It’s the chef-d’oeuvre of all festive tales whose miserly protagonist requires zero introduction, but the origins of Ebenezer Scrooge are well worth exploring - many claim he was inspired by a real-life Edinburgh merchant.
The story goes that, prior to giving a lecture in the Capital in 1841, Dickens headed to the Canongate for a time-killing stroll around its kirkyard. It is here, as recorded in Dickens’ own diaries, that he stumbled upon a headstone in memoriam to “Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie - a meal man”, the description alluding to Scroggie’s occupation as a corn merchant. Dickens, in a mild bout of dyslexia, mistook this for “a mean man”, and mulled over why the late Ebenezer would be forced to bear such a cheerless sobriquet for all eternity.
Nonetheless, the gravestone had just provided Dickens with the basis for what would become one of his most famous characters. As misinterpretations go, you have to say it didn’t work out too badly.
Ebenezer Scroggie’s headstone was removed in the 1930s during a redevelopment of Canongate Kirkyard, but Edinburgh’s ‘meal man’ was indeed a real man.
Parish records show that Scroggie, a cousin of the economist Adam Smith, was born in Kirkcaldy in 1792.
A vintner and corn merchant by trade, Scroggie secured the first contract to supply whisky to the Royal Navy offices at Leith, and even became the chief beverages supplier for King George IV’s famous visit to the Capital in 1822. Incredibly, two bottles of “Scroggie’s Highland Brandie”, produced at the request of Sir Walter Scott for the royal visit, are said to survive.
Scroggie lived in the Grassmarket above what is now the Beehive Inn - a stone’s throw from Edinburgh’s main cornmarket at that time - which was convenient for a mealman.
Like his Dickensian counterpart, Scroggie was not short of a bob or two, but that’s where the similarity ends.
In life, Scroggie earned a reputation as a warm, jovial character who threw decadent parties and was no shrinking violet when it came to the ladies - as the Countess of Mansfield discovered for herself when Scroggie groped her buttocks at a packed General Assembly of the Church of Scotland one year.
That’s not to say that Scroggie was a salacious lout of low-intellect. One of the merchant’s close acquaintances was William Smellie, the author and creator of the first ever Encyclopaedia Britannica. According to Smellie, the concept of collating all the world’s information into a series of books came from the brilliant mind of Ebenezer Scroggie. However, despite his colourful life and list of unique achievements, Scroggie remains an unknown; barely a footnote in Edinburgh’s history.
Speaking in 2004, Peter Clark, a political economist and researcher of Ebenezer Scroggie, said: “I’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 Dickens’ creation.”
Ebenezer Scroggie was buried at Canongate Kirkyard’s cemetery in 1836 - just metres away from his famous cousin Adam Smith.
For those keen to get up close and personal with the mealman himself, a free Grassmarket pop-up play telling the real story of the inspiration behind Scrooge will take place as part of the Greater Grassmarket BID’s Festive Weekend (Saturday 17th & Sunday 18th December).
The show will feature former Grassmarket residents Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson, Margaret Hare, wife of notorious murderer William Hare, and Ebenezer Scroggie who will re-enact what life would have been like in the Grassmarket.
As part of the stage show visitors will also be taken on a short walk through the Grassmarket finishing at Scroggie’s former home where the adults can enjoy a free glass of mulled wine.
Performances take place on the hour from 1pm – 4pm, lasting 20 minutes each and are free to all visitors.