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A wee blether with Mary Dick

We were strolling north along Middle Meadow Walk in Edinburgh. The morning was typically late autumn damp-cool. Many leaves had already fallen onto the sides of the tree-lined path. Lots of athletes were about, in groups of all ages from tiny tots to seniors, running, exercising, playing football or some other energetic game.

“Look, see that wee lassie over there. She’s coaxing her wee chum to go faster.”

“Maybe that’s her wee brother; they look like one another.” It got the two of us thinking. There is a lot of normal life in Scotland that ‘just happens’ and is rarely noticed by other folk. People know about the ‘Dick Vet’ – the old veterinary school building at the east end of the Meadows; it is now called ‘SUMMERHALL’ and has been transformed into a very active Art Centre. They are sort of aware that the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies has moved its student training and animal care research 7km south, to Easter Bush in Midlothian. But do they know the story of Mary Dick, the sister of its founder, William Dick? It seems that almost nothing was written about women like her back in the early eighteen hundreds. Who was she? What was she like? What did she do? How do you find out?

“How about getting her to tell her own story?” “Apart for the wee problem of her being dead for over a hundred years.”

“Well, we can begin the tale with what we know. Let’s see where that takes us.”

Fig 1 Illustration of White Horse Close (J. Skene, c.1818).

Who was she? What was she like? What did she do? How do you find out?

By Alastair A Macdonald and Colin M Warwick MBE

The heavily corbelled spire of Barclay Viewforth Church came into view as we turned into Jawbone Walk. A slight breeze rustled the leaves.

“Mary Dick’s mum and dad came from farming stock, near Old Deer in Aberdeenshire. They moved to Edinburgh in about the mid 1780s and came to live in White Horse Close (Figure 1), on the north side of the foot of the Canongate.”

“Wasn’t Mary born there?”

“Aye. I was born there on the 1st June 1791. My brother William too, on the 6th May 1793. Our father was a farrier. He made and fitted horseshoes. I had another wee baby brother, James, born too early in December 1793, but he died on the 21st July of the next year. I still had my brother William, and I was very fond of him. We played together in the White Horse Close yard.”

“In 1795, when I was four years old, we flitted to live on the north side of Rose Street in Edinburgh’s New Town (Figure 2A). Father said we were the tenants of Mr Porteous, as was our neighbour, the kindly Mrs Shaw, or was it Mrs Law; I forget now. It was there that my wee sister, Georgina was born, about the start of November 1795. The three of us were growing up and played a lot together, and with other children, in the back lane and in the street, watching out for the horses and carts. I minded my wee William and Georgina. Early in January 1798 another wee brother was born; he was also called James. Mr Storrie had the smithy and farriery business in Rose Street, and Mr Young and Mr Laing were the teachers who lived quite near us.”

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March 2018 Issue number 39 The only independent Pro Scottish magazine on sale today