Insight: Mr Charles Dickens and the tale of Ebenezer...Scroggie

Illustration: Colin Heggie
Illustration: Colin Heggie
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Do you know how an inscription on a Scottish gravestone came to conjure up the ghost of Christmas past? Ross Macfarlane has the story.

Edinburgh, 23rd June 1841

It was well known that Mr Charles Dickens was a famous author, but as he was being followed by what sounded like a murmuring crowd, he felt more like a fox on the run.

Ducking into nearby Advocates Close, and hidden now, he let the crowd pass, muttering “It’s Mr Dickens! Dickens!” as they rushed on by.

Dickens waited until he felt that it was safe, and then climbed gingerly up to Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

The street was crowded with the bustling life of Scotland’s capital. Market stalls lined the pavements as tradesmen and barkers announced their wares to the throngs of passers-by. Horses and carriages were forced to a halt as a tiny, brave apprentice – no more than 10 years of age – bumped an enormous cart of fish over the cobbled road.

Dickens wandered on, still finding his way. Passing Fleshmarket Close, a lady – aged somewhere between 15 and 99 – smiled at the author. Teeth missing, she reminded him of a drunken pirate. He found himself detained as she held on to his lapel. Tightly.

“Ooooh, nice material, ma dear – but you look lonely…”

“Thank you, madam, but I am very well provided for.”

Dickens yanked his lapel from the lady, made a courteous bow, then proceeded across the Royal Mile.

Outside St Giles’ Cathedral, his attention was attracted to a small boy – who was spitting on a heart-shaped flagstone near the great square.

“Hello, my fine fellow…”

The boy looked the author up and down.

“…could you tell me – where is Parliament House?”

“Eh?” returned the boy.

“Where the courts are, young fellow.”

As if he were flipping a coin, the boy jerked his thumb towards the area behind the cathedral.

The author nodded his thanks – “A pleasure to talk to you, my buck.” – and made his way towards the courts.

Inside the Parliament Hall, the courts seemed just as crowded and chaotic as the streets outside.

The lawyers, Advocates with horsehair wigs, bow ties and inky-black gowns paced up and down the great hall, discussing their cases, nodding, grimacing, gesticulating, striking bargains.

At the side of the hall, in an alcove above the crowd, an elderly judge cupped his ear to hear one Learned Counsel, who was trying to holler his submissions above the din.

Dickens fumbled in his pocket and pulled on a gold chain, retrieving his fob watch. 1.45pm precisely. Good. He was not late for the meeting.

And then across that great crowded hall, a thunderous voice rang out: “Dickens! My dear friend, Charles Dickens! Wonderful to see you, my dear friend. Wonderful!”

Looking for all the world like an inflated giant crow, dressed in black robes and a horsehair wig on his head, Patrick Robertson, Advocate and wit, waddled across the floor. In his left hand, he held a bundle of papers bound with pink ribbon. His right hand was extended to the author: “You see, sir, that my place of work resembles no less than a circle of Hell. But let us repair to somewhere cooler – an unlit fireplace…”

The two gentlemen stood before one of the great fireplaces in Parliament Hall.

“You will note,” quipped Robertson with a twinkle in his eye, “that the fireplace is carved with figures from the work of William Shakespeare. I have often remarked, sir, that if your fame continues to grow, then we may have to erase those carvings and, in their stead, insert images of Mr Pickwick!”

Dickens laughed heartily: “I fear, Mr Robertson, that my readers would not take kindly to a creation entitled: ‘Little Nell, the Moor of Venice.’”

“And one day, sir, I wager,” smiled the Advocate, “there shall be a Dickens Museum!”

“Then I shall be long dead, my friend – and gratefully so.”

The two friends stood by the unlit fire and watched the busy legal world go by.

The conversation turned to work in progress.

“Yes, the completion of Barnaby Rudge is pleasingly in hand, and I have already begun the argument for a new pamphlet.”

The Advocate looked sceptical: “A new pamphlet, sir?”

“Yes. A pamphlet that will illuminate the plight of ‘The Poor Man’s Child’.”

Robertson was silent. Dickens studied the Advocate’s face.

“Mr Robertson, your demeanour perhaps indicates that you do not approve?”

“Oh, I approve heartily, sir. But only in respect that such a pamphlet will be extremely useful in providing plentiful kindling for fireplaces such as this.”

“I must beg to disagree…”

“I marvel that you, Mr Dickens, an author of genius, an author who causes us to weep tears of joy or sorrow over your every creation, that you should imagine that a mere pamphlet could reform the minds of men…”

“Sir…”

“Your Christian charity does you credit, my friend. But the Lord himself has decreed that the poor will be with us always. That is the natural order of this world.”

Dickens was silent now.

The Advocate smiled: “On the other hand, if you were to use the power of your imagination, sir, your stories, your God-given ability to touch the hearts of men, then…”

Before he could continue, suddenly, and high above the din of that great hall, a small window was thrown open and a tiny man began to call out the next law case. The ample Advocate clasped the bundle of papers to his girth and, again, took Dickens’ hand.

“And with that, I fear, my dear friend, I have my cue to enter a different stage. Now, Mary has been enquiring after you all of this week. When will you be joining us at Drummond Place?”

Restless, Dickens pushed his way down through the busy streets and down the Royal Mile.

Walking, always walking. Sometimes, when at home in London, he would walk those city streets for hours on end, for miles, forever restless, always observing, always noting, storing away life moments for future reference.

The day began to fade on Auld Reekie as Dickens walked and walked through the great city.

Down, down along the streets of that Old Town and among the tenements he went, when his attention was caught by letters of gold inscribed on a building – the very house of John Knox – which told him: “Luve God abuve al and yi nychtbour as yi self.”

He smiled to himself and walked on aimlessly.

He walked down further, until he reached the gates of an oddly shaped building. A church perhaps?

Before the gates sat a girl of no more than 10, and her brother, younger and smaller. The girl smiled at Dickens and put out her open hand: “Mister, mister – have you got a farthing? Have you, mister? It’s for my brother. He cannae speak, sir.”

Dickens looked up: “What is this building, child?”

The girl laughed: “You’re no fae ’roon here, are ye sir?”

Dickens’ ear heard the music, but not the sense.

He frowned and craned his neck towards the child: “I beg your pardon?”

The child retreated quickly, suddenly fearful now, as if she expected an imminent beating.

“Sorry, sir. Sorry. Ah never meant nothin’ by it. It’s the Kirk, sir – it’s the Canongate Kirk.”

Dickens stood by the gate for a moment and took in the shape of the building. His concentration was broken by the child’s voice: “Ye want to see the deid people, sir?”

“Sorry?”

“The deid people at the back – ben the graveyard. The graveyard wi’ a’ the gravestones. Ah ken a’ the deid people here, sir. Ma granny learned me… she learned me ma letters as well – if ye cannae read the stones, sir. Can you read? Because ah can. Ah kin read the stones for ye.”

Dickens thought for a moment – then clapped his hands in delight: “Very well, young lady, we shall make a tour of the dead. You as my guide. I will be your Dante and you will be my Virgil…”

The child pursed her lips: “Naw, sir, ma name is Jenny. Jenny McDuff…”

Dickens smiled and motioned towards the graveyard: “Then, lay on, McDuff!”

It was still light enough for Dickens to take in the view and read some of the headstones and monuments.

Up and down the uneven grassy slope, the girl and her silent brother led him through the well-trodden points of interest.

“And here’s the stone for Adam Smith, sir. A’ the folk want to see it, but I dinnae really know what he done, sir.”

Dickens studied the monument to the great economist. Carved at the top of the monument and peering out of the stone, was a ghostly, grey head, the beard of which looked all the world to Dickens like some grotesque door-knocker.

“Adam Smith. Do you know why this man is famous, child?”

The girl thought for a moment.

“Eh… is it because he’s from Kirkcaldy?”

The tour continued:

“And this, sir, is the stone for Robert Fergusson. Ma granny says he was a poet, but he fell doon the stairs and went aff his heid.”

Dickens smiled: “And that, my child, is a pithy – and entirely accurate – summation of the great poet’s demise.”

Finally, the child led Dickens to a small, coffin-shaped memorial standing by the wall of the church.

“And this wee coffin is where they buried wee Davy Rizzio, the dwarf – the wee backle that fiddled wi’ Mary Queen of Scots…”

Dickens shook his head and sighed:

“I very much doubt, my dear, that they would bury such a notorious sixteenth-century Catholic in the graveyard of a Protestant church!”

Jenny stood – arms akimbo – then pointed to a sign on the wall: “It’s wrote doon here, sir – oan the wa’ o’ the kirk itsel and you’re sayin’ it’s no’ true. Better no’ let the Meenister hear ye!”

And there it was. The plaque on the wall: “TRADITION SAYS THAT THIS IS THE GRAVE OF DAVID RICCIO...”

And then came the rain.

The author looked up at the sky and pulled on the collar of his coat.

“Well, I am afraid, Mistress McDuff, that our delightful – if somewhat morbid – excursion must come to an end.”

He motioned to the silent child beside the girl.

“You appear to spend your existence in the open air, my child. What do you do when it rains?”

The girl looked blankly for a moment, then: “We get wet, sir.”

The rain intensified, and darkness was falling quickly now as they headed towards the kirk gates. But Dickens’ eye was drawn to some letters on a nearby gravestone: “Mean Man”.

He stopped and re-traced his steps.

“Mean man?”

“Are ye a’right, sir?”

He had to blink through the rain and the fading light now: “Extraordinary – that a gravestone should carry such a grievous message.”

He was taking to himself now. “And of all places here. Here – among the Scots – famous for their… their… ‘frugality’, to be designed for all time as ‘Mean Man’…this must be the advertisement of a shrivelled soul… a terrible thing to carry to eternity.”

The rain was falling in sheets now. Dickens looked down at the gravestone. At the side of the stone stood the children.

Young Jenny looking up, puzzled, her hair flat now against her head as the rain came pouring down, and her mute, nameless brother standing silent, impenetrable as the rain. The children stood there motionless, waiting for him, fading in the rain, like blurred images of ignorance and want.

“‘Mean Man’…the emblem of a life surely wasted…”

Jenny was shivering now: “Can we go now, sir?”

“But the name! We must know the name of this shrivelled soul…”

Dickens began wiping the dirt and rain from the lettering of the stone and, as if unearthing a buried artefact with each word, he read aloud: “Ebenezer… Lennox… Scrooge!”

“Sir… sir… the rain…”

Later, before a roaring fire in the White Hart Inn on the Grassmarket, onlookers may have been surprised to see world-famous author Charles Dickens treat two children to steaming hot stew and warm ale.

He looked up from his notebook:

“Better?”

“We’re nearly dry, sir. Thank you for the food, sir.”

“A fitting reward for an excellent tour of the illustrious dead.”

The author looked down and began to write again.

Jenny was somewhat fearful, now:

“Sir, sir… can I just say…”

Dickens looked up: “Yes?”

“That last stone, sir, the last gravestone, ‘the Mean Man’ you cried it…”

“Yes?”

“It wisnae ‘Scrooge’, sir, it was ‘Scroggie.’’”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Ebenezer Scroggie, sir… I read it masel, sir. And ma granny kent him.”

Dickens looked disappointed. With an almost theatrical flourish, he took his pen and scored through the name he had recorded in his notebook, and then spelled out “Scroggie”.

“And…” the wee girl looked up, sheepishly.

“And what?” The author, agitated now, raised his bushy eyebrows.

“And… and… I’m no’ sure, sir, but…”

“But what?”

Jenny looked down at the table. “I’m no’ sure, sir, but this might be the best bowl of stew ah’ve ever had sir. Thank you, sir.”

Granny McDuff was furious. Wee Jenny and her brother cowered before her. In one hand, Granny held a leather buckled belt, and in the other, she was holding up a silver shilling to the light of the candle.

“If I find out you’ve stolen this, ma girl, I’ll take you across my knee…”

Jenny was insistent: “Naw, naw, granny, I’ve telt ye, it wis the graveyard and then the White Hart and the stew and then he just gie’d us the coin. An’ that was that.”

Granny McDuff gave the girl a suspicious eye: “And what did he want in the graveyard?”

No answer. The old lady paused for a moment, then: “Are you still a good girl?”

“Aye.”

“Did you show him the stones, like I learned you?”

“Aye. I showed him the Adam Smith and the wee backle and a’ that…”

“And he gave you this?”

“Aye. He was very taken with the stones, Granny, very taken. And he even went intae a dwam once he saw the ‘mean man’.”

“The ‘mean man’?”

“Aye, the ‘mean man’ – Scroggie.”

Granny McDuff stood perplexed for a moment, and then she put her hand to her mouth to stifle a laugh.

“What are we going to do with you, lassie? Ebenezer Scroggie wisnae a ‘mean man’ – he was a ‘meal man’ – a corn merchant. That’s what it says on his gravestone – a ‘meal man’.”

Jenny feared the belt again: “Honest, granny, ah wisnae sure… it was dark… it was rainin’… naebody could read nothin’…”

London – October 1843

Implacable winter weather. It was late as Dickens looked out into the driving October rain from the window of his study.

Edinburgh seemed like a dream now. Work on the pamphlet was finished but he had promised his publisher another short work to be ready and published before Christmas.

The study now seemed icy cold. Dickens rang the bell for the maid to come up and prepare the fire. No response. He looked at the long-case clock against the wall. Almost midnight. Of course, the servants had been dismissed for the evening. He had quite lost sight of the hour, immersed as he was in his own imagination.

Shivering now, he put a long comforter around his neck – but to no real effect.

Nothing else for it but to build a fire himself.

As he knelt by the fireplace, memories, unwanted memories began to chill inside him.

Twelve years old. The officers coming for his father. No food for the house. No coal for the fire. When will it ever end?

Kindling. He needed kindling. He got up from the fireplace and went to the chair beside his desk to find any discarded newspapers. None. But there on the desk was the stack of printer’s proofs of the pamphlet he had just completed:

“An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.”

Dickens stared at the pamphlet. The room seemed even colder now. Kindling?

Kneeling down, he began to rip the pamphlets apart and lay them into the grate of the fireplace. There would be “plentiful kindling” from the pamphlets. Dickens smiled. In his mind, he had a vision of the enormous, jocular Advocate in that great Edinburgh hall, teasing him and predicting the fate of the pamphlets – and now here they were: kindling. Kindling that would ultimately go up the chimney, like a nine-year-old sweep.

And now he was placing wood around the grate. And now, time for the coal. Coal enough, but where are the tongs? No sign. Borrowed for another fireplace in the house, I wager. Dickens picked up pieces of coal between his finger and thumb and placed them around the grate. He stared at his fingertips, black now, and rubbed them together.

And he was a child again. Warren’s Blacking Factory; the rotten floorboards; the decayed staircase; the dirt; the rats; the endless working day; the black boot polish on his fingertips. Some stains never fade.

But there was always hope, wasn’t there? Moments of kindness in the darkest of places. Even in that blacking factory, amid the dirt and decay, another child had always shown him kindness.

Time to light the fire. Reaching into the desk of his drawer, he took out a small box of matches, shook them and then knelt down again. He took out a match and struck it, the flame hissing into life. And now those kindling pamphlets were lit, and the pamphlets caught the wood, and the wood caught the coal, and the coal began to burn.

And what did he see when he looked into those flames? The memory of that gigantic, jolly figure in Edinburgh spreading good cheer; golden letters glowing on a building: “love your neighbour as yourself”; two children standing in a graveyard, in the driving rain, harmless against the world that would not protect them; a ghostly face, like a doorknocker; the gravestone of a ‘mean man’ taking that name into all of eternity with him. When will it all end?

Had it always been thus? Would it never change? Two thousand years ago, a child born in the muck of a stable. Or last week, the ragged children of London’s East End. What could be done?

Maybe the Edinburgh Advocate was right. Maybe it was only stories that touched the hearts of men.

Dickens sat down at his desk. He opened his writing ledger. If he could only reform the heart of “mean” men like Ebenezer Scroggie, then there would always be hope. Perhaps the encounter in the Edinburgh graveyard had been no accident. Perhaps it was for the dead to show the living the true meaning of Christmas.

His pen hovered over the page. Then, with the scratch of quill on paper, he began to write:

“A Christmas Carol. Stave I. Marley’s Ghost. Marley was dead: to begin with…”

Dickens looked up from the paper for a moment and smiled. And worked on into the night…

© Ross Macfarlane 2017

Ross Macfarlane QC is an Advocate and writer. He has written the Christmas story for the Scotsman/Evening News/Scotland on Sunday every year since 2010. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife, the academic, Dr Lesley-Anne Barnes Macfarlane, and their daughter, Grace

• Charles Dickens visited Edinburgh in 1841, between 22 June and 4 July.

• On 23 June, he visited Parliament House.

• While in Edinburgh, Dickens visited his friend, the Advocate, Patrick Robertson. Robertson was known for two things: his great bulk and his sharp wit; he latterly lived at Drummond Place and he gave Dickens dinner and an evening party during the Edinburgh visit.

• Dickens visited Canongate Kirk. While there, in the failing light, he misread the gravestone of corn merchant, Ebenezer Scroggie, and made a mistake that inspired the creation of his most famous character.

• Ebenezer Scroggie’s grave is now lost, probably destroyed during redevelopment of the graveyard in 1932.