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Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter IX


I was prepared for my journey to Edinburgh before old Handsel Monday of 1828 ; but I did not think of leaving home before that day, nor would those whom I was to leave at home have permitted me to be absent from the family feast of old Handsel Monday. This family feast occurred annually on the first Monday of the new year, reckoned by the old style. The feast was simple; but in regard to the number of persons assembled, and their usual tastes and habits, it was bountiful. Our visitors were chiefly brothers and sisters living from home. The children of my eldest sister, Margaret, and their father, came; and for several years, while I was yet a boy, they made me feel to be more than a boy by calling me “uncle." And there was our uncle, John Temple, the weaver, of Chirnside. He was identified with our family by marriage with our mother’s sister; but in my mind more identified with our family by always visiting us at happy Handsel Monday. It seemed to me then, and by memory it still seems, that Handsel Monday would have been joyless, and would have declined and become an ordinary day, but for the coming of John Temple. The moment that the sound of his cheerful voice was heard in the house, until the next day, or next again that he went away, except, perhaps, a few hours in the night, the time was one continuous stream of story-telling, anecdote, and laughter. The moment John took his departure, and was out of sight, and his merry voice out of hearing, Handsel Monday was over, and the old, sober, working days reigned in its stead.

But he was yet at Thriepland Hill on the Handsel Tuesday of 1828, and was only talking about taking his departure, when, according to previous arrangements, I took mine. I walked to Loanhead, near Stenton, in the afternoon, and spent the night with my nephews, David, James, Thomas, William, and Robert Doughty. They were by this time motherless boys, but their father kept house with them, without any female assistant. This he continued to do for years; the eldest boys, besides going to school in winter, and to work in summer, assisting the younger ones to cook and to do the household work. For their early industry and perseverance they already have their reward.

Next morning their father, who was a stonemason, and chiefly employed on Biel estate, went with me several miles on the road towards the town of Haddington. It was a hard frost, the ground covered with snow, from one to three feet deep. He wished me to remain a day or two with them, until the snow melted, or was tracked down on the roads to make walking more easy; but I was too strongly bent upon reaching Edinburgh as soon as possible, to relax in my determination by a storm of snow. As he could not go out to do mason’s work in such weather, he went the farther with me, and the farther he went the more good advice he gave; warning me of the dangers of Edinburgh, and cautioning me against continuing my journey, if the snow-storm increased.

We parted, and, after a journey which was almost an overmatch for me, of twenty-five miles in the soft snow, I reached Edinburgh. It was dark when I got within sight of the streets ; and the lamps newly lighted, stretching out in long chains of fiery links, amazed me more than I can now tell. I was not long there until I heard complaints of bad trade; that “everything was flat“ nothing was stirring, and so forth; to which I could not help saying, that I wondered what like the town must be when everything was “brisk” and “stirring" for it seemed to me that the stir, the din, and bustle were excessive and never-ceasing.

But it was a dull time for trade. Edinburgh was then, had been for two years, and continued to be for years after, depressed beyond almost every other place, especially in the building branches of its trade, from the excessive extent of building speculations previous to the commercial crash of 1825.

I was kindly received by friends, some of whom I knew previously, some of whom I did not know. Most of them wondered why I should have left, what they, being town bred, believed to be a happy country life, to come and work in a saw-pit in a town. The sawyers objected greatly that my brother should at such a time of depression introduce a new hand; and they were disposed to prevent me from working. They said little to him; but on several occasions they told me I might probably get my head broken, and would possibly be found by somebody dead in the Cowgate Bum. Had it been at a busy time, they would have struck and refused to work for my brother; but as it was otherwise, so many being out of employment and suffering dreadful privations, they were powerless. In the country where I had come from, men were without work; it was the difficulty of getting employment at anything which would yield me higher wages than I had received as a boy, and the certainty that there was not constant work at such wages, that had caused me to go to Edinburgh, to add one more to those who competed for a livelihood at sawing timber.

In the course of five or six weeks the sawyers became reconciled to me. One who had been readiest in secretly telling what I had to fear from some unknown enemy, intimated that this unknown person or persons and himself would protect me on certain conditions which were hinted at, though not explicitly named. A neighbouring publican came and explained the matter more fully; and I found that the chief article in the conditions of friendship and brotherhood which the sawyers wished to establish with me was whisky. A certain quantity of whisky was to initiate me into the mysteries of brotherhood, and to secure the goodwill of the whole body. This condition being complied with, I was allowed to work without hindrance or molestation.

Soon after my arrival in Edinburgh I went with some relatives to the theatre. The Christmas pantomime was still played, and that season it was Mother Goose. I thought it funny, clever, wonderful. But the pantomime had less charm for me than the house, especially the chandelier, I had seen nothing of lamp kind brighter than my mother’s oil lamp at Thriepland Hill, until I saw the rows of gas lights in the Edinburgh streets; and now it seemed as if all their brightness had been concentrated within the theatre. But on the next occasion (the only other occasion, I believe, of my going to the theatre during that residence in Edinburgh) I saw Rob Roy. The Rob Roy of Pritchard, the matchless Bailie Nicol Jarvie of Mackay, the Diana Vernon of Miss Noel, the Major Galbraith of Murray (the manager, who for many years has been celebrated for having the best dramatic company out of London; all these might have afforded a theatrical treat to old playgoers: what, therefore, must this have been to me? I loved music, but had never heard a female voice so good as bare mediocrity, When Miss Noel, with her powerful and rich voice, opened out with the song, “A Highland lad my love was born,” the electric effect was as great upon me as if heaven had opened, and a singing angel had descended. Horncastle was the musical Osbaldesum, and began, if I mistake not, with “Oh, my love is like a red, red rose” I had heard some good male singers, as precentors in the churches; hut none had a voice like him. The memory of that delightful entertainment served me to think upon, and refresh my spirit with, as I toiled in the saw-pit at the long saw, for weeks after.

One of the chief intellectual treats which I enjoyed was that of going, on Sundays, to hear the most celebrated of the Edinburgh ministers preach. I was disappointed in every effort to hear Dr. Chalmers. But the late Dr. Andrew Thomson I heard; and wondered how a kirk (established) minister should be such a famous preacher as he was reputed to be, and as I believed him to be! The dissenters were not inclined to be liberal, perhaps not even just, to the ministers of the establishment in those days; and I had partaken of their teaching and tone of thought.

But the greatest entertainment of an intellectual nature was enjoyed in attending the sittings and listening to the debates of the Synod of the United Secession Church, which met in May. On more than one occasion their debates lasted until daylight in the morning. I remained all the time in the gallery listening, and proceeded from the gallery where I had listened direct to work in the saw-pit. It was not so much from the interest attached to any single topic under discussion that I remained there; as from the fact that many of the debaters were ministers of whom I had heard; whose reputations for piety and ministerial ability stood high, and whose very names were always uttered by my father and others like him with accompanying expressions of veneration; and whom I could now look upon face to face, at least I could look down from the gallery upon their heads, grey heads, bald heads, and wigs: and as they debated I wondered at the grey heads, the bald heads, and the wigs.

During the previous two years, I had now and again, but with no regularity, seen a newspaper. It was the Edinburgh Courant, and came three times a week to our master at Branxton; but, as other farmers got it from him, it did not often fall into my hands. But now, in Edinburgh, I could see the successive numbers of a newspaper, and see the continuation of the news, and the political disputes between two different newspapers. The first event which I had learned from the papers, and which made much impression on me, was the battle of Navarino. James Wilson borrowed a newspaper from some friend at that time (latter part of 1827), when the right and the wrong of that battle was under discussion. We wondered why any body should doubt the right or propriety of Sir Edward Codrington destroying the Turkish fleet. The claims of the Greeks, or the principles of international law, we knew nothing of. It was enough to us, that the enemy which the English had fought and vanquished was the Turks, and that the Turks were Mahommedans, and not believers in the same religion as ours. The more ignorant that any people are, the more ready are they to reason in this way, or in passion to overcome all reason. James had, however, read more history than I. He was old enough to remember the French war, and had been a militia man and a volunteer, and had been drilled to help to defend the sea coast of Lothian from the threatening French—a needful and a patriotic purpose: but at the distance of fourteen years after the French were no longer able nor willing to invade East Lothian, he and many more still talked about the French. When, therefore, we read that at the battle of Navarino the French and Russians were allied with the English in defeating the Turks, it was thought to have detracted greatly from the honour of England to have had anything to do with the French, unless to give them a thrashing.

I fear the more ignorant of the French people have similar thoughts about the English. Such thoughts are unworthy of two nations occupying the front places of advancing civilization like France and England. We have much to hope for from peace—everything to fear from war. Two countries so nearly situated to each other as France and England, may be as useful to each other in commerce and in the promotion of mutual happiness as England and Scotland are, or any two counties of Scotland, or any two of England, or any two neighbours living in the same street. Bead history, my child, and you will learn how much evil the race of mankind has suicidally done to itself by wars. You may read now more easily than I could when a boy; the press now recognizes boys as the future men, who should have literature for themselves, to know, before they are men, what men should do and think, and how. they should think and act.

One evening, when I was still at Thriepland Hill, James Wilson came to our house with a letter which had come from London to one of his friends. It was written in a running hand, and was crossed oyer; and was so difficult to read that it had been sent to him, and he came to me, to see if I could assist in deciphering it. We found after two or three hours of orthographic labour, that it was written to inform his friends in Scotland, that all London was in consternation and mourning at the sudden death of the Bight Honourable George Canning; and that some terrible trouble for the nation might be expected, as strong suspicions existed that be bad not come by his death fairly. This was the first time that I knew anything of Mr. Canning, even by name. I was not satisfied until I learned more, which I did soon after I went to Edinburgh, from a gentleman with whom I became acquainted through an accidental circumstance. He had been editor of a daily newspaper in London during some part of Canning’s career as a statesman. It was more common then for statesmen to have a newspaper engaged as a special organ than it is now. He had waited on Canning, at the Foreign Office, to receive his instructions, when the minister had any to give ; this paper being favoured, for a considerable length of time, when there was anything special to go forth to the public. In the ante-room, where the persons seeking audience waited, there were new faces every day, but some old ones. One of the old ones began to eye the editor anxiously, not knowing who he was nor his business. This was an eminent foreigner, a capitalist. He seemed resolved to know who the gentleman could be who was always favoured first with an audience, no matter who was waiting. “You must be a great man—pardon me, sir; the minister always sees you, and always sees you first. I am M , whom people say is de richest man in Europe; but you are de greater man—pardon me, sir; this great minister sees you first. If I might be permitted to beg the honour of your acquaintance?” The editor presented the capitalist with his card, to which the latter replied, “Mine Got! but you are de great man!” But he meant quite the contrary. When he found that the gentleman to whom the minister gave such ready audience was only the editor of a newspaper, he never looked at him again.

From this gentleman I learned much that has been of Use to me; at all events, much in a very short space of time.

Relative to newspapers being engaged in the pay of government now-a-days to advocate certain measures of policy, or praise a certain minister, it is out of the question. A leading daily paper could better afford to purchase (I do not say it does so, but it could better afford to purchase) the officials of some government office, for the sake of the early information to be derived there, than any minister could afford to purchase it. Suppose a prosperous journal got £5,000; this, divided amongst its proprietors, or falling into the hands of one, would be a worthless sum compared with the advantage to be derived by the expenditure of £5,000 in obtaining early and important information.

The trade in timber and the cutting of it got worse and worse as the summer Of 1828 came on. The prices of work were not only low, but there was no demand for men at any price. Where I was working, it became as profitable to leave the timber in the log in hopes of better times, as to cut it up. When the month of June arrived, it was proposed to me by Adam Skeldon, a working man who had once been overseer of the parish roads in my native district, and who was now on a limited scale a cowkeeper in Edinburgh, and occasionally a sawyer, it was proposed to go to the hay harvest which begins early in the vicinity of Edinburgh. I had not mowed much at home, but had tried. So Adam and I got new scythes rigged, and went off to look for mowing. We had only got to Duddingston, when Mr. Pendrigb, who keeps a tavern there, told us that Mr. Scott, a farmer, with a large farm on the east side of Arthur’s Seat, had been inquiring for mowers. We went to him and engaged to cut his hay, a mixture of clover and ryegrass, at 3s, 6d. the statute acre. We were about ten days at it. During this time Adam went home to Edinburgh to sleep at night, a distance of two miles and a half. But I could not. I obtained leave from Mr. Scott to sleep among the straw in one of his barns; and at one of the hind’s houses I got oatmeal porridge made for breakfast and supper. For dinner I had bread and small beer from Duddingston Village. It being my first hay harvest, and Adam being a crack mower, while I strove to keep up with him, I was bent nearly double at night when we left off work, and would have lain in the fields, rather than walk two miles, had I not got the barn to sleep in. But during the first week I was worse in the morning than at night. Gradually, however, I began to get seasoned. We did not earn over half-a-crown a day, as the grass was heavy, and knocked down with rain.

When we were done with Mr. Scott, we were hired at half-a-crown a day to mow the grass within Duddingston policies (domain or home park). This place belongs to the Marquis of Abercom, but he seldom lives there, at least not then. But there was a fashionable party of ladies and gentlemen, and ladies and lords, staying at the house, and we were not allowed to mow near the mansion in the mornings before ten or eleven o’clock, lest the whetting of our scythes might disturb them in bed. When the day was farther advanced they used to come out, walk among the hay, and look at us. The ladies were elegant creatures, but I would have thought more of them had they not said frequently in our hearing, “How nice it is to be a mower! what delightful exercise! how I should like to be always a haymaking!” The innocent creatures knew no better. Adam used to say when they were gone, “They’re a wheen idle gipsies and idle loons, going about doing nothing, and living on the fat of the land; tories every yin o’them, ye may bo sure; lying up in their feather beds there till ten o'clock o’ the day. We want Sir Francis Burdett at them. Odd, I'll wager Burdett would take them through hands—the torie that they areI"

Had Adam known how little trustworthy his political idol, Burdett, was; and had he known how wrong he was in ascribing all idleness and ill-doing to the tories in particular, to the gentry in general; and had he and I both understood better at that time how much working men can do for their own happiness, we might have done less work, and enjoyed the money we earned better than we did. There came to Duddingston while we worked there, a great number of people in tartan kilts and plaids, with pipers playing on their bagpipes, to celebrate the anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn. They dined in the open air, danced, drank whisky, and spent the night, and the best part of next day, in the same manner. Adam and I were amongst them, and did more harm to ourselves, than any political man against whom Burdett at any time opened his mouth, ever did to either of us. But like most young men, and like all ignorant men hearing much about political reformers and political anti-reformers, I was too ready to think that political reform was to cure all social ills. It was necessary then that reforms should be effected; it will become necessary again, and many a time; but men should look to political reforms as the means by which they can make themselves more useful and better men, not depend on them for some miracle of good fortune, which no legislation can give.

From Duddingston we proceeded to Dreghom, near the village of Collinton, five or six miles west of Edinburgh, and joining with two men who had been working in a distillery, contracted for the mowing at that place. The grass was lighter than on Mr. Scott's farm. We mowed it for 2s. 9d. per statute acre; but what between its being lighter, and my improvement as a mower, we earned full three shillings per day each. We should have earned less, or our employer would have had to pay more per acre for us to have earned so much, had the soil been well drained and cultivated. It was strong clay land, in want of thorough drainage, on which the com crops of the previous year had been imperfectly developed, and on which the clover and rye-grass of that year had, in places, almost perished by wet. I have been told that since then the soil has been drained and well cultured, and that the greatest of all kinds of farm crops are now obtained from it.

From that place we went, the four of us, upwards from the lowlands to the hills which form the western end of Lammermoor. At a large farm called Blinkbonnie, we had nearly bargained for a great quantity of hay to cut, but the price offered of 2s. per acre would not suit us. Going into the interior of the hilly region, we found six days’ mowing at Herriot Mill, in the parish of Herriot. On leaving this place my companions bent their steps down the vale of Gala Water, intending to go into Ettrick Forest, to be in time for mowing the bog or meadow hay. Hitherto it had been all clover and ryegrass that we had mowed. The bog hay in those hilly districts is much later, the cutting of it seldom beginning sooner than the end of July, or ending sooner than August. I declined to go with them any farther. I had more reasons for separating than one, but the chief reason was that the most of our earnings was spent on whisky, which I loathed and hated. I intended by this time to return home to Branxton to the harvest, as soon as it should be ripe, and I could not think of going home without some money to give my mother, and without a new suit of Sunday clothes which I had promised myself.

In the preceding six months. my castle-in-the-air which I built daily at the long saw and at the mowing, the building of which mainly sustained me at the prodigious work which we performed of mowing an acre, and an acre and a half per day, while whisky mainly sustained my companions, was this—that I should go home at harvest, go to the meeting house on Sundays with my sisters, and, after an absence of eight or nine months, be seen there better dressed than I had ever been before.

Philosophers will say that the human mind should have higher motives than those indicated of myself here. True; but in sawing timber and mowing hay I gave forth too much perspiration every day to have much philosophy of a higher order within me. Nor had I any association with other thinkers to awaken it. But I shall hardly admit, even now, that it was wrong for a working man like me, earning the full wages of a man for the first time, to put some object before him, such as being superiorly dressed on a Sunday. In later years, since I have been in towns where public parks are instituted, and facilities are afforded for recreation out of doors, I see nothing in those parks and facilitated recreations more beneficial than this—that they induce working people who have the means, and who previously wasted their means in dirt and drunkenness within doors, to be clean, to be well-dressed, to care for their families being well dressed; and, above all, to care for themselves being well behaved, and to go out like honest and good men, and look the world honestly in the face,

Having parted from my other companions, I returned to Herriot, and the farmer told me that as I seemed a “steady chield,” I might take a week at jobbing work on his farm, and the week following join his two shepherds and another man in mowing the bogs. I did so -got a shilling a day and victuals for the week of jobbing work, and one and sixpence a day and victuals for the mowing. I slept at night in a loft over the cows among oat straw, being allowed a blanket and some sacks by the farmer.

This lasted about three weeks; at which time I proposed to leave the bog mowing, and go home to East Lothian to the com harvest. My brother had sent to me from Edinburgh, saying that the carrier, William Christison, had told him that harvest in the east country was about ready. So one Saturday afternoon, when I had got my week's wages, had taken my scythe out of the sned9 had tied her up in neatly plaited hay-bands, had bidden the farmer, and the shepherds, their wives, the shepherd boys, and the shepherds’ daughters, and the farmers’ milkmaids farewell; and when I had got over the hills two miles north of Herriot, with my face towards Edinburgh, which was distant eighteen miles, I had mounted the top of a dry stone dike, and was looking at the long distance which I had to go that evening, when a laughing face just before me looked up from behind a whin bush. It was the face of my brother James. He had come from Edinburgh to meet me; had seen me coming over the hill, and lay down there to give me an agreeable surprize.

Nothing could have been more agreeable. We had a delightful, brotherly, and intellectual walk to Edinburgh together, over the eighteen miles of road, most of it down hill. We rested an hour at or near a place called Amiston, examining the ruins of a church, and the tombstones of a desolate graveyard. James has always a poetic loving-kindness for such places, and what he loves I cannot despise. We were like younger sons of Old Mortality, scraping the moss from obliterated letters, to read names of men and women long dead, of whom we could know nothing. But once in possession of those unknown names, we moralised on the probable characters of those who had once answered to them in days that now belonged to the dark past.

The next day but one I left Edinburgh in the morning to walk to Thriepland Hill, thirty-four miles. This I reached before dark, was pleased to find that the harvest was not yet begun, and that all at home were well, and glad to see me after an absence of eight months. And with those feelings, when family worship was over, and thanks to the Ruler of All, were offered for my safe return, I went once more to sleep in the butty home bed.


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