the only problem to trouble Wilson:
I never see the “Athenaeum” now nor the “London Literary Gazette” here until they are more than two months old, therefore I must apply to my friend Wenett who can see them every week and as I shall send copies to both of them to-day, though they may not reach them for a fortnight, I know thou will feel as much anxiety to know what these Reviewers will say of me as I do myself, - and whether they speak good or evil, cause what they say to be copied into a letter for me and send it by post. I must ask you to do the same with the notices in the Eclectic &c. for I have no means of seeing them.28Occasionally, though, Wilson did find compensation whilst living so far from London. “I was on my way to a sale of old Books, and amongst others put up (for sale) was a perfect and excellent folio edition of Barker's Black Letter Bible, printed in 1611. There was a good deal of competition but I was the successful bidder. You will perhaps pity my Bibliomania, - but you must not be too severe - I would rather want victuals for a day than a Book that I desire, and my library already is assuming no mean appearance.”29 Although, in general, Wilson was becoming dissatisfied with his life in Berwick:
Everything here is excessively dull, - money, like the coat of our old friend Jack the Giant Killer is invisible and our farmers and several of our most respectable tradesmen, equipping themselves in his seven league boots, are stalkinhg across the Atlantic. I am afraid it will take fifty years to come, thoroughly to cure poor old England. Nevertheless, the Advertiser goes on encreasing in prosperity and popularity, and I have the satisfaction of enjoying the favour of all classes for twenty miles round. The entire edition of the “Enthusiast” with the exception I believe of about a dozen copies is sold of, but not the one half are yet paid for.30Wilson was also beginning to feel uneasy about his job as Editor of the Advertiser and of his future in general:
My situation as Editor here obtains for me a large portion of respect and a considerable share of flattery. It is however no sinecure, and were the duties not such as I delight in, they would be laborious. The recent improvements require more labour, and have encreased the circulation, but they have not encreased my salary, nor have I asked an increase or intend to ask it. I believe I am the worst paid of any Editor in Britain - but I do not think I cut the shabbiest appearance. The salary, however, such as it is, places a person of my habits and 'family'in a state of comfort - above want and in comparative independence. Yet in some things I feel the will without the means. Now, the actual proprietor of the paper, is a youth about sixteen years of age, who is now at the High School or College in Edinburgh receiving an education that may qualify him to be his own Editor. It is no secret that he when old enough is to take the management of the Advertiser upon himself. The public laugh at this and say the paper would not stand a quarter of a year without me. I certainly saved it from the very verge of ruin, and made it one of the best paying provincial papers in the country - But the young gentleman may be clever and please the public as well as me; and if in a year or two, he and his friends think him qualified to conduct the paper, they will be right in doing so. But I would be what I am not were I to toil for them until they might say to me, “we thank you for your faithful services and Master Henry will henceforth conduct the Advertiser himself." No. I have now entered on my third year, and if it please Heaven to spare me, and nothing better offer in the interim, I will continue Editor for another year, - but not longer.31One possibility considered by Wilson was to return to legal work:
I have long been desirous of fighting my way to the bar. But the path is beset with difficulties. I would have three, if not five years of privation and expense before me and my wife, and after all I might remain for five years more a briefless barrister. After weighing well the subject, therefore, I have almost abandoned the idea.32If not the bar, then there was the possibility of a relocation to the New World:
You are aware that the newspapers in the Canadas are absolutely trash and in the United States they are little more than respectable. With the recommendations that I could take with me, I do not think I would be long in finding an Editorship, and if I once had one, I should take care to be but a short time in being both proprietor and Editor of an American newspaper. As either the Canadas or the States are now peopled, this would not be lowering myself; and in point of talent I would not have the competition to contend with that I have in this country. Neither is patronage there an overshadowing need. If therefore, nothing better cast up between this and this time twelvemonths, and I enjoy the blessing of health till then I believe I shall try my fortune beyond the Atlantic.33But, on Saturday, 18th October, 1834, Wilson's determination to remain in Berwick was confirmed when the Berwick Advertiser announced that on the 8th of November G Richardson of Berwick would be publishing the first issue of Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative Tales of the Borders, by John MacKay Wilson. The issue would cost three-halfpence. The Tales were to be published weekly and there was also to be a monthly edition, containing all the stories from the previous month's weekly issues. The monthly edition was to be sold for 6d. It was planned that the work would be of ninety-six number, or twenty-four parts, that could be bound as two volumes.
Wilson again wrote to his friend Everett, seeing assistance in seeking out an agent for the Tales in Newcastle, Everett having moved north from Manchester to Newcastle:
I am about … to publish my Tales of the Borders in cheap weekly numbers and for this purpose I wish to appoint an Agent in every town on the Borders, and also in all the principal Towns of the Kingdom. I therefore require an agent in Newcastle … My terms are - threepence a shilling where more than fifty copies are ordered, - where below fifty Twopence. Settlement monthly with an additional discount of Two and a half per cent where payment is made within a month from the date of the Monthly account. From the accounts reaching me from all quarters the speculation promises to be very successful, though at first I shall have some uphill work.34The first issue of The Tales appeared on the 8th November and contained two stories, The Vacant Chair and Tibby Fowler. Two thousand copies were printed, but before the week was out a second edition had to be printed to meet the unexpected demand. Two weeks later sales had reached four thousand. On the 3rd January, 1835, when issue nine appeared, it was stated that the printers were unable to meet demand, the printing then being for five thousand copies per weekly issue. A second edition of the earlier copies had sold out and a third edition was in course of preparation. By the end of January the print run was for six thousand copies and by the middle of March it had risen to eight thousand copies. On the 21st March a fourth edition of the earlier issues was announced for circulation in the south of England. It was to be published by Houlston & Sons, of 65, Paternoster Row, London, who were also appointed the selling agents for London and the south.
It was soon apparent that, in common with other contemporary writers, many of Wilson's Tales were of a moralizing and didactic nature. In the seventeenth issue we find this short note from Wilson. “This tale has been written from the circumstance of The Tales of the Borders having already been adopted as a lesson-book in several schools”.
When the twenty-sixth issued appeared on 2nd May - containing the story The First and Second Marriage - the following statement, by Wilson, was included: “It is now half-a-year since the Tales of the Borders commenced, and their success may excuse the author in saying a few words concerning them. There never was an instance of what is called a provincial publication meeting such a reception from the public; and it is only one or two metropolitan publications that can boast of the same circulation, and that only within the last two or perhaps three years. The Tales of the Borders were commenced at about two thousand weekly. Many then said that quantity would never sell. But they not only are now nearly two thousand every week, but of many of the earlier numbers more than seventeen thousand have been sold; and from proposals that have been made to the author by London book-sellers, to circulate the work throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland, within a month the weekly circulation will not be below THIRTY THOUSAND.”
In fact, at that time this was quite a staggering number of copies to be published each week. And it should be remembered that Wilson was also continuing to edit the Berwick Advertiser each week. As I said before, Wilson had also thrown himself into the Reform debate and, by the summer of 1835, the strain of all this work had begun to take its toll on Wilson. There seems to be a tradition among some writers who have previously written about Wilson to say that he was a heavy drinker and that this was the reason for much of his ill health, and was a cause of his early death. And yet there seems to be little, if any, evidence for this. Could a person who supported the Methodist cause really be a drinker? In October, 1834, Wilson had written to the Methodist James Everett praising the beauties of nature and of his plans for their joint venture to visit the Scottish poet James Hogg during the following spring:
I wish you had been with me the week before last. My eyes looked over and beyond you. I made a tour over and around the Cheviots. You shall see a description of it some day. On the extreme top of the highest mountain, I was enveloped in a thick, tangible cloud, - I could not see three feet before me, you might have cut it with a knife. I got bewildered and in the end when I again got below the clouds, found myself in Scotland when I imagined I had been pursuing the nearest way to Wooler. Before the clouds enveloped me however, I had some glorious views. Beneath me in the middle distance, crowned with sunbeams, while transparent clouds floated below, I beheld the Mount, - Everett's Mount, or if you will have me so to write it Alnwick Mount. To the horizon on the south east Gateshead fell was distinctly visible. To the south west appeared the shadowy forms of the mountains of Cumberland. To the north the Lammermuirs, - to the north west the cleft Eildons - and others of the classic hills of Scotland - You say we shall go to see Hogg, - with all my heart. I will meet you at Wooler - if you choose the spring for our Excursion, - and though a little circuitous, we will go by the Cheviots. The beauty - the magnificence - the variety - the savage sublimity of the scenery will amply repay the toil.35There has been some confusion in the past regarding John MacKay Wilson and the well-known Scottish writer James Hogg (1770 - 1835). One of Hogg's good friends was James Wilson (1785 - 1854), a writer who, in 1820, was elected Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University, and some commentators have confused this John Wilson with John MacKay Wilson. In 1832 John MacKay Wilson produced an article on James Hogg for the Literary Gazette of London.36 Hogg was then visiting the Metropolis and the article begins with this introduction:
At the time when the Etterick Shepherd is, happily for his present enjoyment, and, we trust, happily for his permanent interest, exciting so much of the attention and receiving the caresses of all ranks in the London world, the following sketch of him can hardly fail to gratify our readers. We are indebted for it to Mr John Mackay Wilson; himself a young author, and a candidate for some portion of the fame he has so honestly assigned to his fellow-borderers, “fast by the river Tweed”.Wilson begins his piece with the words:
JAMES HOGG, one of the most extraordinary individuals that has appeared in the literary world, was born on the 26th of January, 1771, in a wild pastoral region called Ettrick Forest, in the south of Scotland;- a region uneven, rugged, and romantic, - occasionally beautiful, - always imposing, and often untameable in aspect as the spirit of its early inhabitants.At one point Wilson gives a most detailed physical description of Hogg:
In stature he is about five feet six. His person is round, stout, and fleshy, with a slight inclination towards corpulency. His usual dress is a gray, or rather what is termed a pepper-and-salt coloured coat, composed of cotton and woollen, and made wide and flowing, after the manner of a sportsman's, but longer than such are generally worn; with trousers of the same, and yellow vest, or, upon a gala-day, the gray trousers are exchanged for nankeen. His face is ruddy, healthy, good-natured, and stamped with unassuming modesty and simplicity … His eyes are of a bluish gray, laughing and lively. His brow broad, open, and untouched by age, is still smooth; his hair is of a yellowish hue; he is active, strong-built, and athletic, and appears not less than ten years younger than he is in reality.And yet, despite such a detailed picture of Hogg, there are no personal anecdotes within the article. Hogg's interests are listed thus:
He is an indifferent farmer - a tolerable astronomer - as good an angler as a poet - an archer anxious to excel.But, somehow or other, Wilson's laudatory piece fails to show Hogg as a person that Wilson actually knew. As the introduction says, Wilson was 'a young author'. His piece was written two years before the weekly Tales of the Borders began to be published and so it can hardly be expected that he would then have been moving in circles that brought him into contact with James Hogg, or any of Hogg's literary friends, such as Sir Walter Scott.37
Nor does it seem likely that Wilson and Everett made their proposed journey to visit Hogg in the spring of 1835, as Wilson's health was again giving cause for concern. Finally, on 3rd October, 1835, the following obituary appeared in the Berwick Advertiser:
“This morning, in the 31st year of his age, and after an illness of three weeks, Mr John M Wilson, during several years editor of this journal, and author of various compositions in prose and poetry, which are familiar to the public. Mr W. acquired the status in society which he occupied at the time of his decease by dint of his own exertions; and thus added another to the honourable examples of persons who have overcome difficulties, and bettered their condition in the world. His efforts in the cause of Reform will be remembered long. To facilitate the progress of liberal opinions on subjects both of general and local interest was the constant aim of his editorial labours; and to every movements in this quarter, which identified itself with the liberties and comforts of the people, he lent a strong impulse by his presence and powerful appeals.”Wilson, who left a widow, Sarah, but no children, was buried in Tweedmouth Churchyard, opposite the church-door, and Sarah later erected a large memorial stone at the head of the grave. Today this memorial is in a state of poor repair. According to an extant local tradition, shortly after Wilson's coffin was lowered into its grave an irate young woman flung an issue of the Tales on top of Wilson's coffin, shouting as she did so, “Here. Tak yer lees wi ye”. It is thought that she believed her father to have been the subject of one of Wilson's stories.38
“Each weekly number came forth in small quarto size, with a blue cover and the arms of Berwick on the title-page. It was customary to have the Tales read aloud in the family circle; and often the reading was accomplished only in broken accents with intermittent sobs, while the sleeves of the auditors were much occupied in brushing away the sympathetic tears.”39The Tales of the Borders had been written and published by Wilson himself.40 Each week he had prepared an edition of the Tales (several issues containing more than one story) and, at the time of his untimely death, he had produced the following seventy-five stories:
Nowhere are traditions more general or more interesting than upon the Borders. Every grey ruin has its tale of wonder and of war. The solitary cairn on the hillside speaks of one who died for religion, or for liberty, or belike of both. The every schoolboy passes it with reverence, and can tell the history of him whose memory it perpetuates. The hill on which it stands is a monument of daring deeds, where the sword was raised against oppression, and where heroes sleep. Every castle hath its legends, its tales of terror and of blood, “of goblin, ghost or fairy." The mountain glen, too, hath its records of love and war. There history has let fall its romantic fragments, and the hills enclose them. The forest trees whisper of the past; and, beneath the shadow of their branches, the silent spirit of other years seems to sleep. The ancient cottage, also, hath its traditions, and recounts “The short and simple annals of the poor." Every family hath its legends, which record to posterity the actions of their ancestors, when the sword was law, and even the payment of rent upon the Borders was a thing which no man understood; but, as Sir Walter Scott saith, “all that the landlord could gain from those residing upon his estate was their personal service in battle, their assistance in labouring the land retained in his natural possession, some petty quit-rents of a nature resembling the feudal casualties, and perhaps a share in the spoil which they acquired by rapine." Many of those traditions are calculated to melt the maiden's heart, to fill age with enthusiasm, and youth with love of country.We may also suggest that Wilson's Tales also relied heavily on the works of Sir Walter Scott, a fact previously noted by Basil Skinner, an Edinburgh academic:
In the detail of his plots, Wilson every now and then reveals his debt to Scott. The prison interview between Grizel Cochrane and her father recalls that between Effie and Jeannie Deans, and there is an even closer parallel between the cursing of the Laird o'Clennel by Elspeth Faa, Queen of the Gypsies, and the similar cursing of the Laird of Ellangowan by Meg Merrilees … The greatest significance of Wilson's Tales, however, lies in their continuance of the nostalgic tradition that Scott had developed in his early novels. This had two aspects: firstly, a recourse to domestic life as a source of narrative interest; and secondly, a compulsion to record a vanished society in a moment of change.41Wilson's story The Deserted Wife begins with the sentence. “The following tale was communicated to me when in Dumfriesshire, in the year 1827, by an old and respectable lady, who was herself the subject of it." Did Wilson therefore 'collect' this story from the old lady, or was he using an artificial device in order to make his own composition sound more truthful?
In the story of The First and Second Marriage we find a similar introductory technique:
“I beg your pardon, sir,” said a venerable-looking, white-headed man, accosting me one day, about six weeks ago, as I was walking along near the banks of the Whitadder; 'ye are the author of the 'Border Tales,' sir - are ye not?”I think it fair to say that Wilson's Tales are, for the most part, the product of Wilson's own imagination. Some stories are based on actual events, but, in all of Wilson's Tales, we can clearly see that the stories are Wilson's own. Two stories, The Red Hall; or, Berwick in 1296 and The Siege; a Dramatic Tale, are based on historical events that occurred in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1296 and 1333 respectively, and Wilson would no doubt have been familiar with John Fuller's History of Berwick upon Tweed which documents both events.42 Likewise, he would have known of the Faa family of Gypsies, who are central to the story The Faa's Revenge; A Tale of the Border Gipsies, some of the Faa's having settled in Berwick and Tweedmouth.43
Not being aware of anything in the “Tales of the Borders” of which I need to be ashamed, and moreover being accustomed to meet with such salutations, after glancing at the stranger, with the intention, I believe, of taking the measure of his mind, or scrutinizing his motive in asking the question, I answered - “I am, sir.”
“Then, sir” said he, “I can tell ye a true story, and one that happened upon the Borders here within my recollection, and which was also within my own knowledge, which I think would make a capital tale.”
Willie Wastle's Account of His Wife, based on the poem by Burns, is told by Willie himself and, following a couplet from the poem, begins thus:
“It was a very cruel dune thing in my neebor, Robert Burns, to mak a sang aboot my wife and me,” said Mr William Wastle, as he sat with a friend over a jug of reeking toddy, in a tavern near the Bridge-end in Dumfries, where he had been attending the cattle market.In a footnote to the story, Wilson mentions Allan Cunningham's Life of Burns (1833), a book that Wilson clearly knew. Another book is also, indirectly, referred to in the story of The Adopted Son. A verse from the ballad The Battle of Philiphaugh is printed, again as a footnote, and this verse is identical to one printed in Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802 - 03).
Tibby Fowler is also based on a song of that title. According to Wilson:
“All our readers have heard and sung of 'Tibby Fowler o' the glen;' but they may not all be aware that the glen referred to lies within about four miles of Berwick.”The tune Tibby Fowler o' the Glen is known to date from at least 1742, although the earliest set of words can only be dated some thirty years later, in 1776, when David Herd published them. The song is also included in later collections that predate Wilson's death and the words to the song were printed on a number of Scottish broadsides.44 In none of these instances is mention made of a Berwick setting for the song. It would seem, therefore, that it was Wilson himself who placed the song into a setting that was familiar to him. Wilson also introduces the story of Polworth on the Green by mentioning an earlier song of the same name.45
Another tale, The Order of the Garter; A Story of Wark Castle, is also based on an actual happening, although Wilson has made it into a local story set at Wark Castle, on the Tweed near Coldstream. The Order of the Garter is an honour presented by the monarch as a reward for military merit. According to legend, the award was created by King Edward III when he retrieved a garter dropped by the Countess of Salisbury and, although Wark Castle was once owned by the Salisbury family, there is nothing to suggest that this was the actual scene of the incident.
Sadly, The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heugh; a tale of the Anglo-Saxons is nothing of the sort. Supposedly written in Latin c.1270 by one Duncan Frasier, the ballad tells of a jealous step-mother who turns her step-daughter into a dragon. It was, like the poems of Ossian, a fake, written by the Reverend Robert Lambe (1712 - 95) of Norham. Did Wilson know this? Perhaps not, because he continues to perpetuate the supposed myth in a footnote to the story.
Interestingly, there is little mention of fairyland in any of Wilson's stories. Witches, wizards, fairies or brownies are hardly seen in the Tales. Surely the story of Thomas the Rhymer, who lived near Melrose and who was taken down into fairyland by the Queen of the fairies, would have been known to Wilson. But there is nothing told about Thomas in the Tales although the belief in fairies was still common in Wilson's days.46 It may be that Wilson's Christianity stopped him from writing about such matter, although strangely enough there is one tale, The Doom of Soulis, which concerns a wizard. The last Lord Soulis lived in Hermitage Castle, a few miles to the south of Hawick. The castle stands in a barren, wind-swept landscape, and it is little wonder that this story should have developed in such a place. Again, Wilson's story is based on a local legend about Soulis and his meetings with the Devil. According to the legend Soulis was finally overcome by his enemies, who wrapped him in sheets of lead before boiling him alive in a cauldron. In Wilson's telling of the story we find a detailed account of how Soulis raised the Devil by means of animal sacrifices. We are also told that Soulis is attacked by people bearing rowan branches, a well-known means of protection against witches. Wilson may have picked this up from Lambe's The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heugh where:
They built a ship without delay,Because it is known:
With masts of the rowan tree,
… that witches have no power,Finally, one story that is attributed to Wilson, The Seven Lights, deals with premonitions of death. It is similar in some ways to the stories of second-sight that we find in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The story does not appear in Wilson's Tales and is attached as Appendix 3.
Where there is rowan-tree wood.
He has left a widow … to depend on the profits of his works for the comforts necessary for her till she sink to rest with him in the grave. Nor are her prospects dark if those who cheered her on in his literary labours still stand by her. His materials are not yet exhausted, and “tales yet untold” are in reserve to keep alive his memory and soothe as far as earthly comforts can her widowed heart…Under the management of Mr James Wilson, her brother-in-law, and Mr Sutherland of 12 Calton Street, Edinburgh, who is now publisher, we trust to see her reap the full reward of his genius and toild whose last hours she sweetened.47Despite a frantic search, following Wilson's death, there were, in fact, no new stories to be found in manuscript form. But the public were clamouring for more Tales and so Wilson's friend James Sinclair, by then a Berwick solicitor, drove out to see Dr Carr of Coldingham, who had previously written The History of Coldingham Abbey. Sinclair persuaded Dr Carr to contribute material to the next issue, number 50, and on the 10th October, only a week after Wilson's death, it was announced that “the Border Tales for the future will be published for behoof of the Widow of John Mackay Wilson, Berwick, by John Sutherland, 12 Carlton Street, Edinburgh. From the Steam-Press of Peter Brown, Printers, Edinburgh. Stereotyped by D Stevenson." Coincidentally , one of John Mackay Wilson's brothers, also called John Wilson, was working as a printer for John Sutherland. John was then aged 26 years and he too died suddenly thirteen months after his elder brother's death.
Sutherland continued to print new editions of the Tales with contributions from several writers. As part of the agreement Sarah Wilson obtained an annuity for her husband's copyrights, which left her financially stable. At first James Wilson, another of John Mackay Wilson's brothers, agreed to help Sutherland. Later, however, Sutherland approached Alexander Leighton to write stories and edit future issues. Leighton was born in Dundee in the year 1800. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University before considering a legal career. However, Leighton seems to have loved writing and he soon found that all his time was taken over by his literary work. In 1864 Leighton produced Mysterious Legends of Edinburgh, a collection of stories published by William P Nimmo. The ten stories are: The Ancient Bureau, The Brownie of the West Bow, Deacon Macgillivray's Disappearance, John Cameron's Life Policy, Lang Sandy Wood's Watch, A Legend of Halkerston's Wynd, Lord Braxfield's Case of the Red Nightcap, Lord Kames's Puzzle, Mrs Corbet's Amputated Toe, and The Strange Story of Sarah Gowanlock. None of these stories appear in Tales of the Borders. He was also the author of The Romance of the Old Town of Edinburgh, The Men and Women of History, Jepth's Daughter and The Tangled Yarn. In 1870 Leighton became a victim of 'a creeping paralysis' which forced him to remain at home and out of sight of his friends. He died in his house in George Street, Edinburgh, on the evening of December 24, 1874.
The Tales soon changed in character when Leighton took over the editorship. The stories were no longer confined to the Border region, but came from all over Scotland. The Tales of Grace Cameron, for example, were set in the West Highlands, while The Widow of Dunskaith was set in Cromarty.
At one point, Sutherland asked another contributor, David Macbeth Moir, known as 'Delta', to take over the editorship. Moir (January 5, 1798, Musselburgh - July 6, 1851, Dumfries) was a Scottish physician and writer. Having obtained a degree in medicine from Edinburgh University in 1816, he entered into partnership with a Musselburgh doctor, where he practiced until his death. Moir contributed to a number of magazines, including Blackwood's Magazine, often signing his contributions with the Greek letter 'Delta'. He was the author of a number of books, including Life of Mansie Waugh, Tailor (1828), Outlines of the Ancient History of Medicine (1831) and Sketch of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half Century (1851). However, Moir felt unable to help Sutherland and referred him to his brother, who was then a clerk in the bank of Sir William Forbes. Young Moir mentioned the matter to his friend Walter Logan, adding, “I have seen Sutherland; but what do you think? He offers me money. I don't write for money." “Don't you?" said Logan “then I will." Walter H. Logan is today, perhaps, best known for his book A Pedlar's Pack of Ballads and Songs (Edinburgh. 1869). A resident of Berwick-upon-Tweed, he was a good friend of the contributor James Maidment - the Pedlar's Pack being dedicated to Maidment, who had lent most of the broadsides to Logan that were used in the book. Logan did take over the reins, contributing tales that filled fifteen complete issues. It was Logan who also persuaded his friends James Maidment and Theodore Martin to contribute to the Tales.
James Maidment (1794, London - 1879, Edinburgh) was called to the Scottish bar, following his education at Edinburgh University. He became the chief authority on Scottish genealogical cases. Maidment was also a keen amateur collector of Scottish folksong and folklore. He published a number of important ballad collections, including A New Book of Old Ballads (Edinburgh, 1844), Scotish Ballads and Songs (Edinburgh, Glasgow & London. 1859), Scotish Ballads and Songs, Historical and Traditionary 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1868) and A Book of Scotish Pasquils. 1568 - 1715 (Edinburgh, 1868). Maidment's stories filled two issues of the Tales.
Theodore Martin (September 16, 1816 - August 18, 1909) was born in Edinburgh and obtained his LLD at Edinburgh University. He remained in Edinburgh, where he practised as a solicitor, until moving to London in 1846 where he continued to work in the legal profession. As a young man he began to contribute article to various magazines, using the alias 'Bon Gaultier'. In 1854 he produced a volume of Bon Gaultier Ballads and then proceeded to make his living as a writer. His Life of the Prince Consort (1874 - 80) earned him a knighthood in 1882. Towards the end of his life he was made Rector of St. Andrews University. Like James Maidment, his contributions to the Tales filled two issues.
Alexander Bethune and John Bethune
Alexander and John Bethune were brothers, the sons of an agricultural worker, and were born at Upper Ronkeillour in the parish of Monimall, Fife. Alexander was born in 1804 and John in 1812. Alexander began working in the fields when he was nine years old, while John later became an apprentice weaver at Collessie. In 1825 John set up a loom in his home at Lochend, near the Loch of Lindores, and took Alexander on as an apprentice. However, the scheme did not succeed and both brothers returned to the fields, earning a shilling a day. Shortly afterwards Alexander began working in a quarry, but was seriously injured in an explosion in 1829. Three years later he was injured again and remained a cripple for the rest of his life. In spite of their complete lack of education and the hardships of their lives, the brothers wrote prolifically and by 1831 John had made a reputation for himself as a writer. In 1838 Alexander wrote Tales and Sketches of Scottish Peasantry. John died in 1839, aged only 27 years. After his brother's death, Alexander published John's poems, and a biographical sketch of his life. The book was a success and Alexander was offered the editorship of the Dunfries Standard. But, he too had become frail and he died four years after his brother in 1843.
Matthew Forster Conolly
Matthew Forster Conolly was a solicitor who became Town Clerk of Anstruther, Fife.
Professor Thomas Gillespie c.1843/44
The Reverend Professor Thomas Gillespie DD (1777 - September 11, 1844) was born in the Parish of Closeburn, Dumfries-shire. He studied Divinity at Edinburgh University and became a preacher in Fife. He later became professor of Humanity at St. Andrews University.
It would be tempting to suggest that these stories were from the pen of the writer and musician Alexander Campbell (1764 - 1824), who tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to teach music to a young Walter Scott (1771 - 1832). Campbell is best known for his two volume set of Highland songs and poems Albyn's Anthology (1816). However, as Alexander Leighton appears to suggest that the Alexander Campbell who contributed to the Tales was alive in 1857, we must assume that this person was not the same Alexander Campbell who composed the Albyn's Anthology.
William Hetherington, D.D.
Possibly William Maxwell Hetherington DD LL.B who wrote and edited a number of theological works.
John Howell (1788 - 1863) lived in Edinburgh all his life. He had various occupations, including shop assistant (c.1810 - 15), bookbinder (1819 - 25), and dealer in antiquities and/or “polyartist” (1827 - 34). Howell produced a number of books, including An Essay on the War Galleys of the Ancients (Edinburgh. 1829), The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk (Edinburgh. 1829) and The Life of Alexander Alexander (Edinburgh. 1830). Howell was also an 'inventor', although some of his ideas (including an attempt to fly, and his mechanically aided machine for walking on water) came to nothing. According to one friend, Howell was “a person who seemed to know a little of everything, yet failed in most of his inventions”. (It could be that the semi-anonymous 'J.H', who contributed one tale, could also be John Howell.)
Maxwell is probably identical to a person of that name who contributed to the following work: The Poetical Works of Miss Susanna Blamire “The Muse of Cumbria” Collected by Henry Lonsdale M.D. with a Preface, memoir and notes by Patrick Maxwell. Edinburgh. John Menzies. 1842.
Although best known as a geologist and expert on the Old Red Sandstone, Hugh Miller (1802, Cromarty - 1856, Portobello) was also one of Scotland's earliest folklorists. His book Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland (1835, expanded 1850) is still in print today. His death, by his own hand, was brought about by over-work.
There are a number of people with this name who could possibly be considered as the author of this one tale. For example, there was a bookseller called Alexander Peterkin who lived in Huntingdon and who was painted in 1830 by T Arowsmith. However, it seems more likely to have been an Alexander Peterkin who died in 1846. This Peterkin was a native of Macduff, Banffshire, where his father was parish minister. Peterkin attended Edinburgh University and qualified as a solicitor in 1811. As he was once Sheriff-Substitute of Orkney he was probably the author of the book Notes on Orkney and Zetland that appeared in 1822. Apparently Peterkin spent much of his life 'journalising'. He edited an edition of Robert Ferguson's Poems (1807) and issued a reprint of the Currie edition of Burns' works, to which he added a new preface (1815). He may also have been responsible for editing a work on Scottish church history, Covenanted General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (1838).
I am unable to identify Richardson.
J F Smith
Smith is mentioned as a contributor by James Tait. It seems likely that he is identical to the writer of that name who contributed 'penny dreadfuls' to the London Journal and Weekly Record during the period 1848 - 1873. One story, The Chronicles of Stanfield Hall was based on the true 1848 murder of Isaac Jeremy by James Bloomfield Rush.
Rev G Thomson
I am unable to identify Thomson.
2. From To Readers, in Tales of the Borders, number 48. This flowery notification of Wilson's death begins: 'It is our painful duty to send around the land the tidings of the lamented death of Mr JOHN MACKAY WILSON, the Author of these Tales. This event has come upon us at an hour when, in truth, 'we looked not for it'. That grim messenger, whose afflicting visits he has so often affectingly described, has borne his irresistible demand upon him - thrown the gloom of desolation over the bright scene that was expanding before his eyes - and left, in darkness and in sorrow, his bereaved and afflicted friends.'
3. The Tweed near Berwick by John MacKay Wilson, written in 1834 in Tweedmouth. The poem was first printed in a copy of the Berwick Grammar School Magazine c.1965 by George Laidler, who had discovered the autographed poem written in a scrapbook belonging to his maternal grandfather, Thomas Barker (1816 - 1878), of Berwick.
4. John Mackay Wilson. Letter to James Everett 21st October, 1834. The Wilson/Everett correspondence quoted here is to be found in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, under mss collection reference MS 11000, folio 77.257-68.
5. Ibid. The 'Ashton man' was probably a follower of Alexander Kilham, a controversial Methodist from Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire, who advocated, amongst other things, that the Methodist church should be separate from the Church of England. Jabez Bunting (13th May, 1779 - 16th June, 1858) was appointed President of the first Wesleyan Theological College in 1835.
6. Sarah Siddon (1775 - 1831) was possibly the best known tragedienne of the 18th century.
7. From To Readers, in Tales of the Borders, number 48.
8. John Mackay Wilson. Letter to James Everett, 4th February, 1832.
10. Ibid. For a history of Colburn & Bentley, see: Royal A; Gettmann A Victorian Publisher - A Study of the Bentley Papers, Cambridge University Press, 1960.
13. John Mackay Wilson. Letter to James Everett, 26th February, 1832.
16. Robert Rawlinson. Report to the General Board of Health on a Preliminary Inquiry into the Sewerage, Drainage, and Supply of Water, and the Sanitary Conditions of the Inhabitants of the Parish of Berwick-upon-Tweed, in the County of the Borough and Town of the Same, including the Townships of Tweedmouth and Spittal. London. 1850. W Clowes & Sons, Stamford Street, for Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
17. John MacKay Wilson. Letter to James Everett, 26th November, 1832.
21. Ibid. I have seen it suggested that the novel mentioned here may have been The Recreations of Christopher North that was published in three volumes in 1842 by William Blackwood & Sons of Edinburgh and London. This work was actually written by another John Wilson, one who was born in Paisley on 18th May, 1785 and who died in Edinburgh on 3rd April, 1854.
23. Macaulay is quoted in The Oxford History of Britain edited by Kenneth O Morgan, Oxford. Updated edition, 1993. p.473.
24. E.P.Thompson The Making of the English Working Class 1963. Penguin edition 1976. p.195.
25. John MacKay Wilson. Letter to James Everett, 1st January, 1834.
26. John MacKay Wilson. Letter to James Everett, 15th April, 1834.
27. John MacKay Wilson. Letter to James Everett, 1st January, 1834.
29. John MacKay Wilson. Letter to James Everett, 15th April, 1834.
34. John MacKay Wilson. Letter to James Everett, 21st October, 1834.
36. Literary Gazette, 788 (25 Feb 1832), 121 - 23.
37. Sir Walter Scott died on 21st September, 1832.
38. This story was told to me in 2007 by an elderly resident of Tweedmouth, who had heard the story from his grandfather.
39. James Tait, Wilson's Tales of the Borders, Edinburgh. 1881. p.xxvi.
40. According to James Tait, a former editor of the Kelso Chronicle, 'During the first eleven months, the Tales were written almost wholly by John Mackay Wilson.' (Ibid) Tait, so far as I can see, is the only person to suggest that Wilson may not have written all the Tales that were printed prior to his death.
41. Basil Skinner. Extract from a paper delivered at a study-conference in Melrose on 14th November, 1971. Effie & Jeannie Deans are characters in Scotts' novel The Heart of Midlothian, while the Laird of Ellangowan & Meg Merrilles appear in his novel Guy Mannering.
42. The History of Berwick Upon Tweed, including a short account of the villages of Tweedmouth and Spittal, &. John Fuller, MD. Edinburgh, 1799.
43. Interest in Border Gypsies was widespread in Wilson's days. See, for example, The Scottish Gipsy's Advocate (Being a Short Account of the Gipsies of Kirk Yetholm) by John Baird. Edinburgh. 1839.
44. Alan Ramsay prints the tune to the words 'Genty Tibby and Sonsy Nancy'in his Tea-Table Miscellany (1724). Versions of the song 'Tibby Fowler o' the Glen' can be found in collections such as David Herd's The Ancient and Modern Scots Songs (1769 - 76). James Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum, Smith's Scotish Minstrel (1820 - 24), Robert Chamber's Songs of Scotland Prior to Burns, R H Cromeck's Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song (1810). The song was also printed on early 19th century Scottish broadsides by Randall of Stirling and Johnston of Falkirk.
45. Versions of the song Polworth (or Polwart) on the Green are included in David Herd's The Ancient and Modern Scots Songs (1769 - 76), William Napier's Favorite Scots Songs (1790), The Scots Minstrel (Anon. 1813) and Smith's Scottish Minstrel (1820 - 24). The words were also printed on an early 19th century broadside issued by W & T Fordyce of Newcastle.
46. See, for example, Scottish Fairy Belief by Lizanne Henderson and Edward J Cowan. East Linton, 2001.
47. From the obituary to John MacKay Wilson in number 49 of the Tales.
Anon (9 tales)
The Battle of Dryffe Sands - 15
The Convict - 22
The Cottar's Daughter - 15
David Lorimer - 22
Guilty, or Not Guilty - 6
The Happy Conclusion - 16
The Mysterious Disappearance - 16
The Sea Fight - 19
The Sea Skirmish - 20
Alexander Bethune (4 tales)
The Ghost of Cairyburn - 11
The Ghost of Howdycraigs - 11
The Warning - 15
The Young Laird - 3
John Bethune (1 tale)
The Bewildered Student - 10
Alexander Campbell ( 40 tales)
The Assassin - 18
Autobiography of Willie Smith - 3
The Barley Bannock - 20
Chatelard - 9
The Countess of Cassilis - 16
The Countess of Wistonbury - 1
The Curate of Govan - 15
The Curse of Scotland - 19
Doctor Dobbie - 21
The Disaster of Johnny Armstrong - 1
Donald Gorm - 2
The Dream - 13
Duncan M'Arthur - 8
The Floshed Inn - 13
The Forger - 12
The Foundling at Sea - 18
The Good Man of Dryfield - 8
Grace Cameron - 16
The Hawick Spate - 19
The Highland Boy - 5
A Highland Tradition - 17
The Katheran - 4
Lady Rae - 22
The Laird of Lucky's How - 9
Leein Jamie Murdieston - 8
The Lord of Hermitage - 19
The Merchant's Daughter - 21
The Monk of Dryburgh - 4
The Monk of St. Anthony - 4
The Mosstrooper - 12
The Penny Wedding - 7
Rattling, Roaring Willie - 5
The Recluse - 17
Retribution - 14
The Royal Nightcaps - 3
The Skean Dhu - 14
The Snow Storm of 1825 - 6
The Stone -Breaker - 18
The Surtout - 11
The Two Comrades - 11
Matthew Forster Conolly (5 tales)
Tales of the East Neuk of Fife: The Castle of Crail; or, King David and Maud - 10
Tales of the East Neuk of Fife: The Legend of the Church of Abercrombie - 10
Tales of the East Neuk of Fife: The Robbery at Pittenweem and the Porteous Mob - 17
Tales of the East Neuk of Fife: The Romance of the May - 10
Tales of the East Neuk of Fife: Story of Charles Gordon and Christina Cunningham - 17
Professor Thomas Gillespie (47 tales)
The Convivialists - 2
Dura Den; or, Second Thoughts are Best - 9
Early Recollection of a Son of the Hills - 4
The Enthusiast - 14
The Fair Maid of Cellardykes - 1
Family Incidents - 7
Gleanings of the Covenant. Bonny Mary Gibson - 16
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Cairny Cave of Gavin Muir - 17
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Covenanters' March - 15
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Curlers - 18
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Douglas Tragedy - 16
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Early Days of a Friend of the Covenant - 21
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Eskdalemuir Story - 16
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Fatal Mistake - 16
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Grandmother's Narrative - 15
Gleanings of the Covenant. Helen Palmer - 17
Gleanings of the Covenant. James Renwick - 18
Gleanings of the Covenant. John Govan's Narrative - 20
Gleanings of the Covenant. Kinaldy - 19
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Last Scrap - 23
Gleanings of the Covenant. “Old Bluntie” - 20
Gleanings of the Covenant. Old Isbel Kirk - 18
Gleanings of the Covenant. Peden's Farewell Sermon - 15
Gleanings of the Covenant. Porter's Hole - 17
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Persecution of the M'Michaels - 15
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Rescue at Enterkin - 16
Gleanings of the Covenant. Sergeant Wilson - 17
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Shoes Reversed - 20
Gleanings of the Covenant. Thomas Harkness of Lockberry - 20
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Trials of the Rev Samuel Austin - 19
Gleanings of the Covenant. The Violated Coffin - 18
Home and the Gipsy Maid - 7
Kirkyards - 14
The Last of the Pedlars - 5
The Medal - 10
The Mistake Rectfied - 9
The Mountain Storm - 1
The Natural History of Idiots - 13
Peat-Casting Time - 10
Pheebe Fortune - 3
Philips Grey - 2
The Return - 7
The Social Man - 11
The Suicide's Grave - 4
The Three Brethren - 9
Trees and Burns - 14
The Wedding - 12
William Hetherington, D.D. (1 tale)
The Seer's Cave - 6
J H (1 tale)
The Laird of Darnick Tower - 7
John Howell (14 tales)
The Experimenter - 3
The Fortunes of William Wighton - 2
A Legend of Calder Muir - 17
Major Weir's Coach - 5
The Man of War's Man - 16
The Prisoner of War - 18
The Scottish Veteran - 12
The Sergeant's Tales: The Palantines - 6
The Sergeant's Tales: The Beggar's Camp - 8
The Sergeant's Tales: The Imprudent Marriage - 10
The Sergeant's Tales: The John Square's Voyage to India - 7
The Sergeant's Tales: The Packman's Journey to London - 9
The Seven Years' Death - 14
The Slave - 4
Alexander Leighton (79 tales)
The Abduction - 9
The Amateur Lawyers - 7
The Amateur Robbery - 22
The Avenger; or, The Legend of Mary Lee - 19
The Bride of Bell's Tower - 21
The Bride of Bramblehaugh - 18
The Burgher's Tales: The Ancient Bureau - 22
The Burgher's Tales: The Brownie of the West Bow - 23
The Burgher's Tales: The House in Bell's Wynd - 21
Caleb Crabbin - 10
Christie of the Cleek - 9
The Clerical Murderer - 15
The Contrast of Wives - 11
The Cradle of Logie - 23
The Crooked Comyn - 10
The Detective's Tale: The Chance Question - 21
The Diamond Eyes - 22
The Domestic Griefs of Gustavus M'Iver - 19
The Dominie of St. Fillans - 20
The Droich - 7
Duncan Schulebred's Vision of Judgement - 5
The Faithful Wife - 23
Geordie Willison, and the Heiress of Castle Gower - 6
The Girl Forger - 23
Harden's Revenge - 8
The Heroine: A Legend of the Canongate - 20
Hogmanay; or, The Lady of Ballochgray - 17
Hume and the Govenor of Berwick - 17
Kate Kennedy - 1
Laird Rorieson's Will - 18
The Lawyer's Tales: Lord Kames's Puzzle - 23
The Lawyer's Tales: The Story of Mysie Craig - 23
The Lawyer's Tales: The Woman with the White Mice - 21
A Legend of Hollyrood - 14
The Legend of Fair Helen of Kirconnel - 9
The Linton Lairds, or Exclusive and Inclusive - 4
Lord Durie and Christie's Will - 2
The Maiden Feast of Cairnkibbie - 4
Mike Maxwell and the Gretna Green Lovers - 12
The Minstrel's Tales: The Ballad of Age and Youth - 24
The Minstrel's Tales: The Ballad of Ailie Faa - 24
The Minstrel's Tales: The Legend of Allerley Hall - 24
The Minstrel's Tales: The Legend of Craigullan - 24
The Minstrel's Tales: The Legend of the Fair Emergilde - 24
The Minstrel's Tales: The Legend of the Lady Katharine - 24
The Minstrel's Tales: The Legend of Mary Lee - 24
The Minstrel's Tales: The Romaunt of the Castle of Weir - 24
The Minstrel's Tales: The Romaunt of St. Mary's Wyne - 24
The Minstrel's Tales: The Romaunt of Sir Peregrine and the Lady Etheline - 24
The Miser of Newabbey - 20
Mr Samuel Ramsay Thriven: A Tale of Love and Bankruptcy - 16
The Old Chronicler's Tales: The Death of James l - 15
The Old Chronicler's Tales: The Death of James lll - 16
The Old Chronicler's Tales: The Prince of Scotland - 14
Prescription: or, The 29th of September - 1
The Romance of the Siege of Perth - 10
Roseallan's Daughter - 13
The Royal Raid - 3
The Sportsman of Outfieldhaugh - 19
The Story of Mary Brown - 23
The Story of the Pelican - 23
The Surgeon's Tale: The Artist - 8
The Surgeon's Tale: The Bereaved - 17
The Surgeon's Tale: The Case of Evidence - 15
The Surgeon's Tale: The Cherry-Stone - 8
The Surgeon's Tale: The Condemned - 17
The Surgeon's Tale: The Conscience Stricken - 5
The Surgeon's Tale: The Cured Ingrate - 2
The Surgeon's Tale: The Diver and the Bell - 3
The Surgeon's Tale: The Glass Back - 12
The Surgeon's Tale: The Henwife - 8
The Surgeon's Tale: The Monomaniac - 18
The Surgeon's Tale: The Somnambulist of Redcleugh - 6
The Surgeon's Tale: The Suicide - 11
The Surgeon's Tale: The Three Letters - 12
The Surgeon's Tale: The Wager - 21
The Ten of Diamonds - 22
The Trials of Menie Dempster - 13
The Two Red Slippers - 23
Walter Logan (4 tales)
The Double-Bedded Room - 5
Ellen Arundel - 9
The Recluse of the Hebrides - 9
The Story of Clara Douglas - 4
James Maidment (3 tales)
The Cateran of Lochloy - 7
The Heir of Inshannock - 12
Mortlake: A Legend of Merton - 8
Theodore Martin (2 tales)
Bon Gaultier's Tales: Country Quarters - 4
Bon Gaultier's Tales: Mrs Humphrey Greenwood's Tea-Party - 9
Patrick Maxwell (1 tale)
The White Woman of Tarras - 12
Hugh Miller (8 tales)
Bill Whyte - 5
The Lykewake - 7
Recollections of Burns - 2
Recollections of Ferguson - 1
The Salmon-Fisher of Udoll - 4
The Scottish Hunters of Hudson's Bay - 12
Thomas of Chartres - 18
Widow of Dunskaith - 3
David M.0 Moir, 'Delta' (1 tale)
The Divinity Student - 5
Alexander Peterkin (1 tale)
The Parsonage: My Father's Fireside - 6
Oliver Richardson (11 tales)
The Angler's Tale - 16
The Dissolved Pledge - 19
The Duncan's Yarn - 9
The Meeting at St. Boswell's - 10
The Physiognomist's Tale - 8
The Restored Son - 14
The Rothesay Fisherman - 6
The School-Fellows - 11
The Sea-Storm - 12
The Story of Tom Bertram - 15
The Two Sailors - 13
Rev G Thomson (1 tale)
The Lost Heir of the House of Elphinstone - 20
John Mackay Wilson (66 tales)
The Adopted Son - 2
Archie Armstong - 5
Bill Stanley; or, A Sailor's Story - 5
The Bride - 8
The Broken Heart. A Tale of the Rebellion - 7
Charles Lawson - 9
The Covenanting Family - 14
The Cripple; or, Ebenezer the Disowned - 9
The Death of the Chevalier de la Beauté - 23
The Dominie and the Souter. The Dominie's Courtship - 13
The Dominie and the Souter. The Souter's Wedding - 13
The Dominie's Class - 11
The Doom of Soulis - 8
The Faa's Revenge - 1
The Fair - 4
The Festival - 14
The First-Foot - 10
The First and Second Marriage - 19
The Fugitive - 18
Grizel Cochrane. A Tale of Tweedmouth Muir - 15
The Guidwife of Coldingham - 6
The Henpecked man - 8
I Canna be Fashed; or, Willie Grant's Confessions - 10
The Irish Reaper - 16
Judith the Egyptian; or, The Fate of the Heir of Riccon - 7
The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heugh - 6
Leaves from the Diary of an Aged Spinster - 6
Leaves from the Life of Alexander Hamilton - 19
The Leveller - 16
Lottery Hall - 13
Midside Maggie; or, The Bannock o' Tollishill - 1
The Minstrel's Tales: Edmund and Helen - 24
The Minstrel's Tales: The Hermit of the Hill - 24
My Black Coat; or, The Breaking of the Bride's China - 2
The Order of the Garter. A Story of Wark Castle - 14
The Orphan - 23
Perseverance; or, The Autobiography of Roderic Gray - 16
Polworth on the Green - 14
The Poor Scholar - 7
The Procrastinator - 22
The Prodigal Son - 21
The Recollections of a Village Patriarch - 15
The Red Hall; or, Berwick in 1296 - 11
Roger Goldie's Narrative - 17
The Royal Bridal - 3
Ruben Purves; or, the Speculator - 12
The Sabbath Wrecks - 6
Sayings and Doings of Peter Paterson - 20
The Seeker - 21
The Simple Man is the Beggar's Brother - 17
Sir Patrick Hume: A Tale of the House of Marchmont - 9
The Smuggler - 11
The Solitary of the Cave - 4
Squire Ben - 15
Tibby Fowler - 23
Trials and Triumphs - 20
The Twin Brothers - 23
The Unbidden Guest - 17
The Unknown - 13
Ups and Downs; or, David Stuart's Account of his Pilgrimage - 22
The Vacant Chair - 1
We'll Have Another - 12
The Whitsome Tragedy - 3
The Widow's Ae Son - 23
A Wife or The Wuddy - 2
Willie Wastle's Account of His Wife - 18
1857 - 59: Tales of the Borders and of Scotland; Historical, Traditionary and Imaginative. Edited by John MacKay Wilson. New Edition. Revised by Alexander Leighton. Edinburgh. William P Nimmo. 20 parts (in 10 volumes).
1869: Wilson's Tales of the Borders, and of Scotland. Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginary. Revised by Alexander Leighton, one of the Original Editors and Contributors. The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd., London and Felling-on-Tyne. 1869. 24 volumes.
1881: Wilson's Tales of the Borders. Selected and edited, with biographical notice of the contributors, by James Tait. Edinburgh. Joseph Irving. 1881.
c.late 1800s : Tales of the Borders and of Scotland; historical, traditionary and : imaginative by John MacKay Wilson. Henry J. Johnson, 27, Beeker Street, New York.
1895: The Vacant Chair; and Other Tales by John Mackay Wilson (and others). London: and Edinburgh. Gall and Inglis.
1907: Tales of the Borders with Illustrative Scenes and Incidents. Edinburgh. Gall & Inglis. nd .
1934: Wilson's Tales of the Borders. A Selection. The Moray Press. Edinburgh. 1934.
1947: Wilson's Tales of the Borders, and of Scotland. Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginary. Introduction by T Henderson. The Etterick Press Ltd. 1947.
1991: Tales of the Borders. Ediited by Michael Brander. Mainstream. 1991. Contains 12 selected tales.
Unknown: Wilson's Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative Tales of the Borders, and of Scotland. Glasgow. John McGready.
To the vagrant beggar his house and meal-chest were ever open; and to no one, whatever his condition, were a night's quarters ever refused. M'Pherson's house, in short, formed a kind of focus, with a power to draw towards itself all the misery and poverty in the country within a circle whose diameter might be reckoned at somewhere about twenty miles. The wandering mendicant made it one of his regular stages, and the traveller of better degree toiled on his way with increased activity, that he might make it his quarters for the night.
Fortunately for the character and credit of M'Pherson's hospitality, his wife was of an equally kind and generous disposition with himself; so that his absences from home, which were frequent, and sometimes long, did not at all affect the treatment of the stranger under his roof, or make his welcome less cordial.
But the hospitality exercised at Morvane, which was the name of M'Pherson's farm, sometimes, it must be confessed, led to occasional small depredations - such as the loss of a pair of blankets, a sheet, or a pair of stockings, carried off by the ungrateful vagabonds whom he sometimes sheltered. There were, however, one pair of blankets abstracted in this way, that found their road back to their owner in rather a curious manner.
The morning was thick and misty, when the thief (in the case alluded to) decamped with his booty, and continued so during the whole day, so that no object, at any distance, however large, could be seen. After toiling for several hours, under the impression that he was leaving Morvane far behind, the vagabond, who was also a stranger in the country, approached a house, with the stolen blankets snugly and carefully bundled on his back, and knocked at the door, with the view of seeking a night's quarters, as it was now dusk. The door was opened; but by whom, think you, good reader? Why, by M'Pherson!
The thief, without knowing it, had landed precisely at the point from which he had set out. Being instantly recognised, he was politely invited to walk in. To this kind invitation, the thief replied by throwing down the blankets, and taking to his heels - thus making, with his own hands, a restitution which was very far from being intended. Poor M'Pherson, however, did not get all his stolen blankets back in this way.
This, however, is a digression. To proceed with our tale. One night, when M'Pherson was absent, attending a market at some distance, an elderly female appeared at the door, with the usual demand of a night's lodging, which, with the usual hospitality of Morvane, was at once complied with. The stranger, who was a remarkably tall woman, was dressed in widow's weeds, and of rather respectable appearance; her deportment was grave, even stern, and altogether she seemed as if suffering from some recent affliction.
During the whole of the early part of the evening she sat before the fire, with her face buried between her hands, heedless of what was passing around her, and was occasionally observed rocking to and fro, with that kind of motion that bespeaks great internal anguish. It was noticed, however, that she occasionally stole a look at those who were in the apartment with her; and it was marked by all (but whether this was merely the effect of imagination, for all felt that there was something singular and mysterious about the stranger, or was really the case, we cannot decide) that, in these furtive glances, there was a peculiarly wild and appalling expression. The stranger spoke none, however, during the whole night; but continued, from time to time, rocking to and fro in the manner already described. Neither could she be prevailed upon to partake of any refreshment, although repeatedly pressed to do so. All invitations of this kind she declined, with a wave of the hand, or a melancholy, yet determined inclination of the head. In words she made no reply.
The singular conduct of this woman threw a damp over all who were present. They felt chilled, they knew not how; and were sensible of the influence of an indefinable terror, for which they could not account. For once, therefore, the feeling of comfort and security, of which all were conscious who were seated around M'Pherson's cheerful and hospitable hearth, was banished, and a scene of awe and dread supplied its place.
No one could conjecture who this strange personage was, whence she had come, nor whither she was going; nor were there any means of acquiring this information, as it was a rule of the house - one of M'Pherson's special points of etiquette - that no stranger should ever be questioned on such subjects. All being allowed to depart as they came, without question or inquiry, there was never anything more known at Morvane, regarding any stranger who visited it, than what he himself chose to communicate.
Under the painful feelings already described, the inmates of M'Pherson's house found, with more than usual satisfaction, the hour for retiring to rest arrive. The general attention being called to this circumstance by the hostess, everyone hastened to his appointed dormitory, with an alacrity which but too plainly showed how glad they were to escape from the presence of the mysterious stranger who, however, also retired to bed with the rest. The place appointed for her to sleep in, was the loft of an outbuilding, as there was no room for her accommodation within the house itself; all the spare beds being occupied.
We have already said that M'Pherson was from home on the evening of which we are speaking, attending a market at some distance. He, however, returned shortly after midnight. On arriving at his own house, he was much surprised, and not a little alarmed, to perceive a window in one of the outhouses blazing with light (it was that in which the stranger slept), while all around and within the house was as silent as the tomb. Afraid that some accident from fire had taken place, he rode up to the building, and standing up in his stirrups - which brought his head on a level with the window - looked in, when a sight presented itself that made even the stout heart of M'Pherson beat with unusual violence.
In the middle of the floor, extended on her pallet, lay the mysterious stranger, surrounded by seven bright and shining lights, arranged at equal distances - three on one side of the bed, three on the other, and one at the head. M'Pherson gazed steadily at the extraordinary and appalling sight for a few seconds, when three of the lights suddenly vanished. In an instant afterwards, two more disappeared, and then another. There was now only that at the head of the bed remaining. When this light had alone been left, M'Pherson saw the person who lay on the pallet, raise herself slowly up, and gaze intently on the portentous beam, whose light showed, to the terrified onlooker, a ghastly and unearthly countenance, surrounded with dishevelled hair, which hung down in long, thick, irregular masses over her pale, clayey visage, so as almost to conceal it entirely. This light, like all the others, at length suddenly disappeared, and with its last gleam the person on the couch sank down with a groan that startled M'Pherson from the trance of horror into which the extraordinary sight had thrown him. He was a bold and fearless man, however; and, therefore, though certainly appalled by what he had seen, he made no outcry, nor evinced any other symptom of alarm. He resolutely and calmly awaited the conclusion of the extraordinary scene; and when the last light had disappeared, he deliberately dismounted, led his horse into the stable, put him up, entered the house without disturbing any one, and slipped quietly into bed, trusting that the morning would bring some explanation of the mysterious occurrence of the night; but resolving, at the same time that, if it should not, he would mention the circumstance to no one.
On awaking in the morning, M'Pherson asked his wife what strangers were in the house, and how they were disposed of, and particularly, who it was that slept in the loft of the outhouse. He was told that it was a woman in widow's dress, of rather a respectable appearance, but whose conduct had been very singular. M'Pherson inquired no further, but desired that the woman might be detained till he should see her, as he wished to speak with her.
On some one of the domestics, however, going up to her apartment, shortly after, to invite her to breakfast, it was found that she was gone, no one could tell when or where, as her departure had not been seen by any person about the house.
Baulked in his intention of eliciting some explanation of the extraordinary circumstance of the preceding night, from the person who seemed to have been a party to it, M'Pherson became more strengthened in the resolution of keeping the secret to himself, although it made an impression upon him which all his natural strength of mind could not remove.
At this precise period of our story, M'Pherson had three sons employed in the herring fishing, a favourite pursuit in its season, because often a lucrative one, of those who live upon or near the coasts of the West Highlands.
The three brothers had a boat of their own; and, desirous of making their employment as profitable as possible, they, though in sufficiently good circumstances to have hired assistance, manned her themselves, and, with laudable industry, performed all the drudgery of their laborious occupation with their own hands.
Their boat, like all the others employed in the business we are speaking of, by the natives of the Highlands, was wherry-rigged; her name - she was called after the betrothed of the elder of the three brothers - The Catherine. The take of herrings, as it is called, it is well known, appears in different seasons in different places, sometimes in one loch, or arm of the sea, sometimes in another.
In the season to which our story refers, the fishing was in the sound of Kilbrannan, where several scores of boats, and amongst those that of the M'Phersons, were busily employed in reaping the ocean harvest. When the take of herrings appears in this sound, Campbelton Loch, a well-known harbour on the west coast of Scotland, is usually made the headquarters - a place of rendezvous of the little herring fleet - and to this loch they always repair when threatened with a boisterous night, although it was not always that they could, in such circumstances, succeed in making it.
Such a night as the one alluded to, was that that succeeded the evening on which M'Pherson saw the strange lights that form the leading feature of our tale. Violent gusts of wind came in rapid succession down the sound of Kilbrannan; and a skifting rain, flung fitfully but fiercely from the huge black clouds as they hurried along before the tempest that already raged above, swept over the face of the angry sea, and seemed to impart an additional bitterness to the rising wrath of the incipient storm. It was evident, in short, that what sailors call a "dirty night" was approaching; and, under this impression, the herring boats left their station, and were seen, in the dusk of the evening in question, hurrying towards Campbelton Loch. But the storm had arisen in all its fury long before the desired haven could be gained. The little fleet was dispersed. Some succeeded, however, in making the harbour; others, finding this impossible, ran in for the Saddle and Carradale shores, and were fortunate enough to effect a landing. All, in short, with the exception of one single boat, ultimately contrived to gain a place of shelter of some kind. This unhappy exception was The Catherine. Long after all the others had disappeared from the face of the raging sea, she was seen struggling alone with the warring elements, her canvas down to within a few feet of her gunwale, and her keel only at times being visible. The gallant brothers who manned her, however, had not yet lost either heart or hope, although their situation at this moment was but too well calculated to deprive them of both. Gravely and steadily, and in profound silence, they kept each by his perilous post, and endeavoured to make the land on the Campbelton side; but, finding this impossible, they put about, and ran before the wind for the island of Arran, which lay at the distance of about eight miles. But alarmed, as they approached that rugged shore, by the tremendous sea which was breaking on it, and which would have instantly dashed their frail bark to pieces, they again put about, and made to windward. While the hardy brothers were thus contending with their fate, a person mounted on horseback was seen galloping wildly along the Carradale shore, his eyes ever and anon turned towards the struggling boat with a look of despair and mortal agony. It was M'Pherson, the hapless father of the unfortunate youths by whom she was manned. There were others, too, of their kindred, looking, with failing hearts, on the dreadful sight; for all felt that the unequal contest could not continue long, and that the boat must eventually go down.
Amongst those who were thus watching, with intense interest and speechless agony, the struggle of the doomed bark, was Catherine, the beloved of the elder of the brothers, who ran, in wild distraction, along the shore, uttering the most heart-rending cries. "Oh, my Duncan!" she exclaimed, stretching out her arms towards the pitiless sea. "Oh, my beloved, my dearest, come to me, or allow me to come to you that I may perish with you!" But Duncan heard her not, although it was very possible he might see her, as the distance was not great.
There were, at this moment also, several persons on horseback, friends of the young men, galloping along the shore, from point to point, as the boat varied her direction, in the vain and desperate hope of being able to render, though they knew not how, some assistance to the sufferers. But the distracted father, urged on by the wild energy of despair, outrode them all, as they made, on one occasion, for a rising ground near Carradale, from whence a wider view of the sea could be commanded. For this height M'Pherson now pushed, and gained it just in time to see his gallant sons, with their little bark, buried in the waves. He had not taken his station an instant on the height, when The Catherine went down, and all on board perished.
The distracted father, when he had seen the last of his unfortunate sons, covered his eyes with his hands, and for a moment gave way to the bitter agony that racked his soul. His manly breast heaved with emotion, and that most affecting of all sounds, the audible sorrowing of a strong man, might have been heard at a great distance. It was, however, of short continuance. M'Pherson prayed to his God to strengthen him in this dread hour of trial, and to enable him to bear with becoming fortitude the affliction with which it had pleased Him to visit him; and the distressed man derived comfort from the appeal.
"My brave, my beautiful boys!" he said, "you are now with your God, and have entered, I trust, on a life of everlasting happiness." Saying this, he rode slowly from the fatal spot from which he had witnessed the death of his children. It was at this moment, and while musing on the misfortune that had befallen him, that the strange occurrence of the preceding night recurred, for the first time, to M'Pherson's mind. It was obtruded on his recollection by the force of association.
"Can it be possible," he inquired of himself, "that the appearances of last night can have any connection with the dreadful events of to-day? It must be so," he said; "for three of the lights of my eyes, three of the guiding stars of my life, have been this day extinguished." Thus reasoned M'Pherson; and, in the mysterious lights which he had seen, he saw that the doom of his children had been announced. But there were seven, he recollected, and his heart sunk within him as he thought of the three gallant boys who were still spared to him. One of them, the youngest, was at home with himself, the other two were in the Army - soldiers in the 42nd Regiment, which then boasted of many privates of birth and education. M'Pherson, however, still kept the appalling secret of the mysterious lights to himself, and determined to await, with resignation, the fulfilment of the destiny which had been read to him, and which he now felt convinced to be inevitable.
The gallant regiment to which M'Pherson's sons belonged was, at this period, abroad on active service. It was in America, and formed a part of the army which was employed in resisting the encroachments of the French on the British territories in that quarter.
The 42nd had, during the campaigns in the western world of that period - viz. 1754 and 1758, - distinguished themselves in many a sanguinary contest, for their singular bravery and general good conduct; and the fame of their exploits rung through their native glens, and was spread far and wide over their hills and mountains; for dear was the honour of their gallant regiment to the warlike Highlanders. Many accounts had arrived, from time to time, in the country, of their achievements, and joyfully were they received. But, on the very day after the loss of The Catherine, a low murmur began to arise, in that part of the country which is the scene of our story, of some dreadful disaster having befallen the national regiment. No one could say of what nature this calamity was; but a buzz went round, whose ominous whispering of fearful slaughter made the friends of the absent soldiers turn pale. Mothers and sisters wept, and fathers and brothers looked grave and shook their heads. The rumour bore that, though there had been no loss of honour, there had been a dreadful loss of life. Nay, it was said that the regiment had made a mighty acquisition to its fame, but that it had been dearly bought.
At length, however, the truth arrived, in a distinct and intelligible shape. The well-known and sanguinary affair of Ticonderago had been fought; and, in that murderous contest, the 42nd Regiment, which had behaved with a gallantry unmatched before in the annals of war, had suffered dreadfully - no less than forty-three officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, and six hundred and three privates having been killed and wounded in that corps alone.
To many a heart and home in the Highlands did this disastrous, though glorious intelligence, bring desolation and mourning; and amongst those on whom it brought these dismal effects, was M'Pherson of Morvane.
On the third day after the occurrence of the events related at the outset of our narrative, a letter, which had come, in the first instance, to a gentleman in the neighbourhood, and who also had a son in the 42nd, was put into M'Pherson's hands, by a servant of the former.
The man looked feelingly grave as he delivered it, and hurried away before it was opened. The letter was sealed with black wax. Poor M'Pherson's hand trembled as he opened it. It was from the captain of the company to which his sons belonged, informing him that both had fallen in the attack on Ticonderago. There was an attempt in the letter to soothe the unfortunate father's feelings, and to reconcile him to the loss of his gallant boys, in a lengthened detail of their heroic conduct during the sanguinary struggle. "Nobly," said the writer, "did your two brave sons maintain the honour of their country in the bloody strife. Both Hugh and Alister fell - their broadswords in their hands - on the very ramparts of Ticonderago, whither they had fought their way with a dauntlessness of heart, and a strength of arm, that might have excited the envy and admiration of the son of Fingal"
In this account of the noble conduct of his sons the broken-hearted father did find some consolation. "Thank God!" he exclaimed, though in a tremulous voice, "my brave boys have done their duty, and died as became their name, with their swords in their hands, and their enemies in their front." But there was one circumstance mentioned in the letter, that affected the poor father more than all the rest - this was the intimation, that the writer had, in his hands, a sum of money and a gold brooch, which his son Alister had bequeathed, the first to his father, the latter to his mother, as a token of remembrance. "These," he said, "had been deposited with him by the young man previous to the engagement, under a presentiment that he should fall."
When he had finished the perusal of the letter, M'Pherson sought his wife, whom he found weeping bitterly, for she had already learned the fate of her sons. On entering the apartment where she was, he flung his arms around her, in an agony of grief, and, choking with emotion, exclaimed, that two more of his fair lights had been extinguished by the hand of heaven. "One yet remains," he said, "but that, too, must soon pass away from before mine eyes. His doom is sealed; but God's will be done."
"What mean ye, John?" said his sobbing wife, struck with the prophetic tone of his speech - "is the measure of our sorrows not yet filled? Are we to lose him, too, who is now our only stay, my fair-haired Ian. Why this foreboding of more evil - and whence have you it, John?" she said, now looking her husband steadfastly in the face; and with an expression of alarm that indicated that entire belief in supernatural intelligence regarding coming events, then so general in the Highlands.
Urged by his wife, who implored him to tell her whence he had the tidings of her Ian's approaching fate, M'Pherson related to her the circumstance of the mysterious lights.
"But there were seven, John," she said, when he had concluded - "how comes that? - our children were but six." And immediately added, as if some fearful conviction had suddenly forced itself on her mind - "God grant that the seventh light may have meant me!"
"God forbid!" exclaimed her husband, on whose mind a similar conviction with that with which his wife was impressed, now obtruded itself for the first time; that conviction was, that he himself was indicated by the seventh light. But neither of the sorrowing pair communicated their fears to the other.
Two days subsequent to this, the fair hair of Ian was seen floating on the surface of a deep pool, in the water of Bran; a small river that ran past the house of Morvane. By what accident the poor boy had fallen into the river, was never ascertained. But the pool in which his body was found was known to have been one of his favourite fishing stations. One only of the mysterious lights now remained without its counterpart; but this was not long wanting. Ere the week had expired, M'Pherson was killed by a fall from his horse, when returning from the funeral of his son, and the symbolical prophecy was fulfilled - and thus concludes the story of "The Seven Lights."
Mike Yates - 19.4.10
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