The Collected Letters, Volume 13


TC TO DAVID LAING ; 2 April 1841; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18410402-TC-DL-01; CL 13: 74-78


5. Cheyne Row, Chelsea, / London, 2 April 1841—

My dear Sir,

May I, tho' personally unknown to you, venture to trouble you with a small inquiry in the Scottish Bibliographic Department. The reputation you have attained in that, and the obliging character you bear, must be my apology.

For a long while, in investigating the history of the Puritans in Britain, it has been one of my impressions that the ridiculous riot which occurred in St Giles's Church in your City on july 23d, 1637, was not ridiculous alone, but tragic withal,—the first spurt as of an opening submarine ocean, which in some years more submerged the whole British Lands! An actual tumult, and what follows out of that, is sometimes a most momentous thing. It seems to me as if the stroke of Jenny Geddes's stool flung at the Priest's head on that occasion1 were the beginning of an altogether boundless universal battle, one of the latter strokes of which cut of K. Charles's head.— In brief, I have had a real curiosity to know about Jenny and her riot whatsoever thing was knowable. Hitherto my endeavours, I grieve to say, have yielded almost nothing: and I think if your reply throw no fresh light on the matter, I must give it up as a matter sunk irrecoverably in darkness;—at any rate, as a “game which is not worth the candle.”2

Of all the modern Historians Brodie is the only one who details this riot with the smallest attempt at delineating it.3 What he gives is like a whet to a man already hungry enough! The other moderns pass the business over, as “beneath the dignity” &c, I suppose. Neither in Baillie nor in any of the contemporaries can I find any satisfaction hitherto. In your Signet Library Catalogue, I descried some months ago a joyful reference to “Peck v. 2” (p. 79, p. 1.) At the Britain Museum accordingly on two successive days I diligently consulted Peck's Desiderata, but discovered not the smallest allusion to it there. Can you explain to me how this is;—or what were still more interesting can you mention in what page of Peck there is any account of the business?4 I conjecture that the whole is a mistake on the part of your Predecessor; whose Catalogue otherwise seems to deserve great praise.

In Rothes's Relation, one of your Bannatyne Books, I find printed as a Note by much the best relation,—yet still far from good enough. It is vague, without names or circumstances, has no preliminaries, notes of preparation; is evidently written by a satirical partisan: one cannot construe Edinburgh and the riot out of that.5 Yet perhaps it is the best, nay perhaps the only, Narrative attainable now?— In the Text of Rothes (p. 3) I find allusion made to a trial of the rioters by the Town “Magistrates, Bishops and Lords of the Secret Council”: this, if there existed any record of this, would be the thing to consult. Perhaps you can inform me whether anybody has ever tried to find such; whether such have been found; whether, in your Edinburgh Archives anywhere, such may be supposed to exist. What is curious enough I do not find the name of Jenny Geddes mentioned at all in any of these Narrations. Where does her name come from? Tradition alone? Burns called his mare Jenny Geddes;6 the Antiquarian Society has a Stool they call Jenny Geddes's; Kirkpatrick Sharpe insinuates (Notes to Kirton) that Jenny had sat shortly before on the Cutty Stool! What is the truth of all that; where is Jenny first named in authentic history?— Pray do not laugh; tho' indeed I myself cannot help laughing! This thing has got to be, over and above all other considerations, partly of the nature of a puzzle to me; a thing that provokes and piques you into solving it. I consult the Secretary of the Bannatyne Club as I would the Delphic god on this occasion; the Oracle's response, be it negatory be it affirmatory and hopeful, shall be a guidance for me.7

My curiosities do by no means restrict themselves to Jenny Geddes and her one riot: the whole of those transactions in Scotland, the Signing of the Covenant, Assembly at Glasgow &c &c are full of interest to me.8 But, alas, insight seems not attainable on them, in any sense of the word. Let me put a question or two nevertheless, now that my hand is in.

Besides Sir James Turner's Memoirs,9 is there any contemporary account of Scotch Military matters worth much? Montrose, for example, is entirely unintelligible in Wishart;10 Napier's last Book has real worth;11 many curious quotations and glimpses, but still leaves much to desire. Does anybody know anything about the old Earl of Leven,12—except what Spalding or the like incidentally gives?13 Where did Granger get that Note about L's passing one day by “the school he had been educated in”?14 I should like well an account of old Leven. Does the family still subsist?15— Again as any Life of the gley'd [squinting] Marquis ever written; any authentic document about him (except stray letters) ever made public?16 One cannot even get a tolerable picture of his squinting countenance! By the way, I wish you, or Napier, or some fit man would undertake a Series of “Scottish Heads” (especially Jameson Heads17)—as unlike Lodge's, in all ways, as possible!18 It might decidedly be an acceptable Book.19

Archibald Johnston too is one I could like to see.20 Napier has, if not love enough to depict him, then indignation enough, hatred enough, which is a kind of inverse love.

Is Nicol's Diary (if that be the name) actually published?21— Did anybody ever sort or attempt taking any critical charge of that Bannatyne's Journal, which Graham Dalziell22 shoved out, many years ago, like a cartload of shot-rubbish?— Alas, if I had a hundred heads at my hest, I could cut out work for them all in these provinces! We are frightfully in rear of the French in that matter of Memoirs, which really are among the valuablest kind of Books, after all.

But I must stop short; or you will not know how to answer, will despair of answering at all. Pray answer no more than you please; I must not trouble you beyond a certain limit: nay the thing itself has only a certain value for me. I should have taken more time, and made my Letter briefer.

Yours with many apologies, with much goodwill,

T. Carlyle

To D. Laing Esq.