The Shoes Reversed '“ seeking out a Covenanter '˜traitor'

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.

Sunday, 20th January 2019, 12:58 pm
The Shoes Reversed. Illustration by Sheila Vickers.

During the reign of the detestable Charles II, Sir James Johnstone of Westerhall was an oppressor of Covenanters – the Scottish Presbyterians outlawed and persecuted under the Catholic king. From his mansion near Liddesdale, he treated himself occasionally to a ‘Border Chase’, riding the dale with a troop of dragoons, levying heavy fines and shooting any Covenanter on the run.

On one of these excursions Johnstone was searching for Gilbert Watson, who’d had his child baptised by an ousted Covenanter minister. The curate of Applegirth had informed on him, and Gilbert had fled for his life.

Seated in a dell, Johnstone’s party found a lone figure. Today, we’d say Archie Eliot had learning difficulties; in those harsher times they called him half-witted. But Johnstone mistook him for the fugitive.

“Stir your stumps, old Gibby!” he shouted. “Ye’re wanted! And the vile babby ye made a Christian of took a taste o’ the colder air this morn atop Sergeant Pagan’s sword.”

Archie’s terrified protestations made no impression. Johnstone bellowed: “D’ye think we dinna ken Gibby Watson? Men, secure the traitor!”

But one of the dragoons spoke up, confirming that this was “Archie, the daft brither o’ the Laird o’ Whithaugh”.

“Elliot o’ Whithaugh!” exclaimed Johnstone. “Old, canting, traitor-hiding Elliot! I’ve a mind to set his house afire about his lugs and toss in this lump of idiocy to feed the flame. I’ll wager good money that Gibby is snugly lodged in the laird’s pantry or hiding in a peat-stack.”

Tying Archie to a tree, the party set off towards the house of Whithaugh. After hard overnight rain, the Liddel was running dark, smooth and foam-belled. But instead of going a mile round, the party dashed into the stream.

The opposite bank was steep, and as Sergeant Pagan’s horse tried to climb out, it fell back. The horse escaped, but Pagan was never seen alive again. His body was found some miles downstream.

Discovering that his most tried and trustworthy henchman had paid the price of his own folly, Johnstone swore to make old Whithaugh suffer.

But the party was seen and Whithaugh resolved to defend Gilbert Watson and his premises by force. He had two stout sons, a daughter and half a dozen ploughmen.

Approaching the house, Johnstone bestowed his usual curses on it. He then drew from his pocket a high commission, empowering him to search out, sack and slaughter all traitors and Covenanters.

NEXT WEEK: Gunfight, and Gilbert says his prayers.

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