“Gide theesell, thoo wee jandy, or A’ll ower thee hurdies we this wully wan.” That colourful admonition isn’t something you’d expect to be given to a child today, even in the streets of Longtown.
Fifty years ago you might have heard it and a hundred years ago, it might have been quite common in the cottages and farms on the English side of the Border.
However, the sentence itself is still to be seen on the back of a sheet of old wallpaper in Carlisle Library.
It was written down by a quite remarkable man, John Mason, who was born in 1900 to a Longtown mother and a Penrith father who was a general labourer. John grew up in Bell’s Close, just off Esk Street, in the heart of Longtown. His life may have been difficult because we are told that he surmounted “many years of cruel adversity” with a quizzical smile and a sense of humour. His friend Robert Farish says that, “John Mason seldom spoke in anything else but his own native dialect, except on those rare occasions when he took a delight in quoting extensively from the works of William Shakespeare and Robert Burns.”
But he took enormous pride in his own identity, in his own language, and the result was this important book on the Cumberland dialect, offering an invaluable record of the language that was spoken in Longtown some fifty and more years ago. The roles of wallpaper have been transcribed by Graham Shorrocks, a scholar from Newfoundland, and John Mason’s glossary of almost two thousand words is now in print.
There are words like: fluff for a small gust of wind; flam for an insincerity; howk meaning unskilful digging; stoor for dust and stoon for numb and stoop for gatepost; knaral to nibble and know for a small hill. They’re all words that are slowly being forgotten.
But it is not just the old words that make this such an interesting book. Each word is illustrated by a snatch of imagined or overheard conversation. These present wonderful snapshots of local life. Think of the people and places and events conjured up in each of these little scenes. “Deed faith, it was no faut o’mine her man got to ken o’ the tick she’d run up.” “A did’n think oor Mag and Big Mair cud be the twee tu faa oot – the’v been friens sin bairns.” “”If all Meg disna mine herself an her kranky capers, she’ll fin herself sumwhar else – put away.” “Yin cud ha meed a better job, mair workmanlike, had et no been sic a knured bit o wud.” “It’s nee gud teeken that un wee the te hunt mushrums – hei disna ken a mushrum fra a paddockstull.” “That man hesna don a han’s turn, sin the paetyric shutten finish at Netherby last ear.” “A I liked tu fish for pullies doon the watter e the holidays, we a bent pin on a wurrum.” “A dinna ken what thoo seis in that fellow – hei’s a bit pa;try thing, we mair impotence than twee men.” “Now, thei had thee tongue! A didna cum heer tu teek orders fra an understrapper – mine that.”
And, if a young lad thinks he knows everything and is telling his grandmother how to suck eggs, you can always say: “Rin away, my boy, an dinna thei try tu larne thee fether to git bairns.”
Fifty years ago John Mason sat down and wrote on his rolls of wallpaper. He was transcribing a lifetime’s knowledge of the people of Longtown and their ways. He was also leaving us with an invaluable legacy of how the people of Cumberland used to live and talk a hundred years ago.
And that admonition to the “wee jandy” just goes to show how completely things have changed. The angry parent was saying: “Control yourself, you little unruly child, or I shall smack your back-side with this willow stick.”