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Old World Scotland
Chapter X. Beggars


WHILE James I. of Scotland on the one hand took active and vigorous measures for the repression of sorning and every other form of mendicity on the part of all that were able to work for their living, on the other lie introduced regulations which conferred on mendicity a repute to which it could not before pretend. True it is that from time immemorial pilgrims had been in the habit of living on the alms of the faithful, and that the Church, too, recognised an order of mendicant friars. But these eases were anomalous and peculiar both friars and pilgrims chose the life upon religious grounds. That of beggar students and candidates for the ministry was not dissimilar for these, too, had chosen what was regarded as a high, unworldly vocation, and to entertain them as guests was generally regarded as an honour and a privilege. But by the Act of 1424 general mendicancy—only tolerated till then—was recognised in the case of qualified persons as a lawful and laudable profession. Virtually the Act permitted all not between the ages of fourteen and seventy to beg in town and country; and, moreover, it instituted, under the countenance and patronage of the local authorities, an order of beggarhood for such as from physical or mental defects were unable to earn a living by any other means. Such persons might be enrolled on application in Landward districts to the sheriffs and in towns to the baillies. The most patent and irrefragable qualification was blindness, but the claims of lameness, if complete enough, and of of half-wittedness, if sufficiently decided, were readily acknowledged; those who passed the test receiving a gaberlunzie, or beggar's badge, which conferred the license to ask alms of all and sundry, and the privilege of pursuing their calling not only without molestation but with every prospect of success. Possibly at first comparatively few found it necessary to take advantage of the Act, for in Edinburgh at least tokens do not appear to have been issued to beggars till 1502, and then only to prevent the increase of pestilence by the influx of strangers. After the Reformation the distribution of gaberlunzies was undertaken by the Kirk-sessions which generally made it a sine qud non that the receiver should be a communicant and as by a clause in the Act of 1424 it was charged that all non-licensed beggars should work for their bread or be burned in the cheek and banished the kingdom, the result was that the Kirk not only invited but compelled into her fold all "the halt the lame and the blind."

In addition to the order thus established throughout the kingdom, the king and (probably in emulation of the royal example) many of the nobles extended authority and countenance to a special body of beggars called bedesmen. The king's bedesmen were as many in number as the king was years old; every Maundy Thursday they assembled in his presence, when their feet were washed by his own royal hands, and they received a new outfit for the year, including a blue gown, a wooden cup and platter, a leathern purse, as many pennies or shillings Scots as he was years old, and a pewter badge with the words "Pass and Repass"; they were the aristocracy, the high dignitaries, of the craft; their career, while much less toilsome and anxious, was probably much more lucrative than of most in the learned professions and no doubt the rank and file of beggardom, recognising the honour and glory thus shed upon their calling, regarded the possessors of its prizes with the mingled envy and admiration customary in other professions. And as the calling, being thus explicitly recognised as honourable, must certainly have included many very worthy and honest suppliants—many persons held in general respect—the community seems on its part to have co-operated with the very spirit of the law, and to have ministered to the needs of legalised mendicants Witl1 ungrudging cordiality and cheerfulness. This may be inferred even from such pieces of poetical satire as "The Gaberlunzie Man'' and the "Jollie Beggar." The "panky auld earle" who "cam o'er the lea" was ensconced in a comfortable " place ayont the ingle," where he "cadgily ranted and sang," and so thoroughly established himself in the good graces of the daughter of the house that she fled with him ere morning; while the punctiliousness of the Jollie Beggar in the selection of a bedroom appears to indicate that a certain choice as to quarters—humble though they were—was both claimed and allowed.

The institution of a licensed order of mendicancy seems to have been necessitated by the Church's neglect of her duties to the poor. In "The Dream" Sir David Lindsay makes the misuse by the prelates of the patrimony of Holy Kirk—

"The third to be given to the poor is,
But they dispersed that gear all other gatis
On carts and dice, on harlotry and houris."

one of the causes of their "punition" in hell. Knox, too, wrote a satirical "Beggars Summonds " to the friars to quit the " great hospitalis," which properly belonged to the poor. Dated " Fra the haul Cities, Towns, and Villages of Scotland the Fyrst Day of January, 1558," it was couched in the nanie of " the Blynd, Ci'uked, Wedowis, Orpheilings, and all other Pure, sa viseit. Be the Hand of God as may not worke."

At the Reformation the Kirk adopted various measures of relief which tended to decrease the necessity of begging; but, apart from its gainfulness, the calling had the reconnnendation of independence as well as that peculiar charm which attaches to adventure. By this time, too, the custom had struck so deep that it could not be at once eradicated. Not only so, but in spite of the restrictions that hedged the calling off, it was impossible to restrain the majority of those in difficulties from sharing in its benefits. The severest enactments were passed from time to time against unlicensed mendicancy, but they were practically of no avail. One permitted the detention of strong and masterful beggars as slaves; by another they could be seized and employed in manufactories; a third constrained them to toil in Government mines; provision was made for their chastisement by time special erection of correction houses ; a stricter supervision of the poor was enforced in every parish; an endeavour was made to contrive a better system of police. But mendicancy went on flourishing more lustily than ever, and shortly before the union attained to proportions practically un- manageable. After the union it began to decay; but the professional beggar continued to ply his trade well into the present century, and the order of king's bedesmen was only abolished in 1833.

The national manna was the customary alms, and the "mealpowk" which figures in the poem of The Jollie Beggar" remained the mumper's main equipment through the ages. Seldom did it happen, even when times were hardest, that he went empty away from the poorest door; and in the villages, so late as fifty or sixty years ago, it was still the householder's duty to minister to the blind beggar's needs, and pass him on from neighbour to neighbour until he had made the round of the place. He sold his meal to a dealer, and he was able to fare sumptuously in such haunts as "Poosie Nancie's" on the proceeds. In the country lie was generally certain of a substantial supper in the farmer's kitchen and a comfortable bed of straw in the farmer's byre; and in many districts this tradition of hospitality lingers still. But the picturesque and venerable blue-gown, the carted cripple with his team of (logs, the half-witted ballad-singer in his faded fripperies—all these have long since gone their last rounds and passed from Scottish scenes. Perhaps their absence is no matter for regret; but has the problem of relief for the deserving poor been solved in such a way as makes the extinction of lawful beggary a theme for unmingled congratuulation?


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