Records of a bygone age: Public dinner in honour of Robert Learmonth of Housebay, 1857

By Ian Cooper

As mentioned in a previous article, a public dinner in Robert Learmonth’s honour was held at Samson’s Lane in Stronsay on 15th December 1857 “in testimony of their respect for him as a skilful and exemplary agriculturalist, and of their gratitude for the example and incitement to improvement which his skill and enterprise have afforded.”

Below is a report of the event as carried in ‘The Orcadian’ of 4th January 1858, by which time Robert would have been farming in Stronsay for about twelve years. Most of the local farmers and dignitaries were in attendance and, as you read through this report, try to picture the occasion and the scene in your mind’s eye. It would appear that, even ‘way back in the 1850s, they knew how to party and a good time was had by all!

Public Dinner to Mr Learmonth

On 15th December, Mr Robert Learmonth, Housebay, was entertained at a public dinner by the farmers of the island, in testimony of their respect for him as a skilful and exemplary agriculturalist, and of their gratitude for the example and incitement to improvement which his skill and enterprise have afforded.

Among the gentlemen present we noted Rev. J. Caskey; Rev. J Mudie; Marcus Calder Esq.; Captain Scott (of the Eagle); Messrs M. and W. Flett, Airey; P. Twatt, Odness; John Twatt, Rothiesholm; George Peace, Rothiesholm; R. Fotheringhame, Bundatown; Thos. Sinclair, Erigarth; D. Hume, Hunton; J. Robertson, Papa Stronsay; J. Meil, Samsonslane; &c. Mr Gorie, Clestrain, occupied the chair, and Messrs Sinclair, Whitehall, and Chalmers, Castle, acted as croupiers. Grace was said by Rev. J. Caskey, and Rev. J. Mudie returned thanks.

After Dinner the Chairman gave the toasts of the Queen, the Prince Consort, and other members of the Royal Family as well as the Army and Navy, each of which was duly honoured. The Chairman, again rising, said, – Gentlemen, in proposing the toast of the evening – the health of our guest, Mr Robert Learmonth – it is unnecessary to use many words. You are all well acquainted with his high personal and professional merits, and your presence here on this special occasion, testifies that you not only know but also appreciate the advantages which his skilful and successful improvements and management at Housebay have afforded to all the other farmers in this island. He has, by his success in every department of husbandry, gained credit to himself, to this island, aye, even to this county: his grain and his sheep have repeatedly topped the Edinburgh markets, and his cattle, as we well know, gentlemen, are such as may perhaps have been dreamed of, or even read of, but, assuredly, such as were never seen in this island before Mr Learmonth cast his lot and lines amongst us. The example thus set us by our guest, the sound and encouraging counsels always so freely, but never obtrusively, given to all anxious inquirers, have laid us all under great obligation to him; and a deep sense of this has brought us together this evening, to testify, publicly, our gratitude and our unfeigned respect for Mr Learmonth, as a public benefactor. Let me, therefore, call on you, gentlemen, to drink an overflowing bumper to the health of Mr Learmonth. (Drunk with all the honours.)

Mr Learmonth returned thanks. He had certainly never anticipated that the farmers of Stronsay would deem him worthy of any particular honour; and, though he had gratefully availed himself of their kind invitation to attend as their guest, he did not, and could not, believe himself entitled to any special honour or preferment from his Stronsay fellow -farmers. He had striven to do diligently what had fallen to his hand to do, and a gratifying measure of success had rewarded his endeavours; but this success was by no means to be solely ascribed to his skill or management. They had in Orkney, and in Stronsay especially, a rich and grateful soil, which would never fail to repay a judicious application of drainage and manure, a natural advantage, of which he was by no means the discoverer, nor the only farmer in Stronsay to avail himself, as the flourishing conditions of the farms of many of the gentlemen present showed very clearly. The farmers of Stronsay were now perfectly alive to the capabilities of their excellent soil and genial climate, and they were no less alive to, and eager to, avail themselves of all the improved agricultural modes and appliances. In no part of the country had the transition from the old mode been more speedy or more complete; and this gratifying and creditable state of things could in little, if in any degree, be owing to his example, but was the result of their own intelligence and enterprise, and of the active encouragement of their liberal and public spirited landlords.

He again begged to thank them for the honour and kindness shown him, and to congratulate them on the advanced state of agricultural improvements in Stronsay. (Great applause). Mr Sinclair, croupier, then rising, said he had a toast to propose which, he felt sure, need only be named to secure for it a hearty response from all present. He meant the health of Mrs Learmonth, the excellent and hospitable wife of their guest, together with the health of his amiable and promising family. He begged them to join him in drinking an overflowing bumper to what, collectively, he would term, Mr Learmonth’s fireside. (Drunk amidst thunders of applause). Acknowledged by Mr Learmonth.

Rev. Mr Mudie, rising, said he had to propose the health of a gentleman, highly honoured and respected in Stronsay, and who well deserved to be so, for he had done much, and was still doing much for its interests, both sacred and secular. He himself as a clergyman, long resident in the parish, was much interested in all that concerned the good of the people whom he highly esteemed and respected for their intellectual and moral qualities; and none could rejoice more at the prosperity with which an ever kind providence had crowned their agricultural improvements than he did. He had seen the now fertile fields of Stronsay in far other days and circumstances. He remembered the time when many hundreds of acres, now teeming each harvest with luxuriant crops of golden grain, were comparatively waste and worthless. The altered and improved conditions at the present day was, no doubt under providence, owing in a great measure to their own active industry, and to their aptitude to adopt, and intelligence in applying modern improvements. But it was also owing, in no small degree, to the encouragement, direction and liberal aid afforded by their landlords, among whom none had been more liberal, and none was more highly and deservedly respected than Mr Balfour of Balfour and Trenabie. (Cheers).

The head of an honourable and ancient family, he had ever shewn himself worthy of the station to which providence had called him, and he was, in every respect, most worthy of all the honour the inhabitants of Stronsay could show him.

He therefore begged to propose the health of that honourable, kind and liberal landlord, David Balfour, Esquire, of Balfour and Trenabie. (Drunk with all the honours). Mr Calder, factor for Mr Balfour, in returning thanks, among other things stated that, although Mr Balfour had the most earnest desire to better the conditions of his tenantry and improve their farms and holdings, still he was unable to do as much as he could wish, as from the great number of tenants, the large extent of his property in the county, and the lowness of the rents, he would require to be as rich as Baron Rothschild before he could do so; that he had laid out a good deal of money on parts of his property in Stronsay, and was highly gratified with the way in which the tenants had seconded his efforts by cultivating their land in first rate style, the good effects of which, he was happy to see, they were now enjoying. (Applause).

Mr Sinclair, croupier, begged to propose the health of Mr Learmonth’s landlord, George Traill Esquire, M.P. He was well known to be a liberal and improving proprietor, and an excellent member of parliament, having evidently the good of his country and fellow countrymen at heart. (All the honours).

Mr Twatt, Odness, rose to propose the the health of another Stronsay proprietor, the condition of whose beautiful estate testified that he yielded to none in the requisite qualities of a good landlord. Being, moreover, a Balfour, he was sure they would cordially join him in drinking to Mr Balfour of Hescombe. (Great applause).

Mr Calder returned thanks. The Rev. Mr Caskey proposed “The Advancement of Agricultural Improvements in Stronsay.” The Rev. gentleman said, “This is a toast to which I feel myself incompetent to do adequate justice, Nevertheless, as it is one which involves the prosperity and success of the people of this island generally, I am happy that it has been allotted to me.” He spoke of the cultivation of the soil as the first occupation assigned to man, and considered it as man’s duty to avail himself of whatever agency was fitted to develop the earth’s resources. He then referred to the progress which had been made in agriculture in the island of Stronsay during the last ten years, and particularly specified the great improvements made at Housebay, under the able and judicious management of their much respected guest Mr Learmonth, and at the farm of Holland, under the superintendence of the enterprising tenant, Mr Sinclair. He drew a striking contrast between the state of the island at the commencement of his residence here, about twelve years ago, and the appearance which it now presents in an agricultural point of view. He particularly noticed the district of Aith, the property of that generous and encouraging proprietor, Mr Balfour of Balfour, which now may well be called the Garden of Orkney! He had no doubt, as progress was the order of the day, the tenants of Stronsay, who were men of considerable enterprise and experience, would look upon the improvements which had taken place during the last ten years as an inducement to make even greater exertions for the future, and by trusting to a kind providence, success would crown their labours. (Loud applause). The reverend gentleman, who made an eloquent and telling speech of which our report is but an imperfect synopsis, was repeatedly cheered during its delivery.

Mr Hume, Hunton, said he had a toast to propose which must meet with the best sympathies and appreciation of the company. They were highly privileged in Stronsay, with the ministrations of two most zealous and efficient clergymen, to whom they owed the highest respect and gratitude. They had favoured them on the present occasion with their company and countenance; and he was sure they, at all times, and on all occasions, had the best interests of the people of Stronsay at heart. (Applause).

The Rev Mr Caskey returned thanks in a speech strongly supporting brotherly love and charity among all denominations. Mr Sinclair, Erigarth, in a very complimentary and spirited speech, gave the health of Mr Calder, which was received with enthusiastic applause. Mr Calder returned thanks, and expressed himself highly pleased with the object of the meeting.

Mr Flett, Airey, gave the health of Mr Forbes, parish schoolmaster, which was duly responded to by the company and acknowledged by Mr Forbes, who begged to propose the health of Mr Gorie, the chairman, who on the present, as well as on previous occasions, had so ably and agreeably discharged his duties. (Great applause). The chairman returned thanks and gave the health of their landlady, Mrs John Meil, who had so well and abundantly provided for the comfort of the party.(Cheers).

At intervals, during the proceedings, several appropriate songs were sung, and topics of agricultural importance discussed and, at ten o’ clock, the company, after spending a very happy evening, broke up, leaving the room and the fragments to Forbes Mackenzie and his emissaries.
It appears that this dinner would have been held at Samson’s Lane, which was tenanted by the Meil family for many years and was also an inn at that time. It would have been a fairly central location to meet, and the guests were obviously well catered for by Mrs Meil, the landlady at that time.

The use of the term ‘croupier’ intrigued me but it appears that the historical use of the word was ‘the assistant chairman at a public dinner, seated at the lower end of the table’ and as such makes good sense in the context used in the report. The reference to Forbes Mackenzie and his emissaries mentioned in the last paragraph also had me baffled but, after resorting to Google, it appears that William Forbes Mackenzie was the M.P. who brought forward the ‘Licensing (Scotland) Act’ of 1853. This act brought about the closure of public houses on Sundays and also enforced their closure at 10 p.m. every other day, and Mr Mackenzie may not have been universally popular for instigating the introduction of this legislation, commonly known at the time as the Forbes Mackenzie act.

This article was first published in The Stronsay Limpet. Many thanks to them for permission to republish it in The Orkney News

Housebay Stronsay Ian Cooper

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