SR's Word of the Month
, bubbly-jock, reminded me of the plaque put up in Cramond decades ago in memory of Marjory Fleming, the little girl with the extraordinarily precocious literary talent who is said to have sat on Walter Scott's knee, delighting him with her talk and recitations.
Born in Kirkcaldy on 15 January 1803, she died of measles, possibly complicated by meningitis, on 19 December, 1811, just short of her ninth birthday. She spent most of the last three years of her life with her cousin's family in Edinburgh. They lived in North Charlotte Street from which she was taken to visit friends in Cramond at Braepark House. Here, she describes wandering '… in rurel filicity festivity & pleasure – a delightful place, Breahead by name… where their is ducks cocks hens bublyjocks 2 dogs 2 cats & swine & which is delightful'.
It is this quote from her remarkable journals, kept in the NLS, which is engraved on the plaque in Braepark Road. It is on the left, going downhill to Old Cramond Brig. Her spelling is partly corrected, cocks is missed out, and her ampersands, which she used a lot, replaced with 'and'. No changes should have been made. There's an adjacent old stone trough where some of Marjory's animal friends might have assuaged their thirst.
Marjory's short life was first recorded in 1858 by a Fife journalist, Mr H B Farnie, a fascinating man himself. Amongst other activities, he wrote the first instructional book on golf, The Golfer’s Manual
, under the pseudonym 'A Keen Hand'. He affectionately called Marjory, 'Pet Marjorie', and this name stuck. In reading about her, it's sometimes a little difficult to separate fact from legend. What is certain is the evidence from her journals and notebooks, which she kept between 1810 until her death, of an exceptional ability to record and reflect on her daily activities and life in general, in prose and verse.
Her poetry is usually little more than doggerel but no less impressive in someone so young. Here's an example:
On the killing of three young turkeys (bubbly-jocks) by rats at Braehead:
Three turkeys fair their last have breathed
And now this world for ever leaved
Their Father & their Mother too
Will sigh & weep as well as you
Mourning for their osprings fair
Whom they did nurse with tender care
Indeed the rats their bones have cranched
To eternity are they launched
There graceful form & pretty eyes
Their fellow [fowls] did not dispise
A direful death indeed they had
that would put any parent mad
But she was more than usual calm
[Just] did not give a singel dam
She is as gentil as a lamb
Here ends this melancholy lay
Farewell poor Turkeys I must say
She wrote a long, 215-line, epic poem on Mary Queen of Scots, revealing a remarkable tenacity of purpose. Another poem was on the King Jameses. The latter included, of James the Second, the lines:
he was killed by a cannon splinter
In the middle of the winter
Perhaps it was not at that time
But I could get no other ryhme
This was a mischievous rhyming device she sometimes got up to. These two poems show a good appreciation of history. She was incredibly well-read, referring in her journals to the Bible, Shakespeare, Gray, Pope and Swift, among others. Of the Bible, she wrote: 'I like the old testament better than the new but the new is far more instructive'.
Some of her poems were set to music in the 1930s and in 1969 the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett composed songs to five of them for soprano and piano. He called this collection A Garland for Marjory Fleming
and it included the poem about the dead turkeys. Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain admired her. An elegant facsimile of her journals, letters and verse was published in collotype in 1934.
Legend has it that Walter Scott was entranced by her and that she sat on the great man's knee, delighting him with her chatter and especially with her recitations from Shakespeare. However, while Scott was related to her cousin's family, the Keiths – the grandparents at Ravelston House, now part of Mary Erskine School – this does, indeed, seem legend. Marjory makes no reference to him on a personal level, nor does he of her in his letters or retrospectively in his journal, begun in 1825. It seems inconceivable that neither would have acknowledged the other had there been such a close connection.
We have to thank the great Dr John Brown of Rab and his Friends
and Horae Subsecivae
for this whimsy. In 1863, he composed a highly over-sentimentalised account of 'Pet Marjorie' and her relationship with Scott, which was taken up by others. Ironically, Marjory in her journals criticises authors who 'expressed themselfes too sentimentaly'. It can't, however, be ruled out that Marjory and Scott met briefly and without impact. He lived close-by in North Castle Street and was genuinely friendly with the Keiths and good with children, according to Sir Eric Anderson, editor of his journal.
It's a delight today to wander down that rural lane and wonder at the life of that little girl. What literary promise she held, cruelly dashed. Little can have changed in 200 years of the essence of the place, save perhaps for the sad absence of ducks, hens and bubbly-jocks.
Dr Stefan Slater
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