From Household Words No 173 Saturday July 16th 1853 pp 475/6 - By Charles Dickens


WHILE visiting the west of Scotland at the end of last year, a casual passage in Lockhart's Life of Scott recalled to my memory the worthy old antiquary, Mr. Train. I soon learned that Mr. Train, thus recalled to my remembrance, was actually living in retired old age in Castle Douglas. He had been a long time in the Excise : — in Scotland: — it would seem rather a favourite reward of genius. Few men deserved better of modern literature ; for it was to him Scott owed, not only many a good story, and many a strange tradition, but he suggested the subject of Guy Mannering, and to something which he dropped in conversation with him, we owe the machinery of the Tales of my Landlord. These are facts to make a man notable ; but Train was a notable man in essential character. Although born to narrow fortune, he was bent on acquiring knowledge for its own sake. After glancing at his personal history I shall describe what kind of old man he was when I penetrated to his retreat. The facts of his life I derive from a, memoir of him prefixed to his History of the Isle of Man, and from a sketch in the Dumfries Courier, published on the occasion of his death last December.

Train was a native of Ayrshire — the son of a land steward there — and was early apprenticed to some'" mechanical occupation," which the author of the memoir does not particularise. He was, from his childhood, studious; and, in the way of gathering knowledge, omnivorous, but with a strong bent towards everything antiquarian. Train appears to have begun life as a private in the Ayrshire Militia. The commander, Sir David Hunter Blair, one day entered a bookseller's shop in a town where the regiment was stationed : oat the table Currie's edition of Burns just out, and price one pound eleven shillings and sixpence, was lying. It had been specially ordered, the bookseller said, for a private in his own corps. We may suppose the laud's surprise, for in those days a reading plebeian was looked upon as a learned pig. Sir David got the volumes handsomely bound, and presented them to young Train. But this was not all. He looked about for a prevision for him, and (Burns being a case in point), got him, in 1808, into the Excise.

The life of an exciseman was in those days a venturesome career ; he scoured the country, wet and dry, and having brought the chase to bay, had to fight. Train discharged his duty faithfully, first in Ayrshire, then in Wigtonshire. But in all his wanderings, there was one object never neglected ; the tubs once fairly attended to, Joseph Train could, gratify the :passion :of his heart wherever he was

Twixt Wigton and the town of Ayr,
Port-Patrick and the Cruives of Cree,

or wherever else, the antiquities of the country were. the object of his love and his labours. A wandering beggar who could roll out a bit of a ballad ; an old woman with a ghost story, a boy who had found a bit of some old brass instrument, strange to modern Gallovidian eyes, were the visitors dear to Joseph. He left the village club and, the schoolmaster's jokes at the village public-house, to go off and disturb the jackdaws among the ruins of some old castle, with a half recognisable fosse. This was no idle dilettante curiosity. In the dead forms, he loved the memory of the old life. It was natural therefore that he should aspire to create; and, in 1814, he published the "Strains of the Mountain Muse."

Scott was now in the height of his poetical reputation, and his still greater day was dawning, for his poetical fame set into sunrise when the Waverley light broke. The influence of Scott is visible in the Strains, which do not indeed display much original power, or much culture. They are all illustrative of the old country traditions. Elcine de Aggart begins with great spirit :

"Why gallops the palfrey with Lady Dunure?
Who takes away Turnberry's kine from the shore ?
Go tell it in Carsick and tell it in Kyle,
Although the proud Dons are now passing the Moil,
On this magic clew,
That in Fairyland grew,
Old Elcine de Aggart has taken in hand,
To wind up their lives ere they win to our strand:'

The volume chanced to be printed at Ballantyne's office ; and was in the press at the same time with Waverley. Scott took up one of the proofs, casually, in November 1814 ; saw, probably with most interest, that the Poems by Joseph Train were to have Notes illustrative of traditions in Galloway and Ayrshire, and at once wrote to the author "begging to be included," says Mr, Lockhart, " in his list of subscribers for a dozen copies." A vast deal turned on the proof picked up casually. It happened to be the very one with Elcine de Aggart on it ! Two men so like in the point of the antiquarian heart, so different in culture, history, social position, and genius, were all at once brought into relation, I and a bridge thrown across the chasm of distance at once. Fortune had been preparing and developing Train into just the man for Sir Walter, whom she was nobly ripening for higher works. Train could scarcely know to what point the results of his studies were to be directed. He had followed, however, a tasteful instinct — and chance helped him. Like the fisherman in the Arabian Nights, he cast. in his net with common hopefullness and found that he was destined to aid a Genius.

"Ere long," says Mr. Lockhart, " Mr Train visited Scott both at Edinburgh and at Abbotsford. A true affection continued ever afterwards to be maintained between them ; and this generous way was — as the prefaces to the Waverley novels signify — one of the earliest confidants of that series of works; and certainly the most efficient of all the author's friends in furnishing him with materials for their composition."

Train 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. Train knew, too, that in serving Sir Walter, he served the cause of the Antiquity which was so clear to him. the services he rendered to Sir Walter, (and to us), may be summed up thus :— Guy Mannering is a Galloway story ; and Train supplied a sheaf of traditions towards its creation. The smuggler, Dirk Catterick, was taken from one Yawkins, a fellow famous on the Solway. The incident of the kidnapped heir happened to the old family of Brown of Carstaith — now extinct in the male line. Old Mortality owed much to Train. In May 1816, he breakfasted with Sir Walter, in Edinburgh, and talked with him of a portrait that hung in the room ; that of Graham of Claverhouse. "Might he not," said Train, '` be made the hero of a national romance ? " Scott assented. "And what," resumed Mr. Train, "if the story was to be delivered as from the mouth of Old Mortality." "Old Mortality ? " said Scott. " who was he ? " — Train answered him ; and then Sir Walter remembered that he had seen him. On this occasion Train left, with a promise to inquire every particular concerning that strange old mortal, the editor of epitaphs, And to something else its this same conversation, about a schoolmaster in Newton-Stewart, it is supposed that we are indebted for Jedediah Cleishbotham. Train also gave Sir Walter materials for Rob Roy, and a purse that once belonged to him ; and for legends which he gathered, relating; to Turnberry Castle, the Lord of the Isles stood his debtor also. He was, in short, constantly bringing tribute, great and small, to his feudal lord ; he "held of him," to use a feudal expression ; and enjoyed his tenure of literary life by right of his payments of homage.

Mr. Train led a two-sided life ; on one side he was an antiquary and poet — on the other, he was an exciseman. And it is very satisfactory to have to record that Train was not only a good antiquary , but likewise a good supervisor ; he drew up an essay which benefited the whole system ! It would be pleasant to recall that his abilities benefited himself, but promotion came slowly. He had Sir Walter Scott's and other high interest, and his own merit ; but it was complained that Englishmen were chiefly appointed to the higher stations, and it is not recorded that Train had any talent in the way of electioneering. Hence, he remained supervisor until he went on the retired list, and ended his days in Castle Douglas.

His antiquarian deeds were numerous and important, he traced an ancient wall, built, it is thought, by the aborigines, from Loch-ryan, in Wigtonshire, to the northeast border of the Stewartry of' Kircudbright, where it joins Nithsdale. This wall the country people call the Deil's Dyke ; it consists of a strong wall eight feet broad, the base of which is built of stones, or where stones were not to be had, of earth. its course extends to more than fifty-three miles. "All the late antiquarian discoveries in Scotland sink into insignificance," exclaims George Chalmers, "compared with the Deil's Dyke!`' They know not who built it, but conjecture that the Romanized Britons raised it ; and their labours, poor fellows, go to the credit of the "Deil.'' Train's most important literary work was his History of the Isle of Man. It was to a, pleasant retirement that he withdrew in the town of Castle Douglas, in Kircudbright : a white, regular, neat little town, which, for the last half-century has been rising in position in the Stewartry, and which is now an agricultural mart of considerable importance.

At my visit I was shown into a little parlour, where the antiquary joined me. He was a tall old man, with an autumnal red in his face, hale-looking, and of simple, quaint manners. The room was full of antiquities, — here a rude weapon of the aboriginal Celt, or one of the conquering Roman ; there is baptismal font from Wigton monastery, with the fleurs-de-lis faintly visible on it, marking is foreign origin. In the corner was a stately, white-headed, yellow staff, which belonged to John Knox, or at least had a very good pedigree, and one which, as it satisfied Train, satisfied your humble servant. I have never seen a more venerable staff : — it was stiff; sober, yet elegant ; all that a Puritan gentleman could require, This staff; thought I, had strength in it to destroy abbeys, and to make the works of centuries shake. Near the staff was a modern and homely relic — a pair of substantial cloth boots that had been worn by Sir Walter Scott. Having replaced them, he produced a specimen of oaken bookbinding ; curiously carved. He was not very talkative ; perhaps — though I little thought so at the time — he felt the cold shadow creeping towards him which was to make him one with his beloved Past. Once or twice, as he stood and gave the brief history of a curiosity, a beauty look came over him a minute: he seemed wandering into the period of the subject he was discoursing on. But his eye brightened, and there was a pleasure mingled in his modest disclaimer when I spoke to him of his lifelong pursuits, and the interest with which I told him I should speak of my present visit to men whose names he held in regard.

He showed me his curious specimens of ancient furniture, part of a bed from Thrieve Castle — a black oak fabric, curiously carved with morrice-dancers, Runic knobs, and most quaint horses, drawn as children draw them. Also, he had a cabinet of oak which a Gordon of Earlston carved away at, and worked into wondrous forms, during an imprisonment in Blackness Castle.

I returned to London soon after this visit, and it was not without a shock that the quiet old house with its antiquities and their owner was recalled to me amidst the din of town, when I heard that, one morning in December, after a short illness, he turned himself round in his bed, and expired in perfect peace, in his seventy-fourth year.

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© F.Coakley , 2001