Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter V

In the last chapter I have spoken of the gypsies. We called them tinklers, which designation, I suppose, comes from their tinkering of pots and pans. Since those days of my association with the gipsies, I have heard so much about their being a predatory and dishonest race, that I am compelled to think that what everybody says must have some truth in it. But no suspicion of their dishonesty entered my mind at that time; nor were they accounted dishonest by any person in our neighbourhood. We found them rather a serviceable class of persons than otherwise. We lived inconveniently distant from shops and towns ; and they supplied us with many things, such as spoons, crockery, tin-ware, and sieves, and repaired so many things at prices exceedingly moderate, that my impression of their usefulness was, that we should have had to do without some articles of use, or pay very dear for them elsewhere, if the tinklers had not come round periodically to supply us.

The Youngs were the most numerous, and came most frequently to those woods. A tribe of Keiths came also; and another of Drummonds. They had all a male superior or patriarch, except the Drummonds. These last had fathers among them; but one of the mothers, Moll Drummond, was head over all, a kind of queen who owned no superior. I never liked Moll. She was haughty, imperious, and of such prodigious strength, that if a man hesitated to obey her, she would take him by the shoulders and spin him about like an ill-used child. I was afraid of her, and seldom went near her camp.

Moll was once travelling in that country in the depth of winter—an unusual thing for the gipsies—and coming over Oldhamstocks Hill in one of the most terrible snow-storms known to local tradition, was overcome by the drift of snow, and took shelter, among the furze bushes (there is a plantation of young forest trees there now, but there was nothing but furze bushes then) ; and while embedded in snow, and alone, she gave birth to a child It was in the day-time, and it was not until late at night that she succeeded in getting through the snow-Wreaths with her infant as far as Oldhamstocks Mains, about half a mile from where the child was born. She got house-room and attendance there, and in two or three days after was able to pursue her journey with the young Drummond added to her personal baggage. This child of the snow-storm was one of the gipsy youths with whom I associated in the vicinity of the Ogle Bum and in the upper plantings, when I herded there. His name was Dan Drummond. Moll commonly enveloped herself in a red cloak and hood. Young Dan wore a red waistcoat; but he was quite as often in the woods without any other garment as with another. To save his feet, he had the remnants of somebody’s old boots; but seldom anything else, if the weather was mild, save the waistcoat, which hung loose upon him, and the shaggy black hair, which hung all round his head. My aversion to his mother Moll extended to him. It probably originated in the unfavourable impression made on me by his singular costume, or rather the absence of costume; but he was cunning and unsocial, and evinced no friendly disposition towards me, as most of the other gipsy youths did. He was the most daring of any of them for scrambling to the rocky nestling places of the hawks, deemed by me inaccessible. All of them out-did me in adventurous climbing among precipices; but none of them would climb trees. J could not ascertain why they would not; but unless it was to reach the eggs of the “cushy-doos” (wood-pigeons), which were in the low beeches and branchy spruce-firs, which hardly could be called climbing, I never saw them attempt to go up the trees.

In ascending trees of great height without branches, or with very few, I rather excelled, even in those early years of my age. I was not light and agile like some boys; I was heavy in proportion to my age; but I had more than an ordinary share of strength in my limbs and hands, and could warp myself up the trees without branches stopping midway to rest, and going on again, while most others would have to give the task up from exhaustion, and slide down long before they reached the top. The gipsy youths were probably averse to adventures on difficult trees because there was nothing to be gained from success upon them. In exploring the rocky ravine of the Ogle, and reaching places which to see them upon made me tremble, they got young hawks, which they took with them on their lowland and townward pereginations, and sold for profit. My climbing, upon the other hand, had never any purpose beyond that of having proved to myself, or to any onlooker, that I could go up a tree that few others could go up, and reach Some magpie’s nest that was supposed to be beyond reach. I may mention one of my misadventures in climbing.

The Ogle Burn had the reputation of being the home of a colony of wild cats. I had never seen them, but had heard much of them, and was often cautioned, partly in joke to frighten me and partly in earnest, by those who knew the wooded recesses of the ravine better than myself, not to go among the wild cats, nor touch their kittens if I came upon them, for if the old ones saw me near their kittens they would spring upon me and tear me to pieces. They were supposed to be in a covert of furze midway up a rocky eminence; and this place, during the first year or two of my herding, I never dared to explore for fear of them. One day, at the distance of several hundred yards from there, I noticed a large nest on a tree, having all the appearance of the nest of a pair of hoody crows. The tree grew from a deep hollow near the bottom of a precipice, and had a trunk of about fifty feet without branches. At the height of fifty feet its branches began to spread. One of them extended towards a narrow point of rock, that point of rock extending six or seven feet beyond the perpendicular of the precipice. The top of the tree was about forty feet higher than that point: and the nest about half-way between it and the top. I was at the root of the tree, and having resolved on an ascent, denuded myself of my corduroy jacket, and went to work. In due time I reached the first branches, and resting there for a minute, saw that if the projecting rock wag strong enough to carry me, I could pass from the tree to it, and from it to the tree; and that whether it was secure enough to carry me or not, it would carry more weight than that of a cat. I saw that, but no thought of cats was in my head at the time. I had no thought of any inhabitant of the woods but of the hoody crows, into whose nest I was going to put my hand when I got twenty feet higher. So going on from branch to branch, I easily overcame that distance. The old crows were neither flying about, nor had one of them gone out of the nest, which made me suppose there was nothing in it. I put in my hand, and at the same time reached my head over it to look in: the next moment three young cats, their eyes like lightning, their little tails bristling, and their backs set up, scratched me and sprang towards my face as far as the edge of the nest, spitting and striking out their little paws with all the ferocity of tigers. They were probably five or six weeks old, not more, and were of a greyish dun colour. I did not remain to know more of them. Never but once, when I fell from a tree, did I come down so quickly as I came down that time. I was at the bottom, my hands and clothes almost on fire with the friction of running down, in a very few moments, and away from the place as fast as I could trot. My dread was of the mother cat; but I did not see her. It was an old crow’s nest, and she had made use of it for her kittens, reaching the branches of the tree from the top of the precipice.

At Branxton I told in the evening what I had seen, and as an enmity that knew no mercy was vowed against all wild cats, some of the men took their guns and dogs, and going to the top of the rock so as the old cat might not escape if she was in the tree, fired shots through the nest repeatedly and killed her in it, and also her poor young ones. One of them made a cap of her skin.

One of the foolish and mischievous things which children learned from older people in those parts of the country was, that if they were afraid of such a thing as thunder, or a ghost, or of the fairies, or of the man of the moon, the thunder or other thing of dread would come and kill them or take them away. I was not so much afraid of the fairies, for old Thomas Brown, who told me first about them, called them always the good neighbours, and told how they had in his young days baked bread and given it to people to eat, and how he had himself been in their company; nor had I much fear of “ghaists,” except after it was dark; but the thunder, when I was alone in those deep solitudes of the Ogle Burn and the upper plantings, filled me with terrible dread. While the vocation of the man of the moon being to come down and carry away those evil doers who did any work on the Sunday, especially those who gathered sticks on that day even to make a fire, I was fearful of giving him a chance of getting me. So much so, that while on week days I carried a walking-staff as a badge of office, I would not run the risk of having it with me on the Sunday, lest the man of the moon might be going about and make a mistake and think that I had furnished myself with that stick on that day. And as he Was to be propitiated, like the thunder, by not being afraid of him, I used to go about repeating to myself, “I’m not feared for thunder, nor the man of the moon neither; I’m not feared for thunder, nor the man of the moon neither.” After the wild cats were killed, and I had heard of witches being seen in the shape of cats, it came into my head that perhaps the cats of the tree had been witches; and the thought rested there and would not be expelled. So I used to add “wull cats” (“wull” was our vernacular for wild) to the other words which I repeated to myself, thus, “I’m not feared for thunder, nor the man of the moon, nor wull cats neither.” I am How ashamed to tell how long this foolish terror held possession of my mind; but I did not get rid of it for some years.

It wore away at last, being, as it were, expelled to tnake room for sentiments of another kind, not so absolutely absurd, yet somewhat akin to absurdity. Their best part was, that instead of seeking to avert evil by propitiating the man of the moon, I addressed myself in prayer to the Almighty preserver of me and of all things. My father had taught me that it was not enough to repeat set forms of prayer at set times; but that any of us could pray even at our dally work. This injunction I used to bear in mind when I was alone in the woods; but I fear its observance arose more from a childish dread of supernatural beings than from holy thoughts. At family worship one night, when I was in my tenth year, my father read a chapter of the Prophecies of Isaiah, in which there is these words: “When ye make prayers I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean.” It happened that on the following night I was sent to, and detained late at the smithy, and had to come home through the plantings in the dark. There was the Sandyford Syke bridge, which had the reputation of having a ghost; there were the gravel pits, which were said to have been first dug out by fairies; there was the narrow entrance at Face-Up, where robbers had once been known to lurk; there was the dark Pond planting, with the thickets and trees met overhead upon the road; and there was the deep pond itself, which was said to have no bottom, and on the brink of which somebody had once seen a woman reading a book, and asked her what book it was, and what she was reading, to which .she replied, that the book was like that pond, it had no bottom, which having said, she instantly disappeared!— all those places I had passed many a time in the dark, and without much fear, for I said my prayers. On this night, however, I had cut one of my hands at the smithy, and nothing that the smith and his wife could do to it would stop the bleeding. I had to go home while it still bled; and remembering the scriptural passage which had been read the night before, and misunderstanding it, the thought came into my head that it was perhaps the Satanic spirit that would not let the bleeding stop, so that •my prayers might not be heard, and he might have, by that means, an opportunity of clutching and carrying me joff. I wended my way through the dark solitudes, bathed in perspiration, and my hair producing a sensation on my head as if it had gone all off, and my bonnet with it.

Once about this time, when deeply impressed with the belief that I should omit no private opportunity of falling on my knees and praying for future salvation and present forgiveness of sins, I was in the stable at Thriepland Hill, in which there was only one horse. The regular work horses stood at Branxton; and this one, an aged animal named Bonar, stood here, because he was the “orry horse” of the farm, and my father was the “orry man,” and because it was convenient, when my father’s work needed a horse, to have him near to where we lived. People used to say that old Bonar, the orry horse, and old James, the orry man, were exactly alike in gravity and steady performance of work; and my father would sometimes say that Bonar and he suited each other perfectly, for both of them were old and stiff in their joints, and the one could not out-waik the other. This was the more applicable, as he would not ride in a cart, or on the back of a horse. When the cart which Bonar was drawing was loaded, the usual load being turnips for the cattle, my father invariably pushed behind, with his hands laid on the cart, and his body bent forward; while, in going to the field with the cart empty, he walked before Bonar, with a leader of rope, three or four yards long, the rope over his shoulder, stretched out, and Bonar’s neck stretched too, as if to make the leader longer. But to the event in the stable.

In one of the empty stalls, next tor the one in which the old horse stood, I knew that my father often, at resting hours, when alone, or thinking that he was there alone, knelt down and prayed. On this occasion, being alone, save that the old horse was in the next stall, separated from me only by a traverse of boarding, four feet high, I thought to pray where my father had prayed, and did so. I wore a bonnet of woollen tartan, and forgetting to uncover myself, it remained on my bead. In the midst of my devotions, I felt something pull me by the hair and remove my bonnet. I started up, and saw old Bonar with it in his mouth. He had his head over the traverse, and looked at me, while I looked at him, for several minutes, neither of us moving. At last he let the bonnet drop from his teeth, and gave a neigh, or “nicker,” as we called it, which I knew to be his language addressed to me. His manger being empty was, in all likelihood, the cause of his interfering with me as he had done, and of nickering; but though this thought found a place in my mind, another thought too strong for that one turned it out of mind and kept its place, namely, that old Bonar had rebuked me for the irreverance of praying with my bonnet on my head.

This thought was not weakened, but rather strengthened, by an occurrence which befal me soon after. It was harvest, and the men of the farm who worked with horses were on the harvest field shearing and binding; their horses, meanwhile, being in the clover field feeding. Bonar was with them. Jock Dudgeon, a young man, whose duty it was to yoke a horse to a cart and take the porridge breakfast of the shearers to the harvest field, had to get one of the animals from the clover for that purpose, and the gentlest and tamest of them was not easily caught and bridled. I went to help him one morning to get them into a comer, so that one might be laid hold of. He was not particular as to which one he got, so that he did not get old Bonar. Bonar was too slow for him, and be swore he would not have Bonar. He was a dashing, clever young man, this Dudgeon. My father used to say to me, at times, “I see you like to be wherever Jock Dudgeon is; I would like to see you as clever as him; but oh, do not swear like him; he has an ill habit of swearing.” Upon the whole I observed this injunction, there being only the exception now to be named. He was excited at not being able to get a horse to have the breakfast of the harvest shearers carried to them in time, and was expressing himself in that language which my father had warned me not to imitate. For a moment, however, I forgot the injunction, and, catching one of the coarse expressions, said, “let us take old Bonar.” As I uttered these words I sprung forward and seized that animal by the forelock with one hand and by the nose with the other, which was the customary way of catching an unbridled horse in the field. Bonar gave a sudden wheel the same instant that I touched him, which made me lose my hold, and bringing his hind feet round, he kicked out with both of them, and struck a blow on my stomach which laid me on my back and deprived me of sensibility for a considerable time. I did not recover from the effects of the kick for two or three weeks. The circumstances under which it was given caused me to ruminate and wonder if Bonar was or could be only a horse. My young imagination took a form of belief that he was a mysterious and perhaps supernatural agent of admonition and punishment for me. Whether I was the better or the worse for this belief need not now be inquired; but he was all the better for the uncertain estimate I had formed of him. I gave many peace offerings of hay and grass and corn to him, in addition to his regular feeding, thinking that if he was more than a horse it was as well for me to be on good terms with him.

At last Bonar died, and was skinned ; and I was sent by the master to sell the skin to a tanner at Dunbar. I had a cart and horse with me. as a quantity of household necessaries and other things were to be brought home. I took the skin to the tanner, and got the price for it which I was to ask for. But to my unutterable dismay, on coming out of the tanner’s yard to the street, where I had left the cart standing, John Carse, the town officer, stood with a face of terrible severity, and with red cuffs and red collar to his coat. He told me that he had taken possession of the horse and cart, while another town officer, with red cuffs and collar, equally terrible, laid hold of mo, and said he would take me to prison; first, for coming into the town with a cart which had no ticket of the owner’s name and residence on it; and second, for going down the tanner’s yard, and leaving the horse alone without an attendant. In vain I pleaded that the horse was a “canny beast,” that would stand anywhere, and wait for me, and do no harm to anybody. In vain I told them that they knew my master very well, and that the cart, though it had no name on it, was his cart. They took me before the provost, the chief magis* trate of the town, Major Middlemas. He seemed a venerable, benevolent gentleman, and spoke in a tone much more kindly than the officers had done, and I began to have hope. Besides I knew that my master visited in his family; and that as a corn merchant, he bought the most of the corn from our farm, and I told him whose horse and cart I had, with a feeling of confidence that he would let me go free for my master’s sake. The magistrate, however, over-ruled the private friend. He said I must pay a fine of five shillings, and asked the officers if they knew whether I had any money. They at once said that I had been selling the skin of a horse, and they had no doubt but I had got at least ten shillings for it. I said that I had not got ten shillings, nor the half of it; for it was the skin of a poor old horse, that had wasted away in old age until his bones had nearly come through his skin; and I was told to ask only four shillings for it, which I had done; and that was all the money I had.

The provost then asked if I had not another shilling of my own; I hesitated to say; and he seeing my hesitation, turned to John Carse, who, in addition to being a street officer, was the gaoler, and said to him, “You must put him in the prison; and lock up his horse and cart with him until he pays the fine.” It was a moment of intense agony. I had a shilling with me, one only, the only shilling I possessed; and it had been destined to be spent that day in the saddler’s shop for a whip. In bitterness of heart, while I wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my velveteen jacket, I took my master's four shillings out of one pocket, and my own shilling out of another pocket, and laid them down. The provost, on seeing the full amount of the fine, said "Very well, you need not now go to prison: and as you seem to be a very young driver of a cart, I shall reduce the fine to one half, just to be a warning to you not to come to Dunbar again without your master’s name on your cart. Officer, take half-a-crown from his money, and give him back the rest; and go home at once, boy, and do not let your horse be standing in the street alone, else you may get into trouble which you will not get out of so soon."

The provost, no doubt, meant that I should at once go home when my errands were completed; but I understood him literally; and being afraid to stay another minute in Dunbar, drove home without any of the business being done which I had been sent to do, save the selling of the skin; and of the money received for it I had only eighteenpence left. How to meet my master and tell of my disasters, I knew not. I had gone from home in the morning in such fulness of joy at being entrusted with the driving of a cart to Dunbar, six miles, for the first time in my life, any previous journeys to that town having been in conjunction with somebody older than myself, that I had sung and whistled all the way, unable to contain my happiness; and now I returned afflicted, spirit broken, ruined, as I thought, for ever. My master, I expected, would discharge me from his employment, the workmen would all jeer me, my father would be angry, and my mother would, under such calamities, be afflicted with grief. That this misfortune had arisen from the profanity of my going to sell old Bonar’s skin, and at my rejoicing that I had been sent to sell it, I did not now doubt. I lay in the bottom of the cart a humbled boy. To any one who saw me I must have seemed a fat, red-faced, lubberly, lazy lad, lying in the cart. But if any such observer could have looked into me,' and could have seen and understood the working of my thoughts, he would have seen a metaphysical tumult in one who had never heard of metaphysics, an examination, rejection, adoption, again a rejection and re-adoption of the Pythagorean philosophy in one who had never heard of a Pythagoras or the vagaries of his followers. And the observer, if he could have further looked into the troubled soul of that lubberly, lazy-looking lad in the bottom of the cart, would have found that he was, in an agony of spirit, praying for forgiveness, inasmuch as he believed that all the evil that had befallen him that day was a direct judgment upon him for some great sin.

When I arrived at home without the things which I had been sent for, and looked to the master when he came out to meet me, the very impersonation of despair, he felt alarmed, and thought that something far more serious had happened. After some difficulty I got power to tell the whole case as it occurred, upon which, observing the grievous distress I was in, and the lugubrious faces I made in struggling to suppress my tears and agitation, he laughed, and called for some of the other people to come and see me and laugh; and they all laughed together, until I joined them, and seemed to feel that it was excellent fun and a fit subject for mirth; But that feeling did not last. When I was once more alone,—once more the dismal thought took possession of me that perhaps old Bonar would one day punish me for haying sold his skin, and for having been so happy when I went away to sell it as to whistle and sing.

The companionship of gipsies, and of the aged blind man, James Dawson, who saw visions, as already related; and especially my own dreamy thoughts in the deep solitudes of the Ogle and the upper plantings, were but too favourable for the growth of fantastic forms of supernatural belief. One summer, however, I had a more suitable associate, and my intellectual nature was much the better of the change. The cattle belonging to the adjoining farm of Cocklaw were that year herded by one of the farmer’s sons, a lad about my own age. On that farm a thrashing-mill, driven by water, had just been erected, and as Willy Purvis (the lad in question) was well pleased to tell me about his father’s new thrashing-mill, so I was filled with the ambition of making a mill,—a real one, complete in all its parts. He and I met frequently, and worked at mill-making until we had water-wheels in motion, and leaders of water running to the wheels, in all directions. We met oftener together, and for a longer time each day than was for the good of the cattle we respectively herded. An intimacy nothing short of affection sprung up between us, and we built a place which we called Castle Jeebury in honour of our friendship, promising that whenever we could meet together when we grew older we should visit Castle Jeebury, and sit in it as we did when boys. It was a place half made of sods and stones, and half formed of growing bushes, which lent us their branches to make a bower. We never met at it again. The next year found me alone, while to him it was the first of a series of school years of classical study. I continued to herd or do other farm work, for nine months out of the twelve, during the next three or four years, going three months out of the twelve to school to get a smattering of education, until I at last became a regular farm worker all the months of the year, while he went to school and college and became a clergyman of the church of Scotland. Twice we met when grown to manhood, and no more: but it was far from Castle Jeebury. The Reverend William Purvis is now a clergyman in one of the Australian colonies.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus