The most northern county of Scotland is Caithness, a wild region of mountain, marsh, and rock-ribbed headlands, in which the storms of the Atlantic have worn every variety of fantastic indentation. Much of the land has been reclaimed in modern days by rich proprietors. There are manufactures of linen, wool, rope, and straw, besides important fisheries; so that forty thousand people now find habitation and subsistence in the county. There are castles, too, ancient and modern, – some in ruins, some of yesterday, – the summer home of wealthy people from the south.
The coast is among the most picturesque in the world, bearing a strong resemblance to the coast of Maine. The reader, perhaps, has never seen the coast of Maine. Then let him do so speedily, and he will know, as he sails along its bold headlands, and its seamed walls of rock rising here and there into mountains, how the coast of Caithness looked to one of the noblest men that ever lived in it, Robert Dick, baker of Thurso. Thurso is the most northern town of this most northern county. It is situated on Thurso Bay, which affords a good harbor, and it has thus grown to be a place of three or four thousand inhabitants. From this town the Orkney Islands can be seen, and a good walker can reach in a day’s tramp Dunnet Head, the lofty promontory which ends the Island.
Here lived, labored, studied, and died, Robert Dick, a man whose name should never be pronounced by intelligent men but with respect.
He did not look like a hero. When the boys of the town saw him coming out of his baker’s shop, in a tall stove-pipe hat, an old-fashioned dress coat and jean trousers, they used to follow him to the shore, and watch him as he walked along it with his eyes fixed upon the ground. Suddenly he would stop, fall upon his hands and knees, crawl slowly onward, and then with one hand catch something on the sand; an insect, perhaps. He would stick it upon a pin, put it in his hat, and go on his way; and the boys would whisper to one another that there was a mad baker in Thurso. Once he picked up a nut upon the beach, and said to his companion: –
„That has been brought by the ocean current and the prevailing winds all the way from one of the West India Islands.”
He made the most astonishing journeys about that fag end of the universe in the pursuit of knowledge. We read of his walking thirty-two miles in a soaking rain to the top of a mountain, and bringing home only a plant of white heather. On another day he walked thirty-six miles to find a peculiar kind of fern. Again he walked for twenty-four hours in hail, rain, and wind, reaching home at three o’clock in the morning. But at seven he was up and ready for work as usual. He carried heavy loads, too, when he went searching for minerals and fossils. In one of his letters we read: –
„Shouldering an old poker, a four-pound hammer, and with two chisels in my pocket, I set out…. What hammering! what sweating! Coat off; got my hands cut to bleeding.”
In another letter he speaks of having „three pounds of iron chisels in his trousers pocket, a four-pound hammer in one hand and a fourteen-pound sledge-hammer in the other, and his old beaver hat filled with paper and twine.”
But who and what was this man, and why was he performing these laborious journeys? Robert Dick, born in 1811, was the son of an excise officer, who gave his children a hard stepmother when Robert was ten years old. The boy’s own mother, all tenderness and affection, had spoiled him for such a life as he now had to lead under a woman who loved him not, and did not understand his unusual cast of character, his love of nature, his wanderings by the sea, his coming home with his pockets full of wet shells and his trousers damaged by the mire. She snubbed him; she whipped him. He bore her ill treatment with wonderful patience; but it impaired the social side of him forever. Nearly fifty years after he said to one of his few friends: –
„All my naturally buoyant, youthful spirits were broken. To this day I feel the effects. I cannot shake them off. It is this that still makes me shrink from the world.”
At thirteen he escaped from a home blighted by this woman, and went apprentice to a baker; and when he was out of his time served as a journeyman for three years; then set up a small business for himself in Thurso. It was a very small business indeed; for at that day bread was a luxury which many people of Caithness only allowed themselves on Sundays; their usual fare being oatmeal. He was a baker all the days of his life, and his business never increased so as to oblige him to employ even a baker’s boy. He made his bread, his biscuit, and his gingerbread without any assistance, and when it was done, it was sold in his little shop by an old housekeeper, who lived with him till he died.
The usual course of his day was this: He was up in the morning very early, at any time from three to six, according to his plans for the after part of the day. He kneaded his bread, worked the dough into loaves, put the whole into the oven, waited till it was baked, and drew it out. His work was then usually done for the day. The old housekeeper sold it as it was called for, and, in case her master did not get home in time, she could set the sponge in the evening. Usually, he could get away from the bake-shop soon after the middle of the day, and he had then all the afternoon, the evening, and the night for studying nature in Caithness. His profits were small, but his wants were few, and during the greater part of his life he was able to spare a small sum per annum for the purchase of books.
If this man had enjoyed the opportunities he would have had but for his mother’s death, he might have been one of the greatest naturalists that ever lived. Nature had given him every requisite: a frame of iron, Scotch endurance, a poet’s enthusiasm, the instinct of not believing anything in science till he was sure of it, till he had put it to the test of repeated observation and experiment. Although a great reader, he derived most of his knowledge directly from nature’s self. He began by merely picking up shells, as a child picks them up, because they were pretty; until, while still a lad, he had a very complete collection all nicely arranged in a cabinet and labeled. Youth being past, the shy and lonely young man began to study botany, which he pursued until he had seen and felt everything that grew in Caithness. Next he studied insects, and studied with such zeal that in nine months he had collected, of beetles alone, two hundred and fifty-six specimens. There are still in the Thurso museum two hundred and twenty varieties of bees, and two hundred and forty kinds of butterflies, collected by him.
Early in life he was powerfully attracted to astronomy, and read everything he could find upon the subject. But he was one of those students whom books alone can never satisfy; and as a telescope was very far beyond his means he was obliged to devote himself to subjects more within his own reach. He contrived out of his small savings to buy a good microscope, and found it indispensable. Geology was the subject which occupied him longest and absorbed him most. He pursued it with untiring and intelligent devotion for thirty years. He found the books full of mistakes, because, as he said, so many geologists study nature from a gig and are afraid to get a little mud on their trousers.
„When,” said he, „I want to know what a rock is, I go to it; I hammer it; I dissect it. I then know what it really is…. The science of geology! No, no; we must just work patiently on, collect facts, and in course of time geology may develop into a science.”
I suppose there never was a man whose love of knowledge was more disinterested. He used to send curious specimens to Hugh Miller, editor of „The Witness” as well as a geologist, and Mr. Miller would acknowledge the gifts in his paper; but Robert Dick entreated him not to do so.
„I am a quiet creature,” he wrote, „and do not like to see myself in print at all. So leave it to be understood who found the old bones, and let them guess who can.”
As long as he was in unimpaired health he continued this way of life cheerfully enough, refusing all offers of assistance. His brother-in-law once proposed to send him a present of whiskey.
„No,” said he in reply, „spirits never enter this house save when I cannot help it.”
His brother-in-law next offered to send him some money. He answered: –
„God grant you more sense! I want no sovereigns. It’s of no use sending anything down here. Nothing is wanted. Delicacies would only injure health. Hardy is the word with working people. Pampering does no good, but much evil.”
And yet the latter days of this great-souled man were a woeful tragedy. He was the best baker in the place, gave full weight, paid for his flour on the day, and was in all respects a model of fair dealing. But his trade declined. Competition reduced his profits and limited his sales. When the great split occurred in Scotland between the old and the free church, he stuck to the old, merely saying that the church of his forefathers was good enough for him. But his neighbors and customers were zealous for the free church; and one day, when the preacher aimed a sermon at him for taking his walks on Sunday, he was offended, and rarely went again. And so, for various reasons, his business declined; some losses befell him; and he injured his constitution by exposure and exhausting labors in the study of geology.
There were rich and powerful families near by who knew his worth, or would have known it if they had themselves been worthy. They looked on and saw the noblest heart in Scotland break in this unequal strife. They should have set him free from his bake-shop as soon as he had given proof of the stuff he was made of. He was poet, artist, philosopher, hero, and they let him die in his bakehouse in misery. After his death they performed over his body the shameful mockery of a pompous funeral, and erected in his memory a paltry monument, which will commemorate their shame as long as it lasts. His name has been rescued from oblivion by the industry and tact of Samuel Smiles, who, in writing his life, has revealed to us a rarer and higher kind of man than Robert Burns.