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The Story of the Life of MacKay of Uganda
Chapter IV - Rapid Changes

“He who to manhood grows without a grief
Is but half-rooted; with a will untamed,
And self undisciplined, he seeks his own:
To him no mellowness of being comes."


HIPPARCHUS, who flourished 160-125 B.C., and who may be justly styled the founder of the exact sciences of astronomy and geography, traces the sources of the Nile to three great lakes in the interior of Africa. From his day, down through the ages till the middle of the seventeenth century, "the triple lakes" adorn the maps of the Dark Continent, although, as Stanley says, cartographers sketched them sometimes "in line," sometimes many degrees north or south of each other, and on either side of the equator as pleased their fancy. Jacobus Meursius, who engraved a map for "Ogilby's De­scription of Africa," a large volume published at the time of the Restoration, seems to have acquired a good deal of accurate information regarding the far interior from Portuguese and Dutch authorities. One lake, which he names Zaffian, resembles the Victoria Nyanza in its general configuration; but he seems to have been confused about the sources of the Nile and the Congo. Ogilby says: "The great river of Zaire or Congo derives its head out of three lakes, the first intituled Zambre, the second Zaire, and the third a great lake from whence the Nyle is supposed to draw his original ..... Zambre is the principal head that feeds the river Zaire, being set, as it were, in the middle point of Africa, and spreading itself into broad streams into the north, whither, according to common opinion, it sends forth Nylus."

Strange to say, from Ogilby's time to the middle of the present century the exploration of equatorial Africa made no advance, and the best cartographers erased the lakes altogether from their maps.

In the year 1843 Dr. Krapf heard at a port on the East Coast of a vast inland lake; and about the year 1856 his companions Messrs. Rebmann and Erhardt traced upon a map "that monster slug of an inland sea," as Speke calls it, which stimulated the Royal Geographical Society to send out an expedition of exploration.

Through a curious blending of circumstances, Alexander Mackay was at a very early age deeply interested in this region, where his own lot, in the providence of God, was ultimately to be cast, and the "Nile problem" was a frequent subject of conjecture between father and son. The "Proceedings" of the Royal Geographical Society came regularly to the home; and as soon as they were published Livingstone's "Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa," Speke's "Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile," and Captain Grant's "Walk across Africa" appeared likewise on the scene.

The old map of Africa (see p. 2) was discarded by the father; but the boy cherished his familiar friend and suspended it in his own room, where he spent many a happy hour in tracing on it the results of the most recent explorations. He used to say, "I like to think that the missionaries had a hand in promoting these discoveries, and that Captain Speke has so nicely acknowledged it by suggesting Karague, Uganda, and Unyoro as favourable fields for missionary enterprise."

"But, father," he remarked one day, "there is one thing that greatly puzzles me. I know that until recent times we had to send across the Channel for engineers when we required any skilled work done, such as piers, lighthouses, or bridges, and that they had to bring with them their own workmen to execute the task. Have we had to send for our missionaries too? or how is it that these agents of the C.M.S. are described as Germans? Could Bishop Heber persuade none of his countrymen to go

“ ‘Where Afric's 'sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand,' “

Of course I know about Livingstone and Moffat, but they are Scotchmen."

"You see, my boy," said the father, "the C.M.S. is such a large society and has so many stations that I suppose enough men were not to be found in the Church of England willing to become poor despised missionaries. Therefore when the C.M.S. were short of volunteers for the foreign field they applied to the famous Missionary Institution at Basle, in Switzerland. But I believe that Dr. Krapf, who may be termed the founder of C.M.S. Missions in East Africa, had his attention drawn to the Dark Continent by reading the C Travels of Bruce,' our own countryman."

"Ah I that pleases me well. Most pictures are tame to me unless there is a Ben or a Loch in the background. But why do you say, ‘despised missionaries,’ father? I understood that the vocation of an ambassador to the heathen is the noblest of all."

"Yes, for those who are baptised with the sacrificing spirit of Christ; and unless a man receive that baptism he had better stay at home."

"Well, I like to hear about missionaries, but I have no inclination that way; and while on the subject, father, I must tell you that I have a growing distaste for the ministry also. I should like to understand thoroughly the construction of machinery and the principles of projections. I believe that your own love of mathematics and of natural philosophy has biassed my mind in this direction. There is a wide field of usefulness for engineers, but a country parish would be no scope for me and my hobbies."

“My son," said the father, sadly, "it is wholly out of my power, with my large family, to give you the necessary training. It implies a long apprenticeship with a respectable engineering firm in Edinburgh or Glasgow, for which a large premium is required; and at the end of that time, unless you have capital to begin with on your own account, you will remain but a subordinate all your days. I believe you have constructive power, and that you have the perseverance and constancy of character which would enable you to rise to eminence in that profession, but without capital it would be a great struggle. Better go on as you are doing, and when the time comes compete for a bursary at Aberdeen, like all other ministers' sons in this neighbourhood. If you are successful that will take you through the University, and then all will be plain sailing. The red cloak is a wonderful stimulus. You will forget all about your hammer and saw when you don it."

In the spring of 1860 the boy became delicate, and his lessons seemed to be a burden to him. Naturally of a quiet and reserved disposition, he became more gentle, more meditative, while the healthy humour which had always characterised him ceased to flow spontaneously. He complained of nothing, but his parents became anxious, and as the local physician failed to detect any cause for the debility, his father took him to Edinburgh to consult Dr. Moir, who at once ordered change of air and a long holiday. Accordingly, in the month of August his father gave him a tour in the Highlands. Spending some weeks at Strathpeffer, where his wonderful gentleness won for him many friends, they proceeded to Tain, and from thence to the banks of Loch Shin, in Sutherlandshire. Here he led a joyous life. A kind friend put a Shetland pony at his disposal, and he enjoyed many a ride across the moors. This was the only time he saw the wild mountainous scenery of the north, and on his return home he had much to say about the red-deer, and the sheep-farms, and the beautiful lake with Ben More in the distance towering into the sky. The bracing air perfectly restored his health, but not his love for books. He learned his appointed lessons conscientiously, but instead of reading in his leisure hours, drawing, map-drawing, and printing occupied his attention. He was also a very useful member of the household. It was he who cleared away the snow which accumulated every winter in a huge drift in front of the manse, obstructing the light, and impeding all communication except by the kitchen-door - and he who in their proper seasons superintended the sowing and reaping of the crops. His energetic disposition forbade idleness. In fact, he always preferred having too much to do rather than too little. His mother was very fond of bee culture; but, strange to say, her bees were very irreverent, for they not only chose the Sabbath on which to swarm, but they took the opportunity of doing so during the hours of divine service. Neither had they any idea of propriety, for, to crown the proceedings, they almost invariably selected for their new quarters an old ivy-covered chimney in the Established Manse, a quarter of a mile distant! The boy considered this rare fun. One sultry Sunday his mother said to him, "I have a presentiment that the bees will swarm to-day, so I wish you to watch them while I am at church."

"Yes, mother; I suppose I can take ‘Livingstone's Travels' with me?"

"No; because you get so absorbed in that book that I will lose my bees."

"I only wish to look if there is any more said about the native smith teaching Dr. Livingstone to weld the iron."

"You must not read."

The boy went to the garden, but before ten minutes had expired the monotony was so irksome that he felt he must devise some method to make the bees "improve the shining hour" without delay. He tapped the hive and listened. A peculiar sound betokened some commotion within. So far hopeful, he next got a thin stick, and pushing it in at the little aperture, he moved it gently backwards and forwards to entice them out. By-and-by one appeared, and another, and then the queen, followed by a numerous retinue, thronging and pressing on each other until they hung in a dense cluster on his stick and all about the hive door; while one or two of a more enterprising turn of mind found their way up his sleeve and to his bare knees (for he wore the kilt in those days), and took no pains to disguise their resentment at his inhospitality. Fortunately, the apiary was situated on the south side of the church, hard by the window of the Manse pew, through which the mother heard an extraordinary buz-z-z, accompanied by cries of pain. The congregation were standing at prayer, so she made her exit unobserved, wondering why bees are so profane, and mentally vowing she would rear no more in future, as they seemed determined to desecrate the Sabbath!

Alexander Mackay had been well instructed in religious knowledge, had no foolish companions, had no desire to deviate from the path of truth and rectitude, but the quickening influence of Divine love had not as yet entered his heart. His mother felt that to force religion upon him might be a mistake, but she continued to pray for him often and earnestly. As the time approached when it was desirable he should prosecute his studies in Aberdeen, both parents felt concerned lest his natural amiability and abounding humour might lead him into temptation in a large city. Just then an old friend of his father's, a Mr. Hector, from Aberdeen, appeared in the neighbourhood. He was very much drawn to the boy, and told him that he also had a son, [Afterwards known as the Rev. John Hector, Missionary of the Free Church of Scotland at Calcutta. ] who he hoped and believed was going forward to the ministry.

It was ultimately arranged that this youth should spend his summer holiday at the Manse, and, if the companionship proved congenial to both; that Alexander should accompany his friend to Aberdeen, and remain under Mr. Hector's roof until the following spring, when his mother hoped to go to town and secure comfortable lodgings for him. The boys conceived a strong attachment for each other, for they had much in common, and in October 1864 Alexander Mackay began to attend the Grammar School in the "granite city."

This was the beginning of many changes in the old home. In company with his friend he returned to the Manse at Christmas, and in the following April his mother fulfilled her promise. She had been delicate all winter, and was strongly advised to postpone her journey until the weather became warmer; but with her characteristic spirit of self-sacrifice, she never thought of herself when the welfare of others was concerned. The ten days she spent in Aberdeen ever remained a green spot in the boy's memory, and when he saw her off by the train he little dreamed that this was her last earthly journey, and that her course was nearly run. In three weeks' time he was summoned home, as she was seriously ill. He remained a week, and as she appeared to rally he returned again to school, but on the 8th of June she passed gently away.

His childhood was buried in that open grave, but her dying charge, faithfully delivered by a relative, [Mrs. James Flett, now residing in the Grange, Edinburgh. ] to “read his Bible and to search it, so as to meet her in glory,” kindled a light which waxed brighter and brighter until it illumined all his life.

While his father still continued to wish him to become a minister, and he himself desired the profession of an engineer, God was preparing him for both. Writing to a dear friend at Christmas 1866, he says, "I cannot see my way for the future, but I feel certain the Lord will make it plain in His own time. I shrink from the ministry. I feel so unworthy of that office. Besides, it seems to me that there are already too many ministers. Three or four wasting their energies in each little parish in Scotland may satisfy a desire for sermon hearing, but is attended, I fear, with little practical good. I believe God gives us talents to use in His service, and that we are bound to turn them to the best account; therefore I must go on with engineering. You tell me ‘it is impossible, as my father cannot help me.' That I will never make an engineer unless I can surmount a greater obstacle than that, I at once allow; but He who has given me the desire will in some way grant it. This I feel sure of."

His way was soon made clear. In November 1867 the family removed to Edinburgh, where for six years he applied himself to his studies with laborious and persistent industry. Two of these years he spent at the Free Church Training College for Teachers; after which the father abandoned his own views in favour of those to which the talents and inclinations of his son were so strongly directed, and no longer urged him to enter the ministry.

Every hour of the next four years was precious to Alexander Mackay. He studied engineering and its kindred sciences at the University, and practical engineering at the works of Messrs. Miller & Herbert; and during all these four years, in order that he might not be burdensome to his father, he taught three hours per day, either in George Watson's College Schools or in private seminaries, by which he earned sufficient money for his class fees and personal necessities.

During the greater part of this time in Edinburgh he was greatly influenced by the wise pastoral care and teaching of Dr. Horatius Bonar, who always watched with tender affection over the young members of his flock, and especially strove to produce in them habits of reverent and constant fellowship with God, and daily study of the Holy Scriptures.

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