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At the 1994 Collogue Jock Duncan of Pitlochry talked of Francie Markis and ‘The Wonderful Boy of Byth’, together with something of the music and the times in which they lived. The following is an extract from that talk [but see also COMMON STOCK Vol I No.1 Dec 1983: and Vol 5 No.1 March 1990].

Francis Markis; character extraordinary; buffoon; strong man; athlete; singer; musician. He fell heir to the title from his father; inherited it if you like. When his father came from Morayshire to take over the tenancy of Middlehill which was on the state of Cumine of Auchry, he passed through the weaving village of New Byth to see his sister who resided in the place.

William Jameson was a tall outstanding figure which one would call swashbuckling nowadays. This distinguished looking gentleman caused quite a stir in the quiet village among the women of the place, the men would have been away working some on the land - others at the various crafts - masons, richts and the like.

One was heard to comment that this braw man was not unlike the Marquis of Huntley - and there the name stuck.

Middlehill was in the parish of Montquitter which means (derives) ‘place for snaring the deer’. Also known as Cuminestown mainly as it was built by the Cumine Lairds.

Francis was born and brought up at Middlehill where he got the rudiments of learning. Maybe he didn’t learn very much there but apparently he always knew the right side of a penny and paid on the spot for any requirements he needed.

Cuminestown school at that time (in the 1820s and 30s) taught English, mathematics, reading and writing, Latin, French, Greek and Music. Maybe that was where he obtained his love of music and the incentive to learn the instruments which gained him a reputation as a quality performer in a country not short of Musicians. He must have received tuition of sorts for he could read music with ease.

The North East had more of a fiddle tradition than a piping one, and the Piping one more of the cauld wind variety rather than the great Highland bagpipe. However it appears to be that this position reversed after the turn of this century and the cauld wind pipes faded into total obscurity.

Music teachers were in abundance during Francie Markis’ time and some combined their art with teaching dancing.

I list here a number of composers that produced manuscripts of that era and before.

George Skene Bagpipe style sets and reels

William Forbes

Francis Peacock (Scottish Airs). He produced his major work titled ‘Sketches relative to the history and Theory but more especially the practice of Dancing as a necessary accomplishment for the youth of both sexes.’ He was a dancing master who taught that noble art in     parallel with teaching music. Let us see what he wrote on the subject of step dancing: I once had the pleasure of seeing, in a remote part of the country, a reel danced by a herd boy and two young girls, who surprised me much, especially the boy who appeared to be about 12 years of age. He had a variety of well chosen steps and executed them with so much justness and ease, as if he meant to set criticism at defiance . .. Our College draw hither, every year a number of students from the Western Isles as well as from the Highlands, and the greater part excel in this dance, some of them indeed in so superior a degree that I myself have thought them worthy of imitation.’ Each step had a Gaelic name.

Isaac Cooper of Banff, Dancing Master; employed a helper musician. Taught Harpsichord, violin, Violoncello, Clarinet, Psaltry, Pipe and Taperer, German Flute, Scots Flute, Fife, Hautboy, Lrish Organ Pipe, and the Guitar. He published several collections. He held large classes throughout the region which would no doubt have included New Byth or Cuminestown. His best known tune was ‘Miss Herries Forbes Farewell to Banff’.

In Francis Markis day there were strong fiddle societies at many of the villages and musicians were in great demand to play at functions not only to meal and ales and dances generally but to play at Lairds halls and at society events, But generally they got more pleasure in making music among themselves in their ain home environments.

Francie Markis was an abstinent man all his days, and always kept himself in the best of order not like Bill Duguid who held classes at the Muirs schools. A tremendous talent admired by J. S. Skinner, he suffered from misuse of demon drink. Once at a function, a recital at Fyvie, he was offered a nip out of a half bottle. Bill took the bottle to his lips and downed the lot. Proffering the empty bottle back he said ’I suppose you didna want ony’.

Francis Markis grew up a tall handsome man endowed with a tremendous strength and   vigour. At every big farm toon in the summer time feats of strength and athletic competitions took place. Throwing the 56lb weight, pulling the swingletree being amongst the most popular, At all events Francie was unbeatable culminating in his participation at Galas and Picnics far and wide, and winning every event he entered. Some Galas and Games ruled him out defining them as local events, but Francie got round that by entering all the same by running beside the participants fully clothed and winning just the same.

He moved to beside the moss of Byth himself when he took a croft at Fisherie, at that time mosses and whins were being trenched and drained to form viable farm land and sometimes the Lairds of the time gave them the land rent free to do such a task for so many years and then they charged a rental.

At this work Francie Markis excelled. He hired his services far and wide - whether he took his own squad or was part of another I do not know. I think he wasprobably a loner and took on the job on piece per acre. That implied turning the soil two feet deep, putting the top turf at the bottom. Removing the stones in puddocks with a horse to later build the stone dykes that finally enclosed the fields. Of course the drains had to be dug and they were stone lined as well. At those tasks Francie was adept, especially at the spade and pick work - those specially made implements were smiddy made twice normal size to cater for his excesses.

At the scythe however, which was the tool used to cut corn, he was again in a league of his own. At that time hairst squads were hired to cut the grain. Some were for a six weeks   harvest duration. Others were hired on piece-work per acre cut, This was the method     Francie preferred as it gave him scope for his ability. An acre a day was a big day for most people, but he usually did twice that, and on one prodigious occasion cut three. He was supposed to have remarked that three acre a day was nae childs play.

I have not heard how many people gathered and bound the cut corn behind the point of his scythe; usually that is a job for two people, one who gathered and another who bound and stacked, but then Francie was no ordinary person. Girls were predominantly used in harvest time for gathering and binding too. In fact many harvest squads from Aberdeenshire took a harvest contract down in the Lothians first, mainly because the harvest was a few weeks earlier down there. I have a song, The Lothian Hairst, which depicts such a thing.

Francie Markis’ eating feats are also legend. He could literally eat enough for ten men and sometimes he was invited along to functions to play his music and also to provide a       spectacle of his enormous appetite at work with everything from fowls to salted herring on the table, with breed and kebback to follow,

Francie never married, and indeed was a loner although for a number of years there was a sister who kept house. Attendance at the Kirk was a requirement by all and nobody that   attended Byth Kirk dressed better topped by a lum hat than Francie Markis. There a precentor conducted the hymn and psalm singing which at that time and for a period of twenty years was performed by my own grandfather Lamb who was in Bogenlea of Byth farm nearby.

Francie had a nephew, Joseph Sim, who became a well known fiddle player and was       reputed to be very competent in the pipes as well. Best known as “The Wonderful Boy of Byth” he was equally at home on the concert platform as he was playing for dances with his Joseph Sim band. Francie taught his nephew both fiddle and pipes but both are best known for their fiddle playing and Francie on the cello was regarded by other musicians as faultless.

He was immensely proud of his nephew. When the 12 year old Joseph Sim was playing on the stage at New Byth hall on his first appearance - this was a solo performance - he remarked to several people in the audience “Isn't he a wonderful boy; isn’t he a wonderful boy!” and there the title stuck for a lifetime.

Sometimes he played with the Joseph Sim band but in earlier years he had a band of his own, It wouldn’t have been a regular dance band but would have been just got together to play at meal and ale functions as described in the sang or cornkister Mains of Badentyre.

Corkisters depicted life on the great farm toons. This one tells about the hairst fees - people employed for the duration of the harvest and the celebration feast in the barn followed by a dance, where the fiddlers are seated on the Mill feeding bench. Usually the event was held in the loft (corn) by at Badentyre it appears that the barn must have been of suitable dimensions.

The feast was usually supplied by the farmer and his good lady and this one was no different and it was the harvest hands and the farm employees including the house staff (kitchie deem etc) that invited the guests who were girl friends, men friends, acquaintances and so forth from round about. The auld kirk drink was also supplied by the farmer but at the time there were a few unorthodox stills in the vast mosses abounding the area of Byth and the Waggle Hill. Before I recite a bit of the ballad of Badentyre I will return to ‘The Wonderful Boy of Byth’: at a recital in Byth which took place in 1912. J. S. Skinner was the principal guest, but in conversation to the other participants listening to the various performers the great man was heard to remark that he couldn’t play a slow air like the Wonderful Boy. The person who told me this also said that J. S. Skinner wrote down any new tune he listened to and the following year they would hear it played by him with doublings and triplets and other embellishments thrown in.

(Left) Francie Markie with bellows pipes

This is from a collection of sangs recorded by Hamish Henderson from Willie Mathieson in Turra in 1952, Willie, in his seventies then, had attended and in fact hairsted at the famous toon of Wester Badentye in the 1890s so knew the famous Francie Markis first hand. So, the last four verses only;

An when the crap is aa secured fae winters frost an sna’ We'll get a ball when Francie comes wi’ his fiddle bra’.

And lads and lasses roon aboot will fill the barn fleer

Oh mony’s the happy nichts been spent at Wester Badentyre.

We hae nae fancy programmes nor yet a dandy Hall But we hae mirth and music at Francie Markis Ball.

Upon the feeding bench at the mill the fiddlers they are seated,

And noo and then throughoot the nicht wi auld Kirk they are treated.

Aboot the middle o’ the night tay is handed roon’

Nae fancy tables jist a joug and biscuits white and broon. Syne Lordie wi the ald Scots sangs nae heard in Music Hall, And Francie Markis gars us lach wi’ Billy Johnston’s Ball.

Syne up an tae the Dancing for twa three oors an mair, And morning’s nae far awa’ when we gang doon the stairs. Lang may old Francie play and sing, lang may he fill the fleer, Lang may the farmer hae the hairst at Wester Bedentyre.