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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter V. Dick Begins Business


Dick began business for himself at the age of twenty. His house was in Wilson’s Lane, not far from the old church. The river Thurso flows past the bottom of the lane into the sea, which is close at hand.

Mr. Smith, of Olrig, was the proprietor. After he had built a small oven behind the house and added it to the shop, Dick went over from his father’s house to live there and begin his trade. The only other baker in the town was a Mr. Mackay, who was also a Baptist preacher.

There was not much trade to be done; but Robert baked a little every day, and sold his bread over the counter. When he was out, his sister Jane attended to the business. He contrived to live on very small earnings, for he had only himself to provide for. He required very little capital, for every day’s batch returned the money’s worth of the flour, as well as the profit to the baker.

Shortly after he began business, we find him writing to Mr. Aikman, of Tullibody, and requesting him to send four bags of third flour, one bag of second, and one bag of best. Mr. Aikman sent the flour to Thurso. Dick remitted 5; but his old master said “he need not remit the balance, as he would have need of the money.” In fact, three years elapsed before Robert Dick could send him the balance of the account.

When Dick’s bread was sold, or while his sister Jane was watching the shop, he went out to walk along the shore. He crossed the river by the stepping-stones while the tide was out, and was at once in Thurso East. He passed under the castle and walked along the shore, sometimes as far as Dunnet Bay. He delighted to see the long rolling waves come thundering in and break upon the shore in clouds of spray. The broken surge, churned into foam, rushed rapidly up the beach with the speed of a racehorse, and then rushed rapidly back again. Even in calm weather, there is a ceaseless moaning of the surge, indicating the remnant of some storm far away in the Atlantic. When the storm comes nearer the land, the waves are stronger and louder, spending their billows on the shore. “Sometimes,” says Dick, “the noise of -the bay is heard booming over the town with a terrible roar.”

His walks along the shore awakened in him a taste for conchology. He gathered shells by the score, and arranged them in a cabinet. He gathered up numerous things besides shells. He found a specimen of the nut of the cow-itch shrub of the West Indies,—such a nut as the brother-in-law of Columbus found floating near Madeira, which led the great navigator to infer the existence of a western continent. He found also wood, drilled by the Teredo navalis, and many specimens of seaweed, which had been washed by south-westerly winds from the Gulf of Mexico.

Shells, and the mollusks which inhabit them, were not, however, sufficient to occupy his attention. He had plenty of spare time. Indeed, after his bread was baked, his work was nearly over for the day. He had to set the sponge at night, ready for next day’s batch. But that occupied comparatively little time. Meanwhile he was busy with his books and his studies.

He did not make any companions. He had never felt much of the comforts of home. His social nature had been almost soured there. The feeling never left him, but clung to him through life. He therefore roamed about by himself along the shore, or studied by himself in his solitary household.

He reverted to his study of botany, though it might not be supposed that Thurso was a fit place for such a study. The neighbourhood was without trees, without hedges—with only flagstones dividing one field from another. Yet the seeing eye is never without proper aliment. It finds wonders in everything. Where the unseeing eye sees nothing, it detects differences, and varieties, and classifications. But he did not as yet go deeply into the subject, for he could not afford to buy books. Nevertheless, he accurately distinguished the differences of one plant from another. The further pursuit of botany was held in reserve for some future time.

About two years after Eobert Dick had begun business in Thurso, his father was promoted to the office of Collector of Excise, and was removed to Haddington, where he ended his official career. His eldest sister Agnes married Mr. Alexander, and afterwards removed to Tullibody. When all the family had left, Robert was left alone—literally alone. He then took into his service Annie Mackay, a Highland woman, who served him long and faithfully to the close of his life. She was his housekeeper, and attended to the shop while Dick was on his journeys through Caithness.

Yet Robert, though alone, was not solitary. Nature was all in all to him. He enjoyed his walks along the sea-shore, and sang to himself as he went along. He wandered about Dunnet Head, and the rocky cliffs at Holborn Head. He saw many things that had never been seen before. He detected the scales of fish, and even the heads of fossil fish amongst the rocks.

The Clett on Holborn Head was one of his favourite spots. It is a huge isolated mass of rock, composed of dark flagstone. It is inaccessible by human foot. The rock is quite perpendicular. The surges of the ocean have washed it away from the mainland. It is screaming with sea birds. Miles away you hear the cries of the okies, or auks, which haunt it. They sit in long rows, “ like a lot of bottles on end,” as Dick described them, on the ledges of the Clett, and there they breed and bring up their young.

Here, as on the east coast, great Goes are found. The sea dashes in through the washable rocks, and drives up in clouds of vapour far inland. One of the Goes is about three miles in length. In great storms the sea deluges the whole headland, and pours back in clouds of spray. In some places the rocks are hollowed into arches by the surge, and in great gales the sea pours into them with a rush of foam. To the west of Holborn Head there is a long line of projecting headlands, and in a clear day Cape Wrath may be seen some fifty miles off. There is no land between you and the coasts of Labrador—nothing but the boundless ocean.

Dick also explored the country inland. The river Thurso was the scene of some of his future discoveries. He went far up to the castle of Dirlot, one of the oldest buildings in Caithness. He went up the hills near Thurso, from which he saw the gigantic Morven far away in the distance. He visited the Eeay hills and the Shurery hills, which were afterwards his favourite botanic grounds. He was thus laying the foundations of his future knowledge, not only in botanical, but in geological science.

In the meantime he turned aside to pursue the study of entomology. Here his seeing eye was of great use *.o him. He worked out the natural history of the insects of Caithness from his own personal observation. Nothing escaped him. He collected no less than 256 specimens of beetles in nine months,—in fact, all that could be collected in Caithness. He collected 220 specimens of bees, and 240 specimens of butterflies and moths. These are all to be seen in the Thurso Museum. They are now covered with living moths, grubs, and woodlice, and fast going to decay.

The boys soon found out the strange baker and his ongoings. Boys are great critics. They immediately detect nonconformity. When they saw Dick coming out of his shop in his chimney-pot hat, his swallow-tailed coat, and jean trousers, they were immediately after him. They followed him at a little distance. He went up the green sward alongside the river; knelt down on his knees; crawled onward; and then brought his hand slap down. It was perhaps some insect that he had been long seeking for. The boys saw him take off his hat, put in the object, perhaps impaling it with a pin.

When Dick went away, the boys went up to the spot to see what he had been about. They found nothing whatever, only green grass. They did not know that Dick had found a splendid beetle. They went home to their friends, and told them what they had seen. It thus became known that he was an insect-collector. What could he want with the beetles and grubs? Surely he could not put them into his bread! Faugh! Then they whispered about that they had got a mad baker amongst them.

Dick, however, made friends of the boys. He said to them, “Whenever you can find a rare butterfly, bring it to me, and I will give you something for it. If it be in any way injured I will not have it.” Away the boys went hunting butterflies. Sometimes they brought him in a good specimen, and he gave them sixpence for it. Sixpence was a fortune to them. It bought no end of tops, clagum, and sweeties. If the butterfly was of no use, he would take it in his hand, and let it out of the back window. “Perhaps,” he said, “they may bring something valuable next time.” When an unusual butterfly was brought to him, he took great care of it, saw it go through its various transformations, and noted the results.

His love of insects became known, and his curiosity about them spread throughout the neighbourhood. Country people called upon him and brought what they thought rare things. One day a man called upon him, and, standing right before him, took out of his pocket a paper lucifer box, and cautiously screwing off the lid, he said “See!” Dick looked into the box, and seizing the creature within it by the tail, he pulled it out, and then shoved it in again. “Won’t it sting?” asked the man. “Oh, no,” said Dick, “it is a very humble creature,— only the Green Dragon Fly: it lives by devouring small flies.” “ Oh!” said the man, “ the country folks call it the Bull Adder, and they say that it stings.” “I wouldn’t have taken it by the tail if it did.” “Won’t you have it?” “No!” The man accordingly went away with the dragon-fly in his box.

Robert Dick’s mind was athirst for knowledge at this time. He was searching for facts .of all sorts. In 1835 he attended three courses of lectures delivered by Mr. Keir. They were upon astronomy, geology, and phrenology. He was greatly interested by the lectures. He not only heard them closely, but followed them up by study. He was particularly impressed by the lectures on astronomy. Hailey’s Comet was then careering through the heavens. Appearing, as it did, once in every seventy-five years, it was calculated to make a deep impression upon his thoughtful mind.

He borrowed such books on astronomy as he could obtain, and read them eagerly. He thus gathered a general notion of the subject; but he had no means of following it up. Telescopes were unknown at Thurso. He could only look up to the heavens, and admire and wonder. He was thus in a measure forced to inquire into such matters as lay within his own reach. He was sent back to mother earth, the secrets of which still remained to be unveiled. Hence his love for geology, and the beginning of his knowledge of the rocks of Thurso, which he first obtained from Keir’s lectures.

Phrenology also excited his deep interest. The subject had been made popular throughout Scotland by the lectures and works, and probably by the personal influence, of George Combe of Edinburgh. Though the “science,” as it was then called, is now nearly forgotten, it was then the subject of much discussion. George Combe started the Phrenological Magazine to advocate his views, and to maintain the principles of phrenology. He also established the Phrenological Lecture Hall and Museum, where he collected an immense number of busts of distinguished and notorious characters.

Dick, in his enthusiasm, had his head shaved, and a cast was taken of it in plaster of Paris. He gave half a crown to a brave little girl, and induced her to have her head shaved; after which he made a cast of her head in the usual way. He sent to Edinburgh and had a phrenological cranium from O’Neil, the famous cast-maker. Writing to his eldest sister, he said,—“ Mind, Nan, that when you seek for a wife for Robert, you must find one with a high forehead. None else are genuine.” But Robert could not go on looking at people’s heads, and studying their development. Big heads and little heads, big bumps and little bumps, seemed a profitless study. So he condescended to study more practical subjects,—things that lie at every man’s door. He could not grasp the heavens. He could understand the planetary system; but he could not unravel the deeper meanings of the vast circle of creation. He could, however, descend to the things that lay at his feet,—to his common mother earth, which is as full of wonders as the stars. He could pursue his first love,—the love of flowers and plants, which he had pursued while wandering among the Ochil hills.

Dick was still a bachelor. He had a house and a shop to manage; and some of his friends advised him to marry. His old master, Mr. Aikman of Tullibody, writing to him in 1834, said:—“Mrs. Aikman sends her kind respects to you. She is happy to think that you are still a bachelor, as her family is mostly girls.” Another friend at Greenock, where Dick had lived when a journeyman, wrote to him thus :—“My wife sends her best wishes. She hopes you will soon get married. You are losing time completely. If you wait much longer I will be speaking to you about my daughter. We are beating up. We have two married already. Come, come, look sharp!” But the fly, however skilfully thrown, could not draw the fish from his depths.

We have been informed that Robert once made a proposal of marriage to a young lady, but that she refused him. Some overtures of reconciliation were afterwards made. But he had been refused once; he would not be refused again. The disappointment only threw him back upon himself. He became more recluse, solitary, and companion!ess, than before. He was satisfied to remain unmarried, with Annie Mackay as his servant and housekeeper.

Among the things which occupied Dick’s attention, was a mechanical method which he proposed for working up his biscuit, instead of using the baker’s rail. For it must be known that he was the best biscuit-maker in Thurso. He had brought this art from Tullibody. Besides, his master sent him the proper receipts for the different kinds of biscuit and “parlyment.” In making biscuit, the practice is to work the dough in the trough; the baker sitting on a rail, bumping the stuff up and down in a radiating manner. Dick thought this might as well be done by machinery. He got a mechanic to help him to perfect the machine; but though it was completed, it was not used. His trade was not great; and he found that his own hands were amply sufficient for the purpose of making his daily bread.


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