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James Nasmyth by James Nasmyth: Chapter 4

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Mural crown of St. Giles', Edinburgh.

CHAPTER IV. MY EARLY YEARS.

I was born on the morning of the 19th of August 1808, at my father's house, No. 47 York Place, Edinburgh. I was named James Hall after my father's dear friend, Sir James Hall of Dunglass. My mother afterwards told me that I must have been "a very noticin' bairn," as she observed me, when I was only a few days old, following with my little eyes any one who happened to be in the room, as if I had been thinking to my little self, "Who are you?"

After a suitable time I was put under the care of a nursemaid. I remember her well - Mary Peterkin — a truly Scandinavian name. She came from Haddingtonshire, where most of the people are of Scandinavian origin. Her hair was of a bright yellow tint. She was a cheerful young woman, and sang to me like a nightingale. She could not only sing old Scotch songs, but had a wonderful memory for fairy tales. When under the influence of a merry laugh, you could scarcely see her eyes; their twinkle was hidden by her eyelids and lashes. She was a willing worker, and was always ready to lend a helping hand at everything about the house. She took great pride in me, calling me her "laddie." When I was toddling about the house, another sister was born, the last of the family. Little Mary was very delicate; and to improve her health she was sent to a small farm-house at Braid Hills, about four miles south of Edinburgh. It was one of the most rural and beautiful surroundings of the city at that time. One of my earliest recollections is that of being taken to see poor little Mary at the farmer's house. While my nursemaid was occupied in inquiring after my sister, I was attracted by the bright red poppies in a neighbouring field. When they made search for me I could not be found. I was lost for more than an hour. At last, seeing a slight local disturbance among the stalks of the corn, they rushed to the spot, and brought me out with an armful of brilliant red poppies. To this day poppies continue to be my greatest favourites.

When I was about four or five years old, I was observed to give a decided preference to the use of my left hand. Everything was done to prevent my using it in preference to the right. My mother thought that it arose from my being carried on the wrong arm by my nurse while an infant. The right hand was thus confined, and the left hand was used. I was constantly corrected, but "on the sly" I always used it, especially in drawing my first little sketches. At last my father, after viewing with pleasure one of my artistic efforts, done with the forbidden hand, granted it liberty and independence for all time coming. "Well," he said, "you may go on in your own way in the use of your left hand, but I fear you will be an awkward fellow in everything that requires handiness in life." I used my right hand in all that was necessary, and my left in all sorts of practical manipulative affairs. My left hand has accordingly been my most willing and obedient servant in transmitting my will through my fingers into material or visible forms. In this way I became ambidexter.

When I was about four years old, I often followed my father into his workshop when he had occasion to show to his visitors some of his mechanical contrivances or artistic models. The persons present usually expressed their admiration in warm terms of what was shown to them. On one occasion I gently pulled the coat-tail of one of the listeners, and confidentially said to him, as if I knew all about it, "My papa's a kevie Fellae!" My father was so greatly amused by this remark that he often referred to it as "the last good thing" from that old-fashioned creature little Jamie.

One of my earliest recollections is the annual celebration of my brother Patrick's birthday. Being the eldest of the family, his birthday was held in special honour. My father invited about twenty of his most intimate friends to dinner. My mother brought her culinary powers into full operation. The younger members of the family also took a lively interest in all that was going on, with certain reversionary views as to "the day after the feast." We took a great interest in the Trifle, which was no trifle in reality, in so far as regarded the care and anxiety involved in its preparation. In connection with this celebration, it was an established institution that a large hamper always arrived in good time from the farm attached to my mother's old home at Woodhall, near Edinburgh. It contained many substantial elements for the entertainment — a fine turkey, fowls, duck, and suchlike; with two magnums of the richest cream. There never was such cream! It established a standard of cream in my memory; and since then I have always been hypercritical about the article.

On one of these occasions, when I was about four years old, and being the youngest of the family, I was taken into the company after the dinner was over, and held up by my sister Jane to sing a verse from a little song which my nurse Mary Peterkin had taught me, and which ran thus:

"I’ll no bide till Saturday,
But I'll awa' the morn,
An' follow Donald Hielandnian,
An' carry his poother-horn."

This was my first and last vocal performance. It was received with great applause. In fact, it was encored. The word "poother," which I pronounced "pootle," excited the enthusiasm of the audience. I was then sent to bed with a bit of plum-cake, and was doubtless awakened early next morning by the irritation of the dried crumbs of the previous night's feast.

I am reminded, by reading over a letter of my brother Patrick's, of an awkward circumstance which happened to me when I was six years old. In his letter to my father, dated London, 22d September 1814, he says: "I did get a surprise when Margaret's letter informed me of my little brother Jamie's fall. It was a wonderful escape. For God's sake keep an eye upon him!" Like other strong and healthy boys, I had a turn for amusing myself in my own way. When sliding down the railing of the stairs I lost my grip and fell suddenly over. The steps were of stone. Fortunately, the servants were just coming in laden with carpets which they had been beating. I fell into their midst and knocked them out of their hands. I was thus saved from cracking my poor little skull. But for that there might have been no steam-hammer — at least of my contrivance!

Everything connected with war and warlike exploits is interesting to a boy. The war with France was then in full progress. Troops and bands paraded the streets. Recruits were sent away as fast as they could be drilled. The whole air was filled with war. Everybody was full of excitement about the progress of events in Spain. When the great guns boomed forth from the Castle, the people were first startled. Then they were surprised and anxious. There had been a battle and a victory! "Who had fallen?" was the first thought in many minds. Where had the battle been, and what was the victory? Business was suspended. People rushed about the streets to ascertain the facts. It might have been at Salamanca, Talavera, or Vittoria. But a long time elapsed before the details could be received and during that time sad suspense and anxiety prevailed in almost every house-hold. There was no telegraph then. It was only after the Gazette had been published that people knew who had fallen and who had survived. The war proceeded. The volunteering which went on at the time gave quite a military aspect to the city. I remember how odd it appeared to me to see some well-known faces and figures metamorphosed into soldiers. It was considered a test of loyalty as well as of patriotism, to give time, money, and leisure to take up the arms of defence, and to practise daily in military uniform in the Meadows or on Bruntsfield Links. Windows were thrown up to hear the bands playing at the head of the troops, and crowds of boys, full of military ardour, went, as usual, hand to hand in front of the drums and fifes. The most interesting part of the procession to my mind was the pioneers in front, with their leather aprons, their axes and saws, and their big hairy caps and beards. They were to me so suggestive of clearing the way through hedges and forests, and of what war was in its actual progress.

Every victory was followed by the importation of large numbers of French prisoners. Many of these were sent to Edinburgh Castle. They were permitted to relieve the tedium of their confinement by manufacturing and selling toys, workboxes, brooches, and carved work of different kinds. In the construction of these they exhibited great skill, taste, and judgment. They carved them out of bits of bone and wood. The patterns were most beautiful, and they were ingeniously and tastefully ornamented. The articles were to be had for a mere trifle, although fit to be placed along with the most choice objects of artistic skill.

These poor prisoners of war were allowed to work at their tasteful handicrafts in small sheds or temporary workshops at the Castle, behind the palisades which separated them from their free customers outside. There was just room between the bars of the palisades for them to band through their exquisite works, and to receive in return the modest prices which they charged. The front of these palisades became a favourite resort for the inhabitants of Edinburgh; and especially for the young folks. I well remember being impressed with the contrast between the almost savage aspect of these dark-haired foreigners, and the neat and delicate produce of their skilful fingers.

At the peace of Amiens, which was proclaimed in 1814, great rejoicings and illuminations took place, in the belief that the war was at an end. The French prisoners were sent back to their own country, alas! to appear again before us at Waterloo. The liberation of those confined in Edinburgh Castle was accompanied by an extraordinary scene. The French prisoners marched down to the transport ships at Leith by torchlight. All the town was out to see them. They passed in military procession through the principal streets, singing as they marched along their revolutionary airs, "Ca Ira" and "The Marseillaise." The wild enthusiasm of these haggard-looking men, lit up by torchlight and accompanied by the cheers of the dense crowd which lined the streets and filled the windows, made an impression on my mind that I can never forget.

A year passed. Napoleon returned from Elba, and was rejoined by nearly all his old fighting-men. I well remember, young as I was, an assembly of the inhabitants of Edinburgh in Charlotte Square, to bid farewell to the troops and officers then in garrison. It was a fine summer evening when this sad meeting took place. The bands were playing as their last performance, " Go where glory waits thee!" The air brought tears to many eyes; for many who were in the ranks might never return. After many a handshaking the troops marched to the Castle, previous to their early embarkation for the Low Countries on the following morning.

Then came Waterloo and the victory! The Castle guns boomed forth again; and the streets were filled with people anxious to hear the news. At last came the Gazette filled with the details of the killed and wounded. Many a heart was broken, many a fireside was made desolate. It was indeed a sad time. The terrible anxiety that pervaded so many families; the dreadful sacrifice of lives on so many battlefields; and the enormously increased taxation, which caused so many families to stint themselves to even the barest necessaries of life;—such was the inglorious side of war.

But there was also the glory, which almost compensated for the sorrow. I cannot resist narrating the entry of the Forty-Second regiment into Edinburgh shortly after the battle of Waterloo. The old "Black Watch" is a regiment dear to every Scottish heart. It has fought and struggled when resistance was almost certain death. At Quatre Bras two flank companies were cut to pieces by Pire's cavalry. The rest of the regiment was assailed by Reille's furious cannonade, and suffered severely. The French were beaten back, and the remnant of the Forty-Second retired to Waterloo, where they formed part of the brigade under Major- General Pack. At the first grand charge of the French, Picton fell and many were killed. Then the charge of the Greys took place, and the Highland regiments rushed forward, with cries of "Scotland for ever!" Only a remnant of the Forty-Second survived. They were however recruited, and marched into France with the rest of the army.

Towards the end of the year the Forty-Second returned to England, and in the beginning of 1816 they set out on their march towards Edinburgh. They were everywhere welcomed with enthusiasm. Crowds turned out to meet them and cheer them. When the first division of the regiment approached Edinburgh, almost the entire population turned out to welcome them. At Musselburgh, six miles off, the road was thronged with people. When the soldiers reached Piershill, two miles off, the road was so crowded that it took them two hours to reach the Castle. I was on a balcony in the upper part of the High Street, and my father, mother, and sisters were with me. We had waited very long; but at last we heard the distant sound of the cheers, which came on and on, louder and louder.

The High Street was wedged with people excited and anxious. There seemed scarcely room for a regiment to march through them. The house-tops and windows were crowded with spectators. It was a grand sight. The high-gabled houses. reaching as far as the eye could see, St. Giles' with its mural crown, the Tron Kirk in the distance, and the picturesque details of the buildings, all added to the effectiveness of the scene.

At last the head of the gallant band appeared. The red coats gradually wedged their way through the crowd, amidst the ringing of bells and the cheers of the spectators. Every window was in a wave of gladness, and every house-top was in a fever of excitement. As the red line passed our balcony, with Colonel Dick at its head, we saw a sight that can never be forgotten. The red-and-white plumes, the tattered colours riddled with bullets, the glittering bayonets, were seen amidst the crowd that thronged round the gallant heroes, amidst tears and cheers and hand-shakings and shouts of excitement. The mass of men appeared like a solid body moving slowly along; the soldiers being almost hidden amongst the crowd. At last they passed, the pipers and drums playing a Highland march; and the Forty-Second slowly entered the Castle. It was perhaps the most extraordinary scene ever witnessed in Edinburgh.

One of my greatest enjoyments when a child was in going out with the servants to the Calton, and wait while the "claes" bleached in the sun on the grassy slopes of the hill. The air was bright and fresh and pure. The lasses regarded these occasions as a sort of holiday. One or two of the children usually accompanied them. They sat together, and the servants told us their auld-warld stories; common enough in those days, but which have now, in a measure, been forgotten. "Steam" and "progress" have made the world much less youthful and joyous than it was then.

The women brought their work and their needles with them, and when they had told their stories, the children ran about the hill making bunches of the wild flowers. They ran after the butterflies and the bumbees, and made acquaintance in a small way with the beauties of nature. Then the servants opened their baskets of provisions, and we had a delightful picnic. Though I am now writing about seventy years after the date of these events, I can almost believe that I am enjoying the delightful perfume of the wild thyme and the fragrant plants and flowers, wafted around me by the warm breezes of the Calton hillside.

In the days I refer to, there was always a most cheerful and intimate intercourse kept up between the children and the servants. They were members of the same family, and were treated as such. The servants were for the most part country-bred — daughters of farm servants or small farmers. They were fairly educated at their parish schools; they could read and write, and had an abundant store of old recollections. Many a pleasant crack we had with them as to their native places, their families, and all that was connected with them. They became lastingly attached to their masters and mistresses, as well as to the children. All this led to true attachment and when they left us, for the most part to be married, we continued to keep up a correspondence with them, which lasted for many years.

While enjoying these delightful holidays, before my school-days began, my practical education was in progress, especially in the way of acquaintance with the habits of nature in a vast variety of its phases, always so attractive to the minds of healthy children. It happened that close to the Calton Hill, in the valley at its northern side, there were many workshops where interesting trades were carried on, such as those of coppersmiths, tinsmiths, brassfounders, gold- beaters, and blacksmiths. Their shops were all gathered together in a busy group at the foot of the bill, in a place called Greenside. The workshops were open to the inspection of passers by. Little boys looked in and saw the men at work amidst the blaze of fires and the beatings of hammers.

Amongst others, I was an ardent admirer. I may almost say that this row of busy workshops was my first school of practical education. I observed the mechanical manipulation of the men, their dexterous use of the hammer, the chisel, and the file; and I imbibed many lessons which proved of use to me in my later years. Then I had tools at home in my father's workshop. I tried to follow their methods; I became greatly interested in the use of tools and their appliances; I could make things for myself. In short, I became so skilled that the people about the house called me "a little Jack-of-all-trades."

While sitting on the grassy slopes of the Calton Hill I would often hear the chimes sounding from the grand old tower of St. Giles. The cathedral lay on the other side of the valley which divides the Old Town from the New. The sounds came over the murmur of the traffic in the streets below.

The chime-bells were played every day from twelve till one — the old-fashioned dinner-hour of the citizens. The practice had been in existence for more than a hundred and fifty years, The pleasing effect of the merry airs, which came wafted to me by the warm summer breezes, made me long to see them as well as hear them.

My father was always anxious to give pleasure to his children. Accordingly, be took me one day, as a special treat, to the top of the grand old tower, to see the chimes played. As we passed up the tower, a strong vaulted room was pointed out to me, where the witches used to be imprisoned. I was told that the poor old women were often taken down from this dark vault to be burnt alive! Such terrible tales enveloped the tower with a horrible fascination to my young mind. What a fearful contrast to the merry sound of the chimes issuing from its roof on a bright summer day.

On my way up to the top flat, where the chimes were played, I had to pass through the vault in which the great pendulum was slowly swinging in its ghostly-like tick-tack, tick-tack; while the great ancient clock was keeping time by its sudden and startling movement. The whole scene was almost as uncanny as the witches' cell underneath. There was also a wild rumbling thumping sound overhead. I soon discovered the cause of this, when I entered the flat where the musician was at work. He was seen in violent action, beating or hammering on the keys of a gigantic piano-forte-like apparatus. The instruments he used were two great leather-faced mallets, one of which he held in each hand. Each key was connected by iron rods to the chime-bells above. The frantic and mad-like movements of the musician, as he energetically rushed from one key to another, often widely apart, gave me the idea that the man was daft — especially as the noise of the mallets was such that I heard no music emitted from the chimes so far overhead. It was only when I had climbed up the stair of the tower to where the bells were rung that I understood the performance, and comprehended the beating of the chimes which gave me so much pleasure when I heard them at a distance.

Another source of enjoyment in my early days was to accompany my mother to the market. As I have said before, my mother, though generous in her hospitality, was necessarily thrifty and economical in the management of her household. There were no less than fourteen persons in the house to be fed, and this required a good deal of marketing. At the time I refer to (about 1816) it was the practice of every lady who took pride in managing economically the home department of her husband's affairs, to go to market in person. The principal markets in Edinburgh were then situated in the valley between the Old and New Towns, in what used to be called the Nor' Loch.

Dealers in fish and vegetables had their stalls there. The market for butcher-meat was near at hand: and each were in their several locations. It was a very lively and bustling sight to see the marketing going on. When a lady was observed approaching, likely to be a customer, she was at once surrounded by the "caddies." They were a set of sturdy hard-working women, each with a creel on her back. Their competition for the employer sometimes took a rather energetic form. The rival candidates pointed to her with violent exclamations; "She's my ledie! she's my ledie" ejaculated one and all. To dispel the disorder, a selection of one of the caddies would be made, and then all was quiet again until another customer appeared.

There was a regular order in which the purchases were deposited in the creel. First, there came the fish, which were carefully deposited in the lowest part, with a clean deal board over them. The fishwives were a most sturdy and independent class, both in manners and language. When at home, at Newhaven or Fisherrow, they made and mended their husbands' nets, put their fishing tackle to rights, and when the fishing boats came in they took the fish to market at Edinburgh. To see the groups of these hardworking women, trudging along with their heavy creels on their backs, clothed in their remarkable costume, with their striped petticoats, kilted up and showing their sturdy legs, was indeed a remarkable sight. They were cheerful and good-humoured, but very outspoken. Their skins were clear and ruddy, and many of the young fishwives were handsome and pretty. They were, in fact, the incarnation of health.

In dealing with them at the Fish Market there was a good deal of niggling. They often asked two or three times more than the fish were worth — at least, according to the then market price. After a stormy night, during which the husbands and sons had toiled to catch the fish, on the usual question being asked, "Weel, Janet, hoo's haddies the day?" "Haddies, mem? Ou, haddies is men's lives the day!" which was often true, as haddocks were often caught at the risk of their husbands' lives. After the usual amount of higgling, the haddies were brought down to their proper market price, — sometimes a penny for a good haddock, or, when herrings were rife, a dozen herrings for twopence, crabs for a penny, and lobsters for threepence. For there were no railways then to convey the fish to England, and thus equalise the price for all classes of the community.

Let me mention here a controversy between a fishwife and a buyer called Thomson. The buyer offered a price so ridiculously small for a parcel of fish that the seller became quite indignant, and she terminated at once all further higgling. Looking up to him, she said, "Lord help yer e'e-sight, Master Tamson" "Lord help my e'e-sight, woman! What has that to do with it?" "Ou," said she, "because ye ha'e nae nose to put spectacles on" As it happened, poor Mr. Thomson had, by some accident or disease, so little of a nose left, if any at all, that the bridge of the nose for holding up the spectacles was almost entirely wanting. And thus did the fishwife retaliate on her niggardly customer.

When my mother had got her fish laid at the bottom of the creel, she next went to the flesher for her butcher-meat. There was no higgling here, for the meat was sold at the ordinary market price. Then came the poultry stratum; then the vegetables, or fruits in their season; and, finally, there was "the floore" — a bunch of flowers; not a costly bouquet, but a large assortment of wallflowers, daffodils (with their early spring fragrance), polyanthuses, liliacs, gillyflowers, and the glorious old-fashioned cabbage rose, as well as the even more gloriously fragrant moss rose. The caddy's creel was then topped up, and the marketing was completed. The lady was then followed home, the contents were placed in the larder, and the flowers distributed all over the house.

I have many curious traditional evidences of the great fondness for cats which distinguished the Nasmyth family for several generations. My father had always one or two of such domestic favourites, who were, in the best sense, his "familiars." Their quiet, companionable habits rendered them very acceptable company when engaged in his artistic work. I know of no sound so pleasantly tranquillising as the purring of a cat, or of anything more worthy of admiration in animal habit as the neat, compact, and elegant manner in which the cat adjusts itself at the fireside, or in a snug, cosy place, when it settles down for a long quiet sleep. Every spare moment that a cat has before lying down to rest is occupied in carefully cleaning itself, even under adverse circumstances. The cat is the true original inventor of a sanitary process, which has lately been patented and paraded before the public as a sanitary novelty; and yet it has been in practice ever since cats were created. Would that men and women were more alive to habitual cleanliness — even the cleanliness of cats. The kindly and gentle animal gives them all a lesson.

Then, nothing can be more beautiful in animal action than the exquisitely precise and graceful manner in which the cat exerts the exact amount of effort requisite to land it at the height and spot it wishes to reach at one bound. The neat and delicately precise manner in which cats use their paws when playing with those who habitually treat them with gentle kindness, is truly admirable. In these respects cats are entitled to the most kindly regard. There are, unfortunately, many who entertain a strong prejudice against this most perfect and beautiful member of the animal creation, and who abuse them because they resist ill treatment, which their innate feeling of independence causes them to resist. Cats have no doubt less personal attachments than dogs, but when kindly treated they become in many respects attached and affectionate animals.

My father, when a boy, made occasional visits to Hamilton, in the West of Scotland, where the descendants of his Covenanting ancestors still lived. One of them was an old bachelor — a recluse sort of man; and yet he had the Nasmyth love of cats. Being of pious pedigree and habits, he always ended the day by a long and audible prayer. My father and his companions used to go to the door of his house to listen to him, but especially to hear his culminating finale. He prayed that the Lord would help him to forgive his enemies and all those who had done him injury; and then, with a loud burst, he concluded, "Except John Anderson o' the Toonhead, for he killed my cat, and him I'll ne'er forgie" In conclusion, I may again refer to Elspeth Nasmyth, who was burnt alive for witchcraft, because she had four black cats, and read her Bible through two pairs of spectacles!

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