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The face of nature did not seem propitious to the great gathering on Skeoch Hill.  Inky clouds rolled athwart the leaden sky, threatening a deluge of rain, and fitful gusts of wind seemed to indicate the approach of a tempest.  Nevertheless the elements were held in check by the God of nature, so that the solemn services of the day were conducted to a close without discomfort, though not altogether without interruption.

Several of the most eminent ministers, who had been expelled from their charges, were present on this occasion.  Besides John Welsh of Irongray, there were Arnot of Tongland, Blackadder of Troqueer, and Dickson of Rutherglen ­godly men who had for many years suffered persecution and imprisonment, and were ready to lay down their lives in defence of religious liberty.  The price set upon the head of that “notour traitor, Mr. John Welsh,” dead or alive, was 9000 merks.  Mr. Arnot was valued at 3000!

These preached and assisted at different parts of the services, while the vast multitude sat on the sloping hillside, and the mounted men drew up on the outskirts of the congregation, so as to be within sound of the preachers’ voices, and, at the same time, be ready for action on the defensive if enemies should appear.

Andrew Black and his companion stood for some time listening, with bowed heads, to the slow sweet music that floated towards them.  They were too far distant to hear the words of prayer that followed, yet they continued to stand in reverent silence for some time, listening to the sound ­Black with his eyes closed, his young companion gazing wistfully at the distant landscape, which, from the elevated position on which they stood, lay like a magnificent panorama spread out before them.  On the left the level lands bordering the rivers Cairn and Nith stretched away to the Solway, with the Cumberland mountains in the extreme distance; in front and on the right lay the wild, romantic hill-country of which, in after years, it was so beautifully written: ­

“O bonnie hills of Galloway oft have I stood to see, At sunset hour, your shadows fall, all darkening on the lea; While visions of the buried years came o’er me in their might ­ As phantoms of the sepulchre ­instinct with inward light!  The years, the years when Scotland groaned beneath her tyrant’s hand!  And ‘twas not for the heather she was called `the purple land.’  And ’twas not for her loveliness her children blessed their God ­ But for secret places of the hills, and the mountain heights untrod.”

“Who was the old man I found in what you call your hidy-hole?” asked Wallace, turning suddenly to his companion.

“I’m no’ sure that I have a right to answer that,” said Black, regarding Will with a half-serious, half-amused look.  “Hooever, noo that ye’ve ta’en service wi’ me, and ken about my hidy-hole, I suppose I may trust ye wi’ a’ my secrets.”

“I would not press you to reveal any secrets, Mr. Black, yet I think you are safe to trust me, seeing that you know enough about my own secrets to bring me to the gallows if so disposed.”

“Ay, I hae ye there, lad!  But I’ll trust ye on better grunds than that.  I believe ye to be an honest man, and that’s enough for me.  Weel, ye maun ken, it’s saxteen year since I howkit the hidy-hole below my hoose, an’ wad ye believe it? ­they’ve no fund it oot yet!  Not even had a suspeecion o’t, though the sodgers hae been sair puzzled, mony a time, aboot hoo I managed to gie them the slip.  An’ mony’s the puir body, baith gentle and simple, that I’ve gien food an’ shelter to whae was very likely to hae perished o’ cauld an’ hunger, but for the hidy-hole.  Among ithers I’ve often had the persecuited ministers doon there, readin’ their Bibles or sleepin’ as comfortable as ye like when the dragoons was drinkin’, roarin’, an’ singin’ like deevils ower their heids.  My certies! if Clavers, or Sherp, or Lauderdale had an inklin’ o’ the hunderd pairt o’ the law-brekin’ that I’ve done, it’s a gallows in the Gressmarkit as high as Haman’s wad be ereckit for me, an’ my heed an’ hauns, may be, would be bleachin’ on the Nether Bow.  Humph! but they’ve no’ gotten me yet!”

“And I sincerely hope they never will,” remarked Wallace; “but you have not yet told me the name of the old man.”

“I was comin’ to him,” continued Black; “but wheniver I wander to the doin’s o’ that black-hearted Cooncil, I’m like to lose the threed o’ my discoorse.  Yon is a great man i’ the Kirk o’ Scotland.  They ca’ him Donald Cargill.  The adventures that puir man has had in the coorse o’ mair nor quarter o’ a century wad mak’ a grand story-buik.  He has no fear o’ man, an’ he’s an awfu’ stickler for justice.  I’se warrant he gied ye some strang condemnations o’ the poors that be.”

“Indeed he did not,” said Wallace.  “Surely you misjudge his character.  His converse with me was entirely religious, and his chief anxiety seemed to be to impress on me the love of God in sending Jesus Christ to redeem a wicked world from sin.  I tried to turn the conversation on the state of the times, but he gently turned it round again to the importance of being at peace with God, and giving heed to the condition of my own soul.  He became at last so personal that I did not quite like it.  Yet he was so earnest and kind that I could not take offence.”

“Ay, ay,” said Black in a musing tone, “I see.  He clearly thinks that yer he’rt needs mair instruction than yer heed.  Hm! maybe he’s right.  Hooever, he’s a wonderfu’ man; gangs aboot the country preachin’ everywhere altho’ he kens that the sodgers are aye on the look-oot for him, an’ that if they catch him it’s certain death.  He wad have been at this communion nae doot, if he hadna engaged to preach somewhere near Sanquhar this vera day.”

“Then he has left the hidy-hole by this time, I suppose?”

“Ye may be sure o’ that, for when there is work to be done for the Master, Donal’ Cargill doesna let the gress grow under his feet.”

“I’m sorry that I shall not see him again,” returned the ex-trooper in a tone of regret, “for I like him much.”

Now, while this conversation was going on, a portion of the troop of dragoons which had been out in search of Andrew Black was sent under Glendinning (now a sergeant) in quest of an aged couple named Mitchell, who were reported to have entertained intercommuned, iueu outlawed, persons; attended conventicles in the fields; ventured to have family worship in their cottages while a few neighbours were present, and to have otherwise broken the laws of the Secret Council.

This Council, which was ruled by two monsters in human form, namely, Archbishop Sharp of Saint Andrews and the Duke of Lauderdale, having obtained full powers from King Charles the Second to put down conventicles and enforce the laws against the fanatics with the utmost possible rigour, had proceeded to carry out their mission by inviting a host of half, if not quite, savage Highlanders to assist them in quelling the people.  This host, numbering, with 2000 regulars and militia, about 10,000 men, eagerly accepted the invitation, and was let loose on the south and western districts of Scotland about the beginning of the year, and for some time ravaged and pillaged the land as if it had been an enemy’s country.  They were thanked by the King for so readily agreeing to assist in reducing the Covenanters to obedience to “Us and Our laws,” and were told to take up free quarters among the disaffected, to disarm such persons as they should suspect, to carry with them instruments of torture wherewith to subdue the refractory, and in short to act very much in accordance with the promptings of their own desires.  Evidently the mission suited these men admirably, for they treated all parties as disaffected, with great impartiality, and plundered, tortured, and insulted to such an extent that after about three months of unresisted depredation, the shame of the thing became so obvious that Government was compelled to send them home again.  They had accomplished nothing in the way of bringing the Covenanters to reason; but they had desolated a fair region of Scotland, spilt much innocent blood, ruined many families, and returned to their native hills heavily laden with booty of every kind like a victorious army.  It is said that the losses caused by them in the county of Ayr alone amounted to over 11,000 pounds sterling.

The failure of this horde did not in the least check the proceedings of Sharp or Lauderdale or their like-minded colleagues.  They kept the regular troops and militia moving about the land, enforcing their idiotical and wicked laws at the point of the sword.  We say idiotical advisedly, for what could give stronger evidence of mental incapacity than the attempt to enforce a bond upon all landed proprietors, obliging themselves and their wives, children, and servants, as well as all their tenants and cottars, with their wives, children, and servants, to abstain from conventicles, and not to receive, assist, or even speak to, any forfeited persons, intercommuned ministers, or vagrant preachers, but to use their utmost endeavours to apprehend all such?  Those who took this bond were to receive an assurance that the troops should not be quartered on their lands ­a matter of considerable importance ­for this quartering involved great expense and much destruction of property in most cases, and absolute ruin in some.

After the battle of the Pentland Hills (in 1666), in which the Covenanters, driven to desperation, made an unsuccessful effort to throw off the tyrannical yoke, severer laws were enacted against them.  Their wily persecutor, also being well aware of the evil influence of disagreement among men, threw a bone of contention among them in the shape of royal acts of Indulgence, as they were styled, by which a certain number of the ejected ministers were permitted to preach on certain conditions, but only within their own parishes.  To preach at a separate meeting in a private house subjected the minister to a fine of 5000 merks (about 278 pounds).  To preach in the fields was to incur the penalty of death and confiscation of property.  And these arbitrary laws were not merely enacted for intimidation.  They were rigorously enforced.  The curates in many cases became mere spies and Government informers.  Many of the best men in the land laid down their lives rather than cease to proclaim the Gospel of love and peace and goodwill in Jesus Christ.  Of course their enemies set them down as self-willed and turbulent fanatics.  It has ever been, and ever will be, thus with men who are indifferent to principle.  They will not, as well as cannot, understand those who are ready to fight, and, if need be, die for truth!  Their unspoken argument seems to be:  “You profess to preach peace, love, submission to authority, etcetera; very good, stand to your principles.  Leave all sorts of carnal fighting to us.  Obey us.  Conform humbly to our arrangements, whatever they are, and all will be well; but dare to show the slightest symptom of restiveness under what you style our injustice, tyranny, cruelty, etcetera, and we will teach you the submission which you preach but fail to practise by means of fire and sword and torture and death!”

Many good men and true, with gentle spirits, and it may be somewhat exalted ideas about the rights of Royalty, accepted the Indulgence as being better than nothing, or better than civil war.  No doubt, also, there were a few ­neither good men nor true ­who accepted it because it afforded them a loophole of escape from persecution.  Similarly, on the other side, there were good men and true, who, with bolder hearts, perhaps, and clearer brains, it may be, refused the Indulgence as a presumptuous enactment, which cut at the roots of both civil and religious liberty, as implying a right to withhold while it professed to give, and which, if acquiesced in, would indicate a degree of abject slavery to man and unfaithfulness to God that might sink Scotland into a condition little better than that of some eastern nations at the present day.  Thus was the camp of the Covenanters divided.  There were also more subtle divisions, which it is not necessary to mention here, and in both camps, of course there was an infusion, especially amongst the young men, of that powerful element ­love of excitement and danger for their own sake, with little if any regard to principle, which goes far in all ages to neutralise the efforts and hamper the energies of the wise.

Besides the acts of Indulgence, another and most tyrannical measure, already mentioned, had been introduced to crush if possible the Presbyterians. Letters of intercommuning were issued against a great number of the most distinguished Presbyterians, including several ladies of note, by which they were proscribed as rebels and cut off from all society.  A price, amounting in some instances to 500 pounbds sterling, was fixed on their heads, and every person, not excepting their nearest of kin, was prohibited from conversing with or writing to them, or of aiding with food, clothes, or any other necessary of life, on pain of being found guilty of the same crimes as the intercommuned persons.

The natural result of such inhuman laws was that men and women in hundreds had to flee from their homes and seek refuge among the dens and caves of the mountains, where many were caught, carried off to prison, tried, tortured, and executed; while of those who escaped their foes, numbers perished from cold and hunger, and disease brought on by lying in damp caves and clefts of the rocks without food or fire in all weathers.  The fines which were exacted for so-called offences tempted the avarice of the persecutors and tended to keep the torch of persecution aflame.  For example, Sir George Maxwell of Newark was fined a sum amounting to nearly 8000 pounds sterling for absence from his Parish Church, attendance at conventicles, and disorderly baptisms ­iueu for preferring his own minister to the curate in the baptizing of his children!  Hundreds of somewhat similar instances might be given.  Up to the time of which we write (1678) no fewer than 17,000 persons had suffered for attending field meetings, either by fine, imprisonment, or death.

Such was the state of matters when the party of dragoons under command of Sergeant Glendinning rode towards the Mitchells’ cottage, which was not far from Black’s farm.  The body of soldiers being too small to venture to interrupt the communion on Skeoch Hill, Glendinning had been told to wait in the neighbourhood and gather information while his officer, Captain Houston, went off in search of reinforcements.

“There’s the auld sinner himsel’,” cried the Sergeant as the party came in sight of an old, whitehaired man seated on a knoll by the side of the road.  “Hallo!  Jock Mitchell, is that you?  Come doon here directly, I want to speak t’ye.”

The old man, being stone deaf, and having his back to the road, was not aware of the presence of the dragoons, and of course took no notice of the summons.

“D’ye hear!” shouted the Sergeant savagely, for he was ignorant of the old man’s condition.

Still Mitchell did not move.  Glendinning, whose disposition seemed to have been rendered more brutal since his encounter with Wallace, drew a pistol from his holster and presented it at Mitchell.

“Answer me,” he shouted again, “or ye’re a deed man.”

Mitchell did not move...  There was a loud report, and next moment the poor old man fell dead upon the ground.

It chanced that Ramblin’ Peter heard the report, though he did not witness the terrible result, for he was returning home from the Mitchells’ cottage at the time, after escorting Jean Black and Aggie Wilson thither.  The two girls, having been forbidden to attend the gathering on Skeoch Hill, had resolved to visit the Mitchells and spend the Sabbath with them.  Peter had accompanied them and spent the greater part of the day with them, but, feeling the responsibility of his position as the representative of Andrew Black during his absence, had at last started for home.

A glance over a rising ground sufficed to make the boy turn sharp round and take to his heels.  He was remarkably swift of foot.  A few minutes brought him to the cottage door, which he burst open.

“The sodgers is comin’, grannie!” (He so styled the old woman, though she was no relation.)

“Did ye see my auld man?”


“Away wi’ ye, bairns,” said Mrs. Mitchell quickly but quietly.  “Oot by the back door an’ doon the burnside; they’ll niver see ye for the busses.”

“But, grannie, we canna leave you here alone,” remonstrated Jean with an anxious look.

“An’ I can fecht!” remarked Peter in a low voice, that betrayed neither fear nor excitement.

“The sodgers can do nae harm to me,” returned the old woman firmly.  “Do my bidding, bairns.  Be aff, I say!”

There was no resisting Mrs. Mitchell’s word of command.  Hastening out by the back door just as the troopers came in sight, Peter and his companions, diving into the shrubbery of the neighbouring streamlet, made their way to Black’s farm by a circuitous route.  There the girls took shelter in the house, locking the door and barring the windows, while Peter, diverging to the left, made for the hills like a hunted hare.

Andrew was standing alone at his post when the lithe runner came in sight.  Will Wallace had left him by that time, and was listening entranced to the fervid exhortations of Dickson of Rutherglen.

“The sodgers!” gasped Peter, as he flung himself down to rest.

“Comin’ this way, lad?”

“Na.  They’re at the Mitchells.”

“A’ safe at the ferm?” asked Andrew quickly.

“Ay, I saw the lasses into the hoose.”

“Rin to the meetin’ an’ gie the alarm.  Tell them to send Wallace an’ Quentin here wi’ sax stoot men ­weel airmed ­an’ anither sentry, for I’m gaun awa’.”

Almost before the sentence was finished Ramblin’ Peter was up and away, and soon the alarming cry arose from the assembly, “The dragoons are upon us!”

Instantly the Clydesdale men mounted and formed to meet the expected onset.  The men of Nithsdale were not slow to follow their example, and Gordon of Earlstoun, a tried and skilful soldier, put himself at the head of a large troop of Galloway horse.  Four or five companies of foot, also well armed, got ready for action, and videttes and single horsemen were sent out to reconnoitre.  Thus, in a moment, was this assembly of worshippers transformed into a band of Christian warriors, ready to fight and die for their families and liberties.

But the alarm, as it turned out, was a false one.  Glendinning, informed by spies of the nature of the gathering, was much too sagacious a warrior to oppose his small force to such overwhelming odds.  He contented himself for the present with smaller game.

After continuing in the posture of defence for a considerable time, the assembly dispersed, those who were defenceless being escorted by armed parties to the barns and cottages around.  As they retired from the scene the windows of heaven were opened, and the rain, which had been restrained all day, came down in torrents, and sent the Cairn and Cluden red and roaring to the sea.

But long before this dispersion took place, Andrew Black, with Quentin Dick, Will Wallace, Ramblin’ Peter, and six sturdy young men, armed with sword, gun, and pistol, had hurried down the hill to succour the Mitchells, if need be, and see to the welfare of those who had been left behind in the farm.