The History of Leith

January 23, 2012

The Crochallan Fencibles

ONE of the most interesting of the many old alleys of the High Street (continuing still on the north side thereof) is the Anchor Close. A few yards down this dark and narrow thoroughfare bring us to the entrance of a scale-stair, having the legend, The Lord is only my suport; adjoining it is another and older door, inscribed 0 . Lord . in . the . is . al. my . traist; while an architrave bears a line from a psalm, Be merciful.to me, under which we enter what was of old the famous festive and hospitable tavern of Daniel, or, as he was familiarly named by the Hays, Erskines, Pleydells, and Crosbies, who were his customers, Dawney, Douglas, an establishment second to none in its time for convivial meetings, and noted for suppers of tripe, mince collops, rizzared haddocks, and fragrant hashes, that never cost more than sixpence a-head; yet on charges so moderate Dawney Douglas and his gudewife contrived to grow extremely rich before they died. Who caused the three holy legends to be carved, as in many other instances, no man knows, nor can one tell who resided here of old, except that it was in the seventeenth century the house of a senator entitled Lord Forglen. ” The frequenter of Douglas’s,” we are told, ” after ascending a few steps, found himself in a pretty large kitchen, through which numerous ineffable ministers of flame were continually flying about, while beside the door sat the landlady, a large, fat woman, in a towering head-dress and large-flowered silk gown, who bowed to every one passing. Most likely, on emerging from this igneous region, the party would fall into the hands of Dawney himself, and be conducted to an apartment.” He was a little, thin, weak, quiet, and submissive man; in all things a contrast to his wife. Here met the famous club called the Crochallan Fencibles, which Burns has celebrated both in prose and verse, and to which he was introduced in 1787 by William Smellie, when in the city superintending the printing of his poems, and according to custom, one of the club was pitted against him in a contest of wit and humour. Burns bore the assault with perfect equanimity, and entered fully into the spirit of the meeting. Dawney Douglas knew a sweet old Gaelic song, called ‘•’ Cro Chalien,” or, Colin’s cattle, which he was wont to sing to his customers, and this led to the establishment of the club, which, with jocular reference to the many Scottish corps then raising, was named the Crochallan Fencibles, composed entirely of men of original character and talent. Each member took some military title or ludicrous office. Amongst them was Smellie, the famous printer, and author of the ” Philosophy of Natural History.” Individuals committing an alleged fault were subjected to mock trials, in which those members who were advocates could display their wit; and as one member was the depute hangman of the club, a little horse-play, with much mirth, at times prevailed. The song of ” Cro Chalien ” had a legend connected therewith. Colin’s wife died very young, but some months after he had buried her she was occasionally seen in the gloaming, when spirits are supposed to appear, milking her cows as usual, and singing the plaintive song to which Burns must often have listened amid the orgies in the Anchor Close.
In Dawney’s tavern the chief room was rather elegant and well-sized, having an access by the second of the doors described, and was reserved for large companies or important guests. Par excellence, it was named the ” Crown Room,” and was thus distinguished to guests on their bill tops, from some foolish and unwarrantable tradition that Queen Mary had once been there, when the crown was deposited in a niche in the wall. It was handsomely panelled, with a decorated fireplace and two lofty windows that opened to the close ; but all this has disappeared now, and new buildings erected in 1869 have replaced the old. Here, then, was Burns introduced to the jovial Crochallans, among whom were such men as Erskine, Lords Newton and Gillies, by Smellie the philosopher and printer who contested with Dr. Walker the chair of natural history in the University; and of one member, William Dunbar, W.S., ” Colonel ” of the club, a predominant wit, he has
left us a characteristic picture :—
” Oh, rattlin,’roarm’ Willie,
Oh, he held to the fair,
An’ for to sell his fiddle,
And buy some other ware ;
But parting wi’ his fiddle,
The saut tear blin’t his ee ;
And rattlin’, roarin’ Willie,
Ye’re welcome hame to me !

” O Willie, come sell your fiddle,
Oh sell your fiddle sae fine ;
O Willie, come sell your fiddle,
And buy a pint o’ wine.
If I should sell my fiddle,
The warl’ would think I was mad,
For mony a rantin’ day
My fiddle and I hae had.
“As I cam by Crochallan,
I cannily keekit ben—
Rattlin’, roarin’ Willie,
Was sitting at yon board
en’—
Sitting at yon board en’,
And amang guid companie;
Rattlin’, roarin’ Willie,
You’re welcome hame to
me!”
In verse elsewhere Burns notes the peculiarities of his introducer, who had become, in middle life, careless of his costume and appearance :— ” Shrewd Willie Smellie to. Crochallan came, The old cocked hat, the grey surtout the same ; His bristling beard just rising in its might; ‘Twas four long nights and days to shaving night.” At the foot of the close there stood, till 1859, the printing office of this strange genius (who died in 1795), ” and there the most eminent literary men of that period visited and superintended the “printing of works that have made the press of the
Scottish capital celebrated throughout Europe.
There was the haunt of Dr. Blair, Beattie, Black, R o b e r t s o n , Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Lords Monboddo, Hailes, Kames, Henry Mackenzie, Arnot, Hume, and foremost among the host, the poet Burns.”

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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