AYRSHIRE ROOTS

 

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THE KIRK OF AYR RULING THE PEOPLE.

 

UNFORTUNATELY there are no reliable data from which a pen and ink sketch can be drawn of the condition, socially, of our forefathers prior to Reformation times. Records preceding that era are notoriously lacking; and there is a tendency to conclude that the ages which have left little or nothing behind them had little or nothing to bequeath.

There is some truth in the conclusion, no doubt, but there is also some fiction. Were such a thing possible, and were the observer of this century suddenly to have a vision placed before him of the habits and customs of those who walked the shores and the plains of Ayrshire, and the streets of her towns and villages, and who dwelt in her castles or in her religious houses, five or six centuries ago, the social state would unquestionably present a series of startling changes.

He would suddenly be transferred to another world of conditions, into an era of slow thought and conservative change, into a religious atmosphere which he could hardly breathe, and into an apparent rusticity of speech, of manner, of locomotion, and of life itself, which he would fail to grasp, or even dimly to comprehend. But were the same observer, instead of merely being permitted to obtain a vision of these times, to be privileged to remain long enough in the far away to master its life and its people, the chances are that he would return to his nineteenth century existence with a much higher idea of at least some of the men and some of the manners of the bye gone ages than that which he took with him. He would have found men of great intellect and capacity, of deep philosophic mind, of earnest striving after the light and the truth; and it goes without saying that he would have been confronted by patriots and by heroes, in war and for faith. The common people he would have found undeniably guileless of letters, and, outside the walls of the towns, bound hand and foot to their feudal superiors.

There is no need to go further back than the age on which the daylight, albeit dim and intermittent, is shining. Beyond that period the social life can only be read from the deeds done, by the increase of population in given centres, by the march of progress in arms and in armour, and in the side glints which these give us into everyday life. Meantime we discard all speculative treatment and confine ourselves to the authentic records carefully prepared and as carefully transmitted by generation after generation of our fathers. Little did these humble parish clerks imagine when they penned the tale of everyday life, or the town clerks when they recorded the proceedings of the civic bodies under which they held office, that, hundreds of years after they had inscribed their last minute, or penned their last deliverance, the antiquarian would seize on their books with glee, and bless them fervently for their careful attention to duty.

Though, as we have said, the social conditions prior to the Reformation are very imperfectly defined, there is still enough material left with which to build the conclusion that the land was not all darkness. So far back as 1223 there was a public school in Ayr, and it was still in existence in 1519, when Maister Gavin Ross, one of the chaplains of St. John's Church, was granted a salary by the Town Council for discharging the duties of Burgh schoolmaster. Nor was attention paid only to the essential and common branches of education; for in 1535 the Church organist was employed to teach singing, and it was an essential of the position that he should not only be "an accomplished singer," but also qualified to teach the " pynattre." The rector of the Grammar School of 1726 had to be proficient not only in Latin and Greek, but also in writing, navigation, arithmetic, and book-keeping. It will thus be seen that, at least from the beginning of the thirteenth century down to this present hour, the course of education in Ayr has been unbroken and systematic.

The records of Alloway extend further back than those of Ayr. Early in the sixteenth century the authorities of that parish were making investigations into the spread of leprosy, which was still prevalent in this part of the country. Their government partook freely of the grandmotherly. For example, in 1530 they passed an ordinance forbidding the people of the parish to take service without its bounds, or, under forfeiture of their goods, to carry a case at law before any court outside their jurisdiction. Whatever may be said for the former of these regulations, the latter commends itself in some ways to common sense. Not only did they resolve to keep their own folks at home, but they refused to permit outsiders to be brought in, and even went the length of forbidding their widows to marry outside of their jurisdiction, if the result of the marriage was to be the home coming to Alloway, without the special licence of the magistrates. They further made it imperative on all the residents to assemble when called upon for the defence of the parish. The pre-sessional records of Ayr evince the same care and forethought for the public weal. Everything seems to have been done to order of the Council. The people were warned, night and morning, by the playing of the Burgh's minstrels, consisting of a piper, or fifer, and a drummer, when to go to bed and when to arise for the duties of another day. They were forbidden to discharge hagbuts or pistols on the streets, an ordinance somewhat suggestive of the feudal strifes of the times and the conflicts of rival parties in the thoroughfares of the town. A common slanderer or "flyter" was liable to be put in the cage for three hours, and no doubt the cage was frequently tenanted to the great delight of the urchins and the gossips of the times. They were not allowed to take more than a fair profit on their goods, or to over-reach in merchandise the stranger within the gates. Pawnbrokers were forbidden to receive pledges save from the owners, and the housewives were cautioned against unnecessarily wasting the water when they drew their daily supplies from the well of St. Thomas.

Changing, with changing times, the Council grew very strict in their regulation of morals and in their insistance on the most rigid Sabbath observance after the Reformation. Previously, if we may infer from their enactments, the Sabbath was not straitly kept, but when the ministers of the Protestant faith took the place of the Catholic priests in St. John's, the Sunday was hedged about, both in and out. In 1,589 craftsmen were forbidden to labour on the day of rest, merchants were not allowed to go out of town to do business; plays were ordered to cease so that the mind of the burghers might not be distracted by unlawful recreation; the town bell was rung at six o'clock in the morning in order to warn the townsfolk to observe family worship and to pray for a blessing on the celebration of public ordinances, and at a later period the Councillors were commanded to attend church regularly under pain of losing their seats at the Council Board for the year.

The Magistrates and Council crusaded, on the introduction of the Reformation, against all sorts of sports and pastimes on Sundays. These the townsfolk had indulged in from time immemorial. A change of faith neither implied a chancre of heart nor of morals, and those who were wont to shoot at the butts or to go about their ordinary avocations or pleasures on the Sunday, naturally felt it was no easy matter to adapt themselves to the rigidity and the orthodoxy of the Sabbath. But by dint of admonitions, lectures, byelaws, punishment, and example, the old order was compelled to give way to the new, and it is certain that within a few years of the Reformation, the inhabitants kept the day of rest so well that the messengers whom they sent out to watch and spy found little reprehensible to look at and as little to report. There were occasional derelictions of duty, but these were visited with church censure so swiftly, and so publicly, that the ideal Sabbath of the orthodox became almost an accomplished fact. Still, amid the general obedience to magisterial rule, an occasional exception was found. In 1605 for instance, two men were cited before the session for playing a game known as "coppieshell" within the kirk door on the Sabbath, and the following year quite a number were had up for playing at the nine holes on the previous Sunday. It did not pay, even in a wordly sense, to be a Sabbath breaker in those days. Not only had they to submit to censure in the church and to sit on the seat of repentance, raised high and prominent among the people, but they had also to pay for their misdemeanours in hard cash, the fines ranging from six and eiglitpence for a first offence to six pounds Scots in the case of an oft-convicted and a hardened sinner. In 1604 punishment was inflicted at the instance of the session upon a mail for " walking claith on the Sabbath day," on a second for cutting up flesh, and on a third for buying cows and bringing them home. Sunday walking was regarded as an iniquity, and children were strictly charged that they should not play on the streets on that day. More rigour even was shown in insistence on the observance of the fast-day. Where a first offender against the sanctity of the first day of the week was mulcted in six shillings and eightpence, there was nothing less than a forty-shilling fine levied against him who disobeyed in the matter of the fast-day.

The Sunday thus hedged about the kirk and with the kirk the magistrates, devoted themselves to the regulation of morals generally. There was a game called Lady Templeton which excited their ire. How it was played it is not easy now to tell, 'but it seems to have consisted, to some extent at least, of dancing round about, or in the train of, a figure or effigy which went under that name. Once the edict went forth that Lady Templeton should cease, the session visited those who took part in it with pains and penalties. In 1607 quite a host of pleasure-loving females were dealt with because they refused to comply with the sessional enactments. Most of them confessed and were let off with an admonition, but Janet Cochrane, who admitted having "buskit" the figure, and Tibbie Cochrane, who confessed to "ane spring" in the dancing, were not dismissed so easily. Janet was fined in a boll of malt, and had to stand at the Cross on a market day with the Lady Templeton in her hand, and had moreover to stand in the place of repentance in the kirk on the following Sunday, in her linen clothes, while Tibbie had to do the like, save that she was not required to do penance at the Cross with the image in her hand. These were in all probability sisters who were thus dishonoured.

Offences that to-day are disposed of by the police magistrates were also dealt with by the elders; indeed, nothing came amiss to them. Those who "cruelly dang and bluided ane anither," who caused public scandal, who "flyted " on the public streets, who used oaths or were guilty of blasphemy, who got drunk, who slandered their neighbours, who disobeyed their parents, all were compelled to appear before the session, that inquisition might be made concerning them, and punishments inflicted according to the demerit that was found in them. Curious cases cropped out occasionally. Blasphemy, and that of a particularly heinous type, seems, notwithstanding the extraordinary supervision and the strictness of the times, to have been very common.

In 1605, for instance, John Dalrymple was convicted of taking a piece of flesh and casting it from him, saying as he did so that it was the flesh of the Saviour. Christina Striveling was reported for cursing her body and soul, abusing the worship of God, and refusing to have grace said, or chapter read from the Bible. Nance Gemmell had to make atonement for railing at an elder and saying that he was over holy, and Johnnie M'Crae confessed "the great blasphemy" of saying that the devil and the priest between them were to blame for the poor. For this outrageous expression of opinion he was put in the "jougs," and had to appear on the pillar of repentance the next Sabbath day; and in addition the session decreed that if he should so offend again he should be banished from the town.

Punctuality was doubly a virtue when unpunctuality was punishable. Those who came late to church were reprimanded and ordered to amend their ways. A somewhat curious case was that against John Mure. He was brought up to the session for casting stones down from one of the galleries upon the women who were sleeping in the seats in the area, a fact which seems to indicate that it was considered much worse to take such forcible means of awakening, the sleepers in Zion than it was to visit the land of Nod while the minister was enlarging on the heads and particulars of his discourse. And if the somewhat primitive method of hearing charges against the people was peculiar, so were the punishments inflicted. One of the Kennedys of Blairquhan was excommunicated because he contemptuously declined to defer to the discipline of the session; a female slanderer, Janet Smellie by name, was ordered to be, carried to the Fish Cross and there exhibited with a spur in her mouth; and a notorious beldame named Christina M’Kerrel, because she "flyted" at one of her neighbours, was conveyed through the town, tied to the tail end of a cart, with a paper on her

It would seem to be easier to tabulate what the session, in conjunction with the magistrates, with whom the members were hand in glove, undertook to do, than to discover what was outwith their Jurisdiction, They went the length of calling, before them trespassers on land, and of inflicting, for notorious offences, the most barbarous punishments. Immorality was a common vice of the times, and. it received, as it merited, the most careful attention of the elders. The ordeal, however, through which the habit and repute trespasser had to pass, can hardly be described as other than barbarous. A woman who had twice relapsed into sin was condemned, on the recommendation of the minister and. the kirk session, to stand at the Fish Cross with the hangman beside her for an hour, during which time he was to shave her head in the presence of the people. With a view to the maintenance of order and of chastity, unmarried. women were prevented from keeping public-houses; and, to secure the peace of the town, a bye-law was passed under which all these houses were ordered to he closed not later than ten o'clock. Against witchcraft both magistracy and session waged perpetual and relentless war. In one case they banished a woman from the precincts of the bugh, with certification that if she ever returned again she would be punished as her crime deserved, without further trial of any kind. In the case of the notorious Maggie Osborne, they passed the last dread sentence of the law upon her, and consigned her to the stake; and in the case of another witch, Janet Smelie, who eluded the pyre by dying in. prison, they wreaked their vengeance on the corpse. By their orders the body of the woman, mercifully freed from their hands, was dragged to the gallows foot, from the Tolbooth, and there burned to ashes.

When the soldiers of Cromwell held the town, the authorities had much ado to keep order. Offences by the military were frequent, but common as they were, the civil law was invariably employed to maintain both the public peace and the public morals. For an offence against the social code an English soldier was publicly flogged. through the streets.

Rather a different result was effected in the case of another soldier. He had been reduced in rank and turned out of the barracks. Desirous of wedding one of the fair maids of the town, he received an indulgence to do so, but not until he had. guaranteed his orthodoxy by signing and subscribing the Covenant.

The natural inference from all these petty inquisitions and somewhat drastic punishments ought to be that Ayr about the opening of the seventeenth century was an uncommonly dull and morose little town. In some ways, too, it must have been. But, on the other hand, there was great hilarity in quarters where such hilarity might not have been expected. The prisoners in the Tolbooth, for instance, not only enjoyed, but, where private means permitted, dispensed, hospitality with a lavish hand. Its heavy walls and. gloomy corridors resounded at nights with unholy glee. Those incarcerated availed themselves of the right to invite their friends to see them, and these came, resolved to make a night of it. Scenes of riot followed on over-devotion to the wine of the country, and even at times it took all the authority, material as well as moral, of the guardians of the prison to check the hand to hand conflicts which raged within its walls. Things grew to such a pitch that, ere the close of the century, an enactment was passed forbidding prisoners to have more than one visitor each evening.

In their own sphere the magistrates and town councillors made free with the burgh's funds in the way of treating themselves in the various taverns of the town. In one year they spent in this way no less a sum than £480 15s. Scots, and that too at a time when the clear income of the burgh was less by fully £11 than the amount spent in feasting and drinking. The magistrates put down the penny weddings because they regarded them as harmful, but they do not appear to have considered that what was sauce for the common goose was sauce for the magisterial and the uncommon gander. They encouraged the inhabitants in the practice of archery. When the bow gave place to firearms, they offered a silver hagbut to be shot for annually. They patronized horse-racing, donating £7 or £8 sterling from the town funds for the encouragement of this class of sport, and they repaired the town's common, at the request of gentlemen in the county, so that at the annual race meeting the horses might run with greater safety to themselves.

They were equally alive to the social progress of the town. In 1663 they established a foot post between Ayr and Edinburgh, the runner having exactly a week wherein to do the return journey. A letter cost two shillings Scots for conveyance, a packet four shillings. When newspapers began to be issued in Edinburgh the magistrates made provision for a regular supply. They supervised the food and drink purveyed to the people. As far back as 1589 they enacted that the penny loaf should be made of good and sufficient, meal, and that, in baking, no other kind of material than wheat should be used. To the peck of shortbread they insisted that not less than half a pound of butter should be added, and that the bakers should stamp their bread; and in the matter of candles they even prescribed the size of the wick that was to be used. They relegated and confined the sale of fish to the Fish Cross in 1547, and forty years later they built a meal market. Sanitation evoked their energies in a new direction, and one in which they seem to have been very much required. The condition of the side streets and closes was such that, when the pestilence did come, it not only played sad havoc with the lives of the people, but remained hanging about the slums long after it ought to have run its course and disappeared. There were no Local Authorities to order the regular cleaning of ashpits, and the good folks were not troubled with any craze for cleanliness. They gutted their fish at the doors of their houses, in the High Street, and on the bridge, and it was not until death swept across the burgh and removed by pestilence nearly a fourth of the population that the magistrates enacted that thenceforth no more compost heaps should be tolerated on the High Street, and that the practice of gutting fish on the main thoroughfare and on the bridge should cease. And when such regulations were necessary for the High Street and the bridge, what must have been the general sanitary condition elsewhere?

The most serious fault that can be found with these worthy magistrates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is that they alienated so much land that had been gifted to the town by the Crown. Had they been as conservative of the rights of the public as they ought to have been, Ayr's patrimony to-day would at least have made unnecessary anything in the shape of rating. When they wanted money, however, they were never at a loss so long as they had a rich farm to barter; and they frittered away the inheritance of the townsfolk after such a lavish fashion that the ratepayers of to-day can hardly be expected to waste much time blessing their memory. Apart from that they seem to have got on tolerably well. They adapted themselves to the times, and, in the march of progress in the country generally, Ayr never occupied a post in the rear guard. Up to the very end of the seventeenth century all the business was done in little stances or piazzas in front of the houses. There the baker sold his bread, and the cobbler his boots and shoes; nor was it until the year 1700 that an enterprising merchant obtained permission to open a shop. His example was not generally followed, for up to the opening years of the nineteenth century a great proportion of the business was done in booths and in the little stances in front of the houses. Even in the fifteenth century the roofs were slated; the houses themselves being of two storeys, and largely constructed of wood.

Such, so far as can be gleaned, is a fairly complete resume of what we know of the social life of the people of Ayr in the " good old times ;" and candour compels the admission that it had not a few admirable points in it. Ancient history has to be regarded in the light, not of to-day, but of the period with which it deals ; and bearing this in mind, it is Impossible not to feel that their ways seem to us somewhat remarkable, the church and the civil authorities were rightly exercised for the permanent good of the community. It is easy to stigmatize them as petty tyrants but we require, while doing so, to remember the state of society and the difficulties with which they had to contend. They were certainly alive to their duties, to the claims that morality had upon them, to the spread of education, to the promotion of religion, and to the raising of the general tone of the population ; and if they here and there overstepped the bounds, of prudence and made life, in trivial matters, irksome, the general result of their efforts was both beneficial and progressive.

Necessarily, the rural districts have always been behind the, towns in organization, in method, and in progress ; and that this has been so in Ayrshire, in all reliable story, is very evident. No village in Ayrshire has had its history so well told as that of Mauchline.  

Its accomplished parish minister has wandered with loving solicitude over its records, and the student of social as well as of church history can reproduce in his mind's eye from the pages of his works an accurate picture of how the villagers, and the village authorities, conducted themselves during the remote years which succeeded the Reformation. With Dr. Edgar's work in general we do not deal. But there are one or two facts emphasized in it that bear out our present purpose.

In one important respect, at least, there was a deterioration in early Protestant as compared with late Roman Catholic times. The Papists regarded the last resting-places of the dead with reverence; they were indeed holy ground, consecrated to the ashes of those who lay in their quiet embraces. It was not so with the Presbyterians. The material was never sacred, neither kirk nor pulpit, nor graveyard, nor even the communion cups. At best, even the cups were but the receptacle for the "symbol." The result of this materializing of buildings and of the accessories to religion was that the graveyards were turned to the basest of uses. Not only were cattle and sheep permitted to wander about amid the tombs, not only were the village children allowed to play where slept the forefathers of the hamlet, but those whose houses abutted on the burying grounds actually used them whereon to deposit their household refuse; and worse still, they were, in extreme cases let us hope, but undeniably in certain specified cases, veritable realms of Cloacus.

The ordering of the church service was, in its main lines, pretty much what it is to-day. We have discarded the Readers, but otherwise the forms remain tolerably intact. In 1611 the proceedings were begun by the Reader reading an humble confession of sin and supplication for mercy. Singing followed, then the reading of the Word, and after that the minister entered the church. Having engaged in extempore prayer, he gave out his text and preached; and the congregation listened, some of them with heads uncovered, some with their hats, on. A short, comparatively short, thanksgiving prayer followed the discourse, a psalm. was sung, and then, with the benediction, the service was brought to a close. That there were great gatherings at times of communion services, people flocking to the centre of attraction from all parts of the country, is well known; and that occasionally baser and more degenerate mortals than their fellows forgot themselves to such an extent as to beget public scandal can hardly be questioned; but it is open to serious doubt whether these communion or sacramental "seasons," as they were called, were, save perhaps in one or two very exceptional cases, the scene of either riot, drunkenness, or disorder.

All scandals of whatever kind were promptly seized and inquired into by the Session. The elders were virtually the police authorities of the districts, and they made it their business not only to repress but to discover all sorts and forms of misdemeanour; they listened to every story that was brought to their ears, or that floated about in the scandal-oppressed atmosphere of the village; and they even formed themselves into a sort of detective force, whose duty it was to catch the unwary and to trap the sinner in the very commission of sin. Woe betide the unhappy individual who neglected ordinances! After the two elders who stood watch and ward over the plate and the collection had seen the last person enter the church and had carefully locked up the free-will offerings of the people in the vestry or session-house, they set forth on a tour of inspection. They went from house to house, they scanned the fields, they perambulated the highways and the bye-ways, and if they caught anybody at home or in the open air who ought to have in the sanctuary, they showed him no mercy. In Mauchline they kept a complete suit of sackcloth wherein the penitents were compelled to appear for admonition. In Galston they had two suits, the one a sackcloth gown, the other a set of sheets; and in exceptionally bad cases the offenders had to appear Sunday after Sunday in these garments until the session thought that sufficient expiation had been done for misconduct. In the case of certain minds these punishments must have had a hardening effect; at any rate, they do not seem to have, been invariable resultful in effecting reformation; but at the same time the dread of exposure must have proved a powerful deterrent, as well as, not unfrequently, an incentive to hypocrisy.

But as has been already said, the times must be gauged by their own conditions and not by the social march of the nineteenth century; and if at times we are apt to think harshly of our forebears we must not forget that they lived in a transition age, and that civic and ecclesiastic authority was not divided and sub-divided as it is to-day.

 

Source "The Annuls of Ayr"

 

 
 

 

 
 

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