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John Lang

Auld Ringan Oliver

Amongst the flying, broken rabble that represented all that was left of the Covenanting army after the disastrous business of Bothwell Bridge, a dismounted Borderer, with one or two other stout hearts by no means disposed even now to give up the day, continued still to strike fiercely at Claverhouse's pursuing troopers. But their efforts to stem the tide of disaster were utterly without avail, and the Borderer, zealously protesting and struggling, was at length swept off the field by a wild panic rush of the fugitives. Missing his footing on the broken ground as the flying mob pressed on to him, the Borderer fell, and, hampered by the bodies of a couple of wounded and exhausted countrymen, ere he could again struggle to his feet, the horse of more than one spurring rider had trampled over him, and he lay disabled and helpless, at the mercy of any dragoon who might chance to ride that way.

"'The Lord hath afflicted me in the day of His fierce anger,'" groaned the Covenanter. "'He hath made my strength to fall; the Lord hath delivered me into their hands, from whom I am not able to rise up.'"

"Aye!" whimpered a wounded man who lay partly across the Borderer's legs. "'The Lord was as an enemy; He hath swallowed up Israel.' And I'm thinkin', 'gin He send nae help, and that sune, we're no muckle better than deid men. Eh! weary fa' the day I left my ain pleugh stilts, an' my ain fireside."

"Na, na, freend. He that setteth his hand to the plough, let him not look back," answered the Borderer. "'Gin I win oot o' this, I trow I'll 'hew Agag in pieces before the Lord,' or a's dune. We will yet smite the Philistines, destroy utterly the Amalakites! Aye! smite them hip and thigh, even from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof!"

This fiery Borderer, Ringan Oliver by name, a man of gigantic strength and great courage, a strong pillar of the Covenant, was a native of Jedwater, where he and his fathers before him had for generations occupied the small holding of Smailcleuchfoot. From the turmoil of the disastrous flight after the battle of Bothwell Bridge, and from the close search of the pursuing soldiers, Ringan Oliver did eventually escape, sore battered, and not without much difficulty and danger, and for many a month thereafter he lay in hiding; caves, holes in the moors, and dripping peat hags, were his shelter, heather and ferns his bed, many a time when the hunt waxed hot. And in 1680, hearing of the return from Holland of the outlawed Hall of Haughhead, he speedily joined that noted Covenanter, hiding with him, "lurking as privily as they could about Borrowstounness and other places on both sides of the Firth of Forth"; and he was with Hall and "worthy Mr. Cargill" when "these two bloody hounds, the curates of Borrowstounness and Carriden, smelled out Mr. Cargill and his companion," and sent to the Governor of Borrowstounness that information which led to the death of one of the three Covenanters. Mr. Cargill and Ringan Oliver got clear away from the house at Queensferry where Colonel Middleton, single-handed, tried to arrest them, but Hall, severely wounded in the head, was taken, and died before he could be carried even so far as Edinburgh.

For some years after this we have no record of Ringan's doings; possibly part of the time he spent on his farm at Smailcleuchfoot. In 1689, however, he was with General Mackay at Killiecrankie. And again, as at Bothwell Bridge, sorely against his inclination he experienced the horrors of headlong flight in company of a broken rabble. Reaching Dunkeld in an exhausted condition early in the following morning, he and a few comrades found shelter in the house of a friend. But as they sat, about to fall to on a much needed meal, down the little street came the "rat-tat-tat" of a drum, and past the window swaggered an unkempt Highland drummer, halting at intervals to hurl defiance at all Whigs, and a challenge to them to fight the famous Highland champion, Rory Dhu Mhor. And this is something after the fashion of what Ringan and his weary comrades heard drawled out with fine nasal whine:

"This will pe to pe kiving notice to aal it may pe concerning, tat Rory Dhu Mhor of ta Clan Donachy will pe keeping ta crown of ta causeway in ta toun of Tunkel for wan hour and mhore. And he iss civilly tesiring it to pe known tat if there will pe any canting, poo-hooing, psalm-singing whig repellioner in ta toun, and he will pe so pould as to pe coming forth his hiding holes, and looking ta said Rory Dhu Mhor in ta face, ta said Rory Dhu Mhor herepy kifs promise to pe so ferry condescending as to pe cutting ta same filthy Whig loon shorter by ta legs, for ta honour of King Tchames. Ochilow! Cot save King Tchames!"

A few paces behind this tattered herald strutted the champion, Rory Dhu Mhor, swinging his kilt, and like the wild stag of his native mountains, haughtily sniffing the breeze.

At this sight, all the fierce old Border blood began to surge through Ringan Oliver's veins. The contemptuous challenge goaded him to fury; for the Christianity of our Covenanting ancestors was seldom of that cast which prompts the turning of the other cheek to the smiter, and Ringan was one of the most militant of a militant sect.

"God do so to me, and more also," shouted he, springing to his feet, "'gin I humble not this blethering boaster, and stop his craw, or he maun stop mine."

"Na, na, Ringan," cried his friends, "haud sae, man, haud sae. Ye'll be clean dung-ower; ye're ower sair spent to fecht thenow."

But this only goaded Ringan the more.

"As the Lord liveth, he shall lick the dust. Hinder me not, friends, withstand me not; I maun do battle with this Philistine."

And with that, he rushed into the street, broadsword in hand.

"Diaoul! Fwhat will this creatur pe tat will pe approaching in such ways and manners pefore a Hieland shentleman?" cried the Highlander with a snort, giving an extra cock to his bonnet.

"I am an unworthy follower of Christ, our spiritual Redeemer, and a soldier of King William, our temporal deliverer; and I stand here to bid you make good your profane boasting."

"Fhery goot inteet! Fhery goot inteet! you haf peen suppering at Killiecrankie, and now you would pe after breakfasting at Tunkeld? By Cot, you shall haf it!"

And Rory drew his claymore. They were not ill-matched. Both were big men, both of gigantic strength, both skilled swordsmen. But the Highlander had by far the greater experience of duelling; it was, in fact, the pride of his life to pick a quarrel and to slay his antagonist. Moreover, he had his target, which was of immense assistance in warding off blows; and Ringan had no guard other than his sword, which fact, in itself, made the combat unequal. And, to crown all, the Highlander was infinitely the fresher. But the dour, fiery, old Border blood had brought Ringan to this pass, when he was in no way fit to fight, and, whatever the cost, he must now go through with it.

So to it they fell. Long they fought, and fiercely, till the breath came hard-drawn and short, and the red blood ran fast from both combatants. Only, the Highlander was less distressed than Ringan, his wounds fewer and less serious. Still, they kept on without pause, till to the fierce joy of the Highland onlookers, and the dull misery of others, it became quite plain that Ringan's time had come. Human nature could do no more; he was beaten, and was being driven slowly back and back, his defence each minute getting less vigorous and confident, his attack less to be dreaded. Loud rang the exulting Gaelic yells to Rory to finish him, to "give his flesh to the eagles."

And now Ringan, blood flowing from a dozen gashes, was down on one knee, but still almost mechanically guarding head and body from the whirlwind final attack of the Highlander. Sick at heart, the Lowland onlookers turned their looks aside; they hated to see such an end of a brave comrade, and they were too few to avenge him. Suddenly, and with bent heads, they turned away from looking at the figure of the wearied Borderer, beaten down on to his knee, away from sight of the flashing claymore that was now so near to tasting their friend's life-blood. And then to their ears came a roar, as of the routing of some mighty bull of Bashan. Glancing back quickly, their astonished eyes saw Rory Dhu Mhor standing rigidly erect and stiff, an expression of blank wonder on his hairy face, and the point of Ringan's broadsword appearing out between the Highlander's shoulders. Then, with another mighty roar, as the sword was withdrawn, he sprang convulsively off the ground, and with a clatter fell heavily on his target, dead. It was a spent man that he was dealing with, he had rashly thought. Too well he knew the game; he had played it successfully so often before. It needed but to go in now and slay. In his over confidence the Highlander neglected for one moment to be cunning of fence, and during that moment he exposed his body. It was enough for a swordsman so skilled as Ringan Oliver. Exhausted as he was, like a flash his weapon leapt forward, and the great Highland champion had fought his last fight.

It was near to being a dearly bought victory. Murder was in the hearts of the Highlanders, as for the moment they stood in savage silence, hungering for the life of their champion's overthrower. And Ringan was fainting from loss of blood, unable to raise himself from the trampled, muddy ground on which he had fallen. Things indeed looked ill for him and for his friends. And ill, no doubt, it would have fared with them, if just then it had not chanced that the certain news reached the Highlanders in Dunkeld of the death of him they called "Ian Dhu nan Cath" (Black John of the Battles), John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, slain the previous day in Killiecrankie fight. Thus it happened that, instead of falling sword in hand on the little party of Lowlanders, the dismayed clansmen began to slip away, and Ringan's friends succeeded in getting their sorely wounded comrade into safety.

It was some time after this, when life had become less stormy, that Ringan again took up his residence at Smailcleuchfoot. Here he continued to live till he was quite an old man. It was here, too, that the incident befell which gave rise to the ballad written by Mr. James Telfer early in last century.

Ringan had ever been known as well for his rigid ideas of faith and honour as for his great strength and undaunted courage, and these qualities had brought him greatly into the esteem and friendship of his landlord, one of the earliest of the Marquesses of Lothian. It is said that when the Marquess, towards the end of his life, found it necessary to take what was then the tedious and toilsome journey to London, he sent for Ringan, and giving him the key of a room in Ferniehurst in which were kept important and valuable deeds and family papers, charged him on no account to allow anyone to enter the room or to interfere with the papers until he (the Marquess) should return. It happened, however, shortly after Lord Lothian's departure that his heir had occasion to wish to enter this locked room, and he sent to demand the key from Ringan. The old man, naturally and rightly, refused to depart from the instructions he had received when the key was delivered to him, and the reply he sent to the young lord may probably have been somewhat blunt and uncompromising. In any case, hot words passed between him and the indignant heir, who considered, perhaps not unnaturally, that prohibition to enter the locked room, to whomsoever else it might apply, certainly could not under any circumstances apply to him. Perhaps had he gone in the first instance himself to Ringan and explained matters the affair might without much difficulty have been arranged. But he had taken the other course, and had demanded the key as a matter of right. Hence came hot words between the two, and the upshot was that the younger man left boiling with resentment at the "old Cameronian devil, Ringan Oliver," and threatening to pay him out.

No very long time after this the old Marquess died, and Ringan's enemy reigned in his stead. Nor was it long ere he began to show that no portion of the wrath conceived by him against the old man had been allowed to die for want of nursing. One September day, when Ringan's crop was all but ready to cut, there came across the water from Ferniehurst the new Marquess accompanied by several mounted men, servants, and others, with dogs. Soon the party began riding over the farm, ostensibly looking for hares; finally, they all went into the standing crop, trampling it down wantonly, hallooing their dogs here, there, and everywhere, and galloping furiously about wherever the corn stood thickest. Ringan had been rapidly becoming more and more angry as he found that the damage done was so manifestly wilful damage; and at last, finding remonstrance to be so much waste of breath, he snatched up an old musket, which possibly had not seen the light since Killiecrankie, and shot one of the dogs.

That was enough for the Marquess; he had got the old man in the wrong now. Off he went at once and lodged with the Sheriff of Roxburghshire a complaint against Ringan, and a summons was issued. Ringan refused to appear in court.

"Na!" he said. "I've done nae wrong. I daur them to lay a hand on me."

But the Law was not to be thus flouted. If he wouldn't come freely, then he must be made to come, said the sheriff. Here a difficulty arose. Ringan's reputation for gigantic strength and utter fearlessness still survived, and no one dared even attempt to apprehend the old man. In such circumstances the sheriff pressed into his service the Marquess and his men, and this party set off for Smailcleuchfoot. Friends warned Ringan of their coming and counselled him to fly. But the dour old Cameronian's spirit refused to let him do aught that might even remotely suggest a doubt as to his being absolutely in the right. He only retired into his house, and resolutely set about barring doors and windows; and when that was done—

"Let them touch me that daur," he cried, taking up and carefully loading the same old musket with which he had shot the dog.

Soon came the sheriff's summons, to which Ringan paid no heed, beyond letting the party know that he was at home, and had no intention of surrendering. There was in the house with him at this time a young girl (whether an adopted daughter or merely a maid who cooked and looked after the old man's house, one does not know), but she had refused to leave when he began to barricade the place, and Ringan's sole anxiety was now apparently for her. Of his own safety or that of his house, he seemed to think not at all; the grim old dourness and determination that had distinguished him at Bothwell Bridge and elsewhere were again smouldering, ready to burst into flame.

"Keep oot o' the licht, lass, and rin nae risk; gang in ahint yon press door," he said to the girl, when the men outside began firing at the windows.

Then he, too, began to fire back at his enemies, and for a time he was too much absorbed in his practice to pay attention to what the girl might be doing. Thus, he had just fired a shot which clipped away one of the curls from the Sheriff's wig, when a gasp, and the sound of a heavy fall on the floor behind him, caused the old man hastily to look round. Curiosity had overcome her caution; the girl had ventured from her shelter, and, standing behind Ringan, had been trying to see, past the edge of the window, how things were going outside. Perhaps she had a lover in the attacking party, and feared for his safety. Anyhow, as she lent forward, forgetting her own danger, a bullet meant for the old man found its billet in her throat. For a moment Ringan stood aghast, then knelt by the dying girl, striving in vain to staunch the blood that gushed from her wound. And as he realised that such a hurt was far beyond his simple skill, the lust to kill was born again in the old man's breast. He forgot that he was old, forgot how the treacherous years had stolen from him the vigour and spring that had been his, forgot everything but the half-crazy desire for vengeance.

With the roar of a wounded tiger he tore down the barricades fixed by himself not an hour before, snatched from its place over the fire the trusty old broad-sword that had served him so well in former days, flung wide the door, and charged blindly out on his enemies. Alas for Ringan Oliver! Even as he crossed the threshold, a rope, or some part of his discarded barricade, caught his foot, and like the Philistines' mighty god Dagon lang syne before the Ark of the Lord, he fell prone on his face, and the enemy was on him in an instant.

Even then, disarmed and smothered by numbers as he was, the struggle for a time was by no means unequal, and more than once, with gigantic effort, he had all but flung off his captors. Perhaps, in the end, the task might even have been too much for the sheriff's party had it not been that a treacherous tinker, named Allan, with a hammer struck the old man a heavy blow on the face, fracturing the jaw and partially stunning him. Then, bound hand and foot, Auld Ringan was carried to Edinburgh. There, in the Tolbooth, he lay for eight long years, suffering tortures, first from his broken jaw, and later from old wounds that now broke out afresh. He that had lived so long a life in the pure fresh air of the Border, who had loved more to hear the lark sing than the mouse cheep, now languished in a foul, insanitary prison, and it was but the ghost of his former self that at the end of his long confinement crept away to pass the brief remainder of his days in a house in the Crosscauseway, Edinburgh.

Auld Ringan Oliver died in 1736. He sleeps among the martyrs in Greyfriars Churchyard.