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Book of Scottish Story
The Villagers of Auchincraig


In one of the eastern counties of Scotland, there is a pleasant secluded valley, known by the name of Strathkirtle. It is well cultivated, growing good grain crops, abounding in rich pasture-land, and beautified by the water of Kirtle, which winds smoothly along between its fertile banks, and loses itself at last in the German Ocean. Strips and roundels of woodland, snug farm steadings, and the sheltering hills on either side, impart an air of peace and an aspect of comfort to this secluded Scottish strath, such as may rarely be witnessed in other countries. Spring nurses there her sweetest wild-flowers, on the meadows, in the woods, and by the water-courses; summer comes early with choirs of singing-birds, and the voice of the cuckoo ; autumn adorns the fields with the mellowest beauty, and touches the green leaves into gold ; and winter ever spares some gladsome relics of the sister seasons, to cheer the hearts of the inhabitants at Strathkirtle.

In the centre of the valley, and close beside the stream, there formerly stood the ancient village of Auchincraig; but the progress of improvement has, I am told, almost swept its last vestiges away. It was, without exception, the oddest, old—fashioned place in which I ever resided for any length of time. The dwelling-houses were of all shapes and sizes, and they had been built, whether solitary, in rows, or in batches, in utter contempt of all order and regularity. One might almost have imagined that they had fallen down in dire confusion from the clouds, and been allowed to stand peaceably where they fell. Some had their gables to the street, some were planted back to back, some frowned front to front. The roofs of not a few rose in ridges like the back of a dromedary, while the appearance of others betokened a perilous collapse and sudden downfall. Auchincraig could boast of styles of architecture unknown to Grecian and Roman fame. The primitive builders had not been particular regarding the situation of the doors, and evidently considered windows as useless breaks in the walls. Houses two storeys high, with weather-worn and weather-stained slate roofs, stood beside humbler dwellings, low and long, and covered with thatch. The parish church was situated in the burial ground at the east end of the village. It was an old edifice, with ivy-mantled a spire, which seemed ready to sink down and mingle with the dust of the many generations who slept around. Jackdaws congregated on its summit, and swallows, unmolested, built their nests in all the windows of the hoary pile. The parish manse, which appeared scarcely less ancient than the church, stood about a stone's cast from the place of graves. Primeval trees hung their foliage over it in summer, shading its roof and windows from the sunrays, and groaned mournfully throughout all their bare bulk when the bitter blast of winter swept over the exposed churchyard. A beechen hedge encircled the manse and the garden attached. The residence of the minister was by far the pleasantest abode in Auchincraig.

Queer and old-fashioned as the village was, it was far surpassed in these respects by the villagers. I could scarcely have believed that it was possible to find so many odd characters and strange mortals collected together in one locality. Nothing astonished me more than the number of old people, male and female, who, "daunered" about the village streets, or sat dozing on three-legged stools at the doors of their dwellings. It seemed as if the promise, "Thou shalt live long upon the land," had been specially vouchsafed to them. The old men wore knee-breeches, homemade stockings, blue coats with metal buttons, and red Kilmarnocks ; While the old women looked the very picture of sedate, sagacious, and decent eld, with their white coifs and black ribbons, and bone spectacles bestriding their attenuated noses. The village children had an "auld-farrant” appearance; and the young men and women, whose principal employment was weaving and spinning, partook somewhat of the gravity or their elders with whom they associated so much. It was only at such festive seasons as Hallowe’en, Hansel Monday, and the annual summer Fair, that the natural hilarity of youth displayed itself in any remarkable degree.

One of the odd characters of this venerable village was the minister himself. He belonged to that quaint, homely class of Scottish rural pastors, the last remnants of which have now altogether vanished. A strange, eccentric old man was the Rev. Thomas Watson —more generally and familiarly known by the name of "Tammy" — parish minister of Auchincraig. He was a grayhaired man, but stout of body and ruddy of countenance, hale and hearty as an old farmer, and fond of his own creature comfort, while he imparted to others spiritual consolation. He was generally attired at home and abroad, in a broad-brimmed hat, knee breeches, and a loose coat, cut in the shape of a jockey‘s jacket. He had a habit of screwing his face and shrugging his shoulders, both in the pulpit and out of it, when anything unpleasant occurred. It was amusing to see him engaged in conversation with one of his aged parishioners on the streets of the village. He applied vigorously to his snuff-box, ant; a hearty slap on the shoulder of his auditor was the invariable prelude to a humorous remark. One day, while he was thus enjoying a " twa-handed crack " with an aged member of his congregation, he administered a heavier slap than was desirable, upon which the parishioner exclaimed, with more familiarity than reverence, "Tammy, Tammy! my banes are no made o’ brass—dinna hit sae sair!” Tammy, notwithstanding his slapping propensities, was a great favourite amongst the people, and I have heard the villagers repeating with great glee some of his witty remarks, and telling anecdotes regarding his eccentricities. He always addressed the people in broad Scotch from the pulpit. Indeed it is more than probable that they would have accused him of preaching heresy if he had ever attempted English. He felt himself as much at home, and said as homely things, in the church and before the congregation, as when sitting in social converse beside the manse hearth. Several instances of this I distinctly remember. One Sabbath forenoon, his own servant-girl entered the church rather late—in fact, the first psalm had been sung, and the Rev. Thomas was in the midst of his lengthy opening prayer, Janet, flurried no doubt by disturbing the devotions of the congregation, omitted to shut the door behind her, and a breeze blew up the passage and waved the gray locks of the minister. This was more than the reverend gentleman could endure. He opened his eyes, saw the culprit, and said with his own broad peculiar accent, “Janet, woman, Janet ! can ye no steek the door ahint ye, an’ keep the wund oot !” Ludicrous as this remark might have appeared in the circumstances to a stranger, it was listened to by his hearers as devoutly as if it had been an ordinary part of the service.

On another occasion "Tammy" was holding an evening diet of worship in the church. This, it must be confessed, was with him a rare event indeed. It was the winter season, and, at the close of the first devotional exercise, the candles were emitting a light faint, and feeble as that of the waning crescent-moon. "Tammy ” took up the psalm-book and adjusted his spectacles, but it was of no avail. The solitary "dips” at each side of the pulpit showed long wicks but little flame. The minister fumbled about for a time, but could not find the object of his search. At last, screwing his face, and shrugging his shoulders, he exclaimed, addressing the beadle (who was also the grave-digger), "Pate, I say, Pate! what’s come ower ye?—whaur’s the snuffers, man? ”

Numerous anecdotes of a similar kind are recorded of the eccentric divine of Auchincraig. Once, however, on a baptismal occasion in the church, he committed what was regarded as a sacrilegious act by many of his parishioners. It set the tongues of all the mothers and grandmothers a-wagging for a month, and "Tammy” narrowly escaped a presbyterial investigation. The affair was innocent enough, allowing a margin for oddity of character, and he would, in all probability, have come off triumphant from a trial, unless the members of the presbytery had been rigid disciplinarians. The circumstances of the case may briefly be told. At the conclusion of the forenoon’s discourse, a child was brought up for baptism. The father received the customary exhortations and took his vows, and "Tammy” had just folded up his sleeve preparatory to sprinkling the baptismal water on the infant’s face, when he found to his surprise that Peter, otherwise Pate, the beadle, had stinted somewhat the necessary supply of liquid perhaps in deference to the wishes of the child’s mother. The eccentric minister had conscientious objections at performing the sacred rite in a perfunctory manner, and he accordingly lifted the large pewter basin from its place, much to the amazement of the congregation, and sprinkled the whole contents to the last drop over the face and white attire of the squalling babe ! He then coolly continued the service, in his own peculiar style, as if nothing extraordinary had occurred.

The Reverend Thomas Watson made himself at home wherever he was. When breakfasting with any of his parishioners, or in the neighbouring manses of brother clergymen, he invariably took possession of the largest egg, giving as his excuse and speaking from his experience, that " the biggest were aye the maist caller!” He was very fond of porter, and could drink as much toddy as any laird in all Strathkirtle, without showing the slightest symptoms that he had imbibed more than was good for the health of his body and brain. "Tammy,” it must be confessed, with all his good qualities, was rather lazy and self indulgent. To have spent more than an hour or two in the preparation of a discourse he would have regarded as a culpable waste of precious time. A clergyman in the neighbourhood once narrated to me a ludicrous instance of the manner in which the Auchincraig minister rolled the burden of duty upon the shoulders of others, and managed to escape himself.

"Tammy," on a certain occasion, was assisting at the dispensation of the sacrament in another part of the county. The good cheer provided for clergymen in the manses at communion seasons he relished with infinite zest, and he generally contrived to coax the younger ‘”hands” into undertaking a large share of his allotted spiritual work. When he could not succeed by coaxing, he adopted more effective means. On the special occasion referred to, he had taken as little part as he possibly could in the Saturday and Sunday services. It was his duty on Monday to preach one of two sermons ; but that was with him the great day of the feast; a good winding-up dinner was expected in the afternoon, and he felt little inclination for ministerial work. Accordingly, as soon as breakfast was finished, and an hour before the commencement of public worship, he mysteriously disappeared. When the bell began to toll, the Rev. Thomas was searched for through every room of the house, and in every nook of the manse garden, but he could not be discovered, and another clergyman present was compelled, at a moment’s notice, to undertake the duty of the renegade. Meanwhile, " Tammy" was stretched at full length in an adjoining corn-field, quietly sunning himself, with much self-complacent composure, and listening to the voice of psalms floating upwards to the summer heavens from the lips of the assembled worshippers. He did not leave his lair until the guests were assembled for dinner, and then he returned to the manse, and heartily thanked the " dear brother” who had officiated in his stead. His ready wit, his contagious laugh, his fund of racy anecdotes, would doubtless be regarded by the company as some compensation for the sin he had committed in failing to discharge his ministerial duty. Many years have elapsed since old Tammy 'Watson was gathered to his fathers; and of the ancient kirk of Auchincraig in which he preached not one stone now stands upon another. - Requiescat in pace!

The parish dominie was another of the eccentric characters in the village. He inhabited a house that had once seen better days, and he appeared also to have seen them himself. He was a tall, thin, silent, swarthy man, past middle age, abstemious and even miserly in his habits. Dominie Dawson was a bachelor, and few people ever crossed his threshold. He disliked old "Tammy,” who took a malicious pleasure in plaguing and bantering him upon the spareness of his body. Never were two men, occupying the highest posts in a parish, more utterly opposed to each other in appearance, tastes, and habits. "Tammy” was always ready with his joke; dominie Dawson had never even perpetrated a pun all his life. "Tammy" laughed immoderately when anything tickled his fancy; dominie Dawson was seldom seen to relax his grim countenance by a smile. Some men seem to have all things in common, but these two had absolutely nothing. The dominie never dined at the manse, and the minister never supped with the dominie. Still there was room in the parish for them both, and each held on the tenor of his way, independent of the other. The dominie, it could not be denied, was by far a more learned man than the minister. He was a capital linguist, as had been proved on more than one occasion, although his knowledge of languages was of little practical avail in the village of Auchincraig. He was also an enthusiastic naturalist. He returned from solitary rambles among the woods, and along the banks of the Kirtle, with his hat full of wild flowers and "weeds of glorious feature.” The old wives of the village used to say, "the man mun be crazed, for he’s aye houkin’ among divots!" On Saturday afternoons he sent bands of the school children away in search of beetles, moths, butterflies, and all varieties of insects; and these, after much study and careful examination, he pinned carefully on squares of pasteboard. Dominie Dawson was, in fact, an unrecognised genius. He seemed quite out of place in that secluded village, and yet it was almost impossible that he could have existed anywhere else. He was neither very much beloved, nor particularly disliked by his scholars. He flourished the birch pretty vigorously at times, and it was universally allowed that he made an excellent teacher. He opened his school each day with a prayer, which he had repeated so often that he could think on other matters during the time of its delivery. He always kept his eyes wide open when engaged in the act of devotion, watching intently the behaviour of his scholars, and no sooner was the prayer finished than he proceeded to apply the birchen rod as a corrective to misconduct, and an incitement to devotional feeling. "Tammy," alluding to this circumstance, said to him one day—"Skelpin’ may mak gude scholars, dominie, but it’s sure to mak bad Christians." After school-hours, the dominie either kept within doors, or walked forth alone. He had not a single companion in the whole village, nor did he cultivate any one’s society. He returned a salutation with civility, but appeared to have no desire for further intercourse. He was still parish teacher when I left the village; but it is more than probable that the loneliness of his life has now merged into the solitude of the grave.

After the minister and dominie, the village crier must not be forgotten. He used a large hand-bell instead of the kettle-drum which is employed in most country places to herald important public announcements, "Pob Jamie" was the name by which the bellman, as he was called, was generally known throughout the district. A squalid, ragged, cadaverous, miserable-looking object he was. He wore a hat "which was not all a hat," part of the rim being gone, and the rain and sunshine finding a free passage through its rents of ruin. A long gaberlunzie’s gaberdine, formed, like Joseph’s coat, of many colours, and adorned with many streamers, descended from his neck to his heels. His feet were strapped over the soles of old shoes that served the purpose of sandals. Thus arrayed, he shuffled with his bell through the streets of Auchincraig, like the presiding genius of the place. It was no use attempting to clothe him in better attire. If he had been presented over night with a royal mantle, he would have appeared at his vocatian next day in his many – coloured and tattered gaberdine. "Pob jamie” was "cracked,” and public pity alone kept him in his responsible office. It was one of the most ludicrous sights in the world to see him actively engaged in the discharge of his duty, for which he seemed to think he had special calling. After tingling his bell for a time, he planted his staff behind him, and leant upon it in a half-sitting posture, and then drawing a long breath, commenced thus, in drawling tones, to give the world the benefit of his announcement:—" Go-od faa-aat hee-eef to be so-old at Mustruss Ma- act-avushes shop at saaxpence the pund." Poor Pob made a sad mess of long roup-bills and documents of a similar kind. The villagers, accustomed to his voice and manner, could make some meaning out of his words ; but to strangers it sounded like a language never spoken before on earth since the dispersion at the Tower of Babel. The village boys annoyed the bellman greatly by mimicking his attitude and voice when he was in the act of "crying" through the streets. It invariably excited his somewhat irascible temper, and he prolonged and intensified his tones to an amusing extent. Jamie had a withered, ill-natured, half-crazed old woman for a wife, and a wretched cat-and-dog life they led together in their tottering hovel. The union of these two miserable beings was a melancholy caricature of the matrimonial alliance. They were never known to exchange a single word of affection. In fact, they were apparently bound to each other by mutual hatred. It was strange to think for what purpose they had been created, or why they should exist in the world so long. One winter day, after going his customary round, Pob fell sick, and rapidly declined. In the course of a day or two it was apparent that he was on the very verge of death. His old wife contemplated with evident pleasure the prospect of his speedy dissolution, and within five minutes of his death the half-crazed hag hissed these words into his ear, "Dee, ye deevil, dee!”

Space would fail me to describe minutely all the oddities of Auchincraig. There was the keeper of the post-office—a dwarfish man, with elfin locks, and a notorious squint, who knew all the secrets of the village, and seemed to possess the power of reading the contents of letters without breaking the seals. There was "burnewin,"—a man of huge stature and gigantic strength, —whose "smiddy” after nightfall, when the furnace blazed, was the favourite resort of all the cockfighters, poachers, and blackguards throughout Strathkirtle. There were the "souter” and the tailor, politicians both, and hard drinkers to boot. Nor did the village want its due complement of "innocents." It had greatly more than the average number; and throughout all my wanderings, and during all my residences in towns and remote villages, I have never met so many odd characters gathered together as in old Auchincraig. It seemed to me strange that in a valley so beautiful,—where nature is prodigal of her richest gifts, where flowers bloom, birds sing, and corn-fields rustle in the summer breeze,-—humanity should have appeared in such strange shapes and eccentric manifestations. But the old village is gone, and the old villagers have departed, and the sun now shines upon new homes and fresher hearts.


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