Thursday 1 February 2024

Ecky Black - Earlston's Last Bellman

Ecky Black
Alexander 'Ecky' Black

'Ecky' Black had suffered from a childhood illness that resulted in a leg having to be amputated just above the knee. Whether an artificial leg was too expensive, given that as a boy, he would have several as he grew to adulthood, or if he just elected not to wear a prosthesis, he always wore his trouser leg pinned up throughout his adult life. Thus making him instantly recognisable on the streets of Earlston with his crutch and walking stick and making him an unlikely choice as the village bellman. Nonetheless, he was Earlston's last bellman, a Scottish equivalent to a town crier but with its origins in religious belief.

In the seventh century, the church required that a bell be rung when a person died. It also stipulated that a bell be rung when someone was excommunicated to signify that person's spiritual death.

There was a belief that devils lay in wait to attack the soul of the dead person at the moment the soul departed the body. It was also believed that the sound of the bell terrified these devils.

After the Reformation, the interpretation changed, and the purpose of the bell ringing was to encourage the living to offer up prayers for the recently deceased. 

Since the church now levied a charge to ring the bell, not everyone could afford the service; those who were privileged were willing to pay the fee, providing the church with a considerable income.

Different towns had different requirements for the bellman. In some towns, the bellman would walk the street tinkling a small bell, head uncovered, making the announcement, 'I hereby take you to wit that …, our brother (or sister) departed this life at … of the clock, according to the pleasure of the Lord.'

In Jedburgh, the bellman was required to keep his head covered and to make this announcement immediately after the death, regardless of the time of day.

In Hawick and other places, the bellman would invite people to go to the deceased's house and offer prayers after the intimation. The bellman would also visit the home to place the bell on the bed where the corpse was lying until the corpse was removed for burial. 

Sometimes, a 'lykewake' or body watch took place during the nights between the death and the burial. 

In some places, for instance, Polwarth, the bell was carried at the front of the funeral procession to 'frighten away the evil spirits’. Female relatives walked behind the procession until they reached the gate to the churchyard, where they always stopped and dispersed.

Bells have long been associated with death. The seventeenth-century poet and clergyman John Donne is credited with coining the phrase 'for whom the bell tolls', meaning that the funeral bell that tolls for another person's death, then, also tolls for us, in a sense, because it marks the death of a part of us, but also because it is a reminder that we will die one day.

But an incident in Chirnside may have started a fashion that brought new meaning to tolling bells.

There is a tale associated with a grave in the kirkyard of Chirnside. When Margaret Halcrow, second wife of the Reverend Henry Erskine, died in 1674, a few months after their marriage, she was carried to the grave and interred with a valuable ring still on her finger, a fact noted by the village sexton. After the funeral service, when only a light covering of earth was placed over the coffin, the sexton returned to the kirkyard to dig up the grave and remove the ring. It was so hard to remove it from the corpse's finger that he used his knife and began the task of cutting the digit off. As he did so, the corpse sat up in the coffin, screamed, then dashed across the kirkyard to the manse, where she shouted for the minister to open the door, 'For I'm fair clemmed wi' the cauld.' The wife lived a fair number of years after that, giving birth to Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, founders of the Secession Church. (1)

The story of Margaret Erskine became a folklore theme to be cannibalised with different names and different locations. (2)

Declaring a person dead should have been straightforward for the doctors of the day. Nonetheless, people were fearful that they may be buried alive. This fear became increasingly common in the mid-1880s when American author Edgar Allan Poe published a horror short story, 'The Premature Burial', in which the main character develops a phobia about being buried alive. Enterprising businessmen were keen to cash in on this fear and offered 'safety coffins' to ease people's fear.(3) 

Patent drawing for a safety casket

Franz Vester's "improved burial-case," U.S. Patent No. 81,437, issued Aug. 25, 1868 in Newark, New Jersey.

Those who could afford it could purchase coffins with an elaborate system of rope and pulleys connecting the coffin to a bell on the ground above the grave. Family members, or more likely paid people, stood guard over the grave for the first few days just in case the bell should be rung by the interred person. Hence, the phrase 'saved by the bell' and those who stood at the graveside were known to be on 'graveyard watch'.

After the Reformation, the church was keen that it be understood that the bellman's purpose was to announce a person's death rather than chase away evil spirits. About this time, many parishes incorporated the bellman's position with the grave digger to save money.

Latterly, the bellman's job focussed on public announcements.

In 1881, the Galashiels bellman was roused at around midnight to make announcements about missing children and raise volunteer searchers. The bellman made his rounds again at six o'clock to muster more searchers. The two girls, aged seven and eight, were found safe and well.(4)

Some bellmen took to selling their services. Walter Stiller, a Jedburgh bellman, went the round of the town and made the following announcement on his own behalf:

'Notice To merchants and the general public.—As I am slack, and every one else slack, and having nothing else that I can do than that of the bell - crying to while away some of my dark, weary hours, I have resolved to proclaim any one's goods through the town lost, found, or to sell—at 3d for the bell, 6d for the drum. All goods lost, and not found, no charge made. I have myself, in bygone days, employed men in this town, and I do not see why blindness should now shut out of existence. All orders strictly attended to.’ (5)

Bobby the Bellman, Jedburgh Town Crier
Bobby the Bellman, Jedburgh Town Crier
Credit: Border Cavalcade

A Selkirk bellman, Tom Murray, had a sense of civic duty. Before the First World War, he was asked to promote a 6½d Bazaar at the Volunteer Hall. Before he started out, however, he called into a local ironmonger who pointed out that he sold similar goods at a halfpenny less. That was enough for Tom. Round the town he went, ringing the bell and shouting:

Notice! A sale is being held in the Volunteer Hall. All articles are being sold at cost price, nothing over 6½d. You can get the same articles at 6d in Blank's, the ironmonger's, in High Street. God Save the King!' 

This incident was reported in Tom's obituary in 1934. Apparently, a crowd of about 300 young men followed the bellman, and every announcement brought fresh roars of laughter. The bellman received no payment from the bazaar promoters.(6)

Hawick Bellman
Alec Stainton, Hawick bellman
Credit: Border Cavalcade

Bellmen would be financed by town councils rather than the parish. Depending on how rich a town council was was determined by the standing of the bellman. Peebles, for example, was relatively affluent and kitted out its bellman with a uniform. Less well-off councils were content that the bellman discharged his duties in everyday clothes. Other concessions were made, e.g. Peebles supplied a drum rather than a bell, although he was still called `the bellman`. In Hawick, announcements were also preceded by the beating of the drum. Three surviving drums are on display at Hawick Museum. 

John Rennie, Peebles Town Drummer
Credit: Border Cavalcade

We don't know when the role of bellman in Earlston was created, nor when the role was transferred from the church to the council. There are no photographs of Earlston bellmen. However, we do know that the Earlston bellman was never issued with a uniform and that Ecky was the last one and we also know something about the man.

Ecky, or Alexander Landell Black, was born in 1893 in Primrose Street, Leith, the second child of Archibald Black, a merchant seaman, and Alice Landell. Ecky's older brother, John, was also born there.

By 1901, the family had moved to Earlston. Archibald Black had jobs on the railway, first as a signalman, then as a porter. In Earlston, the Blacks would raise another five children - Jane, Archibald, Alice, Heriot and Jessie. Archibald would die in the First World War just days before the armistice was declared. He is buried in the Awoignt British Cemetery and commemorated on the Earlston War Memorial.

Ecky Black with friends at Earlston Reading Room
Ecky Black with friends in the Earlston Reading Room
L to R: Bob Wilson, Ecky Black, George Rutherford, Bob Patterson, and Andrew Murdison
Credit: Auld Earlston Collection

Ecky died in 1968 at the Inch Hospital in Kelso and is remembered on the family gravestone in Earlston Cemetery.

Some Earlston residents still recall Ecky making civic announcements but his death marked the end of another aspect of village life.


1 Scottish Kirkyards, Love, Dane 1989 Published London, R Hale 1989

2 Scottish Folk Lore, Lamont-Brown, Raymond 1996 Published Edinburgh Birlinn, 1996

3, Taphophobia

4 Southern Reporter, 04 August 1881

5 Souther Reporter 18 December

6 Southern Reporter 25 January 1934

7 Border Cavalcade 'Life a Century Ago', Moffatt, Frederick C, Published Newcastle-upon-Tyne, F C Moffatt 1980

Monday 1 January 2024

Nurse Dowie - District Midwife and Earlston Worthy

On a January morning in 1883, a girl was born in a farm servant’s cottage near Orwell in Kinross-shire. The girl was the second daughter of David and Jane Blackwood. He was a farm servant, and his wife was an agricultural worker (bondager). The girl would be baptised ‘Jane’. Her elder sister was Margaret, and four brothers would be born in time: David, Alexander, Peter and John. 

Nurse Dowie 1960

Jane’s childhood was unremarkable. The family moved house occasionally, as was the way of life for farm servants, as they would take up employment with whatever farmer was offering the best wages that season.

Like most girls in rural areas, Jane would be encouraged to leave home as soon as possible after leaving school. This was a simple matter of economics. A boy could command a higher wage than a girl. In a large family living in a small house, the eldest son would be given his own bedroom as soon as he started work. And so it would be that Jane left home to become a live-in domestic servant.

In the early 1900s, Jane was a servant at Inveresk House in Musselburgh. There, she met Robert Dowie. Robert worked for an engineering contractor and, although initially from Inverkeithing in Fife, was now living in Buckinghamshire.

The couple married at St Giles in Edinburgh in 1905. After the ceremony they left Scotland for Robert’s home in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire.

Because of the itinerant nature of Robert’s work, the couple seemed to be constantly on the move, their temporary homes recorded in their children’s birth certificates. The eldest son, James, was born in Haddenham, David arrived in Wick in Caithness and the youngest, Robert, was born in Cromarty. 

Then, in 1914, war was declared on Germany. Robert was too old to be accepted for the military in 1914, but by 1915, he could be called up under the Lord Derby scheme.

Inevitably, Robert was conscripted and joined the 8th Battalion of the Black Watch.

In early 1917, Robert was wounded in an action that saw him being awarded the Military Medal for his bravery during a raid on a German trench. Robert was evacuated to Aberdeen Military Hospital. After making a good recovery,  he went on additional training before being shipped to Flanders. A few months later, he was posted as ‘missing in action.’

Imagine the anguish of his widow, Jane. Her heart would tell her to never give up hope that he would be found alive; however, her head would say to her that he was most likely already dead.

It would take from May 3 1917, when he was reported missing, until September for confirmation that he had been killed. On September 22, the Dunfermline Press carried the following announcement -

DOWIE - Previously reported missing May 3 1917, now officially reported killed in action on that date, Pte Robert Dowie, Military Medallist, Black Watch, aged 37 years, eldest son of the late James Dowie, North Queensferry, and dearly loved husband of Jeanie Blackwood, Cupar Road, Pitlessie, Ladybank, Fife.


The Jane Dowie story might have finished there, another sad but unremarkable war widow left with three young children and little prospect of gaining meaningful employment. But not Janet Dowie.

Convinced she had more to give, she approached the War and Pensions Committee at the County Buildings in Cupar, Fife. She explained that she wanted to train as a ‘maternity nurse’ to contribute to the community. However, she would need a grant to fund her her studies.

She must have been convincing because a civil servant elevated Jane’s case to a higher authority within the Department outlining Jane’s request. The Department replied that it would indeed provide her with a grant, however, only if she qualified in Midwifery and not as a maternity nurse. The grant of £22 was to cover board and lodging for 6 months while she studied at the Simpson Memorial Hospital in Edinburgh. It was pointed out to her that the grant would not cover her uniform or any textbooks she may require. 

The Midwives Roll for Scotland shows that Jane was enrolled as a midwife on January 27, 1919, almost one year after making her case in the County Buildings in Cupar. From this moment on, Jane Dowie earned the right be called Nurse Dowie.

The Midwives Roll for Scotland

On September 30 1919, the Berwickshire News and General Advertiser reported that the district nurse in Chirnside, Nurse Lockhart, would be leaving. Nurse Lockhart had served many years as the town’s district nurse and had made many friends and would consequently be missed. The announcement reported that her place would be taken by Nurse Dowie. The report said that Nurse Dowie comes with high testimonials and that, combined with the fact that she is a war widow, should insure her success in the district.

And successful she was. Not only was she a competent, dedicated nurse, but she was also an active member of the community.

In February 1939, at the Chirnside and District Nursing Association Annual General Meeting, it was reported that Nurse Dowie had made over 2,000 visits the previous year. Work aside, she would gladly give talks about her passion for the outdoors and her summer holidays with titles such as  ‘Hill Walking on Skye’ or ‘Hiking in the Highlands’.

Her greatest passion was literature and debating. She was vice-president and secretary of the Chirnside Literary and Debating Society for many years. As well as judging the debates, she was, on other occasions, a participant, frequently winning her argument.

When promoted to District Midwife, based in Earlston, she must have been disappointed that the Earlston Literary and Debating Society had ceased to exist a decade before. However, that might have been Earlston’s gain as she became involved in local politics, standing up for her constituents at County Council meetings. Her love of debating meant that she was a formidable opponent.

In 1948, she was nominated by the Earlston Ratepayers Association to represent the ratepayers of Earlston. When asked what would be her priorities, she replied that her first priority in Earlston would be housing. She advocated the provision of every available space for recreation and games and a toddlers’ playground where the children could play safely. Another priority was a hall for the village where entertainment could be provided for old and young folks. The rates in Earlston were very high, and Nurse Dowie said she would endeavour to see that the ratepayers received full value for their money. She was opposed by local businessman William Roger. She won.

The sight of this little old woman entering council meetings may have given her opponents a false sense of security, but she was always well prepared.

At one meeting, a council member accused Earlstonians of being wasteful with water. Indeed, Earlston had suffered a drought for four months. Nurse Dowie responded that the good people of Earlston had not wasted water because their houses were not receiving any water. The village collection tank was full and overflowing as it had been for months. The fault lay in the old system of pipework where air-locks formed. Surely, now would be the time to renew the village’s ageing infrastructure, she suggested. The council called for a report on the issue.

Nurse Dowie’s passion and support for her constituents would make headlines in the local papers in the early 1950s. The central government were rebuilding the country’s housing after World War 2. Local councils were tasked with identifying suitable sites to build housing schemes. Berwickshire County Council thought it had identified appropriate locations, but the proposal did not meet with Nurse Dowie’s approval. The objection again centred on the provision of water.

‘Animals would not live under these Earlston conditions’ screamed the headline in The Berwickshire News, quoting Nurse Dowie. The newspaper continued, ‘People are being denied the essentials of life such as water.’ Nurse Dowie went on, and the newspaper was glad to quote her: It is madness to build houses only where there is water. No Department of the State has any right to deprive the community of the essentials of life such as water and shelter,’ said Mrs J Dowie at a meeting of the Berwickshire Health Committee at Duns on Thursday.

‘We in Earlston, ’ she said ‘are being denied these. People in Earlston are living under conditions even animals would not live in,’ she added.

The Berwickshire News January 1950

You can see why she was so popular with her constituents.

At her last council election, she won 66% of the votes, with her opponent trailing behind with 34%.

Nurse Dowie presenting prizes at Earlston school Sports Day 1960

Her work as District Midwife and councillor was not at the expense of her family or other pursuits. During the war, she raised money to buy comforts for the children whose parents served in the military. After the war, her charitable efforts focused on raising money for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She worked with local youth groups such as the Earlston Girls’ Training Corp. Arguably, her greatest achievement and indeed one that must have given her the most pride, was raising three sons as a single, working parent. Her eldest son, James, was only eleven when his father died. He and his two brothers attended Berwickshire High School before graduating from university. James graduated from Kings College London with a degree in mechanical engineering. He would attain a senior position in the civil service. David qualified as a pharmacist. He joined the Royal Navy as a civilian pharmacist in 1939. In September 1943, James left the family home on William Bank in Earlston. He travelled to Birkenhead to join the ss Malancha. From Birkenhead, James sailed to India. He became a senior pharmacist at the Royal Naval Establishment in Divatalassa, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before returning to the UK in 1946 onboard ss Otranto. David continued his career as a pharmacist in a civilian role at several Royal Naval hospitals in the UK. The youngest son, Robert, graduated from Edinburgh University with an MB ChB. He worked as a Resident Surgical Officer at Hallam Hospital, West Bromwich. In 1939, he joined the Royal Naval Reserve as a Surgeon Lieutenant.

Nurse Downie retired from nursing in February 1948 at a ceremony held in the West Hall. She was presented with a clock and a wallet of notes. The clock was inscribed ‘Presented to Nurse Dowie in recognition of her many services to Earlston and district February 1948’. Dr Lachlan Campbell, the village GP, made the presentation and paid her tribute, referring to ‘her constant devotion to duty, her courage and cheerfulness. She had never found a road too rough or a journey too long, or an hour too inconvenient for her to carry out her work. Her car may have often failed her but never her spirit. She was widely known all over West Berwickshire where her duties had taken her.’

Nurse Dowie died in 1965, aged 88, at the Gordon Hospital.