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John Thomson of Duddingston, Pastor and Painter
Chapter VII

Declining Health—Death—Funeral—Mr. Thomson’s Family—Dr. Thomas Thomson of Leamington— Captain John Thomson—Loss of the Kent—Personal Character and Disposition.

‘I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved; and next to Nature, Art.
I warm’d both hands against the fire of life,
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.’—LANDOR.

ABOUT the beginning of the year 1840 Mr. Thomson’s health, which hitherto had been exceptionally good, began to fail him. He was easily fatigued, and did not feel himself equal to undertake much outdoor exercise. But though no improvement took place during the summer, he still worked on at picture and sermon. In the autumn he was decidedly worse, and was compelled to lay aside his ministerial duties and get an assistant. During the month of September he was so feeble that he felt obliged to keep to his room, but occasionally the old love of Art would seize him, and it was with difficulty his brushes and colours were kept out of his reach. Sometimes he was humoured in this, and permitted to indulge in his favourite pursuit. Just nine days before his death his last effort was to paint a view of Torthorwald Castle, Dumfriesshire (of course from a sketch), a picture which has been much admired as a piece of colour.

Many anxious friends sought to comfort and cheer him during this trying time, and above all he was tenderly nursed by his loving wife. But it was all in vain. By the middle of October he was prostrate on a sick-bed, and it was only too apparent that notwithstanding the best medical skill and assiduous nursing, the lamp of life was quickly burning itself down to the socket. Every succeeding day found him weaker than before. He was attended by Dr. Alexander Monro of Edinburgh, Professor of Anatomy in the University, who, from the fact that he was the third of the same name who had occupied this post, is sometimes designated Dr. Monro Tertius.

On the 27th of the month a young man, a friend and pupil, who assisted him with his canvases and brushes, came into the room along with one of his sons. The minister felt weaker and worse than usual, and a strong presentiment that his last day on earth had come possessed his mind. It was the afternoon, and the setting sun of a shortened day sent its slanting rays into the room. He desired his son and young friend to move his bed toward the window that he might look for the last time on the scene he loved so well, and on that sun whose setting orb he had so often painted. His fancy was indulged; he sat up and gazed with intense earnestness on the beautiful landscape for some time, until the effort proving too much for his strength, he sank back on his pillow and fainted with fatigue.

It was a farewell interview between old friends; an eternal leave-taking. The sun went down in crimson and gold over the reeds and willows of the Loch. The mists of a chill October night gathered over the water. Craigmillar Castle and the distant Pentland Hills were lost to view, never more to gladden his eyes.

Next morning, ore the orb of day had gilded the eastern horizon, the spirit had ‘passed through the gates into the city.’

He died early on the morning of 28th October 1840, at the age of sixty-two, and after a ministry in the Church of Scotland of forty-one years, the greater part of which was spent in Duddingston.

They laid him to rest in the south-west corner of his own quiet churchyard, beside his favourite Loch, and in view of the crags of Arthur Seat. No more fitting place could possibly be found for a lover of Nature—

‘It is a lovely spot. The sultry sun
From his meridian height, endeavours vainly
To pierce the shadowy foliage, while the zephyr
Comes wafting gently o’er the rippling Loch.
It is a nook
Most pleasant; such a one, perchance, did Gray
Frequent, as with a vagrant muse he wantoned.’

A handsome monument erected by his family, now marks the spot, on which is the following Latin inscription :—


which may be freely translated as follows :—

‘Sacred to the memory of John Thomson, a man revered and greatly beloved, for nearly thirty-five years minister of this church, who on account of the exceptional gifts of his genius, the gentleness and purity of his disposition, and his extreme benevolence, will not soon be forgotten by his friends. He died on the fifth day before the Calends of November, A.D. 1840, aged sixty-two years.’

The Rev. John Thomson was survived for five years by his devoted partner in life. At his death Mrs. Thomson left the manse, and afterwards resided in Regent Terrace, Edinburgh, where she died on the 11th October 1845.

Of his family we give the following particulars.

By his first wife, Isabella Ramsay, there were five children :—

1. DR. THOMAS THOMSON. Born at Dailly, 17th May 1802. Settling in Stratford-on-Avon as a physician, he became highly popular there, and was for several years Mayor of the town. He afterwards removed to Leamington, where his skill and general kindness of disposition brought him into much repute. He married Miss James, daughter of Dr. James, a celebrated London physician, by whom he had five daughters—Fanny, Isabella, Caroline, Mary Helen, and Annie.

Dr. Thomson died at Leamington, January 1873.

2. JOHN THOMSON. Born at Dailly, 15th November 1803. At an early age he entered the Royal Navy, but afterwards joined the East India Company’s Maritime Service, and rose from Lieutenant to the rank of Captain. It was while he was acting in the former capacity on board the ill-fated East Indiaman, The Kent, that she caught fire in the Bay of Biscay, a few days after leaving England, with six hundred and forty-one souls on board, including a large number of women and children who were accompanying a regiment to India.

The calamity occurred on the 1st March 1825, and was caused by the accidental upsetting of a lamp in the hold, where one of the ship’s officers was endeavouring to secure some of the cargo which had shifted by the lurching of the vessel. Owing to the highly inflammable nature of the cargo, the hold was in a few moments blazing beyond hope of extinction, though the captain and crew did everything possible to lessen the rapidity of its action by letting in volumes of water from the port-holes. From a most interesting narrative published at the time by one of the passengers of the events connected with the destruction of the ship and the rescue of great part of her living freight, we gather some particulars as to the active share young Thomson had in the work of saving those on board. Very gallantly indeed he filled his post.

After everything had been done by the captain and crew, but in vain, to extinguish the fire, a feeling of despair came over all, and a. scene of horror ensued that baffled all description—

‘Then rose from sea and sky the wild farewell,
Then shriek’d the timid, and stood still the brave.’

The upper deck was covered with between six and seven hundred human beings, many of whom, from previous sea-sickness, were forced on the first alarm to flee from below in a state of absolute helplessness, and were now running about in quest of husbands, children, or parents. While some were standing in silent resignation, or in stupid insensibility to their impending fate, others were yielding themselves up to the most frantic despair. Some were on their knees imploring mercy of Heaven, while others sullenly took their seats directly over the powder magazine, hoping, as they said, that when it exploded a speedy termination would be put to their sufferings. It was when all were paralysed by the calamity, and active energy seemed useless, that it occurred to young John Thomson, the fourth mate, to send a man to the foretop, rather with the ardent wish than the expectation that some friendly sail might be discovered on the stormy deep. The sailor on mounting caught sight of a sail on the lee bow, and immediately the joyful news rang through the Kent, and hope succeeded to despair. Signals were made, and the brig Cambria bore down upon the ill-fated ship. But the difficulty now presented itself of transferring so large a number of human beings from the one vessel to the other in the raging sea then running. The attempt must, however, be made; the boats were manned, and preparations made for rescuing the women and children first. The utmost order was preserved, thanks to the coolness of Captain Cobb, aided by the military officers on board; and not a man was allowed to leave the burning deck until every woman and child had been rescued. The first boat to leave the Kent for the ark, of refuge’ was under charge of young Thomson, and it is an interesting fact that it was he who handed up the first to be received into the Cambria, and who brought the last one saved from the wreck. The first was a child of only a few weeks old, the infant son of Major Macgregor, who in after years came to be well known as a traveller and explorer, and who has delighted the world with his experiences in so frail a bark as a paddle canoe. Though too young to remember his rescue from the burning Kent, ‘Rob Roy’ Macgregor ever bore to his brave deliverer a warm and grateful affection; and a life of usefulness, spent with Lord Shaftesbury in saving many poor boys from the London streets and setting them in the way of earning an honest living, was a grand recompense for his early rescue from death by fire or water.

Throughout the whole of that weary day and far on into the night John Thomson stuck manfully to his post, making trip after trip to the burning wreck; and even when expostulation and entreaty had failed to induce a few terrified creatures to leave her at the last, he persevered in keeping his boat at the ship’s stern to save them if possible. By means of the boats 301 officers, noncommissioned officers, and privates of the 31st Regiment, 46 women and 48 children, 19 male and female private passengers, and Captain Cobb and 139 of the crew, amounting in all to 554, were rescued. In the ‘narrative’ in question the highest praise is given to Lieutenant Thomson, to whose spirited conduct and indefatigable exertions much of this result was due; while Captain Cook of the Cambria, in reporting the incidents of the wreck to his agents, also singles him out, along with Mr. Philip, the boatswain, for warmest commendation.

The circumstances connected with the occurrence made a great impression throughout the country at the time, and on the arrival of the tidings at Duddingston Manse, Mr. Thomson, we are told, ‘shed tears of delight and honest pride at the noble conduct of his son,’ and whenever the event was mentioned afterwards it was evidently a source of the utmost satisfaction.

Lieutenant Thomson afterwards rose to the rank of Captain in the East India Company’s service, and was frequently several years abroad at a stretch with his vessel, the Duke of York. It is related that on one occasion when his ship was out about a day from England, he fell in with a homeward-bound troopship, which signalled them for a doctor. Captain Thomson brought his ship to; the gig was lowered, and he had his foot on the ladder to go with the doctor when something detained him, and the doctor went alone. On the doctor’s return he was evidently much impressed, and said to the Captain, ‘I have seen a sad sight; as fine a young fellow as you could imagine in the last stage of malarial fever; he will never reach home alive.’ He did not; and, strange to say, it afterwards transpired that it was young Molyneux Dalrymple, Captain Thomson’s own half-brother, the surgeon had been to see, and whom he had just missed saying good-bye to.

After 1848, when Captain Thomson was married, he got an appointment at Poole harbour, from which he was transferred to the charge of the coastguard at Peterhead, where he served for ten years. For the last twenty-five years of his life he was Inspecting Officer of the Inverness division of the coastguard at Cromarty. He died there 4th May 1870, leaving a widow and three daughters. These are Joanne (Mrs. Ogilvie), Caroline, widow of Dr. J. Headley Neale, Leicester; and Miss Isabella Thomson, who is a teacher at Prestonpans.

3. MARGARET. Born at Daily, 13th October 1805. She died at Duddingston Manse on 12th February 1827, in the 22nd year of her age.

4. MARY. Born 21st November 1806. Died in infancy.

5. ISABELLA. Born at Duddingston Manse on the 1st April 1809. Married to Robert Scott Lauder, R.S.A., 10th September 1883, and had issue the following children:—

HELEN THOMSON. Born at Rome, 6th September 1834, where she died, aged seventeen months.

HENRY SCOTT LAUDER. Born at Rome, 15th June 1837.

ISABELLA Scorr LAUDER. Born in London, 14th July 1889. Married to her cousin, Mr. James Thomson (who died in December 1897), and has issue two sons.

JOHN THOMSON LAUDER. Born 27th November 1841; died 16th November 1865.

ROBERT SCOTT LAUDER. Born 27th January 1844; died 4th June 1887.

Mrs. Lauder died On 27th August 1869, and Robert Scott Lauder on 21st April of the same year.

By his second wife, Frances Ingram Spence, or Dalrymple, the Rev. John Thomson had three sons and two daughters. These were—

1. FRANCIS THOMSON. Born at Duddingston, 17th October 1814 He was a member of the medical profession, and practised for some years at Peterhead, where he died, 4th October 1858. He was married to a Miss Nisbet, but they had no family.

2. EMILY. Born 4th September 1816, at Duddingston.

3. MARY HELEN. Born 6th December 1817; died 13th January 1819.

4. HENRY FRANCIS THOMSON. Born at Duddingston, May 1819. After a somewhat chequered career, he died in Ceylon, where he was a coffee-planter.

5. EDWARD THOMSON. Born at Duddingston on 19th April 1821. When a comparatively young man he went to Australia ‘to push his fortune.’ He bought an extensive tract of land, but it did not prove a remunerative speculation. Being, like his father, an adept at the brush, he took to Art; but appreciation of Art was yet a thing of the future in the Colonies, and many good paintings of his, we have been told, were sent home for sale. He died in Australia from the result of an accident while out riding in the bush. He was married, but at his death left no family.

Besides those we have named, Mrs. Thomson brought with her on her marriage three of her four children by Mr. Dalrymple, of whom the third—Emily Dalrymple—a young girl of eight years, died in July 1815; so that at the manse it might be said there were three families in one, which, on a certain occasion, provoked the humorous remark by Mrs. Thomson, when introducing the young people to a visitor: ‘That’s my family; that’s John’s family; but these (pointing to the youngest) are ours.’

The care and responsibility of this tripartite family must have been no light matter; and doubtless the good people of the manse found it so in their experience.

Death, as we have seen, was a not unfrequent visitor, and more than once Thomson’s family circle was sadly broken, young and hopeful lives being rudely snatched away, calling forth from his old friend, Sir Walter Scott, on one occasion the sympathetic line— ‘Poor fellow, he has bad many misfortunes in his family.’ How true it is that in every man’s cup there are some bitter drops and who shall search into the heart that bleeds? To lay loved ones in the lonesome grave—to miss the merry laugh and the glad welcome—to see the fairest flower in our garden wither, the brightest light in our household quenched—or to have fond hopes of success in youthful lives perversely wrecked for ever—these are trials hard to bear. But these recurring losses and griefs were draughts which the good minister of Duddingston drank in the deep silence of unmurmuring patience and resignation. Naturally endowed with a cheerful, buoyant disposition, he was not a man inclined to undervalue the pleasures of life, or to make too great a virtue of earthly happiness. The many incidental possibilities and standing problems of human suffering were too frequently thrust upon him both in his private and official capacity for this. But they certainly developed in his character much of that generous Christian sympathy for others for which he was distinguished. This sympathy of his was the spontaneous, cheerful outflow of a sunny, gladsome heart, that recognised the fact that in every landscape there is some cloud, a mildew on every flower, but hopefully loved to look at the bright side of things, and see on the edge of the darkest cloud some silver lining; and not the moping, hopeless feeling of grief that must be submitted to, because it cannot be helped. If there be truth in the assertion of Robert Browning in the ‘Two Poets of Croisic,’ that other conditions being equal, the greater poet is he who leads the happier life and ‘triumphs over suffering,’ it will, we think, be admitted that as a true poet, which his friend Sir Walter Scott asserted he was, John Thomson had the faculty in a large degree of rising above misfortune.

‘A strong since joyful man, who stood distinct
Above slave-sorrows to his chariot linked.’

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