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The Scottish Nation

M’DIARMID, JOHN, an accomplished journalist and popular writer, the son of the Rev. Hugh M’Diarmid, minister of the Gaelic church, Glasgow, was born, it is said, in Edinburgh in 1790. He received a fair education at Edinburgh, and became a clerk in a counting-house in that city, connected with a bleachfield at Roslin. He next procured a situation in the head office of the Commercial bank, where he rose to a responsible position, which he retained for several years. During this time he attended such classes in the university as were accessible to his leisure hours, and pursued a course of instructive reading with great diligence. In the evenings he acted as amanuensis for two years to Professor Playfair, with so much satisfaction to the latter that the advantages of his classes and his library were offered to him and eagerly accepted.

Mr. M’Diarmid became a member of one of the college debating societies, and the “Edinburgh Forum,” a society which held its meetings in public, and of which he became one of the leading speakers. Previous to 1817, he had contributed to the leading magazines of that day, many fugitive pieces both in prose and verse. In 1815, when Edinburgh was illuminated in honour of the victory of Waterloo, a triplet, written by him, was exhibited, in letters of fire, over the door of a publishing house in that city, and acquired for the author no small degree of local fame. The same year, at the request of a fellow-clerk, some spirited lines, on the Battle of Waterloo, were written for the occasion of laying the foundation-stone of the Waterloo monument at Newabbey, near Dumfries, the first memorial of the great battle erected in the kingdom. The Waterloo lines having attracted attention, his services were sought by several of the leading publishers in Edinburgh, though he still retained his post in the bank.

“Mr. M’Diarmid’s literary pursuits,” says the memoir of him written by his son, “were now becoming of some value to him, in a monetary point of view. In 1816, he one day received for publications compiled for Messrs, Oliver & Boyd, the sum of fifty pounds, and an anecdote we can give as to its disposal will show that, along with independence of mind, generosity of nature entertained largely into the composition of his character. He had just left his publishers’ office, highly elated with the possession of so much money, when he encountered a brother poet, whose muse, though better known to fame than his own, failed, as is frequently the habit of the muse, to supply its possessor with the comforts of life. A tale of distress was told, and ere Mr. M’Diarmid’s first prize in the walk of literature had continued for half-an-hour in his pocket, it was transferred entire to that of his more needy friend, a destination whence it never returned.”

In the end of that year (1816) he formed one of a trio who had resolved to set on foot a new weekly journal in Edinburgh, the other two being Mr. Charles Maclaren and Mr. William Ritchie. The project resulted in the establishment of the Scotsman, the first number of which appeared on the 25th January 1817. He retained for many years his share in the copyright, but the management devolved entirely on his two friends. In January 1817, Mr. M’Diarmid left Edinburgh to assume the editorship of the Dumfries and Galloway Courier, which had been established in 1809, by the Rev. Dr. Henry Duncan, minister of Ruthwell, and had been edited by him up to the period when Mr. M’Diarmid joined it. That paper professed no party politics, though leaning to liberal views; and was used mainly for promoting the benevolent schemes of its editor; amongst which his project for establishing Savings Banks, first made to the world through its columns in 1810, will for ever reflect luster on the author and his newspaper.

The talent, intelligence, taste, and industry which Mr. M’Diarmid brought to his editorial labours, soon showed that he was admirably qualified for the position which he had now assumed. Interesting himself in agricultural matters and agricultural improvement, his weekly article on rural affairs became remarkable for variety of detail, and for the attractive forms in which that detail was presented to his readers. In this department he opened up a new branch of journalism, one at that time quite unheeded, but which now forms a most important feature in both the provincial and metropolitan press.

In 1820, Mr. M’Diarmid was offered the editorship of the Caledonian Mercury, the oldest established newspaper in Scotland. The liberal party in Dumfries, however, were unwilling to lose his services, and by the intervention of Mr. William Gordon, writer in that town, a new arrangement was made, by which he and Mr. M’Diarmid became jointly interested with Dr. Duncan in the property of the Courier. This partnership continued till 1837, when Mr. M’Diarmid became sole proprietor of the copyright. In 1843, he admitted his eldest son, Mr. William Ritchie M’Diarmid, to a partnership and share in the editorial duties of the newspaper, and appointed him also to be his successor.

In 1832, Mr. M’Diarmid acted as secretary to the Dumfries relief fund, when that town was first visited by the Asiatic cholera, and he ever took an active part in all the local charities of Dumfries. He was a firm and strenuous supporter of all the liberal measures brought forward during his editorial career, such as the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, carried in 1820; Roman Catholic Emancipation, in 1829; the Reform Bill, in 1832; and Free Trade, in 1848.

In 1817, he published an edition of Cowper’s Poems, prefaced by a life of the poet. This book became very popular, and reached several editions. In 1820 the first volume of the ‘Scrap Book’ appeared – a book of selections and original contributions in prose and verse – which met with a still more extended circulation and fame. A second volume was soon required, and many successive editions of both were afterwards published. In 1825, Mr. M’Diarmid started the Dumfries Magazine, chiefly with a view to afford scope for local literary talent. This periodical lasted for three years. In 1823, an edition of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, with a memoir of the author by Mr. M’Diarmid, was published at Edinburgh, and in 1830 he printed and published in Dumfries his ‘Sketches from Nature,’ chiefly a selection from the pages of the Courier, and abounding in interesting descriptions of scenery and character pertaining to the district. He also contributed to the ‘Picture of Dumfries,’ an illustrated work published in 1832, a graphic account of the ancient burgh and its locality; and some minor works, such as a description of Moffat, and a life of William Nicholson, the Galloway poet, were thrown off in the intervals of his leisure.

It was as a journalist, however, that Mr. M’Diarmid particularly excelled. His extensive and minute acquaintance with agriculture, his boundless store of curious and amusing gossip relating to rural affairs, and even that honest love of the marvelous with which he was frequently charged, all contributed to render his name and his newspaper popular. A good story, a romantic incident, or the death of a ‘character,’ seldom escaped him, and he made the Courier at once the political organ of the district and the epitome of its daily history; the picture-book of its scenery and the biography of its leading men. “A tale of distress,” says the Memoir by his son, “or an affecting incident, was certain to acquire a thrilling interest in his hands. About eighteen years before his death, a poor wandering female, carrying a baby in her arms, begged a night’s lodging at a farm-house not far from Dumfries. She was sheltered in an outhouse, and in the morning the mother was found cold in death and the living infant still clinging to her bosom. His heart was touched by such a tale. The related it simply and affectingly, and in the London papers it met the eye of a lady of rank, then mourning the loss of an only daughter. She made inquiry if the little orphan was a female, and this happily being the case, she determined at once to adopt it. Though names were carefully concealed, that the child might never, in after life, learn its origin, the most respectable references were given to the parish authorities, who gladly gave up the child; and being carried to London, she was baptized into the Church of England with much ceremony, and became one of the members of a fashionable family.”

In 1847 Mr. M’Diarmid was entertained at a public dinner by upwards of ninety of the residents of Dumfries and its neighbourhood, under the presidency of Sir James Stuart Menteth, baronet. On Friday, 12th November 1852, he was attacked with erysipelas, then very prevalent in Dumfries and its neighbourhood, and on the morning of Thursday, the 18th of that month, he breathed his last, in his 63d year. He had lost his wife two years previously, but left a family to mourn his loss. In the words of a clergyman who knew him long and well, it may be truly said of him that “he did more for Dumfries-shire, and, indeed, a large part of the south-west of Scotland, than perhaps any man living. Everything useful or promising in an agricultural or commercial point of view he powerfully and constantly encouraged; and none who had the good of his country or his native place at heart, ever solicited his patronage in vain. With the single exception of Burns, no man is more imperishably connected with Dumfries, and I am persuaded that the men of Dumfries will long and peculiarly cherish his memory.” Of the life and writings of our great national poet he possessed a minute knowledge, enriched by numerous original anecdotes which he had from time to time collected. Soon after his arrival in Dumfries in 1817, he made the acquaintance of burns’ widow, and became her intimate friend and adviser, and ultimately her executor. He was also the friend and correspondent of the poet’s sons. As a memorial of Mr. M’Diarmid, a sum of money was, after his decease, collected, in Dumfries and the neighbourhood, for the purpose of founding a bursary of £10 a-hear in the university of Edinburgh, open for competition to students from the three counties of Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, and Wigtown.

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