Black Agnace Of Dunbar

: Tales From Scottish Ballads

"Some sing o' lords, and some o' knichts,

An' some o' michty men o' war,

But I sing o' a leddy bricht,

The Black Agnace o' Dunnebar."

It was in the year 1338, when Bruce's son was but a bairn, and Scotland

was guided by a Regent, that we were left, a household of women, as it

were, to guard my lord's strong Castle of Dunbar.

My lord himself, Cospatr
ck, Earl of Dunbar and March, had ridden off to

join the Regent, Sir Andrew Moray, and help him to drive the English out

of the land. For the English King, Edward III., thought it no shame to

war with bairns, and since he had been joined by that false loon, Edward

Baliol, he had succeeded in taking many of our Scottish fortresses,

including Edinburgh Castle, and in planting an English army in our


Now the Castle of Dunbar, as all folk know, is a strong Castle, standing

as it doth well out to sea, on a mass of solid rock, and connected with

the mainland only by one narrow strip of land, which is defended by a

drawbridge and portcullis, and walls of solid masonry. Its other sides

need no defence, for the wild waters of the Northern Sea beat about them

with such fury that it is only at certain times of the tide that even

peaceful boatmen can find a safe landing. Indeed, 'tis one of the

strongest fortresses in the country, and because of its position, lying

not so far from the East Border, and being guard as it were to the

Lothians, and Edinburgh, it is often called "The Key of Scotland."

My lord deemed it impregnable, as long as it was well supplied with

food, so he had little scruple in leaving his young wife and her two

little daughters alone there, with a handful of men-at-arms, too old,

most of them, to be of any further service in the field, to guard them.

She, on her part, was very well content to stay, for was she not a

daughter of the famous Randolph, and did she not claim kinship with

Bruce himself? So fear to her was a thing unknown.

I, who was a woman of fifty then, and am well-nigh ninety now, can truly

say that in all the course of a long life, I never saw courage like to


I remember, as though it were yesterday, that cold January morning when

my lord set off to the Burgh Muir, where he was to meet with the Regent.

When all was ready, and his men were mounted and drawn up, waiting for

their master, my lady stepped forth joyously, in the sight of them all,

and buckled on her husband's armour.

"Ride forth and do battle for thy country and thine infant King, poor

babe," she said, "and vex not thy heart for us who are left behind. We

deserve not the name we bear, if we cannot hold the Castle till thy

return, even though it were against King Edward himself. Thinkest thou

not so, Marian?" and she turned round to where I was standing, a few

paces back, with little Mistress Marjory clinging to my skirts, and

little Mistress Jean in my arms.

For though I was but her bower-woman, I was of the same clan as my lady,

and had served in her family all my life. I had carried her in my arms

as I now carried her little daughter, and, at her marriage, I had come

with her to her husband's home.

"Indeed, Madam, I trow we can, God and the Saints helping us," I

answered, and at her brave words the soldiers raised a great cheer, and

my lord, who was usually a stern man, and slow to show his feelings, put

his arm round her and kissed her on the lips.

"Spoken like my own true wife," he said. "But in good troth, Sweetheart,

methinks there is nothing to fear. For very shame neither King Edward

nor his Captains will war against a woman, and, e'en if they do, if thou

but keep the gates locked, and the portcullis down, I defy any one of

them to gain admittance. And, look ye, the well in the courtyard will

never run dry--'tis sunk in the solid rock--and besides the beeves that

were salted down at Martinmas, and the meal that was laid in at the end

of harvest, there are bags of grain hidden down in the dungeons, enough

to feed a score of men for three months at least."

So saying, he leaped into his saddle, and rode out of the gateway, a

gallant figure at the head of his troop of armed men, while we climbed

to the top of the tower, and stood beside old Andrew, the watchman, and

gazed after them until the last glint of their armour disappeared behind

a rising hill.

After their departure all went well for a time. Indeed, it was as though

the years had flown back, and my lady was once more a girl, so

light-hearted and joyous was she, pleased with the novelty of being left

governor of that great Castle. It seemed but a bit of play when, after

ordering the house and setting the maidens to their tasks, she went

round the walls with Walter Brand, a lame archer, who was gently born,

and whom she had put in charge of our little fighting force, to see that

all the men were at their posts.

And mere play it seemed to her still, when, some two weeks after my

lord's departure, as she was sitting sewing in her little chamber, whose

windows looked straight out over the sea, and I was rocking Mistress

Jean's cradle, and humming a lullaby, little Mistress Marjory, who was

five years old, and stirring for her age, came running down from the

watch-tower, where she had been with old Andrew, and cried out that a

great host of men on horseback were coming, and that old Andrew said

that it was the English.

We were laughing at the bairn's story, and wondering who the strangers

could be, when old Andrew himself appeared, a look of concern on his

usually jocund face.

"Oh, my lady," he cried, "there be a body of armed men moving towards

the Castle, led by a knight in splendid armour. A squire rides in front

of him, carrying his banner; but the device is unknown to me, and I fear

me it was never wrought by Scottish hands."

"Ah ha," laughed the Countess, rising and throwing away her tapestry.

"Thou scentest an Englishman, dost thou, Andrew? Mayhap thy thoughts

have run on them so much of late, that the habit hath dimmed thine


"Nay, nay, my lady," stammered old Andrew, half hurt by her gentle

raillery, "mine een are keen enough as yet, although my limbs be old."

"'Tis but my sport, Andrew," she answered kindly. "I have always loved a

jest, and I have no wish to grow old and grave before my time, even if I

have the care of a whole Castle on my shoulders. But hark, there be the

stranger's trumpets sounding before the gate. See to it that Walter

Brand listens to his message, and answers it as befits the dignity of

our house: and thou, do thou mount to thy watch-tower, and keep a good

lookout on all that passes."

We waited in silence for some little space; we could hear the sound of

voices, but no distinct words reached us.

At last Walter Brand came halting to the door and knocked. Like old

Andrew, he wore an anxious look. He was devoted to the Countess, and was

aye wont to be timorous where she was concerned.

"'Tis the English Earl of Salisbury," he said, "who desires to speak

with your Grace. I asked him to entrust his message to me, and I would

deliver it, but he gave answer haughtily, that he would speak with no

one but the Countess."

"Then speak with me he shall," said my lady, with a flash of her eye,

"but he must e'en bring himself to catch my words as they drop like

pearls from the top of the tower. Summon the archers, Walter, and let

them stand behind me for a bodyguard: no man need know how old and frail

they be, if they are high enough up, and keep somewhat in the

background. And thou, Marian, attend me, for 'tis not fitting that the

Countess of Dunbar and March should speak with a strange knight in her

husband's absence, without a bower-woman standing by."

Casting her wimple round her, she ascended the steep stone stairs, and,

as we followed, Walter Brand put his head close to mine. "I like it

not," he said in his sober way, "for this Earl of Salisbury is a bold,

brazen-faced fellow, and to my ears his voice rings not true. I fear me,

he wishes no good to our lady. They say, moreover, that he is one of the

best Captains that the King of England hath, and he hath at least two

hundred men with him."

"Trust my lady to look after her own, and her husband's honour," I said

sharply, for, good man though he was, Walter Brand aye angered me; he

seemed ever over-anxious, a character I love not in a man.

All the same my heart sank, as we stepped out on the flat roof of the

tower, and glanced down over the battlements.

I saw at once that Walter had spoken truly. Montague, Earl of Salisbury,

had a bold, bad face, and his words, though honeyed and low, had a false

ring in them.

"My humblest greetings, fair lady," he cried; "my life is at thy

service, for I heard but yesterday that thy lord, caitiff that he be,

hath left thee alone among rough men, in this lonely wind-swept Castle.

Methinks thou art accustomed to kinder treatment and therefore am I come

to beg thee to open thy gates, and allow me to enter. By my soul, if

thou wilt, I shall be thy servant to the death. Such beauty as thine was

never meant to be wasted in the desert. Let me enter, and be thy friend,

and I will deck thee with such jewels,--with gold and with pearls, that

thou shalt be envied of all the ladies in Christendom."

My lady drew herself up proudly; but even yet she thought it was some

sport, albeit not the sport that should have been offered to a noble

dame in her husband's absence.

"Little care I for gold, or yet for pearls, my Lord of Salisbury," she

said in grave displeasure. "I have jewels enough and to spare, and need

not that a stranger should give them to me. As for the gates, I am a

loyal wife, and I open them to no one until my good lord return."

Now, had my Lord of Salisbury been a true knight, or even a plain,

honest, leal soldier, this answer of my lady's would have sufficed, and

he would have parleyed no more, but would have departed, taking his men

with him. But, villain that he was, his honeyed words rose up once more

in answer.

"Oh, lady bright, oh, lady fair," he cried, "I pray thee have mercy on

thy humble servant, and open thy gates and speak with him. Thou art far

too beautiful to live in these cold Northern climes, among rough and

brutal men. Come with me, and I will dress thee in cloth-of-gold, and

take thee along with me to London. King Edward will welcome thee, for

thy beauty will add lustre to his court, and we shall be married with

all speed. I warrant the Countess of Salisbury will be a person of

importance at the English court, and thou shalt have a retinue such as

in this barren country ye little dream of. Thou shalt have both lords

and knights to ride in thy train, and twenty little page boys to serve

thee on bended knee; and hawks, and hounds, and horses galore, so thou

wouldst join in the chase. Think of it, lady, and consider not thy rough

and unkind lord. If he had loved thee in the least, would he have left

thee in my power?"

Now the English lord's words were sweet, and he spoke in the soft

Southern tongue, such as might wile a bird from the lift,[14] if the

bird chanced to have little sense, and when he ceased I glanced at my

lady in alarm, lest for a moment she were tempted.

[Footnote 14: Sky.]

Heaven forgive me for the thought.

She had drawn herself up to her full height, and her face of righteous

anger might have frightened the Evil One himself; and, by my Faith, I am

not so very sure that it was not the Evil One who spoke by the mouth of

my Lord of Salisbury.

The Countess was very stately, and of wondrous beauty. "Black Agnace,"

the common folk were wont to call her, because of her raven hair and jet

black eyes. Verily at that moment these eyes of hers burned like stars

of fire.

"Now shame upon thee, Montague, Earl of Salisbury," she cried, and

because of her indignation her voice rang out clear as a trumpet. "Open

my gates to thee, forsooth! go to London with thee, and be married

to thee there, and bear thy name, and ride in the chase with thy

horses and hounds, as if I were thy lawful Countess. Shame on thee, I

say. I trow thou callest thyself a belted Earl, and a Christian Knight,

and thou comest to me, the wife of a belted Earl--who, thank God, is

also a Christian Knight, and a good man and true, moreover, which is

more than thou art--with words like these. Yea," and she drew a dainty

little glove from her girdle, and threw it down at the Earl's feet, "I

cry thrice shame on thee, and here I fling defiance in thy face. Keep

thy cloth-of-gold for thine own knights' backs; and as for thy squires

and pages, if thou hast so many of them, give them each a sword, and set

them on a horse, and bring them here to swell thy company. Bring them

here, I say, and let them try to batter down these walls, for in no

other way wilt thou ever set foot in Dunbar Castle."

A subdued murmur, as if of applause, ran through the ranks of the armed

men, who stood drawn up in a body behind the English Earl. For men love

bravery wherever they chance to meet it, and I trow we must have seemed

to them but a feeble company to take upon us the defence of the Castle,

and to throw defiance in the teeth of their lord.

But the bravery of the Countess did not seem to strike their leader;

possibly he was not accustomed to receive such answers from the lips of

women. His face flushed an angry red as his squire picked up my lady's

little white glove and handed it to him.

"Now, by my soul, Madam," he cried, "thou shalt find that it is no light

matter to jeer at armed men. I have come to thee with all courtesy,

asking thee to open thy Castle gates, and thou hast flouted me to my

face. Well, so be it. When next I come, 'twill be with other words, and

other weapons. Mayhap thou wilt be more eager to treat with me then."

"Bring what thou wilt, and come when thou wilt," answered my lady

passionately, "thou shalt ever find the same answer waiting thee. These

gates of mine open to no one save my own true lord."

With a low mocking bow the Earl turned his horse's head to the South,

and galloped away, followed by his men.

We stood on the top of the tower and watched them, I, with a heart full

of anxious thoughts for the time that was coming, my lady with her head

held high, and her eyes flaming, while the men stood apart and whispered

among themselves. For we all knew that, although the English had taken

themselves off, it was only for a time, and that they would return

without fail.

When the last horseman had disappeared among the belt of trees which lay

between us and the Lammermuirs, my lady turned round, her bonnie face

all soft and quivering.

"Will ye stand by me, my men?" she asked.

"That will we, till the death, my lady," answered they, and one after

another they knelt at her feet and kissed her hand, while, as for me, I

could but take her in my arms, as I had done oft-times when she was a

little child, and pray God to strengthen her noble heart.

Her emotion passed as quickly as it had come, however, and in a moment

she was herself again, laughing and merry as if it had all been a game

of play.

"Come down, Walter; come down, my men," she cried; "we must e'en hold a

council of war, and lay our plans; while old Andrew will keep watch for

us, and tell us when the black-faced knave is like to return."

And when we went downstairs into the great hall, and found that the

silly wenches had heard all that had passed, and were bemoaning

themselves for lost, and frightening little Mistress Marjory and

Mistress Jean well-nigh out of their senses, I warrant she did not spare

them, but called them a pack of chicken-hearted, thin-blooded baggages,

and threatened that if they did not hold their tongues, and turn to

their duties at once, she would send them packing, and then they would

be at the mercy of the English in good earnest.

After that we set to work and made such preparations as we could. We set

the wenches to draw water from the well, and to bake a good store of

bannocks to be ready in time of need, for the men must not be hungry

when they fought. Walter Brand and two of the strongest men-at-arms set

to work to strengthen the gates, by laying ponderous billets of wood

against them, and clasping these in their places by strong iron bars;

while the rest, led by old Andrew, went round the Castle, looking to the

loopholes, and the battlements, and examining the cross-bows and other


Upstairs and downstairs went my lady, overlooking everything, thinking

of everything, as became a daughter of the great Randolph, while I sat

and kept the bairns, who, poor little lassies, were puzzled to know what

all the stir and din was about.

And indeed it was none too soon to look to all these things, for

although the country seemed quiet enough through the hours of that short

afternoon, when night fell, and I was putting the bairns to bed, my lady

helping me--for, when one bears a troubled heart (and her heart must

have been troubled, in spite of her cheerful face), it aye seems lighter

when the hands are full--a little page came running in to tell us that

there were lights flickering to Southward among the trees.

"Now hold thy silly tongue, laddie," said I, for I was anxious that we

should at least get one good night's rest before the storm and stress of

war came upon us.

My lady looked up with a smile from where she was kneeling beside

Mistress Jean's cradle. "Let him be, Marian," she said; "the lad meant

it well, and 'tis good to know how the danger threatens. Come, we will

go up and watch with old Andrew."

So, as soon as the bairns were asleep, we threw plaids over our heads,

and crept up the narrow stairs to where old Andrew was watching in his

own little tower, which stood out from the great tower like a

corbie's[15] nest, and, crouching down behind the battlements to gain

some shelter from the cruel wind, we watched the flickering lights

coming nearer and nearer from the Southward, and listened to the

shouting of men, and the tramp of horses' hoofs, which we could hear at

times coming faintly through the storm.

[Footnote 15: Crow's.]

For two long hours we waited, and then, as we could only guess what was

taking place, it being far too dark to see, we crept down the narrow

stairs again, stiff and chilled, and threw ourselves, all dressed as we

were, on our beds.

The gray winter dawn of next morning showed us that the English Earl

meant to do his best to reduce our fortress in good earnest, for a small

army of men had been brought up in the night, from Berwick most likely,

and they were encamped on a strip of greensward facing the Castle. They

must have spent a busy night, for already the tents had been pitched,

and fires lit, and the men were now engaged in cooking their breakfast,

and attending to their horses. At the sight my heart grew heavier and

heavier; but my lady's spirits seemed to rise.

"'Tis a brave sight, is it not, Marian?" she said. "In good troth, my

Lord of Salisbury does us too much honour, in setting a camp down at our

gates, to amuse us in our loneliness. Methinks that is his own tent,

there on the right, with the pennon floating in front of it; and there

are the mangonells behind," and she pointed to a row of strange-looking

machines, which were drawn up on a hill a little way to the rear. "Well,

'tis a stony coast; his lordship will have no trouble in finding stones

to load them with."

"What be they, madam?" I asked, for in all my life I had never seen such

things before.

My lady laughed as she turned her head to greet Walter Brand, who came

up the stairs at that moment.

"Welcome, Walter," she said merrily. "We are just taking the measure of

our foes, and here is Marian, who has never seen mangonells before,

wondering what they are. They are engines for shooting stones with,

Marian; for well the knaves know that arrows are but poor weapons with

which to batter stone walls. But see, the fray begins, for yonder are

the archers approaching, and yonder go the men down to the sea-shore to

gather stones for the mangonells. Thou and I must e'en go down and leave

the men to brave the storm. See to it, Walter, that they do not expose

themselves unduly; we could ill afford to lose one of them."

Then began the weary onslaught which lasted for so many weeks. In good

faith it seems to me that, had we known, when that first rush of arrows

sounded through the air, how long it would be ere we were quiet again,

we scarce would have had the courage to go on. And when those infernal

engines were set off, and their volleys of stones and jagged pieces of

iron sounded round our ears, the poor silly wenches lost their heads,

and screamed aloud, while the bairns clung to my skirts, and hid their

chubby faces in the folds.

But even then my lady was not daunted. Snatching up a napkin, she ran

lightly up the stairs, and before anyone could stop her, she stepped

forward to the battlements, and there, all unheeding of the danger in

which she stood from the arrows of the enemy, she wiped the fragments of

stone, and bits of loose mortar daintily from the walls, as if to show

my Lord of Salisbury how little our Castle could be harmed by all the

stones he liked to hurl against it.

It was bravely done, and again a murmur of admiration went through the

English ranks; and--for I was peeping through a loophole--I trow that

even the haughty Earl's face softened at the sight of her.

The story of that first day is but the story of many more days that

followed. Showers of arrows flew from the cross-bows, volleys of stones

fell from the mangonells, until we got so used to the sound of them,

that by the third week the veriest coward among the maidens would go

boldly up and wipe the dust away where a stone had been chipped, or

another displaced, as calmly as our lady herself had done on that first

terrible morning.

Their archers did little harm, for our men were so few, and our places

of shelter so many, that they ran small risk of being hurt, and although

one or two poor fellows were killed, and half a dozen more had wounds,

it was nothing to be compared with the loss which the English suffered,

for our archers had the whole army to take aim at, and I wot their

shafts flew sure.

In vain they brought battering-rams and tried to batter down the doors.

Our portcullis had resisted many an onslaught, and the gates behind it

were made of oak a foot thick, and studded all over with iron nails, and

they might as well have thought to batter down the Bass Rock itself.

So, in spite of all, as the weeks went by, we began to feel fairly safe

and comfortable, although my lady never relaxed her vigilance, and went

her round of the walls, early and late. At Walter's request she began to

wear a morion on her head, and a breast-plate of fine steel, to protect

her against any stray arrow, and in them, to my mind, she looked bonnier

than ever. In good sooth, I think the very English soldiers loved her,

not to speak of our own men; for whenever she appeared they would raise

their caps as if in homage, and hum a couplet which ran in some wise


"Come I early, come I late,

I find Annot at the gate,"

as if they would praise her for her tireless watchfulness. One day, Earl

Montague himself, moved to admiration by the manner in which Walter

Brand had sent his shaft through the heart of an English knight, cried

out in the hearing of all his army, "There comes one of my lady's

tire-pins; Agnace's love-shafts go straight to the heart." At which

words all our men broke into a mighty shout, and cheered, and cheered

again, till the walls rang, and the echoes floated back from far out

over the sea.

In spite of their admiration at our lady's bravery, however, the English

were determined to conquer the Castle, and after a time, when they saw

that their battering-rams and mangonells availed little, they bethought

them of a more dangerous weapon of warfare.

It was somewhere towards the end of February, when one fine day a mighty

sound of hammering arose from the midst of their camp.

"What are they doing now, think ye, Walter?" asked my lady lightly. "Is

it possible that they look for so long a siege that they are beginning

to build houses for themselves? Truly they are wise, for if my Lord of

Salisbury means to stay there until I open my gates to him, he will grow

weary of braving these harsh East winds in no better shelter than a


But for once Walter Brand had no answering smile to give her.

"I fear me 'tis a sow that they are making," he said, "and if that be so

we had need to look to our arms."

"A sow," repeated the Countess in graver tones. "I have oft heard of

such machines, but I never saw one. Thy words hint of danger, Walter. Is

a sow then so deadly that our walls cannot resist its onslaught?"

"It is deadly because it brings the enemy nearer us, my lady," answered

Walter. "Hitherto our walls have been our shelter; without them we could

not stand a moment, for we are outnumbered by the English a score of

times over. These sows, as men name them, are great wooden buildings,

which can hold at least forty men inside, and with a platform above

where other thirty can stand. They be mounted on two great wheels, and

can be run close up to the walls, and as they are oft as high as a

house, 'twill be an easy matter for the men who stand on the platform to

set up ladders and scale our walls, and after that what chance will

there be for our poor handful of men? 'Tis not for myself I fear," he

went on, "nor yet for the men. We are soldiers and we can face death;

but if thou wouldst not fall into the hands of this English Earl, my

lady, I would advise that thou, and Marian, and little Mistress Marjory

and Mistress Jean, should set out in the boat the first dark night, when

it is calm. 'Tis but ten miles to the Bass, and thou couldst aye find

shelter there."

Thus spake honest Walter, who was, as I have said, ever timorous where

my lady was concerned; but at his words she shook her head.

"And leave the Castle, Walter?" she said. "That will I never do till I

open its doors to my own true lord. As for this English Earl and his

sows--tush! I care not for them. If they have wood we have rock, my lad,

and I warrant 'twill be a right strong sow that will stand upright after

a lump of Dunbar rock comes crashing down on its back; so keep up thy

courage, and get out the picks and crowbars. If they build sows by day,

we can quarry stones by night."

So saying, my lady shook her little white fist, by way of defiance, in

the direction of the tents which studded the greensward opposite, while

Walter went off to do her bidding, muttering to himself that the famous

Randolph himself was not better than she, for she had been born with the

courage of Bruce, and the wisdom of Solomon.

So it came about, that, while the English gave over wasting arrows for a

time, and turned their attention to the building of two great clumsy

wooden structures, we would steal down in a body on dark nights to the

little postern that opened on the shore, when the waves were dashing

against the rocks, and making enough noise to deaden the sound of the

picks, and while we women held a lanthorn or two, the men worked with

might and main, hewing at the solid rock which stretched out to seaward

for a few yards at the foot of the Castle wall. Then, when some huge

block was loosened, ropes would be lowered, and with much ado, for our

numbers were small, the unwieldy mass would be hoisted up, and placed in

position on the top of the Castle, hidden, it is true, behind the

battlements, but with the stones in front of it displaced, so that it

could be rolled over with ease at a given signal.

We all took a turn at the ropes, and our hands were often raw and frayed

with the work. 'Twas my lady who suffered most, for her skin was fine,

and up till now she had never known what such labour meant.

At last the day came when the English mounted their great white sows on

wheels, and filled them with armed men, and loaded the roofs of them

with broad-shouldered, strapping fellows, who carried ladders and irons

with which to scale our walls. When all was ready the mighty machines

began to move forward, pushed by scores of willing arms, while we

watched them in silence.

My lady and I were hidden in old Andrew's tower, for no word that Walter

Brand could say could persuade her to go down beside Mistress Marjory,

and Mistress Jean, and the serving wenches.

Instead of shooting, our archers stood motionless, stationed in groups

behind the great boulders of rock, ready for Walter's signal.

On came the sows, until we could look down and see the men they carried,

with upturned faces, and hands busy with the ladders they were raising

to place against the walls. They were trundled over the narrow strip of

land which connected us with the mainland, and stood still at last,

close to our very gates.

"Now, lads," shouted Walter, and before a single ladder could be placed,

our great blocks of rock went crashing down on them, hurling the top men

in all directions, and driving in the wooden roofs on those who were


Woe's me! Although they were our enemies, our hearts melted at the

sight. The timbers of the sows cracked and fell in, and we could see

nought but a mass of mangled, bleeding wretches. Had it not been that my

lady feared treachery, and that she had sworn not to open the gates

except to her husband, I ween she would fain have taken us all out to

succour them.

As it was, we could only watch and pity, and keep the bairns in the

chambers that looked on the sea, so that their young eyes should not

gaze on so ghastly a scene.

And when night fell, and there was no light to guide our archers to

shoot, though I trust that, in any case, mercy would have kept them from

it, the English stole across the causeway, and pulled away the broken

beams, and carried off the dead and wounded, and burned what remained of

the sows.

After that day we had no more trouble from any attempts to storm the


But what force cannot do, hunger may. So my Lord of Salisbury, still

sitting in front of our gates with his army, in order to prevent help

reaching us from the land, set about starving us into submission. As yet

we had had no need to trouble about food, for, as I have said, we had a

store of grain, enough to last for some weeks yet, in the dungeon, and,

long ere it was done, we looked for help reaching us by the sea, if it

could not reach us by land.

It was soon made plain to us, however, that not only my Lord of

Salisbury, but his royal master, King Edward, was determined that the

"Key of Scotland" should fall into his hand, for one fine March morning

a great fleet of ships came sailing round St Abb's Head, and took up

their station betwixt us and the Bass Rock, and then we were left,

without hope of succour, until our stock of provisions should be eaten

up, and starvation forced us to give in.

Ah me! but it was weary work, living through the ever-lengthening days

of that cold bleak springtime, waiting for the help which never came,

which never could come, so it seemed to us, with that army watching us

from the land, and that fleet of ships girding us in on the sea.

And all the time our store of food sank lower and lower, and the

wenches' faces grew white, and the men pulled their belts tighter round

their middles, and poor little Mistress Jean would turn wearily away

from the water gruel which was all we had to give her, and moan and cry

for the white bread and the milk to which she was accustomed. Mistress

Marjory, on the other hand, being five years old, and wise for her

years, never complained, though oft-times she would let the spoon fall

into her porringer at supper-time, and, laying her head against my

sleeve, would say in a wistful little voice that went to my very heart,

"I cannot eat it, Marian; I am not hungry to-night."

As for my lady, she went about in those days in silence, with a stern,

set face. It must have seemed to her that when the meal was all gone she

must needs give in, for she could not see her children die before her


But Providence is aye ready to help those who help themselves, and, late

one evening, towards the latter end of May, when we had held the castle

for five long months, I chanced to be sitting alone in my chamber, when

the Countess entered, looking very pale and wan.

"Wrap a plaid round thee, and come to the top of the tower, Marian," she

said. "I cannot sleep, and I long for a breath of fresh air. It doth me

no good to go up there by day, for I can see nothing but these English

soldiers in front, and these English ships behind. But by night it is

different. It is dark then, and I forget for a time how closely beset we

are, and how few handfuls of meal there are in the girnels.[16] I will

tell thee, Marian," and here her voice sank to a whisper, "what as yet

only myself and Walter Brand know, that if help doth not come within a

week, we must either open our gates, or starve like rats in a hole."

[Footnote 16: Meal-barrels.]

"But a week is aye a week," I said soothingly, for I was frightened at

the wildness of her look, "and help may come before it passes."

All the same my heart was heavy within me as I threw a wrap round my

head, and followed her up the narrow stone stairs, and out on to the

flat roof of the tower.

The footing was bad in the darkness, for although the battlements had

been built up again since the day that we destroyed the sows, there were

stones and pieces of rock lying about in all directions, and not being

so young and light of foot as I once had been, I stumbled and fell.

"Do not stir till I get a light," cried my lady; "it is dangerous up

here in the dark, and a twisted ankle would not mend matters."

She felt her way over to Andrew's watch-tower, and the old man lighted

his lanthorn for her, and she came quickly back again, holding it low in

case the enemy should see it, and send a few arrows in our direction. By

its light I raised myself, and we went across to the northern turret,

which looked straight over to the Bass Rock, and stood there, resting

our arms on the wall.

Suddenly a speck of light shone out far ahead in the darkness. It

flickered for a second and then disappeared. In a moment or two it

appeared again, and then disappeared in the same way. I drew my lady's

attention to it.

"'Tis a light from the Bass," she said in an excited whisper. "Someone

is signalling. It can hardly be to the English, for the Rock is held by

friends. Is it possible they can have seen our lanthorn? Let us try

again. The English loons are likely to be asleep by now; they have had

little to disturb their rest for some weeks back, and may well have

grown lazy."

Cautiously she raised the lanthorn, and flashed its rays, once, twice,

thrice over the waves. It was only for a second, but it was enough. The

spark of light appeared three times in answer, and then all was dark


"Run and tell Walter," whispered my lady, and her very voice had

changed. It was once more full of life and hope. The Bass Rock was but

ten miles off, and if there were friends there watching us, and

doubtless making plans to help us, was not that enough?

When Walter came we tried our test for the fourth time, and the answer

came back as before.

"We must watch the sea, my lady," he said, when we were safely down in

the great hall again. "Help will only come that way, and it will come in

the dark. Heaven send that the English sailors have not seen what we

have, and keep a double watch in consequence."

After that, we hardly slept. Night after night, we strained our eyes

through the darkness in the direction of the Bass, and for five nights

our watching was in vain.

But on the sixth, a Sunday, just on the stroke of twelve, the silence

which had lasted so long was broken by the sound of shouting, and lights

sprang up all round us, first on the ships and then on the land.

With anxious hearts we crowded round the loopholes, for we knew that

somewhere, out among the lights, brave men were making a dash for our

rescue, and we women, who could do nothing else, lifted up our hearts,

and prayed that Heaven and the Holy St Michael would aid their efforts.

Meanwhile, the men manned the walls, ready to shoot if the English ships

came within bow-shot, which they were scarce likely to do, as the coast

was wild and rocky, and fraught with danger to those who were

unacquainted with it.

Presently Walter called for wood to make a fire outside the little

postern which opened on the rocks, and we ceased our prayers, and fell

to work with a will, with the kitchen-wenches' choppers, on the empty

barrels which were piled up in a corner of a cellar. We even drained our

last flagon of oil to pour over them, and soon a fire was blazing on the

rudely-cut-out landing-stage, and throwing its beams far out over the


And there, dim and shadowy at first, but aye coming nearer and nearer,

guided by its light, we saw a boat, not cut in any foreign fashion, but

built and rigged near St Margaret's Hope. It was full of men; we could

hear them cheering and shouting in our own good Scots tongue, which fell

kindly on our ears after the soft mincing English which had been thrown

at our heads for so many months.

They were safe now, for, as I have said, the ships through which they

had slipped dare not follow them too near the coast, in case they ran

upon the rocks, and the Castle sheltered them from any arrows which

might be sent from the land. It sheltered us too, and we crowded down to

the little landing-stage, and watched with breathless interest the boat

which was bringing safety and succour to us.

"Bring down the bairns, Marian," said my lady. "Marjory at least is of

an age to remember this."

I hastened to do her bidding, and, calling one of the wenches, we ran up

and roused the sleeping lambs, telling them stories of the wonderful

boat which was coming over the sea, bringing them nice things to eat

once more; for, poor babes, the lack of dainty fare had been the hardest

part of all the siege for them.

We had hardly got downstairs again, when the boat ran close up to our

roughly constructed landing-stage, which was little more than a ledge of

rock, and willing hands seized the ropes which were flung out to them.

Then amidst such cheering as I shall never forget, her crew jumped out.

Forty men of them there were, strong, stalwart, strapping fellows,

looking very different from our own poor lads, who were pinched and thin

from long watching, and meagre fare. Their leader was Sir Alexander

Ramsay of Dalhousie, one of the bravest of Scottish knights, and most

chivalrous of men, who had risked his life, and the lives of his men, in

order to bring us help.

"Now Heaven and all the Saints be thanked, we are in time," he cried, as

his eyes rested on my lady, who was standing at the head of the steps

which led up to the little postern, with one babe in her arms, and the

other clinging to her gown, "for dire tales have reached us of

pestilence and starvation which were working their will within these


Then he doffed his helmet, and ran up to where she was standing, and I

wot there was not a dry eye in the crowd as he knelt and kissed her


"Here greet I one of the bravest ladies in Christendom," he said, "for,

by my troth, as long as the Scots tongue lasts, the story of how thou

kept thy lord's castle in his absence will be handed down from father to


"Nay, noble sir," she answered, and there was a little catch in her

voice as she spoke, "it hath not been so very hard after all. My men

have been brave and leal, my walls are thick, and although the wolf hath

come very near the door, he hath not as yet entered."

"Nor shall he," said Sir Alexander cheerily, as he picked up Mistress

Marjory and kissed her, "for we have brought enough provisions with us

to victual your Castle twice over."

And in good sooth they had. It took more than half an hour to unload the

boat, and to carry its contents into the great hall. There had been kind

hands and thoughtful hearts at the loading of it. There was milk for the

bairns, and capons, and eggs. There was meat and ale for the men, and

red French wine and white bread for my lady, and bags of grain and meal,

and many other things which I scarce remember, but which were right

toothsome, I can tell you, after the scanty fare on which we had been


And so ended the famous siege of Dunbar Castle, for on the morrow, the

English, knowing that now it was hopeless to think of taking it, struck

their camp, and by nightfall they were marching southwards, worsted by a


And ere another day had passed, another band of armed men came riding

through the woods that lie thickly o'er the valley in which lies the

Lamp of Lothian;[17] but this time we knew right well the device which

was emblazoned on the banners, and the horses neighed, as horses are

wont to do when they scent their own stables, and the riders tossed

their caps in the air at the sight of us.

[Footnote 17: The Abbey of Haddington (an old name for it).]

And I trow that if my lady had wished for reward for all the weary

months of anxiety which she had passed through, she had it in full

measure when at long last she opened the Castle gates, and saw the look

on her husband's face, as he took her in his arms, and kissed her, not

once, but many times, there, in the courtyard, in the sight of us all.