Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Introduction to Old Mortality.

The remarkable person, called by the title of Old Mortality, was we’ll known in Scotland about the end of the last century. His real name was Robert Paterson. He was a native, it is said, of the parish of Closeburn, in Dumfries-shire, and probably a mason by profession — at least educated to the use of the chisel. Whether family dissensions, or the deep and enthusiastic feeling of supposed duty, drove him to leave his dwelling, and adopt the singular mode of life in which he wandered, like a palmer, through Scotland, is not known. It could not be poverty, however, which prompted his journeys, for he never accepted anything beyond the hospitality which was willingly rendered him, and when that was not proffered, he always had money enough to provide for his own humble wants. His personal appearance, and favourite, or rather sole occupation, are accurately described in the preliminary chapter of the following work.

It is about thirty years since, or more, that the author met this singular person in the churchyard of Dunnottar, when spending a day or two with the late learned and excellent clergyman, Mr. Walker, the minister of that parish, for the purpose of a close examination of the ruins of the Castle of Dunnottar, and other subjects of antiquarian research in that neighbourhood. Old Mortality chanced to be at the same place, on the usual business of his pilgrimage; for the Castle of Dunnottar, though lying in the anti-covenanting district of the Mearns, was, with the parish churchyard, celebrated for the oppressions sustained there by the Cameronians in the time of James II.

It was in 1685, when Argyle was threatening a descent upon Scotland, and Monmouth was preparing to invade the west of England, that the Privy Council of Scotland, with cruel precaution, made a general arrest of more than a hundred persons in the southern and western provinces, supposed, from their religious principles, to be inimical to Government, together with many women and children. These captives were driven northward like a flock of bullocks, but with less precaution to provide for their wants, and finally penned up in a subterranean dungeon in the Castle of Dunnottar, having a window opening to the front of a precipice which overhangs the German Ocean. They had suffered not a little on the journey, and were much hurt both at the scoffs of the northern prelatists, and the mocks, gibes, and contemptuous tunes played by the fiddlers and pipers who had come from every quarter as they passed, to triumph over the revilers of their calling. The repose which the melancholy dungeon afforded them, was anything but undisturbed. The guards made them pay for every indulgence, even that of water; and when some of the prisoners resisted a demand so unreasonable, and insisted on their right to have this necessary of life untaxed, their keepers emptied the water on the prison floor, saying, “If they were obliged to bring water for the canting whigs, they were not bound to afford them the use of bowls or pitchers gratis.”

In this prison, which is still termed the Whig’s Vault, several died of the diseases incidental to such a situation; and others broke their limbs, and incurred fatal injury, in desperate attempts to escape from their stern prison-house. Over the graves of these unhappy persons, their friends, after the Revolution, erected a monument with a suitable inscription.

This peculiar shrine of the Whig martyrs is very much honoured by their descendants, though residing at a great distance from the land of their captivity and death. My friend, the Rev. Mr. Walker, told me, that being once upon a tour in the south of Scotland, probably about forty years since, he had the bad luck to involve himself in the labyrinth of passages and tracks which cross, in every direction, the extensive waste called Lochar Moss, near Dumfries, out of which it is scarcely possible for a stranger to extricate himself; and there was no small difficulty in procuring a guide, since such people as he saw were engaged in digging their peats — a work of paramount necessity, which will hardly brook interruption. Mr. Walker could, therefore, only procure unintelligible directions in the southern brogue, which differs widely from that of the Mearns. He was beginning to think himself in a serious dilemma, when he stated his case to a farmer of rather the better class, who was employed, as the others, in digging his winter fuel. The old man at first made the same excuse with those who had already declined acting as the traveller’s guide; but perceiving him in great perplexity, and paying the respect due to his profession, “You are a clergyman, sir?” he said. Mr. Walker assented. “And I observe from your speech, that you are from the north?”—“You are right, my good friend,” was the reply. “And may I ask if you have ever heard of a place called Dunnottar?”—“I ought to know something about it, my friend,” said Mr. Walker, “since I have been several years the minister of the parish.”—“I am glad to hear it,” said the Dumfriesian, “for one of my near relations lies buried there, and there is, I believe, a monument over his grave. I would give half of what I am aught, to know if it is still in existence.”—“He was one of those who perished in the Whig’s Vault at the castle?” said the minister; “for there are few southlanders besides lying in our churchyard, and none, I think, having monuments.”—“Even sae — even sae,” said the old Cameronian, for such was the farmer. He then laid down his spade, cast on his coat, and heartily offered to see the minister out of the moss, if he should lose the rest of the day’s dargue. Mr. Walker was able to requite him amply, in his opinion, by reciting the epitaph, which he remembered by heart. The old man was enchanted with finding the memory of his grandfather or great-grandfather faithfully recorded amongst the names of brother sufferers; and rejecting all other offers of recompense, only requested, after he had guided Mr. Walker to a safe and dry road, that he would let him have a written copy of the inscription.

It was whilst I was listening to this story, and looking at the monument referred to, that I saw Old Mortality engaged in his daily task of cleaning and repairing the ornaments and epitaphs upon the tomb. His appearance and equipment were exactly as described in the Novel. I was very desirous to see something of a person so singular, and expected to have done so, as he took up his quarters with the hospitable and liberal-spirited minister. But though Mr. Walker invited him up after dinner to partake of a glass of spirits and water, to which he was supposed not to be very averse, yet he would not speak frankly upon the subject of his occupation. He was in bad humour, and had, according to his phrase, no freedom for conversation with us.

His spirit had been sorely vexed by hearing, in a certain Aberdonian kirk, the psalmody directed by a pitch-pipe, or some similar instrument, which was to Old Mortality the abomination of abominations. Perhaps, after all, he did not feel himself at ease with his company; he might suspect the questions asked by a north-country minister and a young barrister to savour more of idle curiosity than profit. At any rate, in the phrase of John Bunyan, Old Mortality went on his way, and I saw him no more.

The remarkable figure and occupation of this ancient pilgrim was recalled to my memory by an account transmitted by my friend Mr. Joseph Train, supervisor of excise at Dumfries, to whom I owe many obligations of a similar nature. From this, besides some other circumstances, among which are those of the old man’s death, I learned the particulars described in the text. I am also informed, that the old palmer’s family, in the third generation, survives, and is highly respected both for talents and worth. While these sheets were passing through the press, I received the following communication from Mr. Train, whose undeviating kindness had, during the intervals of laborious duty, collected its materials from an indubitable source.

“In the course of my periodical visits to the Glenkens, I have become intimately acquainted with Robert Paterson, a son of Old Mortality, who lives in the little village of Balmaclellan; and although he is now in the 70th year of his age, preserves all the vivacity of youth — has a most retentive memory, and a mind stored with information far above what could be expected from a person in his station of life. To him I am indebted for the following particulars relative to his father, and his descendants down to the present time.

“Robert Paterson, alias Old Mortality, was the son of Walter Paterson and Margaret Scott, who occupied the farm of Ilaggisha, in the parish of Hawick, during nearly the first half of the eighteenth century. Here Robert was born, in the memorable year 1715.

“Being the youngest son of a numerous family, he, at an early age, went to serve with an elder brother, named Francis, who rented, from Sir John Jardine of Applegarth, a small tract in Comcockle Moor, near Lochmaben. During his residence there, he became acquainted with Elizabeth Gray, daughter of Robert Gray, gardener to Sir John Jardine, whom he afterwards married. His wife had been, for a considerable time, a cook-maid to Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, who procured for her husband, from the Duke of Queensberry, an advantageous lease of the freestone quarry of Gatelowbrigg, in the parish of Morton. Here he built a house, and had as much land as kept a horse and cow. My informant cannot say, with certainty, the year in which his father took up his residence at Gatelowbrigg, but he is sure it must have been only a short time prior to the year 1746, as, during the memorable frost in 1740, he says his mother still resided in the service of Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick. When the Highlanders were returning from England on their route to Glasgow, in the year 1745-6, they plundered Mr. Paterson’s house at Gatelowbrigg, and carried him a prisoner as far as Glenbuck, merely because he said to one of the straggling army, that their retreat might have been easily foreseen, as the strong arm of the Lord was evidently raised, not only against the bloody and wicked house of Stewart, but against all who attempted to support the abominable heresies of the Church of Rome. From this circumstance it appears that Old Mortality had, even at that early period of his life, imbibed the religious enthusiasm by which he afterwards became so much distinguished.

“The religious sect called Hill-men, or Cameronians, was at that time much noted for austerity and devotion, in imitation of Cameron, their founder, of whose tenets Old Mortality became a most strenuous supporter. He made frequent journeys into Galloway to attend their conventicles, and occasionally carried with him gravestones from his quarry at Gatelowbrigg, to keep in remembrance the righteous whose dust had been gathered to their fathers. Old Mortality was not one of those religious devotees, who, although one eye is seemingly turned towards heaven, keep the other steadfastly fixed on some sublunary object. As his enthusiasm increased, his journeys into Galloway became more frequent; and he gradually neglected even the common prudential duty of providing for his offspring. From about the year 1758, he neglected wholly to return from Galloway to his wife and five children at Gatelowbrigg, which induced her to send her eldest son Walter, then only twelve years of age, to Galloway, in search of his father. After traversing nearly the whole of that extensive district, from the Nick of Benncorie to the Fell of Barullion, he found him at last working on the Cameronian monuments, in the old kirkyard of Kirkchrist, on the west side of the Dee, opposite the town of Kirkcudbright. The little wanderer used all the influence in his power to induce his father to return to his family; but in vain. Mrs. Paterson sent even some of her female children into Galloway in search of their father, for the same purpose of persuading him to return home; but without any success. At last, in the summer of 1768, she removed to the little upland village of Balmaclellan, in the Glenkens of Galloway, where, upon the small pittance derived from keeping a little school, she supported her numerous family in a respectable manner.

“There is a small monumental stone in the farm of the Caldon, near the House of the Hill, in Wigtonshire, which is highly venerated as being the first erected, by Old Mortality, to the memory of several persons who fell at that place in defence of their religious tenets in the civil war, in the reign of Charles Second.

“From the Caldon, the labours of Old Mortality, in the course of time, spread over nearly all the Lowlands of Scotland. There are few churchyards in Ayrshire, Galloway, or Dumfries-shire, where the work of his chisel is not yet to be seen. It is easily distinguished from the work of any other artist by the primitive rudeness of the emblems of death, and of the inscriptions which adorn the ill-formed blocks of his erection. This task of repairing and erecting gravestones, practised without fee or reward, was the only ostensible employment of this singular person for upwards of forty years. The door of every Cameronian’s house was indeed open to him at all times when he chose to enter, and he was gladly received as an inmate of the family; but he did not invariably accept of these civilities, as may be seen by the following account of his frugal expenses, found, amongst other little papers, (some of which I have likewise in my possession,) in his pocket-book after his death.

Gatehouse of Fleet, 4th February, 1796.
To drye Lodginge for seven weeks,. . . .   . . .  0  4  1
To Four Auchlet of Ait Meal,. . . . . . . . . . . .  0  3  4
To 6 Lippies of Potatoes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  0  1  3
To Lent Money at the time of Mr. Reid’s
Sacrament,. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 0  6  0
To 3 Chappins of Yell with Sandy the
Keelman,†. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   . . .  0  0  9

                                       L.0 15  5
Received in part,. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ..  0 10  0
Unpaid,. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ..  L.0  5  5

[†“A well-known humourist, still alive, popularly called by the name of Old Keelybags, who deals in the keel or chalk with which farmers mark their flocks.”]

“This statement shows the religious wanderer to have been very poor in his old age; but he was so more by choice than through necessity, as at the period here alluded to, his children were all comfortably situated, and were most anxious to keep their father at home, but no entreaty could induce him to alter his erratic way of life. He travelled from one churchyard to another, mounted on his old white pony, till the last day of his existence, and died, as you have described, at Bankhill, near Lockerby, on the 14th February, 1801, in the 86th year of his age. As soon as his body was found, intimation was sent to his sons at Balmaclellan; but from the great depth of the snow at that time, the letter communicating the particulars of his death was so long detained by the way, that the remains of the pilgrim were interred before any of his relations could arrive at Bankhill.

“The following is an exact copy of the account of his funeral expenses — the original of which I have in my possession:—

“Memorandum of the Funral Charges of Robert Paterson,
who dyed at Bankhill on the 14th day of February, 1801.
To a Coffon. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   . . .  L.0 12  0
To Munting for do. . . . . . . . . . . .   . . .  0  2  8
To a Shirt for him. . . . . . . . . . . . .. 0  5  6
To a pair of Cotten Stockings  . . .  0  2  0
To Bread at the Founral. . . . . . . . . 0  2  6
To Chise at ditto. . . . . . . . . . . .   . . .  0  3  0
To 1 pint Rume. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 0  4  6
To I pint Whiskie. . . . . . . . . . . .   . . .  0  4  0
To a man going to Annam. . . . . . . . . 0  2  0
To the grave diger. . . . . . . . . . . . .. 0  1  0
To Linnen for a sheet to him. . . .  0  2  8
                               L.2  1 10
Taken off him when dead,. . . . . . . . .1  7  6
                               L.0 14  4

“The above account is authenticated by the son of the deceased.

“My friend was prevented by indisposition from even going to Bankhill to attend the funeral of his father, which I regret very much, as he is not aware in what churchyard he was interred.

“For the purpose of erecting a small monument to his memory, I have made every possible enquiry, wherever I thought there was the least chance of finding out where Old Mortality was laid; but I have done so in vain, as his death is not registered in the session-book of any of the neighbouring parishes. I am sorry to think, that in all probability, this singular person, who spent so many years of his lengthened existence in striving with his chisel and mallet to perpetuate the memory of many less deserving than himself, must remain even without a single stone to mark out the resting place of his mortal remains.

“Old Mortality had three sons, Robert, Walter, and John; the former, as has been already mentioned, lives in the village of Balmaclellan, in comfortable circumstances, and is much respected by his neighbours. Walter died several years ago, leaving behind him a family now respectably situated in this point. John went to America in the year 1776, and, after various turns of fortune, settled at Baltimore.”

Old Nol himself is said to have loved an innocent jest. (See Captain Hodgson’s Memoirs.) Old Mortality somewhat resembled the Protector in this turn to festivity. Like Master Silence, he had been merry twice and once in his time; but even his jests were of a melancholy and sepulchral nature, and sometimes attended with inconvenience to himself, as will appear from the following anecdote:—

The old man was at one time following his wonted occupation of repairing the tombs of the martyrs, in the churchyard of Girthon, and the sexton of the parish was plying his kindred task at no small distance. Some roguish urchins were sporting near them, and by their noisy gambols disturbing the old men in their serious occupation. The most petulant of the juvenile party were two or three boys, grandchildren of a person well known by the name of Cooper Climent. This artist enjoyed almost a monopoly in Girthon and the neighbouring parishes, for making and selling ladles, caups, bickers, bowls, spoons, cogues, and trenchers, formed of wood, for the use of the country people. It must be noticed, that notwithstanding the excellence of the Cooper’s vessels, they were apt, when new, to impart a reddish tinge to whatever liquor was put into them, a circumstance not uncommon in like cases.

The grandchildren of this dealer in wooden work took it into their head to ask the sexton, what use he could possibly make of the numerous fragments of old coffins which were thrown up in opening new graves. “Do you not know,” said Old Mortality, “that he sells them to your grandfather, who makes them into spoons, trenchers, bickers, bowies, and so forth?” At this assertion, the youthful group broke up in great confusion and disgust, on reflecting how many meals they had eaten out of dishes which, by Old Mortality’s account, were only fit to be used at a banquet of witches or of ghoules. They carried the tidings home, when many a dinner was spoiled by the loathing which the intelligence imparted; for the account of the materials was supposed to explain the reddish tinge which, even in the days of the Cooper’s fame, had seemed somewhat suspicious. The ware of Cooper Climent was rejected in horror, much to the benefit of his rivals the muggers, who dealt in earthenware. The man of cutty-spoon and ladle saw his trade interrupted, and learned the reason, by his quondam customers coming upon him in wrath to return the goods which were composed of such unhallowed materials, and demand repayment of their money. In this disagreeable predicament, the forlorn artist cited Old Mortality into a court of justice, where he proved that the wood he used in his trade was that of the staves of old wine-pipes bought from smugglers, with whom the country then abounded, a circumstance which fully accounted for their imparting a colour to their contents. Old Mortality himself made the fullest declaration, that he had no other purpose in making the assertion, than to check the petulance of the children. But it is easier to take away a good name than to restore it. Cooper Climent’s business continued to languish, and he died in a state of poverty.


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