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Anna Jane Vardill

Annals of Public Justice

The High Court of Justiciary, and a Gypsy Chief

It has been tritely, because truly said, that the boldest efforts of human imagination cannot exceed the romance of real life. The best written tale is not that which most resembles the ordinary chain of events and characters, but that, which by selecting and combining them, conceals those inconsistencies and deficiencies that leave, in real life, our sense of sight unsatisfied. An author delights his reader when he exhibits incidents distinctly and naturally according with moral justice; his portraits delight us when they resemble our fellow-creatures without too accurately tracing their moles and blemishes. This elegant delight is the breathing of a purer spirit within us, that asserts its claim to a nobler and more perfect state; yet another, though an austerer kind of pleasure arises, when we consider how much of the divinity appears even in man’s most erring state, and how much of “goodliness in evil.”

In one of those drear midnights that were so awful to travellers in the highlands soon after 1745, a man wrapped in a large coarse plaid, strode from a stone-ridge on the border of Loch-lomond into a boat which he had drawn from its covert. He rowed resolutely and alone, looking carefully to the right and left, till he suffered the tide to bear his little bark into a gorge or gulf, so narrow, deep, and dark, that no escape but death seemed to await him. Precipices rugged with dwarf shrubs and broken granite, rose more than a hundred feet on each side, sundered only by the stream, which a thirsty season had reduced to a sluggish and shallow pool. Then poising himself erect on his staff, the boatman drew three times the end of a strong chain which hung among the underwood. In a few minutes a basket descended from the pinnacle of the cliff, and having moored his boat, he placed himself in the wicker carriage, and was safely drawn into a crevice high in the wall of rock, where he disappeared. The boat was moored, but the adventurer had not observed that it contained another passenger. Underneath a plank laid artfully along its bottom, and shrouded in a plaid of the darkest grain, another man had been lurking more than an hour before the owner of the boat entered it, and remained hidden by the darkness of the night. His purpose was answered. He had now discovered what he had sacrificed many perilous nights to obtain, a knowledge of the mode by which the owner of Drummond’s Keep gained access to his impregnable fortress unsuspected. He instantly unmoored the boat, and rowed slowly back across the loch to an island near the centre. He rested on its oars, and looked down into the transparent water.—“It is there still!” he said to himself; and drawing close among the rocks, leaped on dry land. A dog of the true shepherd’s breed sat waiting under the bushes, and ran before him till they descended together under an archway of stones and withered branches. “Watch the boat!” said the highlander to his faithful guide, who sprang immediately away to obey him. Meanwhile his master lifted up one of the grey stones, took a bundle from beneath it, and equipped himself in such a suit as a trooper of Cameron’s regiment usually wore, looked at the edge of his dirk, and returned to his boat.

That island had once belonged to the heritage of the Gordons, whose ancient family, urged by old prejudices and hereditary courage, had been foremost in the ill-managed rebellion of 1715. One of the clan of Argyle then watched a favourable opportunity to betray the laird’s secret movements, and was commissioned to arrest him. Under pretence of friendship he gained entrance to his strong hold in the isle, and concealed a posse of the king’s soldiers at Gordon’s door. The unfortunate laird leaped from his window into the lake, and his false friend seeing his desperate efforts threw him a rope, as if in kindness, to support him, while a boat came near. “That rope was meant for my neck,” said Gordon, “and I leave it for a traitor’s.” With these bitter words he sank. Cameron saw him, and the pangs of remorse came into his heart. He leaped himself into a boat, put an oar towards his drowning friend with real oaths of fidelity, but Gordon pushed it from him; and abandoned himself to death. The waters of the lake are singularly transparent near that isle, and Cameron beheld his victim gradually sinking, till he seemed to lie among the broad weeds under the waters. Once, only once, he saw, or thought he saw him lift his hand as if to reach his, and that dying hand never left his remembrance. Cameron received the lands of the Gordon as a recompense for his political services, and with them the tower called Drummond’s Keep, then standing on the edge of a hideous defile, formed by two walls of rock beside the lake. But from that day he had never been seen to cross the loch except in darkness, or to go abroad without armed men. He had been informed that Gordon’s only son, made desperate by the ruin of his father and the Stuart cause, had become the leader of a gypsy gang,[1] the most numerous and savage of the many that haunted Scotland. He was not deceived. Andrew Gordon, with a body of most athletic composition, a spirit sharpened by injuries, and the vigorous genius created by necessity, had assumed dominion over two hundred ruffians, whose exploits in driving off cattle, cutting drovers’ purses, and removing the goods brought to fairs or markets, were performed with all the audacious regularity of privileged and disciplined thieves. Cameron was the chosen and constant object of their vengeance. His Keep or Tower was of the true Scottish fabric, divided into three chambers; the highest of which was the dormitory, the second or middle served as a general refectory, and the lowest contained his cattle, which required this lodgment at night, or very few would have been found next morning. His enemy frequented the fairs on the north side of Forth, well mounted, paying at inns and ferries like a gentleman, and attended by bands of gillies or young pupils, whose green coats, cudgels, and knives, were sufficiently feared by the visitors of Queensferry and Dunfermline. The Gypsy Chieftain had also a grim cur of the true black-faced breed, famous for collecting and driving off sheep, and therefore distinguished hy his own name. In the darkest cleughs or ravines, or in the deepest snow, this faithful animal had never been known to abandon the stolen flock committed to his care, or to fail in tracing a fugitive. But as sight and strength failed him, the four-footed chieftain was deposed, imprisoned in a byre loft, and finally sentenced to be drowned. From this trifling incident arose the most material crisis of his patron’s fate.

Between the years 1715 and 1745, many changes occurred in Captain Gordon and his enemy. The Laird of Drummond Keep had lost his only son in the battle of Preston-Pans, and was now lingering in a desolate old age, mistrusted by the government, and abhorred by the subdued Jacobites. Gordon’s banded marauders had provoked the laws too far, and some sanguinary battles among themselves threatened his own power with a downfall. It was only a few nights after a desperate affray with the Linlithgow gypsies that the event occurred which begins my narrative. He had been long lying in ambush to find access to his enemy’s strong hold, intending to terminate his vagrant career by an exploit which should satisfy his avarice and his revenge. Equipped, as I have said, in a Cameronian trooper’s garb, he returned to the foot of the cliff from whence he had seen the basket descending to convey Gavin Cameron; and climbing up its rough face with the activity acquired by mountain warfare, he hung among furze and broken rocks like a wild cat, till he found the crevice through which the basket had seemed to issue. It was artfully concealed by tufts of heather, but creeping on his hands and knees, he forced his way into the interior. There the deepest darkness confounded him, till he laid his hand on a chain, which he rightly guessed to be the same he had seen hanging on the side of the lake when Cameron landed. One end was coiled up, but he readily concluded that the end must have some communication with the Keep, and followed its course till he found it inserted in what seemed a subterraneous wall. A crevice behind the pulley admitted a gleam of light, and striving to raise himself sufficiently to gain a view through it, he leaned too forcibly on the chain, which sounded a bell. Its unexpected sound would have startled an adventurer less daring, but Gordon had prepared his stratagem, and had seen, through the loop-hole in the wall, that no powerful enemy was to be dreaded. Gavin Cameron was sitting alone in the chamber within, with his eyes fixed on the wood ashes in his immense hearth. At the hollow sound of the bell he cast them fearfully round, but made no attempt to rise, though he stretched his hand towards a staff which lay near him. Gordon saw the tremor of palsy and dismay in his limbs, and putting his lips to the crevice repeated, “Father!” in a low and supplicating tone. That word made Gavin shudder; but when Gordon added, “Father! father! save me!”—he sprang to the wall, drew back the iron bolts of a narrow door invisible to any eye but his own, and gave admission to the muffled man who leaped eagerly in. Thirty years had passed since Gavin Cameron had seen his son, and Gordon well knew how many rumours had been spread, that the younger Cameron had not really perished, though the ruin of the Chevalier’s cause rendered his concealment necessary. Gavin’s hopes and love had been all revived by these rumours, and the sudden apparition, the voice, the appeal for mercy, had full effect on the bereaved father’s imagination. The voice, eyes, and figure, of Gordon, resembled his son—all else might and must be changed by thirty years. He wept like an infant on his shoulder, grasped his hand a hundred times, and forgot to blame him for the rash disloyalty he had shewn to his father’s cause. His pretended son told him a few strange events which had befallen him during his long banishment since 1715, and was spared the toil of inventing many, by the fond delight of the old man, weeping and rejoicing over his prodigal restored. He only asked by what happy chance he had discovered his secret entrance, and whether any present danger threatened him. Gordon answered the first question with the mere truth, and added almost truly, that he feared nothing but the emissaries of the government, from whom he could not be better concealed than in Drummond Keep. Old Cameron agreed with joyful eagerness, but presently said, “Allan, my boy we must trust Annet—she’s too near kin to betray ye, and ye were to have been her spouse.” Then he explained that his niece was the only person in his household acquainted with the secret of the basket and the bell; that by her help he could provide a mattress and provisions for his son, but without it, would be forced to hazard the most dangerous inconveniences. Gordon had not foreseen this proposal, and it darkened his countenance; but in another instant his imagination seized on a rich surfeit of revenge. He was commanded to return into the cavern-passage while his nominal father prepared his kinswoman for her new guest, and he listened greedily to catch the answers Annet gave to her deceived uncle’s tale. He heard the hurry of her steps, preparing, as he supposed, a larger supper for the old laird’s table, with the simplicity and hospitality of a highland maiden. He was not mistaken. When the bannocks, and grouse, and claret, were arranged, Cameron presented his restored son to the mistress of the feast. Gordon was pale and dumb as he looked upon her. Accustomed to the wild haggard forms that accompanied his banditti in half female attire, ruling their miserable offspring with iron hands, and the voices of giants, his diseased fancy had fed itself on an idea of something beautiful, but only in bloom and youth. He expected and hoped to see a child full of playful folly, fit for him to steal away and hide in his den as a sport for his secret leisure, but a creature so fair, calm, and saintly, he had long since forgotten how to imagine. She came before him like a dream of some lovely picture remembered in his youth, and with her came some remembrance of his former self. The good old laird, forgetting that his niece had been but a child, and his son a stripling, when they parted, indulged the joy of his heart by asking Annet a thousand times, whether she could have remembered her betrothed husband, and urging his son, since he was still unmarried, to pledge his promised bride. Gordon was silent from a feeling so new, that he could not comprehend his own purposes; and Annet from fear, when she observed the darkness and the fire that came by turns into her kinsman’s face. But there was yet another peril to encounter. Cameron’s large hearth was attended by a dog, which roused itself when supper appeared, and Gordon instantly recognized his banished favourite. Black Chieftain fixed his eyes on his former master, and with a growl that delighted him more than any caress would have done, remained sulkily by the fire. On the other side of the ingle, under the shelter of the huge chimney-arch, sat a thing hardly human, but entitled, from extreme old age, to the protection of the owner. This was a woman bent entirely double, with no apparent sense of sight or hearing, though her eyes were fixed on the spindle she was twirling; and sometimes when the laird raised his voice, she put her lean hand on the curch or hood that covered her ears. “Do you not remember poor old Marian Moome?[2]” said Annet, and the Laird led his supposed son towards the superannuated crone, though without expecting any mark of recognition. Whether she had noticed any thing that had passed, could not be judged from her ideot laugh; and she had almost ceased to speak. Therefore, as if only dumb domestic animals had been sitting by his hearth, Cameron pursued his arrangements for his son’s safety, advising him to sleep composedly in the wooden-pannelled bed that formed a closet of this chamber, without regarding the haif-living skeleton, who never left her corner of the ingle. He gave him his blessing, and departed, taking with him his niece and the key of this dreary room, promising to return and watch by his side. He came back in a few moments, and while the impostor couched himself on his mattrass, took his station again by the fire, and fell asleep overcome with joy and fatigue.

The embers went out by degrees, while the highland Jachimo lay meditating how he should prosper by his stratagem’s success. Plunder and bloodshed had formed no part of a scheme which included far deeper craft and finer revenge. He knew his life was forfeit, and his person traced by officers of justice; and he hoped by representing himself as the son of Cameron, to secure all the benefits of his influence, and the sanctuary of his roof; and if both should fail to save him from justice, the disgrace of his infamous life and death would fall on the family of his father’s murderer. So from his earliest youth he had considered Cameron, and the hand of that drowned father uplifted in vain for help was always present to his imagination. Once during this night, he had thought of robbing Cameron of his money and jewels by force, and carrying off his niece as a hostage for his own safety. But this part of his purpose had been deadened by a new and strange sense of holiness in beauty which had made his nature human again. Yet he thought of himself with bitterness and ire when he compared her sweet society, her uncle’s kindness, and the comforts of a domestic hearth, with the herd which he now resembled; and this self hatred stung him to rise and depart without molesting them. He was prevented by the motion of a shadow on the opposite wall, and in an instant the dog who had so sullenly shunned his notice, leaped from beneath his bed, and seized the throat of the hag as she crept near it. She had taken her sleeping master’s dirk, and would have used it like a faithful highland servant, if Black Chieftain’s fangs had not interposed to rescue Gordon. The broad copper broach which fastened her plaid saved her from suffocation, and clapping her hands, she yelled, “a Gordon—a Gordon!” till the roof rung.

Gavin Cameron awoke, and ran to his supposed son’s aid, but the mischief was done. The doors of the huge chamber were broken open, and a troop of men in the king’s uniform, and two messengers with official staves, burst in together. These people had been sent by the Lord Provost in quest of the Gypsy Chieftain, with authority to demand quarters in Drummond’s Tower, near which they knew he had hiding-places. Gordon saw he had plunged into the very nest of his enemies, but his daring courage supported him. He refused to answer to the name of Gordon, and persisted, in calling himself Cameron’s son. He was carried before the High Court of Justiciary, and the importance of the indictment fixed the most eager attention on his trial. Considering the celebrity, the length, and the publicity of the Gypsy Chief’s career, it was thought his person would have been instantly identified; but the craft he had used in tinging his hair, complexion, and eye-brows, and altering his whole appearance to resemble Cameron’s son, baffled the many who appeared as his accusers. So much had Gordon attached his colleagues, or so strong was the Spartan spirit of fidelity and obedience amongst them, that not one appeared to testify against him. Gavin Cameron and his niece were cited to give their evidence on oath; and the miserable father, whatever doubts might secretly arise in his mind, dared not hazard a denial which might sacrifice his own son’s life. He answered in an agony which his grey hairs made venerable, that he believed the accused to be his son, but left it to himself to prove what he had no means of manifesting. Annet was called next to confirm her uncle’s account of her cousin’s mysterious arrival: but when the accused turned his eyes upon her, she fainted, and could not be recalled to speech. This swoon was deemed the most affecting evidence of his identity; and finally, the dog was brought into court. Several witnesses recognized him as the prime forager of the Gordon gypsies; but Cameron’s steward, who swore that he saved him by chance from drowning in the loch, also proved, that the animal never shewed the smallest sagacity in herding sheep, and had been kept by his master’s fire-side as a mere household guard, distinguished by his ludicrous attention to music. When shewn at the bar, the crafty and conscious brute seemed wholly unacquainted with the prisoner, and his surly silence was received as evidence by the croud. The Lord High Commissioner summed up the whole, and the chancellor of the jury declared, that a majority almost amounting to unanimity, acquitted the accused. Gordon, under the name of Cameron, was led from the bar with acclamations; but at the threshold of the Session’s Court, another pursuivant awaited him with an arrest for high-treason, as an adherent to the Pretender in arms. The enraged croud would have rescued him by force, and made outcries which he silenced with a haughty air of command, desiring to be led back to his judges. He insisted in such cool and firm language, and his countenance had in it such a rare authority, that after some dispute about the breach of official order, he was admitted into a room where two or three of the Chief Lords of Session, and the chancellor of the jury, were assembled. Though still fettered both on hands and feet, he stood before them in an attitude of singular grace, and made this speech as it appears in the language of the record.

“The people abroad would befriend me, because they love the cause they think I have served; and my judges, I take leave to think, would pity me, if they saw an old man and a tender woman pleading again for my life. But I will profit in nothing by my judges’ pity, nor the people’s love for a Cameron. I have triumphed enough to-day, since I have baffled both my accusers and my jury. I am Gordon, chief of the wandering tribes; but since you have acquitted me on “soul and conscience,” you cannot try me again; and since I am not Cameron, you cannot try me for Cameron’s treasons. I have had my revenge of my father’s enemy, and I might have had more. He once felt the dead grip[3] of a Gordon, and he should have felt it again if he had not called me his son, and blessed me as my father once did. If you had sent me to the Grass-market, I would have been hanged as a Cameron, for it is better for one of that name than mine to die the death of a dog; but since you have set me free, I will live free as a Gordon.”

This extraordinary appeal astonished and confounded his hearers. They were ashamed of their mistaking judgment, and dismayed at the dilemma. They could neither prove him to be a Cameron or a Gordon except by his own avowal, which might be false either in the first or second case; and after some consultation with the secretary of state, it was agreed to transport him privately to France. But on his road to a sea-port, his escort was attacked by a troop of wild men and women; who fought with the fury of Arabs till they had rescued their leader, whose name remained celebrated till within the last sixty years, as the most formidable of the gypsy tribe.


  1. The Lochgellie and Linlithgow gypsies were very distinguished towards the middle of the last century, and had desperate fights at Raploch near Stirling, and in the shire of Mearns. Lizzy Brown, and Ann M‘Donald, were the leading Amazonians of these tribes, and their authority and skill in training boys to thievery were audaciously systematic. As the poor of Scotland derive their maintenance from usage rather than law, and chiefly from funds collected at the church door, or small assessments on heritors (never exceeding 2d in the pound), a set of vagrants still depend on voluntary aid, and are suffered to obtain it by going from house to house in families or groups, with a little of the costume, and a great deal of the cant and thievery of ancient gypsies. 
  2. Nurse or foster-mother. 
  3. The grasp of a drowning man. 

The European Magazine, Vol. 77, February 1820 pp. 153-157