Among the most active of
the publicans who signed this petition, was a mean, sordid individual who
kept a small hostelry in St. Mary’s Wynd of Edinburgh, called Peter
Ramsay. This man was remarkable for his penurious habits and low
grovelling modes of making money. He had, by a system of extortion,
terrified away from his house the people who had, during the occupancy of
his predecessor been in the habit of frequenting it; and, unwilling to
attribute the decay of his trade to his own conduct, resolved upon making
an outcry against the lieges for exercising the virtues of generosity and
hospitality to the injury of him and his brother hostelers. Unfortunately,
the efforts of Ramsay were but too successful; for he got a great
proportion of the publicans throughout the kingdom to sign the petition.
It was presented to the sovereign personally by Ramsay himself, as the
head of a deputation appointed at a meeting of the subscribers, and was,
by the good-natured monarch, forthwith laid before his parliament.
The result of the
application has already been stated: an act was passed, setting forth "the
villanous practice of King’s lieges, who, in their travel from one part of
the country to another, were in the practice of taking up their residence
with their acquaintances and friends, instead of going to the regular inns
and hostelries. Therefore, the sovereign, with counsel and consent of the
three estates, prohibits all travellers, on foot or horseback, from
rendezvousing at any station except the established hostelry of the burgh
or village; and interdicts all burgesses or villagers from extending to
them their hospitality, under the penalty of forty shillings, which shall
also be exigible from the travellers themselves." The triumph of the
publicans, thus signalized by the passing of this extraordinary statute,
was celebrated in Peter Ramsay’s house, by an immense number of the craft,
collected from all parts of Scotland; and as Peter had been at the
greatest trouble in getting to his friends this boon, which could not fail
to be of great service to them, he conceived himself well justified in
chalking double against those who had so often followed the same
course against the poor lieges.
The effect of the law was
soon felt over Scotland. In the small towns especially, where a severe
surveillance is observed by the inhabitants over each other, it was
scarcely possible for a traveller to escape the rigour of the enactment.
In the larger towns, it was no doubt often evaded; and if Peter Ramsay’s
hostelry had been taken as a test of its effect in Edinburgh, it might
have been pronounced dead letter; but so long as there was another inn
within the bounds of the city wall, the statute would never have increased
the customers to the Red Lion, (so his inn was called;) at least no one
who had ever once been in the lion’s mouth; would venture a repetition of
the experiment. Peter was, however, not thus to be defeated. If the
travellers would not come to him, he would go to them; if they would not
pay him an exorbitant price for the contents of his bills of fare, he
would force them to pay him the penalty stated by the act; if the law did
not benefit him by its declaration, it would fill his pocket by the
punishment; in short, he resolved upon becoming a common informer under
his own peculiar statute. In pursuance of this resolution, he frequented
all parts of the town, making inquiries in every direction for strangers
and travellers sojourning with their friends; and whenever he got a clue
to an infringment of the act, he hastened to the burgh fiscal, gave the
information, attended the trial, and claimed the penalty as his due.
Among the individuals who
were thus caught in the meshes of the act by the indefatigable publican,
was a person called Thomas Fleming, himself a publican, who kept an inn in
the town of Dunbar, and had come to Edinburgh with the view of marrying a
young woman who lived with her mother in Leith Wynd. Fleming’s passion had
(as love generally does) set all acts of Parliament at defiance and he had
very naturally, however, illegally, taken up his quarters in the house of
his intended mother-in-law. Next morning, as he was preparing to go before
a clergyman to get himself joined in holy wedlock with the object of his
affections, he was seized and dragged before a magistrate, on a charge of
having infringed the law anent hostelers, by sojourning in the house of a
friend. Fleming’s defence was dictated by his feelings; and he made a
powerful appeal to the judge on the cruelty and impolicy of preventing
marriages by prohibiting the parties from enjoying each other’s society;
and argued strongly that the law was never intended to interfere with the
offices of friendship, far less those of honourable love. The magistrate
heard the defence, and acknowledged that it was both ingenious and
pathetic; but he was bound down by the act, which made no respect either
of persons or avocations, and was forced to give judgment against him.
Fleming was accordingly, to the great joy of Ramsay, mulcted in the
penalty. Being a man of spirit and honesty, he had refused to sign the
petition to the King; but, now that the law was passed, he had determined
on giving it fair play; and having unheedingly sinned against its
enactment, he cheerfully paid the money, and treasured up in his memory
the name of Peter Ramsay, which he said was worth the money, as an
assurance of the existence of a wretch whom he would afterwards endeavour
Fleming left the court to
take his bride to the altar. They were married on that day, and
immediately set off to Dunbar, the place of his residence. They afterwards
removed to Haddington, for the purpose of taking possession of the March
Arms Inn, the principal hostelry of the town; where, from their honesty
and attention, they soon acquired an extensive business. In the meantime,
Peter Ramsay went on in the vocation of informer. From his frequent
appearance in the court, combined with the indignation of individuals who
had suffered from his ill directed activity, he became well known, and no
better known than hated and execrated. That he made money by his vicious
industry there can be no doubt, though what he lost by the departure of
the last remnant of his trade subtracted considerably from his ill-gotten
It is not very easy to
conceive that such a person as Peter Ramsay could be susecptible of the
tender passion; at least, it may safely be averred that, of the two gods
who preside over the affairs of the heart, he who was born of Venus would
not be proud of the sacrifices of a common informer. Yet Peter Ramsay did
at least court. He had long visited a young woman who resided with her
father, a widower, in the Canongate, of the name of Catherine Simpson; and
it was often surmised that she was destined to be the mistress of
the Red Lion. Her father, having gone to reside at Haddington, in the
prosecution of his trade of a currier, Catherine accompanied him, carrying
with her the attractions which had produced the furlong visits of the
hostler, but might be unable to exert any power over a space of 15 miles.
Indeed, both the young woman and her father had come to be of opinion,
before they removed from Edinburgh, that Peter Ramsay was one of those
individuals, who can contrive to speak the ordinary language of a passion
in the dead-thraw for the period of a whole life; thereby robbing poor
maidens of all the available years of their existence, and at last dying
without experiencing true enjoyment themselves, and without imparting
ought but misery to others. Every one that knew the cruel tantalizing
conduct of Ramsay and Catherine Simpson, sympathised with the ruined
maiden, and condemned the heartless wretch who had excited hopes he had
not the courage to realize.
Though Ramsay could not
bring himself to the resolution of marrying, neither could he yet remain
away from the object of his affections. One evening he found himself in
the town of Haddington—scarcely conscious of any precise object which
brought him there—having intuitively given way to the impulse of an old
feeling, without being at the trouble to question himself particularly
either as to his present intentions or future purposes. He landed, as a
matter of course, in the house of Thomas Simpson, and intended to return
to Edinburgh that same night; but the weather having changed from a calm
day to a stormy evening, he was easily prevailed upon to remain all night.
It happened that Thomas Fleming, his old victim of the publican’s act, who
now occupied the March Arms, observed Peter as he entered the house, and
resolved at once upon a just and merited retaliation on the common
informer. Having allowed him quietly to enjoy his supper and go to bed,
Fleming retired with the intention of rising early in the morning, and
getting from the provost one of those "flying warrants" which were in the
habit of being granted by the magistrates of towns against sojourners and
others, who had no fixed habitation within their jurisdiction. The plan
was executed precisely as laid. At six o’clock next morning, Peter Ramsay
found himself in the predicament in which he had so basely placed hundreds
of innocent individuals. He was dragged, half dressed, (according to
instructions,) before the head magistrate, who was well aware of the
extraordinary character of the individual he was about to try, and
rejoiced in the opportunity of catching an informer (a character he, in
common with all others, hated) in the very trap he had so industriously
and successfully used against the unsuspecting public.
"You are Peter Ramsay, the
hosteler of the Red Lion, in St. Mary’s Wynd of Edinburgh?" said the
"Hoo d’ye ken that, sir?"
asked Peter, sternly.
"Do you dispute your
personality, sir?" said the provost, looking to Thomas Fleming as a
"I neither admit nor deny
it," answered Peter, grinning with ill nature, as he saw Fleming standing
by his side enjoying his triumph.
"Neither your statement nor
your anger, sir," said the provost, "can do you any service here; we have
got (smiling) the corpus delicti, and, God be praised, we have an
excellent jail. You are arraigned, sir, for the misdemeaner of infringing
the king’s statute anent hostelers, by having sojourned for the night in
the house of Thomas Simpson, currier."
"I deny it," replied Peter,
with the same asperity.
"Call the witnesses," cried
"Defiance!" cried the
‘That’s a strong defence
amongst the hills," answered the provost; "but it has little authority in
these parts. I ordain you to pay forty shillings, as the penalty under the
act, to be applied to the king’s use as accords. I allow you five minutes
to discharge the debt."
Though Peter had been
willing to pay the fine, he was not in possession of funds. He had come
from Edinburgh without any supply of cash, trusting, no doubt, to a
successful sorning on his poor host and his poorer daughter. The time
allowed by the provost having expired, and no symptoms being made by Peter
of any intention to pay, an order was immediately issued to the attending
officers to carry the king’s debtor to jail, there to be fed on bread and
water, the only allowance made to the contraveners of the king’s statutes,
aye and until the said penalty shall be duly paid. When the officers laid
hold of him to drag him away, the bitter spirit he had already partly
displayed, broke forth with increased virulence. The powers of his
judgment, with his ordinary prudence, left him; a fierce anger, producing
execrations and threats, hurried him to extravagances; and losing, in his
desire of vengeance, a proper regard to his safety and interests, he cried
out—"An unjust judge will destroy the best act o’ parliament that ever
passed the three estates; but he canna free himsel frae the pains o’ fause
imprisonment. Haud aff, ye whelps o’ the Lord Lion! and preserve
yer teeth for seizing. (on my warrant for damages,) your auld unjust
provost, wha has snet a man to jail for visiting his ain wife—a clear
exception in the act."
"Stop the prisoner!" cried
the provost. "Are you married, sir, to Catherine Simpson, in whose house
you resided during the night? If so, you are free in terms of the statute,
as construed by the king’s officers."
"I am," answered Peter,
still fuming with anger, and still losing sight of every consideration but
the defeat of his enemies.
"I haud him to his word,"
cried the voice of Catherine Simpson, who, about the same time, entered
the court room.
"And I and the clerk are
witnesses," cried Fleming laughing immoderately.
"I must note the
transaction," said the judge. "Are you the wife of this man?’
"I am," replied Catherine,
"if he has said he is my husband."
"He has already said it,"
replied the judge."
"I deny it!" cried Peter,
who saw the scrape he had got into. "I spoke in jest, and no man is bound
for a foolery."
"Many a husband would
willingly say the same if the law allowed him," said the judge. "You have
in anger, sir, not in jest, admitted yourself to be the husband of
Catherine Simpson. It matters nothing that you have told a lie to escape
the punishment of the law. Courts are not intended as places of merriment,
where the play of ‘hide and seek’ can be performed for the purpose of
producing amusement to the actors and the bystanders. ‘Ay’ and ‘No,’ have
no copulative existence in places where justice is dispensed and not
dispensed with. Your deliberate statement has been noted. As a
married man, I dismiss you from the bar, reserving to you any claim of
damages you may have against Thomas Fleming, your private, not public
"I will pay a guid damage
in name o’ tocher," cried Fleming, laughing.
The discomfited Peter
Ramsay sneaked away from the bar in shame and despondency. He proceeded
instantly to Edinburgh, to consult a lawyer as to whether he had admitted
himself into marriage. He was not ignorant that a Scotch marriage could be
perfected by consent without the interference of a clergyman; but he had
been betrayed into the unguarded statement he had made, partly by a desire
of victory, and partly from an idea that, unless the woman was present,
(and he thought she was absent,) no statement by a man could bind him, as
he had the power of denying it when the woman claimed him, and there could
be no retraction in a court. The lawyer told him he was very firmly
noosed. Peter made a virtue of necessity, and took home Catherine. He died
soon after, and left her the proprietor of all his property, amounting to
a very considerable sum.
This story was soon bruited
far and wide; for Peter’s celebrity had been as general as the hatred of
the ungracious statute was diffused among all sensible people, and many
individuals had even imitated him on a small scale in the provincial
towns. Everybody was delighted with the discomfiture of a man who had been
at so much trouble to prepare an engine for the destruction of others, and
had deservedly become the victim of his own ill-directed ingenuity.
But the people of Scotland
were not contented with exultation over the fate of the man who had tried
to lock up their hearts, and to make money at once of their philanthropy
and their hard-heartedness. They conceived that a proper opportunity had
arrived for getting quit entirely of the obnoxious and disgraceful
statute. A number of respectable householders in Edinburgh and other
places accordingly prepared a petition to the king in council, setting
forth the history of the passing of the act, the practices of Ramsay, his
own case and defeat, the hardship they suffered from the measure, and the
disfavour with which it was contemplated by the people of England, who
took advantage of it to corroborate the sentiments they were in the habit
of uttering against the generosity of the Scots. On these grounds and
others they prayed for its repeal.
The king read the petition
"It is Heaven’s time,"
cried the monarch, "to take back the boon when ingratitude repudiates it.
We passed this act for the advantage of hostelers—and these hostelers are
among the first contraveners of its provisions. We repent not of having
passed it, were it for no other reason than that it hath shown us how
cautious legislators ought to be in changing the preamble of petitions
into acts of parliament. Let it be repealed—and may the laws of
hospitality remain as they ought to be, sacred in our land!"