The Hermit of Manor, Saturday, April 27, 1833, pp.99-100.

[Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal Contents]


SO lately as December 1811, there died, in the vale of Manor, in Peebleshire, an aged individual, who had exhibited, during his life, nearly all the features and habits of the extinct species called a hermit. The name of this person was David Ritchie. He was deformed, and a pauper; yet he possessed a strength of mind and a strength of sentiment, together with a share of literature, and, in some things, good taste, such as singled him out not only from his fellow men in that pastoral district, but from the herd of the human race. He was born of poor parents, in the parish of Stobo, adjacent to Manor, about the year 1740 – his father’s name being William Ritchie, and that of his mother Annaple Niven. He had himself the impression that his deformity was owing to carelessness on the part of those entrusted with his keeping in infancy; but this must have been a mere appliance, suggested by self-love, for the gratification of wounded vanity, as his personal defects bore the decided appearance of being inherited from nature. They were confined to his limbs, which were not only shorter than usual, but were bent outwards in such a way as to resemble rather the fins of the turtle than the locomotive enginery proper to the human being. The other parts of his body displayed not only a fully-developed, but an extremely muscular and powerful organisation – a circumstance, however, which only aggravated the repulsive singularity of his appearance. David’s physiognomy was of a piece with the unnatural structure of his person. His visage was long, meagre, and attenuated; his features large and prominent; his chin projecting far beyond the upper part of his face. From the tip of the latter feature, indeed, to his forehead, his countenance exhibited a progressive slope backwards. His complexion was coarse, hairy, and of a tan colour; and the only redeeming points of his grim aspect were his eyes, which were black, animated, and expressive. When, to the personal qualities just enumerated, we add a voice of a most unearthly pitch and compass, resembling more the utterance of the screech-owl than the tones of humanity, our readers will be at no loss to figure to themselves an object sufficiently disgusting. We have thought it proper thus to describe, at the outset, the extraordinary animal economy of this individual, as an acute sense of it, operating upon a mind peculiarly sensitive, seems to have been the chief, if not the sole cause of that misanthropic disposition which he displayed through life. 

David was sent, while yet young, to Edinburgh, to earn the trade of brush-making; but whatever inclination he may have had to follow out that occupation, he soon found his residence in the midst of a populous community altogether intolerable. A propensity not only to slight and contemn, but actually to persecute those unfortunate creatures, whose mental or corporeal functions have been “curtailed of their fair proportions” by nature or accident, seems ever, we are sorry to say, to have been a characteristic of the younger portion of our northern community. The extraordinary physiognomy and person of David, accordingly, soon procured for him such a degree of notoriety, generally manifested, too, without the smallest sympathy or regard for the poor creatures, feelings, that he speedily abandoned the town, and fled (if we may use such an expression in speaking of him) to his native hills, his heart bursting with the bitter sense of insulted manhood, without the ability either to bear or to retaliate – filled at once with rage against his tormentors, and disgust at his own misshapen features and person, which thus cruelly excluded him from the pale of social life, and resolved to separate himself for ever from all intercourse or communion with his fellow men. 

How David subsisted for some time after his return to his native place, we never heard; but he probably found a shelter in his father’s cottage, for we have been informed, that almost immediately after the death of the latter, he began to erect his future hermitage. The place he pitched on was a patch of wild moorland, lying at the bottom of a steep bank, on the farm of Woodhouse, in the vale of Manor, Peeblesshire. whether David asked or obtained the leave of the proprietor for this proceeding, does not seem quite clear; but certain it is, that the latter, so far from molesting him in his possession, ordered his servants to give him every assistance he might require in the construction of his habitation. Of such aid, however, David availed himself as little as possible, seemingly taking a pride in being the fabricator of his own abode, which, although small, he put together with an extraordinary degree of solidity, the walls consisting of alternate layers of large stones and turf. He covered his miniature dwelling with his own hands, with a neat thatched roof. The door was only three feet and a half high, beneath which he could with ease stand upright. After the completion of his dwelling, David next proceeded with the cultivation of his little garden, which was partly scooped out of the bank behind, and which he had previously enclosed with a strong stone wall. His horticultural labours did equal credit to his taste and industry, and in a short time it was stocked with all sorts of flowers, herbs, and culinary vegetables, as well as fruit-trees. His feet being of no use to him in the process of digging, he forced the spade into the earth by applying his breast to it. He soon after procured some bee-hives, which he tended with a great care, and these speedily became to him a source of considerable emolument, as well as amusement. David’s hermitage, both from its own romantic and beautiful appearance, and the singular character of its inhabitant, soon attracted numerous visitors; and it would appear, that to these the poor man evinced much pride and gratification in showing off the results of his taste and handiwork – always providing that they addressed him without any marks of either surprise or disgust at his appearance, and in the courteous manner due to one who had something to show. Among his visitors was the late Dr Adam Ferguson, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, and historian of the Roman republic, who resided at the neighbouring mansion of Hall-yards. In the year 1797, Sir Walter Scott, then a young barrister, paid a visit to the venerable professor, with whose family he was at all periods of his life very intimate; and, among other curiosities of the district, he was taken to see the dark hermit of Woodhouse. On this occasion, he was accompanied by Mr (now Sir) Adam Ferguson, the eldest son of the professor, who has been so kind as to communicate to us the particulars of the interview. It may be mentioned, once for all, that David afterwards figured as a fictitious character in one of the celebrated novels of his visitor, under the name of Elshender the Recluse

At the first sight of Mr Scott, the misanthrope seemed impressed with a sentiment of extraordinary interest, which was either owing to the lameness of the stranger – a circumstance throwing a narrower gulf between this person and himself, than what existed between him and most other men – or to some perception of an extraordinary mental character in this limping youth, which was then hid from other eyes. After grinning upon him for a moment with a smile less bitter than his wont, the dwarf passed to the door, double-locked it, and then, coming up to the stranger, seized him by the wrist with one of his iron hands, and said, “Man, ha’e ye ony poo’er?” By this he meant magical power, to which he had himself some vague pretensions, or which, at least, he had studied and reflected upon till it had become with him a kind of monomania. Mr Scott disavowed the possession of any gifts of that kind, evidently to the great disappointment of the inquirer, who then turned round and gave a signal to a huge black cat, hitherto unobserved, which immediately jumped up to a shelf, where it perched itself, and seemed to the excited senses of the visitors as if it had really been the familiar spirit of the mansion. “He has poo’er,” said the dwarf, in a voice which made the flesh of the hearers thrill within them, and Mr Scott, in particular, looked as if he conceived himself to have actually got into the den of one of those magicians with whom his studies had rendered him familiar. “Ay, he has poo’er,” repeated the recluse; and then, going to his usual seat, he sat for some minutes grinning horribly, as if enjoying the impression he had made; while not a word escaped from any of the party. Mr Ferguson at length plucked up his spirits, and called to David to open the door, as they must now be going. The dwarf slowly obeyed; and when they had got out, Mr Ferguson observed, that his friend was as pale as ashes, while his person was agitated in every limb. Under such striking circumstances was this extraordinary being first presented to the real magician, who was afterwards to give him such a deathless celebrity. 

Although the care of his bees and the cultivation of his garden appeared, in the eyes of his humble neighbours, to be Davie’s sole occupation, he had a private source of amusement within his solitary dwelling, to which they themselves were in a great measure strangers – namely, in books. Improbable as it may seem, this poor decrepit creature’s favourite author was no other than the sentimental Shenstone, whose love-pastorals he confessed to afford him the most intense delight. Next to Shenstone in his favour was Milton’s Paradise Lost, large portions of which he could repeat by rote; and his nice perception of the beauties of many of the sublimer passages is said to have been altogether extraordinary, considering his origin, education, and rank in life. In addition to these volumes, he had got a copy of “Tooke’s Pantheon,” and had his head confusedly stored with all the mysteries of the heathen mythology. Davie had likewise at his command the library of his kind benefactor, Dr Ferguson, who reckoned him a man of great capacity and originality of mind. He possessed, moreover, a keen relish for the beauties of nature, and would sit for hours gazing upon the varied landscape before him in a reverie of deep admiration; and in this lonely source of enjoyment it would almost seem as if Providence kindly intended a sort of compensation for that bar which excluded him from all participation in the social joys of humanity. His habitual and deeply rooted misanthropy, however, counteracted any beneficial effects which this affection for the pure aspect of nature might have had in mollifying down the asperities of his temper and disposition; and he awoke from these temporary reveries with a bitterer feeling of disgust with himself, and a more malignant feeling of hatred towards his fellow-creatures. The sense of his deformity haunted him like a phantom, and poisoned the very springs of his existence. This ever-present consciousness of his bodily inferiority frequently came upon him overpoweringly, even when in his mildest moods, and the workings of his agony are described to have been perfectly frightful. The same cause rendered him jealous in the extreme of every one that came near him, and he watched their every word and look for a mark of contempt towards himself. A lady who had known him from infancy, having gone one day to visit him in company with another lady, he took them through his garden, and was showing them, with much pride and good humour, all his tastefully-assorted borders, &c., when they happened to stop near a plot of cabbages which had been injured by caterpillars. Davie, observing one of the ladies smile, instantly assumed his savage scowling aspect, rushed among the cabbages, and dashed them to pieces with a stick, exclaiming, “I hate the worms, for they mock me!” Another lady, likewise an old acquaintance and generous friend, having called one day at his cottage, David, whilst ushering her into the garden, glanced back at her with one of his jealous looks, when, imagining that he saw her spit, he turned upon her fiercely, exclaiming, “Am I a toad, woman! that ye might spit at me – that ye spit at me!” and drove her out of the garden with insult and imprecations. His expressions and threats when roused to anger were horribly savage, and altogether original. His dislike to children, which he acquired in youth, from their propensity to molest him, continued till the day of his death. 

His cottage falling into disrepair about the year 1802, Sir James Nasmyth kindly ordered a new one to be erected for him and his sister, a poor helpless creature of imbecile mind, at a short distance from the site of his former abode. This cottage had two apartments; but although David consented to live under the same roof with his sister, he would neither permit her to come into his room, nor even to enter the house by the same door, and separate ones were accordingly made. The only-living creatures, indeed, besides his bees, whose society Davie could tolerate, were the black cat above mentioned, and a dog, to both of which he was much attached. A large addition was also made to Davie’s garden, all of which he trenched to the depth of two feet and a half with his own hands. 

What with the small pittance he and his sister received from the parish – they being for many years the only person who got relief from the parochial funds – the produce of his bees and extra vegetables, and the numerous gratuities in money, food, and clothes, which he received from his neighbours and visitors (besides living rent free), David had even more than enough to satisfy all his little wants. A meal-pock always hung for him in the parish mill, and never failed to receive a multure from every grist. It must be mentioned, as a fact consistent with his misanthropic character, that although he scrupled not to accept of pecuniary donations, he never testified any particular gratitude to his benefactors for their bounty, or seemed to think himself at all under an obligation to them. He had a strange pleasure in wandering out in the dark, and is said to have spent whole nights amongst the ruins of old buildings, and other fancied haunts of spectres. Nevertheless, he was extremely superstitious, especially on the subject of witchcraft, to protect himself from which he had his garden well stocked with rowan-trees. He was supposed to entertain certain peculiar points of religious belief, but was frequently heard to speak of his existence in a future state with a fervour amounting to tears. 

There was nothing very uncommon in the style of his dress when he went abroad, either to Peebles or any of the neighbouring farmers’ or gentlemen’s houses, which practice he altogether left off for many years before his death. He usually wore an old slouched hat out of doors, and a cowl or woollen night-cap at home. His feet, to fit which with shoes was beyond the ingenuity of any rustic artificer, were wrapt in pieces of leather or cloth. He always walked with a sort of pole or pike-staff considerably longer than himself. 

David Ritchie died in December 1811, after an illness of three days, being reckoned at that time considerably above seventy years of age. About L.20 were found in his chest after his death, the half of which was restored to the parish. he had become penurious and miserly in his latter years; the only article on which he was ever known to expend any money being snuff, in which he indulged to excess. During his life, David had cherished and expressed a great desire to be buried in a romantic and beautiful spot on the Manor water, called Woodhill. His alleged reasons for this predilection were his antipathy to being huddled up in the kirkyard with the “common brush,” as he expressed it, and his aversion to have “the clods clapped on him by such a fellow as Jock Somerville, the bellman,” whom he mortally detested, on account, as some thought, of a resemblance which that obnoxious individual bore to himself in personal deformity. David changed his mind, however, on his deathbed, and he was “gathered to his fathers” in the churchyard of Manor. 

Davie’s sister, which whom he never could agree, survived him for many years. The poor creature, whose derangement increased much after her brother’s death, continued to reside in the lonely cottage during the day, but was taken care of at night by some kind individuals in a neighbouring hamlet. the notoriety which her moorland habitation acquired after the publication of the “Black Dwarf,” caused her much annoyance by the questions put to her regarding her brother, by the idle and curious who flocked to the spot. “Will they not let the dead rest?” she would mutter to herself, after one of these interrogatory scenes; “what gars the folk speir sae mony questions about us? Our parents were poor, but there was nae ill anent them.” She was still further concerned when some one told her that her brother was introduced into a play; meaning that his fictitious representative was brought upon the stage in the drama formed out of the novel by Mr Terry. Her old acquaintance, Sir Adam Ferguson, paid her a visit soon after, and was saluted in the following terms:- “Oh, Maister Audam, isn’t this an awfu’ like thing? they say they’re acting my brother Dauvit in Lunnon. Will they no let the dead rest in their graves?” – an appeal far from deficient in pathos. With that kindly and benevolent sympathy of heart which was one of his distinguishing qualities, Sir Walter Scott, in his introduction to the novel, in the late edition, expresses much concern at what the old woman suffered on account of his having made free with her brother. But he ought, at the same time, to have considered, that, if he thus occasioned her a little verbal persecution, the grievance was amply compensated by the pecuniary donations that were liberally showered on her by her interrogators, and which secured for her helpless old age many comforts which she might otherwise have wanted. 

During the twenty years that have elapsed since the death of the hermit, his garden has been permitted to run almost entirely to waste; but we are fortunately enabled to present something like a catalogue of the numerous flowers and plants which it once contained, in the following lines, by Mr Thomas Gentle, gardener, Peebles, in which the writer has, with much ingenuity, and great simplicity of expression, put a whole hortus siccus into metre and rhyme:- 

Old David reared the curious Christmas rose, 

That in the month of January blows – 

Batchelors’ buttons – lilies, pure as gold – 

Ground-ivy, twined in many a lengthening fold – 

Myrrh – balm – thyme – and fair southernwood and mint, 

Plants less desired for elegance than scent – 

Blue violets – daisies – polyanthus red, 

Under the leaves of deadly nightshade hid – 

Tall shepherd’s club – French William – blue monk’s hood – 

The modest primrose, native of the wood – 

Green periwinkle, sage, and calomile, 

That creeps along the surface of the soil – 

Pennyroyal – millfile – Solomon’s seal – 

Fair flower-de-luce – French lilies – and speedwell – 

Valerian – orpia – cransbile – scurvy-grass – 

And tulips of the common kind and class – 

Grey horehound – tansy – wormwood – bitter rue – 

Wild agrimonia – and white feather too. 

Famed star of Bethlehem, and Jacob’s ladder, 

With gardeners’ garters, striped like any adder – 

Carnation – poppies – catchflies – saxifrage – 

And honesty, no favourite of this age – 

Queen’s jellyflower – campanula – fox-glove, 

High stalks with white, and purple stalks above – 

Red and white double roses – wallfower fine – 

And many sorts of pretty columbine – 

Walk-robin – hyssop – blue-glass – hellebore – 

Coast Mary – beateny – and borage hoar – 

St Johnswort – saving tree – and butcher’s broom – 

And yellow aconites, an early bloom – 

Small dog-tooth violets – cowslips – golden rod – 

Allicampane, with leaves more red and broad – 

And a majestic Turkey-rhubarb bush – 

Tall Scottish thistle – and the clothier’s brush – 

And small sweet-scented lily of the vale, 

Mingling its sweetness with the passing gale. 

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