Background to Don Clegg’s poem about Barty o’ the Combe
By D.J. Sadler. Northumbrian Neuks. Northumbriana, No 14. Autumn 1978. ISSN 0308-4809
The Union of the Crowns in 1603 under James V1 of Scotland and James I of England saw the virtual end of the turbulent days of Border warfare. In a surprisingly shot time, James’s harsh but effective policy had curbed the wild ways of the hard riding men from the Border Marches.
Despite this, Liddlesdale and Tynedale would always be a long way remote from London, and the old ways were wont to linger in the distant shrouded valleys along the Border line. Roads were ever scarce and the best of them little more than tracks, rock hard, frozen in snows and turned to quagmires by the first drop of rain. Everywhere the squat grey shapes of the “bastles” (fortified farm buildings) dominated the land and they were still inhabited by men whose families had fought over that land for generations.
Even as late as the reign of that merry, philandering monarch Charles II Tynedale men, Charltons, Milburns and Robsons continued to occupy their thick walled towers – in an age when Wren was building St Paul’s.
Beyond Greenhaugh on the banks of the Tarset Burn were several such holds. One of these is still incorporated in the farmhouse which bears the old name, “The Combe” and its occupant then was one Bartholomew Milburn whose occupation was the traditional one of sheep farming. “Barty o’ the Combe” enjoyed some local fame arising not from his skills in managing sheep, considerable though these may have been, but for his prodigious size, strength and swordsmanship. All three attributes had always been useful assets for Border sheep farmers in days gone by. Across the swift-flowing burn dwelt Corbit Jack, also a sheep farmer and Barty’s true companion.
As must have happened to so many of his ancestors, Barty awoke one morning to the unpleasant discovery that all his flocks had been rustled during the night. Too well steeped in the old Border ways to waste time on legal formalities, Barty just paused long enough to strap his hanger, enlist the aid of his trusty Corbit Jack, and off he set upon the “hot trod”, the more immediate to two pursuits permitted by time-honoured Border Law and still his best hope of justice.
The hunt consumed several hours of weary miles, bringing them at last to Letham near Carter Bar on the Scottish side. Here the trail was lost but the pair, now thoroughly tired and hungry, were determined they would not return home empty handed. Barty was so confident that the local Rutherfords were responsible for his loss - they were Scotsmen after all - and as their flocks were grazing nearby, he saw no reason why adequate recompense should not be made from amongst their number. With an appropriate number rounded up, and no doubt including a few for Corbit Jack for his trouble, the slow drive back to the banks of the Tarset burn began.
The Rutherfords of Letham were not slow to recognise and resent their loss, but they were not over anxious to close with Barty Milburn, with whose strength and skill they were doubtless acquainted. Their neighbours however, the warlike Douglases were quite willing to conduct the chase on their behalf and two of their finest blades from the clan, Sandy and Bonny Douglas were soon hot on the Englishman’s trail.
The chase ended on a level stretch of ground near to where Chattlehope Spout froths and tumbles over the rocks some distance from Catcleugh – though the present reservoir of course was an obstacle that Barty did not have to worry about.
The four antagonists stood ranged in silent confrontation above the leaping waterfall, the harmless wandering sheep an odd contrast to the wary humans intent upon a close encounter of the deadly kind. Each pair had some respect for the reputation of the other and so, in a half hearted attempt to avoid the inevitable, Barty offered to return half of the sheep – but by now the Douglas honour was at stake and the offer was flung back contemptuously and the dialogue was over.
The combatants circled, thrust, slipped and parried among the heather and the bracken; heavy double-edged blades swung clanging and scraping, locking and parting. The basket-hilted broadsword was no longer a fashionable weapon among gentlemen, and even a well-tried exponent such as Barty would have won but scant approbation from a master of the light but lethal smallsword. A man can care but little however for the nature of the blade that cuts him down, and this was no fencing room exercise but a fight to the death in which a deft kick in the groin was equally acceptable as a perfect lung or riposte.
Barty was hampered by a constant need to keep an eye on his friend’s progress as Jack was noted more for his enthusiasm than his ability, and so it was while he was thus distracted that Barty received his opponent’s blade abruptly through the fleshy part of the thigh. Almost at the same moment, a wild and injudicious lunge from Jack enabled the more careful Scot to run him neatly through his body.
With Jack dying and Barty wounded the prospects for England appeared bleak indeed. One Scot was now circling round from behind and the other was attempting to wrest stubborn steel from Barty’s wounded thigh. The assailants knew that the big man was tough – just how tough they were about to discover.
A short sharp agonizing twist of Barty’s leg snapped the blade in two, leaving the point embedded in the flesh and it’s owner weaponless an dumfounded. A lightening turn and a fearful slash settled the score of the slayer of Corbit Jack – “garred his heid sprang alang the heather like an onion”. One down, two to go. To go, and swiftly, was now the aim of the surviving and demoralised Scot, but again, Northumbrian’s blade as too quick and too certain. Barty Milburn was alone by Chattlehope Spout!
Strapping the gaping wound in his thigh with his stout leather belt and methodically gathering up the spare weapons, Barty slung his dead friend over his shoulders and rounded up his sheep – his indeed, as there were now none surviving to dispute his title. It was twelve hard, unbelievably-painfull miles back to Tarset, and few can now credit that the long trudge could have been made by a man wounded severely in the leg and with the added burden of his forever-silent companion. But at last Corbit Jack was dumped unceremoniously outside his front door, according to the time-honoured fashion, and the milling bleating sheep, the innocent cause of the Chattlehope slaughter were driven over the burn to the Combe.
The ancient doorway at which Barty laid his departed comrade still stands, gaping now in the tumbled vaulting of the roofless overgrown interior. Nearby as ever, the swirling brown waters of the Tarset Burn rush and eddy through a landscape now much altered by trees. Over the burn, the stronghold which Barty called home* has been domesticated and absorbed into a peaceful house.
* Another claimant is nearby Barty’s Pele.
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