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Dr Duncan of Ruthwell
Chapter II


Since Mr Duncan had been ordained to the parish of Ruthwell his duties had by no means been confined to the ordinary routine of a minister of the Kirk. No subject had occupied so much of his thoughts as the condition of the working classes. Everything relating to their social condition was the subject of his most eager inquiry and interest. His heart throbbed with pity and sympathy for the poor in their troubles. But the great object of his life was to inculcate those habits of dignity, energy, and independence that he thought necessary to their well-being. In common with that great economist, Dr Chalmers, he rebelled against the introduction of the poor laws as having a tendency to degrade and pauperise the people, and as leading the poorer classes to rely unduly upon a legal provision. The time of which we are writing was one when the introduction of the poor laws was impending in Scotland. Voluntary contributions no longer met the needs of the poor in the large towns, and the country was eagerly discussing the question. Without going into any minute discussion on the poor laws in England and Scotland it may be as well to point out the main difference between the two countries. The habits of the Scottish people were very different from these prevailing in the sister country. The poorer classes in England, even the able-bodied, believed they had the right to expect legal relief, while in Scotland even the halt, the lame, and the blind had no notion of claiming any assistance as a right. If they could not support themselves they relied on their relations, or it was to the church door collections or to voluntary help they turned in their hour of need. Recourse to this last expedient was, according to a sentiment fixed in the Scottish character, held to be disgraceful to their kinsfolk, who therefore made special efforts to prevent it. It was always with great reluctance that they fell back on the "parish box."

The funds provided for the poor were collected at the churchy door on Sundays, and no family would pass by " the plate " without putting in their offering, from the sixpences of the grown-up people to the coppers of the little ones. It was the habit of the country to give in this way, and " the plate " was a national institution. This collection was, according to law, at the disposal of the Kirk Session, that is the minister, the elders, and certain persons chosen from the congregation, who distributed these funds for the benefit of the poor and disabled. In many parishes this was the only support given to the poor, and if this means of helping them proved insufficient, money was contributed by the landowners and others in addition, but it was a voluntary and not a compulsory assessment. This system prevailed extensively north of the Tweed down to the passing of the Amendment Act in 1845. The parish of Ruthwell contained a population of 1100 people, and the only funds provided for the poor amounted to, on an average, £25 annually. A sum like this, to our modern ideas, appears ridiculously inadequate, yet with other trifling additions it allayed the serious cases of want. Much hardship must have been endured, and it is greatly to the credit of the parish that such a spirit of independence, industry, and economy prevailed. Only a few years later the increase of pauperism in England reached serious dimensions. Begun in Elizabeth's reign, the parochial relief system had worked fairly well—until the beginning of the great French War. It was then that higher prices and lower wages led to the beginning of the allowance system, which meant that a man's legitimate earnings were supplemented by a parish dole. This burden thrown on the rates made them increase by leaps and bounds, and whole villages were pauperised. In one English parish alone the rates had risen in thirty years from £18 to £367, and rather more than one in three of the inhabitants were paupers. There are some striking figures in Hanna's Life of Br Chalmers about two parishes in Scotland, one in Roxburghshire, and the other his own parish of Kilmany. He says : " I spent some months in a parish in Roxburghshire before I came to Kilmany. The poor rates had been introduced there from England and I saw as much poverty and more depravity of character than I hope I shall ever witness in these northern climes. The same population was supported at about six times a greater rate than it is in this neighbourhood." Still more remarkable are some further figures showing the difference between the poor in an English village and Kilmany. "In return for his statistics as to Kilmany, Mr M. informed him (Dr Chalmers) of the parish of Kingbrampton, in Somersetshire, that its population was just four above that of Kilmany, that, like Kilmany, it contained a purely rural population, but that its poor rates, instead of ranging between £20 and £30, had then amounted to £1260 per annum." It is to Scotland's honour that so many of her great men rebelled against the innovation becoming general, and that it was acknowledged as law "that an assessment need not, and ought not, to be introduced in any parish in which the poor can be maintained without it."

As early as 1796 there had been a Friendly Society in the parish of Ruthwell. From want of management and encouragement and perhaps most of all from want of money it had fallen into low water, and the people had lost confidence and interest in it to a great extent. Believing in the whole system of Friendly Societies, Mr Duncan very quickly set to work to put it on a sound footing, and in a short time the members numbered three hundred. Under the title of the Scotch Cheap Repository he published a series of pamphlets for the working classes. His object was to try to sow broadcast among them a literature which would specially appeal to them, and which would encourage thrift and industry, promote sound views on leading questions, and make them realise the importance of bringing up their children well and educating them. This lover of the poor deprecated any idea that education could do harm to the people and unfit them for their humble sphere ; on the contrary, he believed that it would be the means of exalting and ennobling whatever work they had to do. These compositions, were, from the first, a great success, and the chief among them, The Cottage Fireside, went into several editions. He launched into various contributions for the Christian Instructor and for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, which was then being brought out by Mr Brewster.

Finding that his opinions were well received, his thoughts now turned towards a greater literary undertaking still. At that time Dumfries was only represented by one newspaper, The Weekly Journal, a paper that had very little weight and was quite inadequate to deal with the great questions of the day. He perceived the importance during those stirring times of having an organ of public opinion wliich would possess real influence and be a medium for giving to the people information regarding the progress of those great events taking place on the continent, and which would at the same time secure more publicity and attention to the crowd of schemes for improving their condition that presented themselves to his ever active and versatile mind. His brother at Liverpool gallantly came forward with money, and the result was the publication of the Dumfries and, Galloway Courier on the 6th of December 1809, the year of Sir John Moore's victory at Corunna and Wellington's defeat of the French at Taiavera. Napoleon was then at the zenith of his power after his marriage with Marie Louise. The Empire seemed at its height; Prussia was humbled to the dust; Napoleon was trying to achieve the commercial ruin of our country. Towards the end of 1810 Consols sank to 65. The Walcheren expedition had caused a great loss to the nation of men and money. The mental condition of the King was causing great anxiety. Ministers were at loggerheads, and altogether the country appeared to be on the edge of a precipice. Born in those stirring times, during that rush of events that preceded the peace of 1815, the Courier was launched into life on troubled waters. To take up the duties and responsibilities of editing a paper under these conditions was an almost superhuman task, but his method, his diligence and his knowledge enabled him to carry through an undertaking which at first seemed full of difficulties. It meant constant journeys to and from Dumfries, but it was his capacity for almost endless work that kept him going; the management of a small retired parish did not satisfy his eager spirit—the spirit that now made him enter this new field heart and soul and mind aglow with a fervent desire to do good. Here was an opportunity— his opportunity—for putting forth and aiding the views he had at heart for the welfare of men—of communities—of nations ; for, disguised under the black coat of his profession was the heart of a statesman. The Courier became the channel of all the most advanced thought of the day.

The leading articles were vigorous and original, and he encouraged talent to come out into the open, warmed into life by his friendly attitude. Some of Carlyle's earliest efforts appeared here.; poetry had a place; science, art, and literature were well represented. The Evangelical principles of the more advanced section of the Scotch Church were rapidly coming to the front, led by the great Chalmers. These opinions were given a high place, and were warmly supported. It can be imagined the delight and pleasure this intellectual stimulus must have been to him, but alas, after some years of hard work, the editorship of such an undertaking as the Courier became, with his manifold other duties, too much for him. His office was too far from his parish; the constant journeying to and fro was wearing in no small degree and took up too much of his time, or, to use his" own words, " interfered with duties of a more sacred nature." There were no trains in those days to take you swiftly to your destination. Imagine those long drives in an open gig in stormy weather, the stress of work he laboured under at his office, and at his parish work on his return, for he was too honourable a man to neglect his home and parish duties for any outside interest. Often, after a day of great strain and fatigue, he would find on returning home, cold and tired, that he had to go to a distant part of the village to minister to some sick or dying parishioner. He resolved, therefore, to try and get some suitable editor to take the entire management. It was a great wrench to be obliged to give up the active part he had hitherto taken, and I must quote his own words in writing to a friend at Edinburgh, who was trying to find a suitable editor: "I regard the newspaper as a great moral engine, of such power over the feelings and sentiments of the community that the conductor of it incurs no small responsibility; and I have very deeply to regret that my absence from Dumfries has prevented me from fulfilling my duty in this respect to my own mind. The editor, whoever he may be, must be a man who has the interests of religion as well as of civil liberty and morals at heart, and who is judicious enough to know how far he may go without creating disgust where it would be desirable to conciliate. This requires a delicate hand, and if a person of this kind could be procured possessing the splendid talents of------it is not a trifle that would part us." The Courier passed into able hands in 1817. Mr M'Diarmid became the editor, and lived for many years to continue the success of the paper. It has passed from one editor to another—interesting, well-edited and independent, it occupies a high position in the Press of to-day, and has had the singular vitality to reach its 100th birthday and to be as full of youthful vigour as it was in the days of Mr Duncan's proprietorship.


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