My Schools and Schoolmasters
The following is from My Schools and Schoolmasters by Hugh Miller:
Life in the bothie--Mad Bell--Mournful history--Singular intimacy--Manners and customs of north-country masons
Spring came on, and brought with it its round of labour--quarrying, building, and stone-cutting; but labour had now no terrors for me: I wrought hard during the hours allotted to toil, and was content; and read, wrote, or walked, during the hours that were properly my own, and was happy. Early in May, however, we had finished all the work for which my master had previously contracted; and as trade was unusually dull at the time, he could procure no further contracts, and the squad was thrown out of employment. I rushed to the woods and rocks, and got on with my lessons in geology and natural science; but my master, who had no lessons to learn, wearied sadly of doing nothing; and at length, very unwillingly--for he had enacted the part of the employer, though on a small scale, for a full quarter of a century--he set himself to procure work as a journeyman. He had another apprentice at the time; and he, availing himself of the opportunity which the old man's inability of employing him furnished, quitted his service, and commenced work on his own behalf--a step to which, though the position of a journeyman's apprentice seemed rather an anomalous one, I could not see my way. And so, as work turned up for both master and apprentice at a place about twenty miles distant from Cromarty, I set out with him, to make trial, for the first time, of the sort of life that is spent in bothies and barracks. Our work was to consist, I was informed, of building and hewing at an extensive farm-steading on the banks of the river Conon, which one of the wealthier proprietors of the district was getting built for himself, not on contract, but by the old mode of employing operatives on day's wages; and my master was to be permitted to rate as a full journeyman, though now considerably in his decline as a workman, on condition that the services of his apprentice should be rated so much lower than their actual value as to render master and man regarded as one lot--a fair bargain to the employer, and somewhat more. The arrangement was not quite a flattering one for me; but I acquiesced in it without remark, and set out with my master for Conon-side.
The evening sun was gleaming delightfully as we neared the scene of our labours, on the broad reaches of the Conon, and lighting up the fine woods and noble hills beyond. It would, I knew, be happiness to toil for some ten hours or so per day in so sweet a district, and then to find the evening all my own; but on reaching the work, we were told that we would require to set out in the morning for a place about four miles further to the west, where there were a few workmen engaged in building a jointure-house for the lady of a Ross-shire proprietor lately dead, and which lay off the river in a rather unpromising direction. And so, a little after sun-rise, we had to take the road with our tools slung across our backs, and before six o'clock we reached the rising jointure-house, and set to work. The country around was somewhat bare and dreary--a scene of bogs and moors, overlooked by a range of tame heathy hills; but in our immediate neighbourhood there was a picturesque little scene--rather a vignette than a picture--that in some degree redeemed the general deformity. Two meal-mills--the one small and old, the other larger and more modern--were placed beside each other, on ground so unequal, that, seen in front, the smaller seemed perched on the top of the larger; a group of tall graceful larches rose immediately beside the lower building, and hung their slim branches over the huge wheel; while a few aged ash-trees that encircled the mill-pond, which, in sending its waters down the hill, supplied both wheels in succession, sprang up immediately beside the upper erection, and shot their branches over its roof. On closing our labours for the evening, we repaired to the old mansion-house, about half a mile away, in which the dowager lady for whom we wrought still continued to reside, and where we expected to be accommodated, like the other workmen, with beds for the night. We had not been expected, however, and there were no beds provided for us; but as the Highland carpenter who had engaged to execute the woodwork of the new building had an entire bed to himself, we were told we might, if we pleased, lie three a-bed with him. But though the carpenter was, I daresay, a most respectable man, and a thorough Celt, I had observed during the day that he was miserably affected by a certain skin disease, which, as it was more prevalent in the past of Highland history than even at this time, must have rendered his ancestors of old very formidable, even without their broadswords; and so I determined on no account to sleep with him. I gave my master fair warning, by telling him what I had seen; but uncle David, always insensible to danger, conducted himself on the occasion as in the sinking boat or under the falling bank, and so went to bed with the carpenter; while I, stealing out, got into the upper story of an out-house; and, flinging myself down in my clothes on the floor, on a heap of straw, was soon fast asleep. I was, however, not much accustomed at the time to so rough a bed: every time I turned me in my lair, the strong, stiff straw rustled against my face; and about midnight I awoke.
I rose to a little window which opened upon a dreary moor, and commanded a view in the distance, of a ruinous chapel and solitary burying-ground, famous in the traditions of the district as the chapel and burying-ground of Gillie-christ. Dr. Johnson relates, in his "Journey," that when eating, on one occasion, his dinner in Skye to the music of the bagpipe, he was informed by a gentleman, "that in some remote time, the Macdonalds of Glengarry having been injured or offended by the inhabitants of Culloden, and resolving to have justice, or vengeance, they came to Culloden on a Sunday, when, finding their enemies at worship, they shut them up in the church, which they set on fire; and this, said he, is the tune that the piper played while they were burning." Culloden, however, was not the scene of the atrocity: it was the Mackenzies of Ord that their fellow-Christians and brother-Churchmen, the Macdonalds of Glengarry, succeeded in converting into animal charcoal, when the poor people were engaged, like good Catholics, in attending mass; and in this old chapel of Gillie-christ was the experiment performed. The Macdonalds, after setting fire to the building, held fast the doors until the last of the Mackenzies of Ord had perished in the flames; and then, pursued by the Mackenzies of Brahan, they fled into their own country, to glory ever after in the greatness of the feat. The evening was calm and still, but dark for the season, for it was now near mid-summer; and every object had disappeared in the gloom, save the outlines of a ridge of low hills that rose beyond the moor; but I could determine where the chapel and churchyard lay; and great was my astonishment to see a light flickering amid the grave-stones and the ruins. At one time seen, at another hid, like the revolving lantern of a lighthouse, it seemed to be passing round and round the building; and, as I listened, I could hear distinctly what appeared to be a continuous screaming of most unearthly sound, proceeding from evidently the same spot as the twinkle of the light. What could be the meaning of such an apparition, with such accompaniments--the time of its appearance midnight--the place a solitary burying-ground? I was in the Highlands: was there truth, after all, in the many floating Highland stories of spectral dead-lights and wild supernatural sounds, seen and heard by nights in lonely places of sepulture, when some sudden death was near? I did feel my blood run somewhat cold, for I had not yet passed the credulous time of life--and had some thoughts of stealing down to my master's bedside, to be within reach of the human voice, when I saw the light quitting the churchyard, and coming downwards across the moor in a straight line, though tossed about in the dead calm, in many a wave and flourish; and further, I could ascertain, that what I had deemed a persistent screaming was in reality a continuous singing, carried on at the pitch of a powerful though somewhat cracked voice. In a moment after, one of the servant girls of the mansion-house came rushing out half-dressed to the door of an outer-building in which the workmen and the farm-servant lay, and summoned them immediately to rise. Mad Bell had again broke out, she said, and would set them on fire a second time.
The men rose, and, as they appeared at the door, I joined them; but on striking out a few yards into the moor, we found the maniac already in the custody of two men, who had seized and were dragging her towards her cottage, a miserable hovel, about half a mile away. She never once spoke to us, but continued singing, though in a lower and more subdued tone of voice than before, a Gaelic song. We reached her hut, and, making use of her own light, we entered. A chain of considerable length, attached by a stopple in one of the Highland couples of the erection, showed that her neighbours had been compelled on former occasions to abridge her liberty; and one of the men, in now making use of it, so wound it round her person as to bind her down, instead of giving her the scope of the apartment, to the damp uneven floor. A very damp and uneven floor it was. There were crevices in the roof above, which gave free access to the elements; and the turf walls, perilously bulged by the leakage in several places, were green with mould. One of the masons and I simultaneously interfered. It would never do, we said, to pin down a human creature in that way to the damp earth. Why not give her what the length of the chain permitted--the full range of the room? If we did that, replied the man, she would be sure to set herself free before morning, and we would just have to rise and bind her again. But we resolved, we rejoined, whatever might happen, that she should not be tied down in that way to the filthy floor; and ultimately we succeeded in carrying our point. The song ceased for a moment: the maniac turned round, presenting full to the light the strongly-marked, energetic features of a woman of about fifty-five; and, surveying us with a keen, scrutinizing glance, altogether unlike that of the idiot, she emphatically repeated the sacred text, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." She then began singing, in a low, mournful tone, an old Scotch ballad; and, as we left the cottage, we could hear her voice gradually heightening as we retired, until it had at length attained to its former pitch and wildness of tone.
Before daybreak the maniac succeeded in setting herself free; but the paroxysm of the fit had meanwhile passed over; and when she visited me next morning at the place where I was hewing--a little apart from the other workmen, who were all engaged in building on the walls--save for the strongly-marked features, I would scarce have recognised her. She was neatly dressed, though her gown was neither fine nor new; her clean white cap was nicely arranged; and her air seemed to be rather that of the respectable tradesman's wife or daughter, than of the ordinary country woman. For some little time she stood beside me without speaking, and then somewhat abruptly asked,--"What makes you work as a mason?" I made some commonplace reply; but it failed to satisfy her. "All your fellows are real masons," she said; "but you are merely in the disguise of a mason; and I have come to consult you about the deep matters of the soul." The matters she had come to inquire regarding were really very deep indeed; she had, I found, carefully read Flavel's "Treatise on the Soul of Man"--a volume which, fortunately for my credit, I also had perused; and we were soon deep together in the rather bad metaphysics promulgated on the subject by the Schoolmen, and republished by the divine. It seemed clear, she said, that every human soul was created--not transmitted--created, mayhap, at the time when it began to be; but if so, how, or on what principle did it come under the influence of the Fall? I merely remarked, in reply, that she was of course acquainted with the views of the old theologians--such as Flavel--men who really knew as much about such things as could be known, and perhaps a little more: was she not satisfied with them? Not dissatisfied, she said; but she wanted more light. Could a soul not derived from our first parents be rendered vile simply by being put into a body derived from them? One of the passages in Flavel, on this special point, had luckily struck me, from its odd obscurity of expression, and I was able to quote it in nearly the original words. You know, I remarked, that a great authority on the question "declined confidently to affirm that the moral infection came by way of physical agency, as a rusty scabbard infects and defiles a bright sword when sheathed therein: it might be," he thought, "by way of natural concomitancy, as Estius will have it; or, to speak as Dr. Reynolds doth, by way of ineffable resultancy and emanation." As this was perfectly unintelligible, it seemed to satisfy my new friend. I added, however, that, like herself, I was waiting for more light on the difficulty, and might set myself to it in right earnest, when I found it fully demonstrated that the Creator could not, or did not, make man equally the descendant in soul as in body of the original progenitors of the race. I believed, with the great Mr. Locke, that he could do it; nor was I aware he had anywhere said that what he could do in the matter he had not done. Such was the first of many strange conversations with the maniac, who, with all her sad brokenness of mind, was one of the most intellectual women I ever knew. Humble as were the circumstances in which I found her, her brother, who was at this time about two years dead, had been one of the best-known ministers of the Scottish Church in the Northern Highlands. To quote from an affectionate notice by the editor of a little volume of his sermons, published a few years ago--the Rev. Mr. Mackenzie of North Leith--"he was a profound divine, an eloquent preacher, a deeply-experienced Christian, and, withal, a classical scholar, a popular poet, a man of original genius, and eminently a man of prayer." And his poor sister Isabel, though grievously vexed at times by a dire insanity, seemed to have received from nature powers mayhap not inferior to his.
We were not always engaged with the old divines; Isabel's tenacious memory was stored with the traditions of the district; and many an anecdote could she tell of old chieftains, forgotten on the lands which had once been their own, and of Highland poets, whose songs had been sung for the last time. The story of the "Raid of Gillie-christ" has been repeatedly in print since I first heard it from her: it forms the basis of the late Sir Thomas Dick Lander's powerful tale of "Allan with the Red Jacket;" and I have seen it in its more ordinary traditionary dress, in the columns of the Inverness Courier. But at this time it was new to me; and on no occasion could it have lost less by the narrator. She was herself a Mackenzie; and her eyes flashed a wild fire when she spoke of the barbarous and brutal Macdonalds, and of the measured march and unfaltering notes of their piper outside the burning chapel, when her perishing ancestors were shrieking in their agony within. She was acquainted also with the resembling story of that Cave of Eigg, in which a body of the Macdonalds themselves, consisting of men, women, and children--the entire population of the island--had been suffocated wholesale by the Macleods of Skye; and I have heard from her more good sense on the subject of the Highland character "ere the gospel changed it," as illustrated by these passages in their history, than from some Highlanders sane enough on other matters, but carried away by a too indiscriminating respect for the wild courage and half-instinctive fidelity of the old race. The ancient Highlanders were bold, faithful dogs, she has said, ready to die for their masters, and prepared to do, at their bidding, like other dogs, the most cruel and wicked actions; and as dogs often were they treated; nay, even still, after religion had made them men (as if condemned to suffer for the sins of their parents), they were frequently treated as dogs. The pious martyrs of the south had contended in God's behalf; whereas the poor Highlanders of the north had but contended in behalf of their chiefs; and so, while God had been kind to the descendants of His servants, the chiefs had been very unkind to the descendants of theirs. From excellent sense, however, in these conversations, my new companion used often to wander into deplorable insanity. Her midnight visits to the old chapel of Gillie-christ were made, she said, in order that she might consult her father in her difficulties; and the good man, though often silent for nights together, rarely failed to soothe and counsel her from the depths of his quiet grave, on every occasion when her unhappiness became extreme. It was acting on his advice, however, that she had set fire to a door that had for a time excluded her from the burying-ground, and burnt it down. She had been married in early life; and I have rarely heard anything wilder or more ingenious than the account she gave of a quarrel with her husband, that terminated in their separation.
After living happily with him for several years, she all at once, she said, became most miserable, and everything in their household went on ill. But though her husband seemed to have no true conception of the cause of their new-born misery, she had. He used, from motives of economy, to keep a pig, which, when converted into bacon, was always useful in the family; and an occasional ham of the animal now and then found its way to her brother's manse, as a sort of friendly acknowledgment of the many good things received from him. One wretched pig, however--a little black thing, only a few weeks old--which her husband had purchased at a fair, was, she soon discovered, possessed by an evil spirit, that had a strange power of quitting the animal to do mischief in her dwelling, and an ability of not only rendering her fearfully unhappy, but even of getting at times into her husband. The husband himself, poor blinded man! could see nothing of all this; nor would he believe her, who could and did see it; nor yet could she convince him that it was decidedly his duty to get rid of the pig. She was not satisfied that she herself had a clear right to kill the creature: it was undoubtedly her husband's property, not hers; but could she only succeed in placing it in circumstances in which it might be free either to kill itself or not, and were it, in these circumstances, to destroy itself, she was sure all the better divines would acquit her of aught approaching to moral guilt in the transaction; and the relieved household would be free from both the evil spirit and the little pig. The mill-pond was situated immediately beside her dwelling: its steep sides, which were walled with stone, were unscaleable by at least little pigs; and among the aged ashes which sprang up immediately at its edge, there was one that shot out a huge bough, like a bent arm, directly over it, far beyond the stonework, so that the boys of the neighbourhood used to take their seat on it, and fish for little trout that sometimes found their way into the pond. On the projecting branch one day, when her husband's back was turned, and there was no one to see or interfere, she placed the pig. It stood for a while: there was no doubt, therefore, it could stand; but, unwilling to stand any longer, it sprawled--slipped--fell--dropped into the water, in short--and ultimately, as it could not make its way up the bank, was drowned. And thus ended the pig. It would seem, however, as if the evil spirit had got into her husband instead--so extreme was his indignation at the transaction. He would accept of neither apology nor explanation; and, unable of course to live any longer under the same roof with a man so unreasonable, she took the opportunity, when he was quitting that part of the country for employment at a distance, to remain behind in her old cottage--the same in which she at that time resided. Such was the maniac's account of her quarrel with her husband; and, when listening to men chopping little familiar logic on one of the profoundest mysteries of Revelation--a mystery which, once received as an article of faith, serves to unlock many a difficulty, but which is itself wholly irreducible by the human intellect--I have been sometimes involuntarily led to think of her ingenious but not very sound argumentation on the fall of the pig. It is dangerous to attempt explaining, in the theological province, what in reality cannot be explained. Some weak abortion of the human reason is always substituted, in the attempt, for some profound mystery in the moral government of God; and men ill-grounded in the faith are led to confound the palpable abortion with the inscrutable mystery, and are injured in consequence.
I succeeded in getting a bed in the mansion-house, without, like Marsyas of old, perilling my skin; and though there was but little of interest in the immediate neighbourhood, and not much to be enjoyed within doors--for I could procure neither books nor congenial companionship--with the assistance of my pencil and sketch-book I got over my leisure hours tolerably well. My new friend Isabel would have given me as much of her conversation as I liked; for there was many a point on which she had to consult me, and many a mystery to state, and secret to communicate; but, though always interested in her company, I was also always pained, and invariably quitted her, after each lengthened tête-à-tête, in a state of low spirits, which I found it difficult to shake off. There seems to be something peculiarly unwholesome in the society of a strong-minded maniac; and so I contrived as much as possible--not a little, at times, to her mortification--to avoid her. For hours together, however, I have seen her perfectly sane; and, on these occasions, she used to speak much about her brother, for whom she entertained a high reverence, and gave me many anecdotes regarding him, not uninteresting in themselves, which she told remarkably well. Some of these my memory still retains. "There were two classes of men," she has said, "for whom he had a special regard--Christian men of consistent character; and men who, though they made no profession of religion, were honest in their dealings, and of kindly dispositions. And with people of this latter kind he used to have a great deal of kindly intercourse, cheerful enough at times--for he could both make a joke and take one--but which usually did his friends good in the end. So long as my father and my mother lived, he used to travel across the country once every year to pay them a visit; and he was accompanied, on one of these journeys, by one of this less religious class of his parishioners, who had, however, a great regard for him, and whom he liked, in turn, for his blunt honesty, and obliging disposition. They had baited for some time at a house in the outer skirts of my brother's parish, where there was a child to baptize, and where, I fear, Donald must have got an extra dram; for he was very argumentative all the evening after; and finding he could not agree with my brother on any one subject, he suffered him to shoot a-head for a few hundred yards, and did not again come up with him, until, in passing through a thick clump of natural wood, he found him standing, lost in thought, before a singularly-shaped tree. Donald had never seen such a strange-looking tree in all his days before. The lower part of it was twisted in and out, and backwards and forwards, like an ill-made cork-screw; while the higher shot straight upwards, direct as a line; and its taper top seemed like a finger pointing at the sky. 'Come, tell me, Donald,' said my brother, 'what you think this tree is like?' 'Indeed, I kenna, Mr. Lachlan,' replied Donald; 'but if you let me take that straight bit aff the tap o't, it will be gey an' like the worm o' a whisky still.' 'But I cannot want the straight bit,' said my brother; 'the very pith and point of my comparison lies in the straight bit. One of the old fathers would perhaps have said, Donald, that that tree resembled the course of the Christian. His early progress has turns and twists in it, just like the lower part of that tree; one temptation draws him to the left--another to the right: his upward course is a crooked one; but it is an upward course for all that; for he has, like the tree, the principle of sky-directed growth within him: the disturbing influences weaken as grace strengthens, and appetite and passion decay; and so the early part of his career is not more like the warped and twisted trunk of that tree, than his latter years resemble its taper top. He shoots off heavenward in a straight line.'" Such is a specimen of the anecdotes of this poor woman. I saw her once afterwards, though for only a short time; when she told me that, though people could not understand us, there was meaning in both her thoughts and in mine; and some years subsequently, when I was engaged as a journeyman mason in the south of Scotland, she walked twenty miles to pay my mother a visit, and stayed with her for several days. Her death was a melancholy one. When fording the river Conon in one of her wilder moods, she was swept away by the stream and drowned, and her body cast upon the bank a day or two after.
Our work finished at this place, my master and I returned on a Saturday evening to Conon-side, where we found twenty-four workmen crowded in a rusty corn-kiln, open from gable to gable, and not above thirty feet in length. A row of rude beds, formed of undressed slabs, ran along the sides; and against one of the gables there blazed a line of fires, with what are known as masons' setting-irons, stuck into the stonework behind, for suspending over them the pots used in cooking the food of the squad. The scene, as we entered, was one of wild confusion. A few of the soberer workmen were engaged in "baking and firing" oaten cakes, and a few more occupied, with equal sobriety, in cooking their evening porridge; but in front of the building there was a wild party of apprentices, who were riotously endeavouring to prevent a Highland shepherd from driving his flock past them, by shaking their aprons at the affrighted animals; and a party equally bent on amusement inside were joining with burlesque vehemence in a song which one of the men, justly proud of his musical talents, had just struck up. Suddenly the song ceased, and with wild uproar a bevy of some eight or ten workmen burst out into the green in full pursuit of a squat little fellow, who had, they said, insulted the singer. The cry rose wild and high, "A ramming! a ramming!" The little fellow was seized and thrown down; and five men--one holding his head, and one stationed at each arm and leg--proceeded to execute on his body the stern behests of barrack-law. He was poised like an ancient battering-ram, and driven endlong against the wall of the kiln,--that important part of his person coming in violent contact with the masonry, "where," according to Butler, "a kick hurts honour" very much. After the third blow, however, he was released, and the interrupted song went on as before. I was astonished, and somewhat dismayed, by this specimen of barrack-life; but, getting quietly inside the building, I succeeded in cooking for my uncle and myself some porridge over one of the unoccupied fires, and then stole off, as early as I could, to my lair in a solitary hay-loft--for there was no room for us in the barrack--where, by the judicious use of a little sulphur and mercury, I succeeded in freeing my master from the effects of the strange bed-fellowship which our recent misery had made, and preserving myself from infection. The following Sabbath was a day of quiet rest; and I commenced the labours of the week, disposed to think that my lot, though rather a rough one, was not altogether unendurable; and that, even were it worse than it was, it would be at once wise and manly, seeing that winter would certainly come, cheerfully to acquiesce in and bear up under it.
I had, in truth, entered a school altogether new--at times, as I have just shown, a singularly noisy and uproarious one, for it was a school without master or monitor; but its occasional lessons were, notwithstanding, eminently worthy of being scanned. All know that there exists such a thing as professional character. On some men, indeed, nature imprints so strongly the stamp of individuality, that the feebler stamp of circumstance and position fails to impress them. Such cases, however, must always be regarded as exceptional. On the average masses of mankind, the special employments which they pursue, or the kinds of business which they transact, have the effect of moulding them into distinct classes, each of which bears an artificially induced character peculiarly its own. Clergymen, as such, differ from merchants and soldiers, and all three from lawyers and physicians. Each of these professions has long borne in our literature, and in common opinion, a character so clearly appreciable by the public generally, that, when truthfully reproduced in some new work of fiction, or exemplified by some transaction in real life, it is at once recognised as marked by the genuine class-traits and peculiarities. But the professional characteristics descend much lower in the scale than is usually supposed. There is scarce a trade or department of manual labour that does not induce its own set of peculiarities--peculiarities which, though less within the range of the observation of men in the habit of recording what they remark, are not less real than those of the man of physic or of law. The barber is as unlike the weaver, and the tailor as unlike both, as the farmer is unlike the soldier, or as either farmer or soldier is unlike the merchant, lawyer, or minister. And it is only on the same sort of principle that all men, when seen from the top of a lofty tower, whether they be tall or short, seem of the same stature, that these differences escape the notice of men in the higher walks.
Between the workmen that pass sedentary lives within doors, such as weavers and tailors, and those who labour in the open air, such as masons and ploughmen, there exists a grand generic difference. Sedentary mechanics are usually less contented than laborious ones; and as they almost always work in parties, and as their comparatively light, though often long and wearily-plied employments, do not so much strain their respiratory organs but that they can keep up an interchange of idea when at their toils, they are generally much better able to state their grievances, and much more fluent in speculating on their causes. They develop more freely than the laborious out-of-door workers of the country, and present, as a class, a more intelligent aspect. On the other hand, when the open-air worker does so overcome his difficulties as to get fairly developed, he is usually of a fresher or more vigorous type than the sedentary one. Burns, Hogg, Allan Cunningham, are the literary representatives of the order; and it will be found that they stand considerably in advance of the Thoms, Bloomfields, and Tannahills, that represent the sedentary workmen. The silent, solitary, hard-toiled men, if nature has put no better stuff in them than that of which stump-orators and Chartist lecturers are made, remain silent, repressed by their circumstances; but if of a higher grade, and if they once do get their mouths fairly opened, they speak with power, and bear with them into our literature the freshness of the green earth and the freedom of the open sky.
The specific peculiarities induced by particular professions are not less marked than the generic ones. How different, for instance, the character of a sedentary tailor, as such, from that of the equally sedentary barber! Two imperfectly-taught young lads, of not more than the average intellect, are apprenticed, the one to the hair-dresser, the other to the fashionable clothes-maker of a large village. The barber has to entertain his familiar round of customers, when operating upon their heads and beards. He must have no controversies with them; that might be disagreeable, and might affect his command of the scissors or razor; but he is expected to communicate to them all he knows of the gossip of the place; and as each customer supplies him with a little, he of course comes to know more than anybody else. And as his light and easy work lays no stress on his respiration, in course of time he learns to be a fast and fluent talker, with a great appetite for news, but little given to dispute. He acquires, too, if his round of customers be good, a courteous manner; and if they be in large proportion Conservatives, he becomes, in all probability, a Conservative too. The young tailor goes through an entirely different process. He learns to regard dress as the most important of all earthly things--becomes knowing in cuts and fashions--is taught to appreciate, in a way no other individual can, the aspect of a button, or the pattern of a vest; and as his work is cleanly, and does not soil his clothes, and as he can get them more cheaply, and more perfectly in the fashion, than other mechanics, the chances are ten to one that he turns out a beau. He becomes great in that which he regards as of all things greatest--dress. A young tailor may be known by the cut of his coat and the merits of his pantaloons, among all other workmen; and as even fine clothes are not enough of themselves, it is necessary that he should also have fine manners; and not having such advantages of seeing polite society as his neighbour the barber, his gentlemanly manners are always less fine than grotesque. Hence more ridicule of tailors among working men than of any other class of mechanics. And such--if nature has sent them from her hand ordinary men, for the extraordinary rise above all the modifying influences of profession--are the processes through which tailors and hair-dressers put on then distinctive characters as such. A village smith hears well-nigh as much gossip as a village barber; but he develops into an entirely different sort of man. He is not bound to please his customers by his talk; nor does his profession leave his breath free enough to talk fluently or much; and so he listens in grim and swarthy independence--strikes his iron while it is hot--and when, after thrusting it into the fire, he bends himself to the bellows, he drops, in rude phrase, a brief judicial remark, and again falls sturdily to work. Again, the shoemaker may be deemed, in the merely mechanical character of his profession, near of kin to the tailor. But such is not the case. He has to work amid paste, wax, oil, and blacking, and contracts a smell of leather. He cannot keep himself particularly clean; and although a nicely-finished shoe be all well enough in its way, there is not much about it on which conceit can build. No man can set up as a beau on the strength of a prettily-shaped shoe; and so a beau the shoemaker is not, but, on the contrary, a careless, manly fellow, who, when not overmuch devoted to Saint Monday, gains usually, in his course through life, a considerable amount of sense. Shoemakers are often in large proportions intelligent men; and Bloomfield, the poet, Gifford the critic and satirist, and Carey the missionary, must certainly be regarded as thoroughly respectable contributions from the profession, to the worlds of poetry, criticism, and religion.
The professional character of the mason varies a good deal in the several provinces of Scotland, according to the various circumstances in which he is placed. He is in general a blunt, manly, taciturn fellow, who, without much of the Radical or Chartist about him, especially if wages be good and employment abundant, rarely touches his hat to a gentleman. His employment is less purely mechanical than many others: he is not like a man ceaselessly engaged in pointing needles or fashioning pin-heads. On the contrary, every stone he lays or hews demands the exercise of a certain amount of judgment for itself; and so he cannot wholly suffer his mind to fall asleep over his work. When engaged, too, in erecting some fine building, he always experiences a degree of interest in marking the effect of the design developing itself piecemeal, and growing up under his hands; and so he rarely wearies of what he is doing. Further, his profession has this advantage, that it educates his sense of sight. Accustomed to ascertain the straightness of lines at a glance, and to cast his eye along plane walls, or the mouldings of entablatures or architraves, in order to determine the rectitude of the masonry, he acquires a sort of mathematical precision in determining the true bearings and position of objects, and is usually found, when admitted into a rifle club, to equal, without previous practice, its second-rate shots. He only falls short of its first-rate ones, because, uninitiated by the experience of his profession in the mystery of the parabolic curve, he fails, in taking aim, to make the proper allowance for it. The mason is almost always a silent man: the strain on his respiration is too great, when he is actively employed, to leave the necessary freedom to the organs of speech; and so at least the provincial builder or stone-cutter rarely or never becomes a democratic orator. I have met with exceptional cases in the larger towns; but they were the result of individual idiosyncrasies, developed in clubs and taverns, and were not professional.
It is, however, with the character of our north-country masons that I have at present chiefly to do. Living in small villages, or in cottages in the country, they can very rarely procure employment in the neighbourhood of their dwellings, and so they are usually content to regard these as simply their homes for the winter and earlier spring months, when they have nothing to do, and to remove for work to other parts of the country, where bridges, or harbours, or farm-steadings are in the course of building--to be subjected there to the influences of what is known as the barrack, or rather bothy life. These barracks or bothies are almost always of the most miserable description. I have lived in hovels that were invariably flooded in wet weather by the overflowings of neighbouring swamps, and through whose roofs I could tell the hour at night, by marking from my bed the stars that were passing over the openings along the ridge: I have resided in other dwellings of rather higher pretensions, in which I have been awakened during every heavier night-shower by the rain-drops splashing upon my face where I lay a-bed. I remember that Uncle James, in urging me not to become a mason, told me that a neighbouring laird, when asked why he left a crazy old building standing behind a group of neat modern offices, informed the querist that it was not altogether through bad taste the hovel was spared, but from the circumstance that he found it of great convenience every time his speculations brought a drove of pigs or a squad of masons the way. And my after experience showed me that the story might not be in the least apocryphal, and that masons had reason at times for not touching their hats to gentlemen.
In these barracks the food is of the plainest and coarsest description: oatmeal forms its staple, with milk, when milk can be had, which is not always; and as the men have to cook by turns, with only half an hour or so given them in which to light a fire, and prepare the meal for a dozen or twenty associates, the cooking is invariably an exceedingly rough and simple affair. I have known mason-parties engaged in the central Highlands in building bridges, not unfrequently reduced, by a tract of wet weather, that soaked their only fuel the turf, and rendered it incombustible, to the extremity of eating their oatmeal raw, and merely moistened by a little water, scooped by the hand from a neighbouring brook. I have oftener than once seen our own supply of salt fail us; and after relief had been afforded by a Highland smuggler--for there was much smuggling in salt in those days, ere the repeal of the duties--I have heard a complaint from a young fellow regarding the hardness of our fare, at once checked by a comrade's asking him whether he was not an ungrateful dog to grumble in that way, seeing that, after living on fresh poultices for a week, we had actually that morning got porridge with salt in it. One marked effect of the annual change which the north-country mason has to undergo, from a life of domestic comfort to a life of hardship in the bothy, if he has not passed middle life, is a great apparent increase in his animal spirits. At home he is in all probability a quiet, rather dull-looking personage, not much given to laugh or joke; whereas in the bothy, if the squad be a large one, he becomes wild, and a humorist--laughs much, and grows ingenious in playing off pranks on his fellows. As in all other communities, there are certain laws recognised in the barrack as useful for controlling at least its younger members, the apprentices; but in the general tone of merriment, even these lose their character, and, ceasing to be a terror to evildoers, become in the execution mere occasions of mirth. I never, in all my experience, saw a serious punishment inflicted. Shortly after our arrival at Conon-side, my master, chancing to remark that he had not wrought as a journeyman for twenty-five years before, was voted a "ramming," for taking, as was said, such high ground with his brother workmen; but, though sentence was immediately executed, they dealt gently with the old man, who had good sense enough to acquiesce in the whole as a joke. And yet, amid all this wild merriment and license, there was not a workman who did not regret the comforts of his quiet home, and long for the happiness which was, he felt, to be enjoyed only there. It has been long known that gaiety is not solid enjoyment; but that the gaiety should indicate little else than the want of solid enjoyment, is a circumstance not always suspected. My experience of barrack-life has enabled me to receive without hesitation what has been said of the occasional merriment of slaves in America and elsewhere, and fully to credit the often-repeated statement, that the abject serfs of despotic Governments laugh more than the subjects of a free country. Poor fellows! If the British people were as unhappy as slaves or serfs, they would, I daresay, learn in time to be quite as merry. There are, however, two circumstances that serve to prevent the bothy life of the north-country mason from essentially injuring his character in the way it almost never fails to injure that of the farm-servant. As he has to calculate on being part of every winter, and almost every spring, unemployed, he is compelled to practise a self-denying economy, the effect of which, when not carried to the extreme of a miserly narrowness, is always good; and Hallow-day returns him every season to the humanizing influences of his home.
Chapter X--Evening walks--Lines on a sun-dial--A haunted stream--Insect transformations--Jock Moghoal--Musings