|The Old Fish Market - McLean Museum|
Another in our irregular series from John Donald's Old Greenock Characters, this one features Tattie Wullie and cheery tales of sugar theft.
William Campbell (“Tattie Wullie”), whose portrait is included in John Baird’s very interesting and now comparatively rare print of “The Scene of the Old Fish Market, Greenock,” was well known in the town up to the late ‘sixties. Above middle height, and clad in a suit of white moleskins, apparently fresh from the wash-tub, no matter when or where you saw him, with long lapels to the jacket, which a present day “knut” might envy, he was easily distinguishable at a distance. Stoutly formed, his spare visage was surrounded by a large
Kilmarnock bonnet and “toorie.”
This bonnet and the coachman’s long whip, which he was seldom without, combined
with the white moleskins, to make him kenspeckle.
He was occasionally engaged as a carter, and it is said that once, when not overburdened with cash, Wullie tossed with his horse as to whether the animal should get a feed or he (Wullie) should have a drink. The horse won. Gazing at the coin in his hand, Wullie pondered, and then looked thoughtfully at the patient horse….It was a conflict between honour and thirst, and thirst prevailed. “Aw, yer cheatin’,” said Wullie, and he disappeared within the precincts of an adjacent pub. In about a couple of minutes a boy rushed in crying excitedly, “Hey, tattie, yer horse hes tum’lt doon,” and Tattie answered quietly enough : “Aw, weel, ye must have been leanin’ on him!”
He was frequently employed to guard merchandise discharged from ships, and he used the long whip to chase off sugar “scobers”. “Scobers” was the term applied to those
who pilfered sugar from casks or bags landed from West Indian and other
traders. Younger boys were, for the most part, content to scoop the brown
sticky substance through open seams of casks or renst in bags, sometimes with a
small flat piece of wood, oftener with their fingers; but the older and bolder
spirits would not hesitate, given the opportunity, to rip up a bag, break open
a lid, or, indeed, to smash a cask. The advent of beet-root sugar was viewed
with grave disapproval by the “scober”. It was not to his taste. His enthusiasm
was only temporarily damped, however, for quite recently I observed a string of
kiddies, some of them little more than toddlers, following up a sugar cart
along Rue-End Street,
with obvious intention. And so the scobing game goes merrily on, and there is
no Tattie Wullie to scare the scober.
Speaking of those daring delinquents reminds me of some comical titles of imaginary drams which formed catchwords of a sort in those days, such as “The Haunted Hogshead, or The Scobers Revenge” “The Bursted Bug, or The Bloody Bowster” and others which I must decline to print.
To return to Tattie Wullie, when I saw him last, he was sitting on the steps at the entrance of the large outer court of the Flesh Market in
He was minus the long whip and his moleskins were less white than of yore. He
looked aged and wearied, with a pensive, far-away expression, as if, while
reviewing past events, he was conscious of present misery.