Read THE LOCHMABEN HARPER of Tales From Scottish Ballads , free online book, by Elizabeth W. Grierson, on

“Oh, heard ye of a silly harper,
Wha lang lived in Lochmaben town,
How he did gang to fair England,
To steal King Henry’s wanton brown?”

Once upon a time, there was an old man in Lochmaben, who made his livelihood by going round the country playing on his harp. He was very old, and very blind, and there was such a simple air about him, that people were inclined to think that he had not all his wits, and they always called him “The silly Lochmaben Harper.”

Now Lochmaben is in Dumfriesshire, not very far from the English border, and the old man sometimes took his harp and made long journeys into England, playing at all the houses that he passed on the road.

Once when he returned from one of these journeys, he told everyone how he had seen the English King, King Henry, who happened to be living at that time at a castle in the north of England, and although he thought the King a very fine-looking man indeed, he thought far more of a frisky brown horse which his Majesty had been riding, and he had made up his mind that some day it should be his.

All the people laughed loudly when they heard this, and looked at one another and tapped their foreheads, and said, “Poor old man, his brain is a little touched; he grows sillier, and sillier;” but the Harper only smiled to himself, and went home to his cottage, where his wife was busy making porridge for his supper.

“Wife,” he said, setting down his harp in the corner of the room, “I am going to steal the King of England’s brown horse.”

“Are you?” said his wife, and then she went on stirring the porridge. She knew her husband better than the neighbours did, and she knew that when he said a thing, he generally managed to do it.

The old man sat looking into the fire for a long time, and at last he said, “I will need a horse with a foal, to help me: if I can find that, I can do it.”

“Tush!” said his wife, as she lifted the pan from the fire and poured the boiling porridge carefully into two bowls; “if that is all that thou needest, the brown horse is thine. Hast forgotten the old gray mare thou left at home in the stable? Whilst thou wert gone, she bore a fine gray foal.”

“Ah!” said the old Harper, his eyes kindling. “Is she fond of her foal?”

“Fond of it, say you? I warrant bolts and bars would not keep her from it. Ride thou away on the old mare, and I will keep the foal at home; and I promise thee she will bring home the brown horse as straight as a die, without thy aid, if thou desire it.”

“Thou art a clever woman, Janet: thou thinkest of everything,” said her husband proudly, as she handed him his bowlful of porridge, and then sat down to sup her own at the other side of the fire, chuckling to herself, partly at her husband’s words of praise, and partly at the simplicity of the neighbours, who called him a silly old harper.

Next morning the old man went into the stable, and, taking a halter from the wall, he hid it in his stocking; then he led out his old gray mare, who neighed and whinnied in distress at having to leave her little foal behind her. Indeed he had some difficulty in getting her to start, for when he had mounted her, and turned her head along the Carlisle road, she backed, and reared, and sidled, and made such a fuss, that quite a crowd collected round her, crying, “Come and see the silly Harper of Lochmaben start to bring home the King of England’s brown horse.”

At last the Harper got the mare to start, and he rode, and he rode, playing on his harp all the time, until he came to the castle where the King of England was. And, as luck would have it, who should come to the gate, just as he arrived, but King Henry himself. Now his Majesty loved music, and the old man really played very well, so he asked him to come into the great hall of the castle, and let all the company hear him play.

At this invitation the Harper jumped joyously down from his horse, as if to make haste to go in, and then he hesitated.

“Nay, but if it please your Majesty,” he said humbly, “my old nag is footsore and weary: mayhap there is a stall in your Majesty’s stable where she might rest the night.”

Now the King loved all animals, and it pleased him that the old man should be so mindful of his beast; and seeing one of the stablemen in the distance, he turned his head and cried carelessly, “Here, sirrah! Take this old man’s nag, and put it in a stall in the stable where my own brown horse stands, and see to it that it has a good supper of oats and a comfortable litter of hay.”

Then he led the Harper into the hall where all his nobles were, and I need not tell you that the old man played his very best. He struck up such a merry tune that before long everybody began to dance, and the very servants came creeping to the door to listen. The cooks left their pans, and the chambermaids their dusters, the butlers their pantries; and, best of all, the stablemen came from the stables without remembering to lock the doors.

After a time, when they had all grown weary of dancing, the clever old man began to play such soft, soothing, quiet music, that everyone began to nod, and at last fell fast asleep.

He played on for a time, till he was certain that no one was left awake, then he laid down his harp, and slipped off his shoes, and stole silently down the broad staircase, smiling to himself as he did so.

With noiseless footsteps he crept to the stable door, which, as he expected, he found unlocked, and entered, and for one moment he stood looking about him in wonder, for it was the most splendid stable he had ever seen, with thirty horses standing side by side, in one long row. They were all beautiful horses, but the finest of all, was King Henry’s favourite brown horse, which he always rode himself.

The old Harper knew it at once, and, quick as thought, he loosed it, and, drawing the halter which he had brought with him out of his stocking, he slipped it over its head.

Then he loosed his own old gray mare, and tied the end of the halter to her tail, so that, wherever she went, the brown horse was bound to follow. He chuckled to himself as he led the two animals out of the stable and across the courtyard, to the great wrought-iron gate, and when he had opened this, he let the gray mare go, giving her a good smack on the ribs as he did so. And the old gray mare, remembering her little foal shut up in the stable at home, took off at the gallop, straight across country, over hedges, and ditches, and walls, and fences, pulling the King’s brown horse after her at such a rate that he had never even a chance to bite her tail, as he had thought of doing at first, when he was angry at being tied to it.

Although the mare was old, she was very fleet of foot, and before the day broke she was standing with her companion before her master’s cottage at Lochmaben. Her stable door was locked, so she began to neigh with all her might, and at last the noise awoke the Harper’s wife.

Now the old couple had a little servant girl who slept in the attic, and the old woman called to her sharply, “Get up at once, thou lazy wench! dost thou not hear thy master and his mare at the door?”

The girl did as she was bid, and, dressing herself hastily, went to the door and looked through the keyhole to see if it were really her master. She saw no one there save the gray mare and a strange brown horse.

“Oh mistress, mistress, get up,” she cried in astonishment, running into the kitchen. “What do you think has happened? The gray mare has gotten a brown foal.”

“Hold thy clavers!” retorted the old woman; “methinks thou art blinded by the moonlight, if thou knowest not the difference between a full-grown horse and a two-months’-old foal. Go and look out again and bring me word if ’tis not a brown horse which the mare has brought with her.”

The girl ran to the door, and presently came back to say that she had been mistaken, and that it was a brown horse, and that all the neighbours were peeping out of their windows to see what the noise was about.

The old woman laughed as she rose and dressed herself, and went out with the girl to help her to tie up the two horses.

“’Tis the silly old Harper of Lochmaben they call him,” she said to herself, “but I wonder how many of them would have had the wit to gain a new horse so easily?”

Meanwhile at the English castle the Harper had stolen silently back to the hall after he had let the horses loose, and, taking up his harp again, he harped softly until the morning broke, and the sleeping men round him began to awake.

The King and his nobles called loudly for breakfast, and the servants crept hastily away, afraid lest it might come to be known that they had left their work the evening before to listen to the stranger’s music.

The cooks went back to their pans, and the chambermaids to their dusters, and the stablemen and grooms trooped out of doors to look after the horses; but presently they all came rushing back again, helter-skelter, with pale faces, for the stable door had been left open, and the King’s favourite brown horse had been stolen, as well as the Harper’s old gray mare. For a long time no one dare tell the King, but at last the head stableman ventured upstairs and broke the news to the Master-of-the-Horse, and the Master-of-the-Horse told the Lord Chamberlain, and the Lord Chamberlain told the King.

At first his Majesty was very angry, and threatened to dismiss all the grooms, but his attention was soon diverted by the cunning old Harper, who threw down his harp, and pretended to be in great distress.

“I am ruined, I am ruined!” he exclaimed, “for I lost the gray mare’s foal just before I left Scotland, and I looked to the price of it for the rent, and now the old gray mare herself is gone, and how am I to travel about and earn my daily bread without her?”

Now the King was very kind-hearted, and he was sorry for the poor old man, for he believed every word of his story, so he clapped him on the back, and bade him play some more of his wonderful music, and promised to make up to him for his losses.

Then the wicked old Harper rejoiced, for he knew that his trick had succeeded, and he picked up his harp again, and played so beautifully that the King forgot all about the loss of his favourite horse.

All that day the Harper played to him, and on the morrow, when he would set out for home, in spite of all his entreaties that he would stay longer, he made his treasurer give him three times the value of his old gray mare, in solid gold, because he said that, if his servants had locked the stable door, the mare would not have been stolen, and, besides that, he gave him the price of the foal, which the wicked old man had said that he had lost. “For,” said the King, “’tis a pity that such a marvellous harper should lack the money to pay his rent.”

Then the cunning old Harper went home in triumph to Lochmaben, and the good King never knew till the end of his life how terribly he had been cheated.