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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter III. Robert Dick Apprenticed


Robert Dick was apprenticed to Mr. Aikman, a baker in Tullibody, when he was thirteen years old. Mr. Aikman had a large business, and supplied bread to people in the neighbouring villages as far as the Bridge of Allan.

The life of a baker is by no means interesting. One day is like another. The baker is up in the morning at three or four. The oven fire is kindled first. The flour is mixed with yeast and salt and water, laboriously kneaded together. The sponge is then set in some warm place. The dough begins to rise. After mingling with more flour, and thorough kneading, the mass is weighed into lumps of the proper size, which are shaped into loaves and “bricks,” or into “baps,” penny and halfpenny. This is the batch, which, after a short time, is placed in the oven until it is properly baked and ready to be taken out. The bread is then sold or delivered to the customers. When delivered out of doors, the bread is placed on a flat baker’s basket, and carried on the head from place to place.

Robert Dick got up first and kindled the fire, so as to heat the oven preparatory to the batch being put in. His nephew, Mr. Alexander of Dunfermline, says “he got up at three in the morning, and worked and drudged until seven and eight, and sometimes nine o’clock at night.”

As he grew older, and was strong enough to carry the basket on his head, he was sent about to deliver the bread in the neighbouring villages. He was sent to Menstrie, to Lipney on the Ochils, to Blairlogie at the foot of Dunmyat, and farther westward to the Bridge of Allan, about six miles from Tullibody.

The afternoons on which he delivered the bread were a great pleasure to Dick. He had an opportunity for observing nature, which had charms for him in all its moods. When he went up the hills to Lipney, he wandered on his return through Menstrie Glen. He watched the growth of the plants. He knew them individually, one from the other. He began to detect the differences between them, though he then knew little about orders, classes, and genera. When the hazel-nuts were ripe he gathered them and brought loads of them home for the enjoyment of his master’s bairns. They all had a great love for the ’prentice Robert.

He must also, in course of time, have obtained some special acquaintance with botany. At all events, he inquired, many years after, about some particular plants which he had observed during his residence at Dam’s Burn and Tullibody. "Send me,” he said to his eldest sister, “a twig with the blossom and some leaves, from the Tron Tree in Tullibody.” The Tron Tree is a lime tree standing nearly opposite the house in which Robert was born.

“Send me also,” he said, “a specimen of the wild geranium, which you will find on the old road close by the foot of the hills between Menstrie and Alva. I also want a water-plant [describing it] which grows in the river Devon.” The two former were sent to him, but the water-plant could not be found.

Robert’s apprenticeship lasted for three years and a half. He got no wages—only his meals and his bed. He occupied a small room over the bakehouse. His father had still to clothe him, and his washing was done at home. On Saturdays he went with his “duds” to Dam’s Burn. But either soap was scarce, or good-will was wanting. His step-mother would not give him clean stockings except once a fortnight. His sister Agnes used to accompany him home to Tullibody in the evening, and at the Aikmans’ door she exchanged stockings with him, promising to have his own well darned and washed by the following Sunday.

The day of rest was a day of pleasure to him. He did not care to stay within doors. He had shoes now, and could wander up the hills to the top of Dunmyat or Bencleuch, and see the glorious prospect of the country below; the windings of the Devon, the windings of the Forth, and the country far away, from the castle of Stirling on the one hand to the castle of Edinburgh on the other.

Dick continued to be a great reader. He read every book that he could lay his hands on. Popular books were not so common then as they are now. But he contrived to borrow some volumes of the old Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, and this gave him an insight into science. It helped him in his knowledge of botany. He could now find out for himself the names of the plants; and he even began to make a collection. It could only have been a small one, for his time was principally occupied by labour. Yet, with a thirst for knowledge, and a determination to obtain it, a great deal may be accomplished in even the humblest station.

In 1826, Mr. Dick was advanced to the office of supervisor of excise, and removed to Thurso. Robert was then left to himself in Tullibody. He had still two years more to serve. One day followed another in the usual round of daily toil. The toil was, however, mingled with pleasure, and he walked through the country with his bread basket, and watched Nature with ever-increasing delight.

He made no acquaintances. The Aikmans say “that he was very kind to his master’s children—that he was constantly bringing them flowers from the fields, or nuts from the glens, or anything curious or interesting which he had picked up in the course of his journeys.” He occupied a little of his time in bird-stuffing. He stuffed a hare, which he called “a tinkler’s lion.” It need scarcely be said that the children were very fond of their father’s ’prentice.

At length his time was out. He was only seventeen. But he had to leave Tullibody, and try to find work as a journeyman. He bundled up his clothes and set out for Alloa, where he caught the boat for Leith. He never saw Tullibody again, though he long remembered it. His father and mother were buried in the churchyard there; and he could not help having a longing affection for the place. But he could never spare money enough to revisit the place of his birth.

Long after, when writing to his brother-in-law, he said,—“And ye have been up to Alloa. Well, I do believe that is a bonnie country, altho’ I fancy it is not in any sense the poor man’s country. Nothing but men of money there; though fient a hair did I care for their grandeur while I lived there. The hills and woods, and freedom to run upon them and through them, was all I cared about.

“What though, like commoners of air,
We wander out we know not where,
But either house or hall?
Yet Nature’s charms, the hills and woods,
The sweeping vales, and foaming floods,
Are free alike to all."

I daresay I might pick up a plant or a stone with very different feelings from those I felt in the days of old. But let them go! There is no use in repining.”

Again, when writing to a fellow botanist, who doubted whether Digitalis ymrpurea was a native of Caithness, he said, “I have seen more of the plant in Caithness than I ever saw about Stirling, Alloa, or on the Ochil hills,—more than I ever saw in the woods of Tullibody.”

Robert Dick found a journeyman's situation at Leith, where he remained for six months. His life there was composed of the usual round of getting up early in the morning, kneading, baking, and going about the streets with his basket on his head, delivering bread to the customers. It was a lonely life; and the more lonely, as he was far away from Nature and the hills that he loved.

From Leith he went to Glasgow, and afterwards to Greenock. He was a journeyman baker for about three years. His wages were small; his labour was heavy; and he did not find that he was making much progress. He continued to correspond with his father, and told him of his position. The father said, “Come to Thurso, and set up a baker’s shop here.” There were then only three bakers’ shops in the whole county of Caithness,— one at Thurso, one at Castleton, and another at Wick.

In that remote district “baker’s bread” had scarcely come into fashion. The people there lived chiefly on oatmeal and bere,—oatmeal porridge and cakes, and barley bannocks, with plenty of milk. Upon this fare men and women grew up strong and healthy. Many of them only got a baker’s loaf for “the Sabbath.”

Robert Dick took his father’s advice. He went almost to the world’s end to set up his trade. He arrived at Thurso in the summer of 1830, when he was about twenty years old. A shop was taken in Wilson’s Lane, nearly opposite his father’s house. An oven had to be added to the premises before the business could be begun; and in the meantime Robert surveyed the shore along Thurso Bay.

Thurso is within sight of Orkney, the Ultima Thule of the Romans. It is the northernmost town in Great Britain. John o’ Groat’s—the Land’s End of Scotland —is farther to the east. It consists of only a few green mounds, indicating where John o’ Groat’s House once stood.

Thurso is situated at the southern end of Thurso Bay, at the mouth of the Thurso river,—the most productive salmon river in Scotland. The fish, after feeding and cleaning themselves in the Pentland Firth, make for the fresh water. The first river they come to is the Thurso, up which they swim in droves.

Thurso Bay, whether in fair or foul weather, is a grand sight. On the eastern side, the upright cliffs of Dunnet Head run far to the northward, forming the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland. On the west, a high crest of land juts out into the sea, forming at its extremity the hold precipitous rocks of Holborn Head. Looking out of the hay you see the Orkney Islands in the distance, the Old Man of Hoy standing up at its western promontory, At sunset the light glints along the island, showing the hold prominences and depressions in the red sandstone cliffs. Out into the ocean the distant sails of passing ships are seen against the sky, white as a gull’s wing.

The long swelling waves of the Atlantic come rolling in upon the beach. The noise of their breaking in stormy weather is like thunder. From Thurso they are seen dashing over the Holborn Head, though some two hundred feet high; and the cliffs beyond Dunnet Bay are hid in spray.

Robert Dick was delighted with the sea in all its aspects. The sea opens many a mind. The sea is the most wonderful thing a child can see; and it long continues to fill the thoughtful mind with astonishment. The sea-shore on the western coast is full of strange sights. There is nothing but sea between Thurso and the coasts of Labrador.

The wash of the ocean comes by the Gulf Stream round the western coasts of Scotland, and along the northern coasts of Norway. Hence the bits of driftwood, the tropical sea-weed, and the tropical nuts, thrown upon the shore at Thurso.

In the same way, bits of mahogany are sometimes carried by the ocean current from Honduras or the Bay of Mexico, and thrown upon the shore on the northern most coasts of Norway. One evening, while walking along the beach near Thurso, Robert Dick took up a singular-looking nut, which he examined. He remarked to the friend who accompanied him, “That has been brought by the ocean current and the prevailing winds all the way from one of the West Indian Islands. How strange that we should find it here!”

Robert Dick always admired the magnificent sea pictures of Thurso Bay—its waves that gently rocked or wildly raged. He enjoyed the salt-laden breath of the sea wind; and even the cries of the sea birds. Here is his description of the sea-mew: “Ha ga tirwa!’ How strange and uncouth ! How very unnatural the cry seemed. It was only the cry of a sea bird. It was within sight of the ocean. There had been a storm. It was over, but the waves in long rolling breakers dashed themselves in a rage on the sandy shore, and then were quiet. But quiet only for a moment. ‘Ha ga tirwa!’ Restless and unwearied, another and another long wave followed and burst into spray. And thus it has ever been ‘since evening was, and morning was.’ It was then evening, the stars began to twinkle; and after a little the full moon rose. But still ‘Ha ga tirwa!’”

But before proceeding with Robert Dick’s history, it is necessary that we should give a short account of the county of Caithness, over the whole of which he afterwards wandered in search of the botany, as well as of the geological formation of the district.


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