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Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
Lady Hungry and the Kain Hens


YOU CAN SEE HER PORTRAIT TO-DAY IN the Earl's castle at Oxenford down by. She is dressed in a Diana Vernon costume, frilled at the neck and wrists, and with one hand she supports her shrewd, long-nosed, Scots face, while with the other she caresses the head of a favourite dog. But it is generations now since the sound of her horse's hoofs clattered along the main road past the village of Fairshiels.

It was on a snell March day of the year 1760 that young John Dalrymple rode quietly up from Oxenford to Hamilton Hall, to see his Cousin Elizabeth, only child and heiress of Thomas Hamilton of Fala. As he walked his horse up the avenue to the old square hall with the pleasant garden and the famous yew hedges, he looked, for all the world, like a gay young blood who found the time hanging heavily on his hands. But whether Cousin Bess met him in the garden or in the avenue, or gave him a lover's welcome in the tapestry-draped parlour, we shall never know. It is all one now. But certain it is that when next John Dalrymple was seen he was riding his horse at a furious gallop down the road for Oxenford, with Cousin Bess sitting on the pillion beside him. That very day they were married in the Beech-tree Knowe Wood, near by the place where the old house of Cranstoun once stood, and the parish minister tied the knot.

The runaway match was a nine-days' wonder. The country folks were all agape at the news. The gentry franked letters to one another with this latest tit-bit of gossip, putting it demurely thus, as Charles Brown did to an acquaintance: "Your friend, John Dalrymple younger of Cousland, was married on Thursday to his cousin Miss Hamilton, heiress of Fala and Oxfoord, but without her father's consent."

But hereaway thereaway, the thing was done, and Bess Dalrymple,as she now was, had wedded her true love as many another has done before and since, taking her luck in her own hands. She had got her way in this, as she got it in most things afterwards. For she was the wise woman and the magerful to the end.

Those were the days when every Scots laird and his lady lived in close relationship with their tenants and neighbours, The girnel and the dovecote, the poultry run and the spinning wheel, were all under the eye of the laird's lady; and while Sir John soon settled down to reading and writing in his bookroom, Lady Bess took the affairs of the place into her grippy hands, and ruled her retinue with a rod of iron. It was a fine ploy, doubtless, for Sir John to be writing the Memoirs of Great Britain and Ire/and, and confounding both Lord Russel and Algernon Sydney at his desk in-by. But, out-by, Lady Bess was busy with her cockerels and eerocks, and looking to the contents of the grain girnel and cowhouse. The spinning wheel was never idle when she was at home, and every bonnet laird and lease-holder about the place knew well the nip of Lady Betty's tongue. To this very day the old folks relate traditions of the laird's lady as a resourceful, original, frugal mistress, who took her own way of wringing the uttermost farthing out of her literary husband's tenantry.

To the generality of folk she was known as Lady Bess, but among the farmers and their wives as they trudged along the country roads to Oxenford on a rent day, she was spoken of as Lady Hungry. Well for her that her good man, the unobtrusive laird, was for ever seeping his brains in reflections and scholarly lore, for it left her free to domineer over the house and lands of Oxenford.

In the eighteenth century, part of the rent of every Scots farm was paid in kind. Money was scarce, and produce often took the place of siller. A very common way of making good what was owing to the laird was for each tenant farmer's wife to bring so many kain hens. The kain hens had to be produced alive. So it was a common sight in country places at term time to see a douce-like woman labouring along the road for miles to the laird's place with a whole circle of living hens hanging head downwards from her muckle waistband, and carrying a bairnie in her arms. The wee one would crow with delight when the hens began to cackle. But great was the mother's chagrin when one of the kain hens managed to break away. Then began for her, who was both fowl-begirdled and baby-burdened, a droll hen-hunt. If the fowls were only chickens, then two were demanded in place of a full-grown hen, and one of the standing bickers betwixt a laird's lady and a hen-wife on rent day was—Is it a hen or only an eerock? And the old folk have it that Lady Hungry was never cheated, but got a hen for every day in the year.

The laird's dovecote, too, was her especial care. For the stone dovecote in the park, with its high gable end and one-sided roof, was the domestic larder of every great Scots house. Hundreds of pigeons flew in and out and rested themselves on the pete stones of the roof. Indeed, these step gables, which are such a feature of ancient Scots architecture, had their origin in this same love of pigeon-breeding for the laird's dinner-table. For the step stones were placed on purpose on the gable ends of Scots houses that the pigeons might have plenty of resting-places when they came home weary with flight. Pigeon pie was a common dish at country folk's tables. But so great damage did the lairds doos work on the tenant farmer's crops, feeding themselves for the laird's benefit on the golden grain at harvest time, that in later times a law was passed forbidding even a laird to keep a full dovecote.

But Lady Hungry was a law unto herself, as she sat receiving rent in grain or siller, in cockerels or eerocks. Her eye was gleg and her tongue was nippy. But to the just, though never generous, she was always fair.

One rent day, a farmer, who was overly near and had cheated the laird on a former occasion, came forward to pay his rent. Lady Hungry eyed him with silent wrath, and calmly held out her hand for the money. When she had received the rent in full, she slipped it into the money bag without making any more ado. Then she went on taking the other rents, writing out a receipt for each tenant as he paid, but entirely overlooking the miserly farmer, who stood waiting impatiently among the crowd of countrymen, wondering why he had got no receipt.

"John," said Lady Hungry, "what are you waiting for? Pay your rent like the lave and be gone."

"My leddy, I hae paid ye the rent." "Then where's your receipt?" And she held out her hand without another word. The man protested, but the evidence was all against him.

"Aweel, John, if your rent's no' paid this verra nicht, the Byres will be set to another."

And the rent was paid a second time before the darkening.

But it is ill to get the better of a miser. So when next rent day came round, John was there. Keeping well in mind how sorely he had been bitten, he threeped that he would not pay over his money this time before he had been given a receipt.

"Bide a wee, John," said Lady Hungry, "and let me see the siller before I write the receipt."

John held out a bunch of notes, and with a smile Lady Hungry passed over the receipt to him.

"Aweel, my leddy, noo that I hae gotten the receipt, yon dooble payment o' last year will dae brawly for this year as weel, seein' I hae juist this year o' my tack to run. Guid-day, my leddy."

And that lease was never renewed.

But Sandy Pendreigh, the Pathhead joiner, fared even worse than John of the Byres. He had done some work at the Castle, and came down to receive payment of his account. The man had not the decency to shave himself, and was in a very disjacket condition. This angered her pernickety ladyship, and she refused on the spot to pay him the money.

She made a bargain, however, with Sandy. For, with a knowing smile, she promised to salute him on the cheek exactly as she did the laird if he would be content with that. Poor Sandy was delighted with the proposal, and, thinking to receive much pleasure, a-greed. Presently, he found himself pinned down on a chair by a servant, a towel was tied about his neck, while my Lady Maksiccar calmly proceeded to shave him close and clean.

"Now," said she when it was all over, "I serve nae man for nought. Ye maun pay me weel for shaving ye. So tak' back your account. We're quits, Sandy, my man."

It was to this same Lady Hungry's Castle of Oxen-ford that Samuel Johnson, the great Lexicographer, was invited to dine with the neighbouring gentry one Saturday night of the year 1772. It was to be the last place of stay before setting out for London again after the famous tour. But Boswell resolved that the great man should pay a visit to Roslinand Hawthornden on the way out. Had not Ben Jonson visited the learned Drummondat Hawthornden long, long ago? So must Sam Johnson stand on the same spot.

So they rumbled out to Hawthornden from Edinburgh, and became so lost in talk of Drummond's poetry that they were still many miles from Oxenford when the night fell. Yet, for this feast Lady Hungry had killed a seven-year-old sheep! The company were wearied with waiting, the dinner was waesomely spoiled, and Sir John was out of all humour when the two truant guests arrived.

But what of the temper and the tongue of Lady Elizabeth? Even Boswell had not courage to describe the scene when their siccar hostess, who had wasted a seven-year-old sheep on them, received them. So he wisely added this weighty word to his journal that night: "Our conversation was not brilliant."

Whether it was their own ill-conduct or the rebuke of the caustic lady that made them uneasy in the great rooms of Oxenford, the pair of them left the house before their stay was out, and with the poor excuse of readier convenience went on to an inn a few miles farther up the road. There, Scotland saw the last of Samuel Johnson. For, after one night's sojourn in this roadside change-house, he set out for London next morning in the Royal Mail coach and four.

But that is an old Scots song which was ended long ago. For Sir John and his good wife Lady Bess have been sleeping side by side these eighty years in Cranstoun kirkyard near to the very Beech Knowe Wood where, on the snell March day so long ago, they were married by a pawkie minister with a steaming horse standing close by.


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