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When the Steel Went Through
Ayr Academy


IN 1871 we left Kirkoswald school and went to Ayr Academy, a day school for boys and girls. Pupils from the country were cared for in homes which made a specialty of taking academy pupils as boarders. Some were boarded with the married masters. My brother and I, along with two other boys, boarded with an elderly widow, Mrs. McEwan, and her daughter. The following year she had six of us; and we made a lively household.

Except for the short time we had stayed in Girvan, attending school there, this was our first experience of living in a much larger town; and Father, true to his training principles, had us stay in town for several weeks to get accustomed to our new way of life, before he let us go home for a week-end. Later, our week-ends at home became almost a regular custom; and we not infrequently had one or two of our school friends accompany us and take part in our Saturday sports. These might chance to be a battle with ferrets and dogs against the rats, which were very numerous and a great pest. I remember on one occasion our killing close to a hundred.

At the time we went to the academy, the Rector James Macdonald was just plain James Macdonald. But he shortly afterwards had the degree of LL.D. conferred upon him, and so became Dr. Macdonald. I well remember the commotion in the school the day this became known. He was greeted with deafening cheers in every room in which he made his appearance. Some of the other roasters made speeches of congratulation; these elicited more cheers. It was truly a red-letter day in the life of the school. But notwithstanding his new title, Dr. Macdonald continued to be spoken of by the boys simply as the Rector.

I did not come much in contact with Dr. Macdonald in my early days at the academy, but as I got into the higher classes I came more and more under his influence; and to appreciate increasingly his sterling qualities. It was a pleasure to listen to his expositions; they were so clear.

In November, 1874, my studies were interrupted by a severe attack of typhoid fever which confined me to my room for two months.

About the middle of January, I was considered by the doctor well enough to undertake the journey home. So Father engaged a small, closed-in coach, on the floor of which had been placed several hot bricks wrapped in blankets; and in this he took me home. The day was clear and frosty, but I kept quite warm, and stood the 16 mile drive all right.

I was some two months at home convalescing, before I returned to the academy; and even then I did not feel particularly strong; nor did I have much inclination for study. So in that session 1874-75 which normally would have been my last at the academy, I learned but little. The consequence was, that I had to go back for another year.

I went back to the academy in September for my final session 1875-76. I had a desire to be a civil engineer, so I gave particular attention to mechanical drawing and mathematics; but not to the neglect of my other studies.

Mr. Anderson, who taught writing, drawing, and bookkeeping had an assistant who, before coming to the academy, had been book-keeper in a butcher's shop in Ayr; so the boys promptly nicknamed him "Chops". I do not remember his real name, so I can only speak of him as Chops; and Chops he remained to the end. He

was, however, a capable teacher of book-keeping; and in his beautiful penmanship he set us a fine example to follow.

In Mr. Thomson's department we were well drilled in arithmetic, including a method of calculating certain problems, known as Practice. This method was used in calculating, for example, the value of so many acres, roods, and poles, at so many pounds, shillings and pence per acre. Quite an intricate problem, involving in its solution a series of calculations by vulgar fractions.

The opinion of Practice long held by boys and girls for whom arithmetic had no joyous appeal, is shown in the following rhyme, which a cousin of my father's Miss Betsy Bone learned at school, and recited to me in after years, when I was at the academy.

"Multiplication's my vexation
Division's twice as bad
The Rule of Three; it puzzles me
And Practice makes me mad."

Early in my life at the academy, I formed the habit in summer of bathing in the sea before breakfast. There was quite a group of us who did this; not only boys, but grown men. Our rendezvous was the quay-dike at the mouth of the harbour and we bathed from the side sloping toward the sea, in all kinds of weather. When a strong wind happened to be blowing shoreward, it was quite a joy battling with the waves as they came rolling in.

In the summer evenings we would hire row-boats, and pull our way along the shore, or well out to sea. So, with swimming and boating, the sea claimed much of my leisure time.

In the winter, Castlehill skating pond was the attraction. This was an artificial pond some two miles from Ayr, supplied with water from a nearby brook. We bought membership tickets for this skating pond each year, and so could skate on it as often as we wished, when there happened to be ice. It was the custom of the academy to grant occasional holidays while the ice lasted; and many happy skating days we thus had.

Time sped on, and by July 1876, I had finished my school days. My brother Robert had then been some time in a lawyer's office in Ayr. But his heart was not in this work; farming was his bent. So he chose to stay at home and help Father on the farm. Had he not stayed, probably I should have done so. But I had long had the desire to be a civil engineer, and as Father quite approved, the way was now open to me.

At my father's request, Uncle Hill, who was cashier in the Head Office of the Union Bank in Glasgow, interested himself in my behalf and endeavoured to find an office where I could get a start. Uncle Hill, I may here explain, was a widower whose wife a younger sister of my mother had died before her. So I never knew nor heard of an Aunt Hill, nor of any little cousins of the name of Hill.

Uncle Hill and Father were very good friends, and he not infrequently came to Turnberry and stayed a night or two. It was on the strength of this friendship that my Father had asked him to try and find an opening for me in some civil engineer's office in Glasgow. But conditions in Glasgow at the time seemed very unfavourable for finding such an opening; and I had been about six months at home before he eventually succeeded.

But these six months were not passed in idleness; far from it; Father saw to that. I worked steadily on the farm; handling horses and all kinds of farm implements; and attending to sheep and cattle. I went at my work with a will, proud of being able to do a man's job.

Father also continued to take a hand in my education; for he taught me to measure land. Certain crops, potatoes, for example, were usually sold, as they stood, by the acre. An independent land surveyor made the measurements, but my father always checked these for his own satisfaction. So that is how he came to teach me to measure land and make the calculations as to area from the field measurements. These calculations were generally followed by other calculations, of a brain-straining nature, in Practice; involving acres, roods, and poles with pounds, shillings, and pence.

Near the end of December a most welcome letter was received from Uncle Hill, advising that he knew of a civil engineering firm which had an opening for an apprentice. Father and I took the first train for Glasgow; and after calling on Uncle Hill, we interviewed the members of that firm, and came to a satisfactory arrangement which stipulated that I was to commence my apprenticeship early in the New Year. So I returned home with Father in high spirits, glad that the long uncertainty had at last come to an end.


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