Robert Dick was born at
Tullibody in January 1811. He was one of four children—Agnes, Robert, Jane,
Thomas Dick, his father, was an officer of excise. He was an attentive,
diligent, and able man. He eventually rose to one of the highest positions
in his calling. At the time when Robert Dick was born, it was his business
to attend daily at the Cambus Brewery, close at hand.
Margaret Gilchrist was Robert Dick’s mother. Very little is known of her,
excepting that she was a very delicate woman, and died shortly after having
given birth to her fourth child. Thomas Dick was thus left without a wife,
and his children without a mother.
The house in which the Dick family lived, and in which Robert was born, is
situated in the principal street of the village. It is a two-storied,
red-tiled, “self-contained” house. Looking down the street from the Tron
Tree, you see the Ochil hills forming the back-ground of the village; the
Devon winding in the valley below.
The children, as they grew up, were sent to school. Tullibody was fortunate
in its Barony School, founded and partly endowed by the Abercromby family.
Thus all the children in the village were able to obtain a fair education at
a moderate price; for in Scotland it is considered a disgrace if a parent,
of even the meanest condition, does not send his children to school.
Mr. Macintyre was the teacher of the Barony School He was a man of
considerable attainments. Above all things, he was an enthusiastic
schoolmaster. He maintained discipline, inculcated instruction, and elevated
the position of his school by steady competition. He endeavoured to avoid
corporal punishment, and only appealed to it as the last resource.
Robert Dick was one of his aptest scholars. He learned everything rapidly.
When he had mastered reading, he read everything he could lay hands on. He
was fond of fun and sport, and, like all strong and active hoys, he
sometimes got into scrapes. When he infringed the rules of the school, the
master gave him a number of verses to commit to heart. But he learnt them so
quickly and recited them with such ease, that the task was found of no use
as a punishment, and then, on any further indiscretion being committed, the
master resorted to the last extremity—the Taws! In a letter to Hugh Miller,
Dick afterwards said, “My auld dominie used to say that I had a good memory.
Every morning, in his introductory exercise, before the business of the day
began, he used to pray that teacher and scholars might all be taught, and
that discipline might be followed with obedience.”
Robert had a great talent for languages. He learnt Latin so quickly that his
master recommended Mr. Dick to send him to college, with the object of
educating him for one of the learned professions. Such was his intention,
when an event occurred which prevented its being carried into effect.
This was Mr. Dick’s second marriage. It occurred in 1821, when Robert was
ten years old. Mr. Dick married the daughter of Mr. Knox, the brewer at
Cambus, whose premises he inspected. As the excise regulations did not
permit of his surveying the premises of a relative, he was removed to Dam’s
Burn, a hamlet at the foot of the Ochils, where he inspected the whisky
distillery of Mr Dali. The distillery is now called Glen Ochil.
Dam’s Burn is so called because of a noisy burn, which leaps from rock to
rock down the hills, to join the Devon, which runs through the valley below.
On its way, the burn used to be dammed up, so as to drive a mill while on
its way to the river. Mr. Dick occupied the best house in the place, the
slated house, with its gable end towards the street, as shown in the annexed
engraving. The slopes of the Ochil hills,— the Abbey Craig, on which the
Wallace Monument now stands, and the Campsie Fells, beyond Stirling, are
seen in the distance.
While at Dam’s Burn, Robert Dick went to the parish school at Menstrie, a
village about half a mile westward.
The teachers name was Morrison. He was not equal in accomplishments to the
Barony schoolmaster at Tullibody. He took to teaching because he had not
limbs enough to fit him for anything else. He had only one arm. He used to
mend his pens dexterously, while holding them firmly under the little stump
that remained on the other side.
Robert Dick made little progress under this master. He learned his lessons
well enough, and read as many books as he could find or borrow. But he had a
great compensation at Dam’s Burn for his want of school learning. It was at
Dam’s Burn that he imbibed his love of Nature. The green Ochils rose right
behind his father’s house. By stepping into the back-green, he could at once
ascend the heights. He could ramble up the burns, and in the sheltered
corners, behind the rocks, find many precious flowers and plants.
The boy who plays about a mountain side, or among the clefts of the hills,
finds many things to amuse him. In spring time there are the birds; in
summer there are the plants and flowers; and in winter there are the icicles
hanging down the ledges of the rocks. Robert also found out a variety of
stones among the hills,— the felspar, porphyry, and greenstones, which are
common in the Ochils. He wondered at the difference between them,—made a
collection of them, which he treasured at a dike-side, behind his father’s
house,— and tried to find out the cause of the difference between one stone
This climbing of the Ochils led him into difficulties.
And this leads us to a point in the history of Robert Dick’s life which
cannot be omitted, inasmuch as it coloured his whole future life. The years
of childhood and boyhood are, as it were, a sort of prophetic recital of the
years of manhood. They constitute the little stage on which, with puny
powers, we unconsciously rehearse the scenes of after life.
The boy has in him the seeds of good and the seeds of evil. Which will prove
the stronger? No one can tell. But, to a large extent, it depends upon the
effects of love and sympathy at home. The presence of these may call into
life the best growths of the soul, and the absence of them may raise up the
noxious miasmas that poison the whole human heart.
It will be remembered, that when Thomas Dick removed to Dam’s Burn, he
married again. Other children were soon added to the household. Then the
feelings of the step-mother came into play. It requires great tact and
temper to manage a family in which there are two elements,—the children of
the first mother, and the children of the second.
The new Mrs. Dick was a good wife and an excellent mother, so far as her own
children were concerned. But she did not get on well with her husband’s
children by his first wife. Perhaps they regarded her as an intruder Li the
household; and where her own children were concerned, she naturally regarded
them with preference.
Nor were her husband’s attentions to his children by his first wife at all
to her taste. What was done for them evoked many a pang of maternal
jealousy. Mother-like; human-like, she could not but regard these young
things as intruders upon her own children’s standing room. All that was
given to them was so much taken from her own offspring.
Hence arose family difficulties in the household. Robert stayed out, rather
than remain indoors. He wandered about among the hills. He wore out his
shoes. To prevent him going out, his step-mother hid them. Still Robert
climbed the hills, and came home with bleeding feet. He was punished for his
misdoings, and commanded to stay at home. This did not hinder him from going
out again. He would wander along the Devon looking for birds’ nests. This
was as bad as climbing the Ochils, and he was again thrashed with a stick.
It was the same with the other step-children. James, the youngest son of the
first wife, struck back. Poor fellow! He was pommelled so hard that he could
scarcely stand. Was he a “dour,” hard, perverse boy? Very likely. He had no
mother’s affection to bear him up. Robert Dick never complained. He took his
thrashings without grumbling. Still he went on in his old way, though he
could not but feel the hollowness of his new motherhood.
At last the children were got out of the house, Instead of being sent to
college (as had been his father’s intention), Robert was sent to Tullibody,
where he was apprenticed to a baker. Shortly after, James, the youngest boy,
went to sea; and Agnes, the eldest, went to be a servant at Edinburgh.
Of course this was a very bad training for an intelligent, high-spirited
boy. It was not calculated to liberate the ideal human being which lies
concealed in every child. It was, on the contrary, calculated to sour the
boy’s nature, and to thwart his temperament at every point. It threw a dark
shadow along the whole of his future life.
Long afterwards, in speaking to Charles Peach about his early struggles, he
said—“All my naturally buoyant, youthful spirits were broken. To this day I
feel the effects. I cannot shake them off. It is this that still makes me
shrink from the world.” It will be necessary to bear these facts in mind
while reading the story of Eobert Dick’s after life.
There were, however, two or three things that Robert had already learnt. He
was educated, as Scotch boys usually are, at the parish school. He had
learnt reading, writing, arithmetic, and a little Latin. It did not amount
to much, but it was the beginning of a great deal. The rest of his education
he owed to himself. As Stone, the son of the Duke of Argyll’s gardener,
said, “One needs only to know the twenty-six letters of the alphabet to be
able to learn everything else that one wishes.”
Another thing that he learnt during this trying period of his life, was
self-control. Though treated with capricious restraint, he never retorted.
He bore uncomplainingly all that was laid upon him. Though strong and
spirited, he was a good-natured boy. He felt that, under the circumstances,
the ill-treatment of his stepmother was a thing that he must bear; and he
bore it uncomplainingly, looking forward to better times.
There are compensations in all things. He was happy to leave home. It was a
pleasure to him to find that there was some other roof under which he could
live in comparative comfort.