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.
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
"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
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'
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
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
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
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."