Fifty years ago the parish of Sorn had improved much in agricultural matters, compared with its condition half a century previously. The good work begun by the Countess of Loudoun had been carried on by her successors in the castle, and Mrs. Somervell, proprietrix, when the last Statistical Account was written, is awarded great praise for her zeal in improving the condition of the land. Mrs. Somervell planted trees and hedges, not only in the vicinity of the castle, but all over her domain and on the higher parts of the parish. Her immediate predecessor in Dalgain, Mr. Stevenson, had planted two hundred acres in young trees, and those were in a flourishing condition and added much to the beauty of the country. Other proprietors in the neighbourhood had also thriving plantations on their estates, and the one-time bleak parish of Sorn rivalled the fairest in beauty, with its natural advantages of hill and dale and holm-land, the swiftly-flowing river and the many tributary brooks. Larch and Scotch fir were the trees of which most were planted at that time, although there was a proportion of oak, ash, elm, beech and birch. Now it would be difficult to find a better wooded parish in the West of Scotland. Scotch firs are among the most picturesque of trees. Standing alone, with their dark-green, feathery branches well defined against the sky, their sombre colouring and graceful outlines are strikingly beautiful; a plantation of such trees, with tall, straight stems uprearing themselves at regular intervals, with the interlacing branches high overhead, forming a screen through which the sunshine falls in fitful bars, seems like a natural cathedral, with dim, religious light and pillared aisles. Beech hedges are common in the parish, green in summer and russet-brown through the long winter; and even in spring, when green buds are swelling and bursting on the hawthorn branches, the brown of the beech takes on a darker, rustier hue. But not for long, for the tiny buds outgrow their shelter and a new generation of leaves elbow the old ones off the scene. Which thing is an allegory, and he who runs may read! Instead of 200 acres of wood, as a hundred years since, fifty years ago there were 600, and that has been considerably increased. Much moss-land was reclaimed, and although there is still a portion in a state of nature, the good work has gone steadily on. The rent of land, half-a-century ago, was from 12s to £1 2s, on the higher land, but near the villages it rose as high as £3 per acre, and sometimes even higher. Furrow-draining with stones was carried on, to the great improvement of the land, and even the tile-draining had been introduced. Now, it is needless to say, the drainage is all done by tiles. Some of the mossland up till that time was worse than useless, as the damp arising from it often mildewed crops in neighbouring fields. The rate of wages had increased very considerably. Farm-servants received as much for six months' work as for a whole year a century ago: now the wages are again doubled, or more. Cows were mostly of the Cunningham breed and the sheep of the common blackfaced kind. At the present time agricultural matters are in as forward a state in the parish of Sorn as anywhere in a wide circuit. The natural disadvantages of the soil are its mossy nature and the heavy substratum of cold clay. These have been overcome as much as possible by scientific and careful farming, and in many places the pasturage is now excellent. Dairying is carried on to a large extent. The farmers take their place with the other farmers of the county. They are hard-working and industrious and keep up a high-class stock, and their occupation was fairly remunerative until the recent fall in prices of dairy produce. Cheese is made chiefly on the Drummond principle, and milk is sent to Glasgow and other large towns. The largest dairy establishment is that of J. Somervell, Esq., of Sorn Castle, and indeed the present laird of Sorn has been so identified with the improvement of dairy farming as to have constituted Sorn a kind of "Mecca" of improved dairying long before the formation of the Kilmarnock Dairy School. The responsibility of the model working dairy at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1887 was in the hands of the laird of Sorn. Mr. Somervell was Member for the Ayr Burghs from 1891 to 1893, and is proprietor of the famous business in Glasgow known as the Sorn Dairy Supply
Education in Sorn, half-a-century ago, compared favourably with that of other country places. There was one parochial school in the parish, situated, as was often the case, close beside the church, doubtless because it was an ecclesiastical adjunct. The school had the legal accommodation and the maximum salary. There were other teachers, besides, in the rural districts and in Catrine. Now the School Board of Sorn, which consists of seven members, looks after the schools of Sorn, Catrine, and Auchencloigh, the last a little side school on the Galston Road. Each of the schoolhouses is excellent of its kind and with a fully-equipped staff of teachers. The population of the village is about 300 and consists chiefly of the usual tradesmen, the workers at a wool mill (which has considerable valuable machinery and where wool is prepared for carpet factories), and miners. The population of the parish, not including Catrine, which is a parish quoad sacra, is 1460. Sorn is rather remarkable for longevity. Had a record been kept of those who considerably exceeded the three score years and ten, the list would have been a long one. We have already instanced the Countess of Loudoun and her servants. An old woman died within the last ten years who had completed over 90 years of life. During her time she had seen six parish ministers, the first of whom, Dr. Gordon, was the writer of the old Statistical Account. The last of the weavers has just passed away (Blackey Reid), an old man of nearly ninety, one of the heroes of Mr. Aitken's poem below. The fiddler, "Songie," as he used to be called in old times, who played at weddings for two generations, has also recently died.
The following is a characteristic description of Sorn Race, written by Mr. Wm. Aitken, formerly of Catrine, now Inspector on the railway, Greenock :-
The first Sorn Race I e'er was at, I
still can min' it weel,
It cheers my heart, the thocht o't yet, and mak's me younger feel
And weel the clachan callans kent that this day was in store
No ae broon bawbee had we spent for many a day before.
And time seemed sweart tae slip away- no ane o' us was richt
We couldna eat oor meat by day, nor tak' oor sleep at nicht;
We smiled, and sae did aulder fools, and wore a cheery face,
Instead o' gangin to the schules, we'd all gang to the Race.
And when the schule-clock hauns drew
near the magic 'our 0' twa
Oot cam the ancient Halberdier, the Committee and a';
"Wee Jamie" lookin' lairge as life, wi' swallow-tail and lum,
"Co " threshin' at it wi' the fife, and "Blackey" wi' the drum
And foremost 'mong the ither folk who followed up the hill,
Was " Moleman Miles" and "Hedger Jock," and hamely "Butcher Will,"
And burly "Farmer Rab" sae big, and mony a weel-kenn't face,
A' makin' for the "Timmer Brig" tae see the famous Race.
The horses were a'body's talk-some five
were entered in,
The first o' which could scarcely walk, the next yin couldna rin
The third was no like yin wad fag, but then 'twas nearly blin'
The fourth yin was a sorry nag-a bag o' banes an' skin
The fifth, though like a racin' beast, rode by a pigman chiel,
Wad no dae ought but jump and re'ist, and caper through the fiel';
A mair unlikely lookin' set could hardly shown their face,
Yet oot the five 'twas thocht we'd get a fairish kind 0' Race.
When tae the scratch at length they
cam', nae time ava was lost-
To start them "Blackey" beat the drum, while "Jamie" stood the post-
And sic a race ye ne'er did see, though yin and a' did feats,
For out the five auld horses, we had hauf-a-dizzen heats;
Sic riders, tae, they wadna need tae been the least thing frail-
Some tumbled owre the horse's heid, and some fell owre the tail;
Ae horse dang owre a sweetie stan' erected near the place;
'Twas liker eatin' beans and bran than rinnin' at a Race.
Back tae the town we a' came down as
sune's the race was by,
When, though the nicht was queer and wat, some folks were queer and dry;
And siccan horrid stuffs they selt's for drink that afternin,
'Twad gur'd a vera grunstane melt, and burn'd a hole in whin
Yet some sae quick their cash did spen'-while rows got unca rife-
That thrippence wad that nicht ere ten ha'e almost saved a life;
And even when next day was come it didna men' the case;
It took till that day week wi' some, tae finish up the Race.
A number of stories are told about characters in the village in the good old days- and especially about one Tom Humphrey, who was "simple," as country folk say in kindly fashion of those whose intellect is not of the brightest, but who often have a wonderfully keen eye to the main chance. Mr. Stewart, a minister of the parish, who was translated to Liberton in 1843, was a kind-hearted man, and showed his liberality in a very practical fashion. Doubtless the fact that he had a large garden and plenty of vegetables had something to do with his scheme; he caused a great pot of broth to be made every week in his kitchen for the needy of the place, who gladly availed themselves of his kindness, and they carried home with them the good wholesome soup in pitchers and jugs. Mr. Stewart's successor did not continue this work, doubtless thinking it rather troublesome, and preferring to do his charitable deeds in some other way. But he was not to be let off so easily. In the village one day he was buttoned-holed by Tom.
"A word wi' you, Maister Rankine."
"Well, Tom," says the young minister, afterwards so famous, "What can I do for you?"
"Will ye tell me this, Maister Rankine," says the unblushing Tom, "When Mr. Stewart left the parish did he tak' the kailpat wi' him?"
Another story is told of "Cork" Reid, the father of "Blackey." Cork (everyone had a nickname) was fond of a dram and sometimes got a bit breezy. One day he had been refreshing himself, not wisely but too well, and was making his way with rather unsteady steps from the Greenfoot Inn, past the mill-lade toward the manse gate. Mr Balfour had often remonstrated with him about his failing, and just then, to his dismay, he saw the worthy minister approaching. At that moment Cork got particularly unsteady, his foot slipped and he fell into the lade. Mr Balfour took the opportunity of administering a deserved rebuke, but the unabashed Cork, from the midst of the water, was quite equal to the occasion.
"Mr Balfour," he cried out, "I've naething mair to dae wi' you. I've jined the Anabaptists and I've jist got dipped."
The late beadle, John Cameron, was a very worthy man, and a character in his way. He was church officer and sexton for the long period of forty-eight years. He died only a few years ago. A good story is told of him in connection with a strange minister who was preaching. John had a trick of looking into the Bible to see what the manuscript was like. On one occasion, after a flowing discourse which took the congregation by storm, John's son said to his father,
"Weel faither, I'm thinking that was a gae guid sermon the day."
"Ay" said John, "it was a guid sermon, but it was awfu' weel thoomed!" During a recent vacancy, when the nominee of the committee was going to the church to preach before the congregation, he met John, who extended a very hearty welcome to him, for he knew him of old when assistant in the parish.
"I'm rale prood to see you. I hope you'll get it. The warst o't, the kirk is no weel heated, for there's something wrong wi' the flue o' the stove."
"Never mind, John," said the preacher, "It'll not matter, I'll warm them up myself to-day."
Alexander Anderson, the poet-surfaceman, and more lately librarian in the University Library and Philosophical Institution, Edinburgh, occasionally visits Sorn. A poem on Sorn Bridge from his pen appeared in a popular periodical a few years ago. It begins-
I lean on the ledge of the bridge
And I hear the waters flow,
I lean on the ledge of the bridge
As I leant long years ago.
One voice bad the waters then,
And it was sweet to hear;
But today I hear another
That none but myself can bear.
The reference is to the death of his brother-in-law, who was killed in an accident, and was buried in Sorn Churchyard hard by.
Distinguished visitors to Sorn were the mother and aunt of Robert Louis Stevenson, who paid a visit of a fortnight to the old home of the family about eight years ago. At that time Dr. G. W. Balfour, and the family generally, to the third and fourth generations, made a picnic to Sorn, and spent the afternoon in the manse and garden. We may say that Dr. Balfour, as well as Professor Rankin, Edinburgh, still take a warm interest in the welfare of their native parish. To all schemes promoted for the welfare of the church they have been liberal subscribers. Joseph Train, the antiquarian correspondent of Sir Walter Scott, was a native of Sorn.
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