A tale for Christmas in which we take a ‘gander’ at the Old Stag of Arbigland

The following tale was printed in the Morning Chronicle on the 23rd November, 1821, and they had extracted it from the Dumfries Courier.

We feel it is only right to issue a warning at the head of this article: if you are planning on eating goose for your Christmas dinner this year beware, the following may taint your enjoyment of your meal!

William Craik of Arbigland

The setting for this tale is Arbigland, an ancient Scottish barony on the Solway Firth in Dumfries.   William Craik (1703-1798), interested in agricultural improvements, was laird there and he designed and built Arbigland House.  It will also help to know that the term ‘Stag’ was, at the date when this tale was written, still a common name in many places of Scotland for a gander.

Arbigland House
Arbigland House

And so, we begin . . .

The Old Stag of Arbigland

Among the many rural appendages of Arbigland, there happened, a good many years ago, to be a fine old gander, who had lived from youth to age in the same delightful spot, and whose remarkable, though well-authenticated exploits, are well worthy of being recorded in a country newspaper.  From the great age and superior sagacity of this bird, he had become a great favourite with the former proprietor of Arbigland, who used to take much pleasure in seeing the sentinel geese strutting through the long grass to rebuke the approach of every stranger, or, at times, leading forth a long train of cackling young, to dip their shooting pinions in the waters of the Solway.

One season, however, either the demands for a Christmas goose, or the midnight depredations of the fox and the foulmart had been so numerous, that the poor old gander was left without a single helpmate – a misfortune which he deplored day and night by many a doleful note, brought from the lowest bass of the cackling gamut.  These affectionate repinings did not escape the observation of Mr. Craik’s servants, and orders had just been issued for replacing the extirpated breed of geese, when the widowed biped suddenly disappeared to the great regret of the whole family.  One blamed the fox, another the foulmart, and a third the gipsies; but the event proved that they were all mistaken; for, one morning, as Mr. Craik was entering the breakfast parlour, he heard a well-known cackle, and immediately exclaimed, “If the old stag had not been drowned, or worried, I could have sworn that was his cry.”

This call was immediately repeated, and on going out to the lawn, or on looking out at the window, Mr. C. beheld the identical old gander, surrounded by a whole flock of bonny lady geese, whose approach he was thus proudly announcing, and whose wings were still dripping with the brine of that element through which he had taught them to pilot their way for a distance of at least 12 or 15 miles.  This singular occurrence naturally excited a good deal of interest, and after making every inquiry, it appeared that the gander had either been carried away by the force of the tide, or had voluntarily swam to the opposite shore, where, landing on some English farm, he had immediately attached himself to one of the owner’s geese, and sojourned with her till she had hatched a pretty numerous brood.

At length, finding that he had reared up another family to people his favourite retreat, or, what is still more probably, being attracted by the woods of Arbigland, while sporting in the Solway on some clear sunny morning, he once more ventured to cross the water, carrying with him his English spouse, and her whole brood of Anglo-Gallovidians. – Whether this action was as honest as it was patriotic, we will leave to others to determine; but whatever may be said as to the rights of the English farmer, it is certain that this celebrated bird evinced far more gratitude than certain of our countrymen, who, after being accustomed to the rich pastures of England, seem willing to forget that there is such a place as poor old Scotland.

Driving the Geese by William Redmore Bigg (c) University of Liverpool; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Driving the Geese by William Redmore Bigg
(c) University of Liverpool; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

At any rate, the proprietor of Arbigland did not think the worse of the old stag for the wonderful instinct he had displayed; and had it not been for a circumstance which it may be proper to state, he would have undoubtedly dozed away life very comfortably, and at last been buried with his feathers – the highest mark of respect that can be bestowed on an irrational biped.  But there is no providing against the chapter of accidents; and early one winter morning, a stupid servant carried away the gander, by mistake, among a lot of other poultry, which he had been directed to deliver as Christmas presents.

In distributing the said presents, the gander fell to the lot of the father of the present Thos. Goldie, Esq. whose servants killed and cooked the unfortunate bird, without ever discovering that it had lived more than half a century; but, when carried to the table, its extraordinary toughness was a subject of much speculation, and fairly baffled the skill of more than one accomplished carver.

The late Duchess of Gordon, it is said, once rallied a gentleman for his want of dexterity in carving, who replied that her Grace would have been less severe on him, had she known the history of the fowl placed before him, and who, on being asked to be more explicit, replied, “that it was the mother of the cock that crew to Peter!

We are not aware that any similar criticism was made on the occasion to which we allude, but supposing there had, we think the carver might have replied, with equal truth, that the subject on which he had been so slowly operating, was the great great grandson of one of those classical birds whose well-timed cackling was a means of saving the Roman capitol!

Driving the Geese by William Redmore Bigg (c) The New Art Gallery Walsall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation