HE next change in manners which has been effected in the memory of many now living, regards the habits of conviviality, or, to speak more plainly, regards the banishment of drunkenness from polite society. It is indeed a most important and a blessed change. But it is a change the full extent of which many persons now alive have little conception of. It is hardly possible to realize the scenes which took place in society fifty years back, or even less. In many houses, when a party dined, the ladies going away was the signal for the commencement of a system of compulsory conviviality. No one was allowed to shirk – no daylight – no heeltaps – was the wretched jargon in which were expressed the propriety and the duty of seeing that the glass, when filled, must be emptied and drained. We have heard of glasses having the bottoms knocked off, so that no shuffling tricks might be played with them, and that they could only be put down – empty.
Some relatives of mine travelling in the Highlands were amused by observing in a small road-side public house the use of such an implement of conviviality, which called forth that quaint, humorous manner which is so thoroughly Scottish. Three drovers had met together and were celebrating their meeting by a liberal consumption of whisky; they filled their one glass without bottom and passed it on from one to another; one queer-looking pawky chield, whenever the glass came to his turn, remarked most gravely, “I think we wadna be the waur of some water,” taking care however, never to add any of the simple element, but quietly drank off his glass.
The scenes of excess which occurred in the houses where deep drinking was practised must have been most revolting to sober persons who were unaccustomed to such conviviality; as in the case of a drinking Angus laird, entertaining as his guest a London merchant of formal manners and temperate habits. The poor man was driven from the table when the drinking set in hard, and stole away to take refuge in his bed-room. The company, however, were determined not to let the worthy citizen off so easily, but proceeded in a body, with the laird at their head, and invaded his privacy by exhibiting bottles and glasses at his bed-side. Losing all patience, the wretched victim gasped out his indignation, – “Sir, your hospitality borders upon brutality.” It must have had a fatal influence also on many persons to whom drinking was most injurious, and who were yet not strong-minded enough to resist the temptations to excess. Poor James Boswell, who certainly required no extraordinary urging to take a glass too much, is found, in his letters which have recently come to light, laying the blame of his excesses to “falling into a habit which still prevails in Scotland;” and then he remarks, with censorious emphasis, on the “drunken manners of his countrymen.” This was about 1770.
In my part of the country the traditionary stories of drinking prowess are quite marvellous. On Deeside there flourished a certain Saunders Paul (whom I remember an old man), an innkeeper at Banchory. He was said to have drank whisky, glass for glass, to the claret of Mr. Maule and the Laird of Skene for a whole evening; and in those days there was a traditional story of his despatching, at one sitting, in company with a character celebrated for conviviality – one of the men employed to float rafts of timber down the Dee – three dozen of porter. Of this Mr. Paul it was recorded, that on being asked if he considered porter as a wholesome beverage, he replied, “Oh yes, if you don’t take above a dozen.” Saunders Paul was, as I have said, the innkeeper at Banchory; his friend and porter companion was drowned in the Dee, and when told that the body had been found down the stream below Crathes, he coolly remarked, “I am surprised at that, for I never kenn’d him pass the inn before without comin’ in for a glass.”
There was a sort of infatuation in the supposed dignity and manliness attached to powers of deep potation, and the fatal effects of drinking were spoken of in a manner both reckless and unfeeling. Thus, I have been assured that a well-known old laird of the old school expressed himself with great indignation at the charge brought against hard drinking that it had actually killed people. “Na, na, I never knew onybody killed wi’ drinking, but I hae kend some that deed in the training.” A positive éclat was attached to the accomplished and well-trained consumer of claret or of whisky toddy, which gave an importance and even merit to the practice of drinking, and which had a most injurious effect. I am afraid some of the Pleydels of the old school would have looked with the most ineffable contempt on the degeneracy of the present generation in this respect, and that the temperance movement would be little short of insanity in their eyes; and this leads me to a remark. – In considering this portion of our subject, we should bear in mind a distinction. The change we now speak of involves more than a mere change of a custom or practice in social life. It is a change in men’s sentiments and feelings on a certain great question of morals. Except we enter into this distinction we cannot appreciate the extent of the change which has really taken place in regard to intemperate habits.
I have an anecdote from a descendant of Principal Robertson, of an address made to him, which shewed the real importance attached to all that concerned the system of drinking in his time. The Principal had been invited to spend some days in a country house, and the minister of the parish (a jovial character) had been asked to meet him. Before dinner he went up to Dr. Robertson and addressed him confidentially, “Doctor, I understand ye are a brother of my gude freend Peter Robertson of Edinburgh, therefore I’ll gie ye a piece of advice, – Bend1 weel to the Madeira at dinner, for here ye’ll get little o’t after.” I have known persons who held that a man who could not drink must have a degree of feebleness and imbecility of character. But as this is an important point, I will adduce the higher authority of Lord Cockburn, and quote from him two examples, very different certainly in their nature, but both bearing upon the question. I refer to what he says of Lord Hermand – “With Hermand drinking was a virtue; he had a sincere respect for drinking, indeed a high moral approbation, and a serious compassion for the poor wretches who could not indulge in it, and with due contempt of those who could but did not;” and, secondly, I refer to Lord Cockburn’s pages for an anecdote which illustrates the perverted feeling I refer to, now happily no longer existing. It relates the opinion expressed by an old drunken writer of Selkirk (whose name is not mentioned) regarding his anticipation of professional success for Mr. Cranstoun, afterwards Lord Corehouse. Sir Walter Scott, William Erskine, and Cranstoun had dined with this Selkirk writer, and Scott, of hardy, strong, and healthy frame, had matched the writer himself in the matter of whisky punch. Poor Cranstoun, of refined and delicate mental and bodily temperament, was a bad hand at such work, and was soon off the field. On the party breaking up, the Selkirk writer expressed his admiration of Scott, assuring him that he would rise high in the profession, and adding: “I’ll tell ye what, Maister Walter, that lad Cranstoun may get to the tap o’ the bar, if he can; but tak my word for’t, it’s no be by drinking.”
A legal friend has told me of a celebrated circuit where Lord Hermand was judge, and Clephane depute-advocate. The party got drunk at Ayr, and so continued (although quite able for their work) till the business was concluded at Jedburgh. Some years after, my informant heard that this circuit had, at Jedburgh, acquired the permanent name of the “daft circuit.”
Lord Cockburn was fond of describing a circuit scene at Stirling, in his early days at the bar, under the presidency of his friend and connection Lord Hermand. After the circuit dinner, and when drinking had gone on for some time, young Cockburn observed places becoming vacant in the social circle, but no one going out at the door. He found that the individuals had dropt down under the table. He took the hint, and by this ruse retired from the scene. He lay quiet till the beams of the morning sun penetrated the apartment. The judge and some of his stanch friends coolly walked up stairs, washed their hands and faces, came down to breakfast, and went into court quite fresh and fit for work.
The feeling of importance frequently attached to powers of drinking, was formally attested by a well-known western baronet of convivial habits and convivial memory. He was desirous of bearing testimony to the probity, honour, and other high moral qualities of a friend whom he wished to commend. Having fully stated these claims to consideration and respect, he deemed it proper to notice also his convivial attainments; he added accordingly, with cautious approval on so important a point, – “and he is a fair drinker.”2
The following anecdote is an amusing sample of Scottish servant humour and acuteness in measuring the extent of consumption by a convivial party in Forfarshire. The party had met at a farmer’s house not far from Arbroath to celebrate the reconciliation of two neighbouring farmers who had long been at enmity. The host was pressing and hospitable; the party sat late, and consumed a glorious quantity of whisky toddy. The wife was penurious; and grudged the outlay. When at last, at a morning hour, the party dispersed, the lady, who had not slept in her anxiety, looked over the stairs and eagerly asked the servant girl, “How many bottles of whisky have they used, Betty.” The lass, who had not to pay for the whisky, but had been obliged to go to the well to fetch the water for the toddy, coolly answered, “I dinna ken, mem, but they’ve drunken sax gang o’ watter.”
We cannot imagine a better illustration of the general habits that prevailed in Scottish society in regard to drinking about the time we speak of than one which occurs in the recently published “Memoirs of a Banking House,” that of the late Sir William Forbes, Bart., of Pitsligo. The book comprises much that is interesting to the family, and to Scotchmen. It contains a pregnant hint as to the manners of polite society and business habits in those days. Of John Coutts, one of four brothers connected with the house, Sir William records how he was “more correct in his conduct than the others; so much so, that Sir William never but once saw him in the counting house disguised with liquor, and incapable of transacting business.”
I am indebted to the kindness of Mr. W. Chambers for the following graphic illustration of the scenes which the drunken habits of the time must often have exhibited in social life:- In these bygone days, Peeblesshire had its due proportion of “drunken lairds,” who, besides over-indulging in their own and their neighbours’ houses, very frequently spent a night weekly in the chief inn in the county town on the occasion of attending market. Their return home on horseback, in the dull gray mornings after these coarse convivialities in Peebles, required considerable tact, as the roads were far from being good, and, in some places, went along unguarded precipitous banks overhanging the Tweed. There was a particularly bad bit of road between Peebles and Innerleithen. Here the river makes a sudden turn at the foot of a steep bank, and forms a deep dark pool called “the dirt-pot.” Now, it happened that a certain old laird had to pass this trying spot on his way home when more than half tipsy; and it seems that on one occasion, he had been mortally affronted by some one alleging, by way of joke, “that he was afraid to pass the dirt-pot.” This affront stuck to the laird. While sober the recollection of it appeared to be in abeyance, but it always came back with full force when he reached a point of inebriety, and that was every night. Reaching this unhappy crisis, he broke out in an intolerably quarrelsome humour, muttering invectives on the subject which oppressed his mind – “Who says I am afraid to pass the dirt-pot? I say, shew me the man that tells me I am afraid to pass the dirt-pot;” – and so on he would have gone till he became perfectly outrageous. But there was an understanding in the house about what was to be done on these occasions. No sooner had the ominous words “dirt-pot” escaped the laird’s lips, than the lady, his wife, quietly touched the bell. A servant entered the room, and, slipping behind the laird, seized hold of him in her arms, and dragged him off to bed – the poor laird being heard all the way mumbling disjointed imprecations against all who dared to say he was afraid to pass the dirt-pot!
Strangely enough – indeed, most strange of all – the lady who had this unpleasant duty to perform, actually took pains to cultivate habits of drinking in her sons. An accomplished and worthy gentlewoman, she had nevertheless, the common notion that drinking was part of the necessary business of life, and that all young men should be accustomed to carry liquor discreetly. Accordingly, she daily put before the young laird a certain quantity of wine which he was obliged to drink, whether he liked it or not. This reminds us of similar practices half a century ago in Ireland, when fathers used to tell their sons “to make their head while they were young!”
In the Highlands this sort of feeling extended to an almost incredible extent, even so much as to obscure the moral and religious sentiments. Of this a striking proof was afforded in a circumstance which took place in my own church soon after I came into it. One of our Gaelic clergy had so far forgotten himself as to appear in the church somewhat the worse of liquor. This having happened so often as to come to the ears of the Bishop, he suspended him from the performance of divine service. Against this decision the people were a little disposed to rebel, because, according to their Highland notions, “a gentleman was no the waur for being able to tak a gude glass o’ whisky.” These were the notions of a people in whose eyes the power of swallowing whisky conferred distinction, and with whom inability to take the fitting quantity was a mark of a mean and futile character. Sad to tell, the funeral rites of Highland chieftains were not supposed to have been duly celebrated except there was an immoderate and often fatal consumption of whisky. It has been related that at the last funeral in the Highlands, conducted according to the traditions of the olden times, several of the guests fell victims to the usage, and actually died of the excesses.
Scenes of a most incongruous and extraordinary nature are still traditionally connected with such occasions. Within the last thirty years, a laird of Dundonald, a small estate in Ross-shire, died at Inverness. There was open house, therefore, for a few days, and great eating and drinking. Here the corpse commenced its progress towards its appointed home on the coast, and people followed in multitudes to give it a partial convoy, all of whom had to be entertained. It took altogether a fortnight to bury poor Dundonald, and the expense must have been heavy. This, however, is looked back to at Inverness as the last of the real grand old Highland funerals. Such notions of what is due to the memory of the departed have now become unusual if not obsolete. I myself witnessed the first great change in this matter. I officiated at the funeral of the late Duke of Sutherland. The procession was a mile long. Refreshments were provided for 7000 persons; beef, bread, and beer, but not one glass of whisky was allowed on the property that day! It may, perhaps, be said that the change we speak of is not peculiar to Scotland; that in England the same change has been apparent, and that drunkenness has passed away in the higher circles, as a matter of course, as refinement and taste made an advancement in society. This is true. But there were some features of the question which were peculiar to Scotland, and which at one time rendered it less probable that intemperance would give way in the north. It seemed in some quarters to have taken deeper root amongst us. The system of pressing, both in eating and drinking, seemed more inveterate. Nothing can more powerfully illustrate the deep-rooted character of intemperate habits in families than an anecdote which was related to me, as coming from the late Mr. Mackenzie, author of the “Man of Feeling.” He had been involved in a regular drinking party. He was keeping as free from the usual excesses as he was able, and as he marked companions around him falling victims to the power of drink, he himself dropped off under the table among the slain, as a measure of precaution, and lying there, his attention was called to a small pair of hands working at his throat; on asking what it was, a voice replied, “Sir, I’m the lad that’s to lowse the neckcloths.” Here, then, was a family, where, on drinking occasions, it was the appointed duty of one of the household to attend, and, when the guests were becoming helpless, to untie their cravats in fear of apoplexy or suffocation. We ought certainly to be grateful for the change which has taken place from such a system; for this change has made a great revolution in Scottish social life. The charm and the romance long attached in the minds of some of our countrymen to the whole system and concerns of hard drinking was indeed most lamentable and absurd. At tavern suppers, where, nine times out of ten, it was the express object of those who went to get drunk, such stuff as “regal purple stream,” “rosy wine,” “quaffing the goblet,” “bright sparkling nectar,” “chasing the rosy hours,” and so on, tended to keep up the delusion, and make it a monstrous fine thing for men to sit up drinking half the night, to have frightful headaches all next day, to make maudlin idiots of themselves as they went home, and to become brutes amongst their family when they got home. And here I may introduce the mention of a practice connected with the convivial habits of which we have been speaking; but which has for sometime passed away, at least from private tables, – I mean the absurd system of calling for toasts and sentiments each time the glasses were filled. During dinner not a drop could be touched, except in conjunction with others, and with each drinking to the health of each. But toasts came after dinner. I can just remember the practice in partial operation, and my astonishment as a mere boy, when accidentally dining at table and hearing my mother called upon to “give the company a gentleman,” is one of my very earliest reminiscences. Lord Cockburn must have remembered them well, and I will quote his most amusing account of the effects:- “After dinner, and before the ladies retired, there generally began what was called “Rounds” of toasts, when each gentleman named an absent lady, and each lady an absent gentleman, separately; or one person was required to give an absent lady, and another person was required to match a gentleman with that lady, and the persons named were toasted, generally, with allusions and jokes about the fitness of the union. And worst of all, there were ‘Sentiments.’ These were short epigrammatic sentences expressive of moral feelings and virtues, and were thought refined and elegant productions. A faint conception of their nauseousness may be formed from the following examples, every one of which I have heard given a thousand times, and which indeed I only recollect from their being favourites. The glasses being filled, a person was asked for his or for her sentiment, when this, or something similar, was committed, ‘may the pleasures of the evening bear the reflections of the morning;’ or, ‘may the friends of our youth be the companions of our old age;’ or, ‘delicate pleasures to susceptible minds,’ ‘may the honest heart never feel distress;’ ‘may the hand of charity wipe the tear from the eye of sorrow.’ The conceited, the ready, or the reckless, hackneyed in the art, had a knack of making new sentiments applicable to the passing incidents with great ease. But it was a dreadful oppression on the timid or the awkward. They used to shudder, ladies particularly; for nobody was spared when their turn in the round approached. Many a struggle and blush did it cost; but this seemed only to excite the tyranny of the masters of the craft; and compliance could never be avoided, except by more torture than yielding… It is difficult for those who have been born under a more natural system to comprehend how a sensible man, a respectable matron, a worthy old maid, and especially a girl, could be expected to go into company easily, on such conditions.”3
This accompaniment of domestic drinking, I mean accompanying each glass by a toast or sentiment – the practice of which is now confined to public entertainments – was then invariable in private parties, and was supposed to enliven and promote the good fellowship of the social circle. Thus Ferguson in one of his poems, in describing a dinner, says:-
“The grace is said; it’s nae ower lang,
The claret reams in bells.
Quo’ Deacon, ‘Let the toast round gang
Come, here’s our noble sels
Weel met the day.’ ”
There was a great variety of these toasts, some of them exclusively Scottish. A correspondent has favoured me with a few reminiscences of such incentives to inebriety.
The ordinary form of drinking a health was in the address, “Here’s t’ee.”
Then such as the following were named by successive members of the company at the call of the host:-
The land o’ cakes (Scotland).
Mair freens and less need o’ them.
Thumping luck and fat weans.
When we’re gaun up the hill o’ fortune may we ne’er meet a frien’ comin doun.
May ne’er waur be amang us.
May the hinges o’ friendship never rust, or the wings o’ luve lose a feather.
Here’s to them that lo’es us, or lends us a lift.
Here’s health to the sick, stilts to the lame, claise to the back, and brose to the wame.
Here’s health, wealth, wit, and meal.
The deil rock them in a creel that does na’ wish us a’ weel.
Horny hands and weather beaten haffets (cheeks).
The rending o’ rocks and the pu’in doun o’ auld houses.
The above two belong to the mason craft; the first implies a wish for plenty of work, and health to do it; the second, to erect new buildings and clear away old ones.
May the winds o’ adversity ne’er blaw open our door.
May poortith ne’er throw us in the dirt, or gowd into the high saddle.4
May the mouse ne’er leave our meal pock wi’ the tear in its ee.
Blythe may we a’ be,
Ill may we never see.
Breeks and brochan (brose).
May we ne’er want a freend or a drappie to gie him.
Gude een to ye a’, an’ tak your nappy,
A willy-waught’s a gude night cappy.5
May we a’ be canty an’ cozy,
An’ ilk hae a wife in his bozy.
A cozy but, and a canty ben,
To couthie6 women and trusty men.
The ingle neuk wi’ routh7 o’ bannocks and bairns.
Here’s to him wha winna beguile ye.
Mair sense and mair siller.
Horn, corn, wool, an’ yarn.8
The system of giving toasts was so regularly established, that collections of them were published to add brilliancy to the festive board. By the kindness of the librarian, I have seen a little volume which is in the Writers’ Library of Edinburgh. It is entitled “The Gentleman’s New Bottle Companion,” Edinburgh, printed in the year MDCCLXXVII. It contains various toasts and sentiments which the writer considered to be suitable to such occasions. Of the taste and decency of the companies where some of them could be made use of, the less is said the better.
I have heard also of large traditionary collections of toasts and sentiments belonging to old clubs and societies extending back above a century, but I have not seen any of them, and I believe my readers will think they have had quite enough. A correspondent, however, to whom I applied respecting these minute books, sends me the following curious information:-
“I have had an opportunity of examining a series of Records of an Edinburgh Club, extending from the middle to the close of the last century, in which many social changes are exhibited year after year. Its rules were clearly laid down and rigorously enforced. Fines for non-attendance at the club meetings were in all cases rigidly exacted, and if any man left the supper-table before the ‘serious drinking’ began, he was fined instanter in four magnums of claret. When whisky or usquebaugh was first ụsed as a social drink I have no means of knowing. I do not know that the earlier Scottish poets allude to it at all, and I think that Ferguson and Burns are the first to sing its praises. In these ‘records’ the first mention of ‘a gile of whisko’ at the club supper is in the year 1767, and toddy is not included in their bills of fare until a year later, and then only in small quantities (except, indeed, in one instance, when the club is charged for forty-two bottles of “todie” at one sitting!) French wines are the favourite drinks.
“A Solan goose figures occasionally at their suppers, and is charged 10s. Some of the members prefer ‘speldings’ to anchovies, and there are very suggestive items in each bill for broken glasses and china, as well as for ‘chairs and cadies’ (sedans and their bearers), for the use of those members who found it inconvenient to walk home. One of these jovial club supper bills (sometimes they are of alarming magnitude), now lies before me, stained by the wine spilled by unsteady hands a century ago, and its margins scrawled over, with the somewhat eccentric calculations as to the liability of each member, by the chairman of the evening, who no doubt had presided with his usual distinguished ability, ‘and kept the company long together in the most exalted degree of harmony and good humour,’ as it is entered in the minutes of the evening. It may interest some readers to see a true copy of a last century tavern supper bill for a club of sixteen and a few guests. It is worth remarking that each pint stoup of claret contained as much as two quart bottles!!”
|1783,||To John Fortune.|
|June 4.||Supper, Jellies, and Sillubobs||£4 10 “|
|25 Pints Claret, at 10/||12 10 “|
|5 Botls. Sherry, at 3/||“ 15 “|
|7 Do. Port, at 2/6||“ 17 6|
|Port Negus||“ 18 “|
|Porter||“ 5 6|
|Punch and Todie||“ 12 “|
|Bread and beer||“ 7 6|
|Biscuits, &c.||“ 4 6|
|Prawns||“ 4 “|
|Orangers, reasons, and almons||“ 14 “|
|Chairs and Cadies||“ 12 6|
|Drink to the Officer and Cadies||“ 7 6|
|Breakages||“ 4 6|
|Wax Lights||1 2 “|
The favourable reaction which has taken place in regard to the whole system of intemperance may very fairly, in the first place, be referred to an improved moral feeling. But other causes have also assisted; and it is curious to observe how the different changes in the modes of society bear upon one another. The alteration in the convivial habits which we are noticing in our own country may be partly due to alteration of hours. The old plan of early dining favoured a system of suppers, and after supper was a great time for convivial songs and sentiments. This of course induced drinking to a late hour. Most drinking songs imply the night as the season of conviviality – thus in a popular madrigal:-
“By the gaily circling glass,
We can tell how minutes pass,
By the hollow cask we’re told,
How the waning night grows old.”
And Burns thus marks the time:-
“It is the moon, I ken her horn,
That’s blinkin’ in the lift sae hie;
She shines sae bright, to wyle us hame,
But by my sooth she’ll wait a wee.”
The young people of the present day have no idea of the state of matters in regard to the supper system when it was the normal condition of society. The late dining hours may make the social circle more formal, but they have been far less favourable to drinking propensities. After such dinners as ours are now, suppers are clearly out of the question. One is astonished to look back and recal the scenes to which were attached associations of hilarity, conviviality, and enjoyment. Drinking parties were protracted beyond the whole Sunday, having begun by a dinner on Saturday; imbecility and prostrate helplessness were a common result of these bright and jovial scenes; and by what perversion of language, or by what obliquity of sentiment, the notions of pleasure could be attached to scenes of such excess – to the nausea, the disgust of sated appetite, and the racking headache – it is not easy to explain. There were men of heads so hard, and of stomachs so insensible, that, like my friend Saunders Paul, they could stand anything in the way of drink. But to men in general, and to the more delicate constitutions, such a life must have been a cause of great misery. To a certain extent, and up to a certain point, wine may be a refreshment and a wholesome stimulant; nay, it is a medicine, and a valuable one, and as such, comes recommended on fitting occasions by the physician. Beyond this point, as sanctioned and approved by nature, the use of wine is only degradation. Well did the sacred writer call wine, when thus taken in excess, “a mocker.” It makes all men equal, because it makes them all idiotic. It allures them into a vicious indulgence, and then mocks their folly, by depriving them of any sense they may ever have possessed.
It does not appear that at this time a similar excess in eating accompanied this prevalent tendency to excess in drinking. Scottish tables were at that period plain and abundant, but epicurism or gluttony do not seem to have been handmaids to drunkenness. A humorous anecdote, however, of a full-eating laird, may well accompany those which appertain to the drinking lairds. – A lady in the north having watched the proceedings of a guest, who ate long and largely, she ordered the servant to take away, as he had at last laid down his knife and fork. To her surprise, however, he resumed his work, and she apologised to him, saying, “I thought, Mr. ———, you had done.” “Oh, so I had, mem; but I just fan’ a doo in the redd o’ my plate.” He had discovered a pigeon lurking amongst the bones and refuse of his plate, and could not resist finishing it.
1 Old Scotch for drink hard.
2 A friend learned in Scottish history suggests an ingenious remark, that this might mean more than a mere full drinker. To drink “fair,” used to imply that the person drank in the same proportion as the company; to drink more would be unmannerly; to drink less might imply some unfair motive’ Either interpretation shews the importance attached to drinking and all that concerned it.
3 Lord Cockburn’s Memorials of his Time, p. 37, et seq.
4 May we never be cast down by adversity, or unduly elevated by prosperity.
5 A toast at parting or breaking up of the party.
8 Toasts for agricultural dinners.