Archie Thomson of Eskdale
…The bare rolling stretch of country from the North Tyne and Cheviots to the Scottish southern uplands was for a long time the territory of men who spoke English but had the outlook of Afghan tribesmen; they prized a poem almost as much as plunder, and produced such an impressive assembly of local narrative songs that some people used to label all our greater folk poems as ‘Border Ballads’ …
Folk Song in England: A L Lloyd (2008)
It was high summer in the year 1773. At the door of one of the cottages in the tiny Scottish border hamlet of Nether Knock in Eskdale, a 24 year-old country carpenter bade a final farewell to his parents, his brothers and his only sister. Lifting his bundle onto his shoulder, he followed the rough road beside the river out of the valley. On reaching the small town of Langholm, he turned westward and continued on foot for a further 25 miles to Dumfries. There, waiting at the quayside, was a ship bound for Canada. Until that moment, he had never seen the sea.
The name of the young carpenter was Archie Thomson – great-great-great-great grandfather of David Thomson, Chairman of Thomson Reuters.
I think that we will not follow his ship, unfurling its sails as it moves out into the River Nith towards the Solway Firth and on to the New World. Instead, let us return to the old world of Eskdale. For it is there that we may discover more about the Thomson family and the life which Archie had chosen to leave behind.
There had been Thomsons in Eskdale as long as anyone could remember. For centuries they had been associated most particularly with the hamlets of Nether Knock and Mid Knock.
The Crowns of England and Scotland were united in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland was also crowned King James I of England. For many centuries before and for some years after, the border between the two Countries was a wild and lawless region, with neither government up to the task of maintaining law and order. On both sides, cattle rustling, sheep stealing and horse thieving were rife. If you could, you built yourself a Peel Tower into which, at the first approach of the ‘Reivers’, you drove your sheep and cattle, taking refuge with your family on the upper floors. Otherwise, you managed as best you could in a brutal and uncertain world.
Here then was the world of the Thomson clan which, I am sorry to say, rustled cattle and sheep, and stole horses as enthusiastically and with as much gusto as its neighbours. Combining an intimate knowledge of the terrain with excellent horsemanship, many are the stories of such families giving government forces the slip and simply melting away into the night.
If flushed out of thick woodland, they galloped to the hills. If still pursued, they lured their enemies to stretches of marshes beside the river which, though appearing to be as green and solid as the ground, would suddenly give way and suck down the pursuer. It is even said that they schooled their horses to negotiate soft terrain with their knees bent so they could pass where foot soldiers would scarcely dare to follow.
On their light steeds, they would cross the frontier into England at night, avoiding the most dangerous localities, and concealing themselves and refreshing their mounts during daylight hours in hollows or sheltered places. At dead of night they would approach their goal and seize their booty; then, by following circuitous and trackless ways known only to themselves, reach their homes in safety. Surprisingly, they delighted in poetry and music. Many ballads commemorating their exploits survive to this day.
But times always change, and as the more-peaceable Seventeenth Century unfolded the Thomsons and their neighbours were forced back into the always-precarious and much less- exciting occupation of sheep farming – dependent as it is upon nature and the weather. In February 1674 occurred the ‘Thirteen Drift Days’, which was the most severe snowstorm ever experienced in the south of Scotland. Nine-tenths of the sheep were lost; and in Eskdale alone – normally capable of sustaining 20,000 animals- only 45 remained.
Small wonder then that Andrew Thomson, Archie’s father, decided to abandon farming and to train as a stone-mason. Establishing a reputation for the quality of his work, in 1735 he was one of the principal tradesmen engaged in building the little hump-backed stone bridge which to this day spans the River Esk near the parish church. He married Janet Scott in 1746. His second son, Archibald, was baptised at the family’s cottage in Nether Knock on 7th May 1749.
Along with his brothers and sister, young Archie attended the one-roomed school in nearby Westerkirk. The number of children averaged 45 in winter but only half that during the warmer summer months when many were employed ‘out of’ doors on the crofts and farms. But the world outside was changing, and with every passing year it beckoned more strongly. Another pupil at the school was the famous Thomas Telford. He was eight years younger than Archie. Beginning as an apprentice to a stone-mason in Langholm, he eventually became the greatest and most famous British road and bridge builder of the 18th and early-19th Centuries. For ambitious youngsters, the old enclosed society of Eskdale, with its ballads, memories and hardships, was becoming increasingly stifling. Travel was growing easier. Other vistas were opening up. They wanted to spread their wings. .
And what of the rest of the Thomson family who waved Archie Thomson farewell on that distant summer’s morning? His parents, his older brother and his sister remained in Eskdale. Archie would never see them again. Tragically, his two youngest brothers were soon to die of pneumonia. But his other two brothers, David and Andrew, he would see again – twenty years later – when they too would make the long journey to Canada to join him there.
And what happened to Archie when he arrived in Canada after his long sea voyage? That will have to be another story…
The hamlet of Nether Knock lasted until the age of the camera and is shown in the photograph above, taken in the 1880s when the cottages will have changed little since Archie’s time, a hundred years before. Today it has disappeared entirely. Only a few humps and ridges on a grassy Scottish hillside give a clue that it was ever there.