‘Bodkin in Clover’ (6 July, 1861)

The following is one of the many epistles of Tammas Bodkin, the character used by editor William D. Latto to speak frankly (and amusingly) on current affairs. Latto became editor of the people’s journal in December 1860 and used the platform to launch Tammas, bringing himself a fair amount of fame in Victorian Scotland.

Maister Editor,—Last week I ga’e ye a scrift o’ hoo we were gettin’ on at Crummiehillocks, but I had to break aff i’ the thread o’ my discoorse. I’ve sittin’ doon enoo—though I’m certain sure I’ve mair need to be at the needle—to detail the hinder end o’ my story.

Weel, ye see, after discussin’ oor curds an’ cream an’ a cawker apiece, Jeames an’ me set aff to mak’ a survey o’ the farm steadin’, an’ a’ the oots an’ ins o’ the concern. First an’ foremost we made a superficial examination o’ the thrashin’ mill, an’ Jeames describit a’ hoo the corn was put in, an’ hoo it cam’ oot, hoo the fanners blew awa’ the chaff an’ the licht-corn, an’ hoo the heavy grain was preserved to be food for man an’ beast, an’ I was greatly enlichtened an’ edified by his mechanical exposition, an’ a poor o’ conversation we had boot this, that, an’ the ither thing. It sae happened, hooever, that the mill was infestit wi’ a colony o’ rottans, an’ juist i’ the middle o’ oor discoorse there pouts oot a fierce lookin’ rascal frae behind a sack, an’ dairts wi’ the velocity o’ greased lichtenin’ in below a heap o’ wechts an’ riddles, an’ graith o’ that kind, that were lyin’ in a corner o’ the barn floor. Jeames vowed vengeance against the souple scoundrel, an’ so he arms himsel’ wi’ a broom besom, an’ made his dispositions for an assault on the Malakoff [note: A reference to the siege of Sevastopol]. Wi’ the besom o’ destruction uplifit aboon his head, Jeames drew up his forces in front o’ the enemy’s stronghold, fairly blockin’ up the only practicable way o’ retreat open to the beleagured garrison. My duty was, airmed wi’ my siller-headed cane, to march bauldly in an’ storm the citadel. It taks me lang to describe the action, but the haill affair didna last ootower three quarters o’ a minute. In I marched at double quick time, an’ bravely commenced the attack by tisslin’ up the wechts and riddles wi’ the view o’ dislodgin’ the enemy. Oot he dartit like a rocket, an’ Jeames let at him wi’ a poorfu’ blenter, but missed his mark like mony ane mair. So I lent a reishel at him next, an’ also missed. The puir bewilderet mortal was at his wits’ end an’ bounded hither an’ thither, Jeames lounderin’ at him wi’ the besom, an’ me paikin’ awa’ wi’ my cane. Bein’ mair zealous than prudent, hooever, an’ mair anxious to tak’ the life o’ the rottan than to preserve my ain, I had the misfortune to thrust my head-piece within the sweep o’ Jeames’s besom, an’ sae doon he cam’ what he could draw ower the croon o’ my hat, whereby it was knockit firmly doon ower my coontenance, completely steekin’ up my daylichts, an’ deprivin’ me for the time bein’ o’ the use o’ my speaking apparawtus. Naethin’ but my chouks were veesible, as Jeames informed my afterwards. Jeames flang awa’ the besom, an’ of coorse I flang awa’ my cane. I banged up my hands to edge up my tile, an’ Jeames he flew to my assistance, thinkin’ he had brained me, but by a special interposition o’ mercyment, I wasna ae whit the waur, the hat bein’ the only party that had felt the brunt o’ the blow. But the hat wasna the warst pairt o’ the ploy, for in the hurrybustle o’ the business, the ill-faur’d tuke o’ a rottan had the impudence to rin up the very leg o’ my slacks, wi’ the view, nae doot, o’ makin’ good his quarters in that quiet climate. I banged doon my hands to arrest his progress, but he was ower souple for me, an’ sae he ran up the ae leg an’ doon the ither, an’ a’ the time I keepit dancin’ an duntin’ my feet upo’ the floor, as if I had been afflickit wi’ St Vitus’ Dance. Jeames didna ken aboot the rottan bein’ sic a near neebor, an’, my mooth bein’ shut up wi’ the hat, I couldna communicate the necessary information on the subjeck; an’ sae, when he saw me glaumin’ at my legs, he ran awa’ wi’ the erroneous impression that, in the hurrybustle o’ the moment—for the hail mischanter was the wark o’ an instant or twa—he had somehow or ither come athort my cyrpin as well as my head-piece. Jeames was muckle concerned aboot it, puir chield, an’ quoth he, “Tammas, I haena hurt ye sair, hae I?” But feint a word could I reply, except a hollow groan that micht, by a violent stretch o’ the imagination, be translatit into the monosyllabie “No!” Jeames soon jealoused what was up wi’ me, an’ sae he applied himsel’ wi’ vigour to oonship my hat, wherein he at last succeedit, muckle to my relief, an’ nae that little to his satisfaction, seein’ there was nae hole knockit in my skull, as he had half-expeckit. I thereupon lodged a complaint iw’ Jeames against the unwarrantable proceedin’s o’ his rottanship, an’ sae he soon settled wi’ him, seizin’ hauds o’ ‘m through the claith wi’ his ponderous neives that had the faculty o’ a smith’s vice, an’ crackin’ his very banes, as if they had been naething but a wheen pipe-stapples. I shook him oot o’ the leg o’ my slacks, an’ he lay i’ the floor—

“A towsie tyke, black, grim, an’ large.”

—Od, it was ugsum to think o’ haein’ sic a barbarous-lookin’ tenant, wi’ a lang tail, an’ teeth as gleg as needles, rammelin’ up an’ doon the legs o’ my breeks, an’ I canna tell hoo thankfu’ I was to be relieved o’ his society. Jeames an’ me clubbit oor skill thegither, an’ made a few repairs on the croon o’ the hat, insomuch that neither Tibbie nor Mrs Witherspoon jaloused what had happened, an’ we agreed to keep oor ain coonsels on the subjeck, for if they had got their fingers in the pie there wad hae been nae end to their claverin’ aboot it.

Havin’ seen a’ that was to be seen aboot the farm steadin’, the calves, an’ the swine, an’ the bubbly-jock—an’ crusty-lookin footer that let doon his snotter an’ spruced up his feathers when we approached him—we taen a turn roond the fields an’ had a crack aboot the stots, an’ the petawtis, an’ the relative values o’ bane dust, guano, coprolites, an’ midden dung, as manures for turneeps, an’ a host o’ ither subjecks ower numerous to mention. On oor way back we had to pass the cottar hooses, an’ as I had read a gude hantle aboot their condition in general, ye’ll no hinder me to ask Jeames to introduce me to some o’ his bits o’ biggin’s. Geyan queer lookin’ hoosies they were—theekit wi’ divots an’ strae, the wa’s swayed this way an’ that way, the lum-heads twined roond wi’ strae-raips—auld huggars an’ blue bannets doin’ duty for panes o’ glass, muckle pools o’ green stinkin’ water, no three yards frae the doorstanes, an’ alangside thereof muck middins fit to manure half an’ acre o’ land. The prospect was onything but invitin’, either to e’e or nose, but, hoosomdever, in we entered, an’ faund the guidewife in an atmosphere o’ peat an’ stick reek, labourin’ awa’ at the bake-brod, turnin oot a regiment o’ aitmeal cakes, ilk ane o’ them half-an-inch thick. The woman’s face was far frae clean, an’ the same remark could hae been applied, I’ve nae doot, wi’ equal truth, to her neives and arms, had they no been hidden frae observation by a thin incrustation o’ aitmeal dough. Twa or three bubbly-nosed, towsy-headed, dirt-begrimed, raggit “littleuns,” as their mither ca’d them, were rowini’ aboot i’ the floor, that was damp, an’ sairly in want o’ bein’ shooled—for a besom wad hae been naething til’t, an’ up i’ the crapwa’s there were twa or three hens roostin’, that seemed to cun us little thanks for oor visit, for ane o’ them cam’ aff her nest wi’ an’ awfu’ hullaballoo o’ flappin o’ wings an’ cacklin’, an’ flew ower my head towards the door, no withoot leavin a token o’ her respeck for strangers on the shooter o’ my gude new coat, that had to be scrapit wi’ a knife an’ dichtit wi’ a pickle girse after we got to the door. Losh, thinks I, if Tibbie were only here she wad see something that wad gar her think mair o’ her ain hoose at hame, even though it sidna be very weel adapted to display her sofy an’ moreen curtains to the best advantage. If folk wad only contrast their ain condition wi’ that o’ toosands beneath them in the social scale, they wad learn to be far better contentit wi’ their lot. Hooever, we had nae time to stand an’ moraleese; sae I flang a penny to ilk ane o’ the weans, an’ we bade the wifie gude-bye. We steppit into the next hoose, an’, though the big-gin’ itsel’ was quite cosh an’ clean. The guidewife was a trig, rosy-lookin’ dame, her mutch was as pure white as the driven snaw, an’ the bairns were a’ claith hale an’ clean as needles. Everything contrastit favourably wi’ what we had seen in the hoose next door, sae I couldna help thinkin’ that, after a’, it’s the wife that makes the hoose either foul or fair. An eydent, cleanly hoosewife will gar a mere hovel hae an air o’ comfort aboot it, while a dirty, weirdless wife wad turn a palace into a dunghill. Wi’ thae moraleesins, Jeames an’ me gaed oor wa’s hame ower, where we faund Tibbie an’ Mrs Witherspoon deep in the mysteries o’ bubble-an’-squeak, Tibbie doen’ her best to teach Mrs Withserspoon, as Tibber hersel’ had been instruckit by Kirsty Monypenny.

By this time it was drawin’ near to tea-time, an’ Jeames had invited aucht or ten o’ the neighbourin’ farmers an’ their families to tak’ tea an’ supper at Crummiehillocks, in honour o’ oor visit. Ane after anither o’ the company began to drap in about the toon, some in gigs, some on horseback, an’ some on shank’s-naig—an aulder conveyance than either o’ them. Of coorse, I was introduced to a’ the company as they arrived, an’ Tibbie, she was up stairs i’ the bedroom to help the ladies aff wi’ their bannets and cloaks, an’ Mrs Witherspoon was on her majesty, houd-houdin aboot as fast as she could get her legs to carry her great thoracic an’ abdominal development. At last an’ lang tea was announced, an’ sae we a’ adjourned to the dinin’-room, where the very table was groanin’ oonder the superincumbent piles o’ bread o’ a’ kinds, butter, roastit chickens, an’ gude kens a’ what. A farmer’s table is the place for a hungry chield; whereas at yer toon tea parties there’s naething but hunger an’ herschip starin’ ye in the face. Everybody seems to be frichtened lest it should be kent that there is sic a thing as hunger i’ the warld, an’ the bits o’ cake an’ biscuits are made up in sic sma’ homeopathic doses that its next to impossible to get a decent bite o’ them. There’s naething o’ that kind to be seen at a farmer’s table, I can tell ye, but guid dainty stacks o’ buttered toast, an’ plenty o’ flesh or fowl to bear them company. The country air had sharpened up my appetite, an’ I maun confess I did ample justice to Mrs Witherspoon’s guid cheer, an’ sae did Tibbie, an’ sae did everybody at my end o’ the table.

Jolly, hearty fellows are the farmer bodies i’ the Howe o’ the Mearns. Od I maun tell ye something aboot the specimens that I forgathered wi’ at Crummiehillocks. There was, first an’ foremost, Saunders Branks an’ Mrs Branks, frae a place ca’d Pirwickety. Saunders was twa or three years beyond his grand climacteric, an’ grandfaither afore him had baith preceded him on the farm o’ Pirwickety, an’ there’s a young Saunders ready to enter in an’ possess the land whenever the present Saunders “shuffles aff the mortal coil.” Saunders is an intelligent body in his way, kens a’ aboot the markets, an’ the dealers in cattle an’ horses atween the Moray Firth an’ the Firth o’ Forth, has been even as far north as John o’ Groat’s Hoose, an’ as far sooth as Morpeth in pursuit o’ nowet, an’ has a poor o’ logic aboot a’ thae far awa regions o’ the earth. Mrs Branks, too, is a perfect model o’ a wife, for she hears a’ that her guide=man has to say, an’ says naething in return, but just looks on in a state o’ silent admiration. Then there was Andrew Swingletree an’ his better-half—a term that was in this instance onything but misapplied—for Andrew was “lang an’ thin” like Heather Jock, while his guidwife was shapen on the model o’ a wolpack wi’ a string roond the middle o’t. The name o’ their bit tackie was Puddlemadubhie, a name o’ Gaelic origin, as I was informed, as the maist o’ names are in that locality. Andrew had wrocht himsel’ up through the successive grades o’ herd laddie ploughman, foreman, an’ grieve, to be the lord and maister o’ the snug little farm o’ Puddlemadubhie. Then there was Simon Yettlin’ the smith, that shoed a’ the horses i’ the roond, had ten or twal acres o’ land, an’ tane a poorfu’ dram when he could get it, besides kennin’ mair aboot the affairs o’ state than statesmen do themsels, an’ I maun add to his ither qualifications, the faculty o’ slidin’ aff an ill-faur’d aith at times when the “speerit” moved him. There were a few mair noteworthy personages present, but I sanna draw ower far on yer patience by describin’ them in this place.

Weel, ye see, the tea dishes being removed, Jeames Witherspoon, wha sat at the head thereof, “Guidwife,” quoth he, “hae ye ony warm water?” So Mrs Witherspoon rang the bell, an’ the servant lassie cam’ up, an’ quoth she, “Jenny, kent brawly what was what. So in twa or three minutes up comes a trayfu’ o’ tumblers an’ glasses, an’ a brass kettle, filled wi’ the het water, an’ a blue bottle fu’ o the best Fettercairn. To wark we went, an’ toast, sang, an’ sentiment was the order o’ the nicht. Ae browst after anither disappeared like lichtenin’, an’ conversation grew fast an’ furious. Everybody was speakin’ at ance, an’ it wad hae dung the gleggest reporter to tak’ doon the speeches that were uttered that nicht. I tried occasionally to mak’ oot what was the masterpiece o’ the conversation, an’ a’ that I could catch was a confused jumble o’ words, wherein “stots,” “queys,” “neep-seed,” “horse-dung,” “clover,” “harrows,” “farrow-sow,” were the maist emphatical; but what was affirmed aboot ane or ither o’ thae subjecks remains still a mystery to me. At last an’ lang, “Puddie,” as Andrew Swingletree was familiarly ca’d, frae the name o’ his farm, was invitit to gie us a sang. Andrew needit nae priggin’, an’ sae he merely hoastit, gae his head a claw, an’ set aff what he could drive wi’ “The Ploughman’s Courtship,” the haill company joinin’ in the chorus, snappin’ their fingers, an’ stampin’ on the floor like very mad. To the best o’ my recollection, the following was pairt o’ the sang:—

There was a ploughman laddie

Was bound for Paldy Fair,

With health into his countenance,

To seek a master there.

He met a pretty fair maid,

Was dress-ed very fine,

Says, “Come along with me, fair maid,

And I will make you mine.”

Hooch-hooch-fiddle dumpy,

Tooran ooran aye,

Umpy, dumpy, diddle-daddy,

Lassie, come away.

And so the poughman laddie

To Paldy Fair did go,

And took the pretty fair maid

Along with him al-so

And he has got a master,

And gold into his hand,

And Jenny he has marri-ed,

As I do understand.

Hooch-hooch-fiffle-dumpy, &c., &c.

But to mak’ a lang story short, we sat till the back o’ twal’ o’clock, an’ ca’d aboot the toddy, an’, for a’ that the whisky bottle was toomed an’ filled again half-a-dizzen o’ times, fient ane o’ them seemed to be the least licht-headit wi’ their potations, except “Burnie” the smith, as they ca’d him, an’ he really did seem to hae gotten a wee thocht mair than eneuch; for when we a’ raise to sing “Auld Lang Syne” afore partin’, Simon, puir chield, sweyed backwards an’ forwards like a barn-door in a windy day, an’ could get naething oot but the “Lang Syne,” wi’ an unco sleepy-like drone. As for me, I didna exceed twa tumblers; for, when Tibbie saw the way they were gaen to wark, she trampit on my fit, an’ winkit hard i’ my face, as muckle as to say, “Tak’ care o’ yoursel’, Tammas.” Had it no been for that, I micht hae been as ill as Simon Yettlin; but as it was, I was as fresh as a fish newly oot o’ the water.

So the ladies got rigged oot in their bonnets, an’ the gentlemen got their gigs an’ horses yokit, an’ aff they gaed hamewards, no withoot gi’en Tibbie an’ me warm invitations to gang an’ see them afore leavin’ the neeborhood; but I was obliged to inform them that my business arrangements wadna admit o’ my acceptin’ o’ their hospitalities. The smith set oot on fit, an’ Jeames an’ me stood at the door, and heard him drawlin’ oot the chorus o’ “Puddle’s” sang—

“Hooch-hooch-fiffle-dumpy,

Tooran ooran aye,”

as lang as the soond o’ his voice could reach us. But I maun defer the rest o’ my adventures in the Howe till next week.—Yours,

Tammas Bodkin.

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