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Byways of Scottish Story
Village Naturals


A RACE which has all but disappeared from the country-side in Scotland since the passing of stringent vagrancy Acts and the reformation of local authorities, is that of the half-witted wanderers, or naturals," as they used to be called, whose idiosyncrasies, a generation ago, formed one of the occasionally painful characteristics of most rural districts. A sort of privileged mendicants, they were never turned from the door of cottage, manse, or farm-steading. This friendly reception was due partly to superstition, which made it unlucky to refuse hospitality to those mentally afflicted, and partly to fear of the unreasoning vengeance which some of them had been known to perpetrate; but most of all to pity, which everywhere looked upon them with a kindly and excusing eye. Stories of their exploits and savings, by no means always so "thowless" as might have been expected, but generally containing a biting grain of humour which tickled the fancy, were current everywhere about the country. And sometimes "the natural" even did a useful service which could have been effected by no more sane and sensible person.

It is recorded in the life of Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, that he owed something of the dawn of his inspiration to one of these wanderers. One sunny summer day when, a lad of twenty, he was herding his sheep on the Hawkshaw Rig, above the farm of Blackhouse, on the Douglas Burn, in Yarrow, there came up to him one of these naturals, named Jock- Scott, well known and welcomed on that country-side for his poetic proclivities. To while away the time, Jock, who was then on his return from a peregrination in Ayrshire, recited to the Shepherd the whole of a wonderful poem called " Tam o' Shanter," made by an Ayrshire ploughman of the name of Burns. To that recitation, no less, perhaps, than to the storied surroundings of the hills of Yarrow among which he dwelt, Hogg owed the opening of his eyes to the poetic light that never was on sea or land, and to the magic of that elfin underworld in which he was to dream his exquisite dream of Bonnie Kilmeny.

Of later wanderers like Jock Scott on that Borderside, Dr. Russell, in his "Reminiscences of Yarrow," has recorded an anecdote or two. Jock Gray, supposed to be the original of Davie Gellatley in "Waverley," is described as wearing knee-breeches, and fastening his stockings with glaring scarlet barters. Like many of his kind, he was strong in mimicry, especially of the ministers whose services he attended, and whom he could frequently be induced to "take off " with great effect. Once the wife of the minister of Selkirk asked him to furnish forth an imitation of her husband. That gentleman was in the habit of reading his sermons, a habit much reprobated in those days. The saltness of Jock's reply may therefore be understood when he told the lady that before he could comply with her demand she must give him " a bit o' paper." Sometimes his zeal for ministerial duties carried him further than mere mimicry. It is recorded that on one occasion he managed to make his way into the pulpit of Ettrick kirk before the arrival of the minister. When the latter himself reached the foot of the pulpit stairs and discovered the occupant of his place, he called out, "Come down, John," The predicament reached its climax when the congregation heard the answer, "Na, sir; come ye up; they're a stiff-necked and rebellious people; it'll tak' us baith."

When Jock was a lad, the minister of Yarrow once told him he was the idlest boy, in the parish, and suggested that he might at least herd a few cows. "Me herd cows! me herd cows! " said Jock. "I dinna ken gersh [grass] frae corn"; a rejoinder -which suggests the idea that Jock may possibly have been something of the knave as well as a little of the fool. Jock latterly used to wander about the country with his father, an old mendicant, who, with a gift of prayer, was accustomed to conduct family worship in the cottages in which the two were lodged for the night. It is recorded that one night during this function, Jock, who doubtless felt the gnawings of hunger just then, twice or thrice lifted the lid of the pot on the fire, and was heard speculating in somewhat forcible language as to when his parent would conclude. A strong affection, nevertheless, existed between the two, and when at length the old father died, Sock at once took to his bed, and within a week also breathed his last. Some of the verses of this worthy, containing no small inkling of pawky humour, are preserved, with a description of their author, in the "Memoirs of Dr. Robert Chambers."

Jock Dickson, another wanderer of the same sort, whose father, nicknamed "Cool-the-hail," from the length of his sermons, had been minister of Bedrule, was a visitor in Yarrow, and was wont for many a day to find quarters in the various manses in which his parent had been known. He was distinguished chiefly by the cut of his clothes. These consisted of " a long blue coat, with very wide and long tails, and a double row of brass buttons down the back as well as in front, knee-breeches, and shoes with buckles." On account of these habiliments, the boys of some of the towns through which he passed were accustomed, merciless and conscienceless as boys constantly are, to follow him with the shout of "Daft Jock Dickson! Buckles and pouches! Buckles and pouches!"

On the south shore of Loch Lomond many of the inhabitants still living remember Will-o'-the- shore. A fearsome sight he was, to children and persons not acquainted with the neighbourhood, as he went about the quiet roads grumbling to himself regarding his wrongs, and muttering vengeance on all and sundry.

His clothes were always in the last stage of tatters; his head had no covering but a great shock of matted hair ; and he slouched along with his great splayfeet naked in all weathers. His usual custom upon entering a house, which he did without ceremony, was to "wecht the wemen," as he called it. Upon one occasion he rushed into the mansion-house of Caldarvan, and straightway seizing its mistress by the waist, to her dismay lifted her into the air. Matters were put right, however, by the lady's sister, who was present, suggesting to the too energetic and somewhat dubious visitor that what he wanted was "a jelly piece." "Aye," said lie; and, no doubt to her immense relief, set his burden down. Something more than a suspicion existed that Will's pranks were not confined to the comparatively harmless one of "wechting the wemen." The opening of field-gates during the night, and the consequent serious straying of cattle and sheep, were frequently attributed to him. Further and even worse deeds of spiteful mischief contributed to make him sufficiently feared as the evil genius of the country-side; and it was no small relief to the farmers, as well as to the women and children of his district, when he finally disappeared.

Egg Will was a character of a different sort in the same neighbourhood. A good-natured "sumph," with broad, fat face and harmless hands, he went about the district with a long basket, gathering eggs, which he carried to Dunbarton for sale, thereby contributing in some degree to the support of himself and his widowed mother. In his way lie was a beneficent friend to the farmers among whom he went; and upon coming to a bed of thistles growing by the road, he would be seen to set down his basket and attack the enemy, rooting them out with immense energy and indignation. His chief peculiarity, however, was an unbounded admiration for people of title ; and at all the public functions ---cattle shows, fairs, and sports he might be observed, with open mouth and undisguised worship, following the footsteps of the Duke of Montrose. Upon one occasion a late minister of the district, who was blind, was being led through a cattle show at Drymen by one of the present proprietors of the neighbourhood, then a boy, when the duke was seen approaching, followed at a few paces' distance by his humble worshipper. The minister's guide whispered to him that the duke was coming towards him; but at that moment some other object distracted his Grace's attention, and he turned aside. The follower behind, however, perceiving the expectant attitude of the minister, seized the golden opportunity. "How do you do, Mr. ?" he said, throwing his utmost powers of mimicry into an imitation of the ducal accent, and entirely deceiving the unfortunate clergyman whom he addressed. "I am very well, I thank you, my lord duke!" replied the latter, sweeping off his hat to his interrogator. Next moment, on a hurried whisper of "It's Egg Will!" from the boy at his side, the minister more suddenly and with less dignity clapped his hat on his head again, and muttering something about scoundrels and vagabonds, turned on his heel and made for home. Will's purpose, however, had been sufficiently served ; and never to his dying day did he forget that he had once been taken for the Duke of Montrose.

A character of a similar sort was known in the neighbourhood of Whitburn and Bathgate, forty or fifty years ago, as Henry Downie. He was the son of a collier, and, as often pathetically happens, his mother's heart was set with peculiar tenderness upon this weakling of her family. So long as he remained a child she did her best to shield his shortcoming from public observation by keeping him near herself; but as he grew older he took to wandering over the country, farther and farther from her sheltering care, until he would be away for days and, perhaps, weeks together. At no time, however, was he known to suffer accident or to go without a meal. Wherever he might be, he could always count upon getting a bowl of porridge or soup, or a night's lodging in the hay-shed, from some kindly farmer or cottar. Henry's outstanding peculiarity was a passion for attending processions and funerals; and as the latter were naturally by far the more numerous in that rural district, his figure became especially connected in the popular mind with marches to the graveyard. At the hour of funeral he was invariably to be seen in attendance outside the house of the departed: and when the coffin was brought out, either upon stretchers or for carriage by hearse, he set himself in front, and solemnly led the way to the place of burial--a contrast of tragedy and folly Shakespearean in its vividness.

Sometimes, at a pinch, Henry was employed to run errands for tradesmen of the town, and generally the errands were performed satisfactorily enough. But one denouement of another sort remains upon record. The minister of Longridge had ordered the immediate delivery of a new hat, in which he meant to attend a ceremony of some state in his neighbourhood; and for lack of other means of conveyance, Henry Downie was despatched by the tradesman with the parcel. The messenger started forth upon his errand in all good faith; and all went well until, in the midst of a wood, about half-way towards his destination, Henry was seized with an irrepressible desire to discover how he should feel with the minister's hat on his head. Opening the bandbox, therefore, and undoing the tissue paper in which the hat was wrapped, he placed the glossy satin headgear on his own ill-cut locks, and took to marching up and down the secluded glade. Unfortunately, the time of year happened to be early summer, and the air of the little plantation was full, not only of lines of spiders' webs, but of the stringy exudations which are given forth by some kinds of fir-tree at that season. Entirely oblivious of the decoration which by these means was being imparted to the minister's hat, Henry marched up and down for some time in the full enjoyment of his stolen dignity and it was only at last, upon suddenly remembering that the minister would be waiting for his headcovering, that the unlucky messenger crushed the hat back into its bandbox, and tucking it under his arm, made off with great speed and diligence to Longridge. The dismay of the reverend gentleman on discovering the condition of his purchase is not recorded; but it is certain that Henry Downie was never again entrusted with the carriage of perishable goods.

A contemporary of Henry, who peregrinated throughout the shires of Linlithgow and Stirling, was well known for many years by the somewhat suggestive and not particularly euphonious title of "Puddin' Geordie." Stories of his exploits, showing him to be by no means so great a simpleton as he looked, were everywhere cur-rent in the region of his wanderings, and his appearance must be remembered by many persons still living. Geordie possessed an infinite attachment to the ordinances of religion, and in whatever part of the country he happened to find himself on Sunday, never failed to make his way to the kirk, where he possessed himself always of an empty seat, and displayed exceeding fervour in attending to the service. His memory, like the memory of many of the "natural" class, was vividly retentive, and nothing pleased him more than to be asked to "give out" a sermon of the Rev. Mr. So-and-So. Mounted forthwith upon a chair by way of pulpit, he would begin with the text, and repeat the whole discourse with wonderful accuracy to the end. Upon one occasion this faculty of his was turned to mischievous account by the boys of the Relief manse at Bathgate. Beforehand, in anticipation of Geordie's visit, they had prepared a trigger for the lid of the barrel which caught the rain-water from the roof, and upon the mendicant's appearance, they induced him, with a little flattery and the promise of a penny, to mount this extemporised pulpit and give them a sermon. Nothing loth, he ascended the coign of vantage, and proceeded with text and heads. He had passed no further, however, than the first division, when, in the midst of the most emphatic passage of one of their own father's discourses, the boys pulled the trigger, there was a crash, and Geordie disappeared in rain-water up to the chin.

As he went about the country, lie received constant doles both of eatables and of money, which must have amounted sometimes, one would suppose, to a considerable value. A story in connection with one of these doles, which throws a suggestive light on the character of the seeming simpleton, was long told by the lady in Falkirk at whose door the incident occurred. This lady had for some time been in the charitable habit, each Saturday, upon his appearance, of presenting Geordie with a penny. -Upon one occasion she had been from home for some time, during which, of course, she had not seen her pensioner. When, therefore, on the Saturday after her return, she saw him coming to the house, she went to the door herself, and, with a kindly inquiry after his welfare, was presenting him with the usual coin, when she was electrified by the mendicant's remark, referring to the omission of the previous Saturday, "But ye ken, Mrs. -, ye're awin' me a penny." It is needless to say Geordie's dole was forthwith put upon a less exacting basis.

Tales of such wanderers are still to be heard in nearly every rural district in Scotland. The decencies of life have perhaps gained from the present-day rule of secluding our Egg Wills and Puddin' Geordies in poorhouse and asylum; but the absence of the "natural" takes a certain interest and picturesqueness from the country-side.


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