An Adventure in the Life of King James V of Scotland

ON one occasion King James the Fifth of Scotland, when alone, in disguise,
Near by the Bridge of Cramond met with rather a disagreeable surprise.
He was attacked by five gipsy men without uttering a word,
But he manfully defended himself with his sword.

There chanced to be a poor man threshing corn in a barn near by,
Who came out on hearing the noise so high;
And seeing one man defending himself so gallantly,
That he attacked the gipsies with his flail, and made them flee.

Then he took the King into the barn,
Saying, “I hope, sir, you’ve met with no great harm;
And for five men to attack you, it’s a disgrace;
But stay, I’ll fetch a towel and water to wash your face.”

And when the King washed the blood off his face and hands,
“Now, sir, I wish to know who you are,” the King demands.
“My name, sir, is John Howieson, a bondsman on the farm of Braehead.”
“Oh, well,” replied the King, “your company I need not dread.”

“And perhaps you’ll accompany me a little way towards Edinburgh,
Because at present I’m not free from sorrow.
And if you have any particular wish to have gratified,
Let me know it, and it shall not be denied.”

Then honest John said, thinking it no harm,
“Sir, I would like to be the owner of Braehead farm;
But by letting me know who you are it would give my mind relief.”
Then King James he answered that he was the Gudeman of Ballingeich.

“And if you’ll meet me at the palace on next Sunday,
Believe me, for your manful assistance, I’ll you repay.
Nay, honest John, don’t think of you I’m making sport,
I pledge my word at least you shall see the royal court.”

So on the next Sunday John put on his best clothes,
And appeared at the palace gate as~you may suppose.
And he inquired for the Gudeman of Ballingeich;
And when he gained admittance his heart was freed from grief.

For John soon found his friend the Gudeman,
And the King took John by the han’,
Then conducted John from one apartment to another,
Just as kindly as if he’d been his own brother.

Then the King asked John if he’d like to see His Majesty.
“Oh, yes,” replied John, “His Majesty I would really like to see.”
And John looked earnestly into the King’s face,
And said, “How am I to know His Grace?”

“Oh, John, you needn’t be the least annoyed about that,
For all heads will be uncovered: the King will wear his hat.”
Then he conducted John into a large hall,
Which was filled by the nobility, crown officers, and all.

Then said John to the King, when he looked round the room,
“Sir, I hope I will see the King very soon.”
Because to see the King, John rather dreaded,
At last he said to the King, “’Tis you! the rest are bare-headed.”

Then the King said, “John, I give you Braehead farm as it stands,
On condition you provide a towel and basin of water to wash my hands,
If ever I chance to come your way.
Then John said, “Thanks to your Majesty, I’ll willingly obey.”


This story, including the whole first line of the poem, is taken from Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather – a series of books describing Scottish (and later French) history to children. The following passage appears in Chapter 27 of Volume II:

Upon another occasion, King James, being alone and in disguise, fell into a quarrel with some gypsies, or other vagrants, and was assaulted by four or five of them.  This chanced to be very near the bridge of Cramond; so the king got on the bridge, which, as it was high and narrow, enabled him to defend himself with his sword against the number of persons by whom he was attacked.  There was a poor man thrashing corn in a barn nearby, who came out on hearing the noise of the scuffle, and seeing one man defending himself against numbers, gallantly took the King’s part with his flail, to such good purpose that the gypsies were obliged to fly.  The husbandman then took the king into the barn, brought him a towel and water to wash the blood from his face and hands, and finally walked a little way toward Edinburgh, in case he should be again attacked.  On the way the King asked his companion what and who he was.  The laborer answered that his name was John Howieson, and that he was a bondsman on the farm of Braehead, near Cramond, which belonged to the King of Scotland.  James then asked the poor man, if there was any wish in the world which he would particularly desire should be gratified; and honest John confessed, he should think himself the happiest man in Scotland if he were but the proprietor on the farm on which he wrought as a laborer.  He then asked the king, in turn, who he was, and James replied, as usual, that he was the Goodman of Ballengiech, a poor man who had a small appointment about the palace; but he added, if John Orison would come to see him on the next Sunday, he would endeavor to repay his manful assistance, and at least give him the pleasure of seeing the royal apartments.

John put on his best clothes, as you may suppose, and appearing at a postern gate of the palace, inquired for the Goodman of Ballengiech. The king had given orders that he should be admitted; and John found his friend, the Goodman, in the same disguise which he had formerly worn. The King, still preserving a character of an inferior officer of the household, conducted John Howieson from one apartment of the palace to another and was amused with his wonder and his remarks. At length James asked the visitor is he should like to see the King; to which John replied that nothing would delight him so much, if he could do so without giving offence.  The Goodman of Ballengiech, of course, undertook that the King would not be angry.  “But”, said John, “how am I to know his Grace from the nobles who will be all about him?” – “Easily,” replied his companion, “all the others will be uncovered, the King alone will wear his hat or bonnet.”

So speaking, King James introduced the countryman into a great hall, which was filled with the nobility and officers of the crown.  John was a little frightened, and drew close to his attendant; but was still unable to distinguish the King.  “I told you that you would know him by his wearing his hat,” said the conductor.  “Then,” said John, after he had looked around the room, “it must be either you or me, for all but us two are bareheaded.”

The King laughed at John’s fancy; and that the good yeoman might have occasion for mirth also, he made him a present of the farm at Braehead, which he had wished so much to possess, on the condition that John Howieson, or his successors, should be ready to present an ewer and basin for the King to wash his hands, when his Majesty should come to Holyrood Palace, or should pass the bridge at Cramond.  Accordingly, in the year 1822, when George IV came to Scotland, the descendant of John Howieson of Braehead, who still possessed the estate which was given to his ancestor, appeared at a solemn festival and offered his Majesty water from a silver ewer, that he might perform the service by which he held his lands.

Further Reading

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Comments (1) »

  1. Dan E
    In the year 2018, on the 13th day of May at 10:41 am

    I have recently used a text to speech software to read some of Williams poems, and oddly enough they don’t sound half as bad as when I read them to myself.
    The great pity is that Williams voice was never recorded reading one of his masterpieces, technically it would have been possible as the phonograph was invented in 1877. Sometimes uninteresting pieces of literature can be brought to life in the way it is told. It seems that William had many facial gestures, and a particularly expressive way of presenting his poems; “It’s the way have tell-em”.
    However I do find it interesting as I do with most of his renderings.

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