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An essay by John Brown


Title:     Mystifications
Author: John Brown [More Titles by Brown]

"Health to the auld wife, and weel mat she be,
That busks her fause rock wi' the lint o' the lee (_lie_),
Whirling her spindle and twisting the twine,
Wynds aye the richt pirn into the richt line."

Those who knew the best of Edinburgh society eight-and-thirty years ago--and when was there ever a better than that best?--must remember the personations of an old Scottish gentlewoman by Miss Stirling Graham, one of which, when Lord Jeffrey was victimized, was famous enough to find its way into _Blackwood_, but in an incorrect form.

Miss Graham's friends have for years urged her to print for them her notes of these pleasant records of the harmless and heart-easing mirth of bygone times; to this she has at last assented, and the result is this entertaining, curious, and beautiful little quarto, in which her friends will recognize the strong understanding and goodness, the wit and invention, and fine _pawky_ humor of the much-loved and warmhearted representative of Viscount Dundee--the terrible Clavers.[1] They will recall that blithe and winning face, sagacious and sincere, that kindly, cheery voice, that rich and quiet laugh, that mingled sense and sensibility, which all met, and still, to our happiness, meet in her, who, with all her gifts and keen perception of the odd, and power of embodying it, never gratified her consciousness of these powers, or ever played

"Her quips and cranks and wanton wiles,"

so as to give pain to any human being.

[Footnote 1: Miss Graham's genealogy in connection with Claverhouse--the same who was killed at Killiecrankie--is as follows:--John Graham of Claverhouse married the Honorable Jean Cochrane, daughter of William Lord Cochrane, eldest son of the first Earl of Dundonald. Their only son, an infant, died December 1689. David Graham, his brother, fought at Killiecrankie, and was outlawed in 1690--died without issue--when the representation of the family devolved on his cousin, David Graham of Duntrune. Alexander Graham of Duntrune died 1782; and on the demise of his last surviving son, Alexander, in 1804, the property was inherited equally by his four surviving sisters, Anne, Amelia, Clementina, and Alison. Amelia, who married Patrick Stirling, Esq., of Pittendreich, was her mother. Clementina married Captain Gavin Drummond of Keltie; their only child was Clementina Countess of Airlie, and mother of the present Earl.]

The title of this memorial is _Mystifications_, and in the opening letter to her dear kinswoman and life-long friend, Mrs. Gillies, widow of Lord Gillies, she thus tells her story:--

DUNTRUNE, April 1859.


_To you and the friends who have partaken in these "Mystifications," I dedicate this little volume, trusting that, after a silence of forty years, its echoes may awaken many agreeable memorials of a society that has nearly passed away._

_I have been asked if I had no remorse in ridiculing singularities of character, or practising deceptions;--certainly not._

_There was no personal ridicule or mimicry of any living creature, but merely the personation or type of a bygone class, that had survived the fashion of its day._

_It was altogether a fanciful existence, developing itself according to circumstances, or for the amusement of a select party, among whom the announcement of a stranger lady, an original, led to no suspicion of deception. No one ever took offence: indeed it generally elicited the finest individual traits of sympathy in the minds of the dupes, especially in the case of Mr. Jeffrey, whose sweet-tempered kindly nature manifested itself throughout the whole of the tiresome interview with the law-loving Lady Pitlyal._

_No one enjoyed her eccentricities more than he did, or more readily devised the arrangement of a similar scene for the amusement of our mutual friends._

_The cleverest people were the easiest mystified, and when once the deception took place, it mattered not how arrant the nonsense or how exaggerated the costume. Indeed, children and dogs were the only detectives._

_I often felt so identified with the character, so charmed with the pleasure manifested by my audience, that it became painful to lay aside the veil, and descend again into the humdrum realities of my own self._

_These personations never lost me a friend; on the contrary, they originated friendships that cease only with life._

_The Lady Pitlyal's course is run; she bequeaths to you these reminiscences of beloved friends and pleasant meetings._

_And that the blessing of God may descend on "each and all of you," is the fervent prayer of her kinswoman and executrix,_


I now beg to "convey," as Pistol delicately calls it, or as we on our side the Border would say, to "lift," enough of this unique volume to make my readers hunger for the whole.


Another evening Miss Guthrie requested me to introduce my old lady to Captain Alexander Lindsay, a son of the late Laird of Kinblethmont, and brother to the present Mr. Lindsay Carnegie, and Mr. Sandford, the late Sir Daniel Sandford.

She came as a Mrs. Ramsay Speldin, an old sweetheart of the laird's, and was welcomed by Mrs. Guthrie as a friend of the family. The young people hailed her as a perfectly delightful old lady, and an original of the pure Scottish character, and to the laird she was endeared by a thousand pleasing recollections.

He placed her beside himself on the sofa, and they talked of the days gone by--before the green parks of Craigie were redeemed from the muir of Gotterston, and ere there was a tree planted between the auld house of Craigie and the Castle of Claypotts.

She spoke of the "gude auld times, when the laird of Fintry widna gie his youngest dochter to Abercairney, but tell'd him to tak them as God had gien them to him, or want."

"And do you mind," she continued, "the grand ploys we had at the Middleton; and hoo Mrs. Scott of Gilhorn used to grind lilts out o' an auld kist to wauken her visitors i' the mornin'.

"And some o' them didna like it sair, tho' nane o' them had courage to tell her sae, but Anny Graham o' Duntrune.

"'Lord forgie ye,' said Mrs. Scott, 'ye'll no gae to heaven, if ye dinna like music;' but Anny was never at a loss for an answer, and she said, 'Mrs. Scott--heaven's no the place I tak it to be, if there be auld wives in 't playing on hand-organs.'"

Many a story did Mrs. Ramsay tell. The party drew their chairs close to the sofa, and many a joke she related, till the room rung again with the merriment, and the laird, in ecstasy, caught her round the waist, exclaiming "Oh! ye are a canty wifie."

The strangers seemed to think so too; they absolutely hung upon her, and she danced reels, first with the one, and then with the other, till the entrance of a servant with the newspapers produced a seasonable calm.

They lay, however, untouched upon the table till Mrs. Ramsay requested some one to read over the claims that were putting in for the King's coronation, and see if there was any mention of hers.

"What is your claim?" said Mr. Sandford.

"To pyke the King's teeth," was the reply.

"You will think it very singular," said Mr. Guthrie, "that I never heard of it before; will you tell us how it originated?"

"It was in the time of James the First," said she, "that monarch cam to pay a visit to the monks of Arbroath, and they brought him to Ferryden to eat a fish dinner at the house o' ane o' my forefathers. The family name, ye ken, was Spelden, and the dried fish was ca'd after them.

"The king was well satisfied wi' a' thing that was done to honor him. He was a very polished prince, and when he had eaten his dinner he turned round to the lady and sought a preen to pyke his teeth.

"And the lady, she took a fish bane and wipit it, and gae it to the king; and after he had cleaned his teeth wi' it, he said, '_They're weel pykit._'

"And henceforth, continued he, the Speldins of Ferryden shall pyke the king's teeth at the coronation. And it shall be done wi' a fish-bone, and a pearl out o' the Southesk on the end of it. And their crest shall be a lion's head wi' the teeth displayed, and the motto shall be _weel pykit_."

Mr. Sandford read over the claims, but there was no notice given of the Speldins.

"We maun just hae patience," said Mrs. Ramsay, "and nae doubt it will appear in the next newspaper."

Some one inquired who was the present representative?

"It's me," replied Mrs. Ramsay Speldin; "and I mean to perform the office mysel'. The estate wad hae been mine too, had it existed; but Neptune, ye ken, is an ill neighbor, and the sea has washed it a' away but a sand bunker or twa, and the house I bide in at Ferryden."

At supper every one was eager to have a seat near Mrs. Ramsay Speldin. She had a universal acquaintance, and she even knew Mr. Sandford's mother, when he told her that her name was Catherine Douglas. Mr. Sandford had in his own mind composed a letter to Sir Walter Scott, which was to have been written and despatched on the morrow, giving an account of this fine specimen of the true Scottish character whom he had met in the county of Angus.

We meant to carry on the deception next morning, but the laird was too happy for concealment. Before the door closed on the good-night of the ladies, he had disclosed the secret, and before we reached the top of the stairs, the gentlemen were scampering at our heels like a pack of hounds in full cry.

Here are at random some extracts from the others:--

Mr. Jeffrey now inquired what the people in her part of the country thought of the trial of the Queen. She could not tell him, but she would say what she herself had remarked on siclike proceedings: "Tak' a wreath of snaw, let it be never so white, and wash it through clean water, it will no come out so pure as it gaed in, far less the dirty dubs the poor Queen has been drawn through."

Mr. Russell inquired if she possessed any relics of Prince Charles from the time he used to spin with the lasses:--

"Yes," she said, "I have a _flech_ that loupit aff him upon my aunty, the Lady Brax, when she was helping him on wi' his short-gown; my aunty rowed it up in a sheet of white paper, and she keepit it in the tea canister, and she ca'd it aye the King's Flech; and the laird, honest man, when he wanted a cup of gude tea, sought aye a cup of the _Prince's mixture_." This produced peals of laughter, and her ladyship laughed as heartily as any of them. When somewhat composed again, she looked across the table to Mr. Clerk, and offered to let him see it. "It is now set on the pivot of my watch, and a' the warks gae round the _flech_ in place of turning on a diamond."

Lord Gillies thought this flight would certainly betray her, and remarked to Mr. Clerk that the flea must be painted on the watch, but Mr. Clerk said he had known of relics being kept of the Prince quite as extraordinary as a flea; that Mr. Murray of Simprim had a pocket-handkerchief in which Prince Charles had blown his nose.

The Lady Pitlyal said her daughter did not value these things, and that she was resolved to leave it as a legacy to the Antiquarian Society.

Holmehead was rather amused with her originality, though he had not forgotten the attack. He said he would try if she was a real Jacobite, and he called out, "Madam, I am going to propose a toast for ye!

"May the Scotch Thistle choke the Hanoverian Horse."

"I wish I binna among the Whigs," she said.

"And whare wad ye be sae weel?" retorted he.

"They murdered Dundee's son at Glasgow."

"There was nae great skaith," he replied; "but ye maun drink my toast in a glass of this cauld punch, if ye be a true Jacobite."

"Aweel, aweel," said the Lady Pitlyal; "as my auld friend Lady Christian Bruce was wont to say, 'The best way to get the better of temptation is just to yield to it;'" and as she nodded to the toast and emptied the glass, Holmehead swore exultingly--"_Faith, she's true!_"

Supper passed over, and the carriages were announced. The Lady Pitlyal took her leave with Mrs. Gillies.

Next day the town rang with the heiress of Pitlyal. Mr. W. Clerk said he had never met with such an extraordinary old lady, "for not only is she amusing herself, but my brother John is like to expire, when I relate her stories at second-hand."

He talked of nothing else for a week after, but the heiress, and the flea, and the rent-roll, and the old turreted house of Pitlyal, till at last his friends thought it would be right to undeceive him; but that was not so easily done, for when the Lord Chief-Commissioner Adam hinted that it might be Miss Stirling, he said that was impossible, for Miss Stirling was sitting by the old lady the whole of the evening.

Here is a bit of Sir Walter--

Turning to Sir Walter, "I am sure you had our laird in your e'e when you drew the character of Monkbarns."

"No," replied Sir Walter, "but I had in my eye a very old and respected friend of my own, and one with whom, I daresay you, Mrs. Arbuthnott, were acquainted--the late Mr. George Constable of Wallace, near Dundee."

"I kenned him weel," said Mrs. Arbuthnott, "and his twa sisters that lived wi' him, Jean and Christian, and I've been in the blue-chamber of his _Hospitium_; but I think," she continued, "our laird is the likest to Monkbarns o' the twa. He's at the Antiquarian Society the night, presenting a great curiosity that was found in a quarry of mica slate in the hill at the back of Balwylie. He's sair taken up about it, and puzzled to think what substance it may be; but James Dalgetty, wha's never at a loss either for the name or the nature of onything under the sun, says it's just Noah's auld wig that blew aff yon time he put his head out of the window of the ark to look after his corbie messenger."

James Dalgetty and his opinion gave subject of much merriment to the company, but Doctor Coventry thought there was nothing so very ludicrous in the remark, for in that kind of slate there are frequently substances found resembling hairs.

Lord Gillies presented Doctor Coventry to Mrs. Arbuthnott, as the well-known professor of agriculture, and they entered on a conversation respecting soils. She described those of Balwylie, and the particular properties of the _Surroch Park_, which James Dalgetty curses every time it's spoken about, and says, "it greets a' winter, and girns a' simmer."

The doctor rubbed his hands with delight, and said that was the most perfect description of cold wet land he had ever heard of; and Sir Walter expressed a wish to cultivate the acquaintance of James Dalgetty, and extorted a promise from Mrs. Arbuthnott that she would visit Abbotsford, and bring James with her. "I have a James Dalgetty of my own," continued Sir Walter, "that governs me just as yours does you."

Lady Ann and Mr. Wharton Duff and their daughter were announced, and introduced to Mrs. Arbuthnott.

At ten, Sir Walter and Miss Scott took leave, with a promise that they should visit each other, and bending down to the ear of Mrs. Arbuthnott, Sir Walter addressed her in these words: "Awa! awa! the deil's ower grit wi' you."

* * * * *

And now are we not all the better for this pleasantry? so womanly, so genial, so rich, and so without a sting,--such a true diversion, with none of the sin of effort or of mere cleverness; and how it takes us into the midst of the strong-brained and strong-hearted men and women of that time! what an atmosphere of sense and good-breeding and kindliness! And then the Scotch! cropping out everywhere as blithe, and expressive, and unexpected as a gowan or sweet-briar rose, with an occasional thistle, sturdy, erect, and bristling with _Nemo me_. Besides the deeper and general interest of these _Mystifications_, in their giving, as far as I know, a unique specimen of true personation--distinct from acting--I think it a national good to let our youngsters read, and, as it were, hear the language which our gentry and judges and men of letters spoke not long ago, and into which such books as Dean Ramsay's and this are breathing the breath of its old life. Was there ever anything better or so good, said of a stiff clay, than that it "girns (grins) a' simmer, and greets (weeps) a' winter?"

[The end]
John Brown's essay: Mystifications