Part 1 out of 8
James Nasmyth: Engineer, An Autobiography.
Edited by Samuel Smiles, LL.D.
(this Etext is taken from the popular edition, pub. John Murray 1897)
I have had much pleasure in editing the following Memoir of my friend
Mr. Nasmyth. Some twenty years since (in April 1863), when I applied
to him for information respecting his mechanical inventions, he
replied: "My life presents no striking or remarkable incidents,
and would, I fear, prove but a tame narrative. The sphere to which my
endeavours have been confined has been of a comparatively quiet order;
but, vanity apart, I hope I have been able to leave a few marks of my
existence behind me in the shape of useful contrivances, which are in
many ways helping on great works of industry."
Mr. Nasmyth, nevertheless, kindly furnished me with information
respecting himself, as well as his former master and instructor,
Henry Maudslay, of London, for the purpose of being inserted in
Industrial Biography, or Ironworkers and Toolmakers, which was
published at the end of 1863. He was of opinion that the outline of
his life there presented was sufficiently descriptive of his career as
a mechanic and inventor.
During the years that have elapsed since then, Mr. Nasmyth has been
prevailed upon by some of his friends more especially by Sir John
Anderson, late of Woolwich Arsenal--to note down the reminiscences of
his life, with an account of his inventions, and to publish them for
the benefit of others. He has accordingly spent some of his well
earned leisure during the last two years in writing out his
recollections. Having consulted me on the subject, I recommended that
they should be published in the form of an Autobiography, and he has
willingly given his consent.
Mr. Nasmyth has furnished me with abundant notes of his busy life,
and he has requested me, in preparing them for publication, to
"make use of the pruning-knife." I hope, however, that in editing the
book I have not omitted anything that is likely to be interesting or
instructive. I must add that everything has been submitted to his
correction and received his final approval.
The narrative abundantly illustrates Mr. Nasmyth's own definition of
engineering; namely, common sense applied to the use of materials.
In his case, common sense has been more especially applied to
facilitating and perfecting work by means of Machine Tools.
Civilisation began with tools; and every step in advance has been
accomplished through their improvement. Handicraft labour, in bone,
stone, or wood, was the first stage in the development of man's power;
and tools or machines, in iron or steel, are the last and most
efficient method of economising it, and enabling him to intelligently
direct the active and inert forces of nature.
It will be observed that Mr. Nasmyth, on his first start in life,
owed much to the influence of his father, who was not only an admirable
artist--"the founder," as Sir David Wilkie termed him, "of the
landscape painting school of Scotland"--but an excellent mechanic.
His "bow-and-string" roofs and bridges show his original merits as a
designer; and are sufficient to establish his ability as a mechanical
engineer. Indeed, one of Mr. Nasmyth's principal objects in preparing
the notes of the following work, has been to introduce a Memorial to
the memory of his father, to whom he owed so much, and to whom he was
so greatly attached through life. Hence the numerous references to him,
and the illustrations from his works of art, of architecture,
as well as of mechanics, given in the early part of the book.
I might point out that Mr. Nasmyth's narrative has a strong bearing
upon popular education; not only as regards economical use of time,
careful observation, close attention to details, but as respects the
uses of Drawing. The observations which he makes as to the accurate
knowledge of this art are very important. In this matter he concurs
with Mr. Herbert Spencer in his work on Education. "It is very strange,"
Mr. Nasmyth said some years ago, "that amidst all our vaunted
improvements in education, the faculty of comparison by sight, or what
may be commonly called the correctness of eye, has been so little
attended to" He accordingly urges the teaching of rudimentary drawing in
all public schools. "Drawing is," he says, "the Education of the Eye.
It is more interesting than words. It is graphic language."
The illustrations given in the course of the following book will serve
to show his own mastery of drawing whether as respects Mechanical
details, the Moon's surface, or the fairyland of Landscape.
It is perhaps not saying too much to aver that had he not devoted his
business life to Mechanics, he would, like his father, his brother
Patrick, and his sisters, have taken a high position as an artist.
In the following Memoir we have only been able to introduce a few
specimens of his drawings; but "The Fairies," "The Antiquary,"
and others, will give the reader a good idea of Mr. Nasmyth's artistic
ability. Since his retirement from business life, at the age of
forty-eight, Mr. Nasmyth's principal pursuit has been Astronomy.
His Monograph on "The Moon," published in 1874, exhibits his ardent and
philosophic love for science in one of its sublimest aspects.
His splendid astronomical instruments, for the most part made entirely
by his own hands, have enabled him to detect the "willow leaf-shaped"
objects which form the structural element of the Sun's luminous
surface. The discovery was shortly after verified by Sir John Herschel
and other astronomers, and is now a received fact in astronomical
A Chronological List of some of Mr. Nasmyth's contrivances and
inventions is given at the end of the volume, which shows, so far,
what he has been enabled to accomplish during his mechanical career.
These begin at a very early age, and were continued for about thirty
years of a busy and active life. Very few of them were patented;
many of them, though widely adopted, are unacknowledged as his
invention. They, nevertheless, did much to advance the mechanical arts,
and still continue to do excellent service in the engineering world.
The chapter relating to the origin of the Cuneiform Character,
and of the Pyramid or Sun-worship in its relation to Egyptian
Architecture, is placed at the end, so as not to interrupt the personal
narrative. That chapter, it is believed, will be found very
interesting, illustrated, as it is, by Mr. Nasmyth's drawings.
LONDON, October 1885.
List of Illustrations [omitted in this Etext]
CHAPTER 1 My Ancestry
Sentiment of Ancestry
Origin of the name of Naesmyth
Naesmyth of Posso
Naesmyth of Netherton
Battle of Bothwell Brig
Michael Naesmyth builder and architect
Fort at Inversnaid
Naesmyth family tomb
Former masters and men
Michael Naesmyth's son
CHAPTER 2 Alexander Nasmyth
The Bibler's Seat
The brothers Erskine
Apprenticed to a coachbuilder
The Trustees' Academy
Copy of "The Laocoon"
Assistant to Allan Ramsay
Faculty of resourcefulness
Begins as portrait painter
Friendship with Miller of Dalswinton
Miller and the first steamboat
Visit to Italy
Marriage to Barbara Foulis
Burns the poet
Abandons portrait for landscape painting
David Roberts, R.A.
St. Bernard's Well
CHAPTER 3 An Artist's Family
Sir James Hall
Geology of Edinburgh
Friends of the family
Evenings at home
Society of artists
Management of the household
Education of six sisters
The Nasmyth classes
Excursions round Edinburgh
Patrick Nasmyth, sketch of his life
Removes to London
Visit to Hampshire
Original prices of his works
CHAPTER 4 My Early Years
The brilliant red poppies
A wonderful escape
Events of the war
The French prisoners
Entry of the 42d into Edinburgh
Bleaching "claes" on the Calton
The Greenside workshops
The chimes of St. Giles'
The Edinburgh Market
Traditional fondness for cats
A Nasmyth prayer
CHAPTER 5 My School-days
My first schoolmaster
"Preter pluperfect tense"
The "penny pig"
Pupil at the High School
Dislike of Latin
Love of old buildings
Sir Walter Scott
"The Heart of Midlothian"
The collecting period
My father's workshop
Make peeries, cannon, and "steels"
Tom Smith and chemical experiments
Kid gloves and technical knowledge
CHAPTER 6 Mechanical Beginnings
Study arithmetic and geometry
Practise art of drawing
Its important uses
Make tools and blowpipe
Walks round Edinburgh
Volcanic origin of the neighbourhood
George the Fourth's visit
The Radical Road
Journey to Stirling
The Devon Ironworks
Coats of mail found at Bannockburn
Models of condensing steam-engine
Edinburgh School of Arts
Attend University classes
Brass-casting in the bedroom
Make a working steam-engine
Sympathy of activity
Make a road steam-carriage
Desire to enter Maudslay's factory
CHAPTER 7 Henry Maudslay, London
Voyage to London with specimens of workmanship
First walk through London
Visit to Henry Maudslay
Exhibit my specimens
Taken on as assistant
The private workshop
Maudslay's constructive excellence
Uniformity of screws
Meeting with Henry Brougham
Visit to the Admiralty Museum
The Block machinery
The Royal Mint
Steam yacht trip to Richmond
"A clean crossing"
CHAPTER 8 Maudslay's Private Assistant
Enter Maudslay's service
Rudimentary screw generator
The guide screw
Interview with Faraday
Rate of wages
My cooking stove
Make model of marine steam-engine
My collar-nut cutting machine
Maudslay's elements of high-class workmanship
Maudslay's "Lord Chancellor"
General Bentham, Barton, Donkin and Chantrey
The Cundell brothers
Walks round London
CHAPTER 9 Holiday in the Manufacturing Districts
Coaching trip to Liverpool
The two Stephensons
Opening of the railway
Walk back to London
Sharp, Roberts and Co.
The Black Country
Wren's Nest Hill
Boulton and Watt
CHAPTER 10 Begin Business at Manchester
Stamping machine improved
A reflecting telescope proposed
Death of Maudslay
Leave Maudslay and Field
Take temporary workshop in Edinburgh
Construct a rotary steam-engine
Prepare a stock of machine tools
Visit to Liverpool
Visit to Manchester
Take a workshop
Tools removed to Manchester
A prosperous business begun
Story of the brothers Grant
Trip to Elgin and Castle Grant
The brothers Cowper
The printing machine
CHAPTER 11 Bridgewater Foundry--Partnership
Demand for skilled labour
Machine tools in request
My flat overloaded
A crash among the decanters
The land at Patricroft
Lease from Squire Trafford
Bridgewater Foundary begun
Trip to Londonderry
The Giant's Causeway
Cottage at Barton
The Bridgewater canal
Lord Francis Egerton
Safety foundry ladle
Holbrook Gaskell taken as partner
His eventual retirement
CHAPTER 12 Free Trade in Ability--The Strike--Death of my Father
Hugo de Lupus
The Peter Stubb's files
Promotion from the ranks
Free trade in ability
Foreman lieutenants, Archie Torry
Trades' Union interference
A strike ordered
Workman advertised for
A reinforcement of Scotch mechanics
The strike scotched
Millwrights and engineers
Visits of my father
His last work
Testimony of Sir David Wilkie
CHAPTER 13 My Marriage--The Steam Hammer
Preparations for a home
Influence of chance occurrences
Visit to Mr. Hartop's near Barnsley
Great Western Railway locomotives
Mr. Humphries and 'Great Western' steamship
Forging of paddle-shaft
Want of range of existing hammers
The first steam hammer sketched
The paddle shaft abandoned
My sketch copied and adopted
My visit to Creuzot
Find steam hammer in operation
A patent taken out
First steam hammer made in England
Its general adoption
Patent secured for United States
CHAPTER 14 Travels in France and Italy
The French Minister of Marine at Paris
Architecture of Nismes
Marseilles--Toulon--Voyage to Naples--Genoa--Pisa
Bay of Naples
The National Museum
Visit to Vesuvius
The edge of the crater
Overflows of burning lava
Wine-shop at Rosina
Return ride to Naples
CHAPTER 15 Steam Hammer Pile-driver
The Royal Dockyards
Steam hammer for Devonport
Scene at the first stroke
My Lords of the Admiralty
Steam hammer pile-driver required
The new docks at Devonport
The pile-driver delivered
Trail against the old method
Its general adoption
Testing of chain cables and anchors
Causes of failure
Punctilliousness of officials at royal dockyards
Egyptian workman employed
Letter from Faraday
CHAPTER 16 Nuremberg--St. Petersburg--Dannemora.
Visit to Nuremberg
Visit to St. Petersburg
Struve the astronomer
Palaces and shops
The Emperor Nicholas a royal salute
Work of Russian serfs
The Izak Church
Voyage to Stokholm
Visit to Upsala
The iron mines of Dannemora
To Gottenburg by steamer
Zeland and Holstein
Holland, and return
CHAPTER 17 More about Bridgewater Foundry--Woolwich Arsenal
Increased demand for self-acting tools
Promotions of lads
The Trades' Union again
Strike against Platt Brothers
Edward Tootal's advice
Friendliness between engineering firms
Small high-pressure engines
Uses of waste steam
Improvements in calico-printing
Improvements at Woolwich Arsenal
Enlargement of workshops
Improved machine tools
The gun foundry and laboratories
Orders for Spain and Russia
Rope factory machinery
Grand Duke Constantine
Lord Ellesmere's visitors
CHAPTER 18 Astronomical pursuits
Hobbies at home
Pursuit of astronomy
Wonders of the heavens
Construction of a new speculum
Warren de la Rue
Home-made reflecting telescope
A ghost at Patricroft
Twenty-inch diameter speculum
Drawings of the moon's surface
Structure of the moon
Wrinkles of age
Landscape scenery of the moon
Meeting of British Association at Edinburgh
The Bass Rock
The grooved rocks
Hugh Miller and boulder clay
Lecture on the moon
Visit the Duke of Argyll
Basaltic formation at Mull
The Giant's Causeway
The great exhibition
Steam hammer engine
Interview with the Queen and Prince Consort
Visit to Bonally
D. O. Hill
CHAPTER 19 More about Astronomy
Sir David Brewster
Edward Cowper's lecture
Cause of the sun's light
Sir T. Mitchell
The Milky Way
Infusoria in Bridgewater Canal
Rotary movements of heavenly bodies
Geological Society meeting
Improvement of Small Arms Factory, Enfield
Generosity of United States Government
The Enfield Rifle
CHAPTER 20 Retirement from Business
Letter from David Roberts, R. A.
Puddling iron by steam
The process tried
Sir Henry Bessemer's invention
Discussion at Cheltenham
Prepare to retire from business
The Countess of Ellesmere
The "Cottage in Kent"
The "antibilious stock"
Planting and gardening
The Crystal Palace
Tools and telescopes
CHAPTER 21 Active leisure
Lecture on the Moon
Visit to the Continent--Paris, Chartres, Nismes, Chamounix
Art of photography
Sir John Herschel
Spots on the sun's surface
De la Rue
Visit from Sir John Herschel
Cracking glass globe
A million spots and letters
Father Secchi at Rome
Visit to Herschel
His last letter
Publication of The Moon
Philip H. Calderon
Windmill grinding of speculum
The dial of life
End of recollections
List of Inventions and Contrivances
Articles on the Sun-Ray origin of the Pyramids and Cuneiform Character
[Image] Edinburgh Castle, From the Vennel
CHAPTER 1. My Ancestry
Our history begins before we are born. We represent the hereditary
influences of our race, and our ancestors virtually live in us.
The sentiment of ancestry seems to be inherent in human nature,
especially in the more civilised races. At all events, we cannot help
having a due regard for the history of our forefathers. Our curiosity
is stimulated by their immediate or indirect influence upon ourselves.
It may be a generous enthusiasm, or, as some might say, a harmless
vanity, to take pride in the honour of their name. The gifts of nature,
however, are more valuable than those of fortune; and no line of
ancestry, however honourable, can absolve us from the duty of diligent
application and perseverance, or from the practice of the virtues of
self-control and self-help.
Sir Bernard Burke, in his Peerage and Baronetage Ed 1879 Pp 885-6,
gives a faithful account of the ancestors from whom I am lineally
descended. "The family of Naesymth, he says, "is one of remote
antiquity in Tweeddale, and has possessed lands there since the 13th
century." They fought in the wars of Bruce and Baliol, which ended in
the independence of Scotland.
The following is the family legend of the origin of the name of
In the troublous times which prevailed in Scotland before the union of
the Crowns, the feuds between the King and the Barons were almost
constant. In the reign of James III. the House of Douglas was the
most prominent and ambitious. The Earl not only resisted his liege
lord, but entered into a combination with the King of England, from
whom he received a pension. He was declared a rebel, and his estates
were confiscated. He determined to resist the royal power, and crossed
the Border with his followers. He was met by the Earl of Angus, the
Maxwells, the Johnstons, and the Scotts. In one of the engagements
which ensued the Douglases appeared to have gained the day, when an
ancestor of the Naesmyths, who fought under the royal standard, took
refuge in the smithy of a neighbouring village. The smith offered him
protection, disguised him as a hammerman, with a leather apron in
front, and asked him to lend a hand at his work.
While thus engaged a party of the Douglas partisans entered the smithy.
They looked with suspicion on the disguised hammerman, who, in his
agitation, struck a false blow with the sledge hammer, which broke the
shaft in two. Upon this, one of the pursuers rushed at him, calling
out, "Ye're nae smyth!" The stalwart hammerman turned upon his
assailant, and, wrenching a dagger from him, speedily overpowered him.
The smith himself, armed with a big hammer, effectually aided in
overpowering and driving out the Douglas men. A party of the royal
forces made their appearance, when Naesmyth rallied them, led them
against the rebels, and converted what had been a temporary defeat into
a victory. A grant of lands was bestowed upon him for his service.
His armorial bearings consisted of a hand dexter with a dagger, between
two broken hammer-shafts, and there they remain to this day. The motto
was, Non arte sect marte, "Not by art but by war" In my time I have
reversed the motto (Non marte sed arte); and instead of the broken
hammer-shafts, I have adopted, not as my "arms" but as a device,
the most potent form of mechanical art--the Steam Hammer.
[Image] Origin of the Name. By James Nasmyth.
Sir Michael Naesmyth, Chamberlain of the Archbishop of St. Andrews,
obtained the lands of Posso and Glenarth in 1544, by right of his wife,
Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of John Baird of Posso. The Bairds
have ever been a loyal and gallant family. Sir Gilbert, father of John
Baird, fell at Flodden in 1513, in defence of his king.
The royal eyrie of Posso Crag is on the family estate;
and the Lure worn by Queen Mary, and presented by her son James VI. to
James Naesmyth, the Royal Falconer, is still preserved as a family
During the intestine troubles in Scotland, in the reign of Mary,
Sir Michael Naesmyth espoused the cause of the unfortunate Queen.
He fought under her banner at Langside in 1568. He was banished,
and his estates were seized by the Regent Moray. But after the
restoration of peace, the Naesmyths regained their property.
Sir Michael died at an advanced age.
He had many sons. The eldest, James, married Joana, daughter of
William Veitch or Le Veitch of Dawick. By this marriage the lands of
Dawick came into the family. He predeceased his father, and was
succeeded by his son James, the Royal Falconer above referred to.
Sir Michael's second son, John, was chief chirurgeon to James VI. of
Scotland, afterwards James I. of England, and to Henry, Prince of
Wales. He died in London in 1613, and in his testament he leaves
"his herb to his young master, the Prince's grace." Charles I.,
in his instructions to the President of the Court of Session, enjoins
"that you take special notice of the children of John Naesmyth, so
often recommended by our late dear father and us." Two of Sir Michael's
other sons were killed at Edinburgh in 1588, in a deadly feud between
the Scotts and the Naesmyths. In those days a sort of Corsican
vendetta was carried on between families from one generation to
Sir Michael Naesmyth, son of the Royal Falconer, succeeded to the
property. His eldest son James was appointed to serve in Claverhouse's
troop of horse in 1684. Among the other notable members of the family
was James Naesmyth, a very clever lawyer. He was supposed to be so
deep that he was generally known as the "Deil o' Dawyk". His eldest
son was long a member of Parliament for the county of Peebles; he was,
besides, a famous botanist, having studied under Linnaeus, Among the
inter-marriages of the family were those with the Bruces of Lethen, the
Stewarts of Traquhair, the Murrays of Stanhope, the Pringles of Clifton,
the Murrays of Philiphaugh, the Keiths (of the Earl Marischal's family),
the Andersons of St. Germains, the Marjoribanks of Lees, and others.
In the fourteenth century a branch of the Naesmyths of Posso settled at
Netherton, near Hamilton. They bought an estate and built a residence.
The lands adjoined part of the Duke of Hamilton's estate, and the house
was not far from the palace. There the Naesmyths remained until the
reign of Charles II. The King, or his advisers, determined to
introduce Episcopacy, or, as some thought, Roman Catholicism, into the
country, and to enforce it at the point of the sword.
The Naesmyths had always been loyal until now. But to be cleft by
sword and pricked by spear into a religion which they disbelieved, was
utterly hateful to the Netherton Naesmyths. Being Presbyterians, they
held to their own faith. They were prevented from using their
In the reign of James II. of England and James VII. of Scotland a law
was enacted, "that whoever should preach in a conventicle under a roof,
or should attend, either as a preacher or as a hearer, a conventicle in
the open air, should be punished with death and confiscation of
and they accordingly met on the moors, or in unfrequented places for
worship. The dissenting Presbyterians assumed the name of Covenanters.
Hamilton was almost the centre of the movement. The Covenanters met,
and the King's forces were ordered to disperse them. Hence the
internecine war that followed. There were Naesmyths on both sides--
Naesmyths for the King, and Naesmyths for the Covenant.
In an early engagement at Drumclog, the Covenanters were victorious.
They beat back Claverhouse and his dragoons. A general rising took
place in the West Country. About 6000 men assembled at Hamilton,
mostly raw and undisciplined countrymen. The King's forces assembled
to meet them, -- 10,000 well-disciplined troops, with a complete train
of field artillery. What chance had the Covenanters against such a
force? Nevertheless, they met at Bothwell Bridge, a few miles west of
Hamilton. It is unnecessary to describe the action.*
See the account of a Covenanting Officer in the Appendix to the Scots
Worthies. See also Sir Waiter Scott's Old Mortality, where the battle
of Bothwell Brig is described.
The Covenanters, notwithstanding their inferior force, resisted the
cannonade and musketry of the enemy with great courage. They defended
the bridge until their ammunition failed. When the English Guards and
the artillery crossed the bridge, the battle was lost. The Covenanters
gave way, and fled in all directions; Claverhouse, burning with revenge
for his defeat at Drumclog, made a terrible slaughter of the
unresisting fugitives. One of my ancestors brought from the
battlefield the remnant of the standard; a formidable musquet--
"Gun Bothwell" we afterwards called it; an Andrea Ferrara; and a
powder-horn. I still preserve these remnants of the civil war.
My ancestor was condemned to death in his absence, and his property at
Netherton was confiscated. What became of him during the remainder of
Charles II.'s reign, and the reign of that still greater tormentor,
James II., I do not know. He was probably, like many others, wandering
about from place to place, hiding "in wildernesses or caves, destitute,
afflicted, and tormented." The arrival of William III. restored
religious liberty to the country, and Scotland was again left in
My ancestor took refuge in Edinburgh, but he never recovered his
property at Netherton. The Duke of Hamilton, one of the trimmers of
the time, had long coveted the possession of the lands, as Ahab had
coveted Naboth's vineyard. He took advantage of the conscription of
the men engaged in the Bothwell Brig conflict, and had the lands
forfeited in his favour. I remember my father telling me that, on one
occasion when he visited the Duke of Hamilton in reference to some
improvement of the grounds adjoining the palace, he pointed out to the
Duke the ruined remains of the old residence of the Naesmyths. As the
first French Revolution was then in full progress, when ideas of
society and property seemed to have lost their bearings, the Duke
good-humouredly observed, "Well, well, Naesmyth, there's no saying but
what, some of these days, your ancestors' lands may come into your
Before I quit the persecutions of "the good old times," I must refer to
the burning of witches. One of my ancient kinswomen, Elspeth Naesmyth,
who lived at Hamilton, was denounced as a witch. The chief evidence
brought against her was that she kept four black cats, and read her
Bible with two pairs of spectacles! a practice which shows that she
possessed the spirit of an experimental philosopher.
In doing this she adopted a mode of supplementing the power of
spectacles in restoring the receding power of the eyes. She was in all
respects scientifically correct. She increased the magnifying power of
the glasses; a practice which is preferable to using single glasses of
the same power, and which I myself often follow. Notwithstanding this
improved method of reading her Bible, and her four black cats, she was
condemned to be burned alive! She was about the last victim in
Scotland to the disgraceful superstition of witchcraft.
The Naesmyths of Netherton having lost their ancestral property, had to
begin the world again. They had to begin at the beginning.
But they had plenty of pluck and energy. I go back to my
great-great-grandfather, Michael Naesmyth, who was born in 1652.
He occupied a house in the Grassmarket, Edinburgh, which was afterwards
rebuilt, in 1696. His business was that of a builder and architect.
His chief employment was in designing and erecting new mansions,
principally for the landed gentry and nobility. Their old castellated
houses or towers were found too dark and dreary for modern uses.
The drawbridges were taken down, and the moats were filled up.
Sometimes they built the new mansions as an addition to the old.
But oftener they left the old castles to go to ruin; or, what was
worse, they made use of the stone and other materials of the old
romantic buildings for the construction of their new residences.
Michael Naesmyth acquired a high reputation for the substantiality of
his work. His masonry was excellent, as well as his woodwork.
The greater part of the latter was executed in his own workshops at the
back of his house in the Grassmarket. His large yard was situated
between the back of the house and the high wall that bounded the
Greyfriars Churchyard,to the east of the flight of steps which forms
the main approach to George Heriot's Hospital.
[Image] Michael Naesmyth's House, Grassmarket.The lower building at the
right hand corner of the engraving, with the three projecting
The last work that Michael Naesmyth was engaged in cost him his life.
He had contracted with the Government to build a fort at Inversnaid,
at the northern end of Loch Lomond. It was intended to guard the
Lowlands, and keep Rob Roy and his caterans within the Highland Border.
A promise was given by the Government that during the progress of the
work a suitable force of soldiers should be quartered close at hand to
protect the builder and his workmen.
[Image] Inversnaid Fort. After a drawing by Alexander Nasmyth
Notwithstanding many whispered warnings as to the danger of undertaking
such a hazardous work, Michael Naesmyth and his men encamped upon the
spot, though without the protection of the Government force. Having
erected a temporary residence for their accommodation, he proceeded
with the building of the fort. The work was well advanced by the end
of 1703, although the Government had treated all Naesmyth's appeals for
protection with evasion or contempt.
Winter set in with its usual force in those northern regions.
One dark and snowy night, when Michael and his men had retired to rest,
a loud knocking was heard at the door. "Who's there?" asked Michael.
A man outside replied, "A benighted traveller overt aken by the storm"
He proceeded to implore help, and begged for God's sake that he might
have shelter for the night. Naesmyth, in the full belief that the
traveller's tale was true, unbolted and unbarred the door, when in
rushed Rob Roy and his desperate gang. The men, with the dirks of the
Macgregors at their throats, begged hard for their lives. This was
granted on condition that they should instantly depart, and take an
oath that they should never venture within the Highland border again.
Michael Naesmyth and his men had no alternative but to submit, and they
at once left the bothy with such scanty clothing as the Macgregors
would allow them to carry away. They were marched under an armed
escort through the snowstorm to the Highland border, and were there
left with the murderous threat that, if they ever returned to the fort,
they would meet with certain death.
Another attempt was made to build the fort at Inversnaid. But Rob Roy
again surprised the small party of soldiers who were in charge.
They were disarmed and sent about their business. Finally, the fort
was rebuilt, and placed under the command of Captain (afterwards
General) Wolfe. When peace fell upon the Highlands and Rob Roy's
country became the scene of picnics, the fort was abandoned and allowed
to go to ruin.
Poor Michael never recovered from the cold which he caught during his
forced retreat from Inversnaid. The effects of this, together with the
loss and distress of mind which he experienced from the Government's
refusal to pay for his work--notwithstanding their promise to protect
him and his workmen from the Highland freebooters--so preyed upon his
mind that he was never again able to devote himself to business.
One evening, whilst sitting at his fireside with his grandchild on his
knee, a death-like faintness came over him; he set the child down
carefully by the side of his chair, and then fell forward dead on his
Thus ended the life of Michael Naesmyth in 1705, at the age of
fifty-three. He was buried by the side of his ancestors in the old
family tomb in the Greyfriars Churchyard.
[Image] The Naesmyth Tomb in Greyfriars Churchyard
This old tomb, dated 1614, though much defaced, is one of the most
remarkable of the many which surround the walls of that ancient and
Greyfriars Churchyard is one of the most interesting places in
Edinburgh. The National Covenant was signed there by the Protestant
nobles and gentry of Scotland in 1638. The prisoners taken at the
battle of Bothwell Brig were shut up there in 1679, and, after enduring
great privations, a portion of the survivors were sent off to
Barbadoes. When I first saw the tombstone, an ash tree was growing out
of the top of the main body of it, though that has since been removed.
In growing, the roots had pushed out the centre stone, which has not
been replaced. The tablet over it contains the arms of the family,
the broken hammer-shafts, and the motto "Non arte sed marte." There are
the remains of a very impressive figure, apparently rising from her
cerements. The body and extremities remain, but the head has been
broken away. There is also a remarkable motto on the tablet above the
tombstone--"Ars mihi vim contra Fortunce; which I take to be,
"Art is my strength in contending against Fortune,"--a motto which is
appropriate to my ancestors as well as to myself.
The business was afterwards carried on by Michael's son, my
great-grandfather. He was twenty-seven years old at the time of his
father's death, and lived to the age of seventy-three. He was a man of
much ability and of large experience.
One of his great advantages in carrying on his business was the support
of a staff of able and trustworthy foremen and workmen. The times were
very different then from what they are now. Masters and men lived
together in mutual harmony. There was a kind of loyal family
attachment among them, which extended through many generations.
Workmen had neither the desire nor the means to shift about from place
to place. On the contrary, they settled down with their wives and
families in houses of their own, close to the workshops of their
employers. Work was found for them in the dull seasons when trade was
slack, and in summer they sometimes removed to jobs at a distance from
headquarters. Much of this feeling of attachment and loyalty between
workmen and their employers has now expired. Men rapidly remove from
place to place. Character is of little consequence. The mutual
feeling of goodwill and zealous attention to work seems to have passed
My grandfather, Michael Naesmyth, succeeded to the business in 1751.
He more than maintained the reputation of his predecessors.
The collection of first-class works on architecture which he possessed,
such as the folio editions of Vitruvius and Palladio, which were at
that time both rare and dear, showed the regard he had for impressing
into his designs the best standards of taste. The buildings he
designed and erected for the Scotch nobility and gentry were well
arranged, carefully executed, and thoroughly substantial. He was also
a large builder in Edinburgh. Amongst the houses he erected in the
Old Town were the principal number of those in George Square. In one
of these, No. 25, Sir Walter Scott spent his boyhood and youth.
They still exist, and exhibit the care which he took in the elegance
and substantiality of his works.
I remember my father pointing out to me the extreme care and attention
with which he finished his buildings. He inserted small fragments of
basalt into the mortar of the external joints of the stones, at close
and regular distances, in order to protect the mortar from the adverse
action of the weather. And to this day they give proof of their
efficiency. The basalt protects the joints, and at the same time gives
a neat and pleasing effect to what would otherwise have been merely the
monotonous line of mason-work.
A great change was about to take place in the residences of the
principal people of Edinburgh. The cry was for more light and more
air. The extension of the city to the south and west was not
sufficient. There was a great plateau of ground on the north side of
the city, beyond the North Loch. But it was very difficult to reach;
being alike steep on both sides of the Loch. At length, in 1767,
an Act was obtained to extend the royalty of the city over the northern
fields, and powers were obtained to erect a bridge to connect them with
the Old Town.
The magistrates had the greatest difficulty in inducing the inhabitants
to build dwellings on the northern side of the city. A premium was
offered to the person who should build the first house; and #20 was
awarded to Mr. John Young on account of a mansion erected by him close
to George Street. Exemption from burghal taxes was also granted to a
gentleman who built the first house in Princes Street. My grandfather
built the first house in the south-west corner of St. Andrew Square,
for the occupation of David Hume the historian, as well as the two most
important houses in the centre of the north side of the same square.
One of these last was occupied by the venerable Dr. Hamilton, a very
conspicuous character in Edinburgh. He continued to wear the cocked
hat, the powdered pigtail, tights, and large shoe buckles, for about
sixty years after this costume had become obsolete. All these houses
are still in perfect condition, after resisting the ordinary tear and
wear of upwards of a hundred and ten northern winters. The opposition
to building houses across the North Loch soon ceased; and the New Town
arose, growing from day to day, until Edinburgh became one of the most
handsome and picturesque cities in Europe.
There is one other thing that I must again refer to the highly-finished
character of my grandfather's work. Nothing merely moderate would do.
The work must be of the very best. He took special pride in the sound
quality of the woodwork and its careful workmanship. He chose the best
Dantzic timber because of its being of purer grain and freer from knots
than other wood. In those days the lower part of the walls of the
apartments were wainscoted--that is, covered by timber framed in
large panels. They were from three to four feet wide, and from six to
eight feet high. To fit these in properly required the most careful
It was always a holiday treat to my father, when a boy, to be permitted
to go down to Leith to see the ships discharge their cargoes of timber.
My grandfather had a Wood-yard at Leith, where the timber selected by
him was piled up to he seasoned and shrunk, before being worked into
its appropriate uses. He was particularly careful in his selection of
boards or stripes for floors, which must be perfectly level, so as to
avoid the destruction of the carpets placed over them. The hanging of
his doors was a matter that he took great pride in--so as to prevent
any uneasy action in opening or closing. His own chamber doors were so
well hung that they were capable of being opened and closed by the
slight puff of a hand-bellows.
The excellence of my grandfather's workmanship was a thing that my own
father always impressed upon me when a boy. It stimulated in me the
desire to aim at excellence in everything that I undertook; and in all
practical matters to arrive at the highest degree of good workmanship.
I believe that these early lessons had a great influence upon my future
I have little to record of my grandmother. From all accounts she was
everything that a wife and mother should be. My father often referred
to her as an example of the affection and love of a wife to her
husband, and of a mother to her children. The only relic I possess of
her handiwork is a sampler, dated 1743, the needlework of which is so
delicate and neat, that to me it seems to excel everything of the kind
that I have seen.
I am fain to think that her delicate manipulation in some respects
descended to her grandchildren, as all of them have been more or less
distinguished for the delicate use of their fingers--which has so
much to do with the effective transmission of the artistic faculty into
visible forms. The power of transmitting to paper or canvas the
artistic conceptions of the brain through the fingers, and out at the
end of the needle, the pencil, the pen, the brush, or even the
modelling tool or chisel, is that which, in practical fact, constitutes
the true artist.
This may appear a digression; though I cannot look at my grandmother's
sampler without thinking that she had much to do with originating the
Naesmyth love of the Fine Arts, and their hereditary adroitness in the
practice of landscape and portrait painting, and other branches of the
My grandfather died in 1803, at the age of eighty-four, and was buried
by his father's side in the Naesmyth ancestral tomb in Greyfriars
Churchyard. His wife, Mary Anderson, who died before him, was buried
in the same place.
Michael Naesmyth left two sons--Michael and Alexander. The eldest
was born in 1754. It was intended that he should have succeeded to the
business; and, indeed, as soon as he reached manhood he was his
father's right-hand man. He was a skilful workman, especially in the
finer parts of joiner-work. He was also an excellent accountant and
bookkeeper. But having acquired a taste for reading books about
voyages and travels, of which his father's library was well supplied,
his mind became disturbed, and he determined to see something of the
world. He was encouraged by one of his old companions, who had been to
sea, and realised some substantial results by his voyages to foreign
parts. Accordingly Michael, notwithstanding the earnest remonstrances
of his father, accompanied his friend on the next occasion when he went
After several voyages to the West Indies and other parts of the world,
which both gratified and stimulated his natural taste for adventures,
and also proved financially successful, his trading ventures at last
met with a sad reverse, and he resolved to abandon commerce, and enter
the service of the Royal Navy. He was made purser, and in this
position he entered upon a new series of adventures. He was present at
many naval engagements. But he lost neither life nor limb. At last he
was pensioned, and became a resident at Greenwich Hospital.
He furnished his apartments with all manner of curiosities, such as his
roving naval life had enabled him to collect. His original skill as a
worker in wood came to life again. The taste of the workman and the
handiness of the seaman enabled him to furnish his rooms at the
Hospital in a most quaint and amusing manner.
My father had a most affectionate regard for Michael, and usually spent
some days with him when he had occasion to visit London. One bright
summer day they went to have a stroll together on Blackheath; and while
my uncle was enjoying a nap on a grassy knoll, my father made a sketch
of him, which I still preserve. Being of a most cheerful disposition,
and having a great knack of detailing the incidents of his adventurous
life, he became a great favourite with the resident officers of the
Hospital; and was always regarded by them as real good company.
He ended his days there in peace and comfort, in 1819, at the age of
CHAPTER 2. Alexander Nasmyth
My father, Alexander Nasmyth, was the second son of Michael Nasmyth.
He was born in his father's house in the Grassmarket on the 9th of
September 1758. The Grassmarket was then a lively place. On certain
days of the week it was busy with sheep and cattle fairs. It was the
centre of Edinburgh traffic. Most of the inns were situated there,
or in the street leading up to the Greyfriars Church gate.
The view from my grandfather's house was very grand. Standing up,
right opposite, was the steep Castle rock, with its crown buildings and
circular battery towering high overhead. They seemed almost to hang
over the verge of the rock. The houses on the opposite side of the
Grassmarket were crowded under the esplanade of the Castle Hill.
There was an inn opposite the house where my father was born, from
which the first coach started from Edinburgh to Newcastle. The public
notice stated that "The Coach would set out from the Grass Market ilka
Tuesday at Twa o'clock in the day, GOD WULLIN', but whether or no on
Wednesday." The "whether or no" was meant, I presume, as a precaution to
passengers, in case all the places on the coach might be taken, or not,
[Image] Plan of the Grassmarket
The Grassmarket was also the place for public executions. The gibbet
stone was at the east end of the Market. It consisted of a mass of
solid sandstone, with a quadrangular hole in the middle, which served
as a socket for the gallows. Most of the Covenanters who were executed
for conscience' sake in the reigns of Charles II. and James II.
breathed their last at this spot. The Porteous mob, in 1736, had its
culmination here. When Captain Porteous was dragged out of the
Tolbooth in the High Street and hurried down the West Bow, the gallows
was not in its place; but the leaders of the mob hanged him from a
dyer's pole, nearly opposite the gallows stone, on the south side of
the street, not far from my grandfather's door*
See Heart of Midlothian
I have not much to say about my father's education. For the most part,
he was his own schoolmaster. I have heard him say that his mother
taught him his A B C; and that he afterwards learned to read at Mammy
Smith's. This old lady kept a school for boys and girls at the top of
a house in the Grassmarket. There my father was taught to rear his
Bible, and to repeat his Carritch.*
The Shorter Catechism.
As it was only the bigger boys who could read the Bible, the strongest
of them consummated the feat by climbing up the Castle rock, and
reaching what they called "The Bibler's Seat." It must have been a
break-neck adventure to get up to the place. The seat was almost
immediately under the window of the room in which James VI was born.
My father often pointed it out to me as one of the most dangerous bits
of climbing in which he had been engaged in his younger years.
[Image] The Bibler's seat
The annexed illustration is from his own slight sepia drawing;
the Bibler's Seat is marked + Not so daring, but much more mischievous,
was a trick which he played with some of his companions on the tops of
the houses on the north side of the Grassmarket. The boys took a
barrel to the Castlehill, filled it with small stones, and then shot it
down towards the roofs of the houses in the Grassmarket. The barrel
leapt from rock to rock, burst, and scattered a shower of stones far
and wide. The fun was to see the "boddies" look out of their garret
windows with their lighted lamps or candles, peer into the dark,
and try to see what was the cause of the mischief.
Sir David Baird, the hero of Seringapatam, played a trick of the same
kind before he went to India.
Among my father's favourite companions were the two sons of Dr. John
Erskine, minister of Old Greyfriars, in conjunction with the equally
celebrated Dr. Robertson. Dr. Erskine*
Dr. Erskine is well described by Scott in Guy Mannering, on the
occasion when Pleydell and Mannering went to hear him preach a famous
was a man of great influence in his day, well known for his literary
and theological works, as well as for his piety and practical
benevolence. On one occasion, when my father was at play with his
sons, one of them threw a stone, which smashed a neighbour's window.
A servant of the house ran out, and seeing the culprit, called out,
"Very wee!, Maister Erskine, I'll tell yeer faither wha broke the
windae!" On which the boy, to throw her off the scent, said to his
brother loudly, "Eh, keist! she thinks we're the boddy Erskine's sons."
The boddy Erskine! Who ever heard of such an irreverent nickname
applied to that good and great man? "The laddies couldna be his sons,"
thought the woman. She made no further inquiry, and the boys escaped
scot free. The culprit afterwards entered the service of the East
India Company. "The boy was father to the man." He acquired great
reputation at the siege of Seringapatam, where he led the forlorn hope.
Erskine was promoted, until in course of time he returned to his native
city a full-blown general. To return to my father's education.
After he left "Mammy Smith's, he went for a short time to the original
High School. It was an old establishment, founded by James VI. before
he succeeded to the English throne, It was afterwards demolished to
make room for the University buildings; and the new High School was
erected a little below the old Royal Infirmary. After leaving the High
School, Alexander Nasmyth was taught by his father, first arithmetic
and mensuration, next geometry and mathematics, so far as the first
three books of Euclid were concerned. After that, his own innate
skill, ability, and industry enabled him to complete the rest of his
At a very early period my father exhibited a decided natural taste for
art. He used his pencil freely in sketching from nature; and in course
of time he showed equal skill in the use of oil colour. At his own
earnest request he was bound apprentice to Mr. Crighton, then the
chief coachbuilder in Edinburgh. He was employed in that special
department where artistic taste was necessary--that is, in decorating
the panels of the highest class of carriages, and painting upon them
coats of arms, with their crests and supporters. He took great
pleasure in this kind of work. It introduced him to the practical
details of heraldry, and gave him command over his materials.
Still further to improve himself in the art of drawing, my father
devoted his evenings to attending the Edinburgh Drawing Academy.
This institution, termed "The Trustees' Academy of Fine Art," had been
formed and supported by the funds arising from the estates confiscated
after the rebellions of 1715 and 1745. Part of these funds was set
apart by Government for the encouragement of drawing, and also for the
establishment of the arts of linen weaving, carpet manufacture,
and other industrial occupations.
These arts were introduced into Scotland by the French Protestants,
who had been persecuted for conscience' sake out of their own country,
and settled in England, Ireland, and Scotland, where they prosecuted
their industrial callings. The Corporation was anxious to afford an
asylum for these skilled and able workmen. The emigrants settled down
with their families, and pursued their occupations of damask, linen,
and carpet weaving. They were also required to take Scotch apprentices,
and teach them the various branches of their trade. The Magistrates
caused cottages and workshops to be erected on a piece of unoccupied
land near Edinburgh, where the street appropriately called Picardy
Place now stands,--the greater number of the weavers having come from
Picardy in France.
In connection with the establishment of these industrial artisans,
it was necessary to teach the young Scotch apprentices drawing, for the
purpose of designing new patterns suitable for the market. Hence the
establishment by the Trustees of the Forfeited Estate Funds of
"The Academy of Fine Art." From the designing of patterns, the
institution advanced to the improvement of the fine arts generally.
Young men who had given proofs of their natural taste for drawing were
invited to enter the school and participate in its benefits.
At the time that my father was apprenticed to the coach painter,
the Trustees' Academy was managed by Alexander Runciman. He had
originally been a house painter, from which business he proceeded to
landscape painting. "Other artists," said one who knew him, "talked
meat and drink; but Runciman talked landscape." He went to Rome and
studied art there. He returned to Edinburgh, and devoted himself to
historical painting. He was also promoted to the office of master of
the Trustees' Academy. When my father called upon him with his
drawings from nature, Runciman found them so satisfactory that he was
at once admitted as a student. After his admission he began to study
with intense eagerness. The young men who had been occupied at their
business during the day could only attend in the evening. And thus the
evenings were fixed for studying drawing and design. The Trustees'
Academy made its mark upon the art of Scotland: it turned out many
artists of great note -- such as Raeburn, Wilkie, my father, and many
At the time when my father entered as a student, the stock of casts
from the antique, and the number of drawings from the old masters,
were very small; so much so, indeed, that Runciman was under the
necessity of setting the students to copy them again and again.
This became rather irksome to the more ardent pupils. My father had
completed his sixth copy of a fine chalk drawing of "The Laocoon."
It was then set for him to copy again. He begged Mr. Runciman for
another subject. The quick-tempered man at once said,"l'll give you
another subject." And turning the group of the Laocoon upside down, he
added, "Now, then, copy that!" The patient youth set to work, and in a
few evenings completed a perfect copy. It was a most severe test; but
Runciman was so proud of the skill of his pupil that he had the drawing
mounted and framed, with a note of the circumstances under which it had
been produced. It continued to hang there for many years, and the
story of its achievement became traditional in the school.
During all this time my father remained in the employment of Crighton
the carriage builder. He improved in his painting day by day. But at
length an important change took place in his career. Allan Ramsay,
son of the author of The Gentle Shepherd, and then court painter to
George III., called upon his old friend Crighton one day, to look over
his works. There he found young Nasmyth painting a coat of arms on the
panel of a carriage. He was so much surprised with the lad's artistic
workmanship--for he was then only sixteen--that he formed a strong
desire to take him into his service. After much persuasion, backed by
the offer of a considerable sum of money, the coachbuilder was at
length induced to transfer my father's indentures to Allan Ramsay.
It was, of course, a great delight to my father to be removed to London
under such favourable auspices. Ramsay had a large connection as a
portrait painter. His object in employing my father was that he should
assist him in the execution of the subordinate parts, or dress
portions, of portraits of courtiers, or of diplomatic personages.
No more favourable opportunity for advancement could have presented
itself. But all this was entirely due to my father's perseverance and
advancing skill as an artist--the results of his steady application
Ramsay possessed a very fine collection of drawings by the old masters,
all of which were free for my father to study. Ramsay was exceedingly
kind to his young pupil. He was present at all the discussions in the
studio, even when the sitters were present. Fellow-artists visited
Ramsay from time to time. Among them was his intimate friend Philip
Reinagle--an agreeable companion, and an excellent artist. Reinagle
was one day so much struck with my father's earnestness in filling up
some work, that he then and there got up a canvas and made a capital
sketch-portrait of him in oil. It only came into my father's
possession some years after Ramsay's death, and is now in my possession.
[Image] Alexander Nasmyth. After Reinagle's Portrait
Among the many amusing recollections of my father's life in London,
there is one that I cannot resist narrating, because it shows his
faculty of resourcefulness--a faculty which served him very usefully
during his course through life. He had made an engagement with a
sweetheart to take her to Ranelagh, one of the most fashionable places
of public amusement in London. Everybody went in full dress, and the
bucks and swells wore long striped silk stockings. My father, on
searching, found that he had only one pair of silk stockings left.
He washed them himself in his lodging-room, and hung them up before the
fire to dry. When he went to look at them, they were so singed and
burnt that he could not put them on. They were totally useless.
In this sad dilemma his resourcefulness came to his aid. The happy
idea occurred to him of painting his legs so as to resemble stockings.
He went to his water-colour box, and dexterously painted them with
black and white stripes. When the paint dried, which it soon did,
he completed his toilet, met his sweetheart and went to Ranelagh.
No one observed the difference, except, indeed, that he was
complimented on the perfection of the fit, and was asked "where he
bought his stockings?" Of course he evaded the question, and left the
gardens without any one discovering his artistic trick.
My father remained in Allan Ramsay's service until the end of 1778,
when he returned to Edinburgh to practise on his own behalf the
profession of portrait painter. He took with him the kindest
good-wishes of his master, whose friendship he retained to the end of
Ramsay's life. The artistic style of my father's portraits, and the
excellent likenesses of his sitters, soon obtained for him ample
employment. His portraits were for the most part full-lengths, but of
a small or cabinet size. They generally consisted of family groups,
with the figures about twelve to fourteen inches high. The groups were
generally treated and arranged as if the personages were engaged in
conversation with their children; and sometimes a favourite servant was
introduced, so as to remove any formal aspect in the composition of the
picture. In order to enliven the background, some favourite view from
the garden or grounds, or a landscape, was given; which was painted
with as much care as if it was the main feature of the picture.
Many of these paintings are still to be found in the houses of the
gentry in Scotland. Good examples of his art are to be seen at Minto
House, the seat of the Earl of Minto, and at Dalmeny Park, the seat of
the Earl of Rosebery.
Among my father's early employers was Patrick Miller, Esq., of
Dalswinton, in Dumfriesshire. He painted Mr. Miller's portrait as
well as those of several members of his family. This intercourse
eventually led to the establishment of a very warm personal friendship
between them. Miller had made a large fortune in Edinburgh as a
banker; and after he had partially retired from business, he devoted
much of his spare time to useful purposes. He was a man of great
energy of character, and was never idle. At first he applied himself
to the improvement of agriculture, which he did with great success on
his estate of Dalswinton. Being one of the largest shareholders in the
Carron Ironworks near Stirling, he also devoted much of his time to the
improvement of guns for the Royal Navy. He was the inventor of that
famous gun the Carronade. The handiness of these short and effective
guns, which were capable of being loaded and fired nearly twice as
quickly as the long small-bore guns, gave England the victory in many a
naval battle, where the firing was close and quick, yardarm to yardarm.
But Mr. Miller's greatest claim to fame arises from his endeavours to
introduce steam-power as an agent in the propulsion of ships at sea.
Mr. Clerk of Eldin had already invented the system of "breaking the
line" in naval engagements--a system that was first practised with
complete success by Lord Rodney in his engagement off Martinico in
1780. The subject interested Mr. Miller so much that he set himself
to work to contrive some mechanical method by means of which ships of
war might be set in motion, independently of wind, tide, or calms, so
that Clerk's system of breaking the line might be carried into effect
under all circumstances.
It was about this time that my father was often with Miller; and the
mechanical devices by means of which the method of breaking the line
could be best accomplished was the subject of many of their
conversations. Miller found that my father's taste for mechanical
contrivances, and his ready skill as a draughtsman, were likely to be
of much use to him, and he constantly visited the studio. My father
reduced Miller's ideas to a definite form, and prepared a series of
drawings, which were afterwards engraved and published. Miller's
favourite design was, to divide the vessel into twin or triple hulls,
with paddles between them, to be worked by the crew. The principal
experiment was made in the Firth of Forth on the 2d of June 1787.
The vessel was double-hulled, and was worked by a capstan of five bars.
The experiment was on the whole successful. But the chief difficulty
was in the propulsive power. After a spurt of an hour or so, the men
became tired with their laborious work. Mr. Taylor, student of
divinity, and tutor of Mr. Miller's sons, was on board, and seeing the
exhausted state of the men at the capstan, suggested the employment of
steam-power. Mr. Miller was pleased with the idea, and resolved to
make inquiry upon the subject.
At that time William Symington, a young engineer from Wanlockhead,
was exhibiting a road locomotive in Edinburgh. He was a friend of
Taylor's, and Mr. Miller went to see the Symington model. In the
course of his conversation with the inventor, he informed the latter of
his own project, and described the difficulty he had experienced in
getting his paddle-wheels turned round. On which Symington immediately
asked, "Why don't you use the steam-engine?" The model which Symington
exhibited, produced rotary motion by the employment of ratchet-wheels.
The rectilinear motion of the piston-rod was thus converted into rotary
motion. Mr. Miller was pleased with the action of the ratchet-wheel
contrivance, and gave Symington an order to make a pair of engines of
that construction. They were to be used on a small pleasure-boat on
The boat was constructed on the double-hull or twin plan, so that the
paddle should be used in the space between the hulls.*
This steam twin boat was in fact the progenitor of the Castalia,
constructed about a hundred years later for the conveyance of
passengers between Calais and Dover.
After much vexatious delay, arising from the entire novelty of the
experiment, the boat and engines were at length completed, and removed
to Dalswinton Lake. This, the first steamer that ever "trod the waters
like a thing of life," the herald of a new and mighty power, was tried
on the 14th of October 1788. The vessel steamed delightfully, at the
rate of from four to five miles an hour, though this was not her
extreme rate of speed. I give, on the next page, a copy of a sketch
made by my father of this the first actual steamboat, with her
[Image] The first steamboat. By Alexander Nasmyth*
The original drawing of the steamer was done by my father, and lent by
me to Mr. Woodcroft, Who inserted it in his Origin and Progress of
Steam Navigation. He omitted my father's name, and inserted only that
of the lithographer, although it is a document of almost national
importance in the history of Steam Navigation.
P.S.-- since the above paragraph was written for the first edition,
I have been enabled to find the drawing, with another remarkable pencil
sketch of my father's, in the Gallery of the Museum of Naval
Architecture at South Kensington. It will henceforward belong to that
The remarkable pencil sketch to which I have referred, is that of a
screw propeller, drawn by my father, dated 1819. It was the result of
many discussions as to the proper mode of propelling a vessel. First,
he had drawn Watt's idea of a "spiral oar"; then, underneath, he has
drawn his own idea, of a disk of six. blades, like a screw-jack,
immediately behind the rudder. There is a crank shown on the screw
shaft, by which the propeller was driven direct, showing that he was
the first to indicate that method of propulsion of steamboats.
The persons on board consisted of Patrick Miller, William Symington,
Sir William Monteith, Robert Burns (the poet, then a tenant of
Mr. Miller's), William Taylor, and Alexander Nasmyth. There were also
three of Mr. Miller's servants, who acted as assistants. On the edge
of the lake was a young gentleman, then on a visit to Dalswinton.
He was no less a person than Henry Brougham, afterwards Lord Chancellor
of England. The assemblage of so many remarkable men was well worthy
of the occasion.
Taking into account the extraordinary results which have issued from
this first trial of an actual steamboat, it may well be considered that
this was one of the most important circumstances which ever occurred in
the history of navigation. It ought, at the same time, to be
remembered that all that was afterwards done by Symington, Fulton, and
Bell, followed long after the performance of this ever-memorable
I may also mention, as worthy of special record, that the hull of this
first steamboat was of iron. It was constructed of tinned iron plate.
It was therefore the first iron steamboat, if not the first iron ship,
that had ever been made. I may also add that the engines, constructed
by Symington, which propelled this first iron steamboat are now
carefully preserved at the Patent Museum at South Kensington, where
they may be seen by everybody.*
The original engines of the boat, with the ratchet-wheel contrivance
of Symington, are there: the very engine that propelled the first
steamer on Dalswinton Lake. It may be added that Mr. Miller expended
about #30,000 on naval improvements, and, as is often the case, he was
wholly neglected by the Government.
To return to my father's profession as a portrait painter. He had
given so much assistance to Mr. Miller, while acting as his chief
draughtsman in connection with the triple and twin ships, and also
while attending him at Leith and elsewhere, that it had considerably
interfered with his practice; though everything was done by him con
amore, in the best sense of the term. In return for this, however,
Mr. Miller made my father the generous offer of a loan to enable him to
visit Italy, and pursue his studies there. It was the most graceful
mode in which Mr. Miller could express his obligations. It was an
offer pure and simple, without security, and as such was thankfully
accepted by my father.
In those days an artist was scarcely considered to have completed his
education until he had studied the works of the great masters at
Florence and Rome. My father left England for Italy on the 30th of
December 1782. He reached Rome in safety, and earnestly devoted
himself to the study of art. He remained in Italy for the greater part
of two years. He visited Florence, Bologna, Padua, and other cities
where the finest artistic works were to be found. He made studies and
drawings of the best of them, besides making sketches from nature of
the most remarkable places he had visited. He returned to Edinburgh at
the end of 1784, and immediately resumed his profession of a portrait
painter. He was so successful that in a short time he was enabled to
repay his excellent friend Miller the #500 which he had so generously
lent him a few years before.
The satisfactory results of his zealous practice, and of his skill and
industry in his profession, together with the prospect of increasing
artistic work, enabled him to bring to a happy conclusion an engagement
he had entered into before leaving Edinburgh for Italy. I mean his
marriage to my mother--one of the greatest events of his life which
took place on the 3rd of January 1786. Barbara Foulis was a distant
relation of his own. She was the daughter of William Foulis, Esq., of
Woodhall and Colinton, near Edinburgh. Her brother, the late Sir James
Foulis, my uncle, succeeded to the ancient baronetcy of the family.
See Burkes's Peerage and Baronetage*
In Burke's Peerage and Baronetage an account is given of the Foulis
family. They are of Norman origin. A branch settled in Scotland in
the reign of Malcolm Canmore. By various intermarriages, the Foulises
are connected with the Hopetoun, Bute, and Rosebery families.
The present holder of the title represents the houses of Colinton,
Woodhall, and Ravelstone.
My mother did not bring with her any fortune, so to speak, in the way
of gold or acres; but she brought something far better into my father's
home,--a sweetness of disposition, and a large measure of common
sense, which made her, in all respects, the devoted helpmate of her
husband. Her happy cheerful temperament, and her constant industry and
attention, shed an influence upon all around her. By her example she
inbred in her children the love of truth, excellence, and goodness.
That was indeed the best fortune she could bring into a good man's
During the first year of my father's married life, when he lived in
St. James's Square, he painted the well-known portrait of Robert Burns
the poet. Burns had been introduced to him by Mr. Miller at
Dalswinton. An intimate friendship sprang up between the artist and
the poet. The love of nature and of natural objects was common to
both. They also warmly sympathised in their political views.
When Burns visited Edinburgh my father often met him. Burns had a
strange aversion to sit for his portrait, though often urgently
requested to do so. But when at my father's studio, Burns at last
consented, and his portrait was rapidly painted. It was done in the
course of a few hours, and my father made a present of it to
A mezzotint engraving of it was afterwards published by William Walker,
son-in-law of the famous Samuel Reynolds. When the first proof
impression was submitted to my father, he said to Mr. Walker:
"I cannot better express to you my opinion of your admirable engraving,
than by telling you that it conveys to me a more true and lively
remembrance of Burns than my own picture of him does; it so perfectly
renders the spirit of his expression, as well as the details of his
While Burns was in Edinburgh, my father had many interesting walks with
him in the neighbourhood of the city. The Calton Hill, Arthur's Seat,
Salisbury Crags. Habbie's How, and the nooks in the Pentlands, were
always full of interest; and Burns, with his brilliant and humorous
conversation, made the miles very short as they strode along. Lockhart
says, in his Life of Burns, that "the magnificent scenery of the
Scottish capital filled the poet with extraordinary delight. In the
spring mornings he walked very often to the top of Arthur's Seat, and,
lying prostrate on the turf, surveyed the rising of the sun out of the
sea in silent admiration; his chosen companion on such occasions being
that learned artist and ardent lover of nature, Alexander Nasmyth."
A visit which the two paid to Roslin Castle is worthy of commemoration.
On one occasion my father and a few choice spirits had been spending a
"nicht wi' Burns." The place of resort was a tavern in the High Street,
Edinburgh. As Burns was a brilliant talker, full of spirit and humour,
time fled until the "wee sma' hours ayont the twal'" arrived.
The party broke up about three o'clock. At that time of the year
(the 13th of June) the night is very short, and morning comes early.
Burns, on reaching the street, looked up to the sky. It was perfectly
clear, and the rising sun was beginning to brighten the mural crown of
St. Giles's Cathedral.
Burns was so much struck with the beauty of the morning that he put his
hand on my father's arm and said, "It'll never do to go to bed in such
a lovely morning as this! Let's awa' to Roslin Castle." No sooner said
than done. The poet and the painter set out. Nature lay bright and
lovely before them in that delicious summer morning. After an
eight-miles walk they reached the castle at Roslin. Burns went down
under the great Norman arch, where he stood rapt in speechless
admiration of the scene. The thought of the eternal renewal of youth
and freshness of nature, contrasted with the crumbling decay of man's
efforts to perpetuate his work, even when founded upon a rock, as
Roslin Castle is, seemed greatly to affect him.
My father was so much impressed with the scene that, while Burns was
standing under the arch, he took out his pencil and a scrap of paper
and made a hasty sketch of the subject. This sketch was highly
treasured by my father, in remembrance of what must have been one of
the most memorable days of his life.
Talking of clubs reminds me that there was a good deal of club life in
Edinburgh in those days. The most notable were those in which the
members were drawn together by occupations, habits, or tastes. They
met in the evenings, and conversed upon congenial subjects. The clubs
were generally held in one or other of the taverns situated in or near
the High Street. Every one will remember the Lawyers' Club, held in an
Edinburgh close, presided over by Pleydell, so well described by Scott
in Guy Mannering.
In my father's early days he was a member of a very jovial club, called
the Poker Club. It was so-called because the first chairman,
immediately on his election, in a spirit of drollery, laid hold of the
poker at the fireplace, and adopted it as his insignia of office. He
made a humorous address from the chair, or "the throne," as he called
it, with sceptre or poker in hand; and the club was thereupon styled by
acclamation "The Poker Club." I have seen my father's diploma of
membership; it was tastefully drawn on parchment, with the poker duly
emblazoned on it as the regalia of the club.
In my own time, the club that he was most connected with was the
Dilettanti Club. Its meetings were held every fortnight, on Thursday
evenings, in a commodious tavern in the High Street. The members were
chiefly artists, or men known for their love of art. Among then were
Henry Raeburn, Hugh Williams (the Grecian), Andrew Geddes,
William Thomson, John Shetkay, William Nicholson, William Allan,
Alexander Nasmyth, the Rev. John Thomson of Duddingston,
George Thomson, Sir Walter Scott, John Lockhart, Dr. Brewster,
David Wilkie, Henry Cockburn, Francis Jeffrey, John A. Murray,
Professor Wilson, John Ballantyne, James Ballantyne, James Hogg (the
Ettrick Shepherd), and David Bridges, the secretary.*
Davie Bridges was a character. In my early days he was a cloth
merchant in the High Street. His shop was very near that gigantic
lounge, the old Parliament House, and was often resorted to by
non-business visitors. Bridges had a good taste for pictures. He had
a small but choice collection by the Old Masters, which he kept
arranged in the warehouse under his shop. He took great pride in
exhibiting them to his visitors, and expatiating upon their excellence.
I remember being present in his warehouse with my father when a very
beautiful small picture by Richard Wilson was under review. Davie
burst out emphatically with, "Eh, man, did ye ever see such glorious
buttery touches as on these clouds!" His joking friends clubbed him
"Director-General of the Fine Arts for Scotland," a title which he
complacently accepted. Besides showing off his pictures, Davie was an
art critic, and wrote articles for the newspapers and magazines.
Unfortunately, however, his attention to pictures prevented him from
attending to his shop, and his customers (who were not artists) forsook
him, and bought their clothes elsewhere. He accordingly shut up his
shop, and devoted himself to art criticism, in which, for a time, he
possessed a monopoly.
The drinks were restricted to Edinburgh ale and whisky toddy.
An admirable picture of the club in full meeting was painted by William
Allan, in which characteristic portraits of all the leading members
were introduced in full social converse. Among the more prominent
portraits is one of my father, who is represented as illustrating some
subject he is describing, by drawing it on the part of the table before
him, with his finger dipped in toddy. Other marked and well-known
characteristics of the members are skilfully introduced in the picture.
The artist afterwards sold it to Mr. Horrocks of Preston, in Lancashire.
Besides portrait painting, my father was much employed in assisting the
noblemen and landed gentry of Scotland in improving the landscape
appearance of their estates, especially when seen from their mansion
windows. His fine taste, and his love of natural scenery, gave him
great advantages in this respect. He selected the finest sites for the
new mansions, when they were erected in lieu of the old towers and
crenellated castles. Or, he designed alterations of the old buildings
so as to preserve their romantic features, and at the same time to fit
them for the requirements of modern domestic life.
In those early days of art-knowledge, there scarcely existed any
artistic feeling for the landscape beauty of nature. There was an
utter want of appreciation of the dignified beauty of the old castles
and mansions, the remnants of which were in too many instances carted
away as material for now buildings. There was also at that time an
utter ignorance of the beauty and majesty of old trees. A forest of
venerable oaks or beeches was a thing to be done away with. They were
merely cut down as useless timber; even when they so finely embellished
the landscape. My father exerted himself successfully to preserve
these grand old forest trees. His fine sketches served to open the
eyes of their possessors to the priceless treasures they were about to
destroy; and he thus preserved the existence of many a picturesque old
tree. He even took the pains in many cases to model the part of the
estate he was dealing with; and he also modelled the old trees he
wished to preserve. Thus, by a judicious clearing out of the
intercepting young timber, he opened out distant views of the
landscape, and at the same time preserved many a monarch of the
It is even now to be deeply deplored that those who inherit or come
into possession of landed estates do not feel sufficiently impressed
with the possession of such grand memorials of the past. Alas! how
often have we to lament the want of taste that leads to the sacrifice
of these venerable treasures. Would that the young men at our
universities especially those likely to inherit estates--were
impressed with the importance of preserving them. They would thus
confer an inestimable benefit to thousands. About forty years ago Lord
Cockburn published a pamphlet on How to Destroy the Beauty of
Edinburgh! He enforced the charm of green foliage in combination with
street architecture. The burgesses were then cutting down trees.
His lordship went so far as to say "that he would as soon cut down a
burgess as a tree!" Since then the growth of trees in Edinburgh,
especially in what was once the North Loch, has been greatly improved;
and might be still further improved if that famous tree, "The London
plane," were employed.
[Image] The Family Tree
My father modelled old castles, old trees, and such like objects as he
wished to introduce into his landscapes. The above illustration, may
perhaps give a slight idea of his artistic skill as a modeller.
I specially refer to this, which he called "The Family Tree," as he
required each member of his family to assist in its production.
We each made a twig or small branch, which he cleverly fixed into its
place as a part of the whole. The model tree in question was
constructed of wire slightly twisted together, so as to form the main
body of a branch. It was then subdivided into branchlets, and finally
into individual twigs. All these, combined together by his dexterous
hand, resulted in the model of an old leafless tree, so true and
correct, that any one would have thought that it had been modelled
direct from nature.
The Duke of Athol consulted my father as to the improvements which he
desired to make in his woodland scenery near Dunkeld. The Duke was
desirous that a rocky crag, called Craigybarns, should be planted with
trees, to relieve the grim barrenness of its appearance. But it was
impossible for any man to climb the crag in order to set seeds or
plants in the clefts of the rocks. A happy idea struck my father.
Having observed in front of the castle a pair of small cannon used for
firing salutes, it occurred to him to turn them to account. His object
was to deposit the seeds of the various trees amongst the soil in the
clefts of the crag. A tinsmith in the village was ordered to make a
number of canisters with covers. The canisters were filled with all
sorts of suitable tree seeds. A cannon was loaded, and the canisters
were fired up against the high face of the rock. They burst and
scattered the seed in all directions. Some years after, when my father
revisited the place, he was delighted to find that his scheme of
planting by artillery had proved completely successful; for the trees
were flourishing luxuriantly in all the recesses of the cliff. This was
another instance of my father's happy faculty of resourcefulness.
Certain circumstances about this time compelled my father almost
entirely to give up portrait painting and betake himself to another
branch of the fine arts. The earnest and lively interest which he took
in the state of public affairs, and the necessity which then existed
for reforming the glaring abuses of the State, led him to speak out his
mind freely on the subject. Edinburgh was then under the reign of the
Dundases; and scarcely anybody dared to mutter his objections to
anything perpetrated by the "powers that be." The city was then a much
smaller place than it is now. There was more gossip, and perhaps more
espionage, among the better classes, who were few in number. At all
events, my father's frank opinions on political subjects began to be
known. He attended Fox dinners. He was intimate with men of known
reforming views. All this was made the subject of general talk.
Accordingly, my father received many hints from aristocratic and
wealthy personages, that "if this went on any longer they would
withdraw from him their employment." My father did not alter his
course; it was right and honest. But he suffered nevertheless.
His income from portrait painting fell off rapidly.
At length he devoted himself to landscape painting. It was a freer and
more enjoyable life. Instead of painting the faces of those who were
perhaps without character or attractiveness, he painted the fresh and
ever-beautiful face of nature. The field of his employment in this
respect was almost inexhaustible. His artistic talent in this
delightful branch of art was in the highest sense congenial to his mind
and feelings; and in course of time the results of his new field of
occupation proved thoroughly satisfactory. In fact, men of the highest
rank with justice entitled him the "Father of landscape painting in
[Image] No. 47 York Place, Edinburgh
At the same time, when changing his branch of art, he opened a class in
his own house forgiving practical instruction in the art of landscape
painting. He removed his house and studio from St. James's Square to
No. 47 York Place. There was at the upper part of this house a noble
and commodious room. There he held his class. The house was his own,
and was built after his own designs. A splendid prospect was seen from
the upper windows; and especially from the Belvidere, which he had
constructed on the summit of the roof. The view extended from Stirling
in the west to the Bass Rock in the east. In fine summer evenings the
sun was often seen setting behind Ben Lomond and the more conspicuous
of the Perthshire mountains.
My father did not confine himself to landscape painting, or to the
instruction of his classes. He was an all-round man. He had something
of the Universal about him. He was a painter, an architect, and a
mechanic. Above all, he possessed a powerful store of common sense.
Of course, I am naturally a partial judge of my father's character; but
this I may say, that during my experience of over seventy years I have
never known a more incessantly industrious man. His hand and mind were
always at work from morn till night. During the time that he was
losing his business in portrait painting, he set to work and painted
scenery for the theatres. The late David Roberts--himself a scene
painter of the highest character--said that his style was founded
upon that of Nasmyth.*
David Roberts, R,A., in his Autobiography, gives the following
recollections of Alexander Nasmyth: -- "In 1819 I commenced my career as
principal scene painter in the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. This theatre
was immense in its size and appointments--in magnitude exceeding
Drury Lane and Covent Garden. The stock scenery had been painted by
Alexander Nasmyth, and consisted of a series of pictures far surpassing
anything of the kind I had ever seen. These included chambers,
palaces, streets, landscapes, and forest scenery. One, I remember
particularly, was the outside of a Norman castle, and another of a
cottage charmingly painted, and of which I have a sketch. But the act
scene, which was a view on the Clyde looking towards the Highland
mountains with Dumbarton Castle in the middle distance, was such a
combination of magnificent scenery, so wonderfully painted, that it
excited universal admiration. These productions I studied incessantly;
and on them my style, if I have any, was originally founded."
Stanfield was another of his friends. On one occasion Stanfield showed
him his sketch-book, observing that he wished to form a style of his
own. "Young man," said Nasmyth, "there's but one style an artist
should endeavour to attain, and that is the style of nature; the nearer
you can get to that the better."
My father was greatly interested in the architectural beauty of his
native city, and he was professionally consulted by the authorities
about the laying out of the streets of the New Town. The subject
occupied much of his time and thought, especially when resting from the
mental fatigue arising from a long sitting at the easel. It was his
regular practice to stroll about where the building work was in
progress, or where new roads were being laid out, and carefully watch
the proceedings. This was probably due to the taste which he had
inherited from his forebears--more especially from his father, who
had begun the buildings of the New Town. My father took pleasure in
modelling any improvement that occurred to him; and in discussing the
subject with the architects and builders who were professionally
engaged in the works. His admirable knack of modelling the contour of
the natural surface of the ground, and applying it to the proposed new
roads or new buildings, was striking and characteristic. His efforts
in this direction were so thoroughly disinterested that those in office
were all the more anxious to carry out his views. He sought for no
reward; but his excellent advice was not unrecognised. In testimony of
the regard which the Magistrates of Edinburgh had for his counsel and
services, they presented him in 1815 with a sum of #200, together with
a most complimentary letter acknowledging the value of his
disinterested advice. It was addressed to him under cover, directed to
"Alexander Nasmyth, Architect."
He was, indeed, not unworthy of the name. He was the architect of the
Dean Bridge, which spans the deep valley of the Water of Leith,
north-west of the New Town. Sir John Nesbit, the owner of the property
north of the stream, employed my father to make a design for the
extension of the city to his estate. The result was the construction
of the Dean Bridge, and the roads approaching it from both sides.
The Dean Estate was thus rendered as easy and convenient to reach as
any of the level streets of Edinburgh. The construction of the bridge
was superintended by the late James Jardine, C.E. Mr Telford was
afterwards called upon to widen the bridge. He threw out parapets on
each side, but they did not improve the original design.
[Image] St Bernard's Well
From the Dean Bridge another of my father's architectural buildings may
be seen, at St. Bernard's Well. It was constructed at the instance of
his friend Lord Gardenstone. The design consists of a graceful
circular temple, built over a spring of mineral water, which issues
from the rock below. It was dedicated to Hygeia, the Goddess of
Health. The whole of the details are beautifully finished, and the
basement of the design will be admired by every true artist. It is
regarded as a great ornament, and is thoroughly in keeping with the
beauty of the surrounding scenery.
Shortly after the death of Lord Nelson it was proposed to erect a
monument to his memory on the Calton Hill. My father supplied a
design, which was laid before the Monument Committee. It was so much
approved that the required sum was rapidly subscribed. But as the
estimated cost of this erection was found slightly to exceed the amount
subscribed, a nominally cheaper design was privately adopted. It was
literally a job. The vulgar, churn-like monument was thus thrust on
the public and actually erected; and there it stands to this day, a
piteous sight to beholders. It was eventually found greatly to exceed
in cost the amount of the estimate for my father's design. I give a
sketch of my father's memorial; and I am led to do this because it is
erroneously alleged that he was the architect of the present inverted
spy glass, called "Nelson's Monument"
[Image] Nelson's Monument as it should have been.
Then, with respect to my father's powers as a mechanic. This was an
inherited faculty, and I leave my readers to infer from the following
pages whether I have not had my fair share of this inheritance. Besides
his painting room, my father had a workroom fitted up with all sorts of
mechanical tools. It was one of his greatest pleasures to occupy
himself there as a relief from sitting at the easel, or while within
doors from the inclemency of the weather. The walls and shelves of his
workroom were crowded with a multitude of artistic and ingenious
mechanical objects, nearly all of which were the production of his own
hands. Many of them were associated with the most eventful incidents
in his life. He only admitted his most intimate friends, or such as
could understand and appreciate the variety of objects connected with
art and mechanism, to his workroom. His natural taste for neatness and
arrangement gave it a very orderly aspect, however crowded its walls
and shelves might be. Everything was in its place, and there was a
place for everything. It was in this workroom that I first began to
handle mechanical tools. It was my primary technical school--the
very foreground of my life.
[Image] Bow-and-string Roofs and Bridges
I may mention one or two of my father's mechanical efforts, or rather
his inventions in applied science. One of the most important was the
"bow-and-string bridge," as he first called it, to which he early
directed his attention. He invented this important method of
construction about the year 1794. The first bow-and-string bridge was
erected in the island of St. Helena over a deep ravine.
Many considered, from its apparent slightness, that it was not fitted
to sustain any considerable load. A remarkable and convincing proof
was, however, given of its stability by the passage over it of a herd
of wild oxen, that rushed across without the slightest damage to its
structure. After so severe a test it was for many succeeding years
employed as a most valuable addition to the accessibility of an
important portion of the island. The bow-and-string bridge has since
been largely employed in spanning wide spaces over which suburban and
other railways pass, and in roofing over such stations as those at
Birmingham, Charing Cross, and other Great Metropolitan centres, as
well as in bow-and-string bridges over rivers. I give the fac-simile
of his original drawings*
The original drawings of these bow-and-string bridges, of various
spans, are now deposited at the Gallery of the Museum of Naval
Architecture at South Kensington, and are signed "Alexander Nasmyth
for the purpose of showing our great railway engineers the originator
of the graceful and economical method of spanning wide spaces, now
practised in every part of the civilised world.
Another of his inventions was the method of riveting by compression
instead of by blows of the hammer. It originated in a slight
circumstance. One wet, wintry Sunday morning he went into his
workroom. There were some slight mechanical repairs to be performed
upon a beautiful little stove of his own construction. To repair it,
iron rivets were necessary to make it serviceable. But as the
hammering of the hot rivets would annoy his neighbours by the unwelcome
sound of the hammer, he solved the difficulty by using the jaws of his
bench vice to squeeze in the hot rivets when put into their places.
The stove was thus quickly repaired in the most perfect silence.
This was, perhaps, the first occasion on which a squeeze or compressive
action was substituted for the percussive action of the hammer,
in closing red-hot rivets, for combining together pieces of stout sheet
or plate iron. This system of riveting was long afterwards patented by
Smith of Deanston in combination with William Fairbairn of Manchester;
and it was employed in riveting the plates used in the construction of
the bridges over the River Conway and the Menai Straits.
It is also universally used in boiler and girder making, and in all
other wrought-iron structures in which thorough sound riveting is
absolutely essential; and by the employment of hydraulic power in a
portable form a considerable portion of iron shipbuilding is effected
by the silent squeeze system in place of hammers, much to the
advantage of the soundness of the work. My father frequently,
in aftertimes, practised this mode of riveting by compression in place
of using the blow of a hammer; and in remembrance of the special
circumstances under which he contrived this silent and most effective
method of riveting, he named it "The Sunday Rivet."
CHAPTER 3. An Artist's Family.
Although Alexander Nasmyth had to a considerable extent lost his
aristocratic connection as a portrait painter, yet many kind and
generous friends gathered round him. During his sojourn in Italy,