Humour in Court and Council
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Maybole, Carrick's Capital Facts, Fiction & Folks by James T. Gray, Alloway Publishing, Ayr. First published 1972. Copyright Permission for display on this site granted by David Gray. You may view and download chapters of this book for personal research purposes only. No other distribution of this text is authorized.

The story of this ancient Ayrshire town from its early beginnings in the 12th century through its growth and development until the nineteen sixties. A fascinating record of the history of a town including a wealth of factual information on its outstanding buildings  growth of industry etc., the book also gives an insight into the life of the community and townsfolk themselves.
Table of Contents


Chapter 21

HUMOUR IN COURT AND COUNCIL

FOR hundreds of years justice has been dispensed from the bench in the old Tolbooth and all manners of crimes, from poaching to murder, have been faithfully dealt with and the law of the country upheld. In bygone days the presiding magistrates were a law unto themselves and their findings and penalties would raise an outcry and demands for a "stated case" nowadays when the law would appear to be on the side of the offender and the offended is offered little consideration, or so it seems to the ordinary layman. Naturally, through the centuries many serious cases were considered in the old courtroom and duly recorded, but there were also many humorous incidents which, although not formally minuted, have been gleefully handed down from generation to generation and have become part of local lore.

There are few stories of repartee between the bench and the accused until the beginning of the nineteenth century when the worthy Bailie Niven was the presiding deity and many stories are told of his stern attitude to anyone who was brought before him. Bailie Niven (or Squire Niven as he liked to be called) was the most prominent townsman of his day and he was very despotic and ruled the town with an iron hand which was not even encased in a velvet glove. Being a Justice of the Peace as well as the Municipal Magistrate he was often on "The Bench" and some strange scenes occurred in court during his reign when he delivered his judgements with great pomposity. His over-bearing attitude, however, so incensed the townsfolk that a riot actually ensued in which the windows of his house in High Street were all smashed, and after this his power waned and the Bailie, who used to boast he could clear the street with one stamp of his foot, seldom appeared in the town and spent most of his time on his estate at Kirkbride. When he died Attie Hughes, the town scavenger, preached his requiem when he said, on hearing of his death: "Weel, wed, he's awa', and gane wi' the consent o' the hail parish." 

On one occasion Bailie Niven was presiding in the case of McGuigan versus McMillan when McGuigan, the pursuer, stated he had sold McMillan a breeding sow and McMillan had asked him to keep it until he built a sty for it and he, McMillan, would give McGuigan a young pig for his trouble when the sow farrowed. "Weel, your honour," stated the pursuer, "I kept the sow for a fortnight and then McMillan took it away but he wouldn't give me the young pig he promised me." An argument broke out in court between the pursuer and defendant and finally Bailie Niven sternly said to McGuigan: "Sit down, Sir, and I'll see you get justice." "But, your Honour," said the plaintiff, "it's not justice I want-I want my pig."

On another occasion a young man was brought to court charged with breaking the window of a shop in the town. The town constable swore he was the guilty party but no witness could be produced to substantiate the charge. This did not deter the bold Bailie from giving judgement however. "Sir," he said sternly to the accused, "I have heard the charge, and I see by your face you are guilty and I sentence you to seven days in the town gaol." Such was justice in Baffle Niven's day.

A poaching case was being heard by him one day when one, Gavin Hill, was called as a witness. Wull Gordon, the town officer, formally called the witness in the usual way-"Gavin Hill aince, Gavin Hill twice, Gavin Hill three times," and then in even louder terms, "Man, are ye in the court?" Hill who had been standing behind Gordon quietly said: "Here" and the town officer indignantly said: "Damn ye then step forrit." Hill: stepped up to the bench and audibly asked Gordon: "Wha's he that's sitting on the kist?" "Silence," shouted Bailie Niven. "Don't you know who I am?" "Aye," responded Hill, "Ye're the mannie my wife buys her black soap frae." This did nothing to soothe the Bailie's temper and he harangued the witness for so long that finally Hill turned to the Clerk of the Court and said "Sit roun', man, it's no' for the likes o' you tae be sitting and me stan'ing, wha's been working a' day in a sheugh up tae the headban' o' ma breeks in water." It's impossible to describe the Bailie's indignation at this afrontery to his dignity in court but when he finally calmed down he cried to the town officer: "Gordon, seize the scoundrel and take him down to the cells" This hastily ended the case but Hill got in the last words as he was led out struggling with the town officer, crying: "Canny, Gordon, canny for Goad's sake man, you've torn the lapel of ma guid new waistcoat an' the Bailie will charge me plenty for a new one." 

One night an Irish labourer, with drink taken, took a "loan" of the knocker from Bailie Niven's door, to waken, as he said, Mr. Gray across the street. The Bailie naturally was annoyed and during the quarrel which ensued, the Irishman facetiously referred to the colour of the Bailie's chin which invariably turned bluish after shaving. The affronted Bailie charged the labourer with theft and the following day on the bench read him a lecture and fined him for the misdemeanour. The fine was paid and for the rest of the day the Irish labourer paraded up and down the High Street remarking to himself in loud tones audible to all: "The man's beard may be green or blue for all I care-sure I've no call to interfere with the man's blue beard." The fuming Bailie approached the police to have the man again apprehended but wisdom prevailed and the Irishman was allowed to talk to himself until he tired and went off to drown his sorrow in the Red Lion. 

Although he was entirely despotic, at times the Bailie's judgement was reminiscent of the wisdom of Solomon. He once dealt with a case where a Maybole man had sold a pair of cart wheels to a Crosshill man. At the time of the bargain the Maybole man had only shown the purchaser one wheel but had sworn the other wheel was in as good condition. When the wheels were delivered to Crosshill it was found the one which had not been shown was in very bad condition and naturally the purchaser felt aggrieved and finally the matter came to court. Bailie Niven gravely considered the matter and finally decided that the Maybole man should repay half the cost of the pair of wheels and the Crosshill man would then choose which wheel he wanted and take it home with him and leave the other with the Maybole man. Few would dispute the wisdom of the judgement but one wonders what each man did with one cart wheel. 

About the end of the nineteenth century when Provost Ramsay was a magistrate he had occasion to fine a local farmer for assaulting a well-known poacher whom the farmer had found taking a hare from one of his fields. Not only had the farmer thrashed the poacher but he had confiscated the hare and the poacher, feeling this was an injustice (as he felt he deserved to retain the hare as spoils of war) charged the farmer with assault. Provost Ramsay duly heard the case and fined the farmer Ten Shillings which was promptly paid and the farmer left the court. At the door of the courtroom the poacher jeered at the farmer and gleefully crowed at getting his own back. Without saying a word the farmer hit him and stretched him on the pavement, then turned on his heel, walked back into the courtroom, plumped a gold half sovereign down on the bench in front of Provost Ramsay and said: "I've hit him again, Jimmy" and walked out, leaving the magistrate and clerk speechless.

About the end of last century an individual who rejoiced in the royal name of Bruce occasionally indulged rather freely and was a constant customer in court. One morning he appeared before the magistrate (Mr. Smith) on the usual charge of drunkeness and after being severely told off for his constant bad behaviour was fined half-a-crown. As he had no money to pay his fine he was accordingly committed to prison for a few days and as he was being taken out by the policeman he turned to the bench and, drawing himself up to his full height, announced "Oh aye, ye may be a big man and sit on the Bench in Maybole but a Smith never sat on the throne in Scotland" and so made a dignified exit, as a descendant of Kings should.

On one occasion in the 1950s a local worthy was charged with a breach of the peace and the magistrate found him guilty, read him a lecture and fined him Ten Shillings and Six Pence. The accused produced a pound note to pay the fine, but the Clerk could not give the right change and asked if the accused had sixpence when he would get Ten Shillings change. The accused searched his pockets without finding a sixpence and then, quite naturally and with all the confidence in the world, turned to the magistrate who had just fined him, held out his hand and said, to the amusement of all in court: "Lend me a tanner, Sanny." Surely there can be no greater proof that a Minnieboler can always turn to a fellow townsman in time of need.

During the second World War many units of the armed forces were stationed around the district and among them were some members of the Polish Army. One of the Poles appeared before the court one morning after he had been imbibing unwisely on the potent Scotch "wine" and was charged with being "drunk and incapable". When the Fiscal prepared to read out the charge another official in the Court pointed out that the accused, being a Pole, would probably not understand what was being said if he was spoken to in English. As, however, the official had been studying the Polish language he offered to translate for the Fiscal and his offer was gladly accepted. Very slowly and clearly the official spoke in his brand of Polish to the accused who stared at him unblinkingly and with a glazed look during the whole time the charge was being translated. When the official finished his speech the Pole continued to stare at him with a bemused look for a short time and then turned to the magistrate and said in perfect English: "I'm afraid I do not understand what the gentleman has said. Can he speak English?" Collapse of the Bench, who after composing themselves, duly found the accused not guilty, probably as a token of appreciation for the bright shaft of unconscious humour on his part.

On one occasion a few years ago a magistrate who often sat on the Bench was in his office when a well-known local worthy burst in on him in an excited state and, without any preamble whatsoever, blurted out: "Sure you'll no' send me to prison this time?" After calming him down the magistrate discovered that once again the worthy was to appear before him the following day on a charge of beating his wife, a charge which was very commonplace with the said accused who appeared with monotonous regularity and to whom the magistrate had threatened (dire punishment if he appeared again on a similar charge. The Fiscal had told him that as the same magistrar would be on the Bench to take the case, in all probability he would be sent to gaol and the bold worthy thought he would see the Magistrate and plead his case out of court. On being asked what had happened the worthy explained he had too much to drink on the Saturday night and on going home his wife had rather displeased him in some manner and he had chastised her. The magistrate pointed out that he should not beat his wife no matter how much she displeased him to which the worthy replied:

"Maybe so, but they're nane the waur o' a licking at times. Ye maim ken that ye're am wife wad be the better o' ane occasionally." 

The magistrate must have given much thought to the worthy's words of wisdom as the following day he read him a lecture but discharged him without fining him, much to the delight of the wife who had been beaten and who was in court to hear the case and plead for her lord and master. The couple left the court arm in arm and proved there is much truth in the old saying that a wife would rather be beaten than ignored.

For many years the court had a regular customer in a lady well-known to all as "Sunshine Annie". She had no fixed abode and would get gloriously drunk on every possible occasion on anything from "Red Biddy" to methylated spirits. When "under the influence" her language would have shamed the proverbial trooper but whenever she appeared before the bench her manners and speech was irreproachable. As she never had any money it was useless fining her and the magistrate invariably discharged her after giving her a lecture to which she would gravely listen attentively, fervently promise to mend her ways, and leave the court like a dowager sailing out of a drawing room, to appear a short time later on the same charge. One of the magistrates grew so tired of her regular appearances that he finally sentenced her to thirty days imprisonment. "Sunshine Annie" was stunned for a moment but quickly recovered and, bowing to the bench, said: "I thank you, your Honour, you're the only gentleman who has ever thought a lady might need a rest from a busy life. A month's retirement, where I can be looked after, will just set me up for the winter." Needless to say "Annie" returned from her rest cure livelier than ever and again was a frequent visitor to court but, no one ever plucked up courage to send her for another holiday at the ratepayer's expense.

While the laws of the state were often dealt with in the old Tolbooth in a humorous manner, the councillors who made the law for the town were often unconscious wits at their meetings in the Council Chambers. Many tales are told of battle royals in Council where members had to he forcibly restrained from fisticuffs or harangued their opponents in most ungentlemanly language. Often what appeared at the time to be of immense importance, on reflection turned out to have a humorous side and what seemed to be deadly and unforgiveable insults were gleefully retold later as shafts of wit which won the day for one side or the other. Fortunately Maybole men are clannish and seldom hold spite against each other and deadly enemies across the Council table would join at the door of the chamber and daunder down together to the King's Arms if the Provost could control the meeting sufficiently well to ensure it finished before "closing time".

Once when Provost McCubbin was in the chair, with Dr. Sandilands sitting next to him, a member sitting at the other end of the table rose and protested he could not make out a word the Doctor had said in a motion he was putting forward. "You can't hear him," said the Provost, "then all I can say is you're damned lucky. I hear every word he says and it's not worth listening to."

The bold "Wee Doctor", as he was affectionately known by the local people, invariably sat in Council with a long knitted scarf wound two or three times round his neck with ends reaching down to his knees. One night he and the Provost disagreed vehemently on some subject and "John G." grabbed the ends of the scarf and pulled them so tight he nearly strangled the Doctor. By the end of the meeting, however, they were the best of friends again and sojourned together to the back room in the King's Arms where "John G." produced his own private bottle and the two cronies drowned their differences.

One evening the Council members found themselves enveloped in acrid smoke reminiscent of old rags burning and it was discovered the Doctor had lit up a cigar without removing the cellophane paper round it. His attention was drawn to this but he calmly continued to puff away remarking: "I like it better this way." The Council indeed lost one of its most kenspeckle figures when he retired from public life.

At the time the town reservoir at Lochspouts ran dry (October 1933) a public meeting was held in the Town Hall, with Provost "John G." presiding, to discuss what should be done to remedy matters. During the meeting a member of the audience interrupted from time to time with the bold remark: "Mr. Provost, there's springs in Lochspouts". He did not vouchsafe any further information about the springs but sat down again each time he had his say. After about the fourth interruption the Chairman looked over his spectacles at him and sternly said: "There's springs in your backside, sit doon and haud your tongue." The meeting adjourned without further interruption and it is not known to this day where the springs actually were.

At another public meeting, when housing was being discussed, the same ratepayer who had insisted there were springs in Lochspouts rose to speak against the suggestion that the burgh needed more and better homes. "New houses will no' help folk," he explained. "I've a dochter that's a nurse an' she's aye oot nursing folks in big new hooses. An' ye ken why? Because they're aye no' weel." His profound argument was of little avail, however, and it was decided more new houses should be built.

The poor water supply was often a subject for discussion at election meetings and one candidate for the Council spoke strongly in support of a better supply being brought to the town. He was slightly carried away with his argument and finished his election speech with the advice: "Housewives, until we get a better supply, you all must conserve your water!" As it was some years before the supply was improved it is hoped none of the ladies took the advice too literally.

Many other stories are told of the unconscious shafts of humour which occasionally brightened up the usually dull business in court and Council and it is hoped the wit with which Minniebolers have been fortunately blessed in the past will not die out in this era when everything seems to need to be reduced to a formula and fed into a computer.


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