‘Scottish Characters — Old Peter, A Deeside Notable’ (29 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.

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. Continue reading “‘Scottish Characters — Old Peter, A Deeside Notable’ (29 December, 1888)”

‘Scottish Characters — Stronie Gordon, An Aberdeenshire Notable’ (15 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 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.” Continue reading “‘Scottish Characters — Stronie Gordon, An Aberdeenshire Notable’ (15 December, 1888)”

‘The Treatment of the Poor.’ by A Christian Democrat (7 February, 1880)

The following is an editorial that appeared in the ‘People’s Journal’ under the name ‘A Christian Democrat’. Here the topic tackled is the impact of Gladstone’s Education Act, their positive impact and how it can be improved upon. This was prompted by the publication of a book on vagrancy in Scotland by a former Sheriff of Aberdeen William Watson. Vagrancy was an issue which preoccupied contemporary liberal commentators, perhaps disproportionately. Vagrancy symbolised everything which the ‘People’s Journal’ sought to eradicate from the working class of Scotland through their doctrine of self-improvement.

Sir,—The Education Act of Mr Gladstone’s Government has already done much good, but it does not yet reach that class fully for whose benefit it was chiefly designed. The way in which the Poor Law is being administered in many parishes is rapidly increasing vagrancy, and thousands of uneducated children are growing up a curse to themselves and a burden to society. I argued at the time that the land of the country ought to have borne a far larger proportion of the school rate. The ratepayers were taxed at the expense of the landowners. They ought to have been forced to provide far better schools. The great expense of the recent Act is the best proof that they were neglecting their duty. Now, not content with taking the school teind as a bribe to let the Education Bill pass, they are in Parochial Boards forcing the poor literally upon the parish. Sheriff Watson, of Aberdeen, in a recent ale pamphlet* tells us that vagrancy is rapidly increasing in Scotland. In 1873 the number of vagrants in Scotland was 40,678. In 1878 they had increased to 54,236. The indignant Sheriff traces this largely to the selfishness of Parochial Boards, who are encouraged by the Board of Supervision to refuse all outdoor relief, and to apply the Poorhouse test rigidly. I do not deny that in certain eases the Poorhouse test is valuable, but it is often applied so as to decrease pauperism only to increase vagrancy. The Education Act is fitted to deal with the evil. Children move from place to place; they cannot be got at, not kept at school. Sheriff Watson argues that while children of working people are well provided for, the very poor are, in some respects, worse off than before the passing of the Education. Subscriptions can hardly now be got for ragged schools. People are so assessed that they refuse to give to voluntary schools for the neglected. Even criminal children, the Sheriff tells us, are better cared for than are the children of the very poor. Reformatories are supported by Government aid, stylish schools are built for the children of the ratepayers, but the “mitherless bairn,” the forgotten poor, are flouted at the doors of the Parochial Board, and flung out to wander over the country as vagrants and beggars.

Besides losing their education, the Sheriff goes on to show that they are never trained to work. The skilful workman, be his labour ever so hard, has a pleasure in it, but boys who have never learned any handicraft hate work. The only work they have ever got to do has been in Poorhouses or the like, and work has never been to them anything but repulsive. In this way a large class grow up injuring the moral tone of the working population and increasing the dangerous classes. I think that in rural parishes especially far more attention ought to be paid by the people to the administration of the Poor Law. If a Chairman does happen to be a man of sense and humanity the poor will be cared for, but if he is a selfish man, bent only on lessening the rates and decreasing pauperism, he will refuse all outdoor relief and flout the poor. Pauperism will of course diminish, but vagrancy—a far worse evil—will rapidly increase. I do hope that the new County Reform Bill will not much longer be delayed, and that the whole administration of the Poor Law will be placed upon a more popular basis.

In not a few parishes houses are allowed to go to decay, and labourers forced to walk miles to their work, lest their families gain a settlement. Cruel wrong is being done in this way, and it is very difficult to get the evil stopped. Electors in cities do not know the sufferings of the poor in rural districts, and the county franchise is so high that a whole suffering class are dumb and helpless. Sheriff Watson shows clearly how a great commercial disaster, when not properly met, depresses the moral tone of a whole district. He instances Aberdeen, and shows that when the workman and his family get out of work and lose hope they go rapidly down. Continue reading “‘The Treatment of the Poor.’ by A Christian Democrat (7 February, 1880)”

‘Bodkin Spends a Night with the Wizard’ (18 April, 1863)

The following is William D. Latto’s Scots satirical column on the return of the ‘Wizard of the North’, John Henry Anderson, to Dundee. Anderson was a pioneer in bringing magic shows into theatres and was a direct predecessor and inspiration to the likes of Houdini. This is the advertisement for his show that appeared in the edition of the 4th of April.

“The Wizard of the North.”—It will be observed that the world-renowned Professor Anderson is to be in Dundee on Wednesday, after an absence of eight years, during which he has been all the world over exhibiting his wonderful feats of magic, and reaping golden opinions everywhere. We have no doubt that many will embrace this opportunity of seeing the tricks of this famous magician.

See below for the review of Anderson’s show that appeared in the ‘Journal’ in the 11th April edition.

 

Maister Editor,—Ae day towards the hinderend o’ last week, Mrs Davidson comes in wi’ a lang palaver aboot hoo John an’ her had been doon on the previous nicht seein’ that great “ambidextrous prestidigitator” man, the Wizard o’ the North, an’ hoo he had wrocht miracles nearly as wonderfu’ as ony we read aboot in holy writ. I was juist sittin’ takin’ an after-dinner blast o’ my cutty, when her leddyship made her appearance, an’ so I was privileged to participate in the conversation. Mrs Davidson was lip fou o’ the mervels she had seen, an’ said that Tibbie an’ me wad be losin’ an opportunity we micht never hae again, if we didna gang doon an’ pay oor twa shillins. Of coorse, I never yet despaired o’ Tibbie fa’in in wi’ opportunities enoo o’ spendin’ her twa shillinses withoot gaen doon to the Corn Exchange to pay for gettin’ hersel’ imposed on by Wizards; but as Mrs Davidson assured us that every body wi’ the sma’est pretensions to be thocht genteel had either been there, or were to be, it was oot o’ the question to suppose that we were to be ahent oor neebors in that or in ony ither respect. A weel ye see, the lang an’ the short o’ the story is, that I agreed to accompany Tibbie to see the Wizard; an’ as Willie is perfectly competent to manage the business in my absence, I left him at the helm o’ affairs, wi’ a promise that if he behaved himsel’, I wad gie him an’ Mary Ann tickets apiece for the next performance, whilk I fulfilled to the very letter, as baith o’ them can testifee.

Awa’ we went an’ secured a seat as near the lug o’ the law as possible, so that we micht baith see an’ hear to the full value o’ oor siller. Tibbie was a wee thocht uneasy when she saw the muslin coortins, an’ pictured in her ain mind what wad be gaen on ahent them. She whispered into my lug—an’ I could hear the teeth rattlin’ in her head when she said sae—”Losh, Tammas, he’s no a richt man that, or he wadna need to hae recoorse to the warks o’ darkness. Folk sid aye be open an’ aboon boord wi’ whatever they do.” Continue reading “‘Bodkin Spends a Night with the Wizard’ (18 April, 1863)”

‘The Black Bridge’ by W.R.M. (30 June, 1860)

The following is a dark, atmospheric tale about the creation of a bridge over the River Ugie, which flows into the north sea at Stonehaven. About the author: as far as I can tell they had one other story published in ‘The People’s Journal’, ‘The Peasant Poet’ from May of 1860.

When I was a child—my chin is still quite downy—I entertained a great love for dark things, and eagerly sought after them for the gratification of my childish mind. This, as well as the heading hereof, will lead you to suppose that the present subject is a dark one; amen! I shall respond, Hoc moda.

I do not exactly remember the very hour, or even year, in which my eyes first formed acquaintance with the subject of my rumination; but well do I remember how exceedingly intimate we became, as the silent tide of years rolled more heavily over my head, and the purling tide of Ugie flowed more familiarity beneath its gloomy parapets. Well do I remember that in morning’s rosy hours, in the sunny hours of noon, in the shady hours of twilight, and in the sombre hours of evening, mine eyes might have been seen beholding it; half-wept tears nestling in their brightness; for the sight of it brought many sad associations into mind. Dark indeed was its aspect, and the memoirs connected with it are likewise far from fair.

At a farmhouse, two or three hundred yards from where the Bridge still is, lived a man accounted by the parish wondrous clever; but what its reasons were for so judging I cannot conceive. All I know of his skill is that he was his own master, his own doctor, and probably would have been his own sexton, had permission been granted by “the powers that be.” These were the only peculiarities that marked his worldly career, and if any one of them is more worthy than the other of the epithet—clever, I know not; bearing this in mind, he died, through caprice, a terrible death; he died a self-destroyer.

He leased a small farm, capable of giving work to a couple of horses, and the said farm was conscientiously reputed to be the best kept in the laird’s whole estate; for its “dear, dear, dead and gone husband”-man took great pains and spared no attention in making it worthy of notice, both for the benefit of his own coffer, and because of the wish he had to excel everybody, in every place, in everything relating to agriculture. Withal, he kept for hire a very useful vehicle of four wheels, a vehicle—in one word, a hearse. I have never discovered why the valuable machine was not employed as a conveyance in the transferring of its owner’s remains from the top of the closet drawers—no, not that—from the court of the now dilapidated steading to the grave in—no!—to the gateway of the village churchyard, a few miles off. There is a mystery hanging about that hearse besides the cottsey-woolsey drapery; and although I have sought all that I thought eligible means of giving light to the sable mystery, I have failed in extracting one single glint of the sunshine of information. All people of whom I enquired merely shook their heads, and assumed, with due gravity, what is called a Sunday’s face; raised a hand, shook it; and if they raised their voice at all, shook it also. Oh! would I not like to hear something believable of that dismal matter? Some person knows, and yet I may die unenlightened. Continue reading “‘The Black Bridge’ by W.R.M. (30 June, 1860)”