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Self Lost in Service - Alexander Duff of India
Chapter I. Getting Ready

TOWARDS the evening of a summer's day early in the nineteenth century a party of high-spirited boys might have been seen making their way home, from a scamper over the hills, along the north road which passes through the parish of Moulin, in the beautiful vale of Athole, Perthshire. Alexander Duff, a strongly built, tall, muscular boy, with black hair and open face and keen eyes, who led them, the eldest son of James Duff, gardener of Balnakeilly House, and Jean Rattray his wife, carried a cudgel ready to defend his comrades in the gathering dusk from the imaginary terrors of the dark corners of the. road. He was born at Auchnahyle farm house on the 25th April 1806, but shortly after his birth his father moved to Balnakeilly.

The boy, who was keen to learn, must have received most of his education till nearly eight years of age at his happy home, and if a stranger to the district had asked, "How came these lads to be free to spend the day rambling over the hills instead of attending the parish school?" he would probably have received the answer, "Oh, 'the black dominie' (the master's nickname) has given the boys a holiday, because the river Tummel is in good condition, and he has gone to fish!"

A Pious Father

The father, James Duff, described by one who knew him as "a bit of a character," was very fond of young people, and nothing gave him greater pleasure than to read and explain the Bible to them: his rich poetic fancy and glowing words making scenes and characters almost live before them. It was said of him "You would have made a famous Covenanter, and you have the spirit of 'the Scots Worthies' ". From "The Scots Worthies" he often read aloud the thrilling story of those who suffered in former days during Scotland's struggles for freedom. It was his father's reading this book, Duff wrote from Calcutta, that "made him desire to imitate in spirit these noble and faithful martyrs of Jesus." Deeply interested himself in all forms of missionary effort, James Duff described to the children with picture and story, the cruel and dark ways of heathenism and the triumphs of the Gospel in benighted lands. When his father died, Duff wrote from Calcutta: "If ever son had reason to thank God for the prayers, the instruction, the counsels, and the consistent example of a devoutly pious father, I am that son."

Gaelic was young Duff's mother tongue, and he often heard the weird poems of Dugald Buchanan, recited by the Rannoch Schoolmaster, in that language in his father's house. It is .not unlikely that the recollection of one of these poems, "The Day of Judgment," and the story of Buchanan's dreams caused Duff, when a lad, to dream that "The Day" had come, and that he and his companions were waiting to receive sentence. The terror with which each saw his turn coming nearer awakened him. That dream led to his seeking and obtaining assurance of pardon.

A Splendid Vision

Another dream he had of a brighter character. After school hours, and when not required at home, he wandered over the mountain side drinking in the beauty of the scene, and having his mind filled with thoughts of his life work. On a glorious day, when clouds, bright in the sunlight, were playing about the hill tops, recalling the passage "who maketh the clouds his chariots," Duff, wearied with helping at harvest, fell asleep and dreamed of a chariot of gold, studded with gems, and drawn by fiery horses. When the chariot came near he fancied that God looked out and gently said "Come up hither, for I have work for thee to do." A splendid vision of the King's commission for a boy. When he was eleven •years old, his father arranged he should attend the Kirkmichael school, twelve miles over the hill from Moulin, boarding with the Schoolmaster, a thoroughly competent man, who had just been appointed. While always a diligent scholar, Duff shared in all school games: shinty seems to have been the most popular, but he could also throw a quoit with the best, and in the burn which passes Kirkmichael there is a stone which is still known as " Duff's stone," because be alone could leap on to it from the bank. On one occasion when sent to draw water from the burn near his father's house he fell in and was nearly drowned.

A Winter Adventure

It was while attending Kirkmichael school Duff and a companion nearly lost their lives in the snow; in after days the memory of this experience ever helped him to persevere when he felt discouraged. One Saturday afternoon he and a companion asked the master's permission to take their customary walk over the hill to Moulin to see their friends. Snow, which had fallen during the night, was lying lightly in the glen, but the master feared it would be deeper on the higher ground. As, however, the sun shone brightly, and the boys, eager to go, were quite familiar with the track, he very reluctantly consented. They had no difficulty in Strathard, but the heavier snow and the deep heather on the higher ground gave them a good deal of trouble, and when fresh snow began to fall they found it would be as difficult to return as to go on. Blinded by the driving snow, the lads lost the track altogether, and nightfall overtook them wandering over the hillside. They continued talking to keep up their spirits, till in sheer exhaustion, having committed themselves to God, they lay down to sleep.

In a cottage near Pitlochry some men were waiting till the storm which had broken over the district abated. They then in the darkness made their way in silence to a pool on the Tummel, in which they knew there were salmon. They were poachers, who kindled a torch for a few moments to attract the fish so that they might spear them, and then the light was extinguished. That light, as it suddenly shone through the darkness, roused the boys from their sleep and gave them strength to try again. They had not struggled forward a hundred feet before the light went out, but pushing on they ran against a wall, over which they scrambled and found themselves near a cottage in a kitchen garden. They noticed the cottage by the light which shone out under the doorway, for though it was now early in the morning, the inmates had not retired to rest. They knocked, and after satisfying those inside, were admitted, their clothes frozen stiff from snow and perspiration, while icicles were hanging from their heads. Refreshed by the warmth and warm milk, and as they now knew where they were, they soon made their way home. All these experiences strengthened Duff's character, and gave to it a tinge of sternness with a zeal for righteousness. Trickery and meanness he scorned. This characteristic led him on one occasion to take his younger brother into the stable and give him a sound whipping for doing something which Alexander considered very wrong.

Perth and St Andrews

From Kirkmichael Duff went, for one year, to Perth Grammar School, and was present when the following event occurred. On the morning of his first appearance the New Rector, instead of addressing the scholars after prayers, began pulling out the various drawers of his desk, and suddenly started back with horror from one he had just opened. After calling in the janitor he said to the school:- "Surely my boys, generous fellows as they are, need nothing of this sort to stimulate them: the presence of these would seem to indicate that they were to be treated like barbarians or savages instead of being allowed freely to manifest the generous impulses of ingenuous and industrious youth. England's great naval hero gave as his last watchword: 'England expects every man to do his duty,' so now, my boys, I, your rector, your parents, and the Town Council of Perth say emphatically that we expect every one of you to do his duty, and that you will do it I have no shadow of doubt. Janitor, take these horrid instruments away at once, and throw them into the water." Hearty cheers greeted his words, which were renewed when the boys saw the janitor cast the tawse into the mill lade.

So keen were the scholars to justify the rector's confidence that in summer, when the weather permitted, a dozen of them might have been seen out on the North Inch, as early as four or five o'clock, walking alone or gathered in groups questioning each other upon the day's lesson. Duff was one of them, and another was John Urquhart, who was at Perth, and afterwards at St. Andrews, his favourite and intimate chum, and about whom he wrote: "In every innocent pastime for promoting the health, in every playful expedient for whetting the mental powers, none more active than he, but in all the little brawls and turmoils that usually agitate youthful associations there was one whom you might safely reckon upon having no share."

Duff left Perth, after a year, Dux of the school, and with a reputation for scholarship. In 1821 he entered the University of St. Andrews, having received £20 from his father; he was also helped by Mr David Duff of Dundee, because of his connection with the Fandowe branch of that clan. He gained the highest bursary at the entrance examination, and from that date supported himself with bursaries, and as a tutor, for "I felt," he said, "my father had done so much for me, it was my duty to do for myself." During his University course he was a very successful student, gaining highest honours for Classics, Logic, Natural and Moral Philosophy, although there never was at St. Andrews a more brilliant assemblage of talent and genius than at that period, drawn there from all parts of the Kingdom by the fame of Dr Chalmers.

Alexander Duff was always an agreeable companion, generally in high spirits and mirthful without vulgarity, stalwart, and full of energy; and we see him in a characteristic mood as he passes a companion's window on his way to some students' meeting, armed with a good thick stick as though he expected there might be a row. Of all his fellow- students the one who impressed him most was John Urquhart, who wrote to his father "I was very dull, of course, for the first two or three days I was here, but since Alexander Duff came I have been happy enough with my situation." These two for a time shared the same lodgings, and with other companions rambled over the rocks and sea shore, and together, morning and evening, worshipped God.

During his college career, as languages were his favourite study, Alexander Duff and another student resolved to gain familiarity with all known languages. They accordingly borrowed from the University library grammars of German, Russian, Persian, Arabic, Chinese, and other languages, and spent many nights on this absurd experiment.

Students Missionary Movement

In the Autumn of 1824 Alex. Duff entered St. Mary's College to study for the Church. God was very real to the students, and they used all available means to know His will and purpose, more especially in regard to Missionary Effort. This was largely due to the influence of Dr Chalmers, whose enthusiastic support had awakened a deep interest in the subject. They discussed the topic when they met in each other's rooms, and one night they proposed to join an association for the careful examination of the question which had been formed by Dr Trail a year before amongst the medical students. In this way the St. Andrew's University Missionary Society came into being. The movement succeeded beyond the most sanguine expectation. But at first the governing body of St. Mary's College, regarding it as the result of quixotic zeal, disapproved, and refused any room or hail in which the Society could meet, also prevailing upon the Town Council to refuse the use of the town School for the meetings. At last, however, the master. of a venture school, situated in a narrow, dingy lane, allowed them to meet in his small and inconvenient schoolroom, and there the University Missionary Society was fully inaugurated. When the Principals and Professors noted that the keenest supporters of the Society were the foremost pupils in their classes, and that they were examples of diligence, steadiness, and good behaviour, they withdrew their opposition. The use of the Divinity Hall for their meetings was granted, and each of the Principals subscribed annually one guinea to the Society's funds. So influential was the Society that one-third of the students attending the University joined it, and "more than one missionary for each college Session, two out of every hundred students," came from it.

During the Session it became known that Dr Chalmers was expected to preach on a Sunday afternoon. The students therefore unanimously and respectfully asked to be exempted from the compulsory attendance at the College Church in order that they might attend the town church. When this request was refused, the students from all the faculties in a body absented themselves from service at the College Church. It was deemed inexpedient to gather all the unruly students for admonition, but each student was fined the customary sixpence.

As the athlete knows he can only keep in fit condition by regular practise, so the Christian must by careful preparation fit himself for the service of the King. In addition, therefore, to his ordinary classwork and acting as tutor, Duff shared in Sunday School work and visited, with permission from Dr Haldane, the poor in the town, a service which Dr Chalmers, by precept and example, originated amongst the students: "This," he said, "is what I call preaching the Gospel to every creature."

A Momentous Resolution

When preaching on one occasion in reference to missionary effort Dr Chalmers said: "How shall the Gospel be brought in contact with a soul at a distance of a thousand miles from the place in which we are standing? How would you answer the question?" The problem constantly presented itself to the students at St. Andrews. This is the answer the Doctor gave:- "I know no other conceivable way than sending a messenger in possession of the principle himself, and able to convey it into the mind of another by his powers of communication." To Duff and others this must have raised such questions as these:- "Can I go? Should I be such a messenger? What reason can I give for not going?" "The duty of personal engagement in the work of Missions" was the subject of John Urquhart's closing address as president to the last meeting of the University Missionary Society, towards the close of the winter session of 1826. His audience was overwhelmingly thrilled when he announced, that, after making every possible enquiry, and having tested the arguments for and against the work, the duty seemed to him to be conclusive. "I have, therefore, resolved, with the help of God, to devote my life to the cause; and I have only to charge every one of you who is looking forward to the ministry of Christ to take the matter into most serious consideration." This proved to be the crisis of Duff's life, for the question, intensified by Urquhart's early death next year, never left his thoughts till one night in his own room he fell on his knees and said to God :-

"Oh Lord, thou knowest that silver and gold to give to this cause I have none; what I have I give to Thee; I offer Thee myself; wilt Thou accept the gift? " The gift was accepted, and in this way, mastered by Christ, Alexander Duff became master of himself. On his return home he made known his decision to his parents thus: " Urquhart is no more; what if your son should take up his cloak? You approved the motive that directed the choice of Urquhart; you commended his high purpose. The cloak is taken up."

It was probably about this time, during his third year at St. Mary's, that he writes "My soul was first drawn out as by a spell- like fascination to India by reading the article about that country in Brewster's Encyclopaedia." Then there came to him unexpectedly, through the Principal of the College, from Dr Inglis, Convener of the committee entrusted with the proposal to establish a mission in the neighbourhood of Calcutta, the offer of that sphere of work. As, however, his theological course was still unfinished, he declined the offer.

They have a proverb in Africa that "the dawn does not come twice to awaken a man," so when the same offer was repeated in the following year, he felt that it could not then be easily decided. Alone with God and conscience, he resolved to accept; and having put his hand to the plough, he never turned back. When he told his parents they, in spite of his having warned them the year before, were at first overwhelmed, but, after calm reflection, recognised the leading of God. Duff spent some time in studying the Eastern languages, and after his ordination at St. George's, Edinburgh, on 6th October 1829, he sailed for Calcutta with his young wife, Anne Scott Drysdale, to whom he had been married on 9th July. In a letter of introduction, Dr John MacWhirter, who had been long in India, added a postcript,. which in the end meant much to the young missionary: "N.B.—Remember me kindly to Ram Mohun Roy, and write to me what you find and think him to be."


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