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Life Jottings of an Old Edinburgh Citizen
Chapter Thirteen


A UNIVERSAL holiday was held in Edinburgh on "Commissioner's Day" when the Lord High Commissioner opened the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the day being held as the Queen's Birthday in Edinburgh. We thought the procession one of the grandest sights of the year, although in those days it was a comparatively shabby affair compared with what it is now. I heard how the post was generally given to a poor peer,1order that he might make something out of the allowance given. And some of them did succeed n doing so, the hospitality being very restricted, and by no means sumptuous.

The story is told that, the day of bottled peas not having come, the caterer, though doing things shabbily, always provided a small saucerful of early green peas for the Commissioner's personal delectation, and that on one occasion when the Moderator sat next to him—there being no lady guests in those days—the Commissioner observed to the Moderator, "I'm afraid you haven't got any vegetables."—"Oh, replied the Moderator, "am I not nice, I'll just tak a wheen peas," and seizing the Commissioner's saucer emptied the whole of the contents on to his own plate and went on with his dinner.

Connected with the General Assembly for many years there was a "character," by name Michael Sanderson, a bird staffer by trade. He for a long period was the dry-nurse of the Moderator, attending him on all occasions. I recall a most amusing scene at a Moderator's dinner. Michael having mounted a chair to call out the names of those who were to sit at the Moderator's table, he called out first, "On the right of the chair, the Lord Provost, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates"—naming some eight or ten. Then in the driest and most matter-of-fact tones came the words, "Noo fur the goats"! The sensation this caused may be imagined, 'here was a dead pause, but the humour of the thing overcame clerical decorum, and a roar of laughter followed.

Another amusing incident occurred at one of the General Assembly receptions. Many of the ladies who attended the drawing-room of Her Grace, the lady of the Lord High Commissioner, were, as might be expected, ignorant of etiquette, and apt to lose then' heads when taking part in ceremonial. One worthy minister's wife had been carefully coached to make a low curtsey to their Graces on entering the Reception Room. On passing in she saw a gorgeous gold-laced figure on her right hand, being the powdered footman, who stood opposite to direct the people on. She turned to him, and dropped her best practised low curtsey in front of him. Fortunately he was equal to the occasion. Retaining the wooden face of the vell-trained servanthe stood till she rose, and then gently seizing her by the shoulders he turned her round, and ;n low tones said, "Now do that again."

On the occasions of the Lord High Commissioner's processions the soldiers lining the streets, including the Pensioners, who were then an organised body, and turned out in a blue uniform for eight days' drill yearly, were always an object of great interest to me. I had seven uncles, all of whom were soldiers, and the oldest was Wellington's Adjutant-General for many years. Naturally my boy mind turned to a soldier's life, and I gazed appreciatively at my country's defenders in their tight clothes, hard cotton epaulettes, and stiff attitudes, with their cast-iron stocks and their lungs and heart-squeezing belts supporting knapsacks of polished, painted canvas, stretched square on a wooden inside frame. The soldier could not put on or take off his pack without help, and woe be to him if a scratch was found on it at inspection. I have seen soldiers, after taking off die knapsack temporarily, when allowed to fall out before a review, most carefully spread out their pocket-handkerchiefs on the grass, and gently lower the knapsacks on to them, as a mother would lay her baby in a cradle. But the headgear was the most remarkable thing. A great shako which spread out at the top like a flowerpot, and with it's brass plates and chains and hard inner rim inviting headache, was constructed on the top so as to hold nearly half an inch of water.

A man standing steadily at attention would get this great saucer filled with water if a shower fell, and whenever he moved, the whole contents used to splash over him, washing his expanse of pipeclay down on to his brick-red coat and his dark trousers, to cause him great trouble in making ready for the next parade; or, if he turned his head back, a half-pint of water did it's best to run inside his stock. This is a further instance of the ingenuity displayed in the devising of head-dresses to make them as uncomfortable and inconvenient as possible. Not long after the time I speak of the style was absolutely reversed. Instead of the soldier's hat spreading out at the top, it was drawn into an inverted flower-pot style, which was supposed to be the design of the Prince Consort, and came to be known by the name of the "Albert kettle." this lasted a very short time, and the top was still further narrowed into the shako shape, copied from the French. This held its own for some years, until the Germans beat the French, when the shako was discarded and a bad imitation of the Prussian Pickel-haube substituted for it.

The rest of the soldier's equipment in those days was as absurd as the knapsack and the hat. Below the knapsack hung a great cartridge-box, which had to be made to shine like enamel, or punishment was certain to follow. And below this was the bayonet slanting across the body. So absurdly was this huge cartridge-box hung that, when the order was given for "double march," the unfortunate soldier had to pass his free hand behind him, to save his loins and spine from being bruised by the violent blows of the sixty rounds of heavy ball-cartridge. Boys like myself used to jeer at the sight, especially when, the order to double was given after firing, and the men had no time to fasten the cover down. Many a blank cartridge, riding on the top of the packets of ball, was jerked out, and we followed and picked them up, rejoicing in the possession of powder, which parental caution forbade us to buy.

It is difficult now to conceive how such things could have lasted as they did for many a year. Absurd, unpractical, and oppressive as all these clothes and accoutrements were, they could be endured, and were endured in this country. But who now can do otherwise than marvel that when soldiers went abroad to hot climates, they were required to wear this same equipment, in which the natural articulations of the body were set at nought, and the best means taken to hamper the action of heart and lungs, at times when the severest calls were to be made upon them, marching in close columns in tropical heat. Lord Wolseley told me that on one occasion in India, in such circumstances, twenty-one men dropped down dead in the centre of the column, and all in ten minutes. He said that it was a lesson he had never forgotten.

But to my boyish observation all was right, and I longed for the day when I too would be beside these heroes, as they were to me. I rejoice that I have lived to see a better state of things, in which the soldier is treated like any other workman, clothed rationally, so that there is freedom to the internal organs and to the limbs, and with ahead-dress for manoeuvre and service that keeps the head from oppression either by hardness or by weight, or by impenetrability to perspiration.

On Queen's birthday evening we had our fireworks, and .in our eagerness often set the light to some of them before the darkness had set in, so that they could not be seen properly. I recollect in connection with this part of the celebration, fitting a snub indicative of Scottish character. My squibs and crackers, Roman candles and Catherine-wheels, &c., had been fired off in the back- green, in presence of all the servants. Coming back to the house, in my conceit I was foolish enough, in the presence of the others, to ask the old cook what she thought of the display. Her reply quietly and sententiously given was: "Weel, mester Johnny, I jist think that fules and their money are sune pairtit." I passed on into the house, trying to make my back look dignified, in which I feel sure now that I failed ignominiously.


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