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SKETCHES OF A
SCOTTISH ROADSIDE VILLAGE

Janet Hamilton

Our village is situated (for it still exists) on the highroad running between Glasgow and Edinburgh; and now, though looking back upon it through the long vista of years, it seems to me as if basking in summer sunshine, not the less bright that it lies so lovingly upon the lowly thatched roofs of two long, irregular rows of cottages standing on each side of the road, containing between four and five hundred inhabitants, and in almost every instance, consisting of only a single apartment, 15 or 16 feet in width, and nearly square - two of these opening upon a common passage, leading quite through to the cottage garden behind, form what is called in Scotland "a but and a ben".

Entering in, you tread upon an unmade earthen floor, worn into a hundred hollows. The ceiling above is constructed of rough-sawn boards, black with smoke; and there, in undisturbed security, venerable spiders hang their webs from "every coigne of vantage". You ascend by a ladder to this loft, where, if the family is large, the young men and boys sleep upon pallet beds, with the thatch for a canopy, surrounded with the lumber of disused hand-loom furniture. There is a heap of peats in one corner, and some bundles of bed-straw in another - a bunch of oatstraw, laid beneath a tick filled with chaff, being the only mattress known to the Scottish housewife of that period. In the house below, two large wooden boxes, with sliding or folding doors in front, with a space between for the inner-door, held the beds of the family.

 The gude-wife's clothes-press stood against the wall on one side of the house, and the aumrie, or more modern dresser and rack, on the other; and in most houses a dark-faced, eight-day clock served to mark the lapse of time to the industrious inhabitants. A chest, half-a-dozen coarse, heavy chairs, a deal table, with two or three stools, completed the furniture of the Scottish villager's home. . . .

In no part of Scotland was the Sabbath more strictly observed. It was looked upon not only as a day of rest, but also as a day exclusively devoted to religious purposes. No householder was accounted respectable who did not engage in the duty family worship once a day, at least, and twice on Sabbath, going regularly to church with such of his family as were able to attend. On that day, what a solemn tranquility brooded in the air! what a hushed silence reigned on the earth, broken only, as morning woke up, by the voice of prayer and praise proceeding from almost every house in the village! The street door was never opened on that day except for the egress or ingress of church-goers. No traveller, no straggler, no children at play, were to be seen on the road, or running about the streets; and he was considered to have committed a serious breach of duty who was seen walking in the fields on the Sabbath. . .

About the beginning of the present century, a number of our working-men, in conjunction with several of the neighbouring farmers, and the village and parish schoolmasters, got up a subscription for a library. Funds sufficient for the purchase of several hundred volumes were speedily raised. The subscribers formed themselves into a society, binding themselves by printed rules, in which it was stated that the librarian must always be resident in the village, finding proper accommodation for the presses containing the books in his own private dwelling. Non-subscribers, wishing to become members, were admitted on payment of  6d. as an entrance fee, and 2s. of annual charge ....

No trim passage-boat, pulled along by its pair of prancing steeds, dashed through the muddy waters of the Monkland Canal, which winds its sluggish current on the north of our village, where, although stage-coaches were passing and re-passing, every hour, yet these were in a manner tabooed to the working-classes by the enormous fares which were then charged; and so, when business or pleasure called us to Glasgow, we were fain to foot it; and on the market-day in the city, from an early hour in the summer mornings, the road in that direction was thronged with the denizens of the pleasant villages and farms in our vicinity, amongst whom there was always a sprinkling of country girls, each laden with a large basket, heaped with the treasures of the dairy and roost. Nor was the effect produced by their good looks and simple graces in the least diminished by the sight of their bare feet, snooded head, and the homespun petticoat and jacket worn by the Scots lassie of that period ....

What have we, the operatives and labourers of 1863, to put in balance against the pressure of glutted markets, starvation-prices, and uncertain employment, which, together with many expensive tastes and habits, have either fallen upon us or been acquired by us? I answer: We have free trade, cheap bread, cheap clothing, cheap education, cheap literature. . . .

And now I must awake from my Dream of Memory, in which I seem to have "lived my childhood o'er again"; and I close my retrospect in the spirit, as well as the lines of the poet:-

"O happy hills! O pleasant shades! O fields beloved in vain!
Where once my careless childhood roved, A stranger yet to  pain!"

 

The Janet Hamilton fountain
from John White Collection

 

 

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