Though he never set foot in Dumfriesshire in his life, the great Jacobean playwright and poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637) claims a place here on the grounds of the immense pride he took in being descended from the Johnstones of Annandale. Welcome home, 'O Rare Ben Jonson' [the words on his Westminster Abbey memorial].
The author of Every Man in his Humour, Volpone and The Alchemist was born in or near London. The Dumfriesshire connection comes from his grandfather, who may have been captured by the English at the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542. He ended up working at the court of King Henry VIII, having possibly been made a post-battle offer that he could not refuse.
The grandfather would of course have been a 'Johnstone' but the 't' got lost in the southward migration and it was Ben himself who chose to refine the surname down to 'Jonson'.
When the Union of the Crowns in 1603 brought the Scottish court of King James VI & I to London, Jonson lost no time in ingratiating himself with the new regime, flattering James with a glowing reference to his own literary aspirations:
How, best of Kings, do'st thou a scepter beare!
How, best of Poets, do'st thou laurell weare!
Many more royal panegyrics were to follow, along with court masques for the Queen, and it was also politic of Ben to have penned praise for the Union of the Crowns:
When was there contract better driven by Fate?
Or celebrated with more truth of state?
The world the temple was, the priest a king,
The spoused pair two realmes, the sea the ring.
Jonson's satirical bent, however, brought royal disfavour for a while and a short spell of imprisonment. He collaborated on a comedy called Eastward Ho!, which poked fun at the pushy Scots who were buying honours from the new King. A James Murray, who had just become a 'Sir' in this way, made an official complaint when he heard at a performance the embarrassing line 'I ken the man weel, he's ane of my thirty pound knights'.
Jonson had long nursed an ambition to see for himself the land of his forefathers and he finally set off up the Great North Road in 1618, the year after King James's one and only return trip to Scotland (see Some Historical Background). Jonson did the journey on foot, a considerable achievement for a 20-stone man with, as he put it, a 'mountaine belly'. When he arrived in Edinburgh the city council honoured him with a feast. He stayed for several days on the outskirts of the capital with the poet William Drummond of Hawthornden. Though Drummond's notes on their animated conversations have survived, Jonson's own account of the journey, sadly, was later destroyed in a fire.
There is a puzzling aspect to his Scottish adventure. If he was so attached to his Annandale ancestry (to the extent of adopting the original Johnstone coat of arms), why did he not have Dumfriesshire on his itinerary? Perhaps King James, who was still battling to suppress the reiving way of life (see The Border), had warned him of a security risk. Jonson, who was an enthusiastic tippler, would have enjoyed a few nights of roistering with the 'Lads of Wamphray' and, being a notorious brawler himself, he would have felt an affinity with their innate belligerence. Come to think of it, 'O Rare Ben Jonson' would have made a rare reiver!
Thomas Blacklock (1721-1791) was another talented Annanite who, like Edward Irving, might have achieved distinction as a clergyman had he not been blind from infancy. His attempts to be ordained as a kirk minister in south-west Scotland were thwarted by the prejudice of parishioners who believed that a man with no sight was unfit to look after their spiritual welfare. Blacklock settled instead in Edinburgh where his prodigiously wide range of interests - literature, philosophy, music and linguistics - earned him a special place among the capital's intelligentsia during its 'Golden Age'. He has been credited with saving Robert Burns from slinking off into exile, by praising the poet's first [Kilmarnock] edition, urging him to come to Edinburgh, and doing all he could to bring about the second [Edinburgh] edition. Blacklock's own poems, which were widely published at the time but are now forgotten, were definitely minor.
What could have been more exciting for a Dumfriesshire lad with dreams of being a writer than living next door to and getting to know the greatest of them all, Robert Burns? That was the childhood privilege of poet, songwriter and literary journeyman Allan Cunningham (1784-1842). Born at Auldgirth, he spent most of his early years on the Dalswinton estate where his father was a factor. Ellisland, the farm that Burns leased from the estate, was directly opposite Dalswinton on the other side of the Nith. In later life Cunningham rather milked his connection with Burns, writing with suspect vividness of events which, given his young age, he could in reality have recalled only dimly:
I was very young when I first saw Burns [it was in 1790 when Cunningham was just six]. He came to see my father; and their conversation turned partly on farming, partly on poetry, in both of which my father had taste and skill. His [Burns's] voice was very musical. I once heard him read Tam o' Shanter. I think I hear him now. His fine manly voice followed all the undulations of the sense, and expressed as well as his genius had done, the pathos and humour, the horrible and the awful, of that wonderful performance.
In 1796 Cunningham walked in Burns's funeral procession. A few days earlier he had viewed the body. These purport to be the impressions of an eleven-year-old:
He lay in a plain unadorned coffin, with a linen sheet drawn over his face; and on the bed, and around the body, herbs and flowers were thickly strewn, according to the usage of the country. He was wasted somewhat by long illness; but death had not increased the swarthy hue of his face, which was uncommonly dark and deeply marked - his broad and open brow was pale and serene, and around it his sable hair lay in masses, slightly touched with grey.We stood and gazed on him in silence for the space of several minutes.not a whisper was heard.
Cunningham began his working life as a stonemason apprenticed to his brother James. He read widely and wrote copiously. His life changed radically after he met the literary antiquarian R H Cromek when he was touring Scotland in search of traditional verse and tales. Cunningham became a major source of material for Cromeck (who seems to have been naïve enough to have accepted some of the young man's own compositions as old songs) and he was persuaded to move to London in 1810 and try his luck there as a literary hack. Apart from his contributions to the Cromek anthologies, Cunningham published collections of his own: Traditional Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry (1822) and The Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern (1825). A few of Cunningham's original pieces are still read, among them the spirited sea- song 'A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea':
O for a soft and gentle wind!
I heard a fair one cry;
But give to me the snoring breeze
And white waves heaving high;
And white waves heaving high, my lads,
The good ship tight and free -
The world of waters is our home,
And merry men are we.
And to this day a night of Scottish revelry can be brought to a rollicking climax by the singing of 'The Wee, Wee German Lairdie', his Jacobite ribaldry about the Hanoverian succession:
Wha the devil hae we gotten for a king,
But a wee, wee German lairdie?
And when we gade to bring him hame,
He was delving in his kail-yardie;
Sheughing kail, and laying leeks,
Without the hose and but the breeks;
And up his beggar duds he cleeks,
The wee, wee German lairdie.
Though he worked diligently, made many useful contacts and had a certain level of success, Cunningham found he could not support his large family by writing alone. So he got a day job. In 1814 he became secretary and general factotum to the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey and remained in the post until 1841, the year of his employer's death and a year before his own. Through the job Cunningham got to know the leading figures of the British establishment at that time, as they all sat for Chantrey. In this way he met Sir Walter Scott.
This long immersion in the art world helped in his writing of the six volumes of his Lives of the most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, while his earlier personal knowledge of his famous Nithsdale neighbour animated his final great labour, eight volumes of The Works and Life of Burns (1834). About the latter, however, a twentieth-century Burns scholar enters a caveat: 'This biography certainly pictures Burns more or less as he actually was, but is absolutely unreliable as regards specific facts...nothing that he says should be believed without contributory testimony.'
Though another man's employee in another trade for so long, Cunningham nonetheless consolidated his own independent reputation as a man of letters. In 1831 he re-visited Dumfries as a celebrity, a local boy made good: he was presented with the freedom of the burgh and a dinner was held in his honour at which Thomas Carlyle was one of the speakers paying tribute. In his own speech Cunningham said: 'I am proud that my father and grandfather were freemen of the town. I am proud that all my earliest and most lasting feelings and associations are connected with a place such as this. I am proud that any little knowledge I possess was gathered amongst you; and I can never forget the reception I have met with since my arrival in Dumfries.'
Carlyle generally did not have much time for the penpushers of London but his friend from back home was an exception, as he confided in a letter: 'Allan Cunningham I love; he retains the honest tones of his native Nithsdale true as ever; he has a heart and a mind simple as a child's but with touches of a genius singularly wild and original.'
William Julius Mickle
Dumfriesshire can claim a close connection with that hardy perennial of the Scots popular-song repertoire, 'There's Nae Luck Aboot the Hoose'. Actually, the lyrics - usually somewhat lost in gutsy renditions of the song - are a rather delightful piece of light verse that appears as 'The Mariner's Wife' in the collected poetical works of Langholm*-born William Julius Mickle (1734/5-1788). It is about a woman rushing down to the harbour because her man's just returned safely from sea:
And gie to me my bigonnet [linen cap],
My bishop-satin gown,
For I maun tell the bailie's wife
That Colin's come to town.
My Turkey slippers maun gae on,
My hose o' pearl blue;
'Tis a' to please my ain gudeman,
For he's baith leal [loyal] and true.
Rise up and mak' a clean fireside,
Put on the muckle pat;
Gie little Kate her cotton gown,
And Jock his Sunday coat;
And mak' their shoon as black as slaes,
Their hose as white as snaw;
It's a' to please my ain gudeman:
He likes to see them braw.
And the refrain throughout the poem is the bit that everyone knows from school sing-songs:
For there's nae luck aboot the hoose,
There's nae luck at a';
There's little pleasure in the hoose
When oor gudeman's awa'.
Once his Langholm childhood was over and the family had moved to Edinburgh, Mickle soon got to know all about having 'nae luck'. The reason for the move was bizarre: his father, the parish minister, inherited (of all things for a Presbyterian man of the cloth!) a brewery. On leaving Edinburgh High School, son followed father into the business and duly inherited. But Mickle's mind was elsewhere. All he dreamed of being was a full-time man of letters. Meanwhile, the business was failing and debts were mounting. So in 1763 Mickle secretly left Edinburgh and headed south to launch himself as a London author. He changed the original spelling of his surname Meikle (to anglicise it or to accurately reflect its Langholm pronunciation?) and began to present himself as William Julius Mickle.
For many years 'nae luck' was the theme of his literary career too. His efforts to find a patron were fruitless. He was keen to have a verse tragedy produced on the London stage but the only outcome was a bitter feud with the actor-manager David Garrick. His lack of success may have had something to do with the turgid nature of his writing in English. From time to time he had to take jobs, like being a 'corrector' for the Clarendon Press in Oxford, to try and lift himself out of debt. He even became for a while a civilian officer on board military ships. During one voyage he visited Portugal. This was fortuitous, for by then he had produced a well-received translation of a classic Portuguese epic poem and he was feted by the Lisbon literary establishment.
Mickle finally achieved financial security only by marrying a woman of wealth. He spent the last years of his life at a new home in Oxfordshire. He never forgot the scenes of his Dumfriesshire childhood. His last poetic composition was 'Eskdale Braes', the lament of woman who believes (wrongly, as it turns out) that war has left her a widow:
Still the Ewes rolls her paly blue stream,
Old Esk still his chrystal tide pours,
Still golden the Wauchope waves gleam,
And still green, oh Broomholm, are thy bowers!
No, blasted they seem to my view,
The rivers in red floods combine!
The turtles their widow'd notes coo,
And mix their sad ditties with mine!
William Beattie (1793-1875), a native of Dalton, bridged the sciences and the arts by being both a physician and a poet. He was trained in Edinburgh and practised there for a couple of years before moving south. Some five years were taken up with travels around Europe, often as an unpaid medical attendant to the Duke of Clarence, the future William IV. On his return to Britain, Beattie published 'The Heliotrope, or A Pilgrim in Pursuit of Health'. He settled in London, establishing a practice at Hampstead where the indigent, sickly poets of 'The Smoke' were assured of special attention.
His compatriot Thomas Campbell, perpetually down on his luck, was a notable beneficiary of Beattie's therapeutic largesse: 'whenever he found himself relapsing into a depressed state of health and spirits, "Well," he would say, "I must come into hospital", and he would repair for another week to "Campbell's Ward", a room so named by the poet in the doctor's house.' When Campbell was dying in Boulogne in 1844, Beattie dashed across the Channel to be with him in his final moments, and it was thanks largely to the good doctor's campaigning and fund-raising that a Campbell statue was placed at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. He then served as his friend's posthumous editor: three volumes of The Life and Letters of Thomas Campbell appeared in 1849. Beattie himself wrote 'Monody on the Death of Thomas Campbell':
Friends of the poet! ye to whom belong
The prophet's fire, the mystic powers of song -
On you devolves the sad and sacred trust
To chant the requiem o'er a brother's dust!
His kindred shade demands the kindred tear -
The poet's homage o'er a poet's bier!
While I - who saw the vital flame expire,
And heard the last tones of that broken lyre -
Closed the dim eye, and propp'd the drooping head -
And caught the spirit's farewell as it fled -
With your high notes my lowly tribute blend,
And mourn at once the poet and the friend!
The famous song 'Scotland Yet' was written by a Dumfriesshire man, Henry Scott Riddell (1798-1870). He was born north of Langholm* at the farm of Sorbie in the parish of Ewes. His father was employed as a shepherd at various locations, including Eskdalemuir where the family were visited by the 'Ettrick Shepherd' poet James Hogg. Riddell also became a shepherd but, after his father's death, enrolled at Edinburgh University and trained for the Kirk. His first and only ministerial post was at Caerlanrig chapel near Teviothead in Roxburghshire.
In 1841 he became mentally ill and was confined to the Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries for the next three years. He did not return to the pulpit but spent the rest of his life lecturing and writing. His projects included translating the St Matthew gospel and the psalms of David into Scots. He retained an interest in agriculture and won a prize for his Essay on foot-rot in sheep, the contents of which were doubtless not quite as stirring as 'Scotland Yet':
Gae bring my gude auld harp ance mair,
Gae bring it firm and fast -
For I maun sing anither sang,
Ere a' my glee be past.
And trow ye as I sing, my lads,
The burden o't shall be,
Auld Scotland's howes, and Scotland's knowes,
And Scotland's hills for me!
I'll drink a cup to Scotland yet,
Wi' a' the honours three.
By day Alexander Anderson (1845-1909) was a maintenance man on the Glasgow and South-Western Railway around his native Kirkconnel. By night he wrote poems about steam trains and about children, which were so popular that when his debut collection A Song of Labour and Other Poems was published in 1873, the first edition was sold out within a fortnight.
Behind his railway pen-name 'Surfaceman' lay, however, a sophisticated product of massive self-education. He taught himself numerous languages and read widely in European literature, devouring Dante in the original Italian. At the age of 35 he finally left his manual job for a career in librarianship; he ended up as chief librarian of Edinburgh University. This move into the world of scholarship was welcomed by his friends who, according to the editor of his posthumous works, 'had long grudged to see him spending his golden prime, and exhausting his energies with pick and shovel, in the hard and exacting toil of a railway surfaceman.' His elevation in status did him no favours as a poet: the Muse thereafter largely deserted him.
Anderson had an intense love of the Kirkconnel area. 'What more have I to wish for?' he wrote while still with the railway. 'I have the great rush and whirl of the world going past me in the trains through the day when at my work, and at night the cool healthy calm of my native village.' When he was three years old the whole family moved to Crocketford in Kirkcudbrightshire but at sixteen he returned to Kirkconnel. Later, as an Edinburgh resident, he frequently went back to his native place and, despite his absences, remained a well-known character around the community. His memorial plaque in Kirkconnel has the words 'He sleeps among the hills he knew'. A friend wrote the inscription for his gravestone:
We have our day, we have our say,
Then quit the scene for ithers,
And cuddle doon amang the mools,
Where mankind a' are brithers.
This was a reference to the lullaby 'Cuddle Doon', still his most often quoted work:
The bairnies cuddle doon at nicht
Wi' muckle faucht an' din;
'O, try and sleep, ye waukrife rogues,
Your faither's comin' in.'
They never heed a word I speak;
I try to gie a froon,
But aye I hap them up, an' cry,
'O, bairnies, cuddle doon.'
Ruthwell-born George Neilson (1858-1923) was an amateur historian so able and knowledgeable that on many aspects of early and medieval Scotland it was to him that the professionals turned for guidance. He had an entirely separate career as a lawyer in Glasgow, where he became a procurator fiscal and then, in 1909, the city's first stipendiary police magistrate. All the while he was mastering the primary sources for Scottish history. 'His combination of charter scholarship with the study of records, chronicles, place names, and topography blazed a trail for Scottish medieval studies.' [Oxford Dictionary of National Biography]. His first book was a history of the duel, Trial by Combat (1890).
The Roman occupation of Britain held a particular fascination for him. Per Lineam Valli (1891) was his account of Hadrian's Wall. Years of puzzling over the early history of Dumfriesshire and of the south-west in general bore fruit in Annals of the Solway (1899). In 1901 he made an unsuccessful application for the professorship of Scottish history at Edinburgh University.
J M Barrie
Peter Pan (1904) is possibly the most enduringly popular children's (and adults'!) fantasy ever written in English and, according to the personal testimony of its author James M Barrie (1860-1937), its genesis lay in the five serenely happy teenage years its creator spent in Dumfries.
Barrie, the son of a handloom weaver, came originally from Kirriemuir in Forfarshire, the town that famously featured in his early bestsellers Auld Licht Idylls (1888) and A Window in Thrums (1889). Parental aspiration ensured for him a good education, towards which he was mentored by his elder brother Alexander, a schoolmaster. When Alexander became a school inspector based in Dumfries, thirteen-year-old James was sent to live with him at 6 Victoria Terrace near the railway station and in 1873 was enrolled at Dumfries Academy. Though well below average in height, Barrie was a sporty type and when he discovered that his beloved game of cricket was played at the Academy, homesickness was instantly cured.
Barrie's playwrighting began while he was still a Dumfries schoolboy. He was a founding member of a theatrical society for which he wrote a now long-lost melodrama called Bandelero the Bandit. Barrie himself performed in it when it was produced at the Academy. For another school production he was forced to take a female role, an experience about which he wrote in old age: 'Long afterwards I saw Miss Irene Vanburgh playing my part and told her that though she was good she missed some of my womanly touches.'
Exposure to professional productions at the town's Theatre Royal did much to excite further Barrie's interest in drama. He always tried to get a seat at the end of the front row 'to get rid of stage illusion and watch what the performers were doing in the wings.' One day he turned up to see a pantomime only to discover that the theatre was already full. What happened next was for him a magical experience:
In the astonishing circumstances we were asked if we wouldn't mind coming behind the scenes and making ourselves as small as possible. 'If we wouldn't mind!' I hugged to myself the extraordinary graciousness of the phrase, as well as other events of that Arabian evening, with their culmination, which was when the beautiful lady said to me in passing that her shoe, confound it, was loose as usual. She may have mistaken me for some one else, but it was to me she said it. We never met again. I was speechless and so could not thank her, but I do so now. Is it possible that she meant I could tie those shoelaces?
The writer who at the height of his success had four plays running simultaneously in London's West End was forever grateful to his Dumfries period for a simpler form of 'play'. This was the fantasy world, peopled with fairies and pirates, that he and his friend Stuart Gordon, son of the Sheriff Clerk, created in the Nithside garden of Moat Brae House. Barrie was 'Sixteen-String Jack' to his friend's 'Dare Devil Dick'. In 1924 he reminisced about this in a piece for the Academy magazine paying tribute to a retiring mathematics teacher:
...when the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, was certainly the genesis of that nefarious work. We lived in the tree-tops, on cocoa-nuts attached thereto, and that were in bad condition; we were buccaneers, and I kept the log-book of our depredations, an eerie journal without a triangle in it to mar the beauty of its page.
How exciting also for the youthful aspirant to literary fame to have seen in the flesh from time to time the venerable Dumfriesshire writer Thomas Carlyle, furtively hero-worshipping (aptly enough) the author of On Heroes, Hero-worship and The Heroic in History:
When I was at school in Dumfries I often saw Carlyle in cloak, sombrero and staff, mooning along our country roads, a tortured mind painfully alone even to the eyes of a boy. He was visiting his brother-in-law, Dr. Aitken, retired, and I always took off my cap to him. I daresay I paid this homage fifty times, but never was there any response. Once I seized a babe, who was my niece, and ran with her in my arms to a spot which I saw he was approaching; my object that in future years she should be able to say that she had once touched the great Carlyle. I did bring them within touching distance, but there my courage failed me, and the two passed each other to meet no more. He may have thought me one of the tribe who tried to get a word from him for storage by asking, for instance, if this was the road to Lochmaben, when he would undo them by pointing out the way with his staff and silently wander on.
Twice Barrie returned to Dumfries, on both occasions as a celebrity. In 1893 he was the principal guest at the Academy's prize-giving and thrilled the audience with a highly humorous speech. His final visit to the town was in 1924. By this time elevated to Sir James, he had come to receive the freedom of the burgh and to attend the naming of 'Barrie Avenue'. He did not often allow himself to appear in public and so this very accessible visit was an opportunity seized upon by a swarm of reporters and photographers. In 1962 a commemorative plaque was placed at his former home in Victoria Terrace.
Joseph Laing Waugh
Joseph Laing Waugh (1868-1928) specialised in light-hearted and sentimental tales from the parish-pump of Thornhill. He was brought up and educated in the village but spent most of his adult life in Edinburgh. James Reid, profiling him in Some Dumfries and Galloway Men (1922), offers the view that he wrote out of 'the home-hunger of the exile...It is improbable that Mr Laing Waugh would have delineated so well, if he had done it at all, the worthies of Thornhill had he not removed to Edinburgh'. Waugh was not a full-time writer: he had a successful business career in the wholesale wallpaper trade. He lived in urban respectability at 3 Comiston Drive in the Braid Hills area but whenever he found time to take up the pen his mental escape was back into the Lowther Hills.
Though Waugh had already written about Thornhill non-fictionally, it was not until he was in his forties that his work as a novelist and short-story writer began to be published: Robbie Doo, Cracks wi' Robbie Doo, Betty Grier and Cute M'Cheyne. As a youth he had always enjoyed the company of the older generation 'who in their conversation lived in the past in the quiet days of the handloom and the stage coach' and a retentive memory enabled him to flesh out his characters with authenticity and with a fluent command of their Dumfriesshire Scots speech. He did not need to invent much: he just set his characters reminiscing.
The Robbie Doo character made his debut in 1912. He is the local stonemason, with robust views on other tradesmen of the village:
It is generally allowed that grocers damp their sugar, dairymen water their milk, millers tak' liberties wi' their meal, joiners use wood when it's green, plumbers - oh, plumbers! Eh, man, what deevils they are. Dod, give a roon-shoodered plumber a hapenny cannel, and let him into a dark corner wi' a solderin' bolt and a pot o' smudge. Leave him there wi' auld Nick and to his ain meditations, and tak' a dauner doon the length o' the cross to see what the weather's gaun to do. When ye come back, certie, he'll hae a hole in that corner the size o' a wee wean's grave, the walls will be splashed black and white like a dambrod, the whole place'll hae a smell like a gas retort, and, like as no', at New Year time ye'll get an accoont for mendin' a leakage that will mak' your hair staun on end and spoil your palate for tastin' the best currant bun that ever was made.
Waugh had a fine comic touch. Robbie is persuaded by a local lawyer to attend the annual Burns Night dinner. He is not at all keen, believing himself to be socially out of his depth, and he arrives nervously:
...in I goes to the Buccleugh [sic] Hotel juist as if it belanged to me, and after leavin' my hat and topcoat in a side room I was told to gang strecht up the stairs. Man, there was a carpet a' the way up, and I wipet my feet on every step, and when I got to the landin' where d'ye think I was ta'en? - into the ballroom, sir. Dod, man, d'ye ken, the last time I was in that room was when I was in the Duke's employ. I was fixin' a ventilator in the ceilin' - me and Billy Carruthers - and little did I then think, as I stood on the plank, that the time wad ever come when I wad be in that same room in a social capacity, as yin micht say, dressed to the nines and hob-nobbin' wi' the very best in the toon. Man, a queer, exultant kind o' feelin' cam' ower me, but I juist shut my eyes and asked the Lord to keep me humble.
The soup arrives. Robbie does not know which of the many spoons to use and hopes his friend Adam will guide him:
But Adam was hoverin' too. He eased the collar roon his neck, which wasna ticht, patted his tie doon when it wasna bulgin' oot, and then he took up his hanky and wipet his broo. I wipet my broo too. He hoasted and I hoasted. Then, to tak' the lead as it were, I raxed to his ear, and I whispers, "It's very warm, Adam." "It is warm, Robert," says he, and he took oot his watch to see what time o' nicht it was. After that we were baith quiet, and sat lookin' straight in front o' us, wi' oor hauns aneath the tablecover. In a wee Adam made a kind o' move, and I watched him tight wi' the tail o' my e'e, but, as I did sae, his e'e catched mine. Dod, man, I felt guilty like, but to ease the situation I winked at him and he winked back to me, and says he, "This is a very dandy doonsettin', Robert." "A perfect bobby-dazzler, Adam," says I. Man, juist at that moment, I chanced to look in the direction o' the Chairman and I noticed he was using a big spoon, so I lifted mine wi' a richt guid will, and says I, "Adam, the barley's up; there's little fear o' the broth burnin' oor mooth noo."
Waugh has a joke at his own expense. The guest speaker for the Burns supper is 'oor Joe', quite obviously meant to represent Joseph Laing Waugh. Before accepting the invitation Robbie tells the lawyer:
...if I gang, certie it'll no' be to hear Joe, for I wadna believe a word he says. He has written and tell't some o' the biggest lees aboot Thornhill folk that ever I heard in a' my life, and if he's no' a straight descendent o' Ananias my name is no' Robert Doo. I'm hert-sorry for his puir faither and mither, 'at am I.
R W MacKenna
R W MacKenna (1874-1930) was a Dumfries kirk minister's son who became a popular historical novelist and short-story writer during the 1920s. But MacKenna was by no means a full-time writer. He had an entirely other life as a dermatologist in Liverpool. The crossover between literature and medicine came with the publication of his teaching manual Diseases of the Skin, of which one reviewer said 'for clarity, wisdom and artistry it remains unsurpassed by any other English text-book.' His other medical writings included Salvarsan treatment of syphilis in private practice (couldn't put it down).
As far as his fiction is concerned, it is perhaps not surprising that someone born into a pious family living at the Martyr's Manse in Irving Street should choose as his major theme the seventeenth-century Covenanters' struggle against the imposition of English forms of worship. His best known novel in this mode was Flower o' the Heather (1922), which had to be re-printed time and time again to satisfy demand. 'He imbibed a love of the Covenanters with his mother's milk,' wrote James Reid in Some Dumfries and Galloway Men, 'and this work may be looked upon in a way as a task of filial devotion.'
The book's hero is Walter de Brydde, an Oxford undergraduate who enlists accidentally as trooper Bryden in the government military campaign against the Covenanters. He witnesses the drowning of the Wigtown Martyrs and is so disgusted that he defects, becoming a fugitive in the hills of Galloway. A family of Covenanters befriend him and - inevitably - he falls in love with the daughter Mary. He thinks he has lost Mary forever after he finds her home incinerated. But he spots her being marched into the Dumfries Tolbooth. Daringly he springs her from prison and an ousted minister marries them in the open air:
There in the aisle of the trees with the light of the kindly stars filtering through and falling on the ground with a holier radiance than ever streamed through the east window of a cathedral, the minister made us one. He could not unite our hearts. That had been done long ago. He could only join our hands.
Walter and Mary escape to England via Liverpool. He discovers that his uncle has died and that he has inherited his estate, complete with manor house. Life is about to change radically for the daughter of simple hill-folk:
The needle-women of Liverpool had done their work well, and as I looked at the dainty figure, all frills and furbelows, beside me in the carriage I almost felt that I had lost the Mary I had learned to love at Daldowie. But the light in the pools of her eyes, the aureole above her forehead, and the smile on her bewitching face as she said, "Now, behave yersel'. Ye maunna crush my new goon," told me it was Mary still.
MacKenna also wrote populist works of general philosophy. The background to these - The Adventure of Death (1916), followed by The Adventure of Life (1919) - was the suffering of the First World War. MacKenna's Christianity allowed him to offer simplistic solutions to any of the issues of the time. He took the same approach in The Problem of Pain.
Bertram Smith (1876-1917) is not a literary name much spoken of these days but the gentle comedy of his memoirs of Dumfriesshire rural life, Crashie Howe (1921), deserves fresh recognition. Smith was actually an Englishman. He was born at New Brighton in Cheshire and began his working life as a cotton broker in Liverpool. His love of caravanning brought him to Scotland, where he settled, taking up farming in the area around Beattock. The exact location is never revealed in his book. It is just described as a 'hill parish'.
That the farming is nothing but sheep is not a problem. 'There can be no monotony for those who believe - as we believe in Crashie Howe - that the proper study of mankind is sheep.' The options in the life of the parish are uncomplicated:
We are seldom face to face with an alternative, and the very faculty of making choice is almost lost to us through long disuse. We have one church, one school, one shop, one road. Broadly speaking, we have but one industry, one form of recreation. We are all curlers when the frost comes, and we are all, directly or sympathetically, interested in sheep.
Of all the characters in the area the one with whom Smith has the most fun is Aggie, who runs not just the shop but the whole community:
For fully twenty years Aggie has been extending her sway far and wide over the parish, till it is hardly too much to say that she rules the destinies of the entire population from Crashie Bridge to Waterfoot. I do not know what the success of the shop may be as a business concern, but as a powerful instrument of government it commands respect.It is true that we have a Parish Council a nd a School Board, a Registrar and Inspector of Poor, and a complete outfit of local government. We regard them all with good-humoured tolerance. For we know that we are in no need of constituted authority in Crashie Howe. We are well content to be ruled by the Shop.
Aggie is at the heart of the web of local intelligence:
There is hardly one of her customers from whom Aggie does not get something to add to her store of knowledge, and thus it is that - though she never crosses the threshold of her door - she is in closest touch with all the happenings of the country-side. If there is anything to be published broadcast through the parish it is well to tell Aggie early in the day, and it will reach even the outlying shepherds' cottages before night.
Wartime refugees from Belgium suddenly arrive in the community and Smith delights in the efforts to overcome the linguistic barrier:
...It was not long, however, before a splendid discovery was made, namely, that many of the Flemish words were the same as our own; and after that we pounded along in the broadest Scotch and every now and then struck a point of contact. The first real bond of understanding between us was found in the mutual word Sape. Then we felt we held a key: we could always start a conversation with some remark about the soap...I wonder if...there will not remain some interchange of words between Scotland and Belgium as a relic of the years of exile...when I went over the other evening to visit M. Beauprez, he appeared himself at the door, and his first words were, as he ushered me in, "Come ben, Monsieur; come awa' ben!"
Centuries ago we in Scotland learned from an exiled Frenchman to call our leg of mutton a gigot. Is it not possible that years hence the Belgian at his hospitable door will bid the arriving guest "Come ben"?
A S Neill
A Dominie's Log (1916), the controversial first book by educational reformer A S Neill (1883-1973), was based on his experiences as headmaster of Gretna Public School during the First World War. Neill's attitude to the traditional priorities of the education system was comprehensively iconoclastic. 'I do not teach Spelling', he declared:
Teaching depends on logic. Now Spelling throws logic to the winds. I tell a child that "cough" is "coff", and logic leads him to suppose that "rough" is "roff" and "through" is "throff". If I tell him that spelling is important because it shows whence a word is derived, I am bound in honesty to tell him that a matinee is not a "morning performance", that manufactured goods are not "made by hand". Hence I leave Spelling alone.
The book records with some poignancy Neill's despondency as his pupils reach the school-leaving age and enter what he sees as a world of conformism and drudgery:
I have tried to point the way to what I think best in life, tried to give Robert an ideal. Tomorrow he will be gathered to his fathers. He will take up the attitude of his neighbours: he will go to church, he will vote Radical or Tory, he will elect a farmer to the School Board, he will marry and live in a hovel. His master said to me recently: "Bairns are gettin' ower much eddication noo-a-days. What eddication does a laddie need to herd kye?"
He is filled with the same pessimism when one of his favourite girls leaves school to start work in a factory at five o'clock the following morning:
To-day Margaret is a bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked lassie; in three years she will be hollow-eyed and pale-faced. Never again will she know what it is to waken naturally after sleep; the factory syren will haunt her dreams always. She will rise at half-past four summer and winter; she will tramp the two mile road to the factory, and when six comes at night she will wearily tramp home again. Possibly she will marry a factory worker and continue working in the factory, for his wage will not keep up a home. In the neighbouring town hundreds of homes are locked all day.and Bruce the manufacturer's daughters are in county society. Heigh ho! It is a queer thing civilisation!
Instead of instructing his pupils about arcane battles of long ago, Neill prefers to read to them from the newspapers about the war taking place in their very own time. When a farmer sends a letter complaining that 'I send my son Andrew to get education at the school not Radical politics', Neill urges the boy to 'tell your father that I hate Radicalism possibly more than he does'. The father comes to school to apologise:
"Aw thocht ye was ane o' they wheezin' Radicals," he explained. Then he added, "And what micht yer politics be?"
"I am a Utopian," I said modestly.
He scratched his head for a moment, then he gave it up and asked my opinion of the weather. We discussed turnips for half-an-hour, at the end of which time I am sure he was wondering how an M.A. could be such an ignoramus.
When a pupil's kite damages a garden tree, the owner ascribes the incident to the lack of classroom discipline and tells Neill to 'jest go doon to the school and gie that boy the biggest leathering that he's ever had in his life':
I explained patiently that I was not the village constable, and I told him that the broken branch had nothing to do with me. He became angry, but he became speechless when I said, "I sympathise with you. Had it been my garden I should have sworn possibly harder than you have done. On the other hand, had it been twenty years ago and my kite, well, I should have done exactly what the boy did. Good morning."
After Gretna Neill moved to the south of England where he set up his famously unorthodox independent school Summerhill. His Gretna book inspired a series: A Dominie Dismissed, A Dominie in Doubt and A Dominie Abroad. Many of his southern readers would have puzzled over 'dominie', a fine old Scots term for a schoolmaster, a type that would have regarded Neill's 'progressive' ideas as incomprehensible.
Those ideas, subordinating grammar to 'self-expression', influenced the trendies who took control of British colleges of education in the 1960s. Neill can therefore be held partly responsible for the steady decline in literacy ever since. Gretna was where the rot first set in!
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