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Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter VII


When I was a boy, the periodicals which are now so common, cheap, and useful in supplying young minds with information, did not exist. Such books of popular instruction as then existed, and might hare been useful for me to read, were out of my reach. Not knowing them, I did not seek them, nor feel their absence, and my own loss. My earliest acquaintance with a book subject, one which took a lodgement in me, and remained from its first entrance to this day to receive new comers, and admit them to a place beside it, but never to be dislodged itself, was the story of Joseph and his Brethren. It was told by my mother. My father had been sent to Edinburgh market, a distance of thirty-four miles, with sheep or cattle. On such journeys he was absent a day and night going; a day and night there, and a day to come home. It was one night when he was thus absent that my mother, when we were preparing to go to bed, answered some questions which I put to her, by telling the whole narrative from the selling of Joseph to the Ishmaelites, to the Egyptian bondage of the children of Israel, and their escape to the desert. To this day I remember the very manner of myself and sisters, sitting around her on our cruipy stools on the hearth stone. To this day I can see the fire of logs and coals as it burned behind the bars of the grate; and I see the bars also as they were then, and the fancied figures of Egyptians and Israelites which I then saw in the fire. It was the first time that I felt an intellectual ecstacy. It came from my mother as did many other pleasing, good, and holy feelings. Who can tell all a mother’s goodness, or all her power to do good?

This occurred in my eighth or ninth year. About three years after, at the end of harvest, on a moonlight evening, when the corn was nearly all in the stackyard, and the carters were still at work in the moonlight, to get the com carried from the fields while good weather lasted, I was with James Wilson, who was then the stacker, laying the sheaves to his hand as the carter forked them to the stack from his cart. We had some spare time between the departure of the emptied cart, and the arrival of the loaded one; and James Wilson, who was a reader of books, asked me as we sat on the stack together, if I knew Burns’s poem of "Halloween.” I said, no: that I did not know what people meant when they spoke of Bums’s poems. What was a poem, and what was Burns? Halloween I knew about; for we had pulled cabbage runts that night blindfold, and burned beans on the bars of the grate, and put three basins on the table, one with clear water in it, one with muddy water, and one with none, and the young women and men had gone blindfold to choose a basin—the maiden who got the basin with none being destined to live without a husband, she who got the muddy water being destined to marry a widower, and she who got the clear water having in store for her a lover who had loved no other. I had seen such ceremonies gone through at Halloween (though never in my father’s house, or in his presence), so I told the stacker that I knew what was meant by Halloween, but not what he meant when he spoke of Burns’s poems. What was Burns’s poems, was it a book, or a song, or a story?

He said he would tell me; and saying so, he recited all the poem of “Halloween.” Seeing that I was delighted with it, he gave me that of “Death and Doctor Hornbook,” which pleased me still more. And then he told me some part of Burns’s life, which excited an interest in me far stronger than the recital of the two poems had done. He then reminded me that I had heard the songs of “Auld Lang Syne,” “Of a* the Airts the Wind can Blaw,” “My Nannie O,” and some others which he named; and that they were songs made by Burns, and were included in the book called “Burns’s Poems,” which he would bring with him to-morrow, and lend me to read.

Tired as I was with late work, which had lasted from daylight in the morning until ten at night, I was now so eager to see that famous book, from which he had kindled in me intellectual sensations so new, so delightful, and irrepressibly strong, that I could not go home to supper and to bed, until I had accompanied him to his home, three quarters of a mile distant to get the book; I could not wait until he brought it in the morning. It was a volume that had been often read, well read, and well worn. It had been in tatters, and was sewed again together, and I had special charges to take care of it, as it was not every one that it would be lent to. I got it, and if each leaf had been a bank note, I could not have hugged it in my breast pocket more closely and carefully. At first I felt a difficulty with the Scottish dialect of the poems, as I had never seen the dialect in print before; and my education, such as it was, had been exercised only on English reading. Moreover, the dialect of Burns was that of the west of Scotland, while in our every day speech we used that of the Lothians and of Lammer-moor in the south-east of Scotland, a dialect differing in many respects from that of the west. Yet I was soon able to read the poems with facility; and though I now know that I did not then feel the force of the poetry, I then read them under sensations of pleasure entirely new. Unfortunately, as regarded my father’s approbation of such reading, the most witty of the poems of Bums are directed satirically against the ministers of religion of that rigid body to which my father adhered. Still, rigid as he was in moral discipline, and believer as he was in the orthodoxy of those whom the poet had satirised, the genius of Bums subdued him. He took that old volume from me, and read it again and again, his grave countenance relaxing, and the muscles of his face curling into a smile, and the smile widening to a broad laugh at certain passages, which having read to himself, he would read aloud, that we might all laugh. And I remember his saying, “It’s a pity Bums was so coarse on some good men, for he was a droll fellow, and after all there is so much more good than ill in the book." Still he was not willing for me to become familiar with Bums. He said when I grew older I might read him to advantage, when I could know what to admire and what to reject ; it was hardly fit for me to read poetry while so young. But I had felt new sensations so exquisitely delightful, that even this admonition, good though I knew it to be, was not strong enough to separate me from Bums.

Seeing that I continued to read everything of verse kind which fell in my way, my father resolved to get me a book of poems to read, which he thought would do me good—the Gospel Sonnets, It was no small thing for a poor man like him to pay half of a week’s wages, and send all the way to Edinburgh for a book of verses for his boy, because he saw that boy eagerly laying hold of every printed poem, song, ballad, or verse, that could be reached, and in the exuberance of his enthusiasm making rhymes for others to listen to., The Gospel Sonnets were received and read, but there was something wanting either in me or in them. We stood, the book and I, in positions of respectable friendship, but I rushed not into it to lire in it, with it in me, to hold companionship with it in the lonely woods, .in the green loaning, or lie with it on the grass and the gowans beside the well, drinking from the well of water when I was thirsty and tired—drinking from the book of poetry always, as in Bums. Also in respect of the gospel sonnets of Balph Erskine, I had an imperfect opinion then, which has grown into a confirmed opinion now, that the gospel of the God of Grace is too sacred a subject for trifling rhymes; for, great as Balph Erskine was in preaching (his published sermons, and the history of Scotland in the days of his life, attest his pulpit greatness), he was but a small poet. Perhaps the best of his verses were those on the tobacco pipe. I remember one of the stanzas was somewhat to this effect:—

“And when the pipe grows foul within,
’Tis like thy soul defiled in sin,
For then the fire It doth require;
This think and smoke tobacco.”

The next book which came in my way, and made an impression so strong as to be still unworn and unwearable, was Anson18 Voyage Bound the World. Gospel Sonnets, Burns's Poems, old ballads, and self-made doggrel, everything gave way to admit the new knowledge of the earth's geography, and the charms of human adventure which I found in those voyages. I had read nothing of the kind before, and knew nothing of foreign countries beyond the glimpses of them opened to me by old James Dawson when he held converse with the personages of history, and the imaginary beings whom he associated with in the solitudes of the Ogle Bum. I 'got Anson to read in this way:—

James Wilson was at Innerwick smithy one day, getting his horses shod, and his plough irons laid. He saw a thick, aged-looking volume lying on the wall head under the tiles; and taking it down, read parts of it between the heats of the iron, it being his business, as of other men like him at the smithy, to wield the fore-hammer, when the iron was red-hot on the anvil. John Watt, the smith, had borrowed that book, and was reading it at resting hours. In working hours the book lay where James Wilson saw it. The account of it given to me was such as to make me try to get it and surmount all difficulties in the trial. Those difficulties were all the greater that my blateneis (bashfulness) was at this time oppressive, and almost ridiculous. I was now nearly fourteen years old; but had mingled in no company, and did not know above twenty people, and not even the half of twenty familiarly. If I were going an errand, and saw men at work on the road, laying stones on it, perhaps, I would go half a mile round by some other road, or through fields and over hedges and ditches, rather than pass them. If I had to pass people on the road, I could not look them in the face, nor, if they had asked me a question, could I answer them without my face reddening as if with shame. If my errand was to a private house, I would go past and return again, and pass it once more, and still be unable to muster courage to go in to tell what I wanted. This want of self-confidence, I am sorry to confess, has not been supplanted as it should be unto this day. True, I have done things which should make ordinary observers think that I was largely supplied with confidence, or self-esteem. In those circumstances I have, however, been impelled by other impulses, or opinions, or necessities, which by their strength made me forgetful of my inherent weakness. I cannot now tell how much I have suffered in the toil of spirit, far less the silly things which I have done and allowed others to do for me, in the absence of that self-confidence which looks the world in the face boldly, when boldness is a virtue, which shrinks only from the world when it is modest to do so.

Perhaps the writing of this autobiography (and above all its publication, now that I have allowed it to be published) may suggest that if my self-confidence was once weak it abounds in strength now. To this I cannot well reply. I feel that there are other moving causes to this act of publication; but this is not the page on which to write the confession of them.

At all events, whatever I may be now, I was bashful to the extent of being ridiculous when I was younger; and the struggle I had with the desire to go to the owner of Anson’s Voyages to borrow the book to read, and the shame of the thought that a boy like I, who only wore corduroy clothes, nailed shoes with thick soles, and a highland bonnet, should presume to go to the house of those who had a back door and a front door, was a war of thoughts that allowed me no peace for several weeks.

But the effort was made. It was successful; and I got the book to read. It was in summer, in the month of July, and I was then one of about ten persons employed in turnip hoeing. The turnips were that year in the large field called the Under Floors. The other workers went home to their dinners, but I carried a bottle of milk with me and a piece of hard bannock of bean and barley meal and would not go home, not though there was the great temptation of new potatoes just come in, or curds and cream, or some of the other Bummer delicacies which our mother was so pleased to provide for us at that season of the year. I remained in the fields, and lay on the grass under the shadow of the trees and read about the Centurion, and all that befel her. When the afternoon work began, I related to the other workers what I had read; and even the grieve began to take an interest in the story. And this interest increased in him and in every one else until they all brought their dinners afield, so that they might remain under the shadow of the trees and hear me read. In the evenings at home I continued the reading, and next day at work put them in possession of the events which I knew in advance of them.

About this time a parish library was established at Innerwick, and we got books from it. But the larger part of them were silly stories, of that silliest kind of literature,—religious novels. Intermingled with these^ however, were a few useful works of divinity, history, and biography. Since that time the library has been much improved.

There was a remarkable library established in my native shire of East Lothian, by Mr. Samuel Brown, of Haddington, which I cannot omit to notice, though I obtained no advantage from it. Mr. Brown is a philanthropist of the first order of merit. He formed, at his own expense, a collection of books, and put them in divisions; retaining the newest at Haddington; and sending a division to each of the principal villages of the county. When a division had remained in one place a certain time (about twelve months), it was removed to a distant village, and the division of that village was sent to take its place. Thus the books were kept in circulation, the readers each year having a set of books which they had not read before. The charge for reading was exceedingly small, not more than sufficient to keep the books in repair. The librarians to whose custody they were committed acted gratuitously. In my early reading days, none of those divisions came within our district.

Another eminent servant of mankind was Mr. George Miller, of Dunbar, who certainly lived before the age was ripe for him, and died, I fear, before he was fully appreciated. George Miller was the father of cheap literature. Nearly forty years ago he brought out several serial works at prices so low as to secure the hostility of all booksellers, and to make the learned and the literary look upon them as worthless. One was the Cheap Magazine, published monthly at Dunbar, price fourpence. It had ceased to exist long before I became a reader. Its object was solely to do that which such men as Charles Knight and "William and Kobert Chambers began to do with success twenty years after. But George Miller had the misfortune to live in a small provincial town, and to be bound to that town by his other business of a shopkeeper. It was impossible, and still is, to force the sale of a publication against the current of trade. The current of bookselling goes outward from metropolitan reservoirs, not inward. Moreover, the religious readers of the Cheap Magazine took alarm at it, because it aimed at popularising philosophical and purely literary subjects, and did not give a predominancy to religion. This defection and opposition sealed its fate; and after several years of heavy struggles, mental and pecuniary, George Miller left off publishing, a poorer man in purse and reputation than he began. Yet again he published. He was a geologist and naturalist, and to give liberty and currency to thoughts which would not lie dormant in an active mind like his, he compiled and published a work called The Book of Nature Laid Open. It came out about the time that I was beginning to seek after books, and. I bought a copy of it, price 10s. 6d. I believe there were not six other copies of it sold in the three parishes of Cockburnspath, Oldhamstocks, and Innerwick, the geology of which it was chiefly devoted to. Like all Mr. Miller’s adventures in literature, it entailed loss upon him. He subsequently published an autobiography, entitled, if I mistake not, The Life of a Sexagenarian, in which he reviewed the sixty years of his life, and the thankless struggles he had made for popular instruction; but even that book, I believe, was not bought to an extent sufficient to pay the printer; and unrequited and unappreciated, George Miller died and was buried.

The postage of letters was dear in those days, but my brother William, then living in Yorkshire, sent us frequent letters; they were all post-paid. It was a welcome thing to see the letter in the hands of somebody who had been in Dunbar and had brought it from the post* office. The exclamation of “A letter frae Wull!” was like an electric shock in the family, only it was a pleasant one. Sometimes a letter would contain a five pound note. That was also welcome. But it being an English note, and new and clean, as Bank of England notes usually are, it was a task incredibly difficult to get it changed. Had it been dirty and well worn, like the Scotch notes, it would have been less suspiciously looked at; yet, even then the fact that it was “English ” was against it.

One of the letters “frae Wull" contained a suggestion that I might possibly, if I had some more education, join him and become a forester. Here was new delight. I was recommended to get Hutton's Mensuration and learn it, and to practise measuring and account keeping. But where to get Hutton, and how, was the question. I had no money of my own, and my mother at that time had none; the cow had not calved, and there was no butter.

Felling to bring in money then I could not rest: if I could not then buy Hutton I must see it. One day in March I was driving the harrows, it being the time of sowing the spring com; and I thought so much about becoming a good scholar, and built such castles in the air, that tired as I was (and going at the harrows from five in the morning to six at night on soft loose land, is one of the most tiring days of work upon a farm), I took off my shoes, scraped the earth from them and out of them, washed hands and face, and walked to Dunbar, a distance of six miles, to inquire if Hutton’s Mensuration was sold there, and, if possible, to look at it—to see with my eyes the actual shape and size of the book which was to be the key to my future fortunes. George Miller was in the shop himself; and told me the book was four shillings. That sum of four shillings seemed to me to be the most precious amount of money which ever came out of the mint; I had it not; nor had I one shilling; but I had seen the book; and had told George Miller not to sell it to any one else ; and so I walked over the six miles ho pie, large with the thought that it would be mine at farthest when the cow calved, perhaps sooner.

It was mine sooner. I occasionally got a sixpence as stable boy, when I took out the horse of a visitor. And whenever Mr. Bennie, of East Craig, came, I got a shilling. He was the only visitor at my master’s house who invariably gave me a shilling for each night he staid. The master had a beautiful sister, Isa; and George Bennie was her lover. He began about this time to come often; and the ofbener he came the longer he staid. He took her away at last; and a loving and lovely pair they were. It was a great day in Branxton that wedding day; though many eyes were wet when they saw Isa going away—happy bride though she was. Alas! that she was so soon to be a widow! The love visits of George Rennie, so frequent and so long-continued, soon produced me four shillings, and more. I groomed his horse well; he knew it; and was kind to me. As soon as I had four shillings, I proceeded once more to Dunbar; and bought Hutton.

I need hardly say that my studies in mensuration did not result in my being a forester with my brother. But in subsequent years of my life, when I became a wood sawyer, I found that it was useful to have learned how to measure our work, and to cast up the accounts.

The chief reason why I did not go to be a forester was that my father was now old: all the family but one sister were away; and both parents were anxious that I should stay with them. In the year following, also, it happened that one of the ploughmen left his service with our master midway between the terms of Martinmas and Whitsunday; and as no other man could be conveniently obtained at that period, I was promoted to the office of a ploughman. I was only fifteen, but I had gone many yokings at the plough during the two previous years. This unexpected advancement in fortune, to have a pair of horses given me, and these to be no less than Nannie and Kate, the most lively and sprightly pair on the farm, at once decided that I should neither go to be apprenticed to any trade, as had occasionally been talked of, nor to Yorkshire to be a forester.


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