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