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Significant Scots
Buchan, Elspith


BUCHAN, ELSPITH, the leader of a small sect of fanatics now extinct, was the daughter of John Simpson, who kept an inn at Fitney-Can, the half way house between Banff and Portsoy. She was born in 1738, and educated in the Scottish Episcopal communion. Having been sent when a girl to Glasgow, in order to enter into a life of service, she married Robert Buchan, a workman in the pottery belonging to her master, with whom she lived for several years, and had several children. Having changed her original profession of faith for that of her husband, who was a burgher-seceder, her mind seems to have become perplexed with religious fancies, as is too often the case with those who alter their creed. She fell into a habit of interpreting the Scriptures literally, and began to promulgate certain strange doctrines, which she derived in this manner from holy writ. Having now removed to Irvine, she drew over to her own way of thinking, Mr. Hugh Whyte, a relief clergyman, who consequently abdicated his charge, and became her chief apostle. The sect was joined by persons of a rank of life in which no such susceptibility was to be expected. Mr. Hunter, a writer, and several trading people in good circumstances, were among the converts.

After having indulged their absurd fancies for several years at Irvine, the mass of the people at length rose in April, 1784, and assembled in a threatening and tumultuous manner around Mr. Whyte's house, which had become the tabernacle of the new religion, and of which they broke all the windows. The Buchanites felt this insult so keenly, that they left the town to the number of forty-six persons, and, proceeding through Mauchline, Cumnock, Sanquhar, and Thornhill, did not halt till they arrived at a farmhouse, two miles south from the latter place, and thirteen from Dumfries, where they hired the out-houses for their habitation, in the hope of being permitted, in that lonely scene, to exercise their religion without further molestation. Mrs. Buchan continued to be the great mistress of the ceremonies, and Mr. Whyte to be the chief officiating priest. They possessed considerable property, which all enjoyed alike, and though several men were accompanied by their wives, all the responsibilities of the married state were given up. Some of them wrought gratuitously at their trades, for the benefit of those who employed them; but they professed only to consent to this, in order that they might have opportunities of bringing over others to their own views. They scrupulously abjured all worldly considerations whatsoever, wishing only to lead a quiet and holy life, till the commencement of the Millennium, or the day of judgment, which they believed to be at hand. Observing, they said, how the young ravens are fed, and how the lilies grow, we assure ourselves that God will feed and clothe us. Mrs. Buchan, who was said to have given herself out to be the Virgin Mary, at first denied that she was so. Instead of being the mother of Christ, she said, after the flesh, she was his daughter after the spirit. The little republic existed for some time, without any thing occurring to mar their happiness, except the occasional rudeness of unbelieving neighbours. At length, as hope sickened, worldly feelings appear to have returned upon some of the members; and, notwithstanding all the efforts which Mrs. Buchan could make to keep her flock together, a few returned to Irvine. It would seem that as the faith of her followers declined, she greatly increased the extravagance of her pretensions, and the rigour of her discipline. It is said that when any person was suspected of an intention to leave the society, she ordered him to be locked up, and ducked every day in cold water, so that it required some little address in anyone to get out of her clutches.

In the year 1786, the following facts were reported by some of the seceding members on their return to the west. "The distribution of provisions she kept in her own hand, and took special care that they should not pamper their bodies with too much food, and every one behoved to be entirely directed by her. The society being once scarce of money, she told them she had a revelation, informing her they should have a supply of cash from heaven: accordingly, she took one of the members out with her, and caused him to hold two corners of a sheet, while she held the other two. Having continued for a considerable time, without any shower of money falling upon it, the man at last tired, and left Mrs. Buchan to hold the sheet herself. Mrs. Buchan, in a short time after, came in with 5 sterling, and upbraided the man for his unbelief, which she said was the only cause that prevented it from coming sooner. Many of the members, however, easily accounted for this pretended miracle, and shrewdly suspected that the money came from her own hoard. That she had a considerable purse was not to be doubted, for she fell on many ways to rob the members of every thing they had of value. Among other things, she informed them one evening, that they were all to ascend to heaven next morning; therefore it was only necessary they should lay aside all their vanities and ornaments, ordering them, at the same time, to throw their rings, watches, &c. into the ash- hole, which many were foolish enough to do, while others more prudently hid every thing of this kind that belonged to them. Next morning she took out all the people to take their flight. After they had waited till they were tired, not one of them found themselves any lighter than they were the day before, but remained with as firm a footing on earth as ever. She again blamed their unbelief - said that want of faith alone prevented their ascension; and complained of the hardship she was under, in being obliged, on account of their unbelief, to continue with them in this world. She at last fell upon an expedient to make them light enough to ascend: nothing less was found requisite than to fast for forty days and forty nights. The experiment was immediately put in practice, and several found themselves at death's door in a very short time. She was then obliged to allow them some spirits and water; but many resolved no longer to submit to such regimen, and went off altogether. We know not," thus concludes the statement, "if the forty days be ended; but a few experiments of this kind will leave her, in the end, sole proprietor of the society's funds."

What adds to the curiosity of this strange tale of fanaticism, is, that Mrs. Buchan's husband was still living in pursuit of his ordinary trade, and a faithful adherent of the burgher-seceders. One of her children, a boy of twelve or fourteen, lived with the father; two girls of more advanced age were among her own followers. Notwithstanding her increased absurdity, and we may add, the increased tyranny of her behaviour, she continued to have a few followers in 1791, when she approached her last scene. Among these was her first apostle, Mr. Whyte. Finding that she was about to go the way of all the earth, she called her disciples together, and exhorted them to continue steadfast and unanimous in their adherence to the doctrine which they had received from her. She told them she had one secret to communicate - a last desperate effort at imposition - that she was in reality the Virgin Mary, and mother of our Lord; that she was the same woman mentioned in the Revelations as being clothed with the sun, and who was driven into the wilderness; that she had been wandering in the world ever since our Saviour's days, and only for some time past had sojourned in Scotland: that though she might appear to die, they needed not be discouraged, for she would only sleep a little, and in a short time would visit them again, and conduct them to the new Jerusalem. After her death, which took place, May 1791, it was a long time before her votaries would straighten or dress the corpse; nor would they coffin her, until obliged by the smell; and after that they would not bury her, but built up the coffin in a corner of the barn, always expecting that she would rise again from the dead, according to her promise. At last, the neighbouring country people, shocked with these proceedings, went to a justice of peace, and got an order that she should be buried; so that the famous Mrs. Buchan was at length reduced to a level with all the dead generations of her kind.


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