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James Frederick Ferrier
Chapter 10 - Last Days


IT used to be said that none can be counted happy until they die, and certainly the manner of a man's death often throws light upon his previous life, and enables us to judge it as we should not otherwise have been able to do. Ferrier's death was what his life had been: it was with calm courage that he looked it in the face—the same calm courage with which he faced the perhaps even greater problems of life that presented themselves. Death had no terrors to him; he had lived in the consciousness that it was an essential factor in life, and a factor which was not ever to be overlooked. And he had every opportunity, physically speaking, for expecting its approach. In November 1861 he had a violent seizure of angina pectoris, after which, although he temporarily recovered, he never completely regained his strength. For some weeks he was unable to meet his students, and then, when partially recovered, he arranged to hold the class in the dining-room of his house, which was fitted up specially for the purpose. Twice in the year 1863 was he attacked in a similar way; in June of that year he went up to London to conduct the examination in philosophy of the students of the London University; but in October, when he ought to have gone there once more, he was unable to carry out his intention. On the 31st of October, Dr. Christison was consulted about his state, and pronounced his case to be past hope of remedy. He opened his class on the 11th of November in his own house, but during this month was generally confined to bed. On the 8th of December he was attacked by congestion of the brain, and never lectured again. His class was conducted by Mr. Rhoades, then Warden of the recently-founded College Hall, who, as many others among his colleagues would have been ready to do, willingly undertook the melancholy task of officiating for so beloved and honoured a friend. After this, all severe study and mental exertion was forbidden. He became gradually weaker, with glimpses now and then of transitory improvement. So in unfailing courage and resignation, not unwilling to hope for longer respite, but always prepared to die, he placidly, reverently, awaited the close, tended by the watchful care of his devoted wife and children. On the 11th day of June 1864, Ferrier passed away. He is buried in Edinburgh, in the old churchyard of St. Cuthbert's, in the heart of the city, near his father and his grandfather, and many others whose names are famous in the annals of his country.

During these three years, in which death had been a question of but a short time, Ferrier had not ceased to be busy and interested in his work. The dates of his lectures on Greek Philosophy show that he had not failed to carry on the work of bringing them into shape, and though the wish could not be accomplished in its entirety, it speaks much for his resolution and determination that through all his bodily weakness he kept his work in hand. Of course much had to be forgone. Ferrier was never what is called robust, and his manner of life was not conducive to physical health, combining as it did late hours with lack of physical exercise. But in these later years he was unable to walk more than the shortest distance, the ascent of a staircase was an effort to him, and tendencies to asthma developed which must have made his life often enough a physical pain. Still, though it was evident that there could be but one ending to the struggle, Ferrier gave expression to no complaints, and though he might, as Principal Tulloch says, utter a half-playful, half-grim expression regarding his sufferings, he never seemed to think there was anything strange in them, anything that he should not bear calmly as a man and as a Christian. Nor did he talk of change of scene or climate as likely to give relief. He 'quietly, steadily, and cheerfully' faced the issue, be it what it might. The very day before he died, he was, we are told, in his library, busy amongst his books. Truly, it may be said of him as of another cut off while yet in his prime, 'he died learning.'

'Towards his friends during this time,' says his biographer, 'all that was sweetest in his disposition seemed to gain strength and expansion from the near shadow of death. He spoke of death with entire fearlessness, and though this was nothing new to those who knew him best, it impressed their minds at this time more vividly than ever. The less they dared to hope for his life being prolonged, the more their love and regard were deepened by his tender thoughtfulness for others, and the kindliness which annihilated all absorbing concern for himself. In many little characteristic touches of humour, frankness, beneficence, beautiful gratitude for any slight help or attention, his truest and best nature seemed to come out all the more freely; he grew as it were more and more entirely himself indeed. If ever a man was true to philosophy, or a man's philosophy true to him, it was so with Ferrier during all the time when he looked death in the face and possessed his soul in patience.' And, as so often happens when the things of this world are regarded sub specie a'ternealis, the old animosities, such as they were, faded away. It is told how a former opponent on philosophical questions whose criticisms he had resented, called to inquire for him, and when the card was given to him, Ferrier exclaimed, 'That must be a good fellow!' Principal Tulloch, his friend and for ten years his colleague, was with him constantly, and talked often to him about his work—the work on Plato and his philosophy, that he would have liked to accomplish in order to complete his lectures. The summer before his death they read together some of Plato's dialogues which he had carefully pencilled with his notes. He also took to reading Virgil, in which occupation his friend frequently joined with him, and this seemed to relieve the languor from which he suffered. As to religion, which was a subject on which he thought much, although he did not frequently express an opinion, Tulloch says: 'He was unable to feel much interest in any of its popular forms, but he had a most intense interest in its great mysteries, and a thorough reverence for its truths when these were not disfigured by superstition and formalism,' Immortality, as we have seen, meant to him that there is a permanent and abiding element beyond the merely particular and individual which must pass away, and so far it was a reality in his mind. God was a real presence in the world, and not a far away divinity in whom men believed but whom they could not know; but as to the creeds and doctrines of the Church, they seemed far removed from the Essential, from true Reality. Professor (afterwards Principal) Shairp writes: 'In the visits which I made to his bedroom from time to time, when I found him sometimes on chair or sofa, sometimes in bed, I never heard one peevish or complaining word escape him, nothing but what was calm and cheerful, though to himself as to others it was evident that the outward man was fast perishing. The last time but one that I saw him was on a Sunday in April. He was sitting up in bed. The conversation fell on serious subjects, on the craving the soul feels for some strength and support out from and above itself, on the certainty that all men feel that need, and on the testimony left by those who have tried it most, that they had found that need met by Him of whose earthly life the gospel histories bear witness. This, or something like this, was the subject on which our conversation turned. He paused and dwelt on the thought of the soul's hunger. "hunger is the great weaver in moral things as in physical. The hunger that is in the new-born child sits weaving the whole bodily frame, bones and sinews, out of nothing. And so I suppose in moral and spiritual things it is hunger that builds up the being."

Professor Veitch, a later colleague at St. Andrews, adds: 'We miss the finely-cut decisive face, the erect manly presence, the measured meditative step, the friendly greeting. But there are men, and Ferrier was one of them, for whom, once known, there is no real past. The characteristic features and qualities of such men become part of our conscious life; memory keeps them before us living and influential, in a higher, truer present which overshadows the actual and visible.' And Professor Baynes speaks of him as one of the noblest and most pure-hearted men that he had ever known, combining 'a fine ethereal intelligence with a most gallant, tender, and courageous spirit.'

Such is the man as he presented himself to his friends even when the shadows were darkening and the last long journey coming very near: a true man and a good; one in whose footsteps we fain would tread, one who makes it easier for those who follow him to tread them too. His work was done; it might seem unfinished— what work is ever complete? But he had taken his share in it, the little bit that any individual man can do, and had done it with all his strength. And what did it amount to? Was it worth the labour of so many years of toil? Who is there who can reply? And yet we can see something of what has been accomplished; we can see that philosophy has been made a more living thing for Scotland, that a blow has been struck against materialistic creeds, or beliefs which are merely formal and without any true convincing power. It may not have been much: the work was but begun, and it was left to others to carry that work on. But in philosophy, as in the rest, it is the first step that costs, and amid great difficulty and considerable opposition Ferrier took that step. He left much unexplained; he dwelt too much in the clouds, and did not try to solve the real difficulties of personal, individual life; he did not show how his high-flown theories worked in a world of strife and struggle, of sin and sorrow. He could only be said to have struck a keynote, but that keynote as far as it went was true, and the harmonies may be left to follow.


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