My esteemed friend Lord Neaves, who it is well known, combines, with his great legal knowledge and high literary acquirements, a keen sense of the humorous, has sometimes pleasantly complained of my drawing so many of my specimens of Scottish humour from sayings and doings of Scottish ministers. There can be no doubt that the older school of our national clergy supply some most amusing anecdotes. They were a shrewd and observant race. They lived amongst their own people from year to year, and knew well the Scottish type of character. Their retired habits and familiar intercourse with their parishioners, gave rise to many quaint and racy communications. They were excellent men, well suited to their pastoral work, and did much good amongst their congregations; for it should be always remembered that a national church requires a sympathy and resemblance between the pastors and the flocks. Both will be found to change together. Nothing could be further from my mind in recording these stories, than the idea of casting ridicule upon such an order of men. My own feelings as a Scotchman, with all their ancestral associations, lead me to cherish their memory with pride and deep interest. I may appeal also to the fact that many contributions to this volume are voluntary offerings from distinguished clergymen of the Church of Scotland, as well as of the Free Church and of other Presbyterian communities. Indeed, no persons enjoy these stories more than ministers themselves. I recollect many years ago travelling to Perth in the old stage-coach days, and enjoying the society of a Scottish clergyman, who was a most amusing companion, and full of stories, the quaint humour of which accorded with his own disposition. When we had come through Glen Farg, my companion pointed out that we were in the parish of Dron. With much humour he introduced an anecdote of a brother minister not of a brilliant order of mind, who had terminated in this place a course of appointments in the Church, the names of which, at least, were of an ominous character for a person of unimaginative temperament. The worthy man had been brought up at the school of Dunse – had been made assistant at Dull, a parish near Aberfeldy, in the Presbytery of Weem, and had here ended his days and his clerical career as minister of Dron.
Sir Walter Scott in the dedication to the King (George the Fourth) of his collected edition of the Waverley Novels, views with much complacency the fact that “the perusal of them has been supposed, in some instances, to have succeeded in amusing hours of relaxation, or relieving those of languor, pain, or anxiety.” No doubt it is a source of allowable satisfaction to an author to think that he has in any degree, even the lowest and most humble, contributed to the innocent recreation of a world where sorrow and distress so generally prevail. The work of preparing these Reminiscences has sometimes succeeded in drawing off the mind of the author from sad and painful recollections of his own domestic trials, and he may perhaps be permitted to state, that in several cases he has received assurance that these pages have beguiled an hour of languor and debility; that they have recalled many pleasant associations with the past, and have given a permanent and agreeable impression of a pleasantry and humour exclusively and essentially of a Scottish type and character.
I wish it to be distinctly understood that these desultory records were never intended to treat of the changes which have taken place amongst us during the last half century, in literature or philosophy, in laws, commerce, manufactures, or in the deeper phases of our national character. I treat of changes and of transitions which lie rather upon the surface of social life. In fact, I speak of what, to a great degree, I can verify from my own experience – what I have not seen and known in my own person I generally narrate from the direct testimony of others. I can myself go back in memory for fifty years; and therefore these observations, trivial and superficial as they may be, I might name, in imitation of my distinguished great-great-great-uncle, Bishop Burnett, and call them “Memoirs of my own Time,” or, more correctly, to follow a recent example of collected reminiscences (that of the late lamented Lord Cockburn), “Memorials of my Time.” I have recorded the remarks following in the way of an experiment, hoping that it might form a precedent or example for others to take up the question of changes amongst us, and for those to state results of their observation who have had far more experience than I have (as I was only an occasional visitor to my own country from the age of eight to the age of thirty), who have more opportunities of judging, and who are possessed of far better powers of description. As Lord Cockburn has observed, “A change has been going on for a long time.” “The feelings and habits which had prevailed at the Union, and which had left so many picturesque peculiarities on the Scottish character, could not survive the enlarged intercourse with England and the world.” Much of this change had of course taken place before any of the present generation can remember. Much has been done in my own recollection, and now there remains only comparatively the slighter shades of difference to be assimilated, and soon there will be little to notice. Now, a subject like this can only be illustrated by a copious application of anecdotes which must show the features of the past. And let me premise that I make use of anecdotes not for the purpose of telling a good story, but solely in the way of illustration. I am quite certain that there was an originality, a dry and humorous mode of viewing persons and events quite peculiar to the older Scottish characters. And I am equally certain, that their peculiar humour can only be exhibited in examples. I have just been supplied, by two much valued and kind friends, with anecdotes highly illustrative of what I have endeavoured to record; from Mr. Erskine of Linlathan I have received the following:- Mr Erskine recollects an old housekeeper at Airth who belonged to this class of character. A speech of this Mrs. Henderson was preserved in the family as having been made by her at the time of the execution of Louis XVI. in 1793. She was noticing the violent emotions exhibited by Mr. Bruce of Kinnaird, the Abyssinian traveller, at the sad event which had just taken place, and added, in the following quaint and caustic terms, “There’s Kinnaird greeting as if there were nae a saunt on earth but himsell and the king o’ France.” How utterly unlike anything that would be said on such an occasion by an English person in the same position in life!
The other anecdote (which has just been sent by a kind correspondent from Aberdeenshire) I introduce here as a pure sample of the Scottish humour we are speaking of. It seems to me to possess more than the ordinary amount of those racy qualities which so often distinguished the older class of Scottish parish functionaries. The story is recorded as having been told by the late Rev. Alexander Allardice, minister of Forgue in Aberdeenshire, who possessed an unusual vein of dry caustic humour, and who told stories of that description in a most relishable way.
A neighbouring minister was to assist Mr. Allardice, and arrived at the manse on Saturday, where he was to sleep, and take the duty on Sunday following. He was a conceited youth – a frothy declamatory preacher – and, as a stranger, anxious to make a great sensation in the county. After dinner, he strolled out into the churchyard, and encountered John the beddal and parish oracle engaged in digging a grave – and much of a humourist in his way – moreover, a formidable critic of the theological soundness of the neighbouring ministers. Our young divine having been very recently placed, supposed himself to be personally unknown to the Forgue functionary. Accordingly he began to pump Beddal John as to the opinion held of the brethren around who had assisted at Forgue. To query after query John gave out his unvarying oracular response, “Na, sir, we dinna like him; he’s nae soun” – and “we dinna like him eather; he’s nae soun’,” clinching every decision with the “yerk” of a spadeful of earth on the grave’s brink. At last the reverend pumper having exhausted the circle of his brethren of the Presbytery, and secretly gratified, no doubt, with this summary and unqualified testimony against them, anxious to hear what was thought in the country side about himself, where he rather flattered himself he was creating a sensation, and trusting to his incognito (though John was perfectly aware who his colloquist was), ventured to ask, “Well, now, the parish of ———— has got a famous preacher, the Rev. Mr. ————, what do you think of him? is he ‘soun’?” “ ‘Od, sir,” replied John, with a sly twinkle, and resting for a moment on his spade, “I hinna heard him mysel’; but folk that hae, say he’s A’ soun’.” John recommenced digging with redoubled diligence, and exit the reverend querist, feeling, we may fancy, rather small.
If my anecdotes should occasionally excite amusement or even laughter, there is no harm done; but let it be remembered this is not the object. The object, as I say, is to shew what the past referred to really was. In short, whatever tends to illustrate changes – to mark times that are gone – I have not hesitated to use.
We have now, therefore, to deal with common events and with changes which, though in themselves often deep and important, yet appear to the observer to affect only what is external; and as we must have some classification or arrangement of the subjects on which these changes are to be marked, I would propose to record some Reminiscences on the following subjects:-
I. On Religious Feelings and Religious Observances.
II. On old Scottish Conviviality.
III. On the old Scottish Domestic Servant.
IV. On Humour proceeding from Scottish Language, including Scottish Proverbs.
V. On Scottish stories of Wit and Humour.