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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
James Edgar, Esq., Commissioner of Customs


Commissioner Edgar was an old bachelor. His rumoured parsimony induced Kay to give the stem expression of countenance with which he is pourtrayed in the etching. This charge was probably greatly exaggerated, as the erection of a spire to the church of Lasswade, entirely from his own funds, was certainly no indication of miserly feeling; yet he was at no pains to discountenance the general opinion. Indeed, he rather seemed to delight in keeping up the impression; and, as if more thoroughly to manifest his unsociable disposition to all the world, he had a carriage built with only one seat, in which he used to drive to and from the city. This vehicle he was pleased to denominate his " sulky."

Mr. Edgar had been in his youth a captain in the army, and had seen much of foreign countries. Prior to his appointment as a Commissioner, he held the situation of Collector of Customs at Leith. Before he met the accident by which he was rendered lame, though rather hard-featured, he was decidedly handsome. He walked erect, without stiffness, and with considerable rapidity. His enunciation was remarkably distinct, and his phraseology correct. He was an excellent classical scholar; and, in fine, a thorough gentleman of the old school.

Although quite a man of the world, he possessed a degree of practical philosophy which enabled him not only to relish the varied enjoyments of life, but to bear its ills with tranquillity. "Where regret was unavailing, he frequently made jest of the most serious disasters. One of his limbs was shorter than the other, in consequence of having had his thigh-bone broken at Leith races, by an accident arising from the carelessness of the postillion. "--------- the fellow!" said the Captain, "he has spoiled one of the handsomest legs in Christendom." On his way home, after the occurrence, perceiving he had to pass a friend on the road, he moved himself slightly forward in the carriage, at the same time staring and making strange contortions, as if in the last extremity. "Ah, poor Edgar!" said his friend to every acquaintance he met, "we shall never see him more—he was just expiring as I got a peep into the carriage!"

Mr. Edgar's house was in Tiviot Row, adjoining the Meadows. He spent a gay life while in town ; associating with the best company, and frequenting the public places, particularly the concerts in St. Cecilia's Hall, in the Cowgate. Before dinner he usually took a few rounds at golf in the Links, always playing by himself; and, on fine evenings, he might be seen seated, in full dress, in the most crowded part of the Meadows, then a fashionable promenade.

In the summer months he preferred the retirement of Pendreich Cottage at Lasswade. Here his amusements were singularly characteristic; and all his domestic arrangements were admirably in keeping with his peculiarities. His invariable practice in the morning, on getting out of bed, was to walk down, encumbered with little save a towel, to bathe in the river; after which he returned to his toilette, and then sat down with a keen appetite to breakfast. Prior to his lameness, Mr. Edgar was a devoted lover of field sports; and with the gun few sportsmen could bag as many birds. As it was, he still kept a few dogs; and, in one of his fields, had a target erected, that he might enjoy an occasional shot without the fatigue of pursuing game. He had an eagle too, which he tamed, and took much pleasure in feeding.

Another favourite amusement was the school-boy practice of flying a kite. By some, who naturally conceived such a pastime to be childish, he was called the "Bait Captain;" while others, affecting greater knowledge, supposed him, like Franklin, to be engaged in making experiments on electricity—a sad mistake, for, although he had a taste for literature, he had no fancy whatever for scientific pursuits.

Among other odd contrivances about Pendreich Cottage was a barrel surnmer-seat, erected in the garden, and which moved on a pivot. Here Mr. Edgar used to sit frequently for hours together, perusing the pages of some favourite author, and calmly enjoying the rural sweets of a summer evening. While thus employed, some of the neighbouring colliers, thinking to make game of the Captain, on one occasion came unperceived behind, and began to whirl him rapidly round and round, in expectation that he would sally forth, and hobble after them; but in this they were disappointed; the Captain sat still in perfect good humour, till they were completely tired, when they went away, very much chagrined at the Commissioner's philosophical patience.

In gastronomy the Captain's knowledge was undoubted. His fame in this particular is thus noticed by the late Lord Dreghorn, iu a short poetical effusion—

"O thou, whatever title please thine ear,
Captain, Collector, or the beau Dinneur."

No inconsiderable portion of the Commissioner's time was devoted to the pleasures of the table; and he always kept an experienced " man cook," who had been with him while abroad, in order that his viands might be dressed on the most approved principles. There was no scarcity of the good things of life at Pendreich Cottage—the very trees in front of the house occasionally groaned under the weight of accumulated legs of mutton, undergoing a process of curing peculiar to the establishment. As his fences were much destroyed by nocturnal depredators, in their anxiety to participate in this new production of Pomona, the Commissioner caused the following notice to be put up:—"All thieves are in future to enter by the gate, which will be left open every night for the purpose"

While the well-stocked kitchen of the Commissioner was by no means inaccessible to the poor of the neighbourhood, and especially to his friends the colliers, he seldom entertained any company at the cottage. On one occasion, Mr. Dundas, afterwards Lord Melville, accompanied by Commissioner Eeid, met the Captain on his walk before dinner, and asked him to take pot-luck with them at Melville Castle; but the Captain was not to be prevailed on, and continued his walk. The two gentlemen, strongly suspecting that something attractive was to be found at Pendreich Cottage, called there in his absence, and learned from the housekeeper that the Commissioner proposed regaling on stewed pigeons—a very favourite dish, and one which he could not think of relinquishing for Melville Castle. The two visitors found ways and means to pounce upon and carry off the savoury viands, leaving the astonished cook to apologise as he best could to his master on his return. The Commissioner could relish a joke—and was in the habit both to take and give—but in no case was his philosophy so likely to break down, as on such an occurrence as this.

Presuming on a slight acquaintance, two or three farmers of the neighbourhood called one day, just in the nick of time to sit down to dinner, in expectation of receiving a familiar welcome. The Commissioner was not to be done. He received them in such a high-bred style of formality that his unwelcome visitors felt completely nonplussed, and were glad to escape from his presence. Having thus bowed his intruders, first out of countenance, then out of doors, he sat down solus to enjoy his refection.

At a very advanced period of life, and after enduring much pain, he submitted to the operation of lithotomy, which he bore with his wonted fortitude. This was performed by the well-known Sandy Wood, who, with the kindest anxiety, remained in the house many hours afterwards, swearing he would shoot the servants through the head if they made the smallest noise, or even approached the patient's room. His great fear was that the Captain might fever, which, happily, he did not. Soon afterwards, Mr. Eeid called; and the Captain, though extremely weak, drew out the stone from his pillow, and holding it up in triumph—"Here!" said he, "here is the scoundrel that has been torturing me for years."

Mr. Edgar recovered his health, and lived to enjoy his harmless recreations for several years afterwards. He died in 1799, much regretted, especially about Lasswade, where his singularities were best known.


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