DURING this period, the affairs of Scotland were in a marked degree subordinate to those of England. The king, absorbed in continental wars and continental politics, paid little attention to his northern kingdom; he left it chiefly to the care of its state-officers, using as a medium of his own influence, William Carstares, a Presbyterian minister of extraordinary worth, sincerity, and prudence, who had gained his entire esteem and confidence, and who usually attended him wherever he was. A parliament which sat in May 1695, was chiefly occupied with the investigation of the Glencoe massacre, and with measures connected with the rising commercial enterprise of the country, including the formation of a native bank, and that of a company for trading with Africa and the Indies. The latter of these speculations was worked out in an expedition to Darien, and an attempted settlement there, which, through English mercantile jealousy, and the king’s indifference to Scottish interests, ended so unfortunately as greatly to incense the Scottish nation, and increase the party disaffected to the Revolution government.
William died on the 8th March 1702. His vigorous talents, his courage, his essential mildness and tolerance, abated as they were by an unpopular coldness of manners, are amply recognised in English history; among the Scots, while Presbyterians thank him for the establishment of their church, there is little feeling regarding the Dutch king, besides a strong resentment of his concern in the affairs of Glencoe and Darien.
Mar. 19. – The degree of respect felt by the authorities of this age for the rights of the individual is shown very strikingly in a custom which was now and for a considerable time after largely practised, of compromising with degraded and imputedly criminal persons for banishment to the American plantations. For example, at this date, thirty-two women of evil fame, residing in Edinburgh, were brought before the magistrates as a moral nuisance. We do not know what could have been done to them beyond whipping and hard labour; yet they were fain to agree that, instead of any other punishment, they should be banished to America, and arrangements for that purpose were immediately made.
May. – The Estates at this date advert to the fact that sundry lands lying along the sea-coast had been ruined, in consequence of their being overwhelmed with sand driven from adjacent sand-hills, ‘the which has been mainly occasioned by the pulling up by the roots of bent, juniper, and broom bushes, which did loose and break the surface and scroof of the sand-hills.’ In particular, ‘the barony of Cowbin and house and yards thereof, lying in the sheriffdom of Elgin, is quite ruined and overspread with sand,’ brought upon it by the aforesaid cause. Penalties were accordingly decreed for such as should hereafter pull up bent or juniper bushes on the coast sand-hills.
A remarkable geological phenomenon, resulting in the ruin of a family of Morayland gentry, is here in question. We learn from an act of parliament, passed two months later, that, within the preceding twenty years, two-thirds of the estate of Culbin had been overwhelmed with blown sand, so that no trace of the manor-house, yards, orchards, or mains thereof, was now to be seen, though formerly ‘as considerable as many in the country of Moray.’ Alexander Kinnaird of Culbin now represented to the parliament that full cess was still charged for his lands, being nearly as much as the remainder of them produced to him in rent; and he petitioned that his unfortunate estate might, in consideration of his extraordinary misfortune, be altogether exempted from cess. Three years after this date, we hear of the remaining fourth part of Culbin as sold for the benefit of the creditors of the proprietor, and himself suing to parliament for a personal protection. In time, the entire ruin of the good old barony was completed. Hugh Miller says: ‘I have wandered for hours amid the sand-wastes of this ruined barony, and seen only a few stunted bushes of broom, and a few scattered tufts of withered bent, occupying, amid utter barrenness, the place of what, in the middle of the seventeenth century, had been the richest fields of the rich province of Moray; and, where the winds had hollowed out the sand, I have detected, uncovered for a few yards-breadth, portions of the buried furrows, sorely dried into the consistence of sun-burnt brick, but largely charged with the seeds of the common corn-field weeds of the country, that, as ascertained by experiment by the lat Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, still retain their vitality. It is said that an antique dove-cot, in front of the huge sand-wreath which enveloped the manor-house, continued to present the top of its peaked roof over the sand, as a foundered vessel sometimes exhibits its vane over the waves, until the year 1760. The traditions of the district testify that, for many years after the orchard had been enveloped, the topmost branches of the fruit-trees, barely seen over the surface, continued each spring languidly to throw out bud and blossom; and it is a curious circumstance, that in the neighbouring churchyard of Dike there is a sepulchral monument of the Culbin family, which, though it does not date beyond the reign of James VI., was erected by a lord and lady of the lost barony, at a time when they seem to have had no suspicion of the utter ruin which was coming on their house. The quaint inscription runs as follows:
VALTER : KINNAIRD : ELIZABETH : INNES : 1613 :
THE : BVILDARS : OF : THIS : BED : OF : STANE :
AR : LAIRD : AND : LADIE : OF : COVBINE :
QVHILK : TVA : AND : THARS : QVHANE : BRAITHE IS : GANE :
PLEIS : GOD : VIL : SLEIP : THIS : BED : VITHIN :’
June. – As political troubles subsided in Scotland, the spirit of mercantile enterprise rose and gained strength. Amongst a few persons favouring this spirit, was one of notable character and history – WILLIAM PATERSON – a native of Scotland, but now practising merchandise in London – a most active genius, well acquainted with distant countries, not visionary, animated, on the contrary, by sound commercial principles, yet living, unfortunately for himself, before the time when there was either intelligence or means for the successful carrying out of great mercantile adventures. Paterson, in the early part of this year, had gained for himself an historical fame by projecting and helping to establish the Bank of England. For his native country he at the same time projected what he hoped would prove a second East India Company.
At the date noted, an act passed the Scottish parliament, forming certain persons named into an incorporation, under the name of The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, who should be enabled to ‘plant colonies, and build cities and forts, in any countries in Asia, Africa, or America not possest by any European sovereign,’ ‘by consent of the natives and inhabitants thereof,’ and to take all proper measures for their own protection and the advancement of their special objects, only acknowledging the supremacy of the king by the annual payment of a hogshead of tobacco. It was scrupulously arranged, however, that at least one half of the stock of this Company should be subscribed for by Scotsmen residing either at home or abroad.
Although the war pressed sorely on the resources of England, Paterson calculated securely that there was enough of spare capital and enterprise in London to cause the new Scottish trading scheme to be taken up readily there. When the books for subscription were opened in October, the whole £300,000 offered to the English merchants was at once appropriated. By this time, the fears of the East India Company and of the English mercantile class generally had been roused; it was believed that the Scottish adventurers would compete with them destructively in every place where they now enjoyed a lucrative trade. The parliament took up the cry, and voted that the noblemen and gentlemen named in the Scottish act were guilty of a high crime and misdemeanour. Irritated rather than terrified by this denunciation, these gentlemen calmly proceeded with their business in Scotland. The subscription books being opened on the 26th of February 1696, the taking up of the stock became something like a national movement. It scarcely appeared that the country was a poor one. Noblemen, country gentlemen, merchants, professional men, corporations of every kind, flocked to put down their names for various sums according to their ability, till not merely the £300,000 devoted to Scotsmen was engaged for, but some additional capital besides. In a list before me, with the sums added up, I find the total is £336,390 sterling; but, of course, the advance of this large sum was contemplated as to be spread over a considerable space of time, the first instalment of 25 per cent. being alone payable within 1696.
Meanwhile the furious denunciations of the English parliament proved a thorough discouragement to the project in London, and nearly the whole of the stockholders there silently withdrew from it; under the same influence, the merchants of Hamburg were induced to withdraw their support and co-operation, leaving Scotland to work out her own plans by herself.
She proceeded to do so with a courage much to be admired. A handsome house (which has now disappeared) was erected for the conducting of the Company’s business; schemes for trade with Greenland, with Archangel, with the Gold Coast, were considered; the qualities of goods, possible improvements of machinery, the extent of the production of foreign wares, were all the subject of careful inquiry.
The design of Paterson presents such indications of a great, an original, and a liberal mind, as to make the obscurity which rests on his history much to be regretted. He himself embarked the few thousand pounds which he possessed in the undertaking, and his whole conduct throughout its history exhibits him not merely as a man of sound judgment and reflection, but one superior to all sordid considerations.
July 7. – The Bank of England, projected by the same William Paterson, amidst and by favour of the difficulties of the public exchequer during King William’s expensive continental wars, may be said to have commenced its actual banking operations on the first day of this year. Considerable attention was drawn to the subject in London, and the establishment of a similar bank in both Ireland and Scotland became matter of speculation. There was in London an almost retired merchant named John Holland, who thought hereafter of spending his time chiefly in rural retirement. To him came one day a friend, a native of Scotland, who was inspired with a strong desire to see a bank established in his country. He desired that Mr Holland would think of it. ‘Why,’ said the latter, ‘I have nearly withdrawn from all such projects, and think only of how I may spend the remainder of my days in peace.’ ‘Think of it,’ said his Scottish friend; ‘and if you will enter into the scheme, I can assure you of having an act of our parliament for it on your own conditions.’
Mr Holland accordingly drew out a sketch of a plan for a bank in Scotland, which his friend, in a very few days thereafter, had transfused into a parliamentary bill of the Scottish form. He had also spoken, he said, to most of his countrymen of any mercantile importance in London to engage their favour for the scheme. Mr Holland was readily induced to lend his aid in further operations, and the project appears to have quickly come to a bearing, for, little more than six months from the opening of the Bank of England, the act for the Bank of Scotland had passed the native parliament.
The Bank of Scotland set up in a floor in the Parliament Close, with a moderate band of officials, and ten thousand pounds sterling of paid-up capital. It had scarcely started, when the African Company added a banking business to its other concerns, meaning thus to overpower the project of Mr Holland. That gentleman was in Edinburgh at the time. He saw that the African Company was in the highest vogue with the public, while few took any notice of his modest establishment. As governor, he prudently counselled that they should make no attempt to enforce the exclusive privilege which the statute had conferred upon them for twenty-one years, but to limit themselves to standing on their guard against ‘that mighty Company,’ lest it should try to injure or ‘affront’ them by a run upon their cash. For this reason, by his advice, twenty thousand pounds if the capital was called up, in addition to the ten thousand lodged at first. The smallness of these sums is amusing to men who know what banking in Scotland now is; yet it appears that from the first the Bank of Scotland had five, ten, twenty, fifty, and hundred pound notes. After a little while, it was found that banking did not succeed with the African Company, chiefly because they lent money in too large sums to their own shareholders, and the Bank of Scotland was then allowed to go on without any competition. The capital lately called up was then paid back, leaving the original sum of £10,000 alone in the hands of the bank.
Sir Robert Grierson of Lagg, the notable ‘persecutor,’ who had been not a little persecuted himself after the Revolution as a person dangerous to the new government, was now in trouble on a different score. He was accused of the crimes of ‘clipping of good money and coining of false money, and vending the samen when clipped and coined,’ inferring the forfeiture of life, land, and goods. The prosecution broke down before any assize had been called.
‘Lagg’ – who had drowned religious women at stakes on the sands of Wigtown – had the fortune to survive to a comparatively civilised age. He died in very advanced life, at Dumfries, about the close of 1733.
Apr. – Two young men, Matthew McKail, son of an advocate of the same name, and Mr William Trent, writer, hitherto intimate friends, quarrelled about a trifling matter, and resolved to fight a duel. Accompanied by John Veitch, son of John Veitch, ‘presentee of the signator,’ and William Drummond, son of Logie Drummond, youths scarcely out of their minority, they went two days after – a Sunday having intervened – to the park of Holyrood Palace, and there fought – it does not appear with what weapons – but both were slain on the spot; after which the seconds absconded. – P. C. R.
Dec. 23. – It was while the public mind was excited by the complicated evils of famine and threatened invasion by France, that an importation of atheistical books was found to have been made into Edinburgh, and several young men were denounced to the authorities as having become infected with heterodox opinions. One delinquent – John Fraser – had, upon timely confession and penitence, been lightly dealt with; but there was another youthful offender, who, meeting accusation in a different frame of mind, at least at first, was to have a different fate.
Thomas Aikenhead, a youth of eighteen, ‘son to the deceest James Aikenhead, chirurgeon in Edinburgh,’ was now tried by the High Court of Justiciary for breach of the 21st act of the first parliament of Charles II., ‘against the crime of blasphemy,’ which act had been ratified by the 11th act of the fifth session of the parliament of the present reign. It was alleged in the indictment that the young man had, for twelvemonth past, been accustomed to speak of theology as ‘a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense,’ calling the Old Testament Ezra’s Fables, and the New the history of the Imposter Christ, further ‘cursing Moses, Ezra, and Jesus, and all men of that sort.’ ‘Likeas,’ pursued this document, ‘you reject the mystery of the blessed Trinity, and say it is not worth any man’s refutation, and you also scoff at the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ… as to the doctrine of redemption by Jesus, you say it is a proud and presumptuous device… you also deny spirits… and you have maintained that God, the world, and nature are but one thing, and that the world was from eternity… You have said that you hoped to see Christianity greatly weakened, and that you are confident it will in a short time be utterly extirpat.’
Aikenhead, though impenitent at first, no sooner received this indictment in prison, than he endeavoured to stop proceedings by addressing to the Lords of Justiciary ‘a petition and retraction,’ in which he professed the utmost abhorrence of the expressions attributed to him, saying he trembled even to repeat them to himself, and further avowing his firm faith in the gospel, in the immortality of the soul, in the doctrine of the Trinity, and in the divine authority of Scripture.
The jury nevertheless unanimously found it proven ‘that the panel, Thomas Aikenhead, has railed against the first person, and also cursed and railed our blessed Lord, the second person, of the holy Trinity.’ They further found ‘the other crimes libelled proven – namely, the denying the incarnation of our Saviour, the holy Trinity, and scoffing at the Holy Scriptures.’ Wherefore the judges ‘decern and adjudge the said Thomas Aikenhead to be taken to the Gallowlee, betwixt Leith and Edinburgh, upon Friday the eighth day of January next to come, and there to be hanged on a gibbet till he be dead, and his body to be interred at the foot of the gallows.’
Lord Anstruther and Lord Fountainhall, two members of the Council, were led by humane feeling to visit the culprit in prison. ‘I found a work on his spirit,’ says the former gentleman, ‘and wept that ever he should have maintained such tenets.’ He adds that he desired for Aikenhead a short reprieve, as his eternal state depended on it. ‘I pled for him in Council, and brought it to the Chan[cellor’s] vote. it was told it could not be granted unless the ministers would intercede… The ministers, out of a pious, though I think ignorant zeal, spoke and preached for cutting him off… our ministers being,’ he adds, ‘generally of a narrow set of thoughts and confined principles, and not able to bear things of this nature.’ It thus appears that the clergy were eager for the young man’s blood, and the secular powers so far under awe towards that body, that they could not grant mercy. The Council appears in numberless instances as receiving applications for delay and pardon from criminals under sentence, and so invariably assents to the petition, that we may infer there having been a routine practice in the case, by which petitions were only sent after it was ascertained that they would probably be complied with. There being no petition for pardon from Aikenhead to the Council after his trial, we may fairly presume that he had learned there was no relaxation of the sentence to be expected.
The Postman, a journal of the day, relates the last moments of the unhappy young man. ‘He walked thither [to the place of execution – a mile from the prison] on foot, between a strong guard of fusiliers drawn up in two lines. Several ministers assisted him in his last moments and, according to all human appearance, he died with all the marks of a true penitent. When he was called out of the prison to the City Council-house, before his going to the place of execution, as is usual on such occasions, he delivered his thoughts at large in a paper written by him, and signed with his own hand, and then requested the ministers that were present to pray for him, which they did; and afterwards he himself prayed, and several times invocated the blessed Trinity, as he did likewise at the place of execution, holding all the time the Holy Bible in his hand; and, being executed, he was buried at the foot of the gallows.’
Apr. 20. – The Privy Council, in terms of the 27th act of Queen Mary – rather a far way to go back for authority in such a matter – discharged all printers ‘to print or reprint any pamphlets, books, or others, relating to the government, or of immediate public concern, until the same be seen, revised, and examined by the Earls of Lauderdale and Annandale, the Lord Advocate, Lord Anstruther, and Sir John Maxwell of Pollock,’ under heavy penalties. – P. C. R.
July 13. – James Hamilton, keeper of the Canongate Tolbooth, gave in a humble petition to the Privy Council, setting forth that ‘for a long while bygone’ he has ‘kept and maintained a great many persons provided for recruiting the army in Flanders.’ In this last spring, ‘the prisoners became so tumultuous and rebellious, that they combined together and assassinat the petitioner’s servants, and wounded them, and took the keys from them, and destroyed the bread, ale, and brandy that was in the cellar, to the value of eight pounds sterling.’ ‘Seeing the petitioner’s due as formerly is two shillings Scots per night for himself, and twelve pennies Scots for the servants for each person,’ in respect whereof he was ‘liable for ane aliment of twenty merks monthly to the poor, besides the expense of a great many servants,’ payment was ordered to him of £837, 17s. for house-dues for the recruits, during a certain term, and £107, 8s. for damages done by the mutiny.
In July 1697, in the prospect of a good harvest, the permission to import grain free of duty was withdrawn. About the same time, a great quantity of victual which had been imported into Leith, was, on inspection, found to be unfit to be eaten, and was therefore ordered to be destroyed.
On the 28th of December, the Privy Council was informed of a cargo of two hundred bolls of wheat shipped in order to be transported to France, and, considering that ‘wheat is not yet so low as twelve pounds Scots per boll,’ it was proposed by the Lord Chancellor that it should be stopped; but this the Council thought ‘not convenient.’
Sep. – An Edinburgh tavern-bill of this date – apparently one for supper to a small party – makes us acquainted with some of the habits of the age. It is as follows, the sums being expressed in Scottish money:
SIR JOHN SWINTON TO MRS KENDALL.
£00 : 03 : 00
|For rost mutton and cutlets||
01 : 16 : 00
|For on dish of hens||
03 : 00 : 00
00 : 05 : 00
|For allmonds and rasens||
01 : 06 : 00
|For 3lb. of confectiones||
07 : 16 : 00
|For bread and ale||
01 : 00 : 00
|For 3 pynts of clarite||
06 : 00 : 00
02 : 16 : 00
|For oysters fryed and raw||
03 : 16 : 00
|For brandie and sugare||
00: 06 : 00
02 : 02 : 00
£30 : 06 : 06
The sum in English money is equal to £2, 10s. 6½d. One remarkable fact is brought out by the document – namely, that claret was then charged at twenty pence sterling per quart in a public-house.
May 10. – An ‘unkindly cold and winter-like spring’ was threatening again to frustrate the hopes of the husbandman, ‘and cut off man and beast by famine.’ Already the dearth was greatly increased, and in many places ‘great want both of food and seed’ was experienced, while the sheep and cattle were dying in great numbers. In consideration of these facts, and of the abounding sins of profaneness, Sabbath-breaking, drunkenness, &c., ‘whereby the displeasure of God was manifestly provoked,’ a solemn humiliation and fast was ordered for the 17th of May within the synod of Lothian and Tweeddale, and the 25th of the month for the rest of the kingdom.
July 26. – The African Company, undeterred by the opposition of the English mercantile class, had never for a moment, since the subscription of their stock in spring 1696, paused in their design. They caused six ships of good size to be built in Holland, and these they partially mounted with guns, with a view to defence in case of need, at the same time taking care to furnish them with an ample store of provisions, and of every conceivable article likely to be required in a new colony. Twelve hundred select men, many of them Highlanders, and not a few soldiers who had been discharged at the peace of Ryswick, mustered under a suitable number of officers, who were generally men of good birth, on board this little fleet. ‘Neighbouring nations,’ says Dalrymple, ‘with a mixture of surprise and respect, saw the poorest kingdom of Europe sending forth the most gallant and the most numerous colony that had ever gone from the old to the new world.’
On the summer day noted, the colony left Leith, in five ships, amidst ‘the tears, and prayers, and praises’ of a vast multitude of people, all interested in the enterprise, either by a mercantile concern in it, or as viewing it in the light of an effort to elevate the condition and character of their country. We are told by one who might have heard eye-witnesses describe the scene, and probably did so, that ‘many seamen and soldiers whose services had been refused, because more had offered themselves than were needed, were found hid in the ships, and, when ordered ashore, clung to the ropes and timbers, imploring to go, without reward, with their companions.’ The ships had a prosperous voyage to a point on the Gulf of Darien, which had been previously contemplated as suitable for their settlement, though the order for the purpose was kept sealed till the expedition touched at Madeira. Landing here on the 4th of November, they proceeded to fortify the peninsula on one side of the bay, cutting a channel through the connecting isthmus, and erecting what they called Fort St Andrew, with fifty cannon. ‘On the other side of the harbour [bay] there was a mountain a mile high, on which they placed a watch-house, which, in the rarefied air within the tropics, gave them an immense range of prospect, to prevent all surprise. To this place it was observed that the Highlanders often repaired to enjoy a cool air, and to talk of their friends whom they had left behind. they purchased the land they occupied from the natives, and sent out friendly messages to all Spanish governors within their reach. The first public act of the colony was to publish a declaration of freedom of trade and religion to all nations.’ – Dalrymple’s Memoirs.
It does not belong to the plan of the present work to detail the history of the Darien adventure. Enough to say that a second expedition of six ships sailed in May and August 1699, and that this was soon followed by a third, comprising thirteen hundred men. Before the first of these dates, the first colony had fully experienced the difficulties of their position. One of their vessels happening to fall ashore near Cartagena, the crew and its master, Captain Pinkerton, were seized as pirates, and with difficulty spared from hanging. Hunger, dissension, and disease took possession of the settlement, and in June the survivors had to leave it and sail for New York. when the second set of ships arrived, they found the place a desert, marked only by the numerous graves of the first settlers. The men of the second and third expeditions brought together on that desolate spot, felt paralysed. Discontent and mutiny broke out amongst them. After one brilliant little effort against the Spaniards, the remainder of these unfortunate colonists had to capitulate to their enemies, and abandon their settlement (March 1700). It had been stated that not above thirty of them ever returned to their native country.
The failure of the Darien settlement was a death-blow to the African Company, the whole capital being absorbed and lost. So large a loss of means to so poor a country, amidst the home-troubles of famine and disease, was felt severely. Nine years afterwards, however, the loss sustained by the Scotch through the failure of the African Company was made good to the losers in terms of one of the clauses in the Treaty of Union. Nevertheless, when the whole matter is viewed without national prejudice, it must be admitted that there was a radical want of prudential management and direction in the expedition to Darien, and that thus chiefly did Scotland lose the opportunity of possessing herself of the most important station for commerce in the world.*
Oct. – Jean Gordon, widow of Mr William Fraser, minister of Slaines, Aberdeenshire, had been for some years decayed in body and mind, so as probably to be a considerable burden to her surviving relatives. One morning in this month, she was found dead in her bed, and after the usual interval, she was duly interred. Soon after, some suspicions arose against Mr William Fraser, minister of the gospel, stepson of the deceased, to the effect that he had poisoned and bled her to death, although, as he alleged, he had been absent at Aberdeen at the time of her death. A warrant being obtained, the body was raised from the grave and examined. No external mark of violence was discovered, and science did not then give the means of detecting the internal consequences of poison. It was resolved, however, to revive, in this instance, a mode of discovering murder which has long been ranked with vulgar superstitions. The body being laid out in open view, Mr William Dunbar, minister of Cruden, prayed to God that he would discover the authors of any violence done to the deceased lady, if any there were; and then the persons present, one by one, including the suspected stepson, touched the body; ‘notwithstanding whereof there appeared nothing upon the body to make the least indication of her having been murdered.’ A precognition reporting all these circumstances, and making no charge against any one, was sent to the Lord Advocate.
The friends of the deceased nevertheless continued to suspect the stepson, and caused him to be apprehended and thrown into Aberdeen jail. He lay there unaccused for three months, ‘to the ruin of himself and his small family,’ till at length they agreed to have him charged before the Commissioners of Justiciary for the Highlands. Hereupon (March 6, 1699), he petitioned the Privy Council for trial before the High Court of Justiciary; which was granted. What was the upshot of the affair does not appear.
Jan. – When the Bank of Scotland was started in 1695, there were no notes for sums below five pounds. For the extension of the bank’s paper, there were now issued notes for twenty shillings – ever since a most notable part of the circulating medium in Scotland.
Nov. 9. – It was customary for the Lords of Privy Council to grant exclusive right to print and vend books for certain terms – being all that then existed as equivalent to our modern idea of copyright. Most generally, this right was given to booksellers and printers, and bore reference rather to the mercantile venture involved in the expense of producing the book, than to any idea of a reward for authorcraft. Quite in conformity with this old view of literary rights, the Council now conferred on George Mossman, stationer in Edinburgh, ‘warrant to print and sell the works of the learned Mr George Buchanan, in ane volume in folio, or by parts in lesser volumes,’ and discharged ‘all others to print, import, or sell, the whole or any part of the said Mr George his works in any volume or character, for the space of nineteen years.’
Jan. – A case of a singular character was brought before the Court of Justiciary. In the preceding July, a boy named John Douglas, son of Douglas of Dornock, attending the school of Moffat, was chastised by his teacher, Mr Robert Carmichael, with such extreme severity that he died on the spot. The master is described in the indictment as beating and dragging the boy, and giving his three lashings without intermission, so that when ‘let down’ for the third time, he ‘could only weakly struggle along to his seat, and never spoke more, but breathed out his last, and was carried dying, if not dead, out of the school.’ Carmichael fled, and kept out of sight for some weeks, ‘but by the providence of God was discovered and seized.’
‘The Lords decerned the said Mr Robert to be taken from the Tolbooth of Edinburgh by the hangman under a sure guard to the middle of the Landmarket, and there lashed by seven severe stripes then to be carried down to the Cross, and there severely lashed by six sharp stripes; and then to be carried to the Fountain Well, to be severely lashed by five stripes; and then to be carried back by the hangman to the Tolbooth. Likeas, the Lords banish the said Mr Robert furth of this kingdom, never to return thereto under all highest pains.’
Feb. 3. – This is the date of a conflagration in Edinburgh, which made a great impression at the time, and was long remembered. It broke out in one of the densest parts of the city, in a building between the Cowgate and Parliament Close, abut ten o’clock of a Saturday night. Here, in those days, lived men of no small importance. We are told that the fire commenced in a closet of the house of Mr John Buchan, being that below the residence of Lord Crossrig, one of the judges. Part of his lordship’s family were in bed, and he was himself retiring, when the alarm was given, and he and his family were obliged to escape without their clothes. ‘Crossrig, naked, with a child under his oxter [armpit], happing for his life,’ is cited as one of the sad sights of the night. ‘When people were sent into his closet to help out with his cabinet and papers, the smoke was so thick that they only got out a small cabinet with great difficulty. Albeit his papers were lying about the floor, or hung about the walls of his closet in pocks, yet they durst not stay to gather them up or take them… so that that cabinet, and his servant [clerk]’s lettron [desk], which stood near the door of the lodging, with some few other things, was all that was saved, and the rest, even to his lordship’s wearing-clothes, were burnt.’ According to an eye-witness, the fire continued to burn all night and till ten o’clock on Sunday morning, ‘with the greatest frayor and vehemency that ever I saw a fire do, notwithstanding that I saw London burn.’ ‘The flames were so terrible, that none durst come near to quench it. It was a very great wind, which blew to such a degree, that, with the sparks that came from the fire, there was nothing to be seen through the whole city but as it had been showers of sparks, like showers of snow, they were so thick.’
‘There are burnt, by the easiest computation, between three and four hundred families; the pride of Edinburgh is sunk; from the Cowgate to the High Street, all is burnt, and hardly one stone left upon another. The Commissioner, the President of Parliament, the President of the Court of Session [Sir Hugh Dalrymple], the Bank [of Scotland], most of the lords, lawyers, and clerks were burnt, besides many poor families. The Parliament House very nearly [narrowly] escaped; all registers confounded [the public registers being kept there]; clerks’ chambers and processes in such a confusion, that the Lords and officers of state are just now met in Ross’s tavern, in order to adjourn the session by reason of the disorder. Few people are lost, if any at all; but there was neither heart nor hand left among them for saving from the fire, nor a drop of water in the cisterns. Twenty thousand hands flitting [removing] their trash, they knew not where, and hardly twenty at work. Many rueful spectacles, &c.’
The town-council recorded their sense of this calamity as a ‘fearful rebuke of God,’ and the Rev. Mr Willison of Dundee did not omit to improve the occasion. ‘In Edinburgh,’ says he, ‘where Sabbath-breaking very much abounded, the fairest and stateliest of its buildings, in the Parliament Close and about it (to which scarce any in Britain were comparable), were on the fourth of February (being the Lord’s Day) burnt down and laid in ashes and ruins in the space of a few hours, to the astonishment and terror of the sorrowful inhabitants, whereof I myself was an eye-witness. So great was the terror and confusion of that Lord’s Day, that the people of the city were in no case to attend any sermon or public worship upon it, though there was a great number of worthy ministers convened in the place (beside the reverend ministers of the city) ready to have prayed with or preached to the people on that sad occasion, for the General Assembly was sitting there at the time. However, the Lord himself, by that silent Sabbath, did loudly preach to all the inhabitants of the city,’ &c.
Some of the houses burnt on this occasion, forming part of the Parliament Square, were of the extraordinary altitude of fourteen stories, six or seven of which, however, were below the level of the ground on the south side. these had been built about twenty years before by Thomas Robertson, brewer, a thriving citizen, who is described in his epitaph in the Greyfriars’ churchyard as ‘remarkable for piety towards God, loyalty towards his prince, love to his country, and civility towards all persons.’ But Robertson, as youngest bailie, had given the Covenant out of his hand to be burnt at the Cross in 1661; and ‘now God in his providence hath sent a burning among his lands, so that that which was eleven years a-building, was not six hours of burning. Notwithstanding this, he was a good man, and lamented to his death the burning of the Covenant; he was also very helpful to the Lord’s prisoners during the late persecution.’ There being no insurance against fire in those days, the heirs of Robertson were reduced from comparative affluence to poverty, and the head of the family was glad to accept the situation of a captain in the city guard, and at last was made a pensioner upon the city’s charge.
Amongst the burnt out has been mentioned the Bank of Scotland. ‘The directors and others concerned did with great care and diligence carry off all the cash, bank-notes, books, and papers in the office; being assisted by a party of soldiers brought from the castle by the Earl of Leven, then governor thereof, and governor of the bank, who, with the Lord Ruthven, then a director, stood all the night directing and supporting the soldiers, in keeping the stair and passage from being overcrowded. But the Company lost their lodging and whole furniture in it.’
Lord Crossrig, who suffered so much by this fire, tells us in his Diary, that in the late evil times – that is, before the Revolution – he had been a member of a society that met every Monday afternoon ‘for prayer and conference.’ Since their deliverance, such societies had gone out of fashion, and profanity went on increasing till it came to a great height. Hearing that there were societies setting up in England ‘for reformation of manners,’ and falling in with a book that gave an account of them, he bethought him how desirable it was that something of the sort should be attempted in Edinburgh, and spoke to several friends on the subject. there was, consequently, a meeting at his house in November 1699, at which were present Mr Francis Grant (subsequently Lord Cullen); Mr Alexander Dundas, physician, and some other persons, who then determined to form themselves into such a society, under sanction of some of the clergy. The schedule of rules for this fraternity was signed on the night when the fire happened.
‘This,’ says Crossrig, ‘is a thing I remark as notable, which presently was a rebuke to some of us for some fault in our solemn engagement there, and probably Satan blew that coal to witness his indignation at a society designedly entered into in opposition to the Kingdom of Darkness, and in hopes that such an occurrence should dash our society in its infancy, and discourage us to proceed therein. However, blessed be our God, all who then met have continued steadfast ever since… and we have had many meetings since that time, even during the three months that I lived at the Earl of Winton’s lodging in the Canongate… Likeas, there are several other societies of the same nature set up in this city.’
Nov. 16. – A band of persons, usually called Egyptians or gipsies, used to go about the province of Moray in armed fashion, helping themselves freely to the property of the settled population, and ordinarily sleeping in kilns near the farmhouses. There seems to have been thirty of them in all, men and women; but it was seldom that more than eight or ten made their appearance in any one place. It was quite a familiar sight, at a fair or market in Banff, Elgin, Forres, or any other town of the district, to see nearly a dozen sturdy Egyptians march in with a piper playing at their head, their matchlocks slung behind them, and their broadswords or dirks by their sides, to mingle in the crowd, inspect the cattle shown for sale, and watch for bargains passing among individuals, in order to learn who was in the way of receiving money. They would be viewed with no small suspicion and dislike by the assembled rustics and farmers; but the law was unable to put them entirely down.
James Macpherson, who was understood to be the natural son of a gentleman of the district by a gipsy mother, was a conspicuous or leading man in the band; he was a person of goodly figure and great strength and daring, always carrying about with him – how acquired we cannot tell – an example of the two-handed swords of a former age, besides other weapons. He had a talent for music, and was a good player on the violin. It has been stated that some traits of a generous nature occasionally shone out in him; but, on the whole, he was merely a Highland cateran, breaking houses and henroosts, stealing horses and cattle, and living recklessly on the proceeds, like the tribe with which he associated.
Duff, Laird of Braco, founder of the honours and wealth of the Earls of Fife, took a lead at this time in the public affairs of his district. He formed the resolution of trying to give a check to the lawless proceedings of the Egyptians, by bringing their leaders to justice. It required some courage to face such determined ruffians with arms in their hands, and he had a further difficulty in the territorial prejudices of the Laird of Grant, who regarded some of the robbers as his tenants, and felt bound, accordingly, to protect them from any jurisdiction besides his own. This remark bears particularly upon two named Peter and Donald Brown, who had lived for half a year at a place closely adjacent to Castle-Grant, and the former of whom was regarded as captain of the band.
Finding Macpherson, the Browns, and others at the ‘Summer’s Eve Fair in Keith, the stout-hearted Braco made up his mind to attack them. To pursue a narrative which appears to be authentic: ‘As soon as he observed them in the fair, he desired his brother-in-law, Lesmurdie, to bring him a dozen stout men, which he did. They attacked the villains, who, as they had several of their accomplices with them, made a desperate resistance. On eof them made a pass at Braco with his hanger, intending to run him through the heart; but it slanted along the outside of the ribs, and one of his men immediately stabbed the fellow dead. they then carried Macpherson and [Peter] Brown to a house in Keith, and set three or four stout men to guard them, not expecting any more opposition, as all the rest of the gang were fled. Braco and Lesmurdie were sitting in an upper room concerting the commitment of their prisoners, when the Laird of Grant and thirty men came calling for them, swearing no Duff in Scotland should keep them from him. Braco, hearing the noise of the Grants, came down-stairs, and said, with seeming unconcern and humour: “That he designed to have sent them to prison; but he saw they were too strong a party for him to contend with, and so he must leave them;” but, without losing a moment, he took a turn through the market, found other two justices of peace, kept a court, and assembled sixty stout fellows, with whom he retook the two criminals, and sent them to prison.’
James Macpherson, the two Browns, and James Gordon, were brought before the sheriff of Banffshire at Banff, on the 7th of November 1700, charged with ‘being habit and repute Egyptians and vagabonds, and keeping the markets in their ordinary manner of thieving and purse-cutting’… being guilty also of ‘masterful bangstrie and oppression.’ A procurator appeared on the part of the young Laird of Grant, demanding surrender of the two Browns, to be tried in the court of his regality, within whose bounds they had lived, and offering a culreach or pledge for them; but the demand was overruled, on the ground that the Browns had never been truly domiciliated there. Witnesses were adduced, who detailed many felonies of the prisoners. They had stolen sheep, oxen, and horses; they had broken into houses, and taken away goods; they had robbed men of their purses, and tyrannously oppressed many poor people. It was shown that the band was in the habit of speaking a peculiar language. They often spent whole nights in dancing and debauchery, Peter Brown or Macpherson giving animation to the scene by the strains of the violin. An inhabitant of Keith related how Macpherson came to his house one day, seeking for him, when, nor finding him, he stabbed the bed, to make sure he was not there, and, on going away, set the ale-barrel a-flowing. The jury gave a verdict against all the four prisoners; but sentence was for the meantime passed upon only Macpherson and Gordon, adjudging them to be hanged next market-day.
Macpherson spent the last hours of his life in composing a tune expressive of the reckless courage with which he regarded his fate. He marched to the place of execution, a mile from the town, playing this air on his violin. He even danced to it under the fatal tree. Then he asked if any one in the crowd would accept his fiddle, and keep it as a memorial of Macpherson; and finding no one disposed to do so, he broke the instrument over his knee, and threw himself indignantly from the ladder. Such was the life and death of a man of whom one is tempted to think that, with such qualities as he possessed, he might, in a happier age, have risen to some better distinction than that which unfortunately he has attained.1