The History of Leith

March 15, 2005


On the date named (May 20, 1703) William Fulton and William Ferguson, it is recorded, searched the town on the Sunday afternoon.

They reported that they met a gentleman vageing,which I imagine must be the equivalent of our more modern word stravaging, or wandering idly and aimlessly about, on the street. Was it Kirkgate, Tolbooth Wynd, or the Shore. Why did the chronicler speak as if Leith in 1703 had one street only? He may have been airing himself before the windows of some fair lady in a Quality Street mansion we shall never know. What we are told is that the gentleman was challenged for so doing. The answer he gave was to- the effect that there was no meeting-house in the town, and he asked why he might not take his walk and have his own serious meditation as well as those that were a church.

The emissaries of South Leith Session were too wise to accept an excuse so paltry as this, so they proceeded to admonish him to go to the church and sanctify the Sabbath.
This he absolutely refused to do, and he resented the admonition by what are described in the records as several huffie expressions.There was no Boswell in the Session, other wise we might have learned somewhat of the phraseology of a man in the huff two centuries ago. For Sabbath-breaking they had not exactly power to stone him to death as the- Lord commanded Moses to do unto the poor fellow who was caught gathering sticks on-the Sabbath, but doubtless they felt that they had scriptural warrant for exercising all the force within their power. To their amazement however, they found themselves mistaken. They had caught a Sabbath breaker indeed, but they had also caught a Tartar.

William Fulton ordered one of the officers to apprehend him More easily said than done.
The gentleman at once drew his sword, and -said he would stab the first man that laid hands upon him. Here was a dilemma. Bailie Nicol ,Jarvies conscience must have arisen in the minds of fulton and his officers at a threat so daring and sacrilegious. They, too, had naked swords, but we are laconically told that they thirst not venture. Fulton, however, was not going to let the law and the Church in his sacred person be defied. He ordered one of his officers to go to ye guard to call for a partie to assist them.
Now, the said gentleman, whose name it was afterwards learned was James Dunbar, cadie to the first guard,retired to the Links before the guard came. This suggests that the street may not have been far from the east side of the town, and that possibly the retreat to the Links was made by the wicket gate of Links Lane. The Wall of Leith passed up by the site of Constitution Street towards the foot of Leith Walk, and a little imagination may fix this episode either in the vicinity of the Kirkgate itself or near to the exit from the town to the Links which must have existed at Charlotte Street.
What followed is of equal interest. The emissaries of the session seemed compelled to confine their operations within the town. When the gentleman reached the Links be fore ye guard came,it was found that there were a great many people vageing (stravaguing whom it was impossible for us to command, so we did forbeare pursuing him any
The Churchs writ,apparently. did not run in the Links -in 1708, and there were even in that day a great many people too many, in short, for the Church to command
Who instead of attending sermons, were stravaguing on the Links, just as they stravague nowadays to Aherdour steamers, to the pier of Leith, to a pleasant Sunday after noon concerts either in churches or around Bailie Manclarks Bandstand. Truly and after all, the Sabbath question has not got very much further forward in 204 years.

Having been foiled in their attempt to arrest the cadie of the First Guards, the emissaries of the Kirk Session turned their attention to smaller game. The Session minute proceeds to relate that several of the Duke of Argyles servants and grooms, who were waiting on their masters horses, came out and saw the incident of the attempt to arrest Dunbar, and seemed to have been delighted with his courage in drawing on the officers One of them, more aggressive and insolent then his fellows, seems to have quite gratuitously bawled out his opinion that the gentleman had done well. He then the poor fellow was perhaps only a trooper, and was most familiar with the trooper language of his time in the hearing of them all, expressed the utmost indifference as to whether he might be condemned to perdition or not, but was quite sure that if any man should order him to go to church, or challenge him (the brave trooper perhaps Sunday closing was not in force in 1703) in such a fashion, lie (being a bold trooper in the pay of the great Duke of Argyll), would run him through.
Mr William Fulton, having seen it to be useless to follow Mr Dunber any further, turned and reproved the trooper for swearing.
This only made the trooper swear the more. He called down maledictions upon his own little infinitesimal soul and those of all the Presbyterians. –
Mr Fulton gave him more sober and Christian reproof and admonition,the immediate effect of which was (the trooper must have been drinking), that the man drew his sword or cutlass, and threatened to stab any man that would command him to go to church. In fact, lie informed Mr Fulton, his friends, and officers that he would rather be anathematised (only he used a word that was not nearly so long), or go to a place where skating and other winter sports are quite impossible because of the temperature, than go to the church, He added that he hoped that in a little time the English Liturgy and Book of Common Prayer would be in use in the Scottish Churches (there was a seed of goodness in the fellow after all since he respected a prayer-book of any kind), and that it was just about to be done, and that such as we [ the Kirk Session] should be trod upon.
Mr. Fulton, however, could stand this n& longer. A party of the guard coming ably those he had sent for to arrest Dunbar he ordered them to take the evil-tongued trooper to ye guard till sermon was ended. The trooper studied what he could to resist, but was at last carried.
Here was an ignominious fall of a hero, who had declared his will and ability to perform the most valorous deeds. Carried! Think of it. He must have been in liquor; the evidence is too strong to be resisted. –
It is painful to read that even this triumph of the Church militant over the forces of vulgar insolence ended in an anti-climax. Captain Richardson did liberate him before sermon was done without knowledge or con sent.Captain Richardson, who, it is plain, had not been at sermon, seems to have been a very sensible fellow, who knew how much value to attach to the common brawling of a half-drunken trooper, who would probably not have said half so much had he not been taken notice of and made to think himself important.
The Session, however, could not afford to let the matter pass, or suffer their authority to be slighted by a mere Captain. The closing sentence of the minute would suffer by paraphrasing. It records all that the Church had of triumph for that days courageous attempt to bear doune all manner of vice, and specially the sin of Sabbath-breaking. Here it is: The Session appoints Mr William Wishart
Baillie Alexander Crawford, and Baillie Thomas Whyte to speak to ye Duke of Argyle yr anent.
What the Duke of Argyle said in reply is not recorded. This Argyle was doubtless the son of the Duke who suffered in 1686 for leading the rising against James II. I hope he asked them why they made so much fuss about a fool of a trooper, whose opinions on anything under the sun were not worth listening to. The blatant, noisy, ignorant, but assertive and ignorant fool of 1703 was nearly as well, listened to as is his lineal descendant in streets and openings of the gates in 1907. Had he been a sensible man like the Apostle Paul, the crowd would have cried What will this babbler say but as it was an evil-tongued trooper, he had greatness thrust upon him and was carried to ye guard house till sermon was ended.Happy are we nowadays In that the blessed Sabbath is saved from its friends.

From Long,Long Ago early 20th century

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