was the simple order of procedure in the Scottish Presbyterian Church in
those days. It is an order that is still carried through in similar cases
in the Established Church, with this difference, that patronage has since
been abolished by Act of Parliament, its place being taken entirely by the
call of the people. Among the clerical members of Presbytery who assembled
that day to welcome Mr. Thomson to Duddingston were such men as Dr. Grieve
of the Old Church, Dr. John Thomson of the New North Church, Dr. James
Robertson of South Leith, Dr. Inglis of Old Greyfriars (father of the late
Lord President), Dr. M’Knight of Trinity College Church, and several
others. The laity are not reported upon; but there is every likelihood
that among those in the body of the church would be found many of
Thomson’s old Edinburgh friends, such as his brother Thomas, with probably
Walter Scott and his brother Thomas, the factor. Considering the interest
these had taken in his welfare, the probability is they would be present
on so auspicious an occasion as his induction.
Be that as it may, Thomson’s
translation to Duddingston in this autumn of 1805 opened up for him a new
and wider field, and brought him more closely into contact with men of
culture in the scientific, literary, and artistic world, as well as the
leading spirits among the clergy of the Church of Scotland.
A peculiar interest attaches to any
house in which a great man has lived—it is as if its atmosphere had
somehow been lifted out of the commonplace by the clinging reminiscences
of a temperament abnormal in efficiency and thought. It becomes in our
imagination identified with his daily life, and to form a part of his
being; and though the dwelling survives while the owner is dead, one sight
of the house recalls the dead past. The Manse at Duddingston is beautiful
for situation; for Thomson it had many attractions, and in course of time
it gathered round it many cherished associations.
The scenery of his new neighbourhood
was for one thing peculiarly fitted to keep alive his love of the
picturesque and the beautiful. The landscape which surrounded the pretty
manse where he had now taken up his abode, and where he was destined for
the next thirty-five years to live a peaceful, prosperous, and useful
life, honoured alike by high and low, rich and poor, was just such as a
poet-artist might desire. No fairer scene can in broad Scotland be found.
Combining as it does all the elements of picturesque variety with historic
interest, bounded by the distant Pentland and Lammermoor Hills, it
presents aspects of Nature both rugged and sublime, sylvan and rustic, but
never tame. In the middle distance stands out prominently the old feudal
Castle of Craigmillar, with its historic associations connecting it with
Sir Simon Preston and Queen Mary. Fields and meadows intervene with
fertile breadths of cornland and pasture; while peeping out from among the
trees on the west may be seen the suburbs of Edinburgh and the old mansion
of Prestonfield; on the east, the mansion and policies of Duddingston. At
our feet lies shimmering in the sun the placid waters of Duddingston Loch,
ever and anon broken by the rattling skirr of the coots and water-hens
disporting upon its bosom, its sedgy banks and willow-trees affording them
ample cover. Over all tower the majestic cliffs of Arthur Seat, presenting
on its south side as bold a front as any Highland Ben.
anything is wanted to complete the picture it is amply filled by the
little church on the knoll, surrounded with its graves and tombstones,
where ‘the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.’ Rugged and time-worn, it
still stands with its pinnacles and tower a relic of twelfth century
piety, and still calls worshippers within its portals.
Amid surroundings such as these, the
heart of the young minister awoke with a fresh increase of artistic
fervour. Nature in her loveliest aspects lay before him demanding his
acknowledgment, and he was not slow to respond. What was better, he found
in his new sphere an appreciative public, who speedily recognised his
merit and were anxious to secure specimens of his work.
At Dailly he distributed landscapes
among his friends, who perhaps thought very little of them except as being
the hand-work of their minister. At Duddingston he began to find they had
a marketable value, and accepted payment. ‘The first picture,’ says
Alexander Smith, ‘was sold for fifteen guineas, and the artist, it is
said, was so startled by the mighty sum, that it was only when Mr.
Williams, the delineator of Greek scenery, whom he consulted on the
subject, told him that the work was worth three times as much, that he
could comfortably consign the coins to his breeches pocket.’
Nor did this devotion to Art in his
Duddingston manse lessen his interest in and devotion to his more clerical
duties as minister of the parish. The records of the Kirk Session of this
period do not certainly give us much insight into the condition of the
congregation, or of its pastoral supervision; but we have been assured by
good authorities that Mr. Thomson performed his duties to his people
faithfully for all that.
In 1806 occurred an episode in the
history of Duddingston Kirk worthy of more than a passing notice: this was
the admission of Walter Scott as a member of its Kirk Session, and a
ruling elder in the Church of Scotland.
It would appear that the eldership
in the church had been reduced to three members—Mr. Andrew Bonnet of
Muckraw, John Thomson of Priorlathan, and John Robertson, session clerk.
Suitable persons resident in the parish were scarce, and though not
strictly on the lines of Presbyterian order, it was resolved to add the
names of several gentlemen who had only a nominal connection with the
parish. Accordingly on the 12th of March, at a meeting of the Kirk Session
held in Edinburgh, Mr. Thomson being moderator or chairman, Thomas Scott,
W.S., Walter Scott, Advocate, William Clerk, Advocate, and Thomas Miller,
W.S., were nominated for office, subject to the approval of the
congregation. That formality having been gone through on Sabbath the 16th
March, their ordination was performed on the 30th of the same month, all
except Thomas Scott appearing for ordination.
The fact of so many lawyers, all of
them only slightly connected with the parish, being thus brought forward
has induced the belief that the whole transaction was carried through for
personal motives. At the beginning of the century, and for many years
afterwards, the office of ruling elder was much coveted by the
practitioners at the Scottish Bar as a means of access to participation in
the forensic debates of the General Assembly.
This was a practice that was
probably to the advantage of the legal profession; but the admission of
men to the office whose care was more for their own promotion than for the
interests of the Church, was, it may be feared, ultimately detrimental to
the cause of religion.
Be that as it
may, there is no
doubt it was to the legal profession Mr. Thomson went for an increase to
his Kirk Session at this time.
Walter Scott, certainly the greatest
name in the quartette, then in the zenith of his poetical fame, was known
as the author of Border Ballads of no mean order, and The Lay of the
Last Minstrel; but as yet he had not tasted that greater fame which
came to him through his prose
romances, for Waverley had not yet been published.
William Clerk of Eldin, Scott’s
early companion, his coadjutor as a clerk of session, and his prototype of
Darsie Latimer, was, like Scott, a frequent visitor at the manse.
For him the manse had special attractions before even Thomson’s day, for
there he had wooed and won the fair daughter of Thomson’s predecessor—Miss
In their excursions, whether by land
or sea, Scott and Clerk were inseparable, and many of the characters
afterwards delineated in the Novels were recollections of events and
people then encountered by them in their rambles.
Thomas Scott, as factor on the
Duddingston estate, had considerable influence with the farmers of the
parish, and doubtless had his share in furthering the matter. Though
formally elected, he never appears to have presented himself for
ordination, and, with the exception of Walter Scott (if one may judge from
the Records of the Kirk Session), none of the four seem afterwards to have
acted in their capacity of elders in Duddingston Kirk, or interfered in
the affairs of the congregation.
That in the later years of his life
Walter Scott identified himself to some extent with the Episcopalian
Church there can be little doubt. Lady Scott’s and the family sympathies
were undoubtedly in that direction, and much intermittent controversy has
arisen in consequence, by the attempt to prove that Scott was an
Episcopalian also. For reasons best known to himself, Lockhart in his life
of the great novelist does not breathe a word of the incident we have
mentioned, though it is difficult to believe he could have been ignorant
of it; but the fact remains that up to 1806 and for some years afterwards
Scott was not only a member of the Church of Scotland, but an active
In the April following his election
and ordination in Duddingston Kirk he was elected by the Magistrates and
Council of Selkirk as their representative commissioner and ruling elder
to the General Assembly. He held the same appointment in 1807, and took up
his commission on both occasions. But not only did Scott take his seat in
the supreme court of the Church, he was a member of Presbytery as well.
From a minute of Duddingston Kirk Session of 15th December 1806, we find
him then chosen to represent them in the Presbytery of Edinburgh and Synod
of Lothian and Tweed-dale. His signature to the formula engrossed in the
Session Records, in which, in accordance with the Act of 1694, ‘he
sincerely owns and declares the Confession of Faith as ratified by law in
1690’ to be the confession of his faith, ‘the Presbyterian form of
government of the Church by Kirk Sessions, etc. etc., to be the only
government of this Church,’ and his ‘determination to submit thereto and
never endeavour directly or indirectly the prejudice or subversion
thereof,’ may still be seen, the first of a long list of elders appointed
in after years.
It may not be clear at what precise
date Scott united himself to the Episcopal body, if at all. There is no
evidence that he ever was admitted by the rite of confirmation; but it is
remarkable that before this time his three eldest children had been
baptized by Dr. Sandford, an Episcopalian, probably in deference to the
feelings of his wife, who had been brought up in the Church of England,
while the fourth, Charles, born in 1805, was baptized by Mr. Thomson of
Duddingston, the year before his father’s ordination as an elder.
The record of the baptism in Scott’s
family Bible runs thus:
‘24 Decem. 1805.—M. C. Scott apud
Edinburgum puerum edidit; qui baptizatus erat per virum reverendum loannem
Thomson, Ministrum de Duddingstone prope Edinburgum, nomenque Carolus illi
It is probable that after his
marriage Scott consented to accompany his wife to the Episcopal Church;
but his recurrence to a Presbyterian minister for the baptism of his
youngest child seems to indicate a return to the Church of his fathers,
followed by his becoming an elder and a member of General Assembly.
Whether or not we must accept
Lockhart’s statement that ‘he took up a repugnance’ to the Presbyterian
mode of worship, and came to believe that the Episcopal system of
government and discipline was ‘the fairest model of the primitive polity,’
is a different question. It is likely enough that his preference for the
Episcopal service was more a
matter of taste than a question of principle. It is certain that he
greatly admired its beautiful collects and litanies; but so do many
Presbyterians. As to questions of doctrine, discipline, and forms of
worship, Scott’s private opinion was probably that which he put into the
mouth of Mr. Pleydell in Guy Mannering. Pleydell, it will be
remembered, took Mannering to Greyfriars’ Church, where they heard Erskine
preach; and he afterwards told Mannering how Erskine was the leader of one
party, and his colleague, Robertson, the leader of another party in the
Church, while they yet preserved the closest personal regard and esteem
for each other. ‘And you, Mr. Pleydell,’ said Mannering, ‘what do you
think of their points of difference?’ ‘Why, I hope, Colonel,’ was the
reply, ‘a plain man may go to heaven without thinking about them at all;
besides, inter nos, I am a member of the suffering and Episcopal
Church of Scotland—the shadow of a shade now, and fortunately so; but I
love to pray where my fathers prayed before me, without thinking worse of
the Presbyterian forms, because they do not affect me with the same
associations.’ When these words were written there is the strongest
presumption that Scott put his own sentiments into the mouth of Pleydell,
and that he thought little if at all about the differences of churches and
church parties as matters of principle; and that even when tastes and
family associations drew him into the Episcopal Church it was ‘without
thinking worse of the Presbyterian forms,’ and without in any way altering
his opinion that it was on the whole a fortunate thing for Scotland that
the Episcopal Church had become the ‘shadow of a shade.’
are not, however, at present so much concerned with Scott’s later views,
whatever they may have been, but with an interesting incident in his life,
over which his biographer has chosen to draw the veil.
The solemn service of ordination to
the eldership as practised in the Church of Scotland is simple but
impressive; without ritualistic pomp or ostentatious show. We may picture
to ourselves the quaint interior of the little old-fashioned Norman church
of Duddingston, its pointed windows, its
fine old chancel arch, its plain
wooden pulpit and precentor’s desk, with the big hour-glass, down which
‘the sands of time’ are slowly trickling; the square old-fashioned family
pews, each with its little table covered with green cloth; the elders’
seat upon which all eyes are now centred, where stands the second Wizard
of the North with his brother elders, taking upon them the vows of office.
In front of all is the tall, handsome figure of Mr. Thomson, the pastor,
demurely draped in black Geneva gown and bands, addressing in turn the
congregation and the new office-bearers as to their relative duties and
obligations to each other. It is a curious concatenation of circumstances
which thus brings together in a solemn ecclesiastical function two such
men—the poet and the painter of their day.
Such a scene might well have formed
a not unfitting subject for the easel of Sir David Wilkie or Robert Scott
But to return to our subject.
Thomson, though by no means
neglecting his parochial duties, was meanwhile using his brush with such
effect that his artistic powers were being largely recognised and
appreciated. Artists and friends began to see that the Duddingston
minister showed in his pictures and sketches something above the
commonplace. It was felt that in his delineation there was something more
than a mere portrait of a particular place; that what he represented might
not indeed be an accurate transcript of what it professed to be, but yet
was a powerful interpretation of Nature in her various moods and aspects
such as only one with a true artistic genius could paint.
Orders began to pour in upon him
from all quarters in such numbers that, with all his rapidity of
execution, he found difficulty in supplying the demands of his friends for
In the spring of 1809 a severe
calamity overtook him in the sudden death of Mrs. Thomson (18th April),
leaving him with the care of a young family of four children, of whom the
youngest was an infant only two weeks old.
This was undoubtedly a heavy blow,
enough to crush the spirit of a sensitive mind like his; but he bore
it with resignation, and
sought to overcome its depressing influence by renewed
activity; ‘with unabated energy,’ we are told, ‘devoting himself to the
responsible duties of his situation, but never for a moment ceasing from
the cultivation of his art.’
Among the Edinburgh artists of that
time who deemed it a privilege to be associated with him either privately
or in the interests of Art, there were none whose society gave him greater
satisfaction than that of Hugh W. Williams, who, after his visit to Greece
a few years later, when he returned with a large stock of exquisite water-colour
drawings of classic scenery, was better known as ‘Grecian’ Williams. They
formed a strong and lasting friendship for each other. They were frequent
companions in their sketching tours, and in each other’s society found
much sympathetic fellowship. Their enthusiasm and energy in the pursuit of
‘subjects’ and ‘effects’ were remarkable, for they would frequently rise
in the early morning to witness and study the morning light from the dawn
until the sun had risen above the horizon. They would afterwards compare
notes of their observations and sketches, ‘discussing their merits ‘—says
one who knew them—’ with the feelings of disinterested critics, or rather
of parties anxious to discover their artistic and other defects. They
would return again and again, and re-sketch the same subject, until they
had brought their sketches up to the desired point of excellence.’ We
wonder how many of our Academicians of the present day work together in
such confiding harmony?
Thomson had a wonderfully attractive
power; and the magnetic influence which draws kindred spirits within one
social circle led him into not only the acquaintanceship but the active
friendship of many distinguished men. His open-handed kindness of
disposition and the warm hospitality of the manse made it and its occupant
one of the centres of social resort, not only by the representatives of
the literary and legal world, but by artists of distinction from the
From the neighbouring city Thomson’s
frequent guests were Walter Scott, John Clerk of Eldin, Sir Thomas Dick
Lauder, Will Clerk, Jeffrey, Cockburn, David Brewster, Professor Wilson,
James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd,’ his brother Thomas Thomson, and many
others too numerous to name; while many distinguished strangers visiting
Edinburgh participated frequently in his hospitality. Among these it is of
interest to note such men as Sir Francis Grant, Sir David Wilkie, J. M. W.
Turner, William Bell Scott, Mr. Horsman, M.P., etc., all of whom
acknowledged the rare artistic talent of the minister, and delighted to
exchange views with him and enjoy his society.
Walter Scott, it is said, enjoyed
nothing better than to spend a summer evening in the manse garden, under
the shade of the fine old ash-tree, which stood until 1895, a relic of its
former self, viewing the placid loch at his feet with its teeming
population of aquatic fowl.
In winter as well as in summer
Duddingston has its attractions. Its pretty little loch, so close to
Edinburgh, and yet so secluded, has always been a favourite resort.
Artists, botanists, and naturalists of all kinds find here ample material
for study and recreation; but the recreations for which it is best known,
perhaps, and most largely appreciated, are the winter sports of curling
and skating. Then its waters come under the spell of Jack Frost, and its
surface, instead of being a safe and pleasant refuge for swans, ducks, and
other waterfowl, becomes from the Hangman’s Crag to the manse a sheet of
Then is the time to see Duddingston
Loch at its best. Its surface covered with an animated mass of human
beings; the trees that fringe its eastern side covered with hoarfrost, and
Arthur Seat clothed in a mantle of white, only the purple and brown of the
overhanging crags standing out bold and sharp against their setting of
‘‘Tis when Winter his white robe
o’er Arthur has flung, And the Loch at its base under icy chains thrown,’
that we have a picture which, once seen, can never be forgotten.
The old and distinctively Scotch
game of curling has for long been identified with Duddingston; and though
of late years the various clubs of Edinburgh have provided themselves with
ponds more reserved from the throng of visitors and more easily frozen
over, its historical association with the metropolitan authorities and
with the leading men of the bar, the church, the university, the army, and
the medical profession, have made the Duddingston Curling Club celebrated
throughout the country. Founded over a hundred years ago, it embraced
among its members the names of many of the leading Scotsmen of the day, a
large preponderance, curiously enough, being of the legal and clerical
professions; and no society of the kind ever numbered in its ranks such a
company of peers, baronets, judges, and representatives of the different
learned professions. Among them are to be found Lords Murray, Cockburn,
Ivory, Colonsay, Moncreiff, Fullarton, Cunningham, Jeffrey, and Gillies;
the Marquis of Queensberry and the Marquis of Abercorn; Principal Baird of
the University—one of the keenest of curlers, who never missed being at a
meeting—Professor Dunbar, Professor Ritchie, and ministers too numerous to
Mr. Thomson brought with him from
his Ayrshire parish his love of the ‘roaring game,’ and in January 1807,
at a meeting in the Curlers’ Hall, Duddingston, he, along with his brother
Adam, were formally admitted as members of the club. His predecessor, the
Rev. William Bennet, parish minister of Duddingston, held the office of
chaplain to the club till his death in 1805, but the mantle did not fall
on Mr. Thomson, this office being filled for a long series of years
afterwards by Dr. David Ritchie, minister of St. Andrew’s Church. During
these early years of the century Thomson seems to have gone into the
spirit of the game with great zest, and the minute-book furnishes us with
some notes which indicate how much he and his clerical brethren relished
the sport. Principal Baird was the life and moving spirit of the club, and
however busy he might otherwise be, his name seldom fails to appear in the
records as being present at a match or a dinner. Here are a few recorded
notes of these matches. They are curious in their way.
‘Novem. 23rd, 1807. Ice excellent.
28th. Ice good. Clerical party gained four games. 30th. Clerical party
gained two games. . . . Decem. 20th, 1808. Ice good. Jan. 1809. Ice soft.
Messrs. Thomson, Dick, and Muir, against three of the club. The latter
gained, 13-10. 22nd. Ice excellent. 23rd. Began to snow soon after game
commenced. Jany. 5th, 1809. Clerical party—Dr. Baird, Rev. Messrs. i)ick,
Ramsay, and Muir—against Mr. Miller and
members belonging to the law, 31-16; 2nd game, 15-8.
. . . 14th. Ice
after a long thaw uncommonly fine; Linning and Muir the only members out,
between whom a match took place; gained by the former—afterwards joined by
Mr. Thomson. . . . 18th. Ice good—and play
evidently keen, as we find one of the clericals actually indulging in a
little gambling on the result, for "Mr. Millar lost five shillings betting
against Muir." 20th. Dr. Baird, Rev. J. Thomson, Rev. Jas. Ramsay, Rev.
Jas. Muir, against David Ewart, junr., Lorimer, Gibson and Thos. Crichton;
began at eleven o’clock and finished the game after four; former 31-26.
‘21st. Rev. J. Thomson, Messrs.
Ewart, Goldie, and Muir against Messrs. Linning, Miller . . .
and Ewart. 1st game, former 13-10; 2nd game,
13-7; 3rd game, 13-3. (On this occasion, when Mr. Thomson
was skip of his rink, be appears to have carried all before him.) 23rd.
Dr. Baird, Rev. 3. Thomson, Rev. J. Ramsay, Rev. James Muir, against
Messrs. Crichton, Johnson, Scott, aiid Bairnsfather; scored 21-20, the
clericals again having the best of it.
‘Jany. 18th, 1809. Rev. J. Thomson and Rev. J. Muir,
skips against Linning and Scott. Again the clericals are victorious,
39-13. There was a long period of frost this month, and much playing.
. . . 19th. Ice
on Loch good; another excellent day’s amusement. 20th. Clerical party— Dr.
Baird and others—out in strong force.
‘Decem. 1810. Ice rather weak. 10th Jany. 1811. Ice
weak; Rev. J. Thomson, Rev. J. Muir, and Dick, against Messrs. Linning,
Thos. Trotter, and M’George. The latter gained—first game 13-10; second
In the following year Principal Baird, after a keen
competition, carried off the medal of the club.
Mr. Thomson, with that great kindness of heart and
liberal-handed hospitality which ever distinguished him, kept open house
at the manse on these crisp, frosty days, so conducive to the sharpening
of a healthy appetite. Many a convivial evening was thus spent, after the
bonspiel was over, in song and jest, and recalling the incidents of the
day—how the skips ‘chipped the winner’ past a half guard; the grand
‘inwick’ of another, which brought his stone in to the ‘tee’ past all the
‘guards’; or the splendid ‘drive’ of the third player, which ‘cleared the
ice’ for his skip’s ‘fine draw’ at the finish, to the very ‘pat lid.’
And though the clerical friends, with the portly figure
and jolly round face of Principal Baird at their head, must have often
found the manse a ‘very haven of rest’ after a hard day’s sweeping, and
throwing, and shouting on the ice, and have had their own share of the
creature comforts its table afforded, the kindly old face of Farmer Scott,
with the blacksmith and the mason from the village, were made equally
welcome; for it is one of the distinctive features of this fine old Scotch
game that it brings together on equal terms of friendship men of different
ranks and classes—
‘There laird and cotter hand in hand
Strive wi’ guid will to reach the tee;
Each then forgets his rank and state,
Nane there but friends and brithers be.’