Pattiesmuir “College” and Adam Low, the Dunfermline Bonesetter

by George Robertson, FSAScot.

In his book Reminiscences of Dunfermline – Sixty Years Ago, Alexander Stewart tells a short story which refers to a former Provost of Dunfermline who, it seems, was blessed with a particular talent.    His name was Adam Low and he was Provost of the town from 1787 till 1789.   Stewart begins his tale in Pattiesmuir, a small village on the south side of Dunfermline and what follows is related in Stewart’s own words –

Portrait of Adam Low by Sir Henry Raeburn
Adam Low by Sir Henry Raeburn, Courtesy of Fife Council. (c) Fife Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Although Dunfermline could never boast of having a College or University, the little neighbouring village or hamlet of Pattiesmuir could boast of that.   Not only was there a so-called College, sui generis, but there was also a veritable professor.   The most of the ‘collegians’ belonged to Dunfermline, and a very lively set they were.   The introduction or installation of new ‘collegians’ was observed with all due decorum, yet with much genuine humour.   In Pattiesmuir they adhered more to the French and German ideas of what the functions of a ‘college’ really are than those attached to it in England.   It was in reality “Collegium,” merely a collection or assemblage of persons; and the one at Pattiesmuir was intended for recreation and amusement.   Those who figured at these gatherings have mostly all passed away, “as a tale that is told”, and the archives belonging to the Pattiesmuir Collegium are now out of existence.   From what can be gathered regarding the past of that amusing assembly, it would appear that there was much harmless diversion carried on at their meetings – amusement and recreation, and not education or instruction, being the principal objects they had in view.   I sometimes think that the bulk of the people of those days enjoyed life with much real zest, notwithstanding the fewer the advantages they had, compared with those we now enjoy.   Men were not so driven and harassed with the cares and the bustle and anxieties of business as they now are.

Sketch map of Pattiesmuir by James Renny. Courtesy of Charlestown, Limekilns and Pattiesmuir Community Council
Sketch of Pattiesmuir by James Renny. Courtesy of Charlestown, Limekilns and Pattiesmuir Community Council

There is a story told of one of the leading members of the “College,” who lived in Pattiesmuir, and it is worth recording.   A younger brother of his had unfortunately got his ankle dislocated one Sunday morning.   It caused the young lad great pain, and there was no other course left for him but to be taken up to Dunfermline on his brother’s back to Provost Low, who was a celebrated bone-setter, in order to get the swollen and painful joint put into its place.   A journey of this kind did not appear so formidable an undertaking as it would do now, so, with his disabled brother on his back, the young man set out on his journey of two and a half miles, Sabbath though it was, arriving with his burden at the Provost’s shortly before church time.   The old domestic admitted them into the kitchen with no good grace – giving them a bit of her mind, telling them it was a shame “to disturb the Provost on the Lord’s mornin’, an’ him a’ ready for to gang till the kirk.”   The elder one pleaded as an excuse the great pain that his brother was suffering, and said they were sorry to trouble him at such an inconvenient time.   Soon after, his worship, the stately Provost, came into the kitchen where they were.   He was dressed in full official costume, knee breeches and silk stockings, laced coat, fine frilled shirt, powdered hair, silver buckles on his shoes, and his cocked hat in his hand; arrayed, in short, in all the glory and state of the first magistrate of one of the most venerable and renowned cities of the kingdom.   He was a very kind-hearted man, but he felt just a little annoyed at being disturbed at that un-timeous hour.   Laying his cocked hat carefully on a chair, he took out his silk pocket handkerchief, which he spread on the floor to protect his knee-breeches.   After this he proceeded to examine the boy’s ankle to find out the extent of the damage.   During the manipulation the boy winced several times, owing to the pain induced through the severe nibbling to which the joint was subjected; but when it came to the grand finale the pain was so unexpected and intense as to cause the lad, unintentionally, to kick the Provost right in the chest with his other foot with all his might, sending that worthy sprawling all his length on the floor!   O ye limners with a clever pencil, here was a fine subject for you to portray!   Behold the Provost of the ancient city of Dunfermline, clad in all the habiliments of official glory, lying flat on his back, and on his own kitchen floor on the Sabbath morning!

This good, worthy Provost died in 1817, full of age and honours.  For many of his suffering fellow creatures far and near he had proved to be a great blessing.   In the avocation which he took upon himself in his later years as bone-setter etc. for which he took no fees, he displayed great skill and judgement, and his services were eagerly sought after.   He used to say that he obtained his knowledge of the human bones “at the grave’s mouth.”   His fellow-townsmen and friends at a distance, to show their great regard for him, subscribed for his portrait, which was painted by the celebrated Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A., Limner for Scotland.   This fine work of art now adorns the Council Chamber of Dunfermline.” (1)

The College to which Stewart refers still exists in Pattiesmuir, being situated at the east end of the village’s only street.   It is still in use by the local community.   In the book entitled A Short History of the VillagesCharlestown, Limekilns and Pattiesmuir, it is described as being a long single roomed cottage used for social functions.   We learn from the book that the origins of the College are somewhat obscure, one thought being it was formed when the local pub – The Black Bull– was closed due to the noisy carousing taking place!   However, the book also suggests it was begun by a resident of the village named Andrew Carnegie (1769-1839), who just happens to have been the grandfather of the multi-millionaire – Andrew Carnegie. (2)  The book tells us Andrew senior, known locally as “The Professor,” presided over a fraternity of radical weavers who formed an association that was partly educational, partly political and partly convivial.   In his Autobiography, Andrew Carnegie confirms his grandfather was known as “The Professor” and adds “he was head of the lively ones of his day, known far and wide as the chief of their joyous club – Patiemuir (sic) College.” (3) 

Pattiesmuir College. Photographed by the author
Pattiesmuir College. Photographed by the author

It is now time to return to Adam Low “of Fordel” which might cause us to assume this refers to Fordell Estate, situated to the east of Dunfermline.   However, this is not so as his Fordel is in fact in Perthshire, being part of the parish of Arngask.   We are fortunate to find research has been carried out into Adam’s ancestors. Around 1890, David Marshall published his results under the title Kinross-shire and its Owners. (4)   This includes details of the Low family of Brackly, parish of Portmoak and it is here where we learn of Adam’s antecedents.   Marshall tells us that Adam, born around 1733, was the son of Robert Low and his wife Isabel Balfour, and one of six children born to the couple.   His father Robert, was the tenant of East Brackly farm, which still exists today on the south side of Loch Leven.   Adam is described by Marshall as “Adam Low of Fordel, Provost of Dunfermline, celebrated as a bone setter,” indicating he had no doubt about Adam’s provenance.  

According to Volume 4 of Daniel Thomson’s Anent Dunfermline, during 1754 Adam and his brother David purchased the estate of Fordel, Arngask from John Craigie of Dumbarnie (sic), Perthshire. (5)  This is confirmed by an examination of Volume 3 of The Land Tax Rolls for Perthshire, dated 1802, which shows, despite living in Dunfermline, Adam was then in possession of half the lands of Fordel, with the other half being possessed by his brother David.   Each half is valued at £134:8:4 (Scots).   Following David’s death at Fordel, around 1812, his son Robert took possession of his father’s half of the property and, on the death of Adam in 1817, his daughter Jean fell heir to her father’s half.(6) The acreage of the farmland is revealed in an advert Jean placed in the Fife Herald newspaper dated 20th January 1825, stating she was willing to let the land for 15 or 19 years and adding her farm consisted of upwards of 200 acres of arable land and about 140 acres of pasture. (7)   Jean, who was widowed in 1819 when her husband, Captain John Wardlaw of the Royal Marines died, is referred to in various documents concerning Fordel by the somewhat exotic title of “Mrs Captain Wardlaw”!   She was also the owner of property in the Garvock area of Dunfermline.   Jean died at Dunfermline in 1855. (8)

Adam’s nephew Robert Low was very well known in the Fordel area for his ability to carry out reduction of dislocated joints, a procedure which according to one Perth newspaper he “acquired or rather inherited.” (9)  The use of the word “inherited” is interesting as this raises the question – who did he inherit his ability from?   Again, turning to Thomson’s Anent, this time Volume 3, we find evidence that over several generations the “Low family” were well known for their ability to reduce dislocations. (10)   If this included Adam’s father, his brother David and his nephew Robert, that might explain the reason for the “inherited” comment.  In 1812, the Magistrates and Council of Perth recognised Robert’s ability by conferring on him the Freedom of the City. (11)   Robert died at Fordel in 1847. (12)

It is interesting to note an early owner of Fordel was Sir John Brown, one of the commanders of the Royalist Army which, in 1651, was defeated by Cromwell’s New Army at the Battle of Inverkeithing and Pitreavie.   Sir John was taken prisoner and a short time later, whilst still in captivity, he died.   During the New Army’s subsequent march north to capture Perth, Fordel was taken over by Cromwell, where he is said to have rested for two days. (13)

With regards Adam’s comment he gained his knowledge of anatomy “at the grave’s mouth”, it would appear he was in the habit of attending Dunfermline Abbey graveyard when a grave was being opened, at which time he took the opportunity to make a study of the bone structure of the occupant! (14)

When Adam arrived in Dunfermline is unclear, but Margaret, the eldest of his five children, was born in the town in June, 1759, (15) which would indicate he was residing in Dunfermline at that time.   Regarding his business or occupation, Adam was most certainly involved in the weaving trade since in 1762 he is elected their Deacon by the weavers of Dunfermline, this enabling him to represent them at town council meetings. (16)  In 1763, his name appears in the Register of Burial Plot Sales which records the burial plots sold by the Abbey Kirk Session.   Adam is recorded as a Linen Manufacturer, purchasing a double plot at the southeast corner of the Kirkyard.   Yet another reference is found in 1768 when a newspaper advertisement by Alex Colvin of the Denovan Bleachfield, near Falkirk, states cloth for bleaching can be left at various premises in central Scotland, including that of Adam Low, Merchant, Dunfermline.  (17)  The advert raises the interesting point that local linen manufacturers were prepared to have their product bleached at bleach fields some distance from those in and around Dunfermline.

As has been stated previously, Adam Low was Provost of Dunfermline from 1787 till 1789, but a newspaper item tells us he was still involved in council work until at least 1814, during which year he was re-elected to serve as a councillor. (18)   He was by this time 81 years old.  The Rev. Peter Chalmers in his Historical and Statistical Account of Dunfermline, gives the following brief account of Adam Low – “Provost Low was long and deservedly eminent for his success in the reduction of dislocations, and for the disinterested manner in which he acted, in the exercise of his peculiar talent.   He took no fee, but occasionally accepted presents.   All his patients were required to come to him, and whether he met them on the road, or in his house, he commenced his operations; and by a peculiar sense of touch, and strength of thumb generally succeeded.” (19)

He was obviously a very well respected member of the community and this is reflected in the fact his portrait, which still hangs in Dunfermline City Chambers, bears the following – “ A Testimony – By a number of Gentlemen of the Town and Neighbourhood, of the high sense which they entertain of the disinterested and eminently successful manner, in which Adam Low of Fordel, Esquire, formerly Provost of this Borough (sic), has for a long period of years, devoted himself to the relief of afflicted humanity, by reducing dislocations.”   When this portrait was painted is unclear but Fernie in his History of the Town and Parish of Dunfermline, published in 1815, states it was at that time hanging in what was then known as the Guildhall in High Street – now known as the Guildhall and Linen Exchange Hotel and Restaurant. (20)

Adam Low's house at top of Cross Wynd. Sketch by Robert Somerville
Adam Low’s house at top of Cross Wynd. – Sketch by Robert Somerville

Adam Low died at his home “at the top of the Crosswynd (sic)”, on 19th September, 1817, aged eighty-four years.    Volume 3 of Thomson’s Anent provides us with the information that Adam’s house was situated “at the top of Cross Wynd, east side” and it had previously been the site of “the residence of the gifted authoress of the Ballad of Hardyknute”, this being a reference to Lady Elizabeth Halkett (1677-1727), wife of Sir Henry Wardlaw of Pitreavie, who, it is said, wrote the Ballad although this has been disputed. (21)   Adam is buried in Dunfermline Abbey graveyard, alongside his wife Jeanie, who predeceased him by 32 years, and other members of his family.   A newspaper announcement of his death tells us he was a “gentleman well known for his benevolent exertions in the cause of humanity.” (22)   Brief and to the point perhaps but surely an epitaph to be proud of.

Sources and acknowledgements –
  1. Reminiscences of Dunfermline Sixty Years Ago, by Alexander Stewart, pub. 1886, by Scott & Ferguson & J. Menzies & Co., Edinburgh, also Simkin, Marshall & Co., London, pp. 50-53.
  2. A Short History of the Villages, by Chesher, Hogben & Foster, pub. 1979, by Norman Fotheringham and Charlestown, Limekilns & Pattiesmuir Community Council, p. 5.
  3. Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, by Andrew Carnegie, pub. 1920, by Constable & Co., Ltd., London, p. 2.
  4. Kinross-shire and its Owners, Vol. 3, Typescript by David Marshall, c. 1890.
  5. Anent Dunfermline, by Daniel Thomson, Vol. 4, Item 85.
  6. The Land Tax Rolls for Perthshire, Vol. 3, dated 1802, Ref. E106/26/3/9, p. 9.
  7. Fife Herald newspaper, Thursday 20th January, 1825, p. 1.
  8. Dunfermline Abbey Monumental Inscriptions, by J.F & S. Mitchell, pub. 1993 by the Scottish Genealogy Society, Edinburgh, p. 39, item 795.
  9. Perth Courier newspaper, dated Thursday, 30th April, 1932, p. 12 – 120 Years Ago column.
  10. Anent Dunfermline, by Daniel ThomsonVol.3,Item 713.
  11. Perth Courier newspaper, dated Thursday, 30th April, 1932, p. 12 – 120 Years Ago column.
  12. Monumental Inscriptions (pre-1855) in South Perthshire, by Mitchell & Mitchell produced forthe Scottish Genealogy Society, 1974, pp. 37-41, Item 23
  13. Glenfarg and District Past and Present, by James W. Jack, pub. 1908, by Miller & Smail, Perth, p. 19.
  14. Anent Dunfermline, Vol. 2,by Daniel Thomson, Item 61.
  15., per The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
  16. Dunfermline Council Minutes, dated 24th December, 1762.
  17. Caledonian Mercury newspaper, dated Monday, 7th March, 1768, p. 1.
  18. Ibid, Saturday, 1st October, 1814, p. 4.
  19. Historical & Statistical Account of Dunfermline, Vol. 1, by the Rev. Peter Chalmers, pub.1844, by Wm. Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh & London, pp. 316-7.
  20. History of the Town & Parish of Dunfermline, by the Rev John Fernie, printed & sold by John Miller, Dunfermline, 1815, p. 20.
  21. Anent Dunfermline, Vol. 3, by Daniel Thomson, Items 57 & 58.
  22. Caledonian Mercury newspaper, dated25th September, 1817, p. 3.

I must thank the following people who gave me assistance during preparation of this article –

Sue Mowat, member of Dunfermline Historical Society, who shares her knowledge so willingly.

Alex Horne, Facilities Officer, Fife Council, who organised permission from the Council to include the image of the Raeburn painting of Adam Low.

Martin Mulube, Chair of Charlestown, Limekilns and Pattiesmuir Community Council, who granted permission to use the Pattiesmuir section of a map, drawn in 1979 by James Renny.

Prof. David Munro of the Kinross (Marshall) Museum – his knowledge of the Kinross area is astounding – which he is always happy to share!

Sharron McColl, Local Studies Supervisor (Part Time), at Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries, who provided me with the Adam Low information contained within Daniel Thomson’s Anent Dunfermline.

Notes –

Thomson’s Anent, which extends to nine volumes is, for the local historian, a cornucopia of information.   Covering the period 1893 to 1908, it is a collection of notes and newspaper articles concerning people, places and events in and around Dunfermline.   The collection can be viewed at Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries.

The sketch entitled “Head of Cross Wynd” can be found in Robert Somerville’s “Dunfermline Sketches and Notes”, published in 1917, by Herbert T. Macpherson, Bridge Street, Dunfermline.   Somerville tells us “the house looking down the street (Queen Anne Street) has a tablet with the date 1727, and occupies the site of an earlier house in which Lady Wardlaw, the authoress resided”.   This is the house Adam Low occupied, situated “at the top of Cross Wynd, east side,” which was removed and replaced many years ago.

I have been fortunate to have available the research carried out by David Marshall (1831-1902), which enabled me to unravel Adam Low’s early years and would point out Marshall is the person who set up the original Kinross museum in the local Carnegie Library, using artefacts from his own collection.   The original museum has now evolved into the Kinross (Marshall) Museum, based at Loch Leven Community Centre, Kinross.

Having made use of Alexander Stewart’s book Reminiscences of Dunfermline whilst researching this article, perhaps it is time to say a few words about him and his family. Alexander was born in Dunfermline on 23rd January, 1821, his parents, according to the Family Search website, being Angus Stewart and Helen Bryce.   Little is known of his early years and he is first located in the 1851 census for Limekilns Village – no address given – where he is shown to be married with four children.   His wife is Helen Walker, the couple having married in Dunfermline on 28th February, 1843.   Helen’s parents were Ralph Walker and Grace Spittal.   Alexander’s occupation is recorded as being Principal Coast Officer of Customs and he is shown to be 30 years of age.

Our next information on Alexander appears in the 1861 census for England where he is recorded living in Liverpool with his family, which has increased to six.   He is still employed by the Customs service – as a clerk.   When Alexander moved from Scotland is not known, but this probably took place during the late 1850’s.   The 1871 and 1881 censuses reveal he is still living in Liverpool and employed as a clerk with HM Customs but by the census of 1891 the family have moved to Egremont, Wallasey, in Cheshire.   He is shown to be retired and a widower, his wife Helen having died on 7th January of that year.   Alexander’s death occurred on Sunday 3rd July, 1898 and he is buried, together with his wife and other members of his family, in Rake Lane Cemetery, Wallasey.

Alexander’s family remained in England, two of whom – James and John – becoming cotton merchants, but another – Ralph – returned to Dunfermline, where he was responsible for the construction of the rubber works in Elgin Street, initially known as the Central Rubber Works.   The business was later renamed Ralph W. Stewart & Co., Ltd, India Rubber Manufacturers – see the article entitled Central Rubber Works, by George Beattie.