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The Scottish Nation

STRUTHERS, a surname derived from the word Strother, or Struther, frequently applied in the south and east of Scotland to places remarkable for swamps and marshes.

STRUTHERS, JOHN, author of ‘The Poor Man’s Sabbath,’ was born at the cottage of Forefeulds, on the estate of Long Calderwood, parish of East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, 18th July 1776. He was the second son and fourth child of William Struthers, for more than forty years a shoemaker in that parish. His education was of the scantiest kind. He was taught to read by his mother, from the shorter Catechism and the Proverbs of Solomon, and, at a very early age, could read any chapter in the Bible. He acquired the art of writing by copying the letters of the alphabet, scrawled in a very rude manner, on the side of an old slate, by his mother, who herself had never been taught to write. Her simple mode of tuition, however, was greatly assisted by the kind notice taken of the boy by Mrs. Baillie, widow of Dr. James Billie, formerly professor of theology in the university of Glasgow, who, as he tells us in his autobiography, “with her two daughters, Miss Baillie and Miss Joanna Baillie, afterwards so highly distinguished for her poetical powers, lived then at Long Calderwood, and had him frequently brought in to her, conversed familiarly with him, told him amusing stories, made him frequently read to her, and frequently read to him herself, while the young ladies delighted him at times with music from a spinet.” At the age of seven he was employed as a herd-boy to a neighbouring farmer, an occupation which he had to leave, on account of a fever that confined him to bed for more than six weeks. He was thrown into it on finding the house of his benefactress, Mrs. Baillie, shut up, and the family removed to London. The ensuing winter he was sent to school, where his progress was so rapid that his master earnestly advised his father to bestow upon him a classical education, but this the latter would not consent to.

He was next employed, for three years and a half, as a cowherd, in the parish of Glasford. At this time he resided with his grandmother. His parents and friends belonged to the body of the Old Scottish Seceders, and his grandfather’s library contained almost all the controversial works connected with the Scottish Reformation. The youth carefully perused again and again the ecclesiastical histories of Wodrow, Knox, and Calderwood, with various of the publications relating to the times of the covenant. To beguile the time, when herding the cattle, he engaged in polemical disputes with a neighbouring herd lad, and these, ending as such discussions usually do, in the triumph of neither party, the two rustic controversialists, rustic-like, on one occasion, submitted the question to the decision of two of their most belligerent bulls, to the manifest injury of the poor brutes.

Afterwards he was employed in farm service in the parish of Cathcart, and in his fourteenth year returned home. He was desirous of being put to the trade of a country wright, but finding no opening for him in it, he sat himself down beside his father to learn to make shoes. The following year he went to Glasgow to perfect himself in his trade, and soon became an efficient workman. He then returned to his father, and worked at home for the next year or two.

All this time, he lost no opportunity of cultivating his intellectual powers, and he stored his mind with a knowledge of the best authors, both in prose and verse, in British literature. At the age of twenty-two, he married, and after remaining for three years in East Killbrode, on 1st September 1801, he removed with his family to Glasgow, which he made his permanent residence for the future. Soon after, he ventured upon the printing of a small volume of poetry, but had not the courage to publish it, and, with the exception of a few copies given away, he burnt the whole impression. His first published poem was a war ode, entitled ‘Anticipation,’ which appeared in 1803, when Bonaparte’s threatened intention of invading Great Britain had alarmed the whole nation. It was well received, and is reprinted in the second volume of his collected poems.

Encouraged by its success, in the beginning of 1804, he published a longer poem, written in 1802, in the Spenserian stanza, entitled ‘The Poor Man’s Sabbath,’ which at once established his reputation as a poet. This poem appeared a few weeks before ‘The Sabbath, a Poem,’ by James Grahame, against whom a charge was brought by one of the critics of the day, of taking his design from the poem of Mr. Struthers. In his autobiography, however, the latter says that, “from first to last, he regarded the attempt, made through him, to annoy poor Mr. Grahame, with the deepest disgust; believing that though the first object of the authors of that attempt was perhaps only to afflict that most sensitive of poets, their ultimate end was, by engaging the two Sabbath-singing bards in a senseless quarrel, to see them render themselves ridiculous, and thus bring both their poems into contempt.” A second edition of ‘The Poor Man’s Sabbath,’ with some additions, was issued the same year, and soon after he published ‘The Peasant’s Death,’ a poem intended to be a sequel to it. In 1808, he had the honour of a visit from Moss Joanna Baillie, and on her suggestion and through the recommendation of Sir Walter Scott, Mr. Constable, the eminent publisher, was induced to issue a third edition of a thousand copies of ‘The Poor Man’s Sabbath,’ then extending to 102 stanzas, with a few notes, and some smaller pieces, for which he gave the author thirty pounds, with two dozen copies for himself.

In 1811, Mr. Struthers published his poem of ‘The Winter Day,’ which was moderately successful. Parts of it were included in a collected edition of his poetical writings, under the title of ‘Poems, Moral and Religious,’ published in 1814. Two years after, when there was a high degree of excitement in the country, and a very great amount of suffering, he published, anonymously, a short ‘Essay on the State of the Labouring Poor, with some hints for its improvement,’ his plan being the allotment of farms of ten acres. This pamphlet created a good deal of sensation, and before it was known who was the author, was attributed to some of the most eminent authors of the day.

The following year Mr. Struthers was employed by Mr. Fullarton, of the firm of Messrs, Khull, Blackie, and Co., publishers, Glasgow, to edit a collection of songs, which, under the title of ‘The Harp of Caledonia,’ came out in 3 vols. 18mo, and had a very extensive sale. In 1818, appeared his poem of ‘The Plough,’ written in the Spenserian stanza, and about the same time he edited a small volume of poems, by Mr. William Muir of Campsie, to which he added a biographical preface. About the beginning of 1819 he entered the printing-office of Khull, Blackie, and Co., as a corrector of the press. Here he assisted in editing Wodrow’s History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland, which was printed from a copy that belonged to himself, and also wrote the History of Scotland from the Union to 1827, which was published in the latter year. His latest literary employment was the continuation of this history down to the period of the disruption of the church of Scotland in 1843, which was finished just before his death. With Mr. Alexander Whitelaw, and others, he was, for about eighteen months, engaged writing the lives of distinguished natives of Scotland, most of which were transferred to the collection published in 1835, in four volumes, under the name of ‘A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen,’ by Robert Chambers. Being in 1831 temporarily thrown out of employment, Mr. Struthers published, in that year, a pamphlet against the voluntary principle, entitled ‘Tekel,’ extending to 96 pages, 8vo. He afterwards obtained his former literary situation, in the firm of Archibald Fullarton and Co., publishers. In 1833, he was appointed librarian of Stirling’s library, Glasgow, with a yearly salary of fifty pounds. He held that situation for fifteen years, when, in consequence of the duties being greatly increased, he resigned the office, and at the advanced age of 74, returned to his first trade, that of shoemaking. In 1836 he published his poem of ‘Dychmont,’ which he reprinted the following year in an 8vo edition of his poems. He also wrote for the Christian Instructor, biographical notices of James Hogg, minister of Dalserf, afterwards of Carnock, and Principal Robertson, and published some short tracts on the religious controversies of the day. At the disruption he had joined the Free church of Scotland, and in his latter years, was twice representative elder to its General Assembly. At one period he issued proposals for publishing a volume of Essays, some of which had been already printed, but this volume circumstances prevented him from completing. In 1850, an edition of his poetical works, in two volumes, handsomely got up, with his autobiography prefixed, and a portrait, was published by Messrs. A. Fullarton and Co.

Mr. Struthers died at Glasgow, somewhat suddenly, on the evening of the 30th July 1853, in his 78th year, having been three times married. “though early of a very feeble constitution,” says one who knew him well, “he had acquired great bodily vigour. His step was firm and elastic; his figure rather tall and muscular, though slight. A walk of fifty miles a-day, up to within three or four years of his death, was nothing to him. He delighted in the country, and in visiting our shores and mountains. He was a man of few wants and little ambition. He was allowed to toil on to the end. Though decidedly a man of genius, whose life had been spent in honest labour, and who had large acquaintance of men and things both in the literary and religious world, and though his writings were all in the defence of truth, religion, good order, and humanity, no other attempt than that of a few private friends was ever made, towards the close of his days, to ease him of the cares of old age; and that attempt had resulted in very little. But he coveted little either the praises or the rewards of men. He was a man of strong sense, clear intellect, fine imagination, of warm sympathies, strong feelings, generous sentiments, and powerful emotions, controlled, subdued, and regulated by the love and fear of God, of his Redeemer, and of his fellow-men. He was truly a remnant of the Scottish mind and heart, cast in the mould of the best days of her intellectual and religious elevation.”

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