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Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
The Laird's Loft


GREAT PRIDE OUGHT EVERY SCOT TO have in the village of his birth, and to the auld-farrant, steep-braed village of Kilbarchan my mind and heart go back whenever I think of the laird's loft.

The old parish kirk stands still at the bieldy back of the town, with the graves of gentles and simples all about it. But it is stripped of all its ancient glory, for a brand-new house of God has been built but a stone's-throw from it; and as I look at the kirk of 1724, with its quaint tower, its old ivy-covered outside stair, and its little-paned windows winking in the sun, I am minded that this is the true successor of that cell of St. Barchan, Bishop and Confessor, which Walter Fitz-Alan, High Steward of Scotland, gave to the Abbey of Paisley in the days which are now hiding ahint a whole gowpen of centuries.

In this old kirk, with its ancient pews and galleries, the thing that struck the eye of childhood was the ken-speckle wooden shields, emblazoned with the arms of the great families of the district. These shields were hung over the front of the three galleries, where the local lairds had their seats. I can see them yet, after all these years, in this and in many another old country parish kirk in Scotland—the great wide, room-like gallery pew, with table and chairs all set out in a row, and a little door at the back of the loft where the Lord of the Lairdship could enter and leave with his family whenever he liked. To that door at the back of the laird's loft the little stone iron-railed outside stair led up, and close by the found of the stone stair in the kirk-yard was the laird's own family vault, so that when he climbed the stair to his own loft on a Sunday he was aye minded of man's mortality, and of his own in particular.

For there were many namely lairds who sat in the lairds' lofts in the old kirk of Kilbarchan: the Knoxes of Ranfurly, out of whose ancient family came John Knox himself, the great Reformer of the Kirk, and Andrew Knox, who took the other side, and became a Bishop of the Isles; the Dundonald family, with the Hamiltons of Holmhead and Crawfords of Auchinames; Napiers of Milliken, of the old stock of Napier of Merchiston, famed as landed gentry from the time of Alexander the Third, and in later days for logarithmic inventions ; Wallace of Elderslie; Houston of Johnstone; Cunninghame of Craigends—all the seancient lords and lairds in olden times had their faith confirmed in Kilbarchan kirk, and hung their escutcheons over the front of their lofts in the old galleries. To the bairns of a past generation it whiles seemed unfair that the high folks in the lofts should have these bonny painted panels all to themselves, for a few of the old armorial shields still remained. But the laird's loft, like everything old in this ancient land, was but the grand consummation of what had taken centuries to grow out of a very modest beginning.

It began with that gleg quean Jenny Geddes, who so long ago sat on a wee bit folding-stool in the cathedral kirk of St. Giles and listened in wrath to the voice of Dean Hanna. When he came to the reading of the ritual, Jenny rose, seized her stool, and sent it birling through the dim-lighted kirk straight for the Dean, with this cry of protest that roused auld Scotland into holy wrath for generations to come:

"Ye'll no' say Mass in my lug!"

The laird's loft, with its tables and chairs and painted arms, had its laigh beginning in that same stool of Jenny Geddes.

For before that time men and women who went to worship in the cathedrals or kirks had to stand during service. There was neither seat nor stool. The whole space of the area was free to the parish folk in general.

But human nature aye rules the roost. So with the ongoing of time, the forritsome folk, like the gleg quean, grew tired with standing on the flags or the earthen floor, and carried in little stools for themselves, which they took away again when the kirk had scaled. Then some inventive body brought in a wooden form one Sabbath day, and set it in a place of conveniency for his wife and bairns to sit on. The form was left in the kirk; others were carried in, and those who brought them soon acquired a prescriptive right to both the forms and the place. Still, there was no closing-in of these seats for many a year. So the congregation was made up of some who stood and some who sat, and the whole clanjamfrey of the parish worshipped together in this mixty-maxty style for a generation.

Then the wheelwright, whose form was near the door, put up a screen of boards and shutters to shield his wife and bairns, for by himself, from the draught in winter-time. The comfort of the thing was smittal, and one after another erected screens about their forms, until the whole area of the parish kirk was covered with shuttered seats.

By this time every family had grown into its own right of sitting space, and it was an ill thing to move a man's form from the pulpit side after it had been standing there for a generation. Least of all would the laird thole his handsome form with the high screens to be moved. So, when a family left the parish for another place, the family form was given up to a favoured neighbour for a consideration, in lieu of the expense put out on the screening of it from draughts. So, bit by bit, the seat in the kirk became both a lettable and a vendible property.

But, at long last, there was an outcry for a something to bring this higglety-pigglety kind of sitting commode to an end. Then, indeed, there was many an argy-bargy about expense, and right, and old custom, when it came to the matter of reseating the kirk. The Heritors and Corporation of many an old burgh town adjudged it a hard thing that they should pay for the improving of what was plainly other folks' private property. Then that worthy man the Provost proposed that the Corporation should undertake the repair entirely, and that each proprietor should pay eighteen-pence a body-room each year to the Town Council for the whole. This the lairds and the great folk were but too glad to do, and so be saved the expense of gutting and plenishing the whole kirk. From that time on, many a kirk that was a disgrace for dirt and disorder was seated after a proper plan—the laird choosing his own pew, and furnishing it with comfort according to the length of his own purse.

So the laird's loft, as the private gallery of the chief heritor was soon called, became a regular feature of
every old eighteenth-century kirk, and the escutcheon of many a noble family hung over the gallery face, painted on a board, like Jacob's coat, in many colours.

It is not for me to tell of all the ongoings in the laird's loft when the bairns of my lady grew tired of sitting in the hard chairs down in front, or the servant-maids and flunkeys misbehaved in the common seats behind. But there was aye the little door at the back and the outside stair for them that misbehaved.

The old minister, with his black gown and white bands and his long-fingered black gloves, would bow to the laird's loft when he entered the plain wood pulpit, thus forgetting, I sorely misdoubt, that in the sanctuary all are one before a common Father. And I have heard with my own ears in olden days an aged minister make weekly supplication in the parish kirk by a lochside for "the family in authority in this district," while he kept a most circumspect eye during the service on the laird's loft, where my lady sat above the shield of arms.

But that is all by now, and in our parish kirk restored it would be hard for a stranger to tell the laird's pew from the cadger's.

And as we leave the old kirk of Kilbarchan and walk down the quaint streets where the weavers can still be seen sitting in-by at their hand-looms making clinkamclank music on the hot afternoons, we give Habbie Simpson a look in the bygoing playing his pipes up yonder on the steeple at the cross; for with the passing of the laird's loft and the old families, the hand-loom weaver and the very twang of every habbie's tongue will soon be gone as well.


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