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Reminiscences of Scottish Life & Character

SOME years have now elapsed since I commenced recording REMINISCENCES OF SCOTTISH LIFE AND CHARACTER. The first edition of the work was published in 1857, and consisted entirely of personal recollections. Since then it has been gradually increasing, and I now write a preface for the fourteenth edition. Ever since the work passed the ninth edition, I had been most anxious to put it into the hands of a larger class of readers, to whom hitherto the price had offered an obstacle in their possessing it. I was quite aware that many of the most racy anecdotes of the collection came from the Scottish peasantry, and that the peculiar features of that humour which it is the purpose of the book to illustrate still linger in various parts of the country amongst the older occupants of Scotland’s lowly dwellings. I was desirous, therefore, before I finally closed my connection with the work, to bring out what might fairly be called a PEOPLE’S EDITION—an edition which, from, its price, might be within reach of all classes of my countrymen, and which might form a standing portion of every Scottish cottar’s simple library. In this design I have been most. kindly and cordially seconded by my valued friends the Publishers, who brought out in a cheap form the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth editions of the work.

One most agreeable circumstance connected with this publication I have already referred to in the introductory chapter, and that is the general and sympathetic communications I have received from Scotchmen, I may literally say, in all quarters of the world, sometimes communicating very good examples of Scottish humour, and always expressing their great pleasure in reading, when in distant lands and foreign scenes, anecdotes which reminded them of Scotland and of their ain days of "auld lang syne."

I am, on continued observation, only the more fully persuaded that the characteristic peculiarities of our Scottish people are indicated in a very marked manner by our Scottish anecdotes. I have been anxious that specimens of them should be preserved at this time, as it seems evident that, except they are so preserved, in a few years’ time they will have become obsolete. It is to anecdotes which bear upon this question, therefore, that I have directed my attention, and for many such stories I am indebted to the kind interest of correspondents. Several stories which have been sent I have been obliged to omit. They were very pointed and, very, characteristic, but were not suitable for publication, although in many cases I believe the offence was more in the expression than the sentiment. I might from such communications have greatly increased the size of the volume, but I preferred making a selection of those that were truly characteristic and most direct to the point. And of these I have some more recent communications which, without disturbing the order of the text, I would now preserve by recording them in this preface. For instance, I think our national jealousy of Ritualism furnishes a very characteristic anecdote: A worthy U.P. minister, having received a present of a preaching-gown, considered himself bound to make use of it in divine service, although it was a novelty in the congregation. An old-fashioned lady, who looked with suspicion on this innovation, began to catechise the minister upon his proceedings, and opened the question cautiously. "Weel, sir, ye hae preached in a gown; div ye ken if Paul ever preached in a gown?" "‘Deed, Janet," the minister replied, "I wad ask, do ye ken gin Paul preached in his breeks?" She was taken aback, and acknowledged "She could not say." "Weel, I suppose ye wadna hae me to preach without my breeks."

I have heard of a very matter-of-fact view of a remarkable contingency as it had been proposed to one of the older race of Forfarshire matrons. Her nephew had been annoyed by the readiness with which the old lady had always admitted strangers into her pew at church, and broke out petulantly with the exclamation, "Indeed, aunt, I think you would let the devil into your pew if he were to offer himself! "And what for no’," was the quiet answer, "gin only he’d behave himsel’."

There is a quiet mode of turning the tables upon an inquirer or complainant which I have noticed as characteristic of our countrymen which it is impossible to illustrate except by example. Take this account, which I have received of a well-authenticated case very much in point: A gentleman had sent for the village barber, in extremely hot weather, that he might be shaved by him. He soon perceived that the man was much the worse of drink, as he had, in fact, cut the skin two or three times during the tonsorial operation. He desired to notice this in as delicate a manner as possible, and suggested to the operator, "I think, my friend, the hot weather has made your hand unsteady." He very quietly replied, "Na, sir; it’s no’ that sae muckle as that the heat has made your skin some tender."

The matter-of-fact reception of a sarcastic injunction given by the lady of the house to a servant-girl in the same family is quite delightful. She had a very delicate and favourite piece of china which she put into the girl’s hands to be washed, adding bitterly, as a sure mode of impressing the necessity of carefulness, "And when you wash it, be sure to break it all in pieces." The girl accordingly brought back the china, and produced it triumphantly, washed and broken, with the address, "I washt the cheena, mem, but I dinna ken whether the pieces are sma’ eneuch."

An old servant’s reproach of his horses, as joining in the accusations of his enemies against him, was very rich and naïve. I had the story from persons who knew the family in which the complainant was. The two Misses —— kept a carriage, of which they kindly allowed friends to have the use. Charges had lately been carried to his mistresses militating against the sobriety of their old servant, and it was especially insinuated that one public-house he never passed without a glass, all which he specially denied. The Misses ——had sent the carriage to fetch some friends who, in coming to the house, had to pass the public-house in question. Unfortunately, instead of driving straight past, the horses quietly, and in spite of Donald’s remonstrances, drew up to the door as if too well accustomed to the process. Donald urged them on the way with whip and voice, bitterly accusing the poor animals of betraying him, "Get on, ye leein’ beasts."

The incongruous application of the term "honest" to a woman convicted of theft, mentioned at page 197, is far surpassed by an application of the term, as told me by a Roman Catholic clergyman. Conversation turning upon the excuses of Satanic influence often made by persons in palliation of faults for which they were only themselves answerable, a humorist quietly observed, "Indeed, the deil, honest man, has had owre mony things laid to his charge."

There is a shrewd answer given to a traveller who had expressed his admiration of the number of churches in a town through which they were travelling as sure indication of an abundant prevalence of religious feeling. The answer was very significant of the state of ecclesiastical matters amongst us. The person addressed quietly said, "I’m nae just sae sure o’ that. Kirks may be whiles built out o’ curstness," showing that he had remarked how the multiplication of churches was not always due to zeal for extending the field of the Christian ministry, or for multiplying means of grace through the land, but that additional churches were required on account of splits or divisions amongst members of various congregations. His observation implied that "curstness" (or crabbed-ness) of man’s nature, or, in short, other motives than piety, might cause churches to be built. This sentiment was stated in a bolder and, I should hope, in an exaggerated form at a meeting of ploughmen, of which I read an account, lately held at Ratho upon quite a different question from church-building. One of the speakers commenced his address by stating that he had heard his "mither" give forth the sentiment, "The mair kirks the mair sin."

At page 237 is an anecdote of a Fife girl’s astronomical theory, when she saw the comet, that it was a "star afore its tail had been cuttit aff." On the evening of the late magnificent display of meteorolites, or falling stars, an honest man at Leith, who had been very attentively observing them, reminded his hearers that they could nae expec’ mony stars in the heavens now —sae mony had fa’en out!" And as next night was a peculiarly dark one, the honest man felt quite sure that many of the stars had ultimately gone from the firmament and disappeared for ever.

At pages 178, etc., frequent mention is made of a class of old ladies, generally residing in small towns, who were peculiarly Scotch, and who retained till within the memory of many now living the special characteristics I have referred to. Owing to local connection, I brought forward those chiefly who lived in Montrose and the neighbourhood. But the race is extinct; you might as well look for hoops and farthingales in society as for such characters now. You can scarcely imagine an old lady, however quaint, now making use of some of the expressions recorded in the text, or saying, for the purpose of breaking up a card-party of which she was tired, from holding bad cards, "We’ll stop now, bairns, I’m no’ enterteened," or urging more haste in going to church, on the plea, "Come awa’, or I’ll be ower late for the ‘wicked man.’"

From anecdotes of the pulpit in the following pages it will be seen how much more personal the communication between the preacher and his hearers used to be in past times. Let me conclude my remarks for this preface with an account I have received of a Highland minister who used this privilege in a very sly or pawky manner. He had preached a very strong sermon against the sin of drunkenness, and earnestly warned his hearers not to indulge in too frequent use of the bottle. He then concluded, "We’ll no’ mak’ this discoorse owre personal; but if a short, bald-headed laird sittin’ in the corner of the east gallery pew tak’s it to himsel’ I canna help it."

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