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Kilsyth, A Parish History
Chapter XII


The Agricultural Interest—James Frew—Robert Graham—Introduces the Potato—History of the Potato—Graham’s Experiments—Widespread Interest and Success—Dr. Robert Rennie—Graham and Rennie Compared—Peat Moss Studies —The Nature of Peat—Peat Companies—Rennie’s Early Life —Presentation and Marriage—A Distinguished Son—Second Marriage—A Faithful Pastorate—Number of Communicants— New Parish Church—The “ Essays on Peat Moss ”—The Peat Bogs of Europe—Dullatur Moss—- Flanders Moss—Substances contained in Moss—Qualities and Sterility of Moss—Publication and Honours — Czar of Russia — Alexander I.—Offers Appointment—Sir John Sinclair Advises Acceptance—The Czar’s Presents—Bell of Antermony—Rennie’s Death.

Notwithstanding the enormous development of the national commerce and manufactures, the agricultural interest is still the most important in the country. With this interest the parish of Kilsyth has more than merely a local connection. It was for the largest portion of his life the residence of James Frew of Balmalloch, and it was the birth-place of Robert Graham and Robert Rennie.

Of the first, not more than a very few words need be said. He gave himself to the rearing of Ayrshire stock, and is a good example of how, by persistent energy, the ordinary Scottish farmer may come to make for himself an honourable name. In his special department at the Highland and Agricultural Show at Perth in 1861, and at the great English Show at Battersea, the same year, his animals carried all before them. The late Duke of Athole frequently visited him at Kilsyth, and recruited his stock by the purchase of the finest animals of the Balmalloch strain. He was born in Campsie parish in 1795, and died at Balmalloch in 1874.

But if James Frew is one of the lesser, Robert Graham is certainly one of the larger lights of Scottish agriculture. We simply owe to his memory a debt which we cannot pay. He introduced the potato to Scottish agriculture, and the Scottish farmer now produces annually over 800,000 tons of that important food supply. The value of the potato as an article of diet, relished alike by prince and peasant, its easy culture, its adaptation to a wide diversity of soil and climate, and its large and profitable productiveness, well entitle it to the high esteem in which it is now universally held. To the historian, those fields around Neilston, where it was first grown in Scotland, are more suggestive and interesting than those heights close by the “Slaughter Howe,” where the Covenanting army was so desperately worsted.

While the history of the origin of wheat and oats is buried in obscurity, that of the potato and its introduction into Eliropfe is fairly wfell known. It was imported into established civilisation by the Spaniards from Quito, Where they found it cultivated by the natives. Hieronymus Cardan, a monk, brought it from Peru to Spain, and from that country it passed into Italy and Belgium In 1586, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato into Ireland from North Carolina and Virginia, and cultivated it with some success on his own estate near Cork& Some authorities place the data of the introduction of the plant into Ireland twenty-four years earlier. Be this as it may, it took kindly to its new habitat. Its cultivation developed with enormous rapidity, and no political cause could have so rapidly swelled the population. Finding it of easy cultivation, the Irish, too, soon made it "the staff of life,” and the results were appalling. From Ireland the potato was introduced into Lancashire, but its progress was slow, and not till the last decade of the 18th century did its cultivation upon a large scale come to be general.

Robert Graham was the proprietor of Tamrawer, near Banton. He was also the factor on the Kilsyth estate, and resided at Neilston. Taking an interest in all agricultural projects, he had amused himself with the cultivation of the potato in his garden* In 1739, having become possessed of the idea that the potato might be turned to real agricultural utility, by way of experiment he laid down half an acre in the open field. His expectations were fully realised, and he went on extending his operations. As he learned by experience the art of preparing the ground, manuring, drilling, planting, and stirring, he grew more self-reliant. The farmers in the parish began copying his methods, and the success of his enterprise became so noised abroad, that noblemen and farmers from every part of the country came to him in flocks to receive his counsel and learn his methods. Taking land at such widely separated places as Dundee, Perth, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Renfrew, his enter-prize influenced the largest and most important districts in .the country, and in a few years potato growing became universal throughout Scotland, wherever there was suitable land. Robert Graham was held in the highest esteem for the new impetus he had given to Scottish agriculture. Although, however, he saw the success of his experiments fully proved, he must have failed to realise of what vast importance the potato was yet to be to the Scottish farmers, and how the land of his birth was to attain to such perfection in its cultivation, as not to be surpassed by any other country in the world.

In connection with the history of Scottish agriculture, the name of Robert Rennie is as worthy of remembrance as that of Robert Graham. There is, however, a very wide difference between the two men. Graham’s experiments were successful, and led to immediate results. Every strath and carse and hillside in Scotland witnesses every year to the fruitfulness of his labours. It was not so with Rennie. On his favourite theme,—the conversion of peat moss into arable land, manure, and fuel,—he read largely, thought profoundly, and wrote extensively and learnedly. His speculations attracted the notice of sovereigns and statesmen. The librarians of Edinburgh ransacked Europe to provide him with books. The Board of Trade, the Royal Society, the Scottish Highland and Agricultural Society, and the University of Glasgow, one and all encouraged him in his labours. Notwithstanding all this wide-spread interest and stimulus, apart from the essays he has left, the work of Rennie has had, so far, no practical result.

The vast mosses of Britain and Europe are still lying in our day as waste and evidently as irreclaimable as they lay in his. These great accumulations of the debris of the primeval forests are still tempting us to consider if no key can be found to unlock their carboniferous riches. For the present, it seems as if nothing can be done. We may rest assured, however, it is only for the present, for it would be absurd to suppose that the wheels of our chemical and mechanical progress could be permanently stopped at the margin of a peat bog.

When the time for the utilisation of our peat moss deposits comes, there can be no doubt the work of Dr. Rennie will be found an important connecting link in a long chain. I anticipate nothing of what follows by remarking in a sentence or two, that in every department of manufactures and agriculture, peat has been found hitherto most intractable and unproductive. The vast deposits have a promise of a varied production which in reality they never yield. Peat, as a fuel, burns with a red, smoky flame, emitting a strong, and to some by no means disagreeable, odour. The lighter varieties are exceedingly inflammable. Its combustible powers are, however, tantalising; the yield of heat being very small in proportion to the bulk of the fuel. In Bavaria and Oldenburg it is used in the locomotive engines, but the tenders are larger than our largest cattle trucks. It can be compressed, but the advantage thus gained does not compensate the cost of the operation. Peat has been successfully used in the iron furnaces of Austria, and makes an excellent quality of iron, although here again the quantity of the ash militates against its use. Earnest and persistent efforts have been made to use peat as a gas producer. The harnessing of Will o’ Wisp has, however, only been attended with the smallest measure of success. Again, charred peat has been excessively extolled for its value as a manure both when applied by itself and as part of a compound. So great were the expectations at one time of an enormous demand for it, and of the benefits likely to accrue to Ireland by thus disposing of her bogs, that a Royal Charter was granted to a company by which its manufacture was to be carried on. Notwithstanding this huge enterprise, the bogs of Ireland are still one of the unsolved problems of that country, and the history of peat companies and manufactures is but the history of abortive and fruitless expedients.

Robert Rennie, the only Scotsman who has made peat moss his special study, was a native of the parish of Kilsyth. He was wont to boast of the number of his relations in his own parish. He studied at the University of Glasgow, and was a diligent and painstaking student. In 1786 the university awarded him a silver medal for the best Latin disquisition on the miracles of our Lord as confirmatory of our faith in Him. He was licensed by the Presbytery of Paisley, the 26th September, 1787. To his native parish he was presented by George III., on the 4th July, 1789, and ordained on the 3rd September of that year. He was deservedly popular, and the exception which proves the rule, that a prophet is not without honour saving in his own country and amongst his own kindred. He was a man of a gentle nature and of a retiring studious habit. He loved to spend his leisure in his study, and amongst his books, or in his garden, carrying on his little experiments with soils and peats. A square, stoutly-built man, of average height, he loved a game at quoits with his friends, but this was his only active recreation. On the 22nd October, 1793, he married Barbara Black, the fourth daughter of Sir John Stirling of Glorat, the grandfather of the present baronet, Sir Charles G. F. Stirling. She was born in 1777. Barbara must consequently have been married at the early age of sixteen years. In the seven years of their married life there was the following family:—Margaret; then Alexander Howe and Glorosna, twin children; and, lastly, Maria Jane. Mrs. Rennie died the 23rd July, 1800/ The only son by this marriage, Alexander Howe Rennie,* became a physician of very considerable distinction. He attended William Wilberforce, the Rev. Edward Irving, and George Canning in their last illnesses. He married Mary Helen, third daughter of John Anderson of Glads wood. In 1834 he removed from Hartford Street, Mayfair, to Alresford, Hants. Having been thrown from his horse, he died, in consequence of the injuries received, on the 10th February, 1838. Maria, the last surviving member of this family, died at Glorat Cottage, Campsie, in 1885. On the 3°th December, 1802, Dr. Rennie married again Isabella Auchinloss or Mathie, a widow with a large family, some of whom were married. By this • marriage there were born a son and daughter; the latter was bom in 1806, and became the wife of Thomas Alexander, manufacturer, Dunfermline.

There are many evidences which go to prove that Dr. Rennie was an exceedingly faithful pastor, that his ministry was energetic and successful, and that the parishioners of Kilsyth had good reason for holding him, as they did, in the very highest regard. In the course of his ministry there came two seasons of great destitution, and in both Dr. Rennie laboured with the utmost zeal for the alleviation of the distress. During the first, which took place in 1801, a society was formed for the purpose of providing seed and necessaries to the destitute at a cheap rate. The intromissions of this society amounted to the respectable sum of £1007 6s. 4½d. In 1820, the second time of distress, Dr. Rennie established a soup kitchen, which was continued as long as was necessary. The sum expended was £168 14s. 2d, and the ingredients of the soup are preserved with as much care as if it had been a chemical preparation* Irregular marriages were greatly prevalent during Dr. Rennie’s incumbency: Hardly a session meeting took place without some cases appearing in the minutes. The parties appear to have been fined in small sums: The outbreak of irregular marriages was not confined to Kilsyth; They were so numerous in other parishes that the Assembly had to issue instructions to sessions as to how they were to be dealt with. In the days of Robe there were 200 communicants in the parish: During the ministry of Dr. Rennie this number had risen to 515. But the pastorate of Dr. Rennie not only bridged over the 18th and 19th centuries, but also united the old church in the graveyard with the new parish church in the town. Towards the close of the last century the pressure on the space of the old building became exceedingly great; On Sabbath, the 3rd March, 1799, just before public worship, two parishioners fought for the possession of a pew. The heritors regarded the state of matters with indifference. Dr. Rennie called a meeting. None of the old heritors appeared, only one or two feuars. But the minister was not to be baffled by the policy of non-appearance. He took the matter to the presbytery, and the present parish church so deservedly admired for the exterior propriety of its architectural proportion is a standing memorial of faithfulness to trust, and the fearless discharge of duty in the face of surrounding difficulties. I cannot say what became of the old bell. There is a tradition that it was transferred to Colzium. If this was so, it could not have swung long in the belfry of the old church, as the Colzium bell bears upon it the following inscription:—“George IIL Rex. Kilsyth, 1794. Progul esto Profani.” Of the work of the Holy Spirit during the ministry of Robe, Dr Rennie left a brief, but most carefully written and sympathetic account.

Dr. Rennie’s great work, “Essays on the Natural History of Peat Moss,” was published at Edinburgh, by Archibald Constable. It is in three volumes. The first was published in 1807, and is dedicated to “The President and other Members of the Board of Agriculture, as a humble testimony of the high sense the author entertains of their patriotic exertions in promoting the interests of agriculture and the improvement of the British Empire.” The second was published in 1810, and is dedicated “To His Grace the Duke of Athole, the President and the other Members of the Highland Society of Scotland, as a small tribute of the author’s esteem and gratitude, and a humble testimony that they were the first in Britain to call the attention of the public to the natural history and origin of peat moss, and the important economical purposes to which it may be made subservient.” This work has now become exceedingly rare, but both these volumes are lying before me as I write these pages; also an epitome of the third, from which a fairly just view of its contents may be obtained.

The first volume contains a spirited introduction to the work, and two essays on the ligneous and aquatic plants from which moss is formed. When we recollect that in Ireland alone one-seventh of the whole island, or 2,830,000 acres, is moss, we at once recognise the importance of the problem with which Dr. Rennie attempts to grapple. But whilst Ireland is an outstanding illustration, in the various countries of Europe there are enormous deposits of peat moss. Hatfield Moss, in England, contains 180,000 acres. In France the moss at the mouth of the Loire is 50 leagues in circumference. The moss of Bremerford, near Bremen, is 60 miles long by 15 miles broad. In Holland, Germany, Poland, Prussia, Sweden, and Russia, there are mosses double and treble the size of that near Bremen. Nor is it to be supposed that these mosses are like the alluvial deposits on the surface of the earth, merely a foot or two in thickness ; so far from that being the case, they are for the most part from 20 to 50 feet in depth. When the Forth and Clyde Canal was made, the engineer found the thickness of the mossy strata of Dullatur Bog to be 53 feet. The associations of the boy often colour and give direction to the thoughts of the man. This being the case, may it not have been that the wonder excited in his mind by this moss, when he played about its margin as a boy, directed the speculations and peculiar studies of Dr. Rennie’s manhood? Flanders Moss, through which the Forth flows, and which extends to the east of Gartmore for several miles, is the only other moss in the neighbourhood which, from its extent, might be calculated to stir the awakening faculties of a young natural philosopher. That Dr. Rennie’s mind was deeply moved by the subject is evident from the long years he bestowed on its study, and from such a passage as this, which we find in the introduction to his work:—“Is it not then astonishing, and is it not to be lamented, that a subject of such national importance has hitherto been so shamefully neglected ? Is it not a reproach to every nation in Europe ? And ought not every potentate of these vast dominions to blush at the recollection? Shall they spend the treasure and blood of their subjects in the wild schemes of ambition, in seeking to extend their dominions and aggrandise their nation and their name by new conquests, while kingdoms lie uncultivated in their own empires, and millions of acres of their richest valleys lie as a useless waste? If but one ten thousandth part of the treasures wasted in one campaign were devoted to the improvement of these uncultivated regions, then might the wilderness be made to smile, and the desert to bud forth and blossom as the rose.”

The second volume consists of seven essays. In the first he gives account of the changes through which vegetable matter passes in the process of conversion into peat moss, and in the second he describes the substances that are found in moss, such as sulphur, sulphuric acid, phosphorus, tannin, iron, etc. In the third Dr. Rennie is freely at home in discussing the relationship existing between peat and coal and jet. In one place he says: “ Coal, wherever it has been discovered, has certainly been exposed to a degree of mechanical pressure far beyond that which has ever been applied to peat by art. Of this it would be superfluous to offer any proof. And if the best peat were subjected to the same degree of compression, it is obvious that it would become equally compact, and equally heavy, bulk for bulk, and equally inflammable as coal; and in no respect distinguished from that substance in colour, consistency, or chemical qualities.” After discussing the connection between peat and various bituminous substances, he devotes two chapters to these two difficult questions— the antiseptic qualities of peat moss, and its sterility in its natural state. The last essay of the second volume is a learned disquisition on “The Different Kinds and Classifications of Peat Moss.” The last volume is practical, and treats of peat as a soil, its fertilisation, its use as a manure, the cropping of moss, and its economical uses.

In Dr. Rennie’s work we see the operation of a mind at once acute and capacious. Nothing escapes his observant eye. There is a marvellous fulness of detail. He seems to have consulted every authority and classified every fact. He has a familiar knowledge of curious passages of ancient history. The things he has seen and handled he describes with Darwinian minuteness and faithfulness. His work is a credit to Scottish literature, an honour to the Scottish Church, and must ever remain a monument of the author’s untiring zeal, wide learning, and scientific insight and sagacity.

When his work was published his grateful countrymen loaded him with such honours as they could bestow. The University of Glasgow conferred upon him the degree of D.D. He was made a Fellow of the Agricultural Society of Edinburgh, corresponding member of the Board of Agriculture, member of the Highland Society of Scotland, member of the Natural History and Chemical Societies of Edinburgh. He became also the recipient of sundry services of silver plate.

But this was not all. His reputation extended far beyond Scotland. Sir John Sinclair brought the merits of the Scottish pastor under the notice of Alexander I., next to Peter the Great the most distinguished of all the Russian Czars; he was the Czar whom Napoleon worsted at Austerlitz, Eylau, and Friedland; he was also the Czar who fought Napoleon at Borodino, who burned Moscow, and secured the annihilation of his army amid the snows of Russia. After the deposition of Napoleon and the restoration of the peace of Europe, Alexander devoted himself to the internal administration of his vast dominions. The improvement he wrought was greater than that accomplished by any of his predecessors from the time of Peter I. Hearing of the renown of Dr. Rennie, and eager to improve the condition of the Russian farmers and peasantry, the Czar offered him the magnificent position of Professor of Agriculture in the University of St. Petersburg. Dr. Rennie’s friend, Sir John Sinclair, urged him strongly to accept of an appointment so distinguished in itself, and where unbounded resources would be placed at his disposal for realising his favourite agricultural projects. It would certainly have been a remarkable coincidence if the Czar Alexander I. had become the patron of Robert Rennie of Kilsyth, as Peter the Great had already been the patron of that distinguished traveller, John Bell of Antermony, on the borders of the parish. The offer was tempting—the more so as it gave promise of extensive gratification of long-cherished inclinations. Correctly believing he was now too old for such a marked change of work, scene, and climate, he finally declined the offer of the Russian Autocrat: The Czar appreciated the reasons which led Dr. Rennie to decline the appointment, and sent him in token of his continued favour two handsome presents. The first was a large massive gold wheel-shaped ring of about an inch in diameter. In this ring there was set a magnificent diamond. Along with the ring the Czar sent a snuff-box wrought in platinum and silver, and covered with rich workmanship.

It was well Dr. Rennie did not go to Russia. The preparation of his work had occupied his leisure for many years; and the church he had built--in which he doubtless felt an honest pride—and the honours which now fell so thickly upon him, he was only to enjoy for a few years more. After a long and successful ministry, also after having made for himself an honourable and distinguished name, in the midst of his own people, on the 10th July, 1820, Dr. Rennie fell asleep, and was laid to rest with his fathers where for generations they had been buried.


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