‘Bodkin Shows His Mettle’ (28 September, 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,—The mornin’ succeedin’ my sportin’ jaunt to Cupar, Tibbie an’ me were up by peep o’ day makin’ preparations for the hairst rig. Armed wi’ a couple o’ splinder new scythe heuks that had never before cut girs or grain, Tibbie an’ me were equal to ony emergency that might arise; an’ by my certie, though I say’t mysel’—an’ I’m no gien to sklentin’ nor blowstin’ aboot my achievements—there wasna a shearer within the boonds o’ Cockmylane that could lay saut to oor tails; but ye’ll hear.

Andro Sooter was up reishlin’ aboot the doors by the back o’ five o’clock, makin’ an inspection o’ the face o’ the heavens, settlin’ in his ain mind whether it was to be fair weather or foul, an’ oot bye at the field o’ barley that awaited oor whittles, feelin’ if it was dry and fit for shearin’. Andro is a great weather-prophet, an’ a diligent student o’ the Jockteleear .He can tell, frae the appearance o’ the risin’ sun, whether the day will be wet or dry. If he sees midgies dancin’ i’ the sun, that’s a sign o’ something, an’ if he sees a weather-gaw i’ the east or the north, that’s anither sign; and if the simmercouts be risin’ frae the grund ae day, he’ll tell ye what will happen the next. There’s no a pyet that can chatter upo’ the hoose-head but Andro can draw an inference frae the circumstance. Maister Sooter doesna patronise the new-fangled kind o’ weather-glasses, w’i dials like watch-faces; but he has ane o’ his ain manufacture that he reposes implicit faith in, consistin’ o’ a narrow phial, filled wi’ some kind o’ clear graith, an’ suspendit frae the roof wi’ its bottom umost, an’ as the contents rise or fa’, Andro divines in accordance therewith. The result o’ Andro’s scrutiny o’ the heavens that mornin’ was that we wad certainly hae fair weather for the next four-and-twenty oors, an’ maybe up to twal o’clock next day; but for ony langer continuation o’t, he wadna gie his guarentee.

Havin’ made his preliminary observations an’ dispositions, he taen doon his nowt’s horn frae the kitchen hallan, went oot to the tap o’ the midden-head, an’ there blew a blast that micht hae weel waukened the seven sleepers, if sae be they had been within ear-shot. It remindit me o’ Jack the Giant Killer an’ the blasts that he blew whenever he was aboot to execute some o’ his murderous projects. The horn was the warnin’ to the shearers to rax doon their heuks an’ turn oot to the labours o’ the day. The tootin’ hadna lastit aboon twa minutes, when the shearers began to mak’ their appearance, the cottar wives creepin’ slowly frae their hooses, lockin’ their doors, an’ puttin’ the keys i’ their pouches, some o’ them wi’ a string o’ weans at their heels, the puir things havin’ hardly had time to rake open their e’e-holes; an’ ae reistit-lookin’ hizzie o’ a wife, in particular, wi’ a black cutty pipe in her chafts, whereat she sookit like a gelly, sendin’ forth cluds o’ reek like a locomotive engine. Feigh! feigh! I can thole to see a man blawin’ at a pipe, an’ I can tak’ a draw mysel’ wi’ ony mortal man, but it’s perfectly ugesome to see a woman at that trade. I have a sort o’ instinctive notion that the jade wha can deliberately sit doon an’ blast tobacco, wadna stick at drinkin’ whisky an’ fillin’ hersel’ fou’; an’ if a woman, sittin’ at her ain chimla cheek wi’ a pipe in her ooth is a most disgustin’ picture, it’s ten times waur when she has the daurin’ impudence to come furth tovin’ an’ reekin’ in the sicht o’ the sun. But, to return frae this disgression, I wad observe that the maist o’ Andro’s shearers were feed hands frae Dundee, wha were accommodatit wi’ very primitive lodgings in the strae barn, or i’ the laft aboon twa dizzen o’ young hizzies doon frae their roosts, an’ a pooer o’ jaw they had amang themsels aboot ae thing an’ anither, part whereof fell to the share o’ Tibbie an’ me. There was ae limmer especially, wi’ red hair an’ fairn-tickled face, that spak for hersel’, an’ I’m certain sure for anither dizzen o’ orinary haverils. Pity the puir man that gets her for a wife, for if she doesna turn oot a slattern an’ a randy, my judgment is muckle at faut. On oor way to the field, this Heelan’-lookin’ quean held her tongue ga’en aboot Tibbie an’ me, an’ she wondered what gude we could do on a hairst rig, twa puir auld fizzenless creatures, that couldna step across a gaa-fur withoot a staff to steady them, an’ she wad gie them a heat afore breakfast time if her soul bade in her body; an’ then she began to tell a’ aboot my gouk’s errand to Corn-Crake Terrace, a’ aboot my interview wi’ the weel-faured servant lass there, wha was a cousin o’ hers, an’ a’ aboot my numerous ither adventures an’ achievements, the major pairt whereof she had in her head like a horn, windin’ up her discoorse wi’ sundry objurgatory strictures as to my bein’ the cause o’ their bein’ sent the nicht afore on a bootless errand ower a’ the coontry side, when they had mair need to be in their beds. A’ this, an’ muckle mair to the same effect, I overheard—

“An’ muckle thocht oor gudeman to himsel’,

But never a word he spak, O.”

Thinks I, my woman, ye’ll maybe sing anither sang afore the chap o’ sax o’clock this nicht, but we’ll see.

Very weel, to wark we gaed, an’ in a jiffy the fairn-tickled damsel was ower the head rig clautin’ awa’ like five ell o’ wind, just as if naething could haud again till her, an’ ilka neffow she brocht ootower she gae a deevilish glower athort her left shoother, to see what progress Tibbie an’ me were makin’. It was a quarter o’ an oor or sae afore I got thoroughly het, an’ my auld joints lubricated wi’ sweat, an’ by that time she o’ the red hair an’ the fairntickles had shot ahead o’ me the matter o’ sax ell o’ gate, an’ I verily believe she thocht hersel’ cock sure o’ winnin’ an easy victory; but, aha! she soon faund hersel’ i’ the wrang box. Tibbie was a we thocht nervous to begin wi’, an’ quoth she, “Come, Tammas, bear a hand min, or we’ll be a’ ahent.” “Never ye fear, Tibbie,” quoth I, “ye ken me i’ the auld, just keep yersel’ cool, my woman, an’ I’ll soon clear their e’en to them.” So I cuist aff my waistcoat, rowed up my sark sleeves, which was like drawin’ the sword an’ flingin’ awa’ the scabbard, an’, quoth I, “Noo, Tibbie, my woman, hae a care o’ your cuitts, for fear I ding the point o’ my heuk into them; juist mak ye the raips an’ I’ll fill.” So I plied my pith in a manner that soon taen the conceit oot o’ the dame wi’ the carroty pow. I walked stracht across the rig, frae fur to fur, cuttin’ richt an’ left—corn, thristles, an’ carl-doddies were a’ ane to me—an’ every time I cam oot o’ the corn I brocht a sheaf alang wi’ me. It was as muckle as Tibbie could do to haud me in raips, an’ for the bandster, he wrocht like a very horse, an’ for a’ that we lost sicht o’ him ilka half-oor or sae, an’ he was fain to get Maister Sooter to bind up a threave or twa for him noo an’ again, in order to haud him within sicht o’ his band-win. In the coorse o’ halfan-oor I had passed her ladyship wi’ the fairntickles as far as she had passed me at the affset, an’ ilka sheaf I brocht oot I gae her a peep athort my richt shoother in a manner that was greatly to her mortification. Od, she was a speerity hizzie though, an’ did prodigies in tryin’ to mak’ upsides wi’ me, but by-an’-bye she perceived that it was in vain to fecht against impossibilities, an’ sae she was at last an’ lang obligatit to ring in, an’ own hersel’ conquered. By breakfast time I had shorn twa lands for her ane, an’ Andro Sooter tauld me afterwards that she perfectly grat wi’ spite when she saw hersel’ beat; but that’ll learn the cutty in time to come to tak better care hoo she maks use o’ her ill-scrapit tongue in speakin’ aboot her betters. Havin’ gien them a prievin’ o ‘my mettle, I taen things mair at my easedom, an’, by my fegs, there was nae mair disrespeck shown to me for the rest o’ that day.

At breakfast we were treatit to a dose o’ ale an’ shearers’ bannocks—great big clauti-scones as hard as flint ootside, an’ as saft as parritch within, far frae bein’ dainty eatin’, but then shearers are generally sae ravenous that they wad eat onything, even yird an’ stane, if sae be their masticatin’ machinery wad withstand the necessary tear and wear. Tibbie an’ me managed to devoor a scone between us twa, an’ the ither ane we reserved, wi’ the view o’ sendin’ it ower-by to be a treat to Willie Clippins. Andro Sooter, I perceived, didna mak’ hauves o’ his scone, but thrappled the haill o’t stoup an’ roup, aye, an’ glowered as if he could hae snappit up anither ane. The same thing occurred a’ roond. I tane particular notice o’ the fairntickled hizzie, an’, if I beat her at the heuk, she oondootedly had the better o’ me at the scones an’ ale—weary ale it was, too, o’ the very sma’est browst that could be brewed; an’ in sayin’ this I dinna mean to blame Andro Sooter, for Andro assured me he had ordered it o’ the very best, an’ after a’ if it was fit for the maister’s stammack, it wadna poison the servants. Hoosomdever, it was, dootless, very, very sma’ beer, an’ if we maun a’ gie an accoont o’ oor actions at the Great Day, the browster that brewed it will hae a heavy reckonin’ to clear up.

Eatin’ an’ drinkin’ bein’ ower, there was a general lichtin’ o’ cutties, a considerable deal o’ language bandied aboot that I sanna repeat, an’ that had better been left oonsaid, some disputation aboot the weather endin’ wi’ a reference to Andro, whase word was law on the subject, some mendin’ o’ finger-steels, an’ some pickin’ oot o’ thristles, whereat Andro was a skilful operator, an’ a universal sharpin’ o’ heuks. As my abilities at the needle were weel kenned, I had the honour o’ makin’ three or four thum-steels o’ double milled duffle claith, for as mony young queans, wha, I dinna doot, made their coort to me for their ain selfish ends. But the red-haired nympth [sic]—she sought nane o’ my favours, but sat wi’ her back at a stook an’ her face in an opposite direction.

Belyve, Andro began to mak’ frequent errands to his fob, as if he couldna sufficiently admire his watch, an’ at last he got to his feet, an’ quoth he, “Billies, we maun till’t again—oor’s oot.” So we streikit to oor wark tooth an’ nail, an’ kempit like very mad till the sweat was rinnin’ oot at the band o’ my slacks. Tibbie thocht it was a piece o’ doonricht folly to mak’ a toil o’ a pleasure, an’, quoth she, “Tammas, if I were you, I sid see them a’ at heckle-birnie afore I wad fornyaw mysel’ at that rate, to keep upsides wi’ a wheen glaikit cutties like them.” “Upsides!” quoth I, “that wad be a sma’ matter, but I’se haud oot afore them, Tibbie, aye though they should loup oot o’ their skins—that I will, Tibbie; o’d I’se whauk their wheerikins to them.” So I held ga’en wi’ a’ my micht tirrin’ the grund to the extent o’ a square ell at ilka whank. To gi’e ye an idea o’ the rapidity o’ my movements, I may just mention that I cam’ across a puir hare that had been forset wi’ sleep, an’ afore she had time to shake her lugs an’ betak’ hersel’ to her heels, I cuttit aff her hind legs by a single stroke o’ my heuk. The oonfortunate mawkin wallopit sair to get awa’, but sall I just seized her by the stumps, lent her a clink behind the lugs, an’ delivered ower the carcase to Tibbie’s pawtronage, an’ a glorious patfu’ o’ kail she will mak’!

In the coorse o’ natur’, dinner-time comes roond, when there was a fresh dose o’ sour swipes an’ raw dollochs, followed by a general luntin’ o’ cutties, pickin’ o’ thristles, an’ something mair besides. Aye, dog on it! I maun tell the truth an’ shame the deil, as the sayin’ is. The quean wi’ the red hair had been in a dorty fit a’ forenoon, so what does she do, oot o’ a revengefu’ spirit, at the dinner oor, but gathers a half-dizzen o’ her allies thegither, at the back o’ a stook, where they haud a cooncil o’ war, an’ resolve that Tammas Bodkin an’ Tibbie sall be bejaned forthwith. So, withoot mair ado, they fell foul o’ me, seized me by the legs an’ shoothers, an’ afore I had pooer to tak’ measures for my ain defence, they commenced duntin’ my posterior regions on a stane wi’ micht an’ main. As I kent it was naething but what was customary on hairst fields in Fife, I made nae serious objections to the operation, though they micht hae had a little merciment on me, considering the afflictions I had suffered on the hinder end o’ the gentleman’s carriage, on my way to Cupar. Hoosomdever, the tender mercies o’ the wicked are cruel, an’ the fairntickled dame gaed to wark wi’ great zeal an’ fervour. As soon as Tibbie saw what was what, she banged up, an’ hastened to my rescue, but afore she had poo’er to interpose wi’ either tongue or hands, twa o’ the bandsters claught hauds o’ her, an’ treaters her to a second edition o’ what was fa’en to my share. Andro Sooter sat hoiterin’ an’ laughin’; an’ to tell the truth, after I had gotten my arles, I fell into the speerit o’ the ploy, so we set to wark an’ duntit them a’ roond, he an’ she o’ them, withoot respect o’ age, sex, or station. Even Maister Sooter himsel’ got a roond o’ the guns, whereunto he submittit wi’ the greatest gude humour imaginable, for he was nane o’ yer fysigunkuses that can neither tak’ nor mak’ a little daffin’ when daffin is a-gaen. Of course when it cam to the turn o’ the fairntickled leddy, I put in a little extra vigour into the operation, insomuch that I dinna suppose she can consider hersel’ onything in my debt. We did kick up a pretty reeliebogie I can tell ye, an’ though there were unco sair dunts baith gi’en an’ ta’en, yet there was nae ill dune, whereof Tibbie is mair than thank-fu’.

I maun draw to a conclusion, hooever, an’, in doing sae, I wad juist observe that sax o’clock cam’ an’ fand baith Tibbie an’ mysel’ sairly flabrigastit, an’ muckle in want o’ a visitation frae “tired Nature’s sweet restorer, balmy sleep.” Andro Sooter thocht that sic a day’s wark as we had wrocht was worthy o’ a tumbler o’ punch at supper, an’ so Andro an’ me discussed a glass apiece, while Tibbie an’ Mrs Sooter had ane atween them. Awa’ we crap to oor roosts aboot nine o’clock, an’ in the space o’ twa minutes Tibbie was as fast asleep as a tap; but for me, no ae wink could I get for an oor an’ a half, for after I lay doon I begoud to find the frost o’ my kempin’ better than I had expected. I lay listenin’ sometimes to Tibbie snorin’, an’ sometimes to my watch tickin’ under the bowster. By an’ bye Tibbie fell a-dreamin’ an’ speakin’ through her sleep, an’ quoth she—“Ay, that’s it, Tammas—haud the puddin’ reekin’—we mauna be beat by the fairntickler though we sid”—but here Tibbie’s thochts began to wander, an’ she was layin’ doon some wholesome precepts to Willie Clippins, particularly as to takin’ care o’ the tortoise, an’ bein’ sure no to boil the petawtis withoot puttin’ in plenty o’ water, when the drowsy god at length happily sealed up the weary eyelids an’ closed the ears o’

Tammas Bodkin.

 

‘A Letter Frae Willie Clippins.’

“As the auld cock craws the young ane learns.” Here is Mr Wiliam Clippins, for example, doing his best to imitate his master. He writes as follows:—Having got a smattering of edication at an evening school, forby being instruckit in the shorter carrachers by my mither, and mair and farrer, being nearly through wi’ my apprenticeship, I am beginning to think myself of some importance, and take it upon myself to edge in a word wi’ my worthy maister, Tammas Bodkin; and even at the diet hours to lift up my voice amang the street-corner politicians; likewise, being seized with what you newspaper folks ca’ a cacoethes sribendi, I venture to inflict upon you a short letter. Noo I hope, Sir, that you will ekscuse the speling, for my pen is not first-class, and when I apply the blotting paper, it sooks up some o’ the letters a’thegither. First an’ foremost then, my tae is better. The auld nail cam aff, and a new ane is nearly completed. My mither, poor body, aye rowed it up to me, and I nursed it with a’ the care my circumstances wid aloo. In the next place I maun tell you that I am no a Volunteer, having an instinctive notion o’ keeping my skin hale. Besides, it’s no muckle valour that can be expeckit fae sic a miserable fraction o’ humanity as a tailor is estimated trades that it takes nineteen tailors to mak a man. Of coorse, when thus addressed, I stand up as bravely as possible for the ancientness and respectability of my calling, contending that our trade was the first ever practised, and now one of the most required in this cauld climate o’ ours. To conclude, I am very busy this week, owing to Maister Bodkin bein’i awa at Cockmylane, but if you think my infusion worth a corner o’ your paper, I will try to wreat occasionally, when the noomerous admirers o’ my maister will doubtless be pleased to observe the progress o’

Willie Clippins.

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