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 fellowsfond of merrimenb and good cheerwho
"Wisely thought it better far,
To fall in banquet than in war."
The annual return of councillorsalways 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, chosenone for each burghby 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-ClerkMr. John
Hutton, originally from Dunfermline ; and the hostess of the principal
innJohanna 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
'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 bodyincluding
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
extendedreaching from the sea at Hochmatoch to the Gulletbridge at the
Lake, and from the Lake to the Well of Spaw, near Pettycur harbourno
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 bottlea 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-stairformed 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 availablesave two pistols supplied by a tailor of the name of
George Darneywere as likely to prove destructive to the possessor as
the enemy. Maugre all disadvantages, however, a formidable band was
ultimately marshalledthose 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
Next morning16th of Junethe 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
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
"You keep an inn in Kinghorn?""No, sir," was the
"A tavern?""No, sir."
"What, thena public-house, or place of
entertainment, it must be?""Nane o' the twa o' them," replied Lucky
Skinnerchuckling 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
"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 itfor 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 lessjust 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 businessEli
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
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 ferrythe 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
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