IN the year 1591, James and John Ker of Selkirk had a little problem

with their brother Thomas, a lawyer of the town. Thomas, it seems, was

more than a mite fond of a drink. Being of a legalistic family, Thomas

was enjoined into a binding contract -- and given an offer he couldn't


Henceforth, Thomas agreed that ''he sall at na tyme fra the day of the

dait heirof to the feise and terme of Witsounday . . . drink in na

places quhair he man pay money for.'' If some employer regaled the

errant Ker as reward for a job, that was fine. If, however, Thomas

backslid and actually paid for a drink, he would not only ''incur

diffamation'', James would not give him, as pledged, ''ane pair of gray

russit breikis he hes presentlie weirand'' and John wouldn't be parting

with his ''quhit fusteane doublet''. Whether Thomas stayed out of

Selkirk's ale shops or not, we'll simply never know.

This surreal tale -- carefully noted down in arcane Scots in one of

Selkirk's earliest ''protocol books'' -- was bequeathed to history by an

invasion and bombing scare 349 years later. A nervous Government decreed

in 1940 that combustible material had to be removed from commercial

premises in case of attack -- and that was when two more Selkirk

brothers, Bruce and Walter Mason, spotted sweating workmen lugging half

a ton of old paper out of the attic of the Border town's branch of the

long-vanished Commercial Bank. The Masons swiftly stepped in -- saving

the lode from precautionary incineration in the bank's back yard.

The rest is history. Earlier this year, Donald Galbraith, Keeper of

Historical Records at the Scottish Record Office, described what the

brothers Mason carried off that day as ''the most valuable collection of

medieval documents to have come to light in this country within my


By any standards, Bruce and Walter Mason -- known to the townspeople

as a quiet, even retiring, duo who ran a small bakery -- were remarkable

men. Their father appears to have set up in business around the turn of

the century in Paisley as a retailer of anarchist literature. The works

of the saintly Peter Kropotkin being regarded as virtually dynamite in

Edwardian Renfrewshire, it seems that Mason pere rapidly found himself


From their youngest days in the Borders, the Mason brothers carefully

collected local history. Local historian Walter Elliot was asked to help

clean the attic after Bruce

Mason's death in 1963. ''He had masses of flints, Roman pottery and

French glass.'' Sadly, most of that collection was sold -- though some

did end up in the town's museum. Just what was in the brown paper

parcels tied up with string in Walter's home, no-one had yet realised.

When Walter Mason died in 1988, Ettrick and Lauderdale district's museum

service found that they had inherited what curator Ian Brown describes

as ''the third most important collection of municipal documents after

those from Aberdeen and Edinburgh''.

The surprises are still coming. One recently unwrapped parcel

contained an 800-page protocol book (effectively a lawyer's office

records) covering the period between 1579 to 1587. All human life is

there. In 1585, ''ye right Honorable Walter Scot of Branxholm and

allegit that his deputies at his command has apprehendit John Wod son to

Peter Wod in Jedburgh with ane naig of grey colour at auld Melrose which

naig the said John has confessit as was allegit that he rest the same in

Nenthorne beside Lambermuir frae John Greve.''

Transcribing and conserving protocol books alone will take perhaps

four years. A new charity, the Walter Mason Trust, is urgently raising

funds for the work. Lectures by Walter Mason Trust activists are already

tearing droves of Borderers away from their television sets.

Walter Mason's rescued parcels cover his adopted town's life and work

from the early 1500s up to the 1850s. Scholars will inevitably home in

on the protocol books -- revealing land-holding patterns and details of

late medieval will provisions. But perhaps the real importance of the

find lies in the insight provided into the merry doings of Selkirk folk

across 400 years. It's often a grim story. In 1645, after the battle of

Philipshaugh, town leaders deliberately shot to death captured camp

followers from Montrose's defeated army -- most of them Irish women. One

document suggests that local worthies donated powder and shot for the

job, listing their names with apparent pride.

That anarchist bookseller from Paisley would surely have warmed to

news of local dissent in 1798 -- when ''Malicious and Evil-disposed

Person or Persons, unknown, SET FIRE to one of the Factory Houses

belonging to William Rodger.'' Rural Scotland did not flock gently into

the Industrial Revolution's dark satanic mills.

Borderers never did sit easily with state power. Selkirk's procurator-

fiscal, George Rodger, warned in 1806: ''Any person laying Lint, Dirt,

Rubbish etc in the River or Streams, to forfeit Twenty Shillings

Sterling.'' His warning continues: ''And with respect to poaching, the

Procurator-Fiscal expects that more attention will be paid to the Game

Laws than has hitherto been done.''

He hoped in vain. During agitation over the 1832 Reform Act,

rebellious citizens stoned local grandees in their carriages. Mr Rodger

issued a poster offering #60 reward for apprehension of the rioters.

There doesn't seem to have been many takers. A few years earlier, one

document records Mr Rodger on another probably futile hunt -- promising

''Forty Guineas'' for the name of the miscreant who fired a shotgun

through the window of the Duke of Buccleuch's gamekeeper. Determined to

quell agitation, one Ebenezer Armstrong volunteered for the militia in

1820, assuring his masters that he ''had no rupture, nor ever was

troubled by fits''.

What Bruce and Walter Mason saved from the flames reveals all manner

and condition of folk passing through a Scottish town. In 1855, locals

were enjoined to keep a sharp lookout for two barefoot Irish girls.

Sarah O'Donnell ''employed herself about houses -- at any coarse work''

and was wanted for ''theft from a hedge''. She had probably stolen

firewood. More exotic robbers seem to have headed for Selkirk too. In

1829, the town authorities were warned thus: ''Sir, I annexe a

description of five persons, who are accused of lifting three Bodies,

from the Church Yard of Lasswade in this County on the night of the 20th

Ult, and have absconded.''

Ian Brown's first priority is to raise an estimated #45,000 for

immediate conservation of the Walter Mason documents up to 1700.

Eventually, the protocol books will be published. The dream is to have a

local study centre where future scholars and historians can fully

recover the riches snatched from the flames in 1940. Meanwhile, still

wrapped in paper and string, the bulk of the hoard is being carefully

stored in the archives of Borders region library service.

In a recent radio interview, Walter Mason's nephew spoke of locals

believing that his uncle kept ''rubbish in the attic''. The shy baker's

rubbish is now attracting international excitement. Walter Mason had

learned one anarchist lesson well -- care and respect for the lives of

others mattered more than money. What he left in his loft, it's now

clear, was beyond price. Scotland is the richer for his gentle


* Donations to the Walter Mason Trust can be sent c/o Municipal

Buildings, High Street, Selkirk TD7 4BU or through any bank for the

Walter Mason Trust. a/c no. 00201202, The Royal Bank of Scotland,

Selkirk Branch, 12 High Street, Selkirk.