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Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter VIII


The next few years of my life have little variety in them beyond the variations of hard work. So far as ploughing was concerned I might have continued to work a pair of horses; but in the carting department—going to the com merchants stores, for instance, and carrying sacks of wheat up the stairs of four or five stories, I was not strong enough, in my fifteenth year. A full grown man was hired at Whitsunday, and got the horses which I had ploughed with in the spring. During the summer months of that year, 1825, I was chiefly employed in horse-hoeing the turnips—that is, holding the one-horsed shovel plough in the turnip drills. At harvest I was a binder and shearer, and when the leading in of the com began, I got the pair of horses belonging to the stacker, and his cart, and loaded the cart and drove the horses.

When harvest was over, I got a quantity of draining to do, and now worked by the piece. Sometimes I could earn 9s. a week at the drains, but in the deep ones there were rocks to be encountered and overcome; and in some parts the clay was so wet and greasy, that it slid in before the drains were filled with stones. Those drawbacks brought my wages down to an average of 7s. a week.

In the winter, and during two months in the following spring, I engaged to break the stones on a division of the public road in the vicinity of Thriepland Hill. I took them at 1s. 4d. a cart load. My father warned me that I had taken them at a price too low. But work was exceedingly scarce that winter, and seeing no chance of getting employment elsewhere, I contracted to break the stones at the price offered to me. I took advantage of every minute of daylight, save about half an hour for dinner; and when it was moonlight, I occasionally took a few hours at night. But all I could do did not produce me on an average more than one shilling a day. Out of that I had to provide myself with Hammers, and get them steeled and repaired at the smithy from time to time. The stones were hard water-worn fragments, gathered from the farm land; stones which lasted well on a road when once broken, but very difficult to break. I was a happy lad when I got them all done, and my contract was finished. This was at the end of February, 1826.

During March and April of that year, I was chiefly employed by the master in his garden, digging, planting, sowing, pruning, and so forth. I also hired a piece of vacant garden ground from him, for which I paid him 6s., and planted it with potatoes. I intended to buy a pig in the autumn, feed it on these potatoes, and sell it in the spring. But that summer was so dry that nearly all kinds of vegetation, save wheat, were withered away. I did not get as many potatoes out of my piece of ground as were equal to the price I paid for it. So that my father’s having also failed, I was but too glad to do for mine what I had intended a pig to do—eat them.

In May of this year, I was one of nearly a hundred persons employed by Mr. John Liddell, of Cockbums-path, the joiner, at a hag. This was at Bowshiel, in a glen stretching into the interior of the Lammermoor hills. A hag is to cut down the oak trees, peel the bark from them, dry the bark, stack it up, and cross cut and sort the timber. The nearest way I could go to the place of the hag from our house, at Thriepland Hill, was between six and seven miles. I had to be out of bed, and have breakfast, and be on my way over the moors by four o’clock, to be ready for work at six. I did not get home till eight, or half-past it. This, for 1s. 4d. (towards the latter end of it for 1s. 6d. per day) was heavy work. The weather was intensely hot, and the hill-side on which the oaken wood grew, rose direct against the mid-day sun. During the last two weeks of the hag, being completely worn out with the long journeys night and morning, I took a lodging; but the nearest I could get was at Harelawside, two and a half miles distant from the work. I took oatmeal with me from home, and as much of bean and barley bannocks as served me three days; at the end of three days I went home for one night, to get a fresh supply. I also took a piece of butter from home, and bought each morning a bottle of new milk at Harelawside. I paid ninepence a week for my lodgings, for which I also got boiling water night and morning, to make my brose. The weather being so dry and hot, and oatmeal brose night and morning, with bannocks for dinner, being very dry food, I suffered greatly from thirst. Water running out of the peat bogs, could be obtained at no great distance, but it was of bad quality, and to get at it, we were in danger of being bit by adders. They abounded like a plague in that district. Frightened from the wood where we were working by the din of saws, hatchets, crashing of trees, and shouting of human voices, they took refuge in the heath, by the bog sides, and seemed determined to defend themselves against intruders there. They would hiss, and coil themselves up, ready to leap upon us when we approached. But as they had always a dread of the human eye and voice, they usually retreated, and allowed us to get at the water to drink.

The women employed in peeling at this hag, got 1h. a day. Those who sneded the branches from the trunks, such as I, got 1s. 4d. and 1s. 6d. a day. The superior hands who sawed down the trees, got 2s. a day. Some of these were joiners who had been working at their trade in Edinburgh during two or three previous years, for high wages. The building speculations in Edinburgh during the few years of commercial excitement which ended with the panic of 1825, were excessive. From the country everybody seemed going to Edinburgh to get work. And now in 1826, everybody was coming back again, and were obliged to take work at any wages which were offered. Labourers returned to the country as well as the skilled artisans; and while fifteen months before I had been made a ploughman, men being so scarce, I could with difficulty get work of any kind now.

When the hag was over about the middle of June, I got employment as a great favour, and solely on my father’s account, at the Skaterow limekilns, where he had been a workman some years before. I was put on the kilnhead, enveloped in smoke, to throw in stones and coals. This work began at three or four o’clock in the morning, sooner or later, according as the burning mass had slackened down. We were seldom later in beginning work than four o’clock; and as I had to walk two miles, and take breakfast before 1 went out, it was necessary to be out of bed soon after two o’clock. I got home at five or six in the afternoon. For this work the wages paid were 8s. and 9s. a week. I was on the lowest scale— that of 8s. The best hands who worked in the quarries from which the limestone was raised, got 10s. a week. In some years they have had 11s., I believe. A great summer trade used to be done in lime at these kilns.

The farmers of the Merse of Berwickshire sent their carts from distances varying from ten to twenty-five miles, for lime to be used as manure. Many of them came and lay at the kilns all night, there being a stated hour to begin to draw the kiln and load the carts in the morning. The carters competed for the privilege of getting first loaded. I have known as many as three hundred carts waiting to be loaded at once. To see the racing; the carters whipping their horses to the gallop, those on the post road, to get before others who were galloping down the cross roads to get before them; an axle-tree breaking, or a wheel going off; sometimes a cart cowping at the sharp turns, and all the others thundering past, leaving the unlucky racer to his fate,—was a sight which I have not since seen the match of; and which could only be matched by men of the same combative energy as the men of the Scottish borders, by horses of the same strength and lightness of form as the horses of the Merse.

Both men and horses in Berwickshire differ in their habits from the men and horses of East Lothian—the county in which the limekilns now under notice are situated. The Lothian horses are large and heavy; the Lothian men do excellent work, but go more slowly and steadily about it. The men of Berwickshire still partake of the habits and character of their free-booting forefathers, so far as vivacity and energy of action are concerned; to which may be added their propensity to change of place and change of service. The Lothian hinds often live with a farmer throughout his lease of nineteen years, and if he takes a new lease they still remain on the farm. If a new farmer takes the farm, he will often retain the hinds who were hired to his predecessor. In any case, taking an average view of the periods of service in Lothian, they are long compared with the periods served by hinds in Berwickshire. A period of one, two, or three years is seldom exceeded there—the hind changing or flitting most commonly at the end of one or two years. They go through more work in the same space of time than the Lothian men; they are obliged to do more by their masters. But at the same time, they have themselves to blame for much of the overwork they do. At harvest especially, they get so excited by a spirit of combative competition, as to who shall work fastest, and be before his or her neighbour, that the masters have to threaten to “ pay them off,” to get them to take time to do the work as it should be done.

The harvest of 1826 was early. As soon as it began I left the lime-kilns at Skaterow, and went to the shearing at Branxton. It was pulling rather than shearing. The wheat was long enough in the straw to be shorn, but oats, barley, and beans were so short that we had to pull them. No rain had fallen during the space of three or four months. The harvest was soon over. When it was done, I, as in the previous autumn, took a quantity of draining. When I had drains which went well, I could earn from 8s. to 9s. a week. But I had some very bad ones, boggy in parts, so as to close in upon me and give double or triple work; rocky and hard in other parts, so as to make blasting with gunpowder necessary. Taking the bad with the good 1 did not make over 6s. a week.

During all that winter of 1826, and during the spring and summer of 1827, I worked as a labourer for our master. Sometimes in the garden, occasionally going at the plough, sometimes pruning a hedge, and now and again scouring a ditch. My wages were one shilling a day. In harvest I got the usual allowance of victuals with the other shearers, and the men who “led in” the corn to the stackyard; and I did the work of a man at "leading in" part of the time as a carter, and the remainder of the time as forker to the carts in the fields. There was, however, some misunderstanding about my working for a shilling a day. My father had made the agreement for me, and was not clear in his recollection whether that agreement included harvest work. I held that it did not: the master held that it did. As soon as harvest was over, he told me the agreement might be at an end if I chose: that he had no particular use for me, and that he had only engaged me at a shilling a day, at the beginning of the year, because I was out of work and could not get employment elsewhere.

There being still harvest work to do in the hilly districts, I left him, and went into the Lammermoors, among the hill farms on Whitadder side, and got three weeks of shearing, and an additional week as forker to the carts, at ten shillings a week, and the usual victuals. This was at the farm of Mr. Darling, of Millknowe.

It was near to the hiring days of Martinmas term when this last work was done. Returning home and giving my mother the two pounds I had received at Millknowe, I went to the hiring market at Dunse, with a piece of whip cord in the ribbon of my hat, and a piece of straw in my mouth, as signals that I wanted to be hired. But with the exception of one person, nobody even asked how much wages I expected. Men were more plentiful than masters. Men of full years, and experience as carters and ploughmen, were only offered from three pounds to four pounds ten shillings, with their victuals, for the half-year. And the person who offered to hire me, the miller’s wife of Strawfountain Mill, would not go beyond two pounds ten shillings. I would not hire for that amount of half-yearly wages, particularly to be loadman at a mill. So I took the straw out of my mouth, and the cord out of the ribbon of my hat, and walked home to Thriepland-hill, distant from Dunse sixteen miles.

I went also to Dunbar fair, which is on the first Tuesday after the 22nd of November, and tried to get hired there, but had not a single offer. So also to Haddington market on the Friday following, with no better success. Every farmer could get more men than he wanted—men of full growth and good practice, while I was only aged seventeen. I had, however, done the work of a man for two or three years; and being as tall and as strong as most men, I was not disposed to return to the pay of a boy, which was my only alternative at Branxton.

My brother James, hearing the difficulty I was in, suggested that I might get employment with him as a wood sawyer, at Edinburgh. The payment for wood-sawing was very low at that time, as all trade was in a state of stagnation. The price for sawing pine was only Is. 8d., in some few cases 1s. 10d. per 100 feet; and for hard wood, not more than from 2s. 9d. to 3s. per 100 feet. Still, as there was work to go to at those prices, and as double as much could be earned by a full day’s work at the saw, than could be earned on a farm by a day’s work, I resolved to go to Edinburgh; and had the full consent of father and mother to do so.


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