The bairns of Scotland in the past were deprived of many of the softening
influences which the children of some other nations enjoyed. Owing to the strong
religious objection of the majority of the people to anything in the form of
Church festivals, the pure delights of Christmas and Easter were practically
unknown, while the beauty of flower services and harvest thanksgivings was
undreamt of in connection with the Scottish form of worship, which must often
have appeared gloomy and colourless to the juvenile mind. But the bairns had
their compensations, for the hardening and strengthening effects of our variable
climate enabled them to take part in out-of-door games with a relish and vigour
which are denied to the children of countries where summer skies prevail.
Though church festivals were unknown, there were the joys of Hogmanay
and New Year, and the mirth and mystery of Hallowe'en. The possibilities
of a wider world than their own little glen or village were seen at the
annual fair, which was held in the nearest town. To be old enough to go
to the fair was looked upon as no ordinary privilege, and great indeed
was the wonder and delight of the juvenile who for the first time gazed
upon the wonderful array of white tents, the flaunting colours of the
shows, or the tempting contents of the krames. The few coppers, which
were perhaps the savings of months, had to be very carefully expended,
for great were the inducements to "ware" them all upon some attractive
sweetmeat or toy, or to speculate on the delusive promises of the wheel
of fortune. The presence of the father or some adult member of the
family generally prevented any foolish expenditure, and so, when the
little company reluctantly left behind them the delights of the fair,
everyone had something to carry home as a "fairing" to those who were
unable to be with them. The arrival of a new toy in the little cottage
was an event, and if it happened to take the form of that old-fashioned
toy, the "jumping jack" the antics of the wooden man would send the
youngest bairn into ecstasies.
It was in connection with their school life, however, that Scottish
children were seen at their best, for though the curriculum was often
severe, they went to school each morning well prepared. The parents, as
a rule, looked upon the home preparation of lessons as a sacred duty,
and were never too tired to assist their offspring in acquiring the
rudiments of that education which was so highly prized by the nation at
large. Surprise is sometimes expressed at the success of the old-time
Dominie in turning out scholars who brought fame in after years to their
native place, but it must not be forgot how ably he was assisted by the
parents in this important matter of home preparation. Thus prepared at
home and efficiently taught at school, the Scottish schoolboy had all
the more zest for the thrilling joys of the playhour.
With what earnestness did they throw themselves into the running game
of "Scottish and English" or the less lengthened races required in "crinky"
and "cross tig"! How carefully the wood, hedges, and hazel copse were
searched for suitable "shinties" and, when these had been procured with
what recklessness were they used when the game of "shinty" was engaged
in! It was no sport for weaklings, for, though there was not the
roughness which is to be seen in some of our present-day football
matches, there was sufficient danger to shins and heads to make the game
very exciting. Each season had its own particular games, which seemed to
come in their proper rotation in obedience to some unwritten law; for
any attempt to discover which boy started the "bools," "peeries," "fleein'
dragons," etc generally resulted in failure.
The girls were not allowed to take any part in any of the boys'
sports, although the latter occasionally joined in the play of their
fair companions. In its season, that hopping game known as "hop Scotch,"
probably from its Scottish origin, but know in Scotland itself by the
various names of "beds," "pallaly," "peevers," "pitchers," etc., held
complete sway over the lassies, while at other times the advancing and
retiring games, with their quaint old rhymes, were indulged in. The
circle games in which both girls and boys could join and sing "Here's a
poor widow from Babylon," "I sent a letter to my love," "See the robbers
passing by," etc., were especially popular, as they gave the opportunity
for those little sweetheart partialities which are so beautifully
referred to by Whittier in his poem "In School Days."
In summer-time the majority of children went to school barefooted,
and though this picturesque and healthy habit resulted in considerable
saving of stockings and shoe-leather, it arose more from the keen
delight the bairns took in their sense of freedom than from any
economical considerations on the part of the parents. In country
districts the school holidays were always arranged so that the elder
children might assist in the harvest field, their nimble fingers being
easily trained to make bands for the sheaves and do other light
work. After the stooks had been removed from the fields, the younger
children were allowed to glean, or "gather singlings," as it was called,
and those whose parents did not keep poultry disposed of the results of
their labour to those who did. A "singling" was the number of
corn-stalks which could be "spanged," a pithy Scottish word which means
to encircle with the forefinger and the thumb. These "singlings" had a
marketable value, but the bairns were generally surprised to find that
the "spang" of the henwife with whom they were bargaining was
considerably larger than their own, and so payment was proportionally
smaller than they had expected.
In winter the frozen lochs or flooded haughs provided ample scope for
outdoor enjoyment to boys and girls alike, while the former varied their
pleasure by organising miniature Waterloos, where snowballs formed the
ammunition. The closing nights of the year were devoted to "guisarding,"
or going from house to house dressed in various disguises, acting little
plays and singing songs. Bu the last day of the calendar, Hogmanay, was
the great festival of the Scottish bairns. Before daybreak on that
eventful morn, the shrill voices of the children were heard ringing
through the frosty air, as they sang their simple rhymes before the
doors of the better-class houses in the district. The occupants were
generally prepared for their youthful visitors, and cakes, apples, etc.,
were handed out to each bairn, who carried a large bag - a white
pillow-slip being the most popular receptacle.
Scottish Life and Character
by William Sanderson