John Brown.

Supplementary chapter to the life of Rev. John Brown, D.D.; a letter to Rev. John Cairns, D.D online

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Online LibraryJohn BrownSupplementary chapter to the life of Rev. John Brown, D.D.; a letter to Rev. John Cairns, D.D → online text (page 2 of 6)
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Kdgeworth, and Miss Ferrier, Gait and Sir


Walter, he was as familiar with, as with David
Crockat the nailer, or the parish minister, the
town-drummer, the mole-catcher, or the poach-
ing weaver, who had the night before leistered a
prime kipper at Rachan Mill, by the flare of a
tarry wisp, or brought home his surreptitious
grey hen or maiikln from the wilds of Dunsyre
or the dreary Lang Whang/'"

This singular man came to the manse every
Friday evening for many years, and he and
my father discussed every thing and everybody :
beginning with tough, strong head work
a bout at wrestling, be it Caesar's Bridge, the
Epistles of Phalaris, the import of pev and Se, the
Catholic question, or the great roots of Christian
faith ; ending with the latest joke in the town,
or the West Raw, the last effusion by A ffleck,
tailor and poet, the last blunder of ^Esop the apo-
thecary, and the last repartee of the village fool,
with the week's Edinburgh and Glasgow news
by their respective carriers ; the w r hole little life,
sad and humorous who had been born, and
who was dying or dead, married or about to be,
for the past eight days.f

* With the practices of this last worthy, when carried on moder-
ately, and for the sport's sake, he had a special sympathy.

+ I helieve this was the true though secret source of much of my
father's knowledge of the minute personal history of every one in his
region, which, to his people, knowing his reserved manner and his


This amused, and, in the true sense, diverted
my father, and gratified his curiosity, which was
great, and his love of men, as well as for man.
He was shy, and unwilling to ask what he longed
to know, liking better to have it given him with-
out the asking ; arid no one could do this better
than " Uncle Johnston/'

You may readily understand what a thorough
exercise and diversion of an intellectual and
social kind this was, for they were neither of
them men to shirk from close gripes, or trifle and
flourish with their weapons : they laid on and
spared not. And then my uncle had generally
some special nut of his own to crack, some thesis
to fling down and offer battle on, some " par-
ticle " to energize upon ; for though quiet and
calm, he was thoroughly combative, and en-
joyed seeing his friend's blood up, and hearing
his emphatic and bright speech, and watching
his flashing eye. Then he never spared him ;
criticised and sometimes quizzed for he had
great humour his style, as well as debated and
weighed his apprehendings and exegeses, shak-
ing them heartily to test their strength. He
was so thoroughly independent of all authority,

devotion to his studies, and his so rarely meeting them or speaking to
them except from the pulpit, or at a diet of visitation, was a perpetual
wonder, and of which he made great use in his dealings with his
afflicted or erring " members."


except that of reason and truth, and his own
humour ; so ready to detect what was weak,
extravagant, or unfair ; so full of relish for in-
tellectual power and accuracy, and so attached
to and proud of my father, and bent on his
making the hest of himself, that this trial was
never relaxed. His firm and close-grained
mind was a sort of whetstone on which my
father sharpened his wits at this weekly " set-

The very difference of their mental tempers
and complexions drew them together the one
impatient, nervows, earnest, instant, swift, vehe-
ment, regardless of exertion, bent on his goal,
like a thoroughbred racer, pressing to the mark ;
the other leisurely to slowness and provoking-
ness, with a constitution which could stand a
great deal of ease, unimpassioned, still, clear,
untroubled by likings or dislikings, dwelling and
working in thought and speculation and obser-
vation as ends in themselves, and as their own
rewards :* the one hunting for a principle or a

* He was curiously destitute of all literary ambition or show ; like
the cactus in the desert, always plump, always taking in the dew
of heaven, and caring little to give it out. He wrote many papers
in the Repository and Monitor, an acute and clever tract on the volun-
tary controversy, entitled Calm Answers to Angry Questions, and
was the author of a capital bit of literary banter a Congratulatory
Letter to the Minister of Liberton, who had come down upon my
father in a pamphlet, for his sermon on " There remaineth much land


" divine method '" the other sapping or shelling
from a distance, and for his pleasure, a position,
or gaining a point, or settling a rule, or verifying
a problem, or getting axiomatic and proverbial.

In appearance they were as curiously unlike ;
my uncle short and round to rotundity, homely
and florid in feature. I used to think Socrates
must have been like him in visage as well as
in much of his mind. He was careless in his
dress, his hands in his pockets as a rule, and
strenuous only in smoking or in sleep; with a
large, full skull, a humorous twinkle in his
cold, blue eye, a soft, low voice, expressing
every kind of thought in the same, sometimes
plaguily douce tone ; a great power of quiet and
telling sarcasm, large capacity of listening to and
of enjoying other men's talk, however small.

My father tall, slim, agile, quick in his move-
ments, graceful, neat to nicety in his dress, with
much in his air of w^hat is called style, with a
face almost too beautiful for a man's, had not his
eyes commanded it and all who looked at it,
and his close, firm mouth been ready to say

to be possessed." It is a mixture of Swift and Arbuthnot. I remem-
ber one of the flowers he culls from him he is congratulating, in
which my father is characterized as one of those "shallow, sallow
souls that would swallow the bait, without perceiving the cloven
foot !" But a man like this never is best in a book ; he is always
greater than his work.


what the fiery spirit might bid ; his eyes, when at
rest, expressing more than almost any other's
I ever saw sorrow and tender love, a desire
to give and to get sympathy, and a sort of
gentle, deep sadness, as if that was their per-
manent state, and gladness their momentary
act ; but when awakened, full of fire, peremp-
tory, and riot to be trifled with ; and his smile,
and flash of gaiety and fun, something no one
could forget ; his hair in early life a dead black;
his eyebrows of exquisite curve, narrow and in-
tense ; his voice deep when unmoved and calm ;
keen and sharp to piercing fierceness when vehe-
ment and roused in the pulpit,at times a shout,
at times a pathetic wail ; his utterance hesitat-
ing, emphatic, explosive, powerful, each sen-
tence shot straight and. home ; his hesitation
arising from his crowd of impatient ideas, and
his resolute will that they should come in their
order, and some of them not come at all, only
the best, and his settled determination that
each thought should be dressed in the very and
only word which he stammered on till it came,
it was generally worth his pains and ours.

Uncle Johnston, again, flowed on like Csesar's
Arar, incredibili lenitate, or like linseed out of a
poke. You can easily fancy the spiritual and
bodily contrast of these men, and can fancy too,


the kind of engagements they would have with
their own proper weapons on these Friday
evenings, in the old manse dining-room, my
father showing uncle out into the darkness of
the back-road, and uncle, doubtless, lighting
'his black and ruminative pipe.

If my uncle brought up nuts to crack, mv
father was sure to have some difficulties to
consult about, or some passages to read, some-
thing that made him put his whole energy
forth ; and when he did so, I never heard such
reading. To hear him read the story of Joseph,
or passages in David's history, and Psalms
6th, llth, and 15th, or the 52d, 53d, 54th,
55th, 63d, 64th, and 40th chapters of Isaiah,
or the Sermon on the Mount, or the Journey
to Em maus, or our Saviour's prayer in John,
or Paul's speech on Mars' Hill, or the first
three chapters of Hebrews and the latter part
of the llth, or Job, or the Apocalypse ; or, to
pass from those divine themes Jeremy Taylor,
or George Herbert, Sir Walter Raleigh, or
Milton's prose, such as the passage beginning
" Come forth out of thy royal chambers,
thou Prince of all the kings of the earth!" and
" Truth, indeed, came once into the world
with her divine Master," or Charles Wesley's
Hymns, or, most loved of all, Cowper, from the


rapt "Come thou, and, added to thy many
crowns," or " that those lips had language !"
to the Jackdaw, and his incomparable Letters ;
or Gray's Poems, Burns's " Tarn O'Shanter," or
Sir Walter's "Eve of St. John,"* and "The
Grey Brother."

But I beg your pardon : Time has run back
with me, and fetched that blessed past, and
awakened its echoes. I hear his voice ; I feel
his eye ; I see his whole nature given up to what
he is reading, and making its very soul speak.

Such a man then as I have sketched, or washed
faintly in, as the painters say, was that person
who sat in the corner under the gallery every
Sabbath-day, and who knew his Greek Testa-
ment better than his minister. He is dead too,
a few months ago, dying surrounded with his
cherished hoard of books of all sizes, times, and
tongues tatterdemalion many; all however
drawn up in an order of his own ; all thoroughly

* Well do I remember when driving him from Melrose to Kelso,
long ago, we came near Sandyknowe, that grim tower of Smailholm,
standing erect like a warder turned to stone, defying time and change,
his bursting into that noble ballad

" The Baron of Smaylho'me rose with day,

He spurr'd his courser on,
Without stop or stay, down the rocky way,
That leads to Brotherstone ;"

and pointing out the " Watchfold height," " the eiry Beacon Hill,"
and " Brotherstone."


mastered and known ; among them David
Hume's copy of Shaftesbury's Characteristics,
with his autograph, which he had picked up
at some stall.

I have said that my mother's death was the
second epoch in my father's life. I should per-
haps have said the third ; the first being his
mother's long illness and death, and the second
his going to Elie, and beginning the battle of
life at fifteen. There must have been some-
thing very delicate and close and exquisite in
the relation between the ailing, silent, beauti-
ful and pensive mother, and that dark-eyed,
dark-haired, bright and silent son ; a sort of
communion it is not easy to express. You can
think of him at eleven slowly writing out that
small book of promises in a distinct and minute
hand, quite as like his mature hand, as the shy,
lustrous-eyed boy was to his after self in his
manly years, and sitting by the bedside while
the rest were out and shouting, playing at hide-
and-seek round the little church, with the
winds from Benlomond or the wild uplands of
Ayrshire blowing through their hair. He played
seldom, but when he did run out, he jumped
higher and farther, and ran faster than any of
them. His peculiar beauty must have come
from his mother. He used at rare times, and


with a sort of shudder, to tell of her when a
lovely girl of fifteen, having been seen by a
gentleman of rank, in Cheapside, hand in hand
with an evil woman, who was decoying her to
ruin, on pretence of showing her the way home ;
and how he stopped his carriage, and taking in
the unconscious girl, drove her to her uncle's
door. But you have said all this better than
1 can.

His time with his mother, and the necessary
confinement and bodily depression caused by it,
I doubt not deepened his native thoughtful turn,
and his tendency to meditative melancholy, as
a condition under which he viewed all things,
and quickened and intensified his sense of the
suffering of this world, and of the profound
seriousness and mystery in the midst of which
we live and die.

The second epoch was that of his leaving
home with his guinea, the last he ever got from
any one but himself ; and his going among utter
strangers to be master of a school one half of
the scholars of which were bigger and older than
himself,and all rough colts wilful and unbroken.
This was his first fronting of the world. Besides
supporting himself, this knit the sinews of his
mind, and made him rely on himself in action
as well as in thought. He sometimes, but not


often, spoke of this, never lightly, though he
laughed at some of his predicaments. He could
not forget the rude shock. Generally those
familiar revelations were at supper, on the Sab-
bath evening, when, his work over, he enjoyed
and lingered over his meal.

From his young and slight, almost girlish
look, and his refined, quiet manners, the boys
of the school were inclined to annoy and bully
him. He saw this, and felt it was now or never,
nothing between. So he took his line. The
biggest boy. much older and stronger, was the
rudest, and infected the rest. The " wee maister"
ordered him, in that peremptory voice we all
remember, to stand up and hold out his hand,
being not at all sure but the big fellow might
knock him down on the word. To the astonish-
ment of the school, and to the big rebel's too,
he obeyed and was punished on the instant, and
to the full ; out wentthe hand, down came the
" taws" and bit like fire. From that moment
he ruled them by his eye, the taws vanished.

There was an incident at this time of his life
which I should perhaps not tell, and yet I don't
know why I shouldn't, it so perfectly illustrates
his character in many ways. He had come
home during the vacation of his school to Lang-
rig, and was about to go back ; he had been


renewing his intercourse with his old teacher
and friend whom you mention, from whom
he used to say he learned to like Shakspere,
and who seems to have been a man of genuine
literary tastes. He went down to bid him
good-bye, and doubtless they got on their old
book loves, and would be spouting their pet
pieces. The old dominie said, " John, my man,
if you are walking into Edinburgh, I'll convoy
you a bit/' " John" was too happy, so next
morning they set off, keeping up a constant
fire of quotation and eager talk. They got
past Mid-Calder to near East, when my father-
insisted on his friend returning, and also on
going back a bit with him ; on looking at
the old man, he thought he was tired, so on
reaching the well-known " Kippen's Inn/' he
stopped and insisted on giving him some re-
freshment. Instead of ordering bread and
cheese and a bottle of ale, he, doubtless full of
Shakspere, and great upon sack and canary,
ordered a bottle of wine ! Of this you may be
sure, the dominie, as he most needed it, had
the greater share, and doubtless it warmed the
cockles of his old heart. " John" making him
finish the bottle, and drink the health of "Gentle
Will," saw him off, and went in to pay the
reckoning. What did he know of the price of


wine ! It took exactly every penny he had ;
I doubt not, most boys, knowing that the land-
lord knew them, would have either paid a part,
or asked him to score it up. This was not his
way ; he was too proud and shy and honest for
such an expedient. By this time, what with
discussing Shakspere, and witnessing his master's
leisurely emptying of that bottle, and releasing

" Dear prisoned spirits of the impassioned grape,"

he found he must run for it to Edinburgh,
or rather Leith, fourteen miles ; this he did,
and was at the pier just in time to jump into
the Elie pinnace, which was already off. He
often wondered what he would have done if he
had been that one moment late. You can
easily pick out the qualities this story unfolds.
His nature, capable as it was of great, per-
sistent, and indeed dogged labour, was, from
the predominance of the nervous system in his
organization, excitable, and therefore needed
and relished excitement the more intense the
better. He found this in his keen political tastes,
in imaginative literature, and in fiction. In the
highest kind of poetry he enjoyed the sweet
pain of tears ; and he all his life had a steady
liking, even a hunger, for a good novel. This
refreshed, lightened, and diverted his mind


from the sti'aiu of his incessant exegesis. He
used always to say that Sir Walter and Gold-
smith, and even Fielding, Miss Edgeworth, Miss
Austen, and Miss Ferrier, were true benefactors
to the race, by giving such genuine, such secure
and innocent pleasure ; and he often repeated
with admiration Lord Jeffrey's words on Scott,
inscribed on his monument. He had no turn for
gardening or for fishing or any field sports or
games : his sensitive nature recoiled from the
idea of pain, and above all, needless pain. He
used to say the lower creation had groans
enough, and needed no more burdens ; indeed,
he was fierce to some measure of unfairness
against such of his brethren Dr. Wardlaw, for
instance'" as resembled the apostles in fish-
ing for other tilings besides men.

But the exercise and the excitement he of
most all others delighted in, was riding ; and
had he been a country gentleman and not a
clergyman, I don't think he could have resisted
fox-hunting. With the exception of that great
genius in more than horsemanship, Andrew
Ducrow, I never saw a man sit a horse as he
did. He seemed inspired, gay, erect, full of the
joy of life, fearless and secure. I have heard a

* After a tight discussion between these two attached friends, Dr.
Wanllaw said-, " Well, I can't answer you, but fish I must and shall."


farmer friend say if he had not been a preacher
of the gospel he would have been a cavalry
officer, and would have fought as he preached.
He was known all over the Upper Ward and
down Tweeddale for his riding. " There goes
the minister," as he rode past at a swift canter.
He had generally well-bred horses, or as I
would now call them, ponies ; if he had not, his
sufferings from a dull, hard-mouthed, heavy-
hearted and footed, plebeian horse were almost
comic. On his grey mare, or his little blood
bay horse, to see him setting off and indulging
it and himself in some alarming gambols, and
in the midst of his difficulties, partly of his
own making, taking off his hat or kissing his
hand to a lady, made one think of "young
Harry with his beaver up." He used to tell
with much fun, how, one fine summer Sabbath
evening, after preaching in the open air for
a collection, in some village near, and having
put the money, chiefly halfpence, into his hand-
kerchief, and that into his hat, he was taking a
smart gallop home across the moor, happy and
relieved, when three ladies I think, the Miss
Bertrams of Kersewell came suddenly upon
him ; off went the hat, down bent the head,
and over him streamed the cherished collection,
the ladies busy among the wild grass and heather


picking it up, and he full of droll confusion and

The grey mare he had for many years. I can
remember her small head and large eyes ; her
neat, compact body, round as a barrel ; her
finely flea-bitten skin, and her thoroughbred
legs. I have no doubt she had Arabian blood.
My father's pride in her was quite curious.
Many a wild ride to and from the Presbytery
at Lanark, and across flooded and shifting fords,
he had on her. She was as sweet tempered
and enduring, as she was swift and sure ; and
her powers of running were appreciated and
applied in a way which he was both angry and
amused to discover. You know what riding
the Iruse means. At a country wedding the
young men have a race to the bridegroom's
home, and he who wins, brings out a bottle arid
glass and drinks the young wife's health. I
wish Burns had described a bruse ; all sorts of
steeds, wild, unkempt lads as well as colts,
old broken-down thoroughbreds that did won-
ders when soopled, huge, grave cart horses
devouring the road with their shaggy hoofs,
wilful ponies, etc. You can imagine the wild
hurry-skurry arid fun, the comic situations and
upsets over a rough road, up and down places
one would be giddy to look at.
2 P


Well, the young farmers were in the habit of
coming to my father, and asking the loan of the
mare to go and see a friend, etc., etc., praising
knowingly the fine points and virtues of his dar-
ling. Having through life, with all his firmness
of nature, an abhorrence of saying " No " to
any one, the interview generally ended with ?
' : Well, Robert, you may have her, but take care
of her, and don't ride her fast/' In an hour or
two Robert was riding the bruse, and flying away
from the crowd, Grey first, and the rest nowhere,
and might be seen turning the corner of the
farm-house with the victorious bottle in his up-
lifted hand, the motley pack panting vainly up
the hill. This went on for long, and the grey
was famous, almost notorious, all over the Upper
Ward ; sometimes if she appeared, no one
would start, and she trotted the course. Partly
from his own personal abstraction from outward
country life, and partly from Uncle Johnston's
sense of waggery keeping him from telling
his friend of the grey's last exploit at Hartree
Mill, or her leaping over the " best man " at
Thriepland, my father was the last to hear of this
equivocal glory of " the minister's meer." In-
deed, it was whispered she had once won a w r hip
at Lanark races. They still tell of his feats on
this fine creature, one of which he himself never


alluded to without a feeling of shame. He had
an engagement to preach somewhere beyond the
Clyde on a Sabbath evening, and his excellent
and attached friend arid elder, Mr. Kello of Lind-
say-lands, accompanied him on his big plough
horse. It was to be in the open air, on the river
side. When they got to the Clyde they found
it in full flood, heavy and sudden rains at the
head of the water having brought it down in a
wild spate. On the opposite side w r ere the
gathered people and the tent. Before Mr. Kello
knew where he was, there was his minister on
the mare swimming across, and carried down
in a long diagonal, the people looking on in ter-
ror. He landed, shook himself, and preached
with his usual fervour. As I have said, he
never liked to speak of this bit of hardihood,
and he never repeated it ; but it was like the
man there were the people, that was what he
would be at, and though timid for anticipated
danger as any woman, in it he was without fear.
One more illustration of his character in con-
nexion with his riding. On coming to Edin-
burgh he gave up this kind of exercise ; he had
no occasion for it, and he had enough, and more
than enough of excitement in the public questions
in which he found himself involved, and in the
miscellaneous activities of a popular town mini-


ster. I was then a young doctor it must have
been about 1840 and had a patient, Mrs.
James Robertson, eldest daughter of Mr. Pirie,
the predecessor of Dr. Dick in what was then
Shuttle Street congregation, Glasgow. She was
one of my father's earliest and dearest friends,
a mother in the Burgher Israel, she and her
cordial husband " given to hospitality," espe-
cially to " the Prophets." She was hopelessly ill
at Juniper Green, near Edinburgh. Mr. George
Stone, then living at Muirhouse, one of my
father's congregation in Broughton Place, a man
of equal originality and worth, and devoted to
his minister, knowing my passion for riding,
offered me his blood-chestnut to ride out and
make my visit. My father said, "John, if
you are going I would like to ride out with
you ;" he wished to see his dying friend. " You
ride !" said Mr. Stone, who was a very York-
shireman in the matter of horses. te Let him
try," said I. The upshot was, that Mr. Stone
sent the chestnut for me, and a sedate pony
called, if I forget not, Goliath for his minister,
with all sorts of injunctions to me to keep him
off the thoroughbred, and on Goliath.

My father had not been on a horse for nearly
twenty years. He mounted and rode off. He
soon got teased with the short, pattering steps


of Goliath, and looked wistfully up at me, and
longingly to the tall chestnut, stepping once for

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Online LibraryJohn BrownSupplementary chapter to the life of Rev. John Brown, D.D.; a letter to Rev. John Cairns, D.D → online text (page 2 of 6)