Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston Chapter III
"Some are born with a
wooden spoon in their mouths, and some with a golden
THE night on which my
father related his four year-old experience to my particular friends
in the Nungate, the flames of Moscow were proclaiming to a silly
world the folly of war. Something must be said of my beloved parent
during the sixty-nine years that intervened between the battle of
Prestonpans and the terrible destruction of the Russian sacred
capital. The theme is intoxicating, and in order to be brief I must
curb my pen. Seven years of his valuable life were spent in
acquiring a knowledge of a business (that of baker), which as many
months would have sufficed to impart. In manufacturing the staff of
life, the nearer he comes to the auld wife, the better the baker.
Getting into business in his native town, he married Isabella Hay,
by whom he had two sons and two daughters. Looking on the profession
of arms as a species of insanity, he was painfully mortified by his
oldest son John's enlisting in the Royal Artillery, and after a year
of soldiers' life in garrison at Woolwich becoming so enamoured of
the calling, that he resolved to induce his brother Alexander to
follow his example. He had no difficulty in obtaining a furlough for
that purpose, for the brothers were valuable recruits, John six feet
one inch and a half, Aleck six feet one-half inch, proportionately
made, and twelve feet two inches of good stuff to be shot at for the
honor of the king was not to be overlooked at the rate of twice
thirteen pence a day.
"War is a game which, were their
Kings would seldom play at."
But to return to my father. Being well
respected he prospered in business, and in the course of a few years
realized the wherewithal to btiild three stone houses on a piece of
land which was, before the houses were finished, found to have been
sold on a false title. Litigation ensued, and was carried on to the
total ruin of his position in Tranent. In the true Johnstonian
spirit he could not brook the atmosphere of his failure, and
penniless he came to Haddington to begin the world anew. Not being
privileged to the royal burgh, he commenced in business just outside
the red tape boundaries, in the Nungate, making himself thirle to
the town mills for his weekly grist, and paying custom for every
basket of bread he sent into the town. Thanks to the spirit of
progression, those imposts are now matters of history.
The love of country is so strong within
me that I feel tempted to venture a verse in praise of my beloved
patience, freens, while yet I sing
O' Lothian's bonny Eastern wing
An' o' its toons the chief-
Whene'er the thocht comes in ma' pow
It sets my auld heart in a lowe
The name o' 't brings relief!
Sin' that day first I ga'ed my lane
Or lap frae aff the custom stane.
Has ne'er yet met my ee,
'Mang a' the busy haunts o' men,
A bonnier toon than Haddington
On either side the sea!
'Twas here where first I drew my breath
And closed my parents' een in death,
And laid them 'neath the stane,
Near by the Lamp o' Lothian's porch
Which proved in ancient times a torch
Tae, Burgher, lund and Thane.
The bleaching field, alluvial haugh,
Fringed wi' birks an' siller saugh
In undulating line,
Where far removed frae vulgar gaze
The bonny lasses bleach their claes
Knee deep in crystal Tyne.
Nae wonder Scotland's saintly King,
Indulging in his priestly whim,
Sent Royalty tae the Wa',
And flew tae Tyne's sweet lovely banks
To shrive, and offer up his thanks,
And meditate the law.
By Amesfield's slopes and Steinston brae
The Royal poet lo'ed to stray
Tae 'scape the world's din,
In contemplative soul elate
He fed the Kirk and starved the State
Unconscious o' his sin,
Oh Tyne I across thy lovely wave
The quoin and sacred architrave
Their shadows deep he threw.
Where now, alas I those stately towers,
Cloistered maze, and shady bowers
Sae glorious tae the view?
The Abbey village, and the mill,
The classic mind with dolor fill,
And sorrowful emotion,
In pointing out the lowly plain
Where David reared this sacred lane
In sanctified devotion.
My father was thus left, not only
penniless, but wifeless, childless, and landless. He lost his
excellent wife by death, his sons by enlistment, his daughters by
marriage, his land by fraud, and his pennies by litigation. To
counteract his penury, he brought with him good health, an
indomitable spirit, a good conscience, and a physical personal
aspect not easily matched.
A young English traveler came along and
touched a chord in a hidden part of Janet, his eldest daughter,
which led to an interesting correspondence ending in the Scotch
lassie becoming an English wife. The happy pair took up their
residence near Tunbridge Wells, but whether she became thereby a
Kentish woman, or a woman of Kent, I never could determine. She
lived to be the mother of a large family, whom I visited in 1834.
David Davidson, of the Commissary
Department, of the Royal Artillery, laid siege to the hand of
Margaret the youngest child, who was deemed, from her personal
appearance, the belle of Tranent. The siege was crowned with
success. A family sprang from this union of three sons and five
daughters. The eldest son, Samuel, took up his abode as a banker in
Kirkcaldy; David was drowned off Peterhead; the third son,
Alexander, clerked in his father's office. The girls were all well
married in Leith; the eldest to Mr. Hervey, the eminent lawyer in
that town. Society in the Nungate was anything but pretentious, and
John Johnston soon became a respected integer of it.
Dr. Maitland deservedly stood at the
top, but there were those who in point of general information were
pretty nearly equal to the Doctor; prominent among whom was 'Squire
Nisbet ('Squire by courtesy), the fruit grower at whose house the
elite of the village sometimes held their meetings, and at which my
father became a frequent visitor. Mrs. Nisbet had been dead some
years, leaving two daughters to preside over the 'Squire's
hospitable hearthMary, the eldest, already betrothed to Robert
Allen, the oatmeal miller, and Margaret, of whom it was hinted, "she
might dae waur than cast her een toward the tall widower frae
Tranent." Gossip seldom errs in these matters; nor was she wrong in
this instance. Conforming to all the rules of immaculate society,
Peggy Nisbet in due time became Mrs. John Johnston. This marriage
was solemnized by the Rev. Dr. Sibbald, of the Established Kirk
(notwithstanding the Nisbets were all Episcopalians), in 1798. Two
sons and two daughters were given them, Margaret (who died young),
in 1799; James, in 18or ; my unworthy self, on March 22d, 1803, and
Elizabeth in 1805. 'Squire James Nisbet had a brother George, who
had been many years Land Steward with General Wheatly, of Lesney
Park, Erith, Kent, one of Queen Charlotte's Equerries.
George had been many years a childless
widower, his domestic affairs being managed by his only sister,
Margaret, who was found one morning in the adjoining wood of Lesney
all but dead from bruises on her head and face, inflicted by a blunt
instrument. The crime was clearly traced, both by evidence and
confession, to James Morgan, a brick-maker in Erith, who died the
death of the malefactor at the county town, Maidstone. The old lady,
by dint of her fine constitution, survived that dreadful treatment
for many years. The first time I gazed upon the distorted, emaciated
countenance of that poor old lady, I marveled at her tenacity of
she declared to me that the most painful scene of the tragedy was
giving her compulsory evidence at Maidstone, which sent a
fellow-creature to the gallows. She survived this tragedy many
years, and died upwards of ninety years of age.
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