Robert's daughter Annie Carter Cochrane wrote his life story and presented a copy of the biography to Earlston Reading Room. Her writings form the basis for much of the article here.
EARLY EARLSTON REMINISCENCES
His Early Life
Robert Carter's birth was recorded in Earlston Old Parish Records - " Born 27th Nov. 1807 and bapt. 1st Dec. Robert, son of Thomas Carter, Earlston." This was a time when no stagecoach passed through the village, and little or no communication was held with the world beyond the village.
Yet Robert's life was to extend well beyond his birthplace - from walking the 25-30 miles to Peebles and Edinburgh to further his studies, to setting sail for New York.
His father Thomas Carter, a weaver, worked six looms. He and his wife Agnes Ewing had a large family of children, many of whom assisted him in his occupation and there was a strong Christian ethos in family life.
Robert's younger brother Walter recalled:
"The earliest recollection I have is of morning prayers.........The Sabbath was the "day of days" - morning church, then Sabbath school - it was the first Sabbath school in the south of Scotland and well attended. The superintendent was Rev. Mr Crawford of the Relief Church Brother Robert was his assistant.......We met in a stone cottage built from the ruins of the Rhymer's Tower. We had none of the modern improvements - no library, no Sunday School hymns, no picture papers. But we had the bible and hearty singing of the grand old psalms. Family worship closed the blessed day. "From an early age, Robert developed a love of books, study and learning. Yet his childhood was hard.
Helping with the Harvest
"From very early years, the harvest was a season of hard labour. When not more than six or seven years old, I accompanied my older brother at gleanng behind the reapers - to pick up the golden ears of wheat or barley, or oats till our little hands were full, bind up the handful and lay it aside and commence again and again until the end of the day, it was no easy task with the back continually bowed; and in evening to walk home a distance of one or two miles required no small effort. Glad were we, worn out and weary to sit down to our evening dish of oatmeal porridge and milk.
As soon as I was able to wield a sickle, I became a reaper. This work for me was extremely painful. My hands were soft and for the first week or two were extremely bruised. And oh, what a relief did Saturday evening bring."
Working at the Loom
Aged just nine, Robert was taken from school and put to work on the loom. From that time his education was acquired entirely by his own efforts. Robert wrote long afterwards:
"My work was light but tedious. From dawn till ten, and sometimes until eleven at night. I cared little for the confinement, but grievously the loss of books and mental improvement...... I had a board erected at my left hand on which I fastened my book and worked and read all day. The books in my father's library having ran out, I was obliged to borrow from some of my neighbours."Seeing the titles of books that Robert read, strikes us today as very erudite for a child. Robert's cousin Thomas, who was reading theology at Edinburgh University, encouraged him in his studies, and taught him Latin and later Greek.
Leisure time was rare, but Robert gave a colourful description of the Earlston Fairs - one in summer and one in autumn "These fairs were looked forward to with great delight by the village boys . There assembled dealers in cattle, hardware, toys and books."
Memories of a Murder and Execution
Robert in much later life wrote about the impact of a local murder, followed by an execution that he witnessed as a twelve year old boy. Two men walking home from Earlston Fair, were set upon and killed by an intoxicated Robert Scott, He was arrested and taken to Jedburgh Jail, tried and condemned to die at the very spot where the crime had been committed.
Robert Carter recalled
Becoming a Teacher"Thousands came to witness the execution. I was in that crowd. At a turn of the road I was within a few feet of him, and such a haggard face I never saw. It haunted me for many a year. When on the scaffold, he , in a loud voice that was heard by thousands, prayed for mercy - that he might be delivered from blood guilti-ness, — prayed for the widows whom he had made widows, and for the children whom he had made fatherless. I never heard such earnest pleading, and I never forgot it."
In 1822, when Robert was fifteen years old, a cousin who was a teacher in a private school in Selkirk, and about to attend a course at Edinburgh University, invited him to take his place at the school - an experience which proved invaluable
When he returned to Earlston, Robert opened an evening school in his father’s house. He soon had twenty-eight scholars, and the school was notable in that most of the pupils were older than their teacher. About this time a course lectures for teachers was being offered in Edinburgh. Robert walked the thirty mile to Edinburgh, to hear them, leaving home on a Monday morning shortly after midnight, and reaching the capital at ten o'clock in time for the first lecture. He gained the friendship of the Professor, and when, about seven years later,Robert sailed for America, he carried with him a letter of introduction from the Professor to Dr. Griscom, head of the High School in New York.
Back in the Borders, Robert heard of a vacancy at Peebles Grammar School. and set out to walk the distance of twenty-five miles to make a personal application, taking with him, as usual, a book to peruse on the way. Despite reservations about his youth, he was offered the post, and achieved success with both his pupils and the staff.
A position at the parish school in Smailholm, became vacant, just six miles from his home and Robert walked there to apply for the post. But his application would not be considered , because he was not a member of the Church of Scotland. Robert's church allegiance was to Earlston Secession Church which had broken away from the established Church of Scotland, largely over the issue of patronage and who appointed the minister.
Robert felt this rejection deeply and told his father
"I shall not apply for a position in my own land again, I will go to America where the religious domination will not stand in the way of my progress."Leaving Earlston
In March 1831 Robert booked his passage from Greenock to New York on the ship "Francis" The separation from home and family was hard.
At six o'clock in the morning, about thirty acquaintances and friends met in the old house to say goodbye to him, before he set out to walk from Earlston by way of Peebles and Edinburgh to Greenock.
"As I arose to go, my mother embraced me most tenderly fainted and fell on the sofa. My father and many friends accompanied me, until at ten miles, my father and a dear friend alone were left. We parted in silence. I gazed after them until they disappeared from view. I then sat down by the silvery Tweed and gave vent to my feelings. I was alone with God."
Part Two of the Robert Carter story will trace his time in New York where his success enabled him to bring across to America his parents, brothers and sisters across to America. But Robert never forgot Earlston and made repeated visits back to his birthplace.
- Robert Carter: His Life and Work, 1807-1889, by Annie Carter Cochrane.
The full text is available HERE on the Library of Congress Internet Archive.
- Obituary in "The Southern Reporter": 4th July 1895.
- David McConnell - a descendant of Robert's cousin, Elizabeth Carter.