The Laird Of Udny’s Fool
Of all the sayings about fools I’ve come across Jamie Fleeman’s is the most perceptive. Who was Jamie Fleeman? He was employed as a fool – a clown – by the Laird o’ Udny at Knockhall Castle near Newburgh, up the coast from Aberdeen.
“Are you the Laird of Udny’s fool?”
“Aye,” Fleeman said, “an fa’s fool are you?”
Except Jamie Fleeman would have said “feel” spikkin Doric as he did – which gives rise to that everyday expression in these parts, g’wa ye feel.
Court jesters and fools have gone, I think, but clowns are still with us although I suspect they are far less popular as entertainers than they were once. Royal court or big hoose clowns were not usually chosen for their sharp wits, although surely some were, but mainly because of something odd in their appearance that made them the butt of jokes. Painters have recorded scenes from European court life that reveal a penchant for males and females of stunted growth who were kept for as long as they were amusing, not only for their looks but how well they danced and sang and sometimes for their witty or silly talk. Such was the clamour for short-legged court jesters in the middle ages unfortunate children who were selected for that part had their growth stunted so they could better fit the bill; in Russia it was de rigueur for court clowns to be chosen because of their unusual appearance, the uglier the better.
No very prosperous or powerful household in the middle ages (and much later), conscious of its status, was complete without a jester or fool to boost its army of servants pandering and catering for their every whim and incapacity or as one of Aberdeen’s local newspapers put it,
In those days every laird had his ‘feel,’
and the greater the ‘feel’ the more the laird was respected.
Jane the Foole is perhaps the figure on the far left
Usually fools were male but not exclusively. Two prominent female fools were Jane the Foole at the English Tudor court in the sixteenth century and in France Astaude du Puy hired to amuse Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, a century later.
As late as the nineteenth century Mongkut, King of Siam, employed Nai Teh to fool around, perform gymnastics and generally help him endure life’s long idle hours while his people wore out their fingers maintaining him in wealthy boredom.
Court fools could become confidants of their masters or mistresses because they lived cheek-by-jowl with them and so could get away with being open and critical in their opinions because of their special relationship. They, alone, among staff and hangers-on were not expected to exhibit lackey deference, general fawning and ass-licking that royals, aristocrats and other sub-species generally expect from them.
Fools, as I’ve said, were often sought out as children and trained for the position. Claus Narr was ‘appointed’ in this way. This little German boy was herding geese when he was spotted by a courtier and his father happily accepted 20 guilders for his child.
The prospect of living in a palace as an alternative to sucking on stones throughout their lives probably held a certain appeal for some fools with a thick skin. It was not for everyone, however. Paul Wüst had no qualms about turning down Duke Eberhard the Bearded of Württemberg –
My father sired his own fool; if you want one too, then go and sire one for yourself.
And, looking around, who’s to argue they haven’t done just that?
Back in Scotland King James VI* took on Archie Armstrong, a sheep stealer from Eskdale in the Borders as his court jester but he never made the mark in life that Jamie Fleeman did despite being attached to the royal Stewarts.
Jamie Fleeman’s renown stems mainly from his one brilliant utterance but how many of us will be remembered for anything we say, far less anything so insightful?
Knockhall Castle ruin
Jamie lived in the eighteenth century (that is the 1700s for those who are confused over centuries) and conformed to the idea of odd-looking fools for he reportedly had a big round head and sticking-up hair. He trebled up as the Laird o’ Udny’s cow and goose herd and as a goose herder he is remembered for another anecdote. One day walking home with the Laird’s special geese Jamie was anxious not to lose any and so he tied straw ropes around their necks to lead them back home. He walked on tugging on the ropes as he went and when he arrived back at the laird’s house he discovered he had unwittingly throttled the geese and had dragged back a herd of carcasses. Panicking over how to explain the loss Jamie stuffed feed into the birds’ mouths and when asked how the geese were he replied:
Safe! and gobble, gobble, gobblin as if they had nae seen meat for a twalmonth. Safe! I warran they’re safe aneuch, if they hae nae choked themsells
Another Fleeman anecdote tells how he went up to a minister with a horse shoe he found and asked the minister what it was. The minister replied –
“Why Jamie, any fool would know that it is a horse shoe”
Fleeman said –
“Ah, what it is to be wise – to ken it’s no a meer’s shoe.”
Famously when dying he said, poignantly –
“I’m of a gentle persuasion, dinna bury me like a beast”
or perhaps –
“I’m a Christian, dinna bury me like a beast”
Fleeman was said to have been immensely strong which proved handy when Knockhall Castle went on fire in 1734. Jamie’s barking dog alerted him but not the folk inside the castle so Jamie picked up and threw a large wooden chest through a window and none of them slept through that.
Mary Hay, Countess of Erroll
Mary Hay was the Countess of Erroll, a Lord High Constable, Knight Marischal of Scotland, Senior Great Officer among the Royal Officers of Scotland and Chief of the King’s Household in Scotland – oh, and a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She raised an army in support of the Jacobite uprising in 1745 with Slains Castle (inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula) a focus for the Jacobite cause. Hay used Fleeman to run messages for the Jacobites, including ones to and from Lord Pitsligo during the time he was in hiding at Auchiries from government troops under Butcher Cumberland who were ruthlessly hunting down Jacobites not slaughtered at Culloden. Jamie Fleeman was such a familiar sight in the neighbourhood and being the person he was did not raise suspicion he might be a courier. Hay lost her Slains estate following the failure of the ’45 when it was seized by the government in London and sold off.
Despite being a mere pauper gowk Jamie Fleeman did not just disappear as might be expected instead he left a remarkable impression on the world. He had a biographer, John Pratt, who wrote this of him in his The Life and Death of Jamie Fleeman:
Before the eighteenth century, about the middle of which Jamie Fleeman flourished, matters wore a very different aspect. Jamie was perhaps the ultimus Homanorum, the last of the race of Scottish family fools—a class of beings which the author of Waverley has rendered so familiar to every one by his picture of ” Daft Davie Gellatly.” Jamie differed from his brethren and ancestors in this, that whereas the great majority of them were ” fenyet fules,” he was, in most respects, naturally what he appeared to be, and by chance fell into the very situation in which he was capable of acting a conspicuous part.
Pratt believed a fool’s character was partly real and partly feigned.
Apart from Walter Scott’s Waverley character of Davie Gellatley, Fleeman got a mention in Bram Stoker’s, Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories:
‘Na! Na!’ came the answer, ’there is nae sic another fule in these parts. Nor has there been since the time o’ Jamie Fleeman–him that was fule to the Laird o’ Udny. Why, mon! sic a heathenish dress as ye have on till ye has nae been seen in these pairts within the memory o’ mon. An’ I’m thinkin’ that sic a dress never was for sittin’ on the cauld rock, as ye done beyont. Mon! but do ye no fear the rheumatism or the lumbagy wi’ floppin’ doon on to the cauld stanes wi’ yer bare flesh? I was thinking that it was daft ye waur when I see ye the mornin’ doon be the port, but it’s fule or eediot ye maun be for the like o’ thot!’
(Bram Stoker, Crooken Sands)
Caught on the road in the cold and torrential rain one day in 1778 Jamie Fleeman became feverish and in his desperation to find shelter he broke into a barn at Little Ardiffery at Cruden injuring himself in the process. He was patched up and set-off the eight miles to his home at Longside. Normally he would have covered this distance in no time but because of his injury and the sickness that had struck him he took a whole day to get back home. Two days later the Laird o’ Udny’s feel was deid.
Born in 1713 at a croft at Longside near Peterhead Jamie died not so far away at Kinmundy, in 1778. There hasn’t been a published volume of his wit and wisdom but from accounts he did have a way with words and wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions. As a young man his quick wit was noticed by many but it didn’t earn him riches. He was listed as a pauper in the Statistical Account for Longside.
Nearly a century later, in 1861 a tombstone was erected to Jamie Fleeman, the Laird of Udny’s fool when funds were raised in the northeast of Scotland by those who thought it wrong Jamie was buried in an unmarked grave – normal for very poor people. The stone was sculpted by George Donaldson of Aberdeen and inscribed –
Erected in 1861, to indicated the grave of Jamie Fleeman,
in answer to his prayer, “Dinna bury me like a beast.”
Reporters at Aberdeen Journal were sniffy about erecting a memorial to a simple pauper and suggested to readers the money raised should have gone to repair the tablet over the grave of the Rev. Mr Skinner, author of Tulloch-gorum.
The decline of the European court clown was slow in coming given they were still around in the nineteenth century but by then they were uncommon. Shemus Anderson was one of the last of them. He worked for the Bowes-Lyons some of you might know as the Queen Mother’s family – and the last to own a full-time jester in Scotland.
Jamie Fleeman’s brother is thought to have died on HMS Serapis. This ship fought against the rebels in the American Revolutionary War before being used as a pirate ship by the French. I don’t know when Jamie’s brother was killed – it may have been when the ship exchanged fire with an American ship under command of John Paul Jones. The Serapis was subsequently taken by the Americans then transferred to France and eventually lost following an accidental fire off Madagascar that involved a huge explosion.
Incidentally Fleming is the Anglicised equivalent is Fleeman.
The Life and Death of Jamie Fleeming: the Laird of Udny’s fool. by John Burnett Pratt was published by Lewis and James Smith in Aberdeen in 1859
*James VI or James I, as colonists know him.