|OLD PARCHMENTS lay before me, old deeds of men long dead,
Who took a deal of pains to write, and thought of what they said,
And among these time-worn papers of the property of Birse
There was one that set me thinking of a quaint old-fashioned curse.
The manuscript was blotched and old, the writing hard to read,
But this is what it meant to say, and this is all we need:
"Whene'er a laird of Birse shall die: on midnight of that day,
Death on a horse shall gallop up and bear his soul away."
So proudly reared the turrets once of that old stately pile,
Where bravery and honesty had dwelt so long a while,
And scarred and battered parapets bore witness of the ways
Its doors and walls were treated in the old invaders' days.
Alas, those walls are crumbling; alas, those doors are gone:
Its glory and its valour and its people all are done:
The nettle grows and flourishes where stood the festive board,
And owls and bats infest the halls where once dwelt Birse's lord.
There blares the sound of revelry, though near the hour of morn,
For forty years ago that day the Laird of Birse was born,
And all his friends for miles around to-day are gathered there,
To do honour to the house of Birse, and justice to its fare.
There are chieftains from the banks of Don and from the braes
Hard men to meet in angry moods, but goodly men to see:
Forbes had proposed "His Country" and Esslemont "The King",
And Johnny Coutts of Castletown had just been asked to sing,
When from the table's further end there rose a mighty cheer,
For Huntly had arisen, Scotland's first and proudest peer:
"For twice two hundred years," he cried,
"Our lands have marched with Birse,
His folk and mine together fought for better or for worse,
And I am proud to rise tonight once more before you all,
And wish my neighbour happiness in his ancestral hall.
The history of our fathers has a glorious lesson taught,
For liberty and honour have they always boldly fought.
Look thro' the deeds of Scotland, at the souls for ever fled,
And find a man of all our clan of whom 'twas ever said,
He betrayed his king and country to further some design,
Then may my God curse every clod belonging me and mine.
And may we in the future, in the days that are to be,
When the years have dragged us downward, as the waters of the
Cast the pine-stems of Glentana in the ocean's breast at last
May we look back with pleasure on a bright and peaceful past:
May we glide down life's long river with this one great aim in
To do unto our neighbours as we would wish them do."
Loud was the clink of glasses, and hearty the applause,
And then a silence seemed to fall for no apparent cause:
Whilst still the silence lasted there broke on every ear
The well-known sound, on the distant ground, of a horseman drawing
Clattering, clattering, clattering, nearer and nearer it grew,
And the strong and the hale turned stern and pale, for each the
Galloping, frenzedly galloping ~ each man put a hand to his dirk
The rider drew near to the Castle door, and stopped with a sudden
They heard the clank of heavy spurs as he mounted the granite
While squires and lords soft drew their swords, and quietly muttered
He paused at the door a moment ~ then loudly rang the bell,
While all seemed to feel it was no one real, but a messenger from
Or why did not someone answer the door ? Why did they not go see
But tho' each man heard, not a servant stirred to learn who this
man might be.
Then up rose Grant of Dinnet. Fiercely hissed he, "By the powers,
No honest folk can brook a joke at these unseemly hours.
Now I, with your permission, will answer to this bell,
And short and sharp must the story be, this horseman has to tell:
Yea, by the Gods above me, and by my father's name,
'Twill be quickly said, or I'll strike him dead, and his not mine
With this he seized his claymore and passed into the hall,
And others rose to follow him ~ but Birse moved not at all:
He lay quite helpless in his chair, with face so set and pale.
Was it only the fear that his hour was near, and did he believe
the tale ?
Now came the creak of a bolt shot back, and the fall of a heavy
And a voice cried out, as the door flew back, "Now tell me who
you are "
Only the hoot of an owl near to, only the wind in the trees,
Only a sigh from the brook hard by, only an icy breeze.
But the breeze passed on thro' the outer hall into the banquet-room,
It was the breath, they knew, of Death, now drawing a soul to
Slowly the guests returned to the hall, gently they bade good-night,
Yet not a word from the Laird was heard, and his hands were cold
They bore him away from the banquet-room, his kinsfolk by his
But ere the dawn of the coming morn the Laird of Birse had died.
Never the prattle of children now, never a merry shout,
Weird are the calls in the old grey walls when the light of day
And herdsmen say that oftentimes, when fog enshrouds the moor,
They hear a horse spring up the course towards the Castle door:
There sounds the clanging of a bell, they see a flickering light,
And then two horsemen gallop on ~ far out into the night.
It is difficult now to assess whether Lord Esmé had a specific
personality in mind for his Laird of Birse. As the scene is set
many years later than is consistent with the "twice two hundred
years" it is probable that he was not seeking a high degree of
However, if we put the scene back two centuries or so, forget
the Bishops and consider the Baron-Bailie as the Laird, then Sir
David Lindsay of Beaufort could fill the rôle (although his age
at his death is unknown).
Other names associated with the lands include Mackintosh, Grant
and Farquharson ~ the first two renowned for using the forest
of Birse as a safe haven from which to plunder the surrounding
country. The Mackintosh clan, part of the great federation of
Clan Chattan, claimed Birse, probably because they held it prior
to it being granted to the Bishops of Aberdeen. As early as 1382,
Bishop Adam complained to the King of the terror inspired by Ferchard
M'yntoschy, grandson of the Mackintosh chief and progenitor of
the Farquharsons of Finzean, and the King's response implicitly
recognised grounds for a Macintosh claim to Birse. So perhaps
a Farquharson could be the imaginary Laird. (Finzean is within
the bounds of Birse.)
The text of Huntly's speech, which indicates clearly that the
Laird of Birse was not of his own clan, eliminates the candidature
of a Gordon of Cluny.
Others mentioned, and more easily recognised, are Forbes and Esslemont.
The former can be only Lord Forbes; the latter, depending on the
year assigned to the birthday feast, could be a Cheyne, William
Keith of Ludquharne, Alexander Forbes of Pitsligo, or a Gordon.
On balance, history favours a Cheyne.
The musical Johnny Coutts of Castletown and the intemperate Grant
of Dinnet offer less for speculative thoughts. Castletown could
be anywhere, and there were many Coutts forenamed John. Dinnet
is on the Aboyne side of the Dee six miles upstream of Birse Castle.