John Kelso Hunter lived from 1802 to 1873. He was born in Dankieth, Ayrshire and was
a shoemaker before teaching himself painting. He became a moderately successful portrait
painter and his self-portait as a cobbler was shown at the Royal Academy in London in
1847. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Scottish Academy from 1849 to 1872.
He published Retrospective of an Artist's Life in 1868 and
Life Studies of Character some years later.
Some fifty-one years back I was at Kilbirnie along with my master selling shoes at Brinansday Fair.
It was the first time I had been in the place. We started from Dundonald at three o'clock in the
morning, arriving at Kilbirnie before breakfast time. I had heard often of the kind nature of the
inhabitants of that district. It was said that in the village every one kept open house. Curds and
cream, with mashlum scone, oatmeal cake and cheese; and strangers were welcome to enter and
eat any hour of the day. Although we had breakfast when we started, and a piece in our pouch, still
the early travel made us to have a sharp appetite. After we passed Dalry, my master began to talk
of James Kirkwood's people living by the wayside. They were very kind people, and he hoped that
they would give us our breakfast. When we entered Mr Kirkwood's house, the servants were just
about to begin their breakfast, a jolly dish of parritch being the first course. We were invited to join
them. Whether it was that it was parritch or mock modesty, I know not, but my master took the
door, talking as fast as he could, " No use for that, no use for that, ower muckle kindness." I looked
at him as he went out of the door, and as I felt no qualms of conscience, I said to Mrs Kirkwood
that I would take my breakfast. A spoon was handed me, and I gave evidence that I knew its use.
As I left the house, Mrs Kirkwood said that I would stand a sight o' the fair better now, and that I
had mair sense than my master, who by the roadside awaited my coming, lamenting he had not
done as I had. The secret came out that, had it been tea he would have accepted.
We went on to the fair, which was held at the kirk, the shoe stands being erected in the kirkyard.
The inhabitants objected to this procedure, and invited the shoemakers to come up to the village.
However, they were mostly of the use and wont school, and refused to go. Some of them indeed
lined the road-side out the Dalry road, while a few went up to the village, among whom was our
stand. I had made the survey of the village many times, and in every house I saw the table standing
on the floor spread out as history had said. I thought I would make one grand effort at proof. I
walked into a house, drew in a chair to the table, and was looking out as to how I would proceed. It
was the house of Cork Allan, shoemaker. I was interrogated as to where I came from, while Jean
filled a dish with curds out of the large dish, put cream on them, and bade me eat, and if I could
take more after the first service was done, I would get them. I mentioned my master being with me;
I was to send him in also, which I did. Further on in the day, I made a call in another house, and
was received in the same manner. So I concluded that the people were what report had named
them, the kindest in Ayrshire; although the true meaning of the free table was, that there were few
residents in town but had friends from the country, and it was one setting out of a table for all
comers, and the same welcome.
When I removed to Glasgow, a Mr Inglis lived in the same land with me. He had seen much of the
world, was kindly, conversable, and wished every person educated. He did his part to ignite a taste
for reading in every person he came in contact with. He had an only daughter. He gave her an
excellent education. She had called several times with her father's shoes to mend, and we were on
terms of intimacy. They flitted from our corner, and after a time report reached us that Bella Inglis
She had not forgot her auld neighbour the cobbler, for after some time I was sent for by her
husband, who stated that it was his wife's desire that I should be employed to paint his mother's
likeness. I was despatched to Kilbirnie, to go to Dennyholm, the house of William Knox, and paint
the portrait of his mother, who was also the mother of my employer, Mr John Knox, manufacturer,
Brunswick Street, Glasgow. I brought home the portrait on Saturday night, and went back to
execute new orders. I was eight weeks in Dennyholm and five weeks in other houses, making a
quarter of a year in that district. This was the first year of the potato blight, 1846. I had not been in Kilbirnie
for twenty eight years till I went on this mission. I had queer reflections as I passed the auld kirk,
where I had first beheld the horse fair and where Burns bought the "Blastie," and on entering the
village I looked for the house of the cork where I had fed on curds and cream thirty years before. I
wondered if all the kind-hearted folk wad be dead, or if the auld use and wont would remain. When I
reached Dennyholm it was one o'clock, the dinner was ready, and the remark being made that I
was just in time, left no doubt but the good old fashion was still existing. Kilbirnie has had a home
feeling to me ever since.
I had painted the portrait of Mr Orr, the father of the present minister. I had known the latter when he
was a boy in Kilmarnock with Hugh Craig. In the manse I met with Mr Stewart, who was helper in
Largs. He invited me across the moor and gave me a month's home with him, and through that start
I was other six months in Largs.
Some years after my first visit to Kilbirnie as an artist, I again went thither to paint some local
landscapes for Mr John Knox, and among his friends I received commissions for nineteen portraits
before I left, which proved that the kind people of Kilbirnie were not yet all dead. My son John Kelso
Hunter died at the age of thirty-three. When he was a boy he determined to lift me off the seat, and
he did it, and kept me off it. Often when I would have lost heart he cheered me up. He fell into bad
health. His wife dying shortly after him, three sons were left to the charge of their grandmother by
the mother's side and myself. Mrs John Knox has kept the whole three children in clothes for more
than five years, and John Knox was one of a few friends who said, " Never allow yourself to be in
need; just come to me." At Kilbirnie, Mr James Maekie has sat to me three times for his portrait.
He said that he would sit every seventh year as long as we were living. I would have been down this
last season, but being unable to go, I only write about it. Time is up for the fourth portrait. It is
beautiful to see the changes of the same man brought face to face.