The Domestic Griefs Of Gustavus McIver – it begins

Wilson’s Tales is a record of our region’s history, legends and people, first serialised in the Berwick Advertiser in the 1830s. The Wilson’s Tales Project is re-telling them for a modern audience.

Sunday, 14th April 2019, 1:29 pm
Gustavus McIver. Picture by Claire Jenkins.

Gustavus McIver was a veteran of the Peninsular Wars and the Siege of St Sebastian; a good man, with the authority that came from his mighty stature, calm presence and ability to hold his tongue.

Retired from the wars, he was back home in Edinburgh’s Canongate. And there, like the giant Goliath, he was felled by a wee thing barely bigger than one of his huge limbs.

Little Julia Briggs saw in him exactly what she wanted: the ability to provide a home and protection. And the sight of her skipping along, showing her ankle and taking saucy glances, was his downfall. When she reached her mother’s house, she displayed herself at a window with her cap off and her hair loose while Gustavus stood outside in the throes of hopeless passion.

Within three days, he presented himself at her door. They were married a week later. And so began the domestic griefs of Gustavus McIver.

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In his new domestic environment, Gustavus was still a soldier – his orders to Julia were more martial than marital. But getting a wife is one thing; ruling her is another.

He sacked his servant to keep his wife busy lest Satan should find other activities for her. But Julia had given up work as a seamstress and had no intention of cooking. She had married for her own convenience: his need for clean linens and well-cooked victuals didn’t concern her.

She became a professional incompetent, spoiling every piece of domestic labour. Gustavus was an excellent cook and could keep his linen in good order. So he took control of the kitchen, and was often seen in his apron, washing and dressing their linen better than any washerwoman that danced the trough.

Julia fell into the habits of idleness. Tucked away in the Edinburgh closes, she had access to dram shops and secret stills – and swallowed good whisky in choppins.

A man whose very look had spread terror was reduced to ministering to one of the smallest women who ever drew breath – and one of the greatest drunkards that ever supped whisky!

He tried to stop her supplies; but still she managed to drink. He locked her in her room; but she yelled for the constables. He tried to saturate her till she drank herself to death; but she thanked him for his kindness, drank herself into a stupor and had to be carried to bed. Night after night.

Gustavus devised a more drastic strategy: he would remove her from the temptations of the city and found an isolated cottage – and that’s where his domestic griefs began in earnest.

NEXT WEEK: When you’re in a hole, stop digging!

Retold by Christine Fletcher, adapted by Joe Lang and illustrated by Claire Jenkins. Read the full story and background in Volume 4 of the Wilson’s Tales Revival Edition, £8.50, from Berwick booksellers or