IN Perth I was taught Latin
and Greek by Mr James Davidson, who kept a classical academy in Melville Street, while his wife, who had received a good education, taught French and German. Mr Davidson had become totally blind, although one would not know it to look at him. But his memory was prodigious and his mind was richly stored with Greek and Roman lore. Mr Davidson was at the head of his profession in Perth. Except on Saturdays his time was wholly taken up with his various classes. He had many town boys in the lower classes, but his higher ones contained big lads from the country districts who intended to be ministers, doctors, and lawyers, and, in the vacation months, schoolmasters desirous of advancing their classical knowledge. It was useless for dolts and lads who had neglected to learn prescribed lessons diligently to go to the Melville Street Academy, for they would meet with anything but forbearing tolerance there. Mr Davidson was an enthusiastic teacher, and his pupils, with their own projects in view, responded to their master's enthusiasm and strove hard to fulfil his expectations, and made wonderful progress. I am proud to say that I became a favourite with Mr Davidson because I was as strenuously bent upon acquiring, as he was on imparting, instruction. In my second year at Perth Mr Davidson one day surprised me by asking me if I would go to Cargill to teach the parish school there instead of the parochial schoolmaster, Mr Peter Cochrane, who had been disabled for some time by paralysis and was consequently obliged to provide a substitute. The proposal came upon me unexpectedly, but I accepted it. I was to have the house or as much of it as I wanted, the glebe, the school fees, and a few pounds of salary. At that period of my life I thought it would be a fine thing to have the teaching of a parish school. The disabled schoolmaster lived at Perth, so there would be free scope for his assistant to do his best in his own way. But I was beginning to have some small tutorial work at Perth, and felt unwilling to break off the course of my own studies. Mr Davidson suggested that I should come in on Saturdays and go over with him what Latin and Greek I had been reading for myself during the week. That suggestion put an end to my objections. I went to Cargill, and liked the place, the people, and the work.
When I went to Cargill in
1848, the parish school was up on the high ground at Newbigging, a good distance above the village parish church and manse. I believe the building at Newbigging
was formerly the minister's manse. It was a tall building, solidly built. Its lower storey contained the school-room and a large kitchen. The flat above, and the attics above that, gave good and plenty house room to the schoolmaster. There was a glebe of four acres of arable land, including the garden. I had more than sixty pupils. They were, with few exceptions, the children of well-to-do farmers, farm-servants, and workmen on the Stobhall estate. Only two or three of them were over thirteen years of age. The custom, so common in the Highlands, of older pupils coming back for a spell of schooling in the winter did not exist in Cargill, nor in the Lowlands generally, I believe. When the children left school to work, they generally left it forever; or if their parents were well off, they were sent for higher education elsewhere. No doubt the Cargill children had suffered from the disability of the master and the annual changing of his substitutes, but it did not seem to me that the desire for education, beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic, was so keen in Cargill as it was in the Highlands. I liked the children, and, in parting, they made known that they liked me. They were orderly in the school-room, attentive to their lessons and tasks, and cheerfully frolicsome without being quarrelsome in the play-ground.
I occupied only a bedroom and
the kitchen, and when the school was dismissed lived all alone in the big
building, doing my own cooking such as it was and sending out my washing to
the neighbouring ploughman's wife. My nearest neighbours, the farmer of Newbigging, Mr Irvine, and his wife, were kindly concerned about the hermit life I was leading, and often made me come over and have supper with them. I was a bad cook and housekeeper, and if someone had not come to join me and take the management of the house in hand, I daresay that my health might have been seriously injured. But I did not feel the least bit lonely, and preparatory studies for the Saturday readings with Mr Davidson fully employed my mind, and made spare time fly on fast wings. It was a break in my hermit life when, every Saturday, whether it was fair and frosty or wet and snowy, I tramped off to Perth to give Mr Davidson an account of my week's studies. Nine miles there and nine back made a good day's walk and insured sound sleep. By going to the station a mile or two out of my direct way I could have taken the train, but that meant paying railway fares, and I had no money to throw away. In truth I was nearly at the end of my money when payment of the first quarter's school fees brought me relief. The parents of the Cargill children were the best of payers.
Dunsinane, with the ruins of
Macbeth's Castle on it, was near at hand, and as I was full of Shakespeare I soon paid it a visit, and looking across to Birnam, I thought the men of old must have had wonderful power of sight to see the wood moving. Coupar Angus was within four miles, and I went to see what remained of its Abbey, which had become dreadfully demoralised before the Reformation put an end to it. The Abbey of Scone was equally infamous before it was swept away; but I happened to hear more about Coupar than I did about Scone, because of the way in which the corrupt Coupar Angus abbots endowed their illegitimate children with Church lands, which habit was the cause of the feud between Argyll and Airlie. Stobhall, the ancient patrimony of the Drummond Chiefs, and the place from which Robert III. got his excellent wife, Queen Arabella, had its own interesting history, variegated with lights and shades, of which the Cargill parishioners of 1848 seemed to have no such vivid traditions as would have been handed down from generation to generation regarding a similar seat of Chiefs in the Highlands. Yet these people as a whole must have been of the same stock as the inhabitants of Queen Arabella's time or centuries earlier than that. The practical Lowlander concentrated his vigorous attention on the present, leaving the past to records and writers of books, while the more visionary Highlander cherished traditional history strung together on long genealogies and enlivened by snatches of song. There were songs also in the Cargill parish bothies and in sheds in which women were weaving for Dundee employers, but they had nothing to do with local stories.
My hermit life ended when my
second cousin, Duncan Mackerchar, came down to join me from the Braes of Glenlyon. He was a good bit older than I, and had been shepherding since boyhood. He had saved a little money, and was now bent upon leaving the glen arid getting into commercial life. He wanted to perfect himself in arithmetic, learn book-keeping, and improve his knowledge of English grammar and composition. He was very intelligent, and, when tending the sheep on the hills, had mused on many subjects beyond his proper calling. When Duncan took the house-keeping in hand, the cooking vastly improved, and the parts of the house which we occupied became forthwith neat and orderly. We had pleasant days and studious nights together. When
I left Cargill, he went to Greig's
Academy, Perth, after which he went to England; from which, in the course of
years, he returned to Glasgow, where he settled, married, and modestly
prospered until his death, now a long time ago. About Christmas time, when
the weather happened to be mild and foggy, I was worrying myself as to how I
could get the glebe ploughed so as to be ready for oat-sowing in spring.
That difficulty was soon solved by the generous and spontaneous action of
the farmers whose children attended the school. They sent me word that on a
certain day, a Saturday I think, they would send men, ploughs, and horses
sufficient for doing the whole job in less than one day. The thing had never
been done before, and it was a great kindness and high compliment to a young stranger who had so recently come among them. Duncan and I, he more than I, had to make arrangements for giving the ploughmen a plentiful if but a rough-and-ready feast. If Mrs Irvine had
not helped, we should have been without the necessary equipment of spoons, knives, forks, and plates. Duncan and I were practically total abstainers, but on that evening, when the ploughing was done, whisky circulated pretty freely round the festive board. I suspect from the price given for it that whisky never paid duty. Duncan bought it from a trader from Glenisla, who made periodical visits to our district. At any rate it suited the ploughmen, who, after singing "Auld Lang Syne," departed in a merry mood, but sober enough for all purposes.