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Dr Duncan of Ruthwell
Chapter VI

In the year 1832, the year of the great influenza epidemic, Dr Duncan lost his wife. She had been an invalid for many years, but at the end her death was very sudden, and her life went out like the flicker of a candle. It was during the Communion week, a time in which the Church of Scotland has great calls on her spiritual strength. At the beginning of the week nothing serious was apprehended, though she seemed much weaker than usual. On the "Fast Day" her strength declined further still, and on "Preaching Saturday" there was serious cause for alarm. She died that same evening, and as the parishioners drew near to the church on the "Communion Morning" they heard that in the peaceful manse, overlooking the church, their minister's wife had passed through the valley of the shadow of death. For her, indeed, it might be said, "fear no evil." She had lived in the parish since she was a child of seven, and knew everyone by name. Not only was she a loss to her husband— for she had encouraged and strengthened him in every public duty and private endeavour of his life—but she had been a mother to that small world which lay around her home. Henceforward Dr Duncan took to writing and working more earnestly than ever. His daughter mentions in her diary that he was often in his study at dawn, and she herself used to listen for his footsteps and creep down the stairs to sit with him so that he should not feel his loneliness.

Among Dr Duncan's numerous letters is one from Joanna Baillie, written after the publication of her treatise On the Nature of Christ, a copy of which she had sent to Dr Duncan for his perusal. From the tone of her letter he had evidently disapproved of the work in question. I have not been able to trace the publication, so her letter to Dr Duncan must explain itself.

Hampstead, June 4, 1831.

My Dear Sir,—On publishing my late work, which I am very sorry to find has given you pain, I resolved to send copies of it to no clergyman, not from supposing they would receive it severely, but because I considered that it might seem forward and presumptuous in me to do so, and I have made you the only exception to this rule. That I did so from the perfect confidence I had in your candour and charity, and my [strong desire to show particular respect to the benevolent founder of our Savings Banks, and a man in every respect so useful to his country you will readily believe; yet I feel that I have not done right; it was presumptuous in me to send you such a publication under any circumstances; and I sincerely beg of you to forgive me. But, indeed, I am sure that you have already forgiven me, from the kind and interesting account you have given me of the changes which in early life took place in your own opinions.

She goes on to explain her own feelings on spiritual matters, and ends her letter by saying:—

I am truly glad to hear that your son has begun his ministry so desirably, and I hope he will soon have better preferment. It will be a good thing for any parish to fall under the care of a son of yours. . . . Farewell, my dear Sir! and think of me with as much charity as you can, for your good opinion is by no means a matter of indifference to,

Your obliged and sincere friend and servant,

Joanna Baillie.

Joanna Baillie, herself the child of a Scottish manse, was at this time in her sixty-ninth year. She had already written her greatest work, The Nine Plays on the Passions. Kemble and Mrs Siddons took the leading parts in her play Be Monjort, which made a great impression. At her house, in Hamp-stead, Joanna Baillie entertained many of the leading people of her day.

Students of Esperanto will be interested to hear that Dr Duncan wrote in those early days Hints for the Formation of a Universal language on Philosophical Principles. This was never seriously pursued, but the alphabet and the various inflexions of nouns and verbs were ingeniously provided for.

But the greatest literary work of Dr Duncan's life was The Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons, which was received by the public with much favour and rapidly went into four editions. It is a veritable encyclopaedia of science, containing, as it does, essays on such subjects as Astronomy, Botany, Geology, Natural History, the Migration of Birds, etc., etc. It is a work in four volumes, beginning with winter and ending with autumn, and from the first page to the last it is never dull. There is a delicacy and finish about the style of the papers that must arrest the attention of all who read them. He finished the first volume without great effort, but he was under an engagement to complete the other three in a given time, and this entailed close and continuous work, which meant the preparation of a subject each day for nine months of that year. Those who have had to write against time will readily appreciate the resolve necessary to enable him to finish his work so promptly. Every paper he wrote was full of deep religious feeling, and with the object of showing the reader the glory and majesty of the Great Creator. His work breathes the spirit of the psalm: "The sea is His and He made it and His hands prepared the dry land," and of Rogers' beautiful little verse:—

"The very law which moulds a tear,
And makes it trickle from its source;
That law preserves the earth a sphere,
And guides the planets in their course."

Although in his sixty-fourth year, he seemed to be at the zenith of his powers, and the amount of labour that poured forth from that quiet library must excite admiration and astonishment. It was not light and easy work allowing the pen to slip swiftly over the paper, but work that required much thought, study, and determination. Notwithstanding all the time he gave to writing and to the serious work of his parish, he loved outdoor pursuits, and curling was a favourite game with him. He provided a pond for his parishioners, and himself joined in the sport. No one entered into the spirit of the play with a greater zest than he did, and he believed that it was good for him, as well as for his people, to be thrown into intimate companionship. His poem on Curling is supposed to be the best description of the game ever written.

Air—"Maggie Lauder"

"The music of the year is hushed
In bonny glen and shaw, man,
And winter spreads, o'er nature dead,
A winding-sheet o' snaw, man;
O'er burn and loch the warlock, frost,
A crystal brig has laid, man,
The wild-geese, screaming wi' surprise,
The ice-bound wave ha'e fled, man.

Up, curler! leave your bed sae warm,
And leave your coaxing wife, man,
Gae, get your besom, trickers, stanes,
And join the friendly strife, man;
For on the water's face are met,
Wi' mony a merry joke, man,
The tenant and his jolly laird,
The pastor and his flock, man.

The rink is swept, the tees are marked,
The bonspiel is begun, man;
The ice is true, the stanes are keen;
Huzza ! for glorious fun, man.
The skips are standing on the tee
To guide the eager game, man;
Hush ! no a word—but mark the broom,
And take a steady aim, man.

Here draw a shot—there lay a guard,
And here beside him lie, man,
Now let him feel a gamester's hand,
Now in his bosom die, man.
There fill the port, and block the ice,
We sit upon the tee, man;
Now tak' this inring sharp and neat,
And mak' the winner flee, man.

How stands the game? It's eight and eight:
Now for the winning shot, man,
Draw slow and sure, the ice is keen,
I'll sweep you to the spot, man.
The stane is thrown, it glides alang,
The besoms ply it in, man,
Wi' twisting back the players stand,
And eager, breathless grin, man.

A moment's silence, still as death,
Pervades the anxious thrang, man,
Then sudden bursts the victors' shout,
Wi' hollas, loud and lang, man;
Triumphant besoms wave in air,
And friendly banters fly, man,
Whilst, cauld and hungry, to the inn,
Wi' eager steps, they hie, man.

Now fill ae bumper—fill but ane,
And drink wi' social glee, man,
May curlers on life's slippery rink
Frae cruel rubs be free, man;
Or should a treacherous bias lead
Their erring steps a-jee, man,
Some friendly inring may they meet
To guide them to the tee, man."

Dr Duncan advocated the claims of the poor salters of the village, when there was some talk of their being deprived of their ancient charter, which enabled them to manufacture salt free of duty. It was an ancient industry in those parts to make "Salt of the sea," and as early as the twelfth century it was manufactured on the shores of the Solway. Ruthwell appears to have been the principal seat of this industry, and there was a kind known as "Ruthwell Salt." A great many poor people of the village eked out a small livelihood at this trade. It was a precarious living, for frequently the season would pass without any favourable weather for it, but there was distress at the thought of it being done away with, and the minister protected his people as far as he was able. The question of the Salters' Ancient Rights belongs, however, to an earlier part of his life, and arose at the beginning of his ministry. He was known often to return from Dumfries with his phaeton filled with flax to give employment to the poor women of Ruthwell. It was always his way to make people do something to help themselves.

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