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John Thomson of Duddingston, Pastor and Painter
Chapter V


A Busy Life—Parish Gossip_Anecdotes—The Lame Minister—’ A bonnie wee bit of sky’ —The ‘Edinburgh’ Retreat — Pulpit Ministrations — Louis Cauvin’s Device — Thomson on ‘Moderation ‘—Doctrine and Practice — Portobello Church—Moderates and Evangelicals—Mrs. Thomson’s Music Lessons— Stories of John Richardson the Beadle.

THE multifarious round of occupations into which Thomson’s life was divided naturally enough created among neighbours and parishioners some little speculation as to how he managed to get through it all, and many were even uncharitable enough to insinuate that it was only done at the expense of his ministerial duties.

All this painting, violin playing, entertaining of company, sketching expeditions, etc., they said, could not but interfere with these; and some ludicrous and even incredible stories were current which may be taken for what they are worth. We repeat one or two of them as specimens of the then current gossip of the district. As we have already said, Mr. Thomson appears to have faithfully discharged his duties as a parish minister both in visiting and preaching; and if the latter function was sometimes delegated to probationers in his absence, he was, upon the whole, wonderfully regular. Like other ministers he had his holiday seasons, and these were always fully taken advantage of for sketching tours.

A rather apocryphal story is told of one of the probationers who occasionally took his place. He was a lame man, or rather a man with a wooden leg, who resided in Edinburgh. On the Sabbath morning referred to it was very stormy when he started from the City, intending to walk to Duddingston through the King’s Park, past the base of Samson’s Ribs, and over the ‘Windy Gowl.’ At that time there was no smooth carriage-way as there is now, and the footpath was rough and uncertain, meandering among the rocks and broken ground in a very irregular manner. Being overtaken by the force of the gale, the poor man stumbled and fell among the rocks in the ‘Windy Gowl,’ and was unfortunate enough to break his leg—luckily only his wooden one—so as to be quite unable to proceed further. The last bell had been rung, and there being no appearance of the expected minister at the kirk, one or two of the elders set out to meet him, when they discovered him scrambling among the rocks with his broken stump. They at once carried him to the church and set him in the pulpit in safety! Some may think that it would be well if ‘lame’ ministers could be as easily removed from the pulpit!

But it was not only hinted that the minister absented himself for sketching expeditions, he also got the credit of sometimes working at his easel on Sundays. On one occasion, as the story goes, the first, the second, and the third bells had rung out. Thomson was deeply engrossed in a captivating canvas, and the beadle, old John Richardson, came to the door to remind him that the time was up, and the congregation waiting. ‘Do ye no ken, sir, that the bells are dune ringing, an’ the folk are a’ in the kirk ?’ said John; but so intent was he realising an effect in the picture before him, he called out: ‘Oh, John! just go and ring the bell for other five minutes till I get in this bonnie wee bit of sky!’

Again, one day when in the middle of his sermon a violent thunderstorm of extraordinary grandeur broke over the church, Thomson, it is said, hurriedly brought the service to a close, ran to his studio, and at once began to paint the effects as they flashed before him—the rolling clouds, the vivid lightning, and the lurid light.

After the erection of the octagonal tower at the Loch-side by the Duddingston Curling Club in 1825, which is still standing, Mr. Thomson occasionally made the upper story of it his studio, and a most suitable one it must have been, commanding, as it does, a lovely prospect of hill and loch. Here he found a safe retreat when he wished to be free from the bustle of the house or intrusive visitors. But tittle-tattle had it that he was often to be found there when he was supposed, or was represented to be, at Edinburgh; and so among some of the villagers the curling-house came jocularly to be called ‘Edinburgh’!

These and other stories of a similar kind were likely enough in the circumstances to be circulated, and even find credence among a rural population, some of them perhaps not over friendly to what they considered the hobbies of their minister. A friend to whom they were narrated—the son of one of Mr. Thomson’s elders—who, when he was a lad, was a good deal about the manse in those days as a playmate of the minister’s sons, informed us they were utterly untrue, and angrily asserted with some emphasis that the person who made such cruel statements ought to be dipped in the Loch!

In regard to Mr. Thomson’s pulpit ministrations different views have been expressed. The Rev. Hew Scott, author of the Fasti Ecciesice Scoticanae, describes him as ‘a sensible, rather than a popular preacher.’ At a time when long sermons were more common than they are now, the minister of Duddingston does not appear to have erred on this score. With a shrewd suspicion of his people’s weakness for short ones, he generally humoured them accordingly.

From the foresaid friend we learn that he would send one of his boys to look out a sermon for him on the Sabbath morning, when a fresh one had not been prepared; and the boys, having a partiality for short discourses, carefully selected those having this desirable qualification, a few of which came to be known as favourites on that account!

One of Mr. Thomson’s elders was Louis Cauvin, a celebrated French teacher in Edinburgh. He had retired from active life to spend the evening of his days at Woodlands, near to Duddingston Mill. Being a man of considerable culture, with a pretty intimate knowledge of Paris as it was before the great Revolution, he and the minister came to be on very intimate terms, and enjoyed many a social hour together; the artistic temperament of the one and the scholastic culture of the other forming between them a common bond of friendship.

Cauvin did not like long sermons, and when he thought the minister had gone beyond reasonable bounds, he had no hesitation in giving him the hint. Cauvin’s seat was in the front gallery of the church, facing the pulpit. He wore one of those large, old-fashioned watches, with heavy chain and seals, commonly worn by substantial elderly gentlemen in those days, and when the sermon as he thought was getting a little ‘dreigh,’ he would lean himself forward on the book-board, take out his watch, and, hanging it over the front of the gallery, give it a gentle swing by the chain to attract the preacher’s attention, as much as to say, ‘You have been long enough, time‘s up.’ The artifice, we are told, generally had the desired effect!

Of the character of Mr. Thomson’s preaching we should be inclined to say it was more of the moral, moderate type, than fervidly evangelical. Doctrine and precept formed a large part of the preaching of his time, unaccompanied by any stirring appeal to conscience and heart, and he appears to have been no exception to the general rule. Unfortunately few of his written discourses have survived the fate so largely attendant, we suspect, upon this class of literature; but we have one specimen before us which, in its style no less than its theme, may be taken as a fair example of both. It was evidently composed in 1810, and from the various markings upon it had done duty repeatedly down to 1828, and possibly even later. The text is taken from the Epistle to the Philippians, iv. 5:

‘Let your moderation be known unto all men.’ In a plain, sensible way, and without any attempt at dialectic eloquence, the duty of exercising ‘that quiet and unassuming temper which prompts to love, conciliation, and peace’ is strongly enjoined; the evils to society and the danger to our own happiness which follow the pursuit of an opposite course are clearly pointed out. ‘Stiffly to adhere to our own fancies and humours, to refuse all compliance on the one hand, and all forbearance on the other, seems,’ he says, ‘contrary to any real desire for peace, and therefore must be contrary to Christian moderation.’ To live peaceably with all men he conceives to be the chief end of Christian effort, for ‘there will always be men in the world to foment the differences in it . . . to search out faults and disturb its quiet; these are the chief instruments in embittering the happiness of social and domestic life; . . . while the disgusting passions of hatred, malice,, pride, and arrogance are the great obstacles to our becoming truly in love with the divine virtue of charity, which covereth a multitude of faults. . . . By these, men are impelled not only to refuse all measures of conciliation, but to delight in still further incensing one another. In order to do justice to the claims of others we must learn to place no more than a just value on our own. If our breasts be filled with an overweening conceit of ourselves, of our own abilities, and our own way; if we think it beneath our dignity to alter or amend anything concerning ourselves—if we are ashamed to own a fault, even after we are inwardly sensible of it, then indeed there is little chance of our acting with uniform fairness and candour, and moderation. This indeed we can scarcely hope to do till we have truly subjected all selfish passions and learned to take a just view of our own private ends, and have learned such a command over ourselves as that we can oblige these private views at any time to yield to more weighty and generous considerations. This is surely no romantic, no unattainable height of human virtue. Like other virtues it has its various objects, and if there is any virtue which ensures its own reward, even in this world, and which not only imparts a delightful sense of inward approbation, but infallibly is attended with the admiration of our fellow-creatures, it is the virtue of candour and moderation.’

Modern divines would, we fear, look askance at this way of representing gospel truth, and doubt its power to mould the life of their hearers to its precepts.

But if Thomson’s power as a preacher was not of the first order, be had at all events the happy reputation of exercising that charity which covereth a multitude of sins. ‘Good words,’ it is said, ‘are worth much,’ but good deeds are a splendid supplement. He is a better preacher who can follow up the sermon by skilful toil for the glory of God and the good of his people. In this respect Thomson’s practice outran his profession. Profoundly impressed with the importance of religion, he was tolerant of dogmas. His advice—and it was uniformly sound and judicious—was ever at the service of his parishioners, while his sympathy flowed out in more substantial aid when that was required. The price of many a picture found its way in the shape of bottles of wine and other comforts into the cottages of the sick and infirm, while seldom or never was a case of real distress turned from his door unaided.

In this connection we have a characteristic illustration in the case of the old woman—Betty Steele, a poor old body in the village—who came to the manse one day in sore distress over some grievous loss that had befallen her. After pouring out the torrent of her trouble into the patient ears of her minister, she wound up with the pious request, ‘Eh, Mr. Thamson, would ye no pit up a bit prayer for me?’ The minister, who evidently diagnosed the case as calling for more practical assistance than ‘a bit prayer,’ dived into the recesses of his breeches pocket for any stray coins that might happen to be there; and slipping five shillings into the old woman’s hand, he whispered into her ear, ‘Tak’ that, Betty, my good woman; it ‘s likely to do you more good than any prayers I ‘m able to make!

Of the minister and the manse, indeed, the words of Goldsmith present us with a not inapt picture of the open-handed liberality which did not look too closely into every applicant’s worthiness:

‘His house was known to all the vagrant train,
He chid their wanderings, but relieved their pain;

Careless their merits, or their faults to scan,
His pity gave, ere charity began.’

Not often do we find Mr. Thomson’s name identified either in Presbytery or General Assembly with ecclesiastical matters. Polemical discussion had for him no attractions. Even the agitation on the question of non-intrusion, important as it was, which during the last ten years of his life stirred the whole country, did not much affect him. He attended to his pastoral duties, preached the gospel to his people, and visited the sick and dying, filling up what spare time he had with his brush, but keeping himself clear as far as he could of church courts and public agitation.

When duty called, however, he did not shrink from taking his fair share of ecclesiastical business and responsibility. We find, for instance, that in February 1818 he took a very active and prominent part in assisting the inhabitants of Portobello in getting the sanction of the Edinburgh Presbytery to the erection of their chapel—built ten years previous—into a ‘Chapel of Ease,’ with an ordained minister. Hitherto it was only a chapel with a ‘preacher,’ under the authority of the Kirk Session of Duddingston. But the people of Portobello now desired to have a fully ordained pastor with a Kirk Session of their own, and petitioned the General Assembly accordingly. The matter had been up before the superior court of the Church in 1817, by whom it was referred to the local Presbytery. Mr. Thomson entered very heartily into the movement, though its object was to cut off a large portion of his parish from his supervision and control. He not only presented the petition of the people of Portobello, but gave his most hearty consent and support to the movement. It was granted, and shortly afterwards the ‘preacher,’ Mr. John Glen, was formally set apart by the Presbytery as the first fully ordained minister of the town.

For a considerable time parochial affairs were managed for the two congregations by the Kirk Session of Duddingston, to which the Portobello congregation sent three representatives; but in 1834, by the passing of the Chapels of Ease Act by the General Assembly, the Portobello chapel was raised to the ecclesiastical status of a parish church, quoa4 sacra. By this arrangement Mr. Thomson and his Session were relieved of a considerable amount of supervision in regard to discipline, management of churchyard, and providing for the poor, which did not strictly pertain to Duddingston congregation. The Church of Scotland in the first part of the century was divided into two distinct and sharply defined sections. Holding practically the same doctrines so far as outward profession was concerned, and submitting to the same form of Church government, the Moderates and the Evangelicals were yet diametrically opposed in their methods and aims. The latter represented the zeal, the life, the aggressive spirit of religion, in seeking to send the gospel to the poor at home, as well as to the heathen abroad. The former were supposed to be indifferent as to these, if not practically hostile; looking upon foreign missions as ‘romantic and visionary,’ and ‘highly dangerous to society.’ Culture and the practice of letters they considered of more importance; and among the Moderate clergy of that period there were many notable men, distinguished for their culture, and as leaders in philosophy and science. Nor did their conservatism in regard to ecclesiastical matters prevent many of that party being thoroughly liberal in regard to political matters. It was a class, however, which was rapidly decreasing in numbers and influence, and of John Thomson it has been said, ‘he was the last of that class of Scotch clergymen to which Robertson and Playfair belonged—Liberals in secular and Moderates in ecclesiastical politics.’ He was to Art what they in the church were to literature and science: the ripe scholar, the poetical artist, the man of the world, and yet the clergyman too. Few men of his time enjoyed a larger share of the society and friendship of men of kindred genius; and whether they were Whigs or Tories, Moderates or Evangelicals, all were alike recognised by him as friends and brethren.

Nor must the influence of Mrs. Thomson in this connection be overlooked. As a minister’s wife she excelled. We have seen how keenly she interested herself in the cultivation of the service of praise; and as the result of her exertions, few parish churches could boast of this part of the service being so well conducted as Duddingston in the first part of the century. But in other respects she was equally helpful, visiting the sick, relieving distress, and interesting herself and the people in Christian work. Among the young she was a special favourite; every Sabbath morning at 8.30 she had a Sabbath-school in the manse, which was well attended by the children of the village. Who can sufficiently estimate the value of such work? ‘Next to the work of the Christian ministry,’ it has well been said, ‘comes the work done by ministers’ wives.’ We would even go a step further, and say that the peace and prosperity of a congregation depend at least as much upon the mistress of the manse as on its minister.

The duties of that important office, the parish beadle, were in Thomson’s day performed, no doubt with the utmost satisfaction to himself, by an old man named John Richardson. John, like many of his class, was a character in his way, not without an element of humour in his composition. His duties as ‘minister’s man’ brought him almost daily about the manse, where he was treated as a privileged friend rather than as a servant. He had quite a literary taste, and often when he had a little spare time, or as a reward for any extra exertion, his master would send him for perusal his copy of Shakespeare, an author of whom he was fond to enthusiasm. The circumstance passed with him into a proverb, so that on the occurrence of any piece of good fortune, or faring somewhat better than usual in the kitchen, he would say, with a smack of satisfaction in his voice, ‘Ay, ay! it ‘s no’ every day we get Shakespeare to read!’

In the way of criticism John could be unconsciously true, if somewhat severe, even when most desirous to be complimentary. On one occasion Mr. Thomson had to be from home on the Sabbath day, and had engaged a young country minister to occupy the pulpit in his absence, of whose capabilities as a preacher he was not very confident. On his return he interrogated John as to how the young divine had got on. ‘Deed, sir,’ said the beadle, ‘just middlin’; it was guid coorse country wark, but there‘s naebody jumbles the judgment and confuses the sense sae wee! as yersel.’

His attachment to the minister and his family was unbounded, and the boys especially were a great source of solicitude to the worthy man. He was quite a favourite with them, and many sly pranks were played off upon him. When Edward and Henry (Thomson’s two youngest sons) left home to go abroad, the old man formulated in his family devotions a special prayer on their behalf that ‘the Lord would watch over Master Edward and Master Henry when they were on the stormy deep, and bring them in safety to their destined haven’; but, once introduced into his prayers, it seemed difficult to give up his special petition, and he repeated it so often that it became stereotyped; and so, long after the lads had safely arrived in Australia, honest John still went on praying that Edward and Henry might be brought in safety to their destined haven!

He was very fond of a dram, and was a frequent and generally a welcome guest at one or other of the several public-houses which were then in Duddingston, where his manse gossip suffered nothing in the telling. His being so much in the pulpit had no doubt something to do with his frequent use—not always reverently, it is to be feared—of Scripture phrases, which he would apply in rather a comical style. One day he was busy putting up a new ‘stob,’ or post, for a gate. The minister happened to come along, and seeing him at work said, ‘Well, John, you ‘re putting in a new stob, are ye? Will that one last long this time?’ ‘Ay will ‘t, there‘s nae fear o’ this yin,’ said John, ‘it'll last till the judgment day in the afternoon!’


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