THE BALLAD OF THE BEAUTY OF BRAEMORE
There lived a bonnie lass from Braemore whose beauty was beyond compare throughout the whole of Sutherland and Caithness. Helen Gunn was a girl loved and longed for by every Highland man who ever laid eyes on her; however, her heart had been held since youth by a childhood friend, Alexander Gunn. Being distant relatives, Alexander’s family often visited their fellow kinsman, Lachlan Gunn and his delightful daughter Helen. The two Gunn children were inseparable, and as they grew so did their love and longing for one another.
Helen was a maiden, fair fleshed as the whitest of flowers with freckled cheeks and deep gray-green eyes that seemed to gaze straight through the seer’s soul. Her hair, long, lush, brown, and beautiful, blew free and unfettered in the wandering winds. She had a voice so soft and subtle that one would ever wait to hear even a whispered word from her red lips. This lovely lass was refined and as kind as any of God’s good creatures. A great gift giver, Helen charmed men and women alike with wonder at her happy ways. The beauty of Braemore was as blithe and bonnie a lass as God ever gave to this wicked world.
Alexander, the very love of her life, grew into a bold and brave young man. He proved a fine Highland hero whose heart Helen had a complete and happy hold. Handsome, strong and fair-minded, her Highland lover lived only to be with Helen. They often sat together in the heather singing long and lovely laments. Their favorite spot was near Braemore wood overlooking Lochbroom where they could ponder the wild mountain range colored by so many soft and brilliant hues of green and blue.
Many men tried for the fair Helen’s gentle hand but her heart was well taken by Alexander and no one but he could turn her head. Mighty men came to Lachlan’s Highland home seeking his blessing for marriage to the blithe and bonnie lass. Alexander, however, had all but grown up under Lachlan’s roof, and Lachlan loved that lad like a long lost son so he turned down all such suitors. When the young lovers reached the right age, their marriage was announced to kith and kin. Now, this grand announcement came as no surprise to the Gunn clan folk who had all watched the two grow and blossom together.
One day just before the wedding, Dugald Keith from Ackergill castle came to Braemore on business. While traveling through the village, he sighted the stunning Helen and instantly decided he must have her. Now Dugald was a bold and brazen man made too powerful for his own weak ways. When he saw the Braemore beauty, he rode straight to her, moving his horse into the middle of her maids, forcing them from their lady’s side. Dugald then bent and boldly called for a quick kiss. Helen outright refused and gave the audacious Highlander’s horse a fast slap on the flank causing it to jerk forward. The Keith recovered his mount then slyly slipped from its saddle. Laughing, he walked back to the beautiful girl. He told her he admired her fearless spunk and that perhaps she would enjoy such a slap on her own flank or a bit more.
Now Helen’s maids at once mustered around her and walked the bonnie young bride away from this overly audacious man. Dugald, letting his lusts get the best of him, prepared to pursue, but by this time the Highland men of the village, dirks in hand were headed toward him. Dugald, discretion overriding his desire, remounted and moved on. As he left he called back to the bonnie girl, “Goodbye, for now, fair beauty of Braemore, but fear not, I’ll be back to feel that flank!” He then put his boots to the horse and headed fast-hoofed for home.
Many days passed until the eve of the lover’s wedding came. On that day many of the couple’s kith and kin gathered at Lachlan’s happy home for a celebration feast. Behind the stone walls of the Highlander’s house, one could smell fresh venison roasting over the fire, bannocks sizzling on the skittle, bread baking in the back, and the wonderful whiff of opened whisky. All had collected there for a Highland ceilidh. Outside Lachlan’s home pipers played, women sang, couples danced, mimicking the dash of the deer, men wrestled, and joy echoed everywhere.
It was long after sundown when cheerful clan folk collected in the great stone house of Lachlan Gunn. There they ate heaps of fine food, they laughed hard and loud, and they drank meals of good wine and whisky far into the night. The cards were brought out and bets were made; Highland men roared and reaped the rewards of good and bad gambling decisions. The ladies sat together chatting charmingly of people and things past and present. Many a time did Helen and Alexander steal quick kisses and clasp one another in happy hugs. Love loomed unhindered in this Highland home.
“FIRE! FIRE!” was the cry called out to warn the wedding guests. The roof of Lachlan’s keep had begun to blaze. Flames flicked high into the sky and burning bits fell from roof to floor. Smoke billowed above and below, choking the good guests and forcing them to flee the once happy feast. The bride-to-be, groom, and guests burst through the doors, gagging and coughing to catch their breath. Family and friends all filed out to be free of the smoke and flames.
It was when they burst from Lachlan’s flaming home that the true threat would be reviled. Dugald Keith and his clansmen had surrounded Lachlan’s home and fueled it with flame. No sooner were the wedding guests free of that threat than Dugald’s band set upon them. Now, no Highland warrior worth his weight in salt was ever far from his weapons and this wedding band was no exception. A stout struggle ensued as soon as the Gunn’s knew a grim group of enemies were upon them.
Alexander had heard of Dugald’s rough and rude advancements toward his bonnie bride-to-be. He and his Highland friends understood what this raid was about. Every able man drew sword, axe, and dirk to defend the fair, freckled Helen. Dugald’s features shone in the flicking firelight. His face was hard like a battered shield wall, wicked and full of wild want. However, he would find no sight of Gunn warriors’ feet in flight. The fierce Gunns flew at their foes, fighting like lions let loose. Broad blades clanged and clashed, lifting limbs and cutting free life’s crimson flow.
As was often the case with brave Gunn warriors out to give gifts of gore, their fearless numbers were wanting compared to the foes they faced, but boldly did those few fight. Quick with their claymores, that handful killed without care for limb or life. In their fury, several fell red in ruin, but not before making many a crimson nightcap of those numerous naves. Alexander drove deep into the enemy’s nest, nourishing his steel with well-wielded cuts and thrusts. Parting from fear, he put bold pressure on and drove back the attack. His friends followed, leaving a wide corpse wake behind them. Alexander made straight for Dugald to deliver that villain his due. The young lover, keen with his handcraft, killed enemy clansmen with an absolute abandon. Wretched were those forced to face his battle rage.
Then the brave groom suddenly bent and dropped down to one knee. Quickly, the few Gunns that were left gathered around him. The young lover, defying his own fate, rose up weapon at the ready. A barbed Keith arrow had been sent toward Alexander who was causing so much killing. The brave young lover was hit high in the left breast and fell from force of that blow. He rose again but only to feel that ruinous sting four times more. He lay, severely injured, with life leaking from too many wounds. Like Leonidas of old, he fought to his finish with enemy corpses heaped high around him. The young lover held the hand of fate for its final embrace then bore an enemy dirk through the throat.
“Alexander! Alexander!” were the last of Helen’s words he heard before the rest of his friends and family fell. Each brave Gunn, likewise fixed all over with barbed arrows, died that doleful night. The rest of the wedding guests, young and old alike, were put to the sword and thrown into Lachlan’s bright burning home. All save one were killed that wonderful night turned wicked and woe filled. Helen had been captured and brazenly bound. The beauty of Braemore was bent over the broad back of a Keith horse.
“Alexander! Alexander!” she continued to cry as the grim face of the killer Dugald Keith came to gloat. “You foul beast,” Helen spit and sobbed through gloomy gritted teeth. As cheerless tears rolled down and dropped from Helen’s cheeks, the brazen Dugald delivered a fast hard slap to her exposed flank. He leaned his baleful face in close to her, smiled as only a wicked man can then smacked her backside a second time. Helen looked longingly for the last time at her fallen lover, father, mother, and friends. One last time she whispered, “Alexander.” With all she ever loved lying dead or burning in the flames of her fallen home, Helen’s soft voice fell silent.
Though tears fell from her fair face for the whole ride to the raider’s castle, that brave Gunn girl uttered not one more word of remorse. She was paraded past of the Keith people, bent over and bound under one of Dugald’s Highland horses. Sick in body from the rough ride and sick in heart from the love lost, Helen bore her fate bravely. Dugald dismounted and drove Helen’s horse to the door of Dun Ackergill. There he cut the binds that held her to his horse but did not free the lass’ dainty feet or lovely hands. He hefted her over his shoulder like a bale of straw then proudly took his prize to Ackergill Tower.
The beauty of Braemore was ill-used for many days and nights by that wicked warrior. Though she fought back like a banshee, Helen never doled out a word, not in fury or defeat. Helen was locked up in a cold room of the tower and left under guard. Each time Dugald came to devour her, he would afterward tell the soul-lost lass, “I will not stop until you have learned to love me!” Helen would freely give Dugald nothing and fought every time he came to her. The stress of such a turn of fate began to cause her life light to grow dim.
Even so, Dugald had fallen madly for Helen and could not free his heart from her. He had become so crazed by her subtle beauty that Dugald could think of nothing else except bringing back the bright girl that he had first seen. The Keith Lord even forced himself to leave her free from his lust, hoping to see her soft smile once again. Though he kept her caged like a dainty dove, Dugald often came to give gifts. For Helen’s heart, those gifts were no more than deals with the devil. As such, she still could not bear to give Dugald a single bright word.
The day came when Dugald had to set out from Dun Ackergill. He had to leave and tend to work which had been left undone for too long. First, he went to Helen’s keep and gave the girl a quick kiss on the cheek. To the guard’s and his own surprise the beauty bore the briefest of smiles but said nothing. From her tower window, the woeful Helen watched Dugald head over heather and hill. She did not move her gaze until that grim-faced man had ridden far from sight. Then a change came over her and the beauty of Braemore began to softly sing.
The bonnie lass’ beautiful voice hit her guard like an arrow to the heart. He could not help but watch from a small crack between the door planks. Inside, the guard saw that lovely girl clean her fair and freckled face. He saw the lass slowly comb her long brown curls to lay loose down the length of her back. Locked in by Helen’s lovely singing and the waves of her waist, he watched as she donned the clothes of a Lord’s lady. All the while, Helen knew well she was being watched and made the most of it.
Sitting in the sunshine from her narrow window, the beautiful maid of Braemore sang sweet songs. Her harmony echoed through the halls of Ackergill tower and all across the courtyard. Those long laments worked wonders on that guard’s Highland heart. He could not bear it any longer and had to enter in to see her soft smile. The dungeon door opened and the guard gazed in saying, “Your songs are so sweet to my soul. Tell me, lovely lass, is there anything I may do for the fair maiden?”
Helen replied in a childlike tone that may as well have been a bolt blasting into her guard’s heart. “It is such a fine and fair day, I would dearly love to see and sing out to the land that will one day soon be mine. Please take me to the top of the tower where all may hear my voice echo across the heather and hills.” Then she cast that Keith clansman a bright, broad smile, looked up into his weathered eyes, and laid her soft subtle hand on his.
The guard was completely entranced by Helen’s touch and heavenly gaze. She took him by the hand and he, with no will of his own, walked her up the stairs. The warrior and girl blithely walked up and up until they reached the top of the tower. There Helen stepped up to the battlement and began to sing loud and lovely the saddest of songs. Helen’s voice crooned her keeper into a soft and relaxed state. Like songbirds waking with the morning mist, Helen’s soft voice filled his happy heart. He listened and looked out across the lands of his Lord then turned back to Helen.
She was gone. The forlorn lover had leaped from that tall tower, falling eighty feet to her finish. Bonnie Helen lay crushed and crumbled at the bottom of the tall tower. She was buried at Dun Ackergill and if the weeds were wiped away, one would find a well-worn marker bearing the name ‘The Beauty of Braemore.
L L Andrews