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The Legend of Canonbie Dick

The Canonbie Dick story is one of Scotland's best known folk tales. In its usual form, it goes like this: a horse-trader, from Canonbie in Dumfriesshire, was travelling near the Eildon Hills when he was met by a mysterious old man who offered an extraordinarily high price for one or more of his horses. He was bidden to the hillock called the Lucken Hare to make the exchange (or, in other versions, followed the buyer there out of curiosity). There he was led into a spacious cave where many armoured knights and horses were sleeping, and was told they awaited the time when they would be needed again. (Sometimes they are explicitly identified as King Arthur and his followers, of whom similar legends are told in many parts of Britain; sometimes not.)

The old man paid out the promised gold, and identified himself as Thomas the Rhymer, long since gone into the fairy realm; and he showed to Dick a sword and horn lying upon a table, and said that if he chose aright between them he could become a king. The horse-trader chose the horn, and blew a loud blast upon it: whereupon a voice was heard crying:

"Woe to the coward that ever he was born,

Who did not draw the sword before he blew the horn!"

A mighty whirlwind arose, and blew him out of the cavern, which neither he nor anyone else was never able to find again.

This was the story with which I grew up. Then in 1997, I read an article in The Scots Magazine by Margaret Jackson Young which added an intriguing prologue. (Thanks are due here to the archivists at D. C. Thomson, who helped me track down the article after some twenty years.)

This account treated of True Thomas' descendants, said to be Lairds of Chesters in Roxburghshire, and to have turned "Rhymer" into a family name. In this version, about a century after the move to Chesters, one laird attempted to rival his illustrious ancestor as a poet, but could produce only one couplet that pleased him:

"Two hands, guid and evil:

Feer God, fecht the Deevil."

This he had inscribed over the door of his castle: and thereby incurred the enmity of the disparaged Lucifer. Not long afterwards, when walking with the parish priest, he encountered a horse-dealer who attempted to sell him two grey horses: but the suspicious priest brandished a crucifix in the horse-dealer's face, causing him to vanish (horses and all) in a puff of brimstone. Thereafter, grey horses were always unlucky for the Rhymers of Chesters.

Long afterwards - how long, exactly, goes unstated - the estate passed to a young army officer, Sir John Rhymer. Sir John, either unaware of the curse or disbelieving in it, purchased two grey horses in Melrose for himself and his fiancee Nancy, the Earl of Lauderdale's daughter: and the next day he was killed in a shooting accident. His uncle, Sir Francis, who succeeded him as laird, made haste to dispose of the unchancy horses - and these, it is said, were the beasts that True Thomas purchased from Canonbie Dick.

I had never heard any of this story, which appeared to date Dick to a rather later era than his usual vaguely medieval milieu. To date it precisely, however, is difficult. The historical Rhymer appears to have departed the mortal plane in the 1290s, which would date the original curse to some time between about 1400 (if the family had acquired Chesters almost immediately) and the Reformation in 1560, after which the cross-wielding priest would be distinctly anachronistic. Sir John, a professional soldier and sporting shot, seems to belong to a rather later era. Nancy must indeed be later, for the Earldom of Lauderdale was created for the first time in 1624. (Before this time, the chief title of the Maitland family who would become the Earls was the lordship of Thirlstane. Even that was only created in 1590.) Sir Francis, meanwhile, is said to have had a house on George Square, which was not laid out until 1781.

However, a date as late as this is problematic. The Rhymers of Chesters are not historically attested; and Thomas' reputed descendants went by the name Learmont or Learmonth, retroactively applied to the poet-prophet himself. The Lairds of Chesters from some time before 1588 to 1787 were named Bennet: so there is certainly no overlap between any Rhymer or Learmont presence there and the Maitlands bearing a title of nobility. (The present house, which bears no doggerel inscription, was built by the Ogilvie family who purchased Chesters from the Bennets in 1787.) Far more damningly, however, I have not managed to identify any source for this part of the story earlier than Young's article. Furthermore, earlier versions of the Canonbie Dick story frequently describe his horses as black, not grey. (Intriguingly, though, there is a tradition regarding the descent of landholders in the Chesters area from a medieval songmaker. According to a 1906 article in the Border Magazine, the Bostons of neighbouring Gattonside were said to derive from an English minstrel, captured at Bannockburn and later given the patronage of Robert the Bruce.)

What, though, of Dick himself? His name appears to be a late addition to the story of an originally anonymous horse-trader. The earliest use of the name I have found is in Folk-lore and legends: Scotland, prepared for the London publisher W. W. Gibbings by "C. J. T." in 1889. C. J. T. introduces him as "Canobie [sic] Dick, for so shall we call our Border dealer" - an effective acknowledgement that the name was invented to give the story colour.

Jean Lang in 1910 thought that he had lived "not much more than a hundred years ago", but the story is much older than that. Sir Walter Scott, who retells it in Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830), notes that the oral tradition with which he was familiar tied the expected return of the knights to the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 - a tradition which had survived despite the fact that no such supernatural succour was forthcoming for either side in the inconclusive battle. However, Scott points out that the story must have been considerably older, citing the very similar account given in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) by his English near-namesake, Reginald Scot.

Reginald Scot's version differs in a number of details from the later story. The old man never explicitly declares himself to be Thomas in person (though he drops heavy hints to that effect). The money is paid over not by him, but by a beautiful silent woman met in the cavern where the knights sleep; and the entire episode of the sword and horn is omitted, the horse-dealer leaving peacefully by moonlight - though that the place could never be found again remains a constant. Even its name, in this account, is mysterious - Scot names the location not as the Lucken Hare but as somewhere called "Farran", which, he remarks, he was unable to identify. Nor could Sir Walter.

Episodes similar to the sword/horn business are found in related "sleeping king" legends elsewhere in Britain. Notably, one with a similar rhyme entered print slightly before Walter Scott's account, being recorded in the second volume of John Hodgson's History of Northumberland (1827). According to Hodgson, the adventure was supposed to have befallen "the farmer of Sewingshields, about 50 years since".

The most fascinating point, however, is that Reginald Scot - a sceptical investigator who would surely not have invented such a story - appears to indicate that he had his account directly from the horse-dealer himself. (He may be repeating the words of a correspondent: either way, he is certainly identifying "Dick" as a contemporary who has been interviewed.) Although The Discoverie of Witchcraft was widely read, it seems unlikely that Scot could be the sole source of the orally transmitted folk tale with its various accretions, which was famous in something like its modern form by Sir Walter's day. However, if it came from the dreams or tall tales of a sixteenth century horse-trader, no doubt inspired by existing legends of True Thomas and of sleeping kings, the researcher from the south is hardly likely to have been the only person he told it to. It is easy to imagine Dick's anonymous original regaling everyone who would listen with his adventures, adding fresh details every time, which at last passed into Border legend.

The Rhymers of Chesters and their curse seem to be a much later fiction. But the obscurity of the estate's ownership before the first mention of the Bennets in 1588 means that, if one were to write up this story as (say) a novel or a film script, there might be room to locate their story as well as Canonbie Dick's within the turbulent history of the Borders in the late sixteenth century.

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