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Scots in Argentina
Scots Ministers and Beadles

(Lecture to St. Andrew’s Scots Church Literary and Debating Society, July 1926).

The Meenister and the Meenister’s man
(Politely called the beadle)
Are no by-ordinar saints, but can
Like you be dour or ceevil.
Their job ‘s no a’ plain sailin’,
They’ve a curn fowk tae please—
Weel dustit seats, saft cushions—
Good heatin’, concerts, teas;
Short prayers, and shorter sermons—
A preacher wi’ a "call",
The leadership o' Moses
And the eloquence o' Saint Paul.


It will probably be prudent for me to begin this lecture (or as I should prefer to call it — this "ramble"), with some general statement which no one will call in question. Because ere I have finished, much will doubtless have been said to which your ready retort may simply be—"Tell another".

My general opening statement then will be this: that the lives of Ministers and Beadles—especially of those in rural or semi-rural parishes, eclipse in general interest the lives of most other men. With the exception of the Minister’s wife, they (with the Doctor and the schoolmaster) are perhaps the most discussed and criticised people in the Parish. Interest and charm hang over even their graves. I confess that I will go a long way out of my road to look in at the quiet Kirk-yard where, as the headstone tells me, rests the Rev. John So and So, who, for 50 years, went in and out amongst the folks of the Parish. He lies close beside the Kirk wherein he preached so many hundreds of sermons. And even now he and his flock are not divided, for around him rest those he baptised and married and buried. And in the moment of quaint fancy, we wonder if still sometimes they hear the bell on Sundays—and want to rise and join in the opening Psalm as it steals through the summer air from the open Kirk door. It was a pious act, you feel, to visit that grave; even if you never saw that minister or that beadle, it makes you more than half believe you were his friend.

Lest there be any possible future beadles present I shall excuse myself from pronouncing who is the more important, the Minister or the Beadle. But the following remark of a departed Beadle at Skelmorlie will indicate the truth. This same beadle had been getting somewhat careless in his work, and his minister (afterwards a well-known city preacher) had said to him: "John, unless there’s a change, one of us will need to go." "Weel", said John, "we whiles change oor Minister."

So I suppose it would be true to say:

"Ance a Beadle, aye a Beadle".

It is very difficult to explain why so many stories are connected with Ministers and Beadles — especially Ministers. One reason perhaps is that folks like to get their own back; the Minister has it all his own way on Sunday; all the congregation hear what he has to say of them and theirs, but a most kind and merciful Providence has ordained that he hears very little of what they say of him.

It is for this reason that I firmly believe that it is the duty of every Minister to get married. The average Scot is reticent — he will not readily express his opinion. And while he (or she of course) would never think of telling the Minister exactly what he thinks of him — be it good or bad — he will sometimes open his heart and mind to the Minister’s wife. And the Minister’s wife, being a wise woman, will cheer up the evening meal of her goodman — weary after a heavy round of visiting — by telling him perhaps some nice things somebody said. The adverse criticism she will also tell —if it be worthy of telling — just to keep him humble.

This Scottish reticence is frequently greatly exaggerated by our brethren south of the Tweed. One who is now a Bishop (the Primus) in the Episcopal Church of Scotland told me that when it became known in his Parish in England that he was going to Scotland, one of his members said to him —"You’re going amongst a funny folk—they’ll never tell you they like you — they’ll never say that any of your sermons were helpful to them or did them any good; but if you behave yourself, they’ll all turn out to your funeral."

Although we’re very fond of funerals still, I don’t think things are just as bad as that. For there is an atmosphere of sincerity about much of our reticence, along with a mixture of characteristic Scottish caution. Here is an illustration. A late Minister of Clepington Parish, Dundee, (Dr. Robertson) had, amongst his members, an old woman who, though poor, was very conscientious both in her attendance at Church and also in the matter of her offering. Regularly she put two pennies in the plate every Sunday a liberal offering from a poor woman before the war. But like poor Molly Malone, she took ill with a fever, and was absent from her pew for 7 Sundays. On the 8th Sunday she was out again to Church and (would that her example were universally followed) she put in her pocket not 2d., but 7 times 2d.— 1/- 2d. for the plate. When she reached the kirk door she took out the 2 pennies, and placing a shilling between them, put the three coins quietly in the plate. But the elders had seen the 1/- and told the Minister. When calling on her, the Minister spoke of her fine example in the matter of conscientious giving, but asked why she tried to hide the shilling. "Well" she said, "I didna want the Elders tae see it for fear fowks would hear aboot it, and would think I was weel aff." That illustrates my point. The 14 pence showed the woman’s sincerity; the hidden shilling showed her caution. And Scottish reticence is very often just a mixture of caution and sincerity.

A minister’s is not an easy position to fill but Providence has ordained that with the lapse of years one’s skin thickens. It is in the early days of one’s ministry before this thickening process has begun that the shocks tell most. The first Service I ever conducted (while I was still a theological student at the University) was in the large asylum of a Northern County. I had not well begun my sermon when one of the inmates in the audience told me to "gae awa and bile ma heed" and then promptly walked out. And on the way home as I thought of that first sermon of mine, I was wondering if that woman was really insane after all.

The next Service I conducted— (the same sermon of course) —was in a country church near Edinburgh. In the vestry at the close, the Beadle was ominously silent, so I remarked that I was glad it was all over. To which he soothingly replied "Weel, at ony rate, it wis a gran' text."

A friend of mine, on finishing his University course, had just been appointed assistant to Professor Cooper then Minister of the East Parish Church in Aberdeen. The Old Testament lesson, which the new Assistant was to read, didn’t seem to be a very proper one, so he asked Dr. Cooper if it might be changed. "Changed !" said the Doctor "what ails you at the lesson they’ll never think you wrote it !"

A young minister’s first sermons are very frequently notable for two things (1) their length; (2) the amount of doom with which they violently threaten the hearers. I have heard several first sermons, and with one exception these 2 characteristics have been true of them all. The late Dr. Parker of the City Temple, London, tells how his first sermon preached in a quiet country church on a beautiful summer morning was from the text "Verily I say unto you it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of Judgment than for you". "I can recall" he says, "the fragrance of the flowers and the singing of the birds on that summer Sunday, yet there was I, plucking the divine sword from its sheath, and waving it in fury over the heads of as inoffensive a congregation as ever ploughed the land or reaped its crops." And then he continues "Recollections of my own violence have always enabled me to take a kindly view of the uncontrolled ways of young beginners in the Ministry; I do not like a beginner to be too staid young trees should grow plenty of wood Heaven knows they’ll get plenty pruning later, and that not always by expert hands or by the most refined instruments."

The following story concerns not the doom but the duration and quality of a young Minister’s first sermon. The laird was at church and his coachman had been waiting with, the carriage much longer than usual, for the church to skail. At last the coachman saw the beadle standing outside the door, and waving him to come, he asked if the Minister wasn’t done yet. The beadle was a muler, hence the reply: "Aye, the corn’s dane lang ago, but he’s aye thrashin’ awa’."

In the North, in the ‘60s and ‘70s of last century, it was the custom in the fishing villages for all and sundry to offer a prayer for the new Minister at the Induction Soiree. In the early ‘70s a young Minister, fresh from college, had just been elected to a church at Portknockie a small fishing village near Buckie on the Moray Firth. At the Ordination and Induction Social Meeting many prayers were offered most of them single sentence prayers :—"O Lord, gie the new Minister grace and gumption" prayed one fisherman. "O Lord, gie him po’er in the pulpit" prayer another. A third petitioned "O Lord, gie the new man common sense". The last prayer was by an old fishwife (and I commend its sound sentiment to the indulgent hearts in all congregations)—"O Lord," she prayed "gie the pier laddie time."

One of the most trying experiences in the life of a young Minister is preaching on a short leet for a Parish. My first attempt was in a very large city church where a committee of 25 from a distance came to hear me. Included on that Committee was a Principal of a University and four Professors. In the Vestry before the Service I felt like nothing on earth. My only comfort was to recall the case of the young Assistant who got the following counsel in the Vestry from the Beadle before entering a church to preach on his first short leet. "Tak’ my advice and dinna be nervish. I’ve been here 30 year, and if ye kent the fowk as weel as I ken them, ye widna gie tippence for the lot."

There is never any saying what curious things sometimes decide a church election. In a Parish which I know well and which was vacant a few years ago, the wife of the Minister who had left, had not been, in the opinion of the congregation, a success. So the Vacancy Committee unanimously decided to consider none but bachelors. A bachelor, was appointed who promptly decided to get married; no harm in that. But surely the wise thing for that parish to have done would have been to choose a married minister, whose wife had already been tried and not found wanting.

In another parish, some years ago, it was seen that the voting was to be very close between two of the candidates (both known to me). After each had preached, one family who had 5 votes amongst them, couldn’t decide for which to vote. One of the daughters decided the matter. She said that the handkerchief which Mr. A. had used was a clean one in fact, she saw him unfolding it in the pulpit before putting it to its legitimate use. The handkerchief which Mr. B had used, while by no means qualifying for the laundry, was, she declared, not so clean as Mr. A’s. So they voted for Mr. A, who was in time duly elected by a majority of 4 votes.

In yet another parish on the Spey, a Minister now well known, was defeated in the election for exactly the opposite reason viz., over-cleanliness. The candidates, in this case had all been staying over the weekend with the Laird who was an elder. The maids at the Laird’s house became, of course, very important people during the election time, and their advice was freely sought. This candidate, who was a strong favourite, had asked for a cold bath on the Sunday and Monday morning. The blacksmth’s daughter was one of the maids, and told her father that this candidate was "afa nice, but he hid a cauld bath every morning." The blacksmith and his daughter both agreed that something must be far wrong with the young man’s health. "We canna hae an invalid for a Minister here," said the blacksmith, and so our friend was badly knocked out when the voting came.

"Well, how do you think I did?" said a pompous young minister to the Beadle, after he had preached on a short leet. "Man, ye jist reminded me o' Spurgeon," said the Beadle. The Minister was inwardly delighted and asked wherein the resemblance lay. "Weel, ye’re jist like Spurgeon,—the langer ye preach, the mair ye sweit."

It was the same beadle who thus ambiguously described his Minister "He’s a gran’ man. When he’s at a denner—he’s at a denner."

Not infrequently some of a Minister’s most memorable experiences are connected with marriages. In past days Scotsmen and Scotswomen took marriage more seriously than they seem to do to-day. A friend of mine in a small country parish near Hamilton was addressing a couple he had just married and concluded with these words "I’m sure you’ll be very happy together." The bridegroom’s face became very solemn as he startled the company by saying "Eh, Minister, I hope yir richt."

In old times too, the bride’s purse her "tocher" seemed to be a more deciding factor than it is to-day. But an old proverb in the North says that "Lassie’s tochers and ministers’ steepends are aye less than they’ re ca’ed."

A Banffshire minister had been visiting at a house where had recently married the couple. He soon found that their temperaments were very different and that there had been some serious quarrels. But he counselled moderation and patience, trying specially to assure the young man, from his knowledge of the wife’s antecedents that all would come right, and adding "Whenever your temper gets the better of you, John, remember the word "Resist the devil and he will flee from you." "Aye" he replied, "but the worst o’t, Doctor, is that when I resist her, she flees at me."

A late Dundee minister was marrying a couple, and asked, in the Service the usual question of the man "Do you take this woman to be your wedded wife?" "Yes" came the reply, "but I’d raither tak’ her sister."

The large majority of stories about ministers are stories in which the minister comes off second best. For when the minister scores, those he scores against may not be too anxious to announce their own discomfiture. Here is an instance of a distinct success for the minister, whose parish was a very poor one in London. He had become immensely popular for marriages as he had reduced his fee to 5/-, and was known locally as "the splicing Parson". The bridegroom on this occasion brought his bride not too good looking with him to make arrangements for the marriage. "Your fee is cheap," he said to the Minister, "but I understand, that, in addition to your fee, you always expect to be the first to kiss the bride after the ceremony. I would prefer you not to kiss my bride." "In that case" said the Minister, having another look at the bride "the fee will be only 2/- 6."

The quiet undemonstrative Scottish outlook on courtship and marriage is well illustrated in the following. The son of a prominent Minister in the South was visiting a village in the North East on his tour as a political candidate for the constituency. He strolled down to the harbour before facing the electors at a meeting in the evening. "What are the main occupations of the villagers here?" he asked of an old salt at the pier-head. "Ah weel" he said, "there’s fushin’ and there’s courtin’." "I see" replied the embryo M.P. "very good—fishing and courting. But what do you do when the heavy weather comes on and fishing is impossible—what do you do then ?" And the old Salt (who had not lost his savour) solemnly replied—"We jist stop the fushin’."

The innocent way in which the national beverage seemed to be in such common use in ecclesiastical circles not so long ago is all the more remarkable when one considers that, in the same circles, its use is uncommon to-day. In ministerial and other biographies of last century, one reads of "a glass" in the same way that one speaks of a cigarette or a pipe to-day. Its abuse too did not seem to be common in the circumstances, despite the following remark of an old beadle. He met a pal one evening who had just come from the school-house, and he asked him who was there when he left. His friend told him "the Meenister, the Doctor and the Schule-maister." "Eh" said the Beadle, "there’s the makin’s o' a dirty nicht there."

The most solemn occasions seemed to end in the same way with a glass. A Minister of St. David’s, Dundee, in the middle of last century had his regular catechising visit every year to all his people. At such visits all the family were gathered together, and the Minister examined them in their knowledge of the Scriptures. His beadle was always sent round a few days in advance to tell them that the Minister would be coming on such and such a date. John was the beadle, and at each house John seemed to expect, and to get his ‘glass", with inevitable results. John always came to the Manse to report on his work, and the Minister, on one occasion, had to speak seriously to him about his condition. John explained that he went to this house to tell them the Minister was coming and he got a glass. Then he went to the next house with the same result.

"But" said the Minister, "I go to each house, just like you, and I get a glass, but I don’t ever appear in your condition." "Na" said John "ye see Minister, ye’re nae near sae popular as me! They dinna gie you sae muckle."

One beadle, whom I remember well, gave the following comforting advice once. The Minister one Sunday had preached a forceful but reasoned sermon on "Temperance in all things". Next Sunday, Charlie, while robing the Minister in the Vestry said that Willie so and so (who was a publican) and his wife, had left the kirk over that sermon. The Minister expressed his sorrow, but Charlie seemed to think this unnecessary. "Dinna ye care a dockin, Doctor," he said "they’ve left the kirk, but nane o' the steepend gangs wi’ them."

A beadle who is still at his post in a large city church once delivered himself to me as follows "I’ve been beadle here for 21 year and I’ve ta’en up the Buiks for some funny fowk." "That’s a long stretch" I said. "Have you served all that time without a break?" "Aye" he replied "a’ except twa year." "What was wrong then?" I questioned him. To which he answered: "I fell thro’ ma menners a bitty."

It was the same beadle who once got a very neat one in at a very confident and good looking young Assistant. The Minister of the Parish had fallen ill on the Sunday afternoon, and this Assistant was to preach at night. When he arrived in the vestry and had been all dressed up by the beadle, he put his hand into his coat pocket and pulling out three sermons, he laid them on the table. "Now James, what do you think I should preach about?" "Preach aboot quarter o' an ‘oor," said James.

A farmer was the instrument of humiliation in the following. His son was in his first year in Divinity at Aberdeen University and was going home for the week-end. It was about the time that Darwin first published his "Origin of Species" and the popular (though somewhat misleading) view of that book was that it proved that we were all descended from the monkeys. The canny old farmer met his son with the gig at the station, and as they were driving to the farm, he asked, "Aye and what are the Professors at the College sayin’ about this new theory o' Darwin’s that we’re a’ come frae the monkeys?" "Oh" said his son, "they’re not saying very much yet, but after all it makes no difference to me, Dad, whether my grandfather was a monkey or not !" The old man held his peace for a little before remarking, "Aye, Charlie, it mebbe maks nae difference tae you, but, man, it would hae made an afa difference tae yir grandmither."

It is sometimes difficult to realise that only 30 or 40 years ago, flowers in church, or a solo at a service, were looked upon in many quarters of Scotland with the utmost suspicion. A late friend of mine one of the Ministers of Lesmahagow when he went to the Parish, began having a Harvest Thanksgiving Service every Autumn. There was a beautiful array of flowers and fruit and vegetables at the Service, and in the evening the choir rendered two anthems and a solo was sung. The oldest and most regular attender of the church one of the elders was absent, and the minister, certain that he was ill, called on the Monday. "I missed you yesterday" he said, "and thought you must be ill." "Na, na" said the elder, "there was nithin’ wrang wi’ me, but I wisna comin’ tae yir Service, a flo’or show in the mornin’ and a concert at nicht ‘s nae my idea o' the Sabbath."

"Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis."

I suppose 75% of ministers are heavy smokers. A very old parishioner once advised her minister to stop it altogether.

"You’ll have a much longer life if you do" she said. "Well" he replied "life might seem longer."

There is a Sunday evening hymn, one verse of which begins "The joys of day are over". Being an ordinary human being I can only say that for me these words are just a little previous as sung at evening Service. One of the great joys of Sunday, to a Minister, begins when he sits down to the evening meal and is only complete when he has got some friends into his study thereafter, with their pipes or "gaspers" lit up. It is a very necessary relaxation after what (to most ministers) is the nervous duty of conducting Services.

A country minister in the middle of last century was visited by a neighbouring minister from a distance after evening Service. During supper the host persuaded his visiting friend to stay the night despite an ominous look from his wife across the table. After the supper the two parsons retired to the study and the wife had disappeared to the kitchen. The visitor in build and height was extremely like the host. Having left his pipe in his overcoat pocket in the hall, he came out for it. The wife heard the step in the hall, and coming from the kitchen quietly, and seeing what she thought from behind—was her husband feeling his pockets for something, went quietly up to him, and giving him a weighty slap on the back, said, "Tak that, for garrin’ him bide the nicht."

The old type of beadle the minister’s man who kept the minister’s "shelt" and the manse garden who dug the graves who knew everybody’s affairs whose Sunday frock coat had been his father’s before him who had a round dozen of a family, and whose house was full of books won by his children as Sunday School prizeswhose wife milked the minister’s cow who, busy as he was, was never too busy to be courteous and, poor as he was, was never too selfish to be kind to whom, in all sincerity, the taking up of the books to the pulpit on Sundays was the chiefest part of the Service, and the locking up of the kirk on Sunday night "the end of a perfect day" that type is being slowly killed out by the times.

He was a ‘canny’ lad as canny as the modern beadle who got a cheap ticket to London and went up to see the sights. His minister was in London at the time and met the beadle coming out of the General Post Office. "Ye’ll have been in buying war bonds" said the minister. "Na" said the beadle, "only fillin’ ma fountain pen."

The beadle at Bothkennar, near Stirling, some years ago had a very poor opinion of some of the Kirk Session. That same Kirk Session had not been too well pleased with the beadle’s work, and the minister was requested to speak kindly but firmly to Sandy. He did so, telling him what the Session in general and what Mr. X. in particular had said about him. "Och, but" said Sandy, "That’s an afa Kirk Session, and that man’s the worst liar o' the lot; ye canna even believe the opposite o' what he says".

Nor does one often meet the beadle now who used to be very familiar with his minister and also to be very fond of using and misusing big words. In the earlier part of last century a certain Mr. Cook was minister of Longformacus. He was to have a big dinner at the Manse to which some of the County people were coming. The beadle was to wait at table, so Mr. Cook explained his duties to him. John couldn’t understand very well, so Mr. Cook made John sit down at table, and said he would be the waiter and let him see how it was done. "Thick or clear soup, sir?" said the Minister to John, and John said: "Thick". Then after a minute he returned to John and said:

"Claret or sherry, sir?" John became interested. "Ah weel, Mr. Cook, if it’s a’ the same tae you, I’ll jist hae a gless o' beer."

Our same friend John was telling a visitor about the grand new kirk the Heritors had built when the old church was renovated. An addition had been made of an apse a semi-circular chancel in which the choir was to sit. Describing the change John told how fine the church was now, "and" he added "they’ve biggit an Abscess on tae the back end o’t." And he went on "That’s nae a’; they’ve biggit a new shed for the Minister’s powny, and covered it wi’ corroborated iron."

A minister on the Moray Firth, whose congregation was mainly composed of maiden ladies and old folks, got the following shrewd advice from his beadle, who was a fisherman. "Gin ye tak my advice, ye’ll spend mair time in catching fresh fish, and less time in kipperin’ the fish ye’ve got."

Wise people don’t like a change of ministers too often. A North Country minister was leaving for another parish, and the beadle was very upset. "Don’t worry," said the Parson, "a new man will bring new ways and new life, and he’ll be a far better minister than I’ve ever been." "That’s jist the trouble" said the beadle, "I’ve been here for forty year and I’ve seen 5 elections and 5 new ministers, and they’re gettin’ waur every time."

Now, I have done. A minister’s life may be full of worries and disappointments, but it is also full of joys. The great Spurgeon was driving up Norwood Hill in London one evening at dusk. Away in front, and moving in the same direction, was a lamplighter busy lighting the street lamps, who then disappeared over the top of the hill. "That" said the preacher, "is what I should wish for the coming years to feel that when I’ve moved out and on over the top of the Hill, I’ll leave many lamps burning behind me."

So perhaps may I cherish the fugitive hope that to-night some stray memories of kindly ministers and beadles of happy bye-gone days in Scotland have been awakened, and that you will not deem this a mis-spent hour in which you may have felt that beneath the sombre black of the minister’s or beadle’s coat, there can beat an ordinary, but, I trust, a human heart.

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