Cock o’ the North

In February it feels like winter is eternal.  The people of Dornoch cheered themselves up with what we would consider a rather brutal amusement: a cockfight.  Early in the nineteenth century Donald Sage, a teenager from Kildonan, attended school in the town.  Although he later described it as a barbarous pastime, at the time he enthusiastically participated.

For schoolboys across Scotland the cockfight was the peak of entertainment.  Far from being a surreptitious activity for which the students would be punished, it was an intrinsic part of the school and community calendar.  Dornoch’s teacher, Mr. MacDonald, entered into it ‘with all the keenness of a Highlander and with all the method of a pedagogue’.  In the days leading up to the cockfight, am cluiche nan coileach, there was a ‘universal scrambling for cocks all over the parish’.  ‘We applied at every door, and pleaded hard for them.  In those primitive times, people never thought of demanding any pecuniary recompense for the birds for which we dunned them.’

Image

‘Cockfighting in London. 19th-century artwork of cockerels fighting at a royal cockpit (demolished 1816) in Birdcage Walk, near Whitehall, London, UK. This blood sport was banned in England and Wales in 1835. This artwork is from ‘The Microcosm of London’, a series of 104 hand-coloured aquatints depicting London buildings and scenes. They were published by Rudolph Ackermann between 1808 and 1810, and then collected in three folio volumes. The artworks combined architectural details by Charles Augustus Pugin, and human figures drawn by Thomas Rowlandson. This aquatint, published 1 May 1808, was engraved by John Bluck.’ 

Image and above text from British Library.

The main event was staged in the county court room.  The ‘chamber of justice was converted into a battle-field, where the feathered brood might, by their bills and claws, decide who among the juvenile throng should be king and queen.’  A stage was built and the schoolmaster seated himself on the bench where Sheriff McCulloch usually dispensed justice.  He was joined by a band of his friends who would judge the proceedings.  Any bird that refused to fight when placed on the stage was called a “fugie”, and it became the property of the teacher.  The winner was the youth whose bird had gained the greatest victories.  He was declared king and the lad in second place gained the title of queen.  The fights were over but the event was not.  The cockfight created such excitement in the town that it could be sustained to another day when the victors would be crowned.  Although the participants were the schoolboys and the judge was the teacher and his friends, the February cockfight was a community event.  It is not clear whether the fight itself was a male-only preserve, but it was the ladies in the town who ‘applied their elegant imaginations to devise, and their fair fingers to construct, crowns for the royal pair.’  They were also present on coronation day when the boys assembled in the Dornoch schoolhouse. Donald describes what happened.

‘The master sat at his desk, with the two crowns placed before him; the seats beside him being occupied by the “beauty and fashion” of the town.  The king and queen of cocks were then called out of their seats, along with those whom their ties had nominated as their life-guards.  Mr. MacDonald now rose, took a crown in his right hand, and after addressing the king in a short Latin speech, placed it upon his head.  Turning to the queen, and addressing her in the same learned language, he crowned her likewise.  Then the life-guards received suitable exhortations in Latin, in regard to the onerous duties that devolved upon them in the high place which they occupied, the address concluding with the words, “taque diligentissime attendite”.  A procession then began at the door of the schoolhouse, where we were all ranged by the master in our several ranks, their majesties first, their life-guards next, and then the “Trojan throng,” two and two, and arm in arm.  The town drummer and fifer marched before us and gave note of our advance, in strains which were intended to be both military and melodious.  After the procession was ended, the proceedings were closed by a ball and supper in the evening.’

Today’s community comes together in the summer at the Sutherland Agricultural Show and the Highland Gathering.  The differences are obvious: the attitude to animals is quite different, they do not revolve around the school and nor do the prize givings involve classical learning!  However, just like their cockfighting predecessors, the events involve competition, sport, judging, presentations, musical parades and dancing.  Today’s showing of cattle, athletics, pipe bands, silver cups and ceilidhs have replaced the cockfights, fife and drum, handmade crowns and dinner dance of two hundred years ago.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s