It is well known in the South that there is little or no boxing at the Scottish schools. About forty or fifty years ago, however, a far more dangerous mode of fighting, in parties or factions, was permitted in the streets of Edinburgh, to the great disgrace of the police, and danger of the parties concerned. These parties were generally formed from the quarters of the town in which the combatants resided, those of a particular square or district fighting against those of an adjoining one. Hence it happened that the children of the higher classes were often pitted against those of the lower, each taking their side according to the residence of their friends. So far as I recollect, however, it was unmingled either with feelings of democracy or aristocracy, or, indeed, with malice or ill-will of any kind towards the opposite party. In fact, it was only a rough mode of play. Such contests were, however, maintained with great vigour with stones and sticks and fisticuffs, when one party dared to charge, and the other stood their ground. Of course mischief sometimes happened; boys are said to have been killed at these “bickers,” as they were called, and serious accidents certainly took place, as many contemporaries can bear witness.
The Author’s father residing in George Square, in the southern side of Edinburgh, the boys belonging to that family, with others in the square, were arranged into a sort of company, to which a lady of distinction presented a handsome set of colours. Now this company, or regiment, as a matter of course, was engaged in weekly warfare with the boys inhabiting the Crosscauseway, Bristo Street, the Potter Row, — in short, the neighbouring suburbs. These last were chiefly of the lower rank, but hardy loons, who threw stones to a hair’s-breadth, and were very rugged antagonists at close quarters. The skirmish sometimes lasted for a whole evening, until one party or the other was victorious, when, if ours were successful, we drove the enemy to their quarters, and were usually chased back by the reinforcement of bigger lads who came to their assistance. If, on the contrary, we were pursued, as was often the case, into the precincts of our square, we were in our turn supported by our elder brothers, domestic servants, and similar auxiliaries.
It followed, from our frequent opposition to each other, that though not knowing the names of our enemies, we were yet well acquainted with their appearance, and had nicknames for the most remarkable of them. One very active and spirited boy might be considered as the principal leader in the cohort of the suburbs. He was, I suppose, thirteen or fourteen years old, finely made, tall, blue-eyed, with long fair hair, the very picture of a youthful Goth. This lad was always first in the charge, and last in the retreat, — the Achilles, at once, and Ajax of the Crosscauseway. He was too formidable to us not to have a cognomen, and, like that of a knight of old, it was taken from the most remarkable part of his dress, being a pair of old green livery breeches, which was the principal part of his clothing; for, like Pentapolin, according to Don Quixote’s account, Green-Breeks, as we called him, always entered the battle with bare arms, legs, and feet.
It fell that once upon a time, when the combat was at the thickest, this plebeian champion headed a sudden charge so rapid and furious that all fled before him. He was several paces before his comrades, and had actually laid his hands on the patrician standard, when one of our party, whom some misjudging friend had intrusted with a couteau de chasse, or hanger, inspired with a zeal for the honour of the corps worthy of Major Sturgeon himself, struck poor Green-Breeks over the head with strength sufficient to cut him down. When this was seen, the casualty was so far beyond what had ever taken place before that both parties fled different ways, leaving poor Green-Breeks, with his bright hair plentifully dabbled in blood, to the care of the watchman, who (honest man) took care not to know who had done the mischief. The bloody hanger was flung into one of the Meadow ditches, and solemn secrecy was sworn on all hands; but the remorse and terror of the actor were beyond all bounds, and his apprehensions of the most dreadful character. The wounded hero was for a few days in the Infirmary, the case being only a trifling one. But though inquiry was strongly pressed on him, no argument could make him indicate the person from whom he had received the wound, though he must have been perfectly well known to him. When he recovered, and was dismissed, the author and his brothers opened a communication with him, through the medium of a popular gingerbread baker, of whom both parties were customers, in order to tender a subsidy in name of smart-money. The sum would excite ridicule were I to name it; but sure I am that the pockets of the noted Green-Breeks never held as much money of his own. He declined the remittance, saying that he would not sell his blood, but at the same time reprobated the idea of being an informer, which, he said, was “clam,” i.e., base or mean. With much urgency, he accepted a pound of snuff for the use of some old woman — aunt, grandmother, or the like — with whom he lived. We did not become friends, for the bickers were more agreeable to both parties than any more pacific amusement; but we conducted them ever after under mutual assurances of the highest consideration for each other.
Such was the hero whom Mr. Thomas Scott proposed to carry to Canada and involve in adventures with the natives and colonists of that country. Perhaps the youthful generosity of the lad will not seem so great in the eyes of others as to those whom it was the means of screening from severe rebuke and punishment. But it seemed, to those concerned, to argue a nobleness of sentiment far beyond the pitch of most minds; and however obscurely the lad, who showed such a frame of noble spirit, may have lived or died, I cannot help being of opinion, that if fortune had placed him in circumstances calling for gallantry or generosity, the man would have fulfilled the promises of the boy. Long afterwards, when the story was told to my father, he censured us severely for not telling the truth at the time, that he might have attempted to be of use to the young man in entering on life. But our alarms for the consequences of the drawn sword, and the wound inflicted with such a weapon, were far too predominant at the time for such a pitch of generosity.
Perhaps I ought not to have inserted this schoolboy tale; but besides the strong impression made by the incident at the time, the whole accompaniments of the story are matters to me of solemn and sad recollection. Of all the little band who were concerned in those juvenile sports or brawls, I can scarce recollect a single survivor. Some left the ranks of mimic war to die in the active service of their country. Many sought distant lands, to return no more. Others, dispersed in different paths of life, “my dim eyes now seek for in vain.” Of five brothers, all healthy and promising in a degree far beyond one whose infancy was visited by personal infirmity, and whose health after this period seemed long very precarious, I am, nevertheless, the only survivor. The best loved, and the best deserving to be loved, who had destined this incident to be the foundation of literary composition, died “before his day,” in a distant and foreign land; and trifles assume an importance not their own, when connected with those who have been loved and lost.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00