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Muckle Mou'd Meg

Muckle Mou'd Meg
(Courtesy of Electric Scotland)

The Scotts and Murrays were ancient enemies; and as the possessions of the former adjoined to those of the latter, or lay contiguous to them on many points, they were at no loss for opportunities of exercising their enmity "according to the custom of the Marches." In the seventeenth century the greater part of the property lying upon the river Ettrick belonged to Scott of Harden, who made his, principal residence at Oakwood Tower, a Border house of strength still remaining upon that river. William Scott (afterwards Sir William), son of the head of this family, undertook an expedition against the Murrays of Elibank, whose property lay at a few miles distant. He found his enemy upon their guard, was defeated, and made prisoner in the act of driving off the cattle he had collected for that purpose. Sir Gideon Murray. conducted his prisoner to the castle, where his lady received him with congratulations upon his victory, and inquiries concerning the fate to which he destined his prisoner. "The gallows," answered Sir Gideon—for he is said already to have acquired the honour of knighthood—"to the gallows with the marauder." "Hout, na, Sir Gideon," answered the considerate matron, in her vernacular idiom; "would you hang the winsome young laird of Harden when you have three ill-favoured daughters to marry?" "Right," answered the baron, who catched at the idea, "he shall marry our daughter, Muckle-mouthed Meg, or strap for it." Upon this alternative being proposed to the prisoner, he upon the first view of the case stoutly preferred the gibbet to "Muckle-mouthed Meg," for such was the nickname of the young lady, whose real name was Agnes. But at length, when he was literally led forth to execution, and saw no other chance of escape, he retracted his ungallant resolution, and preferred the typical noose of matrimony to the literal cord of hemp. Such is the tradition established in both families, and often jocularly referred to upon the Borders. It may he necessary to add that Muckle-mouthed Meg and her husband were a happy and loving pair, and had a large family.’

The common belief in the district was that all Meg’s descendants have inherited something of her characteristic feature. Sir Walter Scott, who was one of them, certainly was no exception to the rule. Lockhart states that the contract of marriage, executed instantly on the parchment of a drum, is still in the charter-chest of Sir Walter Scott’s representative. Mr. Fraser, who carefully examined the document, declares that ‘the marriage of young Harden and Agnes Murray, instead of being a hurried business, was arranged very leisurely, and with great care, calmness, and deliberation by all the parties interested, including the two principals, the bridegroom and bride, and the parents on either side. Instead of one contract, as is usual in such cases, there were two separate and successive contracts, made at an interval of several months, before the marriage was finally arranged.’ The first contract bears date at Edinburgh, 18th February, 1611. In it young Harden and Agnes Murray agree to solemnise their marriage in the face of Christ’s Kirk, within two months and a half after the date of the contract. Stipulations are made in the document for the infeftment, by Walter Scott, of his son and his promised spouse, and their heirs male, in the lands of Harden and other lands belonging to Walter and William Scott; and Sir Gideon Murray on his part becomes bound to pay to William Scott the sum of seven thousand merks as tocher with his daughter. The contract is subscribed by Sir Gideon Murray, William Scott, and ‘Agnes Murray,’ all good signatures. But as Auld Wat of Harden could not write, his subscription is thus given: ‘Walter Scott of Harden, with my hand at the pen, led be the notaries underwritten at my command, becus I can not wryt.’ The marriage however did not take place at the time specified in the contract, a failure which is not accounted for, and a second contract was made at the Provost’s Place of Creichtoun, on the 14th of July, 1611, in terms similar to those of the original contract. Taking all these circumstances into account, Mr. Fraser considers himself entitled to regard the story of ‘Muckle-mouthed Meg’ as a myth.

The existence and the terms of these two contracts no doubt show that the marriage of young Harden and Agnes Murray was not a hastily-settled affair, regulated by a contract ‘executed instantly on the parchment of a drum;’ but it is difficult to believe that a story so minute and circumstantial in its details could have been entirely fictitious. Myths are of slow growth, and have always some fact as a foundation. Sir William Scott died in 1655. The eldest son of ‘Little Sir William’ survived till 1707, and his second son lived three years longer. Sir Walter Scott was born in 1771, and the story must have been in circulation and universally credited long before his day. Is it not possible and probable that Sir William Scott was ‘handfasted’ to Agnes Murray in some such circumstances as are narrated by his descendant, the poet? And may not the delay in solemnizing the marriage, necessitating the formation of a second contract, have been caused by the reluctance of ‘the handsomest man of his time’ to marry an ill-favoured bride?

Sir William Scott had by Agnes Murray five sons and three daughters. The eldest son, called ‘Little Sir William,’ was knighted by Charles II. immediately after the Restoration. The second was Sir Gideon of Highchester, whose posterity carried on the line of the family. Walter, the third son, called ‘Watty Wudspurs’ (or Mad-spurs), figures characteristically in the ballad of ‘Jamie Telfer.’ He was the ancestor of the Scotts of Raeburn. The fourth son was James of Thirlestaine; and from John of Woll, the fifth son, the family of Woll are descended

The following are two different versions of the story in poem

"Muckle Mouthed Meg"

Robert browning (1812 - 1889)

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