ON THE 4th of January,
1877, I became apprenticed for a term of five years to the firm of Kyle,
Dennison and Frew, Civil Engineers and Land Surveyors in Glasgow. I was
then seventeen years of age but bordering closely on eighteen.
With a view to obtaining
suitable living-quarters I had, previous to this, written to an Ayr
Academy classmate — Tom Hyslop — who had procured a position with a firm
of merchants in Glasgow, and was living alone there in lodgings. I told
him of the position I had at last obtained, and asked him if I might share
his rooms with him. His reply was to the effect that that was just what he
would like me to do. So that settled the question of my living-quarters,
and on my arrival in Glasgow I at once took up my abode with him. The
rooms we shared consisted of a fairly large sitting-room and a bedroom, on
the top floor of a tenement building in Sauchiehall Street, directly
opposite Charing Cross. But of life in lodgings, more anon.
There were two partners in
the firm of Kyle, Dennison and Frew: William Dennison and Alexander Frew.
The staff consisted of four qualified assistants and seven apprentices;
and the book-keeper. The apprentices — particularly the junior ones — were
at the call of the partners or of any of the assistants who had outside
work to do, such as surveying, or levelling. So, being the junior of all,
I spent the early days of my apprenticeship, for the most part, in
manipulating the measuring chain, or the levelling staff. I was not
altogether a novice with the chain, as my father had already taught me to
measure land. Levelling, however, was something new to me; but I readily
picked up the technique.
Surveying was the main work
of the firm, and the surveys we made lay in all parts of the city and the
surrounding country, reaching out to Loch Long, Loch Goil, and the Western
Much of this work was done
for the Clyde Trustees, a body charged with the maintenance and
development of the navigation of the Clyde, and of its docks and harbours.
On one occasion a whole summer was spent making a survey and taking
soundings of the river from the Broomielaw Bridge as far as Dumbarton. So
I came to know Glasgow well, and every dock and shipbuilding-yard on the
During the first half of my
apprenticeship, Glasgow was flourishing, and there was plenty of work for
all of us in the office. The failure of the City of Glasgow Bank, however,
came like a bolt from the blue and completely changed the situation. The
liability of the shareholders was unlimited; and as calls on them were
made by the liquidator, many, even although they might own but a few
shares, were completely ruined; for, as long as they had any means at all,
they had to pay until the creditors' claims were satisfied.
The directors of the bank
were tried in court and found guilty of neglect of duty, and were
sentenced to a term in the penitentiary.
The law relating to the
liability of bank shareholders was afterwards amended so as to limit their
liability. But the damage had been done, and business became stagnant, and
remained so for a considerable time. Under such conditions I found it very
depressing to have to go to the office and put in my time there, with
little or no work to do. So I asked to be allowed — and was given
permission — to attend a class at the University for an hour in the
mornings. I had already been attending — and still continued to attend —
evening classes in Mechanics and Chemistry at the Mechanics Institute.
These classes were conducted by competent instructors, and were considered
to be quite on a par with classes at the University. But I wanted to have
some experience of University life; and to hear Sir William Thomson — who
afterwards became Lord Kelvin — lecture on Natural Philosophy. So it was
to his class that I went.
There were some 200 students in that class, and Sir William had their
names all on separate slips of paper which he kept in a wide-mouthed jar
on his lecture table.
Before commencing a
lecture, he would put his hand in the jar, pull out a slip, call out the
name on it, and question the student on the previous lecture. Whatever the
answer, he would make some notation on the slip and preserve it for
record. Two, or perhaps three students might be thus questioned at each
lecture. The uncertainty as to when my turn would come gave me some
anxious moments at the beginning of each lecture. But my turn never came
at all. Yet I got a certificate to the effect that I had attended that
class with much regularity, from November, 1879, to May, 1880, and had
shown preparation in both oral and written examinations. The slip bearing
my name must have been still in the jar at the end of the session.
Although the knowledge I
gained from these lectures was valuable, the certificate, in itself, was
of no importance. The Universities were not then equipped, as they are
now, to give a practical course in Engineering. The apprenticeship method
of training was considered superior to a University course, by those who
employed engineers. So much so, that a student who had taken a University
course might also have to serve an apprenticeship before he could secure a
Of my various activities
during the time I spent in Glasgow, I may cite three years' service in the
1st Lanark Rifle Volunteers, a body officially designated as a corps, but
habitually spoken of as a regiment. It was composed of two battalions,
each made up of several companies. The Government supplied the rifles; but
we got no pay. On the contrary, we had to pay dues, and provide our own
I joined as a private and
rose to the rank of lance-corporal. One of the duties imposed on me
through holding this high rank, was to collect dues from those in my
I thoroughly enjoyed my
experiences as a volunteer; the drills in the summer evenings; the field
days; and the shooting matches at the rifle ranges on Saturday afternoons.
As my apprenticeship was
nearing an end, I was giving serious thought to the question of my future.
Finally, I made up my mind to try my fortune in Canada. One of the other
apprentices in the office, Tom Mather, who had already finished his
apprenticeship, was of the same mind; so we agreed to go together to
Canada, and made our preparations accordingly.
As I have mentioned, it was
through Uncle Hill that I got my start in my profession. I had kept in
close touch with him, spending now and again a quiet, but pleasant evening
in his home in Dowanhill — a residential district in Glasgow's West End.
So, as soon as I had
decided to go to Canada, I called on him to let him know of my decision. I
was pleased to find him entirely favourable; and after talking over the
matter for some time, he told me to call again before I left Glasgow; and
that in the meantime, he would endeavour to get me letters of introduction
from friends of his who had business interests in Canada.
When I did call again he
gave me two letters of introduction which were to stand me in good stead,
They were to two directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway: Mr. R. B.
Angus and Mr. Duncan McIntyre.
My social life while living
in Glasgow was to some extent just what I chose to make it. I had uncles
and aunts, and cousins, within easy reach of Glasgow, with whom I was
welcome to spend enjoyable week-ends; at Rothesay, Blairmore, Coatbridge,
Linlithgow, and Edinburgh. So, besides having a wide circle of relatives,
I had a wide range of places to visit.
I generally spent my
holidays — two weeks — at home with my father and my brother, Robert.
Occasionally, I might have a week-end with them too; but the distance from
Glasgow was too far to conveniently make such short visits.
In the winter, I indulged
in skating — if there happened to be any ice to skate on. There were
numerous small lochs in the neighbourhood of Glasgow to which the railway
companies ran special trains for skaters, whenever the ice was bearing.
One of these was Gartcosh Loch near Coatbridge, and it was to it that I
most frequently went. I was joined there by my Coatbridge cousins, Turner
Wilson and his sisters, Ellen and Janie, who were generally my skating
partners on these occasions.
Among events of a social
nature, I may mention occasional dinners given by G Company of the 1st
Lanark Rifle Volunteers. These were always enjoyable.
There were other functions
which contributed to the enjoyment of my social life. The partners of the
firm, Mr. Dennison and Mr. Frew (there was no Mr. Kyle) each gave a dinner
in their homes, annually, to all the members of the staff. These dinners
were generally followed by a dance. So they were looked forward to with
My apprenticeship ended on
the 3rd January, 1882. I got an excellent certificate from the firm as to
my capabilities; so we parted in perfect harmony, and with the best of