Carlyle’s Birthplace And Early Homes – Great Britain And Ireland

There was no road in Scotland or England which I should have been so glad to have walked over as that from Edinburgh to Ecelefechan, a distance covered many times by the feet of him whose birth and burial place I was about to visit. Carlyle as a young man had walked it with Edward Irving (the Scotch say “travel” when they mean going afoot), and he had walked it alone, and as a lad with an elder boy, on his way to Edinburgh College. He says in his “Reminiscences” he nowhere else had such affectionate, sad, thoughtful, and in fact interesting and salutary journeys… .

Not to be entirely cheated out of my walk, I left the train at Lockerby, a small Scotch market-town, and accomplished the remainder of the journey to Ecclefechan on foot, a brief six-mile pull. It was the first day of June; the afternoon sun was shining brightly. It was still the honeymoon of travel with me, not yet two weeks in the bonnie land; the road was smooth and clean as the floor of a sea beach, and firmer, and my feet devoured the distance with right good will.

Four miles from Lockerby I came to Mainhill, the name of a farm where the Carlyle family lived many years, and where Carlyle first read Goethe, “in a dry ditch,” Froude says, and translated “Wilhelm Meister.” The land drops gently away to the south and east, opening up broad views in these directions, but it does not seem to be the bleak and windy place Froude describes it. The crops looked good, and the fields smooth and fertile. The soil is rather a stubborn clay, nearly the same as one sees everywhere.

The Carlyles were living on this farm while their son was teaching school at Annan, and later at Kircaldy with Irving, and they supplied him with cheese, butter, ham, oatmeal, etc., from their scanty stores. A new farmhouse has been built since then, tho the old one is still standing; doubtless the same Carlyle’s father refers to in a letter to his son, in 1817, as being under way. The parish minister was expected at Mainhill. “Your mother was very anxious to have the house done before he came, or else she said she would run over the hill and hide herself.”

From Mainhill the highway descends slowly to the village of Ecclefechan, the site of which is marked to the eye, a mile or more away, by the spire of the church rising up against a back-ground of Scotch firs, which clothe a hill beyond. I soon enter the main street of the village, which in Carlyle’s youth had an open burn or creek flowing through the center of it. This has been covered over by some enterprising citizen, and in-stead of a loitering little burn, crossed by numerous bridges, the eye is now greeted by a broad expanse of small cobble-stones. The cottages are for the most part very humble, and rise from the outer edges of the pavement, as if the latter had been turned up and shaped to make their walls. The church is a handsome brown-stone structure, of recent date, and is more in keeping with the fine fertile country about than with the little village in its front. In the cemetery back of it, Carlyle lies buried. As I approached, a girl sat by the road-side, near the gate, combing her black locks and arranging her toilet; waiting, as it proved, for her mother and brother, who lingered in the village. A couple of boys were cutting nettles against the hedge; for the pigs, they said, after the sting had been taken out of them by boiling. Across the street from the cemetery the cows of the villagers were grazing.

I must have thought it would be as easy to distinguish Carlyle’s grave from the others as it was to distinguish the man while living, or his fame when dead; for it never occurred to me to ask in what part of the inclosure it was placed. Hence, when I found myself inside the gate, which opens from the Annan road through a high stone wall, I followed the most worn path toward a new and imposing-looking monument on the far side of the cemetery; and the edge of my fine emotion was a good deal dulled against the marble when I found it bore a strange name. I tried others, and still others, but was disappointed. I found a long row of Carlyles, but he whom I sought was not among them. My pilgrim enthusiasm felt itself needlessly hindered and chilled. How many re-buffs could one stand? Carlyle dead, then, was the same as Carlyle living; sure to take you down a peg or two when you came to lay your homage at his feet.

Presently I saw “Thomas Carlyle” on a big marble slab that stood in a family inclosure. But this turned out to be the name of a nephew of the great Thomas. However, I had struck the right plat at last; here were the Carlyles I was looking for, within a space probably of eight by sixteen feet, surrounded by a high iron fence. The latest made grave was higher and fuller than the rest, but it had no stone or mark of any kind to distinguish it. Since my visit, I believe, a stone or monument of some kind has been put up. A few daisies and the pretty blue-eyed speedwell were growing amid the grass upon it. The great man lies with his head toward the south or southwest, with his mother, sister, and father to the right of him, and his brother John to the left. I was glad to learn that the high iron fence was not his own suggestion. His father had put it around the family plot in his lifetime. Carlyle would ‘have liked to have it cut down about half-way. The whole look of the cemetery, except in the size of the head-stones, was quite American.

A young man and his wife were working in a nursery of young trees, a few paces from the graves and I conversed with them through a thin place in the hedge. They said they had seen Carlyle many times, and seemed to hold him in proper esteem and reverence. The young man had seen him come in summer and stand, with uncovered head, beside the graves of his father and mother. “And long and reverently did he remain there, too,” said the young gardener. I learned this was Carlyle’s invariable custom : every summer did he make a pilgrimage to this spot, and with bared head linger beside these graves. The last time be came, which was a couple of years before he died, he was so feeble that two persons sustained him while he walked into the cemetery.