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A Scots Boy's World Sixty Years Ago
Chapter I. A Manse Bairn of Last Century


It was in the Free Church Manse of a northern county town that I first saw the light of day. "Tak awa Aberdeen and twal' miles roon and whaur are ye?" is a saying that sufficiently indicates its provincial aspect. At the date I allude to men were everywhere quaking for fear. We had not yet emerged from "the hungry forties." Revolution was in the air. From day to day increasingly alarming news of insurrection was arriving from Paris. The doctor who superintended my advent excitedly brought the latest tidings, "Guns in position and ready to fire!" Next month saw the abdication of Louis Philippe and his flight from the soil of France to Newhaven, where, thirty years later, I accidentally found myself in the same room which he had occupied on arrival.

But the air which I then began to breathe was vibrating also with other echoes. Less than five years had passed since the memorable Disruption, when my father had voluntarily refused tempting preferment in the Scottish Establishment in order that he might cast in his lot with "The Church of Scotland Free." I was thus early introduced to an exhilarating spiritual atmosphere, astonishingly free from rancour, yet charged with the clearest conviction of duty in face of parliamentary and ecclesiastical blundering which entailed for us considerable sacrifice of outward comfort.

Our house was small and semi-detached, standing at the end of a quiet street near the Courthouse, where the "Lords" periodically came on circuit, and close to the old inn which had a reputation for catering excellently well for hungry travellers passing through on the mail coach "Defiance." As there were then no railways in these parts, my anxious grand-mother was put to the extravagance of a long journey by post chaise in order to inspect her first grandson. There was a miniature garden attached to the manse, boasting a few apple trees, and bounded by a lane and a neighbour's equally small demesne. This neighbour was a kindly old lady, who was always ready to take the minister's bairn off the mother's hand for an hour, and so it happens that my earliest recollections date from the age of three in her tiny parlour. Even now I can see myself mounted on her horse-hair sofa, belabouring her strangely inert table with a genuine carriage whip which had belonged to her late husband. It was here where I first tasted the joy of prospective manhood, when, discarding the played-out box of bricks, I grasped that gnarled whip-handle, redolent of the harness - room, flexible as a fishing rod, and easily coaxable to a resonant crack.

Besides this, there was another house where I was made equally at home, but I fear I rather scandalised the three quaint maiden sisters who owned it, on the occasion of my first state visit, by peremptorily refusing to drink their "dirty tea" I did not at all relish the idea of swallowing such an unpromising substitute for the pure milk and water to which I was accustomed. Poor ladies! Their quaintness developed unhealthily, and when I revisited them a quarter of a century later my reception was as amusing as it was melancholy. There was, I remember, some preliminary difficulty in gaining admission until they were fully assured of my identity, after which their welcome was positively embarrassing. I had to comport myself as best I could in their conventional and unventilated parlour, while one laughed, another cried, and the third chattered all the time. It is many years now since the last of them passed away, literally half-starved in the midst of plenty, and leaving considerable property with a handsome balance at the bank to be disposed of through a variety of undated wills. During this visit I encountered another curious experience in walking through the old town which I had left for good at the age of three and a half. Everything seemed unfamiliar and strange until I casually entered upon a certain pathway by the burn-side, when, all at once, a thrill as from some previous existence possessed me. On making inquiry, I found that as a child I had often been led to this spot, where a friendly tramp was heard to remark that surely I was "a verra wee traiveller."

Still another family friend was the doctor, a skilful enough physician of the old school, whose kindly care and attention early gave me back to my parents from the gates of death. Surgery, however, was not his strong point, unless our old nurse greatly exaggerated when she used to tell us how he had "held her heid atween his knees for a good quarter o' an oor afore he got her tooth oot." This nurse, let me say, was noted for her quite admirable mother-wit, often expressed in proverbial philosophy, and invariably in a broad but pure dialect. Were we any way untidy, we would be warned that we "werena' a sicht veesible to be seen." Did we complain of the weather we were reminded that we were "nayther sugar nor salt." Did we imagine lions in the way, we were assured that we should "meet wi' naebody waur nor oorselves." Did we show less "boadily ageelity" than she thought desirable we would be told in sarcastic tones that "though the hale hoose was burnin' aboot oor ears we wadna move wan iota oot o' the bit." Did we betray stupidity we were taunted with "Big heid and little wit!" until we got up sides with her by discovering that the next line ran—"was never found on ony yit."

The local banker and lawyer were among the 61ite of our limited society, where all were disposed to be friendly; but in other ranks there were many earnest and godly men, possessed of much force of character. One of these was a worthy shoemaker whose industry, thrift and perseverance ultimately developed an extensive tannery business of much more than local reputation. Another, who worked as a lad in the "'oo mill," became an influential church organiser, accomplishing for New South Wales the same kind of work that the still better known Dr. Robertson did for Western Canada. Others gave sons to the ministry or offered ungrudging help in local efforts for the common good.

Now and then interesting strangers visited our town and manse. Amongst these was the greatly venerated Harrington Evans, of London, attracted, as he mentions in one of his letters, by the preaching of the Free Church minister. One day whilst out driving with my mother and his wife the horse bolted, going down hill. At the foot the carriage was dashed violently against a bridge, when he was thrown out, and received such injuries as resulted in his death within a year. He had begged that the little manse bairn might be one of the party; but this was otherwise ordered. In his memoir are several letters by himself, vividly describing the untoward accident, which was so soon to bring his valuable life to a premature end.

Since these remote days the little market-town has developed into a favourite summer resort. Churches have been remodelled and trim villas have multiplied. The old-fashioned inn has been outbid by an up-to-date hotel, built in a commanding situation, and much in vogue with weekenders. The stage coach has been driven off the road by London expresses, which stop many times a day at its bustling station.

But the natural beauty of the bay is abiding; the sea-girt castle still recalls the endurance of suffering Covenanters; and tiny graveyards round ruined gables, so characteristic of the neighbourhood, still lie exposed to brine and breeze, to sunshine and shower, undisturbed, as in former days, by the gracious chisel of Old Mortality.


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