Village Life in Scotland Fifty Years Ago

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Village Life in Scotland Fifty Years Ago

Post by Currie » Wed Mar 25, 2020 8:04 am

From the Southern Reporter, Selkirk
Thursday, Sept. 5, 1895.

The following, by “A. B.,” appeared in a recent issue of the Otago Witness:—

From the little, auld-fashioned village of Darnick, situated exactly one mile from the cross of Melrose and about the same distance from Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott, may be drawn a very fair sample of village life in Scotland fifty years ago.

Weaving was one of the chief industries in that part of the district, so that the clatter of the handloom might have been heard in many of the little cottages in the village of Darnick. I had a favourable opportunity of becoming particularly acquainted with the Darnick weavers, as they all had to come and stent their webs on a green haugh that lay along the banks of the river Tweed, where I was employed herding my father's cows. Young as I was then, I could not help contrasting the different characters of the Darnick weavers.

was often out of weft or warp, and too often made the want of those materials an excuse to carry his gossip from house to house and debate the leading topics of the day, there being only one newspaper in the district then, the Border Watch. A very creditable publication it was, but too much of a luxury for most of the villagers of Darnick, so that Willie Scott, the weaver, was regarded as a sort of chronicle or itinerant newsmonger.

unlike Willie Scott, never left his loom but when he couldn't help it, and was perfectly surprised when he heard of the Russians, as Andrew had always been under the impression that the French and English were the sole occupants of the world, excepting a few cannibals here and there whom Andrew was not prepared to regard as human beings at all.

was a man of no mean worth. If the more intelligent villagers wished to pass a pleasant hour they could not do better than spend it with Willie Tait, to hear him discourse on the many incidents of a long life. Willie and his sister Mary lived in a neat little whitewashed cottage. The climbing rose and jasmine clinging round the door and window, a thatched roof, the house leek growing through the divots that formed the ridge, the plot in front well stocked with gay flowers—all these helped to make Willie Tait's cottage justly considered one of the most cosy little homes in the whole village of Darnick.

were the village blacksmiths. Peter was an evangelist after the type of St Paul—he preached the Gospel and worked with his own hands. Willie Manuel was a splendid fellow, but toddled too often down the road to Tibbie Lees's, who kept the Plough Inn, or up the back street to Willie Matheson’s, who was licensed to sell a dram over the counter. There seemed to have been no adulterating of whisky in these days, as Willie's frequent visitations seemed to do him no harm, for he lived long beyond the allotted span. If we wanted to hear of the farms or the prospects of the crops we had to attend the smiddy when the ploughmen came in at night to have their plough irons trimmed up. Then the cracks went round of horses, ploughs, and kye. Even after a long, weary day in the field, the ploughmen looked upon their nocturnal visits to as the only relaxations they had, unless when they all assembled at Broomilees, when Geordie Fairbairn would take down the fiddle (Geordie in his young days was piper to Sir Walter Scott). He was a born musician, and could put life and mettle into their heels. I have heard many of the crack violinists of our time, but none of them in my opinion could bring from the violin such grand strains of music as auld Geordie Fairbairn, of Broomilees.

was one of our village grocers. It would be difficult for any of our young colonials to form any idea of a small grocer's shop in a Scottish village fifty years ago. A spit of salt herrings hung up to drip at the cheek of the door; a tumbler with a few clay pipes in it, a cake or two of parlie, and a box of Day & Martin's blacking decorated the window; a sack of oatmeal and one of pearl barley; a few pounds of tallow candles and halfpenny dips were suspended from the ceiling; a dozen or two of red herring were to be seen at the end of the counter. These comprised the leading articles of trade. Above the door was printed in small letters, ‘‘James Dickson, grocer. Licensed to sell tea, tobacco, and snuff.” Jamie was a jolly fellow, but at times sat rather too long at Tibbie Lees’s. When Jamie did so far forget himself nothing pleased the boys of the village better that to assume it as their duty to escort Jamie safely home. This at times proved no easy task, as Jamie was a big man and had a pin leg. On one occasion Jamie had mislaid the key of his door, so we had to resort to the expedient of transporting him through the window. This proved to be a more difficult job than we had anticipated, so we paused to consider our position; but Jamie presented such a comical appearance with his head on the table and his pin leg protruding through the window that it was with difficulty that we completed our task.

Every householder in the village had a well-stocked. vegetable garden, and none took more pride in his garden than auld Willie Milne. Willie was a good-living man, but if by accident or otherwise any person or persons disturbed Willie's neatly-formed onion beds, the invectives would flow from the owner by the double verse.

There was no doctor in the village, but Mary Tait (Mrs George Wayness, for every woman brought up and married in the village retained her maiden name) was our medical adviser. There was one peculiarity that pertained to all Mary's prescriptions. Let the mixture or trouble be what it might, one single glass of good whisky had to be added to ensure anything approaching relief to the patients. Withal, Mary Tait was a wise and good woman.

was a good-natured, motherly body — a village gossip, but her literary notes were of a lower order than those of Willie Scott, the weaver. Peggy was the mother of a large family of grown-up married daughters, consequently she had a lot of sons-in-law at her beck and call. How Peggy had earned the title of the “Queen of Sheba" I could never tell. Bob Lockie, one of her sons-in-law, fell out with Peg. The scene of the wordy war took place in the garden close by the beehives. Peg was getting the better of Bob, when Bob ejaculated—“You have earned the title of Queen of Sheba, but, so far as I know, you have never been crowned.” And with this Bob placed a bee hive on poor Peg’s head. Poor Mrs Brown realised that night for the first time the truth of the words, “ Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

kept an orchard and a few cows. Nannie’s apples, pears, and gooseberries were no better than other folk's, but we thought they were, so Nannie got a liberal share of the coppers in circulation among us boys. Nannie had lived so long as to survive all her family except her daughter Mary, who resided with her aged mother. Nannie was a most intelligent old woman, but, in common with many women of her time, believed in wraiths, ghosts, and witches. I have often, with perfect awe, listened to Nanny telling of the loud warnings she had heard preceding the death of different members of her family.

was the village dominie. How long John had presided over the Darnick branch of the Melrose parish school I cannot tell, but he was an old man when I was under his tuition, and a rowdy lot he had to deal with; but with the assistance of a hazel rung and the tawse John managed to maintain wonderful discipline, although both of these instruments of corporal punishment were sometimes clandestinely removed. and the tawse hung upon the highest branch of the big elm tree that overhung the school. Although we had every veneration for old Mr Howden, on the shortest day in every year we broke out in open rebellion unless a holiday was conceded us. We all assembled early at the school, placed our heavy guard at each window, rammed the desks, forms, and stools at the back of the door, and there awaited the approach of the dominie. The poor old body generally made a feeble attempt to storm the garrison, but, as a rule, the boys came off victors. his was called “barring-out-day.”

occupied the upper part of the school building, and many prank we played on poor Tib, notwithstanding the fact that she wielded the most powerful weapon at her disposal, and that was kindness, which at all times conquered.

Our school books consisted of the pennybook, the fourpenny, sixpenny, and tenpenny, Grey’s Arithmetic, History of Scotland and England, the geography and grammar, the Shorter Catechism, and the Bible. The parish minister had the right to come and visit the school, and while under his examination if we could not tell him what became of Enoch, Elijah, and Lot's wife we were denounced as perfect numskulls. Our games were “through the needle-eye, boys,” “waggyhouse ball,” “scoop and muggie,” “hunt the hare,” and football. If a marriage, took place in the village the bridegroom presented the young men with a football decked with ribbons.” The groomsman kicked off, and after a good game the fleetest of foot made the ball his own private property. A few shillings in coppers were also thrown broadcast among the children. Then for a scramble! After that the wedding party were left unmolested.

was our parish minister. Mr Murray was of the few who had stuck to his kirk, his glebe, and a good fat living regardless of the popular feeling that had threatened to overthrow the Auld Kirk of Scotland. His sermons and prayers were very much the same, and I have often seen George Smith stand up on a box on a Monday morning and repeat Mr Murray's prayers word for word. In the words of Jim Burnett, he had fought away
with the children of Israel all his life, and had not got them into the land of Canaan yet.

were the local builders. I say local, although their trade extended all over the Borders. Mr John Smith was an architect and a perfect mason, and could impart the art to others. Many a monument still stands on the Borders to testify to the genius of John Smith. If ever any of your readers have visited Selkirk they must have seen specimens of the handiwork of Smith’s masons in the monument erected to the memory of Mungo Park, designed and modelled by Mr Andrew Currie, but left to Jock Fairbairn, Jim Shiel, Sandy Anderson, and Geordie Wayness to execute the design. Geordie was a little man who had lost all his teeth, and was continually munching tobacco; but put the mell and chisel into Geordie’s hands, and he would make the sculptured lion scowl or look pleased at will.

Most of the villages in Scotland had their daft Jock or Jenny, but the villagers of Darnick were all pretty well compos mentis except Meg Barrow. How Meg spent her time in the winter I never could tell, but in the long summer months she never tired of gathering the wild flowers of the field and twining them round her person, until she would present herself to the villagers of Darnick in all sorts of fantastic shapes and forms. Meg's father was one of the village shoemakers. He carried on his business in a little garret, and many a trip I have had up the little trap stair, opening the door and crying, “John Barrie, is ma shoon dune yet?” John, who was a fine-tempered old man, never sent us away with a bad answer. No doubt he executed his orders with the quickest possible despatch, but nevertheless he had a lot to answer for by way of broken promises.

was the other village shoemaker, but Andrew had the reputation of secretly pegging his soles, and was regarded with suspicion on that account. He had at last to leave the village and go elsewhere to introduce his new-fangled method of making boots and shoes.

was the village tailor. He was a lively, clever young man, who, having heard of happier climes in the ‘Sunny South,” emigrated to New Zealand, and died in Dunedin only a few months ago.

Our holidays were few, but the Auld Year's Day presented many attractions. The youngsters would all gather in bands early in the morning, and travel through the village and surrounding country to seek their hogmanay. We were all as happy as possible, but where there were so many gathered together, disputes would arise. Coming up through the woods of Abbotsford, Tommy Lees and Bob Tofts came to blows, resulting in a black eye to Bob. No sooner was the deed done than Tommy apologised for so seriously disturbing the harmony of the company. The disgrace of Bob having to return home on a Hogmanay night with black een was terrible. Tommy offered any retribution in his power. A consultation was held, when Tommy was advised to suck the bruised blood to the back of Bob's neck. Tommy started at Bob like a stoat or a weasel, but, needless to say, the experiment proved a failure.

We were not by any means hard to please with our gifts—a baubee or a baubee bap was sufficient; but we had a perfect sense of what appeared to be mean. The Misses Mercer, two old maids, had the reputation of making use of the left porridge and baking them into oatmeal cakes. On approaching Kayside a council of war was held and a plan chalked out how to resent the insult of being presented with porridge cakes. Sure enough, the porridge cakes were in plenty. We decoyed the old ladies from the door to make the presentations. The word of command was given, bang went the cakes, and ere the ladies could reach the garrison their grey hair was perfectly bespattered with clammy, half-baked oatmeal cakes. The march homeward, the noise and glee, showed plainly that we had enjoyed ourselves. Currant cake and shortbread for two days took the place of pease bannocks and pork kail.

Another of the happiest days of the year was Lammas Fair Day. The fair was held on Lammas Green, a long stretch of mossy green along the northern base of the Eildon Hills. It was grand to get up early on a bright August morning and watch the hundreds of fleecy
flocks of sheep from the surrounding country wending their way to the fair. The bleating of the lambs, the yelping of the collie dogs, the commanding voice of the shepherd, dressed in hodden grey, with his crook and plaid, the very picture of simple honesty; the long streaks of white calico tents and gingerbread krames; the webster lads and lasses from Galashiels linking and dancing on the green, with the Eildon Hills for a background, was a sight never to be forgotten by the villagers of Darnick fifty years ago.

The people of Scotland had taken a fresh taste to observe that part of Scotland’s calendar called Halloween, after the production of that exquisite poem “Halloween,” by Robert Burns. I think I see Adam Milne yet chasing the apple and biting the candle, and Mary Hogarth dooking for apples. The peals of laughter which followed each mishap was proof that all enjoyed the harmless fun.

an old soldier, lived in an auld-fashioned cottage secluded among the woods of Abbotsford. Sandy emerged from the woods but once a year, when he would appear fully accoutred in martial cloak and helmet, with a broad battleaxe over his shoulder. In his regimentals Sandy would march through the village of Darnick on his way to Melrose to draw his yearly pension, The bairns would follow him, but at a respectable distance, viewing the deadly implements of ancient warfare with an eye of suspicion.

Sir Robert Peel surely had not at that time brought in his bill to reorganise the police force, for one policeman was quite equal to the task of keeping all the parishioners of Melrose in perfect order; and we never feared the approach of Adam Scott, well knowing that we had been guilty of no worse misdemeanour than that of stopping up Tibbie Renaldson’s lum with a big cabbage, or locking Willie Toft in and blowing a tammy-reekie through a broken square of glass until we had Willie jumping in perfect agony and despair. The Vagrant Act had never been thought of in those days, and the tinkers would roam over the whole country as they liked. Begging was a profession. Yetholm was the headquarters of the tinkers, but the Youngs, the Faas, and the Blythes were names familiar to the villagers of Darnick. The arrival of the tinkers created quite a sensation when they came to pitch their camps in the garden gate and round the village weigh-bridge.

was our village professional beggar. No doubt in Whirley's childhood she would bear a more Christian-like name— perhaps Betsy something —but to the villagers of Darnick she was known by no other name than Whirley Bet. Whirley was not devoid of a certain kind of taste, and had a system of toilet of her own. On Monday morning Whirley appeared at her best. Frilled cuffs and collar, a white mutch with a deep frilled border tittivated upon a tallion iron, a worn-out black bonnet with a bright scarlet band tied tight under her chin, a heavy grey shawl, white stockings, prunella boots laced up the sides, which had seen a good bit of wear before they came into Whirley’s possession, completed her toilet. But after a week’s rambles, sleeping in barns and the shelter of a haystack, Whirley’s linen got soiled, her starch got flat, so that she presented an anco’ sight. Whirley carried all her alms in shapeless bundles—one under each arm, one suspended from each elbow, and one in each hand. Whirley was by no means perfumed with camphor; but nothing wounded her pride and aroused her ire more than to insinuate that she did not smell too sweet. On one occasion Whirley entered Willie Matheson's shop to purchase half an ounce of tea and a pennyworth of sugar. The boys hired Andrew Smith to follow Whirley into the shop, and while there to sniff and complain of a nasty smell. No sooner had Andrew carried out our wishes than Whirley floored him with a bundle. One bundle followed another, until all Whirley Bet's belongings were out on the street, left to the ruthless mercy of a lot of rowdy boys. Alas, the fate of poor Whirley! On returning from one of her week's wanderings, tired and wearied, poor old Whirley sat herself down to rest on Ellwand brae, and there expired.

And so too expires this story. I don’t think the little village of Darnick has ever had a mention on this forum so this should more than make up for it.

Hope you (if anyone actually made it this far down the page) found it interesting.


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Re: Village Life in Scotland Fifty Years Ago

Post by AndrewP » Wed Mar 25, 2020 8:49 am

Hi Alan,

A great read - with a fair sprinkling of Scots dialect terms.

All the best,


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Re: Village Life in Scotland Fifty Years Ago

Post by SarahND » Wed Mar 25, 2020 12:32 pm

Fascinating! Thanks, Alan. Gives us all something to read while we are confined to our houses. [cheers]

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Re: Village Life in Scotland Fifty Years Ago

Post by garibaldired » Wed Mar 25, 2020 12:52 pm

Wonderful, Alan!

Thanks so much.
A lovely read in these trying times!

Best wishes,

Anne H
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Re: Village Life in Scotland Fifty Years Ago

Post by Anne H » Thu Mar 26, 2020 7:00 pm

A wonderful read, Alan. It took me a while to get to read it all as I was going back and forth trying to place an online order at two different supermarkets - still haven't been successful in getting a delivery date for one, and the other, just can't seem to complete the payments section. Thank goodness for some family members who can still go out for food.

Best regards to all,


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Re: Village Life in Scotland Fifty Years Ago

Post by garibaldired » Fri Mar 27, 2020 2:19 pm

Is it Sainsbury's where you can't complete the payment section, Anne?
I had the same problem and it seems to be quite common.

I visited a local supermarket this morning and was very impressed with the arrangements and organisation.

Keep safe!

best wishes,


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Re: Village Life in Scotland Fifty Years Ago

Post by Anne H » Fri Mar 27, 2020 8:38 pm

It was Asda's, Meg. Very probably a bit slow in taking on new online customers. I'm okay for Tesco's though - just wish I could get a delivery date to complete the transaction. However, I still have sufficient supplies to keep me going for a couple of weeks.


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