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The Life of James Robertson

THE Robertson clan is numerous and widely distributed throughout Scotland. A very humble member of the clan was James Robertson who, leaving his fatherís farm of Lurgan, near Dull, went up to Loch Tayside and took to himself a wife, a farmerís daughter, one Christina McCallum, and settled to work upon the Breadlabane estates near by, thence to a farm for a time, later to work as a day-labourer for a brother of Sir Robert Menzies. Afterwards he ventured to take a small sheep-farm, but all along it was a struggle, and he never made very much out of it.

To James Robertson and Christina McCallum were born six sons and two daughters. Of these, James, the subject of this biography, was the third child and son, born April 24, 1839. His father was a "quiet" man, hard-toiling, God-fearing, patient and persistent, whose only pride was his honesty, and whose only ambition was to rear his family "respectably" till they could do for themselves. Of the mother something more must be said. For it was to her that the boy James owed his eager, ambitious spirit, his indomitable will, his shrewd common sense, and that genius for getting things done which distinguished him in after-life. "She was a little woman," writes one of her daughters. "There was nothing that any woman could do that she could not do, and when it was done it needed no second doing." She was, indeed, a rare woman, alert of mind and quick of speech, devoted to the well-being of her family, toiling early and late in the unceasing struggle for daily bread, but cherishing secretly an ambition for her children that became the controlling force in her life. From his earliest days she had unbounded faith in the future of her boy James, and this, with her native pride, made her impatient of anything like criticism of the lad. One record says that James Robertson was one of the most ragged children who went to the Dull school. One day a neighbouring farmer having some words with the mother, reflected somewhat scornfully upon the boyís somewhat ragged appearance. With a quick flash of her Highland and family pride, the mother retorted, "Indeed, and very likely my son will some day think himself low enough to dip his spoon in the same basin with any of your family."

She was clever not only with her tongue, but with hand and foot. It is told of her that being in need of a shawl of particular make and not being able to buy it in Dull, she walked all the way to Crieff, a distance of twenty-seven miles over the hills, to secure the shawl. She was back with her purchase the same day.

From the very first the mother saw that of all her children it was James who was possessed of the greatest aptness for learning, and so, as far as was consistent with the necessities of the home, he attended the parish school, his attendance being interrupted by the demands made upon him for herding on the neighbouring estates, for acting as gillie in the shooting time, or for the performance of household work while his mother was employed upon the neighbouring farms. But in spite of all they could do, his early school days were much broken, not only by the need of his labour in the home and in the fields, but by a severe illness as well, which seriously interfered with continuous study. At twelve years of age, however, the boy began something like steady attendance at school, and when the opportunity so long delayed came to him at last, he went eagerly at his books.

He was distinguished for a memory of remarkable tenacity, and by a perseverance unconquerable in the pursuit of knowledge. We are told he took little part in the school games, preferring to walk about with a book in his hand. But in spite of this he was well liked by the boys, and as a friend says of him, "He was no duffer, but enjoyed fun as much as any of them." Though even of temper and self-controlled, he was a "terrible fighter," his master says, "when fighting was to be done." So, though he won no distinction on the playground, he held his own with his mates, and easily carried the palm as being the most notable scholar of the district school. His old master, Alexander McNaughton, writes as follows:

"James was very often taken from his lessons to help his mother in household work when she would be employed at outdoor toil on neighbouring farms, yet, despite this, he outstripped his classmates, especially in Latin, arithmetic, and geometry. He had a clear head, great powers of concentration, and a memory so retentive that he seldom forgot what was worth remembering. Of all the boys whom I have put through the scholastic mill in a period of forty years, none gave me more pleasure or raised my hopes of his success higher than did James Robertson."

When he was about fifteen years of age there was a contest instituted between schools of the three parishes. The best scholars from each of the schools competed, and, with them, some lads who had been two years at the college. There seemed small chance for the Dull scholar, handicapped as he was by his late beginning and his broken attendance. But undaunted, he entered the competition with all the energy he possessed of body, mind and spirit. The great day arrived, and at it they went and continued at it the whole day long. As the hours pass the combatants fall out one by one till a college lad and Robertson of Dull are left alone. On into the night they continue the struggle until, dazed but undaunted, at two oíclock next morning, Robertson is declared the winner. "He never let go what he once took a grip of," says another friend, a significant forecast, surely, of a later characteristic.

He was good at Latin, and though Gaelic was his mother tongue and the only tongue he knew to converse in till he was sixteen years of age, he was good at book English, too; but his strong point was arithmetic. When he was about sixteen, a problem that had given some trouble in the college in Edinburgh was sent down to the master at Dull.

"If any of them can solve it," said the master, "it will be Robertson." And to Robertson he gave it, who took it home and fell upon it. When his father was going to bed that night he said to his boy:

"Are you not cominí to your bed, lad?"

"Yes, after a while," replied the boy, hardly looking up from his slate. But when next morning the father came in to light the fire, James rose from the spot where he had been left sitting the night before, with the solution of the problem in his hands. No wonder that he was the delight and pride of the master and of his fellows in the school

But as the years went on, times with the Robertsons grew worse and the motherís dream of a college education for her son, in which he secretly shared, seemed to become less and less likely to be realized, till in 1854 a terrible storm fell upon the Tayside, burying flocks and herds and cots beneath its masses of snow, and bringing ruin to many a small sheep-farmer. There followed a period of great depression, so great, indeed, that James Robertson, who had lost almost all that he had, lost heart as well, and resolved to leave his native land and try his fortune in Canada.

Canada was at that day a far-off place and wild, and it is almost impossible for us to imagine the feelings with which these Scottish people, with their passionate love for their native hills and their yearning for their "ain fowk," contemplated emigration to the backwoods of Canada so far and so fearsome. But, while Scotland held all or almost all that their hearts could cling to, Scotland had little to offer the labouring man in the way of reward for present toil, and less in the way of hope of future advancement for his family. Then, too, the word that came back from James McCallum, Mrs. Robertsonís brother who had gone to Canada some years before, was encouraging. He had done well for himself and his family out there. So, after long deliberation and much prayer, and after earnest consultation with their minister, though with few others, for the Robertsons kept "themselves to themselves," the resolve was taken and to Canada they would go.

At this juncture arose a question of the greatest importance to the family as a whole, but especially to the boy James and to his mother. Shortly before their departure the parish minister brought an offer from the trustees of what was known as the Stewart bequest, the proceeds of which were to be devoted to the education of bright lads in the district, to undertake the education of James if he would remain behind. It was a time of sore trial for them all, but at length one and all agreed that it could not be. Not even for the college education, so long desired and so toilfully sought, could they bear to leave the boy behind.

So, in 1855, James Robertson and his family set sail in the George Roger for Canada, and settled beside James McCallum in the township of East Oxford, Ontario.

Among his few possessions the lad carried as his most priceless treasure the certificate from his old master, as follows:

"That James Robertson attended the parish school of Dull from December, 1851, to date hereof, and was educated in English, reading, grammar, writing, arithmetic, geography, and religious knowledge, that he acquired a reasonable acquaintance with the elements of Latin and was reading Caesar and Ovid, that he studied mathematics with much success, having mastered the first four books of Euclidís elements and algebra as far as quadratic equations, that his progress in the above enumerated branches was more than usually rapid, and his moral character and conduct in the highest degree satisfactory; but notwithstanding his being a young man of modest and unassuming manners, his natural abilities were conspicuous as well during ordinary school exercises as on examination days, on which occasions he invariably carried away the highest prizes. That he is leaving this locality for the purpose of emigrating to America and that whether he be there employed in teaching the young, in which capacity he has had some experience while assisting me, or in any other occupation to which Providence may call him, I feel sure that his wonted diligence and perseverance will accompany him and success crown his labours, is certified at the schoolhouse of Dull, in the county of Perth, by Alexander McNaughton, parish schoolmaster, May 9, 1855."

With a certificate of this kind from a parish school. master of Mr. McNaughtonís well-known ability and reserve of speech, James might indeed front much. On a visit to his native parish many years afterwards he writes as follows to his old master:

"No. 20 Mound Place, Edinburgh, April 2, 1897.

"My DEAR MR. MCNAUGHTON :ó "I have never lost my interest in the school of Dull or in its pupils, and I anticipate no small pleasure in my intended visit to renew acquaintance with scenes once familiar. Rivers and roads, hills and woods continue the same, although familiar faces have disappeared and strange faces have taken their place. I wish, therefore, to send some three poundsí worth of books to my old school in prizes to the pupils attending there now and I would like very much if you would oblige me by selecting them. I have perfect confidence in your judgment as to the books and the subjects for which they are to be given. I mention three pounds, but should three pounds not do justice to the school, make it four or even five. To the teacher and not to the school as such do I owe what of good I got in Dull, but yet this is the only way I can indicate that I have not forgotten the scenes of early days.

"With much respect I am, dear sir,

"Yours sincerely,


Western Ontario was, at that time, but sparsely settled. The Great Western Railway had not long been opened. At the front, along river and lake, settlements clustered, but in the backwoods counties, vast sections of the forest primeval remained unbroken and immigrants, pushing their way past the homes of early settlers, found themselves in the midst of this unbroken forest, and faced with the labour of hewing themselves homes out of its gloomy and terrible depths.

The first summer was spent in enlarging the clearing upon their farm. The winter following, James with the other boys, chopped cord-wood and hauled it to the neighbouring village of Woodstock. For a part of the following summer he laboured again at farm-work, but for a few weeks of that summer he walked night and morning a distance of six miles to attend school at Woodstock, carrying his dinner with him. When the time for the teachersí examinations arrived, James asked for the privilege of writing. His teacher, however, objected because of his short attendance upon school. The boy was not to be balked. Too long had he had the university and college in view. Other boys were making their way, therefore why should not he? He went to his minister, the Rev. Mr. McDermot, of Chalmers Church, Wood-stock, and stated his case, showing his much prized certificate from the parish schoolmaster of Dull. The minister was greatly impressed, not only with the certificate he presented, but also with his determined spirit. The boy had, indeed, a "terrible jaw." He tried to persuade young Robertson that it would be wiser for him to delay his attempt, urging that he was not used to the Canadian style of work and of examinations. It was all in vain. Robertson would not be stopped. He only wanted a chance, and finally the minister went to the teacher and persuaded him to let the lad have his way. That "terrible jaw" of the boy had appealed to the minister. The teacher agreed and the papers were given to Robertson who, when the examination was over, went back to his home and his work at the clearing of the land and the gathering in of the crops.

The weeks passed and there was no news of the examination. Young Robertson was disappointed. He had been too impatient and too confident of himself, and it would have been wiser to have taken the ministerís advice. It was his first failure, and the lad took it quietly enough, but with a keen sense of defeat.

One day in the late fall, his younger brother, Archie, was sent with another lad to a neighbouring post-office. Hearing his name, the postmistress called out to him:

"Have you a brother James?"


"Then hereís a letter for him thatís been here for three months," and handed out a long blue envelope.

It was the teacherís certificate, long coveted and long despaired of. The envelope was opened in the presence of the family and became the occasion of a suppressed jubilation. But afterwards the boy carried it out to the back of the house and there gloated upon it.

And now for a school. The Corner School where the Governorís Road meets the Tenth Line of East Zorra, was vacant. Robertson applied for it, sending in his certificate. The boy had not walked his six miles back and forth, to and from Woodstock, without being noticed. He got his school and began work as teacher in January of 1857, at the age of eighteen.

He was a raw, awkward, uncouth lad. His clothes were made by the travelling tailor, and none too elegant. His manners and speech were abrupt almost to the point of rudeness at times, but he carried into his work a purpose to get the best out of himself and out of that little company of boys and girls that faced him in the Corner School. He was stern in disciplineóa distinguished member of the House of Commons, the Hon. James Sutherland, wrote that he remembered well a birching he had at his handsóbut he seldom needed to use the birch. He kept his pupils so busy that they had little time for mischief. He filled them with his own enthusiasm for work. One of his pupils, who lived at the teacherís boarding place, writes:

"One evening we came upon a problem in Grayís Arithmetic about oxen grazing in a field and the grass growing uniformly, the question being how long the grass in the field would support the oxen. This was one of the knotty questions of that day. The solution not coming as easily as was customary and bedtime having arrived, I proposed retiring. I can see him yet, how he rose up, put off his coat and sat down to it. I went to bed and was soon in the land where such problems cease to trouble a boy, but after some time he wakened me up, solution in hand, and sought to make plain to me, still drowsy with sleep, the points of the problem. There was no shirking and no scamping in the work done in that school."

The teacherís boarding place was the house of Mr. Peter McLeod, who was a distiller in a small way. This distilling industry throughout Ontario was primitive in its nature and primitive in operation. It was the custom for the farmers to take their "tailings" of wheat and rye and barley to the mill in Woodstock, where they were chopped and made ready for Peter McLeodís still. Peter was an honest man and made honest whiskey, part of which he gave to the farmers for their chopped tailings, and the rest he retailed at twenty-five cents a gallon. Oh, blissful days for drouthy Scots! Of course, to all in the house the whiskey was as free as water, for Peter was as kindly as he was honest, so the young teacher with the rest was welcome to his "fill" of whiskey. In those good old days there were no faddy notions about total abstinence and that sort of thing. Whiskey was not so much rated among the luxuries, but among the necessities of life. No house could afford to be without it. Hospitality demanded that it should welcome the coming and speed the parting guest. At the logging-bees and raisings, the chopping and the threshing, whiskey was a plain necessity, while at weddings, christenings, and funerals, it was equally indispensable. For who would be so mean as to fail to provide what would lend wings to dancing feet, pledge life and prosperity to the newly christened babe, and bring comfort to the heart in sorrow? Wrong! What wrong could there be in honest whiskey made by Peter McLeod out of their own wheat and rye and barley? And didnít the ministers and the elders and all godly men

take their decent glass, asking Godís blessing over it as over any other good creature of His? Tut, man, what would you have! And what if some of the weak-headed did take "a wee drap" too much! No blame to the whiskey for that, surely, but to the men who were not fit to use it. And as for hurting any one, look at Peter McLeod himself, who had barrels of it and who dipped it out with a dipper. Did any one ever see him the worse? Not a bit.

This was the temperance atmosphere of the day, and in Peter McLeodís distillery it was that the young Scotch Canadian lad took up his abode on his first venture from home. But it was Peter McLeodís distillery, too, that made young Robertson a total abstainer for life, and an enthusiast in the propagation of total abstinence principles. For he had seen that same Peter McLeodís whiskey, good and honest as it was, make beasts out of men, turn the kindly gatherings of neighbours into scenes of revelry and brawling, and, indeed, not even the sacred ranks of the church-members were safe from its dreadful inroads. Peter McLeod might take his own whiskey in sober moderation and with little hurt to him, but there were others who could only drink it to their ruin and degradation. Robertson became a rabid teetotaler, and it says something for the influence of his personality that a young man liv-ing in the same house with him became, like him, a total abstainer. Long years afterwards that young man, now an honoured minister of the Gospel, wrote:

"Robertson always acted the missionary, and I was one of his converts to total abstinence on principle. We did not take or make any pledge, but I can thank God for meeting Robertson when I was young."

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