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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
The Manse Girls and their Education


THE manse girls were many. They formed a large family, a numerous flock, a considerable congregation; or, as the minister expressed it in less exaggerated terms, "a heavy handful." One part of their education, as I have already noticed, was conducted by a governess. The said governess was the daughter of a "governor," or commandant of one of the Highland forts—whether Fort-Augustus or Fort-William, I remember not--- where he had for years reigned over a dozen rusty guns, and twice as many soldiers, with all the dignity of a man who was supposed to guard the great Southern land against the outbreaks and incursions of the wild Highland clans, although, in truth, the said Highland clans had been long asleep in the old churchyard "amang the heather," for, as the song hath it,

"No more we'll see such deeds again;
Deserted is the Highland glen,
And mossy cairns are o'er the men
Who fought and died for Charlie."

The "major"—for the commandant had attained that rank in the first American war—left an only daughter who was small and dumpy in stature, had no money, and but one leg. Yet was she most richly provided for otherwise, with every womanly quality, and the power of training girls in "all the branches" then considered most useful for sensible well-to-do women and wives. She was not an outsider in the family, or a mere teaching machine, used and valued like a mill or plough for the work done, but a member of the household, loved and respected for her own sake. She was so dutiful and kind, that the beat of her wooden leg on the wooden stair became musical—a very beating of time with all that was best and happiest in her pupils' hearts. She remained for some years educating the younger girls, until a batch of boys broke the line of feminine succession, and then she retired for a time to teach one or more families in the neighbourhood. But no sooner was the equilibrium of the manse restored by another set of girls, than the little governess returned to her old quarters, and once more stumped through the schoolroom, with her happy face, wise tongue, and cunning hand.

The education of the manse girls was neither learned nor fashionable. They were taught neither French nor German, music nor drawing, while dancing as an art was out of the question, with the wooden leg as the only artist to teach it. The girls, however, were excellent readers, writers, and arithmeticians; they could sew, knit, shape clothes, and patch to perfection, and give all needful directions for the kitchen, the dairy, the garden, or the poultry-yard. I need hardly say that they were their own and their mother's only dressmakers, manifesting wonderful skill and taste in making old things look new, and in so changing the cut and fashion of the purchases made long ago from the packman, that Mary's "everlasting silk," or Jane's merino, seemed capable of endless transformations ; while their bonnets, by judicious turning, trimming, and tasteful use of a little bit of ribbon, looked always fresh and new.

Contrasted with an expensive and fashionable education, theirs will appear to have been poor and vulgar. Yet in the long course of years, I am not sure that the manse girls had not the best of it. For one often wonders what becomes of all this fashionable education in the future life of the young lady. What French or German books does she read as a maid or matron? With whom does she, or can she, converse in these languages? Where is her drawing, beyond the Madonna'r heads and the Swiss landscape which she brought from school, touched up by the master? What music does she love and practise for the sake of its own beauty, and not for the sake of adding to the hum of the drawing-room after dinner? The manse girls could read and speak two languages, at least—Gaelic and English. They could sing, too, their own Highland ditties: wild, but yet as musical as mountain streams and summer winds; sweet and melodious as song of thrush or blackbird in spring, going right to the heart of the listener, and from his heart to his brimming eyes. And so I am ready to back the education of the poor manse against that of many a rich and fashionable mansion, not only as regards the ordinary "branches," but much more as developing the mental powers of the girls. At all events they acquired habits of reflective observation, with a capacity of thoroughly relishing books, enjoying Nature in all her varying scenes and moods, and of expressing their own thoughts and sentiments with such a freshness and force as made them most delightful members of society. A fashionable education, on the other hand, is often a mere tying on to a tree of a number of "branches" without life, instead of being a developing of the tree itself, so that it shall bear its own branches loaded with beautiful flowers and clustering fruit.

But the manse school included more rooms than the little attic where the girls met around that familiar knob of wood which projected from beneath the neat calico of the major's daughter. The cheerful society of the house; the love of kindred,—each heart being as a clear spring that sent forth its stream of affection with equable flow to refresh others; the innumerable requirements of the glebe and farm; the spinning and knitting; the work in the laundry, the kitchen, and the dairy; the glorious out-door exercise over field and moor, in the glens or by the shore; the ministrations of charity, not with its doled-out alms to beggars only, but with its "kind words and looks and tender greetings" to the many cottagers around, — these all were teachers in the Home School. And thus, partly from circumstances, partly, it must be acknowledged, from rare gifts bestowed upon them by God, they all grew up with a purity, a truthfulness, a love and gladness, which made the atmosphere of the manse one of constant sunshine. Each had her own strong individual character, like trees which grow free on the mountain side. They delighted in books, and read them with head and heart, undisturbed by the slang and one-sided judgments of hack critics. And it occasionally happened that some Southern friend, who in his wanderings through the Highlands enjoyed the hospitality of the manse, sent the girls a new volume of pleasant literature as a remembrance of his visit. These gifts were much valued, and read as volumes are seldom read nowadays. Books of good poetry especially were so often conned by them that they became as portions of their own thoughts.

The manse girls did not look upon life as a vain show, aimless and purposeless; upon everything and every person as "a bore;" or upon themselves as an insupportable burden to parents and to brothers,—unless they got husbands! Choice wives they would have made, for both their minds and persons had attractions not a few; and "good offers," as they were called, came to them as to others. Young men had been "daft" about them, and they were too sensible and womanly not to wish for a home they could call their own; yet it never crossed their thoughts that they must marry, just as one must get a pair of shoes. They never imagined that it was possible for any girl of principle and feeling to marry a man whom she did not love, merely because he had a number of sheep and cattle on a Highland farm; or had good prospects as a shopkeeper in Glasgow; or had a parish as a minister, or a property as a "laird." Poor foolish creatures were they not to think so? without one farthing they could call their own; with no prospects from their father, the minister; with no possessions save what he had last purchased for them from the pack-man! What on earth would come of them, or of their mother, if the parson were drowned some stormy night with Rory and the "Roe?" Were they to be cast on the tender mercies of this or that brother who had a home of his own? What? a brother to afford shelter to a sister! Or could they seriously intend to trust God's Providence for the future, if they only did His will for the present? Better far, surely, to accept the first good offer; snatch at the hand of the large sheep-farmer, or that of the rich grocer, or that of the popular preacher; nay, let them take their chance even with James, the tutor, who has been sighing over each of them in turn! But, no; like "fools," they took for granted that it never could come wrong in the end to do what was right and proper at the time, and so they never thought it to be absolutely incumbent on them to "marry for marrying's sake." Neither father nor mother questioned the propriety of their conduct. And thus it came to pass that none of them, save one, who loved most heroically and most truly unto death, ever married. The others became what married ladies and young expectants of that life-climax call—Old Maids. But many a fireside, and many a nephew and niece, with the children of a second generation, blessed God for them as precious gifts.

I feel that no apology is required for quoting the following extract from a letter written by the pastor, more than sixty years ago, when some of the eldest of the manse girls left home for the first time. It will find, I doubt not, a response in the heart of many a pastor in similar circumstances:-

"It was, my dear, my very dear girls, at seven in the morning of Thursday, the 31st August, you took your departure from the old quay—that quay where often I landed in foul and fair weather, at night and by day; my heart always jumping before me, anticipating the happiness of joining the delightful group that formed my fireside,—a group I may never see collected again. How happy the parents, the fewest in number, who can have their families within their reach ! happier still, when, like you, their families are to them a delight and comfort! You left the well-known shores of and your parents returned with heavy steps, the weight of their thoughts making their ascent to the manse much slower and harder to accomplish than ever they found it before. We sat on the hill-side bathed in tears, giving many a kind and longing look to the wherry, which always went further from us, till our dim eyes, wearied of their exertions, could see nothing in its true state; when, behold, cruel Castle Duart interrupted our view, and took out of our sight the boat that carried from us so much of our worldly treasure. Our thousand blessings be with our dear ones, we cried, and returned to the house,—to the manse of —; a house where much comfort and happiness were always to be found; where the friend was friendly treated, and where the stranger found himself at home; where the distressed and the needy met with pity and kindness, and the beggar never went off without being supplied; where the story and the joke often cheered the well-pleased guests, and were often accompanied with the dance and the song, and all with an uncommon degree of elegance, cheerfulness, and good humour. But with me these wonted scenes of merriment are now over. The violin and the song have no charms for me; the dance and the cheerful tale delight no more. But hold, minister! what mean you by these gloomy thoughts? Why disturb for a moment the happiness of the dear things you write to, and for whose happiness you so earnestly pray, by casting a damp upon their gay and merry hours? Cease, foolish, and tempt not Providence to afflict you! What! have you not many comforts to make you happy? Is not the friend of your bosom, the loving dutiful wife, and the loving dutiful mother, alive to bless and to comfort you? Is not your family, though somewhat scattered, all alive? Are they not all good and promising? None of them ever yet caused you to blush; and are not these great blessings? and are they not worthy of your most cheerful and grateful acknowledgments? They are, they are, and I bless God for His goodness. But the thought—I cannot provide for these! Take care, minister, that the anxiety of your affection does not unhinge that confidence with which the Christian ought to repose upon the wise and good providence of God! What though you are to leave your children poor and friendless? Is the arm of the Lord shortened that He cannot help? is His ear heavy that He cannot hear? You yourself have been no more than an instrument in the hand of His goodness ; and is His goodness, pray, bound up in your feeble arm? Do you what you can; leave the rest to God. Let them be good, and fear the Lord, and keep His commandments, and He will provide for them in His own way and in His own time. Why, then, wilt thou be cast down, 0 my soul ; why disquieted within me? Trust thou in the Lord! Under all the changes and the cares and the troubles of this life, may the consolations of religion support our spirits. In the multitude of the thoughts within me, thy comforts, O my God, delight my soul! But no more of this preaching-like harangue, of which, I doubt not, you wish to be relieved. Let me rather reply to your letter, and tell you my news."

It was after this period that he had to mourn the loss of many of his family. And then began for the manse girls the education within the school of sickness and death, whose door is shut against the intrusion of the noisy world, and into which no one can enter, except the Father of all, and "the Friend who sticketh closer than a brother."

The first break in a family is a solemn and affecting era in its history; most of all when that family is "all the world" to its own members. The very thought—so natural to others who have suffered—that this one who has been visited by disease can ever become dangerously ill—can ever die, is by them dismissed as a dreadful night-mare. Then follow "the hopes and fears that kindle hope, an undistinguishable throng;" the watchings which turn night into day, and day into night; the sympathy of sorrow which makes each mourner hide from others the grief that in secret is breaking the heart; the intense realisation, at last, of all that may be—ay, that must be—until the last hours come, and what these are they alone know who have loved and lost. What a mighty change does this first death make in a family, when it is so united, that if one member suffers all suffer! It changes everything. The old haunts by rock or stream can never be as they were; old songs are hushed for years, and, if ever sung again, they are like wails for the dead; every room in the house seems, for a time, tenanted more by the dead than by the living; the books belong to the dead; the seat in church is not empty, but occupied by the dead; plans and purposes, family arrangements and prospects, all seem for a time so purposeless and useless. No one ever calculated on this possibility! The trial which has come verily seems "strange." Yet this is, under God, a holy and blessed education. Lessons are then taught, "though as by fire," which train all the scholars for a higher school. And if that old joyousness and hilarity pass away which belong to a world that seemed as if it could not change—like a very Eden before the fall—it is succeeded by a deeper life; a life of faith and hope which find rest in the unchanging rather than the changing present.

Such was a portion of the education which the pastor and his family received for many succeeding years in the old manse; but its memory was ever accompanied by thanksgiving for the true, genuine Christian life and death of those who had died. I need hardly say that the girls, more than the other members of the family, shared these sorrows and this discipline; for whatever men can do in the storm of ocean or of battle, women are the ministering angels in the room of sickness and of suffering.

Before I turn away from the manse girls, I must say something more of their little governess. She lingered long about the manse, as a valued friend, when her services were no longer needed. But she resolved at last to attempt a school in the low country, and to stamp some uneducated spot with the impress of the wooden knob. Ere doing so, she confided to the minister a story told her by her father, the fort-commandant, about some link or other which bound him to the Argyle family. What that link precisely was, no history records. It may have been that her mother was a Campbell, or that the major had served in a regiment commanded by some member of that noble house, or had picked an Argyle out of the trenches of Ticonderoga. Anyhow, the commandant fancied that his only daughter would find a crutch of support, like many others, in "the Duke," if he only knew the story. Never up to this time was the crutch needed; but needed it was now if shp was to pursue her life-journey in peace. Why not tell the story then to the Duke ? quoth the minister. 'Why not ? thoughtfully ruminated the little governess. And so they both entered the manse study—a wonderful little sanctum of books and MSS., with a stuffed otter and wild-cat, a gun, compass, coil of new rope, the flag of the "Roe," a print of the Duke of Argyle, and of several old divines and reformers, in wigs and ruffs. There the minister wrote out, with great care, a petition to the Duke for one of the very many kind charities, in the form of small annuities, which were dispensed by his Grace. The governess determined to present it in person at Inveraray. But the journey thither was then a very serious matter. To travel nowadays from London to any capital on the Continent is nothing to what that journey was. For it could only be done on horseback, and by crossing stormy ferries, as wide as the Straits of Dover. The journey was at last, however, arranged in this way. There lived in one of the many cottages on the glebe, a man called "old Archy," who had been a servant in the family of the pastor's father-in-law. Archy had long ago accompanied, as guide and servant, the minister's wife, when she had gone to Edinburgh for her education. Having been thus trained to foreign travel, and his fame established as a thoroughly qualified courier, he was at once selected to accompany the governess to Inveraray on horseback. That excellent woman from nervous anxiety, did not go to bed the night previous to her departure; and she had worked for a fortnight to produce a new dress in which to appear worthily before the Duke. She had daily practised, moreover, the proper mode of address, and was miserable from the conviction that all would be ruined by her saying "Sir," instead of "your Grace." The minister tried to laugh her out of her fears, and to cheer her by the assurance that a better-hearted gentleman lived not than the good Duke of Argyle; and that she must just speak to him as she felt. She departed with her black trunk slung behind Archy; and also with extraordinary supplies of cold fowls, mutton, ham, and cheese—not to speak of letters commendatory to every manse on the road. What farewells, and kissings, and waving of handkerchiefs, and drying of eyes, and gathering of servants and of dogs at the manse door as the governess rode off on the white horse, Archy following on the brown! The proper arrangement of the wooden leg had been a great mechanical and aesthetic difficulty, but somehow the girls, with a proper disposal of drapery, had made the whole thing quite comme it faut. Archy too had patched up a saddle of wonderful structure for the occasion.

Time passed, and in a fortnight, to the joy of the household, the white mare was seen coming over the hill, with the brown following; and soon the governess was once more in the arms of her friends, and the trunk in those of Archy. Amidst a buzz of questions, the story was soon told with much flutter and some weeping—how she had met the Duke near the castle; how she had presented her petition, while she could not speak; how his Grace had expressed his great regard for "his minister;" and how next day, when she called by appointment, he had signified his intention of granting the annuity. "It is like himself," was the minister's only remark, while his eyes seemed fuller than usual as he congratulated the little governess on her success; and gave an extra bumper, with many a compliment, to old Archy for the manner in which he had guided the horses and their riders. The little governess taught a school for many years, and enjoyed her annuity till she was near ninety. During her last days, she experienced the personal kindness and tender goodness of the present "Argyle," as she had long before done, of the former "Argyles."


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