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Oor Ain Folk
Chapter IX

Village Occupations—The Handloom Weavers—Merchants and Merchanties—Various Types—Davit Elshender—A Story of the Egg Market—How Mrs. Paitterson turned the Tables—A Stingy Couple—Taking the Pledge—Strong Language—Story of Rev. Mr. Don—John Buchan's Prayer—A Banquet to the Laird—A Dear Denner—Effects of mixing Drinks—Drinking Habits of the Time.

Besides the usual assortment of ordinary handicraftsmen,—that is, wrichts, stonemasons, quarrymen, blacksmiths, shoemakers, saddlers, etc.,—there was a considerable settled population in the village, consisting of families more or less connected with agricultural pursuits, and attached in some way or other to the various farms scattered through the parish. In addition to these there were three or four 'factories/ as they were called, but differing very much indeed from the vision conjured up by the word as applied to modern establishments, where hundreds, nay sometimes thousands, of wan-faced operatives pass their lives as slaves to the modern machinery Jagganath.

Our village 'factories' were long, low, thatched-roofed tenements, with the natural clay for the floor. They were occupied by handloom weavers, each having to pay a small pittance as rent, and having to fit up his own loom and work quite independently of each other. The noisy click-clack of the busy shuttles sounded without intermission from the gray dawn of early morn till far into the night. At any time these village factories were dingy and squalid-looking. The air was laden with floating particles of fluff from the webs, known locally as 'caddis,' and at night a few hanging oil 'crusies' simply served to make darkness visible. The weavers were generally either decrepit old men or bouncing lasses, whose calling could never be mistaken, owing to the fluffy particles of 'caddis' which clung to their hair—for they never wore bonnets — and many of them, poor things, owing to the unhealthy surroundings, frequently fell victims to that dreaded scourge of old-time Scottish villages,' consumption.'

These various grades might be said to constitute the substantial groundwork of village society, and next above them came the traders or shopkeepers. These invariably rejoiced in the high-sounding appellation of ' merchants.' No matter if a man only sold bools and peeries, with an occasional stick of 'candy glue,' he was still a merchant, or possibly the village folk would call him a 'merchantie' in contradistinction to his more wealthy confrere, who boasted a large stock of drapery and grocery, and had the legend over his door, 'Licensed to sell Tea, Snuff, and Tobacco.'

I have heard my father speak of two trade announcements he saw in Aberdeen during his student days. One was in the shop window of a little merchantie, and was to this effect—'Fresh butter and eggs laid here daily by Betsy Smith'. The other ran thus—'Peats, Coals, and other groceries sold here.'

Our chief merchant was a wealthy old gentleman named Robert Buchan, who combined the offices of Postmaster and Registrar with his commercial pursuits. In the popular estimation Robert was credited with the possession of great wealth; and no doubt he sometimes acted the part of banker to many a small farmer and struggling artisan, and in many respects he was a very enterprising and estimable man.

His sister, Miss Buchan, kept house for him, and surely no one was ever more deserving of the grateful affection of the young people who were honoured periodically with invitations to a regular set 'tea-pairty.' Miss Buchan's hospitality was of the most generous kind. The jams and 'jeelies' with which she regaled our youthful appetites were of the highest expressions of culinary skill.

John Carr was another of our merchants for whom we had the most affectionate regard. He was a great friend of my father's, and every morning when the minister went up to get his newspaper at John's shop, he indulged in a pleasant chat with his trusty friend. John was generally famous among the boys for giving the largest 'neivefu' of sweeties in exchange for a penny, of any merchant in the village. Poor John still lives; but alas! for many years his once clear intellect has been clouded, and life has been a long-drawn drama of suffering for the dear old, kindly man.

One old wifie, Jean Kinear, was famous as a purveyor of the delicacy known farther south as 'gundy' and in Edinburgh among the 'keelies' as 'claggum' or stick-jaw, but which our village boys always called 'black-man.' In reality it was simply treacle toffy. It was dreadfully sticky and very toothsome, and on the whole must have been very innocuous, as it was never forbidden by the maternal lawgiver.

Our pet aversion among the shopkeepers was a snivelling, watery-eyed, 'lamiter mannie,' whom I shall call 'Davit Elshender.'

Davit was a voluble, plausible, unreliable little humbug. He was greedy, mean, and unscrupulous in little things, and tried to assume a jaunty air of sociability, which, however, was quite foreign to his real nature and sat ill upon him. His wife Meg, a great, gaunt, hollow-cheeked woman, with iron-gray corkscrew ringlets and projecting buck teeth, was a fit consort for the tallow-faced Davit, who, doubtless, must have been a victim to dyspepsia. He was too mean to drink at his own expense, but his nose always had a fiery tip to it. His favourite attitude was to stand behind his counter with his two broad thumbs pressed thereon, fingers expanded, black linen apron tucked up in his belt, and there, with a black velvet skull-cap covering his bald 'pow,' he would expatiate in the most voluble way to any chance customer who might be in the shop, and dogmatically assert himself on every subject that came uppermost, bo it philosophy, religion, politics, the price of 'herrin', or the treatment of infantile ailments. It did not matter to Davit what topic came uppermost, he was competent to give a dogmatic opinion on anything 'in the heavens above, the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth.' He met his match one day, however and it fell out this way. The tinkle of the little bell behind the door summoned him from the back shop one morning, and he at once assumed his favourite attitude with thumb and fingers extended on the counter, and welcomed the intruder thus:

'Ay, ay! and so that's you yersel', Mistress Paitterson? Losh, but it's a lang time sin' IVe seen ye. Ay, ay! and fat's brocht ye sae far doon the village th' day, Mistress Paitterson?' For Davit well knew that he was no great favourite with the quiet, demure, farmer's wife whom he was now accosting, and that she generally bestowed her patronage on one of his rivals farther up the street. The woman he addressed was a quiet, decent, tidy body, with neat black mitts on her hands, a well-fitting but much-worn beaded cloak over her simple gown, and a frayed, rusty silk bonnet on her head, which bore evident marks of having been turned many a time during the twenty years or so that it had been in wear.

Mistress Paitterson was the wife of a small farmer 'owre the watter,' and was a successful breeder of poultry and purveyor of eggs, as Davit well knew. As a matter of fact she was accustomed to sell her eggs to another of the storekeepers; but this week she had come rather late to market, and found that her usual purchaser had bought all he required. So in a very quiet, gentle way she told Davit that she had brought some eggs to sell. Davit at once started off at score.

'Ay, ay, an' so ye've brocht yer eggs, have ye? Well, I will say this, Mistress Paitterson, that ye've aye the bonniest an' biggest eggs in a' the pairis'; but ye see there's a michty swash o' eggs comin' intae the market i' the noo, an' the fac' is, I'll no be able tae gie ye mair nor tenpence a dizzen, an' I'm sure they're well worth mair.'

Then, seeing a slight shade coming over the quiet little woman's countenance, but having pretty well guessed the circumstances which led her to proffer him her wares—knowing in fact that she was not likely to find a buyer elsewhere, and, wishing to snap up a bargain, he bolstered up his position with a totally unnecessary lie, saying:

'Ye see, Mistress Paitterson, the supply is greater than the demand th' noo, for we canna even sell eggs in Brechin; and so the mairchants hae haen a Conference,'—lingering over this word with great unction,— ' and we've a' agreed that we canna gie mair than ten-pence a dizzen for eggs th' noo.'

The good woman knew just enough of the circumstances of the local market to accept this rather plausible deliverance; and as her basket was heavy and the day was hot, she made up her mind to accept the offer, which as it happened was much under the real value of the eggs. So, with a sigh, she handed over the heavy market-basket, with its clean, white cover, and Davit, with a smirk of satisfaction in his beady little porcine eyes, took the eggs into the back shop, came back and handed her the ten shillings for twelve dozen. After an immaterial little purchase, the good lady took her departure, while Davit communicated to Meg that 'he had jist got some grand eggs frae Mistress Paitterson at a considerable reduction on the rael market-price.'

Now the little woman had not gone far before she met a neighbour, and on an exchange of notes she discovered that Davit had got the better of her, and that the other 'mairchants' in fact were paying the usual price. By and by she came back to Davit's shop, but with quite an unmoved countenance and the same self-restrained, quiet manner, she made another little purchase, and asked Davit if he would be prepared to take the same quantity of eggs next week Davit's heart leaped within him, as he told her with much effusiveness that he would be a regular buyer for all she could bring; and again lamenting that the 'conference of the mairchants' prevented him from giving a higher price for 'sic bonnie eggs,' which indeed were the best in 'a' the pairis' he bade her good-day, and the little woman departed.

Now she had made up her mind to be 'even with Davit'; so during the week she collected all the pigeon and bantam eggs and the smallest eggs from young pullets, that she could lay her hands on; and having carefully packed them in sweet-scented hay, and covered the basket carefully over with the snowy cloth, she again sallied forth to take her satisfaction out of him. No sooner had she entered the shop than she was greeted with the same volubility, and having in her quiet way parried the eager questionings of the red-nosed grocer, she said:

'I suppose ye're nae gie'in ony mair for the eggs this week, Mr. Elshender!'

'Weel ye see, Mistress Paitterson, I hae tae abide by the deceesion o' the Conference, altho' I'm no sayin' but what yer eggs raelly deserve a shillin' a dizzen at the vera least, but I canna gie ye mair than the tenpence.'

'Aweel,' says she, with a sigh, 'I suppose I maun jist be daein' wi' what I can get in the meantime.' And then in an off-handed sort of way, she said, 'There's jist twal' dizzen, Mr. Elshender. That 'll be ten shillin's; an' as I want tae gang doon the village a bitty, ye can pay me i' the noo, an' I'll leave the auld creel wi' ye, and ye can coont the eggs at yer leisure.'

Davit, inwardly congratulating himself on another bargain, and never suspecting any trick, handed her the money, and she went her way.

You can imagine the consternation of the thwarted rogue when he discovered the trick that had been played upon him. He fumed and raged and snorted, and poured the vials of his wrath upon his luckless shop-boy, even venturing to say some sharp things to 'lantern- jawed' Meg, his wife; but that was too dangerous a course to pursue at any great length, and so, fuming and fretting, he watched for the reappearance of 'Mistress Paitterson.' That decent, quiet body, still with a demure look and unmoved countenance, at length made her appearance. At once Davit opened out in indignant protestation.

'What sort o' a trick is this ye've played on me, Mistress Paitterson? Thae's only doos' an' bantams' eggs ye've brocht me this week. Losh bless me, eggs like thae's no worth saxpence a dizzen! Ye sharely canna be meanin' tae tak' guid siller for eggs like thae ?'

To this outburst the sly little woman quietly responded: 'Fat's the maitter wi' the eggs, Maister Elshender? The eggs are a' richt.'

'Toots, haivers, wumman!' snorted the enraged shopkeeper; 'I'm tellin' ye thae's naethin' but doos' eggs.'

A gleam of suppressed glee sparkled in the eyes of the quiet, self-contained, little woman, as, slowly taking up her basket and cloth, she dropped a semi-curtsey and said:

'Weel, ye see, Maister Elshender, the fac' is, that oor hens hae haen their conference i' the back yaird; and they jist made up their minds that it wisna worth their while tae rax themsel's for eggs at ten-pence a dizzen.'

What Davit said when Mistress Paitterson retired, had better be left unrecorded.

I am not sure but it was this couple, Davit and Meg, of whom an anecdote is recorded as follows: They had never made any return to the numerous friends at whose houses hospitality had often been dispensed and accepted by the close-fisted couple. A hint having been given to Meg on one occasion that a return 'tea-pairty' would only be the correct thing, she explained the situation thus: ' Weel than, ye see it's jist this Vy; I've aye been wantin' to hae a tea an' a dance, but Davit hauds oot for a denner an' a drink, an.' so atween the twa o's we've ne'er made up oor minds which it's tae be.'

Neither i the tea' nor ' the denner' ever came off.

Here is yet one more story of the temperance lecturer sort, which we may call The Letter and the Spirit.

An old 'wine' who had a weakness for whisky had been prevailed upon to take the pledge. Shortly afterwards, she called upon a rather 'drouthie neebor,' who was not aware of her visitor's reformation. The bottle was at once, as usual, produced, and the recent convert to temperance was sorely tempted. She made, however, a gallant effort to remain true to principle, and holding up deprecating hands, she said:

'Na, thank ye, Mistress Mitchell. I've taen the pledge. I've made a solemn vow not tae pit han' or lip tae gless again'; but then seeing Mistress Mitchell was about to remove the spirits, she hesitatingly said, surrendering to the subtle tempter: 'I daur say ef ye pit a wee drappie in a tea-cup, I could maybe tak' it.'

As illustrating the tendency on the part of old Scottish people to indulge in a strong combination of adjectives, the following is rather good.

Mrs. Don of Ballownie, a fine farm in my father's parish, happened to be speaking of a certain Sandie------, who had been formerly one of the farm hands, but who, having gone to Farnell, had created a sensation by arranging an elopement with a young local heiress, which had just barely escaped being brought to a successful consummation. The old lady, who had been pondering over the news, at length opened her mind to the family circle in the following words: 'Weel, I dinna see fat she cud hae seen X Sandie------, a nasty, low, abominable, barefaced, sweerin', vulgar, ill-brocht-up brute'.

Her son, the Rev. James Don, who lately died in Victoria, where he had long been an honoured minister, told me the above, and also related an amusing episode of his own early preaching days. Indeed, it was but the third time he had mounted the pulpit. The scene was in old Mr. Paton's church, in the pretty village of Fettercaim. When the young preacher, after giving out the psalm, had taken his first rapid survey of the congregation, he noticed two finely-dressed gentlemen in a secluded pew, dressed in superfine broadcloth suits, and adorned with white clerical neckties. One was a Venerable-looking old gentleman, with silvery hair; the other young, with a rather aristocratic and refined look. It then being the height of the tourist season, Mr. Don put the two gentlemen down at once as some travelling English rector and his curate, and he felt very nervous in the presence of what he took to be such critics. In the evening the same couple occupied the same seat, and the minister underwent another ordeal of inward anxiety. When he came to disrobe, however, in the vestry, he asked the beadle who the two distinguished clerics might be.

'Och, there wis nae meenister i' the kirk, sir' said the beadle.

'Yes there was' said Mr. Don; 'they were here in the morning too;' then he described them.

'Hoots, sir,' said the old beadle, 'thae wis nae meenisters; that wis jist Dancie Fettis an' his son^— the twa dancin' maisters fae Brechin.'

Another good story of Mr. Don's had relation to a simple resident of the hamlet of Inchbare, named John Buchan. John was undoubtedly 'gey gowkit,' or what would be called in the colonies 'a shingle short.' He had an idea, however, that he had a great gift of utterance in prayer, and his one ambition was to be asked to lead the devotions at the weekly prayer meeting. Of course those who knew his weakness never had asked him; but one day Mr. Don, who was doing duty for my father, responded to poor John Buchan's mute appeal, and asked him to offer up prayer. The poor fellow began in a fashion which soon showed Mr. Don the dreadful mistake he had made. He floundered and boggled and got involved in appalling labyrinths of words, getting ever more and more confused. His perplexity at length reached a climax, and the equanimity of the meeting was wholly upset, when John uttered a petition that the worshipping people 'noo assembled micht a' be made like the deevils that entered intae the swine!'

One day old Mrs. Don and a neighbour, Mrs. Davidson, had been cudgelling their brains trying to remember the word 'respirator.' They had described it as that instrument 'that fowk hae owre their moos in stormy weather tae keep the wind fae their lungs'. At length Mrs. Don fancied she had solved the puzzle, and triumphantly exclaimed, 'Hoots, bless me, it's a Valpariso!'

Shortly after the death of old Lord Panmure, and when Fox Maule, his son, reigned in his stead, it was determined by the tenantry to tender him a banquet in honour of his having succeeded to the estates. Great preparations were made, and it was resolved that the dinner would most fitly be held at the old Castle of Edzell, the ancient seat of the lordly Lindsays, who used to hold feudal sway over all the surrounding country. The castle is a picturesque and most interesting ruin—one of the most complete and well-preserved relics of that troublous fighting time, the annals of which make up so much of our national history. An enormous marquee was erected, and the numerous tenantry, from a dozen parishes and scores of glens and straths, mustered thick on the festive occasion. My father, though caring little for such gatherings, had received certain consideration from the new landlord, who was looked on besides as one of the pillars of the Free Church; and so, in the dual capacity of tenant-farmer and minister, he attended the feast. My readers can easily imagine the scene. It was the ordinary bucolic scramble. There were the usual hurrying crowds of perspiring waiters and the usual bewildered mob of small farmers getting in everybody's way, and not knowing where to sit or what to do. One small landholder from the Glen, Sandie Eggo, had at length got seated between two burly low-country farmers, who, quite ignoring the meek, shrinking Sandie, cracked their jokes, and showed a familiarity with the black-coated waiters which, to the abashed 'cottar-fairmer' was most impressive. In vain did the hungry man cast imploring looks at the fussy, perspiring servants. In vain did he endeavour to catch the eye of any one whom he knew. The hum of conversation increased; the clatter of knives and glasses waxed louder and more loud; dish after dish was whipped up from the table and vanished with conjuror - like celerity, and still Sandie, who had paid his full guinea for his ticket, sat unnoticed and unattended to. At length, in desperation, he seized a spoon and attacked the dish in front of him, which happened to be a dish of mashed turnips, and with this he managed to stay the pangs of his hunger. By and by, after the speeches, my father, strolling around, asked Sandie if it had not been a most successful demonstration, and inquired how he had liked the grand dinner.

'Graund denner!' growled Sandie; 'ye can ca't graund gin ye like, but I can only say that the fodder's michty dear at ane-and-twenty guid shillin's for a wheen chappit neeps, no fit to set doon till a stirk.'

Another reminiscence of the same banquet my father used to tell, as illustrative of the drinking habits of the time. The subject on this occasion was a pretty well-to-do sheep-farmer from Lethnot, a member of my father's congregation, and a kindly, honest man, but extremely retiring and bashful. He was a bachelor, and quite accustomed to the trying ordeal of even ' a term market/ without losing his head. But banquets were not in his way; and he unfortunately got separated from his associates, and was set down between an eminent solicitor from Edinburgh and the debonair factor of a neighbouring nobleman. He thus found himself in a most uncongenial neighbourhood, and though his table companions treated him with a little more courtesy and consideration than fell to the lot of Sandie Eggo, farther down, yet poor B------ (that was the name of his farm) felt utterly out of his element and ill at ease.

His neighbours were not long in noticing this, and wishing to set him more at ease plied him with champagne—a drink that B------ had never before tasted; and under the stimulating influences of the sparkling wine, B------ soon began to get a little more reconciled to his surroundings. When the time came for the speechifying, he, nerved by the unwonted exhilaration of what he looked on with contempt as 'thin fizzin' stuff/ took advantage of a favourable opportunity to escape from the somewhat oppressive neighbourhood of the solicitor and factor, and got seated among a coterie of hard-drinking farmers, and at once began to make up for lost time by an assiduous application to the 'het watter and speerits,' which had by this time made their appearance on the table.

What with the champagne, the unwonted excitement, and a rather quicker assimilation of his toddy than usual, poor B------, for probably the first time in his life, began to feel overcome by what he had taken. As a matter of fact he had arrived at that stage known to Scotch connoisseurs as ' greetin' fou.' There the poor man sat, weeping copious tears; and my father just then happening to come up, he asked B------with real concern what ailed him.

'Ah, Maister Inglis,' said B------, 'I'm failin'—I'm failin' fast; I'm no lang for this warl'!'

'Oh nonsense,' said the minister, now seeing what was the matter; 'don't be foolish, man! you're hale and hearty yet; you're just a little excited, that's all. You should try and get away home.'

'Ah, meenister,' still persisted the lachrymose farmer, 'I'm clean dune, sir—I'm clean failed.'

'What nonsense, man! what makes ye think that?'

'Ah, sir,' said B------ with intense pathos, 'I ken weel I'm failin'. As fac's deith, sir, I've only haen aucht tumblers, an' I'm fou, sir—I'm fou!'

The idea of being overcome with only eight tumblers was too much for poor B------'s comprehension; but the story is a good illustration of what was thought a fair quantity for a sitting at that time.

Indeed, there was a small circle of real seasoned topers in the village, whose united consumption at 'The Panmure Arms' of an evening would somewhat astonish many of those who are considered intemperate men nowadays. When the banker, the Auld Kirk dominie, and half a dozen of the wealthier farmers and bonnet lairds, used to meet, they never separated till 'the wee short 'oors ayont the twalV Many a night, after seeing the banker home, the auld dominie would reach his own domicile on all fours—his track, devious yet distinct, being well defined in the stour of the village street next morning. The schoolboys knew it well, and knew also that the 'tawse' would not be idle that day, in consequence of the deep potations of the previous night.

Most of that convivial company did, in sad and literal truth, eventually drink themselves to death.

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