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Chapter XXV. The Capture of a Stronghold

While Bruce had by his energy and courage been wresting Scotland, step by step, from the English, no serious effort had been made by the latter to check his progress. Small bodies of troops had from time to time been sent from the north; but the king had made no great efforts, like those of his father, to reduce the country to obedience by the exercise of the whole strength of England. Edward II differed widely from his father in disposition. At times he was roused to fits of spasmodic energy, but for the most part he was sunk in sloth and supineness. He angered and irritated his barons by his fondness for unworthy favourites, and was engaged in constant broils with them.

So called governors of Scotland were frequently appointed and as often superseded, but no effectual aid was given them to enable them to check the ever spreading insurrection. But Perth was now threatened by Bruce; and the danger of this, the strongest and most important northern fortress, roused Edward from his lethargy. A fleet was fitted out for the Tay. Troops, under the Earl of Ulster, were engaged to be transported by an English fleet of forty ships, supplied by the seaports, and intended to cooperate with John of Lorne in the west. Edward himself, with a powerful army, accompanied by the Lords Gloucester, Warrenne, Percy, Clifford, and others, advanced into Scotland as far as Renfrew. Bruce could oppose no effectual resistance in the field to so large a force, but he used the tactics which Wallace had adopted with such success. The country through which the English were advancing was wasted. Flocks and herds were driven off, and all stores of grain burned and destroyed. His adherents, each with their own retainers, hung upon the skirts of the English army, cutting off small parties, driving back bodies going out in search of provisions or forage, making sudden night attacks, and keeping the English in a state of constant watchfulness and alarm, but always retiring on the approach of any strong force, and avoiding every effort of the English to bring on an engagement.

The invaders were soon pressed by want of provisions, and horses died from lack of forage. The great army was therefore obliged to fall back to Berwick without having struck a single effective blow. After this Edward remained inactive at Berwick for eight months, save that he once again crossed the Border and advanced as far as Roxburgh, but only to retreat without having accomplished anything. The Earls of Gloucester and Warrenne reduced the forest of Selkirk and the district, and restored the English power there; while the king's favourite, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall, went by sea to Perth and tried to reduce the surrounding country, but the Scotch, as usual, retired before him, and he, too, after a time, returned to Berwick. The efforts of the defenders to starve out the invading armies of England were greatly aided by the fact that at this time a great famine raged both in England and Scotland, and the people of both countries were reduced to a condition of want and suffering. Not only did the harvest fail, but disease swept away vast numbers of cattle and sheep, and in many places the people were forced to subsist upon the flesh of horses, dogs, and other animals.

During the years which had elapsed since the battle of Methven, Bruce had never been enabled to collect a force in any way worthy of the name of an army. His enterprises had been a succession of daring feats performed by small bodies of men. Even now, when the nobles dared no longer openly oppose him, they remained sullenly aloof, and the captures of the English strongholds were performed either by the king or his brother Edward, with their retainers from Annandale and Carrick; by Douglas with the men of Douglasdale; or by some simple knights like Archie Forbes, the Frazers, Boyle, and a few others, each leading their own retainers in the field. The great mass of the people still held aloof, and neither town nor country sent their contingents to his aid. This was not to be wondered at, so fearfully had all suffered from the wholesale vengeance of Edward after the battle of Falkirk.

Great successes had certainly attended Bruce, but these had been rendered possible only by the absence of any great effort on the part of England, and all believed that sooner or later Edward would arouse himself, and with the whole strength of England, Ireland, and Wales again crush out the movement, and carry fire and sword through Scotland. Still the national spirit was rising.

Archie Forbes divided his time pretty equally between the field and home, never taking with him, when he joined the king, more than a third of the entire strength of his retainers; thus all had time to attend to their farms and the wants of their families, and cheerfully yielded obedience to the call to arms when the time came.

One day while the king was stopping for a few days' rest at Aberfilly, a horseman rode in.

"I have great news, sire," he said. "Linlithgow has been captured from the English."

"That were good news indeed," the king said; "but it can scarce be possible, seeing that we have no men-at-arms in the neighbourhood."

"It has been done by no men-at-arms, my liege," the messenger said; "but as Forfar was taken by Phillip the Forester and his mates, so has Linlithgow been captured by a farmer and his comrades, one William Bunnock."

It was indeed true. The castle of Linlithgow, forming as it did a link between the two strongholds of Edinburgh and Stirling, was a place of great importance and was strongly garrisoned by the English. Naturally the whole country round suffered severely from the oppressions of the garrison, who supplied themselves by force with such provisions and stores as were needful for them. Payment was of course made to some extent, as the country otherwise would speedily have been deserted and the land left untilled; but there was almost necessarily much oppression and high handedness. Bunnock, hearing of the numerous castles which had been captured by the king and his friends with mere handfuls of followers, determined at last upon an attempt to expel the garrison of Linlithgow. He went about among his friends and neighbours, and found many ready to join his enterprise. These one night placed themselves in ambush among some bushes hard by the castle gate. Bunnock himself concealed eight chosen men with arms in a wagon of hay. The horses were driven by a stout peasant with a short hatchet under his belt, while Bunnock walked carelessly beside the wagon. As he was in the habit of supplying the garrison with corn and forage, the gate was readily opened on his approach. As soon as the wagon was exactly between the gate posts Bunnock gave the signal and struck down the warder at the gate; the driver with his hatchet cut the traces, the men leapt up from their concealment in the hay, and the main body lying in ambush close by rushed up, and, taken wholly by surprise, unarmed and unprepared, the garrison was speedily overpowered and the castle taken.

It was in the spring of 1311 that this important capture took place. Bruce, as usual, had the castle levelled to the ground. Bunnock was rewarded by a grant of land which still bears his name, softened into Binney. Again the English made preparations for a renewed invasion, but the barons were too much occupied by their private broils and their quarrels with the king to assemble at his order, and nothing came of it. Bruce's position at home was so established that he resolved upon a counter invasion, and accordingly, having assembled a larger force than had hitherto gathered under his banner, crossed the Border near the Solway, burnt and plundered the district round Gilsland, ravaged Tynedale, and after eight days' havock returned with much booty to Scotland. In the following month he again entered England, carried fire and sword through the country as far as Corbridge, swept Tynedale, ravaged Durham, and after levying contributions for fifteen days returned with much booty to Scotland.

Although the English made much outcry at this invasion, the English author of the Chronicle of Lanercost, whose monastery was occupied by the king during the raid, distinctly states that he slew none save in actual conflict; and again, that though "all the goods of the country were carried away, they did not burn houses or slay men." Thus, though Bruce's wife and daughter were still prisoners in England, though his brothers had been executed in cold blood, he conducted his warfare in England in a manner which contrasts strongly indeed with the conduct of the English in Scotland.

After this Bruce marched north again and laid siege to Perth. For six weeks he invested the town, but without making any impression. Then he retired his forces as if abandoning the attempt. At night, however, he returned, ladders were placed in the ditches against the walls, and with his knights he led his followers on to the assault. The garrison were carousing in honour of their successful defence and the defeat of the enemy, and taken wholly by surprise were unable to oppose a vigorous resistance, and all were killed or captured. Some accounts say that the English soldiers were made prisoners, and the renegade Scots fighting with them were put to the sword; while others affirm that all who were taken prisoners were spared.

Another incursion into England followed the fall of Perth. Hexham, Corbridge, and Durham were destroyed. Douglas penetrated as far as Hartlepool and an immense spoil was carried off, until the people of the bishopric purchased a truce for the sum of 2000 pounds, and those of Northumberland, Cumberland, and Westmoreland bought off the invaders at a like price.

Carlisle was assaulted by Douglas, but unsuccessfully. He also attempted to surprise Berwick by a night attack, and had placed his scaling ladders against the wall, when the garrison was alarmed by the barking of a dog, and the assailants were repulsed. The Scots recrossed the frontier laden with an enormous booty.

The king himself now entered Galloway and reduced the four remaining strongholds held by the English there -- the castles of Butele, Dalswinton, Lochmaben, and Tibbers. He then proceeded to Dumfries, which he forced to surrender, and entered it as the victorious King of Scotland, just seven years after the time when he had commenced the war by expelling the English justiciary.

Archie Forbes did not accompany the king in this campaign. He had indeed been summoned, but just before the army started on its raid into England Bruce was lamenting, in Archie's hearing, that the continued possession of the strong castle of Dunottar on the east coast still afforded the English an opportunity for creating diversions in the north, by landing troops there.

"If you will permit me, sire," Archie said, "I will undertake its capture with my retainers. It is doubtless too strong to be captured by open assault with such a strength, but as Douglas has thrice taken Castle Douglas by stratagem, `tis hard if I cannot find some way for capturing Dunottar."

"Be it so, Sir Archie," the king said. "If you succeed you will have done good service indeed; and as I know that though ever ready to buckle on your armour when I need you, you would yet rather live quiet at Aberfilly with your fair wife, I promise you that if you capture Dunottar, for a year and a day you and your retainers shall have rest, except if the English cross the Border in such force that the arm of every Scotchman able to wield a sword is needed in its defence."

Having chosen a hundred of his most active and experienced men Archie set out for the north. Crossing the Forth above Stirling, he marched through Perth and across the Carse of Gowrie through Forfar on to Montrose. Here he left his band, and taking with him only William Orr, both being attired in peasants' dress, followed the coast till he reached Dunottar.

The castle, which was of great strength, stood in a little bay with a fishing village nestled beside it. "'Tis a strong place, William, and, if well provisioned, might hold out against an army for months, and as supplies could be thrown in by sea it could only be captured by battering down its solid walls by machines."

"'Tis indeed a strong place, Sir Archie," William Orr replied, "and it were assuredly better to slip in by the gates than to climb over the walls; but after the captures of so many of their strongholds by sudden surprise, we may be sure that a careful watch will be kept."

"Doubtless they are shrewdly on guard against surprise," Archie said; "but as they know that the king and his host are just now crossing the Border into Cumberland, they may well think that for a time they are safe from disturbance. `Tis in that that our best chance lies."

Entering the village they purchased some fish from the fishermen, and asking a few careless questions about the garrison, found that it was composed of 150 men, and that extreme precautions were taken against surprise. The gates were never opened save to allow parties to pass in and out, when they were instantly closed and the drawbridge raised. Only ten of the garrison at a time were ever allowed to leave the castle, and these must go out and come in together, so that the gates should not be opened more than twice a day. "They generally come out," the man said, "at eleven o'clock and go in at four; at eleven o'clock all with corn, wood, and other stores for the castle must present themselves, so that the drawbridge need only be lowered at those times. The governor, Sir John Morris, swears that he will not be caught asleep as were those of Linlithgow and Castle Douglas. I fear," he concluded, "that we of Dunottar will be the last in Scotland to be free from the English yoke."

"That is as it may be. Other castles have been captured, and maybe the lion of Scotland may float on those walls ere long."

The man looked keenly at him.

"Methinks there is meaning in your words," he said, "and your language does not accord with your attire. I ask no questions; but be sure that should an attempt be made, there are a score of strong fellows among us who will be ready to strike a blow for freedom."

"Is that so?" Archie replied; "then, man, taking you to be a true Scot, I will tell you that the attempt will be made, and that soon, and that, if you will, you can aid the enterprise. I am Sir Archibald Forbes, of whom, perhaps, you have heard."

"Assuredly," the man said in a tone of deep respect, "every Scotsman knows the name as that of one of the king's truest and bravest knights."

"My purpose is this," Archie said. "On a dark night some ninety-five of my men will march hither; I need a faithful friend to meet them outside the village to lead them in, and to hide them away in the cottages, having already arranged beforehand with their owners to receive them. I, myself, with four of my men will come hither in a fishing boat well laden with fish; we will choose a time when the wind is blowing, and will seem to have been driven here by stress of weather and disabled. Then I shall try to sell our cargo for the use of the garrison. As we carry it in we shall attack the guard, and at the signal those hidden will rush out and cross the drawbridge."

"The plan is a good one," the fisherman said; "its difficulty mainly lies in the fact that the drawbridge will be raised the moment you have crossed it, and long before your followers could arrive it would be high in the air, and you would be cut off from all aid. It never remains down for an instant after men have passed over it."

"That adds to the difficulty," Archie said thoughtfully; "but I must think of some plan to overcome it. Do you quietly go about among those you can surely trust and arrange for them to be ready to open their doors and take my men in without the slightest noise which might attract the sentries on the walls. So long as the wind is quiet and the sea smooth we shall not come, but the first day that the wind blows hard you may expect us. Then do you go out on the south road and wait for my party half a mile from the village. If they come not by midnight, return home and watch the following night."

"I understand," the fisherman said, "and will do as you bid me; and when the time comes you can rely upon twenty stout fellows here in addition to your own force."

"`Tis nigh eleven," Archie said, looking at the sun, "and we will be off at once, as the soldiers will soon be coming out, and it were best the governor did not hear that two strangers were in the village. Vigilant as he is, a small thing might excite his suspicion and add to his watchfulness."

Archie and William Orr returned to Montrose, and there the former made an arrangement with the master of a large fishing boat to keep his vessel ready to put to sea at any moment.

Three weeks passed without any change in the weather; then the wind began to rise and the aspect of the sky betokened a storm. William Orr at once set out with ninety-five men for Dunottar. Archie went down to the port and purchased a large quantity of fish which had been brought in that morning in various boats, and had it placed on board the craft that he had hired. Then he with four of his followers, the strongest and most determined of his retainers, dressed as fishermen, went on board and the boat at once put to sea, having, besides Archie and his men, the master and his two hands. The main body had started on foot at ten in the morning, but it was late in the afternoon before the boat put out, as Archie wished to arrive in broad daylight next morning.

The wind was on the shore, and the boat was sorely tossed and buffeted. Ere next morning, showing but a rag of sail, she ran into Dunottar harbour. They had had great difficulty in keeping off the coast all night, and the play had nigh turned into a tragedy, so narrow had been their escape of being cast ashore. The bulwarks were washed away, and the boat was in a sore plight as it drew alongside the little quay. Assuredly no suspicion would occur to any who saw her enter that aught save stress of weather had driven her in.

It was twelve o'clock in the day when they reached the port. Most of the inhabitants had come down to the water side to see the storm beaten craft enter, and among them were some soldiers of the garrison. Archie bade four of his men remain below, so that the unusual number of hands should attract no attention. One of the first to come on board was the fisherman with whom Archie had spoken.

"Your men are all here," he said in a low tone to Archie, "and are stowed away in the cottages. Everything went well, and there was not the slightest noise."

Archie now went on shore and entered into conversation with one of the soldiers.

"Think you," he said, "that the governor would buy my cargo of fish. I have a great store on board, for I had good luck before the storm suddenly broke upon me just as I was leaving the fishing grounds for Montrose. The gale may last for some days, and my boat will need repairs before I put to sea, therefore my fish will be spoiled before I can get them to market, and I will make a good bargain with the governor if he will take them from me."

"I should think that he will do so gladly," the soldier said, "for he can salt them down, and they make a pleasant change. How much have you got?"

"About ten baskets full," Archie replied, "of some hundred pounds each."

"I will go with you to the castle," the soldier said. "The governor will lower the drawbridge for no man, but you can speak with the warder across the moat and he will bear your message to the governor, and should he agree, you must present yourself with your men with the fish at four o'clock, at which time the drawbridge will be lowered for us to return to the castle."

Archie accompanied the soldier to the end of the drawbridge, and parleyed with the warder. The latter acquainted the governor that the master of the fishing boat which had been driven in by stress of weather would fain dispose of his cargo of fish on cheap terms, and returned for answer that the governor would give sixpence for each basket of a hundred pounds. Archie grumbled that he should receive thrice that sum at Montrose; still that as he must sell them or let them spoil, he accepted the offer, and would be there with the fish at four o'clock.

He then returned to the boat, his ally, the fisherman, taking word round to the cottages that at four o'clock all must be in readiness to sally out on the signal, and that William Orr was to dress half a dozen of his men in fishermen's clothes and saunter up carelessly close to the castle, so as to be able to rush forward on the instant.

At the appointed hour Archie, accompanied by his four followers, each of whom carried on his shoulder a great basket filled with fish, stepped on to the quay and made their way to the castle. By the side of the moat facing the drawbridge the ten English soldiers who had been out on leave for the day were already assembled.

"Are you all there?" the warder asked.

"Yes," Archie said, "but I shall have to make another two trips down to the boat, seeing that I have ten baskets full and but four men to carry them."

"Then you must bring another load," the warder said, "when the drawbridge is lowered tomorrow. You will have to stop in the castle tonight, and issue out at eleven tomorrow, for the governor will not have the drawbridge lowered more than twice a day."

"I would fain return to my boat," Archie said, "as I want to be at work on the repairs; but if that be the rule I must needs submit to it."

The drawbridge was now lowered. The soldiers at once stepped on to it. The four pretended fishermen had set down their baskets, and now raised them on their shoulders again. One of them apparently found it a difficult task, for it was not until Archie and his comrades were half across the drawbridge that he raised it from the ground. As he did so he stumbled and fell, the basket and its contents rolling on to the ground.

"You must wait until the morning," the warder called; "you are too late to enter now."

The man lay for a moment where he had fallen, which was half on the drawbridge, half on the ground beyond it. "Now, then," the warder called sharply, "make haste; I am going to raise the drawbridge."

The man rose to his feet with a shout just as the drawbridge began to rise. He had not been idle as he lay. As he fell he had drawn from underneath his fisherman's frock a stout chain with a hook at one end and a large ring at the other. This he had passed round one of the chains by which the drawbridge was raised, then under the beam on which it rested when down, and had fastened the hook in the ring.

Surprised at the shout, the warder worked the windlass with extra speed, but he had scarcely given a turn when he found a sudden resistance. The chain which the fisherman had fixed round the end prevented the bridge from rising. As the man had shouted, Archie and his three comrades were entering the gate. Simultaneously they emptied their baskets before them. Concealed among the fish were four logs of wood; two were three feet long, the full depth of the baskets, two were short wedge shaped pieces. Before the soldiers in front had time even to turn round, the two long pieces were placed upright in the grooves down which the portcullis would fall, while the two wedge shaped pieces were thrust into the jamb of the gate so as to prevent it from closing. Then the four men drew long swords hidden beneath their garments and fell upon the soldiers.

G. A. Henty