‘Scottish Characters — Johnnie A’thing’ (1 December, 1888)

The following is one of a series of stories and anecdotes about local Scottish eccentrics. They remain an insight into the characters and exploits that had already passed into folk memory by the late 19th century. Here the focus is on ‘Johnnie A’thing’, grocer of Perthshire.

In a combative little village something less than a day’s march from the Fair City there lived a few years ago a well-known worthy locally known as Johnnie A’thing; and by that name we will know him here. He was of an eccentric disposition, and had as much wit and humour at his disposal as kept the village in good humour from week’s end to week’s end, and many of his sayings and practical jokes have become public property.

John A’thing was a grocer and spirit-dealer, and his shop was one of the most remarkable medleys that was ever dignified by the name of grocery. He was wont to say himself that he “sell’t everything frae a needle to an anchor, an’ bocht onything frae laddie’s bools to cannon-balls.” Cheese, butter, ham and eggs, bottles of beer and sides of bacon, pots and pans, pencils, pens and pen-knives, girdles and gridirons, walking sticks and watches, fish and fishing rods, augers and axes, spades and shovels, and numerous other articles of the most incongruous description were piled up side by side in a confusion that seemed confounded to the untutored eye; but Johnnie himself knew what was what and what was where well enough to suit the purposes of his trade. His customers were always readily supplied with whatever they called for, unless when he couldna be fashed, which happened at times, and then he did not hesitate to bid the astonished would-be buyer to “gang yont the street a bittie, yont the street, yont the street; there’s naething worth o’ buyin’ here. Gae East the wey, East the wey; they maun keep a’thing guid whaur the wise men cam’ frae.”

But in spite o’ this at times unbusiness-like peculiarity of his, and mayhap because of it, he did a roaring trade for many a long year, and especially when the railway was making between Perth and Aberdeen, as the navvies came to him in scores to have a crack, a laugh, a snuff, and a dram over their purchases. His shop window, like the shop itself, was worth going miles to see, as the articles placed there for show were piled up a couple of feet deep, and could be counted by the thousand, pocket knives being predominant; and the boys of the village were never tired of pressing their little noses against the panes to feast their eyes upon the unattainable treasures, and discuss the relative merits of the different knives. But “everything comes to those who know how to wait,” saith the old saw, and this truth was exemplified one-never-to-be-forgotten day, to the satisfaction of all the boys around, by the window, over-burdened with its riches, falling into the street. In the twinkling of an eye, as if a telegraph message had gone round the village, all its rising generation were gathered around the spoil like wasps around a honeycomb. John took things coolly, and stood at the door tapping his snuff-box, looking upon the scene as if it were an every day occurrence. But his better-half being less of a philosopher than her lord and master was at once in the middle of the melee making her tongue and hands ring about the ears of the little wretches with Amazonian vigour.

“Hoots, toots, Peggy, wumman,” John cried; “dinna be in a flurry. Let the little loons alane. What aboot a knife or twa. Tuts, pruts, what aboot a knife. I wis fond o’ a knife mysel’ when I wis a laddie.”

“Haud yer tongue, ye fule,” was Peggy’s answer, “an’ come an’ help me tae gather up the gear, an’ no stand there haverin’ nonsense like a muckle stookie.”

“Stookies dinna haver,” quoth John, with a chuckle. “Ay, ay, I’m comin’, lassie, I’m comin’,” he added, as his wife turned a pair of flashing eyes upon him. “But there’s nae michty hurry; it’s a lang time till nicht.”

“My certie, there’ll no be a bairn’s bool left us to bless oorselswi’ when that comes gin ye dinna stir yer stumps e’ noo, for I’m shure ilka ane o’ thae laddies has a hunner hands and twice as monie pouches,” said his better-half, in angry tones.

John took a last lingering snuff, and then, placing his snuff-box in his pocket, cried, “Noo, noo, my callants, juist let me see hoo clever ye are. Help the wife to carry the things into the shop an’ I’ll gie ye a’ something to yersel’s.” And ere Peggy could fully realise the fact the articles were gathered in and safely lying on the counter.

An Irish labourer called upon him one day and, making a few purchases, said, “Shure they tell me ye’d sell everything. But, bedad, oi’m thinking there is wan thing ye don’t sell.”

“Ay, min; and what’s that?”

“A sheath for my reaping-hook,” said the Irishman.

“Pooh, pooh, min; pooh, pooh; ye surely think that we’re far ahint hereawa’,” said Johnnie. “A sheath for a reapin’-nook’s naething. Here ye are,” and the article was duly handed over.

“Well, oi’ll tell yez what oi’ll do wid yez,” said Pat; “oi’ll wager me week’s wage that ye wont foind me a sheath for what oi have at the dure.”

“I dinna want to rob ye, my mannie,” quoth John, “or I wad sune tak’ ye up. But I’ll wager ye a gill that I’ll find a sheath for what ye hae, whatever it is.”

“Done,” said Pat.

“Noo, what may the article be?” said John.

“A wheelbarrow,” cried Pat triumphantly.

“Humph, is that a’?” quoth John. “Juist come ye awa wi’ me my mannie back the close an’ bring yer barrow wi’ ye, an’ gin I dinna fit it wi’ a sheath I’ll eat my heid.”

Pat trundled his barrow through the close until they came to the cellar. “There noo my laddie” said John as he flung open the door. “Juist put yer barrow in there, an’ we’ll see whether we’ll get it fittit or no.”

Pat in sublime innocence did as requested, and then stepped back to let his companion enter, when John, locking the door and putting the key in his pocket, said, “there noo, what do you think o’ the sheath? Come awa like a guid lad and pey yer drink.”

“By my sowl,” quoth Pat, “and that’s nate.”

“Imphin,” said John. “An’ is there onything in the same line that ye’re in want o’ think ye? A sheath for yersel’ for instance, because I can recommend a fine ane on the tap o’ Kinnoull Hill ea’d Murray’s Royal Asylum.”

“Ach, I want no sheath for meself,” said Pat.

“Oh, but ye’ll get ane for a’ that,” said John, as he tapped his ever ready snuff-box. “Juist ye haver a blnk, my mannie, until the undertaker tak’s yer measure, an’ ye’ll get a sheath that’ll ser ye till doomsday.”

“Bedad,” quoth Pat, as he regarded John with admiring eyes, “but yez are a quare wan.”

At one time some navvies had gathered in the back shop for a dram. It, like the shop in front, was always in a state of delightful confusion, articles of the most opposite description lying cheek by jowl in perfect amity, if not in harmony. John was serving a customer in front, when one of the navvies, thinking himself unseen, quietly conveyed a roll or two of butter into his coat pockets. But John, who—as he used to boast—had een in the back of his head, took a note of the little performance; and, coming ben, he stirred the fire into a fierce blaze, and remarked—“Hey, but it’s a cauld nicht.” Then, looking at the butter bearer, he continued—“Losh, lad, ye’re cauld lookin’. Come near the fire min, come near the fire, an’ warm yersel. There noo, ye’ll be a’ richt in a jiffey,” he added, as he placed his too clever friend with his back to the blazing coals.

By and by the heat of the fire began to turn the purloined butter into oil; the oil began to dribble out of the coat pockets and down the legs of the victim’s trousers, and form in shining pools on the hearth stone. When John thought he had waited long enough for the fire to have done the melting process thoroughly, he took his customer by the shoulders, and whirling him round cried “Gude guide us, what’s adae wi’ the man? Lod sakes he’s meitin’. Gae hame, gae hame wi’ ye.” And taking him by the scruff of the neck, Johnnie ran him unresisting into the street.

At another time, when John’s back was turned a light-fingered customer transferred a number of eggs into his pocket from a basket that stood on the counter. But the eyes at the back of John’s head were on the watch as usual, and after he had supplied the egg stealer’s other wants he came round in front, crying, “Hastie back, agen, laddie; hastie back,” and with every word he played dunt, dunt with his closed fist upon the eggs until he had them smashed into a jelly.

One day a woman getting served with groceries, without saying by your leave, transferred a large piece of cheese form the counter to her basket when she thought John’s attention was attracted elsewhere. But he was as observant as ever. Hoever, he made no sign of having seen anything out of the way until he had supplied his customer’s demands.

“Is that a’ noo, think ye?” he asked, when the orders came to an end. “Is there naething else ye mind o’?”

“No,” was the answer; “I dinna mind o’ onything mair enoo. I think I’ve gotten a’ I’m in need o’.”

“Weel, weel—imphm—juist sae,” said John. “Then we’ll better tak’ the wecht o’ that bitter cheese ye hae in yer basket, as I’m thinkin’ it has been forgotten to be weighed,” and the cheese had to be brought from its hiding-place and duly weighed, purchased, and paid for.

A Highland customer one night bought a piece of pork. Some time afterwards he came back boiling with rage, and flinging his purchase upon the counter exclaimed, “Here, here, Maister A’thing, here’s yer pork. It’ll ne’ther poil, fry, nor tore. He nainsel has prunt twa Pitlandie purdens upon’t, ant half-roastit hersel’ forpy, ant yet she’ll shump oot of ta fryin’-pan afore her fery nose.”

“Ay, ay, min,” quoth John, as he calmly took a snuff. “Dae ye say sae? Faith, noo, when I mind, that auld braid soo wis aye a spunkie cratur. But wha wid hae thocht that it wid hae sae muckle life in’t when deed?”

“An ault braid soo, did you’ll say?” Donald shouted. “Och, och, she’ll pe ault as ta hills.”

“Weel, I widna be inclned to ca’t as auld as that,” quoth John. “But I widna be the least surprised altho’ I were tell’t that it wis a descendant o’ ane o’ the swine the deevils gaed intae at the Sea o’ Galilee.”

Yea, like Yorick, John A’thing was a “fellow of infinite jest.” He has passed away, but his memory is ever green and embalmed amid his sayings. His name and fame were carried wide. To this day strangers on entering the village make it one of [illegible] inquiries. “Where was John A’thing’s shop? In spite of his eccentricities he was liked and respected by all who knew him. Cantie, crackie, and kind-hearted, the villagers might well give him for an epitaph, “Take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again. Peace to his manes.”

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