Article IX written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 13 January 1881 – Part B
Silly, Harmless Idiots
"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."
"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."
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.
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