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Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter III


The misfortune which befel me, as related in the last chapter, happened on a Friday. It was the custom at our school on that day to re-read all the lessons of the week, and say over again all the spelling lessons. The teacher kept slates with every pupil’s name written on them, and against each name, he, during the week, put a mark for being too late to school, for being deficient in any lesson, or hymn, or question; and on the Friday he put a mark for each mistake in reading or spelling, on the afternoon of which day he read out the names, beginning with one which had no marks, if such there was, or with a name which had fewest, if there was no name with none. He gave a half-penny to each of those in junior classes whose names were read by him with the word “none,” and to those of the superior classes he gave a penny, or more commonly a penny-worth of paper or quills.

I had often got the half-penny, for I must do him the justice to say that he was impartial in allowing the best reader to get to the head of the class. I made little progress in arithmetic or writing, either at his school or elsewhere; but in reading and spelling, and in learning catechisms, psalms and hymns, I may be said to have rushed up, “ragged radical” as I was, like a weed that over-topped the most tenderly-nourished plants. Some of those who were in the shilling spelling-books when I went first to school with my two-penny book, had been overtaken by me and left behind; and I was now in a collection called the Tyro’s Guide, which I had already mastered, every word of it, whether to read or spell, and should have probably been put forward to the next class reading in the Bible and Barrie’s collection, if my parents could have afforded to buy Barrie’s book, which they could not do at that time.

On this eventful Friday I was made to read my share of the lesson from the top of the coals; which I did with the usual correctness, though I was very cold, and a far way out of good rumour. I spelt all my own share of the words; and the words which others stuck at, on their being put to me, I spelt for them. I was in hopes that this good work on my part would lead to my free pardon, ’and redemption from the coal-hole, and I watched with tremulous expectation the reading of the names of my class. The teacher called silence, and when silence was obtained, he began slowly and emphatically, “the bad boy who sits on the coals, none; at the bottom of the class, and to sit on the coals until he behaves better." And the next, who had several marks to his name, was read off thus,—“at the top of the class in the bad boy’s place.” I can hardly say if I would not have had another thrashing with the taws rather than have suffered this renewed disgrace.

I need not tell what was said or done when I got home with my poor clothes once more tom. I could not conceal that I had been fighting, for my face showed it; nor that I had been severely flogged by the schoolmaster, for my body, blistered and cut in every direction, showed it. My mother and sister, from fear that my father would also punish me if he knew that I had been fighting and had come home with my clothes tom again, kept the disaster secret, got me to bed out of the way, and patched my dilapidated rags together when my father had gone to sleep.

One good resulted from it—the hat which had brought bo much ridicule and so many enemies on me, was too far gone to be repaired, and some old “highland bonnet,” which once belonged to James or Peter, was rummaged out and mended for me. This, though it did not come over my ears as the ample hat had done, saved me from that biting ridicule which was worse than biting frost.

On going to school next day, I found matters quite as hopeless as the day before, as regarded the teacher, not as regarded the soldier and radical business; there was no more of that. But some of the young gentry had gone home with bruised faces and other wounds, and had told terrible tales of a bully who fought them all out of the school, and who was so ragged and foul in the school that they could not sit near him. Orders were at once sent to the teacher that I was to be separated from those boys and girls, else they would be taken from the school. The charge of uncleanness was an audacious libel, for a child more tenderly cared for, and kept in more healthful cleanliness than I was by my mother, never entered that or any other school; but the outward appearance of my clothing gave rise to the libel and continued it.

I was put on a form by myself, in the middle of the floor, and there I sat day after day, for about six weeks. My father had such a good opinion of the teacher, that I could not tell him, and my mother would have grieved so much, that I could not muster courage to complain to her. It came to a termination thus: The form had four pins in it for its feet; these pins were loose, and it was the custom of one of the sons—the eldest, of the great farmer of the neighbourhood—to kick it down whenever I stood up to read my lesson, so that I had to put the feet in it again, and doctor it up, before I could sit down. In the mornings, when I entered the school* one foot would be in the coal hole, another up the chimney, another beneath the schoolmaster’s chair, and so forth. I had to gather them together and make my seat amid tittering and laughter, in which the teacher often joined. He would rebuke the whole school for the mischief, as if he did not know which one, or which of two or three did it, and tell them what he would do if the mischief was repeated. One day, the young gentleman who amused himself most frequently at my expence, came with his brothers, in new clothes, all very smart and fine, and in his gaiety of spirits, at being so finely dressed in new clothes, he was more than usually frolicsome and mischievous. Having the run of the school, his father being its chief patron, and landlord of the house, he went about doing anything his fancy led him to do. Twice that day he came behind me, unseen, and knocking a foot from the form, with a violent jerk, let me fall down on the floor, and twice all the scholars and the schoolmaster laughed at me. He did it a third time, when I started up, and seizing hold of one of the loose feet of the form, would have probably struck him with it, had not the teacher come behind me and held me. He made me lay it down, and spoke very angrily to my tormentor, and that soothed me considerably. But on going out at the mid-day play hour, the young gentleman, still bent on mischief, snatched my bonnet off my head, and ran away with it. I pursued with the bounds of a lion, and soon came up with him, though he was a fast runner (I had never run so fast before, and probably have never done so since). As I was reaching him, he threw my bonnet into a filthy pool of stagnant water, thinking I would follow it. I followed him, and caught him in my arms, and though he was taller, older, and generally stronger than I, and though he kicked and bit me, I bundled him along and soused him into the filthy pool, new clothes and all, where he wallowed in a most wretched plight, and bellowed like a young bull. He gathered himself up at last and ran home to tell of his disaster, while I made up my mind for a terrible thrashing from the schoolmaster. Sometimes I thought of running home, but the fear of my father deterred me; then I thought of running away somewhere—anywhere, and never going home again, but the thought of my mother, and how she would grieve, overcame that. I slunk away alone into the eel yards among the trees, and rubbed my hands with clay to harden them, that I might not feel the taws to be so terribly severe. I was thus employed, when one of the weavers came and called me to come to him. I felt sure that he was going to take me to the school to be flogged, for I had no doubt that everybody would look upon the deed I had done as a great crime. I viewed it so myself by that time. Nothing on earth seemed to me, in those times, so precious and so much to be desired as new clothes, and I had destroyed a youth’s new suit of the finest clothes I had ever seen. I did not go to the weaver, so he came towards me. I began to walk away; he began to run, whereupon I ran too. He called to me to stop, that he was not going to hurt me, he only wanted to speak to me: but I continued to run. Ultimately he came up with me, and assuring me that it was not to have me flogged, but to prevent it, that he wanted me back with him, I returned.

The end of this was, that the weavers, hearing how I had been treated for a long time, and particularly of the provocation I had got that day, and sympathising with me as one distressed (and probably because I was the son of an anti-burgher, who went to the same meetinghouse as they went to), interfered in my behalf, and I was not flogged, nor made to sit any more on the solitary form.

That dismal period of my life soon passed over. I got new clothes; the early summer months soon came; I was sent again to the leafy woods to herd the cows, where I made water-mills and wind-mills, built houses large enough to creep into, and some of them small enough, with carved stones shaped in imitation of masons stones, to be curiosities. I did not go to Bimynows school again; I went to the parish school of Oldham stocks, where, if I did not learn much, I had leave to live and learn without punishment. My brother James had been resident for a year or two in Leith and Edinburgh, had returned to the country, and set up in business as a cooper at Innerwick, where, besides being accounted one of the most intelligent men of the district, and one of the best business men in the parish* in such things as benefit societies, and in organizing a parish watch for the church-yard, to prevent resurrectionists from disturbing the repose of the dead, which watch exists, as he organised it, to this day;—besides doing such things as these, he opened evening singing classes in the parish school of Oldhamstocks, introduced new songs, and taught more people church music than had ever been taught before, which led (in addition to the reputation I now enjoyed as a lad who could play at foot-ball with any one, and take my own part in anything) to my being looked upon by other lads as not a common boy, because I was the singing-master’s brother! When playing at fox and hounds I could go through as deep pools in the burn, got over as steep rocks, take refuge in places as unapproachable, and head, if I was a hound, lead, if I was the fox, as long a chase right up into the Lammermoor hills, as any one.

Two years before that I had been permitted to go to Oldhamstocks fair, for the first time, under care of my’ sisters, Janet and Mary. My money given to spend was a penny, Mary’s money two pennies, and Janet’s three pennies, our ages being so related. I had never before seen a town, nor village, nor shop, nor a stall, nor a coin of any kind spent, nor an article of any description purchased. The fair consisted of about one hundred head of cattle, and perhaps two hundred people, and as I had never seen such an assemblage before, I was amazed, and we stood the greater part of the day gazing at the riches of a stall of gingerbread, upon which we had expended all our fortunes, and it was still not sold up.

But now I had no less than fourpence given me to go to the fair with, by my mother; and in that fair stood the cooper, my brother, with a cart-load of cooper’s ware of all descriptions, selling them to the lady wives of farmers, and to the farmers in top-boots and spurs, and passing jokes with them, and I could stand so near to them without being awe struck at the fine clothes they wore that I could actually touch a farmer’s top-boots if I chose. And again, when my fourpence was spent, and I conveyed that information to the cooper, by the roundabout method of telling him that I knew some other boy who had spent all his money; he never hesitated for a moment to understand me, but gave me a sixpence, and afterwards bought a knife himself and gave it to me for my “ fairing.” To be the cooper’s brother in Oldhamstocks fair was to make me be looked upon with respect even by some of those youths who once used me ill, and who happened to be there. But the strangest change of all was, that on going with my brother in the evening to get a biscuit at the village inn, while he and others had bottled ale to drink, the terrible schoolmaster who had thrashed me so, and the very sight of whom used to make me quake with dread, was sitting there drinking ale, and did not look terrible j on the contrary, he was actually singing, and with the parish schoolmaster and my brother took part in glees and other songs.

He is dead, and I would rather have buried his ill treatment of me in a grave within myself; but his kind of schoolmasters still live in Scotland, and so I write of him. Besides which, I could not tell the story of my life correctly if I omitted this portion of it.

Of those boys who were hardest upon me, one has spent a fortune, and is or lately was poor. Two or three are dead. Two or three are hinds to farmers. Two are in America, and “going a-head” wonderfully, as I have heard, both in wealth and station. Of those who were punished with a severity most nearly approaching my punishments, one was a sailor, and fell from the topmast of a ship on the deck and was killed. One enlisted into the Scots Greys, and I believe is a soldier in that regiment still. This was rather a dull boy in learning, and whatever intellectual life he had in his boyhood was thoroughly thrashed out of him. His name is J. G-. and if any one can bear me witness as to the awful punishments at Birnynows school, he can. Another of the sufferers is captain of a trading ship. A few more were the sons of fishermen, who have all gone to sea as their fathers did, and have shared the same destiny—have been drowned in the pursuit of their perilous profession, or are still following it, sometimes poor, sometimes not poor, all of them fathers of large families.

It seems that, as by a law of nature, those fishes which are most exposed to enemies and impending extinction, breed the fastest and most numerously, so does that law of Dature apply to fishermen. Many a gallant boat’s crew I have known on that stormy coast go out to sea and never return; but each of the lost men usually left a young boat’s crew growing up. Before I went to school it was dreaded that, being unprotected by companions who knew me and would take my part against the rough fisher lads, I should be in danger of ill usage from them. But they were the only lads who took my part, and who never ill used me. I have in after years, when we were men, been employed with them, and they were then the same daring, generous, gallant fellows that they were when boys; not much the better for having been at school to be thrashed, perhaps, and knowing little of books; but knowing more of the volume of nature opened on the sea shore and on the sea, and in the firmament above them and the sea, than most other men. Ignorant of the very name of German literature and German philosophy, but more familiar with the deep mysteries of the German ocean, upon which they go many hundreds of miles for cod-fish, than any metaphysician is of the mysteries of the deep ocean upon which he embarks.

My first acquaintance with the subjects of books, not with the books themselves, but with the history and geography of the world as known through books, was while herding the cows in the wooded solitudes of the Ogle Burn. The only persons whom I saw during the long summer days were the women who came to milk the cows at mid-day, the gipseys who were occasionally encamped in those woods, and an aged blind man, James Dawson. James did not rise from bed until mid-day, as his aged wife worked in the fields for daily bread, and did not get home to help him to put on his clothes until the dinner hour—his limbs being too stiff with old age for him to dress himself. If the afternoon was fine, he made his appearance at the foot of the Ogle about two o’clock. He either whistled to himself, or sung, or talked, as he came slowly along in quest of me and the cows] most commonly he talked. He had been a shepherd when he had his eyesight, and had read history and geography extensively. In his best days he had been a man of strong imagination, and now that he was blind, his memory and imagination peopled his path with beings from history with whom he held conversation. I had read no history then, and no books of any kind but the first school books. My father’s library consisted entirely of divinity, and it was nearly all controversial, which I did not understand; the exceptions to controversy were sermons. On a stone at the foot of the Ogle Burn, and on a green sod which overgrew a low wall at a place on the verge of Branxton estate, in the upper woods, James Dawson used to sit down and call to Sir Walter Raleigh, Essex, Burleigh, and other courtiers of Elizabeth to come to him, and when they came he sent them to fetch her majesty. He would then go into political arguments with them about Philip of Spain and the other personages and subjects of Elizabeth’s reign. He would listen as if some one spoke into his ear, for their observations, and would interrupt them at times impatiently, if they did not seem to be holding a sound argument. Intermingled with such converse he would speak aside to some shepherd or farmer whom he had known in his younger days, and ask him what he thought of Burleigh’s opinions. The next minute he would address me by name, and ask a question as to what I thought of Queen Elizabeth’s dress.

Since I have grown to manhood, and read history and geography, I have been often surprized to find the persons and places which James Dawson used to make me familiar with. One of his most frequent associates in those imaginary conversations, was Washington. The Empress Catherine of Russia was another. One time, when he came to me, and I, in the usual way, asked, "Well, James, how are ye the day" he said, “Man, Sandy, I'm glad I’ve met ye. You're a clever callant, and you must go this minute to the Empress, and tell her that Prank Horne must not be made a slave. If you go down to Linkheads, you’ll meet Paul Jones, and he will take ye in a Russian man-of-war to the Empress. Tell her, if she does not liberate Frank Home, and all her slaves, I will be obliged to take her through hands myself.” This Frank Horne had been a lad in Branxton, and James had the idea that he was about to be made a slave in Bussia. I had never until that time heard the term, slave, spoken, and did nof know its meaning. I inquired what a slave meant, and to this day I have a distinct recollection of the stories he proceeded to tell me of slaves, slavery, the slave countries, and the slave trade. His descriptions I have since found were realities.

Thus, in the solitude of the Ogle Bum, and the Cock-law planting, in the company of this singular old man, he, believing himself and I surrounded with the personages of history and romance, did I first learn anything of the world which is laid before us in books—anything of countries beyond our own—anything of other ages, and other classes of society.

James Dawson was then near his eightieth year. He was a tall man, two or three inches above six feet; wore a broad blue bonnet, with his white hair hanging from beneath it behind; a long broad skirted coat of light blue cloth, with a leathern belt girded around his waist; a grey checked plaid thrown around his shoulders, and a staff five feet long, with a pike in the lower end of it. He stepped slowly, with his staff in his right hand, at a wide angle from his body, his left hand being in the folds of his plaid. In his venerable head there was a great store of book knowledge; but what with a lively imagination, and many years of blindness, the knowledge had become disordered,—the facts of every day life mingling with the images of beings and of actions that were unreal. I heard the neighbours speak of him as “superannuate,” and not knowing that the historical personages with whom he believed himself to associate in the woods had once been real, 1 believed less in them than I did in some of the more spiritual of those to whom he addressed himself,—the “Enemy” for instance. One day, my father, on meeting him, inquired about his health, and how he had been for some time, during bad weather, when he could not get out of doors. He said the weather had been no hindrance to him; he had been on a visit to paradise, where there was no bad weather. “Aye, have ye been there?” said my father, inquiringly. “Yes,” replied the other; “but I did not see any of your folk theremeaning that he did not see any of the dissenters,—known as anti-burghers, there; and he immediately added, “but I heard that W B was there; but he had gone out to get a dram, and I did not Bee him: he still sits late at his dram." There was a cutting irony in this, which was quite sharp enough even for him to whom it was addressed, with all his philosophy and general good humour. For James Dawson was a churchman, and had no high opinion of dissenters; while the anti-burgher dissenters were very rigid, and, taken as a body, were not indisposed to believe themselves better than other people. An elder, who belonged to the congregation of which my father was a member, was the party alluded to as having reached paradise, from which he had thought fit to steal away to get a dram, and had not returned.

Jean Crombie (it is the custom for married women, in Scotland, to retain their maiden names, a custom which sounds strangely in English ears), was one of the happiest and kindest of human beings whom I have at any time known. Though sixty years of age, she worked in the fields or barns during the year almost daily, and supported herself and her infirm husband on the wages of her daily toil, with the exception of the allowance of twelve shillings per quarter, which was received from Innerwick parish. The parish allowance was at first only six shillings per quarter. My father went several times, on be-half of the poor blind man, to the Rev. Mr. Logan, the parish minister, and ultimately succeeded in getting the aliment augmented to twelve shillings. And this, to the discredit of the Scottish Poor-law of that day, was considered a good allowance. The indefatigable industry and happy contentedness of Jean Crombie, however, kept her almonry always supplied with food, and her house always clean, the floor being scoured and sanded, and the door steps whitened; every article of furniture in the house being an example to any housewife to look at; while the blind man never wanted his tobacco, of which he made a most liberal use in chewing. In the latter years of the life of this amiable woman, one, and sometimes two, of her grand-daughters lived with her, eased her toil, and aided her in house-keeping.

I remember reading a book of travels which gave an account of the hideous idols worshipped in India. I wondered why, if people fell down on their knees, and worshipped something else than the one God, they did not make choice of idols that were pleasing and lovely. I thought that if I lived among idolators, and fell upon my knees to worship anything that was of earth, I would pay divine honours to one of those grand-daughters. She, however, never knew this, nor did any other human being. I was only a boy, and as yet had no idea of the feeling called love; my thoughts took this idolatrous turn from a love of the beautiful. She was married before I was half grown to manhood, and has a family now grown to men and women.


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