Produced by David Garcia and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
BY JOHN CAIRNS
FAMOUS SCOTS SERIES
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.
CHAPTER I: ANCESTRY AND CHILDHOOD
CHAPTER II: DUNGLASS
CHAPTER III: COLLEGE DAYS
CHAPTER IV: THE STUDENT OF THEOLOGY
CHAPTER V: GOLDEN SQUARE
CHAPTER VI: THE CENTRAL PROBLEM
CHAPTER VII: THE APOSTLE OF UNION
CHAPTER VIII: WALLACE GREEN
CHAPTER IX: THE PROFESSOR
CHAPTER X: THE PRINCIPAL
CHAPTER XI: THE END OF THE DAY
* * * * *
ANCESTRY AND CHILDHOOD
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 Castle.
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 here.”
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 eleven.
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 remorselessly.
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 year.
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 exponent.
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.” 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.”
[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.”
[Footnote 3: _Life and Letters_, pp. 94-95.]
THE STUDENT OF THEOLOGY
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.”
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 theology.
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, 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 Presbyterian.”
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 “_Barrel”_
[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 fulfilled.
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 impression.”
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 churchyard.
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 follows:–
“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