In the fall of the year 1768 an excise officer named Mungo Campbell was trespassing in pursuit of game on the lands of Eglinton. Campbell was an excise officer at Saltcoats He was well connected in the county. His father was, Provost of Ayr, and his great-grandfather was Hugh Campbell of Netherplace. One of a family of twenty-four children, it can easily be understood that Mungo's father, the Provost of the county town, could maintain him neither in independence nor in affluence. Like many another man, Mungo had to shift for himself. Through his father's influence he obtained a situation in the Excise, and in the year named he was on the station at Saltcoats, watching the smugglers who then, and for many years afterwards, ran their contraband cargoes of tea and of spirits ashore on the lower shores of the Firth of Clyde. His position was no sinecure. The smugglers were numerous and daring. They beached their small craft under cover of the night on the sandy shallows which abound all along the coast from Ardrossan to Ayr, and, at risk to themselves as well as to the officers of the State, they handed their exciseable goods to their associates on the mainland. Encounters were frequent, and it required men of courage in the Excise, to cope with the equally courageous and the more reckless individuals who made their living by " running the cutter."
If Mungo Campbell endeavoured to make the law honoured on the one hand, he placed himself in conflict with it on the other. If he kept one eye upon the whisky distilled amid the hilly wilds of Argyleshire or on the plains of France, he kept the other on the grouse and the partridges, the hares and the rabbits, of the neighbouring proprietors. Gun in hand, sometimes alone and sometimes in company with his brother excisemen, he was accustomed to roam the fields of the Earl of Eglinton and to take a quiet shot in the well-stocked plantations on the lands of Montgomerie. Sometimes by day, sometimes by night, he indulged his natural instincts for sport, and many a heavy bag he carried to his home in Saltcoats.
Alexander, the eleventh Earl of Eglinton, was no narrow-minded peer, wrapped up in his own selfish interests. On the contrary, he was a nobleman of exceptional culture, alive to the interests of the country, zealous in promoting its material well-being, personally and practically interested in agricultural pursuits, and popular over all the lands which he had inherited. But he was none the less imbued with a high sense of the maintenance of his own right, in game as in other things, and he learned with displeasure that the Saltcoats exciseman, from whose avocation, as well as from whose birth and education, better things might have been expected, was appropriating without permission the winged and the four-footed reservations so dear to the heart of the sportsman.
While riding across one of his fields, the Earl encountered Campbell, gun in hand. The exciseman was within five years of reaching three-score years of age, and he had all the coolness of a man of his experience and training. When the Earl hailed him he made no effort to escape, but stood still, quietly waiting until the peer should come up with him. The usual dialogue ensued. The Earl demanded to know by what right he was trespassing in pursuit of game Campbell returned a half-evasive, half-apologetic answer, and the Earl warned him that if ever he was found poaching there again in it would be the worse for him. He made the exciseman promise that he would in future observe the law, and this Campbell promised to do, in consideration that no notice, should be taken of his present offence.
Lord Eglinton dismissed him with an admonition to remember his position as a public servant, and not to weaken his influence by breaking the law he was sworn to maintain, and Campbell went home not at all dissatisfied that he had been treated so leniently.
The instinct for illegitimate sport is certainly not less than that for legitimate. The poacher is not by any means to be regarded simply as a Creature who takes the risks incidental to his dangerous avocation for the mere love of the pounds, shillings and pence that he receives from the game-vendor in return for the miscellaneous ingatherings of the night's raid on the preserves of the laird. He is this, indeed, but he is almost invariably something more, he is a lover of the sport itself for the sake, of the sport. It is real pleasure to him to tread the yielding heather and to note the hare spring in the early morning, from the dew- bespangled grass. To steal through the copse of the laird when the moon is up, or to ransack the cover, brings joy to his soul. Unfortunately for him, he is not often other than a poor man, and his regard for the strict letter of the law and his moral sensibilities are not sufficiently strong to outweigh the longing that possesses him to bag the pheasant or the hare.
So it was with Mungo Campbell. For a while he refrained from trespassing on the possessions of the Earl of Eglinton. The sight of his gun gave him many a twinge of longing and he felt as if he ought somehow or other to be off and away across the country in search of sport and of game. He resisted after a fashion, but stronger grew the desire and still stronger, until he yielded to it and resumed his poaching operations.
The month of October, 1769, came round. The crops had been gathered in, and the partridges were among the stubble. It was the season for the sportsman to be abroad, and Campbell went too, out into the parks of Ardrossan, close to the sea-shore. His gun was below his arm. While he was quietly pursuing his illegal way, the Earl of Eglinton saw him. The Earl was on horseback, but he alighted, leaving his four servants a little way behind him, and advanced towards the exciseman. Campbell waited until he came up.
He was nettled at having been caught, ill the act from which he had promised to abstain, and, his native dourness of temperament coming to his aid, he resolved to face the noble lord with what tenacity of unyielding be could muster.
"And so, my man," said the Earl, " I've trapped you again?"
Have you, my lord returned Campbell, refraining from direct answer.
"I have, and you are not going to escape me so easily as you did this time last year. You remember you promised to abstain from poaching if I took no proceedings against you then, and I refrained. Your memory is short."
"Is it?" replied the exciseman.
"Yes, it is short," continued the Earl." And now I'll trouble you for that gun."
"No, my lord, the gun you cannot have."
" Then I shall have to take it from you."
"No, my lord, you shall not take it so long as I can retain it," said Campbell, decisively.
"But have it I shall," returned the Earl.
"No, my lord, you shall not. If I have offended in any way against your lordship, or against the law, the law is open to you; but you have no right to this gun. It is my property, and not yours, and I mean to keep it."
"We shall see about that," calmly replied the Earl, advancing upon Campbell.
" Stand back, my lord," Campbell said, and there was a ring of determination in his tones; "stand back as you value your life. God knows I do not wish to harm a hair of your head, Lord Eglinton; but stand off, I say, and leave me alone."
Notwithstanding the threat, Lord Eglinton kept on advancing. The exciseman deliberately raised his gun and put the butt to his shoulder, the muzzle pointed straight at the Earl. The latter eyed Campbell, and the exciseman returned the stare without a tremor or a sign of yielding Recognizing that he had to do with a desperate man, Lord Eglinton paused, and called on his servants to approach. These were watching the proceedings with the most undisguised evidence of alarm. They knew Campbell's reputation, and they had every reason to fear that he would carry his threat into execution.
When the servants were by his side, the Earl renewed his appeal to the exciseman to hand over the fowling-piece, and received the same reply.
I have told you already, my lord, that I will not give you the gun. You may prosecute me if you like, and I shall abide by the consequences; but your lordship knows as well as I do that you have no right whatever to the gun, and you know, too, that you cannot have it."
"Think what you are about, my man. You are caught here in the act of poaching. I have already let you go, on promise of amendment; and now when I ask you to hand me over the piece, instead of complying, as you ought to do, you threaten to take my life."
"I have said all I have to say, my lord. Go on with your prosecution. That would be legal. To deprive me of the gun would not be legal. And, besides, it would be dangerous. Keep off, I tell you, keep off God forbid that I should shoot you ; but shoot you I will rather than yield to your command."
"You are in dead earnest when you say you will shoot?"
" In dead earnest, my lord."
"Then," replied the Earl, calmly, "two can play at that game."
So saying Lord Eglinton instructed one of his servants to bring his fowling-piece from his carriage, which stood near. The servant made haste to comply with the order.
All the while the Earl's 'anger had been increasing. He was a man of undoubted valour and of great decision of character, and he could ill brook being thwarted by the exciseman. He was too much excited to wait until the return of his servant, and again advanced upon the wary exciseman. The latter kept his gun pointed at the nobleman, but began to retreat. The Earl followed him up.
With his face to the enemy, the retiring Mungo Campbell was not aware that behind him was a large stone. This he steadily neared, and, unsuspecting its presence, he fell backwards over it. But not for a moment did he take his eye off the Earl. Even as he fell he watched his man, and kept his finger on the trigger. The exciseman's tumble Lord Eglinton recognized as his opportunity, and reduced the distance between them until they were only three or four paces apart. Campbell was no sooner prone on the grass than he made as much haste to regain his feet as was consistent with the watch he was keeping on his antagonist. The Earl was in the act of rushing forward to close with Campbell when the latter pulled the trigger. The shot rang out, and the Earl sank on the grass bleeding profusely from a wound on his left side. He had received the whole contents of the exciseman's piece.
All was confusion. Excitement seized upon the servants. The only cool, collected man in the little company was the wounded nobleman. Conscious that his strength was rapidly waning., he walked to a grassy hillock, and with his hand to his side in a vain attempt to staunch the flowing blood, he lay down. He knew he had been hard hit, but it was without quiver of voice or of demeanour that he told his servants that he was mortally wounded, and commanded them to carry him to his carriage and convey him home. The servants obeyed. All the way along to the vehicle was marked by the ruddy stream that ran from the wound; and when, rapidly driven, the coach stopped at the castle door, the matting on the bottom was dyed with the same crimson hue.
The Earl was laid on his bed, doctors were summoned, the flow of blood was staunched, and every conceivable effort was made to avert the inevitable. But in vain. The noble sufferer, patient and considerate to those about him, gradually sank. While consciousness remained, he conversed cheerfully with the sorrowful friends grouped around the bed. He called them to witness that he had intended no personal harm to Mungo Campbell, and that he had only ordered his gun to be brought him in order that he might frighten the exciseman. In proof of this he told them the fowling-piece was unloaded, a statement which, on investigation, was proved to be true. He was not afraid of death, and he met the tyrant calmly, resignedly, and with a mind at peace with both worlds.
Lord Eglinton was one of the ablest of a long succession of able men. He had high capacity for Parliamentary business, and it was chiefly owing to his patriotic efforts that Scotland owes the abolition of an optional clause in the early constitution of the Scottish banks, which gave them permission at will to refuse payment of their notes for six months after demand. In agricultural matters he was, far ahead of the times in which he lived. He founded an agricultural society, and himself led the way in improving, by encouragement and example, the holdings on his own possessions. So much was he minded in this direction that when, on one occasion, he was called out to fight a duel in consequence of some remarks he had seen it his duty to make from his place in Parliament, he concluded an epistle to his brother, written on the eve of the hostile meeting, with the laconic reminder, "Mind the turnip drilling." He emerged scatheless from the encounter.
Mungo Campbell was apprehended, and brought to trial for murder. In summoning the jury the Clerk, Mr. Muir, included among, the jurors a number of landed gentlemen, and objection was taken to this by Mr. Maclaurin, who defended the accused. The objection was overruled, and the case went to trial, resulting in Campbell being found guilty by a majority of nine to six. He was sentenced to be hanged in the Grassmarket of Edinburgh on Wednesday, 11th April, 1770.
But Mungo Campbell forestalled the public executioner in putting an end to his life. On the day following his conviction, he hanged himself in his cell. The prison officials were about to hand over his body to Dr. Munro for dissection, but Campbell's friends interposed and objected to such a course being taken, on the ground that, while such treatment of his remains was unquestionably a corollary of his execution, it was by no means the legal sequence of his suicide. The Court sustained the contention, and ordered that the exciseman's body should be delivered to his friends.
Campbell was secretly buried under Salisbury Crags, but the interment becoming known, an Edinburgh rabble had the corpse dug up, and made sport of it, tossing it about until they were tired. To prevent further indecency and outrage Campbell's friends caused the body to be sunk in the sea.