‘Scottish Characters — Gingerbread Robbie’ (8 December, 1888)

The following is one of a series of stories and anecdotes about local Scottish eccentrics. They remain an insight into the characters and exploits that had already passed into folk memory by the late 19th century. Here the focus is on a character from Kircaldy.

It has been remarked that in most towns and villages some one is known as the local “character.” The lang town of Kirkcaldy, in ye kingdom o’ Fife, in this respect is no exception. Within the last half-century it has known several Scottish celebrities in humble life, famous for their wit, humour, or other idiosyncrasies. From this number we select one, who was well known throughout the length and breadth of the land. Wherever the was a market, or fair, from John o’ Groats to Maidenkirk, there was he present, the leading personage to attract crowds of old and young, male and female. His nickname was “Gingerbread Robbie.” The incidents about to be recorded are real, and were seen and heard by the writer at the market or fair held in the Linktown of Kirkcaldy a few years ago. In this town the fair is held twice a year, on the third Friday of April and on the third Friday of October.

“Gingerbread Robbie” was a confectioner. He travelled about from fair to fair, and had a way all his own of disposing of his wares. He did not stand at a stall, like his brothers in trade, and supply customers who might patronise him with their custom. No. This slow process did not suit his lively, pushing temperament. He erected a sort of platform with his boxes and sold off his eatables in the auctioneering style. See Robbie, then, a stout-built, broad-chested, short-necked, smiling-faced little man, about five feet in height, standing on the top of his boxes, about to proceed to business. He takes up a large cake, and says—“Now, ye young lads and lassies, here’s something for you. This is a splendidly got up volume of Chambers’s Information for the People. Just look at it. It is beautifully bound, not in calf oh, no, but in bullock’s, blood and sawdust.” (Great roars of laughter from the vast crowd around him.) “Who says a shilling for’t? Nobody bids a shillin’! Then who says sixpence for’t, and that till’t?” (taking up a small cake of gingerbread and putting it on the top of the other.)

A young man from the country calls out, “Here, Robbie,” “I kent that lassie beside ye,” says Robbie, “would get to invest a sixpence on this concern. See how she’s laughin’. Now, gie her the whole o’t, mind that, and be sweet till her as ye gang hame the nicht, and ye’ll ne’er regret it. Gie her a bit smourik now an’ then, an’ ye an’ her will be as happy as twa doos in a dookit.” (Immense shouts of laughter from the vast multitude.)

Robbie takes up a package of sweets, and thus addresses the onlookers—“Now, friends, here’s a lairge bit o’ real loadstone. It’s attractive pooer is juist marvellous. It’s a fack. Just try it. If any young man just touches a bonnie lassie on the shouther wi’t she’s catch’d [illegible] shure’s a herrin’. Now, wha among ye a’ s[illegible] -een pence or a shillin’ for’t? I’m shure [illegible] -ear. Do ye think sae? Weel say n[illegible] a sixpence for’t, an’ a’ that tae[illegible] -n,” placin’ three or four cakes o’ [illegible] along side o’t. “Here,” cries a dandy-lookin’ chield, “here’s a saxpence, Robbie,” “Hae ye a bit lassie nae?” says Robbie. “Ay, hae I,” replies the youth, lauchin’. “I thocht that,” adds Robbie. “Then gie her that frae me,” handing him a nice piece of orange-peel cake. “Tell her that’s frae her auld sweetheart. Mind ye, she’s fond o’ the lads, so keep a sharp e’e on her. I’ve tell’t ye; for ‘deed I like her mysel’, she’s baith bonnie an’ guid.”

“Now, you youngsters, just stand back a wee bittie; I’m gaun tae feed the ravens.” So Robbie takes up a handu’ o’ gingerbread snaps and throws them broadcast among the bairns. Then what roarin’ and lauchin’, what sprawlin’ an’ tumblin’! Another handfu’ is thrown in another direction, and such fun; some turnin’ somersaults, the one over the other, until at last all the snaps are taken possession of by the young ravens, and something like order is again restored.

Robbie shouts out, “You youngsters, look west yonger. DO you see yon man wi’ the lum hat on? Weel, whaever rins an’ gets band o’ yon hat, an’ brings it to me, I’ll gie him a dizzen o’ parleys—a hale dizzen. Now, aff ye set, an’ see wha’s cleverest.” No sooner said than done. Off they went as fast as their legs could carry them. Just as they were enarin’ the object of their desire the man with the “four and nine” turned round, and to his utter amazement the youngsters all gathered round him, and commenced jumping up towards his head-piece. The man could not comprehend the thing at all. It was so odd, so unaccountable. At last, one of the young lads told him that it was Robbie—Gingerbread Robbie—”that tell’t us to tak ye’re hat aff an’ bring it tae him, an’ he would gie us a dizzen o’ parleys for daein’t.” “Oh! I see,” said the man, who was quite a character in his way too, full of fun and frolic. “There it is, my heartie,” said he to the biggest o’ the band; and aff the young chap ran, followed by a’ his companions. The owner of the four-and-nine followed suit, and when he came up to the place the whole crowd hurrahed and lauch’t till their sides were like to split. Robbie says, “Now, my friend, for auld lang syne I’m gaun tae gie ye yer farin’. Haud yer hat, now.” So Robbie puts in cake after cake until the hat was nearly burstin’. The man said, “Oh, Robbie, that’ll dae noo. That’ll dae noo, thanks, thanks.” “Juist another ane,” says Robbie; an’ he pushes it in wi’ a’ his micht, when tae the dumfounderment o’ the owner, and tae the intense amusement an’ laughter o’ the people at the head o’ the Bell’s Wynd, where Robbie’s van was standin’, the crown o’ the hat gave way, an’ out fell the whole lot o’ gingerbread at the owner’s feet. O, what roarin’ an’ shoutin’, what screechn’ an’ daffin’. The like o’t was scarcely ever seen afore or since. It dirt one guid just tae see the multitude a’ lauchin’, a’ hearty an’ cheery, the very young anes just jumpin’ mad wi’ joy at the sicht. “Now,” said Robbie, “wha’s yer hatter, freend? Eh! gang an’ tell’m that he’s taen ye in wi’ that four-and-nine. It was never made tae wear, it was only made tae sell; an’ tell him frae me that he must gie ye a new ane, an’ I’ll pay him the morn.” “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hip-hip-hurrah for Robbie, for he’s a jolly good fellow which naebody can deny,” shout the crowd.

Again Robbie lets dive wi’ his hand intae ane o’ the boxes and brings out a large cake o’ orange peel. “Now,” says he, “here is an excellent volume o’ Matthew Henry. It is the very latest ane cut. It’s splendidly got up externally, as ye can a’ vera weel see. It is such that he that runs may eat. Now, just gie’s a bid for’t. Wha says half a crown for a volume of Matthew Henry? Twentypence fo’t. A shillin’ fo’t. Sixpence for’t.” “Here,” the writer shouts out, “sixpence.” “Ah! ye’re a wise chap,” says Robbie. “How many bairns hae ye nae?” “Half a dozen,” said I. “Weel, man, ye’re tae be pitied in thae dull times, o’ little wark an’ sma’ pay. But I’ll gie ye something tae tak’ hame tae them. There’s a cake tae the auldest ane. Is he a lassie, though?” said Robbie. “Na, na! she’s a laddie,” said I. O, what lauchin’ again at my expense this time. It was something awfu’. The folk were neither to haud nor bind. Still Robbie would press me tae tak’ the gingerbread. “Dinna gang awa’ grumblin’ now,” say he; “never heed the lauchin’. It’s a guid thing a guid lauch an’ grow fat, an’ I think ye should try that on, for ye’re gey thin an shilpit like. Tak’ plenty o’ Robbie’s safe cure—Bullock’s bluid an’ sawdust. It’s really cheap tae me, for ye see I get the latter for the gaun for and the former for naething.” Another burst o’ roarin’ an’ lauchin’ by all an’ sundry.

In the midst o’ the lauchin’ Robbie notices a young man with a few gaps between his teeth. “Oh!” says Robbie, “young man, I see you’re a a [sic?] wanter. It’s quite true, nae, ye needna try tae deny it. Thae wants in your mouth prove it tae ocular demonstration. You’re fond o’ the lassies; I ken that by observation. But dinna look sae sulky an’ sour-like. Man, you’re no yer lane. Like my namesake, Robbie Burns, wast the way, I like the lassies mysel’. Mony’s the lassie I’ve spoken to, but nane o’ them wad tak’ me. They said I was ower droll an’ funny for them. But I’ll tell ye a’ secret, ‘the happiest hours that ere I spent were spent amon’ the lassies, O.’ So cheer up, young man; just look around ye. There’s plenty o’ bonnie lassies here the nicht. Ony ane o’ them would mak’ ye a guid wife. So buy ye some fairin’ an’ go ahead an’ pick out ane to please yersel’. ‘A faint heart, ye ken, ne’er wan a fair lady.’”

He next called out for half-a-dozen o’ young chaps tae come up beside him, an’ he would gie them a treat. Nae suner said than dune. Up jumped seven or aucht. “I only wanted six,” said Robbie, “but never mind; aye the mair the merrier. Now, there’s a quantity of snaps, an’ I want tae see wha’ll eat maist an’ fastest. Now, set tae.” At it they went wi’ tooth an’ nail, but ere the whole quantity was consumed you could see by the flushed face, the heavin’ breast an’ the water een that the steam was gettin’ up. The hot ginger snaps were tellin’ upon them all. First ane, an’ then anither, an’ anither jumped doon, the steam comin’ puff-puff-in’ frae their throats like as if the water in their boiler was at 150 degrees o’ heat. This exhibition caused such an amount o’ hearty laughter and fun that it was some time before Robbie could sufficiently command himself to start afresh.

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