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Significant Scots
John B. Fairgrieve

A well known Edinburgh Souter

VISITORS from the Borderland to “fair Edina, Scotia’s darling Beat,” whether on duty or pleasure bent, seldom fail to make the acquaintance of the well-known establishment at 7 and 9 Cockburu Street. For Borderers now resident in the capital it is not merely a pleasant house of call, but a kind of Mecca toward which they weekly turn to procure their local print with its budget of home news.

What wonder then that the presiding genius of the establishment, Mr John Beckett Fairgrieve, has become one of the best known and highly esteemed among the many Border men now occupying prominent positions and taking a large share in the affairs of the Scottish Metropolis. It is surely fitting, therefore, that a place should be found for Mr Fairgrieve in the Border Magazine's “Roll of Honour” as another of the many worthy men who, with little or no outside influence, but by patient industry, prudence, and fair dealing has won for himself a creditable position in the business life of the city; and as one who in the midst of a busy life has ever kept alive his love for his homeland, and in many ways proved himself “leal to the Border.”

Mr Fairgrieve is both by birth and lineage a Borderer. His ancestors on both sides can be traced back for generations. As has already been hinted, however, Mr Fairgrieve himself owes nothing to the accident of birth for his start in life; and in these days when so much dependence is being put on outside agencies for the attainment of a successful career, it may not be amiss to point out for the benefit of the rising generation, that in the great majority of instances of those who have won name and fame for themselves, this has been accomplished in the face of most adverse circumstances, and with little or no assistance.

The subject of our sketch was, in an indirect way, a victim of our unfortunate Crimean War, not that it is to be surmised that the old Border martial spirit had once more asserted itself in Mr Fairgrieve’s family, and was only to be appeased by the head of the household setting out to the help of the “unspeakable” Turk against the aggressive Russian. It was in no such tangible and direct way that Mr Fairgrieve became a sufferer. But who is able to set a bound to the ravages of the war fiend when once he has been let loose; or, indeed, who can limit influences, whether for good or evil, once they have been set in mo-tiou. The quiet little town of Langholm, nestling among the hills at the confluence of the Ewes and the Esk, seemed to be about as remote from the scene of conflict, and as unlikely to be affected by the sanguinary struggle which was then being waged on the banks of the Alma as could well be conceived. And yet it was among the first affected in this country. Early iu the fifties the woollen trade had already begun to take firm root in the Border towns, and gave every promise of becoming a most prosperous industry. Mr Fair-grieve’s father, in company with his brother Andrew and Mr James Wilson, latterly editor of the “ Scottish Border Record,” resolved on starting the manufacture of woollens on their own account, and for this purpose went to Lungholm. Had the venture been made earlier the enterprise would probably have turned out a complete success, but as it was, with the outbreak of the war and the sudden and extraordinary rise in the price of all kinds of raw material, it spelt disaster for the new firm. With every peiiny they possessed invested in machinery the outlook seemed hopeless, and the effort to establish a business had to be given up—the three members of the company losing all their capital. Mr Fair-grieve came to Selkirk, where he obtained employment with the firm of Messrs George Roberts & Co. But the Langholm adventure from which so much had been expected and which had ended in such utter failure, had done its work, and Mr Fairgrieve only survived a few years, and his widow, with five young children, had to face the world as best they might.. The subject of our sketch was the third of the family, and at that time only nine years of age. What this meant can be readily imagined. I think it is Wendell Philips who says " that the best education in the world is that got by struggling to get a living.” If that be true, then all the young Fairgrieves were well equipped educationally! Mrs Fairgrieve was a woman of a type to whom our country is much more deeply indebted than has ever been properly realised. Deeply, though unostentatiously religious, she hail an implicit confidence in the Wisdom of an over-ruling Providence that would open up a way in the seeming insurmountable difficulties of the position. This confidence, in place of leading to a blind fatalism, only served to bring into stronger relief a quiet self-reliance and resourcefulness, which looked back upon—especially from the standpoint of present-day ideas of what would be regarded as the bare necessities of life—is simply amazing. Yet the fact remains that almost unaided each of that household received what was then considered a reasonably good education, and enabled to take their place, week-day and Sabbath, amongst their more fortunately-circumstanced associates without invidious comparison being possible.

Mr Fairgrieve received his education first at a voluntary school, built and furnished by a most enlightened landlord, the then Sir John Murray, Bart., of Philiphaugh, for the benefit of children on his own estate and others on the western side of the town, which at that time ‘ was rapidly extending westward; and latterly ut Selkirk Grammar School. In both cases he had the advantage of excellent teachers, who aimed at more than merely imparting a knowledge of the “three R’s.” When it is mentioned that Mr Fairgrieve was apprenticed as a bookseller to Mr George Lewis at the age of thirteen it will be seen, however, that only the ground work of his education had been laid during his all too short scholastic term.

In the choice of an occupation and an employer Mr Fairgrieve was fortunate. Mr Lewis was a man of strong personality, thoroughly upright in all his dealings, methodical in the performance of his duties, and with n capacity for getting through work not often possessed. The advantages of such a training school to a young lad anxious to make his way in life can be readily understood. But, however advantageous in a business aspect Mr Lewis’s influence may have been, not less important was it in its moral effect. It is speaking within the bounds of strict accuracy to say that no movement of a character calculated to forward the social or intellectual, moral or spiritual well-being of the people, but found in Mr Lewis not only a wise and prudent counsellor, but a generously helpful supporter. To young men at the most impressionable period of their lives the influence of such a personality was bound to tell; and some indication of its effect on those who came more immediately under its sway may be gathered from the fact that within the writer’s knowledge out of some score of young men who served their apprenticeship with Mr Lewis, at least ten of them are presently carrying on successful businesses on their own account.

It may be taken as an indication of the bent of Mr Fairgrieve’s mind, even at this early period, that he had associated himself with a number of the more earnest minded young men of the town, and became a member of the Selkirk Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society, the Sabbath Morning Fellowship Union, and kindred institutions, by means of which he not only extended his acquaintance with and cultivated a taste for the best literature, but had also high ideals of life and conduct kept steadily before the mind.

His apprenticeship of five years being completed, Mr Fairgrieve stayed on in Mr Lewis’s service for another two years, when an opening occurring in Mr Wm. Ritchie’s Bible and stationery warehouse in Elder Street, Edinburgh, Mr Fairgrieve, on the recommendation of Mr Lewis, was offered the post, and he removed to Edinburgh. Here again the circumstances in which Mr Fairgrieve found himself were eminently favourable for the development of a virile Christian character. In his native place Mr Fairgrieve had associated him-aelf in an unostentatious way with those engaged in temperance and evangelistic work.

On taking up his residence in Edinburgh he was attracted to Brighton Street E.U. Church, at that time ministered to by that inspiring preacher and indefatigable worker, the Rev. Professor Kirk. This church at that time was the centre of strenuous life and work, and no one could remain there without catching some of the abounding zeal, and Mr Fairgrieve soon found himself filling positions for which his training had admirably qualified him. Mr Fairgrieve acted as treasurer of the Church for the long period of eighteen years. Not only so, but his connection with this Church brought him into contact with many prominent men, whose friendship and advice were of immense service to him in later life.

Mr Fairgrieve remained in Mr Ritchie’s service for four and a half vears, and it is sufficient indication of how his services were regarded, when it is mentioned that after being about six months an assistant, he was offered the position of chief cashier and book-keeper, which post he occupied until an opportunity occurred to start business on his own account. This took place in January, 1878, when Mr Fairgrieve purchased the bookselling and stationery business carried on by Mr L. Cossar at 7 Cockburn Street, and used also as a sub-Post Office. It speedily became a much-frequented resort not only for Borderers and visitors within a wide area, but for many prominent citizens as well, and Mr Fairgrieve is proud of being able to reckon among his customers such honoured names as the late Professor Blackie, Professor Yeitch, Dr W. Lindsay Alexander, Dr Begg, and Dr Robertson Smith. Sir H. D. Littlejohn, who began his professional career in Selkirk, evinced a warm interest in the young man starting business, and he has remained a highly esteemed friend ever since.

Needless to say, with such patronage, and a principal, capable, and diligent and constantly superintending every transaction to the minutest detail, the business greatly prospered, and Mr Fairgrieve, in 1879, had to acquire the adjoining premises to afford facilities for his increasing business. '

In 1884 Mr Fairgrieve assumed a further responsibility by taking unto himself a wife, who, like himself, is a warm-hearted Borderer — Miss Dalgleish, the elder daughter of a former Provost of Selkirk. By their marriage they have a family of two sons and one daughter.

While Mr Fairgrieve has made it a point during his business career to carefully observe Dr Franklin’s injunction, “to keep thy house if thou would’st have thy house keep thee,” he has nevertheless found time to take his fair share of voluntary work incidental to a prominent citizen of a progressive temperament. His postal connection debars him from engaging in any markedly political agitation, but he has all along taken part in movements calculated to advance the cause of religion and temperance. He is at present senior vice-president of the Edinburgh Total Abstinence Society, the parent Society in the city, and recently was elected an elder in Mayfield U.F. Church.

He was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Borderers’ Union in 1874, and has been an office-bearer ever since. He is a member of the Edinburgh Merchant Company, and president of the Edinburgh section of the Newsagents and Booksellers and Stationers’ Union. He is also a director in two limited liability companies. Recently he has assumed a new role, and has lectured on “The Border Haunts of Sir Walter Scott.” This is a subject on which Mr Fairgrieve is well qualified to speak, since most of the scenes have been familiar to him from childhood, and in his case familiarity has only increased his veneration for the classic ground. The lecture is illustrated bv a large number of exquisite photos, many of them specially prepared for the lecture, and already not a few philanthropic agencies have profited by its delivery.

Mr Fairgrieve, it need only be added, is a man still in the prime and vigour of life, and his best work should yet be before him.

In connection with the lecture, Mr Fairgrieve records an interesting fact. While
spending summer holidays in Bowden, his mother’s native place, he conversed with several old people who remembered seeing Sir Walter Scott “hirpling” across the village green to converse with his (the lecturer’s) great-grandmother, whose name happened to be Janet Scott, and who, like Margaret Laidlaw, the Ettrick Shepherd’s mother, had a great store of old folk-lore stories.

J. B.

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