St Boswells Village Hall: the beginnings
In 1893 it was suggested that the village should have a new Public Hall, large enough for events involving the increasing population. Until then, the people had used either the school or the Mission Hall for such meetings and get-togethers. A committee was formed and plans made to try to raise the estimated cost of £1,283. A two-day bazaar was held in Melrose, with the shops in St Boswells being closed to allow everyone to attend. A good start.
By February 1896, plans had been drawn for the building and possible sites were under consideration. Two serious contenders were: where the Church Hall now stands, and a field which is now part of Orchard Park. At this point, the Duke of Buccleuch offered to give the piece of ground where Lawrie’s Garage now stands, and this was agreed. Almost immediately afterwards, a piece of ground in the middle of the village was offered by Miss Mary Theresa Baillie of Dryburgh House, a daughter of Charles Baillie, Lord Jerviswoode (1804–1879), who had spent his last years there. Its position made it ideal, and after agreement with the Duke, the piece of land offered by Miss Baillie was accepted. Mary Theresa paid a hundred pounds for the ground where the Hall now stands to Benjamin Hunter, ‘merchant of St Boswells’ (after whom the present-day Hunter’s Stables Italian restaurant is named), whose 1896 Disposition declares that she ‘has agreed to purchase from me the said piece of ground for the purpose of making a free gift of the same … to the Village of St Boswells as a site for the Public Hall which is about to be erected thereon’.
The following two pictures (two versions of the same image) show the North end of Jenny Moore’s Road before the hall was built, with the church dominating the area.
This property was ‘disposed’ to a group of Trustees including the relevant member of the County Council of Roxburghshire, Robert Somervaille; Walter Ballantyne (son of the Walter who established the Ballantyne grocery business in the building now used by The Mainstreet Trading Company); and the butler of Dryburgh House. They were to ensure that ‘neither the said Public Hall nor any other building to be erected thereon shall ever at any time be licensed for the sale of spirituous or intoxicating liquors’. Hunter was also keen to ensure that, were he to erect a building nearby, its drainage pipes would be connected to the system constructed for the hall at no personal expense.
There remained the pressing issue of how the hall, complete with its plumbing, was to be funded. Lord Polwarth generously allowed stones to be taken from his quarry at 2/- per ton for quarrying, and farmers were asked to contribute one day’s driving of sand from the Fens sand pit – each driver receiving 1/6d per day. Four labourers employed to load and unload were paid the same. As the funds were still not enough to complete the work, another two-day bazaar was held in November 1896, which raised £316 10s 3d. This was still insufficient, so in 1897 a fancy dress bicycle Gymkhana was held at Whitehill, with races during the afternoon and an illuminated parade at night. A copy of the programme has survived, and may be viewed here. At a meeting of the Trustees on 12th November 1898, the treasurer was able to announce that all debts had been settled, with the exception of £250 which was guaranteed by Miss Baillie and Capt. Heron Maxwell.
In commemoration of the Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, a thanksgiving service was held in the hall, conducted by the Reverends H.M. Graham, R. Inglis and J. U. McGregor [John Urquhart MacGregor, one of the hall’s inaugural trustees]. Music was provided by the village band.
The opening ceremony of the hall. Source: Elma Oliver
In the following two images, the clock and belfry have not yet been added to the North end of the Hall. This was done as part of the jubilee commemoration. In 1898 the first chimes rang out.
The hall played its part in the celebrations of the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary on the 22nd June 1911. In it a religious service for all the village’s churches – Free, Old and Episcopal – was held, at 11am. The afternoon saw the children marching through the village, and Mrs Cochrane of Greycrook planting the ‘Coronation Trees’ (named after the king and queen) opposite Lawrie’s garage. At 6.30pm a cart-horse parade took place, followed by a fancy-dress parade. When darkness fell a bonfire was lit on the Green.
It wasn’t until 1919 that the next major celebration took place – the Peace celebration. This was spread over two days, beginning with a dinner in the Hall for returned soldiers. The next day, a united thanksgiving service was held in the Hall. Sports events for adults and children followed, and in the evening a large fancy dress parade took place, involving pedestrians, equestrians and decorated vehicles. Later, the Hall hosted a grand ball.
Outside the hall under the clock, this German field gun, a war spoil, was on display. Some of the men who had fought took offence at its presence, including George Oliver (d. 1974), a master joiner who subsequently started the joinery firm based in St Boswells which currently is run by his grandson, Douglas Oliver. Having been wounded at Gallipoli and repatriated, George recovered, but then was sent to the Somme, where he was taken prisoner and remained in captivity until the war ended. He and his friends dragged the enemy gun up to the Brae Heads and pushed it into the Tweed. Because it was in the way of fishermen it was dragged by a steam engine to sit beside the bridge next to the island. And there the gun sat until the mid-1980’s when, with permission from the then-Village Hall Committee, it was moved to Stichill. Where it sits now.
The village in the 1950s. Looking up Main Street, with the old Post Office on the left.
Concerning the history of St Boswells, the most important source, which I have drawn on above, is Jean S. Lawrie, Old St Boswells (1974, reprinted with additions by Christine Lawrie in 2011 (Galashiels). I have also consulted Change at St Boswells. The Story of a Border Village (Galashiels, 1961), by Frederick Gerard Peake (1886–1970), CMG CBE CStJ. ‘Peake Pasha’, as he came to be known, was a British Army and police office, and the founder and commandant of the Arab Legion Trans-Jordan. During the First World War he fought alongside T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’), who described him as ‘a very good fellow. He has stuck splendidly to three or four thankless jobs, and made a deal out of them. A hot, impatient soul, too’. Peake published A History of Jordan and its Tribes in 1958, and was the subject of a biography by Major C.S. Jarvis, entitled Arab Command: The Biography of Lieutenant-Colonel F.G. Peake Pasha (1942). In retirement Peake settled at Hawkslee, St Boswells, the home village of his wife Elspeth MacLean Ritchie, younger daughter of Norman Ritchie of St Boswells.
Peake was one of the many military men associated with the area. Another colourful character was Major William Alexander Brown MBE (1922–1984) who, during the Partition of India, led a successful coup against the ruling Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir which resulted in the Gilgit Agency becoming part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. India condemned his behaviour. ‘My actions appeared to possess all the elements of high treason’ [against British policy], Brown admitted. ‘Yet I knew in my own mind that what I had done was right’. He is credited with having protected the Muslim and Hindu populations in Gilgit from harm. Having left Pakistan to return to the Scottish Borders (he had been born in Melrose), in 1960 Major Brown established a livery yard and riding school in St Boswells, remaining here for the next 24 years, as a highly-respected teacher and judge of horses, who rarely said anything about the huge impact of the actions of his youth on the politics of South Asia. However, at some point before 1950 he had written a memoir of his exploits, which was published privately as The Gilgit Rebellion. In 1993 Brown was posthumously awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz medal by the government of Pakistan, which was received in 1994 by his widow Margaret.
Several prominent women also left their mark. Tenant farmer Marion Cochrane is first recorded in 1550 as the widow of John Stoddart of Lessudden. Having lost her husband when her children were young, she left on record her arrangements for the management of her family’s affairs. The richness of this documentation is unusual. Although remarriage was common, many households in sixteenth-century Scotland were also headed by widows, who are found involved in all kinds of legal transactions. A feu charter, granted by the abbot and convent of Melrose on 22 February 1557, conveyed some 45 Scots acres to Marion for her lifetime and to her daughter Christian and her husband heritably after her. She remained the practical head of the household until her death at Lessudden in November 1559.
Special mention should also be made of the aunt of Mary Theresa Baillie of Dryburgh House (who gifted to the village the Hall’s plot of building land), namely the Lady Grisell Baillie (1822–1891), a formidable individual who became the Church of Scotland’s first deaconess, ordained at Bowden Kirk. She was named after her great-great-grandmother (1665–1746), a heroine of the covenanting period. Grisell’s brother Admiral Thomas Baillie died in 1888; in 1890 the Baillie Hall in Newtown St Boswells was named in his memory. Of more humble origins was Jennie Moore or Muir, a nineteenth-century cholera victim whose name was given to the road, a mere lane in her time, on which St Boswells Village Hall stands. Following Jennie’s death her own dwelling was burned to the ground, for fear of contagion.
Lady Grisell Baillie, painted in 1844 by James Swinton
Among St Boswells’ poets and philosophers the most fascinating is undoubtedly John Younger (1785–1860), the self-taught ‘Tweedside Gnostic’ who made his living as a shoemaker. Having been inspired by Burns, Younger composed verses in the metre of Byron’s Don Juan, published as Thoughts as they Rise (1834). Its poems may be read here; Younger provided notes to some of his references, which may be read here. The book includes a fierce attack on slavery, Younger being an ardent abolitionist; an article on this subject may be read here. Younger found a friend and mentor in Andrew Scott of Bowden (1757–1839) who, having served in the American War of Independence, returned to his home village, where he worked as a farm labourer, and published several editions of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1811, 1821, 1826). Claiming that the next best thing to ‘sweethearting’ (the pursuit of love) was fly-fishing, Younger became an expert angler, and produced a popular volume, River Angling for Salmon and Trout, more particularly as practised in the Tweed and its Tributaries (1840, republished in1860 and 1864). He returned to verse in 1841, when he wrote a trenchant satire (featuring Milton’s Satan!) on the Corn Laws, A Scotch Corn Law Rhyme, which may be read in full here. His undoubted masterpiece, however, is the prose Autobiography which was published in Kelso in 1881, some twenty years after his death – within which time the publisher lost the final part of it. Also lost are two ‘letter books’ in which Younger had kept copies of his vast correspondence. If anyone knows anything about the whereabouts of this material, please contact us!
Poor throughout his life (unable even to pay the public library subscription), Younger took a fierce pride in his self-sufficiency and was outspoken in his criticisms of the rich, whose philistinism he detested. ‘How can I read Shakespeare, Milton, and Burns, and think of dukes and dogs’? (The quotations here are from Younger’s Autobiography, published at Kelso in 1881, based on a personal memoir he had entitled Obscurities in Private Life developed; or Robinson Crusoe untraveled.) Particularly fierce was his attack on ‘your great gentleman author’ who ‘knows nothing at all about ordinary life or its constituents – just about as much as of the manners of the inhabitants of Saturn’. ‘The “Scottish peasantry”, forsooth! What do such authors know about the souters, tailors, weavers, blacksmiths, ale wives, shopkeepers, and labourers about St. Boswells and other villages? What know they of the lives, cares, joys, sorrows, hardships, personal and family feelings, sufferings and sympathies, even of their own farmers’, hinds’, and cottars’ families?’ The ‘polished dreams of these gentry’ cannot be taken as ‘pictures of life’, he concludes. Given such views, it is hardly surprising that Younger was not a fan of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), whose Borders residence of Abbotsford is located approx.7 miles from St Boswells – a neo-medieval baronial mansion which Younger denigrated as being made of ‘materials ferreted from amongst the dirty rubbish’ of previous ages. Scott’s Waverley novels were, he declared, ‘old piper stories’, ‘dwarf and witch tales’, ‘monstrous caricatures of Scottish manners’. More generally, though certainly with Scott in mind, Younger remarked that ‘a man of fortune’ who looked from the top of the Eildon Hills over ‘the Merse and Teviotdale, with the romantic vales of the Tweed and Teviot’, might proceed to ‘give you a fairy description of hill and vale, wood and stream, towering mansions and scattered villages, starred over between with smoking hamlets, surrounded with pasture fields and waving corn’. But ‘the lives of the poor in these valleys are, from the cradle to the grave, a very different affair from all this’. Sir Walter associated with, and encouraged, the above-mentioned Andrew Scott of Bowden (no relation), but Younger kept distant from him. As people say in the Borders, he was ‘nae sook’.
Nearby Earlston (formerly Erceldoune) may claim to be the home of the fifteenth-century poet and prophet Thomas the Rhymer, who fell asleep under a fairy tree and was carried off by the Queen of Elfland to a mysterious world under the Eildon Hills. ‘Till seven years were gane and past / True Thomas on earth was never seen’. A stone on a little road off the A6091 marks the very spot where (allegedly) the tree once stood. However, the people of St Boswells can take pride in their more down-to-earth John Younger, a modest man and mordant writer, who held it ‘a primitive moral fact’ that ‘every man born into the world has a natural share of right to the means necessary to support that existence which his Maker has given him’.
…. I envy none their lands and dower,
Nor all that they can claim below the skies,
Yet can’t resist the wish I had the power,
To wipe the tear from modest mourning eyes.
How blest to deck the lowly humble bower
With winter fire, and summer sunshine joys,
Change many a sigh of want into a song,
And cause the stream of life flow clear along.
John Younger wearing his shoemaker’s apron
The Younger memorial obelisk in Benrig cemetery
The inscription reads: ‘Here lies JOHN YOUNGER, shoemaker St Boswells. Angler, poet, and essayist. Whose genial humour, manly independence, and ardent love of literature won for him the esteem of men of every rank, and drew around him the best friendships of the Border’.