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Title: William Nelson - A Memoir
Author: Wilson, Daniel, Sir
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                           _William Nelson._

                    [Illustration: Yours Faithfully

                            William Nelson]

                           _William Nelson_

                               A MEMOIR


                  SIR DANIEL WILSON, LL.D., F.R.S.E.,


                       [Illustration: colophon]

                   Printed for Private Circulation.

                   _T. Nelson and Sons, Edinburgh._



                          Mrs. William Nelson

                         MEMOIR OF HER HUSBAND
                          HIS OLD FRIEND AND


The volume here produced for the eye of friends is the memorial of one
whose life presented a rare example of simplicity, of thoroughness in
working up to a high standard in all that he undertook, and fidelity in
his responsible stewardship as a man of wealth and a captain of
industry. The friendship between us extended in uninterrupted union,
with the maturing estimation of years and experience, from early boyhood
till both had passed the assigned limits of threescore years and ten. It
would have been easy to swell the volume into the bulky proportions of
modern biography: for William Nelson keenly enjoyed the communion of
friendship; and his correspondence furnishes many passages calculated to
interest others besides those who knew and loved him as a friend. But
the aim has been simply to present him “in his habit as he lived;” and
thus to preserve for relatives, personal friends, and for his
fellow-workers of all ranks, such a picture as may pleasantly recall
some reflex of a noble life; and record characteristic traits of one of
whom it can be so truly said: “To live in hearts of those we love is not
to die.”

D. W.


_September 26, 1889_.


I. INTRODUCTORY,                                                      13

II. HAUNTS OF BOYHOOD,                                                26

III. SCHOOLS AND SCHOOLMATES,                                         41

IV. THE CASTLE HILL,                                                  61

V. HOPE PARK,                                                         77

VI. EGYPT AND PALESTINE,                                              87

VII. CHURCH--MARRIAGE,                                               108

VIII. SALISBURY GREEN,                                               121

IX. GLIMPSES OF TRAVEL,                                              137

X. HOLIDAYS ABROAD,                                                  156

XI. PARKSIDE,                                                        173

XII. CIVIC INTERESTS,                                                194

XIII. HOME HOLIDAYS,                                                 213

XIV. PROJECTED TRAVEL--THE END,                                      228

_William Nelson._



In the early years of the present century the Scottish capital retained
many features of its ancient aspect still unchanged; but among all the
old-world haunts surviving into modern times, the most notable, alike
for its picturesque quaintness and its varied associations, was the
avenue from the Grassmarket to the upper town. The West Bow, as this
thoroughfare was called, derived its name from the ancient bow, or
archway, which gave entrance to the little walled city before the civic
area was extended by the Flodden wall of 1513. But the archway remained
long after that date as the entrance to the upper town--the Temple Bar
of Edinburgh--at which the ceremonial welcome of royal and distinguished
visitors took place.

The West Bow had accordingly been the scene of many a royal cavalcade
of the Jameses and their queens; as well as of such representative men
as Ben Jonson and his brother-poet Drummond of Hawthornden, of Laud,
Montrose, Leslie, Cromwell, and Dundee. Among its quaint antique piles
were the gabled Temple Lands, St. James’s Altar Land, and the
timber-fronted lodging of Lord Ruthven, the ruthless leader in the
tragedy when Lord Darnley’s minions assassinated Rizzio in Queen Mary’s
chamber at Holyrood. There, too, remained till very recent years the
haunted house of the prince of Scottish wizards, Major Weir; and near by
the Clockmaker’s Land, noted to the last for the ingenious piece of
workmanship of Paul Remieu, a Huguenot refugee of the time of Charles
II. Nearly opposite was the dwelling of Provost Stewart, where, in the
famous ’45, he entertained Prince Charles Edward, while Holyrood was for
the last time the palace of the Stuarts. The alley which gave access to
the old Jacobite provost’s dwelling bore in its last days the name of
Donaldson’s Close; for here was the home of one of Edinburgh’s most
prosperous typographers, James Donaldson, who bequeathed the fortune won
by his craft to found the magnificent hospital which now rivals that of
the royal goldsmith of James I.

Such were some of the antique surroundings amid which the subject of the
present memoir passed his youth, and which no doubt had their influence
in developing an archæological taste, and that reverence for every
historical feature of his native city, which bore good fruit in later
years. But his more intimate associations were with the singularly
picturesque timber-fronted dwelling at the head of the West Bow, with
another fine elevation toward the Lawnmarket, which, till 1878, stood
unchanged as when the Flodden king rode past on his way to the Borough
Moor. A painting of the old house adorned the walls at Salisbury Green
in later years; and when at last the venerable structure was demolished,
some of its oaken timbers were secured by William Nelson and fashioned
into antique furniture for himself and his friends. This picturesque
building was the haunt of an old Edinburgh bookseller, the founder of
the well-known printing and publishing house of Thomas Nelson and Sons.

Mr. Thomas Nelson, the father of the subject of the present memoir, and
the originator of the great publishing firm, recurs to the present
writer in the memories of his own early years as a fine example of the
old Scottish type of silent, indomitable perseverance and sterling
integrity. The traditions of the race are thus set forth in a memorandum
in William Nelson’s handwriting:--“The Nelsons of our branch resided at
Throsk, a few miles east from Stirling, not far from the field of
Bannockburn. There was a tradition among us that some of our race lived
there at the time the battle was fought, and as a boy I was willing to
believe it.” There, at any rate, the Nelsons are known to have been for
four or five generations; and Thomas Nelson was born at Throsk in 1780.
His grandmother had seceded with the Erskines from the National Church;
and the spirit of that elder race of Scottish nonconformists was
inherited by their children. They joined a congregation of Reformed
Presbyterians, or Covenanters, at Stirling; and the boy grew up on his
father’s farm under all the influences of that earnest, unwavering
religious faith, which has so often seemed the fitting complement to the
ruggedness of the Scottish character, while it has, in not a few
instances, furnished the best preparation, for a successful career in
business. His father led a retired life on his carse farm, with Stirling
sufficiently near to admit of his enjoying the privilege of regular
worship with the devout little band of Presbyterian nonconformists
there. So little was he affected by the enterprise of younger
generations that he could not be persuaded to turn to profitable account
a small pottery on the land he occupied. He was content with the humble
career of a small farmer. But the monotony of farm-life was varied by
long journeys, staff in hand, in which the boy accompanied his father,
to attend the great gatherings at the sacramental seasons. In the
persecuting times the devout adherents of the Covenant had been wont to
assemble in some secluded glen to enjoy in safety the privileges of the
communion service, and their descendants continued the practice in more
peaceful times. Under such training the boy reached his sixteenth year,
when, after a brief experience as a teacher, some chance report of
prosperous adventure in the West Indies tempted the youth with its
illusive visions. Bidding his friends and home farewell, his father
accompanied him for some miles on the road to Alloa, giving his best
counsel and advice to the lad by the way. When they reached the place of
parting, his father said to him, “Thomas, my boy, have you ever thought
that where you are going you will be far away from the means of grace?”
“No, father,” said he, “I never thought of that, and I won’t go.”

Thus abruptly the scheme was abandoned. They retraced their steps to the
old farm, and the boy found employment for a time at Craigend, near
Stirling. There he formed the acquaintance of Symington, whose
steam-engine was first applied to navigation, and sailed with him in
some of the earliest trial-trips on the Carron Water. The pottery which
his father had neglected was started on a neighbouring farm, and young
Nelson was anxious to get the management of it. But the scheme appears
to have been distasteful to his father, whose secret desire probably was
that his boy should follow his own example, and so escape the world’s
trials and temptations. But the son’s ambition aimed at something more
advantageous than the homely career of a lowland farmer; and so,
by-and-by, he betook himself to London, entered the service of a
publishing house there, and began the training which ultimately begot
the great publishing firm that bears his name.

The young Scottish Covenanter did not forget his early training, amid
the temptations of the great metropolis. Along with a few other
Scotchmen of his own age, he established a weekly meeting for religious
fellowship; and it is told of one of the little band, who was employed
at the dock-yard, that he forfeited his situation rather than work on
the Sabbath day. But he had already won the favourable opinion of Lord
Melville, who, on learning of his dismissal, severely rebuked the
officials, and soon after advanced him to a higher post. From London,
Thomas Nelson made his way to Edinburgh with what little capital his
frugality had enabled him to accumulate, and there he started his first
book-store, stocked chiefly with second-hand books, but from which ere
long he began the issue of cheap reprints of the “Scots Worthies” and
other popular religious works, in monthly parts. He had to proceed
cautiously in this new venture, for his capital was small; but he had
the courage to shape out a course of his own. With sagacious foresight
he overleapt the intermediate stages of publishing and bookselling, and
grafted on to the traffic of the mediæval fairs some of the most modern
usages of free trade. The full results of this bold step are even now
only partially developed, though its ultimate advantages are beginning
to be generally recognized, and to force themselves on the attention of
the great publishing houses, accustomed hitherto to cater only with
small editions of costly volumes for the libraries of the wealthy,
supplemented in recent years by the expedient of lending libraries.

The removal of Mr. Thomas Nelson’s book-store to the picturesque
tenement at the Bowhead marks the first progressive step of the young
innovator. The venerable timber-fronted land projected with each
successive story in advance of the lower one, after the fashion of that
obsolete civic architecture in vogue before Newton had revealed his law
of gravitation. The first story above the paving rested on substantial
oak piers, forming a piazza opening on to the Bow, within which stood
the exposed book-stall of the primitive trader. Behind this was the
stone-vaulted buith, or shop, as in the old luckenbuiths alongside of
St. Giles’s Cathedral. The north façade fronted on the Lawnmarket, a
wide thoroughfare, where at certain seasons the dealers in linens and
woollens set up their stalls, much after the fashion which the poet
Dunbar describes them hampering the High Street before the Flodden wall
was built. Already at that early date the printing-press of Walter
Chepman, the Scottish Caxton, was at work; and before long the craft had
its representatives among the traders’ buiths. In a later century Allan
Ramsay began his prosperous career as a seller of his own metrical
“broadsides;” and Dr. Johnson’s father, the respected bookseller and
magistrate of the cathedral city of Lichfield, was wont to set up his
book-stall on market days in the neighbouring towns.

Here then, at the Bowhead, with its north front to the Lawnmarket, stood
within our own recollection the well-stored book-stall, the nucleus and
germ of the great Parkside printing establishment, with its hundreds of
workmen in every branch of the trade. The busy scene of a market day in
the old locality, as it could still be seen sixty-five years ago, is
graphically depicted in Turner’s view of the High Street, engraved in
1825 for Sir Walter Scott’s “Provincial Antiquities.” The book-trade, as
prosecuted by Mr. Thomas Nelson, depended in no inconsiderable degree on
the application of the stereotyping process to the production of cheap
editions of popular works of established repute. He was a pioneer in the
production of literature for the million; but he catered for the taste
of an age very different from our own, in his effort to put standard
works, already stamped with the approval of the wise and good, within
reach of the peasant and the artisan. “The Pilgrim’s Progress” was
already an English classic; and with this were issued such works as
Baxter’s “Saints’ Rest,” Booth’s “Reign of Grace,” “MacEwan on the
Types,” and other works of a like class. To those were by-and-by added
Jeremy Taylor, Leighton, Romaine, and Newton, the old Scottish and
Puritan divines, and Josephus, all produced by means of stereotype
plates, which admitted of a limited issue adapted to the demand of the
market. With the development of the business in later years, the issues
of the publishing house embraced an ampler and much more varied range.
But William carefully treasured his father’s private library. The spirit
of the bibliomaniac developed itself in this special line, and the
collection of old theological works included many choice specimens and
rare editions of his father’s favourite divines. They were latterly
treasured in a cabinet at Hope Park, along with other relics on which
William Nelson set a high value; and their loss on the destruction of
the Hope Park Works in 1878 by fire was one of his greatest causes of
regret. From his own choice collection of theological works, Mr. Thomas
Nelson made his first selections; but after a time he realized the
necessity of catering for the tastes of other classes of readers; and
so by-and-by there were added to them “Robinson Crusoe,” “Rasselas,”
“The Vicar of Wakefield,” Goldsmith’s “Essays,” his “Deserted Village,”
and other poems, along with popular favourites of a like class. Thus
prosecuted, the business gradually expanded until the Bowhead
establishment was no longer sufficient for the accommodation required.

But free trade in books was in conflict with the ideas inherited from
the privileged guilds of elder centuries. Competition had hitherto been
restricted within narrow limits; and the daring innovator was regarded
by the regular trade with all the disfavour of a revolutionist, against
whom every effort was to be employed to thwart the sale of his
publications. He had accordingly to find other channels of trade.
Periodical visits were made to the smaller towns, over the country,
north and south, and beyond the Scottish border. Thus a safe and
extended business was gradually established, destined ultimately to
revolutionize the book-trade. By its means was inaugurated a system of
supply of popular literature, at prices within reach of the masses, long
before other publishers of this class entered into competition on the
same field.

The influences of early training are traceable throughout the whole of
Mr. Thomas Nelson’s career, and have left their impress on the business
which owed its origin to his patient assiduity. He remained to the last
faithful to the Covenanting Presbyterian Church, which maintained a
stern adherence to the principles for which the martyrs of the Covenant
had witnessed a good confession alike on the battlefield and the
scaffold. His career in business had been an arduous struggle under many
disabilities. As I remember him in my own boyhood, he was a grave,
silent, yet not ungenial man; but one who seemed preoccupied with
thoughts and cares in which a younger generation could claim no share.
He had married, somewhat late in life, a bright young wife, by whom he
had a family of four sons and three daughters; of whom the eldest son,
the subject of this memoir, was born on the 13th of December, 1816.

On Mrs. Nelson the care and training of the young family devolved, as
the successful prosecution of the business necessarily required the
frequent and prolonged absence of their father. Yet his interest in them
was not less fervent. An incident illustrative of this has also its
bearings in relation to a characteristic feature of the devout faith of
the old Covenanting fathers. He dreamt that a terrible accident had
befallen his younger son John, then a youth of ten years of age, who was
absent at Pettycur in Fife. He set off on the following morning, and
crossed the Forth, burdened with foreboding visions of death. On his
arrival, he learned that his boy had fallen into the sea, and been
brought back apparently lifeless; but he had been revived, and then lay
asleep after the exhaustion of this vital struggle. It fully accorded
with the devout piety of the old Covenanter to recognize in his dream a
divine message and proof of providential interposition.

Of Mrs. Nelson, Dr. John Cairns, who knew her intimately, refers, in his
“In Memoriam” address on the death of this younger son, to her look of
bright intelligence and winning affection, as indelibly impressed on the
memory of all who were familiar with her. She possessed the happy
mixture of tender, motherly guidance with an unusual amount of firmness
and decision of character; and exercised great influence in the training
of her son, who was passionately devoted to her. She was in perfect
sympathy with her husband in his religious opinions, and venerated the
memories of the confessors and martyrs of the Covenant; so that their
sons and daughters were reared in strict conformity to the devout faith
of Cameron, Peden, Cargill, and other fathers and confessors of that old
Scottish type. Few men were more liberal-minded in later years than
William Nelson; but the influence of early training survived through
life, begetting some familiar traits of the best type of Scottish
character evolved from that elder generation which so impressed the mind
of the poet Wordsworth:--

    “Pure livers were they all, austere and grave,
     And fearing God; the very children taught
     Stern self-respect, a reverence for God’s Word,
     And a habitual piety, maintained
     With strictness scarcely known on English ground.”

Some characteristic manifestations of the results of such early training
will come under review in the narrative of later years.



The curious ancient thoroughfare, the scene of early bookselling and
publishing operations, has been described in the previous chapter: for
many youthful recollections of William Nelson are associated with the
West Bow. In those years Edinburgh was still the romantic town described
by Scott in his “Marmion,” piled steep and massy, close and high, along
the ridge between the Cowgate and the Nor’ Loch. Since then nearly all
the antique historical mansions of the Castle Hill and the adjoining
Bowhead have disappeared. An extensive range was swept away about 1835
in clearing the area for Johnston Terrace and the Assembly Hall of the
Scottish Church. The famous old palace of Mary of Guise has given place
to the rival Assembly Hall and the New College of the Free Church; and a
broad highway now sweeps round the Castle rock where in early years
antique lands, closes, and wynds, once the abodes of the Scottish
gentry, were crowded together on the slope reaching to the Grassmarket.

The fine timber-fronted tenement at the corner of the Bowhead,
constructed mainly of oak, was a choice example of the burghers’
dwellings in Old Edinburgh, with their trading booths opening on the
street. Similar front lands in the High Street were the abodes of the
merchants and traders. The “Gladstone Land” still stands near by in the
Lawnmarket, bearing the initials of Thomas Gladstone, a merchant of
Edinburgh in the days of Charles I. and Cromwell, to whose gifted
descendant the restoration of the City Cross is due. The old nobles and
landed gentry, judges and advocates, preferred the retirement of the
closes and wynds, some of which still retain the names of patrician
occupants. In one of those antique dwellings, in Trotter’s Close, near
the Bowhead, with its wainscotted chambers, painted panels, and other
traces of older generations, the Nelson family resided in William’s
youth. The narrow approach to it admitted of no other carriage than the
old-fashioned sedan chair; but the house itself was commodious, though
with curious complexities of internal adaptation to its confined
neighbourhood. One large chamber was shelved round, and stored with the
surplus productions of publishing enterprise for which the Bowhead
establishment had no room; and its miscellaneous contents furnished a
tempting resort for explorations into some strange fields of literature
not ordinarily lying within the range of youthful studies. When at
length the West Bow was invaded by civic reformers, the Nelsons removed
to a more commodious house, the dwelling in an elder century of Lady
Elizabeth, Duchess of Gordon, while the duke held the Castle for James
II. The Gordon House on the Castle Hill was a fine example of the town
mansions of the sixteenth century; and, owing to its elevated site,
commanded a beautiful view from its southern windows, looking across the
Grassmarket to Heriot’s Hospital, the Greyfriars’ Churchyard, and the
distant range of the Pentland Hills. On its demolition, in 1887, William
Nelson secured sundry interesting relics, including a landscape by James
Norie, which filled a panel over the mantlepiece in the duchess’s
drawing-room. He also carried off the stone gargoils, fashioned in the
shape of cannons, which projected from under the south parapet; and they
now adorn the river wall of the garden at St. Bernard’s Well, the
restoration of which, as will be seen hereafter, constituted one of the
public-spirited works on which he was engaged when his life drew to a

The stirring scene that the Grassmarket presented on certain days, as a
regular horse-fair, may be seen in a fine engraving after Calcott in
“The Provincial Antiquities of Scotland;” and is still more graphically
depicted in one of Geikie’s humorous etchings. Here accordingly was a
favourite resort of the boys from the neighbouring Bow. The Castle
Esplanade at certain hours afforded a freer playground. At other times
it offered the tempting attractions of military parade and drill. But
Edinburgh has also within its civic bounds the royal park of Arthur’s
Seat, the Salisbury Crags, and Duddingston Loch, looking as though a
choice fragment of the Highlands had been transported thither to form an
adequate pleasure-ground for the Scottish capital. Hither flocked the
city boys alike from the closes and wynds of the old town and from the
new town crescents and squares. There was room for all, and a choice of
sport for every age. Here is a reminiscence of a very youthful pastime,
recalled in 1883, in a letter to Mr. James Campbell, one of William
Nelson’s old West Bow playmates:--“You will, I have no doubt, recollect
a long, smooth stone near Jeanie Deans’ House, in the Queen’s Park. This
stone was associated with my earliest recollections, as it was a great
enjoyment for boys and girls to slide down it; and many a time, when I
was a little boy, have I had this enjoyment. Well, the stone was in
existence till only a few weeks ago, when some rascally fellows blew it
to pieces with dynamite. The act is much to be regretted, as the stone,
in addition to its being a source of enjoyment for little folks in the
way I have stated, was extremely interesting to geologists as one of
the finest illustrations near Edinburgh of the polish produced by
glacial action.”

While the boys were disporting themselves on the Castle Hill and
Arthur’s Seat, without a care for the future, their father was grappling
with the first difficulties inevitable to the innovator on the
prescriptive usages of the book-trade. But whatever may have been the
obstacles encountered by him, there was no grudging expenditure in the
educational advantages provided for his sons. At the school of Mr.
William Lennie, and subsequently at that of Mr. George Knight, then
second to none in Edinburgh, and afterwards at the High School, William
Nelson pursued his earlier studies; and there, too, some of the
friendships were formed which he cherished with all the warmth of his
sympathetic nature to the close of life. It was in those early days, at
Mr. Knight’s school, that the friendship was formed with his present
biographer, along with George Wilson, subsequently Professor of
Technology in the University of Edinburgh, with Dr. Philip Maclagan, and
with William and James Sprunt, two young West Indians, the former of
whom will reappear as British Consul in North Carolina. Of the more
romantic career of the latter an account is happily preserved in the
notes of an address by William Nelson at one of the gatherings of old
schoolmates in later years, which were so congenial to his tastes.
After telling of James Sprunt’s first settlement in the island of St.
Vincent among a dissolute set of West Indians, his quitting it for New
Orleans, and being lost sight of for years, he thus proceeds:--“He had
landed penniless; but when his old father and mother got their first
letter from him, it was an invitation for them to join him there and
share his good fortune. He next appears as rector of a classical academy
at Wilmington, North Carolina, where he became a clergyman and pastor of
the Presbyterian Church; and when the war broke out between the North
and South, he cast in his lot with the latter, marched with the
Wilmington brigade into action, and as an army chaplain, under General
Stonewall Jackson, went through the terrible scenes of strife and
carnage in that bloody civil war, utterly regardless of danger, and even
ready to face death at the call of duty. His popularity with his
Wilmington congregation was not lessened, it may be believed, when he
returned to resume his pastoral charge at the close of the war.” Of
other boys of those first school-days may be noted Dr. J. A. Smith, in
later years an active member of the Royal Society, and Secretary of the
Society of Antiquaries of Scotland; Dr. John Knight, the son of our old
teacher; the Rev. James Huie of Wooler, Northumberland, and others, who
formed themselves into “The Juvenile Society for the Advancement of
Knowledge,” of which an account is given in the Memoir of George Wilson
by his sister.

The High School, a venerable civic institution dating from the sixteenth
century, still occupied the site of the Blackfriars’ Monastery, at the
east end of the ridge from which the ruined Kirk-of-Field was displaced
by the newly-founded university in Queen Mary’s time. The modern
policeman had not yet superseded the old city watch. The High School
Wynd, a singularly picturesque alley of timber-fronted lands, at the
foot of which stood the palace of Cardinal Beaton, gave access to the
Cowgate, a plebeian haunt, the young roughs of which maintained a
hereditary feud against the “puppies” of the High School. A stray High
School boy, especially if he was a “guite” or freshman, venturing into
that Alsatia, incurred all the risks of a wanderer into an enemy’s
lines; and from time to time a bicker, or pitched battle with sticks and
stones, between the “puppies” of the High School and the “blackguards”
of the Cowgate, came off by mutual understanding on a Saturday in the
Hunter’s Bog or on the Links. The school numbered upwards of seven
hundred boys. The Yards, as the playground was called, presented the
busy scene characteristic of similar juvenile gatherings. But there was
then less of restraint either by masters or police than under the new
_régime_ of school boards and “peelers.” Out of school boys settled
their own affairs, and righted their own wrongs, with results that seem
to me on the whole to have tended to develop manliness and
self-restraint. In the general sports, as well as in organized bickers
or raids into the enemy’s quarters, after some Cowgate encroachment upon
the amenities of the school, all were one; but the acquaintance even
with the boys of our own class was partial. They naturally formed into
little groups of kindred spirits, the beginnings in some cases of
life-long friendships.

Dr. Philip Maclagan, referring to those early school-days, says: “I was
one of the original members of the Juvenile Society for the Advancement
of Knowledge. The society met on Friday evening; papers were read by the
members in rotation, and questions previously started were debated. I
remember some of them--‘Whether the whale or the herring afforded the
more useful and profitable employment to mankind?’ ‘Whether the camel
was more useful to the Arab or the reindeer to the Laplander?’ and
similar puzzles for youthful ingenuity.” As yet political and social
questions were unheeded; and the Saturday rambles, for which Edinburgh
offers such rare advantages, furnished materials for subsequent
discussion in diverse geological, botanical, and antiquarian subjects of
interest. Those excursions extended to Cramond; to Royston Castle,
picturesquely crowning a rock near the sea-shore; to Newhaven, Leith,
or Portobello; or landward, to Craigmillar Castle, Corstorphine,
Colinton, the Esk; and to the Braid or Blackford Hill: a stolen
pleasure, since we were at that time liable to pursuit and ejection as
trespassers. The Arthur’s Seat as well as the Blackford Hill of those
days, if less adapted for the proprieties of a city park, were more to
the taste of youthful explorers while still in a state of nature. It was
the Blackford of young Walter Scott--

        “On whose uncultured breast,
    Among the broom, and thorn, and whin,
    A truant boy, I sought the nest;
    Or listened, as I lay at rest,
        While rose on breezes thin
    The murmur of the city crowd.”

Already, when Scott penned his “Marmion,” the agriculturist and the
builder were working havoc on the scene. How much more may survivors of
that younger circle now say,--

        “O’er the landscape, as I look,
    Nought do I see unchanged remain,
        Save the rude cliffs and chiming brook.
    To me they make a heavy moan
    Of early friendships past and gone.”

But such feelings found no place in the thoughts of the eager truants.
Close at hand were the never-failing Calton Hill, or Arthur’s Seat and
Duddingston, with charm enough for a pleasant ramble, but also utilized,
along with more extended excursions, for collecting specimens to furnish
material for subsequent discussion in their Juvenile Society, as well as
contributions to the museum which was already in course of formation.

The sea-shore had then, as in later years, a peculiar charm for William
Nelson. To the very close of his life an excursion in company with some
favourite companion to Newhaven, or to North Berwick, and off in one of
the fishermen’s boats to fish for haddock or whitings, furnished one of
his most prized recreations. But it was at Kinghorn, his mother’s
birthplace, on the opposite shore of the Firth of Forth, that his
choicest holidays were spent. In a letter written in long subsequent
years to his old schoolmate and friend, the Rev. Dr. Simpson of Derby,
when an event, hereafter referred to, brought him anew into intimate
relations with the place, he thus recalls the memories of his early
boyhood:--“My connection with Kinghorn has been very close; and my love
for it, as my mother’s birthplace, and the place where I spent many very
happy days in my earliest years, and during my school holidays
afterwards, is very great. I was exceedingly fond of fishing, both from
the rocks on the sea-shore and at Kinghorn Loch; and happier days were
never spent by any youngster than were those days of mine at Kinghorn.
I knew every rock on the coast from Pettycur onwards to Seafield Tower
on East the Braes, which is not far from the ‘lang toon of Kirkcaldy;’
and a finer sea-coast for grand rocks there is not anywhere on the
northern coast of the Firth of Forth. I was as happy as I could be from
morning till night. I remember the talks, too, in those early days by
the old folks, which were principally about Paul Jones’s visit to the
Firth, my grandmother having seen his ship from the little hamlet of
Glassmount, about two miles from Kinghorn, where she was born, and where
her parents stayed at that time.

“Another favourite subject of talk was the ‘windy Saturday,’ a
tremendous day of wind, when only one vessel, it was said, out in the
Firth of Forth, was able to face the stormy blasts without coming to
grief. A third subject of talk with the old folks was the mischief that
steam-boats had done to the town, as, before they began to run, there
were big boats to carry passengers; and as they started only at
particular times of the tide, and did not go during the night,
passengers had generally to stay some time in the town till the boats
were ready to start--that is, for Leith, as there was no Newhaven in
those days. ‘What a good this did to the town!’ and, ‘What a mistake it
was to upset the quiet, easy way of taking things, as they were in those
good old days, by the introduction of steam-boats!’ My mother’s uncle,
John Macallum, was the captain of the first steam-boat, or, at all
events, one of the first, that sailed on the Firth of Forth, its name
being the _Sir William Wallace_. It unfortunately was wrecked on some
rocks near Burntisland.

“I could enlarge upon such themes to a great extent, and upon my
companions of those early days; but, alas! those companions have all
passed away, with two exceptions--namely, Henry Darney, a worthy citizen
of Kinghorn, and Major Greig, now of Toronto, Canada. My connection with
Kinghorn came to a close about 1836, when my grandmother died; but such
a liking have I for the place, that I have paid it a short visit almost
every year since that time.”

His more intimate relations with Kinghorn, as he states, terminated with
the death of his grandmother; but his fondness for it remained through
life. In 1885 his eldest sister, Mrs. George Brown, returned from
Canada, and I am indebted to her for some interesting early
reminiscences recalled by more than one visit made in his company to
their mother’s birthplace. “It was there,” she writes, “he spent all his
holidays as a boy; and so eager was he to get to the place that the very
afternoon of the breaking up of school often saw him on board the
ferry-boat on his way across the Forth, fishing-rod in hand and
fishing-basket on back. For fishing he had a perfect passion. At
Newhaven, Kinghorn, Crail, North Berwick, and Oban, he was well known
and greatly liked by all the fishermen, although frequently their
patience must have been pretty well put to the test when they were taken
out in rough weather by William, and they knew there were no fish to be

“When a boy at Kinghorn, late and early he might be seen either putting
his tackle in order, or down on the beach digging for bait, or on the
rocks, now on one and now on another, according to the state of the
tide, contented to spend hours and hours together so that he only caught
fish or even got what he called good nibbles. On many occasions he was
so successful that he was able to keep the poor pretty well supplied
with fish during his visits.

“It was not only during the holiday months that William occupied himself
in fishing or in preparation for it. All through the winter he and his
brothers spent a good deal of their time in manufacturing lines for the
next summer’s campaign. It is amusing to remember where materials for
these fishing-lines sometimes came from. There was an old piano in the
house which had seen better days, and the strings of it afforded a good
supply of wire for fastening the hooks on the lines; the tail of any
horse unfortunate enough to come in the way was put under contribution
for a supply of hair. To the end of his life, his interest in and his
love for Kinghorn never waned; and by the occasional visits he continued
to pay, his acquaintance with the few remaining companions of his
boyhood was kept up.

“The second last visit he paid was in 1886. My sister Jessie and I were
with him. Leaving Edinburgh early in the day, we crossed to Burntisland;
and getting a carriage there, we drove to Pettycur. His recollections
were all of his boyhood. He showed us a part of the beach where he used
to dig for cockles and sand-eels, and the rocks where he and his
companions made a fire to roast potatoes. He pointed out the place where
Alexander III. is said to have been killed; and recalled the old times
of pinnaces and open boats before steamers were heard of. Leaving
Pettycur, we drove to the loch, a lovely, sequestered place, where
William caught his first pike. To show his love for fishing, my brother
Tom recalls the fact that on one occasion, when the holidays were over
and the day had come for William to return to Edinburgh, after he had
finished his preparations for starting, he looked at the clock, and
saying he had still time to run up to the loch before the boat sailed,
rushed off with his fishing-rod. Whether he came back with an empty
basket or not tradition does not say. From the loch we made our way to
the beautiful sandy beach; then up to the Braes, where he used to
scamper about, and on which there still stands an old hawthorn tree, by
the side of which, he told us, he fired his first shot. He loved
evidently to linger in memory over these days and recall his friends and
playmates, the remembrance of whom brought tears to his eyes.”



William Nelson was a pupil in the High School of Edinburgh when one
great cycle in its history was completed. It had occupied the site of
the old Blackfriars’ Monastery for upwards of two hundred and seventy
years. In 1555 the town house of Cardinal Beaton, at the foot of the
Blackfriars’ Wynd, which continued to be one of the most interesting
historical buildings in Edinburgh till its demolition in 1871, was
rented by the city for the use of the Grammar School, while a building
for its permanent occupation was “being biggit on the east side of the
Kirk-of-Field,” the scene, a few years later, of Lord Darnley’s
mysterious assassination. Its rector was David Vocat, a prebendary of
the neighbouring collegiate church of St. Mary-in-the-Field; and under
his rule the cloisters of the Dominicans, built for them in 1230 by
Alexander II., gave place to the halls and playground of the High School
boys. But it was a turbulent age, and before the century closed the
Yards became the scene of a tragic event which retained a prominent
place among the traditions of the school so long as it remained on the
old site. In 1598 Bailie Macmoran, one of the city magistrates, was shot
in a barring out of the schoolboys by William Sinclair, a son of the
Chancellor of Caithness. The contemporary diarist, Birrel, notes that
“there was ane number of scholaris, being gentlemen’s bairns, made a
mutinie;” and on the poor bailie interposing, the schoolboy revolt ended
in dire tragedy.

Great as were the changes that time had wrought on the locality where
the old monastery of the Black Friars gave place to the City Grammar
School, a flavour of historic antiquity pervaded it to the last. The
episcopal palace of the Beatons, where the school work had been carried
on for a time, still stood at the foot of the High School Wynd; and near
by was the site of that of Gawain Douglas, who, while still provost of
St. Giles’s collegiate church--

                “In a barbarous age
    Gave to rude Scotland Virgil’s page.”

It was probably due to the vicinity of their lodgings that the poet
interposed on behalf of the militant archbishop when, after the famous
street feud of “Cleanse the Causeway,” Beaton had vainly sought
sanctuary behind the altar of the Blackfriars’ Church, and, but for the
interposition of the poet, would have been slain. His vigorous
translation of the Æneid into the Scottish vernacular was a favourite
with William Nelson in later years. But the associations of the locality
in his school days were for the most part of more recent date.

The High School Yards had been the playground of Hume, Robertson,
Erskine, Horner, Jeffrey, Cockburn, Brougham, and Scott, and of many a
notability before them. The memory of its gentle, scholarly rector, Dr.
Adam, author of “Roman Antiquities” and other works, was still fresh;
and the old school seemed a link between past generations and the living
age. But neither the site, with its picturesque surroundings, nor the
building, accorded with the ideas of civic reformers who had organized a
crusade against whatever was out of keeping with the brand-new town. The
age had not then reverted to the mediæval models which have since come
into vogue. Classic art was regarded as most suited to academic
requirements; and so a beautiful Grecian building--the finest specimen
of Thomas Hamilton’s architectural skill, in the designing of which his
artist friend, David Roberts, was understood to have contributed
valuable aid,--had been erected on the southern slope of the Calton
Hill, as a more fitting home for the city Grammar School.

The migration from the antiquated building at the head of the High
School Wynd to this splendid edifice in the New Town was an important
change in many ways besides the mere removal to more commodious and
sightly halls. It brought to an end a host of old customs and
traditions; and, among the rest, to the hereditary feud between the
Cowgate “blackguards” and the High School “puppies.” A grand civic
ceremonial marked this transfer of the school to its new domicile. On
the 23rd of June 1829--a bright, auspicious day--William Nelson, the
head boy of his class, with his schoolmates, under the leadership of the
rector and masters, walked in procession, each bearing an osier wand,
with music, military escort, and all the civic glories that the Lord
Provost and magistrates could command, to do honour to the occasion. It
was a memorable epoch in schoolboy life. But it seemed to the old boys
as though they never were quite at home in their stately New Town
quarters. Old “Blackie,” with her famous “gib” or toffy stall, was out
of place there; and as for Brown’s famous subterranean pie-shop in the
old High School Wynd, it necessarily tarried behind, to the inevitable
ruin of a once flourishing business. Not the building only, but the
entire scholastic system carried on within its walls, soon after
underwent a complete revolution; and the work of the venerable Grammar
School of Prebendary Vocat, the classic arena of Adam, Pillans, and
Carson, has since devolved on Fettes College, a creation of the present

But the old classic system still prevailed in William Nelson’s time;
and, notwithstanding some glaring defects, was turned by him to good
account. As to the school itself, it must be owned that it stood in need
of reform. The class of Mr. Benjamin Mackay, under whose training
William Nelson remained for four years, numbered upwards of a hundred
boys. Those in the two front forms worked with more or less persistency
under a somewhat coercive system; the remainder idled in the most
flagrant fashion, and not a few of them looked back in later years on
those dreary hours with an indignant sense of wasted time. But William
Nelson was foremost among the studious workers. The same quiet, resolute
perseverance which marked his later career in business characterized him
as a schoolboy. He maintained his place as the dux of his class, carried
off the chief prizes of the school, and at the close of his course under
the rector, Dr. Carson, he passed to the university with the highest
honours, as classical gold medalist.

Among the carefully preserved papers of his early years are a bundle of
old letters from schoolmates, enclosed in an envelope addressed to his
mother, with an endorsation begging her to see to their safe keeping.
They furnish pleasant glimpses of the affectionate relations already
established with more than one of the friends of later years. The solemn
protest of the learned Principal, Dr. Lee, against “that most
objectionable and pernicious practice of making balls of snow,” is
humorously commented on, along with graver matters, such as pertained to
the themes and discussions of the Juvenile Literary Society, and the
more ambitious debating societies of the university. His own sense of
humour found free play both in early and later years; but above all, his
youthful letters are full of pleasant gossip of the old sailors of
Kinghorn, who told him yarns of the victories in which they had shared
in the great French war, and the pranks they indulged in when flush with
prize-money. Old Charlie Mackenzie had been in the _Mars_ in her action
with the _Hercules_, one of the bloodiest naval conflicts of the war.
Another of the Kinghorn story-tellers--Orrock, who died in 1836, upwards
of ninety years of age--claimed to have known the man who acted as
drummer at the Porteous mob, and to have learned from him some details
of the burning of the doors, and so gaining admission to the Tolbooth.
The intense feeling of local attachment which such reminiscences reveal
manifested itself in later years in the interest he took in improvements
at Kinghorn, as well as in the more costly restorations in his native
city. But one of the first fruits of his intercourse with the old
pensioners of Kinghorn, who, as he says, “were great fishers for
podlies from certain rocks on the sea-shore,” was the capture of a crab
with a double claw, a _lusus naturæ_, which furnished a novel subject
for discussion at a meeting of the Juvenile Literary Society. His
contributions to its collections and learned discussions were generally
of the same class--algæ, shells, or other marine curiosities, the fruits
of his last holiday ramble by the sea.

Among stray waifs that have survived from those old days is a letter,
bearing date February 20, 1829, addressed to the secretary of the
Juvenile Society by the elder brother of one of its members. With all
the condescension of an undergraduate placing his mature knowledge at
the service of schoolboys, the writer sets forth “the very great
pleasure I take in hearing of the proceedings of your society, and my
unqualified approbation of your plan of keeping a journal as a sort of
record of your proceedings.” He proceeds: “I daresay you are unaware
that the duties of a student of medicine are of a very arduous nature.”
But, as he goes on to state, he had laid before the Plinian Society in
the previous summer a paper on certain “Discoveries made behind
Edinburgh Castle in digging the foundation of the new bridge,”--part of
the terraced road which involved the destruction of Trotter’s Close and
the Nelson homestead,--and this, he says, “I shall copy out in a style
which I hope will prove interesting to my young friends, and which may,
perhaps, form a contribution to their journal.” The writer, whose
seniority, by the years that separate the College student from the High
School boy, entitled him thus condescendingly to address his brother
Philip and the other juvenile _savants_, is now Sir Douglas Maclagan,
the genial veteran Professor of Medical Jurisprudence in his own
university; and, it may be added, the author of some of the most popular
of a younger generation’s student-songs.

At a later stage the juvenile debaters awoke to an interest in the
stirring questions of the day. Mr. Alexander Sprunt, writing from
Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1859, says: “During the period of our
High School curriculum, questions were occupying the public mind, and
startling events taking place in Europe: the final struggle of the
Poles, the French ‘Three Days of July,’ the reform movement, etc. The
subject of the immediate or gradual emancipation of the negro slaves in
the colonies was also keenly discussed about that time. Some of us,
being related to families of the colonists, were familiar with the
arguments for a gradual abolition of slavery.” William Nelson took up
the question warmly, and was an uncompromising advocate for immediate
emancipation. As to the oft-renewed struggle in France between Bourbon
Royalists, Imperialists, and Red Republicans, it was forcibly brought
home to the realization of the young debaters by the presence of the
exiled Charles X. and his little court at Holyrood; and by the
occasional sight of the royal refugee as he passed the High School Yards
on foot, in company with one or two of his suite, to enjoy the
magnificent panorama from the Calton Hill.

The fruits of those early experiences could be discerned in later years.
The boy’s education was progressing under other teachings besides those
of the schoolmaster. It was altogether alien to the unobtrusiveness of
William Nelson’s sensitive nature to take, in later years, a prominent
share in political life; but his generous support was extended in the
most practical form to all philanthropic movements. He manifested the
keenest interest in all questions of liberal politics: in the
emancipation of the slaves; in the prolonged controversies which led to
the disruption of the Scottish Church; and in the more recent struggle
between the Slave and Free States in the great American Civil War. Most
of those questions belong to periods long subsequent to the time when
James and Alexander Sprunt were the champions of the West Indian
planters, and William Nelson and other juvenile debaters maintained the
cause of the enslaved negro.

But the members of the Literary Society, as already noted, had their
field-days as well as their Friday night sessions; and in pursuit of
material for their papers, as well as in the free use of the Saturday
and other holidays, the schoolmates had many an exciting ramble. In
spite of its uncertain climate, Edinburgh presents an unequalled variety
of choice holiday excursions; and as to the rain, it required a good
deal more than an ordinary shower to put a stop to any projected
excursion. In walking, climbing, and all the ordinary feats of healthy
boyhood, William Nelson was unsurpassed. To make our way to the summit
of Salisbury Crags by the famous Cat-Nick, or outrival each other in the
attempt to scale Samson’s Ribs, and sit supreme on some overhanging
ledge of the basaltic columns, were among the most favourite pastimes.
Or a leisurely climb along the slopes to the summit of Arthur’s Seat,
and a survey of the magnificent landscape spread out to view, were a
prelude, at the word, to a dash down the hill, scrambling like so many
goats over the western cliffs and the rough slope below, and so by the
Hunter’s Bog, for the first draught at St. Anthony’s Well. In all such
feats William Nelson was a match for any schoolmate. His coolness
equalled his courage, and he had a love for daring feats such as those
who only knew him in later years will hardly realize. When the old home
at the Bowhead was displaced by the Assembly Hall, and its lofty spire
was in process of erection, he made friends with the contractor, and I
accompanied him in more than one ascent. A steam hoist carried us up
the main portion of the way; and then came the trying ordeal on the
ladders. But as the tapering spire approached completion, it was no
longer possible to reach the summit from within; and I still recall with
vividness the composure with which, all unconscious of danger, he walked
out on the narrow plank, over a depth of upwards of two hundred feet,
and stood at the extreme end of it, noting and commenting on the various
objects spread out below.

A future career for life was as yet unthought of. But while aiming
solely at pleasure, and rejoicing in a holiday’s escape from school, the
boy was unconsciously educating himself. Already the botanical box and
the geological hammer were in vogue. Not, indeed, the luxurious
appliances with which amateur naturalists are now furnished. Any hammer
sufficed for getting at a coveted fossil; and as for our _hortus
siccus_, an old candle-box was appropriated by the botanical collector.
But the archæological tastes in which more than one of William Nelson’s
schoolmates sympathized, and to which he gave such practical expression
in later years, were already in process of development. The pleasurable
associations with historic scenes and picturesque ruins found ample
scope in those holiday rambles. Craigmillar Castle was close at hand;
and within easy distance was old Roman Cramond, with chances of a
numismatic prize to the fortunate explorer, and with the sculptured
eagle of the legionaries of the second century still visible on the
cliff at the mouth of the river Almond. This had a special charm for
boys fresh from their Cæsar and Tacitus, giving a sense of reality to
those forgotten centuries. It was an object-lesson, better even than the
Roman altar dedicated to the goddess Epona--DEÆ EPONÆ--which Dr. Carson,
the Rector of the High School, produced to his class, and won their
attentive admiration as he pointed to the focus in which the Roman
horse-jockey had poured a libation; and adduced passages from the
Satires of Juvenal in confirmation of his theme.

Farther afield lay Woodhouselee, Seton and Roslin chapels; Niddry,
Borthwick, and Crichton castles; Preston Cross and Tower; and many
another storied ruin associated with familiar historic events. Pinkie
Cleugh, Carberry Hill, Lasswade, Dalkeith, and Prestonpans, were each
linked with song or story. Maclagan was an ardent collector of plants
and insects; geology divided with botany the interest of George Wilson;
John A. Smith had already begun the collection of coins; and William
Nelson was forming the tastes which manifested themselves in later years
in his love for every venerable nook of his native city, and in his zeal
for the preservation of its historic memorials.

The change from school to college life is in every case an important
one. With the majority it involves emancipation, in a large degree,
from enforced and distasteful studies, and their exchange for congenial
pursuits. The youth begins for the first time to estimate knowledge at
its real worth, and to shape out plans of study for himself. But the
novel arena is no less important as that in which the companionships of
the playground give place to that discriminating choice of congenial
associates in which life-long friendships have so often originated. It
is the joyous season in which the springtide is just merging into life’s
early summer; when youth is animated by all generous aspirations, and
hope’s rainbow arch spans the horizon.

The period of William Nelson’s admission as an undergraduate of the
University of Edinburgh was in some respects a brilliant one in its
history; and even more so in relation to its students than its
professors. Dr. John Lee, the learned Church historian and black-letter
scholar, was principal, and Dr. Chalmers occupied the chair of divinity;
the chair of natural philosophy was successively occupied by Sir John
Leslie and by James D. Forbes. Before the abrupt close of William
Nelson’s academic career, Sir William Hamilton had assumed the lead in
its school of mental science; and the fame of John Wilson, its professor
of moral philosophy, under his pseudonym of “Christopher North,”
attracted many to his class-room for whom his professed theme would have
had no charm. But in the department of classics, for which all William
Nelson’s previous training had been specially directed, the faculty was
imperfectly equipped. Dunbar, a poor representative of Hellenic
scholarship, had then filled the Greek chair for upwards of a quarter of
a century. On the other hand, the professor of humanity was James
Pillans, an elegant scholar, and, in the words of Sir Alexander Grant,
“a born teacher and educator;” though latterly more prone to dwell on
little critical niceties than to give himself up to the drudgery which
was indispensable for the training of his large and often inadequately
prepared class. Among other traits that his old pupils will recall was
the never-failing protest at the opening of a new session, which
reminded the class that he enjoyed the dubious fame of being pilloried
by Byron in his “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.” The irate bard, in
his indiscriminate _furor_, had characterized the professor of humanity
as “Paltry Pillans;” and William Nelson used to quote this incident of
his own experience in justification of the title:--He had an essay to
give in on a certain day, and not having finished it till late on the
previous night, instead of walking to the professor’s remote residence
at Inverleith Row, he dropped his manuscript into the nearest post-box.
Next day, when the class assembled, the first intimation from the
professor was, “I will thank Mr. William Nelson to hand twopence to the
janitor for the postage of his essay!” Notwithstanding some amusing
eccentricities, Professor Pillans was held in great esteem by his old
pupil as an apt and painstaking enthusiast in his profession; and the
good feeling was mutual. William Nelson was a favourite pupil, in whose
progress he took a lively interest, and it was in spite of his most
urgent remonstrances that the classic muse was abandoned at the call of
filial duty.

But it was the fortune of William Nelson, in those happy days of student
life, to find himself among a rare band of undergraduates, many of whom
subsequently won a name for themselves in ampler fields. Edward Forbes
was then a zealous volunteer on the staff of the _University Maga_,
contributing with pen and pencil, in prose and verse, to its columns. He
had a rare power of winning co-operation in whatever he set on foot; and
he gathered around him a band of kindred spirits, who, as sharers in the
exuberant frolic and satire of the _Maga_, formed themselves at length
into the Magi, or members of the Maga Club. Out of this grew the famous
“Brotherhood of the Friends of Truth,” with its archimagus, its ribbon,
and its mystic motto:-


which still survives under its later guise of the Red Lions of the
British Association gatherings. There was a curious admixture of
youthful exuberance and frolic with a lofty earnestness of aim in the
Brotherhood. The search after truth was declared, in its programme, not
only to be man’s noblest occupation, but his duty; and the spirit of the
order is thus set forth: “This brotherhood is a union of the searchers
after truth, for the glory of God, the good of all, and the honour of
the order, to the end that mind may hold its rightful sway in the

Of the youthful band of undergraduates, John Goodsir, Bennett, Blackie,
Lyon Playfair, George Wilson, and Edward Forbes, all ultimately filled
chairs in their own university. Day succeeded to a professorship in St.
Andrews, and Struthers to one in Aberdeen. Henry Goodsir, a youth of
high ability, accompanied Sir John Franklin as naturalist in the
ill-fated Arctic expedition, from which none returned. Dr. Stanger
distinguished himself, with better fortune, in the Niger expedition of
1844; Andrew Ramsay rose to be chief of the Geological Survey; and other
fellow-students and members of the order have occupied professors’
chairs in Canada and in India, have represented their university in
Parliament, or made their mark in no less useful ways. Among the latter
the name of William Nelson claims an honourable rank. For the scheme of
the brotherhood required each member “to devote his time and his
energies to the department for which he feels and proves himself best
fitted, communicating his knowledge to all, so that all may benefit
thereby, casting away selfishness, and enforcing precepts of love.”
Assuredly when those maxims came to be tested in the daily business of
life, no one gave their spirit of unselfishness more practical
manifestation than the subject of this memoir.

In Professor Pillans’s class he maintained the standing which he had
achieved at the High School. His foremost but unequal rival in the
composition of Latin verse was the late George Paxton Young, the
esteemed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics in the University of
Toronto. It was while William Nelson was still a student that John
Cairns--the friend and fellow-student both at Edinburgh and Berlin of
his younger brother, John Nelson, and now the venerable Principal and
Professor of Systematic Theology in the Divinity Hall of the United
Presbyterian Church--came fresh from the pastoral hills of Berwickshire
to win for himself a distinguished place among the men of his time.

Amid the stimulus and rivalry of such competitors for fame, the young
student devoted himself with renewed zeal to the classics, with
undefined visions of some honourable professional or academic reward as
his life-prize; and fulfilled the high anticipations of his earlier
career. But while thus steadily pursuing a course which gave abundant
promise of triumph, his father was suddenly prostrated by disease; and
William, as the eldest son of a large family, abandoned all the bright
prospects of his university career, and the dream of professional or
academic achievements, to grapple with the unfamiliar difficulties of a
commercial enterprise, till then conducted on a scale commensurate with
the modest aims of an elder generation in the Old Town of Edinburgh.

The business of Mr. Thomas Nelson was a curious survival of the system
borrowed from the great fairs of the Middle Ages, and grafted on to
their older traffic by the successors of Guttenburg and Fust; of Caxton,
Wynkin de Worde, and Chepman and Miller. Allan Ramsay had followed in
their steps, with his booth at the sign of the Mercury, opposite the
head of Niddry’s Wynd, from whence he transferred it to the Luckenbooths
at the City Cross. It was in just such another luckenbooth at the
Bowhead that Mr. Thomas Nelson originated the business which has since
developed into such great proportions.

William Nelson threw himself at once, with characteristic singleness of
aim, into his new vocation; nor did he ever express regret at his
enforced desertion of scholarship for trade. But few men have carried
away from school or college a keener sense of the attachments of student
life. To the last the plea of an old schoolmate ever presented an
irresistible claim which scarcely any demerit could cancel. The fate of
one whose life, by his own misconduct, had closed in miserable failure
is thus charitably noted in one of his letters: “Poor ---- died two days
ago of congestion of the lungs; and it is a wonder that he hung on so
long, as he has been in a very dilapidated condition for years. The last
time I saw him, his condition was truly pitiable. I sent him a fresh
bolster and bedding, for the ones he had were hard and foul. Poor
fellow! he did a great deal to hasten the approach of the last enemy.”
His loyalty to early friends was unfailing. He kept a record of his
classmates in the High School, and noted with keenest interest their
success or failure in life. He told with kindly humour of the refusal of
a liberal “tip” offered to a porter at Cairo who had been specially
serviceable, and then claimed fellowship by reminding him of old High
School doings. B---- was the ne’er-do-weel of Mackay’s class, who had
thus found his vocation in the land of the Pharaohs. His sympathy was
unbounded in any honour or good fortune achieved by a schoolmate; and
latterly, as he watched the rapidly diminishing numbers of the old group
of school and college companions, he recorded at the close of each year
the minutes of Death’s roll-call. To one who entered so keenly into
academic life, and whose career was so replete with promise, it was a
trying ordeal to abandon college for the uncongenial drudgery of a
trading venture for which such experiences seemed to promise no helpful
training. But in Scotland a university career is by no means regarded as
unsuitable preparation for trade and commerce; and William Nelson was
speedily to show what success the classical gold medalist of the High
School and the best writer of Latin verse in the College could achieve
in business life.



With characteristic energy the young student, now in his nineteenth
year, set himself to grapple with the novel difficulties of the
book-trade. Neither the irksome drudgery nor the uncongenial demands
incident to the business daunted the youthful adventurer, who had so
recently found his highest vocation in the mastery of Latin quantities,
and the triumphs of competitive hexameters after the models of Horace
and Virgil. In the summer of 1880, the present writer spent some weeks
with his old schoolmate at Philiphaugh, in the vale of Yarrow, famous as
the scene of Montrose’s last battle. During an excursion to Berwick,
with the special object of visiting another schoolmate, he pointed out
more than one book-store in the old Border town, familiar to him in
association with his first experiences as a commercial traveller, and
humorously described those early ventures in the disposal of his
literary wares. According to Johnson of Liverpool, his journey extended
to that city, and Mr. Johnson gave him his first large order for books.
He had already succeeded in overcoming the prejudices of the regular
trade, and fixed a scale of prices which disarmed their antagonism.

The books, as already stated, were for the most part reprints from
standard and popular works beyond the range of copyright restrictions.
Their paper-covered boards and imperfect printing were in striking
contrast to the choice typography, paper, and binding, and the tasteful
illustrations, which characterized the works issued by the firm in later
days. Yet the germ even of this was already discernible in the engraved
frontispieces and vignette titles introduced to catch the eye and cater
for the popular taste.

So early as 1829, Mr. Thomas Nelson, senior, had aimed at the extension
of his business by engaging a commercial traveller to push the sales of
his publications with the trade. Mr. James Macdonald was first
despatched on this mission; but as Curwen states, in his “History of
Booksellers,” owing to the stigma attached to the unwonted nature of the
business, his mission was a failure. “At Aberdeen the booksellers rose
up in arms, and only one had the courage to give him an order.” To him
succeeded, ere long, Mr. James Peters, a more successful agent, and a
faithful _attaché_ of the house through all its later fortunes till his
death. But Curwen says: “It was not until Mr. William Nelson, the
eldest son of the founder, took to the road that the trade business was
really consolidated, not only in Scotland, but also in the chief towns
of the United Kingdom. In fact, it may be said that Mr. William Nelson
was the real builder of the business, working upwards from a foundation
that was certainly narrow and circumscribed. Mr. Thomas Nelson, the
younger brother, soon after this admitted to the firm, undertook the
energetic superintendence of the manufacturing department, and was the
originator of the extensive series of school books.”

William Nelson’s taste in literature was refined, and his reading
extensive. His mind was stored with the fruits of years of liberal
study; and when stimulated by the sight of beautiful scenery, or moved
by some unusual occurrence, he sometimes surprised strangers by his apt
and lengthened quotations from favourite poets. Soon after the removal
to the Castle Hill establishment, Mr. Duncan Keith,--the son of an old
friend of Mr. Nelson, with whom William had spent at Glasgow a brief
period of initiation into the mysteries of trading,--was welcomed as a
member of the West Bow home-circle, and took his place among the busy
corps on the Castle Hill. He was the junior of William Nelson by some
years, and thus writes: “My evenings were chiefly spent in the society
of the younger branches of the family; but I have a distinct
remembrance of William reading aloud from Horace and Virgil in a manner
that showed an intimate acquaintance with the language, and an
appreciation of the poetry in the original. Though a High School dux
myself, it was far above me; and, so far as my later observation goes,
above most people.” But it was only amongst intimate friends that he
gave free play to his literary sympathies. Nothing was more remote from
his character than any effort at display; and men of culture who, in
their intercourse with him, had long regarded him only as the man of
business, were sometimes startled by an unexpected betrayal of his
familiarity with classical and general literature, as well as by his
sound judgment on questions of critical discussion.

With a taste thus matured, his feeling for art was refined, and he
directed his efforts, with ingenious skill, to render the works issued
from the firm attractive. Novel methods of illustration were introduced.
Wood-cuts were printed with tinted grounds and relieved lights.
Chromo-lithographs vied in effect with the original water-colour
drawings. A late series of reproductions of Landseer’s pictures, though
designed only for a child’s book, constituted a valuable memorial of the
great animal painter. Inventive ingenuity was directed to the production
of fresh novelties in binding and illustration, many of which were
eagerly copied by the trade. William Nelson’s appreciation of artistic
excellence seemed to be innate and instinctive. “A thing of beauty” was
a joy to him wholly apart from his own share in its production. His
admiration for a well-got-up book, or for illustrations of unusual
excellence, found as hearty utterance in reference to the publications
of another firm as of his own; and hence he was always open to fresh
hints, and prepared for improvement on his most successful efforts. He
was, indeed, too easily beguiled by good looks both in books and men.
This characteristic passage occurs in a letter to an old friend: “I had
a call two days ago from a most fair-spoken English clergyman, who
wanted help to build a ragged school in Sheffield. He insisted that you
had introduced him to me, and that I had taken him over the works and
given him a book, which was likely enough; though, as I told him, I had
no recollection of it. He was most plausible, and very good-looking. A
good-looking outside takes my fancy in anything. I always find myself
expecting the best of a good-looking book; and I am apt to believe
pleasant things of good-looking people also. He assured me he was a
great friend of yours; and he had such a friendly look that I gave him
what he wanted. Do you know anything of this Dr. Pike? I have had my
suspicions of him that he is a plausible humbug,”--which, as in many a
similar case, proved to be only too well founded.

A writer in the _Scottish Typographical Circular_ remarks: “Mr. Nelson
was often popping in and out among artists and engravers who did work
for him, giving them new ideas and further suggestions. He did not
grudge trouble or expense if he got things nice and to his mind. He
rejoiced in beautiful typography, and displayed great artistic taste in
the wood-cuts and illustrations.” He was indeed a familiar visitor in
the studios of London and Paris, as well as of Edinburgh; and during his
frequent Continental tours derived intense pleasure from his visits to
the galleries both of ancient and modern art. His eye was quick to
discern the merits of a painting, and his judgment was prompt and
decided. He was indeed sensitive to any manifestation of bad taste; and
the unsightly disfigurement of the buildings or thoroughfares of his
native city by placards or signboards, excited his anger to a degree
that sometimes startled the offender. His remonstrance on such occasions
was apt to be expressed with a blunt sincerity that could not be
misunderstood. The same severe standard of taste was applied in his own
business, and made its influence felt in every department of typography,
illustration, and binding.

A memorandum, found among his papers after his death, preserves an
incident in the first stages of the inexperienced but energetic
reformer’s proceedings. His father had acquired a set of stereotype
plates of Drinkwater’s “Siege of Gibraltar,” and had a portrait of its
author engraved for the frontispiece. A reprint of it being in progress,
the plate was intrusted to the engraver for retouching; and he undertook
to get the autograph of the old soldier, to be added as an attractive
feature. The new and illustrated edition was issued accordingly, and
found a ready sale. But some years afterwards a venerable
military-looking gentleman waited on Mr. Nelson, and asked where he had
obtained the signature. Colonel Drinkwater, who was supposed to have
been long since dead, was himself the questioner; and, as William Nelson
notes, the signature was subsequently identified as in the handwriting
of the deceased manager of Mr. Lizar’s engraving establishment. But only
in the first stage of transition from student life to the counting-house
and the publisher’s office could such a proceeding have eluded his
vigilance. A copy of the engraving is attached to the memorandum, and
contrasts very markedly with the illustrations of later years, when
William Nelson’s critical taste, conjoined with his experience in
adapting the issues of his publishing-house to popular demand, won for
the productions of the firm a character for great attractiveness in
outward aspect and illustration. At a later date, the “Chronicles of the
Schönberg-Cotta Family” constituted the first of a highly popular series
of books by the same author. The charming authoress who writes under
the initials A. L. O. E., the late Mary Howitt, Mrs. Traill, R. M.
Ballantyne, and other writers, figured on their list of authors. The
charming series of “Art Gift Books,” from the French of M. Jules and
Mme. Michelet, and M. Arthur Mangin--“The Insect,” “The Bird,” “The
Mysteries of the Ocean,” and “The Desert World,” as well as other works
of the same class--are illustrated in the best style of art. But it was
as caterers for the people, in an abundant supply of pure, high-toned
popular literature, and not as rivals of the great publishing houses
through which the most eminent writers appeal to select classes of
readers, that the Nelsons achieved their greatest success. In the
tribute paid to the worth of William Nelson by the Rev. Dr. Alison when
his life-work was finished, it is said: “His influence, and that of the
firm of which he was the head, has gone forth healthfully to the ends of
the earth. Religious principle, no less than skill and taste and
enterprise, has been in all their work as publishers of literature. No
man can measure the good which that incessant stream of excellent books
issuing from their press has done for the world. To a large extent they
have been for the multitude, rather than for the learned few.” But this
was the summing up of the work of a lifetime. Much had to be achieved in
its progress, step by step, ere such results could even be aimed at.

Under the energetic management of the young publisher the picturesque
tenement at the head of the West Bow, which had sufficed for his
father’s bookselling operations, soon proved inadequate for the growing
business. A neighbouring “land,”--as an entire pile of building in the
Old Town of Edinburgh is still called,--situated at the head of Blyth’s
Close, Castle Hill, with the palace of Mary of Guise in its rear, was
secured; and there the first steps were taken which ultimately developed
into the great establishments of Hope Park and Parkside. Machinery was
brought into use wherever available; and a well-organized division of
labour was introduced, until at length nearly every process, from the
initial type-setting to the final issue of the bound and illustrated
volume, was executed on the premises. The locality where this new
departure was made, preparatory to the great works at Hope Park, with
its hundreds of work-people, and its wholesale branches at London and
New York, is one rich in literary associations. Near by, on the northern
slope of the Castle bank, is the house of Allan Ramsay, poet and
bookseller; Blair’s Close, long noted among the most ancient nooks of
the Castle Hill, was the abode of Alison Cockburn, authoress of “The
Flowers of the Forest,” and of other plaintive as well as humorous
Scottish songs. To St. James’s Court, on the east side, James Boswell
brought Dr. Samuel Johnson, and entertained him in the house where he
had succeeded to the historian David Hume. There was an old-world
literary flavour about the place that gave a certain piquancy to the
start of the young adventurer deserting the classic grove for the
prosaic haunts of commerce.

The Rev. Dr. Simpson of Derby, already noted as an old schoolmate and a
life-long friend, refers in one of his letters to the lectures and
social entertainments provided at a later date for the numerous workers
in the Hope Park establishment, in which he was an active labourer. But
the interest taken by William Nelson in his employés was manifested at
an earlier stage. Lectures and social recreations had already been
instituted before the transfer of the works to Hope Park, in some of the
earliest of which the present writer bore a part. But with increasing
numbers, and more ample room, those instructive entertainments were
organized on an extensive scale, and are described in a memorandum of
Dr. Simpson, by whom many of the later lectures were given. His account
of them may find a fit place here, though in some points it anticipates
the narrative of later years. “The deep interest,” he remarks, “which
Mr. Nelson felt in his work-people, and his desire to promote their
well-being in every sense, conspicuously appear in the entertainments
which were from time to time got up for them. At first these were
chiefly in the nature of banquets or suppers, to which all were invited,
when they were regaled with the good things of this life in a judicious
but liberal manner. Along with this, however, he was careful to combine
moral and religious instruction, by securing addresses by one or two
clerical friends. By-and-by he provided for them occasional lectures on
subjects of varied interest. For those he got up, at considerable
expense and trouble, a series of illustrations which were shown on a
screen by the oxy-hydrogen light, the lecturer describing each picture
while it was before the eyes of the audience. This was, I believe, the
first introduction of this form of lecture, which has since become so
common. The pictures were reproduced from engravings by the photographer
of the establishment, Mr. Sinclair, and then hand-coloured with much
care and skill by Mr. Ramage, who devoted himself to the art-work
connected with the extensive business of the firm.

“The first of those illustrated lectures was on the transfer of
Napoleon’s remains from St. Helena to Paris. The second was on
Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily and Italy, ending with his meeting with
Victor Immanuel, and hailing him as king of Italy. Afterwards a new
departure was made, and the lectures were chiefly devoted to the genius
and works of celebrated artists; the illustrations being transcripts of
the artists’ principal works. The first subject of this class was David
Scott, R.S.A., in connection with his illustrations of Coleridge’s
‘Ancient Mariner,’ subsequently reproduced by Messrs. Nelson in a
tasteful edition of the poem. The next lecture was devoted to the works
of Landseer; and to this succeeded similar illustrations of Hogarth,
Wilkie, Harvey, Leech, etc. Those lectures were greatly appreciated; the
large hall at Hope Park, in which they were given, being always crowded
to excess by the employés, their wives and families, supplemented by
friends invited by Mr. Nelson, including some who took an active part in
this generous effort for the social elevation of the working-classes,
such as Dr. Guthrie and Dr. Hannah; and their artist friends, Sir George
Harvey, D. O. Hill, James Drummond, and others. For each of those
lectures Mr. Nelson had prepared from twenty to thirty slides, which
were arranged in partitioned cases made for their safe keeping.” But
they perished, along with much more valuable property, in the disastrous
fire of 1878.

But only the initial steps towards the full development of the Hope Park
works, with their ingeniously devised machinery and systematic division
of labour, were possible at the Castle Hill establishment. Its
accommodation, though a great step in advance of that at the Bowhead,
was inadequate for such plans, and the numbers employed were
correspondingly limited. But the workmen were carefully selected; and
from the first the relations between them and their employer were
characterized by mutual respect and confidence. They recognized in him
one whose interest in their welfare was generous, and his sympathy that
of a friend. But his own attention to business extended to the minutest
details, and anything indicative of mere eye-service or sloth was
intolerable to him. An anecdote highly characteristic of him is thus
narrated on the authority of one who had been long in his
employment:--“Two navvies were engaged one day at Hope Park turning a
crank when Mr. William Nelson was passing. He paused for a moment and
looked at the men, who seemed to go about their work rather leisurely.
He then came forward to them, and asked, in a gruff manner, if they
could not work a little harder and turn the crank quicker. They answered
at once ‘they could not; it was a stiff job, and very fatiguing.’
‘Nonsense,’ he replied; ‘let me try.’ Seizing one of the handles, he did
try; but, after giving the handle two or three turns, desisted, for it
made the perspiration pour from him. Then he remarked, ‘Ay, just go on
as you’ve been doing;’ and, putting his hand into his pocket, added,
‘There’s half-a-crown between you.’ Many similar anecdotes might be
told. He liked smart, active workmen; but he did not willingly drive or
unduly press any one. He would at once rebuke any of his employés if he
considered they deserved it; but if afterwards he found he had acted
hastily or wrongly, he would apologize, even to the humblest worker, and
almost invariably with the apology there came a gift.”

It is not surprising that the relations between such an employer and his
workmen were something closer than those of the mere hireling. The
workmen who had shared in his first efforts in the Castle Hill
establishment followed him to Hope Park. Some of them, by their fidelity
and skill, contributed to the success of later years; and the veteran
survivors of that original staff were regarded by William Nelson to the
last as objects of exceptional favour.

Among those who thus migrated from the Castle Hill to Hope Park, one
claims special attention as a relic of the original Bowhead
establishment. James Peters has already been named. He was a man of good
education, and, what was rare in his day, had a familiar knowledge of
the French language. He was, moreover, a devout Presbyterian of the
early type, eschewing the Covenanting exclusiveness of his old master,
and holding faithfully to the National Kirk. His familiarity with the
Scriptures was so great that he was accredited with knowing the entire
New Testament by heart, and quoting familiarly from much of the Old
Testament. He had been the trusted clerk, commercial traveller, and man
of all work: the entire staff for a time of the bookselling business
under the elder _régime_; and as the cautious ventures of its founder
gave way to the comprehensive schemes of a younger generation, he
watched their operations with many misgivings. Old Peters would have
furnished a study for Sir Walter Scott fit to have ranked alongside of
his Owen and Caleb Balderstone. He moved in all things with the
regularity of clockwork, and sternly resented in others the slightest
deviation from orderly business procedure or punctuality as to time. Mr.
Duncan Keith sums up his own early recollections of him with the remark
that “even John Munro, the beadle of Mr. Goold the Covenanting
minister’s kirk, stood in awe of him.” One day, contrary to all
precedent, he asked leave to go away a little earlier than the usual
closing hour. He reappeared next morning, and, addressing William, said,
“I wish you would tell your father I got married yesterday.” On inquiry,
he stated that he had just wedded the elderly dame with whom he lodged.
“It will be cheaper,” he said; “and we’ll get on weel enough thegither.
We hae been lang used to each other.” When in early days the plan of
book sales was in vogue, he was intrusted with the carrying out of one
of the ventures; but his ideas of orderly procedure were wholly at
variance with the novel experiment. He abruptly returned home the
following day, and would have nothing more to do with such work. His
loyalty to his young masters knew no bounds; but he could never quite
forget that they had been boys when he had the sole charge of the
Bowhead buith, or indeed feel it to be natural to speak of them
otherwise than by their Christian names. Duty clearly required him to
advise and warn them at every new step, so unlike the prudent thrift of
early days. If we could realize all the feelings of a sober old
brood-hen when the ducklings that she has hatched take their first
plunge into the mill-pond, and in spite of her clucking and pother sail
off into the expanse of waters heedless of all remonstrance, we might be
better able to sympathize with the worthy old servitor as his young
master launched into ever new and more ambitious ventures. He survived
his active faculties, and was an object of kindly care and liberality
long after he had ceased even to deceive himself with the fancy that he
could be of service in the business.



The premises on the Castle Hill became ere long too limited for the
rapidly-growing business. William Nelson had been joined in the
enterprise by his younger brother, Thomas; and with their combined
energy many novel features were developed and advances made in fresh
avenues of trade. The publications of the establishment were attracting
attention by their improved typography and tasteful embellishment.
Ampler room and greater subdivision of labour had become indispensable.
So, looking around for some more suitable locality, their attention was
directed to a group of antiquated dwellings at the east end of the
Meadows, the remains of one of the suburban villages swallowed up when
Old Edinburgh burst its mural barriers and extended over the surrounding

In an address given by William Nelson to those in his employment, at one
of his social entertainments, when a building was in progress at Hope
Park which he then assumed was to be the final addition to the works,
he traced the rise of the firm, interspersing the graver narrative with
humorous incidents, and with kindly notices of some whom he referred to
as faithful fellow-workers, from the time when he first gathered them
around him in the new workrooms on the Castle Hill. One of the
reminiscences of their entertainer’s narrative is thus recalled:--When
Hope Park grounds were about to be built upon, Mr. Nelson, being curious
to explore the place, made a visit to what he described as a wilderness
of cabbage gardens, with no end of pig-sties. One grumphy (Anglice, a
sow) he noticed in a corner where the joiner’s workshop afterwards
stood, which, as he humorously described it, “kept its carriage!” The
body of a four-wheeled coach, still in good condition, had been
consigned to this novel use. The contrast was striking when, in later
years, the smooth grass lawn, with its tasteful array of shrubs and
flower-plots, filled the area enclosed on three sides by the Hope Park

But the full development of the establishment was the result of years of
patient and steady progress, until it grew to proportions adequate for
the varied departments embraced in the comprehensive scheme, with all
its ingenious improvements in machinery for economizing labour. Its tall
chimney showed from afar the scale on which its operations were carried
on; though at a later date William Nelson realized very strongly the
injury to the amenities of the city, and the obstruction to the
magnificent views of the surrounding landscape, occasioned by such
adjuncts to its manufactories, and laboured by precept and example to
get rid of them. In the later Parkside Works gas-engines are the sole
motive power, and their general introduction was advocated by him as a
substitute for the unsightly chimney with its obscuring volumes of

With the numerous workmen that were ultimately engaged in all the varied
branches of skilled labour, the Hope Park establishment came to be
recognized as one of the most important centres of economic industry in
the city; and, so far as printing, publishing, and binding are
concerned, is spoken of by Mr. Bremner, in his “Industries of Scotland,”
as the most extensive house in Scotland. The new buildings, when
completed, formed a stately range of offices enclosing three sides of a
square, where, under a well-organized division of labour, with the aid
of machinery adapted to its varied operations, the entire work, from the
setting of the types to the issue of the bound and illustrated volumes,
was done on the premises. Compositors, draughtsmen, photographers,
lithographers, steel, copper, and wood engravers, electrotypers,
stereotypers, folders, stitchers, and binders, plied their industrious
skill. The work-men and women employed on the establishment latterly
numbered nearly six hundred; and few centres of industry have been
characterized by more harmonious relations between the representatives
of capital and labour.

The printing of books has constituted an important branch of Scottish
industry from the days of Chepman and Miller, on through Bassendyne,
Hart, and Symson, to our own time. The names of Fowlis, Constable,
Ballantyne, Cadell, Blackwood, Oliver and Boyd, Chambers, Blackie,
Collins, Neill, Black, and Nelson, are all familiarly associated with
the literary history of the century; and, with only three exceptions,
they belong to Edinburgh. It was fitting, indeed, that Edinburgh should
take the lead in developing the typographer’s art, where, in 1507,
Walter Chepman set up the first printing-press in Scotland; and where,
in the memorable year when “the flowers o’ the forest were a’ wede away”
on Flodden Hill, he built the beautiful Chepman Aisle which still adorns
the collegiate church of St. Giles, and endowed there a chaplainry at
the altar of St. John the Evangelist. Edinburgh, in the days of the
Scottish Caxton, was even more noteworthy for its authors than its
typographers. Dunbar, Gawain Douglas, and the makers of that brilliant
age, were followed by Montgomery, Drummond, Allan Ramsay, and Fergusson;
and along with this array of poets, reaching to him whom Burns owned as
his master, Hume, Robertson, Mackenzie, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, and
Walter Scott, combined to transform their old romantic town into the
Modern Athens of later years. Their genius was not without its influence
on the special aspect of Edinburgh’s industries, including some of the
novel forms of periodical literature which have so largely contributed
to the culture of the masses.

The social entertainments and lectures provided by William Nelson at an
early stage for his employés have already been noticed; but in the
spring of 1868 he extended his generous sympathy over an ampler field,
and organized a _fête_ for the whole journeymen printers and
stereotypers of Edinburgh. The invitation met with a cordial response,
and the appearance presented by the assembled guests in the galleries of
the Museum of Science and Art was the theme of admiring comment. They
were summoned to this novel social gathering by one who justly claimed
recognition as an employer “who set a high value upon whatever is
calculated to foster kindly feelings between man and man.” The
invitation said: “For one evening let us lay aside care or irksome duty,
and come out with those we love best, and let us look each other fairly
in the face. In the matter of head we do not much differ; at heart we
are agreed. We need to have the bow unstrung occasionally. Let us do so
in company for once, and see if we can help each other to a happy
evening.” The answer to this was the assembly of upwards of a thousand
workmen, with their wives and sweethearts, in the Industrial Museum, to
listen to a lecture by Mr. W. H. Davenport Adams, on the noble art in
the service of which they were enlisted; and to enjoy the humour and
pathos of some of Scotland’s choicest national songs, including Burns’s
proud protest, which could there be appreciated without any thought of
social wrong--“A man’s a man for a’ that!” The _Scottish Typographical
Circular_, in its comments on this unique gathering, remarked: “Here
were a thousand men, nearly all in superfine black coats and spotless
shirt-fronts; a thousand women in tasteful dresses and bonnets of the
latest mode, setting off the comely features of the printers’ wives, or
the fresh, pretty faces of their sweethearts; and in all this great mass
of the ‘lower orders’ not a word out of joint; not a gesture of
impatience; no crowding, jostling, or selfish preferring of one’s own
enjoyment; nothing but courtesy and that perfect good breeding which
prompts men to give their neighbour’s comfort the precedence of their
own convenience.” It was a gathering that Scotland might be proud of,
whether we assign to the host or the guests the chief prominence. The
matter of dress, to which the critic so specially directed attention,
was not unworthy of note as an evidence of provident thrift, and of the
self-respect which is nowhere more fitting than in the skilled artisan.

The spirit manifested in gatherings such as this is the best antidote
for those conflicts between labour and capital which have proved so
detrimental to both. Yet, as will be seen by a letter addressed less
than four years later to his former traveller, Mr. James Campbell, he
had evidence that a perfect solution of this great social problem has
yet to be devised. The letter is dated from Dunkeld, where he had been
spending a holiday with his family. In 1851 he had married Miss
Catherine Inglis of Kirkmay, Crail; and at the date of the letter he was
surrounded by a happy family, consisting of his son Frederick and four
daughters, to whom he thus alludes: “The children have enjoyed their
stay immensely, and none more than Master Fred, who got capital
trout-fishing in the Braan, a tributary of the Tay, and in the
Butterstone, a stream about six miles distant.” His greatest happiness
was in his own family circle, and surrounded by the friends whom he
welcomed to his hospitable home. But the cares inseparable from his
extensive commercial transactions could not always be so exorcised; and
now a succession of inclement seasons and bad harvests was clouding the
prospects of all. “We have had,” he writes, “a most miserable time of it
for many months past, as far as weather is concerned. I don’t remember
of such a long continuance of wet weather as there has been this year.
It has lasted, I may almost say, all summer, up to within the last few
days; and the result is that the crops have suffered terribly. As to the
potatoes, the disease is everywhere, and potato starch-mills will have
full employment this winter. It is a time calling for sympathy and
forbearance on all hands. But, in addition, strikes for shorter hours
and increase of wages are the order of the day; and it looks as if the
words of the song, ‘Hard times come again no more,’ were ere long, as a
general rule, not to be suitable for this country, as such times cannot
be far distant for both masters and men, if there be not a cessation
soon to this war between capital and labour. Things are all quiet at
present in the trades of printing and bookbinding, but it is rumoured
that heavy demands for both shorter hours and higher wages will be made
by the men next month; and it is known that they have been preparing for
a struggle by subscribing largely to a strike-fund ever since the
beginning of the year, so that there is no doubt coming events are
casting their shadows before.

“Things must be in a strange way in New York just now with operative
printers. We know this from two of our men, who went out there some
months ago in the hope of bettering their condition; but they were glad
to come back to us, and they are both at work again, each at the machine
at which he worked before he left. The history of the experiences of one
of the men was as follows:--He got to New York, but he had no sooner
begun to look out for work than he was set upon by a committee of
operative printers, who were at the time on strike, and he was offered
eleven dollars a week if he would not ask for work. The offer was too
good a one for him to refuse, and he went about for several weeks with
his hands in his pockets. By-and-by he was asked if he would not like to
go back to Scotland. He said he had no objections, and it was arranged
that his passage back should be paid. When the day came for his leaving,
some of the New York men came down to the steamer to see him off, and
they gave him five dollars for pocket-money during the voyage, and a sum
of ten dollars to give to his wife, whom he had left behind in
Edinburgh. And so he left the shores of America. The story of the other
man is still more strange. He took work in an office in which there was
a strike; but after being there for a week, he found his position so
uncomfortable from annoyance from the men who had left, that he went and
told his master he would have to leave on account of this. But what was
his surprise when his master told him that he need not allow this state
of matters to continue, as he had just to put a ball through one of the
fellows, and there would be an end of it; and that the utmost that would
be done to him in the way of punishment would be a day or two’s
confinement in the police office or jail. He then handed him a revolver
and said, ‘Take this and make good use of it, and you’ll have a quiet
life for the future.’ This pistol I have now in my possession, and it is
worth having as a curiosity.”

At an earlier date the mischievous effects of a strike extended to the
Hope Park works, ending in the places of some of the strikers being
supplied by other applicants. But the victims learned by experience that
they never appealed in vain to the sympathy of William Nelson, even when
their share in the revolt had been characterized by ingratitude or
breach of faith. It was sufficient that they were impoverished. “Poor
fellow!” he would say, “he brought it on himself; but what of that?” And
the liberal aid was given only too readily; for the plea was discovered
to be one to which he most promptly responded, and was resorted to
frequently by impostors who preyed on his kindly sympathy. What, indeed,
the Rev. Dr. Alison remarked of him after his death, when he said: “He
simply could not turn from distress of any sort without doing something
to relieve it,” was no more than an echo of the sentiment which
experience had rendered familiar to many.



The excursions of early years, and the longer holiday rambles of student
life, for which the environs of Edinburgh and the neighbouring shores of
Fife afforded so many attractions, were exchanged for a time for the
prosaic rounds of the commercial traveller and book-agent. But this duty
was transferred ere long to trustworthy subordinates; and so soon as
prosperity rewarded the intelligent labours of the young adventurer, the
spirit that prompted earlier excursions revived. This was further
stimulated by that keen desire to see and judge for himself in reference
to all matters of general interest which manifested itself through life.
The occurrence of any unusual event, or the opening up of some new
region, was sufficient at any time to awaken the desire to explore a
scene rendered interesting by its novelty, or by the exceptional
circumstances which attracted his notice. When the first Pacific Railway
was completed, he crossed the Atlantic in company with Mrs. Nelson,
travelled to San Francisco, visited the Yellowstone Region and the
Mariposa Valley, and returned through Canada to renew his intercourse
with old friends there. While in the Mariposa Valley, Mrs. Nelson was
presented with one of the giant _Sequoia_, or _Wellingtonia_, which now
bears, on a marble tablet attached to it, the name of “Auld Reekie,”
then bestowed on it. At Salt Lake City a Scotsman addressed Mr. Nelson
by name, and begged him to convey his respects to his old clergyman, the
Rev. W. Arnot of Edinburgh; but in mentioning this, Mr. Nelson dryly
added that the Free Churchman of Salt Lake City seemed to take very
kindly to its spiritual wives! He visited Paris in 1851, and exposed
himself to its dangers at the time of the famous _coup d’état_ by which
the Third Napoleon made himself emperor. Twenty years later he hastened
again to the French capital in the perilous outbreak of the Commune; and
when the Christmas season of 1879 was overclouded by the disastrous fall
of the Tay Bridge, immediately on learning of the event he made his way
to Dundee to see for himself the ruins and to investigate the cause. He
succeeded in finding a man who had watched the lights of the train as it
swept on in the profound darkness, and was startled by their being
suddenly extinguished. The bridge had given way; and the train, with all
its passengers, was precipitated into the Tay. In like manner he set out
for the Scilly Islands on the occasion of the wreck of the _Schiller_;
travelled to Ischia after the occurrence of the earthquake of 1881, in
which the town of Casamicciola was almost totally destroyed; and when,
in the following year, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act led to a
violent popular outbreak in Connemara, he crossed over to Ireland, that
he might visit the disturbed district and judge for himself of the
merits of the conflict.

The amount of preparation for even the longest journey was amazingly
trifling. William Nelson would start almost at a day’s notice for an
extended tour; and this course of procedure, so characteristic of his
equanimity, conjoined with calm, resolute endurance, was curiously
exemplified in his first extended journey. In 1849 he left home with the
intention of spending a six weeks’ holiday in the south of Europe. He
was in Leghorn when a letter reached him which showed that all was going
on satisfactorily in the business. He thereupon decided to make an
extended journey to the East. But his funds were exhausted, and it was
before the days of railways or telegraphs. With a faith in human nature
characteristic of him through life, he stepped into the counting-house
of Messrs. Henderson Brothers, the leading British merchants in Leghorn.
He was a total stranger, with no introduction. He told them his story,
and asked them to cash a draft on Edinburgh for £300. They looked at
him, and after a pause told him to draw the cheque, and gave him the
money. The strangers became friends in later years; and one day, when
Mr. Robert Henderson was dining at Salisbury Green, William Nelson asked
him how it was that he and his brother had ventured to give a stranger
so large a sum. “Well,” said Mr. Henderson, “in plain truth, it was just
your Scotch tongue and honest Scotch face, and nothing else!” The
friendship which originated in this novel introduction lasted with their

There was, in truth, something singularly winning in his open, handsome
countenance; and its influence on strangers was anew illustrated at a
later date, when Mrs. Nelson accompanied him in a tour through the Black
Forest. They were overtaken by a thunderstorm when in Baden-Baden, and
taking refuge in the nearest shop, they found it devoted to articles of
_virtu_. A woman in charge, who spoke English fluently, received them
courteously, and responded to Mr. Nelson’s inquiries in a way that
greatly interested him. On leaving he expressed his grateful thanks, and
said he would have liked to make some purchases, but unfortunately his
remaining funds were not more than sufficient for his journey home. The
reply was: “Take whatever you please, sir. No one could look in your
face and distrust you.” He did accordingly carry off some choice
objects of _virtu_, always a temptation to him; the money for which, it
is scarcely necessary to add, was duly remitted on reaching England.

Provided, on such novel security, with funds requisite for a prolonged
tour in the East, he was absent upwards of ten months, and turned the
time to account with characteristic assiduity. The late President of
Queen’s College, Belfast, the Rev. Dr. J. Leslie Porter, who, as a
traveller in Palestine, was familiar with the scenes embraced in Mr.
Nelson’s tour, and repeatedly conversed with him on points of mutual
interest, remarks:--“He did not as a rule enter into detailed
descriptions of the localities he had visited. His chief desire
apparently was to elicit from those with whom he talked the fullest
information, as if to add to or correct his own impressions. One thing
particularly struck me: his questions were all pertinent and exactly to
the point. He showed a talent in obtaining exactly the information he
wished such as I have never known equalled, except in the case of one
person. He could glean a wonderful amount of knowledge in a very brief
period. He had himself been a close and accurate observer. He knew
exactly the points which, from want of time or opportunity, he had not
been able perfectly to grasp, and he put his questions in a form that
brought out every particle of information the person he addressed could

“Of Damascus Mr. Nelson spoke with great enthusiasm. ‘Yes,’ he said,
‘richness, beauty, and fertility are there. Where,’ he asked, ‘was the
scene of Paul’s conversion? Was it near the east gate, where tradition
has located it?’ I pointed out that this could scarcely be, as Paul was
on his way from Jerusalem, and the road from the Holy City approaches
Damascus from the opposite side. He next inquired whether there was
still any tradition of Abraham; and he was very much interested when I
told him that a few miles to the north there is still a shrine, at the
foot of the hills, called the prayer-place of Abraham. ‘Is not that,’ he
said, ‘a proof of the tenacity with which even the oldest traditions
cling to the country?’ There was much in this; and he seemed to feel, as
others have felt, that it may be used as an argument in favour of the
truth of the early Christian traditions regarding the holy places of
Jerusalem and other cities in Palestine. He asked much about the
leprosy. ‘Did any tradition of it exist in Damascus?’ I remember well
how deeply he seemed to be impressed when I told him that a short
distance outside the east gate there were the remains of a very ancient
building, called Naaman’s House, and that a portion of it was still used
as a leper hospital. He said to me, ‘I looked for the Straight Street,
mentioned in connection with the conversion of St. Paul, but could see
no trace of it.’ Then I told him the results of more recent researches;
how they had brought to light the position and character of that great
street which ran through the city from the east to the west gate, and
had on each side a double row of columns, fragments of which can still
be seen in the houses and courts adjoining.”

But he had a no less keen eye for the modern Damascus, with its motley
population, its narrow streets and thronged bazaars, all full of strange
Eastern life and habits. “The mean, dirty thoroughfares, worse,” as he
says, “than an Old Town Edinburgh close, run between low, shabby-looking
houses; and nothing surprised me more than when I was taken through a
long dark passage, to suddenly find that the shabby street-front
concealed a beautiful court, laid out in garden fashion, with a fine
fountain in the centre, and flower-beds and orange trees, and round this
the chambers, brightly furnished with cushions and matting, etc., all
opening on to it, like a scene from the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.”
Nevertheless the predominant thought in his mind was the Damascus of
Roman and New Testament times; the city to which Saul the persecutor was
journeying when he was arrested on the way, and commissioned to go far
hence to proclaim the gospel of glad tidings to the Gentile world.

Having gratified his intelligent curiosity, in seeking to discover the
ancient localities of Damascus associated with Scripture history, he
proceeded by way of Lebanon to Jerusalem. The associations of the city
of Zion, of Nazareth, the Jordan, the Syrian desert, and the Dead Sea,
were replete with interest to a mind trained from earliest childhood in
devout familiarity with every incident of sacred story. The novel scenes
of Eastern life were, moreover, explored with peculiar zest in this his
first escape from the restraints of homely Western civilization into
that strange old East where the customs and ideas of an ancient past
still survive. In referring to this visit to Jerusalem he remarks:--“I
was there before any guide-book was written; and so I had to consult my
Bible, and occasionally Josephus, on a point of history. After these I
found Robinson’s ‘Biblical Researches’ the most thorough and useful.
Robinson seemed to me to write, and study, and investigate as a scholar.
Perhaps he paid rather too little regard to tradition; but this was
natural in a place like Jerusalem, which absolutely swarms with the most
absurd legends. He lays down on the whole a firm basis of biblical and
historical facts; then he leads one on in a logical and critical manner
to the truth regarding the exact sites of the great events of the Gospel
narrative: the site of the Temple, of the Palace of David, of the Hall
of Judgment in which Pilate sat, of the old walls and gates of the Holy
City, etc. Then Robinson seemed to me to prove that the Holy Sepulchre
could not have been where it is now located.”

The controverted questions about the topography of Jerusalem, which have
since received such abundant elucidation, were all familiar to him, and
were discussed with keenest interest when he met with any one who had
either visited the sacred city, or made its historical details a subject
of research. The scenes of the nativity, the crucifixion, and the holy
sepulchre, of the agony in the garden, and the ascension, were all
investigated by him with critical care. Dr. Porter furnishes the
following memoranda of their conversation on those subjects:--

“He asked me my views as to the true site of Calvary. Was I convinced
that it was not--or, as Robinson affirms, could not have been--within
the compass of the present walls? If not, then where was it? He several
times said, as if by way of suggestion, that it was either on the north
side of the modern city, or to the east, on the brow of the Kidron
Valley. ‘Did you ever consider,’ he asked me, ‘the statement of the
evangelist to the effect that the women, as if afraid to approach,
viewed the awful tragedy from afar?’ He was pleased when I suggested
that possibly the true site of Calvary was not far south of St.
Stephen’s Gate, where two public roads passed a short distance off--one
leading north to Samaria and Galilee, the other east, over the Kidron
and Olivet, to Jericho and the Jordan. ‘Yes,’ he said; ‘and the women
would then have a clear view of the whole scene, from a safe distance,
on the side of the Mount of Olives, beyond the deep and narrow valley.’”

To this succeeded discussions on the value of the local traditions in
reference to the scenes latterly associated with so much superstition
and deceit; and the possibility of identifying them with the help of
local topography and the sacred narrative. “‘Where,’ he asked me, ‘would
you locate the scene of the ascension? Was it, or could it have been, on
the traditional spot at the Church of the Ascension on the summit of
Olivet? If you adopt this tradition, then how,’ he asked, ‘do you
explain the words of the evangelist: “He led them out as far as to
Bethany”?’ My reply was, ‘I do not admit the reality of the traditional
site.’ He said this impressed himself very deeply when he crossed over
the Mount of Olives to Bethany. He felt convinced that the scene of that
wonderful last interview with the disciples was some spot near the
village. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘our Lord took the disciples to a retired
place, not in view either of Jerusalem or of the village of Bethany.
Then,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘was there not some analogy between this
scene and that of the transfiguration on a high mountain apart? Would
not the solitude impress the disciples more forcibly with the glory of
the appearance of the angels, and of his own close and immediate
intercourse with the hosts of heaven?’ The thoughtfulness and depth of
many of Mr. Nelson’s remarks upon the events of the life and death of
Jesus often struck me. His visit to Palestine was brief; but he grasped
in a very short time the most interesting and important points, and he
connected them, with a kind of intuitive readiness and accuracy, with
the events of the sacred narrative. He spoke on several occasions of the
noble and yet very peculiar site of the Holy City, different in many
respects from his previous ideas; but the moment he saw it, more deeply
fixing in his mind the truth of the Psalmist’s words: ‘Beautiful for
situation is Mount Zion.’ The view from the top of Olivet, and that from
the old road which winds round and along its side from Bethany, was, he
told me, to him by far the most instructive. ‘I read,’ he said, ‘the
words of Jesus, when he looked on and wept over the city, with a feeling
of their reality and wonderful vividness such as I had never experienced
before.’ Another thing he observed more than once: ‘I was disappointed
in the scenery of Palestine. I did not see, and I could not fully
understand, the glowing descriptions in some parts of Scripture of its
fertility and beauty. When I thought of England and Scotland, and
compared their fertile lowlands and magnificent highlands with the bare
plains and rocky hills of Judah, I felt much difficulty in divesting my
mind of the idea that even the sacred writers indulged in exaggeration.
But,’ he added, ‘I suppose my Western ideas were entirely different from
theirs as to what are the elements of richness and grandeur.’ I reminded
him of the words of Scripture: ‘A land of corn and wine and oil olive.’
‘Yes,’ he said; ‘most probably an Eastern would despise even the best
parts of Scotland because they want the vines and the olives,’”

The experiences of this visit to the sacred scenes of Bible story left
an enduring impression on William Nelson’s mind; and their special
character in association with his own early training justify some detail
in reference to researches otherwise only possessed of personal
interest. As a traveller, he made no pretension to geographical
exploration or scientific research; and unless when in company with one
from whom he could derive information, he rarely referred to his
experiences while abroad. His longest journeys were regarded by himself
as only extended holiday rambles. But they were carried out with
characteristic zeal; and some of the incidents which may be gleaned from
them have their biographical value in so far as they disclose traits of
personal character. He made his way by the desert route from Palestine
to Egypt, where he spent his Christmas in Grand Cairo, and commenced
the ascent of the Nile early in the following January. His
fellow-traveller in the latter country, Major MacEnery, furnishes some
interesting reminiscences of their voyage up the Nile. “I preserve a
lively memory,” he writes, “of the unvarying geniality of our companion,
and of his spirit of exploration. In this respect he was truly
remarkable; indefatigable in the pursuit of information concerning even
the minutest object of interest within reach; never satisfied without a
personal inspection, when at all possible; neither hunger, thirst, nor
fatigue deterring him from the gratification of being able to say
conscientiously, ‘I have seen it.’”

The impressions left on the traveller’s mind by the scenes of special
interest in the Holy Land, and some of the incidents which their memory
recalled, were a frequent source of pleasure to his friends in after
years. Some of them indeed enjoyed more tangible memorials, in the shape
of inscribed tablets of the wood of the Mount of Olives; a carved
memento of the Dead Sea fashioned from its black volcanic rock; a gold
shekel,--subsequently deposited by Mr. James Campbell in the
Presbyterian Theological College at Montreal,--and other like gifts. Nor
were the attractions of the land of the Pharaohs less keenly
appreciated. It had its ancient memories, both sacred and profane, alike
interesting to the intelligent explorer. There were the works of
Pharaohs of older centuries than Moses or Joseph; the walls of
Abu-Simbul, graven by the son of Theokles with their Hellenic record
centuries before the Father of History began his task; the Thebes of the
Hundred Gates, with its magnificent ruins authenticating Homer’s verse;
and Ptolemaic and Roman remains, modern by comparison. For all this the
traveller’s early training had unconsciously prepared him; and every
feature was calculated to revive the archæological tastes which found so
many votaries among the members of the “Juvenile Literary Society.” He
ascended the Nile to the Second Cataract, and gleaned some choice
antiques from the relics with which the poor fellaheen tempt the
traveller in that cradle-land of the world’s civilization. Those
included Osirian figures bearing hieroglyphic inscriptions, one
especially with the cartouch of an early Pharaoh; a brick from Thebes,
stamped with the cartouch of Thothmes III.; a porcelain stamp similarly
inscribed; and other prized memorials. Above all, he had gazed with
delight on the monuments of a long-vanished civilization, and explored
with curious interest scenes associated with the Bible stories learned
by him at his mother’s knee. His inquisitive research was constantly on
the alert, and the same thorough-going energy characterized him as a
traveller and a man of business. But along with all this, one
exceptional trait may be noted, eminently characteristic of the man. A
letter addressed to him from Cairo by Abdallah, his old Egyptian
dragoman, which reached Edinburgh soon after his death, recalled the
fact that his faithful servitor had been the annual recipient of a
kindly remittance through all the years since they voyaged together up
the Nile. Abdallah writes with a borrowed pen: “I have received your
kind letter with the five pounds, and was very happy to hear that you
are in perfect health, with your dearest family and with your friends. I
always think of you, and beg God to be with you and spare you. All my
friends are very thankful for your great kindness to me. I hope some day
some gentleman of your friends come I shall have the honour to serve
him.” For his remembrance of the faithful dragoman had been practically
shown, not only by pecuniary remittances, but also by recommending him
to other travellers, until poor Abdallah’s creditors pounced upon the
baggage of Dr. Henry Field, to whose service he had been commended, and
so his prospects as a dragoman were ruined. In writing to Major MacEnery
in May 1886, Mr. Nelson says: “I had a letter not long ago from poor old
Abdallah. It was just the old story of his being unable to do anything
in the way of earning a livelihood. He sent me a letter addressed to the
Lord _Mare_ of London, an old fellow-traveller in the Holy Land, which
I duly delivered to his lordship; but he did not take the hint and give
me something for the poor dragoman.”

The experiences of the traveller were occasionally turned to account in
unexpected ways in after years, when dealing with his own work-people.
One instance was recalled in an address, already referred to, delivered
at Parkside soon after his death. On the introduction of a greatly
improved sewing-machine at Hope Park much opposition was excited among
the girls, who unanimously protested in favour of the old-fashioned,
familiar instrument. Thereupon Mr. Nelson humorously told them that they
reminded him of the difficulties among the Arabs engaged in digging the
Suez Canal. They had at first scooped out the sand into baskets, which
they carried on their heads, and so transported the soil to the new
embankments. This process was much too slow for the contractors, who
accordingly provided them with shovels and wheel-barrows. But when the
latter were filled, the Arabs could not be persuaded to trundle them in
the ordinary way, but hoisted the wheel-barrows on their heads, and so
trudged along to the place of deposit!

The unfamiliar scenes and incidents of Eastern life, both in Egypt and
Palestine, had made a deep impression on William Nelson’s mind, and were
frequently recalled. The letter to Major MacEnery, his old
fellow-voyager on the Nile, in which he refers to his dragoman,
Abdallah, was written at a time when the first news of the troubles in
the Soudan was awakening attention at home; and, recalling his old
experiences, he remarks: “How strange it is that the Arabs in the Soudan
should be troubling our troops there at Koshi, our most advanced post
from Wady Halfi. I was under the impression that it would have been
impossible for them to have advanced in anything like a formidable body
so far north. But those wild sons of the desert can live almost upon
air, and go about like clouds of locusts; and as they are not troubled
with artillery or other impediments, they may cause us some trouble,
more especially as they are animated with fanatical zeal against the
infidels, and they do not know when they are beaten.”

The traveller brought back with him a duly attested document bearing the
seal of the Holy Sepulchre (a cross potence and crosslets), furnished to
Gulielmus Nelson by the prior of the Latin convent in Jerusalem, in his
quality of guardian of the Holy Sepulchre, attesting that he had in an
edifying spirit visited the sacred places around the Holy City; and had
indeed conformed to the requirements of a devout pilgrim to an extent
which, if literally true, would have been in strange antagonism to all
his early training. For the veracious prior of the Convent of St.
Salvator certifies over his official seal that the aforesaid Gulielmus
Nelson had not only visited the principal sanctuaries, but that “with
great devotion he had heard mass in them all”!

A more genuine reminiscence of travel, with which the pilgrim surprised
his friends, was the novel feature of a fine black beard, the imposing
effect of which probably had its share in the opinion formed by the
Syrian peasants that he was a learned leech. Commenting long after on
the reputed virtues of some much-vaunted pills, he said they were no
doubt as efficacious as those he used to make in Palestine. The
villagers flocked to his tent, importuning him and his companions for
medicine. With much gravity he distributed among them the pills he had
fashioned out of the spare breakfast loaf; and, with the faith of the
recipients in his prescriptions, supplemented as they doubtless were in
cases of actual suffering by a liberal _backshish_, he had no doubt that
he effected as many cures as some of the patent-medicine vendors. As to
the black beard, the custom in that respect has so entirely changed
since then that it is difficult for the present generation to realize
the astonishment which the strange appendage excited. To some grave
elders it almost appeared as if he had literally cast in his lot with
the followers of the false prophet. The idea of even a moustache as the
possible appendage of a civilian first dawned on the English mind when
Prince Albert set the fashion in society. But this innovation was viewed
with suspicion among all sober denizens of the mart. As to the wearing
of a beard, it would have been sufficient to ruin the credit of the most
reputable trader. There is a report in “The Dial,” from the pen of
Emerson, of a grand convention of enthusiasts held at Boston a few years
before. “If,” says he, “the assembly was disorderly, it was picturesque.
Mad men, mad women, _men with beards_, Dunkers, Muggeltonians,
Come-outers!”--and so the enumeration of the eccentric medley proceeds.
The beard, as is obvious, was an innovation beyond all tolerance. But
the art of photography, in its earlier form of ambrotype, was in vogue.
The traveller accordingly had his portrait taken in his Eastern dress,
with moustache, beard, and long pipe. Some time after, when showing to a
friend the relics he had brought from the East, he produced along with
them the portrait, and asked what he thought of the Egyptian pasha. To
his extreme amusement, his friend exclaimed, “What a bloodthirsty look
that fellow has in his face!”

It is abundantly manifest that at that date, whatever might be thought
of the beard, it could not be worn in the Hope Park counting-house
during business hours. Before, however, its sacrifice to the prudery of
that decorous, clean-shaven generation, a party of old schoolmates, of
whom the present writer was one, assembled at his dinner-table. The host
received us in the flowing robes of an Arab sheik; and with his turban
and fine beard, looked as though he might have sat with Abraham at the
tent door. In the course of the evening a tempting-looking bottle was
produced, with the announcement that it had been brought from the Holy
Land; and this he commended so zealously as to put some of the knowing
ones on the alert. Each filled his glass as the bottle passed round,
took a sip, and then watched its progress; till a rash young toper
swallowed the major contents of his glass at a gulp, and then, amid
roars of laughter, began coughing, sputtering, and anathematizing the
potation. For the seductive bottle was filled with water brought by our
host from the Dead Sea: a sulphureous, briny draught fit only for the
revellers of Gomorrah.

The enduring impressions left on the mind of William Nelson by his visit
to the Holy Land found expression, in long subsequent years, in a
well-known work, “The Land and the Book,” which in its final form
embraced: 1. Palestine and Jerusalem; 2. Lebanon, Damascus, and Beyond
the Jordan; and 3. Central Palestine and Phœnicia. The Rev. W. M.
Thomson was commissioned to explore the sacred scenes of Bible story,
with a view to the production of a work that should furnish for others
somewhat of the vivid realizations that William Nelson had experienced
in his own visit to the land

    “Over whose acres walked those blessed feet
     That eighteen hundred years ago were nailed
     For our redemption to the bitter cross.”

The following extract from a letter written in July 1880 to his old
schoolfellow, Dr. Simpson, refers to the volume as then in progress, and
to the perils from which the manuscript had been so unexpectedly

“We are not out yet with the new volume of ‘The Land and the Book,’ and
I do not expect that it will be ready for publication before the middle
of next month. It is a truly superb work, and it has been got up
regardless of expense. It will, when completed, form three volumes.
Strange to say, the manuscript of one of them, ‘Egypt, Mount Sinai, and
the Desert,’ turned up the other day after we had given it up as having
been destroyed at our great fire, with many other valuable manuscripts.
But, fortunately, it was in one of the drawers of a writing-desk which
had escaped the devouring flames, and the manuscript was discovered
quite unexpectedly, after the author had for a long time been informed
of the loss that had been sustained.”



The year 1843 is a memorable one in Scottish history. The controversy
between the two parties into which the National Church was divided had
been concentrated for years on the old question of patronage, or the
right of the people to the free choice of their clergymen. Under the
leadership of Dr. Chalmers, in co-operation with an able body of clergy
and laymen, enactments were passed by the Church courts restoring to the
people their rights in the choice of pastors. Influential patrons
acquiesced in its operation, and the sanguine hope was entertained that
a peaceful solution of the grievance which had long been a source of
bitterness had at length been arrived at. But in the famous Auchterarder
case the civil courts were appealed to; the action of the General
Assembly, the supreme court of the Church, was overruled; and on the
18th of May 1843 four hundred and seventy-four ministers of the Church
of Scotland voluntarily resigned their livings, and cast themselves on
the liberality of their people. Ten years of conflict, marked with an
ever-increasing intensity of feeling, and with all the inevitable fruits
of embittered controversy, had ended in the disruption of the National
Church. It was an event without a parallel since the ejection from their
benefices of upwards of two thousand ministers of the English National
Church in 1662 by the Act of Uniformity.

It is difficult for the present generation to fully estimate the feeling
which the Disruption called forth, or the bitter antagonism which in
many cases it engendered. The early training and all the strong personal
convictions of William Nelson alike determined his sympathy with what
claimed to be “The Free Church of Scotland.” The movement which led to
this result had appeared to him, as to others, to furnish a practical
solution of the difficulties which held his Covenanting fathers aloof
from the National Church. The financial question was an important one,
and long continued to be so; for not only churches but colleges had to
be built, theological professorships to be endowed, poor congregations
to be sustained, and the foreign mission field provided for. In all this
work William Nelson was a generous co-operator; and to the close of his
life he continued to respond with unstinted liberality to all the claims
which it involved. His brother John, who became the esteemed pastor of
the Free West Church of Greenock, was referred to after his premature
death, in an eloquent tribute by Professor Blaikie, as “one whose
natural gifts were of a high order, and whose early position as a
student was most distinguished. He was known to be of far too
independent a nature to fall into any line merely because it was
traditional or conventionally proper. He had courage and capacity to
strike out for himself; and he had spent much time in study in Germany
at a time when few students went thither, and when such a course was
regarded as somewhat suspicious.” The old Covenanting blood was in his
veins; but he had hoped that the National Church was resuming its
fidelity to the faith of his fathers, when the Disruption came, and he
cast in his lot with the champions of freedom. Personal sympathy,
therefore, as well as strong convictions, enlisted William Nelson on the
side of the Free Church; but he never was a partisan. No trace of
bitterness sullied the earnest zeal with which he promoted the cause
that he had at heart. His convictions were clear, and his devotion to
the Church unwavering; but this was never allowed to interfere with his
personal relations to those who adhered to the Established Church, nor
with his response to appeals made by them to his liberality. The
testimony to this effect was freely given when his death recalled the
incidents of earlier years. Among memoranda furnished to me by Mr. John
Miller of Glasgow is the following note: “My sole companion in the
railway carriage on my return to Glasgow, after attending Mr. Nelson’s
funeral, was a stranger, a clergyman of the Established Church, who had
travelled to Edinburgh on the same melancholy errand. In conversation I
learned that Mr. Nelson and another to whom he referred had been friends
of his from their earliest years. But at the Disruption they both became
members of the Free Church. Thereupon, as the clergyman said, his
unnamed friend took umbrage at him for remaining in the Established
Church, and their friendship ceased. It is not easy now to understand
the bitterness of feeling that existed at that time between those who
took different views on the question of the relation between Church and
State; but as regards Mr. Nelson, such was his breadth of mind and
catholic spirit, it never made the slightest change on their friendship
through all the intervening years, and he spoke of him ‘as the best of
all good men he had known.’”

But his broad-minded charity was in no degree traceable to
latitudinarian indifference. His convictions were strong, and when
occasion required it, were maintained with firmness, and defended with
incisive keenness of argument. And here it may be well to note a
characteristic trait. Few men were ever more notably marked by
transparent sincerity and truthfulness. If a truth told against his
cause, it never occurred to him to withhold it. There was indeed an
amusing simplicity in the manner in which he would disclose a fact
seeming to reflect on his own party or on himself; or, when in company
with persons disposed to arrogate to themselves rank or social position,
he would recall some homely incident or experience of his own early
life. But the same instinctive love of truth made him intolerant of
cant, or of any evasion in reference to matters of faith. If he were
perplexed with doubts, as he often was, in reference to the modern
conflict between science and revelation, he would give abrupt utterance
to them in the most orthodox circles; and if any attempt were made to
evade or gloss over the difficulty, his blunt reassertion of the point
at issue, in all its literal nakedness, was at times misunderstood and
even bitterly resented. Sanctimonious hypocrisy, or anything savouring
of insincerity in religion, was abhorrent to his nature, and provoked
his keenest ridicule. For his sense of humour was great, and he would
expose pretentious inconsistencies in their most ludicrous aspect,
giving no little offence at times to clerical offenders. To this habit
of giving expression of his convictions with all unguarded sincerity is,
no doubt, to be ascribed the remark in a letter of one of his oldest
Christian friends, when bearing testimony to the earnestness with which
in his last illness “he gave proof that he had attained by God’s help
to true faith in the Son of God, and was conscious of having definitely
accepted him as his personal Saviour, and given himself over to him on
the warrant of God’s own word of invitation.” The writer, a devoted
clergyman of the Free Church, adds: “There was an entire absence of the
old levity, which you will remember used sometimes almost to shock and
sadden even his best friends.”

It was perhaps a want of tact,--a diplomatic element apt at times to
verge on insincerity in which he was certainly deficient,--that led to
his being so misjudged. But the same unconscious indifference to the
prejudices of others could be seen when, among strangers at a public
hotel or on the ocean, he would ask a blessing before dinner with the
same earnest reverence as at his own table. The impression which his
manner of saying grace produced on a stranger is thus expressed in a
letter from an English lady, who, after his death, recalled the memories
of more than one sojourn under his hospitable roof: “One always felt
cheered in his presence by the glow of his great heart and that sweet
genial kindness to all which was like sunshine in the room. I also
greatly admired that dislike of any praise of himself which one always
saw in him, and which is so rare.... I so well remember in the
Philiphaugh drawing-room before dinner his kindly talk to us all, and
his almost boyish fun: so interested in every one, and saying playful
things to me about palmistry, etc. But when we went in to dinner, I was
always struck with his unusual way of saying grace: the reverence that
came over him, as if he were actually speaking to God, and as though
from his heart he was simply grateful day by day for each gift of the
heavenly Father. I can almost hear again as I write the rich deep tones
of his voice as he asked the blessing, and prayed that God would
graciously take away all our sins. I have never heard a clergyman, or
any other person, who so impressed me with reverence and reality in
saying grace as he did.” This feeling was by no means singular. In a
letter from Professor T. Grainger Stewart, a similar reference occurs to
“his mode of asking a blessing.” Alluding to his wife, Professor Stewart
says: “We were both greatly impressed with the earnestness and reverence
with which he spoke, and on our way home talked of it to one another.”

To one in whom the influences of early training had thus been confirmed
by the personal convictions of later years, the responsibilities of his
influence as a publisher were keenly realized. The system which he
developed was based on the anticipated sale of large editions at low
prices. Hence an important class of works issued by some eminent
publishing houses in costly editions of from eight to twelve hundred
copies lay entirely beyond the range of his publications. But the
imprint of Thomas Nelson and Sons became ere long the guarantee for a
pure, high-toned literature, admirably adapted for the special
requirements of the school library and the home circle; and as success
crowned the system of large and cheap editions, works of more permanent
value were issued on the same plan.

The uniformity of the testimony to his integrity and business capacity
borne by many whose relations with him were widely dissimilar removes
all idea of exaggeration; while the terms in which they write of him are
so diverse from the ordinary commendations of the mart or the exchange,
as to show in a striking manner the influence exercised by an altogether
exceptional character in the ordinary relations of business. Mr.
Robertson, who was long his manager in New York, thus writes: “During
the many years I had the privilege of knowing Mr. Nelson, I was
increasingly drawn towards him by his strict integrity, his kindliness,
his splendid energy, his intellectual activity, and his unostentatious
piety. There was no duty so humble that he would not stoop to perform
it; there was no amount of hard work or fatigue that ever turned him
away from his purpose. There was no appeal ever made to him by the
suffering or poverty-stricken that did not meet with a kindly and
sympathetic response. There was in him a fine appreciation of merit,
regardless of the social status of its possessor; and although he would
have been unwilling to admit it, there was in him a Christ-like going
about continually doing good which was simply beautiful.” This
affectionate respect which he awakened in all who were brought into
intimate relations with him as his trusted agents is constantly
apparent. His confidence when once secured was implicit; and any breach
of trust or neglect of duty was a source of intense pain to him, wholly
apart from any idea of personal loss.

The following characteristic reminiscences are derived from notes
furnished by Mr. John Miller, whose business transactions with Mr.
Nelson, as a large paper manufacturer, brought them into frequent
intercourse: “Mr. Nelson had an immense aptitude for the despatch of
business, and great promptness of decision, never wasting any time
talking over bargains. When a paper-maker called and showed him a
sample, if it was not to his mind, or the price too high, he would in
the most courteous manner thank him for the sample, but he would in no
way depreciate the paper. If the paper was right, he would say, ‘Well,
it is just the price we are paying;’ or if the price were better, he
would frankly say, ‘It is a little better than the price we are buying
at. I shall give you an order; and if you can maintain the quality at
the price, we shall continue to order from you.’ There was never any
second bargain at settlement. If the paper sent was not according to
sample, it would be paid for without remark, and no further orders
given. Mr. Nelson had no time and no disposition to haggle over a
bargain, and no man could better appreciate value. He was in every
respect a very capable man of business. After his marriage he began to
take business a little more leisurely; at all events, he seemed to take
more time for the little courtesies of life, which were so greatly
developed in his after years.”

He had proved himself a true captain of industry; organized his
extensive business on the most systematic basis; gathered around him a
body of skilled and trusty workmen, on whose loyal co-operation he could
rely; and having thus, with prudent foresight, surmounted the many
impediments that had inevitably beset his way, he turned aside from the
anxieties of business to make for himself a home, in which all the
congenial elements of a singularly emotional and sensitive nature should
thenceforth find free scope for development. He retained to the close of
his life his interest in the multitudinous details of the printing and
publishing works; but he found time for the gratification of many
refined tastes, and for a practical sympathy in public questions, as
well as in the exercise of an open-handed beneficence, the full extent
of which has only been revealed since his death.

The new life of which marriage is the source began for William Nelson
when he was in his thirty-sixth year. On the 24th of July 1851,
Catherine Inglis, the daughter of Robert Inglis, Esquire of Kirkmay,
Fifeshire, a descendant of Sir James Inglis, Bart., of Cramond, gave her
hand, with her heart in it, to William Nelson. The marriage took place
at the old mansion of Kirkmay, acquired by her father, with the estates
of Sypsis and Kirkmay, on his return from a highly successful career in
India. The maternal grandfather of the bride had seen long service
there; and letters preserved by the family show that he was held in high
esteem by Lord Cornwallis, and was the trusted and confidential friend
of Warren Hastings. One of them, addressed to him while he was Resident
at the Court of Scindia, is an amusing example of epistolary conciseness
in preferring an unusual request; and as such was peculiarly germane to
William Nelson’s tastes, as well as to his sense of humour. His fondness
for animals manifested itself at times in odd ways, and had he received
any encouragement the pleasure grounds at Salisbury Green would have
been apt to assume the character of a zoological garden. When travelling
in California in 1870, along with Mrs. Nelson, he was reluctantly
dissuaded from bringing off with him as a novel pet a “gofer,” or
beautifully striped species of lizard, which an Indian offered for sale.
Here was a still more unmanageable pet in request by the old Indian
viceroy in his letter to the grandfather of the bride:--

     BENARES, _14th March, 1784_.

     “DEAR SIR,--If you can possibly contrive to procure for me a young
     lion of a size which may be carried over rocky and mountainous
     roads, I shall be much obliged to you. I want to gratify the eager
     desire which has been expressed by the ruler of Tibet to have one
     in his possession; the people of this country having a religious
     veneration for a lion, of which they know nothing but in the
     doubtful and fabulous relations of their own books.--I am, dear
     sir, yours affectionately,


     “To Lieutenant James Anderson.”

But this ancestral reminiscence carries us far afield from the
wedding-party at Kirkmay House, where the bride was given away by her
brother, who had then succeeded to the estate; and so the old home was
exchanged for one which she gladdened through all the happy years till
that inevitable parting which every wedded union involves. Thenceforth
life had for William Nelson a deeper meaning, and was passed in the
quiet centre of a sunlight all his own, till he reached beyond the limit
of the threescore years and ten.

The biographer must ever feel that he executes a delicate trust in
drawing aside the curtain that veils the sanctities of home life. But
here there was nothing to conceal. A friend who met Mr. and Mrs. Nelson
at a German spa twenty years later thus writes: “I was greatly
interested in watching him as he, with all the attention and devotion of
a lover, refilled and carried the glass of water to his wife, and tended
on her, then an invalid, with untiring care.” And so it continued to be
to the close. Thirty-six years of happy wedded union glided by.
Daughters in time followed their mother’s example, and left the old home
to make new centres of happiness. Eveline, the eldest, was married in
1874 to Professor Annandale, Professor of Surgery in the University of
Edinburgh; and in 1886 her sister Florence became the wife of S. Fraser
MacLeod, Esquire, barrister, London, a friend of the family from early
boyhood. By-and-by the little grandchildren presented themselves to
claim their mothers’ places in the hearts of those who had found it hard
to reconcile themselves to the blanks round the old hearth, where Meta
and Alice still remained, with their brother Frederick, to play the new
_rôle_ of uncle and aunts. The home of the Nelsons at Salisbury Green
was familiar to many through all those years as a rare centre of genial
hospitality, with some unique features of its own worthy of further



The unique site of the Scottish capital, embosomed in hills and looking
out upon the sea, furnishes many charming nooks for suburban residence
to its denizens; but among such the Nelsons’ home stood in some respects
unrivalled. Salisbury Green, a jointure house of the Prestonfield
family, when purchased in 1770 by Lady Dick Cunningham, had, according
to the traditions of the family, a ghost as its sole tenant; and
notwithstanding the genial hospitalities, and all the brightness and
beauty of its home-life in later years, the venerable ghost, a lady of
grim visage, in antique coif and farthingale, continued to flit at rare
intervals about her old haunts, and drew the curtains of fair young
dreamers who had invaded her precincts. It was a plain old-fashioned
house, though already graced with some of the undesigned picturesqueness
due to additions of various dates, when William Nelson acquired the
property in 1860. But, with his keen eye for beauty, he discerned at
once the capabilities of the place, embosomed in stately trees, and
commanding a view of almost unmatched grandeur and beauty.

Under his tasteful care, the old house was renovated, assuming
externally the picturesque features of the domestic architecture of
Scotland in the sixteenth century; and in accordance with the practice
of the age of the Reformation, he carved round the entablature this apt
motto, from the third chapter of Hebrews, “EVERY HOUSE IS BUILDED BY
drawing-room, an addition of its earlier proprietors, was a
reproduction, in style and proportions, of that of Barley Wood, the
charming abode of the amiable and gifted Hannah More. The house, so
familiar to many strangers from other lands as well as to the citizens
of Edinburgh, by reason of its hospitalities, was enriched in later
years, by the accumulated acquisitions of its owner, with choice works
of art and _virtu_, and especially with a valuable collection of bronzes
and antique ceramic ware, not displayed for purposes of show, but
scattered over the mantel-shelves and cabinets, or disposed about in
every available nook and corner of the old house, as natural and fitting
adjuncts of the tasteful owner’s home.

But the unique charm of Salisbury Green as a city dwelling lies in its
natural surroundings. The terraced lawn slopes to the east, and commands
a historic landscape of rare beauty. The couchant lion of Arthur Seat,
a mountain in miniature, rises on the left in a succession of bold
cliffs and grassy slopes to a height of eight hundred feet. The basaltic
columns of Samson’s Ribs form a singularly bold feature at its base. On
the right, the rich undulating landscape terminates in an insulated rock
crowned with the picturesque ruin of Craigmillar Castle, famous in
Scottish history in the days of the Jameses and Mary Stuart. Right
below, Duddingston Loch forms the central feature, with the old village
churchyard beyond. Under its mouldering heaps the rude forefathers of
many a generation lie around the venerable parish church. Though defaced
by tasteless modern additions, the church still retains the
richly-moulded Norman chancel arch and south doorway, the work of the
same builders who reared the Abbey of Holyrood in the time of David I.;
while away in the distant landscape are North Berwick Law, Aberlady Bay,
the Bass Rock, and beyond the Firth of Forth the Fifeshire hills. The
sudden transition from the dust and bustle of the Dalkeith Road to the
garden terrace and the unique landscape beyond, never failed to excite
admiring wonder in the visitor who saw it for the first time. It
includes such a variety of attractive features, and differs so greatly
from anything usually visible from the windows or garden-terrace of a
city dwelling, that even the most unimpressible yielded to some sense
of surprise. Many a hearty tribute has accordingly been paid to its
beauty. The French artist, Gustave Doré, was charmed with the
magnificent panorama; J. J. Hayes, the Arctic explorer, and Bayard
Taylor, familiar as a traveller with the beauties of many lands, owned
its attractions as exceptionally rare; and the expression of quiet
delight with which Augustus Hare--fortunate in an unusually warm, bright
day of early summer--lingered over every detail of the historic
landscape, has left a vivid impression on the minds of those who recall
the incidents of his visit. It was no show-place for strangers, for few
men shrank with more instinctive reserve than William Nelson from
anything savouring of display; but to friends and friends’ friends it
was ever accessible. An American visitor, who, like so many others from
beyond the Atlantic, received a hospitable welcome at Salisbury Green,
thus recalls the place and its owner:--“I shall never forget the
greeting that made us all so much at home, the gentle humour of our host
at table, and then the quiet saunter in the summer evening in the
garden; Samson’s Ribs, a most curious geological formation, and the hill
beyond reflecting the setting sun, on one of those long summer evenings
we know nothing of in America. Mr. Nelson pointed out a ruined castle
where Queen Mary resided, and a rock out in the sea that had been a
prison of the Covenanters. Altogether the scene and its pleasant
associations are unforgetable.”

Here, in this bright home, William Nelson dwelt, surrounded by wife and
children, with an ever-welcome circle of friends; and also with other
objects of his kindly consideration--his pet cockatoo, his peacocks, his
children’s rabbits, etc., for his sympathetic nature displayed itself
strongly in his love for the lower animals. His favourite dogs made him
subservient to their caprices, for he could not bear to see an animal
neglected. The birds that frequented Salisbury Green were a source of
constant delight, and any injury done to them excited his pity. He
mourned over the disappearance of the larks, after a succession of wet
seasons, as a personal loss; and an ill-timed jest about larkpies seemed
to give him acute pain. The reappearance of the birds in the spring, and
their pairing and building, were a source of ever-renewed pleasure. But
no one entered more heartily into the humorous aspect of things, even
when the laugh was at his own expense; and an occasion of this kind
transpired during one of my later visits to Salisbury Green. He had been
greatly charmed by the appearance of a pair of herons that remained day
after day stalking about the lawn, wading in the pond, and seemingly
well contented to make themselves at home in the grounds. The household
was warned not to disturb the graceful strangers; but after a time they
disappeared, and then some stray fish-bones on the margin of the pond
revealed the secret of their visit. They had only left when the last of
its gold-fish had been disposed of!

The tenderness of William Nelson for the lower animals was shown in many
ways. A companion of his boyhood recalls an incident of those early
years. A party of boys at Kinghorn were off in a boat. They had obtained
the prized loan of a gun, and each in his turn was to have a shot at the
sea-gulls. William eagerly waited his chance; loaded and pointed his gun
at a gull within shot; then, after a pause, he quietly laid it down,
with the remark, “No, no! let the poor thing live!” One of the foremen
at Hope Park furnishes an incident of later years. Walking down Preston
Street, on his way to the office, Mr. Nelson saw a poor little sparrow,
just fledged; and having with some difficulty caught it, he gave a boy
sixpence to take it to Salisbury Green, and set it free among the trees.
Another incident I glean from one of Mrs. Nelson’s letters. “One day,
when we were walking together in the grounds, he stooped down and lifted
up so tenderly a worm which was on the gravel walk, and laying it on the
lawn, he said, ‘I cannot bear to see worms trampled upon; but this one
will be safe here.’” This is a specific instance of what was a
characteristic trait. In some manuscript “Recollections of the late
William Nelson,” noted down by Mr. Dalgleish, the superintendent of the
literary department of the publishing work for many years, the same
familiar trait is thus referred to:--“The birds were his constant and
most familiar friends. In the veranda of his beautiful house at
Salisbury Green he had quaintly-fashioned rustic boxes hung up for the
birds to build their nests in. It is a simple matter of fact that, not
once or twice, but many times, when walking round his garden after a
shower, he lifted a worm from the path, and laid it daintily on the
grass.” The tenderness that spared the gull, and cared for the worm on
his garden path, went even beyond this. He could not bear to see a
mousetrap set, and nothing pleased him more than when his children gave
evidence of a like sympathy. “None of us,” writes Mrs. Nelson, “will
ever forget the delight he was in one morning when he learned from Alice
that she, unknown to any one, had been cutting the string with which the
spring of a trap set in the nursery was held, so that no mice might be
caught. The servant, on her morning visits to the room, was mortified at
the failure of her plans to entrap the intruders, and only after a good
deal of questioning found out the delinquent.” Yet such are the curious
inconsistencies of human nature, no such thoughts seem to have intruded
to mar the enjoyment of his favourite pastime of fishing.

He was _en rapport_ with living nature in that peculiar way that seems
to distinguish an exceptional class of men. Dogs manifested for him an
instinctive sympathy, and he was perfectly fearless with regard to them.
When travelling with me in the Muskoka Lake district in Canada, a
backwood farmer shouted a warning as he approached the kennel of a
half-breed wolf-dog, such as are common with the Indians. But the
animal, though ordinarily fierce, responded to his caresses. His own
favourite dog, Leo, a fine Italian greyhound, watched for him, and
contended with the children for a share of his attention. He would coax
and whimper to be allowed to accompany him to the counting-room, where
his favourite corner was behind his master in his chair at the writing
table, to the manifest inconvenience and satisfaction of both. In a
retired nook in the grounds the visitor would come unexpectedly upon the
mound, with its little marble pillar, that marked the grave of canine
favourites of earlier years, and especially of poor Bronté, whose memory
was a source of bitter self-reproach to his master. William Nelson was
in the habit for many years of going down to the neighbouring sea-coast
before breakfast to bathe. This he did summer and winter, leaving early
in the cold dark mornings, accompanied by his faithful companion,
Bronté, a large Newfoundland dog. They travelled together in the train
to the Chain Pier. But when Mr. Nelson was absent from home, Bronté
missed his master, and setting off at the usual early hour, took the
train and went off to the beach in search of him. The fact only became
known when an account was presented from the railway company for
Bronté’s travelling expenses. He and his master were well known to the
railway officials, and so Master Bronté, as it proved, had regularly
journeyed for his morning bath in a first-class carriage! But the span
of life runs within straitened limits for our canine favourites, and ere
the close it had become a burden to poor Bronté. The feeling associated
with his death, which had long secretly preyed on his master’s mind,
found utterance when, in subsequent years, old age once more rendered
life a burden to another household pet. A fine large tom cat had passed
from kittenhood to extreme old age, and was nursed till its condition of
helplessness became so pitiable that some one suggested the
administration of poison as an act of mercy. “No, no! don’t give it
poison!” exclaimed Mr. Nelson; “you would never forget it. I have never
forgiven myself for allowing poor Bronté to be poisoned. It haunts me
still. I shall never forget it as long as I live.” So poor Tom was left
to die a natural death two days later.

Brighter associations connect themselves with a scene in the
drawing-room of Salisbury Green which transpired in recent years. On a
lovely Sabbath morning, when the windows were open on to the lawn, and
all were assembled for family worship, as William Nelson was reading a
chapter from the Bible, a starling flew into the room. It alighted and
kept hopping about his chair, till all knelt down; when, instead of
being startled, it perched on his shoulder, remaining quietly there all
the time of prayer. When the family rose from their knees, it was
thought that the bird would fly away; but it refused to quit its novel
perch. He walked with it on his shoulder up to the nursery, where a
large bowl of water was placed upon the table, when “Charlie,” as their
pet starling was subsequently named, hopped down to enjoy the luxury of
a bath. A cage was procured; but Mr. Nelson would not hear of its being
shut in. Ultimately, Charlie was housed in a large open cage in the
laundry, with free access to the garden. There he made himself entirely
at home, and became a great favourite; but after some time he flew off
into the garden and did not return. One evening, at a later date, when
the family were seated on the lawn, a starling--possibly
Charlie--perched on one of the children’s shoulders; and that was the
last they ever saw of their little visitor.

There was a rare naturalness and simplicity in William Nelson. He was at
ease in any company, and equally accessible to poor as to rich. Yet,
with all this, he was singularly undemonstrative. As one of his old
friends writes, “he was no hand-shaker;” so that a stranger could never
have guessed the deep sympathies that lay concealed under his quiet
manner. Yet when his pity was excited his emotion was extreme, and he
betrayed the tender sensitiveness of a woman, his tears flowing
unrestrained. When his mother, to whom he was passionately attached, lay
dying, he shrank from entering the room, where the sight of her
suffering overpowered him. But he lingered about the door of the
apartment, and could not stay away. When moved with apprehension of the
safety of those most dear to him--as on one occasion which I recall,
when in deep anxiety about the safety of his son--his emotion was even
painful to witness. But his capacity for enjoyment was equally great,
and retained in it to the last much of the freshness of childhood. A
“Punch and Judy,” especially with a group of children enjoying the show,
never lost its charm for him. Another kindly trait of unsophisticated
naturalness was the pleasure he derived from street music. He would wait
to listen to a ballad-singer, and after a liberal gift, ask to have the
song over again. A blind bagpiper was irresistible, though more, I
suspect, as an object of charity than for the charm of his music. A
cornopean player and sundry German bands came regularly to his office
window, and “the Rhine Watch” was sure to call forth half-a-crown.
After his death, the comment of an old Parkside workman on the changes
that his absence had created was summed up with the remark, “The beggars
on the Dalkeith Road and the bands of music have ceased to come now.”

The pleasure which he derived from music was intense. It was, indeed, no
uncommon thing to see him moved to tears under its influence. But much
of this, doubtless, was the pleasure of association: as in the plaintive
national airs of Scotland, the songs and ballads familiar to him from
childhood, and the sacred music linked to hymns, many of which have
become part of the national psalmody, and entered into the religious
life of the whole English-speaking race.

In art his taste was pure. He delighted to have artists about him,
criticised their works with frank sincerity, and at times with an
unconventional bluntness that was a little startling. Sir George Harvey,
James Drummond, Sir Noel Paton and his brother Waller, Sir Daniel
Macnee, Keeley Halswell, Alfred H. Forrester (Alfred Crowquill), with
Doré, Giacomelli, and other foreigners, were all among his
artist-friends; and to those must be added Mrs. D. O. Hill, William
Brodie, Stevenson, and other sculptors, to whom the charms of his
tasteful home and its beautiful surroundings were familiar. His
remarkably fine and expressive head was a model they prized to work
from. His feelings in regard to artists and their works find expression
in his letters from time to time, as he notes his sense of the loss
created by their death.

William Brodie, a self-taught artist of great simplicity and true
genius, whose fine statue of Lord Cockburn holds its place in the old
Parliament Hall of Edinburgh alongside of Roubiliac’s Forbes of
Culloden, Chantrey’s Lord Melville, and Steel’s Lord Jeffrey, was
engaged in 1881 on a marble bust of William Nelson. He had been
commissioned to execute for Toronto a bronze statue of Mr. Nelson’s
brother-in-law, the Hon. George Brown, leader of the Liberal party in
Upper Canada in its protracted struggle for constitutional government.
His death, after long suffering, by the pistol-shot of an assassin,
created a wide-spread sympathy in Canada, and awakened in the mind of
William Nelson the keenest sympathy on behalf of his widowed sister.
This, accordingly, gave an exceptional interest to the proposed statue.
He discussed the plans with the sculptor, and eagerly anticipated its
execution. But the commission had not been long intrusted to him, and
the plans for its realization settled, when death arrested the gifted
sculptor in the midst of his work. More than one day had been spent in
the studio, examining some of his latest productions, including the
unfinished bust, and discussing the treatment of the proposed statue. In
the following November, William Nelson thus writes:--“You will have
heard, ere this reaches you, intelligence of the death of poor William
Brodie, the sculptor. He had been suffering for several months past from
fatty degeneration of the heart, and on Sunday morning last he was
released from earthly care and trouble. I had a note from his wife about
a week before his death, in which she stated that he was a little
better, and that he had been able to make some drawings for the statue
of George Brown, but that no further progress had been made in the
matter. The loss is great to art, for he was at his very best, and
improving as he progressed. His Sir James Simpson I do not like; but he
blamed its low site, buried among the trees, and wanted it removed to
the open area of Nicolson Square, where, I daresay, it would show much
better. As for his Lord Cockburn, it is the finest thing in the
Parliament House. It is not for me to suggest who should now be
intrusted with the work; but there can be no doubt that Mrs. D. O. Hill
will be looking out for the commission; and if it should come her way,
and she were to produce a work equal to her statue of Livingstone, the
committee would not have occasion to regret having intrusted her with

Art had ever a charm for William Nelson, and he watched with jealous
sensitiveness the memorial statues which adorn the streets and squares
of his native city. But a keen personal sympathy gave intensity to his
interest in the one to be erected in honour of his own brother-in-law.
The execution of it was ultimately intrusted to Mr. C. Bell Birch,
A.R.A.; and in February 1884 Mr. Nelson thus writes from London to Mr.
James Campbell:--“I am here for a short time, with Mrs. Nelson and my
daughter Florence. We have all been out this afternoon at the studio of
Mr. Birch, the sculptor, seeing the model of the statue that is to be
erected to the memory of poor George Brown. I am glad to say that we are
all of opinion that the statue will be a noble one, though we are not
quite sure if the likeness will be what can be called a speaking
likeness.” The statue did ultimately satisfy in this respect, and now
forms an attractive feature in the Queen’s Park at Toronto. As to the
love of art here referred to, it is perpetuated by the younger
generation. Salisbury Green has its own studio, where both modelling and
painting were pursued by a group of young artists with more than
ordinary amateur skill. But art has found other rivals in the new home
to which the fair critic of Mr. Birch’s model has transferred her

As time wore on, and the thick clustering black locks of early years
whitened with the frosts of time, William Nelson courted more than ever
his own family reunions, delighted to gather his friends about him, and
noted with tender regrets the blanks that death made in the old circle.
Thus he writes to me in January 1882: “Several weel kent faces have
fled wi’ the year that’s awa’, including old artist-friends who have
recently disappeared from our midst that you will mourn.” After
referring to William Brodie and Sir Daniel Macnee, he proceeds: “And now
I have to inform you that your old friend William Miller [the eminent
engraver] has been called away, he having died at Sheffield yesterday. I
met him not long ago in the Meadows, as he was going in the direction of
Millerfield; and he walked as erect as he ever did, which was a most
remarkable thing for a man only four years short of being a
nonagenarian. In addition to those I have mentioned as having joined the
majority, the name of Sheriff Hallard has to be added; and Edinburgh has
lost in him a great deal of happy sunshine.”



Reference has already been made to William Nelson’s love of travel. It
was indeed a passion with him, which, with his persistent eagerness for
the minutest information on all points brought under his notice, might
under other circumstances have won a place for him among distinguished

During a delightful sojourn which I shared with him in the Vale of
Yarrow in 1880, a special object of pilgrimage was the ruined cottage in
which the African traveller, Mungo Park, was born; and as he looked on
it he recalled the picture, by Sir George Harvey, representing the
fainting traveller in the African desert revived by the sight of a
little flower that seemed to tell of the divine hand, and renewed his
faith in the fatherhood of God. He followed up the subject, recovered an
original sketch map executed by the traveller of his intended second
route, of which he had a copy made; and among the letters preserved by
him is one from Dr. Anderson of Selkirk, in which it is stated:--“Park
served his apprenticeship for a surgeon with my grandfather in this
house (Dove Cot) where I now live, and where my grandfather, my father,
and myself have practised for more than a hundred years. My father
served his apprenticeship with Park in Peebles, when he practised there
before going off on his second journey. There stands a very handsome
tree in front of my house, a horse-chestnut, which was planted by the
traveller while courting his intended wife.”

African travel had a peculiar fascination for William Nelson. The return
of the venerable missionary, Dr. Robert Moffat, from his life-long
labours among the Hottentots and Bechuanas, awakened in him the
liveliest interest; and his son-in-law, Livingstone, was an object of
special veneration. When the startling news of Stanley’s meeting with
him at Ujiji was reported, it greatly excited and gratified him. And
when Mr. Henry M. Stanley visited Edinburgh on his return from Africa,
he received a hearty welcome at Salisbury Green. Keith Johnston, another
of the explorers of the Dark Continent, who fell a victim to the deadly
climate, was the son of an old friend. He watched with interest the news
of his early efforts, and tenderly mourned his fate. The same summer in
which the ruined cottage in the Vale of Yarrow was the object of William
Nelson’s curious interest, he had as his guest at Salisbury Green Mr.
Joseph Thomson, then recently returned from his exploratory wanderings
in previously unvisited regions to the south of the Victoria Nyanza, and
gratified his intelligent curiosity, plying him with questions about the
strange land and its people.

His own wanderings extended beyond the ordinary routes of the tourist.
He visited Norway and Sweden on more than one occasion; travelled in
Denmark and Russia, through Spain, Morocco, and Algiers; journeyed, as
we have seen, in Palestine; explored Egypt and the Nile; crossed the
American continent to the Pacific; and was on the eve of an extended
visit to Greece and Asia Minor when his active life came to a close. His
correspondence is voluminous, and supplies ample details of his
experience on successive journeys; but a few illustrations will suffice
for needful glimpses of personal characteristics. His journey across the
American continent in 1870 has already been referred to. The Yosemite
Valley, and the wonders of the Yellowstone Region, are now familiar to
tourists; but at that date they were recently discovered and little
known. He landed at New York on the 18th of May, had the excitement of a
threatened Indian raid as they traversed the territory of the Sioux, but
reached the Rocky Mountains in safety. He passed through the defiles of
the mountains with unexpected ease; and then he notes: “If the passage
of the Rocky Mountains has been easy, this has been made up by the
crossing of the Sierra Nevada in California, which is the most
difficult task in railway engineering that has yet been undertaken.
These mountains are between eight and nine thousand feet high, and over
these the railway passes, the roadway being in many places cut out of
solid rock, with perpendicular walls of many hundred feet deep, falling
straight down from the very edge of the railway.” The famous Yosemite
Valley he describes as “a valley of about twelve miles in length by two
in breadth, that has apparently been formed by the ground sinking down
to a depth of some three or four thousand feet, and leaving
perpendicular cliffs all round. In these are many fine waterfalls, the
largest being no less than two thousand six hundred feet high;” and
after a minute description of its features, he pronounces the valley to
be “one of the greatest wonders of the world.” The Indians were a
subject of unfailing interest. He longed to see the aborigines in their
genuine condition of savage simplicity; and at a later date, when
referring to this subject in a letter to Captain James Chester of the
3rd U.S. Artillery, he says:--“I send you a cutting from the _Times_. We
all know that the Scotch are a practical people; but I never before, in
all my reading, met with an instance of their getting the credit for
goaheadness in the way referred to. The Marquis of Lorne, while
Governor-General of Canada, was on the look-out for the genuine native;
and some of his first experiences, as he travelled beyond the frontiers
of civilization, are thus described by a correspondent who accompanied
him:--‘We begin to-morrow with an address from some Indians at Little
Current, on Manitoulin Island, who ought to be real, full-blooded
Indians, if any faith can be put in Indian names. But probably little
faith can be put in them. The mixture of races has been carried
on,--more especially by the Scotch, always foremost in everything,--with
so much energy that it is never easy to know whether an Indian is
full-blooded, or, as some stranger to the laws of orthography and
pronunciation tersely phrased it, “half Ingin, half Ingineer.” In one of
his speeches Lord Lorne told us of his once expressing a wish to see a
real, full-blooded Indian, his first; and being rather astonished when
the Canadian who undertook to gratify his wish summoned the required
real specimen of the aboriginal race by shouting, “Come here,

The Falls of Niagara had no such fresh wonder as belonged to the
newly-discovered marvels of California; but familiarity does not lessen
their effect, and the impression produced on Mr. Nelson’s mind is worth
reproducing in his own words. He travelled in company with Mrs. Nelson,
and he thus writes:--“One misses the true height of the falls at
first--one hundred and sixty-three feet--owing to looking down upon them
as they plunge into a deep gorge, in addition to their great extent in
breadth. But still the impression is overpowering. Before dinner we went
on to Goat Island, which divides the Horse Shoe, or Canadian Fall, from
the American Fall; got over to the Three Sisters--three lovely wooded
islands anchored amid the roar of waters--and then looked up the great
rapids from the head of Goat Island. This I really think almost finer
than the actual falls. There is no hill or rising ground visible. The
flat shore scarcely seems to reach above the water’s brink; and here is
a great tumbling flood that looks as if it came right out of the sky,
and was going to sweep everything before it. After dinner we crossed the
ferry, right under the falls, and formed a more definite idea of their
height. We then found our way to a spot on the Canadian side above the
falls, where we looked down on the Horse Shoe Fall. It has eaten its way
back into the rock; and an old residenter on the spot told us it has
greatly changed since he remembered it. It now looks as though the whole
mighty flood were poured into a narrow cleft, and disappears in a rising
cloud of vapour, in which, when the sun is shining, there is a constant

At Toronto attractions of a different, but not less acceptable, kind
awaited him. He started for the backwoods, and fished in Lake Muskoka
with his old school-mate for his guide. And on his return to Toronto, a
party of the fellow-students of early years met at dinner under his
present biographer’s roof. Sir Andrew Ramsay, the head of the
Geographical Survey of Great Britain, chanced to be on a visit to
Canada; Alexander Sprunt had come on from North Carolina to place his
son at the University of Toronto; the Hon. George Brown, his own
brother-in-law, was now a Senator of the Dominion; the Hon. David
Christie was Speaker of the Senate; Professor George Paxton Young, and
their host, were both members of the Faculty of the Provincial
University; and thus, after an interval of more than forty years, the
memories of school and college life were recalled, and old times lived
over again, with many a humorous reminiscence, and some amusing
gleanings from the record of school-mates. In a letter to his sister he
says: “You may imagine with what delight I met so many of my old
school-fellows, and how we did talk over the days of auld lang syne!”

The Parisian capital is a place of too easy and frequent resort to admit
of its being embraced within the range of notable explorations; but two
of his visits to Paris were made under such exceptional circumstances as
to claim special notice here. The first of those was his characteristic
visit at the period of Prince Louis Napoleon’s famous _coup d’état_. An
old friend, Mr. Matthew Tait, thus briefly narrates the event:--“We all
know how fond he was of foreign travel, and how he liked to watch the
movements of crowds and to witness any public display. My brother
accompanied him to Paris in 1851. It was at the time of the _coup
d’état_. Mingling one day with the crowds that filled the Place de la
Concorde, they suddenly found themselves exposed to a charge of cavalry.
The crowd instantly gave way amid shrieks and yells; some of them were
mortally wounded. My brother remarked to me afterwards on the coolness
and self-possession of William Nelson, who seemed to have far more
sympathy with the unfortunate victims than concern for his own safety.”

In William Nelson’s boyhood the journey to London was a formidable
adventure. A youth who had achieved that feat won the respect of his
companions as one who had seen the world. To have actually crossed the
Channel was to be a great traveller. Rotterdam and the Hague, or
Christiania and Copenhagen, by reason of the trade of the neighbouring
sea-port, lay within easier reach than Paris. But steam-boats and
railways have wrought as great a revolution in ideas as in experience;
and in his later years a visit to Paris was no uncommon occurrence. But
the circumstances were altogether exceptional when in March 1871,--the
year succeeding that of his journey across the American continent,--he
proceeded thither, accompanied by Mrs. Nelson and an American friend,
Mr. George Buckham of New York. The Franco-German War was over; Paris
had capitulated; and this unwonted condition of things presented
attractions peculiarly calculated to tempt William Nelson to witness for
himself the novel scene. Happily some interesting reminiscences of the
adventure are recoverable from notes furnished by both of his

They met in London on the 16th of March, and on learning that the German
army had evacuated Paris, they resolved to avail themselves of the
opportunity of witnessing the devastations of war, while the city still
wore the aspect due to its prolonged siege. They started accordingly the
following day. On reaching the suburbs of Paris they were struck with
the wretched condition of the numerous soldiers of the besieging army,
still bivouacked there in dirty, tattered uniforms, little calculated to
suggest the idea of proud conquerors. They put up at the Hôtel Chatham;
and on their way from the railway station their attention was drawn to
the excited crowds in the streets and boulevards. It was soon apparent
that the terrors of the siege had been succeeded by revolutionary
revolt. Many wounded and dying were being carried past on stretchers.
The streets were filled with citizens and soldiers gesticulating in an
angry manner, and evidently ripe for violence. The very few shops that
were open looked dreary and deserted; and the inhabitants had a
careworn, anxious look, as though they dreaded a renewal of the terrible
experiences of the siege.

About noon the travellers set out to explore the scenes still bearing
evidence of the conflict so recently ended. They reached the Champ de
Mars in time to see several regiments of the National Guard arrive and
pitch their tents. They were survivors of the army of General Chanzy,
which had suffered so terribly; and Mr. Buckham notes of them: “All were
scarcely older than mere boys. They were in a dreadfully ragged and
distressed condition.” Everywhere, indeed, the pride and glory of war
had given place to its most forbidding aspects. At Pont de Jour the
shells had made terrible havoc, almost totally destroying every house in
the place. At St. Cloud it was the same. The palace which the Emperor
left on the 18th of July 1870, at the head of the Grande Armée, to march
to Berlin, was almost completely demolished; and a street of once
beautiful mansions near it was a mere pile of ruins. This was the work
of the besieged, in their efforts to dislodge the Germans, who were
carousing in the magnificent halls of the imperial palace. Everywhere
the travellers were struck with the evidences of the blind fury of the
populace. The “N,” the “E,” and every symbol of the emperor, had been
effaced or broken. Statues of the First Napoleon, and a beautiful
statue of the Empress Josephine that adorned the avenue which bore her
name, had been thrown down and flung into the river. Even the heads of
the bronze eagles on the Grand Opera House had been broken off.

They sought in vain for a conveyance to hire. At every livery stable
they were told that the horses had all been killed and eaten. Towards
evening the excitement became intense, under the apprehension that the
Red Republicans, who were evidently gaining ground, would take complete
possession of Paris. The landlord of the Hôtel Chatham was greatly
excited, and cautioned his guests against venturing out of doors. But an
old citizen of Edinburgh, Mr. Nimmo, who was well known to Mr. Nelson,
undertook to be their guide. He had himself been a leader in the
political movements of the old Scottish reformers at a time when such
proceedings imperilled his safety; and so, taking refuge in Paris, he
had resided there for forty-nine years, and now found himself at home in
the _furor_ of a fresh revolution. Under his escort they traversed the
deserted and gloomy thoroughfares, till they reached the Place Vendôme,
where a military guard arrested their progress, and compelled them to
pursue a different route. When they passed the end of the Louvre, and
turned in the direction of the boulevard leading towards the Place
Vendôme, they suddenly became involved in a disorderly mass of
soldiers; and within half an hour after they reached their hotel, the
Place Vendôme was captured by the mob. A little later the Hôtel de Ville
was in the hands of the Communists, the government fled from Paris, and
the revolution was an accomplished fact. The Grande Armée disappeared.
On the Saturday night, March 18th, there was fighting going on in
several parts of the city; and when, on the following day, Mr. and Mrs.
Nelson and their friend visited two Protestant churches, they found them
closed, and all attempt at public worship abandoned. They were
successful at length in securing a hired vehicle, and making their way
to the Jardin des Plantes, where they found, to their surprise, that
nearly all the animals had survived the siege. There had been
sensational newspaper paragraphs concerning the novel dishes which the
national menagerie supplied; and William Nelson’s fancy was greatly
taken with the idea of a hippopotamus steak, a giraffe ragout, a dish of
devilled tiger, or some other equally _recherché_ entertainment; but
instead of the beasts being devoured, it had been found possible to
provide them with something to eat. Eighty-four shells had fallen within
the garden enclosures, but the damage was slight; while seven of the
poor invalids in a large hospital adjoining had been killed in their
beds. While walking through the Jardin des Plantes, a stranger
approached Mr. Nelson, and addressing him, told him he was a professor
in the University of Dublin, had been shut up in Paris during the siege,
and reduced to the direst straits. He was anxious to get away, but he
had no money. Mr. Buckham, who witnessed the interview, adds: “In such
cases Mr. Nelson never hesitated. I have seen many other instances of
his benevolence. He relieved this gentleman at once.” Mr. Buckham adds
that he learned from Mr. Nimmo of many instances of suffering and
distress, as the results of the siege, which had been reported by him to
Mr. Nelson. He did not stop to inquire more, but helped the needy, and
relieved the distressed and suffering, without any idea that his good
deeds were ever known to any one but Mr. Nimmo, who had the pleasant
duty of acting as his almoner.

The entire scene abounded in strange and exciting novelty. They drove to
the Hôtel de Ville, and there had to abandon their conveyance. The grand
square was filled with soldiers. Men and boys were tearing up the
paving-stones and constructing barricades. The flag of the Red
Republicans was flying on the hotel, and the soldiers were shouting,
“_Vive la République!_” and fraternizing with the mob. So alarming grew
the situation that the idea gained favour with many of the citizens to
invite the return of the Prussians to Paris as the only escape from a
reign of terror. Proclamations were issued by the Government, and
counter proclamations by the Red Republicans. The travellers were
warned by their landlord not to venture out; but it was useless to visit
Paris at such a time merely to be immured in their hotel. So at noon
they started for Versailles, under the guidance of Mr. Nimmo, and paid a
visit there to M. Giacomelli, Mr. Nelson’s artist friend. He had had
several Prussian officers quartered on him, and the account he gave of
the insolent brutality of those representatives of the victorious army
seems to have been abundantly confirmed by the condition in which they
left the artist’s beautiful château. Mr. Buckham thus writes:--

“Monsieur and Madame Giacomelli are people of the highest refinement and
culture, and it was impossible to listen to a recital of their wrongs
unmoved. The walls of their _salons_ were hung with most beautiful
paintings, many of which had been cut from their frames. The beautiful
draperies of the windows were stained with tobacco juice; and the rich
satin coverings of their furniture, which the officers had lounged on
with spurs, were hanging in ribbons.”

The calm self-control and fearlessness in danger which have already been
noted among the characteristics of William Nelson, were repeatedly noted
by his travelling companion under the most trying circumstances during
this sojourn in Paris. Mr. Buckham thus writes:--“In the exciting scenes
of these few days, in which Mr. Nelson mingled freely and fearlessly,
no one was so calm as he. The writer accompanied him through scenes in
which we were often menaced with the insane violence of armed men, so
that it was deemed the height of madness to expose ourselves to it. On
one occasion, in the Marché St. Honoré, which we entered suddenly, not
knowing what was going on, we found it crowded with armed men and women
almost foaming with rage at our intrusion. Three words uttered by Mr.
Nelson in a low tone restored me to self-control. ‘Take my arm,’ he said
quietly, and we passed unharmed, with muskets and bayonets pointed at
us. While traversing the Rue de Rivoli, for a long distance we did not
see a human being, until we were suddenly confronted by a Communist
doing sentinel duty. Mr. Nelson said to me in his calm tone of voice,
‘Say nothing; I’ll manage this fellow.’ So on we went, and the sentinel
brought down his musket from his shoulder. Our pace was not changed. Mr.
Nelson gave the military salute; he again shouldered his musket, and we
passed on.”

The season was early, but a succession of days of brilliant sunshine,
with the trees putting forth their fresh spring leaves and early
blossoms, and the songs of the birds already building their nests, all
tended to intensify the desolation of the scene and the misery of the
populace. In the ruined villages around Paris they saw men, women, and
children who gazed as if stupified at the wreck of their humble
dwellings, while they seemed only involved in worse dangers by the
withdrawal of the invaders. A revolution was at its height. The National
Assembly was sitting at Versailles, while the Red Republicans held
Paris; and the army was taking sides, and divided between the rival
governments. On the 21st of March, Mr. Buckham notes:--“Another splendid
day, but as no cabs could be found, we trudged about on foot. The
streets are filled with crowds of excited people; some are armed, and
bent on mischief. Not a vehicle is to be seen; the whole roadway is
filled with people. Orators are declaiming, and the newswomen are
screaming out the last ‘special,’ which is eagerly seized until the
stock of newspapers is exhausted. The landlords of the hotels have
forbidden the departure of their guests in obedience to an order issued
by the Government. The English agent of the Rothschilds called and
informed us that a conflict was inevitable. The people of wealth were
ordered to furnish money to the insurgents, and if they refused they
were marched off to the Conciergerie between two files of soldiers.
Suddenly about noon the Boulevards were filled with immense crowds of
citizens shouting for peace. A great procession was formed and marched
to the Hôtel de Ville and Place Vendôme to remonstrate with the
Communists. This movement, proving the unpopularity of the
insurrection, was visible at once on the Bourse by the rise of stocks!
The order forbidding strangers to depart was revoked, the shops were
reopened, and there was a reasonable prospect of an immediate
suppression of the revolution.”

But the troubles were not over for the courageous travellers who had
thus gratified their curiosity to witness for themselves the scenes of a
besieged city and a Parisian Communistic revolt. On coming down to
breakfast on the Sunday morning, they were gratified to meet at the
breakfast table an old friend, in company with two others who, like
themselves, had come to Paris to see the results of the terrible war.
They were the only other guests at the hotel. On their first visit to
Versailles they had had a good view of the great fortress, Mont
Valérien, and explored with much interest the surrounding rifle-pits and
other means of defence; and it was now proposed that the whole party
should visit the fort. But Mrs. Nelson writes:--“On reconsidering our
plans, William decided that he would prefer going to Versailles; so Mr.
Buckham and I set out with him, while our friends started for Fort
Valérien. We found much to interest us, and did not return to our hotel
till the evening. But on arriving there the landlord met us in a state
of great excitement. We had, it seemed, very narrowly escaped a novel
and trying experience. Our three friends had been taken for spies, and
as soon as they reached the fort were made prisoners. After being
detained all day, they had been released, and were already on their way
to England. He also told us that he had orders from head-quarters that
we were to leave at once.” So ended this visit to Paris in the days of
the capitulation and the Commune, not without some very exciting
experiences, and more than one narrow escape from imminent danger. It
was characteristic of William Nelson’s fearless unconsciousness of
danger that he made Mrs. Nelson the sharer in an expedition, replete
indeed with attractions of a highly novel and exceptional kind, but
beset by so many dangers that nothing but her trusting confidence in his
guardianship could have induced her to risk the exposure which it
involved. As it was, it might be styled a lucky accident which alone
prevented her sharing in the uncomfortable romance of being made a state
prisoner in Fort Valérien. But such incidents have a piquancy in the
memories of later years, when the discomforts and apprehensions they
involved have passed out of memory. Nevertheless the narrow escape from
incarceration in a state prison under the later Commune was the foremost
incident in Mrs. Nelson’s thoughts whenever she recalled the experiences
of that exciting time.

“It was a narrow escape,” she writes, “for we were the last people to
get out of Paris. The Provisional Government took the place of the
Prussian invaders; and our train was the last one allowed to leave
Paris. We were repeatedly taken for spies and stopped on the street. Had
we gone to Fort Valérien and been made prisoners, the suspicions that
had been excited would have told against us. But William never seemed to
be put out, or to be conscious of danger.”



A journey through unfamiliar scenes had at all times a special
fascination for William Nelson; and had circumstances favoured the
devotion of his early years to exploration in strange, unknown regions,
it was a work that would have proved peculiarly congenial to his tastes.
He had some of the most needful characteristics of an observant
traveller; and his acuteness and keen desire for the thorough
investigation of whatever came under notice, would have secured results
of permanent value. But as it was, his later travels, even when out of
the beaten track of the tourist, were necessarily the mere holiday
rambles of a man escaping from the engrossing cares of business. Yet
even such rambles furnish some interesting glimpses of character.

From among William Nelson’s varied experiences of foreign travel in
later years I select his trip to the Baltic in 1878, the incidents of
which are familiar to me as his companion on the journey. More
correctly, he accompanied me, starting at a few hours’ notice with that
indifference to elaborate preparation so characteristic of him as a
traveller. We sailed from Leith on the 4th of July by the steam-ship
_Buda_, bound for Copenhagen. The North Sea gave us a rough shake; but I
was seasoned for the voyage by fresh Atlantic experiences, and William
Nelson was a good sailor in all weathers. He was at home among the
sailors on the deck or in the forecastle, and found, as usual, some
objects of practical sympathy there.

The first subject of curious investigation was the famed castle of
Helsingör--Hamlet’s Elsinore. But it is better seen through
Shakespeare’s eyes, and is much too modern and prosaic to awaken any
associations with Hamlet the Dane. Our traveller, who was apt to be
amusingly literal on such occasions, protested against the contemptible
escarpment which it offered in lieu of

    “The dreadful summit of the cliff
     That beetles o’er his base into the sea.”

But Copenhagen had much to interest him; and among the rest, the
recurrence of his own name, under slight modifications, suggesting the
possible descent of the Covenanting farmers of the Carse of Stirling
from some rough old Baltic viking. The Thorwaldsen Galleries were
explored with keen interest. Then, too, I was fortunate in an early
personal acquaintance with the eminent Danish archæologist, Wörsaae,
which subsequent correspondence on subjects of mutual interest had
ripened into friendship. He was then chamberlain to the king. So under
his guidance a charming day was passed in the Rosenborg Slot, where, in
addition to the choice cabinet of coins, the famous silver drinking-horn
of Oldenburg, and other ancient relics, a succession of state apartments
are arranged with historical portraits, arms, jewels, and furniture of
the royal Danish line. Illustrated as they were by the fascinating
commentary of our guide, they charmed William Nelson beyond measure. “It
was,” he said, “like walking down the centuries into the present time.”
Another day was spent, under the same instructive guidance, inspecting
the richly-stored cabinets of the Prindsens Palais, where the Runic
slabs from Greenland--memorials of the Northmen’s pre-Columbian
discovery of America--excited the liveliest interest.

On returning to our hotel on the latter occasion, we found unusual stir
and excitement. We had not been aware that the Prince Imperial of France
was a guest at the hotel--come to Copenhagen, as was reported, to sue
for the hand of a Danish princess; and here was his Danish majesty’s
carriage awaiting the prince to take him to dine at the palace at the
fashionable hour of 5 P.M. William Nelson remarks in a letter of the
following July:--“You would see the sad fate of the Prince Imperial;
though one cannot help asking what business he had there, fighting the
poor Zulus who had done him no wrong, and bringing discredit on British
officers who were there on duty, whatever we may think of such duty. It
seems hard to blame them for bolting--every man for himself. But you
remember the little prince as we saw him at Copenhagen; he did not seem
very fit to fight Zulus or anybody else, poor fellow.”

The Frue Kirke occupies a prominent place among the attractions of
Copenhagen, and is now associated in my mind with a characteristic
little incident. The travellers had visited the church, the decorations
of which, from the chisel of Thorwaldsen, constitute the main source of
its interest. On the morning of the Sunday following they attended the
English service; and in the afternoon his companion announced his
intention to go to the Frue Kirke, and invited William Nelson to
accompany him. But he refused, protesting that they should not
understand a word of the service, and pronouncing the procedure to be a
desecration of the day. His fellow-traveller had accordingly to go
alone. The church is in the form of a Roman basilica, built under the
direction of the great Danish sculptor, with a special view to its
marble adornments. The sole light is admitted from ground-glass panels
in the ceiling. Above the altar, in the chancel, stands the colossal
statue of Christ, with arms extended in loving regard. In front of each
pier, in the nave, is a statue of an apostle: St. Paul symbolizing the
irresistible might of the truth; St. Peter the custodian of the symbolic
keys; the doubting Thomas, with look of indecision and finger on his
lip; St. John as the impersonation of love; and the others, each more or
less skilfully suggesting some appropriate ideal. As works of art they
are open to criticism, for as an artist Thorwaldsen had far more of
classical than of Christian feeling. But the absence of all gay
colouring, usually so much favoured in church decoration, and the grand
scale of the works in pure white marble, so appropriate to a place of
Christian worship, produce as a whole an effect singularly impressive in
its mode of enlisting art as the handmaid of religion. The Lutheran
service, with its familiar hymn tunes, was simple as that of the
Presbyterian Church; and the sermon was obviously eloquent, though
delivered in the unknown Danish tongue. On the wanderer returning to the
hotel, he found his friend asleep in an easy-chair, and ventured to hint
that his time had been spent to as good purpose; but this idea was
scouted, and William Nelson stuck to it, that the sharing in the
afternoon service of the Frue Kirke was a profanation of the day.

His interest was specially excited by the comments of Wörsaae, on the
succession of flora in Denmark, from the _Pinus sylvestris_ of the
early Stone Period to that of the _Quercus robur_ which accompanies the
prehistoric works of the Iron Age, and has been replaced within the
historic period by the beech. So a run by rail afforded him the
gratification of seeing one of the fine beech forests of Denmark. But he
was still more charmed with the habitual courtesy of the Dane. The
Thorwaldsen Museum has refined the Copenhageners, even to the proverbial
street boy. He who was at all times noticeable for that spontaneous
courtesy which knew no distinction between rich and poor, was amused to
learn that the travellers were guilty of an unconscious boorishness in
keeping their hats on when entering a shop, or even a railway
waiting-room. At their first Swedish railway station--a half-finished
structure with unglazed windows--a Danish friend drew their attention to
this notice: “Behall gerna hufvudbonaden pa!” which politely invited
them to keep their hats on under such exceptional circumstances. The
impression which this produced was recalled by an incident of a
different kind, on their proceeding from Stockholm to Christiania. Their
interview with custom-house officers on the frontier reminded them that
Sweden and Norway are still distinct kingdoms. The simple kindly manners
of the Norwegian people charmed them no less than those of the Danes.
Introductions gave them access to scenes of quiet domestic life, where
they learned to shake hands with the host and hostess after dinner,
with the salutation: “Tak for maten”--thanks for the repast. A journey
northward among the mountains and fiords afforded some amusing
experiences of the kindly hospitalities of the peasant proprietors. The
sheaf of oats, a Christmas gift for the birds, which surmounts the gable
of every Norwegian farm-house, greatly charmed William Nelson as a thing
so consonant to his love for the lower animals. The wild birds struck
them as very familiar, never being molested, as they were told, even by
the boys. On their return to the Norwegian capital, they had occasion in
one of their rambles to appeal to a stranger for direction. Their few
words of Norwegian, and his more ample English, proving inadequate for
the occasion, he politely undertook to be their guide; and after a walk
of nearly half a mile, he turned to William Nelson to inquire the name
of the person we were in search of, and lifting his hat he said: “Please
you wait till I ask where he is to find.”

With such experiences of Danish and Norwegian courtesy, they had not
long returned to Christiania when they learned of the expected arrival
of his majesty King Oscar, to open the Storthing, or Norwegian
parliament. Mingling with the crowd that awaited his arrival, they were
surprised at the reception tendered to their sovereign and the crown
prince by those same courteous Norwegians. It was his majesty’s first
appearance since he vetoed a popular measure excluding the ministers of
the crown from a seat in the Storthing. There was nothing menacing or
rude in his reception, but the only hat taken off on the occasion was
that of the king himself.

In 1882 William Nelson visited Portugal and Spain for the second time,
accompanied on this occasion by Mrs. Nelson and his two younger
daughters. At Cadiz, Seville, Toledo, Cordova, and other cities at which
the travellers tarried, he derived intense gratification from the
magnificent mediæval remains, the splendid cathedrals with their
elaborately sculptured details, but above all, from the novel beauty of
Arabian art. Already, at Damascus, Grand Cairo, and other Eastern
cities, he had been greatly impressed with the taste and the fine
elaboration of detail in the works of the Arabian architects. His rooms
at Salisbury Green were enriched with tiles from the Alhambra, and with
pottery and beautiful models of other works of the Spanish Moors.

The notes of Dr. Porter of Belfast have already furnished interesting
reminiscences of the interchange of experiences and observations between
William Nelson and himself as travellers in the East; and they are no
less available for information illustrating the impressions left on the
mind of the former by his Spanish tour. Dr. Porter thus writes:--“Mr.
Nelson spoke to me often, and with singular enthusiasm, of his travels
in Spain, and of all the wonders of art and architecture he saw there.
On one occasion, I remember well, after showing me some of the exquisite
models brought from the Alhambra, and also drawings of the Great
Mosque-Cathedral of Cordova, and of the Alkazar in Seville, he said:
‘All these are relics of the Moors, or imitations of their work. Where
did they get that marvellous style of architectural decoration? It is
unique. There is nothing like it, except in those countries where the
Moors were settled. The Greeks excelled it in pure taste and grandeur of
idea; the Egyptians in magnitude, as at Thebes and Ghizeh; the Assyrians
in vastness and perhaps splendour; but in beauty of ornament, in
delicacy of finish, in gorgeousness of interior decoration, the Moors
stand unrivalled. I often wonder how, where, and at what exact period
this Moorish style of architecture was conceived; in what way all its
details were elaborated. One sees it in the Great Mosque at Jerusalem,
in the old Arab tombs and the private houses of Damascus, in the mosques
of Cairo and Algiers, and above all in the glorious Alhambra. The Greeks
had their schools of architecture and art: where were the Arabs or Moors
taught? Their peculiar style, so far as I know,’ he added, ‘rose
rapidly, almost at a bound. We can scarcely discover any trace of
progress from rude beginnings, as in the Greek architecture. This has
ever been to me a most interesting and mysterious subject.’” Mr. Nelson
evidently thought and read not a little upon Moorish architecture, but,
like many another student, without arriving at any satisfactory result.
“How the wild tribes who came up from the desert of Arabia, and occupied
in succession the great cities of Syria, Egypt, northern Africa, and
lastly of Spain, attained to so much taste and splendour in architecture
seems a mystery.” Then he remarked: “When Arab rule ceased, architecture
declined in all those places, and has never been revived.” He remarked
more than once: “Were not the Arabs, especially those in the great
cities of the East, a literary people? Had they not a multitude of books
on the various departments of science and philosophy? Was not their
language capable of expressing the most profound thoughts? Did it not
give evidence of high cultivation?” The impress of their intellectual
influence, still manifest throughout Christian Spain, attracted his
notice on all hands, and especially in its ecclesiastical architecture.
The Moorish artists, he observed, had furnished the models on which,
after the conquest of Granada, the architects of Christian Spain
wrought. When conversing about the celebrated Cathedral of Cordova, he
said: “That appears to me to be one of the most remarkable buildings in
Spain, or perhaps in the world. It seems to be of purely Arab
architecture: in all respects like a mosque, and adapted originally for
the Moslem worship. Its internal decoration too is Arab, with the
flaring stripes on the walls of red and white paint, and the imitation
of red and white stones in the circular arches;” and he observed that he
had seen rude painting exactly resembling it in several of the private
houses and on the outside of the mosques in Damascus and Cairo. Nothing
different from ordinary usage, either in building or internal
decoration, escaped his keen observation; but his ignorance of the
language precluded him from that familiar intercourse with the people
which, when opportunity offered, he ordinarily turned to such good

He was not unfamiliar with the beautifully illuminated mediæval Arabic
manuscripts. On one occasion, when looking over Silvestre’s “Universal
Paleography” with myself, he remarked on the rare beauty of the Arabian
illuminations, recalling his observation of them in an example shown to
him in one of the mosques at Cairo; and he noted that even now
illuminated manuscripts may be seen exposed for sale in the bazaars of
Damascus and Grand Cairo. Dr. Porter referred to the great interest that
he manifested in the work of the modern printing-press in the latter
city, and the eagerness with which he inquired about the character of
the books issued from the press set up there by the native Arabs. Dr.
Porter told him “that there were many on medical subjects, many on
interpretations of the Koran, on Mohammedan religion and morals, and one
work especially which greatly pleased the common people.”--“What one is
that?” he asked.--“The ‘Thousand and One Nights,’” was the reply. “You
can hear them in every _café_ throughout the East. Men act them
professionally, read and recite them; and those who frequent the _cafés_
always give them small presents in money.”

The lack of a colloquial knowledge of the native language was a source
of inevitable difficulty and trouble to the Spanish tourists; but in
spite of this Mr. Nelson’s observant habits were directed to some of the
local peculiarities of the native dialects, and Dr. Porter notes:--“He
appeared to take a great interest in the language of that part of Spain
which is to a large extent peopled by the descendants of the Moors. I
told him of many of the local names which are derived from the Arabic,
and gave him examples of the singular changes which have been made in
them to give them a Spanish form and sound. ‘That accounts,’ he said,
‘for the peculiar pronunciation of some of those names by the people in
the south of Spain, so very different from what would appear from the
spelling, and from what we in this country have been accustomed to
hear.’ He had noticed all this in his travels, and, as was his uniform
habit, tried to get at the root of everything.”

But modern Spain had also its historical associations for the English
traveller. In our own youthful days the war of the Peninsula and the
crowning victory of Waterloo were the prominent themes in popular
thought; and so William Nelson naturally turned from the exquisite
remains of Arabian art to muse on the battlefields of Talavera and
Albuera. After surveying the fortifications of Badajoz, he writes to his
friend Captain Chester: “I could not help asking myself, What good came
of all the blood shed on those two terrible battlefields, and of all who
perished in the frightful siege and assault of Badajoz? Why should
British blood have flowed like water for such a country and such a
people as the Spaniards?” He visited Gibraltar, and passed on to
Tangier; and as he notes the width of the strait and the features of the
great fortress, he considers its retention by England as no longer
desirable. He thus writes to his friend Captain Chester: “I took care by
the way to take a good look at that so-called _precious jewel_ of the
British crown, Gibraltar, wondering to myself what can be the use to us
of this gigantic fox-trap. The popular idea is that it commands the
straits; but these are about twenty-two miles in width, there is deep
water to the opposite coast, and the gun has still to be invented that
can carry to such a distance. They are just now engaged in mounting a
one hundred ton gun in a little fort that has been expressly built for
it; but where will ever be the enemy that will allow its ships or
ironclads to be brought within range of such a monster? There are to be
four guns of this calibre erected on the fox-trap.” He next discusses
its value as a coaling-station, and thus proceeds: “We have no fewer
than seven thousand troops of one kind and another immured within the
walls; and there is nothing for the common soldiers in the way of
amusement. Time hangs heavy on their hands, and they hate ‘Gip’ with a
perfect hatred.... I am unpatriotic enough to say that the fortress
ought to be given up, as it has never been, and never can be, I am
convinced, of any use to us. It cannot be said that it does more than
merely command the ground on which it stands and points that can be
reached by its guns.”

This was not William Nelson’s first visit to Spain; he had travelled
through it before alone, and remembered nothing but the pleasures of the
journey. But his experiences were different now, and he thus wrote to a
friend soon after his return: “I have come back from my trip a wiser if
not a better man; and the wisdom I have learned is that no one with a
party of ladies should attempt travelling in Spain without a courier.
We did not indulge in this luxury, and as none of us could speak
Spanish, and as it is a rare thing for a Spaniard to learn any language
but his own, the troubles that we fell into on this account were not
infrequent. Again: Spaniards as a rule have no conscience, and when they
have to do with parties travelling as we were, they fleece them most
unmercifully; and we were not spared by them, I assure you. I need not
say that the old Moorish cities of Spain are very charming, and that the
people of Spain are very interesting on account of their picturesque
costumes, and their being, as it were, an intermediate race between the
people of the Orient and the Occident (to use two words that are rather
grand).” It was characteristic of William Nelson’s transparent
guilelessness that it never occurred to him to make any secret of his
own blunders, or to conceal the mishaps which they involved. He gave a
most humorous account of the travellers’ perplexities--the luggage
persistently going one way and its owners another, till the ladies’
troubles culminated at Madrid, where the attractions of a court
reception and introduction to the state mysteries of the Palacio Real
were balked by the lack of all but their travelling costume.

A later tour, in 1886, took the traveller once more to Norway, on his
way to St. Petersburg and Moscow, in company with Mrs. Nelson, Florence,
and their expected son-in-law, Mr. S. F. MacLeod. On that occasion the
ancient capital of Norway, beautifully situated on a bay in the
Trondhjem Fiord, afforded him a special object of interest in its
curious old cathedral, the most remarkable ecclesiastical edifice in
Norway. It dates from 1033, and still retains singularly interesting
remains of the Romanesque work of the Northmen of the eleventh century.
But it is overlaid with many unsightly additions of a later date, well
calculated to excite the critical comments of one whose indefatigable
labours were so successfully directed to the removal of such incongruous
defacements from the ancient buildings in his own native city. Numerous
letters are available for the details of this later tour; but there is
not room in a brief memoir such as is now aimed at for more than a few
characteristic gleanings from the traveller’s tale. Some of his notes on
the architecture of St. Petersburg will come under notice in a later
chapter; but one literary comment must not be omitted here. Writing to
his friend, Captain MacEnery, he says: “The censorship of the press in
St. Petersburg is something terrible. All newspapers and periodicals in
all languages are subjected to its tender mercies. As an instance of
this, a copy of the _Scotsman_ posted to St. Petersburg came to us with
about three-fourths of a column blotted out, on account of some
statements that displeased the great authority as to what should or
should not be read by the subjects of the emperor. A copy of _Punch_
also reached us with a paragraph blotted out. It would make a grand
subject for a cartoon: the emperor of all the Russias surrounded by
countless thousands of armed men, and yet afraid of poor _Punch_!”



On the evening of Tuesday, the 10th of April 1878, as at the close of
many a previous day, the hundreds of industrious workers in the Hope
Park establishment welcomed the return of the hour of rest. The whirr of
the busy machinery was stilled, and the buildings were left untenanted
till the toilers with brain and hand should resume the work of a new
day. The site to which the works had been transferred from the Castle
Hill thirty-five years before was now crowded to its utmost limits with
the warehouses, engine and work rooms of the prosperous firm. Everything
seemed to give assurance of continuous success. Yet the workers were
then leaving for the last time. Within a few hours the building was a
pile of smoking ruins. The circumstances of this calamitous event were
thus concisely narrated by William Nelson in response to a letter of
sympathy: “In reference to the destruction of our printing and
publishing works at Hope Park, never did fire do its work more speedily
or more thoroughly. It broke out about three o’clock on the morning of
Wednesday, the 10th inst., and in little more than an hour the whole
building was in flames. I was aroused about a quarter past four, and I
hurried as fast as I could to the scene; but I found when I arrived that
the roof all round had fallen in, and that flames were bursting forth
from all the windows in the very front of the building. The fire broke
out somewhere in the back part of it; there was a strong east wind
blowing at the time, and this fanned the flames and made them rush along
the various flats as they successively caught fire with extraordinary
rapidity. Not a book or sheet of printed paper was saved!”

The calamity seemed to be overwhelming. The splendid results of
intelligent industry and rare aptitude for business had vanished, like
the gourd of Jonah, in a night. The insurance on the buildings was
trifling compared with the amount of property destroyed. But his
brother’s comment on being shown the above letter reveals a
characteristic trait of William’s sympathetic and unselfish nature.
“Willie’s letter about the fire recalls very distinctly that terrible
morning. Poor fellow! it was most touching to see him come up to me
before all the people and hold out his hand and say, ‘O Tom, I am so
sorry for you.’ He did not speak or seem to think of himself at all.”

An onlooker has preserved this little, appreciative incident: “A few of
the girls who worked in the establishment were noticed standing together
and weeping bitterly, when one of them, looking up, was overheard to
say, as she saw Mr. William Nelson surveying the conflagration, ‘Eh,
there’s our dear maister. I’m thinking he’ll be thinking mair o’ us the
day than o’ himsel’.’” The remark was abundantly justified; for a friend
who was near him noted that his first thoughts were of sympathy for the
work-people who would be thrown out of employment; and the feeling found
practical form in his exertions on their behalf. This was characteristic
of the spirit that animated him in all his relations with his
work-people, and which helped to make of him an example of the very
highest type of the true captains of industry. “The liberal deviseth
liberal things, and by liberal things shall he stand.”

The Rev. Dr. Alison, the clergyman of Newington parish, in which the
Hope Park works were situated, remarked, when paying a just tribute to
his memory: “I have often had occasion to remark, in visiting employés
of the firm pastorally, as well as in my intercourse with heads of
departments, how beautifully the idea of the Christian employer seemed
to have been realized in him. The affectionate terms in which he was
always spoken of were obviously the natural return for the fairness,
consideration, and generosity for which he had become known. Being more
than a payer of wages, he got more than hirelings’ service. He was a
member of another outward communion; but there is a unity of spiritual
life that ignores outward separations. There is a Church which includes
the faithful of all churches.” To one so unselfish, it was almost
inevitable that he should realize keenly the sufferings which his own
great loss must inflict on others; and this very sympathy was his own
best protection against the blow. Nevertheless, the equanimity displayed
under such trying circumstances was peculiarly notable in one whose
emotional sensibilities were intense. The same calm composure was
characteristic of him under any imposition or personal wrong, if
practised on him by a stranger. It was indeed a common saying that
nothing could anger him. One who knew him well writes: “He had a rare
power of keeping his temper. I never saw him angry. I never heard him
utter a harsh word, except to reprobate some mean or unworthy action.
The only hard words I can recall were in denouncing the conduct of one
whom he had regarded as a friend, and who had grossly abused his
misplaced confidence.” But his equanimity gave way when during the
conflagration, in which it seemed as if the work of a life-time was
being destroyed, some one asked him if he did not suspect it to be the
work of an incendiary. The passionate emotion with which he resented the
suggestion showed how keenly he was moved by the possibility that any
one could be found capable of entertaining the thought of such a
dastardly purpose.

The loss which the fire involved amounted to little short of £100,000;
but Mr. Nelson, in describing the event in a letter to a friend, added:
“I am happy, however, to state that our stereotype plates and our
wood-cuts and electrotypes are all to the fore, they having been in two
strong stone-built safes alongside a part of the back wall of the
building, and though covered with masses of burning timber, etc., they
escaped quite uninjured. With all this valuable property intact, and it
forming the back-bone of our business, we will ere long be able to rear
our heads again as publishers; there being no difficulty in getting all
the printing and bookbinding done that we will require in various
offices in town here and in London. In the meantime the _débris_ of the
old building is being cleared away rapidly, and a new Hope Park will
by-and-by appear on the site of the old one.”

The new Hope Park did not, however, rise from the ashes of the old. The
energy of its originators was indeed unabated. While William Nelson was
contemplating, amid its smoking ruins, the suffering to be entailed on
their hundreds of work-people, his brother was telegraphing to London,
Paris, and other centres of industry, ordering fresh printing-presses
and all other newest machinery to replace what had perished. By the
favour of the city authorities temporary buildings were erected on the
neighbouring Meadows. As the new machinery arrived it was set up under
what was designed for mere temporary shelter at Parkside, on the
outskirts of St. Leonard’s Hill. But speedily the superior advantages of
the new site, and the arrangement of the works over an extended area,
instead of occupying successive floors of a quadrangle, became so
manifest that the Parkside Works were completed, with an effective
architectural façade in the favourite Scottish style of the sixteenth
century. Hope Park was accordingly finally abandoned; but a graceful
memorial of the old works remains. When bidding good-bye to the site,
two beautiful pillars--the one surmounted by the lion and the other by
the unicorn--were erected at the cost of the two brothers, at the
eastern entrance to the Meadows, as their acknowledgment to the city of
the timely favour extended to them in their hour of need.

It was while the prosperous career of the great publishing firm was
arrested by this disastrous event that a more dire calamity extended its
effects far and wide. A leading Edinburgh publisher, writing to me
shortly after the death of William Nelson, remarked: “I need not say to
you what a true, large-hearted man he was. Do you remember when their
printing-house was totally destroyed, and one would have thought his own
immense losses would have frozen his sympathy for other sufferers? Yet
he was one of the earliest subscribers of £1,000 to the victims of the
Glasgow Bank; and so far did his kindly nature long to help them, he
even refused at first to discountenance the project of a state lottery
on their behalf!” Their sufferings had been brought home to him in the
most moving form. A letter found among his papers after his death,
endorsed in touching simplicity, “Poor fellow!” is the plea of an old
schoolmate for failing to appear at a High School anniversary dinner. “I
have to ask you to accept my apology,” he writes, “which you will
readily do when I mention that I am one of the unfortunate victims of
the City of Glasgow Bank; and _to-day_ I have received the liquidator’s
final call for payment on the 22nd inst., which, I fear, will be total
ruin to me.”

William Nelson’s local associations were strong; they attached him with
passionate love to his native city. Its very stones were dear to him.
Every nook and corner of it associated with his own early years, with
school and schoolmates, or with the later incidents of his business
career, retained a hold on his sympathies. “I send you a photograph of
Edinburgh from the Castle,” he writes to an old friend beyond the
Atlantic, “that it may keep you in mind of the dear old city.” Hence the
abrupt close of the Hope Park epoch, and the transfer to the new
quarters at Parkside, awoke feelings wholly apart from those which the
pecuniary loss involved. The sense of strangeness in the new locality is
noticeable in more than one of his private memoranda, as in the
following record of time and place: “This is the first memorandum I have
written in the new room in Parkside. I came to it at a quarter to eleven
o’clock on Friday, July 16, 1880. Dr. and Mrs. Wilson are at present
staying with us.” Curiously, it is not till upwards of two years later
that the memorandum occurs of the kindling of the Parkside hearth, thus:
“Fire lighted in grate in my room here for the first time, November 13,

There Mr. Nelson had to be visited to see how promptly and skilfully he
administered the affairs of the great printing and publishing business
which he had developed into such proportions; and, happily, notes
furnished by an authoress, who did considerable literary work for the
firm in those later years, enable us to catch a glimpse of him in
business hours. “My first visit to his office,” she writes, “was, I
think, in the spring of 1883. Several persons were in attendance,
waiting for orders or interviews. Owing to this circumstance, and my
having formed the impression that Mr. Nelson was a very formidable sort
of a man to approach, I made my proposals in an abrupt and hurried
manner. I was by no means surprised at a hasty, ‘No, no; quite
unnecessary at present,’ and made my retreat at once. But as I was
passing out, he turned from another to whom he had given some
instructions in an equally concise fashion, and rising suddenly from his
chair with some apologetic words, he inquired what I had published, and
then said, ‘I have been wishing to see you.’ After this we had a long,
pleasant chat, and he at once explained to me certain literary work that
he wished me to undertake. This was my introduction to him. I went to
him a stranger, but though my acquaintance with him was only of some
four years’ duration, and was mostly a business acquaintance, I soon
learned to regard him as a friend. The kindness and encouragement he
gave helped me greatly, because it was not the mere kindness of a ‘big’
publisher to a ‘little’ author. He was always business-like in insisting
that the work done should be just as he liked it. There could be no
‘scamping’ work under his keen eyes. But he took infinite trouble in
procuring books of reference and helping my work, and was most generous
in all his dealings. On one occasion, after having undertaken some work,
and having given him much trouble regarding books of reference, I found
the task beyond me, and had to tell him so. I expected a scolding, and
instead received a cheque ‘in payment for what you have done of the
book.’ What I had done was merely to indicate the lines upon which the
book might run. A fortnight before his death he sent me a copy of the
book I ‘was to have written,’ with a very kind note, which I value much.
The publisher’s office is a terrible place to a not-confident
lady-writer. Sometimes I have had to wait while Mr. Nelson was
‘interviewing,’ directing, correcting, and so forth; and my courage has
not been strengthened by the spectacle of faulty work being overhauled
in a most careful manner, and ruthlessly condemned or sharply
criticised. Yet I have always gone out of that office with a light
heart. Some kindly word about my children or my old home, some chat
about the foreign lands he had visited, the gift of a book, a fatherly
caution ‘not to work too much’--these made me feel that Mr. Nelson took
his large heart into the publisher’s office. Would that all publishers
did like him.”

But the critical sharpness, and the abrupt manner of the man of
business, preoccupied with the responsibilities of so large an
establishment with endless claims on its directing head, all disappeared
so soon as he had satisfied himself that his instructions were being
rightly carried out. The new Parkside Works were within easy distance
of Salisbury Green; and the claimants on his ever-ready charity speedily
learned to know the time when he could be waylaid in his walk to or from
the counting-room, and beguiled with a piteous tale. Mr. Gray, for many
years the faithful head of the financial department, thus writes: “To
old servants in the works he opened his purse freely. Women who had been
employed in early days at the Castle Hill were held by him in special
favour, and I have often seen him give them a pound note, sometimes when
it was doubtful if they would make the best use of it. The plea that
they had worked at one time at Hope Park was a frequent claim of
beggars; and many is the silver piece that has been given away to such
folks. One adept at begging came to him, her tatters soaked and leaky
slippers dripping with rain. She told a piteous tale, and pleaded she
was the widow of a machineman in the firm’s employment thirty years
before. The plea was irresistible; but the voluble manner in which the
woman overacted her part aroused his suspicions after he had responded
to her appeal. ‘What sort of a man was your husband?’ asked he. ‘Oh, a
good, a very good man!’ ‘Ay; was he tall or short?--as tall as that
man?’ pointing to a man about six feet high who had just entered. ‘Yes!’
responded the woman, ‘he was a braw, tall man.’ ‘Give me back the
money!’ he exclaimed with unwonted severity of tone, as he recalled the
fact that the old machinist was much below the ordinary stature; and the
impostor was ordered to the door.”

His unstinted liberality in all philanthropic and missionary work was
wholly unaffected by denominational or party limits; and hence he was
liable to be preyed upon by genteel foreigners claiming to be in
temporary pecuniary distress, and still more by clerical impostors. When
he had reason to think he was imposed upon, he would search into the
matter with the utmost keenness; though rather, as it seemed, with a
desire to satisfy himself of the truth, than with any purpose of
stinting his liberality in the future.

One morning, as the family sat at breakfast, a servant came into the
room, and alarmed Mrs. Nelson by whispering to her that there were two
detectives at the door who wished to see her. Her manner must have
betrayed her apprehensions, for one of them laughed and said, “Don’t be
frightened, Mrs. Nelson; we have only come to ask you to use your
influence with your husband, and try to get Mr. Nelson to give up giving
money to respectable-looking beggars. There is a register kept by a man
in the High Street of all the ‘giving people’ in Edinburgh. That is the
first resort of this class of beggars. By paying half-a-crown, they are
allowed to take a note of the names and addresses, and Mr. Nelson’s
stands at the head of the list!” He undertook to look more sharply
after the smooth-tongued gentry in black, though, it is to be feared,
with only partial success. He manifested a sensitive repugnance to
wealthy people whose riches were of no use to any one but themselves;
but he protested, to the amusement of his friends, that he strongly
disapproved of promiscuous charity. He had his own rules of action. A
maimed or deformed person, the blind, the deaf-mute, or any one
incapacitated in the struggle for life, he conceived could never be
wrongly helped. A poor widow, an old employé, or the widow or orphan of
any of his old work-people, had an irresistible claim on his liberality;
and other pleas were readily forthcoming to justify the deed of charity
to his conscience. But he took pains to search out genuine objects of
commiseration; and many of his charities were unknown even to members of
his own family. One Saturday afternoon, when walking home with Mrs.
Nelson, he asked her to wait while he went in to a humble dwelling. When
interrogated as to the object of his visit, it was ascertained that he
had been giving a poor widow money to pay her rent; and on further
inquiry it turned out that he had been paying it regularly for years.
Nor was this a solitary case, as became known when death closed the
liberal hand that had so often made the widow’s heart leap for joy.
Charity was in him a spontaneous impulse of kindly sympathy which,
while exercised not only unobtrusively but with a sensitive shrinking
from recognition, was carried out on too great a scale to escape
observation. The difficulty of his biographer is to select from the
varied instances at his disposal. “I saw him once,” writes a lady, “as
he was walking along Clerk Street, pause at a confectioner’s window,
where a poor little ragged urchin was standing gazing wistfully at the
cakes inside. One kindly hand was laid on the boy’s shoulder; the other
took a silver piece from his pocket. A few words were spoken, and Mr.
Nelson passed on, while the boy darted into the shop; and I had the
pleasure of seeing him come out a moment later already devouring one of
the cookies of which he had become the delighted possessor.” He was
never known to refer to such acts. They were, indeed, of too frequent
occurrence to seem to him worthy of note. The poor and needy had learned
to regard him as their unfailing resort; and if his charity was abused,
he would say in reply to prudent remonstrants that it was better a few
impostors should succeed, than one genuine claim be rejected.

The traders on his benevolence were wont, as already noted, to watch for
him on his way to Parkside; and Mr. Gray notes of such claimants: “Mr.
Nelson would sometimes say to me, ‘The printing trade must be in a
dreadful state,’ for in his walk thither he had been met by
half-a-dozen printers pleading for help. He inquired at times into the
state of the trade, with the view, I suppose, to guide him in his
charities; for it offended his guileless trustfulness in others to find
he had been imposed upon, though it never led to any stint in his
liberality.” Another who had been many years in his service writes: “He
had an almost child-like confidence in some folks; but if his suspicions
were once aroused as to anything wrong, he ferreted out the matter to
the bottom, and in case of any betrayal of trust, he would speak of it
with a keen sense of wrong. But if you responded with any denunciation
of the offender, his manner changed, and he generally found some apology
or some reason for pitying the delinquent. Nor did the fact that a
claimant had wronged him affect his consideration of the case if it
proved to be a necessitous one, especially if he had a wife and
children.” When an action was raised by the contracting engineer who
undertook the repairs of the machinery, against the widow of his
predecessor, to enforce the completion of some work for which her late
husband had been responsible, William Nelson opposed it, declaring that
no good ever came of prosecuting a widow, and he ultimately repaid £130
of law expenses incurred in the suit.

Under the system which such a spirit naturally developed, the relation
between master and servants assumed a very different aspect from that
of the mere hireling. The workers in his employment cordially
sympathized in his success, and took a pride in contributing to the
prosperity of the firm. A gentleman, whose intimate relations with it
for many years made him familiar with its internal economy, thus writes:
“The claims of his own work-people at Hope Park or Parkside were never
disregarded. He had, as the firm still has, a host of pensioners: aged
employés, and the widows and children of former workmen, who were mainly
dependent on his charity for their daily bread. Groups of them, or of
their representatives, still assemble in the entrance hall at Parkside
on the pay-day, by whom his name is revered. They tell their own tale of
satisfaction and gratitude.” The charity which thus began at home did
not end there. The difficulty, indeed, is to select from the examples
communicated to me. One characteristic instance I owe to a
fellow-traveller, who found himself in company with William Nelson in an
Italian town during a festive season. It was a scene of holiday
rejoicings; but it did not escape Mr. Nelson’s notice that while the
mass of the people were enjoying themselves, there were a number of
uncared-for poor whose misery was made the more apparent by the festive
scenes that surrounded them. This so impressed him that he forthwith
made arrangements with a hosteller for the entertainment of the ragged
lazaroni. Another gentleman who passed some weeks with him at one of the
German spas tells this story:--“At the little English church there was a
clergyman stationed, entirely dependent on the freewill offerings of the
ever-changing congregation. There were no resident members to act as
churchwardens or vestrymen; so, after the service, the poor clergyman
himself went round and collected the offertory. This was too much for
Mr. Nelson. He volunteered his services, which were accepted. To the
clergyman’s agreeable surprise, the collection increased amazingly; and
he only learned where the increase came from by a return to the old
scale after Mr. Nelson’s departure.”

It was a curious study to note the guilelessness and child-like
simplicity which William Nelson retained unchanged to the close of his
life, along with rare shrewdness and sagacity as a man of business.
Whenever any transaction assumed a business aspect, however trifling
might be the amount involved, he was prompt, clear-sighted, and acute,
detecting and with quiet firmness resisting any attempt at overreaching
or fraud. On one occasion, when I was his fellow-traveller, a knavish
newsboy to whom he had intrusted a sixpence decamped without returning
the change. This breach of faith provoked a display of indignation so
entirely disproportionate to the value of the loss, as obviously
suggested to our wondering fellow-travellers in the railway carriage
that they witnessed another Shylock bemoaning his lost ducats. They
little knew that the rogue, by the invention of a pitiful tale, might
have transmuted the stolen coppers into gold. This transparent
naturalness of character revealed itself equally in his intercourse with
high and low. Alike at home and abroad he was often brought into
familiar relations with men of rank and distinction, and his engaging
manners and wide culture made him a welcome addition to any company. But
there was no change in his manner towards the nobleman or the skilled
artisan. An old friend notes of him what many will recall:--“Reverence
was part of his nature. However intimate he might be with a friend, he
scarcely ever addressed him, personally or by letter, except by full
name as Mr. or Dr.; and it was the same with his own employés. The Dick
or Tom of his fellows in the workroom was Richard or Thomas, if not
Mr. ----, when spoken to by him.” His circle of friends included men of
the most dissimilar social positions; and his intercourse with some of
his old workmen whose integrity and worth had been proved by long
experience was of the most intimate and confidential nature. No wonder
that he was faithfully served. He practically demonstrated his belief

    “The rank is but the guinea’s stamp;
      The man’s the gowd for a’ that.”

He entertained at his table the publishers, booksellers, and others with
whom he had business relations. Mr. David Douglas thus notes his
recollections of him and of his kindly hospitalities: “He was the one to
whom any of us would have gone in difficulties or doubtful trade
questions, feeling sure that he would not only give sound advice but
kindly sympathy. Many such cases occur to me. He used to gather round
his table annually the various members of the printing and publishing
trades; and I used to admire his true hospitality in making every one,
from the youngest guest to the oldest, as much at home as possible,
gently drawing out their best stories, and exchanging with genial humour
some pleasant talk with all.” In his Saturday visits to the Castle of
Edinburgh in connection with his restorations, referred to in a
subsequent chapter, the most eminent archæologists, artists, and
literary men, along with his choice personal friends, responded to his
welcome invitations. At times the company included such distinguished
additions as Lord Rosebery or Lord Napier and Ettrick, who took a
special interest in the work. But it would never occur to him that any
spirit of social caste could influence such a gathering, and his own
list of friends always included some of his trusted workmen from

A lady whose services as an authoress brought her into frequent contact
with Mr. Nelson, after noting his liberality in all business
transactions with herself, adds a little incident of her personal
experience. His love of dogs has already been noted; but it might have
been assumed that however welcome their companionship might be at
Salisbury Green, the intrusion of stranger dogs into his room at
Parkside in business hours could hardly fail to be resented. Her own
experience, however, is thus narrated: “I had taken my dog with me one
morning; a large brown spaniel, Rover by name. He is not a general
favourite among my friends, being rather boisterous in his greetings, to
say nothing of his muddy paws in wet weather. His place therefore was
generally without, and his intrusion into Mr. Nelson’s room was
undesigned on my part. Contrary, however, to his usual experience, Rover
obtained a most cordial reception. A messenger was sent out for biscuits
for him; and I rarely afterwards received a note from Mr. Nelson asking
me to call which did not end with the invitation, ‘Please bring doggie
when you come.’ It was no wonder therefore that Rover soon learned to
feel himself at home there, and never willingly passed the door when we
walked in the direction of Parkside.” After noting acts of kindness and
liberality to herself, she thus proceeds: “My intercourse with Mr.
Nelson was only that of a business acquaintance, yet I can truly say,
when I saw him carried to his grave that September day, I felt that I
had lost a friend. And this, I am sure, was no rare feeling among those
thus brought into business relations with him. One trait often struck
me--the kindly manner in which he always spoke of his large staff, as
one name or another might come up in conversation. ‘The right man in the
right place,’ he would say, or some other hearty term of appreciation;
and it was evidently no taskmaster who was over them, but rather a sort
of patriarch dwelling among his own people, sure of their loyalty and

Testimonies of a like kind have reached me from very diverse sources,
all pointing to kindly relationships between this true captain of
industry and his employés, such as seem, without exaggeration, to have
realized in these days of mere trading rivalry something akin to the
fealty of knightly service in the olden time. The golden rule of ever
doing the right was carried out with unconscious simplicity. Mr. Gray,
who, as cashier at Hope Park and Parkside, was familiar during many
years with all the financial details of the business, thus sums up his
testimony to the habitual business life of his old master and friend:
“He was eager to avoid anything that could possibly bear the aspect of
sharp practice, or allow the faintest breath of suspicion of unfairness
or shabby dealing; and his generous, large soul won for the place a
reputation of uprightness and honour.”



As a citizen William Nelson was ever ready to forward whatever appeared
calculated to promote the public welfare; and his faith in the Divine
maxim that righteousness exalts the nation knew no limits in its
practical application. He judged his fellow-men, moreover, by his own
high standard of rectitude; and, with his faith in humanity, he was
prepared to favour the largest popular concessions. In politics
accordingly he heartily sympathized with the Liberal party, and frankly
gave expression to his opinions on all the great questions of the day.
His numerous letters to his friends abound in discussions showing the
keenest interest in all the events and movements that engaged public
attention: the scientific discussions and religious controversies; the
triumphs of engineering skill; the fascinating novelties of geographical
exploration; or again, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the great
American Civil War, the Franco-German War, the Eastern question in all
its phases, and the no less momentous issues of party strife at home.
In a letter, for example, of May 13th, 1886, addressed to his
fellow-traveller, Major MacEnery, in which he gives him the latest
information about their poor old dragoman, Abdallah, he thus writes: “I
earnestly hope that there will soon be an end of the turmoil that there
is at present in regard to Old Ireland, by letting her people have Home
Rule to the fullest extent. There can be no harm in this; and we who are
north of the Tweed will be a great deal the better too of having the
management of our own affairs a great deal more in our own hands, as it
is absurd that we should have to apply to Parliament for its sanction
for many things that it knows little or nothing about; and a deal of
money would be saved were applications to Parliament for them not to be
necessary. The bill for the sewage of a district, for instance, in the
south part of our city had to be got through Parliament lately; and what
can that august body know about this odoriferous subject? We are much
more familiar with it ourselves.” His appeal in such questions was apt
to be to common sense; and when practical aid was needed, his purse was
ever available. His sympathy with the working-classes found its most
fitting expression in his dealings with those in his own employment.
When the works at Hope Park were in flames, more than one onlooker
reported overhearing the remark by some of his work-people, that they
were sure he would feel it as much for their sakes as his own. A lady
visiting a poor woman in the neighbourhood of the Hope Park works, whose
husband was ill, was told by her: “He works for Mr. Nelson; and they
dinna let their men suffer when they canna work.” Another told her that
the aged and the crippled or maimed were found employment at the
Parkside Works, “for Mr. Nelson can aye find a job to suit a’ sorts.”
The evils of improvidence and the misery resulting from the drinking
habits that prevailed among the lower classes were constant subjects of
thought. He systematically exerted himself to devise innocent pastimes,
and to stimulate the working-classes to more refined tastes and
intellectual sources of enjoyment. His New-Year’s letters to friends
always included some reference to the midnight gathering around the Tron
Church in the High Street of Edinburgh for the “first-footing,” with its
customary excesses, at the inauguration of the New Year; and every
symptom of improvement was hailed with delight. The movement accordingly
for displacing the taverns by “workmen’s homes” and coffee shops met
with his heartiest encouragement. A Glasgow paper-maker mentioned to a
friend that he had not seen Mr. Nelson for many years, when on the
occasion of a visit to Edinburgh he went into one of the places then
being established under the name of “British Workmen’s Houses” for the
supply of non-intoxicating refreshments. To his surprise he found Mr.
Nelson seated there in company with one of his daughters. On his
expressing some surprise, Mr. Nelson said he had come to see how things
were served; and that really he thought the coffee very good, and
indeed, he said in his hearty way, he thought the milk quite as good as
what they got at home from his own cows. He was not without a hope that
one of the results of his reviving the popularity of St. Bernard’s Well,
hereafter referred to, would be the promotion of the same good end. It
is not therefore to be wondered that Mr. Nelson’s services were sought
for in public life, and his fellow-citizens repeatedly manifested the
high esteem they entertained for him by urging his acceptance both of
civic and parliamentary honours. But few men ever shrank more
sensitively from publicity, and only when the importance of the question
under discussion overpowered his natural reserve could he be induced to
take any part in a public meeting. Such, however, was the high sense of
his services as a citizen that he was selected by her Majesty for the
honourable distinction of Deputy-Lieutenant of the County of Edinburgh.

But his appreciation of the antique beauty and historical associations
of his native city overcame all his retiring dread of publicity whenever
they were endangered; and the same regard for the amenities of civic
architecture, and the dread of the destruction of whatever is associated
with the memorable events of bygone times, repeatedly find expression in
his critical notes from abroad. In 1873 he writes to Mr. Campbell from
Vienna, describing a two months’ Continental tour, in which he was
accompanied by Mrs. Nelson and his daughters Eveline and Meta. He passed
from Paris and Geneva to Italy; spent some time in Florence and Venice;
travelled as far as Naples; and then returned to Rome. “I need not say,”
he writes, “that Rome, which is really the capital of the world for art
and archæological interest, detained us much longer than any of the
other places. I was there twenty-three years ago, and though great works
are now in progress, I may say that there has been as yet no very great
change since that time. The city, however, is now under Italian
government, and in a few years Rome will be completely altered. There
are large buildings in course of erection near the railway station,
which are understood to be the commencement of an entire new city in
that quarter; and in many of the streets throughout the city are marks
on the houses, indicating that they are either to be wholly or partially
demolished for improvements, or for the widening of the streets. But I
must say that from what I have seen of the new buildings recently
erected in Rome the architecture is of about as poverty-stricken a kind
as can well be imagined. They are constructed of brick, which is
plastered over, and the plaster gets a coating of size of a pink hue
very much like that of blot-sheet; and the effect is anything but
cheering. The windows have nothing round them but plain mouldings, and
these are painted gray. There is not the slightest attempt at
architectural ornament externally in any of the new buildings that I
happened to see. If this sort of thing goes on to any great extent, the
fine mediæval feeling that there is about Rome as it now exists will be
in a great measure done away with, and it will present in many parts a
smooth-shaven and very unattractive appearance. The main things notable
in the way of change, besides the new buildings to which I have
referred, since I was in Rome formerly, are the excavations in the Forum
and the Palace of the Cæsars, the Baths of Caracalla, and the changes
caused by the occupation of the city by the Italian troops, and the
disappearance from the streets of the religious processions, which are
not now permitted. We hurried on to Rome in order to be there at Easter
week, expecting to see something of the religious ceremonials for which
that week has been famous for ages; but though we were in Rome the
greater part of it, we found it nothing more than an ordinary week, as
far as religious ceremonials are concerned. The Pope and his council
are in the sulks, and as processions in the streets are not allowed,
they have taken care that the curiosity of strangers shall not be
gratified by any great ceremonial in the churches. It would interest you
much to see the ruins of the Palace of the Cæsars, now that they have
been cleared out, especially that part of them which is known to have
been the court house. The wall all round still exists to some extent, as
do also portions of the mosaic floor, and the place where the emperor or
the judge sat is still to be seen. There is in front of it a portion of
the marble balustrade that extended across this part of the court; and
Dr. Philip, missionary to the Jews in Rome, who acted as guide to us in
our wanderings through these immense ruins, said there can hardly be a
doubt that Paul stood before that very balustrade and pleaded his cause
before Nero as his judge. The guard-rooms of the soldiers of what is
called the Palace of Tiberius are quite entire, and on the walls of them
are several very interesting scratchings made by the occupants of those
rooms in ancient days. One is of a Roman galley in full sail; another is
an outline portrait said to be of Augustus Cæsar; another is a
caricature likeness of Nero; and another a very clever comical figure of
a fellow with a tremendously long nose. What a living reality they seem
to give to those old times! In a room at a little distance there is a
remarkably clever scratching of a donkey with a mill on its back, with
the words below: ‘If you labour as I do, you shall not want bread.’ How
little things of this kind carry us back to the far bygone past!”

In like manner, in a letter to Dr. Simpson, he thus records the
impression which his visit to St. Petersburg in 1884 left on his mind:
“We were very much disappointed with St. Petersburg, as it occupies a
site that is very flat and very unhealthy; and it is a city of pure
sham, so far as the architecture of it is concerned. The principal
buildings, as a rule, are of plaster or cement, and are painted in a
style that is perfectly barbaric. Even the celebrated Winter Palace is
not an exception. It is of Roman architecture; and it is besmeared with
paint of a yellowish-brown colour which is sufficient to make one
shudder. The building, moreover, is of great extent, and it is all the
more repulsive on this account.”

But if the disfigurement of the modern city of Peter the Great on the
Neva, or the effacement of the historic antiquities of Rome, offended
his taste, and gave rise to unavailing regrets, every movement of a like
kind affecting his native city roused him not only to vehement protest,
but to vigorous action to avert as far as possible the threatened
mischief. Under such stimulus, all reserve disappeared, and he stood
forth as the resolute defender of his city and its historical
memorials. His letters to old schoolmates, whose lot had been cast far
from those favourite haunts of early years, are frequently devoted to a
notice of the rescue of some threatened antique building, or a wail over
the irrevocable destruction of some historic pile in the alleys or
closes of Old Edinburgh.

The old Bowhead land had an interest of its own, apart from its singular
picturesqueness as an example of the civic architecture of older
centuries. When its demolition could no longer be averted, he rescued
from the wreck some of its substantial oak timbers, and had them
fashioned into antique furniture as memorial gifts to absent friends. In
1883, another of the venerable survivals of older generations,
immediately adjoining the former Castle Hill establishment, was
demolished; and he thus records the event in a letter to myself:--“I
sent you a _Scotsman_, with an account of the demolition of one of the
old houses that you will remember on the Castle Hill. It stood in front
of Milne’s Court, looking down the West Bow, and presented a very
picturesque front, both to the street and to the court behind. Two
stone-vaulted shops faced the street, standing some feet back from the
pavement. It was thought that the main walls of the house went straight
up all the way, and that the timber front, projecting story by story
farther into the street, was an addition of later date; but this was a
mistake, for the original beams extended right over the pavement. The
likelihood is that there was an open veranda on each flat, though it had
been closed in with lath and plaster in course of time. On the second
flat, when the plaster was removed, it was interesting to see a
neatly-carved oaken balustrade, that had been covered up probably for
centuries, where one could fancy the good folks of the house sitting in
their balcony enjoying the fresh air and having their gossip on the
great events of the day. They could look down the Lawnmarket and the
West Bow and up the Castle Hill; and it must have been a choice place on
great occasions, when a royal cavalcade came up the Bow, or when some
poor rogue went down it for the last time.” (In allusion to the old site
of the gallows in the Grassmarket.) “I see, on turning to your
‘Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time,’ that it belonged to a worthy
old citizen, Bartholomew Somerville, a liberal benefactor to our
University in its early days.”

The sympathetic interest thus manifested in every ancient feature of the
special haunts of his boyhood extended to whatever contributed to the
picturesqueness and beauty of his native city. One who was very familiar
with his indefatigable exertions for the conservation of whatever
pertained to its historical antiquities--Mr. D. Scott Moncrieff--thus
writes in reply to a request for information relative to the share
borne by Mr. Nelson in recent efforts on that behalf:--“It is no easy
matter to do this, for Mr. Nelson for many years took an active interest
in every movement having for its object the enhancement of the beauties
of his native city. As you are aware, he was long a member, and latterly
one of the council, of the Cockburn Association, founded in 1875, for
promoting the improvement of Edinburgh and its neighbourhood; and as
convener of the council I had frequent opportunities of hearing his
views upon such questions. His interest was much engaged, in particular,
in the improvement of Edinburgh Castle, the Meadows, and other public
parks, the encouragement of a higher style of architecture, and the
frustration of mean and tasteless designs, vulgar advertisements, and
the depraved habit of painting stone work. He strove to obviate the
necessity for unsightly workshops and tall chimneys, for which in his
own extensive works there was found no place.” But he soon discovered
that mere criticising, remonstrating, and suggesting improvements were
of little avail; and as Mr. Scott Moncrieff adds: “His interest in the
work of the Association was not confined to attending meetings and
expressing his views. Every citizen of Edinburgh may well feel proud and
grateful that amongst them there was one gifted, not only with an
exquisite taste for all that was beautiful, but with an enthusiasm in
having his aspirations given expression to, and also with the means of
carrying his ideas into effect.” One of those practical demonstrations
of his public-spirited liberality has a history of its own.

The circular panel of the finely-carved mantle-piece in the council room
of Heriot’s Hospital is filled with a painting which perpetuates the
tradition that the medicinal spring of St. Bernard’s Well, on the Water
of Leith--resembling in character the famed Harrogate springs--was
discovered by a party of Heriot boys while sporting on the bank of the
stream. A more dubious legendary tale assigns the origin of the name to
the occupation of a cave on the neighbouring slope by the saint still
associated with its healing waters; but its medicinal virtues are noted
for the first time in the _Scottish Magazine_ for 1760, at which date
the water seems to have been in great repute. The old Scottish judge,
Lord Gardenstone, an eccentric valetudinarian, having derived much
benefit from the medicinal waters, in 1789 erected over the healing
fountain a fine Doric temple, designed as a reproduction of the famous
Sibyl’s Temple at Tivoli. A colossal plaster statue of Hygeia was placed
within the columns, over the vaulted chamber of the well. Thus
enshrined, it has ever since been a favourite morning resort; and
William Nelson continued for many years to be one of its most faithful
frequenters. But the picturesque and richly-wooded valley of the Leith,
to which the Heriot boys resorted in the eighteenth century, has long
been invaded by the extended new town. The temple had fallen into
disrepair, and the boys of the neighbouring village of Stockbridge had
defaced and mutilated the statue, till it presented some of the most
familiar characteristics of a genuine antique. The amenities of the spot
had suffered in all ways, and the proposed erection of a public laundry
on the adjacent area threatened the final ruin of the well, when in 1885
Mr. Nelson interposed, purchased it and the grounds in its vicinity,
restored and beautified the well, and commissioned Mr. Stephenson to
execute a marble statue of Hygeia, to replace the mutilated goddess of
earlier days. The surrounding grounds were tastefully laid out, under
the directions of a skilled landscape gardener, and the whole finished
at a cost of £5,000, and presented to the city. He did not live to see
the fine statue placed on its pedestal; but his letters to his friends
frequently refer to it, along with others of the various works of
restoration which so largely occupied his thoughts and engaged his
active sympathy in his later years. Writing to Captain Chester in
January 1886 he says: “I send you the last report of the Cockburn
Association, from which you will see that I have in hand the restoration
of several ancient buildings in the Castle, and of the mineral well on
the Water of Leith called St. Bernard’s Well, a chromo-lithograph of
which I enclose. I am glad that it has fallen to my lot to do something
ere I be ‘called hence to be no more,’ for the beauty and interest of
mine own romantic town.”

The shrine of his favourite healing fountain had been restored to far
more than its pristine beauty, and the generous benefactor to whom the
work was due had himself been “called hence,” when the convener of the
Cockburn Association wrote: “What Mr. William Nelson undertook he did
well and thoroughly; and so long as Edinburgh citizens look down upon
the valley of the Water of Leith, his work at St. Bernard’s Well will
keep his memory green in their hearts.”

But, as his letters show, other and still more extensive and costly
restorations engaged William Nelson’s practical liberality, and
continued to be objects of deepest interest to him till the close of his
life. So early as 1847, attention had been recalled, in the “Memorials
of Edinburgh in the Olden Time,” to the fact that the ancient hall of
the palace in the Castle still existed, though so defaced and overlaid
by later transmutations as to have passed out of knowledge of the living
generation. But the matter was once more forgotten till near the close
of 1883, when Lord Napier and Ettrick published in the _Scotsman_ an
account of his explorations above the modern ceiling of the hospital
ward, where, “on creeping up a ladder, through a trap-door, he found
himself in a maze of mighty beams, on which the dust of centuries lay
thick and soft.” It was the fine old open timbered ceiling, of carved
chestnut, of the great hall of the Castle. Public attention was now
keenly awakened to the interest of this historic relic. Here was the
_aula Castri_, or great hall of the Castle, where there is little doubt
the Scottish Parliament assembled in 1437 to inaugurate the reign of the
young king, James II. Here, too, if the legend is to be accepted as a
verity, only two years later Chancellor Crichton had the fatal symbol of
the bull’s head served up for the Earl of Douglas. It was here that
Charles I. held his coronation banquet in 1633, and that Argyle
entertained the Lord Protector Cromwell in 1650. Of the historic worth
of the ancient hall there could be no question; and not only its
degradation to the purposes of a garrison hospital, but the general
neglect and disfigurement of the Castle, had long been a subject of
public complaint.

The council of the Cockburn Association followed up the letter of Lord
Napier with a memorial to the Marquis of Hartington, then Secretary of
State for War, complaining of the misappropriation and defacement of the
ancient hall, and urging its restoration. But the wonted formalities and
circumlocution of official correspondence ensued, with little prospect
of any satisfactory result, “when,” as Mr. Scott Moncrieff writes, “we
were still hoping that the building might be rendered available for uses
more in harmony with its history and associations; and while the matter
was still under the consideration of the authorities, Mr. Nelson,
knowing the well-nigh insurmountable obstacles in the way of Government
dealing effectively, timeously, and reasonably, in affairs of the kind,
in the most generous and patriotic way offered at his sole expense to
undertake the restoration, not only of the old Parliament Hall, but also
of two other most interesting and picturesque features of the Castle,
the Argyle Tower and St. Margaret’s Chapel.”

The little oratory of St. Margaret had been a subject of interest to him
from the time when it was anew brought under notice, in 1845, as a
long-forgotten historical relic; and as for the Argyle Tower, it was
associated in his mind with the reverence due to the martyrs of the
Covenant. The fine old Edinburgh cemetery, the Greyfriars’ Churchyard,
was only separated from the West Bow by the Grassmarket, where in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the public gallows was erected, for
the execution not only of degraded criminals, but of many of the victims
of intolerance in Covenanting times, to whom a common grave was assigned
in the neighbouring cemetery. There, accordingly, in happier days the
Martyrs’ Monument was erected, with its tribute to the memory of “about
a hundred noblemen and gentlemen, ministers, and others, noble martyrs
for Jesus Christ,” all executed at Edinburgh, “from May 27th, 1661, that
the most noble Marquis of Argyle was beheaded, to the 17th February
1688, that Mr. James Renwick suffered.” It was but a step from the early
home in the West Bow to the Greyfriars’ Churchyard, where the Martyrs’
Monument had been an object of veneration to William Nelson from his
youth. The same spirit of reverent piety which led to the erection of
the Martyrs’ Monument on the spot selected, as a mark of ignominy, for
the graves of the victims of Stuart persecution, associates the name of
Argyle with the tower in the neighbouring fortress in which Archibald,
Earl of Argyle, was imprisoned before his execution in 1685. He had gone
up to London to pay his homage to Charles II., relying on the indemnity
which had been granted, as far as England was concerned. But Scotland
was still a separate kingdom; and as a prominent leader of the Scottish
Covenanters, Argyle was regarded with special antipathy. He was
accordingly arrested, cast into the Tower, and from thence transferred
to the state prison in the Castle of Edinburgh. It was from that prison
chamber that the earl addressed to his friends letters marked by a rare
spirit of calm Christian resignation, including the simple farewell note
to his own son, written immediately before his execution. Of the latter
William Nelson had a facsimile made. Still more, according to current
belief, it was in the same prison chamber that a member of the council,
on coming to interview him, was startled at finding the victim of
intolerance calmly asleep immediately before he walked with quiet
composure to the scaffold. The scene associated with such memorable
occurrences appealed to William Nelson’s religious no less than to his
archæological sympathies; so that the restoration of the Argyle Tower
was for him, in a very special sense, a labour of love.

The work thus generously undertaken proceeded slowly, amid endless
official routine and red-tape formalities. Plans were prepared and
submitted to the critical revision of his colleagues in the council of
the Cockburn Association before asking official approval. But hospital
accommodation had to be found elsewhere; and the patience he manifested,
and the calm perseverance with which he overcame the _vis inertiæ_ of
the Circumlocution Office, were a source of admiration to his friends
and of amusement to himself. His unostentatious liberality, along with
the taste and judgment he displayed, naturally gave weight to his
opinions; and, notwithstanding his instinctive reserve, he was induced
on more than one occasion to remonstrate with the authorities on plans
that had received official approval. In 1887 the sketch of a tasteless
design for a new entrance gateway, to form the main approach to the
Castle, had been exhibited without attracting public attention. The
working plans had been withheld; and it was about to be proceeded with,
on the plea, stated in an official letter, that “every reasonable
facility had been afforded for criticism.” A respectful letter of
remonstrance was forwarded by him to the Marquis of Lothian. Its style
of formal courtesy would suggest that it had been drawn up more probably
by some legal member of the council of the Cockburn Association, and
sent to him for signature. But having done so, his own simple and
plain-spoken style is unmistakably manifest in the postscript he has
added: “The proposed designs, I can assure you, will give great
dissatisfaction. They are not at all in keeping with the grand old



The recreations of each summer’s holiday alternated between foreign
travel through unfamiliar scenes, and a sojourn in some choice centre of
Scottish scenery and historical associations. But it was indispensable
for William Nelson’s full enjoyment of either that it should be shared
with Mrs. Nelson and his children. Indeed, the hints that occasionally
transpire in his letters, of the pleasure with which he exchanged their
summer resort for Salisbury Green and Parkside, show that he had been
thinking far more of their happiness than his own. He liked his children
to travel, and while they were still young repeatedly sent them abroad,
either with a tutor and governess, or under the care of some trusted
friend. He had a strong prejudice against Continental boarding-schools,
and instead of sending his daughters to one, he preferred arranging for
their spending successive winters abroad in charge of a friend, where
they had the advantage of masters who came daily to them. The same
feeling animated him in later years, alike in his plans for foreign
travel, and in the choice of a summer haunt among favourite Scottish

Of the latter, pleasant memories come back to me of many a ramble by the
Tweed and its tributaries the Ettrick, the Leader, the Yarrow, and other
haunted streams; and by St. Mary’s Loch, which has wooed alike the poets
of elder and of modern times. A mere residence in the country, however
attractive the scenery might be, speedily proved irksome to William
Nelson. His active mind required constant occupation; and the physical
impediments which increasing obesity, accompanied by a retarded action
of the heart, interposed in the way of long pedestrian excursions, only
led to a change in the methods of attaining the same end. He was ever on
the look-out for some fresh and unfamiliar scene. In the summer of 1879
he made his way to St. Kilda, a curious little, outlying, ocean-girt
rock of the Hebrides, the only one of a lonely group that is inhabited--

    “Nature’s last limit, hemmed with ocean round.”

Its population numbered in all seventy-five, a decrease from the
previous year; for, as one of them said, “they had lost a foine woman,
the only one who coot speak Enklish.” The rude little hamlet, with its
primitive stone dwellings, each of two apartments, attracted Mr.
Nelson’s curious study; and beyond it a no less primitive bit of
masonry incovered the Tober Childa Chalda, or St. Kilda’s Well, by the
village. But this visit to St. Kilda is noticeable here for an incident
associated with one of William Nelson’s peculiarities that bordered on
eccentricity. Though a business man of punctual habits, and exacting
habitual punctuality in others, he never carried a watch, and indeed, I
believe, never possessed one. He had some inexplicable way of guessing
the time, and could tell it generally with wonderful approach to
accuracy. He never missed a train, or failed to keep an appointment, and
could not see what people wanted with watches. He said he did perfectly
well without one. But this St. Kilda trip furnished an occasion when,
for once, he deplored the want of a timepiece. Immediately on landing on
the island the party were met by the minister, who eagerly inquired if
any of them had a watch, to tell him what o’clock it was. It turned out,
on inquiry, that the minister’s watch, which was the only one on the
island, had been sent away for repair six months before; and if William
Nelson had been the fortunate possessor of one, here was an opportunity
for its useful disposal.

The following summer was passed at Philiphaugh, rich in memories of
Montrose and Leslie; of Alison Rutherford, the songstress; of Scott,
sheriff, as well as poet and novelist; of Hogg, Wordsworth, and all the
legends of the Dowie Dens of Yarrow. The river famed in song and story
flowed by near the house, with “the Duchess’s Walk,” a charming wooded
path on the opposite bank of the river, leading through the grounds of
Bowhill to Newark Castle. Kirkhope Tower, Branksome Hall, Melrose Abbey,
and many another hoary pile, were within reach. William Nelson’s memory
was stored with passages from his favourite poets; and as the
associations of the scene called them to remembrance, he would repeat
long pieces suggested by the locality or adapted to it. It is the centre
of old traditions of the Flodden men; and many a spot along the Tweed
and its tributaries tempted us each new day to wander through scenes
that told everywhere of the Last Minstrel and his Lay. In a letter to
Mr. Campbell he says: “I write this at Philiphaugh, a mansion that we
have taken for summer quarters. It is about two miles from Selkirk, the
scene of the defeat of the Marquis of Montrose. The estate is still
owned by the Murrays of Philiphaugh, the same family who have held it
since the old times of the Border raids and the Debatable Land. A cairn
near the house, now overgrown with ivy, is said to mark the spot where
the Highlanders were surprised by Leslie, and the Marquis turned and
fled. A stone on the cairn is inscribed, ‘To the memory of the
Covenanters who fought and fell on the field of Philiphaugh, and won the
battle there, A.D. September 13, 1645.’ The grounds and woods are
extensive and fine; and there is good fishing for Fred, as the Yarrow
and the Ettrick are close at hand; and there will be good shooting for
him when the time comes.... We had Dr. and Mrs. Wilson and their
daughter with us lately. We enjoyed their visit much; and oh! how fond
Dr. Wilson is of Auld Reekie and its associations, though, alas, there
is but little left now of the ancient city.”

Again, in the summer of 1883 came a concise message by ocean cable,
followed by the ampler invitation: “I have taken Cowdenknowes for the
summer. Come and let us have a look at its surroundings; do not fail.
Cowdenknowes, I may tell you, is an old mansion, historically
interesting, which is situated in one of the most lovely districts in
the south of Scotland. It is about five miles from Melrose; and the
remains of the castle of Thomas the Rhymer, which consist of very
picturesque ivy-covered walls, are on the property. The Leader passes
through the grounds, and it is an excellent trouting-stream. It has
already been laid under contribution in this way by Professor Annandale
and Fred, whenever the water was in a good state for the rod.” Here, as
at Philiphaugh, some fresh ramble was planned each morning; while the
evenings were beguiled with pleasant converse, and apt quotations
germane to the scenes of that land of romance. The ruined castle of
Thomas of Ercildoun has already been noted as close by. In a
neighbouring valley was Oakwood Tower, of old the dwelling of the
wondrous Michael Scott,--

    “A wizard of such dreaded fame,
       That when in Salamanca’s cave
       Him listed his magic wand to wave,
     The bells would ring in Notre Dame.”

The Eildon Hills, the tokens of his power, and Melrose, where his bones
were laid “on St. Michael’s night,” are only a few miles off. The
picturesque ruin of Smailholme Tower, where the later minstrel spent the
happiest days of his childhood, was within reach; Abbotsford, the Fairy
Dean, and the Rhymer’s Glen, Dryburgh, and the vale of Tweed, haunted at
every winding with some old tale or song, all wooed us by turns. So each
day had its excursion, its legend of some sort to investigate, its ruin
to explore. It was with William Nelson on the Tweed as on the Nile: he
was indefatigable in the pursuit of information concerning every
minutest object of interest, and never was satisfied till he had seen
for himself, and questioned and sifted all available evidence. The
memories of many a pleasant day, with the incidents of kindly
intercourse and genial humour that added fresh sunshine to the scene,
would furnish material enough to add many a chapter over which old
friends would not readily tire. But such reminiscences can only be
glanced at here. I select, therefore, from among those home holidays
the latest of all: a summer at Glenfeochan.

Glenfeochan is a romantic glen of the West Highlands, through which the
Feochan finds its way to the sea. Oban is only six miles off, and so
steamers and boats and all the attractions of the sea are at hand, such
as ever had a fascination for William Nelson. For he guessed, as has
been seen, that could the pedigree of the Nelsons of Throsk be followed
up, they might prove to be of the stock of old Danish rovers, the sons
of Thor, whose home was on the sea; and so he welcomed the hint at an
etymology of the Bannockburn farm from the Thor of the Vikings.
Unquestionably he possessed not a little of their steady hardihood and
love of adventure, softened though it was by transmission through a
sober race of Covenanters, who tilled the carse where Bruce had
triumphed, and, when needs were, could emulate him in sturdy resistance
to the tyrant.

Glenfeochan House is beautifully situated at the foot of the glen. It
lies low--perhaps a little too low--nestling among the hills, with glens
and lochs on every hand. The drawing-room windows looked across the
river to the sea; and when the curtains were drawn, and a fire was found
not unpleasant in the cool autumn evenings, the emotional delight with
which William Nelson welcomed the songs of Scotland, or some of his
favourite hymns, was infectious. His taste in music was simple, but it
yielded him intense pleasure, and not infrequently moved him to tears.
But such evening relaxations were generally the close of a busy day; for
Oban is a choice centre for the explorer. It afforded means of access to
the fiords or sea-lochs of Argyleshire, and to the outlying Hebrides.
There were Iona and Staffa, Glencoe and Mull, with the ruined keep of
Duart Castle, the Lady Rock, and the legend of “Fair Ellen of Lorne,”
which is perpetuated in Campbell’s ballad of “Glenara.” There was the
vitrified fort of Dun MacUisneachan at Loch Etive to explore; and on the
opposite side of the loch, Dunstaffnage, the home of the Dalriadic
kings, where of old was held in safe keeping the _liah fhail_, or stone
of destiny, now enshrined in the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey.
The unique cairn or serpent-mound of Loch Nell, another object of
special curiosity, was visited more than once, in the hope of arriving
at some definite idea of its actual character. For the fact of a huge
saurian mound, like some of those in the valley of the Ohio, lying there
in a secluded nook between the hills of Lorne that form the steep
escarpment of Glenfeochan, was a thing too exceptional for William
Nelson to allow to pass without some attempt at a solution of its

But the choicest of that summer’s explorations was a day on Eilean
Naombh, or Holy Island. Our Highland boatmen called it Oil Tsiach n’an
Naombh (the College of the Holy People), if we understood rightly; for
we had a good deal more Gaelic than tended to our illumination. Our
party was pleasantly augmented by the addition of the Rev. Dr. Walter
Smith; and William Nelson’s sense of humour was keenly excited by his
report of a dialogue between two of the Highlanders, who, happily for
us, spoke in English. “James,” said the younger of the two, “I have been
told that when the deceiver tempted our mother Eve, it was in Gaelic
that he spoke.”--“Well, Donald, I should think it not at all improbable.
The Gaelic is a very sweet and persuasive language, particularly when
well spoken!” The idea that the Devil’s Gaelic must necessarily be of
the best, was a subject of much mirthful comment. Holy Island, the
southernmost of the Garvelloch Isles, lies opposite Scarba, with the
famous whirlpool of Corryvrechan between. The landing is in a deep cove,
where the first object of attraction is St. Columba’s Well, a clear
fountain of fresh water bubbling out of the living rock on the margin of
the sea. A flight of steps leads up from the sacred pool; and on a level
area a short way above stands the chapel of St. Columba, a little ruined
cell of only twenty-one feet long. It is of the most primitive Celtic
type. A narrow, square-headed opening in the east end, deeply splayed
externally, constitutes the east window; under which is the simple
altar-slab of slate, still entire. On a neighbouring height a rude
enclosure, marked by an upright stone with an incised cross, is
traditionally known as the grave of St. Eithne, the mother of St.
Columba. But the special objects we were in search of were a pair of
bee-hive houses, which we found not far from the chapel. They are built
of unhewed slabs, without cement, conjoined like a figure ∞, rude as any
Hottentot kraal, and old, probably, as the days of the sainted
missionary’s first sojourn among the pagan Celts. The little island is
uninhabited, and out of the reach of ordinary tourists, so that time and
weather are the only injurers of its curious relics. The day at Holy
Island was one of rare enjoyment to all, but especially to William
Nelson, whose intelligent inquisitiveness and love of adventure were
equally gratified.

Within more easy reach of Glenfeochan, in a sequestered nook among the
hills, lies the ancient cemetery of Kilbride, with its ruined church,
its holy well, and moss-grown sepulchral memorials. Here, among others
of note in the district, lie the Macdougals of Lorne, whose castle of
Dunolly stands at the mouth of Oban Bay, with their more modern mansion
near by, where is still preserved the famous Brooch of Lorne. But here,
above all, lies prostrate, in three detached pieces, a singularly
beautiful sculptured cross, with a figure of the crucifixion, and the
traces that show where a crown of bronze, or other more precious metal,
surrounded the Saviour’s head. Its inscription was conned and puzzled
over in repeated visits. Rubbings were taken of it, and the legend at
length deciphered, showing that it was erected in 1616 by the lord of
the neighbouring manor, Alexander Campbell of Laeraig.

The Cross of Kilbride had at this time an unwonted interest, for William
Nelson was already enlisted in the project of erecting at Kinghorn a
memorial cross to Alexander III., the last of the Celtic kings, in the
successful accomplishment of which, as will be seen hereafter, he took
an active part. But, meanwhile, some of the Glenfeochan experiences of a
more special character are worth noting. A letter that followed me to
Canada, written in the middle of October, supplies the details. “Our
stay at Glenfeochan,” he writes, “is fast drawing to a close, Fred only
remaining behind till the end of the week, unless great success with his
rod should tempt him to stay longer. The sight of Loch Nell on Friday
last made his teeth water, as salmon were leaping in it at the north end
in great numbers; he is sure he saw at least forty of them so engaged.
He was not rewarded, however, with even a rise from any of them, and he
had to be contented with bringing home nothing but a single sea-trout,
which, however, was a very respectable one as to size, and in splendid
condition.... There was very nearly being a terrible tragedy here, the
story of which is this. We had staying with us a son of Mr. Keeley
Halswell, the artist, a boy of eleven years of age. He made friends with
the son of the gardener, a boy about eight; and the two went one day to
the loft over the stable to catch mice, they being accompanied by
Bertram’s little dog, Gip. There is in the loft a large chest for
holding grain for the horses, but it was empty at the time; and what did
the two little fellows do? They lifted up the lid and got into the
chest, in order that they might not be seen by the mice; and down came
the lid, the catch took hold, and they were imprisoned like poor Ginevra
of Rogers’s ‘Italy,’--

    ‘When a spring-lock that lay in ambush there
     Fastened them down,’

but happily not for ever. They made what noise they could, and Bertram
heard this; but he thought it was just the boys amusing themselves, and
so he paid no attention to it. Thus it went on, and the poor little
fellows so suffered from want of fresh air that they could not speak to
each other, and were getting very faint. Young Halswell had a dreadful
headache; when at what would have been in all likelihood their last
effort, they tried the lid of the chest, and found to their surprise
that it opened, and they were free, after a confinement that must have
lasted about three hours. For their release they were indebted to the
little dog Gip. After the lid came down they heard the little creature
running round the chest and leaping on it in a state of great
excitement, as if conscious that there was something wrong. His leaps
were continued for a long time; and they are sure that in one of them he
must have pushed his nose at the hasp of the lid and opened it, and
hence their release. Well done, Gip! Nothing could have been more
extraordinary or more unexpected than this.” In the same letter he
refers to a robbery that had just taken place at Parkside, by which
about £250 had been carried off out of the safe. The police seemed to
think that the robbery might have been committed by some one in the
works. It was amusingly characteristic of the writer to find him in a
subsequent letter seemingly deriving much satisfaction from the fact
that the rogue had not been convicted!

His recreations, as already stated, alternated between such pleasant
rambles among the beauties of nature and objects of historic and
archæological interest in his own country as have been glanced at here,
and a journey through novel scenes in foreign lands. The previous summer
had been devoted to the tour in the Baltic and Russia, which has
furnished some brief notes for a previous chapter. Writing to his
friend, Major MacEnery, soon after his return, Mr. Nelson thus
indicated the plans he was already maturing for another season: “We
went over a good many thousand miles in our late journeyings. The only
breakdown was that of Florence, at Moscow, which came in the way to
prevent our all going to the Volga, and seeing some of the strange
sights that are to be witnessed there, especially at the great fair of
Nijni-Novgorod. So we had to leave our visit to that part of the world
till another opportunity; and when I go next to Moscow, which I hope
will be in the course of next summer or autumn, if all’s well, I will
not be satisfied unless I go down the Volga to Astrakhan, at the extreme
north of the Caspian Sea, and sail down that sea to Baku, where the
celebrated oil wells are, and take the railway then across to Batoum on
the Black Sea, and go thence to the Crimea, and so find my way home by
Greece and Vienna: and this will be a glorious journey.”

With such visions of future journeyings in strange lands the year 1884
had drawn to a close. The “breakdown at Moscow,” referred to above,
though it so far balked the plans of the travellers, does not appear to
have materially lessened the pleasure of their trip. In a letter of Mr.
Simon Fraser MacLeod, I find allusions only to “our visit to this
delightful and picturesque old city of Moscow.” The view of it from the
Kremlin surpassed in its novel and singularly picturesque aspect
anything ever seen by them before. They saw also a no less novel
illustration of sacred art, thus described by the same young traveller:
“The Church of the Assumption is a golden pile assuredly; and besides
the head of a nail from the true cross, and a portion of the Virgin’s
mantle, it contains a sacred painting by St. Luke, the beloved
physician. He may have excelled in his latter profession; but prepared
as we were to find any merits in his painting of the holy mother, we
could not discover even the lines of a face or any pretence of a
likeness possible through the rawness of the colours used by the
evangelist in those early and primitive days of art. Mr. Nelson, by the
aid of a candle dimly burning, thought at one time he had discovered
something resembling a beautiful face; but on my suggesting that it was
but the reflection of his own expressive features that he saw, we came
to the conclusion that such was the actual state of the matter.” All was
novel, interesting, and delightful; for the tour was to prove for two
bright young members of the party the prelude to their joining hand in
hand to enter together on the journey of life. They shared in the
Glenfeochan holiday of the following summer, where their own final
arrangements were settled, to the satisfaction of all; and so with
pleasant memories and brightest hopes the family gathered once more
round the cheerful hearth of Salisbury Green.



The route from Oban to Edinburgh passes through some of the most
beautiful and romantic scenes of Scottish landscape: by the Pass of
Brander, Loch Awe, St. Fillans, and Doune Castle, to Stirling; and then
by Bannockburn, the Strath of Falkirk, and the old Nelson homestead of
Throsk, to “the gray metropolis of the north.” After a few days or weeks
of zealous exploration around Glenfeochan, or off to neighbouring
islands and more distant glens, in the fashion already described, a run
into Edinburgh was a welcome change. There William Nelson was equally at
home when making a pleasure of business or a business of his most
favourite pleasures.

The city, built on the picturesque heights surrounding the Castle Rock,
embosomed among hills, and looking out on the sea, has a singular
fascination for its citizens; and with William Nelson it was a passion,
like that of the old Hebrew for Jerusalem, or the Athenian for the City
of the Violet Crown. The Cockburn Association, which has already been
referred to, takes its name from Lord Cockburn, the friend of Scott, of
Brougham, and Jeffrey; the enthusiastic advocate of whatever tended to
protect the historical remains and to preserve the beauty of their
native city; and the mantle of the genial old judge seemed to have been
bequeathed to William Nelson, with a double portion of his spirit. As an
active member of the council of the association, his zeal in protesting
against every piece of tasteless vandalism was unremitting. But his
enthusiasm would not allow him to be content with mere wishes or
denouncements. He had the means as well as the will, and when civic
officials and Government functionaries dallied and disputed over needful
reforms, he took them in hand himself, on a scale of liberality all the
more admirable from the genuine modesty which repelled all public
recognition. And yet evidence survives to show how far his aims exceeded
even his own comprehensive liberality.

With the fancy that begot for Edinburgh in the heyday of its literary
glory the name of the Modern Athens, there grew up in the minds of a
past generation the idea of rearing on the Calton Hill, as a modern
Acropolis, a reproduction of the Parthenon, with, it is to be presumed,
the sculptures of some Scottish Phidias as its final adornment. It was
to constitute a sacred Pantheon, in special commemoration of those to
whom the nation owed the welcome boon of an honourable peace after the
protracted strife of the Napoleonic wars. In old school-boy days it had
been a matter of liveliest interest to watch the process of construction
that promised the accomplishment of this ambitious scheme. One after
another, the lofty Doric columns rose to the number of twelve; and then
the work stopped. The builders had neglected the wise maxim to sit down
first and count the cost, whether they had sufficient means to finish
it. The funds had given out at that early stage. The boys that had
watched the first efforts of its builders grew gray with years; and the
abortive Parthenon--a monument of ambitious folly--became familiar to
the eyes of a new generation, till they ceased to realize its absurdity.
There were indeed men of taste whom it continued to offend. David
Roberts, himself a native of Edinburgh, and with the keen eye of an
artist for architectural effect, was loath to abandon the dream of a new
Parthenon. The late D. R. Hay, the ingenious author of “The Laws of
Harmonious Colouring” and “The Natural Principles of the Harmony of
Form,” united with James Ballantyne, the poet, and a little band of
kindred spirits, in a vain effort to revive the scheme. But the later
Renaissance had died out. The taste of the age had reverted once more to
mediæval art, and their exertions proved fruitless. William Nelson
thoroughly appreciated the absurdity of this gigantic failure. With
grim mirth he satirized the builders who had made such a beginning and
were not able to finish. But he did not despair of seeing even that huge
blot erased; and in May 1887, while busy with his Castle and other
restorations, he thus wrote in a letter intended for his friend Dr.
Field, but which was found among his papers, unfinished, after his
death: “Here is a matter that I have been thinking of for some time; and
in case you may think that I am off the rails in regard to it mentally,
I have to say, ‘I am not mad, most noble Festus; I speak the words of
truth and soberness.’ You will be aware that it was intended, a great
many years ago, that there should be a building on the Calton Hill here,
which would be a facsimile of the Parthenon at Athens, and twelve
pillars which were intended for the portico of the building were
erected. But there were no funds to go further; and the pillars in
consequence stand, as it were, a monument of Scottish folly. Now it
would be a grand thing, not only for Edinburgh, but for Scotland
generally, if the building were completed, and were made a Walhalla for
statues and busts of Scotchmen who have distinguished themselves in the
service of their country and otherwise; and it would be all the better
if the completion of the building were to be made an international
object. Now I know that your worthy brother, Cyrus Field, likes to do
things that are international, and I will take it kind if you will have
a talk with him on this subject; and if he will open his purse and give
a grand contribution towards the completion of what would be a truly
noble building, I would get the matter started.” He then goes into a
calculation of the cost. He had consulted with an architect, who
estimated the necessary sum as not less than £150,000. He then goes on
to say: “I send you a photograph of the poor shivering pillars that have
been erected; and I hope that there is spirit enough among moneyed men
in America and Scotland not to allow them to stand much longer in their
solitary condition.” A blank in the letter shows that some estimated
item had yet to be ascertained; and so the letter lay unfinished and

It is thus apparent that there were scarcely any limits to his ideal of
the Edinburgh of the future. The maintenance of his native city in
unblemished honour and beauty was the source of many a fascinating
dream, and took form at times in the union of such idealizations with
his practical liberality. Hence the desertion of the Highlands for the
city was no exchange of the poetry of life for mere prosaic realities.
Edinburgh was rich in all the materials wherewith to fashion an ever-new
romance: a thing of beauty to be preserved or to be made more beautiful.
There the landscape gardener, the architect, and decorator, were all
busily at work on his plans for renovating St. Bernard’s Well. The
sculptor’s studio had to be visited to learn of the progress of the new
statue. Then, too, official formalities and obstructions had at length
yielded to his quiet persistency, and the plans were in progress for
restorations, not only on the great hall of the Castle, but also on the
Argyle Tower, and the venerable little oratory known as St. Margaret’s
Chapel. With the latter object in view, more than one excursion had been
made to Iona, where the little Norman structure styled the Chapel of St.
Oran is affirmed to have been built by St. Margaret, the queen of
Malcolm Canmore. Hence it was assumed to furnish the fittest model for a
design to replace the somewhat commonplace modern restoration of the
original doorway. A photograph of it was accordingly secured, and
placed, for that purpose, in the architect’s hands.

The Argyle Tower, of old the state prison, was to be freed from manifold
incongruities of modern barbarism, as has since been done in the best
taste. But William Nelson’s sympathies were not narrowed within the
bounds of his native city, and a special occasion now invited his
practical co-operation elsewhere. The approaching anniversary of the
death of the good king Alexander III., last and best of Scotland’s
Celtic kings, was to be signalized by the erection of a memorial cross
to mark the scene of that fatal event of six centuries before, the
fruits of which are bewailed in the fine old fragment of native elegy
preserved for us in Wyntoun’s Chronicles, the earliest known lyric in
the Scottish language. The old chronicler pictures the prosperity of the
nation under the rule of him that led Scotland in love and loyalty; and
then he says,--

    “This failèd fra he died suddenly;
       This sang was made of him forthi:
     When Alexander our king was dead,
       That Scotland led in love and lea,
     Away wes söns of ale and bread,
       Of wine and wax, of gaming and glee;
     Our gold was changèd into lead.
       Christ, born into virginity,
     Succor Scotland and remede
       That stad is in perplexity.”

Kinghorn, the birthplace of William Nelson’s mother, and the scene of
many of the happiest days of his own childhood and youth, was the place
historically associated with the national disaster. When he carried off
his sisters to revisit the old scenes, it will be remembered that one of
the special spots pointed out to them was “The King’s Crag,” as the
point is called which tradition assigns as the actual cliff over which,
when his horse stumbled, Alexander III. was precipitated. The event was
thus associated with many of William Nelson’s earliest recollections;
and the proposal to mark it with a suitable monument was responded to by
him with hearty enthusiasm. From its initiation his zeal never flagged.
First came his subscription, the most liberal of all; then
correspondence and deliberations as to the design, the inscription, the
most durable and best material. He writes to the Rev. Charles Shaw from
Glenfeochan in October 1886, in reference to the appeal for
subscriptions:--“Let me know as soon as you can what is the result, and
I will then see what I can do to make up the sum.” In December he
discusses the details of the design and material. He fears, from its
exposed site on the highroad from Burntisland to Kinghorn, that the
monument will be liable to injury; has “called the architect Mr. Blanc’s
attention some time ago to this circumstance, and that he ought not to
forget it in making his finished drawings.” Again he writes in the
following February:--“Mr. Blanc says that the memorial cross ought
decidedly to be of Peterhead granite; and you will please hold me
responsible for whatever shortcoming there may be in consequence.” Then
comes an equally characteristic passage: “I don’t think there is any
occasion for you or Dr. Rogers telling the committee of what you call my
handsome offer. If this were done, the matter would, I have no doubt, be
blazoned forth in the newspapers, and I would not like that at all.” The
next proposition was that he should unveil the monument, in the erection
of which he had manifested so practical an interest. But that he would
not hear of, and suggested the Earl of Elgin as Lord Lieutenant of the
county, and a good man to boot. “Failing him, you should apply to Lord
Napier and Ettrick, or Lord Rosebery.”

When at length the memorable day arrived, there was not only the
beautiful memorial cross to unveil, but a new public park and golfing
ground to open. The authorities of the ancient burgh would not be balked
of their wish to mark in some way their sense of Mr. Nelson’s generous
co-operation in the work, so Lord Elgin and he were both admitted to all
the honours and privileges of burgesses of Kinghorn. The speech of the
latter, in reply to the provost’s address in handing to him his burgess
ticket, is too replete with characteristic feeling and personal
reminiscences to be omitted here. He was no orator, and indeed shrank
with instinctive reserve from all public appearances; but the simple
utterances of genuine feeling are the best of all oratory.

“Fortunately for myself,” he said, “and perhaps still more fortunately
for those who hear me, I am not often in circumstances which call upon
me to speak in public. On the present occasion, when there has been
conferred on me the high honour of being made a burgess of the royal
burgh of Kinghorn--an honour which I never expected, and which I do not
feel that I have done anything to merit--for this, gentlemen, I thank
you most sincerely. It is an honour which shall ever be held by me, and
by those who come after me, in the highest esteem. There are many things
which make Kinghorn a place of much interest to me, and which give a
peculiar value to any mark of respect which comes from its town council
or its inhabitants. For one thing, it was the birthplace of my mother,
and we all know what that means. But it must not be supposed that my
attachment to Kinghorn is solely on this account. I love it for its own
sake, for its quaint and picturesque old character as a royal burgh; and
I love it also for its fine coast-scenery, with its beautiful sands, its
bold rocks, and its many advantages for bathing, fishing, and even for
those who think they perform their whole duty at the seaside when they
merely saunter along it and inhale its health-giving breezes. But I love
it still more--perhaps most of all--for the sunshine with which it
filled my early years, making my holidays holidays indeed. I stayed
always with my grandfather and grandmother, whose kindness was very
great and unceasing. So strong was the impression made upon me at that
early period of my life, that I never allow a season to pass without
visiting Kinghorn, and renewing my acquaintance with the rocky scenery
of the coast, which must be admitted to be exceptionally fine. So great
is my familiarity with the coast here that I know every rock of any
consequence that it contains; and I may add that there are few places
more richly endowed with all the amenities which health-seekers are in
quest of and value. It ought to be one of the most popular of the
health-resorts on our shores. Another thing which took a hold of me in
my early years, and which I still remember well, was the talk of the old
folks. They had some themes on which they never ceased to descant. One
of these was Paul Jones’s piratical visit to the Firth of Forth, which
was looked upon as a very formidable event by the small towns on the
coast of Fife, but which happily turned out a scare. My grandmother saw
the big ship of the pirate from near the hamlet of Glassmount, about two
miles from Kinghorn. And there is good news for strangers who may come
now-a-days to the old place for summer quarters. They need not be afraid
for another Paul Jones coming to alarm them, as there is now a strong
fortress on the Pettycur road, under the shadow of whose wings they may
rest in perfect safety. But there was another matter quite as
engrossing, and that was the injury which steam-boats had done or would
do to the town. Before these began to ply there were big, ordinary boats
which carried passengers; and as these boats started only at particular
times of the tide, passengers had generally to stay some time in the
town: more to the delight of the innkeepers and others, we should
imagine, than to that of the strangers thus detained, in order to have
the opportunity of leaving a little of their money behind them. We know
better now; and I am sure that the inhabitants of Kinghorn would not be
inclined to go back, on any terms whatever, to those good old ways, so
easy in all that belonged to them. Such retrospects, while both
interesting and instructive, are not without an infusion of sadness. In
my case, early companions in and about Kinghorn have all disappeared but
two: namely, Henry Darney, a worthy citizen of the town, and Major
Greig, now of Toronto, Canada. It is a touching thought, and brings to
my remembrance the tender and beautiful verses of Delta, with which I

    ‘Where are the playmates of those years?
       Hills arise and oceans roll between.
     We call, but scarcely one appears;
       No more shall be what once has been.

    ‘Yet, gazing o’er the bleak green sea,
       O’er snow-capped cliffs and desert plain,
     Mirrored in thought methinks to me
       The spectral past returns again.

    ‘Once more to retrospection’s eyes,
       As ’twere to present life restored,
     The perished and the past arise,
       The early lost and long deplored.’”

While the memorial cross erected on the King’s Crag had been thus
occupying so much of his attention, the various works of restoration
undertaken by him in Edinburgh were not neglected. They continued,
indeed to engage his attention, and to furnish him with ever-renewed
pleasure, till the close of his life. He thus writes to me in April
1887:--“St. Bernard’s Well is not quite finished yet, but it begins to
look very different from what you will remember of it in our morning
visits together: quite a little gem indeed, now that the mosaic work is
done, or nearly so. A handsome parapet wall with railing runs along the
river-side. The grounds are laid out, I think, in good taste, and a fine
broad stair leads down from the street instead of the dingy back way you
and I used to have to traverse in our morning visits to the well.
Altogether it is a great success. The number of visitors to the well has
greatly increased already; and if it correspondingly diminishes the
number of visitors to the taverns, as I hope it will, then we have all
the success that could be desired. You must repeat your visit to us
soon, and have another tumbler of the water, and see all we have been
doing in the way of improvement; it will be all in order before you

Again, in a postscript to one of his letters to the Rev. Charles Shaw,
in the early part of the same year, he says: “My restorations at the
Castle are getting on briskly. The Argyle Tower is far advanced, and as
a piece of architecture it will be a great success. The hospital
building has been made over to me, and operations for the restoration
and conversion of it into what will be almost a facsimile of the old
Parliament Hall have been already begun. It will be a very interesting
building in its reformed condition.” In another letter to the same
correspondent, who was an active member of the local committee for the
erection of the memorial cross at Kinghorn, he thus writes:--“I send you
a letter that I received a few days ago from Lord Napier. I asked him if
he would come to the unveiling of the memorial to Alexander III., and
let his voice be heard on the occasion as one of the speakers; but this,
he says, he will be unable to do. The first part of the letter is of
special interest to you, as it refers to some discoveries that have been
made at the clearing out of the old Parliament Hall in the Castle. They
have been so important that an almost perfect facsimile can be made of
the hall as it was in the days of its glory: all except in the matter of
the tapestry with which the walls were either wholly or partly covered;
and it would be too much to hope for that any part of this should be to
the fore at this time of day. Everything else is known. The roof exists
in its entirety; parts of the floor have been found. It was of Arbroath
pavement; and the account for the freight of the stones from Dundee to
Leith has been recovered in the Rolls of the Exchequer in the Register
Office. The ancient windows have also been discovered, and they just
require to be cleared of the masonry with which they have been built up,
and have fresh mullions inserted; and it is known how the original
mullions would be from specimens that exist in other buildings of the
period. The doorway that formed the ancient main entrance to the
building has been found. The doorway and stair that led to the kitchen,
which was below the hall, have also been discovered; and the kitchen
exists in its entirety, it being made use of as a store for clothing for
the troops. From the great size of it and that of the fireplace, it is
clear that creature comforts were not overlooked in days of yore by our
old Scottish legislators.”

Public interest grew apace as the work of restoration in the Castle
progressed. The Argyle Tower, as it approached completion, presented an
attractive feature, harmonizing admirably with the older remains of the
fortress, and attracting the notice of all, as seen from Princes Street.
As the rumour of one after another of the discoveries of original
portions of the great hall, furnishing valuable guidance for its
restoration, gained currency, fresh zest was given to public curiosity.
Paragraphs, such as the one quoted below, made their appearance from
time to time in the daily press, until a general interest was revived,
and a renewed anxiety expressed, not only for completing the restoration
of the ancient buildings, but for making such modifications of the
huge, unsightly pile of barracks and other modern structures within the
Castle as should make them harmonize in some degree with its ancient

“Yesterday afternoon the Marquis of Lothian, along with Mr. William
Nelson, drove up to Edinburgh Castle and examined the alterations which
are being carried out there at the expense of the latter. The work of
clearing out the old Parliament Hall is proceeding apace. Finely-carved,
and in most cases well-preserved, freestone corbels have been uncovered
underneath the plaster. In no two cases are the designs on these corbels
alike. In one it is a lion’s head, in another a thistle, in a third a
rose, a fourth is a female head, while others bear the letters I.R., and
I.H.S., the former evidently meant for ‘James Rex.’ At the north-eastern
corner of the hall, the top of a staircase which apparently must have
led from ‘the Queen Mary’ apartments in the Palace to the balcony
outside the Parliament Hall, has been discovered; but it is not yet
known at what point in the royal apartments the lower end of the
staircase came out. The restoration of the Argyle Tower is rapidly
approaching completion, and the masons are now engaged in building the
hewn stones on the roof.”

One result of all this was that Mr. Nelson responded to the intelligent
interest manifested in the work now in progress by arranging for a
succession of Saturday visits to the Castle. I am indebted to an old
friend, who shared in the pleasure of those informal gatherings, for the
following account of them: “They were attended by artists and
antiquaries, professors from the University, and literary men; to whom
were added occasionally some distinguished stranger, as well as officers
of rank who felt a professional interest in the work. Along with those
were always to be seen some of the clerks and workmen from Parkside; and
it was very pleasant to notice the kind way in which he made them feel
at their ease, and indeed seemed totally unconscious of anything
unusual, as he turned from some learned professor or officer of rank to
address himself with marked respect to one of his own employés, and
explain to him the significance of some recently disclosed portions of
the original building.”

Meanwhile the grand scheme of a tour by the Volga to Astrakhan, and by
the Caspian Sea and the overland route to Batoum on the Black Sea, and
so to Greece, had been first delayed, and then greatly modified. In the
midst of all this preoccupation with mediæval restorations in his own
romantic town, he turned anew to the favourite classical studies of
early years; and his letters in the spring and summer of 1886 show that
Hellenic history, and the associations that linger around every cape and
mountain, river and vale of Greece, had quickened into an intense
longing to explore their storied scenery. In the month of August 1887,
I was off on a holiday ramble in the White Mountains--the Highlands of
New England--where a letter followed me, the last I was ever to receive
from my oldest surviving friend. “I intend,” he wrote, “to set out on a
trip to Greece about the middle of next month, taking with me a party
which will consist of Mrs. Nelson, Meta, Alice, and Dr. Walter Smith,
who will act as chaplain. We will go direct to Trieste from London,
_via_ Dover, Calais, Basle, and Venice; and will sail for Athens by the
Austrian Lloyd’s steamer which leaves on Saturday, the 24th, for the
Piræus; a voyage which will occupy about three and a half days. After
spending a fortnight there, we will likely, if all is well, push on for
Constantinople; and after being there for about a week, will return home
as rapidly as possible. Such at least is my present intention, and I
trust that nothing will occur to prevent my carrying out the programme.”
He then gives an account of the successful completion of the work at St.
Bernard’s Well, and thus proceeds: “As to the Castle, the Argyle Tower
is finished, and it forms a striking object viewed from Princes Street,
and is a great improvement to the outline of the north side of the
Castle. The architect deserves great praise for having done his part so
well in the restoration of this building. The room that is above what
was the old state prison is a very fine one, and the feeling of the
architecture of the period that he has aimed at--which is, if I remember
right, about the year 1500--is admirably carried out. The room, when I
get it hung round with engravings of the Castle at different periods
from 1573 downwards, and also get it decorated in various parts with
trophies of arms and armour, which I am to have permission to select
from the armoury in the Castle, will be one of the most interesting
rooms there. My collection of views of the Castle will be largely taken
advantage of for the decoration of this room. The view from the top of
the tower is, I need not say, one of the finest in Europe; and there is
a path right round, so that the view can be seen from all points.

“The old Parliament Hall has been at a stand-still for some time; but
Mr. Blanc has drawings for the windows and doors completed, and
estimates for them are now being taken. Here is a point on which I would
like to be enlightened. You say in your ‘Memorials of Edinburgh:’ ‘From
the occasional assembling of the Parliament here, while the Scottish
monarchs continued to reside in the Castle, it still retains the name of
the Parliament House.’ Now at a gathering of eminent men of Edinburgh
that I had at the Castle some time ago, Mr. Dickson of the antiquarian
department of the Register Office took it upon him to give an address to
the party when they were in the said hall; and he said in the course of
it that it was quite a misnomer to connect the word parliament with the
building, as the old Scottish Parliament met in the Tolbooth, and there
does not exist any evidence to show that any of its meetings were ever
held in the old Parliament Hall. What do you say to this, my dear old
fellow? A few lines about the matter by return of mail from you will be
a favour. By the way, a discovery has been made lately in regard to the
building which will interest you. It is that the walls are much older
than the corbels, the latter having been found to have been stuck into
them: Mr. Blanc is of opinion about two hundred years after they were
built. What do you say to this discovery?”

I was out of the reach of mails, as well as of books; and so August had
passed into September ere an answer could be penned to the above
queries. “The hall,” as I wrote in reply, “was undoubtedly the great
banquet-hall of the Castle, where, when the king resided there, he
occupied the daïs, along with the nobles in attendance, while inferior
guests and retainers sat at the table below. But such halls were
available for any large assembly; and in truth Scotland had no regular
Parliament House till the reign of Charles I. Old Parliaments for the
most part followed the Court, and found a place for meeting as they best
could--in the hall of some great abbey or royal castle; or failing
either, in a church or town hall. When, for example, Philip IV. of
France quarrelled with the Pope in 1302, the only place of meeting that
Paris could furnish for the States General was the church of Notre Dame.
When the English Court was at Westminster, the Parliament turned St.
Stephen’s Chapel to like account; and the Blackfriars’ Monastery at
Perth, in all probability, afforded the usual place of meeting for the
Scottish Parliament, till the assassination of James I. in 1437 led to
the transference of the Court to Edinburgh, with a view doubtless to
safe royal residence within the Castle. Only one Parliament, the
thirteenth of his reign, met at Edinburgh, in what hall is not
specified. But, immediately after the death of the poet-king, the first
Parliament of the new reign assembled there; and the record for once
leaves no doubt. It runs thus: ‘Quo die comparentibus tribus regni
statibus apud Edinburgh, omnes comites, nobiles, et barones, ac
liberi-tenentes dicti regni, venientes ad Castrum de Edinburgh.’ From
that memorable date may possibly have originated the tradition which
survived when, in the middle of last century, Maitland described the
hall as ‘a large ancient edifice, formerly the Parliament House, now
converted into a barrack.’ As to the Tolbooth, the one we know of was
only erected in the reign of James V., and while it was building the
council met in the Holy Blood aisle of St. Giles’s Church.”

This and much more, in response to the welcome letter from beyond the
sea, was all fully set forth; for the subject gave occasion for frequent
correspondence between us, as one in which his sympathies were largely
enlisted, and which engaged his latest thoughts; and so it claims a
place here. But the letter was never to meet the eye of him for whom it
had been penned. His keen appreciation of the humorous aspect that lurks
at times in the gravest proceedings was very familiar to his friends,
and a touching illustration of it claims notice now. Much that has
transpired since his death shows how fully he realized the uncertainty
of life, and the fact that the days of his years had already reached
man’s allotted span. Of this the ample provision in his will for the
completion of the works he had undertaken for his native city furnishes
the best proof. But on one of his visits to the Castle, in company with
friends interested in the progress of the work there, a university
professor who was of the party, after satisfying himself as to the
extent and character of the designed restorations, proposed a vote of
thanks to Mr. Nelson. The proceeding itself was one peculiarly
distasteful to him; but in the course of some eulogistic remarks the
professor somewhat inopportunely expressed a hope that Mr. Nelson would
be spared to see the completion of his costly and patriotic undertaking.
As the work was already so far advanced that the finishing of it was a
matter of months only, he dryly replied that the learned professor must
surely mean to assign him a very brief term of life, for he hoped to see
the work finished before the year was out; and as for the cost, he
believed it would prove one of the best investments he had ever made. If
the lasting appreciation of a generous, public-spirited act furnishes an
adequate compensation for such liberality, it was indeed so. But the
ominous remark was all too apt. Within three months of that memorable
gathering, the words were recalled by some of those who had been
present, as they bent in sorrow over his grave.

One of the noticeable gifts of William Nelson was a memory of rare
compass and accuracy. An incident distinctly recalled by him in recent
years was proved by its association with the death of an aunt to date at
a period when he was only two and a half years old. His recollections of
playmates went back to early childhood; and he seemed to retain in
well-defined and even minute detail events associated with many
schoolmates and fellow-students of later years. Numerous as they were,
the tie of such early fellowship was never slighted. There was only one
point in which his memory failed. A wrong done to himself retained no
place in his thoughts; nor did he allow the failures due to misconduct
to dull his ear to the appeal of the needy for help. The number of such
that made claim to his charity was large. But of friendship in its true
sense his conception was high. Of those who were admitted to that
intimate relationship he seemed to hold in memory the minutest incidents
of a life-long intercourse, and startled them at times by the accuracy
with which he recalled the events of long-forgotten years. His
large-heartedness was such that he seemed to identify himself with every
interest of theirs, with a rare tenderness, as of a love “passing the
love of women.” One on whom an intimate knowledge of the enduring
sacredness of one of his earliest friendships had made a strong
impression, thus wrote to me shortly after his death: “The friendship
uniting you seemed to me one of the charming things so rarely met in
life. That two men with wives and families, business cares, and
different pursuits and tastes, should so cleave to one another from
early youth onward was refreshing to realize. I always delight in such
friendships being possible. They seem the gems shining out from the dull
mass of common humanity.”

There is no exaggeration here, for the subject of this memoir was of a
rare type of humanity; though, if those who most resemble him in all
other respects are marked by a like sensitive shrinking from publicity,
we may indulge in the pleasant belief that they are more numerous than
the world imagines. But it is vain to linger over such fancies. The
memory so prompt in business, so retentive in its literary
reminiscences, and so responsive to all the sympathetic impulses of love
and friendship, suddenly failed. At the very time when his long-desired
visit to the classic scenes of Greece was to have been carried out, and
every arrangement was completed for the journey, he seemed to lose his
hold on the past. The vessel had been determined upon, and the day of
departure fixed, when symptoms, little heeded at first, developed into
the fatal malady which brought all his plans to a close. The silver cord
was loosed. He had finished his course; and on the 10th of September
1887, the very day on which he was to have set out for Greece, he passed
from the circle that for so many happy years had been gladdened with the
sunshine of his presence, to join the loved ones who had gone before him
to the heavenly home. He was one whose creed found its full expression
in deeds, not in words. Only in rare moments of confidence did he give
utterance to his simple faith. At best the highest efforts of the
biographer but dimly approximate to the original. God sends many a
beautiful soul into this world to do its appointed work, and then to
live only in the memories of the loved ones left behind. Perhaps in this
case also it had been better if no biography had been attempted; but he
seems to me to have realized in his life that “pure religion” which the
apostle James had in view: “To visit the fatherless and the widows in
their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”

The wide-spread manifestations of grief when the news of William
Nelson’s death became known abundantly manifested the sense of a great
public loss. At the urgent request of the city authorities the desire of
the family for a strictly private funeral was abandoned. The Lord
Provost and magistrates of Edinburgh and the Provost and magistrates of
Kinghorn attended in their robes; and along with them the Principal and
many of the professors of the University, the President and members of
the Royal Scottish Academy, with leading citizens, clergymen, and
others, many of whom came from great distances to mark their respect for
one whose loss was so widely deplored. The shops were closed as the
mournful procession, headed by the employés from Parkside, moved on to
the Grange Cemetery, where his remains were laid beside those of his
loved father and mother and his brother John, with the graves of Dr.
Chalmers and Hugh Miller near by. The turf was fragrant with the wreaths
of flowers laid there by many sincere mourners; and it continued to be
visited from day to day by crowds, including many humble admirers who
deplored the loss of their benefactor, until the turf around was
trodden out and had to be replaced. Now that his remains are laid at
rest in the quiet cemetery among those of loved ones who formed the
happy home circle of his early years, and the busy outer world has
resumed its wonted avocations, his widow has erected a memorial tablet
to mark the sacred spot, aptly inscribed with the text: “After he had
served his generation by the will of God, he fell asleep.”


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