The Ayrshire Ventriloquist (1848)


To these brief notices a short account of Duncan Macmillan, "the Ayrshire Ventriloquist," as he has been denominated, may be appropriately added. The art or gift, of which he is possessed in an eminent degree, is not unworthy the consideration of the philosophic mind. It shows the varied powers, peculiarities, and beauties of the human voice, and the wonders that man, when so gifted, is capable of performing; and besides affording intellectual gratification and rational amusement, it enlarges our ideas of, and strengthens our belief in, the existence of that Omnipotent Being by whom man has been so wondrously made. [and it affords intellectual gratification and rational amusement of a singularly interesting kind] It is not out part, however, to give a dissertation on ventriloquial science, and we shall therefore proceed with the subject of our sketch.

Duncan Macmillan was born at Kilmarnock, in the beginning of the year 1817. The talents for which he has become so remarkable were manifested in early life. When at school, he made himself conspicuous, and frequently gave offence, by mimicking the voces of his master and class-fellows. The peculiarities, too, of some of the more noted individuals in the locality were also made the subjects of his vocal imitations; in proof of this we may mention that one old woman exclaimed to another, who was making complaints about his tricks, "'Deed, he's an unco callan, Duncan; but ye needna compleen, for he acts us a'." But our juvenile ventriloquist did not long confine himself to mere imitations. He soon made attempts at vocal deception; and was so felicitous and perfect in his performances, that, before he had reached the age of fourteen, his fame had spread over a great part of Ayrshire. Even at that time it may be said of him, in the words of Hudibras, -

"He had an odd promiscuous tone,
As if he'd spoke three parts in one,
Which made some think, when he did gabble,
They'd heard three labourers of Babel,
Or Cerberus himself pronounce
A leash of languages at once."

About the same period several of the nobility and gentry of the county, anxious to witness a display of his powers, honoured the young aspirant after ventriloquial renown by inviting him to their residences. Among these was the noble proprietor of Loudon castle. To that princely mansion, therefore, our hero repaired; and, in the presence of the Marquis and Marchioness of Hastings and a select party, he was so successful in displaying the wonders of the human voice, that the Marquis and Marchioness, and others of the company, believing he was destined to attain great eminence in the art, ventured a prediction to that effect - a prediction which has been literally verified. At length Mr. M, who had been dependent for support on one of our local trades, which was little calculated to advance his pecuniary interests, resolved to practice the art as a profession. A desire also to see the world, to mark the peculiarities of men and things, strengthened the resolution; and these he has evidently noted with the eye and mind of a true observer; for, in his public entertainments, they are portrayed and imitated with a fidelity and exactness truly astonishing. Wherever he has professionally appeared, the greatest success has attended his polyphonical and gastriloquial displays. His lectures, too, on the history of the art, and the lively original anecdotes he relates, give a zest to his performances; and, together with his unparalleled talents in imitation and vocal illusion, have won for him a name that will not speedily pass away.

Archibald McKay, A History of Kilmarnock From An Early Period to the Present Time; Including Biographical Notices of the More Eminent Individuals Belonging to the Locality (Kilmarnock: Matthew Wilson, 1848), pp. 260-2

Revision of paragraph one, from Archibald McKay, A History of Kilmarnock, 3rd edn (Kilmarnock: Archibald McKay, 1864), p. 258.



Compiled by Steven Connor as part of The Dumbstruck Archive, a continuing, online supplement to Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).