Ticket to Inchkeith is a tune of my own, titled to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of syphilis in Scotland in 1497; hence the infectious Latin rhythm. It was some time before Scotland worked out the implications of the syphilis epidemic. In the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland we find an entry of 1 April 1497 from the expenses of James IV while he was passing through Dalry, Ayrshire, on a pilgrimage to Whithorn:
Item, to a woman with ye Grantgore thair iijs. vjd.
He would hardly have given an individual charitable donation like this if he'd seen that there were going to be thousands more. With the epidemic well established, the authorities in Edinburgh ordered all the syphilitics in the city to report to Leith Pier and be shipped to the uninhabited island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth. An 18th century history of Edinburgh argues that this wasn't so bad since Inchkeith at least had a fresh water spring. Presumably any of them fool enough to go died soon after of untreated illness and exposure. There's a possibility that this children's rhyme from Fife refers to this episode, since prostitutes visiting ships - one of the likeliest groups of victims - could well be turned into mermaids by the processes of folklore:
Fower and twenty mermaids
Left the port of Leith
Tae tempt the fine auld hermit
Wha dwelt upon Inchkeith.
Nae boat, nor waft, nor crayer,
Nor craft they had, nor oars nor sails;
Their lily hands were oars enough,
Their tillers were their tails.
The island was frequently used for quarantine in later centuries, notably by General Alexander Leslie's smallpox-ridden Covenanting army in 1639.
There is surprisingly little reference to venereal disease in the folklore of Edinburgh. Satirists of the 16th and 17th centuries sometimes wished the "glengore" (which may sound like a brand of whisky, but is actually syphilis) on their targets, and there is this heartless ditty of the early 18th century by Alexander Pennecuik, On the Downfal of THOMAS BUTTER's Nose in the Month of June:
Tom was sae subtile, and sae fu' o' greed,
Nae man could lick the butter aff his bread;
But pox on harlot-women, his disgrace,
They lick'd a nose of Butter aff his face.
It na' take lang time to this mishap,
No, no, the bitches did it in a CLAP.
Who devil took this nose that came away?
Not God! - for he made noses all of clay
And clay grows harder in the summer sun;
But Butter-noses must melt down in JUNE.
Pennecuik wrote many such scurrilous poems, but his victims had the last laugh - he ended in such extreme poverty that he died of starvation.
The Humours of Glen is from a broadside of 1820. It must be a reprint, since the other item in it is an eve-of-execution monologue for the robber Robert Johnston, hanged in Edinburgh in 1818. That was one of the worst miscalculations in the history of instant versifying. The hanging was appallingly bungled. Johnston's legs were still holding him up after the fall, and even though he tried to pull them up himself so as to die faster, he was cut down while still alive, revived again as his veins were cut on on the funeral cart, and rehanged equally slowly amid a near-riot. The balladeer missed all of this in his haste to get his deadly dull bit of metrical reportage published in time for the drop. The tune The Humours of Glen is an Irish one popular at the time, from one of the versions in the Brysson/Sharpe manuscript. I've given the whole of it; most singers would only want to use the first part, but all fit except the third. Nothing in the text suggests that this song is Scottish, but this Edinburgh broadside seems to be the only source known for it. The words in square brackets are my additions to fill in the bits forgotten by the none-too-competent printer. The symptoms in the last verse are only partly those of sexually transmitted disease; the swollen tongue and the "quaking" were mercury poisoning caused by syphilis treatments of the time. Mercury had been in use for centuries, never worked well, and often caused death or injury; even as early as 1509 an Edinburgh physician was imprisoned for poisoning a patient with it.
There were three generations of celebrated doctors named Alexander Monro in Edinburgh. The first was mainly responsible for making Edinburgh's medical school into a world-class institution; the last was the anatomist renowned for his public dissections of executed criminals, including William Burke. Doctor Monro is by James Hogg. There are two versions, from 1810 and 1833; this earlier one is more explicit, but the later one has a more energetic opening. One tune for it in the north-east of Scotland (and reproduced in the Greig-Duncan folksong collection) is the jig printed here as the last part of The Highway to Edinburgh. Hogg's own choice was The Humours of Glen. As in many other old Scots songs, the name spelt as "Christy" is pronounced "Kirsty", the way it's written today.
Wherever conventional medicine develops, alternative medicine follows in its wake. Edinburgh was no exception, and has always had the whole range of fringe therapies found anywhere. One of its specialties early in the nineteenth century was phrenology, a forerunner of psychoanalysis built around the theory that character was determined by the degree to which different parts of the brain were developed, which in turn could be read off from the shape and bumpiness of the skull. Invented late in the 18th century in continental Europe by Gall and Spurzheim, it was brought to the English-speaking world was George Combe in Edinburgh, a highly educated man who combined his medical pursuits with fluency in several languages and democratic political ideas influenced by American republicanism. There was a man in Edinburgh is taken from John Anderson's Phrenology in Edinburgh of 1830, which tells the story:
In April 1821, a medical gentleman of Edinburgh, aided by a landscape painter, fashioned a turnip into the nearest resemblance
to a human skull which their combined skill and ingenuity could produce. They had a cast made from it, and sent it to Mr G. COMBE, requesting his observations on the mental talents and dispositions which it indicated: adding, that it was the cast from the skull of a person of uncommon character. Mr COMBE instantly detected the trick, and returned the skull, with the following parody of "The Man of Thessaly" pasted on the coronal surface: ...
A tune for The Man of Thessaly is given in John Goss's Daily Express Community Songbook of 1937; it's a seventeenth-century dance tune known as The Drummer, Good Morrow to your Night Cap, or We'll Go No More A-Roving.
A story that has never yet been told in full is the link between cholera and revolution in 19th-century Europe. The worst years of cholera were everywhere followed by insurrection or dramatic political change: it was not the disease itself that created popular anger, but the selfish, brutal and ineffectual responses of the ruling elite. Edinburgh was no exception. The Cholera Morbus is a broadside from the 1832 epidemic. The city's death toll was around 600, but the song focuses on the fear and hatred of the authorities for their own poor rather on the disease itself. No tune was indicated for it, and the AAAB rhyme scheme is very unusual in Scots songs. One of the few songs known at the time that matches it in rhyme and metre is Robert Tannahill's Gloomy Winter, whose tune I've taken from Gall and Inglis's