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Oor Ain Folk
Chapter X


My Mother's Folk—Montrose Skippers and the Baltic Trade— Presents from Abroad—A Partial Eclipse—The Homespun Era —Basket Mary—A Rigorous Caste System—' Tea-pairties'—Wullie D-----'s Hoose-warming—A Sma' Gless—A Heartless Drucken Husband—Painter Tarn—Anecdotes.

My mother's folk were from Montrose. Her maiden name was.'Brand,' and nearly all her people were identified with the then thriving shipping interest of that quaint old seaport town. Her forefathers were doubtless of Danish origin, the name Brand, pronounced 'Braun,' figuring extensively in old Danish and Norwegian records; and for many generations back the Brands could trace their genealogy as always a seafaring people.

My mother was one of a large family of girls, all well educated and versed in the fashionable accomplishments of the period. She could paint well, was a good musician, and in fact to her dying day had a sweet, melodious voice. When the tall, good-looking country minister from Lochlee courted her, she was accounted one of the leading belles of Montrose, which was indeed no slight distinction. Three of her brothers were masters and owners of their own vessels, then considered to be taut, well-built, roomy schooners or barques, each of them engaged in the Baltic trade. I can well remember the awesome delight with which I first made acquaintance with the—to a schoolboy's mind—romantic realm of adventure represented by one of these old, foul-smelling, dingy-cabined grain-carriers, which then formed part of the numerous fleet trading between the east coast of Scotland and the Baltic ports. No doubt they would be called 'tubs' nowadays, with their gloomy cabins, their steep, breakneck companion-ways, high unwieldy bulwarks, bluff bows, and bewildering network of running gear. But many a battle was waged with northern gale and treacherous icepack in these lumbering old crafts; and they formed a splendid school for the young and daring spirits who there learned the lessons of hardihood and endurance which have secured the supremacy of the seas for the navies of Britain.

The Baltic skipper of the day was an individuality mi generis. His genus is now well-nigh obsolete. My old uncle Sandie, who was for some decades harbourmaster of Montrose, was a typical specimen. Short, squat, broad-shouldered, bandy-legged, weather-beaten, with grizzled, scanty locks flying in admired confusion from beneath his nautical hat. Choleric in temper, with a voice like a fog-horn, a face like a 'full moon in a fog,' hands and arms gnarled like the bark of a tree, with two fingers contorted and rigid, where the icy breath of the northern seas had frozen the rope to his hand during one perilous passage through the narrow Baltic Straits. Such was his outward aspect. The old man did not perhaps present a very inviting appearance to the casual observer; but beneath all this forbidding exterior there lurked the kindliest and most lovable traits of character, and to the simplicity of a child in money matters there were added the tender-heartedness of a woman to any one in distress, and the free open-handed generosity of the proverbial stage sailor, whom we find so often depicted in old plays. Indeed, the Baltic skippers were a class which, on the high seas, was in many respects similar in idiosyncrasy and character to the small farmers and freeholders from the high lands of my native county. Alas! both classes have almost entirely disappeared before the modern march of so-called progress. The crews were nearly all recruited in the town to which the vessel belonged. All had to serve a long apprenticeship either in the fishing-boats along the coast or in the northern trading craft. Although the discipline was strict, and the fare such as would horrify even the least fastidious sailor of these latter days, still, as a rule, very kindly relations existed between captain, officers, and crew. No doubt the spirit of localism had much to do with this. Then the forced competition of modern times did not reduce profits to a vanishing point, so that the grain and timber trade which were then the staples kept jogging along in an old-fashioned, humdrum, but fairly remunerative way, and possibly there was more real happiness, contentment, and prosperity than there is now.

I have a lively recollection of the first time when, with my brother Bob, we managed to escape from our grandmother's comfortable villa in the suburbs of Montrose, and made our way down to the docks, where my uncle's schooner, the Alexander, was then lying.

The mate, knowing of course who we were, gave us the run of the ship, and oh! the thrilling delight with which we explored the marvellous recesses of the cabin, hold, and focsle. I remember my brother straining his strength to lift me up to the top of the biscuit bin, where, deep down, amid weevils and cockroaches, lay a few battered remnants of the much-prized 'cabin biscuit.' These were as hard as a granite paving - stone, and about as palatable; but to us they seemed a veritable treasure-trove. In trying to reach down, my weight proved too much for Bob's restraining muscles, and I went 'flop' to the bottom of the bin, where I lay huddled up amid the moving menagerie of crawling vermin, until Bob's yell of dismay brought help in the shape of old Uncle Sandie, who jerked me out. Seeing that I was more frightened than hurt, he put a climax on the adventures of this memorable day by nearly choking me with a pannikin of gin, which was his specific for c all the ills that flesh is heir to/ but which was certainly rather unsuitable for a schoolboy scarce entered on his teens. It nearly choked me.

When the Baltic fleet came back from a northern voyage, many were the delicacies that found their way even up the Glen to the old manse. The chief of these were smoked reindeer tongues, and strong waters in curious hand-painted bottles or flasks of thin white glass with narrow necks. Then there were flat clouded flasks filled with the most potent healing medicament, known as Riga Balsam, the virtues of which were vaunted all over the country-side. Sooth to say, for cuts and bruises no embrocation could well have been more remedial in its effects. Square bottles of Hollands, too, must have not unfrequently been smuggled ashore ; and rolls of tobacco, almost saturated with the pungent properties of tarry yarn, were smuggled ashore by the sailors. I have often seen them in my young days being displayed to the villagers in the bothies of the farms, and in the village workshops, as a rare prize. But perhaps the present from foreign parts most valued by the thrifty housewife was what, think you ? Well, just the tail of a musk rat. This caudal appendage to the predatory rodent was carefully treasured up in the napery chest, or in the linen closet, and it was considered quite an acquisition. When company had to be entertained the spotless napery was displayed, and charged the atmosphere with an all-pervading odour of musk, giving evidence to the assembled guests that some Baltic skipper was numbered amongst the circle of the guidwife's friends.

Many skippers were no doubt of the Mynheer Van Dunck order; that is to say, 'they never got drunk,' but the quantities they ' tippled' would have amazed the teetotal statistic compilers nowadays.

On one occasion, my uncle having met an old crony —one Captain Hodge—had stayed out 'Boosin' at the nappy' till almost 'The wee short 'oors ayont the twal',' until at length they thought it high time to proceed down Bridge Street to their respective homes. Now it happened that good old Dr. Patterson, the revered incumbent of the 'Auld Heich Kirk' and who was very fond of astronomical observations, had just come out in the chill night air to look at an expected partial eclipse of the moon which was then due. It was a beautiful clear moonlight nighty the snow crisp under foot, and the air snell and keen. The two worthy skippers, arm in arm, had taken the middle of the broad street, and with many a lurch and supererogatory tack were bearing down towards their domestic haven. All of a sudden, Captain Hodge descried the tall, spare figure of his reverence, and with a ludicrous assumption of sobriety, and a swift intuition of the possible censure that the minister might pass upon them for their rather profuse potations, he steered Uncle Sandie to the side-path which led past the minister's house. Then he himself, cunningly bringing his hat down over his brow, made an outward tack, and kept on his way along the main channel of the broad street. It was rather mean of him, I think, for he was the bigger culprit of the two, and deserved most of the blame for keeping my old uncle out to such an ungodly hour; but his cunning little manoeuvre was not to meet with the success he expected from it. At the critical moment, when the old minister was craning his neck, gazing into the placid heavens, the treacherous cargo of schnapps, aboard the rotund skipper, caused him to make a desperate lurch; and the minister turning round, wondering who could be waking the echoes at such an untimely hour, called out 'Who goes there?' Taken quite aback, the lumbering skipper, forgetting his caution, and forsaken by his cunning, but with the leading idea still prominent in his fuddled intellect, hiccoughed out, 'It's no me, Dr. Patterson, it's Captain Braun!'

You may depend upon it that the two worthies did not hear the last of this little episode for many a long day.

I have said that in those days the factory system, such as we now understand it, had not yet arisen. Indeed, craftsmen and artisans each worked at his calling with his journeymen and apprentices in his own shop, generally attached to the dwelling. So did the shopkeeper. He, assisted by his true helpmate—for a wife was that in those days—lived over or at the back of the shop, and in nearly all little country towns, a good piece of garden ground was an appendage to the establishment. When business was slack, the spare hours were utilised in garden work, and the tinkling little bell attached to one half of the door, by its noisy clamour, gave notice of any chance customer coming to the shop. All the people as a rule were well fed and well clad. In the country districts especially, nearly all the hosiery and much of the outer garments were homespun. Rents were moderate, as were wages; but the people were thrifty and saving, and had the knack of accumulating. The vagrancy and squalid poverty of modern times were practically unknown. Until the advent of railways, the population was almost exclusively Scotch; in fact, even in my boyish days I can only remember one individual—of the Irish race — ever being seen in our village. She was a fine buxom dame, with all the volubility and proverbial quick-witted good nature of her race, and she went by the name of 'Basket Mary.' Her husband was a basketmaker in Brechin, and Mary trudged through the county, selling the wares he made, in addition to a stock of ballads, and blackletter hornbooks, or chap-books. These were printed on coarse paper, in abominable type, with woodcuts of the most archaic character, some of which were little if anything superior to the primitive hieroglyphics presented to us in the quaint reproductions of some of our antiquarian societies. The subjects of these ghastly literary efforts were generally, to use the words of the prayer-book, 'battle, murder, and sudden death' especially 'murder'; and Mary used to get a ready welcome in all the farmhouses around Edzell and Glenesk by the recital of some of the most stirring and blood-curdling episodes in her collection, delivered with a breathless volubility and true Milesian accent, which latter you could have cut with a blunt knife.

Of course in Montrose, as in all the other county towns, there were various grades of society: the county families, the merchant skippers, the mdre genteel tradespeople, the little professional coteries, lawyers, doctors, etc., the respectable tradesfolk, and so on, down through the various grades, until you came to the waterside contingent, generically spoken of as the 'fisher folk.' There was a well-defined caste system pertaining to all these various grades in the social cosmogony of the little town, quite as iron-bound in its way as the caste system of India. Occasionally, by dint of some lucky marriage connection, by the amassing of wealth, or by the exhibition of some extraordinary social gift or intellectual powers, some member of the lower class might manage to set his foot on a higher rung of the social ladder; but these cases were rare.

' Tea - panties,' which were the popular form of entertainment, were confined exclusively to the special coterie sanctioned by family tradition and the unwritten law of custom. If you belonged to a certain set you could predicate with absolute certainty the company you would meet at one of these staid ceremonials. If the banker gave a 'pairty,' you would meet so and so. If the lawyer, the company would likely be much the same; but if one of the Captains' wives was the giver of the feast, possibly a more miscellaneous gathering might be met. The laws relating to comestibles and forms of procedure were also most accurately defined. You must take just so many cups of tea; you must taste three or four kinds of tea cake, and you were expected to make the same laudatory comments on each kind, increasing the number of your superlatives as you proceeded from the first kind of cake to the last. The preserves had to be pree'ed and praised in the same way; and then the small talk had to proceed by delicate gradations from the vaguely-general to the minutely-particular-personal. When the latter stage was reached, the tall caps of the dowagers, with their nodding plumes, got dangerously close to each other, and by that time the 'lords and masters' would be through their second tumbler of whisky-toddy.

One quaint illustration of this almost vanished phase of social life comes back to me as I write. It was a favourite reminiscence of my wife's mother, who was a true Montrose lady of the old school, and bridesmaid to my mother, whose cousin she was.

A master baker, who had made some fortunate speculations in flour and grain, and had thereby amassed considerable wealth, got possessed by a feverish desire, urged thereto by his keen, ambitious, and rather fullblown guidwife, to enter the charmed circle of gentility one degree above that in which they had hitherto lived. He built himself a pretentious mansion, which was furnished in the latest fashionable designs from Edinburgh; and by dint of a little flattery here and a little cajolery there, and other feminine manoeuvres, the guidwife had managed to secure acceptances to her invitations for 'a hoose-warmin, pairty' from a number of the genteel folks whose envied ranks she sought to enter.

The momentous night of the 'tea-pairty' at length arrived. Wullie, her 'man,' had long been famous for his dexterity and skill in the manufacture of the finest sorts of tea bread—in fact no tea-pairty in Montrose was considered complete without 'heckled biscuits' and 'shortie' from Wullie D------; and both Wullie and his guidwife had determined that no effort on their part would be spared to provide the most toothsome specimens his art could supply. You can imagine the scene. All the genteel dames of various classes had met in the spacious new 'drawing-room'; and here under one roof were met ladies who had seldom or never met each other before under such circumstances, so that the scanning of dresses and head-gear was of a very searching character.

The sonsy guidwife kept bobbing up and down in a state of pitiable frustration. In the meantime poor Wullie, bathed in perspiration, and as red as a lobster from the heat of the oven, was superintending the last delicate touches to his preparations in the bakehouse near by. Message after message was sent out by the agitated house mistress, until at length Wullie, driven nearly to desperation by the slowness of the oven and this perpetual demand on his nervous energy, lost his temper, and presenting himself at the drawing-room door before the astonished assemblage delivered the following protest: 'Deil tak' yer tongue, guidwife; gin ye want heckled biscuits, ye'll hae to get anither baker neist time'; and then, remembering the gravity of the occasion, he apologetically bowed to the astonished ladies and said: 'It's a' richt noo, leddies, but jist hover a blink till I cheenge ma breeks!'

Another notorious character in Montrose went by the name of Johnnie Baxter. On one occasion, so the story goes, he had been sent for by the housekeeper of one of the leading families to exercise his craft as a stonemason, some brickwork at the back of the chimney requiring repairs. What with soot and dust the job was rather a forbidding one, and the frugal housekeeper, coming in in the midst of the confusion, remarked to Johnnie, 'That's a gey stourie job, Johnnie'

'Deed ye may weel say that, mem,' responded Johnnie;  it's michty dry.'

'Perhaps you would like a little drop of spirits?' said the lady.

'Losh, mem, it would gang doon fine the day,' said Johnnie, spitting out some dust as he spoke.

Away went the good lady for the promised refreshment, Johnnie in the meantime gloating in pleased anticipation of the expected treat. You may imagine his feelings when the good housewife reappeared with a very small liqueur glass in which was dimly discernible a very small modicum of fine old whisky, whose delicious aroma diffused itself through the atmosphere, still further provoking Johnnie's thirst.

Johnnie eyed the minute prescription very disconsolately, and fingered the tiny glass rather gingerly. His hostess, misunderstanding his mien and attitude, said encouragingly:

'Oh, tak' it up, Johnnie; it'll no hurt ye.'

With a look of disgust Johnnie tossed the mouthful down, saying at the same time, 'Deed no, mem, it widna hurt me 'gin it was veetrol.'

Some time afterwards poor Johnnie's wife drew near to death's door, having been for a long time a poor weary invalid. In fact, the doctors had pronounced her case hopeless. Dr. Laurence had called, and in reply to Johnnie's lachrymose inquiries, had simply told him that the poor woman was past human aid.

'But is there onything I can do for her?' said Johnnie.

'Well,' said the Doctor, 'medicine can do her no good. She is very near death's door; all you can do is to attend to her comforts, and you might give her a little stimulant.'

Away went Johnnie to fulfil the worthy Doctor's instructions. Having purchased the prescribed quantity of spirits, he 'treated his own resolution' to a dram, and then, two or three more cronies coming in, they shared 'a mutchkin or twa' between them. This was sufficient to rouse Johnnie's fatal appetite, and when he got home he found his poor wife much worse. Remembering what the Doctor had told him, he listened to the Satanic promptings of his evil genius, and sent the sick woman's stimulating draught to join the company of its predecessors. Presently the Doctor called again, and no doubt observing, by the aid of more than one of his senses, that Johnnie had been 'looking upon the wine when it was red,'—being moreover rather dubious of Johnnie's moral rectitude when whisky was in question,—he asked him point blank, 'Weel, Johnnie, did ye get yer wife the stimulant I ordered?'

'Ou ay,' said Johnnie with a hiccough, 'I got the steemulant.'

'Ay, but did ye administer it?' said the Doctor.

Then Johnnie, with a fine outburst of drunken candour, said: 'Weel, as fac's deith, Doctor, I got the whusky for her, but ye see ye tell't me she couldna last till mornin', and that naethin' would dae her ony guid, so I jist thocht it's a peety tae waste guid whusky, and so, Doctor' (this with a sigh), 'I jist took the drappie masel';' but he hastened to add, seeing a look of strong disgust on the Doctor's face,' I gied her the hooch o't'.

Painter Tarn was another Montrose worthy, whose name denotes his calling. He was extremely fond of whisky, and was continually getting into trouble through his indulgences. He had a peculiar impediment in his speech, and when in his cups it became more apparent. On one occasion, shortly after coming out of jail, where he had served sentence for drunkenness, he got some temporary employment painting the church. The minister happened to be passing and inquired what he was doing there.

'Ah, minister, I'm gaein' in for the kirk, efter comin' oot o' c-c-c-college,' said the ready-witted rogue.

On another occasion, being in his chronic state of impecuniosity, he applied to a somewhat religious old maiden lady for a job. This she said she was unable to give him, but being of a very persistent nature, and noticing that her floorcloth was very much the worse for wear, he offered to paint it with an illustration of some biblical subject, suggesting, for example, ' the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea/ For this he wanted seven and sixpence; but the old lady objected to the price, and after a great deal of haggling Painter Tarn agreed to do the work for five shillings. He took the floorcloth home, and in the course of a few days returned with it painted a brilliant red.

'Ay,' said the old lady on looking at her bargain, 'and where's the children of Israel, Tarn?'

'C-c-ca' wa', ye silly auld limmer; wid ye hae them whamlin' i' the watter yet?'


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