7th of January – St Distaff’s Day

St Lucian, of Antioch, priest and martyr, 312. St Cedd, bishop of London, 7th century. St Thilio, 702. St Kentigerna, widow, 728. St Aldric, bishop of Mans, 856. St Canut, 1171. 


Born. – Robert Nicoll, poet, 1814. 
Died. Fenelon de la Mothe, 1715; Allan Ramsay, the Scottish poet, 1758; J. H. Frere, poet, 1846.



As the first free day after the twelve by which Christmas was formerly celebrated, the 7th of January was a notable one among our ancestors. They jocularly called it St Distaff’s Day, or Rock Day, because by women the rock or distaff was then resumed, or proposed to be so. The duty seems to have been considered a dubious one, and when it was complied with, the ploughmen, who on their part scarcely felt called upon on this day to resume work, made it their sport to set the flax a-burning; in requital of which prank, the maids soused the men from the water-pails.

Mr. John Yonge Akerman, in a paper read before the Society of Antiquaries, has carefully traced the memorials of the early use of the distaff and spindle on the monuments of Egypt, in ancient mythology and ancient literature, and everywhere shews these implements as the insignia of womanhood. We scarcely needed such proof for a fact of which we have assurance in the slightest reflection on human needs and means, and the natural place of woman in human society. The distaff and spindle must, of course, have been coeval with the first efforts of our race to frame textures for the covering of their persons, for they are the very simplest arrangement for the formation of thread: the distaff, whereon to hang the flax or tow – the spindle, a loaded pin or stick, whereby to effect the twisting; the one carried under the arm, the other dangling and turning in the fingers below, and forming an axis round which to wind parcels of the thread as soon as it was made. Not wonderful is it that Solomon should speak of woman as laying her hands to the distaff (Prov. xxxi. 19), that the implement is alluded to by Homer and Herodotus, and that one of the oldest of the mythological ideas of Greece represented the Three Fates as spinning the thread of human destiny.

It was admitted in those old days that a woman could not quite make a livelihood by spinning; but, says Anthony Fitzherbert, in his Boke of Husbandrie, ‘it stoppeth a gap,’ it saveth a woman from being idle, and the product was needful. No rank was above the use of the spindle. Homer’s princesses only had them gilt. The lady carried her distaff in her gemmed girdle, and her spindle in her hand, when she went to spend half a day with a neighbouring friend. The farmer’s wife had her maids about her in the evening, all spinning. So lately as Burn’s time, when lads and lasses came together to spend an evening in social glee, each of the latter brought her spinning apparatus, or rock,1 and the assemblage was called a rocking:

‘On Fasten’s eve we had a rocking.’

It was doubtless the same with Horace’s uxor Sabina, perusta solibus, as with Burns’s bonnie Jean.

The change from the distaff and spindle to the spinning-wheel appears to have been almost coincident with an alteration in, or modification of, our legal phraseology, and to have abrogated the use of the word spinster when applied to single women of a certain rank.

‘I am unable’ (says Mr Akerman) ‘to trace these distinctions to their source, but they are too remarkable, as indicating a great change of feeling among the upper classes in the sixteenth century, to be passed unnoticed. May we suppose that, among other causes, the art of printing had contributed to bring about this change, affording employment to women of condition, who now devoted themselves to reading instead of applying themselves to the primitive occupation of their grandmothers; and that the wheel and the distaff being left to humbler hands, the time-honoured name of spinster was at length considered too homely for a maiden above the common rank.

The spinning-wheel has almost left us – with the lace-pillow, the hour-glass, and the horn-book; but not so on the Continent. ‘The art of spinning, in one of its simplest and most primitive forms, is yet pursued in Italy, where the country-women of Caia still turn the spindle, unrestrained by that ancient rural law which forbade its use without doors [outside]. The distaff has outlived the consular fasces, and survived the conquests of the Goth and the Hun. But rustic hands alone now sway the sceptre of Tanaquil, and all but the peasant disdain a practice which once beguiled the leisure of high-born dames.’



The shortness and speed of human life are brought strongly before our minds when we cast the simplest look back upon our own career, find ourselves grandfathers so long before what appears the proper time, and finally discover that we are about to leave the world with not half of our plans and wishes accomplished. The matter is also very pointedly illustrated by the great changes which every one finds in the personnel of his surrounding world every ten years or so; the boys become men, the little girls now reckoning each their two or three babies, the matronly hostess who used to sit at the heads of hospitable tables now retired into quiet dowagerhood, the vigorous mature men now becoming shaky and unfit for business, the old and venerable now to be found only in the churchyard! On the other hand, one sometimes get an exhilaration as to human life and his own individual prospects, by instances of lives at once remarkably protracted and attended by singular health and vigour. To find a Brougham at eighty-two heading a great social gathering like that which took place at Glasgow in September 1860, or a Lyndhurst at eighty-eight pouring out the words of experience and sagacity in the House of Lords for four hours at a time, is felt by all younger persons as a moral glass of champagne. The day looks brighter by our even hearing such a fact alluded to. And the reason obviously is that we get from such facts a conviction of pleasant possibilities for ourselves. We all feel that such may, in favouring circumstances be our own case. It seems to imply that Time is, after all, not so deadly an enemy to us as he is generally represented: if we use him well, he will use us well. There is, moreover, a spirit in man which gives him the desire and the power to resist the influence of surrounding agencies. We delight to brave cold, hunger, fatigue, and danger. The unconquerable will joyfully hardens itself to throw off the common effects of life’s many evils. It is a joy to this spirit to find that some valorous souls can and do live on, and on, and on, so long, seeming as if they had acquired some mastery over fate itself – that Power – ‘nil miserantis Orci,’ – before which, alas, we must all fall sooner or later.

There is, we must admit, a limit to this satisfaction; for when life becomes in any instance protracted to a decidedly extraordinary extent, the individual necessarily feels himself amongst strangers – perhaps helplessly dependent on them – the voice of every youthful companion hushed – the wife, perhaps even children, removed from his side – new things in which he has no part or vocation all around him. Then, indeed, it were better for him to follow those who have gone before. Yet, while the spectacle of such a superfluous relic of past ages gives us, of course, little pleasure in the contemplation, and can inspire us with no pleasant anticipations, it may become a matter of considerable interest to a mind which dwells upon time with a regard to either its historical or its sentimental relations.

For example, while no one could wish to imitate the recently deceased American, Ralph Farnham, in length of days – the fact being that he lived to 107 – no one could see him, as the Prince of Wales did in November 1860, and reflect that here was still in the body of one of the little civic band which defended Bunker Hill in 1775, without feelings of extreme interest. Such a man, thus so long surviving the multitude amongst whom he once acted, becomes to us as one returned from the dead. He ought to be a shadow and a recollection, and behold he is a reality! The whole story of the War of American Independence is now so far removed into the region of history, that any living link between it and the present time is necessarily heard of with extreme surprise.

The affair of the Forty-five precedes the struggle for American independence by thirty years; yet even that event is brought into apparent closeness to us by many surprising connections. There were still one or two Culloden men living when George IV. was king: one came to see him at Holyrood in 1822, and greeted him as ‘the last of his enemies.’ It is worth noting that an uncle of the present Lord Torphichen (1862) was an officer in the royal army in 1745, was present at the battle of Prestonpans, and is noted by Dr Carlyle in his Autobiography as the only wounded man on the king’s side who was carried to Bankton House, all the other wounded people taken there being Highlanders. [Lord Torphichen, however, had another uncle, who, when a boy in 1720, was supposed to be bewitched, and thus was the cause of a fast being held in Calder parish, and of three or four persons being imprisoned under suspicion of sorcery!] That there should be now moving in society in Edinburgh, a lady whose father-in-law attended the Prince in his wanderings, does not call for particular remark. It becomes more startling to hear Mr Andrew Coventry, of Edinburgh, a gentleman in the vigour of life, speak of having dined with the mother–in-law of the gallant Charles Edward. He did so in 1823, at the house of Mr Bethmann in Frankfort.

Perhaps this is scarcely so wonderful as that the mother of Sir Walter Scott, who survived 1820, had seen a person who had seen Cromwell make his entry into Edinburgh in 1650; on which occasion, by the way, the individual in question remarked nothing in the victor of Dunbar but the extraordinary magnitude of his nose!

Dr John Mackenzie, who had been Burns’s medical attendant at Mauchline, and who died in Edinburgh in 1841 at no very advanced age, had attended professionally a lady of rank who was born eight years before the death of the Merry Monarch [Charles II]. This was the Countess of Loudon, widow of the third Earl. She was born in 1677 and died in 1777, having attained the venerable age of a hundred.

Elizabeth, Countess Dowager of Hardwicke, who died May 26, 1858, was daughter of a person who had been a naval officer of Queen Anne and a rebel at the battle of Sheriffmuir, namely, James, fifth Earl of Balcarres. This venerable lady could have said that at her grandfather’s first marriage King Charles gave away the bride; an event which took place nearly a hundred and ninety years before her own death.

This marriage, by the way, was a remarkable one. The young Colin Earl of Balcarres was obtaining for his bride, a young Dutch lady, Mauritia de Nassau, daughter of a natural son of Maurice Prince of Orange. ‘The Prince of Orange, afterwards William III., presented his fair kinswoman on this joyful occasion with a pair of magnificent emerald ear-rings, as his wedding-gift. The day arrived, the noble party were assembled in the church, and the bride was at the altar; but, to the dismay of the company, no bridegroom appeared! The volatile Colin had forgotten the day of his marriage, and was discovered in his night-gown and slippers, quietly eating his breakfast! Thus far the tale is told with a smile on the lip, but many a tear was shed at the conclusion. Colin hurried to the church, but in his haste left the ring in his writing-case; – a friend in the company gave him one, – the ceremony went on, and, without looking at it, he placed it on the finger of his fair young bride:- it was a mourning ring, with the mort-head and cross-bones. On perceiving it at the close of the ceremony, she fainted away, and the evil omen had made such an impression on her mind, that, on recovering, she declared she should die within the year, and her presentiment was too truly fulfilled.’

When Mr and Mrs S. C. Hall in 1840 made a tour in Ireland, in order to prepare the beautiful book regarding that country which they afterwards published, they were startled one day by finding themselves in the company of a gentleman of the county of Antrim,3 who could tell them that his father had been at the battle of the Boyne, fought exactly a hundred and fifty years before. The latter was fifteen at the time of the battle. He lived a bachelor life till, on approaching old age, he overheard one day some young collateral relations talking rather too freely of what they would do with his property after his death; whereupon, in disgust, he took an early opportunity of marrying, and became the father of the gentleman in question. It is even more remarkable that Maurice O’Connell of Derrynane, who died in 1825 at the age of 99, knew Daniel McCarthy, who had been at the battle of Aughrim (July 12, 1691), – who was indeed the first man to run away from it, – but who, being 108 at his death in 1740, might have equally well remembered Cromwell’s massacre at Drogheda in 1649. The gentleman who relates this fact in the Notes and Queries,4 says: ‘I remember being told in the county of Clare, about 1828, of an individual then lately deceased, who remembered the siege of Limerick by General Ginkle, and the news of the celebrated Treaty of Limerick (October 3, 1691).’

It may first be stated in this form: a lady, who might be described as a niece of Mary Queen of Scots, died so lately as 1713. She was the widow of the Duc d’Angoulême, a natural son of Charles IX., king of France, who died in 1574, so that she survived her father-in-law a hundred and thirty-nine years.5 At the time when she left the world, a sixth generation of the posterity of Mary (Prince Frederick, father of George III.) was a boy of five years.

A man residing in Aberdeenshire, within the recollection of people still living there, not only had witnessed some of the transactions of the Civil War, but he had seen a man who was connected with the battle of Flodden, fought in September 1513. The person in question was Peter Garden, who died at Auchterless in 1775, aged 131. When a youth, he had accompanied his master to London, and there saw Henry Jenkins, who died in 1670, at the extraordinary age of 169. Jenkins, as a boy, had carried a horse-load of arrows to Northallerton, to be employed by the English army in resisting the invasion of James IV, of Scotland, and which were in reality soon after used at the battle of Flodden. Here two lives embraced events extending over two hundred and sixty-two years!


1  From the German, rocken.
2  Lives of the Lindsays, ii. 120. Rings bearing a death’s head were in great favour in the grim religious times then not long past. In a will dated 1648, occurs this clause: ‘Also I do will and appoint ten rings of gold to be made of the value of twenty shillings a-piece sterling, with a death’s head upon some of them.’ – Halliwell’s Shakspeare, v. 318.
3  Sir Edmund Macnaghten, of Bush Mills; he was father of Sir William Macnaghten, political agent at Cabul, and who fell in the massacre at that place.
4  April 12, 1851.
5  Francis II., the elder brother of Charles IX., was first husband of Mary of Scotland; consequently this unfortunate princess was by marriage aunt of the Duchess d’Angoulême.


On this Day from Other Sources.



The period of the next reign is now chiefly interesting to us as giving birth to the most important offspring of the Episcopal Church of Glasgow, its University. It was constituted by a bull of Pope Nicholas V., dated on the 7th of the Ides [7th] of January 1450, and had a charter of privileges and exemptions from the king, and another from the bishop and Chapter, 1453.

Sketches of Early Scotch History, pp.29-70.



On January 7th, 1590, when [James VI] was coming down the High Street from the Tolbooth, where he had been administering justice, two of his attendants, Lodovick Duke of Lennox (hereditary High Admiral and Great Chamberlain), and Alexander Lord Home, meeting the Laird of Logie, with whom they had a quarrel, though he was valet of the royal chamber, attacked him sword in hand, to the alarm of James, who retired into an adjacent close;

Old and New Edinburgh, pp.123-138.



From the preface to “Gologras and Gawane,” we learn that in 1528 Walter Chapman the printer founded a chaplaincy at the altar of Jesus Christ, in St. Giles, and endowed it with a tenement in the Cowgate; and there is good reason for believing that the pious old printer lies buried in the south transept of the church, close by the spot where the Regent Murray, the Regent Morton, and his great rival, John Stewart Earl of Athole, are buried; and adjoining the aisle where the sorely mangled remains of the great Marquis of Montrose were so royally interred on the 7th of January, 1661.

Old and New Edinburgh, pp.138-148.


Jan. 7. [1661] – By order of the king, the magistracy of Edinburgh raised the trunk of the Marquis of Montrose from under the gallows on the Burgh-moor, in presence of a great number of nobles, gentlemen, and others, who expressed the most lively interest in the scene.1 This relic being wrapped in ‘curious cloths’ and put into a coffin, was carried along under a velvet canopy to the Tolbooth, the nobles and gentry attending on horseback, while many thousands followed on foot, colours at the same time flying, drums beating, trumpets sounding, muskets cracking, and cannon roaring from the Castle. At the Tolbooth, the head of the Great Marquis, which had grinned there for ten years, was taken reverentially down, ‘some bowing, some kneeling, some kissing it,’ and deposited in its proper place in the coffin, ‘with great acclamations of joy,’ the trumpets, drums, and cannon giving all possible éclat to the act. The coffin was then carried in solemn procession to the Palace, to rest till a proper funeral ceremony should be ordered. While the ‘excommnicat traitor’ of 1650 was thus treated, the triumphant and all-powerful noble of that time, the Marquis of Argyll, was a prisoner in the Castle, waiting a doom which was precisely to resemble that of Montrose, excepting in some particulars of inhumanity, which vengeful loyalty could not descend to. 

 Domestic Annals, pp. 302-321.


1  See page 282.
*  For full coverage of this event see the Caledonian Mercury‘s first issue [8th of January, 1661]


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