Although Lord Salisbury believed that the negotiations he had set on foot by the agency of Betsy Hepburn would speedily lead to the capture of the Castle, yet the attacks on the outer walls and inner buildings, feeble and ineffective though they proved, were never suspended even for a single day. At this period gunpowder had only recently been discovered, and the science of artillery was then in its infancy. Eleven years before – i.e., in 1337 – Edward III. employed a rude sort of cannon called Crakys against the Scots, and it is possible – indeed probable – that this primitive form of ordnance may have been used at the Siege of Dunbar, but if so, they must certainly have played an unimportant part in the siege operations, as we have no record of their presence. The engines chiefly relied on by Salisbury for battering the walls were unquestionably the ancient mechanical contrivances which had been more or less in use amongst all civilised nations from the earliest dawn of history.
The balista, the catapult, the scorpion, and the onager were some of the machines used at sieges during the Middle Ages. These curious and ingenious engines propelled large and heavy missiles, chiefly through the reaction of a tightly twisted rope of hemp, flax, catgut, sinew, or hair, or else by a violent movement of levers, and in the hands of skilful engineers were highly dangerous and death-dealing weapons, hurling to the ground dense columns of soldiers, and crushing into dust such walls as had not been constructed of special strength and thickness so as to resist their strokes.
Against the massive eleven feet thick walls of Dunbar Castle such primitive machines were ludicrously ineffective. The heaviest stones propelled from the mightiest catapults rebounded harmlessly from the solid concrete walls. Such puny blows could not possibly have reduced to ruins the grand old fortress by the sea, and if the art of projectiles had never advanced beyond this elementary stage the stronghold of Dunbar might yet have been guarding the entrance to the Forth.
Day after day Salisbury kept pegging away at the castle walls with his catapults and balistas, and evening after evening his men had to return to their camp discouraged by the consciousness that, despite all their efforts, no apparent impression was made on the fortress or its stubborn defenders. Indeed, the Countess and her followers jeered and laughed at their futile attempts. For the greater part of each day Black Agnes, attended by Elsie and Betsy, took her station on the battlements, and by her presence and example greatly raised the spirits and stimulated the energy of her men.
“Methinks,” said the Countess to her maids one day, about a fortnight after Hallowe’en, as they stood on the battlements watching with interest the shooting from the catapults – “methinks Salisbury could scarce brush a fly from a lady’s cheek with such paltry playthings as these. Ha! these strokes scarcely raise the dust from our old walls. Here, Elsie” – as a stone struck the wall just below where they stood – “take my handkerchief, kneel down, and wipe away the dust which that mighty stroke has disturbed. Show Salisbury how little we care for his engines. Let him see that we despise his efforts, and, women though we are, defy him to do his worst. But what new contrivance is this I observe approaching from the town?” asked the lady of one of the soldiers standing near. “It seems as if Salisbury has devised some new scheme for our destruction.”
“That, madam,” replied the soldier, “is what men-at-arms call a sow! a structure of wood filled with armed men.”
“And what is its object in warfare?” inquired the Countess. “Its purpose must surely be similar to that of the famous wooden horse of Troy,” continued the quick-witted lady before the man could answer. “Here, Elsie, bid your husband and Roland Maxwell come instantly to our presence. We must prepare a warm reception for Salisbury’s sow.”
When the young men appeared, and had their attention drawn to the cumbrous contrivance which was slowly but surely drawing nearer the walls, they at once agreed with the Countess that a body of men were approaching, under cover of its protecting timbers to attack the castle.
“I’m thinkin’, my Leddy,” said Home, “the lads inside the sow there ‘ll be coming tae undermine oor wa’s. I’ve kenned the same thing tried afore. Ye see the men ahint shove it richt up tae the Castle wa’, then the chiels inside let down the front o’ the beast. and work awa’ wi their pickaxes under cover o’ its roof. Isn’t that how the job’s done, Maxwell?”
“Ay, ay, Adam, it’s an auld trick, and I’m maistly sure it’ll nae work here. Madam, wi’ yer permission we’ll gie the sow and its stuffing a hot and heavy welcome.”
“Do so, good Maxwell,” assented his mistress. Thank God that though I am only a woman I have so many quick wits, brave hearts, and ready hands at my command. Give what orders you think proper, Ronald, and the men will cheerfully answer to your call.”
By this time the showers of stones from the catapults were steadily increasing in numbers and size, as if the besiegers wished to run the sow against the walls under the protection of this furious fusilade. Stones and arrows were flying about and whistling round the ears of the party on the battlements so abundantly and continuously that the position became highly dangerous, and the warders trembled for the safety of their noble mistress and her maids.
“My Leddy,” said Home, “would it not be better for you and the lassies tae get under cover, think ye? Thae stanes and shafts are no tae be laughed at, and it would be an awfu’ business gin ye got a stroke frae thae deadly missiles. What could we say tae the Earl gin ye cam’ tae ony harm? I’m sure he wad ne’er forgie us gin ye lost yer life, and we standing by looking on.”
“Thanks, brave Home,” feelingly answered the Countess; “I know you speak from the heart and wish me well, but my place is here, with my husband’s soldiers, to cheer them in the discharge of their duty, and if necessary to succour the wounded. The daughter of Randolph and the wife of Dunbar is no coward to hide behind stone walls when brave men are fighting in her cause. No, I shall remain here, and witness, I trust, the speedy slaughter of the sow. My maids may do as pleaseth them. What say you, my bonnie lasses? Will you stay by your mistress on the battlements, or fly for refuge to the inner chambers of the keep? Heed not me, but answer as your hearts dictate.”
“We’ll stay by you, madam!” exclaimed Elsie and Betsy in a breath. “Ill would it become us to fly from any peril your Ladyship is prepared to face. We, like you, are of Scottish blood, and if the call come, are not afraid to die.”
“I joyfully accept your proffered services,” kindly replied their mistress. “Now, the fun of the play is about to begin in earnest. Here is the sow right up to our walls. Ha, I shall give them a message, I trow,” and looking over the battlement the intrepid lady cried –
For farrow shall thy sow.
Then as she stepped back the soldiers under the command of Home and Maxwell pushed forward an enormous mass of stone, and hurled it down upon the attacking structure, crushing the sow to pieces, and severely bruising its occupants. Nor was this all, for, as the discomfited Englishmen lay groaning amongst the broken timbers of their temporary fortress, the women of the household came on the scene, each sonsie lass bearing a bucket of boiling water, which she mercilessly dashed on the wounded besiegers. So Montagow’s sow proved farrow, and for the time the Castle was safe.