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Oor Ain Folk
Chapter VIII


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 pattern.

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 himself.

'Aince Aigle village hed nae street,
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 gas
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 unobsairvant e'e.'

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 common hen.

'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 calibre.

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 concerned.

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 beggury, is't?

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 here to-day.'

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 like that?'

'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!


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