Mrs Janet Leven's Reminiscences

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Some reminiscences by Mrs Janet Leven, born in 1800 and the daughter of the Rev James Wemyss of Burntisland - told by her in 1891 to her daughter, Christine Charters Leven. Mrs Leven was a cousin of Mary Somerville.

Occasionally one comes across an obscure document which may be helpful to researchers, and which can be put online quickly and easily. This is one such. It came from Helen Mabon and its source is described as:

"Made from a copy of the original Reminiscences supplied by Robert Wemyss, of Durie House, Helenburgh, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, by James Morison Wemyss of Winnipeg in the Province of Manitoba, one of the Provinces of the Dominion of Canada. This first day of January in the year of Our Lord 1909."


One of my earliest recollections is being undressed at the nursery fire on a servant's knee when she heard the cry "The Press-Gang Boat" and wrapping something round me, she ran to the gate to see the commotion; on this occasion a young man managed to escape by running away and hiding somewhere behind the byre.

* * * * *

My father called us one day to look at a "ship on fire" coming up the Forth near Inchkeith. This turned out to be the first Steamer seen on the Forth.

* * * * *

I remember us all going out to the garden to look at a comet, probably that of 1811. My father told us that there was a great alarm in Burntisland one night that Paul Jones was coming up the Firth, "1789", and a man went through the town calling out "put out your lights, put out your lights".

* * * * *

My father, the Rev James Wemyss, was the first who wore a gown in Burntisland Church. It was presented to him in 1779 by the Magistrates, but some people objected to it strongly and said "it was just a rag of popery". One old woman, Alice Thrift, who always came to church with a plaid over her head, got a bonnet, a large poke one, that the front of it might prevent her seeing minister with his gown on in the pulpit.

My eldest sister said she remembered when my father first allowed Paraphrases to be sung in the church, and before that a stranger having given one out, Mr Leven, my future father-in-law, then the Provost, stood up and said they were not used in that church.

The Burntisland church was built by the Burghers and Shipowners who were mostly Dutchmen, and they sent to Amsterdam for a model.

The Heritors did not wish a new church, but wished to repair the old Kirk at the Kirkton, so they would not come to the new one, but the Burghers got an act of Parliament obliging the heritors to come to that church and "Put their heads under it as under one hat."

They said they would not sit with others before them, so they got square seats made under the gallery - as they were till not long ago.

In the body of the church each sitter had his own high-backed oak chair. On the front of the gallery all round were carvings, the signs of the different trades - as, on the Sailors' loft - ships; on the Bakers' a sheaf of corn; on the Weavers' a shuttle; the Merchants' scales; the Masons' a mallet and square. These were obliterated and painted over about the year 1823, as were also the Commandments and Texts on the pillars. The Provost with his chain on and the Town Council used to walk into the Church preceded by two Town Officers with halberts and cocked hats.

* * * * *

The first time I visited Edinburgh was 1807, when I went to my aunt, Mrs William Charters in Dundas Street. She had a house near the Manse in Burntisland, where she always came in summer and we all used to stay often with her in winter in Edinburgh.

At that time Miss Greig was also with her, she was the daughter of Admiral Sir Samuel Greig, my mother's cousin , and she afterwards married Mr Peterson, and her daughter is Mrs Baxter. We have her life printed. At that time there were no houses below Northumberland Street [Edinburgh], just fields with cows, and I remember going with Mrs Boog's children (Mrs Watson and Mrs Leishman and brother) down to the fields, taking little jugs and getting new milk to drink.

My uncle, Sir William Fairfax, bought a new house in Northumberland St. number 45 or near it, and he lived there till his daughter Mrs Greig [later Mrs Mary Somerville] on the death of her husband, came to stay there with her sons Woronzow and William. Then he gave up the house to her and went to Charlotte Street. When visiting them there in 1814 St George's church was building and one day we saw crowds running past the window and found that a man had been killed by a large stone falling when it was being swung up for one of the pillars.

The minister, Dr Andrew Thompson, was an intimate friend of our family, as was his father the minister of Grayfriars.

Sir William Fairfax died in 1814 and his widow being left with very little, went to a flat in Nelson Street [Edinburgh]. (Sir William commanded the "Venerable" at the Battle of Camperdown.) Their daughter, Mrs Greig, married her cousin Dr Somerville in 1812 and had two daughters one of whom wrote her mother's life, and one son (Dr Somerville) on being appointed one of the Medical Board in London, moved there and sold the Northumberland Street house. It was about the middle of the west division, north side.

The ring I have with hair and pearls round it is the hair of my brother Samuel who was drowned before I was born. He was midshipman with my Uncle Admiral Fairfax in the "Venerable". One night he had gone to sleep on the Channels and some of the middies, for fun, threw water on him, which so startled him that he fell overboard and was drowned.

My father never took up the Baronetcy, thinking a poor minister was as well without it, but my brother James did, and he became Sir James Wemyss. He was a Writer to the Signet and died at the age of 55 from bronchitis. He went to Russia at one time and visited Admiral Sir Samuel Greig at the Palace given by the Empress to his father, Sir Samuel Greig. It was called "Sans Ennui". When the latter came to this country to visit his mother and relatives, the Empress Catherine sent a Fleet with him. Lady Greig went about Edinburgh as she was accustomed to at St. Petersburg, with pages carrying her train, which attracted so much attention the Magistrates begged her to go out incognito.

* * * * *

My grandfather, Mr Charters, was proprietor of the house in Burntisland with ground down to the sea, which Mr Leven bought from his son-in-law, Sir William Fairfax in 1804. He, Mr Charters, was the Solicitor of Customs for Scotland. His wife was Christian Murray, daughter of Mr John Murray, Advocate of Blackbarony  (now called Darnhall) near Peebles. The painting we have of her grandfather in armour came from there to Mr Charters at Burntisland and the Manse, then to my brother Sir James, and on his death to my sisters and then to us. There was a  companion picture to the above, of Mrs Charters as Pmona, but it was not liked by the ladies of the family and was given away, which was a pity.

One of her sisters was a great beauty, Aunty Nisbet, married to Mr Nisbet of Northfield, near Dirleton. During the Battle of Prestonpans (1745), they took refuge with my grandfather at his home in Burntisland till it was safe to return to their home. They afterwards sent him a very handsome present of silver plate, which was of course divided amongst his family after his death, and all that remain in our family now is the Silver Tankard, six tablespoons marked C, 4 salt cellars and a few silver handled knives an a salver, but in my childhood there were a great many of these knives and the silver had gradually got broken off and lost.

Mr Charter's father was proprietor of the Hills at Inverkeithing, and the minister there. His mother was great-grand-niece of John Knox.

One of my mother's brothers, Samuel Charters, married the Hon. Miss Carey, daughter of Lord Falkland, and had one daughter who married Professor Macpherson, Aberdeen. Their son, Major Macpherson, died just after the Mutiny on his way home. My uncle afterwards married Miss Christie of Baberton. The other brother[s], my uncles all died in India. The widow of my Uncle William was the aunt we were so fond of who had a house near the Manse. She visited at most of the County families in Fife and Forfarshire, and was often asked to bring a niece with her and also in Edinburgh, but I, being the youngest was more at home.

The Hopes of Pinkie, Sir Thomas Brisbane, Sir George Douglas of Springwood Park, Sir Hay Macdougall-Brisbane of Makerston, were cousins of my mother's.

The widow of my Uncle Samuel Charters lived with her family in York Place [Edinburgh] and eventually went to Bath.

* * * * *

All that I can remember about the Battle of Trafalgar is that my sister Margaret got a dress in commemoration of it, and it had blue waves like the sea, all over it. That would be 1805. I was in Edinburgh visiting Mrs Charters in 1815 and we were awakened one morning by the Castle guns firing, announcing the Battle of Waterloo.

* * * * *

I remember George 3rd's Jubilee in 1810. Burntisland, like all other towns was illuminated by candles stuck into little three-cornered bits of tin and put in the windows. I felt ill and could not go out with the others to see it and it turned out a fever.

We all wore black when George 3rd died. When George the Fourth visited Edinburgh we all came over by turns to see him, leaving one sister at home with my mother. We stayed with my  brother in Hanover Street and I saw George the Fourth come up Leith Walk; a very grand procession and the whole of Leith Walk a mass of people. We were on a platform in Gayfield Square. Your father was one of the King's Body Guard of Royal Archers and he attended the King all the time he was there.

They went to Hopetoun House with him and at Queensferry, when going into the boat to cross, he gave a very valuable bow to a man to hold and he let it fall into the water and it was lost, to his great regret.

Sir Walter Scott planned the dress the Archers wore on this occasion. Bonnet with an eagle's feather, tunic of 42nd tartan, the tails of which were kept out with whalebone. The sleeves were slashed at the top with puffs of green satin. A very full muslin ruff round the neck about four inches wide. Very fully plaited trousers of 42nd tartan with broad silver lace down the sides. Stockings with large discs of scarlet and white. Low shoes with large black rosettes.

It was a pity the dress was not kept, but I cut it down into things for the children. There was also a wide white silk sash tied round the waist with a bow and short ends.

I only once met Sir Walter Scott. He breakfasted with Mr Leven and me at Dr Somerville's Jedburgh Manse, soon after our marriage.

* * * * *

I remember going down to the pier to see French Prisoners landing at Burntisland on their way to Perth. Mrs Boog took down some clothes for them and talked in French to them.

Many of them were confined in Jedburgh Castle, and some were allowed out on parole and used to visit at my Uncle's Manse. One of them, Chevalier Espinasse was afterwards known in Edinbugh as a teacher of French.

They used to make wonderfully beautifully carved things out of the meat bones they got in prison, and pretty boxes ornamented with coloured straw.

* * * * *

Your grandfather, Mr Leven, came to Burntisland in 1804, being appointed Collector of Excise there. He bought from Sir William Fairfax the property formerly belonging to my grandfather, Mr Charters. But Mr Leven bought a good deal more ground and laid out a great deal of money building fine fruit walls and making terraces down to the sea, which alone costs Three Thousand pounds. Both he and his son being great florists took great delight in the gardens - and had such beautiful flowers that people came from long distances to see the gardens. Many a peach and apricot he gave me when I was a little girl.

He built Hot and Cold Salt Water Swimming Baths and a fine boat-house into which the sea could be shut and kept always full and it could do as a swimming bath. He made a tower with several rooms in it down at the terraces from which there was a fine view, as at the house there was no view.

All this is gone now, being occupied by the railway.

His daughter, Mrs Bell, used always to spend the summer with him, bringing her children.

* * * * *

I was married in 1826, having been engaged seven years. We went our wedding tour in a Post Chaise through the Perthshire Highlands and I saw none of the places again till we went to Callander three years ago, and last year to Dunkeld.

When we were first married five o'clock was the dinner hour for company and four for every day.

Though flowers were not used then on the table, your father always had the silver cups on the table with fine flowers in them.

People played at cards to pass the evening and then had a regular supper before leaving and we did not weary of the evening more than people do now, though the dinners are so late.

When I was a girl, tea was 7/- or 8/- a pound, while sugar 1/2 and sugar 10d, shirting 2/6 a yard, but servants wages were less than half what they are now.

At the manse the servants used to spin all the evening as, with the early dinners, we dined at three o'clock they had plenty of time, and often there were two spinning wheels going. It was common for the servants to take a child on their knee and give them a "spinning ride".

The flax was grown on the Glebe, at the Kirkton and when spun the yarn was sent to a weaver at the Kirkton and made into table cloths and sheets and then sent to Luncarty Bleach Fields to be bleached. The sheets I am still using are some of those grown on my father's Glebe and are quite strong yet.

Some of the table cloths marked 1790 are getting rather frail however, and no wonder. These are Mr Leven's.

The manse originally belonged to my father, but he sold it to the Heritors, but retained a garden across the road, in which, on his death my mother built Hill House and removed there with her four daughters. The Rev Charles Watson, my father's assistant and successor, went into the manse.

When the Railway came it was converted into an hotel and a new manse was built on Cromwell Road.

My father always kept the Glebe in his own hands and sometimes rented a grass field in addition as he kept a horse and a cow and sometimes two.

It was sometimes very dangerous crossing the ferry at Burntisland and on one occasion my father had an awful experience, for when the storm rose the sailors shut down the hatchway and the passengers feared they would be suffocated but he was a very strong man and putting his back to it, got it forced open.

We used to cross in what was called "Half tide boats" and sometimes in Pinnaces and sometimes had to be landed at Pitheur and walk home.

One Sam Somerville was coming to spend Christmas with his aunt, Mrs Charters at Burntisland and got within hail, but after tacking and tacking, had just to give up and sail back to Leith.

My sister Cecilia was once from 3 o'clock till past 10 p.m. crossing and on getting to Leith had to rouse up the hotel people, who were in bed and get a chaise to take the party to Edinburgh.

I once came down with Mrs Charters and two Miss Melvilles from Edinburgh to Leith and they dared not cross, and we had to drive to Queensferry and cross there and drive to Burntisland, letting out there they drove to Dalzell Lodge.

When Sir William Fairfax died the funeral came from Edinburgh to Burntisland by Queensferry and was so long delayed by the storm that it was night when they arrived and the coffin had to be taken to Mr Leven's house for the night. Some visitors put up at the manse and the rest at the Inn and the funeral took place next day.

Sir William's first [wife] was a daughter of the minister Mr Spiers and the second wife a sister of Mrs Wemyss of the Charters family.
 

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