Old Mortality and his gravestones.

  Robert Paterson was born ca 1713 on the farm of Haggis Ha, in the parish of Hawick and as married man moved to the village of Balmaclellan . A stonemason by trade and owner of a small quarry, he spent most of his life touring the lowlands of Scotland visiting and maintaining Covenanter grave sites. His method of cutting or incising of letters and the ability to get so much into a limited space makes his work very distinctive.  He gained some fame as `Old Mortality, the character in the book of the same name by Sir Walter Scott. 

His connection with Scott is said to have stemmed from a Joseph Train who was the local excise supervisor in Newton Stewart and something of a collector of anecdotes, tales and traditions of the Covenanters. Train told Scott about Robert Paterson Senior, and that (at that time ca 1816) his son Robert , then aged about 70, was living in Balmaclellan.  The grandson of Paterson, the Rev Nathaniel Paterson, minister at Galashiells, was a close acquaintance of George Thomson, librarian to Sir Walter Scott.

O.M. married Elizabeth Gray, a cook and maid to Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick of Closeburn. She used her contacts to secure the lease of the freestone quarry at Gatelowbrigg, in the parish of Morton. They moved there ca 1746. In subsequent years Paterson became more and more involved in his pursuit of Covenanter memorials and his wife often sent the children to find him . Perhaps in desperation the family moved to Balmaclellan in 1768.

dunnottarstone.jpg (12965 bytes)Paterson  and  Scott actually  met when he was on one of his longer journeys and cutting a headstone in Dunnottar  Churchyard.  Sir Walter Scott was on a visit to Dunnottar Castle and was collecting material for what became the Waverley Novels, including "Old Mortality" and "Tales of my Grandfather".

The Fasti entry for James Mitchell , minister at Dunnottar in 1772 tells us

" In the churchyard of Dunnottar, and afterwards in the manse, in the autumn of 1793, Sir Walter Scott met with Robert Paterson, who, twenty three years later, formed the prototype of Old Mortality. "He and Mr Walker, the minister of the parish, found the poor man refreshing the epitaphs on the tombs of certain Cameronians who had fallen under the oppressions of James the Second's brief insanity. Being invited into the manse after dinner to take a glass of whisky punch, he joined the
minister's party but 'was in bad humour,' says Scott, 'and had no freedom for conversation.'"

 Paterson died 14 February 1801 and is buried at Bankhead Paterson11.jpg (49461 bytes) of Caerlaverock,  A monument ,erected in 1869, reads:

Why seeks he with unwearied toil
Through Death`s dim walks to urge his way;
Reclaim his long asserted spoil,
And lead oblivion into day ? 


There are several statues of Old Mortality including  that by  John Corrie of him withold-mort-3.jpg (27486 bytes) his faithful donkey at the Dumfries Museum.  Others are at the Newton Stewart Museum and recently the statues at Balmaclellan have been refurbished and displayed. Examples of his work are, of course, mainly in churchyards although a precious few have made their way into the local museums. Regrettably they are sometimes the victims of the modern blight of vandals and when broken are  not always `saved` .  The stone for the Caldon Martyrs, six men caught at caldonbw2.jpg (26914 bytes) a prayer meeting and executed on the spot in 1685, was vandalised in 1983 but thankfully the broken stone was taken to the Newton Stewart Museum for safe keeping. This reversed image shows the inscription on the reverse which reads 


Recently Sandy Pittendreigh of the Dumfries  FHS came across some old stones deep in the shrubbery of Dumfries Museum. Amongst the ivy covered stones thereold-stones.jpg (25476 bytes) was also a hogsback cover to a possible Knight Templar`s tomb with markings of a large sword on it, and another old stone with the engraving of a primitive plough.  The museum were unaware of the importance of the stones which it transpired were brought there by the local Parks Department ca 1970.

Detective work by Sandy established that they were from the Old St Michael`s Church in Dumfries where there are several Covenanter graves and the Robert Burns Memorial. The present martyrs` memorial dating from 1837 is an imposing  light grey obelisk, and has around it some  table stones of the Dumfries martyrs  William Grierson and William Welsh. Another gravestone is that of James Kirko or Kirka, who was shot on the Whitesands next the river where a monument stands today. These have the date 1873 inscribed round the edge and the text very closely follows on the fragments that have been found. These are clearly relatively modern  replacements  for the damaged stones which were cast aside and first recovered a hundred years later in a clean up of the cemetery. Now, a further thirty or so years later another opportunity is at hand to preserve the historical carvings of Old Mortality. I hope the opportunity will be taken this time.

The Kirko or Kirka stones

The old and new stones of William Welsh.

Seventeenth century burials,

Gravestones and memorials.


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