Captain James Burnet

54] Captain James Burnet was the last captain of the City Guard before it was disbanded in 1817.  He was noted for his great bulk – nineteen stone – and for his keen appetite for food and drink;  ‘at the civic feasts, with which these palmy times abounded, no one did greater execution with the knife and fork.  He seldom retired with less than two bottles under his belt…’[i].  One of his drinking companions, the James Laing referred to above, bet that he could not climb Arthur’s Seat in fifteen minutes.  Burnett accepted the wager and set off accompanied by Alexander Smellie, acting as umpire, and reached the top with half a minute to spare.  He had to lie down for some time ‘like an expiring porpoise’ before recovering to celebrate his achievement with his friends.  Burnet was not a trained soldier, indeed before his appointment he had kept a grocer’s shop, but at that time the City Guard had become a largely symbolic remnant, having being replaced by an organised police force in 1805 .  He was however respected as a cheerful companion and an honest man.

The Alexander Smellie, who accompanied Burnet on his climb, was the son of William Smellie (above) who succeeded his father in the printing business.  Although he does not feature in the Painting, he deserves a mention for it is recorded in Kay’s Portraits that in 1798 he was involved in another bet taken in the Burgess Golfing Society ‘that no two members could be found capable of driving a ball over the spire of St Giles’s steeple’.  Smellie and a Mr Scales were selected to perform this formidable undertaking from the south-east corner of Parliament Square.  ‘They were allowed six balls each.  The balls passed considerably higher than the weather-cock, and were found nearly opposite the Advocates’ Close.  The height of the steeple, which is one hundred and sixty- one feet… was found to be much less than a good stroke of the club’[ii].

[i]Kay’s Portraits 2 p189

[ii] Ibid 2 p313