Childsplay: An eighteenth-century boyhood

Kate MacFarlane is a retired civil servant living in Ottawa, Canada. I had a long career with the Canadian government, working primarily on the designation and preservation of our built heritage. I am currently pursuing an MLitt in history through the University of the Highlands and Islands and serving as a volunteer board member with Heritage Ottawa.

Donald Sage (1789-1869) was a minister and a minister’s son, born and raised in Kildonan. His memoir, Memorabilia Domestica: Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland provides a rare and fascinating glimpse of his late eighteenth-century boyhood and the pastimes and playmates that filled it. Looking back on his early childhood, Sage recalled a world of gloriously unsupervised, adventurous and unstructured play, most of it in the company of his older brother Eneas. At the ages of just four and five, the boys – unaccompanied – “crossed the burn, and, for our own amusement…called in at almost all the tenants’ houses, where we met with a kind and cordial reception.”[1] Fussed over and fed “a half cake of oat-bread, larded over with cream,”[2] they were then carried home, Eneas not being in the mood to walk.

From early on, the boys were “of a mechanical turn…always building houses and mills, in imitation of those at Kildonan.”[3] They “built a clay house at the back of the manse” and “mills as closely resembling their larger and more useful prototypes as our limited capacities could approach.”[4] They also enjoyed fishing for (or as Sage put it, butchering) trout, either catching them in a home made weel or using “another and still more barbarous method of killing,” impaling the trout “with all our force [so] the wretched victims of our pursuit often came up in fragments!”[5]

At the ages of twelve and thirteen, Donald and Eneas left for school at Dornoch, where they stayed for a year and a half. Life at school was more structured and rigidly disciplined but it did allow time for play which, by then, had evolved from their childhood rambles into more competitive team sports and activities. Chief among them was “club and shinty” which Sage describes as a “game, or battle.”[6] He notes that during his youth, it was universal in the north. For men only, it was played “with all the keenness accompanied by shouts, with which their forefathers had wielded the claymore.”[7] It was physical to the point of danger and “in not a few instances, actually proved fatal.”[8]

‘Game of Shinty’ from Old England: A Pictorial History (1845) [out of copyright]

Another fond memory from his school days was of cock fighting which “took precedence over all our other amusements.”[9] Then a wide spread practice throughout the parochial school system, cocks were begged from households throughout the parish and brought by school boys to the local court room or “battle-field where the feathered brood might, by their bills and claws, decide who among the juvenile throng should be king and queen.”[10]

Sage says very little about toys in his memoir, recalling only a handful of special ones. For example, at a very early age, he was given a windmill by John Ross, an admirer of his housekeeper who hoped to gain her favor. The gift, he said, “rivetted [sic] my affections to him and I followed him like his shadow.”[11] The servants were amused by his devotion and “to put my attachment to the test…one stormy evening, as I was seated by the kitchen fireside, told me that John Ross was dead, that he had been drowned in attempting to cross the burn.”[12] Poor Sage, “giving full vent to my feelings…made the kitchen rafters ring with my roaring.”[13]

Sage studied Latin from a very young age, progressing quickly and working his way through a wide range of classical works. A bright, imaginative little boy, he took inspiration from his reading and set the stories and characters in local settings: “The gay and elegant Athens,” for example, “with its orators and heroes, its classic buildings, its Acropolis and its thoughtless and polished mob…were all located in the village of Kildonan.”[14]

Memorabilia Domestica, is rich in detail and an excellent source of information on 18th century childhood in the north of Scotland. Sage gives his readers a fascinating glimpse of one boy’s world of play – full of exploration and adventure – and highlights the pastimes, toys, reading materials, sports and games that he enjoyed.


[1]Sage, Donald. Memorabilia Domestica, Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland (Wick, 1899), p. 79.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid, p. 94.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid, p. 118. See a previous post for more on this: https://historylinksdornoch.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/dornoch-diversions/ (March 19, 2013)

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid, p. 119. See a previous post for more on this: https://historylinksdornoch.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/cock-o-the-north/ (February 3, 2014)

[11]Ibid, p. 78.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid, pp. 78-79.

[14]Ibid, pp. 86-87. See a previous post for more on this: https://historylinksdornoch.wordpress.com/2018/09/18/a-landscape-of-the-imagination-kildonan-and-the-classical-world/ (Septmeber 18, 2018)

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