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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


IT may with some truth be alleged that, as a nation, we have never exhibited a very pronounced aptitude for fitting and successful sports; yet did our forefathers devote some share of their time to amusements of a public character. One of these, that obtained a sort of recognition which we should think very queer, was cock-fighting. A certain Mr. William Machrie, of Edinburgh, claimed to have been the means of introduciug this sport—which he calls an "innocent and royal recreation "—into the capital about the - beginning of the century. This gentleman considered cock-fighting superior to horse-racing, and such like. The very qualities of the bird, he said, recommended him—viz., "his Spanish gait, his Florentine policy, and his Scottish valour in overcoming, and generosity in using, his vanquished adversary." The ancients, he said, called the cock "an astronomer ;" and he had been "an early preacher of repentance, even convincing Peter, the first Pope, of his Holiness’s fallibility." In short, cock-fighting was superior to almost any other species of sport in Mr. Machrie’s estimation; and his view of the matter seems to have found a remarkable degree of acceptance, inasmuch as the sport of cock-fighting became an established pastime annually practised at Fastern’s Even (Shrovetide) for the delectation of the ingenuous youth in attendance at the parish schools.

When the annual holiday of Fastern’s Even was at hand, each schoolboy was encouraged to bring up a cock to have his warlike prowess tested. The schoolmaster presided at this elevating sport, in which, indeed, he had a very particular interest. For the car-cases of the cocks that fell in battle, as well as those of the "fugies," or discreet birds, that acted on the maxim—

He who fights and runs away
May live to fight another day,

became his property. The slender revenues of the dominie were, in some cases, augmented in no inconsiderable proportion in this way. In special instances, indeed, the yearly "cock-fight dues" are stated to have been equal to a quarter’s fees for the school; which, after all, did not represent a large sum, if we take the statement of a Country Schoolmaster, who ventilates the grievances of his class~ in 1792. He gives as particulars of income—Statutory salary, £5 11s. 1 1/3d.; fees, £7; session-clerk fees and emoluments, £2; in all, £14 11s. 4d.—somewhat under 11d, per day. Many schools, says this writer, were not worth so much, and at least four-fifths of the schools in the northern part of the kingdom did not much exceed the calculation he had made.

This subject of cock-fighting finds incidental treatment in an obscure little book published in 1794. [Its title is ORATATIONS ON VARIOS SELECT SUBJECTS. B yMr. John Grub, late Schoolmaster of the parish of Wemyss, in Fifeshire, as Performed by his Scholars after the usual Examination on Harvest Vacation days, and on Shrove Tuesdays in place of cock-fighting. These orations for the use of Grammar Schools on the above days are published by Mr. &bert Wilson, of Sylvania, near Dunfermilne.Edinburgh: Printed for the Editor. 1794.] A pretty full Preface and Dedication inform us that Mr. John Grub, born at or near Aberdeen, and who had got a University education there, was chosen schoolmaster of Wemyss, in Fifeshire, in 1748. He lived only seven years thereafter, but, in course of that time had by his attainments and ability as a teacher, raised his school to "a very great character." One of his methods, adopted with a view to improve the minds of his pupils "in moral virtues, and to refine their manners," was to make the boys on certain days, in-eluding Shrove Tuesday, deliver short orations, which they had committed to memory, in presence of their parents. To use the words of the editor, who had himself been one of Mr. Grub’s boarders, each of the elder scholars in turn "mounted the schoolmaster’s desk, after making a low bow to the company, and audibly and distinctly delivered an oration from their memory, and, after another bow to the company, returned to their seats—all highly to the praise of the scholars and admiration of the company." Three orations, out of a large number on diverse subjects, are devoted expressly to the question of cock-fighting, in the way of argument and reply. The first spesker opens with a simple denunciation of cock-fighting. And though it has from "tithe immemorial" been "a custom to make one day in the year remarkable for the inhuman practice of bringing many of the noblest of the feathered creation to a lingering and cruel death," he ventures to make a " motion" "to have our yearly cock-fight entirely laid aside, or at least metamorphosed into some diversion more useful and entertaining to youth." The motion, he knows, will be a "little unpopular" in that part of the country, but the sport is "too bloody and cruel," and ought not to be countenanced "bypublic and established instructors of youth." The second speaker declares the motion to be "something more than unpopular "—it would be "pernicious if complied with ;" and the three grounds on which he would encourage the yearly cock-fight are :—" 1, It is an old custom of this school and so should be observed; 2, It raises a noble ambition iu a youth when he sees his cock fight well, and so great an aversion to cowardice when his cock does not fight well, that he is ready to fight himself upon the slightest affront offered; 3, I am surprised to hear any one of our number propose anything that would hurt the income of the master." With him this weighs more than any other consideration, and must be his excuse for contradicting his "learned friend’s motion." The reply is that custom can never be a good reason for perpetuating an erroneous practice. When a man’s sagacity and penetration enable him to discover error, he should "make no scruple to step out of the paths of his forefathers." " As cocks are not trained at school, they have," says he, "no title to ~how their parts there ;"it is below "a sprightly youth" to value himself upon his cock’s parts, and "as for a blockhead, though his cock were victor over twenty, he is a blockhead stilL" Were it in "military discipline" the boys were to be trained, one might encourage the sport, but even then the preferable mode would be to "set the boys a fighting themselves ;" and lastly, it is argued, were the Shrove Tuesday combat to be in the various parts of leaning, and the boys the sole combatants, premiums could be given to the victors "in their several degrees and classes ;" tickets of admittance on that day could be bought of the master, and each pupil delivering an oration could make him "some compliment."—" This, sir," adds the orator, "in my opinion, would be a more noble and more useful diversion than the other ; and parents would pay as gener~ ously for their sons who meet with applause as formerly they did for their cocks."

Such were the sentiments of an instructor of youth who seems to have been a good half century in advance of his time on the question of cock-fighting. The general feeling of the country did nob begin to revolt from the sport, on the ground of its barbarity, till long after; as indeed the tendency of feeling on questions of sport in all times is apt to lie rather the opposite way, due, no doubt, to the fact that participation more or less in the nature of the wild beast is a somewhat general attribute of humanity.

Cock-fighting continued to be a school sport in the north-east of Scotland, in some cases, well into the present century. In 1818, the boys at one of the schools in Fetteresso parish, in Kincardineshire, who still had their periodical cock-fight, looked down with a sort of contempt on the boys of another school in the same parish where the practice did not then exist. "Ye haena a cock fecht at your skweel, mm," one boy would say to another in reference to this state of matters, and implying that something was wanting in the regular routine of a fully efficient and properly equipped educational institution. In the neighbouring parish of Drumlithie, cock-fights were held ten years later than the date mentioned.

With the annual cock-fight went the annual contest at foot-ball. It also took place at Fastern’s Even, or, less commonly, at Yule. The author of "Tullochgorum," in his juvenile poem, "The Monymusk Ba’in’," [The poem in question, which is marked by a good deal of graphic force, is modelled very closely after "Christ’s Kirk o’ Green," the names of various of the characters, even, being miported from that poem.] fixes it at the latter festivaL Three entire days were abstracted from the routine of daily labour, and religiously devoted to Yule observances. The requisite "fordel strae" for the cattle had been carefully provided before-hand, so as no flail need be lifted during Yule. In a Presbyterian community there was no formal religious service of a public sort; and thus there was abundant time for the "ba’in’," or any other recreation that might find favour, "sowens" and general feasting, of course, obtaining their own share of attention. Of the general characteristics of the "ba’in’," a graphic summary is given by Skinner in his opening stanza:—

Has ne’er in a’ this countra been
Sic shouderin’ an’ sic fa’in’,
As happen’t but few ouks sinsyne
Here at the Christmas ba’in’.
At evenin’ syne the fallows keen
Drank till the neist day’s dawin’,
Sae snell that some tint baith their een,
An’ coudna pay their lawin’
Till the neist day.

The heroes of the field were those who could fearlessly head the "hurry burry," grappling all and sundry, right and left, and amid the general scrimmage of "routs an’ raps fae man to man" gi’ein at any rate as good as they got in the way of cuts across the shins, and " clammy-houits" over the cranium, or strokes "alang the chafts." It was a feat worth mentioning to make a man’s "harnpan" ring, or lay an opposing player sprawling on his back with the suggestion of damage to some one or other of his limbs. As the struggling mass of players swayed hither and thither, now up now down, those of the feebler sort got drifted away from the vortex fairly out of wind, and perhaps not altogether seatheless in person or apparel. And clearly victory was to be hoped for quite as much from the reckless exercise of muscular strength as from agility and skill in hitting the ball, which finally, by "a weel-wil’d-wap" from Sawney’s foot, is "yowfft" in o’er the park, "a space an’ mair" from the Kirk-yard, the recognised field for the parish ba’in’, and where it has been going on all the while in the lively fashion indicated. The incidental humours of the scene are in entire harmony with the general ongoings, and few mere spectators, even, are allowed to escape without mishap more or less. The "insett dominie," a "young mess John," who was "neither saint nor sinner," cannot come on the scene for a moment, till

A brattlin’ band unhappily
Drave by him wi’ a binner,
An’ heels o’er goudie coupit he,
An’ rave his guid horn penner
In bits that day.

And when the meek parish clerk comes up the churchyard, his "claithing fu’ fine" is too strong a temptation. By a special act of wickedness he is speedily "beft" over backward,

Just whaur their feet the dubs had glaur’d,
An’ barken’d them like brine,

calling into use the services of ostensibly sympathising onlookers with their "whittles" to "scrape his hat" and otherwise make his raiment decent again.

"The Christmas Ba’in" was written by Skinner when under seventeen years of age, which fixes its date as being about 1737. From the minuteness of the details, and the number of individual characters named, the picture given may be accepted as in the main somewhat closely realistic. The freedom and zest with which kicks and blows were given out amongst the leading players looks rather startling. But then what use to possess muscular strength, and not let it be known? The feeling on this point was very pronounced; and it sometimes found practical manifestation in what would seem unlikely modes. To determine which of two men was the stronger, was often a nice question—Here now are a couple of brawny fellows of the class and type described who have never yet been able to decide that particular point; and they have met of a winter evening in the house of their mutual friend the weaver. What better chance than settle it now? The weaver, a " sober bodie" whom either of them could have put hors de combat by a single blow of his fist, had no help but accept the situation.

To put him out of harm’s way, and make him useful according to his capacity, he was set up on the top of the "boun’ bed," with a blazing "fir" in his hand, to give light for the operations about to commence on the floor below him. And there the two set on in their fierce if unskilled wrestle, which, being equally matched, they kept up with the most unflinching determination till so completely exhausted that the unboastful weaver declared they were "like twa burs’n cocks——I cud ‘a rappit their heids thegither mysel’." It was one of these two again who went to Lowrin’ Fair in search of amusement; and in passing an unknown Highlandman, after deliberately surveying the stranger from head to foot, dealt the unsuspecting Celt a heavy blow on the face, a hand to hand combat instantly ensuing without a word spoken on either side. The reason given for this unusual mode of saluting a man he had never seen before, was that the Highlandman "was a gey stout-like chiel ;" whose appearance gave the prospect of a good fight, wanting which Lowrin’ Fafr would have been dull to the Highlandman’s assailant.

"Wad" shooting was another Yule sport of later origin, "the wad" being a prize of some sort laid in pledge. The pieces they shot with were in no sense arms of precision. So little of that indeed, that the man who owned, or could command the use of a rifle, became disqualified as a competitor. What good in shooting against a man who, if he took his aim well, could count on hitting within a foot or so of the bull’s-eye? The sturdy, single barrelled flint-lock musket, which had seen service at Fontenoy or elsewhere in its time, and was now used for the miscellaneous discharge of pellets, from swan-shot downward, against the pests of the farm, was common enough; and quite as good for "wad sheetin’" as the lighter fowling-pieces of the rough and rusty class owned by others of the marksmen. Neither one nor the other would drive a ball so certainly to its mark as to destroy the pleasing hope of luck, or chance, doing a turn for the individual competitor over and beyond what he could expect as the result of his best skill. The prize to be shot for would be some useful article, ranging from an eight-day clock to a shoulder of beef, or a wooden plough. The marksman cast his own bullets of molten lead in a cambs, which might or might not have been made to suit the bore of his piece; in like manner he measured out the charge of powder from his horn, by rule of thumb; and, as exact results in shooting were hardly to be looked for in the circumstances, neither was perfect, comfort to the shooter always secured. When he had paid his sixpenee, and spread his bonnet on the top of the yard dyke before him to get a true and stable "reest," the eager competitor would lay himself along, and with all earnestness take a deliberate, and, if it might be, correct aim. Such trifles as windage and adjustment of elevation to distance troubled him not. He simply kept his eye as hopefully on the centre of the target as he could. Probably the possibility of an unusually ugly "putt" from his piece helped to excite his nervous feeling a little, but shoot he would at all risks, and gain the wad if he could. The target was only a hundred yards off, and its dimensions by no means scanty—most likely it was an oldbarn doorwith a few alternated rings of black and white paint put on about the centre; and it seemed very possible to lodge the ball somewhere amongst these rings. Orack goes the shot at last, but with a rent and unsatisfactory sound, and an unpleasant upward jerk of the muzzle of the marksman’s gun! No! The bull’s-eye is untouched; not even the barn door itself has been hit, as is definitely certified when the two or three lads who act as volunteer markers have run in from their posts full fifty yards off on either side—a distance that must be maintained in consideration of the wildly erratic course taken by many of the balls. Another and another shoots with pretty similar results; and though an occasional man may grudge the dead loss of the sixpence he has paid for the right to shoot, and talk as if something must be out of joint because he has got no nearer the centre, yet they know it is all in a good cause and they will "go in" for another "chance." And, clearly enough, if the shooting were more exaët or certain the thing would be over in an hour or less; whereas they can spend a whole day upon it with no likelihood of more than one or two marksmen getting close to the bull’s eye; as in point of fact, was a common result of tbe Wad Sheetin’, which nevertheless afforded quite as much interest and enjoyment while it lasted as does the best rifle competition of the present day; in addition to furnishing an engrossing subject of talk in the hamlet and farmhouse in the days that went before and after the great contest.

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