Imagine the Scots patter of ‘Hawkie’ Cameron, the son of an impoverished mashman, who made his living from begging and peddling books. William Cameron (1784-1851), born in Plean, Stirlingshire and brought up in poverty, benefitted from a relatively sound Scottish education, which even extended to the study of Latin. His learning, however, did not get off to the best of starts:
“At the age of four I was out to school; the teacher was an old decrepit man, who had tried to be a nailer, but at that employment he could not earn his bread. He then attempted to teach a few children, but for this undertaking he was quite unfit; writing and arithmetic were to him secrets as dark as death… At this school I continued for four years, and was not four months advanced in learning, although I was as far advanced as my teacher.”
His next schoolmaster at Milton (a mile away) was not much better, but at least he could teach his pupils how to write. During this period of his life Hawkie, left in sole charge of his infant sisters, seriously injured his leg; ever after he depended on the use of a crutch to get about. After leaving his Milton schoolmaster, he joined the Stirling parish school of St Ninian’s. It was here that Hawkie began Latin in the daytime; in the evenings he studied arithmetic.
As an adult, Hawkie supplemented his begging by selling books in the city streets. He made a name for himself as a Glasgow chapman and street crier, orating at length from and colourfully bringing to life the contents of the chapbooks in his basket. One day he came up against a man called Jamie Blue – a fellow speech crier and chapman – who, according to Hawkie, had “the reputation among the illiterate as a matchless scholar”. Hawkie took it upon himself to show that Jamie had no such claim as a scholar, which culminated in a heated bookselling competition. It is curious that Hawkie should narrate this episode in his autobiography using somewhat arcane classical points of reference:
“I urged the weakness of his ambition, and showed him the meanness of his conduct; but Pompey was no more determined for the Empire of Rome, than Jamie was to be ‘Head speech crier’.”
In spite of his adversary’s epic determination, Hawkie sold more books and won the contest hands down. The example of the beggar who studied Latin at school and could freely employ ancient historical exempla reminds us that it was not so rare in some parts of rural Scotland for working-class children to acquire the foundations of a classical education.
n.b. around 1830