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Travellers' Tales of Scotland

The following is from Travellers' Tales of Scotland by R. H. Coats:

VII - John Macky


VERY little is known of the John Macky who published A Journey Through Scotland in 1723. He was employed by the government of the day to suppress Jacobite plots and to prevent treasonable correspondence between France and England. In this capacity, he rendered good service to his country, and gave timely warning of a projected descent upon our shores in 1696, as well as of an arming of Dunkirk in 1708. But he subsequently incurred the suspicion of the government and was thrown into prison till the accession of George I in 1714. Macky died at Rotterdam in 1723, and his valuable Memoirs of Secret Services was published, with notes by Dean Swift, in 1733. The date of his tour through Scotland is uncertain, but his book of travel remains to us as an interesting record of impressions made upon a man of singular acumen and keen powers of observation.

The general aspect of the country presented a strange appearance to our traveller on his first entering it. Like many another visitor, both before and after, he was surprised to see houses built entirely of stone, and he remarked on the absence of hedges and ditches by the roadside. The dead, he noticed, were buried around churches, but never inside them as in England, since that "smelt too much of the Popish stamp." Macky was especially impressed with the roughness and wildness of Scottish scenery. The Enterkin Pass he found "more dreadful than Penmanmawr in Wales," and he made haste to escape from the bleak and desolate region of the Lowther Hills, speaking of it as "a desert," and "the wildest, poorest country I ever saw, worse by far than the Peak at Darby." On the East Coast he mourned to see the towns fallen into a lamentably ruinous and dilapidated condition. The College buildings of St. Andrews, though built of freestone, were "unaccountably out of repair, the masters and scholars being hardly at the pains of keeping out the rain or mending their windows." Burntisland and the other villages of the coast of Fife reminded him of nothing so much as "an old lady in decay." "A ship that comes up the firth, and never goes ashore, must have a fine idea of these towns at a distance, by reason of their stately appearance. But those large stone houses, which seem like palaces afar off, prove to be the heaps of decay when you approach them... The structures remain, but hardly a glass window or any furniture in any of the houses."

Over against these disappointing sights, however, were to be set scenes of wonder and delight which evoked the traveller's unbounded admiration. The bridge over the Nith at Dumfries had as many as thirteen arches, and was "the finest I saw in Britain, next to London and Rochester." The glories of Drumlanrig Castle filled him with amazement. Who would have thought to see "so fine a building in so coarse a country?" On Roslin Chapel he bestowed the highest praise it was in his power to give. "It would pass for a beauty in Rome itself." As for the seat of the Earl of Hopton, it provided "the finest view I ever saw anywhere, far beyond Frescati, near Rome, or St. Michael del Bosco, near Bolognia, for variety." The north, he thought, showed no architecture to speak of and very little gardening, but it abounded in hospitality and the gifts of nature. "The rivers Dee and Don afford salmon in the greatest plenty that can be imagined, to that degree that in some of the summer months the servants won't eat them but twice a week, they are so fat and fulsome... From Banff I crossed the river Spey and came into one of the beautifullest countries I have seen in Britain, which very much surprized me, called the Shire of Murray. The Vale of Evesham, on the banks of Severn, is not comparable to it for fertility nor evenness of ground; for in twenty-four miles, from Elgin to Inverness, it is all a bowling-green."

No place, however, fascinated Macky so much as the Bass Rock, to whose legendary lore he gave easy credence and an attentive ear. "When the solan geese are coming hither, they send some before to fix their mansions, which for that reason are called Scouts. The inhabitants are careful not to disturb them till they have built their nests, and then they are never to be disturbed by what noise soever. They lay but one egg in a year, and fix it so dexterously to the rock by one end that if it be removed 'tis impossible to fix it again. They hatch it with their feet and scarce leave it till it be hatched... They leave this island in September and where they retire in winter is not known. 'Tis said they cannot fly if they be out of sight of the sea. They have a crane's neck and a strong sharp bill, about the length of one's middle finger, with which they strike through their prey with such violence that it often sticks in a board, baited with a herring, so they cannot pull it out again, and are catch'd by the inhabitants."

Macky was very much pleased by the principal cities of Scotland. To Glasgow he frankly gave the palm. It was "the beautifullest little city I have seen in Britain." Not only were its streets regular and spacious, and its houses "of equal height and supported with pillars," but also it could boast that there arrived from the Plantations as many as "twenty or thirty ships every year, laden with tobacco and sugar, an advantage this kingdom never enjoyed till the Union." What was more noteworthy still, the city was soundly Presbyterian in religion, and "the best affected to the government of any in Scotland." The attractions of Aberdeen were somewhat different. "This city hath not only a great air of trade, but the people are very polite. The ladies are more conversable, dress better, and are of easier access than in most of the other towns. They have their concerts of music, where strangers are always well received." Hardly less to be commended was Inverness, which had the exceptional merit of continually reminding the visitor of the speech and manners of the south. "There are two very good streets in this town, and the people are more polite than in most towns in Scotland. They speak as good English here as at London, and with an English accent; and ever since Oliver Cromwell was here, they are in their manners and dress entirely English. Here, too, are coffee-houses and taverns as in England."

In Edinburgh Macky admired, as every one else did, the glories of the High Street, "which is doubtless the stateliest street in the world, being broad enough for five coaches to drive up abreast. The houses on each side are proportionately high to the broadness of the street, all of them six or seven story high, and those mostly of freestone, making the street very august... The High Street is the best paved street I ever saw. I will not except Florence. One would think the stones inlaid." The narrowness and unsavouriness of the adjoining wynds, however, somewhat marred the favourable impression of the scene, and "made an English gentleman that was here with the Duke of York merrily compare it to a double wooden comb, the great street the wood in the middle and the teeth of each side the lanes." Macky seems to have been much impressed with the beauty of Holyrood Palace, and he genuinely believed that the series of historical portraits in the picture gallery faithfully preserved the tradition of an unbroken line of kings who had reigned for two thousand years, from B.C. 320 to the Revolution. A full list of these one hundred and fourteen monarchs is preserved in the body of the work, and we scan with interest and amazement the names of Josma, Feritharis, Fincormach, Athirco, Satrael, Crathilinthus and the rest. Macky, of course, was under no illusion as to the authenticity of the Holyrood portraits. "You must not imagine, my friend, that these are all original pictures. Buchanan, I believe, drew the originals in his history, and the painter gives the likeness according to their passions and inclinations. But those of the family of Stewart whom I have seen are extremely like, especially James the Seventh."

The defect of Macky's book is that it is overladen with irrelevant information as to the country seats and ancient family history of the nobility of Scotland. No doubt all this was important to the author as a means of securing subscribers to his work, but the reader of to-day wades somewhat wearily through the tedious inventories of statues, pictures, looking-glasses, velvet beds, fine oak wainscotting, and marble chimney pieces that swell the volume. We are told in detail what some noble scion of an old stock did during the wars in Flanders, or whether a certain ancient family leaned to the Protestant or to the Popish interest at the Reformation. There is a full and minute account of the regalia of Scotland, and forty pages are devoted to a description of Scottish coats of arms. In such a wilderness it is a relief to come upon some oasis of information as to the whereabouts of the village tavern or a local bowling green, or even to be told that in a certain drawing room there is a billiard table, "both paved with stone."

In wandering about the country, Macky was able to pick up some scraps of ancient history and piquant gossipy tradition which do not usually find their way into the graver text books. Thus, of the saintly Queen Margaret, wife of Malcolm Canmore, he was informed that she "rectified many barbarous customs among the Scots, particularly the taking off that custom of the Lord of the manor's having the first night of the bride of all his vassals; and procuring a law that for paying a mark the bridegroom should have the bride to himself." At Scone he learned something of the luckless James Stuart and his adventures of 1715. "The Pretender lived three weeks here, in all the grandeur of an English king. He dined and supped alone, being served on the knee by his Lord of the Bedchamber in Waiting, and admitted everybody to come into the room, whilst at table. His constant course was eight dishes of meat, a course of milks, and a dessert. He was never known to drink a glass of wine but at meals all the time he was here, but would sometimes drink coffee in the afternoon. He writ all his dispatches with his own hand, and went out every morning to see the guards relieved; and the Lord of his Bedchamber in Waiting always lay in a lobby joining to his bedchamber. He kept a very sumptuous table for his nobility, and a board of green cloth for all the country gentlemen that came to wait on him."

The characteristic of Scotsmen which seems to have impressed Macky most strongly was their religious soberness and decorous observance of the Sabbath. "There is nothing of the gaiety of the English, but a sedate gravity on every face, without the stiffness of the Spaniards; and I take this to be owing to their praying and frequent long graces which gives their looks a religious cast. Taciturnity and dulness gains the character of a discreet man and a gentleman of wit is called a sharp man. I arrived here (Kirkcudbright) on a Saturday night at a good inn, but the room in which I lay had not, I believe, been washed in a hundred years. Next day I expected, as in England, a piece of good beef or a pudding to dinner, but my landlord told me they never dress dinner on a Sunday so that I must either take up with bread and butter and a fresh egg, or fast till after the evening sermon, when they never fail of a hot supper. Certainly no nation on earth observes the Sabbath with that strictness of devotion and resignation to the will of God. They all pray in their family before they go to church and between sermons they fast. After sermon everybody retires to his own room and reads some book of devotion till supper (which is generally very good on Sundays) after which they sing Psalms till they go to bed." Even where mirth and gaiety might naturally be looked for, as at spas and watering-places, they were woefully lacking. "The famous wells of Moffat, that purge like those of Scarborough, are much frequented. But here is no raffling, walking, and dancing, as at Bath and Tunbridge. An universal quietness reigns in the place." Macky formed the impression that there was "no nation where a man had fairer play for his liberty than in Scotland," but he thought the common people "not near so clean or handsome as the English." Among the upper classes he was offended by a certain hauteur and aloofness of manner, derived, he supposed, from residence in France. Indeed, he was of opinion that "a finer education than is necessary for trade hath been, in imitation of the French, the misfortune of this Kingdom." But the charms and accomplishments of the fair sex atoned for everything. "The ladies here are particular in a stately, firm way of walking, with their joints extended and their toes out... The young ladies are all bred good housewives, and the servant maids are always kept at some work. The spinning wheels, both for woollen and linen, are always going in most houses, and a gentleman of a good estate is not ashamed to wear a suit of clothes of his lady's and servants' spinning. I have been at several concerts of music, and must say that I never saw in any nation an assembly of greater beauties than those I have seen at Edinburgh."

VIII - Captain Burt (1726)


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