Selkirk’s French PoWs

This is some more from Highways & Byways on the border. I knew some Pows were kept in prisons, such as on Dartmoor, but officers were often let out on parole and some made lasting friendships with fellow educated folk in these islands, as they often came from good families.

In their dealings with the French officers, prisoners of war on parole, who were quartered in the old town from 1811 to 1814, the Selkirk people displayed an admirable generosity and a gratifying amount of good feeling p though in that respect none of our Border towns can be said to have been lacking. One of these French prisoners afterwards, when an old man, published most interesting reminiscences of his stay, and he writes of his involuntary hosts with appreciation, and almost with affection. In 1811, when the accumulation of PoWs in England had become very great, it was decided to distribute a large part of them throughout Scotland. To Selkirk, as its share, came 190 men.

…in the writer’s boyhood the memory of these prisoners still lived, and old people told innumerable tales of the strange habits of “thae Frainch.” “They made tea out o’ dried when (furze) blossoms, an’ they skinned the very pandas (frogs)” said one old man. The writer of the reminiscences referred to above makes no allusion to “paddas” but he does mention that “a lake in the neighbourhood supplied abundance of very delicate pike.” … that Frenchmen in their ow land lived chiefly on a diet of frogs was the firm belief of a majority of the town’s inhabitants, (“French frogs” of course was a term of contemptuous reproach,) and that the prisoners went to the Pot Loch for any other purpose than to obtain supplies of what seemed to the townsfolk to be a very loathsome dainty, would never occur to them. The fact that the edible frog did not exist there, would make no difference in their belief. That was no difficulty; frogs were frogs all the world over; and frogs of course included toads. The French ate them all.

The writer of the reminiscences,M. Doisy de Villargennes, tells us that some of the prisoners were “passionately fond of fishing, and excelled in it” …and that they used to fishing Ettrick and Tweed. Part of the former, close to the town, would be within their “bounds” but the Tweed is far out side the mile radius which was their limit of liberty. On every road, one mile from the town was placed a post bearing the words “Limit of the Prisoners of War”; down the rod which leads towards Brigdelands there is still a memorial of these unfortunates – a thorn bush, called the Prisoner’s Bush, which marked heir limit i that direction. Any prisoner found outside the boundary was liable be fined 1g – a process one would imagine, something akin in certain cases to getting blood our of a stone- and the fine was supposed to go to the person who informed on the delinquent. To the credit of Selkirk … no one ever claimed the reward; even when a prisoner uprooted a notice post and carried it a mile farther along the road, it was, we are told, only “to the amusement of the inhabitants,”. [M. Doisy] adds he “frequently went fishing several miles down the Tweed,” and was never fined, never in any way molested. In fact great and small in Selkirk, from the Sheriff /Depute of he county down to the town’s bellman, and the “Drucken” ne’er-do-weel who is too be found in any small-town … all combined to wink at these infringements of the regulations. Sir Walter [Scott] ..who was then living at Abbotsford, used frequently to have some of the prisoners to dine and spend the evening there. ..

“It would be, about the month of February 1813 and our mode of procedure was as follows: In the twilight, those who were invited repaired to the boundary – the milestone already mentioned – there a carriage awaited us, which took us at a good pace to Abbotsford, where we were most graciously received by our host. We only saw Mrs Scott during the few moments before the announcement of dinner at which she was not present. Mrs Scott was, as we supposed, French, for of French extraction.

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