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Significant Scots
William Carstars

CARSTARS, WILLIAM, an eminent political and ecclesiastical character, was born at the village of Cathcart in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, on the 11th of February, 1649. His father was Mr. John Carstairs, descended of a very ancient family in Fife, and minister in the high church of Glasgow, where he had for his colleague the Rev. James Durham, well known for his commentary on the Revelation and other learned and pious works. His mother’s name was Jane Muir, of the family of Glanderston in the county of Renfrew. Giving early indication of an uncommon genius, young Carstairs was by his father placed under the care of a Mr Sinclair, an indulged presbyterian minister, who at that time kept a school of great celebrity at Ormiston, a village in east Lothian. Under Mr Sinclair, in whose school, as in all schools of that kind at the time, and even in the family, no language but Latin was used, Carstairs acquired a perfect knowledge of that language, with great fluency of expressing himself in it, and a strong taste for classical learning in general. He had also the good fortune to form, among the sons of the nobility who attended this celebrated seminary, several friendships, which were of the utmost consequence to him in after life.

Having completed his course at the school, Mr Carstairs entered the college of Edinburgh in his nineteenth year, where he studied for four years under Mr, afterwards Sir William Paterson, who in later life became clerk to the privy council of Scotland. Under this gentleman he made great proficiency in the several branches of the school philosophy then in vogue; but the distracted state of the country determined his father to send him to study divinity in Holland, where many of his brethren, the persecuted ministers of the church of Scotland, had already found an asylum. He was accordingly entered in the university of Utrecht, where he studied Hebrew under Leusden and Divinity under Herman Witsius, at that time two of the most celebrated professors in Europe. He had also an opportunity, which he carefully improved, of attending the lectures of the celebrated Graevius, who was at this time in the vigour of his faculties and the zenith of his reputation. The study of theology, however, was what he made his main business, which having completed, he was licensed as a preacher of the gospel, but where or by whom seems not to have been known by any of his biographers. In all probability, it was by some of the classes of Holland. Being strongly attached to the presbyterian system, in which he had been educated, and for adherence to which his father was a sufferer at home, and himself in a limited sense a wanderer in a strange land, for it was to avoid the taking of unnecessary or unlawful oaths imposed by the bishops that he had been sent by his father to study at Utrecht, he naturally took a deep interest in the affairs of his native country, and was early engaged in deliberating upon the means of her deliverance. On sending him to Holland by the way of London, his father introduced him by letter to an eminent physician of that city, who kindly furnished him with a letter to the physician of the prince of Orange. This latter gentleman, upon the strength of his friend’s recommendation, introduced Carstairs to the Pensionary Fogel, who finding him so much a master of every thing relative to the state of parties and interests in Great Britain, introduced him to a private interview with his master, the prince, who was at once struck with his easy and polite address, and with the extent of his political knowledge. This favourable opinion was heightened by subsequent interviews, and in a short time nothing of consequence was transacted at his court relative to Great Britain, till Carstairs had been previously consulted. Holland had, from the first attempts of the court after the Restoration to suppress the presbyterians, been the general resort of such of the Scottish clergy as found it impossible to retain their stations, and they were soon followed by numbers of their unhappy countrymen who had vainly perilled their lives on the fatal fields of Pentland and Bothwell, with the principal of whom Carstairs could not, in the circumstances in which he was placed, fail to become acquainted. Being well connected, and in no way obnoxious to the government, he seems to have been selected both by his expatriated countrymen and by the agents of the prince of Orange to visit Scotland on a mission of observation in the year 1682.

Nothing could be more hopeless than the condition of Scotland at this time. Her ministers where every where silenced: Cargill and Cameron, the only two that remained of the intrepid band that had so long kept up the preached gospel in the fields, had both fallen, the one on the scaffold by an iniquitous sentence, the other on the open heath by the hand of violence. Her nobles were either the slaves of arbitrary royalty, or they had already expatriated themselves, or were just about to do so, while the body of her people, Issachar-like, were crouching beneath their burdens in the most hopeless dejection. Finding no encouragement in Scotland, where the few individuals that felt any of the true aspirations of liberty, were seriously engaged in a project for purchasing lands and transporting themselves, their families, and their friends to Carolina in North America, Mr Carstairs determined to return to Holland, where, under a rational and indulgent government, he had enjoyed a liberty which he found to his grief was not to be obtained at home. He, however, probably not without instructions, took London in his way, where he arrived in the month of November, 1682, at the very time when Shaftesbury, Monmouth, Sydney, Essex, Russell, Hampden, and Howard were engaged in what has been called Shaftesbury’s plot, or more generally, from a forged story of a design to murder the king and the duke of York at a farm called the Rye, possessed by colonel Rumbold, the Ryehouse plot. These gentlemen were actuated by very different views. Monmouth had probably no object but the crown; Russell and Hampden were for restraining the prerogative and securing the nation’s liberties, civil and religious; Sydney and Essex were for restoring the republic, while Howarcl, a man without principle, seems to have had nothing in view, but to raise a tumult, whereby he might by accident promote his private interest. All of them, however, agreed in soliciting the co-operation of those Scotsmen, who, no longer able to subsist under the impositions of a government whose sole object seemed to be not the protection, but the entire ruin of its subjects, were about to transport themselves to a distant and desert country. Most of the conspirators having some previous knowledge of Carstairs, he was employed to negotiate between the parties; and he was empowered by a letter from Sir James Stewart, afterwards lord advocate for Scotland, to assure the English conspirators that, upon furnishing a certain sum of money for the purchase of arms and ammunition, the Scottish refugees in Holland were ready to co-operate with them by an immediate descent upon the west coast of Scotland. This letter he communicated to Russell and Sydney, seconding its contents by a fervent eulogium upon the influence, the talents, and the particular merits of Argyle, whose numerous vassals, extensive jurisdictions, as well as his past sufferings, pointed him out as the most proper person to head an insurrection in that country. All this must have been self-evident to the whole party; yet they do not seem to have been so cordial as might have been expected. Though Carstairs ceased not to press the object of his mission, he was put off from time to time till he was at length told by Shepherd, an eminent wine-merchant in London, who was one of the subaltern conspirators, that he had heard Sydney declare that he would have nothing to do with Argyle, being well aware that, whatever his present circumstances might prompt him to undertake, he was too strongly attached to the reigning family and to the present government, both in church and state, to unite cordially with them in the measures they had determined to pursue. At the same time, he was told both by Shepherd and Ferguson that the party were jealous of Sydney as driving a secret design of his own, and Ferguson took the opportunity to hint to Mr Carstairs, that there might be an easier method of attaining their point than by an open rebellion, as by taking the lives of at most two men, they might spare the lives of thousands, evidently, hinting at what must have been spoken of among the inferior members of this conspiracy, though certainly never among the higher, the assassination of the king and the duke of York. Feeling himself insulted, and the cause disgraced by such a proposal, Mr Carstairs told Ferguson that he and the men with whom he was engaged, thought themselves warranted even with arms in their hands, to demand for redress of their grievances, those constitutional remedies which had been so often denied to their complaints and remonstrances; but they held it beneath them, both as men and as Christians, to adopt any such mean and cowardly contrivances either against the king or his brother. From that time forward, Ferguson never mentioned any such thing in his presence, nor did he ever hear any such thing alluded to in his intercourse with any other of the party. Disgusted, however, with their procrastination he took his departure for Holland, without carrying any message, having refused to do so, except it were a full compliance with his demands.

Scarcely had he landed in Holland, than Shaftesbury found it convenient to follow him, not daring to trust himself any longer in England; and by his desertion, the remaining conspirators, finding their connection with the city of London, upon which they had placed great dependence, broken, saw it the more necessary to unite with Argyle and the refugees abroad, as well as with the Scots at home. Sydney now dropped all his objections, and letters were immediately forwarded to Carstairs, requesting him to come over, and an express was sent down to Scotland, for his friends to come up, in order to a speedy adjustment of every particular relative to the insurrection and consentaneous invasion. In consequence of this, consultations were held among the refugees, Argyle, Stair, Loudoun, Stewart, and others, where it was proposed that the conspirators in England should contribute thirty thousand pounds sterling in money, and one thousand horse, to be ready to join Argyle the moment he should land upon the west coast of Scotland. Mr Stewart was for accepting a smaller sum of money, if so much could not be obtained; but all agreed in the necessity of raising the horse before any thing should be attempted. Stair seemed more cold in the matter than the others; but Argyle having assured Carstairs that, so soon as the preliminaries were settled, he would be found abundantly zealous, he consented to carry their proposals and lay them before the committee or council, that had been by the conspirators appointed to conduct the business at London. When he arrived there, he was mortified to find that the difficulty of raising the money now was as formidable an obstacle as the opposition of Sydney had formerly been. Russell frankly acknowledged that the whole party could not raise so much money; and begged that ten thousand pounds might be accepted as a beginning, and even this was never paid to Shepherd, who was appointed cashier to the concern, nor was one single step taken for levying the proposed number of troops upon the borders. After having spent several weeks in London, fruitlessly prosecuting the business that had been entrusted to him, he became perfectly convinced from the temper of the men and their mode of procedure that the scheme would come to nothing. This opinion he communicated to a meeting of his countrymen, where were present Baillie of Jerviswood, lord Melvill, Sir John Cochrane, the Campbells of Cessnock, and others, recommending it to them to attend to their own safety, by putting an immediate stop to further preparations, till their brethren of England should be more forward, and better prepared to join them. Baillie of Jerviswood, the most ardent and decisive of all his countrymen who had engaged in this enterprise, reflected bitterly upon the timidity of the English, who had suffered their zeal to evaporate in talk, when they might, by promptitude of action, have been already in possession of the benefits they expected to derive from the undertaking; and insisted that the Scots should prosecute the undertaking by themselves. There was, no doubt, in this something very heroic; but alas, it was vain, and he himself was speedily brought to confess that it was so. It was agreed to, however, by all, that a communication should be made to their English friends, that, unless they were determined to act with more vigour, they were not to expect co-operation on the part of the Scots any longer. In the meantime they wrote to their friends in Scotland, to suspend their preparations till further notice. This was a very proper and wise determination; only it came too late. The English conspirators had no unity of purpose, and they had no decision. They had talked away the time of action, and the whole scheme was already falling to pieces by its own weight. In short, before they could return an answer to their Scottish brethren, the whole was betrayed, and they were alone to a man in the hands of the government.

The prudence of the Scots saved them in part; yet the government got immediate information, that there had been a correspondence carried on with Argyle by the conspirators, and Major Holmes, the person to whom all Argyle’s letters were directed, was taken into custody, having a number of the letters, and the cypher and key in his possession. The cypher and key belonged to Mr Carstairs, who had sent it to Monmouth only two days before, to enable him to read a letter from Argyle, which having done, he returned it to Major Holmes, in whose hands it was now taken. The earl of Melfort no sooner saw the cypher than he knew part of it to be the handwriting of Carstairs, and an order was instantly issued for his apprehension, as art and part in the assassination plot. Though Mr Carstairs was conscious of being innocent as to this part of the plot, he had gone too far with the conspirators for an examination on the subject to be safe either for himself or his friends. He therefore assumed a fictitious name, and concealed himself among his friends in Kent the best way he could. Being discovered in this situation, he was suspected to be the notorious Ferguson, of all the conspirators the most obnoxious to government, and as such was seized in the house of a friend at Tenterden, and thrown into the jail of that place on the Monday after the execution of lord Russell. Here he continued for a fortnight, when orders came for his being brought up to London, where he was for some days committed to the charge of a messenger at arms. During this interval Sir Andrew Forrester brought him a message from the king informing him, that though his majesty was not disposed to believe that he had any direct hand in plotting either his death, or that of the duke of York; yet as he had corresponded with Argyle and Russell, he was convinced that he knew many particulars relative to the Rye House plot, which if he would discover, with what he knew of any other machinations against the government, he would not only receive an ample pardon for the past, but the king would also show him all manner of favour for the time to come. If, however, he rejected this, he was to abide by the consequences, which, in all likelihood, would be fatal to him. His answer not proving satisfactory, he was committed to close custody in the Gatehouse, where he continued upwards of eleven weeks. During this time he was often before the privy council, but revealed nothing. At length, finding that he could obtain no favour through the king, but upon dishonourable conditions, he petitioned the court of king’s bench for his habeas corpus, instead of which he received an intimation that he was to be sent down to Scotland within twenty-four hours, to take his trial in that kingdom. It was in vain that he represented it as a breach of law to send him to be tried in Scotland for a crime said to be committed in England. He was sent off next day with several other of his friends, who were consigned into the hands of the Scottish privy council, to be tried for compassing the death of the king in London, or at the Rye House, between London and Newmarket. Among that unhappy number was a servant of Argyle, of the name of Spence, who was instantly brought before that most abominable tribunal, the privy council of Scotland, where, because he refused to take an oath to criminate himself, he was first put to the torture of the boot, which he endured with unshrinking firmness; then kept from sleep upwards of nine nights together—which not answering the expectations that had been formed, steel screws were invented for his thumbs, which proved so exquisite a torment, that he sunk under it, the earl of Perth assuring him at the same time, that they would screw every joint of his body in the same manner till he took the oath. Even in this state, Spence had the firmness to stipulate that no new questions should be put to him, that he should not be brought forward as a witness against any person, and that he himself should be pardoned. He then acquainted them with the names of Argyle’s correspondents, and assisted them in decyphering the letters, by which it was seen what Argyle had demanded, and what he had promised to do upon his demands being granted; but there was nothing in them of any agreement being then made.

Carstairs, in the mean time, was laid in irons, and continued in them several weeks, Perth visiting him almost daily, to urge him to reveal what he knew, with promises of a full pardon, so far as he himself was concerned. On this point, however, Mr Carstairs was inflexible; and when brought before the council, the instruments of torture being laid before him, and he asked by the earl of Perth if he would answer upon oath such questions as should be put to him, he replied, with a firmness that astonished the whole council, that in a criminal matter he never would, but, if they produced his accusers, he was ready to vindicate himself from any crime they could lay to his charge. He was then assured, that if he would answer a few questions that were to be put to him concerning others, nothing he said should ever militate against himself, nor should they ever inquire whether his disclosures were true or false; but he peremptorily told them, that with him, in a criminal cause, they should never found such a detestable precedent. To the very foolish question put to him, it he had any objections against being put to the torture, he replied, he had great objections to a practice that was a reproach to human nature, and as such banished from the criminal courts of every free country. Here he repeated the remonstrances he had given in to the council at London, and told them that he did consider his trial a breach of the habeas corpus act. To this Perth replied, that he was now in Scotland, and must be tried for crimes committed against the state by the laws of that country, had they been committed at Constantinople. The executioner was now brought forward, and a screw of a particular construction applied to his thumb with such effect that large drops of sweat streamed over his brow. Yet he was self-possessed, and betrayed no inclination to depart from his first resolution. The earl of Queensberry was much affected, and after telling Perth that he saw the poor man would rather die than confess, he ran out of the council, followed by the duke of Hamilton, both being unable longer to witness the scene. Perth sat to the last without betraying any symptoms of compassion for the sufferer. On the contrary, when by his express command the executioner had turned the screw with such violence as to make Carstairs cry out, that now he had squeezed the bones to pieces, the monster, in great indignation, told him that if he continued longer obstinate, he hoped to see every bone in his body squeezed to pieces. Having kept their victim under this cruel infliction for an hour and a half without effect, the executioner was ordered to produce the iron boots, and apply them to his legs; but, happily for Mr Carstairs, the executioner, young at his trade, and composed of less stern stuff than his masters, was so confused that he could not fix them on. After repeated attempts, he was obliged to give it up, and the council adjourned.

Torture having thus proved vain, the council once more assailed him in the way of flattery, promising him an ample pardon for himself, and that he should never be called in any court as a witness on any trial, and they further stipulated that none of his answers to the interrogatories to be put to him, should ever be produced in evidence, either directly or indirectly, in any court, or against any person whatsoever. On these conditions, as they had already extracted from Mr Spence and Major Holmes, nearly all that he could inform them of upon the stipulated questions, he consented to answer them, provided the promise made him was ratified by a deed of court, and recorded in their books. He had, however, scarcely given his answers, when they were printed and hawked through the streets, under the name of Carstairs’ Confession. Had they been printed correctly, less might have been said; but they were garbled to suit the purpose of the ruling party, which was to criminate Jerviswood, on whose trial Mackenzie the advocate read them to the jury as an adminicle of proof, without taking any notice of the qualifications with which they were clothed, the alleviating circumstances with which the facts to which they related were accompanied, or the conditions upon which he delivered them. They were so far true to their agreement, however, as to relieve him from his confinement in a dungeon of the castle, where he had remained for some months cut off from all communication with his friends, and struggling under the infirmities of a shattered constitution. He was also permitted to leave Scotland, on condition that he should wait on the secretaries at London, on his way to Holland. Milport being then at court, he went to him and demanded a pass, which he found no difficulty in obtaining; but the king was desirous to see him, and the secretary thought he ought in duty to wait upon him, and receive his commands. On stating, however, that, in such a conversation with the king, he might be led to say what might not be so honourable to some of his majesty’s servants in Scotland, the secretary made out his pass, and he departed for Holland, where he arrived in the end of the year 1684, or the beginning of 1685, only a few months before the death of Charles II., and the accession of James VII.

This was by far the most important event in the life of Carstairs, and it is impossible to say how much the human race may be indebted to his firmness and his address on this occasion. He had, at this very time, secrets of the greatest consequence from Holland, trusted to him by the pensionary Fogel, of which his persecuters had no suspicion. The discovering of these secrets would not only have saved him from torture, but would undoubtedly have brought him a high reward, and, had they been at that time discovered, the glorious revolution might have been prevented, and these kingdoms, instead of being the first and most exalted, as they are at this day, been among the lowest and most debased of nations. The great anxiety the Scottish managers were under to take the life of Baillie, by implicating him in the Rye House plot, seems so totally to have blinded them, that they had no suspicion of the Dutch connection, which Carstairs was so apprehensive about, and which he was so successful in concealing. On his return to Holland, William, fully appreciating his merits, received him into his family, appointed him one of his own chaplains, and at the same time procured him to be elected minister of the English protestant congregation at Leyden. To the day of his death William reposed upon the advice of Carstairs with the most perfect confidence. He was now, indeed, much better qualified than ever for being serviceable to his illustrious patron. During his stay in Britain he had had a fair opportunity of judging of public men and public measures. He had not only witnessed in others, but he had felt himself, the severities of a popish administration; and he saw the universal alienation of all ranks from the system of government they had adopted, and perceived that the very methods fallen upon for stilling popular clamour was only tending to its increase. The narrow politics of the duke of York he had thoroughly penetrated, was aware of all the schemes he had laid for enslaving the nation, and saw that the tools with which he was working could easily be turned to his own destruction, Of all these interesting particulars he was admitted to give his sentiments freely to the prince of Orange, who was no longer at pains to conceal his aversion to the means James was employing to restore the Catholic church. This encouraged still greater numbers of suffering British subjects to place themselves under his protection, and for the characters of these new comers his Royal Highness generally applied to Carstairs, and he was wont to remark, that he never in one instance had occasion to charge him with the smallest attempt to mislead or deceive him. It cannot indeed be doubted that he was made the channel of many complaints and advices to William, which were never made known to the public. Of these secret warnings the prince had sagacity enough to make the best use, even when he was to outward appearance treating them with neglect, and Carstairs himself was in all probability not a little surprised when he was summoned to attend him on an expedition to Great Britain. Notwithstanding all that has been spoken and written and printed about it, we believe that William felt very little, and cared very little about the sufferings of the British people; but he had an eye steadily fixed upon the British crown, to which, till the birth of a prince of Wales, June 10th, 1688, his wife was the heir apparent, and so long as he had the prospect of a natural succession, whatever might be the disorders of the government or the wishes of the people, he was not disposed to endanger his future greatness by any thing like a premature attempt to secure it. The birth of the prince, however, gave an entirely new aspect to his affairs. He behoved now to fix upon the disorders of the government, and embrace the call of the people, or abandon all reasonable hopes of ever wearing that diadem which he so fondly coveted, and by which alone he could ever hope to carry into effect those mighty plans of policy with which his mind had been so long pregnant. Equally wise to discern and prompt to act, he lost not a moment in idle hesitation; but while he seemed to discourage all the invitations he was now daily receiving, hastened to complete his preparations, and on the 19th of October, 1688, set sail for the shore of Britain with sixty-five ships of war, and five hundred transports, carrying upwards of fifteen thousand men. The subject of this memoir accompanied him as his domestic chaplain aboard his own ship, and he had in his train a numerous retinue of British subjects, whom the tyranny of the times had compelled to take refuge in Holland. On the evening of the same day, the fleet was dispersed in a tremendous hurricane, and by the dawn of next morning not two of the whole fleet were to be seen together. On the third day William returned to port, with only four ships of war and forty transports. The ship in which he himself sailed narrowly escaped being wrecked, which was looked on by some about him as an evil omen, and among the rest by Burnet, afterwards bishop of Salisbury, who remarked that it seemed predestined they should not set foot on English ground. A few days, however, collected the whole fleet once more, and on the 1st of November, the whole sailed again with a fair wind, and on Monday the 5th, the troops were safely landed at Torbay in Devonshire, the English fleet all the while lying wind-bound at Harwich. On the landing of the troops, Mr Carstairs performed divine service at their head, after which the whole army drawn up along the beach sang the 118th psalm before going into a camp. From this time till the settlement of the crowns upon William and Mary, Carstairs continued about the person of the prince, being consulted and employed in negotiating affairs of peculiar delicacy, and disposing of sums of money with which he was entrusted, in various quarters. "It was during this interval," says his biographer, and the editor of his state papers, the Rev. Joseph M’Cormick, "that he had it in his power to be of the greatest service to the prince of Orange, nothing being carried on relative to the settlement of Scotland which the prince did not communicate to him, and permit him to give his sentiment of in private." He was highly instrumental in procuring the settlement of the church of Scotland in its present presbyterian form; which was found to be a matter of no small difficulty, as the king was anxious that the same system should continue in both parts of the island. Carstairs has been often blamed for having acceded to the king’s wishes for maintaining patronage, and also for recommending that some of the worst instruments of the late monarch should be continued in office, which he did upon the plea that most of them were possessed of influence and qualifications, which, if properly directed, might be useful under the new régime. It must be recollected, that, at such a critical time, a man of Carstairs’ political sagacity was apt to be guided rather by what was practically expedient than what was abstractly proper. It is probable that Carstairs, who was unquestionably a sincere man, was anxious to render the settlement of the church and of the government as liberal as he thought consistent with their stability, or as the circumstances he had to contend against would permit. King William now took an opportunity of atoning to his counsellor for all his former sufferings; he appointed Mr Carstairs his chaplain for Scotland, with the whole revenue of the Chapel Royal. He also required the constant presence of Mr Carstairs about his person, assigning him apartments in the palace when at home, and when abroad with the army allowing him £500 a year for camp equipage.

He was of course with his majesty at all times, and by being thus always at hand was enabled on some occasions, to do signal service both to his king and his country. Of this we have a remarkable instance, which happened in the year 1694. In 1693, the Scottish parliament had passed an act, obliging all who were in office to take the oath of allegiance to their majesties, and at the same time to sign the assurance, as it was called, whereby they declared William to be king de jure as well as de facto. This was one of the first of a long series of oppressive acts intended secretly to ruin the Scottish church, by bringing her into collision with the civil authorities, and in the end depriving her of that protection and countenance which she now enjoyed from them. This act had been artfully carried through the parliament by allowing a dispensing power to the privy council in cases where no known enmity to the king’s prerogative existed. No honest presbyterian at that time had any objection to king William’s title to the crown; but they had insuperable objections to the taking of a civil oath as a qualification for a sacred office. Numerous applications were of course made to the privy council for dispensations; but that court which had still in it a number of the old persecutors, so far from complying with the demand, recommended to his majesty to allow no one to sit down in the ensuing general assembly till he had taken the oath and signed the assurance. Orders were accordingly transmitted to lord Carmichael, the commissioner to the assembly to that effect. When his lordship arrived in Edinburgh, however, he found the clergy obstinately determined to refuse compliance with his demand, and they assured him it would kindle a flame over the nation which it would surpass the power of those who had given his majesty this pernicious council to extinguish. Lord Carmichael, firmly attached to his majesty, and aware that the dissolution of this assembly might not only be fatal to the church of Scotland, but to the interests of his majesty in that country, sent a flying packet to the king, representing the difficulty, and requesting further instructions. Some of the ministers at the same time wrote a statement of the case to Carstairs, requesting his best offices in the matter. Lord Carmichael’s packet arrived at Kensington on a forenoon in the absence of Mr Carstairs, and William, who, when he could do it with safety, was as fond of stretching the prerogative as any of his predecessors, with the advice of the trimming lord Stair and the infamous Tarbet, both of whom being with him at the time, calumniously represented the refusal on the part of the clergy to take the oaths as arising from disaffection to his majesty’s title and authority, peremptorily renewed his instructions to the commissioner, and despatched them for Scotland without a moment’s delay.

Scarcely was this done, when Carstairs arrived; and learning the nature of the despatch that had been sent for Scotland, hastened to find the messenger before his final departure, and having found him, demanded back the packet, in his majesty’s name. It was now late in the evening; but no time was to be lost; so he ran straight to his majesty’s apartment, where he was told by the lord in waiting that his majesty was in bed. Carstairs, however, insisted on seeing him; and, being introduced to his chamber, found him fast asleep. He turned aside the curtain, and gently awakened him; the king, astonished to see him at so late an hour, and on his knees by his bedside, asked, with some emotion, what was the matter. "I am come," said Carstairs," to beg my life!" "Is it possible," said the king, with still higher emotion, "that you can have been guilty of a crime that deserves death!" "I have, Sire," he replied, showing the packet he had just brought back from the messenger. "And have you, indeed," said the king, with a severe frown, "presumed to countermand my orders?" "Let me be heard but for a few moments," said Carstairs, "and I am ready to submit to any punishment your majesty shall think proper to inflict." He then pointed out very briefly the danger of the advice he had acted upon and the consequences that would necessarily follow if it was persisted in, to which his majesty listened with great attention. When he had done, the king gave him the despatches to read, after which he ordered him to throw them into the fire, and draw out others to please himself, which he would sign. This was done accordingly; but so many hours delay prevented the messenger from reaching Edinburgh, till the very morning when the assembly was to meet; when nothing but confusion was expected; the commissioner finding himself under the necessity of dissolving the assembly, and the ministers being determined to assert their own authority independent of the civil magistrate. Both parties were apprehensive of the consequences, and both were happily relieved by the arrival of the messenger with his majesty’s letter, signifying that it was his pleasure that the oaths should be dispensed with. With the exception of the act establishing presbytery, this was the most popular act of his majesty’s government in Scotland. It also gained Mr Carstairs, when his part of it came to be known, more credit with his brethren and with presbyterians in general, than perhaps any other part of his public procedure. From this period, down to the death of the king, there is nothing to be told concerning Carstairs, but that he continued still in favour, and was assiduously courted by all parties; and was supposed to have so much influence, particularly in what related to the church, that he was called CARDINAL CARSTAIRS.

Having only the letters that were addressed to him, without any of his replies, we can only conjecture what these may have been. The presumption is, that they were prudent and discreet. Though he was so great a favourite with William, there was no provision made for him at his death. Anne, however, though she gave him no political employment, continued him in the chaplainship for Scotland, with the same revenues he had enjoyed under her predecessor. In the year 1704, he was elected principal of the college of Edinburgh, for which be drew up a new and very minute set of rules; and, as he was wanted to manage affairs in the church courts, he was, at the same time, (at least in the same year,) presented to the church of Greyfriars; and, in consequence of uniting this with his office in the university, he was allowed a salary of 2200 merks a year. Three years after this he was translated to the High Church. Though so deeply immersed in politics, literature had always engaged much of Carstairs’ attention; and he had, as early as 1693, obtained a gift from the crown to each of the Scottish universities, of three hundred pounds sterling per annum, out of the bishops’ rents in Scotland. Now that he was more closely connected with these learned bodies, be exerted all his influence with the government to extend its encouragement and protection towards them, and thus essentially promoted the cause of learning. It has indeed been said, that from the donations he at various times procured for the Scottish colleges, he was the greatest benefactor, under the rank of royalty, to those institutions, that his country ever produced. The first General Assembly that met after he became a minister of the church of Scotland, made choice of him for moderator; and in the space of eleven years, he was four times called to fill that office. From his personal influence and the manner in which he was supported, he may be truly said to have had the entire management of the church of Scotland. In leading the church he displayed great ability and comprehensiveness of mind, with uncommon judgment. "He moderated the keenness of party zeal, and infused a spirit of cautious mildness into the deliberations of the General Assembly. [We here quote from a memoir of Principal Carstairs, which appeared in the Christian Instructor, for March, 1827.] As the great body of the more zealous clergy were hostile to the union of the kingdoms, it required all his influence to reconcile them to a measure, which he, as a whole, approved of, as of mutual benefit to the two countries; and although, after this era, the church of Scotland lost much of her weight in the councils of the kingdom, she still retained her respectability, and perhaps was all the better of a disconnection with political affairs. When queen Anne, among the last acts of her reign, restored the system of patronage, he vigorously opposed it; and, though unsuccessful, his visit to London at that time was of essential service in securing on a stable basis the endangered liberty of the church. The ultra-tory ministry, hostile to the protestant interests of these realms, had devised certain strong measures for curtailing the power of the church of Scotland, by discontinuing her assemblies, or, at least, by subjecting them wholly to the nod of the court. Mr Carstairs prevailed on the administration to abandon the attempt; and he, on his part, promised to use all his influence to prevent the discontents occasioned by the patronage bill from breaking out into open insurrection. It may be remarked, that, although patronage is a privilege which, if harshly exorcised, acts as a severe oppression upon the people; yet, while justified so far in abstract right, by the support which the patron is always understood to give to the clergyman, it was, to say the least of it, more expedient to be enforced at the commencement of last century than perhaps at present, as it tended to reconcile to the church many of the nobility and gentry of the country, who were, in general, votaries of episcopacy, and therefore disaffected to the state and to the general interests."

Principal Carstairs was, it may be supposed, a zealous promoter of the succession of the house of Hanover. Of so much importance were his services deemed, that George I., two years before his accession, signified his acknowledgments by a letter, and, immediately after arriving in England, renewed his appointment as chaplain for Scotland. The last considerable duty upon which the Principal was engaged, was a mission from the Scottish church to congratulate the first prince of the house of Brunswick upon his accession. He did not long survive this period. In August, 1715, he was seized with an apoplectic fit, which carried him off about the end of the December following, in the 67th year of his ago. His body lies interred in the Greyfriars churchyard, where a monument is erected to his memory, with a suitable inscription in Latin. The university, the clergy, and the nation at large, united in lamenting the loss of one of their brightest ornaments, and most distinguished benefactors.

Carstairs was one of the most remarkable men ever produced by this country. He appears to have been born with a genius for managing great political undertakings; his father, in one of his letters, expresses a fear lest his "boy Willie" should become too much of a public political man, and get himself into scrapes. His first move in public life was for the emancipation of his country from tyrannical misrule; and nothing could well equal the sagacity with which he conducted some of the most delicate and hazardous enterprises for that purpose. In consequence of the triumph of the principles which he then advocated, he became possessed of more real influence in the state than has fallen to the lot of many responsible ministers; so that the later part of his life presented the strangest contrast to the earlier part. What is strangest of all, he preserved through these vicissitudes of fortune the same humble spirit and simple worth, the same zealous and sincere piety, the same amiable and affectionate heart. It fell to the lot of Carstairs to have it in his power to do much good; and nothing could be said more emphatically in his praise, than that he improved every opportunity. The home and heart of Carstairs were constantly alike open. The former was the resort of all orders of good men; the latter was alive to every beneficent and kindly feeling. It is related of him, that, although perhaps the most efficient enemy which the episcopal church of Scotland ever had, he exercised perpetual deeds of charity towards the unfortunate ministers of that communion who were displaced at the revolution. The effect of his generosity to them in overcoming prejudice and conciliating affection, appeared strongly at his funeral. When his body was laid in the dust, two men were observed to turn aside from the rest of the company, and, bursting into tears, bewailed their mutual loss. Upon inquiry, it was found that these were two non-jurant clergymen, whose families had been supported for a considerable time by his benefactions.

In the midst of all his greatness, Carstairs never forgot the charities of domestic life. His sister, who had been married to a clergyman in Fife, lost her husband a few days before her brother arrived from London on matters of great importance to the nation. Hearing of his arrival, she came to Edinburgh to see him. Upon calling at his lodgings in the forenoon, she was told he was not at leisure, as several of the nobility and officers of state were gone in to see him. She then bid the servant only whisper to him, that she desired to know when it would be convenient for him to see her. He returned for answer— immediately; and, leaving the company, ran to her and embraced her in the most affectionate manner. Upon her attempting to make some apology for her unseasonable interruption to business, "Make yourself easy," said he, "these gentlemen are come hither, not on my account, but their own. They will wait with patience till I return. You know I never pray long,"—and, after a short, but fervent prayer adapted to her melancholy circumstances, he fixed the time when he could see her more at leisure; and returned in tears to his company.

The close attention which he must have paid to politics does not appear to have injured his literature any more than his religion, though it perhaps prevented him from committing any work of either kind to the press. We are told that his first oration in the public hall of the university, after his installation as principal, exhibited so much profound erudition, so much acquaintance with classical learning, and such an accurate knowledge of the Latin tongue, that his hearers were delighted, and the celebrated Dr Pitcairn declared, that when Mr Carstairs began his address, he could not help fancying himself in the forum of ancient Rome. In the strange mixed character which he bore through life, he must have corresponded with men of all orders; but, unfortunately, there is no collection of his letters known to exist. A great number of letters addressed to him by the most eminent men of his time, were preserved by his widow, and conveyed through her executor to his descendant, Principal M’Cormick, of St Andrews, by whom they were published in the year 1774.

William Carstars
Character and Career of the Revolutionary Epoch (1649-1715) By Robert Herbert Story (1874) (pdf)

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