Dick O' The Cow
: Tales From Scottish Ballads
"Now Liddesdale has layen lang in,
There is na ryding there at a';
The horses are a' grown sae lither fat,
They downa stir out o' the sta'.
Fair Johnie Armstrong to Willie did say--
'Billy, a riding we will gae;
England and us have lang been at feid;
Ablins we'll light on some bootie.'"
It was somewhere about the yea
1592, and Thomas, Lord Scroope, sat at
ease in his own apartment in Carlisle Castle. He had finished supper,
and was now resting in a great oak chair before a roaring fire. A
tankard of ale stood on a stool by his side (for my Lord of Scroope
loved good cheer above all things), and his favourite hound lay
stretched on the floor at his feet.
To judge by the look on his face, he was thinking pleasant thoughts just
then. He held the office of Warden of the English Marches, as well as
that of Governor of Carlisle Castle, and in those lawless days the post
was not an easy one. There was generally some raid or foray which had to
be investigated, some turbulent Scot pursued, or mayhap some noted
freebooter hung; but just at present the country-side was at peace, and
the Scotts, and Elliots, and Armstrongs, seemed to be content to stay
quietly at home on their own side of the Border.
So that very day he had sent off a good report to his royal mistress,
Queen Elizabeth, then holding her court in far-off London, and now he
was dreaming of paying a long deferred visit to his Castle of Bolton in
A sharp knock at the door came as a sudden interruption to these dreams.
"Enter," he cried hastily, wondering to himself what message could have
arrived at the castle at that hour of night.
It was his own poor fool who entered, for in Carlisle Castle high state
was kept, and Lord Scroope had his jester, like any king.
The man was known to everyone as "Dick o' the Cow," the reason probably
being that his wife helped to eke out his scanty wages by keeping three
cows, and selling their milk to the honest burghers of Carlisle. He was
a harmless, light-hearted fellow, whom some men called half-witted, but
who was much cleverer than he appeared at first sight to be.
As a rule he was always laughing and making jokes, but to-night his face
was long and doleful.
"What ails thee, man?" cried Lord Scroope impatiently. "Methinks thou
hast forgot thine office, else why comest thou here with a face that
would make a merry man sad?"
"Alack, Master," answered the fool, "up till now I have been an honest
man, but at last I must turn my hand to thieving, and for that reason I
would crave thy leave to go over the Border into Liddesdale."
"Tush!" said the Warden impatiently, "I love not such jesting. I hear
enough about thieving and reiving, and such-like business, without my
very fool dinning it into my ears. Leave such matters for my Lord of
Buccleuch and me to settle, Sirrah, and bethink thee of thy duty. 'Tis
easier to crack jokes and sing songs in the safe shelter of Carlisle
Castle than to ride out armed against these Scottish knaves."
But Dick knelt at his master's feet.
"This is no jest, my lord," he said. "For once in his life this poor
fool is in earnest. For I am like to be ruined if I cannot have revenge.
Thou knowest how my wife and I live in a little cottage just outside the
city walls, and how, with my small earnings, I bought three milch cows.
My wife is a steady woman and industrious, and she sells the milk which
these three cows give, to the people in the city, and so she earns an
"In good sooth, a very honest penny," repeated Lord Scroope, laughing,
for 'twas well known in Carlisle that the milk which was sold by Dick o'
the Cow's wife was thinner and dearer than any other milk sold in the
"Last night," went on the fool, "these Scottish thieves, the Armstrongs
of Liddesdale, rode past the house, and, of course, they must needs
drive these cows off, and, not content with that, they broke open the
door, and stole the very coverlets off my bed. My wife bought these
coverlets at the Michaelmas fair, and, I trow, what with the loss of
them, and the loss of the cows, she is like to lose her reason. So, to
comfort her, I have promised to bring them back. Therefore, my lord, I
crave leave of thee to go over into Liddesdale, and see what I can lay
my hands on there."
The blood rose to the Warden's face. "By my troth, but thou art not
frightened to speak, Sirrah," he cried. "Am I not set here to preserve
law and order, and thou wouldst have me give thee permission to steal?"
"Nay, not to steal," said the fool slyly; "I only crave leave to get
back my own, or, at least, the money's worth for what was my own."
Lord Scroope pondered the request for a minute or two.
"After all," he thought to himself, "what can this one poor man do
against such a powerful clan as the Armstrongs? He will be killed, most
likely, and that will be the end of it. So there can be no great harm in
letting him go."
"If I give thee leave, wilt thou swear that thou wilt steal from no one
but those who stole from thee?" he asked at last.
"That I will," said Dick readily. "I give thee my troth, and there is my
right hand upon it. Thou canst hang me for a thief myself, if I take as
much as a bannock of bread from the house of any man who hath done me no
So my Lord of Scroope let him go.
A blithe man was Dick o' the Cow as he went down the streets of Carlisle
next morning, for he had money in his pocket, and a big scheme floating
in his brain. It mattered little to him that men smiled to each other as
they passed him, and whispered, "There goes my Lord of Scroope's poor
"He laughs the longest who laughs the last," he thought to himself, "and
mayhap all men will envy me before long."
First of all, he went and bought a pair of spurs, and a new bridle,
which he carefully hid in his breeches pocket, then he turned his back
on Carlisle and set out to walk over Bewcastle Waste into Liddesdale. It
was a long walk, but he footed it bravely, and at last he arrived at
Pudding-burn House, a strongly fortified place, held by John Armstrong,
"The Laird's Jock," as he was called, son of the Laird of Mangerton, and
a man of importance in the clan. He was known to be both just and
generous, and the poor fool thought that he would go to him, and tell
him his story, in the hope that he would force the rest of the
Armstrongs to give him back his three cows. But when he came near the
Pudding-burn House, he found to his dismay that the two Armstrongs who
had stolen his cows, Johnie and Willie, had stopped there, on their way
home, with all their men-at-arms, and, from the sounds of feasting and
mirth which he heard as he approached, he suspected that one, at least,
of his three cows had been killed to provide the supper.
"Ah well," thought he to himself, "I am but a poor fool, and there are
three-and-thirty armed men against me. To fight is impossible, so I must
e'en set my wits to work against their strength of arms."
So he walked boldly up to the house, and demanded to see the Laird's
Jock. There was much laughter among the men-at-arms as he was led into
the great hall, for everyone had heard of my Lord of Scroope's jester,
and, when they knew that it was he, they all crowded round to see what
he was like.
He knew his manners, and bowed right low before the master of the house.
"God save thee, my good Laird's Jock," he said, "although I fear me I
cannot wish so well to all thy company. For I come here to bring a
complaint against two of these men--against Johnie and Willie Armstrong,
who, with their followers, broke into my house near Carlisle these two
nights past, and drove away my three good milk cows, forbye stealing
three coverlets from my bed. And I crave that I get my own again, and
that justice may be meted out to the dishonest varlets."
These words were greeted by a shout of laughter, for these were rough
and lawless times, when might was right, and the strong tyrannised over
the weak, and it seemed ridiculous to see this poor fool standing in the
middle of all these armed moss-troopers, and expecting to be heard.
"He deserves to be hanged for his insolence," said Johnie Armstrong, who
had been the leader of the company.
"Run him through with a sword," said Willie, laughing; "'tis less
trouble, and 'twill serve the same end."
"No," cried another. "'Tis not worth while to kill him. He is but a fool
at the best. Let us give him a good beating, and then let him go."
But the Laird's Jock heard them, and his voice rang out high above the
rest. "Why harm the poor man?" he said. "After all, he hath but come to
seek his own, and he must be both hungry and footsore." Then, turning to
the fool, he added kindly, "Sit thyself down, my man, and rest thee a
little. I am sorry that we cannot exactly give thee thy cattle back
again, but at least we can give thee a slice from the leg of one of
them. Beshrew me if I have tasted finer beef for many a long day."
Amid roars of laughter a slice of beef was cut from the enormous leg
which lay roasted on the great table, and placed before Dick. But he
could not eat it, he could only think what a fine cow it had been when
it was alive. At last he slipped away unobserved out of the house, and,
looking about for somewhere to sleep, he found an old tumble-down house
filled with peats.
He crept into it, and lay there, wondering and scheming how he could
Now it had always been the custom at Mangerton Hall, where the Laird's
Jock had been brought up, that whoever was not in time for one meal had
to wait till the next, and he made the same rule hold good at
As the poor fool lay among the peats, he could see what was going on
through a crack in the door, and he noticed that, as the Armstrongs' men
were both tired and hungry, they did not take time to put the key away
safely after attending to their horses and locking the stable door, but
flung it hastily up on the roof, where it could easily be found if it
were wanted, and hurried off in case they were late for their supper.
"Here is my chance," he thought to himself, and, as soon as they were
all gone into the house, he crept out, and took down the key, and
entered the stable. Then he did a very cruel thing. He cut every horse,
except three, on one of its hind legs, "tied it with St Mary's knot," as
it was called; so that he made them all lame. Then he hastily drew the
spurs and the new bridle out of his breeches pocket. He buckled on the
spurs, and began to examine the three horses which he had not lamed. He
knew to whom they belonged. Two of them, which were standing together,
belonged to Johnie and Willie Armstrong, and were the very horses they
had ridden when they stole the cows. The third, a splendid animal, which
had a stall to itself, plainly belonged to the Laird's Jock.
"I will leave the Laird's Jock's," thought Dick to himself, "for I
cannot take three, and he is a kind man; but Johnie's and Willie's must
go. 'Twill perhaps teach them what comes of dishonest ways."
So saying, he slipped the bridle over the head of one horse, and tied a
rope round the neck of the other, and, opening the stable door, he led
them out quietly, and then, mounting one of them, he galloped away as
fast as he could.
The next morning, when the men went to the stable to see after their
horses, there were shouts of anger and consternation. And no wonder. For
it was easy to be seen that thirty of the horses would never put foot to
the ground again; other two were stolen; and there was only one, the
beautiful bay mare which belonged to the Laird's Jock, which was of any
use at all.
"Now who hath done this cruel thing?" cried the master of the house in
great anger. "Let me know his name, and by my soul, he shall be
"'Twas the varlet whom we all took to be such a fool," cried Johnie;
"the rascal who came here last night whining for his precious cows. A
thousand pities but we had done as I said, and hanged him on the nearest
"Hold thy tongue and take blame to thyself," said the Laird's Jock
sharply. "Did I not tell thee, ere thou rode to Carlisle, thou and
Willie and thy thieving band, that the two countries were at peace, and
if thou began this work once more, 'twas hard to say where it would end?
Truly the tables are indeed turned. For this poor fool, as thou callest
him, hath befooled us all, for the men's horses are maimed and useless,
thine own and thy brother's are stolen, and there but remains this good
bay mare of mine. Beshrew me, but it seems as if the fellow had some
gratitude left that he did not touch her, for I love her as I never
loved a horse before."
"Give her to me," cried Johnie Armstrong quickly, stung by this
well-earned reproof, "and I will bring the two horses back, and the
cunning fool with them, either alive or dead. 'Tis a far cry from here
to Carlisle, and I trow he could ride but slowly in the darkness."
"A likely story," said the Laird's Jock. "The fool, as thou callest him,
hath already stolen two good horses, and to send another after him would
but be sending good siller after bad."
"An' dost thou think that he could take the horse from me?" asked Johnie
indignantly, and he pleaded so hard to be allowed to pursue Dick, that
at last the Laird's Jock gave him leave.
He wasted no time in seeking his armour, but, snatching up hastily his
kinsman's doublet, sword, and helmet, he leaped on the bay mare and
He rode so furiously that by midday he overtook Dick on Canonbie Lee,
not far from Longtown.
The poor fool had had to ride slowly, for he was not very much
accustomed to horses, and it was not easy for him to manage two. He
looked round in alarm when he heard the thunder of hoofs behind him, but
his face cleared when he saw that Johnie Armstrong was alone.
"I have outwitted a whole household," he thought to himself; "beshrew me
if I cannot tackle one man, even although it be Johnie Armstrong."
All the same he put his horses to the gallop, and went on as fast as he
"Now hold, thou traitor thief, and stand for thy life," shouted Johnie
in a passion.
Dick glanced hastily over his shoulder, and then he pulled his horses
round suddenly. He could fight better than most men thought, when he was
put to it.
"Art thou alone, Johnie?" he said tauntingly. "Then must I tell thee a
little story. I am an unlettered man, being but a poor fool, as thou
knowest, but I try to do my duty, and every Sunday I go to church in
Carlisle city with my betters. And at our church we have a right good
preacher, though his sermons run through my poor brain as if it were a
sieve; but there are three words which I aye remember. The first two of
these are 'faith' and 'conscience,' and it seems to me that ye lacked
both of them when ye came stealing in the dark to my humble cottage,
knowing full well that I could not defend myself, and stole my cows, and
took my wife's coverlets. What the third word is, I cannot at this
moment remember, but it means that when a man lacks faith and conscience
he deserves to be punished, and therefore have I punished thee."
Johnie Armstrong felt that he was being laughed at, and, blind with
fury, he took his lance and flung it at the fool, thinking to kill him.
But he missed his aim, and it only glanced against Dick's doublet, and
fell harmless to the ground.
Dick saw his advantage, and rode his horse straight at his enemy, and,
taking his cudgel by the wrong end, he struck Johnie such a blow on the
head that he fell senseless to the ground.
Then was the fool a proud man. "Lord Scroope shall hear of this,
Johnie," he said to himself, with a chuckle of delight, as he
dismounted, and stripped the unconscious man of his coat-of-mail, his
steel helmet, and his two-handed sword. He knew that if he went home
empty-handed, and told his master that he had fought with Johnie
Armstrong and defeated him, Lord Scroope would laugh him to scorn, for
Johnie was known to be one of the best fighters on the Borders; but
these would serve as proofs that his story was true.
Then, taking the bay mare by the bridle, he mounted his horse once more,
and rode on to Carlisle in triumph.
When Johnie Armstrong came to his senses, he cursed the English and all
belonging to them with right goodwill. "Now verily," he said to himself,
as he turned his face ruefully towards Liddesdale, "'twill be a hundred
years and more ere anyone finds me fighting with a man who is called a
When Dick o' the Cow rode into the courtyard of Carlisle Castle with his
three horses, the first man he met was My Lord of Scroope. Now the
Warden knew the Laird's Jock's bay mare at once, and at the sight of her
he flew into a violent passion. For he knew well enough that if Dick had
stolen three horses from the Armstrongs, that powerful clan would soon
ride over into Cumberland to avenge themselves, and had he not written
to Queen Elizabeth, not three days before, of the peace which prevailed
on the Borders?
"By my troth, fellow," he said in deep vexation, "I'll have thee hanged
Poor Dick was much taken aback at this unlooked-for welcome. He had
expected to be greeted as a hero, instead of being threatened with
"'Twas thyself gave me leave to go, my Lord," he said sullenly.
"Ay, I gave thee leave to go and steal from those who stole from thee,
an thou couldst," said Lord Scroope in reply; "but beshrew me if I ever
gave thee leave to steal from the good Laird's Jock. He is a peaceful
man, and a true, and meddles not the Border folk. 'Twas not he who stole
Then Dick held up the coat-of-mail, and the helmet, and the two-handed
sword. "On my honour, I won them all in fair and open fight," he cried.
"Johnie Armstrong stole my cows, and 'twas he who followed me on the
Laird's Jock's mare, and clad in the Laird's Jock's armour. He would
fain have slain me with his lance, but by God's grace it glanced from my
doublet, and I felled him to the ground with my cudgel."
"Well done!" cried the Warden, slapping his thigh in his delight. "By my
soul, but it was well done. My poor fool is more of a man than I thought
he was. If the horse be the fair spoil of war, then will I buy her of
thee. See, I will give thee fifteen pounds for her, and throw a milk cow
into the bargain. 'Twill please thy wife to have milk again."
But Dick was not satisfied with this offer. "May the mother of all the
witches fly away with me," he said, "if the horse is not worth more than
fifteen pounds. No, no, my Lord, twenty pounds is her price, an if thou
wilt not pay that for her, she goes with me to-morrow to be sold at
Now Lord Scroope happened to know the worth of the mare, so he paid the
money down without more ado, and he kept his word about the milk cow.
As Dick pocketed the money, and took possession of the cow, he thought
what a very clever fellow he was, and he held his head high as he rode
out of the courtyard, and down the streets of Carlisle, still leading
one horse, and driving the cow in front of him.
He had not gone very far before he met Lord Scroope's brother.
"Well met, fool," he cried, laying his hand on Dick's bridle rein.
"Where in all the world didst get Johnie Armstrong's horse? I know 'tis
his by the white feet and white forelock. Has my brother been having a
fray with Scotland?"
"No," said the fool proudly, "but I have. The horse is mine by right of
"Wilt sell him me?" asked the Warden's brother, who loved a good horse
if only he could get him cheaply. "I will give thee ten pounds for him,
and a milk cow into the bargain."
"Say twenty pounds," said Dick contemptuously, "and keep thy word about
the milk cow, else the horse goes with me to Morton Fair."
Now the Warden's brother needed the horse, and, besides, it was not dear
even at twenty pounds, so he paid down the money, and told the fool
where to go for the milk cow.
An hour later Dick appeared at his own cottage door, and shouted for his
wife. She rubbed her eyes and blinked with astonishment when she saw her
husband mounted on a good black horse, and driving two fat milk cows
Like everyone else, she had always counted him a fool, and had never
looked for much help from him. So the loss of the three cows had been a
serious matter to her, for the money which their milk brought had done
much towards keeping up the house, and clothing the children.
"Here, woman," he cried joyously, leaping from his horse, and emptying
the gold out of his pockets into her apron. "Thou madest a great to-do
over thy coverlets, but I trow that forty pounds of good red money will
pay for them fully, and the three cows which we lost were but thin,
starved creatures, compared with these two that I have brought back, and
here is a good horse into the bargain."
It all seemed too good to be true, and Dick's wife rubbed her eyes once
more. "Take care that they be not taken from thee," she said. "Methinks
the Armstrongs will demand vengeance."
"They will not get it from My Lord of Scroope," answered Dick, "for
'twas he who gave me leave to go and steal from them. But mayhap we live
too near the Borders for our own comfort, now that we are so rich. When
a man hath made his fortune by his wits, as I have, he deserves a little
peace in his old age. What wouldst thou think of going further South
into Westmoreland, and taking up house near thy mother's kinsfolk?"
"I would think 'twas the wisest plan that ever entered that silly pate
of thine," answered his wife, who had never liked to live in such an
So they packed up their belongings, and, getting leave from Lord
Scroope, they went to live at Burghunder-Stanmuir, where they passed for
quite rich and clever people.