Writing a Letter: a John Dunn story

Almonte, 21 July 2002

Dear Florence,

How many years is it since you and I would be setting off for school each morning? And measuring our height against the kitchen door frame to see if we’d grown a bit? Or watching the potato plants for the Colorado potato beetle eating the leaves?

Do you also find that letter-writers in this century and millennium have become an endangered species? Even though a ‘friendly’ letter, to distinguish it from the others, those that we learned in school were ‘business’ letters? Friendly, that’s what yours was, and I must warn you that a reply from this source generally runs on and on, and on. Still, trusting in your characteristic patience as a remembrance of those times, here goes.

In the first place, the meeting with Eunice and George Richardson at Foy Hall in Lanark was, in a sense, propitious: Marie and I ran into them last year at the same place, for the same parish dinner. This year, however, a question had been on my mind about Jimmy Buchan, and, when I saw Eunice and George again at Foy Hall, I had to use the chance to put my question before Eunice. The question was this: had you or the family ever heard people who worked in No. 1 Mill refer to Jimmy Buchan as ‘Dye-house Jimmy’?

Eunice said, “No.” And evidently you would say No to the same query. So that brings me to the very root of the question, and how it arose in my mind. Well, here goes again.

Jimmy was, as you say, a weaver.

I don’t think I’d make a weaver, and the reason is one that came out of a powerfully hot day in England during the war, when all the junior officers and other ranks in the reinforcement depot were ordered to a particular hut for the purpose of determining their night vision. Careering round the south of England in the dark hours on a motorcycle with a snake’s eye slit in a headlight only demanded the sharpest kind of sight.

After sitting in the bright sun with very dark glasses for half an hour we were ushered inside, into a room so dark that we had to feel our way with outstretched fingers against walls and benches to find a place to sit. Couldn’t even see the person we were sitting next to.

After half an hour of this, I thought I could detect a particle of blue light somewhere, up front, and at that very moment the instructor in that aristocratic manner of all drill sergeants said: “Now, does anyone here think he can see anything?”

I thought I did. It was dangerous for me to say so, for I could invite a bundle of scorn and derision, but since nobody could even see the man next to him, I ventured to say out loud “Yes, I think I see something.”

Scorn dripped from the sergeant’s tongue, and he enquired “Just what do you think you see?”

Well, I was in deep water, up to the neck, but I threw the response out anyway, saying, “As it looks to me there’s a barrage balloon floating over a camouflaged factory.”

A moment of stunned silence followed. Then came this acknowledgement, “That’s exactly what it is.”

Five minutes later, the night vision test over, and a halo creeping round my head, and a staff taking note of me as a potential instructor in night driving, all I had to do was attend to a corporal’s manipulation of different coloured yarns, to prove that I knew my colours. The corporal’s words, after I had to try again and again with reds and greens, still ring in my ears: “Sir, sir, you can’t mean it, surely. Try again!”

Hopelessly. I have cat’s eyes for night vision, but I’m red-green stupid.

Still, people refer to me often here as “The historian of Almonte”. Well, that doesn’t come from knowing colours. My wife has a quilt here which is made from four-inch squares of all the different coloured fabrics which were made in No. 1 Mill. I can point to the one in the whole 50 or so samples that my army greatcoat was made from, but I refuse to discuss the shades.

Now, Jimmy Buchan, a weaver, would have to be most particular about harnessing his loom with the right mix of coloured yarns.

With that in mind, it occurs to me that he might have been most careful to check his yarns with the original samples which were kept in the “laboratory”, a small brick add-on to the wash and dye-house in the mill. In that event, Jimmy Buchan might have been seen frequently in that part of the mill. That, however, is only presumption on my part.

Now, I heard the phrase, ‘Dye-house Jimmy’, used once only, and perhaps that once is important both to your project of the family history, and my own project of a somewhat abbreviated history of Almonte. How I heard that term is this:

Jack Barker was Secretary to the Rosamond Woolen Company. Jack lived up Union Street, beside the tracks, next door to the entry to “Pinehurst”. Jack knew of my interest in local history, and encouraged it. His health was in sad decline, but he was kind enough to spend one entire evening talking to me and showing me documents that he had saved from destruction concerning the building of No.1 Mill.

That evening, I asked Jack about the thunderclap of news that struck Almonte when the telegram arrived at Pinehurst saying “We regret to inform you that your husband, Lieut. Alexander George Rosamond, PPCLI, has been killed in action, near Courcelette on the Somme.” The date was 15 September, 1916.

Jack told me of the shock felt throughout the community of Almonte, and how people were almost struck dumb trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Then, there was the terribly personal human element, condolence for the bereaved, and sympathy for the family. It was this which compelled Jimmy Buchan to pay his respects at Pinehurst and express his sympathy with some of his flowers.

We know, of course, of the social stratification that No. 1 Mill created. The owners, who handled the capital to run the mill, were English: the superintendent of the works, Henry Brown, was a Scot: the overseers (a delightful anachronism, that word is) were Scots and English. Foremen little varied from those two groups, and Lead hands could be Scots, and Irish.

Jimmy Buchan, brought up in the Scots’ tradition, became a weaver in the same manner as thousands of other Scots through centuries of endeavour, as in the example of the part of Paisley weavers who came first into this part of Lanark.

Weaving was not the sole inheritance of Jimmy’s kinfolk: for it had not been too long in the background of history of Scotland when Culloden had brought about the absolute disintegration of the clan system, and brought about the sorry spectacle of thousands of displaced clansmen with no resource left to them, tumbled into the cities to find some kind of livelihood in the new manufacturing work. Canada is the better for their society’s upheaval and resulting economic distress: it’s a long, and a poignant story in Eastern Canada.

But, in another way, the destruction of the clans brought about a kind of unshakeable loyalty to a new benefactor, in place of the clan chief. Jimmy Buchan had that deeply-ingrained in his character, and proved it when the news of Alex Rosamond’s death crashed into his consciousness.

Instinctively he knew that he had to express his condolences to Mrs. Rosamond. As Jack Barker put it to me, Jimmy gathered some of his best zinnias, and asters (they are September blooms, and he always had great success with them), and he walked up Union Street, and resolutely entered the grounds of the owner of the mill, Pinehurst. He went directly to the front door and knocked.

Mrs. Rosamond and the girls were at the back, and Mrs. Rosamond, being distraught, remarked to the girls that she couldn’t, just couldn’t go to the door, and would one of them go and answer the knock for her. Dorothy did. Jimmy, silent, holding his flowers, waited.

Dorothy returned to the back of the house and told her mother there was a man from the mill at the door. Again Mrs. Rosamond expressed how distraught she was, but asked who the man was.

Dorothy said, “It’s a Mr. Buchan, mother.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Rosamond, “I don’t think I know a Mr. Buchan.”

“Oh, yes, I think you do, Mother,” said Dorothy.

“Who is it again?” asked Mrs. Rosamond.

“Mr. Buchan, Mother. The one some of the men call ‘Dye-house Jimmy.”

“Oh, of course, I know him,” said Mrs. Rosamond, and with that she did indeed go to the door, accepted Jimmy’s zinnias and asters, and thanked him. “This is most thoughtful of you, Mr. Buchan, and I thank you very much for your kindness.”

Now Florence, that little incident is, to me, so indelibly Jimmy Buchan. It, better than words alone, expresses that high degree of loyalty, devotion, and uprightness that make both him and the incident memorable in my mind.

I’m at this time preparing a ‘history’ of Almonte, which will not follow the usual chronological account of events in a town’s life, but rather I’ve chosen an approach which is more personal: I’ve taken perhaps 20 names of people from the former times, mostly men, I should say too, but men who have had some effect on the outcome of the town over the years.

Alex Rosamond has to be one of that group, and I don’t think the story of Alex Rosamond could be complete without this little anecdote about Jimmy Buchan.

Incidentally, Jack Barker’s term amongst us, the quick, ended about a month after the little evening conference that I mentioned above.

Now, Florence, over to you. Does it raise up the image of Dye-house Jimmy, the weaver? If so, I trust it might be of some assistance in your project.

And by the way, many, many thanks, for the snapshot of the old St. Mary’s School. It was marvelously thoughtful of you, and I must declare that I have had no picture of that old structure at all. So my thanks are for a nugget from the box camera. Thanks very much. And best of luck in your continuing project.

Sincerely,

John Dunn.