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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter XIX. Robert Dick in Adversity


Flowers, ferns, and mosses, must for a time disappear, and give place to troubles, disappointments, and sorrows. It is a bard work-a-day world in which we live. Misfortunes follow close upon pleasures, however innocent; and we must set ourselves to bear them as best we may.

Dick was never a rich man. The most that he could do was to make both ends meet and keep out of debt. He could even spare a little money to buy books. Before 1860, we find him buying from the Thurso book- . seller the History of British Lichens, the Coloured Ferns of Britain, Sowerbys Ferns, and the Handbook of British Mosses.

But after that time his business fell off rapidly, and he had to be more sparing in his book-buying. It must be said of Dick that he closely attended to his business. Only once do we find him confessing that he had stolen a morning from his daily work; and that was when he went on his long journey to Freswick, to search for shells among the boulder clay for his friend Hugh Miller.

Though he often left the town at midnight, his bread for the following morning had been baked before he left. It was sold during the day by his housekeeper. And he was always back to Thurso to resume his work on the same evening. During the interval, he had been rambling over the county, and sometimes walking from fifty to eighty miles—wandering under the red sandstones on Dunnet Head—or travelling to Reay, the Dorery Hills, or Strath Halladale. His journeys to Morven were usually made on the fast days, which gave him a day extra.

He lost his business principally through excessive competition. When he first went to Thurso, there was only another baker besides himself. He was then comfortable enough,—though he did all his work himself,— never employing either a journeyman or an apprentice. Two more bakers commenced business in 1856. Each of these took a certain share of his trade ; and, of course, his business fell off. Writing to his sister in May 1856, he said: “ The mischief done me can never be repaired here. I’ve lost much, and am still losing; and what is worst of all, I am losing my health. I have not had a day’s health since February last, and goodness knows that if I had to take to my bed all would be over. And is it not very hard, and a poor reward for the twenty-five years of toil and privation that I have had? Very hard indeed! I wish I could get away; but where to, or what to labour at, I know not. To go abroad seems ridiculous in every way, as I would either have to try to be a shepherd or a day-labourer. Sometimes I think I might contrive to work in a malt-kiln, but perhaps I could not get that even if I tried.

“And thus my existence is embittered. Years, many years ago, I saw the dark clouds gathering close about me; and now it has all come true. Often was I on the point of leaving. But infatuated procrastination always whispered, ‘Try again.’ I did 'try again,’ but it was of no use. It only led to further loss. And losing, and losing slowly though surely, in spite of all my toil and care, until my small means are so reduced that I hardly now dare to look into the future. O if I had only gone away four years ago! If I had gone then, I should have been stronger in Means, stronger in Health, and, above all, stronger in Will and determination. Alas! I feel that by and by I shall be as soft as a piece of boded fish!”

Though stdl engaged in finding fossd fishes for Hugh Miller, and collecting botanical specimens from the grasses, ferns, and mosses of Caithness, the thought was constantly in his mind of how he could get away from his losing business. At one time he thought of getting admitted to the Coastguard service; but he found that he was too old for the position. But could he not yet remove from Thurso, and set up as a baker elsewhere? Muckart, a village near Kinross, was mentioned to him; but he said, that “no man in his senses would set his foot there.” Then Bannockburn, near Stirling, was mentioned: would that do? “No,” said he; “I have a dread of weaving places. Weavers often suffer great misery, and a stoppage of trade is clean ruin.” Another place was mentioned, where a business was for sale. But he had not the means of buying or carrying on the trade. And thus he was left at Thurso, to “try again ”!

Matters became worse and worse. More bakers appeared in Thurso, and his trade again diminished. Some of them sold whisky and groceries, besides carrying on the baking business. Whisky was a great competitor; for Caithness folks are very drouthy. The Reverend William Smith of Bower, whose members, and even whose elders, were much addicted to the use of spirituous liquors, once addressed his congregation as follows: —"My brethren, we are told in the Scriptures that the elders of old were filled with the Holy Spirit; but now-a-days, they’re filled with John Barleycorn!” One may guess the wind-up of his sermon.

Dick was thus very heavily handicapped, as he lived by baking alone. He then thought of carrying on a tea business, and thus adding to his income. But the idea was abandoned. One of the whisky and grocery bakers determined to undersell all the bakers in Thurso. He did so, and afterwards became a bankrupt. But Dick gained nothing from that. In the contest he was nearly ruined.

“How many bakers, think you,” he writes to his sister in 1862, “are now in Thurso? Six master bakers, and thirteen apprentices! All doing well, they say!

Who rises earliest? Dick. Who is the oldest? Dick. And yet Dick has not made a fortune! I wish I had left here in 1843,—that is, eighteen years ago. There is no use in repining. Yet how manfully I have battled, no one knows. You see, from one of the, papers you sent me, that a baker’s wife at Alva drowned herself in Devern river, and that a baker at Cupar-in-Fife has hanged himself. It did not surprise me.”

His sister offered to send him money and clothing. Robert refused the help. “Things have not come so far as that yet,” he said. “If they had, I should need a strait jacket. To those who have to struggle by their labour for a living, the prescription of coddling and nursing is about the worst treatment imaginable. It is neither good nor profitable in any way. When any man or woman consents to receive such things as you spoke of, and for such a purpose, then adieu to all self-dependence and self-respect. Then, ten to one, the individual would become degraded and useless. You have no idea how injurious it is, both to soul and body, to wear next your skin what one never toiled for. Besides, your income is little enough for yourself.”

And yet Thurso was improving. Many new inhabitants were added to the town, but very few of them came to Dick’s counter for bread. Pavement-cutting had superseded herring-fishing. Many new flag quarries had been opened out, and those who had fished for herrings now cut flags for pavement. Many of the old Highland cottars, who had been driven from their homes, also resorted to Thurso for the same purpose.

“In fact,” said Dick, “the flag-trade here is everything; I and the town increases from day to day, chiefly by additions from the surrounding country. The town is all new-streeted and new-roaded. No dirty water runs along them now. There are three policemen to keep down dunghills. We have three new churches, two new banks, and a gaswork. There is a fine statue of Sir John Sinclair in front of the Moderate Kirk, alias the Establishment. We have a new hotel, a new court-house, and new shops. Whole rows of new houses have been built. We have a steamer to Orkney, a steamer to Leith, and a din about a railway* In fact, nearly everything has been changed, except the fields round the town. These remain very much the same, being fenced with flagstones set on end. When I came first to the county, many of the poor people never saw the sun until they came out and sat down at the ends of their cots. But now, there are very few houses without windows to be seen, though there are as many swine as ever. Poor cottars are now dressed like ladies and gentlemen—nothing but silks and parasols. ‘Jack’s as good as his master,’ and sometimes he thinks himself a good deal better. A dreadful place for money-gathering, all coupled with a tremendous thirst for sermons and prayer-meetings. Notwithstanding this, we have scraping and lying all the week through.”

None of this prosperity affected Dick. His business was steadily falling off. And yet “the weary siller” must be worked for. He was now getting old, and felt himself unfitted for entering upon any new occupation. He would have emigrated, but he had not the means. Nor could he remove to any other place, for the same reason. He was bound like a limpet to its rock. But for his love of nature, it must have been a lonely life that he led. He seems to have had few friends to whom he could communicate his joys or his sorrows. At least he never mentions them in his letters to his sister, in which he mentioned all that he knew, and all that he was doing. The principal person about him was his old housekeeper, Annie Mackay, whose half Highland, half-Scotch conversations, he sometimes mentions to his sister. Here, for instance, is a specimen:— “Och hane! I’m thinkin’ it’s yeersel that’s in the starvation countrie, wi’ yeer eggs at saxteen pence the dizzen, and yeer coos’ butter at twenty pence the new pund! Och a nee, the like o’ that’s a farlie! Fat gars ye spike that waa, and consither a firlot little when she’s muckle ? Eh-a? I dinna see yeer mistaaks, and hoo ye read yeer paper upside doun. Fan yeer wark is deen, ye gang oot by an’ kill yeersel and no be sorrin at the fyre. That’s fat ye sud dee, an’ if ye dinna, ye kenna fat’s the consequence, nor hoo a’ study wearies the flesh. Forbye, ye tak cauld, and get giddy in yeer head, loss understandin’, and coup ower, an’ mistaks, damage things, and brak. Fat wye? Fat sense’s that?

I dinna see ony intinuit.

“I canna see hoo ye see, I canna mak oot hoo ony Christan genlm is to gang oot in mires, brakin stanes amang snaw, and seekin’ whistles in a moor hill-side. ]STa, na; he’s fustlin’ eneugh in Lonon [this must refer to Sir Eoderick Murchison], sittin in a chair toastin’ his taes, and lookin at Africa wye two thousin lochs amang mountains. Forbye ye mistak sair a’ the warl’s wyes, an hoo anither thing says one thing is meant. An’ foo, unless yeer astonishmen’ is greet, yeer need to spike is *little.”

Dick seems to have been much amused by the conversation of his housekeeper. She was a very careful woman. She never wasted a farthing’s worth of her master’s goods. When beggar children came to the door, she was firm in her resistance to their entreaties.

“The breed wuna hers, but the maister’s.” The bairns waited until the maister was at home, and then they had their serving. For Dick was always generous to hungry children. “My kin’ maister,” said Annie, “was very fond o’ bairns that wud be clean an’ tidy. Mony a time he gaed a piece ta ony poor bodie that cam to the door.”

Another thing that kept Dick poor was his honesty. He gave full weight—full measure and running over, lie never scrimped any poor person of his bread. His quarter-loaf always contained four pounds full; whereas the loaves of many of the other bakers were short by about four ounces. Their two-pound loaves were short by about two ounces. Thus, cheating had the advantage over honesty, of six per cent on every loaf of bread sold. That was a profit by itself; but few people had the means of weighing their bread, to detect the honesty or dishonesty of their baker, and therefore the cheating went on—to Dick’s ruin. Yet he never relaxed his principle of giving full weight. “Honesty’s the best policy,” continued to be his maxim. He felt that it was better to die than be dishonest.

In a letter written to his sister at this disconsolate period of his life, he says :—

“I have not much of a hopeful kind around me, and yet, as I have a sun and moon of my own, I am generally very cheerful. I often take some hearty laughs when no one is near me. I am nearly indifferent to the whole world. But that won’t do either. I keep always moving—never indulging in idleness or lying in bed in the morning. Up at four o’clock, or half-past four at latest; sometimes at three o’clock.

“There is a baker here that lies in his bed till seven or eight, and his two apprentices keep knocking at his door until he rises. He goes dabbling on till eight or nine at night. Besides parridge, wife, and bairns, he knows no more. That’s not worth living for. People came into the world for something better.

“I am working at my plants perseveringly; and whatever is to be the end, I keep moving. . . . Nor am I ignorant that all my toil is vanity, in one sense, and perhaps in every sense. I am indifferent nearly to everything. Hope of any real happiness in this world is out of the question.”

And again:—

“I have been poring every spare minute over dried mosses. I have been so engaged during the last month. Not long since, I had the eager curiosity to walk out one night, when I picked up a very nice moss by the light of the moon! You may ask, how could I do that? Thanks be praised, I’ve got my eyesight, my feelings, and I can grape too. It was a very frosty night, and hailstones lay thick upon the bog; but I knew the exact spot where the mosses grew. I had taken a look at them some six weeks before, and found them in prime condition. The world was asleep. Mosses, not Moses. I often consult Moses’ writings. How fine that is about the scapegoat sent into the wilderness, with the cord about his horns, bearing a burden that he did not feel. Splendid Bible that!

“If any friend asks you about your brother Robert, you may say that he inherits the blessing of Jacob’s son. If they inquire which son, you may say the one who was likened to an ass stooping down between two burdens’—with this difference, that instead of two, your brother has a score or two of burdens. He knows by sad experience that ‘rest is good.’ But he is at times so wearied and sore that he cannot find rest. And further, the person who said that ‘ the harder the work the sweeter the rest/ never toiled hard in his life. But there is nothing for the machine that has been long in use but to keep it going, otherwise it would fall to pieces. So I always keep in motion, though the battle is not half won yet.”

One of his troubles was that his eyesight was becoming defective. “You see,” he said to his sister, “that I am on the decline—not in bodily strength, for I can walk sixty miles without a rest—but in eyesight. I have to use spectacles with candlelight, either in reading or writing. I am employing my spare time in working at my plants. I have arranged fourteen hundred specimens, but I may say that I have three thousand specimens altogether, because of the varieties.”

His sister sent him a new pair of spectacles, bought expressly for him at Edinburgh, but they did not suit his eyes. “It is a sad annoyance to me,” he said in reply, “that I cannot read with them—the more especially as I can hardly live without books, and my time for reading is principally in the evening. As it is, I must endure the drawback. Few and scanty are my pleasures ; indeed they are such as are usually despised by thoughtless people. I will surely try to live an inoffensive life, though I’m no favourite with anybody. I have a great deal of unknown grief. This world’s people have almost left me, and I struggle hard, very hard.”

His sister at once sent him a new pair of spectacles, and they suited him better; but he said, “It is rheumatism that has been troubling me, and giving me that dreadful pain in the eyes. . . . Your petting is not good for me. I’ve been so long accustomed to rough usage, that your kindness seems quite unnatural. I have laid my own specks aside, and am trying your pair, but there is no abatement in the rheumatism—not one hair. I pay for reading as dear as ever. It is certainly rather hard that there should be any tax whatever on the means of acquiring knowledge.

“I am pretty indifferent to the thought of growing old, if I could only read as freely as I used to do. Nothing like the natural eyesight. I never wearied then. I did not need to squeeze my eyeballs or my eyelids, to get relief. If the pain were constant, I should be truly miserable. But as yet the infliction merely comes and goes.”

In the autumn of 1862, Professor Wyville Thomson, then of Queen’s College, Belfast, called upon Mr. Dick at his bakehouse, and had some conversation with him as to the fossil fishes of the Old Bed Sandstone. The Professor was introduced by Charles Peach, and was therefore made cordially welcome. After some conversation about fossils, Dick turned to the subject of Botany, and the Professor promised, so far as he could, to furnish him with the specimens of dried plants of which he was still in want. On his return to Belfast, he sent Dick a list of British plants, and asked him to mark those which he required for his herbarium.

Sir Wyville Thomson has favoured us with the following recollection of his visit:—

“My acquaintance with Robert Dick was very slight, but I was greatly struck with all I saw of him, I had been working at the Old Eed beds in Orkney with William Watt, another very remarkable man, somewhat of the same character; and crossing over by Thurso, I spent two or three hours with Dick, whom I knew about through my old friend Peach. I was specially interested at the time in the structure of Coccosteus, and had got some fine specimens in Orkney, with all the outer armour plates capitally preserved; but I remember Dick showing me some curiously preserved examples from beds of a different character near Thurso, which threw a good deal of light upon the form of the cartilaginous part of the skeleton.

“Dick was a singular man—very shy and retiring, and not very easy of access in his bakehouse. Peach had a very great regard for him. He was intelligent, and fairly well read on all matters. One fancy he had was for Egyptian antiquities, and his bakehouse was all over with Egyptian hieroglyphs. He was a good botanist, and a very intelligent geologist. He did not, however, believe in the succession of species, and would never have done for a Darwinian. His firm conviction was, that all living creatures had been on this earth at the same time."

The result of the visit was, that Dick promised to resume his researches into the fossil fish beds near Thuiso, and to send the result of his findings to Professor Wyville Thomson at Belfast. Winter was approaching, and the days were shortening. Thus some time elapsed before he could further communicate with the Professor. He thus described the result of his labours to his sister:—

“My spare time,” he said, “is very limited; and seeking fossil fish in stones at this season (Februaiy 9, 1863) is like playing at Blind Man’s Buff—all a-groping in the dark; and it is at the same time attended with the severest labour. As yet, I have found nothing extraordinary. I am fairly in for a search amongst the rocks until the first of April. While the weather is cold, I don’t mind smashing away with a hammer on the rocks; but when the air grows mild, the toil becomes too much—and all for amusement! ”

In the meantime, a letter arrived from Professor Thomson (February 18, 1863) congratulating Dick upon recommencing his labours among the rocks. “I will try to be careful,” he said, “but there is great pleasure in change. An old fact looks so fresh when you look at it through a nice new green theory! At all events, I am right glad that you have taken to the old fishes again. I never saw in my life a little set from which such a lot of information could be extracted as from yours. I think I must come north again for a longer look at them.

“You have one specimen which could throw a deal of light upon a question I am working at just now—a dorsal plate of Coccosteus, which has a sort of double appearance, - as if there had been a thick plate of cartilage below the bone. I was more taken up at the time with Asterplepis; so I just glanced at it. But now, when I am writing about Coccosteus, it comes back to my memory. I do not remember the size of the specimen, but it would be a great favour if you could lend it to me for a few days. I do not know if you ever do such a thing, but it is a common practice among us working men.”

“Can you tell me anything new about Coccosteus? All information would be most thankfully received at present. The next set I mean to take up is Asterolepis.”

Encouraged by this letter, Dick proceeded with his researches among the Thurso rocks. After the lapse of a month, his sister wrote to him to inquire what new fossils he had found; and he thus (March 10, 1863) described the results of his labours:—

“When I promised,” he said, “to look out for specimens for Professor Thomson, I had faint hopes of finding anything. I had overhauled almost every accessible rock from Portskerra to John o’ Groat’s House; and that too so very patiently, that I knew, or thought I knew, that very little presented itself on the external surface worthy of the toil of digging. I resolved, however, to try the sea-shore. I there noted all the changes that had occurred since the date of my last visit.

“A furious storm had been hammering upon the rocks since then. Storms make havoc of stronger things than ships. What power a stormy sea has! Its incessant thunderings upon the shores often make a new section of the land. It washes away the bitumen, and leaves new strata exposed, so that they may be traced in layers, one above the other. I now found many large blocks of rock, which a hundred men could not move, tossed about as a strong man would toss a football.

“As the sea had gone thundering along over the rocky ledges, the waves had torn up and removed many of the lesser masses, thus exposing to the curious eye numerous fresh surfaces. I ran eagerly to examine them; for there, if anywhere, I knew that I might have a chance of finding fossils. My luck was, however, very ordinary. I found many scales of the size of halfpennies; bits of bones; bits of fins; and little sea-shells. I found, also, bits of plants, hard and black. In one spot, a large stone had been driven along, and by its weight, as it grated on the rocks, had exposed what, to the inexperienced eye, would seem a trifling bit of bone. I saw it, and laughed aloud. I knew it! I knew it, though not more than the breadth of a penny-piece lay exposed ! The rest was under the stone.

“I returned home, but not without marking many wonders. On the following day I returned to the stone, with my hammer and chisels. After fully an hour’s hard labour, I dug out the bone, and carried it home with me. I afterwards cut it neatly with a saw. It now awaits Professor Thomson. No one can give him such another bone. A truth! I have a few small fishes, fish-heads, plants, shells, and sundry other things, for the Professor, and I expect more; but ’tis awful hard work.”

Dick also gave the following account of Professor Thomson’s visit to a geological friend in London : “ The Professor very kindly offered to assist me with a few of my desiderata in dried British plants. I thought I would try to get a fossil or two for him in return, before I drew upon his kindness; and this notion sent me with renewed zeal to all my old haunts by the shores. . . . Since two weeks after New Year’s day, I have been working at intervals. My hardihood has been put to a severe enough test. Only think of my hammering at the rocks for fossils in a snowstorm!” Unfortunately, the fossils which Dick had intended for Professor Thomson were not sent to him. The reason of that omission will be explained in the next chapter.


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