Chapter I. – Hallowe’en at Wedderburn Castle.

[Black Agnes Contents]

   It was a gay and merry company which gathered round the glowing peat fire in the old Castle of the Homes at Wedderburn on the Hallowe’en of 1338. Since the widely-lamented death of the heroic King Robert the Bruce, nine years before, the old turmoils at home and troubles with the English had broken out again; but the Wedderburn tenants had suffered little, for their Lord, Sir David Home, was a pawky auld carle who knew right well how to trim his sails to every political breeze, and so managed to live prosperously at peace under his own roof-tree, while his neighbours on every side were battling for very existence. 

   The season of 1338 had been a fine one. Good grass for the cattle had made the winter marl plumper and tenderer than usual, while the granaries, teeming with the finest oats, gladdened the hearts of all by the assurance that during the coming winter there would be no lack of food for man and beast on the broad lands of the Homes. So the retainers of Wedderburn were happy and lighthearted as they met to hold their Hallowe’en under the hospitable roof of their kind and genial chief. 

   “Noo, lads and lassies,” cried Sir David, “ye maun see an’ get your Jockeys and Jennies, ye ken. try the nits i’ the fire, an’ I’ll name them. That couple there’ll stand for Adam Home and Elsie Purves, and this pair wull be Sandy Kerr and Betty Sinclair.” “She’ll nae ha’e ye Sandy, man,” as the nut representing Betsy started away from its companion, and disappeared with a loud crack. “I see, Adam, Elsie’s gey contented like there, asideye,” as the other pair of nuts smouldered quietly without bursting.1 “It’ll be a match, or I’m muckle mistaken, an’ that afore the New Year tae, gin Black Agnes disna send for the lassie back tae the auld Castle o’ Dunbar.” “But awa oot tae the peat stack,” continued the cheery old knight. “Sing yer sang and saw the hempseed. Maybe a stalwart laddie or bonnie lassie ‘ll be looking ower yer shoulders afore ye ken where ye are.” 

   One after another the light-hearted company slipped out to the yard to test their matrimonial prospects by this infallible old world right, and no doubt much kissing and squeezing went on under the convenient and welcome bield of the peats. 

   At last it came to Betsy Sinclair’s turn, and as she was leaving the kitchen her friends humorously chaffed her on the slight chance she had of meeting her favoured sweetheart at the mystic tryst, for Robert Hepburn, the young girl’s lover, was not at Wedderburn, but shut up with Black Agnes in the besieged Castle of Dunbar. 

   When Betsy – a handsome fair-haired lass of nineteen summers – got out to the appointed place she lost no time in performing the ceremony appropriate to the season and locality. First she sowed her handful of hemp seed, then repeated the usual incantation, and waited tremblingly for the result, though with little hope that Hepburn would appear. So far as the lassie knew, her lover was many miles away, and she was far too wise to expect any supernatural intervention in her favour. As a matter of fact, Hallowe’en lovers were generally not far from the scene of the sowing and singing, so Betsy’s lookout was a poor one. Yet with what heart she could she sang as follows:- 

Hemp seed, I sow thee; 

Hemp seed, I sow thee; 

And he who is my true love 

Come after me and pu’ me. 

   “I’ll dae that, Betsy, exclaimed a blythe voice behind her left shoulder, and in an instant she was clasped in the arms of no apparition, but in the strong mail-clad grasp of her soldier lover, Robert Hepburn, one of the trustiest warders in the service of the Lords of Dunbar. “What for dae ye no speak, lassie? Dae ye think I’m a ghost. This is no like a spirit,” giving her a good hug as he spoke. 

   “Is that you, Robbie?” asked the girl when she had recovered from her surprise at the unexpected meeting. “What brings ye here, lad?” 

   “My good horse, and the orders of my mistress, the Countess,” replied the soldier; “and glad am I to come, Bessie, when we can hae a cuddle like this,” suiting the action to the words. “But, dearie,” continued the girl looking up fondly into her lover’s face as she lay in his arms, “what errand did that terrible lady, Black Agnes, send you? Does she want to raise the Merse and teviotdale? Surely ye in the Lowdens micht keep yer quarrels to yersel’s.” “The Countess is safe enough in her sea girt castle, but if ony o’ the wee lairds hereabouts take her side, God help them when the southern knaves cross the border.” 

   “Dinna fear, lassie,” interrupted her lover, “Black Agnes can keep her castle, and haud her ain without asking help frae ony Home, or Scott, or Kerr amang ye.” “We’re sair beset the now wi’ the Earl o’ Salisbury and his men, but I dinna doubt but we’ll keep Montague on the ither side o’ the walls till oor ain laird comes back, and sends him packing about his business.” “Nae, nae. I’ve just come to fetch Elsie Purves back to Dunbar.” “The Countess needs her tirewoman, for she likes to be well dressed, and to mlook her best even when defying Montagu frae the battlements.” “Sae, Elsie ‘ll need to get hersel’ busked and ready, for I maun be safe i’  the Castle afore the rise o’ the morrow’s sun.”

1  Chambers remarks, in his Book of Days for the 31st of October

   “There is a remarkable uniformity in the fireside customs of this night all over the United Kingdom. Nuts and apples are everywhere in requisition, and consumed in immense numbers. [Nuts] are not only cracked and eaten, but made the means of vaticination in love-affairs. And here we quote from Burns’s poem of Halloween:  

‘The auld guidwife’s well-hoordit nits  

   Are rund and round divided,  

And mony lads’ and lasses’ fates  

   Are there that night decided:  

Some kindle, couthie, side by side,  

   And burn thegither trimly;  

Some start awa wi’ saucy pride,  

   And jump out-owre the chimly  

Fu’ high that night.  

Jean slips in twa wi’ tentie e’e;  

   Wha ‘twas, she wadna tell;  

But this is Jock, and this is me,  

   She says in to hersel’:  

He bleezed owre her, and she owre him,  

   As they wad never mair part;  

Till, fuff! he started up the lum,  

   And Jean had e’en a sair heart  

To see ‘t that night.’

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