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Border Sketches of Folklore: The Hunter and His Hounds and Legends of King Arthur and of Sewingshields


* Taken from The Denham Tracts: A Collection of Folklore by Michael Aislabie Denham, and reprinted from the original tracts and pamphlets printed by Mr. Denham between 1846 and 1859. Edited by Dr. James Hardy. Footnotes in this electronic edition have been renumbered numerically and consecutively for greater reading ease.

1 Plutarch.


3 Paulus Diaconus de Gestis Longobardum, lib. i. c. 4; Olaus Magnus Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus; Romœ, 1555, lib. i. c. 3.

4 Mrs. Hemans' Works, ii. p. 65; Quarterly Review, March, 1820.

5 Inglis's Journey through Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, pp. 290, 291; Quarterly Review, ubi sup.

6 Menzel's History of Germany, i. p. 487; Quarterly Review, 1820.

7 Keightley's Fairy Mythology, p. 234.

8 Hone's Table Book, ii. pp. 747-750.

9 Widdrington, a Tale of Hedgley Moor, by James Hall, p. 84 ; Alnwick, 1827.

10 Poems by Robert Davidson of Morebattle, p. 172.

11 Lockhart's Life of Sir Walter Scott, i. p. 310, &c.

12 Scott's Demonology, p. 133, where a similar story is cited from Reginald Scott's Discovery of Witchcraft; Leyden's Poetical Remains, p. 357.

13 For more on this subject see Kelly's Indo-European Tradition and Folklore, pp. 284-289, and not consulted when the above was written in 1864; also Campbell's Popular Tales of the West Highlands, iv. p. 85.

14 Hodgson's History of Northumberland, part ii. vol. iii.

15 Wallet-Book of the Roman Wall, p. 109.

16 Ibid.

17 Hodgson's History of Northumberland, part ii. vol. iii. p. 287.

18 Harold the Dauntless, canto iv. "The Legend of Shewin Shields" has been made the subject of a poem by James Service. He makes the hero of the adventure a sort of Rip van Winkle.—Metrical Legends of Northumberland, Alnwick, 1834, 8vo., pp. 124, 139.

19 Wallet-Book of the Roman Wall, pp. 110, 111.

20 New Statistical Account of Scotland, Berwickshire, p. 93. The information about the chair is from oral testimony.

21 Good Words, 1862, p. 234.

22 Gorton's Topographical Dictionary of Great Britain and Ireland, i. p. 468.

23 Wilson's Guide to Rothesay, p. 133. Rothesay, 1848.



The Hunter and His Hounds: A Legend of Brinkburn

Under a grassy swell, which a stranger may know by its being surrounded with a wooden railing, on the outside of Brinkburn Priory, tradition affirms there is a subterraneous passage, of which the entrance remains as yet a secret, leading to an apartment to which access is in like manner denied; and as these visionary dwellings are invariably provided with occupants, it is asserted that a hunter who had in some way offended one of the priors was along with his hounds, by the aid of enchantment, condemned to perpetual slumber in that mysterious abode. Only once was an unenthralled mortal favoured with a sight of the place and of those who are there entombed alive. A shepherd, with his dog attending him, was one day listlessly sauntering on this verdant mound, when he felt the ground stirring beneath him, and springing aside he discovered a flat door, where door had never before been seen by man—yea, that door opening upwards of its own accord on the very spot where he had been standing. Actuated by curiosity he descended a number of steps which appeared beneath him, and on reaching the bottom found himself in a gloomy passage of great extent. Groping along this warily, he at last encountered a door, which opening readily, he along with the dog was suddenly admitted into an apartment illumined so brilliantly that the full light of day seemed to shine there. This abrupt transition from darkness to light for some minutes deprived him of the power of observing objects correctly, but gradually recovering he beheld enough to strike him with astonishment, for on one side at a table, with his head resting on his hand, slept one in the garb of a hunter, while at some distance another figure reclined on the floor with his head lying back, and around him lay many a noble hound, ready as ever to all appearance to renew that fatal chase which consigned them all to the chamber of enchantment. On the table lay a horn and a sword, which, seeing all was quiet, the shepherd stepped forward to examine, and taking up the horn first applied it to his lips to sound it; but the hunter, on whom he kept a watch, showed symptoms of awaking whenever he made the attempt, which alarming him he replaced it, and the figure started no longer. Reassured, he lifts the sword, half draws it, and now both men became restless and made some angry movements, and the hounds began to hustle about, while his own dog, as if agitated by the same uneasiness, slunk towards the door. Alive to the increased commotion and hearing a noise behind him very like the creaking of hinges, he suddenly turned round and found to his dismay that the door was moving to. Without waiting a moment he rushed through the half-closed entrance followed by his dog. He had not fled ten paces when, shaking the vault with the crash, the door shut behind him, and a terrible voice assailed his ears pouring maledictions on him for his temerity. The fugitives traversed the passage at full speed, and gladly hailed the light streaming in at the aperture above. The shepherd quickly ascended the steps, but before he got out the cover had nearly closed. He succeeded, and that was all, in escaping perhaps a worse fate than those victims of monkish thraldom which he had just left; but his poor dog was not so fortunate, for it had just raised its foreparts to come up when the door fastened on it and nipped it through!
     This story, being a family inheritance of the European race of people, has obtained a wide circulation, and there are many modes of telling it, answerable to the far separated localities to which it has been adapted. We recognise it in the banished Saturn reposing in a cave on a remote desolate coast;1 in the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus;2 in the seven foreign brethren, in Roman habits, lying in a profound slumber in a cave on the shores of the ocean in the extreme northern confines of Germany;3 in the three founders of the Helvetic Confederacy, whom herdsmen call the Three Tells, who sleep in their antique garb till Switzerland's hour of need, in a cavern near the lake of Lucerne;4 in Ogier the Dane, or Holger Danske, enchanted in the vaults of the Castle of Cronenburgh;5 in Frederick Barbarossa, miraculously preserved to unite the Eastern and Western Empires in the Kylfhauser Berg in Thuringia, or, according to another legend, in the Untersberg, near Salsburg,6 but in the latter place the tradition vacillates betwixt him and the great Emperor Charles V.; 7 and in the legend of the tomb of Rosencreutz, as told in the 379th number of the Spectator. Transferred to Britain, it has peopled the mountain and sea-side caves with enchanted warriors and huntsmen. In the subsequent notice will be found the parallel tales of "King Arthur and Sewingshields." The story crops out in the tale of the "Wizard's Cave" at Tynemouth.8 The correct legend about Dunstanborough Castle, tells that its chieftain was charmed with his hounds, his sword, and bugle-horn, and enclosed in one of the vaults of that ancient fortress,9 the adjuncts of Monk Lewis, Service, and others being imaginary. At Fastcastle the adventurer comes out a hoary-headed man, minus his coat tails. In the Cheviots the cave contains "three men in armour," surrounded with their "hounds, hawks, and horses."10 Sir Walter Scott in an early poem makes them an army assembled to aid Halbert Kerr, by the spells of Sir Michael Scott.11 Sometimes they are to return with Thomas of Ercildoune, and meanwhile remain entranced within the chambers of the Eildon hills.12 The vault at Roslin holds alive a warrior who may be approached every seven years, and the difficulty to free him here, as well as elsewhere, depends on the choice of the horn or the sword. Thomas the Rhymer, with a mighty host, lies asleep under Tom-na-hnrich, a mountain near Inverness.
"Beside each coal-black courser sleeps a knight,
A raven plume waves o'er each helmed crest,
And black the mail which binds each manly breast;
Girt with broad faulchion, and with bugle green,
Say, who is he, with summons strong and high,
That bids the charmed sleep of ages fly,
While each dark warrior rouses at the blast,
His horn, his faulchion grasps with mighty hand,
And peals proud Arthur's march from Fairy-land!"


Legends of King Arthur and of Sewingshields.

On this subject I have already written in the Local Historian's Table Book, Leg. Div., ii. pp. 37-46, and this might be thought to be sufficient, but the preceding illustration would not be complete without the corresponding native versions of the legend being placed in juxtaposition with it.
     Sewingshields lies between the Roman Wall and the military road, near the twenty-eighth mile stone from Newcastle, and at the western extremity of Warden Parish. Of Sewingshields Castle, Mr. Hodgson informs us that in his time a square, low, lumpy mass of ruins, overgrown with nettles, still remained. "Its site is on the end of a dry ridge and overlooked from the south by the basaltic cliffs, along the brow of which the Roman Wall was built. There are also some traces of trenches near it.14" This is the castle referred to by Sir Walter Scott in the sixth canto of Harold the Dauntless as the "castle of the seven shields." In reference to its present condition Dr. Bruce remarks,15 "Too truly he says:
                     'No towers are seen
On the wild heath, but those that Fancy builds.
And save a fosse that tracks the moor with green,
Is nought remains to tell of what may there have been.'"
     "It stood in the centre of the only patch of ground in 'the moss,' which is now subjected to the plough. The walls have been uprooted and the vaults removed, but the following tradition relating to it will not readily perish."16
     "Immemorial tradition has asserted that King Arthur, his queen Guenever, his court of lords and ladies, and his hounds, were enchanted in some cave of the crags, or in a hall below the Castle of Sewingshields, and would continue entranced there till some one should first blow a bugle-horn that lay on a table near the entrance of the hall, and then with 'the sword of the stone' cut a garter also placed there beside it. But none had ever heard where the entrance to this enchanted hall was till the farmer at Sewingshields, about fifty years since, was sitting knitting on the ruins of the castle and his clew fell and ran downwards through a rush of briars and nettles, as he supposed, into a deep subterranean passage. Full in the faith that the entrance into King Arthur's hall was now discovered, he cleared the briary portal of its weeds and rubbish, and entering a vaulted passage followed, in his darkling way, the thread of his clew. The floor was infested with toads and lizards; and the dark wings of bats, disturbed by his unhallowed intrusion, flitted fearfully around him. At length his sinking courage was strengthened by a dim, distant light, which as he advanced grew gradually brighter, till at once he entered a vast and vaulted hall, in the centre of which a fire without fuel, from a broad crevice in the floor, blazed with a high and lambent flame that showed all the carved walls and fretted roof, and the monarch and his queen and court reposing around in a theatre of thrones and costly couches. On the floor, beyond the fire, lay the faithful and deep-toned pack of thirty couple of hounds; and on a table before it the spell-dispelling horn, sword, and garter. The shepherd reverently but firmly grasped the sword, and as he drew it leisurely from its rusty scabbard the eyes of the monarch and his courtiers began to open, and they rose till they sat upright. He cut the garter; and as the sword was being slowly sheathed the spell assumed its ancient power, and they all gradually sank to rest; but not before the monarch had lifted up his eyes and hands and exclaimed:
'O woe betide that evil day
On which this witless wight was born,
Who drew the sword—the garter cut,
But never blew the bugle-horn!'
     "Of this favourite tradition the most remarkable variation is respecting the place where the farmer descended. Some say that after the king's denunciation terror brought on a loss of memory, and he was unable to give any correct account of his adventure or the place where it occurred. But all agree that Mrs. Spearman, the wife of another and more recent occupier of the estate, had a dream, in which she saw a rich hoard of treasure among the ruins of the castle, and that for many days together she stood over workmen employed in searching for it, but without success."17
     Mr. Errington, a recent tenant, has removed the vaults altogether, without making any discoveries of moment.
     The version of this story that I obtained from a native of South Northumberland is less circumstantial, but its verity is not the less to be depended on.
     A shepherd one day, in quest of a strayed sheep, on the crags near Sewingshields, had his steps arrested by a ball of thread. This he laid hold of, and pursuing the path which it pointed out, found it led into a cavern, in the recesses of which, as the guiding line used by miners in their explorations of devious passages, it appeared to lose itself. As he approached he felt perforce constrained to follow the strange conductor that had so marvellously come into his hands. After passing through a long and dreary vestibule he was ushered into an apartment in the interior. An immense fire blazed on the hearth, and cast its broad flashes to the remotest corner of the chamber. Over it was placed a huge cauldron, as if preparations were being made for a feast on an extensive scale. Two hounds lay on either side of the fireplace, in the stillness of unbroken slumber. The only remarkable piece of furniture in the apartment was a table, covered with green cloth. At the head of the table, a being considerably advanced in years, of a dignified mien, and clad in the habiliments of war, sat, as it were, fast asleep in an arm-chair. At the other end of the table lay a horn and a sword. Notwithstanding these signs of life, throughout the chamber there prevailed a dead silence, the very feeling of which made the shepherd reflect that he had advanced beyond the limits of human experience, and that he was now in the presence of objects that belonged more to death than to life! The very idea made his flesh creep. He, however, had the fortitude left to advance to the table and lift the horn. The hounds pricked up their ears, and the grisly veteran "started up on his elbow," and raising his half unwilling eyes, told the staggered hind that if he would blow the horn and draw the sword he would confer upon him the honours of knighthood, to last through time. But such unheard-of dignities from a source so ghastly either met with no appreciation from the awe-stricken swain, or the terror of finding himself alone in the company, it might be, of malignant phantoms, who were only tempting him to his ruin, became too urgent to be resisted, and therefore proposing to divide the peril with a comrade, he groped his darkling way, as best his quaking limbs could support him, back to the blessed daylight. On his return with a reinforcement of strength and courage every vestige of the opening of a cavern was obliterated. Thus failed another of the repeated opportunities for releasing the spell-bound King of Britain from the "charmed sleep of ages." Within his rocky chamber he still sleeps on, as tradition tells, till the appointed hour.
     Of the "Castle of the Seven Shields," thus Sir Walter Scott sings:
"Seven monarchs' wealth in that castle lie stow'd,
The foul fiends brood o'er them like raven and toad,
Whoever shall question these chambers within,
From curfew till matins that treasure shall win.

But manhood grows faint as the world waxes old!
There lives not in Britain a champion so bold,
So dauntless of heart and so prudent of brain,
As to dare the adventure that treasure to gain.

The waste ridge of Cheviot shall wave with the rye,
Before the rude Scots shall Northumberland fly,
And the flint cliffs of Bambro' shall melt in the sun,
Before that adventure be peril'd and won."18
     One more local tradition of King Arthur is told by Dr. Bruce: "To the north of Sewingshields, two strata of sandstone crop out to the day; the highest points of each ledge are called the King and Queen's Crag, from the following legend. King Arthur, seated on the furthest rock, was talking with his queen, who, meanwhile, was engaged in arranging her 'back hair.' Some expression of the queen's having offended his majesty, he seized a rock which lay near him, and with an exertion of strength for which the Picts were proverbial, threw it at her, a distance of about a quarter of a mile! The queen with great dexterity caught it upon her comb, and thus warded off the blow; the stone fell between them, where it lies to this very day, with the marks of the comb upon it, to attest the truth of the story. It probably weighs about twenty tons.'"19
     "Near the farmhouse of Sewingshiels," says Mr. Hodgson, "several basaltic columns rose very proudly and remarkably in the front of the high and rugged cliff that the wall had traversed, and one of these in particular was called by some King Arthur, and by others King 'Ethel's' chair. It was a single, many-sided shaft, about ten feet high, and had a natural seat on its top, like a chair with a back, but was most wantonly overturned a few years since by a mischievous lad." A variety of other curule seats of ancient monarchs existed till recently in various parts of the country. On a rock which overhung the Maiden Well at Wooler, and on the precipitous margin of the Maiden Camp, was a natural chair called the "King's Seat," whereon a king sat and viewed his army fighting in the cramped-up hollow beneath; for, adds the legend, it "was the custom for kings in those days to sit." This rocky throne has unfortunately been quarried away. A similar chair exists on Twinlaw, one of the Lammermoor range, in Berwickshire—a hill celebrated in the traditionary annals of fraternal discord.20 The unfortunate James IV. of Scotland occupied a kindred position during a part of the fatal day of Flodden Field, and posterity, with true attachment to a theme so melancholy, till recently offered to the passing stranger's gaze the King's Ohair. "It is," or rather was, says Wallis (History of Northumberland, ii. p. 471), "a natural rock, on the highest part of Flodden Hill, from which he had a good view of his own and of the English army, and of the country around him." This is also now quarried away. Arthur's seat, near Edinburgh, has also its tradition of this class. There is a hill called King's Seat about the head of Breamish, between the Hanging Stone and Russell's Cairn; and a King's Seat also in the Lammermoors of East Lothian. But on this subject it would be prosaic to insist. It has been "married to immortal verse":
"A king sate on the rocky brow
Which looks o'er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations—all were his!
He counted them at break of day—
And when the sun set where were they?"
     In South Africa it is a chieftain's ambition that he should be seated aloft on a crag. Moshesh leading the Basutos to take vengeance on the Mantaetis, a neighbouring tribe, addresses them: "To-morrow, brothers, you will have reconquered for me yonder high rock, whereon the Mantaeti sits at ease; you will offer it me for my seat, mine." The army hissed its applause, crying, "Thou shall sit, thou shalt sit on the rock, O King."21
     In some instances these eminences may have been judgment-seats of ancient courts. On Kyle Hill, in the parish of Clonfert Mulloe, in Queen's County, Leinster, "is an ancient judgment-seat of the Brehons, formed in the solid rock, called by the peasantry here the "Fairy-chair." This was the tribunal of the Brehon of the Fitzpatricks."22 Saints also had their memorial seats on hills. The hill on the south side of Kilcattan Bay is called Suid Chattan, or St. Cattan's Seat, and the hill on the farm of South Garrachtie (both being in Bute) is called Suidh Bhlain, or St. Blane's Seat.23 If we consult Camden's Britannia, it will be found that these mountain seats are quite numerous.