Saturday, 15 March 2014

Captain Burnet Rises to the Challenge

View from the summit of Arthur's Seat above Edinburgh
The history of Edinburgh's Town Guard stretches over almost 270 years and was marked by several highs and lows. Like all groups it served as home to the honourable and the villain in probably equal measure, although it is mainly the villains who are generally remembered (Captain Porteous for example). But today my attention is focused on the last man to hold the office of captain of the Guard: James Burnet.

Captain James Burnet
By day Burnet ran a grocer's shop at the head of Fleshmarket Close but when on duty he struck an imposing figure in his redcoat and white britches, weighing in at the impressive weight of 19 stone (270 pounds) and unlike many of his predecessors was not a military man. He was, despite his large size, a most active fellow who far preferred to spend his Sunday mornings walking near and far rather than squeezing his body into the confines of a pew for divine service. In Chambers Journal it is alluded that Captain Burnet was one of the Turners, so named from their habit of taking a turn (a stroll) on the Sabbath.  “About One O'clock,” reports the Journal, “Mr J. L might be seen cooling it through Straiton at the head of a slow procession of bellied men, his hat and wig held aloft on his cane and a myriad of flies buzzing and humming behind his shining pow. Perhaps Captain B(urnet) of the City Guard is of the set. He has a brother at Woodhouselee and they intend to call there and be treated to a glass of spirits and water for really the day is very warm.”

Captain Burnet was also a well-known member of the Lawnmarket Club, one of dozens of gentlemen's clubs which abounded in Edinburgh over the centuries. The Lawnmarket Club is described in Chambers' Traditions of Edinburgh to be a set of dram drinking, gossip mongering facetious group of men who meet each morning about seven o'clock by the post office to learn all the latest news and then retire to a nearby tavern for a refreshing glass of brandy.

Captain Burnet, it should be said, was not known to join in this early morning debauch and was more interested in learning the latest news and political machinations than anything else. However these early morning starts and regular walks ensured that the gallant captain was an active sort of fellow who was ever ready to face any challenge. And it was for this that we celebrate his memory today. 

A challenge was presented to him by a certain James Laing, Deputy City Clerk, who said that it would be impossible for Captain Burnet to climb from the King's Park to the top of Arthur's Seat in less than fifteen minutes. Those who are familiar with the great mass of grass and stone at the foot of the Royal Mile will understand that this is no mean feat for even the fittest and youngest of us to undertake, never mind a middle-aged man of huge proportions. Burnet, of course, at once accepted the wager.
St Anthony's Well where the ascent commenced

A Mr Smellie, being the youngest and fittest of the party, was named as umpire who would walk with Burnet to see that everything was aboveboard. Together they gathered by St Anthony's Well at the foot of the hill and with good wishes ringing in his ears Captain Burnet set out to climb the mountain soaring 822 feet above them.

Under the merciless heat of the summer sun our gallant captain sweated and boiled up the ravine and over the bare rocks. When he reached the most arduous part of his ascent he was ready to give up the ghost and admit defeat but Mr Smellie, timepiece in hand, coaxed him onwards. With a great gulp of air Captain Burnet wiped his face free of the streaming sweat which washed over him and forced himself onwards.

With thirty seconds to spare he reached the summit and collapsed to lie like a beached whale gasping in great lifegiving breaths of air while his lungs worked like bellows. 

clouds above the summit
A student who had been amusing himself on the hill watching Burnet sweat and toil upwards approached the duo and, throwing his hands in the air, exclaimed: “Good heaves, what an immense fellow to climb such a hill!”

When Burnet was sufficiently recovered he and Mr Smellie made their way back down the hill to celebrate our gallant captain's victory with several large drinks, which must have tasted as sweet as any known by any captain of the Guard at any time.

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Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries.
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  1. Wonderful post, Stuart!! That climb would take me much longer than 15 minutes. :)

  2. Very interesting piece--thanks Stuart! My ancestors came from Edinburgh to South Australia and all the history of the place engages me. Your story reminded me of my visit to Arthur's Seat in 2010 with a tour-guide whose profile looked very like Captain Burnet's!

  3. Certainly not your usual Edinburgh caper and I thoroughly enjoyed it (though I was waiting for some ambush or grizzly end!). I can fully appreciate how he must have felt at the end of the mammoth ascent!

  4. Great post Stuart, and the last time I climbed Aurthur's seat it took me longer than 15 mins !!!!


  5. Wonderful Stuart. I really enjoyed your post.

  6. Excellent, as always! The Lawnmarket Club reminds me of a club that existed at Glasgow Uni back in the day: the Grass Cuttings Society was set up in honour of a student who reputedly tried to distil alcohol from grass cuttings. The society existed for no other purpose than drinking.