23rd of December

St Servulus, confessor, 590. The Ten Martyrs of Crete, 3d century. St Victoria, virgin and martyr, 250.

Born. – Robert Barclay, celebrated Quaker, author of the Apology, 1648, Gordonstown, Morayshire; Frederick Augustus of Saxony, 1750; Sir Martin Archer Shee, portrait-painter, 1770, Dublin; Alexander I., Emperor of Russia, 1777. 
Died. – Childebert I., of France, 558, Paris; Henri de Lorraine, Duke of Guise, assassinated at Blois, 1588; William Davison, secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth, 1608.


The popular omens of death are almost innumerable, yet the appearance of any one of them is, according to rustic credulity, sufficient to foreshew the decease of any ordinary person in the middle or lower classes of society. For common people must be satisfied with common things. Even superstition knows how to pay due deference to rank and genealogy, and cunningly insinuates herself among the aristocracy, by contributing her mysterious influence to enhance the honours of rank and birth. Thus, among the élite, death-omens assume a special and distinctive shape, and, becoming a sort of household dependents, are never heard of but when they appear to do ‘suit and service’ to the respective families with which they are severally connected. So that the family, thus supernaturally honoured, while disdaining all vulgar omens of mortality, beholds the appearance of its own with dismay, feeling assured that death will soon visit some one of its members. Some of these family omens are curious and interesting… 

In a note to the Lady of the Lake, Sir Walter Scott gives the following curious account from the manuscript memoirs of Lady Fanshaw. Her husband, Sir Richard, and herself, chanced, during their abode in Ireland, to visit a friend, the head of a sept, who resided in his ancient baronial castle, surrounded with a moat. At midnight, Lady Fanshaw was awakened by a ghostly and supernatural scream; and, looking out of bed, beheld, by the moonlight, a female face and part of the form hovering at the window. The distance from the ground, as well as the circumstance of the moat, excluded the possibility that what she beheld was of this world. The face was that of a young and rather handsome woman, but pale; and the hair, which was reddish, was loose and dishevelled. The dress, which Lady Fanshaw’s terror did not prevent her remarking accurately, was that of the ancient Irish. This apparition continued to exhibit itself for some time, and then vanished with two shrieks similar to that which had first excited Lady Fanshaw’s attention. In the morning, with infinite terror, she communicated to her host what she had witnessed, and found him prepared not only to credit, but to account for the apparition. ‘A near relation of my family,’ said he, ‘expired last night in this castle. We disguised our certain expectation of the event from you, lest it should throw a cloud over the cheerful reception which was your due. Now, before such an event happens in this family and castle, the female spectre, whom you have seen, always is visible. She is believed to be the spirit of a woman of inferior rank, whom one of my ancestors degraded himself by marrying, and whom afterwards, to expiate the dishonour done to his family, he caused to be drowned in the castle-moat.’ In his Peveril of the Peak, Sir Walter mentions a similar female spirit or ban-shee, said to attend on the Stanley family, warning them, by uttering a shriek, of some approaching calamity; and especially, ‘weeping and bemoaning herself before the death of any person of distinction belonging to the family.’ 

It is unfortunate that so many of these ancient family omens have come down unaccompanied with the particulars that gave rise to them, which would have rendered them far more interesting. Now, we can scarcely see any connection between the omen and the family, or conceive why the things specified should have been considered omens of death at all.

On this Day in Other Sources.

The Queen was brought to bed of a son at Dunfermline; he was christened Charles, [on] the 23rd of December [1599]; and on the day of his christening, by the King his father, he was created Lord of Ardmannoch, Earl of Ross, Marques of Ormond and Duke of Albany. And within [six] days thereafter, his majesty made a great feast to his nobility and Lords of his privy counsel; and to honour the feast the more, he created the Lord [Alexander] Livingstone, Earl of Linlithgow; the Lord [Robert] Seton, Earl of Winton; and [Robert Ker] the Lord of Cessford, Earl of Roxburghe; and sundry gentlemen he knighted: and after the banquet was served in, the [whole] canons of the castle were several times discharged. 

– Historical Works, pp.340-416.

Dec. 23 [1600]. – The baptism of the young prince, subsequently Charles I., took place this day at Holyroodhouse. The manner in which the king obtained the means of holding any such ceremonial is illustrated by the following letter (printed literatim), which he addressed on the occasion to the Laird of Dundas: 

‘Richt traist friend, we greet you heartily well. The baptism of our dearest son being appointit at Halyrudhouse upon the xxiii day of Decemr instant, wherat some princes of France, strangers, with the specialis of our nobility, being invyted to be present, necessar it is that great provisions, gude cheir, and sic uther things necessary for decorations thairof be providit, whilks cannot be had without the help of sum of our loving subjects, quhairof accounting you one of the specialis, we have thought good to request you effectuously to propyne with vennysons, wyld meit, Brissel fowlis, caponis, with sic other provisions as are maist seasonable at that time and errand. To be sent into Halyrudhouse upon the 22 day of the said moneth of December instant, and herewithall to invyte you to be present at that solemnitie, to take part of your awin gude cheir, as you tender our honour, and the honour of the country; swa we committ you to God. From Lithgow, this 6th of Decemr 1600 – JAMES R.’ 

– Domestic Annals, pp.124-176.

Dec. 23 [1606]. – The Privy Council had some time ago issued a proclamation forbidding what was called the backing of pairties to the bar – that is, each party in a lawsuit coming into court with a number of friends and favourers behind him, with a view to exercising some influence over the course of justice. Finding that the former denouncement of ‘this indecent and unseemly custom’ had not been attended with any effect, partly through the public being unacquainted with it, and partly through the negligence of the officers of the law, the Council now renewed their proclamation, with assurance that their orders would in future be strictly acted upon. The practice continued in force some years later. – P. C. R. 

– Domestic Annals, pp.177-277.

Dec. 23 [1610]. – We have now the first hint at public conveyances in Scotland in a letter of the king, encouraging Henry Anderson of Trailsund to bring a number of coaches and wagons with horses into Scotland, and licensing him and his heirs for fifteen years ‘to have and use coaches and wagons, ane or mae, as he shall think expedient, for transporting of his hieness lieges betwixt the burgh of Edinburgh and town of Leith… providing that he be ready at all times for serving of his majesty’s lieges, and that he tak not aboon the sum of twa shillings Scots money for transporting of every person betwixt the said twa towns at ony time.’ 

– Domestic Annals, pp.177-227.

As an example of how the people were imposed upon in those days, when rumours were easily circulated and difficult of contradiction, we may here quote an anonymous broadsheet, which was then hawked about the streets of London and other places in England:- 

A true relation of the horrid and bloody massacre 
in Scotland

“By the Irish Papists; who landed sixty miles from Edinburgh, putting all to fire and sword in their way to that city. 

“Barwick, Dec. 23rd, 1688.  

      “SIR, – Yesternight we had the sad and surprising news, by an Express of the Council of Scotland to our Governour, that about 20,000 Irish were landed in Scotland, about sixty miles from Edinburgh, putting all to fire and sword, to whom the Apostate Chancellor of that kingdom will join with the rest of the bloody Papists there. And truly, sir, that kingdom being unarm’d and undisciplin’d, those massacres will, in a short space, run a great length. I desire you may disperse this news abroad, if it be not in town before your receipt of this; for that country, and the North of England, without speedy relief, is in great danger of depopulation. And the Duke of Gordon hath in his possession the Castle of Edinburgh, whereby he can at pleasure level that city with the ground. At twelve of the clock yesternight our Governor, Lieut.-Collonel Billingsley, dispatched an Express to the Lords Danby and Lumley for drawing their forces to this town. I received yours to-day, which being Sabbath-day, I beg your pardon for brevity. 

     “I was told they see the fires and burnings of those Rebels at Edinburgh; this is the beginning of the discovery of the Popish intrigue. God defend England from the French, and his Highness the Prince of Orange from the bloody Popish attempts! 

     “London: Published by J. Wells, St. Paul’s Alley, St. Paul’s Churchyard, 1688.” 

Tidings of William’s landing filled the Scottish Presbyterians with the wildest joy, and the magistrates of Edinburgh, who but two years before had been extravagant in their protestations to James VII., were among the first to welcome the invader; and the city filled fast with bands of jubilant revolutionists, rendering it unsafe for all of cavalier tenets to be within the walls. 

– Old and New Edinburgh, pp.47-66.

James retired to London before the advancing army, and was immediately deserted by all his principal counsellors, and even by his younger daughter, the Princess Anne. Feeling no support around him, he first despatched the queen and her infant to France, and then prepared to follow. In the disguise of a servant, he escaped down the river to Faversham, but being there seized by the populace as a popish refugee, he was brought back to London. It was found, however, that the government could not be settled on a proper footing while he remained in the country; and he was therefore permitted once more to depart (December 23, 1688). He left the kingdom in the belief that the people could not do without him, and would call him back in triumph; but, in reality, nothing could have been more agreeable to them than his departure. 

In Scotland, the Privy Council and Established Church were left by the departure of the king an isolated power in the midst of a people generally indisposed to give them support. There was an irrepressible popular eagerness to break out against such popish establishments as the king had set up – to attack and extrude the more obnoxious of the clergy, and to take some vengeance upon the more noted instruments of the late arbitrary power, as the Chancellor Perth and Graham of Claverhouse, whom James had lately created Viscount Dundee. The populace did lose no time in rising against the popishly furnished chapel-royal at Holyrood and a Catholic printing-office which had been placed in its neighbourhood; and after a struggle with the armed guards, both places were pillaged and ruined. In the other parts of Scotland, where prelacy had won some favour or been quietly endured, no particular movement took place. King William, however, finding that the Scottish bishops remained faithful to James, felt compelled to take the Presbyterians under his protection; consequently, the parliament proceeded to abolish prelacy in the church, and to establish Presbyterianism as it now exists. 

– Domestic Annals, pp.338-341.

Dec. 23 [1696]. – 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.’ 

– Domestic Annals, pp.355-378.

Gaelic dictionaries mention “legends” as sources from which words have been taken. Amongst the Gaelic MSS. now in the Advocates’ Library, there are several which contain tales similar to those now told in the Highlands. One passage about the sailing of a many people living in various parts of the Highlands, I find in a MS. which was lent to me by the secretary of the Celtic Society of London. It is dated 23d December 1808, signed Alexander Stewart, A.M., and marked, Poems of Ossian. It contains 7721 lines of Gaelic, mostly poetry, which by the references seem to have been copied from something else. The passage to which I refer, occurs in a “Fragment of a Tale,” p. 17, which occupies thirty-seven folio pages, and treats of carrying off a lady from an island, and her recovery by her husband. 

– Popular Tales, Vol.1, pp.viii-xxiii.


   “Nemo me impune lacessit,’ Broughty Ferry, writes:- Most Scotsmen must now be agreed that the present expensive and unsatisfactory system of legislating on Scottish local affairs in London has continued quite long enough, to say nothing of the fact that the bulk of the English and Irish members are profoundly ignorant of Scottish affairs. As matters at present stand the only persons who benefit are London lawyers and Parliamentary agents, Scotland and Ireland being mere preserves for these gentlemen. No wonder that our Scottish railways are complaining of their dividends being to a certain extent eaten up by the expense of legislating in London; and the fact is notorious that these local affairs could be settled in Edinburgh for a mere trifle in comparison with the expense of taking them to London. Scotland is also most unfairly treated in the matter of representation, as our proper proportion to put us on a par with England and Ireland is seventy-three members; and we are certainly entitled to demand a representative in the Cabinet, either in the shape of the restoration of the office of Secretary for Scotland or of the Lord Advocate. There is also another grievance of recent origin under which we at present suffer, and which is calculated to engender a feeling of hate towards England. I refer to the recent assumption of a certain jurisdiction by the English Cockney Judges by a clause smuggled into a recent English Judicature Act. Under this extraordinary arrangement an English plaintiff may in certain cases drag a Scotsman all the way to London, it may be for a paltry sum, that is, if the Scot is fool enough to pay any attention to their writ, as they call it, even although served through the Scottish Court. This sort of thing ought to have been stopped long ago, and the Scottish members can easily do so if they like. This is likewise a direct infringement of the 19th article of the Treaty of Union. This Treaty, which deprived Scotland of its local Legislature, was very unpopular at the time of its passing, and the Scottish Parliament was about equally divided on the subject, but England, by distributing its gold freely, secured majorities sufficient to carry the measure. Doubtless the ‘Anglified’ noblemen and lairds of Scotland who are descendants of those who signed the treaty and the aforesaid London lawyers will raise a howl against the restoration of local self-government, but the matter rests in the present day in the hands of the Scottish people, who are masters of the situation, and who need not consult either these parties in the matter. The English are proud of their country, and can they blame the Scots for cherishing the same feeling? In conclusion, if we are to preserve our nationality the Scottish members must be up and doing. If they had shown a tenth of the spirit of the Irish, Scotland would not have remained out in the cold so long. It is to be hoped, however, that they are now fully alive to the necessity of this. The disgraceful land system of our country must be so altered as to admit of the people being planted on the soil of their native country to the greatest possible extent, and in the Highlands these curses, deer forests, abolished and sheep farming restored. The Scottish people at home and abroad are not going to see their country become a mere annexe of England, and, speaking from personal observation, I can say that the spirit of patriotism is fully stronger abroad. It is, of course, possible that England may not relish the idea of Scotland having local self-government any more than Ireland, but if we are all three nations to live in peace this is what it must come to.”  

– Dundee People’s Journal, Saturday 23rd December, 1882. 

– Treaty of Union Articles, 1875-1900.

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