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Old World Scotland
Chapter XV. Squalor


AT one time there was probably very little to choose between Scots and English in the matter of filthiness and general insanitation. In all verity the fastidious sensibilities of the scornful Howell—who published in 1639 his "Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland "seem to have been grievously shocked by their experience of so "stinking a town as Edinburgh"; but not so long before the southern capital might fairly have vied with Edinburgh in potency and variety of odour. It is certain, indeed, that even in the palmy times of her uncleanliness the latter city never boasted such an artery of putrefaction as the Fleet River, whose effluvia did so clog the neighbouring airs as to assimilate the incense burnt at the adjacent altars. In Howell's time (and chiefly under the auspices of King James, born, as he states, "in stinking Edinburgh'') a good deal had been done for the sanitation of London by the construction of main sewers; but not more than three years before the publication of Howell's satire on the Scots—and in simple deference to the plague of 1636—had the noisome Fleet been bridged and covered in; and for more than a century after--as is sufficiently attested by her astounding bills of mortality, London remained a whited sepulchre. But besides endeavouring to cleanse the outside of the cup and platter, she gave abundant evidence of a desire to effect a remedy, however unable from lack of practical skill to do so. Now, Edina ("Scotia's darling seat"), so far from manifesting any anxiety to be rid of her stenches, became seemingly only more fondly attached to them as time went by; and by the middle of the seventeenth century her advance in cleanliness had only been an advance backwards. Her magistrates bore a bad repute for their scandalous neglect of her amenities. More than a century before Howell and his "Perfect Description," Dunbar, in his "Address to the Merchants of Edinburgh," had inveighed in no measured terms against the hideous and universal squalor of her streets. Of London he had sung thus :-

But this is how he pictures his native capital:-

And even if his rebukes did for a moment pierce the hides of municipal self-cornp1aceicy and sloth, it is probable that with the other achievements of his robust and admirable muse they passed into oblivion at the Reformation, and at any rate they failed to produce any lasting salutary effect. To such a hideous pass were matters presently come that in March, 1619, the Scottish Privy Council found it necessary to represent to the magistrates that "the city is now become so filthy and unclean, the streets, the vennels, the wynds, and the closes thereof so overlaid and covered with middings and with the filth of man and beast, as that the noble councillors, servants, and others of his Majesty's subjects who are lodged in the burgh cannot have clean or clear passage and entry to their lodgings"; and they further give them candidly to know that "this shameful and beastly filthiness is most detestable and odious in the sight of strangers, who, beholding the swine, are constrained with reason to give out many disagreeable speeches against this burgh, calling it a puddle of filth and uncleanness the like of which is not to be seen in any part of the world." So that Howell was not by any means the first to indulge in "disgraceful speeches " against the birthplace of King James. Nor, if the condition of Edinburgh was even half as vile as it is painted in this Act of the Scottish Privy Council, is there any reason to deprecate his satire. indeed there is evidence even to excess that the Scottish capital, as well as other Scottish burghs, maintained an equal disregard of the amenities beyond the close of the seventeenth century. Even after much amendment had taken place as regards the removal of middens and other permanent centres of putrefaction, it was very slowly and painfully that her citizens, notwithstanding the repeated interference of authority, were weaned from the immemorial custom of paying their nightly orisons to the divinities of the midden by discharging the daily accumulations of filth from their windows into the streets.

Without doubt this peculiar reluctance of the Scot—even him of the "Modern Athens"—to part with his ancient habit of uncleanliness is traceable in no small degree to the special bent of his religion at the Reformation. It was said from of old that cleanliness is next to godliness but if Scottish Puritanism be the highest possible form of godliness on earth, then cleanliness and godliness were incompatible for centuries. That rage of iconoclasm which was a special note in Scottish Reformation zeal was in great part composed of a frenzy against beauty and art. Cleanliness, if not promotive of godliness, is certainly necessary to the realisation of beauty, so that the Scottish reformer was almost necessarily prepossessed in its disfavour. At least squalor and dirt were thoroughly antigonistic to adornment and "formosity." Possibly the very fact that they were disagreeable was reckoned rather a recommendation than not. That they entailed any evil consequences, whether physical or moral, was opposed to the general tenor of Knox's teaching and the teaching of Knox's disciples. Nay, the pest which had scourged the land for centuries they were so far from regarding as a result of her shameless uncleanliness, that they especially described it as God's judgment upon sins of an entirely different character, and Knox himself assumed the right to prophesy it upon the enemies of the Kirk as one of his peculiar prerogatives. The endeavours of the secular power to induce the adoption of cleanlier habits in the towns and burghs were frequent enough; but, comprehensive as was the authority claimed by the Kirk over manners and morals, she never indicated the smallest discontent with the national vice of squalor. In the secular statute-book of Scotland there is at least one Act (1424) against the wearing of "ragged clothes"; but, while "excess in apparel " is specially designated in ''The First Book of Discipline" as one of the sins which "do properly appertain to the Church of God to punish the same as God's Word commandeth," a significant silence is maintained as to unkemptness and unwashedness, and even as to deficiency in clothing. It is even possible that the assemblage of a whole congregation in "harn gowns" would have rejoiced the preacher as a peculiar token of the operation of grace, for personal adornment was persistently discouraged by the Kirk. So that, however great may he the debt of Scotland to Knox, and however beneficial to her may in some respects have been his influence, it is to be feared that by the guidance alone of him or his disciples she would never have obtained deliverance from the slough of her uncleanliness.


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