The Sailor & The Champion

The crowd began to jeer at the champion for not making quicker work of the Highlander; and the champion, stung by their taunts, got furious, and cut and slashed desperately….

By Cuthbert Bede (1902)

Above a century ago, James Fisher, a native of Campbelton, was master  of a fine little vessel, with which he fished, and at other times dealt in commerce. One time, being at the Quay at Ayr, and wanting a man to work the vessel with him, a young man came forward and offered his services. The stranger did not pretend to be an expert sailor, but promised that he would be obedient, and would serve his master as well as he was able ; and James soon formed a great attachment for the young man, who was careful and active, and performed his duties well.

After one or two little trips, they sailed their ship past the Mull, and went on till they found themselves off the great city of Dublin, which ranks as the capital of the Irish kingdom. Being in want of a bag of potatoes and other necessaries, James sent his man on shore to procure them. As he was returning with his burden, he met a champion, who was parading the streets, beating his drum, challenging the people to produce him an antagonist, and imposing a sum of money upon the city ; for it was the law of those days that, if a successful antagonist could not be found for the champion, the city should pay him the ransom. The young sailor, coming down the streets with his burden over his shoulder, pushed the champion on one side, telling him that he ought to have the good sense to leave the way open to one with a burden. The champion stopped
beating his drum, and said:

‘ I take that as a challenge.’

‘ You may take it, and welcome,’ said the young sailor.

‘ Then cut me this glove,’ said the champion, as he took it from
his belt.

The young sailor cut it : which was the form they had of accepting a challenge. Then they fixed the time and place for the combat ; and it was agreed that they should fight it, with sword in hand, on a stage in front of the City Hall, at twelve o’clock on the morrow. So the young sailor went away with his burden to the vessel ; and the champion went round the town, beating his drum, and inviting the people to come and witness the fight, on the next day, between himself and a Highland sailor.

Now, the young man did not let his master know what he intended to do ; but James knew his purpose, having received information from others. So, wishful to save his servant’s life, he gave him orders at once to prepare for sea ; but the young man refused, for the .first time, to obey him. James was sorry ; for he was sadly afraid that his servant would be killed, and he did not wish to lose his services.

In the morning the young sailor arose and opened his trunk, and took out of it a sword and a fine suit of tartan, which he had kept there concealed, and which his master had never set eyes on. He dressed himself in his tartan, and proved that his sword was of the best steel by bending it quite round his body. James was somewhat comforted when he saw this ; for he thought that his ser- vant seemed to know the use of his weapon ; and, as he looked such a fine, brave fellow in his tartan, he might possibly contrive to save his life from the skill and strength of the champion. The
young Highland sailor walked, with a quick step, up to the City Hall, where a great crowd of people and the town council were assembled to witness the combat. The stage was ready prepared, and the champion was the first to mount it. He capered from one end of it to the other, displaying his agility. The town council pitied the young sailor, and gave him a glass of wine ; telling him that they feared it would be his last ; for they considered him to be no fit match for so formidable an antagonist. The young man,
however, was not a whit afraid ; for he had more knowledge of the sword than they were aware of; and he gaily mounted the stage and went through the usual form of shaking hands with the champion.

Then the combat began. At first, the champion capered about, making light of his opponent ; but he soon found that this would not do, and that the Highland sailor must be vanquished with hard fighting, and not with tricks : so he slashed and lunged at him in earnest. The young sailor, at first, stood on the defensive, warding off the champion’s blows and guarding himself, until he had discovered the full amount of skill possessed by his antagonist. The crowd began to jeer at the champion for not making quicker work of the Highlander ; and the champion, stung by their taunts, got furious, and cut and slashed desperately, trying to close with the young man and to bring him to his knees by sheer strength. But he did not know of what thews and sinews the Highlander was made ; and the harder he strove to get in his sword, the farther he seemed from his purpose. The young sailor parried every blow. His eye was like a hawk’s ; and he stood like a rock. The champion stepped back and wiped the sweat from his face, the while the crowd jeered him more than ever ; and cries were now raised that the Highlander would win. Up to this time there had been no blood shed, and there was not a scratch upon either of the fighters; for the young sailor had contented himself with guarding his own body, and not wounding his opponent. But when the champion stepped forward and desperately renewed the combat, then it was a sight, indeed, to see the young Highland sailor. He no longer stood there to parry thrusts and cuts ; but he dashed at the champion with his trusty steel, making it gleam like lightning around him, and confusing his antagonist with the swiftness of his strokes. Darting nimbly aside, as the champion dealt a swinging blow that was intended to strike off his sword-arm, he whirled his keen weapon in the air, and, with one stroke, so completely severed the champion’s head from his body, that, as it fell, it rolled off the stage to the feet of the town council.

Then there was great rejoicing. The people lifted the young sailor on to their shoulders and carried him round the town, proclaiming his praises. The town council, because he had saved the city from paying a ransom, presented him with a very handsome purse of gold, with which the young man went back to his master. He put back his sword and suit of tartan into his trunk ; and they quitted Dublin and put out to sea. When they had got back in safety to Campbelton, the young sailor left his farewell with James Fisher, and gave him a good handful of gold, with which James
afterwards built himself a slated house in the Shore-street of Campbelton. The young man would not disclose his name to James ; but it was always supposed that he was one of the Argyll family, who had killed a nobleman in a duel, and had been obliged to disguise himself and go into hiding for a time. No one could match the Argyll with a sword ; and it’ was always considered that no other than an Argyll could have vanquished the champion.

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