Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter VI

I was in my fourteenth year when an occurrence fell in my way, or I fell in the way of the occurrence, which may be related at length. It was harvest time, nearly the end of harvest. The men of the farm, and two hired strangers were carting the com sheaves from the fields, and I was on the stackhead in the barn-yard, lifting each sheaf on a fork as it was thrown from the loaded cart by the carter, to the stack in process of being built, and laying the sheaf at the hand of the stack-builder, that he might get hold of it readily to put it in its place with his knees above it, without having to rise from his knees. The shearers were at the last field of corn on that day. In the afternoon it was seen that there was more to shear than they could do at the usual rate of working. Wherefore the master sent some bottles of whisky to the field, to be mixed with water, and given to the shearers, partly in honour of it being the last day of shearing, but chiefly to make them drive on at great speed with their work to get it done.

The whisky had its desired effect. All the people, male and female, home hands and hired hands, Scotch and Irish, slashed down the com, and strove with one another at the work more like mad people than work people. The men carting the corn from some other field to the bam-yard where I was at work, passed this scene of laborious strife going out and coming in with their carts, but got none of the whisky, at which they grumbled a good deal. They said to me that if they could run as well as I could, and were as clever as I was, they would run down the side of a certain hedge, and get one of the bottles, which were still in the basket, in no time. On another man coming in with his loaded cart, and hearing what had been suggested to me, he also urged the adventure ; and off I ran down the hedge side, across the field, and, amongst the sheaves at a certain place which had been named, found the basket, and brought off one of the bottles of whisky. Being fleet of foot in those days, I was soon in the bam-yard with the purloined mischief, and it was soon dealt out and drunk by the men; for my own part I abhorred the very flavour of whisky at that time, and tasted none of it. But I was in a full flow of animal spirits, through the exertion I had used in performing the feat, and from the praise awarded me by those who had enjoyed and were made talkative by the hot spirit of the bottle; so I thought nothing was wrong about it, and worked on with vigour and gaiety.

We had nine or ten men, who came annually to the harvest-work from the county of Antrim, in Ireland, six of whom were named Michael,—old Michael, young Michael, big Machael, wee Michael, singing Michael, and Michael the laird. They were all good shearers save the last; old Michael, the head of the lot, being a favorite with most of us. The laird was so called from having owned a piece of land in Ireland. He had dissipated it, however, and was perhaps poorer than any of the others, because not so good a worker. He was fond of drink, and a cunning man. On this occasion he had dropped behind the shearers, who, striving with one another, did not observe him; and he, having seen me approaching, hid himself in a stook of com sheaves near to where the whisky bottles and basket stood. He saw me take a bottle. His own design being to drink or hide a bottle until a convenient time to remove it, lie did so with more confidence, and probably to a greater extent than at first intended, because be saw the blame could be laid on me.

In due time three bottles, the greater part of the store in the basket, were missed. A general outcry was raised, and all the Michaels and their party exclaimed at once, Michael the laird having informed them, that “Sandy from the stack-yard done it”—that “he came down from the stack-yard and done it.” Added to this, one of the carters going past was questioned by the master if any of the whisky had been taken to the bam-yard; and he, seeing the affair beginning to look serious, and fearing for himself, said that he saw me bring some to the bam-yard; that he drank some of it thinking it had been sent to them. The master said he did not like a trick of that kind, because he was always ready to give the men a glass of whisky (which he certainly was).

Upon which my father, who was binding the sheaves to six shearers, as is the custom, and no doubt vexed at the slashing nature of the shearing, and the bad bands made to tie the com, which again was thrown into the bands, heads and tails, in the wild work of that day, giving him much trouble and fourfold work; he having also, on principle, a dislike to work of that kind being so executed—people cutting their own hands, and cutting the hands of their neighbours, and quarrelling by the power of whisky; he having those causes to put him out of a happy humour, felt himself and the whole family to be terribly disgraced by my having carried away the whisky. Those who did not know otherwise, and he was one of them, supposed that I had taken all that was missing. He came up to the stack-yard, and commanded me to come down from the stack-head, where I was at work. I saw there was something of fearful importance to me in his face, and I would rather not have faced him; but I went down the ladder, and asked what he wanted with me, though truth to tell, it was no mystery, for he had in his hand a formidable cudgel, a fork shaft. He struck me a grievous number of blows with it. He at last left off, telling me I had disgraced myself and the family for ever: the only words he spoke. He burst into tears, and went away. I was much nearer to the shedding of tears when I saw him in that condition than when he was giving me blows, but I kept myself silent and gloomy, weeping not, speaking not. Some of the men asked why I did not run from him, when he was striking me; another said if his father had ever struck him that way, he would have struck his father, and would have knocked him down if he had been able, and he was sure that I was strong enough to have done so to my father. Only one of them, the builder of the stacks (David Lyall, long since settled as a farmer and flockmaster in the region of Buenos Ayres, in South America), seemed to condole with me; none of them had the sense of fair play in them to make a statement of the whole truth; and I was by this time too much troubled in spirit to do so myself. They did not understand the nature of my mind, who either thought that I might have run away or have battled with my father. It might have been an unworthy obstinacy that made me firm, but I took that as I have taken all other punishments, in silence. This feeling I can account for; but not quite so easily can I account for my standing as if willing to receive punishment. There was a kind of fascination, or if that is not the name, an influence without a name, that rooted me to the one spot of space whenever my father commanded me to stand there, or which made me involuntarily move towards him if he commanded me so to move. It was not easy to believe, when one’s bones and skin were sore with punishment, that it was done in parental love; but my poor father was at all other times affectionate to me and to all his family, and showed it in so many ways of hard endurance on his part for our sakes, while I, on calm reflection, could always see within myself that I had done something reprehensible before he punished me. Still I do think that a milder course might have been more effective.

We were at this time working at Thriepland Hill, near to which was our house. I was victualled that year in the master’s house at Branxton, but came home to sleep at night. On this evening I did not come home to sleep. I did not sleep at all. I lay down amongst the straw in the stable at Branxton, where the master’s riding-horse stood, and planned during the night what I should do with myself. I was deeply affronted at having been so punished in the presence of so many people, and some of them strangers; and I resolved to go away and leave home for a long time, and not return until I had lived to be a man, and had done something that would entitle me to respect. To go to my brother James was to be too near home; to go to my brother William, who lived in Yorkshire as forester to the Duke of Devonshire, seemed as undesirable as staying where I was. He had always been a kind of second father in our family, when at home, and to the family when away. He was now in a situation above that of a working man, and would expect any relation to come to him dressed (so I fancied), which I could not be, for my Snnday’s clothes were at home where I could not get them, and I had on my ilkaday breeks, my highland bonnet, and tacketed shoon (nailed shoes). Besides which disadvantages, I would have to tell, so I reasoned, why I had left home, and why I had given offence to my father, which offence would appear to William to be a punishable one, I had no doubt. Accordingly I decided against going to Yorkshire,.

The next bent of my thoughts was to my brother Peter, who was a soldier in the Royal Artillery; had been serving in the West Indies, but was now supposed to be returned to Woolwich, and serving there. What I could do if I reached Peter was by no means clear to me, nor did I know how I was to reach Woolwich, nearly four hundred miles distant. I had one penny, and one penny only in the world. I had but a poor notion of what the life of a soldier is, but I had read of wonderful adventures and successes, and I thought, foolish boy that I was, that if I could reach Peter, he and I might yet become captains, colonels, or great generals. Tet, again, I doubted if one so young as I was would be admitted into the army; and I doubted if I would find Peter at Woolwich if I got there; and then I doubted if I should ever find Woolwich.

But I resolved to go, and travel somewhere. It was Sunday morning, and the day was breaking. I knew nobody would be astir for several hours, as people did not rise early on the morning of the day of rest in harvest time, and that I might remain later and still go unseen. But I resolved to go soon, and go far away that day. The master’s riding horse neighed when it heard me moving about the stable ; and as I was its groom, in addition to many other offices which I filled on the farm, I opened the com chest, of which I carried the key, and gave it a feed of com. It knew me well, and I hung my arms around its neck as it ate the com, and told it I would never see it more.

I then took a piece of chalk, and wrote on the top of the com chest, “ Fare ye well, Branxton, I am away, never to eome back.” My heart had been beating all night quick and strong, and my mouth was feverish and thirsty. I went to the pump to have a draught of cold water, and with all seriousness and sorrow, I bade the pump farewell. Coming away from it, my eyes caught sight of my old wheelbarrow on the dunghill, with which I wheeled the clearings from the stables; I turned it upon its feet, lifted it, and put it down again, and said, “Poor old barrow, I shall never wheel you again.’1 Coming out of that close, I had to pass the cart in which I had taken the breakfasts and dinners, the porridge and bread and beer, so often to the fields to the shearers during that and other harvests. Taking my chalk, I wrote on the bottom of it, “Parritch cart, I am done with you.” Then going up the coach-house road, between the high holly hedges, which overshadowed the road, and under the large trees which met and overshadowed the hedges, I stood a few minutes considering which way I should go, and bitterly regretting that I could not take farewell of something belonging to my mother. All at once the thought struck me, that I would go up into the Pir Knowe, and see the cows, and my mother’s cow in particular, and bid it farewell. I did not find them in the Pir Knowe, so I went down the steep hill side, amid the holly bushes, rabbit holes and high trees, to the meadow,—a lovely green, framed, as it were, in rows of dark spruce trees, the timber of other varieties rising on the high ground behind the rows of spruce. Here, as I expected, I found the cows. Some of them would have nothing to do with me, but others knew me well, and were kind and gentle, and allowed me to lay my hands on them. My mother’s was one of these. I put my hands on her head and neck, and said to her I was going away and would never see her again. The poor animal knew not what I said, but in her usual kindness she licked my hand with her tongue, and I felt as if it was a friend that sympathised with me. I tried to come away from her. I had left the master’s. riding horse, the pump, the wheelbarrow, and the cart which I used to work with, all of them with heaviness of spirit, yet without a tear. I could not repress tears as I quitted poor Kidley; she was my mother's favourite, and licked my hand, and I thought of my mother. I turned back to the kindly animal again, and put my arms around her neck, and gave her my hand, which she again licked so gently with her tongue, that I cried outright, and blubbered like a great foolish boy as I was.

I left her, and going up the wooded acclivity, with my face towards the Rabbit Hill, where the rabbits, starting before me and running to their holes, seemed to turn round and look as if they knew I was not their enemy now, and was going away from them, and was never coming to shoot them again. The birds that twitter and sing in the early morning were all in voice and upon the fluttering wing, as if they had got up to see me away. Every creature seemed to be up and astir but human creatures, and 1 felt a melancholy pleasure in seeing at my parting so many living things and no human thing. I was gloomy, and anxious to shun human beings.

Coming down the road called the avenue, my face eastward, I remembered a large beech tree in the Pond Planting, by the side of the road not far from the dismal deep pond, on which tree all of our family who had herded cows in those woods had carved the initials of their names, with the dates and other memoranda. I paid a visit to that tree, and once more put my name on it, and then turned away. The sun was rising; the top of the little thatched house where slept my father, mother, and sisters, was just visible through the trees, with the first beams of the glowing sun glorifying the old thatch. Were they sleeping soundly under that roof, or were they awake and mourning for me who had not been home all night—the first night I had been a fugitive from their roof? I thought the glowing sun upon the house, seen so soon after the dark night of trouble which I had wasted in wakefulness, might indicate that there was now forgiveness, and welcomes, and warm affections for me under the thatch; and that, like the night, all displeasure had disappeared. And this thought enlarged itself. Perhaps, said I, that sunshine on my father’s roof at this very early hour (it hardly seemed the natural time for sunrise), is the face of God looking upon me, and signifying that that is the place I should go to. With which thought in me I remembered that I had not once, in the momentous resolves I had been ‘making, prayed, or thought of praying. I tried to pray now, but could not. The unformed words refused to be formed into prayer. I felt myself to be a rebel against my father and against God, and the very prayers which I had once used now rebelled against me, and would not be uttered. They fled even from my thoughts in their very spirit when I tried only to think them, without saying them word by word. I could not pray. It was awful; yet I could not. Neither could I undo my resolves and remain at home. I made a sudden start and away I went.

My face and feet went towards England. Berwick-upon-Tweed was about twenty-five miles distant. I was over the half of that distance while it was yet early. I reached Ayton, eight miles from Berwick, before the church-going hour of eleven o’clock. I had once been at Ayton with my mother. I saw little of it then, and knew it better from my mother’s description. I had heard her tell at home of the time when she was a young woman in that pretty village ; of the washing and bleaching of clothes by the banks of the little river Eye, and sitting up with the clothes all the night, she and other young maidens, beneath Ayton bridge, to lay them out again in the summer mornings, when the first glimpse of sun appeared; the night being spent in story telling, and sometimes in the society of lovers, who came and kept the maidens company.

I now stood upon this bridge, and looked over its parapet upon that bold rivulet, its ledges of rock, and grassy banks, and pools of shining water, and fancied my mother there. Then I remembered that there was family dust of ours in Ayton church-yard, and that my mother’s affections often dwelt there, though she herself dwelt beyond the broad hills of Lammermoor. My two brothers and a sister, who parted with the world in their childhood, but whom I never knew, were buried in that place. I found the green spot of their early graves by finding the tombstone of John Orkney, my mother’s father. I sat down on the old man’s grave, wondering what kind of man he had been, and what kind of men my two brothers, and what like a woman their infant sister lying beside them would have been, had they lived until then. Would those brothers have been like William in Yorkshire—grave, upright, and like a father; or would they have been like James—less stern, keen readers of books, excellent singers of songs, and tellers of good stories; or like Peter—clever as mechanics, but adventurous and unsettled? Would they, had they lived, been apprenticed to trades like James and Peter; or would they have been mere hedgers and ditchers, as William had been, rising above ditching and spade labour to offices of trust, by self-instruction, unswerving integrity, and sheer perseverance? Would they have been a solace to our parents, and a help in time of need, as William had been ; or would they have caused grief to them by running away, like Peter and I? These were bitter thoughts as I sat on the grave of my grandfather, with my own wayward feet over the dust of those children. I rose from the place and returned to the bridge to see the pools of clear water once again, which my mother, when young and blooming, had looked into instead of a looking-glass, to do up her luxuriant hair in the early summer mornings, when she bleached her linen there. I leaned over the bridge and felt more sick at heart about my journey than I had yet done.

But I said at last, this is not the way to get on. So I started to the road and reached Berwick, where I spent 'my penny in the purchase of a loaf, which I ate at about two o'clock, a mile or two from the town on the English side. I had an uncle Peter Orkney in Berwick, and an uncle Alexander Orkney at the Square, two or three miles from that town, both brothers of my mother, and the latter my name-father. I might have just conceived the thought of calling on them, but a glance at my working clothes and nailed shoes forbade a repetition of the thought. Besides, they would ask why I had come fcway from home, and I could not tell that it was because my father gave me a “licking;” it was the shame I felt at that which had made me leave home.

After eating my pennyworth of bread—swallowing my all, at once—J proceeded on my journey. I was several miles on the road to Belford, when being thirsty, I went into one of several poor-looking houses standing in a row by the roadside, and asked a drink of water. A motherly woman took a bason to get me some water, but stopped short of the good errand and asked if I would prefer milk. I said yes, if she pleased. Whereupon she gave me a bason of milk, and bade me sit down and rest if I were tired. I sat down and was drinking the milk, when her husband said, “Perhaps the lad would like a bit of bread to his milk; do thee, lad?” I was blockhead enough to say, “No, I thank ye; I am not hungry,’'* which is considered good manners among young people of my condition in Scotland, no matter how hungry one may be who says so. But the good man of the house said, "The lad is blate, and wunnot tell; I see he’s hungry; give him a piece of bread to the milk.” So I got bread and ate it, and answered many questions as to where I came from, and why I was travelling into England. On my telling what kind of work I had been used to, the man said that his master, a farmer, would give work to such a lad as I, and he directed me to his house. Thither I went, and after getting through a yard, terrible with dogs, I reached the kitchen door, and asked to see the master. He was not at home, but the mistress came and asked what I wanted. I told her I wanted to work, if they needed any harvest hands. To which she said, angrily, “ Go away, go away; we have too many idle tramps of your sort already.”

So I got through the yard full of dogs, and proceeded on the road to the south.

Nearly opposite a large house, the greatest house I had ever seen—greater than Sir James Hall’s of Dunglass, greater than Lord Lauderdale’s at Dunbar, and they are both large ones—I came up to a man going in the same direction with myself, and inquired what house that was. He wondered where I could have come from not to know Haggerston. “That,” said he, “is Sip Carnaby’s house.” Finding that I had come a long way from the Scotch side, he said he could wager his life I was going to Newcastle to get a ship. “Lad,” he continued, “ye’ll rue that; they’ll rope you until thou won’t be able to stir thysel. I once went to sea at Newcastle, but I soon ran away again. Go thou home again, lad.” I told him I could not go home; but he Baid as I was tired, and had nowhere to go for a lodging, he would put me in a stable where he lived, let me sleep; there, and think of what he had told me in the morning.

We went on a mile op two farther, and arrived at his house. He was a hind to a farmer, and lived with his mother. His mother gave me broth and bread, and I went to the stable, got straw where he directed me to get it, and lay down in it, sleeping soundly until he called me at sunrise in the morning. He and his mother were going to the fields to the harvest work ; they had their own breakfasts of oatmeal crowdy made, and said they would give me part of it if I would promise to go home. I would not take crowdy on that condition, and went out to the road, my face again southward. They called me back, and said they could not let me go away without some crowdy; so I had crowdy with them, and then set out on my journey towards Belford.

I passed through that town and got to the fourth milestone on its south side. Near to this was a small bridge, and I sat down on the ledge of this bridge, and pondered over and over again on what I was doing. The want of a change of clothes, not having even changed the shirt I had been working in, and the want of money, but above all the thoughts of my poor mother, how she would be distressed on my account; how I was grieving her who was no party to what I had suffered, who on the contrary would have willingly saved me from the suffering; all those things came into my thoughts, rushing one on the other; and for the first time since I had left home I prayed to God to direct me what to do, and where to go. I had not so employed my thoughts many minutes, when I felt fully assured that it was best to go home. I started at once, my feet going faster than they had gone before, and my thoughts absolutely happy.

I reached Berwick Bridge without halting, and stood a few minutes looking over upon the Tweed, and then passed through the town. As soon as I got out of Berwick, I took off my shoes and stockings, and ran barefooted. Soon after this the Union four-horsed coach came up. It was a fast coach; but so light-footed and light-hearted was I now, that I ran as fast as it. I kept up with it six miles, running about twenty yards behind. The guard once looked back to me, and asked if I had any money. I said “No,” whereupon he sat down on his seat and did not look at me again. It got away from me at Ayton. I was not able to run up hill with it; but I walked on as fast as I could, and got over the remaining eighteen miles between ten and eleven o'clock at night.

I did not feel enough of confidence to go to my father’s door, but being outrageously hungry, having ate nothing since the crowdy at sunrise, and having walked and run over fifty-two miles of road since then, I was obliged to go to a neighbour's house to get something to eat. Here were two young women, Jean and Alice Dawson, who lived with their blind grandfather, old James Dawson. They rejoiced as much over my return as if they had been my sisters; got out of bed and made tea for me, and laid me down to sleep; told me how glad my mother and father, and every one, would be to know I had returned, and were inquisitive as to where I had been. The distance I had travelled over that day surprised them, as it may do many, considering the want of food; but the number of fifty-two miles is correct, including what I walked in the morning, before I turned.

I got up early, and went round a back way to Branxton, not to be seen by the men -whom I expected coming with their hopes to resume the leading of the com to the stackyard. They happened to come by the very road which I took. I got behind the holly bushes at the bottom of the Horse Hill Planting to avoid them. They were talking of me, and saying they wondered where I could have gone. They thought I must have gone with the Irish shearers, for I had been, often in the barn where they slept, and seemed fond of their company.

The only man I wanted to see at that time was David, as he was the only one who had not made a jest of the punishment I received. Fortunately he was behind the others. I called “Davy” as he passed. He looked into the hushes, and said “Is that you; where in the world have you been?” And without saying another word, bade me go along with him. He turned back to Branxton, and going up to the master’s bedroom, told him I had returned, and that he hoped he would pot refuse to allow me back again to his service. The master soon came to me and bade me get to work, but I had begun work in the stable before he came. He said that although I did not choose to go home to my father, that was no reason why I should run away from my ^service.

I did not feel confidence to go home that night; but was anxiously expected home when my day’s work was done. My mother had come and entreated me to go home ; but I had not seen my father, and could not go, I again slept in the stable among the straw. While I was yet in the straw, in the early morning, my father came to me. He said he had been lying awake all the night, and nearly the whole of every night I had been away, and so had my poor mother. With his eyes wet, and the tears running down his venerable face, he asked me to forgive him for the wrong he had done; for he had since found that the men sent me to take the Whisky for their use, and that they drank it. For me to be begged of for forgiveness by my father! It was worse—aye, far more painful—than the hasty punishment was which he inflicted on me. I never again saw him raise his hand in punishment or rebuke; and, so far I can remember, he never again spoke a severe word to me.

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