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The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart
Chapter III - From Birth to the end of Residence at Kelso


William Fairbairn was born in the town of Kelso, in Roxburghshire, on February 19, 1789.

His father, Andrew Fairbairn, was descended, on the male side, from a humble but respectable class of small Lairds, or, as they were called 'Portioners,' who farmed their own land, as was the custom in Scotland in those days.

On the female side the pedigree may have been of a higher character, for Andrew's mother was said by him to have claimed descent from the ancient Border family of Douglas. This lady's maiden name was Anderson; she was a tall, handsome, commanding woman, and lived to a great age.

William writes thus of his father :—

My father was never brought up to any business, and simply learned to read when very young at Smailholme. At the early age of twelve, my father's parents considered it time that he should be doing something for himself. His brother William, then only fifteen, was teaching a school at Holy Island; and my father was accordingly hired out to a neighbour as an assistant on the farm. In this humble situation he learned to be an expert ploughman, and one of the first agricultural operatives in that part of the country. The commencement of my father's career as a practical agriculturist was at the time when the new systems of draining, deep ploughing, and rotation crops were making some noise in the country. It was a new era in the history of agriculture, and one that has produced, and is yet producing, very extraordinary results. With these new processes my father became perfectly familiar, and the knowledge subsequently served him in the development of those resources which exhibited themselves some years afterwards in Rossshire.

He afterwards went to reside near a seaport in England, where, during the American war, he was pressed on board a frigate, from which he was drafted into a ship of the line, and served under Lord Howe at the destruction of the Spanish fleet off Gibraltar. At the close of the war, the fleet was ordered round to Spithead, where he was when the 'Roval George' sank (August 29, 1782), and assisted in saving the survivors. On receiving his discharge he returned to Scotland, and married shortly afterwards.

William's mother was a Miss Henderson, the daughter of a tradesman in Jedburgh, and the direct descendant of an old Bolder family of the name of Oliver, for many years respectable stock-farmers in a pastoral district at the northern foot of the Cheviots.

At four years of age William was sent to a small day school, not so much for the purpose of learning as to keep him out of mischief. As, however, his chief recollections at this time refer to the frequency and severity of the punishments he received, it would not appear that even this object was successfully attained. The first real steps in education he describes as follows :—

From Mr. Ker's seminary I was in due time transferred to the parish school, kept by Mr. White, a man of considerable talent, and a good English scholar. Mr. White had a large school, with an usher, Mr. Phail, a young man of some learning, but irritable in his temper, and with knuckles harder than flint, which he applied with a peculiar jerk to the cranium; he was by nature unfit tor a teacher. His superior, Mr. White, was quite the reverse: with a fine open benevolent countenance, he enjoyed the reputation of being an agreeable companion and a man of great goodness of heart. He was one of those men of whom there are many in Scotland, who love their profession; he was full of enthusiasm, a strict disciplinarian, and took great delight in exhibiting his pupils not only in the various branches of learning, but more particularly in their powers of declaiming selections from our best poets, such as Dryden's Alexander's Feast, the orations of Cicero, Paul before Agrippa, &c. All these used to be favourite exercises, and great preparations were made for the annual examinations, which took place every autumn before the ministers and the influential people of the town.

I learned to read, in Scott and Barrow's collections, pieces selected from some of our best poets and prose writers, amongst whom may be enumerated Addison, Fielding, Swift, De Foe, Hume, Goldsmith, Robertsun, Johnson, &c. If to these be added a course of arithmetic as far as Practice and the Kule of Three, they will constitute the whole of my stock of knowledge up to my tenth year.

He was early fond of athletic exercises. He records that when very young he succeeded, after many fruitless attempts, in climbing a high boulder-stone with polished sides and a conical top; but, falling off, he cut a gash in his forehead, the mark of which remained all his life.

While at school he kept up his skill by running races and so on, and he adds :—

I also learned to improve my climbing propensities by performing with a number of others certain feats of ascent to the top of the mouldering turrets of the old Abbey at Kelso, which, next to Melrose, still remains as one of the finest specimens of the Norman Gothic in Scotland.

With every tower, arch, and cranny I was familiar, and the great feat used to be which of us could reach the bells over the western window in the shortest time, starting altogether by different routes from the kirkyard. At that time the ruins were open to any intruder, and in too many cases they were the receptacle of stray cattle, ' cuddies,' donkeys, and all the filth of that part of the town.

He gives an animated description of the family circumstances in his early youth :—

During the time I was at Mr. White's school, my father lived in Kelso, at the foot of the Woodmarket, in the same house with Mrs. William Curl, the aunt of the late Sir Walter Scott. My father was on terms of intimacy with the Scotts of Sandy Knowe. His father was the gardener there, as well as for another family at Meliston, and, although inferior in station to the family at Sandy Knowe, he was, nevertheless, highly respected by every member of it, and mere particularly by Mrs. Curl and Miss Scott. Both families lived at Smailholme lower, and my father, although a few years older than Sir Walter, was well acquainted with him and, as a boy, used often to carry him when unable to walk from the dislocation of the hip-bone, which made, him a cripple for life. All these circumstances of early association promoted a degree of intimacy with the family which was kept up with Mrs. Curl and Miss Scott till their deaths.

My mother, although exceedingly active, never enjoyed good health. She had a very limited income on which to maintain and bring up her family; and the efforts she was called upon to make in her domestic duties, and her desire to assist in the education and maintenance of five small children, by extraordinary exertions in spinning upon the long and small wheel, exhausted her strength and frequently incapacitated her for the performance of the ordinary duties of the family. I remember that those extraordinary efforts were a constant cause of anxiety to my father, whose strong attachment for his wife caused him to remonstrate on the folly and impropriety of her conduct.

His attempts were, however, fruitless, as absence from home during six days in the week furnished abundant opportunities for keeping the spinning-wheel constantly in motion and increasing the evils of which my father complained. By these exertions it must, however, be borne in mind that the whole of my father's clothes and those of all the children, till I was fourteen years of age, were spun and manufactured by my mother. She bought the wool and the flax, spun it into yarn, reeled it into hanks, and gave it out to the weaver to be manufactured. When the woollen cloth came home it was carefully measured, and sent to the fulling-mill to be dressed and finished; and when the linen web was finished she bleached it herself; and many were the times I was set to watch and water the web. For nearly twenty years, from 1785 to 1804, I believe the whole, or nearly the whole of the woollen clothes, shirting, sheets, and blankets, were spun and manufactured by my mother. In addition to these industrial resources, which always formed a prominent feature in my mother's character, there were her knowledge and skill in the useful arts. She was thoroughly acquainted with dyeing and bleaching! When my father resided in the Highlands of Scotland, she made his coats, waistcoats, and breeches, as well as all the jackets and trousers for her sons. She was also an adept at dress-making, and used not only to make for herself and daughters, but frequently cut out for the neighbours, and she encouraged the same system of economy in other families as she practised in her own.

My father, on the other hand, possessed a strong and muscular frame, an excellent constitution, and could undergo any amount of fatigue. He was a hard worker, a great reader, and a man of unblemished integrity of character. No exertion was too much for him; and the respect in which he was held by all the more wealthy and intelligent classes was a great source of pride and gratification to my mother. To each other they entertained the most tender affection, and excepting only the words which occasionally passed between them on the subject of the long wooden wheel, they were a happy couple. In politics my father was a Liberal, or what was considered in those days a staunch Whig, with a tendency to Jacobinism; but he was never violent, as my mother, who was more Conservative, exercised considerable influence over him, and retained him within the bounds of moderation.

In their religious tenets they were both of the Church of Scotland, from which they never deviated, and from which my mother in particular derived great consolation. She was pious and discreet, much more so than my father, who I always thought was tinged with scepticism.

The writer of the autobiography proceeds with his story, which comprises many interesting incidents :—

I must, however, now return to that part of the narrative where I had been entered at the parish school, and where I had attained some little proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic. As near as I can recollect I was about three years in that establishment, and during that time I remember Mrs. Curbs nephew, Mr. Walter Scott, who was then an advocate at Edinburgh, spending some months of two summers at Kelso. I believe he was then collecting materials (or, as his aunt used to say, ' foolishly spending his time amongst all the auld wives of the country,') for his 'Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.' It was at this time I frequently saw Mr. Scott, who used to hear me read to his aunt, and rewarded me, when I read distinctly, with some little mark of his attention. From the intimacy of those days I cannot recall any indication of those great powers of imagery which afterwards became the delight of every reader in Europe.

During the long winter evenings, when my father was from home, which, as already stated, was five nights out of the seven, Mrs. Curl used to bring down her wheel and join my mother at a camp with the 'pirns,' or my mother went up to her, as best suited their convenience. They were both good spinners, and used to engage in a friendly competition as to the quantities each could turn off in a given time. My mother was generally the winner, as she spun with the double rock and both hands, whilst Mrs. Curl never attempted more than the single 'pirn.' Eighty years ago spinning was common in all the farm-houses of Scotland during the winter months; at Mervinslaw, where my mother was brought up, all the lasses were engaged at the wheel, and, in order to encourage the rivalry and lighten the task, the Border songs were chanted in no unmeasured time, and with a pathos and good feeling that not unfrequently touched the heart. The same rivalry was carried on between the two friends during the winter months of the residence of the family at Kelso.

In the autumn of 1799 the pleasing monotony of this quiet life was materially changed by new prospects which were held out to my father in Rossshire, when he was offered the charge of a farm of 300 acres. The farm was to be the joint property of himself and his brother, Mr. Peter Fairbaim, for many years a resident in that country and secretary to Lord Seaforth, of Castle Brahan. The farm was leased from his lordship, on the express condition that one half of the stock, and one half of the proceeds, should belong to my father. It was situated at Moy on the banks of the river Conan, about five miles from Dingwall, and although possessing a few fertile spots, the greater portion was overgrown with whins and brushwood, and covered with stone and rocks, some of them of great magnitude.

The stocking of the farm was a heavy business, as my uncle had a large family, with a limited income, and a very scanty capital. My father had none; but he was to find skill and industry in the management; and having purchased a good assortment of carts and ploughs, and all the necessary implements, as used in the best farms in the south, our little establishment at Kelso was broken up, very much to the regret of Mrs. Curl and my mother. To effect the transport my father bought an old horse, and having bent some canvas over one of the carts, he left Kelso in October with a delicate wife and a family of five children, the youngest only six weeks old, on a journey of upwards of two hundred miles through a wild country, at a most inclement season of the year. It will not be necessary to recount the difficulties we had to encounter, with a broken down and restive horse, under rain and sleet, at that inclement season, over the Grampians. Suffice it to observe, that my mother was so ill as to be lifted in and out of the cart every night and morning.

At length we arrived at our destination, but unfortunately the house intended for our residence on the farm was not finished, and we had reluctantly to take up our quarters in a temporary hovel very inferior to the comfortable abode we had enjoyed for so many years at Kelso. Early in the spring the house was completed, and my father set vigorously to work on a series of improvements, which, in less than two years, completely changed the face of the farm.

I have already observed that the whole surface of the farm was nearly covered with whins and rocks, and to remove these my father adopted an ingenious method. Having cut down the brushwood and piled it upon the large blocks of whinstone, the fuel was ignited, and, the stones becoming heated to almost a red heat, the ashes were cleared away, and a small stream of water being applied from a bottle, the rapid condensation, or rather contraction, caused a fracture of the rock in any required direction. This to the surrounding and wondering neighbours was an extraordinary performance, which some of them did not hesitate to attribute to an agency much more powerful and dangerous than the little bottle which effected such wonders.

Two years were employed in this way, and the farm began to exhibit, in place of whins and rocks, fine crops of turnips and barley; and from the introduction of a good system of draining, which was practised by deep trenching, several fields were thus reclaimed that had never before felt the coulter of the plough.

The failure of the crops in 1800 and 1801 did great damage, and ruined most of the farmers, and amongst others it bore severely upon the owners of the Moy farm, which had incurred an expensive outlay without yielding any return. That was not, however, the greatest evil that the family had to endure, as my uncle, whose company as well as services had become indispensable to Lord Seaforth—who was deaf and dumb—had engaged to go out with his lordship as secretary on his appointment to the Governorship of Barbadoes in the West Indies. This appointment made a total change in the prospects of both families. My father was urged to continue his improvements on the farm until my eldest cousin became of age, and I was selected, as the eldest of my father's family, to go out to India, through the influence of his lordship, as a cadet.

This arrangement, had it been carried out, would have changed the whole course of William's life; but it was frustrated by unforeseen difficulties, and he remained at the farm with his father.

The effect of the residence at Moy on William's education and prospects is described as follows; and here we get the first indications of that taste for mechanics which moulded his future career :—

The residence of the family at Moy was entirely lost as regards the education of my brother Tom and myself. One of the conditions of the agreement with my uncle was that a tutor should be engaged for both families, and that we should have the benefit of a good education along with my cousins. For some reason or other, which I could never clearly understand, this was never accomplished; and the whole two years spent at Moy proved a serious loss to myself, as well as the other branches of the family. Attempts were made by both my father and mother to rectify the error, but the laborious engagements to which my father was subjected in carrying forward the improvements, and the assiduous duties of my mother in keeping us all right and tight at home, were as much as they could accomplish, and, with the exception of an occasional lesson, and the reading on Sundays, I may with safety affirm, that this time was for the most part unprofitably spent and produced no good or lasting impressions.

It will readily be seen that a boy of eleven years, with all the activity and bustle of youth, if not engaged in some useful pursuit, is likely to do mischief. Fortunately my inclination took a different turn. After the first year's residence at Moy, my younger brother, Peter, then a child of fifteen months old, required a great deal of nursing, and as that duty devolved upon my eldest sister and myself, I managed, in order to relieve myself of the trouble of carrying him on my back, to make a little waggon with four wheels, and by attaching a piece of old rope, used to drag him in all directions, sometimes to a considerable distance from the farm. The construction of the waggon was, however, a formidable undertaking, as I had no tools but a knife, a gimblet, and an old saw. With these implements, a piece of thin board, and a few small nails, I managed to make a respectable waggon, which, though frequently out of repair, was nevertheless much better than could be expected. The greatest difficulty was the wheels, which I surmounted by cutting sections from the stem of a small alder tree, and with a red-hot iron burnt the holes in the centre to receive the axle.

The success which attended this construction led to others of greater importance, which I continued to practise, and which my father encouraged during the whole time we were in the Highlands. In the formation of boats and ships I became an expert artificer, and was at once a ' Jack-of-all-trades,' having to build, rig, and sail my own vessels. From ship-building, I proceeded to construct wind and water-mills, and attained such proficiency that I had sometimes five or six mills in operation at once. They were all made with the knife. The water-spout was composed from the bark of a tree and the mill-stones were represented by round discs of the same material. It is not for me to offer an opinion as to the influence these excercises had on my my future fortunes, I may leave others to form their own judgment.

Shortly after the departure of the uncle for the West Indies, it appears that family differences arose as to the management of the farm, and Andrew, who could not brook what he considered improper interference, relinquished his post at Moy, and engaged himself as steward to Mackenzie of Allangrange, where he removed with his family.

William's prospects of education then brightened, as he was sent to a school at Mullochy, a mile and a half away; he says :—

The Mullochy school was conducted by a Mr. Donald Fraser, a good classic and severe disciplinarian. Under this gentleman's tuition I made great progress in reading, writing, and accounts, but learned neither Latin or Greek, confining my studies, according to my father's orders, to a plain English education. The want of a good grammatical course, and a slight knowledge of the classics, has always been to me a serious loss. I have repeatedly found the want of it, and to the present day I am unable to determine whether I write or speak correctly. Mr. Fraser was a gentleman well qualified to impart this knowledge, but it was not only considered as not essential, but as standing m the way of the more practical and useful branches of study, to which it was necessary I should apply. The classics were therefore at once abandoned for arithmetic, book-keeping, and a smattering of mensuration, which, with the exception of three months with my uncle at Galashiels, constituted the whole extent of education I ever received.

Whilst noticing the Mullochy school, I may mention that it consisted of about forty boys and twenty girls, a considerable number of them coming barefooted, and without bonnets or caps, from a considerable distance. The boys were all dressed in tartan kilts, and the winter always entailed severe trials upon the wearers. What with poor feeding and thin clothing, the greatest sufferings from cold were endured, often at the expense of the health, and sometimes endangering the lives, of the children. I have before observed that Mr. Fraser was a severe disciplinarian, and in order to enforce the system he had adopted for the regulation of the school, he called a muster roll every Thursday at three o'clock, and having ascertained the defaulters in attendance, negligence, &c., for the week, the whole list was cleared off by the usual application of the 'tawse' which never failed to effect a demonstration on that part of the person which may be described as being the most sensitive, and the least liable to injury. I must, however, do Mr. Fraser the justice to say, that my brother and myself (being differently dressed and wearing the Saxon costume) in some degree escaped the severity of this application, from the difficulty and trouble incurred in the unbuttoning and removal of the tight trowse. This did not, however, enable us entirely to escape, and a transfer was occasionally made from those parts to the palm of the hand, which never failed to ensure pain and preserve a glowing heat for a considerable time, afterwards. These were some of the drawbacks upon the system which at that time was pursued throughout Scotland, but in other respects, it must be admitted that Mr. Fraser was an excellent teacher, and made several scholars who afterwards distinguished themselves.

Andrew Fairbaim remained only two years in his steward's place.

My father was never satisfied with the Highlands, as the whole of his time had been spent in laborious improvements, which enriched others, but presented to himself and family no result. Thoroughly disgusted with the people and the country, he accepted an offer made to him by Sir William Ingleby to remove to Yorkshire and take the management of his farm at Ingleby Manor, near Knaresborough. This arrangement made a total change in the condition and prospects of his family, and faring sold off everything in the shape of furniture, our necessaries were packed up, and in three days we embarked at Cromartv.

After a tedious voyage we landed at Leith on the King's birthday, June 4, 1803, and what caused me to recollect the date were the rejoicings which we witnessed at Edinburgh on the evening of the same day. A few days more replaced us at Kelso, where we found on enquiry that Mrs. Curl had left the old house at the foot of the Woodmarket, and we were therefore content to take up our residence in a small cottage in another part of the town. Having settled the family, my father lost no time in preparing for his departure for the scene of his future labours in Yorkshire.

Previously, however, to leaving Kelso, William, his eldest brother at Galashiels, proposed to take me for a few months, in order to improve my arithmetic, and give me a short course of book-keeping and land-surveying. These offers were gladly accepted by my father, and I forthwith started on foot for my new destination. My uncle had been at the head of the parish school for nearly thirty years. He was a good English scholar, an excellent land-surveyor, and a person of considerable attainments as a practical mathematician. Like other members of his family, he was self-taught, and he had exercised the vocation of a schoolmaster from fourteen years of age till the day of his death, which was occasioned by a severe cold caught during his surveys in the autumn of 1809. To my uncle I was indebted for some knowledge in land-surveying, but he was a severe taskmaster. I think too much so, as he exacted from his pupils lessons which to me were exceeding disagreeable, such as verses from the Psalms of David, which he insisted should be committed to memory every Sunday. I laboured incessantly at the 119th Psalm, until I got thoroughly disgusted with the whole book; and such was my antipathy to the task that, to the present day, I never look into it without thinking of the unprofitable labour to which I was at that time subjected. At Galashiels I, however, made some progress, but the time was so short—only three months—that I was only beginning to understand what I was about when I was removed.

William being now a tall lad of fourteen, it was considered desirable he should render some assistance towards the support of his younger brothers and sisters; and, in August 1803, he was taken away from school, and sent back to Kelso. He goes on :—

In a few days, through the influence of some of the neighbours, I got employment at the New Bridge, which was then building under the direction of the late Mr. Rennie, and a more chaste and beautiful structure, with the exception, probably, of the Waterloo and new London Bridges, does not exist. I was only a few days in this employment, to which I took a great dislike, when I met with an accident which nearly crippled me for life. Those who noticed the methods in use at that time for carrying the materials for buildings would observe that the smaller stones were carried on handbarrows by two men, one before and another behind. On this occasion I was the leader, and during the process of carrying the stone, one much beyond my strength, with a coarse, unfeeling fellow behind, I sank under the load, and the stone fell over upon my right leg, making a fearful gash, which effectually barred my claims for the honourable distinction of a mason's clerkship. Nearly three months' confinement was the result of this accident; and a hard struggle we had for it, as the money my father was enabled to send from Yorkshire was a mere trifle. My earnings were only three shillings per week—and to increase the difficulties, my father's money was badly paid, which caused him to throw up his appointment, and return again to Kelso. All these hardships were endured with resignation by my mother. What added to the misery, and increased the troubles under which she laboured, was the loss of my youngest sister, Eliza, a beautiful child of two years of age. This was the heaviest blow my poor mother had yet received. She appeared to sink under her affliction, and I well remember the intensity of her grief when she saw her eldest boy, almost a confirmed cripple, take the place of his father in the position of chief mourner. My sister's funeral, doctor's bills, and the limited remittances received from Yorkshire, entailed a great deal of suffering upon the family, and before the following November, when my father returned, we had expended the last shilling and were almost in a state of destitution. His return was most welcome to my distressed mother, whose health had suffered from the anxieties attendant upon the loss of her child and the exhausted state of the funds upon which she depended for support.


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