‘Bodkin in the Baxter Park’ (15 August, 1863)

Baxter Park was officially opened on the 9th of September 1863, and was a significant public event in that year. ‘The Journal’s’ owner John Leng had a singular influence on the creation of the public park as he convinced Sir David Baxter to do something for Dundee where his father (William Baxter) had not [Small, Gordon, The Lengs: Dundee’s Other Publishing Dynasty (Dundee, 2009)].

The opening of the park was to include a large procession of military men, sailors, local guilds,  and the Earl of Dalhousie and Provost of Dundee. Much excitement was also generated by the prospect of the inflation of a large balloon by Henry Coxwell, whom a year earlier had gained fame for his daring ascent into the stratosphere. Unfortunately Coxwell’s balloon had to be cancelled due to the direction of the wind.

The opening of the park played a part in several Tammas Bodkin letters (Editor William Latto’s pseudonym for his satirical columns), which give an insight into this event in Dundee’s history.

Maister Editor,—Bein’ rather slack the ither afternoon, an’ the weather bein’ magnificent, I proposed to Tibbie that we should tak’ a turn ootbye the length o’ the Baxter Park, to get a snifter o’ the caller air, an’ behold the beauties o’ Natur’. As she has never seen the Park sin’ it was sae splendidly daikered oot by Mr Richmod wi’ flowers an’ plants, an’ seats, and sae forth, she was perfectly agreeable—in fact, quite delighted—wi’ the proposal; an’ so awa we gaed, arm in arm, as it is but richt an’ proper that man an’ wife should do when they walk abroad, though I maun needs say there are some o’ my acquaintances wha are no sae exemplary in this particular as they should be —baudin’ their wives trottin’ at their tails, baith to kirk an’ market, in a manner that wadna hae been tolerated in their coortin’ days. Though frae Crinoline Crescent to the Park is by nae means a dreich journey, yet, the day bein’ scorchin’ het, an’ the roads steep, Tibbie was fairly oot o’ breath by the time we reached the eminence at the no’-east corner o’ the Park; an’ so we leant oorsel’s doon on ane o’ the rustic seats whilk Sir David has kindly an’ considerately caused to be placed here ane there for the convenience o’ “feeble age an’ whisperin’ lovers.” Here we had a maist magnificent bird’s-e’e view, not only o’ the Park itsel’, but also o’ the toon, wi’ its forest o’ lang lums vomitin’ furth volumes o’ whitey-broon reek, an’ the surroondin’ country, pleasantly diversified by wud an’ water, heicht an’ howe, farmstead an’ cottar hoosie. Juist under oor noses lay the Park—oor ain Park—for every man, woman, an’ bairn in Dundee, hooever poor an’ despised they may be—though they hae scarce wherewithal to cover their nakedness, or to provide themsel’s wi’ vittles—can say truly—”This Park, wi’ its windin’ walks—its gorgeous flowers—its luxurious summer seats—its splendid pavilion— its smooth-shaven lawns—is mine!” The proudest and wealthiest broad acred squire in the land hasna a better title to his estate than the Dundonians hae to the People’s Park. They are at liberty to wander aboot through its masy wilderness o’ flowers, to roll themselves on the girse, to lounge on the comfortable seats, to promenade under the shade o’ the elegant Pavilion, wi’ nane to mak’ them afraid, sae lang as they dinna transgress the rules o’ guid breedin’, by encroachin’ either wi’ fit or hand on the plots o’ flowers an’ shrubs. Visitors are no permitted to pu’ the flowers, or to handle them, or to ted doon the grund wi’ their feet, but they may look at them as narrowly as they please—the mair narrowly the better, in fact, for the flowers are put there for the very purpose o’ bein’ looked at an’ admired. Hands aff! Looked at a’ thing, but handle naething! that’s the rule o’ the Baxter Park. The flowers are no intended to adorn the button-holes, or beautify the mantel-pieces o’ theftuously-disposed visitors, but to gladden the spot where they grow, to delight the eyes o’ a lang succession o’ curious observers, an’ then, when the angel o’ death spreads his wings on the Autumn winds, an’ goes furth smitin’ the garniture frae the garments o’ Nature, to fault up their wee, laughin’ sweet-scented petals, an’ drap doon into the fosterin’ soil frae whence they derived their summer nourishment.

Juist as I was moraleezin’ in this strain I happened to cast my e’e doonwith to ane o’ the windin’ walks immediately underneath the Flagstaff Knowe, an’ there I beheld something whilk put me into a state o’ greater angerment than I’ve been in for mony lang! A prowlin’ scoondrel, wha, judgin’ frae the lack o’ intelligent expression in his villainous coontenance, could ha’e had but unco little sympathy wi’ the beauties o’ Natur’, or indeed wi’ onything aboove an’ beyond eatin’, an’ drinkin’, an’ sleepin’, was prowlin’ aboot amang the bits o’ flowers, loutin’ him doon noo an’ again as if he had been searchin’ for hid treasure, an’ at last I observed him rive up a beautiful flower—o’ what species I canna say, as I’m nae botanist—an’ awa’ he went seemingly well pleased wi’ what he had done. As I consider that it is everybody’s duty to interfere in a case o’ this kind, I resolved to call him to account for his larcenous proceedin’s. “Holloa man!” quoth I, “what d’ye mean by ruggin’ an’ rivin’ at the bits o’ flowers in that way? I’m thinkin’, if ye dinna tak’ yer creep geyan quietly, I’ll hand ye ower to the custody o’ the gentlemen wi’ the blue coats an’ glazed-crooned hats. Could ye no be content wi’ lookin’ at God’s handiwarks without ruggin’ them up by the roots?”

“An’ fat’s your business wi’ the flowers?” quoth he. “They’re as muckle mine as yours—are they no? Iana this the People’s Park, an’ am na I ane o’ the people—an’ hae na the people a richt to do what they like wi’ their ain?”

“I’m no disputin’ that this is the People’s Park,” quoth I, “nor do I mean to say that you are no ane o’ the people, but that ye hae a richt to lay violent hands on the bits o’ flowers I must an’ will deny. Neither you, sir, nor ony body else has a richt to pu’ the flowers in this Park withoot, in the first place, speerin’ my leave, an’ also the leave o’ every inhabitant o’ Dundee. This is the people’s property dootless, but it can only be used by the people as a community, not as individuals. Therefore, I’ve an undooted richt to protect the flowers an’ plants frae violence; an’ you haena the shadow o’ a richt to destroy them. Noo, that’s logic for you!”

“Ye’re an impudent fellow, sir,” retorted the depredator, “an’ gin ye dinna gie me less o’ yer cheek, I’ll ding the wind oot o’ ye! An’ that’s my logic for ye!”

“Did ye read the intimation on the brod at the Park yett as ye cam’ in?” quoth I.

“Ye maybe think I canna read?” quoth he.

“Maybe ay an’ maybe no,” quoth I, “but if ye had read the intimation I speak o’ ye wadna hae been here without hae’ein’ a collar roond yer neck, an’ somebody leadin’ ye, for it says—’NO DOGS ADMITTED WITHOUT BEING LED!’”

“Yea, man,” quoth he, “ye’re far ower clever for a plain man like me, for I dinna understand what ye mean.”

“Nane duller i’ the uptak’ than them wha arena willin’ to understand,” quoth I; “but yonder’s Mr Richmond comin’, an’ he’ll maybe clear yer een a bit.”

Whereupon the vagabon’ betane himsel’ to flicht towards the Arbroath Road what he could scour, an’ soon disappeared, like the evil-doer that he was. I houp that every visitor will not only refrain frae pu’in’ the flowers himsel’, but will act as a special constable, in bringin’ to justice whaever he can catch doin’ sae.

Resumin’ my meditations an’ observations on the Park an’ its concomitants, I drew Tibbie’s attention to a youthfu’ couple wha were sittin’ on ane o’ the seats close beside the Pavilion, an’ wha were evidently greatly interested in ilk ither’s society, judgin’ frae the earnestness wherewith they gazed into ilk ither’s faces, as weel as frae the frequency and fervency wherewith the gentleman’s coat-sleeve pressed aroond the female’s “jimpy waist.” Were they conscious o’ Tibbie an’ me bein’ spectators o’ their endearments? I doot no; itherwise they wad hae “behaved themselves afore folk.” Kissin’ ane’s sweetheart may be a lawful eneugh process, an’, if sae, there is, dootless, a time an’ place for it, “but gudesake no afore folk.”

“Eh, fy!” quoth Tibbie, when she beheld hoo they were gaun on, “that’s no bonny conduct ava.”

“Hoot guidwide,” quoth I, “ye mind hoo we were wont to do oorsels when we were like them.”

“Aye, but no ‘before folk,’” quoth she.

“Maybe no,” quoth I, “but I maun say I like to see folk enjoyin’ themsels in a lawfu’ way baith publicly and privately, an’ as for the kissin’ business I canna see the ill o’t atween sweethearts. My sentiments are admirably expressed in the auld song, wilk says—

“Some say that kissin’s a sin,

But I think it’s nane ava,

For kissin’ has been in the warld

Ever sin’ there were twa.

If it werena lawfu’,

Lawyers wadna allow it;

If it werena holy,

Ministers wadna do it;

If it werena modest,

Maldens wad as tak’ it;

If it werena plenty,

Puir folk wadna get it.”

“O Tammas! Tammas! Ye’re an auld haverel!” quoth Tibbie; “but we maun awa hame, for I’ve twa or three bannocks to put oot afore tea time.”

So we stappit oor wa’s doon by the Pavilion, takin’ a peep at it i’ the bygaen, an’ saw four temendous flower-pats in front of it, containing strange-lookin’ plants, whilk Tibbie insisted were a new-fangled kind o’ cabbage stocks. If I had seen ony o’ the gardeners near by, I wad hae speered at them hoo they ca’d them, an’ whaur they cam’ frae, an’ I wad humbly suggest to Mr Richmond that he sid hae their names an’ histories printed on bits o’ cards, an’ fixed to them, so that ignorant individuals, like Tibbie an’ me, micht be informed thereof. Indeed, it occurred to me, when wanderin’ aboot amang the flowers an’ shrubs, ignorant alike o’ their names an’ properties, that the People’s Park micht be used as a means of instructin’ the youth o’ Dundee in the science o’ botany. Were an experienced botanist appointed to gie gratuitous lectures in the Park on the history o’ plants on the Saturday afternoons durin’ the summer months it would prove far mair beneficial to the workin’ men an’ women o’ Dundee than ony amount o’ that hie-road evangelism wherewith the lugs o’ the Park visitors hae been made to tingle on sundry Sabbath nichts byepast. In this way the Park wad be a resort, not only for those wha are in quest o’ healthfu’ recreation, but also for those desirous o’ obtainin’ instruction in a useful’ branch o’ knowledge.

A word or twa, in conclusion, on the forthcomin’ demonstration at the openin’ o’ the Park on the 9th o’ neist month. Of coorse I’ll be there to lend a hand. I’ll no promise to mak’ an aerial flicht in ony o’ the balloons, for I micht get my neck broken; but I’ll tak’ care to hae needle an’ thread i’ my pouch in case o’ need, for wha kens but the balloons may require a steek or twa afore a’ is done. I’m no aware whether the men o’ my profession may be permitted to join i’ the procession in an official capacity, but I’se mak’ inquiries between this time an’ that, an’ failing’ the Knights o’ the Thimble bein’ included in the programme, I can, at least mak’ ane o’ the motley multitude. Tibbie is greatly disappointed that the Prince o’ Wales winna be present, as she wad like to see him, an’ I’m as muckle concerned that we winna see the “blithe blink” o’ the Princess “from ower the sea, Alexandra,” as naething pleases me better—hoary-headed Benedict although I be—than to be held the witchin’ smile an’ winnin’ coontenance o’ a weel-fanred, guid-tempered, innocent hearted woman, whether she be gentle or simple, young or auld, maiden or matron—withoot prejudice, hooever, to Tibbie’s vested richts in my love an’ admiration. That it may be fair weather on the ninth proximo, that everybody may be happy, that Sir David Baxter an’ his benevolent sisters, wha

“Do good by stealth.

And blush to find it fame,”

May be land spared to witness the hearty appreciation o’ their princely gift to the people o’ Dundee, is the earnest cry an’ prayer o’

Tammas Bodkin

P.S.— I houp there is nae truth in the rumour that hae been current in astronomical circles for the last few days that the Man i’ the Mune has applied to the Coort o’ Sessions for an Interdict to prevent the balloons frae bein’ set aff. Surely the “Man” is no sae great a lunatic as wad think o’ doin’ onything sae ungracious.

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