Sunday, January 31, 2010

False Alarm

Around the turn of the century - 1800 or so - Napoleon was running through the continent.  The British navy had successfully kept Napoleon's forces at bay, with Nelson winning the Battle of Trafalgar, and many battles aided by the carronade produced at the Carron Iron Works in Falkirk.  Great Britain remained wary of an invasion by the French, however.

To help counter the risk of a land invasion in the Borders area, a system of warning beacons was set up on prominent hills: Dunion hill near Jedburgh; Dunselaw and Hume Castle; Peneilbeugh; the Eildons; Ruberslaw; Belling and Cheviot hills; Crumhaugh hill for Upper Teviotdale; Wisp and Black Andrew for the Ettrick Forest.

This system had worked in the past, when wars occurred between Scottish chiefs.  Now it would be tested against a foreign enemy.  On the 31st of January, 1804, a warning beacon was mistakenly lit at Hume Castle.  The signal was repeated, rapidly spreading throughout the Borders.  Watchers, on the hills, left their posts to warn the towns. Volunteers came out to prepare for battle.

Walter Scott, who rode to join his regiment, wrote of the occasion:

'The men of Liddesdale, says he, the most remote point to the westward which the alarm reached, were so much afraid of being late in the field, that they put in requisition all the horses they could find; and when they had thus made a forced march out of their own county, they turned their borrowed steeds loose to find their way back through the hills, and they all got back safe to their own stables. Another remarkable circumstance was, the general cry of the inhabitants of the smaller towns for arms, that they might go along with their companions. The Selkirkshire yeomanry made a remarkable march; for although some of the individuals lived at twenty and thirty miles' distance from the place where they mustered, they were nevertheless embodied and in order in so short a period, that they were at Dalkeith, which was their alarm-post, about one o'clock on the day succeeding the first signal, with men and horses in good order, though the roads were in a bad state, and many of the troopers must have ridden forty or fifty miles without drawing bridle.'

Scott employs this story in "The Antiquary", where the character of Edie Ochiltree, who wishes to "fight for his dish, like the laird for his land," to fight a French invasion.

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