The parish of Holm is perhaps one of the most beautiful in the Orcadian archipelago. It slopes gently to the ‘sweet south’, and is protected from the inclemency of the northern blast by a range of heath-clad hills sufficiently high for this purpose, without being high enough to retain their snowy coverings on the return of spring. A considerable number of limpid rivulets meander from the heights to the shore, giving an air of fertility and freshness to the scene; while the shore itself is laved by one of the noblest firths that can be conceived.
Such is a slight outline of the parish where Magnus Halcro’ first opened his eyes on a sinful world; and few in that world ever opened their eyes on greater penury, or murkier prospects.
During the time that his mother was enciente, his father perished at the Greenland whale fishing; and when the fatal tidings arrived, the poor woman gave premature birth to him whose story we are about to relate.
The hapless orphan had no relatives in the district save an old woman, a distant relation of his father, who, with much toil and attention, made a bare shift to keep the wolf from the door, even without the incumbrance of an infant.But with that noble independence which has ever characterised our Orcadian matrons, she scorned the paltry pittance doled out by the kirk-session. She took the child to her cottage, dock’d some of her former finery, and clothed it like a little prince.
If she rose early formerly, she got up earlier now – if she was assiduous heretofore, she henceforth doubled her diligence. The demand for ‘hand-spun’ yarn increased; the meal fell in price; the potatoes became more plentiful year after year; and by the time our hero saw his sixth birthday, old Mable found she was in easier circumstances than when, with trembling hands and a woe-begone heart, she bore the little Mansie to her shieling.
There be readers in this reading age who may suppose that our little varlet did nothing from the time he began to toddle until the end of his first lustre, but make dirt pies and torment the poor kitten. They are mistaken. As his grand aunt’s cot was contiguous to the parish school, his mild blue eyes and winning manner quite captivated the dominie, who, though he had ten or a dozen boys of his own, made a complete pet of ‘auld Mabel’s curlie’.
To be the master’s favourite, is to make the whole school friends. Gray has said, ‘A favourite has no friends.’ I deny the position. Mansie was not only the master’s favourite but the favourite of every boy and girl that attended his seminary; and hence ‘King Pepin’, ‘Cock Robin’, ‘The Glass Slipper’ &c. &c. were as familiar to the urchin as if he had had the pocket money of an embryo laird.
Symptoms of industry began to develope themselves even at this tender age. During the time that others were playing various games on the school green, Mansie invariably kept the inside of the school and diligently picked up every pin and needle that lay beneath the forms; and in process of time he had a little treasure, as he carefully stuck them in the leaves of written copy-books, cut into regular slips, and arranged with a neatness and precision that would have done honour to Obadiah Minikin, the great Southwark pinmaker.
A species of barter soon took place between our hero and various old women, who took both pride and pleasure in encouraging the early mercantile propensities of the boy, and foretelling, with their wonted sagacity, ‘that Magnus Halcro’s head wad sune fill a rich man’s bonnet.’
Hence he had a monopoly of the market in goose pens and other nicknacks, which were regularly transmuted into hard cash on the return of Charlie Chance to whom Mansie looked up as to a model of excellence.
Mind on David Vedder published this in 1832 in Orcadian Sketches
Next week: our hero continues to prosper