Our Village Characters: their
Mental Attitude—Village Poet-Specimens of his Muse—Rob Osal', the
Flesher—Daft Jamie-Willie Burness—Willie Hood—'Sneeshin' on the Cheap'—
Robbie Welsh—Peter McKenzie—Anecdotes.
Our village, like most
Scottish villages of the time before the revolutionary epoch of railways,
electricity, and steam had set in, contained many quaint and strongly-marked
individualities. The old types are disappearing fast, and the
cosmopolitanism of the age tends ever more and more to repress individuality
of character and reduce all classes of society to a dull, uninteresting
uniformity, which is very depressing at times as one indulges in
reminiscences of the vanished order. No doubt rural manners were uncouth and
even coarse, if viewed from the modern standpoint; but if there was a lack
of polish, it was more than made up by the fearless honesty, the
self-respecting independence, and the sincerity which underlay both speech
and action among these hardy village folks. In matters intellectual and
theological there was the keenest conflict of opinion and belief; but in
political and social matters there was often a wonderful unanimity, and a
dogged tenacity of purpose, in resisting any attempt to coerce the popular
judgment, which the people inherited from a long ancestry, whose testimony
for liberty of conscience and freedom of opinion had many a time been sealed
with their blood. The prevalent attitude of mind was doubtless parochial,
intensely local—narrow in fact—and stupid prejudices were not uncommon; but
there was, too, a kindly, neighbourly clannishness which was inexpressibly
precious to look back on, when any one found himself far away from the
little home circle, and which is, I think, surely peculiar in its persistent
intensity to the dwellers in lands where mountains are an ever-present
feature in the scenery. The circling girdle of hills which hems in the
horizon seems to enclose a little world of its own. Beyond the rugged
outline, whose sharp ridges or swelling curves stand out boldly against the
sky, there lies an unknown region, the dwellers in which may, or may not, be
in harmony with the thought and feeling that prevail among 'oor ain folk';
and so it is exceedingly natural that we should like 'oor ain folk' best.
They understand our ways, and we understand theirs. We share common
emotions, hopes, and fears: the very changes of the weather and vicissitudes
of the seasons affect us in a like manner; and the whirr and rattle and
stress of the great currents of life in big cities and in populous centres
reach us only in faint, far echoes, bringing with them a sense of
disturbance, unrest, and disquiet, rousing indeed but little curiosity, and
sending us back to our accustomed round of duty or pleasure with a keener
appreciation for the familiar and the homely.
This must have been the
mental attitude of many a small circle of village folk such as ours, prior
to this marvellous modern era of daily newspapers, snorting steam-engines,
circulating libraries, popular lectures, and the clash and clatter of the
factory system. Verily, the century has seen a mighty change. Not only in
these and countless other outward embodiments of material progress, but what
a change, too, in the very spirit of man — in his modes of thought, in his
mental outlook—ay, even in the tricks of his speech—his very gestures, his
dress, his social observances and domestic habits.
Our village was undoubtedly,
in the days of which I write, a quiet, secluded, old-fashioned place. The
elders among the 'folk' were people of strong prejudices, of a most
conservative temper, fearlessly independent and outspoken in their
criticisms of any innovation, and, be it said with all gentleness, though
truth compels the judgment, somewhat narrow-minded and intolerant; while, as
I have said, manners were often unrefined, and even coarse.
For this reason, many of the
most characteristic sayings and doings of the old rural Scottish life are
now absolutely barred from publication by the present altered and elevated
standard of propriety; and one is precluded from reproducing by far the
larger number of the best illustrations of Scottish wit and humour of the
time of our grandfathers, simply on account of the element of coarseness in
them, which really meant very little to our outspoken, matter-of-fact>
fearlessly frank grand-dads and grand-dames, but which the more refined and
fastidious generation of the present artificial era would be shocked and
scandalised to hear.
Every village, of course, had
its poet. Some parishes had more than one. Poetry is distinctly a national
gift of 'oor ain folk'; and though we have only had one Burns, yet the minor
singers of Scotland are as numerous as her glens; and the majority even of
these humble rustic bards possess some spark of the divine afflatus, which
at times glows into a steady, radiant flame, instinct with life and passion,
and closely approaching the realm of genuine inspiration and pure poetry.
Especially in their descriptions of natural scenery a high standard of
excellence is often reached by these humble pilgrims of Parnassus.
I fear that in our village,
however, the poetry was not even of this comparatively-elevated type. Such
few scraps as have come down to me would seem to argue that the village
bards had not modelled their style on Burns, Hogg, or even the Wizard Wattie,
but had built their stanzas on the Tate and Brady, or Sternhold and Hopkins
One old handloom weaver,
James Glen, rejoiced in the sobriquet of The Poet par excellence. 'Jeems'
had beyond a doubt a little of the rhyming faculty; but I fancy the
distinguishing title was bestowed on him as much from his peculiarities of
dress as from his graces of style. He invariably wore a long blue
swallow-tailed coat with brass buttons and high collar, knee-breeches and
shoes, and a waistcoat with flap pockets; in fact, he affected the costume
in which Burns is most frequently depicted by the artists of his time. 'Jeems'
was a quiet, douce, self-contained man. He usually wore a Glengarry cap with
long ribbons, and when 'the divine afflawtus' came on him he seemed to walk,
as it were, on stilts, with his long, lean body bent forward, the coat-tails
and bonnet-strings streaming behind him; and, with eyes bent on vacancy, he
would perambulate among the whins on the muir, and mutter his rhymes to
himself till the poetic frenzy abated.
Here is an illustration of
his muse from a simple poem on his native village. It is mildly
retrospective, as the reader will see, and poetically descriptive. ('Starrie'
and Sandie Todd were the rival carriers.) But let the poet speak for
'Aince Aigle village hed nae
An1 lookit auld an' reekit:
The hooses, to defend the weet,
Wi' strae an' brnim were theekit
Oor cairriers upon the road—
To Brechin 'Starrie' goes:
And ilka Friday, Sandie Todd
Brings aerrants frae Montrose!
Auld Benjie, he does mak' the
Frae coal they ca' the Parrot,
And it alang the pipes doth pass
Through kitchen, room, an' garret.'
From the allusion to Benjie,
the gas-man, and other internal evidence, it would seem that the date of
this stirring and eloquent fragment would be some time in the fifties, when,
for the first time, coal-gas was introduced into the village.
Jeems had a laudable pride in
his own powers of versification. He would sometimes come down to the manse
when my father was busy preparing his sermon, and sorely try the minister's
patience by maunderings about 'the gift that was in him.' At such times he
woiild say something of this sort:
'Gude day, Maister Inglis'
'Ah, Jeems! is that you?' my
father would cheerfully respond, though with an inward groan.
"Deed is't, Maister Inglis.
I've jist been pondering owre some o' the poetic wonders that to the
obsairvant e'e are so laivishly spread abroad on ilka hand.'
Here Jeems would extend his
fingers, wave his arms, and his 'obsairvant e'e' would roll wildly; while he
' spread himself' in the fashion which, to my father's 'obsairvant e'e,'
meant an infliction of some 'sma' bit thing o' my ain, meenister.'
'Ye see, Maister Inglis,' he
would say, 'I hiv a theeory that a wheen o' thae great poets that ordinar'
fowk gang on aboot sae muckle are often wrang a' the-gether in their w'y o'
treatin' their subjeck. There's a lot o' mere haivers often written aboot
luve an' weemen and the great an' majestick sichts an' soonds o' naitur; but
losh bless me! Mr. Inglis, maist onybuddy cud write poetry aboot sic like
things as that. My ain consaits gang mair in the lowly an' humble paths o'
ordinar' ilka day expeeriences, sir; an' I dinna' see but what the gowden
touch o' a poet's imawgination suld be used to brichten up and elluminate,
as it were, even vera ordinar' and maist onlikely subjecks to the mere
My poor father, looking
wistfully at his manuscript, could only bow his meek acquiescence. Off Jeems
would start again:
'Yes, sir. Jist for instance,
obsairve the hen noo—the common domestic hen, sir. Ye widna think thare wis
much inspirawtion aboot the common hen, noo, wid ye?'
'No indeed, I would not,
Jeems,' the minister would say.
'Ah! but that's jist far ye
mak' the mistak' pursued the poet. 'Noo here's a sma' bit thing o' my am,
jist cuist aff in a moment of sudden insicht as it were. An it's a' aboot a
'The hen she is a usefu'
beast, She walks about the yaird also! An' sometimes lays an egg or two, Or
three or four, or more, or soI'
But just then, fortunately
for my father's peace of mind, and his reputation for patience and courtesy,
a ring came to the door,—a fresh visitor was announced, and for the time
poor poet Glen had to keep the remainder of his 'pome' for his own inward
delectation. I do not know if ever the rest of the stately verses, 'aboot
the common domestic hen,' were poured into my father's ears, but I think I
have given enough to show that our village possessed a poet of no ordinary
Our only butcher, called 'a
flesher' ordinarily, was a very old man, Robert Oswald, pronounced Osal. He
had no regular shop, for the village folk as a rule did not go in for much
butcher-meat, unless it was some of their own killing. But once or twice a
year Rob's services were in great request, when a Martinmas coo had to be
slain, or the annual slaughter of fatted swine took place. At such times Rob
was an object of awe to the boys, with his striped apron and leather wallet
full of fearsome whittles. It was said by some fastidious critics that the
only objection they had to Rob as a dresser was the unfortunate propensity
he had to plentifully bespatter with snuff the swinish carcases on which he
exercised his art. Rob's hand was shaky, and so a lot of sneeshin' never
reached his nose, which it ought to have done.
Of course we had oor 'naiteral.'
There was one poor shambling creature that used to rock his emaciated body
to and fro, with most pathetic persistency, all day long, basking in the sun
at the door of the poorhouse. He was known as 'Daft Jamie' and, as is often
the case with these poor creatures, a gleam of shrewd wit, at times
crystallised in a telling phrase, would show that his powers of observation
were not so limited as some might imagine.
On one occasion, so the story
goes, some well-meaning teetotaller had been applying his persuasive powers
on a 'droothy' subject who had been 'looking on the whisky when it was
strong' at the neighbouring 'Star Inn.'
The temperance advocate,
seeking to 'point his moral,' had appealed to the spectacle of poor 'Daft
Jamie' and said to the subject of his lecture that he was really worse than
poor 'Daft Jamie'; 'for' said he, 'you have yer wits aboot ye, and yet ye
tak' to drink that 'steals yer wits' and makes ye as daft as that poor,
feckless creature over there!'
Now, it was popularly
reported in the village that the unfortunate inmates of the poorhouse were
not only denied such luxuries as drink, but were even stinted in their
proper modicum of daily food. Wishing to clinch his illustration, the
well-meaning temperance reformer, having by this time drawn near, with his
'shocking example' in tow, to poor Jamie, turned to the idiot, and said:
'I'm sure ye was niver fou, wis ye, Jamie?'
Not a little to his
discomfiture Jamie's dull eye brightened immediately, and nodding his head
several times, with a deep chuckle of inward satisfaction he patted his
stomach, and said: 'Ay, aince.'
'What!' said the teetotaller,
'ye have been fou, have ye; what in the world did ye get fou on?'
'Cauld mutton,' said Jamie.
His rendering of 'fou' had
evident application to fulness of provender, and not fulness of drink.
Poor Willie Burness was
another of these half-witted, harmless creatures; although sometimes poor
Willie, when badgered by bad boys, would have a frightful access of passion,
in which he was capable of doing serious harm to the objects of his rage.
When anyone thus incurred his animosity, his usual plan was to write his
name in sprawling characters on a piece of paper, after which, inserting
this into a cleft stick, he would proceed to the river-side, and immerse the
paper; the idea in his poor clouded brain being that he was thus drowning
the object of his dislike. He had a most loving regard for my father; but I
am afraid my mother was not such a favourite with him, as she certainly had
less patience with 'Willie,' who could wheedle a coin or a packet of snuff
out of my father occasionally, but never succeeded in softening the obduracy
of my mothers heart so Willie would sometimes say very pungent things about
her, having reference more especially to her powers of speech. Indeed on
more than one occasion he hinted that my mother could occupy the pulpit to
greater advantage than my father, so far at least as that faculty was
Old Willie Hood was another
character who used to haunt the precincts of the chief inn of the village,
and did little odd jobs for travellers, such as holding their horses, etc.
He also was a perfect slave to the habit of snuffing; and his mode of
replenishing his snuff 'mull,' if somewhat objectionable, was decidedly
ingenious. Whenever anyone whom he knew to be a snuff-taker came along, he
would at once ask for a 'sneeshin' and of course his request would
immediately be complied with. Taking the well-filled snuff-box, he would
turn his back on his entertainer, and hastily cram both his nostrils as full
as they could hold with the pungent aromatic powder. Handing back the
half-emptied box, he would then shamble off as quickly as he could, and
anyone who followed him round the nearest corner would see him stealthily
take his own empty, battered box from his capacious pocket, after which,
holding it under his packed nostrils, he would tap his olfactory organ on
both sides, shaking the purloined powder into his own box. Thus, in the
course of an interview or two, he would manage to get quite enough snuff to
last him for some time.
I remember that once, when I
had come home from college, I met Willie on my way up to the muir to enjoy a
game of golf.
'Eh, Mr. Jeems, is that you?'
he said. 'Losh, man, ye're lookin' weel!' And then with an unctuous cough,
and conciliatory ogle in his watery eye, he said: 'D'ye ken, that last time
yer brither Bob was here, he gae me a saxpence to buy sneeshin'; that's no
Another well-known character
was a man by the name of 'Bobbie Welsh.' He belonged to well-to-do people,
and was noted for his pawky sayings and shrewd keen wittedness. One of his
brothers was a prosperous tenant-farmer, while another was a major in the
army who, during the Crimean war, met his death on the battlefield. My
father met Bobbie one day, and wishing to get news of the absent soldier, he
asked 'Weel, Bobbie, and how's the major?'
Bobbie, full of importance at
having such news to tell, said, 'Dord! Mr. Inglis,'—(he always spoke through
his nose)—'he got a baal through his guts, and dord, man, he dee'd!'
On one occasion Bobbie,
during his perambulations, came up to the house of a well-known farmer in
Lethnot who was notoriously fond of the 'cratur,'—that is, when he could get
it, for his careful, managing daughter, who kept house for him, took care
when at home to put him on an allowance. Once a week, however, the old chap
would insist on driving in to Brechin market, where, away from the watchful
eye of his trusty daughter, he always managed to get a good skinful of 'usquebaugh,'
in company with a coterie of cronies afflicted with like proclivities.
Now on this occasion the old
farmer, seeing Bobbie approaching the house, inwardly rejoiced, thinking
that for very hospitality's sake his 'dauchter Meg' must perforce produce
the bottle for Robbie's delectation; as for very shame's sake she could not
refuse her father a drink at the same time to keep Robbie company. Meg,
however, knew perfectly well that if once the bottle was produced, they
would not leave it until its contents were exhausted, so that, in spite of
her father's appealing look, she gave Robbie a frigid welcome, and producing
scones, cheese, and fresh butter, planted down a huge jug of clear cold
water, with a gesture that plainly said, 'That is all the drink you'll get
Robbie knew his host's
weakness perfectly well, and, being shrewd and keen-witted, he also knew
that Meg 'ruled the roost' in the farmer's establishment.
With a sickly attempt at
gaiety, the old farmer pressed him to eat; and pouring out a tumblerful of
the fine spring water, he said with well-simulated hospitable empressement:
'Weel, Robbie! hoo did ye
'Dord!' said Robbie, with a
look of deep significance, and in tones of genuine disgust, 'Dord, Maister
------, fu' did ye like it yersel'?'
Door------ when he got the
chance only 'likit it owre weel'; and one night the poor old fellow tumbled
over the bridge on his way home from market and broke his neck.
One of these quaint
old-fashioned village characters, named Peter McKenzie, had been in the
service, for nearly a lifetime, of Mr. Louis, a well-known laird near
Stirling. Several good stories are told of Peter, and as they serve to
illustrate this particular phase of the old servant question I have jotted
them down here.
Peter's one special duty (he
had grown old and gray in the one service) was to take charge of a very fine
well-bred bull, and he held all other kinds of stock in supreme contempt.
One day the Laird, in Peter's hearing, had been admiring and praising some
fine sheep, and Peter, who took this as a sort of slight to the bull, began
in a querulous, depreciatory sort of way to decry and belittle the sheep. 'Feech,
Maister John' he said, 'I cannot see fat ye find in such brutes as sheep.
They're jist a wheen clorty craeters, an' nae-body 'll buy clorty brutes
like them. An' forbye, no game 'll bide where they have been; an' indeed
they're jist pairfeckly useless.'
The Laird good-naturedly
rallied him, saying: 'Oh, come now, Peter, how about the mutton?'
'Weel,' grumbled Peter,
'there's the mutton, nae doot; but forbye the mutton they're jist useless!'
'Ay, man,' still pursued his
master, 'an' what aboot the wool?'
'Aweel, aweel, there's the 'oo;
but forbye the 'oo an' forbye the mutton, they're useless brutes.'
An unfortunate stranger
excited him to anger once by incautiously asking if the bull was not
bad-tempered and vicious. Indeed, he was notoriously so but Peter could
allow no slur to be cast on his idol. Thus he summarised the matter: 'Weel,
it's no sic an ill-guided brute, sir. I'm no sayin' but what noo an' than it
micht mebbe kill a man, jist by w'y o' divairshun like; but 'od, sir, ye ken
it's but a bull!' How thoroughly Scotch the thrawnness!