Home eBooks Index eBooks by Author Glossary Search eBooks

My Schools and Schoolmasters

The following is from My Schools and Schoolmasters by Hugh Miller:

Chapter XI

An antiquary in humble life--Poor Danie--Proficiency in porridge-making--Depressed health--A good omen--Close of apprenticeship

"The bounding pulse, the languid limb
  The changing spirit's rise and fall--
We know that these were felt by him,
  For these are felt by all."


The apprenticeship of my friend William Ross had expired during the working season of this year, when I was engaged at Conon-side; and he was now living in his mother's cottage in the parish of Nigg, on the Ross-shire side of the Cromarty Firth. And so, with the sea between us, we could no longer meet every evening as before, or take long night-walks among the woods. I crossed the Firth, however, and spent one happy day in his society, in a little, low-roofed domicile, with a furze-roughened ravine on the one side, and a dark fir-wood on the other; and which, though picturesque and interesting as a cottage, must, I fear, have been a very uncomfortable home. His father, whom I had not before seen, was sitting beside the fire as I entered. In all except expression he was wonderfully like my friend; and yet he was one of the most vapid men I ever knew--a man literally without an idea, and almost without a recollection or a fact. And my friend's mother, though she showed a certain kindliness of disposition which her husband wanted, was loquacious and weak. Had my quondam acquaintance, the vigorous-minded maniac of Ord, seen William and his parents, she would have triumphantly referred to them in evidence that Flavel and the Schoolmen were wholly in the right in holding that souls are not "derived through parental traduction."

My friend had much to show me: he had made an interesting series of water-colour sketches of the old castles of the neighbourhood, and a very elaborate set of drawings of what are known as the Runic obelisks of Ross: he had made some first attempts, too, in oil-painting; but though his drawing was, as usual, correct, there was a deadness and want of transparency about his colouring, which characterized all his after attempts in the same department, and which was, I suspect, the result of some such deficiency in his perceptions of the harmonies of colour as that which, in another department of sense, made me so insensible to the harmonies of sound. His drawings of the obelisks were of singular interest. Not only have the thirty years which have since elapsed exerted their dilapidating effect on all the originals from which he drew, but one of the number--the most entire of the group at that time--has been since almost wholly destroyed; and so, what he was then able to do, there can be no such opportunity of doing again. Further, his representations of the sculptured ornaments, instead of being (what those of artists too often are) mere picturesque approximations, were true in every curve and line. He told me he had spent a fortnight in tracing out the involved mathematical figures, curves, circles, and right lines--on which the intricate fretwork of one of the obelisks was formed, and in making separate drawings of each compartment, before commencing his draught of the entire stone. And, looking with the eye of the stone-cutter at his preliminary sketches, from the first meagre lilies that formed the ground-work of some involved and difficult knot, to the elaborate knot itself, I saw that, with such a series of drawings before me, I myself could learn to cut Runic obelisks, in all the integrity of the complex ancient style, in less than a fortnight. My friend had formed some striking and original views regarding the theology represented by symbol on these ancient stones--at that time regarded as Runic, but now held to be rather of Celtic origin. In the centre of each obelisk, on the more important and strongly relieved side, there always occurs a large cross, rather of the Greek than of the Roman type, and usually elaborately wrought into a fretwork, composed of myriads of snakes, raised in some of the compartments over half-spheres resembling apples. In one of the Ross-shire obelisks--that of Shadwick, in the parish of Nigg--the cross is entirely composed of these apple-like, snake-covered protuberances; and it was the belief of my friend, that the original idea of the whole, and, indeed, the fundamental idea of this school of sculpture, was exactly that so emphatically laid down by Milton in the opening argument of his poem--man's fall symbolized by the serpents and the apples, and the great sign of his restoration, by the cross. But in order to indicate that to the divine Man, the Restorer, the cross itself was a consequence of the Fall, even it was covered over with symbols of the event, and, in one curious specimen, built up of them. It was the snakes and apples that had reared, i.e., rendered imperative, the cross. My friend further remarked, that from this main idea a sort of fretwork had originated, which seemed more modern in some of its specimens than the elaborately-carved snakes, and strongly-relieved apples, but in which the twistings of the one, and the circular outlines of the others might be distinctly traced; and that it seemed ultimately to have passed from a symbol into a mere ornament; as, in earlier instances, hieroglyphic pictures had passed into mere arbitrary signs or characters. I know not what may be thought of the theory of William Ross; but when, in visiting, several years ago, the ancient ruins of Iona, I marked, on the more ancient crosses, the snakes and apparent apples, and then saw how the same combination of figures appeared as mere ornamental fretwork on some of the later tombs, I regarded it as more probably the right one than any of the others I have yet seen broached on the subject. I dined with my friend this day on potatoes and salt, flanked by a jug of water; nor were the potatoes by any means very good ones; but they formed the only article of food in the household at the time. He had now dined and breakfasted upon them, he said, for several weeks together; but though not very strengthening, they kept in the spark of life; and he had saved up money enough to carry him to the south of Scotland in the spring, where he trusted to find employment. A poor friendless lad of genius, diluting his thin consumptive blood on bad potatoes and water, and, at the same time, anticipating the labours of our antiquarian societies by his elaborate and truthful drawings of an interesting class of national antiquities, must be regarded as a melancholy object of contemplation; but such hapless geniuses there are in every age in which art is cultivated, and literature has its admirers; and, shrinkingly modest and retiring in their natures, the world rarely finds them out in time.

I found employment enough for my leisure during this winter in my books and walks, and in my uncle James's workshop, which, now that Uncle James had no longer to lecture me about my Latin, and my carelessness as a scholar in general, was a very pleasant place, where a great deal of sound remark and excellent information were always to be had. There was another dwelling in the neighbourhood in which I sometimes spent a not unpleasant hour. It was a damp underground room, inhabited by a poor old woman, who had come to the town from a country parish in the previous year, bringing with her a miserably deformed lad, her son, who, though now turned of twenty, more resembled, save in his head and face, a boy of ten, and who was so helpless a cripple, that he could not move from off his seat. "Poor lame Danie," as he was termed, was, notwithstanding the hard measure dealt him by nature, an even-tempered, kindly-dispositioned lad, and was, in consequence, a great favourite with the young people in the neighbourhood, especially with the humbly taught young women, who--regarding him simply as an intelligence, coupled with sympathies, that could write letters--used to find him employment, which he liked not a little, as a sort of amanuensis and adviser-general in their affairs of the heart. Richardson tells that he learned to write his Pamela by the practice he acquired in writing love-letters, when a very young lad, for half a score love-sick females, who trusted and employed him. "Poor Danie," though he bore on a skeleton body, wholly unfurnished with muscle, a brain of the average size and activity, was not born to be a novelist; but he had the necessary materials in abundance; and though secret enough to all his other acquaintance, I, who cared not a great deal about the matter, might, I found, have as many of his experiences as I pleased. I enjoyed among my companions the reputation of being what they termed "close-minded;" and Danie, satisfied, in some sort, that I deserved the character, seemed to find it a relief to roll over upon my shoulders the great weight of confidence which, rather liberally, as would seem, for his comfort, had been laid upon his own. It is recorded of himself by Burns, that he "felt as much pleasure in being in the secret of half the loves of the parish of Tarbolton, as ever did statesman in knowing the intrigues of half the Courts of Europe." And, writing to Dr. Moore, he adds, that it was "with difficulty" his pen was "restrained from giving him a couple of paragraphs on the love-adventures of his compeers, the humble inmates of the farm-house and cottage." I, on the other hand, bore my confidences soberly enough, and kept them safe and very close--regarding myself as merely a sort of back-yard of mind, in which Danie might store up at pleasure the precious commodities intrusted to his charge, which, from want of stowage, it cumbered him to keep, but which were his property, not mine. And though, I daresay, I could still fill more than "a couple of paragraphs" with the love-affairs of townswomen, some of whose daughters were courted and married ten years ago, I feel no inclination whatever, after having kept their secrets so long, to begin blabbing them now. Danie kept a draft-board, and used to take a pride in beating all his neighbours; but in a short time he taught me--too palpably to his chagrin--to beat himself; and finding the game a rather engrossing one besides, and not caring to look on the woe-begone expression that used to cloud the meek pale face of my poor acquaintance, every time he found his men swept off the board, or cooped up into a corner, I gave up drafts, the only game of the kind of which I ever knew anything, and in the course of a few years succeeded in unlearning pretty completely all the moves. It appeared wonderful that the processes essential to life could have been carried on in so miserable a piece of framework as the person of poor Danie: it was simply a human skeleton bent double, and covered with a sallow skin. But they were not carried on in it long. About eighteen months after the first commencement of our acquaintance, when I was many miles away, he was seized by a sudden illness, and died in a few hours. I have seen, in even our better works of fiction, less interesting characters portrayed than, poor gentle-spirited Danie, the love-depository of the young dames of the village; and I learned a thing or two in his school.

It was not until after several weeks of the working season had passed, that my master's great repugnance to doing nothing overcame his almost equally great repugnance again to seek work as a journeyman. At length, however, a life of inactivity became wholly intolerable to him; and, applying to his former employer, he was engaged on the previous terms--full wages for himself, and a very small allowance for his apprentice, who was now, however, recognised as the readier and more skilful stone-cutter of the two. In cutting mouldings of the more difficult kinds, I had sometimes to take the old man under charge, and give him lessons in the art, from which, however, he had become rather too rigid in both mind and body greatly to profit. We both returned to Conon-side, where there was a tall dome of hewn work to be erected over the main archway of the steading at which we had been engaged during the previous year; and, as few of the workmen had yet assembled on the spot, we succeeded in establishing ourselves as inmates of the barrack, leaving the hay-loft, with its inferior accommodation, to the later comers. We constructed for ourselves a bed-frame of rough slabs, and filled it with hay; placed our chests in front of it; and, as the rats mustered by thousands in the place, suspended our sack of oatmeal by a rope, from one of the naked rafters, at rather more than a man's height over the floor. And, having both pot and pitcher, our household economy was complete. Though resolved not to forego my evening walks, I had determined to conform also to every practice of the barrack; and as the workmen, drafted from various parts of the country, gradually increased around us, and the place became crowded, I soon found myself engaged in the rolicking barrack-life of the north-country mason. The rats were somewhat troublesome. A comrade who slept in the bed immediately beside ours had one of his ears bitten through one night as he lay asleep, and remarked, that he supposed it would be his weasand they would attack next time; and, on rising one morning, I found that the four brightly plated jack-buttons to which my braces had been fastened had been fairly cut from off my trousers, and carried away, to form, I doubt not, a portion of some miser-hoard in the wall. But even the rats themselves became a source of amusement to us, and imparted to our rude domicile, in some little degree, the dignity of danger. It was not likely that they would succeed in eating us all up, as they had done wicked Bishop Hatto of old; but it was at least something that they had begun to try.

The dwellers in the hay-loft had not been admitted in the previous season to the full privileges of the barrack, nor had they been required to share in all its toils and duties. They had to provide their quota of wood for the fire, and of water for general household purposes: but they had not to take their turn of cooking and baking for the entire mess, but were permitted, as convenience served, to cook and bake for themselves. And so, till now, I had made cakes and porridge, with at times an occasional mess of brose or brochan, for only my master and myself--a happy arrangement, which, I daresay, saved me a few rammings; seeing that, in at least my earlier efforts, I had been rather unlucky as a cook, and not very fortunate as a baker. My experience in the Cromarty caves had rendered me skilful in both boiling and roasting potatoes, and in preparing shell-fish for the table, whether molluscous or crustacean, according to the most approved methods; but the exigencies of our wild life had never brought me fairly in contact with the cerealia; and I had now to spoil a meal or two, in each instance, ere my porridge became palatable, or my cakes crisp, or my brose free and knotty, or my brochan sufficiently smooth and void of knots. My master, poor man, did grumble a little at first; but there was a general disposition in the barrack to take part rather with his apprentice than with himself; and after finding that the cases were to be given against him, he ceased making complaints. My porridge was at times, I must confess, very like leaven; but then, it was a standing recipe in the barrack, that the cook should continue stirring the mess and adding meal, until, from its first wild ebullitions in full boil, it became silent over the fire; and so I could show that I had made my porridge like leaven, quite according to rule. And as for my brochan, I succeeded in proving that I had actually failed to satisfy, though I had made two kinds of it at once in the same pot. I preferred this viand when of a thicker consistency than usual, whereas my master liked it thin enough to be drunk out of the bowl; but as it was I who had the making of it, I used more instead of less meal than ordinary, and unluckily, in my first experiment, mixed up the meal in a very small bowl. It became a dense dough-like mass; and on emptying it into the pot, instead of incorporating with the boiling water, it sank in a solid cake to the bottom. In vain I stirred, and manipulated, and kept up the fire. The stubborn mass refused to separate or dilute, and at length burnt brown against the bottom of the pot--a hue which the gruel-like fluid which floated over also assumed; and at length, in utter despair of securing aught approaching to an average consistency for the whole, and hearing my master's foot at the door, I took the pot from off the fire, and dished up for supper a portion of the thinner mixture which it contained, and which, in at least colour and consistency, not a little resembled chocolate. The poor man ladled the stuff in utter dismay. "Od, laddie," he said, "what ca' ye this? Ca' ye this brochan?" "Onything ye like, master," I replied; "but there are two kinds in the pot, and it will go hard if none of them please you." I then dished him a piece of the cake, somewhat resembling in size and consistency a small brown dumpling, which he of course found wholly inedible, and became angry. But this bad earth of ours "is filled," according to Cowper, "with wrong and outrage;" and the barrack laughed and took part with the defaulter. Experience, however, that does so much for all, did a little for me. I at length became a tolerably fair plain cook, and not a very bad baker; and now, when the exigencies required that I should take my full share in the duties of the barrack, I was found adequate to their proper fulfilment. I made cakes and porridge of fully the average excellence; and my brose and brochan enjoyed at least the negative happiness of escaping animadversion and comment.

Some of the inmates, however, who were exceedingly nice in their eating, were great connoisseurs in porridge; and it was no easy matter to please them. There existed unsettled differences--the results of a diversity of tastes--regarding the time that should be given to the boiling of the mess, respecting the proportion of salt that should be allotted to each individual, and as to whether the process of "mealing," as it was termed, should be a slow or a hasty one, and, of course, as in all controversies of all kinds, the more the matters in dispute were discussed, the more did they grow in importance. Occasionally the disputants had their porridge made at the same time in the same pot: there were, in especial, two of the workmen who differed upon the degree-of-salt question, whose bickers were supplied from the same general preparation; and as these had usually opposite complaints to urge against the cooking, their objections served so completely to neutralize each other, that they in no degree told against the cook. One morning the cook--a wag and a favourite--in making porridge for both the controversialists, made it so exceedingly fresh as to be but little removed from a poultice; and, filling with the preparation in this state the bicker of the salt-loving connoisseur, he then took a handful of salt, and mixing it with the portion which remained in the pot, poured into the bicker of the fresh man, porridge very much akin to a pickle. Both entered the barrack sharply set for breakfast, and sat down each to his meal; and both at the first spoonful dropped their spoons. "A ramming to the cook!" cried the one--"he has given me porridge without salt!" "A ramming to the cook!" roared out the other--"he has given me porridge like brine!" "You see, lads," said the cook, stepping out into the middle of the floor, with the air of a much-injured orator--"you see, lads, what matters have come to at last: there is the very pot in which I made in one mess the porridge in both their bickers. I don't think we should bear this any longer; we have all had our turn of it, though mine happens to be the worst; and I now move that these two fellows be rammed." No sooner said than done. There was a terrible struggling, and a burning sense of injustice; but no single man in the barrack was match for half-a-dozen of the others. The disputants, too, instead of making common cause together, were prepared to assist in ramming each the other; and so rammed they both were. And at length, when the details of the stratagem came out, the cook--by escaping for half an hour into the neighbouring wood, and concealing himself there, like some political exile under ban of the Government--succeeded in escaping the merited punishment.

The cause of justice was never, I found, in greater danger in our little community, than when a culprit succeeded in getting the laughers on his side. I have said that I became a not very bad baker. Still less and less sorely, as I improved in this useful art, did my cakes try the failing teeth of my master, until at length they became crisp and nice; and he began to find that my new accomplishment was working serious effects upon the contents of his meal-chest. With a keenly whetted appetite, and in vigorous health, I was eating a great deal of bread; and, after a good deal of grumbling, he at length laid it down as law that I should restrict myself for the future to two cakes per week. I at once agreed; but the general barrack, to whose ears some of my master's remonstrances had found their way, was dissatisfied; and it would probably have overturned in conclave our agreement, and punished the old man, my master, for the niggardly stringency of his terms, had I not craved, by way of special favour, to be permitted to give them a week's trial. One evening early in the week, when the old man had gone out, I mixed up the better part of a peck of meal in a pot, and placing two of the larger chests together in the same plane, kneaded it out into an enormous cake, at least equal in area to an ordinary-sized Newcastle grindstone. I then cut it up into about twenty pieces, and, forming a vast semicircle of stones round the fire, raised the pieces to the heat in a continuous row, some five or six feet in length. I had ample and ready assistance vouchsafed me in the "firing"--half the barrack were engaged in the work--when my master entered, and after scanning our employment in utter astonishment--now glancing at the ring of meal which still remained on the united chests, to testify to the huge proportions of the disparted bannock, and now at the cones, squares, rhombs, and trapeziums of cake that hardened to the heat in front of the fire, he abruptly asked--"What's this, laddie?--are ye baking for a wadding?" "Just baking one of the two cakes, master," I replied; "I don't think we'll need the other one before Saturday night." A roar of laughter from every corner of the barrack precluded reply; and in the laughter, after an embarrassed pause, the poor man had the good sense to join. And during the rest of the season I baked as often and as much as I pleased. It is, I believe, Goldsmith who remarks, that "wit generally succeeds more from being happily addressed, than from its native poignancy," and that "a jest calculated to spread at a gaming table, may be received with perfect indifference should it happen to drop in a mackerel-boat." On Goldsmith's principle, the joke of what was termed, from the well-known fairy tale, "the big bannock wi' the Malison," could have perhaps succeeded in only a masons' barrack; but never there at least could joke have been more successful.

As I had not yet ascertained that the Old Red Sandstone of the north of Scotland is richly fossiliferous, Conon-side and its neighbourhood furnished me with no very favourable field for geologic exploration. It enabled me, however, to extend my acquaintance with the great conglomerate base of the system, which forms here, as I have already said, a sort of miniature Highlands, extending between the valleys of the Conon and the Peffer, and which--remarkable for its picturesque cliffs, abrupt eminences, and narrow steep-sided dells--bears in its centre a pretty wood-skirted loch, into which the old Celtic prophet Kenneth Ore, when, like Prospero, he relinquished his art, buried "deep beyond plummet sound" the magic stone in which he was wont to see both the distant and the future. Immediately over the pleasure-grounds of Brahan, the rock forms exactly such cliffs as the landscape gardener would make, if he could--cliffs with their rude prominent pebbles breaking the light over every square foot of surface, and furnishing footing, by their innumerable projections, to many a green tuft of moss, and many a sweet little flower; while far below, among the deep woods, there stand up enormous fragments of the same rock, that must have rolled down in some remote age from the precipices above, and which, mossy and hoar, and many of them ivy-bound, resemble artificial ruins--obnoxious, however, to none of the disparaging associations which the make-believe ruin is sure always to awaken. It was inexpressibly pleasant to spend a quiet evening hour among these wild cliffs, and imagine a time when the far distant sea beat against their bases; but though their enclosed pebbles evidently owed their rounded form to the attrition of water, the imagination seemed paralyzed when it attempted calling up a still earlier time, when these solid rocks existed as but loose sand and pebbles, tossed by waves or scattered by currents; and when, for hundreds and thousands of square miles, the wild tract around existed as an ancient ocean, skirted by unknown lands. I had not yet collected enough of geologic fact to enable me to grapple with the difficulties of a restoration of the more ancient time. There was a later period, also, represented in the immediate neighbourhood by a thick deposit of stratified sand, of which I knew as little as of the conglomerate. We dug into it, in founding a thrashing-mill, for about ten feet, but came to no bottom; and I could see that it formed the subsoil of the valley all around the policies of Conon-side, and underlay most of its fields and woods. It was white and pure, as if it had been washed by the sea only a few weeks previous; but in vain did I search its beds and layers for a fragment of shell by which to determine its age. I can now, however, entertain little doubt that it belonged to the boulder clay period of submergence, and that the fauna with which it was associated bore the ordinary sub-arctic character. When this stratified sand was deposited, the waves must have broken against the conglomerate precipices of Brahan, and the sea have occupied, as firths and sounds, the deep Highland valleys of the interior. And on such of the hills of the country as had their heads above water at the time, that interesting but somewhat meagre Alpine Flora must have flourished, which we now find restricted to our higher mountain summits.

Once every six weeks I was permitted to visit Cromarty, and pass a Sabbath there; but as my master usually accompanied me, and as the way proved sufficiently long and weary to press upon his failing strength and stiffening limbs, we had to restrict ourselves to the beaten road, and saw but little. On, however, one occasion this season, I journeyed alone, and spent so happy a day in finding my homeward road along blind paths--that ran now along the rocky shores of the Cromarty Firth in its upper reaches, now through brown, lonely moors, mottled with Danish encampments, and now beside quiet, tomb-besprinkled burying-grounds, and the broken walls of deserted churches--that its memory still lives freshly in my mind, as one of the happiest of my life. I passed whole hours among the ruins of Craighouse--a grey fantastic rag of a castle, consisting of four heavily-arched stories of time-eaten stone, piled over each other, and still bearing a-top its stone roof and its ornate turrets and bartizans--

"A ghastly prison, that eternally
Hangs its blind visage out to the one sea."

It was said in these days to be haunted by its goblin--a miserable-looking, grey-headed, grey-bearded, little old man, that might be occasionally seen late in the evening, or early in the morning, peering out through some arrow-slit or shot-hole at the chance passenger. I remember getting the whole history of the goblin this day from a sun-burnt herd-boy, whom I found tending his cattle under the shadow of the old castle-wall. I began by asking him whose apparition he thought it was that could continue to haunt a building, the very name of whose last inhabitant had been long since forgotten. "Oh, they're saying," was the reply, "it's the spirit of the man that was killed on the foundation-stone, just after it was laid, and then built intil the wa' by the masons, that he might keep the castle by coming back again; and they're saying that a' the verra auld houses in the kintra had murderit men builded intil them in that way, and that they have a' o' them their bogle." I recognised in the boy's account of the matter an old and widely-spread tradition, which, whatever may have been its original basis of truth, seems to have so far influenced the buccaneers of the 17th century, as to have become a reality in their hands. "If time," says Sir Walter Scott, "did not permit the buccaneers to lavish away their plunder in their usual debaucheries, they were wont to hide it, with many superstitious solemnities, in the desert islands and keys which they frequented, and where much treasure, whose lawless owners perished without reclaiming it, is still supposed to be concealed. The most cruel of mankind are often the most superstitious; and those pirates are said to have had recourse to a horrid ritual, in order to secure an unearthly guardian to their treasures. They killed a negro or Spaniard, and buried him with the treasure, believing that his spirit would haunt the spot, and terrify away all intruders." There is a figurative peculiarity in the language in which Joshua denounced the man who should dare rebuild Jericho, that seems to point at some ancient pagan rite of this kind. Nor does it seem improbable that a practice which existed in times so little remote as those of the buccaneers, may have first begun in the dark and cruel ages of human sacrifices. "Cursed be the man before the Lord," said Joshua, "that riseth up and buildeth this city of Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it."

The large-farm system had been already introduced into the part of the country in which I at this time resided, on the richer and more level lands; but many a Gaelic-speaking cottar and small tenant still lived on the neighbouring moors and hill-sides. Though Highland in their surnames and language, they bore a character considerably different from that of the simpler Highlanders of the interior of Sutherland, or of a class I had shortly afterwards an opportunity of studying--the Highlanders of the western coast of Ross-shire. Doors were not left unbarred at night in the neighbourhood; and there were wretched hovels among the moors, very zealously watched and guarded indeed. There was much illicit distillation and smuggling at this time among the Gaelic-speaking people of the district; and it told upon their character with the usual deteriorating effect. Many of the Highlanders, too, had wrought as labourers at the Caledonian Canal, where they had come in contact with south-country workmen, and had brought back with them a confident, loquacious smartness, that, based on a ground-work of ignorance, which it rendered active and obtrusive, had a bizarre and disagreeable effect, and formed but an indifferent substitute for the diffident and taciturn simplicity which it had supplanted. But I have ever found the people of those border districts of the Highlands which join on to the low country, or that inhabit districts much traversed by tourists, of a comparatively inferior cast: the finer qualities of the Highland character seem easily injured: the hospitality, the simplicity, the unsuspecting honesty, disappear; and we find, instead, a people rapacious, suspicious, and unscrupulous, considerably beneath the Lowland average. In all the unopened districts of the remote Highlands into which I have penetrated, I have found the people strongly engage my sympathies and affections--much more strongly than in any part of the Lowlands; whereas, on the contrary, in the deteriorated districts I have been sensible of an involuntary revulsion of feeling, when in contact with the altered race, of which, among the low-country Scotch or the English, I have had no experience. I remember being impressed, in reading, many years ago, one of Miss Ferrier's novels, with the truth of a stroke that brought out very practically the ready susceptibility of injury manifested by the Celtic character. Some visitors of condition from the Highlands are represented as seeking out in one of our larger towns of the south, a simple Highland lad, who had quitted a remote northern district only a few months before; and when they find him, it is as a prisoner in Bridewell.

Towards the end of September, my master, who had wholly failed in overcoming his repugnance to labour as a mere journeyman, succeeded in procuring a piece of work by contract, in a locality about fourteen miles nearer our home than Conon-side, and I accompanied him to assist in its completion. Our employment in our new scene of labour was of the most disagreeable kind. Burns, who must have had a tolerably extensive experience of the evils of hard work, specifies in his "Twa Dogs" three kinds of labour in especial that give poor "cot-folk" "fash enough."

"Trowth, Caesar, whiles they're fash'd eneugh;
A cottar howkin' in a sheugh,
Wi' dirty stanes biggin' a dyke.
Baring a quarry, and sic like."

All very disagreeable employments, as I also can testify; and our work here unfortunately combined the whole three. We were engaged in rebuilding one of those old-fashioned walls of gentlemen's pleasure-grounds known as "ha has," that line the sides of deep ditches, and raise their tops to but the level of the sward; and as the ditch in this special instance was a wet one, and as we had to clear it of the old fallen materials, and to dig it out for our new line of foundation, while at the same time we had to furnish ourselves with additional materials from a neighbouring quarry, we had at once the "baring of the quarry," the "howkin' in the sheugh," and the "biggin' of the dyke wi' dirty stanes," to "fash" us. The last-named employment is by far the most painful and trying. In most kinds of severe labour the skin thickens, and the hand hardens, through a natural provision, to suit the requirements of the task imposed, and yield the necessary protection to the integuments below; but the "dirty stanes" of the dyke-builder, when wet as well as dirty, try the reproductive powers of the cuticle too severely, and wear it off, so that under the rough friction the quick is laid bare. On this occasion, and on at least one other, when engaged in building in a wet season in the Western Highlands, I had all my fingers oozing blood at once; and those who think that in such circumstances labour protracted throughout a long day can be other than torture, would do well to try. How these poor hands of mine burnt and beat at night at this time, as if an unhappy heart had been stationed in every finger! and what cold chills used to run, sudden as electric shocks, through the feverish frame!

My general health, too, had become far from strong. As I had been almost entirely engaged in hewing for the two previous seasons, the dust of the stone, inhaled at every breath, had exerted the usual weakening effects on the lungs--those effects under which the life of the stone-cutter is restricted to about forty-five years; but it was only now, when working day after day with wet feet in a water-logged ditch, that I began to be sensibly informed, by a dull, depressing pain in the chest, and a blood-stained mucoidal substance, expectorated with difficulty, that I had already caught harm from my employment, and that my term of life might fall far short of the average one. I resolved, however, as the last year of my apprenticeship was fast drawing to its close, to complete, at all hazards, my engagement with my master. It had been merely a verbal engagement, and I might have broken it without blame, when, unable to furnish me with work in his character as a master-mason, he had to transfer my labour to another; but I had determined not to break it, all the more doggedly from the circumstance that my uncle James, in a moment of irritation, had said at its commencement that he feared I would no more persist in being a mason than I had done in being a scholar; and so I wrought perseveringly on; and slowly and painfully, rood after rood, the wall grew up under our hands. My poor master, who suffered even more from chopped hands and bleeding fingers than I did, was cross and fretful, and sometimes sought relief in finding fault with his apprentice; but, sobered by my forebodings of an early death, I used to make no reply; and the hasty, ill-tempered expressions in which he gave vent virtually to but his sense of pain and discomfort, were almost always followed by some conciliatory remark. Superstition takes a strong hold of the mind in circumstances such as those in which I was at this time placed. One day when on the top of a tall building, part of which we were throwing down to supply us with materials for our work, I raised up a broad slab of red micaceous sandstone, thin as a roofing slate, and exceedingly fragile, and, holding it out at arm's length, dropped it over the wall. I had been worse than usual all that morning, and much depressed; and, ere the slab parted from my hand, I said--looking forward to but a few months of life--I shall break up like that sandstone slab, and perish as little known. But the sandstone slab did not break up: a sudden breeze blew it aslant as it fell; it cleared the rough heap of stones below, where I had anticipated it would have been shivered to fragments; and, lighting on its edge, stuck upright like a miniature obelisk, in the soft green sward beyond. None of the Philosophies or the Logics would have sanctioned the inference which I immediately drew; but that curious chapter in the history of human belief which treats of signs and omens abounds in such postulates and such conclusions. I at once inferred that recovery awaited me: I was "to live and not die;" and felt lighter, during the few weeks I afterwards toiled at this place, under the cheering influence of the conviction.

The tenant of the farm on which our work was situated, and who had been both a great distiller and considerable fanner in his day, had become bankrupt shortly before, and was on the eve of quitting the place, a broken man. And his forlorn circumstances seemed stamped on almost every field and out-house of his farm. The stone fences were ruinous; the hedges gapped by the almost untended cattle; a considerable sprinkling of corn-ears lay rotting on the lea; and here and there an entire sheaf, that had fallen from the "leading-cart" at the close of harvest, might be seen still lying among the stubble, fastened to the earth by the germination of its grains. Some of the out-houses were miserable beyond description. There was a square of modern offices, in which the cattle and horses of the farm--appropriated by the landlord, at the time under the law of hypothec--were tolerably well lodged; but the hovel in which three of the farm-servants lived, and in which, for want of a better, my master and I had to cook and sleep, was one of the most miserable tumble-down erections I ever saw inhabited. It had formed part of an ancient set of offices that had been condemned about fourteen years before; but the proprietor of the place becoming insolvent, it had been spared, in lack of a better, to accommodate the servants who wrought on the farm; and it had now become not only a comfortless, but also a very unsafe dwelling. It would have formed no bad subject, with its bulging walls and gapped roof, that showed the bare ribs through the breaches, for the pencil of my friend William Koss; but the cow or horse that had no better shelter than that which it afforded could not be regarded as other than indifferently lodged. Every heavier shower found its way through the roof in torrents: I could even tell the hour of the night by the stars which passed over the long opening that ran along the ridge from gable to gable; and in stormy evenings I have paused at every ruder blast, in the expectation of hearing the rafters crack and give way over my head. The distiller had introduced upon his farm, on a small scale, what has since been extensively known as the bothy system; and this hovel was the bothy. There were, as I have said, but three farm-servants who lived in it at the time--young, unmarried lads, extremely ignorant, and of gay, reckless dispositions, whose care for their master's interests might be read in the germinating sheaves that lay upon his fields, and who usually spoke of him, when out of his hearing, as "the old sinner." He too evidently cared nothing for them; and they detested him, and regarded the ruin which had overtaken him, and which their own recklessness and indifference to his welfare must have at least assisted to secure, with open satisfaction. "It was ae comfort, anyhow," they said, "that the blastit old sinner, after a' his near-goingness wi' them, was now but a dyvour bankrupt." Bad enough certainly; and yet natural enough, and, in a sense, proper enough too. The Christian divine would have urged these men to return their master good for evil. Cobbett, on the contrary, would have advised them to go out at nights a rick-burning. The better advice will to a certainty not be taken by ninety-nine out of every hundred of our bothy-men; for it is one of the grand evils of the system, that it removes its victims beyond the ennobling influences of religion; and, on the other hand, at least this much may be said for the worse counsel, that the system costs the country every year the price of a great many corn-ricks.

The three lads lived chiefly on brose, as the viand at all edible into which their oatmeal could be most readily converted; and never baked or made for themselves a dish of porridge or gruel, apparently to avoid trouble, and that they might be as little as possible in the hated bothy. I always lost sight of them in the evening; but towards midnight their talk frequently awoke me as they were going to bed; and I heard them tell of incidents that had befallen them at the neighbouring farm-houses, or refer to blackguard bits of scandal which they had picked up. Sometimes a fourth voice mingled in the dialogue. It was that of a reckless poacher, who used to come in, always long after nightfall, and fling himself down on a lair of straw in a corner of the bothy; and usually ere day broke he was up and away. The grand enjoyment of the three farm-lads--the enjoyment which seemed to counterbalance, with its concentrated delights, the comfortless monotony of weeks--was a rustic ball which took place once every month, and sometimes oftener, at a public-house in the neighbouring village, and at which they used to meet some of the farm-lasses of the locality, and dance and drink whisky till morning. I know not how their money stood such frequent carousals; but they were, I saw, bare of every necessary article of clothing, especially of underclothing and linen; and I learned from their occasional talk about justice-of-peace summonses, that the previous term-day had left in the hands of their shoemakers and drapers unsettled bills. But such matters were taken very lightly: the three lads, if not happy, were at least merry; and the monthly ball, for which they sacrificed so much, furnished not only its hours of pleasure while it lasted, but also a week's talking in anticipation ere it came, and another week's talking over its various incidents after it had passed. And such was my experience of the bothy system in its first beginnings. It has since so greatly increased, that there are now single counties in Scotland in which there are from five to eight hundred farm-servants exposed to its deteriorating influences; and the rustic population bids fair in those districts fully to rival that of our large towns in profligacy, and greatly to outrival them in coarseness. Were I a statesman, I would, I think, be bold enough to try the efficacy of a tax on bothies. It is long since Goldsmith wrote regarding a state of society in which "wealth accumulates and men decay," and since Burns looked with his accustomed sagacity on that change for the worse in the character of our rural people which the large-farm system has introduced. "A fertile improved country is West Lothian," we find the latter poet remarking, in one of his journals, "but the more elegance and luxury among the farmers, I always observe in equal proportion the rudeness and stupidity of the peasantry. This remark I have made all over the Lothians, Merse, Roxburgh, &c.; and for this, among other reasons, I think that a man of romantic taste--'a man of feeling'--will be better pleased with the poverty but intelligent minds of the peasantry of Ayrshire (peasantry they all are, below the Justice of Peace), than the opulence of a club of Merse farmers, when he at the same time considers the Vandalism of their plough-folks." The deteriorating effect of the large-farm system, remarked by the poet, is inevitable. It is impossible that the modern farm-servant, in his comparatively irresponsible situation, and with his fixed wages of meagre amount, can be rendered as thoughtful and provident a person as the small farmer of the last age, who, thrown on his own resources, had to cultivate his fields and drive his bargains with his Martinmas and Whitsunday settlement with the landlord full before him; and who often succeeded in saving money, and in giving a classical education to some promising son or nephew, which enabled the young man to rise to a higher sphere of life. Farm-servants, as a class, must be lower in the scale than the old tenant-farmers, who wrought their little farms with their own hands; but it is possible to elevate them far above the degraded level of the bothy; and unless means be taken to check the spread of the ruinous process of brute-making which the system involves, the Scottish people will sink, to a certainty, in the agricultural districts, from being one of the most provident, intelligent, and moral in Europe, to be one of the most licentious, reckless, and ignorant.

Candle-light is a luxury in which no one ever thinks of indulging in a barrack; and in a barrack such as ours at this time, riddled with gaps and breaches, and filled with all manner of cold draughts, it was not every night in which a candle would have burnt. And as our fuel, which consisted of sorely decayed wood--the roofing of a dilapidated out-house which we were pulling down--formed but a dull fire, it was with difficulty I could read by its light. By spreading out my book, however, within a foot or so of the embers, I was enabled, though sometimes at the expense of a headache, to prosecute a new tract of reading which had just opened to me, and in which, for a time, I found much amusement. There was a vagabond pedlar who travelled at this time the northern counties, widely known as Jack from Dover, but whose true name was Alexander Knox, and who used to affirm that he was of the same family as the great Reformer. The pedlar himself was, however,  no reformer. Once every six weeks or two months he got madly drunk, and not only "perished the pack," as he used to say, but sometimes got into prison to boot. There were, however, some kind relations in the south, who always set him up again; and Jack from Dover, after a fortnight of misery, used to appear with the ordinary bulk of merchandise at his back, and continue thriving until he again got drunk. He had a turn for buying and reading curious books, which, after mastering their contents, he always sold again; and he learned to bring them, when of a kind which no one else would purchase, to my mother, and recommend them as suitable for me. Poor Jack was always conscientious in his recommendations. I know not how he contrived to take the exact measure of my tastes in the matter, but suitable for me they invariably were; and as his price rarely exceeded a shilling per volume, and sometimes fell below a sixpence, my mother always purchased, when she could, upon his judgment. I owed to his discrimination my first copy of Bacon's "Wisdom of the Ancients," "done into English by Sir Arthur Gorges," and a book to which I had long after occasion to refer in my geological writings--Maillet's "Telliamed"--one, of the earlier treatises on the development hypothesis; and he had now procured for me a selection, in one volume, of the Poems of Gawin Douglas and Will Dunbar, and another collection in a larger volume, of "Ancient Scottish Poems," from the MSS. of George Bannatyne. I had been previously almost wholly unacquainted with the elder Scotch poets. My uncle James had introduced me, at a very early age, to Burns and Ramsay, and I had found out Fergusson and Tannahill for myself; but that school of Scotch literature which nourished between the reigns of David the Second and James the Sixth had remained to me, until now, well-nigh a terra incognita, and I found no little pleasure in exploring the antique recesses which it opened up. Shortly after, I read Ramsay's "Evergreen," the "King's Quair," and the true "Actes and Deides of ye illuster and vailyeand campioun Shyr Wilham Wallace," not modernized, as in my first copy, but in the tongue in which they had been recited of old by Henry the Minstrel: I had previously gloated over Harbour's Bruce; and thus my acquaintance with the old Scots poets, if not very profound, became at least so respectable, that not until many years after did I meet with an individual who knew them equally well.

The strange picturesque allegories of Douglas, and the terse sense and racy humour of Dunbar, delighted me much. As I had to con my way slowly amid the difficulties of a language which was no longer that spoken by my country-folk, I felt as if I were creating the sense which I found; it came gradually out like some fossil of the rock, from which I had laboriously to chip away the enveloping matrix; and in hanging admiringly over it, I thought I perceived how it was that some of my old schoolfellows, who were prosecuting their education at college, were always insisting on the great superiority of the old Greek and Roman writers over the writers of our own country. I could not give them credit for much critical discernment: they were indifferent enough, some of them, to both verse and prose, and hardly knew in what poetry consisted; and yet I believed them to be true to their perceptions when they insisted on what they termed the high excellence of the ancients. With my old schoolfellows, I now said, the process of perusal, when reading an English work of classical standing, is so sudden, compared with the slowness with which they imagine or understand, that they slide over the surface of their author's numbers, or of his periods, without acquiring a due sense of what lies beneath; whereas, in perusing the works of a Greek or Latin author, they have just to do what I am doing in deciphering the "Palice of Honour" or the "Goldin Terge,"--they have to proceed slowly, and to render the language of their author into the language of their own thinking. And so, losing scarce any of his meaning in consequence, and not reflecting on the process through which they have entered into it, they contrast the little which they gain from a hurried perusal of a good English book, with the much which they gain from the very leisurely perusal of a good Latin or Greek one; and term the little the poverty of modern writers, and the much the fertility of the ancients. Such was my theory, and it was at least not an uncharitable one to my acquaintance. I was, however, arrested in the middle of my studies by a day of soaking rain, which so saturated with moisture the decayed spongy wood, our fuel, that, though I succeeded in making with some difficulty such fires of it as sufficed to cook our victuals, it defied my skill to make one by which I could read. At length, however, this dreary season of labour--by far the gloomiest I ever spent--came to a close, and I returned with my master to Cromarty about Martinmas, our heavy job of work completed, and my term of apprenticeship at a close.

Chapter XII--Swimming the Conon--Click-Clack the carter--Loch Maree--Fitting up a barrack--Highland characteristics

Copyright Scotland from the Roadside 2019