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Life of a Scotch Naturalist, Thomas Edward
Chapter VI. Settles at Banff


Edward was about twenty years old when he left Aberdeen and went to Banff to work at his trade. He found a master there willing to employ him. Shoe-making had not improved. Men worked long hours for little wages. The hardest worker could only earn a scanty livelihood. Though paid by the piece, the journeymen worked in the employers’ shops. Their hours were from six in the morning till nine at night. They had scarcely an interval of time that they could call their own.

Edward found the confinement more miserable than the wages. And yet he contrived to find some time to follow his bent. He went after birds, and insects, and butterflies. He annoyed his shopmates almost as much as he had annoyed his school-fellows. In summer-time, he collected a number of caterpillars, and put them in a box beside him in the workshop, for the purpose of watching them, and observing their development into the chrysalis state.

In spite of his care, some of the caterpillars got out and wandered about the floor, sometimes creeping up the men’s legs. Some of the workmen did not care, but one of them was almost thrown into convulsions when he knew that a “worm was out.” The other men played tricks upon him. When any of them wanted a scene, they merely said, "Geordie, there’s a lad oot!” Then Geordie would jump to his feet, and would not sit down again until he was assured that all the worms were fast in their boxes.

Edward was forced to keep his caterpillars in the workshop, as the landlady with whom he lodged would not allow any of his “vermin,” as she called them, to enter her house. He had one day taken in about a dozen caterpillars of the puss moth, and asked her for a box to hold them in. The landlady told him at once to get out of the house with his “beasts.” She never could understand her lodger. She could not fathom “fat kin o’ a chiel he was. A body tried to keep awa frae vermin hut kimsel’”

The idea again recurred to Edward of saving money enough to enable him to emigrate to the United States; but this was prevented by his falling in love! Man proposes: God disposes. He met with a Huntly lass at the farm of Boyndie. He liked her, loved her, courted her, married her, and brought her home to the house which he had provided for her in Banff.

Edward was only twenty-three years old when he brought his wife home. Many may think that he was very imprudent in marrying so early. But he knew nothing about “Malthus on Population.” He merely followed his natural instincts. What kept him would keep another also. It turned out, however, that he had married wisely. His marriage settled him for life. He no longer thought of emigrating to America. Then, his marriage gave him a happy home. His wife was bright and cheerful, and was always ready to welcome him from his wanderings. They were very poor, it is true; but mutual affection makes up for much. Perhaps they occasionally felt the bitterness of poverty; for Edward’s earnings did not yet amount to more than about nine shillings and sixpence a week.

Another result of Edward’s marriage was, that it enabled him to carry on his self-education in natural history. While he lived in lodgings, he had few opportunities for collecting objects. It is true, he explored the country in the neighborhood of Banff. He wandered along the sands toward Whitehills, and explored the rocky cliffs between Macduff and Gamrie. He learned the geography of the inland country and of tlie sea-coast. He knew the habitats of various birds and animals. Some of the former he procured and stuffed; for by this time he had acquired the art of preserving birds as well as insects. But while he lived in lodgings he had no room for stuffed birds or preserved moths and butterflies. It was only when he got a home of his own that he began to make a collection of these objects.

It was a great disadvantage to him that his education should have been so much neglected in his boyhood. He had, it is true, been at three schools before he was six years old; but, as we have already seen, he was turned away from them all because of his love of “beasts.” He had learned comparatively little from his school masters, who knew little themselves, and perhaps taught less. He was able to read, though with difficulty. Arithmetic was to him a thing unknown. He had not even learned to write. It was scarcely possible that he could have learned much in his boyhood, for he went to work when he was only six years old.

An attempt was made to teach him writing while he was apprenticed to Begg, the drunken shoe-maker. He asked leave to attend a writing-school held in the evening. His master could not, or would not, understand the meaning of his request. “What!” said he, “learn to write! I suppose you will be asking to learn dancing next! What business have you with writing? Am I to be robbed of my time to enable you to learn to write?” Edward’s parents supported the application, and at last the master gave his consent. But there was always some work to do, or something to finish and carry home to the master’s customers, so that Edward rarely attended the writing-school; and at the end of the quarter he knew very little more of penmanship than he did at the beginning.

Edward had to begin at the beginning with every thing. As we have already said, he knew next to nothing of books. He did not possess a single work on natural history. He did not know the names of the birds and animals that he caught. For many years after he had begun his researches his knowledge of natural objects was obtained, by chance. He knew little of the nature and habits of the creatures that he went to seek; he scarcely knew where or how to find them. Yet his very absence of knowledge proved a source of inexhaustible pleasure to him. All that he learned of the form, habits, and characteristics of birds and animals was obtained by his own personal observation. His knowledge had been gathered and accumulated by himself. It was his own.

It was a misfortune to Edward that, after he had attained manhood, he was so shy and friendless. He was as solitary as Wordsworth’s Wanderer. He had no friend of any sort to direct him in his studies; none even to lend him books, from which he might have obtained some assistance. He associated very little with his fellow-workers. Shoe-makers were a very drunken lot. Edward, on the contrary, was sober and thoughtful. His fellow-shoe-makers could not understand him. They thought him an odd, wandering, unsettled creature. Why should he not, as they did, enjoy himself at the public house? Instead of doing this, Edward plodded homeward so soon as his day’s work was over.

There was, however, one advantage which Edward possessed, and it compensated him for many difficulties. He was an intense lover of nature. Every thing that lived and breathed had charms for him. He loved the fields, the woods, the moors. The living presence of the earth was always about him, and he eagerly drank in its spirit. The bubbling brooks, the whispering trees, the aspects of the clouds, the driving wind, were all sources of delight. He felt himself free amidst the liberty of nature.

The ocean in its devious humors—sometimes peacefully slumbering, or laving the sands with murmuring kisses at his feet; then, full of life and motion, carrying in and out the fishermen’s boats along the shores of the Firth; or, roaring with seeming agony, dashing itself in spray against the rock-bound coast—these sights and scenes were always a source of wonderment. As his wanderings were almost invariably conducted at night, he had abundant opportunities of seeing, not only the ocean, but the heavens, in their various aspects. What were these stars so far off in the sky? Were they worlds? Were they but the outposts of the earth, from which other worlds were to be seen, far beyond the ken of the most powerful telescope?

To use Edward’s own words, “I can never succeed in describing my unbounded admiration of the works of the Almighty; not only the wonderful works which we ourselves see upon earth, but those wondrous and countless millions of orbs which roll, both near and far, in the endless immensity of space—the home of eternity.

“Every living thing that moves or lives, every thing that grows, every thing created or formed by the hand or the will of the Omnipotent, has such a fascinating charm for me, and sends such a thrill of pleasure through my whole frame, that to describe my feelings is utterly impossible.”

Another advantage which Edward possessed, besides his intense love of nature, was his invincible determination. Whatever object in natural history he desired to possess, if it were possible to obtain it, he never rested until he had succeeded. He sometimes lost for a time the object of which he was in search, because he wished to observe its traits and habits. For this purpose, he would observe long and carefully before obtaining possession of it. By this means he was enabled to secure an amount of information in natural history such as no book, except the book of nature, could have supplied him with.

Edward proceeded to make a collection of natural objects early in the spring of 1838. He was then twenty-four years old, and had been married about a year. He had, a short time before, bought an old gun for four and sixpence; but it was so rickety that he had to tie the barrel to the stock with a piece of thick twine. He carried his powder in a horn, and measured out his charges with the bowl of a tobacco-pipe. His shot was contained in a brown-paper bag. A few insect bottles of middling size, some boxes for containing moths and butterflies, and a botanical book for putting his plants in, constituted his equipment.

As he did not cease shoe-making until nine at night, nearly all his researches were made after that hour. He had to be back to his work in the morning at six. His wages were so small that he could not venture to abridge his working hours. It was indispensably necessary for him to husband carefully both his time and his money, so as to make the most of the one and the best of the other. And, in order the better to accomplish this, he resolved never to spend a moment idly, nor a penny uselessly.

On returning home from his work at night, his usual course was to equip himself with his insect boxes and bottles, his botanical book, and his gun; and to set out with his supper in his hand or stowed away in his pocket. The nearest spring furnished him with sufficient drink. So long as it was light, he scoured the country, looking for moths, or beetles, or plants, or birds, or any living thing that came in his way.

When it became so dark that he could no longer observe, he dropped down by the side of a bank, or a bush, or a tree, whichever came handiest, and there he dozed or slept until the light returned. Then he got up, and again began his observations, which he continued until the time arrived when he had to return to his daily labor. It was no unusual circumstance for him, when he had wandered too far, and come upon some more than usually attractive spot, to strip himself of his gear, gun and all, which he would hide in some hole; and, thus lightened of every thing except his specimens, take to his heels, and run at the top of his speed, in order to be at his work at the proper time.

On Saturdays he could only make his observations late at night. He must be home by twelve o’clock. Sabbath-breaking is an intolerable sin in Scotland, and Edward was never a Sabath-breaker. It was a good thing for his mental and physical health that there was a seventh day during which he could not and would not work. But for his seventh day’s rest, he would have worked night and day. On Sundays he went to church with his wife and family. After evening service he took off his best clothes, and donned his working dress. Then he took a few hours’ sleep in his chair or lying across his bed, before setting out. He thus contrived to secure a few hours’ observation on Monday mornings before six o’clock.

His neighbors used to say of him, “It is a stormy night that keeps that man Edward in the house.” In fact, his neighbors were completely bewildered about his doings. They gave vent to all sorts of surmises about his wanderings by night. Exaggerated rumors spread about among the towns people. He went with a gun! Surely he couldn’t be a poacher or a burglar? That was impossible. It was well known that he lived soberly and honestly, denying himself many things, and never repining at his lot, though living a life of hardship. But what could he mean by wandering about at night among wild, lonely, and ghost-haunted places? They wouldn’t have slept in Boyndie church yard for worlds! And yet that was one of Edward’s favorite spots!

He went out in fine starlit nights, in moonlight nights, and in cold and drizzling nights. Weather never daunted him. When it rained, he would look out for a hole in a bank, and thrust himself into it, feet foremost. He kept his head and his gun out, watching and waiting for any casualties that might happen. He knew of two such holes, both in sand-banks and both in woods, which he occasionally frequented. They were foxes’ or badgers’ dens. If any of these gentry were inside when he took up his position, they did not venture to disturb him. If they were out, they did the same, except on one occasion, when a badger endeavored to dislodge him, showing his teeth. He was obliged to shoot it. He could often have shot deers and hares, which came close up to where he was; but they were forbidden animals, and he resisted the temptation. He shot owls and polecats from his ambuscades. Numbers of moths came dancing about him, and many of these he secured and boxed, sending them to their long sleep with a little drop of chloroform. When it rained heavily, he drew in his head and his gun, and slept until the first streaks of light appeared on the horizon; and then he came out of his hole and proceeded with his operations.

At other times he would take up his quarters for the night in some disused buildings, in a barn, a ruined castle, or a church-yard. He usually obtained better shelter in such places than if he were seated by the side of a stone, a bush, or a wall. His principal objection to them was, that he had a greater number of visitors there than elsewhere, such as polecats, weasels, bats, rats, and mice, not to speak of hosts of night-wandering insects, mollusks, beetles, slabers, centipedes, and snails. Think of having a polecat or a weasel sniff-sniffing at your face while asleep! or two or three big rats tug-tugging at your pockets, and attempting to steal away your larder! These visitors, however, did not always prove an annoyance. On the contrary, they sometimes proved a windfall; for, when they came within reach, they were suddenly seized, examined, and, if found necessary, killed, stuffed, and added to the collection.

The coldest places in which Edward slept at night were among the rocks by the sea-side, on the shingle, or on the sea-braes along the coast. When exposed to the east wind, these sleeping-places were perishingly cold. When he went inland, he could obtain better shelter. In summer-time, especially, he would lie down on the grass and sleep soundly, with the lock of his gun for his pillow and the canopy of heaven for his blanket. His ear was always open for the sounds of nature, and when the lark was caroling his early hymn of praise, long before the sun had risen, Edward would rise and watch for day-break.

“When from the naked top
Of some bold headland he beheld the sun
Rise up, and bathe the world in light.”

In the course of his wanderings inland he was frequently overtaken by storms in the hills. He carried no cloak, nor plaid, nor umbrella, so that he often got completely soaked before he could find shelter.

One of the most remarkable nights Edward ever spent was under a grave-stone in the church-yard of Boyndie. The church of this parish was at one time situated in the midst of the church-yard; but as it was found inconvenient, and at a considerable distance from the bulk of the parishioners, it was removed inland, leaving but a gable-end of the old church standing. The church-yard, however, is still used as a burying-place. It stands on a high piece of ground overlooking the sea, about two miles west of Banff. In clear days, the bold, rugged, precipitous coast is to be seen, extending eastward as far as Crovie Head. But the night of which we speak was very dark; the sky was overhung with rolling clouds; the sea was moaning along the shore. Edward expected a wild night, as he had seen the storm brewing before he left home. Nevertheless, he went out as usual.

He had always regarded a thunder-storm as one of the grandest sights. He rejoiced in the warring of the elements by day, and also by night when the inhabitants of the earth were wrapped in sleep. As he approached old Boyndie, the storm burst. The clouds were ripped open, and the zigzag lightning threw a sudden flood of light over land and sea. Torrents of rain followed, in the midst of which Edward ran into the church yard, and took shelter under a flat tombstone supported by four low pillars. There was just room enough for him to lie down at full length. The storm was not yet at its height. The thunder pealed and crashed and rolled along the heavens, as if the universe were about to be torn asunder and the mighty fragments hurled out into infinity. It became louder and louder—mearer and nearer. The lightning flashed in red and yellowish, fiery streams; each flash leaving behind it a suffocating, sulphurous odor. Then followed torrents of rain and hail and lumps of ice.

After the thunder-storm the wind began, lightly at first, but, increasing rapidly, it soon blew a hurricane. The sea rose, and lashed its waves furiously along the coast. Although Edward had entertained no fear of the thunder, he now began to fear lest the tremendous fury of the wind would blow down the rickety gable-end of the old church of Boyndie; in which case it would have fallen upon the tombstone, under which he lay.

The hurricane lasted for about an hour, after which the wind fell. Midnight was long past, and morning was approaching. Before leaving the tombstone, Edward endeavored to obtain a few minutes’ sleep. He had just begun to doze, when he was awakened by a weird and unearthly moaning. He listened. The moaning became a stifled scream. The noise grew louder and louder, until it rose into the highest pitch of howling. What could it be? He was in the home of the dead! Was it a ghost? Never! His mind revolted from the wretched superstition. He looked out to see what it could be, when something light in color dashed past like a flash, closely followed by another and a darker object. After the screaming had ceased, Edward again composed himself to sleep, when he was wakened up by a sudden rush over his legs. He looked up. The mystery was solved! Two cats, a light and a dark one, had been merely caterwauling in the grave-yard, and making night hideous, according to their usual custom.

By this time the day was beginning to break, and Edward prepared to leave his resting-place and resume his labors. He felt very stiff as he crept from under the tombstone, where he had been lying in a cramped position. He was both cold and wet; but his stiffness soon wore off; and after some smart running in the open air his joints became a little more flexible, and, shortly after, he returned home.

Edward had frequent mishaps when he went out on these nocturnal expeditions. One summer evening he went out moth-hunting. The weather was mild and fair, and it gave promise of an abundant “take” of moths. He had with him his collecting-box under his arm, and a phial of chloroform in his pocket. His beat lay in a woody dale, close by the river’s side. He paced the narrow footpath backward and forward, snapping at his prey as he walked along the path.

The sun went down. The mellow thrush, which had been pouring forth its requiem to the parting day, was now silent. The lark flew to its mossy bed, the swallow to its nest. The wood-pigeon had uttered its last coo before settling down for the night. The hum of the bee was no longer heard. The grasshopper had sounded its last chirp ; and all seemed to have sunk to sleep. Yet nature is never at rest. The owl began to utter its doleful and melancholy wail; the night-jar (Caprimulgus Europceys) was still out with its spinning-wheel-like birr, birr; and the lightsome roe, the pride of the lowland woods, was emitting his favorite niodit bark. .

The moths continued to appear long after the butterflies had gone to rest. They crowded out from their sylvan homes into the moth catcher’s beat. These he continued to secure. A little drop of the drowsy liquid, and the insect dropped into his box, as perfect as if still in nature’s hands. Thus he managed to secure a number of first-rate specimens, among others, the oak egger moth, the unicorn hawk-moth, the cream-spot tiger-moth, the angle-sliades, the beautiful China-mark, the green silver-line, and various other specimens. He hoped to secure more; but in the midst of his operations he was interrupted by the approach of an extraordinary-looking creature.

He was stepping slowly and watchfully along his heat, crooning to himself, “There’s nae luck aboot the house,” when, looking along the narrow footpath, he observed something very large, and tremendously long, coming toward him. He suddenly stopped his crooning, and came to a standstill. What could the hideous-looking monster be? He could not see it clearly, for it had become dark, and the moon was not yet up. Yet there it was, drawing slowly toward him. He was totally unarmed. He had neither his gun nor even his gully knife with him. Fear whispered, “Fly! fly for your life!” but courage shouted, No! no! stand like a man and.a true naturalist, and see the worst and the best of it!” So he stood his ground.

At length the animal gradually approached him. He now observed that it consisted of three large and full-grown badgers, each a short distance behind the other, the foremost being only about sixteen yards from where he stood. He had for some time been on the lookout for a badger to add to his collection, and now he hoped to be able to secure one. He rushed forward; the badgers suddenly turned and made for the river along-side of which his beat had extended. He wrapped a handkerchief round his hand to prevent the animals biting him, threw off his hat, and bolted after the badgers. He was gaining on them rapidly, and as he came up with the last, which was bolting down into the river, he gave it a tremendous kick; but, in doing so, he fell suddenly flat on his back in the midst of the path. When he came to himself, he began to feel if his legs were broken, or if his head were still on. Yes, all was right; but, on searching, he found a tremendous bump upon the hack of his head as big as a turkey’s egg.

Such was the end of his night’s moth-hunting. But his head was so full of badgers, and he was so confused with his fall, that when he reached home and went to sleep, he got up shortly afterward, loaded his gun for the purpose of shooting a badger, and as he was in the act of putting a cap on the nipple, he suddenly awoke!


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