Chapter III. – On the Old Scottish Domestic Servant, pp.45-59.

[Reminiscences Contents]

E come now to a subject on which a great change has taken place in this country during my own experience. I allude to the third division which we proposed of these desultory remarks, viz., those peculiarities of intercourse which some years back marked the connection between masters and servants. In many Scottish houses a great familiarity prevailed between members of the family and the domestics. For this many reasons might have been assigned. Indeed, when we consider the simple modes of life which discarded the ideas of ceremony or etiquette, the retired and uniform style of living which afforded few opportunities for break or change in the domestic arrangements, and when we add to these a free, unrestrained, unformal, and natural style of intercommunion, which seems rather a national characteristic, we need not be surprised to find in quiet Scottish families a sort of intercourse with old domestics which can hardly be looked for now, when habits are changing so fast, and where much of the quiet eccentricity belonging to us as a national characteristic, is almost necessarily softened down or driven out. Many circumstances thus conspired to promote familiarity with old domestics which are now entirely changed. We take the case of a middle-aged servant, or a young servant passing year after year in a family. The servant grows up into old age and confirmed habits when the laird is becoming a man, a husband, father of a family. The domestic cannot forget the days when his master was a child, riding on his back, applying to him for help in difficulties about his fishing, his rabbits, his pony, his going to school. All the family know how attached he is; nobody likes to speak cross to him. He is a privileged man. The faithful old servant of thirty, forty, or fifty years, if with a tendency to be jealous, cross, and interfering, becomes a great nuisance. Still the relative position was the result of good feelings. If the familiarity sometimes became a nuisance, it was a wholesome nuisance, and relic of a simpler time gone by. But the case of the old servant, whether agreeable or troublesome, was often so fixed and established in the households of past days, that there was scarce a possibility of getting away from it. The well-known story of the answer of one of these domestic tyrants to the irritated master, who was making an effort to free himself from the thraldom, shews the idea entertained by one of the parties, at least, of the permanency of the tenure. I am assured by a friend that the true edition of the story was this – An old Mr. Erskine of Dun had one of these old retainers, under whose language and unreasonable assumption he had long groaned. He had almost determined to bear it no longer, when, walking out with his man, on crossing a field, the master exclaimed, “There’s a hare.” Andrew looked at the place, and coolly replied, “What a big lee, it’s a cauff.” The master, quite angry now, plainly told the old domestic that they must part. But the tried servant of forty years, not dreaming of the possibility of his dismissal, innocently asked, “Ay, sir; whare ye gaun? I’m sure ye’re aye best at hame;” supposing that, if there were to be any disruption, it must be the master who would change the place. An example of a similar fixedness of tenure in an old servant was afforded in an anecdote related of an old coachman long in the service of a noble lady, and who gave all the trouble and annoyance which he conceived were the privileges of his position in the family. At last the lady fairly gave him notice to quit, and told him he must go. The only satisfaction she got was the quiet answer, “Na, na, my lady; I druve ye to your marriage, and I shall stay to drive ye to your burial.” It is but fair, however, to give an anecdote in which the master and the servant’s position was reversed, in regard to the wish for change:- An old servant of a relative of my own, with an ungovernable temper, became at last so weary of his master’s irascibility, that he declared he must leave, and gave as his reason the fits of anger which came on and produced such great annoyance that he could not stand it any longer. His master, unwilling to lose him, tried to coax him by reminding him that the anger was soon off. “Ay,” replied the other very shrewdly, “but it’s nae suner aff than it’s on again.” I remember well an old servant of the old school, who had been fifty years domesticated in a family. Indeed I well remember the celebration of the half-century service completed. There were rich scenes with Sandy and his mistress. Let me recall you both to memory. Let me think of you, the kind, generous, warm-hearted mistress. A gentlewoman by descent and by feeling. A true friend, a sincere Christian; and let me think, too, of you, Sandy, an honest, faithful, and attached member of the family. For you were in that house rather as an humble friend than a servant. But out of this fifty years of attached service there sprung a sort of domestic relation and freedom of intercourse which would surprise people in these days. And yet Sandy knew his place. Like Corporal Trim, who, although so familiar and admitted to so much familiarity with my Uncle Toby, never failed in the respectful address – never forgot to say “your honour.” At a dinner party Sandy was very active about changing his mistress’s plate, and whipped it off when he saw that she had got a piece of rich pattee upon it. His mistress not liking such rapid movements, and at the same time knowing that remonstrance was in vain, exclaimed, “Hout, Sandy, I’m no dune,” and dabbed her fork into the pattee as it disappeared, to rescue a morsel. I remember her praise of English mutton was a great annoyance to the Scottish prejudices of Sandy. One day she was telling me of a triumph Sandy had upon that subject. The smell of the joint roasting had become very offensive through the house. The lady called out to Sandy to have the doors closed, and adding, “that must be some horrid Scotch mutton you have got.” To Sandy’s delight, this was a leg of English mutton his mistress had expressly chosen, and, as she significantly told me, “Sandy never let that down upon me.” 

   On Deeside there existed, in my recollection, besides the Saunders Paul I have alluded to, a number of extraordinary acute and humorous Scottish characters amongst the lower classes. The native gentry enjoyed their humour and hence arose a familiarity of intercourse which called forth many amusing scenes and quaint rejoinders. A celebrated character of this description bore the sobriquet of “Boaty.” He had acted as Charon of the Dee at Banchory, and passed the boat over the river before there was a bridge. Boaty had many curious sayings recorded of him. When speaking of the gentry around, he characterized them according to their occupations and activity of habits – thus, “As to Mr. Russell of Blackha’, he just works himsell like a paid labourer; Mr. Duncan’s a’ the day fish, fish; but Sir Robert’s a perfect gentleman; he does naething, naething.” Boaty was a first-rate salmon-fisher himself, and was much sought after by amateurs who came to Banchory for the sake of the sport afforded by the beautiful Dee. He was, perhaps, a little spoiled, and presumed upon the indulgence and familiarity shewn to him in the way of his craft, – as, for example, he was in attendance with his boat on a sportsman who was both skilful and successful, for he caught salmon after salmon. Between each fish catching he solaced himself with a good pull from a flask, which he returned to his pocket, however, without offering to let Boaty have any participation in the refreshment. Boaty, partly a little professionally jealous, perhaps, at the success, and partly indignant at receiving less than his usual attention on such occasions, and seeing no prospect of amendment, deliberately pulled the boat to shore, shouldered the oars, rods, landing-nets, and all the fishing apparatus which he had provided, and set off homewards. His companion, far from considering his day’s work to be over, and keen for more sport, was amazed, and peremptorily ordered him to come back. But all the answer made by the offended Boaty was, “Na, na; them ‘at drink by themsells may just fish by themsells.” 

   The charge these old domestics used to take of the interests of the family, and the cool way in which they took upon them to protect those interests, sometimes led to very provoking, and sometimes to very ludicrous exhibitions of importance. A friend told me of a dinner scene illustrative of this sort of interference which had happened at Airth in the last generation. Mrs. Murray of Abercairney had been amongst the guests, and at dinner one of the family noticed that she was looking for the proper spoon to help herself with salt. The old servant Thomas was appealed to, that the want might be supplied. He did not notice the appeal. It was repeated in a more peremptory manner, “Thomas, Mrs. Murray has not a salt spoon,” to which he replied most emphatically, “Last time Mrs. Murray dined here, we lost a salt spoon.” An old servant who took a similar charge of everything that went on in the family, having observed that his master thought he had drunk wine with every lady at table, but had overlooked one, jogged his memory with the question, “What ails ye at her wi’ the green gown?” 

   In my own family I know a case of a very long service, and where, no doubt, there was much interest and attachment, but it was a case where the temper had not softened under the influence of years, but had rather assumed that form of disposition which we denominate crusty. My grand-uncle, Sir A. Ramsay, died in 1806, and left a domestic who had been in his service since he was ten years of age; and being at the time of his master’s death past fifty or well on to sixty, he must have been more than forty years a servant in the family. From the retired life my grand-uncle had been leading, Jamie Layal had much of his own way, and, like many a domestic so situated, he did not like to be contradicted, and, in fact, could not bear to be found fault with. My uncle, who had succeeded to a part of my grand-uncle’s property, succeeded also to Jamie Layal, and from respect to his late master’s memory and Jamie’s own services, he took him into his house, intending him to act as house servant. However, this did not answer, and he was soon kept on, more with the form than the reality of any active duty, and took any light work that was going on about the house. In this capacity it was his daily task to feed a flock of turkeys who were growing up to maturity. On one occasion, my aunt having followed him in his work, and having observed an enormous waste of food, and that the ground was actually covered with grain which they could not eat, and which would soon be destroyed and lost, naturally remonstrated, and suggested a more reasonable and provident supply. But all the answer she got from the offended Jamie was a bitter rejoinder, “Weel, then, neist time they shall get nane ava!” On another occasion a family from a distance had called whilst my uncle and aunt were out of the house. Jamie came into the parlour to deliver the cards, or to announce that they had called. My aunt, somewhat vexed at not having been in the way, inquired what message Mr. and Mrs. Innes had left, as she had expected one. “No! no message.” She returned to the charge, and asked again if they had not told him anything he was to repeat. Still, “No! no message.” “But did they say nothing? Are you sure they said nothing?” Jamie, sadly put out and offended at being thus interrogated, at last burst forth, “They neither said ba nor bum,” and indignantly left the room, banging the door after him. A characteristic anecdote of one of these old domestics I have from a friend who was acquainted with the parties concerned. The old man was standing at the sideboard and attending to the demands of a pretty large dinner party; the calls made for various wants from the company became so numerous and frequent that the attendant got quite bewildered, and lost his patience and temper; at length he gave vent to his indignation in a remonstrance addressed to the whole company, “Cry a’ thegither, that’s the way to be served.” 

   I have two characteristic and dry Scottish answers, traditional in the Lothian family, supplied to me by the present excellent and highly gifted young Marquis. A Marquis of Lothian of a former generation, observed in his walk two workmen very busy with a ladder to reach a bell, on which they next kept up a furious ringing. He asked what was the object of making such a din; to which the answer was, “Oh, juist, my lord, to ca’ the workmen together.” “Why, how many are there?” asked his lordship. “Ou, just Sandy and me,” was the quiet rejoinder. The same Lord Lothian, looking about the garden, directed his gardener’s attention to a particular plum-tree, charging him to be careful of the produce of that tree, and send the whole of it in marked, as it was of a very particular kind. “Ou,” said the gardener, “I’ll do that my lord; there’s juist twa o’ them.” 

   These dry answers of Newbattle servants remind us of a similar state of communication in a Yester domestic. Lord Tweeddale was very fond of dogs, and on leaving Yester for London, he instructed his head keeper, a quaint bodie, to give him a periodical report of the kennel, and particulars of his favourite dogs. Among the latter was an especial one, of the true Skye breed, called “Pickle,” from which sobriquet we may form a pretty good judge of his qualities. 

   It happened one day, in or about the year 1827, that poor Pickle during the absence of his master was taken unwell; and the watchful guardian immediately warned the marquis of the sad fact, (and of the progress of the disease), which lasted three days – for which he sent the three following laconic despatches – 

Yester, May 1st 18–.      

   MY LORD, 

     Pickle’s no weel. 

Your Lordship’s humble servant, etc. 


Yester, 2d May 18–.      

   MY LORD, 

     Pickle will no do! 

I am your Lordship’s, etc. 


Yester, 3d May 18–.      

   MY LORD, 

     Pickle’s dead! 

I am your Lordship’s, etc. 

   I have heard of an old Forfarshire lady who, knowing the habits of her old and spoilt servant, when she wished a note to be taken without loss of time, held it open and read it over to him, saying, “There, noo, Andrew, ye ken a’ that’s in’t; noo dinna stop to open it, but just send it aff.” Of another servant when sorely tried by an unaccustomed bustle and hurry, a very amusing anecdote has been recorded. His mistress, a woman of high rank, who had been living in much quiet and retirement for some time, was called upon to entertain a large party at dinner. She consulted with Nichol, her faithful servant, and all the arrangements were made for the great event. As the company were arriving, the lady saw Nichol running about in great agitation, and in his shirt sleeves. She remonstrated, and said that as the guests were coming in he must put on his coat. “Indeed, my lady,” was his excited reply, “indeed, there’s sae muckle rinning here and rinning there, that I’m juist distrackit. I hae cuist’n my coat and waistcoat, and faith I dinna ken how lang I can thole1 my breeks.” There is often a ready wit in this class of character, marked by their replies. I have the following communicated from an ear witness: “Weel, Peggy,” said a man to an old family servant, “I wonder yer aye single yet?” “Me marry,” said she indignantly; “I wadna gie my single life for a’ the double anes I ever saw.” 

   An old woman was exhorting a servant once about her ways. “You serve the deevil,” said she. “Me!” said the girl; “Na, na, I dinna serve the deevil, I serve ae single lady.” 

   A baby was out with the nurse, who walked it up and down a garden. “Is’t a laddie or a lassie?” said the gardener. “A laddie,” said the maid. “Weel,” says he, “I’m glad o’ that, for there’s ower mony women in the world.” “Hech, man,” said Jess, “div ye no ken there’s aye maist sawn o’ the best crap?” 

   The answers of servants used curiously to illustrate habits and manners of the time, – as the economical modes of her mistress’ life were well touched by the lass who thus described her ways and domestic habits with her household: “She’s vicious upo’ the wark: but eh, she’s vary mysterious o’ the victualling.” 

   A country habit of making the gathering of the congregation in the churchyard previous to and after divine service an occasion for gossip and business, which I remember well, is thoroughly described in the following:- A lady, on hiring a servant-girl in the country, told her, as a great indulgence, that she should have the liberty of attending the church every Sunday, but that she would be expected to return home always immediately on the conclusion of service. The lady, however, rather unexpectedly found a positive objection raised against this apparently reasonable arrangement. “Then I canna engadge wi’ ye, mem; for ‘deed I wadna gie the crack i’ the kirkyard for a’ the sermon.” 

   The changes that many of us have lived to witness in this kind of intercourse between families and old servants is a part of a still greater change – the change in that modification of the feudal system, the attachment of clans. This, also, from transfers of property and extinction of old families in the Highlands, as well as from more general causes, is passing away; and it includes also changes in the intercourse between landed proprietors and cottagers, and abolition of harvest homes, and such meetings. People are now more independent of each other, and service is become a pecuniary and not a sentimental question. The extreme contrast of that old-fashioned Scottish intercourse of families with their servants and dependents, of which I have given some amusing examples, is found in the modern manufactory system. There the service is a mere question of personal interest. One of our first practical engineers, and one of the first engine-makers in England, told my brother that he employed and paid handsomely on an average 1200 workmen; but that they held so little feeling for him as their master, that not above half a dozen of the number would notice him when passing him, either in the works or out of work hours. Contrast this advanced stage of dependents’ indifference with the familiarity of domestic intercourse we have been describing! 

1  Bear.

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