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Significant Scots
Rev. W. S. Crockett



Preacher and Litterateur

[Crockett, Rev. William Shillinglaw, Minister of Tweedsmuir since 1894; born Earlston, Berwickshire, 24th Jnne, 1866; youngest and only surviving son of William Crockett and Margaret Wood; married Mary, eldest daughter of J. Davidson Ross, Edinburgh, 1894; educated Earlston Parish School; Edinburgh University. An apprentice chemist, 1881-85; then student for Church of Scotland ministry; licensed 1893, and ordained 1894. Publications : Minstrelsy of the Merse; The Poets and Poetry of Berwickshire, 1893; A Berwickshire Bard, 1897; Centenary Edition of Henry Scott Riddell’s Works and Memoir, 1898; In Praise of Tweed, 1899; Biggar: Historical, Traditional, Descriptive, 1900; The Scott Country, 1902; Sir Walter Scott, 1903; Robert Burns (with Sir George Douglas), 1904; The English and Scottish Border (in Cassell’s British Isles), 1905; Abbotsford, 1905; numerous articles on Border life and literature, poems, Ac., in the “Scotsman" and other journals; engaged on a History of Earlston, Ac. Rbcrbations : Cycling, hill-climbing, local literature and history. Addrbss : The Manse, Tweedsmuir, Peeblesshire.]

THIS much from “Who’s Who,” the Debrett of the intellectual world, but to many of the thousands who have read Mr Crockett's books with delight or wandered with him as guide through the wild uplands or sheltered valleys of the Borderland this sort of biography in pemmican is rather unsatisfying. They are anxious to know more of the writer who, writing so lovingly of the Great Wizard, seems to have caught some of that wonderful elusive spell, which has for all time made this stretch of Scottish soil a land of faery and romance. It is a wild, rugged country, with long sweeps of mountain solitudes, where only the cry of the curlew is heard in the long Bununer’s day and the tinkle of innumerable streams. In the valleys of the lower lands to-day the hum of industry is heard in the many towns, but still over the whole land seems to breathe the spirit of romance. There is scarce a valley or hill which has not been the scene of some historic event. On that hill met the grim lion-hearted Covenanters to worship God in the days when men worshipped with the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other. In this valley a desperate conflict took place between the Douglases and the Percys—the most redoubtable warriors of Scotland and England. Through this land drifted back the fragments of the English force that shattered itself on the rock of Scottish heroism at Bannockburn. Hither came fleeing the broken remnants from, fateful Flodden. Through it all flows the Tweed, the most historic of all our rivers. What scenes it lias witnessed from the far-off times when the Koman9 penetrated to our northern land! Ah if Tweed could but speak.

But Tweed, alas! is silent, or, if not silent, speaks in language that requires the poetic gifts of fancy and insight to understand. Fortunate indeed it is for our times that Mr Crockett, a Borderer of ‘the Borderers, possesses those gifts and interprets for us, as has seldom been done since the Great Wizard was laid to rest, the spirit of romance that seems to have made this province of Scotland its special and peculiar haunt. The student of Border literature oannot afford to do without Mr Crockett’s books. English literature has become so wide and extensive a field, yearly extending its borders, that it is a hopeless task for any one man to attempt to survey it all—to determine its varrdus qualities or explore the wealth that has been accumulating under the dust and the mists of ages. Wherefore, following the principle of the division of labour, which holds in the industrial world, we find that in the literary world we have students who peg out claims for themselves and make it their life’s work to bring to light all the treasures of their own special section. In this way alone can any valuable or permanent results be attained, for not even an “Admirable Crichton” could grasp within hie purview the whole wide range of English literature. And thus we have Robertson Niooll or Shorter on the Bronte’s, Dowden or Gamett on Shakespeare, Kitton on Dickens, and, to come to our immediate purpose, W. S. Crockett on Sir Walter Scott, and that romantic land epigrammatically described by himself as “the Scott Country.” Therefore, when Sir Walter Scott or his work, or any of the literature of the Border, come to be considered, Mr Crockett’s work must be consulted, for he has so thoroughly mastered this special department that most critics concede to him the privilego of the last word on the subject. Surely the best, of commendation.

Far up amidst the green hills of Peebles-shire lies the quiet and lonely, but yet eminently lovely, parish of Tweedsmuir. Through it sweeps the Tweed, which has its beginning in the outmost limits of the parish, and, through a long, narrow valley, running north and south, the Talla stream flows, joining the Tweed just immediately opposite the hamlet that gives the parish its name. It is here where the confluence of the Talla and Tweed forms a small peninsula that Tweedsmuir Man and Church stand, and where Mr Crockett writes those works which have found enthusiastic readers and made him many warm friendships all over the world wherever the sons of the Border have found their way or the name of Scott is reverenced and loved.

The night was keen and snell as I made my way towards the manse. The wind sang eerily in the hills, and the swish of the waters made a mournful kind of music to the night. But the discomfort and the winter were left outside, and nothing seemed to fill the heart but a pleasurable feeling of warmth and kindness as I stood getting a firm hand clasp and warm welcome from Mr and Mrs Crockett. Mr Crockett was busy with some literary work, for besides those works which have been published in volume form and are known to most Border readers, he does a great deal of work for reviews and magazines.

It is highly desirable that these fugitive essays and criticisms should be rescued from the ephemeral pages of the periodical press and enshrined in the more permanent form of volumes. Books lay scattered about the table, and sheets of MS. were littered here and there. A handsome book-case of carved bog-oak stood in one corner, stocked with the choicest volumes. Sitting before a cosy fire I began my interrogations. It may be best, probably, to give some port of Mr Crockett’s replies in the form of a monologue for the sake of conciseness and lucidity.

“I have already told you I was born at Earlston. The Crocketts are of Galloway descent. But my father—strangely enough—was a native of Biggar, our nearest market-town, as you know. He left it early, however, and a considerable part of his life was spent in Edinburgh before settling in Earlston, somewhere in the fifties. I went to Earlston School when I was four years old. Mr Daniel Aitkenhead, whom I think you have met, was the teacher, one of the very best specimens of the ‘old Scottish parochial,’ who has done more than any other, perhaps, to mould the Scottish character into that form that has found so many admirers all over the world. Mr Aitkenhead was a strict disciplinarian, and many a good round of the ‘tawse’ I have had from him. But I am not unthankful, and, no doubt, it was all needed, and I am sure that, looking back as I do now, many of his old scholars understand the man even better, and remember not a few of his sayings and counsels with a reverent and kindly feeling. Of Mr, now the Very Rev. Dr. Mair, until recently the minister of Earlston, I can say pretty much the same thing. From the standpoint not only of a parish minister, but of one’s ordinary experience of life^ I am able now to go back on the past and to understand much of the Dr's character, which was unintelligible to a lad in his teens. Every Earl-8tonian is proud of Dr Mail's distinction in the ecclesiastical world, and 1 believe^ if he is spared, as we hope he may, the union or federation of the Presbyterian Churches in Scotland will not lack in him a staunch advocate and worker. I have an idea that the Dr has set his heart on union, and I am confident he would have a large following of the younger men in the Church at any rate. Well, I left school when I was fifteen years old. At that time, I remember, I was most anxious to become a medical missionary, but the way was Mocked with obetaclee I could not then overcome. For four years I was apprenticed to a chemist, and had the ignominious fate of being plucked more than once for what was chiefly my bad handwriting. I am thus, then, I suppose, a “stickit druggist." All the time, however, I had the desire to serve in the Christian ministry, and so at last I turned my back on the chemist’s life and entered Edinburgh University as & student. For eight years I studied there. During the winter months of one session I assisted for several hours a day in a chemist’s shop. Then for a session or two I was a private tutor, and from my entrance to the Theological Hall I was student-missionary of St John’s parish. In May, 1893, I was licensed, and became assistant to Dr Blair of St John’s. Shortly afterwards I was appointed assistant to the Rev. Dr Smith, of the Abbey Church, Haddington—the famous “Lamp of Lothian." Here I remained for two months only, for on 23rd June I was called to Tweedsmuir (I got the news on my birthday), and in July, 1894, I was ordained, and here I have been ever since. During the last ten years the parish has, of course, as you have seen to-day, become a perfect hive of industry owing to the construction of the Talla Waterworks, but those ten years, in spite of one or two drawbacks, have been the happiest of my life. There is a mission centre on the works, where I visit and preach regularly. I love the work and find the satisfaction that & busy life, spent in service where the heart goes with the brain, inevitably brings. The parish is a large one, but the population is very scattered. I have been approached on two occasions by other congregations—one in London—but hitherto I have felt no call to go, feeling rather that there was work in my present charge to which I could well and usefully devote myself, and, in all likelihood, this will be the scene of my life-work."

Thus far Mr Crockett’s modest statement, but I may add a few supplementary words on his ministerial and parish work merely to give a truer estimate than can be gathered from his quiet, unostentatious tones. As might be expected, Mr Crockett’s pulpit matter is thoughtful and full of wisdom, and his manner is that of the born orator. There are no theatrical attitudes or gestures, but there are the dear, calm tones of a resonant and musical vodoe, that rises sometimes to the thrilling height of eloquence, and there is a ring of sincerity and single-heartedness that goes deep, and surely reaches the heart The diction is chaste and choice, the sentences finely balanced and harmonious, and the whole has that subtle literary fragrance that attracts not alone the cultured mind, but also the simple and uncultured. His week-day work in his pariah is much appreciated, and among the navvies he is a universal favourite, presiding at their entertainments, giving advice and writing letters, providing literature for their reading-room, and in a thousand ways showing how willing, nay, anxious, he is to carry precept into practice and show how his practical evangelical preaching works out in the everyday affairs of life. In everything that pertains to the parish he talkes the most active interest. He is Chairman of the School Board, and sits also on the Parish Council, and among other benefits that have flowed to Tweedsmuir through his hands may be mentioned an excellent public library and a beautiful church organ, with the church itself transformed into one of the neatest places of worship in the country. Truly, his life is a full and complete one.

But this is written more for the larger congregation to whom he speaks through his books, and accordingly I bring the conversation round to literary topics. “This is not my study proper,” Mr Crockett remarks, “but I do a great deal of my writing here.” One scarcely wonders at this, for as he sits at the writing table at the window and lifta his gaze he sees the Tweed sweeping swiftly by, and looks on hills that, to one who knows the Border as he does, must whisper inspiration. “What is this you are busy at!” I ask, pointing to the pile of manuscript that liee on the table.

“That is a review I ought to have sent in some days ago. However, by finishing it tonight I may be in time." “And how is your next volume progressing ?” I ask.. “Abbotsford, you mean? Fairly well,” he replies^ “I have nearly completed it. It is due for the Spring or early Summer season, and I am glad to be so well on with it.”

I turn the conversation to what I consider his “magnum opus" hitherto—“the Scott Country,” the pioneer of a series that is likely to become a popular and standard one. “It must have cost you a great deal of study and labour" I suggest, “but I am sure its success will make you feel the reward ample.” “That is quite true,” he replies. “Of course, I am gratified at its success^ but what has given me most pleasure has been the number of kind letters I have received from all parts of the world. Hosts of Scott’s admirers have read the book, and I have had letters by the score—I think two from as far away as the Sandwich Islands—thanking me for my work. Such spontaneous tributes must always be an author’s best reward. At the same time the book took a great deal out of him.

“Indeed it did,” intervenes Mrs Crockett, “I have often seen him start writing after breakfast and keep at it continuously, with short breaks for meals, till two or three o’clock in the morning.”

“Ah! I don’t do that sort of thing now,” Mr Crockett says. “In fact, I could not do it. But by methodical effort I get through a good deal of work.”

“I think it was Anthony Trollope who said that every literary man should stick a lump of cobbler’s wax on his deck-chair to keep him glued there for the allotted number of hours each day. What do you think of it, Mr Crockett? Do you work a regular number of hours, turning out methodically a certain number of words in the time?”

“No,” he replies. “I wish I could, but somer times I sit for hours before the desk and cannot write more than a few sentences, which I afterwards invariably destroy.”

I was glad of the admission, though I did not say so. Not even genius can evolve out of its inner consciousness literature of lasting worth with the mechanical precision of a machine. Such invariable, inevitable output, methinks, is the privilege of mediocrity that stumbles not on a bright patch in an acre of its own diffuseness.

“What was it, Mr Crockett, that turned your attention first to literature?”

“Well, I was born in Earlston, as I said, the town of Thomas the Rhymer, and it was the reading of Dr Murray’s book on the Rhymer and Scott’s Ballads that gave my mind the first great impulse towards literature. But I have always had a great desire to write. My first effort was a letter written to the ‘ Scotsman ’ when I was still a boy. There was at that time a minister imprisoned, unjustly, as was thought, and I was so fired with indignation that I wrote the letter, which did appear, and was actually noticed along with others in a leader on the subject. Nobody knew about this till long afterwards. My first article, so far as I remember, was one on Smailholm. It appeared in the "Southern Reporter." I think these were my first efforts, but I have lost count. To most of the Border papers I have contributed poems and articles, but there is little time for that class of work now.”

“And what are your plans for the future?” I ask.

“Well, it is difficult to say. As a matter of fact, I am sometimes inclined to give up book-producing altogether. My first business is the ministry. I have never allowed my literary woric to interfere with that which is really nearest my heart- I am tempted sometimes to relegate it to the background altogether. Of course, the circumstances of my parish make it possible for me to engage in literary work. In a larger sphere I could not do it. I should like, however, if I live, to write a ‘History of Earlston.’ I have gathered a vast amount of material for this. I have enough material also for a volume an Tweedsmuir, and I have long had a desire to do a ‘History of Border Literature,” which would, I think, fill a good niche. Books on ‘Yarrow’ and ‘Peeblesshire’ have been proposed to me by the Blacks, and by a Scottish publishing firm. But it all depends. I am, as I tell you, growing less and less of a litterateur. But come, we have talked enough of ‘my’ books. Let’s have a look at some of the books I have here.”

Such books! What can be said of them— volume upon volume, all in good clean bindings and carefully classified. One like me, afire with the enthusiasm of the bibliophile, could but handle them carefully and reverently, and breathe an aspiration that some future day might bring a similar collection within my grasp.

Then Mr Crockett leads the way to his study. Here, in a large room, are ranged round and round, from floor to ceiling, shelves loaded with books of the greatest value. One section is devoted to Border literature, and, as I examine it, I ask seriously enough, “Is there any book bearing on the Borders which has ever been published that is not here?”

“Oh, yes,” Mr Crockett replies with a smiley “but still that is a fair collection of Border literature.”

And undoubtedly it was. The whole library was indeed an eloquent tribute to the taste of its cultured owner, and remembering that Mr Crockett has been settled in Tweedsmuir for only ten years, a feeling of wonder arises that such a collection oould be brought together in such a remote parish. We spent a long time-among the books, Mr Crockett taking down many volumes, speaking of them all with the knowledge born of the true critical insight, and showing involuntarily that notwithstanding his particular study of Border literature his range of reading has been wide and varied.

We turn reluctantly from the study, for supper is announced, and over the table the talk flows easily on, I interrogating chiefly of Border lore and history, while my host reveals almost unconsciously his thorough knowledge of everything pertaining to the Border.

Of the power and literary grace of his books it is scarcely necessary to speak. They all possess the charm of limpid, easily flowing English, and those subtle qualities that are the undefin-able attributes of a fascinating style. The success of his “Scott Country” is sufficient testimony to this, for not even the magic of the map. of Scott could achieve, within so short a period, the success of a third edition, unless the work were characterised by a literary power to set the story in an attractive setting. One shudders to think how the work would have fared in less artistic hands, that merely took care of the facts and left the style to take care of itself. Mr Crockett is fortunate in having the gift of the capacity for taking pains, so that as to fact his books may be taken without question, and as a born litterateur he possesses the rarer virtue of being able to clothe fact in the beautiful robes of a pure literary style. Here are a few critiques on “The Scott Country".

“Full of fascination.” — “The Academy.”

“Singularly pleasant reading.” — "St James’s Gazette.”

“It is pleasant to go with so cultivated and enthusiastic a guide on a sentimental pilgrimage through the Scott Country.” — “The Speaker.”

“Few men are better versed than the parish minister of Tweedsmuir in all that relates to this cradle-land of Scottish romance.” — “The Spectator.”

“Will doubtless for many a day be the standard work of the Border.” — “Aberdeen Free Press.”

But I dare not continue quoting further, for the sake of space. Dr Robertson Nicoll sums the matter truly when he declares Mr Crockett to be the most capable living student of the Border and its literature.

I cannot conclude this without a reference to Mr Crockett’s personality. He is a young man in the full flush of life, but in appearance he looks many years younger than he really iB. Perhaps the reason of this is that his nature is a happy, buoyant one, and I cannot help thinking that he will always retain this boyish exuberance and sunny-heartedness of youth— surely a great gift in a world where men age quickly, and lose their sunny-heartedness and simple faith in the good, as the blasts of a cynical world lop off their early rosy illusions.

And in his happy home-life, busy though it be, who but himself can speak of the kindly help of his gracious helpmate and “critic on the hearth. ”Perhaps the best possible appreciation of this faithful, unfailing help is to be found in the simple but expressive dedication that prefaces his best-known work, “The Scott Country” — “To my wife.”

I leave the manse and foot it sharply through the frosty air, I muse of the happy evening I have passed and endeavour to peer into the future With youth and ability on his side one may look forward to a long future of literary work for Mr Crockett. The feeling also arises that Mr Crockett himself has large plans for the future, and that his work hitherto must be taken merely as an earnest of greater achievements to follow. Ah, well I the future is in the lap of the gods, but this surely may be predicted with the certainty of its falling true —that in time to come, when the Border roll of honour is being made out, among the names coupled with Scott, and Hogg, and Leyden, and Professor Veitch, and other outstanding Borderers of their day, that of Crockett of Tweedsmuir will have its due place—certainly not the least notable in a grand and goodly company.

John North

Download his book "The Scott country; illustrated"


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