Anyone interested in the story of Dumfries and Galloway will be aware of the role played by the Covenanters. Part of the distinctively Scottish brand of Protestantism that sprang from the Reformation, they were religious fundamentalists of the seventeenth century whose heartland was in the south-western counties of Dumfriesshire, Galloway, Ayrshire and the Clyde Valley.

It is difficult to walk the fells of the region, pass through towns and villages or visit an old churchyard without tripping over one of their memorials, the legacy of the – often violent and sometimes tragic – resistance they put up to the establishment.

The preservation of this legacy in the following century was, of course, down to the many local communities who sought to commemorate their ancestors by erecting monuments, putting up headstones and passing on their individual tales of defiance and suffering. In practice, however, they more often than not turned to one man for the supply of the stone required for their memorials, for their inscription, maintenance and repair and, insofar as his work involved constant travel around the region, for recording and recounting the stories themselves.

That man was Robert Paterson. Rescued for posterity by Sir Walter Scott in the opening chapter and a later introduction to his novel, The Tale of Old Mortality, he was a real person, born exactly 300 years ago this year, who led a fascinating life, the story of which has been pieced together by Thornhill-based author and tour guide, Iain Wilson.

In a new publication, In the Tracks of Mortality:the Life and Times of Robert Paterson, Stonecutter 1716-1801, Iain explores not just the events of Paterson’s life – he was born in Hawick and lived near Thornhill and in Balmaclellan, but led a nomadic existence for the last forty years of his life – but also its context: the fast-changing society and economy in which he lived – Paterson was long-lived by contemporary standards, witnessing Scotland’s transition from “late medieval superstition”, in Iain’s words, to the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

In the process, Iain also deals with the history and environment in which Paterson lived, describing, for example, how he would have travelled and the routes he might have taken, as well as the history of the main settlements in which he was based, the tradition of sandstone quarrying and carving on which his career relied and, of course, the Covenanting traditions which he sought to perpetuate.

Prefacing this, the book includes the equally interesting account of how the ‘Old Mortality’ story came into being, coincidentally exactly 200 years ago this year, as a result of a partnership between the author, Sir Walter Scott, and Joseph Train, the exciseman and amateur historian who lived at various times in his career in Newton Stewart, Dumfries and Castle Douglas. And, in fact, it was in order to address the apparently glaring discrepancies between the story of ‘Old Mortality’ and his real life prototype, Robert Paterson, that Iain was first prompted to research and write this book.

“I was struck by the ‘story within the story’”, says Iain, a qualified historian, “and especially how a version of Paterson’s tale was created by Scott, embellished by Train, perpetuated by later historians and has been passed down to us to become the legend of ‘Old Mortality’ that many know and understand today.” Among the many monuments that dot the region’s towns and villages are at least three statues of a reclining Paterson, two in the company of his trademark ancient pony, while another features on Scott’s Monument in Edinburgh.

A major strand of the book is consequently the detective work involved in uncovering, for example, Paterson’s motives for the lifestyle he chose to pursue (leaving his wife and children for a period of time); whether Scott, as a young man, really met him on the north-east coast of Scotland, as his novel suggested; the so-called ‘Napoleon connection’; and such basic facts as exactly when Paterson was born and where and when he died.

Given the time that has passed and the scanty evidence that survives, the answers to some of these questions, like the exact pattern of Paterson’s wanderings, are not always clear-cut. However, in the process of addressing these issues, In the Tracks of Mortality provides an enjoyable overview of the life of one of this region’s most famous historical characters, of social and economic life in Scotland in the eighteenth century and of the history of some of the more remote corners of Dumfries and Galloway.

In the Tracks of Mortality:the Life and Times of Robert Paterson, Stonecutter 1716-1801 (price £8.99 plus P&P) is not yet in bookshops but can be ordered directly from the author by emailing [email protected] or by ordering online at www.thespiritofplace.co.uk .

Main Photo • Old Mortality and his pony, one of three statues in the region that commemorate Scott’s character.

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