EVERY Scotsman is familiar with the pathetic story of ‘Bessie Bell and Mary Gray.’* The tradition on which this tale of true love and friendship in death is founded, is common to various parts of Scotland; but the scene of the catastrophe of the lovers, celebrated in the popular song, is generally referred, by local tradition, to the vicinity of Lednoch – now Lynedoch – on the banks of the Almond, one of the finest tributaries of the Tay.
The popular legend relates, that when the plague of 1665 broke out in Perth, Bessie Bell, a daughter of the Laird of Kinvaid, – a family now extinct, – was paying a visit to her friend Mary Gray, at her father’s house of Lednoch, about a mile distant. The two young ladies were each possessed of great beauty and accomplishments, and had entertained an extraordinary friendship for each other from infancy, – a friendship so pure and disinterested, and altogether unworldly, that it continued unimpaired even by the unhappy, and, as it appears, unavoidable circumstance of their discovering in themselves rivals in the affections of a young gentleman who was in habits of intimacy with the families of both. To avoid the formidable epidemic which was now devastating the neighbourhood, the two gentle friends retired to a sequestered glen, where they inhabited a cottage or boothy which their lover – whose affections were so equally attracted by the fair rivals that he could form no preference for one above the other in his mind – is represented to have constructed for them, with his own hands, on the banks of the Brauchie Burn, a small stream which flows into the Almond a little above Lynedoch cottage. Here they dwelt for a time happy in each other’s unreserved confidence, and still cherishing a warm affection for each other and for the amiable object of their common love, whose kindly guardianship supplied them with the means at once of support and of concealment. Unhappily, in one of his visits to Perth for the purpose of procuring provisions, the youth caught the contagion, and unwittingly carried it to the hut of the two gentle hermits, who both perished along with their lover.
The old ballad says:
“They thought to lie in Methven kirk
Amang their noble kin;
But they maun lie in Lednoch brae
To beek fornent the sun.”
As the victims of pestilence, their bodies were not permitted to be laid amongst the ancestral ashes of their respective families, but were buried in a spot called the Dronach Haugh, on the banks of the Almond, near ‘yon burn brae,’ on which the site of their bower is still shown.
Leyden, while he assigns the romantic story a Border locality, has versified this tale of love and beauty, and pestilence and death, in lines with which we gladly enrich our pages:-
From climes, where noxious exhalations steam
O’er aguey flats, by Nile’s redundant stream,
It came:- The mildewed cloud, of yellow hue,
Drops from its putrid wings the blistering dew;
The peasants mark the strange discoloured air,
And from their homes retreat in wild despair;
Each friend they seek, their hapless fate to tell;-
But hostile lances still their flight repel.
Ah! vainly wise, who soon must join the train,
To seek the help your friends implored in vain!
To heaths and swamps the cultured field returns;
Unheard-of deeds retiring virtue mourns:
For, mixed with fell diseases, o’er the clime
Rain the foul seeds of every baleful crime;
Fearless of fate, devoid of future dread,
Pale wretches rob the dying and the dead:
The sooty raven, as he flutters by,
Avoids the heaps where naked corses like;
The prowling wolves, that round the hamlet swarm,
Tear the young babe from the frail mother’s arm;
Full-gorged, the monster, in the desert bred,
Howls, long and dreary, o’er the unburied dead.
Two beauteous maids the dire infection shun,
Where Dena’s valley fronts the southern sun;
While Friendship sweet, and Love’s delightful power.
With fern and rushes thatched their summer-bower,
When spring invites the sister-friends to stray,
One graceful youth, companion of their way,
Bars their retreat from each obtrusive eye,
And bids the lonely hours unheeded fly,
Leads their light steps beneath the hazel spray,
Where moss-lined boughs exclude the blaze of day,
And ancient rowans mix their berries red,
With nuts that cluster brown above their head.
He, mid the writhing roots of elms, that lean
O’er oozy rocks of ezlar, shagged and green,
Collects pale cowslips for the faithful pair,
And braids the chaplet round their flowing hair,
And for the lovely maids alternate burns,
As love and friendship take the sway by turns.
Ah! hapless day, that, from this blest retreat
Lured to the town his slow, unwilling feet!
Yet, soon returned, he seeks the green recess,
Wraps the dear rivals in a fond caress;
As heaving bosoms own responsive bliss,
He breathes infection in one melting kiss;
Their languid limbs he bears to Dena’s strand,
Chafes each soft temple with his burning hand:
Their cheeks to his the grateful virgins raise,
And fondly bliss him, as their life decays;
While o’er their forms he bends, with tearful eye,
And only lives to hear their latest sigh.
A veil of leaves the redbreast o’er them threw,
Ere thrice their locks were wet with evening dew.
There the blue ring-dove coos, with ruffling wing,
And sweeter there the throstle loves to sing;
The woodlark breathes, in softer strain, the vow;
And love’s soft burthen floats from bough to bough.
SCENES OF INFANCY. Edin. 1803. Pp. 54-57.