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Biggar and the House of Fleming
Chapter XIV. - Physicians connected with Biggar

BIGGAR, from a remote period, has had a staff of medical men. So early as the fourteenth century, mention is made, in a charter, of Simon the Physician of Biggar. We know very little regarding the Biggar doctors, however, prior to the beginning of last century. At that time Andrew Aikman flourished as a surgeon in Biggar. The earliest notice that we have of him is on the 28th of June 1720, when he and James Thrypland were brought, before the Bailie’s Court, and fined ‘in the soume of fyve punds Scots to the fiscall,' for having, in the course of casting peats in Biggar Moss, encroached on their neighbour’s room. In 1723, he and his family appear to have been greatly annoyed by William Liddell, a horse-couper, one of those restless and outrageous individuals who give their neighbours and the powers that be a great amount of trouble. He therefore arraigned him before the Bailie’s Court; and Luke Vallange, the presiding magistrate, condemned him, under a penalty of ‘fyve hundred merks Scots,’ to keep the doctor, ‘and his wife, bairns, family, and others, harmless and skeathless, in their bodyes, lives, goods, and geir, and not to molest him nor his in any sort, directly or indirectly, in tyme coming.’ Mr Aikman was an active member of the Biggar Lodge of Freemasons, and, in 1726, held the office of boxmaster. He died on the 8th of April 1730, in the forty-fourth year of his age.

Drs William Baillie and William Boe were distinguished physicians at Biggar during a considerable part of last century. Biggar, during the time they flourished, acquired some celebrity as a medical school. It was a common practice at that time, for young men who wished to acquire a knowledge of the medical art to serve an apprenticeship to some eminent practitioner. The fame of these two Biggar worthies drew round them many young men, some of whom distinguished themselves in their profession in after years. We may specially refer to Dr Robert Jackson. Mr Jackson was born at Stonebyres, near Lanark, in 1750, and was a near relative of the late William Jackson of Coulter Mill, and his brother James Jackson, who for nearly half a century was well known in the streets of our towns and villages as a blind minstrel. Old James had a fine musical ear, and sung a number of popular Scottish songs, accompanying himself on the fiddle. We ourselves conversed with him a short time previous to his death; and it was gratifying to find that, amid all his vicissitudes and wanderings, and even when he had ‘grown weary and old,1 he still retained a lively recollection of the men and incidents of a former generation connected with the Biggar district.

Robert Jackson received his elementary education at a small school at Wandel, and afterwards at the Parish School of Crawford, then taught by a Mr Wilson, a teacher of some local celebrity. In 1766, he came to Biggar to study the medical art under the care of Dr Baillie. After remaining some time at Biggar, he proceeded, for the further prosecution of his medical studies, to the University of Edinburgh, then enjoying a high reputation, on account of the genius and learning of several of its professors, such is Munro, Cullen, and Black. After the completion of his college curriculum, he went abroad in pursuit of employment, and encountered such a variety of difficulties, disasters, and adventures, as to invest this period of his life with a most engrossing interest He, however, surmounted them all, and gradually rose to eminence. He wrote some valuable treatises on contagious fevers in jails, ships, hospitals, etc.; and a number of medical reports on climate, sanitary arrangements, and hospital diseases. By his writings and personal exertions, he effected great reforms in the treatment of soldiers, and therefore was generally spoken of as ‘ the army physician.’ He died at Thursby, near Carlisle, on the 6th of April 1827, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.

Another surgeon, who was a good deal about Biggar last century, and who for upwards of thirty years worshipped every Sabbath in the Burgher chapel of that town, deserves to be here noticed. This was the well-known James Meikle. Mr Meikle was born at Carnwath on the 19th of May 1730. From his earliest years, he was of a serious and devout turn of mind, and spent much of his time in secret prayer and reading the Scriptures. In his fifteenth year he heard a sermon delivered by one of the Secession fathers, and this made so strong an impression on his mind, that he was led to make inquiries regarding the opinions and proceedings of the new sect. The result was, that he joined Mr Horn’s church at Daviesdykes, and continued a staunch adherent of the Secession Church ever afterwards. The leading aim of his early years was to be a preacher of the Gospel; but the poverty of his family, and the death of his father in 1748, formed an insuperable barrier to the attainment of his wishes. Through the efforts of a gentleman who took an interest in his advancement, he was, at one time, elated with the hope of enjoying a bursary at one of our universities; but he was doomed to disappointment so soon as it was known that he was a Seceder. He therefore devoted himself to the study of medicine; and soon afterward commenced practising in Carnwath as a surgeon and apothecary, with the view of earning a subsistence, and procuring means for the prosecution of his theological studies.

His income from the profession on which he had now entered was small and precarious, and therefore he formed the resolution of going to sea, and serving as a surgeon’s mate on board of a man-of-war. After various disappointments, he left Carnwath on the 10th of March 1758, and having passed an examination at Surgeons’ Hall, London, was appointed second surgeon’s mate to the ‘Portland,’ a 50-gun ship, lying at Portsmouth. Mr Meikle was now introduced to scenes which his soul utterly abhorred. The officers and crew, being men of immoral habits, were constantly guilty of profane swearing, excessive intoxication, gross debauchery, and Sabbath profanation. Amid all the wickedness by which he was surrounded, he nobly maintained his integrity, and found time to compose a great part of ‘The Traveller,’ ‘Solitude Sweetened,’ 'The Secret Survey,’ etc., which were afterwards published, and which will long preserve his name among our Scottish worthies. He continued in the ‘ Portland ’ four years. During that time he visited various parts of the world, and was present at two engagements, in which victories were gained over the French.

Mr Meikle returned to Carnwath on the 24th March 1762, and immediately joined the newly-formed congregation at Biggar. He attended regularly every Sabbath, and had thus to travel a distance of fourteen miles. He seems to have enjoyed great pleasure in meditating on divine things on his journeys to and from the church. In reference to this exercise, he on one occasion says, ‘ It was a sweet day, and no disturbance but from a wandering heart; ’ and on another, ‘ I had pleasure in meditation: the sermon was divine and edifying.’ On the 18th of August 1779, he married Agnes Smith, daughter of a farmer in the neighbourhood, of Carnwath. She belonged to a small body of Antiburghers, who, previous to 1760, had erected a chapel at Elsrickle, a village about midway between Biggar and Carnwath, but lying a little to the east of the direct road. Previous to entering into this marriage relation, he and his future partner signed a series of articles regarding their conduct to each other. One of them was as follows, viz.: ‘ As there is a difference of our views in some things, instead of suffering this to breed discord and contention between us, let it beget in us a proper concern for the divisions of Reuben, and continued supplication for the peace and prosperity of Zion; that, as there is one Lord, so His name may be one in all the earth.’ It was in this truly Christian spirit that he conducted his wife on Sabbath mornings to the little Antiburgher chapel at Elsrickle, and, after worshipping at Biggar, returned by that village in the evening, and accompanied her home. It was in the same spirit of toleration and liberality that, on several occasions, he exerted himself to procure pecuniary contributions for the support of the Rev. J. Anderson, the pastor of the little flock of which his wife was a member. Mr Meikle was ordained an elder of the Biggar congregation in July 1789, after he had been twenty-seven years a member, and held this office till his death, which took place on the 7th December 1799.

Dr James Boe, Dr Bertram, Dr Benton, and Dr Wilson are Biggar surgeons still remembered by the older portion of the inhabitants. Biggar at present has a number of meritorious medical practitioners; but the only one of them who has distinguished himself as an author, is Mr Robert Pairman. Mr Pairman was born at Biggar on the 23d November 1818. His father is Mr Robert Pairman, merchant, who, daring a long life, has been characterized for his integrity, and his calm and Christian deportment.

The Doctor received the rudiments of his education at Biggar Parish School, then taught by the late Mr Richard Scott. At the age of twelve, he was sent to a classical seminary in Edinburgh, at which he studied for four years. He matriculated as a medical student in the University of Edinburgh in November 1834, and finished his curriculum, and obtained his diploma, in 1838. At the close of that session, he carried off several very distinguished prizes: first, one of two medals awarded by Professor Lizars to the two most distinguished students of his class for proficiency in surgery; second, the highest prize in the class of Dr George A. Borthwick, Lecturer on Clinical Medicine at the Royal Infirmary; and third, the first prize in the Materia Medica Class, of nearly two hundred students, conducted conjointly by Dr J. ArgyLe Robertson, and Dr W. Sellar, F.R.C.P., Lecturers at the Argyle Square School of Medicine.

On leaving the medical schools with these distinguished honours, he immediately settled in his native town, and commenced practice. Amid the toils and disquietudes of the life of a country surgeon, he has found leisure to compose several valuable little works. The first, published in 1848, is entitled 4 Sceptical Doubts Examined.1 This work is in the form of a dialogue, and states* with great plainness and perspicuity, and with many happy illustrations, the deistical doubts which are apt to arise in the mind of a young and ardent inquirer; and the telling and conclusive solution which can be given to these doubts by a person of learning, experience, and religious convictions. His next work was a popular ‘Exposion of Asiatic Cholera,' which he delivered before the Biggar Athenseum, on the 20th March 1856. This treatise contains a dear elucidation of the manifestations and effects of this mysterious disease, the proofs which can be adduced in support of the theory that it has its origin in a damp and foul condition of the atmpsphere, and the methods which ought to be adopted for its prevention. This work called forth very hearty commendations, both from medical men and the public press* A third work of Dr Pair-man’s is a series of four tracts on * Fever Poisons in our Streets and Homes,’ which were composed at the request of the Glasgow City Mission. They have been extensively distributed, not merely by the Society for which they were originally written, but by other kindred institutions.. For instance, the Ladies’ Sanitary Association of Aberdeen, in the year 1859, circulated 2000 copies. Several' passages from these tracts, that appeared in a work by Miss Brewster, having attracted the notice of the Committee of Council cm Education, J. S. Lawrie, Esq., one of the officials connected with that Committee, addressed a communication to the author in 1858, requesting permission to make extracts for educational purposes. To this request the Doctor readily acceded, his great object in composing them having .been to lend his aid to the movement for the instruction and temporal elevation of the poorer classes of society. This application must have been a source of gratification to the worthy Doctor as well as to his friends, as it showed that his labours were recognised and appreciated in the very highest quarters. The tracts are written in the Doctors usual clear, shrewd, earnest manner. They are divested of all perplexing technicalities, so that all classes can read and understand them with ease. They treat of themes of the highest* importance to the health, happiness, and social amelioration of the community^ and therefore deserve to be scattered broadcast among all ranks, the rich as well as the poor.

It gives us pleasure to notice a medical gentleman^ a native of Biggar, who has risen lo distinction. This is Dr John Brown,' son of the late Rev. Dr John Brown of Broughton Place, Edinburgh. Dr Brown was born ki; the Secession Church manse, Biggar, on the 22d of September 1810. He lived at Biggar till his twelfth year. Being educated privately, he did not mix much with the adventurous, and perhaps somewhat mischievous, youths, who at that time flourished in the little town; but, nevertheless, we know that he retains a very lively recollection of the scenes and the men with whom he was familiar in his early years. In 1822, he removed, along with his father, to Edinburgh, attended the High School and the University of that city, took his degree as on M.D., and for some years was connected with a medical institution in Minto House, Argyle Square. He entered ait length into the marriage relation, and set up his staff as a physician in the same city; and there he still lives, and enjoys a very respectable amount of practice.

Dr Brown, however, has achieved higher fame as a litterateur than as a physician. He had long been known as a person of mark and likelihood,—as a contributor to some of our most popular periodicals, —and as possessed of that warm devotion to letters and study that has characterized his family for three previous generations; but it w&s not till he published the first series of his ‘Hosro Subsecivre,’ in 1859, that his reputation as a literary man was established. This work consists of a collection of literary, scientific, metaphysical, and professional papers, composed, as their general title imports, at spare hours,—hours snatched from the toils and fatigues of a laborious profession. These papers are written in a free, hearty, dashing style, with a disregard, we are sometimes apt to think, of the usual rules and conventionalities of literary composition; but still with a precision and correctness which, on examination, we cannot hut admire. They stamp the author as a bold, independent thinker, as possessing a clear insight into the intricate workings of the human heart, and capable of ranging from a vein of singular quaintness and humour to a flow of most gentle but touching pathos. His tale of ‘Rab and his Friends/ which has been widely circulated in a separate form, which has been translated into German by Mrs Montague, and sent forth with attractive pictorial embellishments, from the pencil of George Harvey, Noel Paton, and other distinguished artists, has fascinated many a heart, and drawn a tear from many an eye. It is to his connexion with Biggar that we owe this charming tale. He was solicited, through the medium of his uncle, the Rev. Dr David Smith of the North United Presbyterian Church, Biggar, to deliver a lecture before the members of the Athenaeum of that town. He consented, but, like many persons in a similar predicament, he felt a difficulty in selecting a suitable topic for discussion. He at length fixed on the story of Ailie, a story that had made a profound impression on his own heart, and over which he had often thoughtfully pondered. He sat down to his desk one midsummer evening at midnight, and by four o’clock next morning he had committed it to paper. ‘I read it to the Biggar folk,’ he says, ‘in the school-house, very frightened, and felt I was reading it ill, and their honest faces intimated as much in their affectionate and puzzled looks.’ A second series of ‘Horae Sub-secivae ’ was published about two years ago, and was also well received. A new and large edition of these papers, in one volume, somewhat abridged, has just (March 1862) been issued, and has at once been taken up by the trade, which is a proof of the high estimation in which the Doctor’s writings are now held by the public.

Dr Brown, after the reformation effected a few years ago in the management of the University of Edinburgh, had the honour of being elected one of the Assessors of the University Court, which consists of eight members. He received this honour from W. E. Gladstone, Esq., the Rector. The following is a copy of Mr Gladstone’s letter to Dr Brown, appointing him to this office:—

‘November 25, 1859.

‘Sir,—I take the liberty of requesting that you will permit me, as Rector of the University of Edinburgh, to nominate you as an Assessor and member of the University Court.

‘Not having upon you the claim of even the slightest personal acquaintance, I may with the more freedom assure you, that I prefer this request upon public grounds alone, under the influence of an anxious wish that, in the exercise of every power with which I may be intrusted, I may be enabled to direct it steadily and solely towards the good of the University.

‘I have the honour to be, Sir, your faithful servant,

‘W. E. Gladstone.

‘John Brown, Esq., M.D., etc., etc.’

Mr Gladstone's grandfather, as formerly stated, was a Biggar man. His ancestors, for generations, held a prominent place in that town, not merely as men of substance, but as active useful members of the community, and leaders especially in all ecclesiastical movements. It was, therefore, a singular coincidence—a coincidence of which the Rector himself was probably unaware—that a native of Biggar should have been nominated to the office of Assessor by a gentleman descended from an ancient stock of Biggar men.

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