John Wilson.

Critical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) online

. (page 5 of 34)
Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 5 of 34)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

surely, to write sermons himself at his tender years, nay —
even to be able to give you chapter and verse for every
quotation from the Bible ? No. Better far that he should
begin early to break your heart, by taking no care even of
his Sunday's clothes — blotting his copy — impiously pin-
ning pieces of paper to the dominie's tail, who to him was
a second father — going to the fishing not only without


leave but against orders — bathing in the forbidden pool,
where the tailor was drowned — drying powder before the
school-room fire, and blowing himself and two crack-
skulled cronies to the ceiling — tying kettles to the tails of
dogs — shooting an old woman's laying hen — galloping
bare-backed shelties down stony steeps — climbing trees to
the slenderest twig on which bird could build, and up the
toolh-of-time-indented sides of old castles after wall-flowers
and starlings — being run away with in carts by colts
against turnpike gales — buying bad ballads from young
gipsy-girls, who, on receiving a sixpence, give ever so
many kisses in return, saying, " Take your change out ol'
that" — on a borrowed brokcn-knee'd pony, with a switch
tail — a devil for galloping — not only attending country-
races for a saddle and collar, but entering for and winning
the prize — dancing like a devil in barns at kirnis — seeing
his blooming partner home over the blooming heather,
most perilous adventure of all in which virgin-puberty can
be involved — fighting with a rival in corduroy breeches,
and poll shorn beneath a cawp, till his eyes just twinkle
through the swollen blue — and, to conclude " this strange
eventful history," once brought home at one o'clock in the
morning, God knows whence or by whom, and found by
the shrieking servant, sent out to listen for him in the
moonlight, dead-drunk on the gravel at the gate !

Nay, start not, parental reader — nor, in the terror of
anticipation, send, without loss of a single day, for your
son at a distant academy, mayhap pursuing even such
another career. Trust thou to the genial, gracious, and
benign vis medicatrix 7iaturce. What though a few clouds
bedim and deform " the innocent brightness of the new-
born day ?" Lo! how splendid the meridian ether ! What
though the frost seem to blight the beauty of the budding
and blowing rose ! Look how she revives beneath dew,
rain, and sunshine, till your eyes can even scarce endure
the lustre ! What though the waters of the sullen fen
seem to pollute the snow of the swan ? They fall ofi' from
her expanded wings, and, pure as a spirit, she soars away,
and descends into her own silver lake, stainless as the
water-lilies floating round her breast. And shall the im-
mortal soul suflcr lastinir contamination from the transient

56 Wilson's miscellankous writings.

chances of its nascent state — in this, less favoured than
material and immaterial things that perish? No — it is
undergoing endless transmigrations, — every hour a being
didercnt, yet the same — dark stains blotted out — rueful
inscriptions cflaccd — many an erasure of impressions once
thought permanent, but soon altogether forgotten — and
vindicating, in the midst of the earthly corruption in which
it is immersed, its own celestial origin, character, and end,
often flickering, or seemingly blown out like a taper in the
wind, but all at once self-reillumined, and shining in inex-
tinguishable and self-fed radiance — like a star in heaven.
Therefore, bad as boys too often are — and a disgrace to
the mother who bore them — the cradle in which they were
rocked — the nurse by whom they were suckled — the school-
master by whom they were flogged — and the hangman by
whom it was prophesied they were to be executed — wait
patiently for a few years, and you will see them all trans-
figured — one into a preacher of such winning eloquence,
that he almost persuades all men to be Christians — another
into a parliamentary orator, who commands the applause
of listening senates, and

" Reads liis history in a nation's eyes,"

— one into a painter, before whose thunderous heavens
the storms of Poussin " pale their ineffectual fires" — another
into a poet, composing and playing, side by side, on his
own peculiar harp, in a concert of vocal and instrumental
music, with Byron, Scott, and Wordsworth — one into a
great soldier, who, when Wellington is no more, shall, for
the freedom of the world, conquer a future Waterloo —
another who, hoisting his flag on the " mast of some tall
admiral," shall, like Eliab Harvey in the Temeraire, lay
two three-deckers on board at once, and clothe some now
nameless peak or promontory in immortal glory like that
shining on Trafalgar.

Well, then, after cat-killing comes coursing. Cats have
a look of hares — kittens of leverets — and they are all
called pussy. The terriers are useful still, preceding the
line like skirmishers, and with finest noses startling the
mawkin from bracken-bush, or rush-bower, her sky-light
garret in the old (juarry, or her brown study in the brake.


Away with your coursing on Marlborough downs, where
huge hares are seen squatted from a distance, and the
sleek dogs, disrobed of their gaudy trappings, are let slip
by a tryer, running for cups and collars before lords and
ladies, and squires of high and low degree — a pretty
pastime enough, no doubt, in its way, and a splendid caval-
cade. But will it for a moment compare with the sudden
and all-unlooked-for start of the " auld witch" from the
bunweed-covered lea, when the throat of every pedestrian
is privileged to cry halloo — halloo — halloo — and whip-
cord-tailed grayhound and hairy lurcher, without any invi-
dious distinction of birth or bearing, lay their deep breasts
to the sward at the same moment to the same instinct, and
brattle over the brae after the disappearing ears, laid flat at
the first sight of her pursuers, as with retroverted eyes she
turns her face to the mountain, and seeks the cairn only a
little lower than the falcon's nest?

What signifies any sport in the open air, except in con-
genial scenery of earth and heaven ? Go, thou gentle
cockney ! and angle in the New River; — but, bold English-
man, come with us and try a salmon-cast in the old Tay.
Go, thou gentle cockney ! and course a suburban hare in
the purlieus of Blackheath ;— but, bold Englishman, come
with us and course an animal that never heard a city-bell,
by day a hare, by night an old woman, that loves the dogs
she dreads, and, hunt her as you will with a leash and a
hhlf of lightfoots, still returns at dark to the same form in
the turf-dike of the garden of the mountain cottage. The
children who love her as their own eyes — for she has been
as a pet about the family, summer and winter, since that
chubby-cheeked urchin, of some five years old, first began
to swing in his self-rocking cradle — will scarcely care to
see her started — nay, one or two of the wickedest among
them will join in the halloo — for often, ere this, " has she
cheated the very jowlcrs, and lauched ower her shouther
at the lang dowgs walloping ahint her, sair forfaquhen up
the benty brae — and it's no the day that she's gaun to be
killed by rough Robin, or smooth Spring, or the red Bick,
or the hairy Lurcher — though a' fowr be let lowse on her
at ance, and ye surround her or she rise." What are your
great big fat lazy English hares, ten or twelve pounds and

58 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

upwards, wlio have the food brought to their very mouth
in preserves, and arc out of breath with five minutes
scamper among themselves — to the middle-sized, hard-
hipped, wiry-backed, steel-legged, long-winded mawkins of
Scotland, that scorn to taste a leaf of a single cabbage in
the wee moorland yardie that shelters them, but prey in
distant fields, take a breathing every gloaming along the
mountain-breast, untired as young eagles ringing the sky
for pastime, and before the dogs seem not so much scour-
ing for life as for pleasure, with such an air of freedom,
liberty, and independence, do they fling up the moss, and
cock their fuds in the faces of their pursuers. Yet stanch
are they to the spine — strong in bone, and sound in bot-
tom — see, see how Tickler clears that twenty-feet moss-
hag at a single spang like a bird — tops that hedge that
would turn any hunter that ever stabled in Melton Mow-
bi'ay — and then, at full speed northv/ard, moves as upon a
pivot within his own length, and close upon his haunches,
without losing a foot, off within a point of due south. A
kennel ! He never was and never will be in a kennel all
his free joyful days. He has walked — and run — and
leaped and swam about — at his own will — ever since he
was nine days old — and he would have done so sooner had
he had any eyes. None of your stinking cracklets for
him — he takes his meals with the family, sitting at the
right hand of the master's eldest son. He sleeps in any
bed of the house he chooses. And though no Methodist,
he goes every third Sunday to church. That is the edu-
cation of a Scottish grayhound — and the consequence is,
that you may pardonably mistake him for a deer dog from
Badenoch or Lochaber, and no doubt in the world that he
would rejoice in a glimpse of the antlers on the weather

" Wlicrc the liunter of deer and tlic warrior trode
To his hills that encircle the sea."

This may be called roughing it — slovenly — coarse —
rude — artless — unscientific. But we say no — it is your
only coursing. Gods! with what a bounding bosom the
schoolboy salutes the dawning of the cool — clear — crisp,
yes, crisp October morn, — for there has been a slight frost,


and the almost leafless hedgerows are all glittering with
rime, — and, little time lost at dress or breakfast, crams the
luncheon into his pouch — and away to the Trysting-hill
Farm- House, which he fears the gamekee|)er and liis
grows will have left ere he can run across the two long
Scotch miles of moor between him and his joy ! With step
elastic, he feels flying along the sward as from a spring-
board ; like a roe, he clears the burns, and bursts his way
through the brakes ; panting not from brcathlessness but
anxiety, he lightly leaps the garden fence without a pole,
and lo ! the green jacket of one huntsman, the red jacket of
another, on the plat before the door, and two or three tall
raw-boned poachers — and there is mirth and music, fun
and frolic, and the very soul of enterprise, adventure, and
desperation, in that word — while tall and graceful stand
the black, the brindled, and the yellow breed, with keen
yet quiet eyes, prophetic of their destined prey, and though
motionless now as stone statues of hounds at the feet of
Meleager, soon to launch like lightning at the loved
halloo !

Out comes the gudewife with her own bottle from the
press in the spence, with as big a belly and broad a bot-
tom as her own, and they are no trifle, — for the worthy
woman has been making much beef for many years, is,
moreover, in the family way, and surely this time there
will be twins, at least — and pours out a canty calker for
each crowing crony, beginning with the gentle, and end-
ing with the semple, that is our and herself; and better
speerit never steamed in sma'-still. She oflers another
with " hinny," by way of Athole brose ; but it is put off
till evening, for coursing requires a clear head, and the
same sobriety then adorned our youth, that now dignifies
our old age. The gudeman, although an elder of the
kirk, and with as grave an aspect as suits that solemn
office, needs not much persuasion to let the flail rest ibr
one day, anxious though he be to show the first aits in
the market; and donning his broad blue bonnet, and the
shortest-tailed auld coat he can find, and taking his kent
in his hand, he gruffly gives Wully his orders for a' things
about the place, and sets out with the younkers for a holi-
day. Not a man on earth who has not his own pastime,
depend on't, austere as he may look ; and 'twould be well

60 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

for this wicked world if no elder in it had a " sin tliat
maist easily beset him," worse than what Gibby Watson's
wife used to call his " awfu' fondness for the Grews !"

And who that loves to walk or wander over the green
earth, except, indeed, it merely be some sonnetteer or
ballad-monger, if he had time and could afford it, and
lived in a tolerable open country, would not keep, at the
very least, three grayhounds ? No better eating than a
hare, though old blockhead Burton — and he was a block-
head, if blockhead ever there was one in this world — in
his Anatomy, chooses to call it melancholy meat. Did
he ever, by way of giving dinner a fair commencement,
swallow a tureen of hare-soup, with half-a-peck of mealy
potatoes? If ever he did — and notwithstanding called hare
melancholy meat, there can be no occasion whatever for
wishing him any farther punishment. If he never did —
then he was on earth the most unfortunate of men. England
— as you love us and yourself — cultivate hare-soup, with-
out for a moment dreaming of giving up roasted hare well
stuffed with stuffing, jelly sauce being handed round on a
large trencher. But there is no such thing as melancholy
meat — either fish, flesh, or fowl — provided only there be
enough of it. Otherwise, the daintiest dish drives you to
despair. But independently of spit, pot, and pan, what
delight in even daunering about the home-farm seeking
for a hare ! It is quite an art or science. You must con-
sult not only the wind and weather of to-day, but of the
night before — and of every day and night back to last
Sunday, when probably you were prevented by the rain
from going to church. Then hares shift the sites of their
country seats every season. This month they love the
fallow-fieid, — that, the stubble — this, you will see them,
almost without looking for them, big and brown on the
bare stony upland lea — that, you must have a hawk's eye
in your head to discern, discover, detect them, like birds
in their nests, embowered below the bunweed or the
bracken — they choose to spend this week in a wood im-
pervious to wet or wind — that, in a marsh too plashy for
the plover — now you may depend on finding madam at
home in the sulks within the very heart of a bramble-bush
or dwarf black-thorn thicket, while the squire cocks his


Aid at you from the top of a knowe open to blasts from

all the airts in short, he who knows at all times where

to find a hare, even if he knew not one single thing else
but the way to his mouth, cannot be called an ignorant
man — is probably a better informed man in the long run
than the friend on his right, discoursing about the Turks,
the Greeks, the Portugals, and all that sort of thing,
giving himself the lie, on every arrival of his daily paper.
We never yet knew an old courser, (him of the Sporting
Annals included,) who was not a man both of abilities and
virtues. But where were we ? at the Trysting-hill Farm-
House, jocularly called, Hunger-them-Out.

Line is formed, and with measured steps we march
towards the hills — for we ourselves are the schoolboy,
bold, bright, and blooming as the rose — fleet of foot
almost as the very antelope — Oh ! now, alas ! dim and
withered as a stalk from which winter has swept all the
blossoms, — slow as the sloth along the ground — spindle-
shanked as a lean and slippered pantaloon !

" O heaven I that from our bright and sliining' years
Age would but take the things youth liccded not !"

An old shepherd meets us on the long sloping rushy
ascent to the hills — and putting his brown withered finger
to his gnostic nose, intimates that she is in her old form
behind the dike — and the noble dumb animals, with
pricked-up ears and brandished tail, are aware that her
hour is come. Plash, plash through the marsh, and then
on the dry furze beyond, you see her large dark-brown
eyes — Soho, soho, soho — Halloo, halloo, halloo — for a
moment the seemingly horned creature appears to dally
with the danger, and to linger ere she lays her lugs on
her shoulder, and away, like thoughts pursuing thoughts
— away fly hare and hounds towards the mountain.

Stand all still for a minute — for not a bush the height
of our knee to break our view — and is not that brattling
burst up the brae " beautiful exceedingly," and sufficient
to chain in admiration the beatings of the rudest gazer's
heart? Yes; of all beautiful sights — none more, none so
much so, as the miraculous motion of a four-footed wild
animal, changed at once from a seeming inert sod or

VOL. I. 6

62 Wilson's jiiscellaneous avritings.

stone, into flight fleet as that of the falcon's wing! Instinct
against instinct ! fear and ferocity in one flight ! Pursuers
and pursued hound together, in every turning and twisting
of their career, by the operation of two headlong passions!
Now they are all three upon her — and she dies ! No !
glancing aside, like a bullet from a wall, she bounds
almost at a right angle from her straight course — and,
for a moment, seems to have made good her escape.
Shooting headlong one over the other, all three, with
erected fails, suddenly bring themselves up — like racing
barks when down goes the helm, and one after another,
bowsprit and boom almost entangled, rounds the buoy,
and again bears up on the starboard tack upon a wind, —
and in a close line — head to heel — so that you might
cover them all with a sheet in slips of the Magazine —
again, all open-mouthed on her haunches, seem to drive,
and go with her over the cliff.

We are all on foot — and pray what horse could gallop
through among all these quagmires, over all the hags in
these peat-mosses, over all the water-crcssy and puddocky
ditches sinking soft on hither and thither side, even to the
two-legged leaper's ankle or knee — up that hill on the
perpendicular strewn with flint-shivers — down these loose-
hanging clifTs — through that brake of old stunted birches
with stools hard as iron — over that mile of quaking muir
where the plover breeds — and finally — up — up — up to
where the dwarfed heather dies away among the cinders,
and in winter you might mistake a flock of ptarmigan for
a patch of snow?

The thing is impossible — so we are all on foot — and the
fleetest keeper that ever flew in Scotland shall not in a run
of three miles give us twenty yards. " Ha ! Peter, the
wild boy, how are you off for wind?" — we exultingly
exclaim, in giving Rod-jacket the go-by on the bent. But
see — sec — ihey are bringing her back again down the
Red Mount — glancing aside, she throws them all three
out — yes, all threcj and few enow too, though fair play
be a jewel — and ere they can recover, she is a-hcad a
hundred yards up the hill. There is a beautiful trial of
bone and bottom ! Now one, and then another, lakes
almost impercej)tibly the lead — but she steals away from


them, inch by inch — beating them all blind — and, sud-
denly disappearing — Fleaven knows how — leaves them all
in the lurch. With out-lolling tongues, hanging heads,
panting sides, and drooping tails, they come one by one
down the steep, looking somewhat sheepish, and then lie
down together on their sides as if indeed about to die in
defeat. She carried away her cocked fud unscathed for
ihe third time, from three of the best in all broad Scotland
— nor can there any longer be the smallest doubt in the
world, in the minds of the most sceptical, that she is —
what all the country-side have long known her to be —
a witch.

From cat-killing to coursing, we have seen that the
transition is easy in the order of nature — and so is it from
coursing to fox-hunting — by means, however, of a small
intermediate step — the harriers. Musical is a pack of
harriers as a peal of bells. How melodiously they ring
the changes in the woods, and in the hollow of the moun-
tains ! A level country, we have already consigned to
merited contempt (though there is no rule without an
exception; and, as we shall see by and by, there is one
too here), and commend us, even with harriers, to the ups
and downs of the pastoral or sylvan heights. If old or
indolent, take your station on a heaven-kissing hill, and
hug the echoes to your heart. Or, if you will ride, then
let it be on a nimble galloway of some fourteen hands,
that can gallop a good pace on the road, and keep sure
footing on bridle-paths, or upon the pathless braes — and
by judicious horsemanship, you may meet the pack at
many a loud-mouthed burst, and haply be not far out at
the death. But the schoolboy — and the shepherd — and
the whipper-in — as each hopes for favour from his own
Diana — let them all be on foot — and have studied the
country for ever}'' imaginable variety that can occur in
the winter's campaign. One often hears of a cunning
old fox — but the cunningest old fox is a simpleton to the
most guileless young hare. What deceit in every double!
What calculation in every squat ! Of what far more
complicated than Cretan labyrinth is the creature, now
hunted for the first time, sitting in the centre ! a-listening
the baffled roar ! Now into the pool she plunges to free

64 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

herself from the fatal scent that lures on death. Now
down the torrent course she runs and leaps, to cleanse it
from her poor paws, fur-protected from the sharp flints
that lame the hends that so sorely beset her, till many
limp along in their own blood. Now along the coping of
stone walls she crawls and scrambles — and now ventures
from the wood along the frequented highroad, heedless of
danger from the front, so that she may escape the horrid
growling in the rear. Now into the pretty little garden
of the wayside, or even the village cot, she creeps, as if
to implore protection from the innocent children, or the
nursing mother. Yes, she will even seek refuge in the
sanctuary of the cradle. The terrier drags her out from
below a tombstone, and she dies in the churchyard. The
hunters come reeking and reeling on, we ourselves among
the number — and to the winding horn the echoes reply
from the walls of the house of worship — and now, in
momentary contrition,

" Drojjs a sad, serious tear upon our playful pen !"
and we bethink ourselves — alas, all in vain — for

'•'■ Naturam expellas furca, lamen usque recurrcC —
of these solemn lines of the poet of peace and humanity : —

" One lesson, reader, let us two divide,
Taught by what nature shows and wliat conceals,
Never to blend our pleasure and our pride
With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels."

It is next to impossible to reduce fine poetry to practice
— so let us conclude with a panegyric on fox-hunting.
The passion for this pastime is the very strongest that
can possess the heart — nor, of all the heroes of antiquity,
is there one to our imagination more poetical than Nim-
rod. His whole character is given, and his whole his-
tory in two words — Mighty Hunter. That he hunted the
fox is not probable — for the sole aim and end of his
existence was — not to exterminate — that would have been
cutting his own throat — but to thin man-devouring wild
beasts — the pards — with Leo at their head. But in
a land like this, where not even a wolf has existed for


centuries — nor a wild boar — the same spirit, that would
have driven the British youth on the tusk and paw of the
lion and the tiger, mounts them in scarlet on such steeds
as never neighed before the flood, nor " summered high
in bliss" on the sloping pastures of undeluged Ararat—
and gathers them together in gallant array on the edge
of the cover,

" When first tlic hunter's starflina;- horn is lieard
Upon the golden hills."

What a squadron of cavalry ! Wliat fiery eyes and
flaming nostrils — betokening with what ardent passion
the noble animals will revel in the chase ! Bay, brown,
black, dun, chestnut, sorrel, gray, — of all shades and hues
— and every courser distinguished by his own peculiar
character of shape and form, — yet all blending harmo-
niously as they crown the mount; so that a painter would

Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 5 of 34)