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My Days and My Ways

An Autobiography

Robert Roberts



CHAPTER FIVE: Becomes a Reporter


About the time of the appearance of my letter to Dr. Thomas, an incident occurred which had a material bearing on my future course.  A printer who had an office over the druggist’s shop where I was employed, and who used to be a frequent visitor at the shop, started a daily paper, on a very humble scale, a mere sheet, of which not more than a hundred circulated.  On the occasion of one of his visits, he asked me if I knew a young man who could do the editing and reporting for the paper.  I thought of a young acquaintance of mine who had become an expert shorthand writer.  I mentioned the matter to him, and the idea pleased him, and ultimately an arrangement was made between him and the printer, by which he became the reporter of The Aberdeen Daily Telegraph.  (I think that was the name.)  He continued in this position several months, and then received an offer of the editorship of a small paper at either Fraserburgh or Peterhead, about 40 miles further north.  I think it was The Peterhead Sentinel.  He accepted the position.  This made a vacancy in The Aberdeen Daily Telegraph, and the printer applied to me again.  I could not tell him of a suitable young man this time.  He then asked if I thought I could take the position myself.


This was a new idea.  It set me thinking.  The position I was in was ill adapted to my tastes and aims in life.  The truth had opened the world to my view in its real meaning.  The knowledge of the purpose of God, as revealed to the prophets, had thrown a new light on all sublunary things, and imparted a new interest to history, and a new prospect to life, in every way.  My heart rose to the expansion, and I felt out of place behind a counter vending pills and hair oil.  The idea off entering upon press work seemed to strike a new chord and open up new prospects.  It did not take me long to come to a decision.  There was a difficulty in the way.  I was a bound apprentice to my employer for five year, and only four years of term had run.  This difficulty was got over by my master consenting to cancel my indenture, and accepting another apprentice in my place.  Thus set at liberty, I entered upon a new field, which gradually opened  out my sphere indefinitely.  It was not many months, however, before I was obliged to call a halt.


My new employer, the printer, was in somewhat needy circumstances, and could not afford to pay the telegraph company for the daily telegrams.  Consequently he used to require me to go to the news room and copy the telegrams as they arrived there.  I did not at first know that this was an illegitimate proceeding.  When I realised it, I gave the printer to understand I could not continue it, and so I had to leave.


 While I was with him I remember a ludicrous incident, which showed me how small is the incipient mind of boyhood at eighteen.  The Assize judges came to Aberdeen once in six months, or some such term.  Up till now I had only contemplated their proceedings from the distant point of view of a reverential spectator.  I was now sent to report the proceedings for the mid-day edition of the little daily.  To do this it was needful that I should leave the court at a certain stage, and repair to the newspaper office and provide assize “copy”.  But I was so overawed by the majesty of the proceedings that it seemed to me sacrilege to stir till the proceedings were at an end.  My employer, Mr. Bennet, wondered what had become of me, and had to bring out the paper without Assize intelligence.  My explanation cause amused irritation.  I came to see such matters in a very different light.


For a few months after this, I was idle; but during the interval I received several reporting “jobs” through the acquaintance with the reporters of the other papers which my brief connection with The Telegraph had given me.  I was called on to assist in the reporting of the speeches delivered at an investigation into the merits of the Suez Canal scheme, conducted by the Town Council on the occasion of a visit by M. de Lesseps, with whom, and his canal, I always felt specially acquainted after this.


Another appointment was of a more onerous character.  A project was being promoted for the construction of a railway through Aberdeenshire which, as yet was only traversed by stage coaches.  There were two rival railway projects.  A committee of the promoters was about to pay a visit to the principal points in the county, to enlist the support of the farmers and others on behalf of the Buchan and Formartine line, and it was needful that a reporter should accompany them to make notes of the meetings, and furnish a report to the weekly paper, The Aberdeen Herald.  The paper could not  spare a man from the ordinary work of the paper, and I was applied to, and duly commissioned to do this work.   I was away some week or more, jolting over the country in a road conveyance with these railway people, putting up at hotels, and attending meetings in all kinds of out-of-the-way places.  It was my first real peep out into the world.  I god my first look at an aristocrat during the journey (I think at Fraserburgh), in the person of the chairman at one of the meetings, Mr. Grant Duff, M.P.  I was agreeably impressed with the superiority which I saw human nature was capable of attaining, for I had been accustomed to the utmost commonplaces, both in respect to people and circumstances.


I delivered my first lecture during this journey.  I came across a Mr. Bruce – a kind of a Plymouth brother – who knew me through my mother, though I was unaware of the fact.  He asked me to his house, and convened some religious friends, to whom he introduced me.  He then asked me to address them.  I said I was not a speaker.  They said they knew I could say something to them about the Bible, and pressed me.  I complied at last, and getting on to my feet, spoke for half-an-hour or so on Daniel’s vision of the four empires and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  They expressed themselves as greatly delighted, and hoped we should meet again, which so far as I am aware, we never did.


There was an unpleasant incident at the same time.  A solicitor’s clerk accompanied the expedition, and it was his business to make a duplicate of my manuscript for some other paper.  But on an important day, he had taken drink, and was unable to do his work, and he implored me to make the second copy for him, otherwise he would lose his situation.  I did so, but had to sit up all night to accomplish it.  When my work was done, it filled five or six columns of the weekly paper, and I had the satisfaction of knowing that my temporary employers were please with my work, which they also paid me for, on a scale which, in my inexperience, overwhelmed me with it munificence.  In reality I was paid only half of the professional charge.  This I did not know at the time, and to me it seemed almost criminal to accept such a liberal payment.  The sub-editor of the paper laughed heartily at my scruples, and said the day would come when the acceptance of earned money would not distress me.  Out of the money paid me, my mother got me my first watch, and for some weeks afterwards, the time of day was a subject of special and constant interest.


About this time, there was an annual meeting at Edinburgh of brethren from various parts of Scotland.  Brother John Barker was appointed to go on behalf of Aberdeen; and he asked me to accompany him.  This was a great matter for me.  Edinburgh was interesting beyond anything I had seen in the north, and the meeting of brethren, though not very large (perhaps from 70 to 100) was interesting to a degree I could not express. But the chairman struck me as being rather obtuse.  There was a proposal to publish some things from Dr. Thomas’s Herald in tract form.  He offered strong objection to this, principally on the ground that such a course would infringe Dr. Thomas’s copyright.  When everybody had spoken, and the last  appeal for further remark had been made, I rose and said I scarcely dared to speak, but it seemed to me the objection to the publication of good tracts from Dr. Thomas’s works was one that should be left to


him, and that I did not believe he would raise it, as we could not suppose but that he would only rejoice at anything  that would extend the knowledge of the truth.  My future wife was present.  I did not know it, for I had no acquaintance with her; but she has often since remarked that my words on that occasion commended themselves to her as a little young common sense in the midst of much senior fog.  I had occasion afterwards to know the nature of the fog of whose existence at that time I had and could have no suspicion.


Returning to Aberdeen, my future wore a very uncertain aspect.  I had no regular occupation, and no likelihood of obtaining any settled reporting appointment in the limited world of Aberdeen life.  Several months of indefiniteness and wearisomeness  wore away, and then a letter from the south changed the current once more.  Aleck Mowatt, who had gone to Peterhead, was now reporter on the staff of The Caledonian Mercury, a daily paper published at Edinburg. From this city, I received a letter from him, apprising me of a vacancy that had just occurred on his paper, and of the fact that he had recommended me for the post.  This was glad news, and after a few days’ preparation, I left Aberdeen for Edinburgh, never to return to my native place except as a rare visitor.


My duties as a reporter of a paper like The Caledonian Mercury (published at the historic and intellectual centre of Scottish life) introduced me to many matters and things that greatly extended by acquaintance with life, of which, however, I was not able to take the full advantage.  The Scottish law courts, the ecclesiastical synods, the monthly Presbyteries, the art exhibitions, the scientific lectures, and annual prize convocations of various educational institutions, and numerous miscellaneous occasions gave me many opportunities of a widened view in all directions.  But my heart did not go out to the things with which I had to deal.  I was content to get my duties done.  My sympathies were centred in the Scriptures and the things that stood related to  them.  Professional matters were repugnant to me, as the embodiment of the world to which Jesus did not belong, and in which I felt it was my part to be equally a stranger with him.


The meetings of the brethren were the point of attraction with me.  Fresh from the crudenesses of the north, there was much in these that for a considerable time was charming.  There was more culture and mellowness than I had been accustomed to, and there was the pleasantness of good singing.  The love of the truth I took for granted, and was therefore entirely in my element.  If the charm was broken by and by, it was because the truth stood in a different position among my new friends from what I had assumed.  Dr. Thomas was not esteemed as I esteemed him; his works were not appreciated as I supposed they necessarily must be by every one understanding the truth; and the Bible and the truth had not that earnest place which seemed to me essential in a company professing subjection to apostolic principles.  It was some time before I discovered this.


Meanwhile, I was solaced with the sympathy and love of one sister in their midst, whose society created an atmosphere that I mistook for a time for that of the whole circle.  To this sister I have twice already referred.  She had seen me twice before, but I had not seen her at all till I came to Edinburgh, and when I was introduced to her, I was drawn to her with a power that soon ended in the closest intimacy.  She was my senior by eight years, but this, so far from being an obstacle, was the reverse.  It imparted to her a weight and sobriety of character that fitted her for the companionship which I desired.  Girls of my own age were frivolous.  One with whom I had tried to cultivate acquaintance in Aberdeen (a brother’s daughter) asked me why I “jawed so much about the nations.”  There was no repugnance of this sort to the truth about Jane Norrie.  On the contrary, her tastes were all in the line of intellectual and scriptural things.  There was an inexhaustible fund of interest in this direction which supplied the material for conversation that never flagged.  I met no one like her in this respect, and it was inevitable that our acquaintance should ripen fast, as it did, into the tenderest relation. I was only nineteen  when we mutually agreed that we were suited for life companionship.  Some of our friends were scandalised at such a result, but we felt sure our decision was a wise one, and therefore, without making a secret of it in any way, we shut our eyes and ears, and went our way.  Time justified our policy.






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