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Scenes and Stories of the North of Scotland
Chapter VI. - The Town of Thurso


Thurso is the most northern town on the mainland of Great Britain. The origin of the name I hold to be still uncertain, and am prepared to give my reasons. Will my readers join me in a short excursion into the region of etymology? There are two derivations given of the word Thurso—the one Scandinavian, the other Celtic. Naturally, I should prefer the former, but there are circumstances about the latter which stagger me. What are these rival views? Let me first present the case from the Norse aspect. The original form of the name, according to many, was Thorscici, that is, Thors act, which means Thors river. From the stream the name passed to the town, and thence in later times to the Bay. It thus appears that from a very early period the river and town were under the protection of Thor, the son of Odin the supreme being, and, therefore, the second in rank of the Scandinavian deities. Being the most valiant among them, he acted the part of defender and avenger of all the other gods. His great weapon was a mallet or hammer, which, as often as he discharged it, returned to his hand again. He also wore a girdle, which had the peculiar virtue of renewing his strength again when he was faint or weary. This was the tutelary deity of Thurso.

Now for the Celtic view of the question. The Gaelic name of Thurso is Bal-inver-Horsa, that is, the town of the river-mouth of Horsa, or sometimes simply Inver-Horsa, the river-mouth or landing place of Horsa. Now, Horsa is the name of a well-known Saxon warrior, who, along with his brother Hengist, defeated the Scots and Piets in a battle at Stamford in Lincolnshire. The question is, Had he ever any connection with Caithness ? Old chronicles say he had. The story goes that Horsa and Hengist, with the son and nephew of the latter, sailed north in forty ships, and overran Caithness-Further, it is said that a great battle between them and the natives took place somewhere in the county. At this point a curious little piece of evidence comes in. In an appendix to “Pennant’s Tour in Scotland in 1769,” the Rev. Alexander Pope of Reay, a great antiquarian, says that in his parish “ there is a place called Tout Horsa, or Horsa’s grave, where they say that some great warrior was slain and buried ; in the place is a great stone erected. Probably he was one of Horsa’s captains.5’ It is not easy to get over these names and statements; but I confess I should like to believe in the river-townof Thor.

The town was founded about the twelfth century, and was made a Burgh of Barony in 1633, by Charles the First. Several centuries ago, Thurso was a place of great commercial importance and carried on an extensive trade with Norway. Apparently King David believed in the honesty and justice of the Caithness people, for the weights and measures of the county were made the standard for all his kingdom. Here are the very words of the decree. By the “Ptegiam Majestatem,” chap. xiv., “It is statute be King David that ane comon and equal weicht quhilk (which) is called the weiclit of Cathness— pondus Cathanise—in buying and selling, sail be keeped and vsed (used) be all men within this realm of Scotland/' It is said that the standards so set up by law belonged originally and properly to the town of Thurso. Now-a-days the commerce of Thurso is of comparatively little account, and the transference of County Courts and like business generally to Wick has given the former capital a somewhat deserted, or, as the inhabitants might say, dignified air.

The town, fifty or sixty years ago, consisted of three main parts. Down by the river mouth and harbour lay a confused and crowded mass of poor dwellings, known as the “Fisher Biggings,” that is, buildings of a humble type. These were inhabited chiefly, as the name indicates, by fisher folks, with a sprinkling of the poorer class of labourers. Behind this lowly district and at some distance from the river and shore, was the commercial portion of the town, with the busy shops and comfortable dwellings of the merchant class. Behind these again, on yet more elevated levels, were the suburban residences of those who were credited with wealth or rank, among whom were bankers, lawyers, and county families. To put the matter plainly, the inhabitants consisted of first, second, and third class passengers on the journey of life. I have always thought of Thurso as a sort of modern and northern Capernaum. Down by the shore at the “Fisher Biggings” we might find toilers of the sea like the sons of Zebedee, and customs-men like Matthew the publican, while in the suburban homes might dwell wealthy Pharisees and Sadducees, and, let us hope, many liberal-minded philanthropists like the pious centurion. One thing more ere we pass from the town itself. It would be foolish in me to pronounce upon the rival merits of Wick or Thurso, for I hope to find readers in both towns. If you belong to the south of Scotland, you may understand their relations to one another when I say that Thurso is the Edinburgh and Wick the Glasgow of Caithness. A popular preacher some time ago very happily described the Scottish Capital as “an east - windy, west - endy” place. The description might very suitably be divided between the two northern towns, for if Wick is the east-windy, Thurso is the west-endy place. If the former is devoted to bustling commerce, the latter is a worshipper of

“That repose Which stamps the caste of Vere de Vere.”

Passing through the streets of Thurso, the visitor comes out upon an esplanade, built on the rocks which rise above the splendid sea-beach. Thence the view, northward across the Bay of Thurso to Holborn Head, and north-eastward across the Bay of Dunnet to the headland of the same name, can scarcely be surpassed on the Scottish coast. The Pentland Firth runs from point to point between the two bluff promontories, and toward the right the Orkney Islands close in the far horizon. On the western side of Hoy, the island nearest to Thurso, rises a remarkable thin pillar of rock, detached from the cliffs and rising high above them, to which the name of the “ Old Man ” has been applied.

“See Hoy’s Old Man, whose summit bare
Pierces the dark blue fields of air;
Based in the sea, his fearful form
Glooms like the spirit of the storm.”

The great double bay—some four square miles in area— is almost entirely open to the north, but the two headlands protect it from the east and west winds.

Strolling along the esplanade from the confines of the town, we reach the battered ruined remains of the Bishops palace on the crown of a rocky projection high above the beach. This was the official residence of Bishop John, the story of whose cruel death we shall tell in due course. At some distance beyond these ruins, the bay turns abruptly toward the north and embraces the roadstead and harbour of Scrabster, the former a favourite shelter for vessels and the latter a busy little port. Thence the cliffs rise rapidly upward till they reach the lofty elevation of Holborn Head, where the waters of the broad bay are merged in the open swirling sea of the Pentland Firth. At the headland itself, and for a long distance beyond, the cliffs are most precipitous, and assume very impressive and often fantastic forms. There are deep goes with overhanging walls, hollow sounding caves from which come the frequent thuds of waves, grotesque bridges below which we catch glimpses of the surging, moaning waters beyond, and deep pits, edged round by the grassy sod, in whose abysses the waters crawl about and gurgle without ceasing. Opposite a wide recess in the rocky walls, there stands a lofty detached rock called the Clett—its overhanging sides crowned with a flat bonnet of green and its tiers of ledges dotted all over with multitudes of white sea-birds. This imposing stack was, according to his own story, the scene of an extraordinary exploit on the part of a Thurso “character.” Whatever may be thought of the feat itself—we shall describe it by-and-bye—the scene of it was at least well chosen and quite sufficient for the purpose.

Such are some of the outward features of Thurso and the scenery in its neighbourhood. It is now my duty to deni with a very important matter affecting its reputation. The town has long lain under the burden of a singular and most serious reproach.

Now, as soon as I mention this subject, it is not at all unlikely that some of the modern inhabitants will at once be reminded of that noble and eloquent preacher, the Eev. Dr Thomas Guthrie, of Edinburgh, aye, and of world-wide, fame. About thirty years ago, that eminent man, in addressing a church gathering of some sort, stated that in the town of Thurso, and when he himself was preaching, he had seen 600 people asleep in church. A great storm, of which no warning was given in any forecast, burst over Scotland immediately after, and, as was natural, raged most severely in the northern counties. The newspaper offices, even of Edinburgh, felt its effects for weeks after. Some said that the Rev. Doctor, though of course ignorantly and unintentionally, had told what was simply untrue. Others stood up boldly for the substantial accuracy of his statement, but were quite willing to accept 5.99 as the actual number. On one point there was practical unanimity. There may have been 600 whose heads were bowed down during the discourse ; but that did not settle the important question whether they were or were not asleep. Personally, I am of opinion that the Doctor did not make sufficient allowance either for the reverent demeanour of northern church audiences generally, or for the weighty importance of the theme of discourse, or for the overpowering effect of his own eloquence. Surely—to take the last point alone—he should have been glad to see 600 heads of wheat bowed before the persuasive breath of his oratory, like golden grain before the wind. On the whole, I think the people of Thurso did not come off second best in the controversy; and, therefore, the reproach out of which it sprang is not the one to which I wish specially to refer. The great scandal affecting the good name of the town is at once more ancient and more serious.

The people of Thurso, according to popular tradition, are accused of having on one occasion boiled a Bishop, sometimes it is even said, their Bishop. This, if true, must be admitted to have been a horrible and sacrilegious crime. The charge is one which I must do my best to disprove and clear away before I can hope to enlist the interest or sympathies of my readers, even in the late posterity of such people. Let me at once begin with the frank ancl honest admission that within a few miles of Thurso not one but two Bishops on separate occasions came to a sad end. So much we concede freely, because we cannot do otherwise. I shall, however, show, easily and conclusively, that the people of the good town were not, in either case, the criminal parties. A simple recital of facts will show" how baseless is the charge, and I shall therefore narrate the two events as they occurred.

The first case dates back so far as the latter years of the twelfth century. At that time Harold, Earl of Orkney, was ruler over all Caithness, but King William the Lion requested and commissioned Reginald, sometimes called Rognvald, Lord of the Isles, to bring back the county to its allegiance by force of arms. The royalist expedition was, after a sore struggle, successful; and Reginald on departing left deputies to rule over Caithness in the King’s name. During that campaign Thurso had espoused the cause of the crown. Very soon after, Harold, who well deserved the name of the “wicked Earl Harold,"’ returned to Caithness with a strong force of Orkneymen and Norwegians, for the purpose of re-establishing over the county his own authority and rule. He landed at Scrabster, so that Thurso was naturally his first object of attack. The townspeople, in great alarm, applied to Bishop John, whose palace lay between the town and the invading army, to intercede on their behalf. The Bishop, espousing their cause, met the Earl face to face, and earnestly pled with him to extend mercy to the inhabitants. Harold was not a man at all likely to be moved by such an appeal. Instead of appeasing, it inflamed liis wrath, and the Bishop himself was made its first victim. The Earl, without a word of reply, ordered one of his followers, named Lomberd, to seize the prelate, cut out his tongue, and tear out both his eyes. The foul, dastardly deed was done, and the Bishop fell a martyr to his advocacy of the people’s cause. Immediately after, the Earl wreaked his vengeance on the town itself, and hung many of its chief inhabitants. Lomberd, who so cruelly killed the Bishop, was afterwards condemned by the Pope to undergo a frightful penance, but the Earl himself—the more’s the pity !—was never taken to task, and was at a later date actually forgiven by the King. In this instance at least it is clear that the people of Thurso were in no way responsible for the cruel murder of the Bishop, though their sad plight led to the commission of the crime.

In the second case, the inhabitants of Thurso, as such, were equally guiltless, though it is just possible that one or two natives of the town may have known too much of the crime. I shall even go the length of saying, that many of the Thurso people may have cried, “Served him right," when they heard of the victim's fate. The story is as follows. In the year 1222, Adam, Bishop of Caithness, occupied the Episcopal palace, which stood by the river of Thurso, five or six miles from the town. On the opposite bank of the stream, and crowning a picturesque rock, rose the strong and stately walls of the Castle of Brawl, originally spelt Brathwell, the residence at that time of John, Earl of Caithness. The Bishop was a rigid exactor of tithe, and, at short intervals, increased more and more liis demands upon the people. Among other things, he required of each family a certain quantity of butter, first from every fifteen cows, then, without abatement, from every twelve cows, and, finally, from every ten cows. As the demand, even in its original form, was sufficiently heavy and galling, this growing imposition exasperated the people, who appealed their case to the Earl at Brawl. At first he declined to interfere, or even to express any opinion; but at length he gave way to their urgent representations. Caring little for the Bishop or his claims, and worried by the clamour of the people, he testily exclaimed, “Devil take the Bishop and his butter; you may roast him if you please.” According to another version, the latter portion of his words was even less elegant than the above, namely, "Go and seethe him, and sup him, too, if you like.” The crowd understood the Earl’s vigorous language as a carte blanche permission to treat the Bishop as they pleased, and they acted accordingly. Proceeding to the palace across the river, and with cries of£C Roast him alive,” the mob surrounded the building. When a monk named Serlo came out to appease their rage, they attacked and despatched him on the spot. Next, the Sheriff of the county attempted to pacify them, but in vain. At length, the Bishop himself, in full sacerdotal costume, appeared, and on him their full fury burst. They seized him, and, according to one account, dragged him along by the hair, and beat him with sticks as they went. At length they conveyed him to his own large kitchen, where the fire had been abundantly replenished ; and there—they roasted him to death ! The chief actors in the tragedy are said to have been the family or followers of one John of Harpsdale, a township in the heights of the parish of Halkirk. Nothing can be said in defence or extenuation of so horrible an outrage, but at the same time we may, I think, draw one inference from the story. Considering the tremendous power of the Romish Church at that period, the Bishop’s conduct must, in more ways than one, have been irritating and exasperating, else no body of men would brave the consequences of such a deed to obtain deliverance from his tyranny. Still let us trust he was a good man after all. It has been said that everything suffers by translation except a Bishop. If that adage always holds true, we may hope that Bishop Adam did not suffer by his translation, though the manner of it was quite unique. So far as I am aware, no Bishop has ever resided in Caithness since these days ; and it may be well for any such, who must pass through the county, to make their stay as brief and unostentatious as possible. Some lingering drops of the old blood may even yet remain in the veins of the people. So it has often happened among the tribes and nations of men, for there is much truth in the doctrine of heredity. Has not the poet said,

“Thus fought the Greek of old,
Thus will he fight again;
Shall not the self-same mould
Bring forth the self-same men?”

It is surely not too much to hope that my readers do not now heed the cruel reproach against the people of Thurso. Much rather would I believe, or allow others to believe, in their drowsy propensities during divine service. Assuming, however, that all prejudice is removed, allow me now to offer some sketches, written and otherwise, of certain inhabitants of the town.

In Thurso, as in many similar communities, there existed what is commonly called a Dame’s School, which was maintained by public subscription. It met in humble, and by no means extensive, premises, and was attended by a fair number of the lasses of the town. The mistress was a vigorous, but somewhat eccentric, female, considerably past middle life. The ladies of the town took an active and practical interest in the little school, and frequently honoured it with a visit. On these great occasions, the mistress was in full feather, and put the frightened girls through their facings in grand style. The programme of proceedings usually began in the following remarkable and quite original fashion. The ladies were accommodated with seats on either hand of the teacher, while the girls, meek even to demureness, filled a front bench in the middle. Addressing the ladies, the mistress began by assuring them that her class was composed of the stupidest, laziest, most ill-mannered, and ill-behaved pupils she had ever known or even heard of. With a wealth and variety of language which I cannot emulate, she appeared to show conclusively what a ne’er-do-weel lot they were. Having thus unburdened her soul, and prepared the ladies to expect no trace of any excellence whatever, she turned to the trembling young creatures whom she had so abused, and, in an encouraging tone, exclaimed,

“Noo, lasses, stan’ up an’ mak’ yir mistress a leear.”

The girls rose at once in response to this call and did their best, at the command of their teacher, to show that she really deserved the odious character which she desired to have fastened upon her. This was the invariable introduction to the work of examination, which then proceeded with all briskness. How far it would prove successful in a modern Board School and before a Government inspector, I leave to the Educational Institute of Scotland to decide. If they choose to recommend the plan to teachers generally, it might lead to interesting results.

It is now time to introduce to my readers three famous “characters,” whose faces, figures, and frailties were well known in Thurso fifty years ago or more. As I am happily, or unhappily, too young to have seen any of them, my information regarding them is derived entirely from hearsay and may not be, in all points and absolutely, true to fact. At the same time I have endeavoured to do them no injustice whatever. Fortunately I am saved the trouble of attempting to describe their persons. The graphic pictures of each of the three worthies which adorn and enliven this chapter convey to the eye a faithful representation of what manner of men they were. The sketches from which these are taken were executed by a Thurso lady, a relative of my own, but were not secured without some difficulty. One at least of the gentlemen was as strongly opposed to any pictorial representation of his face and figure as any faithful Mahometan could possibly be, but I have reason to believe that a little pardonable bribery overcame his scruples. In each case the kitchen of Shrubbery Bank, Thurso, became the studio, and there the works were executed.

We shall begin with “Peelans,” or “Pillans,” whose lively likeness you will find on the opposite page. His proper name is said to have been John M‘Lean. He was, however, universally known by the nickname, that is, which I have given above, but the origin or meaning of which I am quite unable to explain. He does not appear to have been a native of Thurso, and is said to have come from the West Highlands. The M‘Lean country lay in the district of Morven and neighbouring' island of Mull.

In the case of “Peelans,” we have a traditional story as to the origin of his mental aberration. It is gruesome enough in all conscience. When quite a young boy he had been guilty of some petty theft. His father, to mark his righteous indignation, devised a most remarkable and reprehensible punishment. He filled a fish creel with a large number of frogs, well knowing that his son had a special abhorrence of these loathsome creatures. Into that creel, along with the frogs, he deposited his guilty son, and then deliberately set it on a lively fire. What the father intended the issue of that proceeding to be, we cannot say; but Peelans in some way or other escaped the sad fate of Bishop Adam. From that very hour, indignant and enraged, he quitted his father’s roof never to return. The incident quite unhinged his mind, and he became the strange, witless creature he ever after was.

No one who looks at his grotesque figure will wonder that his gait and attitudes were very peculiar. In his later days he often attracted attention by the oddity of his motions. In walking, he frequently came to an abrupt halt as if arrested by the sudden remembrance of something he had forgotten; he then stood for a few moments stock still with his feet widely apart, while his body bobbed up and down, up and down, in a jerking fashion, as if moved by some automatic mechanism.

Like many of his class, he often gave way to sullen and sulky fits. These were often produced by the unthinking, if not unkind, treatment which he received from pitiless neighbours. On one occasion he had been rudely handled by a herd boy. By way of revenge, which, unfortunately, could not affect the offender, he sat down bodily in a pool of filthy water, from which, for a length of time, no entreaties could induce him to arise. By-and-bye, a kindly Christian woman, taking pity upon him, lifted him up, and actually carried him off on her back. It is to be hoped that this benevolent action drew him out of his sulks.

At times his sullenness grew into positive and vindictive rage. His chief tormentors were boys, who delighted to annoy him in every possible way. The youth of the towns were most frequently the offenders, and sometimes, because of them, Peelans avoided Wick and Thurso for weeks and even months at a time. In dealing with his juvenile enemies, he used one peculiar formula on almost all occasions. In scornful tones he hurled at them the oft-needed advice, “ Go to school, Johnnie, boy.” When stung into fury, he made powerful and effective use of a sturdy stick which he always carried as a weapon of defence. Those who had once felt its force seldom did anything which might provoke a second blow. On one occasion he appears to have used it, without any due provocation, in a wantonly wicked and cruel fashion. At a country fair, he came in contact with a woman named Elizabeth, whom he struck so violently, as to leave her wounded and bleeding. No one seems to have known the cause of this assault. A number of men gathered around and upbraided him for his cruel and cowardly act. In a fawning, mock-humble fashion, Peelans could only plead, “Och! wha is’t but ‘dulskey Leezag’?” The latter word was a familiar form of Elizabeth, and the “dulskey” was an allusion to her avocation. She went about the country selling dulse, a sea-plant of not unpleasant edible properties. Thus Peelans expressed his contempt for the woman, perhaps because of her sex, perhaps because of her humble occupation, perhaps because of both.

Failing his trusty stick, anything came handy to him for purposes of aggression. In days when newspapers were less common than they now are, two neighbours had a certain journal which passed regularly between them. A youth asked permission to go for the paper to one of the houses. He knew that Peelans was there, and probably sought to get some fun out of him. He found his intended victim lying on a “shake-down” before the fire behind the “hallan” or “hallan stane” which sheltered the hearth from the draft of the door. On the entrance of the boy, Peelans at once suspected that he had to do with one of his traditional enemies, and slily took the initiative in hostilities. Rising from his resting-place, and stooping down under pretence of putting on some article of clothing, he lifted a large “tusker” peat of the hardest material, and, with the usual exclamation, “Go to school, Johnnie, boy,” hurled it at the lad’s head. Fortunately he missed his aim, and the peat striking the opposite wall broke into a wide-spreading cloud of dust. The good woman of the house was horrified, but not a little thankful that the missile had not reached its intended victim.

Notwithstanding these unfavourable traits in his character, Peelans appears to have had some good inclinations in the direction of religion. Many pious people thought him nearer to the kingdom than others who made sport of his mental infirmity. Peelans carried no purse nor scrip, but these good folks treated him kindly, and generously supplied his wants. He never sat down to any food provided for him without devoutly saying his “grace before meat.” The wording of this devotional exercise was most remarkable and mysterious. One who has frequently heard it has kindly supplied me with the following phonetic rendering: "Los mas boce, jeea; ooas, God ambean; Los mas boce, jeea.” When very hungry, and anxious to attack the viands before him, he used the shortened form, “Los mas boce, jeea; ooas God ambean.” If any of my readers can interpret these words, I shall be glad to be furnished with a translation. I hope I shall offend no one by suggesting that they look like Gaelic. On other occasions, 'Peelans used a short but intelligible prayer, which ran thus: “God made me, an’ God save me—a poor ketar,” that is, creature. Surely these words resemble the brief petition of the publican, “God be merciful to me the sinner.” Let us hope they were uttered in a like spirit, and with a like result.

Peelans lived in the days of the first Napoleon, when volunteering was the order of the day all over Britain, even in the far north. Many of the landed proprietors and wealthier farmers took a lead in the movement. They and their sons became officers in the various companies. The drilling of recruits went on actively all over the county ; and whenever Peelans could be present on such occasions, he was a deeply interested spectator. Martial dress and music had a peculiar fascination for him, and at times his enthusiasm knew no bounds. Most faithfully did he endeavour to imitate their various motions, and his attempts awakened no little hilarity among both officers and men.

Of all the military exercises, the practice of shooting-interested him most, and his delight at times amounted almost to frenzy. On one occasion Peelans was on the drill field, and at a critical moment shouted out, “Present —cock—fire!” The men in the ranks mistook his voice for that of their Captain, and at once obeyed the command. They soon discovered how and by whom they had been deceived. Whether they were taken upon discipline for this breach of order we are not informed. One thing is certain ; they were known for many a long day as “Peelans5 squad.” It is also said that in drinking bouts, the reproach of that name often led to high words, and sometimes even to bloodshed.

By those who knew his military ardour, Peelans was often asked to “call the roll." It afforded a trick which was sometimes played off on those who were not aware in what fashion he performed the duty. When the centre of a little company, some one would suggest, “Peelans, call the roll." The would-be officer at once responded, and his modus operandi was as follows :— He began by lifting his stick and bringing it down vigorously on the head or any other accessible part of the unfortunate individual nearest to him. This was an authoritative beginning, and afforded no little merriment to all except the poor victim. He then proceeded to call over a list of what sounded like names, but no one could ever make anything of them. If the confused syllables represented any persons whatever, no one could ever discover who they were. They might certainly absent themselves from the muster and have no fear of being called to account. Another strange character in Thurso was one Davie Pugg. Sometimes he and Peelans met in the same house. When this occurred, Pugg was in the habit of saying to the master or mistress, "Gie 5im a piece; Lord help 5im; he5s a feel," that is, a fool. Many who knew them both were of opinion that Davie was himself the bigger fool of the two. As I have heard little of Pugg, I have no means of judging between them.

Another of the notable characters of Thurso was “Moozie,” or more fully, “Johnnie Moozie,” whose portrait faces this page. His real name was John Henderson, but he had quite a number of nicknames, such as “Glossey,” “Starney,” “Buckteeth,” and “Rotten Legs.” He was a married man, but little is now known of his family history. He was called “Moozie” from a cause which it would not be for edification to mention. The sketch given is a faithful reproduction of his personal appearance. Every one can see at a glance how odd was his figure and how comical his costume. Moozie had a multiplicity of offices and occupations. He was church - officer and bellman, gravedigger, town crier, officer of court, door-keeper at public meetings and entertainments, confidential messenger on all sorts of errands, and a “generally useful ” person in many other ways,

Moozie was certainly most eccentric in character, but he was no fool in the ordinary acceptation of that term. He was shrewd and witty, and if his blunders were often comical, they were not due so much to any deficiency of intellect as to simple want of thought. In many cases his errors arose from the fact that he had never received a sound education.

One characteristic, not usually to be found in those of weak mind, was his strict fidelity and honesty. Because of this merit, he was often employed on errands of trust. One of the Thurso bankers at times sent him all the way to Inverness with considerable sums of money. Here are some of Moozie’s reminiscences, given, I believe, very nearly in his own language, of two of these journeys. The first story is very brief—

“I hed often to go wi’ money from the bank til Inverness, an’ I traivelled on foot all the wey. Ae time, when sittin’ on a hillag atin’ something, Davie Marshall (a noted robber) cam’ til me an’ said, ‘ Ye hev money in ’at bag.’ I said, “Yes,” ’an I laid doon ma pistals aside it. I wis feared he micht tak’ ’e money, but he gaed awa withoot touchin’t.”

The next is a longer story.

“Ae time Maister Henderson (the banker) sent for me. I wis livin’ then at Thirsay (Thurso) east. He said til me, * John, you must go to Inverness with money to-day. Get ready as quick as ye can and mind to go with daylight and take up )?our lodgings when night comes on.’ I wis busy wi’ some wark at hame so I wis in nae hurry startin’. He ca’ed at ’e hoose an’ wis vera angry for me stoppin’ sae lang. I got ’e wallat frae ’im wi’ ’e money. There wis fine snaw an’ frost at ’e time an’ bonnie mune licht. I sterted in ’e efterneen an’ when I cam til Achkeepster Inn I thocht at first I wud pit up ’ere. Bit when I lookit oot an’ saw ’e nicht sae clear, I says til masel, ‘ Gad, I’ll go on.’ When I cam til ’e burn o’ Rangag, I laid doon ma wallat an’ boo’ed doon til tak’ a drink. I notticed twa men on ’e aff side —ane on horseback an’ ’e itlier on feet. I cried * Wha’s ere ? ’ but nae answer. I cries a second time, * Wha’s ’ere ? ’—still nae answer. I taks oot ane o’ ma pistals an’ fires her. They said, ‘ Man, are ye mad ? ’ ‘ Na,’ says I, ‘ I’m nae mad, bit ye’re mad. Whey wadna ye answer a buddy whan lie cried ? This ane brunt primin, but, faith, gin I lied ta’en ’e ither, she wadna miss’d.’ AVlian they cam’ across ’e watter I saw ’at ’it wis a gaeger an’ ’e superveesor. They lied been aff scoorin’ ’e country in search 0’ smugglers. I didna ken bit they micht be robbers an’ as I wis trusted wi’ ’e money I wad hae a fecht afore I wad lose it.”

As an evidence of his employment as door-keeper at entertainments, it may be sufficient to quote the following quaint couplet referring to some such occasion,

“There was a ball in Murray’s hall, got up by Suuffy Diddle;
Ringie Moozie kept the door, an’ Sooky Almon’ played the fiddle.”

Moozie of course was called “Ringie” because of his office as bellman. As to the other elegant personal allusions in the lines, it is perhaps as well that I cannot explain them. Still, it is possible that even at this time of day they may be understood by some local parties.

As already mentioned, “Buckteeth” was one of Moozie’s nicknames. It was evidently an allusion to his prominent and even protruding front teeth. Johnnie did not like the epithet and frequently resented its application. On one occasion, while standing in a grocer’s shop in Thurso, a woman said to him, “Johnnie, why do they ca’ ye Buckteeth? Ye hae as bonnie teeth as ither folk.” Moozie’s cunning answer was, "Wumman, I hae something mair extrordnar than ’at. I hae hair growin’ in ma mooth, ’an if ye pit yer finger in, ye’ll feel’t.” The silly woman did as she was bidden. Moozie bit her finger almost to the bone, and then said with a satisfied grin, ££ Gad, ’at ’ill learn ye no til ca’ me

Buckteeth again.” Most likely she profited by the lesson.

In Johnnie Moozie’s days, the “cutty stool” was still used in church as a means of punishment for those guilty of offences against chastity. It was his duty to arrange the sackcloth and stool on such occasions, and he was always strict and often severe in the discharge of his functions. In one instance a woman was the unfortunate offender with whom he had to deal, and she proved rather refractory. Johnnie set her up to stand on the stool but while he was occupied with some detail of the ceremony, she slipped down and stood upon the floor. Again he ordered her to mount the place of penitence, and again, when his back was turned, she descended from the perch of shame. This contumacy fairly roused Moozie’s anger, and in a voice which was heard by most of those present in church, he thundered out the command,

“Get up, ye--, an' stan5 on’t, an’ if ye dinna stan’,
I’ll bin’ (bind) ye on’t, for weel dis yir sins deserv’t.”

If Moozie lived in our day, I am not sorry to say that as regards these duties he would find his occupation gone, like many another relic of barbarism.

At times Moozie came off second best in his dealings with offenders. It seems there was a sort of lock-up in Thurso for mischievous boys, and Johnnie was the warder. He rather enjoyed the process and privilege of shutting up these juvenile criminals under lock and key in that chamber of durance vile. One day, however, the boys turned the tables on him; they were literally too many for their gaoler. When he entered to give them some food, they fell upon him in a body, bound him with ropes, and laid him groaning and moaning upon the floor. To make all secure, they locked the door behind them and made their escape with all possible speed. At length Moozie’s shouts for help were heard, and after some time and trouble he was released from bondage.

It has been mentioned that Moozie was sexton of the parish. In this capacity it does not appear that he gave entire satisfaction. On one occasion a poor widow complained to the minister—the Rev. Mr Macintosh—that she had been overcharged for the expenses of her husband’s funeral. The amount demanded by Johnnie was seven shillings and sixpence. When the minister stated the widow’s complaint, and asked for an explanation, Moozie was indignant, and by way of self-defence asked Mr Macintosh some questions. “Did she tell ye ’at ’e grave was dug six feet instead o’ five?” “No, John,” said the minister, “she did not.” “Did she tell ye she had *e eess (use) 0’ ’e murt-cloth? ”—a black pall thrown over the coffin. The minister had again to confess she had not. “’Ats ’e wey, Maister Macintosh, ’e d--set ’ill come til ye wi’ their blue cloaks an’ white mutches. Ye’ll gie them tea an’ a’ ’e rest o’t, an’ they’ll tell ye a lot o’ d- lees.” The minister rebuked him for his profane language, but Moozie evidently could not control himself, for he replied, cc Gad, it wad mak’ a sa’nt sweer. ’E grave wis dug six feet instead o’ five — that’s sax shillins; an’ ’e eess o’ ’e murt-cloth wis eichteen pence.”

Apparently there was no reply to that statement of the account.

At certain seasons Moozie wrought alone; with others in the field work of the manse glebe. Toward the close of a day’s work, the minister came with a bottle of whisky and gave a glass to each of the men. When all these had been supplied, Johnnie asked the Rev. gentleman, “Are ye no til gie a dram til ’e weemen?” “No,” said the minister, “the women don’t drink.” Johnnie met this statement by way of analogy. “Is ’at what ye say? Eh, ’e dukes ’ill drink as weel’s ’e drakes.” Probably the minister did not consider that style of argument sufficient in such a case.

Moozie, being bellman of the Kirk, was also town crier. Let me give a specimen or two of the manner in which he discharged that important public function. In one case he was commissioned to make the following announcement by hand-bell throughout the town: “Mr--of — will deliver a Lecture this evening on Geography and Biography.” Moozie proceeded to discharge his duty, and at every customary corner in the streets rung his bell vigorously, and proclaimed aloud, “ Mr--of —

ill deliver a Lecture this evening on Gography and Bography.” At another time, some one, as a practical joke, paid him his usual fee of sixpence, and sent him out with the following notice: “Lost, last night, an empty pock fu’ o’ sawt (salt). Any person bringing the said pock to me will be liberally rewarded for their trouble.” At one point in his journey, a passer-by remonstrated with him as to the nature of his announcement. “Johnnie, what nonsense is that? How can the pock be empty and full of salt?” Moozie at once replied, "Weel, I noor (never) thoclit o’ ’at; but deil cares, 1 hae ’e saxpence.” He probably went on his way to accomplish the usual round.

Probably Moozie’s most important office—next, at least, to that of bellman—was officer of court. His discharge of the duties, however, was often marked by eccentricities and blunders. In one particular ease—I cannot tell its nature—a man, whose name was Sullivan Keith, was required to appear in Court. The names were apparently unfamiliar to Johnnic, but, of course, he would on no account confess ignorance, or even seem to be beaten. As he must needs cry out some names, he hit upon a happy paraphrase, and with dignity exclaimed, “Silver Teeth, to answer at the instance of so and so. Silver Teeth, once; Silver Teeth, twice; Silver Teeth, thrice. He’s not in the house, my Lord.”

I have one more incident in the life of Moozie to record. In these days the punishments inflicted on thieves and other criminals were often remarkable. Sometimes they were condemned to be “tied to a cart’s tail,” and flogged through the streets of the town. In a certain ease of the class mentioned, this peculiar sentence was pronounced, and then the presiding Justices had to face the question who should be deputed to do the flogging. The Laird of Freswick, who was a Sinclair, and who delighted to recount Moozie’s many titles, said, “ Moozie will whip him.” One of the other justices who knew, or pretended to know, very little of Johnnie, at once asked, “Who is that?” By way of mischief and fun, Freswick varied the name. “Glossey will whip him.” Still the justices professed ignorance of the individual proposed, so Sinclair gave them a still further choice of the names of his nominee, “Starney, Buckteeth, Rotten Legs, Johnnie Henderson, Moozie will do it.” By this time there was no possibility of mistake. Johnnie, who was present all the while, was at length asked if he would consent to perform the official duty, but, being indignant with the liberties taken with his name, at once replied, “Na, na, I’ll no feep (whip) ’im. The Sinclairs hae hed ’a ’e honours in Caitness ’is mony a day, ’an ’ey can tak’ ’at wi’ ’e lave.” This biting retort upon the Laird of Freswick caused no little amusement, and as a reward, a gentleman named Henderson gave Moozie a sovereign to drink his health. Johnnie would no doubt receive the gift with thauk-fulness. Who was ultimately induced to execute the sentence, I do not know. It may be safely taken for granted, however, that the Laird of Freswick, like Moozie himself, would decline the honour.

The third and most orieinal of all the Thurso "characters” was Neil Mackay, whose by-name was “Boustie.” He does not appear to have been a native of the town ; perhaps he came from the Reay country, the home and territory of the clan whose name he bore. Why he was called “Boustie,” it is impossible to affirm with any certainty. The most probable suggestion is that the name was originally “Boastie,” and was intended to describe his braggart character. He had several other

nicknames, such as “Bushans,” “Bushey Neilie,” and “Mally sookit ’e coo.” The last of these was, I fear, the property, strictly speaking, of his wife, but was on a well-known principle of matrimony applied also to the husband.

As to his personal appearance, I refer my readers to his portrait, for which he consented to sit, or rather stand, after much persuasion both in the shape of argument and money. His figure was erect and not wanting in a certain rude dignity. His nose was decidedly prominent, and his under-lip often hung down like the mouth of a cream jug. His eyeballs rolled about restlessly and were raised upward beneath their eaves when narrating his biggest fibs, as if appealing to high heaven for their truthfulness.

As has already been said, no one knows whence or when he came to Caithness, though the general belief is that he was a native of the West Highlands. According to common tradition, he was first seen in the neighbourhood of Holborn Head, but how, whence, or why he came thither, is an insoluble mystery. One story is that he fell down from the sky like a meteor, but no one could ever find anything about his person or character to support any such view. If an angel, he was certainly a fallen one. He had without doubt not a little affinity of moral sentiment with the father of lies. According to another account, he came to the Caithness coast on an emigrant vessel, from which he somehow made his escape either of his own accord, or when she was wrecked. Yet another tradition is that he spent part of his early life as a mason’s labourer in Edinburgh. It is further supposed that he there acquired those aristocratic airs which often astonished the simple townspeople of Thurso, and even tickled the fancy of his more cultured and high caste acquaintances.

One of Boustie’s most marked characteristics was his intense and peculiar pride. He believed himself to be a bom aristocrat, and it was one of the motive forces of his life to maintain and act up to that high dignity. In the matter of charity, this feature always came prominently to the front. He never would accept of any gift or alms as an ordinary beggar or in an ordinary way; in fact, he would scorn to stoop so low. But those who knew him well were aware of this peculiarity, and found out how it might be overcome to the satisfaction of all parties. If the gift were presented as the return of a loan, Boustie would willingly and with dignity consent to accept payment. Let the giver say with polite deference, “Mr Mackay, here is the sixpence I borrowed from you a week ago.” Boustie would pocket it at once, very often adding the remark, "Yes, an’ it’s time it wis paid too.” The late Mr Dunbar of Scrabster often slipped something into his hand when he thought no one was likely to notice. One day a few young men, suspecting that Boustie had got some money from his benefactor, cried to him, “Boustie— beggary! beggary!” “Mr Mackay ” at once drew himself up proudly, and replied, “Naething o’ ;e kind ; it’s a shillin’ I lent ’im whan he wis buy an’ fish at ’e fish-stane.” At times, perhaps when he was in straits, Boustie ventured to give a hint to his wealthier friends, but the hint also ran along the familiar lines. If he saw any lady or gentleman buy something, fish or any similar article, he would stand quietly by until the bargain was completed and the money paid. Then, supposing it were a gentleman, Boustie would mutter in a gentle aside, as if addressing himself alone, “It wad set (become) him far better ’e pay me fat (what) he borrowed ’e last year.” He then went on his sorrowful way to moralise upon the ingratitude and dishonesty of mankind. These little ways of showing his proud nature pleased him, and did no harm to any body.

Soon after coming to Thurso, Boustie took unto him a wife. She was a woman named Mally Forsyth, who, though good looking, was of weak intellect like himself. She died long before him, and her funeral was a remarkable occasion in his history. It is a strange comment on human nature to observe how certain persons acquire great importance in their own eyes if they are the chief actors in proceedings connected with death or burial. The prominence which they necessarily assume, the sympathy and consideration extended to them, the superior dress they wear on such occasions : all these combine to raise them in their own estimation, and to induce them to put on airs which at other times they would never think of displaying. Before alluding to this feeling as shown in his own peculiar fashion by Boustie, let me confirm what I have said by an instance from another quarter of the country. In a Scotch lowland town there lived a woman of weak intellect who imbibed the notion that several gentlemen were greatly taken with her charms. One of her supposed admirers was a clergyman in the town, who, however, disappointed her by marrying another. A few years afterwards he died. On the occasion of his funeral, the poor creature referred to stood among a group of spectators as the cortege passed through the streets, and she was observed to be weeping. When some one asked her the cause of her tears, she, with much apparent emotion, replied, “If it hedna been for ma mither, I micht hae been the widow the day.” The lot of the real widow on that occasion was in her opinion one to be envied.

Well, something of the same strange feeling seems to have possessed Boustie on the occasion of his wife Mally’s funeral. Being the aristocrat he was, he was resolved to appear to the very best advantage at so important a public ceremony. There were not wanting in Thurso those who were quite disposed to humour him to the top of his bent in such a matter. A few of the tailors in town resolved and offered to rig him out in becoming fashion for the ceremony. Little suspecting their waggish intentions, he gratefully accepted their services. I am sorry I cannot fully describe the striking costume which was the fruit of their labours, but I can mention one or two of the articles. Among county gentlemen and other persons of quality, tall white felt hats were fashionable at the time, so, to make him equal with his peers, one of these dashing head-pieces was provided for Boustie. They further adorned it with long, profuse bands of crape, whose folds hung far down his back. So attired, he followed Mally’s remains to the graveyard, with a solemn and haughty dignity which could not have been exceeded had he been the Earl of Caithness or the Chief of his own famous clan.

If his name was given him because he was a boaster, it was most appropriate, for this at all events is certain, that he was habitually guilty of extravagant lying and bragging. He detailed his own exploits with the utmost calmness and solemnity. They never appeared to him in the least degree improbable, unreal, or untrue. The biggest lie which his brain could invent, he told with the most innocent and guileless of all looks. As few who heard cared to question his wonderful tales, he resented the slightest sign of incredulity on the part of a listener.

As one of his minor exploits—in fact, scarcely worth mentioning—he often told how he had, without any assistance, built a bridge over the water of Forse in the darkness of a single night. Surely this, small though it be, compares well even with the labours of Hercules. The mighty deed was done as a service to his good friend, Mr Sinclair of Forse, and became necessary because of some dispute with Mr Innes, the laird of Sandside. As this was quite a trifling event, of which I have not heard all the details, we shall pass on to exploits which were obviously designed on a much more imposing scale.

One of these was a great feat, the scene of which lay on Holborn Head. We have already spoken of the Clett, a massive stack standing out in the northern sea at a distance of perhaps 80 yards from the main wall of cliffs. Few have ever been found who could throw a stone from the rock-heads on to its summit. But the distance was nothing to Boustie. He most solemnly declared that he had once, holding a sack of meal in his teeth, leapt clean over from the headland on to the Clett and landed safely on its crown. He might there sing with Robinson Crusoe, though Juan Fernandez was somewhat larger,

“I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.”

But Boustie had no intention of taking up his abode on the Clett; he might even roll off in his sleep. The return, however, was more difficult and must be described, as nearly as may be, in his own words. “I couldna get a rinnen’ leap, but whan half wey ower, I gied anither spring and landed on Hobran Heed.” Apparently some sceptical person had expressed a doubt as to whether such a feat was practicable, for Boustie sometimes explained the matter in another fashion. According to this variety of the story, our hero watched his opportunity, and when a mighty eagle was sailing across between the stack and the land, he leapt on its back, and when carried over the brow of the cliffs, dropped from his wonderful saddle safely to the ground. Such were the two accounts. If any persons were disposed to question either version, they were welcome to accept the alternative form. No one will doubt tlie truth of the second account who remembers a similar exploit on the part of Sinbad the Sailor, in whom we have all believed since our early days.

According to his own story, for which there is possibly a foundation in fact, Boustie had been at one time a sailor. His adventures at sea were very remarkable, especially as these were narrated by his own lips. One who knew him well has supplied me with the following story which is as nearly as possible a reproduction of his own lano'uao-e. I might run the risk of marrino the simple truthfulness which appears upon the very surface of the account, if I were to attempt any paraphrase. Please allow me a word upon the Caithness dialect. It is almost universally cut off, so that that becomes ’at, the becomes ’e. Til (which for distinction I spell with one T) is always used for to ; and readers will notice a strong tendency to cut short many of the words.

Well, a certain person met Boustie one day, and after salutation said, “ You’re looking very well to-day, Mr Mackay ; I hope you will have a long life yet.” Boustie was in good humour, and very soon launched out upon his sea adventures. “ Oh no, jewel, I’m a vera old man now, an’ ’am sairly bathered wi’ ’e rout. (I presume that means asthma, or difficulty in breathing.) I wis a sailor aince, jewel; I wis eichteen year at sea, an’ three year o’ ’at I nivver saw day-licht. I wis wi’ Cappin Manson—as guid a sailor as ever set feet on sawt watter. Bit ae day a terrible storm cam’ on, an’ Cappin Manson sed til me, ‘ Hae, ye black souroo (devil), tak’ ’ir (the ship) an’ do wi’ ’ir fat ye like for ’am dune \vi’ ’ir.’ So I pit e’ men under hatches, an’ lasli’t masel til ’e helem. I steered ’ir intil a place ’at ’ey ca’ Bell Pint. ’Ere wis a lot o’ cappins o’ cod-bangers on shore, an’ ’ey ’a kent Cappin Manson. Ane o’ ’em sed til ’im, ‘ Dear me, Cappin Manson, hoo did ye mak’ ’d oot. We nivver thocht ’at ye wad mak’ ’d oot.’ ’E Cappin said, ‘ I hev nae credit for’t; it wis ’at auld black souroo ’at did it.’ Bit it wis a terrible cowld place, jewel. It wis ’at cowld ’at ma feet wis frozen til ’e deck, an’ I lied til rin an’ get bilin’ watter til lowse ’em.” Such were some of Boustie’s adventures on what a northern minister once pathetically called “ the wet and stormy ocean.”

The Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843 and the formation of the Free Church as a body without State connection or endowment gave rise to keen excitement. Many good people hesitated for a time whether to remain in the Established Church, or “go out,” as it was called, with the Free. Boustie was present at a small but influential meeting in the “Auld Kirk,” at which a few gentlemen were to discuss their own duty in the matter. Here is Boustie’s account, but how far it is absolutely true in fact and description it is now impossible to say. He was himself a loyal adherent of mother Church, so it is not likely that he would make things very much worse than they were. On entering the house of an acquaintance on some errand, he was asked where he had come from. In reply he said,

“I wis at a meetin’ in ’e Kirk. C--D- was ’ere, W--M-, B-Street, J-G--, ’e skeel-maister, ma friend B-frae Sharney Hillag. Maister D--, daeeent, godly man, wis ’ere too, an’ masel. ’E question wis, whether wid we leave ’e ’Steablish’d Kirk or stick by 5ir. Nane o’ ’em spak’ for a while. At last Maister D--, daeeent, godly man, brocht ’is han’ down wi’ a thump on ’e table an’ said, ‘ G--d--it, what will we do bit stick by ’e ’Steablish’d Kirk. There wis a ’Steablished Kirk afore ’e world was, and ’ere’ll be ane efter she’s dune.” Of course I could give the whole of the names of which the initials are given, but I have come as near to the personal as courtesy will permit. To do less would spoil my story.

In his later years Boustie was greatly alarmed by the proposal to erect gas works in Thurso. He was convinced that the town would be ruined, and all the inhabitants killed, by some dreadful explosion. Though at that time about ninety years of age, he proved the sincerity of his fears by travelling to Wick to consult a lawyer on the subject. His object was to obtain an interdict against the progress of the works, but he was not successful. He lived in Thurso for years after in perfect safety.

We have still one other feature in Boustie’s character to notice, and must narrate a strange adventure to which it gave rise. It must be admitted that in one direction at least he was a notorious thief. Peats were the chief objects of his covetous thoughts and deeds ; and his humble dwelling was at times so full of them that it was almost impossible to move about on the floor. Of course he had too much self-respect to steal openly or in broad day-light. Under cover of night however, he sallied forth with a large sack, and helped himself liberally from his neighbours’ stacks. This thievish propensity led him on one occasion into a strange adventure. It was about the time when all Scotland was ringing with the murderous deeds of Burke and Hare, who slew many a victim in the West Port of Edinburgh, and disposed of their bodies to the doctors for purposes of dissection. A few young fellows in Thurso, out on the spree and ready for any lark, detected Boustie filling his sack at a peat-stack, and resolved to play a practical joke at his expense. Catching the guilty creature in the very act, they emptied the sack of its contents and packed Boustie himself inside, in spite of all his protests and resistance. As this process was going on, they audibly whispered to one another that they would carry him off to Dr Laing and get a good round sum for his carcase. Of course they fully intended their victim to hear this proposal and decision. Poor Boustie trembled all over with fright, but what could he do? Struggle as he might, he was now helpless in their hands. All this time the young men knew well that the much-esteemed doctor was that evening a guest at a fashionable party in town. Lifting upon their shoulders the sack containing their prize, they went direct to the scene of festivity, where they no doubt hoped and intended to create some sensation. On arriving, they stuck the sack up on its end against the jamb of the door, and then rung the bell. Betaking themselves to a little distance, they awaited the result with lively interest. When the servant opened, the sack, with its shivering occupant, fell inwards on the lobby floor, and Boustie, with much difficulty, wriggled his head out of the folds of the mouth. At once dreading the worst that had been threatened him, he apostrophized the doctor in frightfully profane language, ----Lingie, ye--, if ye pit yir han on me it'll be the blackest job ever ye did in yir life.” Becognising his own name even in its vulgarised form, the doctor, with many of the company, rushed into the lobby and at once discovered the cause of the disturbance, Boustie’s sad plight was the liveliest incident of the evenings enjoyment, and—better still—it cured him of the evil habit of peat-stealing.

Poor Boustie died about the year 1849 as the result of an accident. Being struck by the shaft of a cart and crushed between the wheel and a wall, he sustained injuries from which lie never recovered. He was the chief of our three “worthies,” and appears to have been a favourite with everybody in Thurso.


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