2nd October

Ways of Dying Gently in Scotland, 1790s

after Lord Cockburn

Dr Joseph Black, the noted scientist, was a tall, thin, cadaverously pale person, feeble, slender and elegant; his eyes were dark, clear and large, like deep pools of water. He glided like a spirit through the mischief and sport of local boys, respected and unharmed; and when he died, seated with a bowl of milk on his knee, in ceasing to live he did not spill a drop of it.

Dr Robert Henry the historian, having been declining for some while, wrote from his Stirlingshire home to his friend Sir Harry Moncrieff: ‘Come out here directly. I have got something to do this week, I have got to die.’ Sir Harry arrived. Dr Henry was alone with his wife, resigned yet cheerful. Sir Harry stayed with them three days, during which Dr Henry occupied his easy chair, conversed, was read to, and dozed.

At one point, hearing the clattering of a horse’s hooves in the court below, Mrs Henry looked out. To her dismay she saw that it was a wearisome neighbour, a minister, who was famous for never leaving a house after he once got into it. ‘Keep him oot,’ cried Dr Henry, himself a minister, ‘don’t let the cratur in here.’ But already the cratur was up the stair and at the door. The doctor winked and signed to the others to sit still, while he pre- tended to be asleep. The visitor entered. Sir Harry and Mrs Henry put their fingers to their lips and shook their heads: the slumberer was not to be disturbed. The visitor took a seat, to wait till the nap should be over. Whenever he tried to speak, he was instantly silenced by another finger on the lip and another shake of the head. This continued for a quarter of an hour, with Sir Harry occasionally detecting his friend peeping through the fringes of his eyelids to check on the state of play. At last the unwanted guest was ushered out, at which the dying man opened his eyes and had a tolerably hearty laugh. This was followed by another when the sound of departing hooves assured them that the danger was past. Dr Henry died that night.

Reader: Gerda Stevenson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
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