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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


THE prevalence of vagrants of divers sorts formed a distinctive feature in the social life of the nation for a very long period. In his "Second Discourse on the Affairs of Scotland" (A.D. 1698), Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun gives a very forcible picture of the state of matters in this respect, as known to him. At the date of his writing, the occurrence of three bad harvests in succession had no doubt made things worse; yet, says Fletcher, "In all times there have been about one hundred thousand of those vagabonds who had lived without any regard or subjection either to the laws of the land or even those of God and Nature. No magistrate could ever be informed, or discover, which way one in a hundred of these wretches died, or that ever they were baptized. Many murders have been discovered among them; and they are not only a most unspeakable oppression to poor tenants—who, if they give not bread or some kind of provision to perhaps forty such villains in one day, are sure to be insulted by them—but they rob many poor people who live in houses distant from any neighbourhood. In years of plenty many thousands of them meet together in the mountains, where they feast and riot for many days; and at country weddings, markets, burials, and the like public occasions, they are to be seen—both men and women—perpetually drunk, cursing, blaspheming, and fighting together." Perhaps this sketch by the sincere and ardent patriot may be strongly enough outlined; the numbers would certainly seem to be overstated; but doubtless the actual reality had been sufficiently bad. Fletcher had the courage of his opinions, and he believed in thorough-going remedies. Therefore, founding upon the example of the "wise antients," such as the Greeks, he tells us he would have had all these lawless wandering people assigned in perpetual servitude to the owners of the soil and others. He did not doubt of his proposal being met "not only with all the misconstruction and obloquy, but all the disdain, fury, and outcries of which either ignorant magistrates or proud, lazy, and miserable people are capable." But they must pardon him if he told them that he regarded "not names but things." The slaves of the ancients were assured in "clothes, diet, and lodging," and by their means many useful public works were accomplished. "The original of that multitude of beggars which now oppress the world" he found to have proceeded from Churchmen, who, without warrant of Scripture, and in the teeth of Paul’s injunction, that in whatever condition of life a man was called to the Christian faith he was to remain content, even if a slave, had recommended nothing more strongly to masters, in order to the salvation of their souls, than freeing those of their slaves who would embrace the Christian faith; a course which soon led to many disorders in the East, and ultimately to that "great mischief, under which, to the undoing of the poor, all the nations of Europe have ever since groaned." Why, then, not adopt the remedy that would both better the vagabonds of the country socially themselves, and render them productive industrially in the interest of the general community I Those vagrant tribes lived a life as miserable as it could well be for themselves; and they were the responsible agents of "such outrageous disorders that it were better for the nation," says Fletcher, "they were sold to the gallies or West Indies than that they should continue any longer to be a burden and a curse upon us." He further hints that, "for example and terror, three or four hundred of the most notorious of those villains whom we call jockies might be presented by the Government to the State of Venice, to serve in the gallies against the common enemy of Christendom." A robust style of treatment truly; yet in Fletcher’s scheme there was after all a germ of the remedial idea; and as much could hardly be said of the prevailing notions among the local Magistrates of the time, which extended no further than simply to have sturdy beggars, "both old and young, men and women," and such like people warned off their respective territories, "under pain of scourging."

For a full century after Fletcher’s time, vagrancy, if somewhat mitigated in character, was not greatly reduced in respect of numbers; and the scene described as taking place iii Poosie Nancy’s continued to be enacted, with variations, in many a similar howff :—

Ae nicht at e’en a merry core
O’ randie gangrel bodies
In Poosie Nancy’s held the splore,
To drink their orra duddies.
Wi’ quaffin’, an’ laughin’,
They rantit an’ they sang;
Wi’ jumpin’, an’ thumpin’,
The vera girdle rang.

The "Process against the Egiptians," tried and condemned to death at Banff, in 1700, affords certain authentic glimpses of the style of life described by Fletcher. Of the four accused persons who all were sent to the gibbet, one has obtained a certain kind of immortality, James M’Pherson, said to have been the son of a highland gentleman by a gipsy mother; who is traditionally credited with his share of the ideal freebooter’s chivalrous generosity, as also a measure of skill in handling the violin; and thus we are told—

He played a spring an’ danced it roun’
Aneth the gallows tree;

winding up by breaking the fiddle over his knee because none of the bystanders would accept as a gift the instrument for which its owner had no further use. The charges found relevant against the gang of whom M’Pherson was one, were those of being "knowne habit and repute to be Egiptians and vagabonds, and keeping the inercats in their ordinarie manner of thieving and purse cutting, or guilty of the crimes of thift, masferfull bangstrie and oppressione." The depositions of the witnesses serve to inform us that the "Egiptians" (gipsies), were wont to appear in the country, markets, notably St. Rufus Fair, Keith, to the number, occasionally, of six or eight together, armed, to the terror of his Majesty’s peaceably disposed lieges, assaulting such as they chose, and setting on their women, who spoke an unknown tongue for the occasion to cut purses; that at other times they would get temporary housing on some doubtful form of tenancy, stealing "kail" and "peats" from the neighbours quite freely, and almost openly; while occasionally a sheep would disappear, the theft of which they would deny, but rather than have too strict inquisition made, especially if backed by adequate powers, would agree to pay the price of it; and that a more common mode of finding quarters was to take possession, without leave asked or given, of somebody’s kiln-barn, and then refuse to be dispossesáed until it suited them to remove. While thus located, they "some tymes stayed a fourtnight or even a month," threatening reprisals on such as chose to meddle with them; and if they needed a "fire weshel," or such like, for use, they would take it at their own band. They also not unfrequently extorted considerable sums of money in the most barefaced fashion. The charge of one witness against M’Pherson was, that he "came into his house and spilt his ale, and stobbed the bed seeking the deponent," he being forced to flee for safety and obtain a purchased protection from my lord Seafleld. From another we have the information that M’Pherson was "one night" at his house along with others of his class, and "drank with the rest, and danced all night;" a sufficiently characteristic glimpse of gipsy life on its social side.

Various writers near the close of the eighteenth century describe Scotland as sadly over-run by vagrants, including, in some cases, Irish people, who, it seems, came over under pretence of visiting their relatives; "a duty," says one narrator caustically, "to which, it must be allowed, they are particularly attentive." The Old Statistical writer for the parish of Kinnettles, in Forfarshire, speaks thus of his locality :—" We have bands of sturdy beggars, male and female—or, as they are usually called, tinkers —whose insolence, idleness, and dishonesty are an affront to the police of our country. These persons are ready for prey of all kinds: everything that can supply them with provisions or bring them money is their spoil, if it can be obtained with any appearance of safety. They file off in small parties, and have their places of rendezvous, where they choose to billet themselves for at least one day; nor do they fail generally to make good their quarters, as the farmer is afraid to refuse to answer their demands, or to complain of the oppression under which he labours."

It had been a practice of long standing for the Aberdeen Baillies to have evil-doers, including notour vagrants, "banischit the toun;" and they had occasionally the distinction of an official drumming out as far as the Bow Brig.[The Bow Brig spanned the Denburn at Aberdeen between the Green and Windmilbrae, about the precise point where there is now a latticed iron foot bridge over the line of the Great North Railway. The Brig was at the southwest side of the town: the spot it occupied is now, as near as may be, in the centre of the extended city.] "Their honours the Baillies were always humane enough," says a local chronicler, "to send their vagrants all south, and for which cornpliment the authorities in the south no doubt considered themselves particularly obliged to their brethren in Aberdeen." On this particular point, another Forfarshire minister (Rescobie) gives a statement of fact and an opinion :—" Perth," he says, "usually furnishes out a pretty large quota; but there is no place sends forth such legions of these itinerants as Aberdeen, meaning the county as well as the town of that name. The county is extensive, fertile, and populous; the town commercial and opulent. What harm would there be in giving Aberdeen a hint that it would be both creditable and recommendable in them to take measures, as they ought, to provide for their own poor at home, rather than set them off, like a flight of locusts, to prey upon their neighbours, who are under no local obligation to receive or relieve them." But if Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire sent off hordes of vagrants to the annoyance of other places, a sufficiency of the same class were still left at home apparently. The Old Statist for Peterculter parish, for example, says :—" This country is often infested with vagrants of various descriptions, who by threats or otherwise, compel people to give them money and the best vivre8 their houses afford. They likewise pick up poultry, apparel, and what they can lay hold of. Their exactions are oppressive, their numbers often formidable, and it hurts the feelings of the humane to see so many young people trained up to the same pernicious courses."

The vagrant class embraced two distinct sections. There was the mere beggar, of the higher or lower degree, and there was the thorough-paced "caird." The male caird, to the extent of his indastrial inclination, assumed the profession of "tinkler" homer, or such like, as already indicated, leaving the details of ordinary foraging largely to his female companions. And then in the business of "sorning," pure and simple, there were degrees. Apart from the privileged bede, or blue gown men, known to certain localities in Scotland, there was a more generally diffused class of beggars, with a remnant of respectability more or less, about them, carrying multitudinous meal pocks and other receptacles, and pretty sure of an "awmous," or night quarters where asked. Then there was the inferior herd of beggars—creatures who would whine and invoke numberless blessings on your bead when they appealed to your feelings of pity, on the ground of infirmities or afflictions real or feigned, and on finding the appeal to be in vain, would turn and curse you to your face with amazing goodwill and volubility.

As a sorner, the true caird differed considerably from either of the two classes of "peer fowk." He knew he had no pretensions to the standing of the one, and he scorned to demean himself to the level of the other. The pronounced caird hardly deemed it necessary to approach you with a whine; an unshrinking and, it might be, insolent demand suited his temper better; and the remark applies not to the male caird alone. When a marriage, a funeral, or other "occasion" occurred, at which meat and drink would be supplied in quantity, the cairds seldom failed to get wind of it, and as seldom to put in appearance with the express object of sharing in the good things going. It was no easy matter to satisfy a horde of some twenty, thirty, or- more of these rapacious and lawless beings in the way of either meat or drink; and not unfrequently people who wished to save themselves from the insolent and endless onsets of the whole crew, made a compact with some guiding spirit, who undertook, on being provided with zo much as a general booty and something in the shape of a personal consideration, to keep the whole body in order. One of the last of the class of unmitigated Aberdeenshire cairds, of caird descent, and herself a "survival" from a past generation, was Lizzie Fraser, who died not very many years ago; a woman of masculine proportions, with a voice of such grating roughness as was well fitted to startle the listener on finding it owned by one clad in female habiliments. Lizzie

bad been a wife in her day too, a~nd had for her husband Moses Young, brother of Jock Young the homer, already mentioned, and himself an old soldier,

A son of Mars,
Who had
been in [certain] wars,

yet withal a quiet undemonstrative caird, who loved to loiter by the water-side, pursuing the contemplative man’s recreation. When in the zenith of her bodily prowess, this woman, in virtue of. her great muscular strength, and reckless, outrageous temper, was an acknowledged queen among her class. And if Lizzie Fraser happened to be one of the motley throng of cairds that had assembled at some festive gathering, the task of keeping order was not unfrequently entrusted to her. Of course, she expected a sufficient reward— as she would not scruple to say—for her trouble; either that, or facilities for stealing, which served the end equally well, though in a different way. And other conditions being settled to her mind, she was by no means slack in exercising her authority after a fashion to be understood, even by the least tutored caird intellect. Her method was to supply herself with a proper cudgel, and, when incipient rebellion against her sovereign rule manifested itself, she did not hesitate in applying it with a practised skill and vigour that made the offender, whether man or woman, think twice before risking a second infliction.

A female caird who preceded Lizzie in point of time, and who could boast of possessing a different and perhaps higher kind of influence, was Tibbie Campbell. She was acknowledged, amongst her tribe, not only as a ruling power, but also as a sort of high priestess and sorceress or witch. And, her "skeel" found recognition outside caird circles too. The "twal owsen" team at Mill of Carden, for example, had got some glamour cast over them. And before the ploughman and gaudman could get them "streekit" in the draught, they would run wildly, bellowing here and there, shaking the yokes off their necks, and even straining the soam itself. The thing had gone on day by day, and there seemed no remeid, till the well-to-do tenant of the farm, in his perplexity, bethought him of sending Willie Nicol, his youngest servant lad, to seek the aid of Tibbie Campbell, as a weird woman. After due inquiry, Willie found her at breakfast at fresco among a promiscuous group of her own people; and with some trouble he obtained an audience.

"An’ fat’s yer erran’ here, laddie ?" sharply demanded Tibbie Campbell.

Willie Nicol, as duly instructed, replied in his own phraseology that his master, Mr. Tait, sent his best respects to Mrs. Campbell, and would really take it as a great favour if she would come to Mill of Carden without loss of time, to examine the bewitched oxen, and prescribe a cure.

"Ou ! Jock Tait," said the Caird Queen, with a sneering laugh; and, she added, in a figure as coarse as occurred to her at the moment, that she "kent him" when he was in a state of dependant infancy. After some farther parley and cross-questioning, the messenger was dismissed with the assurance —"I canna gae wi’ ye the day, man. I’m jist gaen awa’ till anither pairt to mairry a pair; but tell ye Jock Tait that if I’m as lang oot o’ heyven as the morn’s mornin’, I’se be wi’ ‘im." On the morrow morning Tibbie was still an inhabitant of this world, and sufficiently sober after the marriage, to perform her promised journey to Mill of Carden. She was immediately taken to inspect the oxen, and, according to the narration of Willie Nicol, at once laid her hand upon one of them, with the exclamation—"This is the De’il amo’ them a’ !" And sure enough "that was the ane that aye begood the starshie !" So said Willie, and Willie in his grey old age, as in his green "youtheid," dearly loved the marvellous. It might be unkind to endeavour at this distance of time to injure Willie’s credit,~ by suggesting that Tibbie Campbell had perhaps been shrewd enough to fix on the wildest-looking ox by the mere use of her eyesight and powers of observation; perhaps, by leading questions had picked it out of Willie Nicol himself, or even his master, Jock Tait; or that, perhaps, it was a mere fancy on the part of the superstitious ploughmen to believe the ox thus pointed at to be more guilty than his other brethren of the yoke. At all events, having secured confidence thus far, Tibbie would have little difficulty in getting her employer to put faith in such remedies as she might be pleased to prescribe for the glamoured oxen.

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