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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
"Old Haddington" Ladies


LORD COCKBURN, in the “Memorials of his Time,” narrates in delightful language the domestic manners and habits of old Scotch ladies of the better class of society. Dean Ramsay also, in his admirable “Reminiscences of Scottish Character,” follows in the same strain, recording many a racy anecdote of ladies in the olden times. In the ancient burgh of Haddington, there lived some years ago many such worthy respectable family ladies whose manners and habits shed a lustre on the society in which they moved, and whose kind, affectionate, and friendly deeds will long remain fragrant in the recollection of those who were privileged to know them. They formed, indeed, the aristocracy of Haddington. There were the Misses Donaldson of Sunny Bank, Misses Wilkie of Haddington House, Miss Clapperton, Miss Sawers, Miss Peggy Craig, Mrs Hunter, Mrs Ferme, Mrs Hislop, Miss Mary Maitland, and Miss Craw—with many others.

Eighty years ago, Miss Jenny Halyburton kept, in Bothwell Castle in Hardgate Sireet, the principal school for young girls, and most of the old Haddington ladies received their first education there. The fact of having been at Miss Jenny’s school formed a bond of love and friendship in future years among her scholars.

Miss Jenny, by all accounts, was a good teacher and much respected, but she was a strict disciplinarian, and any great neglect of lessons or misbehaviour was punished by confinement for some time in Bothwell’s kitchen. Miss Jenny was a member of an old East Lothian family now extinct, and related to the Halyburtons of Eaglescairnie. Her brother “Sandie,” life-renter of the farm of Hollandside, was the last of the name in East Lothian.

Tea-parties were the great social gatherings among the Haddington ladies, and were one of the institutions of the time. They were grand affairs, and were far different from the new-fashioned parties of the present day and generation. Invited at the early hour of five o’clock in a winter afternoon, the party assembled. Miss Peggy Craig’s best tea, infused from a steaming urn on the table, with lots of home-baked bread and cakes, with the accompaniments of jelly, honey, &c., were relished as a hearty meal. The evening was spent in a hearty, sincere, and enjoyable flow of conversation about old stories in Miss Jenny’s time, current and coming events in town and country, and news of “kith and kin” in home and foreign lands. Nothing delighted the youngsters of the family more than being brought in after tea, dressed in their best, and enjoying the stories and anecdotes of the ladies.

The Misses Donaldson of Sunny Bank, and the Misses Wilkie of Haddington House, will be long remembered for their kind, friendly, and genial dispositions, and for their unostentatious and benevolent deeds of charity to the poor.

An anecdote, worthy of a place in Dean Ramsay’s book, is recorded of Miss Mary Maitland, sister of Colonel Maitland of Maitlandfield and Pogbie, and connected with the Lauderdale family. Miss Mary, had an old Scotch aristocratic pride about her. When it came to be common for the shopkeepers of the town to be called “esquires,” Miss Maitland was very wroth, and used to exclaim, “Gude save us, folk canna spit owre the window noo for fear o' spitting on an ‘esquire.'” It is related of another Haddington lady, at the time when burgh politics were running high, that she tackled a deacon (“who kent his wark") of her husband's party who was refractory and shy. By dint of suavity she made him all right, and he voted with his old friends. Another old lady, of independent spirit, did not think it below her dignity to. appear in person—accompanied with a lady friend—in the Sheriff Court as defender in a case for killing some game-cocks belonging to her neighbour (Dr Fyfe), which had trespassed into her garden and done damage. After a lengthened discussion and evidence as to the breed of the birds, the cock-fighting doctor came off second best.

It was a custom for the ladies' servants to come and take home their mistresses from the tea-parties at eight o'clock. A meeting was therefore held in the kitchen until the ladies were ready to move, and no doubt much gossip took place. Each servant brought a well-cleaned glass lantern (Scottice, “a bouat") with her to light her mistress home. The servant marched on some yards in advance to clear the way. The streets were lighted in those days with miserable oil lamps, that only served to make darkness visible.

The old “Penny Ladies,” or Haddington Female Society for Relief of the Poor, was long under the secretaryship of Mr Thomas Lea, and ably managed by Dr Cook. It dates its commencement from the beginning of the present century. Almost all the old ladies of past generations were members of it, and in their visits among the deserving native poor of the town, afforded them much comfort by the monthly donations, besides distributing coals to them at Christmas or New Year. The yearly “coal sermon” was always looked forward to as a great event. Many eminent ministers came from a distance to preach it. It is to be hoped that such a valuable society as the “Penny Ladies” will long exist in the burgh. Menie Coach (Davie Gourlay’s old housekeeper), an old Haddington woman, was long the “warner” to the ladies of their monthly visitations. A number of curious old characters were among the recipients of the “Penny Ladies’” charity. There were Nannie Cairncross, of famous memory, Tibbie Instant, Widow Cairny Betait, Lizzy Richardson (“Clagham Lizzie”), Bet Dudgeon, Nell Marshall, Lewie Linton, Will Clephane, &c., &c. Bet Dudgeon was a curious character in her day. Come of rather better folk — her father having been Deacon of the tailors—she was a “proudfu’ bodie.” She kept a school for young children. Long and fickle words she could not understand, she told her scholars to pass them over as they were names of towns and of no consequence. Nell Marshall, or "Dog Nell,” was a thrawn old woman. She had always one or two dogs—hence her name. A young gentleman, who, in his younger days, like his neighbours, used to annoy Nell and her dogs, came home after some years' travels in America. He met Nell one day and asked her if she knew him; she quickly replied to him, “Ye wratch, have ye come back again.” Another gentleman of the town sent her a present of some tobacco one day by his son; Nell thanked him thus—“God bless his banes.”


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