‘Scottish “Characters.” 1. 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. Continue reading “‘Scottish “Characters.” 1. Johnnie A’thing.’ (1 December, 1888)”

‘Political Oppression in the Counties’ by A Christian Democrat (17 January, 1880)

The following is an editorial that appeared in the ‘People’s Journal’ under the name ‘A Christian Democrat’. This powerful attack on the undemocratic actions of Conservative parliamentary candidates and the established church’s failure to mobilise voters appeared in the buildup to the 1880 general election. Readers were urged to go to the polls, high turnout was the way to defeat the Conservative government of Disraeli. Perhaps the most interesting passage is the attack on the government’s wars in Southern Africa and Afghanistan (the infamous battle of Isandlwana would still have been in the minds of many).

“How will our missionaries look the people of India in the face as messengers of peace on earth and goodwill to men now? How will they go to Zululand with the Gospel? We have ravaged the homes of the people, sent fire and sword into peaceful valleys, and trampled every principle of righteousness under foot, and then we send missionaries to convert the countries we have made desolate with most cruel and unjust war. The voters of Scotland must take this responsibility. If they wish an end put to this kind of policy they must come as Christian men to the poll, and send men to Parliament who will demand with authority that all this shall be changed.”

The 1880 election saw victory for Gladstone’s Liberals, and a reduction in the Tory vote in Scotland (winning just 6 of 58 seats, down from 18 in 1874).

To the Editor of the People’s Journal.

Sir,—I appeal to the people. No abuse, however powerfully defended, can resist the will of the people. A great crime is being done, a cruel wrong, under the protection of the law, is being inflicted, and there is no helper. I invoke the indignation of a people who love justice and hate oppression. In all our counties some proprietors of the soil are forcing the very best men and women to leave their homes or to violate their conscience. In Perthshire, for example, the Earl of Mansfield is inflicting most cruel wrong on a population whose only fault is their liberal opinions. Here are two facts:—In 1843 on the Logie-Almond estate there were 87 cottagers belonging to the Established Church. In 1878 only 23 remained. Of the twenty-one men who voted for Mr Parker in 1868 only four now remain on the estate. Sir, I accuse the noble Earl of a deliberate attempt to violate the Constitution. I denounce him as a setter of class against class, as a destroyer of that happy and cordial relationship which should exist between laird and tenant. I ask for Parliamentary inquiry. The House of Commons is insulted and its privileges and rights violated y this Earl, who uses the rights of property in this unrighteous way. Noble Christian men are banished from the homes of their fathers; families are torn up and flung houseless upon the world; men are forced to abandon their lawful calling—all for purely political honesty. They have committed no crimes; they have only exercised the rights put into their hands by Parliament. Sir, I call on Parliament to defend these honest men, who are punished for doing honestly the work Parliament gave them to do. Nor is the Earl of Mansfield the sole offender. All over our counties, and in Perthshire particularly, is this cruel and unconstitutional policy being pursued. I warn such violators of the spirit of the law that they shall not escape public censure. But, sir, they care for nothing. Public opinion they defy. They know they are abhorred, and that all honourable men despise their conduct. Parliament must instantly assert its power, and punish these violators of the equitable spirit of our law.

A host of little factors and small country bankers infest our counties. They know every man and his circumstances. If there is a bill to be renewed, if in consequence of bad seasons there is an arrear of rent, if there is any little difficulty perplexing a voter, then is the opportunity of these official oppressors. They have no shame, no delicacy. They come to the voter and simply say—“Now, are you to vote for our candidate? Give me your hand and your word that you will!” In vain the poor man tries to evade a direct reply. His wife, his daughters, his sons see his humiliation and burn with shame and rage. They all know the situation; they belong to the Free Church or the United Presbyterian; they are humbled and distressed. The shameless coward presses his advantage and the vote is promised. In hundreds of homes in Scotland this plan is pursued. And when stalwart noble men, like those at Logie-Almond, declare themselves staunch, out of twenty-one in a few years only four are left—the rest driven helpless from their homes. Sir, you as the editor of the People’s Journal have great influence. I call on you to wield it now. Especially I ask the voters in the villages who have feus to vote to a man against a system like this. I ask the Liberal candidates for burghs to raise this question. I call on the House of Commons to defend its privileges. I ask every honest man to stamp the cruel, cowardly conduct of these petty factors and pompous little bankers with their contempt. I ask Boards of Directors of our great banks to see that their influence and wealth are not used in this degrading oppression.

But, sir, I appeal chiefly to Christian men, who hold aloof from politics. I claim their help. Is Christianity only an affair of prayer meetings and religious observances on Sabbath days? No verily. The other side are organised. The licensed spirit trade to a man vote, and try to influence other voters. Their money interest is at stake, and they unite and make a mighty power, not in towns only but in counties. A languid and fitful opposition will not avail against an organisation like this. I wish to press on Christian men their duty as citizens. In municipal elections and in parliamentary voting I ask them to come to the poll. Men of high character are returned indeed by small majorities against men who are a shame to constituencies, but the majorities are too small—they should be overwhelming. The reason is that good, easy-going men do not trouble themselves to vote. A Scottish man with stuff in him should despise even being sent for or conveyed to the poll. To vote is his duty, his principle, he ought to vote frankly and openly too, giving all the influence he possesses to the side his conscience approves. The real weight of the Christian sentiment of the country is never felt in Parliament. A great statesman like Mr Gladstone requires to be insulted and driven from office before the good men of Britain are roused to take an interest in politics. Sir John Lawrence, and Lord Northbrook, and the Duke of Argyle have all entered their solemn protest against this unrighteous war in India. They have protested in vain. Why in vain? Because Christian men stayed away from the poll at the last election, and said that Whig and Tory had nothing to do with their religion. Sir, these men are responsible for this war. They did not support the right men at the right time, and the affairs of the county have fallen into the hands of men who “go in for gunpowder and glory.” Continue reading “‘Political Oppression in the Counties’ by A Christian Democrat (17 January, 1880)”

‘Salmon Fishing Bothies on the Tay’; Second Article (4 August, 1888)

The following is the second article which discusses the state of the fishing stations and their accommodation along the river Tay in Perthshire.

Further Revelations.

Second Article.

Men Huddled Together Like Beasts.

Conversing at Abernethy with a Tay fisherman of over 50 years’ experience, we were informed that the bothies on the Earn and on the Tay down to Newburgh were pretty much the same as those we had visited. He said the proprietors would not allow their dogs to bide in them, much less their horses. They should be ashamed to allow their men to reside in them while they were in such an uninhabitable condition. The men were just huddled together like beasts. He understood that not long ago Dr Niven, Newburgh, had been appointed to examine the lodges on the Mugdrum estate, while Dr Laing had been asked to perform a similar duty in regard to those on the Earn.

On the Glove fishing station six men are employed at present instead of seven as usual. In the bothy there are seven beds. There is a great lack of ventilation. Light is provided by a little window which does not open. Here, too, there is no water supply and the men are frightened to use the Tay water. There is a general want of repair throughout at this lodge.

The Hen is another station which belongs to the Rev. A. Fleming, and the tenant is Mr Dunn, Newburgh. The bothy measures fourteen feet by eleven feet, and has a sloping roof about five feet high at the walls, and rising to between six and seven feet in the centre. Its peculiarity is that the door is not in the sleeping apartment. Before entering it you have to pass through a storeroom. The sleeping-room is so small that, when its seven occupants are all in the floor, there is just about standing room. For want of sufficient accommodation, the men have to take their meals in detachments. The heat just now is so great, they say, that unless they fall asleep at once after going to bed they seldom sleep at all.

Change in Fishermen’s Habits.

In the course of a conversation with Mr Pitcaithly, Elcho Castle, one of the largest tacksmen on the Tay, and a fisherman of from 50 to 60 years’ experience, several interesting items of information were gleaned. He says that with a little pressure the proprietors are improving the lodges year by year, but that much yet remains to be done. A sanitary officer has been in the district recently, and as a result of his visit there has been more whitewashing than usual. Some 30 or 40 years ago the fishings were leased by fewer tacksmen, and the bothies, many of which were never intended as permanent residences, were used principally by the men during working hours for cooking purposes only. In those days, he added, the cooking was not extensive, brose and porridge being the principal articles of diet. Now a days these are little appreciated, and in their place large quantities of tea and coffee and butcher meat are used. At that time the wages averaged 8s 6d to 9s; now the average pay is from 18s to 20s a week, some of the men having boot money in addition. When the fishings were broken up and the different stations belonging to one proprietor let separately, the men began to reside more in the bothies. Under the present system many more men are employed now than formerly. For example, on Seggieden there are at present twenty men whereas 30 or 40 years ago there were only five or six. While the bothies in many cases are very far from what they should be both as to accommodation and sanitation, he thinks the men might with a little trouble make themselves much more comfortable by being a little more cleanly in their habits. They never opened a window, and shovelled on coals on the fire till the place was like an oven. Contrasting the state of the lodges now with their condition in his younger days, he said that he recollected of a tent being erected with the bed sheets inside the wooden hut on the Hen station to prevent the snow getting in. He question whether the men were better off now than they were when thye had lower wages. In too many cases it all went on meat and drink. A great alteration for the better had been made by the passing of the Forbes M’Kenzie Act, for there were not nearly so many men that came drunk on the Sunday nights as formerly. Last year the Town of Perth renovated a number of their bothies. In Millhurst and Incherrat new beds were fitted up, the floors were laid with concrete, and the walls were whitewashed. The lodge on Seggieden, although not one of the best, has one privilege which a large number of the others want—that is a capital supply of excellent water. Continue reading “‘Salmon Fishing Bothies on the Tay’; Second Article (4 August, 1888)”

‘Salmon Fishing Bothies on the Tay’; First Article (28 July, 1888)

The following is the first of two articles which discuss the state of the fishing stations and their accommodation along the river Tay in Perthshire.

Disgraceful State of Matters.

First Article.

The saying that property has duties as well as rights declares a principle which, in the latter end of this nineteenth century, is likely to be driven home to some purpose. Well had it been for property, and well, too, for the common weal of the kingdom, had this plain but important precept been more put into practice since it first became a watchword of political progress—since the time when Thomas Drummond, as Under Secretary for Ireland, applied the words in condemnation of the unreasoning rapacity of the landlords in 1839. Much has been done at variance with this rule, but signs are not awanting that change is imminent. Sharp work will be made with many sacred and cherished rights of property, which too frequently represent wrongs of the people; and amongst these the sacred right to maintain human rookeries will certainly receive but short shrift.

A New Species of Piggery.

One way or another the public are fairly alive to the miseries of the hovel in city and the miseries of the bothy in rural life, but to the riparian proprietors of the Tay belongs the credit of creating a new species of piggery to which the attention of the public may usefully be turned. At the instance of this newspaper a voyage of inspection was made last week among the lodges which stud the backs of the Tay between Perth and Dundee. Of these hovels—for by no other name can many of the wretched structures be more fitly described—there are over a hundred, and more than thirty were made the subject of personal inspection, while enquiry concerning the conditions of their lives when at work was made among the fishermen at various other points along the course of the river. The result in brief is the revelation of a state of things hitherto unsuspected, and which, as more particularly set forth below, proves that beyond all doubt a portion at least of the “property” of Perthshire is inattentive to its duties in a degree which decidedly constitutes a public scandal. For seven months of the year, from the beginning of February till towards the end of August, a period embracing the extremes of cold in winter and heat in summer, some hundreds of men are lodged in rickety buildings, which at the best could only be considered as a better sort of pig-stye—so constructed, so dilapidated and dirty, so utterly devoid of all comfort and convenience, that no person, let alone a laird with the amour propre peculiar to his class, would think of devoting them to the accommodation of a dog or a horse in which be took ordinary interest.

One Small Room for Seven Men.

With few exceptions these lodges consist of one small room, which in the average case has to accommodate from five to seven able-bodied men. In combination with the disagreeable nature of their work, the plight of these men is truly such that one is inclined to think that surely the salmon fishers of the Tay touch bottom rock n their experience of material discomfort. Wet, tired, and weary, they are forced to spend the period of rest and largely of leisure in a small and stuffy apartment, one hour in which to an ordinary mortal is almost enough to neutralise the benefit derived form a day in the open air. At once kitchen, dining-room, and dormitory, these hovels present to the eye of the stranger a scene of dirt and confusion of which no real conception is possible apart from personal experience. In very few is any provision made for ventilation, and the majority have only one small window nailed down to the sash. In each case the greater part of the space is devoted to wooden boxes divided by boards into sleeping bunks. In some of these beds hay and straw are used for bedding like common litter, and though a mattress was not unfrequently to be seen, the conditions under which life was necessarily led in the majority of cases obviously forbade the introduction of good material into such dens.

Uncouth and Unclean.

To some extent it may indeed be considered a necessity of the case, or at least an almost unavoidable feature, that the interior of these lodges should present an uncouth and far from comely or clean appearance. The bulk of the men employed at the salmon fishing are not and indeed can hardly afford to be, very finical in their ideas of what constitute comfort while actively employed employed on the river. But located as they now are, comfort if it exists at all has reached the irreducible minimum, and an apathetic regard to the ordinary decencies of life is a natural outcome of this circumstance. No doubt part of the want of tidiness apparent is attributable to the carelessness of the men themselves. In many cases the bothies would be dirty however arranged or constructed, and whatever the facilities for keeping them clean.

Rats and Vermin.

But as things now are, men desirous of having order and cleanliness around them are disheartened by the abominable nature of their environment. In no case was a table or chair to be seen in the bothy, for the good and sufficient reason that in most of them there was no room where such could possibly have been set. Rats and other vermin abound; water for drinking and cooking has frequently to be carried great distances; and very often the atmosphere of the apartment is rendered insufferably foetid with the steam and smoke from wet clothing set out to dry before large fires put on for the purpose. Under such conditions it is only natural to find straw strewn about, a mountain of ashes piled up in the fireplace, lumps of coal and miscellaneous rubbish scattered all over the floor, and little hillocks of rubbish, composed of egg shells, tin boxes, and other material, defending the approach to the lodge from every direction. Continue reading “‘Salmon Fishing Bothies on the Tay’; First Article (28 July, 1888)”