Mary Somerville's Reminiscences

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Martha Somerville, daughter of Mary, published her “Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age, of Mary Somerville, with Selections from her Correspondence” in a number of editions after her mother's death in 1872. The following extracts describe Mary’s early life in Burntisland in her own words. They give a very personal and sympathetic account of her home town around the 1790s; and her reaction on her return in 1808.

The accompanying map and photograph (shown below) are taken from John Blyth’s “Burntisland: Early History and People”, published in 1948.

The picture of Mary Somerville (shown right) is from her book "On Molecular and Microscopic Science", which was published in 1869 when Mary was approaching ninety years of age.

Mary Somerville


Martha Somerville writes: "This place [Burntisland], in which my mother’s early life was spent, exercised so much influence on her life and pursuits, that I am happy to able to give this description of it in her own words."

Mary Somerville:

Burntisland was then a small quiet seaport town with little or no commerce, situated on the coast of Fife, immediately opposite to Edinburgh.  It is sheltered at some distance on the north by a high and steep hill called the Bin [sic].  The harbour lies on the west, and the town ended on the east in a plain of short grass called the Links, on which the towns-people had the right of pasturing their cows and geese.  The Links were bounded on each side by low hills covered with gorse and heather, and on the east by a beautiful bay with a sandy beach, which, beginning at a low rocky point, formed a bow and then stretched for several miles to the town of Kinghorn, the distant part skirting a range of high precipitous crags.

Our house, which lay to the south of the town, was very long, with a southern exposure, and its length was increased by a wall covered with fruit-trees, which concealed a courtyard, cow-house, and other offices.  From this the garden extended southwards, and ended in a plot of short grass covering a ledge of low black rocks washed by the sea.  It was divided into three parts by narrow, almost unfrequented, lanes.  These gardens yielded abundance of common fruit and vegetables, but the warmest and best exposures were always devoted to flowers. The garden next to the house was bounded on the south by an ivy-covered wall hid by a row of old elm trees, from whence a steep mossy bank descended to a flat plot of grass with a gravel walk and flower borders on each side, and a broad gravel walk ran along the front of the house.  My mother was fond of flowers, and prided herself on her moss-roses, which flourished luxuriantly on the front of the house; but my father, though a sailor, was an excellent florist. He procured the finest bulbs and flower seeds from Holland, and kept each kind in a separate bed.

1745 Map of Burntisland
Map of Burntisland in 1745

The manners and customs of the people who inhabited this pretty spot at that time were exceedingly primitive.

Upon the death of any of the townspeople, a man went about ringing a bell at the doors of the friends and acquaintances of the person just dead, and, after calling out "Oyez!" three times, he announced the death which had occurred. This was still called by the name of the Passing-bell, which in Catholic times invited the prayers of the living for the spirit just passed away.

There was much sympathy and kindness shown on these occasions; friends always paid a visit of condolence to the afflicted, dressed in black. The gude wives in Burntisland thought it respectable to provide dead-clothes for themselves and the "gude man," that they might have a decent funeral. I once saw a set of grave-clothes nicely folded up, which consisted of a long shirt and cap of white flannel, and a shroud of fine linen made of yarn, spun by the gude wife herself. I did not like that gude wife; she was purse-proud, and took every opportunity of treating with scorn a poor neighbour who had had a misfortune, that is, a child by her husband before marriage, but who made a very good wife.  Her husband worked in our garden, and took our cow to the Links to graze. The wife kept a little shop, where we bought things, and she told us her neighbour had given her "mony a sair greet " - that is, a bitter fit of weeping.

The howdie, or midwife, was a person of much consequence. She had often to go far into the country, by day and by night, riding a cart-horse. The neighbours used to go and congratulate the mother, and, of course, to admire the baby. Cake and caudle were handed round, caudle being oatmeal gruel, with sugar, nutmeg, and white wine. In the poorest class, hot ale and " scons" were offered.

Penny-weddings were by no means uncommon in my young days. When a very poor couple were  going to be married, the best man, and even the bridegroom himself, went from house to house, asking for small sums to enable them to have a wedding supper, and pay the town fiddler for a dance; any one was admitted who paid a penny. I recollect the prisoners in the Tolbooth letting down bags from the prison windows, begging for charity. I do not remember any execution taking place.

Men and old women of the lower classes smoked tobacco in short pipes, and many took snuff - even young ladies must have done so ; for I have a very pretty and quaint gold snuff-box which was given to my grandmother as a marriage present. Licensed beggars, called "gaberlunzie men," were still common. They wore a blue coat, with a tin badge, and wandered about the country, knew all that was going on, and were always welcome at the farm-houses, where the gude wife liked to have a crack (gossip) with the blue coat, and, in return for his news, gave him dinner or supper, as might be. Edie Ochiltree is a perfect specimen of this extinct race. There was another species of beggar, of yet higher antiquity. If a man were a cripple, and poor, his relations put him in a hand-barrow, and wheeled him to their next neighbour's door, and left him there. Some one came out, gave him oat-cake or peasemeal bannock, and then wheeled him to the next door; and in this way, going from house to house, he obtained a fair livelihood.

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Strings of wild geese were common in autumn, and I was amused on one occasion to see the clumsy tame fat geese which were feeding on the Links rise in a body and try to follow the wild ones.

As the grass on the plot before our house did not  form a fine even turf, the ground was trenched and sown with good seed, but along with the grass a vast  crop of thistles and groundsel appeared, which attracted quantities of goldfinches, and in the early  mornings I have seen as many as sixty to eighty of  these beautiful birds feeding on it.

Martha Somerville writes: "My mother remained at school at Musselburgh for a twelvemonth, till she was eleven years old. After this prolonged and elaborate education, she was recalled to Burntisland, and the results of the process she had undergone are detailed in her 'Recollections' with much drollery."

Mary Somerville:

Soon after my return home I received a note from a lady in the neighbourhood, inquiring for my mother, who had been ill. This note greatly distressed me, for my half-text writing was as bad as possible, and I could neither compose an answer nor spell the words. My eldest cousin, Miss Somerville, a grown-up young lady, then with us, got me out of this scrape, but I soon got myself into another, by writing to my brother in Edinburgh that I had sent him a bank-knot (note) to buy something for me. The school at Musselburgh was expensive, and I was reproached with having cost so much money in vain. My mother said she would have been contented if I had only learnt to write well and keep accounts, which was all that a woman was expected to know.

This passed over, and I was like a wild animal escaped out of a cage. I was no longer amused in the gardens, but wandered about the country. When the tide was out I spent hours on the sands, looking at the star-fish and sea-urchins, or watching the children digging for sand-eels, cockles, and the spouting razor-fish. I made a collection of shells, such as were cast ashore, some so small that they appeared like white specks in patches of black sand. There was a small pier on the sands for shipping limestone brought from the coal mines inland. I was astonished to see the surface of these blocks of stone covered with beautiful impressions of what seemed to be leaves; how they got there I could not imagine, but I picked up the broken bits, and even large pieces, and brought them to my repository. I knew the eggs of many birds, and made a collection of them. I never robbed a nest, but bought strings of eggs, which were sold by boys, besides getting sea-fowl eggs from sailors who had been in whalers or on other northern voyages. It was believed by these sailors that there was a gigantic flat fish in the North Sea, called a kraken.  It. was so enormous that when it came to the surface, covered with tangles and sand, it was supposed to be an island, till, on one occasion, part of a ship's crew landed on it and found out their mistake. However, much as they believed in it, none of the sailors at Burntisland had ever seen it. The sea serpent was also an article of our faith.

In the rocks at the end of our garden there was a shingly opening, in which we used to bathe, and where at low tide I frequently waded among masses of rock covered with sea-weeds. With the exception of dulse and tangle I knew the names of none, though I was well acquainted with and admired many of these beautiful plants. I also watched the crabs, live shells, jelly-fish, and various marine animals, all of which were objects of curiosity and amusement to me in my lonely life.

Harbour from the west
Burntisland Harbour from the west

The flora on the links and hills around was very beautiful, and I soon learnt the trivial names of all the plants. There was not a tree nor bush higher than furze in this part of the country, but the coast to the north-west of Burntisland was bordered by a tree and brushwood-covered bank belonging to the Earl of Morton, which extended to Aberdour. I could not go so far alone, but had frequent opportunities of walking there and gathering ferns, fox-gloves, and primroses, which grew on the mossy banks of a little stream that ran into the sea. The bed of this stream or burn was thickly covered with the freshwater mussel, which I knew often contained pearls, but I did not like to kill the creatures to get the pearls.

One day my father, who was a keen sportsman, having gone to fish for red trout at the mouth of this stream, found a young whale, or grampus, stranded in the shallow water. He immediately ran back to the town, got boats, captured the whale, and landed it in the harbour, where I went with the rest of the crowd to see the muckle fish.

There was always a good deal of shipbuilding carried on in the harbour, generally coasting vessels or colliers. We, of course, went to see them launched, which was a pretty sight.

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When the bad weather began I did not know what to do with myself. Fortunately we had a small collection of books among which I found Shakespeare, and read it at every moment I could spare from my domestic duties. These occupied a great part of my time; besides, I had to shew (sew) my sampler, working the alphabet from A to Z, as well as the ten numbers, on canvas.

My mother did not prevent me from reading, but my aunt Janet, who came to live in Burntisland after her father's death, greatly disapproved of my conduct. She was an old maid who could be very agreeable and witty, but she had all the prejudices of the time with regard to women's duties, and said to my mother, "I wonder you let Mary waste her time in reading, she never shews (sews) more than if she were a man." Whereupon I was sent to the village school to learn plain needlework. I do not remember how long it was after this that an old lady sent some very fine linen to be made into shirts for her brother, and desired that one should be made entirely by me. This shirt was so well worked that I was relieved from attending the school, but the house linen was given into my charge to make and to mend. We had a large stock, much of it very beautiful, for the Scotch ladies at that time were very proud of their napery, but they no longer sent it to Holland to be bleached, as had once been the custom. We grew flax, and our maids spun it. The coarser yarn was woven in Burntisland, and bleached upon the links; the finer was sent to Dunfermline, where there was a manufactory of table-linen.

I was annoyed that my turn for reading was so much disapproved of and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it. Among our books I found Chapone's "Letters to Young Women," and resolved to follow the course of history there recommended, the more so as we had most of the works she mentions. One, however, which my cousin lent me was in French, and here the little I had learnt at school was useful, for with the help of a dictionary I made out the sense. What annoyed me was my memory not being good - I could remember neither names nor dates. Years afterwards I studied a "Memoria Technica," then in fashion, without success; yet in my youth I could play long pieces of music on the piano without the book, and I never forget mathematical formulæ.  In looking over one of my MSS, which I had not seen for forty years, I at once recognised the formulæ for computing the secular inequalities of the moon.

We had two small globes, and my mother allowed me to learn the use of them from Mr. Reed, the village schoolmaster, who came to teach me for a few weeks in the winter evenings. Besides the ordinary branches, Mr. Reed taught Latin and navigation, but these were out of the question for me. At the village school the boys often learnt Latin, but it was thought sufficient for the girls to be able to read the Bible; very few even learnt writing. I recollect, however, that some men were ignorant of book-keeping; our baker, for instance, had a wooden tally, in which he made a notch for every loaf of bread, and of course we had the corresponding tally. They were called nick-sticks.

My bedroom had a window to the south, and a small closet near had one to the north. At these I spent many hours, studying the stars by the aid of the celestial globe. Although I watched and admired the magnificent displays of the Aurora, which frequently occurred, they seemed to be so nearly allied to lightning that I was somewhat afraid of them. At an earlier period of my life there was a comet, which I dreaded exceedingly.

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My father was Captain of the “Repulse," a fifty-gun ship, attached to the Northern fleet commanded by the Earl of Northesk. The winter was extremely stormy, the fleet was driven far north, and kept there by adverse gales, till both officers and crew were on short rations. They ran out of candles, and had to tear up their stockings for wicks, and dip them into the fat of the salt meat which was left. We were in great anxiety, for it was reported that some of the ships had foundered; we were, however, relieved by the arrival of the "Repulse" in Leith roads for repair.

Our house on one occasion being full, I was sent to sleep in a room quite detached from the rest and with a different staircase. There was a closet in this room in which my father kept his fowling pieces, fishing tackle, and golf clubs, and a long garret overhead was filled with presses and stores of all kinds, among other things a number of large cheeses were on a board slung by ropes to the rafters. One night I had put out my candle and was fast asleep, when I was awakened by a violent crash, and then a rolling noise over my head. Now the room was said to be haunted, so that the servants would not sleep in it. I was desperate, for there was no bell. I groped my way to the closet - lucifer matches were unknown in those days - I seized one of the golf clubs, which are shod with iron, and thundered on the bedroom door till I brought my father, followed by the whole household, to my aid. It was found that the rats had gnawed through the ropes by which the cheeses were suspended, so that the crash and rolling were accounted for, and I was scolded for making such an uproar.

Children suffer much misery by being left alone in the dark. When I was very young I was sent to bed at eight or nine o'clock, and the maid who slept in the room went away as soon as I was in bed, leaving me alone in the dark till she came to bed herself. All that time I was in an agony of fear of something indefinite, I could not tell what. The joy, the relief, when the maid came back, were such that I instantly fell asleep. Now that I am a widow and old, although I always have a night-lamp, such is the power of early impressions that I rejoice when daylight comes.

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At Burntisland the sacrament was administered in summer because people came in crowds from the neighbouring parishes to attend the preachings. The service was long and fatiguing. A number of clergymen came to assist, and as the minister's manse could not accommodate them all, we entertained three of them, one of whom was always the Rev. Dr. Campbell, father of Lord Campbell.

Thursday was a day of preparation. The morning service began by a psalm sung by the congregation, then a prayer was said by the minister, followed by a lecture on some chapter of the Bible, generally lasting an hour, after that another psalm was sung, followed by a prayer, a sermon which lasted seldom less than an hour, and the whole ended with a psalm, a short prayer and a benediction. Every one then went home to dinner and returned afterwards for afternoon service, which lasted more than an hour and a half. Friday was a day of rest, but I together with many young people went at this time to the minister to receive a stamped piece of lead as a token that we were sufficiently instructed to be admitted to Christ's table. This ticket was given to the Elder on the following Sunday. On Saturday there was a morning service, and on Sunday such multitudes came to receive the sacrament that the devotions continued till late in the evening. The ceremony was very strikingly and solemnly conducted. The communicants sat on each side of long narrow tables covered with white linen, in imitation of the last supper of Christ, and the Elders handed the bread and wine. After a short exhortation from one of the ministers the first set retired, and were succeeded by others. When the weather was fine a sermon, prayers, and psalm-singing took place either in the churchyard or on a grassy bank at the Links for such as were waiting to communicate. On the Monday morning there was the same long service as on the Thursday. lt was too much for me; I always came home with a headache, and took a dislike to sermons.

Our minister was a rigid Calvinist. His sermons were gloomy, and so long that he occasionally would startle the congregation by calling out to some culprit, "Sit up there, how daur ye sleep i' the kirk." Some saw-mills in the neighbourhood were burnt down, so the following Sunday we had a sermon on hell-fire. The kirk was very large and quaint; a stair led to a gallery on each side of the pulpit, which was intended for the tradespeople, and each division was marked with a suitable device, and text from Scripture. On the bakers' portion a sheaf of wheat was painted; a balance and weights on the grocers', and on the weavers', which was opposite to our pew, there was a shuttle, and below it the motto, "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and are spent without hop job." The artist was evidently no clerk.

My brother Sam, while attending the university in Edinburgh, came to us on the Saturdays and returned to town on Monday. He of course went with us to the kirk on Sunday morning, but we let our mother attend afternoon service alone, as he and I were happy to be together, and we spent the time sitting on the grassy rocks at the foot of our garden, from whence we could see a vast extent of the Firth of Forth with Edinburgh and its picturesque hills. It was very amusing, for we occasionally saw three or four whales spouting, and shoals of porpoises at play. However, we did not escape reproof, for I recollect the servant coming to tell us that the minister had sent to inquire whether Mr. and Miss Fairfax had been taken ill, as he had not seen them at the kirk in the afternoon. The minister in question was Mr. Wemyss, who had married a younger sister of my mother's.

Mary Somerville returned to Burntisland in 1808 after the death of her first husband, Samuel Greig. This was towards the end of "the great herring fishing" in the Firth of Forth. Mary recorded her impressions of the town then:

In Spring [1808, after an absence of a few years] we went to Burntisland which I found sadly changed. Enormous shoals of herrings had come up the Firth, the very sea was rippled by them. They were pursued by flocks of marine birds and whales were seen spouting in various directions, the scene was animated and interesting but the primitive simplicity of the little town was gone. Multitudes of strangers had come to profit by the fishery and speculators built ugly brick houses on the Links for salting and smoking the fish. The fields in the vicinity were manured with the offal and the fish themselves; the air was tainted, the place became uninhabitable and our house and gardens were sold. The following summer we hired a small solitary house on an undulating pasture land between Burntisland and Kinghorn.

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