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Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter I


My Dear Boy, I cannot tell you of my own boyhood until I tell you something of your grandfather and grandmother, my parents.

There is a range of hills in the middle of Scotland called the Ochills, out of which a rapid running river called the Devon flows, tumbling headlong over linns and through chasms in its progress to the low country. Near to where this river is wildest, in the parish of Muckart, your grandfather was bornI in 1760. The place was an upland farm, called Nether-aichlin-Sky. Who were the last of the family in it I do not know; but all the sons and daughters were scattered to the world in early life, to work for the means of life elsewhere, the little farm being added to others to make a large farm. They have all died old men and women years ago. One of them, Lawrence, died at Perth within my recollection. I was to have been called Lawrence after him, but a change was made, and 1 wad named after my mother's brother, a collier, living at Square, near Berwick-upon-Tweed—a worthy man, to whose name I may not have done all the honour I might have done. In my boyhood I used to regret that I had not been called Lawrence. I then thought my own name was a shabby one. Perhaps my dislike to it arose from it being so very common in Scotland,

My father settled in the town of Alloa, on the Firth of Forth, when a young man. He had a horse and a cart, and carted coals or lime, or such things, for hire. His horse had the common equine name of Dick, and was very much respected by his owner. But Dick took ill and died, and left that owner too poor to buy another. So Dick’s hide, and the cart, and the harness, were sold, and your grandfather went to work as a labourer at the great lime works of the Earl of Elgin, near Dunfermline, whither his elder brother "William had preceded him. This William was remarkable for strength, having been known to carry three bolls of barley, each boll filling a large sack, one boll by a rope round the sack in each hand, and another in his teeth.

The end of this strong man was melancholy, and decided the period of your grandfather’s stay at those works. An extensive shipping trade of lime was carried on from that place. The trimming of the lime in the holds of the vessels was so disagreeable and dangerous, that none of the workmen would do it unless compelled. The custom was to order certain picked men to do that work, or submit to be dismissed from employment. William, the strong man, was ordered to this duty, and one day was taken out of the hold either dead, or so much affected by the dust and fumes of the lime that he died soon after. Upon which his brother, my father, left the works, and crossing the Firth of Forth journeyed southward to Berwickshire. There he obtained work as a farm labourer, in which capacity he continued until within a few months of his death.

He found my mother a young blooming woman at or in the vicinity of Ayton—a pretty village as you will say if you ever see it. She was a servant in a farmhouse previous to marriage, and the daughter of John Orkney, a working man. She had a female ancestor, reputed as a witch, who is still remembered for her sayings and doings. People in Ayton to this day, to justify some-, thing unusual said or done by themselves, add to it, “As old Eppy Orkney said,” or, “As old Eppy Orkney did.” Perhaps my progenitors who lived nearer to her time than I, did not feel much honour in Eppy’s reputation for witchcraft. But for myself I confess to have always had a veneration for this, the only one of my progenitors who was in any way distinguished above the common level of men and women. I have no doubt that she was a woman of superior energy and intellect, whom narrower minds around her could not comprehend. Had she been remarkable only for her weakness of mind, her sayings and doings would have perished with her or soon after her.

My parents being a careful pair, began housekeeping with a good stock of furniture. But I have heard them tell of the wretched hovel of a house they lived in. The houses of the labourers in the south of Scotland are generally only sheds to this day, even most of those newly built; but they were much worse then. My father and mother had a window (the house had none) consisting of one small pane of glass, and when they moved from one house to another in different parts of Berwickshire in different years, they carried this window with them, and had it fixed in each hovel into which they went as tenants.

I do not know all the places they lived at in that shire. But if you should ever visit Berwickshire, and for crops of com it is well worth visiting, you will find a place called Edencraw. I know they lived there. Between that place and Chimside, the next village, you will see some fine farm land which was, up to a late period, a wet moss, or bog. This was a celebrated place for witches, in days of yore ; and if I mistake not, my friend and correspondent, Mr. James Bruce, of Ayton, once made a poem about those witches and this bog. This place, known as Billy Mire, is however, more remarkable for having once nearly swallowed up David Hume, the historian, who was a native of Ninewells, in the neighbourhood. Hume missed his footing in the mire, stuck fast, called for assistance, and was at last heard by some people, who ran to give help; but when they saw it was Hume, “the unbeliever,” though he was in other respects an amiable man, they turned back, saying, “Na, na, the deil has him, let the deil keep him.” David Hume got out, by some means, and wrote his famous history after that time.

My father and mother were in principle and practice strictly religious. They were of the party of dissenters then known as Anti-burghers, afterwards associated with the Burghers from whom they had split, and noW known together as the United Associate Synod of the Secession Church of Scotland.1 The secession originated more than a hundred years ago, on a charge of laxity of moral discipline brought against the church in a sermon preached before the general assembly of ministers by the Beverend Ebenezer Erskine. The assembly censured him for his sermon, but he again justified it and would not submit to tbe censure. He dissented from the church. Others adhered to him at the time, and in the following year his more celebrated brother, Ralph Erskine, followed him. Those two great preachers were natives of Chim* side, in Berwickshire, near to Billy Mire, of which I have been speaking. Their father was parish minister. Their mother gave birth to one or both of them after she had been buried, as dead, in Chimside churchyard; so the common story goes. But I have heard of so many places which have had a lady buried in a trance, and a sexton who opened the grave at night to take the ring from her finger, and so allowed her to escape from the grave (which was said to have been the case with her), that jny belief of this legend belonging in reality to Chimside and to the Erskine family is somewhat shaken.

In process of time that party of dissenters disputed upon the burgess oath which freemen of corporations were required to take. Part of it provided that they would uphold the church as by law established. Some thought this law was harmless to a dissenter’s conscience, and some thought not. The first were called Burghers, and the latter Anti-burghers. The last were in all things the strictest sect: to them my parents adhered.

Removing from Edencraw, which is on the south side of the Lammermoors, my father went to the farm of the Cove near the sea side, north of the Lammermoors. He was barn-man or thrasher there, as he had been at other places, threshing-mills not being then common as they now are. Six children had been bom then, and three buried—the latter in Ayton churchyard. My brother James was born in the Cove ; Peter was bom a year or two after, in Thorntonloch; Janet was born next, in Wood Hill; Mary, next, in Thornton Mains, a place now pulled down and its site a corn field; and, lastly, I was born at Springfield, in the parish of Oldhamstocks, this event occurred on the 15th of March, 1811. Tour uncle William, my eldest brother, rode for the midwife. 1 was the eleventh and last, and came into the family at a time when I could have been very well spared. By a table of prices hanging beside me where I now write, I perceive that the price of wheat was that year £5. 5s. per quarter; and, in the following year, it was at the enormous price of £6. 5s. per quarter, the barley, and beans, and oats, upon which such families as ours lived, or shifted to live, being dear in proportion.

But I need not refer to historical tables: my father has told me, that in the year after 1 was born, he paid no less a sum than £20 to John Bathgate, the miller, of Oldhamstocks, for hummelled com, that was barley and beans, to make bread. This, besides what he must have paid for oats or oatmeal, and for the schooling of the children—for the latter was never neglected, must have kept the backs and feet bare. He could not, he has told me, spare a shilling to the parish clerk of Oldhamstocks to have me registered, as all the other children had been in the respective parishes where they were born, and so my name does not exist in any register. I was baptized by the Bev. Andrew Bayne, of Eastbams, the Antiburgher minister.

When I was bom, and for a year or two after, my father was working at Dunglass House as a barrow-man, or mason’s labourer, at 15s. per week, the highest wages which he ever earned. Sir James Hall, of Dunglass, father of the late eminent and amiable Capt. Basil Hall, of the Royal Navy, whose voyages and travels you will, I hope, live to read, as I hope they will live to be read by you,—Sir James Hall rebuilt that splendid mansion overlooking the romantic scenery in Dunglass Dean, about that time, and my father assisted to carry many a stone of it up the gangways. His reputation, as a mason's labourer was, that of one who never lost any time, if time could be made. An old stonemason once told me, that when rain came on, and every one went home, or went to the public house, my father always found something to do at the works. He needed it all for the hungry mouths at home. Mr. Yorston, of London, the eminent potato salesman, was a youth working alongside of my father then, and remembers him not only for his industry and sobriety, but for his cheerful anecdotes and jokes; which accords with my own knowledge of him. He had not “ spent forty shillings on drink for forty years such was his truthful boast. His economy and foresight was such, that though always on the verge of want, want never came; not even in tobacco, of which I never knew him without an ounce to begin to, as the last ounce was done, though the kind of tobacco he used in chewing (he only smoked once a week, and that was on Sabbath evenings, listening to some one of the family reading a sermon), could not be obtained nearer than Dunbar, six or seven miles distant. He used tobacco, however, very sparingly, and only because, as he said, “it cheers my old heart, and helps me to get through the hard labour." Though so practically religious, that the hardest day’s work never prevented him from having family worship at night, which consisted of a preliminary prayer, singing a psalm, reading a chapter, and giving an extempore prayer of considerable length, nor the usual early rising, from having both the family prayers and his “ private duty” in the morning; though the wettest, windiest, and coldest storm that ever blew in those regions, did not keep him from the meeting-house on the Sabbath, no matter what the distance might be, and the distance from most places where he lived was from five to ten miles; though deeply imbued with religious sentiments at all times, and though struggling with poverty on one side, and his affectionate love for his family on the other, continually, yet was he one of the inost lively companions to work with, or walk with, al* ways ready with an anecdote that had a point in it. At the annual “winter suppers,” or the “kimes,”—harvest homes—which our master gave to his workpeople, my father was always the life of the company; ready with droll stories, witty jokes, and songs with a meaning in them ; the only drawback on his pleasure was that these festivities being usually held on Saturday night (that the master might hot lose the work of any of his men through intemperate headaches the next day), he felt the more serious responsibility of encroaching on the Lord’s Day, No persuasion nor entreaty, nor enjoyment of fun, nor the trick of putting the clock back, would keep him after ten o’clock. Nor would he allow any of us to remain later. We were always on those occasions taken home to have family worship over, and be in bed by twelve.

My mother was not less remarkable, as a woman, for the labour she encountered and overcame, in domestic toil to keep our clothes mended—no easy task in such a family, where all the earnings might have gone for food without our having too much—and to add by out-held labour to the income. At the time I was bom all the family were at home, consisting then of eight children. The eldest, Margaret, now no more, mother of those five excellent young men, the Doughtys, (all rising in the world, and some of them risen as regards social station,) she was then as she was to her dying day (and I helped to lay her in her grave, when her sons, mere children, all wept around us and their bereaved father) ; she was always a helpful creature to everybody who needed help. She sacrificed her life by going from her own house in a delicate condition, to help an afflicted family to bake and wash, and to watch and nurse the dying father of that family. This she did from pure charity, and died herself in the effort. When I was born, Margaret was the only daughter able to work. She worked daily in the fields and the bairns, and, morning and night, in the house. She was my first tailor, and the first clothes which she made for me were made from the old corduroys of my brother William. When we lived in Springfield, the house rent was paid by finding one shearer for the harr vest, no matter how long the harvest might be ; also an out-field worker winter and summer for' the farmer; and, in addition to the latter, a “stack carrier,” whenever the threshing mill was going. This last might happen thirty pr forty days in the year, and usually in the winter months. For the shearer in harvest, and for the carrying of the stacks into the bam, no wages were paid; but the shearer was allowed breakfast and dinner in harvest time, and a bushel of grain called “supper barley/* The other worker, called the “bondager,” was paid ten-pence per day, the hours being usually ten, but later whenever the farmer chose.

The carrying of the sheaves from the stackyard into the bam, which was a part of the house rent, was heavy work. My mother did that all the winter before I was Jbora and the winter after, besides shearing in harvest time—the hours being in harvest between sun and sun. The stack carrying was done thus:—Two women had a barrow made of two poles, with canvass stretched between the poles; upon which canvass were laid ten or twelve sheaves. The two women then carried that load through the yard and up a gangway to the upper floor of the bam, meeting another couple going down empty, They laid down their barrow, and rolled thp sheaves out of it on the floor, where another woman was “loosing out" and laying the loosened sheaves upon a table, where the man “fed in" to the mill stood. One woman stood on the stack outside and forked down the sheaves to the ground; while another on the ground assisted to load the women who carried the barrows’. At this work and in the harvest field did my mother hear the burden of heavy labour and of me. After I was born I was carried to her on such occasions to be suckled. My brother James has told me that the duty of carrying me devolved chiefly on him.

Should you ever be in Scotland and see Springfield, you will find a row of shabby looking tiled sheds, such they continued to be when I was there last, the centre one of which is about twelve feet by fourteen, and not so high in the walls as will allow a man to get in without stooping. That place without ceiling, or anything beneath the bare tiles of the roof; without a floor save the common clay ; without a cupboard or recess of any kind; with no grate but the iron bars which the tenants carried to it, built up and took away when they left it; with no partition of any kind save what the beds made; with no window save four small panes on one side,—it was this house, still a hind’s house at Springfield, for which, to obtain leave to live in, my mother sheared the harvest and carried the stacks.

How eight children and father and mother were huddled in that place is not easily told. The worst of it was, that food was so very dear, clothes were so very dear, as to us not to be obtainable, and national glory was so very dear—that glory which Europe was mad about at that time, and for which we, like others, had to pay, that even those bare walls, for which so much of my mother’s labour had to be paid in rent, were less comfortable than they might have been.

Next to Margaret was your uncle William, who from boyhood to this present year of his age always contributed to, and never detracted from, the assistance and comfort a. working man of our parents, and such others of the family as needed his brotherly aid, and who, as if it were an ordinance of Providence that the dutiful son shall be rewarded even in his own life, has prospered in every thing to which he has put his hand. He was a stripling when 1 was born, and worked for such wages as a youth could obtain in that part of the country. When he came home at night, my father has told me, he stripped off his coat, took off his hat, put on his night cap, got down the “elshen box" with awls, hemp, rosin, scraps of leather, lasts, tackets, and hammer; and taking all the children, one by one, as if he had been the father of the family, examined their feet to see which of them had shoes most in need of mending—for all needed repairs, new shoes being in those dear years out of the question. He would then sit down and cobble the shoes by the light of the fire until near midnight, while our mother would mend the other clothes of those in bed, or spin lint to make yam for the weaver to weave shirting, or card and spin wool for stockings, or dam stockings that were daily decaying. William would then end the day with his private prayer, and go to bed. He would rise at four o’clock in the mornings, and do the heaviest part of James’s work amongst the farmer’s cows and other cattle, before going to his own day’s work two or three miles distant. James was too young for the heavy task of cleaning the cowhouses every morning, which had to be done; but as he could make shift, with the assistance of one or two of the other children nearest him in age, to carry straw and turnips to the cattle, and give them water; and as the payment of the few pence per day was an object of importance to the family, (I do not now remember what James got per day; it was, however, less than I subsequently got when a boy for the same kind of work, and my wages were sixpence per day,) William got up every morning to do part of the work to keep James in the. Employment.

This uncle James of yours I have always looked upon as the most intelligent member of our family. He was such an excellent reader when a mere child, so fond of reading, and possessed of such a memory for saying catechisms, psalms, and chapters, without the book, that pur poor fond father used to lay his hand on his head rind say, “Ah! if I had siller I would make my Jamie a minister.’* James, when a young man, went to work as a journeyman cooper at Leith, and almost instinctively, being for the first time within reach of intellectual associates, joined a debating club, where, if he was not distinguished for his style of speaking, he was at least deemed superior for his sound sense. Neither he nor I have the gift of making speeches, I am too timid and forget in my timidity what I was going to say. This fortunate defect has kept me from being a politcal orator, so that I have been restricted to the less dangerous sphere of a political writer. The same defect may have kept my brother from political speech-making. Nor has he been a writer. He is possessed of a delicate literary taste, which, even if he had been reduced at any time to write for bare bread as I have been, would have most probably prevented him from rushing into print a§ I have done.

Whether the world is the better in having a tradesman who puts hoops upon its barrels, saws its timber, makes its bedsteads, and nails its coffins, and does all those things honestly and to the best of his mechanical ability, instead of contributing to its literature and philosophy with a graceful pen and a strong mind, I shall not determine. But if it be a loss to the world not to have more literature and philosophy than it possesses, it has sustained a loss in the mis-employment of your uncle James?

Those three of our family, Margaret, William, And James, were the only ones who could earn anything in addition to my father and mother when I was born, and for several years after.

At Whitsunday term, 1813, we moved from Springfield to Thriepland Hill, where my father lived until that bright summer morning, when in the happiest belief of a glorious resurrection, he died in the month of May, 1834 ; and where my mother lived until my sister Mary, the last who remained with her, was married in 1840. This Thriepland Hill is the farm and farmery belonging to the small landed estate of Branxton, then a single property, but purchased and added, some years ago, to the more extensive territory of Hunter of Thurston. The stack-yard, threshing mill, and cattle sheds, with three houses (now only two), were at Thriepland Hill, while the “big house,” the stables, and some other offices, with three houses for work people, were at Branxton, three quarters of a mile distant. The woods, shrubberies, gardens, and pleasant places about Branxton showed that it had once been the residence of a rich and tasteful proprietor. These had grown wild when I was a boy; and it was amid their wildness and decay that I grew up. Long summers of my boyish life were spent amid these woods, and in the rocky ravine of the Ogle Burn, with the cows which I herded, in almost unbroken solitude, with only the birds singing in the trees, and my dreamy thoughts, and the incessant invention of my organ of constructiveness to amuse me. In the farm fields, sheltered by those woods, I drove the harrows, and held the plough, when I grew out of the office of herding cows.

The earliest recollection that I have of my existence or individuality, was at Thriepland Hfll. My mother-had spun yarn, and had, g°^ the yarp woven into a web for Bhirting; had cut the web into three pieces, and was bleaching the pieces at the Lady's Well. This was a beautiful spring of soft water, issuing from a green hillside, with a “bobbing well,” or quick moss at the bottom of the hill. No plough had ever broken a furrow there at that time; the boulder Btones showed that, and the stone coffins of the chieftains slain in battles long ago, confirmed it. I used to play on the green grass, and gather gowans with my curly haired sister Mary, while our mother watered her webs, or put them through the processes of bleaching. But at that early age I had a propensity to seek to know something more than I knew. The strong spring that gushed into the Lady’s Well, puzzled me greatly, as to where it came from, and when it would' leave off running. I would lie beside it, and watch it bubbling; and one day in getting nearer and nearer it, to look up into the dark passage from wherever it came, I tumbled into the well head foremost. How I was pulled out, or when, I never knew of my own knowledge.

An old man, Thomas Brown, and an older woman, Mary Edgley, his wife, lived next door to us, and they lived alone. They were in their dotage, and were fond of telling the recollections of their youth to the only listeners they could obtain, who were seldom more than my sister Mary and myself. It was some years after that time before I could speak plainly. In my effort to call the old woman Mary Edgly, I called her Essel, which name everybody else took up; Bhe lived ten or twelve years after that time, and was always called Essel. Her most prominent recollections of early life were the love passages. She would sit on one side of the old-fashioned fire-place, telling of the young men who had made love to her, and the young women who had been maids at service with her. While old Thomas, siting on the other side of the fireplace, poured out—the two speaking together—all his recollections of early life, which chiefly told of how he had been dealt with by the fairies ; how the fairies had taken the horses out of the stable and turned them loose to the hills; how one spring-time, the fairies came and took a loan of the harrows to harrow in their com-seed in fairy land; how he waited and waited for the harrows to be brought back, to get his own corn seed sown; how it was not sown until it was too late to grow and ripen; how, when the harvest failed, and they had no bread, they used to cry "Fairy, fairy, come bake me a scone; and I’ll give thee a spurtle to turn it off and on.’* *He would continue for hours at such tales, while Essel as uninterruptedly continued to tell how she had been a beauty in her young days, how she had been courted, and how she wondered that “ Old Tam there ever got her." She was however, ten years older than he was, and he was nearer eighty than seventy at that time. They would have been a study, and their recollections of peasant life in the middle part of last century, a treasure to those who could have appreciated them. But I, being only a child, saw nothing in what they revealed of that world which I did not know, but mystery. We had no intercourse with the social world. Save my sisters Mary and Janet, I knew and saw no children.

When old Thomas Brown died, and Essel was taken elsewhere to live out her great age and die, our next neighbour was old Lizzy, who had an elderly daughter with her. Both professed to have the art of fortune telling, and the oldest of the two travelled through the country after that time and subsisted by telling fortunes. The world, as opened to me by that couple, during two —perhaps three—years that they were our next door and only neighbours, was not the world which I have since found existing beyond Thriepland Hill. The old woman had some grandchildren who occasionally came to see her. One of them told me of the towns he had been in, and of a place called Stobby Castle, where he had lived, and of the things he had seen between that place and Edinburgh, and at Edinburgh ; but 1 had quite as clear a comprehension of the land of the fairies, and of the fairies themselves, as told of by Thomas Brown; and, as Thomas Brown had known the fairies personally, I had as complete a belief in their existence as 1 had of the people who lived at Stobby Castle, or at Edinburgh, or anywhere else beyond Thriepland Hill and Branxton.


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