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Diary of George Ridpath
Minister of Stichel, 1755-1761 Edited with Notes and Introduction by Sir James Balfour Paul, C.V.O., LL.D. (1922)


Of the two MS. volumes containing the Diary, pf which the following pages are an abstract, it was the second which first came into my hands. It had found its way by some unknown means into the archives in the Offices of the Church of Scotland, Edinburgh ; it had been lent about 1899 to Colonel Milne Home of Wedderburn, who was interested in the district where Ridpatli lived, but he died shortly after receiving it. The volume remained in possession of his widow, who transcribed a large portion with the ultimate view of publication, but this was never carried out, and Mrs. Milne Home kindly handed over the volume to me. It was suggested that the Scottish History Society might publish the work as throwing light on the manners and customs of the period, supplementing and where necessary correcting the Autobiography of Alexander Carlyle, the Life and Times of Thomas Somerville, and the brilliant, if prejudiced, sketch of the ecclesiastical and religious life in Scotland in the eighteenth century by Henry Gray Graham in his well-known work. When this proposal was considered it was found that the Treasurer of the Society, Mr. C. S. Romanes, had another volume of the Diary dealing with the years immediately preceding these contained in the volume first discovered : this Mr. Romanes with characteristic generosity has put at my disposal. But however interesting the two MSS. might be, it was found impossible to publish them in extenso in one volume, regard being had to the much increased cost of printing and the limited resources of the Society. They had therefore to be shortened in some way, and on consideration it was decided to omit all or almost all passages dealing with events outside the subject of Scottish life and character. The sacrifice was made unwillingly, as the period treated of includes part of the Seven Years War and the war with the French in Canada. But such information can always be got in the ordinary history books, and Ridpath generally confines himself to a bare statement of the news of the day taken from the journals ; he does not indulge in many commentaries on them. If it is objected that with these omissions we are left with a chronicle of very small beer, it may be replied that it is just this small beer that we need and that is so refreshing. Reports of the big things in life are easily found, but it is less easy to get information as to the daily life of the people, their reading, their dinners and drinkings, their quarrels and reconciliations, their loves and hates, their little jaunts, painfully accomplished for the most part on horseback over very inferior roads, and, generally, the home life of the period. All this is chronicled for us in the pages of the Diary, written without the slightest idea of ultimate publication by one who, though he might be described as an obscure country minister, was nevertheless a man of rare culture, a friend of the most celebrated Scots literati of the time, and an earnest student in many branches of science. But we must consider him somewhat * more in detail.

George Ridpath was the eldest son of another George Ridpath who was minister of Ladykirk from 1712 till 1740. His mother, living with him during the time of the Diary in a more or less invalid state, was Ann Watson, but of her parentage I am ignorant. The name Ridpath, or its variant Rcdpath, is not uncommon on the Borders. There was still a third George Ridpath, who was minister at Abbey St. Bathans from 1624 to 1628, but whether or not he was an ancestor does not appear. The family at Ladykirk manse consisted of the diarist, two brothers Philip anil William, and two sisters of whom the eldest, Elizabeth, married a Mr. Waite, a merchant in Berwick, and the youngest, Nancy, who ultimately, lived with her brother George aud their mother at the manse of Stitchel. Ridpath was born about 1717, educated at the University of Edinburgh, and must have been a scholar of some distinction, as may be readily seen from his acquaintance with and appreciation of the classic authors, as shown by many passages in his Diary, and by the rather contemptuous way in which he writes of the linguistic attainments of his brothers who had the same educational advantages as himself. He was licensed by the Presbytery of Chirnside in 1740, three months before his father died, and two years afterwards he was presented to the parish of Stitchel, where he remained till his death in 1772. He married, 6th September 1764, Wilhelmina Dawson, the daughter of a merchant in Kelso, and had three children, a son and two daughters.

When he first began his Diary it is impossible to say ; the first of the volumes now extant begins on 13th April 1755 and ends on 25th January 1758 ; the second records his doings from 21st March 1758 to 15th July 1761. They form a delightful record of the time, and it is interesting to note how curiously modern is their style. Ridpath was a calm, unemotional, level-headed man ; in Church affairs he approached perhaps more nearly to an old ‘ moderate ’ than anything else. Certainly his Diary is entirely free from those spiritual rhapsodies and morbid self-intro-spectipn which are so characteristic of diaries in the century before his. He writes down his information in an eminently matter-of-fact way. The style is rather slipshod, as might be expected in a work which was not intended for any eye but his own, though no person could be more critical of others on the question of style in composition than he was. Plain and unvarnished though his story may be, he is capable of rising to heights to which many a more skilful writer might despair of attaining. Readers of his account of the death of his little niece Nancy Waite, and his attendance through a dangerous illness on her small brother, cannot fail to be touched by the pathetic narrative, poignant as it is, yet without a trace of sentimentality. We can see the dim, unventilated room, the suffering child on the bed, wrestling with the dread and little-understood diphtheria, the worn-out watchers fast asleep, and the weary but alert uncle fighting for the child’s life and at last successfully snatching him from the very jaws of death : then his profound thanksgiving from an overflowing heart.

Ridpath was not what we would now call an eminently spiritually-minded man; indeed, in the wide range of his reading, theology is conspicuously absent, the only reference to it being an observation that some magazine he had been reading contained nothing c except some silly articles on theology.’ But, on the other hand, he was an excellent parish minister, and 110 one can have visited his people with more exemplary regularity and assiduity. And he not only rendered himself responsible for their souls, but also to some extent for their bodies. His tastes were largely scientific, and he had more than a mere smattering of medical lore ; he did not hesitate to prescribe for his parishioners in illness, if he thought he could do them any good, and he knew the virtues of the many ‘ simples ’ that could be gathered in the fields.

As to his preaching, I am afraid that much cannot be said to bis credit; he never omits in his Saturday entries to say c prepared for to-morrow ’ or 4 looked out something for to-morrow,’ but his preparation must have been rather perfunctory. He would have been a terror to modern congregations, as his sermons extended to an hour and a half or even two hours in duration. It is only fair to state that when this does happen he has a certain measure of compunction, and confesses that he preached 4 far too long,’ 4 beyond all bounds,’ or merely 4 long.’ But in those days people expected long sermons, and would certainly have resented a mere twenty minutes’ discourse. As was the custom in his time, or at all events in the time of his father, he preached many Sundays on the same text; all his texts are duly given in the Diary, but for reasons explained above, these have had to be omitted in the printed pages. There is no mention of a gown, and it is probable that in this little rural parish Ridpath preached clad in his one 4 black coat,’ only worn on special occasions, his garments in ordinary life being grey, though some of the clergy favoured blue.

His parish work kept him busy, though the population of the parish in 1755 was under 1000. But there were-always a lot of sick to be visited. Hygiene, as we know it, was non-existent; box beds and unaired rooms took toll of the people in phthisis, while the unenclosed and undrained lands led to a great prevalence of fever and ague. Cancer, our more modern scourge, is not mentioned, but smallpox seems to have been taken for granted, and lucky were the patients who came through it4 unspoilt.’ Ridpath was much interested both in the theory and practice of medicine, and, when he was interested in a case, loves to give full particulars of it; the consequence is that we are frequently faced with a mass of sick-room detail which is quite unprintable. I have therefore had no hesitation in omitting such passages, though indeed I may be blamed for what I have left in.

Ridpath was an omnivorous reader: his favourite subject (though perhaps second to the Classics) is history, and fired no doubt by the example of his friend William Robertson, he has a secret though modest ambition to enter the lists as an author. After one or two abortive attempts he at last settles to write a History of the town of 
Berwick, but this expanded into a more ambitious project, viz. a History of the Borders. During the remainder of his life he worked at this task assiduouslv, but died before he had quite finished it. It was completed and published by his brother Philip in 1776. It appeared as a very substantial quarto volume ; it is a carefully compiled record, and though its style does not attain to the excellence of his friends Hume and Robertson, the book is a thoroughly good and sound piece of work. It was very well received and has gone through three editions, the last being published in 1848. It is the only published work of Ridpath, if we except a sermon, probably preached before the Synod, entitled Christian Liberty opposed to Popish Superstition and Slavery, a most extraordinary subject for Ridpath to choose, as Church polemics did not interest him. Indeed he was, I should say, one of the most tolerant of men. In his own parish, in which there has always been a large proportion of dissenters, he lived in terms of cordial friendship w7ith the Associate minister Coventry. He distrusted mere emotional religion and had a quiet contempt for all ‘zealots' and Methodists.

He read everything that came to hand, except, as mentioned above, theology. During the period covered by the Diary he notes some hundred and fifty books which he read, not to mention the magazines and newspapers of the day. And it was not ordinary reading; he did not merely skim the contents of a book, but went through it critically both as regards its subject and the style 111 which it was written. And reading once was not enough ; the volume was revised again and again, notes were taken of its contents, and when necessary its information was compared with what other authors had said on the same subject. It is wonderful in how short a time the newest publications came into his hands. This was no doubt to a large extent owing to the Kelso Subscription Library, of which he was an enthusiastic and active member. Somerville, in his Life and Times, states that in his day there was not a library in the south of Scotland. But here, even before his day, we find one flourishing and largely patronised ; it is astonishing to note the number of solid books which this enterprising institution bought for the use of its members. [As it is still in existence, it must be one of the oldest libraries in Scotland]

In his reading, however, there was almost no fiction ; Sir Walter Scott was not yet born, and Ridpath did not know that Sandyknowe, to which he frequently refers, was within comparatively few years to shelter and preserve the life of a child who was to make the Border Country famous for all time. Fielding had published Tom Jones, and Smollett had practically written all his novels, but their names are not mentioned, though the latter may have earned the diarist’s approval as the editor of the Critical Review. Gulliver's Travels, Don Quixote, and Tristram Shandy represent almost all the fiction mentioned by our author, but of solid tomes there is no lack. In History, George Buchanan is a great delight to him, principally on account of his excellent Latinity, and partly, I think, because Ridpath shared to some extent his views on Queen Mary. He read, too, with pleasure, and on the whole with approval, old John Knox’s chronicles of his time. Writers on the other side he did not neglect, though they sometimes come in for adverse criticism. He was of course a great admirer of his friend and contemporary William Robertson, of whose History he speaks in terms of high commendation ; and though he disapproved of his other friend David Hume’s atheistical bias, he had little but praise for his famous History. Gibbon was not yet on the horizon, but we can imagine with what pleasure, mingled with disapproval, Ridpath would have read his Decline and Fall.

Ridpath’s mind had a strong scientific bent, and he was specially attracted towards medical science. It is astonishing to note the number of medical works he read, from the twelfth-century Regimen Sanitatis Salernitano of Arnaldus de Villa Nova down to his friend Francis Home’s Medical Prelections. He was, too, a more than moderately good mathematician, and was able to do a certain amount of astronomical calculation. Both in this branch of learning and in languages he was always ready to put his knowledge at the disposal of any of the promising sons of his neighbours who were reading for examinations. Indeed he did not scruple to rewrite their theses if he thought it necessary, and on one occasion, when he found his brother Will had got the same subject set him as he himself had when at college, he handed over his own work to his brother, thus rendering his passage through the Divinity Hall so much the easier. Besides Latin and Greek he knew Hebrew, French, and a certain amount of Italian, but it was in the Classics that he found his greatest delight. They were his bedside books ; c slept on Tully ’ or on Horace are constant remarks in the Diary; and 4 the divine Epictetus,’ as he calls him, was one of his most cherished favourites, and when he had finished reading him for the time he lays him down with infinite regret. But the range of his reading must be gathered from the pages of the Diary itself. It must be kept in view that it represents the study of long winter evenings in the manse, by the light of tallow 4 dips,’ and often after a strenuous day’s walking, riding, visiting in the parish, or working in the glebe or garden. Indeed he complains that he is often not in a condition, through weariness, to give proper attention to his books, and that he had to change his subject in order to stimulate his interest.

A dull enough life, some will say ; but was it ? The manse was a centre of hospitality, and more often than not people dropped in to dinner with or without an invitation. The dinners no doubt were simple enough affairs ; on extra occasions a chicken might be caught and killed (though Ridpath never mentions either poultry or pigs), but generally a tureen full of broth and a slice off the winter’s ‘mart’ would constitute the. repast, though in summer a dish of curds and cream might appropriately finish the meal. Like all ministers of the time he brewed his own ale, and thus would have a sufficient quantity ol very harmless stuff with which to regale his guests. Wine was not unknown, as his servant Charles is chronicled as having brought some from Berwick. It would probably be claret, as this was the staple drink in Scotland at the time and did not cost much. Whisky was not the common drink it afterwards became, but we read of many a brew of punch which Ridpath consumed. He was indeed no gloomy recluse, and loved the pleasures of the table; ‘very merry’ is the frequent comment on many evenings he spent in company of his friends. On one occasion he admits to having had ‘a great drink,’ more in fact than he had drunk for a twelvemonth ; and on other occasions he confesses to having ‘ drunk far too much.’ I do not believe, however, that Ridpath ever exceeded the bounds of a somewhat liberal moderation.

* .

On the contrary, we find him riding home after a convivial evening with his sister Nancy en croupe as he calls it, which shows that his seat on horseback must have been steady enough.’ Indeed through all the Diary there is only one record of anybody in his company having been drunk, and that was the successor to his father at Ladykirk, who was, he says, quite inebriated at an ordination dinner. But he was not a favourite with Ridpath, which may account for his putting this black mark against him.

Ridpath was too much of a student to shine in parlour games and tricks. We read of his playing both chess and whist, though he confesses himself a novice in both pastimes. Cutting shadow profiles out of paper with the help of a pair of scissors and a candle was a favourite amusement. How we should like to see some of these old silhouettes now, particularly that of the winsome Betty Pollock. Sometimes he plays at cross questions and crambo ; at other times lie composes a rebus to while away a wakeful hour, or makes up a song or glee to be sung at the next meeting of the Culloden Club, of which he was a member; and what a charming picture is called up when we see him looking with interest and admiration on two pretty manse lassies as they endeavour to interpret the sonorous lines of John Home’s Douglas.

As to outdoor amusements, they are not even mentioned; there were, of course, no facilities for playing golf at that period in Roxburghshire, but we should have thought that on one of the fine frosty days which he so often chronicles he might have been found on the curling rink. We know that there was a Curling Club at Earlston in 1756, and the game was quite well known in the country. In summer, too, we should have expected to have found some mention of bowling, for houses like those of Stitchel and Newton can hardly have been without facilities for this popular game. But such pursuits do not seem to have appealed to Ridpath, perhaps he thought he had plenty exercise without them. There was the often undertaken walk to Home, where after a tramp of three miles he would visit his parishioners there and have tea with the Stevensons at Home Byres before setting out on his road home again. There were many rides too, some of them of long distances, on the young horse he bought from the 'Haddon couper' for six pounds, and which seems to have turned out very well. His longest ride was perhaps to Edinburgh, where he occasionally went, sometimes to the Assembly, and sometimes to make investigations in the Advocates* Library in connection with the great and long-drawn-oyt Hutton Patronage case or to hear the plea itself debated before the Lords of Session. Guided by his friend David Hume, who was then Librarian, he sees some of the curiosities of the Library, including ‘ the mummy ’ which still, I believe, inhabits those learned precincts, though it is not so publicly exposed as it used to be. All this was strenuous enough exercise ; the roads were on the whole -bad and we hear occasionally of falls from his horse, fortunately without injury to himself, though such an accident was the primary cause of the death of Mr. Dawson, the father of his beloved Minna. But while the roads were generally far from good, they were not quite so bad as has been sometimes made out. The Turnpike Act of 1751 had done much for their improvement, and far from there being no wheeled vehicles to be had in the countryside, we see the Halls of Dunglas driving about in a chaise, and Mr. ,Waite, Ridpath’s brother-in-law, more than once brings or takes back his family in a carriage. Matthew Dysart, the minister of Eccles, was the possessor of a chaise, and we read of its having made the journey to and from Edinburgh.

I have said that there is little or no mention of games or pastimes in the Diary. There is also no reference to holidays or feasts, with the exception of the local fairs Neither Christmas nor New Year’s Day is ever specifically chronicled ; Handsel Monday, an old Scots holiday, is conspicuous by its absence, and of course we do not expect Easter or any such feast to be mentioned. Holidays no doubt the diarist had, but they were spent in little jaunts about the country, calling on his friends and always receiving the warmest of welcomes. Of his friends and cronies few must be mentioned, and these by little more than.their names, but they live as real characters in the &rtless pages of the Diary. James Allan of Eyemouth w,as Ridpath’s devoted henchman, and is found putting himself to no end of trouble about his affairs, especially in the great case of the disputed patronage of the parish of Hutton, which pervades so many of these pages but which it is impossible to do more than mention. [Readers desirous of full details of this case will find it reported as Lord Homey. Officers of State in Morrison’s Dictionary, 10777, and Faculty Collections, 28th July 1758, and the House of Lords’decision in the same volume, p. 504.]

If Ridpath’s friendship with Allan was ever temporarily strained, it was when the latter fell a victim to the charms of a certain Mrs. Keith {nee Macleod), who seems to have been more or less of an adventuress, though how she came to be in that part of the country I cannot tell. Poor James Allan was much infatuated with her, and Ridpath did not hesitate to send him a letter of warning. Fortunately he was looked after by a sister (another sister was Mrs. Crow, and a third the wife of Andrew Edgar, both mentioned in the Diary), and the match was ultimately . abandoned, much to Ridpath’s satisfaction, who saw nothing but evil in it. Mrs. Keith later on threw her toils over another of Ridpath’s friends, Mr. Temple, the Collector of Taxes in Berwick, much to the consternation of all his relatives and friends. What the issue of this flirtation was we are not told.

The robust, genial, and humorous John Hume, the minister of Greenlaw and laird, of Abbey St. Bathans, was another of Ridpath’s chief companions. He always gave him a hearty welcome to Greenlaw manse and a great deal of amusement from his conversation. He had married a granddaughter of the first Earl of Marchmont, and was therefore eminently of ‘ the County.’ His son Sandy, minister of Polwarth, a somewhat degenerate son of an aristocratic father, appears to less advantage, as he made two rather unfortunate marriages, the first of which gave his father much chagrin.

Matthew Dysart of Eccles was another valued friend. He seems to have lived perhaps in a better style than any of the other members of Presbytery, as he had a chaise at a time when few persons in the country, and certainly very few ministers, were the possessors of a wheeled vehicle. His mother was a granddaughter of the fourth Earl of Torphichen, and he took the name of Sandilands on succeeding to the estate of Couston of which she was in right. His wife was a relative of David Hume, and Ridpath was nothing loth to fall under the charm of-that distinguished if heterodox philosopher. Dysart was one of the clergy who, greatly daring, had attended the performance of John Home’s tragedy of Douglas in the Edinburgh theatre, and had been rebuked theretor by the Presbytery and compelled to express more or less sincere regret. I am sure that Ridpath, had he been in Edinburgh at the time, would have accompanied his friend, as he had a genuine liking for John Home, as indeed everybody had. It is curious to note that while the Church censured its ministers for going to see what was undoubtedly a fine performance of an experiment in literature by one of themselves, it left them free to indulge in other pursuits which we would now say were much more blameworthy than going to see a play. Thus poor Ridpath, ‘passing rich on eighty pounds a year,’ ventured one of his few guineas in the State Lottery, but this form of gambling was so common then that nothing was thought of it, and even the clergy might risk their means to any extent they thought fit without ecclesiastical censure. Ridpath’s excuse (if indeed any excuse were needed) was that if he won a prize it would be the greatest possible help and advantage to him, while if he lost he would not be very much poorer, and would have the satisfaction of knowing that he had patriotically contributed towards the needs of the State.

A few of Ridpath’s other friends and neighbours can only be briefly mentioned. Robert Turnbull of Sproustort was a close ally. He was a son of the minister of Tynning-hame, whose Diary has already been edited for the Scottish History Society, a very different document from the present. Robert was the youngest son, being born in 1714, three years before Ridpath himself, and had three brothers' also in the Church, one of whom, Thomas of Borthwick, became the grandfather of Sir Robert Dundas of Dunira, Baronet. He had a sister who was married to Dr. Wallace, the minister of New Greyfriars, Edinburgh, and a leading man in the councils of the Church. We hear much of Robert and his brother in the Diary. But all the local clergy are admirably portrayed by Ridpath’s observant and critical pen, and there is seldom a word of disapproval. Even Mr. Lundy, the minister of Kelso, who seems to have devoted the time he spent in the neglect of his parochial duties to the boring of his friends, is let down very lightly. His laziness, procrastination, and habit of sticking to people too long are said to be his worst, if not his only faults ; for the rest, he was a simple-minded, pious soul, rather a butt of his friends and a subject of that rather rough raillery which was the fashion of the day. Ridpath, indeed, laments teasing the honest creature, but says the temptations always proved irresistible.

With all these and many more our diarist w'as on the most friendly terms ; they are' always James, Robert, Andrew and the like to him. It is curious that among the few friends whom he does not call by their Christian names are Mr. Dawson, the father of the girl he ultimately married, and Mr. Waite, his own brother-in-law. While respecting and liking them both, he never seems to have been quite on such intimate terms with them as with others.

Not only were the ministers but their families dear to Ridpath, especially if there were any pretty girls among them or engaging children, for he was a true child lover. Mr. Pollock of Ednam, a rather colourless person perhaps in himself, was the father of a large flock whom he brought up on a very slender income. Betty, 'the Naiad’ as she . was affectionately called, must have been a charming, sprightly, and very lovely little maid. Everybody seems to have lost their hearts to her, and Ridpath was one of her staunchest admirers. By this time, however, his affections had been set elsewhere; and we read of his proposing 4 on the mossy turf, under a sweet grove,’ to Minna Dawson, the daughter of a merchant in Kelso and an old friend of the family. It is remarkable that Minna’s answer is not recorded ; perhaps she took time to think over the matter, as a few days after they had some 4 explicatory chat9 on the subject. But Minna duly married him, though not till September 1764. Probably the delay was owing to the state of health of old Mrs. Ridpath, who lived with her son George and who was evidently rather a difficult patient. It is most likely that after the marriage she went to live with either Philip or William; she died in February 1765, only a few months after George’s marriage. Minna bore to her •husband a son and two daughters, and we' can imagine what a joy they must have been to one who was so fond of children as Ridpath was. Unfortunately he was not spared long to them, as he died when the eldest was only six years old. He was only fifty-five, and I doubt if he was ever a very strong man ; once at least in the course of the Diary he had a sharp attack of illness which prevented him writing anything for a week, and he admits having suffered from several minor complaints. His brothers, too, do not seem to have been at all strong when young, though they both outlived him, each dying at the age of sixty-seven. Philip published his brother’s History of the Borders after the death of the latter, and be issued on his own account in 1785 a Translation of Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy, the inception of which is alluded to in the Diarv. He married Alison Hume, who survived him, and of whom an extraordinary local tradition asserts that she died at Eyemouth of spontaneous combustion!

Enough perhaps has now been said to show the interest of this Diary, though much more could be written about it. Persons interested in meteorology will be sorry not to have Ridpath’s daily notes about the weather, but as the omission saved several hundred lines it was unavoidable.

I am indebted to several persons for generous help. Mr. Angus of the Historical Department, H.M. Register House, has been good enough to revise all the proofs and has made many valuable suggestions. Dr. Gunn of Peebles „had transcribed a large portion of the first-volume of the Diary, and freely put his transcript at my disposal. Mrs. Milne Home had copied a considerable part of the second volume, and she also gave me the free use of her transcription. The Rev. Dr. Kennedy of the New College library has put at my service his great knowledge of out-of-the-way Scottish books. I am also indebted to the Rev. Mr. Burleigh of Ednam, the clerk of the Presbytery of Kelso, Professor Alexander Mair of Edinburgh University, and others. Mr. Mill of the Signet Library has compiled the index with his usual skill in such matters.

J. Balfour Paul.

Diary of George Ridpath

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