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A Group of Scottish Women
Elspeth Buchan (1738 - 1796)

“Fanatics have their dreams,” says Keats, “wherewith they weave a paradise for a sect,” and in the middle of the eighteenth century fanatics were very busy dreaming, and sects fought far and wide for a congenial paradise. There were no Christian Scientists then to give the humourist an excuse for saying that their doctrine was neither Christian nor particularly scientific. No Mrs. Eddy had arisen to teach people that such things as death and disease are mere mental hallucinations; that nothing, in fact, exists – except her fees. But there were other founders of equally zealous and earnest sects who attracted to their side numbers of emotional and visionary enthusiasts, and were themselves in most cases, like the majority of their converts, women. There was, for example, the famous Anne Lee of Manchester, a devout member of the Society of Friends, who implicitly believed in the imminence of Christ’s Second Advent, and, after suffering much persecution in England, seceded from her denomination and went over to America. There, in 1774, she instituted a body of devotees distinguished for the extreme strictness of their lives, who, owing to the violent fits of hysterical trembling to which they were subject during the performance of their religious rites, were known as “Shakers.” American humourists have made them the objects of much good-natured satire, to which they doubtless laid themselves open. But like the inhabitants of Zion or Salt Lake City, and many other communities of equally peculiar people, they evoked a certain measure of grudging admiration, if only by reason of the steadfastness of their faith, which not even ridicule could kill.

The days of enthusiasm are over. We look with tolerant contempt upon people who take themselves too seriously. It is not the fashion to become excited over a question of faith or a political doctrine. We are inclined to smile at “Revivals,” to be amused by the ravings of those modern prophets who predict eternal pains for all who do not happen to agree with their particular tenets. And when – to paraphrase Praed –

“…religious sects run mad,
We hold, in spite of all their learning,
That if a man’s belief is bad,
It will not be improved by burning.”

But no one who ever visited Zion City when it was at the height of its prosperity, or who has seen the work done by the Mormons in reclaiming lost lands in the prairies of Canada, can fail to appreciate the sincerity of the motives which stimulated the followers of the polygamous Joseph Smith and the “Profit” Dowie to such commendable industry. There must always, indeed, be something of the admirable in genuine fanaticism.

In the same year that the sect of Shakers was founded in America by Anne Lee, another sect of a less austere and far more fanatical order was being formed in Scotland by a woman of the name of Elspeth Buchan. She was uneducated and illiterate, the daughter of a innkeeper, the wife of a potter, with no rank, no wealth, no influence – with nothing in fact but a practical knowledge of human nature and a supreme confidence in herself and her mission. The success to which she attained by sheer force of character is all the more surprising when one considers the circumstances in which she had been placed and the obstacles which she was called upon to surmount.

Elspeth was the daughter of John Simpson, a publican who kept the half-way house at a little place called Fetney-Can, between Banff and Portsoy. She was born in 1738, and form early youth seems to have been troubled by religious doubts which – as is the way with such things – no one could help her to solve. Writing in later life to an English clergyman, who had expressed an interest in her work, she gives the following account of her childhood:-

“My mother according to the flesh died when I was a child of two years old, and my father married again. In a word, I never was fed nor cloathed, nor educate by parents according to the flesh; but he who feeds the ravens, clothes the lilies, teaches babes, has had a goodly heritage prepared for me, and has made Jesus Christ my tutor, and the angels his servants, ministering spirits; and indeed all things has hitherto wrought so much for my good, that I would not have it otherways for a thousand worlds. I was put to school as soon as I could speak, or pronounce words, so that I could have read the Bible when I was very young, and I thought so very deep on what I read, that I troubled every person I had opportunity with, to tell me what they understood about the Scriptures; but I rather troubled and tired them, than got satisfaction to my perplexed mind.

“It was either between five or six, or six and seven years of my age, one day in the fields, after a long consideration, how death came into the world, I fixed my eyes on a certain object. How long I stood I cannot tell, but in that place I was informed in my judgement, that God created all things by the breathing of his mouth, but I heard that man and woman was formed of the element of earth, a most beautiful structure, in the image, figure, or similitude of God, and that God breathed breath, or air, or wind into his nostrils, and his whole person, or soul, or whole man, became living, and that God made him, and all his creatures, to make them happy, and to live in the element they were made of; and that the earth, when all things was finished, was so fertile and fruitful, that Adam would have needed to dress and keep down the great growth in the Garden of Eden, if he had continued in obedience to God. Then I understood that death and disobedience to God, was so joined together that the one was the because, and the other the effect.”

This account of the growth of her faith, taken from one of her letters, [Eight Letters between the People called Buchanites and a Teacher near Edinburgh. (1785.)] is certainly somewhat obscure, and one cannot wonder that it failed to satisfy her correspondent.

As a girl Elspeth Simpson went to Glasgow to enter domestic service, and here she met and married a man named Robert Buchan who was employed as a workman in her master’s pottery. There is no record of this union in the parish register of Ayr, so perhaps the couple may have decided to dispense with the conventional marriage ceremony. In any case, they lived together as man and wife for some years, during which Elspeth bore her husband three children, a son and two daughters. She had been brought up in the Scottish Episcopal Communion, but her husband was a Burgher Seceder, and, like a dutiful wife, she at once gave up her faith for his, though her perplexed soul found little comfort in the change.

Shortly after their marriage, the Buchans moved to Banff, where Robert set up a manufactory of earthenware on his own account; but this experiment proving a financial failure, he deserted his wife and family, and went off alone to Glasgow, leaving Elspeth to provide for herself and her children as best she could. This she attempted to do by starting an infants’ school, in which she taught needlework and the rudiments of spelling to a number of small children of the locality. The neighbours soon began to regard the new schoolmistress with curiosity not unmingled with admiration. She would attend all the weekly meetings at which it was the custom of the good people of Banff to foregather for the purpose of theological discussion, and her enthusiasm as well as the eloquence of her arguments warned for her a reputation for possessing oratorical powers of an almost supernatural order. But the parents of Banff grew gradually chary of entrusting their children to the care of one whom they were slowly coming to look upon as a religious maniac. Her infant-school became deserted, and, finding it impossible to exist upon faith alone, she decided to leave Banff and rejoin her husband.

At Glasgow Elspeth recommenced her attendance at “Fellowship Meetings,” visiting all the local ministers, and exhorting them to adopt her curious religious views; but though she was everywhere kindly received, her doctrines were far too unorthodox to meet with anything more than a frigidly polite hearing from the dignitaries of the Scottish Church. One day, however, she happened to be present when a country minister name Hugh White was preaching in a Glasgow kirk, with perhaps more impetuosity than eloquence, on the text “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow will the lord do wonders among you.” Elspeth was so impressed by the power of the preacher’s exhortation and the vehemence of his style, that she at once wrote off and told him how deeply he had stirred her. He was the first minister, she said, who had spoken effectually to her heart, and she expressed a longing to make his acquaintance. The Rev. Hugh White was naturally flattered by her importunity, and for four months he and Elspeth carried on an intimate correspondence by means of long weekly letters. White, who was then minister of the Relief Church at Irvine, showed some of those letters to various members of his congregation, who were so impressed by the devotion and enthusiasm of his correspondent that they readily fell in with his suggestion that she should be invited to pay them a visit.

On receipt of Mr. White’s invitation, Elspeth Buchan promptly said good-bye to her husband, and hastened to Irvine, where she received a warm welcome, became a member of White’s household, and was for some time considered a valuable acquisition to the Relief Church. She soon began to promulgate her fanatical opinions among the people of Irvine, and spent much of her time paying house-to-house visits, expounding the Scriptures, solving the doubts of the perplexed, and giving advice to all who asked for it as well as to a number who did not. So wild did her utterances gradually become, and so much influence did she acquire over White, that at length a section of his congregation became alarmed, expressed doubts as to the orthodoxy of Elspeth’s religious views, and begged their minister to dismiss her.

White resolutely declined to do anything of the kind, and the town of Irvine was soon divided into two factions – those who supported the minister, and those who were afraid of the power which Mrs. Buchan was gradually acquiring in the Relief Church. The latter party finally referred the matter to the Presbytery, who sided with the malcontents, urged White to free himself from Mrs. Buchan’s thrall, and, on his refusing to do so, proceeded to depose him from his ministry. White, however, clinging tenaciously to his post – and more especially to the salary that accompanied it – disregarded the sentence of suspension passed upon him, and declined to give up the keys of his church. This, however, he was eventually forced to do by the now indignant Presbytery, who formally dismissed him. [The History of the Rise, Progress and Principles of the Relief Church, by the Rev. G. Struthers, p.337. (1843.)]

A certain number of White’s former followers still continued to stand by him. He held large daily meetings, at first in a tent, and afterwards in his own house, whither many of the faithful flocked, to listen to his impassioned oratory and to the strange doctrines expounded by “Luckie” Buchan. Public curiosity and excitement were aroused to an extent unprecedented in the annals of Irvine. The doings of the ex-minister and of the woman who had seduced him from the path of orthodoxy became the sole topic of public and private discussion. Families were divided in their opinions, parents quarrelled with their children, customers deserted tradesmen who supported the seceders, labourers were thrown out of employment for attending their meetings. Popular feeling ran so high that the windows of White’s house, which was now the temple of the new religion, were repeatedly broken, and drunken sailors were encouraged to molest all persons who entered or left it.

Persecution, as is always the case, only served to fan the flame of Luckie Buchan’s enthusiasm to a still higher pitch of fervour. She now began to publish the most extraordinary statements with regard to her possession of spiritual powers. She even went so far as to declare that she was the woman mentioned in chapter xii. of the Revelations, who appeared as a “great wonder out of heaven; clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” She further stated that White was the “man-child” whom this woman had brought forth, and who was destined to rule all nations with a rod of iron. Utterances so blasphemous as this naturally roused the indignation and fury of the populace, who assembled in their hundreds outside White’s house and demanded that the witch, as they called her, should be delivered up to them.

One night a number of local hooligans pursued Elspeth Buchan to the home of one of her converts, dragged her out, in spite of her struggles, and carried her in a nearly nude condition for a distance of eight miles along the road to Glasgow. Every now and then Elspeth’s tormentors would lift her high up into the air, adjuring her to fly heavenwards after the manner of Elijah, and then let her drop heavily on to the ground, saying, “She can’t fly yet; we must take her farther on and try again.” [The Buchanites from First to Last, by J. Train. (1846).] She managed at length to escape from these ruffians, and returned in an exhausted condition to Irvine. Her persecutors would no doubt have ill-treated her again if the local magistrates had not interfered and passed a sentence of banishment upon the woman whose presence was causing so much popular excitement and ill-feeling.

Attended by a few loyal friends and by a concourse of people who had collected to escort her out of the town, Luckie Buchan drove off in a cart to Glasgow. Here she once more quartered herself upon her long-suffering husband, and, by the lavishness of her hospitality to persons who were complete strangers to Robert Buchan but who came to hear his wife preach, is said to have reduced that unfortunate man to beggary.

After a short stay at Glasgow, Elspeth returned to Irvine, only to be once again expelled by the authorities. This time her exodus took the form of a triumphal procession, for she was joined by White and about six-and-forty devoted friends who were determined to share her exile. At the head of the cavalcade rode Mother Buchan herself, clad in a red cloak and mounted on a white pony. Behind her came the body of the Buchanites. They were so impressed with the imminence of Christ’s coming, as preached by their prophet, that they left their doors open, their cows tethered, and their clothes at the well, not thinking it worth while to settle their affairs in this world, in view of the far more important matters which would shortly occupy their attention in another. The procession moved off eastward – in accordance with the scriptural text to the effect that “as the lightning cometh out of the East and shineth towards the West, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” – expecting the Redeemer to meet them upon the road at any moment.

They must have been a picturesque group, these faithful followers of Luckie Buchan, ignoring the showers of mud with which the village urchins pelted them, They were bare-headed, and their locks, permitted to grow unusually long, were restrained from falling in a fleece over the back and bosom by small buckling-combs.” [Castle-Douglas Miscellany.] As they marched along they sang a song, which for literary merit does not compare unfavourably with most of the hymns heard at modern revival meetings or at the services of the Salvation Army:-

“We march and we sound
Our trumpets around,
We’ll all in short time in sweet glory be found.
Though many do press us,
We ne’er look about,
Though Satan distress us,
We still keep our route.
We never shall fly,
Nor yet shall we die.
Our warfare’s below, and our peace is on high.
Well armed we stand,
And God by our hand,
Our armour’s immortal, and God doth command.
While God leads the van,
We never fear man,
O bright shall shine glory, for bright is the dawn.”

Eastward they travelled through Mauchline, Cumnock, Sanquhar and Thornhill, until they finally reached a farmhouse at New Cample in Nithsdale, thirteen miles from Dumfries, and close to the caves in which the hunted Covenanters of old had concealed themselves. Here Mother Buchan called a final halt. All through their pilgrimage she had kept up the spirits of her flock by continual exhortations and prayers, cheering the depressed, preaching to the weary ones, coaxing the lazy ones on – though not, perhaps, like Father O’Flynn, with her stick. She herself never tires, though stopping occasionally to take a few whiffs from a small black clay pipe in which she seems to have found habitual comfort.

At New Cample the Buchanites founded a community whose principles were entirely altruistic. They shared a common purse, of which, however, Mother Buchan kept entire control, as well as of all provisions, which she doled out daily with a frugal hand to the members of her sect. On one occasion, when the funds were running low, Elspeth declared that she had had a divine revelation informing her of an imminent supply of cash from a heavenly source. She persuaded a member of her congregation to accompany her to an adjacent hill-top, where they spread out a large sheet, of which they each held two corners, and waited for the rain of money to commence. After standing there for some time, the clouds meanwhile giving no signs of bursting into showers of gold, Mrs. Buchan’s disciple became bored with the entertainment and went home. Shortly afterwards the prophetess reappeared at “New Camp,” as the Buchanites called their residence, clasping to her bosom a five-pound note which she affirmed had come direct from God. She abused her impatient follower for his lack of faith, which had, of course, as she lucidly explained, made it impossible for the Divine donation to be delivered with the promised punctuality.

In the course of her preaching, Elspeth Buchan had the satisfaction of making a large number of converts. One of the first was the wife of a certain Captain Cook, commander of the Prince of Wales revenue cutter. But the conversion of Mrs. Cook was not a complete success. Her husband was a blunt, short-tempered sailorman who “stood no nonsense.” Not only did he insist upon removing his wife from the sphere of Buchanite influence, but actually shut her up in a dark room for three weeks, and went about breathing threats of the dire personal chastisement that would ensue if he ever chanced to meet Luckie Buchan face to face.

Another notorious convert was an English lieutenant of Marines, named Charles Edward Conyers, who declared himself so infatuated with the Buchanite doctrines that he resigned his commission in his Majesty’s service and took up his abode permanently at New Cample. Here he became a most zealous worker in the cause, and was of great assistance in helping Mr. White to transcribe hymns for the use of the elect and make up the monthly accounts. Alas! one fine day this lieutenant of Marines was shown up in his true colours. His motives for retiring to the comparative obscurity of New Camp proved to be of the most ignoble kind. It was not even from idle curiosity that he had sought refuge with the persecuted sect, nor yet for the sake of having a good story to relate to the Marines on his return. To secure an immediate translation to heaven was not his desire so much as to evade the clutches of the law upon earth. He had defrauded a London Insurance Company of a large sum of money, and, in his anxiety to escape the consequences of his crime, had hastened to avail himself of any form of concealment which might answer his purpose. He was arrested, however, made a final appearance upon the scaffold at Tyburn, and his introduction to another world was not, perchance, as painless as a true Buchanite might have been led to anticipate.

Yet another member of Mrs. Buchan’s flock was the girl, Jean Gardner, immortalised as being one of Robert Burns’ numerous flames – the “darling Jean” mentioned in one of his best-known poems. She was an attractive young woman with a “light foot and an ensnaring eye,” [Cunningham’s Life of Burns.] and the poet is said to have spent a whole day and night in a vain attempt to persuade her to leave the society of Mother Buchan, by whose pictures of the primitive enjoyment of a simple religious life she had been completely captivated. [A list of many other people who fell victim to the wiles of the “Friend Mother in the Lord,” as Mrs. Buchan styled herself, is given in a curious poem published in 1784 under the title of “Satan’s Delusions,” more notable for its quaintness than for any other quality:-

“Thou Irvine art an ancient Burgh
The seat of presbytery;
And many famous ministers
Have occupied in thee.
For upwards of an hundred years,
Thy privilege hath been
To have the best of ministers,
As history may be seen.

The streams of gospel ordinance
In thee were pure and sound:
No Buchanitish doctrine then,
In thee was to be found.
Against thy present ministers,
Though no objection be;
Yet damnable delusions,
Are springing up in thee.

A cursed woman Jezebal,
By Satan introduced;
Who by her corrupt doctrines,
Hath some people seduced.
This wicked one from Glasgow came
In April eighty-three;
She lodged her span among thy sand
And now her fry we see.

Mr. White beginning of her strength
In order first appear’d;
Mistress Hunter second did come forth,
Mistress Gibson third I heard.
The rest came mostly in a breast,
As here you may them see,
Both Peter Hunter, John Gobson,
And Thomas Neil all three.

James Gowan, his wife and maid,
James Stewart and his wife now,
With Mistress Muir and Mistress White,
And Agnes Willie too.
There’s William Lindsay and his wife,
John Henderson a wright,
Mary Francis and Kate Gardner,
Eliz Dunlop, these in sight.

The Buchanites of Irvine,
Do now a party make;
Tis evident to every one,
How grossly they mistake.
By heark’ning to this Jezebel,
Have caused much confusion,
Whilst some of them appear to be,
Given up to strong delusion.”

Once comfortably settled at New Cample the Buchanites began to build themselves a residence capable of accommodating the entire community, which had now reached a total of sixty souls. This house was locally known as “Buchan Ha’,” and here the society lived in an overcrowded and insanitary condition which did not, however, in any way stifle their religious ardour.

The discipline in force at Buchan Ha’ was extremely rigorous. If any member of the society showed signs of wavering in his belief, he (or she) was ducked in cold water until the attack of apostasy was over. It required, therefore, a certain amount of courage to become a pervert. But the Buchanites did not need much persuasion to remain true to their faith. They were all upheld by the sublime idea that the Day of Judgement was close at hand; they believed that until there was a body of elect persons living and waiting for the Coming of Jesus, He would not come, and that they themselves had been chosen to play this important role. They also denied the existence of the human soul separate from the body, and were confident that they would be snatched up to heaven, body and soul complete, when the hour was ripe.

They are said to have been temperate, industrious, discreet and civil, as may be gathered from the following description of them, written in 1784 by a gentleman who had attended their meetings and inspected their mode of living:-

“The Buchanites pay great attention to the bible; being always reading it, or having it in their pocket, or under their arm, proclaiming it the best book in the world. They read, sing hymns, preach, and converse much about religion, declaring the last day to be at hand, and that no one of their company shall ever die, or be buried in the earth, but soon shall hear the voice of the last trumpet, when all the wicked shall be struck dead and remain so for one thousand years; at the same moment they, the Buchanites, shall undergo and agreeable change, shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, from whence they shall return to this earth, in company with the Lord Jesus, with whom, as their king, they shall possess this earth one thousand years, the devil being bound with a chain in the interim. At the end of one thousand years, the devil shall be loosed, the wicked quickened, both shall assail their camp, but be repulsed, with the devil at their head, while they fight valiantly under the Lord Jesus Christ, as their captain-general.

“Since the Buchanites adopted their principles, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, nor consider themselves bound to any conjugal duties, or mind to indulge themselves in any carnal enjoyments; but having one common purse for their cash, they are all sisters and brothers, living a holy life, as the angels of God; and beginning and continuing in the same holy life, they shall live under the Lord Jesus Christ, their King, after his second coming. The Buchanites follow no industry, being commanded to take not thought of to-morrow; but, observing how the young ravens are fed, and how the lilies grow, they assure themselves God will much more feed and clothe them. They, indeed, sometimes work at mason-wright and husbandry work to people in their neighbourhood; but then they refuse all wages, or any consideration whatever, but declare their whole object in working at all, is to mix with the world, and inculcate those important truths of which they themselves are so much persuaded.” [The Scotsman’s Library, p.608. (1825.)]

They dressed in clothes of their own manufacture, of a bright green colour, and became famous for making the wheels and chack-reels upon which yarn is wound.

Mother Buchan forbade her followers to marry, and this gave rise to an ugly rumour accusing them of destroying any infants that might appear in the community. Indeed, Buchan Ha’ was frequently searched by the local authorities, who were much disappointed at not finding there the corpses of any murdered babies. This accusation of infanticide reached such proportions and gained so general a credence that at one time the inhabitants of the surrounding country became enraged and made a nocturnal attack upon Buchan Ha’, where they broke up a meeting which was in progress, as well as most of the furniture. The local sheriff was at length forced to interfere and arrested the ringleaders, but at the subsequent trial none of the Buchanites, whose only desire was to be left in peace, could be persuaded to prosecute. Hugh White wrote an account of this attack in one of those fatuous Buchanite hymns which he turned out with such a prolific but undistinguished pen –

“The people in Closeburn parish residing,
Came often our sermons to hear,
And rudely they questioned our word, though most pure,
Our persons they threatened to tear.
They often with batons and cudgels combined,
With billets of wood and with stones,
But He who has power all men to control
Prevented them breaking our bones.” [The Buchanites from First to Last.]

(The Divine protection did not apparently extend to their windows, which were all broken on this occasion).

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