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Significant Scots
Tom Speedy


Sportsman and Naturalist

I HERE is no more interesting part of the Border country than that through which the Tweed flows for the last few miles of its Course, ere it is swallowed up by the North Sea. Here are found such famous names in Border story as Flodden, Coldstream, Twizel, Norham, and, Anally, Berwick. The whole district is crowded with traditions of raid and strife and disaster. From the days of Edward I. and the elder Bruce to those of James VI., a period of fully three hundred years, this was the region where kings and nobles repeatedly met in conference or armies joined in conflict, and where the fortunes of Scotland were often fixed. Lynx-eyed men looked out on both sides of the line which divided the two kingdoms, ready to Spring at each other’s throuts on the slightest provocation. The descendants of such a race could not help being patriots, their hearts filled with an intense love for their native land, and their minds imbued with a manly independence.

It was amid such surroundings that the subject of this biographical sketch was born, on the 19th of February, 1846. His father, James Speedy, was employed on the estate of Ladykirk, living that obscure yet honest and upright life out of which so many have stepped into the sunshine of wider recognition, and even into fame itself. Tom was the second youngest of a family of seven—three sons and four daughters—of whom only a daughter and himself survive. He was sent in due course to the parish school, then taught by Mr Joseph Thomson—a stern dominie of the old school, with many of the features depicted by Goldsmith as characterising the schoolmaster of “Sweet Auburn.” For this strict disciplinarian, however, Tom ever had the greatest respect, and when “Sport in the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland” was first published, a copy was duly sent to Joseph Thomson, with the inscription, “From his mischievous old pupil."

School days with Tom, however, were few, for at the early age of ten he was already working in the fields, and soon thereafter became kennel-boy on the estate of the late Lord Marjoribanks, at Ladykirk. The open-air life of a lad curious regarding the ways of bird and beast and fish is a very pleasant and enviable one. He writes thus regarding himself at this early period: “The habits of the birds and beasts that peopled tle> district were to me subjects of intense interest. Inheriting the hunting spirit of my ancestors, to engage in a badger, a fox, or an otter hunt was in my boyish imagination the chief end of man.” It was now that the foundations were laid of that intimate knowledge of Natural History which is so eminently characteristic of Tom Speedy, and which will afterwards be referred to more fully.

From kennel-boy to under-keeper was a long step, and this was achieved about the age of seventeen. In his new capacity the young sportsman, as he may already be considered, travelled for some years with “the old laird” to various places in England and Scotland in the interests of sport. In the last year of this congenial life—in 1867—some months were spent at Struy, in Strathglass, Inverness-shire, and here several close friendships were formed, some of which remain to the present day, notably that with Dougall Campbell, now’ the veteran stalker in Strathconan Forest.

The experience thus gained was soon to be put to good account. In this widened sphere of observation everything likely to be of futr ure use was stored up in a very retentive memory ; and it is impossible to over-estimate the advantages which were secured at this formative period of his life. The way was being prepared for the next important step, which involved leaving the Borderland, and his be-loved Ladykirk. As already observed, there is much to engage the interest of every Borderer, or indeed of every true-born Soot, in that stretch of country which has Ladykirk for its centre and the Tweed for its boundary. Here, at the ancient village of Upsetlington, on May 10, 1291, King Edward I. decided that question of succession which made Baliol a feudatory of England, but which ended at Bannockburn in the regaining of Scottish independence. At the head of the island in the river, which is Scottish ground, is a ford where James IV. was nearly carried away, and where he made the vow that issued in the building of Lady Kirk—the kirk afterwards giving the name to the village, as in so many cases. This was in the year 1500, and the venerable edifice is still used as the parish church. The picturesque wooden bridge which formerly spanned the Tweed here is yet remembered by the older inhabitants of the parish, though a solid stone structure has for a number of years taken its place. The whole scene, again, is dominated by “Norham’s castled steep,” which rises on the opposite or southern bank of the Tweed,—“so close that a stone might have been pitched from England into Scotland by a catapult on the battlement.”

So much for the surroundings and traditions of Ladykirk. All this had now to be left behind, but what was then so dear has never been effaced from memory. In 1868, at the *ge of twenty-two, Tom Speedy came to The Inch, Liberton, near Edinburgh, as gamekeeper to that well-known sportsman, the late Ur Little Gilmour of Craigmillar. In this •capacity he travelled over large portions of Scotland and England, in grouse-driving and other species of sport. His stores of information regarding Natural History were now greatly increased; and his love of reading could also more easily be gratified than in the comparative seclusion of his native village. Liberton is quite near the Scottish capital, and during the long winter evenings especially there were many opportunities for study, which were fully taken advantage of. At this period he also joined the Liberton Literary and Debating Society. Many a young man has been greatly helped, and had his faculties quickened, by connecting himself with such a society, and this was a notable instance. Here our young debater and essayist gained a readiness of address and a facility with the pen which have frequently stood him in good stead, and helped to make his abilities known far and wide. Among the first fruits of this training was the production of a volume, published in 1884, entitled “Sport in the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland with Rod and Gun.” This volume was very appropriately dedicated to Mr Little Gilmour, “whose excellence as a sportsman is well known, and in whose service most of the information contained in the following pages has been acquired.” Tom was greatly attached to his master, a man of a most kind and retiring disposition, known amongst his friends by the name of “Gentle,” and this dedication was very gratifying to him. He whs as much a friend as a master, and his memory Tom has never ceased to cherish with feelings of admiration and respect. In two years after its first appearance a second ^edition of “Sport in the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland” was called for; and it is only the pressure of other duties which has up to this time delayed the issue of another and still more complete edition.

With advancing years Mr Little Gilmour became unable to continue his sporting habits, and a gamekeeper being no longer so much needed, Mr Speedy was advanced to the position of local factor on the Craigmillar estate— a position he still holds under Mr Little Gilmour’s successor, Colonel Gordon Gilmour.

In 1884 the Edinburgh Architectural Association paid a visit to Craigmillar Castle, and reported on the dilapidated condition of the building, particularly the roof. Mr Little Gilmour at once took steps to have this state of matters remedied, and the Castle was at length put into excellent repair, after an expenditure of considerable labour and money. The public-spirited proprietor died in 1887, but shortly before his death he had the satisfaction of seeing this work brought to a successful termination. As local factor on the estate, Mr Speedy carefully watched all the operations; and his interest in the ancient pile resulted ultimately in the production of a beautiful quarto volume, profusely illustrated, entitled “Craigmillar and its Environs, with Notices of the Topography, Natural History, and Antiquities of the District.” This work was published in 1892 ; and so favourably was it received that the idea occurred to its author of using it as the groundwork of a guide-book. Many tourists, especially from America, visit this historic place every summer, attracted bv its connection with Mary Queen of Scots, and few neglect to carry away with them a copy of this most interesting guide-book, now in its second edition. It should here be added that a copy of the original quarto volume, handsomely bound in boards made from the wood of Queen Mary’s Sycamore or Plane-tree growing at the hamlet of Little France, near the Castle, was sent to, and graciously accepted by, her late Majesty, Queen Victoria.

Mr Speedy’s contributions to the daily press have been very numerous. Besides communications to “The Field” and “Land and Water,” he has written many letters pud articles to ‘The Scotsman” and other newspapers on Natural History subjects. He has also contributed to “Blackwood’s Magazine.” In all matters of controversy, or where there are differences of opinion, it is generally the case that, when the subject is one which has come under his personal knowledge or observation, Mr Speedv’s verdict is accepted as final. No statement is ever advanced by him for the truth of which he cannot vouch; and no theory is ever promidgated without careful investigation and scientific experiment. It is too much, the fashion for some naturalists to hand on the opinions of others, without nnv attempt at verification, and with little or no cognisance of the matter in dispute. In one of his papers, Mr Speedy writes in this connection: “I know no subject upon which more nonsense is apt to be written than that of Natural History. Let a man once get it into his head that he is a naturalist, and he seems to regard himself as licensed to revel in nonsensical speculation and superstitious folly.” Only one of wide experience and accurate observation would dare to-write in this manner. As an example of Mr Speedy’s careful accuracy, the following incident may be related. In the celebrated Ardlamont case, where he was retained for the defence, the theory of the Crown was that the fatal shot has been fired from a distance of at least nine feet. Mr Speedy, on the other hand, held that the muzzle of the weapon must have been within two feet of the victim. His reason for this assertion was, that no stray pellets were found in Hambrough’s head, as there must have been if the shot had been fired at such a distance as nine feet. The Crown witnesses also held that at two feet the hair would have been singed. With the ordinary black powder, at such a short distance, this would doubtless have been the result: but the powder in question was that known as Amberite, then come newly into use ; and in order to prove that at two feet this powder would leave no mark, Mr Speedy tried a shot through his wife’s hair, and so proved his contention. When some one asked him afterwards if he wras not afraid to do such a thing, the dry rejoinder was made, “I wouldn’t have let you do it.”

For a number of years Tom Speedy has been a member of the Edinburgh Field Naturalists’ and Microscopical Society, and during that time has contributed numerous articles to the “Transactions” of the Society. These have been on various topics connected with Natural History, as “The Hare,” “The* Rook,” “The Mice Plague,” “The Squirrel", “The Hedgehog,” “The Badger,” “The Grouse Disease,” “Stoats and Weasels,” “How I robbed the Eagle’s Nest, and Why,” “Do trout purify or pollute water?” &c. It is rather cause for regret that these most interesting and valuable papers are accessible only to a few; perhaps in the near future a selection may be made from them for separate publication.

Mr Speedy has on several occasions been called upon to give evidence before Committees in the House of Lords and the House of Commons; he has also acted as referee in numerous sporting disputes and reference cases. He is likewise much in demand in advising gentlemen in regard to purchasing estates. He is a splendid raconteur, and having mingled so much with different ranks and classes of society, his mind is stored with incidents relating to men and things. His boyish interest in animals of all kinds has naturally grown with the years. At home, in and around his cottage at Liberton, lie has kept many pet creatures, whose habits it has been to him a delight to watch. Prominent among these have been eagles, ravens, tawny owls, barn owls, long-eared owls, short-eared owls, jackdaws, kingfishers, foxes, badgers, squirrels, stoats, weasels, mountain hares, rats, voles, &c.

During his long residence at Liberton, Mr Speedy’s uprightness, generosity, and loyalty to his friends have ever been prominent characteristics. He is held in high esteem by all who know him, but especially amongst the poor. Ever ready to extend a helping hand in deserving cases, where a family is overtaken by illness or death assistance is promptly rendered. Calling on the well-to-do in the district, and explaining the circumstances of any needful case, always results in his receiving the necessary funds. To use the words of a liberal subscriber in a recent sad case, “This is practical Christianity." For this leal son of the Border we wish many more years of usefulness and prosperity.


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