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The Hails of Bemersyde

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

About half-way between Melrose and St. Boswell's, on the fair banks of the Tweed, stands a castellated mansion of the type so common along the Scottish Border-land, which has been known for many an age as Bemersyde; and readers of Sir Walter Scott will not fail to remember the well-known prophecy of Thomas the Rhymer, of Ercildoune, uttered more than six centuries ago,

'Tyde what may betyde,
Haig shall be Haig of Bemersyde.'

This prophecy, no doubt, like many others, has helped to work out its own completion; for it is a matter of fact that, even from the days of I William the Lion,' the Haigs, or De Ragas, have held the lairdship of that estate in unbroken succession, and in male succession too, with the exception of some quarter of a century (from 1854 to 1878), when Bemersyde belonged to three elderly ladies, the Misses Haig, who no sooner found themselves in actual possession than they made a joint will, declaring that, on the death of the last survivor of themselves, it should pass to their distant kinsman, Captain Arthur Haig, the favorite Equerry of the Prince of Wales. Their will took effect in 1878.
     The whole history of this estate, and of its lords, reads like a romance, and it is difficult to tell it in a brief compass. It is in the days of Malcolm the Maiden and William the Lion, that we have the first actual proof of the existence of the Haig family, for Peter de Haga appears as a witness to a document granting the chapel of St. Leonard, in Lauderdale, to the Abbey of St. Dryburgh. This must have been between 1162 and 1189, and during the next two centuries the name appears frequently attached to documents and charters of a similar hind. They were a brave, military race; and I am almost afraid to say on how many battlefields they fought against France, England, and Norway in the next four centuries, till the fourteenth laud distinguished himself at the battle of Ancrum Moor in 1544. Five of his predecessors at least fell in the service of their country. But it is with the sixth laud, John de Haga, who fought with The Wallace at Stirling Bridge, that the interest. attaching to the house really commences. For it was in his time, and with reference to him, that Thomas the Rhymes uttered the prophecy quoted above. Though, with others of the Scottish barons, he swore fealty to our King Edward at Berwick, yet he afterwards joined the patriotic party of Wallace an event which is recorded in the following couplet

'When Wallace came to Gladswood Cross,
Haig of Bemersyde met him with many good horse.'

Thomas and Haig were near neighbors; and what more natural than that, as they stood on some of the neighboring hills and saw the green fields along Tweedside laid waste in war, the former should give vent to those words of comfort, and assure his gallant young friend that the lands of Bemersyde should belong to his descendants, in spite of war and ravages, for many a long year to come?
     Under whatever circumstances the words were spoken, the motive that prompted them must have been a kindly one. And, curiously enough, the whirligig of time has brought round to the Rhymer himself a pleasant recompense for his friendly utterance, since, if it were not for an old deed in which Peter de Haga, the fourth laud, engages to pay to the chapel of St. Cuthbert, at Old Melrose, half a stone of wax yearly on St. Cuthbert's Day, in atonement of sundry misdeeds of his own, the name of Thomas of Ercildoune would be now unknown, or believed to belong to a mythical personage. Among the witnesses to this deed, stands the name of Thomas Rymour, of Ercildune.' The deed is undated, and this fact has given rise to a controversy as to the poet's evidence, which has lasted from the days of George Ellis and Sir Walter Scott down to the present hour.
          Put the above gift was by no means the only present from the Haigs to the Church. If they were warriors and bloodthirsty, at all events they were not wanting in feelings of piety, as the records of the Abbeys of Dryburgh, Melrose, and Jedburgh attest. William, the thirteenth baron, fell fighting by the side of King James at Flodden; and his successor, Robert, the fourteenth laud, was mixed up in the factions which followed the death of James V., through the efforts of Henry VIII. to bring about a marriage between the infant Mary Stuart and the Prince of 'Vales, and so to subjugate Scotland to the English crown. His public and military services would seem, however, to have brought him but little profit; for, in 1553, he petitioned to be allowed to divest himself of his broad lands in favor of his son Andrew, who became fifteenth baron, and was the father of Robert, the sixteenth, and grandfather of James, the seventeenth representative of the family.
          This James would seem to have been a man of loose morals and profligate character, and he married a woman well-suited to him in that respect, Elizabeth Macdougall, of Stodrig. He ran away with his wife, and narrowly escaped being slain by his father for so doing. He falsely accused his brother William of being privy to a plot against the life of James VI., and in the end, though he had seven sons who grew up to manhood, he- was obliged to dispose of his estates to the brother whom he had so cruelly maligned and imprisoned. William de Haig, is spoken of in the family annals as the I benefactor of the family,' and he certainly did much to retrieve their fortunes, though his strong Puritan opinions brought him into serious difficulties, and he had to fly to Holland on account of his hostility to the House of Stuart.
     His lineal descendants held Bemersyde, as already stated, down to the year 1878, when, on the death of the last Miss Haig, it was supposed, and indeed was asserted publicly in the columns of the Athenaeum and elsewhere, that the Haigs had become extinct, and that the prophecy of Thomas of Ercildoune had been shown to be a falsehood and a fraud.
     But such was not the case. Most of the seven sons of James Haig and Elizabeth Macdougall, through family feuds or in order to seek their fortunes in Foreign Service, went abroad, and forgot their connection with Bemersyde. One settled in Holland, two others in Bohemia, and the youngest went off to the Indies, and was never heard of again. Robert, the second of these sons, however, settled in Stirlingshire, where he married, in 1613, Jane Greg, or Greig, and from him the present owner of Bemersyde has a direct male descent. On the death of William, eighteenth laird, he left the estate of Bemersyde to David, the seventh son of his late brother, passing by David's elder brother Robert.
          The year 1854 witnessed the extinction of the male descendants of this David Haig, and in 1878 died the last of the sisters of his last male descendant. It is passing strange that these ladies should have restored the property to a descendant of the elder line, which, in the person of Robert Haig, was passed by nearly two centuries and a half previously in favor of David. Colonel Haig is therefore in the strictest sense 'Haig of Bemersyde,' and the prophecy, instead of having failed, has been verified to the letter in his person. It is said that on the clay of the funeral of David Haig's last male heir in 185 a terrible storm broke over Dryburgh Abbey, and that a flash of lightning and a terrific clap of thunder frightened the bearers of the corpse, and made the mourners almost believe that the very heavens proclaimed the end of the Haigs of Bemersyde, and that the Lowland neighbors shook their heads in doubt and dismay; but the opening of the will an hour or two afterwards revealed the fact that Thomas the Rhymer was correct, and that his words were verified to the letter.
     The house of Bemersyde is known to most travelers who have made the tour of Tweedside, and have wandered through that neighborhood which Sir Walter Scott has invested with all the charms of poetry and romance. If the pilgrim follows the Tweed a few miles below Melrose till a little below the spot where it receives the waters of the Leader, he will observe the river take a sudden sweep to the north-east, and coming by a graceful curve nearly to the point of its departure. The loop thus formed by the Tweed in closes the gently rising promontory of Old Melrose, in -which, fourteen centuries ago, Aidan and his disciples first raised the sign and symbol of the Christian faith. Upon a rocky bluff immediately over and against this promontory, and frowning down upon it from the other bank of the Tweed, stands the ancient stronghold to which this prophecy refers. The stream flows here in a deep strong current both summer and winter, below richly-wooded banks, those on the north abrupt and precipitous, yet hinged with oaks, birches, and hawthorns almost to the water's edge.
     Sweeping clear of Old Melrose, it next enters a fine stretch of open undulating country, gliding along in serene beauty till it plunges beneath the old red sandstone cliffs of Dryburgh. On the south, the ground slopes upwards to the Eildon hills, which here display their triple peaks, as if to guard the entrance into Teviotdale; while on the north the Black Hill of haunted Ercildoune rears its somber and gloomy front. It is the very heart of that Borderland which lives in almost every page of The Wizard of the North;' and all the names around are redolent of Border song and glory for here are

‘Both Ercildoune and Cowden knows,

Where Homes had once commanding,

And Drygrange with its milk-white ewes,

'Twixt Tweed and Leader standing.

The bird that flees through Redpath trees

And Gladswood banks each morrow

May chant and sing sweet Leader Haugh,

And bonnie howms of Yarrow.'

     Bemersyde partakes something of the character of those peels which occur in such numbers along the whole of the south of Scotland, and through Northumberland and Cumberland. The older portion of it consists of a tall narrow castellated tower, with high and steep gables, very like in appearance to those of the neighboring keep of Smailhom, the scene of Sir Walter Scott's weird ballad, 'The Eve of St. John.' Some quarter of a century ago, a building in the modern style was added to it; but the older tower is still inhabited. It is surrounded by a brotherhood of ancient trees; stately beeches, and immemorial elms, in whose tops the rooks have long established a colony.  In front of the entrance stands a magnificent Spanish chestnut, which looks as if it had seen a thousand summers, and is said by tradition to be as old as the tower itself. The ancient walls and ramparts, with the usual outbuildings and offices, were unhappily removed about two hundred years ago, and in their place is now a green lawn broken into flower-beds, and bounded by magnificent lines of dark hollies and yews.
         Of the hundreds of forts and small castles which once dotted the entire Scottish Borderland, and whose ruins still excite the interest and curiosity of the antiquarian, Bemersyde is nearly the only one which is still inhabited, and, what is more, inhabited by the very same family which originally founded it. Perhaps this is even more strange when it is considered that the estate has never been entailed.
     It may not be amiss, in conclusion, to record one romantic story which links together the names of dark Bemersyde and fair Melrose. It is told and believed by the peasantry all round that.
     While the chapel and monastery of St. Cuthbert were still in their prime, one of the monks formed a too intimate connection with one of the ladies of Bemersyde. The matter coming to the ears of his superiors, he was condemned, by way of penance, to bathe every day, all the year round, in a pool in the Tweed, still known as the Haly-wheel (wiel, whirl, or eddy); and this penance he religiously observed, even when in winter he had to break the ice for the purpose, keeping silence all the while as to the cause of his extraordinary punishment. But after his death a fearful significance was given to these mysterious ablutions: for it is averred that at midnight, when the moon looks fitfully through driving storm-rack, and the torrents descend from the hills, and the swollen Tweed chafes angrily between his banks, the white figure of a lady is seen to emerge with a wild shriek from the waters of the Holy Pool, which then divide, one huge wave going towards Old Melrose and another towards Bemersyde, between which, with a second piercing cry, the unhappy lady descends and passes out of sight. This legend is possibly founded on a passage in the life of Drythelme, a visionary who resided at old Melrose, and who was so rigid in his asceticism that he bathed every day in the Tweed, without undressing, or afterwards changing his garments, even in the depth of winter.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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