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Significant Scots
John Fordyce


FORDYCE, COLONEL JOHN.—A brave and pious officer, who fell in the Caffre war in 1851, was the eldest son of Thomas J. Fordyce, Esq., of Ayton, Berwickshire, an extensive landed proprietor, of great worth and intelligence. Under the parental roof he was trained from his earliest years in the best lessons of a religious education. His accomplished and truly Christian mother, who "had no greater joy than to see her children walking in the truth," was her son’s faithful instructress in that knowledge which maketh wise unto salvation. A portion of the Sacred Volume was committed each morning to memory, and around the family altar prayer was offered daily to the Lord. At the age of twelve, the subject of this memoir had mastered several of the higher Latin classics, and acquired a tolerable knowledge of Greek. For the acquisition of languages he discovered peculiar aptitude, analyzing with much facility the passages of his favourite authors. It was manifest, from the enthusiasm with which he followed Caesar and Hannibal, and other heroes of antiquity, through their respective fields of conflict, that he was destined, with Providence as his director, for a military life. The writer of these observations has a vivid recollection of the graphic skill with which, after rising from the pages of Livy or Tacitus, he described the successes or discomfitures of the combatants, and pronounced on the equity or injustice of the causes of warfare. Before leaving home for a private seminary in England, he was thoroughly conversant with the works of our best modern historians, travellers, and poets. After his return, he completed his literary curriculum in Edinburgh, and was resident for some time with Doctor (now Bishop) Terrot, enjoying under his able superintendence advantages equivalent to those of an English university.

His first commission as an ensign in the 34th regiment was dated in 1828. He served with that corps (then in Nova Scotia) until 1832, when he obtained an unattached lieutenancy. The same year, however, he returned to full pay, first in the 94th, and soon after in the 21st. He served with the 21st North-British Fusiliers until 1836, when he obtained his company in the 35th regiment, from which he exchanged into the 11th Foot in 1839. Having in 1844 obtained his step as major in the latter regiment, he exchanged the same year into the 74th Highlanders. In 1846 he became lieutenant-colonel and commanding officer of this regiment, in which important position he gained the esteem of the military authorities and the affection of all who served under him. Though possessed of a good private fortune, so strong was the esprit de corps of this noble officer, that in March, 1851, he embarked with his regiment for the Cape of Good Hope, where, after months of severe and harassing warfare, he fell at the head of his gallant and beloved Highlanders, in the prime of manhood, and with a name already one of renown.

Endowed with a masculine understanding, a capacious and retentive memory, an indomitable perseverence, ample promise was afforded of literary distinction. Highly gifted as was his intellect, which, as if by intuition, separated the accessories from the essentials of any subject, his moral qualities commanded still higher admiration. His bosom was the very soul of honour and generosity. "Truth in the inward parts," manly independence in forming his opinions, and unflinching courage in expressing them, were united with the meekness of wisdom, and an unaffected modesty of demeanour which shrank with sensitive aversion from all ostentatious display. In personal appearance Colonel Fordyce was considerably above the ordinary height, with a high massive forehead, and a countenance which revealed profound thought, calm decision of purpose, and delicate sensibility. There was frequently also a look of pensive reflection, which indicated that he had been no stranger to the afflictions and sorrows of life. By a stranger, indeed, he might sometimes appear chargeable with a degree of reserve, bordering even on hauteur; but those who knew him thoroughly could best appreciate the depth and constancy of his friendships, and his warmhearted sympathy with his fellow-men both "of high and of low degree."

Deprived in youth of his excellent parents, to whom he was ever a dutiful and loving son, he fulfilled with unwearied fidelity and tenderness the part of an elder brother towards all the other members of the family.

In no feature of character was Colonel Fordyce more remarkable than in his strict conscientiousness. Every transaction, private or public, was conducted with a sacred regard to the authority and the glory of God. This profound sense of responsibility for his stewardship distinguished him not only in the more prominent departments of duty, but in the most minute details of everyday life. As an officer who had been called to occupy a high position in the British army, he was ardently and indefatigably devoted to his professional avocations; cheerfully expending time and strength and pecuniary resources in promoting the temporal and spiritual welfare of the regiment which he commanded. Whilst stationed in Glasgow, a few years ago, opportunities were incidentally afforded for marking the solicitude which he evinced in regard to the intellectual and moral improvement of soldiers’ children; using all practicable means, by week-day and Sabbath-schools, that they might be taught the good ways of the Lord.

The 74th, with their gallant Colonel, were ordered from Glasgow to Clonmel, Ireland. The following notice from the Rev. Mr. Dill testifies to the estimation in which he was held in that place: —

"SIR,—The death of Lieutenant-Colonel Fordyce, 74th Highlanders, has been felt as a personal bereavement by all who knew him. Clonmel was the last home-station of the 74th, where, after eight months’ residence, they received orders for foreign service in November, 1850. To those even slightly acquainted with the army, it will not sound strange to hear, in the published accounts from the Cape, ‘that the whole colony deplores the loss of this noble officer. Both men and officers feel his loss severely, and at this juncture the loss the service has sustained is incalculable.’ But those who knew Colonel Fordyce, not only as a soldier, but as a man and a Christian, can truly estimate his loss to his regiment and his country. As chaplain to the 74th Highlanders, I had frequent opportunity of meeting and observing him. I can truly say that, under God, he devoted himself to his regiment and the service. Though not a member of the Presbyterian Church, he was never absent from his pew on the Lord’s-day. I continually found him superintending the regimental Sabbath and week-day schools, and could trace his kind advice and charity everywhere among the sick in hospital, the families and recruits of his regiment. On the evening before the 74th Highlanders left Clonmel for the Cape of Good Hope, he called and handed me 10 for charitable purposes, requesting that I should not give his name as the donor. Besides this, he had given, through my name, within the three preceding months, 15 to other charities. What his other donations were I know not. From what I have heard, they must have been numerous, as I am sure they were unostentatious. The lamentable death of Colonel Fordyce affords me the sad pleasure of acknowledging the benevolence and worth which he would not permit to be made known while he was alive. I feel his death as if it were a personal bereavement, and I pray that our army may be blessed by many such officers.—I remain, yours truly,

"Manse, Clonmel, 10th January, 1852. "JOHN DILL."

As evincing the Christian and philanthropic spirit by which Colonel Fordyce was animated, one or two extracts from letters to the writer of these lines may be given. The following was received after a domestic bereavement:--

"MY DEAR—,—My having been sent from Dublin with a flying column in pursuit of Smith O’Brien and other rebels, must be my apology for not having written to acknowledge the receipt of the announcement of the deprivation you have sustained, and to assure you of my unfeigned sympathy. I may express my hope that, sustained by the same consolations which you have been so long the honoured instrument of imparting to others, your own bodily health and ability for active exertion may remain unimpaired.

"I need not trespass upon you at this time with any notice of the treasonable proceedings here. The newspapers have given a full account of everything that has occurred; and so far as we (the column of troops) are concerned, we have seen no enemy excepting the continual rain, which is, of course, a very disagreeable one, as we have been marching about and encamped since the 28th July. O’Brien is, as you know, captured, and quietly lodged in jail, and I have no doubt that all thought of open armed rebellion is at an end for the present.

"However it may fare with this unfortunate country, any one of common observation must see that the whole European world is in an unprecedented state; and that whatever may be our exact place in the series of predicted events, some great overwhelming change in the whole structure of human society is impending. My reading of "Elliot’s Home Apocalypticae" has been interrupted by my present occupations, before I could get beyond the first volume, or form any opinion as to his system of interpretation of unfulfilled prophecy. Amidst all the changes, present and coming, upon this world, we have individually many warnings to place our hopes on a world where change and cares are alike unknown,—considerations which it is superfluous in me to suggest to your matured and practised mind, but which rise naturally as the great subjects of the day and hour. A tent does not afford a good writing-table, and damp paper renders my writing more than usually illegible. I trust that Mrs.— is well; and again assuring you of my good wishes, beg you to believe me, ever faithfully and sincerely yours,

"Tipperary, 11th August, 1848. "Tipperary, 11th August, 1848. "J. FORDYCE."

The next extract is from a communication sent after the death of General Sir John Buchan, Colonel Fordyce’s uncle, and brother of the venerable Mr. Buchan of Kelloe:--

"Although I take a Glasgow newspaper, ‘The Scottish Guardian,’ in which there is a full account of the debates in your General Assembly, I have been too much occupied with other matters to look at them since my return, but I glanced at one speech of Dr. Duff’s regarding the Indian missions, which appeared to be one of remarkable eloquence and power. He must be indeed gifted with no common energy of character, in addition to genius, eloquence, and many acquirements, to be able to resist the depressing lassitude of an Oriental climate for so many years,—and now to electrify and command a critical audience, as he appears to have done for hours during the late meeting of the Assembly."

A subsequent letter, of date Nov. 8, 1850, inclosing a generous donation for the benefit of certain Free Church students, who were scantily provided with this world’s goods, contains the following remarks :—"I have read Dr. Buchanan’s book (the ‘Ten Years’ Conflict’) with great interest; and although I may confess to you that, as to my personal taste, I prefer the Liturgy and forms of the Church of England, and cannot quite see that principle required such a sacrifice as the disruption of the Church of Scotland, I sincerely believe now that the cause of the Free Church is in Scotland the cause of Christianity, and that even persons who have not the strong personal motives which I have to look favourably upon its exertions, should, with a cardinal at Westminster, sink all minor differences in their support of Protestant Christianity."

"No one," writes his excellent brother, Major Fordyce, who had shared along with him the toils and the perils of the disastrous struggle, "knew my brother’s state of mind better than I did; for I had for a long time been constantly with him, and I knew that he was a faithful follower of Christ, and he is now where there is no more sorrow—no more pain. What a great thing it is to have such consolation! How much more dreadful would have been the sad bereavement if we could not have felt the confidence we do that he died a Christian, and that his removal from this world was the end of all trial to him, and the commencement of an eternity of joy!"

The following particulars of the death of this brave officer, who fell whilst fighting against the Kaffirs at the Cape, are gleaned from letters which appear in the "Graham’s Town Journal" of 15th November:--

"FORT BEAUFORT, Tuesday.— After the publication of our extra, the following came to hand, and contains an account of the melancholy fate of the gallant Colonel Fordyce:—

"November 6.—This being the promised day, all eyes were directed to the hills, which we knew to have been planted with the instruments of thunder. The clouds, however, lay piled in heaps long after sunrise; but no sooner had the rays of his refulgence escaped from the clouds which intercepted them, than the curtain gradually rose, and by seven o’clock the frequent report announced that another act of the dull tragedy had commenced. Peal after peal continued to reverberate among the steep acclivities of the rocky eminences which rise above the dark bush that conceals the enemy. Towards mid-day the wind changed to the south-east, which wafted the sounds from this direction. All were anxiously awaiting the arrival of intelligence from the scene of strife, as we had reason to believe that, from the rapid reports, the conflict was maintained with obstinacy and resolution. Hour succeeded hour, until long after, when in broken accents it was revealed that Colonel Fordyce had fallen. But as this report rested upon the authority of a private letter, brought in by two mounted Fingoes, hopes were entertained that, in the heat and bustle of the moment, some mistake might have occurred. About nine at night, however, the event was confirmed by an eye-witness to the melancholy fact, from whom it appears that the Colonel was leading his men into Waterkloof in column, when suddenly his march was arrested by a rocky precipice, which flanked him in the form of a semicircle; here he found the rebels in considerable force, who knew too well the rules of military tactics to let so favourable an opportunity escape for inflicting a penalty. The bayonets of our brave countrymen in such a position were powerless; they had therefore to contend against an enemy concealed among inaccessible rocks, whom they could not assail; and thus fell, while showing to his men, by example, the first duties of a soldier, the good and the gallant Fordyce. Thus fell the father of his distinguished regiment, to the honour of which all his impulses were directed. The soldier, the women, and children, to whose comforts he devoted himself with parental solicitude, will long cherish his remembrance. It is to be regretted that so valuable a life should have been sacrificed in so ignoble a strife."

Extract from the leading article of the "Naval and Military Gazette," February, 1852.— . . . "And here we may observe that there must have been something singularly attractive in the noble soldier who fell at the head of the 74th Highlanders, which, in the short time (six months) he had been in the colony, and in Graham’s Town in particular, should have so impressed and so endeared him to the inhabitants that the journals of that town announcing his death should be margined with black, and the bell of their distant church has tolled his funeral knell; while the colours, half-mast high, floated languidly in the air, in token of a hero’s fall!"


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