Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Scottish Reminincenses
Chapter XIII

Town-life in old times. Dirtiness of the streets. Clubs. Hutton and Black in Edinburgh. A feast of snails. Royal Society Club. Bailies ‘gang lowse.’ Rothesay fifty years ago. James Smith of Jordanhill. Fisher-folk of the Forth. Decay of the Scots language. Receipt for pronouncing English.

Town-life a hundred years ago presented many contrasts to what it is now in Scotland. Means of locomotion being comparatively scanty and also expensive, communication with England was too serious a matter to be undertaken by any but those who had plenty of money or urgent business. And the number of Englishmen who found their way north of the Tweed was correspondingly small. The Scottish towns, too, though connected by lines of road and stage coaches, were far more cut off from each other than they have now become, since they have been linked together by railways. They still to some extent continued to be centres, to which the landed gentry betook themselves for part of the winter. Hence they retained some old-world ways and local peculiarities, which modern intercourse has more or less completely effaced. They were much smaller in size and more compact, for the vast acres of suburban villadom, now surrounding our cities and larger towns, had hardly begun to come into existence. They were likewise so much less populous, that each of them rather resembled an overgrown family, where everybody of special note was known more or less familiarly to the whole community.

There can be little doubt that Scottish towns were once almost incredibly dirty. Drainage, in the modern sense of the word, was unknown. Edinburgh, especially at night, must have been one of the most evil-smelling towns in Europe, when with shouts of ‘ Gardyloo ’ the foul water and garbage of each house were pitched out of the windows. The streets were thus never decently clean, save immediately after a heavy rain had swept the refuse into the central gutter, which then became the channel of a rapid torrent. Laws had indeed been framed against throwing foul water from the windows, and Boswell tells us that in his time the magistrates had taken to enforce them, but that owing to the want of covered drains the odour still continued. When he walked up the Canongate with Johnson, who had just arrived, he could have wished his companion ‘to be without one of his five senses on this occasion;’ for he could not keep the lexicographer from grumbling,

‘I smell you in the dark.’ In Byron’s youth the. same state of things continued, and he could still say tauntingly to Jeffrey,

For thee Edina culls her evening sweets,
And showers their odours on thy candid sheets.

The state of the Edinburgh streets in a snowy winter must have been deplorable. Sydney Smith, writing from the town in 1799, after a thaw, remarked that ‘except the morning after the Flood was over, I should doubt if Edinburgh had ever been dirtier.’ By the time that proper sanitary arrangements came into practice, the well-to-do citizens had forsaken their abodes in the high tenements of the Old Town, and the houses came to be tenanted by a poorer class. Although the nocturnal cascades were prohibited, the refuse was carried down and deposited in the streets. I can remember when these thoroughfares were still disgustingly odoriferous and unsightly, until the dustman had been round with his cart and a perfunctory brush, which seemed never to find its way into the narrow closes.

The domestic habits of the townsmen were in many respects less luxurious and more homely than they are now-a-days, and people saw more of each other in a friendly unostentatious way. Instead of the modern stiff, ceremonious dinner party, receding further and further into the late hours of the evening, there was the simple and often frugal supper, the praises of which have been so enthusiastically recorded by Cockburn. It was customary to ask friends, especially strangers, to breakfast, a usage which still survived in my youth, especially among the University Professors. As already mentioned, long after I had left college, I used to enjoy the breakfasts given by Pillans, and the company he gathered round his table for that meal.

The people of an older generation gave themselves to social intercourse much more freely and simply than we do now. One feature of town-life, formerly conspicuous in Scotland, is now almost gone—the multiplication of convivial clubs. During the seventeenth and the early part of the eighteenth century, every town in the country had its clubs, to which the male inhabitants would adjourn once a week, or even every evening. In the larger towns these gatherings included the most intellectual and well-born members of the community, who met for the discussion of literary, philosophical or scientific topics, as well as for free social companionship. But no doubt in these towns and in the smaller centres of population throughout the country, there were many associations which had no such laudable aims, but fully deserved Butler’s description of them:

The jolly members of a toping club,
Like pipe staves, are but hooped into a tub;
And in a close confederacy link
For nothing else but only to hold drink.

The clubs, whatever might be their object, did not then number in each case hundreds of members, most of them unknown to one another, and frequenting a luxuriously furnished mansion, such as the word club suggests now, but consisted of mere handfuls of men, all knowing each other, and meeting in a tavern. These associations often boasted of jocular names, which referred to their origin or customs. Thus, in Edinburgh, the Antemanum Club was so named from its members declaring their hands of cards before beginning play, or as has been suggested, because they ‘paid their lawing’ before they began to consume the liquor. The Pious Club was so named because it met every night in a pie-house. The Spendthrift Club received its title from its members disbursing as much as fourpence-halfpenny each night. Then there were the Oyster Club, the Dirty Club, the Mirror Club, the Friday Club (so called because they met on Sunday), and many others. Robert Chambers, in his Traditions of Edinburgh, has preserved some interesting reminiscences of these institutions.

Lord Cockburn has left a graphic picture of a scene in his boyhood when he saw the Duke of Buccleuch, with a dozen more of the aristocracy of Midlothian, assembled in the low-roofed room of a wretched ale-house in the country, and spending the evening in roaring, laughing, and rapidly pushing round the claret. As an illustration of the way in which even the most intellectual members of society would forsake their own homes for convivial intercourse in a tavern, the following anecdote may be given. Among the citizens of Edinburgh none were more illustrious than Joseph Black, the discoverer of carbonic acid, and James Hutton, the author of the Theory of the Earth. These two men, who were intimate friends, and took a keen interest in their social meetings, were once deputed by a number of their literary acquaintances to look out for a suitable meeting-place in which they might all assemble once a week. The two philosophers accordingly ‘ sallied out for this purpose, and seeing on the South Bridge a sign with the words, “Stewart, Vintner down stairs,” they immediately went into the house and demanded a sight of their best room, which was accordingly shown to them, and which pleased them much. Without further enquiry the meetings were fixed by them to be held in this house, and the club assembled there during the greater part of the winter, till one evening Dr. Hutton, being rather late, was surprised, when going in, to see a whole bevy of well-dressed but somewhat brazen-faced young ladies brush past him, and take refuge in an adjoining apartment. He then for the first time began to think that all was not right, and communicated his suspicions to the rest of the company. Next morning the notable discovery was made, that our amiable philosophers had introduced their friends to one of the most disreputable houses in the city.’

The record of another incident in the close intercourse of Black and Hutton has been preserved, and may be inserted here. ‘ These attached friends agreed in their opposition to the usual vulgar prejudices, and frequently discoursed together upon the absurdity of many generally received opinions, especially in regard to diet. On one occasion they had a disquisition upon the inconveniency of abstaining from feeding on the testaceous creatures of the land, while those of the sea were considered as delicacies. Snails, for instance—why not use them as articles of food ? They were well known to be nutritious and wholesome—even sanative in some cases. The epicures, in olden time, esteemed as a most delicate treat the snails fed in the marble quarries of Lucca. The Italians still hold them in esteem. The two philosophers, perfectly satisfied that their countrymen were acting most absurdly in not making snails an ordinary article of food, resolved themselves to set an example; and accordingly, having procured a number, caused them, to be stewed for dinner. No guests were invited to the banquet. The snails were in due season served up; but, alas! great is the difference between theory and practice. So far from exciting the appetite, the smoking dish acted in a diametrically opposite manner, and neither party felt much inclination to partake of its contents. Nevertheless, if they looked on the snails with disgust, they retained their awe for each other; so that each, conceiving the symptoms of internal revolt to be peculiar to himself, began with infinite exertion to swallow, in very small quantities, the mess which he internally loathed. Dr. Black at length broke the ice, but in a delicate manner, as if to sound the opinion of his messmate :— “ Doctor,” he said in his precise and quiet manner, “Doctor, do you not think that they taste a little—a very little—queer?” “D- queer! d queer, indeed!—tak’ them awa’, tak’ them awa! ” vociferated Dr. Hutton, starting up from the table, and giving full vent to his feelings of abhorrence.’

The most noted survivor of these old social gatherings in Edinburgh is the ‘ Royal Society Club,’ to which allusion has already been made. This association was founded to promote good fellowship among the fellows of the Royal Society and to ensure a nucleus for the evening meetings. The club has from the beginning been limited in numbers, but has always included the most distinguished and ‘clubbable’ of the fellows. It meets in some hotel on the evenings on which the Society’s meetings are held, and after a pleasant dinner, with talk and songs, its members adjourn in time to take their places in the Society’s hall. When Neaves, Maclagan, Blackie, Christison, and Macnee were present, it will be understood how joyous such gatherings were. Many a good song was written for these occasions, and many an excellent story was told. A favourite ditty by Maclagan, sung by him with great effect, ended with the following verse, which illustrates the delightful mixture of science and fun with which the professor was wont to regale us :

Lyon Playfair last winter took up a whole hour
To prove so much mutton is just so much power;
He might have done all that he did twice as well
By an hour of good feeding in Slaney’s Hotel;
And instead of the tables he hung on the wall,
Have referred to the table in this festive hall;

And as for his facts—have more clearly got at ’em
From us than from Sappers and Miners at Chatham;
Whilst like jolly good souls We emptied our bowls,
And so washed down our grub In a style worth the name,
Wealth, honour, and fame
Of the Royal Society Club.

Dr. Terrot, Bishop of Edinburgh, and Professor Pillans were members of this club. The bishop used to be a pretty constant attendant both at the dinners and at the Society’s meetings afterwards. Pillans, on the other hand, while he came to the dinner, shirked the meeting, the subjects discussed being usually scientific and not especially intelligible or interesting to him. He would say to those who rallied him for his absence, ‘ I enjoy the play [meaning the dinner] very much; but I can’t stand the farce [F.R.S.] that comes after it.’

The change to modern domestic habits, more especially the increasing lateness of the dinner hour, has gradually extinguished most of the social clubs that used to make so prominent a feature in the society of the larger towns of Scotland. An effort was made in Edinburgh some thirty years ago to start a new club at which the literary, artistic, and scientific workers in the city might informally meet and enjoy each other’s company and conversation over a glass of whisky and water, with a pipe, cigar or cigarette. Its • meetings were fixed for Saturday evening, so as to avoid, as far as might be, dinner engagements, which were less frequently fixed for that than for the other evenings of the week. It began with considerable success, and continued for a number of years to be a chief centre of cultivated intercourse. But it too has now gone the way of its predecessors.

The proverbial patriotism of a Scot shows itself not merely in his love of his country. His attachment binds him still more closely to his shire, to his town, or even to his parish. This intense devotion to the natal district could not be more forcibly illustrated than by the remark of an Aberdonian who, in a company of his fellow townsmen met together in Edinburgh, appealed to them by asking, ‘Tak’ awa’ Aberdeen and twal mile round about, an’ faure are ye?’ There are times and places, however, where even the most perfervid Scot, Aberdonian or other, is compelled to be candid. Another native of the granite city, in his first visit to London, was taken into St. Paul’s Cathedral. He gazed around for a few moments in silent astonishment, and at last exclaimed to the friend who accompanied him, ‘ My certy, but this makes a perfect feel (fool) o’ the Kirk o’ Foot Dee.’

Local patriotism was fostered by the multiplication of clubs, even in small towns. But in these places also the advance of the modern spirit seems to have destroyed the old club-life. There remain, however, the trade corporations, or guilds, and the magistracy, which in the old burghs still form centres round which much of the life and human interests of these communities cluster. To be a bailie, still more to attain to the dignity of provost, has long been an object of ambition, even in the most insignificant place, and much scheming and string-pulling continue to be carried on in order to obtain the coveted position :

For never title yet so mean could prove
But there was eke a mind which did that title love.

The old proverb expresses a truth which has been time-out-of-mind exemplified in every burgh in the country: ‘Ance a bailie, aye a bailie; ance a provost, aye My Lord.’ Many anecdotes have been related of the consequential airs assumed by local magnates, who have been as fair game for the caustic remarks of outsiders as even ministers themselves. An English traveller on board of a Clyde steamer, sailing down the firth, got into talk with a native on deck, who good-naturedly pointed out the various places of interest along the coast. When they were passing Largs, the stranger asked some questions about the town.

‘It seems a nice large place. Have they magistrates there?’ ‘Ow ay; they have a provost and bailies at the Lairgs.’ ‘And do these magistrates when they meet wear chains of office, as they do with us in England?’ ‘Chains! no, no, bless your sowl, they aye gang lowse.’

During the last forty years the steamboat traffic down the Clyde has so enormously increased, locomotion is so much easier, cheaper, and more rapid, that the temptation to escape from Glasgow to the pleasant shores of the Firth has grown strong in all classes of society. Villages on the coast have accordingly grown into towns, until an almost continuous row of villas and cottages has grown up on both sides of the estuary. Hence, as the older towns have been invaded and increased by a population from the outside, they have lost most of their former peculiarities. Rothesay furnishes a good illustration of this growth and transformation. I can remember it as a place with an individuality of its own, when everybody might be said to know everybody else. But it has now become almost a kind of marine suburb of Glasgow. When I first came to it, one of its conspicuous inhabitants was known familiarly as 'the Bishop,’ not from any ecclesiastical office which he filled, but on account of his somewhat pompous and consequential manner. He was in many respects a worthy man, glad to take his share in any useful work, and to be on friendly terms with everybody. One of his peculiarities consisted in the misuse of words, and as he had no hesitation about speaking in public, his mistakes often gave great amusement. His daughter had been shipwrecked, and in referring to her experiences he declared her to be a ‘perfect heron, for she was the last man to leave the ship.’ The Free Church congregation at Ascog had been for some time without a pastor. When at last one was chosen, a soiree was held to celebrate the event, and the ‘ Bishop ’ was invited to it. In the speech which he made on the occasion he congratulated the meeting, and expressed the hope that ‘now that they had got a new incumbrance, they would have a long time of prosperity and peace.’

When the parliamentary representation of Bute was contested by Mr. Boyle, afterwards Earl of Glasgow, and Mr. Lamont of Knock-dhu, the ‘ Bishop ’ acted as one of Mr. Lamont’s committee in Rothesay. The ballot had not then come into use, and as the result of the polling in Rothesay, Mr. Lamont at the end of the day obtained a majority of votes. On the other hand, Mr. Boyle had an excess of supporters in Cumbrae. All depended on the result of the voting in Arran, and the arrival of the steamer from that island was anxiously awaited. Mr. Lamont’s committee were sitting in their room when at last the news arrived. The majority in Arran for Mr. Boyle proved to be so. large as to turn the scale, and decide the election in his favour. The silence of disappointment hung for a few moments over the committee. The first man to break it was the ‘ Bishop,’ who consoled his colleagues with these words, ‘ Well, well, what can we say ? what can we say? but that God always overdoes everything.’ He probably meant ‘overrules.’ One of the most familiar objects on the Clyde and in Rothesay Bay fifty years ago was the little sailing yacht of James Smith, of Jordan-hill. During the summer he lived on the water, and took a share in all that was going on around him there. As far back as 1839 he was the first to detect, in the clays along the shores of the Kyles of Bute, remains of Arctic shells which no longer live in our seas, but still flourish in the north of Norway, and in the Arctic ocean. When I made his acquaintance, he had long ceased to carry on original scientific researches, or at least to publish anything new, but he retained his interest in the subjects which had early engaged his attention. In his little cabin he had a shelf of geological and other scientific books as his travelling companions, and kept himself in touch with the progress of enquiry in his own department. But it was in yachting all round the Firth of Clyde and its islands that he found the chief employment and solace of his old age. I shall treasure as long as I live the recollection of him in his yacht, attired as a genuine old seaman, his face ruddy with sun and sea-air, and beaming with the heartiest good nature.

On the east side of the kingdom it has long been noted how tenaciously the fisher folk cling to their old habits and customs. Red-tiled, corby-stepped houses, thrusting their gables into the street, climbing one above another up the steep slope that rises from the beach, and crowned by the picturesque old church or town hall with its quaint spire, give a picturesqueness to the shores of the Forth such as no other part of the coast-line can boast. Then the little harbours with their fleets of strong fishing boats, rich brown sails, ‘hard coils of cordage, swarthy fishing nets,’ and piles of barrels and baskets, bear witness to the staple industry of the inhabitants. The men are square, strongly built, and bronzed with exposure to sea-air. The women may be seen sitting in groups at their doors, mending nets or baiting the lines for next night’s fishing. Such places as St. Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther, Crail, and St. Andrews, afford endless subjects for the artist, whether he selects the buildings or their inhabitants. These places lie outside the main lines of traffic through the country; they have only in recent years been connected together by a line of railway, and have thus been brought into direct touch with the outer world. Thanks to this seclusion, they have preserved their antique character, and their natives are among the most old-fashioned Scots in the lowlands. An anecdote told by Dr. Hanna serves to illustrate the state of backwardness in some of these coast villages. A clergyman, in the course of a marriage ceremony at Buckhaven, repeated several times to the bridegroom the question whether he would promise to be a faithful, loving, and indulgent husband, but got no response from the man, who remained all the while stiff and erect. At last a neighbour, who had learnt a little more of the ways of the world, was so provoked by the clownishness of his friend that he came forward, and giving him a vigorous thump on the back, indignantly exclaimed, ‘Ye brute, can ye no boo to the minister?’ Dr. Chalmers’ comment on this scene was—‘ the heavings of incipient civilisation! ’1 On the south side of the Forth the fishwives of Newhaven, Fisherrow, and Musselburgh have long been famous for their conservatism in the matter of the picturesque costume which they wear. Dunbar, once a busy port, and the centre of an important herring fishery, used to boast a number of queer oddities among its sea-faring population. One of these men would now and then indulge in a prolonged carouse at the public-house. After perhaps a day or two thus spent, he would return to his home, and, standing at the door, would take off one of his large fisherman’s boots, which he would pitch into the house, with the exclamation, ‘Peace or war, Meg?’ If the gooawife still ‘ nursed her wrath to keep it warm,’ she would summarily eject the boot into the street. Whereupon the husband, knowing that this was Meg's signal of war, returned to his cronies. If, on the contrary, the boot was allowed to remain, he might hope for forgiveness, and crept quietly into the house.

Another of these Dunbar worthies had arranged with old Mr. Jeffray, the parish minister, to have his infant baptised at the manse. On the evening fixed he duly made his appearance, but not until after he had fortified himself for the occasion by sundry applications to the whisky bottle. When he stood with the child in his arms, he seemed so unsteady that the minister solemnly addressed him, ‘John, you are not fit to hold up that child.’ The stalwart sailor, thinking his personal prowess called in question, indignantly answered, ‘Haud up the bairn, I could fling’t ower the kirk,’ the church being the loftiest building and most prominent landmark in the burgh.

A fisherman from another hamlet in the same district had found a set of bladders at sea which he claimed as his property. The owner of them, however, sued him for restitution of the property, which bore, in large letters, P.S.M:, the initials of his name and seaport, as proof of his assertion. The East Lothian man, nothing daunted, exclaimed loudly to the presiding bailie, ‘Naething o’ the kind, sir, P. S. stands for Willie Miller, and M. for for the Cove.’

These lowland regions of the Lothians and Fife, with their strips of sand-hills and links along the shore, have for centuries been the headquarters of Golf—a game which has now naturalised itself over the whole civilised globe. Golfing anecdotes are innumerable and form a group by themselves, of which only one or two samples may be culled here.

A landed proprietor and his son were playing at North Berwick when the young man drove a ball close to his father’s head. The observant caddie remarked quietly to him, ‘Ye maunna kill Pa!’ and then after a pause added, ‘ Maybe ye’ll be the eldest son ? ’ Strong language appears to be a natural accompaniment of the game. A laird in trying to get his ball out of a ‘bunker’ swore so dreadfully that his caddie threw down the bundle of clubs on the ground exclaiming,

‘Damn it, sir, I wunna carry clubs for a man that swears like you.’

An English caddie on a links in Kent, who was listening to a discussion among the players as to the proper way of spelling the word 'golf,’ broke into the conversation with the remark, ‘Surely there’s no h’/ in it’ (aspirating the letter in Cockney fashion). ‘ Is there not?’ exclaimed a young Scotswoman, ‘ You should just hear my father on the St. Andrews links.’

A marked and regrettable change has passed and is passing over lowland Scotland—the decay of the old national language—the Doric of Burns and Scott. The local accents, indeed, still remain fairly well-marked. The Aberdonian is probably as distinguishable as ever from a Paisley ‘body,’ and the citizen of Edinburgh from his neighbour of Glasgow. But the old national words have almost all dropped out of the current vocabulary of the towns. Even in the country districts, though a good many remain, they are fast becoming obsolete and unintelligible to the younger generation. It is sad to find how small a proportion of the sons and daughters of middle aged parents in Scotland can read Burns without constant reference to the glossary. A similar inevitable change was in progress for many centuries on the south side of the Tweed, though it has become extremely slow now.

Our sons their fathers’, failing language see,
And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be.

I can remember men and women in good society, who if they did not ordinarily speak pure Scots, atv least habitually introduced

Scots words and phrases, laying emphasis on them as telling expressions, for which they knew no English equivalents. I have watched the gradual vanishing of these national elements from ordinary conversation, until now one hardly ever hears them. Lord Cockburn used to lament the decay of the old speech in his day; it has made huge strides since then.

Not only have the old words and phrases disappeared, but there has arisen an affectation of what is supposed to be English pronunciation, which is sometimes irresistibly ludicrous. The broad, open vowels, the rolling r s and the strongly aspirated gutturals, so characteristic of the old tongue, are softened down to a milk and water lingo, which is only a vulgarised and debased English. There was unconscious satire in the answer given by a housemaid to her mistress who was puzzled to conjecture how far the girl could be intelligible in London whence she had returned to Scotland.

‘You speak such broad Scotch, Kate, that I wonder how they could understand you in London.’

‘O but, mam, I aye spak’ English there.’

‘Did you? And how did you manage that?’ ‘ O, mam, there’s naethin’ easier. Ye maun spit oot a’ the r's and gi’e the words a bit chow in the middle.’

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus