A 17th Century Con Man Part Two - The Plot Thickens


The Dyrock Burn, from the Kirkyard

We continue with the session's accusations against Wm Houstone whose behaviour seems to have grown ever more bizarre but ingenious.

Art 5th That the said Mr Wm Houstone is guilty of gross and notorious cheating. 
Instance 1st that having borrowed a horse from Mr Hew Whyte, now minister of Dunnipace did exchange the same with Hew Fergussone, and the said Mr Hew making enquiry for his horse, the said Mr Wm did plead with the person with whom he had changed to give back the horse and engaged to pay twenty shilling sterling for the use of the horse he had gott, and for payment of the same gave a bond of five pound sterling, due to him by John Alexander of Drumochreen with a commission to uplift the foresaid twenty shillings out of the first end of the foresaid soume, but desired that it might not be craved for a twelvemonth, the person who had gott the said bond, requiring the foresaid twenty shillings from Drumochreen, he shewed a discharge of the foresaid bond, dated about a month after his precept. This is proved by Hugh Fergussone himself with whom he exchanged the horse.

(William was clearly a rather good con-man!)

Instance 2nd The said Mr Wm Houstone having gathered a considerable soume of money in the borders of England under pretence of supplying the suffering people of Scotland and having bought drugs with a part thereof, and brought the rest home with him, the Laird of Drummastone hearing that he had money and not knowing by what means he had got it, and standing in need of money at that time, desired the loan of it, the said Mr William granted the same and appointed him a day to come and receive it. The gentleman coming accordingly and bring with him a subscribed bond, the said Mr Wm told him that he had no more there with him, but ten pieces, but the rest was at his father’s house in Maybole and if the gentleman would go thither with him, he should have the complete soume which he might easily do, being on his way to Edr (Edinburgh) when they were come near to Maybole within a mile or two of it, the foresaid Mr William told the gentleman that there was a gentleman nearby whom he behoved in civility to visit. The said Laird of Drummastone intreated him not to stay. (i.e. not to linger long.) Houstone replied that his horse being young was now wearied and that he might come up the sooner, desired he might have the pounnie (pony) upon which the gentleman’s man was riding with the cloakbag and having thus exchanged horses he went out of the road as if he designed to pay his visit, but instead their-of he took the subscribed bond out of Drummastone’s cloakbag and hasting up and giving back the horse, he desired the gentleman to stay at an Inns till he should bring the money to him, instead of which he went off with the bond which he had taken out of the cloakbag and within a short time, pursued the gentleman upon the same.

(So not only did he manage to steal the ‘bond’ from the bag on the servant's pony – the evidence of a loan he never paid – but he then tried to pursue Drummastone for cash he had never given him! I wonder what were the drugs that he bought.)

Instance 3rd The said Mr William having persuaded John McEon,a country chapman to bestow his stock upon sheep and goat skins which he might carry to Holland, assuring him he would make a gainful voyage and having gone with him to Borrowistouness (Bo’ness) the said Mr William did steal from the chapman a great part of the said skins after they were put on board of the ship and sold them again.

Instance 4th The said Mr Wm Houstone having hired two horses from William Sloan, Stabler, in Edinburgh did sell the same as if they had been his own.

Instance 5th likewise cheated John Kairns stationer in Edinburgh of a great many of Calderwood’s Histories, (i.e. books) buying them at eight pound and selling them for six as if they had been his own.

(How he made a profit on this is unclear, but perhaps he never paid the sum for them in the first place - only promised it.)

Art 6th Notwithstanding of the notoriety of the said crimes, the said Mr Wm Houstone did take upon him to preach and particularly did presume to invade and usurp the pulpit of Kilsyth within the presbytery of Glasgow not only to the scandal of all good Christians but to the manifest contempt of all good order and contrair to the express prohibition of the said presbytery under whose inspection the said church is, and contrair to his own bond to the privy council, and when he was cited to appear before the said presbytery to answer thereto and was by them referred to the Synod, he did contemptuously and contumaciously neglect to appear before the same and did presume to go to Flanders to complain to his Majesty as if he had been injured and pretended he had a commission from many thousands of presbyterians in Scotland to represent to his Majesty their grievances and did return with forged letters of recommendation under the Earl of Portland, his secretary’s hand, to be settled in the peaceable possession of the kirk of Kilsyth. He did continue in the usurpation of the said pulpit of Kilsyth and kept the keys of the said church and refused to admit Mr John Pettigrew, a member commissioned by the said presbytery to preach at the said kirk and does still pretend to be a lawful ordained minister though adducing no authentic testimonials of his licence or ordination before an church judiciary within this kingdom, though often required to do.

(To go the length of Flanders to petition the king is rather extraordinary! Thereafter, he seems to have taken over the kirk at Kilsyth, and refused to leave. I wonder if any parishioners came to hear him preach?)

The Synod having considered the foresaid libel and having found the first four so very material articles clearly proven and that the said Mr William Houstone is an infamous person, and is justly lyable to the highest censures of the church and being loath to multiply oaths, they did supersede the judicial probation of the rest of the articles and instances of the libel though they had sufficient evidences to instruct the same and money more of the like nature.

(There were lots more instances of his dishonesty - too many for the Synod seemingly, who decided that they had enough evidence without listing all of his crimes.)

And the Synod having found the foresaid Mr Houstone guilty of the above libel and heinious scandals and that to all he has added a long continued track of contumacy and most manifest contemning and reproaching of the whole ministers of this church, although yet he professed himself content to meet with them providing they had passed all his scandals and immoralities without any acknowledgement or censure for the which the Synod judgeth the foresaid Mr Wm Houstone worthy of the censure of excommunication and appoints him to be excommunicated and shut out from the communion of the faithful and delivered over to Satan and that in the high innerkirk of Glasgow upon the 22nd day of January 1683 ( sic subscribitur) Extracted per Robert Campbell, Synod Clerk.

In obedience to which sentence of the synod Mr Thomas Kennedy, one of the ministers of the gospell at Glasgow did upon the 22nd day of January 1693 in the high inner kirk pronounce and declare in the name of the lord Jesus Christ the said Mr Wm Houstone excommunicated and shut out from the communion of the faithful and in the same name and authority of Jesus Christ delivered the same Mr Wm Houstone over to Satan for destrucyion of the flesh that the spirit may be saved in the day of the lord. Sic subscribitur John Spreul, clerk to the presbytery of Glasgow and general session of the toun.

(Dreadful, is written in the margin. And an illegible word, possibly ‘this dreadful sentence’. But I’m not sure what ‘destrucyion of the flesh' means in this context. Scotland was still burning witches. Did the kirk have the power to execute Houstone? Or did they simply mean that - as he had wished on his own family - the devil would deal with him? What happened next? Did he go into exile? I think we need to know!)

A 17th Century Con Man, Part One - Haunting the Bounds of the Parish

Ancient Yew in our kirkyard

I was browsing through some (very) old records from the Kirkmichael Kirk Session when I came across the intriguing story of a local con-artist named William Houstone.

 These records begin in 1692 with the information that the previous session books are 'away with the curate' who fled during the ‘late revolution’ – that’s the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when William of Orange deposed James Stuart. Presumably the curate had   Catholic sympathies. ‘He was apprehended in rebellion in the north and having escaped out of prison and fled to France as is reported, it is not known if they could be recovered.’

 There follow various accounts, mainly to do with fornication, which preoccupies all these kirk sessions rather more than seems wise, with concerns including   the crime of ‘antenuptual fornication’ i.e. sex before marriage, which demands censure and punishment even when the people named have been married for a while. 

As I observed when I was researching my novel The Jewel, about Robert Burns’s wife, Jean Armour, this keenness to monitor such things often arose from a laudable attempt to force a man to take responsibility for his children at a time when falling pregnant out of wedlock could be disastrous for a young woman. The stool of repentance, upon which the poor penitents had to sit to be admonished before the congregation, is the subject of some discussion in these minutes, since it has fallen into disrepair and a joiner can’t be found to replace it, although whether from disapproval of its function, or because of the stinginess of the kirk session is never reported. Lack of space for the gentry is another problem with the elders suggesting that the gentry themselves pay for the building of a ‘loft’ or gallery to accommodate them and their families well away from the great unwashed. This falls on deaf ears - mostly due to the expense. The local lairds never had any ready cash, a set of circumstances which would make them ripe for exploitation by somebody with the wit of our Mr William Houstone.

In March 5th 1693, the minutes become much more interesting, as they relate the tale of Houstone who, given that he is always accorded his title of ‘Mr’, must have been a person of some status before he achieved a certain notoriety in lowland Scotland.

It’s interesting to read the entries in full. There must be some more information out there about William and if anyone can find any, do let me know. I’m curious about him. How old was he? Had he been born in Maybole where his parents lived?  Did he believe his own tales?  It’s worth noting that the spelling in these very old records retains its inconsistency – the inconsistency that existed before printing meant that spelling became fixed. The clerk will sometimes spell the same word in different ways within the same sentence eg Libell and Lybel, a word which also seems to have changed its meaning over the years from accusation, back then, to its meaning now of possibly false allegations. 

I'll post this in two parts, with the occasional comment of my own in italics.

The session taking to their consideration that Mr William Houstone, lately excommunicate by the Synod, does frequently haunt the bounds and sometimes resides in Maybole, the very next parish and endeavours to make division and draw away some ignorant people from ordinances dispensed by their ministers, pretending that he is a more clean, honest and pure preacher than any other in Scotland at this time, notwithstanding his notorious villainy. Therefore they think it fit and necessary that a copy of said Houstone’s process and excommunication, (which was intimate to the congregation between sermons on Sabbath the 19th day of February last) be kept in the Session minutes that any who desyres may have access to read the same and be confirmed that this man is notoriously wicked and unworthy of the name of a preacher, and for this end they appoint it to be recorded in the Session book. The tenor whereof follows.

(This record was kept in Kirkmichael, only three miles from Maybole, where we can assume William's parents lived - although I've been unable to find out where.)  

At Air, (Ayr) the eleventh day of January 1693, the qlk (which) day the Synod of Glasgow and Air here convened having required ane account of the execution of the summons against Mr Wm Houstone, pretended preacher, issued forth by the Synod to be publicly intimated in all the respective churches within their precinct, upon the first Sabbath of November 1692 allowing him sixty days in case of his absence out of the kingdome, to compeir at this session of the Synod to answer to the points of the Lybel hereafter insert which Libell was publickly read in the several congregations at the intimation of the said summonds and having got a sufficient account of the execution of the said summonds, they did call the said Mr William Houstone three several times two Synod days viz the tenth and eleventh of January now instant at the most patent doors of the church of Air and he not compeiring, but adding contumacy to his other guilt libelled against him in sleighting these summonds as he had done the summonds of the Synod several times before, the Synod did proceed to cognosce upon the probation of that it contained in the several articles as follows.

Art 1 The said Mr William Houstone did in his several letters directed to the Laird of Craigy, signed with the sign of the cross, declare that the last time he took the sacrament he did it after the Romish manner. This is attested by famous witnesses, one of them adding moreover that the said Mr William did in the Tolbooth of Air renounce the protestant religion in the presence of Sir William Wallace of Craigie, Colonel Buchan and Major Duglas. To this renunciation one of the foresaid witnesses was clerk. 

(William obviously inclines to the Roman Catholic persuasion, although whether this is a matter of conscience or politics is hard to decide.) 

Art 2nd. That the said Mr William Houstone while in the tolbooth (prison) of Air did frequently curse and swear, yea, did curse his own parents, saying ‘let them goe to the devil for the devil will get them.’ And all the reason of this was because they had not obtained of Craigie that he should be let out of prison. This is likewise attested by famous witnesses.

(Telling anyone to go to the devil, let alone his own parents, was unwise, to say the least, at a time when the devil was a very real threat and an accusation of witchcraft might spell big trouble. See also, the accusation below.)   

Art 3rd That the said Mr William Houstone while in the tolbooth of Edinburgh did likewise curse and swear to the scandal and offence of the company where he was. This is attested by many famous witnesses, one of them adding that he did curse his own brother in these terms. 'Let him goe to the divel. The divel take him and you and all togither.’

Art 4th The said Mr Wm Houstone is guilty of notorious forgeries. Instance first, he did forge a call to himself to the parish of Kilsyth, subscribed by several of the inhabitants of the said parish, who being inquired concerning their subscribing of the said call, did judicially declare before the presbytery of Glasgow that they had never seen the said call, and that the subscriptions were forged which is clear by the records of the presbytery of Glasgow.

Mr William Wishart, minister att Leith, having given a testificat of the honesty of Kemp, the said Mr William Houstone did counterfeit Mr Wishart’s handwriting, inserting in the counterfit testificat several things relating to himself as if the said Kemp had asserted that he knew the subscriptions of Mr Wm Thomsone and some other ministers attesting the License and Ordination of the said Mr Wm Houstone and that the said Mr Wm Wishart did believe the testimony of the said Kemp to be true, which testimonial the foresaid Mr Wishart declared to be forged.

(Today, we might well draw the conclusion that William had some mental health problems, given his very grandiose schemes, carried out with a certain attention to detail, followed by possible spells of depression. But we should also remember that the people recording the tale are far from impartial observers. As we shall see in the following post, his behaviour was to become even more outrageous.)

Disability Pride Month - In search of comfortable and accessible hotel rooms in rural Scotland? You'll have to look long and hard.


On our way back from visiting friends who live on the Isle of Skye, we spent a night at Drimsynie House Hotel. Above is the view from the restaurant - which gives you some idea of the beautiful setting. But what I really want to talk about here is disabled access. Because this hotel is a star where this is concerned, unlike a whole tranche of Scottish Highland hotels with little to no consideration for anyone with mobility problems. 

My husband has serious arthritis. He isn't in a wheelchair - or not permanently - although he occasionally uses one to get about. But what he can't do is climb up and down stairs, and what he certainly can't do is climb into a bath with one of those over-bath showers. 

He's not alone, yet if you go to any booking site, and try to find a reasonably priced, comfortable hotel with disabled access, in the Scottish highlands or on the islands - you're going to struggle. 

Drimsynie was a serendipitous find. 

It is a combination of a holiday park with a hotel as part of it. There are (good looking) lodges and some caravans with bedrooms in the main building. It is a very well kept place. There is masses of space, and the setting is absolutely stunning and well off the beaten track - a long, single track road, in fact.  It has a curiously old fashioned and comfortable feel to it, and I mean that in a very good way. I kept thinking about Kellerman's in Dirty Dancing. Whenever I watch that movie, I wonder if such a place could still exist. Well maybe it does. Somebody somewhere may even have been carrying a watermelon, although I didn't see any candidates for Johnnie. The holiday park seemed to be full of young families, or grandparents spending time with grandkids, or small groups of older women - with a few couples like us, mostly passing through. 

We had booked a room with disabled access, something we always do with trepidation since they tend to be relegated to the bowels of the hotel. There was good disabled parking. There was a lift. (Yay!) The room was light and spacious, and had a wonderful view. The bathroom was sparkling clean and wheelchair friendly, if that was what you needed. The vast bed was a marvel of comfort. We were both tired after a long drive, and we had the best night's sleep we had had in years. There was a coffee machine, drinks, a kettle, free mineral water and toiletries too. 

All in all, they deserve praise for supplying a service that is, it is worth pointing out in this Disability Pride Month, rarer than the proverbial hen's teeth, especially in this part of the world. 

The excuse other hotels give is generally that the building is 'too old' for disabled access. But there is no reason why more old buildings shouldn't be able to install a small lift. Our village hall - a listed building with the main hall on the first floor - has one. Drumlanrig Castle along the road has one. Failing that, a stair lift would help. But most old Highland hotels reply to all enquiries with the casual brush-off that all their rooms are on the first and second floors. Then, even if a customer struggles to climb to a first floor, the over bath shower, with no helpful handles, is commonplace. Hard cheese to any customer with mobility problems. Which given the demographic of many of their guests, seems remiss at best. And it's not just oldies. Plenty of younger people have problems too. 

We stayed in another highland hotel on our way north and although the room was nominally accessible, i.e. on the ground floor, it was a long walk from the car park and it was tiny. 'Cat swinging not possible' remarked my husband. There was a walk-in shower in a bathroom so minuscule that it was physically impossible to sit on the loo without knocking the loo roll off its holder, and a washbasin so tiny that you couldn't fill the kettle without decanting water into a cup first. Worse than all this, however, the window looked out directly onto a tall fence beyond which was the beer garden. You literally couldn't see what the weather was like by looking out of the window. There was virtually no natural daylight in the room at all. Fortunately we were there for only one night - the staff were obliging and cheerful, the bar was comfortable and the food was good - but I was glad we weren't staying longer. Because the staff were so nice, we might even book it again in similar circumstances, but Alan would have to attempt to crawl upstairs and - worse - down again. 

As a writer, I've encountered a few appalling single rooms in my time. The very worst was in Edinburgh, up a precipitous flight of stairs, a tiny, madly expensive, crazily hot room with no view, right beside a flat roof, housing some piece of machinery from a nearby restaurant that made a deafening noise all night long, so you couldn't possibly keep the window open. No breakfast. Just a room. I fell out of there at about 7am and made straight for the nearest coffee shop. It's why cheapish and cheerful chain hotels with decent levels of comfort are popular with writers doing events. But the problems facing single travellers are as nothing compared to the problems facing anyone with a disability. You waste hours trying to figure out what's actually on offer when booking, only to have them respond to your enquiries with the news that all their rooms are on the second floor.  Or there is no parking, let alone disabled parking. Or the disabled parking is half a mile away. Or there is no walk-in shower. Or no lift. 

This means that the occasional gem like Drimsynie is a rarity. Surely, we need more consideration. In fact, it should be the rule, rather than the exception. 

Authenticity - Knowing What You Don't Know

Ellisland Farm near Dumfries

I've just finished an otherwise very good novel - a middle novel of a long, well reviewed series, and one I've enjoyed very much. I've loved the whole series. But right in the middle, something happened that pulled me right out of what my English lecturers, all those years ago, used to call a 'willing suspension of disbelief.' 

The novel, quite unexpectedly, shifted from its wonderful Canadian setting to Dumfries in Scotland, a town that happens to be less than a couple of hours drive from my house - a place I know well, and an area I have visited often. 

And that's when it happened. Within a few short pages, the author suddenly got everything wrong. A policeman talks about wanting a 'bacon butty' when in this part of the world he would almost certainly want a 'bacon roll'.  That probably wouldn't have bothered me, but there was a lot of business with somebody shooting hares that then turned out to be rabbits. I'm still not sure which the author meant, since the words seemed to be used interchangeably, but nobody in this rural part of the world ever confuses the two. There are lots of rabbits in our countryside (and they're not very welcome in our gardens!) but fewer hares. Hares are a completely different animal. Magical creatures. We know which is which. These are hares and they are in decline. They're not rabbits. 

Two snippets of conversation followed. And - aaargh - one of the Scottish characters talks about 'fall' when he means 'autumn' and although we're well aware what fall is, we would never use it. Finally, one of them uses a country specific (I assume) expression of sympathy -  'poor ones' - which I've never heard anyone say here, although we might well say 'poor souls'. 

All of these, within a few short pages, pulled this reader so far out of the story that it took a longish time to get back. And I've decided to take a break from the series and try something else, although I'll probably go back at some point. 

I'm not posting this to carp. (Well, I am a bit.) And I'm sure I've made similar mistakes because we all do. I'm not even blaming the writer. But this is definitely something an editor should have picked up on. This is, after all, a multi million selling author. Didn't it never occur to her publisher to check out the passages set in Scotland for authenticity? Or did they think it didn't matter?  

At a time when the industry in which we work has sensitivity readers, it seems like a no-brainer when a writer is moving beyond their comfort zone to check for authenticity.