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Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders. – XVI. – Miscellaneous.

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]


   The Egg Ordeal was employed for the purpose of trying those suspected of theft. A large basin full of water, and a vessel containing some eggs, were placed before the suspected person, who selected an egg and dropped it into the water. If it sank he was acquitted; if it swam he was condemned. Another ordeal for detecting theft was to take the male and female flowers of the Ophyglossum, commonly called Cain and Abel, and throw them into a tub of water. If the red one sank which was called Cain, he was condemned; but if the light-coloured one, Abel, swam he was declared innocent. The ordeal of the Black Bonnets’ is one supposed to be of great antiquity. Three bonnets were placed on a table, two of which having been previously blackened, the person to be tried must take one of them, and with it rub his face three several times. If he had used the clean bonnet he was exculpated, but if one of the blackened ones he was reckoned guilty, and formally committed. Another ordeal in which three pokers, one hot and two cold, were used, was employed much in the same way. The hot one denoted guilt – a cold one, innocence. Among some of the Indian tribes there us an ordeal called Cherreen, which is thus performed:- A stone is suspended by a small cord in the presence of the chiefs of the village in which the supposed transgressor lives, and when the name of the family is mentioned to which the offender belongs, the stone will swing backwards and forwards of its own accord. This is in every respect one of the uses to which self-bored stones were applied in Scotland in the times of superstition as a test for thieves. 


   It is customary on the Borders to employ tailors from the neighbouring villages, who go to the houses of their employers and make or mend the clothes of the family, for which service they receive a small wage and their food. This custom is noticed in some of our old songs – 

“The tailor cam’ to clout the claes, 

Sic a braw fallow, 

He filled the house a’ fou o’ fleas, 

Daffin’ down an’ daffin’ down, 

He filled the house a’ fou o’ fleas, 

Daffin’ down an’ dilly.” 

   The farmer’s wife of Deloraine one day engaged some tailors from Ettrick Bridge-end to work at her house, who, according to promise, made their appearance early next morning, and commenced operations. At breakfast, which consisted of porridge and milk, one of the apprentices observed that the milk was nearly done, when the gudewife immediately left the apartment with a basin in her hand. Young snip thought this rather curious, as he knew she had no more milk in the house, and, accordingly, to satisfy his curiosity, he followed her, and took up a position behind the door where he could watch her doings without the risk of discovery. She went to the back wall of the spence, or room of the house, and turned – muttering at the same time some unintelligible words – a small pin, when to his astonishment a stream of pure milk instantly began to flow into the basin. She again turned the pin, and the milk ceased to flow. About noon one of the tailors complained of thirst, and wished that he had a basinful of milk as good as that which they had had at breakfast, when the apprentice who had kept the matter a secret said – “Wait a wee and I’ll get ye that.” Shortly after the gudewife had occasion to go out, when young snip immediately leapt from the table, and, seizing a basin, ran to the pin in the wall, which he turned as he had seen her do in the morning, and once more the milk flowed till his basin was full. But he was quite surprised to find that turn the pin as he would the milk still continued to run. He summoned his partners of the goose to his assistance, and in no long time all the tubs and empty vessels in the house were filled, when the gudewife came in, and seeing what had happened, exclaimed in wrath, “Ye loons, ye hae drawn a’ the milk frae every cow atween the head o’ ettrick an’ the fit o’t; this day ne’er a cow will gie a drap o’ milk to its maister although he sud be starvin’.” Hence, it is said, that the wives o’ Deloraine never present milk to their “knights of the thimble,” but feed them with potatoes and bacon, blind brose, and cabbage in galore. 


   I have always had the idea that mermaids were virgins of the ocean, and that its coral caves three hundred fathoms deep were their homes, from which they sometimes emerged, and seated on some isolated rock, and with their syren tones, and sylph-like beauty, lured to their embrace the innocent and unsuspecting youth who ventured within the attraction of their fatal charms. But there is a story recorded in Peter Galbraith’s Diary, which has served to overturn all my notions regarding the abode of mermaids, and has caused me to keep a sharp look out when I happen to cross the Tweed, especially about the even-fall. The story to which I refer is as follows:- “Last week, on Hallow-day, when witches and warlocks and fairies and spirits o’ a’ descriptions keep a grand holiday. Tam Tocher, wha I’ve already said was the ha’man at the big-house, was sent away across the Tweed to look after some sheep that were feeding on a muir, about sax miles aff. After doin’ his errand, he mounted his yand and cam’ cannily alang the footpath through the lang muir without meetin’ wi’ ony body, or onything uncannie. When he cam’ to the ford, a wee bit below Craigowre, which a’body kens is a romantic cottage perched on the very summit o’ a crag on the banks o’ the Tweed, he was dumfoundered when he saw a young lassie sittin’ on the edge of a rock with her head just aboon the surface o’ the water. The lassie never moved when she saw Tam enter the ford, but keepit on kaimin; her lang yellow hair wi’ a siller kaim which she held in her right hand, while in her left she held an oval-shaped lookin’ glass, in which she seemed to admire her lovely form. Tam glowered, and his senses were perfectly bewildered with the wild sweetness o’ the enchanting strains which she sung. He stopped in the middle o’ the stream, when she regarded him with a look of inexpressible tenderness, and in accents almost divine, asked the young man if he would give her a seat behind him, as the river was too deep for her to wade, to which he at once assented. Tam, poor fellow, thought it was some grand lady who had lost her way, made so bold as to ask her name and place of abode, which questions she promised to answer as soon as she had mounted behind him. In an instant she bounded off the rock, and had her hands firmly fixed in his buff belt, which he wore round his waist. On looking round he was surprised to see a long fish-tail hanging down his horse’s side, and more so when she made an attmept to pull him off his horse into the deep water. By good luck he keepit his seat, and had the presence o’ mind to slip the strap through the buckle o’ the belt, and the next pull she gave, baith she and the belt tumbled into the river. She sang out to the young man – “Oh! Tam, Tam, ye ha’e beguiled me,” an’ a’ the night after it is said she was heard lamentin’ in loud an’ dismal shrieks “Wae’s me, I ha’e lost my Tammie.” I could hardly believe this story when Tam tauld me first, but he is a chield to be trusted, and I ha’e every reason to think that it might be Auld Mahoun in the shape o’ a water sprite, tryin’ to lure a decent, weel doin’ lad, to his ruin. Some folk are sae uncharitable as to say that Tam had been drinkin’ deep potations at the boat house, but the Overtown is an awsome place for clavers an’ clashes, though nae waur than its neibours, and Tam himsel’, honest man, declared that he an’ ither twa acquaintances he met by chance on the road had only a tappit hen and four gills o’ usquebaugh, sae it’s clear that couldna account for’t.” 


   The following verses I have never met with in print, and I insert them here as they refer to a historical event connected with the Borders. It is well known that Lord James Douglas was styled the Rose or Flower of Chivalry, that he fell in the famous battle of Otterburn in 1588, celebrated both in the ballad lore of England and Scotland, and that he was buried in the family aisle of the monastery of Melrose by the remainder of his troops, with military honours:- 

“The night-bird hooted thro’ the aisle, 

The organ’s heavenly notes were low, 

And the holy monks of the beauteous pile 

Were chanting the mass with woe, 


For Douglas the Flower of Chivalry, 

Who had fallen by the Otterburn, 

And for good Sir Hugh Montgomery, 

They heavily did mourn. 

*     *     *     *     * 

A pilgrim there came to fair Melrose, 

For the health of his soul and the curse of his foes, 

For the soul of Lord Douglas, by some styled the Rose 

Or the Flower of all Chivalry. 

*     *     *     *     * 

And art thou, noble Douglas, slain, 

And art thou fled for ever? 

Thy mind that like thy armour shone, 

Was never sullied, never. 


In war thou onward first aye moved, 

Thy claymore gleam was fire from heaven, 

Beneath its edge thy enemies bowed, 

Scattered as by the whirlwind driven. 


In vain the hind now turns the soil, 

Unsheltered ‘neath thy guardian eye, 

Now, southern foes will come and spoil, 

And leave the ruined wretch to die. 


He endit thus his feeble strain 

In dying whispers low, 

The east wind sighed thro’ each broken pane, 

The moonbeam shone red on his brow. 


It changed his hue from red to blue, 

And it changed from blue to green, 

At the thunder’s growl he yielded his soul, 

And he never more was seen. 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 27th November, 1863, p.4.

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