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Life and Times of D. M. Stuart, D.D.

Chapter VI. — Adventure School at Leven

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Chapter VI.
Adventure School at Leven.

Under the soothing and salutary religious influences of home, Donald Stuart slowly recovered from the wrench that his moral nature had received in the bothie, and as he had set his heart on equipping himself for the work of teaching, as a proximate stage to the higher and remoter goal of the Christian ministry, which he had in view, arrangements were made to send him to the parish school of Kenmore, where, under the direction and care of Mr Armstrong, an undergraduate of St. Andrew's University, he applied himself with diligence to the study of classics and mathematics, and availed himself of every opportunity that offered to make excursions into the realms of general literature.

Few books outside those required for his special lines of work reached his hands at this period of his life, but such as fell in his way he read with a hungry avidity, and when books were wanting, there was still available the old resource of eager intellects in the remoter Highland glens—the martial song, or story of adventures in flood and field, from the lips of some old veteran, who had heard the clash of arms in the great Napoleon's wars. These had always a strange and weird fascination for him. And when these ran out there was always about him, spread out on every page 36hand, the infinite charm and variety of Nature, through which he heard God speaking to him in many voices, which powerfully touched and influenced his heart.

There were great social questions, too, which even then, young as he was, obtruded themselves on his notice, and awakened in him wonder and indignant surprise. The deep-seated religious feeling of the Highlands had planted churches within easy reach of the rural population. Wherever a good ford existed there was erected near it a plain church, where, on the Lord's Day, chiefs and clansmen met together for public worship; but when game came to be accounted of greater value than men, the roads to the fords were all shut up, and the people of the clachan were either driven across the seas, or they were forced to turn their faces southward to seek their living in the rising Saxon towns. The boy's young heart was filled with wonder when he first saw groups of young married men breaking up their cottage homes and leaving the bonnie Highland glens, to push their fortunes under new skies, and under other conditions of human life. When he saw cottars and farmers rackrented and oppressed, crushed under foot, without appeal, by landlords and factors; deprived of hill commonage and excluded from bush and brake—even turned adrift with short shrift when their holdings were required for deer forests or game preserves, without receiving one penny compensation for the dwelling-houses, offices, and fences which they had laboriously erected—when he saw all that, he tried to wrestle with the great dark problem which then faced him. These hard, honest toilers, the strength and page 37sinew of the country, why should they thus pitilessly be cast out of it? and, much as they loved their hills and heather, why should they be forced to seek homes, in thousands of instances, beyond the great Western main? Soon enough he learned to know that the old ties were wrenched, and the wide ocean crossed that unhindered they might

Rear an independent shed,
And get the lips they loved unborrowed bread.

It was customary in Perthshire Highlands for mere boys, of fourteen or fifteen years of age, to leave their homes in order to push their own way in the world; and it was at that age that Donald Stuart, now fairly well qualified to give at least elementary instruction in the various branches of school work, and with the no less important acquirement of a fairly fluent English speech, set out, with a brave and hopeful heart, to seek employment at teaching in one of the Lowland towns. He secured an appointment which yielded only a narrow margin of profit after paying all expenses of living, but which had its compensations in the ample opportunities for reading and study which that occupation afforded.

Always thirsting for the latest intelligence from the great world which lay beyond his immediate horizon, and in order to keep himself abreast of its doings, he cast about for some economical way of getting a newspaper. With that object in view, he opened communication with the Editor of the Fife Herald, and induced him to accept his offer to furnish him with the news of the district in which he lived in exchange for his weekly paper. Those were stirring page 38times, and intelligence travelled slowly. The villages into which no newspaper found its way were dependent for information regarding important passing events on the reports of chance travellers, or of the weekly carriers, who might embellish or exaggerate the facts as the fancy took them. When it was bruited abroad therefore that a prize of such value as a newspaper was put week after week into the young teacher's hands, he was, to use his own expression, "inundated with applications for a reading of it," and, in the interests of peace, he had to give his landlady a discretionary power in lending it.

Some two years thus passed—years of rigorous application to work, and of rigid training for the place which he was appointed afterwards to fill—his frugal fare enriched at times by a box from home, and the monotony of his daily task broken, when a few days could be snatched, by a visit to the old roof-tree and the pleasant haunts of his earlier years. But he never felt his work to be a drudgery to him: his heart remained, to its very latest throb, the bright, buoyant heart of a boy—always young and full of the sunshine and poetry of youth; and that was why he loved children and young people. It was always a supreme delight to him to have them around him; they were like the song of the bird and the freshness of the morning to his soul. He loved to teach them and even to frolic with them when the hour for frolic had come.

In September, 1837, he bought the good-will of an "adventure" school at Leven, a busy little town on the northern shores of the Firth of Forth, where page 39he rented a hall, and offered instruction in the various branches of a useful education, for the modest fee of three pence per week; but it was depressing enough to find that only one scholar presented herself at the opening, and for six weeks he met his solitary pupil for the full number of regulation hours. In October, when he seemed to be playing that losing game, he made the acquaintance of James Izzett, a young teacher at Largo, a few miles further up the Fifeshire coast. He had successfully established a school there, which yielded good returns, and as he was now leaving it to enter college, he offered it to Donald Stuart. But with hearty acknowledgment of Izzett's kindness, the offer was declined—at a time, too, when there was only one pupil attending the Leven School, and a weekly rent to pay for the hall. But the fact brings out the worldly shrewdness, and foresight, and prudent appreciation of his circumstances, which even then, at the age of eighteen years, were characteristic of the Doctor. "I opened the school," he said, "in a growing town, with an active manufacturing population, and I preferred to risk the chances to removing to a collier village on a flank of Largo."

The spectacle of the tall Highland youth passing and repassing before the eyes of the townspeople, and carrying on with such indomitable perseverance what they saw well enough was a losing concern, gradually awakened attention and interest, and his roll of pupils became steadily enlarged. The hearts of his Highland countrymen who were resident in the neighbourhood opened in kindness to him, and two Cameron men waited on him with most friendly offers of help, which page 40deeply affected him, and drew closer the ties that bound him to the clans. He had a visit also from a "stickit" minister who came all the way from Kirkcaldy to see him, and who set before him wise maxims for his guidance through life. He counselled him, among other things, to apply his first earnings to the purchase of a reference Bible. The young teacher replied that he had a Bible. But, as it was not provided with references, it was not of great account in the minister's eyes.

Before many months had passed the result quite justified young Stuart's wisdom in remaining where he was. The attendance steadily improved, and to meet the circumstances of a considerable element in the population, the school was opened also for evening classes: hecklers, mill hands (male and female), foundry boys, and others, now turned up in goodly numbers. Some wanted to learn writing, some arithmetic, some mathematics, some Latin, and others, history. "A maiden of sweet fourteen," he used to say, with a twinkle in his eye, "presented herself one evening at the door of my humble academy, and asked to be enrolled as a pupil."

"What branch of knowledge do you desire to master?" he asked.

"Oh," she replied with blushing face, and with some confusion of manner, "I want to learn to write love-letters."

"I'm not sure," the teacher said with a smile, "that I have taken my degree in that line of study, but if you are bent on throwing your heart into it I think I'll be able to help you."

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"In coming to that decision," he said, "I was assisted partly by necessity, which made every additional fee of prime importance to me, and partly by recalling a sentiment that used to come up in my mind in my solitary walks along the Fifeshire shore, when I thought of the miller's 'Jeanie by the Burn':—

Without the partial smiles from woman won
What is man? a world without a sun."

His school roll now numbered 70: and by adopting the monitorial system, he was able to direct the studies of his pupils to their advantage, as was indicated by their continued attendance at his classes for two years and a half. He was accustomed to ascribe his success, first, to the fact that he loved his vocation and was never late or absent from his post: and second, to the fact that his pupils threw their heart into their studies. He believed that education at the hands of teachers with enthusiasm and reverence for knowledge and humanity are the best and cheapest means of promoting what is good and true, and of preparing the children for all the high duties of industrial, social, and moral life.

The Bible, with all its unspeakable treasures of grace and truth—heaven's blessed boon to our fallen humanity, occupied a large place in his heart, and its truths became inwoven into the very fibres of his life. His knowledge, faith, and love developed and expanded under the ministry of Dr George Brewster, of Leven, and, after very earnest and prayerful inquiry and searchings of soul, he was admitted to communion, and took his place for the first time at the holy table page 42in the spring of the year 1838. It was a memorable event in his spiritual history, which deeply stirred and solemnised him, and very full and real, he felt, was the spiritual advantage which it brought him. With a heart overflowing with love and filial devotion, he communicated the news to his parents, who expressed to him the great joy which they felt at the public profession which he had made, and consecration of himself and all his powers to the service of the Lord.