It fell about Martinmas tyde,
When border steeds get corn and hay
The Captain of Bewcastle hath bound him to ryde
And he's ower to Tividale to drive a prey.
The opening lines of 'Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead' set the scene for a rollicking good reiving story (Bewcastle is ten miles across the border, Tividale is Teviotdale). It's one of the ballads set down by Sir Walter Scott (helped by James Hogg, 'The Ettrick Shepherd') in his 'Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border' - braveing the wrath of Hogg's mother, Margaret Laidlaw, who scolded him for getting it all wrong...
"There were never ane o' my songs prentit till ye prentit them yoursel an' ye hae spoiled them awthegither. They were made for singing an' no for reading; but ye hae broken the charm now, an' they'll never be sung mair. An' the worst thing of a', they're nouther right spelled nor right setten doon!"
But we're very fortunate that he did so. Doubtless the English Borderlands had just as many good stories; few survive.
Like all ballads, there are variations: in Scott's version the heroes are, of course, the Scotts and the Elliots are untrustworthy. In the Elliot version it's reversed. The Elliot version is called Jamie Telfer IN the Fair Dodhead, implying that he was a tenant and not the proprietor - seems more likely.
|Remains of the Fair Dodhead, Ruberslaw in the background.|
Jamie Telfer's tower by the 'Thieves Road' at the top of the Dod Burn is still there, very ruinous. The castle at Bewcastle, once home to the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, is now an impressive ruin. It was a military outpost in the 16th century, designed to deter Scottish reivers. Whether the Captain of Bewcastle really initiated raids into Teviotdale, we don't know. Fake news perhaps.
|Bewcastle Churchyard and Castle|
But the story rings true. Jamie Telfer, a simple farmer in an isolated tower house, is robbed of his ten cows. He manages to get a 'hot trod' (hot pursuit) going and they overtake the stolen beasts on the road back to England. The raiders turn and fight. Skulls are split, riders hit the ground, blood stains the snow and the kye (cattle) are recovered. The aggressor has relatives in Liddesdale. A reprisal raid heads off down there and these kye are driven back to Dodhead ...
When they cam to the fair Dodhead,
They were a wellcum sight to see!
For instead of his ain ten milk kye,
Jamie Telfer has gotten thirty and three.
'Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead' is a theme along our Hermitage Trail. We follow the action, hear verses sung, and get the lowdown on life in reiving times from Jamie Telfer himself.
Download the app to find out more!