IT was on this date in the year 1637 that an incident occurred in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh which has become one of the best-known stories in Scottish folklore. But did it happen the way people say and was the woman at the centre of the tale a real person?

For once I am going to not just give the facts as I have ascertained them, but will also try to resolve the issue that has had historians and writers debating the existence of a person for centuries.

The historically minded among you will know that I am referring to the legend – not a myth – of Jenny Geddes, who is said to have hurled her stool at Dean James Hannay as he attempted to read from the Book of Common Prayer imposed on the Presbyterian people of Scotland, and the other Protestant peoples of England, Wales and Ireland, by the very Anglican King Charles I, the ultimate believer in the divine right of kings.

I have no doubt that the stool-throwing happened and that it started a rebellion that spread, suspiciously quickly, to other congregations across the country and in turn helped to cause the National Covenant of 1638 that was a casus belli of the Bishops Wars waged by Charles I and in turn caused the Wars of Three Kingdoms.

As to whether it all happened in the way that has been handed down through the centuries is another question, or set of questions, altogether.

The reason I say the St Giles incident happened is that too many people saw it and their accounts spread far and wide, but all retained a core element – a woman threw a stool in protest at the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer.

We also know for definite that there was a riot in Edinburgh on that day. Numerous accounts, some contemporaneous, tell of a disturbance starting St Giles with the throwing of a stool at the Dean, which then spread to many in the congregation who not only protested loudly but also threw items at the clergy. They were ejected out on to the High Street where a riot ensued.

The background to the riot, in effect a religious rebellion against the King, involved Charles I being determined that there should be a common liturgy throughout his kingdoms. Scotland’s Reformation had gone further than that of England – where Anglicans retained much that was Roman Catholic in words and appearance, much to the detestation of Scottish Presbyterians.

Writing Tales Of A Grandfather 190 years later, Sir Walter Scott summed up King Charles’s obsession with imposing the new liturgy and how it took two years of authorship – Scottish bishops took part in the process – before Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud decreed that the Book of Common Prayer was ready for use. It became known as Laud’s Liturgy.

Scott wrote: “The rash and fatal experiment was made, 23rd of July, 1637, in the High Church of Saint Giles Edinburgh, where the dean of the city prepared to read the new service before a numerous concourse of persons none of whom seem to have been favourably disposed to its reception.”

According to the accepted story, Jenny (Janet) Geddes, a street retailer who had a sideline in taking her seat to the Cathedral to reserve a place for a higher class of person, heard Dean Hannay’s initial words and realised from where they were taken.

She shouted “De’il gie you colic, the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?” which I translate as “The devil give a colic to your guts you false thief. Dare you say mass in my ear?”.

The trouble with that legend is that no one can prove that there ever was a Jenny Geddes or that she was present in St Giles that day. But I have always accepted that in Scotland where written history has not always been available, the oral memories passed down the generations are acceptable evidence of actual events.

The various clerics at St Giles have accepted that version. There is a plaque in the Cathedral which states: “Constant oral tradition, affirms that near this spot a brave Scotchwoman Janet Geddes on the 23 July, 1637, struck the first blow in the great struggle for freedom of conscience which, after a conflict of half a century ended in the establishment of civil and religious liberty.”

From the rioting in Edinburgh and elsewhere arose a Scotland-wide movement which in effect was a campaign against the Anglicisation of the Church of Scotland. The signing of the National Covenant in 1638 made the defence of the Kirk’s liturgy a matter of sworn conscience for hundreds of thousands of Scots.

Dean Hannay seems to have been a good minister to his people but he was expelled from his position when the Covenanters seized control of the Kirk.

There is another plaque in St Giles which states: “He was the first, and the last, who read the service book in this church. This memorial is erected in happier times by his descendants.”

The Clan Hannay website states: “We do not know specifically what happened to Dean Hannay after this point. However, two things point to his continued resistance to the Covenanter cause. His son was a noted royalist in later actions. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Dean Hannay’s children were provided with a pension by the parliament. The awarding of a pension to his children was for the hardships he suffered in the royalist cause.”

We have no idea if Jenny Geddes ever signed the Covenant but there is evidence that she survived into her sixties and saw the Restoration of the Monarchy after the dreadful decade of the 1650s when Scotland was occupied by Oliver Cromwell’s troops.

For me the clinching evidence for the actual existence of Janet Geddes is the true story of our National Bard, Robert Burns, and his purchase of a mare in Edinburgh for his trip to the Highlands. He paid over £4 sterling for the horse and promptly named her Jenny Geddes.