Auld Licht Idylls by James Matthew Barrie


Thrums is the name I give here to the handful of houses jumbled together in a cup, which is the town nearest the schoolhouse. Until twenty years ago its every other room, earthen-floored and showing the rafters overhead, had a handloom, and hundreds of weavers lived and died Thoreaus “ben the hoose” without knowing it. In those days the cup overflowed and left several houses on the top of the hill, where their cold skeletons still stand. The road that climbs from the square, which is Thrums’s heart, to the north is so steep and straight, that in a sharp frost children hunker at the top and are blown down with a roar and a rush on rails of ice. At such times, when viewed from the cemetery where the traveller from the schoolhouse gets his first glimpse of the little town, Thrums is but two church steeples and a dozen red stone patches standing out of a snow-heap. One of the steeples belongs to the new Free Kirk, and the other to the parish church, both of which the first Auld Licht minister I knew ran past when he had not time to avoid them by taking a back wynd. He was but a pocket edition of a man, who grew two inches after he was called; but he was so full of the cure of souls, that he usually scudded to it with his coattails quarrelling behind him. His successor, whom I knew better, was a greater scholar, and said, “Let us see what this is in the original Greek,” as an ordinary man might invite a friend to dinner; but he never wrestled as Mr. Dishart, his successor, did with the pulpit cushions, nor flung himself at the pulpit door. Nor was he so “hard on the Book,” as Lang Tammas, the precentor, expressed it, meaning that he did not bang the Bible with his fist as much as might have been wished.

Thrums had been known to me for years before I succeeded the captious dominie at the schoolhouse in the glen. The dear old soul who originally induced me to enter the Auld Licht kirk by lamenting the “want of Christ” in the minister’s discourses was my first landlady. For the last ten years of her life she was bedridden, and only her interest in the kirk kept her alive. Her case against the minister was that he did not call to denounce her sufficiently often for her sins, her pleasure being to hear him bewailing her on his knees as one who was probably past praying for. She was as sweet and pure a woman as I ever knew, and had her wishes been horses, she would have sold them and kept (and looked after) a minister herself.

There are few Auld Licht communities in Scotland nowadays—perhaps because people are now so well off, for the most devout Auld Lichts were always poor, and their last years were generally a grim struggle with the workhouse. Many a heavy-eyed, back-bent weaver has won his Waterloo in Thrums fighting on his stumps. There are a score or two of them left still, for, though there are now two factories in the town, the clatter of the handloom can yet be heard, and they have been starving themselves of late until they have saved up enough money to get another minister.

The square is packed away in the centre of Thrums, and irregularly built little houses squeeze close to it like chickens clustering round a hen. Once the Auld Lichts held property in the square, but other denominations have bought them out of it, and now few of them are even to be found in the main streets that make for the rim of the cup. They live in the kirk-wynd, or in retiring little houses the builder of which does not seem to have remembered that it is a good plan to have a road leading to houses until after they were finished. Narrow paths straggling round gardens, some of them with stunted gates, which it is commoner to step over than to open, have been formed to reach these dwellings, but in winter they are running streams, and then the best way to reach a house such as that of Tammy Mealmaker the wright, pronounced wir-icht, is over a broken dyke and a pig-sty. Tammy, who died a bachelor, had been soured in his youth by a disappointment in love, of which he spoke but seldom. She lived far away in a town to which he had wandered in the days when his blood ran hot, and they became engaged. Unfortunately, however, Tammy forgot her name, and he never knew the address; so there the affair ended, to his silent grief. He admitted himself, over his snuff-mull of an evening, that he was a very ordinary character, but a certain halo of horror was cast over the whole family by their connection with little Joey Sutie, who was pointed at in Thrums as the laddie that whistled when he went past the minister. Joey became a pedlar, and was found dead one raw morning dangling over a high wall within a few miles of Thrums. When climbing the dyke his pack had slipped back, the strap round his neck, and choked him.

You could generally tell an Auld Licht in Thrums when you passed him, his dull vacant face wrinkled over a heavy wob. He wore tags of yarn round his trousers beneath the knee, that looked like ostentatious garters, and frequently his jacket of corduroy was put on beneath his waistcoat. If he was too old to carry his load on his back, he wheeled it on a creaking barrow, and when he met a friend they said, “Ay, Jeames,” and “Ay, Davit,” and then could think of nothing else. At long intervals they passed through the square, disappearing or coming into sight round the town-house which stands on the south side of it, and guards the entrance to a steep brae that leads down and then twists up on its lonely way to the county town. I like to linger over the square, for it was from an upper window in it that I got to know Thrums. On Saturday nights, when the Auld Licht young men came into the square dressed and washed to look at the young women errand-going, and to laugh sometime afterwards to each other, it presented a glare of light; and here even came the cheap jacks and the Fair Circassian, and the showman, who, besides playing “The Mountain Maid and the Shepherd’s Bride,” exhibited part of the tail of Balaam’s ass, the helm of Noah’s ark, and the tartan plaid in which Flora McDonald wrapped Prince Charlie. More select entertainment, such as Shuffle Kitty’s waxwork, whose motto was, “A rag to pay, and in you go,” were given in a hall whose approach was by an outside stair. On the Muckle Friday, the fair for which children storing their pocket money would accumulate sevenpence-half-penny in less than six months, the square was crammed with gingerbread stalls, bag-pipers, fiddlers, and monstrosities who were gifted with second sight. There was a bearded man, who had neither legs nor arms, and was drawn through the streets in a small cart by four dogs. By looking at you he could see all the clockwork inside, as could a boy who was led about by his mother at the end of a string. Every Friday there was the market, when a dozen ramshackle carts containing vegetables and cheap crockery filled the centre of the square, resting in line on their shafts. A score of farmers’ wives or daughters in old-world garments squatted against the town-house within walls of butter on cabbage-leaves, eggs and chickens. Towards evening the voice of the buckie-man shook the square, and rival fish-cadgers, terrible characters who ran races on horseback, screamed libels at each other over a fruiterer’s barrow. Then it was time for douce Auld Lichts to go home, draw their stools near the fire, spread their red handkerchiefs over their legs to prevent their trousers getting singed, and read their “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

In my schoolhouse, however, I seem to see the square most readily in the Scotch mist which so often filled it, loosening the stones and choking the drains. There was then no rattle of rain against my window-sill, nor dancing of diamond drops on the roofs, but blobs of water grew on the panes of glass to reel heavily down them. Then the sodden square would have shed abundant tears if you could have taken it in your hands and wrung it like a dripping cloth. At such a time the square would be empty but for one vegetable cart left in the care of a lean collie, which, tied to the wheel, whined and shivered underneath. Pools of water gather in the coarse sacks, that have been spread over the potatoes and bundles of greens, which turn to manure in their lidless barrels. The eyes of the whimpering dog never leave a black close over which hangs the sign of the Bull, probably the refuge of the hawker. At long intervals a farmer’s gig rumbles over the bumpy, ill-paved square, or a native, with his head buried in his coat, peeps out of doors, skurries across the way, and vanishes. Most of the leading shops are here, and the decorous draper ventures a few yards from the pavement to scan the sky, or note the effect of his new arrangement in scarves. Planted against his door is the butcher, Henders Todd, white-aproned, and with a knife in his hand, gazing interestedly at the draper, for a mere man may look at an elder. The tinsmith brings out his steps, and, mounting them, stealthily removes the saucepans and pepper-pots that dangle on a wire above his sign-board. Pulling to his door he shuts out the foggy light that showed in his solder-strewn workshop. The square is deserted again. A bundle of sloppy parsley slips from the hawker’s cart and topples over the wheel in driblets. The puddles in the sacks overflow and run together. The dog has twisted his chain round a barrel and yelps sharply. As if in response comes a rush of other dogs. A terrified fox-terrier tears across the square with half a score of mongrels, the butcher’s mastiff and some collies at his heels; he is doubtless a stranger who has insulted them by his glossy coat. For two seconds the square shakes to an invasion of dogs, and then, again, there is only one dog in sight.

No one will admit the Scotch mist. It “looks saft.” The tinsmith “wudna wonder but what it was makkin for rain.” Tammas Haggart and Pete Lunan dander into sight bareheaded, and have to stretch out their hands to discover what the weather is like. By and by they come to a standstill to discuss the immortality of the soul, and then they are looking silently at the Bull. Neither speaks, but they begin to move toward the inn at the same time, and its door closes on them before they know what they are doing. A few minutes afterwards Jinny Dundas, who is Pete’s wife, runs straight for the Bull in her short gown, which is tucked up very high, and emerges with her husband soon afterwards. Jinny is voluble, but Pete says nothing. Tammas follows later, putting his head out at the door first, and looking cautiously about him to see if any one is in sight. Pete is a U. P., and may be left to his fate, but the Auld Licht minister thinks that though it be hard work, Tammas is worth saving.

To the Auld Licht of the past there were three degrees of damnation—auld kirk, play-acting, chapel. Chapel was the name always given to the English Church, of which I am too much an Auld Licht myself to care to write even now. To belong to the chapel was, in Thrums, to be a Roman Catholic, and the boy who flung a clod of earth at the English minister—who called the Sabbath Sunday—or dropped a “divet” down his chimney was held to be in the right way. The only pleasant story Thrums could tell of the chapel was that its steeple once fell. It is surprising that an English church was ever suffered to be built in such a place; though probably the county gentry had something to do with it. They travelled about too much to be good men. Small though Thrums used to be, it had four kirks in all before the Disruption, and then another, which split into two immediately afterwards. The spire of the parish church, known as the auld kirk, commands a view of the square, from which the entrance to the kirkyard would be visible, if it were not hidden by the town-house. The kirkyard has long been crammed, and is not now in use, but the church is sufficiently large to hold nearly all the congregations in Thrums. Just at the gate lived Pete Todd, the father of Sam’l, a man of whom the Auld Lichts had reason to be proud. Pete was an every-day man at ordinary times, and was even said, when his wife, who had been long ill, died, to have clapped his hands and exclaimed, “Hip, hip, hurrah!” adding only as an afterthought, “The Lord’s will be done.” But midsummer was his great opportunity. Then took place the rouping of the seats in the parish church. The scene was the kirk itself, and the seats being put up to auction were knocked down to the highest bidder. This sometimes led to the breaking of the peace. Every person was present who was at all particular as to where he sat, and an auctioneer was engaged for the day. He rouped the kirk-seats like potato-drills, beginning by asking for a bid. Every seat was put up to auction separately; for some were much more run after than others, and the men were instructed by their wives what to bid for. Often the women joined in, and as they bid excitedly against each other the church rang with opprobrious epithets. A man would come to the roup late, and learn that the seat he wanted had been knocked down. He maintained that he had been unfairly treated, or denounced the local laird to whom the seat-rents went. If he did not get the seat he would leave the kirk. Then the woman who had forestalled him wanted to know what he meant by glaring at her so, and the auction was interrupted. Another member would “thrip down the throat” of the auctioneer that he had a right to his former seat if he continued to pay the same price for it. The auctioneer was screamed at for favouring his friends, and at times the roup became so noisy that men and women had to be forcibly ejected. Then was Pete’s chance. Hovering at the gate, he caught the angry people on their way home and took them into his workshop by an outside stair. There he assisted them in denouncing the parish kirk, with the view of getting them to forswear it. Pete made a good many Auld Lichts in his time out of unpromising material.

Sights were to be witnessed in the parish church at times that could not have been made more impressive by the Auld Lichts themselves. Here sinful women were grimly taken to task by the minister, who, having thundered for a time against adultery in general, called upon one sinner in particular to stand forth. She had to step forward into a pew near the pulpit, where, alone and friendless, and stared at by the congregation, she cowered in tears beneath his denunciations. In that seat she had to remain during the forenoon service. She returned home alone, and had to come back alone to her solitary seat in the afternoon. All day no one dared speak to her. She was as much an object of contumely as the thieves and smugglers whom, in the end of last century, it was the privilege of Feudal Bailie Wood (as he was called) to whip round the square.

It is nearly twenty years since the gardeners had their last “walk” in Thrums, and they survived all the other benefit societies that walked once every summer. There was a “weavers’ walk” and five or six others, the “women’s walk” being the most picturesque. These were processions of the members of benefit societies through the square and wynds, and all the women walked in white, to the number of a hundred or more, behind the Tilliedrum band, Thrums having in those days no band of its own.

From the north-west corner of the square a narrow street sets off, jerking this way and that as if uncertain what point to make for. Here lurks the post-office, which had once the reputation of being as crooked in its ways as the street itself.

A railway line runs into Thrums now. The sensational days of the post-office were when the letters were conveyed officially in a creaking old cart from Tilliedrum. The “pony” had seen better days than the cart, and always looked as if he were just on the point of succeeding in running away from it. Hooky Crewe was driver; so-called because an iron hook was his substitute for a right arm: Robbie Proctor, the blacksmith, made the hook and fixed it in. Crewe suffered from rheumatism, and when he felt it coming on he stayed at home. Sometimes his cart came undone in a snowdrift; when Hooky, extricated from the fragments by some chance wayfarer, was deposited with his mail-bag (of which he always kept a grip by the hook) in a farm-house. It was his boast that his letters always reached their destination eventually. They might be a long time about it, but “slow and sure” was his motto. Hooky emphasized his “slow and sure” by taking a snuff. He was a godsend to the post-mistress, for to his failings or the infirmities of his gig were charged all delays.

At the time I write of, the posting of the letter took as long and was as serious an undertaking as the writing. That means a good deal, for many of the letters were written to dictation by the Thrums schoolmaster, Mr. Fleemister, who belonged to the Auld Kirk. He was one of the few persons in the community who looked upon the despatch of his letters by the postmistress as his right, and not a favour on her part; there was a long-standing feud between them accordingly. After a few tumblers of Widow Stables’s treacle-beer—in the concoction of which she was the acknowledged mistress for miles around—the schoolmaster would sometimes go the length of hinting that he could get the postmistress dismissed any day. This mighty power seemed to rest on a knowledge of “steamed” letters. Thrums had a high respect for the schoolmaster; but among themselves the weavers agreed that, even if he did write to the Government, Lizzie Harrison, the postmistress, would refuse to transmit the letter. The more shrewd ones among us kept friends with both parties; for, unless you could write “writ-hand,” you could not compose a letter without the schoolmaster’s assistance; and, unless Lizzie was so courteous as to send it to its destination, it might lie—or so it was thought—-much too long in the box. A letter addressed by the schoolmaster found great disfavour in Lizzie’s eyes. You might explain to her that you had merely called in his assistance because you were a poor hand at writing yourself, but that was held no excuse. Some addressed their own envelopes with much labour, and sought to palm off the whole as their handiwork. It reflects on the postmistress somewhat that she had generally found them out by next day, when, if in a specially vixenish mood, she did not hesitate to upbraid them for their perfidy.

To post a letter you did not merely saunter to the post-office and drop it into the box. The cautious correspondent first went into the shop and explained to Lizzie how matters stood. She kept what she called a bookseller’s shop as well as the post-office; but the supply of books corresponded exactly to the lack of demand for them, and her chief trade was in nicknacks, from marbles and money-boxes up to concertinas. If he found the postmistress in an amiable mood, which was only now and then, the caller led up craftily to the object of his visit. Having discussed the weather and the potato-disease, he explained that his sister Mary, whom Lizzie would remember, had married a fishmonger in Dundee. The fishmonger had lately started on himself and was doing well. They had four children. The youngest had had a severe attack of measles. No news had been got of Mary for twelve months; and Annie, his other sister, who lived in Thrums, had been at him of late for not writing. So he had written a few lines; and, in fact, he had the letter with him. The letter was then produced, and examined by the postmistress. If the address was in the schoolmaster’s handwriting, she professed her inability to read it. Was this a t or an l or an i? was that a b or a d? This was a cruel revenge on Lizzie’s part; for the sender of the letter was completely at her mercy. The schoolmaster’s name being tabooed in her presence, he was unable to explain that the writing was not his own; and as for deciding between the t‘s and l‘s, he could not do it. Eventually he would be directed to put the letter into the box. They would do their best with it, Lizzie said, but in a voice that suggested how little hope she had of her efforts to decipher it proving successful.

There was an opinion among some of the people that the letter should not be stamped by the sender. The proper thing to do was to drop a penny for the stamp into the box along with the letter, and then Lizzie would see that it was all right. Lizzie’s acquaintance with the handwriting of every person in the place who could write gave her a great advantage. You would perhaps drop into her shop some day to make a purchase, when she would calmly produce a letter you had posted several days before. In explanation she would tell you that you had not put a stamp on it, or that she suspected there was money in it, or that you had addressed it to the wrong place. I remember an old man, a relative of my own, who happened for once in his life to have several letters to post at one time. The circumstance was so out of the common that he considered it only reasonable to make Lizzie a small present.

Perhaps the postmistress was belled; but if she did not “steam” the letters and confide their titbits to favoured friends of her own sex, it is difficult to see how all the gossip got out. The schoolmaster once played an unmanly trick on her, with the view of catching her in the act. He was a bachelor who had long been given up by all the maids in the town. One day, however, he wrote a letter to an imaginary lady in the county-town, asking her to be his, and going into full particulars about his income, his age, and his prospects. A male friend in the secret, at the other end, was to reply, in a lady’s handwriting, accepting him, and also giving personal particulars. The first letter was written; and an answer arrived in due course—two days, the schoolmaster said, after date. No other person knew of this scheme for the undoing of the postmistress, yet in a very short time the schoolmaster’s coming marriage was the talk of Thrums. Everybody became suddenly aware of the lady’s name, of her abode, and of the sum of money she was to bring her husband. It was even noised abroad that the schoolmaster had represented his age as a good ten years less than it was. Then the schoolmaster divulged everything. To his mortification, he was not quite believed. All the proof he could bring forward to support his story was this: that time would show whether he got married or not. Foolish man! this argument was met by another, which was accepted at once. The lady had jilted the schoolmaster. Whether this explanation came from the post-office, who shall say? But so long as he lived the schoolmaster was twitted about the lady who threw him over. He took his revenge in two ways. He wrote and posted letters exceedingly abusive of the postmistress. The matter might be libellous; but then, as he pointed out, she would incriminate herself if she “brought him up” about it. Probably Lizzie felt his other insult more. By publishing his suspicions of her on every possible occasion he got a few people to seal their letters. So bitter was his feeling against her that he was even willing to supply the wax.

They know all about post-offices in Thrums now, and even jeer at the telegraph-boy’s uniform. In the old days they gathered round him when he was seen in the street, and escorted him to his destination in triumph. That, too, was after Lizzie had gone the way of all the earth. But perhaps they are not even yet as knowing as they think themselves. I was told the other day that one of them took out a postal order, meaning to send the money to a relative, and kept the order as a receipt.

I have said that the town is sometimes full of snow. One frosty Saturday, seven years ago, I trudged into it from the schoolhouse, and on the Monday morning we could not see Thrums anywhere.

I was in one of the proud two-storied houses in the place, and could have shaken hands with my friends without from the upper windows. To get out of doors you had to walk upstairs. The outlook was a sea of snow fading into white hills and sky with the quarry standing out red and ragged to the right like a rock in the ocean. The Auld Licht manse was gone, but had left its garden-trees behind, their lean branches soft with snow. Roofs were humps in the white blanket. The spire of the Established Kirk stood up cold and stiff, like a monument to the buried inhabitants.

Those of the natives who had taken the precaution of conveying spades into their houses the night before, which is my plan at the schoolhouse, dug themselves out. They hobbled cautiously over the snow, sometimes sinking into it to their knees, when they stood still and slowly took in the situation. It had been snowing more or less for a week, but in a commonplace kind of way, and they had gone to bed thinking all was well. This night the snow must have fallen as if the heavens had opened up, determined to shake themselves free of it for ever.

The man who first came to himself and saw what was to be done was young Henders Ramsay. Henders had no fixed occupation, being but an “orra man” about the place, and the best thing known of him is that his mother’s sister was a Baptist. He feared God, man, nor the minister; and all the learning he had was obtained from assiduous study of a grocer’s window. But for one brief day he had things his own way in the town, or, speaking strictly, on the top of it. With a spade, a broom, and a pickaxe, which sat lightly on his broad shoulders (he was not even back-bent, and that showed him no respectable weaver), Henders delved his way to the nearest house, which formed one of a row, and addressed the inmates down the chimney. They had already been clearing it at the other end, or his words would have been choked. “You’re snawed up, Davit,” cried Henders, in a voice that was entirely businesslike; “hae ye a spade?” A conversation ensued up and down this unusual channel of communication. The unlucky householder, taking no thought of the morrow, was without a spade. But if Henders would clear away the snow from his door he would be “varra obleeged.” Henders, however, had to come to terms first. “The chairge is saxpence, Davit,” he shouted. Then a haggling ensued. Henders must be neighbourly. A plate of broth, now—or, say, twopence. But Henders was obdurate. “I’se nae time to argy-bargy wi’ ye, Davit. Gin ye’re no willin’ to say saxpence, I’m aff to Will’um Pyatt’s. He’s buried too.” So the victim had to make up his mind to one of two things; he must either say saxpence or remain where he was.

If Henders was “promised,” he took good care that no snowed-up inhabitant should perjure himself. He made his way to a window first, and, clearing the snow from the top of it, pointed out that he could not conscientiously proceed further until the debt had been paid. “Money doon,” he cried, as soon as he reached a pane of glass; or, “Come awa wi’ my saxpence noo.”

The belief that this day had not come to Henders unexpectedly was borne out by the method of the crafty callant. His charges varied from sixpence to half-a-crown, according to the wealth and status of his victims; and when, later on, there were rivals in the snow, he had the discrimination to reduce his minimum fee to threepence. He had the honour of digging out three ministers at one shilling, one and threepence, and two shillings respectively.

Half a dozen times within the next fortnight the town was reburied in snow. This generally happened in the night-time; but the inhabitants were not to be caught unprepared again. Spades stood ready to their hands in the morning, and they fought their way above ground without Henders Ramsay’s assistance. To clear the snow from the narrow wynds and pends, however, was a task not to be attempted; and the Auld Lichts, at least, rested content when enough light got into their workshops to let them see where their looms stood. Wading through beds of snow they did not much mind; but they wondered what would happen to their houses when the thaw came.

The thaw was slow in coming. Snow during the night and several degrees of frost by day were what Thrums began to accept as a revised order of nature. Vainly the Thrums doctor, whose practice extends into the glens, made repeated attempts to reach his distant patients, twice driving so far into the dreary waste that he could neither go on nor turn back. A ploughman who contrived to gallop ten miles for him did not get home for a week. Between the town, which is nowadays an agricultural centre of some importance, and the outlying farms communication was cut off for a month; and I heard subsequently of one farmer who did not see a human being, unconnected with his own farm, for seven weeks. The schoolhouse, which I managed to reach only two days behind time, was closed for a fortnight, and even in Thrums there was only a sprinkling of scholars.

On Sundays the feeling between the different denominations ran high, and the middling good folk who did not go to church counted those who did. In the Established Church there was a sparse gathering, who waited in vain for the minister. After a time it got abroad that a flag of distress was flying from the manse, and then they saw that the minister was storm-stayed. An office-bearer offered to conduct service; but the others present thought they had done their duty and went home. The U. P. bell did not ring at all, and the kirk gates were not opened. The Free Kirk did bravely, however. The attendance in the forenoon amounted to seven, including the minister; but in the afternoon there was a turn-out of upwards of fifty. How much denominational competition had to do with this, none can say; but the general opinion was that this muster to afternoon service was a piece of vainglory. Next Sunday all the kirks were on their mettle, and, though the snow was drifting the whole day, services were general. It was felt that after the action of the Free Kirk the Establisheds and the U. P.’s must show what they too were capable of. So, when the bells rang at eleven o’clock and two, church-goers began to pour out of every close. If I remember aright, the victory lay with the U. P.’s by two women and a boy. Of course the Auld Lichts mustered in as great force as ever. The other kirks never dreamt of competing with them. What was regarded as a judgment on the Free Kirk for its boastfulness of spirit on the preceding Sunday happened during the forenoon. While the service was taking place a huge clod of snow slipped from the roof and fell right against the church door. It was some time before the prisoners could make up their minds to leave by the windows. What the Auld Lichts would have done in a similar predicament I cannot even conjecture.

That was the first warning of the thaw. It froze again; there was more snow; the thaw began in earnest; and then the streets were a sight to see. There was no traffic to turn the snow to slush, and, where it had not been piled up in walls a few feet from the houses, it remained in the narrow ways till it became a lake. It tried to escape through doorways, when it sank slowly into the floors. Gentle breezes created a ripple on its surface, and strong winds lifted it into the air and flung it against the houses. It undermined the heaps of clotted snow till they tottered like icebergs and fell to pieces. Men made their way through it on stilts. Had a frost followed, the result would have been appalling; but there was no more frost that winter. A fortnight passed before the place looked itself again, and even then congealed snow stood doggedly in the streets, while the country roads were like newly ploughed fields after rain. The heat from large fires soon penetrated through roofs of slate and thatch; and it was quite a common thing for a man to be flattened to the ground by a slithering of snow from above just as he opened his door. But it had seldom more than ten feet to fall. Most interesting of all was the novel sensation experienced as Thrums began to assume its familiar aspect, and objects so long buried that they had been half forgotten came back to view and use.

Storm-stayed shows used to emphasize the severity of a Thrums winter. As the name indicates, these were gatherings of travelling booths in the winter-time. Half a century ago the country was overrun by itinerant showmen, who went their different ways in summer, but formed little colonies in the cold weather, when they pitched their tents in any empty field or disused quarry and huddled together for the sake of warmth: not that they got much of it. Not more than five winters ago we had a storm-stayed show on a small scale; but nowadays the farmers are less willing to give these wanderers a camping-place, and the people are less easily drawn to the entertainments provided, by fife and drum. The colony hung together until it was starved out, when it trailed itself elsewhere. I have often seen it forming. The first arrival would be what was popularly known as “Sam’l Mann’s Tumbling-Booth,” with its tumblers, jugglers, sword-swallowers, and balancers. This travelling show visited us regularly twice a year: once in summer for the Muckle Friday, when the performers were gay and stout, and even the horses had flesh on their bones; and again in the “back-end” of the year, when cold and hunger had taken the blood from their faces, and the scraggy dogs that whined at their side were lashed for licking the paint off the caravans. While the storm-stayed show was in the vicinity the villages suffered from an invasion of these dogs. Nothing told more truly the dreadful tale of the showman’s life in winter. Sam’l Mann’s was a big show, and half a dozen smaller ones, most of which were familiar to us, crawled in its wake. Others heard of its whereabouts and came in from distant parts. There was the well-known Gubbins with his “A’ the World in a Box:” a halfpenny peepshow, in which all the world was represented by Joseph and his Brethren (with pit and coat), the bombardment of Copenhagen, the Battle of the Nile, Daniel in the Den of Lions, and Mount Etna in eruption. “Aunt Maggy’s Whirligig” could be enjoyed on payment of an old pair of boots, a collection of rags, or the like. Besides these and other shows, there were the wandering minstrels, most of whom were “Waterloo veterans” wanting arms or a leg. I remember one whose arms had been “smashed by a thunderbolt at Jamaica.” Queer bent old dames, who superintended “lucky bags” or told fortunes, supplied the uncanny element, but hesitated to call themselves witches, for there can still be seen near Thrums the pool where these unfortunates used to be drowned, and in the session book of the Glen Quharity kirk can be read an old minute announcing that on a certain Sabbath there was no preaching because “the minister was away at the burning of a witch.” To the storm-stayed shows came the gypsies in great numbers. Claypots (which is a corruption of Claypits) was their headquarters near Thrums, and it is still sacred to their memory. It was a clachan of miserable little huts built entirely of clay from the dreary and sticky pit in which they had been flung together. A shapeless hole on one side was the doorway, and a little hole, stuffed with straw in winter, the window. Some of the remnants of these hovels still stand. Their occupants, though they went by the name of gypsies among themselves, were known to the weavers as the Claypots beggars; and their King was Jimmy Pawse. His regal dignity gave Jimmy the right to seek alms first when he chose to do so; thus he got the cream of a place before his subjects set to work. He was rather foppish in his dress; generally affecting a suit of grey cloth with showy metal buttons on it, and a broad blue bonnet. His wife was a little body like himself; and when they went a-begging, Jimmy with a meal-bag for alms on his back, she always took her husband’s arm. Jimmy was the legal adviser of his subjects; his decision was considered final on all questions, and he guided them in their courtships as well as on their deathbeds. He christened their children and officiated at their weddings, marrying them over the tongs.

The storm-stayed show attracted old and young—to looking on from the outside. In the daytime the wagons and tents presented a dreary appearance, sunk in snow, the dogs shivering between the wheels, and but little other sign of life visible. When dusk came the lights were lit, and the drummer and fifer from the booth of tumblers were sent into the town to entice an audience. They marched quickly through the nipping, windy streets, and then returned with two or three score of men, women, and children, plunging through the snow or mud at their heavy heels. It was Orpheus fallen from his high estate. What a mockery the glare of the lamps and the capers of the mountebanks were, and how satisfied were we to enjoy it all without going inside. I hear the “Waterloo veterans” still, and remember their patriotic outbursts:

On the sixteenth day of June, brave boys, while cannon loud did roar,
We being short of cavalry they pressed on us full sore;
But British steel soon made them yield, though our numbers was but few,
And death or victory was the word on the plains of Waterloo.

The storm-stayed shows often found it easier to sink to rest in a field than to leave it. For weeks at a time they were snowed up, sufficiently to prevent any one from Thrums going near them, though not sufficiently to keep the pallid mummers indoors. That would in many cases have meant starvation. They managed to fight their way through storm and snowdrift to the high road and thence to the town, where they got meal and sometimes broth. The tumblers and jugglers used occasionally to hire an out-house in the town at these times—you may be sure they did not pay for it in advance—and give performances there. It is a curious thing, but true, that our herd-boys and others were sometimes struck with the stage-fever. Thrums lost boys to the showmen even in winter.

On the whole, the farmers and the people generally were wonderfully long-suffering with these wanderers, who I believe were more honest than was to be expected. They stole, certainly; but seldom did they steal anything more valuable than turnips. Sam’l Mann himself flushed proudly over the effect his show once had on an irate farmer. The farmer appeared in the encampment, whip in hand and furious. They must get off his land before nightfall. The crafty showman, however, prevailed upon him to take a look at the acrobats, and he enjoyed the performance so much that he offered to let them stay until the end of the week. Before that time came there was such a fall of snow that departure was out of the question; and it is to the farmer’s credit that he sent Sam’l a bag of meal to tide him and his actors over the storm.

There were times when the showmen made a tour of the bothies, where they slung their poles and ropes and gave their poor performances to audiences that were not critical. The bothy being strictly the “man’s” castle, the farmer never interfered; indeed, he was sometimes glad to see the show. Every other weaver in Thrums used to have a son a ploughman, and it was the men from the bothies who filled the square on the muckly. “Hands” are not huddled together nowadays in squalid barns more like cattle than men and women, but bothies in the neighbourhood of Thrums are not yet things of the past. Many a ploughman delves his way to and from them still in all weathers, when the snow is on the ground; at the time of “hairst,” and when the turnip “shaws” have just forced themselves through the earth, looking like straight rows of green needles. Here is a picture of a bothy of to-day that I visited recently. Over the door there is a waterspout that has given way, and as I entered I got a rush of rain down my neck. The passage was so small that one could easily have stepped from the doorway on to the ladder standing against the wall, which was there in lieu of a staircase. “Upstairs” was a mere garret, where a man could not stand erect even in the centre. It was entered by a square hole in the ceiling, at present closed by a clap-door in no way dissimilar to the trap-doors on a theatre stage. I climbed into this garret, which is at present used as a store-room for agricultural odds and ends. At harvest-time, however, it is inhabited—full to overflowing. A few decades ago as many as fifty labourers engaged for the harvest had to be housed in the farm out-houses on beds of straw. There was no help for it, and men and women had to congregate in these barns together. Up as early as five in the morning, they were generally dead tired by night; and, miserable though this system of herding them together was, they took it like stoics, and their very number served as a moral safeguard. Nowadays the harvest is gathered in so quickly, and machinery does so much that used to be done by hand, that this crowding of labourers together, which was the bothy system at its worst, is nothing like what it was. As many as six or eight men, however, are put up in the garret referred to during “hairst”-time, and the female labourers have to make the best of it in the barn. There is no doubt that on many farms the two sexes have still at this busy time to herd together even at night.

The bothy was but scantily furnished, though it consisted of two rooms. In the one, which was used almost solely as a sleeping apartment, there was no furniture to speak of, beyond two closet beds, and its bumpy earthen floor gave it a cheerless look. The other, which had a single bed, was floored with wood. It was not badly lit by two very small windows that faced each other, and, besides several stools, there was a long form against one of the walls. A bright fire of peat and coal—nothing in the world makes such a cheerful red fire as this combination—burned beneath a big kettle (“boiler” they called it), and there was a “press” or cupboard containing a fair assortment of cooking utensils. Of these some belonged to the bothy, while others were the private property of the tenants. A tin “pan” and “pitcher” of water stood near the door, and the table in the middle of the room was covered with oilcloth.

Four men and a boy inhabited this bothy, and the rain had driven them all indoors. In better weather they spend the leisure of the evening at the game of quoits, which is the standard pastime among Scottish ploughmen. They fish the neighbouring streams, too, and have burn-trout for supper several times a week. When I entered, two of them were sitting by the fire playing draughts, or, as they called it, “the dam-brod.” The dam-brod is the Scottish labourer’s billiards; and he often attains to a remarkable proficiency at the game. Wylie, the champion draught-player, was once a herd-boy; and wonderful stories are current in all bothies of the times when his master called him into the farm-parlour to show his skill. A third man, who seemed the elder by quite twenty years, was at the window reading a newspaper; and I got no shock when I saw that it was the Saturday Review, which he and a labourer on an adjoining farm took in weekly between them. There was a copy of a local newspaper—the People’s Journal—also lying about, and some books, including one of Darwin’s. These were all the property of this man, however, who did the reading for the bothy.

They did all the cooking for themselves, living largely on milk. In the old days, which the senior could remember, porridge was so universally the morning meal that they called it by that name instead of breakfast. They still breakfast on porridge, but often take tea “above it.” Generally milk is taken with the porridge; but “porter” or stout in a bowl is no uncommon substitute. Potatoes at twelve o’clock—seldom “brose” nowadays—are the staple dinner dish, and the tinned meats have become very popular. There are bothies where each man makes his own food; but of course the more satisfactory plan is for them to club together. Sometimes they get their food in the farm-kitchen; but this is only when there are few of them and the farmer and his family do not think it beneath them to dine with the men. Broth, too, may be made in the kitchen and sent down to the bothy. At harvest-time the workers take their food in the fields, when great quantities of milk are provided. There is very little beer drunk, and whisky is only consumed in privacy.

Life in the bothies is not, I should say, so lonely as life at the schoolhouse, for the hands have at least each other’s company. The hawker visits them frequently still, though the itinerant tailor, once a familiar figure, has almost vanished. Their great place of congregating is still some country smiddy, which is also their frequent meeting-place when bent on black-fishing. The flare of the black-fisher’s torch still attracts salmon to their death in the rivers near Thrums; and you may hear in the glens on a dark night the rattle of the spears on the wet stones. Twenty or thirty years ago, however, the sport was much more common. After the farmer had gone to bed, some half-dozen ploughmen and a few other poachers from Thrums would set out for the meeting-place.

The smithy on these occasions must have been a weird sight; though one did not mark that at the time. The poacher crept from the darkness. into the glaring smithy light; for in country parts the anvil might sometimes be heard clanging at all hours of the night. As a rule, every face was blackened; and it was this, I suppose, rather than the fact that dark nights were chosen that gave the gangs the name of black-fishers. Other disguises were resorted to; one of the commonest being to change clothes or to turn your corduroys outside in. The country-folk of those days were more superstitious than they are now, and it did not take much to turn the black-fishers back. There was not a barn or byre in the district that had not its horseshoe over the door. Another popular device for frightening away witches and fairies was to hang bunches of garlic about the farms. I have known a black-fishing expedition stopped because a “yellow yite,” or yellowhammer, hovered round the gang when they were setting out. Still more ominous was the “peat” when it appeared with one or three companions. An old rhyme about this bird runs—”One is joy, two is grief, three’s a bridal, four is death.” Such snatches of superstition are still to be heard amidst the gossip of a north-country smithy.

Each black-fisher brought his own spear and torch, both more or less home-made. The spears were in many cases “gully-knives,” fastened to staves with twine and resin, called “rozet.” The torches were very rough-and-ready things—rope and tar, or even rotten roots dug from broken trees—in fact, anything that would flare. The black-fishers seldom journeyed far from home, confining themselves to the rivers within a radius of three or four miles. There were many reasons for this; one of them being that the hands had to be at their work on the farm by five o’clock in the morning; another, that so they poached and let poach. Except when in spate, the river I specially refer to offered no attractions to the black-fishers. Heavy rains, however, swell it much more quickly than most rivers into a turbulent rush of water; the part of it affected by the black-fishers being banked in with rocks that prevent the water’s spreading. Above these rocks, again, are heavy green banks, from which stunted trees grow aslant across the river. The effect is fearsome at some points where the trees run into each other, as it were, from opposite banks. However, the black-fishers thought nothing of these things. They took a turnip lantern with them—that is, a lantern hollowed out of a turnip, with a piece of candle inside—but no lights were shown on the road. Every one knew his way to the river blindfold; so that the darker the night the better. On reaching the water there was a pause. One or two of the gang climbed the banks to discover if any bailiffs were on the watch; while the others sat down, and with the help of the turnip lantern “busked” their spears; in other words, fastened on the steel—or, it might be, merely pieces of rusty iron sharpened into a point at home—to the staves. Some had them busked before they set out, but that was not considered prudent; for of course there was always a risk of meeting spoil-sports on the way, to whom the spears would tell a tale that could not be learned from ordinary staves. Nevertheless little time was lost. Five or six of the gang waded into the water, torch in one hand and spear in the other; and the object now was to catch some salmon with the least possible delay, and hurry away. Windy nights were good for the sport, and I can still see the river lit up with the lumps of light that a torch makes in a high wind. The torches, of course, were used to attract the fish, which came swimming to the sheen, and were then speared. As little noise as possible was made; but though the men bit their lips instead of crying out when they missed their fish, there was a continuous ring of their weapons on the stones, and every irrepressible imprecation was echoed up and down the black glen. Two or three of the gang were told off to land the salmon, and they had to work smartly and deftly. They kept by the side of the spearsman, and the moment he struck a fish they grabbed at it with their hands. When the spear had a barb there was less chance of the fish’s being lost; but often this was not the case, and probably not more than two-thirds of the salmon speared were got safely to the bank. The takes of course varied; sometimes, indeed, the black-fishers returned home empty-handed.

Encounters with the bailiffs were not infrequent, though they seldom took place at the water’s edge. When the poachers were caught in the act, and had their blood up with the excitement of the sport, they were ugly customers. Spears were used and heads were broken. Struggles even took place in the water, when there was always a chance of somebody’s being drowned. Where the bailiffs gave the black-fishers an opportunity of escaping without a fight it was nearly always taken; the booty being left behind. As a rule, when the “water-watchers,” as the bailiffs were sometimes called, had an inkling of what was to take place, they reinforced themselves with a constable or two and waited on the road to catch the poachers on their way home. One black-fisher, a noted character, was nicknamed the “Deil o’ Glen Quharity.” He was said to have gone to the houses of the bailiffs and offered to sell them the fish stolen from the streams over which they kept guard. The “Deil” was never imprisoned—partly, perhaps, because he was too eccentric to be taken seriously.


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