Scotland's strangest eccentrics
Human beings born with a tail, monkeys with religious impulses and beavers who could build their own civilisations are just some of the ideas dreamed up by Scotland's greatest eccentrics, as author Steven Tucker explains.
In 1984, a series of cards began to appear in pubs, supermarkets, laundrettes and libraries across Edinburgh. These cards read simply ‘ECCENTRIC? If you feel that you might be, contact Dr David Weeks at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.’ Weeks, an American neuropsychiatrist, was carrying out the world’s first clinical study into such people, and it seems he picked the right nation in which to perform it.
Around 800 volunteers were recruited for study, some of whom were very strange indeed, such as the person who kept a collection of coffins in his house and invited guests to try them out for size, the man whose only interest in life was the history of potatoes, and the woman who gained an inexplicable sense of joy from wallpapering public toilets in her spare time. As I recently discovered when writing my new book Great British Eccentrics, however, the phenomenon of Scottish eccentricity is hardly a new one.
DR WILLIAM LAUDER LINDSAY
Perhaps the strangest Scottish eccentric was the Victorian psychiatrist Dr William Lauder Lindsay (1829-1880). Born in Edinburgh in 1829, at some point during his career Lindsay decided to try and prove that animals could become mentally-ill, just like people could. To this end, he spent seven years combing through newspapers and journals in search of as many accounts of animals acting like disturbed humans as he could possibly find, resulting in a 1,200-page book, 'Mind in the Lower Animals in Health and Disease', published in 1879.
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During his researches, Lindsay came to believe that animals could display religious impulses, show love and affection, and were aware of concepts such as justice, claiming to have found evidence that Barbary apes sometimes held public trials of misbehaving monkeys, complete with simian lawyers. Just as strangely, Lindsay dubiously identified which specific mental disorders which species of animal were particularly prone to, accusing bees of being incurable kleptomaniacs on the grounds that they kept on stealing nectar from flowers. The specific form of mental disorder which Dr Lindsay was suffering from himself, however, has yet to be established...
An equally eccentric Scottish theoriser was James Burnett, better known as Lord Monboddo, (1714-1799) a once-famous Scottish judge and philosopher. Apart from once claiming that human beings were all secretly born with tails (something he may have meant as a joke), Monboddo was most notable for developing a bizarre new philosophy about the world. Monboddo’s big idea was that the whole of Creation had a kind of hidden layer of consciousness within it, which was constantly striving to arrive at the kind of self-aware state of mind currently possessed only by man; monkeys and beavers (creatures which he thought had their own civilisations) were close to achieving this, he thought, but other forms of existence rather less so.
Apples, for example, were morons; magnets, too, were rather dim, whilst stones and pebbles were positively brain-dead. Nonetheless, when an apple fell to ground, a magnet attracted filings or a stone rolled downhill, Monboddo felt that this was because, however vaguely, they desired to do so, all talk of such alleged forces as ‘gravity’ or ‘magnetism’ being bunkum.
Apparent confirmation of these theories was provided during a vision Monboddo had in 1778, when a beautiful spirit-maiden appeared before him and gave a philosophy-lecture in French, before telling him that she agreed with his every word – something which, you suspect, may have placed her in rather a small minority.
Surely the most celebrated Scottish eccentric, though, was the unbelievably dire poet William McGonagall (1825-1902), whose poems were little more than semi-literate doggerel. Most notorious were his lines upon the new Tay Bridge, opened in 1887:
Beautiful new railway bridge of the silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy,
As I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
Because thou art the greatest railway bridge of the present day!
Sadly, the Tay Bridge later collapsed in December 1879, leading the poet to modify his opinions upon the structure somewhat.
An ex-weaver, McGonagall started out in Dundee, selling sheets of his poems for a penny a piece and performing tragic recitals upon the public stage, routines so poor he was pelted with rubbish by his audiences. Soon McGonagall was a public joke, being assaulted and jeered at in the street, and was forced to leave town, ending up renting himself out to drunken students in Edinburgh and Glasgow who held him mock-dinners in which he was sarcastically acclaimed as a genius and subjected to cruel beatings. Nowadays he might have achieved a similar result simply by appearing on the early rounds of Britain’s Got Talent.
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This article is edited and adapted from the new book Great British Eccentrics by SD Tucker, published by Amberley Publishing. (ISBN 9781445647708 Hardback; 288 pages.