The following is one of the many epistles 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.
Maister Editor,—Tibbie bein’ far removed frae the lichtsome society o’ Mrs Davidson, their visits to ane anither are of needcessity like angels’, “few an’ far between.” Tibbie has a wonderfu’ likin’ for society, no that she is either a gossip or a gadaboot by ony manner o’ menas, but, like a’ the daughters o’ Eve, she has an affection for some faithfu’ freend o’ her ain sex, with whom she can tak’ sweet coonsel in the midst o’ domestic tribulations, an’ to whom she can confidentially communicate ony little bits o’ odds an’ ends that she canna weel keep on her ain stammack, an’ wouldna juist like to tell to the world at large. As wad be gathered frae my last epistle, oor immediate neebors are no exactly the kind o’ cattle that either honest man or woman wad care aboot makin’ freends o’, an’ so it has come to pass that we haud nae intercommunication wi’ them except when it is necessary to prevent them frae brainin’ ane anither, or mischievin’ themsels, as was the case when I tane the conceit oot o’ Mr Phelim O’Grady, the week afore last. When we pass ane anither at the stair fit, we eschew a’ manner o’ salutation. As for me, I seldom let my een licht upon the gude-for-naething ne’er-do-weels; an’ Tibbie, I’m very sure, pursues exactly the same line o’ policy. Mony is the complaint I get frae Tibbie, puir body, that she has naebody to speak to; an’, as my mind is completely absorbed for the maist feck o’ the four-an-twenty in the mysteries o’ my profession, it’s as clear as daylicht that I hae but little time either to hear or to rehearse what micht tend to Tibbie’s amusement an’ edification. Hoosomdever, to mak’ a lang story short, an’ no to use vain repetitions, as the heathen do, bein’ alang the Nethergate last Saturday nicht, in pursuit o’ my lawfu’ business, I was attracted to a shop windock at the tap o’ Union Street, wherein there were sundry four-footed beasts an’ creepin’ things o’ the earth that were perfectly new an’ strange to my “Dictionary o’ Useful Knowledge.” So, after stannin’ for a while, an’ admirin’ their marvellous anatomy, an’ their desperate attempts at locomotion, an’ failin’ to mak’ oot to my ain entire satisfaction the preceese pairt cut oot for them to play in the mysteries o’ creation an’ Providence, I steps into the shop, an’ quoth I, “My woman, wad ye be kind eneuch to gie me what enlichtenment ye can anent thae creepin’ cattle ye hae in the windock? I’ve seen nae that few ferlies i’ my lifetime noo, baith i’ the vegetable, the animal, an’ the mineral kingdoms, i’ the heaven aboove, ‘i the earth beneath, an’ i’ the water oonder the earth, but that live stock o’ yours completely surpasses my comprehension. Do they belong to the parten tribe? or are they a species o’ ootlandish snail buckies?” “Ou na,” quoth the young hizzie, laughin’ in her sleeve at my simplicity, “they are tortoises.” Ay, ay,” quoth I, “they are tortoises, are they? an’ hoo d’ye cook them?” quoth I. “Cook them!” quoth she, laughin’ ootright, “They are no for eatin’, sir.” “Yea, yea,” quoth I, “they’re no for eatin’, are they no? An’ what is the use o’ them, then, if I may speer?” “Ou,” quoth she, “they are kept by folk fond o’ curiosities for amusement.” “Juist that,” quoth I, “they’ll be keepit by auld maids na’ lonely women, instead o’ cats, parrots, an’ lapdogs.” thinkin’, an’ thinks I, here wad be a fine ploy for keepin’ Tibbie oot o’ langer. The kittlin that she caused Jeames Witherspoon to lay violent hands on near Auchinblae, had it survived, wad hae been a sort o’ society till her; but, alas! the thread o’ its brief existence was oontimeously cut short in the deep waters o’ Powburn mill-dam. Mony a lang molygrant has Tibbie poured oot aboot the loss o’ her tortoise-shell cat; but here was a tortoise itsel’, an’ surely, thinks I, that will be muckle better than an imitation thereof. So the short an’ the lang o’ the business was, I was resolved to hae ane o’ them for Tibbie’s edification; but I was equally determined to tak’ possession o’t in a manner strictly in accordance wi’ the requirements o’ the eight command, for I could never gi’e in my adhesion to the principles whereon Tibbie an’ Jeames Witherspoon ackit when they tane the tortoise-shell kittlin captive, on oor spring-cart expedition through the Glen o’ Drumtochty. The only exuse that I could think o’ in extenuation o’ the enormity o’ their transgression on that occasion, was the undooted fact that not only Tibbie an’ Jeames Witherspoon, but even I mysel’, had dippit ower deep in the Athol brose at Knowgreens, no to mention the sups o’ mountain dew we had imibed on the tap o’ Strath Finella. Even that was but a human excuse, hooever, an’ wadna stand either the crucible o’ soond morality, or the fiery furnace o’ the Ten Commandments. Hoosomdever, seein’ the rebuke they got in the mill-dam sae speedily after the perpetration o’ the iniquity, I wad fain hope they repented o’ the error o’ their ways, an’ therefore naething father need be said on that score, the mair sae as even the very best o’ men an’ women—an’ I dinna mean to say that Jeames Witherspoon an’ my Tibbie are no to be reckoned in that category—are liable to gang astray at tmes, for, as Burns remarks—
“To turn aside is human.”
Weel, ye see, to return to the thread o’ my discoorse, I priced the tortoises, coft ane o’ them, slippit it into my coat-pouch, an’ set aff hame to Tibie wi’ my treasure. Oot I turns the strange-lookin’ animation on the kitchen table, an’ so Tibbie, after beholdin’ its procedure for the matter o’ twa seconds, observes “Have a care o’s a’, Tammas! is this a parten ye’ve coft? The like o’ you for spendin’ siller on nonsense I never saw nor heard tell o’!” There was nae word o’ her bannets, an’ mantles, an’ moreen curtains, an’ sofa, and ither expensive nonsensicalities that had cost me a mint o’ money ae way an’ anither; but, hoosomdever, I made nae audible observation on that head, though it formed the subject o’ my meditatons at that preceese moment, an’ for several moments thereafter. “But,” quoth I, “Tibbie, my woman, ye’re oot o’ yer latitude entirely, seein’ that it is neither parten nor parten’s bairn, for as I have been given to oonderstand, the name thereof is a Tortoise.” “A Torture!” quoth Tibie, “what’s the use o’ bringin’ Tortures here, when I’m sure I’m tortured eneuch already, withoot ony mair torturin’.” An’ so on Tibbie goes torturin’ the cognomen, character, an’ accomplishments o’ the oonfortunate beastie in nae measured terms, an’ withoot gien me a single opportunity o’ interposin’ a word o’ explanation. In the midst o’ the argle barglin’, in comes Mrs Davidson, so Tibbie at once subsided into a mair compowsible frame o’ spirit. Mrs Davidson was muckle tane wi’ the tortoise, but it was her opinion that it was naething but a young turtle, whereof the Lord Mayor an’ the worshipful aldermen o’ Lunnon mak’ turtle soup when they invite kings and princes to their banquets. This opinion she fortified by sundry cogent reasons that were perfectly satisfactory to Tibbie, an’ as for me, I kent weel eneuch that it wad be a waste o’ wind to argue the point against baith o’ them, so Tibbie is livin’ in the expectation o’ gettin’ turtle soup when the tortoise grows. Mrs Davidson, too, has either been or is aboot to gang doon to Union Street to buy a tortoise, or as she ca’s it, a turtle, in order to be up sides wi’ Mrs Bodkin. Tibbie is in an awfu’ pickle aboot the beastie, because it taks nae meat or drink, an’ she is certain that it is labourin’ oonder some sair distress or it wadna gang aff its vittels. She is the mair convinced o’ this fact, that aboot its chouks an’ hind legs there is an unco deal o’ toom skin hangin’, juist as there was aboot me after comin’ oot o’ the fever I had i’ the weety year. Tibbie is a kind-heartit Samaritan, an’ feels for baith beast an’ body in adversity, an’ therefore she deeply sympatheezes wi’ the tortoise for its want o’ appetite. She has tried it wi’ beef-tea an’ calf’s-foot jelly, bein’ mindu’ o’ the charm they wrocht on my corporeal development, when, I was as thin as a saxpence an’ dweeble as a willow-wand; but notwithstandin’ a’ her kindness, the animal juist trokes aboot the floor-head on a’ fours, an’ refuses to be fed or comfortit. Sometimes it comes ben the hoose to spy oot the ferlies to be seen there; an’ I’m very sure it’s already weel acquaint wi’ Willie Clippins, for he hauds up logic till it, an’ it turns up the side o’ its head to him in a manner that is positively wonderfu’ to contemplate. Tibbie, as I’ve said, has a lithe side to the creature, an’ the end I had in view in the purchasin’ of it has been fully accomplished, for it is a sort o’ company to her—is a creature to speak to—an’ keeps here oot o’ langer.
Here I was aboot to close my epistle, when Tibbie cam ben lookin’ for her patient, wi’ a tea-spoonfu’ o’ beef-tea for it, but it could neither be seen nor heard tell o’. But the hoose an’ ben the hoose we socht, in below the bed in the former, an’ in below the boord in the latter, but nae tortoise. As I was morally certain it couldna hae cruppin’ up the stair to the garret, I cam’ to the conclusion that it had found its way doon stairs, the mair sae as the ooter door was stanin’ a wee thocht ajee. Doon I gaed to Mr Phelim O’Grady, an’ quoth I, “Have ye seen ought o’ Tibbie’s tortoise?” “Och shure,” quoth Phelim, “an’ I’ve seen nothing belonging to Misthress Bodkin, as I’m a livin’ man, but a thunderin’ lump ov a marrow bone wich she rowled down the stair the matter ov an hour ago, and much obliged to her am I for that same.” Noo, Phelim is continually hungerin’ an’ thirstin’ for auld banes, whereof he maks merchandeese, barterin’ them for his crockery wares, an’ then sellin’ them to the bane dust manufacturers, whereby he maks nae that little profit. So I jealoused what was what, an’ quoth I, “Ye’ll turn oot your wallets, Phelim, if you please, or whether ye please or no, for gin onything in the shape o’ banes cam’ doon the stai, t maun hae been the tortoise.” So Phelim gaed awa wi’ a growl aboot bein’ called a “thaif,” an’ whummelt oot a’ his banes on the floor, where they hadna lain for the matter o’ a couple o’ seconds, when oot crawls the tortoise on a’ fours, to my inexpressible delight, an’ to the confusion, terror, an’ dumfoonderment o’ Mr Phelim O’Grady. He thought the devil must be in the bone, for, with all his knowledge of craniology, he had “niver before seen or heard tell ov a sheep’s skull walkin on its own feet.” So I pickit up the tortoise an’ gaed my ways up, leavin’ Phelim an’ Mrs O’Grady crossin’ themsels, and prayin to the “blessed Vargin” an’ a’ the saints i’ the calender, to deliver them frae the power o’ the Evil One.