‘Bodkin Fills up his Census Paper’ (13 April, 1861)

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 letter Tammas fills out the 1861 census.

Maister Editor,—I was sairly puzzled on Monday mornin’, as I daursay the maist o’ folk were, wi’ the fillin’ up o’ that census paperie, an’ I’ve sitten doon enoo, as lang’s Tibbie’s oot at the fish market buyin’ a skate, to tell ye a’ the doolfu’ grievances an’ sair afflictions that befel me in the performance o’ my censorial duties, as the head o’ the family. But, to put ye up to the hail story, frae the Genesis to the Revelation o’t, I maun gang back to the previous Saturday afternoon. Weel, just a wee thocht afore four oors time, I was sittin’ garrin’ the needle go the lichtenin’, an’ whistlin, as usual—for I had got up my pluck after the Gowk’s day ploy—when in staps a muckle tearin fellow o’ a porter, carryin’ a great big travellin’ basket on his shouther an’ a dropsical-lookin’ pockmanky in the hand o’m. “What, what in a’ the warld’s this ye’ve got, freend?” quoth I. “Oh,” quoth he, “them things, sir, belongs to a lady, sir, as has come with the train from the South, sir, and please, sir, she says, sir, as how she is to put up here, sir; and here’s her at the foot of the stair, sir,” quoth he, usin’ the best Englified words in his vocabulary. Weel, weel, thinks I to mysel’, it’s geyan’ strange that ony lady sid thrust hersel’ on my hospitality in that way withoot ance inquirin’ into my sentiments on the maitter. Hoosomdever, I dinna like to be ill-curponed wi’ ony body, an’ sae, partly oot o’ curiosity to see wha the lady could be, an’ pairtly for politeness’ sake, I lap aff the boord an’ tane three staps to the stair-head. There I got a visie o’ the lady comin’ todlin’ up the stair wi’ a’ band-box wainglin’ in her hand; an’ wha was she, d’ye think, but Kirsty Monypenny, a cousin o’ Tibbie’s, a’ the way frae Edinbruch? I scarcely kenned her, for I hadna seen her atween the een for twenty years afore; an’ I couldna wonder eneuch what wind could hae blawn her the airth o’ Dundee at this particular period o’ the century—but ye’ll hear. I made her welcome eneuch, an’ telled her sae, an’ Tibbie, ye ken, she was like to worry her wi’ doonricht kindness; an’ the four oors was got ready, an’ Tibbie had a thoosan’ questions to pit aboot this body she kenned afore she was marrit, an’ that body she was at the schule wi’, an’ hoo was Robbie Robertson at the Girdlefeet, an’ if Tammy Tamson was aye ca’in’ the cuddie yet, an’ what was the price o’ the aitmeal in the Sooth Kintra, an’ if Madge Mucklewraith was aye fechtin’ wi’ her gudeman, an’ aye able to claw his haffets till him—an’ whether Andrew Anderson’s parrot was aye to the fore—an’ a’ aboot her uncle’s folk oot bye at Dalkieth, no forgettin’ her auld mistress an’ her family at Lasswade—an’ so on Tibbie’s tongue gaed, like the clapper o’ a mill, a’ the time she was maskin’ the tea, a’ the time we were drinkin’t, an’ a’ the evenin’ afore bedtime. Losh, I was nearly deaved wi’ her palaver. I need scarcely add, that Kirsty’s visit was a perfect God send to Tibbie, for she got her budget stuffed wi’ news in grand style, an’ I dinna think she’ll want for ought to dream aboot an’ crack aboot for the next sax months at ony rate. Weel, ye see, that was on the Saturday nicht, an’ sae, in the coorse o’ natur, Sabbath nicht comes roond. Readin’ bein’ ower, the thocht strikes me, thinks I the man will be here for that census paperie the morn’s mornin’, maybe afore we’re a’ weel oot o’ oor beds, an’ it wad be as prudent to hae a’ made cut an’ dry for him there an’ then; so I brings inbye the ink-bottle an’ pen, an’ raxes doon the paperie frae the chimla-piece, “An’ noo,” quoth I, “for a stroke o’ business afore we gang to oor beds.” Tibbie she got up in an unco pavee, an’ quoth she, “Tammas! Tammas! for shame on ye, min,” quoth she; “d’ye no ken this is the Sabbath-day? This is no the season for warldly business an’ you newly closed the Beuk, too,” quoth she. “No ae fit will ye gang, Tammas, to do onything o’ the kind; sae ye ken my will on the subject.” Of coorse, as Tibbie’s will maun be mine in maist things, I juist set bye the writin’ gear again, an’ said nae mair aboot it. I had interrupit Tibbie’s discoorse wi’ Kirsty aboot some new method o’ makin’ a dish, ca’d “Bubble an’ Squeak,” that was greatly in vogue amang the fashionable classes in Edinbruch, an’ sae they fell to wark again, and finished their culinary crack by tearin’ to collops the characters o’ the Misses Williamson, that live up aboon Kirsty in some close that opens aff frae the Lawnmarket. I had my ain thochts as to the consistency o’ the conversation wi’ the sacredness o’ the Lord’s Day evenin’, an’ I was sinfu’ enough to think that there wad hae been less ill in fillin’ up the census paperie than in takin’ lessons on the airt o’ makin’ Bubble an’ Squeak an’ in rivin’ holes in folk’s characters. But, as Tibbie’s will maun be mine, I keepit my tongue within my teeth, an’ said neither gruff nor stye, for fear o’ raisin’ a scrimmage in the hoose in presence o’ the stranger. Afore we gaed to bed, Kirsty grew unco confidential, an’ tell’t Tibbie in a whisper whilk she meant to be lood eneuch for me to hear notwithstandin’, that she had a sweetheart, a real fine sort o’ a man, an’ in a fine way o’ doin’, an’ that she thocht it would happen aboot Witsunday. James, for that was the sweetheart’s Christian name, was helpin’ to tak’ up the census in Edinbruch. “In fact,” quoth Kirsty, “he is the enumerator in oor districk, an’ he was in wi’ the census paper just on Saturday mornin’ afore I cam’ awa’; an’ sae I juist thocht I wad mak’ a rin’ ower to Dindee an’ see ye a’ afore the marriage, for ye see I’ll maybe sune hae my hands fu’ afterwards.” That was very considerate o’ you, Kirsty, thinks I—for I didna say onything, though Tibbie had plenty to say aboot it—but I think I can see anither reason for your veesit. Ye’re gettin’ geyan auld lookin’ noo, Kirsty lass—thretty-sax, Ise warrant, gin’ ye be a single day—an’ your face is beginnin’ to assume the hue o’ shammy leather, in spite o’ a’ yer ‘fumery an’ depilatory drogs, an’ my notion is that ye’re here for the purpose o’ keepin’ James in the dark as to yer real age, an’ no oot o’ ony great love that ye hae for Tibbie an’ me. Od, ye are a cute damsel, Kirsty, an’ a clever wie ye’ll mak’ to James, honest man, even though ye sid be deceivin’ him into the belief that ye are no aboon sax-and-twenty when, as I said before, ye maun be at least ten years aulder than that. This was a’ said in to mysel’, an’ a gude deal mair, if it were a’ written that I thocht, an’ sae we slippit awa’ to our roosts.

Next mornin’ by the scraigh o’ day, I was up an’ had the fire on an’ the kettle boilin’ afore Kirsty an’ Tibbie waukened. There was little time to lost; sae I skreinged them oot o’ their beds an’ set too wark fillin’ up the census paperie.

“Noo, Tibbie,” quoth I, “the first thing we maun settle is this, wha is the head o’ this hoose?” “What gars ye speer sic a question as that?” quoth Tibbie. “Because this paperie,” quoth I, “behooves to be filled up by the head o’ the family, an’ that oonder a penalty o’ five punds sterlin’ a’ a veesit to twa Justices o’ the Peace. Mind this is a very solemn business, an’ if we be catched tellin’ lees about oor ages, for instance, it’s juist possible we may enjoy the hospitalities o’ the State for a season.” I keepit my ee on Kirsty, an’ I saw the thing didna gang weel doon wi’ her ava, for she bit her lip an’ took an unco red face; she said naething, hooever, but hoastit awee to relieve her breathin’. “The head o’ the hoose,” quoth Tibbie, “the head o’ the family! ye may weel be the head o’ the ben the hoose gin ye like, but I maun be the mistress o’ my ain kitchen—that’s as clear as frosty weather, I think.” “Then, as we are in the kitchen, Tibbie, ye maun fill up the paperie” quoth I, “for it seems ye are the head o’ this department.” Tibbie was fairly hookit for ance, for feint ae scrape o’ the pen could she wreath, an’ sae she was forced to admit that I was head bummer baith but an’ ben, oot o’ terror o’ the five punds and the pair o’ Justices. That point bein’ settled to my entire satisfaction, the next thing was to mak the several entries. Of coorse, I had nae difficulty wi’ my ain name, but when Tibbie’s turn cam then commenced “the tug o’ war.” Tibbie didna ken her ain name—she had been aye ca’d Tibbie as far back as she could mind—but whether she was bapteezed “Tibbie” or “Isabella” she couldna juist say exactly. I set her doon “Isabella Bodkin.” The next point—relation to the head o’ the family—had been previously settled, sae there was nae stickin’ aboot that. “Noo, Tibbie,” quoth I, “what’s your sex?” “The man’s mad!” quoth Tibbie, “I’ve nae sacks—the only thing o’ the kind we hae i’ the hoose is the meal pock; but what does Government folk want wi’ sacks ava. Maybe it’s the budgets they mean, that I hear ye aye crackin’ aboot.” “The woman’s mad!” quoth I, “an’ no the man. The question is whether ye’re a man or a woman, Tibbie.” “It’s surely ower late to speer that noo, Tammas,” quoth she, “when we’ve been marrit for the better pairt o’ forty years; ye may tak’ that for grantit, Tammas.” “I tak naething for grantit here Tibbie,” quoth I, “it maun be a’ perfect gospel mind; there’s the five pund an’ the twa Justices, ye see Tibbie.” This had the desired effeck, an’ Tibbie was at last brocht to confess that she was a female. “Weel Tibbie, my woman,” quoth I, “dinna ye attempt to wear the breeks after this; an’ noo, what’s your age?” “That’s easily coontit, Tammas,” quoth she, “I was juist born at the century—an’ an unco dear year it was—when folk were blythe to fill their wames, like the prodigal old, wi’ the husks that the swine did eat, Tammas. I’m sure I’ve heard my mither tell, wi’ tears in her een, hoo she often didna ken when she rose i’ the mornin’ whare she was to get the bite an’ soup for the day. An’ the bairns, puir things, would be greetin’ for their parritch, an’ nae parritch to gie them, an’ nae meal to mak them wi’. Folk were glad o’ bran an’ barley dust in thae days, an’ noo baith bairns an’ auld folk will be curlin’ up their noses at guid aitmeal cakes. Naething will please them but the finest o’ the wheat. Set them up, I ‘sure ye.” Tibbie maundered awa at this rate for some time, an’ I could easily see she didna want ony mair said aboot her age. But quoth I—“Tibbie, that may be a’ very true, but it has nae relevancy to the question in hand. Did ye no tell me afore we were marrit that ye was born in the year o’ the great comet? Noo, that was in the year auchteen hunder an’ eleven, or the ‘stronomy beuks tell lees. At that rate ye sid only be fifty instead o’ sixty-one.” “Weel, Tammas,” quoth she, “if ye kent sae weel aboot my age what for did ye speer? But you may set doon sixty-one, an’ I’ll tak the risk o’ the five punds an’ the Justices.” Oonder the head o’ occupation I marked in—“Maks my meat an’ heats my guse.” “Lastly, Tibbie,” quoth I, “Are ye deaf, or dumb, or blind?” “Weel I wat, Tammas, I wad need to be a’ three at times,” quoth she, “but I’ll tak good care to be nane o’ them until sae be I canna help it.” “I’m juist speerin’ the question for form’s sake, Tibbie,” quoth I, “an’ no for information by ony means, for I’ve lived lang eneuch wi’ ye to ken that ye’re no tongue-tackit, an’ for seein’ ye’re juist as gleg as a needle, an’ see far mair sometimes than ye sid see, for my comfort and convenience.” The latter pairt o’ the sentence was uttered aside, as the play-actors say, an’ oot o’ Tibbie’s kennin’.

I wad hae telled ye a’ hoo I got on wi’ Kirst Monypenny, but I’ve only time to mention that she set hersel’ doon at five-and-thretty—no far frae my guess, though hardly high eneuch for the truth, in my opinion, but far higher than if the paperie had been to come into the hands o’ her beau, the Edinbruch chield. But, loch, there’s Tibbie’s fit on the stair, an’, as she’s new come frae the Fish Market, her tongue will be in grand workin’ trim; sae, I maun pit past the wreatin’ withoot anither moment’s delay.

Tammas Bodkin.

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