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The History of Fettercairn
Chapter XXXVIII.—Anecdotes of Fettercairn Worthies


THERE is perhaps no part of Scotland where there is a keener perception of humour amongst not only the peasantry, but all ranks and conditions, than in the Mearns. Dean Ramsay gathered many of his best stories and illustrations of Scottish character from the immediate neighbourhood of Fettercairn; and Mr Inglis, the author of a more recently published book, has added to the collection of the famous Dean a number of the most amusing anecdotes pertaining to the same countryside. The proverbial surgical operation, supposed to be necessary for the. successful entrance of a joke into a Scotsman's head, does not apply here. The humour is unconscious in many cases, but that only goes to show that it is part of the typical "Man of the Mearns." It is a rare thing to find a Mearns man, in any sphere of life, who cannot see the point of a joke; and probably more of the humorous Scottish anecdotes now in print have originated in this district than in any other part of Scotland. The following, so far as the writer is aware, have not appeared before, and they pertain to Fettercairn and neighbourhood.

An amusing tale is told of John Gove at Phesdo. It was the custom on the occasion of any joyous event, such as a marriage, to keep up a running fire of a gun or cannon, which is one of the Scotch customs traceable to the French.

A marriage came off in John's family, and he being major-domo superintended the feu de joie. A heavy charge had been well rammed home, so as to make an extra loud report, and every one, including John himself, got well out of the way whilst the slow match was burning. There was-a terrific explosion, and on returning quickly to reload and have another, nothing was to be seen but shattered fragments of a once gun. John's only remark was, " Odd,. that's queer; I never saw ma old gun do the like o' that afore."

James Fearn was known for his ready wit; One dark stormy evening James, "o'er a' the ills o' life victorious," was trying to make his way home doon the Bog road. He had only a mile and a half to go, but the sharp turns and especially the narrowness of the road bothered him. For a time the hedges kept him on the track, but unfortunately in making a wild sheer to the right he happened to pass through an open gate into a field. Here he had scope-enough, and he soon lost himself in the darkness. When daylight broke he found the spot was a familiar one, and climbing the fence made straight for home. His spouse,. who had probably been "nursing her wrath," had by thi& time come out to look for him, and when they met angrily exclaimed, "Preserve me, man, hae ye been there oot a' nicht?"—"No, wumman, I was in a park," was his snappish answer.

Rob Jack, another character, who could not have conscientiously called himself a Good Templar, occasionally found himself in charge of a preserver of the peace. He had gone one day to the "ancient city," not many miles-off. In those days the shutters of the shop windows were-hung on hinges. They were swung back to the wall when. open, and made fast by a "sneck." A gust of wind undid a fastening as Rob was staggering along, and the hook of the shutter caught the collar of his coat. He fancied he recognised a familiar grip, and uttering a strong expletive he resignedly enquired, "At fa's instance noo!"

James Coullie, a millwright, better known as "fanners," was an amusing character. He and an ass, his faithful beast of burden, lived in the same cottage, with only a partition, which did not reach the ceiling, to separate them. One unlucky evening the cottage took fire and was burnt to the ground. James escaped but not the ass, and the late lamented was replaced by another. Some time after the catastrophe, which, as may be supposed, formed a topic of conversation for many a day, James was hailed by the genial Laird of Fasque, "Hullo, Coullie, is that the ass that was burned V9—"Eh na, Sir Alexander, it's nae the same ass ava." Strange to say the simple-minded man's reply caught on and became a sort of byword in the district.

Another oft-repeated byword arose from the following anecdote. On the ground now occupied by the village Hall stood a small house occupied by a " whip the cat" tailor who rejoiced in the name of Niddrie. His great boast was that he had never misfitted any of his customers. One day he had a wedding coat on hand, and some of his cronies suggested that it was only seemly that to prevent shrinking they should duly moisten a wedding garment, so they proceeded to the inn and had a good time. Tailor Niddrie returned to his labours, but somehow the chalk lines would not come out straight. His cronies chaffed him, suggesting an ugly misfit for once, but he replied, "Ou aye, maybe, but caulk's nae shears."

John Blank was a mason to trade and a great toper. One day when in his cups he was lying on a sofa in one of the rooms of the village inn, apparently asleep. Two customers dropped in to have a drink; one ordered a glass of beer, the other some lemonade. The sound of the lemonade cork awakened the sleeper, and rising up he stammered out, "Bring in a bottle o' lemonade to me too, lassie, an' lat's get begun on a new found." The same character in ordering his dram used invariably to ask for "a gill o' the very want, for the best was just a penny lost."

The following tale is illustrative of the ready wit of a different type of man, viz., the Scottish laird. No names need be given, but the story is as follows: A tenant farmer received a visit one day from the laird and his lady, and offered apologies once and again that there was not a single drop in the bottle by which he might show his hospitality. The visitors on taking their leave were kindly warned to be careful of the steps down from the front door, as there was no hand-rail; and seizing what he thought was a most favourable opportunity, the farmer pointed out that the steps were dangerous, and that he (the laird) might be so good as to order a rail to be put up. "They 're quite safe, so long as you keep your bottle dry," was the witty reply.

Francis Gove was one of a family of brothers who resided at Haughhead and Woodside sixty or seventy years ago, and was probably present on the festive occasion mentioned above when his brother John's cannon burst at Phesdo. Being one day in conversation with a neighbouring gentleman he told him in a most matter-of-fact way, "Maister Fawns, I tell ye I havena gotten a richt slockenin' or drink since the day o' ma brither Rob's funeral." Possibly he may be the originator of the story of the man who said "he couldna mind whether it was a bridal or a burial, but it was a very fine affair."

Lizzie Gove, Landsend, a relation of the above, was a very tall woman, about six feet in height. She turned up at the general store in the village one day to buy garden seeds, and amongst other things asked for peas, "no like those I got last year, which grew twice as high as mysel* and then turned down a bit." Another Lizzie, who shall be nameless, on hearing of the death of yet another nameless Lizzie, remarked that "The neebours will noo get peace that the auld thievin' banes o' her are at rest."

The late Sir John S. Forbes of Fettercairn had a keen appreciation of humour and used to tell a good story, many of which he picked up in the course of his kindly visits at the houses of the humbler classes. Calling one day on Eppie Bard, the widow of an old soldier, he enquired if her late husband had any old firearms. "Ou aye, Sjr John, but they're no muckle worth; I've' just an auld spindle for a poker, and the mou' o' an auld spade for a shuffel."

Willie Clark was an old character who lived at the " Townhead " and eked out a livelihood by doing odd jobs for very little pay. He was of a cheerful and contented disposition, and frequently remarked that "he had nae count and nae care, come evenin' come saxpence." He had never taken a wife, having carefully counted the cost. "It's very fine to get a wife to mak' your parritch, but then for that she sups the half o' them." Some time before he died a local evangelist called on a Sunday afternoon to read the Bible and pray with him. Next day the lady who sent to him his daily can of soup was told that a "gev guid man cam' to read to me, but I told him I was na' come to that wi'd yet. Dr. Forman did me far mair guid; he left me a saxpence i' ma snuff-mull. Ou aye, I 'm a heap better." Some of these old characters seemed to think that they were intended to live for ever, as in the case of a contemporary of Willie Clark's, an old crofter named Walter Strachan, who, at the age of upwards of ninety, asked the local tailor to measure him for a suit of clothes. He wanted something that would serve a few years for Sunday and then come in for " ilka day." This same Walter walked several miles to church one stormy Sunday when the roads were blocked with snow. Only a handful of village people had ventured out that day, and the story goes that shortly afterwards the minister seized an opportunity of shaking hands and commending the old man for his religious zeal. "To tell ye the truth, minister," said he, "I had run oot o' snuff, and I beit to come to the village to try and get a puckle, and as I was here at ony rate I thocht I would just come to the kirk by the bye. But I 'm no against gaen' to the kirk."

Johnnie Mathers, an old crofter residing in the south end of the parish, came to Mr Foote, who was then minister, announcing that his daughter was to be married. Mr Foote, knowing that the woman had passed the first blush of youth, replied, "I 'm glad to hear it, John; she '11 make a good sensible wife, and he 's a fortunate man who gets her."—"Well," says John, "I dinna ken about that. She's curst cankered, wonnerfu' warldly, and some religious too; but, sir, the spinnin' wheel is her salvation. For a' that, I'll gie her a braw marriage goun wi' several threeds o' silk in til't."

Another crofter who was regarded as a "character" was Johnnie Webster. He and his guidwife, Nell Dunn, resided at Landsend. Johnnie was a cobbler to trade; and on being asked why he had given up a good business for the uncertainty of a small croft, replied, "When I tak' a rest the awls tak' a rest too; but nowadays tho' I gang to sleep the corn keeps growin'." The Rev. Dr. Leslie of Fordoun, whose church Johnnie attended, one day intimated his parochial visitation from the pulpit, and having observed that Johnnie was not in his pew, sent him a note on the following day to let him know the day of his proposed visit to Landsend. On his arrival he found John at the plough; and a little nettled, no doubt, at the apparent lack of courtesy, the minister enquired, "Did you not get my letter, John?"—"Deed did I; a letter cam' but couldna read it, an' Nell Dunn, ma wife, couldna read it, an' I believe the deil himsel couldna read it." Then turning to his horse, "Come 'awther, Duncan." When quite an old man John had got a piecework job at thinning turnips from a farm overseer at Balbegno. His work did not quite satisfy his employer, so he was requested to be more careful. The warning had no effect, and the overseer said to him, "Webster, you'd better shouther your hou and tak' the road." "I'll go, Mr ------; but ye've nae business hoo I carry ma hou."

The next two anecdotes illustrate three different phases of character, and will close the chapter.

Jeanie Silver, a simple-minded but good creature, resided alone in one end of a cottar house at Muttonhole of Balbegno; and in her later years, during the early fifties, depended wholly upon Parish relief and charity. Being very fond of finery, her wealthier neighbours supplied her with cast-off articles of dress and millinery, which she utilised after a style of her own, and on Sundays appeared at church in headgear and feathers that attracted much attention. Dr. Robertson, the medical officer of the parish, called one day to see Jeanie, and in course of conversation remarked that her cat was a very nice animal. " Ou aye, sir," she replied, " it's a guidless ill-less beastie juist like yersel'."

Nancy------and Mary------lived but and ben from each other in the same house at the Townhead. The former was robust and energetic, with great force of character; the latter was hypochondriac and peevish, and by making the most of her ailments secured constant attention and charity from philanthropic neighbours. A lady who called at the door was met by the shrewd Nancy, and on enquiring "How's poor Mary to-day ?"—"Deed I canna tell ye; she aye tells sic a lang story, folk that have their wark to mind have nae time to speir. But ye may be sure she's aye ill, and sometimes waur; sae's a poor croakin' w'reng (wren)." Nancy, good old soul, worked till she could work no longer, and ultimately died in the poorhouse. At Mary's death there was found hoarded away in bags, stocking feet, and purses of all sorts, about one hundred and fifty pounds, mostly in silver coins of all dates from the time of Geo. III. The discovery of this hoard came as a surprise to Mary's neighbours, and caused some chagrin to the benevolent and the charitable, as well as a nine-days' subject of talk and gossip to the people of Fettercairn.

This History may be appropriately concluded by quoting, from Goldsmith's address to "Sweet Auburn," a few lines slightly altered to apply to Fettercairn, and thus express the.writer's feelings:—

Sweet Howe of Mearns and lovely Fettercairn!
Where health and plenty cheer the labouring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit pays,
And parting summer's lingering bloom delays;

How often have I paused on every charm,
The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm,
The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
The decent church that tops the neighbouring hill;

To me more dear, congenial to my heart,
Thy native charms, than all the gloss of art.


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