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John Lang

A Man Hunt in 1813

It was a clear, crisp, sunny day, early in March 1813, that the laird of Wauchope was riding into Hawick. A little snow still lay on the crest of Cheviot and on some of the foot-hills, and a smirr of hoar-frost silvered the turf by the roadside; but the sun was bright—strong to overcome frost and snow—and in it the leaves that still clung to the beech hedges shone like burnished copper.

Walter Scott of Wauchope was one of the most popular men in Liddesdale. He it was who had, by his own exertions, raised the Light Company of Roxburghshire Volunteers, a band of nearly a hundred men of fine physique and first-rate horsemanship, whose bearing was the admiration of everyone when the laird marched them into Hawick on that momentous night in 1804 when "Boney" was supposed to have landed on Scottish shores. Mr. Scott's services had not been forgotten. A captain's commission in the 1st Regiment of Roxburgh Local Militia now belonged to him, and he squared his shoulders with an air and gave the military salute to those on the road with whom he exchanged greetings.

It was a morning for only peace and goodwill to be abroad, and the laird rode on in cheerful frame, and put his horse to a canter along the turf. But as he cantered, the good steed's ears suddenly went back, he plunged, swerved, and answered his master's voice and heels by standing stock-still, staring affrightedly at what at first, to his rider, seemed a mere limp, inanimate bundle of old clothing lying half in, half out of the ditch. In a moment the laird was standing beside the mysterious heap, and found an old, white-haired man, grievously mishandled, with blood on his face, blood dabbling the dead leaves in the ditch, blood on the turf where the pure hoar-frost had lain. There was but little life left in him, and it was not easy for him to explain his sorry plight when the words came only with hard-fought breathing, hoarse and low.

"She will pe a pedlar," he said, "an' she will haf peen robbed and murdered. . . . Och, so little she will pe hafing, and now all gone. . . . Ochone, ochone!" Gently the laird put his questions to the dying man. The robbery had been committed only a short time before. The assailant was a big man—"a fery big man"—an Irishman, and he could not have gone far. Up again on his wondering steed sprang the laird, and at steeplechase pace rode on. Near Birney-knowe he came in sight of his quarry, a powerful six-footer, but carrying too much flesh to do more than a good sprint without failing. In a neighbouring field a ploughman with his pair of horses was turning up the rich brown loam. "Hup, Jess! Woa-hi, Chairlie!" sounded his cheerful voice from over the dyke, above the jingle of his horses' harness as they turned at the head-rig with their greedy following of screaming, white-winged gulls.

"Hi!  Will Little!" shouted the laird. "Leave the plough, lad! There's murder afoot the day! Come and help catch the murderer!"

William Little, a handsome fellow of six feet, clean built and athletic, required but little explanation. In two minutes his pair was unyoked and tied to the beam of the plough, his coat off and cast at the back of the dyke, and as sturdy a pair of legs as any in Liddesdale had joined in the chase. The robber had not failed to hear the laird's shouts, and as Little unyoked his horses, he ran on, adding still more to the distance that already separated him from his pursuers. Clearly his best chance was to leave the high-road and get on to ground where it was impossible, or, at least, most unlikely, that a mounted man could follow him. Through hedges he clambered, vaulted dry stone dykes, leapt ditches, made somewhat heavy weather over the plough, but got away on rough turf up the hillside. The morning wore on, and both hunters and hunted wished that the sun had shone less warmly on that March day. On a steep part of High Tofts Hill, however, the chase at last came to an end. The steep face of the hill was more than the laird's good steed could manage, though nobly, in response to his call, did it do its best. He had to turn back and come round by a part where the ascent was less steep, while Little, hot but undaunted, went on with the chase alone. The robber's extra weight was telling on him, and he was not in the hard training of the young Border farmer. The hill pumped him, he stumbled as he ran, and, as Little gained on him yard by yard, he saw that he could run no longer, but must come to bay. He turned round and faced his pursuer, breathing hard, and with all his might tugging at a big butcher's knife in his pocket. Ordinarily the knife came easily to his hand, but he had forgotten that the pocket was stuffed with articles stolen from the old pedlar. The knife was hopelessly jammed, and Little was almost upon him. A large, sharp-pointed stone stuck out of the ground at his feet. "Keep off!"  he yelled to the ploughman. "Hands off! or I'll scatter your brains!" And as he threatened, he stooped to seize the stone and make good his threat. But the Fates that day had signed the Irish villain's death-warrant. The good Border earth clung to the stone, refusing to let it go. With all his force he tugged and tugged, but ere the earth could give way, Little had thrown himself upon him, and when Mr. Scott appeared over the brow of the hill, the sturdy farmer was still holding his own with a kicking, biting, struggling, cursing ruffian who would have had no compunction in adding another to his list of victims that day. Between them, Little and the laird tied their captive's hands behind his back with part of the bridle reins, and walked him back to Kirkton. There help was sent to the old Highlander, but no doctor could undo the ill that had been wrought him, and he died a few days later. In one of the Kirkton farm-carts the old man's murderer was conveyed to Hawick, and from thence to Jedburgh jail. It was too much a case of "hot trod" for him to do anything but plead guilty, and he hung on a gallows at Jedburgh, as many a worthier man had done in earlier days. The laird lived for more than twenty years after his man hunt on that March day in 1813, and his worthy fellow-huntsman had no cause to forget his morning's work, for he was presented with a baton and relieved from paying taxes for the rest of his natural life.