We returned to town;
and, after threading a few of the narrower lanes, entered by a low door
into a long dark room dimly lighted by a fire. A tall thin woman was
employed in skinning a bundle of dried fish at a table in a corner.
"Where’s the guidman,
Kate?" said my companion, hanging the sweet pure English in which he had
hitherto spoken, for his mother tongue.
"John’s ben in the spence,"
replied the woman. "Little Andrew, the wratch, has been makin a totum wi’
his faither’s ae razor, an, the puir man’s trying to shave himsel yonder
in’ girnan like a sheep’s head on the tangs."
"Oh, the wratch! the ill-deedie
wratch!" said John, stalking into the room, in a towering passion, his
face covered with suds and scratches—"I might as weel shave mysel wi’ a
mussel shillet.—Rob Ferguson, man, is that you!"
"Wearie warld, John," said
the, poet, "for a’ oor philosophy."
"Philosophy!—it’s but a
snare, Rab—just vanity an’ vexation o’ speerit, as Solomon says. An’ isna
it clear heterodox, besides? Ye study, an’ study till your brains gang
aboot like o whirligig; an’ then, like bairns in a boat that see the land
sailin, ye think its the solid yearth that’s turnin round. An’ this ye ca’
philosophy; as if David hadna tauld us that the warld sits coshly on the
waters, an’ canna be moved."
"Hoot, John," rejoined my
companion, "it’s no me, but Jamie Brown, that differs wi’ you in thae
matters. I’m a Hoggonian, ye ken. The auld Jews were, doubtless, gran’
Christians, an’ wherefore no guid philosophers too? But it was cruel o’
you to unkennel me this mornin’ afore six, an’ I was up sae lang at my
studies the nicht afore."
"Ah, Rob, Rob!" said
John—"studying in Tam Dun’s kirk. Ye’ll be a minister, like a’ the lave."
"Mendin fast, John,"
rejoined the poet. "I was in your kirk on Sabbath last, hearing worthy Mr
Corkindale; whatever else he may hae to fear, he’s in nae danger o’
‘thinking his ain thoughts,’ honest man."
"In oor kirk!" said John—"ye’re
dun then, wi’ precenting in yer ain—an’ troth nae wonder. What could hae
possessed ye to gie up the puir chield’s name i’ the prayer, an’ him
sittin at yer lug?"
I was unacquainted with the
circumstance to which he alluded, and requested an explanation. "Oh, ye
see," said John, "Rob, amang, a’ the ither gifts that he misguides, has
the gift o’ a sweet voice; an’ naething less would ser’ some o’ oor
Professors than to hae him for their precenter. They micht as weel hae
thocht o’ an organ—it wad be just as devout; but the soun’s everthing now,
laddie, ye ken, an’ the heart naething. Weel, Rob, as ye may think, was
less than pleased wi’ the job, an’ tauld them he could whistle better than
sing; but it wasna that they wanted, and sae it behoved him to tak his
seat in the box. An’, lest the folk should be no pleased wi’ ae key to ae
tune, he gaed them for the first twa or three days, a hail bunch to each;
an there was never sic singing in St Andrew’s afore. Weel but for a’ that,
it behoved him still to precent; though he has got rid o’ it at last—for
what did he do, twa Sabbaths agone, but put up drunken Tam Moffat’s name
in the prayer—the very chield that was sittin at his elbow, though the
minister couldna see him. An’ when the puir stibbler was prayin for the
reprobate as weel’s he could, ae half o’ the kirk was needcessitated to
come oot, that they micht keep decent, an’ the ither half to swallow their
pocket napkins. But what think ye"—
"Hoot, John, now, leave oot
the moral." said the poet. "Here’s a’ the lads."
Half a dozen young students
entered as he spoke; and, after a hearty greeting, and when he had
introduced me to them one by one, as a choice fellow of immense reading,
the door was barred, and we set down to half a dozen of home-brewed, and a
huge platter of dried fish. There was much mirth and no little humour.
Ferguson sat at the head of the table, and old John Hogg at the foot. I
thought of East-cheap, and the revels of Prince Henry; but our Falstaff
was an old Scotch Seceder, and our Prince a gifted young fellow, who owed
all his influence over his fellows to the force of his genius alone.
"Prythee, Hal," I said,
"let us drink to Sir John."
"Why, yes," said the poet,
"with all my heart. Not quite so fine a fellow, though, ‘bating his Scotch
honesty. Half Sir John’s genius would have served for an epic poet—half
his courage for a hero."
"His courage!" exclaimed
one of the lads.
"Yes, Willie, his courage,
man. Do you think a coward could have run away with half the coolness?
With a tithe of the courage necessary for such a retreat, a man would have
stood and fought till he died. Sir John must have been a fine fellow in
"In mony a droll way may a
man fa’ on the drap drink,’ remarked John; "an meikle ill, dootless, does
it do in takin aff the edge o’ the speerit—the mair if the edge be a fine
razor edge, and no the edge o’ a whittle. I mind about fifty years ago,
when I was a slip o’ a callant"—
"Losh, John," exclaimed one
of the lads, "hae ye been fechtin wi’ the cats?—sic a scrapit face!"
"Wheesht," said Ferguson;
"we owe the illustration to that, but dinna interrupt the story."
"Fifty years ago, when I
was a slip o’ a callant," continued John, "unco curious, an’ fond o’
kennin every thing, as callants will be"—
"Hoot, John," said one of
the students, interrupting him, "can ye no cut short man? Rob promised
last Saturday to gie us, ‘Fie, let us a’ to the Bridal,’ an’ ye see the
ale an’ the nicht’s baith wearin dune."
"The song, Rob, the song!"
exclaimed half a dozen voices at once, and John’s story was lost in the
"Nay, now," said the good
natured poet, "that’s less than kind; the auld man’s stories are aye worth
the hearing, an’ he can relish the auld-warld fisher-song wi’ the best o’
ye. But we maun hae the story yet."
He struck up the old Scotch
ditty "Fie let us a’ to the Bridal," which he sung with great power and
brilliancy; for his voice was a richly modulated one, and there was a
fulness of meaning imparted to the words which wonderfully heightened the
effect. "How strange it is," he remarked to me when he had finished, "that
our English neighbours deny us humour! The songs of no country equal our
Scotch ones in that quality. Are you acquainted with ‘The Guidwife of
"Well," I replied, "but so
are not the English. It strikes me that, with the exception of Smollet’s
novels, all our Scotch humour is locked up in our native tongue. No man
can employ in works of humour any language of which he is not a thorough
master; and few of our Scotch writers, with all their elegance, have
attained the necessary command of that colloquial English which Addison
and Swift employed when they were merry."
"A braw redd delivery,"
said John, addressing me. "Are ye gaun to be a minister, too?"
"Not quite sure yet," I
"Ah," rejoined the old man,
"‘twas better for the Kirk, when the minister just made himsel ready for
it, an’ then waited till he kent whether it wanted him.—There’s young Rob
Ferguson beside you"—
"Setting oot for the Kirk,"
said the young poet, interrupting him, "an’ yet drinkin ale on Saturday at
e’en wi’ old John Hogg."
"Weel, weel, laddie, it’s
easier for the best o’ us to find fault wi’ ithers than to mend oorsels.
Ye have the head, onyhow; but Jamie Brown tells me it’s a doctor ye’re
gaun to be, after a’."
"Nonsense, John Hogg—I
wonder how a man o’ your standing"—
"Nonsense, I grant you,"
said one of the students; "but true enough, for a’ that, Bob. Ye see,
John, Bob an’ I were at the King’s Muirs last Saturday, an’ ca’ed at the
pendicle, in the passing, for a cup o’ whey; when the guidwife
tellt us there was ane o’ the callants, who had broken into the milk-house
twa nicht’s afore, lyin ill o’ a surfeit. ‘Dangerous case,’ said Bob; ‘but
let me see him; I have studied to small purpose if I know nothing o’
medicine, my good woman.’ Weel, the woman was just glad enough to bring
him to the bedside; an’ no wonder—ye never saw a wiser phiz in your
lives—Dr Dumpie’s was naething till’t an after he had sucked the head o’
his stick for ten minutes, an’ fan the loon’s pulse, an’ asked mair
questions than the guidwife liked to answer, he prescribed. But, losh! sic
a prescription! A day’s fasting an’ twa ladles o’ nettle kail was the gist
o’t; but then there went mair Latin to the tail o’ that, than oor neebor
the Doctor ever had to lose."
But I dwell too long on the
conversation of this evening. I feel, however, a deep interest in
recalling it to memory. The education of Ferguson was of a twofold
character—he studied in the schools and among the people; but it was in
the latter tract alone that he acquired the materials of all his better
poetry; and I feel as if, for at least one brief evening, I was admitted
to the privileges of a class-fellow, and sat with him on the same form.
The company broke up a little after ten; and I did not again hear of John
Hogg till I read his elegy, about four years after, among the poems of my
friend. It is by no means one of the happiest pieces in the volume, nor,
it strikes me, highly characteristic; but I have often perused it with an
interest very independent of its merits.