Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
The Boys of the Manse and their Education

THE old minister having no money to leave his boys when he died, wisely determined to give them, while he lived, the best education in his power. The first thing necessary for the accomplishment of his object, was to obtain a good tutor, and a good tutor was not difficult to get.

James, as we shall call the tutor of the manse boys, was a laborious student, with a most creditable amount of knowledge of the elements of Greek and Latin. When at college he was obliged to live in the top story of a high house in a murky street, breathing an atmosphere of smoke, fog, and consumed tallow; cribbed in a hot, close room; feeding on ill-cooked meat, (fortunately in small quantities;) drinking doubly-diluted coffee; sitting up long after midnight writing essays or manufacturing exercises, until at last dyspepsia depressed his spirits and blanched his visage, except where it was coloured by a hectic flush, which deepened after a fit of coughing. When he returned home after having carried off prizes in the Greek and Latin classes, what cared his mother for all these honours? No doubt she was "prood o' oor James," but yet she could hardly know her boy, he had become so pale, so haggard, and so "unlike himself." What a blessing for James to get off to the Highlands! He there breathed such air, and drank such water, as made him wonder at the untaxed bounty of creation. He climbed the hills and dived into the glens, and rolled himself on the heather; he visited old castles, learned to fish, and perhaps to shoot, shutting both eyes at first when he pulled the trigger. He began to write verses, and to fall in love with one or all of the young ladies. That was the sort of life which Torn Campbell the poet passed when sojourning in the West Highlands; ay, for a time in this very parish too, where a lovely spot is yet pointed out as the scene of his solitary musings. James had a great delight not only in imparting the rudiments of language, but also in opening up various high roads and outlying fields of knowledge. The intellectual exercise braced himself, and delighted his pupils.

If ever "muscular Christianity" was taught to the rising generation, the Highland manse of those days was its gymnasium. After school hours, and on "play-days" and Saturdays, there was no want of employment calculated to develop physical energy. The glebe and farm made a constant demand for labour which it was joy to the boys to contribute. Every season brought its own appropriate and interesting work. But sheep-shearing, the reaping and ingathering of the crops, with now and then the extra glory of a country market for the purchase and sale of cattle, with tents, games, gingerbread, horse jockeys, and English cattle dealers,—these were their great annual feasts.

The grander branches of education were fishing, sailing, shooting—game-laws being then unknown —and also what was called "hunting." The fishing I speak of was not with line and fly on river or lake, or the spearing of salmon in the pools, though both these kinds of sport were in abundance; but sea-fishing, with rod and white fly, for "seath" and mackerel in their season. It was delightful towards evening to pull for miles to the fishing-ground in company with other boats. A race was sure to be kept up both going and returning, while songs arose from all hands and from every boat, intensifying the energy of the rowers. Then there was the excitement of getting among a great play of fish, which made the water foam for half a mile round, and attracted flocks of screaming birds which seemed mad with gluttony, while six or seven rods had all their lines tight, and their ends bent to cracking with the sport, keeping every fisher hard at work pulling in the fine lithe creatures, until the bottom of the boat was filled with scores. Sometimes the sport was so good as to induce a number of boats' crews to remain all night on a distant island, which had only a few sheep, and a tiny spring of water. The boats were made fast on the lee side, and their crews landed to wait for daybreak. Then began the fun and frolic "sky-larking," as the sailors call it, among the rocks—pelting one another, amid shouts of laughter, with clods and wrack, or any harmless substance which could be collected for the battle, until they were wearied, and lay down to sleep in a sheltered nook, and all was silent but the beating wave, the "eerie" cries of birds, and the splash of some sea-monster in pursuit of its prey. What glorious reminiscences have I, too, of those scenes, and especially of early morn, as watched from those green islands! It seems to me as if I had never beheld a true sunrise since; yet how many have I witnessed! I left the sleeping crews, and ascended the top of the rock, immediately before daybreak, and what a sight it was, to behold the golden crowns which the sun placed on the brows of the mountain-monarchs who first did him homage; what heavenly dawnings of light on peak and scaur, contrasted with the darkness of the lower valleys; what gems of glory in the eastern sky, changing the cold, gray clouds of early morning into bars of gold and radiant gems of beauty; and what a flood of light suddenly burst upon the dancing waves, as the sun rose above the horizon, and revealed the silent sails of passing ships; and. what delight to see and hear the first break of the fish on the waters! With what pleasure I descended, and gave the cheer which made all the sleepers awake, and scramble to the boats, and in a few minutes resume the work of hauling in our dozens! Then home with a will for breakfast — each striving to be first on the sandy shore!

Fishing at night with the drag-net was a sport which cannot be omitted in recording the enjoyments of the manse boys. The spot selected was a rocky bay, or embouchure of a small stream. The night was generally dark and calm. The pleasure of the occupation was made up of the pull, often a long one, within the shadow of the rocky shore, with the calm sea dimly reflecting the stars in the sky, and then the slow approach, with gently-moving oars, towards the beach, in order not to disturb the fish; the wading up to the middle to draw in the net when it had encircled its prey; and the excitement as it was brought into shallow water, the fish shining with their phosphoric light; until, at last, a grand haul of salmon-trout, flounders, small cod, seath, and lythe, lay walloping in the folds of the net upon the sandy beach.

Those fishing excursions, full of incident as they were, did not fully test or develop the powers of the boys. But others were afforded capable of doing so. It was their delight to accompany their father on any boating journey which the discharge of his pastoral duties required. In favourable weather they had often to manage the boat themselves without any assistance. When the sky was gloomy, old Rory took the command. Such of my readers as have had the happiness, or the horror, as their respective tastes may determine, of sailing among the Hebrides in an open boat, will be disposed to admit that it is a rare school for disciplining its pupils to habits of endurance, foresight, courage, decision, and calm self-possession. The minister's boat was about eighteen feet keel, undecked, and rigged fore and aft. There were few days in which the little Roe would not venture out, with Rory at the helm; and with no other person would his master divide the honour of being the most famous steersman in those waters. But to navigate her across the wild seas of that stormy coast demanded "a fine hand," such as a rider for the Derby prides himself in, and which can only be acquired by years of constant practice. If Rory would have made a poor jockey, what jockey would have steered the Roe in a gale of wind? I can assure the reader it was a solemn business, and solemnly was it gone, about! What care in seeing the ropes in order; the sails reefed; the boys in their right place at the fore and stern sheets; and everything made snug. And what a sight it was to see that old man when the storm was fiercest, with his one eye, under its shaggy gray brow, looking to windward, sharp, calm, and luminous as a spark; his hand clutching the tiller —never speaking a word, and displeased if any other broke the silence, except the minister, who sat beside him, assigning this post of honour as a great favour to Rory, during the trying hour. That hour was generally when wind and tide met, and "gurly grew the sea," whose green waves rose with crested heads, hanging against the cloud-rack, and sometimes concealing the land: while black sudden squalls, rushing down from the glens struck the foaming billows in fury, and smote the boat, threatening, with a sharp scream, to tear the tiny sail in tatters, break the mast, or blow out of the water the small dark speck that carried the manse treasures. There was one moment of peculiar difficulty and concentrated danger, when the hand of a master was needed to save them. The boat has entered the worst part of the tideway. How ugly it hooks! Three seas higher than the rest are coming; and you can see the squall blowing their white crests into smoke. In a few minutes they will be down on the Roe. "Look out, Rory!" whispers the minister. "Stand by the sheets!" cries Rory to the boys, who, seated on the ballast, gaze on him like statues, watching his face, and eagerly listening in silence. "Ready!" is their only reply. Down came the seas rolling, rising, breaking; falling, rising again, and looking higher and fiercer than ever. The tide is running like a race-horse, and the gale meets it; and the three seas appear now to rise like huge pyramids of green water, dashing their foam up into the sky. The first may be encountered and overcome, for the boat has good way upon her; but the others will rapidly follow up the thundering shock, and a sin-le false movement of the helm by even one hair's-breadth will bring down a cataract like Niagara that would shake a frigate, and sink the Roe into the depths like a stone. The boat meets the first wave, and rises dry over it. "Slack out the main sheet, quick, and hold hard; there—steady!" commands Rory in a low firm voice, and the huge back of the second wave is seen breaking to leeward. "Haul in, boys, and belay!" Quick as lightning the little craft, having again gathered way, is up in the teeth of the wind, and soon is spinning over the third topper, not a drop of water having come over the lee gunwale. "Nobly done, Rory!" exclaims the minister, as he looks back to the fierce tideway which they have passed. Rory smiles with satisfaction at his own skill, and quietly remarks of the big waves, "They have their road, and she has hers!" "Hurrah for the old boat!" exclaims one of the boys. Rory repeats his favourite aphorism—yet never taking his eye off the sea and sky—,, Depend on it, my lads, it is not boats that drown the men, but men the boats !" I take it that the old Roe was no bad school for boys who had to battle with the storms and tides of life. I have heard one of these boys tell, when old and gray headed, and after having encountered many a life storm, how much he owed to those habits of mind which had been strengthened by his sea life with old Rory. [For the sake of any genuine Celt who may be among my readers I print the following song, still sung by many a boatman in the Western Islcs, who knows nothing of either its subject or its author. It was composed by the eldest son of the manse in honour of Rory. The air is the same as that to which Sir W. Scott composed the song in the Lady of the Lake, "Roderick Vic Alpin Dhu" :—

The "hunting" I have alluded to as affording another branch of out-door schooling, was very different from what goes under that term in the south. It was confined chiefly to wild cats and otters. The animals employed in this work were terriers. Two of the manse terriers which became famous were "Gaisgeach" or "Hero," and "Cuilcag" or "Fly." They differed very considerably in character: Gais; each was a large terrier with wiry black and gray hair; Cuileag was of a dusky brown, and so small that she could be carried in the pocket of a shooting jacket. Gaisgeach presumed not to enter the parlour, or to mingle with genteel society; Cuileag always did so, and lay upon the hearth-rug, where she basked and reposed in state. Gaisgeach was a sagacious, prudent, honest police sergeant, who watched the house day and night, and kept the farm-dogs in awe, and at their respective posts. He was also a wonderful detective of all beggars, foumarts, wild cats, and vermin of every kind, smelling afar off the battle with man or beast. Cuileag was full of reticence, and seemed to think of nothing, or to do nothing until seriously wanted; and then indomitable courage bristled in every hair of her body. Both had seen constant service since their puppyhood, and were covered with honourable scars from the nose to the tip of the tail, each cut being the record of a battle, and the :subject of a story by the boys.

The otters in the parish were numerous, large, and fierce. There was one famous den called "Clachorain," or the otter's stone, composed of huge blocks, from which the sea wholly receded during spring-tides. Then was the time to search for its inhabitants. This was done by the terriers driving the otters out, that they might be shot while making their way across a few yards of stone and tangle to the sea. I have known nine killed in this one den during a single year. But sometimes the otter occupied a den a few hundred yards inland, where a desperate fight ensued between him and the dogs. Long before the den was reached, the dogs became nervous and impatient, whining and glancing up to the face of their master, and, with anxious look, springing up and licking his hands. To let them off until quite close to the den was sure to destroy the sport, as the otter would, on hearing them bark, make at once for the sea. Gaisgeach could, without difficulty, be kept in the rear, but little Cuileag, conscious of her moral weakness to resist temptation, begged to be carried. Though she made no struggle to escape, yet she trembled with eagerness, as, with cocked cars and low cry, she looked out for the spot where she and Gaisgeach would be set at liberty. That spot reached—what a hurry-scurry, as oft they rushed, and sprang in! Gaisgeach's short bark was a certain sign that the enemy was there; it was the first shot in the battle. If Cuileag followed, the fight had begun in earnest.

One of the last great battles fought by Cuileag was in that inland den. On gazing down between two rocks which met below at an angle, Cuileag's head and the head of a huge otter, amid loud barkings and the sound of a fierce combat, were seen alternately appearing, as each tried to seize the throat of the other. At last Cuileag made a spring, and caught the otter by the nose or lip. A shepherd who was present, fearing the dog would be cut to pieces, since the den was too narrow to admit Gaisgeach, (who seemed half apoplectic with passion and inability to force his way in,) managed, by a great effort, to get hold of the otter's tail, and to drag it upwards through a hole resembling a chimney. He was terrified that the otter, when it got its head out, would turn upon him and bite him,—and what a bite those beautiful teeth can give!—but to his astonishment, the brute appeared with Cuileag hanging to the upper lip. Both being flung on the grass, Gaisgeach came to the rescue, and very soon, with some aid from the boys, the animal of fish and fur was killed and brought in triumph to the manse.

There is another story about Cuileag which is worth recording. The minister, accompanied by her, went to visit a friend, who lived sixty miles off in a direct line from the manse. To reach the place he had to cross several wild hills, and five arms of the sea or freshwater Lochs stretching for miles. On their arrival the dog took her place, according to custom, on the friend's hearthrug, from which, however, she was ignominiously driven by a servant, and sent to the kitchen. She disappeared, and left no trace of her whereabouts. One evening, about a fortnight afterwards, little Cuileag entered the manse parlour, worn down to a skeleton, her paws cut and swollen, and hardly able to crawl to her master, or to express her joy at meeting all her dear old friends once more. Strange to say, she was accompanied into the room by Gaisgeach, who, after frolicking about, seemed to apologise for the liberty he took, and bolted out to bark over the glebe, and tell the other dogs which had gathered round what had happened. How did Cuileag discover the way home, since she had never visited that part of the country before? How did she go round the right ends of the lochs, which had been all crossed by boat on their onward journey, and then recover her track, traveling twice or thrice sixty miles? How did she live? These were questions which no one could answer, seeing Cuileag was silent. She never, however, recovered that two weeks' wilderness journey. Her speed was ever after less swift, and her grip less firm.

The games of the boys were all athletic,—throwing the hammer, putting the stone, leaping, wrestlin- and the like. Perhaps the most favourite game was " shinty," called hockey, I believe, in England. This is played by any number of persons, as many as a hundred often engaging in it. Each has a club, or stick bent at the end, and made short or long, as it is to be used by one or both hands. The largest and smoothest field that can be found is selected for the game. The combat lies in the attempt of each party to knock a ball beyond a certain boundary in his opponent's ground. The ball is struck by any one on either side who can get at it. Few games are more exciting, or demand more physical exertion than a good shinty match.

I have said nothing regarding a matter of more importance than anything touched upon in this chapter, and that is the religious education of the manse boys. But there was nothing so peculiar about it as to demand special notice. It was very real and genuine; and perhaps its most distinguishing feature was, that instead of its being confined to "tasks," and hard, dry, starched Sunday lessons only, it was spread over all the week, and consisted chiefly in developing the religious and domestic affections by a frank, loving, sympathising intercourse between parents and children; by making home happy to the "bairns;" by training them up wisely and with tact, to reverence truth,— truth in word, deed, and manner; and to practise unselfishness and courteous considerateness towards the wants and feelings of others. These and many other minor lessons were never separated from Jesus Christ, the source of all life. They were taught to know Him as the Saviour, through whose atonement their sins were pardoned, and through whose grace alone, obtained daily in prayer, they could be made like Himself. The teaching was real, and was felt by the boys to be like sunshine on dew, warming, refreshing, and quickening their young hearts; and not like a something forced into the mind, with which it had no sympathy, as a leaden bail is rammed down into a gun-barrel. Once I heard an elderly Highland gentleman say that the first impression he ever received of the reality of religion was in connexion with the first death which occurred among the manse boys.

Need .I add, in conclusion, that the manse was a perfect paradise for a boy during his holidays! Oh, let no anxious mother interfere at such times with loving grandmother and loving aunts or uncles! In spite of the Latin or Greek lesson which his grandfather or the tutor delights to give him in the morning, his excellent parents write to say that "too much idleness may injure him." Not a bit! The boy is drinking in love with every drink of warm milk given him by the Highland dairymaid, and with every look, and kiss, and gentle hug given him by his dear grannie or aunts. Education, if it is. worth anything, drawsi out as much as it puts in; and this sort of education will strengthen his brain and brace his nerves for the work of the town grammar-school, to which he must soon return. His parents further write, "It does not do to pamper him too much, it may make him selfish." Quite true as an educational axiom; but his grandmother denies—bless her for it, dear, good woman I—that giving him milk or cream ad libitum, with "scones" and cheese at all hours, is pampering him. And his aunts take him on their knees, and fondle him, and tell him stories, and sit beside him when he is in bed, and sing songs to him; and there is not a herd or shepherd but wishes to make hire happy; and old Rory has hint always beside him in the boat, and gives him the helm, and, in spite of the old hand holding the tiller behind the young one, persuades his "darling," as he calls him, that it is he, the boy, who steers the boat. Oh! sunshine of youth, let it shine on! Let love flow out fresh and full, unchecked by any rule but what love creates; pour thyself down without stint into the young heart; make the days of boyhood happy, for other days of labour and sorrow must come, when the memory of those dear eyes, and clasping hands, and sweet caressings, will, next to the love of God from which they flow, save the man from losing faith in the human Heart, help to deliver him from the curse of selfishness, and be an Eden in his memory when he is driven forth into the wilderness of life!


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus