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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter III - Weaving and a Village of Weavers at the beginning of the century


BUT the lad had now reached his fifteenth year, and must choose a profession for life. Was he to remain at farm work and become a ploughman ? All his instincts turned from such a heavy, unintellectual, bucolic future. He was too keen, too active, too clever, to walk "between the stilts " all his life. He had tried it. He first accompanied the ploughman as "gaudsman," to "goad" and guide the horses, and had, in time, held the plough. But the more he essayed it, the more he felt its utter incompatibility. His intercourse with farm servants and increased knowledge of the life they led, now extending over nearly five years, had not been encouraging, either morally or intellectually.

The agricultural population of all countries, through many causes incidental to their condition, has always been much behind the rest of the nation in intellectual activity, if not in moral habit, since long before the time of the Athenians with their Boeotian neighbours. Even yet, with all the modern ameliorations in implements, work, and time, the exercise of intelligence evoked by their life is not very high. At the beginning of the century, with their old-world appliances, long hours, exhausting if not oppressive toil, and small domestic comfort, it was in a very backward condition, In truth, John had even then gathered a poor opinion of their intellectual and moral status, which, as things then were, was probably not unjust; and subsequent intercourse with the class, especially in his scientific studies, only served to strengthen these early impressions, for which we shall find more than sufficient grounds as we proceed. On the other hand, their strong physique and high health were matters of which they had reason to be justly proud, and made them despise the members of other occupations in which these good elements were lower than with them. This is well illustrated by a speech made on one occasion, about the time we speak of, by the farmer of Boggatyhead, which overlooks Dunnottar Castle, when his stooks of corn were being blown over the cliffs into the sea by a heavy storm. "Rin," says he, "to Stanehyve, and get as mony men as you can, to help here ; and if ye canna get men, get weivers or onything!"

One of the commonest of sounds heard then all over the land, and not less in Stonehaven, was the merry click-clack of the weaver's shuttle. John had listened to it from his earliest years. He had often watched the busy weaver, always an attractive sight to children, and gathered the refuse beneath the looms in kindly workshops. His father had been a weaver, his mother's people were all weavers, she herself had assisted them in her younger days, and he had heard the loom talked of since he could remember anything. Several of our greater countrymen had also followed the same trade, which at that time held much higher rank than now; so that its lowliness was no bar to greatness or study. John, therefore, determinately fixed on following the ancestral occupation and becoming a weaver.

Nothing could have formed a greater contrast to the byre and the plough he was leaving than the loom to which he was going. Of all occupations, there is none that employs the body more than weaving, while actively exercising the mind. In working, one hand moves the "lay," the other drives the shuttle; in some classes of work, the shuttle is deftly thrown through the warp from hand to hand, either of which moves the "lay" in the short interval between. The feet work the "treddles," the fingers tie the thread, while the eye is ever on the alert to see that all goes well in the countless intricacies of the cords; for a single flaw would spoil the cloth. In weaving a striped stuff, still greater care is required. The darker or lighter lines must be inserted by means of additional shuttles, which are laid aside on the edge of the loom till required, each in turn shooting to and fro under the ever active hand. The breadth of each stripe has to be judged by the eye, which the expert workman learns to do with singular accuracy, assisted, if need be, by a pair of compasses, which lie ready for use when the requisite breadth is thought to be reached, a process of minute judgment that necessitates unusual correctness of observation.

Weavers then formed, as a whole, a remarkable class of men—intelligent, and observant of the progress of events at home and abroad ; devoted to politics, strongly or wildly radical, if not tainted with revolutionary sentiments, after the intoxication of the first French Revolution; great talkers when they gathered together in the street or public-house, during the intervals of work; intensely theological, often religious, well versed in all the intricacies of Calvinism, severest critics of the minister's discourses, and keenest of heresy-hunters, scenting it from afar, in phrase or simile, herein only being strong conservatives—in a word, general guardians of the Church, reformers of the state, and proud patrons of learning and the schoolmaster; but, withal, good fathers, good churchmen, good citizens, and not seldom good men—favourite subjects with all delineators of Scottish character, "douce Davie Deans" being a mild but picturesque specimen. At the same time, it should be remembered that John Duncan entered this once universal and well-remunerated occupation at a transition period in national progress, when the hand was being rapidly superseded by steam, a fact which accounts for much of the poverty that pressed him during his latter days.

At first sight, it might seem a mistake to exchange an occupation so much connected with nature and natural phenomena for one so sedentary and confined. But the advantages of an agricultural life for natural study are more seeming than real, and were much more so at that time than now. It is not the shoemaker's children that are the best shod; nor are our field workers the best field students. Many things account for this, patent to the most casual observer, but chiefly then the long laborious and depressing hours. But in his new employment, the passion for nature, already generated in the lad by his early life, could still be gratified in leisure hours, outside the weaver's shop, as it would have required to have been in the other case, beyond the farmer's fields. Then, in autumn when work was slack, he could return again to the harvest rig, with what advantages it offered; and in after years, having time greatly in his own hands, as a home weaver and not a worker at a strict-timed factory, he could use his leisure as he pleased for outdoor pursuits. Under the most adverse circumstances, enthusiasm would make its own opportunities. In every way, therefore, there can be no doubt that to John Duncan the weaver's treddles were better than the ploughman's stilts. At length, in 1809, about the time Thom, the Inverurie poet, began the same occupation in Aberdeen, when Duncan had entered on his sixteenth year, arrangements were completed for his being apprenticed as a weaver in the birthplace of his parents, a weaving colony, where they also had sat at the loom.

Drumlithie, to which he now went, is a small inland, rural village, or "toonie," as John called it, seven miles from Stonehaven, and eight from Laurencekirk. It is pleasantly situated amidst some embowering ash trees, in an undulating hollow, cultivated to the summits of its enclosing heights, at the northern extremity of the far-stretching Howe of Strathmore. The centre of a wide agricultural district, it has now a railway station of its own on the busy line between Perth and Aberdeen. Like most quiet country villages, it possesses a comfortable inn, a school-house, and, in this case, several churches; for, in addition to the Established Church and the representatives of Scotch dissent, it boasts an Episcopal chapel, half of the population having stuck to prelacy from the old days, even in the neighbourhood of Dunnottar and its Covenanting dungeons. Architecturally, though an ancient site, it contains nothing peculiar, except a curious solid, circular, stone tower crowned with a belfry, built in 1777, its top having been recently renewed, whence a bell tolls at special times of public assembly.

When the thin, shy, uncouth-looking, friendless hero of our story entered the village early one morning at the beginning of the century, it presented a very different aspect from the silent, sleepy, retrograding hamlet it is now. The houses were mostly thatched, and stood amidst neat well-tended gardens, and the whole place had an air of vital activity about it that betokened prosperous trade; while the clatter of the loom resounded from every dwelling. As he passed along the narrow street to the upper end of the village, where he was to spend five important years of his life, he could observe through his sheepish eyes, under their projecting brows—which saw deeper and farther, however, than the casual observer might suspect—that numerous groups of weavers eyed him from the corners of the streets, where they stood without coat or hat, adorned with the inevitable apron, the badge of their trade, which he was soon to don. His lank, ill-filled figure, his awkward stoop that bespoke bashfulness and toil, his simple, retiring look, his meagre, worn apparel, his small but well-tied bundle that bore all his possessions, did not escape their critical gaze; and the question went quickly round who this "queer kind o' creatur" could be, that was inquiring for the sharpest and most domineering man in the whole village, the notorious Charlie Pirie —another suggestive example of the wolf and the lamb.

John had entered a town of rural weavers. Every householder had his workshop attached to his house. He rented, moreover, a large garden and a considerable croft of land, of from two to four acres, and kept a cow. At early morn every day, as certainly as the sun rose, the blast of the horn of the common village cowherd resounded over the vale; when from every gate a cow joined the general herd, which was led by him to the wide common in the hollow, below the town to the north, now under cultivation. The same merry sound was heard in the evening, when he returned with his lowing charge, and every animal went of her own accord to her own byre, bearing rich treasures for the pail. The public cowherd, generally an elderly weather-beaten man, was known throughout Scotland by the title of "Tootie," from his tooting or winding his horn—a name still attached to places such as "Tootie's Nook," a street corner where he used to assemble his cattle in an ancient town in Angus, where the writer was born. His name and functions recall a bygone picturesque state of life once prevalent in the country, but now seldom seen; the upland rural village of Lauder, south of Edinburgh, being one of the very few spots, if not the only place, in Scotland where this remnant of past rural comfort still lingers.

In Drumlithie, the staple trade at this period was that of "green" or unbleached linen, though a little woollen was made in the shape of wincey. Some time after John Duncan left it, when bleaching was better developed through increased knowledge of practical chemistry, "white weaving," or bleached linen, was introduced, and added to the local population and prosperity. In John's time there, flax was extensively cultivated in the neighbourhood, but it has been abandoned for more than thirty years, and there, as elsewhere over the country, the remains of the pits where it was steeped may still be found. The whole of each family engaged in the trade—the father and sons wove, and the mother and daughters spun the yarn. Even the farmers near made it a condition, in hiring female servants, that they should be good "spinsters;" and they got then two shillings a spindle for the produce of their wheels and lissom fingers. The household varied their sedentary Iife by tending their gardens, rearing homely but pretty flowers—for not a few were creditable florists—cultivating their crofts, then under a four years' rotation, shearing the daily grass for the cow, looking after their poultry and cattle, and cutting, drying, and fetching home their peats from the moss, which then stretched beyond the public common—for coal was then little used in inland districts.

A hebdomadal silence and sanctimony fell upon the noisy hamlet, when walking was a crime, when the voluble population spoke in subdued tones, and the churches were crowded, Sabbatarian Leagues being then unknown and unneeded. A cheerful, active, social and intellectual life, however, burst forth on Monday morning, and pervaded the week till midnight on Saturday, when the most pressing business at once religiously ceased. The usual social, political and ecclesiastical questions were ardently discussed in Drumlithie, with all the accustomed ,keenness of professional reformers, and the affairs of the Church and the nation, and the conduct of the Napoleonic wars, then raging, authoritatively and conclusively settled—for Drumlithie at least. At that time, newspapers were costly and rare, and could only be afforded by the rich or by clubs of the villagers—some twenty joining for one paper ; but the two or three that weekly arrived were greedily devoured and thoroughly digested with a keenness now unknown, till they became the merest rags, and were precious even then. Some of the weavers possessed not a few books, such as John's master, and these were not allowed to gather dust on their shelves ; but a taste for general reading was not common even amongst weavers. The parish school then stood, as now, at the upper south end of the village, and was taught at that time by Mr. Charles, a worthy, old-fashioned man, who, in 1820, six years after Duncan left, became minister of Garvock, above Laurencekirk, and died in his hundredth year, tended to the last by his old housekeeper, of about the same age, that had been with him in Drumlithie; and the elements of education were, as a whole, fairly prized by the community.

The above picture, which is a simple statement of facts gathered from eye-witnesses and participants, reveals a state of rural society creditable to the country and the age, self-supporting, well-conditioned, hardworking and comfortable, with valuable social elements that have greatly passed away with the decay of village communities and the overgrowth of city centres. To some of these elements it may be well and wise for us, as a nation, once more to return. One thing, at least, the most sceptical will allow—tastes and habits then were much simpler, and in many ways healthier, than they are now. As put by one of my aged informants, who was a boy in the village when the century began, "Fowk didna need a' the pleasures then that they need noo." But whether, as he maintained, "no half the mischief was dune then that is noo," and whether our fathers were better men than their children, are other questions open to both positive and negative replies.


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