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Anecdotes to Antiquaries
Letter to Editor of Blackwood's Magazine (1817)


I found this amusing letter to the editor in Volume One (1817) of Blackwood’s Magazine....

I have just seen the first Number of your Magazine on a table in the study of a much-respected friend of mine, whose talents have gained for him a distinguished rank among the learned and elegant writers of Caledonia.

I observe you announce, that a portion of the publication is to be set apart as an "Antiquarian Repertory." As oft as you can procure well-authenticated articles, connected with antiquity, whether they are deemed of importance in the estimation of some of your readers, or unprofitable in that of others, you will do well to publish them, for ‘even out of the chaff a pottage is made.’ But beware that you are not ‘bronzed’ and take care you have reasonable proofs, that what you publish is authentic.

Now, in point, Mr Editor, I will tell you a story, a story well-known, though, of course, not to nine-tenths of your readers.

A venerable, learned, and worthy country gentleman, who, had he still been alive, would have found a pleasure in contributing to your ‘Repertory’, happened, in the course of a forenoon walk, to come upon some industrious people who were engaged in clearing away the extensive moss of xxxxx. In the course of their operations, one of them met with a substance which resisted his spade. The spade was thrown aside, and the pick-axe grasped to ‘split in flinders’ this resisting substance. Softly, "my friend," said the antiquary; "continue with your spade, and trench round; perhaps you may raise, entire, a Roman urn.” ["For I have always been of opinion," said he to himself, “that this was the line of march of the Romans."]

The illiterate peasant knew as much about an ‘urn’, as, mayhap, he did about ‘Roman.’ But his respect for the venerable gentleman was too great not to obey his orders. Well, then, he trenched, till at last IT made its appearance.

["A Roman camp-kettle," with enthusiastic pleasure, said the antiquary to himself."]

“Carry it to the house, Duncan, and I shall amply reward you."

He did so, and was amply rewarded, befitting so inestimable a treasure. For in all his actings he dealt justly succoured the needy was a represser of vice a promoter of industrious virtue. Such was our venerable antiquary.

It was placed on a table in his study. He viewed it with admiration and delight, and it confirmed him in his opinion, its goblet form, its moveable semi-circular handle.

“Unquestionably," said he, "the Romans must have made this the line of their march, and not that, as some ignorant writers have asserted.

Pursuing these ideas, it has been insinuated that he wrote a learned dissertation about this kettle, preparatory to its being presented elsewhere. It is further said, that it was presented and received with equal veneration and thanks.

However, to make a long tale short, Mr Editor, I shall not at full length detail the amusing colloquy which took place, upon an after occasion, between the venerable and the real owner of the kettle. Suffice it to say, he was no Roman, but a sturdy Highlander, who would have given hard blows to any Roman who dared to invade his kettle, or any thing else belonging to him. In a word, then, his story was this; that his wife ‘Shanet’ had, twelve months ago, bought this identical kettle in the town of xxxxx and on her way home, having indulged too freely to cure a colic, mistook her path through the moss, plumped into what is called a peat-bog, and was glad to quit her kettle and save herself. That Duncan's description of the size, shape, &c. of the kettle, and Janet's, exactly agreed; and that there was no doubt but it was their own kettle.

"If your Honour will only gie me back the kettle,” said Duncan, “I'll hing it in the very middle kaiber o' the pothie, to be a warning to Shanet to get trunc no more."

"That is impossible, Donald," said the venerable; "but there is as much money for you as will buy two such kettles; and in order to correct Janet's colics, there is, beside, a copy of ‘Macniel's History of Will and Jean’, which you may cause your son, Peter, read to his mother again and again, and you yourself will not be the worse for listening to the moral tale.”

Donald accepted of the boon, and, having repeatedly said "Got pless and thank your Honour," withdrew.

Now, Mr Editor, I have just another story to tell you, by way of introduction to our future acquaintance, and then, for the present, I have done........

A select knot of antiquaries set out to explore classic ground. "Here, here I" exclaimed one, "Now we have it look here I look at this stone; perfectly distinct and plain! mark the letters! ‘R. !. L.’ as clear as day, although our researches may sometimes be covered in obscurity. Quite plain and intelligible is the ‘R. I. L.’ Thus far, and no farther," he exultingly exclaimed; "Romani Imperil Limen!”

The antiquaries gathered around, and were struck with wonder: "We shall," said one of them, "find, to a certainty, an urn, containing the bones of some valorous Roman general."

“Let us to work”, said they, with one concurring voice, and with their mattocks they set furiously to the business. Before they had proceeded far, their attention was attracted by the hallooing and bellowing of a sturdy peasant, who was hastening towards the spot. When he had approached them, and stopping till he had gathered wind, he exclaimed, "Hoot, hoot, lads I what's that you're about ? IWind what the Bible says, ‘Cursed be he who removes a landmark’. “

“Peace, clown," said the junior antiquary, "you are ignorant of the matter; R. I. L. that is, ‘Romani Imperii Limes’." "Hoot, toot, lads!" said the countryman, "I ken Latin as weel as you do yoursel. Do ye think I was na bred wi' Mr Doig, at Falklan school, wha could hae learned the very kaes that biggit in the auld palace to speak Latin, as my auld granny said, gin they had only leeted till him. And you say, too, I am ignorant o' the matter. But faith, birky, let me tell you, I should ken mair o' the matter than you, for was na I present whan auld Rab Roughcast, the mason, hewed and pat in that very stane, in my gutcher Robin Rantletree's time. ‘Romani Imperii Limes’, wi' a ban to ye ! I believe ye are nae better than a band o' tinklers, wha wad claim Rab Innes' Lands as the property of ony Roman. But there's auld Rab Innes himsel, poor feckless body, coming we're no owre thrang neebours, yet I wadna like to see him wranged for a' that. But I'se gae my ways, and gif he lets you remove the landmark, I say again, accursed be he wha does sae.”

This onset gave the antiquaries no stomach to encounter Rab Innes, and they precipitately took a direction which separated them equally from Rab Innes and young Rantletrees, leaving the ‘R. I. L.’ in quiet possession of the field.

Now, Mr Editor, you must not suppose that I intend to throw any discredit upon your Antiquarian Repertory. Quite the reverse....all that I mean you to deduce from what I have said is, a caution to you against being taken in by a gudewife's ‘kail-pat’ for a ‘Roman camp-kettle’, or by ‘the landmark’ betwixt two decent cock lairds, for a ‘Romani Imperii Limes’

I am, &c.STRILA. Edinburgh, 23rd April 1817.


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