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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Thomas Neil, Wright and Precentor


It is now forty-two years since this "son of song" departed to the "world of spirits;" yet he is well remembered by many of the old inhabitants of Edinburgh. He was forty years a precentor in the Old Church; and, it is believed, the last time he officiated was at the reopening of that place of worship, at the close of last century, after it had undergone some extensive repairs.

Perhaps no man in Edinburgh of his time possessed greater local notoriety than "Tam Neil." He was a universal favourite, and seemed formed for the very purpose of "smoothing the wrinkled brow of care;" and although his wit may not have been of the most brilliant description, yet there was in the manner of the humourist an inimitable archness, which irresistibly compelled even the most serious of his auditors to "hold their sides" for a time.

As we have already said, Tam was a precentor. The clear, strong, musical voice with which he was endowed peculiarly adapted him for the desk, and no derogatory tongue has yet dared to say that he did not perform his duties regularly and with propriety; but there was a solemnity in the walls, and a dulness in the long faces of a church, which by no means comported with his own mirth-creating features. It was in the tavern that Tam was glorious! There, in giving due effect to some humorous Scottish ditty, his whole powers of music and mimicry found ample scope. He could also sing, with great pathos, many of our most pathetic national melodies; but Tam had not a heart for sadness.

"He possesses the knack of setting off his songs with so much drollery," is the remark of Kay in his notes, "and such a singular peculiarity of manner, that in all probability he will never have an equal or successor. He has the art of adapting not only his voice, but his very features so much to the subject of the song—especially where it will admit of mimicry—that a stranger, who may have seen him in the 'Old Man's Wish' in one company, would not know him half-an-hour after as the 'Old Wife' in another—so very different a turn does he give to his voice, features, and action."

The latter of these songs, in the character of which he is represented in the print, was one of his particular favourites. With a handkerchief wrapped over his head, his lips compressed, and his long chin set prominently forward, his imitations of the querulous voice of age, were quite inimitable.

There was another production (a catch), familiar to the vocalists of the present day, called "The Merry Christ's Church Bells," in which Neil displayed, with wonderful effect, the compass and harmony of his voice : and so peculiar was the volubility of his tongue, that his audience would almost fancy they heard the very chiming of the merry bells. "In short," observes his limner, "he may justly be considered the Momus of modern times, and the catch clubs of Edinburgh will only have to regret that he is not immortal."

Upon the late James Livingstone of Glasgow, who died there only in 1836, may be said to have descended the inspiring mantle of Thomas Neil; and our readers of the West, from their recollections of the one, will be the better able to form a proper estimate of the other. There was a difference, however, in the characters of the two. Perhaps Livingstone surpassed his predecessor, not in the more genuine, but in the more varied version of the national comic song; while the other possessed in a higher degree, the power and harmony of voice necessary to constitute a superior glee and catch-singer. Livingstone, in private company, was the most simple and unaffected creature imaginable— temperate and recluse. Not so with his witty Bacchanalian precursor, who, in the words of the song was

------------"a canty chiel,
And deai-ly lo'ed the whisky."

Tarn's facetious talents furnished him with a ready passport to all classes of society. He was frequently a solicited guest at the table of the great, and always a welcome visitor to many a well-known "howff" in the city. With the magistracy he sat cheek-for-jowl at all civic feasts ; and occasionally enlivened the club meetings of the Caledonian Hunt with his presence, his wit, and his songs. In company, a very frequent salutation was—"Come, now, Tam, gie's your thrifty sang" —a request with which he immediately complied, by chanting, in his own inimitable manner, the following stanzas, well known to our "auld forbears," but now almost obsolete:—

"Sweet sir, for your courtesie, when you come by the Bass, then,
For the love ye bear to me, buy me a keeking-glass then."
   "Keek into the draw-well, Janet, Janet;
   And there ye'll see your bonnie sel', my Jo, Janet."

"Keeking in the draw-well clear, what if I should fa' in, then,
Syne a' my kin will say an' swear I drown'd mysel' for sin, then."
   "Hand the better by the brae, Janet, Janet;
   Hand the better by the brae, my jo, Janet."

"Good sir, for your courtesie, coming through Aberdeen, then,
For the love you bear to me, buy me a pair o' shoon, then."
   "Clout the auld, the new are dear, Janet, Janet;
   A'e pair may sair ye ha'f a year, my Jo, Janet."

"But what, if dancing on the green, and skipping like a maukin,
If they should see my clouted shoon of me they will be taukin'."
   "Dance aye laigh, and late at e'en, Janet, Janet;
   Syne a' your faults will no be seen, my jo, Janet."

"Kind sir, for your courtesie, when ye gae to the cross, then,
For the love ye bear to me buy me a pacing horse, then."
   "Pace upon your spinnin' wheel, Janet, Janet;
   Pace upon your spinnin' wheel, my jo, Janet."

Unlike modern professional gentlemen, it was no part of Tarn's economy to charm his friends out of their money ; it will not, therefore, be surprising that his talents proved in some measure destructive of his industry. He frequently felt the "pinging" gnawings of an empty pocket; yet "poor but hearty" continued to be his motto—and

"A cog o' gude swats, an' an auld Scottish sang,"

together with the approbation of his friends, were sufficient to set poverty and care at defiance. Tam worked for many a day as a journeyman wright, even after he became precentor. He at length setup in a small way for himself, and might have succeeded well; but his customers were neglected, and his trade gradually dwindled down by a species of consumption not uncommon in such cases. Coffins were a staple commodity of Tam's manufacture, although he could not properly be considered an undertaker ; and, in this line, notwithstanding his tippling propensities, and when almost every other species of employment had left him, he continued to receive a degree of patronage. Even on this grave subject the precentor's drollery could not be restrained. When any of his cronies (and many a one of them he screwed down in their last narrow house) were complaining, he used to rally them with a very professional observation—"Hech, man, but ye smell sair o' fir."

Tam was employed on one occasion to make a coffin for a youth who had died at Easter Duddingston, and in the evening he and his apprentice went to take the article home. The coffin was enclosed in a bag, that it might be the more easily carried. On arriving at the village of Duddingston, it being a cold moonlight night in November, Tam felt an irresistible desire to fortify himself with a glass. He and his apprentice accordingly entered the first public-house, and having drank a "gill of the best," the landlady was called in, and Tam began to explore his unfathomable pockets for the odd sixpence upon which he had speculated, but not a bodle was there. Tam looked astonished, apologised for the awkward circumstance, and promised to "look in" as he came past. But Na!—the prudent hostess "didna get her drink for naething, and couldna let it gang that gait." Tam promised, flattered, and threatened; but all would not do. "Weel, weel," said he, "since ye're sae doubtfu' o' my honesty, as I'm gaun to play at a hit dance oot by at Easter Duddingston the nicht, I'll e'en leave the case o' my bass fiddle till I come back." This seemed to satisfy the landlady; and Tam, with the aid of his apprentice, soon unbagged the coffin! Inspired with that feeling of awe, if not of terror, which that emblem of mortality, under such circumstances, was calculated to produce, the landlady exclaimed, with unfeigned perturbation, - Awa', ye gallows-looking blackguard; gin that be the case o' yir bass fiddle, neither you nor it shall stay in my house." Her request, as may be well imagined, was very readily complied with.

Tam was questioned one day by a lady, at whose house he was employed in making some repairs, as to the reason why people of his profession were so extravagant in their charges for coffins. Tam looked very mysterious, and agreed to inform her of the secret for the matter of a good glass of "Athole brose;" which moderate stipulation being immediately implemented, he told her, ''It's juist because they are ne'er brought back to be mended." As we have already hinted, the precentor's wit consisted more in the method than the matter; and hence the reason, although he never failed to "set the table in a roar," that there are few of his sayings which do not lose materially by being written down. There are still one or two anecdotes not altogether unworthy of notice. Tam was one night engaged in a tavern with a party of select friends, among whom was the late Mr. Home Drummond, a gentleman then young, and who, it is said, could relish a night's diversion well, provided he did not "buy his joys o'er dear." During the evening, Tarn delighted the company with his very best songs, and, in return, was plied at every interval with an excess of liquor. Mr. Drummond, in particular, perhaps with the view of making him tipsy, pressed the songster without mercy, frequently adding, that if he did not drink off his glass he should have Kettle's mends—(i.e., fill the glass and make him drink it over again.) When the debauch was finished, and the parties came to the street, one of those present, who was by no means sober, feeling an increase of thirst from the excess of his libations, put his head to the mouth of the well in the High Street, and commenced drinking most vigorously. "Out wi't," cried the songster, chuckling over his imagined victory—"out wi't; or, by my sang, ye shall hae Eelties mends.'''

Tarn and a drouthy crony accidentally met in the Potterrow (Scottice, Patterraw) one forenoon, after a night of heavy drinking. They both stood much in need of a drop to brace their nerves, but not a stiver was betwixt them. In vain they looked round for some kindly invitation—in vain some dernier howff was suggested. The precentor's licht was now on the wane; yet he "couldna think of parting dry-mouth'd." "Come," said Tam, a fancy having struck him; "let's see what chance will provide." They accordingly dived into the house of an old acquaintance whom they had not seen for some time. A gill was called, and the landlady desired to sit down and tak' "the poison aff the glass;" which she readily did, to oblige "sae auld a friend as the precentor." The whisky went round, and a conversation ensued upon the common topics of the day—the American war, the dearth of provisions, &c.; and Tam took care not to overlook the modern alterations going on in the city. "What wi' levelling streets, and bigging brigs, they'll no leave ae stane o' the auld town aboon anither," said the landlady.—"It's a confounded shame," rejoined Tam; "and sic an auncient city, too! I'm tauld the Apostle Paul ance visited this very district we're sitting in the noo." "Nonsense!" exclaimed his crony. "Ye're gyte now," said the landlady; "I'm sure I've read the Testament mony a time, an' T ne'er saw sic a thing in't."—"What'll ye bet, then?" quoth the wily precentor. "It's no for the like o' me to be betting," said she; "but. in a case like this, I'll hand ye the gill on the table there's no a word about the Patterraw." The Testament was produced—Tam turned over the leaves with affected difficulty—till at last he hit upon the passage, Acts xxi. 5,—"And we came with a straight course into Coos, and the day following into Puhodes, and from thence into P-a-t-a-r-a." Against such conclusive evidence the simple hostess could urge no appeal; and was so highly pleased with the discovery, that, like Eve, she wished the "gudeman" to be made as wise as herself, even at the expense of another gill. John, who had been engaged in the cellar, very opportunely made his appearance, and, being told of the astonishing fact, was as incredulous as his rib had been. John was better acquainted with the process of reducing bead twenty-two to thirty than he was with the contents of the New Testament; nevertheless, he could with great security "wager ony man half-a-mutchkin that the Patterraw, nor ony ither raw in a' Edinburgh, was nae sae muckle as mentioned between the twa buirds o' the Bible." The half-mutchkin stoup, instead of the small tantalizing measure which had hitherto occupied the table, was accordingly filled l>y the gudewife, who was secretly gratified that John's wisdom, so immaculate in his own estimation, was about to be found somewhat faulty. We need scarcely add, that the "P-a-t-a-r-a" of the text at once decided who should "pay the piper;" and Tarn, thus plentifully supplied, was spared the alternative he had dreaded of parting with a dry mouth.

Like most others whose talents become so much an object of social gratification, Tam, who at first drank for the sake of good company, latterly drank for the sake of good liquor. He knew and felt this, and by no means attempted either to deceive himself or others on the subject. Mr. Nisbet of Dirleton (himself an excellent musician, and contemporary of the musical Earl of Kelly) happened to meet the jovial precentor pretty early one forenoon, in the High Street, rather more than half-seas-over. Dirleton challenged Tarn for being "so groggy before meridian." "Why," said he, "don't you let your debauch stand till night'?" Tam acknowledged the justice of his censure—"Vera true, sir, vera true; but as I maun aye be this way ance a day, I maun just tak' it when I can get it."

Tarn continued to be that way very frequently for a great length of time—his constitution apparently experiencing little or no bad effects from the practice. He lived to a good old age, and died within a few days of the close of last century. His death is thus recorded in the Edinburgh Magazine for 1800:—"Died, December 7, Thomas Neil, wright, and precentor in the Old Church of Edinburgh, aged about 70 years. In the profession of a precentor he has held the incumbency for full forty years. He excelled in singing old humorous Scots songs, and that certainly was his forte."


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