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A Scots Boy's World Sixty Years Ago
Chapter XI. Mid-Victorian Memories


In previous chapters I have recalled some early school memories going as far back as 1856. I now set down a few random recollections of a different kind from the years following. On all sides of the pleasant homestead already described we were surrounded by rural amenities. The spacious avenue stretching in front afforded ample space for cricket, rounders and football, which were the staple amusements. Sufficient teams could always be made up from the four households who formed a considerable and companionable band.

One day, whilst we were perspiring over a cricket match, an extra vigorous swipe sent the ball crashing through the study window of No. 2, then occupied by the Rev. Dr. John Macfarlane of Erskine Church and afterwards of London. Fortunately for some of us there were mitigating circumstances. In the first place it was his own son who dealt the fatal blow ; in the second place, the worthy Doctor was happily absent from his desk, and, in the third place, there was an elder sister—Grace by name and by nature— who succeeded in putting the best face on things and so mollifying her irate father.

On another occasion we had rigged up an imposing figure of Guy Fawkes, appropriate garments having been requisitioned from various domestic receptacles and a large turnip "borrowed" from Old Meikle's superabundant harvest, which, scooped out and illuminated, made an effective headpiece. Suddenly an
organised band of "keelies" who had been watching from afar, swooped down and succeeded in carrying off the trophy before we could offer adequate resistance. Hot chase was immediately given, but the raiders were able to get clear away without recapture of the spoil.

Other forms of sport included the slinging of stones and the flying of kites. In the former the elders were something of experts. Whirling the loaded sling round the head very much as David may have done when he slew Goliath, we were able to project our missiles an immense distance with amazing precision. The objective was usually Old Meikle's house, which, however, lay some few yards beyond our range. When the "wee ones" attempted to emulate their seniors, the danger was not inconsiderable. Our home-made kites were often successful high flyers, and there is a tradition that one of them came down quite wet on a fine evening, having soared far into cloud-land!

Now and then on a Saturday educative expeditions would be arranged for us, and some of these were of very real interest. They included visits to the City pottery and glass works, to Gray & Dunn's biscuit factory, to the Cathedral and Necropolis, to the recently laid out West End Park and the new Free Church College Tower, not to speak of Wombwell's Menagerie which periodically squatted on Glasgow Green. Yet, I think we felt raised to an even higher plane of scientific observation when spending the time with an ingenious schoolfellow who already boasted a small laboratory where sundry curious experiments could be indulged in. He had rigged up a working telegraph circuit round his father's back- green and had established effective communication with another learned companion on the other side of the crescent by means of overhead wires which were still something of a novelty in our streets.

Many were the rambles that we enjoyed, and best of all when father was free to accompany us. He would then entice us all the way to Paisley, purchasing apples as a refresher at the Half-way House, telling a "giant" story if we lagged by the way, and finally bringing us home by train. Or it might be to Renfrew, walking all the way, as was then possible, by the river side, with the chance of seeing a launch, and back by steamer from the primitive pier. There was not, of course, a tithe of the shipbuilding that we see to-day. Even Govan was but a rural parish reached by an occasional lumbering 'bus and connected with the village of Partick by a cumbrous horse-ferry.

At other times we would organise long walks on our own account, taking a modest lunch and a few coppers in our pockets. On one such tramp I remember how we added to the geographical knowledge of our native land by "discovering," out Bellahouston way, a new river which we promptly christened with a name ingeniously combining those of the explorers! Detecting traces of blood on the edge of a wood near Hagg's Castle, we quickly concluded, with all the penetration of experts, that a murder had been committed in the neighbourhood, and ever afterwards the spot was passed with due circumspection and a well-feigned shudder. Novel experiences would be gathered from a leisurely saunter by the locks of the Forth and Clyde Canal, working our way overland by devious paths to Bishopbriggs, whence a train would be boarded for the City through the adventurous darkness of Cowlairs tunnel.

In those days burglary was of much more frequent occurrence than it happily is to-day—especially in lonely situations beyond the police bounds. Corresponding precautions had therefore to be taken. Attached to each of our windows was an alarm bell which was supposed to go off at the slightest tampering with the shutter, and these were carefully set every night. As additional security mother was in the habit of carrying up to her own room whatever solid silver had been in use during the day. It so happened, however, that on one particular evening an elderly clergyman was staying with us and had prolonged the conversation to a late hour, with the easy chair on which he sat pushed back against the silver drawer. Loath to disturb him, mother allowed it to remain for once where it was. Next morning we children woke up to find that in spite of all the bells, which were found in position, the dining-room had been successfully entered and all the valuables carried off. The detective's theory was that it had been found possible to bend the flexible shutter from the foot sufficiently to admit of a boy being squeezed through, while footprints about the porch showed that a close watch had been kept lest any movement
should be made from within. A similar burglary occurred at No. 4 shortly afterwards. The articles then stolen were found however in a neighbouring field, but ours, alas! were never heard of. No wonder that these happenings left an eerie feeling among us young people.

There were, however, even sterner realities of life on this planet burned into our youthful imaginations about this period. The country had but recently emerged from the long-drawn anxieties of the Crimean War, and we had joined in the thankful chorus of cheers at the conclusion of peace. But now we found ourselves involved in the ghastly horrors of the Indian Mutiny. The dearly loved uncle, who had taught us the art of kite-making, had recently gone out as a missionary. The brother of another friend" had been murdered by Sepoys, and we knew not what might be on the morrow. Lucknow, Delhi and Cawnpore took the place of Balaclava, Inkerman and Alma in whispered conversation. Sir Colin Campbell, Sir Henry Havelock and Sir John Lawrence displaced Lord Raglan, Sir Charles Napier and Florence Nightingale in our common talk. News travelled slowly; the suspense was awful, and we scarcely dared to look into the abyss. Not for forty years did I venture to read the detailed history of those dark days, till I had opportunity of verifying it all on the spot.

Two other notable events of these years may be referred to. They bulked largely in our imagination at the time. In 1861 came the apparition of the great comet. Night after night the heavens were filled with its trailing glory, and as it waxed and waned our youthful minds were filled with expansive wonder. How our ideas of space and distance were enlarged! What questions were then raised, which have even yet been only partially answered! It proved a veritable gateway of knowledge leading to an untutored interest in astronomy, which was strengthened by an entrancing lecture by Rev. Dr. Hugh Macmillan on that striking apostrophe in the Book of Job: "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades or loose the bands of Orion?" Subsequent eclipses of the sun were carefully studied through smoked glass on the playground, and a Transit of Venus through perforated card from Broomielaw Bridge. Displays of the Aurora Borealis and lunar rainbows were eagerly observed. Yet all such exhibitions paled before the marvellous rain of meteors which occurred on the ever memorable night of 13th November, 1866, when for hours the display of heavenly pyrotechnics was continued, countless hosts of brilliant stars curving over half the firmament before either exploding or melting into space.

The other event was the marriage on 10th March, 1863, of our late King Edward VII. For us it was a holiday of course, but far more. Like our elders we were fairly carried off our feet on the high tide of national enthusiasm. Tennyson's great "Ode of Welcome to Alexandra" stirred us to the depths, and we went about shouting:

Saxon and Dane and Norman are we,
But each of us Danes in our welcome to thee
— Alexandra!

Mother had made for each of us a favour composed of red, white and blue ribbons attached to Prince of Wales' feathers on white metal relief. At dinner each was presented with a silver coin varying in size according to age. Both in the forenoon and after dark we were taken into the city to see the illuminations, which were on an unprecedented scale. Shops, warehouses and public offices vied with each other in originality and effectiveness. Each display delighted us in turn, but most of all the harbour which was resplendent with variegated lamps from every masthead. The crush was terrific, and at no place more so than at the foot of Buchanan Street where there were then a number of most dangerous areas a dozen steps below the level of the pavement.

But had we not ourselves been busy with a great projected demonstration of loyalty? With no little ingenuity we had lashed together our iron "girds," covering these with coloured tissue paper, leaving room for the insertion of a fairy lamp. This was designed and executed in a small room opening out upon the broad porch, from which we intended to exhibit the "great globe itself." Imagine our chagrin when it was discovered that the unwieldy erection could neither be got out at window or door! We had, alas! to content ourselves with the more prosaic but very effective illumination of the house with gas. Nevertheless, it was well that it was in our hearts. In the long interval since then that youthful Prince has come to his own and in turn passed from the scene. The Queen mother is still with us, honoured and loved, while his noble son sits on the historic throne of these realms, rich in the affection of his people. God save King George and Queen Mary!


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