Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends:
The old Border Ballad tell us that the Bold Buccleuch rescued Kinmont Willie from inside the walls of Carlisle Castle. William Armstrong of Kinmont had been kidnapped at the Kershopefoot Fair by the False Salkeld. Willie was the bane of the English March Warden, but, by taking Willie on a truce day, Salkeld had broken a truce that had been respected by Scots and English, soldiers and reivers alike for centuries.
Buccleuch and his forty men approached the walls of Carlisle Castle in the dead of night. Their scaling ladders were too short. They tried the postern gate. “A huge man wielding a length of iron . . . fitted his bar into a gap between the lock and the mortar and then heaved.” The gate splintered and gave way. Two guards were silenced.
And then, suddenly on a signal from Buccleuch, they blew trumpets and horns, “loud enough to bring down the walls of Jericho. . . . They scraped their swords on the castle walls as they ran screaming, “Who dares meddle with me!”
The English soldiers kept to their beds, fearful of the pandemonium. Lord Scrope barred his windows and locked his door.
Red Rowan shook Kinmont Willie out of his sleep. “ ‘Let’s away or they’ll hang you for sure,’ he urged.”
The castle was awake. “The great Carlisle bell was tolling and the citizens were mustering.” The Scots made good their escape, with Kinmont Willie thrown over Red Rowan’s horse. It felt that “there must be a thousand English in hot pursuit”.
Boldly, recklessly, the Scots rode through the swirling, swollen river.
Lord Scrope and the English pursuers pulled up short on the river bank. The Scots disappeared “into the murky morning mists laughing with delight at their night’s adventure.”
There are few better tales of brave and daring men than the wild stories of the reivers who rode out of the Debateable Lands. These were borderlands where the rule of law did not hold sway. “Men like Hugh Graham, Hobbie Noble, Dick of the Cow lived hard and died hard at the hands of their enemies during raids and skirmishes or hanging at the end of a rope.”
Julia Hickey has retold these tales, which are an important part of our heritage here in the north of Cumbria. Walter Scott and others collected the old ballads at the end of the eighteenth century when they were in danger of being forgotten or neglected because they were the poetry of the poor peasants on the Border.
Kinmont Willie is perhaps the best known of many. King James tricks Johnnie Armstrong to make his last goodnight at the end of a rope. The Lochmaben Harper steals the king’s finest horse. Dick of the Cow gets the better of Lord Scrope. Hobbie Noble readies himself to hang from the gallows on Harraby Hill. Hugh Graham feels the noose around his neck. Young Lochinvar rides out of the west to Netherby Hall.
We live in an area rich in historical romance. Julia Hickey has done an excellent job in retelling these dramatic stories of yesteryear in a lively and vivid manner. She has reprinted some of the originals and provided a short informed introduction to each tale.
Riding by Moonlight that should be on the shelves of every Armstrong, Graham, Nixon and all those who claim descent from the bold families of the Debateable Lands.
Riding by Moonlight is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.