I have been doing some Dumfriesshire research this evening and remembered about this fantastic story. It is in the book "Worthies of Dumfries and Galloway". A fine read by anybody's standards! I particularly like the part where he he sent for the cuddy, got it hoisted up the stair of the shop, and then desired the wondering beast to look round on all the grandeur and tell him “what it thought of Collins now?”
An Eccentric Vendor
Poor Robbie Collins, who was known far and near as a vendor of stationery and smallwares, was buried in Troqueer Churchyard in March, 1830. Although he had no secret hoard like Wull Steenie, his books and cloths, when turned into money after his death, sufficed to lay his head decently in the grave, even to leave a balance, which was handed to the treasurer of the Kirk Session, so that in one respect he was on a par with miser Wull, and though a pauper himself, he left a legacy to the poor.
Robbie was a native of Ayrshire, and at one time in his varied and chequered career he taught a small school in some Highland island. He was of short stature, lame of a leg, blind of an eye, and decrepit in mind as well as in body, and he said that he has a “spice of a knave in him as well as a fool.” He migrated to Dumfries about the year 1813, at which time he was possessed of only a few shillings. Gradually acquiring credit, however, with booksellers and other tradespeople, he traded his way so successfully that he at the last grew rich, at least he was able to deposit a sum little short of £70. Although his “round” was most extensive, he travelled very cheaply. He visited many thousands of people in the east as well as the south of Scotland, and there were few who grudged him a bed or a meal; indeed there were many who patronised Robbie when they could have purchased more cheaply elsewhere. Robbie had a fawning, winning manner, and as a “character” he was favoured by the rich as well as by the poor.
At times prospered the box slung behind his back was exchanged for a pair of panniers, which, when filled with smallware, were mounted on a donkey’s back, and Robbie, who had limped many a weary mile, thenceforward made his rounds more at his ease, and indeed quite “the gentleman.” By some means or other he fastened a printed label in verse on the donkey’s forehead, which served for a sign wherever he went, by intimating the owner’s name and occupation, and enumerating the various articles he had for sale.
Robbie had many a sore contest with his cuddy, which he designated as “a dour, thrawn, contrary beast,” and though he frequently tried reason with it in set speeches by the wayside, his eloquence was entirely thrown away. Nothing, however, could disabuse Robbie’s mind of the notion that the ass understood every word he said, and as he was an enemy to every form of corporal punishment, he endeavoured by gentle and lenient means to train it in the way that cuddies should go. But, like many other reformers, even of the present day, his plans were too Utopian, and in the end he procured a cudgel, and discovered that this argument was the only sort of logic fitted to make an impression in the long-eared tribe.
Robbie’s success in some measure “turned his head.” Tired of wandering, nothing would serve him but a little shop, ultimately he secured on in Church Place, Dumfries. This furnished with all sorts of small gear under the sun, and, as he had capital to begin with, he obtained plenty of credit. His arrangements being completed, he sent for the cuddy, got it hoisted up the stair of the shop, and then desired the wondering beast to look round on all the grandeur and tell him “what it thought of Collins now?” The speculation, unfortunately, failed, and, but for the kindness of a benevolent gentleman who allowed him pension of six shillings per week for many years, he would have been reduced to the greatest penury and distress. Thus succoured, however, he made long sweeps east and north, and was as well known in Edinburgh as he was in Dumfries. At one time he contemplated visiting France, and talked of drawing his pension on the other side of the Channel, and spending his days tranquilly in some sequestered corner of the finer climates of the south, and where, as he said, provisions were cheap, and taxes a trifle.
On another occasion he conceived the idea of making his fortune by marriage. He had set his fancy on two fair dames whose merits were on a par, and between whom he was as much divided as his cuddy would have been between two bundles of hay. To both of these ladies he wrote letters filled with all sorts of honeyed words, and determined to be the bearer of his own dispatches, and, as the ladies lived in the country (in the parish of Irongray to be exact), he commenced his wooing as the crow flies – that is, he called at the nearest house first, and delivered his epistle in due form. At the first the family took the matter seriously, but speedily relaxing, they merely laughed at Robbie, and instructed the servants to regale him in the kitchen. Collins “took the bite and the bat with it,” and then wended his way a mile or so further. As luck would have it, it so happened that the lady Collins first addressed was invited to tea at the second house of call, and as she travelled faster than her suitor, she got there before him. Of this the “braw wooer” knew nothing, and great was the merriment when the young ladies compared notes (for the first letter had been carried to the home of Robbie’s last hope as a curiosity), and found that the second letter was a facsimile of the first. The “Laird o’ Cockpen” had one string to his bow, but Robbie had two, and yet he was unsuccessful. Another meal was all the poor man got for his pains, and he departed as much crestfallen as his great prototype, and perhaps he said or sung, as he walked or rode though the glen, “they were daft tae refuse Robbie Collins.”