Watty the Gimp
Saturday, 10 October 2009
One of my less silly student summer jobs was guiding American tourists round Abbotsford, Scottish home of Sir Walter Scott. My best friend got the gig through the Catholic Mafia in the Borders; I swung in on her coat tails because they needed a French speaker. I also claimed working knowledge of German, Spanish and Dutch. Luckily, there was a dearth of non-English speaking travellers in 1986, so I spent most of my time playing cards in the housekeeper's sitting room and eating stock-damaged chocolate chip shortbread.* Imagine the warren of servants' rooms in Gosford Park. Like that.
Occasionally, one of Sir Walter's great great great granddaughters, the Dame and the Lady-in-Waiting, would drift about 'helping' in the gift shop which was also Downstairs. "The Mancini Tartan? Let me just check, my deah."
We guided groups of old folk through the study (see the secret drawer! Here's his death mask!), library (a Quaich that once belonged Bonnie Prince Charlie!), corridors of significant oils and the Hall. Hanging from the wall was a Bride's Scold. A metal contraption which fitted over the head of any garrulous gossipy woman. A hank of steel fitted into her mouth and compressed her tongue, rendering the poor wench speechless. It was called the Muckle Mooth Meg - Big Mouth Margaret. At the end of our little speech about this a Yank wag would always ask if he could buy one for his wife in the gift shop. Laugh? I nearly read The Heart of Midlothian.** There was also a pair of little boots, one of which Sir Walter had had built up in the heel. He had a deformed foot because he had polio as a child.
I also spent time filching delicious tiny strawberries from the kitchen garden with a Cambridge boy I was briefly in love with. His job was to go on the coaches with the Americans up and down the UK. The romance went nowhere, but he told me a great story. The coach was driving through Melrose and slowed down at a pedestrian crossing. A passenger asked him what the beeping noise was. My Romeo told him it was to let blind people know the traffic lights had changed. Stunned silence. Then, "Gee. In the States, we don't let the blind people drive."
Inevitably, the Northern Socialist had some thoughts on my employment and told me the truth about Sir Walter Scott. He was a jumped-up nowt without a literary bone in his body. He stole all his stories from the Etterick Shepherd, an illiterate peasant with a rich stock of Border folk lore. He was a filthy snob who sucked up to royalty and bought his way into smart Edinburgh society. He had stupid shoes made so he could walk more easily round the sides of the Border hills.
One day, my group included two of my chums, incognito, sporting deerstalkers and loud jumpers. My tour became sillier and sillier with me showing off in several languages. And sharing some of the NS's thoughts on Sir Walter. By the time we reached the Hall, I was on spectacular form. Through tears of mirth, I drew the group's attention to the wee boots and invited them to imagine the literary giant hobbling round the side of the Eildon Hills.
Unfortunately, the Lady-in-Waiting and the Dame had just given lunch to the headmaster of Eton. They were gliding through the Hall to see him off just as my story finished. Later, with infinite grace and kindness, they sacked me.
*Wallop the box on the ground. It damages the stock.
** Don't bother.