The King deals out a hard lesson to the Border lairds

Wilson’s Tales is a record of our region’s history, legends and people. First serialised in the Berwick Advertiser in the 1830s, the Wilson’s Tales Project is re-telling them for a modern audience.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 31 March, 2019, 14:39
Cockburn's tomb in St Mary's Kirkyard, Picture by Mike Fraser.

PREVIOUSLY: Parys Cockburn, Laird of Henderland, rides out to avenge a raid. While his wife Marjory awaits his return, King James arrives with troops and a hangman.

Marjory heard her husband’s hunting horn. It was a death knell.

Catching sight of the noose, and Marjory at the window, Cockburn threw himself at the King’s feet. “Here doth a humble subject deposit the loyalty he owes to his lawful king,” he said.

He had fatally misjudged the moment.

“These petty Border sovereigns rob, steal and kill. This shall be ended,” spat the King.

A roar from James’s nobles sufficed as both trial and verdict. “Let him be hanged,” cried the King, “on the buttress of his own tower!”

Standing with her children, Marjory implored the King to spare his life. The King never moved. Cockburn could not bear to turn his eyes towards her, but stared blankly at the walls.

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She did not wait to see him die, or hear the struggle of his choking breath. She ran to the burn, where she flung herself beside a cascade whose roar might drown out the dreadful sound of execution.

When she returned, the bailey was empty. The servants had fled; her husband’s men had been arrested. Lifting her eyes to the buttress she saw her husband’s body; and her children at the window. The older two had wept until their throats were dry. The youngest, understanding nothing, clapped her little hands to see her mother.

Marjory cut the rope and let Cockburn’s body fall. She lay clutching it until the terrified servants returned.

In time, she found a fleeting happiness with her children. But a broken heart can kill a person quickly; in Marjory’s case it took three years.

As for the gallows elm where Merlin had prophesied that “a Cockburn laird shall hangit be”, some say the King had known of the prophesy and hanged Cockburn from the walls to show he was not bound by superstition.

He confiscated the castle and the Cockburns never flourished again. Marjory was buried with her beloved Parys. The stone was rediscovered in the Henderland churchyard in 1841. It is there today.

Retold and adapted by Joe Lang, picture by Mike Fraser. Read the full story in Volume 1 of the Wilson’s Tales Revival Edition, £8.50, from Berwick booksellers or www.wilsonstales.co.uk