The Sutor of Selkirk: a
Remarkably True Story
from "The Odd Volume"
Once upon a lime, there
lived in Selkirk a shoemaker, by name Rabbie Heckspeckle, who was
celebrated both for dexterity in his trade, and for some other
qualifications of a less profitable nature. Rabbie was a thin, meagre-looking
personage, with lank black hair, a cadaverous countenance, and a long,
flexible, secret-smelling nose. In short, he was the Paul Pry of the town.
Not an old wife in the parish could buy a new scarlet rokclay without
Rabbie knowing within a groat of the cost; the doctor could not dine with
the minister but Rabbie could tell whether sheep's-head or haggis formed
the staple commodity of the repast; and it was even said that he was
acquainted with the grunt of every sow, and the cackle of every individual
hen, in his neighbourhood; but this wants confirmation. His wife, Bridget,
endeavoured to confine his excursive fancy, and to chain him down to his
awl, reminding him it was all they had to depend on ; but her interference
met with exactly that degree of attention which husbands usually bestow on
the advice tendered by their better halvesthat is to say, Rabbie informed
her that she knew nothing of the matter, that her understanding required
stretching, and finally, that if she presumed to meddle in his affairs, he
would be under the disagreeable necessity of giving her a top-dressing.
To secure the necessary
leisure for his researches, Rabbie was in the habit of rising to his work
long before the dawn ; and he was one morning busily engaged putting the
finishing stitches to a pair of shoes for the exciseman, when the door of
his dwelling, which he thought was carefully fastened, was suddenly
opened, and a tall figure, enveloped in a large black cloak, and with a
broad-brimmed hat drawn over his brows, stalked into the shop. Rabbie
stared at his visitor, wondering what could have occasioned this early
call, and wondering still more that a stranger should have arrived in the
town without his knowledge.
"You're early afoot, sir,"
quoth Rabbie. "Lucky Wakerife's cock will no craw for a good half hour
The stranger vouchsafed no
reply; but taking up one of the shoes Rabbie had just finished,
deliberately put it on, and took a turn through the room to ascertain that
it did not pinch his extremities. During these operations, Rabbie kept a
watchful eye on his customer.
"He smells awfully o' yird,"
muttered Rabbie to himself; "ane would be ready to swear he had just cam
frae the plough-tail."
The stranger, who appeared
to be satisfied with the effect of the experiment, motioned to Rabbie for
the other shoe, and pulled out a purse for the purpose of paying for his
purchase ; but Rabbie's surprise may be conceived, when, on looking at the
purse, he perceived it to be spotted with a kind of earthy mould.
"Gudesake," thought Rabbie,
"this queer man maun hae howkit that purse out o' the ground. I wonder
where he got it. Some folk say there are dags o' siller buried near this
By this time the stranger
had opened the purse, and as he did so, a toad and a beetle fell on the
ground, and a large worm crawling out wound itself round his finger.
Rabbie's eyes widened; but the stranger, with an air of nonchalance,
tendered him a piece of gold, and made signs for the other shoe.
"It's a thing morally
impossible," responded Rabbie to this mute proposal. "Mair by token, that
I hae as good as sworn to the exciseman to hae them ready by daylight,
which will no be long o' coming" (the stranger here looked anxiously
towards the window); "and better, I tell you, to affront the king himsel,
than the exciseman."
The stranger gave a loud
stamp with his shod foot, but Rabbie stuck to his point, offering,
however, to have a pair ready for his new customer in twenty-four hours ;
and, as the stranger, justly enough perhaps, reasoned that half a pair of
shoes was of as little use as half a pair of scissors, he found himself
obliged to come to terms, and seating himself on Rabbie's three-legged
stool, held out his leg to the Sutor, who, kneeling down, took the foot of
his taciturn customer on his knee, and proceeded to measure it.
"Something o' the splay, I
think, sir," said Rabbie, with a knowing air.
"Where will I bring the
shoon to when they're done?" asked Rabbie, anxious to find out the
domicile of his visitor.
"I will call for them
myself before cock crowing," responded the stranger in a very uncommon and
indescribable tone of voice.
"Hout, sir," quoth Rabbie,
"I canna let you hae the trouble o' coming for them yoursel; it will just
be a pleasure for me to call with them at your house."
"I have my doubts of that,"
replied the stranger, in the same peculiar manner; "and at all events, my
house would not hold us both."
"It maun he a dooms sma'
biggin," answered Rabbie; "but noo that I hae ta'en your honour's
"Take your own!" retorted
the stranger, and giving Rabbie a touch with his foot that laid him
prostrate, walked coolly out of the house.
This sudden overturn of
himself and his plans for a few moments discomfited the Sutor; but quickly
gathering up his legs, he rushed to the door, which he reached just as
Lucky Wakerife's cock proclaimed the dawn. Rabbie flow down the street,
but all was still ; then ran up the street, which was terminated by the
churchyard, but saw only the moveless tombs looking cold and chill under
the grey light of a winter morn. Rabbie hitched his red nightcap off his
brow, and scratched his head with an air of perplexity.
"Weel" he muttered, as he
retraced his steps homewards, "he has warred me this time, but sorrow take
me if I'm no up wi' him the morn."
All day Rabbie, to the
inexpressible surprise of his wife, remained as constantly on his
three-legged stool as if he had been "yirked" there by some brother of the
craft. For the space of twenty-four hours, his long nose was never seen to
throw its shadow across the threshold of the door; and so extraordinary
did this event appear, that the neighbours, one and all, agreed that it
pre-, dieted some prodigy; but whether it was to take the shape of a
comet, which would deluge them all with its fiery tail, or whether they
were to be swallowed up by an earthquake, could by no means be settled to
the satisfaction of the parties concerned.
diligently pursued his employment, unheeding the concerns of his
neighbours. What mattered it to him, that Jenny Thrifty's cow had calved,
that the minister's servant, with something in her apron, had been seen to
go in twice to Lucky Wakerife's, that the laird's dairy-maid had been
observed stealing up the red loan in the gloaming, that the drum had gone
through the town announcing that a sheep was to be killed on Friday?The
stranger alone swam before his eyes; and cow, dairymaid, and drum kicked
the beam. It was late in the night when Rabbie had accomplished his task,
and then placing the shoes at his bedside, he lay down in his clothes, and
fell asleep; but the fear of not being sufficiently alert for his new
customer, induced him to rise a considerable time before daybreak. He
opened the door and looked into the street, but it was still so dark he
could scarcely see a yard before his nose; he therefore returned into the
house, muttering to himself"What the sorrow can keep him?" when a voice
at his elbow suddenly said
"Where are my shoes?"
"Here, sir," said Rabbie,
quite transported with joy; "here they are, right and tight, and mickle
joy may ye hae in wearing them, for it's better to wear shoon than sheets,
as the auld saying gangs."
"Perhaps I may wear both,"
answered the stranger.
"Gude save us," quoth
Rabbie, "do ye sleep in your shoon?"
The stranger made no
answer; but, laying a piece of gold on the table and taking up the shoes,
walked out of the house.
"Now's my time." thought
Rabbie to himself, as he slipped after him.
The stranger paced slowly
on, and Rabbie carefully followed him; the stranger turned up the street,
and the Sutor kept close to his heels. "'Odsake, where can he be gaun?"
thought Rabbie, as he saw the stranger turn into the churchyard; "he's
making to that grave in the corner; now he's standing still; now he's
sitting down. Gudesake! what's come o' him?" Rabbie rubbed his eyes,
looked round in all directions, but, lo and behold! the stranger had
vanished. "There's something no canny about this," thought the Sutor; "but
I'll mark the place at ony rate;" and Rabbie, after thrusting his awl into
the grave, hastily returned home.
The news soon spread from
house to house, and by the time the red-faced sun stared down on the town,
the whole inhabitants were in commotion; and, after having held sundry
consultations, it was resolved, nem. con., to proceed in a body to the
churchyard, and open the grave which was suspected of being suspicious.
The whole population of the Kirk Wynd turned out on this service. Sutors,
wives, children, all hurried pell-mell after Rabbie, who led his myrmidons
straight to the grave at which his mysterious customer had disappeared,
and where he found his awl still sticking in the place where he had left
it. Immediately all hands went to work; the grave was opened; the lid was
forced off the coffin; and a corpse was discovered dressed in the
vestments of the tomb, but with a pair of perfectly new shoes upon its
long bony feet. At this dreadful sight the multitude fled in every
direction, Lucky Wakerife leading the van, leaving Rabbie and a few bold
brothers of the craft to arrange matters as they pleased with the
peripatetic skeleton. A council was held, and it was agreed that the
coffin should be firmly nailed up and committed to the earth. Before doing
so, however, Rabbie proposed denuding his customer of his shoes, remarking
that he had no more need for them than a cart had for three wheels. No
objections were made to this proposal, and Rabbie, therefore, quickly
coming to extremities, whipped them off in a trice. They then drove half a
hundred tenpenny nails into the lid of the coffin, and having taken care
to cover the grave with pretty thick divots, the party returned to their
separate places of abode.
Certain qualms of
conscience, however, now arose in Rabbie's mind as to the propriety of
depriving the corpse of what had been honestly bought and paid for. He
could not help allowing, that if the ghost were troubled with cold feet, a
circumstance by no means improbable, he might naturally wish to remedy the
evil. But, at the same time, considering that the fact of his having made
a pair of shoes for a defunct man would be an everlasting blot on the
Heckspeckle escutcheon, and reflecting also that his customer, being dead
in law, could not apply to any court for redress, our Sutor manfully
resolved to abide by the consequences of his deed.
Next morning, according to
custom, he rose long before day, and fell to his work, shouting the old
song of the "Sutors of Selkirk" at the very top of his voice. A short
time, however, before the dawn, his wife, who was in bed in the back room,
remarked, that in the very middle of his favourite verse, his voice fell
into a quaver; then broke out into a yell of terror; and then she heard a
noise, as of persons struggling; and then all was quiet as the grave. The
good dame immediately huddled on her clothes, and ran into the shop, where
she found the three-legged stool broken in pieces, the floor strewed with
bristles, the door wide open, and Rabbie away! Bridget rushed to the door,
and there she immediately discovered the marks of footsteps deeply printed
on the ground. Anxiously tracing them, onand onand on what was her
horror to find that they terminated in the churchyard, at the grave of
Rabble's customer! The earth round the grave bore traces of having been
the scene of some fearful struggle, and several locks of lank black hair
were scattered on the grass. Half distracted, she rushed through the town
to communicate the dreadful intelligence. A crowd collected, and a cry
speedily arose to open the grave. Spades, pickaxes, and mattocks, were
quickly put in requisition; the divots were removed; the lid of the coffin
was once more torn off, and there lay its ghastly tenant, with his shoes
replaced on his feet, and Rabbie's red night-cap clutched in his right
The people, in
consternation, fled from the churchyard; and nothing further has ever
transpired to throw any additional light upon the melancholy fate of the
Sutor of Selkirk.
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