“He who to
manhood grows without a grief
Is but half-rooted; with a will untamed,
And self undisciplined, he seeks his own:
To him no mellowness of being comes."
HIPPARCHUS, who flourished
160-125 B.C., and who may be justly styled the founder of the exact sciences
of astronomy and geography, traces the sources of the Nile to three great
lakes in the interior of Africa. From his day, down through the ages till
the middle of the seventeenth century, "the triple lakes" adorn the maps of
the Dark Continent, although, as Stanley says, cartographers sketched them
sometimes "in line," sometimes many degrees north or south of each other,
and on either side of the equator as pleased their fancy. Jacobus Meursius,
who engraved a map for "Ogilby's Description of Africa," a large volume
published at the time of the Restoration, seems to have acquired a good deal
of accurate information regarding the far interior from Portuguese and Dutch
authorities. One lake, which he names Zaffian, resembles the Victoria Nyanza
in its general configuration; but he seems to have been confused about the
sources of the Nile and the Congo. Ogilby says: "The great river of Zaire or
Congo derives its head out of three lakes, the first intituled Zambre, the
second Zaire, and the third a great lake from whence the Nyle is supposed to
draw his original ..... Zambre is the principal head that feeds the river
Zaire, being set, as it were, in the middle point of Africa, and spreading
itself into broad streams into the north, whither, according to common
opinion, it sends forth Nylus."
Strange to say, from Ogilby's
time to the middle of the present century the exploration of equatorial
Africa made no advance, and the best cartographers erased the lakes
altogether from their maps.
In the year 1843 Dr. Krapf
heard at a port on the East Coast of a vast inland lake; and about the year
1856 his companions Messrs. Rebmann and Erhardt traced upon a map "that
monster slug of an inland sea," as Speke calls it, which stimulated the
Royal Geographical Society to send out an expedition of exploration.
Through a curious blending of
circumstances, Alexander Mackay was at a very early age deeply interested in
this region, where his own lot, in the providence of God, was ultimately to
be cast, and the "Nile problem" was a frequent subject of conjecture between
father and son. The "Proceedings" of the Royal Geographical Society came
regularly to the home; and as soon as they were published Livingstone's
"Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa," Speke's "Journal of the
Discovery of the Source of the Nile," and Captain Grant's "Walk across
Africa" appeared likewise on the scene.
The old map of Africa (see p.
2) was discarded by the father; but the boy cherished his familiar friend
and suspended it in his own room, where he spent many a happy hour in
tracing on it the results of the most recent explorations. He used to say,
"I like to think that the missionaries had a hand in promoting these
discoveries, and that Captain Speke has so nicely acknowledged it by
suggesting Karague, Uganda, and Unyoro as favourable fields for missionary
"But, father," he remarked
one day, "there is one thing that greatly puzzles me. I know that until
recent times we had to send across the Channel for engineers when we
required any skilled work done, such as piers, lighthouses, or bridges, and
that they had to bring with them their own workmen to execute the task. Have
we had to send for our missionaries too? or how is it that these agents of
the C.M.S. are described as Germans? Could Bishop Heber persuade none of his
countrymen to go
Afric's 'sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand,' “
Of course I
know about Livingstone and Moffat, but they are Scotchmen."
"You see, my
boy," said the father, "the C.M.S. is such a large society and has so many
stations that I suppose enough men were not to be found in the Church of
England willing to become poor despised missionaries. Therefore when the
C.M.S. were short of volunteers for the foreign field they applied to the
famous Missionary Institution at Basle, in Switzerland. But I believe that
Dr. Krapf, who may be termed the founder of C.M.S. Missions in East Africa,
had his attention drawn to the Dark Continent by reading the C Travels of
Bruce,' our own countryman."
"Ah I that
pleases me well. Most pictures are tame to me unless there is a Ben or a
Loch in the background. But why do you say, ‘despised missionaries,’ father?
I understood that the vocation of an ambassador to the heathen is the
noblest of all."
those who are baptised
with the sacrificing spirit of Christ; and unless a man receive that baptism
he had better stay at home."
"Well, I like
to hear about missionaries, but I have no inclination that way; and while on
the subject, father, I must tell you that I have a growing distaste for the
ministry also. I should like to understand thoroughly the construction of
machinery and the principles of projections. I believe that your own love of
mathematics and of natural philosophy has
biassed my mind in this direction.
There is a wide field of usefulness for engineers, but a country parish
would be no scope for me and my hobbies."
“My son," said
the father, sadly, "it is wholly out of my power, with my large family, to
give you the necessary training. It implies a long apprenticeship with a
respectable engineering firm in Edinburgh or Glasgow, for which a large
premium is required; and at the end of that time, unless you have capital to
begin with on your own account, you will remain but a subordinate all your
days. I believe you have constructive power, and that you have the
perseverance and constancy of character which would enable you to rise to
eminence in that profession, but without capital it would be a great
struggle. Better go on as you are doing, and when the time comes compete for
a bursary at Aberdeen, like all other ministers' sons in this
neighbourhood. If you are
successful that will take you through the University, and then all will be
plain sailing. The red cloak is a wonderful stimulus. You will forget all
about your hammer and saw when you don it."
In the spring
of 1860 the boy became delicate, and his lessons seemed to be a burden to
him. Naturally of a quiet and reserved disposition, he became more gentle,
more meditative, while the healthy humour which had always characterised him
ceased to flow spontaneously. He complained of nothing, but his parents
became anxious, and as the local physician failed to detect any cause for
the debility, his father took him to Edinburgh to consult Dr. Moir, who at
once ordered change of air and a long holiday. Accordingly, in the month of
August his father gave him a tour in the Highlands. Spending some weeks at
Strathpeffer, where his wonderful gentleness won for him many friends, they
proceeded to Tain, and from thence to the banks of Loch Shin, in
Sutherlandshire. Here he led a joyous life. A kind friend put a Shetland
pony at his disposal, and he enjoyed many a ride across the moors. This was
the only time he saw the wild mountainous scenery of the north, and on his
return home he had much to say about the red-deer, and the sheep-farms, and
the beautiful lake with Ben More in the distance towering into the sky. The
bracing air perfectly restored his health, but not his love for books. He
learned his appointed lessons conscientiously, but instead of reading in his
leisure hours, drawing, map-drawing, and printing occupied his attention. He
was also a very useful member of the household. It was he who cleared away
the snow which accumulated every winter in a huge drift in front of the
manse, obstructing the light, and impeding all communication except by the
kitchen-door - and he who in their proper seasons superintended the sowing
and reaping of the crops. His energetic disposition forbade idleness. In
fact, he always preferred having too much to do rather than too little. His
mother was very fond of bee culture; but, strange to say, her bees were very
irreverent, for they not only chose the Sabbath on which to swarm, but they
took the opportunity of doing so during the hours of divine service. Neither
had they any idea of propriety, for, to crown the proceedings, they almost
invariably selected for their new quarters an old ivy-covered chimney in the
Established Manse, a quarter of a mile distant! The boy considered this rare
fun. One sultry Sunday his mother said to him, "I have a presentiment that
the bees will swarm to-day, so I wish you to watch them while I am at
I suppose I can take ‘Livingstone's Travels' with me?"
you get so absorbed in that book that I will lose my bees."
"I only wish
to look if there is any more said about the native smith teaching Dr.
Livingstone to weld the iron."
"You must not
The boy went
to the garden, but before ten minutes had expired the monotony was so
irksome that he felt he must devise some method to make the bees "improve
the shining hour" without delay. He tapped the hive and listened. A peculiar
sound betokened some commotion within. So far hopeful, he next got a thin
stick, and pushing it in at the little aperture, he moved it gently
backwards and forwards to entice them out. By-and-by one appeared, and
another, and then the queen, followed by a numerous retinue, thronging and
pressing on each other until they hung in a dense cluster on his stick and
all about the hive door; while one or two of a more enterprising turn of
mind found their way up his sleeve and to his bare knees (for he wore the
kilt in those days), and took no pains to disguise their resentment at his
inhospitality. Fortunately, the apiary was situated on the south side of the
church, hard by the window of the Manse pew, through which the mother heard
an extraordinary buz-z-z, accompanied by cries of pain. The congregation
were standing at prayer, so she made her exit unobserved, wondering why bees
are so profane, and mentally vowing she would rear no more in future, as
they seemed determined to desecrate the Sabbath!
Mackay had been well instructed in religious knowledge, had no foolish
companions, had no desire to deviate from the path of truth and rectitude,
but the quickening influence of Divine love had not as yet entered his
heart. His mother felt that to force religion upon him might be a mistake,
but she continued to pray for him often and earnestly. As the time
approached when it was desirable he should prosecute his studies in
Aberdeen, both parents felt concerned lest his natural amiability and
abounding humour might lead him into temptation in a large city. Just then
an old friend of his father's, a Mr. Hector, from Aberdeen, appeared in the
neighbourhood. He was very much drawn to the boy, and told him that he also
had a son, [Afterwards known as
the Rev. John Hector, Missionary of the Free Church of Scotland at Calcutta.
] who he hoped and believed was
going forward to the ministry.
ultimately arranged that this youth should spend his summer holiday at the
Manse, and, if the companionship proved congenial to both; that Alexander
should accompany his friend to Aberdeen, and remain under Mr. Hector's roof
until the following spring, when his mother hoped to go to town and secure
comfortable lodgings for him. The boys conceived a strong attachment for
each other, for they had much in common, and in October 1864 Alexander
Mackay began to attend the Grammar School in the "granite city."
This was the
beginning of many changes in the old home. In company with his friend he
returned to the Manse at Christmas, and in the following April his mother
fulfilled her promise. She had been delicate all winter, and was strongly
advised to postpone her journey until the weather became warmer; but with
her characteristic spirit of self-sacrifice, she never thought of herself
when the welfare of others was concerned. The ten days she spent in Aberdeen
ever remained a green spot in the boy's memory, and when he saw her off by
the train he little dreamed that this was her last earthly journey, and that
her course was nearly run. In three weeks' time he was summoned home, as she
was seriously ill. He remained a week, and as she appeared to rally he
returned again to school, but on the 8th of June she passed gently away.
was buried in that open grave, but her dying charge, faithfully delivered by
a relative, [Mrs. James Flett,
now residing in the Grange, Edinburgh.
] to “read his Bible and to search
it, so as to meet her in glory,” kindled a light which waxed brighter and
brighter until it illumined all his life.
father still continued to wish him to become a minister, and he himself
desired the profession of an engineer, God was preparing him for both.
Writing to a dear friend at Christmas 1866, he says, "I cannot see my way
for the future, but I feel certain the Lord will make it plain in His own
time. I shrink from the ministry. I feel so unworthy of that office.
Besides, it seems to me that there are already too many ministers. Three or
four wasting their energies in each little parish in Scotland may satisfy a
desire for sermon hearing, but is attended, I fear, with little practical
good. I believe God gives us talents to use in His service, and that we are
bound to turn them to the best account; therefore I must go on with
engineering. You tell me ‘it is impossible, as my father cannot help me.'
That I will never make an engineer unless I can surmount a greater obstacle
than that, I at once allow; but He who has given me the desire will in some
way grant it. This I feel sure of."
His way was
soon made clear. In November 1867 the family removed to Edinburgh, where for
six years he applied himself to his studies with laborious and persistent
industry. Two of these years he spent at the Free Church Training College
for Teachers; after which the father abandoned his own views in favour of
those to which the talents and inclinations of his son were so strongly
directed, and no longer urged him to enter the ministry.
Every hour of
the next four years was precious to Alexander Mackay. He studied engineering
and its kindred sciences at the University, and practical engineering
at the works of Messrs. Miller & Herbert; and during all these four years,
in order that he might not be burdensome to his father, he taught three
hours per day, either in George Watson's College Schools or in private
seminaries, by which he earned sufficient money for his class fees and
greater part of this time in Edinburgh he was greatly influenced by the wise
pastoral care and teaching of Dr. Horatius Bonar, who always watched with
tender affection over the young members of his flock, and especially strove
to produce in them habits of reverent and constant fellowship with God, and
daily study of the Holy Scriptures.