A Slander on Dundee?
In Dundee, it has been remarked, there are more dwarfish, decrepit, and deformed people, and fewer that arrive at old age, than in any other town of equal size in Scotland. [Travels in Scotland by an Unusual Route, London, 1807, p. 273.]
Who remarked this exactly? It is found in the entertaining travel writings of Rev. James Hall (1754-1844) of Chestnut Walk, Walthamstow, who came to Scotland early in the 19th century. Not sure where he got that Dundee information though, or what it means. Surely the turn of the 19th century was too early for the effects of the mills and mass industrialism to deform Dundonians en masse?
That aside, Hall gives a unique picture of the county in his day. Not unnaturally he pays close attention to religious matters and was interested in the Glasite sect which he found flourishing in Dundee. (I will save the Glasites for a future post, along with his description of Auchmithie.) But his encounters with strange characters and eye for strange events and for keenly noticing the manners and behaviour of people he met. At Panmure he overheard ‘two tolerably well dressed men’ in a heated discussion about one of their mutual friends. This man of property had a sick wife, whose sister came to look after her. When the wife died, the man became close to the sister and sought to marry her. But minister, presbytery and then synod forbade it. One of the men had been present at the church courts and vehemently disagreed with the clerical authorities and volubly cited a panoply of biblical parallels to show that there was permissible examples of marriage between relations. The English vicar was even more impressed when the man – who was a kirk elder – dredged up further examples from secular ancient history. How different from conversations likely to be found in a modern pub.
Never Trust an Actor (in Montrose)
Following a trip to Arbroath the clergyman went on to Montrose, a town he was much taken with. After some observations about religious observance in the burgh, Hall relates the story of a well-bred young Aberdeenshire lady who sadly fell in love with a member of a group of travelling players. She crept out of her father’s house and was smuggled away to Montrose by the actor’s friend. But the friend also fell in love with her on their flight south and the two men fell to blows in Montrose:
The young man with whom she fell in love... received, in the presence of the young lady, a cut with a clasped knife across the belly, from the person that conducted her thither, that laid his bowels open. The person who had done the deed, upon the cry of murder, was instantly seized. However dreadful, the wound happened not to be mortal, the vitals being injured, but not quite cut through. Dr Bate, being fortunately at hand, the bowels were examined and put in, and the gash sewed up. And when the wound was healed, which was not for several months, they were married: but having no independent fortune, and he parents utterly abandoning her, she and her husband are, at this day, and have been ever since this foolish step, the constant companions of poverty and want.
So, all was well that ended well... or not quite. Hall moves on to tell the story of a Montrose gent who fell in love with a performer he saw at Arbroath because of her lovely singing voice. The singer also reciprocated his emotions, for obvious reasons: ‘As the gentleman was not thirty years of age, and had landed property, free from incumbrance, and more than a thousand pounds a year...’ She married the man and moved into her house, along with her mother and a boy she initially claimed to be her brother, but who was actually her son. When her husband’s younger brother visited, he and the wife recognised each other, due to the fact they had secretly lived with each other the previous year at Perth.
Having heard this tale, the vicar called upon the unknowing gentleman one later afternoon and found himself immediately uncomfortable due to his knowledge about the gent’s domestic background and his strange behaviour. For a start, despite the fact it was only 5 in the afternoon, the squire had just gone to bed and came down in only his shirt. He insisted however on plying his visitor with rum and the clergyman’s befuddlement intensified when the squire insisted on calling down his wife.
As Hall uncomfortably recalled:
In less than a minute, an elegantly dressed lady made her appearance, highly powdered, and, having a train near two yards long, sweeping the floor behind her. Dropping a curtsey, she approached us. How I looked I know not, but I felt extremely uneasy... Not having occasion to speak, as the squire said every thing, I was extremely glad. He told me he never rose till about ten in the morning; that he he could not move till he got a glass or two of rum, or brandy, as his hand always shook much in the morning; that he could eat nothing but a small bit of salt ham, fish, or something tasty... he generally walked a little in the forenoon, dined about three, got drunk about four, and went to bed about five in the evening; that his lady was extremely kind to him, giving him the rum and brandy in the morning, before he moved from his bed, and that he believed without this kindness of hers, he should have been in his grave sometime ago.
Another element in the reverend’s discomfort was the rude strangeness of his host’s conversation, which was ‘extremely eccentric, nay, even blamsphemous; for he swore by the ninth curl of Moses’s wig, the great God’s tobacco-box, &c.’ The Rev Hall could not escape without the gentleman giving him the gift of a book, which he did not want, and he commented, ‘I was glad when I got out of the house, having never been so disagreeably situated before.’ He lamented that the man’s indolence landed him into such ‘sensuality and debauchery’. Then he proceeded to show that eccentricity were common within the squire’s family. A relative of his tried to condition his infant child to a glorious future in the British Army by firing his pistols close by the baby’s head at regular intervals. Not surprisingly, his young wife soon ran off with another man.