Your Border ruffian of the good old
days was not often a humorist. Life to him was
a serious business. When he was not reiving other
people’s kye, other people were probably reiving
his; and as a general rule one is driven to conclude
that he was not unlike that famous Scotch terrier
whose master attributed the dog’s persistently
staid and even melancholy disposition to the fact
that he “jist couldna get enough o’ fechting.”
In olden times, “fechting”
was the Border man’s strong point; but in later,
and perhaps less robust, days there were to be found
some who took a degenerate pride in getting by craft
what their fathers would have taken by force.
Of such, in the early days of the eighteenth century,
was Dicky of Kingswood. Had he lived a hundred
or a hundred and fifty years earlier, Dicky would
no doubt have been a first-class reiver, one of the
“tail” of some noted Border chieftain,
for he lacked neither pluck nor strength. But
in his own day he preferred the suaviter in modo
to the fortiter in re; his cunning, indeed,
was not unworthy of the hero of that ancient Norse
tale, “The Master Thief,” and in his misdeeds
there was not seldom to be found a spice of humour
so disarming that at times his victims were compelled
to laugh, and in laughter to forget their just resentment;
and with the perishing of resentment, to forego their
manifest duty and that satisfaction which virtue should
ever feel in the discomfiture of vice. Compounding
a felony, we should call it now. And no doubt
it was. But in those days, when the King’s
writ ran with but halting foot through the wild Border
hills, perhaps least said was soonest mended.
Kingswood lies just across the river
from Staward Peel, but Dicky dwelt generally at the
latter place in former days an almost unassailable
stronghold, standing on a bold eminence overlooking
Allen Water, some miles to the east of Haltwhistle.
Here of old, when beacon-fires blazed on the hill-tops,
“each with warlike tidings fraught,” flashing
their warning of coming trouble from “the false
Scottes,” the people of these regions were wont
to hurry for safety, breathlessly bearing with them
whatsoever valuables they prized and had time to save.
Many a treasure is said to lie here, buried, and never
again dug up, because those who alone knew where to
look had perished in defence of the Peel. Truly,
if the troubled spirits of those slain ones yet wander,
brooding over hidden chattels and lost penates, they
are not greatly to be pitied, for a spot more beautiful,
one less to be shunned if our spirits must
wander, it would be hard to find in all Northumberland
or in all England. Not distant would they be,
too, from good company, for away to the north across
the Tyne, in a mighty cavern in the rock below
what once was the castle of Sewing Shields does
not local tradition tell that Arthur and his knights
lie asleep, waiting the inevitable day when England’s
dire need shall bring them again to life, to strike
a blow for the land they loved. And along that
noble line of wall which spanned England from sea
to sea, might they not perchance foregather some
dark and stormy night, when snow drives down before
a north-east wind with the dim forms of
armoured men, wraiths of the Roman legions, patrolling
once more the line that they died to defend?
Dicky of Kingswood was making for
home one day in early spring. He was outside
the radius of his usual field of operations, far to
the east of Kingswood and Staward, plodding along
with the westering sun in his eyes, and thinking ruefully
that he had come a long way for nothing. Sometimes
it is convenient for gentlemen of Dicky’s habits
to visit foreign parts, or parts, at least, where
their appearance may not attract undue notice for
such as he are often of modest and retiring disposition.
On this occasion he had so far done no business of
profit, and Dicky was depressed. He would fain
turn a more or less honest penny ere he reached home,
if it might but be done quietly.
Late in the day came his chance.
Grazing in a neighbouring lush pasture were two fine
fat bullocks. Dicky paused to look, and the more
he looked, the more he admired; the more he admired,
the more he coveted. They were magnificent beasts,
seldom had he seen finer; nothing could better suit
his purpose. Such beasts would fetch a high price
anywhere they must be his. So,
with what patience he could command, till darkness
should come to his aid, Dicky discreetly retired to
a neighbouring copse, where, himself unseen, he might
feast his eyes on the fat cattle, and at the same
time make sure that if they did happen to be removed
from that particular pasture, at least he would not
be ignorant of their whereabouts. But the bullocks
fed on undisturbed. No one came to remove them;
only their owner stood regarding them for a while.
Darkness fell, and the call of an owl that hooted eerily,
or the distant wail of a curlew, alone broke the stillness.
Then up came Dicky’s best friend, a moon but
little past the full. Everything was in his favour,
not a hitch of any kind occurred; quietly and without
any fuss the great fat beasts began to make their
slow way west across the hills for Cumberland.
Morning came, bringing with it a great
hue and cry on that farm bereft of its fat cattle,
and things might chance to have fared ill with Dicky
had he not adroitly contrived to lay a false trail,
that headed the furious owner in hasty pursuit north,
towards Tweed and Scotland. Meanwhile, in due
time not for worlds would Dicky have overdriven
them the bullocks and their driver found
themselves in Cumberland, near by Lanercost.
There, as they picked their leisurely way along, they
encountered an old farmer riding a bay mare, the like
of which for quality Dicky had never seen. His
“Where be’st gangin’ wi’ the
nowt?” asked the farmer.
“Oh, to Carlisle,” said Dicky.
“Wad ye sell?”
“Oh aye!” answered Dicky. “For
a price. But the beasts are good.”
“Yes, they were good,”
admitted the farmer. And Dicky must come in, and
have a drink, and they’d talk about the oxen.
So in they went to the farmer’s house, and long
they talked, and the more they talked the more the
farmer wanted those bullocks; but the more he wanted
them the more he tried to beat Dicky down. But
Dicky was in no haste to sell; he could do better
at Carlisle, said he; and the upshot, of course, was
that he got the price he asked. And then said
Dicky, when the money was paid, and they had had another
drink or two, and a mighty supper:
“That was a bonnie mare ye were riding.”
“Aye,” said the farmer.
“An’ she’s as good as she’s
bonnie. There’s no her like in a’
“Wad ye sell?”
“Sell!” cried the farmer.
“No for the value o’ the hale countryside.
Her like canna be found. Sell! Never i’
“Well, well,” said Dicky,
“I canna blame ye. She’s a graund
mare. But they’re kittle times, thir; I
wad keep her close, or it micht happen your stable
micht be empty some morning.”
“Stable!” roared the fanner
boisterously. “Hey! man, ah pit her in no
stable. She sleeps wi’ me, man, in my ain
room. Ah’m a bachelor, ah am, an’
there’s non’ to interfere wi’ me,
and ivvery nicht she’s tied to my ain bed-post.
Man, it’s music to my ear to hear her champin’
her corn a’ the nicht. Na, na!
Ah trust her in no stable; an’ ah’d like
to see the thief could steal her awa’ oot o’
my room withoot wakenin’ me.”
“Well, maybe ye’re right,”
said Dicky. “But mind, there’s some
cunnin’ ânes aboot. Ye’ll hae
a good lock on your door, nae doot?”
“Aye, I have a good lock,
as ye shall see,” cried the farmer, caution
swamped in brandy and good fellowship. “What
think ye o’ that for a lock?”
“Uhm m!” murmured
Dicky reflectively, carefully scrutinising lock and
key and he was not unskilled in locks.
“Aye, a good lock; a very good lock. Yes,
yes! Just what you want; the very thing.
They’ll no pick that.”
“No! They’ll never
pick that. Ho! Ho!” laughed
the complacent farmer.
Then Dicky said he “maun be
steppin’. It was gettin’ late.”
And so, after one more drink, and another “to
the King, God bless him,” and yet one more to
“themselves,” and a fourth, just to see
that the others went the right way and behaved themselves,
the two parted, the best and dearest of friends.
It might have been the outcome of
a good conscience, or perhaps it was the soothing
thought that he had made a good bargain, and had got
those bullocks at a figure lower than he had been
prepared to pay; or, possibly, it may only have been
the outcome of that extra last glass or two that he
had had with Dicky. But whatever it was, the fact
remained that the farmer’s slumbers that night
were very profound, his snoring heavier than common.
Towards morning, but whilst yet the night was dark,
dreaming that he and the mare were swimming a deep
and icy river, he woke with a start. Everything
was strangely still; even the mare made no sound.
And surely it must be freezing! He
was chilled to the bone. And then, on a brain
where yet sang the fumes of brandy, it dawned that
he had absolutely no covering on him. Sleepily
he felt with his hands this way and that, up and down.
To no purpose. His blankets must certainly have
fallen on the floor, but try as he might, no hand could
he lay on them. Slipping out of bed to grope
for flint and steel wherewith to strike a light, with
soul-rending shock he ran his forehead full butt against
the open door of his room.
“De’il tak’ it!
What’s this?” he bellowed. It was
inconceivable that he had forgotten to close and lock
that door before getting into bed, however much brandy
he might have drunk overnight. What was the meaning
of it? At last a light, got from the smouldering
kitchen fire, revealed the hideous truth his
room was empty, the cherished mare gone! The door
(as he had found to his cost) stood wide open; along
the floor were carefully spread his blankets, and
over them no doubt the mare had been led out without
making noise sufficient to awaken even a light sleeper,
let alone one whose potations had been deep as the
Lights now flashed and twinkled from
room to room, from house to stable and byre, and back
again, as the frenzied, cursing farmer and his servants
tumbled over each other in their haste to find the
lost animal. It is even said that one servant
lass, in her ardour of search, was found looking under
the bed in an upstairs room scarcely a likely
grazing ground for any four-footed animal (unless perhaps
it might be a night-mare). But whether she expected
to find there the lost quadruped, or the man guilty
of its abduction, tradition says not. At any rate,
all that any of the searchers found and
that not till broad daylight was the print
of the good mare’s hoofs in some soft ground
over which she had been ridden fast. And no one
had heard even so much as the smallest sound.
The day was yet young, and the breeze
played gratefully cool on Dicky’s brow, as,
fearless of pursuit, he rode contentedly along towards
home a few hours later. Skirting by Naworth,
thence up by Tindale Tarn and down the burn to South
Tyne, he had now come to the Fells a little to the
south and east of Haltwhistle. To him came a man
on foot; and, said he:
“Have ye seen onny stray cattle
i’ your travels? I’ve lost a yoke
o’ fat bullocks.”
“What micht they be like?”
asked Dicky innocently; for he had no difficulty in
recognising the farmer from whom he had stolen the
beasts, though the latter, having never set eyes on
Dicky, had no idea of whom he was talking to.
“Oh,” said the man, “they
were fine, muckle, fat beasts, red, baith o’
them, ane wi’ a bally face, an’ the tither
wi’ its near horn sair turned in.”
And some other notable peculiarities the farmer mentioned,
such as might strike a man skilled in cattle.
“We-el,” answered Dicky
thoughtfully, “now that ye mention it, I believe
I did see sic a pair, or twa very like them, no later
agone than yesterday afternoon. If I’m
no mista’en, they’re rinnin’ on Maister
’s farm, no far frae Lanercost.”
“Man, ah’m that obleeged
to ye. But ah’m that deid tired wi’
walkin’, seekin’ them, ah canna gang that
far,” said the farmer. “That’s
a gey guid mare ye’re ridin’. Ye
wadna be for sellin’ her, likely?”
“Oh aye, I’ll sell.
But she’s a braw mare; there’s no her like
i’ the countryside, or in a’ Northumberland.
I’ll be wantin’ a braw price.”
Dicky was always ready for a deal, and in this instance
of course it suited him very well to get rid of his
So, after some chaffering, Dicky was
promised his “braw price,” and he accompanied
the farmer home to get the money. A long way it
was. The farmer perforce walked, but Dicky, with
native caution, rode, for, said he, in excuse to his
“I’m loth to part wi’
my good auld mare, for I’ve never owned her like.
Sae I’ll jist tak’ a last bit journey on
In due course Dicky got his money,
and food and drink, as much as he could swallow, into
the bargain. Then the farmer rode away for Lanercost;
and Dicky, of course, remembered that he had business
in a different part of the country.
Sure enough, when the farmer reached
Lanercost there were his bullocks contentedly grazing
in a field, while contemplatively gazing at them stood
an elderly man, with damaged face.
Up rode the farmer on the mare.
“Here!” shouted he angrily,
“what the de’il are ye doin’ wi’
“Wh-a-at?” bellowed the
other with equal fury. “Your bullocks!
And be d d to ye! If it comes
to that, what the de’il are ye doin’
ridin’ my mare? I’ll hae the law
o’ ye for stealin’ her, ye scoondrel!
Come doon oot o’ my saiddle afore ah
pu’ ye doon.” And the two elderly
men, each red in the face as a “bubbly jock,”
both spluttering and almost speechless with rage,
glared at each other, murder in their eyes.
Then came question and answer, and
mutual explanation, and gradually the comic side of
the affair struck them; each saw how the other had
been done, and they burst into roar after roar of
such laughter as left them weak and helpless.
They had been properly fooled. But the fat bullocks
were recovered, and the well-loved mare, even if the
money paid for each was gone. And after all,
he laughs best who laughs last. But they saw no
more of Dicky of Kingswood.