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Reminiscences of Scottish Life & Character
Chapter 4 - On The Old Scottish Domestic Servant

I COME now to a subject on which a great change has taken place in this country during my own experience, viz., those peculiarities of intercourse which some years back marked the connection between masters and servants. In many Scottish houses a great familiarity prevailed between members of the family and the domestics. For this many reasons might have been assigned. Indeed, when we consider the simple modes of life, which discarded the ideas of ceremony or etiquette; the retired and uniform style of living, which afforded few opportunities for any change in the domestic arrangements; and when we add to these a free, unrestrained, informal, and natural style of intercommunion, which seems rather a national characteristic, we need not be surprised to find in quiet Scottish families a sort of intercourse with old domestics which can hardly be looked for at a time when habits are so changed, and where much of the quiet eccentricity belonging to us as a national characteristic is almost necessarily softened down or driven out. Many circumstances conspired to promote familiarity with old domestics, which are now entirely changed. We take the case of a domestic coming early into service, and passing year after year in the same family. The servant grows up into old age and confirmed habits when the laird is becoming a man, a husband, father of a family. The domestic cannot forget the days when his master was a child, riding on his back, applying to him for help in difficulties about his fishing, his rabbits, his pony, his going to school. All the family know how attached he is; nobody likes to speak harshly to him. He is a privileged man. The faithful old servant of thirty, forty, or fifty years, if with a tendency to be jealous, cross, and interfering, becomes a great trouble. Still the relative position was the result of good feelings. If the familiarity sometimes became a nuisance, it was a wholesome nuisance, and relic of a simpler time gone by. But the case of the old servant, whether agreeable or troublesome, was often so fixed and established in the households of past days, that there was scarce a possibility of getting away from it. The well-known story of the answer of one of these domestic tyrants to the irritated master, who was making an effort to free himself from the thraldom, shows the idea entertained, by one of the parties at least, of the permanency of the tenure. I am assured by a friend that the true edition of the story was this :—An old Mr Erskine of Dun had one of these retainers, under whose language and unreasonable assumption he had long groaned. He had almost determined to bear it no longer, when, walking out with his man, on crossing a field, the master exclaimed, "There’s a hare." Andrew looked at the place, and coolly replied, "What a big lee, it’s a cauff." The master, quite angry now, plainly told the old domestic that they must part. But the tried servant of forty years, not dreaming of the possibility of his dismissal, innocently asked, "Ay, sir; whare ye gaun? I’m sure ye’re aye best at hame"; supposing that, if there were to be any disruption, it must be the master who would change the place. An example of a similar fixedness of tenure in an old servant was afforded in an anecdote related of an old coachman long in the service of a noble lady, and who gave all the trouble and annoyance which he conceived were the privileges of his position in the family. At last the lady fairly gave him notice to quit, and told him he must go. The only satisfaction she got was the quiet answer, "Na, na, my lady; I druve ye to your marriage, and I shall stay to drive ye to your burial." Indeed, we have heard of a still stronger assertion of his official position by one who met an order to quit his master’s service by the cool reply, "Na, na; I’m no gangin’. If ye dinna ken whan ye’ve a gude servant; I ken whan I’ve a gude place."

It is but fair, however, to give an anecdote in which the master and the servant’s position was reversed, in regard to a wish for a change :—An old servant of a relation of my own with an ungovernable temper, became at last so weary of his master’s irascibility, that he declared he must leave, and gave as his reason the fits of anger which came on, and produced such great annoyance that he could not stand it any longer. His master, unwilling to lose him, tried to coax him by reminding him that the anger was soon off. "Ay," replied the other very shrewdly, "but it’s nae sund aff that it’s on again." I remember well an old servant. of the old school, who had been fifty years domesticated in a family. Indeed I well remember the celebration of the half-century service completed. There were rich scenes with Sandy and his mistress. Let me recall you both to memory. Let me think of you, the kind, generous, warm-hearted mistress; a gentlewoman by descent and by feeling; a true friend, a sincere Christian. And let me think, too, of you, Sandy, an honest, faithful, and attached member of the family. For you were in that house rather as a humble friend than a servant. But out of this fifty years of attached service there sprang a sort of domestic relation and freedom of intercourse which would surprise people in these days. And yet Sandy knew his place. Like Corporal Trim, who, although so familiar and admitted to so much familiarity with my Uncle Toby, never failed in the respectful address—never forgot to say "your honour." At a dinner party Sandy was very active about changing his mistress’s plate, and whipped it off when he saw that she had got a piece of rich pâté upon it. His mistress, not liking such rapid movements, and at the same time knowing that remonstrance was in vain, exclaimed, "Hout, Sandy, I’m no dune," and dabbed her fork into the "pâté" as it disappeared, to rescue a morsel. I remember her praise of English mutton was a great annoyance to the Scottish prejudices of Sandy. One day she was telling me of a triumph Sandy had upon that subject. The smell of the joint roasting had become very offensive through the house. The lady called out to Sandy to have the doors closed, and added, "That must be some horrid Scotch mutton you have got." To Sandy’s delight, this was a leg of English mutton his mistress had expressly chosen; and, as she significantly told me, "Sandy never let that down upon me."

On Deeside there existed, in my recollection, besides the Saunders Paul I have alluded to, a number of extraordinary acute and humorous Scottish characters amongst the lower classes. The native gentry enjoyed their humour, and hence arose a familiarity of intercourse which called forth many amusing scenes and quaint rejoinders. A celebrated character of this description bore the soubriquet of "Boaty," of whom I have already spoken. He had acted as Charon of the Dee at Banchory, and passed the boat over the river before there was a bridge. Boaty had many curious sayings recorded of him. When speaking of the gentry around, he characterised them according to their occupations and activity of habits, thus :—" As to Mr Russell of Blackha’, he just works himsell like a paid labourer; Mr Duncan’s a’ the day fish, fish; but Sir Robert’s a perfect gentleman—he does naething, naething." Boaty was a first-rate salmon-fisher himself, and was much sought after by amateurs who came to Banchory for the sake of the sport afforded by the beautiful Dee. He was, perhaps, a little spoiled, and presumed upon the indulgence and familiarity shown to him in the way of his craft—as, for example, he was in attendance with his boat on a sportsman who was both skilful and successful, for he caught salmon after salmon. Between each fish catching he solaced himself with a good pull from a flask, which he returned to his pocket, however, without offering to let Boaty have any participation in the refreshment. Boaty, partly a little professionally jealous, perhaps, at the success, and partly indignant at receiving less than his usual attention on such occasions, and seeing no prospect of amendment, deliberately pulled the boat to shore, shouldered the oars, rods, landing-nets, and all the fishing apparatus which he had provided, and set off homewards. His companion, far from considering his day’s work to be over, and keen for more sport, was amazed, and peremptorily ordered him to come back. But all the answer made by the offended Boaty was, "Na, na; them ‘at drink by themsells may just fish by themsells."

The charge these old domestics used to take of the interests of the family, and the cool way in which they took upon them to protect those interests, sometimes led to very provoking, and sometimes to very ludicrous, exhibitions of importance. A friend told me of a dinner scene illustrative of this sort of interference which had happened at Airth in the last generation. Mrs Murray, of Abercairney, had been. amongst the guests, and at dinner one of the family noticed that she was looking for the proper spoon to help herself with salt. The old servant, Thomas, was appealed to, that the want might be supplied. He did not notice the appeal. It was repeated in a more peremptory manner, "Thomas, Mrs Murray has not a salt-spoon!" to which he replied most emphatically, "Last time Mrs Murray dined here we lost a salt-spoon." An old servant who took a similar charge of everything that went on in the family, having observed that his master thought he had drunk wine with every lady at table, but had overlooked one, jogged his memory with the question, "What ails ye at her wi’ the green gown?"

In my own family I know a case of a very long service, and where, no doubt, there was much interest and attachment; but it was a case where the temper had not softened under the influence of years, but had rather assumed that form of disposition which we denominate crusty. My grand-uncle, Sir A. Ramsay, died in 1806, and left a domestic who had been in his service since he was ten years of age; and being at the time of his master’s death past fifty or well on to sixty, he must have been more than forty years a servant in the family. From the retired life my grand-uncle had been leading, Jamie Layal had much of his own way, and, like many a domestic so situated, he did not like to be contradicted, and, in fact, could not bear to be found fault with. My uncle, who had succeeded to a part of my grand-uncle’s property, succeeded also to Jamie Layal, and, from respect to his late master’s memory and Jamie’s own services, he took him into his house, intending him to act as house servant. However, this did not answer, and he was soon kept on, more with the form than the reality of any active duty, and took any light work that was going on about the house. In this capacity it was his daily task to feed a flock of turkeys which were growing up to maturity. On one occasion, my aunt having followed him in his work, and having observed such a waste of food that the ground was actually covered with grain which they could not eat, and which would soon be destroyed and lost, naturally remonstrated, and suggested a more reasonable and provident supply. But all the answer she got from the offended Jamie was a bitter rejoinder, "Weel, then, neist time they sall get nane !" On another occasion a family from a distance had called whilst my uncle and aunt were out of the house. Jamie came into the parlour to deliver the cards, or to announce that they had called. My aunt, somewhat vexed at not having been in the way, inquired what message Mr and Mrs Innes had left, as she had expected one. "No; no message." She returned to the charge, and asked again if they had not told him anything he was to repeat. Still, "No; no message." "But did they say nothing? Are you sure they did nothing?" Jamie, sadly put out and offended at being thus interrogated, at last burst forth, "They neither said ba nor bum," and indignantly left the room, banging the door after him. A characteristic anecdote of one of these old domestics I have from a friend who was acquainted with the parties concerned. The old man was standing at the sideboard and attending to the demands of a pretty large dinner party; the calls made for various wants from the company became so numerous and frequent that the attendant got quite bewildered, and lost his patience and temper; at length he gave vent to his indignation in a remonstrance addressed to the whole company, "Cry a’ thegither, that’s the way to be served."

I have two characteristic and dry Scottish answers, traditional in the Lothian family, supplied to me by the late excellent and highly-gifted Marquis. A Marquis of Lothian of a former generation observed in his walk two workmen very busy with a ladder to reach a bell, on which they next kept up a furious ringing. He asked what was the object of making such a din, to which the answer was, "Oh, juist, my lord to ca’ the workmen together!" "Why, how many are there?" asked his lordship. "Ou, juist Sandy and me," was the quiet rejoinder. The same Lord Lothian, looking about the garden, directed his gardener’s attention to a particular plum-tree, charging him to be careful of the produce of that tree, and send the whole of it in marked, as it was of a very particular kind. "Ou," said the gardener, "I’ll dae that, my lord; there’s juist twa o’ them."

These dry answers of Newbattle servants remind us of a similar state of communication in a Yester domestic. Lord Tweeddale was very fond of dogs, and on leaving Yester for London he instructed his head keeper, a quaint bodie, to give him a periodical report of the kennel, and particulars of his favourite dogs. Among the latter was an especial one, of the true Skye breed, called "Pickle," from which soubriquet we may form a tolerable estimate of his qualities.

It happened one day, in or about the year 1827, that poor Pickle, during the absence of his master, was taken unwell; and the watchful guardian immediately warned the Marquis of the sad fact, and of the progress of the disease, which lasted three days—for which he sent the three following laconic despatches:-

Yester, May 1st, 18—.


Pickle’s no’ weel.

Your Lordship’s humble servant, etc.

Yester, May 2nd, 18—.


Pickle will no’ do.

I am your Lordship’s, etc.

Yester, May 3rd., 18—.


Pickle’s dead.

I am your Lordship’s, etc.

I have heard of an old Forfarshire lady who, knowing the habits of her old and spoilt servant, when she wished a note to be taken without loss of time, held it open and read it over to him, saying, "There, noo, Andrew, ye ken a’ that’s in’t; noo dinna stop to open it, but just send it aff." Of another servant, when sorely tried by an unaccustomed bustle and hurry, a very amusing anecdote has been recorded. His mistress, a woman of high rank, who had been living in much quiet and retirement for some time, was called upon to entertain a large party at dinner. She consulted with Nichol, her faithful servant, and all the arrangements were made for the great event. As the company were arriving, the lady saw Nichol running about in great agitation, and in his shirt sleeves. She remonstrated, and said that as the guests were coming in he must put on his coat. "Indeed, my lady," was his excited reply, "indeed, there’s sae muckle rinnin’ here and rinnin’ there, that I’m just distrackit. I hae cuist’n my coat and waistcoat, and faith I dinna ken how lang I can thole [Bear] my breeks."

There is often a ready wit in this class of character, marked by their replies. I have the following communicated from an ear-witness : —" Weel, Peggy," said a man to an old family servant, "I wonder ye’re aye single yet!" "Me marry," said she, indignantly; "I wouldna gie my single life for a’ the double anes I ever saw!"

An old woman was exhorting a servant once about her ways. "You serve the deevil," said she. "Me!" said the girl; "na, na, I dinna serve the deevil; I serve ae single lady."

A baby was out with the nurse, who walked it up and down the garden. "Is’t a laddie or a lassie?" said the gardener. "A laddie," said the maid. "Weel," says he," I’m glad o’ that, for there’s ower mony women in the world." "Hech, man," said Jess, "div ye no’ ken there’s aye maist sawn o’ the best crap?"

The answers of servants used curiously to illustrate habits and manners of the time—as the economical modes of her mistress’s life were well touched by the lass who thus described her ways and domestic habits with her household: "She’s vicious upo’ the wark; but eh, she’s vary mysterious o’ the victualling."

A country habit of making the gathering of the congregation in the churchyard previous to and after divine service an occasion for gossip and business, which I remember well, is thoroughly described in the following :—A lady, on hiring a servant girl in the country, told her, as a great indulgence, that she should have the liberty of attending the church every Sunday, but that she would be expected to return home always immediately on the conclusion of service. The lady, however, rather unexpectedly found a positive objection raised against this apparently reasonable arrangement. "Then I canna engage wi’ ye, mem; for ‘deed I wadna gie the crack i’ the kirk-yard for a’ the sermon."

There is another story which shows that a greater importance might be attached to the crack i’ the kirk-yard than was done even by the servant lass mentioned above. A rather rough subject, residing in Galloway, used to attend church regularly, as it appeared, for the sake of the crack; for on being taken to task for his absenting himself, he remarked, " There’s nae need to gang to the kirk noo, for everybody gets a newspaper."

The changes that many of us have lived to witness in this kind of intercourse between families and old servants is a part of a still greater change—the change in that modification of the feudal system, the attachment of clans. This, also, from transfers of property and extinction of old families in the Highlands, as well as from more general causes, is passing away; and it includes also changes in the intercourse between landed proprietors and cottagers, and abolition of harvest-homes, and such meetings. People are now more independent of each other, and service has become a pecuniary and not a sentimental question. The extreme contrast of that old-fashioned Scottish intercourse of families with their servants and dependants, of which I have given some amusing examples, is found in the modern manufactory system. There the service is a mere question of personal interest. One of our first practical engineers, and one of the first engine-makers in England, stated that he employed and paid handsomely on an average 1200 workmen; but that they held so little feeling for him as their master, that not above half-a-dozen of the number would notice him when passing him, either in the works or out of work hours. Contrast this advanced state of dependants’ indifference with the familiarity of domestic intercourse we have been describing!

It has been suggested by my esteemed friend, Dr W. Lindsay Alexander, that Scottish anecdotes deal too exclusively with the shrewd, quaint, and pawky humour of our countrymen, and have not sufficiently illustrated the deep pathos and strong loving-kindness of the "kindly Scot"—qualities which, however little appreciated across the Border, abound in Scottish poetry and Scottish life. For example, to take the case before us of these old retainers, although snappy and disagreeable to the last degree in their replies, and often most provoking in their ways, they were yet deeply and sincerely attached to the family where they had so long been domesticated; and the servant who would reply to her mistress’s order to mend the fire by the short answer, "The fires weel eneuch," would at the same time evince much interest in all that might assist her in sustaining the credit of her domestic economy, as, for example, whispering in her ear at dinner, "Press the jeelies; they winna keep"; and had the hour of real trial and of difficulty come to the family, would have gone to the death for them, and shared their greatest privations. Dr Alexander gives a very interesting example of kindness and affectionate attachment in an old Scottish domestic of his own family, whose quaint and odd familiarity was charming. I give it in his own words:—"When I was a child there was an old servant at Pinkieburn, where my early days were spent, who had been all her life, I may say, in the house, for she came to it a child, and lived, without ever leaving it, till she died in it, seventy-five years of age. Her feeling to her old master, who was just two years younger than herself, was a curious compound of the deference of a servant and the familiarity and affection of a sister. She had known him as a boy, lad, man, and old man, and she seemed to have a sort of notion that without her he must be a very helpless being indeed. ‘I aye keepit the hoose for him, whether he was hame or awa’,’ was a frequent utterance of hers; and she never seemed to think the intrusion even of his own nieces, who latterly lived with him, at all legitimate. When on her deathbed, he hobbled to her room with difficulty, having just got over a severe attack of gout, to bid her farewell. I chanced to be present, but was too young to remember what passed, except one thing, which probably was rather recalled to me afterwards than properly recollected by me. It was her last request. ‘Laird,’ said she (for so she always called him, though his lairdship was of the smallest), ‘will ye tell them to bury me whaur I’ll lie across at your feet?’ I have always thought this characteristic of the old Scotch servant, and as such I send it to you."

And here I would introduce another story which struck me very forcibly as illustrating the union of the qualities referred to by Dr Alexander. In the following narrative, how deep and tender a feeling is expressed in a brief dry sentence! I give Mr Scott’s language:—"My brother and I were, during our High School vacation, some forty years ago, very much indebted to the kindness of a clever young carpenter employed in the machinery workshop of New Lanark Mills, near to which we were residing during our six weeks’ holidays. It was he—Samuel Shaw, our dear companion—who first taught us to saw, and to plane, and to turn too; and who made us the bows and arrows in which we so much delighted. The vacation over, and our hearts very sore, but bound to Samuel Shaw for ever, our mother sought to place some pecuniary recompense in his hand at parting, for all the great kindness he had shown her boys. Samuel looked in her face, and gently moving her hand aside, with an affectionate look cast upon us, who were by, exclaimed, in a tone which had sorrow in it, ‘Noo, Mrs Scott, ye hae spoilt a’." After such an appeal, it may be supposed no recompense, in silver or in gold, remained with Samuel Shaw.

On the subject of the old Scottish domestic, I have to acknowledge a kind communication from Lord Kinloch, which I give in his Lordship’s words:— "My father had been in the counting-house of the well-known David Dale, the founder of the Lanark Mills, and eminent for his benevolence. Mr Dale, who it would appear was a short, stout man, had a person in his employment named Matthew, who was permitted that familiarity with his master which was so characteristic of the former generation. One winter day Mr Dale came into the counting-house, and complained that he had fallen on the ice. Matthew, who saw that his master was not much hurt, grinned a sarcastic smile. ‘I fell all my length,’ said Mr Dale. ‘Nae great length, sir,’ said Matthew. ‘Indeed, Matthew, ye need not laugh,’ said Mr Dale; ‘I have hurt the sma’ o’ my back.’ ‘I wunner whaur that is,’ said Matthew." Indeed, specimens like Matthew, of serving-men of the former time, have latterly been fast going out, but I remember one or two such. A lady of my acquaintance had one named John in her house at Portobello. I remember how my modern ideas were offended by John’s familiarity when waiting at table. "Some more wine, John," said his mistress. "There’s some i’ the bottle, mem," said John. A little after," Mend the fire, John." "The fire’s weel eneuch, mem," replied the impracticable John. Another "John" of my acquaintance was in the family of Mrs Campbell of Ardnave, mother of the Princess Polignac and the Hon. Mrs Archibald Macdonald. A young lady visiting in the family asked John at dinner for a potato. John made no response. The request was repeated; when John, putting his mouth to her ear, said, very audibly, "There’s jist twa in the dish, and they maim be keepit for the strangers."

The following was sent me by a kind correspondent—a learned Professor in India—as a sample of squabbling between Scottish servants. A mistress observing something peculiar in her maid’s manner, addressed her, "Dear me, Tibbie, what are you so snappish about, that you go knocking the things as you dust them?" "Ou, mem, it’s Jock." "Well, what has Jock been doing?" "Ou (with an indescribable, but easily imaginable toss of the head), he was angry at me, an’ misca’d me, an’ I said I was juist as the Lord had made me, an’ ____" "Well, Tibbie?" "An’ he said the Lord could hae had little to dae when he made me." The idea of Tibbie being the work of an idle moment was one, the deliciousness of which was not likely to be relished by the lassie.

The following characteristic anecdote of a Highland servant I have received from the same correspondent. An English gentleman, travelling in the Highlands, was rather late of coming down to dinner. Donald was sent upstairs to intimate that all was ready. He speedily returned, nodding significantly, as much as to say that it was all right. "But, Donald," said the master, after some further trial of a hungry man’s patience, "are ye sure ye made the gentleman understand?" "Understand?" retorted Donald (who had peeped into the room and found the guest engaged at his toilet), "I’se warrant ye he understands; he’s sharping his teeth,"—not supposing the tooth-brush could be for any other use.

There have been some very amusing instances given of the matter-of-fact obedience paid to orders by Highland retainers when made to perform the ordinary duties of domestic servants; as when Mr Campbell, a Highland gentleman, visiting in a country house, and telling Donald to bring everything out of the bedroom, found all its movable articles—fender, fire-irons, etc.—piled up in the lobby; so literal was the poor man’s sense of obedience to orders! And of this he gave a still more extraordinary proof during his sojourn in Edinburgh, by a very ludicrous exploit. When the family moved into a house there, Mrs Campbell gave him very particular instructions regarding visitors, explaining that they were to be shown into the drawing-room, and no doubt used the Scotticism, "Carry any ladies that call upstairs." On the arrival of the first visitors, Donald was eager to show his strict attention to the mistress’s orders. Two ladies came together, and Donald, seizing one in his arms, said to the other, "Bide ye there till I come for ye," and, in spite of her struggles and remonstrances, ushered the terrified visitor into Mrs Campbell’s presence in this unwonted fashion.

Another case of literal obedience to orders produced a somewhat startling form of message. A servant of an old maiden lady, a patient of Dr Poole, formerly of Edinburgh, was under orders to go to the doctor every morning to report the state of her health, how she had slept, etc., with strict injunctions always to add, "with her compliments." At length, one morning the girl brought this extraordinary message: "Miss S ‘s compliments, and she dee’d last night at aicht o’clock !"

I recollect, in Montrose (that fruitful field for old Scottish stories!), a most naďve reply from an honest lass, servant to old Mrs Captain Fullerton. A party of gentlemen had dined with Mrs Fullerton, and they had a turkey for dinner. Mrs F. proposed that one of the legs should be devilled, and the gentlemen have it served up as a relish for their wine. Accordingly one of the company skilled in the mystery prepared it with pepper, cayenne, mustard, ketchup, etc. He gave it to Lizzy, and told her to take it down to the kitchen, supposing, as a matter of course, she would know that it was to be broiled, and brought back in due time. But in a little while, when it was rung for, Lizzy very innocently, replied that she had eaten it up. As it was sent back to the kitchen, her only idea was that it must be for herself. But on surprise being expressed that she had eaten what was so highly peppered and seasoned, she very quaintly answered, "Ou, I liket it a’ the better."

A well-known servant of the old school was John, the servant of Pitfour, Mr Ferguson, M.P., himself a most eccentric character, long father of the House of Commons, and a great friend of Pitt. John used to entertain the tenants, on Pitfour’s brief visits to his estate, with numerous anecdotes of his master and Mr Pitt; but he always prefaced them with something in the style of Cardinal Wolsey’s Ego et rex meus, with "Me, and Pitt, and Pitfour," went somewhere, or performed some exploit. The famous Duchess of Gordon once wrote a note to John (the name of this eccentric valet), and said, "John, put Pitfour into the carriage on Tuesday, and bring him up to Gordon Castle to dinner." After sufficiently scratching his head, and considering what he should do, he showed the letter to Pitfour, who smiled, and said drily, "Well, John, I suppose we must go."

An old domestic of this class gave a capital reason to his young master for his being allowed to do as he liked :—" Ye needna find faut wi’ me, Maister Jeems; I hae been langer aboot the place than yersel’."

it may seem ungracious to close this chapter with a communication which appears to convey, an unfavourable impression of an old servant. But the truth is, real and attached domestic service does not offer its pleasures and advantages without some alloy of annoyance, and yet how much the solid benefits prevail over any occasional drawbacks!

The late Rev. Mr Leslie of St Andrew-Lhanbryd, a parish in Morayshire, in describing an old servant who had been with him thirty years, said, "The first ten years she was an excellent servant; the second ten she was a good mistress; but the third ten she was a perfect tyrant."

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