Chapter 5



MANY writers have vigorously described the pains of the first day
or the first night at school; to a boy of any enterprise, I
believe, they are more often agreeably exciting. Misery - or at
least misery unrelieved - is confined to another period, to the
days of suspense and the "dreadful looking-for" of departure; when
the old life is running to an end, and the new life, with its new
interests, not yet begun: and to the pain of an imminent parting,
there is added the unrest of a state of conscious pre-existence.
The area railings, the beloved shop-window, the smell of semi-
suburban tanpits, the song of the church bells upon a Sunday, the
thin, high voices of compatriot children in a playing-field - what
a sudden, what an overpowering pathos breathes to him from each
familiar circumstance! The assaults of sorrow come not from
within, as it seems to him, but from without. I was proud and glad
to go to school; had I been let alone, I could have borne up like
any hero; but there was around me, in all my native town, a
conspiracy of lamentation: "Poor little boy, he is going away -
unkind little boy, he is going to leave us"; so the unspoken
burthen followed me as I went, with yearning and reproach. And at
length, one melancholy afternoon in the early autumn, and at a
place where it seems to me, looking back, it must be always autumn
and generally Sunday, there came suddenly upon the face of all I
saw - the long empty road, the lines of the tall houses, the church
upon the hill, the woody hillside garden - a look of such a
piercing sadness that my heart died; and seating myself on a door-
step, I shed tears of miserable sympathy. A benevolent cat
cumbered me the while with consolations - we two were alone in all
that was visible of the London Road: two poor waifs who had each
tasted sorrow - and she fawned upon the weeper, and gambolled for
his entertainment, watching the effect it seemed, with motherly

For the sake of the cat, God bless her! I confessed at home the
story of my weakness; and so it comes about that I owed a certain
journey, and the reader owes the present paper, to a cat in the
London Road. It was judged, if I had thus brimmed over on the
public highway, some change of scene was (in the medical sense)
indicated; my father at the time was visiting the harbour lights of
Scotland; and it was decided he should take me along with him
around a portion of the shores of Fife; my first professional tour,
my first journey in the complete character of man, without the help
of petticoats.

The Kingdom of Fife (that royal province) may be observed by the
curious on the map, occupying a tongue of land between the firths
of Forth and Tay. It may be continually seen from many parts of
Edinburgh (among the rest, from the windows of my father's house)
dying away into the distance and the easterly HAAR with one smoky
seaside town beyond another, or in winter printing on the gray
heaven some glittering hill-tops. It has no beauty to recommend
it, being a low, sea-salted, wind-vexed promontory; trees very
rare, except (as common on the east coast) along the dens of
rivers; the fields well cultivated, I understand, but not lovely to
the eye. It is of the coast I speak: the interior may be the
garden of Eden. History broods over that part of the world like
the easterly HAAR. Even on the map, its long row of Gaelic place-
names bear testimony to an old and settled race. Of these little
towns, posted along the shore as close as sedges, each with its bit
of harbour, its old weather-beaten church or public building, its
flavour of decayed prosperity and decaying fish, not one but has
its legend, quaint or tragic: Dunfermline, in whose royal towers
the king may be still observed (in the ballad) drinking the blood-
red wine; somnolent Inverkeithing, once the quarantine of Leith;
Aberdour, hard by the monastic islet of Inchcolm, hard by
Donibristle where the "bonny face was spoiled"; Burntisland where,
when Paul Jones was off the coast, the Reverend Mr. Shirra had a
table carried between tidemarks, and publicly prayed against the
rover at the pitch of his voice and his broad lowland dialect;
Kinghorn, where Alexander "brak's neckbane" and left Scotland to
the English wars; Kirkcaldy, where the witches once prevailed
extremely and sank tall ships and honest mariners in the North Sea;
Dysart, famous - well famous at least to me for the Dutch ships
that lay in its harbour, painted like toys and with pots of flowers
and cages of song-birds in the cabin windows, and for one
particular Dutch skipper who would sit all day in slippers on the
break of the poop, smoking a long German pipe; Wemyss (pronounce
Weems) with its bat-haunted caves, where the Chevalier Johnstone,
on his flight from Culloden, passed a night of superstitious
terrors; Leven, a bald, quite modern place, sacred to summer
visitors, whence there has gone but yesterday the tall figure and
the white locks of the last Englishman in Delhi, my uncle Dr.
Balfour, who was still walking his hospital rounds, while the
troopers from Meerut clattered and cried "Deen Deen" along the
streets of the imperial city, and Willoughby mustered his handful
of heroes at the magazine, and the nameless brave one in the
telegraph office was perhaps already fingering his last despatch;
and just a little beyond Leven, Largo Law and the smoke of Largo
town mounting about its feet, the town of Alexander Selkirk, better
known under the name of Robinson Crusoe. So on, the list might be
pursued (only for private reasons, which the reader will shortly
have an opportunity to guess) by St. Monance, and Pittenweem, and
the two Anstruthers, and Cellardyke, and Crail, where Primate
Sharpe was once a humble and innocent country minister: on to the
heel of the land, to Fife Ness, overlooked by a sea-wood of matted
elders and the quaint old mansion of Balcomie, itself overlooking
but the breach or the quiescence of the deep - the Carr Rock beacon
rising close in front, and as night draws in, the star of the
Inchcape reef springing up on the one hand, and the star of the May
Island on the other, and farther off yet a third and a greater on
the craggy foreland of St. Abb's. And but a little way round the
corner of the land, imminent itself above the sea, stands the gem
of the province and the light of mediaeval Scotland, St. Andrews,
where the great Cardinal Beaton held garrison against the world,
and the second of the name and title perished (as you may read in
Knox's jeering narrative) under the knives of true-blue
Protestants, and to this day (after so many centuries) the current
voice of the professor is not hushed.

Here it was that my first tour of inspection began, early on a
bleak easterly morning. There was a crashing run of sea upon the
shore, I recollect, and my father and the man of the harbour light
must sometimes raise their voices to be audible. Perhaps it is
from this circumstance, that I always imagine St. Andrews to be an
ineffectual seat of learning, and the sound of the east wind and
the bursting surf to linger in its drowsy classrooms and confound
the utterance of the professor, until teacher and taught are alike
drowned in oblivion, and only the sea-gull beats on the windows and
the draught of the sea-air rustles in the pages of the open
lecture. But upon all this, and the romance of St. Andrews in
general, the reader must consult the works of Mr. Andrew Lang; who
has written of it but the other day in his dainty prose and with
his incommunicable humour, and long ago in one of his best poems,
with grace, and local truth, and a note of unaffected pathos. Mr.
Lang knows all about the romance, I say, and the educational
advantages, but I doubt if he had turned his attention to the
harbour lights; and it may be news even to him, that in the year
1863 their case was pitiable. Hanging about with the east wind
humming in my teeth, and my hands (I make no doubt) in my pockets,
I looked for the first time upon that tragi-comedy of the visiting
engineer which I have seen so often re-enacted on a more important
stage. Eighty years ago, I find my grandfather writing: "It is
the most painful thing that can occur to me to have a
correspondence of this kind with any of the keepers, and when I
come to the Light House, instead of having the satisfaction to meet
them with approbation and welcome their Family, it is distressing
when one-is obliged to put on a most angry countenance and
demeanour." This painful obligation has been hereditary in my
race. I have myself, on a perfectly amateur and unauthorised
inspection of Turnberry Point, bent my brows upon the keeper on the
question of storm-panes; and felt a keen pang of self-reproach,
when we went down stairs again and I found he was making a coffin
for his infant child; and then regained my equanimity with the
thought that I had done the man a service, and when the proper
inspector came, he would be readier with his panes. The human race
is perhaps credited with more duplicity than it deserves. The
visitation of a lighthouse at least is a business of the most
transparent nature. As soon as the boat grates on the shore, and
the keepers step forward in their uniformed coats, the very slouch
of the fellows' shoulders tells their story, and the engineer may
begin at once to assume his "angry countenance." Certainly the
brass of the handrail will be clouded; and if the brass be not
immaculate, certainly all will be to match - the reflectors
scratched, the spare lamp unready, the storm-panes in the
storehouse. If a light is not rather more than middling good, it
will be radically bad. Mediocrity (except in literature) appears
to be unattainable by man. But of course the unfortunate of St.
Andrews was only an amateur, he was not in the Service, he had no
uniform coat, he was (I believe) a plumber by his trade and stood
(in the mediaeval phrase) quite out of the danger of my father; but
he had a painful interview for all that, and perspired extremely.

From St. Andrews, we drove over Magus Muir. My father had
announced we were "to post," and the phrase called up in my hopeful
mind visions of top-boots and the pictures in Rowlandson's DANCE OF
DEATH; but it was only a jingling cab that came to the inn door,
such as I had driven in a thousand times at the low price of one
shilling on the streets of Edinburgh. Beyond this disappointment,
I remember nothing of that drive. It is a road I have often
travelled, and of not one of these journeys do I remember any
single trait. The fact has not been suffered to encroach on the
truth of the imagination. I still see Magus Muir two hundred years
ago; a desert place, quite uninclosed; in the midst, the primate's
carriage fleeing at the gallop; the assassins loose-reined in
pursuit, Burley Balfour, pistol in hand, among the first. No scene
of history has ever written itself so deeply on my mind; not
because Balfour, that questionable zealot, was an ancestral cousin
of my own; not because of the pleadings of the victim and his
daughter; not even because of the live bum-bee that flew out of
Sharpe's 'bacco-box, thus clearly indicating his complicity with
Satan; nor merely because, as it was after all a crime of a fine
religious flavour, it figured in Sunday books and afforded a
grateful relief from MINISTERING CHILDREN or the MEMOIRS OF MRS.
KATHATINE WINSLOWE. The figure that always fixed my attention is
that of Hackston of Rathillet, sitting in the saddle with his cloak
about his mouth, and through all that long, bungling, vociferous
hurly-burly, revolving privately a case of conscience. He would
take no hand in the deed, because he had a private spite against
the victim, and "that action" must be sullied with no suggestion of
a worldly motive; on the other hand, "that action," in itself, was
highly justified, he had cast in his lot with "the actors," and he
must stay there, inactive but publicly sharing the responsibility.
"You are a gentleman - you will protect me!" cried the wounded old
man, crawling towards him. "I will never lay a hand on you," said
Hackston, and put his cloak about his mouth. It is an old
temptation with me, to pluck away that cloak and see the face - to
open that bosom and to read the heart. With incomplete romances
about Hackston, the drawers of my youth were lumbered. I read him
up in every printed book that I could lay my hands on. I even dug
among the Wodrow manuscripts, sitting shame-faced in the very room
where my hero had been tortured two centuries before, and keenly
conscious of my youth in the midst of other and (as I fondly
thought) more gifted students. All was vain: that he had passed a
riotous nonage, that he was a zealot, that he twice displayed
(compared with his grotesque companions) some tincture of soldierly
resolution and even of military common sense, and that he figured
memorably in the scene on Magus Muir, so much and no more could I
make out. But whenever I cast my eyes backward, it is to see him
like a landmark on the plains of history, sitting with his cloak
about his mouth, inscrutable. How small a thing creates an
immortality! I do not think he can have been a man entirely
commonplace; but had he not thrown his cloak about his mouth, or
had the witnesses forgot to chronicle the action, he would not thus
have haunted the imagination of my boyhood, and to-day he would
scarce delay me for a paragraph. An incident, at once romantic and
dramatic, which at once awakes the judgment and makes a picture for
the eye, how little do we realise its perdurable power! Perhaps no
one does so but the author, just as none but he appreciates the
influence of jingling words; so that he looks on upon life, with
something of a covert smile, seeing people led by what they fancy
to be thoughts and what are really the accustomed artifices of his
own trade, or roused by what they take to be principles and are
really picturesque effects. In a pleasant book about a school-
class club, Colonel Fergusson has recently told a little anecdote.
A "Philosophical Society" was formed by some Academy boys - among
them, Colonel Fergusson himself, Fleeming Jenkin, and Andrew
Wilson, the Christian Buddhist and author of THE ABODE OF SNOW.
Before these learned pundits, one member laid the following
ingenious problem: "What would be the result of putting a pound of
potassium in a pot of porter?" "I should think there would be a
number of interesting bi-products," said a smatterer at my elbow;
but for me the tale itself has a bi-product, and stands as a type
of much that is most human. For this inquirer who conceived
himself to burn with a zeal entirely chemical, was really immersed
in a design of a quite different nature; unconsciously to his own
recently breeched intelligence, he was engaged in literature.
Putting, pound, potassium, pot, porter; initial p, mediant t - that
was his idea, poor little boy! So with politics and that which
excites men in the present, so with history and that which rouses
them in the past: there lie at the root of what appears, most
serious unsuspected elements.

The triple town of Anstruther Wester, Anstruther Easter, and
Cellardyke, all three Royal Burghs - or two Royal Burghs and a less
distinguished suburb, I forget which - lies continuously along the
seaside, and boasts of either two or three separate parish
churches, and either two or three separate harbours. These
ambiguities are painful; but the fact is (although it argue me
uncultured), I am but poorly posted upon Cellardyke. My business
lay in the two Anstruthers. A tricklet of a stream divides them,
spanned by a bridge; and over the bridge at the time of my
knowledge, the celebrated Shell House stood outpost on the west.
This had been the residence of an agreeable eccentric; during his
fond tenancy, he had illustrated the outer walls, as high (if I
remember rightly) as the roof, with elaborate patterns and
pictures, and snatches of verse in the vein of EXEGI MONUMENTUM;
shells and pebbles, artfully contrasted and conjoined, had been his
medium; and I like to think of him standing back upon the bridge,
when all was finished, drinking in the general effect and (like
Gibbon) already lamenting his employment.

The same bridge saw another sight in the seventeenth century. Mr.
Thomson, the "curat" of Anstruther Easter, was a man highly
obnoxious to the devout: in the first place, because he was a
"curat"; in the second place, because he was a person of irregular
and scandalous life; and in the third place, because he was
generally suspected of dealings with the Enemy of Man. These three
disqualifications, in the popular literature of the time, go hand
in hand; but the end of Mr. Thomson was a thing quite by itself,
and in the proper phrase, a manifest judgment. He had been at a
friend's house in Anstruther Wester, where (and elsewhere, I
suspect) he had partaken of the bottle; indeed, to put the thing in
our cold modern way, the reverend gentleman was on the brink of
DELIRIUM TREMENS. It was a dark night, it seems; a little lassie
came carrying a lantern to fetch the curate home; and away they
went down the street of Anstruther Wester, the lantern swinging a
bit in the child's hand, the barred lustre tossing up and down
along the front of slumbering houses, and Mr. Thomson not
altogether steady on his legs nor (to all appearance) easy in his
mind. The pair had reached the middle of the bridge when (as I
conceive the scene) the poor tippler started in some baseless fear
and looked behind him; the child, already shaken by the minister's
strange behaviour, started also; in so doing, she would jerk the
lantern; and for the space of a moment the lights and the shadows
would be all confounded. Then it was that to the unhinged toper
and the twittering child, a huge bulk of blackness seemed to sweep
down, to pass them close by as they stood upon the bridge, and to
vanish on the farther side in the general darkness of the night.
"Plainly the devil come for Mr. Thomson!" thought the child. What
Mr. Thomson thought himself, we have no ground of knowledge; but he
fell upon his knees in the midst of the bridge like a man praying.
On the rest of the journey to the manse, history is silent; but
when they came to the door, the poor caitiff, taking the lantern
from the child, looked upon her with so lost a countenance that her
little courage died within her, and she fled home screaming to her
parents. Not a soul would venture out; all that night, the
minister dwelt alone with his terrors in the manse; and when the
day dawned, and men made bold to go about the streets, they found
the devil had come indeed for Mr. Thomson.

This manse of Anstruther Easter has another and a more cheerful
association. It was early in the morning, about a century before
the days of Mr. Thomson, that his predecessor was called out of bed
to welcome a Grandee of Spain, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, just
landed in the harbour underneath. But sure there was never seen a
more decayed grandee; sure there was never a duke welcomed from a
stranger place of exile. Half-way between Orkney and Shetland,
there lies a certain isle; on the one hand the Atlantic, on the
other the North Sea, bombard its pillared cliffs; sore-eyed, short-
living, inbred fishers and their families herd in its few huts; in
the graveyard pieces of wreck-wood stand for monuments; there is
nowhere a more inhospitable spot. BELLE-ISLE-EN-MER - Fair-Isle-
at-Sea - that is a name that has always rung in my mind's ear like
music; but the only "Fair Isle" on which I ever set my foot, was
this unhomely, rugged turret-top of submarine sierras. Here, when
his ship was broken, my lord Duke joyfully got ashore; here for
long months he and certain of his men were harboured; and it was
from this durance that he landed at last to be welcomed (as well as
such a papist deserved, no doubt) by the godly incumbent of
Anstruther Easter; and after the Fair Isle, what a fine city must
that have appeared! and after the island diet, what a hospitable
spot the minister's table! And yet he must have lived on friendly
terms with his outlandish hosts. For to this day there still
survives a relic of the long winter evenings when the sailors of
the great Armada crouched about the hearths of the Fair-Islanders,
the planks of their own lost galleon perhaps lighting up the scene,
and the gale and the surf that beat about the coast contributing
their melancholy voices. All the folk of the north isles are great
artificers of knitting: the Fair-Islanders alone dye their fabrics
in the Spanish manner. To this day, gloves and nightcaps,
innocently decorated, may be seen for sale in the Shetland
warehouse at Edinburgh, or on the Fair Isle itself in the
catechist's house; and to this day, they tell the story of the Duke
of Medina Sidonia's adventure.

It would seem as if the Fair Isle had some attraction for "persons
of quality." When I landed there myself, an elderly gentleman,
unshaved, poorly attired, his shoulders wrapped in a plaid, was
seen walking to and fro, with a book in his hand, upon the beach.
He paid no heed to our arrival, which we thought a strange thing in
itself; but when one of the officers of the PHAROS, passing
narrowly by him, observed his book to be a Greek Testament, our
wonder and interest took a higher flight. The catechist was cross-
examined; he said the gentleman had been put across some time
before in Mr. Bruce of Sumburgh's schooner, the only link between
the Fair Isle and the rest of the world; and that he held services
and was doing "good." So much came glibly enough; but when pressed
a little farther, the catechist displayed embarrassment. A
singular diffidence appeared upon his face: "They tell me," said
he, in low tones, "that he's a lord." And a lord he was; a peer of
the realm pacing that inhospitable beach with his Greek Testament,
and his plaid about his shoulders, set upon doing good, as he
understood it, worthy man! And his grandson, a good-looking little
boy, much better dressed than the lordly evangelist, and speaking
with a silken English accent very foreign to the scene, accompanied
me for a while in my exploration of the island. I suppose this
little fellow is now my lord, and wonder how much he remembers of
the Fair Isle. Perhaps not much; for he seemed to accept very
quietly his savage situation; and under such guidance, it is like
that this was not his first nor yet his last adventure.

Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.