James Leatham’s Pamphlet Publication of ‘The Brownie of Blednoch.’
William Nicholson, Supreme Type of the Wandering Minstrel.
William Nicholson, the Galloway poet, was born at Tanimaus, in the parish of Borgue, Galloway on 15th August 1782. We ought to be surprised to learn that in his boyhood weak eyesight prevented his progress at school; but the handicap of childish lameness probably had much to do with giving Walter Scott’s mind a bookish turn; and the Ettrick Shepherd learned to read only after he had passed school age. He was herding at the age of seven.
Unfitted, we are told, for the local callings of shepherd or ploughman, Nicholson became a packman, and for thirty years he traversed his native country, reciting and singing his own verses, which became popular in a way and to a degree that is now impossible. There are no Willie Nicholson’s now on the road and the fun and fact, the fancy and music and diablerie he and his class disseminated through rural Scotland are no longer in the scheme of things.
Visiting a large Aberdeenshire farm, we looked into the bothy, which had recently been refitted internally. It was forbiddingly bare of any homelike decoration; not a picture on the walls, nor a book or even a page of a newspaper was to be seen. On the mantelpiece, however, we found, as sole symbol of the cultural heritage of the ages, a copy of the Rules of the Order of Buffaloes! To a halflin who stood by I remarked that in such a place we would at one time have expected to see at least a Burns, a bible and some number of the Tales of the Borders. ‘Na’ he said with a grin, ‘there’s nae billies o’ that kin’ here.’
In 1814 Nicholson issued a small 12mo book of ‘Tales and Verse Description of Rural Life and Manners,’ by which he is reported to have cleared £100. In 1828 a second edition appeared, with a memoir by his friend M’Diarmid, of Dumfries.
But Willie missed all the chances he had of ceasing to be what he essentially was – the gaberlunzie piper, singer, and reciter; and at the age of sixty-seven he died in poverty at Kildarroch in Borge on 16th May 1849 – ‘a true man of genius,’ and the friend of all.
Of Nicholson and his poems great-hearted Dr. John Brown says: ‘They are worth the knowing. None of them has the concentration and nerve of ‘The Brownie’ but they are from the same brain and heart. ‘The Country Lass,’ a long poem is excellent; with much of Crabbe’s power and compression.
‘Poor Nicholson, besides his turn for verse, was an exquisite musician, and sang with a powerful and sweet voice. One may imagine the delight of a lonely town-end when Willie the packman and piper made his appearance, with his stories and jokes and ballads, his songs and reels and ‘wonton wiles.’
‘There is one story about him which has always appeared to me quite perfect. A farmer in a remote part of Galloway, one June morning before sunrise, was awakened by music. He had been dreaming of heaven, and when he found himself awake he still heard the strains. He looked out and saw no one; but at the corner of a grass field he saw his cattle and young colts and fillies huddled together, and looking intently down into what he knew was an old quarry.’
The farmer ‘put on his clothes and walked across the field, everything but that strange wild melody still and silent in this ‘the sweet hour of prime.’ As he got nearer ‘the beasts’ the sound was louder; the colts with their long manes, and the nowt with their wondering stare, took no notice of him, straining their necks forward, entranced.
‘There in the old quarry, the young sun glinting in his face, and resting on his pack, which had been his pillow, was our Wandering Willie, playing, and singing like an angel – ‘an Orpheus, an Orpheus.’
‘What a picture!’ When reproved by the prosaic farmer for wasting his health and time, the poor fellow said; ‘Me and this quarry are long acquaint, and I’ve mair pleasure in pipin’ to thae daft cowts than if the best leddies in the land were figurin’ a way afore me.’’
Nicholson was an unmoneyed man; but that he should be so happily absorbed in his playing and singing did not call for the pitying epithet ‘poor.’ On a June night there may be a more uncomfortable bedchamber than a quarry-hole in the fields. We have known men and women of substance who could not tell one tune from another. They were born poor, and lived and died in that special condition of poverty, the most spiritual of the arts a closed book to them.
The artist so rapt in the enjoyment of his art that nothing else counts, is happily still known among us. Walter Hamspon (“Casey”) was found playing his violin on a Yorkshire moor while an audience was assembling for him in the nearest town. Anthony Smith, a very fine cellist and an intelligent man, sat playing by the wayside in the station square of Aberdeen for hours on end, oblivious to the world, the collection, and the professional engagements he might have had, upon conditions with which he could not comply. How they love and live in their art, such men.
William Nicholson is notable for us – a generation so different from his – because he, like Burns, was so unlike the traditional Scot. There are men of other nationalities who have the ‘defective sympathies’ which Charles Lamb found to be a characteristic of the Scots he knew. But neither north nor south of the Tweed are they the outstanding ones, these men who play for safety in all things, who keep their heads cool, their feet warm, and ‘never put out their hand further than they can conveniently draw it back again.’
The men who stand out in the life of Scotland have not been the traditional Scots. William Wallace, Robert Bruce, John Knox, the Admirable Crichton, Robert Burns, David Livingstone, Louis Stevenson, Chinese Gordon, Cunninghame-Graham, were none of them canny, careful, plodding, unimaginative men. Even Andrew Carnegie made his first success by ‘a piece of lawless initiative’ that served a good turn for other people.
‘The Brownie of Blednoch’ shows that in the mercenary calling of a pedlar it is possible to preserve and cultivate the supreme gift of imagination – that gift which, in one form or another, enables the dreamer of dreams to reason from what is or has been to the better things that are to be.
William Nicholson, moving around with his music, his poetry, and his happy comradeship, welcomed wherever he was known, is in his life a challenge to the self-regarding one who dully thinks of success and of self, a taker rather than a giver at the table of life.
Of the poem here reprinted, Dr. John Brown wrote:
We would rather have written these lines than any number of Aurora Leighs, Festuses, or such like, with all their mighty ‘somethingness’ as Mr Bailey would say. For they, are they not ‘the native wood-notes wild’ of one of Nature’s darlings? Here is the indescribable impress of genius. Chaucer, had he been a Galloway man might have written it; only he would have been more garrulous and less compact and stern. It is like Tam O’Shanter in its living union of the comic, the pathetic, and the terrible. Shrewdness, tenderness, imagination, fancy, humour, word-music, dramatic power, even wit – all are her. I have often read it aloud to children, and it is worth anyone’s while to do it. You will find them repeating all over the house for days such lines as take their heart and tongue.
Tibby Tamson o’the Buck
Or A Cabrach Wife's Views on Things in general.
(John Mitchell, 1917)
I’m Tibby Tamson o' the Buck, jist come tae Aiberdeen,
Tae hae a look aboot me an' tae see my dother Jean ;
Her man's a Gordon Heelander fae roon aboot Braemar,
Tho' noo he's ower the seas tae France tae help them wi' the war.
They surely were sair pitten till't tae tak' the like o' him
A little-bookit, bowdle-leggit aiblach, gley't an' grim
Gweed kens fat Jean saw in him, for she's neither blate nor blin',
Tho' aince a lassie's he'rt is won she's nae tae haud nor bin':
She'll wyve romance aroon the heids o' natir's queerest freaks,
An' mairry ony mortal thing in kilt or tartan breeks ;
For fae the plooman at the pleuch tae king upon the throne,
Love's glamour gilds wi' glittrin' gowd the form it lichts upon.
Jean thinks a hantle o' 'im tho', an' haith, tae hear 'er speak,
She'd gar ye think if he'd com mau n' the war wid en' neisht week ;
It's Jock said this, an' Jock did that, an' Jock's the hefty chiel,
That fears na' man or mither's son o' German, Turk, or deil.
She's rale consairnt aboot 'im, tae, an' that's fat brocht me here,
Tae keep her oot o' langer in the forenichts lang an' drear;
For sin' the hinner-en' o' hairst she hisna heard a cheep,
An' warslin' wi' the worry o't's clean ca'ed her aff her sleep;
Sae as my kye hid a' gaen yeel, I bribet Betty Law
Tae min' my curnie hens an' deuks the time that I'm awa'.
An' that's weel min't, for I brocht in a twa-three dizzen eggs
Tae gie the wounit lads a treat as lang's they laist, for fegs,
I doot I'll hae tae thraw their necks-the hens', I meant tae say-
For meat's sae dear they're eatin' aff thcir heids maist ilka day.
'N I daurna peel my tatties noo, nor gie them neeps or kail,
'N I hae tae claw the pottie oot an' eat it a' masel' ;
I dinna jist see daylicht throu't, the logic's gey ajee,
For I aye thocht b' keepin' hens that they were keepin' me.
An' wow's me, for the wee bit pig, that ate the orrals u p,
Wi' the sweelins o' the cogie an' an antrin bite an' sup ;
Its bed an' boord wis never misst, bit noo it's plai n tae see
A teem troch for the grumphie means a teem pigstye for me.
Fat needs I girn or gru m'le tho', they've deen their best, nae doot,
Tae han'le men an' maitters that they kentna ocht aboot ;
A starnie sugar for oor tea's noo byous ill tae get,
Tho' Farfar rock is raffy, an' there's routh o' pandrops yet.
The fite bread-weel, it's dirty fite, like water fae the Dee,
It's stodgy on the stammick an' it disna please the e'e ;
Bit aye the price gangs loupin up, for bakers like their fun,
As they sqeeze anither penny oot o' crumpet, scone, an' bun.
An' as the brewer turns the maut, an' sowfs ower "Scots wha hae,"
He thinks, weel if the Scots will hae, the Scots will hae tae pay ;
As for the publican, peer stock, he's dowie an' depresst,
An' gey sair grippet wi' the war, the 'oors, an' a' the rest.
Bit we may fairly lippen him tae jine the game o' spoof,
As he claps a penny on the gill at fifty un'er-proof,
The ane blames Lord Dumdaberdon, the ither Davy port,
Bit 'tween the twa they're keepin' meat an' drink baith unco short.
They've commandeert the tatties, an' they've commandeert the hay,
They've commandeert the aits an' meal, forbyes the neeps an' strae,
They've commandeert the fusky that keeps oot the caul an' wet,
If they'd commandeer some com monsense, we'll get tae Berlin yet.
An' noo they're fichrin' wi' some fads 'boot plooin' parks an' plots,
An' ilka ane's a gair'ner fae Lan's En' tae John o' Groats ;
Balgownie's goufin' links they'd saw wi' cabbages an' beans,
An' plant pitaties, leeks, an' kail on Murcar's bonnie greens.
They'd saw ait-seed on Tap o' Noth, an' here on Benachie,
An' barley on the Brimmon Hill wid nane astonish me ;
It's scunnerfu' the things they say an' waur the things they vrite,
An' sair tae see the brains o' Britain bummlin' ower sic styte.
Stravaigin' doon the toon ae day we drappit in tae Hay's
Jean's unco weel upon't, ye ken, and caresna fat she pays
"Here Jeems," says she, "we'll hae the tabble dottie, if you please";
Says Jeems, "Ye'll jist hae broth an' beef, forbyes some breid and cheese;
"For that's the Food Controller's hinmaist order an' decree,
That twa coorses sall be luncheon an' for the denner th ree ;
Bit I'll gie you twa bowls o' broth an' syne twa plates o' meat,
Sae fat's the diff’rence if ye get as muckle's ye can eat? "
"Weel, weel,'' says Jean, "there's nae ill deen, an' jist tae mak up for't,
"We'll warm the cockles o' oor he'rts an' hae a gless o' port."
"A gless o' port,'' says Jeems, "My wird, d'ye ken it's half-past twa,
An' fae that time till sax o'clock ye get nae drink ava'?
They'd fine me for the sellin' an' fine you for the drinkin' o't,
An' I daursay they'd fine us baith jist for even thinkin' o't.
I thocht we'd baith fa' throu' the fleer wi' fa ir black-burnin' shame-
Sae cannily we got oor trocks an' took oor wyes for hame.
"Deil tak yer meat an' drin k control," says I, "as fac' as death,
The neisht we'll hae will be a boord tae regilate oor breath,
Tae hain the caller air we draw in case that it rins short,
An' them that needs an extra whiff maun get a leeshins for't.
Sae Jean," says I, "fat needs ye tchauve an' trauchle here yer lane?
Ye're fairly fochen aff yer feet an' worn tae skin an' bein ;
Ye needna fash aboot McPhee, for yon's a wily wratch,
He'll jink the German Geordies, an' come back athoot a scratch.
Sae draw your blin's an' steek your doors an' leave things ticht an' snod,
The neebor wife will tak' the cat, an' we will tak' the road,
Tae faur controllers dinna fash tae mak' bad intae worse,
An' fouk jist eat an' drink fat suits their palate an' their purse."
Sae het-fit tae the hills we hied, wi' loupin' he'rts aflame,
An' feet sae lichtly liftin', for they kent the road wis hame ;
We daidelt not by murm'rin' streams, green howes, or shady dells,
For hill-fouks' he'rts aye hanker for the smell o' heatherbells.
My bield's nae muckle bookit, jist a cosy But an' ben,
But aye I'm weel contentit for my warl's jist- The Glen ;
The Dev'ron's eerie sechin sooch, the birr-bick o' the groose,
Is mair tae me than gowd or gear, braw freens, or muckle hoose.
Ay, sweet's the soun' in Heelan' lugs tae hear the whirrin' flicht
O' muircocks i' the gloamin' as they're reistin' for the nicht.
An' couthy fouk are Cabrach fouk, an' kin'ly, weel-a-wyte,
For tinkler, tramp, or beggar-wife need never wint a bite ;
There's nae haud-in o' meal an' milk, it's eat an' aye come back,
As roon a roarin' kitchie fire they claik the country's clack ;
An' halesame is the hamely fare in ilka hoose an' ha',
For galshachs an' clamjamfry trash we canna thole ava',
An' buirdly chiels an' strappin' deems we rear w' pride an' care
On parritch, brose, an' barley meal, an' sic-like country fare
As birselt here-meal bannocks byaukit wi' a suppie whey,
Weel thoom't wi' butter fae the kirn, sweet as the new-mown hay,
A knievelock o' a murlie kebbuck rossen at the fire,
Sweel't ower wi' wauchts o' foamin' milk jist feshen fae the byre.
On snavy days the orra loon will girn a baud or twa,
Forbye's there's aye. a hen tae pluck for freens that chance tae ca'-
A hoch o' braxy mutton noo an' than's nae a wa'-cast,
An' fish is nae a fairly wi' the Rooster rinni n' past.
At Aul' New Year the Merchan's mairt is shot for at Brigen',
An' fan the Mullert's soo is kill't it's pairtet throu' the Glen ;
Aul' Dusty cairts it roon himsel' we's shalt an' shoggly gig,
An' shoggly tae's the Mullert b' the time he pairts the pig-
A towmon syne he tum'let heelster-gowdie in the lade,
An' gin they got 'im oot, peer sowl, he'll ne'er be nearer dead ;
The siller that he'd gotten for the pork wis tint or spent,
An' Bell's aul' bonnet hid tae dae anither Sacrament.
Losh guides.! I'm surely ravelt noo, an' haverin' lots o' styte
'Boot Mullert's pigs, an' Merchan's mairts, an' things nae worth a dyte,
My lyaugin' tongue wags deavin' on, nor dackles or devauls,
Tho' gie't its due, it's nae the ane that aften flytes or scauls.
Weel, as I said, Jean's browlies noo, an' losh, I'm gled tae see
The roses in her cheeks again, the sparkle in her e'e ;
An' fa cam hirplin' in thestreen a' clairtet ower wi' glaur,
Confooselt an' confuffelt wi' the doors an' scaurs o' war ?
Bit wee McPhee, her sojer-lad, dischairged an' hame for gweed,
An' wi' a teem sleeve hingin' limply fae his shoother-heid.
Jean near ban' gaed deleerit wi' the sudden sicht an' shock,
Syne scraupit aff the dubs an' dirt until she cam tae Jock ;
She clappit him, an' straikit him, an' kisst him ower the croon-
For love's the pooer that keeps the warl' gaun furlin' roon an' roon-
An' aifterhin he taul's aboot the battle o' the Aisne,
An' hoo he focht a hale platoon an' kill't them ane b' ane,
Till deil a German Hun wis left tae cairry on the fray,
Sae picki n' up his ither airm he stoppit for the day.
I widna conter Jock McPhee for a' th is warl's gear,
I widna gang as far as say that Jock Mc Phee's a leear;
He maybe raxed a thochtie far, tho' troth, it's hard tae tell,
For aince a Gordon's birse is up, he'll face the deil 'imsel'.
Jist lat 'im hear the pipers blaw a mairch or Heelan' reel,
An' Heaven help the foe that waits tae taste his wee bit steel,
For lat the odds be fat they may, the Cordons "cairry on,"
It's a wye they hae the lads that hail fae Dev'ron, Dee, an' Don.
An' Jock's a wicket, wittrous wratch, that aye cud stan' his grun',
An' jist the contermashous kin' that likes a fecht for fun ;
But noo wi' medals on his breist an' strips upo' his airm,
He'll fecht his battles ower again gaun pottrin' roon the fairm.
An' if ye e'er set fit aroon the shoother o' the Buck,
Jist speer your wye tae Bodiebae-ye're welcome tae pot-luck ;
An' tho' I dinna haud wi' drink nor bibblin aye wi' drams,
I keep a knaggie in the press for incomes, stouns, an' dwaums;
An' ower a feuch o' bogie an' a' skirp o' barley-bree
Ye'll hear the story o' the war fae Sergeant John Mc Phee.
An' fan my day's darg's at an en' an' fir-logs lowin' bricht,
I'll tak my shank an' wirset-clew, an' wyve wi' a' my micht ;
God help my willin' fingers for it's a' that I can dae,
Tho' my he'rt's amang the kilties far across the grey Nor' Sea.
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