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The Life of Thomas Telford
Chapter II. Langholm--Telford a Stonemason


The time arrived when young Telford must be put to some regular calling. Was he to be a shepherd like his father and his uncle, or was he to be a farm-labourer, or put apprentice to a trade? There was not much choice; but at length it was determined to bind him to a stonemason. In Eskdale that trade was for the most part confined to the building of drystone walls, and there was very little more art employed in it than an ordinarily neat-handed labourer could manage. It was eventually decided to send the youth--and he was now a strong lad of about fifteen--to a mason at Lochmaben, a small town across the hills to the westward, where a little more building and of a better sort--such as of farm-houses, barns, and road-bridges--was carried on than in his own immediate neighbourhood. There he remained only a few months; for his master using him badly, the high-spirited youth would not brook it, and ran away, taking refuge with his mother at The Crooks, very much to her dismay.

What was now to be done with Tom? He was willing to do anything or go anywhere rather than back to his Lochmaben master. In this emergency his cousin Thomas Jackson, the factor or land-steward at Wester Hall, offered to do what he could to induce Andrew Thomson, a small mason at Langholm, to take Telford for the remainder of his apprenticeship; and to him he went accordingly. The business carried on by his new master was of a very humble sort. Telford, in his autobiography, states that most of the farmers' houses in the district then consisted of "one storey of mud walls, or rubble stones bedded in clay, and thatched with straw, rushes, or heather; the floors being of earth, and the fire in the middle, having a plastered creel chimney for the escape of the smoke; while, instead of windows, small openings in the thick mud walls admitted a scanty light." The farm-buildings were of a similarly wretched description.

The principal owner of the landed property in the neighbourhood was the Duke of Buccleugh. Shortly after the young Duke Henry succeeded to the title and estates, in 1767, he introduced considerable improvements in the farmers' houses and farm-steadings, and the peasants' dwellings, as well as in the roads throughout Eskdale. Thus a demand sprang up for masons' labour, and Telford's master had no want of regular employment for his hands. Telford profited by the experience which this increase in the building operations of the neighbourhood gave him; being employed in raising rough walls and farm enclosures, as well as in erecting bridges across rivers wherever regular roads for wheel carriages were substituted for the horse-tracks formerly in use.

During the greater part of his apprenticeship Telford lived in the little town of Langholm, taking frequent opportunities of visiting his mother at The Crooks on Saturday evenings, and accompanying her to the parish church of Westerkirk on Sundays. Langholm was then a very poor place, being no better in that respect than the district that surrounded it. It consisted chiefly of mud hovels, covered with thatch--the principal building in it being the Tolbooth, a stone and lime structure, the upper part of which was used as a justice-hall and the lower part as a gaol. There were, however, a few good houses in the little town, occupied by people of the better class, and in one of these lived an elderly lady, Miss Pasley, one of the family of the Pasleys of Craig. As the town was so small that everybody in it knew everybody else, the ruddyy-cheeked, laughing mason's apprentice soon became generally known to all the townspeople, and amongst others to Miss Pasley. When she heard that he was the poor orphan boy from up the valley, the son of the hard-working widow woman, Janet Jackson, so "eident" and so industrious, her heart warmed to the mason's apprentice, and she sent for him to her house. That was a proud day for Tom; and when he called upon her, he was not more pleased with Miss Pasley's kindness than delighted at the sight of her little library of books, which contained more volumes than he had ever seen before.

Having by this time acquired a strong taste for reading, and exhausted all the little book stores of his friends, the joy of the young mason may be imagined when Miss Pasley volunteered to lend him some books from her own library. Of course, he eagerly and thankfully availed himself of the privilege; and thus, while working as an apprentice and afterwards as a journeyman, Telford gathered his first knowledge of British literature, in which he was accustomed to the close of his life to take such pleasure. He almost always had some book with him, which he would snatch a few minutes to read in the intervals of his work; and on winter evenings he occupied his spare time in poring over such volumes as came in his way, usually with no better light than the cottage fire. On one occasion Miss Pasley lent him 'Paradise Lost,' and he took the book with him to the hill-side to read. His delight was such that it fairly taxed his powers of expression to describe it. He could only say; "I read, and read, and glowred; then read, and read again." He was also a great admirer of Burns, whose writings so inflamed his mind that at the age of twenty-two, when barely out of his apprenticeship, we find the young mason actually breaking out in verse.*[1] By diligently reading all the books that he could borrow from friends and neighbours, Telford made considerable progress in his learning; and, what with his scribbling of "poetry" and various attempts at composition, he had become so good and legible a writer that he was often called upon by his less-educated acquaintances to pen letters for them to their distant friends. He was always willing to help them in this way; and, the other working people of the town making use of his services in the same manner, all the little domestic and family histories of the place soon became familiar to him. One evening a Langholm man asked Tom to write a letter for him to his son in England; and when the young scribe read over what had been written to the old man's dictation, the latter, at the end of almost every sentence, exclaimed, "Capital! capital!" and at the close he said, "Well! I declare, Tom! Werricht himsel' couldna ha' written a better!"--Wright being a well-known lawyer or "writer" in Langholm.

His apprenticeship over, Telford went on working as a journeyman at Langholm, his wages at the time being only eighteen pence a day. What was called the New Town was then in course of erection, and there are houses still pointed out in it, the walls of which Telford helped to put together. In the town are three arched door-heads of a more ornamental character than the rest, of Telford's hewing; for he was already beginning to set up his pretensions as a craftsman, and took pride in pointing to the superior handiwork which proceeded from his chisel.

About the same time, the bridge connecting the Old with the New Town was built across the Esk at Langholm, and upon that structure he was also employed. Many of the stones in it were hewn by his hand, and on several of the blocks forming the land-breast his tool-mark is still to be seen.

Not long after the bridge was finished, an unusually high flood or spate swept down the valley. The Esk was "roaring red frae bank to brae," and it was generally feared that the new brig would be carried away. Robin Hotson, the master mason, was from home at the time, and his wife, Tibby, knowing that he was bound by his contract to maintain the fabric for a period of seven years, was in a state of great alarm. She ran from one person to another, wringing her hands and sobbing, "Oh! we'll be ruined--we'll a' be ruined!" In her distress she thought of Telford, in whom she had great confidence, and called out, "Oh! where's Tammy Telfer-- where's Tammy?" He was immediately sent for. It was evening, and he was soon found at the house of Miss Pasley. When he came running up, Tibby exclaimed, "Oh, Tammy! they've been on the brig, and they say its shakin'! It 'll be doon!" "Never you heed them, Tibby," said Telford, clapping her on the shoulder, "there's nae fear o' the brig. I like it a' the better that it shakes-- it proves its weel put thegither." Tibby's fears, however, were not so easily allayed; and insisting that she heard the brig "rumlin," she ran up--so the neighbours afterwards used to say of her--and set her back against the parapet to hold it together. At this, it is said, "Tam bodged and leuch;" and Tibby, observing how easily he took it, at length grew more calm. It soon became clear enough that the bridge was sufficiently strong; for the flood subsided without doing it any harm, and it has stood the furious spates of nearly a century uninjured.

Telford acquired considerable general experience about the same time as a house-builder, though the structures on which he was engaged were of a humble order, being chiefly small farm-houses on the Duke of Buccleugh's estate, with the usual out-buildings. Perhaps the most important of the jobs on which he was employed was the manse of Westerkirk, where he was comparatively at home. The hamlet stands on a green hill-side, a little below the entrance to the valley of the Meggat. It consists of the kirk, the minister's manse, the parish-school, and a few cottages, every occupant of which was known to Telford. It is backed by the purple moors, up which he loved to wander in his leisure hours and read the poems of Fergusson and Burns. The river Esk gurgles along its rocky bed in the bottom of the dale, separated from the kirkyard by a steep bank, covered with natural wood; while near at hand, behind the manse, stretch the fine woods of Wester Hall, where Telford was often wont to roam.


Valley of Eskdale, Westerkirk in the distance.

We can scarcely therefore wonder that, amidst such pastoral scenery, and reading such books as he did, the poetic faculty of the country mason should have become so decidedly developed. It was while working at Westerkirk manse that he sketched the first draft of his descriptive poem entitled 'Eskdale,' which was published in the 'Poetical Museum' in 1784.*[2] These early poetical efforts were at least useful in stimulating his self-education. For the practice of poetical composition, while it cultivates the sentiment of beauty in thought and feeling, is probably the best of all exercises in the art of writing correctly, grammatically, and expressively. By drawing a man out of his ordinary calling, too, it often furnishes him with a power of happy thinking which may in after life become a source of the purest pleasure; and this, we believe, proved to be the case with Telford, even though he ceased in later years to pursue the special cultivation of the art.

Shortly after, when work became slack in the district, Telford undertook to do small jobs on his own account such as the hewing of grave-stones and ornamental doorheads. He prided himself especially upon his hewing, and from the specimens of his workmanship which are still to be seen in the churchyards of Langholm and Westerkirk, he had evidently attained considerable skill. On some of these pieces of masonry the year is carved--1779, or 1780. One of the most ornamental is that set into the wall of Westerkirk church, being a monumental slab, with an inscription and moulding, surmounted by a coat of arms, to the memory of James Pasley of Craig. He had now learnt all that his native valley could teach him of the art of masonry; and, bent upon self-improvement and gaining a larger experience of life, as well as knowledge of his trade, he determined to seek employment elsewhere. He accordingly left Eskdale for the first time, in 1780, and sought work in Edinburgh, where the New Town was then in course of erection on the elevated land, formerly green fields, extending along the north bank of the "Nor' Loch." A bridge had been thrown across the Loch in 1769, the stagnant pond or marsh in the hollow had been filled up, and Princes Street was rising as if by magic. Skilled masons were in great demand for the purpose of carrying out these and the numerous other architectural improvements which were in progress, and Telford had no difficulty in obtaining employment.

Our stone-mason remained at Edinburgh for about two years, during which he had the advantage of taking part in first-rate work and maintaining himself comfortably, while he devoted much of his spare time to drawing, in its application to architecture. He took the opportunity of visiting and carefully studying the fine specimens of ancient work at Holyrood House and Chapel, the Castle, Heriot's Hospital, and the numerous curious illustrations of middle age domestic architecture with which the Old Town abounds. He also made several journeys to the beautiful old chapel of Rosslyn, situated some miles to the south of Edinburgh, making careful drawings of the more important parts of that building.

When he had thus improved himself, "and studied all that was to be seen in Edinburgh, in returning to the western border," he says, "I visited the justly celebrated Abbey of Melrose." There he was charmed by the delicate and perfect workmanship still visible even in the ruins of that fine old Abbey; and with his folio filled with sketches and drawings, he made his way back to Eskdale and the humble cottage at The Crooks. But not to remain there long. He merely wished to pay a parting visit to his mother and other relatives before starting upon a longer journey. "Having acquired," he says in his Autobiography, "the rudiments of my profession, I considered that my native country afforded few opportunities of exercising it to any extent, and therefore judged it advisable (like many of my countrymen) to proceed southward, where industry might find more employment and be better remunerated."

Before setting out, he called upon all his old friends and acquaintances in the dale--the neighbouring farmers, who had befriended him and his mother when struggling with poverty--his schoolfellows, many of whom were preparing to migrate, like himself, from their native valley--and the many friends and acquaintances he had made while working as a mason in Langholm. Everybody knew that Tom was going south, and all wished him God speed. At length the leave-taking was over, and he set out for London in the year 1782, when twenty-five years old. He had, like the little river Meggat, on the banks of which he was born, floated gradually on towards the outer world: first from the nook in the valley, to Westerkirk school; then to Langholm and its little circle; and now, like the Meggat, which flows with the Esk into the ocean, he was about to be borne away into the wide world. Telford, however, had confidence in himself, and no one had fears for him. As the neighbours said, wisely wagging their heads, "Ah, he's an auld-farran chap is Tam; he'll either mak a spoon or spoil a horn; any how, he's gatten a good trade at his fingers' ends."

Telford had made all his previous journeys on foot; but this one he made on horseback. It happened that Sir James Johnstone, the laird of Wester Hall, had occasion to send a horse from Eskdale to a member of his family in London, and he had some difficulty in finding a person to take charge of it. It occurred to Mr. Jackson, the laird's factor, that this was a capital opportunity for his cousin Tom, the mason; and it was accordingly arranged that he should ride the horse to town. When a boy, he had learnt rough riding sufficiently well for the purpose; and the better to fit him for the hardships of the road, Mr. Jackson lent him his buckskin breeches. Thus Tom set out from his native valley well mounted, with his little bundle of "traps" buckled behind him, and, after a prosperous journey, duly reached London, and delivered up the horse as he had been directed. Long after, Mr. Jackson used to tell the story of his cousin's first ride to London with great glee, and he always took care to wind up with--"but Tam forgot to send me back my breeks!"


Lower Valley of the Meggat, the Crooks in the distance.

Footnotes for Chapter II.

*[1] In his 'Epistle to Mr. Walter Ruddiman,' first published in 'Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine,' in 1779, occur the following lines addressed to Burns, in which Telford incidentally sketches himself at the time, and hints at his own subsequent meritorious career;

"Nor pass the tentie curious lad,
Who o'er the ingle hangs his head,
And begs of neighbours books to read;
For hence arise
Thy country's sons, who far are spread,
Baith bold and wise."

*[2] The 'Poetical Museum,' Hawick, p.267. ' Eskdale' was afterwards reprinted by Telford when living at Shrewsbury, when he added a few lines by way of conclusion. The poem describes very pleasantly the fine pastoral scenery of the district:--

"Deep 'mid the green sequester'd glens below,
Where murmuring streams among the alders flow,
Where flowery meadows down their margins spread,
And the brown hamlet lifts its humble head--
There, round his little fields, the peasant strays,
And sees his flock along the mountain graze;
And, while the gale breathes o'er his ripening grain,
And soft repeats his upland shepherd's strain,
And western suns with mellow radiance play.
And gild his straw-roof'd cottage with their ray,
Feels Nature's love his throbbing heart employ,
Nor envies towns their artificial joy."

The features of the valley are very fairly described. Its early history is then rapidly sketched; next its period of border strife, at length happily allayed by the union of the kingdoms, under which the Johnstones, Pasleys, and others, men of Eskdale, achieve honour and fame. Nor did he forget to mention Armstrong, the author of the 'Art of Preserving Health,' son of the minister of Castleton, a few miles east of Westerkirk; and Mickle, the translator of the 'Lusiad,' whose father was minister of the parish of Langholm; both of whom Telford took a natural pride in as native poets of Eskdale.


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