McGONAGALL'S first venture into the arts was as an actor. In 1872 he paid 1 to the manager of a local theatre in Dundee for the privilege of taking the leading role in Macbeth.
McGonagall's mates at the hand-loom mill where he worked were apparently connoisseurs of the theatre - or of McGonagall - for his debut appearance was standing-room only.
So carried away was McGonagall with the glory of impersonating the Scottish king that at his next performance he refused to be slain. In an unrehearsed departure from the script, Macbeth continued to flourish his sword for some time after being run through by Macduff; he was only finally brought to the ground by a well-placed kick from the actor playing Macduff, who had lost his temper at this improvisation.
Five years later, however, McGonagall's life was to take a new turn when he discovered to his great surprise that he was a poet. Sitting in his room one June day in 1877, "I imagined that a pen was in my right hand and a voice crying, 'Write, Write!' So I said to myself, ruminating, let me see; what shall I write?" The answer came quickly: a poem about his friend, the Rev George Gilfillan.
To celebrate his newly discovered gift, McGonagall had cards made, reading: "William McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian". McGonagall was both prolific and ambitious, and he soon penned a "Requisition to the Queen", asking her [Queen Victoria] to accept two other poems. So heartened was he by the response, which took the form of a letter saying that Her Majesty could not possibly accept the verses, that he began styling himself "Poet to Her Majesty" and planned a journey to see his patroness at Balmoral.
The trip was something of a disappointment since he was turned away at the porter's lodge. To support his request for an interview, McGonagall gave the porter the letter of patronage - which he always carried in his breast pocket - but to no avail. "I've been up to the castle with your letter," the porter later informed him, "and the answer is they cannot be bothered with you."
McGonagall, conscious of his responsibility to be seen to be a poet, always dressed in accordance with his view of that role. He kept his hair long, a peculiarity to which the citizens of Dundee never adjusted; wore a wide-brimmed hat and a long coat over his shabby clothes, summer and winter; and carried a walking stick.
Part of McGonagall's popularity and fame, such as it was, undoubtedly stemmed from a desire on the part of the public to make fun of him, but though he was aware of such an element among his audiences, he regarded it as beneath contempt and paid no attention. McGonagall preferred to look on the bright side and, after all, he did have his triumphs. He travelled to America (a voyage of "12 days - of course nights included as well").
In 1884 McGonagall received a letter from the Court of King Theebaw, Andaman Islands, appointing him a Grand Knight of the Holy Order of the White Elephant, Burmah, and entitling him to sign his name - as he did henceforth - Sir William Topaz McGonagall, GKHOWEB.
His first volume of poems, with 100 subscribers, appeared in 1890 and sold well at one shilling a copy. He had notable success at readings to literary clubs in Inverness, Perth and Glasgow, some founded specifically for the purpose of inviting him as guest speaker.
When his second volume of poetry did not fare as well as the first, McGonagall thought of the advantages to be gained by mentioning commercial products in his poems. The makers of Sunlight Soap paid two guineas for the following:
You can use it with great pleasure and ease
Without wasting any elbow grease;
And when washing the most dirty clothes
The sweat won't be dripping from your nose.
This effort was followed up with:
Gentlemen you have my best wishes, and I hope
That the poem I've written about Sunlight Soap
Will cause a demand for it in every clime,
For I declare it to be superfine.
And I hope before long without any joke,
You will require some more of my poems about Sunlight Soap.
McGonagall continued to write poetry to the very end of his life, but his popularity waned and he died in poverty.
ALEXANDER HAMILTON DOUGLAS, 10th Duke of Hamilton
THE 10th Duke of Hamilton, often called the proudest man in Britain, combined in one person three dukes, two marquises, three earls and eight barons. He was the premier peer in Scotland and could trace his family at least as far as the 13th century. Above all, he insisted that he was the true heir to the throne of Scotland. This claim was based on his conviction that James VI had been secretly killed as a baby and an imposter substituted.
Visitors to the duke's home on Arran profited from his lordship's feudal view of the world. Like a medieval ruler, he threw his regal cloak of protection over those fortunate enough to enter his domain. All guests were given a token which entitled them to lodge, board and travel anywhere on the island entirely at the duke's expense.
Hamilton Palace was the family seat, and it was there that the duke intended to be buried. He outbid the British Museum for a magnificent sarcophagus that had been made for an Egyptian princess. When the tomb, for which Hamilton paid 11,000, arrived at Hamilton Palace, it became all too clear that Egyptian princesses were substantially shorter than Scottish dukes. Attempts to lengthen the tomb were unsuccessful. The duke suffered great anxiety over this and often lay down in the sarcophagus to try to assure himself that he would fit.
He decided to build a mausoleum that would be a worthy receptacle for his sarcophagus and serve as the final resting-place for all the Dukes of Hamilton, past and future. Described as "the most costly and magnificent temple for the reception of the dead in the world - always excepting the pyramids", the Hamilton Mausoleum was a domed structure 120ft high. The floor was marble inlaid with other rare stones; the doors were replicas of those carved by Ghiberti for the Baptistry in Florence; inside, there was an octagonal chapel, numerous statues, the tombs of the first nine dukes, the great sarcophagus of the 10th Duke and room for future generations. The splendour was not lost on Hamilton. "What a grand sight it will be," he used to say, "when 12 dukes of Hamilton rise together here at the Resurrection."
JAMIE DUFF was a character of the Edinburgh streets who gained early notoriety when he entered himself as a runner in the Leith horse-races. He ran the course barefoot, half bent over, whipping himself with a switch and behaving in every way like a horse with a rider.
He went to almost every funeral in Edinburgh for upwards of 40 years, always leading the procession and dressed in his own mourning costume - weepers, a black cravat, crape, and a black hat which he dyed deeper black for special funerals, such as that in 1776 of David Hume, the philosopher. Though he was never formally engaged to accompany a funeral procession, Duff became such a fixture that he was more or less expected to appear and a payment of half a shilling for his services was customary.
Jamie lived with his mother and was very conscientious about her. He always dined with her and, if invited by friends to share a meal, Jamie merely sat with them as they ate and afterwards put his portion, including soups and sauces, into his pocket (which was definitely not waterproof) and took it back to his mother.
IN 1779, James Graham, the most inventive quack in British history, opened his "Temple of Health" at the Adelphi, London. Here, to large and fashionable audiences, he gave demonstrations of his "Celestial Bed" - a night spent on which guaranteed fertility to childless couples.
Graham's rooms were full of ingeniously constructed and elaborately decorated apparatus. His "electrical throne", is a good example of his taste in furnishings; it consisted of a circular platform, covered by a fringed piece of crimson silk damask and supported by massive glass pillars which stood on burnished gold bases. This was connected by brass rods and a fluted gold column to an electric conductor and mounted on three enamelled and gilt glass columns.
Sitting behind green silk curtains Graham received patients, prescribed his "Imperial pills", advised on how to live for 150 years and offered samples of his Elixir of Life for 1,000. Eventually, Graham ran into debt and had to leave London.
He spent some time in Edinburgh and touring the provinces, and by 1787 had acquired a wholly new character; he signed himself "the Servant of the Lord, OWL" (Oh Wonderful Love).
GAINSBOROUGH, although he was also an artist in his own way, never achieved the fame or fortune of his brother, Thomas. He was an inventor, whose work was distinguished by its imagination and lack of practical purpose. His inventions included a cuckoo that sang all year long, a haystack that walked and a pair of copper wings that earned him the nickname "the Sudbury Daedalus".
But it was while he was still a boy that he came up with what must have been the most original of his achievements. A neighbour, Colonel Addison, remembered being called round to look at a remarkable species of apple tree. Jack had covered every single one of the apples with dough, "which by means of a chafing dish of hot coals and a saucepan he had contrived to parboil", so that the astonished colonel found himself looking at a tree weighed down with dozens of apple dumplings.
SIR FRANCIS GALTON
FRANCIS GALTON was a man of science and a pioneer in many fields. He established conclusively that fingerprints are a reliable test of identity; he invented the cyclometer to record speed and mileage for bicyclists; and, under the influence of the ideas of his cousin, Charles Darwin, he developed the science of eugenics, or selective breeding.
Galton deplored guesswork in science and was determined to quantify anything he could. In his Beauty Map of the British Isles, he charted the incidence of beauty - as measured by a system best known to himself - throughout Great Britain and found that the prettiest women were in London and the ugliest in Aberdeen. The map was a bestseller in Aberdeen.
Galton began his career by travelling widely in Africa and his guide to mounting expeditions, The Art of Travel, contains many invaluable tips. "A raw egg," he tells us, "broken into a boot before putting it on greatly softens the leather."
Galton recommends a pair of opera glasses and an ear trumpet as essential equipment in the bush. He describes how, in 1850, he managed not to lose face in a meeting with an elaborately dressed and decorated Zambesi chieftain by coming forward in full hunting pink, mounted on an ox.
HAMILTON, an absent-minded professor of mathematics at Aberdeen University, was checked by a member of his household staff every morning before he set off to teach, to ensure that he was fully dressed.
Although mathematics was his first love, Hamilton was appointed in 1799 to the chair of natural philosophy at Aberdeen. A Mr Copland, a man with a philosophical bent, was at the time Aberdeen's professor of mathematics. Somehow Hamilton and Copland, in an entirely private deal, agreed to switch chairs, classes and students.
Hamilton's students were fond of him, but tempted to take advantage of his distracted manner. They used to throw peas at the professor as he wrote his equations on the board. One day, however, a prankster went too far and threw a toy cracker which, exploding near Hamilton's head, frightened him. He bolted out of the room, thinking that he had narrowly missed being hit by a gunshot.
As he stood in the corridor trembling, a delegation of his students came out to apologise and beg him to return. "Gentlemen," he said, "I have no objection to the peas, for I can easily protect myself with my hand, but I entreat you to spare my life."
The students explained the mistake, promising to restrict themselves to peas in future, and Hamilton went back to his board.