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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
A Political Set-To at Kinghorn


Kinghorn, the scene of the affray, is the ferry-town opposite Edinburgh, on the north side of the Forth. Though small, it is a royal burgh, and can boast an antiquity nearly as remote as any in the extensive peninsula ycleped the Kingdom of Fife—

"The most unhallowed mid the Scotian plains!"—

at least so wrote poor Fergusson, some sixty or seventy years ago; although few, we daresay, who visit the "Fifian coast" in our own day will acquiesce in the inhospitable character ascribed to it by the poet. Along with Dysart, Kirkcaldy, and Burntisland, Kinghorn continues to send a representative to Parliament; and, if common fame report truly, in no other Scottish burgh could a more curious or entertaining chronicle of electioneering manoeuvres be gleaned. From the union of the kingdoms, down to the passing of the Reform Bill, a series of political contentions agitated the otherwise peaceful community; and, amid the alternate scenes of strife and jollity which prevailed, there were no lack of spirits daring enough; nor yet of joyous fellows—fond of merrimenb and good cheer—who

"Wisely thought it better far,
To fall in banquet than in war."

The annual return of councillors—always an interesting event— served to keep alive the political excitement, and to whet the appetite for the more engrossing occasion of a Parliamentary election. Some idea may be formed of the consequence attached to the office of Chief Magistrate of the burgh, when it is known that the civic chair has been frequently filled by an Earl of Rothes, or an Earl of Leven, and that the Right Honourable Charles Hope, the late Lord President of the Court of Session, was at one period the Provost of Kinghorn for. nearly twenty years. Not the least attractive circumstance attendant on the yearly change in the Council was the sumptuous entertainment invariably given in honour of the occasion. Not only were the principal gentry of the neighbourhood in attendance, but many beyond the ferry, and not a few from "Auld Reekie" found their way to the feast.  Among other distinguished guests, it may be mentioned that Henry Duudas (afterwards Lord Melville), the late John Earl of Hopetoun, the late Mr. Fergusson, of Craigdarroch, Charles Hay, advocate (Lord Newton), Sir James Campbell, of Ardkinglass, Bart., etc., were often present at the civic banquets of Kinghorn.

The noble families of Hopetoun and Balcarras held the chief sway in the burgh towards the close of the American War; but the late William Fergusson, Esq., of Raith, having then started as a candidate in the Liberal interest, it became somewhat difficult for his opponents, even with the aid of all "the wits and wags of Edinburgh," to maintain the ascendancy. Besides being an extensive heritor in the parish of Kinghorn, the courteous deportment of Mr. Fergusson and of his sons, in their intercourse with the inhabitants, created a very general feeling of attachment for his family.

At that period, except Edinburgh, no town in Scotland had singly the privilege of returning a member to Parliament; consequently, each of the burghs forming a district had an equal voice in the choice of a representative. Thus, in the case of Kinghorn, four Town Councils had to be " wooed and won," though nominally the elective power was vested in commissioners, chosen—one for each burgh—by the respective corporations, the returning burgh for the time having the canting-vote. Hence the strength of the parties came to be primarily developed in the election of delegates.

The two principal local agents employed to counteract the growing influence of the Whig interest were the Town-Clerk—Mr. John Hutton, originally from Dunfermline ; and the hostess of the principal inn—Johanna Baxter, wife of Mr. William Skinner, but better known as " Jockey Baxter," or " Lucky Skinner." In smoothing down the Whiggery of the Councillors, and in keeping the party together, out of the reach of counter influence, for days and weeks prior to an election, the exquisite tact displayed by the worthy pair could hardly be surpassed. Once assembled in the inn, what head could hold out against the insinuating address of the hostess, or the potency of her good cheer!—and, no doubt, as the patriotic electors quaffed bowl after bowl, the old ballad would recur to their memory—

"'Tis good to be merry and wise;
'Tis good to be honest and true;
'Tis good to be off with the old love,
Before we are on with the new."

Intimidation was usually the pretext for keeping the_ electors locked up in convivial durance. One notable example of this occurred about the year 1789 or 1790. Under the pretence that the lives of the electors would be in danger if they remained in Kinghorn, Mr. Hutton and Lucky Skinner persuaded a majority of them one evening, when in their cups, to take flight for the mansion-house of Balcarras (now the seat of Colonel Lindsay), more than twenty miles distant. Here they were entertained in a splendid manner for several weeks; and only brought back in the " nick of time " to vote for a delegate in the ministerial interest. The success of this exploit greatly extended the fame of the town-clerk and the hostess; and the heroes who professed to be intimidated were ever afterwards known by the expressive designation of "the Balcarras Lambs."

The "row" recorded occurred at the General Election in 1796. It was not properly speaking a Kinghorn affair at all; for on that occasion Sir James St. Clair Erskine, afterwards Earl of Rosslyn, was elected without opposition. The adjacent district of burghs (Inverkeithing), however, was keenly contested by Sir John Henderson, of Fordel, Bart., and the Hon. Andrew Cochrane Johnstone, afterwards Governor of Dominica. The result appearing doubtful, it occurred to the friends of the latter gentleman that the services of Mr. Hutton and Lucky Skinner—-the much-famed guardians of "the Balcarras Lambs"— might be advantageously employed in furthering their cause. A party of the Dunfermline councillors were accordingly transported quietly during the night to Kinghorn, aud safely lodged in the inn.

When the retreat became known, the circumstance created great excitement in Dunfermline. Crowds of people assembled, and the shout, "To Kinghorn!" being raised, a numerous body—including detachments of colliers from Fordel, many of them armed with bludgeons —was speedily on the march to capture the electors. A blockade having been resolved upon, as the more prudent and effectual mode of procedure, the forces were bronght to a halt within a short distance of the enemy's stronghold; and by the judicious manner in which the line was extended—reaching from the sea at Hochmatoch to the Gulletbridge at the Lake, and from the Lake to the Well of Spaw, near Pettycur harbour—no elector could possibly escape without inspection.

Thus secured against a sortie, after maintaining the position for a day or two, Colonel Erskine, and several gentlemen from the west of Fife, accompanied by a small detachment, entered Kinghorn, in military array, with flags and other insignia of electioneering warfare displayed. On arriving at the inn, Lucky Skinner, true to her trust, refused to give any information concerning the runaway electors, but endeavoured to appease Colonel Erskine, by inviting him into the parlour to taste from the landlady's bottle—a kindness she invariably extended to strangers of respectable appearance. Somewhat irritated, and wheeling precipitately round, the Colonel was about to retire, when Lucky, persisting in her entreaties, laid hold of his coat-tail, and, in the friendly encounter, left him, a-la Bailie Nicol Jarvie, denuded of a portion of his garment.

Disappointed in procuring authority from a Justice of the Peace (Mr. Rutherford of Ashiutully, then resident in Kinghorn), the Colonel and his party attempted to force their way, without the sanction of a warrant, into the apartment occupied bjythe electors. And now came the "tug of war" in true Dounybrook style. Attacking the house in two divisions, one in front and the other in the rear, part of the assailants gained the head of the inside-stair—formed in the old-fashioned manner represented in the Print; but, being there gallantly met by the defenders, victory for a long time remained doubtful:— "They fought so well, 'twas hard to say Which side was like to get the day." Among the combatants, the most conspicuous figures are those of Colonel Erskine, and the renowned Mr. Hutton, on whose left maybe recognised Mr. Skinner, the landlord of the inn. In the lobby, at the foot of the stair, the combat was valiantly sustained by a postillion of the name of Bruce. He was a noted pugilist and cudgel-player, and on this occasion fully supported his reputation. Armed with the spoke of a carriage wheel, he coolly posted himself at the back door, and, with great deliberation, dealt his favours on all who approached, till—

------------"Sprawling on the ground,
With many a gash and bloody wound "—

the number of the vanquished sufficiently indicated who were the victors. Fortunately, none of the warriors were actually slain; but, among those whose fate it was to "lie on honour's truckle-bed," Neil M'Millan, a chairman from Edinburgh, was perhaps the most severely wounded, his nose having been completely demolished by a blow from the heroic Bruce. Another individual is said to have had his neck deeply cut by a broken bottle thrown during the fight.

Though a successful resistance had thus been made to Colonel Erskine and his party, an attack from the whole body of invaders was still to be dreaded; and a general call "to arms " resounded through the burgh. This was, however, only partially obeyed; for many of the inhabitants were personally hostile to the town-clerk, as well as politically opposed to the interest which he espoused. In this dilemma one course only remained to be adopted by the electors and their friends, and that was the bold alternative of cutting their way through the line of the besieging forces. To effect this against such mighty odds, more deadly weapons than shilelahs were deemed necessary. A levy of fire-arms was accordingly resorted to; but, though such a display had not been witnessed since the weapon-schaws of former days, most of the arms available—save two pistols supplied by a tailor of the name of George Darney—were as likely to prove destructive to the possessor as the enemy. Maugre all disadvantages, however, a formidable band was ultimately marshalled—those who had fire-arms forming the advanced guard, and the cudgel-division bringing up the rear. In this way the sortie was made good in defiance of all opposition, and the electors were safely escorted to Dunfermline, which was still in a state of great excitement.

Next morning—16th of June—the day fixed upon for choosing a commissioner for the burgh, the councillors in the interest of Colonel Johnstone assembled early in the Council-Room, and were "waiting with patience," as they expressed it, till the hour appointed for proceeding with the election, when, to their astonishment, William Wemyss, Esq., of Cuttlehill, followed by Alexander Law, messenger-at-arms, and assistants, entered with a warrant to apprehend the councillors who had been at Kinghorn, on the ground that several individuals engaged in the late affray were not expected to recover from their injuries. Six members of Council, including Mr. Hutton, were accordingly hurried away to Inverkeithing, and there committed to durance in the common jail.

The rest of the councillors having assembled at the hour of meeting, it was proposed by Mr. John Wilson, that before proceeding to business Mr. James Gibson, W.S. (now Sir James Gibson-Craig, Bart., of Riccarton), should be " brought in to assist the Council with his advice at this election, in order that it may be conducted in a regular manner, and all the necessary forms be observed." This motion was seconded by Bailie James Hunt, and carried by a majority of nine to six.

Mr. Andrew Adie then moved " that no election of a delegate for the burgh can take place on account of Provost Moodie, and other five of the Council, having been carried off by an illegal and improper warrant; and therefore insisted that Mr. James Home, W.S., be brought into Council to take a protest on that head; and that no procedure whatever can take place until these Councillors are returned to Council." This was seconded by Mr. James Cowper, but negatived by nine votes to six.

Mr. Adie and five other members now left the Council-Boom, and the remaining nine unanimously elected Mr. Wemyss, of Cuttlehill, as their Commissioner to vote at the ensuing election.

Thus Sir John Henderson's party were triumphant. A desperate effort, however, was made by his opponents to regain the fortunes of the day. Proceeding on foot (tor want of a conveyance) to Cramond Bridge, Mr. Williamson, advocate (afterwards Lord Balgray), drove from thence to Edinburgh, where he obtained an order, on lodging the requisite security for the release of the imprisoned electors ; and on the return of the party from Inverkeithing, late at night, the Provost immediately summoned a second meeting of the Council, which of course was attended only by those in the interest of Colonel Johnstone. The following is the final portion of the minutes ;—

"After taking the oaths of allegiance, etc. [according to the usual form, which we omit] , the Council being then duly constituted, and all the members legally qualified, and the roll being called for the choice of their Delegate or Commissioner, They did, and hereby do, unanimously elect and make choice of the foresaid Provost James Moodie to be their Commissioner or Delegate for them, and in their name to meet and convene at the Burgh of Inverkeithing, being the presiding Burgh of the district for the time, upon Monday, the 20th day of June current."

And now for the sequel to the "Battle of Kinghorn." At the election, which took place on the 20th June, 179G, the Hon. Andrew Cochrane Johnstone was returned member for the Inverkeithing district of burghs, but not without a protest on the part of Sir John Henderson, Bart., the defeated candidate. In a petition presented to to the House of Commons, the latter complained that the elections of the delegates for Stirling, Culross, and Queensferry, the three burghs opposed to him, " were all and each of them brought about by undue means, made by unqualified persons ; were illegal, and contrary to the statutes made and provided for regulating the elections of commissioners, or delegates; and because the commissions pretended to be given to the said persons severally were also illegal, informal, and essentially defective ; and that the majority of legal votes at the said election were in favour of the petitioner."

The delegate for Dunfermline voted for Sir John; and, as the petitioner had himself been the Commissioner for Inverkeithing (the returning burgh), Sir John very naturally voted for Sir John. Thus two votes were in favour and three against him; but if successful in striking off oue of the latter, the casting-vote secured his election. The petition was ordered to be taken into consideration ; and on the 17th March, 1797, a Select Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to "try and determine the merits of the said petition." The Hon. Chas. James Fox was nominated by the counsel for the petitioner, and William Grant, Esq., by that of the sitting member. Bryan Edwards, author of the "History of the West Indies," was elected chairman.

Among other parties summoned before the Select Committee were the Town-Clerk of Kinghorn, and Lucky Skinner. We are unable to gratify our readers with a report of the evidence, or even an outline of the curious facts obtained in the course of the investigation ; but it is well known that the wary hostess came off with flying colours. The information sought to be elicited from Mrs. Skinner, of course, related chiefly to the jollifications of the electors, as to what extent they had been entertained, and by whom the expenses had been paid. Sir James Mackintosh, who was on the Committee, was the first to interrogate her. After the usual queries as to name and residence, he proceeded—

"You keep an inn in Kinghorn?"—"No, sir," was the reply.

"A tavern?"—"No, sir."

"What, then—a public-house, or place of entertainment, it must be?"—"Nane o' the twa o' them," replied Lucky Skinner—chuckling at the idea of having taxed the ingenuity of her learned countryman; "for weel rnicht ye ken that in Scotland it's the man and no the woman that keeps the house."

Seeing how her humour went, Fox thought he would have better success; and being very anxious to ascertain the amount of the election dinner bills, he began in a round-about way to quiz her on the subject:—

"Had Mr. Skinner sometimes particularly good dinners in his house?"—"Not sometimes, but always, to those who could pay for them."

"Had you a particular good dinner for the Dunfermline party?"— "Very good; an' they needed it—for the gentlemen had come far to be out o' the way o' being pestered."

"What might a dinner cost for a party at the inn kept by Mr. Skinner?"—"Whiles mair an' whiles less—just according to circumstances," was the cautious answer.

"Well, well; but can't you tell what the entertainment cost on the occasion referred to?"—"Indeed, sir, it's no the custom for gentlemen in our quarter to ask the price o' a dinner, unless they mean to pay for't!"

"Come, now, say what was the amount of the bill?"—"Indeed, sir, I wonder to hear a gentleman o' your sense expect me to ken, or be able to tell sic a piece o' my husband's business—Eli fy ! "

The examination of Lucky Skinner, which was brought to a termination without eliciting anything of consequence, afforded much merriment to all parties; and having so shrewedly evaded the queries put to her by the members of the Select Committee, she no doubt claimed a due share of the honour acquired in the triumph of her party. The Committee gave in their report to the House of Commons on the 30th of March, 1797, finding that the Hon. Andrew Cochrane Johnstone was duly elected ; but that the petition of Sir John Henderson was net "frivolous or vexatious."

For many years after this memorable contest, the fame of Lucky Skinner's journey to London, and the admirable manner in which she baffled the learned members of the Committee, brought numerous visitors to her house. She had the knack of setting off her narrative to the greatest advantage; and since the days of Patie Birnie, the famous fiddler, and Johnnie Stocks, the dwarf, who used to entertain the passengers detained at the ferry—the one with his music, and the other by dancing among the punch-bowls and glasses on the table— all as related by the author of "The Gentle Shepherd"—the royal burgh of Kinghorn has had nothing so attractive as the stories of the redoubted Lucky Skinner.


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