An Account of the Accidental Death of an Elephant in Dundee in the year 1706, |
described by an Engraver resident in that Town.
Together with some Short Remarks on the Hall of Rarities, and the Life of Dr Patrick Blair,
including Extracts from his remarkable Essay Osteographia Elephantina Taodunensis
published by The Royal Society of London in 1710.
The Whole Presented to the Public by 'Senex', Dundee, 1830
One of Blair's associates is Gilbert Orum, harassed debtor, neglected husband, harassed father, under-employed tradesman; and skilled copper engraver. In the last of these capacities, he is engaged by Blair to assist in the messier moments of the dissection, and to make engravings of the elephant's internal organs and skeleton. Far from being inspired by this historic task, Orum is much more concerned about keeping clear of all his creditors, or - if he cannot avoid them - repaying his debts with anything other than what he lacks most: ready cash. Some of the more unusual body-parts from the dissected elephant become a form of currency in his endeavours to pay off the butcher, the baker, the chandler, the blacksmith.
Orum also has troubles in his family-life - his wife is sickly and suffers from extreme nervousness; so do all his children; he is relentlessly pursued by a no-longer-young woman, who waits only for his wife's death to capture the widower for herself; he needs be swift to avoid the baker's wife, a large lady of a whimsical age, who is keen to convert his debts into 'certain services'; and he feels obliged to look out for his older brother, who leads a chaotic life with his family of ten. Orum is torn in his feelings about Blair - between his gratitude to the doctor for treating his wife and family and for providing him with occasional work, and his contempt for a man whom he sees driven only by ambition and an insatiable urge to dissect, to the detriment of all other human qualities.
The people of Scotland are, at the time of the death of the Elephant, greatly diverted by the proposed Union of the Parliaments. At almost the same time as the elephant expires, the Commissioners, who are to draw up the Act of Union, begin their negotiations. A number of the great and worthy of Dundee have much to gain and lose by the Act of Union; Blair himself is a closet Jacobite, but wishes none of his sympathies to get in the way of his scientific ambitions.