XI. – Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, pp.247-274.

[Heroines of Scotland Contents]

O Bessie Bell an’ Mary Gray! 

They were twa bonnie lasses – 

They biggit a bower on you burn-brae, 

An’ theekit it ower wi’ rashes. 

                                                              – Old Ballad

ARLY in 1645, the Plague appeared on the Scottish Border, after an absence of eight years, and rapidly advanced into the heart of the country.  By April the fell disease had reached Edinburgh, and increasing week by week, caused the Scottish Parliament to adjourn to Stirling, where it assembled on 8th July. But another and not less fatal scourge was on the land. Bellona’s trump was sounding: and Cavaliers and Covenanters were gathering up their strength for a decisive struggle. Parliament ordered the levy of an army of 8000 or 10,000 foot and 500 horse, to march against the Marquis of Montrose, the King’s Lieutenant, who had already won the victories of Tibbermuir, Inverlochy, Aulderne, and Alford. The Covenanting forces were appointed to rendevous at Perth on the 24th July. They did so, and encamped south of the city, about Kilgraston, on the banks of the Earn. That same day the Parliament met at Perth, having been driven from Stirling by the outbreak of the Plague. Before July closed, Montrose passed with his troops, in open bravado, on the western side of the Fair City, and although the Covenanting army hung on his rear, he vigorously repelled every attack. The 15th of August gave him his crowning triumph at Kilsyth. 

   Thus, Civil War and Pestilence mingled their horrors over Scotland. On Monday, the 4th August, the Parliament, still sitting at Perth, became aware that the Plague had reached the city, consequently business was hurried through, and an adjournment took place next day. Immediately after the rising of the Parliament and the departure of the army, the pestilence smote St. Johnstoun with great violence – this visitation proving the worst which it had ever undergone. “Three thousand of the inhabitants died of it,” says a contemporary account. “It almost depopulated Perth; many houses in different places being shut up, which afterwards in back places went to ruin; and what houses stood to the streets uninfected were inhabited but by a few. Several houses were infected in a great degree to the front, and even some streets were entirely forsaken, particularly one between the church and the Meal Vennel. And the inhabitants being few in number, had no courage to carry on trade or manufacture and building for many years.” 

   While the Plague thus ravaged the ancient city, numbers of the inhabitants forsook their homes and fled to rural retreats, many betaking themselves to the parish of Rhynd, at the junction of the Earn with the Tay, where the supposed salubrity of the air was expected to secure them against danger. The like anxiety to avoid the infection by judicious retirement, determined two young ladies to seclude themselves on the banks of the Almond, several miles north-west from Perth; and their simple but mournful story, full of the highest elements of romance, is perhaps the most touching in all the records of the Plague, while their memories have been imperishably embalmed by the Scottish muse. 

   What names more familiar than those of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray – heroines of a domestic tragedy which will never cease to summon the sympathetic tear? According to the old and unvarying tradition, Bessie Bell was daughter of the Laird of Kinvaid, in Moneydie parish, and Mary Gray, daughter of the Laird of Lednoch or Lynedoch, in the parish of Methven. They had been playmates in childhood, and their riper years cemented more firmly the ties of mutual regard and affectionate companionship. Both endowed with rare grace and beauty, they were in the hey-day of youth at this fatal time. Bessie Bell was on a visit to her friend at Lynedoch when the near approach of the pest was announced; and seclusion being thought their best resource in so perilous a time, it was arranged that they should retire to some leafy solitude on Almond’s banks, where amid the sylvan freshness and purity they might abide perchance in safety until the destroyer’s hand was stayed. So it was done; and they took up their hermitage in a green, wattled, rush-covered hut or bower, hastily constructed for them in a solitary place, where stranger’s foot rarely intruded – at a sweet spot called Burnbraes, by the side of the Brachie Burn, on the north bank of the Almond, and about three-quarters of a mile distant from the present mansion-house of Lynedoch. The site of this verdant refuge is still pointed out. It is reached after a pleasant walk – the waters of the Almond occasionally glancing on the eye at turns of the winding path. Arriving at the scene the visitor is shown a small plot of ground, about four yards square, circumscribed by a slight elevation which seems to mark the foundations of the cot. Thither came the two friends, in that sad autumn when pestilence and war swept the land. In that lone retreat they seemed as twin dryads of the silent woods, or naiads of the rippling river that sparkled in the sunshine. Happy in their own society, and reposing all their confidence in the gracious protection of heaven, they trustfully looked forward to the dawning of a better day for afflicted Scotland. Doubtless they daily read those portions of Scripture prescribed for “the time of God’s visitation by the pest” in the Book of Common Order – the liturgy framed by John Knox and his brethren for the Church of Scotland at the Reformation – which was scarcely yet superseded in ordinary use by the Westminster Directory, as the latter had only been approved and established by the Scottish Parliament in the previous February. Of those selected passages, suited to the saddening circumstances of the time, were the following:- 

   Numbers, chap. 21, which tells of the fiery serpents in the wilderness, and of the brazen serpent, the emblem of healing and salvation. 

   Second Samuel, chap. 24, relating how the pestilence fell upon Israel because of David’s sin in numbering the people, and how he saw the angel standing by the threshing-place of Araunah the Jebusite, and stretching out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it. 

   Psalm 91, full of the most gracious consolation. 

   Well might it have been with the fair recluses had there not intervened a thoughtless disregard of reasonable precaution, bringing about a calamitous issue. The rustic bower by the Almond became a pilgrimage. One of the maidens – tradition names Bessie Bell – was beloved by a young swain of the vicinity, who made them frequent visits, bringing provisions, or more probably delicacies of the season, and preservatives and charms against the Plague. The fair recluses welcomed him with smiles, and his attentions lightened the tedium of long days, and kept up their connection with the world from which they had fled. Better far that he had left them to their seclusion – that they had never seen his face. One day he brought with him a gift for his betrothed, which he had purchased of a Jew Pedlar near the town of Perth. It was either a rich handkerchief or a pearl-necklace; but whether one or other is immaterial: it was of considerable value, and the youth bestowed it on the idol of his heart. She wore it with fond pride, never thinking that it was charged with death! Not many hours had flown when the blooming girl fell suddenly ill with every symptoms of the Plague! She and her companion, still trusting in the false security of their habitation, hoped, as it were, against hope. But that fatal souvenir of affection! – it had been purloined by the crafty Jew from the person of a victim of the Pestilence in the city, and the unseen poison clinging to it was communicated to the unsuspecting wearer in the bower of the Almond. The malady seized upon the other inmate, and after a brief term of suffering, placidly borne as the dispensation of an inscrutable Providence, both maidens yielded up their gentle spirits, and lay side by side in death! Tradition adds that the lover also caught the infection, and died soon after returning to his home. 

   It was the general rule of the time that all Plague-interments should be made in ground considerably apart from churchyards, so as to obviate any after-opening of the graves, which might give vent to the buried contagion. Notwithstanding this rule, however, the friends of the hapless maidens sought to inter their bodies at Methven, either in the old Collegiate Church there, or in the churchyard – the probability being, we think, that the Grays of Lednoch had a burial place within the church. But when the funeral party began their sad procession towards Methven, and had only reached the ford of the Almond at what is called the Dronach Haugh, which lies at the bottom of Dronach Brae, a steep acclivity over-looking the river, they were stopped by a crowd of the parishioners who peremptorily insisted that for preventing infection, the bodies should be carried no farther. In accordance with the popular behest, the remains of the sisters in misfortune were laid in one grave, in the Dronach Haugh, within a few hundred yards of their deserted bower – in a lone spot, where the murmur of the river, the song of birds, the sough of breezes, and the rustle of foliage, are the only sounds that break the silence of the solitude. Such is the traditionary story. 

   The fate of the unfortunate beauties took a fast hold of people’s sympathies; and one of those nameless bards, who commemorated in the sweet Scottish verse so many incidents of woe and love, chivalry and patriotism, composed a ballad on the Lednoch tragedy – the following version of which, familiar in the district, we consider the best: 

BALLAD OF 

“BESSIE BELL AND MARY GRAY.” 

O Bessie Bell an’ Mary Gray! 

They were twa bonnie lasses – 

They biggit a bower on yon burn-brae, 

An’ theekit it ower wi’ rashes. 

They theekit it ower wi’ rashes green, 

They happit it round wi’ heather; 

But the pest cam’ frae the burrows-toun, 

An’ slew them baith thegither. 

They thought to lie in Methven Kirk, 

Beside their gentle kin; 

But they maun lie in Dronach-haugh, 

And beak fornent the sun. 

O Bessie Bell and Mary Gray! 

They were twa bonnie lasses – 

They biggit a tower on yon burn-brae, 

An’ theekit it ower wi’ rashes. 

This old ballad falling into the hands of Allan Ramsay, he adopted only the first four lines and appended to them a new song of his own, which instead of lamenting the fate of the “bonnie lasses,” celebrated the witcheries of their charms. He has been sharply censured for this changing the sentiment of the subject, or, in other words, redeeming it from the gloom which brooded over it by pourtraying the fair damsels in their happy days ere the Plague threw its dark shadow over their lives: but in doing so honest Allan, we submit, committed no breach of good taste. The story had two phases, and he chose one: he painted the sunny side of the picture, and did it well. He has also been ridiculed for the incongruity of his classical allusions; but these are in the style of seventeenth-century poets, and do not in our opinion detract one whit from the merit of the song. It appeared in his quarto volume of Poems, published at Edinburgh, in 1721, and was subsequently inserted in his Tea-Table Miscellany (with the verbal substitution of “e’en” for “eye” in the second line of the third stanza). We quote the latter version:- 

BESSY BELL AND MARY GRAY. 

O Bessy Bell and Mary Gray, 

They are twa bonny lasses, 

They bigg’d a bower on yon burn-brae, 

Fair Bessy Bell I loo’d yestreen, 

And thought I ne’er could alter; 

But Mary Gray’s twa pawky e’en, 

They gar my fancy falter. 

Now Bessy’s hair’s like a lint-tap; 

She smiles like a May morning, 

When Phœbus starts frae Thetis’ lap, 

The hills with rays adorning: 

White is her neck, saft his her hand, 

Her waist and feet’s fu’ genty; 

With ilka grace she can command; 

Her lips, O wow! they’re dainty. 

And Mary’s locks are like a craw, 

Her e’en like diamonds glances; 

She’s ay sae clean, redd up and braw, 

She kills whene’er she dances: 

Blyth as a kid, with wit at will, 

She blooming, tight, and tall is; 

And guides her air sa gracefu’ still, 

O Jove, she’s like thy Pallas. 

Dear Bessy Bell and Mary Gray. 

Ye unco sair oppress us; 

Our fancies jee between you twa, 

Ye are sic bonny lasses: 

Waes me! for baith I canna get, 

To ane by law we’re stented; 

Then I’ll draw cuts, and take my fate, 

And be with ane contented. 

   The Lednoch tragedy was so widely known over Scotland as to become localized in other districts, and particularly in the vale of Teviot, where among the lore of the cottage hearths, it impressed the boyish mind of John Leyden, who, in after years, clothed the tale with the graces of poesy in his Scenes of Infancy. The story “is common to various parts of Scotland,” he says “The Border tradition relates, that two young ladies, of great beauty and accomplishments, entertained an extraordinary friendship for each other – a friendship so uncommon, indeed, that it continued unimpaired even by the unexpected circumstance of finding themselves rivals for the affection of a young man, with whom both had lived in habits of intimacy. During the ravages of the pestilence, they retired to a sequestered glen, where they inhabited a cottage, without informing any person of the place of their retreat. Their lover, whose affection was so equally attracted by the fair rivals that he could form no decision of preference, at last discovered their recess. On inquiring concerning their manner of life in this solitary situation, he found that, not daring to visit places of public resort, they had been under the necessity of subsisting chiefly on snails; and, with surprise, he perceived that they looked more beautiful than ever. Unwilling, however, that they should subsist on such diet, he ventured to visit the nearest town to procure them provisions. There he unfortunately caught the pestilence, which he communicated to his fair friends, who fell, with their lover, victims of the contagion.” 

   A kindred story, but with a happier sequel, is told of two young women in Dundee who survived the pestilence and famine, supporting themselves by using as food the Arion or Limax ater – the black snail. “Two young and blooming maidens lived together at that dread time, like Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, in a remote cottage on the steep (indeed, almost perpendicular) ascent of the Bonnetmakers’ Hill. Deprived of friends or support by the pestilence that walked at noon-day, they still retained their good looks and healthful aspect, even when the famine had succeeded to the plague. The jaundiced eyes of the famine-wasted wretches around them were instantly turned towards the poor girls, who appeared to thrive so well whilst others were famishing. They were unhesitatingly accused of witchcraft, and had nearly fallen a prey to that terrible charge; for betwixt themselves they had sworn never to tell in words by what means they were supported, ashamed as they felt of the resource to which they had been driven; and resolved, if possible, to escape the anticipated derision of their neighbours on its disclosure. It was only when about to be dragged before their stern inquisitors that one of the girls, drawing aside the covering of a great barrel, which stood in the corner of their domicile, discovered, without violating her oath, that the youthful pair had been driven to the desperate necessity of collecting and preserving for food large quantities of these Limacinæ, which they ultimately acknowledged to have proved to them generous and even agreeable to sustenance.” The narrator adds that “to the credit of the times,” the young women’s explanation sufficed, and they were even applauded for their prudence. 

   Another story belongs to Stirling and its neighbourhood. In 1645, a small farm called Shiphaugh, a little way north-east from the town, was tenanted by a family named Kay, whose descendants continued uninterruptedly in the same occupancy until at least thirty years ago [1860ish], if not later. While the plague was in Stirling, two young daughters of the farmer, went one Sunday to attend church in the town, as usual, and in passing through a field called the Cow-park, one of them observing a velvet necklet lying on the path, picked it up, and admiring its beauty, put it around her neck. Unhappily it had dropped from some plague-stricken victim, and speedily the one sister and then the other were seized with the distemper, and died. Their graves were made in what was latterly the stackyard of the farm. 

   In the latter half of the last century, the Lynedoch lands were acquired by Major George Augustus Barry, of the 30th Regiment; and his attention soon became attracted to the grave on the haugh. “When I first came to Lednock,” he states in a communication to the Antiquarian Society of Scotland in 1781, “I was shown (in a part of mu ground called the Dronach Haugh) a heap of stones, almost covered with briers, thorns, and fern, which they assured me was the burial-place of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray.” To his lasting honour be it said that the gallant Major “removed all the rubbish from this little spot of classic ground, enclosed it with a wall, planted it round with flowering shrubs, made up the grave double, and fixed a stone in the wall, on which were engraved the names of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray.” Mrs. Murray, a lady-tourist of the period, who visited the spot, has thus described it: “At the bottom of the sheep path I came to the most beautiful meadow that fancy can form, with a numerous flock of sheep feeding on its lovely green pasture: the Almond, with high rocky banks on one side of it, and flat to this lovely meadow on the other, sweeps round the better half of it; and on the other parts of this pastoral lawn, rising from it, are the thick woods of Leadnock, and the high banks of Logiealmond covered with impenetrable underwood, and backed by noble timber trees; with the burn of the fair friends marking the division of property, moaning in its course down the brae over pieces of rock, and through tufted branches, stumps of trees and bushes, to join the Almond below. In this Arcadian meadow, under the hanging wood of Leadnock, I came to a bit of ground, walled in, and on a stone in the wall I read this simple inscription:- 

The Tomb of Bessy Bell and Mary Gray

I plainly saw the marks of two graves by the rising of the sod; the third, that of the lover, said to be at their feet, I could not find.” 

   The estate of Lynedoch subsequently came into the hands of another gallant veteran – Lord Lyndeoch, the “Hero of Barossa,” who caused some further improvements to be made, by placing a large stone, with an inscription, over the graves, enclosing the spot with a handsome iron railing, and planting some yew trees around it. The gravestone is thus inscribed:- 

They Lived – They Loved – They Died. 

And so it still remains. But another lady-visitant, of our own day, has found sore fault with the whole fashion and taste of these improvements. Mrs. D. Ogilvy, in her Book of Highland Minstrelsy, has a fine ballad on the heroines, in the introductory remarks to which she thinks that “good taste is offended by the heavy square stone sunk to a level with the ground, and the high, inelegant railing which surrounds the slab, giving the tomb the dull, gloomy air of a city churchyard”: and that Lord Lynedoch “knew better what became a hero’s life than a maiden’s grave, or he would have left in their primitive rusticity the grassy mound and unhewn headstone which formerly pointed out the tomb of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray.” The ballad is pitched in the same strain – the shades of the maidens plaintively entreating that the rural simplicity of their lone resting-place might be restored. 

“Oh! stranger, once above us grew 

The feather fern, the harebell blue, 

And decked our bosoms lightly; 

And through the slender crested grass, 

Unto the free air we could pass, 

When stars were shining nightly. 

.     .     .     .     . 

“Oh! stranger, heed the boon we ask – 

No irksome toil, no sinful task, 

No soul-defiling duty; 

We seek but pity for our fate, 

Imprisoned, dark and desolate, 

In Lynedoch’s glen of beauty. 

“We seek but freedom – from us far 

Be tablet-stone and iron bar, 

Our peaceful ashes crushing; 

Let us again feel sun and showers, 

And hear the tinkle of the flowers, 

And Almond’s waters gushing. 

“So, when ye list the mavis sing 

On Lynedoch’s braes in early spring, 

Beside some dear one roving, 

Shall grateful accents swell the lay 

From Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, 

Those maidens lost through loving!” 

   But we will not argue this question of taste and sentiment with the gifted poetess. 

   The paternity of each of the “fair friends” now demands investigation. 

   Tradition has generally described Bessie Bell as the daughter of the Laird of Kinvaid. In this assertion, as it stands, however, tradition is manifestly wrong. The lands of Kinvaid have had no Laird of the surname of Bell during the last four hundred years. 

   These lands, in the middle of the fifteenth century, were owned by the lordly house of Seton of Langniddry. At Edinburgh, on 28th March, 1450, James II. confirmed a Charter by George, Lord of Setoun and of Langnudre, knight, dated at Setoun, 20th June, 1449, whereby he conveyed to Lady Katerine of Seytoun, relict of the late Lord John of Setoun, certain lands in Langnudre, in excambion for the just third part of the lands of Lowstoun and Kynwed, in the sheriffdom of Perth. Long afterwards, at Edinburgh, on 24th December, 1493, James IV. confirmed a Charter, dater there on 27th November preceding, whereby George, Lord Seytoun, for a certain sum of money, granted to Robert Vaus, burgess of Edinburgh, his heirs and assignees, the lands of Monyvy, Lowstoun, and Kinvaid, in the sheriffdom of Perth. Again, at Edinburgh, on 12th February, 1496-97, James IV. confirmed a Charter, dated there on the 8th of said month, by the above Robert Vaus, who, for a certain sum of money, sold and alienated to George [Brown], Bishop of Dunkeld, and his heirs and assignees, the lands of Monivy, Lowstoun, and Kinvaid, in the sheriffdom of Perth. 

   Alexander Myln, Canon of Dunkeld and Rector of Moneydie, states in his Lives of the Bishops of Dunkeld, that previous to the purchase from Vaus – the price paid him being “three years of the fruits of the Church of Crawmond” – the Bishops had possessed the lands of Pittendynie, lying contiguous to those of Kinvaid, the stream of the Shochie dividing them. On Bishop Brown falling in ill favour with James Crichton of Strathord, that turbulent Laird, on one occasion, threatened the Prelate’s life near the Bridge of Earn, and afterwards systematically harassed the tenants of Pittendynie. Immediately on making the purchase from Vaus, the Bishop determined to give his tenants in that quarter better protection from spoliation by annexing the lands to Dunkeld Cathedral, and procuring their incorporation with the barony of Dunkeld; “but upon this express condition,” says Myln, “that a layman was to hold them of the Church, and to perform the services to the King which fell to these lands.” At Linlithgow, on 6th April, 1497, James IV. confirmed to the Cathedral of Dunkeld, and George, Bishop of the same, and his successors as Bishops, the lands of Monivy, Loustoun and Kinvaid, in the sheriffdom of Perth, and declared them to be united and incorporated with the Barony of Dunkeld. The Bishop “having made this purchase,” continues Myln, “built a mansion house” – it must have been a place of some strength, as it subsequently came to be called a castle – “on the lands of Kinvaid, and from this time the tenants of the church lived in great peace,” the Laird of Strathord not venturing to molest them any more. 

   Bishop Brown, on 8th October, 1497, about nine months after the purchase, granted the lands in tack to Elizabeth, his sister; and in 1506 he granted them, on like terms, to his niece, Marjory Johnston, and her spouse, Thomas Rattray, whose descendants held them till the year 1623. The annual rental paid to the Cathedral was 20 bolls of oatmeal, and £8 to the Chaplain of St. Mary’s Altar therein. 

   Although Strathord’s feud was stanched, new troubles arose to vex the Bishop. He had another niece, named Matilda, a widow, who resided with other relatives in the manor-place of Kinvaid. A wild Highland suitor, John Stewart, son of John Stewart of Stowix, in Athole, carried off Matilda to the hills, whence she was with difficulty brought back. Therefore the Bishop ordered his nephew, Matilda’s brother, Mr George Fern, archdeacon of Dunkeld, “to keep house at Kinvaid, where he, his sister and other relatives, were to pass the Christmas days” of 1514. And so time went on. But temporo mutantur, etc. At the outbreak of the Reformation, the then Laird of Kinvaid – presumably Marjory Johnston’s son – was so stout a supporter of the movement, that the Privy Council of Scotland, on 12 August 1560, conjoined him with his neighbour, the Laird of Airntully, in a commission to purge Dunkeld Cathedral of all monuments of idolatry. In the spring of that year – on 20th March – Bishop Crichton of Dunkeld granted a charter to Thomas Marschell of Pitcarnis of inter alia the Mill of Kinvaid and multures thereof, in the barony of Dunkeld and sheriffdom of Perth, which was confirmed by James VI. at Dalkeith on 3rd February, 1581-82. 

   The Rattrays, in 1623, conveyed the lands of Kinvaid to John Crichton, son of Sir John Crichton of Innernytie. John did not long enjoy his purchase, having died in 1629, leaving a widow, Isobel Wintoun, and three children, – a son, John, and two daughters, Alison and Isabel. John, the son, was but a minor at his succession in 1629, and he died in 1633 – having been slain by a neighbour, one of the Irelands of Milnhole, as a local tradition and ballad assert. On John’s death without issue, Kinvaid was equally divided betwixt his sisters. Their mother is mentioned in 1642, as having a pew in St. John’s Church of Perth; and when she died, in 1633, she was interred within that sacred edifice, – £100 Scots being paid as her burial-fee, which sum the Kirk Session devoted “to buy ane Cup to the Communion;” and the cup so bought is still in use in the church, Alison Crichton married Sir William Stewart of Innernytie; and her sister, Isobel, married David Drummond, Master of Madderty. When Isobel died without issue, her half of Kinvaid was acquired by her sister’s husband. But the Innernytie Stewarts were forfeited for taking part in the Rebellion of 1715, and Kinvaig being brought to sale, was purchased by Sir Thomas Drummond of Logiealmond. Ultimately, Kinvaid became, by purchase, the property of the ducal house of Athole. 

   Thus, after a somewhat tedious search, we can find no trace of any Laird named Bell in Kinvaid; and therefore if Bessie Bell had any relationship at all with a Laird of that estate, it must have been through the Rattrays, the Crichtons, or the Stewarts. 

   Dr Robert Chambers, in his Scottish Ballads (1829), says (on the authority of Pennant and the Old Statistical Account) that “Bessie Bell and Mary Gray were the daughters of two country gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Perth; and an intimate friendship subsisted between them. Bessie Bell, daughter of the Laird of Kinnaird [a misprint for Kinvaid] happening to be on a visit to Mary Gray, at her father’s house of Lynedoch, when the plague of 1666 [1645] broke out,” etc. But he has a different story in his Songs of Scotland prior to Burns (1862): “There is a tradition that the two heroines were the daughters of respectable citizens of Perth, and that on the plague breaking out there, they retired to a rush-thatched cot or bower on the braes of Lednoch.” We can only remark that we have never heard this tradition in the town of Perth, or in the locality of the tragedy; though it is probable enough that Bessie Bell was the daughter of a citizen of Perth, where that surname has been long pretty common. 

   James Duff, a Perthshire poet and a gardener to trade, who lived for many years in Logiealmond, near Lynedoch, and wrote a ballad on this story, had every opportunity of being fully conversant with the traditions of the district. His Collection of Poems, Songs, etc., was published at Perth in 1816. In the introduction to his ballad he adheres to the fallacy of Bessie Bell being the Laird of Kinvaid’s daughter; but states that she was the object of the ill-starred visitor’s affection; and in the ballad itself she is called the niece of Mary Gray’s father

   Let us now consider Mary Gray’s alleged paternity. In her case, there were Lairds of Lynedoch named Gray. 

   The lands of Lednoch, or the larger portion thereof, were in the possession of the Mercers of Meikleour and Aldie sometime before the middle of the fifteenth century. In fact, the Mercers had a still earlier connection with this estate; for a charter was granted by Robert, Steward of Scotland and Earl of Fife, who afterwards became King Robert II., in favour of John Mercer, burgess of Perth, and Ada, his spouse, and their heirs and assignees, of an annual rent of 30s. from the lands of Lednoch, in the barony of Methven. This charter is undated, but it must have been executed between 1st September, 1369, when the granter became Baron of Methven, and 22nd February, 1371-72, when he ascended the throne. 

   A charter of confirmation was granted by James II., at Stirling, on 21st March, 1443-44, in favour of Andrew Mercer of Meikleour, and his heirs, in inter alia the lands of Ledenoch, in the sheriffdom of Perth, which he had resigned. At Stirling, on 17th July, 1493, James IV. confirmed a charter, dated at Perth, 14th July, 1475, by Sir Laurence Mercer of Meikleour in favour of Isobelle Wardlawe, daughter of the late Henry de Wardlawe of Torry, who became his spouse, of inter alia the lands of Lidnoche, in the barony of Meikleour and sheriffdom of Perth, to be held by her during her life. Sir Laurence’s son and heir, Henry, was confirmed in the said lands by James IV. at Edinburgh, on 5th March, 1504-5; and another charter was granted by the same king, at Stirling, on 7th May, 1511, quitclaiming the said Henry and his heirs of the annual payment of 15s. out of the said lands. Again, at Edinburgh, on 13th July, 1527, James V. granted a charter confirming Laurence Mercer of Meikleour in inter alia the lands of Leidnach, in the sheriffdom of Perth. Ther Mercers continued in possession till about the year 1575. 

   But although the Mercers’ “lands of Lednoch” had been included within the barony of Meikleour, by the year 1475, some portion of Lednoch still pertained to the royal demesne of Methven. We find that at Edinburgh, on 13th July, 1513, a charter was granted by James IV., with consent of Jonet, widow of John Beg, Donald Beg, and Thomas Fyffe, conveying in feu farm to David Gray, in liferent, and William Gray, his son, heritably, and Margaret Spittale, spouse of the said William, and the longest liver of them, in conjunct fee, and to the heirs legitimately procreated between them, whom failing to the heirs male whomsoever of the said William, whom all failing, to his eldest heir female without division, 2 oxen-gang of the lands of Leidnach, which lie next to the lands of the said Jonete, 6 oxen-gang of the same lands of Thomas Fyffe, in the lordship  of Methven and sheriffdom of Perth; returning annually £10 4s. 2d. with 21 hens, in the augmentation of the royal rental at the most £6 2s. 6d., and the double of the said farm-duty at the entry of the heirs to the fee, with the casualty of marriage when a marriage shall happen; and other usual stipulations, Here we have the first appearance in Lynedoch of the Grays – the ancestors of Mary. Taking an oxen-gang to be 13 acres, the portion of land above conveyed would be 182 acres. 

   Near the end of the same century, William Gray, apparently the son of William Gray and Margaret Spittale, was Portioner of Leidnoch, while two other Grays were resident on the lands. The Scottish Privy Council, at a meeting in Stirling, on 8th September, 1593, heard a complaint by the Duke of Lennox against a large number of country folks, charging them with having daily and nightly cut and destroyed his wood of Methven, and peeled the bark off the trees, so as almost to destroy the said wood; and amongst the accused were William Gray, Portioner of Leidnoch; Andrew Gray, in Leidnoch; and John Gray there. None of the parties appearing, they were all denounced rebels. Again, at Edinburgh, on 14th December that year, William Gray, of Leidnoch, as principal, and Andrew Gray, fiar of Dunnynad, as surety, gave bond for £1000 not to harm Mr. Gilbert Moncrieff of Myrsyd; and two days afterwards William Gray of Leidnoch became surety that John Gray, in Leidnoch, would not harm the said Mr. Gilbert Moncrieff. 

   The Rentall of the County of Perth, made up in 1649, by authority of the Scottish Parliament (four years after the outbreak of the Plague), shows that then a part of Lednoch belonged to Patrick Gray, who was evidently the father or brother of Mary: 

Methven Parish

Patrick Gray, for his part of Lednock, £73   6   8 

   Kinvaid in the same Roll, is entered as belonging to Sir William Stewart: 

Moneydie Parish

Sir William Stewart, for Kinvade, £440   0   0 

   Farther, the following are the only Lairds of the name of Bell in the Rentall: 

Scoon Parish

Adam Bell, for half of the Wakemyle of Kincaroqwhie, £4   12   0 

Dron Parish

Mr. William Bell, for his Croft, £34   0   0 

   “The old family seat” of Lednoch, wrote Major Barry, about 1774, “was a castle, which stood on a small hill on the banks of the Almond, a very strong situation naturally. The ditch that surrounded two-thirds of the castle still remains, and the hill is called the Castle-hill to this day. This lies about a quarter of a mile west from the present house.” 

   We have now exhausted every accessible source of information concerning the two heroines – the story of whose fate will dwell in the popular memory from one age to another, and never lose its pathetic charm – 

“That lone deserted bower, and these twin graves, 

Shall they be all forgot? Shall future times 

Of them know nothing? No! while flowery Spring 

Shall prank the greensward gay; while Summer suns 

Shall flush the full-blown blossoms on the boughs; 

While Autumn shall heap high her mellow fruits, 

And savage Winter wrap his brow in storms, 

So long shall youths and gentle maidens come 

In pensive pilgrimage, to view the bower 

And graves of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray.” 

   It may be noticed that in the Rev. Dr. W. M. Hetherington’s Twelve Dramatic Sketches, founded on the Pastoral Poetry of Scotland: Edinburgh, 1829, “Bessie Bell and Mary Gray” occupy the place of honour. The lover is named Drummond, and he it is who buries the dead maidens. 

   The old air of the ballad was adopted by Gay for one of the duets in the Beggar’s Opera (Act. iii. scene 8) commencing – 

“A curse attends that woman’s love 

Who always would be pleasing.” 

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