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Significant Scots
John Younger

Found this autobiography of John Younger, shoe maker and poet, from the Borders of Scotland.


If he should not have been successful in any of his intentions, yet there remains this consolation behind—that these, his pursuits, by keeping the body and mind employed, have under Providence, contributed to much health and cheerfulness of spirits—even to old age.—Gilbert White.

While the work now presented to river anglers was passing through the press, a painful incident, and one deeply connected with its matured completion, occurred in the death of the author. A pang of sorrow, such as only the loss of many endearing qualities could occasion, shot through many a heart within miles of his residence, as it was spread from lip to lip that John Younger was dead. On a long summer day, the 19th of June, when the pleasant sights and objects of his “dear native valleys’’ wore their freshest aspect, John Younger died. For some time previous, his hardy compact frame, that had stood the buffets of a life longer than the common span, shewed signs of decay. There is little doubt that poverty, with its saddening distractions, weighed upon the elasticity of his nature. Physical ailments, of the class that would have been greatly modified by easier circumstances, had begun to drag him back from various literary enterprises, which his attempts at public lectures had marked out. The lithe motion of body and of limb became touched with the proofs of declining strength; yet, his many personal friends never doubted on counting on his familiar presence for years to come. Death, however, came quickly and sternly, and after a brief struggle with a paralytic seizure, John Younger succumbed. In his views of life, and its allotments of trial, he had ever cherished a wish that his end might come under circumstances in which he would leave the world without being a tax or trouble to any. The wish was gratified; and the week that saw him looking from the river head-lands of his beautiful Les-sudden, saw him also lying in St Boswells’ churchyard.

It is trite enough to remark, that John Younger was no common man. His equal has seldom been seen in the class to which he belonged. When it is borne in mind that his education was exceedingly meagre, costing from first to last not more than is now expended on a middle class child in one quarter— that he plodded along in the same groove of occupation and habit all his life, long—and had few opportunities of being abroad, and obtaining for his natural acuteness of observation the extended range of objects that is essential to enlarged mental culture, the conviction is forced upon the observer who offers an estimate of him, that, falling in at his proper place he was one of these men of mother wit, original ideas, and marked capacity, who, in Scotland, are represented by Robert Burns, and Hugh Miller, John Leyden, and The Ettrick Shepherd.

As a follower of the somewhat lightly esteemed, but essential avocation of shoemaker, he belongs to the illustrious craft from among whose awls and lasts have come, according to Coleridge (in defiance of the stale Latinism), some patriots of large soul, theologians with pale faces, and hair crisp with study, missionaries of world-embracing Christian zeal, critics, and their victims—the builders of the lofty rhyme.

As we find from the autobiography, which during a course of many years he had prepared, “ he was the child of honest parents, the youngest of a family of six, was born at Langnewton, in the parish of Ancrum, on the 5th of July, 1785.” Langnewton standing on the high banks of the Ale, at that time had pretentions to rank as a Scottish village, from which, by the rural changes, it has passed into a seldom seen, unvisited hamlet. It had the usual village characteristics, and Younger commenced the school of observation on what he saw and heard in it. There was the now obsolete weaver of “customer wark,” the never to be obsolete blacksmith, with his nightly band of quidnuncs, such as Burns saw when a boy—the ploughman, the day labourer, the poacher, the hand-spinning matron, the dominie, and the way-faring “Daft Jock.” Towards it, as the place of his nativity, and of the earliest and most varied recollections of his life, his heart always yearned. In the Ale he caught his first trout, and under an ash tree, in a corner of the churchyard of the village, was his mother’s grave.

Sixty years ago Scotland was a poor country. She had been fighting during all her history out of a cold soil, a wet climate, and a certain sourness or grim earnestness of character, acquired by long contact with hard times—social, civil, religious and agrarian—when the black famine years, that saw out the old century and ushered the new one in, made clean teeth throughout the land. It may well be imagined what were the sharp household straits that children with empty stomachs had to struggle through. The quarter loaf rose to close on two shillings. Wheat stood at one hundred and twenty-five shillings a quarter. Parliament, by statute, enforced economy in the use of bread, prohibiting its consumption until it had been baked for twenty-four hours. The slip of an urchin did not even enjoy the licence of cow-herding. To make ends meet in his father’s struggles, he was early encased in a sheep-skin apron, and made to jerk out his elbows in drawing rosined thread.

A conscript seized upon the village green, he possessed native instincts that soon sharpened into faculties, and he sought companionship with members of animated nature. The boy became an adept in the knowledge of birds and beasts; and hawks, blear-eyed owls, and flippant jack daws, squatted around him. Bird cages blocked up the light of day, and the shoemaker’s shop, the lounge of village gossipers, was vocal with the contending songs of whole coveys of linnets and canaries. John often wondered how his honest father tolerated such an uproar. Out of doors he early picked up a knowledge of the habits and kinds of birds. The slightest twit in a hedge or wood, would tell its name; and he did not require the old poacher, who sat smoking on the settle of the yellow-ochred cottage door, to tell him the destination, on the minnowy stream, of the great flaunting heron which sailed high over the village chimney tops. The best angler to this day is he who knows most about the habitat of the finny

tribe ; and the shoemaker lad, with his quick perceptions, learnt how to catch trout almost at his will. He would cut his hazel* wand from the young wood, and though the trouts might be shy to the nicest turn out of rod and tackle, he would come home with the, bunching strap of silvery spoils, till all the village lads looked amazed. This was the fashion in which the author of the present work furnished the proof of his early attainments in the gentle art.

There needed to be no readier sign of the natural cleverness of the prentice shoemaker than his waterside craft. In his own words, “ he flew to the Ale water and fished for trout as much for his dinner as for amusement.” In the dear years a dinner purveyed with so little labour was not to be despised, for these were dreadful times. They have served all the men who fasted in the pinches of the hungry epoch with a tale of such distress as has not died out till this day. How often have readers of this notice heard old men narrate the dismal story of meal at seven shillings the stone! Flodden itself haS hardly sent down to after times so sad a sough as Hazel seems to be a kind of wood that anglers instinctively draw to; anglers at least who cannot pay for shop-made rods. In Walton’s time it was the favourite wood, and- James Baillie, accounted by several authors and many anglers the best fly-fisher of the present day, angles daily with a two-piece hazel rod cut from the wood-bank, and angled with as cut.have those dear years! We find few written records of them too. They were too early for onr best working-class autobiographers, Hugh Miller and Somerville. When John Younger’s autobiography is given to the world we will have the right idea how the poorer families fared. His share in it was not small, for he had nearly perished from the long want of sufficient sustenance. He has described himself as the member of the family, who, with his natural shiftiness, was selected to seek credit at the corn mills in the neighbourhood where meal was sold. When he had procured a supply he set off at full speed (for he knew the household was at the starving point), running over the dreary fields with the pock under his arm. Temptation would assail him, and he would untwist the neck of the bag, and gulp down with hungry hurry the dry meal, and then, lest he should be tempted again, he would twirl up the neck beyond ready reach, and run with additional speed. What a picture of the times is here presented! The Scottish people may well cherish the memory of the period with pride, for they endured the trial nobly. The sensitiveness as to accepting parochial relief even survived the crisis. John Younger’s account may enable even statesmen to compare the different ways in which the Scotch and the Irish have borne up against the calamities of famine.

John Younger was a manly-hearted boy, and strove to utter no murmur in his hard pressed father’s hearing. He bore up against despondency, and like Bunyan, he even owned to a bit of monologue; for one day, while staring into a pool of water, he fancied his shadow accosted him by saying, “keep up yer heart Jock Younger, keep up yer heart ma man Jock.” Jock took the hint, and heaven sent brighter days.

John’s first contact with literature deserves to be noted. He had read Jack the Griant Killer, and scarcly dreamed of anything higher than the great nursery epic. A blacksmith in advance of his time repeated a portion of “ Doctor Hornbook,’’ mentioning the name of Burns, who was then only a few years dead. The slenderly versed shoemaker asked “whae was Burns?”—a Burns, man (was the rejoinder), have ye never heard of Bums the poet, who beats Allan Bamsay, and the whole lot of Scotch poets to sticks!” John heard the bookish Burnewin with melancholy curiosity, and sighed at the idea of exclusion from such poetic wealth. But St Boswells’ fair came, and he sallied up the thronged alleys between the krames with sixpence in his pocket, and grasped the prize of his heart, a sewed copy of the said “ Burns’ Poems.” Home he went, for the fair had no further charms for him. Into the heart of a blackberry bush, that flourished with a kind of arbour shape in his father’s garden, he tumbled, and, with a bright disdain, left the showman-spoutings, the busy hum, the gaudy, touting, holiday enticements, to those who cared for them.

The village of Bowden was not far off. A line from Clapperton, an old Scotch poet, “at Bowden, on black Monanday,” shews that the village had received poetic mention. In addition to being the birth place of Thomas Aird, the imperfect fulfiller of great poetic promise, it takes credit for fostering the nativity of Andrew Scott, the author of the quaint but classic piece of dialogue rhythm “Symon and Janet,” beginning,

Surroundit wi’ bent, an’ wi’ heather,
Where mnircocks an’ plivers are rife,
For mony lang towmond thegether,
There lived an auld man an’ his wife.

To Andrew, John made up and was received with kindliness. In return, John rendered homage as to genius, and a friendship was formed, lasting till the old barnman flung down the flail never to uplift it.

The era of the false alarm, originating in the juncture of Buonaparte’s threatened invasion, was a period of vivid sensations to the subject of our notice, as it was to most at that time. He was strutting on the top of his teens, and shouldered a firelock as a member of the Militia Corps. This he did with a perfect consciousness expressed all through life, that fighting was the most abject of all human occupations. The trade of soldiering was abhorrent to his moral sense and the habits of his mind ; and no member of the peace society could have more scrupulously examined the motives under which he appeared as a defender of his country. In one of his opinions on the subject, afterwards recorded, he says, “ it is very distressing for the human mind to contemplate the dire movement of congregated masses of flesh and blood, dragged out in the train of hellish ambition for the most horrible purposes, following individuals who shew themselves so utterly unworthy of even personal existence.” On the night on which the beacons were lighted, the 31st January, 1804, when the heart of the nation heaved in one fiery swell of patriotic feeling, John marched to the place of rendezvous, ten miles distant, and tore his trousers in scaling the palisades of Kelso bridge tollhouse. The grotesque features of his night’s adventures, full many a time and oft he was wont to bring up at the annual convivial meeting, held at St Boswells to this day, to commemorate the historic event, and the story never grew tiresome in the telling.

At twenty-five, John had settled in life, had a wife, Agnes Biddle by name, and a house of his own, shoemaking his trade, and St Boswells or Lessudden his residence for life. In a notice of a man who, spent his days in following one of the most plebeian of occupations, it is difficult to find individual incidents to make out the track of his existence. His original thinking powers soon marked him off as one who could not be invisible in the dead inertness of rural life. On the north side of the village was a picture of silvan and river scenery, in the winding of the peerless Tweed, such as might have haunted any man possessing less idealism than John, with the pleasure which nature in her diviner glimpses yields. There was Dry burgh, rearing its time-stricken gables among the trees ; but strange to say such an object excited no pleasure in John. These haunts of monks and their worn out superstitions he despised, as having formed part of the imposture which had retarded freedom of ideas and common sense among men. He had more true delight in watching the motions of the water ousel skipping and coquetting on the river shallows, or in listening to the snatch of the red-breast’s pleasant or plaintive carol on the apple tree, than in the survey of all the abbeys of Domesday book. “ The monks (with him) were dead and buried, and let them lie, without bringing them on the stage of life, where they had done so little to deserve mankind’s respect.” Carious to say he did not care at all for the writings of Sir Walter Scott. With some who knew him little, this may be set down to an absence of true imaginative culture, but the fact was, it arose out of a quaint peculiarity of mind. He looked on the Waverley literature as “ old piper stories,” “ dwarf and witch tales,” and monstrous caricatures, of Scottish manners. He never threw himself in Scott’s way, though living in the same locality. When he sauntered to the top of the village cliff to look riverward, and sniff the western breeze, the object in the landscape which the resting place of the minstrel formed, would catch his eye and yet excite no passing sigh.

The following work will have suggested that fishing was one of his greatest sources of recreation. In the course of years it passed from recreation almost to regular occupation. The Tweed, the stately stream, in its scenic associations and bright remembrances of sport, and friends, and merry hours, became the silver bond that knitted all his sympathies to the locality of St Boswells. The kind of Austrian rigour with which angling privilege on the river is now protected had then no existence. There is not a shadow of a doubt that the Tweed was then far more the poor man’s river than it is now. Things stood on an easier footing between laird and commoner. John Haliburton, on his perch of Craig-o’er, rented the Merton water at fifteen pounds a-year, with a cow’s grass, and often as he passed his friend, the shoemaker’s door, he called out a kindly invitation for him to come down and get a cast. Younger’s great natural powers of observation, conjoined with a wary watchfulness of fish, and steady practice at the rod, united in making him a proficient in the art. His reputation increased as his friendships extended, and from far and near, his fishing knowledge and company were courted. Apart altogether from his literary turn and tendency to blacken paper, he was marked off as a man of note, and hailed as a “ Tweedside Gnostic.” The shoemaker’s shop was a house of call for all the "VValtonian brotherhood: dukes, lords, Galashiels weavers, escaped Parliament men, squires, cotton lords, and the whole medley whose boot heels ever crunched the pebbly shore of the glorious river or its tributaries, came at times to hear John Younger discourse on the theme, which, ahead of rivals, he had so well mastered. And what a crack was his ! And how meagre and few the souls for whom it possessed no relish. He could tell the waggle of the wand that could most deftly throw the line, and the bits of wood that, pieced together, made up the best style of rod. Rods he could manufacture on the shrewdest principle of effect. Fishing tackle and hooks he knew by intuition; for how a salmon viewed things as he lay in his watery haunt was part of the fishing art. The occupation of shoemaker made fishing boots ready to his hand, and he came to be noted for his skill in the fabrication of these gentlemanly appurtenances of the pursuit : but it is unnecessary to dwell with any minuteness on this branch of his many acquirements, as the following essay discloses all the proofs of a most extensive knowledge of the subject.

Out of all the wide variety of friendly contacts, it may be assumed that John Younger had many opportunities of increasing his knowledge of the ideas current in the world beyond the sphere in which he had to make his bread. The late Sir Robert Peel, in one of his speeches, said he had studied the wants of the nation by contact with the highest personages of the realm, and had conversed with the Highland shepherd on the hills, and heard him tell his artless views of human life ; and many a member of the governing class, or of the “ upper ten thousand,” would discuss public affairs in perfect equality with the obscure shoemaker, and perhaps gather conviction on some point which he had failed to elicit amid the contentions of party and the perplexities of unconscious prejudice. On one occasion when the Hon. J. E. Elliot was visiting his constituency, being Member for Roxburghshire, he happened to call in a friendly way upon his friend the shoemaker, who, talking of political affairs, remarked, that he never had enjoyed an opportunity of seeing Lord John Russell; and that with his recollections of public men it would be a pleasure to him just to shake hands with a politician whose personal integrity men of all shades of opinion respect. No sooner said than done. The worthy member got John Younger crushed into the carriage beside him, and whirled him off to Minto House, where Lord John Russell happened to be on a visit; and there and then he left the two to a conversation, such as produced a lively impression of pleasure upon both parties.

We are aware that John Younger came to be viewed with some jealousy, as a man who held extreme political opinions. With his outspoken disposition, and forcible powers of expression, he could hardly escape such an imputation. In this respect we think he was misjudged. He was a poor man, and naturally took the side that poor men take when questions affecting popular privileges are under discussion; but he was remarkably free from all political crotchets. When the chartist movement was at its formidable stage he was invited to take part in it, but declined, seeing no good results to follow, and imputing to it not a few bad ones at the period. He has recorded the following remark on political discussion: “The man who will tell me that because I am a poor man, I have no business with the government of my country, I must despise as something worse than a simple idiot.” He has the following just remarks on public affairs, and the principle by which they should be conducted. “ A continual stirring, in what are called state contentions, is kept up by parties for public offices, in idea of honour or profit, or both; but these are comparatively like winds and storms to the balance of the general atmosphere, partial and trivial in their effects, compared with the spirit of the exclusive principle, which is ever generative of those heart burnings which excite to political volcanoes, eruptions, and earthquakes.” The Reform Bill he hailed as a great and just measure, constituting “an inestimable general privilege,” which “would exercise a wholesome influence over the tergiversations, and abuses of public trust by the governing few.”

On the com laws, the repeal of which has done more to sweeten the breathy Dr Chalmers phrased it, of British society than any measure in living memory, John Younger vented his hottest ire ; their evils he summed in few words—they hood-winked the farmer, and raised to the poor man the price of bread. He heaped on these laws his bitterest scorn, and threw off various Corn Law Rhymes to fan the flame which their prolongation was exciting. Some of these found their way to Ebenezer Elliott, the Corn Law Rhymer of Sheffield, who, in a letter of acknowledgment, asked why their author wasted his strength in verse when he possessed so much natural energy as a prose writer. Elliott’s letter was accompanied by a gift of a complete edition of his works, of which John was exceedingly proud.

Twelve years, however, before the corn laws closed their account of social and civil mischief, John Younger had.registered himself an author. In 1834 he gave to the world a small publication, entitled “Thoughts as they Rise" a poem in Byronic measure. It was an attempt at a poem, constructed “without an imaginary hero, romanting through its cantos.” Whether owing to the plot wanting thu3 confessedly the part of Hamlet, or to the disrelish on the part of the public, for moralizations by a shoemaker on human affairs, the work fell still-born from the press, and further cantos, which were threatened, John kept to himself.

The poem is, however, a remarkable production for a working man, if we consider the command over the English language, the easiness of versification, the occasional force and beauty of the sentiments which it betrays.

At random we make an extract:

“And so I envy none their lands and dower,
Nor all that they can claim below the skies,
Yet can’t resist the wish I had the power,
To wipe the tear from modest mourning eyes.

How blest to deck the lowly humble bower
With winter fire, and summer sunshine joys,
Change many a sigh of want into a song,
And cause the stream of life flow clear along.

* * * *

Or this picture of rural zest:

“O, how I love the moorland scene of spring
Beneath the smile of morning’s ruddy glow,
The whirr of heath-cock, and the curving swing
Of snipe high booming o'er the marshy flow—

The fond solicitude of flapping wing,
To lead the wanderer from the nest below;
I love the sivuff of every out-field feather—
By wood or stream, or ’mid the purple heather,”

With the bulk of men engaged in manual occupations, writing is irksome and slow work; the fingers are stiff, and the connexion between brain and pen-holding is an awkward task. John Younger was an exception to all this. He would beat his lapstone and draw his thread all day, and betake himself for relief to letter writing. His invariable plan was to make liis knees his writing desk, and in this uninviting attitude the great bulk of his MS. was produced; not scrawled and blotched, but presented in a small clear elegant penmanship, which in the case of a self-taught workman is rarely met with. With friends at a distance, men who had left St Boswells for the broader field of adventure and pursuit which it could not supply, or friends of a chance intimacy, he maintained an extensive correspondence, making his epistles so much the record of his careful thinking that he took copies of them. In this way an immense quantity of manuscript accumulated in the course of years, significant of the ceaseless mental activity which characterised him. At his death there were more than seven hundred copies of letters which he had addressed to friends. Many of these had been written to men of literary eminence or public distinction, giving his views of the opinions associated with their names. This collection he cherished as the treasure of his mental history. Sometimes when leaving home he used to warn his family that if the house took fire in his absence, next to saving themselves they should save these writings. Composition coming so readily to him, and friends often hinting the propriety of the step, he betook himself, after the period of middle life, to prepare an autobiography, a species of personsal narrative always interesting, no matter what may have been the limited sphere of existence of the writer. The work in his hands grew from less to great, so that some years before his death it amounted to the contents of two goodly volumes.

It contains much racy description of local occurrences and manifestations of village character, beginning with life at Langnewton, and following on in narration of the fate, fortunes, and families of his acquaintance. The publication of the work will, we trust, be not long deferred ;. and we venture to describe it such as will form a genuine accession to autobiographic literature.

Shoemaking was but a poor trade to a man struggling with a family, and pulled at by needy friends; and it was to be regretted that so much literary industry, as he displayed, brought such slight rewards. On several occasions he received an acknowledgment for articles connected with angling or natural history. In 1840 he appeared as the author of the Essay on angling, of which the present work is a re-written edition. He often lamented that he could not bring the knowledge he possessed on many subjects to more account. The year 1847 brought an opportunity by which he could measure his capacity and literary grasp with the men of his class. John Henderson, Esq. of Park, a gentleman distinguished for his zeal in every good cause, by way of directing public opinion to the better observance of the Sabbath, proposed three prizes for the best Essays on the “Temporal advantages of the Sabbath to the labouring classes.” John Younger’s eye fastened on the public announcement. “The hour and the man” had come together, and he resolved to try his hand in the competition. More than a year passed away, when the intimation was exultingly speeded over the south of Scotland that John Younger had obtained the second prize. A thrill of pleasure cheered Tweedside as the good news was repeated from mouth to mouth, and John became the theme of applauding tongues in every circle. To London he must go to receive the prize of 15 from the Earl of Shaftesbury in Exeter Hall. He was whirled out of Lessudden one afternoon, and the following day saw him in London lionized amid the plaudits of multitudes. It was the triumph which ambition could have envied, to have seen the north country shoemaker, with the guileless unpretending presence standing up to receive the well-won reward. This was the greatest event in John Younger’s life, and he ever afterwards referred to it as something, in its public and exciting accompaniments, far beyond the possibilities that fate had allotted to his career.

To mark the gratification which was experienced in the district, by this recognition of his abilities, he was entertained at a public dinner, in St Boswells Inn, by a highly respectable gathering, and presented with a purse of sovereigns.

Upon the solid merits of the “ Light of the Week,” the title of the essay, we need not occupy much space in remarking. We question if the author ever held the pen with a freer or more vigorous style. The composition is admirable throughout, distinguished by sententious force, picturesque illustrations, and a vivid logical treatment of the subject, such as the pulpit or divinity of a heavier texture might envy.

Shortly after the event, a vacancy having occurred in the village post office, the appointment was, on the recommendation of the Hon. J. E. Elliot, at that time member for the county, conferred upon John, in the belief that his advancing years would find an easier living than in toiling at his old trade. The result, however, proved different from what was expected. The rigid exactitude of rule, the perplexing net work of forms and business routine, were more than one accustomed to the simple machinery of making shoes could overtake, and when the life was nearly vexed out of him, in January 1856 John threw up the appointment in disgust. To the present writer and a friend, who called shortly after, he said he felt himself, when postmaster, like a caged squirrel running over its never-ending wheel, but that when he was free he felt himself just like the squirrel on the top of a tree, u ready to jump wherever he liked/’

The celebration of the Burns’ centenary, in 1859, stimulated John to bring out a lecture on the genius and character of the national bard. He had a fancy that he could treat the subject in a way of his own believing that many traits and perplexing points in Burns’ history had been misunderstood, and that purely literary men had not been grounded as he had been in the experience of a social condition, similar to that from which Burns started, to take the natural and plain, common-sense view of the poet’s case. At the very period that old William Burnes' was breaking his heart, and working the flesh off his bones with vexation on the “seven poor acres of nursery ground,” near to Alio way Kirk, John Younger’s father was making a hard fight to get ends to meet by cobbling shoes and renting a fourteen acre farm on the Langnewton barony. Old Younger had “ to thole a factor’s snash,” like him of Doonside, and the son remembered that the crisis of the household arrived when the cow was distrained for rent.

Like Burns, John Younger, from infancy, had cherished a deep and earnest sympathy with nature. He had all his days loved the country, and never had been a denizen of city or town. The woods, the green fields, the dingles and dells, and shady coverts of the river side, the red-breast perking among the berry bushes of the cottager’s garden on a grave autumn day, the blackbird or throstle piping in the budding beech, the great crow armies blackening the fields, or drifting up into mid air with many-throated clangour, and scattering themselves away in the endless fields of sky, the fresh, newly furrowed land, with the white pick-maw sailing about the sober ploughman’s team-gang, the sights and sounds that had their being ere man betook himself to build cities and live in masses, were the educating influences that had made John Younger what he came to be, and which inspired him with an ambition to interpret in plain story the life of Robert Burns. And common consent, though candid enough to admit that some of his conclusions might be open to objection, confessed that John Younger was in a large degree successful in what he had undertaken. His critical estimate of Burns had a rough matter-of-fact quality about it. He did not sail in the clouds in flights of eloquence, or discourse in grand allegorical tropes like Carlyle. With a pooh, pooh, and a humph of contempt, he ridiculed the so-called romance, “The glory and the joy,” with which imaginative writers had surrounded the bard’s existence.

Very much romance indeed, he thought, there was about the greatest man in a nation lying in a stable loft, and spending his pain-racked midnights amid the perfumes of such an abode, listening to the nags below stirring, stamping, or riving at the fusionless bog hay! He considered that Burns was too much the companion of every day suffering to sustain any such picture as Wordsworth had drawn, and thought that he drove his plough to another tune, that of dour, determined, conquering toil, tugging at his awkward nags amid the birns and bumping boulders of a farm which never could yield meat or clothes, or household peace to the poor tenant. He thought if ever Burns played a servile part it was in dedicating his poems to the Caledonian Hunt. What did such a pack care about poems! They were a bye word in Scotland at the very time, for a story had gone abroad that they had hunted a bitch fox over several miles of country, and at the death found the poor animal had carried one of its pups all the way in its mouth. It was a treat to see the unaffected bonhomie of the “old man eloquent,” elevated on the lecture bench, to talk of Burns. He had the key of a sympathetic fellow-feeling to all the phases of Burns’ life. No one who listened, but admitted that a shrewder, more instinctive apprehension of that life, had seldom been produced. When he came to offer selections of the favourite poems, his warm loving admiration of the verses knew no bounds. “Here awa, there awa, wandering Willie,” he designated the tenderest and most beautiful love song which ever came from the lips of man ; and as his voice repeated several of the stanzas, the tributary tears of emotion coursed down his cheeks. The lecture was delivered in most of the towns and villages in the Border district, and the proceeds were sufficiently respectable to promise, by his extending his tour, what would be a nest egg for the wants of his advancing years. A number of his Border friends resident in Glasgow invited him to the western metropolis to deliver the lecture there. He was able to accomplish the visit, but with unfavourable results to himself. Exposure to extremely severe weather during his movements, brought on an attack of rheumatism, which prostrated and confined him to his lodgings for several weeks. The attendant expense of this misfortune melted away most of his gains, and he reached Lessudden as poor as ever.

During the long and severe winter of 1859-60 he was seldom seen abroad, and did not regain much strength. Generally cheerful and unrepining, he began to confess himself as growing old, and less able for active work at his ordinary trade. In conversation on some of his favourite topics, he regretted he had accomplished so small a portion of what he felt was within his reach. He had a fancy he could prepare several papers on some of the social changes which had come under his observation—furnishing sketches of the rural improvements and altering condition of the population, and cognate subjects. Work of this description he was well able to perform, and he was nrged by his friends to over-take it. Daily bread, however, was still with him to be reached by working with the leather apron about him, and he continued to make or cobble shoes, to the extent which his health permitted. For several months he had been less before the public eye, and when the stroke which separated him from all earthly friendships occurred, a painful surprise was created. As we have stated in the opening of this notice, his end came quickly. He had been apparently in nearly his usual health and spirits, and had been persuing his favourite story from the German, “The Journal of a Poor Vicar”— a narrative which he almost knew by heart—when illness, disclosing a hopeless paralytic seizure ensued, and before another day was gone John Younger was dead.

That John Younger was a recognized celebrity was seen in the many genial tributes to his character and attainments which instantly appeared in the Edinburgh and local press—several of them eloquent and lengthy. In the Scotsman’s article he was designated as “ one of the most remarkable men of the population of the south of Scotland; whether as a genial writer of prose or verse, or a man of high conversational powers, and clear common sense, the shoemaker of St Boswells had few or no rivals in the south—in his death leaving behind him no enemies, and the memory of a guileless, unblameable, honest life.”

The Caledonian Mercury had a similar kindly notice. Younger’s friend for many years, eminent as a scholar and linguist, William Brockie of the Sunderland Times, gave a sketch of his character, summing the leading features of his career, thus—“Of poor, but honest and respectable parentage, he continued poor, but honest and respectable; his whole life a hard struggle against poverty, owing in a great measure to unfortunate family and business connections. Happy in wedded life, he was for many years a widower—his children grown up and settled. Nature made him a poet, a philosopher, and a nobleman ; society made him a cobbler of shoes (a good one), a postmaster (indifferent), and a mortgaged feuar of Lessudden.”

In the village in which he had spent the greater portion of his more than three score years and ten, the death of its most notable man was felt with the pang which friendship feels when its circle is suddenly narrowed. John Younger dead ! he who gave a character to the little town, and who brought many a visitor to it; who always evoked the play of human nature’s kindlier moods. John was not adjudged as without faults. In some of the pursuits of life he was not a successful man, and perhaps in a world in which the material measure is apt to be applied, a short-coming of success is not viewed as without blame. He was deficient in practical talent. Industrious and second to none as a maker of shoes, he never acquired the art which could carry him beyond the rank of a small country tradesman. At times in his career he had his foot beyond the threshold of difficulties, when some business or domestic contingency would drag him back, and he was the same poor man. It spoke much to the general tone of his character that even those who might have occasion, by business transactions, to sit in judgment on him, always stopped short of a harsh conclusion, and finished with an expression of sympathy or kind regard. The warm and respectful feeling shewn towards him by every one, avouched his possession of qualities of head and heart honourably combined. In the village all felt his departure. The boys and girls who would not disturb the bird’s nest in his garden, nor furtively abstract the flushing fruit of his plum tree, will cherish his memory. The old inhabitant who had plodded on life’s journey, and had often stepped in to compare notes on public and local matters, missed the social crack and sneeshin mull. The fascination that was wont to draw delighted listeners, and which stirred so many a bright conversation, and shook out so many a bright idea, which grappled with the dialectics of ever so varied subjects of human enquiry, had disappeared. The end of the pleasant village, with its garden intersections and quaint bye lanes, its crumbling bluff of river wall, and commanding outlook on the umbrageous pomp of wood and stream, had “ lost its wierdest and its wariest eye.”

One morn we missed him on the accustomed hill,
Along the heath, and near his favourite tree,—
Another came, nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he.

In personal appearance John Younger had always a hale hardy look. Possessing a frame compactly knit, of moderate height, of an erect open bearing, he wore into years without shewing many traces of age. When a young man he was distinguished by his agility and skill in athletic and manly sport, and he excelled as a pedestrian. The faithful etching prefixed to the volume gives the man in his facial expression as he is remembered by all his friends. There was a guileless, frank kindliness of manner about him, which carried in it the freemasonry of warm fellow-feeling, and placed him at his ease with all with whom he came in contact.

We have in the preceding pages attempted to introduce the reader to a familiar conception of the man as he appeared in his own walk of life, from an impression that the naked publication of the work on angling would have been meagre without some light being thrown upon the character and occupations of its author. We might have enumerated some of the subjects which he illustrated by his descriptive pen; many of them were fugitive sketches, but in good hands, they would bear a reappearance in a volume of selections. His poetical effusions, always marked by merit, were more a proof of his varied ability than of any strong natural bias to the cultivation of the muse. In summing a notice of his life, it may not be out of place to present a specimen of his success in this department of literary craft. The first piece was written in 1837, and abounds in the home feeling which marked his domestic history. The second breathes a spirit of the tenderest conjugal love, and as a memorial of their married life, is as creditable as it is delicately expressed. John was in the fullest sense a domestic man, a kind and indulgent father, and a faithful husband. For the partner of his life he cherished the affection of his youth. When prostrate with illness during his Glasgow visit, he wrote to his friends at Lessudden, that if he died they were to bring his body to St Boswells churchyard, and lay it beside his Nannie. The sad duty alluded to in the closing stanza fell to be performed by John, his wife’s death having preceded his own by several years.

There may be sweeter spots afar
That I have never seen,
And lofty towers and rivers clear
With flowery vales between:

And fairer faces too may grace
The garden and the hall:
But there’s a place, and there’s a face
That’s dearest of them all.

And O! our cradle spot of earth—
Where light first took our e’e,
And mother’s love our infant heart—
Where’er that spot may be :

Tho’ it were even slavery’s soil
And we got free to rove,
Yet wander how or where we will,
’Twill claim our latest love.

The swallow dreams on Afric’s shore of
Scotia’s summer pride;
And plumes her wing, and knows her hour
To hasten to Tweedside.

The cliff or skaur she kens afar,
And towering ruins grey,
Where she was nursed—in Dryburgh’s bower,
The lap of flowery May.

The salmon gray of Tweed or Spey,
Returning from the sea,
Seeks to its native river stream,
Whichever stream it be.

Even spirits ’mong celestial orbs,
In glory roaming free,
May own to earth, their first abode,
A soul-felt sympathy.

And there is yet anither bield
That ne’er can be forgot—
Tho’ in his age from thence expelled—
My Nannie’s father’s cot.

In memory’s light, like glow-worm gleams,
My fancy yet recalls
Love’s youngest hopes, and downy dreams
Still nestling round its walls.


Its now full twa an’ forty year,
Since nestling in wi’ Nannie ;
As weel my part, I held her dear,
Sae faithfu’, young, an’ bonnie.
Her tocher was a trifle sma,’
A hard-earned weel-saved pennie;
But o’ tocher could I think ava,
When in my arms my Nannie.

Nae artfu’wiles, plied e’er sae fain,
Could move the mind o’ Nannie;
Hal courtiers wooed ’twould been in vain,
Her heart was held by Johnnie.
Of cares we’ve had our world’s share,
Through stormy days and sunny;
My part has been the less to bear,
I’ve had sic help o’ Nannie.

A welding heat o’ strong young love
Will last through winters many;
The frosts of years but tend to prove
The links that bind to Nannie.
Though teeth are fled, and locks grown gray,
She’s yet sae kind and cannie—
Love that outlasts young life’s hey-day
Is the love I bear my Nannie.

’Mid a’ the thoughts that trouble me,
The saddest thought of ony
Is wha may close the other’s e’e—
May it be me or Nannie?
The ane that’s left may sairly feel,
Amid a world uncanny;
I'd rather brave auld age mysel'
Than lanely leave my Nannie.

Autobiography of John Younger (1881)
River Angling for Salmon and Trout (1864)

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