Mortality, the Novelist and the Exciseman

Old Mortality and his Pony, Dumfries Museum
Old Mortality and his Pony, Dumfries Museum

Dumfries & Galloway, South West Scotland

The following has been adapted from ‘In the Tracks of Mortality’, self-published, 2016

In the summer of 1793, in a graveyard in the parish of Dunnotar on the north east coast of Scotland, there occurred a chance meeting between Robert Paterson, a stonemason known by local people as ‘Old Mortality’, and the still unknown but aspiring writer, Walter Scott. The event was recorded years later in a letter that Scott wrote to an admirer and, if true, took place when Paterson was already in his eighth decade and a long way from his home in the hills of Galloway, south west Scotland.

In the autumn of 1816, as an established novelist, Scott recalled the event in greater detail in the opening chapter of The Tale of Old Mortality.   Paterson was pursuing his lifetime’s work of restoring the gravestones and monuments of the Covenanters, a religious movement of the 17th century. Using artistic licence, Scott painted the picture of a tranquil summer evening where, amongst “the gentle chiding…of the brook, and the sighing of the wind in the boughs”, his peace was disturbed by the occasional “clink of a hammer” in the distance. Upon closer inspection, he came across

“An old man…seated upon the monument of the slaughtered Presbytarians, and busily employed in deepening, with his chisel, the letters of the inscription…”

The old man’s appearance was unusual, he thought. “A blue bonnet of unusual dimensions covered the grey hairs of the pious workman. His dress was a large old-fashioned coat of the coarse cloth called hoddin-grey, usually worn by the elder peasants, with waistcoat and breeches of the same; and the whole suit, though still in decent repair, had obviously seen a train of long service. Strong clouted shoes, studded with hobnails, and ’gramoches’ or ‘leggins’, made of thick black cloth, completed his equipment.” And he was not alone. “Beside him, fed among the graves a pony, the companion of his journey, whose extreme whiteness, as well as its projecting bones and hollow eyes, indicated its antiquity.”

Scott gets into conversation with the old man, invites him to a local tavern for a drink and teases out of him some grumpy views on the state of modern morals and religious observance. He then uses this literary device to hark back to the time of the Covenanters, the backdrop for a tale of ‘star-crossed’ lovers. Thus he evokes an atmosphere which was at once redolent of former times – even Paterson’s appearance was straight out of the 17th century – and timeless, for the character, the materials with which he worked and the monuments transcend the activity of the world beyond and create – however briefly – a haven from it.

The style of Scott’s prose has gone out of fashion but the mixture of fictionalised historical events and real characters, which was a trademark of his writing, will be understood by anyone familiar with Hollywood blockbusters and TV dramas today. While Scott had few facts concerning his background, the character of Old Mortality was certainly real and the success of the novel helped to fix the figure of the ill-tempered old stonemason, as with so many other characters from Scott’s novels, firmly in the popular imagination. So much so that, in 1829, as part of a new edition of all of his works, Scott wrote a foreword to The Tale… in order to shed more light on the man, his life and his family.

Although it is short, largely anecdotal and contains several inaccuracies, this new introduction remained the most complete version of Paterson’s life available for almost seventy years, until later historians dug deeper to rescue fact from fiction. The real-life person on which the character of Old Mortality was based was born in Hawick, in the Scottish Borders, in 1716. At 13 he was apprenticed as a stonemason and later acquired his own quarry at Gatelawbridge, near Thornhill in Dumfriesshire, where he settled down and raised a family with his wife, Elizabeth.

Intimations of Mortality
Intimations of Mortality

The stone that Paterson carved was red sandstone, used in the construction of the majority of local buildings including nearby Drumlanrig Castle, the then home of the Dukes of Queensberry and still a major local tourist attraction. However, the 18th century saw an increase in the affordability and use of elaborate headstones to mark graves, complete with detailed inscriptions and decorated with intimations of mortality – skulls, crossbones, hourglasses and the like.

The local area had also been a hotbed of religious fervour during the second half of the 17th century when the Covenanters – adhering to a strict interpretation of Protestant worship – had fought a form of guerrilla warfare with royalist forces.   This period, culminating in the ‘killing times’ of 1683-85, had produced a large number of martyrs whose graves their ancestors now sought to mark with suitably inscribed headstones and other monuments.

Paterson was well placed to supply both these markets but the latter required him to travel further and further in the region to reach the sites in question, carrying the raw stone tablets on the back of a donkey, to talk to and often stay with the relatives in question while he carved and inscribed the headstones. This immersion in the history and culture of the Covenanting movement seems eventually to have produced an epiphany in Paterson who in 1758 left his wife and family to devote himself more fully to this occupation, not returning for another ten years.

The precise schedule of Paterson’s wanderings is not possible to resconstruct after all this time and distance but the locations he visited can be gauged from the evidence of Covenanting graves – carved to a similar format and text – across dozens of graveyards in the region. Even when Paterson returned to Gatelawbridge in 1768, it was only to collect his family and take them deeper into the Covenanting heartland, to Balmaclellan near New Galloway, before continuing on his travels.

From parish and court records and a handful of family-held documents it is possible to get a number of tantalising glimpses of Paterson’s journeys over the next thirty years or so, until his death – still working on his beloved headstones – in 1801. The records suggest that he travelled extensively across the southwest of Scotland, from the Mull of Galloway in the far west up to Lanarkshire and the Central Belt of Scotland. And, in addition to the similarity of the inscription with other headstones he is known to have carved, there is also evidence from the childhood memories of a local weaver, John Duncan, to corroborate Scott’s assertion that Paterson did indeed work on the monument at Dunnotar, in the far northeast.

Old Mortality Gravestone, Balmaghie, Dumfries & Galloway
Old Mortality Gravestone, Balmaghie, Dumfries & Galloway

Contemporary sources portrayed Paterson in old age in very similar terms to the description used by Scott in his opening to the novel. One old lady, aged 83 in 1870, lived in Balmaclellan as a young girl and remembered seeing Paterson just the once. Her father, who ran the village store, brought her out to see Old Mortality pass by on his pony. He was, she said, “a gey, droll-looking auld body. He was riding on a wee bit white pony, had on an auld hat hanging over his lugs, and the pony was going unco slow.”

By the cruellest of ironies, however, the exact location of Paterson’s own grave is not known.   This is due largely to the fact that Paterson collapsed and died on the road in midwinter and was given a pauper’s burial before his family could be traced and informed.   The irony was not lost on Scott who made provision in his will for a memorial to the old man if his burial place could be found. Scott died in 1832 but it wasn’t until thirty years later that his publishers, after undertaking their own investigations, were able to pinpoint the hamlet of Bankend, a few miles southeast of Dumfries, as Paterson’s final resting place and to place a memorial stone in the churchyard.

Old Mortality was apparently written in the space of a few weeks during the autumn of 1816. It came hot on the heels of the success of Waverley, Guy Mannering and The Antiquary, works which cemented Scott’s reputation and made his fortune. They were historically-based novels for which he carried out extensive research through his own reading but also personal contacts on whom he relied for old manuscripts, anecdotes and artefacts. For the character of Old Mortality, however, he relied on just one source of information – as, to a large extent, we still must today – that of Joseph Train.

Train was born in 1779 in Ayrshire. Apprenticed as a weaver he joined the Excise Department in 1808 being stationed first at Ayr but later in Newton Stewart, Galloway. His duties as an exciseman required extensive travel across the south west of Scotland, including remote, rural areas where he came into contact with traditional lifestyles and a rich store of sayings, folk tales and memories. He wrote them all down and, if there were any particularly interesting antiques to be had, he asked for or bought those as well. This provided Train with enough information to publish ‘Strains of the Mountain Muse’, a collection of poems which brought him to the attention of Walter Scott whose fame by this time was widespread. Scott asked Train to supply him with notes or anecdotes concerning the history and traditions of Dumfriesshire, Galloway and Ayrshire, a request with which the celebrity-struck civil servant was happy to comply, though the effort he subsquently put into it forestalled his own literary career.

In one of his notebooks Train later wrote: “From the day I became acquainted with Sir Walter Scott, the ambition of authorship was superseded by a desire to serve the great novelist”. Charles Dickens, writing the exciseman’s obituary many years later, put it more effusively. Train, he said, acknowledging his role in supplying material for Scott’s novels, “… readily accepted the office of purveyor to his literary majesty. He swept hill, glen and dale, from the Nith to the Irish Sea, from the Ayrshire Border to the Solway, for the rarest flowers of tradition, and laid them at the master’s feet.”

In his memoirs of their relationship, Train listed the artifacts and curios which he managed to track down and give or send to Scott. These formed an eclectic, not to say esoteric, collection. They included, for example, the “Antic purse (ie. the sporran) that once belonged to the celebrated freebooter Rob Roy” and the “Ladle of the last resident hangman in Dumfries,” adding a cross-reference for good measure “(as) mentioned in Waverley novels vol.2, p408.”

Leather Pocketbook, Dumfries Museum
Leather Pocketbook, Dumfries Museum

More significantly, he also obtained “The mallet and square used by Old Mortality in his pious work of repairing the martyrs’ gravestones…These well-worn instruments”, Train added in his notebook, “have been most kindly placed in my hands by my friend Mr Robert Patterson (sic) of Balmaclellan, the only surviving son of Old Mortality.” There is no evidence that Scott ever received this last gift but the contact made with Paterson’s family became a rich source of letters and other artefacts, information on which Scott based his 1829 foreword to the novel.

Unfortunately, only one item of this collection has survived – a leather pocket book found among Old Mortality’s possessions and now in the collection of Dumfries Museum. It contains a pencilled note by Paterson Junior attesting to its authenticity.

Train also claimed responsibility for inspiring Scott to use the literary device of Old Mortality himself in his eponymous novel, citing the origins in a visit to Scott’s Edinburgh home in 1816 when he said the novelist was struggling for an introduction. The claim, made long after Scott’s death, but while his novels and the characters they contained were at the height of their popularity, is almost certainly exaggerated. But whatever vicarious benefits Train liked to derive from his relationship with Scott, it seems he did profit in career terms.

In 1820, Train was promoted to the grade of Supervisor, one of only seventy such posts in Scotland, a move in which Scott appears to have been influential as he acknowledged in a letter written in 1829 (“…although it is eight years since through your goodness I was first appointed to that station”). By the time Old Mortality was published Scott was already beginning to suffer the effects of the long illness of which he was to die in 1832. A year later, as a final contribution to their partnership, Train sent a ‘Brief Sketch of a Correspondence with Sir Walter Scott commencing in the year 1814′ to John Lockhart who was writing his father-in-law’s biography. Train retired from the Excise in 1836 and eventually resumed his own literary career. He died in 1852 and was buried in Castle Douglas.

A 19th Century Engraving
A 19th Century Engraving

While there was a genuine academic aspect to Train’s work as a collector and antiquarian, he is chiefly remembered for his role as Scott’s researcher. Whatever doubts there may be about his motives, or his accuracy as an historian, there is little doubt that his instinct for rescuing tales and traditions from obscurity – such as that of Old Mortality – ensured that they survived through the pen of his more famous contemporary.

In an obituary written in 1853, Charles Dickens recalled a visit he had paid to Train’s house in Castle Douglas only a month before the antiquarian’s death. “He was a tall old man”, Dickens remembered, “with an autumnal red in his face, hale-looking, and of simple, quaint manners.” Of the house he described a room which was “full of antiquities – here a rude weapon of the aboriginal Celt, or one of the conquering Roman; there a baptismal font from Wigton monastery… in the corner was a stately, white-headed yellow staff which belonged to John Knox”. And in a corner, near the staff, “was a modern and homely relic – a pair of substantial cloth boots that had been worn by Sir Walter Scott.”


  1. Dugald Barr says:

    I was most interested to read your extract and have just ordered a copy of your book.

    I am happy to correct one passage in your account, viz: ‘More significantly, he also obtained “The mallet and square used by Old Mortality in his pious work of repairing the martyrs’ gravestones…These well-worn instruments”, Train added in his notebook, “have been most kindly placed in my hands by my friend Mr Robert Patterson (sic) of Balmaclellan, the only surviving son of Old Mortality.”
    Unfortunately, only one item of this collection has survived.’

    In fact the mallet, or mell, has survived – in my possession; I am great-great-great-grandson of Joseph Train and it has come down through the family (my great-grandfather James Barr married his granddaughter, Robert Train’s daughter).
    I am lending it for an exhibition of Scott as antiquary at Abbotsford and it should be on display there soon. Go and see it!

  2. Colin Carmichael says:

    The house in question where Train lived is Lochvale, Castle Douglas where my family grew up. Amazing to read about the connections to this very old house

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