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Book of Scottish Story
Nanny Welsh, the Minister's Maid

There are now—so far at least as my experience goes—fewer specimens of homely, odd, and eccentric characters to be met with in Scotland than in former years. In solitary nooks of the country, away from the boom of cities, and the rush of railways, many doubtless still exist, and contribute largely to the amusement of their rural acquaintances; but it cannot be denied that the race of originals is fast disappearing, and threatens ultimately to become altogether extinct. Into the cause or causes of this I do not intend to enter; it is sufficient to chronicle the melancholy fact. There may be a beauty in similarity, but there is a higher beauty in diversity. Men and women are now so very much alike, that the study of mankind is not such a difficult task after all. The greater facilities for intercourse which the present generation enjoys have tended to rub off the angularities of individual character, and to create a fusion, or confusion, of all classes in the community. Such being the case, it is pleasant at times to revert from the present to the past, and to recall the peculiar aspect, the odd sayings, and eccentric doings of persons with whom we were familiar in former years.

Among a number of others, Nanny Welsh stands prominent in my recollection. She was maid-of-all-work in the old home-manse of Keppel, where I first saw the light of day, and for many years afterwards. A rare specimen Nanny was of the departed or departing race of familiar domestics. She had herded the cows of neighbouring farmers, almost from her childhood, until she entered upon domestic service, and life before she became minister’s maid, an honour which she highly esteemed and long enjoyed. She was big-boned and masculine in the build of her body. Her face was long and hard, almost grim, and well freckled, and deeply browned by frequent exposure to the sun and air. A white "mutch," with a high horse-shoe shaped crown, surmounted her head at morning, noon, and night. With her gown tucked up behind in the old familiar fashion of domestics, and a youngster strapped on her back with a shawl, and peering with his little pow over her shoulders, she went to work, as if the fate of empires, not to speak of the honour of the old manse, depended upon her exertions.

She used to boast that she could ‘pit mair’ through her hands in an hour than ‘ony ither woman i’ the parish’. She was, in truth, a capital worker; and while her hands went her tongue wagged. Nanny could never endure either to be idle or silent. When engaged in scrubbing pots and pans her back was not forgotten, but received all the benefit of her sayings and soliloquies. In the discharge of her domestic duties she liked to carry everything her own way, and generally managed to take it, whatever orders might be given to the contrary.

This good woman had the welfare of the family at heart, and a great favourite she was amongst us youngsters, although she had a very summary mode of disposing of us sometimes when we attempted to tease her or became unruly. I remember well an advice she gave us, on more than one occasion, when we were invited out to juvenile tea-parties in the neighbourhood. "Noo, bairns,” she would say, after our faces were scrubbed, and our hair was smoothed, "see an’ eat weel when ye’re at it, an' no come hame garavishin’ an’ eatin’.” We not unfrequently paid the penalty next day of adhering too strictly to the letter of this advice; but when children see heaps of buns, cookies, and shortbread piled up on the table, who can blame them if they take no thought of the morrow? Nanny used to relate with great glee a saying of one of us manse bairns. It was the custom at the communion season in those days (and it may be the custom in some places still) for the wealthier members of country congregations to send the minister some substantial present for the bodily benefit of his officiating friends. One of us, standing at the garden gate, had seen an expected arrival approaching, and running with breathless haste to the kitchen, had exclaimed —"Nanny, Nanny! here’s a salmon comin’—this is the rule sacrament!" Nanny, honest woman, never forgot the sentiment, and often repeated it to the discomfiture of its juvenile author.
In the fulness of time, and when our domestic seemed doomed to a life of single blessedness, a wooer at last appeared in the person of Peter Pearson, the pensioner. Peter had lost his wife; and six months after her decease, he came to the conclusion that it is not good—that it is utterly uncomfortable in fact—for man to be alone. And so he looked favourably upon Nanny Welsh, admired her proportions, estimated her energy at its true value, and finally managed to make his way into the manse kitchen of an evening. It must have cost him a considerable effort to effect this at first, as he regarded the minister with great awe. Peter had been in the artillery force. He had served in Spain and South America, and returned home, not disabled, but "dull of hearing," to enjoy his hard-won pension. He was a quiet and stolid, but kind-hearted man. He was very uncommunicative as regarded his military service and exploits. It was impossible to force or coax him to "light his battles o’er again" by the fireside. Whether it was owing to want of narrative power, or to some dark remembrance that overshadowed his mind, Peter invariably maintained discreet silence when soldiers and war became the topics of conversation. On one occasion he was asked if he had ever been at Chili, and his answer was, "I’ve been at Gibraltar at ony rate!” This sounds somewhat like the reply of the smart youth who, when it was inquired of him, if he had ever been in Paris, quickly responded, "No; but my brother has been to Crail!”

The wooing of Peter Pearson, pensioner, and Nanny Welsh, spinster, might have formed a new era in the history of courtship. No sighs were heard. No side-long, loving glances passed between them. There was no tremulous pressure of the hands, or tingling touch of meeting lips. Peter was "senselessly ceevil," although, I verily believe, if he had attempted to kiss Nanny she would have brained him on the spot with the beetle, and left the warrior to die ingloriously on the hearthstone. No, they did not wish to make "auld fules" of themselves. They wooed in their own way, and understood each other perfectly well. Peter sat by the hearth, smoking his twist peacefully, and squirting out the juice as he had done at camp-fires in former years; and Nanny went about cleaning dishes, lifting tables, and arranging chairs, and only exchanging occasional words with her future husband. She was never so talkative when Peter was present as when he was absent. It was only on rare occasions that she ventured to sit down on a chair beside him. She seemed always afraid of being caught doing anything so indecorous in the manse kitchen. I scarcely think that Peter required to propose. It was a tacit understanding, and their marriage-day was fixed, apparently, by mutual uncommunicated arrangement.

On the night before the bridal some of the neighbouring domestics and other women invaded the kitchen, and subjected Nanny to the painful pleasure of feet-washing — a ceremony somewhat different from the annual performance at Vienna. She kicked furiously at first, calling her tormentors impudent hizzies and limmers; but she was compelled at last to succumb, and yielded with more reluctance than grace.

The marriage was celebrated quietly in the manse next day, and the youngest of the family sat crowing on Nanny’s knee, while she was being told the sum and substance of her duties as a wife. No sooner was the ceremony concluded, than she tucked up her wedding gown, and expressed her desire and determination to "see a’ things putten richt i’ the kitchen afore she gaed awa’." Peter had leased a cottage in a little way-side village, about two miles distant from the manse, and this was the extent of their marriage jaunt. No doubt the evening would be spent hilariously by their friends and acquaintances, who would drink the health of the "happy pair” with overflowing bumpers.

Peter and Nanny lived very happily together, although "the gray mare was the better horse.” She continued to be as industrious as ever, and the pensioner managed to eke out his government pay by what is called, in some parts of the country, "orra wark." Nanny came regularly every Sabbath to the manse between sermons, and took pot-luck with the family. We were always glad to see her, and hear her invariable, “Losh, laddie, is that you? " Many a time and oft we all visited her cottage in a body, and what glorious teas she used to give us! Still do I remember, and not without stomachic regrets, the mountains of bannocks, the hills of cakes, the hillocks of cookies, the ridges of butter, the red congealed pools of jelly, and the three tea-spoonfuls of sugar in each cup! It was a never-to-be-forgotten treat. Compare Nanny’s tea-parties with the fashionable "cookey-shines" of the present generation! But, soft; that way madness lies! The good woman had a garden too; and how we youngsters pitched into her carrots, currants, and gooseberries, or rather, to speak correctly, pitched them into ourselves. We remembered her own advice about not returning home "garavishin’ and eatin’." She prided herself greatly upon her powers of pig-feeding, and next to the pleasure of seeing us feasting like locusts was the delight she experienced in contemplating, with folded arms, her precious pig devouring its meal of potatoes and greens. "Isn’t it a bonny beastie?— did you ever see sic a bonny beastie?" she would frequently exclaim. I never saw so much affection bestowed before or since upon the lowest of the lower animals. The pig knew her perfectly well, and responded to her laudatory phrases by complacent grunts. Between Peter and the pig, I am verily persuaded, she led a happier life than imperial princes in their palaces. No little artilleryman ever made his appearance to disturb the harmony of the house by tying crackers to the cat’s tail.

Nanny’s first visit to Edinburgh formed a rare episode in her life. This happened a good many years after her marriage. The ride on the top of the coach through the kingdom of Fife, she described as "fearsome;" and the horses dashing up hill and down, excited her liveliest compassion. When asked how she felt after her sail between Kirkcaldy and Leith (the day was pleasant and the water smooth), her reply was —"Wonnerfu’— wonnerfu’ weel, after sic a voyage!” The streets of the city, the high houses, the multitudinous shops, and the crowds of people, excited her rustic astonishment beyond all bounds. "ls’t a market the day?” she would interject —"whaur’s a’ the folk gaun?" Her own appearance on the pavement attracted the notice of passers-by; and no wonder. Figure a big-boned, ungainly woman, with long, freckled face and open mouth, and dressed in defiance of the fashion of the time, striding up the Bridges, and "glowering” into everybody’s face, as if she expected to see her "aunty`s second cousin”— figure such a person, and you will form a respectable picture of Nanny Welsh, alias Mrs Pearson, as she appeared many years ago on the streets of Modern Athens. She could never go out alone from the house where she was staying without losing herself Once she went to the shop next door, and it took her an hour to find the way back again. On another occasion, when she had taken a longer trip than usual, she went completely off her reckoning, forgot the name of the street, mistook the part of the town, and asked every person she met, gentle or simple, swells or sweeps, "Gin they kent whaur Mrs So-and-so stopit!" I never learned correctly how she got out of that scrape. All she could say was that "a ceevil man brocht her to the bottom o’ the stair." She was perfectly dumfoundered when she saw and heard that the people of Edinburgh had to buy the "bits o’ sticks" with which they kindled their fires in the morning. She protested that she could bring "a barrowfu’ o’ rosity roots frae the wuds that would keep her chimley gaun for a fortnicht." Going to the market to buy vegetables she looked upon as perfectly preposterous. "Flingin’ awa’ ” she would say, "gude white saxpences an’ shillin’s for neeps, carrots, ingans, an’ kail — it beats a’!"

The open-mouthed wonder of Nanny reached its height when one night, after long and urgent solicitation, she was persuaded to go under good protection to the Theatre Royal. Mackay was then in the zenith of his fame, and attracted crowded houses, more especially by his unique representation of Bailie Nicol Jarvie. Nanny was taken to the pit. The blaze of light, the galleries rising one above another, the gaily-dressed ladies, the sea of faces surging from floor to roof, the whistling, hooting, and laughing — all these mingled together produced a bewildering effect upon the poor woman, and her bewilderment increased as the curtain rose and the play proceeded. She was speechless for about an hour -- she did nothing but gape and gaze. A human being suddenly transported into some brilliant and magical hall, or into another world, could scarcely have betrayed more abject astonishment. At last her wonder found vent, and she exclaimed in the hearing, and much to the amusement, of those who surrounded her —"Tak me awa — tak me awa — this is no a place for me — I’m just Peter Pearson’s ain wife!" She would not be persuaded to remain even when the Bailie kept the house dissolved in loosened laughter. The idea seemed to be strong in her mind that the people were all laughing at her. She was the best actress, although the most unconscious one, in the whole house. What la capital pair the Bailie and Nanny would have made! She would have beat Miss Nicol. Her first appearance on the stage would have been a perfect triumph — it would have secured the fame and fortune of Mrs Pearson. Nanny never liked to be asked her opinion of the Edinburgh theatre. She only shook her head, and appeared to regard it as something akin to Pandemonium.

Nanny’s stories about the sayings and doings of the Edinburgh people served her for fireside talk many a winter evening after she returned home to Peter Pearson. Peter, who had seen more of the world, used to take a quiet chuckle to himself when she finished her description of some "ferlie" that had excited her astonishment or admiration. The gilded wonders above shop doors — the Highlanders taking pinches of snuff-the wool-packs — the great glittering spectacles — the rams’ heads and horns — these had excited her rustic curiosity almost as much as they attract the interest of a child. Poor honest Nanny! She has now slept for years where the "rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep," and Peter, after life’s fitful fever, sleeps well by her side. — Pax Vobiscum!

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