Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Worry of Worthies - Dafties and Characters from Long Ago

Dundonians of a certain age might remember Barrack Street Museum.  Downstairs was a newspaper archive and upstairs there was a series of displays, including the famous Dundee Whale.  Was there competition between this museum (now sadly closed) and the main museum in the Albert Institute?  Both certainly boasted eye-catching exhibits which make the modern ones seem very anaemic in comparison.  (My favourite from the main museum:  the lovingly preserved Old Toll Bar interior from Lochee.  Why is this in storage now?  Maybe I just love pubs too much.)

   Barrack Street featured a series of small, fascinating dolls whose heads were made from dried apple, shrunk and dried so they almost resembled miniature human features.  Maybe my memory is playing tricks here, but I’m almost sure they actually existed.  The figures depicted a range of ‘Dundee Worthies’ from the 19th century, characters remembered in city lore because of their very public and persistent eccentricities.  There were people such as ‘Glass Bottom’, who had the probably unique delusion that his posterior was made of crystal and would never sit down on that account.  How did he sleep, I wonder?  Wrapped up in pillows and bolsters to safeguard his fragile bum?  Then there was ‘Teapot Tam’, whose mania was to tip himself over at regular intervals along the street, imitating the action of a pouring teapot. 
   It would maybe be politically incorrect to have such commemorations of mentally subnormal people on display in the 21st century.  But ‘worthies’ or ‘naturals’ were an almost celebrated part of the community, whether it be larger burghs or country districts and there is a whole genre of popular literature, from Scotland and beyond, that details the charming and unique dafties who were colourfully ever-present in Victorian times and previously.  A related category of writing revels in ‘couthy’ or ‘kail-yard’ characters, whose rural adventures were lavishly detailed in exaggerated ‘Doric’ language, all of which appears very tiresome to modern tastes.  Folklorists and historians may regret that so much local history writing falls in to this dubious variety instead of ‘genuine’ local information.  But it’s probably hoping for too much to wish for the past to be perfect.
   Dafties, Worthies, Village Idiots were an omnipresent fact of life, like it or not.  Literature on the subject draws a sometimes fine balance of admiration and derision, sometimes hinting that such ‘naturals’ were not always as daft as they would like you to think.  There is always the suspicion that some of those afflicted people were playing up to the part, a winking admission that there was a strain of street smartness which helped them survive.  Worthies in another sense also applied to local dignitaries, particularly eminent parishioners and townsfolk who were shining examples of religious piety.  This is another strand of regional literature which is very hard to digest.

   The ‘Dundee Worthies’ were celebrated in a book of that name by George Martin (1934), recently reprinted.  Other examples of this kind of book are almost too numerous to detail.  One of the best books, and one which is not really typical of this type is Blairgowrie, Stormont and Strathmore Worthies (by Henry Dryerre, 1903), which to be fair concentrates on admirable local characters rather than village idiots, albeit in an occasionally condescending way.  Among the genuinely interesting ‘men of imagination’ are former Angus luminaries such as James Gibb, ‘Old Gibbie’, who was schoolteacher at Kettins and also a self-confessed provider of grain for illicit distillers in the hills beyond Alyth.  He got his regular employment as a dominie by being subjected to phrenological  examination by the local laird, Lord Douglas Gordon of Hallburton.  His cranial lumps proving him well qualified, he was the local teacher for 48 years, and died in 1875.  Another personality enlarged upon in the book is the ‘Deil o’Glenisla’, whose exploits I will detail in the future. (Those with more localised taste could try Carnoustie Sketches, by James Fotheringham (1889).)

James Gibb, 'Old Gibbie', Kettins schoolmaster, scientist, curio-hunter, whisky smuggler (amongst other things).

   There is no doubt that those afflicted with mental or physical ailments were obliged to use their infirmities in order to survive.  One of the most remembered characters in North Angus in the 18th century was Jock Gudefellow, a legless man who used to pull himself around the countryside on a cart, and who terrified many a farmer’s wife into providing him sustenance.  He died in 1810 and was buried in Lethnot kirkyard.  One farmer’s wife panicked when he appeared at the door and she did not have anything at hand to feed him, so she cut up a bit of shoe leather and served it up to him.  His verdict, after he had consumed it, was that it was tough but tasty. James Bowick of Montrose commemorated Jock, in a bank-handed way, in these lines contained in his work Character and Sketches (1824):

                                       There's he who slid from Perth to Aberdeen
                                       Upon his hands and buttocks as they say:
                                       JOCK GUDEFELLOW was the creature's name, I ween,
                                       Who ofttimes scared the children from their play;
                                       But now the fearful wight hath passed into the clay.

   Behind such tales is a flotsam of scavenging humanity, twisted into strange shapes by poverty. And it was not just the congenitally weak who were afflicted.  Local Angus records in the early 18th century mention a series of gentlemen beggars, forced to travel from place to place cap in hand because of economic and social circumstances.

Another way of looking at things, is the interest in local characters from auld times reflects a supposedly better age when peculiarities were allowed to flourish unfettered by standards imposed by the evil pressures of modern life.  Another aspect of the good old days syndrome.

The redoubtable-looking Auld Grannie Fox from Carnoustie (though she was actually born in Kirriemuir).  By the end of the nineteenth century she had around 200 descendants in the town.

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