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A Group of Scottish Women
Elspeth Buchan (continued) - Isobel Pagan (1741 - 1821)


Elspeth Buchan had always, as has been explained, held out to her followers the promise that they would be carried to heaven without tasting death. They consequently lived in a continual state of pleasant anticipation, expecting the last trump to sound at any moment. The Rev. Hugh White was determined not to risk being shut out of the heavenly kingdom for the lack of a wedding garment; so he always walked about, dressed in full canonicals, and wearing a brand-new pair of gloves, scanning the heavens for a sign of the archangel who was to sound the fated note.

Time after time did Mrs. Buchan lead her flock to the top of some hill in the neighbourhood of New Cample, where solemn ceremonies were performed while the congregation anxiously awaited the descent to the angel host whose duty it was to catch the elect up into heaven. On one of these journeys heavenward they passed Logan House, near Kilmarnock, the owner of which became alarmed at seeing the approach of such a concourse of odd-looking people, and sent out hurriedly to inquire who they might be and if their intentions were peaceful. The Buchanites replied that they did not wish to disturb anybody, and were merely going to Heaven. On receipt of this reassuring message the Laird of Logan expressed his intense relief, declaring that he was only too delighted to think that his house should stand on the road to that blessed country.

Frequent disappointments did little to diminish the hopes of the Buchanites, and the “Friend Mother in the Lord” always found some fresh excuse for Heaven’s apparent unwillingness to receive her expectant flock. One night, when the congregation was praying together at Buchan Ha’, a sudden gleam of light seemed to illumine the big room in which they were assembled. “He comes! He comes!” cried Elspeth, in an ecstasy of religious fervour, “He comes to reign!” The excitement among the elect was intense. They all began to sing different hymns at the same time in various keys, and, working themselves up into a state of mind bordering on hysteria, awaited with such patience as they could muster the long-promised advent of their heavenly Master. One member of the congregation, a little man name Hunter, who had been Fiscal at Irvine and had forsaken his profession to follow Mrs. Buchan, was so afraid of being lost sight of and left behind when the great moment came, that he climbed on to a table, opened his long coat and flapped it about, like the children in Peter Pan, as though rehearsing his flight. Another elderly enthusiast, who happened to be in bed on the first floor at the time of the alarm, was in such a hurry to arrive at the scene of all this excitement that he fell the whole way downstairs on his back, reaching the basement in record time.

To the expectant throng every moment seemed an age. They longed to soar away to realms of bliss, and were most impatient of delay. Meanwhile the light which had stirred them to such a pitch of enthusiasm grew more and more vivid, until it finally resolved itself into a lantern which some local farmer was carrying along the road on his way to work. Mr. Hunter shamefacedly got down from the table, and buttoned up his coat. The old man who had fallen downstairs went up to bed again muttering darkly to himself. Even Luckie Buchan herself was a trifle depressed. Indeed, it must certainly have required the most firm and resolute faith to stand many such poignant disappointments.

On another occasion, in accordance with Elspeth’s inspired commands, the Buchanites formed a procession and climbed to the top of Templand Hill, in the vicinity of Buchan Ha’, where they were confident that the hour of translation would at last arrive. Platforms were erected on the hillside, upon which the chosen people were to stand and await the crucial moment. Mother Buchan’s platform was exalted above all the others, so as to give her the advantage of a slight start towards the heavenly regions. All the men were arrayed in their Sunday best; all the women had cut their hair short, with the exception of a tuft on the top of the head, by which the angels might the more easily draw them up to heaven.

At length the momentous hour arrived. The elect took up their positions on the platforms, expecting at any moment to be wafted to the land of light. Suddenly there came a great gust of wind, but, alas! instead of wafting them upwards, it merely capsized the platform upon which Mrs. Buchan was standing, precipitating her ignominiously on to the ground below among her followers. [The Gallovidian Encyclopedia (1824).]

Further misfortune was in store for the faithful. Before starting out upon this expedition the high priestess had advised her flock to lay aside all their jewellery and ornaments. The majority had consequently thrown their watches and rings on to the dust-heap. On their melancholy return to Buchan Ha’ they were surprised to find that some thoughtful person had visited the ash-pit, collected their discarded trinkets, and removed them beyond reach. They were too loyal to suspect Elspeth Buchan, but perhaps if they had summoned up courage to ask her such a tactless question, she could have told them what had become of their jewellery.

Mrs. Buchan was, indeed, a woman of infinite resource, and at once set about, as usual, looking for an excuse to account for the Templand Hill fiasco. She finally decided that the reason the elect had not been carried up to heaven was that they were not light enough. In order to remove this obstacle she ordained a fast of forty days’ duration. For six weeks, accordingly, the inmates of Buchan Ha’ were condemned to subsist on eight gallons of molasses and a little oatmeal. During the whole of that time no cooking was done in the house, and the unfortunate fanatics were kept alive by spiritual food alone. Mrs. Buchan would occasionally allow them a drink of treacle and water (which sounds an unsatisfactory beverage for a starving person); otherwise they lived exclusively on hope and fresh air. The long hours were passed in prayer and hymn-singing, varied by an occasional discourse from Mother Buchan. None of those who underwent this prolonged abstinence seems to have suffered any ill-effects, except one wretched old woman who was both blind and deaf, and consequently could neither see what was going on, nor obtain any comfort from the hymns and sermons with which the tedious days were freely punctuated. The fast was not altogether a success, however, and several of the Buchanites had their eyes enlightened through their appetites, and returned to Irvine, thinner but wiser for their recent experiences. [History of the Relief Church, p.344.]

At New Cample Elspeth and her followers were not allowed to remain in peace for very long. The local authorities soon grew alarmed at the penury of these enthusiasts, and required them to find some sureties that they would not become a burden on the parish. This they were unable to do, and so were forced to move off once more, and, after the usual period of wandering, settled at last at a place called Auchengibbert, a wild desolate spot in Kirkcudbright, where they might safely hope to be left alone.

By this time the funds of the society were running very low. Mrs. Buchan could not induce Heaven to drop any more five-pound notes into her lap, and, though she continued to have fresh followers until 1796, many of those who had joined her from England, Methodists for the most part, were by this time reduced to beggary, and deserted her.

In this same year she fell ill, and was wise enough to realise that, inspire of all her hopes of immortality, her end was rapidly approaching. She thereupon summoned the faithful disciples to her bedside, and assured them that, although she might appear to die, they were not to be alarmed, for that in a short time she would return and lead them to the new Jerusalem. She reiterated her claims to being the Woman of Revelations who was driven into the wilderness, and declared that she had been wandering about the world ever since the days of our Saviour, and had only sojourned in Scotland for a short time. “I go where my words will not be rejected,” she said. With that she died, and her body was laid in a coffin and deposited in an outhouse close by. [The following mock epitaph on Mrs. Buchan was written by David Sillar, the friend of Burns, who evidently did not believe in her divine powers:-

“Stop, stranger, here lies one interred,
Who was on earth by some revered
And superstitiously adored,
As the great Saviour and Lord:
Till death, stern, cruel, unrelenting,
In murder steeled, far past relenting,
Sent off at once, it mak’s na’ whither,
He Godhead and her soul thegither.”
]

One very devoted and zealous Buchanite was so determined that her death should be as dramatic as her life and that her followers should not be disappointed, that he secreted her body during the night in a stack of straw. When the others came to the barn next morning, this enthusiast showed them the empty coffin, and pointed triumphantly to a neat hole which had been cut in the roof of the barn, through which, as he explained, Mother Buchan had ascended to heaven. Her corpse was, however, discovered and replaced in the coffin, but the Buchanites for a long time declined to bury it, until forced to do so by the neighbours who complained of the nuisance and obtained an order for its burial from the local Justices of the Peace.

It took a long time for the Buchanites to understand that their high priestess was really dead. Mr. Hunter, whom I have already mentioned as being one of her original followers, but who had been induced to leave her and go home to his family in Irvine, met an acquaintance just returned from Dumfries in 1796, and asked him what news there was from that country. “None that I remember,” said the other, “except that your old friend Luckie Buchan, is dead.” “Oh no, John, that’s impossible,” protested Hunter, “that cannot be, and never will be in this world.” “Well,” replied John, “if she is not dead, all I can say is that her friends in Galloway have played her a shabby trick, for they buried her last Tuesday!”

After Luckie Buchan’s death the sect she had founded gradually faded away, until in 1839 there were only two Buchanites left in Galloway. Hugh White sailed for America, where he had once taught in a theological college, and nothing more was heard of him. He had been a loyal and devoted adherent to the cause of this strange woman who had cast so potent a spell over him, but on the subject of her curious religion he seems to have been consistently vague. During Elspeth’s lifetime an Edinburgh teacher had tried hard to engage White in lengthy correspondence on the matter. He had begged the minister repeatedly to give him some definite information as to the exact tenets which distinguished the Buchanites from other professors of Christianity. But White could only reply evasively, in long letters full of Scriptural quotations and platitudes, which only irritated his correspondent and left him no wiser than before. Eventually the teacher declared that he proposed to publish the whole of their correspondence, a threat which elicited from Mrs. Buchan herself an extravagant letter which gives some idea of her views and of the style in which she was wont to express them to the world.

“Sir,” she wrote, “you have troubled us with your letters, and indeed I was jealous of your Satanick and self righteous design. You said in your first letter, that you heard, that we believed in a millennium, and you thought, that this doctrine had no small countenance from the Scriptures; but let me inform you, that neither you, nor none for you, can know, what God means by prophecy, nor precept, law nor gospel, unless they be taught of God; for the wisdom of the world, is folly with God, and it is as sure, that the wisdom of God is folly with the world, and methinks, that all the letters that ever I have seen, yours was the most serious, for mixing Christ and Belial together. Indeed we read but little of it, nor could I have read it, or heard it read, for there was nothing in it, but such as is the views of all worldly and carnal minds have of God at this day. I know the world will love your views, because they are their own, and the world will love its own; and if we were of the world, it would love us, but, because we are not of the world but God has chosen us out of the world, therefore doth the world hate us, but it appears to me, that you are a man who has a desire to show your abilities to the world; and as unbelief always calls God a liar, you will get many to join you standard; and I own that truth has oftener than once fallen in the streets of this world; and those that departed from iniquity made themselves a prey; but glory be to God, that the time is fast approaching, that he that will come, shall, come, and blessed are they, and for ever blessed shall they be, that wait for him; and none will wait for him but such as live in his love, by his promise, on his bounty, to his praise walks in the spirit, and makes no provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof; and as you wanted a proof (like the Jews of old of Jesus, whether he was the Christ or not) I answer, you had better come and see what we are, before you begin to publish your controversy. Living words had always more weight than dead letters…..Sir, I hope you will publish this with the rest, for I am not afraid of men.” [Eight Letters between the People Called Buchanites and a Teacher near Edinburgh.]

Of all the acts of the Buchanites which furnished their enemies with a good cause for hostile criticism, the most foolish perhaps was the publication of a ridiculous book entitled “The Divine Dictionary; or a Treatise indicted by Holy Inspiration, concerning the Faith and Practice of this People (by this world) called Buchanites, who are actually waiting for the second coming of our Lord, and who believe that they, alive, will be changed and translated ‘into the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall be ever with the Lord’ (Thess. iv. 17). ‘And there appeared a great wonder in heaven, a woman’ (Rev. xii. I).” To this was added the following attestation: “The truths contained in this publication the writer received from the Spirit of God in that woman, predicted Rev. xii. I. Though they are not written in the same simplicity as delivered – by a babe in the love of God, Hugh White. Revised and approven of by Elspat Simpson.”

A study of this book throws no light upon the Buchanite religion, since it is merely a jargon of magniloquent, and in many cases blasphemous nonsense, with few lucid gleams of reason.

The sect professed to believe in the community of goods and in frugal living, but Mrs. Buchan did not herself practise abstinence or mortification of the flesh. “as to self-denial,” she wrote in one of her letters, “it would not do with me to be self-denied, but even to be denied self-denial, for God is my all, and my only portion, and shall be for ever and ever” – a statement which, in common with most of hers, adroitly evades the point at issue. She did not approve of matrimony, though many of her followers, including her own daughters, married while they were living at Buchan Ha’, and others seized upon her odd ideas on the subject as an excuse for licence. “Another capital mistake,” wrote Hugh White, “is that all men and women, whatever station, sphere, condition, business of life, they occupy, they conclude that God has placed them there, and consequently that they behoved to be active in their various departments, and ought not to recede from it. Such conclusions of God are blasphemous. Shall the unhappy matrimonial connection, who, through worldly interest, or some such abominable reasons, enter into their legal bonds, conclude that God bound them together? The day is coming when they shall know that God’s will had no hand in any such thing.” It is curious, by the way, how often the question of so-called “free-love” is involved in any fanatical new religion.

One of Mrs. Buchan’s adherents has stated that she always addressed any of her family or society as “my child,” strangers as “dear,” and when speaking of divine things, invariably made use of the expression “O! O! O!” so one may be pardoned for suggesting that she was perhaps a trifle mad.

She is said to have been a tall, good-looking woman, and a most eloquent speaker, who always got the better of those who attempted to argue with her on religious matters. She suffered a great deal of persecution and many rebuffs, which she bore with exemplary courage and cheerfulness. Once, when she was maintaining to a minister that she was the Spirit of God, the reverend gentleman gave her a violent blow on her back and said “I am sure there are both flesh and blood there, which is proof enough that you are no spirit.” Another time, she attempted unsuccessfully to convert a gardener who was hoeing turnips in his master’s field. “James Macleosh,” said she, “quit Mr. Copland’s garden and come and work in that of the Lord.” “Thank ye,” replied the dour old man, “But the Lord was na’ owre kind to the last gardener he had.” {Cunningham’s Life of Burns.]

We have no exact counterpart to Luckie Buchan in this country today, but if a second “Friend Mother in the Lord” were suddenly to arise in our midst, she could make sure of attracting a large audience to her meetings for at least a month. The modern thirst for novelty must be slaked at all hazards. We flock to hear the sensational preacher who denounces the sins of a society of which he knows little or nothing except what he has presumably heard at the confessional. We hasten to consult clairvoyants, astronomers, and soothsayers, who are kind enough to sell us information which we already possess on the subject of our habits and character. A revival mission, run upon purely commercial lines, can be certain of financial success if its methods are sufficiently hysterical to appeal to our desire for original entertainment. But though some modern prophetess of the Buchan type might easily induce her congregation to live upon a diet of nuts and vermicelli, one cannot help suspecting that, if she were to be so unwise as to suggest a forty days’ fast, her followers would very quickly begin to entertain doubts as to the orthodoxy of her teaching. The prophet Buchan was only mortal after all, like the prophets Dowie, Harris, or Eddy. The one immortal thing is the credulity of the human race.

A contemporary of Mother Buchan, who was also a very remarkable character, at this time notorious in the south of Scotland, was Isobel Pagan. Like the high priestess of New Cample, Isobel was a woman of little or no education. Unlike her contemporary, however, she led a life of frank immorality and intemperance, and, if she had any influence at all upon her associates, it was by no means a beneficial one.

Isobel Pagan was born in the parish of New Cumnock, in Ayrshire, about 1741, and spent most of her life in the neighbourhood of Muirkirk. From early youth she made a practice of writing doggerel rhymes upon a variety of subjects, mostly connected with sport. These verses she set to the popular airs of the day, and would sing with so much spirit and humour that people came from far and wide to hear her. Indeed, she contrived to subsist almost entirely on the donations of those who formed her audience on such occasions. Once, at the urgent request of a gentleman who had staked a large sum upon her success, she entered a singing competition in Ayr, where, much to the annoyance of the manager and the delight of her backer, she defeated the leading vocalist of a theatrical touring company which happened to be performing in the town.

Probably the best known of her poems is that one which Robert Burns admired so much and upon which he founded a song of his own, beginning, “Hark the mavis’ evening sang”:-

CA’ THE YOWES TO THE KNOWES

Ca’ the yowes to the knows,
Ca’ them where the heather grows,
Ca’ them where the burnie rows,
My bonnie dearie.

As I gaed doun the waterside,
There I met my shepherd lad,
He row’d me sweetly in his plaid,
An’ he ca’d me his dearie.

“Will ye gang doun the water side,
And see the waves sae sweetly glide
Beneath the hazels spreading wide?
The moon it shines fu’ clearly.

“Ye shall get gowns and ribbons neat,
Cauf-leather shoon to thy white feet,
And in my arms ye’se lie and sleep,
And ye shall be my dearie.”

“If ye’ll but stand to what ye’ve said,
I’se gang wi’ you, my shepherd lad,
And ye may row me in you plaid,
And I shall be your dearie.”

“While water wimples to the sea,
While day blinks in the lift sae hie,
Till clay-cauld death shall blin’ my e’e,
Ye shall be my dearie.”

In childhood Isobel Pagan had been deserted by her parents, of whom nothing is known, and drifted into the household of an old woman whom she calls “a good religious wife who lived a quiet, sober life.” But the religious wife seems to have failed to inculcate any rudiments of religion or the wifely virtues into her ward, nor does Isobel appear to have made the slightest attempt to emulate the example of quiet and temperance set by her respectable old guardian. Her career was marked from the outset by persistent insobriety, and she possessed a capacity for alcoholic consumption which was the envy of all the topers for miles around.

She was, as I have said, a woman of no education, and could not even write her own name. She learned to read the Bible, however, and in later life could repeat the greater part of the Scriptures by heart. But a frequent perusal of Holy Writ does not seem to have suggested to her the advisability of following any of the excellent precepts therein laid down, and she early acquired irregular habits from which she never made the slightest attempt to free herself.

Isobel, as a girl, was singularly ill-favoured, being so lame that she could not walk without the aid of crutches. A severe squint and a huge tumour in her side, from which she also suffered, did not tend to improve her appearance. But she was so witty, so vivacious and high-spirited, that her acquaintances soon learnt to forget her physical deformities, and she acquired a peculiar popularity in the district of Muirkirk. One brave man, Campbell by name, even went so far as to make her an offer of marriage, but his courage forsook him on the wedding morning and he failed to put in an appearance at the church. This was all the more unfortunate for Isobel, as there were several urgent reasons, not unconnected with the courting of the faithless Campbell, why she should possess a husband. But she was destined to remain a spinster – in name at least – to the end of her days.

For thirty years Isobel Pagan lived in a wretched little hovel by the banks of Garpel Water, on the property of Lord Dundonald. Her house was nothing but an improvised shelter erected beneath a low arch, which had originally been built as a brick-store in connection with some local tar-works, and was scarcely fit for human habitation. But she seems to have been perfectly satisfied with so squalid a residence.

When I sit in my cottage,
I may be well content,
The Lady she is kind to me,
The Laird will pay my rent,”

Is the drift of one of her songs, and so long as she was kindly treated and paid no rent, she was quite resigned to such a life.

In this hovel of hers Isobel Pagan entertained all the worst characters of the country-side, and though she had no licence permitting her to sell spirits, the array of empty bottles which adorned her ashpit, as well as the number of intoxicated revellers who left her door at dawn to tack their way home by a circuitous route, spoke eloquently of her fine disregard of the licensing laws.

Her cottage was the scene of nightly orgies indulged in not only by the local peasantry, but also by gentlemen of the neighbourhood. Attracted to Isobel’s bacchanalian concerts by her ready flow of wit, they made up parties to visit the strange old woman and be entertained by the clever impromptu rhymes and the indifferent whisky for which she was notorious. In the month of August, when grouse-shooting had begun and sportsmen flocked from far and near to the Ayrshire moors, these soirées were plentifully attended by visitors from England, who had heard of Mother Pagan’s vocal talent and were anxious to make her acquaintance and enjoy her good stories. Many of her poems were written for use on such occasions, and contain allusions to the local lairds and their Sassenach guests who were staying in the north for the shooting season.

Isobel was not a woman who could safely be made a butt of, and many who came to laugh at her physical peculiarities found the tables turned upon themselves. She was in the habit of satirising those who annoyed or offended her in verse which was not marked by any delicacy or the desire to spare the feelings of her victims. If the latter were too thick-skinned to appreciate such verbal castigation, she had recourse to still more drastic measures. She was cursed with a violent and uncontrollable temper, and would emphasise the point of her jokes with the aid of her crutch in a way that imbued the dullest-witted of her listeners with a temporary sense of humour. In consequence of her intemperate habits and of the outbursts of violence to which she was constantly addicted, her popularity was founded upon a basis of wholesome fear, and friends who were not always able to appreciate her wit soon learned to stand in awe of her sarcasm. One day she passed the tent in which a worthy minister was preaching at great length upon some tedious question of theological dogma. Isobel stopped to listen for a while, and then put her head in through an opening and nodded genially to the reverend gentleman. “Weel,” she said, “ye’re still borin’ awa’, I see,” and moved on, leaving the unfortunate minister utterly incapable of resuming the thread of his discourse.

In 1803, Mother Pagan published a book of her songs which, as she was unable to write, she dictated to a friend. In this volume, however, one of her happiest efforts in song-making is not included, and for this reason there has always existed a certain element of doubt as to whether she really was the author of this particular poem. It has often been imitated by more modern rhymesters, but as an example of simple peasant minstrelsy must always evoke admiration, and there is no reason to suppose that the writer of “Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes” could not equally well have composed this charming ballad in praise of the Lowland Shepherd:-

THE CROOK AND PLAID

Ilk lassie has a laddie she lo’es aboon the rest,
Ilk lassie has a laddie, if she like to confess’t.
That is dear unto her bosom, whatever be his trade;
But my lover’s aye the laddie that wears the crook and plaid.

Ilk morn he climbs the mountains his fleecy flocks to view,
And hears the lav’rocks chanting, new sprung from ‘mong the dew,
His bonnie wee bit doggie sae frolicsome and glad
Rins aye before the laddie that wears the crook and plaid.

And when that he is weary, and lies upon the grass,
What if that in his plaidie he hide a bonnie lass?
Nae doot there’s a preference due to every trade,
But commen’ me to the laddie that wears the crook and plaid.

And when in summer weather he is upon the hill
He reads in books of history that learns him meikle skill,
There’s nae sic joyous leisure to be had at any trade
Save that the laddie follows that wears the crook and plaid.

What though in storms o’ winter, part of his flock should die,
My laddie is aye cheerie and why should not I?
The prospect o’ the summer can weel mak’ us glad,
Contented is the laddie that wears the crook and plaid.

King David was a shepherd while in the prime o’ youth,
And following the flocks he pondered upon truth,
And when he came to be a king and left his former trade
‘Twas an honour to the laddie that wears the crook and plaid.

Isobel Pagan died in 1821, and though it would scarcely be true to say that she was universally mourned and regretted, her funeral was attended by crowds who came from all parts of the country, less perhaps to do honour to her memory than out of morbid curiosity to see the last of so extraordinary a woman.


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