(c) Benediction Classics
Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel The Black Dwarf begins in promisingly atmospheric style. In 1707 two young men, farmer Hobbie Elliot and the more aristocratic Patrick Earnscliff, are returning home one evening across a desolate moor in the Scottish Borders. At a spot on the moor reputed to have supernatural associations, they encounter a dwarf, cantankerous in nature and so strange in appearance that they wonder if he might be an apparition or fairy. Both are curious enough to return there the next day, where they find the dwarf again and discover him in the process of constructing a hut out of the surrounding rocks and stones, having decided for some reason that this wild place is where he’s going to live. The dwarf, Elshie – Elshender the Recluse as he’ll become formally known – is described thus:
‘His head was of uncommon size, covered with a fell of shaggy hair, partly grizzled with age; his eyebrows, shaggy and prominent, overhung a pair of small dark, piercing eyes, set far back in their sockets, that rolled with a portentous wildness, indicative of a partial insanity… His body, thick and square, like that of a man of middle size, was mounted upon two large feet; but nature seemed to have forgotten the legs and the thighs, or they were so very short as to be hidden by the dress which he wore.’
Once settled on the moor, Elshie keeps to himself, remains curmudgeonly towards his neighbours, and quickly acquires a reputation for having supernatural powers. Despite his unsociability, however, he prescribe cures for the various illnesses that local people succumb to – though as he explains to the good-natured Earnscliff (the neighbour he’s most tolerant of), he doesn’t see these deeds as acts of kindness. Rather, he says, he’s inadvertently causing mischief because, revived and restored, those people are free to create more misery for all around them. Elshie’s cynicism is borne out when one of the folk he’s cured of illness, the lawless Willie Graeme of Westerburnflat, known too as the Red Reiver, razes Hobbie Elliot’s farmhouse, drives away his livestock and carries off his sweetheart.
And that’s as good as the novel gets, unfortunately. Thereafter, it becomes bogged down in a sub-plot involving another set of characters living in the district, the weak-willed Richard Vere, Laird of Ellislaw, his virtuous daughter Isabel and the villainous Sir Frederick Langley, who has designs on Isabel. Vere and Langley are Jacobites conspiring to put James Stuart, the Old Pretender, on the throne with the help of a French invasion fleet. Elshie, meanwhile, comes to look on Isabel with considerably more kindness than he does other human beings and it’s he, highly improbably, who rescues her from Langley’s clutches. Scott adds a final and feeble twist about Elshie’s true identity that sadly undoes the uncanny atmosphere he’d managed to build in the book’s opening pages. Elshie was much more interesting when he was a potential, and grumpy, apparition.
It’s well-known that Scott had a real person in mind when he created the character of Elshie. Indeed, he says so in the novel’s introduction. Born in 1740, David Ritichie was ‘the son of a labourer in the slate-quarries of Stobo’ in the Borders county of Peeblesshire. He was ‘bred a brush-maker at Edinburgh’, but ‘wandered to several places, working at his trade, from all which he was chased by the disagreeable attention which his hideous singularity of form and face attracted wherever he came.’ One particular deformity he had were his feet, which were too misshapen for ordinary shoes and had to be bound in cloth.
Ritchie eventually returned to his home county, where he set about building a cottage ‘upon a patch of wild moorland at the bottom of a bank on the farm of Woodhouse, in the sequestered vale of the small river Manor’. Ritchie was obviously as stubborn and disdainful of human protocol as the fictional Elshie was. Although the land belonged to Sir James Naesmith, Ritichie didn’t bother to ask him for planning permission and his cottage was ‘placed there without right or leave asked or given.’ However, Scott recorded that Naesmith, bemused by Ritchie’s audacity, ‘readily sanctioned the harmless encroachment’. When the cottage was finished, its doorway was only three-and-a-half feet high.
And that was where Ritchie spent the rest of his life. He cultivated a handsome garden by his cottage and always seemed willing to accept charitable donations and manual help from his neighbours, though out of typical bloody-mindedness he was loathe to thank them for their generosity. Because of his appearance and reclusiveness, ‘some of the poor and ignorant, as well as all the children, in the neighbourhood, held him to be what is called uncanny.’ Scott himself managed to visit Ritchie – Bow’d Davie as he was known to the locals – in 1797. He died in 1811.
The Manor Valley, whose entrance is a mile or two west of the town of Peebles, remains one of the most scenic and unspoilt valleys in the Scottish Borders. A little way into it stands a handsome kirk and David Ritchie’s grave is easily found in the kirkyard – it’s off the right-hand end of the building as you come through the gate and is marked by a prominent headstone that’s possibly taller than its tenant was when he was alive.
Woodhouse Farm is still there, further up the valley – you soon encounter it after you venture along the road signposted for Manorhead. More modern cottages stand near the farmstead now, ‘at the bottom of a bank’, which might have been the site of Ritchie’s miniature abode.
Unfortunately, on the day that I headed down the Manor Valley to take some photographs to accompany this entry, the weather was dismal and the light had the texture of used dishwater. Grey and smudgy though they are, however, these pictures should indicate that the place hasn’t changed much since the days when David Ritchie used to tend his garden, terrify the children and look upon his normally-proportioned neighbours with ill-concealed contempt.