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Memoir of Norman MacLeod, D.D
Boyhood


NORMAN was born at Campbeltown on June 3, 1812. His father had been ordained four years previously to the pastoral charge of that large parish, and had been married to Agnes Maxwell in 1811.

Campbeltown lies at the head of a loch which runs for two miles into the long promontory of Kintyre, and not far from its southern termination. The loch forms a splendid harbour. The high island of Davar, thrown out like a sentinel from the hills, and connected with the shore on one side by a natural mole of gravel, protects it from every wind; while, from its position near the stormy Mull, whose precipices breast the full swing of the Atlantic, it affords a secure haven to ships that have rounded that dreaded headland. The external aspect of the town is very much like that of any other Scotch seaport —a central cluster of streets, with one or two plain churches lifting their square shoulders above the other houses; a quay; a lean steeple; the chimneys of some distilleries; thinner rows of whitewashed houses stretching round the "Lochend," and breaking up into detached villas buried in woods and shrubberies. The bay of Campbeltown is, however, both picturesque and lively. Cultured fields clothe the slopes of hills, whose tops are purple with heather, and beyond which ranges of higher mountains lift their rough heads. There are fine glimpses, too, of coast scenery, especially to the south, where the headlands of Kilkerran fall steeply into the sea. But the bay forms the true scene of interest, as it is the rendezvous of hundreds of fishing smacks and wherries. There is continual movement on its waters—the flapping and filling of the brown sails, the shouts of the men, and the "whirr" of the chain-cable as an anchor is dropped, keep the port constantly astir. Larger vessels are also perpetually coming and going—storm-stayed merchant ships, smaller craft engaged in coast traffic, graceful yachts, and Revenue cruisers. Four or five miles off, on the Western side of the low isthmus which crosses Kintyre from the head of Campbeltown loch, lies another bay, in marked contrast to this sheltered harbour. There the long crescent of Machrihanish, girdled by sands wind-tossed into fantastic hillocks, receives the full weight of the Atlantic. Woe to the luckless vessel caught within those relentless jaws! Even in calm there is a weird suggestiveness in the ceaseless moaning of that surf, like the breathing of a wild beast, and in that line of tawny Yellow rimmed by creaming foam, and broken with the black ribs of some old wreck sticking up here and there from the shallows. But during storm, earth, sea, and sky are mingled in a driving cloud of salt, spin-drift, and sand, and the prolonged roar of the surge is carried far inland. When the noise of "the bay" is heard by the comfortable burgesses, booming over their town like a distant cannonade, they are reminded how wild the night is far out on the ocean. To be "roaring like the bay" is their strongest description of a bawling child or a shouting scold.

As the Highlands gave Norman his strong Celtic passion, so Campbeltown inspired him with sympathy for the sea and sailors, besides creating a world of associations which never left him. It was a curious little town, and had a wonderful variety of character in its society and customs. No fewer than seven large Revenue cruisers had their headquarters at Campbeltown, and were commanded by naval officers who, in the good old days, received a pay which would startle modern economists. These cutters were powerful vessels, generally manned by a double crew, and each having a smaller craft acting as tender. Nor were they without occupation, for smuggling was then a trade made not a little profitable by the high duties imposed on salt, spirits, and tea.

[Many stories are told of these smuggling days. Once an old woman, whose "habit and repute" were notorious, was being tried by the Sheriff. When the charge had been fairly proved, and it fell to the good lawyer to pronounce sentence, an unusual admixture of mercy with fidgetiness seemed to possess him, for, evading the manifest conclusion, he thus addressed the prisoner—"I daresay, my poor woman, it's not very often you have fallen into this fault."—"Deed no, shirra," she readily replied, "I haena made a drap since yon wee keg I sent yoursel."]

The officers and men of the cutters made Campbeltown their home, and villas, generally built opposite the buoy which marked the anchorage of their respective cruisers, were occupied by the families of the different commanders. The element thus introduced into the society of the town had many important effects. It not only gave cheerfulness to its tone, but added a certain savour of the sea to its interests. The merits of each cutter and officer were matters with which every man and woman—but more especially every schoolboy—was familiar, and how old Jack Fullarton had "carried on" till all seemed going by the board, on a coast bristling with sunken rocks; or how Captain Beatson had been caught off the Mull in the great January gale, and with what skill he had weathered the wild headland—were questions which every inhabitant, old and young, had repeatedly discussed.

Campbeltown was the headquarters of other sorts and conditions both of men and women. There were retired half-pay officers of both the services; officers of his Majesty's Excise appointed to watch the distilleries, among whom were such magnates as the collector and supervisor; there was the old sheriff with his queue and top-boots; the duke's chamberlain, and the usual proportion of doctors, writers, and bankers. There were, moreover, those without whom all the teas, and suppers, and society of the town would have been flavourless— the elderly maiden ladies, who found that their "annuities" could not be spent in a. cheerier or more congenial spot than this kindly seaport. These ladies were aunts or cousins to half the lairds in Argyllshire, and were often great characters. A society like this, thrown together in a town utterly unconnected with the rest of the world, except by a mail-gig, which had to travel some sixty miles before reaching any settlement larger than a "clachan," and by a sailing packet, whose weekly departure was announced by the bellman in the following manner, "All ye who may desire a passage, know that the Caledonia cutter will sail------;" was sure to be self-supporting in all the necessaries of life, among which the "half-pays" and maiden ladies included amusements. So-called tea-parties, followed by comfortable suppers, were the common forms of entertainment; and these reunions being enlivened by backgammon and whist for the older folks, and a dance for the younger, were not without their innocent excitements. Sometimes there was also such a supreme event as a county or militia ball; or still better, when some sloop-of-war ran in to refit, the resources of the hospitable town were cheerfully expended in giving a grand picnic to the officers, followed by the unfailing dance and supper in the evening.

The ecclesiastical relationships of the place were not less primitive and genial than the social. When Norman's father went there, he soon attracted a very large and devoted congregation. He was decidedly "evangelical," but free from all narrowness, and had a word of cheerful kindliness for all. All sects and parties loved him, and his fellow townsmen were the more disposed to listen to his earnest appeals in public and private, when they knew how manly and simple he was in daily life. Not only did he in this way secure the attachment of his own flock, but, when on one occasion he was asked to accept another and a better living, the dissenting congregation of the place heartily joined with his own in making up his very small stipend to a sum equal to what had been offered to him. The Roman Catholic priest was among his friends. Few weeks ever passed without old Mr. Cattanach coming to take tea at the Manse, and in all his little difficulties he looked to the young parish minister for advice. These Highland priests were very different men from those now furnished by Maynooth. They were usually educated in France, and imbibing Gallican rather than Ultramontane ideas, felt themselves to be Britons, not aliens, and identified themselves with the interests of the people around them. Nor was the friendly relationship which existed in Campbeltown an exceptional instance of good-feeling: for whenever the priest of the district went to that part of the parish in Morven which was near the Manse, he made it his home, and I am not aware that any evil ever accrued to religion in consequence.

The house where Norman Macleod was born was in the Kirk Street, but the family afterwards lived in the old Manse, and finally in South-park. He seems from childhood to have had many of the characteristics which distinguished him through life—being affectionate, bright, humourous, and talkative. His mother, and that aunt who was the friend of his earliest as well as of his latest years, remember many incidents illustrative of his extreme lovingness and ceaseless merriment. Another, of his own age, relates, as one of her earliest memories, how she used to sit among the group of children round the nursery fire, listening to the stories and talk of this one child "whose tongue never lay." When a boy, he was sent to the Burgh school, where all the families of the place, high and low, met and mingled; and where, if he did not receive that thorough classical grounding—the want of which he used always to lament, justly blaming the harsh and inefficient master who had failed to impart it—he gained an insight into character which served not only to give him sympathy with all ranks of life, but afforded a fund of amusing memories which never lost their freshness. Several of his boyish companions remained his familiar friends in after-life, and not a few of them are portrayed in his "Old Lieutenant." Among the numerous souvenirs he used to keep, and which were found after his death in his "sanctum" in Glasgow, were little books and other trifles he had got when a boy from these early associates. Ships and sailors were the great objects of his interest, and, contrary to the wishes of his anxious mother, many a happy hour was spent on board the vessels which lay at the pier—climbing the shrouds, reaching the cross-trees without passing through the lubbers hole, or in making himself acquainted with every stay, halyard, and spar from truck to keelson. His boy companions were hardy fellows, fond of adventure, and so thoroughly left to form their own acquaintances that there was not a character in the place—fool or fiddler, soldier or sailor—whose peculiarities or stories they had not learned. Norman, even as a boy, seems thoroughly to have appreciated this many-sided life. The maiden ladies and the "half-pays," the picnics and supper parties, the rough sports of the schoolyard, or the glorious Saturday expeditions by the shore and headlands, were keenly enjoyed by him. He quickly caught up the spirit of all outward things in nature or character, and his power of mimicry and sense of the ludicrous were even then as marked as his affectionateness. Once, when he was unwell and about six years old, it became necessary to apply leeches. These he named after various characters in the town—the sheriff, the provost, &c.; and while they were on his chest he kept up an unceasing dialogue with them, scolding one or praising the other, as each did its curative work well or ill, and all in the exact voice and manner of the various persons they were meant to represent. When Mackay, the actor, afterwards so famous for his personification of Bailie Nicol Jarvie, returned Jo Campbeltown—where he had once been a drummer-boy—to astonish its inhabitants by the performances of a clever little company in an improvised theatre, it was like the opening up of a new world to Norman. An attic was fitted up, and an audience of aunts and cousins invited to witness how well he and his companions could "do Mac-kay's company." He had from the first a strong tendency to throw a romantic colouring into common life, and such a desire to have sway over others that he was never so much himself as when he had some one to influence, and with whom he might share the ceaseless flow of his own ideas and imaginations. Schoolboy expeditions became under him fanciful and heroic enterprises, in which some ideal part was assigned by him to each of his companions. A sail to some creek a mile away became a voyage of discovery or a chase after pirates. A ramble over the hills took the shape of an expedition against the French.

The great event of his boyhood was his being sent to Morven. He had been frequently there as a young child, but his father, anxious that his son should know Gaelic, and, if possible, be a Highland minister, determined to board him with old Mr. Cameron, the parish schoolmaster in Morven, and so, when about twelve years of age, he was sent first to the Manse, and then to the schoolmaster's house. His grandfather had died a few months before, but he had many memories of the old man. derived from previous visits, and the impressions of the venerable minister, then in extreme age, were never lost. He was, for example, in church on that Communion Sunday when his grandfather, blind with age, was led by the hand up to the communion table by his servant "Rory," to address his people for the last time. This grandfather had been minister there for fifty years, and the faithful servant who now took his hand had been with him since he had entered the Manse. It was then that touching episode occurred described in the "Highland Parish," when the old man, having in his blindness turned himself the wrong way, "Rory," perceiving the mistake, went back and gently placed him with his face to the congregation. This picture of the aged pastor, with snowy hair falling on his shoulders, bidding solemn farewell to a flock that, with the loyalty of the Highland race, regarded him as a father, was a scene which deeply touched the imagination of the child in the Manse seat. One, who was herself present, remembers another occasion when his grandfather, taking him on his knee, presented him with a half-crown—an enormous sum in the eyes of the child—and then gave him his blessing. Norman, dragging himself off, rushed away to the window-curtain, in which he tightly rolled himself; when disentangled, his cheeks were suffused with tears. The goodness of the old man had proved too much for his generous nature.

With these and many other loving recollections he now returned, as a boy of twelve, to be made a "true Highlander" of, as his father called it. It was indeed as the opening of a new life when, leaving the little county town, and the grammar-school, and the lowland playmates in Campbeltown, he landed on the rocky shore below the Manse of Morven. The very air was different. The puffs of peat-reek from the cottages were to him redolent of Highland warmth and romantic childish associations. There was not a boatman from old "Eery" down to the betarred fisher-boy, not a shepherd, or herd, or cottar, not a dairymaid or henwife, but gave him a welcome, and tried to make his life happier. The Manse, full of kind aunts and uncles, seemed to him a paradise which the demon of selfishness had never entered. And then there was the wakening sense of the grand in scenery, nourished almost unconsciously by the presence of those silent mountains, with their endless ridges of brown heather; or by the dark glen roaring with cataracts that fell into fairy pools, fringed with plumage of ferns, and screened by netted roof of hazel and oak; or by many an hour spent upon the shoreland, with its infinite variety of breaking surge and rocky bays, rich in seaweeds and darting fish. But, above all, there was the elastic joy of an open-air life, with the excitement of fishing and boating, and such stirring events as sheep-shearing or a "harvest-home," with the fun of a hearty house, whose laughter was kept ever alive by such wits as Callum, the fool, or bare-footed Lachlan.

His life in the dwelling of Samuel Cameron, the worthy schoolmaster and catechist of the parish, was not less full of romance. The house was not a large one—a thatched cottage with a but and a ben, and a little room between, formed the accommodation; but every evening, except when the boys were fishing codling from the rocks, or playing "shinty" in the autumn twilight, there gathered round the hearth, heaped high with glowing peat, a happy group, who with Gaelic songs and stories, and tunes played on the sweet "trump" or Jew's harp, made the little kitchen bright as a drawing room; for there was a culture in the very peasantry of the Highlands, not to say in the house of such a schoolmaster as good Mr. Cameron, such as few countries could boast of. There was an innate high breeding, and a store of tradition and poetry, of song and anecdote, which gave a peculiar flavour to their common life; so that the long evenings in this snug cottage, when the spinning-wheel was humming, the women teazing and carding wool, the boys dressing flies or shaping boats, were also enlivened by wondrous stories of old times, or by "lilts" full of a weird and plaintive beauty, like the wild note of a sea-bird, or by a "Port-a-Beal," or a "Walking Song," to the tune of which all joined bands as they sent the merry chorus round. Norman had here an insight into the best side of the Highland character, and into many Highland customs now long passed away. Every week he used to go to the Manse from Friday till Monday, and then came such grand expeditions as a walk to the summit of Ben Shian, with its unrivalled view of mountain and loch; or, still better, when whole nights were spent fishing at the rocky islands in the Sound.

"Oh, the excitement of getting among a great play of fish, which made the water foam for half-a-mile round, and attracted flocks of screaming birds, which seemed mad with gluttony, and while six or seven rods had all their lines tight, and their ends bent to cracking with the sport. And then the fun and frolic when we landed for the night on the lee of the island, and the "sky-larking," as sailors call it, began among the rocks, pelting one another with clods or wreck, till, wearied out, we all lay down to sleep in some sheltered nook, and all was silent but the beating waves, the eerie cry of sea-birds, and the splash of some sea-monster in pursuit of its prey. What glorious reminiscences have I, too, of those scenes, and especially of early morn as watched from these green islands ! It seems to me as if I had never beheld a true sunrise since ; yet how many have I witnessed! I left the sleeping crews, and ascended the top of the rock immediately before day-break, and what a sight it was to behold the golden crowns which the sun placed on the brows of the mountain monarchs who first did him homage, what heavenly dawnings of light on peak and "scaur" contrasted with the darkness of the lower valleys ! What gems of glory in the eastern sky, changing the cold grey clouds of early morning into bars-of gold and radiant gems of beauty ! and what a flood of light suddenly burst upon the dancing waves as the sun rose above the horizon, and revealed the silent sails of passing ships! and what delight to hear and seethe first break of the fish upon the waters! With what pleasure I descended and gave the cheer which made all the sleepers awake and scramble to the boats, and, in a few minutes, resume the work of hauling in our dozens. Then home with a will for breakfast, each striving to be first on the sandy shore." ["Highland Parish."]

This was good education for the affections, sympathies, and imagination. Other influences of a very different nature might afterwards be experienced, but the foundation of his character was laid in the boyhood spent in Campbeltown, Mull, and Morven. Its associations never left him, and the memory of those hours, whose sunshine of love had brightened his early life, made him in no small measure the loving, genial man he always was. What he had found so full of good for himself, he afterwards tried to bestow on others; and not only in his dealing with his own children, but in the tone of his teaching and in the ministry of his public life, can easily be traced the power of his first sympathies:—

"Oh, sunshine of youth, let it shine on! Let love flow out fresh and full, unchecked by any rule but what love creates, and pour itself down without stint into the young heart. Make the days of boyhood happy; for other days of labour and sorrow must come, when the blessing of those dear eyes and clasping hands and sweet caressings, will, next to the love of God from whom they flow, save the man from losing faith in the human heart, help to deliver him from the curse of selfishness, and be an Eden in the memory, when he is driven forth into the wilderness of life."  ["Highland Parish."]


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