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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter II. Robert Dick's Boyhood


Robert Dick was born at Tullibody in January 1811. He was one of four children—Agnes, Robert, Jane, and Janies.

Thomas Dick, his father, was an officer of excise. He was an attentive, diligent, and able man. He eventually rose to one of the highest positions in his calling. At the time when Robert Dick was born, it was his business to attend daily at the Cambus Brewery, close at hand.

Margaret Gilchrist was Robert Dick’s mother. Very little is known of her, excepting that she was a very delicate woman, and died shortly after having given birth to her fourth child. Thomas Dick was thus left without a wife, and his children without a mother.

The house in which the Dick family lived, and in which Robert was born, is situated in the principal street of the village. It is a two-storied, red-tiled, “self-contained” house. Looking down the street from the Tron Tree, you see the Ochil hills forming the back-ground of the village; the Devon winding in the valley below.

The children, as they grew up, were sent to school. Tullibody was fortunate in its Barony School, founded and partly endowed by the Abercromby family. Thus all the children in the village were able to obtain a fair education at a moderate price; for in Scotland it is considered a disgrace if a parent, of even the meanest condition, does not send his children to school.

Mr. Macintyre was the teacher of the Barony School He was a man of considerable attainments. Above all things, he was an enthusiastic schoolmaster. He maintained discipline, inculcated instruction, and elevated the position of his school by steady competition. He endeavoured to avoid corporal punishment, and only appealed to it as the last resource.

Robert Dick was one of his aptest scholars. He learned everything rapidly. When he had mastered reading, he read everything he could lay hands on. He was fond of fun and sport, and, like all strong and active hoys, he sometimes got into scrapes. When he infringed the rules of the school, the master gave him a number of verses to commit to heart. But he learnt them so quickly and recited them with such ease, that the task was found of no use as a punishment, and then, on any further indiscretion being committed, the master resorted to the last extremity—the Taws! In a letter to Hugh Miller, Dick afterwards said, “My auld dominie used to say that I had a good memory. Every morning, in his introductory exercise, before the business of the day began, he used to pray that teacher and scholars might all be taught, and that discipline might be followed with obedience.”

Robert had a great talent for languages. He learnt Latin so quickly that his master recommended Mr. Dick to send him to college, with the object of educating him for one of the learned professions. Such was his intention, when an event occurred which prevented its being carried into effect.

This was Mr. Dick’s second marriage. It occurred in 1821, when Robert was ten years old. Mr. Dick married the daughter of Mr. Knox, the brewer at Cambus, whose premises he inspected. As the excise regulations did not permit of his surveying the premises of a relative, he was removed to Dam’s Burn, a hamlet at the foot of the Ochils, where he inspected the whisky distillery of Mr Dali. The distillery is now called Glen Ochil.

Dam’s Burn is so called because of a noisy burn, which leaps from rock to rock down the hills, to join the Devon, which runs through the valley below. On its way, the burn used to be dammed up, so as to drive a mill while on its way to the river. Mr. Dick occupied the best house in the place, the slated house, with its gable end towards the street, as shown in the annexed engraving. The slopes of the Ochil hills,— the Abbey Craig, on which the Wallace Monument now stands, and the Campsie Fells, beyond Stirling, are seen in the distance.

While at Dam’s Burn, Robert Dick went to the parish school at Menstrie, a village about half a mile westward.

The teachers name was Morrison. He was not equal in accomplishments to the Barony schoolmaster at Tullibody. He took to teaching because he had not limbs enough to fit him for anything else. He had only one arm. He used to mend his pens dexterously, while holding them firmly under the little stump that remained on the other side.

Robert Dick made little progress under this master. He learned his lessons well enough, and read as many books as he could find or borrow. But he had a great compensation at Dam’s Burn for his want of school learning. It was at Dam’s Burn that he imbibed his love of Nature. The green Ochils rose right behind his father’s house. By stepping into the back-green, he could at once ascend the heights. He could ramble up the burns, and in the sheltered corners, behind the rocks, find many precious flowers and plants.

The boy who plays about a mountain side, or among the clefts of the hills, finds many things to amuse him. In spring time there are the birds; in summer there are the plants and flowers; and in winter there are the icicles hanging down the ledges of the rocks. Robert also found out a variety of stones among the hills,— the felspar, porphyry, and greenstones, which are common in the Ochils. He wondered at the difference between them,—made a collection of them, which he treasured at a dike-side, behind his father’s house,— and tried to find out the cause of the difference between one stone and another.

This climbing of the Ochils led him into difficulties.

And this leads us to a point in the history of Robert Dick’s life which cannot be omitted, inasmuch as it coloured his whole future life. The years of childhood and boyhood are, as it were, a sort of prophetic recital of the years of manhood. They constitute the little stage on which, with puny powers, we unconsciously rehearse the scenes of after life.

The boy has in him the seeds of good and the seeds of evil. Which will prove the stronger? No one can tell. But, to a large extent, it depends upon the effects of love and sympathy at home. The presence of these may call into life the best growths of the soul, and the absence of them may raise up the noxious miasmas that poison the whole human heart.

It will be remembered, that when Thomas Dick removed to Dam’s Burn, he married again. Other children were soon added to the household. Then the feelings of the step-mother came into play. It requires great tact and temper to manage a family in which there are two elements,—the children of the first mother, and the children of the second.

The new Mrs. Dick was a good wife and an excellent mother, so far as her own children were concerned. But she did not get on well with her husband’s children by his first wife. Perhaps they regarded her as an intruder Li the household; and where her own children were concerned, she naturally regarded them with preference.

Nor were her husband’s attentions to his children by his first wife at all to her taste. What was done for them evoked many a pang of maternal jealousy. Mother-like; human-like, she could not but regard these young things as intruders upon her own children’s standing room. All that was given to them was so much taken from her own offspring.

Hence arose family difficulties in the household. Robert stayed out, rather than remain indoors. He wandered about among the hills. He wore out his shoes. To prevent him going out, his step-mother hid them. Still Robert climbed the hills, and came home with bleeding feet. He was punished for his misdoings, and commanded to stay at home. This did not hinder him from going out again. He would wander along the Devon looking for birds’ nests. This was as bad as climbing the Ochils, and he was again thrashed with a stick.

It was the same with the other step-children. James, the youngest son of the first wife, struck back. Poor fellow! He was pommelled so hard that he could scarcely stand. Was he a “dour,” hard, perverse boy? Very likely. He had no mother’s affection to bear him up. Robert Dick never complained. He took his thrashings without grumbling. Still he went on in his old way, though he could not but feel the hollowness of his new motherhood.

At last the children were got out of the house, Instead of being sent to college (as had been his father’s intention), Robert was sent to Tullibody, where he was apprenticed to a baker. Shortly after, James, the youngest boy, went to sea; and Agnes, the eldest, went to be a servant at Edinburgh.

Of course this was a very bad training for an intelligent, high-spirited boy. It was not calculated to liberate the ideal human being which lies concealed in every child. It was, on the contrary, calculated to sour the boy’s nature, and to thwart his temperament at every point. It threw a dark shadow along the whole of his future life.

Long afterwards, in speaking to Charles Peach about his early struggles, he said—“All my naturally buoyant, youthful spirits were broken. To this day I feel the effects. I cannot shake them off. It is this that still makes me shrink from the world.” It will be necessary to bear these facts in mind while reading the story of Eobert Dick’s after life.

There were, however, two or three things that Robert had already learnt. He was educated, as Scotch boys usually are, at the parish school. He had learnt reading, writing, arithmetic, and a little Latin. It did not amount to much, but it was the beginning of a great deal. The rest of his education he owed to himself. As Stone, the son of the Duke of Argyll’s gardener, said, “One needs only to know the twenty-six letters of the alphabet to be able to learn everything else that one wishes.”

Another thing that he learnt during this trying period of his life, was self-control. Though treated with capricious restraint, he never retorted. He bore uncomplainingly all that was laid upon him. Though strong and spirited, he was a good-natured boy. He felt that, under the circumstances, the ill-treatment of his stepmother was a thing that he must bear; and he bore it uncomplainingly, looking forward to better times.

There are compensations in all things. He was happy to leave home. It was a pleasure to him to find that there was some other roof under which he could live in comparative comfort.


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