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Mr. John Campbell, Precentor


Mr. Campbell officiated for upwards of twenty years as precentor in the Canongate Church, and was well known as a teacher of English reading, writing, and other branches of education, as well as of vocal music. He was a native of Perthshire, and born at Tombea, about twenty miles north-west of Callander, where his father had for many years been resident as a country wright or carpenter. By great perseverance and economy, in the course of a laborious life, the old man had realised about five hundred pounds. Every farthing of this sum, considered great in those days, he had unfortunately deposited in the hands of "the laird"—a man of extravagant habits, and who became bankrupt, paying a composition of little more than two shillings in the pound.

Overwhelmed by a misfortune, unexpected as it was ruinous, the "village carpenter" resolved on leaving the scene of his calamity; and, with the first dividend from the bankrupt's estate, amounting to a very few pounds, he removed with his family to Edinburgh, where he did not live to receive the second moiety of composition. He died, it may be said, of a broken heart not long after his arrival.

The arduous task of providing for a young and destitute family thus devolved on Mr. John Campbell, who was the eldest, and then about twenty years of age. To his honour he performed the filial duty, not only ungrudgingly, but with alacrity. Having acquired some knowledge of the business of a carpenter from his father, he applied for employment, we believe, to Mr. Butter, senior, with whom—there being no other opening at the time in his establishment—he engaged in the laborious avocation of a sawyer; and for some years continued in this way to gain a livelihood for the family.

Mr. Campbell obtained a pretty liberal education at the grammar-school of Stirling, and had early made considerable proficiency in music. Having by degrees acquired some celebrity as au amateur vocalist, and becoming favourably known to the Rev. Robert Walker (the colleague of Blair), he was recommended by that gentleman to the Rev. Dr. Macfarlan of the Canongate Church, who procured for him, in 1775, the situation of Precentor. Shortly after this, Mr. Campbell, along with his brother Alexander, became a pupil of the celebrated Tenducci, a fashionable teacher who remained in Edinburgh for some time. The charge for each lesson was half-a-guinea; but the Italian exhibited a degree of considerate partiality for the musical brothers, by affording them instructions at half-price. Tenducci was an unrivalled singer of old Scottish songs; such as, "The Flowers of the Forest"—"Waly, waly, gin love be bonny"—"The Lass o'Patie's Mill"—"The Braes o'Ballendean"—"Water parted from the Sea"—"One day I heard Mary say"—"An'thou wert my ain thing," &c.

The following notice of Tenducci occurs in O'Keeffes Recollections: —"About the year 1766,I saw Tenducci in Dublin, in Arbaces in 'Arta-xerxes,' which I had seen in London on its first coming out in 1762. His singing 'Water Parted' was the great attraction, as were the airs he sung as the first spirit in Comus. At his benefit there, he had thirty, forty, and fifty guineas for a single ticket. The frolicsome Dublin boys used to sing about the streets, to the old tune of ' Over the Hills and far away,'

"Tenducci was a piper's son,
And he was in love when he was young;
And all the tunes that he could play,
Was ' Water parted from the Say!'"

While studying under Tenducci, the aptitude and obliging disposition of the scholar had been such as to gain the respect and esteem of his tutor. To the friendship of that foreigner—displayed in a novel and characteristic manner—Mr. Campbell attributed his first start, as well as his future success, as a teacher of music. When about to leave Edinburgh, he prevailed on the latter to sit to Allan for a portrait, but for what purpose he did not explain. This he had engraved on a small scale, with the initials, " C—p—11, P—n—r, C—g—e C------h," beneath, copies of which he enclosed in circulars to all his employers in high life, among whom were the witty Duchess of Gordon, the volatile Lady Wallace, the Earl of Hopetoun, Sir John Halket, and other equally distinguished persons. Tenducci having left the city without giving the smallest hint of what he had done, Campbell was astonished to find letters dropping into him every other day from the families of the nobility, requesting his professional services ; and sometime elapsed ere he became aware of the obligation under which he lay to his benefactor. Thus encouraged, in conjunction with his brother Alexander, he devoted himself exclusively to teaching, and rapidly attained professional reputation and respectability.

Having fairly overcome his early difficulties, Mr. Campbell married, in 1776, Margaret, daughter of Alexander Ogilvie, glover in Edinburgh. Not many years after this, his prosperity received a severe check by the flight of a brother-in-law, for whom, along with another individual he had become security to the amount of a thousand pounds. From the creditors, however, he experienced such sympathy as rendered the settlement comparatively easy.

Early steeled against misfortunes, Mr. Campbell possessed a happy equanimity of mind, with philosophy enough, in as far as possible, to render the various occurrencies of life subservient to his own and the happiness of all within his circle. He was of a kind and social disposition. The poet Burns, while starring among the "Embro gentles," was a frequent and welcome guest at the table of Mr. Campbell. The visits of the bard were most frequently paid in the evening, when he usually drank tea, remained for an hour or two, and then hurried away to become the lion of a fashionable party, or to join in the deep carousal of a tavern debauch.

One day Mr. Campbell was surprised by a call from the bard at a much earlier hour than usual. "I am come, Lucky," said Burns. addressing Mrs. Campbell in his off-hand manner, " to make trial of a plate of your Jail, knowing by experience that your tea is excellent." It was just then the dinner-hour, and the poet was of course kindly invited to partake. After duly complimenting the hostess on the excellence of her fare, be at length adverted to the business that had brought him so early abroad. It related to the tribute paid by the bard to the memory of poor Fergusson. Burns wanted an introduction to Bailie Gentle of the Canongate, whom he supposed likely to grant the favour he required. His host at once agreed to accompany him, but stated his doubts as to the success of the application. "Leave that to me," said Burns; "all I want is an introduction." When dinner was over, Mr. Campbell accompanied him to Bailie Gentle, who, on ascertaining the object of their visit, expressed his concurrence, in so far as he was himself concerned, but he had no power to grant permission without consent of the managers of the kirk funds. He promised, however, to lay the matter before them at their first meeting. "Tell them," said Burns, "it is the Ayrshire Ploughman who makes the request." Shortly afterwards due authority was obtained, and a promise given, which we believe has been sacredly kept, that the grave should remain inviolate ; but another difficulty existed. This was an introduction to Mr. Burn, architect, Bose Street, in obtaining which the good offices of Mr. Campbell were again in requisition. The poet had not as yet reaped the benefit of his "Edinburgh edition" —a circumstance which rendered an introduction to the architect of manifold importance. Mr. Burn complied with the order ; and by him the stone, with the well-known inscription, which still marks where the ashes of poor Fergusson repose, was erected in the Canongate Churclryard. This act of sympathetic devotion on the part of Burns to the memory of an unfortunate brother poet, has been justly and universally admired ; but there have not been wanting detractors to affirm that the erection was never paid for. The following unpublished letter of Burns, however, must be decisive on the subject:—

"Dumfries, Feb. 5, 1792.

"My dear Friend,—I send you by the bearer, Mr. Clark, a particular friend of mine, six pounds and a shilling, which you will dispose of as follows:—£5 10s., per account, I owe to Mr. Bobert Burn, architect, for erecting the stone over poor Fergusson. He was two j-ears in erecting it, after I had commissioned him for it; and I have been two years in paying him, after he sent me his account; so he and I are quits. He had the hardiness to ask me interest on the sum; but considering that the money was due by one poet for putting a tombstone over another, he may, with grateful surprise, thank heaven that ever he saw a farthing of it. My best compliments to Mrs. Hill. I sent you a minikin by last Friday's fly, which I hope you received.—Yours, most sincerely, " Robert Burns.

"To Mr. Peter Hill, bookseller, Edinburgh."

Mr. John Campbell died in 1795. He was succeeded in the precentorship by his son, Mr. Charles Campbell, who held the situation during forty years, and still resides in the Canongate, where he has long taught a respectable school for writing, arithmetic, and other branches of education.


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