The Black Douglas and the Hobby Horse

The Black Douglas. The very name evokes images of dread. He is said to have had thick black hair and a thick, black beard, but to the English, the name referred strictly to his deeds. Starting immediately after Bannockburn, when Edward II refused to grant recognition to the Scots as an independent nation, James Douglas embarked on a series of border raids, plundering, pillaging, and burning much of the north of England. So dreaded was his name that a rhyme sprang up about him:

Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye,
Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye,
The Black Douglas shall not get ye.

the black douglas, james douglas, the good sir james, medieval history, medieval scotland, scottish history, william wallace
One famous story tells of a mother consoling her child with the rhyme above. At the final words, a voice behind her said, “At least not tonight.” The Black Douglas had stood behind her in silence, listening to her sing. (To the best of my knowledge, Douglas did neither her nor her child any harm.)
It is hard to imagine that a child’s hobby horse could have any relation to medieval warfare, or a man of such fierce reputation. And yet, it is from the horses ridden by Robert Bruce and the Black Douglas and their men that we get the name hobby horse.

The Irish Hobby is the official name of the breed, developed before the 13th century, and now extinct, though it was used to develop many current breeds, including the Connemara and the Irish Draught. They were smaller horses, sometimes described as more like ponies, whose strength was in being light, agile, and swift. The name, in fact, is believed to come from the French hobin, which is said to come in turn from the Gaelic obann, meaning swift.

The hobbin’s speed came, in part, from being well suited to the bogs, forests, and hills of Ireland and Scotland. Being light and agile allowed it to move easily through such places, where the large English warhorse was at a disadvantage. Even in such rough conditions, hobelars–the men who rode the hobbins–could cover an astonishing 60 to 70 miles a day, allowing them to make the lightning strike-and-retreat raids across the English border for which James Douglas was especially famed.

Unlike the warhorse, trained for battle, the hobbin was essentially a mode of transport. The Scots typically rode in fast, dismounted to fight on foot, and rode out again. The humble hobbin, however, might claim some credit for the Scots frequent ability to outfight much larger armies. Imagine how it might have been:

Half a dozen Scots, leaning low over their hobbins’ necks, shot in and out among mist-laced trees. Dark hair streamed behind them, tartans flapped over their shoulders in the wild night ride. Sweat and horseflesh stung their noses; adrenaline drove them, hearts pounding. From behind came the shouts of a score of English knights, their large warhorses crashing through the dark woods. The hobbins bolted up a rocky hill like mountain goats, and scrambled, nimble-footed, down the other side .

 They skimmed the spongy bog at the bottom, into the cover of forest beyond. Although the hobbin has the reputation of being a Scottish horse, King Edward saw their many assets. England used them in its own share of attacks on the Scots, often with far uglier and blacker methods than Douglas used. At least one source reports the English crucifying priests on their own church doors. While the church burned.

Silhouetted by the moon, the first English charger stumbled at the top of the hill, struggling to keep its footing under a thousand pounds of knight, armor, and weapons. The Scots loosed a storm of arrows, felling knights as they picked their way down the slope.

One armor-covered stallion burst onto the moor. Mud sucked at its fetlocks, dragging it down. It lifted its nose, bared its teeth with an angry scream, yanking its leg. Two more knights reached the bog. The Scots loosed another volley; three mired horses and riders went down.

None of it is quite what we think of today when we see children skipping with their hobby horses to the jovial strains of the William Tell Overture.

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