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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
The Rev. David Johnston, D.D., Minister of North Leith


It may be said of this excellent man, that he inherited the virtues of the clerical character by descent. His father was minister of Arngask, in the county of Fife, and his maternal grandfather, the Rev. Mr. David Williamson, of the parish of St. Cuthbert's, Edinburgh, was a celebrated clergyman in the days of the persecution.

Mr. David Johnston was born in 1733. His early years were sedulously devoted to the study of those acquirements necessary for the important office which he was destined so long and so honourably to fill. After attending the usual academical courses, and having obtained authority to preach, his character and talents soon procured for him the parish church of Langton, in Berwickshire, to which he was ordained in 1759. He remained there, however, only about six years, having been then called to the more important charge of North Leith, the population of which, though at that time only seven hundred, had increased to as many thousands before his death.

There are seldom any striking incidents to record in the biography of a parish clergyman. "The even tenor of his way" is less liable to be disturbed by those ruder shocks which frequently assail men in other spheres of life. This observation is peculiarly applicable to the subject of the present sketch. If we except the frequent alarms experienced by inhabitants of Leith during the early part of the last war, when the country was threatened with foreign invasion, and the interesting yet arduous duty which he faithfully discharged in consoling the fears and animating the courage of his people, no occurrence very peculiar falls to be narrated within the scope of his history; but it would require a volume of no ordinary dimensions to note down all the acts of genuine Christian philanthropy in which he was engaged almost every day of his existence. In the pulpit he inculcated, with earnestness and power, those principles and doctrines which all feel to be the very basis of the moral structure; while, in his parochial visitations, he sedulously laboured to carry the precepts of religion home to the firesides of his parishioners. On one of his catechetical rounds among the cottages of the fishermen of Newhaven, the curious version of Adam's fall was given, which, as the anecdote is illustrative of that peculiar class of people, will be found related in our notice of a "Newhaven Oyster Lass." Many still alive remember with what diligence their venerated pastor continued, even in old age, to visit the humble dwellings of the poor, and to attend the bed of sickness and of death, carrying along with him that consolation which the mission of peace never fails to bestow. Neither was his solicitude confined to the spiritual welfare of his people. In their temporal affairs he took a lively interest, and felt for their misfortunes as if they were his own. "To the widow, he was as a husband—to the orphan, as a father—to the destitute and helpless, a steward of Heaven's bounty; their protector, patron, and support."

Dr. Johnston's philanthropy was of the most active description. He was no sentimentalist, to weep at the recitation of a well-told tale, and yet turn his eyes away from actual misery. In a maritime district such as North Leith, where a great portion of the inhabitants are engaged in the precarious and dangerous occupation of fishing, casualties are of frequent occurrence. The moment he heard of a case of distress, he could not remain satisfied without instantly doing something to assist the sufferers; and, while he was no niggard of his own means, he was indefatigable in his endeavours to procure aid from others. Whether his charity was exerted in behalf of individuals, or of institutions, he was equally unremitting in his endeavours ; and whenever a benevolent project was pointed out to him, he entered into the scheme with the most ardent enthusiasm, and prosecuted it with untiring energy. Perhaps there was no one of whom it could more truly be said, that "he went about continually doing good."

The only dilemma in which the good old Doctor is known to have been placed with a portion of his parishioners, occurred when the old church of North Leith—abandoned to secular purposes—was, in 1817, supplanted by the present building, with its handsome spire, surmounted by a cross. Some of the out-and-out Presbyterians saw in this emblem an alarming approach to Popish darkness; and, not infrequently, when in the course of his visitations, he found himself in the •place of the catechised. On this subject the Doctor held only one opinion ; but, in deference to the zealous declamation of two old women whom he one day encountered, and who had fairly borne him down by strength of lungs, if not by strength of argument, he at last exclaimed—" Well, well, what would ye have me to do in the matter?" "Do!" replied one of them; "what wad ye do—but just put up the auld cock again!"

With the establishment of that benevolent institution—the Blind Asylum of Edinburgh—the memory of Dr. Johnston is affectionately associated; and so deeply and actively did he interest himself in originating and promoting funds for the undertaking, that he might with justice be designated its founder. So much were his feelings bound up in the success of the institution, that he regularly devoted a portion of his time to give it his personal superintendence, and watched over its progress with all the fondness of a parent. This surveillance he continued every day in the week, except Saturday and Sabbath, walking to and from Edinburgh; and, at the extreme age of ninety, gave proof of the wonderful degree of muscular activity for which he had always been remarkable, by performing the journey as usual. He disdained the modern effeminacy of the stage-coach ; and, in going up Leith Walk, generally got a-head of it.

Both in person and in features, Dr. Johnston was exceedingly handsome; and in dress and manners he was a thorough gentleman of the last century. He died at Leith on the 5th of July, 1824, in the ninety-first year of his age, and sixty-sixth of his ministry, leaving behind him one daughter, the only survivor of a large family, who was married to William Penney, Esq. of Glasgow. Some years prior to his death he had been assisted in his parochial duties by the Rev. Dr. Ireland.

The remains of this much respected and patriarchal clergyman were followed to the grave by upwards of five hundred persons, among whom were many of the most distinguished citizens of Edinburgh and Leith. The inmates of the Blind Asylum, who had been so much an object of his care, lined the access to the churchyard; and, by their presence, added much to the melancholy interest of the scene. The Kev. Dr. Dickson, of St. Cuthbert's, preached the funeral sermon on the Sabbath following.


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