The Shoes Reversed – a cunning plan leads to safety

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.

Friday, 1st February 2019, 14:03 pm
Updated Wednesday, 23rd January 2019, 14:14 pm
The Shoes Reversed. Illustration by Sheila Vickers.

PREVIOUSLY: Sir James Johnstone, scourge of the Covenanters, left suspected sympathiser Gilbert Watson locked in a byre. Gilbert prays, then hears a voice.

It was a friendly voice, saying: “Grab this!” Through a small hole in the hatch, a staff appeared. As he hung on, he was hauled up and out, then carried with amazing speed down the snowy glen.

Hearing a noise, the guard ran round the byre, only to find himself entangled in a rope. By the time the innkeeper responded to his cries, the prisoner was long gone.

Gilbert’s rescuer carried him a distance. Then he untied Gilbert’s shoes and reattached them with string – backwards, heels-first. “Now,” said the man, “head for Castle Hermitage’s dungeon and hide there.” Gilbert trudged off awkwardly towards the abandoned castle’s dismal solitude.

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Johnstone was in a foul humour. The curate’s tip-off had been a fool’s errand: there was no Covenanters’ meeting. He’d been tricked, and when he returned to the inn his prisoner was gone. He stamped and blasphemed all night, waiting impatiently for dawn.

As day broke, the snow remained undisturbed: they could follow their quarry’s footsteps. Johnstone and his men followed the track to the glen. There the footsteps were confused, but some seemed to head towards Whithaugh.

Despatching a body to follow these, Johnstone took a few men to trace another set over the hill to Castle Hermitage. Two sets of prints, in fact – one coming and one going.

When they arrived at the castle, the explanation was obvious. The fugitive had fled to the castle, then doubled-back to the glen. Off they set at a gallop, back to the glen.

Hidden in the castle, two men watched them ride away. Johnstone had assumed one man had made both tracks. But the tracks that seemed to lead from the castle were made first by Gilbert with his shoes reversed. Those from the glen were fresh, left by Gilbert’s rescuer, one of Whithaugh’s ploughmen.

Gilbert and the ploughman set off, separating outside Hawick. While the ploughman returned to Whithaugh, Gilbert found safety with friends in the Cowgate of Edinburgh.

After the failure of his raid, Johnstone became morose and even more peevish. One morning he was found dead in his bed.

Helen Elliot, the fair maid of Whithaugh, was wooed by a Charteris of Empsfield: the present family of that title are descended from her.

And the shoes that secured Gilbert’s survival? He gave them to the Elliot family. The present proprietor of Whithaugh has them still.

Retold by Andrea Williams, adapted by Joe Lang and illustrated by Sheila Vickers. Read the full story in Volume 5 of the Wilson’s Tales Revival Edition, £8.50, from Berwick booksellers or at