Who was the drouthy cobbler?
John Shanks, 1758 – 1841
When the Duffs and the Grants fought a parliamentary election for the Elgin Burghs, John Shanks was a drouthy cobbler, living on the north side of the High Street, opposite the Muckle Cross. He had been of some service to the winning party (the Duffs) and he was rewarded by being appointed, in about 1824, keeper of the Cathedral. He immediately set to work to clear away the accumulated rubbish that had remained there since the collapse of the central tower in 1711. With his own hands, John removed 3000 barrowfuls of rubbish, laid bare the foundations of the pillars, the elevations at the altar and the steps at the West Gate. In doing so he uncovered many tombs and ornaments buried deep within the rubbish.
No-one who knew John Shanks in 1824 had the slightest idea that he would ever be celebrated as the restorer and saviour of the ‘Lantern of the North’. ‘Somewhat idle and gossiping,’ one contemporary wrote, ‘his appointment was looked upon as the easiest way of his patrons ridding themselves of future botheration. But he had not been long in office, when he began to show what manner of spirit he was of, and, ere long, he proved that he was the right man in the right place’. A visitor to the Cathedral describes him as ‘a thin, lank, spider-looking being, clad in an obsolete costume, with a quiet, earnest enthusiasm to his manner – a sort of Old Mortality – whose delight it is to labour among ruins and tombs’.
In the 1830s, when John was an old man, the great Scottish judge, Lord Cockburn, came to Elgin and wrote of his visit in his book Circuit Journeys.
‘Elgin Cathedral,’ he writes, ‘is by far the best-kept old ruin, public or private in Scotland. The merit of putting Elgin Cathedral in order belongs partly to the Crown, but still more to an old man who, for about twenty years, has had the task of showing the Cathedral, and has spent his life in clearing away rubbish, disclosing parts of the building and preserving fragments, all literally with his own hands. The name of this combatant of time is John Shanks. The rubbish, he says, ‘has made an auld man o me’. He used to have a strong taste for whisky, but always a stronger one for the antiquities and relics of the Cathedral. He is now a worthy garrulous body, who can only speak, however, about the tombs and ruins, and recites all the inscriptions as if he could not help it, and is more at home with the statues of the old bishops and soldiers than with his own living family.’
John Shanks was a gossip, a blether, a storyteller who was not above inventing tales to fit the discoveries he made in his excavations. An empty stone coffin ‘becomes’ the coffin in which King Duncan was buried following his murder by Macbeth and before the body was removed to Iona. He was the object of gentle fun in the local press of the day, but there is no doubt of the esteem in which he was held by all levels of Elgin society. When John got too feeble for work, an appeal went out to the people of Elgin:
‘to John’s enthusiasm and activity we owe all these happy results; for no man, high or low, for a period of 150 years previously, had ever dreamt of making such an attempt. Hence the community of Elgin is called upon to smooth his passage to the grave by such contributions as may give him at least the necessaries of life and a few comforts for his declining years.’
He was also presented with a very fine snuff box which is now on permanent display in the Elgin Museum. The box was made by the Elgin silversmith, W S Ferguson. The lid is engraved with a view of the main doorway of the Cathedral. On the reverse is this inscription:
When John Shanks – the drouthy cobbler – died, his epitaph was composed by Lord Cockburn:
JOHN SHANKS, Shoemaker in Elgin,
Who died 14th April 1841, aged 83 years.
For seventeen years he was the keeper and shower of this Cathedral; and while not even the Crown was doing anything for its preservation, he, with his own hands, cleared it of many thousand cubic yards of rubbish, disclosing the bases of the pillars, collecting the carved fragments, and introducing some order and propriety.
Whoso reverences the Cathedral will respect the memory of this man.
From The Bonnie Land o Moray, Will Hay, 1829.
’Tis the land o the Elgin Cathedral,
And the ‘Bishop o Moray’ – John Shanks.
John Shanks! Here’s a stave to thy glory,
Thou o Bishops o Moray the prime,
Thou hast broken the scythe and the sand-glass
O that bald-pated fellow, auld Time.
Thou hast found in thy Chan’ry the ashes
O mony a hero an peer,
King Duncan and Nebuchadnezzar,
An thousands that never were there.
From The Bishop o Moray, John Shanks, George Robertson, 1830.
There lives a man in Elgin toon,
I trow he is a pawky loon,
There’s no ane fit to dight his shoon,
In a’ the toon o Elgin.
His manners are sedate and douce,
His cracks they are baith lang and crouse,
When showing yon auld meikle house,
The Chan’ry Kirk o Elgin.
’Tis wonderful to hear him tell
The things that lang, lang syne befell,
When Badenoch’s Wolf, that cub o hell,
Burnt doon the Kirk o Elgin.
But needless ’tis for me to tell,
What every body knows so well,
Your merit amply shows itsel
I a ye’ve done for Elgin.
John Shanks! gude, honest, worthy soul!
I’d rather your Kilmarnock cowl,
Than the Bishop’s mitre, who had rule
In the Chan’ry Kirk o Elgin.
From The Deeds of Glorious John, by Will Hay, 1833.
My name it is John Shanks, renowned in prose and verse,
Whose deeds among the dead let the living now rehearse;
So lend an ear,
And you shall hear
The very words of truth, my boys! From the truthful lips of John;
With his long nose, leathern apron, red Kilmarnock cowl, boys!
His nuff-box, funny jokes, the shovel and the shool, boys!