On 20th April 1816 a family of seven, including five children, travelling from Ireland to Wales, was killed while sheltering for the night in a building in a roadside gravel pit near Twynholm. It seems that a rain storm caused a landslide within the pit, and they were all buried. It is said that the head of the family, Hugh Pritchard, was the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott’s story ‘Redgauntlet’, but as in nearly all Scott’s works, the story varies in many ways from the facts. His wife was called Helen Hughes, for whom the following lines were entitled. They were published in a now very scarce little booklet, which I found in the Ewart Library in Dumfries.
I have added photographs of the two relevant memorial stones which are in the graveyard at Twynholm Churchyard, otherwise this article comprises the complete contents of the booklet.
The Welsh Harper.
Minister at Balmaclellan.
Their living tomb may still be seen
By Tarff’s wild-wooded vale;
The house still stands where hearts of stone
Heard Helen’s dying wail.
Castle-Douglas: Printed at the “Advertiser” Office
He’s nae gentleman, nor drap’s bluid o’ gentleman, wad grudge twa gangrel puir bodies the shelter o’ a waste house, and the thistles by the road-side for a bit cuddie – Sir Walter Scott.
A gentle maid was Helen Hughes,
Few fairer might be seen;
Kind was her heart; no lighter foot
Tripp’d o’er the village green.
She dwelt amid the hills of Wales—
Hills lonely, grand, and wild—
Old was her father’s race; she was
His loved and only child.
When Helen touched her harp, and sang
Lays of the mountain land,
There was a spell in Helen’s voice,
And power in Helen’s hand.
The curate blindly loved his child,
And dreamt, in foolish pride,
His Helen would one day become
Llewellyn’s blooming bride.
She loved. Ah, me! her love was no
Proud chieftain of the land—
A yeoman’s son has wooed and won
Sweet Helen’s snowy hand.
Then friends were wroth, and frowned as chill
As dark December morn;
The flow’ret fair is cast away
With frantic rage and scorn.
Her lover seeks the tented field,
Far o’er the sea he sails,
Sever’d for aye is Helen Hughes
From home, from friends, from Wales!
How long he fought in Egypt land,
And served his country well;
How he was loved by Helen Hughes,
We wait not here to tell.
At last her soldier quits the field,
Sore wounded in the fight,
And dim and blind are Helen’s eyes,
That once were blue and bright.
They coast along yon tideless sea,
By Nile’s empurpled shore,
To where the Atlantic heaves its wave,
Then straight for Erin bore.
There long they lived. If poor their lot,
They had the thrifty hand;
Neat hose they sold, and baskets trim
Made of the willow wand.
A pension bravely won, with toil,
Their humble wants supplied,
But yet for dark and low’ring days
Small comfort could provide.
The hunted hare in circles wide
Its hot pursuer flies;
If long the chase, it still returns
To its dear form, and dies.
So, thoughts of Wales live on, where’er
The weak and blind may roam;
The long and weary march begins—
The Wand’rers make for home.
Their eldest was in girlhood’s bloom,
Three boys had next been given,
A babe caressed was at the breast—
In all they number Seven.
In wicker-cart a patient ass
Dragged on their humble store;
It bore the harp that Helen loved
And played in days of yore.
This ass was like its brotherhood—
A patient, hardy thing,
That loved the thistle by the way,
And lingered at the spring.
In hamlet, town, or lonely cot,
The harp was still their stay;
It was a friend, and gained them friends,
And cheered the weary way.
From cabins, doors, and windows high,
Brown pence were freely thrown,
And words of cheer, and kindly looks,
Still helped the Wand’rers on.
Green Erin thus they journeyed o’er,
When summer days were long,
Yet ere they crossed for Scotland’s shore,
They heard the reaper’s song,
And Autumn waned before they reached
The silver Luce and Cree;
Winter blew shrill when Helen heard
Fleet racing to the sea.
And now they cross the Twynholm moor;
The boys march well before,
The rest come on—the patient ass
Still drags their humble store,
And, joy of joys, the fair-haired boys
Look o’er the Solway sea;
They gaze on far and sun-lit lands,—
Hills grand and blue they see.
“Is that, dear father, that our home?
Are these the hills of Wales,
Of which our mother sweetly sings,
And you tell wond’rous tales ?”
“Yon hills, my boys, are English hills,
Not far from them is Wales;
From them you see our own dear land,
With all its peaceful vales.”
Helen saw not the glittering shore,
The blue and distant hill,
But in her youth she Snowdon knew,
In heart she loved it still,
And when her boys thus talked of home,
And all for joy were wild,
She wept, yet in her heart was glad;
Again she was a child,
A happy child, when life was young,
When friends were kind and true,
When she was joyful all day long,
Nor cold nor hunger knew.
But moaning sounds now fill the air,
Clouds gather in the west,
In frowning grandeur rise and sweep
O’er Cairnsmore’s haughty crest.
A fearful storm sets in, which well
The boldest might affright;
Ah, me! where will the Wand’rers lodge
This wild and wintry night?
They, to a house within a glen,
By gleams of light, are led,—
In God’s name vainly ask a roof
To hide the stranger’s head.
Once more they knock, and now the harp
Pours forth a feebler strain;
Again the Wand’rers are repulsed—
They twice have knocked in vain.
With sadden’d heart and trembling limb,
Homeward still bend the Seven;
The rain falls fast, the lightnings flash
Athwart the darken’d heaven.
A gravel-pit was nigh the way,
Which, struggling on, they found;
Deep was the pit, arched out below,
And insecure around.
They nestled down, poor grateful souls,
Within that sheltered pit,
And willing hands with labour great
Have there a camp-fire lit.
Their meal is o’er, their prayers are said,
The embers glow less bright,
The babe caressed is at the breast,
Their last words are— “Good night.”
And now the weary Wand’rers sleep,
They dream, perchance, of heaven;
The earth gives way, the pit is closed,
Deep buried are the Seven.
The fair-haired boys will never cross
The wide and winding Dee,
The maiden may not reach that home
Far o’er the Solway sea.
The soldier sleeps,— his march is o’er ;—
God called them all to rest ;—
Her harp on high let Helen string!
Her babe is with the blest!
When Sabbath dawned, the storm was hushed;
One living lonely thing
Had plucked the herbage by the way,
Then stood beside a spring.
Their living tomb may still be been
By Tarff’s wild-wooded vale;
The house still stands where hearts of stone
Heard Helen’s dying wail.
NOTE (by the original publishers)
The above Poem is founded on facts still remembered in Galloway. They were communicated by Mr. Joseph Train to Sir Walter Scott, in the view of a fresh edition of his novel of Redgauntlet. The narrative of Train is so like an inventory of facts that it is difficult to think it not entirely correct, and yet there may be reason to suspect that it was coloured and modified in his zeal to find a prototype of “Wandering Willie.” At all events, his version of the story has not been adopted by the author of “Helen.” According to the testimony of parties still living in Galloway, it was not the husband, but the wife, who was blind, and her skilful performance on the harp is still remembered. This statement is largely confirmed by the Dumfries and Galloway Courier of the day, in whose columns the calamity is recorded, and where it is distinctly mentioned that the hapless family did not frequent the South of Scotland, as indicated by Train, but were on their way home from Ireland to Wales. Hugh Pritchard was a farmer’s son in Caernarvon, and his wife, Helen Hughes, was a curate’s daughter.
Dumfries and Galloway Courier, April 23, 1816.— “On the evening of Saturday, a poor man with his wife and five children, who were travelling through the country with a small cart drawn by an ass, being unable to find lodging, took refuge in a sand-hole, at the side of the public road, near Twynholm Kirk. In the course of the night a mass of earth, which had been undermined in taking out the sand, unfortunately gave way and hurled them all under it. Their bodies were dug out on the Sunday morning, and carried into the church.”
Dumfries and Galloway Courier, April 30, 1816.— “Our correspondent at Kirkcudbright writes us that the people mentioned in our publication of last week to have been smothered in a sand-hole near Twynholm Kirk, in consequence of part of the earth falling on them while asleep, were travelling from Ireland, through Scotland, on their way home to Wales, and being naturally anxious for accommodation till the Monday following, they earnestly solicited quarters at several places in that neighbourhood, offering to pay for it thankfully, but were uniformly refused; and from this inhospitable treatment were under the necessity of taking up their quarters in the sand-hole, where they all met their melancholy fate. The unfortunate accident is the more to be lamented, as the unhappy sufferers were not travelling the country as vagrants, but on their way home. The man was a discharged soldier, and his wife played on a harp, by which they principally supported themselves on their journey.”
It may here be added that on the person of the soldier were found a discharge, a letter from a boy at sea, some little money, and papers connected with a small property in Wales, to which the wanderers were looking forward. The hapless family were placed in four coffins, and interred to the right of the chief entrance to Twynholm Church, close to the churchyard wall. No memorial stone marks the spot where they were buried. The ass became the property of Tibbie Mitchell, the Borgue carrier, as did also the wicker-cart, of which the wheels were of solid wood, like that of a peat-harrow. The harp fell into the hands of Mr Joseph Train, and remained with him till the 7th December, 1852, when that zealous antiquary, the friend of Scott, and author of “The Buchanites,” breathed his last. A year or so after that event, when his curiosities were sold and dispersed, it was allowed, being old and worm-eaten, to go to decay, so that now only two fragments remain of that old harp of Wales, which was so intimately connected with Helen’s early and chequered history, which had cheered the Wanderers in exile and poverty, and was treasured to the last as the tuneful and loved companion of the long and homeward march.