The Bairns



Scottish Life and Character - The Bairns!

The bairns of Scotland in the past were deprived of many of the softening influences which the children of some other nations enjoyed. Owing to the strong religious objection of the majority of the people to anything in the form of Church festivals, the pure delights of Christmas and Easter were practically unknown, while the beauty of flower services and harvest thanksgivings was undreamt of in connection with the Scottish form of worship, which must often have appeared gloomy and colourless to the juvenile mind. But the bairns had their compensations, for the hardening and strengthening effects of our variable climate enabled them to take part in out-of-door games with a relish and vigour which are denied to the children of countries where summer skies prevail.

Though church festivals were unknown, there were the joys of Hogmanay and New Year, and the mirth and mystery of Hallowe'en. The possibilities of a wider world than their own little glen or village were seen at the annual fair, which was held in the nearest town. To be old enough to go to the fair was looked upon as no ordinary privilege, and great indeed was the wonder and delight of the juvenile who for the first time gazed upon the wonderful array of white tents, the flaunting colours of the shows, or the tempting contents of the krames. The few coppers, which were perhaps the savings of months, had to be very carefully expended, for great were the inducements to "ware" them all upon some attractive sweetmeat or toy, or to speculate on the delusive promises of the wheel of fortune. The presence of the father or some adult member of the family generally prevented any foolish expenditure, and so, when the little company reluctantly left behind them the delights of the fair, everyone had something to carry home as a "fairing" to those who were unable to be with them. The arrival of a new toy in the little cottage was an event, and if it happened to take the form of that old-fashioned toy, the "jumping jack" the antics of the wooden man would send the youngest bairn into ecstasies.

It was in connection with their school life, however, that Scottish children were seen at their best, for though the curriculum was often severe, they went to school each morning well prepared. The parents, as a rule, looked upon the home preparation of lessons as a sacred duty, and were never too tired to assist their offspring in acquiring the rudiments of that education which was so highly prized by the nation at large. Surprise is sometimes expressed at the success of the old-time Dominie in turning out scholars who brought fame in after years to their native place, but it must not be forgot how ably he was assisted by the parents in this important matter of home preparation. Thus prepared at home and efficiently taught at school, the Scottish schoolboy had all the more zest for the thrilling joys of the playhour.

With what earnestness did they throw themselves into the running game of "Scottish and English" or the less lengthened races required in "crinky" and "cross tig"! How carefully the wood, hedges, and hazel copse were searched for suitable "shinties" and, when these had been procured with what recklessness were they used when the game of "shinty" was engaged in! It was no sport for weaklings, for, though there was not the roughness which is to be seen in some of our present-day football matches, there was sufficient danger to shins and heads to make the game very exciting. Each season had its own particular games, which seemed to come in their proper rotation in obedience to some unwritten law; for any attempt to discover which boy started the "bools," "peeries," "fleein' dragons," etc generally resulted in failure.

The girls were not allowed to take any part in any of the boys' sports, although the latter occasionally joined in the play of their fair companions. In its season, that hopping game known as "hop Scotch," probably from its Scottish origin, but know in Scotland itself by the various names of "beds," "pallaly," "peevers," "pitchers," etc., held complete sway over the lassies, while at other times the advancing and retiring games, with their quaint old rhymes, were indulged in. The circle games in which both girls and boys could join and sing "Here's a poor widow from Babylon," "I sent a letter to my love," "See the robbers passing by," etc., were especially popular, as they gave the opportunity for those little sweetheart partialities which are so beautifully referred to by Whittier in his poem "In School Days."

In summer-time the majority of children went to school barefooted, and though this picturesque and healthy habit resulted in considerable saving of stockings and shoe-leather, it arose more from the keen delight the bairns took in their sense of freedom than from any economical considerations on the part of the parents. In country districts the school holidays were always arranged so that the elder children might assist in the harvest field, their nimble fingers being easily trained to make bands  for the sheaves and do other light work. After the stooks had been removed from the fields, the younger children were allowed to glean, or "gather singlings," as it was called, and those whose parents did not keep poultry disposed of the results of their labour to those who did. A "singling" was the number of corn-stalks which could be "spanged," a pithy Scottish word which means to encircle with the forefinger and the thumb. These "singlings" had a marketable value, but the bairns were generally surprised to find that the "spang" of the henwife with whom they were bargaining was considerably larger than their own, and so payment was proportionally smaller than they had expected.

In winter the frozen lochs or flooded haughs provided ample scope for outdoor enjoyment to boys and girls alike, while the former varied their pleasure by organising miniature Waterloos, where snowballs formed the ammunition. The closing nights of the year were devoted to "guisarding," or going from house to house dressed in various disguises, acting little plays and singing songs. Bu the last day of the calendar, Hogmanay, was the great festival of the Scottish bairns. Before daybreak on that eventful morn, the shrill voices of the children were heard ringing through the frosty air, as they sang their simple rhymes before the doors of the better-class houses in the district. The occupants were generally prepared for their youthful visitors, and cakes, apples, etc., were handed out to each bairn, who carried a large bag - a white pillow-slip being the most popular receptacle.

Scottish Life and Character
by William Sanderson