Early last year, Trudger came upon a very early reference to Cullybackey in an old book, The Life of a Scottish Probationer: Being a Memoir of Thomas Davidson, with His Poems and Extracts from His Letters.  The book was compiled by James Brown and published by James Maclehose & Sons, in 1889.

Thomas Davidson was born on the 7th July, 1838, at Oxnam Row, a large farm lying along the banks of Oxnam Water, which is about four miles from the town of Jedburgh in Scotland.

Jedburgh, in modern times, has a population of about four thousand, which is a little less than lived there in the 1860s. It lies about ten miles from the English border. Indeed, his parents were both English. His father was a shepherd, which is common in these rural border areas, and was from the neighbourhood of Wooler.  Thomas’s mother was from Belford.  The marriage took place in England.  After the birth of their eldest child, they moved a few miles over the border into Scotland.  

The migration involved minimal change.  There was little difference in the daily way of life.  The Davidsons continued to attend the same church.  They had been born into the communion of the Scottish Secession – which had a firm hold in the borders areas of Scotland since early history and had spread into the towns and villages of Northemberland, in England.

Thomas Davidson died in 1870.  He was only in his 32nd year. 

But let’s rewind a tad.  Six years earlier, in 1864, he had trained to be a preacher.  In the winter of 1864/65 he took a ferry across to Ireland.  His experiences of those weeks in Dublin, and later in the North, are covered in the aforementioned book.  On the 4th of January 1865, he finds himself in Cullybackey.

The text that follows, is Thomas Davidson’s own words.  The section titles are mine. Hope you enjoy the journey back to another era. Dinnae let your fiddle ketch harm!

Cullybackey - an old post card of the County Antrim village

An old photograph of Cullybackey at the turn of the 20th century

Cullybackey Fiddler, Larry McKie

I meant to devote last night, or at least a bit of it, to writing to you; but Mr. Knowles, knowing my fondness for Scotch music, had gone and invited down specially an Irish fiddler who lives not a great way off, to treat me to a quantity. The fiddler made his appearance, fiddle and all, about six o’clock, and, barring the time we took to tea, and several intermissions for smoking purposes, which Mr. Knowles himself turned to good use in singing Irish melodies, Mr. Larry McKie’s “elbow jinked and diddled” till past eleven o’clock.

Larry has been in Australia, where he learned a great many Scotch airs from the Scotch gold-diggers, and now he is settled down comfortably to cultivate music and potatoes — for Mr. McKie is both a fiddler and a farmer. Also he sings remarkably well, and the humour with which he renders Sam Lover’s Irish songs is quite overpowering, I assure you. Larry has got the Irish susceptibility as well as the Irish humour, and when I touched the strings of his violin in succession downwards, he begged me “fur goodness sake not to do that same; it was so murnfull and melancholy – like it wud make him cry — and, he added, “that’s jist as shure as my neem’s Larry M’Kie.” He is as fond of his fiddle as an ordinary mortal is of his sweetheart.

The Fiddle Daren’t Ketch Harm!

The evening was damp when he came down, and to prevent her from “ketching harm,” he had her secured in the never-failing green bag, then this was swathed in a fine Paisley shawl, then he put the “darlint” under his great coat, surmounting the whole with a cotton umbrella as big as a Lammas-fair tent; and even on his arrival the first thing he did with her was to disentangle and disengage her from all these securities, and warm her tenderly at the fire.

Larry is not good at a slow tune, or ‘chune’ as he calls it, but he comes out strong in “jigs, strathspeys, and reels,” and he “whacked off” “Tullochgorum,” ” Killiecrankie,” and “The Braes o’ Tullymet and Mar,” not to mention “Garryowen” and ” The Pradhestan Bhoys,” and “Saint Pathrick’s Day” and “Boyne Water,” with inconceivable vim and vigour.

Cullybackey and Me Aren’t a Match

Altogether I liked Larry very much indeed; and Larry took so kindly to me that he begged me to settle down here and he would himself take a seat in the church!

I thanked him heartily and assured him that I didn’t think the place would just exactly suit me, and that, moreover, I didn’t think that I would exactly suit the place.

Larry then assured me in turn that it wasn’t just such an “abscure pleece as most people took it to be, for sure,” he added, “ye mushn’t have heard the song about it that I sung meself twelve times over the night before I left Geelong, and not a sowl there but was weepin’ like a Donegal summer, though their bairds were as long as the Apostle Aaron’s.”

I desired him to sing it, which he did with great pathos, and a very nice little song it is, and Larry is going to write down for me both the words and the music.

There’s Little Difference Between Cullybackey and Scotland

So you see I continue to extract no small amusement and enjoyment out of my quarters in Ireland. Don’t believe half the stories they tell you about it — they’re all blarney; in fact, there is very little difference between this and Scotland. At the same time, I am beginning to weary slightly to get across the channel again. However, I haven’t very long to wait; I shall be at liberty in about ten days: on Monday week I hope to be in Glasgow.

I had just finished dinner, and had taken my two young friends, Lizzie and Willie on my knee, to sing them a song, when a deputation of the elders came in to pay me my fee, and also to pay Mrs. Knowles for the lodgings. They paid me much in the usual kind of coin, but Mrs. Knowles, to whom they gave twenty-five shillings, found it to consist of so many coins that she couldn’t count it, and was forced to call in my assistance. With some difficulty I succeeded. There were, I think, five fourpenny pieces, nine threepennies, and I don’t know, how many pennies and halfpennies. This, of course, was done after they went away. You never saw such a droll-looking session in your life. All their hats put together wouldn’t have fetched sixpence in an old clothes shop.

Cullybackey Session

The principal spokesman was clothed in corduroy breeks, red with a year’s draining in heavy clayey soil, a black surtout coat, a red cotton neckerchief, and a pair of clogs. Saving the coat, which I believe he must have donned for the sake of upholding his dignity as chief speaker, the rest were arrayed in very much the same style.

Note, breeks is the Scottish term for trousers or breeches and the word is also to be found in Northumbrian English. A surtout coat is a man’s over-frock coat, of the kind worn by cavalry officers over their uniforms in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

They asked me sundry questions, such as:

How did I like Cullybackey?

How long had I been out?  (note, refers to how long since he passed his preaching exams)

Did I find the church very damp and awfully cold?

These questions Mrs. Knowles interpreted to me after the three worthies (‘worthies’ means dignitaries) had taken their departure.

It seems that this is a sly style of fishing which they employ in order to expiscate (I always like to carry out a metaphor) the man’s sentiments as to accepting or declining if they should happen to give him a call.

As soon as they learned that I hadn’t been a year out (of preaching college), they looked at each other, scratched their heads, rubbed their beards, or at least their jaws, for they are all close-shaven, and finally took their pocket handkerchiefs out of their hats, and, having blown their noses, said that they would have to be going, which they accordingly proceeded to do.

Everybody is a Farmer Here

Cullybackey is, however, a rather pleasant little place.

There are plenty of roads and walks about it, some of them going through woods and avenues, some of them merely through long tracts of fields with lots of houses — all farm houses, for everybody is a farmer here, with a little wee farmie that just keeps the family jogging and eating, and not what might be called downright scarecrows.

On Sundays they look very respectable, saving their hats. Ireland is a great field for the study of the human hat, as you may see in poor Leech’s Irish sketches. I have often stood an hour at the hotel window in Dublin watching the hats, and never failing to be thoroughly interested and amused.

But, to return, I feel it very pleasant to walk along one of these roads here, especially after dark, as the candles are all lighted up then, and the whole country-side is a-twinkle with them, here and there and yonder, and through on the other side, and up the hill behind you there, in the jolliest disorder and prettiest confusion. I often think that you would enjoy an hour’s walk with all those tiny lights blinking and winking and flitting about, and going out of a sudden, and then of a sudden jumping in again. You see I can enjoy almost any place.

A Thin Congregration

The church here is a very poor one; the congregation very thin (just now); the pulpit not in good repair; the floor an earthen one, and not a living soul able to keep his feet still for five minutes.

Moreover, it stands low, though it does stand very prettily too, fast by the River Maine, which passes on its way to Lough Neagh.

There is a church-yard (see the photo below) beside the church too — a queer-looking unsymmetrical place, shapen like a bit of paper which one would tear off the corner and along the side of the daily Scotsman to light his pipe with.

Cullybackey Old Methodist Churchyard

Cullybackey Old Methodist Churchyard, a “queer-looking unsymmetrical place”

Trees fringe this on all sides round; but through them you can easily count the graves as you go along the public road to Kilrea which passes behind. There are a good many of them — some close to the river’s brink, others out on the green, and others, again, lying up the hill, at an angle of forty-five degrees, basking, as it were, with their faces turned to the south.

The people, of course I mean the living, are very old-fashioned. They don’t sing paraphrases, as Mr. assured me before the whole congregation, when I had just given them out the 46th, and they read the line always, which has a very strange effect to one who is unaccustomed to it.

However, they have not acquired the good old time-honoured Scotch custom of sleeping during the sermon—they listen (I must say it, for I have no better simile at hand) “like swine at a yett.”

Larry’s New Batch of Songs, Then Onwards to Bellaghy

I have had some little difficulty in sliding into the thread of my discourse again at that last “however,” for my good friend Larry again made his appearance, and entertained me for several hours with a new batch of songs and airs of all descriptions.

He seems perfectly inexhaustible, does Larry.

He came down to-night to settle about an excursion we are going to make to-morrow — namely, Mr. Knowles, Larry, and myself — to a place called Bellaghy.

This I take to be rather a plenteous place, for I learn that the host (intended) is much troubled with gout.

I expect, therefore, to find myself in clover for a day, not that I don’t find myself in clover where I am, and good broad-leaved, red and white flowered clover, too; but then, you know, “one star differeth from another star,” albeit they both be stars.