The History of Leith

October 8, 2010

THE CASE OF JOHN PEW.

John Pew. It will be remembered that this is the name of the blind pirate in ” Treasure Island.” His tombstone may be seen in the churchyard near to the Pilrig tomb, and no doubt Robert Louis
Stevenson, who belonged to the Pilrig family, got the name from this tombstone.

John Pew was a maltman in Leith, his place of business being at Bridgend, near to the Meikle brig. He was also a farmer at Laugh-at-
Leith, the name given to the farm lying between Hermitage Place and Lochend Road, so that he was, like John Gilpin, a citizen of credit and
renown. Several references to him occur in the Minutes printed in the first part of this volume. Before turning to the registers it may be said
that John was a thrawn person who quarrelled with everybody and spent a lot of time and money in litigation. The farmers in those days
had a court of their own called the Burlaw Court, and John was frequently accused before this Court of stealing his neighbours’ crops and lands. In the beginning of the 18th century there were no dykes and hedges as we have now, and the land of one farmer was divided
from the land of his neighbour by march stones. John was addicted to deeds of darkness, and under cloud of night he had a habit of shifting
these march stones and adding a rig here and a rig there to his farm. These were serious offences, and when his cup of iniquity was full, the Burlaw Court expelled him from membership, upon which he took them into the Court of Session and there maintained a guid ganging plea for
many years. We know also that he grazed his sheep on Leith Links; for which he had to pay a rent calculated on the number of his sheep,
and that he habitually grazed more animals than he paid for. He was one of those people who have a gift for quarrelling and being in trouble.
The case in the church registers began in March 1732 and engrossed the Kirk Session until the end of 1733. It was known as Wallace v.
Pew. and opens in a mysterious way by information being given to the Kirk Session that Jean Wallace, who was a servant to John Pew, had
concealed the birth of a child of which Pew was the father. Jean had disappeared before the hue and cry was raised, and a hunt was made
for her far and wide, which, for several months was unsuccessful. The Presbytery caused intimation that she was ” wanted ” to be made
from every pulpit within the bounds, and ultimately the Kirk Treasurer of Edinburgh ran her down in the Canongate and promptly hailed
her to South Leith where she was secured in the little prison belonging to the church called the Cantore. Then in July 1732 she was brought
face to face with the Kirk Session and made her judicial confession, after whicli she was released, being unable to find bail. It was John’s turn next, and when after various citations he consented to appear, it was only to deny everything that Jean had said about him. The Kirk Session now proceeded to take the evidence and this is recorded at great length and in great detail, the witnesses being sworn and purged of malice and partial counsel, and each signing his or her statement. There was a singular reluctance on the part of witnesses to appear, and suggestions that some of them had been bribed by John to stay away. Some of them denied that they had been cited, others
excused themselves because they had to attend to the harvest, and once John himself explained his absence because he was away at a funeral in the country. By slow stages the facts were being elucidated and the case was beginning to look rather ominous for John when an unexpected event happened which promised to end all the Session’s difficulties. On 28th December 1732, the register states ” This diet being principally intended for concluding the process concerning John Pew and Jean Wallace and they being called did not compear. But the
Reverend Mr John Shaw informed that John Pew came to him yesterday and acknowledged his guilt, and desired to be excused for not compearing this day and promised to compear and desired that no more witness be adduced in this affair.” It was not, however, until 8th February thereafter that John appeared, and in the interval he had given further thought to the subject, and indeed had changed his mind. The register reads: ” This day, John Pew being cited and called, compeared, and being examined, denied that ever he confessed guilt to the Rev. Mr John Shaw. Whereupon the Rev. Mr Shaw did interrogate him upon the following queries to which he answered as follows :—
” (1) Did you on such a day converse with me in my room \ Answered affirmatively.
” (2) Did you then desire to be excused from waiting on the Session next day because your affairs called you to be abroad 1 Answered
affirmatively.
” (3) Did you then desire that no more witnesses might be cited in your affair ? Answered negatively.
” (4) Did you then acknowledge your guilt in this affair ? Answered negatively.
” (5) Did your wife at your desire, or at least with your knowledge and consent, come to me some days before the above conference and acquaint me you had confessed your guilt to her ? Answered negatively that he neither knew of her coming to Mr Shaw nor did she tell him that she had said so to Mr Shaw.
” (6) Did you then upon my telling you that you behoved to be publicly censured, peremptorily declare that you would never submit but rather go over to another Communion
? Answered negatively.
” Being rebuked and seriously dealt with and exhorted to an ingenuous confession, he still denied ; being asked if he was free to swear
that he was innocent of guilt, he said he would not swear.”
The situation that now arose was a distressing one, especially for the minister, and in their perplexity the Kirk Session resolved to refer the case to the Presbytery, a course they
were in the hsbit of adopting when confronted with any unusual difficulty. Accordingly, the process and papers were transmitted to this new Court, and the case was investigated ab initio and new depositions taken. John Pew appeared before the reverend brethren of the Presbytery on several occasions and started a new defence
to the effect that one James Hay, a sailor, then in Amsterdam, had written a letter confessing that he was the father of Jean Wallace’s child. A diligent and prolonged search was made for this important piece of evidence, and ultimately it was discovered in the possession of a tailor in the Canongate who produced it at the eleventh hour. This person did not know James Hay or any person who did know James Hay, nor did lie know his handwriting, nor did he have any knowledge of the facts of the case, but he said the handwriting of this letter was
like the handwriting of another letter he had received from James Hay which unfortunately was now lost. This had the appearance of being
an artifice, but it sufficed to end the proceedings. The register states ” the Presbytery having considered the case and caused John Pew to be removed, they agreed that a narrative of the process be read out before the congregation of South Leith, and that thereafter the affair ly over till providence give further light thereon.” Accordingly the Session Clerk prepared a narrative, nothing extenuating nor setting down aught in malice ; this was revised and adjusted at two Session meetings and the Rev. John Shaw read it from the pulpit of South Leith after the morning service on the second Sunday of November 1733. when no doubt, there was a full congregation who listened to it attentively. Probably the parishioners preferred to believe their minister than the cantankerous and quarrelsome maltman. In one particular at
least the minister’s statement proved to be well founded, for John left the church and went over to the Episcopalians. In the ” Tales and
Traditions of Leith ” some extracts are given from the registers of baptisms of Bishop Forbes, one of which is as follows : ” 14th February
1748, Links of Leith, alias Laugh-at-Leith, I baptised a daughter named Mary to John Pew, farmer, his 4th and 20th child.” Three years
afterwards the birth is recorded of a posthumous child to this old patriarch, making in all 25 children of whom he was the father, without
reckoning the child who had been the cause of so much concern to our Kirk Session.

South Leith Record-1925

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