From my earliest years, my great desire was to be a sailor. I cannot account for my liking for a sailor’s life. None of my own people had any connection with the sea, and I had associated very little with seafaring folk. To me, however, the fairest vision on earth was the sight ol the little barks passing up and down the Moray Firth ; and even when ardently engaged in boyish sports on the Links of Nairn – my native town = the appearance of a ship under sail, or of a boat rowing out of the harbour, set my fancy a working on pictures of the life of a sailor.
My first introduction to the fisher-folk of Nairn was somewhat amusing. I had when eleven years of age become junior clerk in the office of the inspector of poor, and part of my duty was to deliver the tax-papers to the ratepayers and collect the rates from those ready to pay. I got on fairly well as a tax-gatherer till I came to the fishertown. My difficulties then became overwhelming. The entire fisher population in Nairn have really but one surname – that of “Main.” They are distinguishable, even amongst themselves, only by the use of “tee-names.” Thirty or forty persons answer to the name of “John Main.” I had tax-papers for all of them. The houses were irregularly built, and the name of the street was no sure guide. The fisher-folk had a decided aversion to paying taxes, so I got no assistance from them. On the contrary, they did all they could to perplex and bewilder me, and refused to accept my papers. On entering a narrow close I discovered one rascal busily rubbing out the numbers on the door-lintels with a white- wash brush. I returned to the office, considerably crestfallen, with a large bundle of undelivered notices. The inspector listened to my tale of woe. “Go back to-morrow morning,” he said, “and if they don’t take the paper out of your hand pitch it on the floor, and leave them to find out who it is intended for. Catch one of them paying a penny more than is his due!” I did as I was told, and sure enough the plan succeeded. When they saw I was not to be done this time, they speedily engaged in the work of exchanging papers and otherwise redding up the confusion of names, and all the notices ultimately found their proper destination.
Before very long the fisher-folk and I became better acquainted. One day of oppressive dullness in the office, the inspector, discerning doubtless by my wearied looks that I was becoming tired of my occupation, re- marked “You don’t like this work, boy?” I promptly replied- “I would rather be a sailor! A sailor” he exclaimed : and a strange, wistful, far-off look came into the old man’s face as if the memory of an old dream had been suddenly awakened. I felt sure he had wanted to be a sailor himself at one time, and – what was more – regretted he had not followed his youthful fancy. My belief was confirmed when I found shortly after that his favourite intellectual pastime when office hours dragged was the construction of logarithms and the working of questions in navigation. He said nothing further, but I noticed he left his navigation books lying about in such a way as that I might, if so disposed, have a look at them during idle hours. My mind, however, was more intent on picturing the old inspector of poor as the commander of a great ship, with myself as his chief mate. I never could rid myself of the idea that the old gentleman had been born to be a sailor, but by some mischance had missed his destiny.
An opening in a shipowner’s office gave me what I wanted – a closer connection with the sea. I felt in my element in my new sphere. My master was engaged in a pretty extensive trade as an importer of coals and lime, and an exporter of timber and other local produce. It was a time when the minds of a few energetic men in the North of Scotland had awakened to the possibilities of a lucrative trade by sea between North and South, and my master was the boldest and most adventurous spirit among them. Nothing steadies a youth like responsibilities. Although only a boy of twelve years of age, I was entrusted with loading and discharging the vessels, following them from port to port in the Moray Firth, and receiving and paying large sums of money. I thought nothing about it at the time, but I have often wondered since how any man could have entrusted one of my age with such important affairs, not merely with the safety of the money, but with the transaction of business which often required considerable tact and judgement. I had, however, sense enough to know that my youth was against me in matters of business, but I endeavoured to make amends by being frank, respectful, and obliging to everybody. The first thing was to know what was best for my master’s interests the second was to make friends. And so I got on famously. A slip of a boy riding about on a greyfaced pony, with his pockets filled with charter parties, bank bills, cheques, and pound notes, I came to be a pretty familiar figure round the head of the Moray Firth during the early “Fifties,” and when it was found I knew what I was about, I came to be accepted and dealt with as a responsible agent.
Once only did I find my youth to be a reproach. A smack, named “The Mary,” went ashore one night on the Whiteness Head – a sandspit near Fort-George. She was laden with herrings. All the seafaring worthies of the place – and they were a funny lot, many of them – were engaged to get the vessel off the sandbank. was there as time-keeper and general administrator. After weeks of hard work, day and night, on the lonely sandbank, we succeeded in surrounding the craft by innumerable empty beer barrels, lashed together and fastened to the hull at low water. We had also a couple of old boats tommed down under her main boom which was placed amidships. We waited for the spring-tide. It came, and along with it a gale of wind from the N.E. The barrels broke adrift and the boats were doubled up. The “Mary” remained fast in her bed of sand. We were in despair, and contemplated abandoning the vessel as a wreck.
During the time I was on the scene, I had made the acquaintance of the son of a farmer in the neigh bouring Carse. He was the herd-boy, but a most intelligent, ingenious lad, and he suggested to me a way of floating her. Next morning I sent for a quantity of plasterer’s lath-board and tarred canvas. We nailed the boards and the canvas over the seams of the vessel, and she rose at once with the flood tide. I got great credit for the happy expedient, but it was really Donald Macpherson, herd-boy in the Carse of Delnies, who was the inventor of this appliance in ship-raising. Many years after, I narrated my first experience in ship-raising to a famous ship-raiser, and he remarked that the first method was as good as any that could have been adopted in the circumstances, but the lath and canvas was a new idea which he begged leave to make a note of. The cargo of herrings, which had been discharged on the beach, was sold by public auction for the benefit of whom it might concern. I bought the lot for £300, and the purchase was put down in my name. The vessel, properly repaired, reloaded the herrings and sailed for Ireland. Disputes arose respecting the ownership of the cargo, and litigation in the Irish Courts followed.
I was summoned to Dublin to give evidence. My purchase of the herrings, in the first instance, involved an important point in the case, and the court adjourned till my arrival. I caught the mail coach for the South, and crossed over by steamer to Dublin. It was my first glimpse of the great outer world. When I was ushered into the witnessbox, I noticed some of the learned gentlemen of the Bar smiling at my appearance. I had bought a new overcoat before starting from home : it was much too long for me, and I thought they must be making fun of it. The Judge adjusted his spectacles, and looking at me, asked in the severest tones, “Who is this ?” The Court roared with laughter. “Are you the- ah- -gentleman we have heard so much about in this case who bought a cargo of herrings at the Whiteness Head for £300 ?” I promptly replied, “I am, my Lord.” “What is your age?” “Thirteen years, my Lord ” – a declaration which caused renewed merriment in Court. “Is it usual for boys of your age in Scotland to engage in such extensive commercial speculation?” assured his Lordship that I had purchased timber repeatedly to a much greater value on my own responsibility. He drew from me a great many particulars of my work as shipping-clerk, and how I had frequently to buy and sell, to the best advantage, according to my own judgement. In the case of the cargo of herrings, i had been instructed to buy the herrings if they went at a reasonable price. I think his Lordship was favourably disposed towards me.
Our own Counsel gave me a most flattering character, and stated (which was not quite true) that but for me the ship “Mary” and her cargo would still have been on the Whiteness Head. The Counsel for the opposite side, however, declared that it was a fortunate circumstance that I had been produced in Court, as it confirmed his contention that the sale had been an attempt at fraud, for who, he asked, would believe that a boy of thirteen years of age could be a bona fide purchaser of a cargo of herrings ? We lost the case, on the ground that I was too young to be regarded as a responsible purchaser. My visit to Ireland intensified my desire to become a sailor. There was one great barrier – my mother refused her consent.
Strong as was my desire to go to sea, there was one attachment still stronger, and unless she had given her permission I would never have put a foot on board a ship. Running away to sea was not to my taste. I felt that I could never be happy if I left broken hearts behind me, and my observation has since been that without the feeling of home ties, a lad is deprived of one of the strongest incentives to do right. So I waited on. Perceiving at length that it was no mere fancy but a strong passion I had formed for a seafaring life, my good mother one day took me aside and told me she would no longer oppose my going to sea. It cost her a great struggle, I know. She sacrificed her dearest wishes to my inclination, and the thought of it put me on my mettle.