The following epistle is an early appearance in ‘The People’s Journal’ of Tammas Bodkin, the character used by editor William D. Latto to speak frankly (and amusingly) on current affairs. Latto became editor of the people’s journal in December 1860 and used the platform to launch Tammas, bringing himself a fair amount of fame in Victorian Scotland. In this column Tammas returns to the debate in the Liff and Benvie parish regards to changing the mode of assessment for levying the poor-rates (parish tax for poor relief) to ease burden on working people. The adoption of the rental system in favour of the ‘means and substance’ mode of assessment was enacted in a vote on 19th of March 1861. This issue was of particular importance for Dundee, where the ‘People’s Journal’ was campaigning for the rental system to be put in place.
‘Dundee is the only large town in Scotland that adheres to the system [‘means and substance’]. When we first began agitating for a change to rental there were about seventy parishes on the same system as Dundee, but now the number is reduced to eighteen’
Maister Editor,—My guidwife was unco sair displeased at me for wreatin’ in my last letter aboot her speakilation in Virgin Marys, an’ she has threatened to apply to Sir Cresswell Cresswell if I dinna desist frae makin’ a warld’s wonder o’ her and hers, as I did last week. I’m auld eneuch to hae learned that there’s naething to be gained by fechtin’ wi’ a woman, except sour kail an’ reekit tea, an’ therefore I maun hae regaird to her admonition, joost for the sake o’ preventin’ a stour i’ the hoose. I ventured to advise Tib to gang an’ hear George Roy lecturin’ on “The Affections,” thinkin’ that she micht be nane the waur o’ hearin’ her duty to her husband laid doon, but I got an unco short cut for my pains. “Set him up, indeed, to lecture on the Affections,” quoth she, “whan he is sae destitute o’ affection himsel’ as never to hae gotten a wife yet. Folk sid aye practise what they preach, Tammas, an’ when George Roy has been as lang married as I’ve been, he’ll maybe be able to describe the ‘tender flame’ a wee thocht mair minutely than he a’thegither cares aboot. I’ve been a wife for twa dizzen o’ years noo, an’ I think I sid ken a muckle aboot ‘love in a’ its stages and phases’ as ony George Roy. Na, na; if George Roy wad put me up to the plan o’ excerceesin’ my Generalship as successfully ower Tammas Bodkin as Mrs Young did ower ‘our John,’ I wad maybe gang an’ hear him, but no ae fit to hear him speakin’ a parcel o’ nonsense that he kens naething aboot.” Tib was in a real passion, an’ she gaed ben the hoose and clashed the door ahent her wi’ sic a thud that a couple o’ trenchers fell aff the rack in the floor, an’ gaed a’ to crokonition. “Do’d that sairs ye richt weel, my lady,” quo I to mysel’ when I heard her gatherin’ up the broken pigs an’ flingin’ them into the ase backet. Hooever, I didna lat my speerits doon, an’ I’m bound to say I didna let her’s very far up that afternoon, for I tore awa at the needle at nae allooance, an’ sang as heigh as I could roar—
“First when Tibbie was my care
Heaven, I thocht, was in her air;
Noo we’re married, speir nae mair—
Whistle ower the lave o’t.
“Hoo we live, my Tib an’ me,
Hoo we fecht an’ hoo we gree,
Let Geordie Roy come an’ see—
Whistle ower the lave o’t.
But the verse that “riled” Tibbie maist was this ane o’ my ain makin’—
“Tibbie banged the ben-hoose door,
Broke twa trenchers i’ the floor,
Wha cares though they’d been a score—
Whistle ower the lave o’t.”
A’ last nicht Tibbie was’na on speakin’ terms wi’ me, but this mornin’ she opened fire again wi’ a thousan horse poor. What she said aboot me, George Roy, yersel’, Maister Editor, an’ mandkind [sic] in general,
“I could write, but Tib maun see’t,
Whistle ower the lave o’t.”
That I may avoid a’ cause o’ offence in what follows, I’ll cheenge the subject at ance. Yon’s been an unco racket amang the parochial authorities o’ Liff an’ Benvie. The rental party hae shown some pluck, an’ deserve the thanks o’ the Dundee ratepayers for teachin’ them hoo to get rid o’ their grievances. In this as in ither difficulties there’s naething like “settin’ a stoot heart to a stey brae.” It wad hae been mair complimentary to the intelligence o’ Dundee had it been settin’ an example to Liff an’ Benvie in this movement, instead o’ hingin’ back i’ the traces like a thrawart horse; but better at the end o’ a feast than the beginnin’ o’ a pley, an’ it’s never ower late to mend. Gin the Liff an’ Benvie folks hae gude reason to complain o’ the means an’ substance system, we mair, for there was something like an attempt at classification in Liff an’ Benvie, wheras in Dundee it’s joost pay accordin’ to your income, whether it’s sma’ or great, whether ye’ve a big family or nae family ava, whether ye’ve means and substance to spare, or whether ye’ve mair need to get than gie. The illiberal party wha stood up for the auld system yammered awa aboot clarks livin’ in lodgins, an’ payin’ naething under a rental system; but do a’ that live in lodgins pay under the present mode? It’s weel eneuch kent that there are hunders o’ single men in Dundee that dinna pay a fraction o’ poor’s rates. But nae sooner do they begin to mak an appearance in the public e’e by becomin’ hooseholders an’ takin’ to themselves wives, as every honest man should do—(my ain experiences o’ Tibbie’s temper-pin notwithstandin)—than a notice is handit in settin’ them doon at sae muckle income—a sum fixed on, very likely, wi’ as little certainty o’ it’s bein’ the exact thing as if it were dune by tossin’ up a bawbee. But under the rental mode o’ assessment there’s nae reason why lodgers should escape payin’ their ain whack along wi’ hooseholders. The landlord wad hae to pay in that case, but then he could easily gar his lodgers pay a higher rent for their rooms, an’ sae it wad come to the same thing in the end. Sae that sends the “immortal Skene’s” paltry objections “fleein’ like Jehu.” Even suppose a few clerks an’ rich misers should escape scot free, that wad surely be far better than oppressin’ hundreds o’ puir hard-workin’ men in garrin’ them pay for shoon to tinkler-tongued hizzies o’ paupers, while their ain half-starved weans maun troddle through the frost an’ snaw on their ain original leather. The fact is, that the men wha wad wring sax or aucht shillin’s out o’ the sma earnin’s o’ the workin’ classes to save their ain heavy purses, an’ wha wad turn a deaf ear to the cry o’ the poor ratepayers for release frae their cruel bondage, are as bad as Pharoah, King of Egypt was in the auld times, or as the slave drivers in the Southern States o’ Ameerika, are in the present day, and ten times mair tyrannical than the Autocrat o’ a’ the Russias, for he’s settin’ his serfs at libery, an’ gi’en the Poles fair words if he sid no nae mair.
If the means an’ substance mode o’ assessment be the best, it’s a very singular circumstance, indeed, that there’s only eight parishes in Scotland capable o’ judgin’ as to what’s right. A very thick darkness must hae befallen the other aught or nine hunder parishes, if the aught only are able to discern atween their richt hand an’ their left. Would it no be worth while for thae chaps that can see sae muckle farther into a millstane than the rest o’ mankind, to gang furth on a mission o ‘mercy an’ open the een o’ their benichtit fellow-countrymen? Verily, they maun be the men, an’ wiom will dee wi’ them.
I doot the Liff an’ Benvie victory will prove infectious; an’ as Dundee rubs shoothers wi’ that parish, we may expect an ootbreak o’ the rental fever afore long. The little finger o’ the Dundee assessment is thicker than the loins o’ the Liff an’ Benvie ane; an’ if it’s no “to ye’r tents, o’ Israel,” wi’ the Dundee ratepayers, withoot a moment’s delay, they deserve to be chastised wi’ the scorpions o’ the Parochial Board Rihoboams for ever more. Amen!