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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter XXVIII


“Alack-a-day! it was the school-house indeed; but, to be sure, sir, the squire has pulled it down, because it stood in the way of his prospects.”—Mackenzie.

The old school of Cromarty was situated in a retired little comer, behind the houses where the parish burying-ground bordered on the woods of the old castle. It was a low, mean-looking building, with its narrow latticed windows, which were half buried in the thatch, opening on the one side to the uncouth monuments of the churchyard, and on the other, through a straggling line of willows which fringed the little stream in front, to the ancient timeworn fortalice perched on the top of the hill. Mean, however, as it seemed—and certainly no public edifice could owe less to the architect—it formed one of Knox’s strongholds of the Reformation, and was erected by the united labours of the parishioners, agreeably to the scheme laid down in the First Book of Discipline, long previous to the Education Act of 1646. It had become an old building ere the Restoration, and fell into such disrepair during the reign of Episcopacy, that for a time it no longer sheltered the scholars. I find it enacted in the summer of 1682, by the Kirk-Session—for, curious as it may seem, even the curates in the north of Scotland had their kirk-sessions and their staffs of elders—that “the hail inhabitants of the burgh, especially masons and such as have horse, do repayre and bigg the samin in the wonted place, and that the folk upland do provide them with feal and diffiot.” And, in the true spirit of the reign of Charles II., a penalty of four pounds Scots enforced the enactment.

The scheme of education drawn up by our first Reformers was stamped by the liberality of men who had learned from experience that tyranny and superstition derive their chief support from ignorance. Almost all the knowledge which books could supply at the time was locked np in the learned languages; and so it was necessary that these languages even the common people should acquire. It was appointed, therefore, “ that young men who purposed to travail in some handicraft for the good of the commonwealth, should first devote ane certaine time to Grammar and the Latin tongue, and ane certaine time to the other tongues and the study of philosophy.” Even long after the enactment, when we had got authors of our own in every department of literature, and a man could have become learned, if knowledge be learning, simply as an English reader, an acquaintance with Latin formed no unimportant part of a common Scotch education. Our fathers pursued the course which circumstances had rendered imperative in the days of their great-grandfathers, merely because their great-grandfathers had pursued it, and because people find it easier to persist in hereditary practices than to think for themselves. And so the few years which were spent in school by the poorer pupils of ordinary capacity, were absurdly frittered away in acquiring a little bad Latin and a very little worse Greek. So strange did the half-learning of our common people (derived in this way) appear to our southern neighbours, that there are writers of the last century who, in describing a Scotch footman or mechanic, rarely omit making his knowledge of the classics an essential part of his character. The barber in Roderick Random quotes Horace in the original; and Foote, in one of his farces, introduces a Scotch valet, who, when some one inquires of him whether he be a Latinist, indignantly exclaims, “Hoot awa, man ! a Scotchman and no understand Latin! ”

The school of Cromarty produced, like most of the other schools of the kingdom, its Latinists who caught fish and made shoes; and it is not much more than thirty years since the race became finally extinct. I have heard stories of an old house-painter of the place, who, having survived most of his school-fellows and contemporaries, used to regret, among his other vanished pleasures, the pleasure he could once derive from an inexhaustible fund of Latin quotation, which the ignorance of a younger generation had rendered of little more value to him than the paper-money of an insolvent bank; and I have already referred to an old cabinetmaker whom I remember, who was in the practice, when his sight began to fail him, of carrying his Latin New Testament with him to church, as it chanced to be printed in a clearer type than any of his English ones. It is said, too, of a learned fisherman of the reign of Queen Anne, that when employed one day among his tackle, he was accosted in Latin by the proprietor of Cromarty, who, accompanied by two gentlemen from England, was sauntering along the shore, and that, to the surprise of the strangers, he replied with no little fluency in the same language.

The old castle rose, I have said, direct in front of the old school, about three hundred yards away; and, tall itself, and elevated by the green hill on which it stood, it formed, with all its timeworn turrets, and all its mouldering bartisans, a formidable spectre of the past. Little thought the proud hereditary sheriffs of the stern old tower, that the humble building at the foot of the hill was a masked battery raised against their authority, which was to burst open their dungeon door and to beat down their gallows. But a very formidable battery it proved. There is a class of nature’s aristocracy that has but to arise from among the people, in order that the people may become influential and free; and the lowly old school did its part in separating from the general mass its due proportion of these, as mercury separates gold from the pulverized rock in which it is contained.  If, in passing along the streets, we see a handsomer domicile than the low tenements around it, we may safely conclude that the builder spent his boyhood in the old school; that if he went out to some of the colonies, he carried with him as his stock in trade a knowledge of figures and the pen, and returned with both that and a few thousands on which to employ it; or if his inclination led him to sea, that he became, through his superior intelligence, the commander of a vessel; if to London, that he rose into wealth as a merchant; or if he remained at home, that he gained a competency as a shopkeeper, general trader, or master mechanic. I am not making too much of my subject when I affirm, that the little thatched hovel at the foot of the Castlehill gave merchants to the Exchange, ministers to the Church, physicians to the Faculty, professors to Colleges, and members to Parliament.

One of the pupils reared within its walls—the son of old Clerk Davidson, a humble subordinate of the hereditary sheriff —became a wealthy London merchant, and, after establishing in the city a respectable firm, which still exists, represented his native county in Parliament. Another of its boys, the late Mr. William Forsyth, to whom I have already had occasion to refer, revived the sinking trade of the town; and, though the son of a man who had once worked .as a mechanic, he took his well-merited place among the aristocracy of the district, not less from the high tone of his character, and the liberality of his views and sentiments, than from the extent of his resources. Yet another of its boys, a Mr. James Ross, entered life as a common sailor, and, after rising by his professional skill to a command in the navy, published a work on the management of nautical affairs, which attracted a good deal of notice at the time among the class to which it was specially addressed. The late Dr. James Robertson, librarian of the University of Edinburgh, and its Professor of the Oriental Tongues, was a native of Cromarty, of humble parentage, and experienced his first stirrings of scholastic ambition in the old school. He was the author of a Hebrew grammar, to which the self-taught linguist, Dr. Alexander Murray, owed, as he tells us in his interesting Autobiography, his first introduction to Hebrew; and we learn from Boswell, in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, that Dr. Johnson, when in Edinburgh, “was much pleased with the College library, and with the conversation of Dr. James Robertson, the librarian.” Provost Hossack of Inverness, whom the author of the “Jacobite Memoirs” terms, in relating his spirited remonstrance with the Duke of Cumberland in behalf of the conquered rebels, “a man of humanity, and the Sir Robert Walpole of Inverness, under the direction of President Forbes,” was also a Cromarty man, the child of seafaring parents, and received the education through which he rose, in its school. And his namesake and contemporary, Dr. Hossack of Greenwich, one of the first physicians of his time, was likewise a native of Cromarty—not of the town, however, but of the landward part of the parish; and owed his first knowledge of letters to the charity of the schoolmaster. There is, unfortunately, not much of the Doctor’s story known; but to the little which survives there attaches a considerable amount of interest.

He had lost both his parents when an infant; all his other nearer kindred were also dead: and so he was dependent in his earlier years for a precarious subsistence on the charity of a few distant relatives, not a great deal richer than himself. Among the rest there was a poor widow, a namesake of his own, who earned a scanty subsistence by her wheel, but who had heart enough to impart a portion of her little to the destitute scholar. The boy was studious and thoughtful, and surpassed in his tasks most of his schoolfellows; and after passing with singular rapidity through the course pursued at school, he succeeded in putting himself to college. The struggle was arduous and protracted; sometimes he wrought as a common labourer, sometimes he taught an adventure school; he deemed no honest employment too mean or too laborious that forwarded his scheme; and thus he at length passed through the University course. His town’s-people then lost sight of him for nearly twenty years. It was understood, meanwhile, that some nameless friend in the south had settled a small annuity on poor old Widow Hossack; and that a Cromarty sailor, who had been attacked by a dangerous illness when at London, had owed his life to the gratuitous attentions of a famous physician of the place, who had recognised him as a town’s-man. No one, however, thought of the poor scholar; and it was not until his carriage drove up one day through the main street of the town, and stopped at the door of his schoolfellow, William Forsyth, that he was identified with “ the great Doctor” who had attended the seaman, and the benefactor of the poor widow. On entering the cottage of the latter, he found her preparing gruel for supper, and was asked, with the anxiety of a gratitude that would fain have rendered him some return, “O Sir! will ye no tak’ brochan?” He is said to have been a truly excellent and benevolent man—the Aber-cromby of a former age; and the ingenious and pious J\Ioses Browne (a clergyman who, to the disgrace of the English Church, was suffered to languish through life in a curacy of fifty pounds per annum) thus addresses him in one of his larger poems, written immediately after the recovery of the author from a long and dangerous illness:—

“The God I trust with timeliest kind relief
Sent the beloved physician to my aid,
Generous, humanest, affable of soul,
Thee, dearest Hossack;—
Oh! long known, long loved,
Long proved; in oft found tenderest watching cares,
The Christian friend, the man of feeling heart;)
And in his skilful, heaven-directed hand,
Put his best pleasing, only fee, my cure.”

Sunday Thoughts, Part iv.

The reputation of the old school necessarily varied with the character and acquirements of its several teachers. About a century ago, it was one of the most celebrated in this part of the kingdom, and was attended by the children of country gentlemen for sixty miles round. The teacher, a Mr. David Macculloch, was a native of the parish; and so highly were his services appreciated by the people, especially by such among them as kept lodgers, that they used to allege he was the means of circulating more money among them than all their shopkeepers and tradesfolk put together. He was a licentiate of the Church, and was lost to the place by receiving an appointment to a semi-Highland parish somewhere in Perthshire; when his fame as a teacher was transferred for half an age to the parish schoolmaster of Fortrose, a Mr. Smith. It was under this man, who is said to have done for the burghers of Cha-nonry and Rosemarkie all that Mr. Macculloch had done for the householders of Cromarty, that Sir James Mackintosh, so well known in after years as a statesman and philosopher, received the rudiments of his education. Next in course the burgh of Nairn became famous for the skill of its parish teacher, a Mr. Strath; and there still survive a few of his pupils to testify to his merits and to express their gratitude. Since his death, however, the fame of educational ability has failed to be associated in any very marked degree with our northern parochial schools—in part a consequence, it is probable, of that change in the tactics of tuition which, by demanding a division of labour in the educational as in other departments, at once lessens the difficulty and increases the efficiency of teaching. It is at least obvious that few succeed well in what is very difficult; and that every improvement in any art must add either to the value of what the art produces, or, what seems to have happened in this case, to the facility of production.

The successor of Mr. Macculloch in the old school—a Mr. Russel—though not equally celebrated as a teacher, was in other respects a more remarkable man About twelve years after his appointment, he relinquished his pedagogical charge for a chapel in Kilmarnock, and there he came in contact and quarrelled with our great national poet, who, bold and unyielding as he was, seems to have regarded the stern pedagogue of the north as no weak or puny antagonist; at least, against none of his other clerical opponents did he open so powerful a battery. We find him figuring in the “Holy Fair,” in the “Ordination,” in the “Kirk’s Alarm,” and in the “Twa Herds,” one of whom was the “wordy Russel.” Some degree of interest must necessarily attach to the memory of a man who seems destined never to be wholly forgotten; and as I have known and often conversed with several of his pupils, and remember even some of his mature contemporaries, I must communicate to the reader 9. few of their more characteristic recollections of the man of whom they were accustomed to speak and think as Russel the “hard schoolmaster.” .

It is now somewhat more than eighty years since John Russel, a native of Moray, and one of the Church’s probationers, was appointed to the parish school of Cromarty. He was a large, robust, dark-complexioned man, imperturbably grave, and with a singularly stem expression stamped on his dusky forehead, that boded the urchins of the place little good. And in a few months he had acquired for himself the character of being by far the most rigid disciplinarian in the country. He was, I believe, a good, conscientious man, but unfortunate in a temper at once violent and harsh, and in sometimes mistaking its dictates for those of .duty. At any rate, whatever the nature of the mistake, never was there a schoolmaster more thoroughly feared and detested by his pupils; and with dread and hatred did many of them continue to regard him long after they had become men and women. His memory was a dark morning cloud resting on their saddened boyhood, that cast its shadows into after life. I have heard of a lady who was so overcome by sudden terror on unexpectedly seeing him, many years after she had quitted school, in one of the pulpits of the south, that she fainted away in the pew ; and of another of his scholars named M‘Glashan—a robust, daring young man of six feet—who, when returning to Cromarty from some of the colonies, solaced himself by the way with thoughts of the hearty drubbing with which he was to clear off all his old scores with the dominie. Ere his return, however, Mr. Russel had quitted the parish; nor, even if it had chanced otherwise, might the young fellow have gained much in an encounter with one of the boldest and most powerful men in the country.

But Polyphemus himself, giant as he was, and a demigod to boot, could not always be cruel with impunity. The schoolmaster had his vulnerable point; he was a believer in ghosts ; at all events he feared them very heartily, whether he believed in them or no; and some of his boys, much as they dreaded him, contrived on one occasion to avenge themselves upon him through his fears. In the long summer evenings he was in the habit of prosecuting his studies to a late hour in the schoolroom ; from which, in returning to his lodgings, he had to pass through the churchyard. And when striding homewards one night, laden with books and papers, so affrighted was he by a horrible apparition, all over white, which started up beside him from beneath one of the tombstones, that, casting his burden to the winds, and starting off like wildfire, he never once looked behind him until he had gained his landlady’s fireside. It is said that he never after prosecuted his evening studies in the school. The late minister of Knockbain, Mr. Roderick M‘Ken-zie, for many years father of the Presbytery of Chanonry, used to tell with much glee that he knew a very great deal about the urchin who, in behalf of the outraged youthhood of the place, wore the white sheet on this interesting occasion. “I was quite as much afraid of ghosts,” he used to say, “as Mr. Russel himself; but three of my companions lay fast ensconced, to keep me in heart and countenance, under a neighbouring gravestone.”

There was among Russel’s pupils a poor boy named Skinner, who, a3 was customary in Scottish schools of the period, blew the horn for gathering the scholars, and kept the catalogue and the key, and who, in return for his services, was educated by the master, and received some little gratuity from the boys besides. To the south of the Grampians he would have been termed the Janitor of the school; whereas in the north, in those days, the name attached to him, in virtue of his office, was the humbler one of “ The Pauper.” Unluckily, on one occasion, the key dropped out of his pocket; and, when school time came, the irascible dominie had to burst open the door with his foot. He raged at the boy with a fury so insane, and beat him with such relentless severity, that in the extremity of the case, the other boys rose up shrieking around him as if they were witnessing the perpetration of a murder; and the tyrant, brought suddenly to himself by so strange an exhibition, flung away the rod and sat down. And such, 'it is said, was the ini' pression made on the mind of poor “ Pauper Skinner,” that though he quitted the school shortly after, and plied the profession of a fisherman until he died an old man, he was never from that day seen disengaged for a moment, without mechanically thrusting his hand into the key-pocket. If excited too, by any unexpected occurrence, whatever its nature, he was sun to grope hastily, in his agitation, for the missing key. One-other anecdote illustrative of Mr. Russel’s temper. He was passing along the main street of the town, in a day of wind and rain from the sea, with his head half-buried in his breast, when he came violently in contact with a thatcher’s ladder, which had been left sloping from the roof of one of the houses. A much less matter would have sufficed to awaken the wrath of Mr. Russel: he laid hold'of the ladder, and, dashing it on the pavement, broke with his powerful foot, ere he quitted it, every one of the “rounds.”

For at least the last six years of his residence in Cromarty he was not a little popular as a preacher. His manner was strong and energetic, and the natural severity of his temper seems to have been more than genius to him when expatiating, which he did often, on the miseries of the wicked in a future state. The reader will scarce fail to remember the picture of the preacher dashed off by Bums in the Holy Fair; or to see that the poet’s arrows, however wickedly shot, came from no bow drawn at venture:—

“Black Russel is nae spairin’;
Hsi piercing words, like Highland swords,
Divide the joints an’marrow
His talk o’ hell, where devils dwell,
Our verra sauls does harrow
Wi’ fright that day.

“A vast unbottom’d, boundless pit,
Fill'd fou o’ lowin’ brunstane,
Whase ragiu’ flame and scorchin’ heat
Wad melt the hardest whunstane.
The half-asleep start up wi’ fear,
And think they hear it roarin’,
When presently it does appear
’Twas but some neebor snorin’
Asleep that day.”

I have seen one of Russel’s sermons in print; it is a controversial one, written in a bold rough style, and by no means inferior as a piece of argument; but he was evidently a person rather to be listened to than read. He was quite a3 stern in Church matters, it is said, as in those of the school; but men are less tractable than boys; and his severity proved more effectual in making his pupils diligent than in reforming the town’s-people. He converted a few rather careless boys into not very inferior scholars; but though he set himself so much against the practice of Sabbath-evening walking, that he used to take his stand every Sunday, after the church had dismissed, full in the middle of the road which leads from the town to the woods and rocks of the Southern Sutor, and sometimes turned back the walkers by the shoulders after he had first shaken them by the breast, the practice of Sabbath-evening walking became even more common than before. Instead of addressing himself to the moral sense of the people, he succeeded in but arousing their combative propensities; and these, once awakened, took part against a good cause, simply because it had been unwisely and unjustifiably defended.

I have an uncle in Cromarty, now an elderly man, who, when residing in Glasgow in the year 1792, walked about ten miles into the country to attend a sacramental occasion, at which he was told Mr. Kussel was to officiate, and which proved to be such a one as Bums has described in his “Holy Fair.” There were excellent sermons to be heard from the tent, and very tempting drink to be had in an ale-house scarcely a hundred yards away; and between the tent and the ale-house were the people divided, according to their tastes and characters. A young man preached in the early part of the day—his discourse was a long one; and, ere it had come to a close, the mirth of the neighbouring topers, which became louder the more deeply they drank, had begun to annoy the congregation. Mr. Russel was standing beside the tent. At every fresh burst of souud he would raise himself on tiptoe, look first, with a portentous expression of countenance, towards the ale-house, and then at the clergyman; who at length, concluding his part of the service, yielded to him his place. He laid aside the book, and, without psalm or prayer, or any of the usual preliminaries, launched at once into a powerful extempore address, directed, over the heads of the people, at the ale-house. I have been assured by my relative that he never before or since heard any thing half so energetic. His ears absolutely tingled, as the preacher thundered out, in a voice almost superhuman, his solemn and terrible denunciations. Every sound of revelry ceased in a moment; and the Bacchanals, half-drunk, as most of them had ere now become, were so thoroughly frightened as to be fain to steal out through a back window, and slink away along bypaths through the fields. Mr. Russel was ultimately appointed one of the ministers of Stirling. A Cromarty man, a soldier in a Highland regiment, when stationed in Stirling Castle, had got involved one day in some street quarrel, and was swearing furiously, when a tall old man in black came and pulled him out of the crowd. “Wretched creature that ye are!” said the old man; “come along with me.” He drew him into a quiet comer, and began to expostulate with him on his profanity, in a style to which the soldier, an intelligent though by no means steady man, and the child of religious parents, could not but listen. Mr. Russel—for it was no other than he—seemed pleased with the attention he paid him; and on learning whence he had come, and the name of his parents, exclaimed with much feeling, “Wae’s me! that your father’s son should be a blackguard soldier on the streets of Stirling! But come awa.” He brought him home with him, and added to the serious advice he had given him an excellent dinner. The temper of the preacher softened a good deal as he became old; and he was much a favourite with the more serious part of his congregation. He was, with all his defects, an honest, pious man; and had he lived in the days of Renwick or Cargill, or, a century earlier, in the days of Knox or Wishart, he might have been a useful one. But he was unlucky in the age in which he lived, in his temper, and in coming in contact with as hardheaded people as himself.

The parish schools of Scotland had their annual satumalian feast, of what may be well deemed an extraordinary character, if we consider their close connexion with the National Church, and that their teachers were in so many instances licensed clergymen waiting for preferment. On Fasten’s-eve, just when all Rome was rejoicing in the license of the Carnival, the schoolmaster, after closing the service of the day with prayer, would call on the boys to divide and choose for themselves “Head-stocks,” i.e., leaders, for the yearly cock-fight of the ensuing Shrove-Tuesday. A sudden rush would immediately take place among the pigmy population of the school to two opposing desks, which, piled up with urchin a-top of urchin half-way to the rafters, would straightway assume the appearance of two treacled staves, covered with black-bottle flies in a shopkeeper’s yard, on a day of midsummer. The grave question of leadership soon settled, in consequence of previous out-of-door arrangement, the master, producing the catalogue, would next proceed to call the boys in alphabetical order; and each boy to intimate, in reply, under what “head-stock” he purposed fighting his cocks, and how many cocks he intended bringing into the pit. The master, meanwhile, went on recording both items in a book —in especial the number of the cocks—as, according to the registered figure, which always exceeded the array actually brought into the fight, he received, as a fixed perquisite of his office, a fee of twopence per head. The school then broke up; and for the two ensuing days, which were given as holidays for the purpose of preparation, the parish used to be darkened by wandering scholars going about from farmhouse to farmhouse in quest of cocks. Most boys brought at least one cock to the pit; and “ head-stocks”—selected usually for the wealth of their parents, and with an eye to the entertainment with which the festival was expected to close—would sometimes bring up as many as ten or twelve. The cock-fight ball, given by the victorious “head-stock” on the eve of his victory, was always regarded as the crowning item in the festival.

On the morning of Shrove Tuesday, the floor of the school, previously cleared of all the forms, and laid out into a chalked circle, representative of the cockpit, became a scene of desperate battle. The master always presided on these occasions as umpire; while his boys clustered in a ring, immediately under his eye, a little beyond the chalked line. The cocks of the lads who ranged under the one “ head-stock” were laid down one after one on the left, those of the other, as a bird dropped exhausted or ran away, upon the right; and thus the fight went on from morning till far in the evening ; when the “head-stock” whose last bird remained in possession of the field, and whose cocks had routed the greatest number in the aggregate, was declared victor, and formally invested with a tinsel cap, in a ceremony termed the “crowning.” The birds, however, were permitted to share in the honour of their masters—and in many schools there was a small silver bell, the property of the institution, attached to the neck of the poor cock who had beaten the largest number of opponents ; but very rarely did he long survive the honour. I remember seeing one gallant bird, who had vanquished six cocks in succession, stand in the middle of the pit, one of his eyes picked out, and his comb and bells all in a clot of blood, and then, in about half a minute after his last antagonist had fled, fall dead upon the floor. It is really wonderful how ingenious boys can be made, in even the more occult mysteries of the cockpit, when their training , has been good. Some hopeful scholars had learned to provide themselves with medicated grains for drugging, as the opportunity offered, the birds of an opponent; and it was no unusual thing for a lad who carried his cock under his arm in the crowd, to find the creature rendered unfit for the combat by the skilful application of the pin of an antagonist, who, having stolen stealthily upon him from behind, succeeded in serving the poor animal as the minions of Mortimer served the hapless Edward II. Gamebirds who, in inconsistency with their previous character, refused to fight, were often found, on examination, to have pins thrust up more than two inches into their bowels. The birds who, without any such apology, preferred running away to fighting, were converted into droits, under the ill-omened name of fugies, and forfeited to the master of the school. And these were rendered by him the subject of yet another licensed amusement of the period. The fugies were fastened to a stake in the playground, and destroyed, one after one, in the noble game of cock-throwing, by such of the pupils or of the town’s-people as could indulge in the amusement at the rate of a halfpenny the throw. The master not only pocketed all the halfpennies, but he also carried home with him all the carcases. It is perhaps not very strange that good men, of naturally severe temper, like Mr. Russel, should have said grace over their cock-a-leekie thus procured, without once suspecting that there was anything wrong in the practice j but that schoolmasters like M‘Culloch, who was a person of humanity, should have done so, serves strikingly to show how blinding and tyrannical must be that influence which custom exercises over even the best of men; and that not only does religion exert a beneficial effect on civilisation, but that civilisation may, in turn, react with humanizing influence on the religious. The very origin of the festival is said to have been ecclesiastical. It was instituted, we find it intimated in the Clavis Calendaria, in allusion to the indignities offered to our Saviour by the Jews before the crucifixion; but how it should have survived the Reformation, and been permitted not only to shelter, like the Gibeonites of old, in the house of the enemy, but have also become an object of the direct patronage of many of our best men of the evangelical school, seems a problem of somewhat difficult solution. It is just possible, however, that the Reformers, who were well enough acquainted with human nature to be aware of the necessity of relaxation, might have seen nothing very barbarous in the practice; seeing that the tone of men’s feelings in such matters depends more on the degree of refinement which has been attained to by the age or country in which they live, than on the severity of their general morals or the purity of their creed. I may add, that the practice of cock-throwing was abolished in the old school of Cromarty by Mr. Russel’s immediate successor—the late Rev. Mr. Macadam of Nigg; but the annual cock-fight survived until put down, a few years ago, by the present incumbent of the parish.

There was one other Cromarty man of the last century who became eminent in his own walk and day, and to whom I must therefore refer ; but I know not that he owed much, if anything, to the old school of the burgh.

In the Scots Magazine for May 1789, there is a report by Captain Philip d’Auvergne, of the Narcissus frigate, on the practical utility of Kenneth M£Culloch’s sea compasses. The captain, after an eighteen months’ trial of their merits, compared with those of all the other kinds in use at the time, describes them as immensely superior, and earnestly recommends to the Admiralty, their general introduction into the navy. In passing, on one occasion, through the race of Alderney in the winter of 1787, there broke out a frightful storm, and so violent was the opposition of the wind and tide, that while his vessel was sailing at the rate of eleven miles on the surface, she was making scarce any headway by the land. The sea rose, tremendously—at once short, high, and irregular; and the motions of the vessel were so fearfully abrupt and violent, that scarce a seaman aboard could stand on deck. At a time so critical, when none of the compasses supplied from his Majesty’s stores would stand, but vacillated more than three points on each side, “it commanded,” says the captain, “the admiration of the whole crew, winning the confidence of even the most timorous —to see how quickly and readily M£Culloch’s steering compass recovered the vacillations communicated to it by the motion of the ship and the shocks of the sea, and how truly in every brief interval of rest the needle pointed to the Pole.” It is further added, that on the Captain’s recommendation these compasses were tried on board the Andromeda, commanded at the time by Prince William Henry, our present king, and so satisfied was the Prince of the utility of the invention, that he too became a strenuous advocate for their general introduction, and testified his regard for the ingenious inventor, by appointing him his com-pass-maker. M‘Culloch, however, did not long survive the honour, dying a few years after, and I have been unable to trace with any degree of certainty the further history of his improved compasses. But though only imperfectly informed regarding his various inventions, and they are said to have been many, and singularly practical, I am tolerably well acquainted with the story of his early life; and as it furnishes a striking illustration of that' instinct of genius, if I may so express myself, which leads the possessor to exactly the place in which his services may be of most value to the community, by rendering him useless and unhappy in every other, I think I cannot do better than communicate it to the reader.

There stood, about forty years ago, on the northern side of the parish of Cromarty, an old farm-house—one of those low, long, dark-looking erections of turf and stone which still survive in the remoter districts of Scotland, as if to show how little man may sometimes improve, in even a civilized country, on the first rude shelter which his necessities owed to his ingenuity. A worn-out barrel, fixed slantwise in the ridge, served as a chimney for the better apartment (the spare room of the domicile), which was also furnished with a glazed window; but in the others the smoke was suffered to escape, and the light to enter, as chance or accident might direct. The eaves, overhung by stonecrop and studded by bunches of the houseleek, drooped ' heavily above the small blind openings and low door; and a row of ancient elms, which rose from out the fence of a neglected garden, spread their gnarled and ponderous arms over the roof. Such was the farmhouse of Woodside, in which Kenneth M‘Culloch, the son of the farmer, was bom some time in the early half of the last century. The family from which he sprang—a race of honest, plodding tacksmen—had held the place from the proprietor of Cromarty for considerably more than a hundred years before, and it was deemed quite a matter of course that Kenneth, the eldest son, should succeed his father in the farm. Never was there a time, in at least this part of the country, in which agriculture stood more in need of the services of original and inventive minds. There was not a wheeled cart in the parish, nor a plough constructed on the modern principle. There was no changing of seed to suit the varieties of soil, no green cropping, no rotatory system of production ; it almost seemed as if the main object of the farmer was to raise the least possible amount of grain at the greatest possible expense of labour. The farm of Wood side was primitive enough in its usages and modes of tillage to have formed a study to the antiquary. Towards autumn, when the fields vary most in colour, it resembled a rudely executed chart of some large island, so irregular were the patches which composed it, and so broken on every side by a surrounding sea of brown sterile moor, that went here and there winding into the interior in long river-like strips, or expanded within into firths and lakes. In one comer there stood a heap of stones, in another a thicket of furze—here a piece of bog—there a broken bank of clay. The implements, too, with which the fields were tilled, were quite as uncouth in their appearance as the fields themselves. There was the single-stilted plough, that did little more than scratch the surface; the wooden-toothed harrow, that did hardly so much; the cumbrous sledge—no inconsiderable load of itself, for carrying home the Qorn in harvest; and the basket-woven conical cart, with its rollers of wood, for bearing out the manure in spring. With these, too, there was the usual misproportion to the extent and produce of the farm, of lean inefficient cattle—four half-starved animals performing, with incredible labour, the work of one. And yet, now that a singularly inventive mind had come into existence on this very farm, and though its attentions had been directed, as far as external influences could direct them, on the various employments of the farmer, the interests of husbandry were to be in no degree improved by the circumstance. Nature, in the midst of her wisdom, seems to cherish a dash of the eccentric. The ingenuity of the farmer’s son was to be employed, not in facilitating the labours of the farmer, but in inventing binnacle lamps, which would yield an undiminished light amid the agitations of a tempest, and in constructing mariners’ compasses on a new principle. There are instances of similar character furnished by the experience of almost every one. In passing, some years since, over a dreary moor in the interior of the country, my curiosity was excited by a miniature mast, furnished, like that of a ship, with shrouds and yards, and bearing a-top a gaudy pinnet, which rose beside a little Highland cottage. And on inquiring regarding it at the door, I was informed that it was the work of the cottager’s son, a lad who, though he had scarcely ever seen the sea, had taken a strange fancy to the life of a sailor, and had left his father only a few weeks before, to serve aboard a man-of-war.

Kenneth’s first employment was the tending of a flock of sheep, the property of his father; and wretchedly did he acquit himself of the charge. The farm was bounded on the eastern side by a deep bosky ravine, through the bottom of which a scanty runnel rather tricklcd than flowed; and when it was discovered on any occasion that Kenneth’s flock had been left to take care of themselves, and of his father’s corn to boot—and such occasions were wofully frequent—Kenneth himself was almost invariably to be found in the ravine. There would he sit for hours among the bushes, engaged with his knife in carving uncouth faces on the heads of walking-sticks, or in constructing little water-mills, or in making Liliputian pumps of the dried stalks of the larger hemlock, and in raising the waters of the runnel to basins dug in the sides of the hollow. Sometimes he quitted his charge altogether, and set out for a meal-mill about a quarter of a mile from the farm, where he would linger for half a day at a time watching the motion of the wheels. His father complained that he could make nothing of him— “The boy,” he said, “seemed to have nearly as much sense as other boys of his years, and yet for any one useful purpose he was nothing better than an idiot.” His mother, as is common with mothers, and who was naturally an easy kind-hearted sort of, woman, had better hopes of him. Kenneth, she affirmed, was only a little peculiar, and would turn out well after all. He was growing up, however, without improving in the slightest, and when he became tall enough for the plough, he made a dead stand. He would go and be a tradesman, he said—a mason, or smith, or house-carpenter—anything his friends chose to make him; but a farmer he would not be. His father, after a fruitless struggle to overcome his obstinacy, carried him with him to a friend in Cromarty, our old acquaintance, Donald Sandison, and after candidly confessing that he was of no manner of use at home, and would, he was afraid, be of little use anywhere, bound him by indenture to the mechanic for four years.

Kenneth’s new master, as I have already had occasion to state, was one of the best workmen in his profession in the north of Scotland. His scrutoires and wardrobes were in repute up to the dose of the last century, and in the ancient art of wainscot-carving he had no equal in the country. He was an intelligent man too, as well as a superior mechanic; but with all his general intelligence, and all his skill, he failed to discover the latent capabilities of his apprentice. Kenneth was dull and absent, and had no heart to his work; and though he seemed to understand the principles on which his master’s various tools were used and the articles of his trade constructed, as well as any workman in the shop, there were none among them who used the tools so awkwardly, or constructed the articles so ill. An old botching carpenter who wrought in a little shop at the other end of the town, was known to the boys of the place by the humorous appellation of “Spull (i e. spoil)-the-wood,” and a lean-sided, ill-conditioned, dangerous boat which he had built, as “the Wilful Murder.” Kenneth came to be regarded as a sort of second “Spull-the-Wood,” as a fashioner of rickety tables, ill-fitted drawers, and chairs that, when sat upon, creaked like badly-tuned organs; and the boys, who were beginning to regard him as fair game, sometimes took the liberty of asking him whether he, too, was not going to build a Wilful Murder? Such, in short, were his deficiencies as a mechanic, that in the third year of his apprenticeship his master advised his father to take him home with him and set him to the plough—an advice, however, on which the farmer, warned by his previous experience, sturdily refused to act.

It was remarked that Kenneth acquired more of his profession in the last year of his apprenticeship than in all the others. His skill as a workman came to rank but little below the average ability of his shopmates; and he seemed to enjoy more, and had become less bashful and awkward. His master on one occasion brought him aboard a vessel in the harbour, to repair some injury which her bulwarks had sustained in a storm; and Kenneth, for the first time in his life, was introduced to the mariner’s compass. The master in after days, when his apprentice had become a great man, used to relate the circumstance with much complacency, and compare him, as he bent over the instrument in wonder and admiration, to a negro of the Kanga tribe worshipping the elephant’s tooth. On the close of his apprenticeship he left this part of the country for London, accompanied by his master’s eldest son, a lad of a rather careless disposition, but, like his father, a first-rate workman.

Kenneth soon began to experience the straits and hardships of the inferior mechanic. His companion found little difficulty in procuring employment, and none at all in retaining it when once procured. Kenneth, on the contrary, was tossed about from shop to shop, and from one establishment to another; and for a full twelvemonth, during the half of which he was wholly unemployed, he did not work for more than a fortnight together with any one master. It would have fared worse with him than it did, had it not been for his companion, Willie Sandison, who generously shared his-earnings with him every time he stood in need of his assistance. In about a year after they had gone to London, however, Willie, an honest and warmhearted but thoughtless lad, was inveigled into a disreputable marriage, and lost in consequence his wonted ability to assist his companion. I have seen one of Kenneth’s letters to his old master, written about this time, in which he bewails Willie’s mishap, and dwells gloomily on his own prospects. How these first began to brighten I am unable to say, for there occurs about this period a wide gap in his story, which all my inquiries regarding him have not enabled me to fill; but in a second letter to his master, now before me, which bears date 1772, just ten years after the other, there are the evidences of a surprising improvement in his circumstances and condition.

He writes in high spirits. Just before sitting down to his desk he had heard from his old friend Willie, who had gone out to one of the colonies, where he was thriving in spite of his wife. He had heard, too, by the same post from his mother, who had been so kind to him during his luckless boyhood ; and the old woman was well. He had, besides, been enabled to remove from his former lodgings to a fine airy house in Duke’s Court, opposite St. Martin’s Church, for which he had engaged, he said, to pay a rent of forty-two pounds per annum, a very considerable sum nearly sixty years ago. Further, he had entered into an advantageous contract with Catherine of Russia, for furnishing all the philosophical instruments of a new college then erecting in Petersburgh—a contract which promised to secure about two years’ profitable employment to himself and seven workmen. In the ten years which intervened between the dates of his two letters, Kenneth M‘Culloch had become one of the most skilful and inventive mechanicians of London. He rose gradually into affluence and celebrity, and for a considerable, period before his death his gains were estimated at about a thousand a year. His story, however, illustrates rather the wisdom of nature than that of Kenneth M‘Culloch. We think all the more highly of Franklin for being so excellent a printer, and of Burns for excelling all his companions in the labours of the fields; nor did the skill or vigour with which they pursued their ordinary employments hinder the one from taking his place among the first philosophers and first statesmen of the age, nor prevent the other from achieving his widespread celebrity as the most original and popular of modern poets. Be it remembered, however, that there is a narrow and limited cast of genius, unlike that of either Burns or Franklin, which, though of incalculable value in its own sphere, is of no use whatever in any other ; and to precipitate it on its proper object by the pressure of external circumstances, and the general inaptitude of its possessor for other pursuits, seems to be part of the wise economy of Providence. Had Kenneth M‘Culloch betaken himself to the plough, like his father and grandfather, he would have been, like them, the tacksman of Woodside, and nothing more; had he found his proper vocation in cabinet-making, he would have made tables and chairs for life, like his ingenious master, Donald Sandison.


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