William Coburn

William Coburn, after whom I was named, was a big rugged red haired man from the North of Ireland, and being from that part of the country was a Protestant and an Orangeman - but not one of that type who damned everyone else who was not to his way of thinking. It was simply a condition of time and place when a man had to be one thing or another but the antagonism between factions was almost a thing of the past.

He must have come to Scotland at a very early age, as his family were all born there, but I have heard my mother speak of trips to Belfast and of her relations there, so that I think they kept pretty well in touch with their connections in Ireland.

In his youth he must have been a powerful man, for when he died at 84 years, he had been working up to a short time prior to his death. That also was a condition of the times, a doctor was a luxury, called only as a last resort and many times too late to be of any good, other than signing a death certificate.

It was simply this, that if one was unable to work the whole family was affected and if the rent was not forth-coming, as very few people in those days owned their own homes, eviction and roup of their meager belongings for rent owing, was a common occurrence and in the case of old people, their was little left for them except the poor house.

The poor house in our town at that time, and I hope my boyish impressions do not exaggerate, could easily have doubled as a penitentiary, a large stone building surrounded by a high stone wall with a stout wooden door, completed the picture, so that the inmates could neither see, nor have casual contact with the outside world.

Over the outside door, if I remember rightly, etched in the stone were the words, "Prepare to meet thy God" and over the door of the building itself, "Abandon hope all ye who enter here". Of conditions within the building itself, I have no knowledge, but assuredly they would not be any better than the average worker on the outside could afford and any less, then it must have been pretty rough indeed.

For me it was a place to condition one for death, where once the door closed, it opened only to convey the poor remains to their last resting place. It is little wonder that fear and the stigma of a pauper kept people working till they almost died on their feet.

My earliest recollections of my grandparents were when they lived in a cottage in the country, just a few miles out of town, when we as children would visit them on a Sunday, returning home with such gifts from my grandparents as scones, cheese, eggs and perhaps a jar of home-made jelly.

My Grandfather's occupation was that of a drainer, as the land in places was very wet, and he seemed to be steadily employed by the farmers around, digging drains and laying tile, pipes, to correct this condition and to be closer to his work, found it convenient to live in the country, moving into town in his later years and taking only small contract jobs, just enough to earn a living.

From then on my recollections are much clearer, as they lived close to us, and I was a constant visitor and any little errands they needed done were performed by some of us children, for which there was always some kindly reward.

My Grandmother at this time, was a tall straight, handsome looking old lady, whose eyesight was poor to the point of blindness, and as I was named after my Grandfather, was the favourite child. When I visited which was about as often as I felt hungry, there was always a scone or a piece of bread and jam, or when their meager budget would permit, she would say to my Grandfather, "Big Willie, give me a penny for little Willie". Big Willie would dig into the pockets of his moleskin pants, give her the money, then she would grope for my hand, put the money into it, at the same time folding my fingers tightly over the penny, saying "Why you haven't got a hand as big as a chitty": Chitty being a small wren. She died, as did Grandfather, at the age of 84, of that event I cannot recall, but the death of Grandfather some two years later I have a clear impression. I can remember his last days, a big gaunt tired figure of a man, sitting in the big easy chair that we had provided for his comfort, waiting for the end, quietly and without complaint, and it was in this position he died.

In those days, it was customary for the closest relatives to be the pall bearers, or more simply put, each family looked after its own dead, and with such respect, that even the positions at the casket were understood.

Now in those days we did not have the smooth mechanism for lowering the body into the grave as exists today. Instead there were three cords, or ropes, on each side of the coffin, each holding a special significance. To the oldest and closest relatives by mutual understanding, to them the honour of the head cords were assigned, and the others in the same order.

Having been named for him, and by his request prior to his death, I was assigned the place of honour at his head, being to young to do this alone, his eldest son William, also my Uncle Bill, a big kindly man, with whom I corresponded with to the day of his death, let me go through the motions, as we both held the same cord, and so laid Grandfather to rest.

In my childish eyes they were faultless, and my memories of them still remains, "Big quiet kindly people". They lie beside my youngest brother Wee Tom in the Cemetery at Maybole, Ayrshire, Scotland.

William Peden

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