Out of the way here,
in the quiet hollow of the Ayrshire hills, something remains yet of the
life of a hundred years ago. Elsewhere the puffing of steam may have taken
the place of toil by hand, but here in the long summer days, from morning
till night, the click-clack of the looms is still to be heard, and within
every second window up the length of the village street the dusty frames
are to be seen moving regularly to and fro. Pots of geranium and fuchsia
are set sometimes in these windows, and through the narrow doorways the
cottage gardens can be seen behind, carefully kept, and ablaze just now
with wallflower borders and pansies. Sadly, however, is the place decayed
from its prosperity of old. Little traffic comes now to the wide, empty
street. The carrier’s waggon is an object of interest when it puts in an
appearance. The baker’s van may be the only vehicle of an afternoon; and
twice a week only comes the flesher’s cart. Butcher meat, it is to be
feared, is but seldom seen on some of the village tables; and, when work
is more than usually scarce, many must put up with but "muslin-broth."
Here and there a roofless ruin, breaking the regular line of dwellings,
tells of a decaying industry. In the sunny inn-door at the head of the
village the brown retriever may rouse himself, once in the afternoon, to
inspect the credentials of some vagrant terrier; and, but for the faint
click-clack of the looms all day, and the appearance, once in a while, of
a woman with a pair of stoups to draw water at the village well, the place
might seem asleep.
Yet a hearty trade once
throve on the spot. Every house had its loom going, sometimes two; and
there was always work in plenty. Weavers’ wives could go to kirk then in
black-beaded bonnets and flowered Paisley shawls, and the Relief Kirk
minister got his stipend of eighty pounds a year nearly always paid. In
those times the carrier’s cart used to have business in the village every
day; merchants from Glasgow came bidding against each other for work in a
hurry; and four of the weavers at once have been known to have sons at
college studying for the ministry. Those were the days when the village
kept a watchful eye upon the religious and political movements of the
country. Before the stamp duty was removed from newspapers the weavers
subscribed in clubs and took out their weekly sheet, which was passed from
shop to shop, read and digested, and thoroughly threshed out in the
doorstep debates, when a knot of neighbours would gather between the
spells of work. In this way the great Reform Bill was fully discussed and
settled here long before it passed the House of Commons; and the absorbing
question of the Disruption, which gave birth to the Free Church, was
thoroughly argued and thought out on its merits. True to the traditions of
their craft, of course, most of the weavers were the reddest of Radicals,
and the progress of the Chartist movement excited the keenest interest
among them. The work at the looms was to a great extent mechanical, and
while they pushed the treadles and pulled the shuttles to and fro the
weavers had time to think; and shrewd thinkers and able debaters many of
them became, ready at the hustings with questions on the corn laws, the
freeing of the slaves, and the Irish grievances, which were apt to put a
political candidate to some trouble. He had not their advantage of the
daily "argufying" and the Saturday night debates at the village inn; There
was a tradition that in the room where this club met, the poet Burns had
once spent an evening, and the fact lent an additional zest to his song,
which they never tired of quoting, "A man’s a man for a’ that"—
The King can mak’ a belted knight,
A Marquis, Duke, and a’ that;
But an honest man’s the work o’ God:
A man’s a man for a’ that.
The industry of the village
has died hard. Amid decaying trade the weavers kept to their looms, and
many a pinch was suffered before one after another laid down his shuttle.
Their feelings are not difficult to understand. As boys they had played
about the village well. As young men they had wandered with their
sweethearts—that delicious time—down the woodland roads around. Memories
had grown about them and their old homes during the long years of work. In
the kirkyard not far off lay the ashes of mother or wife or child. But the
merchants had ceased to come to the village, and it was a weary walk for
the poor weavers to carry their webs all the way to Glasgow, to hawk them
from warehouse to warehouse, and sometimes to have the choice at last of
accepting a ruinous price for them or of taking them home again.
It was after a bootless
errand of this sort that old John Gilmour was returning to the village one
night in late October some thirty-six years back. Honest soul, through all
his straits he had never owed a neighbour a penny. That night, however,
his affairs had come to a critical pass, and the morrow had a black
look-out for him. His web was still on his back, not an offer having been
got for it in town, though he knew the workmanship to be his best. Upon
its sale he had depended to pay for the winter’s coals and the necessaries
of the morrow; for on the day previous the last of his carefully guarded
savings had been spent. Moreover, his wife and he were growing old, and
could hardly look forward to increased energy for work. And he was
bringing home bad news. Their second son (the eldest had run away to sea
eleven years before) had broken down in his attempt to teach and at the
same time push his way through the Divinity Hall, and had been ordered by
the doctor to stop work for the winter altogether. How was the old man to
break all this disastrous news to his wife? The web was heavy, but his
heart was heavier.
He had reached the fork of
the road close by the old disused graveyard of the parish, and was
thinking a little bitterly of the reward that remained to him from his
long life of hard work, and of how quiet and far from care those were who
lay on the other side of the low dyke under the green sod, when a hackney
carriage came up behind, and the driver stopped to ask the way to ----.
"Keep the left road," said
the old man, and was resuming his walk, when a bearded face appeared at
the carriage window.
"That seems a heavy bundle
you are carrying. Are you going my way?"
Once inside, the old weaver
found his companion looking at him intently.
"You have had a long walk
this day, surely? Have you no son to carry so heavy a load for you?"
Ay, he had two sons,
Gilmour said; but one was lost at sea, and the other was struggling at
"You live alone, then?"
asked, the questioner tremulously.
No, thank God! he had a
kind wife at home, who had been his consolation through many a dark hour.
"Thank God!" echoed the
The carriage rolled on and
entered the village. The weaver pointed to his house, and they stopped
there. The stranger helped him out with his web, and entered the house
"It’s just the web back,
gudewife," he said. "But dinna look sae queer like. I’se warrant I’ll sell
it the morn. An’ here’s a gentleman has helpit me on the road. Hae
ye onything i’ the hoose to offer him?"
But the wife was not
thinking of the web or the distress of the morrow. Her eyes were on the
stranger, and the corners of her lips were twitching curiously. He had not
spoken, but as he removed his hat she sprang towards him.
"It’s Willie!" she cried;
"it’s Willie!" And her arms were about his neck, and, half laughing and
half crying, she buried her face on his breast.
It was Willie. He was the
first who came back to the village from the gold-fields of Ballarat.