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Old Mort by Dave Whitehouse

05 October 2012


We had decided whilst in the UK and before we left New Zealand to see if we could find out a little of an ancestor who reigns high in Scottish history.

Our data was solid but it was finding something tangible that we could hold on to and embrace that was in the back of our minds. Our ancestor was 'Old Mortality', the subject of the book of the same name by Sir Walter Scott. That book was part of a series called 'Tales from my landlord' written by the bard in 1816. Other Scott novels included 'Rob Roy', 'Ivanhoe' and 'The Black Dwarf', all the stuff that kids of my age were brought up on., adventure, heroics, drama, romance.

But Old Mort was a real person in one Robert Paterson. This stonemason ancestor spent over thirty years of his life, in detriment to his family, re-establishing the inscriptions on the gravestones of the Covenanters, those determined folk who fought and died in the 17th century for the right to praise their God without persecution. Old Mort wanted the martyr's names to be not lost to history. In the family collection we have a wonderful painting of Old Mort chipping away at a gravestone and beside him stands his trusty white horse. That painting takes pride of place in the home of one of his direct descendants in Auckland.

In Princes Street, Edinburgh, stands the Scott Monument, that 200ft edifice built in 1840 and which contains a spiral staircase of 287 steps leading to viewing platforms. Bill Bryson called it 'A gothic Rocketship' which is a reasonably accurate description. From any of those platforms one can see, close-up and personal, many of the 94, metre-high statuettes that depict the characters of Scott's novels, and somewhere up there was a statue of Robert Paterson, 'Old Mortality'. On each platform it was a case of leaning out, taking a photo, and hoping it was Old Mort. We have many, many photos and at the end of that day, a couple of pairs of seriously tired legs.

Later on we discovered the 'Demission' photo in a hall on the Royal Mile and some days later, the glass-encased statue to Old Mort in the grounds of the Museum & Camera Obscura in Dumfries. It was some time after arriving home in New Zealand that we found that we actually had taken a photo of our ancestor. Later research has given us the statue's exact location on the monument.

To us, this trip to the UK was one of admiring the beauty of Scotland and the sheer joy of discovering something of our heritage we can share and pass down to our family. The Scott Monument is a vivid memory for us and the subsequent internet searches and discoveries of the Covenanters, Scott's writings, Dumfries Museum, the Demission painting, the history of the Free Church of Scotland and the lives lost over centuries for the right to remain free, has given us a huge uplift in knowledge and understanding. We can but recommend such searches to anyone who has an interest in History.

It is now not surprising at all when we hear of the pride and passion of the Scots. Robert Paterson, Old Mort, played a very valuable part in that revolution.

Dave Whitehouse

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