A popular Border ballad was ‘The Death of Parcy Reed’, taken down from the ‘chanting’ of an old woman named Kitty Hall, by James Telfer of Saughtree, Liddesdale. Telfer presented a transcript to Sir Walter Scott and also gave one to M. A. Richardson for use in his Table Book (1842–5). It was Richardson’s opinion that the events it describes took place not later than the sixteenth century, though there was no historical evidence to show when – or if – it occurred.
It is a story of betrayal such as might have come from a saga. ‘Parcy’ (Percival) Reed was owner of Troughend, a high tract of land on the west side of Redesdale. Being a keen hunter and brave soldier, he was made warden of the district, charged with ordering the apprehension of thieves. This incurred the hostility of a family of brothers named Hall, owners of Girsonfield, a farm just east of Troughend; and also of a band of mosstroopers, Crosier by name, several of whom he had brought to justice.
The Halls concealed their enmity, however, and invited Parcy Reed to go hunting with them. Ignoring bad omens, he went. Towards nightfall, they retired to a solitary hut in Batinghope, a lonely glen stretching westward from the Whitelee, a little tributary of the Reedwater. Late that evening, according to plan, the Crosiers came down and found Parcy defenceless, deserted by the Halls, who had also sabotaged his weapons. The Crosiers instantly cut him to collops – according to tradition, the pieces were later gathered up by his people ‘and conveyed in pillow slips’ back to Troughend.
According to the ballad, when he realizes the Crosiers are coming, Parcy appeals to the Halls in turn, offering them first his black horse, then his yoke of oxen, if they will help him. Each refuses, so as his final throw he increases the stakes:
O turn thee, turn thee, Tommy Ha’ –
O turn now, man, and fight wi’ me;
If ever we come to Troughend again,
My daughter Jean I’ll gie to thee.
But Tommy gives the same answer as his brothers:
I mayna turn, I canna turn,
I daurna turn and fight wi’ thee;
The Crosiers haud thee at a feud,
And they wad kill baith thee and me.
As a result of these events, the very name Crosier became abhorred throughout Redesdale and the Halls reviled as ‘the fause hearted Ha’s’. Local tradition embellished the affair with tales of Parcy Reed’s ghost. It was said that shortly after daybreak the likeness of Parcy Reed was seen near Batinghope, hurrying over the heath, arrayed in his green hunting dress, his horn by his side, and his long gun over his shoulder. On stormy nights, the phantom was often seen near his mansion, wielding a large whip so furiously that the very trees were threatened with destruction.
John Hodgson, in his History of Northumberland (1827–40), says that the spirit of Parcy Reed could find no rest ‘till one gifted with words to lay it to rest … offered it the place or form it might wish to have’. It chose the banks of the Rede between Tod Lawhaugh and Pringlehaugh. Evidently the spirit was confined for a specified time to a particular area.
One of its favourite haunts was about the Todlaw Mill, where the people on their way to the meeting house at Birdhope Cragg often saw it. They would take off their hats and bow, and the courteous phantom would bow back. Hodgson says the haunt continued till the spirit’s ‘certain time’ was expired, when the conjurer who laid him felt something like the wing of a bird brush by. Later, he was seized with cold trembling and died. Light is shed on the unexplained wing brushing by in a letter sent to Sir Walter Scott:
There is a place in Reed water called Deadwood Haughs, where the country-people still point out a stone where the unshriven soul of Parcy used to frequent in the shape of a black hawk, and it is only a few years since he disappeared.
In the Table Book version of this story, the spirit appeared as a dove, perched on a large stone in the middle of the Reed at Pringlehaugh. Possibly hawk and dove were thought to be soul-birds like the Seven Whistlers (see MARAZION, Cornwall).