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Sketch Book of the North
A Weaving Village

Out of the way here, in the quiet hollow of the Ayrshire hills, something remains yet of the life of a hundred years ago. Elsewhere the puffing of steam may have taken the place of toil by hand, but here in the long summer days, from morning till night, the click-clack of the looms is still to be heard, and within every second window up the length of the village street the dusty frames are to be seen moving regularly to and fro. Pots of geranium and fuchsia are set sometimes in these windows, and through the narrow doorways the cottage gardens can be seen behind, carefully kept, and ablaze just now with wallflower borders and pansies. Sadly, however, is the place decayed from its prosperity of old. Little traffic comes now to the wide, empty street. The carrier’s waggon is an object of interest when it puts in an appearance. The baker’s van may be the only vehicle of an afternoon; and twice a week only comes the flesher’s cart. Butcher meat, it is to be feared, is but seldom seen on some of the village tables; and, when work is more than usually scarce, many must put up with but "muslin-broth." Here and there a roofless ruin, breaking the regular line of dwellings, tells of a decaying industry. In the sunny inn-door at the head of the village the brown retriever may rouse himself, once in the afternoon, to inspect the credentials of some vagrant terrier; and, but for the faint click-clack of the looms all day, and the appearance, once in a while, of a woman with a pair of stoups to draw water at the village well, the place might seem asleep.

Yet a hearty trade once throve on the spot. Every house had its loom going, sometimes two; and there was always work in plenty. Weavers’ wives could go to kirk then in black-beaded bonnets and flowered Paisley shawls, and the Relief Kirk minister got his stipend of eighty pounds a year nearly always paid. In those times the carrier’s cart used to have business in the village every day; merchants from Glasgow came bidding against each other for work in a hurry; and four of the weavers at once have been known to have sons at college studying for the ministry. Those were the days when the village kept a watchful eye upon the religious and political movements of the country. Before the stamp duty was removed from newspapers the weavers subscribed in clubs and took out their weekly sheet, which was passed from shop to shop, read and digested, and thoroughly threshed out in the doorstep debates, when a knot of neighbours would gather between the spells of work. In this way the great Reform Bill was fully discussed and settled here long before it passed the House of Commons; and the absorbing question of the Disruption, which gave birth to the Free Church, was thoroughly argued and thought out on its merits. True to the traditions of their craft, of course, most of the weavers were the reddest of Radicals, and the progress of the Chartist movement excited the keenest interest among them. The work at the looms was to a great extent mechanical, and while they pushed the treadles and pulled the shuttles to and fro the weavers had time to think; and shrewd thinkers and able debaters many of them became, ready at the hustings with questions on the corn laws, the freeing of the slaves, and the Irish grievances, which were apt to put a political candidate to some trouble. He had not their advantage of the daily "argufying" and the Saturday night debates at the village inn; There was a tradition that in the room where this club met, the poet Burns had once spent an evening, and the fact lent an additional zest to his song, which they never tired of quoting, "A man’s a man for a’ that"—

The King can mak’ a belted knight,
A Marquis, Duke, and a’ that;
But an honest man’s the work o’ God:
A man’s a man for a’ that.

The industry of the village has died hard. Amid decaying trade the weavers kept to their looms, and many a pinch was suffered before one after another laid down his shuttle. Their feelings are not difficult to understand. As boys they had played about the village well. As young men they had wandered with their sweethearts—that delicious time—down the woodland roads around. Memories had grown about them and their old homes during the long years of work. In the kirkyard not far off lay the ashes of mother or wife or child. But the merchants had ceased to come to the village, and it was a weary walk for the poor weavers to carry their webs all the way to Glasgow, to hawk them from warehouse to warehouse, and sometimes to have the choice at last of accepting a ruinous price for them or of taking them home again.

It was after a bootless errand of this sort that old John Gilmour was returning to the village one night in late October some thirty-six years back. Honest soul, through all his straits he had never owed a neighbour a penny. That night, however, his affairs had come to a critical pass, and the morrow had a black look-out for him. His web was still on his back, not an offer having been got for it in town, though he knew the workmanship to be his best. Upon its sale he had depended to pay for the winter’s coals and the necessaries of the morrow; for on the day previous the last of his carefully guarded savings had been spent. Moreover, his wife and he were growing old, and could hardly look forward to increased energy for work. And he was bringing home bad news. Their second son (the eldest had run away to sea eleven years before) had broken down in his attempt to teach and at the same time push his way through the Divinity Hall, and had been ordered by the doctor to stop work for the winter altogether. How was the old man to break all this disastrous news to his wife? The web was heavy, but his heart was heavier.

He had reached the fork of the road close by the old disused graveyard of the parish, and was thinking a little bitterly of the reward that remained to him from his long life of hard work, and of how quiet and far from care those were who lay on the other side of the low dyke under the green sod, when a hackney carriage came up behind, and the driver stopped to ask the way to ----.

"Keep the left road," said the old man, and was resuming his walk, when a bearded face appeared at the carriage window.

"That seems a heavy bundle you are carrying. Are you going my way?"

Once inside, the old weaver found his companion looking at him intently.

"You have had a long walk this day, surely? Have you no son to carry so heavy a load for you?"

Ay, he had two sons, Gilmour said; but one was lost at sea, and the other was struggling at college.

"You live alone, then?" asked, the questioner tremulously.

No, thank God! he had a kind wife at home, who had been his consolation through many a dark hour.

"Thank God!" echoed the younger man.

The carriage rolled on and entered the village. The weaver pointed to his house, and they stopped there. The stranger helped him out with his web, and entered the house with him.

"It’s just the web back, gudewife," he said. "But dinna look sae queer like. I’se warrant I’ll sell it the morn. An’ here’s a gentleman has helpit me on the road. Hae ye onything i’ the hoose to offer him?"

But the wife was not thinking of the web or the distress of the morrow. Her eyes were on the stranger, and the corners of her lips were twitching curiously. He had not spoken, but as he removed his hat she sprang towards him.

"It’s Willie!" she cried; "it’s Willie!" And her arms were about his neck, and, half laughing and half crying, she buried her face on his breast.

It was Willie. He was the first who came back to the village from the gold-fields of Ballarat.

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