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Life of a Scotch Naturalist, Thomas Edward
Chapter I. Early Years


Thomas Edward was born at Gosport, Portsmouth, on Christmas-day, 1814. His father, John Edward, was a private in the Fifeshire militia. Shortly after his enlistment at Cupar, he went to Aberdeen to join his regiment. While stationed there, he became acquainted with, and afterward married, Margaret Mitchell, a native of the place.

Not long after John Edward’s marriage, his regiment was ordered to Portsmouth. Toward the close of the Continental war, militia regiments were marched hither and thither, from one end of the country to another. The regular troops had mostly left England, to meet the armies of Napoleon in the Peninsula and the Low Countries. The militia were assembled in camps along the coast, or were stationed in garrisons do hold watch and ward over the French prisoners confined there. Hence the appearance, of the Fifeshire militia at Gosport, where the subject of our story was born.

When the Battle of Waterloo had been fought, and peace fell upon Europe, the English army returned from abroad. The militia were no longer needed for garrison duty, and the greater number of them were sent home. The Fifeshire militia were ordered to Fife, and took up their quarters at Cupar. During that time, John Edward’s wife and family resided at the village of Kettle, about six miles south-w’est of the county town. They lived there because John was a native of the place, and had many relatives in the village.

At length the militia were disembodied. Edward returned to Kettle, and resumed his trade of a hand-loom linen-weaver. After remaining there for some time, he resolved to leave for Aberdeen. His wife liked neither the place nor the people. Kettle was a long, straggling, sleepy village. The people were poor, and employment was difficult to be had. Hence Edward did not require much persuasion to induce him to leave Kettle and settle in Aberdeen, where his wife would be among her own people, and where he would be much more likely to find work and wages to enable him to maintain his increasing family.

Arrived at Aberdeen, John Edward and his wife “took up house” in the Green, one of the oldest quarters of the city. Their house was situated at the foot of Ronnie's Wynd, near Hadden’s “Wool mill.” There was really a Green in those days, lower down the hill. The Denburn ran at the foot of the Green. There were also the Inches, near the mouth of the Dee, over which the tide flowed daily. -

Since then the appearance of that part of Aberdeen has become entirely changed. Railways have blotted out many of the remnants of old cities. The Green is now covered with houses, factories, and the Aberdeen Railway-station— its warehouses, sidings, and station rooms. A very fine bridge has been erected over the Green, now forming part of Union Street; the Palace Hotel overlooking the railway-station and the surrounding buildings.

Thomas Edward was brought up in his parents’ house in the Green, such as it was sixty years ago. It is difficult to describe how he became a naturalist. He himself says he could never tell. Various influences determine the direction of a boy’s likings and dislikings. Boys who live in the country are usually fond of birds and birdnesting; just as girls who live at home are fond of dolls and doll-keeping. But this boy had more than the ordinary tendency to like living things ; he wished to live among them. He made pets of them; and desired to have them constantly about him.

From his birth he was difficult to manage. His mother said of him that he was the worst child she had ever nursed. He was never a moment at rest. His feet and legs seemed to be set on springs. When only about four months old, he leaped from his mother’s arms, in the vain endeavor to catch some flies buzzing in the window. She clutched him by his long clothes, and saved him from falling to the ground. He began to walk when he was scarce ten months old, and screamed when any one ventured to touch him. And thus he went on, observing and examining—as full of liking for living things as he was when he tried to grasp the flies in the window at Gosport.

When afterward asked about the origin of his love for natural history, he said, “I suppose it must have originated in the same internal impulse which prompted me to catch those flies in the window. This unseen something— this double being, or call it what you will—inherent in us all, whether used for good or evil, which stimulated the unconscious babe to get at, no doubt, the first living animals he had ever seen, at length grew in the man into an irresistible and unconquerable passion, and engendered in him an insatiable longing for, and earnest desire to be always among, such things. This is the only reason I can give for becoming a lover of nature. I know of none other.”

While living at Kettle, the child began to walk. He made friends with the cats and dogs about the house. He was soon able to toddle out-of-doors. At first he wished to cultivate the acquaintance of the cocks and hens and ducks, of which the village was full; but they always ran away before he could get up to them and caress them.

There was, however, another and a much more dangerous creature whose acquaintance he sought to make. This was a sow called Bet, with a litter of pigs. Whenever he was missing, he was found looking in at the pigs. He could not climb over the paling, but could merely look through the splits.

The sow was known to be ferocious, and she was most so when she had a litter of pigs. Edward’s mother was afraid lest the sow should injure him by biting his hands or face through the bars of the cruive. Therefore she warned him not to go near the beast; but her warnings were disregarded. When she asked, “Where’s Tam?” the answer invariably was, “Oh, he’s awa wi’ the pigs.”

One day the boy disappeared. Every hen-house, every stable, every pig-sty, and every likely corner of the village, was searched ; but in vain. Tom was lost! He was then little over a year old. He could not have gone very far. Somebody raised the cry that he had been “stolen by the gypsies!” It was remembered that some tinkers had been selling their brooms and pans in the village that afternoon; and it was immediately concluded that they had kidnaped the child. It was not so very unreasonable, after all. Adam Smith, the author of “The Wealth of Nations,” had been kidnaped by a gypsy woman when a child at Kirkcaldy, many years before; and such things live long in popular recollection.

A hue and cry was accordingly got up in Kettle about the bairn that had been stolen by the gypsies. Their camp was known to be in the neighborhood, about three miles off. Tom’s nncle and three other men volunteered to go early next morning. The neighbors went to their homes, except two, who remained with the mother. She sat by the fire all night — a long, wretched, dreary night. Early in the morning the four men started. They found the gypsy camp, and stated their grievance. They “wanted the child that had been kidnaped yesterday.” “What?” said the chief gypsy; “we never kidnap children: such a dishonest deed has never been laid to our charge. But, now that you are here, you had better look for yourselves.”

As the searchers were passing through among the carts and tents, they were set upon by a number of women and girls, and belabored with every kind of weapon and missile. Those who had neither sticks nor ropes used their claws. The men were unmercifully pummeled and scratched before they could make their escape. They reached Kettle in a deplorable state—without the child!

All hopes of his recovery in that quarter being ended, another body of men prepared to set out in another direction. But at this moment they were amazed by a scream outside the house. All eyes were turned to the door, when in rushed the pig-wife, and, without the least ceremony, threw the child into his mother’s lap. “There, woman, there’s yer bairn! but for God’s sake keep him awa frae yon place, or he may fare war next time.” “But whar was he?” they exclaimed in a breath. “Whar wud he be but below Bet and her pigs a’ nicht!”

When the family removed to Aberdeen, yonng Edward was in his glory. The foot of Rennie’s Wynd was close to the outside of the town. He was enabled to roam into the country by way of Deeside and Ferry hill. Close at hand were the Inches — not the Inches of to-day, but the beautiful green Inches of sixty years ago, covered with waving algae. There, too, grew the scurvy - grass, and the beautiful sea-daisy. Between the Inches were channels through which the tide flowed, with numerous pots or hollows. These were the places for bandies, eels, crabs, and worms.

Above the Inches, the town’s manure was laid down, at a part now covered by the railway-station. The heaps were remarkably prolific in beetles, rats, sparrows, and numerous kinds of flies. Then the Denburn, at the foot of the Green, yielded no end of horse-leeches, powets (tadpoles), frogs, and other creatures that abound in fresh or muddy water. The boy used daily to play at these places, and brought home with him his “venomous beasts,” as the neighbors called them. At first they consisted, for the most part, of tadpoles, beetles, snails, frogs, sticklebacks, and small green crabs (the young of the Carcinus mamas); but as he grew older, he brought home horse-leeches, asks (newts), young rats—a nest of young rats was a glorious prize—field-mice and house - mice, hedgehogs, moles, birds, and bird’snests of various kinds.

The fishes and birds were easily kept; but as there was no secure place for the puddocks, horse-leeches, rats, and such-like, they usually made their escape into the adjoining houses, where they were by no means welcome guests. The neighbors complained of the venomous creatures which the young naturalist was continually bringing home. The horse-leeches crawled up their legs and stuck to them, fetching blood ; the puddocks and asks roamed about the floors ; and the beetles, moles, and rats sought for holes wherever they could find them.

The boy was expostulated with. His mother threw out all his horse-leeches, crabs, birds, and bird’s nests; and he was strictly forbidden to bring such things into the house again. But it was of no use. The next time that he went out to play he brought home as many of his “beasts” as before. He was then threatened with corporal punishment; but that very night he brought in a nest of young rats. He was then flogged; but it did him no good. The disease, if it might be so called, was so firmly rooted in him as to be entirely beyond the power of outward appliances. And so it was found in the end.

Words and blows having failed to produce any visible effect, it was determined to keep him in the house as much as possible. His father, who was a hand-loom weaver, went to his work early in the morning, and returned late at night. His meals were sent to him during the day. The mother, who had her husband’s pirns to fill, besides attending to her household work, was frequently out of the way; and as soon as she disappeared, Tom was off to the Inches. When any one made a remark about her negligence in not keeping a tighter hold of the boy, her answer was, “Weel, I canna be aye at his heels.” Sometimes he was set to rock the cradle; but on his mother’s arrival at home, she found the rocker had disappeared. He was also left to play with the younger children; but he soon left them to play by themselves.

He was occasionally sent a message, though he rarely fulfilled it. He went to his old haunts, regardless of the urgency of the message. One morning he was sent to his father’s workshop with his breakfast; but instead of going there, he set off for the Stocket, several miles from town, with two other loons. Tom induced them to accompany him. The Stocket was a fine place for birds and bird’s-nests. They searched all day, and returned home at night. The father never received his breakfast: it was eaten by Edward and the loons.

As a punishment for his various misdoings, he was told one morning that he wras to be confined to the house all day. It was a terrible punishment, at least to him. Only a portion of his clothes was given him, that he might not go out; and as a further precaution, his mother tied him firmly to the table-leg with a thick wisp of thrums. She also tied his wrists together with a piece of cord. When she went out on family affairs, Tom’s little sister was set to watch him. But he disengaged himself from his bonds almost as quickly as the Davenport brothers. With a mixture of promises and threats, he made his little sister come to his help ; and the two together pushed the table close to the grate, when, putting the rope which confined his legs between the ribs, it soon burned asunder, and he was free. He next tried to find his clothes, but his mother had hidden them too securely. He found a coat of his elder brother’s, much too big for himself: nevertheless he put it on.

His mother’s feet were now heard on the stair. Tom hid himself at the back of the door, so that he might rush out as soon as she entered. The door was opened; his mother rushed in, screaming, and Tom ran away. The table to which the rope had been attached was on fire, and the house would soon have been in a blaze. In quenching the flames of the rope attached to the boy’s leg, he had forgotten, in his hurry, to quench the burning of the rope still attached to the table. Hence the fire. But Tom was now at liberty. He soon got rid of his shackles, and spent a glorious day out-of-doors. He had a warm home-coming at night; but the less said of that, the better.

In fact, the boy was found to be thoroughly incorrigible. He was self-willed, determined, and stubborn. As he could not be kept at home, and would not go a message, but was always running after his “ beasts,” liis father at last determined to take his clothes from him altogether; so, one morning when he went to work, he carried them with him. When the boy got up, and found that he had nothing to wear, he was in a state of great dismay. His mother, having pinned a bit of an old petticoat round his neck, said to him, “I am sure you’ll be a prisoner this day.” But no! His mother went down-stairs for milk, leaving him in the house. He had tied a string round his middle, to render himself a little more fit for moving about. He followed his mother down-stairs, and hid himself at the back of the entry door; and as soon as she had passed in, Tom bolted out, ran down the street, and immediately was at his old employment of hunting for crabs, horse-leeches, puddocks, and sticklebacks.

His father, on coming home at night with Tom’s clothes in his hand, looked round the room, and asked, “Is he in bed?” “Na!” “Fars is he?” “ Weel, I left him here when I gaed to the door for milk, and when I came back he was awa; but whether he gaed out o’ the window or up the lum, I canna tell.” “Did ye gie him ony claes?” “No!” “Most extraordinary!” exclaimed the father, sit ting down in his chair. He was perfectly thunderstruck. His supper was waiting for him, but he could not partake of it. A neighboring woman shortly after entered, saying, “Meggy, he’s come!” “Oh, the nickem!” said Tom’s mother, “surely he’s dead wi’ cauld by this time. Fat can we do wi’ him? Oh, Mrs. Kelmar, he’ll break my very heart! Think o’ him being oot for haill days without ony meat! Often he’s oot afore he gets his breakfast, and we winna see him again till night. Only think that he’s been out a’ the day ’maist naked! We canna get him keepit in frae thae beasts o’ his!”

“He’ll soon get tired o’ that,” said Mrs. Kelmar, “if ye dinna lick him.” “Never!” roared old Edward; “I’ll chain him in the house, and see if that will cool him.” “But,” rejoined Mrs. Kelmar, “ye maunna touch him the night, John.” “I’ll chain him to the grate! But where is he? Bring him here.” “He’s at my fireside.” By this time, Tom, having followed at her heels, and heard most of what was said about him, was ready to enter as she came out. “Far hae ye been, you scamp?” asked his mother. “At the Tide!” His father, on looking up, and seeing the boy with the old petticoat about him, bedabbled by the mud in which he had been playing, burst into a fit of laughter. He leaned back on his chair, and laughed till he could laugh no more.

“Oh, laddie,” said the mother, “ye needna look at me in that way. It’s you that he’s laughin’ at, you’re sic a comical sicht. Ye’ll gang to that stinkin’ place, man, till ye droun yoursel, and sine ye winna come back again.” Tom was then taken in hand, cleaned, and scrubbed and put to bed. Next morning his father, before he went out, appeared at the boy’s bedside, and said, “If ye go out this day, sir, I’ll have you chained.” “But,” replied Tom, “ye hinna a cooch;” for he had no notion of any thing being chained but dogs. “Never mind,” said his father, “I’ll chain you!”

The boy had no inclination to rise that day. He was hot and cold alternately. When he got up in the afternoon, he was in a “gruize.” Then he went to bed again. By the evening he was in a hot fever. Next day he was worse. He raved, and became delirious. He rambled about his beasts and his birds. Then he ceased to speak. His mouth became clammy and his tongue black. He hung between life and death for several weeks. At length the fever spent itself, leaving him utterly helpless.

One afternoon, as he was gradually getting better, he observed his mother sitting by his bedside. “Mother,” said he, “where are my crabs and bandies that I brocht hame last nicht?” “Crabs and bandies!” said she; “ye’re surely gaun gyte if it’s three months sin ye were oot!” This passed the boy’s comprehension. His next question was, “Has my father gotten the chains yet?” “Na, laddie, nor winna; but ye maunna gang back to yer auld places for beasts again.” “But where’s a’ my things, mother?” “They’re awa! The twa bottoms o’ broken bottles we found in the entry, the day you fell ill, were both thrown out.” “And the shrew-mouse ye had in the boxie?” “Calton [the cat] took it.” This set the boy a-crying, and in that state he fell asleep, and did not waken till late next morning, when he felt considerably better. He still, however, continued to make inquiries after his beasts.

His father, being indoors, and seeing the boy rising and leaning upon his elbow, said to him, “Come awa, laddie. It’s long since ye were oot. The whins, and birds, and water-dogs at Daiddie Brown’s burnie will be a’ langin to see ye again.” The boy looked at his mother and smiled, but said nothing. In a few days he was able to rise, but the spring was well advanced before he was able to go out-of-doors.

He then improved rapidly. He was able to go farther and farther every day. At first he wandered along the beach. Then he roamed about over the country. He got to know the best nesting places—the woods, plantations, and hedges—the streams, burns, locks, and mill-dams—all round Aberdeen. When the other boys missed a nest, it was always “that loon Edward” that took it. For this he was thrashed, though he was only about four years old.

One of his favorite spots was the Den8 and quarries of Kubislaw. There were five excellent places in the den for bird’s nests and wild flowers. But he went to the quarries chiefly to find the big bits of sheep’s silver, or mica, in the face of the rocks. Edward was much astonished at the size of the rocks. He knew how birds made their nests; he knew how flowers and whins grew out of the ground; but he did not know how rocks grew. He asked his parents for the reason. They told him that these rocks had existed from the beginning. This did not satisfy him, and he determined to ask one of the men at the quarry, who certainly ought to know how the rocks grew. “How do the rocks grow?” asked he of a quarry-man one day. “Fat say ye?” Tom repeated the question. “To the deil wi’ ye, ye impudent brat, or I’ll toss ye owre the head o’ the quarryI” Tom took to his heels and fled, never looking back.

Another favorite haunt was Daiddie Brown’s burnie. There were plantations and hedges near it, and fields close at hand on either side. Its banks were thickly clothed with wild raspberries and whins—the habitats of numerous birds. The burn itself had plenty of water-dogs, or water-rats, along its banks. That neighborhood has now been entirely overbuilt. The trees, the hedges, the whins, and even the burn itself, have all been swept away.

Tom’s knowingness about bird’s  nests attracted many of his boy-fellows to accompany him in his expeditions. He used to go wandering on, forgetful of time, until it became very late. On such occasions the parents of the boys became very anxious about them; and knowing that Tam Edward was the cause of their being kept so long away from home, they forbade them accompanying him again on any account. When he asked them to go with him a bird-nesting, their answer usually was, “Wha wad gang wi’ you? Ye never come hame!” Even when Tom did get any boys to follow him, he usually returned alone.

On one occasion he got some boys to accompany him to a wood at Polmuir, about two miles from town, on a bird-nesting expedition. While they were going through the wood, a little separated, one of them called out, “A byke, a byke, stickin’ on a tree, and made o’ paperI” A byke was regarded as a glorious capture, not only for the sake of the honey, but because of the fun the boys had in skelpin’ out the bees. Before they had quite reached the spot, one of the youngest boys yelled out, “Oh! I’m stung, I’m stung!” He took to his feet, and they all followed. After they had run some distance, and there being no appearance of a foe, a halt was made, and they stood still to consider the state of affairs. But all that could be ascertained was, that the byke was on a tree, that it was made of paper, and that it had lots of yellow bees about it.

This so excited Tom’s curiosity that he at once proposed to go back and take down the paper byke. His proposal was met with a decided refusal; and on his insisting upon going back, all the other boys ran away home. Nothing daunted, however, he went back to that part of the wood where the byke had been seen. He found it, and was taking it from the under side of the branch to which it was attached, when a bee lighted upon one of his fingers and stung it severely. The pain was greater than from any sting that he had ever had before. He drew bach, and sucked and blew the wound alternately, in order to relieve the pain.

Then he thought, “What can I do next?” There the byke hung before him. It was still in his power to remove it—if he could. To leave it was impossible. Although he had nothing to defend himself from the attacks of the bees, nor any thing to put the byke into when he had taken it down, still he would not go without it. His bonnet could scarcely do. It was too little and too holey. His stockings would not do, because he wished to take the byke home whole. A thought struck him. There was his shirt! That would do. So he took off his jacket, and disrobed himself of his shirt. Approaching the tree very gently, though getting numerous stings by the way, he contrived to remove the byke from the branch to which it was hanging, and tucked it into his shirt. He tied the whole up into a sort of round knot, so as to keep all in that was in.

It was now getting quite dark, and he hurried away with his prize. He got home in safety. He crept up the stair, and peeped in at the key-hole to see that the coast was clear. But no! he saw his father sitting in his chair. There was an old iron pot in a recess on one side of the stair, in which Tom used to keep his numerous “ things,” and there he deposited his prize until he could unpack it in the morning. He now entered the house as if nothing had happened. “Late as usual, Tam,” said his father. No further notice was taken. Tom got his supper shortly after, and went to bed.

Before getting into bed, he went a little out of the way to get undressed, and then, as much unseen as possible, he crept down beneath the blankets. His brother, having caught sight of his nudity, suddenly called out, “Eh, mother, mother, look at Tam! he hasna gotten his sark!” Straightway his mother appeared at the bedside, and found that the statement was correct. Then the father made his appearance. “Where’s your shirt, sir?” “I dinna ken.” “What! dinna ken?” addressing his wife—“Where’s my strap?” Tom knew the power of the strap, and found that 'there was no hope of escaping it.

The strap was brought. “Now, sir, tell me this instant, where is your shirt?” “It’s in the bole on the stair.” “Go and get it, and bring it here immediately.” Tom went and brought it, sorrowfully enough, for he dreaded the issue. “And what have you got in it?” “A yellow bumbees’ byke.” “A what?” exclaimed his father and mother in a breath. “A yellow bumbees’ byke.” “Did I not tell you, sir,” said his father, “only the other day, and made you promise me, not to bring any more of these things into the house, endangering and molesting us as well as the whole of our neighbors? Besides, only think of your stripping yourself in a wood, to get off your shirt to hold a bees’ byke!”

“But this is a new ane,” said Tom; “it’s made o’ paper.” “Made o’ fiddlesticks!” “Na, I’ll let ye see it.”

“Let it alone; I don’t want to see it. Go to bed at once, sir, or I shall give you something [shaking his strap] that will do you more good than bees’ bykes!”

Before the old couple went to bed, they put Tom’s shirt into a big bowl, poured a quantity of boiling water over it, and, after it was cold, they opened the shirt, and found—a wasps’ nest!


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