20 JULY 1878, Page 19


BOOKS of folk-lore and antiquarian gossip are often very enter- taining reading. They require no effort of mind, they put the imagination to no great strain, and seldom or never stir the feelings to any great depths. One may dip into them at any point and find something to amuse, and please oneself with the illusion that the mind is becoming familiar with old-world faces and events. We do not look for strict sequence in the narrative, nor insist with severe judgment on rigid historical accuracy,—we read merely for pleasure. When a book of old-world gossip amuses and interests the reader, we may therefore, according to this standard, pronounce it a good book. It will have served its main purpose, and ought not to be lightly quarrelled with. Now, in not a few respects this latest work of the author of the Prehistoric Annals of Scotland fulfils this modest purpose. The book will prove amusing, to a Scotchman at least, and a fair portion of it is reasonably interesting. But it is disappointing as well, were it for no other reason than that it rambles hither and thither, more regardless of time and space than even the loose principles on which such books may be compiled could well tolerate. When we, for example, get a story about the late Sir James Y. Simpson, and his practical jokes with chloroform, almost at the beginning of a chapter headed, " King Arthur and the Picts," we cannot help feeling that we are, in a measure, being played with, no matter how good the story may be. The story is no doubt worth telling. Simpson is represented as descanting to his guests at a dinner-table on the newly discovered virtues of chloroform, and offering them a " sparkling decoction, served up in champagne-glasses," which makes those who taste it "dull company for the rest of the evening." This " decoction," his wag of a butler carries off, and presently returns, to whisper audibly in the ears of his master, " Doctor," I've pushioned the cook !" The rascal had given the poor woman some of the liquor, and she was found stretched on the kitchen floor in a state of coma. That is odd to be sure, but only the most extraordinary vagrancy of mind could have con- nected it with " King Arthur and the Picts." And this is but a sample of what happens more or less frequently all through the book. It is also confused in another sense. The chapters touch on various localities of the town, rather than on various epochs of time, and we are, therefore, over and over again brought face to face with the same persons and eras of history, all of which are treated in a fashion rather too vague and allusive to make the interest of the book really strong. To some extent, however, this perhaps could hardly be helped, and we will, therefore, end criticism by confessing that if Mr. Wilson had given us less of that bitter-spirited old Jacobite fossil, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, and of the antiquarian dispute over the find- ing of the two bodies of Mary of Guelders in the chapel she had founded, which was destroyed by the railway, we should have been content, on the whole, with his pleasant, gossipy book.

It resembles, indeed, the " old Edinburgh " of our day, wherein the ancient and the modern are becoming more and more hope- lessly mixed. The old Edinburgh of to-day, with its tall, mostly dilapidated tenements, or " lands," its grey old Castle rocks, its murky, noisome closes, with here and there a mansion famous in

• Reminiscences of Old Edinburgh. By Daniel Wilson. Edinburgh : David Douglas.

Scottish story, still to the fore, is being rapidly obliterated, trans- formed, and " restored " by the spirit of modern improvement. Fires have swept away whole blocks of historic dwellings within the memory of man, and the building of new streets, bridges, and public institutions has more completely still made the old new, so that the grey, picturesque lines of roofs and spires, which look so impressive when seen from the modern promenade of Prince's Street or from the Calton Hill, are less ancient almost than the " new town" itself. Over all the Castle heads it still, but even its picturesqueness is marred by blocks of factory-like barracks. The line is broken by the crown-shaped tower of old St. Giles's, but there is little else visible which is not most modern. Only when one dives into by-alleys in the Cowgate and Canon- gate, and gazes down the High Street from above the Nether Bow, and in out-of-the-way nooks and corners seeks to realise the outward form of the ancient city, is it possible to see something of the real old Edinburgh of romance, the Edinburgh of Knox and Mary, of the later Stuarts, and of the early days of the Union. Everywhere now the modern pushes the ancient aside, and the views of the once aristocratic Cowgate itself are marred and broken by the span of the South Bridge. If the book is like the town, then it would be manifestly unjust to grumble much, and we shall therefore pass on to look at some of the contents.

What has interested us most is not the gossip about this and that eighteenth-century worthy, or antiquarian " find," but the curious revelations which Mr. Wilson gives of the mode in which some of these worthies helped Scotland to her " ancient " ballad literature. According to crabbed old Sharpe aforesaid, Scott would appear to have been both a manufacturer of such him- self, and a dupe of the other manufacturers. His Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border is, as every one knows, associated with many a dubious antique, but the cool way in which these are palmed off by Scott and upon Scott as "written down from the recita- tion " of this old woman or that, who had learned them from some other old woman in her youth, is something that will be new to many, and a shock to not a few. Nor w ere those of the Scott coterie the only sinners. Ladies of high degree, and before his day, either composed bodily or pieced together, with much new and spurious matter of their own, ballads passed off as altogether ancient. Thus Allan Ramsay printed as ancient the ballad of " Hardyknute," which is said to be the production of his contemporary, Lady Wardlaw of Pitreavie; and most of " the grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spens ' " is pro- nounced to be modern. No doubt, in many instances, the newer ballad was an embodiment of an old legend ; and in some instances,. as in the song "The Flowers of the Forest," that wail of Flodden, the modern words are an echo of an ancient, partly legendary, strain, which floated in the memories of the peasantry. Still, looking at the wholesale mystification which appear to have been practised in the production of many of these so-called "antiques," one cannot help wondering, with the author, " how the perpe- trators could die in their beds in the assurance of a well-grounded Christian faith."

The people whom Mr. Wilson introduces us to, and the stiff, eighteenth-century manners of the Northern metropolis, are not less odd than the want of literary conscience displayed in this ballad-mongering. Englishmen can hardly conceive of the highest nobles of the laud living in " flats," opening on narrow, turnpike stairs, and situated in narrow lanes or up " closes," more dingy by far than the model dwellings of the working-men of the present day. Such was, however, the custom, down even to the

days of Allan Ramsay and David Ilutne. Lords and ladies of high degree lived in flats, cheek by jowl with burghers and trades-

men, making up for the absence of what we might call physical separateness by a more rigid ceremonial and stricter social ex- clusiveness. A pleasant mode of life, it seems to have been, too,. in spite of its starchiness ; and we could wish that the writer had given us more pictures, such as that of Mrs. Alison Cockburn, the poetess, in her old age giving a ball in her own little drawing-room, where extraordinary devices were necessary to make room for twenty-two guests, "and nine couples always on the floor." "I think," she says, " my house, like my purse, is just the widow's cruse. Our fiddler sat where the cupboard is, and they danced in both rooms ; the table was stuffed into the window, and we had plenty of room. It made the bairns all vastly happy." There were scenes, however, of a kind much less pleasant than this, wherein the looseness of a dissolute age is made but too patent in the morals of the women. Such we get, for example, in the picture of Lady " Effie" Montgomery, an Earl's daughter, and wife of James or " Union " Lockhart, of Lee, going about in male attire, in order to pick up faction secrets

for her husband ; or dressing her young sons as courtesans, and setting them to steal important papers from a Whig emissary, whom they decoyed into a coffee-house and made drunk. And what shall we say to this stanza, illustrative of Edinburgh gentle manners of last century?-

" Th ,flo were four drunken maidens Together did convene,

From twelve o'clock in a May morning Till ten rang out at e'en, Till ten rang out at e'en, And then they gied it ower: Did these four drunken maidens, Down i' the Nether Bow."

No wonder that the literature of that age was coarse, when episodes like this could be the theme of song. But we must not pursue these odd reminiscences further. The reader curious in such must betake himself to this work, where there are many sketches, rather thinly drawn and indefinite, perhaps, but still in their way amusing. The illustrations by the author interspersed with the text strike us as being very good samples of architectural sketching. We miss, however, a fac-simile of the Gordon of Rothiemay's bird's-eye view of Edinburgh in 1647, which would have been a most valuable addition to the book.