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Highwaymen In The Border
by [?]

It can scarcely be said that the Border, either north or south of Tweed, has ever as a field of operations been favoured by highwaymen. Fat purses were few in those parts, and if he attempted to rob a farmer homeward bound from fair or tryst–one who, perhaps, like Dandie Dinmont on such an occasion, temporarily carried rather more sail than he had ballast for–a knight of the road would have been quite as likely to take a broken head as a full purse.

There has occasionally been some disposition to claim as a north country asset, Nevison, the notorious highwayman, who is said to have been the true hero of the celebrated ride to York, which, in his novel, Rookwood, Mr. Harrison Ainsworth assigns to Dick Turpin. Nevison, however, was a north countryman only in the sense that he was born in Yorkshire, and he never did frequent any part of the north country, but confined his operations chiefly to districts adjacent to London, where he flew at higher game than in those days was generally to be found travelling Border roads. Nor in reality was it he who took that great ride to York. The feat was accomplished in the year 1676 by a man named Nicks, if Defoe’s account is to be relied on. Nicks committed a robbery at Gadshill, near Chatham, at about four o’clock one summer’s morning. Knowing that, in spite of his crape mask, his victim had recognised him, Nicks galloped to Gravesend, where, together with his mare, he crossed the Thames by boat, then swung smartly across country to Chelmsford, and thence on, with only necessary halts to bait his horse, by way of Cambridge, through Huntingdon, and so on to the Great North Road. Without ever changing his mount, he reached York early that evening, having taken only fifteen hours for a journey of two hundred miles. If the time is correct, she must have been a great mare, and he a consummate horse-master. At his subsequent trial, as it was proved beyond question that in the evening of the day on which the robbery took place he had played bowls in York with well-known citizens, the jury, holding it to be impossible that any person could have been on the same day in two places so far apart as Gadshill and York, on that ground acquitted the prisoner.

But if Nevison, nor Nicks, nor Turpin, ever crossed into Scotland, there were others, less known to fame, who occasionally tried their fortune in that country. In the early part of the year 1664, robberies, highway and otherwise, were of extraordinary frequency in Scotland, and this was attributed to the great poverty then prevalent amongst the people, owing to “the haill money of the kingdom being spent by the frequent resort of our Scotsmen at the Court of England.”

In 1692-3 there seems to have been what one might almost call an epidemic of highway robbery over the southern part of Scotland, and he was quite a picturesque ruffian who robbed William M’Fadyen near Dumfries on 10th December 1692. Or, rather, there were two ruffians engaged in the affair. M’Fadyen was a drover who had been paid at Dumfries a sum of L150 for cattle sold. Sleeping overnight in the town, the drover started for home next morning before daylight. Possibly he had seen at the inn the previous evening some one whose appearance or manner made him uneasy, and being a cautious man, with a good deal of money in his possession, he had hoped by an early start to give this suspected person the slip.

A clear, cold December morning, stars winking frostily in a cloudless sky, and a waning moon casting sharp black shadows over the whitened ground, saw him out of Dumfries, and well on his homeward road. And, as he blew on his fingers, and beat his unoccupied hand briskly against his thigh, to warm himself withal, M’Fadyen chuckled to think how cleverly and quietly he had slipped unnoticed from the inn and through the town. They must be up early indeed who would weather on him! And so, ruminating somewhat vain-gloriously, he pushed on over the ringing ground, his horse snorting frosty breaths on the chill air, and inclined to hump his back and squeal on the smallest excuse. Mile after mile slipped easily behind him, and the sun began to show a blood-red face over the hill; a “hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,” and crows cawed hungrily as they flew past on sluggish, blue-black wing, questing for food. The world was awake now, and M’Fadyen reckoned that by a couple of hours after noon he should be safe home with his money. Only–who was that on the road ahead of him? A soldier by his coat, surely, with his servant riding behind. Well, so much the better; that would be company for him over the loneliest part of his ride, across the moor which bore an evil name. So M’Fadyen pressed on, and soon he caught up the two riders, first the servant, “mounted upon ane dark grey horse” and armed with a “long gun”; then the master, also riding a dark grey horse, and dressed in a scarlet coat with gold-thread buttons. A tall man, the latter–a striking-looking man, quite a personage, with thin refined face and high Roman nose; instead of a wig he wore his own brown hair tied in a cue behind, and over one eye he had a notable peculiarity, “a wrat (wart) as big as ane nut.” In his holsters this gentleman carried a brace of pistols.