Wandering Willie’s Tale (Sir Walter Scott, 1824)

Pursuit and capture of a Covenanter

Pursuit and capture of a Covenanter

This one was new to me, and it’s a fine tale. Sir Robert Redgauntlet, 17th century Scottish laird under Charles II, is an enthusiastic persecutor of Covenanters (Scottish Presbyterians, see this):

Glen, nor dargle, nor mountain, nor cave, could hide the puir hill-folk when Redgauntlet was out with bugle and bloodhound after them, as if they had been sae mony deer. And troth when they fand them they didna mak muckle mair ceremony than a Hielandman wi’ a roebuck — it was just “Will ye tak the test?” — if not, “Make ready — present — fire!” — and there lay the recusant.

Steenie Steenson, tenant of Sir Robert and a favorite piper of the laird, is not good at managing his money and is two terms behind in his rent. Called to pay, Steenie knows he’d better come up with the money or flee. Redgauntlet is not a man anyone cares to anger, “for the oaths that he swore, and the rage that he used to get into, and the looks that he put on, made men sometimes think him a devil incarnate.”

Steenie borrows the money and goes off to the castle to pay up. He is taken to see the laird, who has with him his pet monkey, humorously named Major Weir (his namesake was a notorious wizard). Unfortunately, after he’s handed over his bag of silver to Sir Robert, and before he’s received his receipt, the laird, ill with gout and kidney stones, has an attack. The scene is striking and horrible enough to quote:

Sir Robert gied a yelloch that garr’d the castle rock. Back ran Dougal — in flew the livery-men — yell on yell gied the laird, ilk ane mair awfu’ than the ither… Terribly the laird roared for cauld water to his feet, and wine to cool his throat; and Hell, hell, hell, and its flames was ay the word in his mouth. They brought him water, and when they plunged his swollen feet into the tub, he cried out it was burning; and folk say that it did bubble and sparkle like a seething cauldron. He flung the cup at Dougal’s head and said he had given him blood instead of burgundy; and, sure eneugh, the lass washed clotted blood aff the carpet the neist day. The jackanape they caa’d Major Weir, it jibbered and cried as if it was mocking its master; [Steenie’s] head was like to turn — he forgot baith siller and receipt, and downstairs he banged; but as he ran, the shrieks came faint and fainter; there was a deep-drawn shivering groan, and word gaid through the castle that the laird was dead.

Steenie is called to account for the overdue rent by Sir Robert’s heir, arriving from Edinburgh after his father’s death — and there is no witness, and no record of the payment, and no sign of the silver itself. It would be criminal to summarize the entire story, because it would ruin the reading experience. “Wandering Willie’s Tale” is found in many anthologies of ghost stories and is also online at Bartleby’s. The Scottish dialect should pose little difficulty, as most words can be understood simply by pronouncing them aloud, and context should suggest the meaning of the rest. But if you need to look up, say, yett or tass, go here and third down on the right is the Scots dictionary.

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