The Last Day of Montrose
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.
SONG OF SOLOMON, 8.7
During the Third English Civil War, in a short, sharp and bloody campaign, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) scoured the south of Ireland of his opponents and, following a subsequent campaign through the winter, returned to England in May, 1650, leaving Henry Ireton (1611-51) behind as Lord Deputy and acting Commander in Chief.
This failure by his supporters was a sore blow to King Charles II (1630-85), who had been trusting to make Ireland a secure royalist stronghold and also that James Graham, Marquess of Montrose (1612-50) would have rallied the Scottish cavaliers to the cause, and from there proceed to reconquer England with foreign assistance. Indeed Lord Montrose, poet and soldier, had won a series of spectacular victories in Scotland for King Charles I (1600-49) in 1644, but his planned uprising of the clans had already been put down by the covenanters when he was routed on 27 April at Carbisdale. He himself escaped, and after an excursion through the country, was betrayed by Neil Macleod of Assynt, to whom he had confided his safety, unaware of Macleod's political hostility.
Sentence of death was passed on Lord Montrose on 20 May, and he was executed in Edinburgh on the following day, 1650, despite his sworn testimony that he was both true to the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 and a loyal subject.
This poem has been written as a memorial of the last day, not only of the author of I'll never love Thee more and many more beautiful lyrics, but of a brave general and a true Scottish patriot.
The rainbow arches valley-wise,
The raging torrent pours,
Both to the ears and to the eyes,
The everlasting doors.
From glen to moor to crag on high,
The Highland's message goes:
Today's the day that he must die,
The canny Lord Montrose.
Some hurried to the local kirk,
Some saw the wild stag bound,
Some made a smirk and gripped their dirk
Some helped the news go round.
For still he'd been a braw lad, that,
He'd worn the plaid with pride,
Since once he'd lain the Highlands flat
And taken a Scots bride.
In the bracken and the heather,
He'd pitched his Israel's tent.
There he'd found his bonnet's feather,
Beneath the battlement.
A wildcat in her braeside lair,
The deer beside the loch,
A horse at the Dundie fair,
The raven on the rock,
A farmer ploughing on the hill,
The lass at her Bible,
A whisky drinker telling ill,
The man whom he'd libel,
All felt the force of history,
A doom which was so fell,
For him who'd had rare victory
And once had done so well.
Down Killiecrankie's bubbling burn,
The Deil appeared to smile.
The Lord had thundered, now his turn,
Came for a little while.
On Skye, McLuckie once again,
Considering waving there,
The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan,
One last time in the air,
But the silken banner fainted
And the Enemy won,
For Montrose had been attainted,
The sands of time had run.
Prince Charles Edward had yet to try,
The Scots yet to rebel;
The Fairy Flag was yet to fly,
To raise St Ronan's well.
Each Laird in his ancestral hall,
The crown now cut adrift,
Said in his toasts he would appal,
A Presbyterian rift.
Lauderdale in castle and hut,
Whose heart was said to be,
At death the size of a walnut,
Was toasted more than he.
Confusion reigned within the breasts,
Of lads in dear Glasgow;
To crush the feelings of broad chests,—
That morn no cock did crow.
Many sweet maids sought out a witch
And found by one or two,
But in their sorceries was a hitch,
The death march that they knew.
Crones who in riot had thrown their stools,
In protest in St Giles,
Wept thinking of Montrose's gules,
Distant not many miles.
The Provost in a bitter mood,
Had donned his ermine robe,
Yet thought it too unwise and rude,
To leave his own abode.
David Rizzio's blood on the stairs,
At ancient Holyrood,
Reminded Cromwell's courtiers,
Of the approaching good.
Just one month more and the city,
Put its bells to ringing,
For the cause of Stuart pity,
For the cause of kinging.
But the tide had not turned yet:
Montrose had been on trial,
Found out to be no favourite pet
And dungeoned all the while.
The hawthorn buds were blooming white,
On that murky dawn.
He had been at his prayers all night,
To God in battle's bourne.
The prelate who attended him,
Read in the holy text,
That death portended nothing grim,
In this world or the next.
The sergeant battered on the door,
That it was time to go;
He had, while kneeling on the straw,
Thoughts only God could know.
There was one final visitor,
Who dared the portcullis,
Who would not be so sinister,
Or so hard and callous,
As leave his leader in the lurch
And at the point of death,
Unlike the monarch of his church,—
Perfidious as Macbeth.
D—nation was not for Montrose,
Only within action,
When it became concept and rose,
Into his volition,
In one world, itself effective,
But also conviction,
About the nature that can live,
Of spirit and of destiny,
So in the eternal
And in this line of tyranny,
Thoughts of the infernal.
From out the gate, there issued forth,
A train subliminal,—
Montrose and his full, robust girth,
A sentenced criminal.
The executioner in front,
Led on, macabre and slow,
The prisoner fully felt the brunt,
Being the public foe,
Of insult hurled from every side,
In the mad, frightened crowd
And contumely from far and wide,
As on and on it rode.
Lunatics felt waves of magic,
From him, strapped to a chair
And failed to see, deeply tragic,
The man who'd brought them there.
As he passed on by lane and close,
Processed by Canongate,
The capital saw how he'd lose,
This contest of their hate.
At the Grassmarket met his gaze,
The contemplated whole,
A vision of dark yesterdays,
The verdict on his soul.
What poets make of such a dream,
He could not say right then,
Swept fast away on time's dim stream,
The will of such as them.
The burden of the mystery,
The tide of Solway's estuary,
Without any reason,
Returned with a relentless force,
To bathe the dismal scene,
In auras sent from scandal's source
And from what might have been.
The executioner was first,
To sight there up ahead,
The scaffold which was sure accursed,
That earned his daily bread.
The weather seemed to hold a fire,
Nothing of which to brag,
As he sank in a moral mire,
Mounted upon his nag.
An officer withdrew his lance
And signalled without care;
They turned as one under a trance,
Into the bonny square.
His met the eyes of ministers,
Then gathered there to pray,
But leaning on the banisters,
For there was hell to pay.
More shouts rang out, a dreadful din,
From the congregation,
Calling for life, revenge for sin,
Threatening the nation.
Apparently, it's recorded,
That one Edmund Blunden,
Was he who had cut off the head,
Of King Charles in London.
Yet this puir d—ned swaggerer,
Who cleared the antic stage,
As if for his own opera,
Escaped from history's page.
Montrose in his embroidered vest,
His boots of brownish suede,
His lace and hat, left all the rest,
For fashion, in the shade.
The front row was composed of ghouls,
Among a thousand gathered fools,
The Marquess knelt to devotions
And cruel yells arose,
To quash any fine emotions,
Of the noble Montrose.
Death's lieutenant's philosophy,
Anonymous, it's true,
Formed out of vague theosophy.
Thus speculation grew.
The victim climbed up from his knees,
A rope secured his neck
And somewhere in the far Orkneys,
Salmon leaped in the beck.
The crowd went still and at the hush,
No one there would pretend,
Spiritual instincts so lush,
To argue or defend.
The executioner looked around,
For he'd heard his last words,
The clergy stared down to the ground,
The mob dispersed like birds.
This lesson had been most thorough,
A hero for the grave,
Martyred in old Edinburgh,
Which he'd desired to save.
Yet should the thistle and the rose,
Ever contend again,
Recall the end of Lord Montrose,
A champion of men.
And when the executioner,
Locheill, or what's-his-name,
Gets in debt to the taverner,
Say he was not to blame.
The Lord thundered out of Zion,
'Mighty one of Jacob,'
The people's spirit filled with iron
And Scotland stood naked.
With only the pillar of cloud,
By day and fire by night,
To lead them from the land they ploughed,
Into the heaven's height.