My Early Years


Born 1808 ,
Mary Peterkin ,
The brilliant red poppies ,
Left-handed ,
Patrick's birthday ,
Vocal performance ,
A wonderful escape ,
Events of the war ,
The French prisoners ,
Entry of the 42d into Edinburgh ,
Bleaching "claes" on the Calton ,
The Greenside workshops ,
The chimes of St. Giles' ,
The Edinburgh Market ,
The caddies ,
The fishwives ,
The "floore" ,
Traditional fondness for cats ,
A Nasmyth prayer ,

I WAS born on the morning of the 19th of August 1808, at my father's house No. 47 York Place, Edinburgh. I was named James Hall after my father's dear friend, Sir James Hall of Dunglass. My mother afterwards told me that I must have been "a very noticin' bairn," as she observed me, when I was only a few days old, following with my little eyes any one who happened to be in the room, as if I had been thinking to my little self, "Who are you?"

After a suitable time I was put under the care of a nursemaid. I remember her well -- Mary Peterkin -- a truly Scandinavian name. She came from Haddingtonshire, where most of the people are of Scandinavian origin. Her hair was of a bright yellow tint. She was a cheerful young woman, and sang to me like a nightingale. She could not only sing old Scotch songs, but had a wonderful memory for fairy tales. When under the influence of a merry laugh, you could scarcely see her eyes; their twinkle was hidden by her eyelids and lashes. She was a willing worker, and was always ready to lend a helping hand at everything about the house, She took great pride in me, calling me her "laddie."

When I was toddling about the house, another sister was born, the last of the family. Little Mary was very delicate; and to improve her health she was sent to a small farm-house at Braid Hills, about four miles south of Edinburgh. It was one of the most rural and beautiful surroundings of the city at that time. One of my earliest recollections is that of being taken to see poor little Mary at the farmer's house. While my nursemaid was occupied in inquiring after my sister, I was attracted by the bright red poppies in a neighbouring field. When they made search for me I could not be found. I was lost for more than an hour. At last, seeing a slight local disturbance among the stalks of corn, they rushed to they spot, and brought me out with an armful of brilliant red poppies. To this day poppies continue to be my greatest favourites.

When I was about four or five years old, I was observed to give a decided preference to the use of my left hand. Everything was done to prevent my using it in preference to the right. My mother thought that it arose from my being carried on the wrong arm by my nurse while an infant. The right hand was thus confined, and the left hand was used. I was constantly corrected, but "on the sly" I always used it, especially in drawing my first little sketches. At last my father, after viewing with pleasure one of my artistic efforts, done with the forbidden hand, granted it liberty and independence for all time coming. "Well," he said, "you may go on in your own way in the use of your left hand, but I fear you will be an awkward fellow in everything that requires handiness in life. I used my right hand in all that was necessary, and my left in all sorts of practical manipulative affairs. My left hand has accordingly been my most willing and obedient servant in transmitting my will through my fingers into material or visible forms. In this way I became ambidexter.

When I was about four years old, I often followed my father into his workshop when he had occasion to show to his visitors some of his mechanical contrivances or artistic models. The persons present usually expressed their admiration in warm terms of what was shown to them. On one occasion I gently pulled the coat-tail of one of the listeners and confidentially said to him, as if I knew all about it, "My papa's a kevie Fellae!" My father was so greatly amused by this remark that he often referred to it as "the last good thing" from that old-fashioned creature little Jamie.

One of my earliest recollections is the annual celebration of my brother Patrick's birthday. Being the eldest of the family, his birthday was held in special honour. My father invited about twenty of his most intimate friends to dinner. My mother brought her culinary powers into full operation. The younger members of the family also took a lively interest in all that was going on, with certain reversionary views as to

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