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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. 8-29.





“And here’s a stoup, and hame — o’er strain,

       For social souls, at bowl and board,

  That winna gang against the grain

       Wi’ them wha bide in Bon Accord!”

LET us proceed to glance at some of the more noted houses of entertainment in and round about old Bon-Accord, a city renowned for mirth and music from time immemorial. The late Mr. James Valentine, in a pleasant paper contributed to Macmillan’s Magazine for October, 1863, recounts the history of the Philosophical Society of Aberdeen, formed in the year 1758. The minutes of this society (known to outsiders by the name of the “Wise Club”), are still preserved in MS., and from them we learn that the members — those grave philosophers, Doctors Thomas Reid,        9   the metaphysician, and George Campbell, author of “The Philosophy of Rhetoric”; Dr. John Gregory, the physician, James Beattie of “The Minstrel,” with other intellectual lights of the northern capital — were wont to hold their meetings in a tavern. Most of the members were professors in the rival colleges — King’s and Marischal — and, as a matter of personal convenience, they met alternately once a fortnight, either at John Beans, whose tavern was, we presume, somewhere in the Castlegate or Broadgate; or at Luckie Campbell’s in the Aulton — situated probably in the High Street. Mr. Valentine in his researches, evidently failed to discover the exact whereabouts of these resorts of the philosophers; he merely says, somewhat naïvely, as regards Beans’ tavern, that it “was no doubt a respectable one, and the society must have given it an additional reputation.” What we do know is that these learned professors dined or supped together for the moderate outlay of eighteen-pence a head. This was the       10   actual coast of the dinner or “entertainment,” as it was then customary to describe the repast. The expenses incurred at each meeting were defrayed out of a common fund, and were faithfully recorded in the minutes. Here is a transcript of one of the bills rendered by the landlord: —

                                                                            £    s.    d.
              To 1 Mutchken Punch                   ...       0    2    6
              To 2 botels Red Port...                   ...       0    4    0
              To 3 do. Porter        ...                   ...       0    1    0
              To Supper               ...                    ...       0    3    0
              To Paips and Tobaco...                   ...       0    0    6
                                                                           £0   11    0
                   Addition by Entertainment                 0     1    6
                                                                           £0   12    6

Only on one other occasion, as far as is known, did the bill exceed that amount. This was on the 8th May, 1770, when the score for the evening was 19s. 10d., being an average outlay for the six members present of about 3s. 3½d. Happy savants and Stoic philosophers who could regale themselves at so modest a cost! Fancy half-a-dozen of our professorial or magisterial 11  magnates of the present day, sitting round the festive board content with such a humble “spread” as satisfied the eminent men of Aberdeen in 1770. The times change, and we change with them. After a while, the society began to experience the inevitable losses. Reid migrated to Glasgow, to succeed Adam Smith; and Gregory was called to the Chair of the Practice of Physic in Edinburgh; Dr. David Skene, the naturalist, Professor Stewart, and John Farquhar, the parson of Nigg, were removed by death (Professor John Ross, of King’s College, another member of the coterie, met with a painfully sudden death in January, 1777, having been choked by swallowing a spider in a glass of claret). The few remaining members seem to have met for the last time on 9th March, 1773. And it is worthy of note that on the 10th of the previous month, Professor John Gregory of Edinburgh, not the least gifted member of the band in former years, ceased from his labours at the early age of forty-nine.

12 It was in this same year that Dr. Samuel Johnson, accompanied by his faithful Boswell, visited Aberdeen in his “grand tour” (for was it not the longest and most important journey ever undertaken by the great moralist?) to the Hebrides. He stayed at the “New Inn” in the Castlegate, then, and for long after, the chief hostelrie within the four bows. “We came somewhat late to Aberdeen,” says the doctor, “and found the inn so full that we had some difficult in obtaining admission till Mr. Boswell made himself known. His name overpowered all objections, and we found a very good house and civil treatment.” Johnson would seem to have had a little more partiality for Aberdonians and Aberdeen ways than he had for Scotsmen and Scotland generally. His biographer declared that the doctor ate several platefuls of Scotch broth with barley and peas in it, and seemed very fond of the dish. “You never ate it before?” remarked Boswell. “No, sir,” replied Johnson, “but I don’t 13  care now how soon I eat it again.” On the eve of their departure, as they sat contentedly at their inn, “Dr. Johnson made merry, and observed how little we had either heard or said at Aberdeen; that the Aberdonians had not started a single mawkin for us to pursue.” In his “Tour,” the doctor himself states that he was entertained at once by the novelty of the place and the kindness of communication. Among other things, he tells Mrs. Thrale in a letter, as a fact likely, we suppose, to interest the feminine mind, that the “maids in the inns ran over the house barefoot.” It is well known that Johnson was made a burgess of the city on this occasion. By the way, the next recipient of the honour (in 1781) was, strange to say, George Colman, the younger, who was only a youth of nineteen at the time. (Laurence Fletcher, who visited the town with Queen Elizabeth’s Company of players in 1607, received the freedom of Aberdeen. Shakespeare’s name does not appear in the list of 14  Burgesses, though it is supposed that he formed one of the company on that occasion.) The compliment was evidently highly gratifying to the doctor, for he confesses that it “had all the decorations that politeness could add, and, what, I am afraid I should not have had to say of any city south of the Tweed, I found no petty officer bowing for a fee.” “And,” says the delighted Boswell, “it was striking to hear all the company drinking, ‘Dr. Johnson! Dr. Johnson!’ in the Town Hall, and then to see him with his burgess ticket or diploma in his hat, which he wore as he walked along the street, according to the usual custom.” A “hitherto unpublished anecdote” of the doctor’s visit is given by Professor David Masson in his “Recollections of Three Cities,” published in Macmillan’s Magazine thirty years ago, an extremely interesting series of papers recently republished in a volume. The incident is characteristic, and will bear repeating. Johnson happened to be in Huxter Row, 15  where a house was undergoing the process of being “harled.” Either because the process interested him, or because he was in an absent fit, the doctor, passing that way, stopped underneath the ladder on which the workman stood with his bucket of lime and his trowel. The doctor stood awhile; the man politely ceasing in his work so as not to splash so grand-looking a stranger. But, being short tempered, the man at length got tired, and on Johnson’s perceiving his impatience and calling up to him, “I hope I am not in your way, my man?” answered at once, “Feint a bit are you in my way, gin you’re nae in your ain,” at the same time resuming his work and sending a splash of the “harl” from his trowel against the wall so as to give the doctor’s coat the benefit of the droppings.

Continuing their journey, Johnson and Boswell reached Ellon, where they breakfasted. The landlady, addressing the latter, said “Is not this the great doctor, that is going through the country?” I 16  said, “Yes.” “Aye,” said she, “we heard of him. I made an errand in the room on purpose to see him. There’s something great in his appearance: it is a pleasure to have such a man in one’s house — a man who does so much good. If I had thought of it, I would have shown him a child of mine who has had a lump on his throat for some time.” “But,” said I, “he is not a doctor of physic.” “Is he an oculist?” said the landlord; “they say he is the greatest man in England, except Lord Mansfield.” Doctor Johnson was highly entertained with this, and I do think he was pleased too. He said, “I like the exception; to have called me the greatest man in England, would have been an unmeaning compliment, but the exception marked that the praise was in earnest, and in Scotland the exception must be Lord Mansfield, or — Sir John Primate.”

About a year ago a paragraph appeared in one of the London newspapers to the effect that an old and hitherto unpublished manuscript just then brought to light 17  furnishes an explanation of the uncomplimentary terms in which Dr. Johnson, in connection with his journey through Scotland to the Hebrides, alludes to the town of Elgin and to the manner in which he dared in the “Red Lion Inn” of that ancient burgh. According to this manuscript, a mercantile traveller, who bore a striking resemblance to the famous lexicographer, during his business visits to Elgin lodged in the Red Lion, and, with the end that he might have ampler means to indulge in the convivialities of the evening, was in the habit of ordering a dinner of the most frugal description. When Dr. Johnson put up at the Inn, the waiter, mistaking the uncouth figure of the distinguished stranger for that of his commercial visitor, presented the usual spare meal, from which, the manuscript records, the doctor suffered, expressing his dissatisfaction in terms more vigorous than polite.

But “life is not all beer and skittles” even in a tavern. How soon may the 18  element of discord break out to disturb the harmony of the meeting? To quote Prior’s lines, —

                   They draw the cork, they broach the barrel,
                   And first they kiss, and then they quarrel.

Among the associations of the “New Inn,” Aberdeen, is a tragical event which took place exactly ten years previous to Dr. Johnson’s visit, namely in 1763. A gathering of convivial spirits assembled there one night was suddenly interrupted by a quarrel between two of the party, Leith of Leith-hall and Abernethy of Mayen. They left the room about midnight and repaired to the Plainstones to settle their dispute by duel. Leith was shot through the head, and died three days afterwards. His adversary, who was slightly wounded in the thigh, escaped from justice by going abroad. This lamentable affair created at the time what, in popular phraseology, is called a great sensation. It was commemorated in a homely ballad, long popular in the north, though giving, it is said, a one-sided       19   version of the circumstances. One of the verses runs, —

                      If brave Leith-Hall’s been ta’en in drink
                            His sin’s, I hope, forgiven;
                      And I may safely say, this day,
                            His soul is safe in heaven.

The “New Inn” was erected about the year 1755 by the Aberdeen Lodge of Freemasons, one of the most ancient societies in Scotland, the Order having been introduced into Aberdeen, according to the late Dr. Joseph Roberson, as early as the year 1541. The inn was pulled down half a century since, the site being now occupied by the North of Scotland Bank. In an interesting volume “Aberdeen Fifty Years Ago,” published by Mr. Lewis Smith in 1868, there is an engraving of the inn as it appeared in 1822 — a big, roomy-looking building, devoid of any architectural pretensions. It had by this date assumed the more modern and ambitious sign of “New Inn Hotel, by J. Anderson.” In the same street was “Skipper Anderson’s House,” a leading hostelrie about the middle of the 20  seventeenth century. It was frequented by many of the leaders in the civil wars of the Covenant, including the great Montrose, who slept here after his victory at the Justice Mills in 1644, and here he “committed one of the meanest of his actions, by perfidiously entrapping the Marquis of Huntly.” “The Bonny Wife’s Inn,” in the Gallowgate, was another favourite house of call about the same period. In more recent times there was the “Lemon Tree” (the first of the name), in the Huxter Row, long celebrated for good company and good cheer; famous in particular in the eyes of some habitués for its Finnan haddocks and partan claws. The judges of the High Court on circuit at one time put up here when in town. Then there was “Affleck’s” in the Exchequer Row. That learned and withal genial antiquary, Dr. Joseph Robertson, writes in something like terms of affection of this Tavern, and of mine host, as he (the doctor) knew them in the thirties. This establishment, he says, “enjoyed an 21  unrivalled reputation for poignancy of cookery and excellence of potations, and the curious in gastronomy flock hither to explore the deeper mysteries of the science” — a description sufficient to tickle the palate of a very gourmand.

And here, by the way, may be set down two specimens of signboard humour, of which numerous examples exist throughout the country. The first we copy from an old volume of anecdotes, neither date nor address being given. Over the door of a tavern in the neighbourhood of Aberdeen is the following intimation: —

             James Rettie, licensed to sell the year that’s begun,
             P.P. porter and ale — F.F. fusky and rum.

On someone inquiring the meaning of the above detached letters, he was told that both the publican and the painter had an impediment in their speech, and perhaps, continued the informant, “the painter had a stuttering brush also.” Another Boniface known as Watty Reid, in the early part of the century, kept a tavern near the old Poultry Market behind the “New       22   Inn.” There was quite a colony of vintners in this locality at one time, and Watty’s house was a favourite howf with small tradesmen and soldiers. Over the fireplace the shrewd landlord had placed in prominent letters this rhyming advertisement of his liquors and warning to his customers, —

                   Fine Devanha porter; gweed strong ale;
                   Real Cabrach whisky, as ever bore the bell.
                   Watty’s liquor’s gweed;
                   Gin ye hae nae money, Watty has nae trust.

But far greater interest attaches to “The Gordon Arms,” at the neighbouring village of Dyce, inasmuch as the late John Philip, R.A., when a mere boy, painted the signboard of that inn, a relative of his own, Mrs. Allardyce, being then the landlady. Philip is supposed to have been about thirteen years of age at the time he made this, his first essay in the fine arts, which would be about the year 1830. We trust that so interesting a relic of one of the most gifted of Bon-Accord’s sons has been as carefully preserved as is 23  the signboard of the “Royal Oak” at Bettys-y-Coed, painted by David Cox.

So early as the year 1480, one William Moyses was authorized or licensed to sell red Gascony wine in his tavern at sixpence a pint. Down towards the end of the last century wine was dearer at Rouen than in the North of Scotland, owing to the lowness of the duty. The best port or claret used to sell for eightpence or ninepence a bottle. When a cargo of claret came to Leith, its arrival was proclaimed by sending a hogshead of it through the town on a cart, and anybody who wanted a sample had only to go to the cart with a jug, which was filled for sixpence. The Town Council Records contain many curious items which unmistakably show that the burghers of olden time, true to their motto, Bon-Accord, were noted for their sociality, and for their appreciation of the cup that cheers, and also, on occasion, inebriates. By a resolution of the Council of date 1606, it was declared unlawful for any “hostiler, 24  tavernar, or vinter of wyne” to sell his liquor after ten o’clock at night, at which hour the College bell was to be rung as a warning. It was further ordered that any person, man or woman, found walking on the streets after that hour, except such as should be known to have lawful errands, were to be fined in the sum of five pounds. These stringent restrictions were deemed necessary in consequence of the lax manners too common at that period. All the same the spirit of good fellowship and hospitality had found expression among the Magistrates from time immemorial in the custom of waiting upon distinguished visitors to the burgh, and presenting them with a libation of wine called “A cup of Bon-Accord.” The date of the introduction of this custom or ceremony is not known, but it is described as “an ancient usage, even in 1622, when, on the 7th of August of that year, Sir Thomas Pendilburrie presented to the city “ane silver cup, with the cover all dubill ovir gilt with gold, haveand the 25  townis armis, with thair motto Bon-Accord thairuponn.” Sir Thomas was a merchant and citizen at London, also a free burgess of Aberdeen, and in token of his affection for the burgh he gifted the loving cup to be used in all time coming. “Alas!” remarks a local wrier, “for the good intentions of a generous soul. The Puritans got the upper hand in the magistracy in 1642, and, frowning on the ungodly practice of drinking healths, took it upon themselves to present the cup to the Kirk to be used only in the communion service.” In the following year, we are told, it was “exchanged” for other cups, and no more is heard of Sir Thomas Pendilburrie*#8217;s gift.

Though the Lord Provost and Bailies of the Granite City are no longer in the habit of “saluting” illustrious visitors “at their lodging,” and offering them “wine and confects for their welcome,” as honest Town Clerk Spalding has it (a proceeding scarcely in accordance with modern notions), it cannot be said that the 26  character for hospitality in olden times is not maintained in these latter days. Our civic rulers are certainly not slow to confer the rights of citizenship on eminent men, offering at the same time a libation of wine, on all fitting occasions.

The well-known song, “Up in the morning early,” recounts the drinking feats of a number of boon companions, all Aberdeenshire gentlemen. The Lord Aboyne mentioned in the song, and who, by the way, seems to have been the more sensible man of the company, was afterwards fourth Duke of Gordon, and the author of the capital ditty, “The Reel o’ Bogie.” He was born in 1743 and died in 1827, —

                      Frae night till morn our squires they sat,
                      An’ drank the juice o’ the barley.
                      Some they spent but ae hauf crown,
                      And some six crowns sae rarely.
                              .           .           .           .
                      We will gae hame, said Lord Aboyne;
                      Na, sit awhile, quo’ Towie;
                      Oh, never a foot, said Lochnievar,
                      As lang’s there’s beer in the bowie.
                      There they sat the lee-lang night,
                      Nor stirr’d till the sun shone clearly;
                      Then made an end as they began,
                      And gaed hame in the morning early.

27  There were giants in those days. We have all heard of the “six-bottle men” among the legal and clerical fraternity of Edinburgh in Sir Walter Scott’s and Lord Cockburn’s time, “men who,” as Sir Walter, in “Rob Roy,” says, “could carry off their six bottles under their belt quietly and comfortably, without brawling or babbling, and be neither sick nor sorry next morning.” Lord Newton, a Scotch Judge of that day, is said to have been able to drink six bottles of port without being affected. And we read of the Nine Tumbler Club in connection with St. Andrew’s University, a club that became extinct because, so the story runs, no candidate could be found to pass the test qualification of “drinking nine tumblers of whisky toddy, and then saying, Bib-lic-al Crit-ic-ism.” But some folks in the North were capable of despatching at least half-a-dozen bottles at a sitting. There was, for instance, Saunders Paul, the innkeeper at Banchory, whom Dean Ramsay remembered as an old man. It is said of Saunders 28  that he could drink whisky, glass for glass, to the claret of Mr. Maule and the Laird of Skene for a whole evening; and in those days, says the Dean, 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. Mr. Paul, on being asked if he considered porter a wholesome beverage, replied, “Oh, yes, if you don’t take above a dozen.” His friend of the rafts was drowned in the Dee, and when told that the body had been found down the stream below Crathes, Paul coolly remarked, “I am surprised at that, for I never kenn’d him to pass the inn before without coming in for a glass.” Probably there are very few persons living gifted with Saunders Paul’s drinking power. And it is just as well. That hard or “close drinking” has gone out of fashion can only be regarded in the light of a national blessing. However, we will maintain that better company, over a 29  tumbler of toddy, than certain worthy Aberdonians of the present generation, who might be named, “ye wadna find in Christendee.”

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