My Schools and Schoolmasters
The following is from My Schools and Schoolmasters by Hugh Miller:
Choice of a calling--Disappointment to relatives--Old Red Sandstone quarry--Depression and walking-sleep--Temptations of toil--Friendship with William Ross
Finlay was away; my friend of the Doocot Cave was away; my other companions were all scattered abroad; my mother, after a long widowhood of more than eleven years, had entered into a second marriage; and I found myself standing face to face with a life of labour and restraint. The prospect appeared dreary in the extreme. The necessity of ever toiling from morning to night, and from one week's end to another, and all for a little coarse food and homely raiment, seemed to be a dire one; and fain would I have avoided it. But there was no escape; and so I determined on being a mason. I remembered my Cousin George's long winter holidays, and how delightfully he employed them; and, by making choice of Cousin George's profession, I trusted to find, like him, large compensation, in the amusements of one-half the year, for the toils of the other half. Labour shall not wield over me, I said, a rod entirely black, but a rod like one of Jacob's peeled wands, chequered white and black alternately.
I however, did look, even at this time, notwithstanding the antecedents of a sadly mis-spent boyhood, to something higher than mere amusement; and, daring to believe that literature, and, mayhap, natural science, were, after all, my proper vocations, I resolved that much of my leisure time should be given to careful observation, and the study of our best English authors. Both my uncles, especially James, were sorely vexed by my determination to be a mason; they had expected to see me rising in some one of the learned professions; yet here was I going to be a mere operative mechanic, like one of themselves! I spent with them a serious hour, in which they urged that, instead of entering as a mason's apprentice, I should devote myself anew to my education. Though the labour of their hands formed their only wealth, they would assist me, they said, in getting through college; nay, if I preferred it, I might meanwhile come and live with them: all they asked of me in return was that I should give myself as sedulously to my lessons as, in the event of my becoming a mason, I would have to give myself to my trade. I demurred. The lads of my acquaintance, who were preparing for college had an eye, I said, to some profession; they were qualifying themselves to be lawyers, or medical men, or, in much larger part, were studying for the Church; whereas I had no wish, and no peculiar fitness to be either lawyer or doctor; and as for the Church, that was too serious a direction to look in for one's bread, unless one could honestly regard one's-self as called to the Church's proper work; and I could not. There, said my uncles, you are perfectly right: better be a poor mason--better be anything honest, however humble--than an uncalled minister. How very strong the hold taken of the mind in some cases by hereditary convictions of which the ordinary conduct shows little apparent trace! I had for the last few years been a wild boy--not without my share of respect for Donald Roy's religion, but possessed of none of Donald's seriousness; and yet here was his belief in this special matter lying so strongly entrenched in the recesses of my mind, that no consideration whatever could have induced me to outrage it by obtruding my unworthiness on the Church. Though, mayhap, overstrained in many of its older forms, I fain wish the conviction, in at least some of its better modifications, were more general now. It might be well for all the Protestant Churches practically to hold, with Uncles James and Sandy, that true ministers cannot be manufactured out of ordinary men--men ordinary in talent and character--in a given number of years, and then passed by the imposition of hands into the sacred office; but that, on the contrary, ministers, when real, are all special creations of the grace of God. I may add, that in a belief of this kind, deeply implanted in the popular mind of Scotland, the strength of our recent Church controversy mainly lay.
Slowly and unwillingly my uncles at length consented that I should make trial of a life of manual labour. The husband of one of my maternal aunts was a mason, who, contracting for jobs on a small scale, usually kept an apprentice or two, and employed a few journeymen. With him I agreed to serve for the term of three years; and, getting a suit of strong moleskin clothes, and a pair of heavy hob-nailed shoes, I waited only for the breaking up of the winter frosts, to begin work in the Cromarty quarries--jobbing masters in the north of Scotland usually combining the profession of the quarrier with that of the mason. In the beautiful poetic fragment from which I have chosen my motto, poor Kirke White fondly indulges in the dream of a hermit life--quiet, meditative, solitary, spent far away in deep woods, or amid wide-spread wastes, where the very sounds that arose would be but the faint echoes of a loneliness in which man was not--a "voice of the desert, never dumb." The dream is that of a certain brief period of life between boyhood and comparatively mature youth; and we find more traces of it in the poetry of Kirke White than in that of almost any other poet; simply because he wrote at the age in which it is natural to indulge in it, and because, being less an imitator, and more original, than most juvenile poets, he gave it as portion of the internal experience from which he drew. But it is a dream not restricted to young poets: the ignorant, half-grown lad, who learns, for the first time, "about the great rich gentleman who advertises for a hermit," and wishes that he had but the necessary qualification of beard to offer himself as a candidate, indulges in it also; and I, too, in this transition stage, cherished it with all the strength of a passion. It seems to spring out of a latent timidity in the yet undeveloped mind, that shrinks from grappling with the stern realities of life, amid the crowd and press of the busy world, and o'ershaded by the formidable competition of men already practised in the struggle. I have still before me the picture of the "lodge in some vast wilderness" to which I could have fain retired, to lead all alone a life quieter, but quite as wild, as my Marcus' Cave one; and the snugness and comfort of the humble interior of my hermitage, during some boisterous night of winter, when the gusty wind would be howling around the roof, and the rain beating on the casement, but when, in the calm within, the cheerful flame would roar in the chimney, and glance bright on rafter and wall, still impress me as if the recollection were in reality that of a scene witnessed, not of a mere vision conjured up by the fancy. But it was all the idle dream of a truant lad, who would fain now, as on former occasions, have avoided going to school--that best and noblest of all schools, save the Christian one, in which honest Labour is the teacher--in which the ability of being useful is imparted, and the spirit of independence communicated, and the habit of persevering effort acquired; and which is more moral than the schools in which only philosophy is taught, and greatly more happy than the schools which profess to teach only the art of enjoyment. Noble, upright, self-relying Toil! Who that knows thy solid worth and value would be ashamed of thy hard hands, and thy soiled vestments, and thy obscure tasks--thy humble cottage, and hard couch, and homely fare! Save for thee and thy lessons, man in society would everywhere sink into a sad compound of the fiend and the wild beast; and this fallen world would be as certainly a moral as a natural wilderness. But I little thought of the excellence of thy character and of thy teachings, when, with a heavy heart, I set out about this time, on a morning of early spring, to take my first lesson from thee in a sandstone quarry.
I have elsewhere recorded the history of my few first days of toil; but it is possible for two histories, of the same period and individual, to be at once true to fact, and unlike each other in the scenes which they describe, and the events which they record. The quarry in which I commenced my life of labour was, as I have said, a sandstone one, and exhibited in the section of the furze-covered bank which it presented, a bar of deep red stone beneath, and a bar of pale red clay above. Both deposits belonged to formations equally unknown, at the time, to the geologist. The deep-red stone formed part of an upper member of the Lower Old Red Sandstone; the pale red clay, which was much roughened by rounded pebbles, and much cracked and fissured by the recent frosts, was a bed of the boulder clay. Save for the wholesome restraint that confined me for day after day to this spot, I should perhaps have paid little attention to either. Mineralogy, in its first rudiments, had early awakened my curiosity, just as it never fails to awaken, with its gems and its metals, and its hard glittering rocks, of which tools may be made, the curiosity of infant tribes and nations. But in unsightly masses of mechanical origin, whether sandstone or clay, I could take no interest; just as infant societies take no interest in such masses, and so fail to know anything of geology; and it was not until I had learned to detect among the ancient sandstone strata of this quarry exactly the same phenomena as those which I used to witness in my walks with Uncle Sandy in the ebb, that I was fairly excited to examine and inquire. It was the necessity which made me a quarrier that taught me to be a geologist. Further, I soon found that there was much to be enjoyed in a life of labour. A taste for the beauties of natural scenery is of itself a never-failing spring of delight; and there was scarce a day in which I wrought in the open air, during this period, in which I did not experience its soothing and exhilarating influence. Well has it been said by the poet Keats, that "a thing of beauty is a joy for ever." I owed much to the upper reaches of the Cromarty Firth, as seen, when we sat down to our mid-day meal, from the gorge of the quarry, with their numerous rippling currents, that, in the calm, resembled streamlets winding through a meadow, and their distant grey promontories tipped with villages that brightened in the sunshine; while, pale in the background, the mighty hills, still streaked with snow, rose high over bay and promontory, and gave dignity and power to the scene.
Still, however, with all my enjoyments, I had to suffer some of the evils of excessive toil. Though now seventeen, I was still seven inches short of my ultimate stature; and my frame, cast more at the time in the mould of my mother than in that of the robust sailor, whose "back," according to the description of one of his comrades, "no one had ever put to the ground," was slim and loosely knit; and I used to suffer much from wandering pains in the joints, and an oppressive feeling about the chest, as if crushed by some great weight. I became subject, too, to frequent fits of extreme depression of spirits, which took almost the form of a walking sleep--results, I believe, of excessive fatigue--and during which my absence of mind was so extreme, that I lacked the ability of protecting myself against accident, in cases the most simple and ordinary. Besides other injuries, I lost at different times during the first few months of my apprenticeship, when in these fits of partial somnambulism, no fewer than seven of my finger-nails. But as I gathered strength, my spirits became more equable; and not until many years after, when my health failed for a time under over-exertion of another kind, had I any renewed experience of the fits of walking sleep.
My master, an elderly man at the time--for, as he used not unfrequently to tell his apprentices, he had been born on the same day and year as George the Fourth, and so we could celebrate, if we pleased, both birthdays together--was a person of plodding, persevering industry, who wrought rather longer hours than was quite agreeable to one who wished to have some time to himself; but he was, in the main, a good master. As a builder, he made conscience of every stone he laid. It was remarked in the place, that the walls built by Uncle David never bulged or fell; and no apprentice or journeyman of his was permitted, on any plea, to make "slight wark." Though by no means a bold or daring man, he was, from sheer abstraction, when engrossed in his employment, more thoroughly insensible to personal danger than almost any other individual I ever knew. On one occasion, when an overloaded boat, in which he was carrying stones from the quarry to the neighbouring town, was overtaken by a series of rippling seas, and suddenly sank, leaving him standing on one of the thwarts submerged to the throat, he merely said to his partner, on seeing his favourite snuff-mull go floating past, "Od, Andro man, just rax out your han' and tak' in my snuff-box." On another, when a huge mass of the boulder clay came toppling down upon us in the quarry with such momentum, that it bent a massive iron lever like a bow, and crushed into minute fragments a strong wheelbarrow, Uncle David, who, older and less active than any of the others, had been entangled in the formidable debris, relieved all our minds by remarking, as we rushed back, expecting to find him crushed as flat as a botanical preparation, "Od, I draid, Andro man, we have lost our good barrow." He was at first of opinion that I would do him little credit as a workman: in my absent fits I was well-nigh as impervious to instruction as he himself was insensible to danger; and I laboured under the further disadvantage of knowing a little, as an amateur, of both hewing and building, from the circumstance, that when the undertakings of my schoolboy days involved, as they sometimes did, the erection of a house, I used always to be selected as the mason of the party. And all that I had learned on these occasions I had now to unlearn. In the course of a few months, however, I did unlearn it all; and then, acquiring in less than a fortnight a very considerable mastery over the mallet--for mine was one of the not unfrequent cases in which the mechanical knock seems, after many an abortive attempt, to be caught up at once--I astonished Uncle David one morning by setting myself to compete with him, and by hewing nearly two feet of pavement for his one. And on this occasion my aunt, his wife, who had been no stranger to his previous complaints, was informed that her "stupid nephew" was to turn out "a grand workman after all."
A life of toil has, however, its peculiar temptations. When overwrought, and in my depressed moods, I learned to regard the ardent spirits of the dram-shop as high luxuries: they gave lightness and energy to both body and mind, and substituted for a state of dulness and gloom, one of exhilaration and enjoyment. Usquebaugh was simply happiness doled out by the glass, and sold by the gill. The drinking usages of the profession in which I laboured were at this time many: when a foundation was laid, the workmen were treated to drink; they were treated to drink when the walls were levelled for laying the joists; they were treated to drink when the building was finished; they were treated to drink when an apprentice joined the squad; treated to drink when his "apron was washed;" treated to drink when "his time was out;" and occasionally they learned to treat one another to drink. In laying down the foundation-stone of one of the larger houses built this year by Uncle David and his partner, the workmen had a royal "founding-pint," and two whole glasses of the whisky came to my share. A full-grown man would not have deemed a gill of usquebaugh an overdose, but it was considerably too much for me; and when the party broke up, and I got home to my books, I found, as I opened the pages of a favourite author, the letters dancing before my eyes, and that I could no longer master the sense. I have the volume at present before me--a small edition of the Essays of Bacon, a good deal worn at the corners by the friction of the pocket; for of Bacon I never tired. The condition into which I had brought myself was, I felt, one of degradation. I had sunk, by my own act, for the time, to a lower level of intelligence than that on which it was my privilege to be placed; and though the state could have been no very favourable one for forming a resolution, I in that hour determined that I should never again sacrifice my capacity of intellectual enjoyment to a drinking usage; and, with God's help, I was enabled to hold by the determination. Though never a strict abstainer, I have wrought as an operative mason for whole twelvemonths together, in which I did not consume half-a-dozen glasses of ardent spirits, or partake of half-a-dozen draughts of fermented liquor. But I do see, in looking back on this my first year of labour, a dangerous point, at which, in the attempt to escape from the sense of depression and fatigue, the craving appetite of the confirmed tippler might have been formed.
The ordinary, long-wrought quarries of my native town have been opened in the old coast-line along the southern shores of the Cromarty Firth, and they contain no organisms. The beds occasionally display their water-rippled surfaces, and occasionally their areas of ancient desiccation, in which the polygonal partings still remain as when they had cracked in the drying, untold ages before. But the rock contains neither fish nor shell; and the mere mechanical processes of which it gave evidence, though they served to raise strange questions in my mind, failed to interest me so deeply as the wonderful organisms of other creations would have done. We soon quitted these quarries, however, as they proved more than usually difficult in the working at this time, for a quarry situated on the northern shore of the Moray Firth, which had been recently opened in an inferior member of the Lower Old Red Sandstone, and which, as I subsequently ascertained, does in some of its beds contain fossils. It was, however, not to the quarry itself that my first-found organisms belonged. There lies in the Firth beyond, an outlier of the Lias, which, like the Marcus' Cave one referred to in a preceding chapter, strews the beach with its fragments after every storm from the sea; and in a nodular mass of bluish-grey limestone derived from this subaqueous bed I laid open my first-found ammonite. It was a beautiful specimen, graceful in its curves as those of the Ionic volute, and greatly more delicate in its sculpturing; and its bright cream-coloured tint, dimly burnished by the prismatic hues of the original pearl, contrasted exquisitely with the dark grey of the matrix which enclosed it. I broke open many a similar nodule during our stay at this delightful quarry, and there were few of them in which I did not detect some organism of the ancient world--scales of fishes, groups of shells, bits of decayed wood, and fragments of fern. At the dinner hour I used to show my new-found specimens to the workmen; but though they always took the trouble of looking at them, and wondered at times how the shells and plants had "got into the stones," they seemed to regard them as a sort of natural toys, which a mere lad might amuse himself in looking after, but which were rather below the notice of grown-up people like themselves. One workman, however, informed me, that things of a kind I had not yet found--genuine thunderbolts--which in his father's times were much sought for the cure of bewitched cattle--were to be found in tolerable abundance on a reach of the beach about two miles further to the west; and as, on quitting the quarry for the piece of work on which we were to be next engaged, Uncle David gave us all a half-holiday, I made use of it in visiting the tract of shore indicated by the workman. And there, leaning against the granitic gneiss and hornblend slate of the Hill of Eathie, I found a Liassic deposit, amazingly rich in its organisms--not buried under the waves, as at Marcus' shore, or as opposite our new quarry, but at one part underlying a little grass-covered plain, and at another exposed for several hundred yards together along the shore. Never yet did embryo geologist break ground on a more promising field; and memorable in my existence was this first of the many happy evenings that I have spent in exploring it.
The Hill of Eathie, like the Cromarty Sutors, belongs, as I have already had occasion to mention, to what De Beaumont would term the Ben Nevis system of hills--that latest of our Scottish mountain systems which, running from south-west to north-east, in the line of the great Caledonian valley, and in that of the valleys of the Nairn, Findhorn, and Spey, uptilted in its course, when it arose, the Oolites of Sutherland, and the Lias of Cromarty and Ross. The deposit which the Hill of Eathie disturbed is exclusively a Liassic one. The upturned base of the formation rests immediately against the Hill; and we may trace the edges of the various overlying beds for several hundred feet outwards, until, apparently near the top of the deposit, we lose them in the sea. The various beds--all save the lowest, which consists of a blue adhesive clay--are composed of a dark shale, consisting of easily-separable laminę, thin as sheets of pasteboard; and they are curiously divided from each other by bands of fossiliferous limestone ofbut from one to two feet thick. These Liassic beds, with their separating bands, are a sort of boarded books; for as a series of volumes reclining against a granite pedestal in the geologic library of nature, I used to find pleasure in regarding them. The limestone bands, elaborately marbled with lignite, ichthyolite, and shell, form the stiff boarding; the pasteboard-like laminę between--tens and hundreds of thousands in number in even the slimmer volumes--compose the closely-written leaves. I say closely written; for never yet did signs or characters lie closer on page or scroll than do the organisms of the Lias on the surface of these leaf-like laminę. I can scarce hope to communicate to the reader, after the lapse of so many years, an adequate idea of the feeling of wonder which the marvels of this deposit excited in my mind, wholly new as they were to me at the time. Even the fairy lore of my first-formed library--that of the birchen box--had impressed me less. The general tone of the colouring of these written leaves, though dimmed by the action of untold centuries, is still very striking. The ground is invariably of a deep neutral grey, verging on black; while the flattened organisms, which present about the same degree of relief as one sees in the figures of an embossed card, contrast with it in tints that vary from opaque to silvery white, and from pale yellow to an umbry or chestnut brown. Groups of ammonites appear as if drawn in white chalk; clusters of a minute undescribed bivalve are still plated with thin films of the silvery nacre; the mytilaceę usually bear a warm tint of yellowish brown, and must have been brilliant shells in their day; gryphites and oysters are always of a dark grey, and plagiostomę ordinarily of a bluish or neutral tint. On some of the leaves curious pieces of incident seem recorded. We see fleets of minute terebratulę, that appear to have been covered up by some sudden deposit from above, when riding at their anchors; and whole argosies of ammonites, that seemed to have been wrecked at once by some untoward accident, and sent crushed and dead to the bottom. Assemblages of bright black plates, that shine like pieces of Japan work, with numerous parallelogrammical scales bristling with nail-like points, indicate where some armed fish of the old ganoid order lay down and died; and groups of belemnites, that lie like heaps of boarding-pikes thrown carelessly on a vessel's deck on the surrender of the crew, tell where skulls of cuttle-fishes of the ancient type had ceased to trouble the waters. I need scarce add, that these spear-like belemnites formed the supposed thunderbolts of the deposit. Lying athwart some of the pages thus strangely inscribed we occasionally find, like the dark hawthorn leaf in Bewick's well-known vignette, slim-shaped leaves coloured in deep umber; and branches of extinct pines, and fragments of strangely-fashioned ferns, form their more ordinary garnishing. Page after page, for tens and hundreds of feet together, repeat the same wonderful story. The great Alexandrian library, with its tomes of ancient literature, the accumulation of long ages, was but a meagre collection--not less puny in bulk than recent in date--compared with this marvellous library of the Scotch Lias.
Who, after once spending even a few hours in such a school, could avoid being a geologist? I had formerly found much pleasure among rocks and in caves; but it was the wonders of the Eathie Lias that first gave direction and aim to my curiosity. From being a mere child, that had sought amusement in looking over the pictures of the stony volume of nature, I henceforth became a sober student desirous of reading and knowing it as a book. The extreme beauty, however, of the Liassic fossils made me pass over at this time, as of little interest, a discovery which, if duly followed up, would have probably landed me full in the midst of the Old Red Sandstone ichthyolites fully ten years ere I learned to know them. In forming a temporary harbour, at which we boated the stones we had been quarrying, I struck my pick into a slaty sandstone bed, thickly mottled in the layers by carbonaceous markings. They consisted, I saw, of thin rectilinear stems or leaves, much broken and in a bad state of keeping, that at once suggested to me layers of comminuted Zostera marina, such as I had often seen on the Cromarty beach thrown up from the submarine meadows of the Firth beyond. But then, with magnificent ammonites and belemnites, and large well-marked lignites, to be had in abundance at Eathie just for the laying open and the picking up, how could I think of giving myself to disinter what seemed to be mere broken fragments of Zostera? Within, however, a few feet of these carbonaceous markings there occurred one of those platforms of violent death for which the Old Red Sandstone is so remarkable--a platform strewed over with fossil remains of the firstborn ganoids of creation, many of which still bore in their contorted outlines evidence of sudden dissolution and the dying pang.
During the winter of this year--for winter at length came, and, my labours over, three happy months were all my own--I had an opportunity of seeing, deep in a wild Highland glen, the remains of one of our old Scotch forests of the native pine. My cousin George, finding his pretty Highland cottage on the birch-covered tomhan situated too far from his ordinary scenes of employment, had removed to Cromarty; and when his work had this year come to a close for the season, he made use of his first leisure in visiting his father-in-law, an aged shepherd who resided in the upper recesses of Strathcarron. He had invited me to accompany him; and of the invitation I gladly availed myself. We struck across the tract of wild hills which intervenes between the Cromarty and Dornoch Firths, a few miles to the west of the village of Invergordon; and after spending several hours in toiling across dreary moors, unopened at the time by any public road, we took our noon-day refreshment in an uninhabited valley, among broken cottage walls, with a few furrowed patches stretching out around us, green amid the waste. One of the best swordsmen in Ross had once lived there; but both he and his race had been lost to Scotland in consequence of the compelled emigration so common in the Highlands during the last two ages; and Cousin George came strongly out against the lairds. The chill winter night had fallen on the dark hills and alder-skirted river of Strathcarron, as, turning from off the road that winds along the Kyle of Dornoch, we entered its bleak gorge; and as the shepherd's dwelling lay high up the valley, where the lofty sides approach so near, and rise so abruptly, that for the whole winter quarter the sun never falls on the stream below, we had still some ten or twelve miles of broken road before us. The moon, in her first quarter, hung on the edge of the hills, dimly revealing their rough outline; while in a recess of the stream, far beneath, we could see the torch of some adventurous fisher, now gleaming red on rock and water, now suddenly disappearing, eclipsed by the overhanging brushwood. It was late ere we reached the shepherd's cottage--a dark-raftered, dimly-lighted erection of turf and stone. The weather for several weeks before had been rainy and close, and the flocks of the inmate had been thinned by the common scourge of the sheep-farmer at such seasons on damp, boggy farms. The beams were laden with skins besmeared with blood, that dangled overhead to catch the conservative influences of the smoke; and on a rude plank-table below, there rose two tall pyramids of braxy-mutton, heaped up each on a corn-riddle. The shepherd--a Highlander of large proportions, but hard, and thin, and worn by the cares and toils of at least sixty winters--sat moodily beside the fire. The state of his flocks was not cheering; and, besides, he had seen a vision of late, he said, that filled his mind with strange forebodings. He had gone out after nightfall on the previous evening to a dank hollow, in which many of his flock had died. The rain had ceased a few hours before, and a smart frost had set in, and filled the whole valley with a wreath of silvery vapour, dimly lighted by the thin fragment of a moon that appeared as if resting on the hill-top. The wreath stretched out its grey folds beneath him--for he had climbed half-way up the acclivity--when suddenly the figure of a man, formed as of heated metal--the figure of what seemed to be a brazen man brought to a red heat in a furnace--sprang up out of the darkness; and, after stalking over the surface of the fog for a few brief seconds, during which, however, it had traversed the greater part of the valley, it as suddenly disappeared, leaving an evanescent trail of flame behind it. There could be little doubt that the old shepherd had merely seen one of those shooting lights that in mountain districts so frequently startle the night traveller; but the apparition now filled his whole mind, as one vouchsafed from the spiritual world, and of strange and frightful portent:--
I spent the greater part of the following day with my cousin in the forest of Corrybhalgan, and saw two large herds of red deer on the hills. The forest was but a shred of its former self; but the venerable trees still rose thick and tall in some of the more inaccessible hollows; and it was interesting to mark, where they encroached furthest on the open waste, how thoroughly they lost the ordinary character of the Scotch fir, and how, sending out from their short gnarled boles immense branches, some two or three feet over the soil, they somewhat resembled in their squat, dense proportions, and rounded contours, gigantic bee-hives. It was of itself worth while undertaking a journey to the Highlands, to witness these last remains of that arboreous condition of our country to which the youngest of our geological formations, the Peat Mosses, bear such significant witness; and which still, largely existing as the condition of the northern countries of continental Europe, "remains to attest," as Humboldt well remarks, "more than even the records of history, the youthfulness of our civilisation." I revisited at this time, before returning home, the Barony of Gruids; but winter had not improved it: its humble features, divested of their summer complexion, had assumed an expression of blank wretchedness; and hundreds of its people, appalled at the time by a summons of ejection, looked quite as depressed and miserable as its scenery.
Finlay and my friend of the Doocot Cave were no longer within reach; but during this winter I was much in the company of a young man about five years my senior, who was of the true stuff of which friends are made, and to whom I became much attached. I had formed some acquaintance with him about five years before, on his coming to the place from the neighbouring parish of Nigg, to be apprenticed to a house-painter, who lived a few doors from my mother's. But there was at first too great a disparity between us for friendship; he was a tall lad, and I a wild boy; and, though occasionally admitted into his sanctum--a damp little room in an outhouse in which he slept, and in his leisure hours made water-colour drawings and verses--it was but as an occasional visitor, who, having a rude taste for literature and the fine arts, was just worthy of being encouraged in this way. My year of toil had, however, wrought wonders for me: it had converted me into a sober young man; and William Ross now seemed to find scarce less pleasure in my company than I did in his. Poor William! his name must be wholly unfamiliar to the reader; and yet he had that in him which ought to have made it a known one. He was a lad of genius--drew truthfully, had a nice sense of the beautiful, and possessed the true poetic faculty; but he lacked health and spirits, and was naturally of a melancholy temperament, and diffident of himself. He was at this time a thin, pale lad, fair-haired, with a clear waxen complexion, flat chest, and stooping figure; and though he lasted considerably longer than could have been anticipated from his appearance, in seven years after he was in his grave. He was unfortunate in his parents; his mother, though of a devout family of the old Scottish type, was an aberrant specimen;--she had fallen in early youth, and had subsequently married an ignorant, half-imbecile labourer, with whom she passed a life of poverty and unhappiness; and of this unpromising marriage William was the eldest child. It was certainly not from either parent he derived his genius. His maternal grandmother and aunt were, however, excellent Christian women of superior intelligence, who supported themselves by keeping a girls' school in the parish; and William, who had been brought at an early age to live with them, and was naturally a gentle-spirited, docile boy, had the advantage, in consequence, of having that most important lesson of any education--the lesson of a good example at home--set well before him. His boyhood had been that of the poet: he had loved to indulge in his day-dreams in the solitude of a deep wood beside his grandmother's cottage; and had learned to write verses and draw landscapes in a rural locality in which no one had ever written verses or drawn landscapes before. And finally as, in the north of Scotland, in those primitive times, the nearest approach to an artist was a house-painter, William was despatched to Cromarty, when he had grown tall enough for the work, to cultivate his natural taste for the fine arts, in papering rooms and lobbies, and in painting railings and wheel-barrows. There are, I believe, a few instances on record of house-painters rising to be artists: the history of the late Mr. William Bonnar, of the Royal Academy of Edinburgh, furnishes one of these; but the fact that the cases are not more numerous serves, I fear, to show how much oftener a turn for drawing is a merely imitative, than an original, self-derived faculty. Almost all the apprentices of our neighbour the house-painter had their turn for drawing decided enough to influence their choice of a profession; and what was so repeatedly the case in Cromarty must, I should think, have been the case in many similar places; but of how few of these embryo limners have the works appeared in even a provincial exhibition-room!
At the time my intimacy with William became most close, both his grandmother and aunt were dead, and he was struggling with great difficulty through the last year of his apprenticeship. As his master supplied him with but food and lodging, his linen was becoming scant, and his Sabbath suit shabby; and he was looking forward to the time when he should be at liberty to work for himself, with all the anxiety of the voyager who fears that his meagre stock of provisions and water may wholly fail him ere he reaches port. I of course could not assist him. I was an apprentice like himself, and had not the command of a sixpence; nor, had the case been otherwise, would he in all probability have consented to accept of my help; but he lacked spirits as much as money, and in that particular my society did him good. We used to beat over all manner of subjects together, especially poetry and the fine arts; and though we often differed, our differences served only to knit us the more. He, for instance, deemed the "Minstrel" of Beattie the most perfect of English poems; but though he liked Dryden's "Virgil" well enough, he could find no poetry whatever in the "Absalom and Ahithophel" of Dry den; whereas I liked both the "Minstrel" and the "Ahithophel," and, indeed, could hardly say, unlike as they were in complexion and character, which of the two I read oftenest or admired most. Again, among the prose writers, Addison was his especial favourite, and Swift he detested; whereas I liked Addison and Swift almost equally well, and passed without sense of incongruity, from the Vision of Mirza, or the paper on Westminster Abbey, to the true account of the death of Partridge, or the Tale of a Tub. If, however, he could wonder at the latitudinarian laxity of my taste, there was at least one special department in which I could marvel quite as much at the incomprehensible breadth of his. Nature had given me, in despite of the phrenologists, who find music indicated by two large protuberances on the corners of my forehead, a deplorably defective ear. My uncle Sandy, who was profoundly skilled in psalmody, had done his best to make a singer of me; but he was at length content to stop short, after a world of effort, when he had, as he thought, brought me to distinguish St. George's from any other psalm-tune. On the introduction, however, of a second tune into the parish church that repeated the line at the end of the stanza, even this poor fragment of ability deserted me; and to this day--though I rather like the strains of the bagpipe in general, and have no objection to drums in particular--doubts do occasionally come across me whether there be in reality any such thing as tune. My friend William Ross was, on the contrary, a born musician. When a little boy, he had constructed for himself a fife and clarionet of young shoots of elder, on which he succeeded in discoursing sweet music; and addressing himself at another and later period to both the principles and practice of the science, he became one of the best flute-players in the district. Notwithstanding my dulness of ear, I do cherish a pleasing recollection of the sweet sounds that used to issue from his little room in the outhouse, every milder evening as I approached, and of the soothed and tranquil state in which I ever found him on these occasions as I entered. I could not understand his music, but I saw that, mentally at least, though, I fear, not physically--for the respiratory organs were weak--it did him great good.
There was, however, one special province in which our tastes thoroughly harmonized. We were both of us, if not alike favoured, at least equally devoted, lovers of the wild and beautiful in nature; and many a moonlight walk did we take together this winter among the woods and rocks of the hill. It was once said of Thomson, by one who was himself not at all morbidly poetic in his feelings, that "he could not have viewed two candles burning but with a poetical eye." It might at least be said of my friend, that he never saw a piece of fine or striking scenery without being deeply moved by it. As for the mere candles, if placed on a deal dresser or shop-counter, they might have failed to touch him; but if burning in some lyke-wake beside the dead, or in some vaulted crypt or lonely rock-cave, he also could not have looked other than poetically on them. I have seen him awed into deep solemnity, in our walks, by the rising moon, as it peered down upon us over the hill, red and broad, and cloud-encircled, through the interstices of some clump of dark firs; and have observed him become suddenly silent, as, emerging from the moonlight woods, we looked into a rugged dell, and saw far beneath, the slim rippling streamlet gleaming in the light, like a narrow strip of the aurora borealis shot athwart a dark sky, when the steep rough sides of the ravine, on either hand, were enveloped in gloom. My friend's opportunities of general reading had not been equal to my own, but he was acquainted with at least one class of books of which I knew scarce anything;--he had carefully studied Hogarth's "Analysis of Beauty," Fresnoy's "Art of Painting," Gessner's "Letters," the "Lectures of Sir Joshua Reynolds," and several other works of a similar kind; and in all the questions of criticism that related to external form, the effects of light and shade, and the influences of the meteoric media, I found him a high authority. He had a fine eye for detecting the peculiar features which gave individuality and character to a landscape--those features, as he used to say, which the artist or poet should seize and render prominent, while, at the same time, lest they should be lost as in a mob, he softened down the others; and, recognising him as a master in this department of characteristic selection, I delighted to learn in his school--by far the best of its kind I ever attended. I was able, however, in part to repay him, by introducing him to many an interesting spot among the rocks, or to retired dells and hollows in the woods, which, from his sedentary habits, he would scarce ever have discovered for himself. I taught him too, to light fires after nightfall in the caves, that we might watch the effects of the strong lights and deep shadows in scenes so wild; and I still vividly remember the delight he experienced, when, after kindling up in the day-time a strong blaze at the mouth of the Doocot Cave, which filled the recess within with smoke, we forced our way inwards through the cloud, to mark the appearance of the sea and the opposite land seen through a medium so dense, and saw, on turning round, the landscape strangely enwrapped "in the dun hues of earthquake and eclipse." We have visited, after nightfall, the glades of the surrounding woods together, to listen to the night breeze, as it swept sullenly along the pine-tops; and, after striking a light in the old burial vault of a solitary churchyard, we have watched the ray falling on the fissured walls and ropy damp and mould; or, on setting on fire a few withered leaves, have seen the smoke curling slowly upwards, through a square opening in the roof, into the dark sky. William's mind was not of the scientific cast. He had, however, acquired some knowledge of the mathematics, and some skill both in architecture and in the anatomy of the human skeleton and muscles; while of perspective he perhaps knew well-nigh as much as was known at the time. I remember he preferred the Treatise on this art, of Ferguson the astronomer and mechanician, to any other; and used to say that the twenty years spent by the philosopher as a painter were fully redeemed, though they had produced no good pictures, by his little work on Perspective alone. My friend had ere this time given up the writing of verses very much, because he had learned to know what verses ought to be, and failed to satisfy himself with his own; and ere his death, I saw him resign in succession his flute and pencil, and yield up all the hopes he had once cherished of being known. But his weak health affected his spirits, and prostrated the energies of a mind originally rather delicate than strong.
Chapter IX--Life in the bothie--Mad Bell--Mournful history--Singular intimacy--Manners and customs of north-country masons