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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XXXIII. - A Scramble for Higher Education


I WAS nearly fifteen when I began to learn Latin by myself, and next year when Mr Drummond took me in hand to inspire, guide, and drill me properly, he was pleased to find that I had made substantial rudimentary progress. By that time my mind was stored with a curious medley of information. The humble school furnished me with the three keys of knowledge, and outside the school I did a great deal for myself. From infancy I was becoming insensibly saturated with the traditional lore of old Gamaliels tales of the Feinne, fairy stories, local history (which subsequent publication of State records proved to be wonderfully correct) back to John of Lome (called by us Iain Dubh nan Lann, who married Janet Maciosaig, the grand-daughter of Bruce in 1360, and got as her tocher from her uncle, King David, Glenlyon), and old songs most of which have perished, and which carried, in prefatory explana- tions in prose, information of various kinds on their backs. From the age of five I could read English and Gaelic, and get enjoyment for myself from easy books in both these languages. All we children of that time were well drilled in the Shorter Catechism, which, no doubt, we repeated by rote at first, but which, as the years passed, took hold of our under- standing and furnished us with a canon of reasoned theology, and, what was of more importance, a rule of life to which we might not always make our conduct conform, but which always kept its grip on us. It was not such a hard task to commit the Catechism to memory as to find the proofs for the dogmatic assertions contained in it by searching the Bible. That part of our task belonged more to the Sunday than to the week school. It was the part which I liked least myself, and in it boys and girls, especially the girls in my class, were often ahead of me. The "Ceasnachadh," which came once a year, when the minister, accompanied by the elders of each ward into which the parish was divided, went his rounds to examine old and young, was less a terror to us youngsters than it was to some of the grey-headed old men, whose early Catechism education had been neglected, or who had forgotten what they had once learned. We school children took a wicked pleasure in their worry and blunders, and afterwards made fun among ourselves of their wrong or haphazard answers.

Bible narratives had such an overwhelming fascination for me that one summer, when quite a small boy, I read all the historical books, and because of their historical references to ancient nations, most of the prophetical books likewise. That summer my daily occupation was to herd calves, and to keep them out of corn and hay land, on a stretch of banks and bogs within the park wall which extended from above the churchyard to Clachaig, named so, the Place of Stones, because the old Druidic stone circle was there. Herding alone would have been tedious enough, had not this Bible-reading made the time pass pleasantly. My dog Torm, indeed, did the biggest part of the herding, for he knew as well as myself how far it was free for the calves to go, and when it was his duty to deal with them as trespassers. When on a very rainy day we had taken them to a corner above Clachaig, and I told him to take care of them there, I could go off to Calum Macgibbon's house with an easy conscience and stay there for a while. On returning I was sure to find the calves more closely pinned up in their corner than when I left them. Torm then would come rushing to me with self-satisfied eyes to be praised and patted on the head, and given leave to go on a scamper of his own if he felt so inclined. He liked to have such runs, but never went too far to hear being called back by a whistle. The worst fault of the faithful, intelligent creature was that he would not let a strange dog pass on the road without looking on him as a trespasser and wanting to fight with him.

When ten years old, the medley of information which I had gained out of school was derived from the following sources: Glenlyon traditional lore, Bible history, the "Pilgrim's Progress," "Scots Worthies," "Robinson Crusoe," and the "Arabian Nights." About the latter I had much trouble with my mother, whose own reading was limited to her Gaelic Bible. She highly approved of my Bible studies, and knew enough about the "Pilgrim's Progress" and the "Scots Worthies" to think the reading of them commendable. I gave her such an account of Robinson Crusoe's adventures that she became interested in them herself. I was indeed rather in the habit of telling in Gaelic round the kitchen fire on winter nights the stories I had read in English. It was that habit which brought down maternal condemnation on the un-Christian tales of the "Arabian Nights." She wanted to restrict my reading to Boston's "Fourfold State" and the similar prim books which were contained in the parish library. My father's authority was invoked, but, although no scholar, he could read and speak English, and had broader views than hers. He saw I was mutinous, and thought it was best to let me follow my own course. But till I reached the age of twelve, when she gave up her attempt at censor- ship as a bad job, my mother was suspicious, and bothered me a good deal about the books I read. Because the poetry of Burns was under clerical ban in our Glen and my mother knew it was so, I had to read it out of her sight, and found it as sweet as stolen waters. Had she known as much as the little she did about Burns about other books which I devoured between the ages of twelve and fifteen, she would have been truly horrified, although perhaps Defoe's "History of the Devil" might have passed muster as perfectly orthodox!

My grandfather, who received a good middle- class education at the parish schools of Muthil and Crieff, left behind him a collection of English and Gaelic books, which were kept stored in a cupboard until I rummaged among them. I found that in other farm houses there were many old books which nobody read, and which were gladly lent to me. The books of friends who died in the South came back to their relations in the Glen, but these were books of the beginning of the last century, and were more read than the others. The others stretched back in a straggling way to the time of the Reformation, and forwards to 1770. How did these old books come into the possession of people who did not, and few of whom could, read them or understand them? I believe it was because they were sold with the furniture in Meggernie Castle on the death of Commissioner Archibald Menzies in 1776. His father, Old Culdares, died the year before. When his son died, leaving a widow and an infant daughter, the upper and bigger part of the barony went to John Stewart of Cardeney under the deed of entail, and the Chesthill end fell to the Commissioner's daughter, but it was so burdened with debt that it soon had to be sold to her uncle by marriage, Archibald Menzies, Chief Clerk to the Court of Session. No doubt that at this sale of effects the books went so cheap that, with an eye to the future, people who could not read them were tempted to buy them for possible use by their descendants. The most ponderous, and to me not the least attractive, was Hackluyt's "Collection of Voyages and Travels." Interspersed with imperishable literature were publications of the Restoration period, some of which were witty and wicked, and some of which were simply dull and immoral.

I judged Charles II. and his Court with the merciless severity of a young Puritan or Covenanter, but was quite tolerant about the disreputable doings of heathen gods and goddesses. I do not think it did me the least moral harm to get in early life a peep-show knowledge of the seamy side of human life. That side of human life was much dwelt upon in the Bible itself, in the authority, inspiration, and infallibility of which we were taught to believe implicitly by our own spiritual guides. And was there not much of it in our own ancient Celtic poetry and prose tales? I remember I sided strongly with Prometheus against thundering Jupiter, and felt glad that the latter's autocratic tyranny was at times controlled by Fate. I pondered often on the similarities between the full-fledged mythology of Greece and Rome and the . fragments of Celtic mythology which came down to us in the Cuchullin and Feinne stories. Was not Cuchullin himself the Hercules of our race? Then my own clan claimed descent from Diarmid O'Duibhne, who eloped with his uncle Fionn's wife, or, at least, betrothed bride, Grainne. Was their story not somewhat like the elopement of Paris and Helen? Comparative rumi- nation cleared paths for me through the tangles of classical mythology. But I thought less of assorting than of acquiring knowledge. I had a retentive memory, and stored my mind like a pawnbroker's shop with miscellaneous goods that had to wait for sorting out at convenience. Everything in the shape of a book was fish that came into my nets. I had read Pope's Homer and Dryden's Virgil before Mr Drummond took me in hand, and was full of the enthusiastic hope of being some day able to read these great poems in their original languages. Knowledge of Gaelic is a great help to any young student of Latin and Greek. Bi-lingualism of any kind is in itself a mental discipline and an educational ladder.

The desultory reading which I began in my early youth became a habit which clung to me throughout my life. It was my form of dissipation. I had much hard work to do to earn my daily bread, and at first that work had nothing in connection with books. But although I did not know it, I was qualifying myself for the journalistic work into which I ultimately drifted, and at which I remained for forty-six years. When I began to learn Latin I intended to go to a University; but I did not know to what profession I should devote attention. The ministry was the usual aim of Highland lads of my kind, but I did not think myself pious enough for that calling, for the revival doctrine of conversion was then overawing the rising generation, and I knew I could not honestly say to myself or others that I had gone through any process of conversion. I had more leaning towards the medical than to the legal profession. But to get some learning was my first craving, and the choice of a profession would be made when I had more knowledge of the world and of my capacity, likings, and chances. Meanwhile the great thing was to earn money, and with the money I earned to scramble for a higher education. I was the eldest of my parents' family of five children, and the only son. But before my father had lost the farm on which he and his ancestors had been for two hundred years, it was tacitly under- stood by all concerned that I was to turn my back on farming and to shape a course for myself. Had my people kept on the ancestral farm they could manage to work it without me, for a bachelor brother of my father's had lately come home after long service with Mr Charles Stewart as his manager at Chesthill. When my father went out of the old farm, he never took another one, and he needed his small means and industry for his own family needs. I was determined to earn for myself what I was to spend on my own education. In the process of earning that money by my own efforts, I steadily kept the idea of a University career before my mind. It was useful as a stimulus to exertion and saving, but as things turned out, I was never to get nearer to a University training than two partial sessions at the Edinburgh Training College, or Normal School, as it was then called.

My scramble for a higher education was made with strenuous self-effort; as mutatis mutandis was that of many country lads, Highland and Low- land, who broke away from their birth -spheres and shaped their own careers. Not a few of such youths fell short of their aims by overworking brains and bodies, and throwing themselves into consumption or some other fatal or disabling illness. But such as succeeded increased that aristocracy of merit which, in Scotland from the Reformation downwards, did so much to link classes together, and to harmonise old- fashioned feudalism and clanship with a Church and system of education established on democratic principles. From fifteen until nearly twenty, I was spending in fees, books, bread, and lodgings, money I had earned in the country. I might almost call myself a jack-of-all-trades; so many were my employments that it would be difficult for me now to enumerate them in consecutive order. I did my share in planting the wood on Meggernie hill. For several years I was gillie to the Earl of Sefton during the shooting season. Lord Sefton had Meggernie Castle, and the shooting and fishing both of the Culdares estate and of the Marquis of Breadalbane's Roro estate, for fifteen years. He knew the Glen and its people better than the pro- prietor whose shooting tenant he was; and the people knew him and his wife and children, and, although shy of showing their feelings, they looked upon the Sefton family with almost clannish affection. One day I heard Lord Sefton pay a high compliment to Glen honesty. Looking at the carcases of two fat wedders hanging up in an open shed, he said "In Lancashire these would have been stolen before morning unless kept under lock and key. Here the people would never lay hands on anything which did not belong to them." He was not in his former robust state of health when I was his gillie. When not equal to the exertion of going far up the rugged hills, he and I and his two favourite dogs, Nelson and Juno, went by ourselves up the Loch hills, to the bottom of which he rode, and when he got tired of shooting, lie would join his lady and children at the Loch's side and take a turn at fishing. My business then was to row the boat. Hauls of salmon were got on the Lyon by nets on the linns and by poke-nets at the falls between Gallin and Moar. Rod-fishing, too, was often resorted to by Lord Seftori, and, less often, by one or more of his guests. Although Lord Sef'ton gave me credit for being very efficient at the river and loch business, considering my want of training, it was the joy of the hill sports my memory treasured up for ever more. How often in smoky towns I thought of the mountain tops where' ptarmigan and golden plover were to be found ; of the corries where deer that strayed from the Black Mount could be stalked, and of the heather slopes on which the passing breezes caused billowy movements like waves of the sea ! How often when in fair and fertile country scenes, free from the smoke of long chimneys, the clatter of streets, and the rattle of machinery, I said with Byron:

England, thy beauties are tame and domestic
To one who has roved o'er the mountains afar;

Oh, for the crags that are wild and majestic!
The steep, frowning glories of dark Loch-na-Garr!

When our neighbour the elder was turned out of the Eight Merkland holding like ourselves, he took the farm of Balnahanait on the Roro estate, and there I worked under him as farm servant for six months. The work was hard enough for a growing lad, but it was one to which I was accustomed, and we were all of us a cheery household of friends and acquaintances. That was the end of my farm life, and it does not come in here in proper sequence, but I am rather grouping my chief employments during the jack-of-all-trades' years than giving them in the order in which they occurred. An odd job after the shooting season was the smearing of sheep at Lochs. This in itself was far from being so pleasant as ranging the hills or cutting hay with a well-balanced scythe, or indeed any field-work. A month of it was enough at any time, and in wet weather even too much, for blackened nails and sore hands. But the smearing-house company always kept itself hearty with songs, jests, and stories, and, not in- frequently, with discussions like a debating club. Smearing has long been displaced by dips, to the detriment of the poor sheep, and, I almost think, of the grazings too. It could not be kept on much longer than it was, because, with the desolation of the country districts, smearers were not to be found in most places. So the sheep had to lose their warm, water-tight, winter cloaks, and to put up with less clean skins than the tar and butter or oil unction had given them.

On losing the ancestral holding my father took a series of contracts for repairing and rebuilding head- walls which separated arable and hay lands from outer grazings. In carrying out these contracts he had to associate others with himself, sometimes only one his cousin, Duncan Dewar if it was merely repairing, sometimes three, two for each side of the wall, when it meant building or rebuilding altogether. Of all his wall contracts the one which was looked upon at first as a bad bargain turned out to be the most profitable. This was the long wall between the Dalreoch and the Leacan Odhar remnant of the self-sown Caledonian forest. The park and the wood are on the other side of the river opposite Meggernie Castle. His associates in building this wall were Duncan Dewar, Duncan Macnaughton (Donnachadh Ruadh), and myself. Donnachadh and I built the hill-side and my father arid Duncan Dewar the inside of the wall. The wall that was there before had fallen into utter disrepair, and it had originally been one of the irregularly built structures of the cattle age which would keep cows in or out but would be no great hindrance to more audacious climbing or jumping animals. It was plain that much new building material would be required, hence the doubt of the value of the con- tract. But we soon discovered that we had stones in plenty quite near us concealed under the long heather, mixed with cranberry patches, juniper bushes, and anthills. Outside the park everything was little different from what it had been in the days of Galgacus and Agricola. The roe-buck herd itself was as primeval as its surroundings, although it must lately have been inconvenienced by the wintering of sheep in its preserves. Blackcocks and woodcocks no doubt resented that invasion also. But all the ancient denizens were now to be relieved of their woolly invaders who disturbed their immemorial heritage. The new building material being so easily won made it possible for us to earn a considerably higher daily wage than the average one of the district at those times, when two shillings a day was considered good pay. We about doubled that and were quite content. Early in the spring we began leaving home by dawn of day and returned at dusk ; for we had to go two miles to get to our work. Until I hardened to this work I was glad enough when the seventh day's rest came round. Donnachadh Ruadh and I were, notwithstanding the great disparity of age, the best of friends and the best possible companions. He was an old experienced hand, and I was a young willing one at the work on which we were engaged. Any little controversy that arose came from old Dewar on the other side of the wall, who wanted to boss everyone except my father, and who now and then accused us, unjustly as we thought, of not doing our just part in packing the wall interior with pinning and filling stone fragments. Our wall face at any rate was as good as his and my father's. But it was old Dewar's nature to find fault with somebody, when company working. On the other hand he was the best and most diligent of servants when his master kept out of sight. My finger-nails, worked down to the quick, and the worn skin of my hands, sorely needed the Sunday's recuperative rest and restoration. But, after all, it was a joyous time for me. In my jacket pocket I always took with me to the wall-building a small neatly-printed edition of the poems of Horace, published in 1814 by R. Morison, Perth ; and then, or a short time afterwards, I used to take the small copy of Greenfield's Greek New Testament with lexicon with me to church, and I used it for following the scripture lessons and the text. I fear that I sometimes continued my own reading of it, seeking in the lexicon the words which were new to me, instead of listening to the sermon. In learning Latin and Greek I thought it best to peg away at my task with grammar and dictionary, and not to look at any translation until I had first done the best for myself. With the little edition of Horace I used a crib made in the reign of Queen Anne, but it was not until I had gone over it all and could enjoy the Latin text without any help that I realised the charms of the Burns of Roman literature and polished society in the great Augustan reign. With his revelations of himself, his great fear of death, his Epicurean philosophy and observance of the rites of a mythology which he did not believe, and his love of the country life when in Rome, and his desire to be back at Rome when on his Sabine farm, Horace makes himself so personally and intimately known to his reader that he exercises a peculiar fascination.


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