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John Stuart Blackie
Chapter I. Parentage and Childhood 1809 - 1819


In England the middle classes can rarely boast of connection with a romantic past. Their progenitors may have been worthy, capable, useful in their day and generation, but how seldom have they left traditions stranded on the flats of present provincialism. Whatever their local worth, the grandfathers of a middle-class Englishman inspired no ballad, as warriors on the moorland in the wake of a ruined dynasty—as martyrs in the lowland singing the psalms of the Covenant while Episcopal bullets whizzed about their ears. In Scotland, the blue blood of a squandered loyalty, of a faithfulness unto death, whatever the cause, fills the veins of the middle classes. Their ancestors were Jacobites or Covenanters, and so, even unto this generation, men are to be found inheriting their strong individuality, refusing the dull canals of conventional life, and working their way in self-worn channels, through obstacles as unrelenting as their granite rocks.

Perhaps for lack of "causes" the Scotchmen of to-day are growing tame, but the men born within the first quarter of this century were still endowed with free gesture and plain speech, and through their hearts ran rills of poetry from the springs of ancestral suffering.

From a stock of solid Borderers John Stuart Blackie took his name and something of his nature. He says himself:—

I desire to thank God for the good stock-in-trade, so to speak, which I inherited from my parents for the business of life. My father was a man of great vigour both mental and bodily, made mainly for action and enjoyment, but with a discursive habit of thought, a turn for philosophical speculation, and freedom from all narrow ideas. He had great sagacity and knowledge of the world. My mother died when I was ten years old, and I remember her only as everything that was womanly and motherly. I have no doubt I owe much of what is best in my moral and emotional nature to her.

His great-grandfather was a native of Kelso in Roxburghshire, and cultivated a strip of ground, his own property, which stretched between the Tweed and the high-road on the eastern outskirts of the town. He married the daughter of Mr Stevenson, who lived at Galalaw, an extensive farm tenanted by himself and his forebears for a century and a half Three sons and three daughters grew up in the Tweedside home, and found callings and husbands within Kelso and its neighbourhood. The eldest took to business, and became 'a wine-merchant in the town. A much- respected family of Stuarts was resident in Kelso. Father and son were doctors, and were descended from a line of doctors. An old lady of the family used to say that thirty-two Stuarts of her race were doctors. A current of Highland blood ran in their veins, they could relate exploits of Jacobite forefathers, and they held their heads high. The Dr Stuart of something more than a century ago was assisted by his son Archibald, and had a daughter called Alison. Some kinship existed between them and the Blackies, and the wine- merchant fell in love with his cousin. Old Dr Stuart forbade the marriage, but the lovers braved his ire and made a runaway match. Their married life was shadowed by straitened circumstances, and by estrangement from disapproving relatives; but Mr Blackie died, and as Dr Archibald Stuart had succeeded to his father, also dead, he offered a home to his widowed sister and her two children. The widow soon died, but Dr Stuart brought up the little Alexander and his sister with his own children.

Alexander was clever, and took kindly to Latin at the Kelso Grammar-School, whose boys played under the shadow of King David's stately abbey. He was possessed of fitful energy, and took interest in many matters, in antiquities and gardening as well as in his lessons. His cousin John, the doctor's son, was his companion and playmate; but although gifted with a vein of caustic humour, and of sterling rectitude and ability, he was sober- sided compared to the mercurial Sandy.

When school-days were at an end, Dr Stuart found an opening for his nephew in a Glasgow house of business, and he was despatched thither to learn the mysteries of manufacture, although tradition tells not in what kind. But his temperament recoiled from the unrelieved drudgery, and he accepted a situation in the Commercial Bank, where shorter toil left him leisure for other pursuits, and where he acquitted himself so well that he was made an agent before he was twenty years old. Stern Presbyterianism prevailed both in the Stuart household and in that of his Blackie cousins, who were useful Kelsonians and growing in consideration amongst their fellows. But the wilful Sandy had moulted some feathers of that sober plumage, and vexed his cousins with bold questioning of the minor observances and with untoward whistling on the Sabbath day. These signs of licence ruffled somewhat the peace of his holiday visits to the Blackies, but they were ready to grant that he was a pleasant fellow and did them otherwise no discredit.

Having reached a modest position, it is not wonderful to find that he promptly took to himself a wife. The lady was Miss Helen Stodart, and she was twenty-two years old when Mr Blackie married her in 1805. She was the eldest of three sisters, and the daughter of Mr William Stodart, an architect at Hamilton, who designed two of the bridges over the Clyde, one at Glasgow and one near Hamilton. This Mr Stodart was descended from a branch of the Border family of Stoutheart, which had settled in Lanarkshire early in the seventeenth century. Its kinship with the Selkirkshire branch is evidenced by the singular likeness between the descendants of both branches—a likeness maintained in mental and moral characteristics, as well as in stature, complexion, and other physical features, to this day.

A succession of Stodarts, christened James, occupied the Lanarkshire property of Loanhead for nearly a century. The James of 1740 or thereabouts sold Loanhead and settled at Walston in the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire. The eldest of his seven sons rivalled his kinsman, "the Beetle of Yarrow," in size and strength, and was known as "King of Covington," where stood his farm. It was at Covington that Burns supped and slept on his memorable journey to Edinburgh, and on the following morning he breakfasted with James Stodart, another of the seven brothers, proceeding to Carnwath, where he lunched with John Stodart, the banker there. William was the second of these brothers. He was born in 1740, and in 1782 married Christian Naismith, whose forefathers deserve a word of chronicle.

Two staunch Covenanters head the roll, James and John Naismith. The former was minister first of Dalmellington, and then of Hamilton, from 1641 to 1662. He was a man of note, trusted by the Scots Parliament for various duties, and, says Wodrow, "he was reckoned a very good man and a good preacher." He proved himself of sterling gold in the furnace of persecution, for he was thrown into prison in 1660, the year of the Restoration, one of the first to suffer for the Covenant. Persecuted for a time, he was at length driven from his charge; but so far as we know, both he and his brother John, in spite of twenty-eight troubled years, lived to a good old age. John too suffered imprisonment, although not until the reign of James II., and both were harassed by repeated fines. A daughter of the Reverend James Naismith married her cousin, who was John Naismith's son, and this couple, John and Janet Naismith, lived at Allanton, and brought up in godly fashion, and in the memory of grandparents of such honourable record, a son, John Naismith, afterwards of Drumloch. He married in 1731, and his family consisted of a son and three daughters, of whom the youngest was the Christian Naismith of our story. Mr William Stodart died a few years after his marriage, and his wife survived him for only a short time. When she died, their little girls, Helen, Marion, and Margaret, were adopted by relatives on both sides. The uncle Naismith took Helen, an aunt married to Mr Hamilton of Airbiess gave Marion a home, and Mr Stodart welcomed the little Margaret to Walston. The Drumloch house was hospitable, and there the sisters often met. Helen, the eldest, grew up in the congenial atmosphere, a tall and graceful girl, dark-haired and dark-eyed, her face beaming with kindly smiles, a great reader and a cheerful talker. An old servant described her as "a pairfit sant." But although of orderly habits, she was not fond of dress, and rather eschewed society, which interfered with her reading and distracted her thoughts. Her uncle was a man of ability, loving Greek, Latin, and French, and having some taste for research. He was able to help Sir John Sinclair in 'The Statistical Account of Scotland,' and wrote several books himself. We are told that, like his forefathers, he was a man of goodly presence.

From time to time Helen went to Airbless to visit her aunt and sister, and there, amongst the occasional guests, she met Alexander Blackie. He contrived to make himself agreeable to the gentle Helen, and an attachment grew up between them. The young banker was handsome, well-built, self-confident, and so far successful. The touches of dogmatism which mark the manner of youth offend only the old, and if to these he added some flashes of quick temper, the uncles and aunts alone took warning. So in 1805 the young people were married, and took up house in Charlotte Street, in Glasgow. Here in 1807 their eldest daughter, Christina, was born, and on July 28, 1809, their eldest son, John Stuart Blackie. Friends gathered to his christening, and amongst them was the cousin from Kelso, now a young doctor, assisting his father, and in due time to succeed him—and after him the baby was christened John Stuart. Some homage, too, was doubtless paid to the memory of a line of Naismiths, from John the Covenanter to John the scholarly Laird of Drumloch.

Soon after the christening, Mr Blackie was appointed manager of the Commercial Bank at Aberdeen, and thither they removed and settled in Marischal Street about the close of 1809. As John grew from infancy to childhood the banker's nursery filled, but only five of his first family reached maturity.

From his earliest years John developed from within outwards, accepting no guidance of a coercive character, and flatly declining to be taught the alphabet until he affected letters. His father made many futile attempts, but he refused to be wiled from the attic, where he and his sisters revelled in improvised sports, sometimes theatrical, often oratorical. He filled the house with noise, a kindly, merry child, much liked by his nurses, whom he harangued from the top of a chest of drawers. His father was fond of Shakespeare, and John picked up scraps by ear, and declaimed them in the nursery with abundant gesture. But the psalms and hymns carefully administered on Sundays found less response, until the metrical version of the nineteenth psalm pleased his ear, and he learnt it by heart. This seems to have been the only mental feat which he performed in his childhood. But already his character showed its bent, and his mother wrote when he was about eight years old—

John is all consideration. He is possessed of a good deal of the milk of human kindness. He is rapid in all his movements and methodical to a fault. Nothing that can be done to-day is put off till to-morrow. He is now happy in the present, anything new rather vexes than delights him. His character will depend much on the society he forms in after-life.

And she adds, her perspicuity something clouded by her failures on Sundays,—

If it is good, I expect to see him a fine young man, pushing, and fond of money, but not with much religion about him.

At this time he did not know his alphabet, and a lady experienced in teaching was asked to beguile him through this displeasing portal into the halls of learning. She thought to teach him with a box of ivory letters, and arranged them as toys full of promise; but John flung them out of the window, and declined to be fooled into lessons.

In the same year, however, a new school was opened in Aberdeen. Professional society had grown to be dissatisfied with the grammar-school, and took some trouble to establish an academy, at which the mind might be cultivated and the manners not neglected. Mr Blackie was one of the gentlemen interested. They rented a hall in the Netherkirkgate, and fitted it up with all school requirements. An excellent master was secured in Mr Peter Merson, a classical student then mounting the slow rungs of Church preferment, and a Mr Bransby was engaged as usher.

John was sent to this school, and came first under Mr Bransby's care. The discovery that his schoolmates could read and write was sufficient shock, and he was soon diligent enough. Mr Bransby died a few months later, and John was transferred to Mr Merson's class. Here he was expected to begin Latin, and refused to do so. Mr Merson understood the boy, and left him to take to it spontaneously, from which point he made rapid progress in his school-work. Some twelve or fourteen boys were in his class, and in the viva voce examinations with which the master began each morning's work, young Blackie soon distinguished himself. His memory was strong from the beginning, and he gained smartness by doing his lessons aloud, in his own fashion, learning Latin by the ear as well as by the mind. "Merson's scholars" were a trial to the neighbourhood, as the Academy had no play- ground; but although John could run and shout with the best of them, he seems to have avoided all rougher pranks. Once he was challenged to fight by Alick Dunbar, but he declined on the ground that human beings were not intended to collar each other like dogs, adding, "Although I won't fight with you, I'll knock you down," and this he did to the admiration of his schoolfellows, who counted his courage duly proven. A first acquaintance with the heroes of tradition and of history impressed him greatly. At nine years of age he accepted the postulate of the future apostle of strength, and went about the house shouting, "Father, for the nine hundred and ninety-ninth time, I tell you there is nothing like uncommon strength."

Mr Blackie, elated by his rapid progress, wished him to learn music and dancing about the time that Latin had lost its terrors. A teacher of music was instructed to give John lessons in the violin, but the little scholar's arms and hands were not adaptable, and he protested so vigorously against his lessons that they came to an untimely end. Nor did dancing suit the free play of his feet and legs, and when the weekly lesson was due, John was wont to hide himself and so escape its tortures. On one occasion Mr Blackie dragged him out of a cupboard, and marched him off to the dancing-school, holding a cane in reserve for the first sign of mutiny; but this took time and trouble, and the father had to give in, and to content himself with the fact that John was generally dux at the Academy. Mr Blackie was particular about dress, and John was not. A smart suit of silver-grey cloth with rows of shining buttons was chosen for him, but caused a tempest of despair in the boy, who refused to brave the jeers of his class in such unacademical splendour, and the fine clothes had to be kept for James. So he grew as much as possible iii the free exercise of his own will; and in spite of his repugnance to his father's dilettante tastes, his truthfulness, kindliness, industry, and sunny humour made him the favourite at home.

He was no reader at this time. He learned his lessons thoroughly, singing them through the house, and already marching up and down with that coincidence of mental and bodily activity which never left him; but when he knew them, the hours to spare were filled with original sports. The attic, where he and the little ones were at liberty, was decorated with play-bills,—his fancy elaborated their suggestions, and he wove in what scraps of Shakespeare and psalmody he knew, devising strange plays, which he and his sister performed to an audience of nurses and children. Christina was John's most capable playmate. Opposite the house stood a theatre, and every evening these two watched the people going in, with wistful eyes, wondering if it would ever occur to their father to take them to the play, but not venturing to expose their longing to his banter. He never did take them, but sent them to the circus sometimes, and the feats of riders and clowns led to hazardous imitations at home.

Mrs Blackie's cousin had married Mr James Wyld, afterwards of Gilston, and then residing at Bonnington Bank, near Edinburgh. In 1819, John, just ten years old, was invited to spend the August holidays with his cousin Robert Wyld, a year older than himself Robert was in low spirits at the prospect of going to the High School after the holidays. He hated Latin, and, alas! Latin and Greek, with a little arithmetic and small doses of the weights and measures, made up the too solid educational diet of that famous place. Mr Wyld tried to rouse his boy's emulation by praising John Blackie's ardour for Latin, but Robert refused to believe in it, till one day, hearing strange sounds which came through the open library window into the garden, he peered in to find his cousin, a thin little lad with sharp features, shouting out at the top of his voice, with the broad sonorous vowel-sounds taught in Scotland, the rules of syntax from the Latin columns in Ruddirnan's 'Rudiments.' To be so employed on a holiday visit argued a power of principle which impressed the dejected Robert for his good.

This year, 1819, ended in sorrow for the home in Aberdeen. The gentle mother died, and a shadow fell on the house, which it took years to remove.


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