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
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
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
wasIs 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
"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
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
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