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.
Old Peter was one of the best-known characters on Deeside. Redolent of the soil, he had all the characteristics of the pawky Scot. The keenness of his wit, the readiness of his repartee, and the humour of his stories made his name famous and many of his sayings proverbial over a wide district. But alas, most of the spiciest were too gross in subject and too coarsely treated to be fit for the reproduction. Sprung of a race of brawny blacksmiths, he dated his earliest recollection to fleeting from his father’s vengeance for some youthful peccadillo, and with childish, ostrich-like eagerness hiding his head under a cornstack, but leaving his bare posterior uncovered by its petticoats, a ready prey to the improvised tawse of the ragged ends of his father’s leather apron. Although bred to the business he preferred the free air to the stithe of the smiddy, and indulged his taste for roving by acting as drover to the Southern markets. He never wearied of telling how he evaded tolls and pontages by swimming his droves through the Tay or Forth, himself clinging to the tail of the hindmost steer, or the straits to which he was put to provide sustenance for himself or his flocks by the way, being reduced sometimes to dining off “cauld steer” made in the heel of his shoe—i.e., a little oatmeal mixed with cold water. But that he qualified his cold water when he could is told by the following incident:—On one occasion he was seen by a minister to whom he was well known, lying prone and drinking water from a roadside rivulet. “What are you dong, Peter?” said the minister. “O, I’m makin’ toddy.” “But where’s the whisky, Peter?” “O, i drank it last nicht, an’ noo I’m mixing them.” Once in his sweethearting days he won a wager that he would visit his ladylove one night after a fail of snow, and yet no one would suspect his nocturnal escapade. This he accomplished by tying his shoes on his feet heels forward, so as to leave all the tracks pointing away from the house.
By and by he married and settled down on a small croft in the midst of a wide expanse of moorland, densely covered with broom and whins. Here he developed into an expert smuggler and poacher. Knowing the haunt of every bit of fur and feather, he always kept the pot boiling. Successive lairds and keepers winked at his delinquencies for the sake of his independent bearing and conversational charm. After they had hunted the moor with varying but generally indifferent success. Peter’s grand chance came. “They’ll not be back to-day again.” So an hour after their disappearance he would shoulder his gun and soon return with a fat hare or a brace of partridges. He seemed to know exactly where to find them, but he had no compunction about shooting a hare on her form or partidges on the ground. TO a neighbour he was always generous in sharing his spoils of the chase, often bringing a pail of hare soup and handing it with a mysterious air to the guidwife to be hidden from the youngsters, as he whispered—“Mony ane can tell a tale wha canna lift a lid.” Standing in a very exposed situation, his house formed a convenient outlook for the appearance of the gaugers, and all Peter’s ingenuity was often exercised to outwit them. Once having a sack of malt hidden in the barn, and seeing the gauger coming, he commenced taking one of his small stacks into the barn, and when the gauger accosted him with—“Well, Peter, have you anything concealed to-day?”—he said—“Oh, ay, there’s a sack o’ maut aneath the mow there,” at the same time leisurely and unconcernedly carrying in and piling the sheaves on the top. So impressed was the gauger with his nonchalance that he thought Peter was only chaffing him, and left without further search. On another occasion, seeing the gauger coming. Peter hastily buried a eask in the kailyaird, and was busily engaged hoeing his kail when the exciseman arrived. In these exploits he was ably seconded by his wife, who was an apt pupil. IN the cosy fireside corned a most canningly concealed contrivance existed for fermenting the wort. This when in full operation made considerable noise, so once when in active use a surprise visit of the gauger nearly led to detection. Ut the goodwife smothered her motherly feelings, and so persitently pricked her young child—an infant in arms—with pins that his noisy squalls not only deafened the gauger but materially shortened his visit. At another time, seeing a suspicious horseman approachong, she hurriedly donned a huge cloak, fashonable in those days, and concealing a “greybeard” of whisky under each arm, she walked thorugh a narrow footpath amongst the whins, dropping the compromising kegs in the thickest bushes, only to find on reaching a neighbour’s house that the suspicious stranger was the doctor! Peter had no love for children, and used to prompt the older ones when tired rocking the cradle to drop a pinch of snuff in the eyes of the infants. The effect was magical.
Peter delighted in a little “cow-couping,” and was perhaps as honest and veracious as the majority of that class. He firmly believed in the existence of some inherent defect in every animal offered for sale. “They either puttit or ate claes!” Once taking a rather lean animal to market, he was accosted by a probable purchaser, “That’s a gey thin ane, Peter.” “For as thin’s she is ye canna see through her,” was his ready answer. “Oh, I mean she’s gey an’ peer.” “Though she’s puir she’s no gettin’ aff the parish yet,” he replied again. Poter’s brusque satire made him dreaded, if not covertly disliked by his compeers. Of a man with an erect carriage he would say, “Ay, there he goes, carrying his head as if he owned thousands. Perhaps so he does—though they’re live stack.” He was a veritable Munchinsen as to his hunting, shooting, and fishing adventures, claiming as his own various ancient exploits—such as killing three wild geese at one shot with the ramrod left in the gun.
Peter was a devout beleiver in witchcraft, faries, and supernatural occurrences. He had seen “the feared howls” suddenly illuminated on the darkest night so that he could “see the tackets in his shoon” as alan the “dead canles,” betokening a funeral. Once when a young man, salmon fishing in the Dee, he had seen the “water kelpie” sitting on a stone in the current, even while they gazed it assumed so gigantic proportions that “He saw all the Hill o’ Fair through below its legs!” Next week a “floater” was drowned in that very pool. Such stories told with all amplitude of detail made the boldest of us youngsters timorous about venturing out at night. And Peter himself, in later years at least, did not like to roam far from home in the darkness. Although churlish in many things he always professed himself ready to lend to a neighbour “anything except his wheelbarrow.” Although no performer Peter was passionately fond of music. His favourite tune was “Wha’ll be King but Charlie.” Once returning tired and weary from Falkirk Tryst he heard the regimental bond at Stirling Castle playing the air, which so enchanted him that turning round in the darkness to listen, he inadvertently walked several miles in the wrong direction before he discovered his mistake. He often bribed us youngsters to sing “Come a’thegither, come through the heather.” For over 50 years Peter lived in the same house, and there he died. Now neither stick nor stone remains to mark the spot. So fades another landmark of the past. Requiscat in Pace.
The writer of the above,
Mr J. P. Soutter,
1 Clyde Terrace,
Has been awarded one of the six prize watches.