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 an ‘astronomer’ named Robert Gordon from Fyvie in Aberdeenshire.
Among the many characters in humble life that were so common over the country a few years ago, and whose lives have not hitherto been written, none were better known in the North of Aberdeenshire than Robert Gordon, the wandering astronomer. In the parish of Fyvie and surrounding district, to which he mostly confined his wanderings, his simple, witty, and genial disposition always made him a welcome guest wherever he went. Gordon’s title of astronomer, or “Stronie,” as he was generally called, arose form his claiming to have full control of the elements, and any favour asked by Stronie was always to be repaid with suitable weather. Rain or sunshine, frost and snow, were all mixed up in Stronie’s wallet, and according to his statement you had only to mention what was wanted and he had full power to supply it. Of course his promises were very seldom fulfilled, a circumstance which often got him into trouble with his benefactors, but he generally contrived to bring himself out of the difficulty with flying colours. At the time I refer to he was rather past middle life, with no fixed place of abode, but simply wandered from place to place, always taking care to call about meal hours. During the summer season he would often lie for whole nights in the open air and talk to the stars, but his general resort was the farmer’s barn or other outhouse. Never could he be induced to sleep in a house with a fire in it or even the comforts of a bed. He had his regular place of lodging as he wandered through the country, and he claimed access to these more as a right than a privilege. One night the late Mr Maitland, of Balhaggardy, was showing him into the barn for the night, when Stronie, after making up a bed of straw for himself in a corner, lighted his pipe and was proceeding to lie down among the straw and take smoke, when the farmer called out, “Stonie, fat on earth dae ye mean lichtin’ yer pipe there? Ye’ll burn the hale toon. Man, ye serly dinna min’ whaur ye are?” “Ay, fine that; I’m just in my ain barn, Maister Maitlan’, an’ the suner ‘at ye shut the door frae the ootside the sunner I’ll win to sleep,” said Stronie with all the coolness imaginable.
He had a great love for spirits, and every opportunity of indulging in a drop of the mountain dew was eagerly taken advantage of by Stronie. One Fyvie market-day Stronie asked three farmers who were standing together, to give him a penny each to enable him to get a drop of the “cratur,” which, after a good deal of chaff, they consented to do, providing he in return would send them favourable weather for the harvest. This Stronie promised, and, taking the coppers, was just in the act of moving away when one of the farmers remarked that he might count himself lucky. Stronie turned round, and lifted his old tile hat, saying, “Thank you, boys; thank you. I suppose ye think ye’ve dune something gran’ to pairt wi’ a copper to an auld man; bit I’ll tell ye fat it is, I’ve gotten mair frae auld Laird Sangster for as muckle sunshine as gar a skape o’ bees cast nor ‘ve gotten frae a’ the three o’ ye for a hale hairst o’ dry weather. Hooever, I maun bid ye guid day in the meantime an’ a guid market to ye, an I’m sure gin thieves dinna ripe yer pouches yer ain han’s winna heirie ye.”
A few weeks after Stronie came as usual to the farm of Westertown to lodge for the night, and, as ill luck would have it, rain was falling in torrents, and harvest work for the time being was completely suspended. The farmer, who was one of the three he had met in the market, threatened to turn him out of doors, to find lodgings elsewhere, as he had failed to fulfil his bargain for dry weather.
“Hots, hoots, hastie man, dinna be ower hard on the puir auld astronomer,” said Stronie; “faith, I tell ye I’m hardly to blame this time. I had the cloods as weel tied up as ever I had a’ my life, bit thae rascals o’ herd loons lowst a’ my strings.” This had the desired effect, and Stronie was allowed to remain. Stronie one day entered the public house at Wartle known as the Drum Inn, and ordering half a gill of rum, drank it off, threw down the twopence on the counter, and was hurriedly turning to leave, when the innkeeper, Peter Rothnie, called him back, “Look here, Stronie, that winna dee; ye want a penny.” “Na, na, Peter, ye’re clean wrang this time,” said Stronie, “I think, gin ye look richt, its yersel’ ‘at wants the penny.”
Notwithstanding his wandering habits Stronie was not addicted to carrying tales from one house to another, in fact he could scarcely be induced to enter into conversation about any of the folks he was in the habit of frequenting. One day while passing a farm he was in the habit of calling at, the mistress met him, and asked him in. “Wait till I come the roon’ again, lass,” he said; “I was inbye at the Milton gien the new fairmer a ca’ an’ hinna time to spare.”
“Havers, man, come yer wa’s in an’ get a drink o’ milk, an’ tells fat like folk that is it’s come to the Milton noo.”
“Weel, mistress, I maun aloo yer kindness excels yer guid mainners by far; but I think gin ye had as muckle heid wark to dee as I hae ye widna plague yersel’ aboot ither folk’s affairs,” said the astronomer.
Any such attempt to buy over Stronie was always met by some smark rebuke, which often caused people to remark after he had left, that “Nae doot Stronie had a want, bit wat ye wid hardly ken whaur it was.” Unlike most of the wandering class, Stronie had a strong dislike of any attempt at pomp or gaudy display of any sort. On one occasion at the annual cattle show held at Lewes of Fyvie, some of the farmers induced him to come along with them at the close of the show to the Society’s dinner in the large marquee. Stronie, although surrounded by acquaintances, went, but he soon began to show signs of uneasiness. “I houp yer enjoyin’ yer denner, Robert,” said one of the men that had taken him in.
“Fat wye cud I enjoy my denner, an’ a’ thae coonter-louper-lookn’ craturs, wi’ their fite aprons, fuppin’ plate aifter plate oot afore me that wye, an’ nae sae muckle’s gi’en me time to get a smell, forby to taste? Na, na, Hillies; I’m certainly obleegt to ye for yer kindness, bit I’ll far raither gang doon to Rob Cormack’s at the Brig an’ get a guid bicker o’ milk brose than sit here amo’ a’ yer new-fanglet weeshe-washies;” and with that Stronie rose to go, when another farmer caught him by the arm. “Stop, stop, Robbie man. Fat needs ye gang awa’ an’ leave’s on an ill teen. Maybe the waiters has been feart ye wid eat ower muckle.” “Weel, puir things,” said Stronie, “Gweed help them. I kent hoo to tak’ my meat afore they kent hoo to pit on their ain claes. Bit I wina sit doon again noo fin I’m aince on my feet. Sae guid nicht, an’ a jolly evenin’ tae ye.”
“Astronomers never die” used to be a common expression with Robert when pressed to take more comfortable lodgings than the barn on a Winter night. But, alas! Stronie’s life was cut off in a manner that left quite a gloom all over the district where he was so well known and respected, and where to this day many of the old residenters speak about his witty sayings and periodical visits, which came to such an unhappy termination. One winter night, while making some of his usual calls in the vicinity of Fyvie, he had occasion to cross a little foot bridge which spans the river Ythan, just as it emerges from the grounds of Fyvie Castle, but whether he had missed his footing while coming along the river bank, or whether he had mistaken the river bed for the road, will never be known; but when morning dawned a hole in the ice which covered the water and the marks of his fingers on the snow on the bank were all that was left to indicate that Stronie had perished in the river, and although a search was immediately made it was not till weeks after that his body was recovered. It was conveyed to the churchyard of Fyvie, where a handsome tombstone with the following inscription marks the last resting-place of the humble wanderer:—
Sacred to the Memory of Robert Gordon,
Known as the “Astronomer,” who perished in the Ythan,
Near Reamshill, on the 21st of January 1867. His body
was discovered in the following March, and
interred here. Cheerful, contented, harm-
less and honest, homeless, and unknown
to relatives, he wandered over the
district for upwards of a quarter
of a century.
The Public have erected this memorial.
This is mine, my lowly lot;
Here I lie and envy not
Peer or peasant; read who may,
Remember there’s a dying day.
The above paper was written by
Mr James Cheyne,
27 Jute Street,
It has been awarded one of the six prize watches.