One fine day in the summer of 1801, as I was busily engaged working in the field at Ettrick House, Wat Shiel came over to me and said, that "I bond gang away down to the Ramseycleuch as fast as my feet could carry me, for there war some gentlemen there wha wantit to speak to me."
"Wha can be at the Ramseycleuch that wants me, Wat?"
"I couldna say, for it wasna me that they spak to i' the byganging. But I'm thinking it's the Shirra an' some o' his gang."
I was rejoiced to hear this, for I had seen the first volumes of The Minstrelsy of the Border, and had copied a number of old things from my mother's recital, and sent them to the Editor preparatory for a third volume. I accordingly went towards home to put on my Sunday clothes, but before reaching it I met with THE SHIRRA and Mr. William Laidlaw coming to visit me. They alighted and remained in our cottage for a space better than an hour, and my mother chanted the ballad of Old Maitlan' to them, with which Mr. Scott was highly delighted. I had sent him a copy, (not a very perfect one, as I found afterwards, from the singing of another Laidlaw,) but I thought Mr. Scott had some dread of a part being forged, that had been the cause of his journey into the wilds of Ettrick. When he heard my mother sing it he was quite satisfied, and I remember he asked her if she thought it had ever been printed, and her answer was, "Oo, na, na, sir, it was never printed i' the world, for my' brothers an' me learned it frae auld Andrew Moor, an' he learned it, an' mony mae, frae ane auld Baby Mettlin, that was housekeeper to the first laird o' Tushilaw."
"Then that must be a very auld story, indeed, Margaret," said he.
"Ay, it is that! It is an auld story! But mair nor that, except George Warton and James Steward, there was never ane o' my sangs prentit till ye prentit them yourself, an' ye hae spoilt them a'thegither. They war made for singing, an' no for reading; and they're neither right spelled nor right setten down."
"Heh — heh — heh! Take ye that, Mr. Scott," said Laidlaw.
Mr. Scott answered by a hearty laugh, and the recital of a verse, but I have forgot what it was, and my mother gave him a rap or' the knee with free open hand, and said "It was true enough, for a' that."
We were all to dine at Ramseycleuch with the Messrs Brydon, but Mr. Scott and Mr. Laidlaw went away to look at something before dinner, and I was to follow. On going into the stable-yard at Ramseycleuch I met with Mr. Scott's liveryman, a far greater original than his master, whom I asked if the Shirra was come?
"O, ay, lad, the Shirra's come," said he. "Are ye the chiel that mak the auld ballads and sing them?"
"I said I fancied I was he that he meant, though I had never made ony very auld ballads."
"Ay, then, lad, gae your ways in an' speir for the Shirra. They'll let ye see where he is. He'll be very glad to see you."
During the sociality of the evening, the discourse ran very much on the different breeds of sheep, that curse of the community of Ettrick Forest. The original black-faced Forest breed being always called the short sheep, and the Cheviot breed the long sheep, the disputes at that period ran very high about the practicable profits of each, Mr. Scott, who had come into that remote district to preserve what fragments remained of its legendary lore, was rather bored with the everlasting question of the long and the short sheep. So at length, putting on his most serious calculating face, he turned to Mr. Walter Brydon and said, "I am rather at a loss regarding the merits of this very important question. How long must a sheep actually measure to come under the denomination of a long sheep?"
Mr. Brydon, who, in the simplicity of his heart, neither perceived the quiz nor the reproof, fell to answer with great sincerity, — "It's the woo, sir — it's the woo that makes the difference. The long sheep hae the short woo, and the short sheep hae the lang thing; and these are just kind o' names we gie them like." Mr. Scott could not preserve his grave face of strict calculation; it went gradually away, and a hearty guffaw followed. When I saw the very same words repeated near the beginning of the Black Dwarf, how could I be mistaken of the author? It is true, Johnnie Ballantyne persuaded me into a nominal belief of the contrary, for several years following, but I could never get the better of that and several similar coincidences.
The next day we went off, five in number, to visit the wilds of Rankleburn, to see if on the farms of Buccleuch there were any relics of the Castles of Buccleuch on Mount-Comyn, the ancient and original possession of the Scotts. We found no remains of either tower or fortalice, save an old chapel and churchyard. and a mill and mill-lead, where corn never grew, but where, as old Satchells very appropriately says,
Had heather-bells been corn of the best,
The Buccleuch mill would have had a noble grist.
It must have been used for grinding the chief's blackmails, which, it is known, were all paid to him in kind. Many of these still continue to be paid in the same way; and if report say true, he would be the better of a mill and kiln on some part of his land at this day, as well as a sterling conscientious miller to receive and render.
Besides having been mentioned by Satchells, there was a remaining tradition in the country, that there was a font stone of blue marble, in which the ancient heirs of Buccleuch were baptized, covered up among the ruins of the old church. Mr. Scott was curious to see if we could discover it; but on going among the ruins we found the rubbish at the spot, where the altar was known to have been, digged out to the foundation, — we knew not by whom, but no font had been found. As there appeared to have been a kind of recess in the eastern gable, we fell a turning over some loose stones, to see if the font was not concealed there, when we came upon one half of a small pot, encrusted thick with rust. Mr. Scott's eyes brightened, and he swore it was an ancient consecrated helmet. Laidlaw, however, scratching it minutely out, found it covered with a layer of pitch inside, and then said, "Ay, the truth is, sir, it is neither mair nor less than a piece of a tar pat that some o' the farmers hae been buisting their sheep out o', i' the auld kirk langsysne." Sir Walter's shaggy eyebrows dipped deep over his eyes, and suppressing a smile, he turned and strode away as fast as he could, saying, that "We had just rode all the way to see that there was nothing to be seen."
I remember his riding upon a terribly high-spirited horse, who had the perilous fancy of leaping every drain, rivulet, and ditch that came in our way; the consequence was, that he was everlastingly bogging himself, while sometimes his rider kept his seat despite of his plunging, and at other times he was obliged to extricate himself the best way he could. In coming through a place called the Milsey Bog, I said to him, "Mr. Scott, that's the maddest deil of a beast I ever saw. Can ye no gar him tak a wee mair time? He's just out o' ae lair intil another wi' ye."
"Ay," said he, we have been very oft, these two days past, like the Pechs; we could stand straight up and tie our shoes." I did not understand the joke, nor do I yet, but I think these were his words.
We visited the old Castles of Thirlestane and Tushilaw, and dined and spent the afternoon, and the night, with Mr. Brydon of Crosslee. Sir Walter was all the while in the highest good-humour, and seemed to enjoy the range of mountain solitude, which we traversed, exceedingly. Indeed I never saw him otherwise. In the fields — on the rugged mountains — or even toiling in Tweed to the waist, I have seen his glee not only surpass himself; but that of all other men. I remember of leaving Altrive Lake once with him, accompainied by the same Mr. Laidlaw, and Sir Adam Fergusson, to visit the tremendous solitude of The Grey Mare's Tail, and Loch Skene. I conducted them through that wild region by a path, which, if not rode by Clavers, was, I daresay, never rode by another gentleman. Sir Adam rode inadvertently into a gulf, and got a sad fright, but Sir Walter, in the very worst paths, never dismounted, save at Loch Skene to take some dinner. We went to Moffat that night, where we met with some of his family, and such a day and night of glee I never witnessed. Our very perils were matter to him of infinite merriment; and then there was a short-tempered boot-boy at the inn, who wanted to pick a quarrel with him, at which he laughed till the water ran over his cheeks.
I was disappointed in never seeing some incident in his subsequent works laid in a scene resembling the rugged solitude around Loch Skene, for I never saw him survey any with so much attention. A single serious look at a scene generally filled his mind with it, and he seldom took another; but here he took the names of all the hills, their altitudes, and relative situations with regard to one another, and made me repeat them several times. It may occur in some of his works which I have not seen, and I think it will, for he has rarely ever been known to interest himself, either in a scene or a character, which did not appear afterwards in all its most striking peculiarities.
There are not above five people in the world who, I think, know Sir Walter better, or understand his character better, than I do; and if I outlive him, which is likely, as I am five months and ten days younger, I will draw a mental portrait of him, the likeness of which to the original shall not be disputed. In the meantime, this is only a reminiscence, in my own line, of an illustrious friend among the mountains.
The enthusiasm with which he recited, and spoke of our ancient ballads, during that first tour of his through the Forest, inspired me with a determination immediately to begin and imitate them, which I did, and soon grew tolerably good at it. Of course I dedicated The Mountain Bard to him:—
Blest be his generous heart for aye;
He told me where the relic lay,
Pointed my way with ready will,
Afar on Ettrick's wildest hill,
Watch'd my first notes with curious eye,
And wonder'd at my minstrelsy:
He little ween'd a parent's tongue
Such strains had o'er my cradle sung.