Kay's Portraits: Edinburgh Caricatures of the Enlightenment

Were I to appear on Desert Island Discs (an unlikely scenario!), one of the contenders for the book I should like to take with me would be Kay's Portraits, a collection of remarkable caricatures by John Kay, published with biographical sketches by Hugh Paton in 1838. The drawings themselves date from the end of the 18th century, and they portray a large number of Edinburgh residents, some such as James Hutton and Thomas Paine of world renown, but many simple street traders and characters, the whole giving a wonderfully imaginative picture of the city at that time. Here are a few of the more extraordinary images to give a flavour of what abounds in the collection:

Petticoat Government.

It appears that Lord Breadalbane was thought to be hen-pecked by his wife!

O'Brien, the Irish Giant.

A man who was said to stand 8 feet, 1 inch tall, weighing five hundred weight, being measured for a greatcoat. The garment itself attracted much attention in the city, the crowds wondering in awe that so small a man as Mr Jollie (here pictured?) could have measured him. O'Brien lived in Scotland, where he travelled extensively exhibiting himself to all who might be interested.

A Medley of Musicians.

Paton describes this as one of Kay's 'retaliatory pieces.' Apparently, Mr Alexander Campbell had objected to another of Kay's caricatures which depicted his brother, and produced a caricature of his own of Kay. The response was this image, in which Campbell (organist at a non-juring chapel) is depicted with a hand organ behind his back, and others, including the town fish-horn blower, the whole company clearly producing noises of questionable harmony!

The Five Alls.

Various worthies of Edinburgh - Rev. Hunter of the Tron Church (with his precentor below); Henry Erskine, lawyer; James Rocheid, an agriculturist, and Quarter-Master Taylor of the 4th Division - pictured for some obscure reason with the devil.

The Craft in Danger.

Various academics depicted in this image, including Robert Jameson, Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University (middle of 3 on the right, with geological sections below him). Dr Barclay rides the elephant skeleton which stood in the Royal College of Surgeons. He had been proposed for the new chair of Comparative Anatomy at the University, though not without the opposition of those on the right.

Here are one or two portraits of personages with connections to the Highlands and Islands:

Samuel McDonald.

Paton describes him as a "Scottish Hercules", here portrayed in the uniform of the Sutherland Fencibles. Known for his formidable strength , he is depicted on the right with the diminutive figure of Geordie Cranstoun, whose singing he would delight to hear when in Edinburgh. The Countess of Sutherland was so impressed with his stature and strength that she awarded him half-a-crown over and above his usual pay. McDonald was a native of Lairg.

William MacDonald.

A native of Fothertie, near Dingwall, MacDonald  was Officer to the Highland Society of Scotland from 1803.

Sir James Grant of Grant.

Depicted in front of the Strathspey Fencibles, Sir James was celebrated for the fair treatment he showed to his tenants at a time when landowners were clearing the glens in favour of sheep-farming.

Archibald McArthur.

Born on Mull, McArthur was the Piper to Sir Reginald MacDonald Stewart Seton of Touch and Staffa. In 1810, he took part in the annual Piping Competition which he failed to win. He turned down the second prize, an action that forbade him from enrolling in the competition ever again.