TALES FROM THE TOLBOOTH (extracts)
… Fingers MacPhee, the rather dull-witted but enormously patient old lag, was regularly banged up in Blackhaven jail back in the 1850s. Once when doing a long stretch for a series of small thefts (mostly ladies underwear, pencils, and spectacles, for some reason), he resorted to training a mouse he found in his cell to carry tiny bags of soil out through his mousehole and deposit the contents outside. He was caught after about 6 months of this, by which time he had managed to dig an escape tunnel under his bed, nearly four inches long. It is not known what happened to the mouse, though the jailer did own a very aggressive ginger cat.
… the case of Soutar vs McPuce in 1824. The former claimed that the latter, his landlord, had deliberately infested his home with “pixies” in order to force him to leave. The local magistrate eventually found in favour of McPuce. It appears he was owed several years of unpaid rent by Soutar, whose occupation was described as “professional layabout”. After conventional remedies had failed to extract so much as a farthing from his tenant, McPuce had indeed resorted to enlisting the services of two local primary school children (P6, naturally). These he dressed as “brownies” or pixies, and infiltrated into Soutar’s house, where they created all sorts of ingenious mischief, as only young boys can do.
The magistrate found that while this behaviour was improper, still the unpaid rent was the main issue, and so Soutar was compelled to remove himself and his family from the property. Interestingly, it was found that he had installed an illicit still in the back room, and it is speculated that his perception of the “little people” may have been to a degree amplified by the consumption of his own poteen. (It is true that he claimed to have seen over 60 pixies, rather than just two, also several elves and goblins, and an elk.)
The locals had mixed feelings about this case. It seems McPuce was unpopular because his rents were high and his properties dilapidated. On the other hand, they felt Soutar had transgressed an unwritten code by producing poteen which failed to meet even the insanely dangerous minimum standards that were commonly accepted in Blackhaven at the time. Anyway, Soutar and his family were obliged to find other accommodation, but this was only temporary, since they eventually spent most of their remaining years in jail for one offence or another.
… After the great Blackhaven Herring Riots of 1747 (qv), it was decided that the village should have some sort of permanent law-enforcement on its mean streets. These were the days before the Police Force, or even the Bow Street Runners were thought of, but as ever, Blackhaven came up with its own unique solution to the problem of civil disorder. The Earl of Blackhaven, known behind his back as “Dribbling Jimmy” (who habitually kept as far from the mean streets as was humanly possible) offered the princely sum of one groat per diem to “a muscular and principled local man, willing to risk life and limb, in the maintenance of public safety and the quelling of public afffray.” The Earl moreover equipped said official, “to be titled “Watchman of Blackhaven”, with “a stout cudgel and a short blunderbus, together with a weatherproof cloak and a tricornered hat*, the latter cunningly reinforced against the possibility of assault.”
The first brave soul to accept the position as Watchman, a 6ft 6 inch trawlerman called Bobby Robertson, lasted four hours before being discovered wedged, head-down with his hat on his bottom, in a barrel of winkle shells, sobbing like a baby, and pleading for early retirement. It was found difficult to obtain any volunteers thereafter, but the one who did eventually step up to the task was Harry “Foxy” McRivers. This bold individual was not only a master of all known street-fighting techniques, but also an expert in the art of what we would now call Parkour, or Free-running. On one notable occasion he evaded an angry mob (whom he had casually suggested might like to cease their game of pig-baiting (qv) on the public highway), by vaulting onto the roof of the Old Kirk, leaping from there some 20 feet onto the kirkyard wall, and somersaulting onto a passing donkey, which, electrified by this surprise, bolted off down Smugglers Wynd and carried him thence across the fields to safety..
“Foxy’s” skill-set also included a prodigious memory and a capacity for ad-hoc blackmail, which helped considerably to keep him alive in his occupation.
… the short-lived attempt by Sandy Ferrier to boost the tourism industry, such as it is, in Blackhaven. Sandy’s idea involved collaborating with local entrepreneurs and businesses (The Four Horsemen pub, The Devil’s Tea Shoppe, The Redundant Oyster “restaurant” et al) to produce a brochure and advertise on social media etc, extolling the merits of Blackhaven’s amenities and entertainments, such as they are. This eventually resulted in one coach-load of bemused Japanese visitors turning up on a wet Saturday in October, wandering the streets with a dazed and rather frightened look, seeking somewhere to get dry and obtain sustenance.
Unfortunately, their visit coincided with the local festival of Custard Pie Day, whereat villagers, many in fancy dress, go about armed to the teeth with custard pies, jam-balloons, flour bombs, etc, and licence is given to assault all and sundry with said items. It is a festival sadly often misused by some to take revenge on those they may feel have annoyed them in some way during the preceding twelvemonth. A sort of inverse day-of-atonement, if you will. It can get pretty brutal. In fact, local physician Dr Leckie has compiled a list of some of the more atrocious injuries sustained by participants over the years, including concussions (caused by a blow from a pigs-bladder), lung damage (due to flour-inhalation) and severe gastritis (subsequent to the involuntary ingestion of too much jam).
The hub of these activities was, as usual, the area in front of the Four Horsemen pub. Now, in search of some refreshment, turning the corner from Smugglers Wynd (having found the Devils’ Tea-Shoppe shut and boarded up for the duration of hostilities) into this melee sauntered the unsuspecting tourists. Within moments they were attacked and thoroughly besmirched by a mob which included (as they later testified in Court) Little Red Riding Hood, several Minions (believed to be members of the Hootenany Teuchters), fourteen P6 children dressed as Nessie, and a mad old man in jodphurs and a cravat. This last was Auld Foggerty, still at the age of 90+, an active, and indeed viciously energetic participant.
To be fair, some of the Japanese did retreat in good order, and subsequently ralied together, holding a “custard pies’ last stand” on the Grassy Knoll, before being overwhelmed by numbers. Only the timely intervention of Inspector Macyard and some reinforcements from Inverness Constabulary prevented some of the more determined tourists from committing ritual suicide rather than admit defeat.
As a boost to tourism, this was hardly a great success. However it was later judged to be one of the best Custard Pie Days in living memory.