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From Convivial Caledonia, Inns and Taverns of Scotland, and Some Famous People Who Have Frequented Them, by Robert Kempt, London: Chapman and Hall, LD., 1893; pp. 1-7.





It is the privilege of tale-tellers to open their story in an inn, the free rendezvous of all travellers, and where the humour of each displays itself without ceremony or restraint. — KENILWORTH.

IN his curious and entertaining “History of Signboards,” the late Mr. Camden Hotten took no notice of Scotch inns, past or present. The subject is an interesting one, and we should like to see some competent Caledonian — with a taste for Glenlivet — take it up. If, like our friend Bob M‘Corkindale (in Professor Aytoun’s story of the Glenmutchkin Railway), who was understood to be the author of “A Tour in the Alcoholic Districts of Scotland,”        2   our Caledonian aforesaid numbered among his other qualifications a perfect appreciation of each separate and distinct distillery, so much the better. We might then expect a book redolent of whisky toddy, and brimful of Scottish humour — a book that no Scotsman’s library would be without. Not a history of signboards equal, perhaps, to Mr. Hotten’s, for, besides the fact that the public inn is a more recent institution in Scotland than in England, Scotsmen never used it much as a place or residence. We speak, of course, of the ancient inn, hostelrie, or tavern. The modern hotel, a very different establishment, is the modern hotel everywhere — a necessity of the nineteenth century.

It is curious to note that even the signboard — that always striking and attractive feature of the English inn — hardly existed in Scotland before the present century. An English traveller, writing of Edinburgh in 1598, says, “I did never see nor hear that they have any public inns with signs hanging out; but the better sort 3   of citizens brew ale — their usual drink — and the same citizens will entertain passengers upon acquaintance or entreaty.” And so late as the year 1748, the author of “A Tour thro’ Great Britain,” a work generally credited to Defoe, says, “When we entered New Aberdeen it was with difficulty we found a Public House, which they call Change Houses, there being but one Sign in the whole Place to notify such a House, tho’ there were many of them in it.” All this was, doubtless, owing to the good old private hospitality custom which was wont to prevail throughout Scotland, and which was practised by all classes alike. Strangers travelling north of the Tweed in the olden time had a sort of prescriptive right to apply to private persons for lodging and entertainment, and those who received them acquired a right to a similar reception in return. This custom continued to be universally observed until the reign of James I. In 1424 the following Act of Parliament was passed: — 4   “It is ordanit that in all burrow townis and throuchfairis quhair common passages ar, that thair be ordanit hostillaries and resettis, havand stables and chalmers; and that men find with thame bread and aill, and all other fude, alsweil for horse as men, for reasonable price.” But travellers had been so long accustomed to lodge in private houses that these public inns were quite neglected; and those who kept them presented a petition to Parliament, complaining “that the liegis travelland in this realme, quhen they come to burrowis and throuchfairis, herbreis thame not in hostillaries, bot with thair acquaintance and freiendis.” Whereupon a second Act was passed prohibiting travellers to lodge in private houses where there were hostelries, under a penalty of forty-shillings, and subjecting those who lodged there to the same penalty. In spite of these enactments, however, strangers continued to seek the hospitality of private individuals; for the accommodation afforded by the new hostelries, it would appear, was of a very indifferent description.

5  However, such places of public resort as did exist in those days were subject to strict legislative enactment, and drunkenness was visited by the severest pains and penalties. Thus as early as 1436, in the reign of the first James, a Forbes Mackenzie Act was in operation: — That nane be found in tauerne after nine houres. Item — It is ordained that no man in burgh be found in tauernes of wine, aill, or beir, after the strike of nine hours, and the bell that sall be rung in, in the said burgh. The quhilkis founden, the Alderman and Baillies sall put them in the King’s prison. The quhilk, if they do not, they sall pay for ilk time that they be founden culpable before the Chamberlane fifty schilingis.” In the 22nd Parliament of James VI., held at Edinburgh on 28th June, 1617, an Act was passed, “That persons convict of drunkenness or haunting of taverns and alehouses after ten of the clock at night, or any time of the day, except for the time of travel or for refreshment, pay for the first fault three pounds, or be put in jogs or jayle sex 6   hours; for the second, five pounds, or be put in jogs or jayle twelve hours; and for the third ten pounds, or stocks or jayle twentie four hours; and if they thereafter transgress, to be put in jayle till they find caution, and all Shireffs, Stewarts, provosts, baillies, justices of peace, and kirk sessions are empowered to execute this Act, and apply the pains.”

(And now, after a lapse of nearly three centuries, it so happens that an urgent appeal has been made in certain quarters to Her Majesty’s Secretary for Scotland to revert to the Act of King James and close all public houses in that country “after ten of the clock at night.”)

But although we may not be able to point to any inn across the Border so historically celebrated as, for example, the “Tabard” in Southwark, the starting-place of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims; or the “Boar’s Head” in Eastcheap, associated with Prince Hal and Falstaff and Mrs. Quickly; or the “Mermaid” in Bread Street, with its memories of Sir 7   Walter Raleigh, and Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson (not to mention other famous London resorts); still we are able to name not a few haunts of this description in Convivial Caledonia, by no means without interest to the student of social life and manners in the Scotland of our forefathers. What interesting scenes and events are associated with many of our old taverns, forming, in fact, their veritable histories; what racy anecdotes might be recorded (without encroaching on the popular pages of Dean Ramsay) of dear departed friends, who, from time immemorial, foregathered, in the inn’s best room, to pledge each other in that universal cup o’ kindness for auld lang syne. Then, what a character have we in the old Scotch landlord — a still more original character in the old Scotch landlady — a race now almost, if not altogether, extinct.

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