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Life Jottings of an Old Edinburgh Citizen
Chapter Thirty-Two


IN the course of my long life I have seen many-Lord Provosts,, When I first went to school I was soon informed by my neighbour in the class that his father was the Lord Provost, and he said to me proudly: "Go along to Drummond Place and see the grand lamps." This was Lord Provost Black, who thought that the convulsions of nature which gave us our valley of the Nor Loch were an intentional provision by that dame to provide a suitable place for a railway station. The evil he did lives after him; let not the good he "interred with his bones." He and his firm have done much to bring sound healthy works before the public, and have never condescended to issue press trash, because public taste deteriorated and the sweet stuff and the tainted toffy of literature were sought after, rather than the nourishing and wholesome.

Then there was Duncan M'Laren, a man of powerful intellect and of dogged determination, to him we owe it in no small degree that our city affairs are now in order, and we can show from year to year a satisfactory balance-sheet. There is now no temptation to adopt vulgarising methods to attain prosperity. I speak of Mr. M'Laren with the greater satisfaction, as I confess that when I was a boy, and he as Lord Provost was standing for the city, I along with the other boys at the Academy, instead of playing during our quarter, assembled behind the railings of the school, and when a cab passed with "The Lord Provost's Committee" placarded on it, gave vent to an almost "universal hiss," to use Milton's expression regarding a different place from the Academy. I was called upon later in life to stand against him at two elections, when I polled little more than a third of the number of votes that he did; but that does not alter the feeling I have that he was a useful man in his day and generation, and above all, in his work for the deliverance of Edinburgh from the "Slough of Despond ' into which she had fallen, and out of which she could not have been pulled and cleansed without energy and talent. Me had brains in abundance, and he used them unsparingly for his city, and although I was his opponent, he was always courteous and kindly.

During the time of his work in the municipality all did not see eye to eye with him, and he was the object of attack both on the platform and in the Press, and sometimes in not very measured terms. The simile being applied to him of "a snake in the grass," he sought, and successfully, to vindicate himself from the aspersion, which certainly went beyond the bounds of reasonable criticism of a public man. The verdict in his favour led to a very clever touch of sarcasm, presumably from the pen of Mr. Russel, and it may be quoted as a specimen of his keen wit. In commenting on the trial, he took the line of criticising Mr. M'Laren's capacity as a financier, and taking exception to his calculations, he said, alluding to his skill at figures: "If he is not a snake, no one can deny at least that he is a remarkable adder."

Perhaps the most typical specimen of a Chief Magistrate of a great city was Lord Provost Law-son, whose firm had built up a great business as seed merchants, and who in his day was one of the most highly respected of our citizens. Rotund, beaming, the picture of good, kindly humanity, he did the duties of the office in splendid style, and when a question of precedence arose as between Edinburgh and Dublin, took his official carriage to London, powder-headed servants and all, so as to uphold our civic dignity during the struggle.

He was a man of most unassuming character, and it was never a matter with him of his own dignity or position, but solely the honour of the city he had been called to represent.

One rather comical incident in which he figured may be noticed, On the occasion of the Disraeli Banquet iť 1868 in the Corn Exchange, he had been appointed to propose a toast, which, as Mr. Disrael; had made an exceptionally long speech, cained on late. It was evident that he had prepared his speech, and given it in type to the reporters, and therefore he felt that it must be delivered. His voice did not admit of more than a third of the audience hearing a word he said, and it got somewhat wearisome. At the table where I sat we made a plot, and starting up when he seemed to reach a period began to cheer lustily, which brought the whole assemblage to their feet. When the cheering stopped, the band, which was instructed to play between the toast and the reply, did so, but at the conclusion of the musical piece Charles Lawson was still seen waving his arms as before. A second time we adopted the same ruse, and after we had cheered ,the cavalry trumpeters, as ordered, blew a fanfare for the next toast, but still the arms were seen in vigorous motion. I low-ever, by this time he was reaching the end of what was printed, and there was nothing for it but to cheer a third time; which we did. As one would have expected, but; a few lines represented his oration :n the Press next day. he most amusing feature of the whole proceeding was, that those who did not know Charles Lawson would attribute what he did to vanity, whereas there never was a man of simpler or more modest character in Edinburgh, or anywhere else.

It is sad to know that subsequent events showed that the Lord Provost's firm had got into low water, and that the canker must have been at his heart before the day when he gave up his chain of office. Into the cause of the breakdown it Is not for a stranger to enter, but it is sat'sfactory to know that not one breath of suspicion ever fell on our esteemed fellow-citizen of any conduct but the most worthy and upright, leading to the sad catastrophe which overtook him. Me was a man of advanced years, and probably had not the same grasp and control of the business which he had when in more vigorous health. I heard at the time that his sons had taken up speculation which proved disastrous. He died respected of all who knew him.

Later came Lord Provost Chambers, whose publishing firm have also for nearly a century held a high place as providers of good wholesome literature, the Journal in particular being read all over the world—probably the best publication for family use that exists, and being of a standard far above the mass of pictorial monthlies that seem to call for an enlargement of our bookstalls, so crowded have these become of recent years.

They, like Messrs. Black, have not condescended to cater for the taste of those to whose desires the lines apply:

"Till authors hear at once the general cry,
Tickle and entertain us, or we die."

As is mentioned elsewhere, he did a great work for the honour of God and the good name of the city in the restoration of St. Giles' Cathedral.

It is impossible to go over the whole list of Lord Provosts, all of whom I have known as friends, and I have preferred to refer to those who are no longer with us, and who made some special mark. I would leave it to others who may in future publish their reminiscences to speak of those who belong more closely to the present time. Of one with whom I was long and pleasantly associated as a Volunteer—my friend Cranston—I have spoken already in my published recollections of my fifty years in the Volunteer Force.

One thing I would say further, however, in regard to our Lord Provosts. It may be taken as a sequel to the strong literary position of Edinburgh in the first half of the last century, that our city has honoured itself by having chosen on four separate occasions, during the period that is being written about, gentlemen directly connected with literature as publishers—Lord Provosts Black, Chambers, Boyd, and Clark.


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