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Dr Duncan of Ruthwell
Chapter VIII

After the great crisis—what then? The excitement, the enthusiasm, the crowded meetings, the cheers that greeted them were over—the time had come to face the privations, the loss of their old homes and of their churches. Other roofs must cover their heads, and their preaching, for a time, must be done under difficult, and sometimes nearly impossible, conditions. The sacrifices, the devotion, the grandeur of those who were prepared to lose everything rather than yield unto Caesar the things that belonged to God must in these years of paler spiritual faith stir the blood of their descendants. Mr Gladstone said: "As to the moral attitude of the Free Church, scarcely any word weaker or lower than that of majesty is, according to the spirit of historical criticism, justly applicable," and the late Duke of Argyll described those spiritual-minded ministers as being "the best and greatest men I ever knew."

My story is almost told. Dr Duncan returned to Ruthwell only to leave his old home shortly afterwards for ever ; the manse, that for forty years had been his home,- and the church where he had ministered to his people. He walked round his garden for the last time, bidding farewell to every tree and shrub; he crossed the little wooden bridge, went through the gate that led to the churchyard and meditated there alone. What thoughts must have lingered in his heart! The last load of furniture was gone;s he looked for the last time at the desolate rooms, and saw the cinders growing grey in the grate: he turned and left it all. The latch of the gate clicked behind him as he passed out from the old life full of sweet memories, to begin the new life when he was in his seventieth year. There was no house for them in the village, but an old parishioner was good enough to share her house with her minister and his wife. It is sad and painful to dwell on this part of his life. It meant many bitter partings with old parishioners, who did not follow in his footsteps, but remained behind in the Established Church, for it was only about half the church-going population that "went out" with him. It must have been a hard wrench to see those who had been with him breaking away and going in the opposite direction.

It was useless to look for a site for the Free Church near Ruthwell, as the landed proprietors were against the movement. He, therefore, had to turn his eyes further afield. A suitable place was found at Mount Kedar, though it was situated some distance from the village of Ruthwell. He preached, in the meantime, in a barn fitted up as a temporary place of worship; and he used also to go every other Sunday many miles along the sands of the Solway to Cterlaverock to preach in the open air. His well-known figure was to be seen whatever the weather might be, and these open-air services were a striking proof of the spirit of the people, for they would come from great distances to hear him.


"I heard on the side of a lonely hill,
The Free Kirk preacher's wrestling prayer;
Blue mist, brown muir, and a tinkling rill,
God's only house and music there.
And aged men, in mauds of grey,
Bare-headed stood to hear and pray.
Is it to pomp and splendour given
Alone to reach the throne on high?
The hill-side prayer may come to heaven
From plaided breast and up-cast eye."

Dr Duncan eventually took up his residence in a labourer's cottage, which is still standing on the highway. It contains two small rooms, and his wife says that though it was damp and some of the ceiling was broken, they were thankful to get into a place of their own and felt "as if they had found a palace." He was very happy there and set to work at once to make the garden nice. A story is told about him in his little cottage. The writer says, speaking of Dr Duncan, "I saw the fine old gentleman in his roadside cottage about the year 1846. He entertained his company, a few ministers in the neighbourhood, with the polished courtesy of the old school. Dinner over, he said: "Will you go into the drawing-room, gentlemen?" His friends gazed at each other and wondered what he could possibly mean. Opening the back door of the cottage he said: "My drawing-room is the great drawing-room of nature." Through declining health and the too frequent calls made upon his strength his family were anxious for him to remove, for the cottage was too damp and cold for him, and it was generally thought by his relations and friends that his health required great care. Pressure was put upon him to go to Edinburgh where he would find plenty of work to do in connection with the Church. He was reluctant to go; he said: "If they take me from my people, they may just lay me on the shelf. My energies, such as they are, are gone, and I really think that if I be transplanted I shall wither and die." It was expedient and advisable, however, for him to go away and live under more healthy conditions, and give up for a time an active part in the parish. But he bitterly felt moving from the active part he had taken. "Must I slip off at last like a knotless thread? I have no doubt that I could find something to do in Edinburgh, if I had faith for it, but I feel that I am too old to transplant." The short time he spent in Edinburgh was very sad for he felt the separation from his people, and his heart was at Ruthwell. When his health improved he started on a campaign in Liverpool and Manchester to collect funds to finish the church and manse at Mount Kedar. He seriously overtaxed his strength by the amount of work he did; he preached con^ stantly to crowded congregations, and devoted himself heart and soul to interesting everyone in the Free Church. No warnings from friends who knew that he was doing far too much turned him away from the work he had to do, and he very nearly succeeded in collecting the sum required. With a joyful heart he hastened back to Ruthwell, and his old parishioners, both those who left the Church with him and those who did not, joined in welcoming him. Touching and pathetic interviews passed between them; he made a house to house visitation; he specially gave up much of his time to the sick and dying; he brought comfort to the afflicted. He went to Mount Kedar to superintend the work there—his activity seemed as great as ever. It was the bright flickering of the candle before the end. He was seen in the churchyard, lingering, wrapt in thought, his horse tied to the gate. What memories the scene of his old home must have brought back to him, of days of youth and vigour, and healthy, glowing life; the old house where he had spent so many happy years and where his children had been born.

A few days later he was holding a service in the house of an elder of the Established Church, which shows that there was no bitterness of feeling. The little room was crowded; the sun went down leaving the room in semi-darkness; he lit a candle; he seemed calm and quiet—there was no trace of excitement in his manner. As the light of the candle did not reach the Bible he had in his hand, he looked round, and reaching a jug from a shelf placed the candle on it so that the light should fall on his book. The 121st psalm was sung; he knelt and offered up a prayer and then gave out his text, from the third chapter of Zechariah, ninth verse: "For behold the stone." Shortly afterwards his voice sounded strange. It was thought at first that emotion choked his utterance; his limbs trembled, his voice was lowered to a whisper, and he sank back into a chair. It seemed at this meeting that

he was at the very gate of heaven. The people were stirred to their very depths, and many a tear stole silently down the faces of those present. He was carried by devoted people from the room, and driven as carefully as possible to Comlongon Castle, the residence of his brother-in-law. He was conscious of all that was going on for he was heard to say, looking up at the stars, "Glorious! most glorious!" He was never able to utter more than a few words afterwards. His wife and children were too late to see him, and he died peacefully before they arrived. They laid his body to rest in the quiet churchyard close to the scenes of his many labours—the gravestone is against the wall that separates the churchyard from the manse garden.

Carlyle, who was so often at the manse, wrote to one of Dr Duncan's sons to express his sympathy.

Albany, Guilford,
18th March, '46.

My dear George John,—I trust that my mother's answer to Jas. M'Murdo's communication of your beloved and honoured father's sudden, but peaceful removal, would be held by those on the spot as mine also. But although very much occupied at present, I cannot but snatch a spare minute to express to yourself how truly and deeply I feel his loss. Long as I had been separated from him by place, I had ever cherished towards him an almost filial feeling which was, however, no adequate requital of the truly paternal kindness he showed me for many years, at that period of life when I most needed such an adviser and encouraging friend. Pray communicate to Wallace and Barbara, if they remember me now at all, this expression of my regard for your father's memory, whom I hope yet to see in the glory of our common Lord, when God shall be all in all.—Ever very affectionately yours,

Thomas Carlyle.

It was a fitting end to a long and useful life. He died at his post. His memory still lives in the hearts of the people at Ruthwell—his love for mankind, his indulgence towards poor suffering humanity, his whole personality breathed forth a spirit of love towards all men. His tombstone records how he was "distinguished through life by many gifts and graces," how "his last years were his best," and "death found him a tried soldier of the Cross, cheerfully enduring hardness and contending earnestly."

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