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Northern Lights
Sir David Brewster


JEDBURGH is a small town in Roxburghshire, noted in the annals of Border warfare. It was frequently attacked by the English, and the broken arches and scarred towers of a fine Abbey still testify to the violence of their assaults. The scenery of the neighbourhood combines somewhat of the ruggedness of the Highlands with the delicate beauty of a Devonshire landscape. The old red sandstone presents itself in numerous bare precipices ; the background is formed of picturesque interminglings of dark woods, apple-orchards, meadows and corn-fields. Nor is the charm of water wanting. The Jed, which has given its name to the ancient burgh, flows by hazel copse and cultured slope, and in the shadow of firs “ that crown the heights with tufts of deeper green.” This stream has gained a poetic celebrity, for on its banks Thomson first watched the procession of the “Seasons and Leyden", who sleeps in distant Java, has sketched its beauties with a loving hand in his “Scenes of Infancy.” Sir D. Brewsteb was born in Jedburgh, in the year 1781. His father was rector of the Grammar School, a position to which he had been appointed, partly through the influence of the minister of the parish, Dr. Macknight, whose learning and acuteness found scope in the famous works on the Gospels and the Epistles.

David was educated by his father. His mind was naturally quick and retentive, and though never seen toiling over his school-books like the other boys, he always had his lessons ready. Genius is often started on its career by trifling circumstances, and David’s early bias towards natural science was occasioned by seeing the prismatic colours thrown out by some peculiarity in a window-pane in his father’s house. The beautiful hues thus made visible, led him to eager inquiries as to the refraction of light. He was aided in his investigations in reference to that and cognate subjects, by acquaintance with several individuals who had a local renown for scientific research or mechanical ingenuity. His principal teacher was James Veitch, who resided about half a mile from Jedburgh, in a valley gently sloping towards wooded banks and red scaurs. His cottage, standing on a small patrimonial estate named Inchbonny, is described as “pleasant to sight and sound, with its walls covered with pear-trees, its sunny little garden, its hives of bees, its song-birds and its murmuring brook.” He was a carpenter by trade, but was able to construct telescopes, microscopes and other instruments with a precision not surpassed by the workmen of Edinburgh or London. He delighted in astronomical pursuits, and was the first to discover the great comet of 1811. Men of eminence in science and literature courted his society; and Sir Walter Scott frequently said to him, “Well, James, when are you coming amongst us in Edinburgh to take your place with our philosophers?” The leafy dwelling, the workshop with its mechanical curiosities, would have been an attraction to almost any boy, but were specially so to one so eager for information as David Brewster. Though he had afterwards teachers of greater name, it was from the philosopher of Inchbonny he received the lessons which prepared him for his scientific achievements. Nor did he forget his obligations, for when honoured by a European reputation and by the diplomas and medals of many illustrious institutions, he turned fondly to the sequestered valley in which his early preceptor pursued the even tenour of his way.

When twelve years old, he was sent to the University of Edinburgh, where he distinguished himself as a laborious and successful student, and took his degree of M.A. while yet in his teens. Though he entered the Divinity Hall, being intended for the clerical profession, he abated nothing of his enthusiasm for natural science, and employed all his available time in astronomical observations and experiments in electricity and optics. After leaving the University he preached a few times, but excessive nervousness and a number of discouraging circumstances, induced him to abandon the plan of ministerial life which had been formed for him. It is evident he could have had no deep conviction of duty in reference to the work of the ministry. He had been simply designed to it, as to a profession, without regard to conversion or a Divine call. There may be instances in which in childhood predilections and qualifications for the ministry are manifested, which ought to be sacredly cherished by parents. But what kind of ministers are boys likely to rise up who have never been affected by the love of Christ, and have never thought of the grave responsibilities of the ministerial calling, yet at twelve or thirteen are sent to College as Divinity students, and then, with no more than the cold outlines of a system of Theology in their minds, are ordained to the care of churches? Who can wonder if Religion languishes, and Rationalism comes with axes and hammers to break down the carved work of the old beliefs, when pulpits are occupied and sacraments administered by men without experience of the first elements of Christian life? Happily there has not been in the past, nor is there now, the slightest tendency to this mode of procedure in Methodism. Ho one can be received as a candidate for our ministry, in reference to whom the following questions cannot be answered in the affirmative: “Has he grace? Has he gifts? Has God given him fruit of his labours?”

In 1810, Mr. Brewster was married to a daughter of the Macpherson who gained both applause and obloquy by his real or pretended translations of Ossianic poetry. For some time after his marriage the philosopher resided in Edinburgh, and then removed to a small estate he had bought in Roxburghshire, not far from Melrose Abbey. Allery was the name he gave to his new abode, which commanded a fine stretch of country backed by the Eildon Hills, and had the additional advantage of being favourably situated for intercourse with Abbotsford and other seats of distinguished literary men. This picturesque spot was held by him until 1838, when he was made Principal of the United College of St. Salvador and St. Leonard, in St. Andrews; an appointment which necessitated his removal to that city. He occupied the house in which the famous George Buchanan once studied and wrote, and was in the midst of antiquities replete with the interest of great names and startling events. He could scarcely have gone to a place more suitable for a man of studious habits than St. Andrews. The long, parallel streets are almost cloister-like in their quietness; the wide beach, the sands of which glisten in the sunlight as if strewn with particles of silver, with the blue sweep of the noble bay, afford an ample scene for meditation or recreation; the stern masonry of the old castle, the fragmentary glories of the Cathedral, and the gaunt tower of St. Regulus, carry the mind back to days when prelates vied with kings in power and pomp; and in the cathedral yard are numerous historic tombs, one of which bears the honoured name of Samuel Rutherford, and cannot be seen without a throb of emotion by those who have yielded to the lovely charm of his “Letters.”

Whether in Allery or St. Andrews, Mr. Brewster was ever busy with his scientific labours, and by his success in them won distinctions from almost every part of Europe, and the honour of knighthood from William IV.; while geography took charge of his name, giving it to a cape in the Arctic, and a river in the Antarctic region. He could almost have said with Lord Bacon, "1 have taken all knowledge to be my province.” Few subjects, relating either to the heavens or the earth, escaped his attention; but it was in the domain of light and optics that he found his most congenial tasks, and made discoveries which were hailed as new glories for science. While engaged in his favourite studies, lie invented an instrument which, though of no utility unless to pattern designers, has given pleasure in tens of thousands of dwellings. This was the kaleidoscope, the appearance of which caused immense excitement. The tube, with its endless variation of form and colour, was sought by all ranks and ages, from peers to peasants, from grave philosophers to little children. Kaleidoscopes could not be made with sufficient rapidity to meet the demand. Shops were besieged, and people left their money in order to insure the coveted article. But the inventor gained no pecuniary advantage; means were adopted to evade the patent he took out, and though it was said he ought to have realised one hundred thousand pounds, he was not profited to the extent of a single farthing. Sir David Brewster also gave to the stereoscope its present form, for though the principle of binocular vision had been long understood, and though instruments had been made by which two pictures had been brought into one view, and their objects set in apparent relief, he was the first to bring out the instrument now in universal use. One of these he took to Paris, where its adaptation to photography was at once appreciated. Crowds flocked to see the wonders effected by the twofold lens, and the instrument soon became extensively popular. His optical researches also led him to make considerable improvements in the illumination of lighthouses. Great difficulties were placed in the way of the adoption of these improvements, and even his claim as the originator of the dioptric apparatus was acrimoniously denied in favour of a Frenchman ; but his services were recognised after, if not before, his death, and a high authority has said: “Every lighthouse that burns round the shores of the British Empire is a shining witness to the usefulness of Brewster’s life.” Sir David Brewster was not only a scientific but also a literary man. His first great work, projected while he was comparatively young, was the “Edinburgh Encyclopaedia" for which he wrote many articles. He was involved in immense troubles by want of punctuality, and even utter neglect, on the part of numbers who had promised articles, and pecuniarily the work was a failure but it remains as a fine monument of the editor’s daring and his intellectual energy. Thomas Chalmers was asked to be a contributor. At that time he was but little interested in the themes proper to his ministerial office: Mathematics had greater charms for him than Theology, and he made choice of Trigonometry as his subject for the “Encyclopaedia.” But the death of a beloved sister touched his heart, and he requested permission to write the article “ Christianity.” This article has interest as being his first purely religious composition for the press, and as indicating an important crisis in his spiritual history. Though it has reference more to the buttresses than to the inner glories of Christianity, the studies necessary to its production brought him into closer contact with truths on which he had hitherto looked with philosophic disdain.

An Essay on Whewell’s “Plurality of Worlds,” written by Sir David Brewster for the “North British Review,” was expanded by him into the volume so well known as, “More Worlds than One:” a work to which he applied himself with the caution of the philosopher, the imagination of the poet, and the faith of the Christian. While free from the extravagant rhetoric, it has much of the splendour of Chalmers’ “Astronomical Discourses.” The glories of the heavens blaze over the great argument; and the writer in a masterly manner shows the unlikelihood of the magnificent worlds which appal our minds with their sublime distances and stupendous magnitudes, being mere wastes without sentient occupants. In his own vigorous way he suggests the thought, that if we could rise to the orbs which gleam afar, if we could glide from planet to planet and from sun to sun, we should witness most wonderful manifestations of intellect and moral power, and mingle with beings haying lips melodious with lofty psalms, and vision bright with prophetic radiancy, and hearts ever intent on doing the bidding of their Creator.

Sir David Brewster’s most elaborate work is the “Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton.” He spared no trouble in the execution of the task he had set himself, visiting Woolsthorp, where he saw the tree from which, it is said, the apple fell which turned Newton’s thoughts to the law of gravitation, and Grantham, where he saw the venerable school-house in which he was educated: he also obtained access to papers in the archives of the Earl of Portsmouth, which hitherto had only been cursorily examined, but were found by him to be of great value, as clearing Newton’s character from imputations of unworthy conduct in his differences with Flamsteed. He would willingly have proved Newton perfectly orthodox in religious belief; but though he was not able to do this, he was convinced that his deviations from Trinitarian doctrine were not so wide as they are usually stated to have been. Other works were also published by Sir David Brewster; “The Martyrs of Science,” “Natural Magic,” a popular “Life of Newton;” while of miscellaneous articles he contributed three hundred and fifteen to various philosophical journals, and seventy-five to the “North British Review.”

Sir David Brewster was a Christian philosopher. His sympathies had always been with the Evangelical section of the Church of Scotland, and at the Disruption he identified himself with the Free Church. He was too long a stranger to the spiritual life of the Gospel, but he was not a doubter. He never indulged in the haughty scepticism which interferes so much with our admiration of some of the eminent philosophers of the present day.

His aim was not to sacrifice religion to science, but to unite them in harmonious labours for the well-being of man.

It was not until late in life that Sir David Brewster entered into conscious relationship with Christ. When he did become sensible of the one thing he lacked, he sought the Lord with his whole heart. One of his daughters had a conversation with him on the plan of salvation, in which she related her own experience of the love of God. He listened, took her in his arms and kissed her, and said with child-like simplicity, “Go now, and pray that I may know it too.” The light he craved at length filled his soul, and he could say, “I see it all so clearly myself. It cannot be presumption to be sure, because it is Christ’s work, not ours ; on the contrary, it is presumption to doubt His word and His work.” On another occasion he said, while tears filled his eyes, “O, is it not sad that all are not contented with the beautiful, simple plan of salvation—Jesus only, Who has done all for us!”

In 1859, he was appointed to the Principalship of the Edinburgh University. His official life in St. Andrews was ruffled by strife and litigation, for which he was to a large extent to be blamed. He was somewhat pugnacious in disposition, and his strong phrases and imperative manner, even in the assertion of what was right, tended to rouse and embitter opposition. But in Edinburgh—and doubtless the mellowing influence of Divine grace may be taken as accounting for it—he worked in harmony with the College authorities, and one who had feared a repetition of the St. Andrews squabbles, said after his death, “ Would that Sir David Brewster had lived for ever; we shall never see his like again ! ” His last public appearance was in Dundee, at the Meeting of the British Association. The “old man eloquent,” with the beautiful white hair and the expressive countenance, gave his testimony in favour of revealed religion. One who was present wrote, “To see a phllosopher like him, of worldwide reputation, vindicating the inspiration of God’s Word, and humbly receiving the truth in the love of it, was most encouraging.”

But though the faculties of his mind were well-nigh as bright as in the days when with boyish glee he bounded along the bank of the Jed or climbed the towers of the ruined Abbey, his body was weakened by lapse of years. At one of the meetings he fainted on the platform. On his return home, he expressed himself as feeling every day “ an inch nearer the end since Dundee.” The closing days of his long and laborious life were spent in his own charming Allery. He employed himself in calmly arranging his affairs; and as each little task was completed, a letter dictated or papers put in order, or books restored to their right place on the shelves he would say, “There; that’s done.” The last time he was in his study, his little daughter, the issue of a second marriage, came in, and read to him the twenty-seventh Psalm and the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and then sung to him the hymn he always delighted to hear, “There is a happy land.” When he left the study he said, “Now you may turn the key, for I shall never be in that room again.” When he undressed he said, “Take away my clothes, this is the last time I shall wear them;” and when he lay down, “I shall never again rise from this bed.”

Sir James Simpson visited him when on his death-bed, and told him that. he hoped he might yet rally. “Why, Sir James, should you hope that?” he asked; and then added, “The machine has worked for above eighty years, and it is now worn out. Life has been very bright to me, and now there is brightness beyond.” A little before he died, he said, “Jesus will take me safe through.” One of the members of his family said, “You will see Charlie,” a son who had been drowned many years before. After a pause he replied, “I shall see Jesus, Who created all things; Jesus Who made the worlds; I shall see Him as Ho is.” His closing testimony was, “I feel so safe, so satisfied!” And then the blue eyes became dim, the features rigid, and the patriarch was “for ever with the Lord.” His body was borne through alternations of storm and calm, snow and sunshine, to a grave near one of the sculptured windows of Melrose Abbey. On his tomb there is an inscription highly appropriate to one who had studied the properties of light with such assiduity, “The Lord is my light.” The daughter who has written his life with tender care and in beautiful words, has honoured his memory with a graceful poem, from which the following lines are taken :—

“Under the storm!
Under the storm!
Lift ye gently the aged form!
Bear him tenderly down the stair—
Carry him out to the wintry air!
Let him into the shelter go
Of the plumy pomp of the conquer’d foe.

“Under the calm!
Under the calm!
Bear him along with a victor’s palm!
Borrow a glow from the purpled dell,
And a gleam from the river he loved so well;
Let the bells ring out a birthday chime
For a soul new-born from the throes of time.

“Under the snow!
Under the snow!
Into the damps and the dews below!
Lay him down with his long-loved dead,
Weep if ye will o’er his silver head,
We have not an honour to reach him now,
We have not a love that can touch his brow.

“Under the sun!
Under the sun!
Joy! for the saved whose race is run!
Joy! for the gift of the doubtless trust
That shall parry many a doubter’s thrust.
Joy! for the saint with his fair white stole,
Of Christ’s finished work in the glorious goal.”


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