Failing eyesight led to one of Christmasâ€™s favourite characters
HIS name became an aphorism for meanness, but the base nature of Ebenezer Scrooge was inadvertently fashioned by failing light and an author whose eyesight was equally dim.
The real “Scrooge”, an Edinburgh merchant, could not have been more different from his literary counterpart.
But the gloaming of an evening in the Capital, allied with an episode of mild dyslexia suffered by Charles Dickens, has forever associated Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie with one of the Victorian authorâ€™s most famous characters.
In life, Scroggie was apparently a rambunctious, generous and licentious man who gave wild parties, impregnated the odd serving wench and once wonderfully interrupted the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland by grabbing the buttocks of a hapless countess.
However, it was in 1841 when his entire life was misconstrued by Dickens.
Dickens was in the capital to deliver a lecture to an audience of Edinburgh notables. He was wandering the city, killing time before the talk, when he visited the Canongate Kirk graveyard.
There, as revealed by his diaries, he saw a memorial slab which read: “Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie – meal man”. The description referred to his main trade as a corn merchant. However, the author mistakenly translated it as “mean man”.
Though he was shocked by the description, it gave him food for thought and two years later, art imitated life – or so the author believed.
When A Christmas Carol , one of Dickensâ€™ finest works, was published in 1843, it featured Ebenezer Scrooge, a “mean man” erroneously based on Ebenezer Scroggie.
Dickens always believed his creation was rooted in truth. Later, he wrote that while Scots had a reputation for frugality, they were not mean. It must have “shrivelled” Scroggieâ€™s soul, said Dickens, to carry “such a terrible thing to eternity”.
But, now, appropriately, on the eve of Christmas, Scroggieâ€™s reputation is restored. Peter Clark, a political economist and former Conservative ministerial aide who has researched the episode, said: “Iâ€™ve always thought A Christmas Carol was splendid, a story of redemption, but Scrooge was based on Scroggie, who could not have been more different.
“Mere chance associated him with Dickensâ€™ creation.”
Details of Scroggieâ€™s life are sparse, but he was a vintner as well as a corn merchant. He won the catering contract for the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, the first British monarch to visit since Culloden. He also secured the first contract to supply whisky to the Royal Navy.
Scroggie was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife; his mother was the niece of Adam Smith, the 18th century political economist and philosopher.
Mr Clark added: “Scroggie was not mean-spirited, but he did attract the admonition of the Church of Scotland by having a child out of wedlock to a servant in 1830. It is alleged he â€˜ravishedâ€™ her upon a gravestone. Still, what else was there to do in Edinburgh in 1830?”
Perhaps Scroggieâ€™s most delightful claim to fame was the result of his dramatically halting proceedings at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, when he “goosed” the Countess of Mansfield during a particularly earnest debate.
“It fairly dampened the proceedings,” said Mr Clark.
Scroggie also features on the internet, where his life is being examined by North American “relatives” eager to visit his grave. Alas, his final resting place is no more. The grave was lost to redevelopment in 1932.
And there is one other hitherto unrecognised by-product of the connection to Scrooge.
Mr Clark added: “Apparently Dickensâ€™ novel killed off â€˜Ebenezerâ€™ as a parentsâ€™ name of choice for their children.
“A bit like â€˜Edwinaâ€™, in our own time, you might say – although I canâ€™t imagine why.”