VII. Fair Helen of Kirkconnell, pp.148-166.

[Heroines of Scotland Contents]

I wish I were where Helen lies, 

Night and day on me she cries; 

O that I were where Helen lies, 

On fair Kirkconnell Lee! 

                                                     – Old Ballad

HE banks of the small river Kirtle which flows through the old Annandale parish of Kirkconnell, are associated in the lyrical poesy of the district with a story of ill-starred affection and desperate rivalry, fully as heart-thrilling as the legend which renders the Dowie Dens of Yarrow memorable in Scottish song. Both traditions are conjectured to belong to much the same period, during the turbulent times of the Border, when might was right, and unbridled passion often outraged all law – human and divine. About the middle of the sixteenth century the lands of Kirkconnell were held by the Irvings, a far-descended family of which several branches were settled round about – one of them becoming famous in after-times for the part borne by its representative, Irving of Bonshaw, in hunting down the Covenanters. In the same neighbourhood dwelt two other landed families, whose names are linked with that of Irving in the legend which we now mean to rehearse. These were the Flemings and the Bells, both of olden standing. By virtue of a Charter from the Earl of Douglas, dated in 1426, the Bells, subsequently known as of Blacket House, became possessed of the lands of Kirkconnell, where they built a stronghold called “Bell’s Tower” – a Border Peel-house, which is mentioned in an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1481, as among the fortified places for defence against the Southrons, at which juncture it was ordered to be garrisoned by twenty men under the Laird of Amisfield. In process of time, however, the Bells were succeeded in Kirkconnell by one or other of the Irving families, and thenceforth made Blacket House their chief seat. Some obscurity hangs over this transfer; but thus much seems clear, that in the sixteenth century the Irvings were Lairds of Kirkconnell, and continued so till the year 1600, when they were dispossessed by the Maxwells. 

   Bells and Irvings, in common with their neighbours, lived the rough Border life, often using the strong hand and making forays into England; and often were they included in the denunciations fulminated by the Government in Edinburgh against the troublers of the West Marches, until at length they were classed with the “broken men” of their province. In January 1578-79, the Lord Maxwell gave caution in £2000 to present Willie Irvin of Kirkconnell before the King and Privy Council, when cited, to answer for certain misdeeds. In 1581-82, Willie Bell of Blacat House was summoned along with others to answer to a charge of slaughter; and shortly afterwards caution in £!000 was found for William Bell in Blacat House alias “Red-cloak” – for most of the Borderers had distinctive and characteristic nicknames. Further, in October 1583, some eighteen of the Bells and Irvings, imprisoned in the tower of Bonshaw to abide trial, were forcibly set at liberty by a band of broken men, their kinsmen and confederates, amongst whom were several Flemings. Moreover, in the month of June 1586, at a meeting of the Scottish and English wardens, for the redress of mutual grievances, complaints were presented against Red-cloak, Wattie, Richie, and Tom Bell, and accomplices, setting forth that they had stolen from the English Border 120 kine and oxen, 160 sheep, and 3 horses, and had also raised fire and plundered houses, the whole loss being estimated at £600 sterling. And in 1598, Red-cloak was styled “Chief of the Bells.” 

   About the middle of the sixteenth century all Annandale rang with praises of Helen Irving, the daughter of the Laird of Kirkconnell. She was young, only in early womanhood, with a form of exquisite grace and features cast in a mould of simple yet heart-enthralling loveliness, lighted by a pair of eyes that rivalled the azure of the summer welkin. Her grace and beauty, with her natural amiability, captivated many a swain who came within the witching influence of such charms; and many a gossip pondered on what matrimonial destiny awaited the fair maiden; for as yet Helen’s affections seemed unengaged and her fancy free – though rumour whispered that of all the aspirants to her hand, her parents gave the preference to Richard Bell, the heir of Blacket House. Bell, two or three years her elder, was a tall, well-knit, personable fellow, much given to the rude sports and the wild ways of the Border, possessing undoubted courage and daring, qualities of prime account in that age and country. What he lacked was open-heartedness, the art of winning warm friendship. His reserved manner, his callous disposition, and his habitually selfish aims, engendered dislike and distrust in the minds of all who knew him best. It so came about that he was an assiduous suitor to Helen Irving – nay, more, the suitor approved by both her parents, who urged his hand upon her acceptance, never dreaming that she could venture to disregard their expressed will by clinging to her own choice. Yet this was what Helen did – the object of her secret attachment being Adam Fleming of Kirkpatrick, a young laird well worthy of the distinction which she conferred upon him. 

   But the course of this true love was fated to run in the proverbial way. Fleming had the ill-fortune to be out of favour with Helen’s family. For one thing he was struggling with the pecuniary embarrassments in which his inheritance had been left by a wasteful father, and in that respect was, for the time, unequal to Richard Bell, who had comparative wealth at his command. Nevertheless Fleming had already acquired high esteem in the country-side. He was brave and chivalrous almost to a fault, with honour unspotted as his own trusty sword, and altogether he was superior to his rival as well in appearance as in manly demeanour and accomplishments. Formerly the houses of Kirkconnell and Kirkpatrick had been on the most friendly terms; but those relations were broken up by an estrangement during the latter days of Adam’s father, and the grudge was still maintained on the part of Kirkconnell. While the amity and intimacy lasted, Adam had conceived a passion for Helen Irving, which became ardent and deep-rooted, failing not to kindle in her bosom a reciprocal feeling, fully as tender and true; but the sudden alienation betwixt the heads of the houses kept the lovers apart and discouraged their attachment. It was then that Richard Bell came forward, eager to attain Fleming’s place in the young beauty’s affections, which he flattered himself would prove no difficult task, and so the skein of destiny was still further tangled. Such circumstances gave Fleming no other resource than to endeavour to meet Helen at intervals by stealth; and she readily assented to his suggestion. The scene of their stolen interviews was the churchyard of Kirkconnell, the lonely and secluded “God’s Acre” of a ruined church, lying on a level haugh that bordered the river Kirtle, and at no great distance from Helen’s home. Kirkconnell, we may explain, occupied no longer a separate parochial status, having sometime previous to this period been annexed, along with the parish of Irving, to that of Kirkpatrick-Fleming; and the ancient church, long dilapidated, was now fallen to utter ruin – only a few crumbling remnants of its remaining, thickly overgrown with ivy and other creeping plants. In that quiet spot, at the dusky gloaming hour, and under the sombre shade of the old yews and elms, the lovers met, for short space, to renew their pledges of everlasting constancy, and to hope for more auspicious times. As may be thought, such meetings were somewhat unfrequent, as the utmost caution had to be observed to prevent discovery, the consequences of which were much to be dreaded. Helen was aided by a favourite and faithful hand-maiden, who attended her to the spot, and for a season no suspicion seemed to exist. 

   No suspicion? Ah! there was a watchful eye that eventually traced Helen’s furtive and darkling steps, like the eye of the Fate that never sleeps. The unseen watcher was Richard Bell. Ever coldly repelled by her in his advances, and pondering within himself how this should be, he judged it prudent to keep concealed for the nonce, lest perhaps a premature disclosure, necessarily exposing the restless inquisitiveness which had led him to the knowledge, would render him still more repugnant to her whom he adored. Moreover, a lurking dread of his rival’s wrath – the mortal resentment of a high and resolute spirit, which scorned all craft – may have helped to keep the prying visitor’s lips sealed. Whatever motive induced the silence, not a word was breathed at Kirkconnell that Helen and Fleming still loved and occasionally met. Bell, grimly brooding on his fancied wrong, and with a mind confused by conflicting passions – baffled love and fear and hate – continued undecided how to comport himself, until gradually his evil impulses gained the ascendancy, and he resolved on compassing what should remove the obstacle that lay in his path. 

   A balmy autumn eve. The glories of the sunset were scarce faded from the Western sky, which they had streaked with cloud-bars of ruddy gold and imperial purple, when the moon rose in her mellow beauty over the Eastern hills. The soft radiance gave the hues of fairyland to the picturesque scenery on the Kirtle, which with murmuring flow glanced like a silvery snake gliding through the silent woodlands. Sweet light and shade chequered the old kirkyard on the holm, which was encircled by a bend of the glistening river, and alike were yews and elms, the ivy-clad ruins, the spreading bushes, masses of tall hemlock, and mossy headstones, with their rude sculptures and half-worn inscriptions, bathed in the placid beams so congenial to the quietude of the grave. Impressive silence reigned around, same when wakeful birds chirped in the foliage, whose tremulous shadows gave the only sign of animation to the field of mortality. The opposite banks of the Kirtle were high and broken, but clothed thickly with furze and trees impenetrable to the moonshine. It was near a spreading thorn tree, in the lone kirkyard, and at this hour, that Fleming and Helen, amidst the graves of their kindred, were holding tryst to plight their troth and exchange tokens of constancy. Fleming placed on the lady’s finger a jewelled espousal ring, and she hung around his neck, by a silken ribbon, a gold-encased miniature of herself, limned by a foreign artist of repute who had visited the Border. 

   What seemed a betrothal was over, when a harsh rustling of the bushes on the other side of the river startled the lovers, and both discerned the dark figure of a man emerging into the moonlight, with a hackbut or short musket in his hand. Despite the plumes that drooped over the front of his beaver and half-hid his visage, the intruding stranger was recognised. He was Richard Bell of Blacket House: and his intent was murder – the consummation of his bitter and long-hoarded revenge. As soon as he came into the clear light he paused, and, raising the gun to his shoulder, pointed it towards the lovers, who were seated on a table-stone, overhung partly by the tree, within a few yards of the river’s margin, while the lady’s attendant lingered at the gateway of the burying-ground. The villain fired. His mark was doubtless his rival; but at the same instant Helen had started up with a shriek, and threw herself betwixt her lover and the assassin, and now she staggered aside, drooping her head and stretching out her arms, and fell prone at Fleming’s feet before the echoes of the shot had ceased reverbrating from the river’s banks. The attendant ran forward breathlessly, mute with affright and horror. Fleming raised the prostrate lady in his arms, and perceived that a bullet had pierced her left breast, and that a deathly pallor was overspreading her countenance, whilst her eyelids were languidly closing. The assassin looked astounded at what he had done. The fatal weapon, still reeking at the muzzle, dropped from his grasp, and he stood as if petrified, instead of hastening to flee from the face of the avenger. 

   With a gasp of unutterable anguish and fury Fleming consigned Helen to the care of her handmaiden, and, unsheathing his sword, rushed from the kirkyard and down the bank, plunged into the shallow stream, and strode rapidly across. It was now that the enemy realised his own peril. Not a moment had he to reload his fire-lock; but a sword hung at his side, and he drew it, only in time to ward off a downward blow that might have cleft him to the chin. The clash of steel rang through the gloaming air, and the blades gleamed in the moonbeams like streaks of pale lightning, as the rivals fought with all the energy of desperate hate, resolved that the combat should have no other end than in the death of one or both. Fleming, fully the better trained in the skilful use of arms, and with a just cause nerving his arm, pressed his antagonist’s guard, wounded him once and again, and forced him slowly backwards, now along the irregular bank, almost toppling him into the water, and now up the bosky slope, where the bushed impeded the movements of the combatants. After all, however, it was but a short conflict till the decisive blow was struck/ The assassin fell, and lay supine, panting and quivering in the last agony – struggling to articulate what may have been a malediction on his destroyer, but becoming choked with his own blood. Fair Helen was avenged! 

   Fleming, leaning on his ensanguined sword, watched with stern and triumphant eye the last spark of a guilty life expire. He had not come scathless through the fight, but his hurts were slight, and he recked not of them. The wailing of the handmaiden now attracted his ear. Leaving the body where it had fallen, he recrossed the river, and hastened to where Helen lay motionless on the grass, with her attendant weeping and wringing her hands over her. Fleming threw aside his sword, and bending down, raised the inanimate form, and in wildly-impassioned tones implored her to look up and assure him that she still lived. Alas! his words fell on ears closed in death! The fair maid of Kirkconnell had shielded him from the assassin’s aim at the cost of her own life. 

   The strange and appalling tragedy spread lamentation for the fate of Helen Irving far and wide on the Border. Bitterly did her father and mother, now that their eyes were opened, reproach themselves or their encouragement of the assassin’s suit. Fleming they could not reproach for the part he had acted; but they rejected all reconciliation with him. Helen was laid to her rest in the churchyard where she died; and in her grave seemed buried all her surviving lover’s hopes on earth. 

   In a few days after Helen was laid in the dust, Fleming, anxious to hide his grief, took shipping for SPain. On reaching that land of chivalry, he entered the Spanish military service, and fought in the intermittent wars against the Moors of the African sea-board. Time is called the great Comforter:- 

 “Time smooths the heart, as water smooths the stone – 

(By wearing it away!) Years flowed along:” 

   But ever present in the thoughts, ever saddening the heart, ever clouding the path of the Scottish soldier, was the “one fatal remembrance” of the love and the fate of Helen Irving. And (as tradition has it), in some hours of gloomy meditation, he gave his lacerated feelings of expression in a touching monody, which, after the lapse of three centuries, still lives in our olden national minstrelsy. 



I wish I were where Helen lies! 

Night and day on me she cries; 

 O that I were where Helen lies, 

 On fair Kirconnell lee! 


Curst be the heart that thought the thought, 

 And curst the hand that fired the shot, 

 When in my arms burd Helen dropt, 

 And died to succour me! 


O think ye na my heart was sair, 

 When my love dropt down and spake nae mair! 

 There did she swoon wi’ meikle care, 

 On fair Kirconnell lee. 


As I went down the water-side, 

 None but my foe to be my guide, 

 None but my foe to be my guide, 

 On fair Kirconnell lee – 


I lighted down, my sword did draw, 

 I hacked him in pieces sma’, 

 I hacked him in pieces sma’, 

 For her sake that died for me. 


O Helen fair, beyond compare! 

 I’ll weave a garland of thy hair, 

 Shall bind my heart for evermair, 

 Until the day I dee! 


O that I were where Helen lies! 

 Night and day on me she cries; 

 Out of my bed she bids me rise, 

 Says “Haste, and come to me!” 


O Helen fair! O Helen chaste! 

 Were I with thee I would be blest, 

 Where thou lies low and takes thy rest, 

 On fair Kirconnell lee. 


I wish my grave were growing green; 

 A winding-sheet drawn o’er my e’en, 

 And I in Helen’s arms lying 

 On fair Kirconnell lee. 


I wish I were where Helen lies! 

 Night and day on me she cries, 

 And I am weary of the skies, 

 For her sake that died for me. 

   After prolonged service under the banner of Spain, Adam Fleming returned to the Border, war worn, sad of heart, over-burdened with the gloomy memories of the past. No rest had he till he made a pilgrimage to the churchyard of Kirkconnell. What were his emotions on beholding the grassy mound of Fair Helen’s grave? The shades of eve were falling: it was a tranquil, lovely eve, such as that on which she perished. Silent was the field of graves: and no eye had tracked the mourner. He stood in utter solitude, unless the spirits of the dead hovered around unseen. And the night darkened, and the stars shone out like golden cressets in heaven’s vault, and breezes awoke, rustling the foliage, and softly sighing through the long grass and hemlock. Thus the dim hours glided by. But when the morning sun broke on the scene, and all was light and dewy freshness, an early wayfarer passing to his labour discovered Adam Fleming stretched cold and stiff upon the grave of the loved and lost: for his spirit had sped in the watches of the night! 

   The dead man was interred beside Helen. His monumental stone still exists. It is sculptured with a sword and a cross, and round the head was the inscription:- 


   The Kirkconnell tragedy took a firm hold of the popular memory, and is yet far from being forgotten. Tradition, we may say, varies a little as to the death of the assassin – one account stating that he “fled beyond seas, but was closely pursued from place to place by Fleming, who at length overtook him in the vicinity of Madrid. A furious combat ensued, which terminated in the death of the fugitive assassin.” But this story is evidently an after-growth, the general consensus of evidence being to the effect that Bell was slain on the spot where he perpetrated the deed. Pennant, noticing the legend as he had heard it in the locality during his Scottish tour in 1772, says that Fleming “instantly revenged” Helen’s death, which is consistent with the original ballad, held to be the composition of Fleming himself. This original ballad appears sometimes with the prefixion of a first part, apparently more modern. The two parts will be found in the old Statistical Account of Scotland. – Parish of Kirkpartick-Fleming, and in Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Other Ballads have also been written on the subject by modern authors. Pinkerton wrote one, and inserted it in his collection. Robert Jamieson has another in his Popular Ballads and Songs. Wordsworth, too, in his Memorials of a Tour in Scotland, 1803, shews that the legendary story was worthy of his muse:- 


Fair Ellen Irwin, when she sate  
Upon the braes of Kirtle,  
Was lovely as a Grecian maid  
Adorned with wreaths of myrtle:  
Young Adam Bruce beside her lay,  
And there did they beguile the day  
With love and gentle speeches,  
Beneath the budding beeches.  
From many knights and many squires  
The Bruce had been selected;  
And Gordon, fairest of them all,  
By Ellen was rejected.  
Sad tidings to that noble youth!  
For it may be proclaimed with truth, 

If Bruce hath loved sincerely,  
That Gordon loves as dearly.  

But what are Gordon’s form and face,  
His shattered hopes and crosses,  
To them, ‘mid Kirtle’s pleasant braes,  
Reclined on flowers and mosses?  
Alas that ever he was born!  
The Gordon, couched behind a thorn,  
Sees them and their caressing,  
Beholds them blest and blessing. 

Proud Gordon, maddened by the thoughts  
That through his brain are travelling,  
Rushed forth, and at the heart of Bruce  
He launched a deadly javelin!  
Fair Ellen saw it as it came,  
And, starting up to meet the same,  
Did with her body cover  
The youth, her chosen lover.  
And, falling into Bruce’s arms,  
Thus died the beauteous Ellen,  
Thus, from the heart of her True-love,  
The mortal spear repelling.  
And Bruce, as soon as he had slain  
The Gordon, sailed away to Spain;  
And fought with rage incessant  
Against the Moorish crescent.  
But many days, and many months,  
And many years ensuing,  
This wretched Knight did vainly seek  
The death that he was wooing.  
So, coming his last help to crave,  
Heart-broken, upon Ellen’s grave  
His body he extended,  
And there his sorrow ended.  
Now ye, who willingly have heard  
The tale I have been telling,  
May in Kirkconnel churchyard view  
The grave of lovely Ellen:  
By Ellen’s side the Bruce is laid,  
And, for the stone upon his head,  
May no rude hand deface it,  
And its forlorn Hic jacet! 

As will be observed, the only change of any moment which the story has undergone in the hands of the Bard of Rydal, is in the names of the rivals; but he must have forgotten that the name “Adam Flemine” followed the “forlorn Hic jacet.” Finally, Mrs. Hemans became impressed with the tradition, and wrote the following beautiful stanzas as embodying the dying words of the heroine:- 



Hold me upon thy faithful heart, 

    Keep back my flitting breath; 

‘Tis early, early to depart, 

    Beloved! yet this is death!  


Look on me still; let that kind eye 

    Be the last light I see! 

Oh! sad it is in spring to die, 

    But yet I die for thee! 


For thee, my own! thy stately head 

    Was never thus to bow; 

Give tears when with me love hath fled, 

True love, thou know’st it now! 


Oh, the free streams look’d bright where’er 

    We in our gladness roved; 

And the blue skies were very fair, 

O, friend! because we loved. 


Farewell! I bless thee! Live thou on 

    When this young heart is low! 

Surely my blood thy life hath won: 

    Clasp me once more – I go! 

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