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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. 135-152.





IN that entertaining work, Chambers’s “Book of Days,” we have a graphic description of New Year’s Day festivities in Scotland and England. The custom of the wassail-bowl and first-footing, if no longer observed in the effusive and demonstrative manner that it was say a half a century ago, is still remembered in a quieter way in many parts of the country. The above sagacious chronicler reminds us that as New Year’s Day, the 1st of January bears a prominent place in the popular calendar. It has ever been a custom among northern nations to see the old year out and the new one in, with the highest demonstrations of merriment and conviviality. To but a few does it seem to occur that the day is a memorandum of the subtraction of another year        136 from the little sum of life; with the multitude, the top feeling is a desire to express good wishes for the next twelvemonths’ experience of their friends, and be the subject of similar benevolence on the part of others, and to see this interchange of cordial feeling take place, as far as possible, in festive circumstances. It is seldom that an English family fails to sit up on the last night of the year till twelve o’clock, along with a few friends, to drink a happy New Year to each other over a cheerful glass. Very frequently, too, persons nearly related but living apart, dine with each other on this day, to keep alive and cultivate mutual good felling. It cannot be doubted that a custom of this kind must tend to obliterate any shades of dissatisfaction or jealous anger that may have arisen during the previous year, and send the kindred onward through the next with renewed esteem and regard.

Till very few years ago in Scotland, the custom of the wassail-bowl at the passing away of the old year might be said to be 137 still in comparative vigour. On the approach of twelve o’clock, a hot-pint was prepared — that is, a kettle or flagon full of warm, spiced, and sweetened ale, with an infusion of spirits. When the clock had struck the knell of the departed year, each member of the family drank of this mixture “A good health and a happy New Year, and many of them,” to all the rest, with a general hand-shaking, and perhaps a dance round the table, with the addition of a song to the tune of Hey tuttie taitie :

                             “Weel may we a’ be,
                              Ill may we never see,
                              Here’s to the king
                              And the gude companie!” etc.

The elders of the family would then most probably sally out, with the hot kettle, and bearing also a competent provision of buns and short bread, or bread and cheese, with the design of visiting their neighbours, and interchanging with them the same cordial greetings. If they met by the way another party similarly 138 bent, whom they knew, they would stop and give and take sips from their respective kettles. Reaching the friend’s house, they would enter with vociferous good wishes, and soon send the kettle a-circulating. If they were the first to enter the house since twelve o’clock, they were deemed as the first-foot; and, as such, it was most important, for luck to the family in the coming year, that they should make their entry, not empty-handed, but with their hands full of cakes and bread and cheese; of which, on the other hand, civility demanded that each individual in the house should partake.

To such an extent did this custom prevail in Edinburgh in the recollection of persons still living, that, according to their account, the principal streets were more thronged between twelve and one in the morning than they usually were at midday. Much innocent mirth prevailed, and mutual good feelings were largely promoted. An unlucky circumstance, which took place on the 1st January of 139 1812, proved the means of nearly extinguishing the custom. A small party of reckless boys formed a design of turning the innocent festivities of first-footing to account for purposes of plunder. They kept their counsel well. No sooner had the people come abroad on the principal thoroughfares of the Old Town, than these youths sallied out in small bands, and commenced the business which they had undertaken. Their previous agreement was, to look out for the white neckcloths, — such being the best mark by which they could distinguish in the dark individuals likely to carry any property worthy of being taken. A great number of gentlemen were thus spoiled of their watches and other valuables. The least resistance was resented by the most brutal maltreatment. A policeman, and a young man of the rank of a clerk in Leith, died of the injuries they had received. An affair so singular, so uncharacteristic of the people among whom it happened, produced a widespread and lasting feeling of surprise. 140 The outrage was expiated by the execution of three of the youthful rioters on the chief scene of their wickedness; but from that time it was observed that the old custom of going about with the hot-pint — the ancient wassail — fell off.

There was in Scotland a first-footing independent of the hot-pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot. Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among the family, if through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.

It may safely be said that New Year’s Day has hitherto been observed in Scotland with a heartiness nowhere surpassed. It almost appears as if, by a sort of antagonism to the general gravity of the people, they were impelled to break out in a half-mad merriment on this day. Every 141 face was bright with smiles; every hand ready with the grasp of friendship. All stiffness arising from age, profession, and rank, gave way. The soberest felt entitled to take a licence on that special day. Reunions of relatives very generally took place over the festive board, and thus many little family differences were obliterated. At the present time, the ancient practices are somewhat decayed; yet the 1st of January is far from being reduced to the level of other days.


THE first Monday of the year has for time immemorial been a great holiday among the peasantry of Scotland, and children generally, as being the day peculiarly devoted to giving and receiving of presents. It is on this account called Handsel Monday, handsel being in Scotland the equivalent of a Christmas box. Among the rural population, Auld Handsel        142 Monday, i.e. Handsel Monday old style, or the first Monday after the 12th of the month, is the day usually held. The farmers used to treat the whole of their servants on that morning to a liberal breakfast of roast and boiled, with ale, whisky, and cake, to their utmost contentment; after which the guests went about seeing their friends for the remainder of the day. It was also the day on which any disposed for change give up their places, and when new servants were engaged. Even now, when most old fashions are much decayed, Auld Handsel Monday continues to be the holiday of the year to the class of farm-labourers in Scotland.

“It is worth mentioning that one William Hunter, a collier (residing in the parish of Tillicoultry, in Clackmannanshire), was cured in the year 1738 of an inveterate rheumatism or gout, by drinking freely of new ale, full of barm or yeast. The poor man had been confined to his bed for a year and a half, having almost entirely lost the use of his limbs. On the evening 143 of Handsel Monday, as it is called, some of his neighbours came to make merry with him. Though he could not rise, yet he always took his share of the ale, as it passed round the company, and in the end he became much intoxicated. The consequence was that he had the use of his limbs next morning, and was able to walk about. He lived more than twenty years after this, and never had the smallest return of his old complaint.” Statistical Account of Scotland.


A BREWSTERS wife having “brewed a peck o’ maut,” which was cooking at the door, a neighbour’s cow came past and drank it all, not being noticed until too late to stop her. An action of law was taken against the owner of the offending cow for the price of the ale. It was admitted in court that the cow drank the ale, but it was contended that she drank        144 it standing, and as a standing or parting drink called the “Stirrup Cup” was, by immemorial custom, not chargeable, the defendant should be exonerated, which he accordingly was.


OF several of Burns’s haunts in Kilmarnock not previously mentioned, Mr. D. M‘Naught, parish schoolmaster, Kilmaurs, gives some interesting notes. For example, in Market Lane was situated “Begbie’s Inn,” the modern Angel Hotel. Owing to the somewhat limited accommodation afforded by the bridge leading to the inn, the Laigh Kirk worshippers were constrained to cross the river in double or single file, hence the straggling and elongated appearance of the “drouthie” detachment which, after service, was wont to stampede —

                             “Aff tae Begbie’s in a raw,
                              Tae pour divine libations.”

145The interest in Tam Samson’s house, as a memento of the poet, is enhanced by the fact that the interior has been preserved almost intact by his descendants, (Samson and Co., Nurserymen), in whose hands it still remains. The entrance is in the gable facing the Tankard Ha’ Brae. On the ground floor is the usual kitchen and spence of the period, low-roofed and of small dimensions, while a stair gives access to an upper chamber, which, in Tam’s day, was used as an office, and beneath which was situated the wine cellar. Here, doubtless, on many occasions, did Burns meet with the congenial spirits of Auld Killie — Muir, Goldie, Charles Samson, Gregory, Greenshields, Parker, Paterson, Brown, Dr. Hamilton, Dr. Moore, and Gavin Turnbull; and it requires no great effort of the imagination to conjure up the jovial board, whose sallies were so often re-echoed by the time-worn walls. Of this chosen company, Robert Muir was nearest and dearest to the poet’s heart. He it was 146 whom he consulted before the final arrangements with his publisher, and it was from him he received the most substantial support, no fewer than seventy copies of the first edition being put down to his order. He also subscribed for sixty copies of the Edinburgh edition, which Burns, ashamed of the princely generosity of the man whom his brother Gilbert describes as a man of no great worldly substance, reduced to forty. . . .  Very little is known of the personal history of Mr. Muir, beyond the fact that he was a wine merchant, and had his premises on the Foregate side of the present Portland Tavern, which forms the “gushat-house” between Foregate and Regent Street. He died in April, 1788, shortly after the issue of the Edinburgh edition.

Another howf of the bard and his friends was “Sandy Patrick’s” Tavern, which was situated in a by-lane at the head of the Foregate. Alexander Patrick, the jolly host, was a son-in-law of the redoubted Tam Samson, and his hostelrie 147 was widely famed for the excellent quality of its liquors, more especially its “caup ale” of home manufacture. Another house under whose roof Burns repeatedly partook of the hospitality of its owner, is situated in Grange Street, and still forms part of the Kilmarnock Brewery Buildings. The proprietor in Burns’ time was Bailie Greenshields, Brewer, a worthy member of an old Kilmarnock family now extinct. The meeting-place of St. John’s Lodge of Freemasons, where “The sons of Auld Killie, assembled by Willie,” were wont to hold mystical communion, formed part of the Old Commercial Inn, in Croft Street, demolished a few years ago to make room for the offices of the Messrs. Walker, wine merchants (and whose special blend of Scotch, it may be added, is highly appreciated on both sides of the Border and further afield). It was in this hall that Burns heard Jean Glover sing her beautiful composition, “Oure the muir amang the heather,” which he thought so well of that he sent it to 148 Thomson accompanied by a broad hint of the characteristic vagaries of the comely but eccentric and unfortunate authoress.


WRITING to James Johnson, publisher of the Scots Musical Museum, in 1792 or 1793, Burns says: — “I was much obliged to you, my dear friend, for making me acquainted with Gow. He is a modest intelligent worthy, besides his being a man of genius in his way. I have spent many happy hours with him in the short while he has been here.” It is pleasant to think of the greatest Scottish poet and the greatest Scottish musician of his day walking together on the banks of the Nith, or sitting at night round the famous punch-bowl of the bard, while “bonny Jean” sang the last new song that her husband had composed; or Neil Gow — the gray hair shading his honest forehead and still bright eye — took his fiddle and        149 gave them a specimen of that marvellous bow-hand which made heart and heel leap up, and never had a match in Scotland.


AN article by Dr. D. Anderson, appeared in the Scots Magazine for January, 1892, from which we make the following extract: —

From 1718 to 1843, in the western island of Islay, a body of residents annually constituted themselves into what was called the “Local Parliament of Islay,” for the purpose of regulating the concerns of the community. All matters of internal administration and taxation came under their jurisdiction. Within certain limits they wielded sovereign power, and enforced their decrees brevi manu. In the conduct of their business there is evidence of shrewdness, caution, and sagacity, as well as of a public spirit and enterprise, little to be expected in this lone isle of the sea.


The meetings, which were at first half-yearly, but became afterwards annual, were held in the Tolbooth of Killarow or at Bowmore, and the public intimations were made sometimes from the Tolbooth stairs, but more frequently from the church pulpits. Down to 1841, the gentlemen, heritors, tacksmen, and feuars of Islay simply elected themselves to the parliament; but in that year the qualification for deliberating and voting at its meetings was fixed at 1l. of yearly cess, as vouched by production of last year’s receipts. Provision was made for the representation of those farms which were let on joint-tenancy, and for the villages of the island, while an exception was made in favour of parish ministers, some of whom did not pay so much as 20s. of cess.

Although far removed from the madding crowd, these primitive senators are acute enough to know that public service and public entertainment go hand in hand. Accordingly, the bill at the “Ship Tavern,” for 151 the entertainment of the parliament, forms an item of annual expenditure. At first the inner cost “the country” the paltry sum of 6l. or 8l., but this soon rose to 17l. or 18l., whereof two-thirds was for drink. At last, the “enormous” amount of these bills called for public censure, and stringent rules were laid down, restricting the wine allowance to each member. These were, however, rescinded next year. Finally a motion to discontinue the dinner was carried by the casting vote of the chairman. Islay still maintains its reputation for producing good liquor, and these wine lists, would, of themselves, furnish a curious subject of investigation. Here is a sample of the consumption at one of these good, old-fashioned inners: 3½ dozen whisky punch, 20 bottles rum toddy, 18 bottles porter, 13 of port, 3 of sherry, 2 of brandy, and 3 half-mutchkins “in the forenoon.” This does not include the vague item called “drams,” to which may beaded the invariable entry of “glasses brock.”


A SCOTTISH nobleman of the olden times was in the habit of indulging pretty freely at the hospitable tables of his friends. He took the precaution to have always with him a trustworthy retainer, who never failed to avoid all temptation to excess, in order to make sure of taking his master safely home. On one occasion Donald had been induced to join in the festivities of the servants’ hall, and, feeling himself quite overcome, managed to stagger upstairs and whisper to his master, who was in full swing of enjoyment at the table, “My lord, ye’ll hae to tak’ care o’ yersel’ the nicht, for it’s a’ ower wi’ me.” Donald reminds us of the character in one of Scott’s novels, who is described as “an old servant of my father’s, an excellent old Highlander, without a fault, unless a preference to mountain-dew over less potent liquors be accounted one.”


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