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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century
THE PROPHET OF BETHELNIE


THE PROPHET OF BETHELNIE—STATE OF MEDICAL PRACTICES—DR. ADAM DONALD—HIS HISTORY AND CLAIMS CRITICALLY VIEWED—SUPERSTITIOUS BELIEF IN WITCHES AND OCCULT SKILL.

IN the early part of the eighteenth Century, as indeed was the case till near its close, the learned professions—apart always from the office of the ministry—held but dubious footing in Country districts. The schoolmaster, as has been already remarked, was a person of no great consideration in point of erudition or otherwise. In the Aberdeenshire Poll Book he is never rated as a "gentleman"; and they did not deem it worth while to exact anything more of poll money from him than was paid by an ordinary cottar. Here and there—sometimes in rather out of the way places—a man qualified to act as a "notar publict" was set down; but for the matter of fifty miles along the main route northward from Aberdeen, only a single individual with the technical qualification of a doctor of medicine presents himself at that date. [Mr. James Milne, doctor of medicine, Inverurie.] Sixty years later, so meagre were the means of medical instruction that an Elgin doctor thought it worth his while to inform the people of Aberdeen that any gentleman "desirous of breeding a son to medicine," provided the lad had made sufficient progress in Latin, Greek, and Mathematics, might through his services have him initiated in Pharmacy, Chemistry, the Materia Medica, Anatomy, and Surgery, on reasonable terms, and in such a way as would "render his future studies easy and agreeable." And for lack of independently established practitioners with the requisite skill, it became a common practice with kirk-sessions to get a midwife trained for the parish at their charge.

Yet the needs of humanity are in all ages the same. And hence the emergence of men, and women too, claiming to possess a skill which, if not of the schools, nor altogether so exact or definite as a more inquisitive age would have demanded, was on the whole accepted as adequate to the varied exigencies for which it was sought. Science was not then in the ascendant; faith spread its wings unhampered by doubts about the existence of the supernatural, and critical methods had hardly yet found place. One of the most notable of this class of persons of whom I have seen any reliable record was "Doctor" Adam Donald, known as "the Prophet of Bethelnie." Adam, whose fame was widely spread during a period of some thirty years from about the middle of the century, was born in 1703, and died in 1780. Dr. James Anderson [The Bee, Vol. VI. 1791.] published an account of the prophet ten years after his death; and he had the kindness to accompany it with a fairly well executed woodcut portiait of him. Apparently Adam knew for what purpose the picture was taken, as he desired a certain sentiment to be inscribed below it. And the woodcut enables us to know that he had been a goggle-eyed man, with a double chin, long hair, and a short neck, whose characteristié attitude seems to have been that of standing with his feet apart, his arms hanging loosely by his sides, and his hands placed back to back in front of him, the helpless look of the long crooked fingers suggesting the notion that his wrists have been at least partially dislocated. His dress is a Kilmarnock cap, a long square-tailed coat, with heavy flaps and spreading collar, a waistcoat of corresponding expanse, knee breeches, and shoes with bnckles.

Dr. Anderson, who, it must be said, does not seem to have looked upon the prophet with any excess of respect, expressly says that Adam had "remarked with what a superstitious veneration the ignorant people around him contemplated that uncouth figure he inherited from nature, and shrewdly availed himself of this propensity for obtaining a subsistence through life." To this end he "affected an uncommon reservedness of manner; pretended to be extremely studious, spoke little, and what he said was uttered in half sentences with awkward gesticulations and an uncouth tone of voice, to excite consternation and elude detectiQn." Rather a remorseless analysis of the elements of the prophet’s influence it must be allowed.

In those days the fairies played queer antics; nor was the quiet region of Bethelnie exempt from their operations. And thus it was that when Adam Donald’s mother gave birth to a fine boy the "gweed neibours" whipt the child away to Elfiand, and left the poor cottar and his wife a mere changeling in his place—a sallow mis-shapen unthriven creature. How then could Adam Donald be like other bairns mentally or physically’? The defects of his ill-compacted body prevented him gaining a livelihood by hard physical labour; and he thus amongst other things took to amusing himself in his earlier years with such books as chance enabled him to obtain; "and though he could scarcely read the English language, yet he carefully picked up books in all languages that fell in his way." Dr. Anderson says he had in his possession books bought at the sale of the prophet’s effects after his death in French, Latin, Greek, Italian, and Spanish. "He delighted chiefly in large books that contained plates of any sort; and Gerard’s large Herbal, with wooden cuts, might be sMd to be his constant vade mecum, which was displayed with much parade on the table, or the shelf, among other books of a like portly appearance, to all his visitors."

Bethelnie, erstwhile the seat of the parish church (now of Meldrum), and dowered with the legend of the pious Percock, who warded off the plague by creeping round the parish on his bare knees, and planting a tree to mark the spot where his self-sacrificing labour began and ended, was still fortunate in the possession of a church crumbling to ruin, and a picturesque and finely situated churchyard. This latter spot it Was the practice of the prophet to visit all alone at suitably eerie hours. How could it be doubted that his purpose was to hold converse with departed spirits, and to be by them "informed of many things that no mortal knowledge could reach I"

The prophetic fame of Adam Donald grew, as it needs must, in the circumstances, until people came from far and near to consult him; and ultimately "scarcely anything was deemed beyond the reach of his knowledge." " When articles of dress or furniture were amissing he was consulted; and his answers were so general and cautiously worded, that though they could scarcely be at all understood at the time, yet when any of the things lost Were accidentally found at a future period the people were easily able to perceive that his mysterious answer plainly indicated where the goods had been if they had had the ingenuity to expound it." We must not forget that this latter sentimeut is merely the personal opinion of the sceptical Dr. Anderson, speaking against

The ‘sponsible voice o’ a haill countra side!

In his capacity of physician—he was, of course, a skilled cow doctor as well—"Dr." Adam Donald was "chiefly consulted in cases of lingering disorders that were supposed to owe their origin to witchcraft or some supernatural agency of this sort." "In these cases he invariably prescribed the application of certain simple unguents of his own manufacture to particular parts of the body, accompanied with particular ceremonies, which he described with all the minuteness he could, employing the most learned terms he could pick up to denote the most common things, so that, not being understood, the persons who consulted him invariably concluded when the cure did not succeed, that they had failed in some essential particular; and when the cure was effected he obtained full credit." Very evidently Adam Donald had not been lacking in some of the qualities on which various others, since his day, have sought to build a reputation for skill and profundity!

From distances often, twenty, aye thirty miles, they came to consult him, either as necromancer or physician. Sunday brought the greatest pressure of business, and on that day duly, for many years, the prophet’s house was always crowded with visitors of various sorts. His professional fees were not extravagant, never exceeding sixpence where no medicines were given, and a shilling was said to have been the highest fee he was ever known to obtain. On this scale of charges, however, he contrived to maintain himself comfortably; and on the faith of his lucrative calling, when pretty far advanced in life, " he prevailed," we are assured, "on one of the handsomest girls in that neighbourhood to marry him."

That the prophet of Bethelnie was a man of superior talent in any way, Dr. Anderson declines to admit. Despite the prudence with which he conducted his operations, his mental power seemed to be below the ordinary standard. True, he had the art of concealing his defects by never vainly attempting to display his knowledge where detection seemed probable, but his general reserve "seems to have proceeded from his want of ideas ; and he was more indebted to his singular appearance than anything else for his celebrity." While he "was able to impose upon those at a distance by the appearance of much wisdom he found it more difficult to do so with regard to his own family." His wife, "whose superior judgment supplied the defects~of his," from motives of prudence took care to keep the secret, but his daughter did not scruple to cheat the seer openly, mulcting him of part of his professionally earned sixpences under his very nose to buy fine clothes, and then openly laughing at him among her companions. "He never," says Dr. Anderson, "had any friend with whom he kept up a cordial intercourse; he left no sort of writings behind him; nor have I ever heard of a single sentence of his that was worth repeating; unless it be the four lines of poetry which he desired the painter to put at the bottom of his picture:-

Time doth all things devour;
And time doth all things waste,
And we waste time,
And so are we at last."

Of imitators of the prophet, or rather of practitioners, more or less renowned, of the same class, there was no great lack up to a considerably later time. The indispensible qualification was possession of a certain amount of low cunning; and ugliness, or oddity of personal appearance, was undoubtedly an advantage. Hence the readiness with which queer-looking old women were accepted as witches, and credited with the power of performing various cantrips. Superstitious belief in the supernatural, and an easy credulity regarding physical phenomena were the common endowment of the mass of the population, so that whoever chose to attempt the role of warlock or " skeely man," would find the path open and easy; and once entered thereon it might be hard to say in some cases whether the witch-doctor made most progress in deceiving others or deceiving himself. Certain it was that a good many of them came to have a firm, if somewhat vague and inarticulate belief in their own powers. As time went on, the business tended to get less reputable and more directly rascally, inasmuch as the progress of general enlightenment both served to show the pretensions of its professors in a more contemptible light, and forced them to resort to extended and often very palpable subterfuges in order to keep up their credit with those still willing to be duped by them. And these, beyond question, were a class wonderfully tenacious of existence. Belief in witchcraft generally, and in the existence and can of the fairies, held wide sway among the country population till the close of the century ; and, indeed, for a good while after. The merry little folks with their green coats were the "gweed neibours," who seldom did serious harm, except when they played the sort of "plisky" performed in substituting an uncouth changeling for the infant son of the Bethelnie cottar. They would do many a good service when the humour was on them; and happy was he who, when some sturdy male fairy took a bout at thrashing in his barn floor of an early winter morning, could creep quietly up behind, and, getting hold of the flail souple, "catch the speed 1" Such cantrips as an old wife converting herself into the form of a hare, and hirpling about from "toon" to "toon" at uncanny hours; or in other guises "trailin’ the rape" to deprive a neighbour’s cow of its milk-giving powers, transferring them to some other cow, or inanimate object even, for her own behoof, were regarded as serious contingencies, against which protection was needed. And, of course, it could be had from a class of operators who sprang into existence, partly from the necessities of the case, and partly from their own tastes and turn of mind. The more pleasing superstition, which had respect to wonder-moving tales of Elfiand and its inhabitants, got gradually attenuated, and died out with the wooden plough and the small oats; the grosser and less ethereal one lingered much longer; and, indeed, in regions where primitive ideas are showed to have some footing, the notion that certain occult powers, derived from an evil source, might be exercised on man or beast by people of sinister antecedents and reputation is hardly more than extinct even yet.


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