I’ve long been a fan of James Hogg, better known as the Ettrick Shepherd, and the tale I relate here was collected by him.

The original tale was told by an 18th-century farmer from the Musselburgh area called M’Millan. Hogg, after recording the famer’s story, claimed “his tale has every appearance of truth”.

Hogg recorded many tales and became a well-known literary character. A wonderful statue of him used to sit by the roadside at Peaston, but sadly it had been removed by the time I went to view it.

The life of James Hogg is a tale in itself. He was from Ettrick and became a shepherd. His life story is fascinating and seemed a constant struggle. He met many setbacks, and had long ‘dry’ periods when he wrote little or nothing at all. He was self-educated and was sometimes looked down upon by other literary figures because of his simple origins and lack of formal education. Robert Chambers, for example, admitted Hogg’s achievements, but with a patronising sting in the tail when he said he “was perhaps the most creative and imaginative of the uneducated poets”.

Yet the education of the Ettrick Shepherd was life itself, and also his mother. For, like Burns before him, his mother was full of rhyme and stories that she shared with him by his childhood fireside. It was an inheritance that kindled a love of poetry, legend and lore.

Exactly when and how he came across M’Millan’s tale I can’t say, but a visit by M’Millan in 1761 to Annandale, not far from Ettrick, to collect sheep solved one mystery, and created two more. This was before Hogg’s time, of course, but the story became part of local oral tradition, to be later picked up and recorded by the Ettrick Shepherd.

Hogg tells us that M’Millan was “a respectable farmer” from the Musselburgh area. In January 1746 he ventured to Edinburgh. There was a tense atmosphere in the town as the Jabobite rebellion was still in progress. The Government Redcoats were back in control of the Capital and Jacobites were keeping a low profile. Large scaffolds had been erected to hang the rebels but Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army had managed to defeat the Redcoats at Falkirk and were now headed north, pursued by the Duke of Cumberland.

It must have been a time of accusation, fear and retribution. But it was business that brought M’Millan to the Capital, and in the evening he called on a friend who lived near Holyrood Palace. Accounts of the recent Jacobite occupation of the town must have been part of their conversation.

Suddenly, M’Millan felt unwell, and his friend suggested it would be foolish to venture home on a winter’s night when feeling ill, and so he persuaded him to stay the night. He accepted the kind offer, but he could find little rest. His disturbed constitution just wouldn’t let him sleep, and so he decided that a walk might help.

He quietly got dressed, taking care not to wake the host family, and then crept out of the back door into the garden behind the house.

The moon shone in the dark winter sky so brightly that it illuminated the garden with a strange eerie light. M’Millan had taken only a few steps of his walk when he saw a tall man dressed in a buttoned overcoat enter the garden from the other gate.

M’Millian instinctively froze, as this man made him suspicious. So he kept himself hidden in the dark shadow of a wall and watched to see what the stranger was up to.

The man paced up and down in an impatient manner. He seemed to be waiting for someone. M’Millan kept deathly still, breathing lightly and resisting a desire to cough.

Then another man entered the garden from the same gate. He also wore a great overcoat and had a bonnet on his head. He was shorter than the first man, but much stouter in build. They both stood for a moment facing each other, saying only one inaudible word to each other.

They had no idea M’Millan was watching them as they threw off their greatcoats and drew their swords.

What followed was a desperate and violent sword fight. Both men seemed skilled with the blade, although the tall man seemed to have the advantage, driving the other around the garden. M’Millan was now terrified. His heart pounded as he watched the two men try to kill each other in the moonlight. The violence of the thrusts left M’Millan in no doubt that this was a fight to the death.

If his presence was discovered, they might kill him as well. But he was trapped in his dark shadow and dared not move. And so he was forced to witness the struggle that was taking place literally just a few feet from him.

Then a cloud moved in front of the moon and the garden was plunged into darkness. One of them said: “Hold, we cannot see.” The fight ceased and the two men, panting and breathing hard, both uncovered their heads and wiped their faces.

But the respite was short lived; as the cloud moved away, the garden was drenched in moonlight once again and the two men re-engaged in their mortal combat.

How long the fight lasted M’Millan couldn’t tell, it seemed an age. He was rooted to the spot by terror. But at last it came to a bloody end.

The taller man made a lunge at his opponent, who defended himself, then lunged back. The taller man tried to avoid the thrust but slipped forward. It was a fatal error. The shorter man took full advantage of his luck and plunged his sword into the chest of his adversary. There was a sickening squelch as the sword made its way through the tall man’s body. He fell to the ground as the sword was withdrawn, his body squirming in convulsion for a moment, then lying deadly still.

The dead man was lying within inches of M’Millan’s feet and he was now utterly petrified with horror. He remained silent in the shadow that concealed him, holding his breath and pounding heart.

The surviving man stood for a moment, looking down on his dead opponent. Then he calmly wiped his sword, put on his bonnet, covered the dead man with his greatcoat, picked up his own and walked out of the garden through the gate he had entered.

M’Millan was left standing in the dark with the dead man at his feet. Shaken, he returned to his bedroom, without waking the family. The illness that had caused him to go for a walk in the first place was gone, but now he had a turmoil in his thoughts. He was in shock, he couldn’t stop trembling and understandably got no sleep.

He decided to say nothing of what he’d seen. He was afraid that he may become embroiled in some violent feud or that suspicion would fall on him and he would hang. So when morning arrived he stayed in bed until his friend brought him the news that a man had been murdered in the garden.

M’Millan feigned surprised shock and went to the garden to inspect the body. The dead man was handsome and young, with brown hair. But there was nothing to identify him, except his sword, which was still held by the cold and bloody hand of the dead man. It had the initials A and B engraved on its hilt.

So who was this man? The body lay in the dead room for eight days and was inspected by many people, none of whom could identify him. Eventually he was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard amongst the many other anonymous people who were at rest there.

And M’Millan returned home to Musselburgh and kept his secret for 16 years. It was on a visit to Annandale that he finally divulged his secret. He had travelled there to collect sheep he had bought and while there he heard a tale that compelled him to reveal what he had seen that moonlit night.

The tale was that of Adam Bell, a wealthy young gentleman of Annandale. He was tall and handsome, with brown hair, and known for his skill with the sword. He had left his house in January 1746, wearing a greatcoat. He had said he was headed for Edinburgh, but was secretive as to the purpose of his visit.

A few days afterwards, his housekeeper was cleaning the house when she saw a man wearing a greatcoat enter by the kitchen. His presence startled her but she assumed it was Bell and she exclaimed “you have not stayed so long from us sir”. He made no reply and went into his room. She followed him, and asked if he wanted the fire kindled. He stood at his desk with his back to her, and still said nothing. It was most unusual behaviour.

The housemaid retired to the kitchen but then saw him walk out the front door and head for the nearby woodland and river, where he just vanished. That was the last time Adam Bell was ever seen; if, indeed, it was him who had returned.

He had simply vanished during that cold and turbulent January. Some said that what the housekeeper saw must have been a ghost. But that didn’t solve the mystery of his disappearance. People speculated that since he loved using the sword he must have joined either the Jacobites or Redcoats so he could indulge in his passion for sword fighting. But no evidence was ever found that he had joined either army. But if he had made it to Edinburgh, what became of him there?

We can imagine M’Millan’s reaction as he listened to this story, realising that this could be the man he saw killed in the duel that cold night 16 years previously. It was when he discovered that Adam Bell had always carried with him his sword, with his initials engraved on the basket hilt, that he could hold his secret no longer.

And so the mystery of what happened to Adam Bell was solved, yet from this came further mysteries: who was the man who killed Bell, and why did they meet in the dead of night to fight a duel to the death? And if it was Bell who was slain that night, who was the man the housekeeper saw? Was it a ghost, or was it perhaps Bell’s killer looking for something?

We will never know.