Authors: Rosemary Sutcliff
It is seventeenth-century Scotland, and the Covenanters – those wanting religious freedom from the dictates of English rule – are gathering strength. Hugh Herriott, fresh from a Covenanting background, finds himself working for redcoat Colonel Claverhouse and his Lady Jean: first as the stable-lad and in later years, as galloper to Claverhouse. The tension mounts between the two sides of the divided country. Claverhouse, with Hugh always by his side, leads his troops in bloody battle against the Covenanters, through forest and valley, village and town, victory … and loss.
To the Lords of Convention, ’twas
Claver’se who spoke,
’Ere the King’s crown shall fall there are
crowns to be broke,
So let each Cavalier who loves honour and me
Come follow the bonnet of Bonnie Dundee!
MAYBE I COULD
go back now. Some among us gained leave to return home years ago; but I’ve no stomach for Scotland under Hanoverian George. Oh, there’s times I grow homesick for my own hills, and I should be glad to think that you laddies might come to know them one day; but that will be for you to decide when you are grown men. Your grandmother and I do well enough here in Rotterdam. With all the Scottish merchants and the captains of the cross-channel trading vessels and tall East Indiamen that come and go, we are never out of touch with our own roots, and nor do we go hungry for the clack of the good Scots tongue among the broad flat speech of the Low Countries.
Sometimes there’s too much of either tongue, when the women get together. Aye.
Not three days since, as I was cleaning up my brushes and palette after the day’s work, your grandmother came in upon me with her eyes stormy and the colour flying like flags in her cheeks; and when I asked her what had put her in such a bonnie taking, ‘I was talking with Mistress Seton over a cup of chocolate,’ said she, ‘but I’ll not be entering her house again! She was asking me was it true, as she’d heard, that Claverhouse was used to hang men with his own hand for the pleasure of it, aye, and that he caused two God-fearing women to be tied to stakes on a sandbank in the Clyde, to drown when the tide came in.’
‘That’s nothing,’ said I, rubbing the last of the
poppy-seed oil into my palette – a good mature palette, properly oiled after every use has a surface like satin, and to my mind should never be left to the journeyman’s tending. ‘Folks have talked about their betters since Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden. I’ve heard it said before now that Claverhouse was in league with the Devil, and could not be killed save with a silver bullet. Aye, and that that great raking sorrel he used to ride was his Familiar.’
‘It is no laughing matter!’ said your grandmother.
‘Is it not? Whisht, woman, let the Whigs and the Covenanters tell what tales they please.
know what manner of man he was, and the truth of the stories.’
Your grandmother sat herself down in the big carved oak chair with the mermaid on the back, that I put my sitters in when they come to the house. ‘Aye, we know,’ she said. ‘But Johnnie and Jamie never saw him, and as for their bairns’ (that’s you) ‘how will they know what to believe, when folks tell such wicked lies, naming him Bloody Claver’se and all?’
‘I’ve told the true tales to John and James, often enough to weary them, Heaven knows,’ said I, ‘and I’ll be telling them to the bairns no doubt; they’re good tales for telling round the fire on winter nights.’
‘Telling is not enough,’ said she. ‘Folks forget, and stories get twisted, and memory tangles itself. What tales do you suppose the bairns will be telling
grandsons, by and by?’
I said nothing. I had not thought as far ahead as that, and she went on, ‘No, I was thinking all the way home from Mistress Seton’s – you must write it all down!’
I stared at her. ‘Write it down? Woman, if it’s a book you’re wanting, Philip of Amryclose did that long ago.’
She sniffed. ‘
? All high words and
heroies and written in Latin, forbye? No, Hugh Herriot, I was thinking just the tale, just the truth, for the bairns and their bairns after them. And
, before one day you begin to forget, too.’
‘Och away!’ I said.
But I began to think. And I thought what a sore pity it would be if all that I could tell was lost; for it is not many that followed Claverhouse and are yet alive and have the painter’s eye to tell of those days so that others may see them too. It is not many that made the great Highland March with him in the spring of 1689.
So here I sit, beginning the task; setting down on a ream of fair new paper the story of the Claverhouse I knew; Colonel John Graham of Claverhouse that became Viscount Dundee; him that the Covenanters called Bloody Claver’se, and the Highlanders called
Iain Dhub Nan Cath
, Black John of the Battles – which, come to think of it, is the story of my own youth as well.
It began in the great farm kitchen at Wauprigg, with the table pushed back, and the household and farm folk and neighbours gathered to hear Ezekiel Grey, the minister who had come to hold service for us. It was not the Sabbath. At that time the minister came when he could, and the word went round and the people gathered; sometimes just a handful in a farm kitchen, since our own kirks were forbidden to us; sometimes folk from miles around crowding in to one of the great conventicles out on the open moors under the sky, with lookouts posted against surprise by the King’s troopers.
I was standing among the farmhands well back against the walls. I was used to that, though indeed I was one of the family; for my mother had disgraced the name of Armstrong, so
thought, by running away
to wed with a travelling painter, and roaming the country with him like a Tinkler lass. She had died when I was five, and even my memories of her were hazy, though it was a sunny haze. After that I had gone on stravaigling up and down Scotland like a dog at my father’s heels, as he plied his trade. Mostly it was just shop and inn signs, a pair of gilded spurs for a lorimer or a unicorn for a tavern of that name. But now and then some country squire would ask him to paint a favourite dog or horse or a new house. Those would be the times when we would bide more than three days in one place and have full bellies the while. The times when nobody wanted even a shop sign painting, we held horses for travellers and went hungry. My father was not as good a painter as he longed to be; but he always believed that one day I would be a better painter than he was; and beside teaching me all the things that belong to a painter’s boy – cleaning his brushes and grinding the paint and boiling up the black walnut oil – he taught me how to look at things, and even began to teach me how to draw their shapes in the soft brown-black paint called ingres. But when I was eleven he took sick with the lung fever – the winter was bad that year, and we had been sleeping hard – and went the way of my mother.
But before he died, he contrived to get word to my mother’s folk; and my grandfather came all across Scotland to Edinburgh to fetch me from the old besom in the cheap lodging-house – aye, and paid her again for my keep, though my father had left a fine just-finished sign for a silk mercer’s shop in our stinking room, that must have fetched more than enough for a few days’ keep for one laddie.
So here I was at Wauprigg, with my mother’s kin,
and had been for upward of two years. And I had food enough, and a dry place to sleep, and even did lessons with the village dominie when I could be spared from work on the farm. That was a thing I had my grandfather to thank for; I’d have had no schooling but for him. For the rest, my Aunt Margaret never forgave me that my mother had shamed the family. And I daresay my looks, for I was narrow-built and dark like my father, among those big tawny-gold Armstrongs, made it easier to forget that I was kin of theirs.
Aye well, standing back with the farmhands against the wall, I could see the whole crowded kitchen as though it were a picture; and it was a picture that held the eye my father had trained in me.
There were the best wax candles glimmering on the chimney-piece, and the shutters tight closed over the windows though outside it would be scarcely dusk of the windy March day. My aunt’s finest linen cloth on the back-pushed table, and in front of it, Master Grey in his rusty black gown and Geneva bands, the candlelight haloing his thin hair with silver while it left his long narrow face in shadow. But it seemed to me that even in the shadow, as he launched into his sermon – I misremember what it was about, but it must have been about Hell-fire and the sins of the English and their bishops, for his sermons always were, which is why I had mostly given up listening to them and taken to following my own interests inside my own head – I could catch the fanatic blaze in his pale blue eyes. It’s a look I misliked even then.
And all around the kitchen, their faces lit by the candles that were at his back, kneeling with their hands folded before them, were the folk who had gathered to hear the Word of God. Folk from the few farms round-about, Forsyths and Patersons and Carmichaels, and
the Wauprigg folk, my own folk, though I never felt them to be just that; my Aunt Margaret, beautiful but bleak – a bleak and bitter woman, and grown more so, I guessed, in the years since the soldiers had killed her man when Alan was but ten years old. Alan was fifteen now, and standing beside his mother; and ’twas he that held my gaze most strongly of all the souls in that room; aye, and something of my heart as well. A tall callant with a white freckled face under a burning bush of hair, and grey-green eyes that oft times had the Devil looking out of them; but he had tossed me a kind word from time to time, and whistled me to heel as a man whistles his dog. And I was aye a good follower, in my young days, and needed someone to follow.
There should by rights have been one more of us there, in the space kept clear for him by Aunt Margaret; but my grandfather, Armstrong of Wauprigg himself, was busy in the byre with a sick cow.
I had noticed before, how often my grandfather had some good reason for being elsewhere when the conventicles gathered. He had told me once how, when he was a laddie and the Covenant first came into being, the great Montrose himself, him that raised the Highlands for the first King Charles, had ridden the length and breadth of Scotland, with a knot of blue ribbons in his bonnet and the bonnets of his followers, heartening the folk to sign it, no matter what the cost, for the love of God and the freedom to worship Him in their own way, and not in ways forced upon them against their conscience by an English king who had forgotten that he was also a Scot and the bishop of his church. And how folks had flocked in from far and wide to sign, some in their own blood – my grandfather had shown me the tiny white nick-mark on his own wrist. But that had
been in the shining days at the beginning, and the shine had gone, and things and folk had changed until the people who had been ready to die for the freedom of their faith sought to deny that same freedom to the English. And the thing had gone black and bitter, and when the Covenanters came to power they had driven the Episcopalian kirk into the wilderness in their turn. And Montrose had torn the blue ribbons from his bonnet and ridden south to carry his sword to the King. That had been more than forty years gone by, but the blackness and the bitterness remained. And now, with the second Charles upon the throne in London, we must again worship God in secret, and now we were willing not only to die for our faith but to kill for it in ugly ways. Only five years ago Archbishop Sharp had been pulled from his coach on the Edinburgh road, and his brains beaten out of his old grey head before his daughter’s eyes; and every good Covenanting house in Galloway and all the South West had smuggled Dutch muskets in the thatch or under the hearthstone. And Claverhouse was in the West again, and his troopers were for ever trampling up and down to keep the King’s peace and root out the forbidden gatherings.