Thursday, 1 March 2012

A Scottish Gem from Don Roberto

Better known in Argentina than in his native Scotland, Robert Bontine Cunninghame-Graham defies categorisation. Politician, adventurer, explorer, entrepreneur, horseman, humanitarian and survivor all apply to him, as well as an acute observer of life and  brilliant writer. He enjoyed a long and exciting life in Spain, South America and Africa but was also deeply involved in Scottish affairs and the first president of the Nationalist Party of Scotland. Friend of and respected by, among others, Hugh MacDiarmid, Compton Mackenzie and Joseph Conrad, he deserves greater recognition in his native land. As a small contribution to this I offer one of his tales from 1905.


" MAN, an awfu'-like thing yon law o' general average. Dod aye, I mind aince being the matter of a hundred pound oot by it."

He paused, and spat reflectively into what he, having traded in his youth to Portland Maine, St. John's, and Halifax, knew as a cuspidor. His whole appearance showed him at first sight a man who for the most part of his life had sailed out of Aberdeen or Peterhead.

His iron-grey hair was thin upon his head, and made a halo round his brick-dust face, on which the sun, the storm, and whisky of full fifty years had done their worst. His beard was stiff and bristly, and grew high upon his cheek, and underneath the chin, looked like the back of a wild boar or porcupine. His upper lip was shaved and blue, his teeth stained yellow with tobacco juice. Thick tufts of bristles overhung his eyes and sprang from out his ears, and his enormous hands, once muscular and hard with hauling upon ropes, although immense, were soft and flabby, though still freckled by the sun which tanned them in his youth. Upon his middle finger was tattooed a ring, and round his wrist a bracelet which he tried hard to hide by pulling down his cuff. Not that he was ashamed of it, or ever for an instant posed for anything but what he was, but, as he would explain,

" Mistress M'Kechnie thocht it didna' look genteel. A woman's clavers, aye ou aye ; but then, ye see, Mistress M'K. raises a wild-like turley-wurley whiles, aboot a feck o' things that dinna matter, for I say when a man has got the siller that is the principal." And certainly he had the siller, for from a mere tin-kettle of a tramp, bought upon credit and in which the saying was if you should drop a marlin-spike it would go through her plates, he had attained to the possession of a fleet which peopled every sea.

But though good luck, which he referred to as the " act of Providence," had thus befriended him and seated him in his own private room in the great office, which he once likened to a liner's cabin, the highest praise in his vocabulary, he yet remained at heart the self-same pawky, pious, superstitious, and hard - fisted sailor man that he was when he first sailed in a whaler to the Arctic seas from Peterhead. His friends and his contemporaries knew him as Andrew Granite, whether because of his resemblance to the stone, his character, or simply from his birthplace, or from all combined, no one was sure. But from the Clyde to Timor- Laut, whenever any of his ships was spoken and ran up her number, a smile went round extending from the forecastle to the bridge, and some old shell-back was pretty safe to say, " One of old Andrew's coffins, damn them, a Granite liner ; yes, by God ; sink like a stone in some place some day, or run upon a shoal marked in no blooming chart ; Andrew will grab the insurance money, and then go off to kirk."

Withal he was a genial, simple, whisky-drinking, pious, and not unkindly man, with all the low-class Scotsman's love for law and pride in never being over-reached, and with a gift of story -telling which a long life at sea had sharpened and improved.

His conversation ran on bottomry, on jettison, demurrage, barratry ("a grand word yon," he would explain), and barnacles. Much had he got to say about Restraint of Princes and the like, of berth notes, back freights, charterparty, cessio clause, frustration of adventure, and as to whether frost and rats fell under act of God, or might be held as perils of the sea. Much did he like to dwell upon "diceesions o' the Coorts," quoting with unction Stamforth v. Wells, Hadley v. Baxendale, and Vogeman v. Parkenthorpe, with comments of his own upon the judges, with much about the lunar and the calendar in the vexed question of the " Charter " month, much of the usages of trades and ports, all which he held " redeeklous," deeming them part and parcel of a scheme against the Granite Line.

An elder of the kirk " outby Bearsden," where, as he said, "he stopped," he yet believed that Providence was a malicious demon on the watch to do him damage, sending foul winds and snapping shafts of screws, blowing off heads of cylinders and heating brasses in an arbitrary way, as if the power referred to had nothing else to do but to watch him and his affairs through a celestial magnifying glass which he kept screwed into his eye after the fashion of a watchmaker when looking at a watch.

The house " outby " where Andrew Granite " stopped " was built of such well-hewn and finely pointed stone as to resemble plaster, so neat were all the joints, so sharp the edges, and though substantial, did not seem designed to live in, but rather as a model from some exhibition of what no house should be. Roofed with dark blue metallic-looking slates, it stood in its own carriage-sweep, which, laid with furnace slag in lieu of gravel, formed as it were a yellow ochre river flowing between the bulwarks of green grass which bounded it, and which, as the possessor said, were " trimmed square by the lifts and braces and ran down sheer into the tide." He used to add that "in a ship, ye ken, ye canna let minavellings lay aboot, an' for a gairdner ye couldna' get a better man nor steadier than an auld sailor, if ye can keep him frae the drink."

Laurels and rhododendrons, the latter "bonny heebrids," as the seafaring " gairdner" called them, stunted and withered by the wind, stood ranged beside the avenue in rows, each with its Latin nickname dangling from a wire upon a piece of tin, as if it was convicted of some crime against its fellows and was doing penance for its sins. Cast-iron hoops contrived to look like withies bordered the road ; and to make all things sure, enamelled plates with the inscription " Parties are requested to keep off the grass " reminded people to be cautious how they walked. A battlemented lodge and wrought-iron gate with a huge gilt monogram upon the top stood sentinels at the edge of the domain. Clumps of young spruce trees were disposed at intervals to break the wind, which bent them over opposite the side it blew, and stripped them bare where they caught all the fury of the blast.

The inside of the villa was suitable to its exterior grace. Plate-glass and varnished yellow pine gave it a sort of likeness to a ship. White fluffy mats lay on the floors, and on the walls were water-colours, so well finished and so smooth that they could easily have been mistaken for the best kind of chromo-lithographs. Wax fruit and feather flowers, and hummingbirds, looking distorted ghosts of their bright selves, were stuck about upon the mantelpieces, covered with glass shades. A banner-screen with a ship worked in crewels stood before the fire, which in a bright steel grate burned till the twelfth of May, and then until October was replaced by coloured paper shavings so contrived as to present the appearance of a waterfall.

Mistress M'Kechnie, a large, high-coloured lady, dressed in black silk and girt about the neck with a gold chain from which a watch was hung which dangled loose or else was stuck into the waistband of her gown, sat in her " droring-room " in state. A large medallion of her lord, with a stout wisp of his stiff hair fashioned into a cable round the edge, was pinned upon her breast. It showed him at the age of thirty, grim and ill-favoured, and had been taken in the port that he called "Ryo" by an artist who he said had been " an awfu' clever chiel," and certainly should have been heard of in the world of art for his stout realism and adherence to the truth.

The owner of the house sat in his sanctum, which, like the cabin of a ship, had small round windows, and was adorned with books, bound in morocco bindings, which he never read, and with a coloured photograph of her he always called "Mistress M'K." and stood in awe of; for she came of " weel-kenned folk," and had some tocher and a temper which was not always safe "to lippen to."

With cigars lighted, his friends about him and their glasses filled, Mr. M'Kechnie used to give full play to his imaginative mind on many subjects which had appealed to him during the course of his career as law pleas about ships, soundings in various ports, the absence of all lights on certain coasts, the charms of ladies he had known about the world and his success with them, and other things of a like nature which he discussed more freely when certain that his wife had gone to bed. One tale led to another, but the tale that his friends all loved the best was one he never failed to tell after his second tumbler of stiff toddy, when, with his feet in carpet slippers worked in yellow beads, and with a fox's head in blue in high relief upon the instep, he would light a Trichinopoly cigar, and after, with the story-teller's instinct, having forced his friends to press him, take up his parable.

" Hae ye all got your glasses filled ? Weel aye I am a sort o' temperate man masel', but speerits, ye ken, are a fair panawcea, that is when taken moderately." To such a proposition no self-respecting Scotsman has an objection, and they all used to fill, and, "paidlin' " with their ladles, inhale the fumes of the hot spirit, puff their cigars, and wait expectantly.

"Ye see, ma freens, law is a kittle sort o' gear, especially sea law, as mony o' ye ken I know fu' feel. But the maist awfu' thing is what they ca' yon general average ay juist fair redeeklous. Ye ken what Mr. Scrutton says he's an M.A. and LL.B. and has juist written the maist compendious work on contrack of affreightment as expressed in charterparties a pairfeck vawdy-mecum. Ane ye ca' Mackinnon helpit him, and between the twa they lay ye aff a'maist a'thing that can arise between a charterer and a shipowner upon the sea.

" Charter-party, sort o' dog Lay tin, carta partita they ca't. In the auld days they juist wrote it in duplicate on a single sheet o' paper, and then divided it by indented edges, each part fitted to the other. That's hoo they got the name, indenture.

" A feck o' things ye'll find in Scrutton's book, ma freens, sort o' auncient like. Whiles when I havna' much to do I tak' it doon and lauch, man I lauch ower it till ma heid juist whummles like a sturdy sheep. Oo aye ye're richt I'm sort o' wandered.

" Weel aweel, I'll tell ye now about a wild-like tulzie I had aince with a lash o' Dawgos a' aboot yon cursed general average. Man, it was this wey, ye ken whiles I juist wonder that a man like Scrutton Mackinnon is na blate either does na' dae something to get the law changed. Na, na, ye could na' richtly look for it ; it's the man's bread, ye ken. Aye, I'll heave roond, I'm subject to thae digressions; so was Sir Walter Scott and others I could mention. Ye mind aboot the seventy-twa, or it may be the seventy-five, freights were fairly high and shipowners were ettlin' to mak' some siller. Bad times we are havin' noo yon cuttin' prices, I juist ca' it cuttin' throats but in the seventy-five that's it I had a boat was gaein' oot to Smyrny wi' a feck o' cotton goods. Somehow or other she just snappit her screw shaft, and if she had na' just by a special providence come across a tramp out o' the Hartlepools she micht have wandered aboot yon islands just like Ulysses him thae raise sic' a dirl aboot in Homer ; for, ye ken, I ha'e a sort o' tincture o' the humanities.

" The tramp just gi'ed her a tow in to Saloneeky. Losh me, then there cam' the salvage racket, the maist infernal intrikit affair ye ever saw. A man juist has to go to the slauchter like a lamb, if aiver a ship makes fast a cable to any o' his boats. Scrutton has it textually, that unless the charter amounts to a demise but I'll no deave ye wi' technicalities. Ye'll get it in Sepia v. Rogers, or Hubbertey v. Holts, and when ye hae it, mickle wiser may ye be.

" Fill up, men, it winna' hurt ye, and there's plenty mair . . . ah yes, yon maitter o' the salvage was sort o' seekenin'."

" The worst thing, though, was that the freighters were a' upon me for demurrage. Sirs me, I was fair gyte, and I juist yokit on Scrutton (the vawdy-mecum, ye mind) as if it had been the Holy Scriptures. Ma heid fair dirled wi' Sangivetti v. Postlethwaite and a heap o' cases very much resembling mine. I thocht I had a bit issue anent the cesser clause, and awa' I went to my awgents in West George Street. I laid my case before them, and they lauch't at me fair lauch't. They told me the point was clear that I stood liable. Man, I whiles think the very elements are a' against the shipowner. What wi' they cursed strikes drawin' awa' the trade, the employers' liabeelity, and the infernal intrikitness o' the law, a body hasna' got a chance.

"Ye'll mind, Geordie, when we went tae sea thegither, sax-and-forty years ago it was maist a' wind jammers in thae days ? "

The crony thus interpolated took his black oily Burmah cigar out of his mouth and grunted, " I mind weel. A man juist signed for his salt horse and his salt pork, nane o' your tin-bag then," and, after looking at the ceiling, spat into the fire.

" Aye, that's so, a sailor man was a richt felly then. Nane o' yer comin' aboard withoot an airticle o' kit except a knife and a pair o' sea-boots, and slingin' the latter doon the forepeak and fa'ing drunk upon them.

" Na, na, we a' had oor bit kists wi' plenty dunnage in them and as for your employers' liabeelity set them up a sailor man juist took his ain life in his hand."

Geordie having grunted something about a long yarn and a rope-maker, Andra' came, as he said, back to his course, and once again took up his tale.

" I juist cabled oot orders to my awgent in Awthens to proceed to Saloneeky to arrange for chartering a vessel to tak' the stuff on to Smyrny ; the body juist agreed wi' the captain o' a Greek schooner, ane they ca'ed Scaramangy, heard you ever sic' a name ?

"His craft was ane o' they Levantyne-built bits o' things, awfu' gay wi' paint, a kind o' gin-palace afloat, ye ken the things, Geordie ? She lookit weel, and my awgent cabled me that, wi' God's blessing, he hoped she would do the trip to Smyrny in aboot three days. I couldna' thole yon ' God's blessing ' in the cablegram. A man has his ain releegious opinions ye mind I'm an elder in the U.P. kirk outby Milngavie (ye canna' get the richt doctrine here in Bearsden, a mere puir imitation o' the Episcopawlians, a sort o' strivin' after being genteel, I ca' it) ; but business, ye see, is business. Besides, thae things are better understood, taken for read, as they ca' it up at Westminister.

" Yon blessing in the cablegram cost me a maitter o' some saxteen shillin' the rates were awfu' high in thae times, ye mind. Saxteen shillin' just expended in a manner I ca' redeek-lous, for the Almighty must ha' kent that I was putting up ma ain bit supplication when the cash was at stake.

" Yon Scaramangy had a wild-like crew on board ; man, they Greeks dinna sail short-handed, I'se warrant them. Thirteen Dawgos forby himsel', and the bit schooner not above three hundred tons. Heard ye the like ?

" I canna' bide a superstitious man, for I aye haud nae ane should stand between a man and Him ; if a man wants Him, let him gang straucht, I say through the Auld Book. Anyhow, Scaramangy had his Madoney a sort o' shrine, ye see aft o' the mainmast, and a bit licht burnin' awa' before it nicht an' day ; an' awfu' waste o' can'le. Weel aweel anither Trichinopoly ye'll na aiblins anither tot. What ! yer done ? Geordie, rax me the ginger snaps. Scaramangy I didna' see him ; but I hae seen his like a thoosand times, maist-like dressed in longshore togs, wi' ane o' thae Maneely straws, an' alpacy jacket, an' white canvas shoes ye'll mind the rig. Maist o' them has a watch-gaird on them like the cable o' a battleship ; ye canna' tell a gentleman nooadays, wi' everybody wearin' their bloody Alberts. No a'thegither bad-like sailors are they Greeks ; sort o' conceity whiles the way they paint their bits o' schooners and their barquentines ; maist o' them yallow, wi' a bit pink streak, whiles a blue ane, and sure to hae a figure-head, some o' they Greek goddesses. No, Geordie, Sapho was no' a goddess she was a poetess, a queer-like ane tae, just went fair demented ower a felly they ca'ed But I'm havering the humanities, ye ken, tak' an awfu' grip on a man.

" Scaramangy was most certain to hae had a wee bit curly Maltese dog on board I canna' bide them, rinnin' aboot yap, yappin' and film' the decks. Set them up ; for ma ain pairt, I like a cat, or maybe a mongoose na, na, man, no a monkey dirty brutes, the hale rick ma tick o' them ; seem to gae into a decline tae soon as ye pass the forties. Man, I mind ane, I traded a coat and a bit Bible for him wi' a missionary in the Cameroons. Puir brute, we had na' sighted the Rock of Lisbon, comin' hame, afore he started hostin'. I had him in the cuddy, and ettled to mak' him tak' some Scott's Emulsion. It would na' dae, and we had juist to commit his bit body to the deep, the same as a Christian, just off the Wolf Rock. I dinna' care to mind it. I lost my ain Johnny the same way. Man, I felt it sae, I should hae liked to hae the wee deevil stufft, but his mother said it would be heathenish.

" Nae doot o' it, yon Scaramangy would foul some other body's cable when he lifted anchor, and find his throat halliards unrove they're apt to use them for a warp, ye ken, or some other kind o' deevilment ; but, anyhow, to sea he went in half a gale o' wind.

" There must hae been an awfu' haggersnash o' tongues, bad as the Tower o' Babel, on board the Aidonia ; that's what they ca'ed her thae Levantynes canna' dae a thing withoot a noise.

" Set o' curly-heided Dawgos, with their silver earrings and sashes rowld round their hurdies I canna' stan' a sailor man wi' a sash on him, it looks sae theatrical.

" What happened only the Lord Himself and Scaramangy really ken. The Lord, for a' He kens, never lets on He hears, and Scaramangy was a naitural accomplished liar frae his birth.

" What he said was, that a pairfect hurricane burst on him, soon as he'd pit to sea. He couldna' get the topsails aff o' her, as nane o his dodderin' deevils daur to gae aloft. So he juist watched them blow clean oot o' the bolt-ropes, and shortened the lave o' his sails the best he could by a special interposeetion o' Providence he didna' lose ony o' his heidsails, though nae doots but he deserved tae.

"He says he and his cattle were in the awfu'ist peril that they ever experienced in their lives, the schooner almost on her beam ends, and the seas fair like to smother her.

"In the nick o' time, what think ye he did, man?

" ' Ran for some harbour,' ' lie to a bittie' ; na, na, nae frichts o' him. He juist pit up a bit sipplication to his Madoney in the companion, and promised her (as if the painted bitch could hear him) that if she took him safe to Smyrny, that he would sacrifice something valuable as a sign o' gratitude. Heard ye the like o' that?

" God's truth, it mak's me mad to think aboot it the folly o' the thing and the gratuitous waste o' valuable property.

" Anyhow, he doddered in to Smyrny some gait or ither, and what d'ye think he done ? He an' his men aye, Geordie, nae doots he had the dawg along wi' them went barefit oot to a shrine they had, and returned thanks to Him who stills the waves that is, when He has a fancy tae.

" I dinna altogether disapprove o' that, for, prayer, ye ken, is usefu' whiles. Samuel pit up his sipplication to the Lord before he hewit yon Agag, and Joshua when he smote thae Canaanites, and even Paul a gran' man Paul, sort o' pawky too lifted a prayer when he was in juist sich a situation as was yon Scaramangy.

" Scaramangy and his Dawgos, when they had done their prayer, went aboard again, un-bent their mainsail, and took it ashore and burnt it on the beach. Mad, ye say, Geordie mad, aye, mad enough, but no on business matters.

" Ye can't think what they did then ?

" They gaed awa' up to the British Consulate, and tabulated their claim, under the law o' general average, for the value o' the mainsail ; for the deevils said, had they no made their vow, the Madoney wouldna' have interfeired, and the vessel would maist certainly hae been lost. No blate, yon Scaramangy but mercy me, whatna' a conception o' natural laws he must have had ! Fancy the Madoney expawtiating in the heavens, watching a storm like a fisherwife watching for her man when an easterly gale springs up, and no to be propeetiated without the promise o' an offerin' !

" After I got the cable, I fair sprang oot o' the hoose, and awa' to West George Street, to my awgents, and they tel't me Scaramangy was domiciled furth o' Scotland, and the case would have to be heard at Smyrny.

" It was juist held that whereas Captain Scaramangy, bein' in peril on the deep, and havin' done everything within his power and in the compass o' good seamanship to save his ship ma God ! and being at the point o' daith, had recourse to prayer. Furthermore, the Coort bein' o' opinion that the vessel must have foondered had there not been an interposeetion o' a Higher Power, decides that Captain Scaramangy took the proper course, and that his prayer and his vow being both heard and considered favourably by the Madoney, that she thocht fit to save the vessel and the crew.

" Therefore, the Coort held that the vow was instrumental in the first degree, and that the jettison o' the mainsail which of course wasna' a richt jettison at all was necessary, and that the shippers were all bound to bear their due proportion o' the loss.

" Appeal nae frichts o' me. It cost me, one way and another, mair than a hundred pound. Appeal na, better to lose than to lose mair ; that's a Greek proverb at least I think so, and no a bad yin.

" Yer gauntin', men; weel, weel, good nicht to ye Geordie, rax me doon Scrutton fae aff the top shelf there's juist a pint or twa anent yon cursed general aiverage I should like to look at before I turn in for the nicht."

From Progress, 1905

1 comment:

  1. Sadly, cannot claim Do Roberto as a native if Scotland. He was born in London.


The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water