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Raiderland, All about Grey Galloway
Chapter 9



A SCHOOL AND A KIRK

  To the Boy-that-Was there is nothing within the Borough of Castle-Douglas so real and memorable as "John Cowper's School," an it were not the old Cameronian Kirk.

 

John Cowper.

 

  John Cowper was a true man and a great teacher. It is a common thing for his boys to say, when they forgather after a quarter of a century of the world's bustle and change, "Well, I never learned much after I left John Cowper's! "

 

  " Let it be thorough," he would say. " A little knowledge is all right-if you know it," he repeated over and over; "it's in the great lot of things that you think you know, but don't know, that the danger lies I" "Build on a good foundation, and the house will last your time! " was another of his sayings.

  Though stem, and even on occasion severe, Mr. Cowper was a well-spring of tenderness-hidden and quiet, truly, but deep, true, and sincere.

  "I loved Castle-Douglas," he used to say to me in his latest years, "I would never have left it, if I had been allowed to do my work as work ought to be done!" He was above all a fine classic scholar, and, I fear, never felt himself thoroughly at home in the Training College of his later life, where his work was that of lecturing upon English subjects. Perhaps I have something of the feeling for him that Carlyle had for his father, but John Cowper still seems to me to have been the man most fitted to influence boys and young men of any whom I have met with on the earth.

  His old school still stands at the head of Cotton Street, and is now, I think, cut up into dwelling-houses. But when we, his pupils, pass that way we look at it reverently. For a good man spent the ripest twenty years of his life in it, and by the mouths of those whom he sent into the world out of that humble school-house, John Cowper, being dead, yet speaketh.

  The old Cameronian kirk sits on a hill, and is surrounded by trees, a place both bieldy and heartsome. The only thing that the old-time Cameronians seriously felt the want of, was a burying-ground round about it. A kirk is never quite commodious and cheery without monuments to read, and "thruchs" upon which to sit and "ca' the crack." Now, however, they have made a modem church of it, and a steeple has been set down before it, for all the world as if Cleopatra's Needle had been added to the front wall of a bam. Nevertheless it is green with ivy all the year round, and in the summer the lilac blooms right up to where the elders stand at the plate.

  But "Cairn Edward" Cameronian kirk has long been a gate of heaven. To many who in their youth have entered it, words heard there hare proven the beginning of a new life and another world. Of old, as the morning psalm went upward in a grand slow surge, there was a sense of hallowed days in the very air. 

  And to this day the Boy-that-Was has a general idea that the mansions of the New Jerusalem are of the bam class of architecture and whitewashed Inside–which will not show so much upon the white robes when it rubs off as it used to do on plain earthly" blacks."

  Few now living can remember the coming to Castle-Douglas of the Reverend William Symington, the first minister of the Kirk on the Hill whom I knew. He had come as a stripling, and was looked upon as the future high-priest of the sect in succession to his father, at that time minister of the largest city church in the denomination. Tall, erect, with flowing black hair that swept his shoulders, and the exquisitely chiselled face of some marble Apollo, William Symington was an ideal minister of the hill folk. His splendid dark eyes glowed with still and chastened fire, as he walked with his hands behind him and his head thrown back up the long aisle from the vestry.

  His successor was a much smaller man, well set and dapper, who always wore black gloves when preaching, and who seemed to dance a benignant minuet under his spectacles as he walked. Alas! to him also came in due time the sore heart and bitter draught. They say in "Cairn Edward" that no man ever left that white church on the wooded knoll south of the town and was happier for the change. The leafy garden where many ministers have written their sermons has seemed to them a very paradise of peace in after years, and their cry has been, "Oh! why left I my hame? "

Manse Memories.

  Concerning the present minister, because he is still with us, I have naturally no liberty of utterance. He and his have made that kirk and manse a place of memories gracious and grateful–of kindnesses of which no man can count the number and of hospitality, bright, sweet, simple, and boundless. Theirs be the blessing of those whose life has been lived for others. One day they may find that they have entertained many angels unawares! Yet if this be a place for enshrining old gratitudes, I must of necessity put my thankfulness to my oId minister, George Laurie, and to the lady his wife, in the foremost place among those who are yet living. But, I repeat, that very fact restrains utterance, even when the heart is most full and willing.

  There are others still among us of whom I would like to speak–my old Sunday School teacher first of all. I will not write his name, but I know that he is the same assured friend to-day as ever he was, a stand-by in trouble, firm in word and deed, faithful in warning, and full of the quiet dignity of a long life well and worthily lived.

  Of those departed shapes which make the town a city of memories to me, I will only name two or three–Joseph Paterson, of the Apothecaries' Hall, faithful also in word and deed, diligent in business, sparing of words, not letting his right hand know what his left hand did. Over the street from him was Bailie John Payne–who, when a town's lad set off for college, was apt to beckon him into some mysterious entry, where he would say hastily, as if committing a felony, "Rae, boy, pit that in your pooch, and say naething aboot it ! " Clearly, too, do I see, and much do I miss, the good grey head of Samuel Gordon. And even yet, sitting and writing these things far away, I cannot realise that that corner by the window of the old shop is not filled, and that the hearty hand of the bookseller will not be stretched out to me when next I enter.

  There are many others, but time and the patience of those readers who knew them not, would fail me in telling of Dr. John Nivison, who first lent me a complete edition of Carlyle, lately dead in the flower of his age; of Dr. Walter Lorraine, wise, kindly, and humoursome, of whom the memory shall not soon die out; of Provost Richard Hewat; of George M'Kie of Dunjarg; and of Andrew Dobbie–all men of mark when for us the world was young.

  It was a place full of many humours, few of them unpleasant, that little police borough of Castle-Douglas thirty years ago. Affairs were still managed semi-paternally, and on the whole things went very well in the council of the fathers. No one knows the town, its history, or its quaint old-time characters half so well as Mr. Malcolm Harper, and I tell him once again that he owes it to his own literary skill, and also to his native land, to put together such a book of Galloway portraits and memories such as only he could write.


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