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John Thomson of Duddingston, Pastor and Painter
Chapter III


1805—1813

Duddingston Church and Parish—Thomson’s Induction—The Manse —Artistic Fervour—Ordination of Walter Scott to the Eldership—Scott a Presbyterian —Member of General Assembly—Baptism of Scott’s Youngest Child by Thomson—Scott’s Views on Episcopacy versus Presbyterianism—Lockhart’s Life of Scott—Death of Mrs. Thomson—’ Grecian’ Williams—Sir Francis Grant—Sir David Wilkie—J. M. W. Turner—Duddingston Loch in Winter— The Duddingston Curling Club—Principal Baird.

THE first step in the necessary proceedings in connection with Mr. Thomson’s removal from Dailly and induction to the charge of Duddingston took place on 25th September. At a meeting of the Presbytery of Edinburgh, held on that day, Mr. Thomas Scott, the agent for the Marquis of Abercorn, appeared and laid on the table a presentation from his Lordship—who is described in the Records as the undoubted patron ‘—‘in favour of the Rev. John Thomson, minister of Dailly.’ Thereupon the Presbytery agreed to meet at Duddingston on the 10th day of October ‘to moderate in a call’ from the congregation. In those days the rights of patrons were practically absolute, but the gift of the benefice or living carried with it almost invariably the consent of the people. Seldom was it called in question. Still the law had made a provision—it might or might not be a fiction or a farce—whereby no presentee to a benefice could be legally ordained by the Presbytery without first receiving, in addition, a ‘call’ from the people. The Presbytery accordingly met in Duddingston Church, the Rev. James Robertson, minister of South Leith, presiding and preaching, after which the ‘call’ was signed by the congregation. But that did not finish the business; the call must next be ‘prosecuted’ before the Presbytery of which the presentee was a member, which was the Presbytery of Ayr. Commissioners were accordingly appointed for this purpose, consisting of five ministers and one elder, and these gentlemen presented the call to that court on the 16th October, stating their reasons why the minister of Dailly should be ‘loosed’ from his present charge. This was reported at a meeting of the Edinburgh Presbytery on 2nd November to have been all done in proper form, and so far, what is called the ‘moderation of the call’ was complete, after the ‘serving of the edict’ upon the congregation. On the 14th November the Presbytery again met in Duddingston Church, with the congregation, and after divine service conducted by the Moderator, Dr. John Campbell of the Tolbooth Church, intimation was given that the process for Mr. Thomson’s translation ‘had been regularly carried out and finished before the proper judicatory, and his edict being duly served, and this day returned without objections, they were now prepared to admit him to the new charge.’ As the Records of the Presbytery go on to state, ‘the Moderator then called on Mr. Thomson and read to him the questions appointed by Act of Assembly to be put to such as are admitted to new charges, to which Mr. Thomson having given satisfactory answers, the Moderator, in name and by authority of the Presbytery of Edinburgh, admitted him to be the minister of the church and Parish of Duddingston. The brethren present then gave Mr. Thomson the right hand of fellowship, and he and the congregation were suitably exhorted by the Moderator. After the congregation were dismissed Mr. Thomson signed the formula and his name was added to the Roll.’

Such 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.

If 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 afterwards

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 Margaret Bonnet.

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 office-bearer.

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 datum.’

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.’

We 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 Lauder.

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 his pictures.

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 sister kingdom.

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 glittering ice.

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 snow.

‘‘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 mention.

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 13-3.’

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.’


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