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Auld Wat o' Harden


"Auld Wat o' Harden"
(A painting by Tom Scott RSA)

One of the most famous border Reivers was Walter Scott of Harden, commonly known as “Auld Wat”, he was a renowned marauder and many of his exploits have been commemorated in Border traditions and ballads.  His stronghold was the old castle of Harden just to the west of Hawick which is still in a good state of preservation, it stands on the very edge of a dark and precipitous dell, through which a small rivulet runs to meet the Borthwick, a tributary of the Teviot.  Leyden, in his “Scenes of Infancy”, has given a description both accurate and lively, of the appearance of the mansion, and it’s surrounding scenery;

‘Where Bortha hoarse, that loads the meads with sand,
Rolls her red tide to Teviot’s western strand,
Through slaty hills, whose sides are shagg’d with thorn,
Where springs in scattered tufts the dark green corn,
Towers wood-girt Harden, far above the vale,
And clouds of ravens o’er the turrets sail;
A hardy race, who never shrunk from war,
The Scott, to rival realms a mighty bar,
Here fixed his mountain home—a wide domain,
And rich the soil, had purple heath been grain.’

In the dark recess of the glen on the edge of which the mansion stands, Auld Wat kept his ill gotten gains, which helped to feed and maintain his followers, Legend has it that when the food supply was running low, Auld Wat would be served a clean pair of spurs under a covered dish, as a hint from his followers that they were getting hungry and that it was time to replenish the food supply with fresh beeves from Northumbria, very romantic, but I have my doubts as to the truth of this legend, it seems incongruous to me that a man possessing such  powerful leadership quality’s and hard nature , would allow himself to be told by his followers in this way.

  ‘And loud and loud, in Harden tower
The quaigh gaed round wi’ mickle glee;
For the English beef was brought in bower,
And the English ale flowed merrilie.

They ate, they laughed, they sang and quaffed,
Till nought on board was seen,
When knight and squire were boune to dine,
But a spur of silver sheen’.

Sir Walter Scott the celebrated poet and novelist, who was probably the most famous of the Hardens, relates in connection with this custom “Upon one occasion when the village herd was driving out the cattle to pasture, the old laird heard him call out loudly to drive out Hardens cow. “Hardens cow”! Roared their affronted chief. “Is it come to that pass? By my faith, they shall soon say Hardens Kye” (cows).  With that he blew hard on his horn, set out with his followers, and the next day returned with a bow of kye and a bassened (brindled) bull.

 Upon returning with his gallant prey, he passed a large haystack and it occurred to the old laird that the haystack would be extremely convenient to fodder his new cattle, but as no means of transporting it were available to him, “he was fain to take leave of it”, with the apostrophe, which has now become proverbial, “By my saul, had ye but four feet ye should not stand long there”, As Froissart says of a similar class of feudal robbers, nothing came amiss to them that was not too heavy or too hot.

Auld Wat’s bugle-horn is often referred to, and an engraving of it is given in the “Scotts of Buccleuch”, it shows it’s surface completely covered in initials, cut or burned into the horn.Sir Walter Scott, who must have often seen this interesting relic, describes it in the “Reivers Wedding”;

'He took a bugle frae his side,
With names carv’d o’er and o’er,
Full many a chief of meikie pride
That Border bugle bore.

He blew a note baith sharp and hie,
Till rock and water rang around;
Three score of moss-troopers and three
Have mounted at that bugle sound.’

 In the spirit-stirring ballad of ‘Jamie Telfer’ there is a most picturesque description of old Harden weeping for very rage when his kinsman, Willie Scott of Gorrinberry, was killed in the fray.


Sir Walter evidently had this striking picture in his eye when he wrote the famous description of Hardens appearance at Branksome, in the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’;

'An aged knight, to danger steel’d,
With many a moss-trooper came on;
And azure in a golden field,
The stars and crescent graced his shield,
Without the bend of Murdieston.
Wide lay his lands round Oakwood tower,
And wide round haunted Castle-Ower;

High over Borthwick’s mountain flood,
His wood-embosom’d mansion stood;
In the dark glen, so deep below,
The herds of plundered England low;
His bold retainers’ daily food,
And bought with danger, blows, and blood.
Marauding chief! his sole delight
The moonlight raid, the morning fight;
Not even the Flower of Yarrow’s charms
In youth, might tame his rage for arms.
And still, in age, he spurn’d at rest,
And still his brows the helmet press’d,
Albeit the blanched locks below
Were white as Dinlay’s spotless snow.
Five stately warriors drew the sword
Before their father’s band;
A braver knight than Harden’s lord,
Ne’er belted on a brand.’


Sir Walter Scott writes in a note to the ballad of “Jamie Telfer”, that Walter Scott of Harden (Auld Wat) was married to Mary Scott, celebrated in song by the title of the “Flower of Yarrow”, and reputed to be the most beautiful woman of her time.

 By their marriage contract the father of that lady was to supply Sir Walter with horse meat and mans meat for a year and a day at his tower of Dryhope; but five barons pledged themselves that at the end of that period the son-in-law should remove without attempting to continue in possession by force--- a strange condition which was referred to as a curious illustration of the unsettled character of that age.  According to another traditionary account, sir Walter, for his part agreed to give Dryhope the profits of the first Michaelmas moon.  In his writings Sir Walter adds that the original contract is in the charter-chest of the present Mr Scott of Harden, and that a notary-public signed for all the parties to the deed as none of them could write their names.

By the “Flower of Yarrow” the laird of Harden had six sons, five of whom survived him, and his extensive estates were divided among them.  It is said that the sixth son was slain, at a fray in a hunting match, by the Scotts of Gilmanscleugh, and that his Brothers “flew to arms”, but the old laird afraid for their lives and also wishing to stop a feud from starting, locked them all in the dungeon of his tower, he then rode post haste to Edinburgh, reported the crime, and as compensation received a gift of the lands of the offenders from the crown. Upon his return to Harden with equal speed, he released his sons from their confinement and showed them the charter, the old savage worrier then cried “To horse lads and let us take possession, the lands of Gilmanscleugh are well worth a dead son”. Once obtained, the lands remained in the family until the beginning of the last century, when they were sold by John Scott of Harden to Anne, Duchess of Buccleuch. 

Another of the many interesting stories of this redoubtable man which, like so many others has been passed down and preserved in tradition, tells of yet another of the forays made across the border into Cumberland by Harden retainers. Upon their return laden with spoil, which lay scattered in heaps around the hall, the beautiful lady of the mansion heard a wailing sound from one of the bundles, and upon unwrapping it Found an infant, who flung his arms around her neck, and clung to her breast. She subsequently took charge of the little captive, and brought him up as her foster-child. Although he spent his life at Harden, he had no taste for the wild and adventurous enterprises of its marauding inmates, and spent his life in the quiet scenes of pastoral pursuits.  He is said to have been the author of some of the most beautiful songs and ballads on the Borders.  Leyden, in his “Scenes of Infancy”, has written this touching story in the following beautiful lines;

‘The waning harvest-moon shone cold and bright,
The warder’s horn was heard at dead of night;
And as the massy portals wide were flung,
With stamping hoofs the rocky pavement rung.
What fair, half-veiled, leans from her lattice hall,
Where red the wavering gleams of torchlight fall?
‘Tis Yarrow’s fairest flower, who through the gloom
looks wistful for her lover’s dancing plume.
Amid the piles of spoil that strew’d the ground,
Her ear, all anxious, caught a wailing sound
With trembling haste the youthful matron flew,
And from the hurried heaps an infant drew.

Scared at the light his little hands he flung
around her neck, and to her bosom clung;
While beauteous Mary soothed, in accents mild,
His fluttering soul, and clasped her foster-child.
Of milder mood the gentle captive grew,
Nor loved the scenes that scared his infant view;
In vales remote, from camps and castles far,
He shunned the fearful shuddering joy of war;
Content the loves of simple swains to sing,

Or wake to fame the harp’s heroic string.
His are the strains, whose wandering echoes thrill
The shepherd, lingering on the twilight hill,
When evening brings the merry folding hours,
And sun-eyed daisies close their winking flowers.
He lived o’er Yarrow’s Flower to shed the tear,
To strew the holly leaves o’er Hardens bier;
But none was found above the minstrel’s tomb,
Emblem of peace, to bid the daisy bloom;
He, nameless as the race from which he sprung,
Saved other names, and left his own unsung.’

Auld Wat of Harden died about 1629, at a great age, his eldest son, Sir William, succeeded him as Baron of Harden; his second son, Walter, was killed by the Scotts at Gilman’scleugh. His third son, Hugh, was the progenitor of the Scotts of Gala. The old and ancient estate of Sinton passed in his will by Auld Wat to his fifth son, who is the ancestor of the modern family of Sinton. Wat’s six daughters, who almost certainly inherited their mother’s great beauty, all married Border lairds.  Margaret, the eldest, married Gilbert Elliot of Stobs, who for reasons now lost was called “Gibby with the Gowden (golden) Garters”.  The fourth daughter married the famous freebooter, Scott of Tushielaw, who was later know as “King of the Border”.

images/stories/yarrow arms.jpg 
Wat Harden's arms on the bridge at Ettrick

Bridges more than roads appealed to the liberality of individuals and churches in early times, and their erection was sometimes due to pious founders or to the vows of travellers. The first bridge over Ettrick was built at Ettrick Bridge End as the result of a vow by Wat o’ Harden. A captive child was drowned as he crossed the ford on his return from a raid, and he vowed to build a bridge so that the one lost life might be the means of saving hundreds. On a stone in this bridge (above) was carved the Harden coat-of-arms: a crescent moon with the motto "Cornua Reparabit Phoebe". Part of this bridge fell in 1746, and was demolished in 1777 by a flood. A new bridge was built half a mile further up, and the stone with the Harden coat-of-arms transferred to it.

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