Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ballads: Rambling Recollections of My School and School Days – Article X – Part C

Article X written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 17 Feb 1881 – Part C

Still at the Winter Market, Dunbeath between approximately 1825 - 1845

Ballad Singers

"Dealers and merchants from all parts of the country found their way to the market and so did tramps and ballad-singers as well as sellers of Belfast almanacs - a venerable institution then, which was sold for a bawbee, but is now almost extinct." 

"You might see groups of lads and lasses standing in the centre of the crowded market, with a ballad-singer as the centre figure, exercising his vocal powers to the utmost of his ability in singing his favourite ditty, one of which ran thus:-

A flesher in Scotland was a butcher.
Source: www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/street-literature

The Wind Blew the Bonnie Lassie's Plaidie Awa'

"There was a flesher Rab, who lived in Crieff,
And there came a bonnie lassie for to buy some beef;
He took her in his arms, and doon she did fa’ –
The wind blew the bonnie lassie’s plaidie awa’, 

Chorus – The plaidie awa’, the plaidie awa’,
He took her in his arms, and doon she did fa’,
And the wind blew the bonnie lassie’s plaidie awa’"

 "Another of the same is found in a similar position and similarly occupied, the burden of his song being –

 Jim Crow

"Old folks or young folks never will grow fat,
Until they put a copper into Jim Crow’s hat.

Chorus: Wheel about, and reel about, and do just so,
And every time I wheel about, jump Jim Crow.
I went into the fishing, I catched a little trout.
I put it in my basket and made it wheel about,
Wheel about and reel about and do just so.
And every time I wheel about I’ll jump Jim Crow”

"The foregoing is but a sample of the poetry circulated at the Dunbeath market in those days, and the vendors it is needless to say were of the very lowest order of society." 

My Comments:

Considering the conservative and careful Christian upbringing of the Gunn children it seems a bit surprising that Alexander Gunn was allowed to give audience to such a bawdy ballad especially one that mocked the kirk session elders and their usual dim view of the activity described. 

Here is a full version of the ballad as the old print above is a bit hard to read:

The Wind Blew the Bonny Lassie’s Plaidy Awa.

Frae flesher Rab there lived in Creif,
A bonny lassie came to buy some beef,
He took her in his arms and down she di fa’,
And the wind blew the bonny lassie’s plaidy awa.

Her plaidy awa, her plaidy awa,
The wind blew the bonny lassie’s plaidy awa,
He took her in his ars and down she did fa’
And the wind blew the bonny lassie’s plaidy awa.

The plaidy was lost and cou’d na be fund,
The deil’s in the plaid it’s awa wi’ the win’,
But what shall I say to the auld folks ava,
I darena say the wind blew the plaidy awa.

It wasna long after the plaidy was lost
Till the bonnie lassie grew thick in the waist,
And Rabby was blamed for the hale o’ it a’,
And the wind blawing the bonny lassie’s plaidy awa.

Then Rabby was summoned the answer the session
They a’ cry’d out ye main make a confession,
But Rabby ne’er answered them nae word ava,
But the wind blew the bonny lassie’s plaidy awa

The auld wife came in poor Rabby to accuse
The Ministers and Elders began to abuse,
Poor Rabby for trying to make ane into two,
But Rabby said the wind blew the plaidy awa.

The lassie was sent for to come there hersel’,
She looks in his face says ye ken how I fell,
And ye had the cause o’t, ye darena say na,
It was then that the wind blew the plaidy awa.

Rab looks in her face and gied a bit smile,
He says, my bonnie lassie, I winna you beguile,
The Minister is here he’ll mak’ ane o’ us twa
That will pay the plaid that the wind blew awa,

The whisky was sent for to mak’ things right
The Minister and Elders they sat a’ the night,
And sang before the cock begun for to craw,
The wind blew the bonny lassie’s plaidy awa.

Now Rab and his lassie are hand in hand
They live as contented as any in the land
And when he gets fou he minds o’ the fa’,
And sings the wind blew the bonny lassie’s plaidy awa.  

'Porter fishwoman and journeyman flesher'. Illustration from 'Airy nothings'
by M Egerton, London, 1825. Engraving by George Hunt

Jim Crow 

The Jim Crow song has well known associations with American history and was apparently brought to England as follows:
The original ‘Jim Crow’ song was composed about 1830 by Thomas Dartmouth (Daddy) Rice, a travelling actor from New York. Though white, he learned the African-American style, and started to black up, with great success, and by 1830 had made the ‘Jim Crow’ character his signature act. He made a great hit in England when he visited in 1836.
Source: Street Ballads in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and North America ... By David Atkinson, Steve Roud 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Clasp Knife: Rambling Recollections of My School and School Days – Article X – Part B

Article X written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 17 Feb 1881 – Part B

The Market

"But I may as well cry a halt in my attempt to describe the various articles and commodities exposed for sale on such occasions. Suffice it to say that each and all were eager and anxious to do business in their several lines and callings, but the apple barrows and the sweetie stands had most attraction for us young folks."

Clasp Knife

"The Birmingham and Sheffield wares had considerable influence over us as well, and we were willingly tempted to invest one shilling in a clasp knife, after testing which of the lot had the best spring. It would be a vain attempt to endeavour to describe the pleasure I felt at the possession of that first knife, a knife that kept company with me in all my wanderings for 22 years; and deep and sincere was the regret felt when by inexorable fate, we parted company."

Luck Penny

 "All, as already stated, seemed bent on business and made their tents and wares as attractive as possible. The whisky tents drove a roaring trade, as all sales of horses and cattle were sealed and settled there, when the “luck penny” was always melted in the half-mutchkin stoop." 


"The drink for the market was a special article manufactured for the occasion, and not supposed to be of the very best quality. It had one quality however, and that was its readiness to rise to the top storey and elevate the imbiber in a very short space of time, and make him entertain a very high opinion of himself and a correspondingly low opinion of others. This frequently led to squabbles and bloodshed for which the “Little Market”, at the time I refer to, was very notable. On one of these occasions, a Berriedale man was thrashed within an inch of his life, and his assailants were sent to Van Diemen’s Land at the public expense. Even at this present day, I believe some trading sparring takes place on a market night."

My Comments:

  • Luck penny  -  A small sum given back “for luck” to the purchaser by the person who receives money in a deal, for example, a deal might be struck where a cow would sell for eight pounds five shillings and ten shillings back for a "luck penny."

  • "The “luck penny” was always melted in the half-mutchkin stoop." I think means that the luck-penny money was spent on whisky (or drink). A mutchkin was a measure of a pint and a stoop was a drinking vessel, such as a jug or tankard. So it means something like, "The profits disappeared in a half-pint jug."

  •  The story of the man who was thrashed at the market was told in the blog about John Wallace on 30 Aug 2015

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Winter Market Dunbeath: Rambling Recollections of My School and School Days – Article X – Part A

Article X written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 17 Feb 1881 – Part A

This picture of a busy Shore Street, Thurso 
about 1900 could also show a community 
getting ready for market. Source: Thurso museum

The Winter Market at Dunbeath

The winter market at Dunbeath, had a great attraction for us young folks, and few will ever forget their first visit to the “Little Market”. We who lived at a distance had to bestir ourselves at an early hour, so as to be there in time. There was little sleep for us the previous night, and we started several hours earlier than the older folks, and were on the stance about 10 A. M., before anyone else had arrived. The “Little Market” is held on the first Tuesday of November old style, and if the weather is favourable and money plentiful, it lasts for several days, but the first day is the best. The market stance is situated about half a mile to the east of the village of Dunbeath, on a bare barren spot good for nothing else.

Dunbeath. I think the field where the market 
was held is in the top of the photo where the 
gorse is in yellow flower

The different classes of dealers begin to put in an appearance between 10 and 11 o’clock, and at once fix on a spot to erect their tents. There were whisky tents from various districts of the county for a circuit of 30 miles. Those from along the coast were distinguishable by their covering of brown canvas sails, stretched out on a collection of oars and boathooks. There were drapery establishments from Wick, Lybster, and other parts of the county – some even hailing from the midland counties of England as well as “Cheap Johns” from Birmingham, Sheffield, and other English towns. There was also Moses Jacob, of the ancient and peculiarly chosen race, from the Lawnmarket, or the West Bow of Edinburgh all “giving away their goods for nothing”. 

There were also Brotchie and Budge with Brogues from Thurso, and matrons with webs of “scourings,” blankets, and a few gross of home-made stockings from Halkirk, Braemore, and Houstry; others with creels for carrying peats from hills, or fish from the shore, and hand baskets to gather the potatoes with not to speak of the apple and sweetie barrows to be met at every corner, as well as cows, calves, stirks, and Highland ponies.

My Comments:

Alexander Gunn has written about the Dunbeath market before - see blogs Jan 16, 2015 and Aug 30, 2015. He goes into some delightful detail in this article. A 'stirk' is a young bullock. The dates he was at the market must have been about 1825 to 1845 as he was born in Badbea in 1820 and was married and gone by 1849.
Besoms, potato basket and fish creel

Saturday, June 11, 2016

George Ellan-nan-Roan: Rambling Recollections of my School & School Days – Part C

Article IX written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 13 January 1881 – Part C

 Island Roan or in Gaelic Eilean-nan-Ron

"Another of these poor people was George Ellan-nan-Roan. He belonged to an island in the Kyle of Tongue, called Seal Island. He was a big stout fellow. When the herring fishing season came round, George was always landed on the mainland, and left to shift for himself, and he was taken back again to his island home at the end of the fishing when the male portion of the population returned. There are, or were, nine families on the island, and during the fishing season there was not a man left behind, and it was not considered prudent to leave George monarch of the island during the absence of the rest of the men."

George’s route from Tongue to Helmsdale

"George, when landed on the mainland, knew how long he was to be in exile, and made tracks for the Caithness coast, travelling around by Reay, Thurso, and then along the coast all the way to Helmsdale, taking the road by easy stages." 

"Once at Helmsdale, George was amongst his friends. He was a regular visitor there for about 20 years, and everybody knew George, and he was a general favourite, especially with the coopers."

"He could appreciate a glass of good whisky, of which he was passionately fond, and the coopers gratified his appetite pretty often with a glass."

The Navidale cemetery near Helmsdale where George probably went. 

"George was a regular attendant at funerals, where he was also treated with a glass, like all the rest of the people. On one occasion there were two funerals in the place in one day, which he declared not to be according to justice, as he could not attend to both at the same time."

"He was a regular attendant at the public preaching of the Word in the little park above the bridge at Helmsdale. He would take up his position in front of the tent, fold his arms across his breast, and stand on his feet during the whole sermon. He was a regular attendant at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as he went on his rounds. Being at Reay on an occasion of this kind, and while the elders were distributing the elements, George pressed forward, and asked to be treated with a drap, but, of course, was refused, when he replied, “You are not like the Helmsdale coopers.”
The park above the bridge at Helmsdale

"This class of people has disappeared entirely, and are now confined within the walls of the poorhouse. I am of the opinion, however, that they would be a liberally provided for by calling from house to house, as in the days of old, and the public would be nothing the poorer."

My Comments:

Tee Names

Tee names or nicknames names were common in the north of Scotland where there were often people with the same name living in the same place. They were usually to do with the place, a physical characteristic or a personality trait. In the previous blog the poor fellow called Johnny Moozie had quite a number of tee names or nicknames, such as “Glossey,” “Starney,” “Buckteeth,” and “Rotten Legs.”

I have discussed in earlier blogs the tee name “Badbea” that was added to several Badbea characters eg John Badbea Sutherland and David Badbea Sutherland.

Alexander Gunn tells us that this character George Ellan-nan-Roan belonged to an island in the Kyle of Tongue, called Seal Island. Connecting the dots, Island Roan or in Gaelic Eilean-nan-Ron (which means “Island of Seals”) is about a mile off shore from Skerray, near Tongue. So my guess is that George’s surname was a tee-name and it’s useful because it tells us where he came from.

 Island Roan or in Gaelic Eilean-nan-Ron

A Google search will find several sites with fascinating information about Island Roan.

Not surprisingly the history of Island Roan is bound up with the Sutherland Clearances when people were evicted from their homes and moved to coastal communities. Many evicted Sutherland families moved to Skerray and had to learn to rely on the sea to make a living. In 1820 four families moved across to the windswept Roan Island and established themselves there. Again, like other newly settled coastal communities they fished and farmed sheep and cattle on what land they could, grew some crops and built stone houses. Life was incredibly tough, the wind never stopped blowing, the sea always had to be considered before crossings to the mainland were made.

Over time about 70 people lived on Island Roan. In the summer months the men left Roan to fish further afield and the women did all the work including their own fishing and farming. The population eventually dwindled, the fishing was not so bountiful, and young people emigrated to new places. In 1938 the last of the population where evacuated.

Port na h-Uaille, Eilean nan Ron

So George Ellan-nan-Roan – described as a “silly, harmless idiot” was put in a small boat and escorted off the island when the men left for the summer. Being a “big stout fellow” suggests he was looked after well enough when he was home. He also seemed to have a particular fondness for whisky – which could have been part of the problem if he was left on the island for the summer.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Silly, Harmless Idiots: Rambling Recollections of my School & School Days – Part B

Article IX written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 13 January 1881 – Part B

Silly, Harmless Idiots

Robbie Bighouse

"There was another class of beggars very numerous in these by-past times, namely, a class of silly, harmless idiots, who roamed all over the county at will, and no one interfered with them; but since the passing of the Poor law, these poor creatures have disappeared entirely. They were all quite harmless and honest. One big burly fellow, fully six feet, of the name of Robert, or “Robbie Bighouse” (as he was usually called), hailed from Thurso. He was married and had a family, notwithstanding his silliness, and was very ready-witted. 

He was in the habit of ill-treating his wife, and one day a gentleman of the town met him, and began rating him for his conduct in this respect, and said that he should remember that women were the weaker vessels. “Bighouse” replied, “Then let them carry less sail,” to which there was the rejoinder, “You’re a fool, Robbie.” “I know a bigger fool,” replied Robbie, “a man who thought to make porridge of the seas, but it beat him to make brochan (gruel) of it.” This remark had reference to the person who was addressing him, and who dealt extensively in meal, and who, on one occasion, kept it up and would not sell any to the public, expecting a great rise in the market, but instead of a rise, the markets fell, and he still holding on expecting better prices, when a considerable quantity of his stock of meal got so old and “fusty” tasted that no one would buy it, and so it was carted into the sea. This was the point of Robbie’s remark about the brochan."

Bere growing in Birsay, Orkney Islands.
Bere is an ancient barley which has been grown 
in Orkney for thousands of years. 
It is still made into bere meal at the Barony Mill

"Bighouse” traversed the three northern counties from end to end, and we used to be delighted when we got him as the centre figure of a group of young folks, and everyone trying to take a joke out of him. Robbie, however, held his ground against us all, and often had the best of it with all his silliness."

Willie Abrach

"Another of this class was William Mackay, or “Willie Abrach,” as he was called. He always carried a number of pocks [bags] on his back where he deposited the pickle [little] meal he got. Willie Abrach, it was said went wrong in his mind from a young woman, for whom he had a great liking, giving him the slip, and nothing would raise William’s temper so much as when some young lass teased him. He would then give vent to his feelings in language anything but polite, but if left alone he was harmless enough, and quite honest."

My Comments:

I have edited a paragraph of this letter as the prejudice against the Macphees and other tinkers displayed by A Native of Badbea I chose not to publish.

Three more unusual Thurso characters

There are stories and illustrations of three more unusual Thurso characters on Electric Scotland. 

We shall begin with “Peelans,” or “Pillans,” whose lively likeness you will find on the opposite page. His proper name is said to have been John M‘Lean.

Another of the notable characters of Thurso was “Moozie,” or more fully, “Johnnie Moozie,” whose portrait faces this page. His real name was John Henderson, but he had quite a number of nicknames, such as “Glossey,” “Starney,” “Buckteeth,” and “Rotten Legs.”

The third and most original of all the Thurso "characters” was Neil Mackay, whose by-name was “Boustie.” He does not appear to have been a native of the town ; perhaps he came from the Reay country, the home and territory of the clan whose name he bore. Why he was called “Boustie,” it is impossible to affirm with any certainty. The most probable suggestion is that the name was originally “Boastie,” and was intended to describe his braggart character. He had several other nicknames, such as “Bushans,” “Bushey Neilie,” and “Mally sookit ’e coo.” The last of these was, I fear, the property, strictly speaking, of his wife, but was on a well-known principle of matrimony applied also to the husband.

From Scenes and Stories of the North of Scotland. Ch IV, The Town of Thurso, By John Sinclair, 1890.  http://www.electricscotland.com/history/scenes/chapter06.htm