Scotland Magazine Issue 75
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James Irvine Robertson follows in the footsteps of Scotland's unique brand of travellers
In days of yore, necessity made the rural Scot largely self sufficient, particularly in the Highlands. Roads were scarce and where they did exist they were rarely good enough for wheeled traffic. Goods in bulk were carried on pack ponies.
Early travellers reported long strings of laden animals winding along tortuous paths through the mountains and fording the myriad of tumbling burns. Other goods could be bought at the fairs.
Fortingall, for example, held four each year where dealers turned up to buy livestock and linen; young people from the surrounding country gathered to woo; drink was taken; dancing bears might be seen; jobs, often for the season on lowland farms, were to be had; merchants and pedlars erected stalls to purvey all the little luxuries and necessities that could not be sourced locally. During the rest of the year communities relied on packmen.
'His countenance is browned and weather-beaten; His dress is composed of a stout blue coat, rather broad in the skirts, but not long. His breeches are of drab corduroy, and scarcely reach above his haunches; but this is amply compensated by the longitude of his swandown waistcoat, which comes down nearly to his thigh. His sturdy limbs are encased in a pair of home-made stockings, over which he wears a pair of 'cootikens,' which reach about half-way up his legs. On his back is a huge bale of goods, square, and neatly strapped in a packsheet, strapped and cross-strapped with leather belts and buckles: and above this, again, and firmly strapped down to the other, is a much smaller bale of goods, of a kind most in request: and to this, again, is his wallet made fast.
'In his hand is a strong walking-stick, with a strong 'pike' inserted at the lower end; and with this he not only supports himself in walking, but fends off the dogs; for every dog, somehow or other, entertains great antipathy to packmen. With this staff, too, he can ease his shoulders, by sticking it in the ground behind him, steadying it with his hand, and then allowing his pack to rest on the top of it. In his fob, is a large, broad watch, attached to which is a strong steel chain, and to that, again, is appended two or three brass seals, one or two small keys, a shell and an old coin, all which hang, half-way down to his knee where they dangle from side to side as he wends slowly on, 'owre muir, an' dale, an' down.'
Scots packmen were not confined to their own country. It was, after all, amongst the poorest in Europe and pickings were thin. In their thousnds, they poured down to England and across to the continent, particularly northern Europe. In Poland the phrase 'a Scots pedlar's pack' was used to mean 'all but the kitchen sink'. In Germany the word 'Schotte' meaning a vagrant pedlar occurs as early as 1330. They were not generally popular with officialdom who accused them of avoiding taxes, which was undoubtedly true.
The job was not for the faint-hearted. Only the most successful could afford a pony; most would tramp the countryside burdened with their enormous packs which they hoped would soon become lighter as the days past. Of course the sooner goods were sold, the sooner the packman could return to his home town to replenish it to enable him to start out once more. The trade was dangerous. A heavily burdened pedlar was a valuable prize for a bandit, a lightly burdened pedlar was a better one since he would have turned his goods into cash. Plenty of reports exist of them being robbed or murdered. In some wilder parts of the Highlands, protection money would be extorted before they were allowed passage. There are tales of packmen dying of exposure in the snow, slipping from paths and, as at the Clach-a-Mharsain - the ‘Stone of the Packman’ - on the north shore of Loch Rannoch, meeting their end when they rested their pack on a stone and being strangled by its strap when it slipped down behind.
A place to stay for the night was never a problem. In days when stories told round the peat fire were the prime entertainment during long evenings, the packman would be highly prized. He brought gossip, gleaned from calls to the laird's mansion and from the scores of households he had previously visited.
He was often a postman carrying letters between communities and lovers. As well as being agents for the sale of illicit whisky, the authorities suspected them as being spreaders of sedition because pedlars brought news of the larger world, of politics, of wars, of fashions.
An important item in his inventory were chapbooks – packmen were often called chapmen. These cheaply produced booklets could be religious in nature, but almanacks were the biggest sellers followed by popular or folk literature. And they were made of paper, a rare commodity that was put to good use when the reading was done.
In Scotland many packmen began as boys, supplied and employed by town-based merchants, and had their usual routes and customers within easy reach of their base. They might make sufficient for stake money or be deemed sufficiently credit worthy to become entrepreneurs.
Others were often the sons of small lairds or merchants seeking to make fortunes of their own in the days before the colonies would absorb such men. A few managed it and retired to little estates back home or rose in other professions. John Cowane a one-time pedlar became one of Stirling's most properous merchants, bequeathing to the town a hospital and a trust that still delivers £1.5 million each year. Another rose to become a knight and Lord Provost of Glasgow and yet another became a Professor of Divinity.
Only in the 1950s when the last settlements in the remote Highlands were joined to tarmac roads did the packmen finally disappear. Their role had been vital in disseminating products of the towns and cities that created a revolution in domestic life, as well as bringing little luxuries to add to its pleasures. They also brought ideas from the wider world to the remotest glen and settlement and connected rural Scotland to the rest of the nation.