Gateway to the Classics: Scotland's Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Scotland's Story by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall

How a Ploughman Won a Battle

Years passed on, king following king, and still the land was filled with fighting and strife. But out of the confusion and war of these stormy times Scotland grew.

There was war with the Saxons; there was war with the fierce sea kings who came sailing over from Norway and Denmark. Wild heathen men were these, tall and strong, with long fair hair and blue eyes. Fearless, and brave, and cruel, they landed in the islands to the north of Scotland, burning, destroying, conquering, and carrying off both men and women as slaves.

Fiercely the kings of Scotland struggled and fought against these wild invaders. Again and again they were driven out. Again and again they returned. They swept round the island; they wrecked the monastery of St. Columba on the island of Iona. Everywhere they carried fire and sword, leaving death and desolation behind them.

In the reign of a king named Kenneth iii. , these Danes were defeated in a battle called the battle of Luncarty. The fight had been sharp and cruel, and the Danes fought with such desperate bravery that at last they drove the Scots backward. In confusion they fled from the field. Down a long lane fenced on either side with high walls they fled, hotly pursued by the victorious Danes.

But in one of the fields near, a ploughman and his two sons were quietly at work. When the old man saw how the Scots were fleeing, he seized the yoke from the neck of his oxen, and calling to his sons to do the same he sprang into the lane. Side by side the three men stood barring the way. They were armed only with their wooden ox-yokes, and with them they beat back all those who fled.

"Would ye flee and become the slaves of heathen kings?" cried the old man, whose name was Hay. "Nay, nay, turn back, turn back, and die rather as free men."

So stoutly did he speak, such blows did he deal, that the Scots took heart again. They turned, and led by Hay, they once more attacked the on-coming Danes. And the Danes, thinking that a fresh army had come to help the Scots, were seized with fear and fled. Then the Scots, who had been so nearly defeated, now filled with new hope and courage, chased them from the field. Many were killed in the battle, many more fell in the chase, and the victory of the Scots was great. But all the honour was given to the ploughman and his two sons, who had won the day after it seemed lost.

The King then commanded that these three brave men should be dressed in splendid robes, and brought before him. But they did not care for fine clothes, so they refused the robes of silk and satin which were offered to them, and they went before the King wearing their old shabby clothes, covered with dust and mud, in which they had fought.

All the people were eager to see the men who, by such bravery, had saved their King and country from the terrible Danes. So they crowded along the road to see them pass, and with cheering and shouting a great throng of people accompanied them, doing them as much honour as if they had been kings and princes.

Thus, followed and surrounded by a rejoicing crowd, they came to the King's palace. All the courtiers wore their most splendid robes. The King sat upon his throne, his golden crown upon his head. Before him stood Hay and his sons in their old shabby clothes, carrying their wooden ox-yokes upon their shoulders.

"What can I do for you? What can I give to you," asked the King, "as a reward for your great services?"

"Give me, sire," replied Hay, "as much land as a falcon will fly over without alighting."

"That is but modest asking," said the King. "Let it be done."

Then the King and all his courtiers went out into the fields near the palace, and watched as a falcon was let loose. As soon as the bird was free it rose high in the air, then spreading its wings it flew away and away.

On and on it flew, on and on till, to those who watched, it seemed but a speck in the distance. Then it disappeared. The horsemen, who followed its flight, rode fast and they too were lost to sight. On and on the falcon flew, till at last it alighted upon a stone.

It had flown six miles without stopping, and all that six miles of land was given to Hay and his sons to be theirs for ever.

The King then made Hay and his sons knights. As you know, knights always had something painted upon their shields in memory of the great deeds which they had done. So King Kenneth commanded that Hay should have a shield of silver, and that upon it three red shields should be painted. That was to show that the ox-yokes of Hay and his sons had been as shields to the King and country. On either side was painted a ploughman carrying an ox-yoke, and over all was a falcon.

I must tell you that some people say that this story too is a fairy tale, but there is still a great family whose name is Hay, and who bear these same arms with the motto, Serva jugum,  which is Latin and means "Keep the yoke."

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