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Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter X


Whew the harvest was over in 1828 I continued to work on the farm, ploughing, carting, and so forth, up to Martinmas term. Wages were still low; it was difficult for labourers not already hired by the year to get employment, even at eight shillings a week. I went to the Dunse hiring markets in November; but like many other young men seeking to be hired for the ensuing half year, did not get even an offer.

On the day after the last of those hiring days T went on a visit to a place in the eastern part of the Lammermoors, at which I had heard some labourers were to be employed in draining. On my way, having to pass within half a mile of Harelawside, the place where eighteen months before, when working at the Bowshiel hag, I was a lodger, the thought occurred to me that I should make a call there, which doing, and telling the persons on whom I called where and at what I had been working lately—that I had been a sawyer for some months, they told me that it was fortunate I had called; for. David Whitehead, the wright, who lived close by, had been saying that day, that he wanted a sawyer to help him to cut that timber which he had just got home for the new gates, which he was to erect on different farms on Renton estate. I soon introduced myself to David, and in ten minutes or less, was engaged to saw with him. His business as a country-wright was of a simple nature. Once upon a time he had employed a considerable number of hands, but had no journeymen then. He lived alone with his amiable and cheerful elderly help-mate, Kirsty. They had a dog, several cats, and an ass, and no other family. But for these they had a care as tender as they could have had for any human creatures. Indeed, they were incapable of unkindness towards anything. They took me into their house, and treated me as well as either dog, cats, or ass; and to say that, is to say a good deal. I remained with them seventeen months; but not alone all the while, as you will presently see.

Our first work was to cut the timber, most of it larch, on the sawpit. Next we made the gates. Then we had them conveyed to the gateways on the different farms, where we put in gate-posts, and hung them. This work lasted until the end of December. I had 10s. a week with lodging, and thought myself well paid considering the difficulties of the times.

When we had put up the gates, David contracted with Sir Samuel Stirling to thin and prune the range of natural grown oak wood, on the Benton estate, which forms for several miles the north bank of the Water Eye. He required help to do this, and engaged me at 9s. per week, with lodging, and as many potatoes for supper at nighty cooked in any way I wanted them, as I could use, This was quite as good payment as 10s. per week. We went very pleasantly to work all the winter at this wood cutting. When we rose in the morning our first business was, two hours before daylight, to get hot water to thaw the grinding stone, to have our hatchets and pruning knives ground. During this operation Kirsty had the kettle boiling for David’s tea, for my oatmeal brose, and for the dog’s breakfast. We reached the place of our work, distant from one to three miles, by daylight. We had each bread and butter or bread and cheese for dinner, which we ate in the woods.

David was an elder of the church establishment in the parish of Coldiugham. He lived about five miles from church, with a road to go to it through moor and moss as bad as can well be imagined. It was little more than a sheep's track, and lay through that wildest comer of the moors, which Scott has described in the “Bride of Lammermoor,” as the hunting ground near “Wolfs Craig.” No weather would keep the elder at home on Sunday; and on most Sundays, Kirsty, mounted on the ass, accompanied him. He was not a reader, and had only two leading ideas about public affairs. The first was, that the general assembly of ministers of the Church of Scotland was supreme over all other powers, whether of king or of parliament. The other was, that the law having established the church, it was the duty of everybody to go to it on the Sunday; and that it was the duty of the law to punish them if they did not go. We had many arguments on those topics, but I could not move him one whit. Neither could I alter his opinion as to taking a trout from the Water Eye, or snaring a rabbit in the woods where we were at work. He said they were forbidden by Sir Samuel, that he was a magistrate and had as much power to preserve them as if the general assembly was there present itself. We were often a whole week without seeing any person; and nobody had a charge of fishing or of game there. The landlord lived far distant. So one day being alone, I constructed a few snares of brass wire and set them. In the morning on returning to work I found one hare. At evening I took it with me in a bag in which I carried some of my tools and other things, and going out at the bottom of the wood upon the post road, met the baronet and some game-keeping and game-killing companions with him. It was the first time 1 had seen him, and I had seen him just as I had got the first of his hares. He inquired if I worked in the wood, and for whom, and kept me a half hour or more before him, while he enquired about the work done and about my employer; but he did not suspect what I had in my possession. I was so much alarmed, however, at the singular fact of meeting him there at the time of my first success in taking one of the hares, that I resolved not to run any more risks. I got one shilling and sixpence for it readily from a carrier who passed between Berwick and Edinburgh, which, considering that two or three each week might have been picked up and so disposed of, was tempting. But David Whitehead, with his venerable head, which though not literally white, was near it, spoke so solemnly about the law, and Kirsty intimated how ruinous it might be to them, if it were known that a person connected with them had snared a hare, that I gave up all thought of going farther in the business.

At Branxton we had been prohibited from using snares, except for rabbits at certain times. But we could use guns without let or hindrance. Our master had some first-rate fowling pieces, double and single. And when I lived with him, it was a common thing, for the men who chose, to go out and have a shot when no sportsmen were in the way. In summer evenings, when shooting was out of season, I was often sent by order to shoot rabbits, where the corn fields adjoined the meadows and the woods, to keep them within moderation, they bred so fast. Wood pigeons we also shot many of, to keep them within bounds. Thus I became! a tolerably (t fair shot.

But not only did old David deter me from seeking a rabbit or hare by his exposition of the law, and Kirsty by her more forcible appeal as to what might become of them if it were known,—there was a friend, Alick F whom I met, for the first time about this period, and with whom I soon formed an intimacy of the most agreeable kind, who gave me some new ideas about the killing of birds and beasts. He was no more than a stonemason, working for weekly wages, but he was a reader, and also a thinker. He said there was something excessively mean in snaring a hare, not only as regarded any supposed owner of the hare, but as regarded the hare itself. It was mean to put down a snare and catch it in the dark. It was below the dignity of civilized men. He ridiculed the delight which people took in shooting. I was with him one wintry day on the sea shore. It was a rocky shore; the headlands, of which St. Abb’s is one, rise in majestic- grandeur against the storms of the northern ocean, which ride a thousand miles on waves be high that they come as if they would go over St. Abb’s. We were on the shore of a bay six miles westward, and had a wide view of the grand scenery of the torm. We became philosophic and almost poetic in our conversation. He was quarrying stones in a sheltered nook, and I had taken my gun, because it was a stormy day, to have a shot at the sea-birds, which could be more easily reached in tempestuous weather than at other times. Thus we met. In the midst of our geological speculations as to the time when, and the circumstances under which the stratum of rock was formed which he had wedged asunder, and just as we had admired the magnificence of a wave which seemed in itself to be a sea risen on end to overwhelm the land, I saw a redshank on the wing, which I thought was within shot, and snatched up the gun to shoot it. He stopped me on the instant, and said, “Let it go! What if the hand which has more power over that ocean and these waves than you have over that gun and the shot within it, were to have as little mercy for living things? What, if you and I were redshanks, or that all this nation was as but One redshank, and the author of this storm which permits that redshank to live which you would have killed, should have lifted his arm against u?I admitted that this argument had something in it at first sight; but that we must carry it much farther if it was admitted at all. We must go to the butcher and forbid him to kill a sheep for human food, if a redshank was not to be killed. He said it was the propensity to kill for pleasure that he found fault with, and I was obliged to admit, that it was more from a personal feeling of pleasure which took me to the sea side with the gun than the value of the birds which I might shoot; and farther, that in snaring a rabbit, it was more for the pleasure than the gain. To which he again, insisted, how mean was the treatment of a rabbit or a hare, to set a snare for it.

I did not again go out with a gun while I associated •with him, nor have I had many opportunities to do so since. But in setting down all the truth, it should be said, that his intelligent and agreeable society had quite as much to do with my seeking pleasures of a more intellectual kind than shooting at the sea side as his arguments had. And his personal society had this farther charm, that he was the brother of a certain personage who had for some months occupied the largest space in my thoughts. I had not once been in her society; nor had I attempted to speak to her. I saw her on Sundays, and knew who she was, little more. I had heard the. clergyman speak of her extraordinary ability as one of his pupils. She was about my age ; was, as I thought, lovely; had glanced her eyes once or twice towards the place where I sat at church, no doubt by accident; and 'from those, glances there was created within me a new dream, sometimes a sleeping dream, but oftener a waking dream, which took up its abode in me, and expelled almost every other thought, to make room for itself. At one time it would live and grow upon the sentiments of hope, and would clothe itself in visions beautiful to behold. At others it would live on hopelessness, and would still grow and become exceedingly troublesome. My age, not yet out of nineteen, my position in the working world, only a labourer, forbade me to make any attempt to let her or any one belonging to her know what I then thought. I only hoped that there would come a time when I could with confidence offer my humble self, and pledge my live-long duty and devotion, with myself, in exchange for such a treasure. And there came a time when unlooked for events put me in such a position. I was not altogether repulsed; but I was not accepted. We parted. There was something like sorrow in her at parting; there was sorrow and mortification in me. We have never met since.

But I go too fast. Let me return to my nineteenth year, 1829, to the spring of the year when her image first dwelt within me. It was at this time that I made the acquaintance of her brothers; first, the one alluded to, then a second, third, fourth, and fifth. They were occasionally at work near to where I was employed, and we became intimate. They were all of them men above the average rate of intelligence, and many pleasant hours I had with them, conversing about books, sometimes buying books together, and frequently borrowing and lending them to read.

In the month of April, when we finished the thinning of the coppice wood, arrangements had been made for the building of a new farm house of goodly size, farm steading, with threshing mill and all farming appurtenances complete, on the farm of Harelawside. My employer, David Whitehead, obtained the contract for the timber work; engaged a skilful foreman to conduct the work, and a number of journeymen carpenters. I had the first offer of the sawing; and looked about, and found a former acquaintance, Richard Wilson, who had served his apprenticeship as a carpenter, to join me. We sent .to Edinburgh for new saws and other tools; erected ou* sawpit, got home the logs of Memel and yellow pine from the timber merchants at Eyemouth, and went to work with great animation. David and Kirsty now removed to a more convenient house, and the whole of us, carpenters and sawyers, became lodgers with them. They were all steady young men; and the foreman, Mr. Andrew Notman, was something more ; he had lived long in Edinburgh, had mixed much with mankind, and read much. He was the first to make me so acquainted with Shakspere, as to know that in the great dramatic plays there was more than their adaptability to the stage to make them popular—there was poetry of the highest order in them ; and mpral instruction not inferior to the poetry. Mr. Notman was remarkable for his fine taste, and ability to execute in workmanship what his taste approved. I have lost all trace of him of late years; and nearly so of all the other young men with whom I associated there.

This year was that of Catholic emancipation, and like greater people we had our debates on the question; but we had no regular supply of newspapers, and so lost much of the parliamentary arguments. The clergymen, established and dissenting, in our district, were, however, in favour of the measure, which reconciled many to it who would have been opponents. Mr. Notman did more to make me understand the subject than any one else.

When harvest came we had more timber cut than was soon to be required. My partner in the pit and myself left it accordingly, and went to the Merse harvest. We went first to Langrigg, celebrated in the traditions of shearers for its hemps, or strivings on the harvest field. With most farmers the system is to prevent striving, to have the work well done. With some, but only in the Merse of Berwickshire, the system is to let the shearers go at the work and strive until they fall down, if they choose, so as they get the wheat cut down. Langrigg in those days was such a place. They usually gave a shilling or two a week for the best hands more than the fair market wages. Those who, like my comrade and myself, had strength and youthful agility for anything, looked out for such places—the higher wages being deemed an equivalent to the heavier work. We had 2s. 6d. per day, and victuals at that place, which was Is. per day more than we could have obtained that year in Lothian—wages Bill remaining low. From Langrigg, its shearing being done, we went to Foulden West Mains. When done there, we had ten days more of harvest on the hill farm of Coxwood, in the Lammermoors, making six weeks in all. We then returned to our sawpit, and ended our work there about December.

I tried in several directions to get more timber to saw, but could not succeed. My comrade in the sawpit being a joiner, got work immediately at his trade. But having unfortunately no trade, I had once more to turn to the spade, pick, and shovel, and dig drains.


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