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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
William M'Pherson, Esq., Writer to the Signet


Mr. William Macpherson, whose father was sometime deacon of the masons in Edinburgh, was a Writer to the Signet, and, in many respects, a man of very eccentric habits. He lived in that famed quarter of the city, the West Bow, three stairs up, in a tenement which immediately joined the city wall, and looked towards the west, but which has been recently removed to make way for the improvements now in progress, and which have all but annihilated the Bow. Mr. Macpherson continued a bachelor through life, and seemed from many circumstances to have conceived a determined antipathy to the "honourable state of matrimony." He had two maiden sisters who kept house with him; but whether they entertained similar prejudices, or remained single from necessity, we do not pretend to know. The bachelor respected his sisters very much, although in his freaks he called the one Sodom, and the other Gomorrah.

Like most of his contemporary lords of the quill, Macpherson possessed many "social qualities;" but he quaffed so deeply and so long, that towards night he seldom found his way up the High Street in a state short of total inebriety. On arriving at the West Bow, and when he came to the bottom of the stair, he used to bellow to Sodom or Gomorrah to como down and help up their drunken brother, which they never failed to do; and, for additional security in such cases, it is said he generally ascended the stair backwards.

Notwithstanding his potations, Macpherson maintained for some time a degree of respectability, at least, consistent with the laxity of the times. When associating with the more respectable bon vivants of these his better days, his favourite saying, before tossing off his glass of claret, of which he was very fond, used to be, "Here goes another peck of potatoes." A glass of claret was then equal in price to a peck of potatoes. The origin of this saying is attributed to Mr. Creech, bookseller, but afterwards became a standing remark with Macpherson. Macpherson at length became, we regret to say, a habitual drunkard. A loss of respectability in his profession was the consequence; and from the practice which he followed of signing Signet letters for very small sums of money, and other low habits of business, inconsistent with the dignity of the Society, his professional brethren at last urged him to retire upon an annuity. This, however, his pride would never allow him to consent to; and he continued a member of the Society of Writers to the Signet till the day of his death.

No case, however trifling—no client, however poor or disreputable, was latterly beneath the legal aid of Macpherson; and no mode of payment, whether in goods or currency, was deemed unworthy of acceptance. As an instance of his practice, he was seen one day very tipsy, plodding his way np the West Bow from the Grassmarket, with an armful of "neeps" (turnips), which he had obtained from some green-stall keeper, in remuneration for legal services performed. Not being able to maintain a proper equilibrium, his occasional "bickers" at last unsettled his burthen ; one or two of the turnips, like Newton's apple, found the centre of gravity, and in attempting to recover these, nearly the whole of his armful trundled down the causeway. Macpherson, determined not to lose what might otherwise contribute much to a favourite dinner, coolly, and as steadily as possible, set about collecting the turnips, and actually succeeded, to the astonishment of every one, in accomplishing his object. On arriving with his load at the accustomed stair-foot, he shouted, as usual, for Sodom and Gomor-rali to render assistance; and by their aid he and his cargo eventually reached his apartments in safety.

There is another amusing anecdote told of this decayed, but still independent lawyer. The Governor of Edinburgh Castle had been in want of a respectable cook, and applied to Mr. Creech, the bookseller, to do what he could to procure one. Creech having found some difficulty in fulfilling the commission, felt considerably annoyed by the frequent messages from the Castle concerning the much-wanted cook. One day the Governor's black lackey came into the shop to make the usual inquiry. The Bailie observed Macpherson pass the door at the moment, and determined to get rid of his black tormentor by any means, directed Mungo's attention to the bacchanalian, who happened to be sober at the time, it being then early in the forenoon. The servant, assured that Macpherson was a cook in want of a situation, marched boldly after the lawyer, and giving him a gentle tap on the shoulder, said "The Governor wants to see you at the Castle."— "Just now?" inquired Macpherson, his conntenance brightening up with the anticipation of something to his advantage.—"Soon as possible," said Mungo.

Macpherson immediately returned to the West Bow, cropped his beard of three days' standing, and, assisted by Sodom and Gomorrah, prepared for the appointment. His sisters were equally on the tiptoe of expectation as to what the Governor could possibly be wanting in such haste. Macpherson made various conjectures, but in vain. Every suggestion appeared to him unlikely, save the commencement of some important process, which nothing but his superior talents could have pointed him out as the proper person to undertake. Brushed up, and bedecked in something like the style of his better days, the renovated Writer to the Signet hurried to the Castle, and was ushered into—the lobby ! where, to his astonishment, he was desired to wait till the Governor came. This, to a W.S., was the reverse of courtesy; but he naturally supposed the apparent incivility arose from the ignorance of the lackey, and imagined the mistake would soon be rectified by the Governor himself. The Governor came. "Well, have you got a character?" was his first salutation. "A character!" said Macpherson, astonished beyond measure at such a question being put to a lawyer. "Why, what do you mean by a character?"—"Have you not got a character?" repeated the Governor. "To be sure I've got a character!" replied Macpherson, still more astonished. "Where is it, then—can't you show it?" "Show it!" reiterated the lawyer, his bluff cheeks colouring with a sense of insult, "there's not a gentleman in Edinburgh but knows me!" "That may be," said the Governor, "but no one should presume to ask a place without having a character in his pocket." "The d------l take the place—what place have I solicited?—why, I was sent for to speak with the Governor." "What are you?" said the latter, at last conceiving the possibility of a mistake. "I'm a Writer to the Signet," answered Macpherson, with corresponding dignity of manner. "Writer to the Signet! astonishing—this is all a mistake—I wanted a Cook!" "Confound you and your cook both!" vociferated the indignant W.S., turning on his heel and hurrying off to drown his mortification in a meridian libation. Nothing so easily irritated Macpherson in after times as any allusion to this unlucky incident.

There was one redeeming virtue in the character of Macpherson rarely to be found in professional men, and least of all in such a character as himself, which speaks more than language can do for the natural goodness of his heart. Bather than allow any person whom he had been employed to prosecute to be put in jail, he has been frequently known to advance the siim himself, even when he had not the most distant chance of repayment.

Mr. Macpherson died on the 9th of May, 1814. His sister, Sodom, died in Gillespie's Hospital in 1837.


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