‘Scottish “Characters.” 2. “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.” Continue reading “‘Scottish “Characters.” 2. “Gingerbread Robbie.”’ (8 December, 1888)”

‘Scottish “Characters.” 1. Johnnie A’thing.’ (1 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 ‘Johnnie A’thing’, grocer of Perthshire.

In a combative little village something less than a day’s march from the Fair City there lived a few years ago a well-known worthy locally known as Johnnie A’thing; and by that name we will know him here. He was of an eccentric disposition, and had as much wit and humour at his disposal as kept the village in good humour from week’s end to week’s end, and many of his sayings and practical jokes have become public property.

John A’thing was a grocer and spirit-dealer, and his shop was one of the most remarkable medleys that was ever dignified by the name of grocery. He was wont to say himself that he “sell’t everything frae a needle to an anchor, an’ bocht onything frae laddie’s bools to cannon-balls.” Cheese, butter, ham and eggs, bottles of beer and sides of bacon, pots and pans, pencils, pens and pen-knives, girdles and gridirons, walking sticks and watches, fish and fishing rods, augers and axes, spades and shovels, and numerous other articles of the most incongruous description were piled up side by side in a confusion that seemed confounded to the untutored eye; but Johnnie himself knew what was what and what was where well enough to suit the purposes of his trade. His customers were always readily supplied with whatever they called for, unless when he couldna be fashed, which happened at times, and then he did not hesitate to bid the astonished would-be buyer to “gang yont the street a bittie, yont the street, yont the street; there’s naething worth o’ buyin’ here. Gae East the wey, East the wey; they maun keep a’thing guid whaur the wise men cam’ frae.”

But in spite o’ this at times unbusiness-like peculiarity of his, and mayhap because of it, he did a roaring trade for many a long year, and especially when the railway was making between Perth and Aberdeen, as the navvies came to him in scores to have a crack, a laugh, a snuff, and a dram over their purchases. His shop window, like the shop itself, was worth going miles to see, as the articles placed there for show were piled up a couple of feet deep, and could be counted by the thousand, pocket knives being predominant; and the boys of the village were never tired of pressing their little noses against the panes to feast their eyes upon the unattainable treasures, and discuss the relative merits of the different knives. But “everything comes to those who know how to wait,” saith the old saw, and this truth was exemplified one-never-to-be-forgotten day, to the satisfaction of all the boys around, by the window, over-burdened with its riches, falling into the street. In the twinkling of an eye, as if a telegraph message had gone round the village, all its rising generation were gathered around the spoil like wasps around a honeycomb. John took things coolly, and stood at the door tapping his snuff-box, looking upon the scene as if it were an every day occurrence. But his better-half being less of a philosopher than her lord and master was at once in the middle of the melee making her tongue and hands ring about the ears of the little wretches with Amazonian vigour. Continue reading “‘Scottish “Characters.” 1. Johnnie A’thing.’ (1 December, 1888)”

‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Foundry Lane (29 December, 1888)

The following is one of several articles on the poorest areas of Dundee which were published in ‘The Peoples Journal’ from the end of 1888. The area around Foundry Lane is the focus of this article.

The purpose of the journalist was to reveal the terrible problems facing those living in the slums (“rookeries”) of Dundee and is spelled out in the introduction to the first article in the series:

It is my purpose to direct attention to both classes of insanitary buildings—the old and the new—and to describe from personal inspection the hovels and “rookeries” of this city. The evil has grown so rampant that the Police Commissioners, on the repeated suggestions of the Medical Officer of Health, have at length begun to move in this matter, and my object is to assist them as far as possible in their investigations. In the course of these inquiries, I shall be able to reveal a side of social life and its environments the existence of which is little suspected by a great many people resident in Dundee.

Foundry Lane has long been known as a notorious locality, and out of it a large number of our jail birds have come. The Seagate at its Eastern extremity divides itself into two narrow thoroughfares—the Northern being the Blackscroft and the Southern Foundry Lane. Betwixt these two streets, especially towards Peep o’ Day Lane, some of the most wretched dwellings in Dundee are to be found. The entrance to Foundry Lane is about 18 feet in width, but between 60 or 70 yards Eastward it narrows till the roadway, including the selvage of pavement, is only 10 feet wide. At this point the Southern line for a considerable distance is an irregular wall, formerly the elevation of dwelling-houses, the openings of which have been filled with brick so as to form a continuous wall—the Northern boundary of Messrs Gourlay Brothers’ foundry. After passing the foundry the Lane opens out into a decent thoroughfare, with width sufficient for two carriages to pass. The buildings on either side are rather irregular but seem to be fairly habitable, many of the houses being occupied by railway employees and labourers at the Harbour. It is not till one ransacks the closes leading from the Lane that the absolute insanitary condition of the locality becomes apparent.

The “Lower Craft.” as the name implies, is below Blackscroft. It is an irregular range of hovels about equi-distant from and running parallel with the buildings facing Blackscroft and Foundry Lane, and extending from Rattray’s Close on the West to Blackscroft School on the Fast. The “Lower Craft” is indicated by the figures in our sketch. Some of the houses are thatched which of itself suggests their ancient origins; others are more or less covered with slates, grey and blue. The whole are dirty, ill-kept, and unwholesome dwellings and the surroundings are in keeping. The landlords and factors—reputable citizens, I understand—seem to have only one object in view—viz., to get as much revenue out of the property as possible, caring neither for the health nor the comfort of the tenants. No one who has visited the place could but say that the tenants might make the place more clean and sweet, but it is evident that the people have made up their minds that it is useless on their part to try and improve a ruin.

A Late Breakfast.

Entering by Ramsay’s close and turning round the corner of a rather respectable-looking brick tenement I came upon the buildings which I wish to describe. A stone staircase in a very dilapidated condition led to the houses on the first flat. The steps of the stair were very much worn, and the railing seems to require very little force to send it to the area below. The landing, which at one time appears to have been a solid piece of pavement, was in fragments, and these were clamped together by pieces of iron. On entering the building I found that a passage led to two miserable houses, one on each side of the doorway. Turning to the left, I entered with some difficulty a most miserable abode. To all appearance the house consisted of one room, in which were two beds, one of them in a recess, with very little else that could be called furniture. Close to the fireplace sat a meagrely clad woman, who, as she stated, was taking her breakfast, the meal consisting of a jug of tea, a plateful of butcher’s parings, and a slice of bread. Beside her was a bright-eyed little girl, who with her fingers was assisting herself to some of the beef. Three cats were scampering about the floor, and one of them, evidently wishing to participate in the savoury meal, jumped on the back of its mistress and sat there. The room was exceedingly dirty, and the beds were destitute of mattresses and curtains. Th flooring gave way to an alarming extent, and each step I took I fancied I was to go through the boards. A beam which ran along the centre of the roof seemed to sustain a great weight from above, as it was bent in the centre, measuring from the lower point to the floor 5 feet 9 inches. Close to the fireplace was a door, which the woman stated was the entrance to the “coal cellar.” There certainly were coals in the place, but it also seems a temporary receptacle for the refuse of the household, and when the door was opened an overpowering stench issued into the living room of the family. For the privilege of staying in such a bunk I learned that the family had to pay 1s 10d a week. The house at the opposite end of the lobby was of the same description, but not nearly so dirty. Continue reading “‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Foundry Lane (29 December, 1888)”

‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Hawkhill (22 December, 1888)

The following is one of several articles on the poorest areas of Dundee which were published in ‘The Peoples Journal’ from the end of 1888. The area around Hawkhill is the focus of this article.

The purpose of the journalist was to reveal the terrible problems facing those living in the slums (“rookeries”) of Dundee and is spelled out in the introduction to the first article in the series:

It is my purpose to direct attention to both classes of insanitary buildings—the old and the new—and to describe from personal inspection the hovels and “rookeries” of this city. The evil has grown so rampant that the Police Commissioners, on the repeated suggestions of the Medical Officer of Health, have at length begun to move in this matter, and my object is to assist them as far as possible in their investigations. In the course of these inquiries, I shall be able to reveal a side of social life and its environments the existence of which is little suspected by a great many people resident in Dundee.

The locality in the Hawkhill district, Dundee, known as “The Blue Mountains” is anything but delectable. How the district should have been so named is a mystery to me, except that the appellation was used as a term of reproach. There are no characteristics of a mountain about the place, except that the houses are built on a rising ground. Nor does the visitor experience the pure, invigorating air of the mountains. On the contrary, no sooner does he approach the locality than he is disgusted with what he sees, and sorely oppressed with the vitiated atmosphere which floats around and within the pends leading to the place. “The Blue Mountains” forms a very old district in modern Dundee. It could scarcely have existed at the time when the Laird of Blackness could see from the East windows of his residence what was going on at the West Port. Still it is an ancient locality, and has evidently been built when capitalists had more regard for their pockets than for the health of those who occupied their tenements. “The Blue Mountains” is bounded on the East by Johnston’s Lane, on the South by Hawkhill, on the North by Scouringburn, and extends Westward to a line running from Whitten’s Pend on the South to Scouringburn on the North. The space covered is a sort of gusset, as shown on the above sketch. There are three entrances to this slum—one from Barron’s Court, off Johnston’s Lane; another from Munro’s Pend, Scouringburn; and the third by Whitton’s Pend, Hawkhill.

Barron’s Court

is a dirty, dingy, and forbidding enclosure. The houses surrounding the open space are dilapidated and ruinous in appearance. On the North side of the Court the houses are reached by a spiral stone stair, but the platforms are of timber; and from the appearance of the iron railing of the lowermost platform it would seem to have served another purpose before it was transferred to the court. The railing is coped with a piece of wood which would be a discredit to a cattle court. The occupants of the upper flat have nothing to keep them from falling into the court below but a rickety wooden railing, which is not extra strong. There fearful and wonderful platforms are supported by a wooden “upright” or support, which is very much the worse of wear. Most supports taper towards the top, but in this care the order of things is reversed, and the thin end of the upright as at the bottom. It seems to have served as a “rubbing-post” for adults and a pillar on which the youths of the past generations have tried the edges of their knives when they had them. At any rate there is scarcely three inches of the plank left, and should it give way when the inhabitants are out taking the air the results might be of a serious nature.

On the South side of Barron’s Court there is a second staircase leading to wretched dens, which look into this court and also to Johnston’s Lane. The staircase is a square building, but the stair itself is spiral. It is lighted by a square hole, which might at one time have been a window, but now the upper sash (without glass) is the only part of it left, the lower portion being closed up with boards. Continue reading “‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Hawkhill (22 December, 1888)”

‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Quarry Pend (15 December, 1888)

The following is one of several articles on the poorest areas of Dundee which were published in ‘The Peoples Journal’ from the end of 1888. The area around Quarry Pend, Cowgate is the focus of this article.

The purpose of the journalist was to reveal the terrible problems facing those living in the slums (“rookeries”) of Dundee and is spelled out in the introduction to the first article in the series:

It is my purpose to direct attention to both classes of insanitary buildings—the old and the new—and to describe from personal inspection the hovels and “rookeries” of this city. The evil has grown so rampant that the Police Commissioners, on the repeated suggestions of the Medical Officer of Health, have at length begun to move in this matter, and my object is to assist them as far as possible in their investigations. In the course of these inquiries, I shall be able to reveal a side of social life and its environments the existence of which is little suspected by a great many people resident in Dundee.

“Quarry Pend,” said an intelligent police officer in answer to a question of mine, “is not the place it used to be. I remember when it was a rather lively locality. It was for many years the resting-place of thieves, robbers, and shebeeners, and many a time we had to visit the pend in search of those whom we suspected.”

“And was it difficult to lay hold of criminals who sought the shelter of the place?”

“Well, rather, I should say,” he replied. “You see there are three entrances to the place—one through Quarry Entry, another by a close from the Cowgate to the West of the entry, and a third by the staircase leading from King Street.”

“How did you manage to lay hold of those you were after, then?”

“Well, we had just to station men at the various outlets, and go in and search the place. I have seen many attempts on the part of guilty persons to escape, but in almost every case they were safely landed.”

Quarry Pend, as the officer said, is not so bad as it was, but still it is bad enough in all conscience. The entry leading to the pend is within a hundred yards of the East Port, where Wishart at one time preached. Probably the buildings hemming in the square are as old as the martyr; at any rate they are as hoary and antiquated-looking as the masonry of the East Port itself. The houses around the pend have a most tumbledown appearance; but that is not the worst of it. Enterprising capitalists have within the century built in the square a four-storey land of house and building now occupied as a hackle shop. On the East end of the hackle shop is a common privy and ashpit, and that is the sole sanitary convenience for the people in the pend, who number 208 souls.

In the pend there are 31 one-roomed houses, 39 two-roomed houses, and 2 three-roomed houses. Of these the following are without tenants:—Four one-roomed houses, ten two-roomed houses, and one three-roomed house. The land within the square is decidedly the best in the neighbourhood, and it is the only place where the houses are supplied with water inside. The houses on the East side of the entry are miserably bad as regards sanitary conveniences, ventilation, and light. There is also a small building between the land in the court and the staircase leading up to King Street which is a disgrace to any landlord who may claim it. The entrance to the upper story is by a narrow stair covered with filth open upon a couple of the dirtiest and dreariest homes in Dundee. Continue reading “‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Quarry Pend (15 December, 1888)”

‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Scouringburn (8 December, 1888)

The following is the first of several articles on the poorest areas of Dundee which were published in ‘The Peoples Journal’ from the end of 1888. The area around Scouringburn is the focus of this article.

The purpose of the journalist was to reveal the terrible problems facing those living in the slums (“rookeries”) of Dundee and is spelled out in the introduction:

It is my purpose to direct attention to both classes of insanitary buildings—the old and the new—and to describe from personal inspection the hovels and “rookeries” of this city. The evil has grown so rampant that the Police Commissioners, on the repeated suggestions of the Medical Officer of Health, have at length begun to move in this matter, and my object is to assist them as far as possible in their investigations. In the course of these inquiries, I shall be able to reveal a side of social life and its environments the existence of which is little suspected by a great many people resident in Dundee.

Dr Richardson’s Utopian ideas of what should constitute a perfect city of health are not likely soon to be realised. In an ancient burgh such as Dundee there is always the difficulty of getting rid of the antiquated buildings which are no longer suited for modern occupants, and in many cases a proper oversight is not maintained so as to prevent the erection of new buildings that are quite as insanitary as the older dwellings. Edinburgh and Glasgow have “rookeries” not yet grown black with age, and even Dundee, despite the extensive reconstructing of some parts of it, is not free from the evil influences of speculative buildings of this kind. Considerable powers have been granted to the Police Commissioners by recent legislation to enable them to cope with this difficulty, but there are many methods of evading the law or despising the officers of it. It is my purpose to direct attention to both classes of insanitary buildings—the old and the new—and to describe from personal inspection the hovels and “rookeries” of this city. The evil has grown so rampant that the Police Commissioners, on the repeated suggestions of the Medical Officer of Health, have at length begun to move in this matter, and my object is to assist them as far as possible in their investigations. In the course of these inquiries, I shall be able to reveal a side of social life and its environments the existence of which is little suspected by a great many people resident in Dundee.

The locality bounded on the West by Blinshall Street, on the South by Scouringburn, and on the East by Session Street, and extending backwards to within a short distance of Guthrie Street, is one of the foulest and most dilapidated “rookeries” in the city. Blackened with the smoke and dust of scores of years, and worn by the action of the weather, the blocks of buildings facing the streets named have a most forbidding appearance. The square inside, which should have been laid out as bleaching greens, with washing-houses, ashpits, &c., is filled with old buildings two and three storeys in height, which were wont to be occupied by families for the most part, but are now almost empty and partially in ruins. Running up between these buildings are Ramsay’s pend, Millar’s Pend, and Whitton’s Pend, all of which, at the time I visited them, were strewn with refuse and filth.

A Disgraceful State Of Matters.

In the ten inhabited blocks facing the streets the utmost disregard is paid to the laws of health—in fact, the locality may be said to be without any sanitary arrangements whatever. There are 81 one-roomed, and 31 two-roomed houses occupied, while 33 one-roomed and 3 two-roomed houses are unlet. Though there are 303 persons cooped up in these dens, there is neither a W.C. nor an ashpit in the whole square, nor is there a single washing-house; and only in two of the blocks are the whole of the houses provided with water-taps inside. Is it to be wondered at that the pends, passages, and staircases should be filthy, that rank odours should abound even in cold weather, or that disease should seldom be absent from the place.

Ramsay’s Pend is decidedly the worst of the three larger passages leading into this dirty den. Most of the inhabitants of the Westmost tenements enter by it to their wretched homes, and to the taller residenters it must be a difficult matter. The Scouringburn end of the pend, as will be seen from our sketch, is very low. The height from the street level is only 4 feet 9 inches, but as the pend is on an inclined plane, its height inside the square is 7 feet 3 inches. The width of the pend is 7 feet 8 inches. It is superfluous to add that there is an entire absence of cleanliness about the walls and roof of the pend.

On emerging from the pend I found myself in a court hemmed in by buildings more or less decayed and dirt-begrimed. A coal shed, evidently recently erected, was the only building which I could say was in a perfect state of repair. It is on the East side of the court. On the North side is a building, apparently used as a blacksmith’s shop, and further along is the open staircase leading to the houses on the West side of the court. The high buildings facing the Scouringburn form the Southern boundary, and shut out the cheering rays of the sun from the desolate scene which meets the eye of the visitor. It is a saddening sight to look on little children waddling about barefooted and ill-clad on their only playground, which, instead of being covered with grass or laid with gravel, is littered with the refuse of the surrounding dwellings. The only purifying element to be observed is the constant flow of water from a tap in the court. But this, too, is going to waste, as it falls through a grating into the sewer. If it could be turned on to the surface of the court it would not be a loss to the Commissioners or the public generally. Overhead are hung on jib-suspended clothes’ lines the “washings” of the inhabitants, which potently proclaim their poverty, as well as the want proper laundry accommodation. Continue reading “‘The Dens and Hovels of Dundee’: Scouringburn (8 December, 1888)”