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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
Early Days

THE name Abernethy is stated in Douglas’ “Histoiy of the Scottish Peerage,” to be “of great antiquity,” and to “have made a considerable figure in Scotland before surnames were used, and though it is evident that there was no peerage in the family till Lawrence Abernethy, of Salton, was created a Lord of Parliament by King James the Second (King of Scotland, 1436—1460, temp. Henry VI. of England) yet historians have always looked upon them in this rank on account of the considerable place they had among the chief barons.”

The progenitor of the Abernethys was Orm (lay Abbot of Abernethy, in Perthshire, a.d. 596) the son of Hugh, who flourished under Malcolm IV., several of whose charters he witnessed, and possessed during this reign the lands of Innerloppie, in Forfarshire, and Balbrennie, in Fife. From William Malcolm’s successor he acquired the Manor of Abernethy, in Strathern, and from this Manor, Orm and his son Lawrence assumed the surname of Abernethy on June 28th, 1164.

The family, one of the oldest in Scotland, was also, according to Winten, one of the original three who shared in the transcendent privilege of sanctuary.—

“That is ye blak Prest of Weddale,
The Thane of Fyfe, and ye Ihryd syne,
Quhalwyre be Lord of Abbyrnethyne.”

These passages, quoted from the above named authorities on “Peerage,” and which are but ancillary to a complete lineage given by them in the direct line from the time of David I., King of Scotland, who died a.d. 1150, to the ninth Lord of Salton Alexander Abernethy, after whose death, the names Abernethy and Fraser became merged in one Barony, are not quoted by the author, with the intention of drawing in outline a large tree of descent ;n rivalry to the many, who have, with more or less success, already produced specimens, on the top branches of which (genealogical trees having the peculiarity of growing downwards), the name of the Conqueror is occasionally to be detected; but rather with the object of establishing a clear title on behalf of the subject of this biography to be called a Scotchman by descent, apart from the circumstances of Aberdeen (the City upon the mouth of the Dee) being his native city, the city of his boyhood, and the city to which he was destined to be recalled in early manhood, and to reside for ten years executing his first important work as a civil engineer. Before concluding the reference to the antiquity of the name Abernethy, it may be allowable to pause for a moment to point out the somewhat remarkable conservatism with which Christian names have been preserved among members of a family, who, for a long period, perhaps now in some instances, at an end, have continued to style themselves Whigs, from the time that term arose in the seventeenth century, by quoting this extract from a Charter under the Great Seal in 1468. The Charter referred to and given at length by Douglas, and other writers on British Peerage, was granted to William Abernethy, wit-f* the following entail :—

“First to himself and the heirs male of his own body, which failing, to James Abernethy, then to George, then to Archibald, his brother german, then to his cousin, John Abernethy.”

All these names, with the exception of Archibald, appear to have been studiously maintained for many generations in this branch of the family, the Abernethys of Auchinacloich, while the three last generations, as well as the present, each conta:n three sons bearing the Christian names above given, James being the name of the eldest son, while the father, grandfather, and great grandfather of the celebrated surgeon John Abernethy, of the Abernethys of Croskie, respectively, bore the Christian name John.

One family failing, in times happily long since passed, which can, if necessary, be more easily and clearly proved than the family lineage, was the indulgence of a disposition to take part in clan warfare, and unfort u-nately, on the greater number of occasions, as results plainly show, to have done so on the wrong side, viewed from the point of success, notably in the case of joining the Pretender’s Army in 1845-6, for which mistaken display of patriotism several of the more responsible of their representatives justly or unjustly forfeited their landed estates, and some of them their lives, and their descendants in these times can but reflect on the past family history in the plaintive lines of Lord Byron :—

“Ill starred, though brave, did no visions foreboding
Tell you that Fate had forsaken your cause?
Ah ! were you destin’d to die at Culloden,
Victory crowned not your fall with applause.”

The great grandfather of James Abernethy, some account of whose life and work will be found in the pages which follow, fell at the battle of Culloden, April 16th, 1746, while his grandfather having been deprived of his landed property removed from Newbiggin, near the parish of Abernethy, which is situated partly in Perthshire and partly in Fifeshire, and resided on a small estate Lochgellie near Kirkcaldy, in the latter county. He died at a comparatively early age, leaving a widow and four sons—James, of Ferry Hill, Aberdeen; John, a Minister of Bolton Manse, Haddington; Robert, Steward to the Hon. Col. Ford Belfast; and George an Engineer.

The subject of this biography was the eldest son of the last named by his marriage with Miss Isabella Johnston, of Nigg, near Aberdeen, daughter of Lieut. Johnston, R.N., and was born on June 12th, 1814, in the City of Aberdeen, whither his parents had removed a short time previously from Fifeshire, and one of his earliest recollections was the interest with which as a child he used to watch his father making various mechanical designs in the evenings at home, and pulling them into the more tangible form of wood patterns in the daytime in a workshop adjoining the house.

The whaling ships at the foot of Marischal Street, with their oily cargoes and jaw bones of the gigantic mammals which had furnished them, suspended from the rigging as trophies, and perchance calculated to attract some passing observer as being a fanciful substitute for wooden gate-posts as an entrance to his suburban garden, were equally objects of attraction, and induced lr'm to pay frequent visits to the then small tidal harbour in the bed of the River Dee, where an island known as “The Inches” separated the river from the harbour on the north side of it, and where some twenty years later he commenced his first important work as a civil engineer, while the Links, the Braid Hill, the “Auld Toon,” with its cathedral, and the Brig of Balgownie by the River' Don comprised some of the selected localities for early days’ pedestrianism.

“Often I think of the beautiful town,
That is seated by the sea,
Often in thought go up and down.
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
And my youth comes back to me.”

But the above enumeration did not apparently exhaust the scenes of daily rambles, for it is recorded that on a certain occasion while wheeling a barrow in too close proximity to the canal bank, he lost his balance and fell upon the towing path below, breaking his right arm at the elbow, besides other minor damages. Dr. Blaikie, who had formerly been an army surgeon, carefully set the fractured limb, but the bandages were released prematurely, resulting in a false joint ;n the elbow, and the right arm considerably longer than the left. The accident, however, had its fortunate effects as well, for it tended to an increase of strength in the limb, and he used to remark, “I found it advantageous in my after school-day combats.”

Of the citizens resident in Aberdeen before the year 1823 he has recorded in writing his recollection of Mr. and Mrs. Milne, whose school in King Street, he attended: James Davidson, a thread manufacturer, who resided at a house situated at the end of a passage leading from North Street to King Street, to whose grandchildren’s parties he was at times invited, and who he met some years later on the point of emigrating to the United States, broken in fortune, but not in spirit; and a Mr. Morgan, a retired West Indian planter, who lived a short distance out of the city, and who kept what is popularly termed an open house, at which one of his chief amusements was to invite certain of the hardier headed and better seasoned citizens to partake of rum punch in the evenings, with the result that his guests were often permitted to depart homewards in the “sma’ hours” with indistinct topographical ideas as to the direction in which their respective houses lay.

At the age of nine, however, a complete change of scene with entirely new associations was in store, in consequence of his father having obtained the post of manager in the Iron Works of Mr. Josiah John Guest at Dowlais in Glamorganshire, and in the summer of 1823 he embarked with his parents on a steamboat, named the Velocity, which, with a sister ship, the Brilliant, plied on alternate sailing days between Aberdeen and Leith on a voyage to the latter port, thence the long coach journey was commenced, the route taken being via Carlisle and Preston to Liverpool, where the Mersey was crossed in a rowing boat to Birkenhead, on the Cheshire side, at that time little more than a village, and thence again by coach via Chester and Hereford to Dowlais. A lasting impression was produced on the boy’s mind by the sight of the long extent of apple orchards through which the coach passed in the county of Hereford, and which were laden with fruit at the time, and another equally permanent, though of an entirely different kind, by the utter astonishment at seeing from his bedroom window upon arrival at Dowlais the roaring blast furnaces and half naked forms of the puddlers dragging the red hot bars from the ovens.

Arrived at Dowlais his parents settled in a cottage at a short distance from the foundry, and attention was again paid to renewing the schooling which had been interrupted by the change of home. An old soldier, named Shaw, residing at a convenient distance, and who kept what he was pleased to style, on a signboard in front of his house, an “Academy,” was selected as a suitable teacher. This “academician” was an advocate for strict discipline which he maintained through the agency of a long slender pole resembling a fishing-rod, suspended in readiness for use on hooks behind his chair, and by means of which he was enabled, without the effort of rising, to administer a corrective on the cranium of any desultory pupil within the room, an act (it was remembered) of frequent repetition during the time allotted for school hours.

The road to and from the academy lay through a prettily-wooded glen, at the bottom of which ran a clear stream, in the deeper parts of which the boys used to bathe and learn to swim, but upon a visit to the spot forty years later, all traces of glen and stream had disappeared and the site was found to be filled up with mounds of ashes and refuse from the adjoining iron works.

After a stay of some three years at Dowlais, the acceptance by his father of a more remunerative post as manager of a foundry in Southwark, necessitated another family removal to London. Bristol was reached by steamer, and thence on the following day, seats were taken on the Regulator coach for the metropolis; but on this particular journey, in turning too sharply into the yard of the Swan Inn, at Newbury, the vehicle upset, and passengers and luggage were deposited indiscriminately and impartially on to the stone paving. George Abernethy had the misfortune to break an arm in the fall, which involved a postponement of the remainder of the journey for a fortnight, at the end of which time the travellers reached their destination at nightfall, stooping their heads under the archway leading to the courtyard of the Belle Sauvage, Ludgate Hill.

The locality selected for a residence was on the Surrey side of the river, convenient to the works, and equally eligible from the boy’s point of view as being within easy range of the menagerie at Exeter Change and the Tower of London, at the former of which the elephant Chunee was held in as high esteem by the rising generation as Jumbo, half a century later at the Zoo. He could clearly recall visits to Old London Bridge and watching the wherries shooting the falls between its numerous piers which remained in the river while the new bridge was being built and long after the superstructure had been removed, and witnessed the funeral procession of the Duke of York, brother of King George IV., from the window of a surgeon’s room in Knightsbridge Barracks, on its way from St. James’s Palace to Frogmore, on the morning of January 20th, 1827.



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