AFTER lying unread for decades and gathering dust in the attic of an Australian farmhouse, the memoirs of the Borders sculptor who carved the statues of Ettrick shepherd James Hogg at St Mary’s Loch and that of explorer Mungo Park in Selkirk, have now been published.
In a new book entitled Carving History: The Life & Works of Andrew Currie, the memoirs form the basis of a biography by freelance Melbourne journalist, Bob Johnstone.
Currie, who died in 1891 and was the author’s great-great-grandfather, was more than just a gifted carver of large-scale monuments in stone and finely-wrought furniture in wood.
He was also an enthusiastic antiquary, an oral historian, and a writer who penned colourful stories of life in the Borders of his youth.
The son of a Howford sheep farmer, Currie worked as a millwright until his mid-forties, when his health broke. Only then did he fulfill a life-long dream to become a sculptor.
Carving History is divided up into three sections; the first being a biography of Currie’s life; part two contains illustrations of his works and part three is a collection of his writings, including memoirs and diaries about growing up in the Borders of the early 19th century.
The manuscripts came to light in 2011, having lain in the house in the Australian state of Victoria for generations, and are being published for the first time, to coincide with Currie’s bicentenary on November 6.
The author of five previous books, Bob, whose father was born in Selkirk and whose mother’s family comes from Galashiels, has also worked as a correspondent for the New Scientist, the Far East Economic Review and Wired magazine.
Speaking to TheSouthern from his home in Victoria’s state capital, Melbourne, he said the chain of events which had led him to start work on the book had began innocuously enough, with a request from his son.
“He asked me to put together a family tree for him. This task I immediately passed on to my eldest brother who, being older, is better-versed in such matters than I am,” Bob explained this week.
“He duly obliged, but there was something lacking in the bare framework of names and dates. It would be nice, I thought, to put some flesh on the bones.”
But where to begin? The only ancestor of Bob’s who had been even remotely famous was Andrew Currie.
As well as the monuments to Hogg and Park, Currie had also carved the figure of Robert the Bruce on the esplanade at Stirling Castle, as well as two of the character statues on the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.
So from his desk at home in Melbourne, Bob started trawling the internet for information.
This included downloading a handwritten page from the parish records of Yarrow in Selkirkshire.
As well as learning that it was almost the bicentenary of Currie’s birth and that he had been the son of a tenant farmer from Howford, Bob also found out that Currie had a younger brother, John, who, in 1841, had emigrated to Victoria, where he became a highly successful sheep farmer.
Taking up the story again, Bob said: “I did some more Googling and it didn’t take me long to discover that we had at least one set of distant cousins – more than one, as I later learned – living right here in Victoria. I emailed them, asking if they had any Andrew Currie-related materials.
“By coincidence, at exactly this time, I came across an exchange of letters about Andrew that The Scotsman had published in 1920.
“One correspondent mentioned that Andrew had been working on his memoirs, the other replied he feared that these were now widely scattered, if they still existed.
“The idea that memoirs existed was new and exciting. They would give at least some sense of the person who had written them. But what were the chances of ever finding these memoirs? Not good, I reckoned, real needle-in-a-haystack stuff.”
However, the very next day, Bob’s email inbox was stuffed with a series of emails from one of his newfound cousins and attached to them were scans of documents, handwritten contracts and letters, a detailed appreciation from a magazine of the life of Currie, and – most remarkable of all – the frontispiece of a diary in Currie’s own hand. Bob continues: “Of all the places they could have been in the world, the memoirs had turned up right here in Victoria, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from my home!
“Up to that point, I had been musing about doing some sort of website. But now I realised that, with the memoirs, this project could be much bigger. The idea that became this book began to form.”
Bob’s cousin let him copy four handwritten exercise books of reminiscences and diaries.
“Transcribing them was intensely exciting: I felt that Andrew Currie was talking directly to me, telling me stories about his life and times, stories that had lain unread in a trunk for many decades.
“They were, I thought, remarkably well-written, by a man who obviously had a sharp eye, a lively mind and a fine, self-deprecatory sense of humour. And, as the first page of the reminiscences made clear, Andrew wanted what he had written to be read.
“So, in addition to photographs of his works, I now understood that his writings must be published, too, so that other family members, scholars, Borderers, and who knew who else could enjoy them.”
z Through a relative in Selkirk, Bob got in touch with photographer Walter McLaren, from Galashiels, who took a number of the images in the book of Currie’s work in the Borders. Many thanks to Mr McLaren for his assistance with this article.