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The Scottish Nation

GILFILLAN, a surname, composed of two Gaelic words, dignifying servant of Fillan. Who this Fillan was it is impossible to say. Ossian makes one Fillan a son of Fingal. Originally the Gilfillans belonged to the Isle of Mull, and were all cut in pieces by a hostile tribe, with the exception of two married women, who made their escape to the mainland, and bore twins each, from which four sprung all the Gilfillans in Scotland. The tradition of all the tribe being slain in the clan wars of ancient times, except one or two married women who were in a condition to perpetuate the race, is common to more Highland septs than the Gilfillans. Persons of the name abound in the parish of Buchlyvie, Stirlingshire.

      Two of the name, the Rev. George Gilfillan, Dundee, and Robert Gilfillan, song writer, of whom a memoir follows, have acquired considerable literary reputation.


      The Rev. George Gilfillan, celebrated as a critic and popular essayist, was born January 30, 1813, at Comrie, Perthshire, where his father, the Rev. Samuel Gilfillan, author of a work on the Sabbath, which went though several editions, and was translated into the French, Dutch, and Russian languages, was minister of the Secession Church. He was a native of Bucklyvie, Stirlingshire, and enjoyed extraordinary popularity as a preacher. His writings, under the signature of Menmas, were read over all Scotland, and are mentioned with high praise by Hugh Miller in his ‘Schools and Schoolmasters.’ He died in 1826, aged 64. George, the youngest child of his parents, was educated at the parish school of his native place, and went to Glasgow College in the end of 1825. He took several prizes, and in 1830 entered the Divinity Hall of the Secession body, (now the United Presbyterian Synod,) and continued there five sessions, being employed in the winter teaching in Edinburgh. In April 1835 he was licensed to preach by the Edinburgh Secession Presbytery, and received a call from Comrie, and one from the Schoolwynd church, Dundee. He accepted the latter, and was ordained there in March 1836. In the end of 1839 he published a little book, entitled ‘Five Discourses,’ and in 1842, a Discourse, entitled ‘Hades, or the Unseen,’ which reached a third edition. He early discovered a taste for literature, and wrote a series of literary portraits in the ‘Dumfries Herald,’ which he afterwards collected and enlarged, and published, separately, in 1845, under the title of ‘A Gallery of Literary Portraits,’ which was very successful, and in 1860 had reached its 4th edition. In 1849 he issued a Second ‘Gallery,’ and in 1850 ‘The Bards of the Bible.’ In 1851, amongst many other prefaces, he wrote ‘Preface to Book of British Poesy.’ In 1852 he published a work, entitled the ‘Martyrs, Heroes, and Bards of the Scottish Covenant,’ which, like his other works, sold well, and in 1853 a little religious treatise on the Fatherhood of God. In 1854 a third ‘Gallery of Literary Portraits’ appeared; in 1856 his ‘History of a Man:’ in 1857 his most elaborate work ‘Christianity and our Era;’ and in 1860 his ‘Alpha and Omega,’ in 2 vols. His contributions to periodicals, such as the ‘British Quarterly,’ the ‘Eclectic review,’ ‘Tait’s Magazine,’ ‘Hogg’s Instructor,’ ‘Titan,’ ‘The Scottish Review,’ &c. Have been numerous. In 1860 he made a tour in Sweden, and his sketches of that country inserted in ‘The Scottish Review,’ a Glasgow publication, were full of interest. As a lecturer he has at various times appeared in most of the large towns of Scotland and England, and for a long time no name was more prominent than his in current periodical literature. In the pulpit he is distinguished as an earnest, impressive, and fervid preacher. Referring to the connection of the discharge of clerical duty with attention to literary pursuits, he says in his ‘History of a Man,’ “In my own humble way I have sincerely and conscientiously sought to unite and harmonize literature and the duties of a clergyman; and, however imperfectly I may have succeeded, I do not regret the attempt; since I believe it has, in some instances, made my voice be heard with greater deference, first, when I spoke to Christians of the glories of genius and the charms of literature, and far more when I spoke to young lovers of literature, of the superior claims and infinitely higher merits of the Book of God.’


      The minor lyrical poet, Robert Gilfillan, was born in Dunfermline, on 7th July 1798. His father was a manufacturer in a small way, having a few weavers working under him. A second cousin of his is believed to have been the author of the song entitled ‘The Braes aboon Bonaw,’ who in early life went abroad and died soon after. Robert’s mother, Marion, was the daughter of Henry Law, also a small manufacturer in Dunfermline. He was the second of three sons. There was also one daughter, Margaret. In a letter to Mr. George Farquhar Graham, editor of ‘Wood’s Songs of Scotland,’ dated 14th March 1848, he gives the following account of his family. “My great-grandfather,” he says, “rented a small farm in Stirlingshire. His only son, Robert, my grandfather, chose the sea-life as a profession, and became captain of a merchant vessel, trading to foreign parts. In one of his voyages his ship was captured by a Spanish privateer; but while the Spaniards were below, rummaging his papers and cargo, he, with great promptitude, ordered the hatches to be nailed down, and placing himself with loaded pistols on the cabin stair, declared that the first who made his appearance was a dead man! At the same time he directed both ships to make sail for England, standing twenty-four hours as sentry over his double prize, both of which he carried safely into a British port. For this act of bravery he was recommended to government; but merit, eighty years ago, was tardily rewarded. A change of ministers took place, and my poor grandfather’s claims fell to the grounds. He is buried in Torryburn churchyard, where a massive stone covers his humble grave. My father wrote occasional verses on local subjects, al above mediocrity; but, with less vanity than his son, none of them were ever published.” He received the rudiments of his education at a school in his native place, and in 1811, while only 13 years of age, his parents removed to Leith, where he had an uncle in good circumstances. In that town he was apprenticed to the cooper trade, and served the usual term of seven years. In 1818 he returned to Dunfermline, where he was employed for three years as manager of a grocery shop. He then returned to Leith, and obtained employment as a clerk in the warehouse of a firm of oil and colour merchants. He was afterwards engaged as confidential clerk to a wine merchant of the same town. In 1837 he was appointed collector of the police rates at Leith, the duties of which office he continued to discharge during the remainder of his life. On St. Andrew’s day (30th November) of the same year, he was, on the motion of Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, baronet, elected Grand Bard to the Grand Lodge of Free Masons in Scotland, an office originally created for and filled by Robert Burns. In April 1850 he originated a subscription to defray the expense of repairing the monument to the memory of Robert Fergusson, erected by Burns in the Canongate churchyard. Mr. Gilfillan died on the 4th of the following December (1850), aged 52, having the previous day been attacked by apoplexy. His remains were interred in South Leith churchyard, where a monument was soon after erected to his memory. He was never married. His attachment to his relatives, particularly to his mother and sister, was intense; and his niece, Miss Mary Marion Law Gilfillan, the daughter of his brother James, constantly resided with him, from her childhood till his death. He claimed to be a second cousin of the Rev. George Gilfillan, although their connexion could never be traced.

      Mr. Gilfillan first attempted song-writing while still in his apprenticeship. His earliest printed pieces appeared in a Dundee paper, and they at once attracted attention for their genuine Scottish feeling, truthfulness of sentiment, and fine illustrations of home and the domestic affections. In 1828 he wrote no less than twenty-two songs; among these was ‘Peter M’Craw,’ one of the most humorous satires in Scottish verse. Encouraged by the popularity of such of his songs as had been singly published, and by the occasional favourable notice of his name in the ‘Noctes Ambrosianae’ of Blackwood’s Magazine, he produced in 1831 a volume of about 150 pages, entitled ‘Original Songs,’ which he dedicated to Allan Cunningham. In 1835 he published an enlarged edition of his songs, with fifty additional pieces. Soon after the publication of this volume he was entertained at a public dinner by about eighty gentlemen in the Royal Exchange Coffee-house, Edinburgh, when a splendid silver cup was presented to him, in token of their high estimation of his poetical talents and private worth. On this occasion, Mr. Peter M’Leod, the composer of the music of some of his finest songs, was chairman. In 1839 a third and larger collection of his songs appeared. Soon after his death a fourth edition of his songs was published, with a memoir by the author of this work, and a supplement of his latest poems.

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