[NOTE.--The following sketch of the founding of a Co-operative Association by four Scotch boys was originally meant for young people; but subsequently the writer ventured to think that it might prove equally interesting, or even more interesting, to grown-up folk, especially as parts of it are based on fact; and so it is now printed here for the first time.]
It was on a bright and glorious morning in July that the great chieftain, Robert of the Red Hand, accompanied by his kinsmen and allies, put to sea in his war-galley, resolved to sweep the Spanish main free of all his enemies, and thereafter to hold high revel in the halls of Eilean-na-Rona. At least, that was how it appeared to the imagination of the great chieftain himself, though the simple facts of the case were a trifle less romantic. For this Robert of the Red Hand, more familiarly known as Rob MacNicol, or even as plain Rob, was an active, stout-sinewed, black-eyed lad of seventeen, whose only mark of chieftainship apparently was that, unlike his brothers, he wore shoes and stockings; these three relatives constituted his allies and kinsmen; the so-called Spanish main was in reality an arm of the sea better known in the Hebrides as Loch Scrone; and the war-galley was an old, ramshackle, battered, and betarred boat belonging generally to the fishing-village of Erisaig; for, indeed, the boat was so old and so battered that nobody now seemed to claim any special ownership of it.
These four MacNicols,–Robert, Neil, Nicol, and Duncan,–were, it must be admitted, an idle and graceless set, living for the most part a hand-to-mouth, amphibious, curlew-like kind of life, and far more given to aimless voyages in boats not belonging to them than inclined to turn their hand to any honest labour. But this must be said in their excuse that no boy or lad born in the village of Erisaig could by any means whatsoever be brought to think of becoming anything else than a fisherman. It was impossible to induce them to apprentice themselves to any ordinary trade. They would wait until they were old enough to go after the herring, like the others; that was man’s work; that was something like; that was different from staying ashore and twiddling one’s fingers over a pair of somebody else’s shoes, or laboriously shaping a block of sandstone for somebody else’s house. This Rob MacNicol, for example: it was only for want of a greater career that he had constituted himself a dreaded sea-rover, a stern chieftain, etc. etc. His secret ambition–his great and constant and secret ambition–went far farther than that. It was to be of man’s estate, broad-shouldered and heavy-bearded; to wear huge black boots up to his thighs, and a blue flannel jersey; to have a peaked cap (not forgetting a brass button on each side by way of smartness); and then to come along, in the afternoon, with a yellow oilskin tied up in a bundle, to the wharf where the herring fleet lay, the admiration and the envy of all the miserable creatures condemned to stay ashore.
In the meantime–in these days of joyous idleness, while as yet the cares and troubles which this history will have to chronicle were far away from him and his simply because they were unknown–Rob MacNicol, if he could not be a fisherman, could be an imaginary chieftain, and in that capacity he gave his orders as one who knew how to make himself obeyed. As soon as they had shoved the boat clear of the smacks, the jib was promptly set; the big lumps of stone that served for ballast were duly shifted; the lug-sail, as black as pitch and full of holes, was hoisted, and the halyards made fast; then the sheet was hauled in by Nicol MacNicol, who had been ordered to the helm; and finally the shaky old nondescript craft began to creep through the blue waters of Erisaig Bay. It was a lovely morning; the light breeze from the land seemed steady enough; altogether, nothing could have been more auspicious for the setting out of the great chieftain and his kinsmen.