Part 2 out of 8
in 1783, he had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Sir James
Hall of Dunglass, Haddingtonshire. The acquaintance afterwards ripened
into a deeply-rooted friendship.
During the winter season Sir James resided with his family in his town
house in George Street. He was passionately attached to the pursuit of
art and science. He practised the art of painting in my father's room,
and was greatly helped by him in the requisite manipulative skill.
Sir James was at that time engaged in writing his well-known essay
"On the Origin of Gothic Architecture," and in this my father was of
important use to him. He executed the greater number of the
illustrations for this beautiful work. The book when published had a
considerable influence in restoring the taste of architects to a style
which they had heretofore either neglected or degraded.
Besides his enthusiasm in art and architecture, Sir James devoted a
great deal of time to the study of geology. The science was then in
its infancy. Being an acute observer, Hall's attention was first
attracted to the subject by the singular geological features of the
sea-coast near his mansion at Dunglass. The neighbourhood of Edinburgh
also excited his interest. The upheaval of the rocks by volcanic heat
--as seen in the Castle Hill, the Calton Hill, and Arthur's Seat--
formed in a great measure the foundation of the picturesque beauty of
the city. Those were the days of the Wernerian and Huttonian
controversy as to the origin of the changes on the surface of the
earth. Sir James Ball was President of the Edinburgh Royal Society,
and necessarily took an anxious interest in the discussions.
He observed and experimented, and established the true volcanic nature
of the composition and formation of the rocks and mountains which
I have been led to speak of this subject, because when a boy I was
often present at the discussions of these great principles.
My father, Sir James Hall, Professors Playfair and Leslie, took their
accustomed walks round Edinburgh, and I clung eagerly to their words.
Though unable to understand everything that was said, these walks had a
great influence upon my education. Indeed, what education can compare
with that of listening attentively to the conversation and interchange
of thought of men of the highest intelligence? It is on such occasions
that ideas, not mere words, take hold of the memory, and abide there
until the close of life.
Besides mixing in the society of scientific men, my father enjoyed a
friendly intercourse with the artists of his day. He was often able to
give substantial help and assistance to young students; and he was most
liberal in giving them valuable practical instruction, and in assisting
them over the manipulative difficulties which lay in their way. He was
especially assiduous when he saw them inspired by the true spirit of
art, and full of application and industry,--without which nothing can
be accomplished. Amongst these young men were David Wilkie, Francis
Grant, David Roberts, Clarkson Stanfield, William Allan, Andrew Geddes,
"Grecian" Williams, Lizars the engraver, and the Rev. John Thomson of
Henry Raeburn was one of his most intimate friends and companions.
He considered Raeburn's broad and masterly style of portrait painting
as an era in Scottish art. Raeburn, with innate tact, discerned the
character of his sitters, and he imparted so much of their
individuality into his portraits as to make them admirable likenesses
in the highest sense. In connection with Raeburn, I may mention that
when he was knighted by George IV. in 1822, my father, who was then at
the head of his profession in Scotland, was appointed chairman at the
dinner held to do honour to the great Scottish portrait painter.
Raeburn often joined my father in his afternoon walks round Edinburgh
--a relaxation so very desirable after hours of close attention to
artistic work. They took delight in the wonderful variety of
picturesque scenery by which the city is surrounded. The walks about
Arthur's Seat were the most enjoyable of all. When a boy I had often
the pleasure of accompanying them, and of listening to their
conversation. I thus picked up many an idea that served me well in
after life. Indeed, I may say, after a long experience, that there is
no class of men whose company I more delight in than that of artists.
Their innate and highly-cultivated power of observation, not only as
regards the ever-varying aspects of nature, but also as regards the
quaint, droll, and humorous varieties of character, concur in rendering
their conversation most delightful. I look back on these walks as
among the brightest points in my existence. I have been led to digress
on this subject. Although more correctly belonging to my father's
life, yet it is so amalgamated with my own that it almost forms part of
it, and it is difficult for me to separate the one from the other.
And then there were the pleasant evenings at home. When the day's work
was over, friends looked in to have a fireside crack--sometimes
scientific men, sometimes artists, often both. They were all made
welcome. There was no formality about their visits. Had they been
formal, there would have been comparatively little pleasure.
The visitor came in with his "Good e'en", and seated himself.
The family went on with their work as before. The girls were usually
busy with their needles, and others with pen and pencil. My father
would go on with the artistic work he had in hand, for his industry was
incessant. He would model a castle or a tree, or proceed with some
proposed improvement of the streets or approaches of the rapidly
expanding city. Among the most agreeable visitors were Professor
Leslie, James Jardine, C.E., and Dr. Brewster. Their conversation was
specially interesting. They brought up the last new thing in science,
in discovery, in history, or in campaigning, for the war was then
raging throughout Europe.
The artists were a most welcome addition to the family group.
Many a time did they set the table in a roar with their quaint and
droll delineations of character. These unostentatious gatherings of
friends about our fireside were a delightful social institution.
The remembrance of them lights up my recollection of the happiest
period of a generally happy life. Could I have been able to set forth
the brightness and cheerfulness of these happy evenings at my father's
house, I am fain to think that my description might have been well
worth reading. But all the record of them that remains is a most
cherished recollection of their genial tone and harmony, which makes me
think that, although in these days of rapid transit over earth and
ocean, and surrounded as we are with the results of applied scientific
knowledge, we are not a bit more happy than when all the vaunted
triumphs of science and so-called education were in embryo.
The supper usually followed, for my father would not allow his visitors
to go away supperless. The meal did not amount to much. Rizard or
Finnan harddies, or a dish of oysters, with a glass of Edinburgh ale,
and a rummer of toddy, concluded these friendly evenings. The cry of
"Caller Aou" was constantly heard in the streets below of an evening.
When the letter r was in the name of the month, the supply of oysters
was abundant. The freshest oysters, of the most glorious quality, were
to be had at 2s. 6d. the hundred! And what could be more refreshing
food for my father's guests? These unostentatious and inexpensive
gatherings of friends were a most delightful social institution among
the best middle-class people of Edinburgh some sixty or seventy years
ago. What they are now I cannot tell. But I fear they have
disappeared in the more showy and costly tastes that have sprung up in
the progress of what is called "modern society."
No part of my father's character was more admirable than his utter
unselfishness. He denied himself many things, that he might give the
greater pleasure to his wife and children. He would scarcely take part
in any enjoyment, unless they could have their fair share of it. In all
this he was faithfully followed by my mother. The admirable example of
well-sustained industry that was always before her, sustained her in
her efforts for the good of her family. She was intelligently
interested in all that related to her husband's business and interests,
as well as in his recreative enjoyments. The household affairs were
under her skilful guidance. She conducted them with economy, and yet
with generous liberality, free from the least taint of ostentation or
extravagance. The home fireside was a scene of cheerfulness.
And most of our family have been blest with this sunny gift. Indeed,
a merrier family circle I have never seen. There were twelve persons
round the table to be provided for, besides two servants.
This required, on my mother's part, a great deal of management,
as every housekeeper will know. Yet everything was provided and paid
for within the year's income.
The family result of my father and mother's happy marriage was four
sons and seven daughters. Patrick, the eldest, was born in 1787.
He was called after my father's dear and constant friend, Patrick
Miller of Dalswinton. I will speak by and by of his artistic
reputation. Then followed a long succession of daughters--
Jane, the eldest', was born in 1788; Barbara 1790; Margaret in 1791;
Elizabeth in 1793; Anne in 1798; Charlotte in 1804.
Then came a succession of three sons--Alexander, George,and James.
There followed another daughter, Mary; but as she only lived for about
eighteen months, I remained the youngest of the family.
My sisters all possessed, in a greater or less degree, an innate love
of art, and by their diligent application they acquired the practice of
painting landscape in oils. My father's admirable system and method of
teaching rendered them expert in making accurate sketches from nature,
which, as will afterwards be seen, they turned to good account.
My eldest sister, Jane, was in all respects a most estimable character,
and a great help to my mother in the upbringing of the children.
Jane was full of sound common sense; her judgment seemed to be beyond
her years. Because of this the younger members of the family jokingly
nicknamed her "Old Solid"!--Even my father consulted her in every
case of importance in reference to domestic and financial affairs.
I had the great good fortune, when a child, to be placed under her
special protection, and I have reason to be thankful for the
affectionate care which she took of me during the first six years of
Besides their early education in art, my mother was equally earnest in
her desire to give her daughters a thorough practical knowledge in
every department and detail of household management. When they had
attained a suitable age they were in succession put in charge of all
the household duties for two weeks at a time. The keys were given over
to them, together with the household books, and at the end of their
time their books were balanced to a farthing. They were then passed on
to the next in succession. One of the most important branches of
female education--the management of the domestic affairs of a family,
the superintendence of the cooking so as to avoid waste of food, the
regularity of the meals, and the general cleaning up of the rooms--
was thus thoroughly attained in its best and most practical forms.
And under the admirable superintendence of my mother everything in our
family went on like clockwork.
My father's object was to render each and all of his children--
whether boys or girls--independent on their arrival at mature years.
Accordingly, he sedulously kept up the attention of his daughters to
fine art. By this means he enabled them to assist in the maintenance
of the family while at home, and afterwards to maintain themselves by
the exercise of their own abilities and industry after they had left.
To accomplish this object, as already described, he set on foot drawing
classes, which were managed by his six daughters, superintended by
Edinburgh was at that time the resort of many county families.
The war which raged abroad prevented their going to the Continent.
They therefore remained at home, and the Scotch families for the most
part took up their residence in Edinburgh. There were many young
ladies desiring to complete their accomplishments, and hence the
establishment of my sisters' art class. It was held in the large
painting-room in the upper part of the house. It soon became one of
the most successful institutions in Edinburgh. When not engaged in
drawing and oil painting, the young ladies were occupied in sketching
from nature, under the superintendence of my sisters, in the outskirts
of Edinburgh. This was one of the most delightful exercises in which
they could be engaged; and it also formed the foundation for many
friendships which only terminated with life.
My father increased the interest of the classes by giving little art
lectures. They were familiar but practical. He never gave lectures as
such, but rather demonstrations. It was only when a pupil encountered
some technical difficulty, or was adopting some wrong method of
proceeding, that he undertook to guide them by his words and practical
illustrations. His object was to embue the minds of the pupils with
high principles of art. He would take up their brushes and show by his
dexterous and effective touches how to bring out, with marvellous ease,
the right effects of the landscape. The other pupils would come and
stand behind him, to see and hear his clear instructions carried into
actual practice on the work before him. He often illustrated his
little special lessons by his stores of instructive and interesting
anecdotes, which no doubt helped to rivet his practice all the deeper
into their minds. Thus the Nasmyth classes soon became the fashion.
In many cases both mothers and daughters might be seen at work together
in that delightful painting-room. I have occasionally met with some of
them in after years, who referred to those pleasant hours as among the
most delightful they had ever spent.
These classes were continued for many years. In the meantime my
sisters' diligence and constant practice enabled them in course of time
to exhibit their works in the fine art exhibitions of Edinburgh.
Each had her own individuality of style and manner, by which their
several works were easily distinguished from each other. Indeed,
whoever works after Nature will have a style of their own. They all
continued the practice of oil painting until an advanced age.
The average duration of their lives was about seventy-eight.
There was one point which my father diligently impressed upon his
pupils, and that was the felicity and the happiness attendant upon
pencil drawing. He was a master of the pencil, and in his off-hand
sketches communicated his ideas to others in a way that mere words
could never have done. It was his Graphic Language. A few strokes of
the pencil can convey ideas which quires of writing would fail to
impart. This is one of the most valuable gifts which a man who has to
do with practical subjects can possess. "The language of the pencil"
is a truly universal one, especially in communicating ideas which have
reference to material forms. And yet it is in a great measure
neglected in our modern system of education.
The language of the tongue is often used to disguise our thoughts,
whereas the language of the pencil is clear and explicit. Who that
possesses this language can fail to look back with pleasure on the
course of a journey illustrated by pencil drawings? They bring back to
you the landscapes you have seen, the old streets, the pointed gables,
the entrances to the old churches, even the bits of tracery, with a
vividness of association such as mere words could never convey.
Thus, looking at an old sketch-book brings back to you the recollection
of a tour, however varied, and you virtually make the journey over
again with its picturesque and beautiful associations. On many a fine
summer's day did my sisters make a picnic excursion into the
neighbourhood of Edinburgh. They were accompanied by their pupils,
sketch-book and pencil in hand. As I have already said, there is no
such scenery near any city that I know of. Arthur's Seat and Salisbury
Crags, Duddingston Loch, the Braid Hills, Craigmillar Castle,
Hawthornden, Roslin, Habbie's How, and the many valleys and rifts in
the Pentlands, with Edinburgh and its Castle in the distance; or the
scenery by the sea-shore, all round the coast from Newhaven to Gullane
and North Berwick Law.
The excursionists came home laden with sketches. I have still by me a
multitude of these graphic records made by my sisters. Each sketch,
however slight, strikes the keynote, as it were, to many happy
recollections of the circumstances, and the persons who were present at
the time it was made. I know not of any such effective stimulant to
the recollection of past events as these graphic memoranda.
Written words may be forgotten, but these slight pencil recollections
imprint themselves on the mind with a force that can never be effaced.
Everything that occurred at the time rises up as fresh in the memory as
if hours and not years had passed since then. They bring to the mind's
eye many dear ones who have passed away, and remind us that we too must
It is much to be regretted that this valuable art of graphic memoranda
is not more generally practised. It is not merely a most valuable help
to the memory, but it educates the eye and the hand, and enables us to
cultivate the faculty of definite observation. This is one of the most
valuable accomplishments that I know of, being the means of storing up
ideas, and not mere words, in the mental recollection of both men and
Before I proceed to record the recollections of my own life, I wish to
say something about my eldest brother Patrick, the well-known landscape
painter. He was twenty-one years older than myself! My father was his
best and almost his only instructor. At a very early age he manifested
a decided taste for drawing and painting. His bent was landscape.
This gave my father great pleasure, as it was his own favourite branch
of art. The boy acquired great skill in sketching trees, clouds,
plants, and foregrounds. He studied with wonderful assiduity and
success. I possess many of his graphic memoranda, which show the care
and industry with which he educated his eye and hand in rendering with
truth and fidelity the intimate details of his art. The wild plants
which he introduced into the foregrounds of his pictures were his
favourite objects of study. But of all portions of landscape nature,
the Sky was the one that most delighted him. He studied the form and
character of clouds--resting cloud, the driving cloud, and the rain
cloud--and the sky portions of his paintings were thus rendered so
He was so earnest in his devotion to the study of landscape that in
some respects he neglected the ordinary routine of school education.
He successfully accomplished the three R.'s, but after that his school
was the fields, in the face of Nature. He was by no means a Romantic
painter. His taste was essentially for Home subjects. In his
landscapes he introduced picturesque farm-houses and cottages,
with their rural surroundings; and his advancement and success were
commensurate with his devotion to this fine branch of art. The perfect
truth with which he represented English scenery, associated as it is
with so many home-loving feelings, forms the special attractiveness of
his works. This has caused them to be eagerly sought after,
and purchased at high prices.
Patrick had a keen sense of humour, though in other respects he was
simple and unpretending. He was a great reader of old-fashioned
novels, which indeed in those days were the only works of the kind to
be met with. The Arabian Nights, Robinson crusoe, The Mysteries of
Udolpho, and such like, were his favourites, and gave a healthy filip
to his imagination. He had also a keen relish for music, and used to
whistle melodies and overtures as he went along with his work.
He acquired a fair skill in violin playing. While tired with sitting
or standing he would take up his violin, play a few passages, and then
go to work again.
Patrick removed to London in 1808, and exhibited at the Royal Academy
in the following year. He made excursions to various parts of England,
where he found subjects congenial to his ideas of rural beauty.
The immediate neighbourhood of London, however, a bounded with the most
charming and appropriate subjects for his pencil. These consisted of
rural "bits" of the most picturesque but homely description--decayed
pollard trees and old moss-grown orchards, combined with cottages and
farm-houses in the most paintable state of decay, with tangled hedges
and neglected fences, overrun with vegetation clinging to them with all
"the careless grace of Nature." However neglected these might be by the
farmer, they were always tit-bits for Patrick. When sketching such
subjects he was in his glory, and he returned to his easel loaded with
sketch-book treasures, which when painted form the gems of many a
In some of these charming subjects glimpses of the distant capital may
be observed, with the dome of St. Paul's in the distance; but they are
introduced with such skill and correctness as in no way to interfere
with the rural character of his subject. When he went farther afield
--to Windsor Forest, Hampshire, the New Forest, or the Isle of Wight
--he was equally diligent with his pencil, and came home laden with
sketches of the old monarchs of the forest. When in a state of partial
decay his skilful touch brought them to life again, laden with branches
and lichen, with leaves and twigs and bark, and with every feature that
gives such a charm to these important elements in true English
landscape scenery. On my brother's first visit to London, accompanied
by my father, he visited many collections where the old Dutch masters
were to be seen, and he doubtless derived much advantage from his
careful studies, more particularly from the works of Hobbema, Ruysdael,
and Wynants. These came home to him as representations of Nature as
she is. They were more free from the traditional modes of representing
her. The works of Claude Lorraine and Richard Wilson were also the
objects of his admiration, though the influence of the time for
classicality of treatment to a certain extent vitiated these noble
works. When a glorious sunset was observed, the usual expression among
the lovers of art was, "What a magnificent Claudish effect!" thus
setting up the result of man's feeble attempt at representation as the
standard of comparison, in place of the far grander original!
My brother carefully studied Nature herself. His works, following
those of my father, led back the public taste to a more healthy and
true condition, and by the aid of a noble army of modern British
landscape painters, this department of art has been elevated to a very
high standard of truth and excellence.
I find some letters from Patrick to my father, after his settlement as
an artist in London. My father seems to have supplied him with money
during the early part of his career, and afterwards until he had
received the amount of his commissions for pictures. In one of his
letters he says: "That was an unlucky business, the loss of that order
which you were so good as send me on my account." It turned out that
the order had dropt out of the letter enclosing it, and was not
recovered. In fact, Patrick was very careless about all money
In 1814 he made the acquaintance of Mr. Barnes, and accompanied him to
Bure Cottage, Ringwood, near Southampton, where he remained for some
time. He went into the New Forest, and brought home "lots of sketches."
In 1815 he exhibited his works at the Royal Academy. He writes to his
father that "the prices of my pictures in the Gallery are--
two at fourteen guineas each (small views in Hampshire), one at
twelve guineas, and two at fourteen guineas. They are all sold but
one. These pictures would now fetch in the open market from two to
three hundred guineas each. But in those days good work was little
known, and landscapes especially were very little sought after.
Patrick Nasmyth's admirable rendering of the finer portions of
landscape nature attracted the attention of collectors, and he received
many commissions from them at very low prices. There was at that time
a wretched system of delaying the payment for pictures painted on
commission, as well as considerable loss of time by the constant
applications made for the settlement of the balance. My brother was
accordingly under the necessity of painting his pictures for the
Dealers, who gave him at once the price which he required for his
works. The influence of this system was not always satisfactory.
The Middlemen or Dealers, who stood between the artist and the final
possessor of the works, were not generous. They higgled about prices,
and the sums which they gave were almost infinitesimal compared with
the value of Patrick Nasmyth's pictures at the present time.
The Dealers were frequent visitors at his little painting-room in his
lodgings. They took undue advantage of my brother's simplicity and
innate modesty in regard to the commercial value of his works. When he
had sketched in a beautiful subject, and when it was clear that in its
highest state of development it must prove a fine work, the Dealer
would pile up before him a row of guineas, or sovereigns, and say,
"Now, Peter, that picture's to be mine!", The real presence of cash
proved too much for him. He never was a practical man. He agreed to
the proposal, and thus he parted with his pictures for much less than
they were worth. He was often remonstrated with by his brother artists
for letting them slip out of his hands in that way--works that he
would not surrender until he had completed them, and brought them up to
the highest point of his fastidious taste and standard of excellence.
Among his dearest friends were David Roberts and Clarkson Stanfield.
He usually replied to their friendly remonstrances by laughingly
pointing to his bursting portfolios of sketches, and saying,
"There's lots of money in these banks to draw from." He thus warded off
their earnest and often-repeated remonstrances. Being a single man,
and his habits and style of living of the most simple kind, he had very
little regard for money except as it ministered to his immediate
necessities. His evenings were generally spent at a club of brother
artists "over the water;" and in their company he enjoyed many a
pleasant hour. His days were spent at his easel. They were
occasionally varied by long walks into the country near London,
for the purpose of refilling his sketch-book.
It was on one of such occasions--when he was sketching the details of
some picturesque pollard old willows up the Thames, and standing all
the time in wet ground--that he caught a severe cold which confined
him to the house. He rapidly became worse. Two of his sisters,
who happened to be in London at the time, nursed him with devoted
attention. But it was too late. The disease had taken fatal hold of
him. On the evening of the l7th August 1831 there was a violent
thunderstorm. At length the peals of thunder ceased, the rain passed
away, and the clouds dispersed. The setting sun burst forth in a
golden glow. The patient turned round on his couch and asked that the
curtains might be drawn. It was done. A blaze of sunset lit up his
weary and worn-out face. "How glorious it is!" he said. Then, as the
glow vanished he fell into a deep and tranquil sleep, from which he
never awoke. Such was the peaceful end of my brother Patrick, at the
comparatively early age of forty-four years.
CHAPTER 4. My Early Years.
I WAS born on the morning of the 19th of August 1808, at my father's
house No. 47 York Place, Edinburgh. I was named James Hall after my
father's dear friend, Sir James Hall of Dunglass. My mother afterwards
told me that I must have been "a very noticin' bairn," as she observed
me, when I was only a few days old, following with my little eyes any
one who happened to be in the room, as if I had been thinking to my
little self, "Who are you?"
After a suitable time I was put under the care of a nursemaid.
I remember her well--Mary Peterkin--a truly Scandinavian name.
She came from Haddingtonshire, where most of the people are of
Scandinavian origin. Her hair was of a bright yellow tint.
She was a cheerful young woman, and sang to me like a nightingale.
She could not only sing old Scotch songs, but had a wonderful memory
for fairy tales. When under the influence of a merry laugh,
you could scarcely see her eyes; their twinkle was hidden by her
eyelids and lashes. She was a willing worker, and was always ready
to lend a helping hand at everything about the house, she took great
pride in me, calling me her "laddie."
When I was toddling about the house, another sister was born, the last
of the family. Little Mary was very delicate; and to improve her
health she was sent to a small farm-house at Braid Hills, about four
miles south of Edinburgh. It was one of the most rural and beautiful
surroundings of the city at that time. One of my earliest
recollections is that of being taken to see poor little Mary at the
farmer's house. While my nursemaid was occupied in inquiring after my
sister, I was attracted by the bright red poppies in a neighbouring
field. When they made search for me I could not be found. I was lost
for more than an hour. At last, seeing a slight local disturbance
among the stalks of corn, they rushed to they spot, and brought me out
with an armful of brilliant red poppies. To this day poppies continue
to be my greatest favourites.
When I was about four or five years old, I was observed to give a
decided preference to the use of my left hand. Everything was done to
prevent my using it in preference to the right. My mother thought that
it arose from my being carried on the wrong arm by my nurse while an
infant. The right hand was thus confined, and the left hand was used.
I was constantly corrected, but "on the sly" I always used it,
especially in drawing my first little sketches. At last my father,
after viewing with pleasure one of my artistic efforts, done with the
forbidden hand, granted it liberty and independence for all time
coming. "Well," he said, "you may go on in your own way in the use of
your left hand, but I fear you will be an awkward fellow in everything
that requires handiness in life. I used my right hand in all that was
necessary, and my left in all sorts of practical manipulative affairs.
My left hand has accordingly been my most willing and obedient servant
in transmitting my will through my fingers into material or visible
forms. In this way I became ambidexter.
When I was about four years old, I often followed my father into his
workshop when he had occasion to show to his visitors some of his
mechanical contrivances or artistic models. The persons present
usually expressed their admiration in warm terms of what was shown to
them. On one occasion I gently pulled the coat-tail of one of the
listeners and confidentially said to him, as if I knew all about it,
"My papa's a kevie Fellae!" My father was so greatly amused by this
remark that he often referred to it as "the last good thing" from that
old-fashioned creature little Jamie.
One of my earliest recollections is the annual celebration of my
brother Patrick's birthday. Being the eldest of the family, his
birthday was held in special honour. My father invited about twenty of
his most intimate friends to dinner. My mother brought her culinary
powers into full operation. The younger members of the family also
took a lively interest in all that was going on, with certain
reversionary views as to "the day after the feast." We took a great
interest in the Trifle, which was no trifle in reality, in so far as
regarded the care and anxiety involved in its preparation.
In connection with this celebration, it was all established institution
that a large hamper always arrived in good time from the farm attached
to my mother's old home at Woodhall, near Edinburgh. It contained many
substantial elements for the entertainment--a fine turkey, fowls,
duck, and suchlike; with two magnums of the richest cream. There never
was such cream! It established a standard of cream in my memory;
and since then I have always been hypercritical about the article.
On one of these occasions, when I was about four years old, and being
the youngest of the family, I was taken into the company after the
dinner was over, and held up by my sister Jane to sing a verse from a
little song which my nurse Mary Peterkin had taught me, and Which ran
"I'll no bide till Saturday,
But I'll awa' tile morn,
An' follow Donald Hielandman,
An' carry his poother-horn."
This was my first and last vocal performance. It was received with
great applause. In fact, it was encored. The word "poother,"
which I pronounced "pootle", excited the enthusiasm of the audience.
I was then sent to bed with a bit of plum-cake, and was doubtless
awakened early next morning by the irritation of the dried crumbs of
the previous night's feast.
I am reminded, by reading over a letter of my brother Patrick's, of an
awkward circumstance that happened to me when I was six years old.
In his letter to my father, dated London, 22d September 1814, he says:
"I did get a surprise when Margaret's letter informed me of my little
brother Jamie's fall. It was a wonderful escape. For God's sake keep
an eye upon him!" Like other strong and healthy boys, I had a turn for
amusing myself in my own way. When sliding down the railing of the
stairs I lost my grip and fell suddenly over. The steps were of stone.
Fortunately, the servants were just coming up laden with carpets which
they had been beating. I fell into their midst and knocked them out of
their hands. I was thus saved from cracking my poor little skull.
But for that there might have been no steam hammer--at least of my
Everything connected with war and warlike exploits is interesting to a
boy. The war with France was then in full progress. Troops and bands
paraded the streets. Recruits were sent away as fast as they could be
drilled. The whole air was filled with war. Everybody was full of
excitement about the progress of events in Spain. When the great guns
boomed forth from the Castle, the people were first startled.
Then they were surprised and anxious. There had been a battle and a
victory! "Who had fallen?" was the first thought in many minds.
Where had the battle been, and what was the victory? Business was
suspended. People rushed about the streets to ascertain the facts.
It might have been at Salamanca, Talavera, or Vittoria. But a long
time elapsed before the details could be received; and during that time
sad suspense and anxiety prevailed in almost every household.
There was no telegraph then. It was only after the Gazette had been
published that people knew who had fallen and who had survived.
The war proceeded. The volunteering which went on at the time gave
quite a military aspect to the city. I remember how odd it appeared to
me to see some well-known faces and figures metamorphosed into soldiers
It was considered a test of loyalty as well as of patriotism, to give
time, money, and leisure to take up the arms of defence, and to
practise daily in military uniform in the Meadows or on Bruntsfield
Links. Windows were thrown up to hear the bands playing at the head of
the troops, and crowds of boys, full of military ardour, went, as usual,
hand to hand in front of the drums and fifes. The most interesting
part of the procession to my mind was the pioneers in front, with their
leather aprons, their axes and saws, and their big hairy caps and
beards. They were to me so suggestive of clearing the way through
hedges and forests, and of what war was in its actual progress.
Every victory was followed by the importation of large numbers of
French prisoners. Many of them were sent to Edinburgh Castle.
They were permitted to relieve the tedium of their confinement by
manufacturing and selling toys; workboxes, brooches, and carved work of
different kinds. In the construction of these they exhibited great
skill, taste, and judgment. They carved them out of bits of bone and
wood. The patterns were most beautiful; and they were ingeniously and
tastefully ornamented. The articles were to be had for a mere trifle,
although fit to be placed with the most choice objects of artistic
These poor prisoners of war were allowed to work at their tasteful
handicrafts in small sheds or temporary workshops at the Castle, behind
the palisades which separated them from their free customers outside.
There was just room between the bars of the palisades for them to hand
through their exquisite works, and to receive in return the modest
prices which they charged. The front of these palisades became a
favourite resort for the inhabitants of Edinburgh; and especially for
the young folks. I well remember being impressed with the contrast
between the almost savage aspect of these dark-haired foreigners,
and the neat and delicate produce of their skilful fingers.
At the peace of 1814, which followed the siege of Paris, great
rejoicings and illuminations took place, in the belief that the war was
at an end. The French prisoners were sent back to their own country,
alas! to appear again before us at Waterloo. The liberation of those
confined in Edinburgh Castle was accompanied by an extraordinary scene.
The French prisoners marched down to the transport ships at Leith by
torchlight. All the town was out to see them. They passed in military
procession through the principal streets, singing as they marched along
their revolutionary airs, "Ca lra" and "The Marseillaise." The wild
enthusiasm of these haggard-looking men, lit up by torchlight and
accompanied by the cheers of the dense crowd which lined the streets
and filled the windows, made an impression on my mind that I can never
A year passed. Napoleon returned from Elba, and was rejoined by nearly
all his old fighting-men. I well remember, young as I was, an assembly
of the inhabitants of Edinburgh in Charlotte Square, to bid farewell to
the troops and officers then in garrison. It was a fine summer
evening when this sad meeting took place. The bands were playing as
their last performance, "Go where glory waits thee!" The air brought
tears to many eyes; for many who were in the ranks might never return.
After many a hand-shaking, the troops marched to the Castle, previous
to their early embarkation for the Low Countries on the following
Then came Waterloo and the victory! The Castle guns boomed forth again;
and the streets were filled with people anxious to hear the news.
At last came the Gazette filled with the details of the killed and
wounded. Many a heart was broken, many a fireside was made desolate.
It was indeed a sad time. The terrible anxiety that pervaded so many
families; the dreadful sacrifice of lives on so many battlefields; and
the enormously increased taxation, which caused so many families to
stint themselves to even the barest necessaries of life;--such was
the inglorious side of war.
But there was also the glory, which almost compensated for the sorrow.
I cannot resist narrating the entry of the Forty-second Regiment into
Edinburgh shortly after the battle of Waterloo. The old "Black Watch"
is a regiment dear to every Scottish heart. It has fought and
struggled when resistance was almost certain death. At Quatre Bras two
flank companies were cut to pieces by Pire's cavalry. The rest of the
regiment was assailed by Reille's furious cannonade, and suffered
severely. The French were beaten back, and the remnant of the
Forty-second retired to Waterloo, where they formed part of the brigade
under Major-General Pack. At the first grand charge of the French,
Picton fell and many were killed. Then the charge of the Greys took
place, and the Highland regiments rushed forward, with cries of
"Scotland for ever!" Only a remnant of the Forty-second survived.
They were however recruited, and marched into France with the rest of
Towards the end of the year the Forty-Second returned to England,
and in the beginning of 1816 they set out on their march towards
Edinburgh. They were everywhere welcomed with enthusiasm. Crowds
turned out to meet them and cheer them. When the first division of the
regiment approached Edinburgh, almost the entire population turned out
to welcome them. At Musselburgh, six miles off; the road was thronged
with people. When the soldiers reached Piershill, two miles off, the
road was so crowded that it took them two hours to reach the Castle.
I was on a balcony in the upper part of the High Street, and my father,
mother, and sisters were with me. We had waited very long; but at last
we heard the distant sound of the cheers, which came on and on, louder
The High Street was wedged with people excited and anxious.
There seemed scarcely room for a regiment to march through them.
The house-tops and windows were crowded with spectators. It was a
grand sight. The high-gabled houses reaching as far as the eye could
see, St. Giles' with its mural crown, the Tron Kirk in the distance,
and the picturesque details of the buildings, all added to the
effectiveness of the scene.
At last the head of the gallant band appeared. The red coats gradually
wedged their way through the crowd, amidst the ringing of bells and the
cheers of the spectators. Every window was in a wave of gladness,
and every house-top was in a fever of excitement. As the red line
passed our balcony, with Colonel Dick at its head, we saw a sight that
can never be forgotten. The red-and-white plumes, the tattered colours
riddled with bullets, the glittering bayonets, were seen amidst the
crowd that thronged round the gallant heroes, amidst tears and cheers
and hand-shakings and shouts of excitement. The mass of men appeared
like a solid body moving slowly along; the soldiers being almost hidden
amongst the crowd. At last they passed, the pipers and drums playing a
Highland march; and the Forty-Second slowly entered the Castle. It was
perhaps the most extraordinary scene ever witnessed in Edinburgh.
One of my greatest enjoyments when a child was in going out with the
servants to the Calton, and wait while the "claes" bleached in the sun
on the grassy slopes of the hill. The air was bright and fresh and
pure. The lasses regarded these occasions as a sort of holiday.
One or two of the children usually accompanied them. They sat
together, and the servants told us their auld-warld stories; common
enough in those days, but which have now, in a measure, been forgotten.
"Steam" and "progress" have made the world much less youthful and
joyous than it was then.
The women brought their work and their needles with them, and when they
had told their stories, the children ran about the hill making bunches
of wild flowers--including harebells and wild thyme. They ran after
the butterflies and the bumbees, and made acquaintance in a small way
with the beauties of nature. Then the servants opened their baskets of
provisions, and we had a delightful picnic. Though I am now writing
about seventy years after the date of these events, I can almost
believe that I am enjoying the delightful perfume of the wild thyme and
the fragrant plants and flowers, wafted around me by the warm breezes
of the Calton hillside.
In the days I refer to, there was always a most cheerful and intimate
intercourse kept up between the children and the servants. They were
members of the same family, and were treated as such. The servants
were for the most part country-bred--daughters of farm servants or
small farmers. They were fairly educated at their parish schools;
they could read and write, and had an abundant store of old
recollections. Many a pleasant crack we had with them as to their
native places, their families, and all that was connected with them.
They became lastingly attached to their masters and mistresses, as well
as to the children. All this led to true attachment; and when they
left; us, for the most part to be married we continued to keep up a
correspondence with them, which lasted for many years.
While enjoying these delightful holidays, before my school-days began,
my practical education was in progress, especially in the way of
acquaintance with the habits of nature in a vast variety of its phases,
always so attractive to the minds of healthy children. It happened
that close to the Calton Hill, in the valley at its northern side,
there were many workshops where interesting trades were carried on;
there were coppersmiths, tinsmiths, brass-founders, goldbeaters, and
blacksmiths. Their shops were all arranged in a busy group at the foot
of the hill, in a place called Greenside. The workshops were open to
the inspection of passers-by. Little boys looked in and saw the men at
work amidst the blaze of fires and the beatings of hammers.
Amongst others, I was an ardent admirer. I may almost say that this
row of busy workshops was my first school of practical education.
I observed the mechanical manipulation of the men, their dexterous use
of the hammer, the chisel, and the file; and I imbibed many lessons
which afterwards proved of use to me. Then I had tools at home in my
father's workshop. I tried to follow their methods; I became greatly
interested in the use of tools and their appliances; I could make
things for myself. In short, I became so skilled that the people about
the house called me "a little Jack-of-all-trades."
While sitting on the grassy slopes of the Calton Hill I would often
hear the chimes sounding from the grand old tower of St.Giles.
The cathedral lay on the other side of the valley which divides the
Old Town from the New. The sounds came over the murmur of the traffic
in the streets below.
The chime-bells were played every day from twelve till one--the
old-fashioned dinner-hour of the citizens. The practice had been in
existence for more than a hundred and fifty years. The pleasing effect
of the merry airs, which came wafted tome by the warm summer breezes,
made me long to see them as well as hear them.
[Image] Mural crown of St Giles', Edinburgh
My father was always anxious to give pleasure to his children.
Accordingly, he took me one day, as a special treat, to the top of the
grand old tower, to see the chimes played. As we passed up the tower,
a strong vaulted room was pointed out to me, where the witches used to
be imprisoned. I was told that the poor old women were often taken
down from this dark vault to be burnt alive! Such terrible tales
enveloped the tower with a horrible fascination to my young mind.
What a fearful contrast to the merry sound of the chimes issuing from
its roof on a bright summer day.
On my way up to the top flat, where the chimes were played, I had to
pass through the vault in which the great pendulum was slowly swinging
in its ghostly-like tick-tack, tick-tack; while the great ancient clock
was keeping time with its sudden and startling movement. The whole
scene was almost as uncanny as the witches' cell underneath. There was
also a wild rumbling thumping sound overhead. I soon discovered the
cause of this, when I entered the flat where the musician was at work.
He was seen in violent action, beating or hammering on the keys of a
gigantic pianoforte-like apparatus. The instruments he used were two
great leather-faced mallets, one of which he held in each hand.
Each key was connected by iron rods with the chime-bells above.
The frantic and mad-like movements of the musician, as he energetically
rushed from one key to another, often widely apart gave me the idea
that the man was daft--especially as the noise of the mallets was
such that I heard no music emitted from the chimes so far overhead.
It was only when I had climbed up the stair of the tower to where the
bells were rung that I understood the performance, and comprehended the
beating of the chimes which gave me so much pleasure when I heard them
at a distance.
Another source of enjoyment in my early days was to accompany my mother
to the market. As I have said before, my mother, though generous in
her hospitality, was necessarily thrifty and economical in the
management of her household. There were no less than fourteen persons
in the house to be fed, and this required a good deal of marketing.
At the time I refer to, (about 1816, it was the practice of every lady
who took pride in managing economically the home department of her
husband's affairs, to go to market in person. The principal markets in
Edinburgh were then situated in the valley between the Old and New Towns,
in what used to be called the Nor Loch.
Dealers in fish and vegetables had their stalls there: the market for
butcher meat was near at hand: each being in their several locations.
It was a very lively and bustling sight to see the marketing going on.
When a lady was observed approaching, likely to be a customer, she was
at once surrounded by the "caddies." They were a set of sturdy
hard-working women, each with a creel on her back. Their competition
for the employer sometimes took a rather energetic form. The rival
candidates pointed to her with violent exclamations; "She's my ledie!
she's my ledie!" ejaculated one and all. To dispel the disorder,
a selection of one of the caddies would be made, and then all was quiet
again until another customer appeared.
There was a regular order in which the purchases were deposited in the
creel. First, there came the fish, which were carefully deposited in
the lowest part, with a clean deal board over them. The fishwives were
a most sturdy and independent class, both in manners and language.
When at home, at Newhaven or Fisherrow, they made and mended their
husbands' nets, put their fishing tackle to rights, and when the
fishing boats came in they took the fish to market at Edinburgh.
To see the groups of these hard-working women trudging along with their
heavy creels on their backs, clothed in their remarkable costume,
with their striped petticoats kilted up and showing their sturdy legs,
was indeed a remarkable sight. They were cheerful and good-natured,
but very outspoken. Their skins were clear and ruddy, and many of the
young fishwives were handsome and pretty. They were, in fact, the
incarnation of robust health. In dealing with them at the Fish Market
there was a good deal of higgling. They often asked two or three times
more than the fish were worth--at least, according to the then market
price. After a stormy night, during which the husbands and sons had
toiled to catch the fish, on the usual question being asked,
"Weel, Janet, hoo's haddies the day!" "Haddies, mem? Ou, haddies is
men's lives the day!" which was often true, as haddocks were often
caught at the risk of their husbands' lives. After the usual amount of
higgling, the haddies were brought down to their proper market price,
--sometimes a penny for a good haddock, or, when herrings were rife,
a dozen herrings for twopence, crabs for a penny, and lobsters for
threepence. For there were no railways then to convey the fish to
England, and thus equalise the price for all classes of the community.
Let me mention here a controversy between a fishwife and a buyer called
Thomson. the buyer offered a price so ridiculously small for a parcel
of fish that the seller became quite indignant, and she terminated at
once all further higgling. Looking up to him, she said, "Lord help yer
e'e-sight, Maister Tamson!" "Lord help my e'e-sight, woman! What has
that to do with it?" "Ou," said she, "because ye ha'e nae nose to put
spectacles on!" As it happened, poor Mr. Thomson had, by some accident
or disease, so little of a nose left, if any at all, that the bridge of
the nose for holding up the spectacles was almost entirely wanting.
And thus did the fishwife retaliate on her niggardly customer.
When my mother had got her fish laid at the bottom of the creel, she
next went to the "flesher" for her butcher-meat. There was no higgling
here, for the meat was sold at the ordinary market price. Then came the
poultry stratum; then the vegetables, or fruits in their season;
and, finally, there was "the floore"--a bunch of flowers;
not a costly bouquet, but a, large assortment of wallflowers, daffodils
(with their early spring fragrance), polyanthuses, lilacs, gilly-flowers,
and the glorious old-fashioned cabbage rose, as well as the even more
gloriously fragrant moss rose. The caddy's creel was then topped up,
and the marketing was completed. The lady was followed home; the
contents were placed in the larder; and the flowers distributed all
over the house.
I have many curious traditional evidences of the great fondness for
cats which distinguished the Nasmyth family for several generations.
My father had always one or two of such domestic favourites, who were,
in the best sense, his "familiars." Their quiet, companionable habits
rendered them very acceptable company when engaged in his artistic
work. I know of no sound so pleasantly tranquillising as the purring
of a cat, or of anything more worthy of admiration in animal habit as
the neat, compact, and elegant manner in which the cat adjusts itself
at the fireside, or in a snug, cosy place, when it settles down for a
long quiet sleep. Every spare moment that a cat has before lying down
to rest is occupied in carefully cleaning itself, even under adverse
circumstances. The cat is the true original inventor of a sanitary
process, which has lately been patented and paraded before the public
as a sanitary novelty; and yet it has been in practice ever since cats
were created. Would that men and women were more alive to habitual
cleanliness--even the cleanliness of cats. The kindly and gentle
animal gives us all a lesson in these respects.
Then, nothing can be more beautiful in animal action than the
exquisitely precise and graceful manner in which the cat exerts the
exact amount of effort requisite to land it at the height and spot it
wishes to reach at one bound. The neat and delicately precise manner
in which cats use their paws when playing with those who habitually
treat them with gentle kindness is truly admirable. In these respects
cats are entitled to the most kindly regard. There are, unfortunately,
many who entertain a strong prejudice against this most perfect and
beautiful member of the animal creation, and who abuse them because
they resist ill-treatment, occasioned by their innate feeling of
independence. Cats have no doubt less personal attachment than dogs,
but when kindly treated they become in many respects attached and
My father, when a boy, made occasional visits to Hamilton, in the West
of Scotland, where the descendants of his Covenanting ancestors still
lived. One of them was an old bachelor--a recluse sort of man;
and yet he had the Nasmyth love of cats. Being of pious pedigree and
habits, he always ended the day by a long and audible prayer.
My father and his companions used to go to the door of his house to
listen to him, but especially to hear his culminating finale.
He prayed that the Lord would help him to forgive his enemies and all
those who had done him injury; and then, with a loud burst, he
concluded, "Except John Anderson o' the Toonhead, for he killed my cat,
and him I'll ne'er forgie! In conclusion, I may again refer to Elspeth
Nasmyth, who was burnt alive for witchcraft, because she had four black
cats, and read her Bible through two Pairs of spectacles!
CHAPTER 5. My School-days.
Before I went to school it was my good fortune to be placed under the
special care of my eldest sister, Jane. She was twenty years older
than myself, and had acquired much practical experience in the
management of the younger members of the family. I could not have
had a more careful teacher. She initiated me into the difficulties of
A B C, and by learning me to read she gave me a key to the thoughts of
the greatest thinkers who have ever lived.
But all this was accomplished at first in a humdrum and tentative way.
About seventy years ago children's books were very uninteresting.
In the little stories manufactured for children, the good boy ended in
a Coach-and-four, and the bad boy in a ride to Tyburn. The good boys
must have been a set of little snobs and prigs, and I could scarcely
imagine that they could ever have lived as they were represented in
these goody books. If so, they must have been the most tiresome and
uninteresting vermin that can possibly be imagined. After my sister had
done what she could for me, I was sent to school to learn "English."
I was placed under the tuition of a leading teacher called Knight,
whose school-room was in the upper storey of a house in George Street.
Here I learned to read with ease. But my primitive habit of spelling
by ear, in accordance with the simple sound of the letters of the
alphabet (phonetically, so to speak) brought me into collision with my
teacher. I got many a cuff on the side of the head, and many a
"palmy" on my hands with a thick strap of hard leather, which did not
give me very inviting views as to the pleasures of learning.
The master was vicious and vindictive. I think it a cowardly way to
deal with a little boy in so cruel a manner, and to send him home with
his back and fingers tingling and sometimes bleeding, because he cannot
learn so quickly as his fellows.
On one occasion Knight got out of temper with my stupidity or dulness
in not comprehending something about 'a preter-pluperfect tense,' or
some mystery of that sort. He seized me by the ears, and beat my head
against the wall behind me with such savage violence that when he let
me go, stunned and unable to stand, I fell forward on the floor
bleeding violently at the nose, and with a terrific headache.
The wretch might have ruined my brain for life. I was carried home and
put to bed, where I lay helpless for more than a week. My father
threatened to summon the teacher before the magistrates for what might
have been a fatal assault on poor little me; but on making a humble
apology for his brutal usage he was let off. Of course I was not sent
back to his school. I have ever since entertained a hatred against
There was at that time an excellent system of teaching young folks the
value of thrift. This consisted in saving for some purpose or another
the Saturdays penny--one penny being our weekly allowance of
pocket-money. The feats we could perform in the way of procuring toys,
picture-books, or the materials for constructing flying kites, would
amaze the youngsters of the present day, who are generally spoiled by
extravagance. And yet we obtained far more pleasure from our
purchases. We had in my time "penny pigs," or thrift boxes.
They were made in a vase form, of brown glazed earthenware, the only
entrance to which was a slit--enough to give entrance to a penny.
When the Saturday's penny was not required for any immediate purposes,
it was dropped through the slit, and remained there until the box was
full. The maximum of pennies it could contain was about forty-eight.
When that was accomplished, the penny pig was broken with a hammer,
and its rich contents flowed forth. The breaking of the pig was quite
an event. The fine fat old George the Third penny pieces looked
thoroughly substantial in our eyes. And then there was the spending of
the money,--for some long-looked-for toy, or pencils, or book,
or painting materials.
One of the ways in which I used my Saturday pennies was in going with
some of my companions into the country to have a picnic. We used to
light a fire behind a hedge or a dyke, or in the corner of some ruin,
and there roast our potatoes, or broil a red herring on an extempore
gridiron we contrived for the purpose. We lit the fire by means of a
flint and steel and a tinder-box, which in those days every boy used to
possess. The bramble-berries gave us our dessert. We thoroughly
enjoyed these glorious Saturday afternoons. It gave us quite a
Robinson Crusoe sort of feeling to be thus secluded from the world.
Then the beauty of the scenery amidst which we took our repast was such
as I cannot attempt to describe. A walk of an hour or so would bring
us into the presence of an old castle, or amongst the rocky furze and
heather-clad hills, amidst clear rapid streams, so that, but for the
distant peeps of the city, one might think that he was far from the
busy haunts of men and boys.
To return to my school-days. Shortly after I left the school in
George Street, where the schoolmaster had almost split my skull in
battering it upon the wall behind me, I was entered as a pupil at the
Edinburgh High School, in October 1817. The school was situated near
the old Infirmary. Professor Pillans was the rector, and under him
were four masters. I was set to study Latin under Mr. Irvine. He was
a mere schoolmaster in the narrowest sense of the term. He was not
endowed with the best of tempers, and it was often put to the
breaking strain by the tricks and negligence of the lower-form
portion of his class. It consisted of nearly two hundred boys;
the other three masters had about the same number of scholars.
They each had a separate class-room.
I began to learn the elementary rudiments of Latin grammar. But not
having any natural aptitude for aquiring classic learning so called,
I fear I made but little progress during the three years that I
remained at the High School. Had the master explained to us how
nearly allied many of the Latin and Greek roots were to our familiar
English words, I feel assured that so interesting and valuable a
department of instruction would not have been neglected. But our
memories were strained by being made to say off "by heart," as it was
absurdly called, whole batches of grammatical rules, with all the
botheration of irregular verbs and suchlike. So far as I was
concerned, I derived little benefit from my High School teaching,
except that I derived one lesson which is of great use in after life.
I mean as regards the performance of duty. I did my tasks punctually
and cheerfully, though they were far from agreeable. This is an
exercise in early life that is very useful in later years.
In my walks to and from the High School, the usual way was along the
North and South Bridges,--the first over the Nor' Loch, now the
railway station, and the second over the Cowgate. That was the main
street between the Old Town and the New. But there were numerous
wynds and closes (as the narrow streets are called) which led down
from the High Street and the upper part of the Canongate to the High
School, through which I often preferred to wander. So long as Old
Edinburgh was confined within its walls the nobles lived in those
narrow streets; and the Old houses are full of historical incident.
My father often pointed out these houses to me, and I loved to keep
up my recollections. I must have had a little of the antiquarian
spirit even then. I got to know the most remarkable of those ancient
houses--many of which were distinguished by the inscriptions on the
lintel of the entrance, as well as the arms of the former possessors.
Some had mottoes such as this: "BLESIT BE GOD AND HYS GIFTIS. 1584."
There was often a tower-shaped projection from the main front of the
house, up which a spiral stair proceeded.
This is usually a feature in old Scotch buildings. But in these closes
the entrance to the houses was through a ponderous door, studded with
great broad-headed nails, with loopholes at each side of the door,
as if to present the strongest possible resistance to any attempt at
forcible entrance. Indeed, in the old times before the Union the
nobles were often as strong as the King, and many a time the High Street
was reddened by the blood of the noblest and bravest of the land.
In 1588 there was a cry of "A Naesmyth," "A Scott," in the High Street.
It was followed by a clash of arms, and two of Sir Michael Naesmyth's
sons were killed in that bloody feud. Edinburgh was often the scene of
such disasters. Hence the strengthening of their houses, so as to
resist the inroads of feudal enemies.
[Image] Doorhead, from an old mansion
The mason-work of the doors was executed with great care and dexterity.
It was chamfered at the edges in a bold manner, and ornamented with an
O.G. bordering, which had a fine effect while it rendered the entrance
more pleasant by the absence of sharp angles. The same style of
ornamentation was generally found round the edges of the stone-work of
the windows, most commonly by chamfering off the square angle of the
stone-work. This not only added a grim grace to the appearance of the
windows, but allowed a more free entrance of light into the apartments,
while it permitted the inmates to have a better ranged view up and down
the Close. These gloomy-looking mansions were grim in a terrible
sense, and they reminded one of the fearful transactions of
"the good old times!"
On many occasions, when I was taking a daunder through these historic
houses in the wynds and closes of the Old Town, I have met Sir Walter
Scott showing them to his visitors, and listened to his deep, earnest
voice while narrating to them some terrible incident in regard to their
former inhabitants. On other occasions I have frequently met Sir Walter
sturdily limping along over the North Bridge, while on his way from the
Court of Session (where he acted as Clerk of the Records) to his house
in Castle Street. In the same way I saw most of the public characters
connected with the Law Courts or the University. Sir Waiter was easily
distinguished by his height, as well as his limp or halt in his walk.
My father was intimate with most, if not all, of the remarkable
Edinburgh characters, and when I had the pleasure of accompanying him
in his afternoon walks I could look at them and hear them in the
conversations that took place.
I remember, when I was with my father in one of his walks, that a
young English artist accompanied us. He had come across the Border to
be married at Gretna Green, and he brought his bride onward to
Edinburgh. My father wished to show him some of the most remarkable
old buildings of the town. It was about the end of 1817, when one of
the most interesting buildings in Edinburgh was about to be
demolished. This was no less a place than the Old Tolbooth in the
High Street,--a grand but gloomy old building. It had been
originally used as the city palace of the Scottish kings. There they
held their councils and dispensed justice. But in course of time the
King and Court abandoned the place, and it had sunk into a gaol or
prison for the most abandoned of malefactors. After their trial the
prisoners were kept there waiting for execution, and they were hanged
on a flat-roofed portion of the building at its west end.
[Image] The Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh. By Alexander Nasmyth.
From the drawing in the possession of lord Inglis,
At one of the strongest parts of the building a strong oak chest,
iron-plated, had been built in, held fast by a thick wall of stone and
mortar on each side. The iron chest measured about nine feet square,
and was closed by a strong iron door with heavy bolts and locks. This
was the Heart of Midlothian, the condemned cell of the Tolbooth.*
Long after the condemned cell had been pulled down, an English Chartist
went down to Edinburgh to address a large meeting of his brother
politicians. He began by addressing them as "Men of the Heart of
Midlothian!" There was a loud guffaw throughout the audience.
He addressed them as if they were a body of condemned malefactors.
The iron chest was so heavy that the large body of workmen could not,
with all their might, pull it out. After stripping it of its masonry,
they endeavoured by strong levers to tumble it down into the street.
At last, with a "Yo! heave ho!" it fell down with a mighty crash.
The iron chest was so strong that it held together, and only the narrow
iron door, with its locks, bolts, and bars, was burst open, and jerked
off amongst the bystanders.
It was quite a scene. A large crowd had assembled, and amongst them
was Sir Walter Scott. Recognising my father, he stood by him,
while both awaited the ponderous crash. Sir Walter was still the Great
Unknown. When his Heart of Midlothian was published in the course of
the following year, it was pretty well known that he was the author of
that fascinating novel. Sir Waiter got the door and the key, as
relics, for his house at Abbotsford.
There was a rush of people towards the iron chest to look into the dark
interior of that veritable chamber of horrors. My father's artist
friend went forward with the rest, and endeavoured to pick up some
remnant of the demolished structure. As soon as the clouds of dust had
been dispersed, he observed, under the place where the iron box had
stood, a number of skeletons of rats, as dry as mummies. He selected
one of these,*
I was so much impressed with the events of the day, and also with the
fact of the young artist having taken with him so repulsive a memento
as a rat's skeleton, that I never forgot it. More than half century
later, when I was at a private view of the Royal Academy, I saw sitting
on one of the sofas a remarkable and venerable-looking old gentleman.
On inquiring of my friend Thomas Webster who he was, he answered,
"Why, that's old Linnell!" I then took the liberty of sitting down
beside him, and, apologising for my intrusion on his notice, I said it
was just fifty-seven years since I had last seen him! I mentioned the
circumstance of the rat-skeleton which he had put in his pocket at
Edinburgh. He was pleased and astonished to have the facts so vividly
recalled to his mind. At last he said, "Well, I have that mummy rat,
the relic of the Heart of Midlothian, safe in a cabinet of curiosities
in my house at Redhill to this day."
wrapped it in a newspaper and put it in his pocket as a recollection
of his first day in Edinburgh, and of the final destruction of the
"Heart of Midlothian." This artist was no other than John Linnell,
the afterwards famous landscape painter. He was then a young and
unknown man. He brought a letter of introduction to my father.
He also brought a landscape as a specimen of his young efforts, and it
was so splendidly done that my father augured a brilliant career for
this admirable artist.
I had the pleasure of seeing Sir Waiter Scott on another and, to me, a
very memorable occasion. From an early period of my schoolboy days I
had a great regard for every object that had reference to bygone times.
They influenced my imagination, and conjured up in my mind dreamy
visions of the people of olden days. It did not matter whether it was
an old coin or an old castle. took pleasure in rambling about the old
castles near Edinburgh, many of them connected with the times of Mary
Queen of Scots. Craigmillar Castle was within a few miles of the city;
there was also Crighton Castle, and above all Borthwick Castle.
This grand massive old ruin left a deep impression on my mind.
The sight of its gloomy interior, with the great hall lighted up only
by stray glints of sunshine, as if struggling for access through the
small deep-seated windows in its massive walls, together with its
connection with the life and times of Queen Mary, had a far greater
influence upon my mind than I experienced while standing amidst the
Coliseum at Rome.
Like many earnest-minded boys, I had a severe attack at the right time
of life, say from 12 to 15, of what I would call "the collecting period."
This consisted, in my case, of accumulating old coins, perhaps one of
the most salutary forms of this youthful passion. I made exchanges
with my school companions. Sometimes my father's friends, seeing my
anxiety to improve my collection gave me choice specimens of bronze and
other coins of the Roman emperors, usually duplicates from their own
These coins had the effect of promoting my knowledge of Roman history.
I read up in order to find out the acts and deeds of the old rulers of
the civilised world. Besides collecting the coins, I used to make
careful drawings of the obverse and reverse faces of each in an
illustrated catalogue which I kept in my little coin cabinet.
I remember one day, when sitting beside my father making a very careful
drawing of a fine bronze coin of Augustus, that Sir Walter Scott
entered the room. He frequently called upon my father in order to
consult him with respect to his architectural arrangements. Sir Walter
caught sight of me, and came forward to look over the work I was
engaged in. At his request I had the pleasure of showing him my little
store of coin treasures, after which he took out of his waistcoat
pocket a beautiful silver coin of the reign of Mary Queen of Scots,
and gave it to me as being his "young brother antiquarian." I shall
never forget the kind fatherly way in which he presented it.
I considered it a great honour to be spoken to in so friendly a way by
such a man; besides, it vastly enriched my little collection of coins
It was in the year 1817 that I had the pleasure, never to be forgotten,
of seeing the great engineer, James Watt. He was then close upon his
eighty-second year. His visit to Edinburgh was welcomed by the most
distinguished scientific and literary men of the city. My father had
the honour of meeting him at a dinner given by the Earl of Buchan,
at his residence in George Street. There were present, Sir James Hall,
President of the Royal Society; Francis Jeffrey, Editor of the
Edinburgh Review; Walter Scott, still the Great Unknown; and many other
distinguished notabilities. The cheerful old man delighted them with
his kindly talk, as well as astonished them with the extent and
profundity of his information.
On the following day Mr. Watt paid my father a visit he carefully
examined his artistic and other works. Having inspected with great
pleasure some landscape paintings of various scenes in Scotland
executed by my sisters, who were then highly efficient artists,
he purchased a specimen of each, as well as three landscapes painted by
my father, as a record of his pleasant visit to the capital of his
native country. I well remember the sight I then got of the Great
Engineer. I had just returned from the High School when he was leaving
my father's house. It was but a glimpse I had of him. But his
benevolent countenance and his tall but bent figure made an impression
on my mind that I can never forget. It was even something to have seen
for a few seconds so truly great and noble a man.
I did not long continue my passion for the collection of coins, I felt
a greater interest in mechanical pursuits. I have a most cherished and
grateful remembrance of the happy hours and days that I spent in my
father's workroom. When the weather was cold or wet ,he took refuge
with his lathe and tools, and there I followed and watched him.
He took the greatest pleasure in instructing me. Even in the most
humble mechanical job he was sure to direct my attention to the action
of the tools and to the construction of the work he had in hand,
and pointed out the manipulative processes requisite for its being
effectually carried out. My hearty zeal in assisting him was well
rewarded by his implanting in my mind the great fundamental principles
on which the practice of engineering in its grandest forms is based.
But I did not learn this all at once. It came only gradually, and by
dint of constant repetition and inculcation. In the meantime I made a
beginning by doing some little mechanical work on my own account.
While attending the High School, from 1817 to 1820, there was the usual
rage amongst boys for spinning-tops, "peeries," and "young cannon."
By means of my father's excellent foot-lathe I turned out the
spinning-tops in capital style, so much so that I be came quite noted
amongst my school companions. They all wanted to have specimens of my
productions. They would give any price for them. The peeries were
turned with perfect accuracy, and the steel shod, or spinning pivot,
was centred so as to correspond exactly with the axis of the top.
They could spin twice as long as the bought peeries. When at full
speed they would "sleep," that is, revolve without the slightest
waving. This was considered high art as regarded top-spinning.
Flying-kites and tissue paper balloons were articles that I was
somewhat famed for producing. There was a good deal of special skill
required for the production of a flying-kite. It must be perfectly
still and steady when at its highest flight in the air.
Paper messengers were sent up to it along the string which held it to
the ground. The top of the Calton Hill was the most favourite place
for enjoying this pleasant amusement.
Another article for which I became equally famous was the manufacture
of small brass cannon. These I cast and bored, and mounted on their
appropriate gun-carriages. They proved very effective, especially in
the loudness of the report when fired. I also converted large
cellar-keys into a sort of hand-cannon. A touch-hole was bored into
the barrel of the key, with a sliding brass collar that allowed the
key-guns to be loaded and primed and ready for firing. The principal
occasion on which the brass cannon and hand-guns were used was on the
4th of June--King George the Thirds birthday. This was always
celebrated with exuberant and noisy loyalty. The guns of the Castle
were fired at noon, and the number of shots corresponded with the
number of years that the king had reigned. The grand old Castle was
enveloped in smoke, and the discharges reverberated along the streets
and among the surrounding hills. Everything was in holiday order.
The coaches were hung with garlands, the shops were ornamented,
the troops were reviewed on Bruntsfield Links, and the citizens drank
the king's health at the Gross, throwing the glasses over their
shoulders. The boys fired off gunpowder, or threw squibs or crackers
from morning till night. It was one of the greatest schoolboy events
of the year. My little brass cannon and hand-guns were very busy
during that day. They were fired until they became quite hot.
These were the pre-lucifer days. The fire to light the powder at the
touch-hole was obtained by the use of a flint, a steel, and a tinder-box.
The flint was struck sharply on the steel; a spark of fire fell into
the tinderbox, and the match of hemp string, soaked in saltpetre,
was readily lit, and fired off the little guns.
I carried on quite a trade in forging beautiful little steels.
I forged them out of old files, which proved excellent material for the
purpose. I filed them up into neat and correct forms, and then
hardened and tempered them, secundum artem, at the little furnace stove
in my father's workroom, where of course there were also a suitable
anvil, hammer, and tongs. I often made potent use of these steels in
escaping from the ordeal of some severe task imposed upon me at school.
The schoolmaster often deputed his authority to the monitors to hear us
say our lessons. But when I slyly exhibited a beautiful steel the
monitor could not maintain his grim sense of duty, and he often let me
escape the ordeal of repeating some passage from a Latin school-book by
obtaining possession of the article. I thus bought myself off.
This system of bribery and corruption was no doubt shockingly improper,
but as I was not naturally endowed with the taste for learning Latin
and Greek, I continued my little diplomatic tricks until I left school.
As I have said, I did not learn much at the High School. My mind was
never opened up by what was taught me there. It was a mere matter of
rote and cram. I learnt by heart a number of Latin rules and phrases,
but what I learnt soon slipped from my memory. My young mind was
tormented by the tasks set before me. At the same time my hungry mind
thirsted for knowledge of another kind.
There was one thing, however, that I did learn at the High School. That
was the blessings and advantages of friendship. There were several of
my schoolfellows of a like disposition with myself, with whom I formed
attachments which ended only with life. I may mention two of them in
particular--Jemmy Patterson and Tom Smith. The former was the son of
one of the largest iron founders in Edinburgh. He was kind, good, and
intelligent. He and I were great cronies. He took me to his father's
workshops. Nothing could have been more agreeable to my tastes.
For there I saw how iron castings were made. Mill-work and
steam-engines were repaired there, and I could see the way in which
power was produced and communicated. To me it was a most instructive
school of practical mechanics. Although I was only about thirteen at
the time, I used to "lend a hand," in which hearty zeal made up for
want of strength. I look back to these days, especially to the
Saturday afternoons spent in the workshops of this admirably conducted
iron foundry, as a most important part of my education as a mechanical
engineer. I did not read about such things; for words were of little
use. But I saw and handled, and thus all the ideas in connection with
them became permanently rooted in my mind.
Each department of the iron foundry was superintended by an able and
intelligent man, who was distinguished not only by his ability but
for his steadiness and sobriety. The men were for the most part
promoted to their fore-manship from the ranks, and had been brought
up in the workshop from their boyhood. They possessed a strong
individuality of character, and served their employer faithfully and
loyally. One of these excellent men, with whom I was frequently
brought into contact, was William Watson. He took special charge of
all that related to the construction and repairs of steam-engines,
water-wheels, and mill-work generally. He was a skilful designer and
draughtsman, and an excellent pattern maker. His designs were drawn
in a bold and distinct style, on large deal boards, and were passed
into the hands of the mechanics to be translated by them into actual
work. It was no small privilege to me to stand by, and now and then
hold the end of the long straight edge, or by some humble but zealous
genuine help of mine contribute to the progress of these substantial
and most effective mechanical drawings. Watson explained to me,
in the most common-sense manner, his reasons for the various forms,
arrangements, and proportions of the details of his designs. He was
an enthusiast on the subject of Euclid; and to see the beautiful
problems applied by him in working out his excellent drawings was to me
a lesson beyond all price.
Watson was effectively assisted by his two sons, who carried out their
father's designs in constructing the wood patterns after which the
foundry-men or moulders reproduced their forms in cast iron, while the
smiths by their craft realised the wrought-iron portions. Those sons of
Mr. Watson were of that special class of workmen called millwrights--
a class now almost extinct, though many of the best known engineers
originally belonged to them. They could work with equal effectiveness
in wood or iron.
Another foreman in Mr. Patterson's foundry was called Lewis. He had
special charge of the iron castings designed for architectural and
ornamental purposes. He was a man of great taste and artistic
feeling, and I was able even at that time to appreciate the beauty of
his designs. One of the most original characters about the foundry,
however, was Johnie Syme. He took charge of the old Boulton and Watt
steam-engine, which gave motion to the machinery of the works.
It also produced the blast for the Cupolas, in which the pig and cast
iron scrap was daily melted and cast into the various objects produced
in the foundry. Johnie was a complete incarnation of technical
knowledge. He was the Jack-of-all-trades of the establishment;
and the standing counsel in every out-of-the-way case of managing and
overcoming mechanical difficulties. He was the superintendent of the
boring machines. In those days the boring of a steam-engine cylinder
was considered high art in excelsis! Patterson's firm was celebrated
for the accuracy of its boring.
I owe Johnie Syme a special debt of gratitude, as it was he who first
initiated me into that most important of all technical processes in
practical mechanism--the art of hardening and temperinq steel.
It is, perhaps, not saying too much to assert that the successful
practice of the mechanical arts, by means of which man rises from the
savage to the civilised state, is due to that wonderful change.
Man began with wood, and stone, and bone; he proceeded to bronze and
iron; but it was only by means of hardened steel that he could
accomplish anything in arms, in agriculture, or in architecture.
The instant hardening which occurs on plunging a red-hot piece of steel
into cold water may well be described as mysterious. Even in these
days, when science has defined the causes of so many phenomena,
the reason of steel becoming hard on suddenly cooling it down from a
red-heat, is a fact that no one has yet explained. The steel may be
tempered by modifying the degree of heat to which it is afterwards
subjected. It may thus be toughened by slightly reheating the hardened
steel; the resoftening course is indicated by certain prismatic tints,
which appear in a peculiar order of succession on its surface.
The skilful artisan thus knows by experience the exact point at which
it is necessary again to plunge it into cold water in order to secure
the requisite combination of toughness and hardness to the steel
required for his purposes.
In all these matters, my early instructor, Johnie Syme, gave me such
information as proved of the greatest use to me in the after progress
of my mechanical career. Johnie Syme was also the very incarnation of
quaint sly humour; and when communicating some of his most valued
arcana of practical mechanical knowledge he always reminded me of some
of Ostade's Dutchmen, by an almost indescribable sly humorous twinkle
of the eye, which in that droll way stamped his information on my
Tom Smith was another of my attached cronies. Our friendship began at
the High School in 1818. Our similarity of disposition bound us
together. Smith was the son of an enterprising general merchant at
Leith. His father had a special genius for practical chemistry.
He had established an extensive colour manufactory at Portobello, near
Edinburgh, where he produced white lead, red lead, and a great variety
of colours--in the preparation of which he required a thorough
knowledge of chemistry.Tom Smith inherited his father's tastes, and
admitted me to share in his experiments, which were carried on in a
chemical laboratory situated behind his father's house at the bottom of
We had a special means of communication. When anything particular was
going on at the laboratory, Tom hoisted a white flag on the top of a
high pole in his father's garden. Though I was more than a mile apart,
I kept a look-out in the direction of the laboratory with a spy-glass.
My father's house was at the top of Leith Walk, and Smith's house was
at the bottom of it. When the flag was hoisted I could clearly see the
invitation to me to "come down." I was only too glad to run down the
Walk and join my chum, and take part with him in some interesting
chemical process. Mr. Smith, the father, made me heartily welcome.
He was pleased to see his son so much attached to me, and he perhaps
believed that I was worthy of his friendship. We took zealous part in
all the chemical proceedings, and in that way Tom was fitting himself
for the business of his life.
Mr. Smith was a most genial tempered man. He was shrewd and
quick-witted, like a native of York, as he was. I received the
greatest kindness from him as well as from his family. His house was
like a museum. It was full of cabinets, in which were placed choice
and interesting objects in natural history, geology, mineralogy, and
metallurgy. All were represented. Many of these specimens had been
brought to him from abroad by his ship captains who transported his
colour manufactures and other commodities to foreign parts.
My friend Tom Smith and I made it a rule--and in this we were
encouraged by his father--that, so far as was possible, we ourselves
should actually make the acids and other substances used in our
experiments. We were not to buy them ready made, as this would have
taken the zest out of our enjoyment. We should have lost the pleasure
and instruction of producing them by aid of our own wits and energies.
To encounter and overcome a difficulty is the most interesting of all
things. Hence, though often baffled, we eventually produced perfect
specimens of nitrous, nitric, and muriatic acids. We distilled alcohol
from duly fermented sugar and water, and rectified the resultant spirit
from fusel oil by passing the alcoholic vapour through animal charcoal
before it entered the worm of the still. We converted part of the
alcohol into sulphuric ether. We produced phosphorus from bones,
and elaborated many of the mysteries of chemistry.
The amount of practical information which we obtained by this system of
making our own chemical agents was such as to reward us, in many
respects, for the labour we underwent. To outsiders it might appear a
very troublesome and roundabout way of getting at the finally desired
result. But I feel certain that there is no better method of rooting
chemical or any other instruction, deeply in our minds. Indeed, I
regret that the same system is not pursued by young men of the present
day. They are seldom, if ever, called upon to exert their own wits and
industry to obtain the requisites for their instruction. A great deal
is now said about "technical education"; but how little there is of
technical handiness or head work! Everything is bought ready made to
their hands; and hence there is no call for individual ingenuity.
I often observe, in shop-windows, every detail of model ships and model
steam-engines, supplied ready made for those who are "said to be" of an
ingenious and mechanical turn. Thus the vital uses of resourcefulness
are done away with, and a sham exhibition of mechanical genius is
paraded before you by the young impostors--the result, for the most
part, of too free a supply of pocket money. I have known too many
instances of parents, led by such false evidence of constructive skill,
apprenticing their sons to some engineering firm; and, after paying
vast sums, finding out that the pretender comes out of the engineering
shop with no other practical accomplishment than that of cigar-smoking!
The truth is that the eyes and the fingers--the bare fingers--are
the two principal inlets to sound practical instruction. They are the
chief sources of trustworthy knowledge as to all the materials and
operations which the engineer has to deal with, No book knowledge can
avail for that purpose. The nature and properties of the materials
must come in through the finger ends. Hence, I have no faith in young
engineers who are addicted to wearing gloves. Gloves, especially kid
gloves, are perfect non-conductors of technical knowledge.
This has really more to do with the efficiency of young aspirants for
engineering success than most people are aware of!
CHAPTER 6. Mechanical Beginnings.
I left the High School at the end of 1820. I carried with me a small
amount of Latin, and no Greek. I do not think I was much the better
for my small acquaintance with the dead languages. I wanted something
more living and quickening. I continued my studies at private classes.
Arithmetic and geometry were my favourite branches.The three first
books of Euclid were to me a new intellectual life. They brought out
my power of reasoning. They trained me mentally. They enabled me to
arrive at correct conclusions, and to acquire a knowledge of absolute
truths. It is because of this that I have ever since held the
beautifully perfect method of reasoning, as exhibited in the exact
method of arriving at Q.E.D., to be one of the most satisfactory
efforts and exercises of the human intellect.
Besides visiting and taking part in the works at Patterson's foundry,
and joining in the chemical experiments at Smith's laboratory, my
father gave me every opportunity for practising the art of drawing.
He taught me to sketch with exactness every object, whether natural or
artificial, so as to enable the hand to accurately reproduce what the
eye had seen. In order to acquire this almost invaluable art, which
can serve so many valuable purposes in life, he was careful to educate
my eye, so that I might perceive the relative proportions of the
objects placed before me. He would throw down at random a number of
bricks, or pieces of wood representing them, and set me to copy their
forms, their proportions, their lights and shadows respectively.
I have often heard him say that any one who could make a correct
drawing in regard to outline, and also indicate by a few effective
touches the variation of lights and shadows of such a group of model
object's, might not despair of making a good and correct sketch of the
exterior of York Minster!
My father was an enthusiast in praise of this graphic language,
and I have followed his example. In fact, it formed a principal part
of my own education. It gave me the power of recording observations
with a few graphic strokes of the pencil, which far surpassed in
expression any number of mere words. This graphic eloquence is one
of the highest gifts in conveying clear and correct ideas as to the
forms of objects--whether they be those of a simple and familiar
kind, or of some form of mechanical construction, or of the details of
fine building, or the characteristic features of a wide-stretching
landscape. This accomplishment of accurate drawing, which I achieved
for the most part in my father's work-room, served me many a good turn
in future years with reference to the engineering work which became the
business of my life.
I was constantly busy. Mind, hands, and body were kept in a state of
delightful and instructive activity. When not drawing, I occupied
myself in my father's workshop at the lathe, the furnace, or the bench.
I gradually became initiated into every variety of mechanical and
chemical manipulation. I made my own tools and constructed my chemical
apparatus, as far as lay in my power. With respect to the latter,
I constructed a very handy and effective blowpipe apparatus, consisting
of a small air force-pump, connected with a cylindrical vessel of tin
plate. By means of an occasional use of the handy pump, it yielded
such a fine steady blowpipe blast, as enabled me to bend glass tubes
and blow bulbs for thermometers, to analyse metals or mineral substances,
or to do any other work for which intense heat was necessary.
My natural aptitude for manipulation, whether in mechanical or chemical
operations, proved very serviceable to myself as well as to others;
and (as will be shown hereafter) it gained for me the friendship of
many distinguished scientific men.
But I did not devote myself altogether to experiments. Exercise is
as necessary for the body as the mind. Without full health a man
cannot enjoy comfort, nor can he possess endurance. I therefore took
plenty of exercise out of doors. I accompanied my father in his walks
round Edinburgh. My intellect was kept alive during these delightful
excursions. For sometimes my father was accompanied by brother-artists,
whose conversation is always so attractive; and sometimes by scientific
men, such as Sir James Hall, Professor Leslie, Dr. Brewster, and others.
Whatever may have been my opportunities for education so-called,
nothing could have better served the purpose of real education
(the evolution of the mental faculties) than the opportunities I
enjoyed while accompanying and listening to the conversation of men
distinguished for their originality of thought and their high
intellectual capacity. This was a mental culture of the best kind.
The volcanic origin of the beautiful scenery round Edinburgh was often
the subject of their conversation. Probably few visitors are aware
that all those remarkable eminences, which give to the city and its
surroundings so peculiar and romantic an aspect, are the results of the
operation, during inconceivably remote ages, of volcanic force
penetrating the earth's crust by disruptive power, and pouring forth
streams of molten lava, now shrunk and cooled into volcanic rock.
The observant eye, opened by the light of Science, can see unmistakable
evidences of a condition of things which were in action at periods so
remote as, in comparison, to shrink up the oldest of human records into
events of yesterday.
I had often the privilege of standing by and hearing the philosophic
Leslie, Brewster, and Hall, discussing these volcanic remains in their
actual presence; sometimes at Arthur's Seat or on the Calton Hill,
or at the rock on which Edinburgh Castle stands, Their observations
sank indelibly into my memory, and gave me the key to the origin of
this grand class of terrestrial phenomena. When standing at the
"Giant's Ribs," on the south side of Arthur's Seat, I felt as if one
of the grandest pages of the earth's history lay open before me.
The evidences of similar volcanic action abound in many other places
near Edinburgh; and they may be traced right across Scotland from the
Bass Rock to Fingal's Cave, the Giant's Causeway in Antrim, and Slievh
League on the south-west coast of Donegal in Ireland.
Volcanic action, in some inconceivably remote period of the earth's
crust history, has been the Plough, and after denudation by water,
has been the Harrow, by which the originally deep-seated mineral
treasures of the globe have been brought within the reach of man's
industrial efforts. It has thus yielded him inexhaustible mineral
harvests, and helped him to some of the most important material
elements in his progress towards civilisation. It is from this
consideration that, while enjoying the results of these grand
fundamental actions of the Creator's mighty agencies in their
picturesque aspect, the knowledge of their useful results to man adds
vastly to the grandeur of the contemplation of their aspect and nature.
This great subject caused me, even at this early period of my life, to
behold with special interest the first peep at the structure of the
moon's surface, as revealed to me by an excellent Ramsden "spy-glass,"
which my father possessed, and thus planted the seed of that earnest
desire to scrutinise more minutely the moon's wonderful surface, which
in after years I pursued by means of the powerful reflecting telescopes
constructed by myself.
To turn to another subject. In 1822 the loyalty of Scotland was
greatly excited when George the Fourth paid his well-known visit to
Edinburgh. It was then the second greatest city in the kingdom,
and had not been visited by royalty for about 170 years. The civic
authorities, and the inhabitants generally, exerted themselves to the
utmost to give the king a cordial welcome, in spite of a certain
feeling of dissatisfaction as to his personal character. The recent
trial and death of Queen Caroline had not been forgotten, yet all such
recollections were suppressed in the earnest desire to show every
respect to the royal visitor. Edinburgh was crowded with people from
all parts of the country; heather was arrayed on every bonnet and hat;
and the reception was on the whole magnificent. Perhaps the most
impressive spectacle was the orderliness of the multitude, all arrayed
in their Sunday clothes. The streets, windows; and house-tops were
crowded; and the Calton Hill, Salisbury Crags, and even Arthur's Seat
it self, were covered with people. On the night before the arrival a
gigantic bonfire on Arthur's Seat lit up with a tremendous blaze the
whole city, as well as the surrounding country. It formed a
magnificent and picturesque sight, illuminating the adjacent mountains
as well as the prominent features of the city. It made one imagine
that the grand old volcanic mountain had once more, after a rest of
some hundreds of thousands of years, burst out again in its former
vehemence of eruptive activity.
There were, of course, many very distinguished men who took part in the
pageant of the king's entry into Edinburgh, but none of them had their
presence more cordially acknowledged than Sir Walter Scott, who never
felt more proud of "his own romantic town" than he did upon this
occasion. It is unnecessary to mention the many interesting features
of the royal reception. The king's visit lasted for seven or eight
days, and everything passed off loyally, orderly, happily,
Shortly after this time there was a great deal of distress among the
labouring classes. All the manufacturing towns were short of
employment, and the weavers and factory workers were thrown upon the
public. Many of the workmen thought that politics were the causes of
their suffering. Radical clubs were formed, and the Glasgow weavers
began to drill at nights in the hopes of setting things to rights by
means of physical force. A large number of the starving weavers came
to Edinburgh. A committee was formed, and contributions were
collected, for the purpose of giving them temporary employment.
They were set to work to make roads and walks round the Calton Hill and
Crags. The fine walk immediately under the precipitous crags, which
opens out such perfect panoramic views of Edinburgh, was made by these
poor fellows. It was hard work for their delicate hands and fingers,
which before had been accustomed only to deal with threads and soft
fabrics. They were very badly suited for handling the mattock, shovel,
and hand-barrow. The result of their labours, however, proved of great
advantage to Edinburgh in opening up the beauties of its scenery.
The road round the crags is still called "The Radical Road."
Let me here mention one of the most memorable incidents of the year
1824. I refer to the destructive fire which took place in the old town
of Edinburgh. It broke out in an apartment situated in one of the
highest piles of houses in the High Street. In spite of every effort
of the firemen the entire pile was gutted and destroyed. The fire was
thought to be effectually arrested; but towards the afternoon of the
next day smoke was observed issuing from the upper part of the steeple
of the Tron Church. The steeple was built of timber, covered with
lead. There is never smoke but there is fire; and at last the flames
burst forth. The height of the spire was so lofty that all attempts to
extinguish the fire were hopeless. The lead was soon melted, and
rushed in streams into the street below. At length the whole steeple
fell down with a frightful crash.
I happened to see the first outbreak of this extraordinary fire, and I
watched its progress to its close. Burning embers were carried by the
wind and communicated the fire to neighbouring houses. The last
outburst took place one night about ten. All the fire-engines of
Edinburgh and the neighbourhood were collected round the buildings,
and played water upon the flames, but without effect. Whole ranges of
lofty old houses were roaring with fire. In the course of two or three
hours, several acres, covered by the loftiest and most densely crowded
houses in the High Street, were in a blaze. Some of them were of
thirteen stories. Floor after floor came crashing down, throwing out a
blaze of embers. The walls of each house acted as an enormous chimney
--the windows acting as draught-holes. The walls, under the intense
heat, were fluxed and melted into a sort of glass. The only method of
stopping the progress of the fire was to pull down the neighbouring
houses, so as to isolate the remaining parts of the High Street.
As the parapet of the grand old tower of the High Church, St. Giles,
was near the site of the fire,--so near as to enable one to look down
into it,--my father obtained permission to ascend, and I with him.
When we emerged from the long dark spiral stairs on to the platform on
the top of the tower, we found a select party of the most distinguished
inhabitants looking down into the vast area of fire; and prominent
among them was Sir Walter Scott. At last, after three days of
tremendous efforts, the fire was subdued; but not till after a terrible
destruction of property. The great height of the ruined remains of the
piles of houses rendered it impossible to have them removed by the
ordinary means. After several fruitless attempts with chains and
ropes, worked by capstans, to pull them down, gunpowder was at last
resorted to. Mines were dug under each vast pile; one or two barrels
of gunpowder were placed into them and fired; and then the before solid
masses came tumbling down amidst clouds of dust. The management of
this hazardous but eventually safe process was conducted by Captain
Basil Ball. He ordered a crew of sailors to be brought up from the
man-of-war guardship in the Firth of Forth; and by their united efforts
the destruction of the ruined walls was at last successfully
In the autumn of 1823, when I was fifteen years old, I had a most
delightful journey with my father. It was the first occasion on which
I had been a considerable distance from home. And yet the journey was
only to Stirling. My father had received a commission to paint a view
of the castle as seen from the ruins of Cambuskenneth Abbey, situated a
few miles from the town. We started from Newhaven by a small steamboat,
passing, on our way up the Firth, Queensferry, Culross, and Alloa.
We then entered the windings of the river, from which I saw the Ochils,
a noble range of bright green mountains. The passage of the steamer
through the turns and windings of the Forth was most interesting.
We arrived at Stirling, and at once proceeded to Cambuskenneth Abbey,
where there was a noble old Gothic tower. This formed the foreground
of my father's careful sketch, with Stirling Castle in the background,
and Ben Lomond with many other of the Highland mountains in the
distance. As my father wished to make a model of the Gothic tower,
he desired me to draw it carefully, and to take the dimensions of all
the chief parts as well as to make detailed sketches of its minor
architectural features. It was a delightful autumn afternoon, and,
before the day had closed, our work at the abbey was done. We returned
to Stirling and took a walk round the castle to see the effect of the
sun setting behind the Highland mountains.
Next morning we visited the castle. I was much interested with the
interior, especially with a beautifully decorated Gothic oratory or
private chapel, used by the Scottish kings when they resided at
Stirling. The oratory had been converted with great taste into an
ante-drawingroom of the governor's house. The exquisite decorations of
This exquisite specimen of a carved oak Gothic apartment had a terrible
incident in Scottish history connected with it. It was in this place
that The Douglas intruded his presence on James the Third. He urged
his demands in a violent and threatening manner, and afterwards laid
hands upon the king. The latter, in defending himself with his dagger,
wounded the Douglas mortally; and to get rid of the body the king cast
it out of the window of the chapel, where it fell down the precipitous
rock underneath. The chapel has since been destroyed by fire.
were the first specimens of Gothic carving in oak that I had ever seen,
and they seemed to put our modern carvings to shame. The Great Hall,
where the Scottish Parliament used to meet, was also very interesting
as connected with the ancient history of the country.
From Stirling we walked to Alloa, passing the picturesque cascades
rushing down the cleft's of the Ochils. We put up for the night at
Clackmannan, a very decayed and melancholy-looking village, though it
possessed a fine specimen of the Scottish castellated tower. It is
said that Robert Bruce slept here before the Battle of Bannockburn.
But the most interesting thing that I saw during the journey was the
Devon Ironworks. I had read and heard about the processes carried on
there in smelting iron ore and running it into pig-iron. The origin of
the familiar trade term "pig-iron" is derived from the result of the
arrangement most suitable for distributing the molten iron as it rushes
forth from the opening made at the bottom part of the blast-furnace;
when, after its reduction from the ore, it collects in a fluid mass of
several tons weight. Previous to "tapping" the furnace a great central
channel is made in the sand-covered floor of the forge; this central
channel is then subdivided into many lateral branches or canals, into
which the molten iron flows, and eventually hardens.
The great steam-engine that worked the blast furnace was the largest I
had ever seen. A singular expedient was employed at these works, of
using a vast vault hewn in the solid rock of the hillside for the
purpose of storing up the blast produced by the engines, and so
equalising the pressure; thus turning a mountain side into a reservoir
for the use of a blast-furnace. This seemed to me a daring and
wonderful engineering feat.
We waited at the works until the usual time had arrived for letting out
the molten iron which had been accumulating at the lower part of the
blast-furnace. It was a fine sight to see the stream of white-hot iron
flowing like water into the large gutter immediately before the
opening. From this the molten iron flowed on until it filled the
moulds of sand which branched off from the central gutter. The iron
left in the centre, when cooled and broken up, was called sow metal,
while that in the branches was called pig iron; the terms being derived
from the appearance of a sow engaged in its maternal duties.
The pig-iron is thus cast in handy-sized pieces for the purpose of
being transported to other iron foundries; while the clumsy sow metal
is broken up and passes through another process of melting, or is
reserved for foundry uses at the works where it is produced.
After inspecting with great pleasure the machinery connected with the
foundry, we took our leave and returned to Edinburgh by steamer from
Shortly after, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of
Robert Bald, the well-known mining engineer. He was one of the most
kind-hearted men I have ever known. He was always ready to communicate
his knowledge to young and old. His sound judgment and long practical
experience in regard to coal-mining and the various machinery connected
with it, rendered him a man of great importance in the northern
counties, where his advice was eagerly sought for. Besides his special
knowledge, he had a large acquaintance with literature and science.
He was bright, lively, and energetic. He was a living record of good
stories, and in every circle in which he moved he was the focus of
cheerfulness. In fact, there was no greater social favourite in
Edinburgh than Robert Bald.
Bald was very fond of young people, and he became much attached to me.
He used to come to my father's house, and often came in to see what I
was about in the work-room. He was rejoiced to see the earnest and
industrious manner in which I was employed, in preparing myself for my
proposed business as an engineer. He looked over my tools, mostly of
my own making, and gave me every encouragement. When he had any
visitors he usually brought them and introduced them to me. In this
way I had the happiness to make the acquaintance of Robert Napier,
Nelson, and Cook, of Glasgow; and in after life I continued to enjoy
their friendship. It would be difficult for me to detail the acts of
true disinterested kindness which I continued to receive from this
On several occasions he wished me to accompany him on his business
journeys, in order that I might see some works that would supply me
with valuable information. He had designed a powerful pumping engine
to drain more effectually a large colliery district situated near
Bannockburn--close to the site of the great battle in the time of
Robert the Bruce. He invited me to join him. It was with the greatest
pleasure that I accepted his invitation; for there would be not only
the pleasure of seeing a noble piece of steam machinery brought into
action for the first time, but also the enjoyment of visiting the
celebrated Carron Ironworks.
The Carron Ironworks are classic ground to engineers. They are
associated with the memory of Roebuck, Watt, and Miller of Dalswinton.
For there Roebuck and Watt began the first working steam-engine; Miller
applied the steam-engine to the purposes of navigation, and invented
the Carronade gun. The works existed at an early period in the history
of British iron manufacture. Much of the machinery continued to be of
wood. Although effective in a general way it was monstrously cumbrous.
It gave the idea of vast power and capability of resistance, while it
was far from being so in reality. It was, however, truly imposing and
impressive in its effect upon strangers. When seen partially lit up by
the glowing masses of white-hot iron, with only the rays of bright
sunshine gleaming through a few holes in the roof, and the dark, black,
smoky vaults in which the cumbrous machinery was heard rumbling away in
the distance--while the moving parts were dimly seen through the
murky atmosphere, mixed with the sounds of escaping steam and rushes of
water; with the half-naked men darting about with masses of red-hot
iron and ladles full of molten cast-iron--it made a powerful
impression upon the mind.
I was afterwards greatly interested by a collection of old armour, dug
up from the field of the Battle of Bannockburn close at hand. They were
arranged on the walls of the house of the manager of the Carron
Ironworks. There were swords, daggers, lances, battle-axes, shields,
and coats of chain-armour. Some of the latter were whole, others in
fragmentary portions. I was particularly interested with the admirable
workmanship of the coats of mail. The iron links extended from the
covering of the head to the end of the arms, and from the shoulders
down to the hips, in one linked iron fabric. The beauty and exactness
with which this chain-armour had been forged and built up were truly
wonderful. There must have been "giants in those days." This grand
style of armour was in use from the time of the Conquest, and was most
effective in the way of protection, as it was fitted by its flexibility
to give full play to the energetic action of the wearer. It was
infinitely superior to the senseless plate-armour that was used, at a
subsequent period, to encase soldiers like lobsters. The chain-armour
I saw at Carron left a deep impression on my mind. I never see a bit
of it, or of its representation in the figures on our grand tombs of
the thirteenth century, but I think of my first sight of it at Carron
and of the tremendous conflict at Bannockburn.
Remembering, also, the impressive sight of the picturesque fire-lit
halls, and the terrible-looking, cumbrous machinery which I first
beheld on a grand scale at Carron, I have often regretted that some of
our artists do not follow up the example set them by that admirable
painter, Wright of Derby, and treat us to the pictures of some of our
great ironworks. They not only abound with the elements of the
picturesque in its highest sense, but also set forth the glory of the
useful arts in such a way as would worthily call forth the highest
power of our artists.
To return to my life at Edinburgh. I was now seventeen years old.
I had acquired a considerable amount of practical knowledge as to the
use and handling of mechanical tools, and I desired to turn it to some
account. I was able to construct working models of steam-engines and
other apparatus required for the illustration of mechanical subjects.
I began with making a small working steam engine for the purpose of
grinding the oil-colours used by my father in his artistic work.
The result was quite satisfactory. Many persons came to see my active
little steam-engine at work, and they were so pleased with it that I
received several orders for small workshop engines, and also for some
models of steam-engines to illustrate the subjects taught at Mechanics'
[Image] Sectional model of condensing steam-engine. By James Nasmyth
I contrived a sectional model of a complete condensing steam-engine of
the beam and parallel motion construction. The model, as seen from one
side, exhibited every external detail in full and due action when the
flywheel was moved round by hand; while, on the other or sectional
side, every detail of the interior was seen, with the steam-valves and
air-pump, as well as the motion of the piston in the cylinder, with the
construction of the piston and the stuffing box, together with the
slide-valve and steam passages, all in due position and relative
The first of these sectional models of the steam-engine was made for
the Edinburgh School of Arts, where its uses in instructing mechanics
and others in the application of steam were highly appreciated.
The second was made for Professor Leslie, of the Edinburgh University,
for use in his lectures on Natural Philosophy. The professor had,
at his own private cost, provided a complete and excellent set of
apparatus, which, for excellent workmanship and admirable utility,
had never, I believe, been provided for the service of any university.
He was so pleased with my addition to his class-room apparatus, that,
besides expressing his great thanks for my services, he most handsomely
presented me with a free ticket to his Natural Philosophy class as a
regular student, so long as it suited me to make use of his instruction.
But far beyond this, as a reward for my earnest endeavours to satisfy
this truly great philosopher, was the kindly manner in which he on all
occasions communicated to me conversationally his original and masterly
views on the great fundamental principles of Natural Philosophy--
especially as regarded the principles of Dynamics and the Philosophy of
Mechanics. The clear views which he communicated in his conversation,
as well as in his admirable lectures, vividly illustrated by the
experiments which he had originated, proved of great advantage to me;
and I had every reason to consider his friendship and his teaching as
amongst the most important elements in my future success as a practical
Having referred to the Edinburgh School of Arts, I feel it necessary to
say something about the origin of that excellent institution.
A committee of the most distinguished citizens of Edinburgh was formed
for the purpose of instituting a college in which working men and
mechanics might possess the advantages of instruction in the principles
on which their various occupations were conducted. Among the committee
were Leonard Horner, Francis Jeffrey, Henry Cockburn, John Murray of
Henderland, Alexander Bryson, James Mline, John Miller, the Lord Provost,
and various members of the Council. Their efforts succeeded, and the
institution was founded. The classes were opened in 1821, in which
year I became a student.
In order to supply the students, who were chiefly young men of the
working class, with sound instruction in the various branches of
science, the lectures were delivered and the classes were superintended
by men of established ability in their several departments.
This course was regularly pursued from its fundamental and elementary
principles to the highest point of scientific instruction.
The consecutive lectures and examinations extended, as in the
University, from October to May in each year's session. It was, in
fact, our first technical college. In these later days when so many of
our so-called Mechanics' Institutes are merely cheap reading-clubs for
the middle classes, and the lectures are delivered for the most part
merely for a pleasant evening' s amusement, it seems to me that we have