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Principal Cairns by John Cairns

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The designs and ornaments of this volume are by Mr. Joseph Brown, and
the printing is from the press of Morrison & Gibb Limited, Edinburgh.


In preparing the following pages I have been chiefly indebted for the
materials of the earlier chapters to some MS. notes by my late uncle,
Mr. William Cairns. These were originally written for Professor MacEwen
when he was preparing his admirable _Life and Letters of John Cairns,
D.D. LL.D._ They are very full and very interesting, and I have made
free use of them.

To Dr. MacEwen's book I cannot sufficiently express my obligations. He
has put so much relating to Principal Cairns into an absolutely final
form, that he seems to have left no alternative to those who come after
him between passing over in silence what he has so well said and
reproducing it almost in his words. It is probable, therefore, that
students of the _Life and Letters_--and there are many who, like Mr.
Andrew Lang with Lockhart's _Life of Scott_, "make it their breviary
"--will detect some echoes of its sentences in this little book. Still,
I have tried to look at the subject from my own point of view, and to
work it out in my own way; while, if I have borrowed anything directly,
I trust that I have made due acknowledgment in the proper place.

Among those whom I have to thank for kind assistance, I desire specially
to mention my father, the Rev. David Cairns, the last surviving member
of the household at Dunglass, who has taken a constant interest in the
progress of the book, and has supplied me with many reminiscences and
suggestions. To my brother the Rev. D.S. Cairns, Ayton, I am indebted
for most valuable help in regard to many points, especially that dealt
with at the close of Chapter VI.; and I also owe much to the suggestions
of my friends the Rev. P. Wilson and the Rev. R. Glaister. For help in
revising the proofs I have to thank the Rev. J.M. Connor and my brother
the Rev. W.T. Cairns.


DUMFRIES, _20th March_ 1903.















* * * * *



John Cairns was born at Ayton Hill, in the parish of Ayton, in the east
of Berwickshire, on the 23rd of August 1818.

The farm of Ayton Hill no longer exists. Nothing is left of it but
the trees which once overshadowed its buildings, and the rank growth
of nettles which marks the site of a vanished habitation of man. Its
position was a striking one, perched as it was just on the edge of the
high ground which separates the valley of the little river Eye from
that of the Tweed. It commanded an extensive view, taking in almost the
whole course of the Eye, from its cradle away to the left among the
Lammermoors to where it falls into the sea at Eyemouth a few miles to
the right. Down in the valley, directly opposite, were the woods and
mansion of Ayton Castle. A little to the left, the village of Ayton lay
extended along the farther bank of the stream, while behind both castle
and village the ground rose in gentle undulations to the uplands of
Coldingham Moor.

South-eastwards, a few miles along the coast, lay Berwick-on-Tweed, the
scene of John Cairns's future labours as a minister; while away in the
opposite direction, in the heart of the Lammermoors, near the headwaters
of the Whitadder and the Dye, was the home of his immediate ancestors.
These were tenants of large sheep-farms; but, through adverse
circumstances, his grandfather, Thomas Cairns, unable to take a farm of
his own, had to earn his living as a shepherd. He died in 1799, worn out
before he had passed his prime, and his widow was left to bring up her
young fatherless family of three girls and two boys as best she could.
After several migrations, which gradually brought them down from the
hills to the seaboard, they settled for some years at Ayton Hill. The
farm was at the time under some kind of trust, and there was no resident
farmer. The widowed mother was engaged to look after the pigs and the
poultry; the daughters also found employment; and James, the elder son,
became the shepherd. He was of an adventurous and somewhat restless
disposition, and, at the time of the threatened invasion by Napoleon,
joined a local Volunteer corps. Then the war fever laid hold of him,
and he enlisted in the regular army, serving in the Rifle Brigade all
through the Peninsular War, from Vimiera to Toulouse, and earning a
medal with twelve clasps. He afterwards returned, bringing with him
a Portuguese wife, and settled as shepherd on the home-farm of Ayton

The younger son, John, as yet little more than a child, was hired out
as herd-boy on the neighbouring farm of Greystonelees, between Ayton
and Berwick. His wages were a pair of shoes in the half-year, with his
food in the farm kitchen and his bed in the stable loft. His schooldays
had begun early. He used afterwards to tell how his mother, when he was
not more than five years old, carried him every day on her back on his
way to school across a little stream that flowed near their cottage.
But this early education was often interrupted, and came very soon
to a close; not, however, before he was well able to read. Writing he
taught himself later; and, later still, he picked up a good working
knowledge of arithmetic at a night-school. He was a quiet, thoughtful
boy, specially fond of reading, but, from lack of books, reading was
almost out of his reach. He had not even a Bible of his own, for Bibles
were then so dear that it was not possible for parents in humble life to
provide those of their children who went out into the world with copies
even of the cheapest sort. In place of a Bible, however, his mother had
given him a copy of the Scottish Metre Version of the Psalms, with a
"Preface" to each Psalm and notes by John Brown of Haddington. This
was all the boy had to feed his soul on, but it was enough, for it
was strong meat; and he valued and carefully kept that old, brown,
leather-bound Psalm-book to the end of his days.

When James left home, the shepherding at Ayton Hill was taken up by
his brother John. Though only a lad in his teens, he was in every
respect, except in physical strength, already a man. He was steady and
thoughtful, handy and capable in farm work, especially in all that
concerned the care of sheep, for which he had a natural and probably
an inherited instinct. He was also held in great regard by the
Rev. David Ure, the earnest and kindly minister of the Burgher
Meeting-house, which stood behind the Castle woods at the lower end of
Ayton village. The family were of that "strict, not strictest species
of Presbyterian Dissenter," and John attended also the Bible-class and
Fellowship Meeting. The family of John Murray, a ploughman or "hind"
from the Duns district, and now settled at Bastleridge, the next farm
to Ayton Hill, also attended Mr. Ure's church. An intimacy sprang up
between the two families. It ripened into affection between John
Cairns and Alison, John Murray's only daughter, and in June 1814 they
were united in marriage. The two eldest daughters of the Cairns family
had already gone to situations, and were soon to have homes of their
own. The grand old mother, who had been for so many years both father
and mother to her children, was beginning to feel the infirmities of
age. When, therefore, the young couple took up housekeeping, she left
the home and the work at Ayton Hill to them, and with her youngest
daughter went over to live in Ayton.

John Cairns and his wife were in many respects very unlike one
another. He was of a grave, quiet, and somewhat anxious temperament,
almost morbidly scrupulous where matters of conscience and
responsibility were concerned. She, on the other hand, was always
hopeful, making light of practical difficulties, and by her untiring
energy largely helping to make these disappear. She had a great
command of vigorous Scotch, and a large stock of homely proverbs,
of which she made frequent and apposite use. Both husband and wife
were excellently well read in their Bibles, and both were united
in the fear of God. Built on this firm foundation, their union of
twenty-seven years was a singularly happy one, and their different
temperaments contributed to the common stock what each of them
separately lacked. Ayton Hill remained their home for six years after
their marriage, and here were born their three eldest children, of
whom the youngest, John, is the subject of the present sketch.

In the spring of 1820 the trust under which Ayton Hill had been worked
for so many years was wound up, and a new tenant took the farm. It
became necessary, therefore, for the shepherd to seek a new situation,
and this brought about the first "flitting" in the family history. The
Berwickshire hinds are somewhat notorious for their migratory habits,
in which some observers have found a survival of the restlessness
which characterised their ancestors in former times, and was alike
the result and the cause of the old Border Forays. Be that as it may,
every Whitsunday term-day sees the country roads thronged with carts
conveying furniture and bedding from one farm to another. In front of
the pile sits the hind's wife with her younger children, while the
hind himself with his older boys and girls walks beside the horse, or
brings up the rear, driving the family cow before him. In some cases
there is a flitting every year, and instances have even been known in
which anxiety to preserve an unbroken tradition of annual removals
has been satisfied by a flitting from one house to another on the
same farm.

The Cairns family now entered on a period of migration of this kind,
and in the course of eleven years they flitted no less than six times.
Their first removal was from Ayton Hill to Oldcambus Mains, in the
parish of Cockburnspath, where they came into touch with the Dunglass
estate and the Stockbridge Church, with both of which they were in
after-years to have so close a connection. The father had been engaged
by the Dunglass factor to act, in the absence of a regular tenant, as
joint steward and shepherd at Oldcambus, and the family lived in the
otherwise unoccupied farmhouse. The two elder children attended a
school less than a mile distant, and in their absence John, the
youngest, who was now in his fourth year, used to cause no little
anxiety to his careful mother by wandering out by himself dangerously
near to the edge of the high sea-cliffs behind the farmhouse.

At length, in a happy moment, he took it into his head to go to school
himself; and, although he was too young for lessons, the schoolmaster
allowed him to sit beside his brother and sister. When he was tired of
sitting, tradition has it that the little fellow used to amuse himself
by getting up and standing in the corner to which the school culprits
were sent. Here he duly put on the dunce's cap which he had seen them
wear, and which bore the inscription, "For my bad conduct I stand

A tenant having been at length found for Oldcambus Mains, the family,
which had been increased by the birth of three more children, removed
back to the Ayton district, to the farm of Whiterigg, two miles from
the village. The house which they occupied here is still pointed out,
but it has been enlarged and improved since those days. At that time,
like all the farm servants' dwellings in the district, it consisted
of a single room with an earthen floor, an open unlined roof of red
tiles, and rafters running across and resting on the wall at each
side. There was a fireplace at one end and a window, and then a door
at right angles to the fireplace. When the furniture came to be put
in, the two box-beds with their sliding panels were set up facing the
fireplace; they touched the back wall at one end, and left a small
space free opposite to the door at the other. The beds came almost,
if not quite, up to the level of the rafters, and screened off behind
them perhaps a third of the entire space, which was used as a lumber
closet or store. Above the rafters, well furnished with _cleeks_ for
the family stock of hams, there was spread, in lieu of a ceiling, a
large sheet of canvas or coarse unbleached cotton. There was a table
under the window, a _dresser_ with racks for plates, etc., set up
against the opposite wall, and an eight-day clock between the window
and the fireplace. "Fixtures" were in such houses practically
non-existent; the grate, which consisted merely of two or three bars
or _ribs_, the iron _swey_ from which hung the large pot with its
rudimentary feet, and, in some cases, even the window, were the
property of the immigrants, and were carried about by them from
farm to farm in their successive flirtings.

When at Whiterigg, the children attended school at Ayton, and here
young John learned his letters and made considerable progress in
reading. After two years, the death of the Whiterigg farmer made
another change necessary, and the family returned to the Dunglass
estate and settled at Aikieside, a forester's cottage quite near
to their former home at Oldcambus Mains, and within easy reach of
Oldcambus School. Aikieside is in the Pease Dean, a magnificent wooded
glen, crossed a little lower down by a famous bridge which carries
the old post road from Edinburgh to Berwick over the Pease Burn at
a height of nearly one hundred and thirty feet. A still older road
crosses the stream close to its mouth, less than a mile below the
bridge. The descent here is very steep on both sides, but it seems
to have been even steeper in former times than it is now. This point
in the old road is "the strait Pass at Copperspath," where Oliver
Cromwell before the battle of Dunbar found the way to Berwick blocked
by the troops of General Leslie, and of which he said that here
"ten men to hinder are better than forty to make their way."

Beautiful as the Pease Dean is, it has this drawback for those
who live in the vicinity--especially if they happen to be anxious
mothers--that it is infested with adders; and as these engaging
reptiles were specially numerous and specially aggressive in the
"dry year" 1826, it is not surprising that when, owing to the cottage
at Aikieside being otherwise required, John Cairns was offered a
house in the village of Cockburnspath, he and his wife gladly availed
themselves of that offer. From Cockburnspath another removal was made
in the following year to Dunglass Mill; and at last, in 1831, the much
travelled family, now increased to eight, found rest in a house within
the Dunglass grounds, after the father had received the appointment of
shepherd on the home-farm, which he held during the rest of his life.



The Lammermoor range, that "dusky continent of barren heath-hills,"
as Thomas Carlyle calls it, runs down into the sea at St. Abb's Head.
For the greater part of its length it divides Berwickshire from East
Lothian; but at its seaward end there is one Berwickshire parish
lying to the north of it--the parish of Cockburnspath. The land in
this parish slopes down to the Firth of Forth; it is rich and well
cultivated, and is divided into large farms, each of which has its
group of red-roofed buildings, its substantial farmhouse, and its long
tail of hinds' cottages. The seaward views are very fine, and include
the whole of the rugged line of coast from Fast Castle on the east to
Tantallon and North Berwick Law on the west. In the middle distance
are the tower of Dunbar Church, the Bass Rock, and the Isle of May;
and farther off is the coast of Fife, with Largo Law and the Lomonds
in the background. The land is mostly bare of trees, but there is a
notable exception to this in the profound ravines which come down from
the hills to the sea, and whose banks are thickly clothed with fine
natural wood.

Of these, the Pease Dean has already been mentioned. Close beside
it is the Tower Dean, so called from an ancient fortalice of the
Home family which once defended it, and which stands beside a bridge
held in just execration by all cyclists on the Great North Road.
But, unquestionably, the finest of all the ravines in these parts
is Dunglass Dean, which forms the western boundary of Cockburnspath
parish, and divides Berwickshire from East Lothian. From the bridge by
which the Edinburgh and Berwick road crosses the dean, at the height
of one hundred feet above the bed of the stream, the view in both
directions is extremely fine. About a hundred and fifty yards lower
down is the modern railway bridge, which spans the ravine in one
gigantic arch forty feet higher than the older structure that carries
the road; and through this arch, above the trees which fill the glen,
one gets a beautiful glimpse of the sea about half a mile away.

Above the road-bridge, and to the right of the wooded dean, are the
noble trees and parks of Dunglass grounds. The mansion-house, a
handsome modern building, part of which rises to a height of five
storeys, is built only some eight or ten feet from the brink of the
dean, on its western or East Lothian side. About fifty yards farther
west are the ivy-covered ruins of a fine Gothic church, whose massive
square tower and stone roof are still tolerably complete. This church
before the Reformation had collegiate rank, and is now the sole
remaining relic of the ancient village of Dunglass. In former times
the Dunglass estate belonged to the Earls of Home, whose second title,
borne to this day by the eldest son of the house, is that of Lord
Dunglass. But it was bought about the middle of the seventeenth
century by the Halls, who own it still, and in whose family there
has been a baronetcy since 1687. The laird at the time with which we
are now dealing was Sir James Hall, whose epitaph in the old church
at Dunglass bears that he was "a philosopher eminent among the
distinguished men of an enquiring age." He was President of the Royal
Society of Edinburgh for many years, and was an acknowledged expert
in Natural Science, especially in Geology. His second son was the
well-known Captain Basil Hall, R.N., the author of a once widely-read
book of travels.

Behind the church, and about a hundred yards to the west of the
mansion-house, are the offices--stables, close boxes, coach-house,
etc., all of a single storey, and built round a square paved
courtyard. The coachman's house is on one side of this square, and the
shepherd's on the other. The latter, which is on the side farthest
from the "big house," has its back to the courtyard, and looks out
across a road to its little bailyard and a fine bank of trees beyond
it. It is neat and lightsome, but very small; consisting only of a
single room thirteen feet by twelve, with a closet opening off it not
more than six feet broad. How a family consisting of a father, mother,
and eight children could be stowed away in it, especially at night, is
rather a puzzling question. But we may suppose that, when all were at
home, each of the two box-beds would be made to hold three, that a
smaller bed in the closet would account for two more, and that for the
accommodation of two of the younger children a sliding shelf would
be inserted transversely across the foot of one of the box-beds.
Certainly, an arrangement of this kind would fail to be approved by a
sanitary inspector in our times; and even during the day, when all the
family were on the floor together, there was manifest overcrowding.
But the life was a country one, and could be, and was, largely spent
in the open air, amid healthful surroundings and beautiful scenery.

The income available for the support of such a large household seems
to us in these days almost absurdly inadequate. The father's wages
rarely exceeded L30 a year, and they never all his life reached L40.
They were mostly paid in kind. So many bolls of oats, of barley and
of peas, so many carts of coals, so many yards of growing potatoes,
a cow's grass, the keep of two sheep and as many pigs, and a free
house,--these, which were known as the _gains_, were the main items in
the account. This system gave considerable opportunity for management
on the part of a thrifty housewife, and for such management there were
few to surpass the housewife in the shepherd's cottage at Dunglass.

The food was plentiful but plain. Breakfast consisted of porridge
and milk; dinner, in the middle of the day, of Scotch kail and pork,
occasionally varied by herrings, fresh or salt according to the
season, and with the usual accompaniments of potatoes and pease
bannocks. At supper there was porridge again, or mashed potatoes
washed down with draughts of milk, and often eaten with horn spoons
out of the large pot which was set down on the hearth. Tea was only
seen once a week--on Sunday afternoons. And so the young family grew
up healthy and strong in spite of the overcrowding.

Before the removal to Dunglass, the two eldest children had been taken
from school to work in the fields, where they earned wages beginning
at sixpence a day. Their education, however, was continued in some
sort at a night-school. John and his younger brother James, and the
twins, Janet and William, who came next in order, attended the parish
school at Cockburnspath, a mile away. Cockburnspath is a village
of about two hundred and fifty inhabitants, situated a little off
the main road. It has a church with an ancient round tower, and a
venerable market-cross rising from a platform of steps in the middle
of the village street.

On the south side of the street, just in front of the church, stood
the old schoolhouse--a low one storey building, roofed with the red
tiles characteristic of the neighbourhood, and built on to the
schoolmaster's two-storey dwelling. The schoolmaster at this time
was John M'Gregor, a man of ripe and accurate scholarship and quite
separate individuality. The son of a Perthshire farmer, he had studied
for the ministry at St. Andrews University, and had, it was said,
fulfilled all the requirements for becoming a licentiate of the Church
of Scotland except the sending in of one exercise, This exercise he
could never be persuaded to send in, and that not because he had any
speculative difficulties as to the truth of the Christian revelation,
nor yet because he had any exaggerated misgivings as to his own
qualifications for the work of the ministry; but because he preferred
the teaching profession, and was, moreover, indignant at what he
conceived to be the overbearing attitude which the ministers of the
Established Church assumed to the parish schools and schoolmasters.
This feeling ultimately became a kind of mania with him. He was at
feud with his own parish minister, and never entered his church
except when, arrayed in a blue cloak with a red collar, he attended
to read proclamations of marriages; and he could make himself very
disagreeable when the local Presbytery sent their annual deputation
to examine his school. Yet he was essentially a religious man; he had
a reverence for what was good, and he taught the Bible and Shorter
Catechism to his scholars carefully and well.

As he disliked the ministers, so he showed little deference to the
farmers, who were in some sort the "quality" of the district, and to
such of their offspring as came under his care. The farmers retaliated
by setting up an opposition school in Cockburnspath, which survived
for a few years; but it never flourished, for the common people
believed in M'Gregor, whom they regarded as "a grand teacher," as
indeed he was. He had a spare, active figure, wore spectacles, and
took snuff. There was at all times an element of grimness in him, and
he could be merciless when the occasion seemed to demand it. "Stark
man he was, and great awe men had of him," but this awe had its roots
in a very genuine respect for his absolutely just dealing and his
masterful independence of character.

John Cairns first went to Mr. M'Gregor's school when the family
removed to Cockburnspath from Aikieside, and he made such progress
that two years later, when he was ten years old, the master proposed
that he should join a Latin class which was then being formed. This
proposal caused great searchings of heart at home. His father, with
anxious conscientiousness, debated with himself as to whether it would
be right for him thus to set one of his sons above the rest. He could
not afford to have them all taught Latin, so would it be fair to the
others that John should be thus singled out from them? The mother, on
the other hand, had no such misgivings, and she was clear that John
must have his Latin. The ordinary school fees ranged from three to
five shillings a quarter; but when Latin was taken they rose to seven
and sixpence. Mr. M'Gregor had proposed to teach John Latin without
extra charge, but both his father and his mother were agreed that to
accept this kind offer was not to be thought of for a moment; and his
mother was sure that by a little contriving and saving on her part
the extra sum could be secured. The minister, Mr. Inglis, who was
consulted in the matter, also pronounced strongly for the proposal,
and so John was allowed to begin his classical studies.

Within two years Greek had been added to the Latin; and, as the
unavoidable bustle and noise which arose in the evening when the
whole family were together in the one room of the house made study
difficult, John stipulated with his mother that she should call him in
the morning, when she rose, an hour before anybody else, to light the
fire and prepare the breakfast. And so it happened that, if any of the
rest of the family awoke before it was time to get up, they would see
John studying his lesson and hear him conjugating his Greek verbs
by the light of the one little oil-lamp that the house afforded.
Perhaps, too, it was what he saw, in these early morning hours, of
the unwearied and self-forgetful toil of his mother that taught him
to be in an especial degree thoughtful for her comfort and considerate
of her wants both then and in after-years.

But his regular schooldays were now drawing to an end. His father,
though engaged as the shepherd at Dunglass, had other duties of a very
multifarious kind to discharge, and part of his shepherd work had been
done for him for some time by his eldest son, Thomas. But Thomas was
now old enough to earn a higher wage by other work on the home-farm
or in the woods, and so it came to be John's turn to take up the work
among the sheep. When his father told Mr. M'Gregor that John would
have to leave school, the schoolmaster was so moved with regret at the
thought of losing so promising a scholar, that he said that if John
could find time for any study during the day he would be glad to have
him come to his house two or three nights in the week, and to go over
with him then what he had learned. As Mr. M'Gregor had become more and
more solitary in his habits of late--he was a bachelor, and his aged
mother kept house for him--this offer was considered to be a very
remarkable proof of his regard, and it was all the more gratefully
accepted on that account.

It fortunately happened that the work to which John had now to turn
his hand allowed him an opportunity of carrying on his studies without
interfering with its efficiency. That work was of a twofold character.
He had to "look" the sheep, and he had to "herd" them. The looking
came first. Starting at six o'clock in the morning, accompanied by the
faithful collie "Cheviot," he made a round of all the grass-parks on
the home-farm, beginning down near the sea and thence working his way
round to a point considerably higher up than the mansion-house. His
instructions were to count the sheep in each field, so that he might
be able to tell whether they were all there, and also to see whether
they were all afoot and feeding. In the event of anything being wrong,
he was to report it to his father. The circuit was one of three or
four miles, and the last field to be looked was that in which were
gathered the fifty or sixty sheep that were to be brought out to the
unfenced lawns round the mansion-house and be herded there during
the day.

These sheep were generally to be found waiting close to the gate, and
when it was opened they could quite easily find their own way down to
their feeding-ground. As they passed slowly on, cropping the grass as
they went, John was able to leave them and go home for his breakfast
of porridge and milk. Breakfast having been despatched, and Cheviot
fed, he once more wrapped his shepherd's plaid about him, remembering
to put a book or two, and perhaps a piece of bannock, into the _neuk_
of it, and set out to find his flock. There was usually little
difficulty in doing so, for the sheep knew the way and did not readily
wander out of it; while, even if they had deviated a little from the
direct route, no great harm would at this stage of their passage have
resulted. It was quite different when they came down to the lawns near
the house. These were surrounded by ornamental shrubbery, and it was
to keep the sheep from invading this and the adjacent flower-borders
that the services of the herd-boy were required.

What he had to do, then, after he had brought the sheep down, was to
take his place on some knoll which commanded the ground where they
were feeding, and keep an eye on them. If nothing disturbed them they
would feed quietly enough, and a long spell of reading might be quite
safely indulged in. If any of them showed signs of wandering out of
bounds, a stroll in their direction, book in hand, would usually be
quite sufficient, with or without Cheviot's aid, to turn them. And if
a leading sheep were turned, the others would, sheep-like, follow the
new lead thus imparted. This was the usual state of things in fine
weather. In wet weather there were not the same possibilities of
study, unless the feeding-ground happened to be in the neighbourhood
of the old church, where sufficient shelter could be found for reading
and the sheep could be watched through the open doorway. About four
o'clock--in winter somewhat earlier--it was time to take the sheep
back to the fold-field, and then the parks had to be again looked,
this time in the reverse order, the shepherd's cottage being gained
in time for supper.

After supper, John would go into Cockburnspath to recite the lessons
he had prepared to Mr. M'Gregor. The schoolmaster never prescribed any
definite section to be learned; he left this to his pupil, in whose
industry and interest in his work he had sufficient confidence.
He rarely bestowed any praise. A grim smile of satisfaction, and
sometimes a "Very well, sir," were all that he would vouchsafe; but
to others he would be less reticent, and once he was heard to say,
"I have so far missed my own way, but John Cairns will flourish yet."

John is described as having been at this time a well-grown boy,
somewhat raw-boned and loose-jointed, with an eager look, ruddy
and healthy, and tanned with the sun, his hair less dark than it
afterwards became. He was fond of schoolboy games--shinty, football,
and the rest--and would play at marbles, even when the game went
against him, until he had lost his last stake. Archery was another
favourite amusement, and he was expert at making bows from the
thinnings of the Dunglass yews, and arrows tipped with iron
_ousels_--almost the only manual dexterity he possessed. Like all
boys of his class, his usual dress was a brown velveteen jacket and
waistcoat and corduroy trousers that had once been white.

Along with the teaching he got from Mr. M'Gregor, there went another
sort of education of a less formal kind which still deserves to be
mentioned. Now that he was earning a wage,--it was about eightpence
or tenpence a day,--which of course went into the common stock, he
ventured occasionally to ask his mother for sixpence to himself. With
this he could obtain a month's reading at the Cockburnspath library.
A very excellent library this was, and during the three years of his
herding he worked his way pretty well through it. It was especially
strong in history and standard theology, and in these departments
included such works as Gibbon's _Decline and Fall_, Mitford's _History
of Greece_, Russell's _Modern Europe_, Butler's _Analogy_, and Paley's
_Evidences_. In biography and fiction it was less strong, but it had a
complete set of the Waverley Novels in one of the early three-volume
editions. When he went to Mr. M'Gregor's, John used often to take
butter churned by his mother to the village shop, and the basket in
which he carried it was capacious enough to hold a good load of books
from the library on the return journey.

All the family were fond of books, and the small store of volumes,
mostly of old Scotch divinity, in the little bookcase at Dunglass was
well thumbed. But reading of a lighter kind was also indulged in, and
on winter nights, when the mother was plying her spinning-wheel and
the father had taken down his cobbler's box and was busily engaged
patching the children's shoes, it was a regular practice for John to
sit near the dim oil-lamp and read to the rest. Sometimes the reading
would be from an early number of Chambers's _Journal_, sometimes from
Wilson's _Tales of the Borders_, which were then appearing--both of
these being loans from a neighbour. But once a week there was always
a newspaper to be read. It was often a week or a fortnight old, for,
as it cost sixpence halfpenny, it was only by six or eight neighbours
clubbing together that such a luxury could be brought within the reach
of a working-man's family; but it was never so old as to be
uninteresting to such eager listeners.

But the most powerful of all the influences which affected John Cairns
at this period of his life remains to be mentioned--that which came
to him from his religious training and surroundings. The Christian
religion has acted both directly and indirectly on the Scottish
peasantry, and it has done so the more powerfully because of the
democratic character of the Presbyterian form which that religion took
in Scotland. Directly, it has changed their lives and has given them
new motives and new immortal hopes. But it has also acted on them
indirectly, doing for them in this respect much of what education and
culture have done for others. It has supplied the element of idealism
in their lives. These lives, otherwise commonplace and unlovely, have
been lighted up by a perpetual vision of the unseen and the eternal;
and this has stimulated their intellectual powers and has so widened
their whole outlook upon life as to raise them high above those of
their own class who lived only for the present. All who have listened
to the prayers of a devout Scotch elder of the working-class must have
been struck by this combination of spiritual and intellectual power;
and one thing they must have specially noticed is that, unlike the
elder of contemporary fiction, he expressed himself, not in broad
Scotch but in correct and often stately Bible English.

But this intellectual activity is often carried beyond the man in whom
it has first manifested itself. It tends to reappear in his children,
who either inherit it or have their own intellectual powers stimulated
in the bracing atmosphere it has created. The instances of Robert
Burns and Thomas Carlyle, who both came out of homes in which
religion--and religion of the old Scottish type--was the deepest
interest, will occur to everyone. Not the least striking illustration
of this principle is shown in the case of John Cairns. In the life of
his soul he owed much to the godly upbringing and Christian example
shown to him by his parents; but the home at Dunglass, where religion
was always the chief concern, was the nursery of a strong mind as well
as of a strong soul, and both were fed from the same spring. In this
case, as in so many others, spiritual strength became intellectual
strength in the second generation.

The Cairns family attended church at Stockbridge, a mile beyond
Cockburnspath and two miles from Dunglass, and the father was an elder
there from 1831 till his death. The United Secession--formerly the
Burgher--Church at Stockbridge occupied a site conveniently central
for the wide district which it served, but very solitary. It stood
amid cornfields, on the banks of a little stream, and looked across to
the fern-clad slopes of Ewieside, an outlying spur of the Lammermoors.
Except the manse, and the beadle's cottage which adjoined it, there
was no house within sight, nor any out of sight less than half a
mile away.

The minister at this time was the Rev. David M'Quater Inglis, a man of
rugged appearance and of original and vigorous mental powers. He was a
good scholar and a stimulating preacher, excelling more particularly
in his expository discourses, or "lectures" as they used to be called.
When he tackled some intricate passage in an Epistle, it was at times
a little hard to follow him, especially as his utterance tended to be
hesitating; but when he had finished, one saw that a broad clear road
had been cut through the thicket, and that the daylight had been let
in upon what before had been dim. "I have heard many preachers," said
Dr. Cairns, in preaching his funeral sermon nearly forty years later,
"but I have heard few whose sermons at their best were better than the
best of his; and his everyday ones had a strength, a simplicity, and
an unaffected earnestness which excited both thought and Christian
feeling." Nor was he merely a preacher. By his pastoral visitations
and "diets of examination" he always kept himself in close touch with
his people, and he made himself respected by rich and poor alike.

The shepherd's family occupied a pew at Stockbridge in front of the
pulpit and just under the gallery, which ran round three sides of the
church. That pew was rarely vacant on a Sunday. There was no herding
to be done on that day, and in the morning the father looked the sheep
in the parks himself that the herd-boy might have his full Sabbath
rest. He came back in time to conduct family worship, this being
the only morning in the week when it was possible for him to do so,
although in the evening it was never omitted, and on Sunday evening
was always preceded by a repetition of the Shorter Catechism. After
worship the family set out for church, where the service began at

The situation of Stockbridge, it has been already said, was solitary,
but on Sundays, when the hour of worship drew near, the place lost its
solitude. The roads in all directions were thronged with vehicles,
men on horseback, and a great company on foot; the women wearing the
scarlet cloaks which had not yet given place to the Paisley shawls
of a later period, and each carrying, neatly wrapped in a white
handkerchief, a Bible or Psalm-book, between whose leaves were a sprig
or two of southernwood, spearmint, or other fragrant herb from the
cottage garden.

The service lasted about three hours. There was first a "lecture"
and then a sermon, each about fifty minutes long; several portions
of psalms were sung; and of the three prayers, the first, or "long
prayer," was seldom less than twenty minutes in length. In summer
there was an interval of half an hour between the lecture and the
sermon, "when," says Mr. William Cairns, "there was opportunity for a
delightful breathing-time, and the youths who were swift of foot could
just reach the bottom of a hill whereon were plenteous blaeberries,
and snatch a fearful joy if one could swallow without leaving the
tell-tale marks on the lips and tongue."

At the close of the afternoon service there was a Sunday school,
chiefly conducted by Mr. Inglis himself, at which an examination
on the sermon that had just been delivered formed an important part
of the exercises. And tradition has it that the questioning and
answering, which had at first been evenly distributed among the
pupils, usually in the end came to resolve themselves pretty much into
a dialogue between Mr. Inglis and John Cairns. It was here that the
minister first came to close grips with his elder's son and took the
measure of the lad's abilities. After he did so, his interest in
John's classical studies was constant and helpful; and, although he
gave him no direct assistance in them (if he had done so, he would
have called down upon himself the wrath of Mr. M'Gregor), he was
always ready to lend him books and give him useful advice.

After three years at herding and at Mr. M'Gregor's, the question
arose, and was the subject of anxious debate in the family councils,
as to what was to be done with John. He was now sixteen. His elder
brother, Thomas, had got a post under his father, whom he afterwards
succeeded as shepherd at Dunglass. His elder sister had gone to a
situation. And now James, the brother next younger than himself,
had also left home to be apprenticed to a tailor. It was time for
some decision to be come to with regard to him. Mr. M'Gregor was
anxious that a superstructure should be built on the foundation
laid by himself by his going to College. Mr. Inglis's advice was
unhesitatingly given in the same direction. With his father, the old
scruples arose about setting one of his children above the rest; but
again his mother's chief concern was more about ways and means. His
father's question was, _Ought_ it to be done? his mother's, _Can_ it
be done? There were great difficulties in the way of answering this
practical question in the affirmative. There were then no bursaries
open for competition; and though the expenses at home were not so
great as they had once been, now that three of the family had been so
far placed in life, the University class-fees and the cost of living,
even in the most frugal way, entailed an expense which was formidable
enough. Still, the mother thought that this could be faced, and,
in order to acquaint herself more fully with all the facts of the
situation, she resolved to pay a long-promised visit to her youngest
brother, who with his family was now living in Edinburgh. He was a
carrier between that city and Jedburgh, and, though still in a
comparatively humble way, was said to be doing well.

The visit was a great success. Mrs. Cairns was most warmly received
by her brother and his wife, who proposed that John should stay with
them and share with their own family in what was going. This offer was
gratefully accepted, so far as the question of lodging was concerned.
As to board, John's mother had ideas of her own, and insisted on
paying for it, if not in money at least in kind. Thus it was settled
that John was to go to College, but nothing was settled beyond this.
Perhaps his parents may have had their own wishes, and his minister
and his schoolmaster their own expectations, about a career for him;
but in the boy's unworldly heart there was nothing as yet beyond the
desire for further learning and the earnest resolution to be not
unworthy of the sacrifices which had made the realisation of this
desire possible. He worked at his herding up till the day before
he left for the University, in the end of October 1834; and then,
starting in the middle of the night with William Christison, the
Cockburnspath carrier, he trudged beside the cart that conveyed the
box containing his clothes and his scanty stock of books all the
thirty-five miles between Dunglass and Edinburgh.



When John Cairns entered the University of Edinburgh in November 1834
he passed into a world that was entirely strange to him. It would be
difficult to imagine a greater contrast than that between the
low-roofed village school and the spacious quadrangle surrounded by
heavily balustraded stone terraces and stately pillared facades, into
which, at the booming of the hourly bell, there poured from the
various classrooms a multitudinous throng of eager young humanity. And
he himself in some mysterious way seemed to be changed almost beyond
his own recognition. Instead of being the Jock Cairns who had herded
sheep on the braes of Dunglass, and had carried butter to the
Cockburnspath shop, he was now, as his matriculation card informed
him, "Joannes Cairns, Civis Academiae Edinburgeniae;" he was addressed
by the professor in class as "Mr. Cairns," and was included in his
appeal to "any gentleman in the bench" to elucidate a difficult
passage in the lesson of the day.

He attended two classes this winter--that of "Humanity" or Latin
taught by Professor Pillans, and that of Greek under the care of
Professor George Dunbar. Pillans had been a master at Eton, and at a
later period Rector of the Edinburgh High School. He was a little man
with rosy cheeks, and was a sound scholar and an admirable teacher,
whose special "fad" was Classical Geography. Dunbar had begun life as
a working gardener at Ayton Castle. He had compiled a Greek Lexicon
which had some repute in its day, but he was not an inspiring teacher,
and his gruff manners made him far from popular.

Trained by a country schoolmaster, and having no experience of
competition except what a country school affords, John Cairns had
until now no idea of his own proficiency relatively to that of others;
and it was something of a revelation to him when he discovered how far
the grounding he had received from Mr. M'Gregor enabled him to go. His
classical attainments soon attracted notice, and at the end of the
session, although he failed to win the Class Medals, he stood high
in the Honours Lists, and was first in private Latin studies and in
Greek prose. Nor were these the only interests that occupied him. A
fellow-student, the late Dr. James Hardy, writes of him that from the
first he was great in controversy, and that in the classroom during
the ten minutes before the appearance of the professor, he was always
the centre of a knot of disputants on the Voluntary Church question or
some question of politics. Also it is recorded that, on the day after
a Parliamentary election for the city, he had no voice left, having
shouted it all away the day before in honour of the two successful
Whig candidates.

During this session, as had been previously arranged, he lodged in
Charles Street with his mother's brother, whose eldest son, John
Murray, shared his room. For this cousin, who was about his own age,
he had always the greatest regard, and he was specially grateful
to him for the kindness with which he helped him over many of the
difficulties which, as a raw lad from the country, he experienced
when he first came to live in the city. The friendship between the
cousins remained unbroken--though their paths in life were widely
different--till they died, within a fortnight of each other, nearly
sixty years later.

All through the winter a box travelled with the Cockburnspath carrier
every three or four weeks between Edinburgh and Dunglass, taking with
it on the outward journey clothes to be washed and mended, and on the
return journey always including a store of country provisions--scones,
oatmeal, butter, cheese, bacon, and potatoes. The letters that passed
between the student and his family were also sent in the box, for
as yet there was no penny post, and the postage of a letter between
Dunglass and Edinburgh cost as much as sixpence halfpenny or
sevenpence. Often, too, John would send home some cheap second-hand
books, for he had a general commission to keep his eye on the
bookstalls. Amongst these purchases was sometimes included a Bible,
so that before the end of the winter each member of the family had
a separate Bible to take to church or Sunday school.

At the close of the winter session he accepted the invitation of
another brother of his mother, who was a farmer at Longyester, near
Gifford in East Lothian, on the northern fringe of the Lammermoors, to
come and be tutor to his three boys during the summer. At Longyester
he spent four very happy months in congenial work among kind people.
He learned to ride, and more than once he rode along the hill-foots to
Dunglass, twenty miles to the eastward, to spend the Sunday with his
father and mother.

During these months he also came into personal contact with a family
whose influence on him during these early years was strong and
memorable--the Darlings of Millknowe. Millknowe is a large sheep-farm
in the heart of the Lammermoors, just where the young Whitadder winds
round the base of Spartleton Law. The family at Millknowe, consisting
at this time of three brothers and two sisters, all of whom had
reached middle life, were relatives of his father, the connection
dating from the time when his forebears were farmers in the same
region. They were a notable family, full of all kinds of interesting
lore, literary, scientific, and pastoral, and they exercised a
boundless hospitality to all, whether gentle or simple, who came
within their reach. One of them, a maiden sister, Miss Jean Darling,
took a special charge of her young cousin, and in a special degree won
his confidence. From the first she understood him. She saw the power
that was awakening within him, and was, particularly in his student
days, his friend and adviser.

As the summer of 1835 advanced, it came to be a grave question with
him whether he could return to college in the ensuing winter. His
father had had a serious illness; and, though he was now recovering,
there was a doctor's bill to settle, and he still required more care
and better nourishment than ordinary. Cairns was afraid that, with
these extra expenses to be met, his own return to College might
involve too serious a drain on the family resources. While matters
were in this state, and while he was still at Longyester, he received
a request from Mr. Trotter, the schoolmaster of his native parish of
Ayton, to come and assist him in the school and with the tuition of
boarders in his house. This offer was quite in the line of the only
ideas as to his future life he had as yet entertained; for, so far
as he had thought seriously on the subject, he had thought of being a
teacher. On the other hand, while his great ambition was to return to
the University, the fact that most of his class-fellows in the past
session had been older than himself suggested to him that he could
quite well afford to delay a year before he returned.

So he went to Ayton, lodging while there with his father's youngest
sister, Nancy, who had come thither from Ayton Hill along with her
mother, when her brother John was married in 1814, and had remained
there ever since. Cairns had not been two months in Ayton before his
responsibilities were considerably increased. Mr. Trotter resigned his
office, and the heritors asked the assistant to take charge of the
school until a new teacher should be appointed. There were between one
hundred and fifty and two hundred children in the school; he was the
sole teacher, and he was only seventeen. Moreover, some delay occurred
before the teacher who had been appointed to succeed Mr. Trotter could
come to take up his work. But Cairns proved equal to the situation.
The tradition is that his rule was an exceedingly stern one, that he
kept the children hard at work, and that he flogged extensively and

When the new master arrived upon the scene, he subsided into his
original post of assistant. It had been his original intention to go
back to the University in November 1836; but as that date approached
it became evident that the financial difficulty was not yet removed,
so he accepted an engagement to continue his work in Ayton for another

His stay in Ayton was a very happy one. He liked his work, and had
several warm friends in the village and district. Among these were Mr.
Ure, the kindly old minister who had married his parents and baptized
himself. Then there was Mr. Stark, minister of another Secession
church in the village--a much younger man than Mr. Ure, but a good
scholar and a well-read theologian. There was also a fellow-student,
Henry Weir, whose parents lived in Berwick, and who used often to walk
out to Ayton to see him, Cairns returning the visits, and seeing for
the first time, under Weir's auspices, the old Border town in which
so much of his own life was to be spent.

All this while he was working hard at his private studies. To these
studies he gave all the time that was not taken up by his teaching.
He read at his meals, and so far into the night that his aunt became
alarmed for his health. He worked his way through a goodly number of
the Greek and Latin classics, in copies borrowed from the libraries of
the two ministers; and he not only read, but analysed and elaborately
annotated what he read. But in the notes of the books read during the
year 1837 a change becomes evident. It can be seen that he took more
and more to the study of theology and Christian evidences, and his
note-books are full of references to Baxter and Jeremy Taylor, to
Robert Hall, Chalmers, and Keith.

At length in the summer a crisis was reached. A letter to his father,
which has not been preserved, announced that his views and feelings
with regard to spiritual things had undergone a great and far-reaching
change, and that religion had become to him a matter of personal and
paramount concern. Another letter to Henry Weir on the same subject is
of great interest. It is written in the unformed and somewhat stilted
style which he had not yet got rid of, and, with characteristic
reticence, it deals only indirectly with the details of the experience
through which he has passed, being in form a disquisition on the
importance of personal religion, and a refutation of objections which
might occur to his correspondent against making it the main interest
of his life.

"My dear Henry," the letter concludes, "I most earnestly wish that you
would devote the energies of your mind to the attentive consideration
of religion, and I have no doubt that, through the tuition of the
Divine Spirit, you would speedily arrive at the same conviction of the
importance of the subject with myself, and then our friendship would,
by the influence of those feelings which religion implants, be more
hallowed and intimate than before. I long ardently to see you."

The experience which has thus been described caused no great rift with
the past, nor did it produce any great change in his outward life. He
did not dedicate himself to the ministry; he did not, so far as can be
gathered, even become a member of the Church; and although for a short
time he talked of concentrating his energies on the Greek Testament,
to the disparagement of the Greek and Latin classical writers, within
two months we find him back at his old studies and strenuously
preparing for the coming session at College. But a new power had
entered into his life, and that power gradually asserted itself as
the chief and dominating influence there.

Cairns returned to the University in the late autumn of 1837,
enrolling himself in the classes of Latin, Greek, and Logic. Although
he maintained his intimacy with his uncle's family, he now went into
lodgings in West Richmond Street, sharing a room with young William
Inglis, son of the minister at Stockbridge, then a boy at the High
School. Here is the description he gives to his parents of his
surroundings and of the daily routine of his life: "The lodging which
we occupy is a very good room, measuring 18 feet by 16 feet, in every
way neat and comfortable. The walls are hung with pictures, and the
windows adorned with flowers. The rent is 3s. 6d., with a promise of
abatement when the price of coals is lowered. This is no doubt a great
sum of money, but I trust it will be amply compensated by the honesty,
cleanliness, economy, and good temper of the landlady.... I shall give
you the details of my daily life:--Rise at 8; 8.30-10, Latin class;
10-1, private study; 1-2, Logic; 2-3, Greek class; 4-12.30, private
study. As to meals--breakfast on porridge and treacle at 8.15; dine on
broth and mutton, or varieties of potatoes with beef or fish, at 3.15;
coffee at 7; if hungry, a little bread before bed. I can live quite
easily and comfortably on 3s. or 3s. 6d. per week, and when you see
me you will find that I have grown fat on students' fare."

At the close of the session he thus records the result of his work in
one of the classes:--

"There is a circumstance which but for its connection with the subject
of clothes I should not now mention. You are aware that a gold medal
is given yearly by the Society of Writers to the Signet to the best
scholar in the Latin class. Five are selected to compete for it by
the votes of their fellow-students. Having been placed in the number
a fortnight ago, I have, after a pretty close trial, been declared
the successful competitor. The grand sequence is this, that at the
end of the session I must come forward in the presence of many of
the Edinburgh grandees and deliver a Latin oration as a prelude to
receiving the medal. Although I have little fear that an oration will
be forthcoming of the ordinary length and quality, I doubt that the
trepidation of so unusual a position will cause me to break down in
the delivery of it; but we shall see. The reference of this subject
to the clothes you will at once discern. The trousers are too tight,
and an addition must be made to their length. The coat is too wide in
the body, too short and tight in the sleeves, and too spare in the
skirt. As to my feelings I shall say nothing, because I do not look
upon the honour as one of a kind that ought to excite the least
elation ... I would not wish you to blazon it, nor would I, but for
the cause mentioned, have taken any notice of it."

Besides this medal, he obtained the first place in the Greek class. In
Logic he stood third, and he carried off a number of other prizes. He
had been in every way the better for the interruption in his course;
his powers had matured, he knew what he could do, and he was able to
do it at will, and from this point onward he was recognised as easily
the first man of his time in the University. But he had now to look
about him for employment in the vacation; and for a while, in spite
of the successes of the past session, he was unable to find it, and
was glad to take some poorly paid elementary teaching. But at length,
by the good offices of one of the masters in the Edinburgh Academy,
backed by the strong recommendation of Professor Pillans, he became
tutor in the family of Mr. John Donaldson, W.S., of whose house, 124
Princes Street, he became an inmate. "What I want," said Mr. Donaldson
to the professor, "is a gentleman." "Well," replied Pillans, "I am
sending you first-rate raw material; we shall see what you will make
of it." He retained this situation till the close of his University
course, to the entire satisfaction of his employer and his family, and
with great comfort to himself--the salary being more than sufficient
for his simple needs.

He had, as we have seen, attended the class of Logic during his
second session; but as he was then devoting his main strength to
classics, and as the subject was as yet quite unfamiliar to him, he
did not fully give himself up to it nor yield to the influence of
the professor, Sir William Hamilton. But during the summer, while he
was at Mr. Donaldson's, in going again over the ground that he had
traversed during the past session, he was led to read the works of
Descartes, Bacon, and Leibnitz, with the result that mental philosophy
at once became the supreme interest of his academic life, and, when
the winter came round again, he yielded entirely to its spell and to
that of the great man who was then its most distinguished British

The class of Hamilton's that he attended in the session of 1838-39 was
that of Advanced Metaphysics. It so happened that at that time a hot
controversy was going on about this very class. The Edinburgh Town
Council, who were the patrons of Hamilton's chair, claimed also the
right to decide as to what subjects the professor should lecture on,
and pronounced Metaphysics to be "an abstruse subject, not generally
considered as of any great or permanent utility." But, while this
controversy was raging without, within all was calm. "We were quietly
engaged"--wrote Cairns twenty years later--"in our discussions as
to the existence of the external world while the storm was raging
without, and only felt it to be another form of the _non-ego_; while
the contrast between the singular gentleness and simplicity of our
teacher in his dealings with his pupils, and his more impassioned
qualities in controversy, became more remarkable."[1] Hamilton's
philosophy may not now command the acceptance that once belonged to
it, and that part of it which has been most influential may be put
to-day to a use of which he did not dream, and of which he would not
have approved, but Hamilton himself--"the black eagle of the desert,"
as the "Chaldee Manuscript" calls him--was a mighty force. The
influence of that vehement and commanding personality on a generation
of susceptible young men was deep and far-reaching. He seized and held
the minds of his students until they were able to grasp what he had to
give them,--until, in spite of the toil and pain it cost them, they
were _made_ to grasp it. And he further trained them in habits of
mental discipline and intellectual integrity, which were of quite
priceless value to them. "I am more indebted to you," wrote Cairns to
him in 1848, "for the foundation of my intellectual habits and tastes
than to any other person, and shall bear, by the will of the Almighty,
the impress of your hand through any future stage of existence."

[Footnote 1: _Memoir of Sir W. Hamilton_, p. 231.]

Cairns was first in Hamilton's class at the close of the session, and
also first in Professor John Wilson's Moral Philosophy Class. "Of the
many hundreds of students," Wilson wrote four years later, "whose
career I have watched during the last twenty years, not one has given
higher promise of excellence than John Cairns; his talents are of the
highest order; his attainments in literature, philosophy, and science
rare indeed; and his character such as to command universal respect."

This winter he joined with eight or nine of Hamilton's most
distinguished students in forming the "Metaphysical Society," which
met weekly for the purpose of discussing philosophical questions. In a
Memoir which he afterwards wrote of John Clark, one of the founders of
this Society, he thus describes the association that led to its being
formed, and that was further cemented by its formation: "Willingly
do I recall and linger upon these days and months, extending
even to years, in which common studies of this abstract nature bound
us together. It was the romance--the poetry--of speculation and
friendship. All the vexed questions of the schools were attempted by
our united strength, after our higher guide had set the example. The
thorny wilds of logic were pleasant as an enchanted ground; its driest
technicalities treasured up as unspeakably rare and precious. We
stumbled on, making discoveries at every step, and had all things
common. Each lesson in mental philosophy opened up some mystery of our
immortal nature, and seemed to bring us nearer the horizon of absolute
truth, which again receded as we advanced, and left us, like children
pursuing the rainbow, to resume the chase. In truth, we had much of
the character of childhood in these pursuits--light-heartedness,
wonder, boundless hope, engrossment with the present, carelessness
of the future. Our old world daily became new; and the real world of
the multitude to us was but a shadow. It was but the outer world,
the _non-ego_, standing at the mercy of speculation, waiting to be
confirmed or abolished in the next debate; while the inner world, in
which truth, beauty, and goodness had their eternal seat, should still
survive and be all in all. The play of the intellect with these subtle
and unworldly questions was to our minds as inevitable as the stages
of our bodily growth. Happy was it for us that the play of affection
was also active--nay, by sympathy excited to still greater liveliness;
and that a higher wisdom suffered us not in all these flowery mazes
to go astray."[2]

[Footnote 2: _Fragments of College and Pastoral Life_, pp. 24-25.]

From indications contained in the brief Memoir from which this
extract is taken, as well as from references in his correspondence,
it would appear that about this time he subjected his religious beliefs
to a careful scrutiny in the light cast upon them by his philosophical
studies. From this process of testing and strain he emerged with his
faith established on a yet firmer basis than before. One result of
this experience may perhaps be found in a letter to his father,
in which he tells him that he has been weighing the claims of the
Christian ministry as his future calling in life. He feels the
force of its incomparable attractions, but doubts whether he is
fitted in elevation and maturity of character to undertake so vast
a responsibility. Besides, he is painfully conscious of personal
awkwardness in the common affairs of life, and unfitness for the
practical management of business. And so he thinks he will take
another year to think of it, during which he will complete his
College course.

He spent the summer of 1839 with the Donaldson family at their country
seat at Auchairn, near Ballantrae, in south Ayrshire, occupying
most of his leisure hours in mathematical and physical studies in
preparation for the work of the coming winter. In the session of
1839-40, his last at the University, he attended the classes of
Natural Philosophy and Rhetoric, taking the first place in the latter
and only just missing it in the former. He attended, besides, Sir
William Hamilton's private classes, and was much at his house and in
his company. In April 1841 he took his M.A. degree, coming out first
in Classics and Philosophy, and being bracketed first in Mathematics.
Among his fellow-students his reputation was maintained not merely by
the honours he gained in the class lists, but by his prowess in the
debating arena. Besides continuing his membership in the Metaphysical
Society, he had also been, since the spring of 1839, a member of
the Diagnostic, one of the most flourishing of the older students'
debating societies. Of the Diagnostic he speedily became the life and
soul, and discussed with ardour such questions as the Repeal of the
Corn Laws, Vote by Ballot, and the Exclusion of Bishops from the
House of Lords. One memorable debate took place on the Spiritual
Independence of the Church, then the most burning of all Scottish
public questions. The position of the Non-Intrusion party in the
Established Church was maintained by Cairns's friend Clark, while he
himself led on the Voluntary side. The debate lasted two nights, and,
to quote the words of one who was present, "Cairns in reply swept all
before him, winning a vote from those who had come in curiosity, and
securing a large Liberal majority. Amidst a scene of wild enthusiasm
we hoisted his big form upon our shoulders, and careered round the old
quadrangle in triumph. Indeed he was the hero of our College life,
leaving all others far behind, and impressing us with the idea that
he had a boundless future before him."[3]

[Footnote 3: _Life and Letters_, pp. 94-95.]



Over Cairns's life during his last session at the University there
hung the shadow of a coming sorrow. His father's health, which had
never been robust, and had been failing for some time, at length quite
broke down; and it soon became apparent that, although he might linger
for some time, there was no hope of his recovery. In the earlier days
of his illness the father was able to write, and many letters passed
between him and his student son. The following extracts from his
letters reveal the character of the man, and surely furnish an
illustration of what was said in a former chapter about the educative
effect of religion on the Scottish working-man:--

"DUNGLASS, _Dec_, 23,1839.

"I would not have you think that I am overlooking the Divine agency in
what has befallen me. I desire to ascribe all to His glory and praise,
who can bring order out of confusion and light out of darkness; and I
desire to look away from human means to Him who is able to kill and to
make alive, knowing that He doth not grieve willingly nor afflict the
children of men."

"DUNGLASS, _Jan_. 5, 1840.

"As I have no great pain except what arises from coughing, I have
reason to bless the Lord, who is dealing so bountifully with me....
It would be unpardonable in me were I not endeavouring to make myself
familiar with death in the forms and aspects in which he presents
himself to the mind. Doubts and fears sometimes arise lest I should
be indulging in a false and presumptuous hope, and, as there is great
danger lest we should be deceived in this momentous concern, we cannot
be too anxious in ascertaining whether our hope be that of the Gospel,
as set forth in His Word of truth. Still, through the grace and mercy
of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom, I trust upon scriptural grounds, I
can call my Saviour, I am enabled to view death as a friend and as
deprived of its sting, and this is a source of great comfort to me and
cheers my drooping mind. I can say that my Beloved is mine and I am
His, and that He will make all things to work together for His own
glory and my eternal good. Dear son, I have thus opened my mind to
you, and I trust that your prayers will not be wanting that my faith
may be strengthened, and that all the graces of the Holy Spirit may
abound in me, to the glory of God through our Lord Jesus Christ."

During this and part of the next year Cairns remained in Mr.
Donaldson's family, and his relations with that family as a whole, as
well as his special work in the tuition of the young son and daughter
of the house, were of the most agreeable kind. He had by this time,
however, formed some intimate friendships in Edinburgh, and there were
several pleasant and interesting houses that were always open to him.
One of these deserves special mention. Among his most intimate College
friends was James McGibbon Russell, a distinguished student of Sir
William Hamilton, and one of the founders of the Metaphysical Society.
Russell was the son of a Perthshire parish minister, but his parents
were dead, and he lived with an uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Archibald
Wilson, whose own family consisted of two sons and three daughters.
Cairns was introduced by Russell to the Wilson family, and soon became
intimate with them. His special friend--at last the dearest friend
he had in this world--was the younger son, George, afterwards the
well-known chemist and Professor of Technology in the University
of Edinburgh. No two men could be less alike--George Wilson with a
bright, alert, nimble mind; Cairns with an intellect massive like his
bodily frame, and characterised chiefly by strength and momentum; and
yet the two fitted into each other, and when they really got to know
each other it might truly be said of them that the love between them
was wonderful, passing the love of women.

By the midsummer of 1840 Cairns had come to a final decision about his
future calling. "I have," he wrote to his father on 13th June, "after
much serious deliberation and prayer to God for direction, made up my
mind to commence this year the study of divinity, with a view to the
office of the ministry of the Gospel. I pray you, do implore the grace
of God on my behalf, after this very grave and solemn determination."

The Secession Church, to which he belonged, and to whose ministry he
desired to seek admission, had no theological tutors who were set
apart for the work of teaching alone. Its professors, of whom there
were four, were ministers in charges, who lectured to the students
during the two holiday months of August and September. The curriculum
of the "Divinity Hall," as it was called, consisted of five of these
short sessions. During the remaining ten months of each year the
student, except that he had to prepare a certain number of exercises
for the Presbytery which had him under its charge, was left very much
to do as he pleased.

Cairns entered the Hall, at that time meeting in Glasgow, in the
August of 1840. Of the four professors who were on the staff of the
institution, and all of whom were capable men, only two need here
be mentioned. These were Dr. Robert Balmer of Berwick and Dr.
John Brown of Edinburgh. Dr. Balmer was a clear-headed, fair-minded
theologian--in fact, so very fair, and even generous, was he wont
to be in dealing with opponents that he sometimes, quite unjustly,
incurred the suspicion of being in sympathy, if not in league, with
these opponents. He is specially interesting to us in this place,
because Cairns succeeded him first in his pulpit, and then, after a
long interval, in his chair. Dr. Brown, the grandson and namesake of
the old commentator of Haddington, was a man of noble presence and
noble character, whose personality "embedded in the translucent amber
of his son's famous sketch" is familiarly known to all lovers of
English literature. He was the pioneer of the scientific exposition
of the Scriptures in the Scottish pulpit, and was one of the first
exegetical theologians of his time. His point of view may be seen in a
frequent criticism of his on a student's discourse: "That is truth and
very important truth, but it is not _the_ truth that is taught in this
passage." Being so, it was simply "matter in the wrong place," _dirt_
to be cleared away as speedily as possible.

Cairns had been first attracted to Dr. Brown by his speeches on the
Annuity Tax, an Edinburgh ecclesiastical impost for which he had
suffered the spoiling of his goods, and he had been for more than a
year a member of his church in Broughton Place; but it was only now
that he came to know him really well. Henceforth his admiration for
Dr. Brown, and the friendship to which Dr. Brown admitted him, were
to be amongst the most powerful influences of his life. Among his
fellow-students at the Hall were several young men of brilliant
promise, such as John Ker, who had been first prizeman in the Logic
class in Hamilton's first session, W.B. Robertson, Alexander MacEwen,
Joseph Leckie, and William Graham. Of these, Graham, bright, witty,
versatile, the most notorious of punsters and the most illegible of
writers, was his chief intimate, and their friendship continued
unbroken and close for half a century.

But meanwhile the shadow was deepening over the home at Dunglass. All
through the autumn and early winter his father was slowly sinking. He
was only fifty-one, but he was already worn out; and his disease, if
disease it might be called, had many of the symptoms of extreme old
age. His son saw him for the last time near the close of the year.
"I cannot say," he wrote to Miss Darling, "that depression of spirits
was the only, or even the chief, emotion with which I bade farewell
to my father. There was something so touching in his patience and
resignation, so calm and inwrought in his meek submission to the
Divine will, that it affected me more strongly than raptures of
religious joy could have done. He displays the same evenness of temper
in the sight of death as has marked his equable and consistent life."

He died in the early morning of 3rd January 1841. His son William thus
describes the scene: "It was the first time any of us except our
mother had looked on the face of the dying in the act of departing,
and that leaves an impression that can never be effaced. When the end
came, and each had truly realised what had happened, our mother in a
broken voice asked that 'the Books' might be laid on the table; then
she gave out that verse in the 107th Psalm--

'The storm is changed into a calm
At his command and will;
So that the waves that raged before,
Now quiet are and still.'

It was her voice, too, that raised the tune. Then she asked Thomas to
read a chapter of the Bible and afterwards to pray. We all knelt down,
and Thomas made a strong effort to steady his voice, but he failed
utterly; then the dear mother herself lifted the voice of thanksgiving
for the victory that had been won, and after that the neighbours were
called in."[4]

Cairns was soon to have further experience of anxiety in respect to
the health of those who were near to him. Towards the close of the
year in which his father died, his brother William, who had almost
completed his apprenticeship to a mason at Chirnside, in Berwickshire,
was seized with inflammation, and for some weeks hung between life and
death. At length he recovered sufficiently to be removed under his
elder brother's careful and loving supervision to the Edinburgh
Infirmary, where he remained for four months. During all that time
Cairns visited his brother twice every day, he taught himself to apply
to the patient the galvanic treatment which had been prescribed, and
brought him an endless supply of books, periodicals, and good things
to eat and smoke.

[Footnote 4: It would appear that it was not an uncommon custom in
Scotland in former times to have family worship immediately after
a death. Perhaps, too, this verse from the 107th Psalm was the one
usually sung on such occasions. There may be a reminiscence of this,
due to its author's Seceder training, in a passage in Carlyle's
_Oliver Cromwell_, where, after describing the Protector's death,
and the grief of his daughter Lady Fauconberg, he goes on to say,
"Husht poor weeping Mary! Here is a Life-battle right nobly done.
Seest thou not

'The storm is changed into a calm
At his command and will;
So that the waves that raged before,
Now quiet are and still.

Then are _they_ glad, because at rest
And quiet now they be:
So to the haven he them brings,
Which they desired to see.'"

In the end of 1842 George Wilson was told by an eminent surgeon that
he must choose between certain death and the amputation of a foot
involving possible death. He agreed at once to the operation being
performed, but begged for a week in which to prepare for it. He had
always been a charming personality, and had lived a life that was
outwardly blameless; but he had never given very serious thought to
religion. Now, however, when he was face to face with death, the great
eternal verities became more real to him, and during the week of
respite the study of the New Testament and the counsel and sympathy
and prayers of his friend Cairns prepared him to face his trial with
calmness, and with "a trembling hope in Christ" in his heart. The
two friends, who had thus been brought so closely together, were
henceforth to be more to each other than they had ever been before.

The next year, 1843, was a memorable one in the ecclesiastical history
of Scotland. Cairns, though not sympathising with the demand of the
Non-Intrusion party in the Church of Scotland for absolute spiritual
independence within an Established Church, had an intense admiration
for Chalmers, and was filled with the greatest enthusiasm when he
and the party whom he led on the great 18th of May clung fast to
the Independence and left the Establishment behind them. Indeed his
enthusiasm ran positively wild, for it is recorded that, when the
great procession came out of St. Andrew's Church, Cairns went
hurrahing and tossing up his hat in front of it and all the way down
the hill to Tanfield Hall. To Miss Darling, who had no sympathy with
the Free Church movement, he wrote: "I know our difference of opinion
here. But you will pardon me for saying that I have never felt more
profound emotions of gratitude to God, of reverence for Christianity,
of admiration of moral principle, and of pride in the honesty and
courage of Scotsmen, than I did on that memorable day."

In the autumn of this year he was able to carry out a project which
he had had before him, and for which he had been saving up his money
for a long time. This was the spending of a year on the Continent.
It was by no means so common in those days as it has since become for
a Scottish theological student to attend a German University. Indeed,
until the early Forties of last century, such a thing was scarcely
known. Then, however, the influence of Sir William Hamilton, and the
interest in German thought which his teaching stimulated, created the
desire to learn more about it at its source.

It is natural that this movement should have affected the students of
the Secession Church before it reached those of the Establishment; for
not only were they less occupied with the great controversy of the day
and its consequences, but their short autumn session left them free
to take either a winter or a summer _semester_, or both, at a German
University without interrupting their course at home. The late Dr.
W.B. Robertson of Irvine used to lay claim to having been the pioneer
of these "landlouping students of divinity." John Ker and others
followed him; and when Cairns set out in 1843, quite a large company
of old friends were expected to meet at Berlin. Cairns's departure was
delayed by the illness of James Russell, who was to have accompanied
him, but he set out towards the end of October. He had accepted an
appointment as _locum tenens_ for four weeks in an English Independent
chapel at Hamburg, which delayed his arrival at Berlin until after
the winter _semester_ had commenced. But this interlude was greatly
enjoyed both by himself and by the little company of English merchants
who formed his first pastoral charge, and who, on a vacancy occurring,
made a strong but fruitless attempt to induce him to remain as their
permanent minister.

Arrived in Berlin, he joined his friends--Nelson, Graham, Wallace,
and Logan Aikman. With Nelson he shared a room in the Luisenstrasse,
where they set up that household god of all German students--a
"coffee-machine," with the aid of which, and some flaming _spiritus_,
they brewed their morning and evening beverage. They dined in the
middle of the day at a neighbouring restaurant, on soup, meat,
vegetables, and black bread, at a cost of threepence.

At the University, Cairns heard four or five lectures daily,
taking among others the courses of Neander on Christian Dogmatics,
Trendelenburg on History of Philosophy, and Schelling, the last of
the great philosophers of the preceding generation, on Introduction
to Philosophy. Of these, Schelling impressed him least, and Neander
most. Through life he had a deep reverence for Neander, whom he
regarded, with perhaps premature enthusiasm, as the man who shared
with Schleiermacher the honour of restoring Germany to a believing

Here is the description he gives of him in a letter from Berlin to
George Wilson: "Suppose yourself in a large square room filled with
Studiosi, each with his inkstand and immense _Heft_ before him and
ready to begin, when precisely at 11.15 a.m. in shuffles a little
black Jew, without hat in hand or a scrap of paper, and strides up to
a high desk, where he stands the whole time, resting his elbows upon
it and never once opening his eyes or looking his class in the face;
the worst type of Jewish physiognomy in point of intellect, though
without its cunning or sensuality; the face meaningless, pale, and
sallow, with low forehead, and nothing striking but a pair of enormous
black eyebrows. The figure is dressed in a dirty brown surtout, blue
plush trousers, and dirty top-boots. It begins to speak. The voice is
loud and clear, and marches on with academic stateliness and gravity,
and even something of musical softness mixes with its notes. Suddenly
the speaker turns to a side. It is to spit, which act is repeated
every second sentence. You now see in his hands a twisted pen, which
is gradually stripped of every hair and then torn to pieces in the
course of his mental working. His feet, too, begin to turn. The left
pirouettes round and round, and at the close of an emphatic period
strikes violently against the wall. When he has finished his lecture,
you see only a mass of saliva and the rags of his pen. Neander is
out of all sight the most wonderful being in the University. For
knowledge, spirituality, good sense, and indomitable spirit of the
finest discretion on moral subjects, the old man is a real marvel
every way. In private he is the kindest but also the most awkward of
mortals. His lectures on _Dogmatik_ and _Sittenlehre_ I value beyond
all others, and I would gladly have come to Berlin to hear him alone."

Besides hearing these University lectures, Cairns read German
philosophy and theology for nine or ten hours daily, took lessons in
Hebrew from a young Christian Jew named Biesenthal,[5] and in these
short winter months acquired such a mastery of German as a spoken
language that in the spring he was urged by Professor Tholuck of
Halle to remain and qualify as a Privatdocent at a German University.
He also gained a knowledge of men and things German, and a living
interest in them, which he retained through life.

[Footnote 5: Afterwards author of a learned but fantastic Commentary
on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Biesenthal had an enthusiastic
reverence for what in the hands of others were the dry details of
Hebrew Grammar. "Herr Doctor," a dense pupil once asked him, "ought
there not to be a Daghesh in that Tau?" "God forbid!" was the
horrified reply.]

At the close of the winter _semester_, the last weeks of which had
been saddened by the news of James Russell's death; he set out on a
tour extending over three months, and planned to include the principal
cities and sights of Central and Southern Europe. He had only about
L20 in his pocket, but he made this cover all the expenditure that
was necessary for his modest wants. He travelled alone and, whenever
it was possible, on foot, in the blouse and peaked cap of a German
workman, and with a light knapsack strapped on his shoulders. He
avoided hotels and lived cheaply, even meanly; but, with his splendid
health, simple tastes, and overflowing interest in all that he saw,
this did not greatly matter.

His classical studies, and an already wide knowledge of European
history, suggested endless interesting associations with the places
through which he passed; and the picture galleries furnished him with
materials for art criticisms which, considering that he had had few
opportunities of seeing paintings, surprise one by their insight and
grasp. At Wittenberg we find him standing by the grave of Luther
in the Castle Church, and reflecting on the connection between his
presence there and the life and work of the man whose body lay below.
"But for him there had neither been a Scotland to send out pilgrim
students of theology, nor a Germany to receive them."

At Halle he has interesting interviews with Tholuck and Julius
Mueller; from Dresden he diverges to Herrnhut, where he witnesses the
ordination of a Moravian missionary and takes part in a love-feast. At
Prague, that wonderful city where the barbaric East begins, he finds
his deepest interest stirred by the Jewish burying-ground and the
hoary old synagogue. And so he passes on from city to city, and from
land to land, by Vienna, Salzburg, and Munich, to Innsbruck, thence
over the Brenner to Trent and Venice, and by Bologna to Florence and
Rome. Returning by Genoa, Milan, and the Italian Lakes, he passes into
Switzerland, and travels homeward by the Rhine. During this tour,
when, in spite of the heat, he frequently walked forty-five or fifty
miles a day, he had little time for letter-writing; but a small
paper-covered book, in which he each night jotted down in pencil his
impressions of what he had seen during the past day, has fortunately
been preserved. From this three brief extracts may be made, and may
serve as specimens of the whole, which is virtually reproduced entire
in Dr. MacEwen's Biography. The first contains a description of the
Jewish cemetery at Prague: "Through winding, filthy, pent-up, and
over-peopled lanes, in the part of the old town next the river, heaped
up with old clothes, trinket-ware, villainous-looking bread, and
horrid sausages, one attains to an open space irregularly and rudely
walled in and full of graves. The monuments date from the tenth
century. No language can give an idea of its first impression. At one
end one sees innumerable masses of grey weather-beaten stones in every
grotesque angle of incidence and coincidence, but all rude and mean,
covered with mystic Hebrew letters and half-buried amid long grass,
nettles, and weeds. The place looks exactly as if originally a
collection of dunghills or, perhaps, of excavated earth, left to its
natural course after the corpses had been thrown in and the rude
billets set over them. The economy of the race is visible in their
measure for the dead, and contrasts wonderfully with the roominess
and delicate adornment of German churchyards in general. The hoar
antiquity of the place is increased by a wilderness of alders which
grow up around the walls and amidst the stones, twisted, tangled,
stunted, desolately old and yet renewing their youth, a true type of
the scattered, bruised, and peeled, yet ineradicable Israel itself."

An incident at Novi, between Genoa and Milan, is thus described:
"I had strolled into a vineyard behind the town, quite lonely and
crowned with one cottage. On one of the secluded paths I found a little
girl lying on the grass, with her face turned up to the sun and fast
asleep. The breeze played beautifully with her hair, and her dress
fluttered and rustled, but there she lay, and nothing but the heaving
of her frame, which could hardly be distinguished from the agitation
of the wind, proved that she was only asleep. I stood gazing for a
long while, thinking of the Providence that watched alike over the
child in its slumberings and the pilgrim in his wanderings; and as
I saw her companions playing at no great distance, I left the spot
without awakening the absent little one. As I was passing the cottage
door, however, I was overtaken by the mother in evident agitation. She
pointed along the path I had come by, as if she feared her child had
wandered to the highway or been lost amid the wild brushwood that grew
on that side of the vineyard. I soon made her understand that the
_piccolina_ was just behind her, and waited till she bounded away and
returned with the crying thing in her arms, loading it with gentle
reproaches and me with warm expressions of gratitude."

At Milan it must be admitted that he goes into raptures over the
Cathedral, but one is glad to note that he reserves an ample tribute
of enthusiasm for the old church of St. Ambrose: "In the cloister of
St. Ambrose I saw the famous cypress doors which the saint closed
against Theodosius, time-worn but solid; the brazen serpent, the fine
pulpit with the bas-relief of the Agape, and the veritable Episcopal
chair of marble, with solid back and sides, and lions embossed at the
corners, in which he sat in the councils of his presbyters. It is
almost the only relic I have done any honour to. I knelt down and
kissed it, and forgot for the time that I was both Protestant and

After a stormy and perilous voyage from Antwerp, he reached Newcastle
in the first week of August, and started at once for Edinburgh to
be present at the opening of the Divinity Hall. At the Dunglass
lodge-gate his brother David, who was waiting for a letter which he
had promised to throw down from the "Magnet" coach as he passed,
caught a hurried glimpse of him, lean and brown as a berry after his
exertions and his exposure to the Italian sun. On the following
Saturday he put his pedestrian powers to the proof by walking from
Edinburgh to Dunglass, when he covered the thirty-five and a half
miles in seven hours and fifty minutes, having stopped only twice on
the way--once in Haddington to buy a biscuit, and once at a wayside
watering-trough to take a drink.

The Hall session of 1844 was Cairns's last, and the next step for him
to take in ordinary course was to apply to a Presbytery for license as
a probationer. He had, however, some hesitation in taking this step,
mainly because he was not quite clear whether the real work of his
life lay in the discharge of the ordinary duties of the ministry, or
whether he might not render better service by devoting himself, as
opportunity offered, more exclusively to theological and literary work
in behalf of the Christian faith. His friend Clark, whom he consulted
in the matter, strongly urged him to decide in favour of the latter
alternative. His speculative and literary faculties, he urged, had
already been tested with brilliant results; his powers as a preacher,
on the other hand, were as yet an unknown quantity, and Clark thought
it doubtful if they would be appreciated by an average congregation.
The struggle was severe while it lasted, but it ended in Cairns
deciding to go on to the ministry in the ordinary way. In November
1844 be applied to the Edinburgh Presbytery of the Secession Church
for license, and he received it at their hands in the following
February. He had not long to wait for a settlement. Dr. Balmer of
Berwick, one of his divinity professors, had died while he was in
Switzerland, and on his deathbed had advised his congregation to wait
until Cairns had finished his course before electing a successor.
Accordingly, it was arranged that he should preach in Golden Square
Church, Berwick, a few weeks after he received license. The result
was that a unanimous and enthusiastic call was addressed to him. He
received another invitation from Mount Pleasant Church, Liverpool,
of which his friend Graham was afterwards minister; but, after some
hesitation, he decided in favour of Berwick.

Meanwhile changes had been taking place in the home circle at
Dunglass. His brother William, whose illness has been already
referred to, had now passed beyond all hope of recovering the use of
his limbs. Having set himself resolutely to a course of study and
mental improvement under his brother John's guidance, he was able to
accept a kindly proposal made to him by Sir John Hall of Dunglass,
that he should become the teacher of the little roadside school at
Oldcambus, which John had attended as a child. On the marriage of his
eldest brother in the summer of 1845 the widowed mother came to keep
house for him, and henceforth the Oldcambus schoolhouse became the
family headquarters. But that summer brought sorrow as well as change.
Another brother, James, a young man of vigorous mental powers, and
originally of stalwart physique, who had been working at his trade as
a tailor in Glasgow, fell into bad health, which soon showed the
symptoms of rapid consumption. He came home hoping to benefit by the
change, but it became increasingly clear that he had only come home
to die. He lingered till the autumn, and passed away at Oldcambus
at the end of September. It was with this background of change and
shadow that the ordination of John Cairns took place at Berwick on
August 6, 1845.



Berwick is an English town on the Scottish side of the Tweed. As all
that remained to England of the Scottish conquests of Edward I., it
was until the Union of the Crowns the Calais of Scotland. It thus came
to be treated as in a measure separate from England although belonging
to it, and was for a long time separately mentioned in English Acts of
Parliament, as it still is in English Royal Proclamations. This status
of semi-independence which it so long enjoyed has helped to give it an
individuality more strongly marked than that of most English towns.

In religious matters Berwick has more affinity to Scotland than to
England. John Knox preached in the town for two years by appointment
of the Privy Council of Edward VI., and in harmony with his influence
its religious traditions were in succeeding generations strongly
Puritan, and one of its vicars, Luke Ogle, was ejected for
Nonconformity in 1662.

After the Revolution of 1688 this tendency found expression in the
rise and growth of a vigorous Presbyterian Dissent; and in the
early years of the eighteenth century there were two flourishing
congregations in the town in communion with the Church of Scotland.
But as these soon became infected with the Moderatism which prevailed
over the Border, new congregations were formed in connection with
the Scottish Secession and Relief bodies, and it was of one of
these--Golden Square Secession Church--that John Cairns became
the fourth minister in 1845.

Berwick is one of the very few English towns which still retain their
ancient fortifications. The circuit of the walls, which were built in
the reign of Elizabeth, with their bastions, "mounts," and gates, is
still practically complete, and is preserved with care and pride. A
few ruins of the earlier walls, which Edward I. erected, and which
enclosed a much wider area than is covered by the modern town, still
remain; also such vestiges of the once impregnable Castle as have not
been removed to make way for the present railway-station. Beyond this,
there is little about Berwick to tell of its hoary antiquity and its
eventful history. But its red-roofed houses, rising steeply from the
left bank of the Tweed, and looking across the tidal river to the
villages of Tweedmouth and Spittal, have a picturesqueness of their
own, whether they are seen when the lights and shadows of a summer day
are playing upon them, or when they are swathed in the white folds of
a North Sea _haar_.

The Berwick people are shrewd, capable, and kindly, and combine many
of the good qualities of their Scotch and Northumbrian neighbours.
Their dialect is in some respects akin to the Lowland Scotch, with
which it has many words in common; and it has also as a prominent
feature that rising intonation, passing sometimes almost into a
wail, which one hears all along the eastern Border. But the great
outstanding characteristic of Berwick speech is the _burr_ a rough
guttural pronunciation of the letter "i." With nothing but the scanty
resources of our alphabet to fall back upon, it is quite impossible to
represent this peculiarity phonetically, but it was once remarked by a
student of Semitic tongues that the sound of the Hebrew letter 'Ayin
is as nearly as possible that of the burr, and that, if you want
to ascertain the correct Hebrew pronunciation of the name _Ba'al_,
all you have got to do is to ask any Alderman of Berwick to say

[Footnote 6: Some words are very hard to pronounce with a burr in
one's throat. Dr. Cairns used to tell that on one occasion, long after
he had got well used to the sound of the Berwick speech, he was under
the belief that a man with whom he was conversing was talking about
a _boy_ until he discovered from the context that his theme was
a _brewery_.]

In 1845 the population of Berwick was between 8000 and 9000. "It
included," says Dr. MacEwen, "some curious elements." Not the least
curious and dubious of these was that of the lower class of the old
Freemen of the Borough. These men had an inherited right to the use of
lands belonging to the Corporation, which they let; and to a vote at a
Parliamentary election, which they sold. When an election drew near,
it was a maxim with both political parties that the Freemen must be
conciliated at all costs; and the Freemen, knowing this, were quite
prepared to presume on their knowledge. Once, at an election time, it
happened that in the house of a prominent political leader in Berwick
a fine roast of beef was turning before the kitchen fire, and was
nearly ready for the dinner table, when a Freeman walked in, lifted
it from the spit, and carried it off. No one dared to say him nay,
for had he not a vote? and might not that vote turn the election?

At the other end of the social scale were the half-pay officers,
the members of neighbouring county families, and the attorneys and
doctors, who in some degree constituted the aristocracy of Berwick,
and most of whom attended the Episcopalian Parish Church. The bulk
of the shopkeepers and tradesmen, with some of the professional men
and a large proportion of the working people, were Dissenters, and
were connected with one or other of the half-dozen Presbyterian
congregations in the town. Of these that of which Cairns was the
minister was the most influential and the largest, having a membership
of about six hundred.

The church was in Golden Square, of which it may be said that it is
neither a square nor yet golden, but a dingy close or court opening by
an archway from the High Street, the main thoroughfare of Berwick. The
building was till recently a tannery, but the main features of it are
still quite distinguishable. It stood on the left as one entered from
High Street, and it had the usual high pulpit at its farther end, with
a precentor's desk beneath it, and the usual deep gallery supported on
metal pillars running round three of its four sides. The manse, its
door adorned with a decent brass knocker, stood next to the church, on
the side farthest from the street. It gave one a pleasant surprise on
entering it to find that only its back windows looked out on the dim
little "square." In front it commanded a fine view of the river, here
crossed by a quaint old bridge of fifteen arches, which, owing to the
exigencies of the current, is much higher at the Berwick end than at
the other, and, as an Irishman once remarked, "has its middle all on
one side." For some little time, however, after Cairns's settlement,
he did not occupy the manse, but lived in rooms over a shop in Bridge
Street; and when at length he did remove into it, he took his landlady
with him and still remained her lodger.

For the first five years of his ministry Cairns devoted himself
entirely to the work which it entailed upon him, and steadily refused
to be drawn aside to the literary and philosophical tasks which many
of his friends urged him to undertake. He had decided that his work in
Berwick demanded his first attention, and, until he could ascertain
how much of his time it would absorb, he felt that he could not go
beyond it. On the early days of the week he read widely and hard on
the lines of his Sunday work, and the last three days he devoted to
writing out and committing to memory his two sermons, each of which
occupied about fifty minutes in delivery. The "committing" of his
sermons gave him little or no trouble, and he soon found that it could
be relegated without anxiety to Saturday evening. And he got into the
habit of preparing for it by a Saturday afternoon walk to the little
yellow red-capped lighthouse at the end of Berwick Pier. At the upper
end of the pier was a five-barred gate, and on the way back, when
he thought that nobody was looking, he would vault over it with a
running leap.

His preaching from the first made a deep impression. Following the
old Seceder tradition, and the example of his boyhood's minister Mr.
Inglis, and of his professor Dr. Brown, his discourse in the forenoon
was always a "lecture" expository of some extended passage of
Scripture, and forming one of a consecutive series; while that in the
afternoon followed the familiar lines of an ordinary sermon. But there
was nothing quite ordinary in his preaching at any time. Even when
there was no unusual flight of eloquence, there was always to be
noted the steady march of a strong mind from point to point till the
conclusion had been reached; always a certain width and elevation of
view, and always the ring of irresistible conviction. And although the
discourse had been committed to memory and was reproduced in the very
words that had been written down in the study, no barrier was thereby
interposed between the preacher and his hearers. Somehow--at least
after the first few paragraphs--when he had properly warmed to his
work, the man himself seemed to break through all restraints and
come into direct and living contact with his hearers.

His action sermon, _i.e._ the sermon preached before the Communion,
was always specially memorable and impressive. He had the subject
chosen weeks, and sometimes even months, beforehand, and, as he had no
other sermon to write for the Communion Sunday, he devoted the whole
of the preceding week to its preparation. His action sermons, which
were those he usually preached on special occasions when he was away
from home, dealt always with some theme connected with the Person or
Work of Christ. They were frequently apologetic in their conception
and structure, full of massive argument, which he had a remarkable
power of marshalling and presenting so as to be understood by all; but
the argument, reinforced by bursts of real eloquence, always converged
on the, exaltation of the Redeemer. "I never thought so much of him as
I do to-day," said one of his hearers to another after one of these
sermons, "I never thought so much of Christ as I do to-day," replied
the other; and that reply showed that in at least one case the purpose
of the preacher in preparing and delivering his sermon had been

On the Sunday evening Cairns had a Bible-class of over one hundred
young men and women, to which he devoted great care and attention.
"It was the best hour of the day to us," wrote one who was a member of
this class. "He was nearer us, and we were nearer him, than in church.
The grandeur and momentum of his pulpit eloquence were not there, but
we had instead a calm, rich, conversational instruction, a quiet
disclosure of vast stores of information, as well as a definite
dealing with young hearts and consciences, which left an unfading

But Cairns was no mere preacher and teacher. He put out his full
strength as truly in his pastoral work as in his work for and in
the pulpit. He visited his large congregation statedly once a year,
offering prayer in each house, and hearing the children repeat a psalm
or portion of Scripture which he had prescribed the year before. He
timed these visits so accurately that he could on one occasion banter
one of his elders on the fact that he had received more than his
due in one year, because the last visitation had been on the 1st of
January and this one was on the 31st of December. A good part of his
visiting had to be done in the country, because a considerable section
of his congregation consisted of farmers or hinds from Northumberland,
from the "Liberties of Berwick," and even from Scotland, which first
begins three miles out from the town. These country visitations
usually concluded with a service in a barn or farm-kitchen, to which
worshippers came from far and near.

But besides this stated and formal visitation, which was intimated
from the pulpit, constant attention was bestowed on the sick, the
bereaved, the poor, the tempted, and all others who appealed specially
to the minister's heart or his conscience. And yet there was no sense
of task-work or of a burden to be borne about his relations to his
congregation. His exuberant frankness of manner, contrasting as this
did with the reserved and somewhat stiff bearing of his predecessor
Dr. Balmer, won the hearts of all. And his keen sense of the ludicrous
side of things often acted as an antiseptic, and kept him right both
with himself and with his people.

Once, however, as he used to tell, it brought him perilously near to
disaster. He was in the middle of his sermon one Sunday afternoon in
Golden Square. It was a hot summer day, and all the doors and windows
were open. From the pulpit he could look right out into the square,
and as he looked he became aware of a hen surrounded by her young
family pecking vigorously on the pavement in search of food, and
clucking as she pecked. All at once an overwhelming sense of the
difference between the two worlds in which he and that hen were living
took possession of him, and it was with the utmost difficulty that he
restrained himself from bursting into a shout of laughter. As it was,
he recovered himself with a mighty gulp and finished the service
decorously enough.

Cairns was also assisted in his work by his phenomenal powers of
memory. After reading a long sermon once, or at most twice over, he
could repeat it verbatim. Once when he was challenged by a friend to
do so, he repeated, without stopping, the names of all the children
in his congregation, apologising only for his imperfect acquaintance
with two families who had recently come. Another instance of this is
perhaps not so remarkable in itself, but it is worth mentioning on
other grounds. Five-and-thirty years after the time with which we
are now dealing, when he was a professor in Edinburgh, some of his
students were carrying on mission work in a growing district of the
city. An iron church was erected for them, but the contractor, an
Englishman, before his work was finished was seized with illness and
died. He was buried in one of the Edinburgh cemeteries, and Dr. Cairns
attended the funeral. Having ascertained from the widow of the dead
man that he had belonged to the Church of England, he repeated at the
grave-side the whole of the Anglican Burial Service. When he was asked
afterwards how he had thus come to know that Service without book, he
replied that he had unconsciously got it by heart in the early days of
his Berwick ministry, before there was either a cemetery or a Burials
Act, when he had been compelled to stand silent and hear it read at
the funerals of members of his own congregation in the parish

Rather more than a year and a half after his ordination, in May 1847,
the Secession Church in which he had been brought up, and of which he
was now a minister, entered into a union with another of the Scottish
non-Established Churches, the Synod of Relief. There was thus formed
the United Presbyterian Church, with which his name was afterwards to
be so closely associated. The United Church comprised five hundred
and eighteen congregations, of which about fifty were, like those in
Berwick, in England; the nucleus of that English Synod which, thirty
years later, combined with the English Presbyterian Church to form
the present Presbyterian Church of England. References in his
correspondence show that this union of 1847, which afterwards had such
happy results, excited at the time little enthusiasm, and was entered
into largely as a matter of duty. "It is," he writes, "like the union,
not of two globules of quicksilver which run together of themselves,
but of two snowballs or cakes of mud that need in some way very tough
outward pressure. I hope that the friction will elicit heat, since
this neither cold nor hot spirit is not to edification."

The other letters of this period range over a wide variety of
subjects. With John Clark he compares experiences of ministerial
work; with John Nelson he discusses European politics as these have
been affected by the events of the "year of revolutions," 1848; with
George Wilson he discourses on every conceivable topic, from abstruse
problems of philosophy and theology to the opening of the North
British Railway; while his mother and his brothers, William and David,
the latter of whom about this time left his work in the Dunglass woods
to study for the ministry, are kept in touch with all that he knows
they will best like to hear about. But in all this wide field of human
life and thought and activity, which he so eagerly traverses, it is
quite evident that what attracts him most is the relation of it all
to a higher and an eternal order. With him the main interest is a
religious one. Without an atom of affectation, and without anything
that is at all morbid on his part, he reveals this at a hundred
points. In this connection a letter which he wrote to Sir William
Hamilton and which has since become well known, may be quoted here;
and it, with Sir William's reply, will fittingly conclude the present
chapter. This letter bears date November 16, 1848, and is as

"I herewith enclose the statement respecting the Calabar Mission of
our Church, which I take blame to myself for having so long delayed to
send. My avocations are very numerous, and a habit of procrastination,
where anything is to be written, has sadly grown on me with time. I
cannot even send you this brief note without testifying, what I could
not so well utter in your presence, my unabated admiration of your
philosophical genius and learning, and my profoundly grateful sense of
the important benefits received by me both from your instructions and
private friendship, I am more indebted to you for the foundation of
my intellectual habits and tastes than to any other person, and shall
bear, by the will of the Almighty, the impress of your hand through
any future stage of existence. It is a relief to my own feelings to
speak in this manner, and you will forgive one of the most favoured
of your pupils if he seeks another kind of relief--a relief which he
has long sought an opportunity to obtain--the expression of a wish
that his honoured master were one with himself in the exercise of
the convictions, and the enjoyment of the comforts, of living
Christianity, or as far before himself as he is in all other
particulars. This is a wish, a prayer, a fervent desire often
expressed to the Almighty Former and Guide of the spirits of men,
mingled with the hope that, if not already, at least some time, this
accordance of faith will be attained, this living union realised with
the great Teacher, Sacrifice, and Restorer of our fallen race. You
will pardon this manifestation of the gratitude and affection of your
pupil and friend, who, if he knew a higher, would gladly give it as
a payment of a debt too great to be expressed. I have long ago been
taught to feel the vanity of the world in all its forms--to renounce
the hope of intellectual distinction, and to exalt love above
knowledge. Philosophy has been to me much; but it can never be all,
never the most; and I have found, and know that I have found, the true
good in another quarter. This is mysticism--the mysticism of the
Bible--the mysticism of conscious reconciliation and intimacy with the
living Persons of the Godhead--a mysticism which is not like that of
philosophy, an irregular and incommunicable intuition, but open to
all, wise and unwise, who take the highway of humility and prayer. If
I were not truly and profoundly happy in my faith--the faith of the
universal Church--I would not speak of it. The greatest increase which
it admits of is its sympathetic kindling in the hearts of others, not
least of those who know by experience the pain of speculation, the
truth that he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. I know you
will indulge these expressions to one more in earnest than in former
years, more philanthropic, more confident that he knows in whom he
has believed, more impressed with the duty of bearing everywhere a
testimony to the convictions which have given him a positive hold
at once of truth and happiness.

"But I check myself in this unwonted strain, which only your
long-continued and singular kindness could have emboldened me to
attempt; and with the utterance of the most fervent wishes for your
health, academical success, and inward light and peace, I remain your
obliged friend and grateful pupil."

To which Sir W. Hamilton replied as follows:--

"EDINBURGH, _Dec_. 4, 1848.

"I feel deeply obliged to you for the kindness of your letter, and
trust that I shall not prove wholly unworthy of the interest you take
in me. There is indeed no one with whom I am acquainted whose

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