Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

George Burns, His Times and Friends
Chapter II. Boyhood Schools and School Days

1795 -1812.

George Burns was born on the 10th of December, 1795, in the “Holy Land”—not in Palestine, but in a part of Glasgow which had been so named from the fact that a number of notable and godly ministers had congregated in one locality — a piece pf' land on the north side of George Street, a little west of North Portland Street. These good men were Dr. Burns of the Barony and Dr. Balfour of the Outer Church, Mr. Macleod of the Chapel of Ease, Mr. Williamson his colleague, and Mr. Mushet of Shettleston.

What George thought of being born in the midst of such overpowering surroundings there is no evidence to show, but that they had no depressing effect, and that he took very kindly to life, there is abundant proof. He grew up to be a bright, happy, thoughtless boy—as every boy should—and, being the youngest of the family, lie came in for his full share of affection and regard. As far as possible, we shall allow him to tell his own story in his own words, and it will in-teresfc the reader to know that the autobiographical fragments scattered throughout these pages are the reminiscences of a nonogenarian, and that the incidents recorded are the floating memories of a man in his ninety-fourth year, related without the assistance of any notes or diaries. Sometimes these flashes of memory start from a foundation in the present and reach to a period at the very beginning of the century, and vice verse ; sometimes they touch pier after pier of this bridge over the Gulf of Time; hut they are singularly clear, and are given in the exact words of the speaker.

My first school was a private one, under a tutor named Angus, who was held in the highest repute as a teacher of grammar in preparation for a full classical education. No girls attended his school, but boys and girls went together to the writing-school, under the conduct of Mr. Adam Stevenson. In the writing-class there were with me two girls of the name of MacNab; their father was a well-know merchant in Glasgow, of the Clan MacNab; they were on most friendly family terms with Dr. Cleland, the father of my wife, and the intimacy was kept up as long as life was spared to us all. The last of the Mac Nabs had a pretty house in Dunblane, where, when passing through to Crieff to visit my son James Cleland, who lived at Ferntowrer, winch was the residence at the beginning of the century of the famous warrior, Sir David Baird, I always went to see my old school-fellow. She told a friend of mine that I was a great talker as a boy; but she did not tell the other side of the question, how for talkativeness I was punished by the writing-master, who took me by the ear and paraded me down the long room into the coal-hole!

Angling, from the days of Izaak Walton downwards, has always been the “contemplative man’s recreation,” and it has had not a little to do with the formation of character in boys before they have become contemplative men.

In my very early days I was fond of catching flounders in the Clyde in a shallow part of the river where now large steamers—to wit, the Cunarders of upwards of 8,000 tons—float easily. All down the hanks of the river were huts beside the “runs” that were let out to fishermen. I well remember the fishers’ along the banks of the Clyde at Govan, below the Broomielaw, the harbour of Glasgow. Salmon was in those days abundant, and was an important source of revenue, but paper mills, chemical works, and other things have long since banished it. When I was a boy there were myriads of small fish in the shallow pools of the river opposite Mauldslie Castle, formerly belonging to the Earls of Hyndford, now the property of Colonel Hozier. These small fish were generally called “parrs” by the boys of my time, and also by scientific writers. But there has been a long dispute about them, and some have said that they were salmon fry. In my father’s early days, in his native town of Stirling, it was a customary stipulation by servants that they should not be fed on salmon more than twice in the week.

Among the earliest family recollections of George Burns was the removal of the Barony congregation, in 1801, from the crypt of the cathedral to the Barony Church. It must have been a relief to the worshippers, no less than to the minister, to leave that dark, damp crypt—which was again converted into a burying-place, as it had originally been—and to worship God in the light of day.

In that same year, too, his eldest brother, John, was married to Isabella, daughter of the Rev. John Duncan, of Alva, near Stirling.

Another of his earliest recollections was the funeral, in 1S06, of the “Benevolent Magistrate of Glasgow,” as he was called—David Dale, of Rosebank, on the Clyde, the founder of the New Lanark Cotton Mills, and one of the most well-known men in the city. He was buried in the churchyard of the Ramshorn— of which, and-'of David Dale, we shall have more to tell hereafter and it was a grand and impressive funeral. Enormous crowds followed in the procession to witness the interment, and all the magistrates and town officers were there, with their halberds and insignia of office.

Little did George Burns think, as he mingled among the crowd that day, that he, “the poorly-endowed minister’s son,” would make his start in life in the office of the New Lanark Cotton Mills; and still less did he think that some day he would have Rosebank—one of the loveliest places on the Clyde— as his summer residence.

George did not know the benevolent magistrate personally, but, in after life, he used to tell some good stories of him. Here is one:—

David Dale was a short, thick-set man. He had an assistant named David Black. One day when the High Street was slippery with ice, David Dale fell; and when he entered his office he said to Black, “I’ve fallen all my length on the ice!” “ No great length to fall,” said Black. “ Ah! but I’ve hurt the small of my back,” said Dale. “And whar’s that?” asked the imperturbable Black.

In the years 1805-6 there was great excitement in the minister’s house. His second son, Allan, who was fourteen years the senior of George, had at an early age developed an ardent passion for a medical career, as his brother John had done before him. When a mere boy he entered the medical classes, where his diligence and proficiency were so remarkable that lit the age of sixteen he was able to undertake the entire direction of the dissecting-rooms of his brother John, who was then giving lectures on anatomy and surgery in a room at the head of Virginia Street, on property belonging to Dr. Cleland, behind the present Union Bank. He was the first private teacher of anatomy in Glasgow, and at a time, too, when, and for many years afterwards, subjects for dissection could only be obtained by violating the repose of the dead. Opportunities of extending and perfecting his knowledge were abundant; and in a short time Allan Burns, though still a youth, enjoyed a high reputation among the practical anatomists of his day. Among his intimate friends was Sir Astley Cooper, the celebrated surgeon, who entertained a very high opinion of his abilities.

Allan had been advised to turn his attention to medical practice in the army, and in 1801 he went to London for the purpose of obtaining a commission ; but his plans were altogether set aside by an offer to repair to St. Petersburg to undertake the charge of a hospital which the Empress was desirous of establishing in her capital upon the English system, and which it was proposed should be called the Empress-Dowager Hospital. Sir Astley Cooper recommended Allan Burns to organize it; and Dr. Crichton, who had much influence at the Russian Court, promised to exert it to the full in his favour, and proposed that the surgical department of the hospital should be committed to his charge. It was arranged that lie might make a six months’ trial before finally closing with the offer.

Great, therefore, was the interest excited in the home circle when Allan announced his intention of going to St. Petersburg; and George, the youngest boy—then ten years of age—entered into the subject with all a boy’s eagerness. Allan went on board at Leith, on the 27th of September, 1805. In a farewell letter, written just before sailing, he says :—

“We, my dear father, have parted for a time, and I assure you that it cost me much exertion to bring myself to leave all my friends, but it was a necessity which I had to submit to, and I did it with the best grace I could assume; but, had you seen what passed in my mind, you would have perceived a very bad agreement between my appearance and my sentiments. I forbear to add more, as it will only be a source of mental aggravation of the separation which I sincerely hope may not be of long continuance.”

Afterwards Sir Alexander Crieliton; M.D.. F.R.S., Physician in Ordinary to the Emperor of Russia, &c.

Anxiously the members of the home circle waited to hear of his movements. He was a diligent and faithful correspondent, and a few extracts from his letters will he of interest. Arrived at St. Petersburg, Allan Burns, until he should acquire the language, became the guest of Dr. Crichton, whose sister, Miss Crichton, is described as, “without exception, the most accomplished lady in St. Petersburg : she speaks four languages fluently, and is possessed of a most extensive knowledge.” “The Doctor,” he adds, “was highly pleased with my ‘preparations,’ and carried two of them to the Empress, who examined them, and has promised to accept them. Her Imperial Majesty is very solicitous to improve the state of medicine in this country, and for that purpose has founded a superb hospital for instructing candidates. By the advice of Dr. Crichton she has ordered a dissecting-room, thirty feet by about twenty, to be built instantly, for making preparations in. "We have already made two, and have soon the prospect of working upon a larger scale.”

Within a fortnight, however, it was found desirable to go more slowly. In his next letter he says : “Already I have been in a scrape with regard to dissection, and so has Dr. C., who had requested H. I. M. to permit me to dissect the bodies of such as were come-at-able in the Imperial Hospital, which was at once granted. In consequence of that permission, I went along with Dr. C. to the hospital, and at different times removed parts from three subjects—decapitating one of them, who unfortunately turned out to be a Buss. I had it brought home, where L injected and prepared it. All this went on very well; but, in the course of a few days afterwards, a German died, and Mr. Beverley, one of the surgeons to the hospital, not knowing that the person had friends, very deliberaty set to work upon him. His relations instantly made a bustle about it, and were only quieted by the Empress, who herself gave them twenty-five roubles, and forbad for the future the removal of any external part of any body except Tartars and Jews, who are here looked upon as fair game, and their dissection authorized by Government wherever they can be found. . . . Dr. C. expects that H. I. M. will establish a complete anatomical school in her own hospital, which she visits almost daily in person, and the appointment he Intends to request for me. . . . With a view to that, I am studying Latin and Buss, and devote from six to eight hours daily to this pursuit.”

He asks for “English books, for none are to be had in this city, give what you please for them.” He says, “The Empress is very fond of anything which tends to improve the knowledge of science in this country, which is by no means so destitute of good surgeons as was reported in Scotland. . . . There are many difficulties to encounter here, none more powerful than the envy of one’s competitors.”

No arrangement had been made as to the re-mimermon he was to receive tor his services. He was far from rich, and his expenses were heavy. He had not been a month in .Russia before he discovered that “the salary of surgeons is here very trifling— the pay of Government surgeons is not more than €90, or, if they hold two situations, it amounts to about 1805. You will naturally inquire how they live, and I will readily reply that they depend upon private practice—which is not much more easily procured here than in Britain: there are many competitors, and there is much jealousy.”

Allan Burns had no intention of running into financial difficulties for the sake of securing high Court patronage ; and when he found that there wras little hope of his obtaining a satisfactory emolument, he laid his case before Count Strogonoff, in order that he might know exactly his position before committing himself finally after the six months’ trial.

The result was unsatisfactory, and before the expiration of the six months he was on his way to Scotland. On the eve of his departure he was aroused at one in the morning by a special messenger from the Empress, who lent him her parting thanks and a singularly large and handsome ring—a topaz in the centre, encircled with diamonds. On his return, he prosecuted his profession with great success, and became a highly popular lecturer on anatomy. He always wore the ring, presented to him by the Empress, when delivering the introductory lecture of a course, but not on other occasions, as it was too large to be convenient.

In one of his letters home, while resident in Eussia, he refers to a great historical event :—

St. Petersburg, Nov. 28, 1805.

“We have, a few days ago, received an account of the brilliant victory obtained over the combined fleets, but the death of Nelson has cast a gloom over the pleasure ; and his loss is, I will venture to say, as sincerely lamented in this distant clime as it is at home!—so much so, that the English here go into mourning for him, and a sermon is to be preached on the occasion by Mr. Pitt. You see, therefore, that though far from the theatre of action, we can feel an interest in the affairs of our native country, and deplore the fall of that great and distinguished character who was its guardian and its ornament. We have also, for the last two days, had vague reports of the destruction of the Boulogne gunboats by Sir Sidney Smith, and the Russians have done wonders, as you will have heard by the official reports.”

The death of Nelson helps us to flx in our minds the period in history in which George Burns spent his early days. He was a boy of ten years old when the battle of Trafalgar was fought; he was a youth of eighteen when the battle of Leipsic gave liberation to Germany and decided the fate of Europe; and he was a young man of twenty when the battle of Waterloo brought in the History of the Peace. In his school days the talk among the hoys would be of the crowning of Buonaparte as emperor; the battles of Austerlitz, Maida, and Jena ; the exciting incidents and varying fortunes of the Peninsular War ; the burning of Moscow, and the horrors of the retreat. These last events — among the most terrible In modern history—occurred in the year that he made his preparatoiy start in mercantile life.

The second school to which George was sent was the Grammar School of Glasgow, now called the High School. It is of remote antiquiiH—probably coeval with the erection of the Cathedral. In 1449 King Janies II. requested Pope Nicolas V. to grant a Bull to constitute a university in Glasgow, and in 1450 it was founded, hut there are records of the Grammar School prior to that date. In Dr. Cleland’s “Historical Account of the Grammar School”" it is recorded that on the 16th of December, 1591, the Kirk Session, which was paramount to all local authority, gave orders “ that a commodious place should be looked out in the Quire of the His Kirk for the Grammar School bairns on Sunday.”

We cannot follow the vicissitudes of the Grammar School here, but one curious custom, in existence in George Burns’ school clays, must not he omitted.

Every February a gratuity, or, in the well-known words, “a Candlemas Offering,” was given to the masters. On that occasion the scholars were convened in the common hall. When the masters were seated in their pulpits, the hoys in all the classes were expected to walk up, one by one, to the rector and give him an “offering”; having done so, they then went to their own master and gave him also an offering. When the sum given to either master was under five shillings no notice was taken, but when it amounted to that sum the rector said “Viuat” (“Let him live”); on this the whole school gave one “ruff” with their feet. For ten shillings, “Flor eat" (“Let him flourish”), when two ruffs were given. For fifteen shillings, “Floreat bis  (“Let him twice flourish”), when four ruffs were given. For a guinea and upwards, “Gloriat” (“Let him be glorious”), when six ruffs were given. When the business was over, the rector stood up, and in an audible voice declared who was the victor, by mentioning the name of the boy who had given the largest sum. On this being done, the victor was hailed by the whole scholars with thunders of applause. Wealth carried the day! The custom was not abolished until Candlemas, 1826, when the Grammar School was merged into the present High School.

In the Grammar School (says George Burns) I was under Mr. Allison, a famous tutor; the first lesson I was put through was to read in English, and of all the boys who read, I was the only one he asked under whose teaching I had been, and was pleased to say ‘I read very distinctly.' I told him I was indebted for all my education up to that point to Mr. Angus.

For writing I was under Mr. Stevenson, a popular man, and a good mathematician. When I was in the writing-school, it happened that when the Clyde was frozen over one of the boys of a well-known family, named Reid, was drowned through the ice breaking under him. On the announcement, Mr. Stevenson spoke very impressively and religiously to the class; and in the course of his address said that young Reid was, he thought, a very promising boy, whereupon one of the pupils sprang up, and said, ‘Yes; he promised before he went out that he wouldn’t go upon the ice.’ Then Mr. Stevenson asked, in general terms, what was the meaning of the word ‘promising’; and I replied, ‘It means a boy who has the prospect of good success before him in life.’ and I was much pleased when he applauded me for the answer.

When George was at the Grammar School his father provided a tutor for him, one Mr. Manson, a licentiate of the Church of Scotland. In those days gentlemen of that class were simply called “preachers of the Gospel;” they did not assume, as they do now, the title of reverend, nor did they wear hands until such time as they were appointed to their churches as ministers. Mr. Manson was a kind-hearted, good-natured man, and he must have had his troubles with his pupil, who, upon his own confession, was “play-rife.”

Among his school-fellows were James Gardner (who afterwards became Colonel Gardner, the great friend of Sir Henry Havelock), and two brothers named James and Cornelius Brown, whose father lived in the upper part of the High Street, commonly called the Bell o’ the Brae—an excellent man, and an Elder of the Outer High Church under Dr. Balfour. To these school friends reference is made in the following reminiscences :—

When I was in the Grammar School the community was quite alive to the talk of invasion by Buonaparte. Volunteers were mustered everywhere, and called after the name of their occupations or districts, such as the Grocers' Corps, or Drapers’ Corps. I, following the feeling of the day, boy as I was, got up a regiment of my fellow-students and became their captain, and I have no doubt James Gardner was under my command, but from the lower grade I never rose, whilst he became a colonel in the army.

I was very fond of skating, and with great pleasure practised it much on Hogganfield Loch, about two miles to the north of Glasgow. Furthermore I was a play-rife boy, and I might say a mischievous one. There was a row of houses occupied by hand-loom weavers (there were no power-loom weavers in those days) not far from my father's house, and I remember getting some other boys to go with me to a weaver’s cottage, where we pretended to break his windows, but in reality only broke some glass we had taken with us. It startled the weaver, who tried to catch us. thinking his property was much damaged, but we scampered off and escaped.

When George Burns was verging towards old age, James Brown, his class-fellow in the Grammar School, whom he had not seen since they were boys together, wrote to him, and in the course of his letter said:—

I may remind you that when my late brother Cornelius and myself were in the Grammar School along with you, you asked us up to tea in your father’s manse, and amused us by making inflammable gas with iron filings and sulphuric acid, and then, after darkening the room, you rubbed your face with phosphorus and appeared as a ghost!

Among the stirring incidents of his schoolboy days was the jubilee of George III.

It was celebrated in Glasgow on the 4th of June, 1810, and was connected with the introduction of water to the city by a reservoir in pipes from the Clyde a few miles away. Previous to that time Mr. Harley, of Willow Bank, supplied spring water, carted in butts, for which he received a remuneration from such families as chose to take it. Now, water is supplied from Loch Katrine. I was present with several members of my family at the opening of the supply from Loch Katrine by the Queen and Prince Albert in 1859.

I well remember the festivities in celebration of the jubilee of George III. in 1810, for I was then in my fifteenth year. Throughout the country there was great loyalty, and in Glasgow all the cart-horses were busked with hawthorn blossoms. The custom In those days was to come out upon a balcony in the old Tolbooth on the king’s birthday to drink his health, and, having done so, each magistrate threw his empty glass among the vast crowd below —a proceeding which caused a great shout of merriment and a scramble for it, as a memorial to be kept. This custom was observed at the jubilee, but on a much grander scale. I may mention, by the way, that the said balcony was also used for a very ignominious purpose. A gallows was erected upon it for the execution of criminals, and I have often seen enormous crowds waiting for the horrible show, long since abolished.

In 1812, at the age of seventeen, George Burns left school and started in his preparatory mercantile career; but before we follow him into his business life, we must see him in his father’s house and among his father’s friends.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus