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Wilson's Border Tales
The Hosteler's Statute


Scotland is the only country in the world that ever passed a law against hospitality. Many statutes have been passed in various kingdoms with the view to enforce it; and in all parts of the world, and chiefly in those countries where there is the greatest apparent barbarism, it has been exalted among the virtues, favoured, and applauded, till its corresponding vice has been made a by-word and a term of reproach against the few places that have repudiated it. The extraordinary proceeding of the three estates, king, and council of Scotland, whereby it was solemnly declared that hospitality should thenceforth be unlawful and liable to be punished by fine and consequent imprisonment, took place in the reign of James I.; and the act (though it is not among the black acts) still remains a blot on the statute book of the kingdom. The law, it is true, was subsequently repealed; and, if the story be credible, the circumstances which produced its removal were as singular as the causes of its enactment were inadequate and ridiculous.

The Innkeepers or hostelers of Scotland, but chiefly those in Edinburgh, made a very grievous and lugubrious appeal to James I., that, in consequence of a practice lately introduced, but which was clearly on the increase throughout the land, of travellers and temporary sojourners taking up their abodes with their acquaintances and friends, and eschewing, as if they were places of pestilence, the inns and hostelries, erected for their individual comfort—the keepers of these places of entertainment were no longer able to keep open doors, whereby there would soon be no public place of rest in the land for man or beast. They therefore craved the interference of parliament on their behalf, promising that, if a measure were passed calculated to give them relief, there would not be a repetition of the failure they had made (very likely on purpose) in the preceding year, in the payment of their taxes into the King’s Exchequer.

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 to avoid.

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 gear.

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 provost.

"Hoo d’ye ken that, sir?" asked Peter, sternly.

"Do you dispute your personality, sir?" said the provost, looking to Thomas Fleming as a witness.

"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 the provost.

"Defiance!" cried the exasperated publican.

‘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 informer."

"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 with favour.

"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!"


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