Sunday 3 October 2021

Greenock town drum

I recently visited the McLean Museum, part of the Watt Institution in Greenock.  One of my favourite objects in the Museum is the Greenock town drum.  It it beautifully illustrated with a picture of a sailing ship and men with barrels on the quayside.

This was an important item in Greenock's history.  Throughout Scotland many towns had their own drummer who would be employed by the town council to rally the inhabitants to a particular place to hear national proclamations and important news which the local council felt that everyone should hear.  The drummer could also be used to advertise travelling merchants coming to the town and other less important events.

From the town directory we know that in 1805 Greenock's Drummer was James Skinner who lived at Taylor's Close in Greenock.  Taylor's Close ran from Dalrymple Street south to Hamilton Street, very near where the Central Library is today.  The drummer was paid by the council and they also provided a uniform and paid when the town drum needed repaired.

The drummer would also alert townsfolk if there was to be a hanging or if a criminal was to receive a public punishment.  No doubt the sound of the drum would stir up great excitement in the town.  In the past there was a form of punishment called banishment, where wrong-doers were "drummed out of town" and banished from the area for their crimes.  

A man named John Smith was found guilty of stealing some candles.  His punishment was "to be taken from the court and be put into the jougs there to stand bareheaded for half an hour with some of the candles hung around his neck and a libel upon his breast with the following words upon it:- "Here I stand for stealing candles."  After his stance in the jougs he was to be drummed out of the town, and thereafter banished from the same for life."  (Dugald Campbell, Historical Sketched of the Town and Harbours of Greenock, 1879.)

Here in Greenock we have another link with the town drum - Drummer's Close.  It can still be seen today and runs south from Dalrymple Street at the side of the Municipal Buildings.  Anyone who was sentenced to banishment would be taken from the square with the drummer leading the way and from then on that person was no longer allowed to live in the local area.

Source - Watt Institution, Greenock

There's a curious incident related in Daniel Weir's The History of Greenock in which he states that when the Flesh Market and slaughter-house (situated funnily enough in Market Street) was rebuilt in 1815 the first cow to be slaughtered there (by James Bartlemore) was "paraded through the town dressed in ribbons with the town drum beating before it".

Being the Town Drummer must have been quite an interesting job!

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