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Dr Duncan of Ruthwell
Chapter V

Towards the close of November 1823 the St Andrews University conferred on Mr Duncan the degree of Doctor of Divinity. This was done in the most gracious manner possible, and he was unanimously elected. It was some months after this that Dr Duncan published William Douglas, a novel in three volumes. It was written in vindication of the Covenanters, and in reply to Sir Walter Scott's novel, Old Mortality. It was published anonymously, but it attracted a great deal of attention, and was widely read. The versatility of Dr Duncan's interests and his keen industry naturally brought him a very large correspondence on a variety of subjects. He had kept up his college friendship with Mr Brougham, afterwards Lord Brougham. The latter had formed a high opinion of his judgment, and we now find him writing to ask Dr Duncan for advice and co-operation in The Society for the diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a project that Mr Brougham had much at heart.

London, November 18, 1826.

My dear Sir, — A private committee having been formed here for promoting popular education, by the preparation and diffusion of cheap and elementary works on all branches of Science, I wish to engage you to help us, both by suggesting such individuals as would undertake to furnish us with some such treatises, and by yourself taking some one or two more upon you, and, finally, by forming an auxiliary committee for the southern district of Scotland. . . . Do you know anyone, either as a volunteer or for reward, who will give a popular view of the philosophy of mind, abridged from Dugald Stewart for example? Or of the History of Ancient Philosophy— from the great folios that Finlayson used to recommend to us, and which we used not to read? ... In truth there are no assignable limits to the good it may do. The only subjects to be avoided are party politics and controversial divinity. We ought, for some time, to be occupied chiefly with the Sciences and Civil History, to avoid debateable ground. . . .—Yours ever,

H. Brougham.

Dr Duncan, in his reply, assured Mr Brougham of the interest he took in the proposed work, and of his readiness to do all in his power to forward it, provided religious subjects were to be unassailable. Mr Brougham replied by saying, "What you say of religion has been much weighed, and I see no difficulty. The tone or tendency of the whole of our operations will be religious, leaving out matters of controversy. In fact, I do not see how it is possible to teach science without teaching the foundation of all religion. . . ."

Dr Duncan at once set to work to do all in his power to put Mr Brougham's plan into motion. Among the first persons he wrote to was the Rev. David Welsh, of Crossmichael, author of the Life of Dr Thomas Brown, to see if he could induce him, with his able pen, to write a paper on Mental Philosophy; but Dr Welsh, answering that he was very sorry he could not undertake the subject, said, "People with such heads as you have can form no idea of the slowness with which such organisation as mine proceeds." Dr Duncan was more successful in other quarters in helping with " the diffusion of useful knowledge," and took great pains and trouble to work up interest in it in Scotland, and himself contributed articles on Friendly Societies, Savings Banks, etc. This insatiable worker now turned his attention to the new Mechanics Institutes, which were then coming to the front. He encouraged lectures on Chemistry and Science, both in Ruthwell and in Dumfries —a lecturer was engaged to demonstrate to the people, and great interest was awakened in both parish and town. There was some opposition at first, from the idea that science and religion did not go hand in hand, but he took, as he always did, a liberal, open-minded view, and said, " Truth cannot oppose truth. Intelligent men — though but half educated—in an age like ours, will inquire into doubtful and difficult subjects. . . ." Dr Duncan was busily engaged in writing pamphlets during the years of unrest which preceded the great measure of 1832 — pamphlets that did very good work in dissemina ting just political views among the people. He also lectured on various subjects. These manifold interests look as if they must have taken up his time from his parishioners, but it happened with him, as it does with so many active natures, that the more he did the more he found time to do. Many and many a time, after consuming the midnight oil, daylight would find him again in his study hard at work, for he allowed no other interest or pleasure—and studious work of all kinds was a pleasure to him—to steal his time from his own people. He was always accessible to them whenever they wanted his help or advice.

"—For surely never did there live on earth A man of kindlier nature. The rough sports And teasing ways of children vexed him not; Indulgent listener was he to the tongue Of garrulous age ; nor did the sick man's tale, To his fraternal sympathy addressed, Obtain reluctant hearing." [Wordsworth's Excursion.]

 All people who write will appreciate the difficulties he must have laboured under with constant interruptions, but it had become such a habit with him to turn with great rapidity from one thing to another, and he had such command over himself, that he could lay down his pen, deposit marks on half a dozen places of reference, and proceed to listen with no sign of impatience to the long and tedious complaint of some poor old woman who had been annoyed by the moonlight-larking of the boys of the village, or to the grievances of those people who, all the world over, have never-ending troubles — troubles for the most part of their own making — and who have little mercy for the poor overworked individual who has to be the recipient of them. Then there were frequent interruptions on Savings Bank business, as that was entirely managed by him; but these were pleasant interruptions enough for he was heart and soul in favour of thrift, and his face would light up with pleasure on receiving an addition to money already deposited, or in welcoming a new depositor. At all times and all seasons he was subject to the calls made upon a country pastor. He was very quick at sifting out the right and truth of a question—able, too, in a remarkable way to smooth and soothe angry feelings, and to send away a discontented individual in a happier frame of mind; he would then resume his seat, his pen, and his references, absolutely unruffled, and concentrate his thoughts again on his work, the broken interval not interfering in the least with the continuity of his ideas. Nothing, indeed, was more remarkable than this intense mental vitality, though I often think he must have suffered from the strain of it in after years. People of all classes turned to him for help, for aid, and for advice. If I were to attempt to deal with half the subjects contained in that vast correspondence, some of which lies beside me, how endless my task would be. Mr Douglas, the member for the Dumfries burghs, kept up a constant correspondence with him, consulting him on every possible subject. In an answer to one of Mr Douglas' letters on the Abolition of Commercial Restrictions in 1820, he says, "What a proud spectacle for Britain, after crushing the power of Bonaparte, to stand forward as the asserter of universal freedom of trade"; and his own verse at the end of a poem is worth quoting:—

"May commerce, released from her old swaddling bands,
Burst forth in her strength and with freedom join hands;
While science shall shed on the poorest her
pleasures, And faith, love, and peace fill the world with their treasures."

There are numberless letters from Dr Chalmers among his papers ; letters from Dr Andrew Thomson, David Welsh, and other well-known lights of the Church of Scotland; and in all of them there is the same proof of the faith, fellowship, and affection of the men of his own profession and their confidence in his judgment. There is one letter in particular from Dr Chalmers at the time when the plan, which had to be abandoned, of founding a university for Dumfries was under consideration, which shows the opinion held by Dr Chalmers of his organizing abilities.

Edinburgh, September 11, 1833.

My dear Sir,—I returned home yesterday and found your letter awaiting me. I fully and entirely acquiesce in its judicious and powerful statements, and am more confident than ever of a right and prosperous result of our joint deliberations when I see a new suggestion so thoroughly competent and so well decided upon. I do hope you will meet with nothing to embarrass you or distract you any further in the settlement of all the needful details. Dr Welsh rejoices in your letter to me, and I can assure you that I am altogether pleased with it.—Ever believe me, with best compliments, my dear Sir, yours most truly,

Thomas Chalmers.

Mr Brougham, it appears, also took great interest in the proposed college, and corresponded with Dr Duncan on the same subject. The origin of the idea of starting a university was this: funds had been left at the disposal of Mrs Creighton by her husband to do whatever was best for the town of Dumfries, and Dr Duncan, together with his brother, the Rev. Thomas Duncan, had been consulted. The result of their deliberations was that the money should be devoted to education, which would be of more benefit to the town than anything else. Lord Brougham wrote to Dr Duncan in answer to a letter on this subject.

Brougham, Saturday.

My dear Sir,—Your welcome letter came to me at York. ... I spoke to the worthy Dean of your wise and liberal views, and that you had so little presbyterian bigotry as to desire to see the prosperity of a college where Scotch Divines might associate with English Episcopalians to their mutual improvement. He was delighted with your sound and enlightened ideas which, he said, " showed a great mind," and he hopes no impossibility will be found of coming hereafter to some understanding. He is heart and soul intent on the scheme. I really would fain hope something may be done, but then Mrs Creighton's mind should be brought by reflexion and discussion to a right estimate of the infinitely greater good she does in this than in any other possible way, and the more general and lasting fame she gives her husband's bounty. . . .— Yours ever,

H. Brougham.

In those busy days it seems wonderful that he should have found time to read those close-written letters, let alone to answer them, and to answer them at length and to keep a copy, in his own neat handwriting, of each important one—letters that required thought, energy, and knowledge, on such subjects as Catholic Emancipation, then creating the greatest difference of opinion among all classes. It seems extraordinary that, at a period so very close to our own, a Roman Catholic was not allowed to sit in Parliament. George III. resisted every effort made in this direction. With the accession of George IV. the Catholics hoped for more liberal measures; they were, however, disappointed. The crisis in the Catholic question was brought about when O'Connell, although it was illegal for him to sit in Parliament, stood for Clare, and was elected by a large majority. He knew he could not take the Oath, but his election went a long way towards getting the Roman Catholic Relief Bill carried. Dr Duncan took a very decided stand in favour of emancipation, and, for the first time in his long ministry, seriously differed from his parishioners, refusing their request to send a petition to oppose the measure. He wrote a letter to them explaining his views; he was of opinion, "That civil disabilities should be distinct from religious ones. . . ." Feeling ran very high on this subject in his parish, as it did all over the kingdom. He bade his people look at their own history. "Look at our own noble and obstinate struggle in the days of the Covenant, and take warning —other Claverhouses and other Laggs would rise to sate their vengeance in the blood of helpless women and children. Argylls and M'Kails, of another creed, would seal their testimony on the scaffold, and be inscribed in the Calendar of Romish Martyrs ; other armies would be marshalled and other battles would be lost and won. ... It is the curse of all measures adopted or retained in a worldly spirit, for strengthening the bulwarks of religion, that they not only defeat their own object, but are actually not seldom converted into barriers against it. . . . It is an insult to Christianity to use carnal weapons for its support. . . . You wonder that while all other classes of British subjects are rapidly advancing in civilization the Irish Catholics should alone be excluded from the generous race—that they alone should be left centuries behind—but your wonder is misplaced, for how could it be otherwise when Protestant hands have placed such fetters on their souls."

At the time when passionate differences of opinion were taking place between the Government and the West Indian planters on the slavery question, Dr Duncan was writing a series of letters in the Dumfries Courier under the name of "Presbyter," which had a great effect on public opinion, both in our country and the colonies. He took a moderate and statesmanlike view of this most difficult question, and his letters had excellent effect in furthering a better state of feeling between the two parties— on the one side the Abolitionists, who were for emancipation at any price, and on the other side those who thought it would be dealing unfairly with the planters, who were after all our own people, were emancipation to be made compulsory. He felt that conciliation and caution were necessary on both sides. It was declared in the colonies that, should emancipation take place, they could not possibly compete with other places which permitted slavery, and that it would be impossible for white people to labour in the sweltering heat of the sugar and rice fields. There were those again who sneeringly pointed to the shocking conditions under which women and children laboured in our mines in free and happy England.

 In addition there was the question of the future of the slaves when emancipated. Were they fit to look after themselves? who was to protect those who were ill or unfit ? what was to become of the old slaves whom no one wanted ? would not the last condition of these unfortunate people be worse than the first ? Many sensible and apparently good and humane people were of the opinion that the change should be gradual, while others, indignant at the stories of the degradations and miseries of the slaves, were for emancipation instantly and unconditionally, at any and every cost. It was during this stormy time that Dr Duncan took up his moderate pen and strove to influence the passions and feelings which were abroad. He says, "How much men attracted to a party, or under the influence of some strong feeling, are, with the most honest intention, liable to be biassed in their judgments; and how unwilling they naturally are to admit the truth of every fact which militates against their views; nor can any of us be ignorant how generally writers and speakers regard it as a legitimate artifice to throw into the shade all opposing arguments, and to give a high, if not false, colouring to everything which tends to advance their cause. . . ." Speaking of the danger of too sudden a change, he says, "The difficulty lies, as I have said, in the transition when the first light breaks in on eyes which have long been held in natural darkness, and it dazzles and misleads: and the excesses to which it may give rise are dreadful to contemplate. Now the black population of the West Indies is precisely in this situation, and nothing can require more delicacy and prudence than the management of such a crisis. To this task a distant authority, which can at best be but partially informed, and which is liable to be guided by feeling and theory rather than by judgment and experience, is scarcely competent; and, therefore, do I earnestly deprecate a rash legislation at home."

Mr Douglas, M.P., writes to tell Dr Duncan that "Presbyter" has attracted much notice in all the West Indian colonies, and he further adds, "I have to-day a letter from the Speaker of the Assembly of Tobago, in which he says, ' I wish you would tell me, for I presume you know, who it is that writes in the Dumfries Journal under the signature of "Presbyter"; he is generally very correct.' " And again, Mr Douglas says, "Your letters, I assure you candidly, have been read with general interest . . . they acquire a very just tribute to your powers of writing; as they come from an unbiassed observer, they attract attention and a fair consideration of the case. . . ." Mr Home Drummond also writes to tell Dr Duncan what pleasure and instruction the letters have given him, and how refreshing they are after the " crimination and recrimination of the slaveowners and their anti-slavery opponents." The abolition of slavery in all British Dominions took place in 1833—the compensation paid was £20,000,000—it was the first great work of Parliament after the Reform Bill. It was said by those who thoroughly understood the subject that " Dr Duncan's work was calculated to do more to approximate those whose sentiments were widely opposed, and to produce a friendly feeling, than any book upon the same subject that had previously appeared."

Dr Duncan made a very important geological discovery in 1827—a discovery that led to a great deal of difference of opinion among the geologists of the day. Hearing that some curious footprints had been seen on the red sandstone in a quarry called Corncocklemuir, he determined to investigate the subject for himself. Having seen and carefully examined the footprints he came to the conclusion that they were undoubtedly those of some kind of four-footed animal, and with his discovery a new era in geology began. In an article named, "Fossil Footsteps" in the Edinburgh Review, vol. ex., 1859, appears the following: "These imprints of the former inhabitants of our earth were first brought under the notice of geologists about thirty years ago by the late Dr Henry Duncan of Ruthwell. . . . Dr Duncan published an account of these impressions in the transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1828. Professor Owen, who examined casts taken from the Corncockle tracks, has referred the impressions to tortoises, giving them the name of Testudo Duncani." Dr Duncan at the time was only too well aware that his discovery would be met with scepticism. He communicated with the distinguished geologist, Dr Buck-land, who, on hearing of the discovery, wrote as follows: ". . . till I see your specimens, I can, of course, give no further opinion than a general one, against even the remote probability of the marks you mention being the impressions of feet." But after seeing the casts, which were forwarded to him by coach, he writes to say, " I am strongly inclined to come over in toto to your opinion on the subject." This conclusion was arrived at by making tortoises walk over soft dough and wet earth. Many eminent geologists at first ridiculed the idea of the footprint theory, but Dr Buck-land was his firm ally. He showed the casts to Chantrey, the sculptor, who absolutely agreed with Dr Duncan. Dr Buckland asked for further specimens to be sent to him to show to others, as the matter had caused such a stir in the geological world. . . . " And so successful have I been in making converts with the single specimen I have from you, that if you could send me one or two more, on the real sandstone, I am sure I should bear down all the opposition (which is now very strong) to the belief in your hypothesis, among the geologists of London." Sir David Brewster and Mr Ansted were both sensible of the great value of Dr Duncan's discovery. Some years after, Dr Buckland wrote to Dr Duncan to say, " I look upon your discovery as one of the most curious and most important that has ever been made in geology, and, as it is a discovery that will for ever connect your name with the progress of this science, I am very anxious that the entire evidence relating to it should be worked out and recorded by yourself." This must have been a pleasant letter to read, for a great deal of controversy had taken place. Dr Duncan published his observations in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and, speaking of his discovery, he says, "This fact leads the mind into the remotest antiquity, and perplexes it in a maze of interminable conjecture as to the state of the earth's material when these living creatures walked on its surface, bathed in other waters and browzed on other pastures, and not less on the extraordinary changes and convulsions of nature which have since taken place, and which have broken up, overturned, and remodelled all things."

Dr Duncan is further known to archaeologists and antiquarians as having rescued from destruction the most beautiful example of a Runic monument in the United Kingdom. When Dr Duncan was presented to the parish of Ruthwell he found portions of this beautiful cross lying about the churchyard in detached fragments. He was not slow to recognise the beauty and interest attaching to it, and determined to make a search for the missing pieces in order to restore it. The earliest authentic notice of this interesting monument appears to have been some time in the seventeenth century, at which period it was in the parish church. When the struggles between Charles I. and his people were drawing to a crisis, and differences in religious matters were becoming more and more acute, the General Assembly of 1640 passed the following decree: " For-as-much as the Assembly is informed, that in divers places of this Kingdom, and specially in the north parts of the same, many Idolatrous Monuments, erected and made for Religious worship, are yet extant—such as crucifixes, Images of Christ, Mary and Saints departed—it ordaines the said monuments to be taken down, demolished and destroyed; and that with all convenient diligence. . . ." The lofty slender pillar, which dated from about 670, was thrown down; its beautiful head was humbled to the dust. It was, however, allowed to remain, crippled and broken as it was, on the floor of the church, and there at least had shelter from the storms without. In 1772 it was deprived of even this protection, the pieces were thrown out into the churchyard, and there were left exposed to the rains and winds of heaven, and to the merciless treatment of the children of the village. With loving hands Dr Duncan pieced the broken cross together, and spared neither time, pains, nor expense in trying to recover missing pieces, some of which were discovered while digging a grave close by. Not all of these, however, for many precious portions were never found. In 1802 the cross was erected in the manse garden. The transverse arms were missing, and Dr Duncan himself undertook, from a comparison with plates of similar monuments, to restore it, to the best of his belief, to its original form. It was a work of years to clear away the moss that clung to those old stones after the long exposure. Dr Duncan wrote a long account of the cross, and made beautiful and accurate drawings of the four sides, which he presented to the Antiquarian Society of Edinburgh. In acknowledging his work the Society paid high tribute to his care and trouble.

Edinburgh, 1832.

My dear Doctor,—I have much pleasure in communicating to you the special thanks of the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland, not only for your valuable paper on the subject of the Runic Monument of Ruth well, and for the beautiful drawing of the monument, which must have cost you so much pains and labour, but also for the care you have, for thirty years past, taken to preserve from destruction this most interesting relic of former times. . . .—My dear Sir, yours most faithfully,

Donald Gregory.

The controversy about the deciphering of the runes of the cross was very remarkable. First, the Scandinavian scholar, Mr Thorlief Repp, according to Wilson, reading the letters correctly enough, proceeded to weave them into imaginary words and sentences by means of which he made out the inscription to record: "A gift, for the expiation of an injury, of a cristpason or baptismal font, of eleven pounds weight, by the authority of the Therfusian fathers for the devastation of the fields." Other portions of the inscription were made to supply the name of the devastated locality, "The dale of Ashlafr," a place as little heard of before as were its Holy Conservators, the "Monks of Therfuse."

Mr Thorlief Repp was wrong. Professor Finn Magnusson, who had another theory, was also wrong, and there was a great stir among those who were learned in these matters, and many conjectures and decipherings and heated discussions.

In 1838 Mr Kemble, a great Anglo-Saxon scholar, arrived on the scene, and scattering all previous opinions aside, unlocked the mystery of the beautiful cross for ever. Stephens, in his Old Northern Runic Monuments, says of Kemble's reading of the runes: "He showed that the Cross was a Christian Memorial .... of a poem in Old-North-English, commonly called Old Northumbrian, on the Holy Rood, the Cross of Christ." For absolute confirmation of this opinion there was found, later on, at Vercelli, near Milan, an old manuscript. It contained old Anglo-Saxon homilies, and among them one entitled The Holy Rood, since known as Ceedmori's Hymn, and in the parts that are legible and clear on the cross at Ruthwell, parts of the same poem were deciphered. In the dream of the Holy Rood, " the sleeping Christian " is suddenly startled by the' appearance in the sky of the Blessed Cross of Christ—a variety of colours, now wavering and faint, now brilliant and gorgeous, pass over its surface. At one time streams of gore are seen to trickle down it; these are changed into rills of gold and silver, and the whole face of man's salvation is studded with bright gems and garlanded with flowers. Angels amidst peals of hosannahs bear it through the clouds of heaven, which open above the dreamer. The cross is supposed to speak to the sleeping Christian, and the lines of the poem, still legible on the cross, are as follows:—

"Then the young hero prepared himself,
That was Almighty God,
Strong and firm of mood,
He mounted the lofty Cross
Courageously in the sight of many.

I raised the powerful King,
The Lord of the heaven;
I dared not fall down.

They reviled us both together,
I was all stained with blood,
Poured from the man's side.

Christ was on the Cross,
Men came from afar
Yet hither hastening
Unto the noble one,
I beheld that all
With sorrow. I was overwhelmed.

I was all wounded with shafts;
They laid him down limb-weary;
They stood at the head of the corpse;
They beheld the Lord of Heaven."

The cross no longer stands in the manse garden, but has again found shelter and protection in the church. Through the influence of the late minister, the Rev. J. Macfarlane, it was placed there, and is now under the protection of The Ancient Monuments of Scotland Act. From a cunningly devised well in the floor of the church it rears its beautiful head heavenwards telling the story of Calvary in all its solemnity. A rich gem in a simple setting—there it stands in the full majesty of its beauty against the somewhat frigid atmosphere of the Presbyterian Church—the richness of the decoration, the warm ripe tints of the red sandstone stand out in almost startling beauty against the white walls of the church. Anderson says, in his Scotland in Early Christian Times: "No literary monument graven on stone of such a character, or of greater importance in the history of literature, exists anywhere else. It is a monument of culture in the highest sense of the term : it is a monument unique of its kind."

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