William Edmondstoune Aytoun

(1813 - 1865 / Scotland)

The Island Of The Scots


I.

The Rhine is running deep and red,
The island lies before-
'Now is there one of all the host
Will dare to venture o'er?
For not alone the river's sweep
Might make a brave man quail:
The foe are on the further side,
Their shot comes fast as hail.
God help us, if the middle isle
We may not hope to win!
Now, is there any of the host
Will dare to venture in?'


II.

'The ford is deep, the banks are steep,
The island-shore lies wide:
Nor man nor horse could stem its force,
Or reach the further side.
See there! amidst the willow boughs
The serried bayonets gleam;
They've flung their bridge-they've won the isle;
The foe have crossed the stream!
Their volley flashes sharp and strong-
By all the Saints, I trow,
There never yet was soldier born
Could force that passage now!'


III

So spoke the bold French Mareschal
With him who led the van,
Whilst rough and red before their view
The turbid river ran.
Nor bridge nor boat had they to cross
The wild and swollen Rhine,
And thundering on the other bank
Far stretched the German line.
Hard by there stood a swarthy man
Was leaning on his sword,
And a saddened smile lit up his face
As he heard the Captain's word.
'I've seen a wilder stream ere now
Than that which rushes there;
I've stemmed a heavier torrent yet
And never thought to dare.
If German steel be sharp and keen,
Is ours not strong and true?
There may be danger in the deed,
But there is honour too.'


IV.

The old lord in his saddle turned,
And hastily he said-
'Hath bold Dugueselin's fiery heart
Awakened from the dead?
Thou art the leader of the Scots-
Now well and sure I know,
That gentle blood in dangerous hour
Ne'er yet ran cold nor slow,
And I have seen ye in the fight
Do all that mortal may:
If honour is the boon ye seek
It may be won this day.
The prize is in the middle isle,
There lies the venturous way;
And armies twain are on the plain,
The daring deed to see-
Now ask thy gallant company
If they will follow thee!'


V.

Right gladsome looked the Captain then,
And nothing did he say,
But he turned him to his little band-
Oh few, I ween, were they!
The relics of the bravest force
That ever fought in fray.
No one of all that company
But bore a gentle name,
Not one whose fathers had not stood
In Scotland's fields of fame.
All they had marched with great Dundee
To where he fought and fell,
And in the deadly battle-strife
Had venged their leader well;
And they had bent the knee to earth
When every eye was dim,
As o'er their hero's buried corpse
They sang the funeral hymn;
And they had trod the Pass once more,
And stooped on either side
To pluck the heather from the spot
Where he had dropped and died;
And they had bound it next their hearts,
And ta'en a last farewell
Of Scottish earth and Scottish sky,
Where Scotland's glory fell.
Then went they forth to foreign lands
Like bent and broken men,
Who leave their dearest hope behind,
And may not turn again!


VI.

'The stream,' he said, 'is broad and deep,
And stubborn is the foe-
Yon island-strength is guarded well-
Say, brothers, will ye go?
From home and kin for many a year
Our steps have wandered wide,
And never may our bones be laid
Our fathers' graves beside.
No sisters have we to lament,
No wives to wail our fall;
The traitor's and the spoiler's hand
Have reft our hearths of all.
But we have hearts, and we have arms
As strong to will and dare
As when our ancient banners flew
Within the northern air.
Come, brothers; let me name a spell
Shall rouse your souls again,
And send the old blood bounding free
Through pulse, and heart, and vein!
Call back the days of bygone years-
Be young and strong once more;
Think yonder stream, so stark and red,
Is one we've crossed before.
Rise, hill and glen! rise, crag and wood!
Rise up on either hand-
Again upon the Garry's banks,
On Scottish soil we stand!
Again I see the tartans wave,
Again the trumpets ring;
Again I hear our leader's call-
'Upon them, for the King!'
Stayed we behind that glorious day
For roaring flood or linn?
The soul of Græme is with us still-
Now, brothers! will ye in?'


VII.

No stay-no pause. With one accord
They grasped each others' hand,
And plunged into the angry flood,
That bold and dauntless band.
High flew the spray above their heads,
Yet onward still they bore,
Midst cheer, and shout, and answering yell,
And shot and cannon roar.
'Now by the Holy Cross! I swear,
Since earth and sea began
Was never such a daring deed
Essayed by mortal man!'


VIII.

Thick blew the smoke across the stream,
And faster flashed the flame:
The water plashed in hissing jets
As ball and bullet came.
Yet onwards pushed the Cavaliers
All stern and undismayed,
With thousand armèd foes before,
And none behind to aid.
Once, as they neared the middle stream,
So strong the torrent swept,
That scarce that long and living wall,
Their dangerous footing kept.
Then rose a warning cry behind,
A joyous shout before:
'The current's strong-the way is long-
They'll never reach the shore!
See, see! They stagger in the midst,
They waver in their line!
Fire on the madmen! break their ranks,
And whelm them in the Rhine!'


IX.

Have you seen the tall trees swaying
When the blast is piping shrill,
And the whirlwind reels in fury
Down the gorges of the hill?
How they toss their mighty branches,
Striving with the tempest's shock;
How they keep their place of vantage,
Cleaving firmly to the rock?
Even so the Scottish warriors
Held their own against the river;
Though the water flashed around them,
Not an eye was seen to quiver;
Though the shot flew sharp and deadly,
Not a man relaxed his hold:
For their hearts were big and thrilling
With the mighty thoughts of old.
One word was spoke among them,
And through the ranks it spread-
'Remember our dead Claverhouse!'
Was all the Captain said.
Then, sternly bending forward,
They struggled on awhile,
Until they cleared the heavy stream,
Then rushed towards the isle.


X.

The German heart is stout and true,
The German arm is strong;
The German foot goes seldom back
Where armèd foemen throng.
But never had they faced in field
So stern a charge before,
And never had they felt the sweep
Of Scotland's broad claymore.
Not fiercer pours the avalanche
Adown the steep incline,
That rises o'er the parent springs
Of rough and rapid Rhine-
Scarce swifter shoots the bolt from heaven
Than came the Scottish band,
Right up against the guarded trench,
And o'er it, sword in hand.
In vain their leaders forward press-
They meet the deadly brand!
O lonely island of the Rhine,
Where seed was never sown,
What harvest lay upon thy sands,
By those strong reapers thrown?
What saw the winter moon that night,
As, struggling through the rain,
She poured a wan and fitful light
On marsh, and stream, and plain?
A dreary spot with corpses strewn,
And bayonets glistening round;
A broken bridge, a stranded boat,
A bare and battered mound;
And one huge watch-fire's kindled pile,
That sent its quivering glare
To tell the leaders of the host
The conquering Scots were there!


XI.

And did they twine the laurel-wreath
For those who fought so well?
And did they honour those who lived,
And weep for those who fell?
What meed of thanks was given to them
Let aged annals tell.
Why should they twine the laurel-wreath-
Why crown the cup with wine?
It was not Frenchman's blood that flowed
So freely on the Rhine-
A stranger band of beggared men
Had done the venturous deed:
The glory was to France alone,
The danger was their meed.
And what cared they for idle thanks
From foreign prince and peer?
What virtue had such honeyed words
The exiles' hearts to cheer?
What mattered it that men should vaunt,
And loud and fondly swear,
That higher feat of chivalry
Was never wrought elsewhere?
They bore within their breasts the grief
That fame can never heal-
The deep, unutterable woe
Which none save exiles feel.
Their hearts were yearning for the land
They ne'er might see again-
For Scotland's high and heathered hills,
For mountain, loch, and glen-
For those who haply lay at rest
Beyond the distant sea,
Beneath the green and daisied turf
Where they would gladly be!


XII.

Long years went by. The lonely isle
In Rhine's impetuous flood
Has ta'en another name from those
Who bought it with their blood:
And though the legend does not live,
For legends lightly die,
The peasant, as he sees the stream
In winter rolling by,
And foaming o'er its channel-bed
Between him and the spot
Won by the warriors of the sword,
Still calls that deep and dangerous ford
The Passage of the Scot.

Submitted: Thursday, April 15, 2010

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