Hugh Miller: Autobiography (9)

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    Tarbet abounded at that time in little muddy lakes, edged with water-flags and reeds, and swarming with frogs and eels; and it was one of the largest and deepest of these that now lay before Jock and his guide.  Angus tucked up his blue gown, as if to wade across.  Jock would have as soon thought of fording the German ocean.  "Oh, wicked Jock Gordon!" exclaimed the fool, when he saw him hesitate; "the colonel's waiting, poor man, for his head, and Jock will no' take it to the smithy."  He stepped into the water.  Jock followed in sheer desperation; and, after clearing the belt of reeds, both sank to the middle in the mingled water and mud.  Angus had at length accomplished the object of his journey.  Extricating himself in a moment—for he was lithe and active—he snatched the sheep's head and trotters from Jock, and, leaping ashore, left the poor man sticking fast.  It was church-time ere he reached, on his way back, the old Abbey of Fearn, still employed as a Protestant place of worship; and as the sight of the gathering people awakened his church-going propensity, he went in.  He was in high spirits—seemed, by the mouths he made, very much to admire the sermon, and paraded the sheep's head and trotters through the passages and gallery a score of times at least, like a monk of the order of St. Francis exhibiting the relics of some favourite saint.  In the evening he found his way home, but learned, to his grief and astonishment, that "wicked Jock Gordon" had got there shortly before him in a cart.  The poor man had remained sticking in the mud for three long hours after Angus had left him, until at length the very frogs began to cultivate his acquaintance, as they had done that of King Log of old; and in the mud he would have been sticking still, had he not been extricated by a farmer of Fearn, who, in coming to church, had taken the lake in his way.  He left Nigg, however, for Cromarty on the following day, convinced that he was no match for his rival, and dubious how the next adventure might terminate.

    Such was the story which I found current, in Nigg when working in its churchyard, with the hero of the adventure often beside me.  It led me to take special note of his class, and to collect facts respecting them, on which I erected a sort of semi-metaphysical theory of human character, which, though it would not now be regarded as by any means a novel one, I had thought out for myself, and which possessed for me, in consequence, the charm of originality.  In these poor creatures, I thus argued, we find, amid much general dilapidation and brokenness of mind, certain instincts and peculiarities remaining entire.  Here, in Angus, for instance, there is that instinctive cunning which some of the lower animals, such as the fox, possess, existing in a wonderful degree of perfection.  Pope himself, who "could not drink tea without a stratagem," could scarce have possessed a larger share of it.  And yet how distinct must not this sort of ingenuity be from the mechanical ingenuity!  Angus cannot fix a button in its hole.  I even see him baffled by a tall snuff-box, with a small quantity of snuff at its bottom, that lies beyond the reach of his finger.  He has not ingenuity enough to lay it on its side, or to empty its snuff on his palm; but stretches and ever stretches towards it the unavailing digit, and then gets angry to find it elude his touch.  There are other idiots, however, who have none of Angus's cunning, in whom this mechanical ability is decidedly developed.  Many of the cretins of the Alps are said to be remarkable for their skill as artisans; and it is told of a Scotch idiot, who lived in a cottage on the Maolbuie Common in the upper part of the Black Isle, and in whom a similar mechanical ability existed, abstracted from ability of almost every other kind, that, among other things, he fabricated, out of a piece of rude metal; a large sacking needle.  Angus is attached to his patron, and mourns for the deceased lady; but he seems to have little general regard for the species—simply courting for the time those from whom he expects snuff.  The Cromarty idiot, on the contrary, is obliging and kindly to all, and bears a peculiar love to children; and, though more an imbecile in some respects than even Angus, he has a turn for dress, and can attire himself very neatly.  In this last respect, however, the Cromarty fool was excelled by an idiot of the last age, known to the children of many a village and hamlet as Fool Charloch, who used to go wandering about the country, adorned, somewhat in the style of an Indian chief, with half a peacock's tail stuck in his cap.  Yet another idiot, a fierce and dangerous creature, seemed as invariably malignant in his dispositions as the Cromarty one is benevolent, and died in a prison, to which he was committed for killing a poor half-witted associate.  Yet another idiot of the north of Scotland had a strange turn for the supernatural.  He was a mutterer of charms, and a watcher of omens, and possessed it was said, the second sight.  I collected not a few other facts of a similar kind, and thus reasoned regarding them:—

    These idiots are imperfect men, from whose minds certain faculties have been effaced, and other faculties left to exhibit themselves, all the more prominently from the circumstances of their standing so much alone.  They resemble men who have lost their hands, but retain their feet, or who have lost their sight or smell, but retain their taste and hearing.  But as the limbs and the senses, if they did not exist as separate parts of the frame, could not be separately lost, so in the mind itself, or in at least the organization through which the mind manifests itself, there must also be separate parts, or they would not be thus found isolated by Nature in her mutilated and abortive specimens.  Those metaphysicans who deal by the mind as if it were simply a general power existing in states, must be scarce less in error than if they were to regard the senses as merely a general power existing in states, instead of recognising them as distinct, independent powers, so various often in their degree of development, that, from the full perfection of any one of them, the perfection, or even the existence, of any of the others cannot be predicated.  If, for instance, it were—as some physicians hold—the same general warmth of emotive power that glows in benevolence and burns in resentment, the fierce, dangerous idiot that killed his companion, and the kindly-dispositioned Cromarty one who takes home pailfuls of water to the poor old women of the place, and parts with his own toys to its children, would, instead of thus exhibiting the opposite poles of character, at least so far resemble one another, that the vindictive fool would at times be kindly and obliging, and the benevolent one at times violent and resentful.  But such is not the case: the one is never madly savage—the other never genial and kind; and so it seems legitimate to infer, that it is not a general power or energy that acts through them in different states, but two particular powers or energies, as unlike in their natures, and as capable of acting apart, as seeing and hearing.  Even powers which seem to have so much in common, that the same words are sometimes made use of in inference to both, may be as distinct as smelling and tasting.  We speak of the cunning workman, and we speak of the cunning man; and refer to a certain faculty of contrivance manifested in dealing with characters and affairs on the part of the one, and in dealing with certain modifications of matter on the part of the other; but so entirely different are the two faculties, and, further, so little dependent are they, in at least their first elements on intellect, that we may find the cunning which manifests itself in affairs, existing, as in Angus, totally dissociated from mechanical skill; and, on the other hand, the cunning of the artisan, existing as in the idiot of the Maolbuie, totally dissociated from that of the diplomatist.  In short, regarding idiots as persons of fragmentary mind, in whom certain primary mental elements may be found standing out in a state of great entireness, and all the more striking in their belief from the isolation, I came to view them as bits of analysis, if I may so express myself, made to my hand by nature, and from the study of which I could conceive of the structure of minds of a more complete, and therefore more complex character.  As children learn the alphabet from cards, each of which contains only a letter or two a-piece, printed large, I held at this time, and, with a few modifications, hold still, that those primary sentiments and propensities which form the basis of character, may be found separately stamped in the same way on the comparatively blank minds of the imbecile; and that the student of mental philosophy might learn from them what may be regarded as the alphabet of his science, much more truthfully than from those metaphysicians who represent mind as a power not manifested in contemporaneous and separable faculties, but as existing in consecutive states.

    Cromarty had been fortunate in its parish ministers.  From the death of its last curate, shortly after the Revolution, and the consequent return of its old "outed minister," who had resigned his living for conscience' sake, twenty-eight years before, and now came to spend his evening of life with his people, it had enjoyed the services of a series of devout and popular men; and so the cause of the Establishment was particularly strong in both town and parish.  At the beginning of the present century Cromarty had not its single dissenter; and though a few of what were known as "Haldane's people" [117] might be found in it, some eight or ten years later they failed in effecting a lodgment, and ultimately quitted it for a neighbouring town.  Almost all the Dissent that has arisen in Scotland since the Revolution has been an effect of Moderatism [118] and forced settlements; and as the place had known neither, its people continued to harbour within the Church of their fathers, nor wished to change.  A vacancy had occurred in the incumbency, during my sojourn in the south, through the death of the incumbent, the respected minister of my childhood and youth; and I found, on my return, a new face in the pulpit.  It was that of a remarkable man—the late Mr Stewart of Cromarty—one of at once the most original thinkers and profound theologians I ever knew; though he has, alas! left as little remark of his exquisite talent behind him, as those sweet singers of former ages, the memory of whose enchanting notes has died, save as a doubtful echo, with the generation that heard them.  I sat with few interruptions, for sixteen years under his ministry; and for nearly twelve of these enjoyed his confidence and friendship.

    I never could press myself on the notice of superior men, however desirous of forming their acquaintance; and have, in consequence, missed opportunities innumerable of coming in friendly contact with persons whom it would be at once a pleasure and an honour to know.  And so, for the first two years, or rather more, I was content to listen with profound attention to the pulpit addresses of my new minister, and to appear as a catechumen, when my turn came, at his diets of catechising.  He had been struck, however, as he afterwards told me, by my sustained attention when at church; and, on making inquiry regarding me among his friends, he was informed that I was a great reader, and, it was believed, a writer of verse.  And coming unwittingly out upon him one day as he was passing, when quitting my work-place for the street, he addressed me.  "Well, lad," he said, "it is your dinner hour: I hear I have a poet among my people?"  "I doubt it much," I replied.  "Well," he rejoined, "one may fall short of being a poet, and yet gain by exercising one's tastes and talents in the poetic walk.  The accomplishment of verse is at least not a vulgar one."  The conversation went on as we passed together along the street; and he stood for a time opposite the manse door.  "I am forming," he said, "a small library for our Sabbath-school scholars and teachers: most of the books are simple enough little things; but it contains a few works of the intellectual class.  Call upon me this evening that we may look over them, and you may perhaps find among them some volumes you would wish to read."  I accordingly waited upon him in the evening; and we had a long conversation together.  He was, I saw, curiously sounding me, and taking my measure in all directions; or, as he himself afterwards used to express it in his characteristic way, he was like a traveller who, having come unexpectedly on a dark pool in a ford, dips down his staff, to ascertain the depth of the water and the nature of the bottom.  He inquired regarding my reading, and found that in the belles-lettres, especially in English literature, it was about as extensive as his own.  He next inquired respecting my acquaintance with the metaphysicians.  "Had I read Reid?"  "Yes."  "Brown?"  "Yes."  "Hume?"  "Yes."  "Ah! ha! Hume! !  By the way, has he not something very ingenious about miracles?  Do you remember his argument?"  I stated the argument.  "Ah, very ingenious—most ingenious.  And how would you answer that?"  I said, "I thought I could give an abstract of the reply of Campbell," and sketched in outline the reverend Doctor's argument.  "And do you deem that satisfactory?" said the minister.  "No, not at all," I replied.  "No! no! that's not satisfactory."  "But perfectly satisfactory," I rejoined, "that such is the general partiality for the better side, that the worse argument has been received as perfectly adequate for the last sixty years."  The minister's face gleamed with the broad fun that entered so largely into his composition, and the conversation shifted into other channels.

    From that night forward I enjoyed perhaps more of his confidence and conversation than any other man in his parish.  Many an hour did he spend beside me in the churchyard, and many a quiet tea did I enjoy in the manse; and I learned to know how much solid worth and true wisdom lay under the somewhat eccentric exterior of a man who sacrificed scarce anything to the conventionalities.  This, with the exception of Chalmers, sublimest of Scottish preachers—for, little as he was known, I will challenge for him that place—was a genial man, who, for the sake of a joke, would sacrifice anything save principle; but, though marvellously careless of maintaining intact the "gloss of the clerical enamel," never was there sincerity more genuine than his, or a more thorough honesty.  Content to be in the right, he never thought of simulating it, and sacrificed even less than he ought to appearances.  I may mention, that on coming to Edinburgh, I found the peculiar taste formed under the ministrations of Mr Stewart most thoroughly gratified under those of Dr Guthrie; and that in looking round the congregation, I saw, with pleasure rather than surprise, that all Mr Stewart's people resident in Edinburgh had come to the same conclusion; for there—sitting in the Doctor's pews—they all were.  Certainly in fertility of illustration, in soul-stirring evangelistic doctrine, and in a general basis of rich humour, the resemblance between the deceased and the living minister seems complete; but genius is always unique; and while in breadth of popular power Dr Guthrie stands alone among living preachers, I have never either heard or read argument in the analogical field that in ingenuity or originality equalled that of Mr Stewart.

    That in which he especially excelled all the men I ever knew was the power of detecting and establishing occult resemblances.  He seemed able to read off, as if by intuition—not by snatches and fragments, but as a consecutive whole—that old revelation of type and symbol which God first gave to man; and when privileged to listen to him, I have been constrained to recognise, in the evident integrity of the reading, and the profound and consistent theological system which the pictorial record conveyed, a demonstration of the divinity of its origin, not less powerful and convincing than the demonstrations of the other and more familiar departments of the Christian evidences.  Compared with other theologians in this province, I have felt under his ministry as if, when admitted to the company of some party of modern savans employed in deciphering a hieroglyphic covered obelisk of the desert, and here successful in discovering the meaning of an insulated sign, and there of a detached symbol, we had been suddenly joined by some sage of the olden time, to whom the mysterious inscription was but a piece of common language written in a familiar alphabet, and who could read off fluently, and as a whole, what the others could but darkly guess at in detached and broken parts.  To this singular power of tracing analogies there was added in Mr Stewart an ability of originating the most vivid illustrations.  In some instances a sudden stroke produced a figure that at once illumined the subject-matter of his discourse, like the light of a lanthorn flashed hastily upon a painted wall; in others he dwelt upon an illustrative picture, finishing it with stroke after stroke, until it filled the whole imagination, and sank deep into the memory.  I remember hearing him preach, on one occasion, on the return of the Jews as a people to Him whom they had rejected, and the effect which their sudden conversion could not fail to have on the unbelieving and Gentile world.  Suddenly his language, from its high level of eloquent simplicity, became that of metaphor, "When JOSEPH," he said, "shall reveal himself to his brethren, the whole house of Pharaoh shall hear the weeping."  On another occasion I heard him dwell on that vast profundity, characteristic of the scriptural revelation of God, which ever deepens and broadens the longer and more thoroughly it is explored, until at length the student—struck at first by its expansiveness, but conceiving of it as if it were a mere measured expansiveness—finds that it partakes of the unlimited infinity of the Divine nature itself.  Naturally and simply, as if growing out of the subject, like a berry-covered misletoe out of the massy trunk of an oak, there sprung up one of his more lengthened illustrations.  A child bred up in the interior of the country has been brought for the first time to the sea-shore, and carried out into the middle of one of the noble little firths that indent so deeply our line of coast.  And, on his return, he describes to his father, with all a child's eagerness, the wonderful expansiveness of the ocean which he had seen.  He went out, he tells him, far amid the great waves and the rushing tides, until at length the hills seemed diminished into mere hummocks, and the wide land itself appeared along the waters but as a slim strip of blue.  And then, when in mid-sea, the sailors heaved the lead; and it went down, and down, and down, and the long line slipped swiftly away, coil after coil, till, ere the plummet rested on the ooze below, all was well-nigh expended.  And was it not the great sea, asks the boy, that was so vastly broad, and so profoundly deep?  Ah! my child, exclaims the father, you have not seen aught of its greatness: you have sailed over merely one of its little arms.  Had it been out into the wild ocean that the seamen had carried you, "you would have seen no shore, and you would have found no bottom."  In one rare quality of the orator Mr Stewart stood alone among his contemporaries.  Pope refers to a strange power of creating love and admiration by "just touching the brink of all we hate."  And Burke, in some of his nobler passages, happily exemplifies the thing.  He intensified the effect of his burning eloquence by the employment of figures so homely—nay, almost so repulsive—that the man of lower powers who ventured on their use would find them effective in but lowering his subject, and ruining his cause.  I need but refer, in illustration, to the well-known figure of the disembowelled bird, which occurs in the indignant denial that the character of the revolutionary French in aught resembled that of the English.  "We have not," says the orator, "been drawn and trussed, in order that we may be filled, like stuffed birds in a museum, with chaff, and rags, and paltry blurred shreds of paper about the rights of man."  Into this perilous but singularly effective department closed against even superior men, Mr Stewart could enter safely and at will.  One of the last sermons I heard him preach—a discourse of singular power—was on the "Sin-offering" of the Jewish economy, as minutely described in Leviticus.  He drew a picture of the slaughtered animal, foul with dust and blood, and streaming, in its impurity, to the sun, as it awaited the consuming fire amid the uncleanness of ashes outside the camp—its throat gashed across—its entrails laid open; a vile and horrid thing, which no one could see without experiencing emotions of disgust, nor touch without contracting defilement.  The description appeared too painfully vivid—its introduction too little in accordance with the rules of a just taste.  But the master in this difficult walk knew what he was doing.  And that, he said, pointing to the strongly-coloured picture he had just completed—"And THAT IS SIN."  By one stroke the intended effect was produced, and the rising disgust and horror transferred from the revolting material image to the great moral evil.

    How could such a man pass from earth, and leave no trace behind him?  Mainly, I believe, from two several causes.  As the minister of an attached provincial congregation, a sense of duty, and the promptings of a highly intellectual nature, to which exertion was enjoyment, led him to study much and deeply; and he poured forth viva voce his full-volumed and ever-sparkling tide of eloquent idea, as freely and richly as the nightingale, unconscious of a listener, pours forth her melody in the shade.  But, strangely diffident of his own powers, he could not be made to believe that what so much impressed and delighted the privileged few who surrounded him, was equally suited to impress and delight the intellectual many outside; or that he was fitted to speak through the press in tones which would compel the attention, not merely of the religious, but also of the literary world.  Further, practising but little the art of elaborate composition, and master of a spoken style more effective for the purposes of the pulpit than almost any written one, save that of Chalmers, he failed, in all his attempts in writing, to satisfy a fastidious taste, which he had suffered greatly to outgrow his ability of production.  And so he failed to leave any adequate mark behind him.  I find that for my stock of theological idea, not directly derived from Scripture, I stand more indebted to two Scotch theologians than to all other men of their profession and class.  The one of these was Thomas Chalmers—the other, Alexander Stewart: the one a name known wherever the English language is spoken; while of the other it is only remembered, and by comparatively a few, that the impression did exist at the time of his death, that


A mighty spirit was eclipsed—a power
Had passed from day to darkness, to whose hour
Of light no likeness was bequeathed—no name.


 
CHAPTER XIX.


See yonder poor o'er-labour'd wight,
    So abject, mean, and vile,
Who begs a brother of the earth
    To give him leave to toil;
And see his lordly fellow-worm
    The poor petition spurn.—B
URNS.


WORK failed me about the end of June 1828; and, acting on the advice of a friend who believed that my style of cutting inscriptions could not fail to secure for me a good many little jobs in the churchyards of Inverness, I visited that place, and inserted a brief advertisement in one of the newspapers, soliciting employment.  I ventured to characterize my style of engraving as neat and correct; laying especial emphasis on the correctness, as a quality not very common among the stonecutters of the north.  It was not a Scotch, but an English mason, who, when engaged, at the instance of a bereaved widower, in recording on his wife's tombstone that a "virtuous woman is a crown to her husband," corrupted the text, in his simplicity, by substituting "5s." for the "crown."  But even Scotch masons do make odd enough mistakes at times, especially in the provinces; and I felt it would be something gained could I but get an opportunity of showing the Inverness public that I had at least English enough to avoid the commoner errors.  My verses, thought I, are at least tolerably correct: could I not get some one or two copies introduced into the poet's corner of the Inverness Courier or Journal, and thus show that I have literature enough to be trusted with the cutting of an epitaph on a gravestone?  I had a letter of introduction from a friend in Cromarty to one of the ministers of the place, himself an author, and a person of influence with the proprietors of the Courier; and, calculating on some amount of literary sympathy from a man accustomed to court the public through the medium of the press, I thought I might just venture on stating the case to him.  I first, however, wrote a brief address, in octo-syllabic quatrains, to the river which flows through the town, and gives to it its name:—a composition which has, I find, more of the advertisement in it than is quite seemly, but which would have perhaps expressed less confidence had it been written less under the influence of a shrinking timidity, that tried to reassure itself by words of comfort and encouragement.

    I was informed that the minister's hour for receiving visitors of the humbler class was between eleven and twelve at noon; and, with the letter of introduction and my copy of verses in my pocket, I called at the manse, and was shown into a little narrow ante-room, furnished with two seats of deal that ran along the opposite walls.  I found the place occupied by some six or seven individuals—more than half their number old withered women, in very shabby habiliments, who, as I soon learned from a conversation which they kept up in a grave under-tone, about weekly allowances, and the partialities of the session, were paupers.  The others were young men, who had apparently serious requests to prefer anent marriage and baptism; for I saw that one of them was ever and anon drawing from his breast-pocket a tattered copy of the Shorter Catechism, and running over the questions; and I overheard another asking his neighbour, "who drew up the contract lines for him," and "where he had got the whisky."  The minister entered; and as he passed into the inner room, we all rose.  He stood for a moment in the doorway, and, beckoning on one of the young men—him of the Catechism—they went in together, and the door closed.  They remained closeted together for about twenty minutes or half an hour, and then the young man went out; and another young man—he who had procured the contract lines and the whisky—took his place.  The interview in this second case, however, was much shorter than the first; and a very few minutes served to despatch the business of the third young man; and then the minister, coming to the doorway, looked first at the old women and then at me, as if mentally determining our respective claims to priority; and, mine at length prevailing—I know not on what occult principle—I was beckoned in.  I presented my letter of introduction, which was graciously read; and though the nature of the business did strike me as ludicrously out of keeping with the place, and it did cost me some little trouble to suppress at one time a burst of laughter, that would, of course, have been prodigiously improper in the circumstances, I detailed to him in a few words my little plan, and handed him my copy of verses.  He read them aloud with slow deliberation.


ODE TO THE NESS


Child of the lake! whose silvery gleam
    Cheers the rough desert, dark and lone, [119]—
A brown, deep, sullen, restless stream,
    With ceaseless speed thou hurriest on.
And yet thy banks with flowers are gay;
    The sun laughs on thy troubled breast;
And o'er thy tides the zephyrs play,
    Though nought be thine of quiet rest. [120]

Stream of the lake! to him who strays,
    Lonely, thy winding marge along,
Not fraught with lore of other days,
    And yet not all unblest in song—
To him thou tell'st of busy men,
    Who madly waste their present day,
Pursuing hopes, baseless as vain,
    While life, untasted, glides away.

Stream of the lake! why hasten on?
    A boist'rous ocean spreads before,
Where dash dark tides, and wild winds moan,
    And foam-wreaths skirt a cheerless shore,
Nor bending flowers, nor waving fields,
    Nor aught of rest is there for thee;
But rest to thee no pleasure yields;
    Then haste and join the stormy sea!

Stream of the lake! of bloody men,
    Who thirst the guilty fight to try—
Who seek for joy in mortal pain,
    Music in misery's thrilling cry—
Thou tell'st: peace yields no joy to them,
    Nor harmless Pleasure's golden smile;
Of evil deed the cheerless fame
    Is all the meed that crowns their toil.

Not such would prove if Pleasure shone
    Stream of the deep and peaceful lake
His course, whom Hardship urges on,
    Through cheerless waste and thorny brake.
For, ah! each pleasing scene he loves,
    And peace is all his heart's desire;
And, ah! of scenes where Pleasure roves,
    And Peace, could gentle minstrel tire?

Stream of the lake! for thee await
    The tempests of an angry main;
A brighter hope, a happier fate,
    He boasts, whose present course is pain.
Yes, even for him may death prepare
    A home of pleasure, peace, and love;
Thus blessed by hope, little his care,
    Though rough his present course may prove.


    The minister paused as he concluded, and looked puzzled.  "Pretty well, I daresay," he said; "but I do not now read poetry.  You, however, use a word that is not English—'Thy winding marge along.'  Marge!—What is marge?"  "You will find it in Johnson," I said.  "Ah, but we must not use all the words we find in Johnson."  "But the poets make frequent use of it."  "What poets?"  "Spenser."  " Too old—too old; no authority now," said the minister.  "But the Wartons also use it."  "I don't know the Wartons."  "It occurs also," I iterated, "in one of the most finished sonnets of Henry Kirke White."  "What sonnet?"  "That to the river Trent.


Once more, O Trent! along thy pebbly marge,
    A pensive invalid, reduced and pale,
From the close sick-room newly set at large,
    Woos to his woe-worn cheek the pleasant gale.


It is, in short, one of the common English words of the poetic vocabulary."  Could a man in quest of a patronage, and actually at the time soliciting a favour, possibly contrive to say anything more imprudent?  And this, too, to a gentleman so much accustomed to be deferred to when he took up his ground on the Standards, as sometimes to forget, through the sheer force of habit, that he was not a standard himself!  He coloured to the eyes; and his condescending humility, which seemed, I thought, rather too great for the occasion, and was of a kind which my friend Mr Stewart never used to exhibit, appeared somewhat ruffled.  "I have no acquaintance," he said, "with the editor of the Courier; we take opposite sides on very important questions; and I cannot recommend your verses to him; but call on Mr —; he is one of the proprietors; and, with my compliments, state your case to him; he will be perhaps able to assist you.  Meanwhile, I wish you all success."  The minister hurried me out, and one of the withered old women was called in.  "This," I said to myself, as I stepped into the street, "is the sort of patronage which letters of introduction procure for one.  I don't think I'll seek any more of it."

    Meeting on the street, however, with two Cromarty friends, one of whom was just going to call on the gentlemen named by the minister, he induced me to accompany him.  The other said, as he took his separate way, that having come to visit an old townsman settled in Inverness, a man of some influence in the burgh, he would state my case to him; and he was sure he would exert himself to procure me employment.  I have already referred to the mark of Burns.  It is recorded by his brother Gilbert, that the poet used often to say, "That he could not well conceive a more mortifying picture of human life, than a man seeking work;" and that the exquisite dirge, "Man was made to mourn," owes its existence to the sentiment.  The feeling is certainly a very depressing one; and as on most other occasions work rather sought me than I the work, I experienced more of it at this time than at any other period of my life.  I of course could hardly expect that people should die off and require epitaphs merely to accommodate me.  That demand of employment as a right in all cases and circumstances, which the more extreme "claims-of-labour men" do not scruple to urge, is the result of a sort of indignant reaction on this feeling—a feeling which became poetry in Burns and nonsense in the Communists; but which I experienced neither as nonsense nor poetry, but simply as a depressing conviction that I was one man too many in the world.  The gentleman on whom I now called with my friend was a person both of business habits and literary tastes; but I saw that my poetic scheme rather damaged me in his estimation.  The English verse produced at this time in the far north was of a kind ill fitted for the literary market, and usually published, or rather printed—for published it never was—by that teasing subscription scheme which so often robs men of good money, and gives them bad books in exchange; and he seemed to set me down as one of the annoying semi-beggar class;—rather a mistake, I should hope.  He, however, obligingly introduced me to a gentleman of literature and science, the secretary of a society of the place, antiquarian and scientific in its character, termed the "Northern Institution," and the honorary conservator of its museum—an interesting miscellaneous collection which I had previously seen, and in connexion with which I had formed my only other scheme of getting into employment.

    I wrote that old English hand which has been revived of late by the general rage for the mediæval, but which at that time was one of the lost arts, with much neatness; and could produce imitations of the illuminated manuscripts that preceded our printed books, which even an antiquary would have pronounced respectable.  And, addressing the members of the Northern Institution on the character and tendency of their pursuits, in a somewhat lengthy piece of verse, written in what I least intended to be the manner of Dryden, as exemplified in his middle style poems, such as the Religio Laici, I engrossed it in the old hand, and now called on the Secretary, to request that he would present it at the first meeting of the Society, which was to be held, I understood, in a few days.  The secretary was busy at his desk; but he received me politely, spoke approvingly of my work as an imitation of the old manuscript, and obligingly charged himself with its delivery at the meeting: and so we parted for the time, not in the least aware that there was a science which dealt with characters greatly more ancient than those of the old manuscripts, and laden with profounder meanings, in which we both took a deep interest, and regarding which we could have exchanged facts and ideas with mutual pleasure and profit.  The Secretary of the Northern Institution at this time was Mr George Anderson, the well-known geologist, and joint author with his brother of the admirable "Guide-Book to the Highlands," which bears their name.  I never heard how my address fared.  It would, of course, have been tabled—looked at, I suppose, for a few seconds by a member or two—and then set aside; and it is probably still in the archives of the Institution awaiting the light of future ages, when its simulated antiquity shall have become real.  It was not written in a character to be read, nor, I fear, very readable in any character; and so the members of the Institution must have remained ignorant of all the wisdom I had found in their pursuits, antiquarian and ethnological.  The following forms an average specimen of the production:—


                                           'Tis yours to trace
Each deep-fixed trait that marks the human race;
And as the Egyptian priests, with mystery fraught,
By signs, not words, of Sphynx, and Horns taught,
So, 'mid your stores, by things, not books, ye scan
The powers, scope, history, of the mind of man.
Yon chequered wall displays the arms of war
Of times remote, and nations distant far;
Alas! the club and brand but serve to show
How wide extends the reign of wrong and woe;
And tores uncouth, and feathery circlets, tell
In human hearts what gewgaw follies dwell.
Yes! all that man has framed his image bears;
And much of hate, and much of pride, appears.
    Pleasant it is each diverse step to scan,
By which the savage first assumes the man;
To mark what feelings sway his softening breast,
Or what strong passion triumphs o'er the rest.
Narrow of heart, or free, or brave, or base,
Ev'n in the infant we the man may trace;
And from the rude ungainly sires may know
Each striking trait the polished sons shall show.
Dependent on what moods assume the reign,
Science shall smile, or spread her stores in vain:
As coward fears, or generous passions sway,
Shall freedom reign, or heartless slaves obey.
    Not unto chance must aught of power be given,—
A country's genius is the gift of Heaven.
What warms the poet's lays with generous fire,
To which no toil can reach, no art aspire?
Who taught the sage, with deepest wisdom fraught,
While scarce one pupil grasps the ponderous thought?
Nay, wherefore ask?—as Heaven the mind bestows,
A Napier calculates and a Thomson glows.
Now turn to where, beneath the city wall,
The sun's fierce rays in unbroke splendour fall;
Vacant and weak, there sits the idiot boy,
Of pain scarce conscious, scarce alive to joy;
A thousand busy sounds around him roar;
Trade wields the tool, and Commerce plies the oar;
But, all unheeding of the restless scene,
Of toil he nothing knows, and nought of gain:
The thoughts of common minds were strange to him,
Ev'n as to such a Napier's thoughts would seem.
Thus, as in men, in peopled states, we find
Unequal powers, and varied tones of mind:
Timid or dauntless, high of thought or low,
O'erwhelmed with phlegm, or fraught with fire they glow.
And as the sculptor's art is better shown
In Parian marble than in porous stone,
Wreaths fresh or sear'd repay refinement's toil,
As genius owns or dulness stamps the soil.
Where isles of coral stud the southern main,
And painted kings and cinctured warriors reign,
Nations there are who native worth possess,—
Whom every art shall court, each science bless
And tribes there are, heavy of heart and slow,
On whom no coming age a change shall know.


    There was, I suspect, a waste of effort in all this planning; but some men seem destined to do things clumsily and ill, at many times the expense which serves to secure success to the more adroit.  I despatched my Ode to the newspaper, accompanied by a letter of explanation; but it fared as ill as my Address to the Institution; and a single line in italics in the next number intimated that it was not to appear.  And thus both my schemes were, as they ought to be, knocked on the head.  I have not schemed any since.  Strategy, is, I fear, not my forte; and it is idle to attempt doing in spite of nature what one has not been born to do well.  Besides, I began to be seriously dissatisfied with myself; there seemed to be nothing absolutely wrong in a man who wanted honest employment taking this way of showing he was capable of it; but I felt the spirit within rise against it; and so I resolved to ask no more favours of any one, even should poets' corners remain shut against me for ever, or however little Institutions, literary or scientific, might favour me with their notice.  I strode along the streets, half an inch taller on the strength of the resolution; and straightway, as if to reward me for my magnanimity, an offer of employment came my way unsolicited.  I was addressed by the recruiting serjeant of a Highland regiment, who asked me if I did not belong to the Aird?  "No, not to the Aird; to Cromarty," I replied, "Ah, to Cromarty—very fine place!  But would you not better bid adieu to Cromarty, and come along with me?  We have a capital grenadier company; and in our regiment a stout and steady man is always sure to get on."  I thanked him, but declined his invitation; and, with an apology on his part, which was not in the least needed or expected, we parted.

    Though verse and old English failed me, the simple statement made by my Cromarty friend to my townsman located in Inverness, that I was a good workman, and wanted work, procured me at once the cutting of an inscription, and two little jobs in Cromarty besides, which I was to execute on my return home.  The Inverness job was soon completed; but I had the near prospect of another; and as the little bit of the public that came my way approved of my cutting, I trusted employment would flow in apace.  I lodged with a worthy old widow, conscientious and devout, and ever doing her humble work consciously in the eye of the Great Taskmaster—one of a class of persons not at all so numerous in the world as might be desirable, but sufficiently common to render it rather a marvel that some of our modern masters of fiction should never have chanced—judging from their writings—to come in contact with any of them.  She had an only son, a working cabinetmaker, who used occasionally to annoy her by his silly jokes at serious things, and who was courting at this time a sweetheart who had five hundred pounds in the bank—an immensely large sum to a man in his circumstances.  He had urged his suit with such apparent success, that the marriage day was fixed and at hand, and the house which he had engaged as his future residence fully furnished.  And it was his prospective brother-in-law who was to be my new employer, so soon as the wedding should leave him leisure enough to furnish epitaphs for two tombstones recently placed in the family burying-ground.  The wedding-day arrived; and, to be out of the way of the bustle and the pageant, I retired to the house of a neighbour, a carpenter, whom I had obliged by a few lessons in practical geometry and architectural drawing.  The carpenter was at the wedding; and, with the whole house to myself, I was engaged in writing, when up flew the door, and in rushed my pupil the carpenter.  "What has happened?"  I asked. "Happened!" said the carpenter,—"Happened! !  The bride's away with another man! !  The bridegroom has taken to his bed, and raves like a madman; and his poor old mother—good honest woman—is crying like a child.  Do come and see what can be done."  I accompanied him to my landlady's, where I found the bridegroom in the paroxysm of mingled grief and rage, congratulating himself on his escape, and bemoaning his unhappy disappointment, by turns.  He lay athwart the bed, which he told me in the morning he had quitted for the last time; but as I entered, he half rose, and, seizing on a pair of new shoes which had been prepared for the bride, and lay on a table beside him, he hurled them against the wall, first the one and then the other, until they came rebounding back across the room; and then, with an exclamation that need not be repeated, he dashed himself down again.  I did my best to comfort his poor mother, who seemed to feel very keenly the slight done to her son, and to anticipate with dread the scandal and gossip of which it would render her humble household the subject.  She seemed sensible, however, that he had made an escape, and at once acquiesced in my suggestion, that all that should now be done would be to get every expense her son had been at in his preparations for housekeeping and the wedding transferred to the shoulders of the other party.  And such an arrangement could, I thought, be easily effected through the bride's brother, who seemed to be a reasonable man, and who would be aware also that a suit at law could be instituted in the case against his sister; though in any such suit I held it might be best for both parties not to engage.  And at the old woman's request, I set out with the carpenter to wait on the bride's brother, in order to see whether he was not prepared for some such arrangement as I suggested, and, besides, able to furnish us with some explanation of the extraordinary step taken by the bride.

    We were overtaken, as we passed along the street, by a person who was, he said, in search of us, and who now requested us to accompany him; and, threading our way, under his guidance, through a few narrow lanes that traverse the assemblage of houses on the west bank of the Ness, we stopped at the door of an obscure alehouse.  This, said our conductor, we have found to be the retreat of the bride.  He ushered us into a room occupied by some eight or ten persons, drawn up on the opposite sides, with a blank space between.  On the one side sat the bride, a high-coloured, buxom young girl, serene and erect as Britannia on the halfpennies, and guarded by two stout fellows, masons or slaters apparently, in their working dresses.  They looked hard at the carpenter and me as we entered, of course regarding us as the assailants against whom they would have to maintain their prize.  On the other side sat a group of the bride's relatives—among the rest her brother—silent, and all apparently very much grieved; while in the space between them there stumped up and down a lame, sallow-complexioned oddity, in shabby black, who seemed to be making a set oration, to which no one replied, about the sacred claims of love, and the cruelty of interfering with the affections of young people.  Neither the carpenter nor myself felt any inclination to debate with the orator, or fight with the guards, or yet to interfere with the affections of the young lady; and so, calling out the brother into another room, and expressing our regret at what had happened, we stated our case, and found him, as we had expected, very reasonable.  We could not, however, treat for the absent bridegroom, nor could he engage for his sister; and so we had to part without coming to any agreement.  There were points about the case which at first I could not understand.  My jilted acquaintance the cabinetmaker had not only enjoyed the countenance of all his mistress's relatives, but he had been also as well received by herself as lovers usually are: she had written him kind letters, and accepted of his presents; and then, just as her friends were sitting down to the marriage breakfast she had eloped with another man.  The other man, however—a handsome fellow, but great scamp—had a prior claim to her regards: he had been the lover of her choice, though detested by her brother and all her friends, who were sufficiently well acquainted with his character to know that he would land her in ruin; and during his absence in the country, where he was working as a slater, they had lent their influence and countenance to my acquaintance the cabinetmaker, in order to get her married to a comparatively safe man, out of the slater's reach.  And, not very strong of will, she had acquiesced in the arrangement.  On the eve of the marriage, however, the slater had come into town; and, exchanging clothes with an acquaintance, a Highland soldier, he had walked unsuspected opposite her door, until, finding an opportunity of conversing with her on the morning of the wedding day, he had represented her new lover as a silly, ill-shaped fellow, who had just head enough to be mercenary, and himself as one of the most devoted and disconsolate of lovers.  And, his soft tongue and fine leg gaining the day, she had left the marriage guests to enjoy their tea and toast without her, and set off with him to the change-house.  Ultimately the affair ended ill for all parties.  I lost my job, for I saw no more of the bride's brother; the wrong-headed cabinetmaker, contrary to the advice of his mother and her lodger, entered into a lawsuit, in which he got small damages and much vexation; and the slater and his mistress broke out into such a course of dissipation after becoming man and wife, that they and the five hundred pounds came to an end almost together.  Shortly after, my landlady and her son quitted the country for the United States.  So favourably had the poor woman impressed me as one of the truly excellent, that I took a journey from Cromarty to Inverness—a distance of nineteen miles—to bid her farewell; but I found, on my arrival, her house shut up, and learned that she had left the place for some sailing port on the west coast two days before.  She was a humble washerwoman; but I am convinced that in the other world, which she must have entered long ere now, she ranks considerably higher!

    I waited on in Inverness, in the hope that, according to Burns, "my brothers of the earth would give me leave to toil;" but the hope was a vain one, as I succeeded in procuring no second job.  There was no lack, however, of the sort of employment which I could cut out for myself; but the remuneration—only now in the process of being realized, and that very slowly—had to be deferred to a distant day.  I had to give more than twelve years' credit to the pursuits that engaged me: and as my capital was small, it was rather a trying matter to be "kept so long out of my wages."  There is a wonderful group of what are now termed osars, [121] in the immediate neighbourhood of Inverness—a group to which that Queen of Scottish tomhans, the picturesque Tomnahuirich, belongs, and to the examination of which I devoted several days.  But I learned only to state the difficulty which they form—not to solve it; and now that Agassiz has promulgated his glacial theory, and that traces of the great ice agencies have been detected all over Scotland, the mystery of the osars remains a mystery still.  I succeeded, however, in determining at this time, that they belong to a later period than the boulder clay, which I found underlying the great gravel formation of which they form a part, in a section near Loch Ness that had been laid open shortly before, in excavating for the great Caledonian Canal.  And as all, or almost all, the shells of the boulder clay are of species that still live, me may infer that the mysterious osars were formed not very long ere the introduction upon our planet of the inquisitive little creature that has been puzzling himself—hitherto at least with no satisfactory result—in attempting to account for their origin.  I examined, too, with some care, the old coast-line, so well developed in this neighbourhood as to form one of the features of its striking scenery, and which must be regarded as the geological memorial and representative of those latter ages of the world in which the human epoch impinged on the old Pre-Adamite periods.  The magistrates of the place were engaged at the time in doing their duty, like sensible men, as they were in what I could not help thinking a somewhat barbarous instance.  The neat, well proportioned, very uninteresting jail spire of the burgh, about which, in its integrity, no one cares anything, had been shaken by an earthquake, which took place in the year 1816, into one of the greatest curiosities in the kingdom.  The earthquake, which, for a Scotch one, had been unprecedently severe, especially in the line of the great Caledonian Valley, had, by a strange vorticose motion, twisted round the spire, so that, at the transverse line of displacement, the panes and corners of the octagonal broach which its top formed overshot their proper positions fully seven inches.  The corners were carried into nearly the middle of the panes, as if some gigantic hand, in attempting to twirl round the building by the spire, as one twirls round a spinning top by the stalk or bole, had, from some failure in the coherency of the masonry, succeeded in turning round only the part of which it had laid hold.  Sir Charles Lyell figures, in his "Principles," similar shifts in stones of two obelisks in a Calabrian convent, and subjoins the ingenious suggestion on the subject of Messrs Darwin and Mallet.  And here was there a Scotch example of the same sort of mysterious phenomena, not less curious than the Calabrian one, and certainly unique in its character as Scotch, which, though the injured building had already stood twelve years in its displaced condition, and might stand for as many more as the hanging tower of Pisa, the magistrates were laboriously effacing at the expense of the burgh.  They were completely successful too; and the jail spire was duly restored to its state of original insignificance, as a fifth-rate piece of ornamental masonry.  But how very absurd, save, mayhap, here and there, to a geologist, must not these remarks appear!

    But my criticisms, on the magistracy, however foolish, were silent criticisms, and did harm to no one.  About the time, however, in which I was indulging in them, I imprudently exposed myself, by one of those impulsive acts of which men repent at their leisure, to criticisms not silent, and of a kind that occasionally do harm.  I had been piqued by the rejection of my verses on the Ness.  True, I had no high opinion of their merit, deeming them little more than equal to the average verses of provincial prints; but then I had intimated my scheme of getting them printed to a few Cromarty friends, and was now weak enough to be annoyed at the thought that my townsfolk would regard me as an incompetent blockhead, who could not write rhymes good enough for a newspaper.  And so I rashly determined on appealing to the public in a small volume.  Had I known as much as in an after period about newspaper affairs, and the mode in which copies of verses are often dealt with by editors and their assistants—fatigued with nonsense, and at once hopeless of finding grain in the enormous heaps of chaff submitted to them, and too much occupied to seek for it, even should they believe in its occurrence in the form of single seeds sparsely scattered—I would have thought less of the matter.  As the case was, however, I hastily collected from among my piles of manuscripts, some fifteen or twenty pieces in verse, written chiefly during the preceding six years, and put them into the hands of the printer of the Inverness Courier.  It would have been a greatly wiser act, as I soon came to see, had I put them into the fire instead; but my choice of a printing-office secured to me at least one advantage—it brought me acquainted with one of the ablest and most accomplished of Scotch editors—the gentleman who now owns and still conducts the Courier; and, besides, having once crossed the Rubicon, I felt all my native obstinacy stirred up to make good a position for myself, despite of failures and reverses on the further side.  It is an advantage in some cases to be committed.  The clear large type of the Courier office did, however, show me many a blemish in my verse that had escaped me before, and broke off associations which—curiously linked with the manuscripts—had given to the stanzas and passages which they contained charms of tone and colour not their own.  I began to find, too, that my humble accomplishment of verse was too narrow to contain my thinking;—the thinking ability had been growing, but not the ability of poetic expression; nay, much of the thinking seemed to be of a kind not suited for poetic purposes at all;—and though it was of course far better that I should come to know this in time, than that, like some, even superior men, I should persist in wasting, in inefficient verse, the hours in which vigorous prose might be produced, it was at least quite mortifying enough to make the discovery with half a volume of metre committed to type, and in the hands of the printer.  Resolving, however that my humble name should not appear in the title-page, I went on with my volume.  My new friend the editor kindly inserted, from time to time, copies of its verses in the columns of his paper, and strove to excite some degree of interest and expectation regarding it; but my recent discovery had thoroughly sobered me, and I awaited the publication of my volume not much elated by the honour done me, and as little sanguine respecting its ultimate success as well might be.  And ere I quitted Inverness, a sad bereavement, which greatly narrowed the circle of my best-beloved friends, threw very much into the background all my thoughts regarding it.

    On quitting Cromarty, I had left my uncle James labouring under an attack of rheumatic fever; but though he had just entered his grand climacteric, he was still a vigorous and active man, and I could not doubt that he had strength of constitution enough to throw it off.  He had failed to rally, however; and after returning one evening from a long exploratory walk, I found in my lodgings a note awaiting me, intimating his death.  The blow fell with stunning effect.  Ever since the death of my father, my two uncles had faithfully occupied his place; and James, of a franker and less reserved temper than Alexander, and more tolerant of my boyish follies, had, though I sincerely loved the other, laid stronger hold on my affections.  He was of a genial disposition, too, that always remained sanguine in the cast of its hopes and anticipations; and he had unwittingly flattered my vanity by taking me pretty much at my own estimate—overweeningly high, of course, like that of almost all young men, but mayhap necessary, in the character of a force, to make headway in the face of obstruction and difficulty.  Uncle James, like Le Balafré in the novel, would have "ventured his nephew against the wight Wallace."  I immediately set out for Cromarty; and, curious as it may seem, found grief so companionable, that the four hours which I spent by the way seemed hardly equal to one.  I retained, however, only a confused recollection of my journey, remembering little more than that, when passing at midnight along the dreary Maolbuie, I saw the moon in her wane, rising red and lightless out of the distant sea; and that, lying, as it were, prostrate on the horizon, she reminded me of some o'ermatched wrestler thrown helplessly on the ground.

    On reaching home, I found my mother late as the hour was, still up, and engaged in making a dead-dress for the body.  "There is a letter from the south, with a black seal awaiting you," she said; "I fear you have also lost your friend William Ross."  I opened the letter, and found her surmise too well founded.  It was a farewell letter, written in feeble characters, but in no feeble spirit; and a brief postscript, added by a comrade, intimated the death of the writer.  "This," wrote the dying man, with a hand fast forgetting its cunning, "is, to all human probability, my last letter; but the thought gives me little trouble; for the hope of salvation is in the blood of Jesus.  Farewell my sincerest friend!"  There is a provision through which nature sets limits to both physical and mental suffering.  A man partially stunned by a violent blow is sometimes conscious that it is followed by other blows, rather from seeing than from feeling them; his capacity of suffering has been exhausted by the first; and the others that fall upon him, though they may injure, fail to pain.  And so also it is with strokes that fall on the affections.  In other circumstances, I would have grieved for the death of my friend, but my mind was already occupied to the full by the death of my uncle; and, though I saw the new stroke, several days elapsed ere I could feel it.  My friend, after half a lifetime of decline, had sunk suddenly.  A comrade who lived with him—a stout, florid lad—had been seized by the same insidious malady as his own, about a twelvemonth before; and, previously unacquainted with sickness, in him the progress of the disease had been rapid, and his sufferings were so great, that he was incapacitated for work several months ere his death.  But my poor friend, though sinking at the time, wrought for both: he was able to prosecute his employments—which, according to Bacon, "required rather the finger than the arm"—in even the latter stages of his complaint; and after supporting and tending his dying comrade till he sank, he himself suddenly broke down and died.  And thus perished unknown, and in the prime of his days, a man of sterling principle and fine genius.  I found employment enough for the few weeks which still remained of the working season of this year, in hewing a tombstone for my uncle James, on which I inscribed an epitaph of a few lines, that had the merit of being true.  It characterized the deceased—"James Wright"—as "an honest, warm-hearted man, who had the happiness of living without reproach, and of dying without fear."


 
CHAPTER XX.


This while my notion's ta'en a sklent,
To try my fate in guid black prent;
But still the mair I'm that way bent,
    Something cries, Hoolie!
I red you, honest man, tak tent
    Ye'll shaw your folly.—B
URNS.


MY volume of verse passed but slowly through the press; and as I had begun to look rather ruefully forward to its appearance, there was no anxiety evinced on my part to urge it on.  At length, however, all the pieces were thrown into type; and I followed them up by a tail-piece in prose, formed somewhat on the model of the preface of Pope—for I was a great admirer, at the time, of the English written by the "wits of Queen Anne"—in which I gave serious expression to the suspicion that, as a writer of verse, I had mistaken my vocation.

    "It is more than possible," I said, " that I have completely failed in poetry.  It may appear that, while grasping at originality of description and sentiment, and striving to attain propriety of expression, I have only been depicting common images, and embodying obvious thoughts, and this, too, in inelegant language.  Yet even in this case, though disappointed, I shall not be without my sources of comfort.  The pleasure which I enjoy in composing verses is quite independent of other men's opinions of them; and I expect to feel as happy as ever in this amusement, even though assured that others could find no pleasure in reading what I had found so much in writing.  It is no small solace to reflect, that the fable of the dog and shadow cannot apply to me, since my predilection for poetry has not prevented me from acquiring the skill of at least the common mechanic.  I am not more ignorant of masonry and architecture than many professors of these arts who never measured a stanza.  There is also some satisfaction in reflecting that, unlike some would-be satirists, I have not assailed private character; and that, though men may deride me as an unskilful poet, they cannot justly detest me as a bad or ill-natured man.  Nay, I shall possibly have the pleasure of repaying those who may be merry at my expense, in their own coin.  An ill-conditioned critic is always a more pitiable sort of person than an unsuccessful versifier; and the desire of showing one's own discernment at the expense of one's neighbour, a greatly worse thing than the simple wish, however divorced from the ability, of affording him harmless pleasure.  Further, it would, I think, not be difficult to show that my mistake in supposing myself a poet is not a whit more ridiculous, and infinitely less mischievous, than many of those into which myriads of my fellow-men are falling every day.   I have seen the vicious attempting to teach morals, and the weak to unfold mysteries.  I have seen men set up for freethinkers who were born not to think at all.  To conclude, there will surely be cause for self-gratulation in reflecting that, by becoming an author, I have only lost a few pounds, not gained the reputation of being a mean fellow, who had teased all his acquaintance until they had subscribed for a worthless book; and that the severest remark of the severest critic can only be, 'a certain anonymous rhymer is no poet.' "

    As, notwithstanding the blank in the title-page, the authorship of my volume would be known in Cromarty and its neighbourhood, I set myself to see whether I could not, meanwhile, prepare for the press something better suited to make an impression in my favour.  In tossing the bar or throwing the stone, the competitor who begins with a rather indifferent cast is never very favourably judged if he immediately mend it by giving a better; and I resolved on mending my cast, if I could, by writing for the Inverness Courier—which was now open to me, through the kindness of the editor—a series of carefully prepared letters on some popular subject.  In the days of Goldsmith, the herring-fishing employed, as he tells us in one of his essays, "all Grub Street."  In the north of Scotland this fishery was a popular theme little more than twenty years ago.  The welfare of whole communities depended in no slight degree on its success: it formed the basis of many a calculation, and the subject of many an investment; and it was all the more suitable for my purpose from the circumstance that there was no Grub Street in that part of the world to employ itself about it.  It was, in at least all its better aspects, a fresh subject; and I deemed myself more thoroughly acquainted with it than at least most of the men who were skilful enough, as littérateurs, to communicate their knowledge in writing.  I knew the peculiarities of fishermen as a class, and the effects of this special branch of their profession on their character:  I had seen them pursuing their employments amid the sublime of nature, and had occasionally taken a share in their work; and, further, I was acquainted with not a few antique traditions of the fishermen of other ages, in which, as in the narratives of most seafaring men, there mingled with a certain amount of real incident, curious snatches of the supernatural.  In short, the subject was one on which, as I knew a good deal regarding it that was not generally known, I was in some degree qualified to write; and so I occupied my leisure in casting my facts respecting it into a series of letters, of which the first appeared in the Courier a fortnight after my volume of verse was laid on the tables of the north country booksellers.

    I had first gone out to sea to assist in catching herrings about ten years before; and I now described, in one of my letters, as truthfully as I could, those features of the scene to which I had been introduced on that occasion, which had struck me as novel and peculiar.  And what had been strange to me proved equally so, I found, to the readers of the Courier.  My letters attracted attention, and were published in my behalf by the proprietors of the paper, "in consequence," said my friend the editor, in a note which he kindly attached to the pamphlet which they formed, "of the interest they had excited in the northern counties." [122]  Their modicum of success, lowly as was their subject, compared with that of some of my more ambitious verses, taught me my proper course.  Let it be my business, I said, to know what is not generally known;—let me qualify myself to stand as an interpreter between nature and the public: while I strive to narrate as pleasingly and describe as vividly as I can, let truth, not fiction, be my walk; and if I succeed in uniting the novel to the true, in provinces of more general interest than the very humble one in which I have now partially succeeded, I shall succeed also in establishing myself in a position which, if not lofty, will yield me at least more solid footing than that to which I might attain as a mere littérateur who, mayhap, pleased for a little, but added nothing to the general fund.  The resolution was, I think, a good one; would that it had been better kept!  The following extracts may serve to show that, humble as my new subject may be deemed, it gave considerable scope for description of a kind not often associated with herrings, even when they employed all Grub Street:—


    "As the night gradually darkened, the sky assumed a dead and leaden hue: the sea, roughened by the rising breeze, reflected its deeper hues with an intensity approaching to black, and seemed a dark uneven pavement, that absorbed every ray of the remaining light.  A calm silvery patch, some fifteen or twenty yards in extent, came moving slowly through the black.  It seemed merely a patch of water coated with oil; but, obedient to some other moving power than that of either tide or wind, it sailed aslant our line of buoys, a stone-cast from our bows—lengthened itself along the line to thrice its former extent—paused as if for a moment—and then three of the buoys, after erecting themselves on their narrower base, with a sudden jerk slowly sunk.  'One—two—three buoys!' exclaimed one of the fishermen, reckoning them as they disappeared; 'there are ten barrels for us secure.'  A few moments were suffered to elapse: and then, unfixing the haulser from the stem, and bringing it aft to the stern, we commenced hauling.  The nets approached the gunwale.  The first three appeared, from the phosphoric light of the water, as if bursting into flames of a pale green colour.  Here and there a herring glittered bright in the meshes, or went darting away through the pitchy darkness, visible for a moment by its own light.  The fourth net was brighter than any of the others, and glittered through the waves while it was yet several fathoms away: the pale green seemed as if mingled with broken sheets of snow, that, flickering amid the mass of light—appeared, with every tug given by the fishermen, to shift, dissipate, and again form; and there streamed from it into the surrounding gloom myriads of green rays, an instant seen and then lost—the retreating fish that had avoided the meshes, but had lingered, until disturbed, beside their entangled companions.  It contained a considerable body of herrings.  As we raised them over the gunwale, they felt warm to the hand, for in the middle of a large shoal even the temperature of the water is raised—a fact well known to every herring fisherman; and in shaking them out of the meshes, the ear became sensible of a shrill, chirping sound, like that of the mouse, but much fainter—a ceaseless cheep, cheep, occasioned apparently—for no true fish is furnished with organs of sound—by a sudden escape from the air-bladder.  The shoal, a small one, had spread over only three of the nets—the three whose buoys had so suddenly disappeared; and most of the others had but their mere sprinkling of fish, some dozen or two in a net; but so thickly had they lain in the fortunate three, that the entire haul consisted of rather more than twelve barrels.
  .                        .                        .                        .                        .                        .                        .
We started up about midnight, and saw an open sea, as before; but the scene had considerably changed since we had lain down.  The breeze had died into a calm; the heavens, no longer dark and grey, were glowing with stars; and the sea, from the smoothness of the surface, appeared a second sky, as bright and starry as the other; with this difference, however, that all its stars seemed to be comets! the slightly tremulous motion of the surface elongated the reflected images, and gave to each its tail.  There was no visible line of division at the horizon.  Where the hills rose high along the coast, and appeared as if doubled by their undulating strip of shadow, what might be deemed a dense bank of cloud lay sleeping in the heavens, just where the upper and nether firmaments met; but its presence rendered the illusion none the less complete: the outline of the boat lay dark around us, like the fragment of some broken planet suspended in middle space, far from the earth and every star; and all around we saw extended the complete sphere—unhidden above from Orion to the Pole, and visible beneath from the Pole to Orion.  Certainly sublime scenery possesses in itself no virtue potent enough to develop the faculties, or the mind of the fisherman would not have so long lain asleep.  There is no profession whose recollections should rise into purer poetry than his; but if the mirror bear not its previous amalgam of taste and genius, what does it matter though the scene which sheds upon it its many coloured light should be rich in grandeur and beauty?  There is no corresponding image produced: the susceptibility of reflecting the landscape is never imparted by the landscape itself, whether to the mind or to the glass.  There is no class of recollections more illusory than those which associate—as if they existed in the relation of cause and effect—some piece of striking scenery with some sudden development of the intellect or imagination.  The eyes open, and there is an external beauty seen; but it is not the external beauty that has opened the eyes. .
  .                        .                        .                        .                        .                        .                        .
    "It was still a dead calm—calm to blackness; when, in about an hour after sunrise, what seemed light fitful airs began to play on the surface, imparting to it, in irregular patches, a tint of grey.  First one patch would form, then a second beside it, then a third, and then for miles around, the surface, else so silvery, would seem frosted over with grey: the apparent breeze appeared as if propagating itself from one central point.  In a few seconds after, all would be calm as at first; and then from some other centre the patches of grey would again form and widen, till the whole Firth seemed covered by them.  A peculiar poppling noise, as if a thunder-shower was beating the surface with its multitudinous drops, rose around our boat; the water seemed sprinkled with an infinity of points of silver, that for an instant glittered to the sun, and then resigned their places to other quick glancing points, that in turn were succeeded by yet others.  The herrings by millions, and thousands of millions, were at play around us, leaping a few inches into the air, and then falling and disappearing, to rise and leap again.  Shoal rose beyond shoal, till the whole bank of Gulliam seemed beaten into foam, and the low poppling sounds were multiplied into a roar, like that of the wind through some tall wood, that might be heard in the calm for miles.  And again, the shoals extending around us seemed to cover, for hundreds of square miles, the vast Moray Firth.  But though they played beside our buoys by thousands, not a herring swam so low as the upper baulk of our drift.  One of the fishermen took up a stone, and, flinging it right over our second buoy into the middle of the shoal, the fish disappeared from the surface for several fathoms around.  'Ah, there they go,' he exclaimed, 'if they go but low enough.  Four years ago I startled thirty barrels of light fish into my drift just by throwing a stone among them.'  I know not what effect the stone might have had on this occasion; but on hauling our nets for the third and last time, we found we had captured about eight barrels of fish; and then hoisting sail—for a light breeze from the east had sprung up—we made for the shore with a cargo of twenty barrels."


    Meanwhile the newspaper critics of the south were giving expression to all sorts of judgments on my verses.  It was intimated in the title of the volume that they had been "written in the leisure hours of a journeyman mason;" and the intimation seemed to furnish most of my reviewers with the proper cue for dealing with them.  "The time has gone by," said one, "when a literary mechanic used to be regarded as a phenomenon: were a second Burns to spring up now, he would not be entitled to so much praise as the first."  "It is our duty to tell this writer," said another, "that he will make more in a week by his trowel than in half a century by his pen."  "We are glad to understand," said a third—very judiciously, however—"that our author has the good sense to rely more on his chisel than on the Muses."  The lessons taught were of a sufficiently varied, but, on the whole, rather contradictory character.  By one writer I was told that I was a dull, correct fellow, who had written a book in which there was nothing amusing and nothing absurd.  Another, however, cheered my forlorn spirits by assuring me that I was a "man of genius, whose poems, with much that was faulty, contained also much that was interesting."  A third was sure I had "no chance whatever of being known beyond the limits of my native place," and that my "book exhibited none, or next to none, of those indications which sanction the expectation of better things to come;" while a fourth, of a more sanguine vein, found in my work the evidence of "gifts of Nature, which the stimulus of encouragement, and the tempering lights of experience, might hereafter develop, and direct to the achievement of something truly wonderful."  There were two names in particular that my little volume used to suggest to the newspaper reviewers.  The Tam O'Shanter and Souter Johnnie of the ingenious Thom [123] were in course of being exhibited at the time; and it was known that Thom had wrought as a journeyman mason; and there was a rather slim poet called Sillery, [124] the author of several forgotten volumes of verse, one of which had issued from the press contemporaneously with mine, who, as he had a little money, and was said to treat his literary friends very luxuriously, was praised beyond measure by the newspaper critics, especially by those of the Scottish capital.  And Thom as a mason, and Sillery as a poet, were placed repeatedly before me.  One critic, who was sure I would never come to anything, magnanimously remarked, however, as he bore me no ill will, he would be glad to find himself mistaken; nay, that it would give him "unfeigned pleasure to learn I had attained to the well-merited fame of even Mr Thom himself."  And another, after deprecating the undue severity so often shown by the bred writer to the working man, and asserting that the "journeyman mason" was in this instance, notwithstanding his treatment, a man of fair parts, ended by remarking, that it was of course not even every man of merit who could expect to attain to the "high poetic eminence and celebrity of a Charles Doyne Sillery."

    All this, however, was criticism at a distance, and disturbed me but little when engaged in toiling in the churchyard, or in enjoying my quiet evening walks.  But it became more formidable when, on one occasion, it came to beard me in my den.  The place was visited by an itinerant lecturer on elocution—one Walsh, who, as his art was not in great request among the quiet ladies and busy gentlemen of Cromarty, failed to draw houses; till at length there appeared one morning, placarded on post and pillar, an intimation to the effect, that Mr Walsh would that evening deliver an elaborate criticism on the lately-published volume of "Poems written in the leisure hours of a Journeyman Mason," and select from it a portion of his evening readings.  The intimation drew a good house; and, curious to know what was awaiting me, I paid my shilling, with the others, and got into a corner.  First in the entertainment there came a wearisome dissertation on harmonic inflections, double emphasis, the echoing words, and the monotones.  But, to borrow from Meg Dods, "Oh, what a style of language!"  The elocutionist, evidently an untaught and grossly ignorant man, had not an idea of composition.  Syntax, grammar, and good sense, were set at nought in every sentence; but then, on the other hand, the inflections were carefully maintained, and went rising and falling over the nonsense beneath, like the wave of some shallow bay over a bottom of mud and comminuted sea-weed.  After the dissertation we were gratified by a few recitations.  "Lord Ullin's Daughter," the "Razor Seller," and "My Name is Norval," were given in great force.  And then came the critique.  "Ladies and gentleman," said the reviewer, "we cannot expect much from a journeyman mason in the poetry line.  Right poetry needs teaching.  No man can be a proper poet unless he be an elocutionist; for, unless he be an elocutionist, how can he make his verses emphatic in the right places, or manage the harmonic inflexes, or deal with the rhetorical pauses?  And now, ladies and gentlemen, I'll show you, from various passages in this book, that the untaught journeyman mason who made it never took lessons in elocution.  I'll first read you a passage from a piece of verse called the 'Death of Gardiner'—the person meant being the late Colonel Gardiner, I suppose.  The beginning of the piece is about the running away of Johnnie Cope's men:"—


*           *            *            *            *


Yet in that craven, dread-struck host,
    One val'rous heart beat keen and high;
In that dark hour of shameful flight,
            One stayed behind to die!
Deep gash'd by many a felon blow,
    He sleeps where fought the vanquish'd van—
Of silver'd locks and furrow'd brow,
            A venerable man.
E'en when his thousand warriors fled—
    Their low-born valour quail'd and gone—
He—the meek leader of that band—
            Remained, and fought alone.
He stood; fierce foemen throng'd around;
    The hollow death-groans of despair,
The clashing sword, the cleaving axe,
            The murd'rous dirk were there.
Valour more stark, or hands more strong,
    Ne'er urged the brand or launch'd the spear
But what were these to that old man!
            God was his only fear.
He stood where adverse thousands throng'd,
    And long that warrior fought and well;
Bravely he fought, firmly he stood,
            Till where he stood he fell,
He fell—he breathed one patriot prayer,
    Then to his God his soul resign'd:
Not leaving of earth's many sons
            A better man behind.
His valour, his high scorn of death,
    To fame's proud meed no impulse owed;
His was a pure, unsullied zeal,
            For Britain and for God.
He fell—he died;—the savage foe
    Trod careless o'er the noble clay;
Yet not in vain that champion fought,
            In that disastrous fray.
On bigot creeds and felon swords
    Partial success may fondly smile,
Till bleeds the patriot's honest heart,
            And flames the martyr's pile.
Yet not in vain the patriot bleeds;
    Yet not in vain the martyr dies
From ashes mute, and voiceless blood,
            What stirring memories rise!
The scoffer owns the bigot's creed,
    Though keen the secret gibe may be;
The sceptic seeks the tyrant's dome,
            And bends the ready knee.
But oh! in dark oppression's day,
    When flares the torch, when flames the sword,
Who are the brave in freedom's cause?
            The men who fear the Lord. [125]


"Now, ladies and gentlemen," continued the critic, "this is very bad poetry.  I defy any elocutionist to read it satisfactorily with the inflexes.  And, besides, only see how full it is of tautology.  Let us take but one of the verses:—'He fell—he died!" To fall in battle means, as we all know, to die in battle;—to die in battle is exactly the same thing as to fall in battle.  To say 'he fell—he died,' is therefore just tantamount to saying that he fell, he fell, or that he died, he died, and is bad poetry, and tautology.  And this is one of the effects of ignorance, and a want of right education."  Here, however, a low grumbling sound, gradually shaping itself into words, interrupted the lecturer.  There was a worthy old captain among the audience, who had not given himself very much to the study of elocution or the belles-lettres; he had been too much occupied in his younger days in dealing at close quarters with the French under Howe and Nelson, to leave him much time for the niceties of recitation or criticism.  But the brave old man bore a genial, generous heart; and the strictures of the elocutionist, emitted, as all saw, in the presence of the assailed author, jarred on his feelings.  "It was not gentlemanly," he said, "to attack in that way an inoffensive man: it was wrong.  The poems were, he was told, very good poems.  He knew good judges that thought so; and unprovoked remarks on them, such as those of the lecturer, ought not to be permitted."  The lecturer replied, and in glibness and fluency would have been greatly an overmatch for the worthy captain; but a storm of hisses backed the old veteran, and the critic gave way.  As his remarks were, he said, not to the taste of the audience—though he was taking only the ordinary critical liberty—he would go on to the readings.  And with a few extracts, read without note or comment, the entertainment of the evening concluded.  There was nothing very formidable in the critique of Walsh; but, having no great powers of face, I felt it rather unpleasant to be stared at in my quiet corner by every one in the room, and looked, I daresay, very much put out; and the sympathy and condolence of such of my townsfolk as comforted me in the state of supposed annihilation and nothingness to which his criticism had reduced me, were just a little annoying.  Poor Walsh, however, had he but known what threatened him, would have been considerably less at ease than his victim.

    The cousin Walter introduced to the reader in an early chapter as the companion of one of my Highland journeys, had grown up into a handsome and very powerful young man.  One might have guessed his stature at about five feet ten or so, but it in reality somewhat exceeded six feet: he had amazing length and strength of arm; and such was his structure of bone, that, as he tucked up his sleeve to send the bowl along the town links, or to fling the hammer or throw the stone, the knobbed protuberances, of the wrist with the sinews rising sharp over them, reminded one rather of the framework of a horse's leg, than of that of a human arm.  And Walter, though a fine, sweet tempered fellow, had shown, oftener than once or twice, that he could make a very formidable use of his great strength.  Some of the later instances had been rather interesting in their kind.  There had been a large Dutch transport, laden with troops, forced by stress of weather into the bay shortly before, and a handsome young soldier of the party—a native of Northern Germany, named Wolf—had, I know not how, scraped acquaintance with Walter.  Wolf, who, like many of his country-folk, was a great reader, and intimately acquainted, through German translations, with the Waverley Novels, had taken all his ideas of Scotland and its people from the descriptions of Scott; and in Walter, as handsome as he was robust, he found the beau-idéal of a Scottish hero.  He was a man cast in exactly the model of the Harry Bertrams, Halbert Glendinnings, and Quentin Durwards of the novelist.  For the short time the vessel lay in the harbour, Wolf and Walter were inseparable.  Walter knew a little, mainly at second hand, through his cousin, about the heroes of Scott; and Wolf delighted to converse with him in his broken English about Balfour of Burley, Roy Roy, and Vich Ian Vohr: and ever and anon would he urge him to exhibit before him some feat of strength or agility—a call to which Walter was never slow to respond.  There was a serjeant among the troops—a Dutchman, regarded as their strongest man, who used to pride himself much on his prowess; and who, on hearing Wolf's description of Walter, expressed a wish to be introduced to him.  Wolf soon found the means of gratifying the serjeant.  The strong Dutchman stretched out his hand, and, on getting hold of Walter's, grasped it very hard.  Walter saw his design, and returned the grasp with such overmastering firmness, that the hand became powerless within his.  "Ah!" exclaimed the Dutchman, in his broken English, shaking his fingers, and blowing upon them, "me no try squeeze hand with you again; you very very strong man."  Wolf for a minute after stood laughing and clapping his hands, as if the victory were his, not Walter's.  When at length the day arrived on which the transport was to sail, the two friends seemed as unwilling to part as if they had been attached for years.  Walter presented Wolf with a favourite snuff-box; Wolf gave Walter his fine German pipe.

    Before I had risen on the morning of the day succeeding that in which I had been demolished by the elocutionist, Cousin Walter made his way to my bedside, with a storm on his brow dark as midnight.  "Is it true, Hugh," he inquired, "that the lecturer Walsh ridiculed you and your poems in the Council House last night?"  "Oh, and what of that?" I said; "who cares anything for the ridicule of a blockhead?"  "Ay," said Walter, "that's always your way; but I care for it!  Had I been there last night, I would have sent the puppy through the window, to criticize among the nettles in the yard.  But there's no time lost: I shall wait on him when it grows dark this evening, and give him a lesson in good manners."  "Not for your life, Walter!" I exclaimed.  "Oh" said Walter, "I shall give Walsh all manner of fair play."  "Fair play!" I rejoined; "you cannot give Walsh fair play; you are an overmatch for five Walshes.  If you meddle with him at all, you will kill the poor slim man at a blow, and then not only will you be apprehended for manslaughter—mayhap for murder—but it will also be said that I was mean enough to set you on to do what I had not courage enough to do myself.  You must give up all thoughts of meddling with Walsh."  In short, I at length partially succeeded in convincing Walter that he might do me a great mischief by assaulting my critic; but so little confident was I, of his seeing the matter in its proper light, that when the lecturer, unable to get audiences, quitted the place, and Walter had no longer opportunity of avenging my cause, I felt a load of anxiety taken off my mind.

    There reached Cromarty shortly after, a criticism that differed considerably from that of Walsh, and restored the shaken confidence of some of my acquaintance.  The other criticisms which had appeared in newspapers, critical journals, and literary gazettes, had been evidently the work of small men; and, feeble and commonplace in their style and thinking, they carried with them no weight—for who cares anything for the judgment, on one's writings, of men who themselves cannot write?  But here, at length, was there a critique eloquently and powerfully written.  It was, however, at least as extravagant in its praise as the others in their censure.  The friendly critic knew nothing of the author he commended; but he had, I suppose, first seen the deprecatory criticisms, and then glanced his eye over the volume which they condemned; and finding it considerably better than it was said to be, he had rushed into generous praise, and described it as really a great deal better than it was.  After an extravagantly high estimate of the powers of its author, he went on to say—"Nor, in making these observations, do we speak relatively, or desire to be understood as merely saying that the poems before us are remarkable productions to emanate from a 'journeyman mason.'  That this is indeed the case, no one who reads them can doubt; but in characterizing the poetical talent they display, our observations are meant to be quite absolute; and we aver, without fear of contradiction, that the pieces contained in the humble volume before us bear the stamp and impress of no ordinary genius; that they are bespangled with gems of genuine poetry; and that their unpretending author well deserves—what he will doubtless obtain—the countenance and support of a discerning public.  Nature is not an aristocrat.  To the plough-boy following his team a-field—to the shepherd tending his flocks in the wilderness—or to the rude cutter of stone, cramped over his rough occupation in the wooden shed—she sometimes dispenses her richest and rarest gifts as liberally as to the proud patrician, or the titled representative of a long line of illustrious ancestry.  She is no respecter of persons; and all other distinctions yield to the title which her favours confer.  The names, be they ever so humble, which she illustrates, need no other decoration to recommend them; and hence, even that of our 'journeyman mason' may yet be destined to take its place with those of men, who like him, first poured their 'wood-notes wild' in the humblest and lowliest sphere of life, but, raised into deathless song, have become familiar as household words to all who love and admire the unsophisticated productions of native genius."  The late Dr James Browne of Edinburgh, author of the "History of the Highlands," and working editor of the "Encylopædia Britannica," was, as I afterwards learned, the writer of this over-eulogistic, but certainly, in the circumstances, generous critique.

    Ultimately I found my circle of friends very considerably enlarged by the publication of my Verses and Letters.  Mr Isaac Forsyth of Elgin, the brother and biographer of the well-known Joseph Forsyth, whose classical volume on Italy still holds its place as perhaps the best work to which the traveller of taste in that country can commit himself, exerted himself, as the most influential of north-country booksellers, with disinterested kindness in my behalf.  The late Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, too, resident at that time at his seat of Relugas in Moray, lent me, unsolicited, his influence; and, distinguished by his fine taste and literary ability, he ventured to pledge both in my favour.  I also received much kindness from the late Miss Dunbar of Boath—a literary lady of the high type of the last age, and acquainted in the best literary circles, who, now late in life, admitted amid her select friends one friend more, and cheered me with many a kind letter, and invited my frequent visits to her hospitable mansion.  If, in my course as a working man, I never incurred pecuniary obligation, and never spent a shilling for which I had not previously laboured, it was certainly not from want of opportunity afforded me.  Miss Dunbar meant what she said, and oftener than once did she press her purse on my acceptance.  I received much kindness, too, from the late Principal Baird.  The venerable Principal, when on one of his Highland journeys—benevolently undertaken in behalf of an educational scheme of the General Assembly, in the service of which he travelled, after he was turned of seventy, more than eight thousand miles—had perused my Verses and Letters; and, expressing a strong desire to know their author, my friend the editor of the Courier despatched one of his apprentices to Cromarty, to say that he thought the opportunity of meeting with such a man ought not to be neglected.  I accordingly went up to Inverness, and had an interview with Dr Baird.  I had known him previously by name as one of the correspondents of Burns, and the editor of the best edition of the poems of Michael Bruce; and, though aware at the time that his estimate of what I had done was by much too high, I yet felt flattered by his notice.  He urged me to quit the north for Edinburgh.  The capital furnished, [126] he said, the proper field for a literary man in Scotland.  What between the employment furnished by the newspapers and the magazines, he was sure I would effect a lodgment, and work my way up; and until I gave the thing a fair trial, I would, of course, come and live with him.  I felt sincerely grateful for his kindness, but declined the invitation.  I did think it possible, that in some subordinate capacity—as a concocter of paragraphs, or an abridger of Parliamentary debates, or even as a writer of occasional articles—I might find more remunerative employment than as a stone mason.  But though I might acquaint myself in a large town, when occupied in this way, with the world of books, I questioned whether I could enjoy equal opportunities of acquainting myself with the occult and the new in natural science, as when plying my labours in the provinces as a mechanic.  And so I determined that, instead of casting myself on an exhausting literary occupation, in which I would have to draw incessantly on the stock of fact and reflection which I had already accumulated, I should continue for at least several years more to purchase independence by my labours as a mason, and employ my leisure hours in adding to my fund, gleaned from original observation, and in walks not previously trodden.

    The venerable Principal set me upon a piece of literary taskwork, which, save for his advice, I would never have thought of producing, and of which these autobiographic chapters are the late but legitimate off-spring.  "Literary men," he said, "are sometimes spoken of as consisting of two classes—the educated and the uneducated; but they must all alike have an education before they can become literary men; and the less ordinary the mode in which the education has been acquired, the more interesting always is the story of it.  I wish you to write for me an account of yours."  I accordingly wrote an autobiographic sketch for the Principal, which brought up my story till my return, in 1825, from the south country to my home in the north, and which, though greatly overladen with reflection and remark, has preserved for me both the thoughts and incidents of an early time more freshly than if they had been suffered to exist till now, as mere recollections in the memory.  I next set myself to record, in a somewhat elaborate form, the traditions of my native place and the surrounding district; and, taking the work very leisurely, not as labour, but as amusement—for my labours, at an earlier period, continued to be those of the stone-cutter—a bulky volume grew up under my hands.  I had laid down for myself two rules.  There is no more fatal error into which a working man of a literary turn can fall, than the mistake of deeming himself too good for his humble employments; and yet it is a mistake as common as it is fatal.  I had already seen several poor wretched mechanics, who, believing themselves to be poets, and regarding the manual occupation by which they could alone alive in independence as beneath them, had become in consequence little better than mendicants—too good to work for their bread, but not too good virtually to beg it; and, looking upon them as beacons of warning, I determined that, with God's help, I should give their error a wide offing, and never associate the ideas of meanness with an honest calling, or deem myself too good to be independent.  And, in the second place, as I saw that the notice, and more especially the hospitalities, of persons in the upper walks, seemed to exercise a deteriorating effect on even strong-minded men in circumstances such as mine, I resolved rather to avoid than court the attentions from this class which were now beginning to come my way.  Johnson describes his "Ortogrul of Basra" as a thoughtful and meditative man; and yet he tells us, that after he had seen the palace of the Vizier, and "admired the walls hung with golden tapestry, and the floors covered with silken carpets, he despised the simple neatness of his own little habitation."  And the lesson of the fiction is, I fear, too obviously exemplified in the real history of one of the strongest-minded men of the last age—Robert Burns.  The poet seems to have left much of his early complacency in his humble home behind him, in the splendid mansions of the men who, while they failed worthily to patronize him, injured him by their hospitalities.  I found it more difficult, however, to hold by this second resolution than by the first.  As I was not large enough to be made a lion of, the invitations which came my way were usually those of real kindness; and the advances of kindness I found it impossible always to repel; and so it happened that I did at times find myself in company in which the working man might be deemed misplaced and in danger.  On two several occasions, for instance, after declining previous invitations not a few, I had to spend a week at a time, as the guest of my respected friend Miss Dunbar of Boath; and my native place was visited by few superior men that I had not to meet at some hospitable board.  But I trust I may say, that the temptation failed to injure me; and that on such occasions I returned to my obscure employments and lowly home, grateful for the kindness I had received, but in no degree discontented with my lot.

    Miss Dunbar belonged, as I have said, to a type of literary lady now well-nigh passed away, but of which we find frequent trace in the epistolary literature of the last century.  The class comes before us in elegant and tasteful letters, indicative of minds imbued with literature, though mayhap not ambitious of authorship, and that show what ornaments their writers must have proved of the society to which they belonged, and what delight they must have given to the circles in which they more immediately moved.  The lady Russel, the Lady Luxborough, the Countess of Pomfret, Mrs Elizabeth Montague, &c. &c.,—names well fixed in the epistolary literature of England, though unknown in the walks of ordinary authorship—may be regarded as specimens of the class.  Even in the cases in which its members did become authoresses, and produced songs and ballads instinct with genius, they seem to have had but little of the author's ambition in them; and their songs, cast carelessly upon the waters, have been found, after many days, preserved rather by accident than design.  The Lady Wardlaw, who produced the noble ballad of "Hardyknute"—the Lady Ann Lindsay, who wrote "Auld Robin Gray"—the Miss Blamire, whose "Nabob" is so charming a composition, notwithstanding its unfortunately prosaic name—and the late Lady Nairne, authoress of the "Land o' the Leal," "John Tod," and the "Laird o' Cockpen"—are specimens of the class that fixed their names among the poets with apparently as little effort or design as singing birds pour forth their melodies.

    The north had, in the last age, its interesting group of ladies of this type, of whom the central figure might be regarded as the late Mrs Elizabeth Rose of Kilravock, the correspondent of Burns, and the cousin and associate of Henry Mackenzie, the "Man of Feeling."  Mrs Rose seems to have been a lady of a singularly fine mind—though a little touched, mayhap, by the prevailing sentimentalism of the age.  The Mistress of Harley, Miss Walton, might have kept exactly such journals as hers; but the talent which they exhibited was certainly of a high order; and the feeling, though cast in a somewhat artificial mould, was, I doubt not, sincere.  Portions of these journals I had an opportunity of perusing when on my visit to my friend Miss Dunbar; and there is a copy of one of them now in my possession.  Another member of this group was the late Mrs Grant of Laggan—at the time when it existed unbroken, the mistress of a remote Highland manse, and known but to her personal friends, by those earlier letters which form the first half of her "Letters from the Mountains," and which, in ease and freshness, greatly surpass aught which she produced after she began her career of authorship.  Not a few of her letters, and several of her poems, were addressed to my friend Miss Dunbar.  Some of the other members of the group were greatly younger than Mrs Grant and the Lady of Kilravock.  And of these, one of the most accomplished was the late Lady Gordon Cumming of Altyre, known to scientific men by her geologic labours among the ichthyolitic formations of Moray, and mother of the famous lion-hunter, Mr Gordon Cumming.  My friend Miss Dunbar was at this time considerably advanced in life, and her health far from good.  She possessed, however, a singular buoyancy of spirits, which years and frequent illness had failed to depress; and her interest and enjoyment in nature and in books remained as high as when, long before, her friend Mrs Grant had addressed her as


Helen, by every sympathy allied,
    By love of virtue and by love of song,
Compassionate in youth and beauty's pride.


Her mind was imbued with literature, and stored with literary anecdote: she conversed with elegance, giving interest to whatever she touched; and, though she seemed never to have thought of authorship in her own behalf, she wrote pleasingly and with great facility, in both prose and verse.  Her verses, usually of a humorous cast, ran trippingly off the tongue, as if the words had dropped by some happy accident—for the arrangement bore no mark of effort—into exactly the places where they at once best brought out the writer's meaning, and addressed themselves most pleasingly to the ear.  The opening stanzas of a light jeu d'esprit on a young naval officer engaged in a lady-killing expedition in Cromarty, dwell in my memory; and—first premising, by way of explanation, that Miss Dunbar's brother, the late Baronet of Boath, was a captain in the navy, and that the ladykiller was his first lieutenant—I shall take the liberty of giving all I remember of the piece, as a specimen of her easy style:—


        In Cromarty Bay,
        As the 'Diver' snug lay,
The Lieutenant would venture ashore;
        And, a figure to cut,
        From the head to the foot
He was fashion and finery all o'er.

        A hat richly laced,
        To the left side was placed,
Which made him look martial and bold;
        His coat of true blue
        Was spick and span new,
And the buttons were burnished with gold.

        His neckcloth well puffed,
        Which six handkerchiefs stuffed,
And in colour with snow might have vied,
        Was put on with great care,
        As a bait for the fair,
And the ends in a love-knot were tied. &c. &c.


I greatly enjoyed my visits to this genial-hearted and accomplished lady.  No chilling condescensions on her part measured out to me my distance: Miss Dunbar took at once the common ground of literary tastes and pursuits; and if I did not feel my inferiority there, she took care that I should feel it nowhere else.  There was but one point on which we differed.  While hospitably extending to me every facility for visiting the objects of scientific interest in her neighbourhood—such as those sandwastes of Culbin in which an ancient barony finds burial, and the geologic sections presented by the banks of the Findhorn—she was yet desirous to fix me down to literature as my proper walk; and I, on the other hand, was equally desirous of escaping into science.



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