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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
A Cock-fighting Match between the Counties of Lanark and Haddington


This affair was decided in the unfinished kitchen of the Assembly Booms, in 1785; on which occasion the gentlemen cock-fighters of the county of East Lothian were the victors. Among the audience will be recognised likenesses of the principal individuals of this fancy at the time. Kay, in his MS. notes, particularly points out those of Sir James Baird of Newbyth, William Hamilton, Esq. of Wishaw (afterwards Lord Belhaven),------MacLeod, Esq. of Drimnin, Lord North the caddy, the noted Deacon Brodie, and several other eminent cockers. The two figures in the pit represent the persons employed by the different parties; the one was an Edinburgh butcher, the other an Englishman.

In allusion to this contest Kay observes, "It cannot but appear surprising that noblemen and gentlemen, who upon any other occasion will hardly show the smallest degree of condescension to their inferiors, will, in the prosecution of this barbarous amusement, demean themselves so far as to associate with the very lowest characters in society."

Cock-fighting prevailed to a great extent among the Romans, who most likely adopted it among other things from the Greeks, with this addition, that they used quails as well as the common gamecock. With the Romans cock-fighting is presumed to have been introduced into Britain, although the first notice we have of it is by Fitz-Stephen, in his Life of the famous Thomas a-Becket, in the reign of Henry II. There were several enactments made against the practice in the reigns of Edward III. and Henry VIII., but it is well known that the cockpit at Whitehall was erected by royalty itself, for the more magnificent celebration of the sport: it was again prohibited during the Protectorship of Cromwell in 1654, and afterwards by the Act 25th Geo. III. Notwithstanding the efforts made to put it down, this disreputable amusement continued in all parts of England to be practised with the utmost wantonness almost to the present time.

In Scotland, cock-fighting was for many years an ordinary recreation. In 1705 William Machrie, fencing-master in Edinburgh, published "An Essay upon the Boyal Kecreation and Art of Cockin». Edinburgh, printed by James Watson in Craig's Closs. Sold by Mr. Robert Freebairn in the Parliament Closs, 1705." 12mo. This tract which is now exceedingly scarce, is dedicated to the nobility and gentry of Scotland, who are told that "the sport of cock-fightin°- is improv'd to a great height; 'tis as much an art as managing of horses for races or for the field of battle ; and tho' it has been in vogue over all Europe, yet 'twas never esteem'd nor practis'd but by the nobility and gentry. It was kept up only by people of rank, and never sunk down to the hands of the commonality, where the art of mana°in°-this fierce and warlike bird had been either lost or slighted." Some verses, signed " T. C," are prefixed, from which we learn that

"The sword has always flourish'd, and the bow, So long neglected, claims its birthright now, And our cock-matches owe their rise to you."

From which it may be inferred that this species of amusement had been introduced into Scotland by Machrie, who terms it "a very Innocent, Noble, and highly Heroick Game!"

The style of this curious publication is highly inflated, and the attempt to confer dignity upon this wretched and cruel sport is ludicrous enough. After very minute researches into the antiquity of the "Royal recreation," the history of the cock and its habits, the proper mode of treatment, etc., the author concludes—"I am not asham'd to declare to the world that I have a special veneration and esteem for those gentlemen within and about this city who have entered on society for propagating and establishing the royal recreation of cocking (in order to which they have already erected a Cockpit in the Links of Leith), and I earnestly wish that their generous and laudable example may be imitated to that degree, that (in cock-war) village may be engaged against village, city against city, kingdom against kingdom—nay, the father against the son, until all the wars in Europe, wherein so much Christian blood is spilt, be turned into that of the innocent pastime of Cocking."

From the date of Machrie's work until recently, the practice of cock-fighting seems to have been pretty general, especially in Edinburgh, where a regular cock-pit was erected, and liberally supported for many years. On turning over the files of the Edinburgh journals, the names of gentlemen still alive are to be found, who now, it is to be presumed, would not be disposed to consider their former "cocking" propensities with much complacency. An attempt was made two or three years since to revive the "Royal recreation " in a certain city in the west, but it was very properly put down by the magistracy.


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