Memoirs of James Smith, Stonemason


These extracts from the memoirs of James Smith, mason, are of interest because they may cast light on the kind of life that three generations of Stewart men, all masons, might have had in Perthshire in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.  As an ordinary working man, Smith was unusual among diary authors of the period: he provides the sort of authentic commentary on the domestic and working lives of ordinary people that better educated, more privileged writers cannot manage.  


It is not known exactly when the memoir was compiled or over what period – it covers some 50 years and was almost certainly written in a single volume of pages from a ledger or cash book. Smith did receive a basic elementary education in the parish school but was probably largely self-taught. His stream of consciousness style reminds one not so much of James Joyce as of a contemporary e-mail, complete with quirky spelling and missing punctuation.


The handwriting is sometimes difficult to read and transcription takes time. Accordingly, I intend to add sections of the Diary to this webpage as they become available.



James Smith was born in Whitehills, Banffshire in 1805 and after leaving school at 11, worked on local farms until serving an apprenticeship with a local stonemason in 1825. He travelled to Perth by stagecoach in 1829 and again in 1830, when he got a lift on a fishing boat. He got married in 1831. Moving on to Dundee in 1834, he worked on Tay Square Church, houses at Craig Pier, and a baptismal font for the church in Meadow Place. He suffered from several ailments and described his symptoms and treatment with stomach churning accuracy. After his wife died in 1846, he remarried in Dundee the following year. His descriptions of life on a farm and as a craftsman are interspersed with domestic disbursements, together with notes on the Crimean War, the railway at Turriff and a sermon on the First Epistle of St Peter.




A note on the transcription

I have reproduced Smith’s words as closely as practicable. I have retained original spelling where the meaning should be obvious. Otherwise, I have substituted modern spelling. I have also placed punctuation and added occasional words where the meaning would otherwise be obscure. A series of period marks indicates where text has been excised.



The Memoirs of James Smith, Stonemason



James Smith Mason to trade

Born in the Year of our Lord 1805

In Banff Shire in the parish of Boyndie


About the 12th year of my age I was engaged to a Farmer to herd his cattle, the farm being about 5 miles to the west of Whitehills, the engagement being for the summer  6 months. I do remember when I arrived I thought I had landed in a foran land never before had I been a night out of my Father’s house. For all the 6 months I did not win to see them; however I liked the employ very well & I got strong always being in the fresh country air. I do remember well my mother came one Sunday to see me & to assertain how I was getting on - when I beheld my mother coming acros the field you may fancy what a joy sprang up in my hart, what a senshation, what a blissed meeting it was to me & no doubt a joy & comfort to her hart to find her little boy well & running amongst the grass - but to my very great she immediately put the question to me: ‘lady’ says shee ‘do you get food anough?’…………………..My mother saw by my appearance that I really were starved. From that time I took courage & when at meal time when my cup were empty I sought more, so I got on a little better………………….You may fancy a little boy, being as he thought in a foran land held captive & comes his reprive & the day of his deliverance his money in his hand - what a day of joy to his young hart - well he bids them all good bye - it was a fine day I do remember. When at a distance & losing sight of the domicile I turns round to get one glimpse more for the last time. then turning round I beheld before me a long muir I had to take without any house in it. it was here when a thought run through my mind: I have my money in my pocket & it may be I …meet a rober by the way & rob me of all my 6 months earnings & what should I do? I resolved I took the handkerchief from my neck & put the money in rolling it up & put it around my neck………………On I went & landed once more at my Fathers fireside & as I related my journey to my Mother & to all they all gave me great prase for my cunning craft. This then is an outline of my first 6 months service abroad.


I then was engaged to a Mr Rainey Farmer of Lintmill of Boyndie. I would mention here in passing why this farm is called the lintmill. First you understand at that time in that part of the country the Farmers & those who held a few acres of land - every season they reared so much lint I have seen large fields of it growing. Well after it grew & went through the necessary preparation it was driven to this mill…..They wrought but very little in the winter season [and] learned to work at this mill. And their work was to take of the husk which is on the outside. This mill was made for the purpose so these men wrought all the winter through at this work, it being all inside. I got my hobby a few cows to herd. The herding was very little needed - mostly all fenced in - a few young trees to keep them. From this is not all: I had 3 riding Ponys to attend to. My master one; one for his Sig as he called it, one for Miss Rainey, his sister. And to sum up all my work, I had a lot of swine to attend to………………….I might mention here the Farmer was Factor for Col Grant Cullen House - he was not married. His Mother lived with him on the farm as House Keeper, his only sister along with him. They were a very exemplary family, a nice old lady, very good to all her servants & especially to the boy. Well then, I continued for 4 years. He being Master I had many messages to go so I got on well & strong. By this I was getting two big for being hird boy so I left.


1822 Martinmas

The next step - I went to a market held in the County for engaging farm servants. I then were going in 17 years. I was engaged by a Farmer up the country over 10 miles. My work was to be to care for all his cattle in the house……………………..Well I had to stand every morning in frount of that man & take my share at the flail as they called it - a tremendious work. It may be needful to explain to you the manner in which this flail so called was wrought & what shape it was. First, the shape was 2 long sticks the one a deal thicker than the other. One eye uppon the one end of each stick fastened together by a reop made of straw and then held it by the small stick & swings it around your head with all your might blow for blow uppon the corn which you lay down in the floor perhaps 2 or 3 shaves at the time…………….. I was going in 17. As I stated before, not being very strong, I found this flailing to be very sore for me…………… I likeways had to take a share of all the heavy work done in the barn. Here again I found touble & trifal? work which were two heavy for me - I never could get a rest because it was just a daily repetition of a work which was two heavy for me……………………..Frosty mornings all drenshed in weet from the exercise in the barn. When I look back & thinks about that terrible work it makes me shrink of a  wonder how I ever could continue on to the end………….I was truly glad when this 6 months hard work came to an end. The Family in the house were the Master not married & two sisters; one hired man & myself. They were all natuily quiet - for nights sat by the fire & read a story book if you pleased - no newspapers as we have them now……….. When spring came I got my masters horse to drive - although being very fond of driving horses, this only aded to my labour…………… Before this time my Father had spoke to a man which kepit one pair of horses a few cows having only a small peace of ground. And was in the habit of hiring out his horses to plow. He then met me in the market & engaged me for 6 months to drive his horses. He kept 2 good horses, gave them plenty of corn & wrought them hard. He hired them out - many of the people thereabout held a few acres of ground, having one or 2 cows & such like. In the season of labour his horses was very hard wrought - he was a good natured man. In the winter time I had scarcely anything to do - I was scarcely able to thrash [corn]for the two horses & 3 or 4 cows - Master often came to the barn & gave me a hand …… saying I would not even make straw for the cows. His wife was just like a mother to me.