Kirkcudbright Characters – by John Graham
Galloway News, 29th November & 13th December 1958.
One of the definitions of the word ‘character’ is ‘odd individual.’ These half dozen characters about whom I write could hardly be considered ‘odd’ in the ordinary way. Certainly some of them laid bare their feelings for everyone to see; their good qualities – and they had these too – they kept in the background. Some were naive, others were possessed of cunning above the average, such cunning very often covered up the lack of scholastic learning.
To my mind the greatest number of characters passed across the burghal scene during the first decade of the century – then they gradually dwindled away., and have almost been wiped out by the spread of education and the coming of the Welfare State. They could be an infernal nuisance at times, but, in spite of this – or perhaps because of it – their names crop up from time to time, even taking precedence to the more staid or famous citizens. Their exploits and witticisms live after them in the memories of those who knew them.
There were four Drydens – Jock who was familiarly known as ‘Jessie,’ his brother Bobby (nicknamed ‘The Wolf), Patton and Harry, distant cousins whose exact relationship to each other, and to Jock and Bobby was never fully explained to me. I know that Tam Dryden was the father of Jock and Bobby, and in the sort of life they led they were merely “Following in father’s footsteps” – feckless with a weakness for liquor.
In the eighties these two lads played in the High Street where they were reared. Tall and slim with in impish expression, Bobby frequented the streets of his native town for many years. He was a member of the Dumfries Militia, a volunteer regiment which it has said would have finished the Boer War in half the time had they been allowed to go. There is no record of Bobby having fought in any war, but each year he reported to Dumfries for training along with the rag and bobtail who in the main made up this volunteer regiment.
Bobby could spin the ‘touching’ tale to the patient listener, and he had many benefactors amongst the townspeople. Like many other ‘casuals’ he helped to empty the hold of the vessels in the dock under the eagle eye of Bob McMillan. He was never really troublesome – just weak. He spent the most part of his life in the lodging house in the High Street. One story there is about Bobby – always very civil. He called on one of the said benefactors and asked “Is Alex in? Tell him Mr Dryden would like to speak to him.” This took the breath of the housekeeper completely away!
Jock (or Jessie) who was older than Bobby was a different type. He set up house for himself in a little room in the High Street just opposite the shop of Gordon the baker and did odd jobs at the dock too. Farmers used to get him to hold their horses at the station, or at the various licensed premises, and he had even worked at hay and harvest. Jock was always quiet and harmless, never quarrelsome but he had that jauntiness in his walk, a sort of devil-may-care attitude.
When any important event took place in town and there was a procession through the streets you could depend on Jock having many of his household goods – tea caddies, vases, dishes &c. – set out on the pavement against the wall of his room. Incase the onlookers did not know to whom these articles belonged, there was Jock, parading too and fro in front of the ornaments wearing a smoker’s cap complete with tassel.
Poor old ‘Jessie,’ how your naive showmanship amused un in these days now so far off! You deserve to be remembered if only for your pavement exhibition.
No one could tell when Patton Dryden was born or what age he was at any given time. My recollections of Patton was of one, tall, erect, fresh-complexioned , with military moustache, with jacket always buttoned up like the old army tunic he had worn in South Africa. For Patton was one of a little group of Kirkcudbright men who volunteered for service in the Boer War, receiving the freedom of the Burgh on his return. The story is told that, when joining up, Patton placed himself behind the veteran soldier, but much younger man Mick Crossan. When asked his age Patton glibly stated “Juist the same as Mick’s do’nt ‘e see.”
Patton was endowed with more cunning than the average man, and one of the slickest in an argument. Like Bobby and Jock, he remained a bachelor. “Why don’t you take a wife, Patton?” I asked him. “A wife?” sex he, “She wud eat ma loaf,” and then he would pause and add “eat me tae!” Patton, who stayed in a room in Atkinson Close, was one of the halberdiers for some time, and he looked very smart in that old-fashioned garb, stepping out in front of the Chief Magistrates. He did many odd jobs in his time including fishing in the river, but he had finished with work, more or less, before I became closely acquainted with him.
He must have been aged when, like the proverbial old soldier, he began to fade away. They took him to Burnside House when he fell ill, and after his death there, a few good citizens raised an outcry because this Freeman of the burgh who had fought his country’s battles had been allowed to die in that institution. A Union Jack was wrapped round his coffin which was carried to the Parish Church prior to his burial in the old kirkyard of St. Cuthberts. There were many humorous anecdotes about Patton who had a most cheerful disposition – a pity it is that these stories have gone with the wind.
The fourth Dryden was Harry, who lived in Hart’s Close with his wife Jean and his daughter Mary Jane. Mostly he worked for Walter Wallace, with an occasional spell on the farms adjoining the town. He had a great sense of humour, and could act the ‘gomey’ especially when he had a ‘wee drap.’ He had the cheerfulness of the Drydens and never seemed to get ruffled. For a time he was a member of the life-boat crew, and was a well-known figure in Kirkcudbright.
His tragic death, just after the 1914-18 war was the result of one of his capers. In merry Saturday-night mood he proceeded to the ‘shows’ then situated in the Harbour Square, and entered one of Codona’s gondolas for a spin round. What actually happened no one rightly knows, but Harry’s mangled body was recovered from beneath one of the gondolas. The tragedy cast a gloom over the town and is recalled to this day.
Alick McGill, who came to be know as “Boosey” Alick for obvious reasons, was the product of an indulgent mother, Jean Thomson or McGill, who in my time lived in a little house house on the High Street where the Police houses now stand, and next to the house of Wee Hannah, vendor, and probably maker, of Isle o’ Man candy. Boosey, when I knew him, was a short thick-set man, with florid face and clipped moustache. His stenorian singled him out for the post of ‘Bellman’ and his appearances as such were quite frequent. If a trawler had unloaded a catch of herring and skate, Boosey announced that such could be had at the Castle – herring, forty for a shilling, and skate, by the han (whatever that may mean).
There seemed to be far more bell ringing in those days than we see now. To Boosey it meant quick results – cash in the hand – and much easier than “humphin'” bags up a plank at the Dock – full bags of course, and heavy. Practically everything he earned went in liquid sustenance, and yet that spark in his throat was never quenched. Many a ‘sub’ he got from Bob McMillan on his promise (never fulfilled) to help in the unloading of some vessel or steamer. To add insult to injury he would lie on the Moat Brae, and shout the rudest remarks to Bob’s exhortations to come and work for the money he got.
What a man! And yet he had a ready wit and could raise a laugh. The story is told – it is probably apocryphal – of a certain farmer who was in search of someone to do a bit of mowing and approached a group of ‘casuals’ at Osbourne’s Corner near the Dockhead. To the question “Can ony o’ you boys maw?” Boosey quickly replied in the affirmative. When the question of his experience in mowing was raised, Boosey, with serious face, stated that he had “mawn a’ the grass for the habby horses.” Needless to say the farmer beat a hasty retreat, leaving Alick the winner of that round.
Boosey was one of that band of “drouths” (The Drydens were of them) employed by Harry Longcake who came from Maryport at the beginning of August each year to erect the tents at the Cattle Show. That good humoured little man with the large paunch which shook when he laughed, had a wonderful way with him (like Father O’Flynn) and could get the best out of these characters with the minimum of trouble. His promise of refreshment spurred them on!
Boosey excelled as a swimmer, and when taking part in the Duck Hunt at the numerous regattas, his “aquabatics” (to coin a word) kept the crowd in amusement. He was their Hero for the nonce – here he sought and obtained his “bubble reputation.”
When Boosey died, I believe the event took place in an Edinburgh Institution, it was aid his body was handed over for research purposes. If this be so, it may be that he was more useful dead than alive. As a character he is worthy of our notice.
One can hardly realise that it must be well over a hundred years since Sanny Jamieson saw the light. He was a fragile little old man, with white hair and beard, and full face when I knew him first. Sanny always reminded me of the pictures of some of the prophets of the Old Testament. Throughout his early life and, in fact, into his old age, he cobbled, and I am told that he specialised in the making of dancing “pumps” and was a good craftsman. He came of a musical family family; he played the fiddle and his brother, who was at one time Caretaker of the Museum, performed on the English concertina – a talented pair indeed.
Sanny used to live in a little place behind Miss Jenkins’ house, and to get to it he had to pass through the close between her house and Mr Robson’s (probably the Cairns family lived there then). Afterwards he removed to a room in Fisher’s Close, but he still retained at least some of the accroutrements of his trade. Many a time he threatened to “sell the business” – no doubt when he was in low spirits.
Sanny at his best was the quietest of men, kind, and gentlemanly, and soft spoken, but in his case a drop of liquor was like a spark to a piece of tinder. He became elated, agitated, and sometimes cantankerous – ready to argue on politics, religion and any other subject for he was a man of some intelligence. His thoughts would turn back to the past. Gladstone was his hero, and any derogatory remark about the Grand Old Man – and, of course, these remarks were made to provoke him – was met with a string of vituperative expletives.
I can still picture him walking along the Castle Street, his gait somewhat unsteady, his battered hat in hand, and his white hair flying in the breeze, gesticulating and condemning with much vehemence the Phoenix Park murderers. In parenthesis, it is only fait to state that this incident in history had taken place many years ago, and had already been forgotten. Should a boy happen to find favour in Sanny’s eyes then he was patted on the head and dubbed “the bonnie wee boy.” The next day he might be found sitting in the back-shop of a certain bootmaker’s establishment – his old self, “clothed and in his right mind.” He would smile benignly but say little. Youth, always thoughtless, preferred Sanny when he was “het up” – he was more amusing.
In spite of the fact that Sanny’s life was hardly an orderly one, he lived to a good age. He was held in high esteem by the townsfolk who were prepared to overlook his one weakness – doubtless knowing their own failings.
These half dozen men all had their place in the Community. Their wit, humour, naivety, cunning and other idiosyncrasies they willingly let us see because their lives were free from all artificiality; for their naturalness we should be deeply grateful