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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Lachlan M'Bain, a well-known Vendor of Roasting Jacks


Lauchlan M'Bain was a native of Old Meldrum, Aberdeenshire, where he served his apprenticeship as a tailor. He afterwards became a soldier, and at one time served in the 21st, or Royal Scots Fusiliers. It is not said whether he had been at the inglorious affair of Prestonpans, but he hesitated not to state that he was one of the victors at Culloden. At what period he obtained his discharge is unknown; but, unfortunately for him, his retirement from the army was not accompanied by any pension. Upon the cessation of his military duties, he came to Edinburgh, where he settled down in civil life, by becoming a manufacturer of fly-jacks and toasting-forks. In this vocation Lauchlan soon acquired notoriety, and became one of the characters of "Auld Reekie." Those who recollect him, and there are many, still remember the fine modulations of his sonorous yet musical voice, as he sang the "roasting, toasting" ditty; and, like Blind Aleck of Glasgow, he was "the author of all he made, said or sang."

Lauchlan was unquestionably a favourite with the populace; but as the most universally esteemed are unable to elbow through the world without sometimes giving offence, so it happened with the honest vendor of roasting-jacks. His professional chant, as he frequently winded his way up the back-stairs leading from the Cowgate to the Parliament Square, became exceedingly annoying to the gentlemen of the long robe, who, though anxious to abate the nuisance, were unable legally to entangle their tormentor in the meshes of the law. Lauchlan, sensible that these visits might be turned to account, was most assiduous in paying them, and never failed, when the judges were sitting, to exert his stentorian lungs under the windows of the Court-house. This he did with such success, that at length both judges and practitioners, having lost all patience, collected amongst them a sum of money, which they deemed sufficient to purchase an exemption in future from these provoking visitations. Lauchlan pocketed the fee, and promised faithfully not to let his voice come within hearing of the Court in future. He no doubt intended to keep religiously by the letter of his agreement, but at the same time mentally calculated upon the eclat, if not the profit, of outwitting a whole court of lawyers. Accordingly, next day he was seen at the usual spot with a huge bell, to which he gave full effect by a scientific movement of the arm that would have done credit to the most experienced city-bellman. Many wondered at the sudden change in Lauchlan's mode of announcing his presence; but he explained this by facetiously remarking, that "having sold his own tongue to the judges, he was under the necessity of using another." The ingenuity of Lauchlan was rewarded by an additional douceur, coupled with the condition, which he scrupulously kept, that in future there was to be an absolute cessation of his visits in that quarter.

In the course of his peregrinations, Lachlan offended a well-known civic dignitary, Bailie Creech, one of the chief booksellers in Edinburgh, whose shop formed the east end of the Luckenbooths. The Bailie felt his dignity lessened by the contemptuous manner in which the Veteran of Culloden treated his instructions not to bawl so unharmoniously in front of his premises. At last, resolving to compel obedience, he summoned Lauchlan to compear before the magistrates. On the day of trial the defender fearlessly entered the Council Chamber, where Creech sat in judgment. After the complaint had been preferred, and a volley of abuse discharged by the angry Bailie, old Lauchlan, with an air of well-assumed independence, produced his discharge, and asserted the right which it gave him to pursue his calling in any town or city in Great Britain, save Oxford and Cambridge. The northern Dogberry was dreadfully vexed that in this way his mighty preparation had come to nothing; and, after advising with the ordinary assessor in the Bailie Court, the well-known James Laing, he found himself compelled to dismiss the complaint. No sooner had Lauchlan regained the "crown o' the causey," than a universal shout from the "callants" announced the defeat of the Bailie; while the victor, taking his station on the debateable ground in front of the shop, commenced with renewed vigour the obnoxious cry of "R—r—r— roasting, toasting jacks." This was repeated so often, that even the penurious Mr. Creech was compelled to purchase a cessation of hostilities.

Notwithstanding all his popularity, however, poor Lauchlan found himself, at an advanced age, possessor of more fame than fortune. It is possible that his own tippling propensities, and consequent want of economy, may have had some share in producing this disastrous result. On one occasion the late Mr. Smith, lamp-contractor for the city of Edinburgh, was the means of saving the poor fellow's life, having found him fast asleep, in a cold wintry night, among the snow near the Meadow Cage.

Finding old age and frailty stealing upon him, Lauchlan made an unsuccessful application, in 1805, to the Marquis of Hastings, then Earl of Moira, who was at the time Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in Scotland, to obtain a pension in consequence of the long period of his service. Starvation or the Workhouse were now the veteran's only alternatives. His philosophy preferred the latter, and the interest of some friends procured him admission to the Charity Workhouse. One would have thought his weatherbeaten hulk had at length found a quiet haven—but no genius, it has been remarked, is always young, and the adventurous spirit of the warlike son of Mars could not subside into inglorious quiescence. Old Lauchlan, at the age of ninety-six, was turned out of barracks for an amour! The tender-hearted old nurse of the establishment—some twenty years younger than himself—had shown him kindness during an illness, ministering to his wants, and sometimes sitting at his bedside, receiving with greedy ears his stories

"Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hairbreadth 'scapes in the imminent deadly breach."

One day—one unpropitious day—an evil eye beheld the simple pair; and such proceedings not being in accordance with the rules of the establishment, they were both expelled. What could a man of spirit do in such a dilemma? Marriage could alone testify his gratitude to the gentle fair, and his resentment of a harsh world's cruelty.

In a second Print of the vendor of roasting-jacks, done in 1815, the contrast in the "altered gait" of the two figures, is a striking illustration of the progress of time. He is here represented as again employed in the disposal of his roasting-jacks; but, alas! the best of his days were over. Like other geniuses, he found he had outlived his reputation; and the useful implements in which he dealt hardly enabled him to beat off the wolf from his door. His wife continued to cling to him through all his adversity, and, it is said, helped to cheer the gloomy winter of his age and fortunes. Lachlan appears, however, to have again obtained admission to the Workhouse; for, in a notice of his death, it is stated that he died there on the 3rd October, 1818, aged 102.


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