HE portion of our subject, which we proposed under the head of “Reminiscences of Scottish Stories of Wit or Humour,” yet remains to be considered. This is closely connected with the question of Scottish dialect and expressions; indeed, on some points hardly separable, as the wit, to a great extent, proceeds from the quaint and picturesque modes of expressing it. But here we are met by a difficulty. On high authority it has been declared that no such thing as wit exists among us. What has no existence can have no change. We cannot be said to have lost a quality which we never possessed. Many of my readers are no doubt familiar with what Sidney Smith declared on this point, and certainly on the question of wit he must be considered an authority. He used to say (I am almost ashamed to repeat it), “It requires a surgical operation to get a joke well into a Scotch understanding. Their only idea of wit, which prevails occasionally in the north, and which, under the name of WUT, is so infinitely distressing to people of good taste, is laughing immoderately at stated intervals.” Strange language to use of a country which has produced Smollett, Burns, Scott, Galt, and Wilson, all remarkable for the humour diffused through their writings. Indeed, we may fairly ask, have they equals in this respect amongst English writers? Charles Lamb had the same notion, or, I should rather, say the same prejudice, about Scottish people not being accessible to wit; and he tells a story of what happened to himself in corroboration of the opinion. He had been asked to a party, and one object of the invitation had been to meet a son of Burns. When he arrived, Mr. Burns had not made his appearance, and in the course of conversation regarding the family of the poet, Lamb, in his lack-a-daisical kind of manner, said “I wish it had been the father instead of the son;” four Scotchmen present with one voice exclaimed, “That’s impossible, for he’s dead.”1 Now, there will be dull men and matter-of-fact men everywhere who do not take a joke or enter into a jocular allusion; but surely, as a general remark, this is far from being a natural quality of our country. Sydney Smith and Charles Lamb say so. But at the risk of being considered presumptuous, I will say I think them entirely mistaken. I should say that there was, on the contrary, a strong connection between the Scottish temperament, and, call it if you like, humour if it is not wit. And what is the difference? My readers may not be afraid that they are to be led through a labyrinth of metaphysical distinctions between wit and humour. I have read Dr. Campbell’s dissertation on the difference in his philosophy of rhetoric, I have read S. Smith’s own two lectures, but I confess I am not much the wiser. Professors of rhetoric, no doubt, must have such discussions, but when you wish to be amused by the thing itself, it is somewhat disappointing to be presented with metaphysical analysis. It is like instituting an examination of the glass and cork of a champagne bottle, and a chemical testing of the wine. In the very process the volatile and sparkling draught which was to delight the palate, has become like ditch water, vapid and dead. What I mean is, that, call it wit or humour, or what you please, there is a school of Scottish pleasantry, amusing and characteristic beyond all other. Don’t think of analysing its nature, or the qualities of which it is composed; enjoy its quaint and amusing flow of oddity and fun; as we may, for instance, suppose it to have flowed on that eventful night so joyously described by Burns:-
“The souter tauld his queerest stories,
The landlord’s laugh was ready chorus.”
Or we may think of the delight it gave the good Mr. Balwhidder, when he tells, in his Annals of the Parish, of some such story, that it was a “jocosity that was just a kittle to hear.” When I speak of changes in such Scottish humour which have taken place, I refer to a particular sort of humour, and I speak of the sort of feelings that belongs to Scottish pleasantry, – which is sly, and cheery, and pawky. It is, undoubtedly, a humour that depends a good deal upon the vehicle in which the story is conveyed. If, as we have said, our quaint dialect is passing away, and our national eccentric points of character, we must expect to find much of the peculiar humour allied with them to have passed away also. In other departments of wit and repartee, and acute hits at men and things Scotchmen (whatever S. Smith may have said to the contrary) are equal to their neighbours, and, so far as I know, may have gained rather than lost. But this peculiar humour of which I now speak has not, in our day, the scope and development which were permitted to it by the former generation. Where the tendency exists, the exercise of it is kept down by the usages and feelings of society. For examples of it (in its full force at any rate), we must go back to a race who are departed. One remark, however, has occurred to me in regard to the specimens we have of this kind of humour, viz., that they do not always proceed from the wit or the cleverness of any of the individuals concerned in them. The amusement comes from the circumstances, from the concurrence or combination of the ideas, and in many cases from the mere expressions which describe the facts. The humour of the narrative is unquestionable, and yet no one has tried to be humorous. In short, it is the Scottishness that gives the zest. The same ideas differently expounded might have no point at all. There is, for example, something highly original in the notions of celestial mechanics entertained by an honest Scottish Fife lass regarding the theory of comets. Having occasion to go out after dark, and having observed the brilliant comet then visible (1858), she ran in with breathless haste to the house, calling on her fellow-servants to “Come oot and see a new star that hasna got its tail cuttit aff yet!” Exquisite astronomical speculation! Stars, like puppies, are born with tails, and in due time have them docked. Take an example of a story where there is no display of any one’s wit or humour, and yet it is a good story, and one can’t exactly say why:- An English traveller had gone on a fine highland road so long, without having seen an indication of fellow-travellers, that he became astonished at the solitude of the country; and no doubt before the Highlands were so much frequented as they are in our time, the roads had a very striking aspect of solitariness. Our traveller at last coming up to an old man breaking stones, he asked him if there was any traffic on this road – was it at all frequented? “Ay,” he said, “it’s no ill at that; there was a cadger body yestreen, and there’s yoursell the day.” No English version of the story could have half such amusement, or half so quaint a character. An answer, even still more characteristic, is recorded to have been given by a countryman to a traveller. Being doubtful of his way, he inquired if he were on the right road to Dunkeld. With some of his national inquisitiveness about strangers, the countryman asked his inquirer where he came from. Offended at the liberty, as he considered it, he sharply reminded the man that where he came from was nothing to him; but all the answer he got, was the quiet rejoinder, “Indeed, it’s just as little to me whar ye’r gaen’.” A friend has told me of an answer highly characteristic of this dry and unconcerned quality which he heard given to a fellow-traveller. A gentleman sitting opposite to him in the stage-coach at Berwick, complained bitterly that the cushion on which he sat was quite wet. On looking up to the roof he saw a hole through which the rain descended copiously, and at once accounted for the mischief. He called for the coachman, and in great wrath reproached him with the evil under which he suffered, and pointed to the hole which was the cause of it. All the satisfaction, however, that he got was the quiet unmoved reply, “Ay, mony a ane has complained o’ that hole.” Another anecdote I heard from a gentleman who vouched for the truth, which is just a case where the narrative has its humour, not from the wit which is displayed, but from that dry matter-of-fact view of things peculiar to some of our countrymen. The friend of my informant was walking in a street of Perth, when, to his horror, he saw a workman fall from a roof where he was mending slates, right upon the pavement. By extraordinary good fortune he was not killed, and, on the gentleman going up to his assistance, and exclaiming with much excitement, “God bless me, are you much hurt?” all the answer he got was the cool rejoinder, “On the contrary, sir.” A similar matter-of-fact answer was made by one of the old race of Montrose humorists. He was coming out of church, and in the press of the kirk skailing, a young man thoughtlessly trod on the old gentleman’s toe, which was tender with corns. He hastened to apologise, saying, “I am very sorry, sir; I beg your pardon.” The only acknowledgment of which was the dry answer, “And ye‘ve as muckle need, sir.”
From a first-rate Highland authority I have been supplied with the following clever and crushing reply to what was intended as a sarcastic compliment and a smart saying.
About the beginning of the present century, the then Campbell, of Combie, on Loch Awe side, in Argyleshire, was a man of extraordinary character, and of great physical strength, and such swiftness of foot that it is said he “could catch the best tup on the hill.” He also looked upon himself as a “pretty man,” though in this he was singular; also, it was more than whispered that the laird was not remarkable for his principles of honesty.
There also lived in the same district a Miss MacNabb of Bar-a’-Chaistril, a lady who, before she had passed the zenith of life, had never been remarkable for her beauty – the contrary even had passed into a proverb, while she was in her teens; but, to counterbalance this defect in external qualities, nature had endowed her with great benevolence, while she was renowned for her probity. One day the Laird of Combie, who piqued himself on his bon-mots, was, as frequently happened, a guest of Miss MacNabb’s, and after dinner, several toasts had gone round as usual, Combie addressed his hostess, and requested an especial bumper, insisting on all the guests to fill to the brim. He then rose, and said, addressing himself to Miss MacNabb, “I propose the old Scottish toast of ‘Honest men and bonnie lassies,’ ” and, bowing to the hostess, he resumed his seat. The lady returned his bow with her usual amiable smile, and, taking up her glass, replied, “Weel, Combie, I am sure we may drink that, for it will neither apply to you nor me.”
An amusing example of a quiet cool view of a pecuniary transaction happened to my father whilst doing the business of the rent day. He was receiving sums of money from the tenants in succession. After looking over a bundle of notes which he had just received from one of them, a well-known character, he said in banter, “James, the notes are not correct.” To which the farmer, who was much of a humorist, dryly answered, “I dinna ken what they may be noo; but they were a’ richt afore ye had your fingers in amang ‘em.” An English farmer would hardly have spoken thus to his landlord. The Duke of Buccleuch told me an answer very quaintly Scotch, given to his grandmother by a farmer of the old school. A dinner was given to some tenantry of the vast estates of the family, in the time of Duke Henry. His Duchess (the last descendant of the Dukes of Montague) always appeared at table on such occasion, and did the honours with that mixture of dignity and of affable kindness for which she was so remarkable. Abundant hospitality was shewn to all the guests. The Duchess having observed one of the tenants supplied with boiled beef from a noble round, proposed that he should add a supply of cabbage; on his declining, the Duchess good humouredly remarked, “Why boiled beef and greens seem naturally to go together, I wonder you don’t take it.” To which the honest farmer objected, “Ay, but your Grace maun alloo it’s a vara windy vegetable,” in delicate allusion to the flatulent quality of the esculent. Similar to this was the naive answer of a farmer on the occasion of a rent day. The lady of the house asked him if he would take some rhubarb tart, “Mony thanks, mem, I dinna need it.”
Amongst the lower orders, humour is found, occasionally, very rich in mere children, and I recollect a remarkable illustration of this early native humour occurring in a family in Forfarshire, where I used, in former days, to be very intimate. A wretched woman, who used to traverse the country as a beggar or tramp, left a poor, half-starved little girl by the road side, near the house of my friends. Always ready to assist the unfortunate, they took charge of the child, and as she grew a little older, they began to give her some education, and taught her to read. She soon made some progress in reading the Bible, and the native odd humour, of which we speak, began soon to shew itself. On reading the passage, which began, “Then David rose,” etc., the child stopped, and looked up knowingly, to say, “I ken wha that was,” and, on being asked what she could mean, she confidently said, “That’s David Rowse the pleuchman.” And again reading the passage where the words occur, “He took Paul’s girdle,” the child said with much confidence, “I ken what he took that for,” and on being asked to explain, replied at once, “To bake’s bannocks on,” a “girdle” being, in the north, the name for the iron plate hung over the fire, for making oat cakes or bannocks.
A kind correspondent has sent me, from personal knowledge, an admirable pendant to these stories of Scottish child acuteness and shrewd observation. A young lady friend of his, resident in a part of Ayrshire, rather remote from any very satisfactory administration of the Gospel, is in the habit of collecting the children of the neighbourhood on Sundays at the “big house,” for religious instruction. On one occasion, the class had repeated the paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, which contains these lines –
“Give us this day our daily bread,
And raiment fit provide.”
There being no question as to what “daily bread” was, the teacher proceeded to ask; “What do you understand by ‘raiment fit,’ or, as we might say, ‘fit raiment?’ ” For a short time the class remained puzzled at the question; but at last one little girl sung out, “stockings and shune.” The child knew that “fit,” was Scotch for feet, so her natural explanation of the phrase was equivalent to “feet raiment,” or “stockings and shune,” as she termed it.
To a distinguished member of the Church of Scotland I am indebted for an excellent story of quaint child humour, which he had from the lips of an old woman who related the story of herself – When a girl of eight years of age, she was taken by her grandmother to church. The parish minister was not only a long preacher, but, as the custom was, delivered two sermons on the Sabbath day without any interval, and thus saved the parishioners the two journeys to church. Elizabeth was sufficiently wearied before the close of the first discourse, but when, after singing and prayer, the good minister opened the Bible, read a second text, and prepared to give a second sermon, the young girl, being both tired and hungry, lost all patience, and cried out to her grandmother, to the no small amusement of those who were so near as to hear her, “Come awa, granny, and gang hame; this is a lang grace and nae meat.”
A most amusing account of child humour used to be narrated by an old Mr. Campbell of Jura, who told the story of his own son. It seems the boy was much spoilt by indulgence. In fact, the parents were scarce able to refuse him any thing he demanded. He was in the drawing-room on one occasion when dinner was announced, and on being ordered up to the nursery he insisted on going down to dinner with the company. His mother was for refusal, but the child persevered, and kept saying, “If I dinna gang, I’ll tell thon.” His father then, for peace sake, let him go. So he went and sat at table by his mother. When he found every one getting soup and himself omitted, he demanded soup, and repeated, “If I dinna get it, I’ll tell thon.” Well, soup was given, and various other things yielded to his importunities, to which he always added the usual threat of “telling thon.” At last, when it came to wine, his mother stood firm, and positively refused, as “a bad thing for little boys,” and so on. He then became more vociferous than ever about “telling thon;” and as still he was refused, he declared, “now I will tell thon,” and at last roared out, “Ma new breeks were made oot o’ the auld curtains!”
A facetious and acute friend who rather leans to the S. Smith view of Scottish wit, declares that all our humorous stories are about lairds, and about lairds who are drunk. Of such stories there are certainly not a few. One of the best belonging to my part of the country, and to many persons I should perhaps apologise for introducing it at all. The story has been told of various parties and localities, but no doubt the genuine laird was a laird of Balnamoon (pronounced in the country Bonnymoon), and that the locality was a wild tract of land, not far from his place, called Munrimmon Moor. Balnamoon had been dining out in the neighbourhood, where by mistake, they had put down to him after dinner cherry brandy, instead of port wine, his usual beverage. The rich flavour and strength so pleased him, that having tasted it, he would have nothing else. On rising from table, therefore, the laird would be more affected by his drink than if he had taken his ordinary allowance of port. His servant Harry, or Hairy,2 was to drive him home in a gig or whisky, as it was called, the usual open carriage of the time. On crossing the moor, however, whether from greater exposure to the blast, or from the laird’s unsteadiness of head, his hat and wig came off and fell upon the ground. Harry got out to pick them up and restore them to his master. The laird was satisfied with the hat, but demurred at the wig. “It’s no my wig, Hairy, lad; it’s no my wig,” and refused to have anything to do with it. Hairy lost his patience, and anxious to get home, remonstrated with his master, “Ye’d better tak it, sir, for there’s nae waile o’ wigs on Munrimmon Moor.” The humour of the argument is exquisite, putting to the laird in his unreasonable objection, the sly insinuation that in such a locality, if he did not take this wig, he was not likely to find another. Then, what a rich expression, “waile o’ wigs.” In English what is it? “A choice of perukes,” which is nothing comparable to the “waile o’ wigs.” I ought to mention also an amusing sequel to the story, viz., in what happened after the affair of the wig had been settled, and the laird had consented to return home. When the whisky drove up to the door, Hairy, sitting in front, told the servant who came to “tak out the laird.” No laird was to be seen; and it appeared that he had fallen out on the moor without Hairy observing it. Of course, they went back, and, picking him up, brought him safe home. A neighbouring laird having called a few days after, and having referred to the accident, Balnamoon quietly added, “Indeed, I maun hae a lume3 that’ll had in.”
The laird of Balnamoon was a truly eccentric character. He joined with his drinking propensities a great zeal for the Episcopal Church, the service of which he read to his own family with much solemnity and earnestness of manner. Two gentlemen, one of them a stranger to the country, having called pretty early one Sunday morning, Balnamoon invited them to dinner, and as they accepted the invitation, they remained and joined in the forenoon devotional exercises conducted by Balnamoon himself. The stranger was much impressed with the laird’s performance of the service, and during a walk which they took before dinner mentioned to his friend how highly he esteemed the religious deportment of their host. The gentleman said nothing, but smiled to himself at the scene which he anticipated was to follow. After dinner Balnamoon set himself, according to the custom of old hospitable Scottish hosts, to make his guests as drunk as possible. The result was, that the party spent the evening in a riotous debauch, and were carried to bed by the servants at a late hour. Next day, when they had taken leave and left the house, the gentleman who had introduced his friend asked him what he thought of their entertainer – “Why, really,” he replied, with evident astonishment, “sic a speat o’ praying, and sic a speat o’ drinking, I never knew in the whole course of my life.”
The late Lady Dalhousie, mother, I mean, of the present distinguished Peer, used to tell a characteristic anecdote of her day. But here, on mention of the name Christian, Countess of Dalhousie, may I pause a moment to recall the memory of one who was a very remarkable person. She was, for many years, to me and mine, a sincere and true and valuable friend. By an awful dispensation of God’s providence, she died instantaneously under my roof in 1839. Lady Dalhousie was eminently distinguished for a fund of the most varied knowledge, for a clear and powerful judgment, for acute observation, a kind heart, a brilliant wit. The story was thus:- A Scottish judge, somewhat in the predicament of the Laird of Balnamoon, had dined at Coalstoun with her father Charles Brown, an advocate, and son of George Brown, who sat in the Supreme Court as a judge with the title of Lord Coalstoun. The party had been convivial, as we know parties of the highest legal characters often were in those days. When breaking up, and going to the drawing-room, one of them, not seeing his way very clearly, stepped out of the dining-room window, which was open to the summer air. The ground at Coalstoun sloping off from the house behind, the worthy judge got a great fall, and rolled down the bank. He contrived, however, as tipsy men generally do, to regain his legs, and was able to reach the drawing-room. The first remark he made was an innocent remonstrance with his friend the host, “Od, Charlie Brown, what gars ye hae sic lang steps to your front door.”
On Deeside, where many original stories had their origin, I recollect hearing several of an excellent and worthy, but very simple-minded man, the Laird of Craigmyle. On one occasion, when the beautiful and clever Jane, Duchess of Gordon, was scouring through the country, intent upon some of those electioneering schemes which often occupied her fertile imagination and active energies, she came to call at Craigmyle, and having heard that the laird was making bricks on the property, for the purpose of building a new garden wall, with her usual tact she opened the subject, and kindly asked, “Well Mr. Gordon, and how do your bricks come on?” Good Craigmyle’s thoughts were much occupied with a new leather part of his dress, which he had had lately constructed, so, looking down on his nether garments, he said in pure Aberdeen dialect, “Muckle obleeged to yer Grace, the breeks war sum ticht at first, but they are deeing weel eneuch noo.” The last laird of Macnab, before the clan finally broke up and emigrated to Canada, was a well-known character in the country, and being poor, used to ride about on a most wretched horse, which gave occasion to many jibes at his expense. The laird was in the constant habit of riding up from the country to attend the Musselburgh races. A young wit, by way of playing him off on the race course, asked him in a contemptuous tone, “Is that the same horse you had last year, Laird?” “Na,” said the laird, brandishing his whip in the interrogator’s face in so emphatic a manner as to preclude further questioning, “Na; but it’s the same whup.” In those days, as might be expected, people were not nice in expressions of their dislike to persons or measures. If there be not more charity in society, there is certainly more courtesy. I have, from a friend, an anecdote illustrative of this remark, in regard to feelings exercised towards an unpopular laird. In the neighbourhood of Bamff, in Forfarshire, the seat of a very ancient family of the Ramsays, lived a proprietor who bore the appellation of Corb, from the name of his estate. The family has passed away and its property merged in Bamff. This laird was intensely disliked in the neighbourhood. Sir George Ramsay was, on the other hand, universally popular and respected. On one occasion, Sir George, in passing a morass in his own neighbourhood, had missed the road and fallen into a bog to an alarming depth. To his great relief, he saw a passenger coming along the path, which was at no great distance. He called loudly for his help, but the man took no notice. Poor Sir George felt himself sinking, and redoubled his cries for assistance; all at once the passenger rushed forward, carefully extricated him from his perilous position, and politely apologised for his first neglect of his appeal, adding, as his reason, “Indeed, Sir George, I thought it was Corb!” evidently meaning that had it been Corb, he must have taken his chance for him.
In Lanarkshire, there lived a sma sma laird named Hamilton, who was noted for his eccentricity. On one occasion, a neighbour waited on him, and requested his name as an accommodation to a bit bill for twenty pounds at three months’ date, which led to the following characteristic and truly Scottish colloquy:- “Na, na, I canna do that.” “What for no, laird, ye hae dune the same thing for ithers.” “Aye, aye, Tammas, but there’s wheels within wheels ye ken naething about; I canna do’t.” “It’s a sma affair to refuse me, laird.” “Weel, ye see, Tammas, if I was to pit my name till’t, ye wad get the siller frae the bank, and when the time came round, ye wadna be ready, and I wad hae to pay’t; sae then you and me wad quarrel, sae we mae just as weel quarrel the noo, as lang’s the siller’s in ma pouch.” On one occasion, Hamilton having business with the late Duke of Hamilton at Hamilton Palace, the Duke politely asked him to lunch. A liveried servant waited upon them, and was most assiduous in his attentions to the Duke and his guest. At last our eccentric friend lost patience, and looking at the servant, addressed him thus, “What the deil for are ye dance, dancing, about the room that gait; can ye no draw in your chair and sit down, I’m sure there’s plenty on the table for three.”
Of another laird whom I heard often spoken of in old times, an anecdote was told strongly Scotch. Our friend had much difficulty (as many worthy lairds have had) in meeting the claims of those two woful periods of the year called with us in Scotland the “tarmes.” He had been employing for some time as workman a stranger from the south on some house repairs, of the not uncommon name in England of Christmas. His servant early one morning called out at the laird’s door in great excitement that “Christmas had run away, and nobody knew where he had gone.” He turned in his bed with the earnest ejaculation, “I only wish he had taken Whitsunday and Martinmas along with him.” I do not know a better illustration of quiet, shrewd, and acute Scottish humour than the following little story, which an esteemed correspondent mentions having heard from his father when a boy, relating to a former Duke of Athole, who had no family of his own, and whom he mentions as having remembered very well:- He met, one morning, one of his cottars or gardeners, whose wife he knew to be in the hopeful way, and, asking him “How Marget was the day,” the man replied, that she had that morning given him twins. Upon which the Duke said, “Weel, Donald, ye ken the Almighty never sends bairns without the meat.” “That may be, your Grace,” said Donald; “but whiles I think that Providence maks a mistak in thae matters, and sends the bairns to ae hoose and the meat to anither!” The Duke took the hint, and sent him a cow with calf the following morning.
I have heard of an amusing scene between a laird celebrated for his saving propensities, and a wandering sort of Edie Ochiltree, a well-known itinerant, who lived by his wits and what he could pick up in his rounds amongst the houses of lairds and farmers. One thrifty laird having seen him sit down near his own gate to examine the contents of his poke or wallet, conjectured that he had come from the house, and so he drew near to see what he had carried off. As he was keenly investigating the mendicant’s spoils, his quick eye detected some bones on which there remained more meat than should have been allowed to leave his kitchen. Accordingly he pounced upon the bones, and declared he had been robbed, and insisted on his returning to the house and giving back the spoil. The beggar was, however, prepared for the attack, and sturdily defending his property, boldly asserting, “Na, na, laird, thae are no Todbrae banes; thae are Inch-Byre banes, and nane o’ your honour’s,” – meaning that he had received these bones at the house of a neighbour of a more liberal character. But the beggar’s professional discrimination between the bones of the two mansions, and his pertinacious defence of his own property, would have been most amusing to a bystander.
I have, however, a reverse story, in which the beggar is quietly silenced by the proprietor. A noble lord, some generations back, well known for his frugal habits, had just picked up a small copper coin in his own avenue, and had been observed by one of the itinerating mendicant race, who grudged the transfer of the piece into the peer’s pocket, exclaimed, “O, gie’t to me, my lord;” to which the quiet answer was, “Na, na; fin’ a fardin for yersell, puir body.”
There are always pointed anecdotes against houses wanting in a liberal and hospitable expenditure in Scotland. Thus, we have heard of a master leaving such a mansion, and taxing his servant with being drunk, which he had too often been after country visits. On this occasion, however, he was innocent of the charge, for he had not had the opportunity to transgress. So, when his master asserted, “Jemmy, you are drunk!” Jemmy very quietly answered, “Indeed, sir, I wish I wur.” At another mansion, notorious for scanty fare, a gentleman was inquiring of the gardener about a dog which some time ago he had given to the laird. The gardener shewed him a lank greyhound, on which the gentleman said, – “No, no; the dog I gave your master was a mastiff, not a greyhound;” to which the gardener quietly answered, “Indeed, ony dog micht sune become a greyhound by stopping here.”
From a friend and near relative, a minister of the Established Church of Scotland, I used to hear many characteristic stories. He had a curious vein of this sort of humour in himself, besides what he brought out of others. One of his peculiarities was a mortal antipathy to the whole French nation, whom he frequently abused in no measured terms. At the same time he had great relish of a glass of claret, which he considered the prince of all social beverages. So he usually finished off his anti-gallican tirades with the reservation, “But the bodies brew the braw drink.” He lived amongst his own people, and knew well the habits and peculiarities of a race gone by. He had many stories connected with the pastoral relation between minister and people, and all such stories are curious, not merely for their amusement, but from the illustration they afford us of that peculiar Scottish humour which we are now describing. He had himself, when a very young boy, before he came up to the Edinburgh High School, been at the parochial school where he resided, and which, like many others at that period, had a considerable reputation for the skill and scholarship of the master. He used to describe school scenes rather different, I suspect, from school scenes in our day. One boy, on coming late, exclaimed that the cause had been a regular pitched battle between his parents, with the details of which he amused his school-fellows, and he described the battle in vivid and Scottish Homeric terms, “And eh, as they faucht and they faucht,” adding, however, with much complacency, “but my minnie dang, she did tho’.”
There was a style of conversation and quaint modes of communication between ministers and their people at that time, which, I suppose, would seem strange to the present generation; as, for example, I recollect a conversation between this relative and one of his parishioners of this description. It had been a very wet and unpromising autumn. The minister met a certain Janet of his flock, and accosted her very kindly. He remarked, “Bad prospect for the har’st (harvest), Janet, this wet.” Janet – “Indeed, sir, I’ve seen as muckle as that there’ll be nae har’st the year.” Minister – “Na, Janet, deil as muckle as that ‘t ever ye saw.”
As I have said, he was a clergyman of the Established Church, and had many stories about ministers and people, arising out of his own pastoral experience, or the experience of friends and neighbours. He was much delighted with the not very refined rebuke which one of his own farmers had given to a young minister who had for some Sundays occupied his pulpit. The young man dined with the farmer in the afternoon when services were over, and his appetite was so sharp, that he thought it necessary to apologise to his host for eating so substantial a dinner – “You see,” he said, “I am always very hungry after preaching.” The old gentleman, not much admiring the youth’s pulpit ministrations, having heard this apology two or three times, at last replied sarcastically, “Indeed, sir, I’m no surprised at it, considering the trash that comes aff your stamach in the morning.” There was a story for which he had names of place and persons, but I forget whether it was of his own experience. I think it was his own; at any rate it was thus:- A lad had come for examination, previous to his receiving his first communion. The pastor, knowing that his young friend was not very profound in his theology, and not wishing to discourage him, or keep him from the table unless compelled to do so, began by asking what he thought a safe question, and what would give him confidence. So he took the old Testament, and asked him in reference to the Mosaic law, how many commandments there were. After a little thought he put his answer in the modest form of a supposition, and replied, cautiously, “Aiblins4 a hunner.” The clergyman was vexed, and told him such ignorance was intolerable, that he could not proceed in examination, and that the youth must wait and learn more; so he went away. On returning home he met a friend on his way to the manse, and on learning that he, too, was going to the minister for examination, shrewdly asked him, “Weel, what will ye say noo if the minister speers hoo mony commandments there are?” “Say! why, I shall say ten to be sure.” To which the other rejoined, with great triumph, “Ten! Try ye him wi’ ten! I tried him wi’ a hunner, and he wasna satisfeed.”
I have received from Miss Stirling Graham of Duntrune a kind contribution to the present volume. I have deemed it best to put her communications together, and I introduce them here. They contain an account of an extraordinary Scottish superstition, and of an equally extraordinary mode of acting under its influence. They describe two remarkable Scottish characters, and contain some Forfarshire traditional sayings. Those who have read a volume lately printed for circulation amongst her friends, containing an account of some of those “Mystifications” with which she charmed the Edinburgh society of her early days, will know how exquisite is Miss Stirling Graham’s appreciation of Scottish humour, and how complete her knowledge of Scottish character.
There lived here in Gayfield Square two charming old maiden ladies – Mrs. Mary Smith and Miss Peggy Fyffe. They had a pet superstition, for which they paid, between them, threepence a week to a street porter, that he might be the first to tell them it was Monday, deeming it unlucky to hear the day first mentioned by a woman. They laid each three-halfpence on the hall table on Sunday night, and early next morning the man called to wish them a happy Monday, and pick up his reward. Once when Miss Fyffe was confined to bed, her attendant inquired what she would like for dinner, for it was Monday, and there would be no fish to be got. “Wae worth you,” Miss Fyffe exclaimed, “do ye no ken that I pay a man to tell me it’s Monday?” When Miss Fyffe died, Mrs. Smith refused to pay any more than her weekly dole of three-halfpence. Miss Douglass of Brigton being present, the maid whispered, “Never mind, I’ll just pay it out of the house-money!” When Miss Douglass returned home, she related this strange superstition to a party of friends, who enjoyed it as a joke; but her sister, Mrs. Hunter, looked rather serious, saying, “Well, I am not the least superstitious, but I do not like to be told by a woman it is Monday!”
Mrs. Graham of Balmure had a faithful old servant called Saunders Hay, who had a ready word on every subject. Hearing Miss Graham appeal to her sister, if she did not think her gown rather too long, might it not be as well to have it shortened? “Na, na,” quoth Saunders; “it’s very well; clip nor pare ony mare at it.” One Sunday evening Saunders and his wife had a serious quarrel. Jean said she thought David (King David) hadna taen much pains when he metred the Psalms; on which Saunders flew in a passion at her ignorance, and reminded her that it was George Buchanan who metred the Psalms.
Mr. Taylor, well known in London as having the management of the opera-house, had his father up from Aberdeen to visit him, and see the wonders of the city. When the old man returned home, his friends, anxious to know the impressions produced on his mind by scenes and characters so different from what he had been accustomed to at home, inquired what sort of business his son carried on? “Ou,” said he (in reference to the operatic singers and the corps de ballet,) “He just keeps a curn5 o’ quainies6 and a wheen widdyfous,7 and gars them fissle,8 and loup, and mak murgeons9 to please the great fowk.
An Aberdonian of the name of Bannerman (possibly a cousin of mine own), of a matter-of-fact disposition, when some one remarked, “It’s a fine day,” dryly responded, “Fa’s findin’ faut wi’ the day? – ye wad pick a quarrel wi’ a steen wa’.”
Another Aberdonian, describing the dress of a lady whom he had seen at a ball the night before, said, “She had a tappie-towrie on her head, and a diamond necklace on her neck; and she had stockings and shoon, for I saw them, but for onything mair I dinna ken.”
Mrs. Matthew, who farmed Westhall some twenty years ago, was an original homely person. Her maiden name was Anderson, the descendant of a race of sensible well-to-do-people. On inquiring if she was connected with the provost of Dundee, she replied, with a look of great contempt, “Na, na, his father cam out o’ Forgan. He was wont to ca’ my father the man Anderson, but, my certie, he wasna fit to be linings to the man Anderson. Our land is very dear, and so greedy for muck, deil burst it; and my grieve is a souple, double, seceder rascal.” As a set off to this account, a farmer, close to Edinburgh, observed to Mr. R. Chambers, “The land oot here is noo quite tired o’ police dung.”
A farmer in Strathmore being invited to dine at Belmont, had the precaution to ask the butler if there was any particular ceremony to be observed at table, and was told there was only one thing his lord and lady disliked, and that was the drinking of healths. The good man determined to be on his good behaviour; so, when raising the wine to his lips, he called out, “Here’s to a’ the company’s gude health, except my Lord Privy Seal and Lady Betty Mackenzie.”
Mr. Miller of Ballumbie had occasion to find fault with one of his labourers who had been improvident, and known better days. He was digging a drain, and he told him if he did not make better work he should turn him off. The man was very angry, and throwing down his spade, called out in a tone of resentment, “Ye are ower pridefu’, Davie Miller; since I mind ye i’ the warld when ye had neither cow nor ewe.” “Very well,” replied Mr. Miller mildly, “I remember you when you had both.”
A neighbour called one day upon Lord Dunsinnan when he was spending his law-holidays on his estate in Strathmore. The dinner consisted of broth and two boiled fowls. Just as they were sitting down to table another neighbour walked in, and another boiled fowl was placed before him; and after some excellent claret, and pleasant discourse, the visitors mounted their horses to ride home, pondering by the way, over the singularity of the dinner, and wondering what the servants got; they had the curiosity to ask them, to which they replied, “Ilka ane had a hen boiled in broth.”
The late Lord Airlie remarking to one of his tenants that it was a very wet season, “Indeed, my lord,” replied the man, “I think the spiggot’s oot a’thegither.”
A countryman, from the Braes of Angus, came to tell the minister that his wife was brought to bed, and they wished him to christen the bairn. The minister, very pompous, inquired whether the child was male or female? It’s neither, sir,” was the answer. “Then, in the name of goodness,” said the reverend man, “what is it?” “Ou, it’s juist a bit queanie!”
An old beggar woman was a frequent visitor at Duntrune. She was called Bobbins, a nickname which she did not particularly like, as it had reference to some intromissions with her neighbours’ yarn. She was seized with a cold, and confined to bed. The neighbours sent donations of various delicacies, one of them a jar of black-currant jam, which she emptied into a wooden dish, and ate it all up with a large horn spoon, making wry faces all the time, and took credit to herself for the same, by remarking, “That mony ane wadna sup it, for the leddy maks her jeil wi’ the caff (chaff) amang’t.” Then she drank six bottles of beer and half a bottle of whisky, and fell asleep for eight-and-forty hours, at the end of which time she awoke quite recovered!
An old cadger, the personification of contentment, used to sit sound asleep on his cart, trusting himself and his fish to the discretion of the horse. One day he arrived at Duntrune nearly frozen to death, and was carried into the kitchen to be thawed. In due time he got something to eat, and a glass of warm toddy to drink, which so cheered his heart, that he exclaimed, “Oh! sirs, I am happy wi’ ye. I am just ae eild wi’ the auld king (George III.), and I daur say I’m as happy a man as he is. The leddy will be takin’ a glass to hersell when she comes in frae her walk, for I am sure naebody could hae it in the hoose and no tak it.”
The two following cases furnish specimens of the old Scottish domestics:- There was a waggish old man cook at Duntrune for sixty years, and during three generations of its owners. In 1745-6, when his master was skulking, John found it necessary to take another service, and hired himself to Mr. Wedderburn of Pearsie; but he wearied to get back to Duntrune. One day the Laird of Pearsie observed him putting a spit through a peat – it may have been for the purpose of cleaning it – be that as it may, the laird inquired the reason for so doing, and John replied, “Indeed, sir, I am just gaein to roast a peat, for fear I forget my trade.” At the end of two years he returned to Duntrune, where he continued to exercise his calling till near the close of life.
One day he sent up a roast goose for dinner which he or some one had despoiled of a leg before it came to table; on which his master summoned him from the kitchen to inquire who had taken the leg off the goose. John replied that all the geese here had but ae leg. In corroboration of his assertion, he pointed to a whole flock before the window, who were, happily, sitting asleep on one leg, with a sentinel on the watch. The laird clapped his hands and cried whew, on which they got upon both legs, and flew off. But John, no way discomfited, told his master, if he had cried whew to the one on the table, it would most likely have done the same! It is not to be believed that John had ever read Boccaccio, or that he ever heard of the Venetian cook, Chichibio, who played the same trick with the crane’s leg; but it is possible that two artists in the same vocation, even with four centuries rolling between them may have originated similar ideas – therefore we may safely give John Fraser credit for his invention. He died in Dundee, where his master paid the last tribute of respect to his memory, and laid his head in the grave beside the family he had served so faithfully.
When the funeral moved from his house, the widow, in the exuberance of gratification, called aloud to her neighbours to come and see the “beautiful burial.”
There lived in Arbroath a very remarkable old woman named Meg Matthew, a generous, noble, and disinterested character, and her conduct to the friendless and the orphans should be recorded. She had been a servant to Mr. Cruickshank, the minister of Kinnel. The minister and his wife both died during her service, and left three children totally unprovided. Upon which Meg engaged an attic room in the Market-gate of Arbroath, and carried the two boys and the little girl with her, where she span to maintain them, and she begged from those whom she thought could afford it, their schooling and clothing. She did not ask like a mendicant, but said she must have such and such things for her bairns; and when the boys were to be fitted out, she would call at various places, and tell the lady of the house that she must have linen, and that the young ladies must set to work, and make so many shirts for Jamie or Willy.
Situations were procured for the boys; one went to the West Indies, the other to Montreal, where he married and had a family, whom he left in good circumstances.
In the course of years, the other returned with a competency, and died in Arbroath.
Meg herself accompanied the boys to London to witness their departure, and she saw the king (George III.), whom she described as being “juist like ony ither husbandman wi’ a stand o’ blue claes.”
Betsy Cruickshank obtained a lady’s-maid’s place in Hopetoun House, where she remained till her marriage with Mr. Haldane, a stocking manufacturer in Haddington. He left her a widow in comfort, and she was much respected, and died in a good old age. Meg was the theme of many conversations between the young ladies of Hopetoun and their attendant. Her name and fame were even well known among the servants.
One day a housemaid ran into the room calling out, “Miss Cruickshank, if your Meg be in the body, she is now coming up the road.”
It was Meg herself, arrived on foot from Arbroath; and rapturously she was welcomed by the whole family. She would remain only a short time, declining all favours for herself; and when they offered to shew her through the house, she replied, “Na, na, I’m no gaen to big the marrow of it.”10
She returned home to her spinning-wheel in her solitary little room, and from her homely wrinkled face and rather unsocial manner, she was looked upon by coarse-minded people in the light of a witch, or one that was in compact with the devil. Her dress was a short gown over a woollen petticoat, a striped wincey apron, and a close white mutch with a black hood over it. She span a coarse yarn from the waist with both hands. I remember her in her last illness, her death, and seeing her laid in her coffin; and now, looking through the long vista of the present century, and far down into the past, I venerate the singularly beautiful character of that dear old woman, and noble Scottish heart.
Her dust lies within the cemetery of the old abbey of Arbroath, –
“Embalmed in memory with things that are holy,
By the spirit that is undying.”
About this time Arbroath embraced a very primitive society.
The players visited it once a year for a few weeks, and acted in the hay-loft of the inn.
A very good set they were; stars sometimes from the metropolis, with grand names, such as Willoughby and Mandeville.
Old ladies would take their knitting, and one more eccentric than the others, would carry her muslin caps wet with starch, to prepare them for being ironed, or, as she said, “to make them ready to be goosed;” and she clapped them between the palms of her hands when cheering the performers.
An Episcopal clergyman married the widow of a blind gentleman, who fitted herself out with such a trousseau as made people wonder, for she said, “I was married to a moudiewart last but now I am getting a husband who can see me.”
Some people, not very scrupulous, put bad coppers into the plate at the chapel door on Sundays, with which the good lady paid her losses at cards during the week, and so, in the end, it came to be known through whose veins the ill bawbees circulated.
At one of her parties she remarked that she had never been able to procure any good gin since the Dutch took Flushing. “Wifie, wifie,” interposed the minister, “Flushing is in Holland.” “Weel,” she replied, “I’m sure I dinna care whether it be in France or Ireland!!!”
1 After all, the remark may not have been so absurd then as it appears now. Burns had not been long dead, nor was he then so noted a character as he is now. The Scotchmen might really have supposed a Southrener unacquainted with the fact of the poet’s death.
2 In corroboration of the genuineness and authenticity of the story, I am assured by a correspondent that he knows the name of the servant was not Hairy; but I have mislaid the reference.
3 A vessel.
5 A number.
6 Young girls.
7 Gallows birds.
8 Make whistling noises.
9 Distorted gestures.
10 To build the equal of it.