‘The Rival Tailors’ by Strathmore (6 March, 1858)

‘The Rival Tailors’ by Strathmore was the first short story to be published in the ‘Dundee, Perth, Forfar, and Fife People’s Journal’. The story was a response to a competition asking for the best “Tale of Scottish Life.” Strathmore’s effort was a joint winner alongside Clutha’s ‘The Triple Doom’, which  both won a copy of ‘Shakespeare’s Works’.

‘The Rival Tailors’ ended up being a controversial prize winner, as correspondence to the papers shows that it evoked the wroth of Tayside’s tailors. (see below).

“The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”—Shakspeare [sic].

“It’s a very provokin’ business, guidman,” said Mrs Wilkie one morning at breakfast to her spouse, the farmer of Birrelton, “that we canna get that tailor body to come and mak’ your coat. The claith’s been lyin’ ready for him this sax months ; but I’ll no wait anither day for the leein’ sorrow if I can get another tailor in the country to mak’ it.”

“Indeed, Janet,” said Mr Wilkie, “it is certainly very provokin’, for the buyin’ o’ the claith gies less thocht and trounble than the makin’ o’t. however, I think ye may gie ‘im ae chance mair, and if he disappoint us again, ye may try Davie Cruikshanks o’ the Muir, and see whether he’ll be mair punctual.”

To this the guidwife agreed, tho’ with some reluctance ; and the recusant tailor, Stitchem o’ Balskeerie, was forthwith given to understand that, if he did not appear at Birrelton “by Friday first, somebody else would be got, wha would be mair thankfu’ for her cheenge.”

It was a custom universal in country parishes some fifty years ago, and is the practice still in many rural districts, to engage the tailor, at so much a day, to execute the duties of his calling under the eye and roof of his employer. This was at all times, however, a matter of considerable doubt and difficulty. If the tailor was professionally of good repute, and more than usually busy, as was the case with Willie Stitchem, the applicant for his services might consider himself fortunate indeed if his wants were supplied after half-a-dozen disappointments. The case, we fear, is much the same still, though the mode of management may be somewhat different. With respect be it said, the knights of the needle, both in town and country, are still liable to the charge of unpunctuality—still too often exhibiting a teasing independence in their observance of promises. Few that sport male habiliments are without experience to corroborate this fact. We are sorry for it ; but truth is omnipotent, and must be obeyed. However urgent the necessity, or importunate the demand (we must chronicle the fact), the chances are still ten to one against the tailor’s promise being duly implemented.

Considering then the high estimation in which Willie Stitchem’s handiwork was held by the parishioners, the great run of business he had in consequence, and the numberless times his promissory delinquencies had been pardoned by the guidwife of Birrelton, no one can be surprised to learn that, when the stipulated Friday came, no Willie Stitchem came along with it. There was no other alternative now than to negotiate with Davie Cruikshanks, the young debutant “o’ the Muir.” This was forthwith done ; and Mrs Wilkie was highly gratified to find that the new artist, “tho’over head and ears o’ wark,” would engage to commence operations “on the following Monday, and give her the utmost satisfaction.” And did Davie come? Ay, reader, he came, and came like a miracle ; and so happy was Mrs Wilkie at the phenomenon, that the greater part of Monday would likely have been spent in reciprocal gossip, had not a circumstance, the most singular and unlooked for, put a sudden stop to their growing intimacy. In the midst of their confidential “crack,” and whilst they were busy ringing the changes on the worthlessness and incapacity of the old tailor, who should make his appearance, “lapbrod in oxter and goose in hand,” but old Stitchem himself, and young ditto as helpmate ! “Charlie Kidd”* keep us ! here was a dilemma. Mrs Wilkie was petrified—fairly in a fix. SHe looked alternately from “snip” to “snip,” and for a time seemed completely puzzled what line of procedure she should adopt. “She couldna find it in her hear,” as she afterwards declared, “to turn onybody frae her house, let alane an auld acquaintance like Willie Stitchem.” After a brief but profound cogitation, she adopted the best remedy the emergence seemed to afford, by desiring both parties to set to work, telling them at the same time she should find no difficulty “in findin employment for them a’.”

Had Mr Editor not restricted our space, we could have moralized for two columns’ length at this point of our story on the proverbial futility of half measures, expediency, &c. ; but, as Burns says, “to our tale.”

Mrs Wilkie’s arrangement, kind and considerate as all must allow it to have been, did not appear to be greatly relished by either of the rival knights. They commenced operations, nevertheless, as “the Mistress” indicated, and apparently with zeal and good fellowship. But the Mistress was grieved to see that, notwithstanding appearances, each would now and then eye the other as an intruder, and appeared to be more willing to settle the right of preoccupance by personal combat than labour as friendly copartners. No word of recognition was passed between them, each brooding in silence on the speediest mode of circumventing the other, so as to secure the future patronage of the important house of Birrelton. Even the guidwife seemed to be infected with the spirit of taciturnity—a circumstance rather unusual in her case, for, saving the few necessary instructions at the outset, she set about her usual domestic avocations without making any further attempt to prolong the conversation. This unwonted state of things, however, could not last long. It was contrary to the gossiping nature and professional habits of both antagonists, and Mrs W. was evidently waiting with nervous impatience to see which of the two fractions of humanity should make the first advance to dissipate the painful reserve. Silence at length was broken by her old friend Willie Stitchem, who, addressing his neighbour in the blandest tones of conciliatory friendship, asked Davie if he would take a “pinch.” Reserve being thus happily broken social intercourse commenced apace ; and Mrs Wilkie was so much gratified at this pleasant aspect of things that she presented her “big-bellied” bottle and made them both drink to their better acquaintance. Some time thereafter, being called upon to assist in some indispensable operations in the barn, the Mistress left the house, intimating to old Stitchem that, as she would be absent “for maybe an ‘oor or twa, he should help himsel’ to what he needit, as he was weel scquaint wi’ the ways o’ the hoose.”

“Now, Dauvit, my freend,” said WIllie to his neighbour Cruikshanks, rousing himself from a profound it of cogitation into which he had been plunged since Mrs Wilkie’s departure, “ye’ll nae doot hae aften fand yersel near half-starved in some houses, but naebody grudges your meltith here my freend. Its routh o’ the best wi’ Mrs Wilkie, and thanks to tak’ it. It’s no every house the tailor gangs till that he gets sic treatment as at the bien hoose o’ Birrelton. For instance, as the denner ‘oor is no till twal o’clock here, it’s the gudewif’es invariable custo, whene’er eleven stikes, to hand the tailor bread and cheese and a bowl fu’ o’ milk, an’ if she’s no at hand at the time, she never forgets to leave word for me to gang and tak it mysel.”

“She’s forgotten to do that the day then, I’m dootin’,” said Cruikshanks rather dolefully.

“Deed, an’ she’s done naething o’ the kind, honest woman,” returned Stitchem briskly, “did ye no hear her tell me, before she gaed oot, that I kent whaur to get a’thing mysel ?”

“An’ that’s very true,” acquiesced the younger snip, “but I thoct it meant ony sma’ matter aboot oor wark.”

“Nae sic thing, my friend, it was oor ‘leven hoors she meant, an’ there’s the very ‘oor chapping’ the noo, sae doon wi your gibbles, my freend, and follow me.”

In a trice they were both upon the floor, and old Stitchem, telling his son Sandy “just to drive awa till they cam back,” led the way into the kitchen, where he immediately commenced to rummage Mrs Wilkie’s well-filled “awmrie.”

“Whaur’s your coat, Dauvit man ?” asked Willie, producing the heel of a kanter kebbuck and half-a-dozen thick barley bannocks, “ye maun tak charge o’ the provender lad ; but ye’ve nae pouches to haud it. Clap on the gudeman’s coat there, it will answer the purpose nicely.”

This proposition, ludicrous as it certainly was, did not seem to affect Davie with any feeling of oddity or suspicion. He appeared perfectly passive in the hands of (truth will out) the old Judas, and submitted to all his directions without exhibiting the slightest suspicion of treachery.

“Now,” said Stitchem, after he had stuffed Mr Wilkie’s capacious coat pockets almost to bursting, “tak thae twa spoons in your hand, my freend, I see they’re siller anes, but we’ve nae time to look for ony ither, an’ noo lat us aff to the milk-hoose and get the sap.”

After they had entered the dairy Willie paused for a moment, and, casting his eyes over the various dishes that stood around, “brimful with the produce of the milky mother,” he said gravely to his companion, “I dinna think we should meddle wi’ the cogs ava, we’ll just tak a soup oot o’ the kirn as usual, an’ that will be errin’ on the safe side, my freend.”

The vessel commonly made use of for churning in those days, and which is still employed in some dairies of our wide bucolic Strath, is styled the “cask-kirn.” Its figure, as the name implies, resembles a common ale barrel, from one end of which a crank handle projects, which drives round a spoked wheel within ; and in the other is usually inserted “a cock and pail,” for drawing off the uncoagulated contents.

Willie Stitchem, having speedily extracted the spigot from the “pail,” clapped his hand instantly on the orifice, but turning to Davie, and cursing himself “for an auld stupit fool,” he hastily wispered, “Charlie Kid guid us, Dauvit ! we’ve come awa withoot onything to haud it in ; but come here, man, an’ clap your thoom on the hole till I rin to the kitchin for a tankar’.”

It will doubtless seem stange why neither of them, in such a jucture should think of replacing the spigot ; but the fact was, Willie Stitchem, for reasons of his own, had predetermined to ignore it, and his simple “friend” took no notice of the circumstance further than merely to hint his suprise that “he couldna find a better substitute.”

Leaving Cruikshanks thus doing duty for the missing “cock,” let us follow Willie Stitchem who has hurried away to the kitchen, as he said, to look for a “tankar’.”

The little perfidous rascal, however, never left the milkhouse upon any such errand. It was only to hurry off, with all the speed he could, in quest of Mrs Wilkie, in order to betray his companion. When he entered the barn, which stood at the foot of the mound on the broad top of which the dwelling-house was built, he was heard by the inmates roaring lustily through the din of the fanners for a “word wi’ the mistress.”

“What’s the matter noo, Willie ?” asked the guidwife, coming to the door and shaking dust from her apron.

“Matter ?” quoth Willie, “there’s matter eneuch, weel I wat. Just gang awa up yonder and see what your braw new tailor’s aboot. Weel it’s awfu’ to see how the best o’ folk will be deceived,” continued Stitchem, turning to Mr Wilkie and the group of servants who had now gathered about him, “I could na have believed it lads had I no seen the scooneral wi’ my ain een/”

“But what is the matter, man ?” Again inquired Mrs Wilkie impatiently.

“It’s theivin’s the matter !” cried the excited Willie, “theivin, guidwife ; and if ye dinna set aff on the instant, ye’ll hae guid cause to rue the day ye brought sic a scamp to Birrelton. Ay, ay, guidwife, tak the bessom wi’ ye, ye’ll hae need o’t by-and-bye ; dinna spare him, mistress, dinna spare the villain ; lay weel on, guidwife, a cudgel’s the best cure for thae sort o’ cattle,” bawled the malicious rascal, as Mrs Wilkie trotted off with vague feelings of mystery and mischief. “We’ll better daunder awa after her, guidman if ye like,” continued Stitchem, lowering his voice, but still speaking very excitedly ; “an’ it may be as weel to tak Jock Ross here alang wi’ us, in case some mischief should happen before a’s done.”

When Mrs Wilkie reached the house, she at once proceeded to the apartment where, so shortly before this, she had left all three parties in apparently the most amicable union ; but she was greatly suprised, on entering the room, to find Davie Cruikshanks, and only Davie, looking as unconscious of evil as a child, and stitching away with most exemplary industry.

“Confoond the auld leein’ vagabond !” she exclaimed, he’s gien me a bony begowk I trow !”

“What aboot ?” asked Davie, with quiet simplicity.

“Ou, just a fool’s errand,” returned Mrs Wilkie, puffing as much from offended dignity as from recent exertion ; “but never you mind, Dauvit, I’ll soon see if I canna really mak’ a toom hoose o’ that born-and-bred lear.”

“If you mean the Stitchems,” said Crukshanks, “It’s nae mair than time you did it ; for if you gang ben to the milkhoose ye’ll see there what will mak’ you with ye had set them adrift land ere noe.”

To accound for the absense of young Stitchem, and the present unlooked-for position of Davie Cruikshanks, we feel it is a duty we owe our readers at this very critical stage of our story, and which, in justice to all parties, cannot longer be deferred.

The singular affair of Mr Wilkie’s coat, but particularly that of the missing spigot, had awakened suspicions in Davie’s mind that Stitchem did really purpose to inveigle him into some malicious tric ; and when he saw the old traitor, as he left the house “for the tankar’,” steal cautiously past the window in the direction of the barn, the clear turth at once flashed upon his conviction. He now comprehended Willie’s stratagem in its full bearing, and immediately determined to profit by the example. Hastily plugging up the dripping tub or “pail” with a bannock, as the most convenient article within his reach, he threw off Mr Wilkie’s coat, and hurried back to Sandy, whom he found lazily stretched across the table, waiting patiently for the promised refection.

We can just make space to describe young Stitchem as a tall ungainly lad, of apparently about seventeen years of age, having long been widely known for an appetite of vulture voracity, and a greater predilection for foot-ball and shinty than for the monotonous labour of the work-board.

“Get up man, Sandy, and come alang wi’ me,” said Cruikshanks, as composedly as if he cared not whether he would or not. “I find we canna do weel withoot ye. Your faither’s gaen oot upon some errand o’ his sin, an’ I want a’ things in readiness by the time he comes back.”

“Noo, Sandy,” said Cruikshanks, upon their entering the milk-hoose, “Ye’ll just put on Mr Wilkie’s coat here, as a skreen against ony body passin’ and lookin’ in upon us. Capital, Sandy ! Your faither would say ‘Charlie Kidd’ himsl’ would harldly ken ye. An’ noo,” continued Davie, extracting the bannock from the pail, “Clap your loof on the hold there, until I rin ben for a tankar’.”

We will now return to Mrs Wilkie, whose attentions had been directed by Davie, as we have seen, to some mysterious spectacle in the dairie. Without waiting for further information, she hastily trundled off, still grasping the formidable besom, which would no seem destined for the correctional benefit of a different delinquent than old Stitchem anticipated. Having reached the milk house, she immediately threw the door open with a bang, and beheld, in dumb amazement, young Stitchem in her husband’s coat, standinf at the kirn, and trying ineffectually to stem the unctuous liquid, which was squirting in all directions thro’ his camped fingers. Poor Sandy gazed at the enraged matron, as if spell-bound under the overwhelming fear of impending chastisement, but his pleading look of terror was entirely thrown away upon Mrs Wilkie ; for, before he could utter a word of explanation, he was felled to the earth by a vigorous stoke of the broom, and half deluged by the contents of the churn, which now poured over him in an unresisted stream. Notwithstanding her passion, howeer, Mrs Wilkie had sufficient presence of mind to snatch of her neckerchief and thrust it into the pail in order to stop the inundation—an act of clamant necessity, if she hoped to save some fifteen gallons of the mercy that still remained. Whilst she was thus engaged, poor Sandy was making desperate efforts to regain his perpendicular, and had just happily succeeded, when Mrs Wilkie again raised the broom in order to avour him with a parting benediction. Sandy’s better luck favoured him this time however, for before she could accomplish her benevolent intention, he was splashing along the passage which led to the outer door, leaving at each footstep a puddle sufficiently copious to have fed or drowned a whole litter of kittens. But his evil luck had not yet abandoned him, for just as young Stitchem reached the outer door of the building, rushing with the terror of a maniac, he dashed in blind collision against his father, who was just on the point of entering it, and, before either could recognise his opponent, sire and son were rolling down the steep declivity, and clutching at each other’s throats with the fierceness and tenacity of wild cats. Sandy never dreamed for an instant that he was striving, in the blindness of self-preservation, to strangle his beloved parent, nor did that estimable parent ever imagine he was showering his blows on the dripping carcase of his own heir apparent. Indeed, so peculiarly fierce and determined was the onslaught of the older combatant, that it was only by the younger’s leaving his borrowed garment in his father’s grasp that he could at last recover his freedom. This he had no sooner effected than, without waiting to identify his assailant, he swept round the corner of the adjoining plantation with the speed of a greyhound, nor did he once slacken his pace until he found himself safely burrowed under the parental roof at Balskeerie.

Panting from the conflict, and besmeared with milk and dust, Willie slowly ascended the slope, radiant with the idea that he had so gloriously outwitted and so signally punished his detested rival, Cruikshanks. As a trophy of victory, he carried over his arm that luckless garment so often mentioned, but which appeared now and for ever to beyond the power of all mortal ingenuity to renovate.

“My faith, guidwife,” cried Willie, chuckling with undisguised triumph, as he approached the group of our dramatis personae standing in front of the door, “I’ve gien the villain’s craig a squeeze he’ll no forget in a hurry. A theivin’ ugly blackguard ! But what could be expected frae ony untried tramper o’ the kind? Here, guidman, is your braw coat, an’ a braw coat he’s made o’t, I trow.”

“And there’s yours,” returned the guidwie, throwing Willie his swallow-tail.

“Eh, what for,” stammered Willie.

“Just that you may follow your ne’er-do-weel son as fast as ye can,” Mrs Wilkie replied.

“My son ! what about my son ?” cried the bewildered Stitchem, who certainly looked for a very different reception for his zealous services, “Ye’re surely jokin’ me an’ Sandy ! what the warld do you mean, Mrs Wilkie ?”

“Just that I found the blackguard robbin’ the kirn, a fact which you yoursel’ was the first to gie me an inklin’ aboot.”

Willie was completely overhwhelmed with astonishment at this intellidgnce, and stared about him like one bewitched, as if seeking for some ellucidation [sic] of the mystery. After he had somewhat mastered his emotion, he turned to Mrs Wilkie, and cried with emphatic earnestness.

“Mrs Wilkie, ye may believe me or no, but it’s just as true as I stand here that I saw Cruikshanks wi’ my ain een standing at the kirn when I cam’ to tell ye ; an’ if my son was there at a’, Cruikshanks cajoled ‘im, for my poor Sandy is as innocent as his faither.”

“Ay, ay, true eneuch, like sire like son, my freend,” here interrupted Cruikshanks in person, who, until now, had remained concealed behind the broad shoulders of Mr Wilkie, “I’m glad I can verify Mr Stitchem’s ‘innocence,’ as to satisfy ony ane wha doots it. Let Jock ripe my freend’s breek pouch and he’ll find there ample proof of his ‘innocence’”

Spite of Stitchem’s resistence (for he seemed stangely repugnant to having his innocence cleared in this way), Jock, in whose giant grasp the stuggling manikin was as a child speedily produced, from the receptacle indicated, the exculpatory evidence, in the shape of the missing “cock.” Such a corroborative proof of Willie’s ‘innocence’ raised a burst of scornful laughter from all sides. Even the guidwife heaved her heavy fabric in a token of satisfaction, and joined heartily in the general laugh.

But Willie’s humiliation was not yet complete. Whilst he was thundering his anathema against all around him under the smart of his degradation, Davie steps up to Mrs Wilkie and whispers in her ear, “mak’ Jock search his coat packet ana—he’ll get something there mair valuable than a stick.”

“Jock,” cried Mrs Wilkie, “will ye stap your thoom doon that creature’s throught till I hear mysel’ speak ? Step, stop, ye haverel,” shouted his mistress in alarm, as Jock proceeded cooly to execute this order, “that’s no what I want Jock, but tak’ the fallow’s coat and turn the pouches inside out.”

“I’ll soon do that Mistress,” said honest Jock ; “I’ll turn the creature’s sel’ inside oot if ye like.”

Difficult and wonderful as such a feat must have been, it was found, however, unnecessary, for Willie gave up his coat with readiness, declaring “he would eat a’ they found it it that wasna his ain.” Vain boast ! who may resist his malignant planet ? Jock’s search on this occasion was even more damnatory than the first.

“Are thae yours, Mistress ?” asked the hind, as he handed her a couple of table-spoons from the side-pocket.

“Gude preserve us a’ !” exclaimed Mrs Wilkie, staring at the articles, “if the awfu’ wretch hasna been stealin’ my new siller spoons !”

Hitherto, “cannie Willie Wilkie,” as he was sometimes called, had appeared to enjoy the proceeding as a mere uninterested spectator, but this affair of the spoons completely roused him.

“I’ll tell you what, Sir,” cried he, in a tone which the boldest in the parish would have deprecated. “if ye don’t carry your worthless carcase aff in a twinklin’ I’ll send ye doon the brae faster than ye gaed last time !”

“Hear me, Mr Wilkie, only hear me for a moment !”

“Will ye yet !” shouted Mr Wilkie, sweeping his brawny arm within an inch of Stitchem’s nose, “I’ll massacre ye, ye villain !”

Poor Willie Stitchem saw it was no time to parley at present ; so, snatching up his brown swallow tail, he darted off with a willingness and velocity that Sandy himself could scarce have equalled.

“Will I let the dog loose, Mistress ?” asked Jock, laughing boisterously.”

“No, no, Jock ; let the poor silly creature gang. I’m wae to think hoo far the poor thing’s been left to himsel’ ; but I never thocht that leein’ was sae sib to thievin’ afore.”

“Folk that contrive snares for the ruin o’ ithers shouldna compleen tho’ they’re trapt in their ain net.”

With that pithy remark of the philosophic Davie, we conlude the story of the “Rival Tailors.”




* “Charlie Kidd,” a favourite expletive in the district where our tale is laid.—All names fictitious.


This story proved not to be entirely popular among ‘The People’s Journal’ readers.

To the editor of The People’s Journal,

Sir,—It is difficult for an individual calmly to endure ridicule, even when it arises from legitimate sources. How sorely, then, must it try one’s patience to be made the object of ceaseless ridicule—the butt of silly and unmeaning banter and aimless vulgar wit, without even the miserable consolation of knowing that there is the shadow of a cause for it. In such an unpleasant plight are we tailors situated. We are considered to be legitimate game at which each witless wit may crack his feeble jokes. From time immemorial we have been subjected to a course of obloquy and contempt for which we may search in vain for a cause. Such epithets as “fractions of humanity,” “shreds of manhood,” and others of a like nature and equal justness of application, are lavishly applied to us ; and why ? In what, I anxiously ask, do we differ from the rest of mortals ? To parody Shakespere—Hath not a tailor eyes ? Hath not a tailor hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions ? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter, as another man is ?

Silly as this prejudice appears , it is deep-rooted and widely spread, and is ever shooting forth its unseemly fruit, which has germinated in some ignorant and stunted soil. And it appeared in one of its most offensive guises in the “Prize Tale” which appeared in your Journal of last week. In referring to this matter I do not intend to enter into particulars, as space will not permit ; but I would merely hint to “Strathmore” that he would better employ his time and talents did he apply himself to the exposition of truth, and the exploding of falsehood and prejudice, instead of clumsily thrumming on the stings of silly and vulgar prejudice, as he has done in the present instance. And if he cannot attempt to be witty without trenching on vulgarity, nor catch the public taste without truckling to public error, then, in the name of thruth, let him cast aside the pen he so unworthily uses.—Hoping you will insert this, I am, yours,

A Tailor, Alyth, March 8, 1858. [Published March 20, 1858]

An extreme response perhaps, but this tailor from Alyth was backed up in another letter.

To the editor of The People’s Journal,

Sir,—”A Tailor” (writing from Alyth), whose letter appeared in last week’s Journal, vindicates with energy and truth, and not without a certain touching pathos, the profession to which he belongs. He justly complains of the ridicule and obloquy with which, from time immemorial, tailors, as such, have been treated, and naturally wonders that the author of a Prize Tale in your paper could so far forget himself as to truckle to a prejudice at once so foolish, unmanly, and unfair. Let it console “A Tailor” to know that Thomas Carlyle, the most powerful writer and profound thinker of our day, has boldly spoken out on the subject, and “smitten the prejudice in the face.” As his remarks may be new to many of your readers, and are characterised by his own rugged beauty and nervous diction, I have extracted them here, and remain yours,

Capulet [Published April 3, 1858]

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