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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Colonel Monro, a well-known Blue-Gown Beggar


The name of "Colonel Monro," as applied to a half-crazed old man who used to frequent the streets of Edinburgh, is familiar to many of the older inhabitants, but almost nothing is known of his history. He obtained the soubriquet of "Colonel" from having fought under the banners of Prince Charles Edward; and to the last he continued to profess his devotion to the house of Stuart. In token of his sympathy for the fallen race, he always wore a white cockade in his bonnet or hat. His Jacobitical predilections, however, did not prevent him from participating in the bounty of the reigning dynasty; hence the lines of the artist—

"Behold courageous Colonel Monro,
A Highland hero, turned a Blue-Gown beau."

Of the Blue-Gowns, or Bedesmen, whose dress and appearance are represented in the Print, Sir Walter Scott has given the following account in his notes to the Antiquary:

"These Bedesmen are an order of paupers, to whom the Kings of Scotland were in the custom of distributing a certain alms, in conformity with the ordinances of the Catholic Church, and who were expected in return to pray for the royal welfare and that of the State. This order is still kept up. Their number is equal to the number of years which his Majesty has lived ; and one Blue-Gown is put on the roll for every returning royal birth-day. On the same auspicious era, each Bedesman receives a new cloak, or gown, of coarse cloth, the colour light-blue, with a pewter badge, which confers on them the general privilege of seeking alms through all Scotland. All laws against sorning, masterful begging, and every other species of mendicity being suspended in favour of this privileged class. With his cloak each receives a leathern purse, containing as many shillings Scots (videlicit, pennies sterling), as the Sovereign is years old—the zeal of their intercession for the King's long life receiving, it is to be supposed, a great stimulus from their own present and increasing interest in the object of their prayers. On the same occasion, one of the Royal Chaplains preaches a sermon to the Bedesmen, who (as one of the rev. gentlemen expressed himself) are the most impatient and inattentive audience in the world. Something of this may arise from a feeling, on the part of the Bedesmen, that they are paid for their own devotions, not for listening to those of others. Or more probably it arises from impatience, natural, though indecorous in men bearing so venerable a character, to arrive at the conclusion of the ceremonial of the royal birth-day, which, as far as they are concerned, ends in a lusty breakfast of bread and ale ; the whole moral and religious exhibition terminating in the advice of Johnson's ' Hermit hoar' to his proselyte,—

' Come, my lad, and drink some beer.' "

In addition to this account by the "Author of Waverley," it may be added that the King's Bedesmen, as they are called, derived their name from the nature of the devotions they were enjoined to perform, having annually to "tell their beads" as they walked in procession from Holyrood to St. Giles's. It is not precisely known, though it is probable the Bedesmen had their origin in the reign of the first James, whose attempts at national reform, and his endeavours to suppress the hordes of wandering vagrants who prowled upon the country, might naturally suggest the granting of such privileges as were conferred on the Bedesmen. The paupers thus distinguished were such only as, by their military services, had a claim on the royal bounty. In the household accounts of succeeding reigns, the "blew gownis" are frequently mentioned. Two extracts from these, furnished by Mr. Macdonald of the Register House, are given in the "Notes to the Waverley Novels;" the one of date 1590, the other 1617, in which the cloth for "blew gownis" and various other items for the Bedesmen are minutely set down.

"With respect to licensed beggars, we may remark that Dr. Jamie-son, neither in his Dictionary nor in his Supplement, offers any conjecture respecting the origin or cause of the Bedesmen, who are privileged to beg, receiving a blue gown, whence they take the name commonly given to them. Pliny informs us, that blue was the colour in which the Gauls clothed their slaves; and blue coats for many ages were the liveries of servants, apprentices, and even of younger brothers, as it is now of the Blue Coat Boys, and of other Blue Schools in the country. Hence the proverb in Pay, 'He is in his better blue clothes,' applied to a person in low degree, when dressed very fine."— Edinburgh Review.

Almshouse, according to Dr. Jamieson, is frequently styled a bcde-house; and a bedeman he defines as one who resides in an almshouse. The origin of the term is evidently referrible to the devotional services enjoined on those who were in former times the objects of any special charity.

During the civil commotions of the seventeenth century, and under the Cromwellian sway, no notice of the Bedesmen occurs, their Order having doubtless shared in the common wreck of Royalty. On the Restoration, however, the Blue Gowns were not overlooked; and in the Royal birth-day pageants, dictated by the intense loyalty of the times, they formed an interesting group. The following is an account of one of the annual rejoicings—the fifth after the Restoration :—

"Edinburgh, May 29, 1665, being his Majesty's birth and restoration-day, was most solemnly kept by people of all ranks in this city. My Lord Commissioner, in his state, accompanied with his Life Guards on horseback, and Sir Andrew Ramsay, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Bailies and Council, in their robes, accompanied with all the trained bands in arms, went to church, and heard the Bishop of Edinburgh upon a text as fit as well applied to the work of the clay. Thereafter, thirty-five aged men in blue gowns, each having got thirty-five shillings in a purse, came upfront the Abbey to the great Church, praying all alonq for his Majesty. Sermon being ended, his Grace entertained all the nobles and gentlemen with a magnificent feast and open table. After dinner, the Lord Provost and Council went to the Cross of Edinburgh, where was planted a green arbour, loadened with oranges and lemons, wine liberally running for divers hours at eight several conduits, to the great solace of the indigent commons there. Having drank all the Royal healths, which were seconded by the great guns of the Castle, sound of trumpets and drums, vollies from the trained bands and joyful acclamations from the people, plentifully entertained the multitude. After which, my Lord Commissioner, Provost and Bailies, went up to the Castle, where they were entertained with all sorts of wine and sweet-meats; and returning, the Lord Provost countenancing all the neighbours of the city that had put up bonfires, by appearing at their fires, being in great numbers; which jovialness continued with ringing of bells, and shooting of great guns, till twelve o'clock at night."

Formerly, the purses gifted to the Blue-Gowns were delivered to them at the Old Tolbooth ; from which circumstance a portion of the building was designated the "Poor Folks's Purses." In later times, the whole ceremony was confined to the Canongate, the parish church of which was built about 1688. Here the Blue-Gowns heard sermon ; then assembling in the aisle, they received from the King's Almoner, or his deputies, the usual allowance of bread and beer, their new gowns, and purses. These, as already mentioned, were made of leather, and furnished by the King's Glover.

At no period did the Blue-Gowns muster in greater strength than during the patriarchal reign of George the Third; and although no longer required to "tell their beads" in procession as of yore, their assembling in the capital from all parts of the coi;ntry to receive their aumous, was a day of momentous interest to the poor old veterans. Fergusson, the laureate of "Auld Reekie," thus alludes to their feelings on such occasions :—

"Sing, likewise, Muse ! how blue-gown bodies,
Like scarecraws new ta'en down frae woodies,
Come here to cast their clouted duddies,
An' get their pay:
Than them what magistrate mair proud is,
On King's birth-day?"

As George the Third lived to the advanced age of eighty-two, there were an unusual number of Blue-Gowns on the roll at the conclusion of his reign. At the present moment it is believed there are about thirty in existence. For the last few years no new badges have been issued, and the annual bounty is no longer to be continued after the demise of the present recipients. One reason assigned for abolishing this ancient aristocracy of beggars is, that the original object of the privileges granted to them is superseded by the provision of Chelsea Hospital. Until the erection of this institution, no badge or gown was couferred on any oue save those who had served in the army, although latterly the King's Almoner was instructed to use his own discretion in the selection of objects of charity.

The late Rev. John Paton, of Lasswade, was the last Almoner. Mr. C. Campbell, teacher, and formerly precentor in the Canongate Church, for many years officiated, not only at the desk, but in distributing the alms of his Majesty to the assembled Bedesmen. For these duties he was allowed one guinea per annum, which was regularly paid until the year 1837, when it was discontinued by her Majesty's Remembrancer. (His salary was originally two pounds eighteen shillings, Scots—i.e., four shillings and tenpence, sterling. He was indebted for the augmentation to a son of the late Lord Chief Baron Dundas, of Arniston, who, then a youth, and happening to be in Edinburgh on the King's birth-day, 1814, he was curious to witness the ceremonial connected with the Blue-Gowns. Accompanied by his tutor, the Rev. Mr. M'Kenzie of Lasswade, he proceeded to the Canon-gate Church, and with much affability lent a hand in dispensing the charity. On questioning Mr. Campbell as to the amount of his salary, he expressed his astonishment at the smallness of the sum, and that year, through his father, the Lord Chief Baron, procured the addition already stated.

The annual gathering of the Blue-Gowns was usually deemed an interesting sight, and the church was generally well attended. The impatience of the old men for the finale of the procedure frequently occasioned scenes of a risible nature, amply justifying the good-humoured sarcasm of the Author of Waverley. The following paragraph, however, from a newspaper in 1817, records an instance of genuine philanthropy that would do credit to a much higher "order" than that of the Bedesmen:—

"June 7. Blue-Gown Benevolence. — On Wednesday morning, while the Blue-Gowns were receiving their usual allowance of blue cloth and money, in the Canongate Church, Edinburgh, a very interesting and gratifying scene occurred. Among them was a woman who has seven children, but whose husband (formerly a Blue-Gown) died about a fortnight ago. She came to solicit her husband's gown, and a little pecuniary aid, but was only allowed 2s. 6d. At that moment, one of the Blue-Gowns, who has been deaf and dumb from his birth, had just received his gown for the first time. A person present made signs to him that the woman had received none—that she had seven children who were almost naked, and wished he would give his gown to her; and it was truly gratifying to see with what readiness the poor fellow ran and put it into her arms, and made signs that she should make it into clothes for her children. In order to try him, the gown was taken from the woman and given back to him, but he refused it with the greatest indignation, and, when the woman got it, seemed overjoyed."

The generous Blue-Gown, James Mathewson, we understand is alive, and is one of the very few of his order who still frequent the streets of Edinburgh. A well known worthy of this privileged class, who "grinds music out of a box," is said to possess property which yields him an annual income of nearly £120. Though well-nigh fourscore, and blind, he some years ago led a blooming young bride to the altar.


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