One Saturday night in 1860 a navvy treated some of the lads of Hawick till they got him drunk enough to rob him of his cash, jacket and waistcoat. That night he slept it off in Mitchie's skinworks. In the morning he borrowed a coat he found hanging there. Next day he took it back.
'An honest thief,' said the Hawick Advertiser.
'The damnedest set of keelies I ever met in my life,' said the navvy.
It was all very different from sod-cutting day eleven months before. Then it was like a circus coming to town. Early morning, Wednesday, 7 September 1859, was cloudy and overcast over the Borders. The harvest was not yet in but the nearby dales emptied as folk flocked to Hawick in Sunday best and ribboned bonnets. Hawick's population doubled. Teviotdale had seen nothing like it.
'Success to the Border Union Railway,' ran a sign on an arch outside Mr Milligan's furniture warehouse. 'An open highway for all traffic,' ran the banner over the Liddesdale road by the Tower Hotel. Mr Nichols built a balcony and filled it with children. 'Vive le Hodgson,' said his sign. (Hodgson was chairman of the North British Railway whose Edinburgh-Hawick line had opened in 1849 (hence the presence of a railway station in town. This new line continued the railway to Carlisle.) Early morning, and the bells rang through the rain. Mid-morning, and the town council greeted incoming dignitaries at the railway station. Noon, and Mrs Hodgson arrived and encarriaged. The foot-goers fell in behind the Cornet (in full Common Riding costume) for the procession through the town: a flute band, a saxhorn band, a masonic lodge, the police, common Hawickians, officials from Carlisle and Edinburgh, the press, the clergy, Members of Parliament, the band of the 16th Lancers. Mid-way came the workmen: navvies with barrow and spade. [106/107]
Mrs Hodgson turned the first sod under densely wooded crags just outside town, wheeling the barrow behind her, navvy-fashion. The crowd crowed. They had no idea, said the Advertiser, she knew anything about navvying. A thousand people then banqueted on the banks of the Teviot in a marquee on the Under Common Heugh. They toasted Queen Victoria, her family, her Navy, her Army, a couple of local Dukes, the clergy, and Mrs Hodgson. ('Put the spade of gratitude in your hearts,' urged Sherriff Gordon, 'and wheel up a barrowful of your richest wishes at her feet.') They told each other the price of coal would fall. Bailie Paterson told the town it owed him a debt - thanks to him Hawick was a multi-spindle place. He had sent the first piece of woven cloth to London nearly thirty years ago.
They toasted the navvies, between the Press and the Ladies. 'Navvie Cowie replied in a humorous speech,' said the Advertiser, the last kind word it had for any of them. 'Liddesdale has not since the time of sturt and strife in the renowned Border days been in such a state of commotion as now,' the paper soon reported. 'Armies of navvies have pitched their camps in quiet valleys, and roaring pay nights, and the accompany- ing knocks and blows, form a theme of fearful recital to the dwellers in the secluded dells of Liddell.'
Smithies, stables and offices were opened all along the Hawick contract soon after sod cutting day. A gang was soon opening a cutting where Mrs H. did her bit in September. The Hardie's Hill rock blasters shot fractured stone and splintered rock like bullets through the mill and cottages at Lynnwood where the council estate now stands. A mortar machine for the Lynnwood viaduct was in place and clay was already being burned for mortar. The Slitrig Water was getting a new course.
By the end of 1859 shafts had been started at the Whitrope tunnel though more machinery was still needed along with tools and wood for the huts. Already the weather was bad — masons claimed they were lashed to the scaffolding to keep from blowing away as they built a house for Ritson, the Whitrope contractor. The year ended in a storm through which the navvies laboured to save their Christmas pay. It turned into the worst winter for a quarter century: men were laid off, many fell ill. In January, in the bone-hard cold, a drunken navvy in charge of a horse wounded Police Sergeant Guild in the leg. Somebody complained of police brutality. [107/108] The weather was still bad in March, but with sleet now rather than snow. Over a hundred huts were up at Whitrope. With the carpenter's shop and the smithy they formed a square with a belfry in the middle. Jamieson's store sold salt butter, blouses and navvy boots but not, it turned disastrously out, fresh vegetables.
A single track dipped and wobbled over the hill over the tunnel. No 4 shaft was flooded and without help from another steam engine the horses couldn't cope with the water. No 5 shaft was only half way down but headings were already being struck off from Nos 5 and 2. People drove from Hawick to wonder at it all, particularly at the wild men in mud-smeared moleskin riding up and down the shafts with one leg in the bucket, the other dangling, gripping the rope with fists like hams - all except a miner called Kingdom, a man with palms like leather pads, who flouted the bucket and slid direct to work down the cable. It was all as casual as walking until one day, finding it slippery er than he expected, he plummeted down the shaft and shattered his thigh.
The railway left Hawick down the wooded defile of the Slitrig Water into the big open hollow below the hill called Hummelkows and on to Stobs Castle, ancestral home of the Elliots. Castle, river, railway and the enclosing knobbly hills all press tightly together. From Stobs the line climbed the bare brown uplands to the flat space spanned by the big Shankend viaduct before burrowing into the tunnel-like valley of the Lang Burn where the embankment was dumped awkwardly on the hillside and which slipped all the time they built it.
The line breaks into the great sodden hollow at Langburnshiels from where you can see the massif (then bare, now bristly with forest) which the Whitrope tunnel penetrates. Across the divide, the line follows the successively broadening valleys of the Whitrope Burn, Hermitage Water and the Liddel, down to Newcasdeton, the Eden and Carlisle.
In March 1860, MacDonald opened the Turf Hotel in the great hollow, filled with damp air and desolation, at Langburnshiels. The Turf was a sod shant with five-star style offering food, drink, and bedded accommodation in several rooms. In July a gang of Irishmen stormed the place, swinging picks, spades and pokers. They battered in windows, battered down doors, battered some quiet Englishmen drinking there. They nearly broke MacDonald's arm but in the darkness (he put out the light) the rest escaped through a skylight and ran into the hills. [108/109]
The summer of 1860 set in cold and wet along the Borders where things were going irrecoverably sour between navvy and native. The Chief Constable and Sgt Guild tried to arrest a Shankend man a few days after the Turf affray. 'Kick the buggers,' his mates shouted to the navvy. The navvy's wife did kick the buggers while the rest threw stones and menaced the police with pitchforks. The law went home to Hawick.
Every day the Burgh Court was busy with misdemeaning, drunken and felonious navvies. Breaches of the peace, obstructing the pavements, common assault, drunken assault, robbery, drunk- en indecency came and went commonplacely every day. Even the bare brown hills were unsafe, even for the untamed sheep which watched everybody with the same distrust and disdain, trotting stiffly off, fleeces swaying, whenever anybody got too close. The hill farmers said navvies were raiding the hills for mutton. Probably they were, though the only proof anybody ever found was half an illicit animal under a bed in the Whitrope settlement. In April Catherine MacDonald (alias Kate Nicholas) was jailed for brawling with Mrs Ellis at Whitrope. Her children were locked away in the Combination Workhouse.
In May's good weather the work-hours were longer, the pays bigger, and men swarmed into Hawick like an infection. The town was swollen with them. Pubs strained their skins like unlanced boils as navvies multiplied bacterially in their warm intoxicating environments. The town's skin swelled to splitting. In places it did split: navvies spilled out of the jail, spewed out of the pubs openly flourishing whisky bottles. But if navvies were the bacteria, the constables were defective white corpuscles quite unable to clean them up. All got drunk together. Superintendents took to patrolling navvy pubs.
Mrs Colonel Vassal of Stobs Castle gave the Cowbyres Mission a library. James Douglas of Cavers gave bi-weekly Grand Soirees in the Subscription Rooms. 'What we want,' he said, 'is love: love between all ages and conditions of men.' The Subscription Rooms, which will stand classically facaded in Buccleuch Street, were paid for by public subscription in 1821 and built as a place of adult education. By the early '6os the bottom floor was rented as an inn, though the upper storey was still used for theatricals. It was here the soirees were held, their appeal unlessened by the pub downstairs. Upstairs only tea was served with the beef, ham, pies, and fancy bread. Musicians played from the gallery. [109/110] Massed, heavily sermonising clergy sat on the platform surrounded by evergreens. 'What dignity is there in navvies' work?' the Rev Parlane asked them. 'A man who is dignified rides in a carriage, has a fine house, and servants to wait upon him: but the poor man is often more really dignified than he who has riches and a high position. The navvy makes himself useful: and the man who does so in the position in which Providence has placed him, whether he be charged with the affairs of a great nation or employed in the cutting and the viaduct, occupies a very honourable position.' (Navvy cheers.)
In October Whitrope blazed when straw in one of the stables caught fire. Horses, cut loose in their mangers, lumbered about iron-shod and dangerous. Huts were broken down to make a fire break. At the end of the year seven men drowned in the Eden near the Carlisle Bone Mill when a travelling crane toppled over.
All along the line the brief drama of navvy v citizen was intense. Pre-railway Hawick was not today's handsome town. It was squalid, mean, and warped. Many houses were one-roomed and whole families lived in single windowless chambers. Where Drumanlarig Square now stands was a particularly noisome slum centred on three hunched rows: Fore, Mid and Back. The shopkeepers were singularly unsavoury. (There was in any case a widespread navvy contempt for shopkeepers. A belief that selling things you hadn't made was inherently ignoble. It was a base man who donned a long apron and smarmed and hand-rubbed to his betters across a counter.)
One Saturday night in April, 1861, Thomas McGraw from the Whitlaw cutting was stabbed in the loin with a rusty sword by a Back Row grocer and spirit-dealer called Nathaniel Mulvein. Another man who grabbed the sword was badly cut when Mulvein slid the blade through his bleeding fingers. Mulvein pleaded self-defence but he'd slashed some one before and was committed to Jedburgh jail.
June brought fine weather, long work-hours, big pay, and a recrudescence of last's years infection: a contagion of brawling navvies spreading along the road to Hawick. This year it seemed more virulent, with knife fights at Whitrope and brawling all over town. A ganger at the Whitlaw cutting was casually beaten up by passing tramp navvies who thus briefly appear, and permanently vanish.
Through it all the work went on. By the end of summer the arches [110/111] at the Shankend viaduct were being closed. All the piers were at full height. The Lang Burn kept on slipping but the Whitrope tunnel was almost there. From Scotch Dyke to Carlisle the permanent way was already laid except for a stretch over the Eden. Rails were being spiked at Newcastleton.
Then early in the Spring of 1862 Frederick Kelly's highwaymen began waylaying provision carts near the Turf Hotel. The carts belonged to respectable burghers: James Turnbull, grocer; Mr Mabon, grocer; Mr Young, baker; Mr Tait; William Cairns. The highwaymen stole vegetables and bread, even a jar of butter, but mostly they looked for ale. Just before St Patrick's Day there was another outbreak of highway robbery, a whole five-day week of unmasked men (secure behind the fear they generated) demanding drink with menaces. One gang who inadvertently stole a jar of treacle took it back to be changed for whisky. The problem was the roads were crowded with drink-carts briskly spanking from one gang to the next. It was one of Hawick's dichotomies: abhorrence of strong drink and greed for the money from selling it. 'One of these lawless ruffians,' Missionary Topping said, 'with a cart of drink, appeared at Shankend: a consultation was held among some of the navvies, and one of them stepped out from the rest, to tell him not to "stand and deliver", but to beat an immediate retreat with his bottles, and with this friendly admonition — that if he ever made his appearance with bottles or barrels again, they would smash them before him, and I am not sure but they would also smash something else. The travelling shebeen decamped.' Topping went on: "The men in their sober moments condemn the drink as the source of all their sorrows, sickness, imprisonment, poverty."
Nobody connected with the works — not the Catholic priest, not the contractor, not the engineer — wanted drink to be sold at Whitrope. But still Hawick granted licenses. Local Christians tried to keep the men sober by setting up a chapel, a school, and a reading room with its own library. But Hawick's frock-coated burghers still trooped in massed carts to cash in on the sale of booze. 'Now, sir,' said Topping, 'who are to blame? I know many of the navvies are, but not all. When they are beset on the roads by these carts, and drink of the worst description offered at a cheap rate to them, are not those who dispose of it, and also those who permit such an enormous traffic by unlicensed individuals also culpable?' 'If something is not done,' Topping insisted in the absence of an [111/112] answer. 'I would say let the blood of these poor men be upon the heads of those who will not try and stop the traffic carried on by these carts.' But nobody listened to J H Topping. Certainly not the navvies. Certainly not the shopkeepers counting the navvies' coin.
In a way Hawick was personified by Dr McLeod. He, too, battened on the navvies by taking money to look after them, then let them decay with scurvy, a curiously self-inflicted illness in a landlocked farming county. Yet, 'The medical practitioner on the railway seems to have gained the esteem and affection of the whole of the navvies from the most delicate to the sturdiest,' an unidentified admirer wrote in the Advertiser in March 1860. He/she had just visited the Whitrope tunnel with McLeod. Near Hardie's Hill cutting where the gunpowder gangs happily blasted the inhabitants with shattered rock they met two navvies steadying an injured man on a horse.
'Doctor, I've got mysel' hurtit, sir.'
'Poor man,' said the doctor with compassion. 'I'm sorry for that: are you badly hurt?'
'I think my knee joint's off, sir,' But joint off or no, and for all his horse-side manner, McLeod merely told him what to do and sent him off home alone.
Next July a wagon on the Whitrope incline ran over the leg of an Irish part-time navvy called McLusky. McLeod wanted to amputate but McLusky's mates advised him to endure the journey to Edinburgh. The Advertiser said they were drunk. McLeod took a piece of bone from the leg and they got McLusky into a cart. For some reason it took seven hours to reach Hawick, by which time the leg had to come off anyway. McLusky died a few days later, just weeks before he was going home for the potato harvest.
During the St Patrick's Day riots a driver called Cooper fell under a wagon at Fleety. McLeod amputated his arm at the shoulder. A successful operation, said the Advertiser: the man died in the Poor House next morning.
In May, 1862, an Edinburgh surgeon called Gairdner wrote to The Scotsman about several cases of scurvy he had come across among navvies in Scotland. At the time he was treating a young Irishman who in spite of earning twenty-three shillings a week had lived on bread, broth and oatmeal. On the Border Union, said the surgeon, many men ate nothing but the convenience foods of the day: salt ham, herrings, bread, tea, and whisky. A storekeeper near Hawick had once sold potatoes but found nobody would buy them [112/113] because they couldn't be bothered boiling them. McLeod was affronted, not by any hint that he might be culpable of professional malpractice but by the suggestion he was unaware of the pathogenesis of scurvy, a vitamin deficiency disease (not that either McLeod or Gairdner could know that, at the time). 'Dr Gairdner,' McLeod wrote to The Scotsman, 'implies that there has been ignorance of the cause and cure of scurvy in this district, but as he has not the honour of being the discoverer of either, they have luckily not remained a secret, and are quite as well known here as in Edinburgh.'
He had never doubted, Gairdner answered him, that McLeod knew all about scurvy. Navvies didn't, though. He had never suggested McLeod could control what went into a navvy's broth-pot but if they were given anti-scorbutic vegetables thev would eat them. 'Everybody knows that bodies of men employed at a distance from markets, fed and housed by contract, are to a great extent at the mercy of their employers.' 'The truth is,' came back McLeod, 'the navvies are by no means a class who will submit to eat and drink what may be recommended to them if they do not relish it.' He had pointed out watercress beds to them. Besides, the English thrived. 'I think our duties are clear,' McLeod ended. 'His to nurse his protege, mine still to journey to the wilderness and try to prevent any more specimens of Hibernian scorbutics being sent to increase Dr Gairdner's already onerous duties. In bidding the Doctor farewell in connection with this "scurvy" subject, I hope he may personally keep as clear of the disease as I have done.' What kind of stupidity was it that broke your work-people's health in the middle of a farming county? Gairdner, exasperated, wanted to know. Undomesticated men needed saving from themselves ('It won't do to send them a-botanising after watercres- ses.'). If the English thrived it was because they had a peculiarly English instinct for their own bodily comfort.
Then Wild Harry Hudson ran off with Emily Perkins, tally-wife of a hagman called Hall. Wild Harry also took Hall's daughter, his clothes, his bedding and all his cash. Hall was upset. So was Sgt Guild, though not so badly. They caught Wild Harry nearJedburgh and Sgt Guild had to drive his hired gig between Hall and his wife to save her from being beaten. Words however were exchanged. The navvies Wild Harry had hired to carry his loot were fascinated. So were the reapers in the fields. But then Hall spoiled it all by [113/114] forgiving both Wild Harry and his wife. Sgt Guild was upset.
Then a weekend, St Patrick's Day, and the biggest wages ever paid, neatly coincided and erupted like a split volcano. Hawick fared better than it had any right to expect. The few navvies who got that far were generally too drunk to do anything but fall down. The Irish raided, over-ran and held the MacDonald's Turf Hotel. English and Scots residents fled. Mrs MacDonald literally took to the bare hills. They smashed windows, furniture and doors. They guzzled the booze and ate the tommy. At Shankend a gang kicked out a man's teeth. At Whitrope they invaded another of MacDonald's chain of sod shants. At every peaceful bend in all that winding road, crowds of Irishmen brawled, fought, kicked, gouged and mauled. English and Scots fled. The police stayed, but inactively, always on the verge of sending for the Army. Things got worse when an Irishman was killed in a blasting accident at Shankend. Highlanders were blamed and every Scotsman on the job was threatened with death as soon as the dead man was buried. More Scots fled.
Afterwards in the sad, shabby, hung-over ruins of the riot nobody dared testify against the ringleaders. Three highwaymen were taken but Shankend society closed against the police when it came to the rioters. Five were known. Two were jailed. The others resisted. Sgt Guild was there, again, supporting Inspector Porter of the County Constabulary. The fugitives picked up crow-bars. They might be taken dead, they said like true rebels, but never alive. Their sullen, hostile backers scared the police away. The whole affair fizzled out in hang-over and failure.
The job was nearly done. Hawick's natural preoccupations had run on unhindered throughout. The chronic housing shortage. The chronic water shortage. Sheep. The failure of the turnip crop. Who was to pay for the toll gate lamp? Farm sales. Wool. The tumult and the din subsided. The uproar quietened. In the dales it was like bird song after battle. Hawick never slumbered, exactly. In fact it prospered rather hugely, partly because of its shiny new rails. Stobs Castle even had its own little station where the proud trains stopped, nestling in their own steam. They carried produce and passengers, and young men to war.
Now the track is ripped up. Shepherds in Landrovers now drove sheep along the slipping embankment at Langburnshiels. The aligned spoil heaps over Whitrope have mellowed like old tumuli, and any way are now lost in a new forest. Hill mist blows through the old tunnel, puffing out at the ends like old coal smoke. [114/115]
[Note: Full citations for works cited by the name of the author or a short title can be found in the bibliography.]
Mostly from the Hawick Advertiser 7 Sept 1859 et seq.
Last modified 21 April 2006