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Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter XI


It is hardly possible for the toil of a working man to be wasted more vexatiously than in digging deep drains in a marshy soil in winter; the frost thawing so as not to allow the carts to cross the soft ground with stones to £11 the drains ; the sides of them sliding in; the digger of them obliged, at his own expense, to clear them out again before they are filled with stones; obliged to get planks to stand upon, to keep him from sinking in bottomless moss; even with the planks, wet to the knees, from morning until night; the farmer who is to pay him bolding his money unpaid until those drains are completed; they not completed until this farmer conveys stones to them; and they every day filling in afresh with new slips from the sides. Such, however, was my situation as a drainer in January, 1830, in a bog on the farm of Butterdean Mains, lying in the hollow near the hostelry locally known as “Tammy Grant’s" now the Bank House Station of the North British Railway.

And a man working in such a bog so unprofitably to be in love, and not in a condition to tell his love; his greatest hindrance being that be is too poor to venture on presenting himself where his love would lead him!

After such days of disspiriting toil, I used to go once or twice a week, one week I went three times, across a moor to, where she lived with her parents. The distance over the moor was between three and four miles. The distance by public road was about six miles, I approached the house by the side of a wall, where was a large tree overshadowing the stack of turf fuel which belonged to the cottage. There I, time after time, sat down for several hours each time, and looked across the narrow road to the windows. Against one of them I saw the shadow of an arm, which, inside between the window and a candle, was moving to the stitches of a needle. It was the shadow of her arm; and to look at it was the object of my journey across those desolate moors so many times a week. In the cold I lay and watched this shadow, until I should have been frozen, but there was a heat of the soul too strong for frost. Once she came out to the turf stack for fuel for the next morning’s use. It was at bed time; nearly ten o’clock. I could have touched her. The time had come which for months I had longed for. It was a precious moment. But I could not make use of it. I was in a dark corner when she came to lift the fuel, and knew that if I moved or spoke she would be frightened, and would run, perhaps scream. At all events, I was pleased to form a self-excuse from these considerations. But, in verity, I was unable to speak. I knew not what to say. She returned to the house. The door was fastened, the windows darkened, and I returned over the moors ashamed of myself.

But having been so near her on this occasion was only an inducement for me to go again; and to venture to the same place at the turf stack. Hearing the singing of psalms when her father was performing family worship, I stole to the window and listened, and could hear her voice singing. It was low and soft, but what melody to me ! I returned over the moors that night, singing the same psalm tune all the way. And when in bed I dreamt I heard it sung, not while listening at her window, but while lot king into a paradise, the abode of beings as like heavenly beings as I shall ever see in a dream again.

Next morning at breakfast, old Kirsty, my landlady, noticing the manner of my appetite, said, “Weel, ye was away seeing her again last nicht; she must hae gi’en ye a guid answer at last; ye seem to be in cheery speerits this morning. Man, if I were you, I wadna let ony lass that ever step’d i' leather shoon put me tae taking my meat, as ye let that yin do. Wliao is she, for a' the world?”

Kirsty did not know, nor did any person know, though they came pretty near the fact in their guesses. I could not conceal from them that I was in love. The outgoing at night; the disappearance of my good appetite; and my deep melancholy (though this was in part the result of the vexatious work in the sliding drains); all those signs marked me out as one in love.

I continued to go to the window to listen to the low, soft voice; until one night, as I listened, a dog sprung upon me with a worrying ferocity which made me retreat, mindless of the melody of psalms. I kept it off at first with my stick; but, as I retreated, it followed at my heels and bit me. I turned and struck it, upon which voices of men were heard, hounding it on. Again I ran, and again it bit me. Once more I turned upon it; but it was to face several more dogs that were hounded upon me by men whom I could not see. By the free use which I made of my cudgel among them, they were content now with barking. I once more ran up the hill towards the moors; and though the men followed, urging the dogs on, I escaped. When they had hounded them after me to the distance of about half a mile, they called them back, and I was left alone on the moors.

It was a moonless night, and on the moors it was misty, the fog settling so thick on the heather as to hide every mark of sheep track or bush. The alarm and hasty flight from the dogs caused me to go out of the right track, without knowing at what point I erred. After going nearly double the distance, by reckoning which should have taken me home to Kirsty’s house and over several stone walls, I came upon nothing of stone wall kind to tell of my position. Standing awhile to consider, I thought the best way would be to go off at a right angle from the spot where I halted, for I knew two public roads ran parallel at the distance of about three miles. Knowing that I was somewhere between those public roads, I concluded that I must have deviated from the cross line between them, and gone either to the south or to the noith, which could not be determined, the heavens above and the heather below being alike invisible. Thinking to walk straight out, without veering right or left, until I had got over a distance of three miles at least, I reckoned to reach one or other of the roads, either that in the south, near my home, or that in the north, running through the hamlet, where barking dogs had just been biting the heels of hopeless love.

I had not gone far when I came to a road, and knew it to be either the right or the wrong one ; but which of them no sagacity of mine could tell. After a mile’s walk on it, I came to something which I could feel to be a house. On examining it by touch, I ascertained by the porch and the railings at the window, that it was no other than the house from which the dogs had chased me away.

Afraid to linger a moment, I hastened once more to the moors, thinking I could not again mistake the direction. The thought of going six miles round the turnpike road, by the Pease bridge, and up as far as the Old Tower, which I should have to do—the Old Tower in which Scott has located the story of the hapless Lucy Ashton—was such a grievous thought, and I was already *o wearied, that I resolved to continue on the moors at all hazards. Besides, had I turned, there was no way to get to the Pease bridge but by passing the place of the dogs once more.

So resolving to go on and turn not, I went. But all that I could do was not sufficient to keep my organ of locality vigilant. Over and over again I bent down to feel the grass and heather with my hands, to know if I was on the grassy track which winded through the moor, and formed what was called the road. At last I could feel nothing but heather; the track of grass was lost. I was lost too. There was nothing for me now but to recur to the former plan and walk a certain distance in one direction, and again turn off at a right angle if the public road was not found. This was tried, but I was still within the prescribed distance, when I felt myself on a “bobbing moss,” which heaved up and down with me at a frightful rate. I now knew what locality I was in— full two miles from human habitation. The water beneath the thin turf was deep—who can tell how deep? But I knew it to be far more than sufficient to take me over the head if the thin turf covering broke. I also knew by hearsay, that in some places it was broken; that cattle which shepherds had allowed to go out of their sight had strayed upon it, broken the surface with their weight, sunk down, and were lost for ever. That I might avoid plunging in a moment into one of those fissures, I stood still, and moved not to the right nor left, forward nor backward. I would have tried to go backward, but was not absolutely certain if I had not turned when at first I felt the moss begin to heave; wherefore I did not now know which direction was backward.

There was no hope for me but to stand still. There was a thick hoar frost, and the air was excessively cold. After a time, to restore my feet to warmth, I began to .move them. The whole surface yielded, and heaved up, and again deflected, and again heaved. This told me I must not move. At last water began to run over my shoe tops. It gradually rose to my knees. Every moment I expected the turfy skin to crack and let me fall through. Every moment was like an hour. The hours were ages; I thought daylight would never come. It Was like eternity; and that eternity night! Might I not be safer to move a little? I might find a surface harder with less water. I tried, though I was not sure if I moved, my limbs were almost powerless. If I moved, the water followed; for still I stood, knee-deep, with it rather gaining above the knees than otherwise, yet not gaining fast.

At last I saw the fog look whiter on one side. It was the east; and the faint twilight was above the fog. Oh, blessed east; what a light was that to me ! It became more distinct, and at last it was so good a twilight as to show that furze bushes grew within twenty yards of me. Their growing place was dry land I knew, and I spread myself down on hands and knees, though almost over the shoulders in water, to creep to that dry land, thinking that if I came to a fissure, I should be less likely to fall through lengthways than I would if standing upright on foot. I got out in safety; made the best of my way home, ashamed to look old Kirsty in the face.

From digging drains in the marsh, where so much time was lost by the premature closing of them, I went, in connexion with two other men, to a higher district on the same farm of Butterdean Mains. When the work was apparently two-thirds done there, the two men said they had made arrangements to go to Australia as shepherds, and that, if I would allow them to draw half the money for the whole contract, I would have only one-third of the work to do, and would get as much money as they. To this I readily consented, and they went to Australia.

The remainder of the work, however, was nearly all bottoms of deep drains, very hard; and in one part it was to cut over a rising ground, to let the water escape from a marsh into a rivulet below. Here I found whin-stone rock. It had to be bored and blasted with gunpowder, and that at the price per rood of cutting through clay or gravel. I bored, hammered, blasted, hammered again, began early, worked late, but still made little progress. It was an inexpressible trouble—worse almost than hopeless love. I could not get a farthing of payment for the work which was done until this was finished. It was done at last, and in reckoning my time, the whole of that winter’s work in draining averaged about twopence-halfpenny per day. Mr. Logan, the farmer, would not make the smallest allowance for unseen difficulties. He only said that it showed me to be the greater fool, that I permitted the two men to go to Australia before the work was finished.

It was now April, 1830. A new harbour was begun to be built at the Cove Shore, and labourers were wanted there. I went to it and was engaged, first at 9s. a week. The contractor had some men at 10s. and a picked gang of hands known to him at 11s. He heard that I had been working as a sawyer, and perhaps thought me not likely to be a rough and ready labourer for work wet or dry—in the sea or out of it. Moreover, I looked ill in health, and was actually ill. Mind and body had been both overworn, and I did not eat the food in three days which was necessary for one day. But I had not been a fortnight there, when I stepped all at once into the front rank, into favour, and into 11s. a week. The foundation of the quay head was attempted to be laid at the lowest ebbs of the spring tides. The hands could only work about two hours at each of three or four ebb tides, once in fourteen days. Strong boxes were sunk to work in; tbe water being baled out, the sand and silt thrown out, and the rock beneath cut into form for receiving the lower course of stones. Only two shovels throwing out the sand could work at once; those who did work in the box were crack hands, and took it by turns. Several tides had been lost and no stone laid. One day Mr. Wilson, the contractor, was urging the men in the box to exert themselves and get the sand out, that he might not lose all the spring tides. One of them grumbled and muttered about their doing more than they were paid for. I was as ready then, and doubtless am still, to look for adequate payment for work performed as any one. But there are times when one’s sense of right and energies carry them above thoughts of payment. This was such a time with me. I sprung over the side of the box, took the shovel from one of the men who was handling it rather awkwardly, and commanded him, with something like a look of fierceness, to make way for me. He seemed to hesitate; upon which, in the impulse of the moment, I seized him in my arms and tumbled him over the side into the water, three or four feet deep: some of those on shore pulled him out. Seeing this, Arthur Forsyth, one of the masons, who, like the contractor, was impatiently awaiting the clearance of the foundation to get a stone laid, sprung into the box with me from a ledge of rock, and we jointly bundled the other man out. We had both energy and strength, but, what was of as great service, we both knew the art of working expeditiously with tools in a narrow space, without being a hindrance to each other. In a space of time incredibly short, we threw out several tons of sand; got to work with short heavy picks upon the slaty rock below; had the bed of a large stone cut out, and the stone laid in its place—where it lies to this day— before tbe tide bad risen half way up tbe outside of our temporary coffer-dam—the box.

A boat came and took us and the tools on shore. On stepping upon the rock, Mr. Wilson said to me, “Well done, you are the man for me.” He ordered James Hamilton, the time-keeper, to put me on the highest scale of wages. I continued at that department of the works, often immersed to the middle in the sea water, until all the foundations were laid. Within a few days of the first immersion, I was completly recovered from my stomach disorder; and was restored to the most robust and cheerful health. Night time and day time, when the ebb tides served, I worked, chiefly with the fishermen as associates (some of whom had once been lads at school with me, as previously stated); and each day of that toil which some people would have thought to be, or felt to be, killing toil, only added to my strength. The fishermen had been used from babyhood to dabble in the sea, and thought nothing of it.

But with the restoration to health and the increase of strength, that mysterious disorder of the affections which had troubled me so much during the winter did not be-become less. I did not yet take courage and run the hazard of a repulse, by seeking an interview with her, and making a confession. But I did worse. And now, my child, I have something to write of, to which I crave your special regard. It is not my design in these memoirs to overlay them with good advices. If young men could be made to comprehend human life in its practice before they have learned the truth, at the great expense of the most valuable years of their lives, it would be well. This can be effected better by such a circumstance as I am now about to relate, than by any proverb, or abstract maxim of good advice.

I had not the privilege of going into her society. But I had now the daily satisfaction of associating with one or more of her nearest relatives, and with two or three other relatives hearing the same name. To me there was a charm about every one who bore that name. In the society of those most nearly related to her I spent much time. Never once was she spoken of by them to me, and never by me to them. But it happened at times that in talking among themselves they mentioned her name. The sound of it gave me a sensation like some sweet note of new music. With one of them more especially, written of in the last chapter, I associated much; much for the sake of his own intelligent conversation ; but much, also, though perhaps unknown to him, because his eyes, evening and morning, had looked upon his sister—had seen her in the family home, where I had never seen her. Our conversation was often of books, of poetry and philosophy. But the poetry and philosophy had sometimes the flavour of whisky. I abhorred that deceitful enemy so far as its bare self was concerned. But at pay days it was hardly possible for the most abstemious and resolute to escape the expenditure of some money on drink. We had a motley assemblage of masons, quarrymen, and labourers, from nearly all parts of Scotland. But if the strangers were disposed to corrupt the natives, it is just as true that the natives were willing to be corrupted. Drink at each pay day, and occasionally between pay days, was almost unavoidable. But if avoidable, I hardly remember one now who sought to avoid it. The most that my intelligent associate and myself did was to make choice of a few of those who could enjoy intellectual conversation, and retire to some private place, where we sung songs, quoted poetry, delivered home-made verses, and spent more hours of our time than enough. Neither our drinking nor expenditure were excessive, taken by measure; but our hilarity was often loud enough. We began to be remarked and talked of. The interchange of thoughts with one who, in most things, thought so nearly alike with myself, and who was a member of a family circle which seemed to me the central circle of the universe—with a star within it, was a charm not to be cast away, but to be retained for ever; if for ever I could retain it. I would accompany him almost to his home, several miles from mine. I dared not go farther than just within sight of the family cottage; but I did go within sight of it often, for the sake of seeing it. I would suggest to this member of the family, and even to others more distantly related, to go with me and sit down over a bottle of ale, though for myself I loathed the drink, merely that I might perchance hear her spoken of; or, at the least, enjoy the sweet privilege of holding converse with, and making myself agreeable to those who saw her every day, and were her nearest and dearest connections.

But need I tell the result? Instead of improving my position by making myself respected by the more domestic members of the family, I was looked upon as a doubtful acquaintance who led the brothers astray, or as one who, if not leading them astray, was going astray with them.

At hay time this year, 1830, I left the Cove Shore with three other men, and mowed at Thomtonloch, Branxton, and Pathhead. We had no binding engagement with Mr. Wilson, at the shore, but my conscience was hardly at rest for a long while after, for having left him at that critical time, when he required all his best hands, and more than he could obtain. We returned to him when hay mowing was over. The others left him again at harvest, but I remained.

When mowing the hay, we joined with us George Skeldon, who was our precentor at church. I had learned some church music, and we sung together at resting hours. George suggested that I should the next Sunday take his place in the desk, and be precentor for the day. My ambition lay in that direction, though it is questionable if I had the ability, or the necessary confidence. I tried—got on pretty well, until the last psalm; on beginning to sing over the first measure in solo, as is customary there, my voice quivered, hands shook, and eyes became blind. On rising to sing I had caught a glimpse of her sitting in the gallery, and looking intently down upon me. I stopped. One of the elders sitting close at hand took up the tune which I had been attempting, and carried it on, everybody singing as if nothing had happened. But I was mortified beyond my power to tell. To have “stickit” the tune before all the congregation was unhappy, but to have done so before her was agony.

I went home and tumbled into bed without taking , dinner, and never showed my face again until next morning.

If you imagine me carrying heavy stones upon a bar# row, six men to the barrow; driving wedges into the rock by the swinging blows of an enormous hammer; upturning the wedged rock with iron levers, each of which were as much as two men could lift: if you imagine me in my lodgings at the Cove, occupying the same small apartment in the same small house, with James Hamilton, chief quarryman and time keeper; James at night repairing shoes, sometimes his own, sometimes mine, while I read to him from the Casquet of Literary Gems, a delightful publication which I then received in monthly parts: if farther, you imagine us working sometimes in the night, sometimes in the day, as the tides jnight serve, pulling out to sea in boats during the day when not working,—you will see pretty nearly what my life was at the Cove Shore in 1830.

In the winter my friend Alick, already alluded to, heard of the library of a deceased gentleman, Mr. Thomas Burton, to be sold. We bought it jointly; picked out the books we thought the most choice; sold the rest; and then put our own into two equal divisions, and drew cuts for them. We could have agreed to divide them without drawing cuts, had it not been for Don Quixote; both of us wanted the Bon. So we agreed to put him into one of the lots, and chance him; that lot fell to Alick.

Some terrible shipwrecks occur on that rocky coast. In the winter of 1830, while we were at work there, a brig was driven within sixty yards of the shore at Bilsdean Burnfoot, where she was speedily dashed to pieces, with nine men on board. The pointed rocks, .and deep fissures, rendered our efforts to save them doubly hazardous; but we got them all on shore, Arthur Porsyth being conspicuously daring. The byestanders were pleased to pay me a similar compliment. I refer to it now to say, that so far as my knowledge of such services goes, they result so much from an impulse of the feelings, that I was not then aware, until the men were all saved, of being engaged in anything to attract notice.

I must now hasten to other scenes.


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