A wedding and three widows

30 May 1846

A party of folk awaited the bride and groom at the door of Jennie Rennie’s tavern on the northern slopes of Hospital Hill. The trickle of cottages south from the town, called The Spittal, contained a tavern run by the redoubtable Jennie Rennie or Adamson, to use her maiden name. Alongside her stood her sister-in-law Janet Bell whose maiden name was Rennie and was the sister of Jennie’s late husband John Rennie. All around them stood a gaggle of sons and daughters, nephews and nieces. Another woman moved towards the group; this was another of Jennie’s sisters– in-laws, Julia Adamson, the widow of one of Jennie’s brothers. Together the three women ran the public house. The best run and most peaceful howff in the town it undoubtedly was.

Down from the Netherton, along Bothwell Street to the Spittal Brig came John Roe, mariner, and his new wife, Mary Rennie aged 21. They crossed the bridge with its elegant single arch with handsome stone pillars on either side. John looked up and waved to the waiting crowd who shouted back and surged down St Leonards Street to meet them. There were still a few ruined walls left of the ancient Leper Hospital of St Leonard. Both it and the stone Cross of the Spittal had been damaged by the victorious Roundheads after the Battle of Inverkeithing in 1651, and the last burial in St Leonards had been fifty years before. 

Mary was Jennie’s favourite daughter and it was a good-looking couple that she and her new husband made.  It was a pity that he would likely be away at sea such a lot, but the Rennies and the Adamsons and the Bells knew all about women running a home, with or without a husband, and no doubt this would be no exception.

“Well Mary, are you married?” shouted her cousin Jean Bell, the oldest daughter of Janet Bell.

“We are that! The Minister wrote in his book that having had our names three times proclaimed at kirk, and there being no objections, that we were able to be married, and we were. It must be legal!”

The wedding party crowded into the single-story tavern, and the stoneware beakers of ale came into full action. Just when matters were at their loudest, the door swung open and a Royal Marine in a red jacket ducked under the lintel, black hat under his arm. 

“Hame again then Jackie boy” said Jennie through the gloom of pipe smoke.

“Aye, just back a couple of days, and here wi’ ma faither to wish young Mary good luck”

At this, the Marine and an older man of around sixty years both crowded into the interior of the tavern. This was John McLaren Adamson, and his father, Alexander Adamson, a ploughman and sometime carter, and one of Jenny’s brothers.

They found a bit of space with the help of Jennie, who had always liked her nephew, albeit illegitimate.

“Drinks for the both you.  ---Janet, bring the pitcher over, will you?

Now John, you’ll have met my late husband’s niece, Jean Bell? She is a farm servant at Hilton Farm these days.”

There was a silence as they looked at each other for the first time. She couldn’t help but think that he was rather old at nearly forty, but he had nice blue eyes, and likely more stories of far away places than she would ever get from any shepherd, ploughman or weaver.  She smiled.


  1. According to the 1841 census, Jennie Rennie herself and her three youngest children lived in the tavern, whilst Julia Adamson and her granddaughter lived next door. There is still a footpath leading to the Grange Road, where Janet Bell lived in 1841 with her four youngest children. Together the three widows (Jennie, Julia and Janet) ran the public house.  What else were widowed women with family responsibilities to do? It was a practical solution for the three sisters-in-law to band together and run a tavern. The ‘Jennie Rennie Tavern’ was a famous landmark for generations, as people left Dunfermline on the road south to the Queensferry and Rosyth. The public house still operates, although a second storey was added in 1904, and the name has changed twice. It became the Auld Toll Tavern, and more recently the Olive Tree. It is at 121 St Leonard Street. Jennie Rennie’s Road is situated west off St Leonards Place. It is named after Jennie Rennie nee Adamson according to Sheila Pitcairn’s most excellent book on the origins of the street names of Dunfermline.
  2. Janet Bell’s oldest daughter, Jean Bell was a farm servant at Hilton Farm, Inverkeithing at the time of the 1841 census. This is about three miles from Hospital Hill. Curiously, The Dunfermline Maternity Hospital (now closed) was built on Hospital Hill in 1934, though the hill is named after the ancient leper Hospital of St Leonard.
  3. Jennie (Adamson) Rennie and her sister-in-law, Janet (Rennie) Bell were both born in Inverkething around 1796. They must have been good friends because in the 1851 census they are shown as living next door to each other and each bringing up one of John and Mary Roe’s young daughters because poor Mary was dead.
  4. In early 1846, John McLaren Adamson had just completed his third voyage whilst embarked on HMS Serpent. The family bible is inscribed “Presented by James H Lang, December 1845, to John McL Adamson as a token of remembrance”.  The book was purchased from Gorman and Co, Kirby Street, Hatton Gardens, London.
  5. Jean Bell waited for John McLaren Adamson to return from his voyage to Africa before marrying him in 1850. In a strange way, the ‘Jenny Rennie Tavern’ connected them both. John McLaren Adamson was the nephew by blood of Jenny Adamson (now Rennie), and equally Jean Bell was the niece by blood of John Rennie, the late husband of Jenny. 
  6. A series of Leper Hospitals were built in the Middle Ages, dedicated to St Leonard. It would appear from the documents of Dunfermline Abbey that there was a Leper Hospital founded as early as 1227. Later, the Hospital became an alms house. 
  7. At one time, Dunfermline had eight breweries and was famous for its ale. Not everyone however was able to afford it. “as I sat near the Spittal crosshead; Dumfarlinn, I thocht on; an o’ its guid broon ale ta sell; but siller I had none!”

      (Annals of Dunfermline).


Photograph of Jenny Rennie's when trading as the Auld Toll Tavern

Illustration of the sort of Royal Marine uniform worn by John McLaren Adamson

Painting of an early Victorian village wedding

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