Friday, May 29, 2015

A Cobbler’s Adventure - Article IX - Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea and Neighbourhood – Part C

Article IX written by Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea was printed in the Northern Ensign on 25 December 1879 – Part C

"It was common practice for shoemakers to itinerate from house to house and make or mend the shoes of the family from the leather tanned by themselves. It was no uncommon thing for a shoemaker to start work in the morning and by bed-time to have made shoes for the household."

Highland Brogues
"Brogues were the fashion in those days, and they were not so difficult to make as the shoes made now-a-days. The tailor also plied his trade on the same principles, and he, too, if a clever hand, would make garments for a whole household in a day. It was no uncommon occurrence for a tailor to make a pair of breeches while the pot of potatoes was boiling by the fire. I crave your reader's indulgence while I relate a story about a shoemaker who plied his vocation in the manner referred to. The cobbler in this case was of the name of Smith, but "Birsy" was that by which he was familiarly known. He had an invitation to go to a farmer's house early on a Monday morning and was promised a week's work. He gladly accepted the invitation, but there was a rather serious difficulty in the way. It was winter, and the farm was at some distance, and being of a timorous, superstition turn of mind, he did not like to travel in the dark, which he required to do to be in time for starting his work by daylight on Monday morning. He therefore determined to take his journey on Sabbath afternoon, and to creep into the house in the dark unobserved, as he was unwilling to show himself to the family, lest he should be railed for his cowardice."

"Birsy" performed his journey, entered the house by stealth, and secreted himself in the loft immediately above the kitchen. The fireplace in the kitchen was in the middle of the floor, and the smoke ascended through a wide opening in the roof. In the centre of the loft was a wide square opening which looked down on the fireplace beneath, and from which persons sitting round the hearth could easily be seen. On entering the loft, "Birsy" stretched himself on the boards along the edge to enjoy the heat, and just so far back as to avoid the smoke. The farmer was a religious person, and spent the evening in instructing the household from the Catechism, and in devotional exercises."

"Before retiring to rest, the good man engaged in family worship, and when the family were gathered around the hearth, and were singing the psalms of David, they were startled by a cobbler's awl which fell with a "birle" [rattling noise]."

Shoemaker's Awls
"Those who sat near the place looked with astonishment, and there was a momentary cessation in the singing. How an "elshin" [a shoemaker’s awl] could make its appearance at such a time and place, they could not divine. The good man proceeded with a reading of a portion of Scripture, when a broad-bladed knife, firmly engrafted in a thick wooden shaft, fell with a rebound on the hearth. The consternation was now extreme, and the household rushed to the opposite side of the apartment. The consternation in the kitchen below awoke "Birsy" from his sound sleep on the edge of the loft. The poor man, forgetting where he was, began to bestir himself, and in the act of turning, fell plump, bodily into the fire among the smoking peats. All was now uproar, and everyone fled as for life. Not one was found possessed of sufficient courage to inquire into the matter save the head of the house, who laid hold of the object before him, and dragged him from the burning pile. On examination, it was found to be the veritable "Birsy" who in dust and smoke had made his descent into the kitchen of the godly farmer on the quiet Sabbath evening."

My Comments:

  • Whilst Gunn’s story of “Birsy” seems far-fetched and a little ridiculous it has interesting echoes in George MacDonald’s (1824-1905) novel Sir Gibbie - the story of the ragged little baronet Gibbie who runs through the streets of the old grey Scottish city then up the lonely slopes of Glashgar with the heather and the sheep. I recommend the 1963 version edited by Elizabeth Yates. So in Ch 3 we find Gibbie in a farmhouse loft over the peat fire looking down to the kitchen, ‘When Gibbie awoke, he clambered up to the loft…Creeping again along the ceiling, he discovered himself to be over the kitchen…’ As with Gunn’s story of a household in consternation the household Gibbie is hiding in are convinced there is a ‘Broonie i’ the hoose’ and get very alarmed and even vindictive.

  • Most Caithness crofter’s houses did not have lofts but rather roofs like this one at the Laidhay museum (minus the electric light) but Gunn’s story is set in a farmer’s house so maybe that house was more substantial and had better storage. 

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