TOWN DRUMMERS AND CRIERS
Listing by David Orr
From THRUMS AND ITS GLENS
HISTORICAL RELICS AND RECOLLECTIONS
BY JAMES STIRTON, KIRRIEMUIR
Extract regarding TAM BARNETT - Town Crier
Tam was the son of his father, even to “Thrums town crier”. He was an old public servant. He indeed contributed to their amusement for nearly forty years, and as one who knew him well seventy years ago said, “take him all in all, we shall not look upon his like again.” Had he been known to the author of “Waverly”, he certainly would have been immortalized by him. He could neither be called the Demosthenes nor the Cicero of his profession, but he was without doubt the Sheridan. He had wit and humour in abundance and at command. His general appearance will be seen above, as he appeared in the summertime; but with this difference in the winter – of his blue coat and red neck, buttoned with one button at the top. It corresponded ill with the nudity of his nether parts, provoking the exclamation, “How much at variance are his head and feet.” He was nearly as broad as he was long, and the leer in his eye being irresistibly comic, he only had to cock his blue bonnet with its red tuft to put himself in proper attitude, with his hands and drumsticks behind his back, then begin his oration, to set the whole crowd which collected around him in a roar of laughter. Let if be observed, however, that he never laughed himself. He knew, like all sensible men, that no orator ever retained the respect of his hearers who laughs at his own jokes. So far was he from losing his authority – fallen as he was – that his very name was a terror to the young people; and, in truth, even after his deposition, the government of many well-regulated families could not go on without him. His voice latterly became much broken, some words vanishing altogether when he wished to be loudest, but in his best days it was clear and distinct. However, it was far from being as sonorous as that of his father, who held the same office before him, whose “O yes’s” were heard as far as Cabbylatch, a distance of several miles away. His proclamations were made sense of by Mr. Fletcher, the old Jacobite Laird of Ballinshoe, at the corner of his stackyard, a distance of more than two miles. But though the father of the son had the better of him in all those qualities, which were secondary and mental. His exhibitions were amusing enough at all times, but never so intemperately as on Sundays when he recapitulated for the sake of his country hearers the novelties of the preceding week. The Rev. Thomas Ogilvy declared secretly to some friends that he was partly of the opinion that the effect of some of his best sermons was heard from the rostrum in the square when the congregation was dismissed. Various methods were tried to stop his mouth, but were of no avail. But the late Dr. Easton, a name still revered here, succeeded (after several ineffectual attempts) to stay the torrent of his loquacity. Tam at one time was worth twenty pounds sterling. He was as independent as any in the land; but alas! The frailty of Tam, he began to drink drams. Single acts were soon converted into habits, and it was observed that he was to be seen more frequently in a state of intoxication when a Justice Court met, than at other times, the very seasons when he ought to have been most on his guard; but these were the days when he had the greatest command of cash. At last, after every gentle method had been tried and had failed, he was deprived of his office and obliged to submit to the humiliating arrangement of getting together another to do the whole duty while he retained a small part of the emoluments.
At first his grief and vexation were not to be repressed and many were the schemes, which he fell upon to regain what was irrecoverably lost. There was no appeal. The people sanctioned the deed. There were no petitions in his favour. Tam walked all the way to Bothwell Castle to inform his patron of his misfortunes. But alas! the powers of patrons cease when they have issued their presentations. Thereafter his practice was to compare himself who has got an assistant and successor. The young man, he admitted, was popular, but he observed that al public speakers exert themselves at first, and insinuated that people were (even in those days) fond of novelty, new face, new grace, and that he had not been the only speaker in the town who in his remembrance had suffered from the fickleness of public opinion. His criticisms, too, on the exhibitions of his rival, and the bugle which he sometimes used in place of the drum, to please the more scientific of the hearers, and the new-fangled way in which he pronounced the words, and the abrupt manner in which he began his discourses, rushing without grace or decency. Omitting his father’s “O yes’s,” and his “all to take notice,” were acute and amusing. It may be forbearing, however to mention one attempt which he made to blow up his rival’s popularity, and which might have succeeded anywhere but in Thrums. He openly declared that some of the loudest and most fluent of the harangues to which the people listened to with much delight were not his own, but just what had been written for him; that he himself had detected him in the very act of consulting his notes, even reading them at the corner of the Square, near the “New Companies shop,” and that he had been told by a well-wisher (of the young crier) that on one occasion he was obliged to stop altogether, although nobody noticed it, and apply his employer to be informed what came next. Nobody could deny Tam’s statement. The fact was well known to the whole town, and when he received a proclamation from the Sheriff, and on other important occasions when he had to be more accurate, to give the very few words, he kept the MSS. before him. It was notorious that on the market days, when the advertisements came upon him in numbers, he was not at the trouble of committing them to memory, but employed a little bareheaded “loonie” with black eyes and a blacker face to accompany him on his rounds, whose province it was to hand him up the MSS. One after another, which he read in the most slavish and barefaced manner. Some declared that he always read, but his was a clumsy calumny, for in the first week of his appointment he was heard at ten o’clock on the Saturday night proclaiming the night was so dark that he was obliged to carry a “lanthorn” along with him to enable him to keep to the middle of the road, which, with this assistance he was barely able to do. Coming events cast their shadows before, and this was the beginning of the end now attained by the reading of sermons and all proclamations in all the churches, - aye, evening the Auld Licht Kirks, - all at the insistence of Tam Barnett’s helper and successor. Geordie Mill and the parish minister had fought a tough fight, but yet another had to wage a war between the three, - Leary Ethard (Edward). The minister thought he was pre-eminently the instructor of the populace. Tam (and his father before his day), and Geordie Mill with their information, thought they were better but “Leary. Leary, licht the lamps” made himself more than equal to them all when he interrogated the minister ”Whilk o’ us twa gi’es the fouk the maist licht, doctor?” The reprimand the doctor had in his wallet “for Leary being fou’ was this time retained, and the smile left the matter in abeyance. However, the sin of beginning to read sermons, etc., cannot be laid to Tam’s charge. It was not him who sounded the Methodist Minister’s arrival and the consequent innovation. All he required was to get some learned clerk to read the MSS. over to him. In this way he got hold of the principal facts, but the arrangement and the alliterations and the rhymes and other embellishments were all his own. His fingers and his drumsticks, which he assiduously kept behind his back, were of use to him as an artificial memory, in the same manner as the statues in the temple of the gods were to the orators of old, to regulate the order of precedence among the advertisements. Among his multifarious offices, Tam was custodian of the Town House, which was, perhaps, the best sphere for exercising his bent. It has been said he was married and had a family. It has even been declared that his wife “took a hurried death.” Be that as it may, Tam and his drum were inseparable. The drum was in truth his friend and breadwinner, and all he had, moreover, for wife and child.
His success as a detective was sometimes very cleverly attained, although he required to be detected himself in many cases as being the culprit. Criminally inclined, or pertaining to a practical joke, Tam thinking of his prospective drouth next morning, thought to steal some “ingans” from a bed of the same one night in the wast toon en’, knowing full well that he would get them to cry the next morning. When crying “ingans” he said, I could lay my hand on the croon o’ him that took them, but if he took them back he would be freely got fae the punishment he deserved. Tam took back the “ingans” and got his “saxpence,” the price then of “a gill o’ paps wi’ a bottle o’ ale an’ a biscuit.” Once (by another promised dram) he perpetuated a joke on a well known farmer when finishing a call for harvesters, thus: “Them that are willing tae gae, wull get milk an’ meal an’ meat in the hoose, and four pence the threive, an’ it’ll be shorn, bun, an’ set tae them.”
The Town Hall was often let to showmen to perform when Tam was in office. This meant “mair drams.” On one occasion, in concert with Robbie Dixon, the town’s piper they were beat to get an audience as well as the caterers to the public. The candles “burnt oot,” and the puppet show was at an end for the night. What now for the rent? There was no audience. Tam and Robbie consulted together for some time, and then went into the room and demanded the night’s fee from the showmen. In the course of a few minutes Robbie was seen descending the stair, head foremost, and pipes along with him thus: “Guid preserve me we’re no ’greein’ amon’ oorsel’s” but Tam stuck in like a badger, and although he was severely paiked and thumped, he maintained the proud position of victor till they landed him in his lock up. When Tam went to relieve them in the morning, he addressed them thus;: “I doot ye ga’ed tae yer beds supper less last nicht, billies, and ye hae sleepit upo’ a hard bed, but if ye gae awa peaceably fae oor toon I’ll dune tae ye.”
Latterly Tam Barnett became the only individual ever known to have been addicted to habits of inebriety who ever received assistance at the hands of the Kirk Session, and he was limited to the payment of his “house rent” amounting to twenty shillings per annum. “The byrie” was the house in which Tam ended his existence over sixty-seven years ago, and he now sleeps in the auld kirkyaird among his forefathers.
The stone on which he sat – the only furniture he had and could leave to indemnify the vaule gained – is better protected in “the wast toon en’” than Donald MacKay’s stone fowler to King Malcolm, which is still bearing the blast of the elements, as it has done for the last five hundred years.
Tam Barnett wandered round our town
On unshod feet for many a summer
As constable to serve the town,
And for the folks a drunken drummer.
He maul’d the beggar wives and scamps,
And cugel’d cadgers, knaves, and tinkers;
And jail’d the prigs and lawless tramps,
And in the scuffle catched blue blinkers.
The jail key in his hand he shook,
To awe and threaten the offender;
He made the crowd cowe with his look,
And ringleaders of mobs surrender.
A scandalmonger and a knave,
He was, though that may sound but oddly,
And if you rest then you would have,
It’s all in all – he was ungodly.
Transcript by D G Orr