We find in the conversation of old people frequent mention of parochial functionaries, now either become commonplace, like the rest of the world, or removed altogether, and shut up in poor-houses or mad-houses – I mean parish idiots – eccentric, or somewhat crazy, useless, idle creatures, who used to wander from house to house, and sometimes made very shrewd, sarcastic remarks upon what was going on in the parish. They used to take great liberty of speech regarding the conduct and disposition of those with whom they came in contact; and many odd sayings which emanated from the parish idiots, were traditionary in country localities. I have a kindly feeling towards these imperfectly intelligent, but often perfectly cunning beings; partly I believe from recollections of early associations in boyish days, with some of those Davy Gellatleys. I have therefore preserved several anecdotes with which I have been favoured, where their odd sayings and indications of a degree of mental activity have been recorded. Parish idiots seem to have had a partiality for getting near the pulpit in church, and their presence there was accordingly sometimes annoying to the preacher and the congregation; as at Maybole, when Dr. Paul, now of St. Cuthbert’s, was minister in 1823, the idiot John McLymont had been in the habit of standing so close to the pulpit door as to overlook the Bible and pulpit board. When required, however, by the clergyman, to keep at a greater distance, and not look in upon the minister, he got intensely angry and violent. He threatened the minister, “Sir, bæeby (maybe) I’ll come further;” meaning to intimate that perhaps he would, if much provoked, come into the pulpit altogether. This, indeed, actually took place on another occasion, and the tenure of the ministerial position was justified by an argument of a most amusing nature. The circumstance, I am assured, happened in a parish of the north. The clergyman, on coming into church, found the pulpit occupied by the parish idiot. The authorities had been unable to remove him without more violence than was seemly, and therefore waited for the minister to dispossess Tam of the place he had assumed. “Come down, sir, immediately,” was the peremptory and indignant call; and on Tam being unmoved, it was repeated with still greater energy. Tam, however, replied, looking down confidentially from his elevation, “Na, na, minister! juist ye come up wi’ me. This is a perverse generation, and faith they need us baith.” It is curious to mark the sort of glimmering of sense, and even of discriminating thought displayed by persons of this class; as an example, take a conversation held by this same idiot, John McLymont, with Dr. Paul, whom he met some time after. He seemed to have recovered his good humour, as he stopped him, and said, “Sir, I would like to speer a question at ye on a subject that’s troubling me.” “Well, Johnie, what is the question?” To which he replied, “Sir, is it lawful at ony time to tell a lee?” The minister desired to know what Johnie himself thought upon the point. “Weel, sir,” said he, “I’ll no say but in every case it’s wrang to tell a lee; but,” added he, looking archly and giving a knowing wink, “I think there are waur lees than ithers.” “How, Johnie?” and then he instantly replied with all the simplicity of a fool, “to keep down a din for instance. I’ll no say but a man does wrang in telling a lee to keep down a din, but I’m sure he does not do half sae muckle wrang as a man who tells a lee to kick up a deevilment o’ a din.” This opened a question not likely to occur to such a mind. Mr. Asher, minister of Inveraven in Morayshire, narrated to Dr. Paul a curious example of want of intelligence combined with a power of cunning to redress a fancied wrong, shewn by a poor natural of the parish, who had been seized with a violent inflammatory attack, and was in great danger. The medical attendant saw it necessary to bleed him, but he resisted, and would not submit to it. At last the case became so hopeless that they were obliged to use force, and, holding his hands and feet, the doctor opened a vein and drew blood, upon which the poor creature, struggling violently, bawled out, “O doctor, doctor! you’ll kill me! you’ll kill me! and depend upon it, the first thing I’ll do when I get to the other world will be to report you to the Board of Supervision there, and get you dismissed.” A most extraordinary sensation was once produced on a congregation by Rab Hamilton, a well-remembered idiot of the west country, on the occasion of his attendance at the parish kirk of “Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a toun surpasses.” Miss Kirkwood, Bothwell, relates the story from the recollection of her aunt, who was present. Rab had put his head between some iron rails, the first intimation of which to the congregation was a stentorian voice crying out. “Murder! my head’ll hae to be cutit aff! Holy minister! congregation! O my head maun be cutit aff. It’s a judgment for leaving my godlie Mr. Peebles at the Newton.” After he had been extricated and quieted, when asked, why he put his head there? he said, “It was jeest to look on1 wi’ anither woman.”
The pathetic complaint of one of this class, residing at a farm house, has often been narrated, and forms a good illustration of idiot life and feelings. He was living in the greatest comfort, and every want provided. But, like the rest of mankind, he had his own trials, and his own cause for anxiety and annoyance. In this poor fellow’s case it was the great turkey-cock at the farm, of whom he stood so terribly in awe, that he was afraid to come within a great distance of his enemy. Some of his friends coming to visit him, reminded him how comfortable he was, and how grateful he ought to be for the great care taken of him; he admitted the truth of the remark generally, but still, like the rest of the world, he had to lament over an evil which sadly beset his path in life. There was a secret grievance which embittered his lot; and to his friend he thus opened his heart:- “Ae, ae, but oh, I’m sare hadden doun wi’ the bubbly jock.”2
I have received two anecdotes illustrative both of the occasional acuteness of mind, and of the sensitiveness of feeling occasionally indicated by persons thus situated. A well-known idiot, Jamie Fraser, belonging to the parish of Lunan, in Forfarshire, quite surprised people sometimes by his replies. The congregation of his parish church had for some time distressed the minister by their habit of sleeping in church. He had often endeavoured to impress them with a sense of the impropriety of such conduct, and one day when Jamie was sitting in the front gallery wide awake, when many were slumbering round him, the clergyman endeavoured to awaken the attention of his hearers by stating the fact, saying, “You see even Jamie Fraser, the idiot, does not fall asleep, as so many of you are doing.” Jamie not liking, perhaps, to be thus designated, coolly replied, “An’ I hadna been an idiot, I wad ha’ been sleeping too.” Another of these imbeciles, belonging to Peebles, had been sitting at church for some time listening attentively to a strong representation from the pulpit of the guilt of deceit and falsehood in Christian characters. He was observed to turn red, and grow very uneasy, until at last, as if wincing under the supposed attack upon himself personally, he roared out, “Indeed, minister, there’s mair leears in Peebles than me.” As examples of idiots possessing much of the dry humour of their more sane countrymen, and of their facility to utter sly and ready-witted sayings, I have received the two following from Mr. W. Chambers:- Daft Jock Gray, the supposed original of Davie Gellatley, was one day assailed by the minister of a south-country parish on the subject of his idleness. “John,” said the minister rather pompously, “you are a very idle fellow; you might surely herd a few cows.” “Me hird!” replied Jock, “I dinna ken corn frae gerse.”
In the memorials of the Montgomeries, Earls of Eglinton, vol. i. p. 134, occurs an anecdote of an idiot illustrative of the peculiar acuteness and quaint humour which occasionally mark the sayings of the class. There was a certain “Daft Will Speir,” who was a privileged haunter of Eglinton Castle and grounds. He was discovered by the Earl one day taking a near cut, and crossing a fence in the demesne. The Earl called out, “Come back, sir, that’s not the road.” “Do ye ken,” said Will, “whaur I’m gaun?” “No,” replied his lordship. “Weel, hoo the deil do ye ken whether this be the road or no?”
In Peebles there was a crazy being of this kind called “Daft Yedie.” On one occasion he saw a gentleman, a stranger in the town, who had a club foot. Yedie contemplated this phenomenon with some interest, and addressing the gentleman, said compassionately, “It’s a great pity – it spoils the boot.” There is a story of one of those half-witted creatures of a different character from the humorous ones already recorded; I think it is exceedingly affecting, and with it I will conclude my collection. The story is traditionary in a country district, and I am not aware of its being ever printed. A poor boy, of this class, who had evidently manifested a tendency towards religious and devotional feelings, asked permission from the clergyman to attend the Lord’s Table and partake of the holy communion with the other members of the congregation (whether Episcopalian or Presbyterian I do not know). The clergyman demurred for some time, under the impression of his mind being incapable of a right and due understanding of the sacred ordinance. But observing the extreme earnestness of the poor boy, at last gave consent, and he was allowed to come. He was much affected, and all the way home was heard to exclaim, “Oh! I hae seen the pretty man.” This referred to his seeing the Lord Jesus, whom he had approached in the sacrament. He kept repeating the words, and went with them on his lips to rest for the night. Not appearing at the usual hour for breakfast, when they went to his bedside they found him dead! The excitement had been too much – mind and body had given way – and the half-idiot of earth awoke to the glories and the bliss of his Redeemer’s presence.
The relative whom I have mentioned had many stories of a parochial fraternity of a more authorized character than the parish idiots, but whose eccentricities also have, in a great measure, given way before the assimilating spirit of the times. I mean the old Scottish beadle, or betheral, as he used to be called. Some classes of men are found to have that nameless but distinguishing characteristic of figure and aspect which marks out particular occupations and professions of mankind. This was so much the case in the betheral class, that an old lady observing a well-known judge and advocate walking together in the street, remarked to a friend as they passed by, “Dear me, Lucy, wha are thae twa beddle-looking bodies!” They were often great originals, and I suspect, must have been somewhat given to convivial habits, from a remark I recollect of the late Baron Clerk Rattray, viz., that in his younger days he had hardly ever known a perfectly sober betheral. However this may have been, they were, as a class, remarkable for quaint humour, and for being shrewd observers of what was going on. I have heard of an occasion where the betheral made his wits furnish an apology for his want of sobriety. He had been sent round the parish by the minister to deliver notices at all the houses of the catechising which was to precede the preparation for receiving the communion. On his return it was quite evident that he had partaken too largely of refreshment since he had been on his expedition. The minister reproached him for this improper conduct. The betheral pleaded the pressing hospitality of the parishioners. The clergyman did not admit the plea, and added, “Now, John, I go through the parish, and you don’t see me return fou as you have done.” “Ay, minister,” rejoined the betheral, with much complacency, “but then aiblins ye’re no sae popular i’ the parish as me’” My relative used to tell of one of these officials receiving, with much ceremony, a brother betheral from a neighbouring parish, who had come with the minister thereof about to preach for some special occasion. After service, the betheral of the stranger clergyman felt proud of the performance of the appointed duty, and said, in a triumphant tone, to his friend, “I think our minister did weel; ay, he gars the stour flee out o’ the cushion.” To which the other rejoined, with a calm feeling of superiority, “Stour oot o’ the cushion! hout, our minister, sin’ he cam wi’ us, has dung the guts oot o’ twa bibles.” Another description I have heard of an energetic preacher more forcible than delicate – “Eh, our minister had a great power o’ watter, for he grat and spat, and swat like mischeef.” An obliging anonymous correspondent has sent me a story of a functionary of this class whose pride was centred not so much in the performance of the minister as of the precentor. He states, that he remembers an old beadle of the church which was called “Haddo’s Hole,” and sometimes the “Little Kirk,“ in Edinburgh, whose son occasionally officiated as precentor. He was not very well qualified for the duty, but the father had a high opinion of his son’s vocal powers. In those days there was always service in the church on the Tuesday evenings; and when the father was asked on such occasions, “Who’s to preach to-night?” his self-complacent reply used to be, “I divna ken wha’s till preach, but my son’s for till precent.” This class of functionaries were very free in their remarks upon the preaching of strangers, who used occasionally to occupy the pulpit of their church – the city betherals speaking sometimes in a most condescending manner of clergy from the provincial parishes. As, for example, a betheral of one of the large churches in Glasgow, criticising the sermon of a minister from the country who had been preaching in the city church, characterized it as “Gude coorse country wark.” A betheral of one of the churches of St. Giles’, Edinburgh, used to call on the family of Mr. Robert Stevenson, engineer, who was one of the elders. On one occasion they asked him, what had been the text on such a night, when none of the family had been present. The man of office, confused at the question, and unwilling to shew anything like ignorance, poured forth, “Weel, ye see, the text last day, was just entirely, sirs – yes – the text, sirs – what was it again – ou ay, just entirely, ye see it was, ‘What profiteth a man if he lose the world, and gain his own soul.’ ” Most of such stories are usually of an old standing. A more recent one has been told me of a betheral in a royal burgh much decayed from former importance, and governed by a feeble municipality of old men who continued in office, and in fact constituted rather the shadow than the substance of a corporation. A clergyman from a distance having come to officiate in the parish church, the betheral, knowing the terms on which it was usual for the minister officiating to pray for the efficiency of the local magistracy, quietly cautioned the clergyman before service that, in regard to the town council, there it would be quite out of place for him to pray that they should be a “terror to evil doers,” because, as he said, the “poor auld bodies could be nae terror to onybody.” The beadle of a country parish is usually called the minister’s man, and to one of these, who had gone through a long course of such parish official life, a gentleman one day remarked – “John, ye hae been sae lang about the minister’s hand that I dare say ye could preach a sermon yersell now.” To which John modestly replied, “Oh na, sir, I couldna preach a sermon, but maybe I could draw an inference.” “Well, John,” said the gentleman, humouring the quiet vanity of the beadle, “what inference could ye draw frae this text, ‘a wild ass snuffeth up the wind at her pleasure?’ ” (Jer. ii. 24.) “Weel, sir, I wad draw this inference, he wad snuff a lang time afore he would fatten upon’t.” I had an anecdote from a friend of a reply from a betheral to the minister in church, which was quaint and amusing from the shrewd self-importance it indicated in his own acuteness. The clergyman had been annoyed during the course of his sermon by the restlessness and occasional whining of a dog, which at last began to bark outright. He looked out for the beadle, and directed him very peremptorily, “John, carry that dog out.” John looked up to the pulpit, and with a very knowing expression said, “Na, na, sir; I’se just mak him gae out on his ain four legs.” I have another story of canine misbehaviour in church. A dog was present during the service, and in the sermon the worthy minister was in the habit of speaking very loud, and, in fact, when he got warmed with his subject, of shouting almost to the top of his voice. The dog who, in the early part, had been very quiet, became quite excited, as is not uncommon with some dogs when hearing a noise, and from whinging and whining, as the speaker’s voice rose loud and strong, at last began to bark and howl. The minister, naturally much annoyed at the interruption, called upon the betheral to put out the dog, who at once expressed his readiness to obey the order, but could not resist the temptation to look up to the pulpit, and to say very significantly, “Ay, ay, sir; but indeed it was yersell began it.” There is a dog story connected with Reminiscences of Glasgow (see Chambers’ Journal, March 1855), which is full of meaning. The bowls of rum punch which so remarkably characterized the Glasgow dinners of last century and the early part of the present, it is to be feared made some of the congregation given to somnolency on the Sundays following. The members of the town-council often adopted Saturday for such meetings; accordingly, the Rev. Mr. Thom, an excellent clergyman, took occasion to mark this propensity with some acerbity. A dog had been very troublesome. and disturbed the congregation for some time. when the minister at last gave orders to the beadle. Take out that dog; he’d wauken a Glasgow magistrate.”
It would be impossible in these reminiscences to omit the well-known and often-repeated anecdote connected with an eminent divine of our own country, whose works take a high place in our theological literature. The story to which I allude was rendered popular throughout the kingdom, some years ago, by the inimitable mode in which it was told or rather acted by the late Charles Matthews. But Matthews was wrong in the person of whom he related the humorous address. I have assurance of the parties from a friend, whose father, a distinguished clergyman in the Scottish church at the time, had accurate knowledge of the whole circumstances. The late celebrated Dr. Macknight, a learned and profound scholar and commentator, was nevertheless, as a preacher, to a great degree, heavy, unrelieved by fancy or imagination; an able writer, but a dull speaker. His colleague Dr. Henry, well known as the author of a history of England, was, on the other hand, a man of great humour, and could not resist a joke when the temptation came upon him. On one occasion when coming to church, Dr. Macknight had been caught in a shower of rain, and entered the vestry soaked with wet. Every means were used to relieve him from his discomfort; but as the time drew on for divine service he became much distressed, and ejaculated over and over, “Oh, I wush that I was dry; do you think I’m dry; do you think I’m dry eneuch noo?” His jocose colleague could resist no longer, but, patting him on the shoulder, comforted him with the sly assurance, “Bide a wee, Doctor, and ye’se be dry eneuch when ye get into the pu’pit.” Another quaint remark of the facetious Doctor to his more formal colleague has been preserved by friends of the family. Dr. Henry, who, with all his pleasantry and abilities, had himself as little popularity in the pulpit as his coadjutor, had been remarking to Dr. Macknight what a blessing it was that they two were colleagues in one charge, and continued dwelling on the subject so long, that Dr. M., not quite pleased at the frequent reiteration of the remark, said that it certainly was a great pleasure to himself, but he did not see what great benefit it might be to the world. “Ah,” said Dr. Henry, “an it hadna been for that, there wad hae been twa toom3 kirks this day.” I am indebted to a gentleman, himself also a distinguished member of the Scottish church, for an authentic anecdote of this learned divine, and which occurred whilst Dr. Macknight was the minister of Maybole. One of his parishioners, a well-known humorous blacksmith of the parish, who, no doubt, thought that the Doctor’s learned books were rather a waste of time and labour for a country pastor, was asked if his minister was at home. The Doctor was then busy bringing out his laborious and valuable work, his “Harmony of the Four Gospels.” “Na, he’s gane to Edinburgh on a verra useless job.” On being asked what this useless work might be which engaged his pastor’s time and attention, he answered, “He’s gane to mak four men agree wha ne’er cast out.” The good-humoured and candid answer of a learned and rather long-winded preacher of the old school, always appeared to me quite charming. The good man was far from being a popular preacher, and yet he could not reduce his discourses below the hour and a half. On being asked, as a gentle hint, of their possibly needless length, if he did not feel tired after preaching so long, he replied, “Na, na, I’m no tired;” adding, however, with much naïveté, “But, Lord, hoo tired the fowk whiles are.”
The late good, kind-hearted Dr. David Dickson was fond of telling a story of a Scottish termagant of the days before kirk-session discipline had passed away. A couple were brought before the court, and Janet, the wife, was charged with violent and undutiful conduct, and with wounding her husband, by throwing a three-legged stool at his head. The minister rebuked her conduct, and pointed out its grievous character, by explaining that just as Christ was head of his church, so the husband was head of the wife; and therefore, in assaulting him, she had, in fact, injured her own body. “Weel,” she replied, “it’s come to a fine pass gin a wife canna kame her ain head;” “Aye, but Janet,” rejoined the minister, a three-legged stool is a thief-like bane kame to scart yer ain head wi’!”
Our object in bringing up and recording anecdotes of this kind is to elucidate the sort of humour we refer to, and to shew it as a humour of past times. A modern clergyman could hardly adopt the tone and manner of the older class of ministers – men not less useful and beloved, on account of their odd Scottish humour, which indeed suited their time. Could a clergyman, for instance, now come off from the trying position in which we have heard of a northern minister being placed, and by the same way through which he extricated himself with much good nature and quiet sarcasm? A young man sitting opposite to him in the front of the gallery had been up late on the previous night and had stuffed the cards with which he had been occupied into his coat pocket. Forgetting the circumstance, he pulled out his handkerchief, and the cards all flew about. The minister simply looked at him, and remarked, “Eh man, your psalm buik has been ill bund.”
Many anecdotes of pithy and facetious replies are recorded of a minister of the south, usually distinguished as “Our Watty Dunlop.” On one occasion two irreverent young fellows determined, as they said, to “taigle”4 the minister. Coming up to him in the High Street of Dumfries, they accosted him with much solemnity. “Maister Dunlop, dae ye hear the news?” “What news?” “Oh, the deil’s dead.” “Is he,” said Mr. Dunlop, then I maun pray for twa faitherless bairns.” On another occasion Maister Dunlop met, with characteristic humour, an attempt to play off a trick against him. It was known that he was to dine with a minister, whose manse was close to the church, so that his return home must be through the churchyard. Accordingly, some idle and mischievous youths waited for him in the dark night, and one of them came up to him, dressed as a ghost, in hopes of putting him in a fright. Watty’s cool accost speedily upset the plan. “Weel, Maister Ghaist, is this a general rising, or are ye juist taking a daunder frae your grave by yersell.” I have received from a correspondent another specimen of Watty’s acute rejoinders. Some years ago the celebrated Edward Irving had been lecturing at Dumfries, and a man who passed as a wag in that locality, had been to hear him. He met Watty Dunlop the following day, who said, “Weel, Willie, man, an’ what do ye think of Mr. Irving?“ “Oh,” said Willie contemptuously, “the man’s crack’t.” Dunlop patted him on the shoulder, with the quiet remark, “Willie, ye’ll aften see a light peeping through a crack!“
An admirable story of a quiet pulpit rebuke is traditionary in Fife, and is told of Mr. Shirra, a seceding minister, of Kirkcaldy, a man still well remembered by some of the older generation for many excellent and some eccentric qualities. A young officer of a volunteer corps on duty in the place, very proud of his fresh uniform, had come to Mr. Shirra’s church, and walked about as if looking for a seat, but in fact to shew off his dress, which he saw was attracting attention from some of the less grave members of the congregation. He came to his place, however, rather quickly, on Mr. Shirra quietly remonstrating, “O man, will ye sit doun, and we’ll see your new breeks when the kirk’s dune.” This same Mr. Shirra was well known from his quaint, and as it were, parenthetical comments which he introduced in his reading of Scripture; as, for example, on reading from the 116th Psalm, “I said in my haste all men are liars,” he quietly observed, “Indeed, Dauvid, an’ ye had been i’ this parish ye might hae said it at your leesure.”
There was something even still more pungent in the incidental remark of a good man, in the course of his sermon, who had in a country place taken to preaching out of doors in the summer afternoons. He used to collect the people as they were taking air by the side of a stream outside the village. On one occasion he had unfortunately taken his place on a bank, and fixed himself on an ant’s nest. The active habits of those little creatures soon made the position of the intruder upon their domain very uncomfortable; and afraid that his audience might observe something of this discomfort in his manner, apologised by the remark – “Brethren, though I hope I have the word of God in my mouth, I think the deil himself has gotten into my breeks.”
There was often no doubt a sharp conflict of wits when some of these humorist ministers came into collision with members of their flocks who were also humorists. Of this nature is the following anecdote, which I am assured is genuine. A minister in the north was taking to task one of his hearers who was a frequent defaulter, and was reproaching him as an habitual absentee from public worship. The accused vindicated himself on the plea of a dislike to long sermons. “ ‘Deed, man,” said his reverend monitor, a little nettled at the insinuation thrown out against himself, “if ye dinna mend, ye may land yersell where ye’ll no be troubled wi’ mony sermons either lang or short.” “Weel, aiblins sae,” retorted John, “but it may na be for want o’ ministers.” An answer to Mr. Shirra himself, strongly illustrative of Scottish ready and really clever wit, and which I am assured is quite authentic, must, I think, have struck the fancy of that excellent humorist himself. When Mr. Shirra was parish minister of St. Ninian’s, one of the members of the church was John Henderson or Anderson – decent douce shoemaker – and who left the church and joined the Independents, who had a meeting in Stirling. Some time afterwards, when Mr. Shirra met John on the road, he said, “And so, John, I understand you have become an Independent?” “ ‘Deed, sir,” replied John, “that’s true.” “Oh, John,” said the minister, “I’m sure you ken that a rowin’ (rolling) stane gathers nae fog (moss).” “Aye,” said John, “that’s true too; but can ye tell me what guid the fog does to the stane?” Mr. Shirra himself afterwards became a Baptist. The wit, however, was all in favour of the minister:-
Dr. Gilchrist, formerly of the East Parish of Greenock, and who died minister of the Canongate, Edinburgh, received an intimation of one of his hearers, who had been exceedingly irregular in his attendance, that he had taken seats in an Episcopal chapel. One day soon after, he met his former parishioner, who told him that he had “changed his religion.” “Indeed,” said the Doctor quietly, “how’s that? I ne’er heard ye had ony.” It was this same Dr. Gilchrist who gave the well-known quiet but forcible rebuke to a young minister whom he considered rather conceited and fond of putting forward his own doings, and who was to officiate in the Doctor’s church. He explained to him the mode in which he usually conducted the service, and stated that he always finished the prayer before the sermon with the Lord’s Prayer. The young minister demurred at this, and asked if he “might not introduce any other short prayer?” “Ou aye,” was the Doctor’s quiet reply, “gif ye can gie us ony thing better.”
At Banchory, on Deeside, some of the criticisms and remarks on sermons were very quaint and characteristic. My cousin had asked the Ley’s grieve what he thought of a young man’s preaching, who rather imitated the ornate language than the powerful ideas of Dr. Chalmers, drily answered, “Ou, Sir Thomas, just a floorish o’ the surface.” But the same hearer bore this unequivocal testimony to another preacher whom he really admired. He was asked if he did not think the sermon long, “Na, I shuld nae hae thocht it lang an’ I’d been sitting on thorns.”
The following anecdotes, collected from different contributors, are fair samples of the quaint and original character of Scottish ways and expressions now becoming more and more matters of reminiscence:- A poor man came to his minister for the purpose of intimating his intention of being married. As he expressed, however, some doubts on the subject, and seemed to hesitate, the minister asked him if there were any doubts about his being accepted. No, that was not the difficulty; but he expressed a fear that it might not be altogether suitable, and he asked whether, if he were once married, he could not (in case of unsuitability and unhappiness) get unmarried? The clergyman assured him that it was impossible; if he married it must be for better and worse; that he could not go back upon the step. So thus instructed he went away. After a time he returned, and said he had made up his mind to try the experiment, and he came and was married. Ere long he came back very disconsolate, and declared it would not do at all; that he was quite miserable, and begged to be unmarried. The minister assured him that was out of the question, and urged him to put away the notion of anything so absurd. The man insisted that the marriage could not hold good, for the wife was waur than the deevil. The minister demurred, saying that was quite impossible. “Na,” said the poor man, “the Bible tells ye that if ye resist the deil he flees frae ye, but if her she flees at ye.”
A faithful minister of the gospel being one day engaged in visiting some members of his flock, came to the door of a house where his gentle tapping could not be heard for the noise of contention within. After waiting a little he opened the door, and walked in, saying, with an authoritative voice, “I should like to know who is the head of this house.” “Weel, sir,” said the husband and father, “if ye sit doon a wee, we’ll maybe be able to tell ye, for we’re just trying to settle that point.”
A minister in the north returning thanks in his prayers one Sabbath for the excellent harvest, began, as usual, “O Lord, we thank thee,” etc., and went on to mention its abundance, and its safe ingathering; but feeling anxious to be quite candid and scrupulously truthful, added, “all except a few fields between this and Stonehaven, not worth mentioning.”
A Scotch preacher being sent to officiate one Sunday at a country parish, was accommodated at night in the manse, in a very diminutive closet, instead of the usual best bed-room appropriated to strangers.
“Is this the bed-room?” he said, starting back in amazement.
“ ‘Deed aye sir, this is the prophets’ chalmer.”
“It maun be for the minor prophets, then,” was the quiet reply.
Elders of the kirk, no doubt, frequently partook of the original and humorous character of ministers and others, their contemporaries; and amusing scenes must have passed, and good Scotch sayings been said, where they were concerned. Dr. Chalmers used to repeat one of these sayings of an elder with great delight. The Doctor associated with the anecdote the name of Lady Glenorchy and the church which she endowed; but I am assured that the person was Lady Elizabeth Cunninghame, sister of Archibald eleventh Earl of Eglinton, and wife of Sir John Cunninghame, Bart. of Caprington, near Kilmarnock. It seems her ladyship had, for some reason, taken offence at the proceedings of the Caprington parochial authorities, and a result of which was that she ceased putting her usual liberal offering into the plate at the door. This had gone on for some time, till one of the elders, of a less forbearing character than the others, took his turn at the plate. Lady Elizabeth, as usual, passed by without a contribution, but made a formal courtesy to the elder as she passed, and sailed majestically up the aisle. The good man was determined not to let her pass so easily. He quickly followed her up the passage, and urged the remonstrance, “My lady, gie us less o’ your mainers and mair o’ your siller.”5
Of an eccentric and eloquent professor and divine of a northern Scottish university, there are numerous and extraordinary traditionary anecdotes. I have received an account of some of these anecdotes from the kind communication of an eminent Scottish clergyman, who was himself, in early days his frequent hearer. The stories told of the strange observations and allusions which he introduced into his pulpit discourses, almost surpass belief. For many reasons, they are not suitable to the nature of this publication, still less could they be tolerated in any pulpit administration now, although familiar to his contemporaries. The remarkable circumstance, however, connected with these eccentricities was, that he introduced them with the utmost gravity, and oftentimes after he had delivered them, pursued his subject with great earnestness and eloquence, as if he had said nothing uncommon. One saying of the Professor, however, out of the pulpit, is too good to be omitted, and may be recorded without violation of propriety. He happened to meet at the house of a lawyer, whom he considered rather a man of sharp practice, and for whom he had no great favour, two of his own parishioners. The lawyer jocularly and ungraciously put the question: “Doctor, these are members of your flock; may I ask, do you look upon them as white sheep or as black sheep?” “I don’t know,” answered the Professor drily, “whether they are black or white sheep, but I know that if they are long here they are pretty sure to be fleeced.”
I cannot do better in regard to the three following anecdotes of the late Professor Gillespie of St. Andrews, than give them to my readers in the words with which Dr. Lindsay Alexander kindly communicated them to me.
“In the Cornhill Magazine for March 1860, in an article on Student Life in Scotland, there is an anecdote of the late Professor Gillespie of St. Andrews, which is told in such a way as to miss the point and humour of the story. The correct version, as I have heard it from the Professor himself, is this: having employed the village carpenter to put a frame round a dial at the manse of Cults, where he was minister, he received from the man a bill to the following effect, – ‘To fencing the deil, 5s. 6d.’ ‘When I paid him,’ said the Professor, ‘I could not help saying, John, this is rather more than I counted on; but I haven’t a word to say. I get somewhere about two hundred a year for fencing the deil, and I’m afraid I don’t do it half so effectually as you’ve done.’
“Whilst I am writing, another of the many stories of the learned and facetious Professor rises in my mind. There was a worthy old woman at Cults whose place in church was what is commonly called the Lateran; a kind of small gallery at the top of the pulpit steps. She was a most regular attender, but as regularly fell asleep during sermon, of which fault the preacher had sometimes audible intimation. It was observed, however, that though Janet always slept during her own pastor’s discourse, she could be attentive enough when she pleased, and especially was she alert when some young preacher occupied the pulpit. A little piqued, perhaps, at this, Mr. Gillespie said to her one day, ‘Janet, I think you hardly behave very respectfully to your own minister in one respect.’ ‘Me, sir,’ exclaimed Janet, ‘I wad like to see ony man, no to say woman, by yoursel say that o’ me! what can you mean, sir?’ ‘Weel, Janet, ye ken when I preach, you’re almost always fast asleep before I’ve well given out my text; but when any of these young men from St. Andrews preach for me, I you never sleep a wink. Now, that’s what I call no using me as you should do.’ ‘Hoot, sir,’ was the reply, ‘is that a’? I’ll sune tell you the reason o’ that. When you preach, we a’ ken the word o’ God’s safe in your hands; but when these young birkies tak’ it in haun, my certie, but it tak’s us a’ to look after them.’6
“I am tempted to subjoin another. In the Humanity Class, one day, a youth who was rather fond of shewing off his powers of language, translated Hor. Od. iii., 3, 61, 62, somewhat thus: ‘The fortunes of Troy renascent under sorrowful omen shall be repeated with sad catastrophe.’ ‘Catastrophe,’ cried the Professor. ‘Catastrophe, Mr. —–, that’s Greek. Give us it in plain English, if you please?’ Thus suddenly pulled down from his high horse, the student effected his retreat with a rather lame and impotent version. ‘Now,’ said the Professor, his little sharp eyes twinkling with fun, ‘that brings to my recollection what once happened to a friend of mine, a minister in the country. Being a scholarly man, he was sometimes betrayed into the use of words in the pulpit which the people were not likely to understand, but being very conscientious, he never detected himself in this, without pausing to give the meaning of the word he had used, and sometimes his extempore explanations of very fine words were a little like what we have just had from Mr. —–, rather too flat and commonplace. On one occasion, he allowed this very word ‘catastrophe’ to drop from him, on which he immediately added, ‘that you know, my friends, means the end of a thing.’ Next day, as he was riding through his parish, some mischievous youth succeeded in fastening a bunch of furze to his horse’s tail, – a trick which, had the animal been skittish, might have exposed the worthy pastor’s horsemanship to too severe a trial, but which happily had no effect whatever on the sober-minded and respectable quadruped which he bestrode. On, therefore, he quietly jogged, utterly unconscious of the addition that had been made to his horse’s caudal region, until, as he was passing some cottages, he was arrested by the shrill voice of an old woman, exclaiming, ‘Heh, sir! Heh, sir! there’s a whun-buss at your horse’s catawstrophe!’ ”
I have brought in the following anecdote, exactly as it appeared in the Scotsman of October 4, 1859, because it introduces the name of Rev. John Skinner, of Langside, author of “Tullochgorum,” “The Ewie wi’ the Crooked Horn,” and other excellent Scottish songs. Skinner was also a learned divine, and wrote theological works in Latin and English. He was a correspondent of Burns, and his name was “familiar as household words” to the old people of Aberdeenshire and Forfar. The anecdote I allude to was thus introduced:-
“AN OMISSION IN DEAN RAMSAY’S ‘REMINISCENCES.’ – The late Rev. John Skinner, long Episcopal clergyman of Forfar, was first appointed to a charge in Montrose, from whence he was removed to Banff, and ultimately to Forfar. After he had left Montrose, it reached his ears that an ill-natured insinuation was circulating in Montrose that he had been induced to leave this town by the temptation of a better income and of fat pork, which, it would appear, was plentiful in the locality of his new incumbency. Indignant at such an aspersion, he wrote a letter, directed to his maligners, vindicating himself sharply from it, which he shewed to his grandfather, the well-known rev. and accomplished poet John Skinner of Langside, for his approval. The old gentleman objected to it as too lengthy, and proposed the following pithy substitute:-
‘Had Skinner been of carnal mind,
As strangely ye suppose,
Or had he even been fond of swine,
He’d ne’er have left Montrose.’ ”
But there is an anecdote of John Skinner which should endear his memory to every generous and loving heart. On one occasion he was passing a small dissenting place of worship at the time when the congregation were engaged in singing; on passing the door – old fashioned Scottish Episcopalian as he was – he reverently took off his hat. His companion said to him, “What! do you feel so much sympathy with this Anti-Burgher congregation?” “No,” said Mr. Skinner, “but I respect and love any of my fellow Christians who are engaged in singing to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Well done, old Tullochgorum! thy name shall be loved and honoured by every true liberal-minded Scotsman.
On the subject of epigrams, I have received a clever impromptu of a judge’s lady, produced in reply to one made by the witty Henry Erskine. At a dinner party at Lord Armadale’s, when a bottle of claret was called for, port was brought in by mistake. A second time claret was sent for, and a second time the same mistake occurred. Henry Erskine addressed the host in an impromptu, which was meant as a parody on the well-known Scottish song, “My jo, Janet” –
“Kind sir, it’s for your courtesie
When I come here to dine, sir,
For the love ye bear to me,
Gie me the claret wine, sir.”
To which Mrs. Honeyman retorted –
“Drink the port, the claret’s dear,
Ye’ll get fou on’t, never fear,
My jo, Erskine.”
Some of my younger readers may not be familiar with the epigram of John Home, author of the tragedy of “Douglas.” The lines were great favourites with Sir Walter Scott, who delighted in repeating them. Home was very partial to claret, and could not bear port. He was exceedingly indignant when the government laid a tax upon claret, having previously long connived at its introduction into Scotland under very mitigated duties. He embodied his anger in the following epigram –
“Firm and erect the Caledonian stood,
Old was his mutton, and his claret good;
‘Let him drink port,’ an English statesman cried –
He drank the poison, and his spirit died.”
There is a curious story traditionary in some families regarding a Scottish nobleman, celebrated in Scottish history, which, I am assured, is true, and farther, that it has never yet appeared in print. The story is, therefore, a Scottish reminiscence, and, as such, deserves a place here. The Earl of Lauderdale was so ill as to cause great alarm to his friends, and perplexity to his physicians. One distressing symptom was a total absence of sleep, and the medical men declared their opinion, that without sleep being induced, he could not recover. His son, a queer eccentric-looking boy, who was considered not entirely right in his mind, but somewhat “daft,” and who accordingly had had little attention paid to his education, was sitting under the table, and cried out, “Sen’ for that preaching man frae Livingstone, for he aye sleeps in the kirk.” One of the doctors thought this hint worth attending to. The experiment of “getting a minister till him” succeeded, and sleep coming on, he recovered. The Earl, out of gratitude for this benefit, took more notice of his son, paid attention to his education, and that boy became the Duke of Lauderdale, afterwards so famous or infamous in his country’s history.
The following very amusing anecdote, although it belongs more properly to the division or peculiarities of Scottish dialect and phraseology, I give in the words of a correspondent who received it from the parties with whom it originated. About twenty years ago, he was paying a visit to a cousin, married to a Liverpool merchant of some standing. The husband had lately had a visit from his aged father, who formerly followed the occupation of farming in Stirlingshire, and who had probably never been out of Scotland before in his life. The son, finding his father rather de trop in his office, one day persuaded him to cross the ferry over the Mersey, and inspect the harvesting, then in full operation, on the Cheshire side. On landing he approached a young woman reaping with the sickle in a field of oats, when the following dialogue ensued:-
Farmer. – Lassie, are yer aits muckle bookit th’ year?
Reaper. – Sir!
Farmer. – I was speiring gif yer aits are muckle bookit th’ year.
Reaper (in amazement). – I really don’t know what you are saying, sir.
Farmer (in equal astonishment). – Gude – safe – us, – do ye no understaan gude plain English! – are – yer – aits – muckle – bookit?
Reaper decamps to her nearest companion, saying that was a madman, while he shouted in great wrath, “They were naething else than a set o’ ignorant pockpuddings.”
The following anecdote is highly illustrative of the thoroughly attached old family serving-man. A correspondent sends it as told to him by an old schoolfellow of Sir Walter Scott’s at Fraser and Adam’s class, High School.
One of the lairds of Abercairnie proposed to go out, on the occasion of one of the risings for the Stuarts, in the ‘15 or ‘45 – but this was not with the will of his old serving-man, who, when Abercairnie was pulling on his boots, preparing to go, overturned a kettle of boiling water upon his legs, so as to disable him from joining his friends – saying, “Tak that – Let them fecht wha like, stay ye at hame and be Laird o Abercairnie.”
A story illustrative of a union of polite courtesy, with rough and violent ebullition of temper common in the old Scottish character, is well known in the Lothian family. William Henry, fourth Marquis of Lothian, had for his guest at dinner an old countess to whom he wished to shew particular respect and attention.7 After a very complimentary reception, he put on his white gloves to hand her down stairs, led her to the upper end of the table, bowed and retired to his own place. This I am assured was the usual custom with the chief lady guest by persons who themselves remember it. After all were seated, the Marquis addressed the lady, “Madam, may I have the honour and happiness of helping your ladyship to some fish?” But he got no answer, for the poor woman was deaf as a post, and did not hear him; after a pause, but still in the most courteous accents, “Madam, have I your ladyship’s permission to send you some fish?” Then a little quicker, “Is your ladyship inclined to take fish?” Very quick, and rather peremptory, “Madam, do you choice fish?” At last the thunder burst, to everybody’s consternation, with a loud thump on the table and stamp on the floor: “Con-found ye, will ye have any fish?” I am afraid the exclamation might have been even of a more pungent character.
1 Read from the same book.
2 Sorely kept under by the turkey cock.
5 Although the name of Lady Glenorchy has been erroneously associated with the above story, and with a demeanour which was quite foreign to her general character, still it is very suitable, I think, to retain my former reference to the history of this noble lady since her death as forming a striking illustration of the uncertainty of all earthly concerns, and as supplying a Scottish reminiscence belonging to the last seventy years. Wilhelmina Viscountess Glenorchy, during her lifetime, built and endowed a church for two ministers, who were provided with very handsome incomes. She died 17th July 1786, and was buried on the 24th July, aged 44. Her interment took place, by her own direction, in the church she had founded, immediately in front of the pulpit; and she fixed upon that spot as a place of security and safety, where her mortal remains might rest in peace till the morning of the resurrection. But alas for the uncertainty of all earthly plans and projects for the future! – the iron road came on its reckless course, and swept the church away. The site was required for the North British Railway, which passed directly over the spot where Lady Glenorchy had been buried. Her remains were accordingly disinterred 24th December 1844; and the trustees of the church, not having yet erected a new one, deposited the body of their foundress in the vaults beneath St. John’s Episcopal Church, and after resting there for fifteen years, were, in 1859, removed to the building which is now Lady Glenorchy’s Church.
6 I have abundant evidence to prove that a similar answer to that which Dr. Alexander records to have been made to Mr. Gillespie, has been given on similar occasions by others. E. B. R.
7 This Marquis of Lothian was aid-de-camp to the Duke of Cumberland at the battle of Culloden, and sullied his character as a soldier and a nobleman by the cruelties which he exercised on the vanquished.