Hugo Arnot and John Duncan

24] Hugo Arnot (1749-1786) is described in Kay’s Portraits as being of great height but sadly deficient in breadth. He suffered severely from asthma which no doubt contributed to his asthenic appearance apparent in Kay’s etching. He is described as ‘The reverse of Falstaff in figure, he resembled that creature of imagination in being not only witty himself, but the cause of wit in others’[i]. His friend and fellow advocate, Henry Erskine, wrote a verse which referred to Arnot’s physique:

Though bawdy and blasphemy may be forgiven,
To flesh and to blood, by the mercy of Heaven;
Yet I've searched the whole Scriptures, and texts I find none,
Extending that mercy to skin and to bone.

His name was originally Pollock, but he changed it to Arnot on falling heir to the estate of Balcormo in Fife.  He became a member of the Faculty of Advocates in 1772, but his practice at the bar was limited by his asthma and by his refusal to undertake any cause, the justice and legality of which he was not perfectly satisfied.  He made up for this by becoming an author firstly of An Essay on Nothing which was favourably received.  In 1776 he published his History of Edinburgh which became a classic which has been frequently referred to in this site.  This was followed by a Collection of Celebrated Criminal Trials, in 1785.  Arnot’s extraordinary figure, his public spirit, his numerous eccentricities, his caustic wit and humour, made him popular.  Kay was so fascinated with him that he appears in four of his engravings.  In the Painting he is seen giving largesse to a familiar beggar, John Duncan. 

25] John Duncan or Gingerbread Jock tried to eke out a living by selling gingerbread in Parliament Square.  He placed his cakes on the ground and for a halfpenny potential buyers were given a short pole with which they were invited to knock over one of the cakes.  If they succeeded the cake was theirs, if they failed Duncan kept the coin.  Somehow the arrangement or shape of the cakes made it difficult to succeed and Duncan was usually the winner of the game which was referred to as Roley-Poley.  Later in life he gave up his precarious business enterprise and resorted to begging.     

[i] Ibid 1p 17                                                                                                                   

[ii] Another version of this epigram is given in Chambers, R. (1833)  p12