On Tour in Scotland

It seems astonishing – immediately after ceremonially completing his 450-mile walk, Ben Jonson set off on the tourist trail, accompanied by hosts eager to show him some of the sights. Rather than take a breather in Edinburgh, he headed up to the castle for a quick look round, and was clearly told the same stories about some of the artefacts on display as other visitors at the time. The one that tickled his companion’s fancy – as it had John Taylor’s a few weeks before – concerned Mons Meg, the great cannon given to James II and then – as now – on display in the castle. Its bore, he noted, ‘was so big that one got a woman with child in it.’

Mons Meg

Mons Meg in the 1680s

From the castle they were whisked away to South Queensferry, crossing the Firth of Forth on their way to visit another wonder. Sir George Bruce’s undersea coalmine at Culross ran a mile under the firth of Forth, and was without any contemporary equivalents in England or Wales. It was frequently viewed by visitors: the king, Lord Howard, and John Taylor had all recently admired what the latter called ‘this unfellowed and unmatchable work’ The amazement arose from the fact that it had an entrance – the ‘mot’ or ‘moat’ – 400 metres out beyond the shoreline, and at high tide ships could anchor alongside and carry the coal away. Sir George Bruce was a formidable industrialist, and the pit was only the most spectacular of his developments around Culross – he also had 44 saltpans here and a little upstream at Kincardine, using some of the coal mined to evaporate seawater. He’d built himself a grand house at Culross, which you can still visit; after his death, a grandly austere funerary monument to him and his wife was erected in the abbey church.

Bruce clearly had a decent PR department too. Taylor noted that ‘many poor people are there set on work, which otherwise through the want of employment would perish’. Jonson’s companion, hearing the same information, recorded that Bruce ‘finds above 500 poor people at work, and pays every Saturday in the year 100 [pounds] sterling for wages’. Taylor also noted that ‘he doth make every week ninety or an hundred tons of salt’, a figure which has recently been described as ‘grossly overestimated’. Yet we find our writer also noting how Bruce ‘spends three hundred load of coles a week in making of his salt, and makes an hundred and ten ton a week’. So if Taylor’s figure was an overestimation, it was Bruce’s publicist who was most likely responsible for it.

Culross Palace

Sir George Bruce’s house at Culross

From Culross, the travellers were escorted to Dunfermline, an ancient royal burgh – its abbey was the former burial place of Scottish kings. The regality of Dunfermline was owned by Queen Anne – hence, in the account, it is called ‘the Queen’s town’ – and around 1594 she built a house beside the abbey, ‘a delicate and princely mansion’ according to Taylor, and one of her favourite residences. It had been the birthplace in 1596 of Princess Elizabeth, later to be known as the ‘Winter Queen’, and of her brother, Prince Charles, in 1600.

Jonson’s welcome at Dunfermline would seem to have been both warm, friendly and fairly informal. They went to meet the very grand Alexander Seton, earl of Dunfermline, lord chancellor of Scotland since 1604 and the most important Scottish statesman of the age. Seton was, as his biographer put it, ‘a great humanist in prose and poesie, Greek and Latin, well versed in the mathematics and had great skill in architecture and heraldry’. He was heritable bailie of the regality of Dunfermline for Queen Anne, occupying a house close to the abbey, in which capacity he was expected to provide entertainment for important visitors. Yet when Jonson and his companion arrived, as he recounts, ‘we found my lady shooting at butts’ – that is, practising archery, which some would no doubt think a not very countessy thing to be seen doing. And then, the account says pithily, ‘we drank hard, with some six more, and were made burgesses.’

Merida

A Scottish noblewoman practising archery

No record of the bestowal of this honour survives – if it did, we’d have a name for our writer – but the memory of Jonson’s visit did not entirely disappear with the records in one of the fires which ravaged the town later in the seventeenth century. Ebenezer Henderson, Dunfermline’s nineteenth-century annalist, noted that ‘according to tradition, Ben Jonson visited in August 1618.’ Tradition, we can now say, was only out by a month.

From Dunfermline the travellers rode on eastwards, to visit the newly discovered – or popularised, anyway – healing spring at Pettycur, admiring the castle at Aberdour on the way. The well was a place to which many people were then resorting, since it was noted for its capacity to cure a wide ranging of ailments including cataracts and bladder stones. It had celebrity endorsement, of a sort: the companion noted how William Douglas, earl of Morton and owner of Aberdour, had ‘avoided’ – i.e. passed – ‘six great confirmed stones.’

Pettycur is near Burntisland; from there, a ferry could take you to Leith. So Jonson and his companion made their way back across the firth of Forth and set themselves up at the house of one John Stewart, continuing with their busy social calendar. Lord Bothwell visited, and they went out hawking; Lady Sempill and further Jacobean courtiers also came to call. John Taylor, too, visited Jonson here, though our writer doesn’t mention this encounter. With his host’s encouragement – as if he needed it – Jonson was once more making himself thoroughly at home.

Sky over Leith

A wide sky over Leith

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James Loxley

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Principal Investigator, Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland

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