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Title: Principal Cairns
Author: Cairns, John, 1818-1892
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Principal Cairns" ***

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The designs and ornaments of this volume are by Mr. Joseph Brown, and
the printing is from the press of Morrison & Gibb Limited, Edinburgh.


In preparing the following pages I have been chiefly indebted for the
materials of the earlier chapters to some MS. notes by my late uncle,
Mr. William Cairns. These were originally written for Professor MacEwen
when he was preparing his admirable _Life and Letters of John Cairns,
D.D. LL.D._ They are very full and very interesting, and I have made
free use of them.

To Dr. MacEwen's book I cannot sufficiently express my obligations. He
has put so much relating to Principal Cairns into an absolutely final
form, that he seems to have left no alternative to those who come after
him between passing over in silence what he has so well said and
reproducing it almost in his words. It is probable, therefore, that
students of the _Life and Letters_--and there are many who, like Mr.
Andrew Lang with Lockhart's _Life of Scott_, "make it their breviary
"--will detect some echoes of its sentences in this little book. Still,
I have tried to look at the subject from my own point of view, and to
work it out in my own way; while, if I have borrowed anything directly,
I trust that I have made due acknowledgment in the proper place.

Among those whom I have to thank for kind assistance, I desire specially
to mention my father, the Rev. David Cairns, the last surviving member
of the household at Dunglass, who has taken a constant interest in the
progress of the book, and has supplied me with many reminiscences and
suggestions. To my brother the Rev. D.S. Cairns, Ayton, I am indebted
for most valuable help in regard to many points, especially that dealt
with at the close of Chapter VI.; and I also owe much to the suggestions
of my friends the Rev. P. Wilson and the Rev. R. Glaister. For help in
revising the proofs I have to thank the Rev. J.M. Connor and my brother
the Rev. W.T. Cairns.


DUMFRIES, _20th March_ 1903.















       *       *       *       *       *



John Cairns was born at Ayton Hill, in the parish of Ayton, in the east
of Berwickshire, on the 23rd of August 1818.

The farm of Ayton Hill no longer exists. Nothing is left of it but
the trees which once overshadowed its buildings, and the rank growth
of nettles which marks the site of a vanished habitation of man. Its
position was a striking one, perched as it was just on the edge of the
high ground which separates the valley of the little river Eye from
that of the Tweed. It commanded an extensive view, taking in almost the
whole course of the Eye, from its cradle away to the left among the
Lammermoors to where it falls into the sea at Eyemouth a few miles to
the right. Down in the valley, directly opposite, were the woods and
mansion of Ayton Castle. A little to the left, the village of Ayton lay
extended along the farther bank of the stream, while behind both castle
and village the ground rose in gentle undulations to the uplands of
Coldingham Moor.

South-eastwards, a few miles along the coast, lay Berwick-on-Tweed, the
scene of John Cairns's future labours as a minister; while away in the
opposite direction, in the heart of the Lammermoors, near the headwaters
of the Whitadder and the Dye, was the home of his immediate ancestors.
These were tenants of large sheep-farms; but, through adverse
circumstances, his grandfather, Thomas Cairns, unable to take a farm of
his own, had to earn his living as a shepherd. He died in 1799, worn out
before he had passed his prime, and his widow was left to bring up her
young fatherless family of three girls and two boys as best she could.
After several migrations, which gradually brought them down from the
hills to the seaboard, they settled for some years at Ayton Hill. The
farm was at the time under some kind of trust, and there was no resident
farmer. The widowed mother was engaged to look after the pigs and the
poultry; the daughters also found employment; and James, the elder son,
became the shepherd. He was of an adventurous and somewhat restless
disposition, and, at the time of the threatened invasion by Napoleon,
joined a local Volunteer corps. Then the war fever laid hold of him,
and he enlisted in the regular army, serving in the Rifle Brigade all
through the Peninsular War, from Vimiera to Toulouse, and earning a
medal with twelve clasps. He afterwards returned, bringing with him
a Portuguese wife, and settled as shepherd on the home-farm of Ayton

The younger son, John, as yet little more than a child, was hired out
as herd-boy on the neighbouring farm of Greystonelees, between Ayton
and Berwick. His wages were a pair of shoes in the half-year, with his
food in the farm kitchen and his bed in the stable loft. His schooldays
had begun early. He used afterwards to tell how his mother, when he was
not more than five years old, carried him every day on her back on his
way to school across a little stream that flowed near their cottage.
But this early education was often interrupted, and came very soon
to a close; not, however, before he was well able to read. Writing he
taught himself later; and, later still, he picked up a good working
knowledge of arithmetic at a night-school. He was a quiet, thoughtful
boy, specially fond of reading, but, from lack of books, reading was
almost out of his reach. He had not even a Bible of his own, for Bibles
were then so dear that it was not possible for parents in humble life to
provide those of their children who went out into the world with copies
even of the cheapest sort. In place of a Bible, however, his mother had
given him a copy of the Scottish Metre Version of the Psalms, with a
"Preface" to each Psalm and notes by John Brown of Haddington. This
was all the boy had to feed his soul on, but it was enough, for it
was strong meat; and he valued and carefully kept that old, brown,
leather-bound Psalm-book to the end of his days.

When James left home, the shepherding at Ayton Hill was taken up by
his brother John. Though only a lad in his teens, he was in every
respect, except in physical strength, already a man. He was steady and
thoughtful, handy and capable in farm work, especially in all that
concerned the care of sheep, for which he had a natural and probably
an inherited instinct. He was also held in great regard by the
Rev. David Ure, the earnest and kindly minister of the Burgher
Meeting-house, which stood behind the Castle woods at the lower end of
Ayton village. The family were of that "strict, not strictest species
of Presbyterian Dissenter," and John attended also the Bible-class and
Fellowship Meeting. The family of John Murray, a ploughman or "hind"
from the Duns district, and now settled at Bastleridge, the next farm
to Ayton Hill, also attended Mr. Ure's church. An intimacy sprang up
between the two families. It ripened into affection between John
Cairns and Alison, John Murray's only daughter, and in June 1814 they
were united in marriage. The two eldest daughters of the Cairns family
had already gone to situations, and were soon to have homes of their
own. The grand old mother, who had been for so many years both father
and mother to her children, was beginning to feel the infirmities of
age. When, therefore, the young couple took up housekeeping, she left
the home and the work at Ayton Hill to them, and with her youngest
daughter went over to live in Ayton.

John Cairns and his wife were in many respects very unlike one
another. He was of a grave, quiet, and somewhat anxious temperament,
almost morbidly scrupulous where matters of conscience and
responsibility were concerned. She, on the other hand, was always
hopeful, making light of practical difficulties, and by her untiring
energy largely helping to make these disappear. She had a great
command of vigorous Scotch, and a large stock of homely proverbs,
of which she made frequent and apposite use. Both husband and wife
were excellently well read in their Bibles, and both were united
in the fear of God. Built on this firm foundation, their union of
twenty-seven years was a singularly happy one, and their different
temperaments contributed to the common stock what each of them
separately lacked. Ayton Hill remained their home for six years after
their marriage, and here were born their three eldest children, of
whom the youngest, John, is the subject of the present sketch.

In the spring of 1820 the trust under which Ayton Hill had been worked
for so many years was wound up, and a new tenant took the farm. It
became necessary, therefore, for the shepherd to seek a new situation,
and this brought about the first "flitting" in the family history. The
Berwickshire hinds are somewhat notorious for their migratory habits,
in which some observers have found a survival of the restlessness
which characterised their ancestors in former times, and was alike
the result and the cause of the old Border Forays. Be that as it may,
every Whitsunday term-day sees the country roads thronged with carts
conveying furniture and bedding from one farm to another. In front of
the pile sits the hind's wife with her younger children, while the
hind himself with his older boys and girls walks beside the horse, or
brings up the rear, driving the family cow before him. In some cases
there is a flitting every year, and instances have even been known in
which anxiety to preserve an unbroken tradition of annual removals
has been satisfied by a flitting from one house to another on the
same farm.

The Cairns family now entered on a period of migration of this kind,
and in the course of eleven years they flitted no less than six times.
Their first removal was from Ayton Hill to Oldcambus Mains, in the
parish of Cockburnspath, where they came into touch with the Dunglass
estate and the Stockbridge Church, with both of which they were in
after-years to have so close a connection. The father had been engaged
by the Dunglass factor to act, in the absence of a regular tenant, as
joint steward and shepherd at Oldcambus, and the family lived in the
otherwise unoccupied farmhouse. The two elder children attended a
school less than a mile distant, and in their absence John, the
youngest, who was now in his fourth year, used to cause no little
anxiety to his careful mother by wandering out by himself dangerously
near to the edge of the high sea-cliffs behind the farmhouse.

At length, in a happy moment, he took it into his head to go to school
himself; and, although he was too young for lessons, the schoolmaster
allowed him to sit beside his brother and sister. When he was tired of
sitting, tradition has it that the little fellow used to amuse himself
by getting up and standing in the corner to which the school culprits
were sent. Here he duly put on the dunce's cap which he had seen them
wear, and which bore the inscription, "For my bad conduct I stand

A tenant having been at length found for Oldcambus Mains, the family,
which had been increased by the birth of three more children, removed
back to the Ayton district, to the farm of Whiterigg, two miles from
the village. The house which they occupied here is still pointed out,
but it has been enlarged and improved since those days. At that time,
like all the farm servants' dwellings in the district, it consisted
of a single room with an earthen floor, an open unlined roof of red
tiles, and rafters running across and resting on the wall at each
side. There was a fireplace at one end and a window, and then a door
at right angles to the fireplace. When the furniture came to be put
in, the two box-beds with their sliding panels were set up facing the
fireplace; they touched the back wall at one end, and left a small
space free opposite to the door at the other. The beds came almost,
if not quite, up to the level of the rafters, and screened off behind
them perhaps a third of the entire space, which was used as a lumber
closet or store. Above the rafters, well furnished with _cleeks_ for
the family stock of hams, there was spread, in lieu of a ceiling, a
large sheet of canvas or coarse unbleached cotton. There was a table
under the window, a _dresser_ with racks for plates, etc., set up
against the opposite wall, and an eight-day clock between the window
and the fireplace. "Fixtures" were in such houses practically
non-existent; the grate, which consisted merely of two or three bars
or _ribs_, the iron _swey_ from which hung the large pot with its
rudimentary feet, and, in some cases, even the window, were the
property of the immigrants, and were carried about by them from
farm to farm in their successive flirtings.

When at Whiterigg, the children attended school at Ayton, and here
young John learned his letters and made considerable progress in
reading. After two years, the death of the Whiterigg farmer made
another change necessary, and the family returned to the Dunglass
estate and settled at Aikieside, a forester's cottage quite near
to their former home at Oldcambus Mains, and within easy reach of
Oldcambus School. Aikieside is in the Pease Dean, a magnificent wooded
glen, crossed a little lower down by a famous bridge which carries
the old post road from Edinburgh to Berwick over the Pease Burn at
a height of nearly one hundred and thirty feet. A still older road
crosses the stream close to its mouth, less than a mile below the
bridge. The descent here is very steep on both sides, but it seems
to have been even steeper in former times than it is now. This point
in the old road is "the strait Pass at Copperspath," where Oliver
Cromwell before the battle of Dunbar found the way to Berwick blocked
by the troops of General Leslie, and of which he said that here
"ten men to hinder are better than forty to make their way."

Beautiful as the Pease Dean is, it has this drawback for those
who live in the vicinity--especially if they happen to be anxious
mothers--that it is infested with adders; and as these engaging
reptiles were specially numerous and specially aggressive in the
"dry year" 1826, it is not surprising that when, owing to the cottage
at Aikieside being otherwise required, John Cairns was offered a
house in the village of Cockburnspath, he and his wife gladly availed
themselves of that offer. From Cockburnspath another removal was made
in the following year to Dunglass Mill; and at last, in 1831, the much
travelled family, now increased to eight, found rest in a house within
the Dunglass grounds, after the father had received the appointment of
shepherd on the home-farm, which he held during the rest of his life.



The Lammermoor range, that "dusky continent of barren heath-hills,"
as Thomas Carlyle calls it, runs down into the sea at St. Abb's Head.
For the greater part of its length it divides Berwickshire from East
Lothian; but at its seaward end there is one Berwickshire parish
lying to the north of it--the parish of Cockburnspath. The land in
this parish slopes down to the Firth of Forth; it is rich and well
cultivated, and is divided into large farms, each of which has its
group of red-roofed buildings, its substantial farmhouse, and its long
tail of hinds' cottages. The seaward views are very fine, and include
the whole of the rugged line of coast from Fast Castle on the east to
Tantallon and North Berwick Law on the west. In the middle distance
are the tower of Dunbar Church, the Bass Rock, and the Isle of May;
and farther off is the coast of Fife, with Largo Law and the Lomonds
in the background. The land is mostly bare of trees, but there is a
notable exception to this in the profound ravines which come down from
the hills to the sea, and whose banks are thickly clothed with fine
natural wood.

Of these, the Pease Dean has already been mentioned. Close beside
it is the Tower Dean, so called from an ancient fortalice of the
Home family which once defended it, and which stands beside a bridge
held in just execration by all cyclists on the Great North Road.
But, unquestionably, the finest of all the ravines in these parts
is Dunglass Dean, which forms the western boundary of Cockburnspath
parish, and divides Berwickshire from East Lothian. From the bridge by
which the Edinburgh and Berwick road crosses the dean, at the height
of one hundred feet above the bed of the stream, the view in both
directions is extremely fine. About a hundred and fifty yards lower
down is the modern railway bridge, which spans the ravine in one
gigantic arch forty feet higher than the older structure that carries
the road; and through this arch, above the trees which fill the glen,
one gets a beautiful glimpse of the sea about half a mile away.

Above the road-bridge, and to the right of the wooded dean, are the
noble trees and parks of Dunglass grounds. The mansion-house, a
handsome modern building, part of which rises to a height of five
storeys, is built only some eight or ten feet from the brink of the
dean, on its western or East Lothian side. About fifty yards farther
west are the ivy-covered ruins of a fine Gothic church, whose massive
square tower and stone roof are still tolerably complete. This church
before the Reformation had collegiate rank, and is now the sole
remaining relic of the ancient village of Dunglass. In former times
the Dunglass estate belonged to the Earls of Home, whose second title,
borne to this day by the eldest son of the house, is that of Lord
Dunglass. But it was bought about the middle of the seventeenth
century by the Halls, who own it still, and in whose family there
has been a baronetcy since 1687. The laird at the time with which we
are now dealing was Sir James Hall, whose epitaph in the old church
at Dunglass bears that he was "a philosopher eminent among the
distinguished men of an enquiring age." He was President of the Royal
Society of Edinburgh for many years, and was an acknowledged expert
in Natural Science, especially in Geology. His second son was the
well-known Captain Basil Hall, R.N., the author of a once widely-read
book of travels.

Behind the church, and about a hundred yards to the west of the
mansion-house, are the offices--stables, close boxes, coach-house,
etc., all of a single storey, and built round a square paved
courtyard. The coachman's house is on one side of this square, and the
shepherd's on the other. The latter, which is on the side farthest
from the "big house," has its back to the courtyard, and looks out
across a road to its little bailyard and a fine bank of trees beyond
it. It is neat and lightsome, but very small; consisting only of a
single room thirteen feet by twelve, with a closet opening off it not
more than six feet broad. How a family consisting of a father, mother,
and eight children could be stowed away in it, especially at night, is
rather a puzzling question. But we may suppose that, when all were at
home, each of the two box-beds would be made to hold three, that a
smaller bed in the closet would account for two more, and that for the
accommodation of two of the younger children a sliding shelf would
be inserted transversely across the foot of one of the box-beds.
Certainly, an arrangement of this kind would fail to be approved by a
sanitary inspector in our times; and even during the day, when all the
family were on the floor together, there was manifest overcrowding.
But the life was a country one, and could be, and was, largely spent
in the open air, amid healthful surroundings and beautiful scenery.

The income available for the support of such a large household seems
to us in these days almost absurdly inadequate. The father's wages
rarely exceeded £30 a year, and they never all his life reached £40.
They were mostly paid in kind. So many bolls of oats, of barley and
of peas, so many carts of coals, so many yards of growing potatoes,
a cow's grass, the keep of two sheep and as many pigs, and a free
house,--these, which were known as the _gains_, were the main items in
the account. This system gave considerable opportunity for management
on the part of a thrifty housewife, and for such management there were
few to surpass the housewife in the shepherd's cottage at Dunglass.

The food was plentiful but plain. Breakfast consisted of porridge
and milk; dinner, in the middle of the day, of Scotch kail and pork,
occasionally varied by herrings, fresh or salt according to the
season, and with the usual accompaniments of potatoes and pease
bannocks. At supper there was porridge again, or mashed potatoes
washed down with draughts of milk, and often eaten with horn spoons
out of the large pot which was set down on the hearth. Tea was only
seen once a week--on Sunday afternoons. And so the young family grew
up healthy and strong in spite of the overcrowding.

Before the removal to Dunglass, the two eldest children had been taken
from school to work in the fields, where they earned wages beginning
at sixpence a day. Their education, however, was continued in some
sort at a night-school. John and his younger brother James, and the
twins, Janet and William, who came next in order, attended the parish
school at Cockburnspath, a mile away. Cockburnspath is a village
of about two hundred and fifty inhabitants, situated a little off
the main road. It has a church with an ancient round tower, and a
venerable market-cross rising from a platform of steps in the middle
of the village street.

On the south side of the street, just in front of the church, stood
the old schoolhouse--a low one storey building, roofed with the red
tiles characteristic of the neighbourhood, and built on to the
schoolmaster's two-storey dwelling. The schoolmaster at this time
was John M'Gregor, a man of ripe and accurate scholarship and quite
separate individuality. The son of a Perthshire farmer, he had studied
for the ministry at St. Andrews University, and had, it was said,
fulfilled all the requirements for becoming a licentiate of the Church
of Scotland except the sending in of one exercise, This exercise he
could never be persuaded to send in, and that not because he had any
speculative difficulties as to the truth of the Christian revelation,
nor yet because he had any exaggerated misgivings as to his own
qualifications for the work of the ministry; but because he preferred
the teaching profession, and was, moreover, indignant at what he
conceived to be the overbearing attitude which the ministers of the
Established Church assumed to the parish schools and schoolmasters.
This feeling ultimately became a kind of mania with him. He was at
feud with his own parish minister, and never entered his church
except when, arrayed in a blue cloak with a red collar, he attended
to read proclamations of marriages; and he could make himself very
disagreeable when the local Presbytery sent their annual deputation
to examine his school. Yet he was essentially a religious man; he had
a reverence for what was good, and he taught the Bible and Shorter
Catechism to his scholars carefully and well.

As he disliked the ministers, so he showed little deference to the
farmers, who were in some sort the "quality" of the district, and to
such of their offspring as came under his care. The farmers retaliated
by setting up an opposition school in Cockburnspath, which survived
for a few years; but it never flourished, for the common people
believed in M'Gregor, whom they regarded as "a grand teacher," as
indeed he was. He had a spare, active figure, wore spectacles, and
took snuff. There was at all times an element of grimness in him, and
he could be merciless when the occasion seemed to demand it. "Stark
man he was, and great awe men had of him," but this awe had its roots
in a very genuine respect for his absolutely just dealing and his
masterful independence of character.

John Cairns first went to Mr. M'Gregor's school when the family
removed to Cockburnspath from Aikieside, and he made such progress
that two years later, when he was ten years old, the master proposed
that he should join a Latin class which was then being formed. This
proposal caused great searchings of heart at home. His father, with
anxious conscientiousness, debated with himself as to whether it would
be right for him thus to set one of his sons above the rest. He could
not afford to have them all taught Latin, so would it be fair to the
others that John should be thus singled out from them? The mother, on
the other hand, had no such misgivings, and she was clear that John
must have his Latin. The ordinary school fees ranged from three to
five shillings a quarter; but when Latin was taken they rose to seven
and sixpence. Mr. M'Gregor had proposed to teach John Latin without
extra charge, but both his father and his mother were agreed that to
accept this kind offer was not to be thought of for a moment; and his
mother was sure that by a little contriving and saving on her part
the extra sum could be secured. The minister, Mr. Inglis, who was
consulted in the matter, also pronounced strongly for the proposal,
and so John was allowed to begin his classical studies.

Within two years Greek had been added to the Latin; and, as the
unavoidable bustle and noise which arose in the evening when the
whole family were together in the one room of the house made study
difficult, John stipulated with his mother that she should call him in
the morning, when she rose, an hour before anybody else, to light the
fire and prepare the breakfast. And so it happened that, if any of the
rest of the family awoke before it was time to get up, they would see
John studying his lesson and hear him conjugating his Greek verbs
by the light of the one little oil-lamp that the house afforded.
Perhaps, too, it was what he saw, in these early morning hours, of
the unwearied and self-forgetful toil of his mother that taught him
to be in an especial degree thoughtful for her comfort and considerate
of her wants both then and in after-years.

But his regular schooldays were now drawing to an end. His father,
though engaged as the shepherd at Dunglass, had other duties of a very
multifarious kind to discharge, and part of his shepherd work had been
done for him for some time by his eldest son, Thomas. But Thomas was
now old enough to earn a higher wage by other work on the home-farm
or in the woods, and so it came to be John's turn to take up the work
among the sheep. When his father told Mr. M'Gregor that John would
have to leave school, the schoolmaster was so moved with regret at the
thought of losing so promising a scholar, that he said that if John
could find time for any study during the day he would be glad to have
him come to his house two or three nights in the week, and to go over
with him then what he had learned. As Mr. M'Gregor had become more and
more solitary in his habits of late--he was a bachelor, and his aged
mother kept house for him--this offer was considered to be a very
remarkable proof of his regard, and it was all the more gratefully
accepted on that account.

It fortunately happened that the work to which John had now to turn
his hand allowed him an opportunity of carrying on his studies without
interfering with its efficiency. That work was of a twofold character.
He had to "look" the sheep, and he had to "herd" them. The looking
came first. Starting at six o'clock in the morning, accompanied by the
faithful collie "Cheviot," he made a round of all the grass-parks on
the home-farm, beginning down near the sea and thence working his way
round to a point considerably higher up than the mansion-house. His
instructions were to count the sheep in each field, so that he might
be able to tell whether they were all there, and also to see whether
they were all afoot and feeding. In the event of anything being wrong,
he was to report it to his father. The circuit was one of three or
four miles, and the last field to be looked was that in which were
gathered the fifty or sixty sheep that were to be brought out to the
unfenced lawns round the mansion-house and be herded there during
the day.

These sheep were generally to be found waiting close to the gate, and
when it was opened they could quite easily find their own way down to
their feeding-ground. As they passed slowly on, cropping the grass as
they went, John was able to leave them and go home for his breakfast
of porridge and milk. Breakfast having been despatched, and Cheviot
fed, he once more wrapped his shepherd's plaid about him, remembering
to put a book or two, and perhaps a piece of bannock, into the _neuk_
of it, and set out to find his flock. There was usually little
difficulty in doing so, for the sheep knew the way and did not readily
wander out of it; while, even if they had deviated a little from the
direct route, no great harm would at this stage of their passage have
resulted. It was quite different when they came down to the lawns near
the house. These were surrounded by ornamental shrubbery, and it was
to keep the sheep from invading this and the adjacent flower-borders
that the services of the herd-boy were required.

What he had to do, then, after he had brought the sheep down, was to
take his place on some knoll which commanded the ground where they
were feeding, and keep an eye on them. If nothing disturbed them they
would feed quietly enough, and a long spell of reading might be quite
safely indulged in. If any of them showed signs of wandering out of
bounds, a stroll in their direction, book in hand, would usually be
quite sufficient, with or without Cheviot's aid, to turn them. And if
a leading sheep were turned, the others would, sheep-like, follow the
new lead thus imparted. This was the usual state of things in fine
weather. In wet weather there were not the same possibilities of
study, unless the feeding-ground happened to be in the neighbourhood
of the old church, where sufficient shelter could be found for reading
and the sheep could be watched through the open doorway. About four
o'clock--in winter somewhat earlier--it was time to take the sheep
back to the fold-field, and then the parks had to be again looked,
this time in the reverse order, the shepherd's cottage being gained
in time for supper.

After supper, John would go into Cockburnspath to recite the lessons
he had prepared to Mr. M'Gregor. The schoolmaster never prescribed any
definite section to be learned; he left this to his pupil, in whose
industry and interest in his work he had sufficient confidence.
He rarely bestowed any praise. A grim smile of satisfaction, and
sometimes a "Very well, sir," were all that he would vouchsafe; but
to others he would be less reticent, and once he was heard to say,
"I have so far missed my own way, but John Cairns will flourish yet."

John is described as having been at this time a well-grown boy,
somewhat raw-boned and loose-jointed, with an eager look, ruddy
and healthy, and tanned with the sun, his hair less dark than it
afterwards became. He was fond of schoolboy games--shinty, football,
and the rest--and would play at marbles, even when the game went
against him, until he had lost his last stake. Archery was another
favourite amusement, and he was expert at making bows from the
thinnings of the Dunglass yews, and arrows tipped with iron
_ousels_--almost the only manual dexterity he possessed. Like all
boys of his class, his usual dress was a brown velveteen jacket and
waistcoat and corduroy trousers that had once been white.

Along with the teaching he got from Mr. M'Gregor, there went another
sort of education of a less formal kind which still deserves to be
mentioned. Now that he was earning a wage,--it was about eightpence
or tenpence a day,--which of course went into the common stock, he
ventured occasionally to ask his mother for sixpence to himself. With
this he could obtain a month's reading at the Cockburnspath library.
A very excellent library this was, and during the three years of his
herding he worked his way pretty well through it. It was especially
strong in history and standard theology, and in these departments
included such works as Gibbon's _Decline and Fall_, Mitford's _History
of Greece_, Russell's _Modern Europe_, Butler's _Analogy_, and Paley's
_Evidences_. In biography and fiction it was less strong, but it had a
complete set of the Waverley Novels in one of the early three-volume
editions. When he went to Mr. M'Gregor's, John used often to take
butter churned by his mother to the village shop, and the basket in
which he carried it was capacious enough to hold a good load of books
from the library on the return journey.

All the family were fond of books, and the small store of volumes,
mostly of old Scotch divinity, in the little bookcase at Dunglass was
well thumbed. But reading of a lighter kind was also indulged in, and
on winter nights, when the mother was plying her spinning-wheel and
the father had taken down his cobbler's box and was busily engaged
patching the children's shoes, it was a regular practice for John to
sit near the dim oil-lamp and read to the rest. Sometimes the reading
would be from an early number of Chambers's _Journal_, sometimes from
Wilson's _Tales of the Borders_, which were then appearing--both of
these being loans from a neighbour. But once a week there was always
a newspaper to be read. It was often a week or a fortnight old, for,
as it cost sixpence halfpenny, it was only by six or eight neighbours
clubbing together that such a luxury could be brought within the reach
of a working-man's family; but it was never so old as to be
uninteresting to such eager listeners.

But the most powerful of all the influences which affected John Cairns
at this period of his life remains to be mentioned--that which came
to him from his religious training and surroundings. The Christian
religion has acted both directly and indirectly on the Scottish
peasantry, and it has done so the more powerfully because of the
democratic character of the Presbyterian form which that religion took
in Scotland. Directly, it has changed their lives and has given them
new motives and new immortal hopes. But it has also acted on them
indirectly, doing for them in this respect much of what education and
culture have done for others. It has supplied the element of idealism
in their lives. These lives, otherwise commonplace and unlovely, have
been lighted up by a perpetual vision of the unseen and the eternal;
and this has stimulated their intellectual powers and has so widened
their whole outlook upon life as to raise them high above those of
their own class who lived only for the present. All who have listened
to the prayers of a devout Scotch elder of the working-class must have
been struck by this combination of spiritual and intellectual power;
and one thing they must have specially noticed is that, unlike the
elder of contemporary fiction, he expressed himself, not in broad
Scotch but in correct and often stately Bible English.

But this intellectual activity is often carried beyond the man in whom
it has first manifested itself. It tends to reappear in his children,
who either inherit it or have their own intellectual powers stimulated
in the bracing atmosphere it has created. The instances of Robert
Burns and Thomas Carlyle, who both came out of homes in which
religion--and religion of the old Scottish type--was the deepest
interest, will occur to everyone. Not the least striking illustration
of this principle is shown in the case of John Cairns. In the life of
his soul he owed much to the godly upbringing and Christian example
shown to him by his parents; but the home at Dunglass, where religion
was always the chief concern, was the nursery of a strong mind as well
as of a strong soul, and both were fed from the same spring. In this
case, as in so many others, spiritual strength became intellectual
strength in the second generation.

The Cairns family attended church at Stockbridge, a mile beyond
Cockburnspath and two miles from Dunglass, and the father was an elder
there from 1831 till his death. The United Secession--formerly the
Burgher--Church at Stockbridge occupied a site conveniently central
for the wide district which it served, but very solitary. It stood
amid cornfields, on the banks of a little stream, and looked across to
the fern-clad slopes of Ewieside, an outlying spur of the Lammermoors.
Except the manse, and the beadle's cottage which adjoined it, there
was no house within sight, nor any out of sight less than half a
mile away.

The minister at this time was the Rev. David M'Quater Inglis, a man of
rugged appearance and of original and vigorous mental powers. He was a
good scholar and a stimulating preacher, excelling more particularly
in his expository discourses, or "lectures" as they used to be called.
When he tackled some intricate passage in an Epistle, it was at times
a little hard to follow him, especially as his utterance tended to be
hesitating; but when he had finished, one saw that a broad clear road
had been cut through the thicket, and that the daylight had been let
in upon what before had been dim. "I have heard many preachers," said
Dr. Cairns, in preaching his funeral sermon nearly forty years later,
"but I have heard few whose sermons at their best were better than the
best of his; and his everyday ones had a strength, a simplicity, and
an unaffected earnestness which excited both thought and Christian
feeling." Nor was he merely a preacher. By his pastoral visitations
and "diets of examination" he always kept himself in close touch with
his people, and he made himself respected by rich and poor alike.

The shepherd's family occupied a pew at Stockbridge in front of the
pulpit and just under the gallery, which ran round three sides of the
church. That pew was rarely vacant on a Sunday. There was no herding
to be done on that day, and in the morning the father looked the sheep
in the parks himself that the herd-boy might have his full Sabbath
rest. He came back in time to conduct family worship, this being
the only morning in the week when it was possible for him to do so,
although in the evening it was never omitted, and on Sunday evening
was always preceded by a repetition of the Shorter Catechism. After
worship the family set out for church, where the service began at

The situation of Stockbridge, it has been already said, was solitary,
but on Sundays, when the hour of worship drew near, the place lost its
solitude. The roads in all directions were thronged with vehicles,
men on horseback, and a great company on foot; the women wearing the
scarlet cloaks which had not yet given place to the Paisley shawls
of a later period, and each carrying, neatly wrapped in a white
handkerchief, a Bible or Psalm-book, between whose leaves were a sprig
or two of southernwood, spearmint, or other fragrant herb from the
cottage garden.

The service lasted about three hours. There was first a "lecture"
and then a sermon, each about fifty minutes long; several portions
of psalms were sung; and of the three prayers, the first, or "long
prayer," was seldom less than twenty minutes in length. In summer
there was an interval of half an hour between the lecture and the
sermon, "when," says Mr. William Cairns, "there was opportunity for a
delightful breathing-time, and the youths who were swift of foot could
just reach the bottom of a hill whereon were plenteous blaeberries,
and snatch a fearful joy if one could swallow without leaving the
tell-tale marks on the lips and tongue."

At the close of the afternoon service there was a Sunday school,
chiefly conducted by Mr. Inglis himself, at which an examination
on the sermon that had just been delivered formed an important part
of the exercises. And tradition has it that the questioning and
answering, which had at first been evenly distributed among the
pupils, usually in the end came to resolve themselves pretty much into
a dialogue between Mr. Inglis and John Cairns. It was here that the
minister first came to close grips with his elder's son and took the
measure of the lad's abilities. After he did so, his interest in
John's classical studies was constant and helpful; and, although he
gave him no direct assistance in them (if he had done so, he would
have called down upon himself the wrath of Mr. M'Gregor), he was
always ready to lend him books and give him useful advice.

After three years at herding and at Mr. M'Gregor's, the question
arose, and was the subject of anxious debate in the family councils,
as to what was to be done with John. He was now sixteen. His elder
brother, Thomas, had got a post under his father, whom he afterwards
succeeded as shepherd at Dunglass. His elder sister had gone to a
situation. And now James, the brother next younger than himself,
had also left home to be apprenticed to a tailor. It was time for
some decision to be come to with regard to him. Mr. M'Gregor was
anxious that a superstructure should be built on the foundation
laid by himself by his going to College. Mr. Inglis's advice was
unhesitatingly given in the same direction. With his father, the old
scruples arose about setting one of his children above the rest; but
again his mother's chief concern was more about ways and means. His
father's question was, _Ought_ it to be done? his mother's, _Can_ it
be done? There were great difficulties in the way of answering this
practical question in the affirmative. There were then no bursaries
open for competition; and though the expenses at home were not so
great as they had once been, now that three of the family had been so
far placed in life, the University class-fees and the cost of living,
even in the most frugal way, entailed an expense which was formidable
enough. Still, the mother thought that this could be faced, and,
in order to acquaint herself more fully with all the facts of the
situation, she resolved to pay a long-promised visit to her youngest
brother, who with his family was now living in Edinburgh. He was a
carrier between that city and Jedburgh, and, though still in a
comparatively humble way, was said to be doing well.

The visit was a great success. Mrs. Cairns was most warmly received
by her brother and his wife, who proposed that John should stay with
them and share with their own family in what was going. This offer was
gratefully accepted, so far as the question of lodging was concerned.
As to board, John's mother had ideas of her own, and insisted on
paying for it, if not in money at least in kind. Thus it was settled
that John was to go to College, but nothing was settled beyond this.
Perhaps his parents may have had their own wishes, and his minister
and his schoolmaster their own expectations, about a career for him;
but in the boy's unworldly heart there was nothing as yet beyond the
desire for further learning and the earnest resolution to be not
unworthy of the sacrifices which had made the realisation of this
desire possible. He worked at his herding up till the day before
he left for the University, in the end of October 1834; and then,
starting in the middle of the night with William Christison, the
Cockburnspath carrier, he trudged beside the cart that conveyed the
box containing his clothes and his scanty stock of books all the
thirty-five miles between Dunglass and Edinburgh.



When John Cairns entered the University of Edinburgh in November 1834
he passed into a world that was entirely strange to him. It would be
difficult to imagine a greater contrast than that between the
low-roofed village school and the spacious quadrangle surrounded by
heavily balustraded stone terraces and stately pillared façades, into
which, at the booming of the hourly bell, there poured from the
various classrooms a multitudinous throng of eager young humanity. And
he himself in some mysterious way seemed to be changed almost beyond
his own recognition. Instead of being the Jock Cairns who had herded
sheep on the braes of Dunglass, and had carried butter to the
Cockburnspath shop, he was now, as his matriculation card informed
him, "Joannes Cairns, Civis Academiae Edinburgeniae;" he was addressed
by the professor in class as "Mr. Cairns," and was included in his
appeal to "any gentleman in the bench" to elucidate a difficult
passage in the lesson of the day.

He attended two classes this winter--that of "Humanity" or Latin
taught by Professor Pillans, and that of Greek under the care of
Professor George Dunbar. Pillans had been a master at Eton, and at a
later period Rector of the Edinburgh High School. He was a little man
with rosy cheeks, and was a sound scholar and an admirable teacher,
whose special "fad" was Classical Geography. Dunbar had begun life as
a working gardener at Ayton Castle. He had compiled a Greek Lexicon
which had some repute in its day, but he was not an inspiring teacher,
and his gruff manners made him far from popular.

Trained by a country schoolmaster, and having no experience of
competition except what a country school affords, John Cairns had
until now no idea of his own proficiency relatively to that of others;
and it was something of a revelation to him when he discovered how far
the grounding he had received from Mr. M'Gregor enabled him to go. His
classical attainments soon attracted notice, and at the end of the
session, although he failed to win the Class Medals, he stood high
in the Honours Lists, and was first in private Latin studies and in
Greek prose. Nor were these the only interests that occupied him. A
fellow-student, the late Dr. James Hardy, writes of him that from the
first he was great in controversy, and that in the classroom during
the ten minutes before the appearance of the professor, he was always
the centre of a knot of disputants on the Voluntary Church question or
some question of politics. Also it is recorded that, on the day after
a Parliamentary election for the city, he had no voice left, having
shouted it all away the day before in honour of the two successful
Whig candidates.

During this session, as had been previously arranged, he lodged in
Charles Street with his mother's brother, whose eldest son, John
Murray, shared his room. For this cousin, who was about his own age,
he had always the greatest regard, and he was specially grateful
to him for the kindness with which he helped him over many of the
difficulties which, as a raw lad from the country, he experienced
when he first came to live in the city. The friendship between the
cousins remained unbroken--though their paths in life were widely
different--till they died, within a fortnight of each other, nearly
sixty years later.

All through the winter a box travelled with the Cockburnspath carrier
every three or four weeks between Edinburgh and Dunglass, taking with
it on the outward journey clothes to be washed and mended, and on the
return journey always including a store of country provisions--scones,
oatmeal, butter, cheese, bacon, and potatoes. The letters that passed
between the student and his family were also sent in the box, for
as yet there was no penny post, and the postage of a letter between
Dunglass and Edinburgh cost as much as sixpence halfpenny or
sevenpence. Often, too, John would send home some cheap second-hand
books, for he had a general commission to keep his eye on the
bookstalls. Amongst these purchases was sometimes included a Bible,
so that before the end of the winter each member of the family had
a separate Bible to take to church or Sunday school.

At the close of the winter session he accepted the invitation of
another brother of his mother, who was a farmer at Longyester, near
Gifford in East Lothian, on the northern fringe of the Lammermoors, to
come and be tutor to his three boys during the summer. At Longyester
he spent four very happy months in congenial work among kind people.
He learned to ride, and more than once he rode along the hill-foots to
Dunglass, twenty miles to the eastward, to spend the Sunday with his
father and mother.

During these months he also came into personal contact with a family
whose influence on him during these early years was strong and
memorable--the Darlings of Millknowe. Millknowe is a large sheep-farm
in the heart of the Lammermoors, just where the young Whitadder winds
round the base of Spartleton Law. The family at Millknowe, consisting
at this time of three brothers and two sisters, all of whom had
reached middle life, were relatives of his father, the connection
dating from the time when his forebears were farmers in the same
region. They were a notable family, full of all kinds of interesting
lore, literary, scientific, and pastoral, and they exercised a
boundless hospitality to all, whether gentle or simple, who came
within their reach. One of them, a maiden sister, Miss Jean Darling,
took a special charge of her young cousin, and in a special degree won
his confidence. From the first she understood him. She saw the power
that was awakening within him, and was, particularly in his student
days, his friend and adviser.

As the summer of 1835 advanced, it came to be a grave question with
him whether he could return to college in the ensuing winter. His
father had had a serious illness; and, though he was now recovering,
there was a doctor's bill to settle, and he still required more care
and better nourishment than ordinary. Cairns was afraid that, with
these extra expenses to be met, his own return to College might
involve too serious a drain on the family resources. While matters
were in this state, and while he was still at Longyester, he received
a request from Mr. Trotter, the schoolmaster of his native parish of
Ayton, to come and assist him in the school and with the tuition of
boarders in his house. This offer was quite in the line of the only
ideas as to his future life he had as yet entertained; for, so far
as he had thought seriously on the subject, he had thought of being a
teacher. On the other hand, while his great ambition was to return to
the University, the fact that most of his class-fellows in the past
session had been older than himself suggested to him that he could
quite well afford to delay a year before he returned.

So he went to Ayton, lodging while there with his father's youngest
sister, Nancy, who had come thither from Ayton Hill along with her
mother, when her brother John was married in 1814, and had remained
there ever since. Cairns had not been two months in Ayton before his
responsibilities were considerably increased. Mr. Trotter resigned his
office, and the heritors asked the assistant to take charge of the
school until a new teacher should be appointed. There were between one
hundred and fifty and two hundred children in the school; he was the
sole teacher, and he was only seventeen. Moreover, some delay occurred
before the teacher who had been appointed to succeed Mr. Trotter could
come to take up his work. But Cairns proved equal to the situation.
The tradition is that his rule was an exceedingly stern one, that he
kept the children hard at work, and that he flogged extensively and

When the new master arrived upon the scene, he subsided into his
original post of assistant. It had been his original intention to go
back to the University in November 1836; but as that date approached
it became evident that the financial difficulty was not yet removed,
so he accepted an engagement to continue his work in Ayton for another

His stay in Ayton was a very happy one. He liked his work, and had
several warm friends in the village and district. Among these were Mr.
Ure, the kindly old minister who had married his parents and baptized
himself. Then there was Mr. Stark, minister of another Secession
church in the village--a much younger man than Mr. Ure, but a good
scholar and a well-read theologian. There was also a fellow-student,
Henry Weir, whose parents lived in Berwick, and who used often to walk
out to Ayton to see him, Cairns returning the visits, and seeing for
the first time, under Weir's auspices, the old Border town in which
so much of his own life was to be spent.

All this while he was working hard at his private studies. To these
studies he gave all the time that was not taken up by his teaching.
He read at his meals, and so far into the night that his aunt became
alarmed for his health. He worked his way through a goodly number of
the Greek and Latin classics, in copies borrowed from the libraries of
the two ministers; and he not only read, but analysed and elaborately
annotated what he read. But in the notes of the books read during the
year 1837 a change becomes evident. It can be seen that he took more
and more to the study of theology and Christian evidences, and his
note-books are full of references to Baxter and Jeremy Taylor, to
Robert Hall, Chalmers, and Keith.

At length in the summer a crisis was reached. A letter to his father,
which has not been preserved, announced that his views and feelings
with regard to spiritual things had undergone a great and far-reaching
change, and that religion had become to him a matter of personal and
paramount concern. Another letter to Henry Weir on the same subject is
of great interest. It is written in the unformed and somewhat stilted
style which he had not yet got rid of, and, with characteristic
reticence, it deals only indirectly with the details of the experience
through which he has passed, being in form a disquisition on the
importance of personal religion, and a refutation of objections which
might occur to his correspondent against making it the main interest
of his life.

"My dear Henry," the letter concludes, "I most earnestly wish that you
would devote the energies of your mind to the attentive consideration
of religion, and I have no doubt that, through the tuition of the
Divine Spirit, you would speedily arrive at the same conviction of the
importance of the subject with myself, and then our friendship would,
by the influence of those feelings which religion implants, be more
hallowed and intimate than before. I long ardently to see you."

The experience which has thus been described caused no great rift with
the past, nor did it produce any great change in his outward life. He
did not dedicate himself to the ministry; he did not, so far as can be
gathered, even become a member of the Church; and although for a short
time he talked of concentrating his energies on the Greek Testament,
to the disparagement of the Greek and Latin classical writers, within
two months we find him back at his old studies and strenuously
preparing for the coming session at College. But a new power had
entered into his life, and that power gradually asserted itself as
the chief and dominating influence there.

Cairns returned to the University in the late autumn of 1837,
enrolling himself in the classes of Latin, Greek, and Logic. Although
he maintained his intimacy with his uncle's family, he now went into
lodgings in West Richmond Street, sharing a room with young William
Inglis, son of the minister at Stockbridge, then a boy at the High
School. Here is the description he gives to his parents of his
surroundings and of the daily routine of his life: "The lodging which
we occupy is a very good room, measuring 18 feet by 16 feet, in every
way neat and comfortable. The walls are hung with pictures, and the
windows adorned with flowers. The rent is 3s. 6d., with a promise of
abatement when the price of coals is lowered. This is no doubt a great
sum of money, but I trust it will be amply compensated by the honesty,
cleanliness, economy, and good temper of the landlady.... I shall give
you the details of my daily life:--Rise at 8; 8.30-10, Latin class;
10-1, private study; 1-2, Logic; 2-3, Greek class; 4-12.30, private
study. As to meals--breakfast on porridge and treacle at 8.15; dine on
broth and mutton, or varieties of potatoes with beef or fish, at 3.15;
coffee at 7; if hungry, a little bread before bed. I can live quite
easily and comfortably on 3s. or 3s. 6d. per week, and when you see
me you will find that I have grown fat on students' fare."

At the close of the session he thus records the result of his work in
one of the classes:--

"There is a circumstance which but for its connection with the subject
of clothes I should not now mention. You are aware that a gold medal
is given yearly by the Society of Writers to the Signet to the best
scholar in the Latin class. Five are selected to compete for it by
the votes of their fellow-students. Having been placed in the number
a fortnight ago, I have, after a pretty close trial, been declared
the successful competitor. The grand sequence is this, that at the
end of the session I must come forward in the presence of many of
the Edinburgh grandees and deliver a Latin oration as a prelude to
receiving the medal. Although I have little fear that an oration will
be forthcoming of the ordinary length and quality, I doubt that the
trepidation of so unusual a position will cause me to break down in
the delivery of it; but we shall see. The reference of this subject
to the clothes you will at once discern. The trousers are too tight,
and an addition must be made to their length. The coat is too wide in
the body, too short and tight in the sleeves, and too spare in the
skirt. As to my feelings I shall say nothing, because I do not look
upon the honour as one of a kind that ought to excite the least
elation ... I would not wish you to blazon it, nor would I, but for
the cause mentioned, have taken any notice of it."

Besides this medal, he obtained the first place in the Greek class. In
Logic he stood third, and he carried off a number of other prizes. He
had been in every way the better for the interruption in his course;
his powers had matured, he knew what he could do, and he was able to
do it at will, and from this point onward he was recognised as easily
the first man of his time in the University. But he had now to look
about him for employment in the vacation; and for a while, in spite
of the successes of the past session, he was unable to find it, and
was glad to take some poorly paid elementary teaching. But at length,
by the good offices of one of the masters in the Edinburgh Academy,
backed by the strong recommendation of Professor Pillans, he became
tutor in the family of Mr. John Donaldson, W.S., of whose house, 124
Princes Street, he became an inmate. "What I want," said Mr. Donaldson
to the professor, "is a gentleman." "Well," replied Pillans, "I am
sending you first-rate raw material; we shall see what you will make
of it." He retained this situation till the close of his University
course, to the entire satisfaction of his employer and his family, and
with great comfort to himself--the salary being more than sufficient
for his simple needs.

He had, as we have seen, attended the class of Logic during his
second session; but as he was then devoting his main strength to
classics, and as the subject was as yet quite unfamiliar to him, he
did not fully give himself up to it nor yield to the influence of
the professor, Sir William Hamilton. But during the summer, while he
was at Mr. Donaldson's, in going again over the ground that he had
traversed during the past session, he was led to read the works of
Descartes, Bacon, and Leibnitz, with the result that mental philosophy
at once became the supreme interest of his academic life, and, when
the winter came round again, he yielded entirely to its spell and to
that of the great man who was then its most distinguished British

The class of Hamilton's that he attended in the session of 1838-39 was
that of Advanced Metaphysics. It so happened that at that time a hot
controversy was going on about this very class. The Edinburgh Town
Council, who were the patrons of Hamilton's chair, claimed also the
right to decide as to what subjects the professor should lecture on,
and pronounced Metaphysics to be "an abstruse subject, not generally
considered as of any great or permanent utility." But, while this
controversy was raging without, within all was calm. "We were quietly
engaged"--wrote Cairns twenty years later--"in our discussions as
to the existence of the external world while the storm was raging
without, and only felt it to be another form of the _non-ego_; while
the contrast between the singular gentleness and simplicity of our
teacher in his dealings with his pupils, and his more impassioned
qualities in controversy, became more remarkable."[1] Hamilton's
philosophy may not now command the acceptance that once belonged to
it, and that part of it which has been most influential may be put
to-day to a use of which he did not dream, and of which he would not
have approved, but Hamilton himself--"the black eagle of the desert,"
as the "Chaldee Manuscript" calls him--was a mighty force. The
influence of that vehement and commanding personality on a generation
of susceptible young men was deep and far-reaching. He seized and held
the minds of his students until they were able to grasp what he had to
give them,--until, in spite of the toil and pain it cost them, they
were _made_ to grasp it. And he further trained them in habits of
mental discipline and intellectual integrity, which were of quite
priceless value to them. "I am more indebted to you," wrote Cairns to
him in 1848, "for the foundation of my intellectual habits and tastes
than to any other person, and shall bear, by the will of the Almighty,
the impress of your hand through any future stage of existence."

[Footnote 1: _Memoir of Sir W. Hamilton_, p. 231.]

Cairns was first in Hamilton's class at the close of the session, and
also first in Professor John Wilson's Moral Philosophy Class. "Of the
many hundreds of students," Wilson wrote four years later, "whose
career I have watched during the last twenty years, not one has given
higher promise of excellence than John Cairns; his talents are of the
highest order; his attainments in literature, philosophy, and science
rare indeed; and his character such as to command universal respect."

This winter he joined with eight or nine of Hamilton's most
distinguished students in forming the "Metaphysical Society," which
met weekly for the purpose of discussing philosophical questions. In a
Memoir which he afterwards wrote of John Clark, one of the founders of
this Society, he thus describes the association that led to its being
formed, and that was further cemented by its formation: "Willingly
do I recall and linger upon these days and months, extending
even to years, in which common studies of this abstract nature bound
us together. It was the romance--the poetry--of speculation and
friendship. All the vexed questions of the schools were attempted by
our united strength, after our higher guide had set the example. The
thorny wilds of logic were pleasant as an enchanted ground; its driest
technicalities treasured up as unspeakably rare and precious. We
stumbled on, making discoveries at every step, and had all things
common. Each lesson in mental philosophy opened up some mystery of our
immortal nature, and seemed to bring us nearer the horizon of absolute
truth, which again receded as we advanced, and left us, like children
pursuing the rainbow, to resume the chase. In truth, we had much of
the character of childhood in these pursuits--light-heartedness,
wonder, boundless hope, engrossment with the present, carelessness
of the future. Our old world daily became new; and the real world of
the multitude to us was but a shadow. It was but the outer world,
the _non-ego_, standing at the mercy of speculation, waiting to be
confirmed or abolished in the next debate; while the inner world, in
which truth, beauty, and goodness had their eternal seat, should still
survive and be all in all. The play of the intellect with these subtle
and unworldly questions was to our minds as inevitable as the stages
of our bodily growth. Happy was it for us that the play of affection
was also active--nay, by sympathy excited to still greater liveliness;
and that a higher wisdom suffered us not in all these flowery mazes
to go astray."[2]

[Footnote 2: _Fragments of College and Pastoral Life_, pp. 24-25.]

From indications contained in the brief Memoir from which this
extract is taken, as well as from references in his correspondence,
it would appear that about this time he subjected his religious beliefs
to a careful scrutiny in the light cast upon them by his philosophical
studies. From this process of testing and strain he emerged with his
faith established on a yet firmer basis than before. One result of
this experience may perhaps be found in a letter to his father,
in which he tells him that he has been weighing the claims of the
Christian ministry as his future calling in life. He feels the
force of its incomparable attractions, but doubts whether he is
fitted in elevation and maturity of character to undertake so vast
a responsibility. Besides, he is painfully conscious of personal
awkwardness in the common affairs of life, and unfitness for the
practical management of business. And so he thinks he will take
another year to think of it, during which he will complete his
College course.

He spent the summer of 1839 with the Donaldson family at their country
seat at Auchairn, near Ballantrae, in south Ayrshire, occupying
most of his leisure hours in mathematical and physical studies in
preparation for the work of the coming winter. In the session of
1839-40, his last at the University, he attended the classes of
Natural Philosophy and Rhetoric, taking the first place in the latter
and only just missing it in the former. He attended, besides, Sir
William Hamilton's private classes, and was much at his house and in
his company. In April 1841 he took his M.A. degree, coming out first
in Classics and Philosophy, and being bracketed first in Mathematics.
Among his fellow-students his reputation was maintained not merely by
the honours he gained in the class lists, but by his prowess in the
debating arena. Besides continuing his membership in the Metaphysical
Society, he had also been, since the spring of 1839, a member of
the Diagnostic, one of the most flourishing of the older students'
debating societies. Of the Diagnostic he speedily became the life and
soul, and discussed with ardour such questions as the Repeal of the
Corn Laws, Vote by Ballot, and the Exclusion of Bishops from the
House of Lords. One memorable debate took place on the Spiritual
Independence of the Church, then the most burning of all Scottish
public questions. The position of the Non-Intrusion party in the
Established Church was maintained by Cairns's friend Clark, while he
himself led on the Voluntary side. The debate lasted two nights, and,
to quote the words of one who was present, "Cairns in reply swept all
before him, winning a vote from those who had come in curiosity, and
securing a large Liberal majority. Amidst a scene of wild enthusiasm
we hoisted his big form upon our shoulders, and careered round the old
quadrangle in triumph. Indeed he was the hero of our College life,
leaving all others far behind, and impressing us with the idea that
he had a boundless future before him."[3]

[Footnote 3: _Life and Letters_, pp. 94-95.]



Over Cairns's life during his last session at the University there
hung the shadow of a coming sorrow. His father's health, which had
never been robust, and had been failing for some time, at length quite
broke down; and it soon became apparent that, although he might linger
for some time, there was no hope of his recovery. In the earlier days
of his illness the father was able to write, and many letters passed
between him and his student son. The following extracts from his
letters reveal the character of the man, and surely furnish an
illustration of what was said in a former chapter about the educative
effect of religion on the Scottish working-man:--

"DUNGLASS, _Dec_, 23,1839.

"I would not have you think that I am overlooking the Divine agency in
what has befallen me. I desire to ascribe all to His glory and praise,
who can bring order out of confusion and light out of darkness; and I
desire to look away from human means to Him who is able to kill and to
make alive, knowing that He doth not grieve willingly nor afflict the
children of men."

"DUNGLASS, _Jan_. 5, 1840.

"As I have no great pain except what arises from coughing, I have
reason to bless the Lord, who is dealing so bountifully with me....
It would be unpardonable in me were I not endeavouring to make myself
familiar with death in the forms and aspects in which he presents
himself to the mind. Doubts and fears sometimes arise lest I should
be indulging in a false and presumptuous hope, and, as there is great
danger lest we should be deceived in this momentous concern, we cannot
be too anxious in ascertaining whether our hope be that of the Gospel,
as set forth in His Word of truth. Still, through the grace and mercy
of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom, I trust upon scriptural grounds, I
can call my Saviour, I am enabled to view death as a friend and as
deprived of its sting, and this is a source of great comfort to me and
cheers my drooping mind. I can say that my Beloved is mine and I am
His, and that He will make all things to work together for His own
glory and my eternal good. Dear son, I have thus opened my mind to
you, and I trust that your prayers will not be wanting that my faith
may be strengthened, and that all the graces of the Holy Spirit may
abound in me, to the glory of God through our Lord Jesus Christ."

During this and part of the next year Cairns remained in Mr.
Donaldson's family, and his relations with that family as a whole, as
well as his special work in the tuition of the young son and daughter
of the house, were of the most agreeable kind. He had by this time,
however, formed some intimate friendships in Edinburgh, and there were
several pleasant and interesting houses that were always open to him.
One of these deserves special mention. Among his most intimate College
friends was James McGibbon Russell, a distinguished student of Sir
William Hamilton, and one of the founders of the Metaphysical Society.
Russell was the son of a Perthshire parish minister, but his parents
were dead, and he lived with an uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Archibald
Wilson, whose own family consisted of two sons and three daughters.
Cairns was introduced by Russell to the Wilson family, and soon became
intimate with them. His special friend--at last the dearest friend
he had in this world--was the younger son, George, afterwards the
well-known chemist and Professor of Technology in the University
of Edinburgh. No two men could be less alike--George Wilson with a
bright, alert, nimble mind; Cairns with an intellect massive like his
bodily frame, and characterised chiefly by strength and momentum; and
yet the two fitted into each other, and when they really got to know
each other it might truly be said of them that the love between them
was wonderful, passing the love of women.

By the midsummer of 1840 Cairns had come to a final decision about his
future calling. "I have," he wrote to his father on 13th June, "after
much serious deliberation and prayer to God for direction, made up my
mind to commence this year the study of divinity, with a view to the
office of the ministry of the Gospel. I pray you, do implore the grace
of God on my behalf, after this very grave and solemn determination."

The Secession Church, to which he belonged, and to whose ministry he
desired to seek admission, had no theological tutors who were set
apart for the work of teaching alone. Its professors, of whom there
were four, were ministers in charges, who lectured to the students
during the two holiday months of August and September. The curriculum
of the "Divinity Hall," as it was called, consisted of five of these
short sessions. During the remaining ten months of each year the
student, except that he had to prepare a certain number of exercises
for the Presbytery which had him under its charge, was left very much
to do as he pleased.

Cairns entered the Hall, at that time meeting in Glasgow, in the
August of 1840. Of the four professors who were on the staff of the
institution, and all of whom were capable men, only two need here
be mentioned. These were Dr. Robert Balmer of Berwick and Dr.
John Brown of Edinburgh. Dr. Balmer was a clear-headed, fair-minded
theologian--in fact, so very fair, and even generous, was he wont
to be in dealing with opponents that he sometimes, quite unjustly,
incurred the suspicion of being in sympathy, if not in league, with
these opponents. He is specially interesting to us in this place,
because Cairns succeeded him first in his pulpit, and then, after a
long interval, in his chair. Dr. Brown, the grandson and namesake of
the old commentator of Haddington, was a man of noble presence and
noble character, whose personality "embedded in the translucent amber
of his son's famous sketch" is familiarly known to all lovers of
English literature. He was the pioneer of the scientific exposition
of the Scriptures in the Scottish pulpit, and was one of the first
exegetical theologians of his time. His point of view may be seen in a
frequent criticism of his on a student's discourse: "That is truth and
very important truth, but it is not _the_ truth that is taught in this
passage." Being so, it was simply "matter in the wrong place," _dirt_
to be cleared away as speedily as possible.

Cairns had been first attracted to Dr. Brown by his speeches on the
Annuity Tax, an Edinburgh ecclesiastical impost for which he had
suffered the spoiling of his goods, and he had been for more than a
year a member of his church in Broughton Place; but it was only now
that he came to know him really well. Henceforth his admiration for
Dr. Brown, and the friendship to which Dr. Brown admitted him, were
to be amongst the most powerful influences of his life. Among his
fellow-students at the Hall were several young men of brilliant
promise, such as John Ker, who had been first prizeman in the Logic
class in Hamilton's first session, W.B. Robertson, Alexander MacEwen,
Joseph Leckie, and William Graham. Of these, Graham, bright, witty,
versatile, the most notorious of punsters and the most illegible of
writers, was his chief intimate, and their friendship continued
unbroken and close for half a century.

But meanwhile the shadow was deepening over the home at Dunglass. All
through the autumn and early winter his father was slowly sinking. He
was only fifty-one, but he was already worn out; and his disease, if
disease it might be called, had many of the symptoms of extreme old
age. His son saw him for the last time near the close of the year.
"I cannot say," he wrote to Miss Darling, "that depression of spirits
was the only, or even the chief, emotion with which I bade farewell
to my father. There was something so touching in his patience and
resignation, so calm and inwrought in his meek submission to the
Divine will, that it affected me more strongly than raptures of
religious joy could have done. He displays the same evenness of temper
in the sight of death as has marked his equable and consistent life."

He died in the early morning of 3rd January 1841. His son William thus
describes the scene: "It was the first time any of us except our
mother had looked on the face of the dying in the act of departing,
and that leaves an impression that can never be effaced. When the end
came, and each had truly realised what had happened, our mother in a
broken voice asked that 'the Books' might be laid on the table; then
she gave out that verse in the 107th Psalm--

  'The storm is changed into a calm
    At his command and will;
  So that the waves that raged before,
    Now quiet are and still.'

It was her voice, too, that raised the tune. Then she asked Thomas to
read a chapter of the Bible and afterwards to pray. We all knelt down,
and Thomas made a strong effort to steady his voice, but he failed
utterly; then the dear mother herself lifted the voice of thanksgiving
for the victory that had been won, and after that the neighbours were
called in."[4]

Cairns was soon to have further experience of anxiety in respect to
the health of those who were near to him. Towards the close of the
year in which his father died, his brother William, who had almost
completed his apprenticeship to a mason at Chirnside, in Berwickshire,
was seized with inflammation, and for some weeks hung between life and
death. At length he recovered sufficiently to be removed under his
elder brother's careful and loving supervision to the Edinburgh
Infirmary, where he remained for four months. During all that time
Cairns visited his brother twice every day, he taught himself to apply
to the patient the galvanic treatment which had been prescribed, and
brought him an endless supply of books, periodicals, and good things
to eat and smoke.

[Footnote 4: It would appear that it was not an uncommon custom in
Scotland in former times to have family worship immediately after
a death. Perhaps, too, this verse from the 107th Psalm was the one
usually sung on such occasions. There may be a reminiscence of this,
due to its author's Seceder training, in a passage in Carlyle's
_Oliver Cromwell_, where, after describing the Protector's death,
and the grief of his daughter Lady Fauconberg, he goes on to say,
"Husht poor weeping Mary! Here is a Life-battle right nobly done.
Seest thou not

  'The storm is changed into a calm
    At his command and will;
  So that the waves that raged before,
    Now quiet are and still.

  Then are _they_ glad, because at rest
    And quiet now they be:
  So to the haven he them brings,
    Which they desired to see.'"

In the end of 1842 George Wilson was told by an eminent surgeon that
he must choose between certain death and the amputation of a foot
involving possible death. He agreed at once to the operation being
performed, but begged for a week in which to prepare for it. He had
always been a charming personality, and had lived a life that was
outwardly blameless; but he had never given very serious thought to
religion. Now, however, when he was face to face with death, the great
eternal verities became more real to him, and during the week of
respite the study of the New Testament and the counsel and sympathy
and prayers of his friend Cairns prepared him to face his trial with
calmness, and with "a trembling hope in Christ" in his heart. The
two friends, who had thus been brought so closely together, were
henceforth to be more to each other than they had ever been before.

The next year, 1843, was a memorable one in the ecclesiastical history
of Scotland. Cairns, though not sympathising with the demand of the
Non-Intrusion party in the Church of Scotland for absolute spiritual
independence within an Established Church, had an intense admiration
for Chalmers, and was filled with the greatest enthusiasm when he
and the party whom he led on the great 18th of May clung fast to
the Independence and left the Establishment behind them. Indeed his
enthusiasm ran positively wild, for it is recorded that, when the
great procession came out of St. Andrew's Church, Cairns went
hurrahing and tossing up his hat in front of it and all the way down
the hill to Tanfield Hall. To Miss Darling, who had no sympathy with
the Free Church movement, he wrote: "I know our difference of opinion
here. But you will pardon me for saying that I have never felt more
profound emotions of gratitude to God, of reverence for Christianity,
of admiration of moral principle, and of pride in the honesty and
courage of Scotsmen, than I did on that memorable day."

In the autumn of this year he was able to carry out a project which
he had had before him, and for which he had been saving up his money
for a long time. This was the spending of a year on the Continent.
It was by no means so common in those days as it has since become for
a Scottish theological student to attend a German University. Indeed,
until the early Forties of last century, such a thing was scarcely
known. Then, however, the influence of Sir William Hamilton, and the
interest in German thought which his teaching stimulated, created the
desire to learn more about it at its source.

It is natural that this movement should have affected the students of
the Secession Church before it reached those of the Establishment; for
not only were they less occupied with the great controversy of the day
and its consequences, but their short autumn session left them free
to take either a winter or a summer _semester_, or both, at a German
University without interrupting their course at home. The late Dr.
W.B. Robertson of Irvine used to lay claim to having been the pioneer
of these "landlouping students of divinity." John Ker and others
followed him; and when Cairns set out in 1843, quite a large company
of old friends were expected to meet at Berlin. Cairns's departure was
delayed by the illness of James Russell, who was to have accompanied
him, but he set out towards the end of October. He had accepted an
appointment as _locum tenens_ for four weeks in an English Independent
chapel at Hamburg, which delayed his arrival at Berlin until after
the winter _semester_ had commenced. But this interlude was greatly
enjoyed both by himself and by the little company of English merchants
who formed his first pastoral charge, and who, on a vacancy occurring,
made a strong but fruitless attempt to induce him to remain as their
permanent minister.

Arrived in Berlin, he joined his friends--Nelson, Graham, Wallace,
and Logan Aikman. With Nelson he shared a room in the Luisenstrasse,
where they set up that household god of all German students--a
"coffee-machine," with the aid of which, and some flaming _spiritus_,
they brewed their morning and evening beverage. They dined in the
middle of the day at a neighbouring restaurant, on soup, meat,
vegetables, and black bread, at a cost of threepence.

At the University, Cairns heard four or five lectures daily,
taking among others the courses of Neander on Christian Dogmatics,
Trendelenburg on History of Philosophy, and Schelling, the last of
the great philosophers of the preceding generation, on Introduction
to Philosophy. Of these, Schelling impressed him least, and Neander
most. Through life he had a deep reverence for Neander, whom he
regarded, with perhaps premature enthusiasm, as the man who shared
with Schleiermacher the honour of restoring Germany to a believing

Here is the description he gives of him in a letter from Berlin to
George Wilson: "Suppose yourself in a large square room filled with
Studiosi, each with his inkstand and immense _Heft_ before him and
ready to begin, when precisely at 11.15 a.m. in shuffles a little
black Jew, without hat in hand or a scrap of paper, and strides up to
a high desk, where he stands the whole time, resting his elbows upon
it and never once opening his eyes or looking his class in the face;
the worst type of Jewish physiognomy in point of intellect, though
without its cunning or sensuality; the face meaningless, pale, and
sallow, with low forehead, and nothing striking but a pair of enormous
black eyebrows. The figure is dressed in a dirty brown surtout, blue
plush trousers, and dirty top-boots. It begins to speak. The voice is
loud and clear, and marches on with academic stateliness and gravity,
and even something of musical softness mixes with its notes. Suddenly
the speaker turns to a side. It is to spit, which act is repeated
every second sentence. You now see in his hands a twisted pen, which
is gradually stripped of every hair and then torn to pieces in the
course of his mental working. His feet, too, begin to turn. The left
pirouettes round and round, and at the close of an emphatic period
strikes violently against the wall. When he has finished his lecture,
you see only a mass of saliva and the rags of his pen. Neander is
out of all sight the most wonderful being in the University. For
knowledge, spirituality, good sense, and indomitable spirit of the
finest discretion on moral subjects, the old man is a real marvel
every way. In private he is the kindest but also the most awkward of
mortals. His lectures on _Dogmatik_ and _Sittenlehre_ I value beyond
all others, and I would gladly have come to Berlin to hear him alone."

Besides hearing these University lectures, Cairns read German
philosophy and theology for nine or ten hours daily, took lessons in
Hebrew from a young Christian Jew named Biesenthal,[5] and in these
short winter months acquired such a mastery of German as a spoken
language that in the spring he was urged by Professor Tholuck of
Halle to remain and qualify as a Privatdocent at a German University.
He also gained a knowledge of men and things German, and a living
interest in them, which he retained through life.

[Footnote 5: Afterwards author of a learned but fantastic Commentary
on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Biesenthal had an enthusiastic
reverence for what in the hands of others were the dry details of
Hebrew Grammar. "Herr Doctor," a dense pupil once asked him, "ought
there not to be a Daghesh in that Tau?" "God forbid!" was the
horrified reply.]

At the close of the winter _semester_, the last weeks of which had
been saddened by the news of James Russell's death; he set out on a
tour extending over three months, and planned to include the principal
cities and sights of Central and Southern Europe. He had only about
£20 in his pocket, but he made this cover all the expenditure that
was necessary for his modest wants. He travelled alone and, whenever
it was possible, on foot, in the blouse and peaked cap of a German
workman, and with a light knapsack strapped on his shoulders. He
avoided hotels and lived cheaply, even meanly; but, with his splendid
health, simple tastes, and overflowing interest in all that he saw,
this did not greatly matter.

His classical studies, and an already wide knowledge of European
history, suggested endless interesting associations with the places
through which he passed; and the picture galleries furnished him with
materials for art criticisms which, considering that he had had few
opportunities of seeing paintings, surprise one by their insight and
grasp. At Wittenberg we find him standing by the grave of Luther
in the Castle Church, and reflecting on the connection between his
presence there and the life and work of the man whose body lay below.
"But for him there had neither been a Scotland to send out pilgrim
students of theology, nor a Germany to receive them."

At Halle he has interesting interviews with Tholuck and Julius
Müller; from Dresden he diverges to Herrnhut, where he witnesses the
ordination of a Moravian missionary and takes part in a love-feast. At
Prague, that wonderful city where the barbaric East begins, he finds
his deepest interest stirred by the Jewish burying-ground and the
hoary old synagogue. And so he passes on from city to city, and from
land to land, by Vienna, Salzburg, and Munich, to Innsbruck, thence
over the Brenner to Trent and Venice, and by Bologna to Florence and
Rome. Returning by Genoa, Milan, and the Italian Lakes, he passes into
Switzerland, and travels homeward by the Rhine. During this tour,
when, in spite of the heat, he frequently walked forty-five or fifty
miles a day, he had little time for letter-writing; but a small
paper-covered book, in which he each night jotted down in pencil his
impressions of what he had seen during the past day, has fortunately
been preserved. From this three brief extracts may be made, and may
serve as specimens of the whole, which is virtually reproduced entire
in Dr. MacEwen's Biography. The first contains a description of the
Jewish cemetery at Prague: "Through winding, filthy, pent-up, and
over-peopled lanes, in the part of the old town next the river, heaped
up with old clothes, trinket-ware, villainous-looking bread, and
horrid sausages, one attains to an open space irregularly and rudely
walled in and full of graves. The monuments date from the tenth
century. No language can give an idea of its first impression. At one
end one sees innumerable masses of grey weather-beaten stones in every
grotesque angle of incidence and coincidence, but all rude and mean,
covered with mystic Hebrew letters and half-buried amid long grass,
nettles, and weeds. The place looks exactly as if originally a
collection of dunghills or, perhaps, of excavated earth, left to its
natural course after the corpses had been thrown in and the rude
billets set over them. The economy of the race is visible in their
measure for the dead, and contrasts wonderfully with the roominess
and delicate adornment of German churchyards in general. The hoar
antiquity of the place is increased by a wilderness of alders which
grow up around the walls and amidst the stones, twisted, tangled,
stunted, desolately old and yet renewing their youth, a true type of
the scattered, bruised, and peeled, yet ineradicable Israel itself."

An incident at Novi, between Genoa and Milan, is thus described:
"I had strolled into a vineyard behind the town, quite lonely and
crowned with one cottage. On one of the secluded paths I found a little
girl lying on the grass, with her face turned up to the sun and fast
asleep. The breeze played beautifully with her hair, and her dress
fluttered and rustled, but there she lay, and nothing but the heaving
of her frame, which could hardly be distinguished from the agitation
of the wind, proved that she was only asleep. I stood gazing for a
long while, thinking of the Providence that watched alike over the
child in its slumberings and the pilgrim in his wanderings; and as
I saw her companions playing at no great distance, I left the spot
without awakening the absent little one. As I was passing the cottage
door, however, I was overtaken by the mother in evident agitation. She
pointed along the path I had come by, as if she feared her child had
wandered to the highway or been lost amid the wild brushwood that grew
on that side of the vineyard. I soon made her understand that the
_piccolina_ was just behind her, and waited till she bounded away and
returned with the crying thing in her arms, loading it with gentle
reproaches and me with warm expressions of gratitude."

At Milan it must be admitted that he goes into raptures over the
Cathedral, but one is glad to note that he reserves an ample tribute
of enthusiasm for the old church of St. Ambrose: "In the cloister of
St. Ambrose I saw the famous cypress doors which the saint closed
against Theodosius, time-worn but solid; the brazen serpent, the fine
pulpit with the bas-relief of the Agape, and the veritable Episcopal
chair of marble, with solid back and sides, and lions embossed at the
corners, in which he sat in the councils of his presbyters. It is
almost the only relic I have done any honour to. I knelt down and
kissed it, and forgot for the time that I was both Protestant and

After a stormy and perilous voyage from Antwerp, he reached Newcastle
in the first week of August, and started at once for Edinburgh to
be present at the opening of the Divinity Hall. At the Dunglass
lodge-gate his brother David, who was waiting for a letter which he
had promised to throw down from the "Magnet" coach as he passed,
caught a hurried glimpse of him, lean and brown as a berry after his
exertions and his exposure to the Italian sun. On the following
Saturday he put his pedestrian powers to the proof by walking from
Edinburgh to Dunglass, when he covered the thirty-five and a half
miles in seven hours and fifty minutes, having stopped only twice on
the way--once in Haddington to buy a biscuit, and once at a wayside
watering-trough to take a drink.

The Hall session of 1844 was Cairns's last, and the next step for him
to take in ordinary course was to apply to a Presbytery for license as
a probationer. He had, however, some hesitation in taking this step,
mainly because he was not quite clear whether the real work of his
life lay in the discharge of the ordinary duties of the ministry, or
whether he might not render better service by devoting himself, as
opportunity offered, more exclusively to theological and literary work
in behalf of the Christian faith. His friend Clark, whom he consulted
in the matter, strongly urged him to decide in favour of the latter
alternative. His speculative and literary faculties, he urged, had
already been tested with brilliant results; his powers as a preacher,
on the other hand, were as yet an unknown quantity, and Clark thought
it doubtful if they would be appreciated by an average congregation.
The struggle was severe while it lasted, but it ended in Cairns
deciding to go on to the ministry in the ordinary way. In November
1844 be applied to the Edinburgh Presbytery of the Secession Church
for license, and he received it at their hands in the following
February. He had not long to wait for a settlement. Dr. Balmer of
Berwick, one of his divinity professors, had died while he was in
Switzerland, and on his deathbed had advised his congregation to wait
until Cairns had finished his course before electing a successor.
Accordingly, it was arranged that he should preach in Golden Square
Church, Berwick, a few weeks after he received license. The result
was that a unanimous and enthusiastic call was addressed to him. He
received another invitation from Mount Pleasant Church, Liverpool,
of which his friend Graham was afterwards minister; but, after some
hesitation, he decided in favour of Berwick.

Meanwhile changes had been taking place in the home circle at
Dunglass. His brother William, whose illness has been already
referred to, had now passed beyond all hope of recovering the use of
his limbs. Having set himself resolutely to a course of study and
mental improvement under his brother John's guidance, he was able to
accept a kindly proposal made to him by Sir John Hall of Dunglass,
that he should become the teacher of the little roadside school at
Oldcambus, which John had attended as a child. On the marriage of his
eldest brother in the summer of 1845 the widowed mother came to keep
house for him, and henceforth the Oldcambus schoolhouse became the
family headquarters. But that summer brought sorrow as well as change.
Another brother, James, a young man of vigorous mental powers, and
originally of stalwart physique, who had been working at his trade as
a tailor in Glasgow, fell into bad health, which soon showed the
symptoms of rapid consumption. He came home hoping to benefit by the
change, but it became increasingly clear that he had only come home
to die. He lingered till the autumn, and passed away at Oldcambus
at the end of September. It was with this background of change and
shadow that the ordination of John Cairns took place at Berwick on
August 6, 1845.



Berwick is an English town on the Scottish side of the Tweed. As all
that remained to England of the Scottish conquests of Edward I., it
was until the Union of the Crowns the Calais of Scotland. It thus came
to be treated as in a measure separate from England although belonging
to it, and was for a long time separately mentioned in English Acts of
Parliament, as it still is in English Royal Proclamations. This status
of semi-independence which it so long enjoyed has helped to give it an
individuality more strongly marked than that of most English towns.

In religious matters Berwick has more affinity to Scotland than to
England. John Knox preached in the town for two years by appointment
of the Privy Council of Edward VI., and in harmony with his influence
its religious traditions were in succeeding generations strongly
Puritan, and one of its vicars, Luke Ogle, was ejected for
Nonconformity in 1662.

After the Revolution of 1688 this tendency found expression in the
rise and growth of a vigorous Presbyterian Dissent; and in the
early years of the eighteenth century there were two flourishing
congregations in the town in communion with the Church of Scotland.
But as these soon became infected with the Moderatism which prevailed
over the Border, new congregations were formed in connection with
the Scottish Secession and Relief bodies, and it was of one of
these--Golden Square Secession Church--that John Cairns became
the fourth minister in 1845.

Berwick is one of the very few English towns which still retain their
ancient fortifications. The circuit of the walls, which were built in
the reign of Elizabeth, with their bastions, "mounts," and gates, is
still practically complete, and is preserved with care and pride. A
few ruins of the earlier walls, which Edward I. erected, and which
enclosed a much wider area than is covered by the modern town, still
remain; also such vestiges of the once impregnable Castle as have not
been removed to make way for the present railway-station. Beyond this,
there is little about Berwick to tell of its hoary antiquity and its
eventful history. But its red-roofed houses, rising steeply from the
left bank of the Tweed, and looking across the tidal river to the
villages of Tweedmouth and Spittal, have a picturesqueness of their
own, whether they are seen when the lights and shadows of a summer day
are playing upon them, or when they are swathed in the white folds of
a North Sea _haar_.

The Berwick people are shrewd, capable, and kindly, and combine many
of the good qualities of their Scotch and Northumbrian neighbours.
Their dialect is in some respects akin to the Lowland Scotch, with
which it has many words in common; and it has also as a prominent
feature that rising intonation, passing sometimes almost into a
wail, which one hears all along the eastern Border. But the great
outstanding characteristic of Berwick speech is the _burr_ a rough
guttural pronunciation of the letter "i." With nothing but the scanty
resources of our alphabet to fall back upon, it is quite impossible to
represent this peculiarity phonetically, but it was once remarked by a
student of Semitic tongues that the sound of the Hebrew letter 'Ayin
is as nearly as possible that of the burr, and that, if you want
to ascertain the correct Hebrew pronunciation of the name _Ba'al_,
all you have got to do is to ask any Alderman of Berwick to say

[Footnote 6: Some words are very hard to pronounce with a burr in
one's throat. Dr. Cairns used to tell that on one occasion, long after
he had got well used to the sound of the Berwick speech, he was under
the belief that a man with whom he was conversing was talking about
a _boy_ until he discovered from the context that his theme was
a _brewery_.]

In 1845 the population of Berwick was between 8000 and 9000. "It
included," says Dr. MacEwen, "some curious elements." Not the least
curious and dubious of these was that of the lower class of the old
Freemen of the Borough. These men had an inherited right to the use of
lands belonging to the Corporation, which they let; and to a vote at a
Parliamentary election, which they sold. When an election drew near,
it was a maxim with both political parties that the Freemen must be
conciliated at all costs; and the Freemen, knowing this, were quite
prepared to presume on their knowledge. Once, at an election time, it
happened that in the house of a prominent political leader in Berwick
a fine roast of beef was turning before the kitchen fire, and was
nearly ready for the dinner table, when a Freeman walked in, lifted
it from the spit, and carried it off. No one dared to say him nay,
for had he not a vote? and might not that vote turn the election?

At the other end of the social scale were the half-pay officers,
the members of neighbouring county families, and the attorneys and
doctors, who in some degree constituted the aristocracy of Berwick,
and most of whom attended the Episcopalian Parish Church. The bulk
of the shopkeepers and tradesmen, with some of the professional men
and a large proportion of the working people, were Dissenters, and
were connected with one or other of the half-dozen Presbyterian
congregations in the town. Of these that of which Cairns was the
minister was the most influential and the largest, having a membership
of about six hundred.

The church was in Golden Square, of which it may be said that it is
neither a square nor yet golden, but a dingy close or court opening by
an archway from the High Street, the main thoroughfare of Berwick. The
building was till recently a tannery, but the main features of it are
still quite distinguishable. It stood on the left as one entered from
High Street, and it had the usual high pulpit at its farther end, with
a precentor's desk beneath it, and the usual deep gallery supported on
metal pillars running round three of its four sides. The manse, its
door adorned with a decent brass knocker, stood next to the church, on
the side farthest from the street. It gave one a pleasant surprise on
entering it to find that only its back windows looked out on the dim
little "square." In front it commanded a fine view of the river, here
crossed by a quaint old bridge of fifteen arches, which, owing to the
exigencies of the current, is much higher at the Berwick end than at
the other, and, as an Irishman once remarked, "has its middle all on
one side." For some little time, however, after Cairns's settlement,
he did not occupy the manse, but lived in rooms over a shop in Bridge
Street; and when at length he did remove into it, he took his landlady
with him and still remained her lodger.

For the first five years of his ministry Cairns devoted himself
entirely to the work which it entailed upon him, and steadily refused
to be drawn aside to the literary and philosophical tasks which many
of his friends urged him to undertake. He had decided that his work in
Berwick demanded his first attention, and, until he could ascertain
how much of his time it would absorb, he felt that he could not go
beyond it. On the early days of the week he read widely and hard on
the lines of his Sunday work, and the last three days he devoted to
writing out and committing to memory his two sermons, each of which
occupied about fifty minutes in delivery. The "committing" of his
sermons gave him little or no trouble, and he soon found that it could
be relegated without anxiety to Saturday evening. And he got into the
habit of preparing for it by a Saturday afternoon walk to the little
yellow red-capped lighthouse at the end of Berwick Pier. At the upper
end of the pier was a five-barred gate, and on the way back, when
he thought that nobody was looking, he would vault over it with a
running leap.

His preaching from the first made a deep impression. Following the
old Seceder tradition, and the example of his boyhood's minister Mr.
Inglis, and of his professor Dr. Brown, his discourse in the forenoon
was always a "lecture" expository of some extended passage of
Scripture, and forming one of a consecutive series; while that in the
afternoon followed the familiar lines of an ordinary sermon. But there
was nothing quite ordinary in his preaching at any time. Even when
there was no unusual flight of eloquence, there was always to be
noted the steady march of a strong mind from point to point till the
conclusion had been reached; always a certain width and elevation of
view, and always the ring of irresistible conviction. And although the
discourse had been committed to memory and was reproduced in the very
words that had been written down in the study, no barrier was thereby
interposed between the preacher and his hearers. Somehow--at least
after the first few paragraphs--when he had properly warmed to his
work, the man himself seemed to break through all restraints and
come into direct and living contact with his hearers.

His action sermon, _i.e._ the sermon preached before the Communion,
was always specially memorable and impressive. He had the subject
chosen weeks, and sometimes even months, beforehand, and, as he had no
other sermon to write for the Communion Sunday, he devoted the whole
of the preceding week to its preparation. His action sermons, which
were those he usually preached on special occasions when he was away
from home, dealt always with some theme connected with the Person or
Work of Christ. They were frequently apologetic in their conception
and structure, full of massive argument, which he had a remarkable
power of marshalling and presenting so as to be understood by all; but
the argument, reinforced by bursts of real eloquence, always converged
on the, exaltation of the Redeemer. "I never thought so much of him as
I do to-day," said one of his hearers to another after one of these
sermons, "I never thought so much of Christ as I do to-day," replied
the other; and that reply showed that in at least one case the purpose
of the preacher in preparing and delivering his sermon had been

On the Sunday evening Cairns had a Bible-class of over one hundred
young men and women, to which he devoted great care and attention.
"It was the best hour of the day to us," wrote one who was a member of
this class. "He was nearer us, and we were nearer him, than in church.
The grandeur and momentum of his pulpit eloquence were not there, but
we had instead a calm, rich, conversational instruction, a quiet
disclosure of vast stores of information, as well as a definite
dealing with young hearts and consciences, which left an unfading

But Cairns was no mere preacher and teacher. He put out his full
strength as truly in his pastoral work as in his work for and in
the pulpit. He visited his large congregation statedly once a year,
offering prayer in each house, and hearing the children repeat a psalm
or portion of Scripture which he had prescribed the year before. He
timed these visits so accurately that he could on one occasion banter
one of his elders on the fact that he had received more than his
due in one year, because the last visitation had been on the 1st of
January and this one was on the 31st of December. A good part of his
visiting had to be done in the country, because a considerable section
of his congregation consisted of farmers or hinds from Northumberland,
from the "Liberties of Berwick," and even from Scotland, which first
begins three miles out from the town. These country visitations
usually concluded with a service in a barn or farm-kitchen, to which
worshippers came from far and near.

But besides this stated and formal visitation, which was intimated
from the pulpit, constant attention was bestowed on the sick, the
bereaved, the poor, the tempted, and all others who appealed specially
to the minister's heart or his conscience. And yet there was no sense
of task-work or of a burden to be borne about his relations to his
congregation. His exuberant frankness of manner, contrasting as this
did with the reserved and somewhat stiff bearing of his predecessor
Dr. Balmer, won the hearts of all. And his keen sense of the ludicrous
side of things often acted as an antiseptic, and kept him right both
with himself and with his people.

Once, however, as he used to tell, it brought him perilously near to
disaster. He was in the middle of his sermon one Sunday afternoon in
Golden Square. It was a hot summer day, and all the doors and windows
were open. From the pulpit he could look right out into the square,
and as he looked he became aware of a hen surrounded by her young
family pecking vigorously on the pavement in search of food, and
clucking as she pecked. All at once an overwhelming sense of the
difference between the two worlds in which he and that hen were living
took possession of him, and it was with the utmost difficulty that he
restrained himself from bursting into a shout of laughter. As it was,
he recovered himself with a mighty gulp and finished the service
decorously enough.

Cairns was also assisted in his work by his phenomenal powers of
memory. After reading a long sermon once, or at most twice over, he
could repeat it verbatim. Once when he was challenged by a friend to
do so, he repeated, without stopping, the names of all the children
in his congregation, apologising only for his imperfect acquaintance
with two families who had recently come. Another instance of this is
perhaps not so remarkable in itself, but it is worth mentioning on
other grounds. Five-and-thirty years after the time with which we
are now dealing, when he was a professor in Edinburgh, some of his
students were carrying on mission work in a growing district of the
city. An iron church was erected for them, but the contractor, an
Englishman, before his work was finished was seized with illness and
died. He was buried in one of the Edinburgh cemeteries, and Dr. Cairns
attended the funeral. Having ascertained from the widow of the dead
man that he had belonged to the Church of England, he repeated at the
grave-side the whole of the Anglican Burial Service. When he was asked
afterwards how he had thus come to know that Service without book, he
replied that he had unconsciously got it by heart in the early days of
his Berwick ministry, before there was either a cemetery or a Burials
Act, when he had been compelled to stand silent and hear it read at
the funerals of members of his own congregation in the parish

Rather more than a year and a half after his ordination, in May 1847,
the Secession Church in which he had been brought up, and of which he
was now a minister, entered into a union with another of the Scottish
non-Established Churches, the Synod of Relief. There was thus formed
the United Presbyterian Church, with which his name was afterwards to
be so closely associated. The United Church comprised five hundred
and eighteen congregations, of which about fifty were, like those in
Berwick, in England; the nucleus of that English Synod which, thirty
years later, combined with the English Presbyterian Church to form
the present Presbyterian Church of England. References in his
correspondence show that this union of 1847, which afterwards had such
happy results, excited at the time little enthusiasm, and was entered
into largely as a matter of duty. "It is," he writes, "like the union,
not of two globules of quicksilver which run together of themselves,
but of two snowballs or cakes of mud that need in some way very tough
outward pressure. I hope that the friction will elicit heat, since
this neither cold nor hot spirit is not to edification."

The other letters of this period range over a wide variety of
subjects. With John Clark he compares experiences of ministerial
work; with John Nelson he discusses European politics as these have
been affected by the events of the "year of revolutions," 1848; with
George Wilson he discourses on every conceivable topic, from abstruse
problems of philosophy and theology to the opening of the North
British Railway; while his mother and his brothers, William and David,
the latter of whom about this time left his work in the Dunglass woods
to study for the ministry, are kept in touch with all that he knows
they will best like to hear about. But in all this wide field of human
life and thought and activity, which he so eagerly traverses, it is
quite evident that what attracts him most is the relation of it all
to a higher and an eternal order. With him the main interest is a
religious one. Without an atom of affectation, and without anything
that is at all morbid on his part, he reveals this at a hundred
points. In this connection a letter which he wrote to Sir William
Hamilton and which has since become well known, may be quoted here;
and it, with Sir William's reply, will fittingly conclude the present
chapter. This letter bears date November 16, 1848, and is as

"I herewith enclose the statement respecting the Calabar Mission of
our Church, which I take blame to myself for having so long delayed to
send. My avocations are very numerous, and a habit of procrastination,
where anything is to be written, has sadly grown on me with time. I
cannot even send you this brief note without testifying, what I could
not so well utter in your presence, my unabated admiration of your
philosophical genius and learning, and my profoundly grateful sense of
the important benefits received by me both from your instructions and
private friendship, I am more indebted to you for the foundation of
my intellectual habits and tastes than to any other person, and shall
bear, by the will of the Almighty, the impress of your hand through
any future stage of existence. It is a relief to my own feelings to
speak in this manner, and you will forgive one of the most favoured
of your pupils if he seeks another kind of relief--a relief which he
has long sought an opportunity to obtain--the expression of a wish
that his honoured master were one with himself in the exercise of
the convictions, and the enjoyment of the comforts, of living
Christianity, or as far before himself as he is in all other
particulars. This is a wish, a prayer, a fervent desire often
expressed to the Almighty Former and Guide of the spirits of men,
mingled with the hope that, if not already, at least some time, this
accordance of faith will be attained, this living union realised with
the great Teacher, Sacrifice, and Restorer of our fallen race. You
will pardon this manifestation of the gratitude and affection of your
pupil and friend, who, if he knew a higher, would gladly give it as
a payment of a debt too great to be expressed. I have long ago been
taught to feel the vanity of the world in all its forms--to renounce
the hope of intellectual distinction, and to exalt love above
knowledge. Philosophy has been to me much; but it can never be all,
never the most; and I have found, and know that I have found, the true
good in another quarter. This is mysticism--the mysticism of the
Bible--the mysticism of conscious reconciliation and intimacy with the
living Persons of the Godhead--a mysticism which is not like that of
philosophy, an irregular and incommunicable intuition, but open to
all, wise and unwise, who take the highway of humility and prayer. If
I were not truly and profoundly happy in my faith--the faith of the
universal Church--I would not speak of it. The greatest increase which
it admits of is its sympathetic kindling in the hearts of others, not
least of those who know by experience the pain of speculation, the
truth that he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. I know you
will indulge these expressions to one more in earnest than in former
years, more philanthropic, more confident that he knows in whom he
has believed, more impressed with the duty of bearing everywhere a
testimony to the convictions which have given him a positive hold
at once of truth and happiness.

"But I check myself in this unwonted strain, which only your
long-continued and singular kindness could have emboldened me to
attempt; and with the utterance of the most fervent wishes for your
health, academical success, and inward light and peace, I remain your
obliged friend and grateful pupil."

To which Sir W. Hamilton replied as follows:--

"EDINBURGH, _Dec_. 4, 1848.

"I feel deeply obliged to you for the kindness of your letter, and
trust that I shall not prove wholly unworthy of the interest you take
in me. There is indeed no one with whom I am acquainted whose
sentiments on such matters I esteem more highly, for there is no one
who, I am sure, is more earnest for the truth, and no one who pursues
it with more independence and, at the same time, with greater
confidence in the promised aid of God. May this promised aid be
vouchsafed to me."[7]

[Footnote 7: _Memoir of Sir W. Hamilton_, pp. 299-301.]



It was confidently expected, not merely by Cairns's personal friends
but by others in a much wider circle, that he would make a name for
himself in the world of letters and speculative thought. It was not
only the brilliance of his University career that led to this
expectation, for, remarkable as that career had been, there have been
many men since his time who, so far as mere prize taking is concerned,
have equalled or surpassed him--men who never aroused and would not
have justified any high-pitched hopes about their future. But Cairns,
in addition to gaining academic distinctions, seems to have impressed
his contemporaries in a quite exceptional degree with a sense of his
power and promise. Professor Masson, writing of him as he was in
his student days, thus describes him: "There was among us one whom
we all respected in a singular degree. Tall, strong-boned, and
granite-headed, he was the student whom Sir William Hamilton himself
had signalised and honoured as already a sterling thinker, and the
strength of whose logic, when you grappled with him in argument,
seemed equalled only by the strength of his hand-grip when you met him
or bade him good-bye, or by the manly integrity and nobleness of his
character."[8] And again, writing of him as he was at a later date,
the same critic gives this estimate of his old fellow-student's mental
calibre: "I can name one former student of Sir William Hamilton's, now
a minister in what would be accounted in England one of the straitest
sects of Scottish Puritanism, and who has consecrated to the duties of
that calling a mind among the noblest I have known and the most
learned in pure philosophy. Any man who on any subject of metaphysical
speculation should contend with Dr. Cairns of Berwick-on-Tweed, would
have reason to know, ere he had done with him, what strength for
offence and defence there may yet be in a Puritan minister's

[Footnote 8: _Macmillan's Magazine_, December 1864, p. 139.]

[Footnote 9: _Recent British Philosophy_, pp. 265-66.]

That this is no mere isolated estimate of a partial friend it would
not be difficult to prove. This was what his friends thought of him,
and what they had taught others outside to think of him too. The time,
however, had now come when it had to be put to the proof. During the
first five years of his ministry at Berwick, as we have seen, Cairns
devoted himself entirely to his work in Golden Square. He must learn
to know accurately how much of his time that work would take up,
before he could venture to spend any of it in other fields. But in
1850 he felt that he had mastered the situation, and accordingly he
began to write for the Press. The ten years between 1850 and 1860 were
years of considerable literary activity with him, and it may be said
at once that their output sustained his reputation, and even added
to it. There falls to be mentioned first a Memoir of his friend John
Clark, who, after a brief and troubled ministerial career, had died of
cholera in 1849. Cairns's Life of him, prefixed to a selection from
his Essays and Sermons, fills only seventy-seven small pages, and it
is in form to a large extent a defence of metaphysical studies against
those who regard them as dangerous to the Christian student. But it
contains many passages of great beauty and tenderness, and delineates
in exquisite colours the poetry and romance of College friendships.
"I am greatly charmed," wrote the author of _Rab and his Friends_
to Cairns, "with your pages on the romance of your youthful
fellowship--that sweet hour of prime. I can remember it, can feel it,
can scent the morn."[10]

[Footnote 10: See above, pp. 44-45.]

In 1850 the _North British Review_, which had been started some years
previously in the interests of the Free Church, came under the
editorship of Cairns's friend Campbell Fraser. Although he was a Free
Church professor, he resolved to widen the basis of the _Review_, and
he asked Cairns to join his staff, offering him as his province German
philosophy and theology. Cairns assented, and promised to furnish two
articles yearly. The first and most important of these was one which
appeared in 1850 on Julius Müller's _Christian Doctrine of Sin_. This
article, which is well and brightly written, embraces not merely a
criticism of the great work whose name stands at the head of it, but
also an elaborate yet most lucid and masterly survey of the various
schools of theological thought which were then grouping themselves in
Germany. Other contributions to the _North British_ during the next
four years included articles on "British and Continental Ethics and
Christianity," on "The Reawakening of Christian Life in Germany," and
on "The Life and Letters of Niebuhr"; while yet other articles saw
the light in the _British Quarterly Review_, the _United Presbyterian
Magazine_, and other periodicals. In 1858 appeared the important
article on "Kant," in the eighth edition of the _Encyclopedia
Britannica_, which was written at the urgent request of his friend
Adam Black, and which cost him ten months reading and preparation.

As has been already said, his reputation appears to have been fully
maintained by these articles. They brought him into touch with many
interesting people, such as Bunsen and F.D. Maurice; and, in Scotland,
deepened the impression that he was a man with a future. In 1852
John Wilson resigned the Professorship of Moral Philosophy in the
University of Edinburgh, and the Town Council, who were the patrons
of the chair, took occasion to let Cairns know that he might have
the appointment if he desired it. He declined their offer, and with
characteristic reticence said nothing about it either to his relatives
or to his congregation. He threw himself, however, with great ardour
into the support of the candidature of his friend Professor P.C.
M'Dougall, who ultimately was elected to the post.

Four years later Sir William Hamilton died, and a fierce fight ensued
as to who was to be his successor. The two most prominent candidates
were Cairns's friend Campbell Fraser, then Professor of Logic in the
New College, Edinburgh, and Professor James Frederick Ferrier of St.
Andrews. Fraser was then a Hamiltonian and Ferrier was a Hegelian, and
a great hubbub arose between the adherents of the two schools. This
was increased and embittered by the importation of ecclesiastical and
political feeling into the contest; Fraser being a Free Churchman,
and Ferrier receiving the support of the Established Church and Tory
party. The Town Council were very much at sea with regard to the
philosophical controversy, and, through Dr. John Brown, they requested
Cairns to explain its merits to them. Cairns responded by publishing
a pamphlet entitled _An_ _Examination of Professor Ferrier's Theory
of Knowing and Being_. This pamphlet had for its object to show that
Ferrier's election would mean a renunciation of the doctrines which,
as expounded by Hamilton, had added so greatly to the prestige of the
University in recent times as a school of philosophy, and also to
expose what the writer conceived to be the dangerous character of
Ferrier's teaching in relation to religious truth. It increased
the storm tenfold. Replies were published and letters sent to the
newspapers abusing Cairns, and insinuating that he had been led by
a private grudge against Ferrier to take the step he had taken. It
was also affirmed that he was acting at the instigation of the Free
Church, who wanted to abolish their chair of Logic in the New College,
but could not well do so so long as they had its present incumbent
on their hands. A doggerel parody on _John Gilpin_, entitled "The
Diverting History of John Cairns," in which a highly coloured account
is given of the supposed genesis of the pamphlet, was written and
found wide circulation. The first two stanzas of this effusion were
the following:--

  "John Cairns was a clergyman
    Of credit and renown,
  A first-rate U.P. Church had he
    In far-famed Berwick town.

  John likewise had a loving friend,
    A mighty man of knowledge,
  The Rev. A.C. Fraser, he
    Of the sanctified New College."

Cairns found it needful to issue a second pamphlet, _Scottish
Philosophy: a Vindication and Reply_, in which, while tenaciously
holding to what he had said in the last one, he challenged Ferrier to
mention one single instance in which he had made a personal attack
on him. When at length the vote came to be taken, and Fraser was
elected by a majority of three, there were few who doubted that the
intervention of the Berwick minister had been of critical importance
in bringing about this result.

Two years later George Wilson, who was now a professor in the
University, had the satisfaction of intimating to his friend that
his _alma mater_ had conferred on him the degree of D.D., and in the
following year (1859) a much higher honour was placed within his
reach. The Principalship of the University became vacant by the death
of Dr. John Lee, and the appointment to the coveted post, like that
to the two professorships, was in the hands of the Town Council. It
was informally offered to Cairns through one of the councillors, but
again he sent a declinature, and again he kept the matter carefully
concealed. It was not, in fact, until after his death, when the
correspondence regarding it came to light, that even his own brothers
knew that at the age of forty this great and dignified office might
have been his.

These declinatures on Cairns's part of philosophical posts, or posts
the occupation of which would give him time and opportunity for doing
original work in philosophy, are not on the whole difficult to
understand when we bear in mind his point of view. He had, after
careful deliberation, given himself to the Christian ministry, and
he meant to devote the whole of his life to its work. He was not to
be turned aside from it by the attractions of any employment however
congenial, or of any leisure however splendid. His speculative powers
had been consecrated to this object, as well as his active powers, and
would find their natural outlet in harmony with it. And so the hopes
of his friends and his own aspirations must be realised in his work,
not in the field of philosophy but in that of theology. Accordingly,
he decided to follow up his work in the periodicals by writing a book.
He took for his subject "The Difficulties of Christianity," and made
some progress with it, getting on so far as to write several chapters.
Then he was interrupted and the work was laid aside. The great book
was never written, nor did he ever write a book worthy of his powers.
A moderate-sized volume of lectures on "Unbelief in the Eighteenth
Century," a volume of sermons, most of which were written in the first
fifteen years of his ministry, a Memoir of Dr. Brown,--these, with the
exception of a quantity of pamphlets, prefaces, and magazine articles,
were all that he gave to the world after the time with which we are
now dealing. How are we to account for this? The time in which he
lived was a time of great intellectual activity and unsettlement--time
that, in the opinion of most, needed, and would have welcomed, the
guidance he could have given; and yet he stayed his hand. Why did he
do so? This is the central problem which a study of his life presents,
and it is one of no ordinary complexity; but there are some
considerations relating to it which go far to solve it, and these
it may be worth while for us at this point to examine.

At the outset, something must be allowed for the special character
of the influence exerted on Cairns by Sir William Hamilton. That
influence was profound and far-reaching. In the letter to Hamilton
which was quoted at the end of the preceding chapter, Cairns tells his
master that he must "bear, by the will of the Almighty, the impress of
his hand through any further stage of existence," and, strong as the
expression is, it can scarcely be said to be an exaggeration. But
Hamilton's influence, while it called out and stimulated his pupil's
powers to a remarkable degree, was not one which made for literary
productiveness. He was a great upholder of the doctrine that truth is
to be sought for its own sake and without reference to any ulterior
end, and he had strong ideas about the discredit--the shamefulness,
as it seemed to him--of speaking or writing on any subject until it
had been mastered down to its last detail. This attitude prevented
Hamilton himself from doing full justice to his powers and learning,
and its influence could be seen in Cairns also--in his delight in
studies the relevancy of which was not always apparent, and in a
certain fastidiousness which often delayed, and sometimes even
prevented, his putting pen to paper.

But another and a much more important factor in the problem is to be
found in the old Seceder ideal of the ministry in which he was trained
and which he never lost. It has been truly said of him that "he never
all his life got away from David Inglis and Stockbridge any more than
Carlyle got away from John Johnston and Ecclefechan." According to the
Seceder view, there is no more sublime calling on earth than that of
the Christian ministry, and that calling is one which concerns itself
first and chiefly with the conversion of sinners and the edifying of
saints. This work is so awful in its importance, and so beneficent
in its results, that it must take the chief place in a minister's
thoughts and in the disposition of his time; and if it requires the
sole place, that too must be accorded to it. "To me," wrote Cairns to
George Gilfillan in 1849, "love seems infinitely higher than knowledge
and the noblest distinction of humanity--the humble minister who wears
himself out in labours of Christian love in an obscure retreat as a
more exalted person than the mere literary champion of Christianity,
or the recondite professor who is great at Fathers and Schoolmen. I
really cannot share those longings for intellectual giants to confront
the Goliath of scepticism--not that I do not think such persons useful
in their way, but because I think Christianity far more impressive
as a life than as a speculation, and the West Port evangelism of
Dr. Chalmers far more effective than his Astronomical Discourses."[11]

[Footnote 11: _Life and Letters_, p. 307.]

It was to the ministry, as thus understood, that Cairns had devoted
himself at the close of his University course and again just before he
took license as a probationer, when for a short time, as we have seen,
he had been drawn aside by the attractions of "sacred literature." He
never thought of becoming a minister and was putting his main strength
into philosophy and theology. Not that he now forswore all interest in
either, but from the moment of his final decision, he had determined
that the mid-current of his life should run in a different direction.

Yet another important factor in the case is to be found in the
circumstances of his Berwick ministry. Had his lot been cast in a
quiet country place, with only a handful of people to look after, the
great book might yet have been written. But he had to attend to a
congregation whose membership was at first nearly six hundred, and
afterwards rose to seven hundred and eighty and, with his standard
of pastoral efficiency, this left him little leisure. Indeed it is
wonderful that, under these conditions, he accomplished so much as
he did--that he wrote his _North British_ articles, maintained a
reputation which won for him so many offers of academic posts, and at
the same time laid the foundation of a vast and spacious learning in
Patristic and Reformation theology. Akin to his strictly ministerial
work, and flowing out of it, was the work he did for his Church as
a whole--the share he took in the Union negotiations with the Free
Church during the ten years that these negotiations lasted, and the
endless round of church openings and platform work to which his
growing fame as a preacher and public speaker laid him open.

But there is one other consideration which, although it is to some
extent involved in what has already been said, deserves separate and
very special attention. Although his friends and the public regretted
his withdrawal from the speculative field, it is not so clear that he
regretted it himself. He had, it is true, worked in it strenuously
and with conspicuous success, and had revealed a natural aptitude for
Christian apologetics of a very high order. But it does not appear
that either his heart or his conscience were ever fully engaged in the
work. He never seemed as if he were fighting for his life, because he
always seemed to have another and an independent ground of certainty
on which he based his real defence. There is a passage in his Life of
Clark which bears upon this point so closely that it will be well to
quote it here:--

"The Christian student is as conscious of direct intercourse with
Jesus Christ as with the external world, or with other minds. This is
the very postulate of living Christianity. It is a datum or revelation
made to a spiritual faculty in the soul, as real as the external
senses or any of the mental or moral faculties, and far more exalted.
This living contact with a living person by faith and prayer is, like
all other life, ultimate and mysterious, and must be accepted by him
in whom it exists as its own sufficient explanation and reason, just
as the principles of natural intelligence and conscience, to which it
is something superadded, and with which, in this point of view, though
in other respects higher, it is co-ordinate. No one who is living in
communion with Jesus Christ, and exercising that series of affections
towards Him which Christianity at once prescribes and creates, can
doubt the reality of that supernatural system to which he has been
thus introduced; and nothing more is necessary than to appeal to his
own experience and belief, which is here as valid and irresistible as
in regard to the existence of God, of moral distinctions, or of the
material world. He has no reason to trust the one class of beliefs
which he has not, to trust the other.... To minds thus favoured, this
forms a _point d'appui_ which can never be overturned--an _aliquid
inconcussum_ corresponding to the '_cogito ergo sum_' of Descartes.
Their faith bears its own signature, and they have only to look within
to discover its authenticity. Philosophy must be guided by experience,
and must rank the characters inscribed on the soul by grace at least
as sacred as those inscribed by nature. Such persons need not that any
man should teach them, for they have an unction from the Holy One; and
to them applies the highest of all congratulations: 'Blessed art thou;
for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father
which is in heaven.'"[12]

[Footnote 12: _Fragments of College and Pastoral Life_, pp. 38-40.]

These words contain the true explanation of Cairns's life. There was
in it the "_aliquid inconcussum_"--the "unshaken somewhat"--which made
him independent of other arguments, and which kept him untouched by
all the intellectual attacks on Christianity. Other people who had
not this inward testimony, or who, having it, could not regard it as
unshaken by the assaults of infidelity, he could argue with and seek
to meet them on their own intellectual ground; but for himself, any
victories gained here were superfluous, any defects left him unmoved.
Was it always so with him? Or was there ever a time when he was
carried off his feet and had to struggle for dear life for his
Christian faith amid the dark waters of doubt?

There are indications that on at least one occasion he subjected his
beliefs to a careful scrutiny, and, referring to this later, he spoke
of himself as one who, in the words of the Roman poet, had been "much
tossed about on land and on the deep ere he could build a city."
This, coming from one who was habitually reticent about his religious
experiences, may be held as proving that there was no want of rigour
in the process, no withholding of any part of the structure from the
strain. But that that structure ever gave way, that it ever came
tumbling down in ruins about him so that it had to be built again
on new foundations, there is no evidence to show. The "_aliquid
inconcussum_" appears to have remained with him all through the
experience. This seems clear from a passage in a letter written in
1848 to his brother David, then a student in Sir William Hamilton's
class, in which he says; "I never found my religious susceptibilities
injured by metaphysical speculations. Whether this was a singular
felicity I do not know, but I have heard others complain."[13]

[Footnote 13: _Life and Letters_, p. 295.]

This, taken in conjunction with the passage quoted above from
Clark's Life, in which it is hard to believe that he is not speaking
of himself, seems decisive enough, and in a mind of such speculative
grasp and activity it is remarkable. "Right down through the
storm-zone of the nineteenth century," writes one who knew him well,
"he comes untroubled by the force of the '_aliquid inconcussum_.'
Edinburgh, Germany, Berwick; Hamilton, Kant, Hegel, Strauss, Renan, it
is all the same. The cause seems to me luminously plain. Saints are
never doubters. His religious intuitions were so deep and clear that
he was able always to find his way by their aid. They gave him his
independent certainty, his '_aliquid inconcussum_.'"

His influence on the religious life of his time was largely due to
the spiritual faculty in him that is here referred to. He was the
power he was, not so much because of his intellectual strength as
because of his character,--because he was "a great Christian." But
in this respect he had the defects of his qualities; and it is open
to question whether he ever truly appreciated the formidable character
of modern doubt, just because he himself had never had full experience
of its power, because the iron of it had never really entered into
his soul.

George Gilfillan, who, with all his defects, had often gleams of real
insight, wrote thus in his diary 14th January 1863: "I got yesterday
sent me, per post, a lecture by John Cairns on 'Rationalism,
Ritualism, and Pure Religion,' or some such title, and have read it
with interest, attention, and a good deal of admiration of its ability
and, on the whole, of its spirit. But I can see from it that he is
not the man to grapple with the scepticism of the age. He has not
sufficient sympathy with it, he has not lived in its atmosphere, he
has not visited its profoundest or tossed in its stormiest depths.
Intellectually and logically he understands it as he understands most
other matters, but sympathetically and experimentally he does not."

There is a considerable amount of truth in this, although it is
lacking somewhat in the sympathy which the critic desiderates in the
man he is criticising. Cairns did not feel that the battle with modern
doubt was of absolutely overwhelming importance, and this, along with
the other things to which reference has been made, kept him from
giving to the world that new statement of the Christian position which
his friends hoped to get from him, and which he at one time hoped to
be able to give.



The close of the period dealt with in the last chapter was made sadly
memorable to Cairns by the death of some of his closest friends. In
October 1858 died the venerable Dr. Brown, with whom, since he was a
student, he had stood in the closest relations, and whom he revered
and habitually addressed as a father. In November 1859 the bright
spirit of George Wilson, the dearest of all his friends, passed away;
and in the same year he had to mourn the loss of Miss Darling, the
correspondent and adviser of his student days. His brave old mother
died in the autumn of 1860, and in the following year he lost another
old and dear friend in Mrs. Balmer, the widow of his predecessor in
Golden Square, who perhaps knew him better than his own mother, and
had been deeper in his confidence than anyone since he came to
Berwick. From this period he became more reserved. With all his
frankness there was always a characteristic reticence about him, and
this was less frequently broken now that those to whom he had so
freely poured out his soul had been taken from him. But he drew closer
to those who were still left--especially to his own kindred, to his
sisters, to his brother William at Oldcambus, and to his brother
David, who had now been settled for some years as minister at
Stitchel, near Kelso.[14]

[Footnote 14: His eldest brother, Thomas, had died from the effects of
an accident in 1856.]

Dr. Brown had nominated him as one of his literary executors, and
his family were urgent in their request that he should write their
father's Life. With great reluctance he consented, and for eighteen
months this task absorbed the whole of his leisure, to the complete
exclusion of the work on "The Difficulties of Christianity," with
which he had already made some progress. The undertaking was a labour
of love, but it cannot be said to have been congenial. Memoir writing
was not to his taste, and in this case he had made a stipulation that
still further hampered him and made success very difficult. This was
that he should omit, as far as possible, all personal details, and
leave these to be dealt with in a separate chapter which Dr. Brown's
son John undertook to furnish. This chapter was not forthcoming when
the volume had to go to press, and was separately issued some months
later. When the inspiration did at length come to "Dr. John," it came
in such a way as to add a new masterpiece to English literature, and
one which, while it gave a wonderfully living picture of the writer's
father, disclosed to the world as nothing else has ever done the true
_ethos_ and inner life of the Scottish Secession Church. The Memoir
itself, of which this "Letter to John Cairns, D.D." is the
supplementary chapter, is a sound and solid bit of work, giving an
accurate and interesting account of the public life of Dr. Brown and
of the movements in which he took part. It is, as William Graham said
of it, "a thoughtful, calm, conclusive book, perhaps too reticent and
colourless, but none the less like Dr. Brown because of that."

No sooner was this book off his hands than Cairns was urged to
undertake another biographical work--the Life of George Wilson. But
this, in view of his recent experience, he steadfastly refused to
do, and contented himself with writing a sketch of his friend for the
pages of _Macmillan's Magazine_. When, however, Wilson's biography
was taken in hand by his sister, Cairns promised to help her in every
possible way with his advice and guidance, and this he did from week
to week till the book was published. This help on his part was
continued by his seeing through the press Wilson's posthumous book,
_Counsels of an Invalid_, which appeared in 1862. With the completion
of this task he seemed to be free to return to his theological work,
and he did return to it; but his release turned out to be only a brief
respite. In 1863 the ten years' negotiations for Union between the
Free and United Presbyterian Churches, in which he felt impelled to
take a prominent and laborious part, were begun, and they absorbed
nearly all of his leisure during what might have been a productive
period of his life. When he emerged from them he was fifty-four years
of age, he had passed beyond the time of life when his creative powers
were at their freshest, and the general habits of his life and lines
of his activity had become settled and stereotyped.

This is not the place in which to enter into a detailed account of the
Union negotiations. That has been done with admirable lucidity and
skill by such writers as Dr. Norman Walker in his Life of Dr. Robert
Buchanan, and by Dr. MacEwen in his Life of the subject of the present
sketch, and it does not need to be done over again. But something
must be said at this point to indicate the general lines which the
negotiations followed and to make Cairns's relation to them clear.
That he should have taken a keen and sympathetic interest in any great
movement for ecclesiastical union was quite what might have been
expected. What interested him in Christian truth, and what he had,
ever since he had been a student, set himself specially to expound and
defend, were the great catholic doctrines which are the heritage of
the one Church of Christ. Constitutionally, he was disposed to make
more of the things that unite Christians than of those which divide
them; and, while he was loyally attached to his own Church, many of
his favourite heroes, as well as many of his warmest personal friends,
belonged to other Churches. Hence anything that made for Union was
entirely in line with his feelings and his convictions. Thus he had
thrown himself heartily into the work of the Evangelical Alliance, and
at its memorable Berlin Meeting of 1857 had created a deep impression
by an address which he delivered in German on the probable results of
a closer co-operation between German and British Protestantism. In the
same year he took part in a Conference in Edinburgh which had been
summoned by Sir George Sinclair of Ulbster to discuss the possibility
of Church Union at home. And when in 1859 the Union took place in the
Australian Colonies of the Presbyterian Churches which bore the names
of the Scottish Churches from which they had sprung, it was to a large
extent through his influence that the Australian United Presbyterians
took part in the Union.

His ideal at first was of one great Presbyterian Communion co-extensive
with the English language, and separately organised in the different
countries and dependencies in which its adherents were to be found,
but having one creed and one form of worship and complete freedom from
all State patronage and control. But, as the times did not seem ripe
for such a vast consummation, he made no attempt to give his ideal a
practical form, and concentrated his energies on the lesser movement
which was beginning to take shape for a union of the Presbyterian
Churches in England and the non-Established Presbyterian Churches in
Scotland. He was one of those who brought this project before the
Synod of the United Presbyterian Church in May 1863, when he appeared
in support of an overture from the Berwick Presbytery in favour of
Union. The overture was adopted with enthusiasm, and the Synod agreed
by a majority of more than ten to one to appoint a committee to confer
with a view to Union with any committee which might be appointed by
the Free Church General Assembly. The Free Church Assembly, which met
a fortnight later, passed a similar resolution unanimously, although
not without a keen discussion revealing elements of opposition which
were afterwards to gather strength.

It is quite possible that, as competent observers have suggested,
if the enthusiasm for the project which then existed had been taken
advantage of at once, Union might have been carried with a rush.
But the able men who were guiding the proceedings thought it safer
to advance more slowly; and, when the Joint Union Committee met,
they went on to consider in detail the various points on which the
two Churches differed. These had reference almost entirely to the
relations between Church and State. The United Presbyterians were,
almost to a man, "Voluntaries," _i.e._ they held that the Church ought
in all cases to support itself without assistance from the State, and
free from the interference which, in their view, was the inevitable
and justifiable accompaniment of all State establishments. The Free
Churchmen, on the other hand, while maintaining as their cardinal
principle that the Church must be free from all State interference,
and while therefore protesting against the existing Establishment,
held that the Church, if its freedom were adequately guaranteed,
might lawfully accept establishment and endowment from the State. An
elaborate statement was drawn up exhibiting first the points on which
the two Churches were agreed with regard to this question, and then
the points on which they differed. From this it appeared that they
were at one as to the duty of the State--or, in the language of the
Westminster Confession, the "Civil Magistrate"--to make Christian laws
and to administer them in a Christian spirit. The Civil Magistrate
ought, it was agreed, to be a Christian, not merely as a man but as a
magistrate. The only vital point of difference was with regard to the
question of Church establishments--as to whether it was part of the
Christian Civil Magistrate's duty to establish and endow the Church.
But, as it seemed to be a vain hope that the Free Church would ever
get an Establishment to its mind, it was urged that this was a mere
matter of theory, and might be safely left as an "open question" in a
United Church. The statement referred to, which is better known as the
"Articles of Agreement," was not ready to be submitted in a final form
to the Synod and Assembly of 1864, and the Committee, which was now
reinforced by representatives from the Reformed Presbyterian Church
and from the Presbyterian Church in England, was reappointed to carry
on its labours.

But meanwhile clouds were beginning to appear on the horizon. In
the United Presbyterian Synod there was a small minority of sturdy
Voluntaries who, while not opposed to Union, were apprehensive that
the price to be paid for it would be the partial surrender of their
testimony in behalf of their distinctive principle. They did not wish
to impose their beliefs on others, but they were anxious to reserve
to themselves full liberty to hold and propagate their views in the
United Church, and they were not sure that, by accepting the Articles
of Agreement, they were in fact doing this. The efforts of Dr. Cairns
and others were directed, not without success, to meeting their
difficulties. But in the Free Church a more formidable opposition
began to show itself. There had always been a conservative element
in that Church, represented by men who held tenaciously to the more
literal interpretation of its ecclesiastical documents and traditions;
and, as the discussions went on, it became clear that the hopelessness
of a reconciliation with the Establishment was not so universally felt
as had been at first supposed. The supporters of the Union movement
included almost all the trusted leaders of the Church--men like Drs.
Candlish, Buchanan, Duff, Fairbairn, Rainy, and Guthrie, Sir Henry
Moncreiff, Lord Dalhousie, and Mr. Murray Dunlop, most of whom had
got their ecclesiastical training in the great controversy which had
issued in the Disruption; but all their eloquence and all their skill
did not avail to allay the misgivings or silence the objections of the
other party. At length in 1867 a crisis was reached. The Articles of
Agreement, after having been finally formulated by the Committee,
had been sent down to Presbyteries for their consideration; and the
reports of the Presbyteries were laid on the table of the Assembly
of that year. The question now arose, Was it wise, in view of the
opposition, to take further steps towards Union? The Assembly by
346 votes to 120 decided to goon; whereupon the Anti-Union leaders
resigned the seats which up to this time they had retained on the
Union Committee.

It is true that, after the Committee had been relieved of this
hostile element, considerable and rapid progress was made. Hopes were
cherished for a time that the Union might yet be consummated, and
the determination was expressed to carry it through at all hazards.
But the Free Church minority, ably led and knowing its own mind,
stubbornly maintained its ground. Its adherents, who included perhaps
one-third of the ministers and people of the Church, were specially
numerous in the Highlands, where United Presbyterianism was
practically unrepresented.

Here most distorted views were held of the Voluntaryism which most of
its ministers and members professed. It was represented as equivalent
to National Atheism, and from this the transition was an easy one,
especially in districts where few of the people had even seen a United
Presbyterian, to the position that an upholder of National Atheism
must himself be an Atheist. It became increasingly clear, as the years
passed, that if the Union were to be forced through, there must be
a new Disruption, and a Disruption which would cost the Free Church
those Highland congregations which for thirty years it had been its
glory to maintain. Moreover, it was currently reported that the
Anti-Union party had taken the opinion of eminent counsel, and that
these had declared that, in the event of a Disruption taking place
on this question of Union, the protesting minority would be legally
entitled to take with them the entire property of the Church. The
conviction was forced on the Free Church leaders (and in this they
were supported by their United Presbyterian brethren) that the time
was not yet ripe for that which they so greatly desired to see, and
that even for Union the price they would have to pay was too great.
And so with heavy hearts they decided in 1873 to abandon the
negotiations which had been proceeding for ten years. All that they
felt themselves prepared to carry was a proposal that Free Church
or United Presbyterian ministers should be "mutually eligible" for
calls in the two Churches--a proposal that did not come to much.

Three years later, the Reformed Presbyterian Church united with the
Free Church, and in the same year (1876) the United Presbyterian
Church gave up one hundred and ten of its congregations, which united
with the English Presbyterian Church and thus formed the present
Presbyterian Church of England. The original idea, at least on the
United Presbyterian side, had been that all the negotiating bodies
should be welded into one comprehensive British Church; but this,
especially in view of the breakdown of the larger Union, proved to be
unworkable, and the final result for the United Presbyterians was that
they came out of the negotiations a considerably smaller and weaker
Church than they had been when they went into them.

In all the labours and anxieties of these ten years Dr. Cairns had
borne a foremost part. At the meetings of the Union Committee he took
an eager interest and a leading share in the discussions; and, while
never compromising the position of his Church, he did much to set it
in a clear and attractive light. In the United Presbyterian Synod,
where it fell to his lot year by year to deliver the leading speech in
support of the Committee's report, his eloquence, his sincerity, and
his enthusiasm did not a little to reassure those who feared that
there was a tendency on the part of their representatives to concede
too much, and did a very great deal to keep his Church as a whole
steadily in favour of Union in spite of many temptations to have done
with it. Dr. Hutton, one of those advanced Voluntaries who had never
been enthusiastic about the Union proposals, wrote to him at the close
of the negotiations: "We have reached this stage through your vast
personal influence more than through any other cause."

Outside of the Church Courts he delivered innumerable speeches at
public meetings which had been organised in all parts of the country
in aid of the Union cause. These more than anything else led him to be
identified in the public mind with that cause, and gained for him the
name of the "Apostle of Union." The meetings at which these speeches
were delivered were mostly got up on the Free Church side, where there
seemed to be more need of missionary work of this kind than on his
own, and his appearances on these occasions increased the favour with
which he was already regarded in Free Church circles. "The chief
attraction of Union for me," an eminent Free Church layman is reported
to have said, "is that it will bring me into the same Church with John

That he was deeply disappointed by the failure of the enterprise on
which his hopes had been so much set, he did not conceal; but he never
believed that the ten years' work had been lost, and he never doubted
that Union would come. He did not live to see it, but when, on October
31, 1900, the two Churches at length became one, there were many in
the great gathering in the Waverley Market who thought of him, and
of his strenuous and noble labours into which they were on that day
entering. Dr. Maclaren of Manchester gave expression to these thoughts
in his speech in the evening of the day of Union, when, after paying
a worthy tribute to the great leader to whose skill and patience the
goodly consummation was so largely due, he went on to say: "But all
during the proceedings of this day there has been one figure and one
name in my memory, and I have been saying to myself, What would John
Cairns, with his big heart and his sweet and simple nature, have said
if God had given him to see this day! 'These all died in faith, not
having received the promises... God having provided some better thing
for us.'"



All the time occupied by the events described in the last two
chapters, Dr. Cairns was carrying on his ministry in Berwick with
unflagging diligence. True to his principle, he steadily devoted to
his pulpit and pastoral work the best of his strength, and always let
them have the chief place in his thoughts. He gave to other things
what he could spare, but he never forgot that he had determined to be
a minister first of all. His congregation had prospered greatly under
his care, and in 1859 the old-fashioned meeting-house in Golden Square
was abandoned for a stately and spacious Gothic church with a handsome
spire which had been erected in Wallace Green, with a frontage to the
principal open square of the town. A few years earlier a new manse had
been secured for the minister. This manse is the end house of a row of
three called Wellington Terrace. These stand just within the old town
walls, which are here pierced by wide embrasures. They are separated
from the walls by a broad walk and a row of grass-plots, alternating
with paved spaces opposite the embrasures, on which cannon were once
planted. The manse faces south, and is roomy and commodious. When Dr.
Cairns moved into it, he had an elderly servant as his housekeeper, of
whom he is said to have been not a little afraid; but, after a couple
of years or so, his sister Janet was installed as mistress of his
house; and during the remaining thirty-six years of his life she
attended to his wants, looked after his health, and in a hundred
prudent and quiet ways helped him in his work.

The study at Wellington Terrace is upstairs, and is a large room
lighted by two windows. One of these looks across the river, which
at this point washes the base of the town walls, to the dingy village
of Tweedmouth, rising towards the sidings and sheds of a busy
railway-station and the Northumberland uplands beyond. The other looks
right out to sea, and when it is open, and sometimes when it is shut,
"the rush and thunder of the surge" on Berwick bar or Spittal sands
can be distinctly heard. In front, the Tweed pours its waters into the
North Sea under the lee of the long pier, which acts as a breakwater
and shelters the entrance to the harbour. Far away to the right, Holy
Island, with the castle-crowned rock of Bamborough beyond it, are
prominent objects; and at night, the Longstone light on the Outer
Farne recalls the heroic rescue by Grace Darling of the shipwrecked
crew of the _Forfarshire_.

Opposite this window stood the large bookcase in which Dr. Cairns's
library was housed. The books composing the library were neither
very numerous, very select, nor in very good condition. Although he
was a voracious reader, it must be admitted that Dr. Cairns took
little pride in his books. It was a matter of utter indifference to
him whether he read a favourite author in a good edition or in a cheap
one. The volumes of German philosophy and theology, of which he had a
fair stock, remained unbound in their original sober livery, and when
any of them threatened to fall to pieces he was content to tie them
together with string or to get his sister to fasten them with paste.
One or two treasures he had, such as a first edition of Bacon's
_Instauratio Magna_, a first edition of Butler's _Analogy_, and a
Stephens Greek Testament; also a complete set of the Delphin Classics,
handsomely bound, and some College prizes. These, with the Benedictine
edition of Augustine, folio editions of Athanasius, Chrysostom, and
other Fathers, some odd volumes of Migne, and a considerable number
of books on Reformation and Secession theology, formed the most
noteworthy elements in his collection. He added later a very complete
set of the writings of the English Deists, and the works of Voltaire,
Rousseau, and Renan. Side by side with these was what came to be a
vast accumulation of rubbish, consisting of presentation copies of
books on all subjects which his anxious conscience persuaded him that
he was bound to keep on his shelves, since publishers and authors
had been kind enough to send them to him. Nearly all the books that
belonged to his real library he had read with care. Most of them
were copiously annotated, and his annotations were, as a rule,
characterised by a refreshing trenchancy,--in the case of some,
as of Gibbon, tempered with respect; in the case of others, as of
F.W. Newman and W.R. Greg, bordering on truculence. The only other
noteworthy objects in the study were two splendid engravings of
Raphael's "Transfiguration" and "Spasimo" (the former bearing the
signature of Raphael Morghen), which had been a gift to him from Mrs.

The greater part of each day was spent in this room. He could get
along with less sleep than most men; and however late he might have
sat over his books at night, he was frequently in his study again long
before breakfast. After breakfast came family worship, each item of
which was noteworthy. Although passionately fond of sacred music, he
had a wild, uncontrollable kind of voice in singing. He seemed to have
always a perfectly definite conception of what the tune ought to be,
but he was seldom able to give this idea an accurate, much less a
melodious, expression. Yet he never omitted the customary portion of
psalm or hymn, but tackled it with the utmost gallantry, fervour, and
enthusiasm, although he scarcely ever got through a verse without
going off the tune.

His reading of Scripture had no elocutionary pretensions about it;
it was quiet, and to a large extent gone through in a monotone; but
two things about it made it very impressive. One of these was the deep
reverence that characterised it, and the other was a note of subdued
enthusiasm that ran all through it. It was clear to the listener that
behind every passage read, whether it was history, psalm, or prophecy,
or even the driest detail of ritual, there was visible to him a great
world-process going on that appealed to his imagination and influenced
even the tones of his voice. And his prayers, quite unstudied as they
of course were, brought the whole company right into the presence of
the Unseen. They were usually full of detail,--he seemed to remember
everybody and everything,--but each petition was absolutely
appropriate to the special case with which it dealt, and all were
fused into a unity by the spirit of devotion that welled up through
all. After prayers he went back to his study, and nothing was heard or
seen of him for some hours, except when his heavy tread was heard
upstairs as he walked backwards and forwards, or when the strains of
what was meant to be a German choral were wafted down from above.

The afternoon he usually spent in visiting, and, so long as he
remained in Berwick, there was no more familiar figure in its streets
than his. The tall, stalwart form, already a little bent,--but bent,
one thought, not so much by the weight of advancing years as by way
of making an apology for its height,--the hair already white, the
mild and kindly blue eye, the tall hat worn well back on the head,
the swallow-tail coat, the swathes within swathes of broad white
neckcloth, the umbrella carried, even in the finest weather, under the
arm with the handle downward, the gloves in the hands but never on
them, the rapid eager stride,--all these come back vividly to those
who can remember Berwick in the Sixties and early Seventies of last
century. His visitations were still carried out with the method and
punctuality which had characterised them in the early days of his
ministry, and he usually arranged to make a brief pause for tea with
one of the families visited. On these occasions he would frequently be
in high spirits, and his hearty and resounding laughter would break
out on the smallest provocation. That laugh of his was eminently
characteristic of the man. There was nothing smothered or furtive
about it; there was not even the vestige of a chuckle in it. Its deep
"Ah! hah! hah!" came with a staccato, quacking sound from somewhere
low down in the chest, and set his huge shoulders moving in unison
with its peals. The whole closed with a long breath of purest
enjoyment--a kind of final licking of the lips after the feast
was over.

Returning to his house, he always entered it by the back door,
apparently because he did not wish to put the servant to the trouble
of going upstairs to open the front door for him. It does not seem
to have occurred to him to use a latch-key. In the evening there was
generally some meeting to go to, but after his return, when evening
worship and the invariable supper of porridge and milk were over, he
always went back to his study, and its lights were seldom put out
until long past midnight.

Although his reading in these solitary hours was of course mainly
theological, he always kept fresh his interest in the classical
studies of his youth. He did not depend on his communings with Origen
and Eusebius for keeping up his Greek, but went back as often as he
could find time to Plato and to the Tragedians. Macaulay has defined a
Greek scholar as one who can read Plato with his feet on the fender.
Dr. Cairns could fully satisfy this condition; indeed he went beyond
it, for when he went from home he was in the habit of taking a volume
of Plato or Aeschylus with him to read in the train. One of his
nephews, at that time a schoolboy, remembers reading with him, when
on a holiday visit to Berwick, through the _Alcestis_ of Euripides.
It may have been because he found it necessary to frighten his young
relative into habits of accuracy, or possibly because an outrage
committed against a Greek poet was to him the most horrid of all
outrages; but anyhow, during these studies, he altogether laid aside
that restraint which he was usually so jealous to maintain over his
powers of sarcasm and invective. He lay on the study sofa while the
lesson was going on, with a Tauchnitz Euripides in his hand; but
sometimes, when a false quantity or a more than usually stupid
grammatical blunder was made, he would spring to his feet and fairly
shout with wrath. Only once had he to consult a Greek lexicon for the
meaning of a word; and then it turned out that the meaning he had
assigned to it provisionally was the right one. A Latin lexicon he
did not possess.

On Sunday, Wallace Green Church was a goodly sight. Forenoon and
afternoon, streams of worshippers came pouring by Ravensdowne, Church
Street, and Walkergate Lane across the square and into the large
building, which was soon filled to overflowing. Then "the Books" were
brought in by the stately beadle, and last of all "the Doctor" came
hurriedly in, scrambled awkwardly up the pulpit stair, and covered his
face with his black gloved hands.[15] Then he rose, and in slow
monotone gave out the opening psalm, during the singing of which his
strong but wandering voice could now and again be distinctly heard
above the more artistic strains of the choir and congregation
rendering its tribute of praise. The Scripture lessons were read in
the same subdued but reverent tones, and the prayers were simple and
direct in their language, the emotion that throbbed through them being
kept under due restraint. The opening periods of the sermon were
pitched in the same note, but when the preacher got fairly into his
subject he broke loose from such restraints, and his argument was
unfolded, and then massed, and finally pressed home with all the
strength of his intellect, reinforced at every stage by the play of
his imagination and the glow of a passionate conviction. His "manner"
in the pulpit was, it is true, far from graceful. His principal
gesture was a jerking of the right arm towards the left shoulder,
accompanied sometimes by a bending forward of the upper part of the
body; and when he came to his peroration, which he usually delivered
with his eyes closed and in lowered tones, he would clasp his hands
and move them up and down in front of him. But all these things seemed
to fit in naturally to his style of oratory; there was not the
faintest trace of affectation in any of them, and, as a matter of
fact, they added to the effectiveness of his preaching.

[Footnote 15: In accordance with the old Scottish custom, Dr. Cairns
wore gloves during the "preliminary exercises," but took them off
before beginning the sermon. On the Sunday after a funeral he
discarded his Geneva gown in the forenoon, and, as a mark of respect
to the deceased, wore over his swallow-tail coat the huge black silk
sash which it was then customary in Berwick to send to the minister
on such occasions.]

In Wallace Green Dr. Cairns was surrounded by a devoted band of
office-bearers and others, who carried on very successful Home
Mission work in the town, and kept the various organisations of the
church in a vigorous and flourishing state. He had himself no faculty
for business details, and he left these mostly to others; but his
influence was felt at every point, and operated in a remarkable degree
towards the keeping up of the spiritual tone of the church's work.
With his elders, who were not merely in regard to ecclesiastical
rank, but also in regard to character and ability, the leaders of the
congregation, he was always on the most cordial and intimate terms. In
numerical strength they usually approximated to the apostolic figure
of twelve, and Dr. Cairns used to remark that their Christian names
included a surprisingly large number of apostolic pairs. Thus there
were amongst them not merely James and John, Matthew and Thomas, but
even Philip and Bartholomew.

The Philip here referred to was Dr. Philip Whiteside Maclagan, a
brother of the present Archbishop of York and of the late Professor
Sir Douglas Maclagan. Dr. Maclagan had been originally an army
surgeon, but had been long settled in general practice in Berwick in
succession to his father-in-law, the eminent naturalist, Dr. George
Johnstone. It was truly said of him that he combined in himself the
labours and the graces of Luke the beloved physician and Philip the
evangelist. When occasion offered, he would not only diagnose and
prescribe but pray at the bedsides of his patients, and his influence
was exerted in behalf of everything that was pure and lovely and of
good report in the town of Berwick. His delicately chiselled features
and fine expression were the true index of a devout and beautiful soul
within. Dr. Cairns and he were warmly attached to one another, and he
was his minister's right-hand man in everything that concerned the
good of the congregation.

It will readily be believed that Dr. Cairns had not been suffered to
remain in Berwick during all these years without strong efforts being
made to induce him to remove to larger spheres of labour. As a matter
of fact, he received in all some half-dozen calls during the course of
his ministry from congregations in Edinburgh and Glasgow; while at one
period of his life scarcely a year passed without private overtures
being made to him which, if he had given any encouragement to them,
would have issued in calls. These overtures he in every case declined
at once; but when congregations, in spite of him or without having
previously consulted him, took the responsibility of proceeding
to a formal call, he never intervened to arrest their action.
He had a curious respect for the somewhat cumbrous and slow-moving
Presbyterian procedure, and when it had been set in motion he felt
that it was his duty to let it take its course.

Once when a call to him was in process which he had in its initial
stages discouraged, and which he knew that he could not accept, his
sister, who had set her heart on furnishing an empty bedroom in the
manse at Berwick, was peremptorily bidden to stay her hand lest he
might thereby seem to be prejudging that which was not yet before him.
Two of the calls he received deserve separate mention. One was in 1855
from Greyfriars Church, Glasgow, at that time the principal United
Presbyterian congregation in the city. All sorts of influences were
brought to bear upon him to accept it, and for a time he was in
grave doubt as to whether it might not be his duty to do so. But two
considerations especially decided him to remain in Berwick. One was
the state of his health, which was not at that time very good; and the
other was the pathetic one, that he wanted to write that book which
was never to be written.

Nine years later, in 1864, a yet more determined attempt was made
to secure him for Edinburgh. A new congregation had been formed at
Morningside, one of the southern suburbs of the city, and it was
thought that this would offer a sphere of work and of influence worthy
of his powers. A call was accordingly addressed to him, and it was
backed up by representations of an almost unique character and weight.
The Free Church leaders, with whom he was then brought into close
touch by the Union negotiations, urged him to come to Edinburgh. A
memorial, signed by one hundred and sixty-seven United Presbyterian
elders in the city, told him that, in the interests of their
Church, it was of the utmost importance that he should do so. Another
memorial, signed by several hundred students at the University, put
the matter from their point of view. A still more remarkable document
was the following:--

"The subscribers, understanding that the Rev. Dr. Cairns has received
a call to the congregation of Morningside, desire to express their
earnest and strong conviction that his removal to Edinburgh would
be a signal benefit to vital religion throughout Scotland, and more
especially in the metropolis, where his great intellectual powers, his
deep and wide scholarship, his mastery of the literature of modern
unbelief, and the commanding simplicity and godly sincerity of his
personal character and public teaching, would find an ample field
for their full and immediate exercise."

This was signed (amongst others) by three Judges of the Court of
Session, by the Lord Advocate, by the Principal and seven of the
Professors of the University, and by such distinguished ministers
and citizens as Dr. Candlish, Dr. Hanna, Dr. Lindsay Alexander, Adam
Black, Dr. John Brown, and Charles Cowan. It was a remarkable tribute
(Adam Black in giving his name said, "This is more than ever was done
for Dr. Chalmers"), and it made a deep impression on Dr. Cairns. The
Wallace Green congregation, however, sought to counteract it by an
argument which amusingly shows how well they knew their man. They
appealed to that strain of anxious conscientiousness in him which he
had inherited from his father, by urging that all these memorials were
"irregular," and that therefore he had no right to consider them in
coming to his decision. They also undertook to furnish him with the
means of devoting more time to theological study than had hitherto
been at his disposal. After a period of hesitation, more painful and
prolonged than he had ever passed through on any similar occasion, he
decided to remain in Berwick. He was moved to this decision, partly by
his attachment to his congregation; partly by a feeling that he could
do more for the cause of Union by remaining its minister than would
be possible amid the labours of a new city charge; and partly by the
hope, which was becoming perceptibly fainter and more wistful, that
he might at last find leisure in Berwick to write his book.

But, although he did not become a city minister, he preached very
frequently in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and indeed all over the country.
His services were in constant request for the opening of churches and
on anniversary occasions. He records that in the course of a single
year he preached or spoke away from home (of course mostly on week
days) some forty or fifty times. Wherever he went he attracted
large crowds, on whom his rugged natural eloquence produced a deep
impression. It has been recorded that on one occasion, while a vast
audience to which he had been preaching in an Edinburgh church was
dispersing, a man was overheard expressing his admiration to his
neighbour in language more enthusiastic than proper: "He's a deevil
o' a preacher!"

With all this burden of work pressing on him, it was a relief when the
annual holiday came round and he could get away from it. But this
holiday, too, was usually of a more or less strenuous character, and
embraced large tracts of country either at home or, more frequently,
on the Continent. On these tours his keen human interest asserted
itself. He loved to visit places associated with great historic
events, or that suggested to him reminiscences of famous men and
women. And the actual condition of the people, how they lived, and
what they were thinking about, interested him deeply. He spoke to
everybody he met, in the train, in the steamboat, or in hotels, in
fluent if rather "bookish" German, in correct but somewhat halting
French, or, if it was a Roman Catholic priest he had to deal with,
in sonorous Latin. And, without anything approaching cant or
officiousness, he always tried to bring the conversation round to
the subject of religion--to the state of religion in the country in
which he was travelling, about which he was always anxious to gain
first-hand information, and, if possible and he could do it without
offence, to the personal views and experiences of those with whom he
conversed. He rarely or never did give offence in this respect, for
there was never anything aggressive or clamorous or prying in his
treatment of the subject.

On his return to Berwick his congregation usually expected him to give
them a lecture on what he had seen, and the MSS. of several of these
lectures, abounding in graphic description and in shrewd and often
humorous observation of men and things, have been preserved. It must
suffice here to give an extract from one of them on a tour in the West
of Ireland in 1864, illustrating as it does a curious phase of Irish
social life at that time. Dr. Cairns and a small party of friends had
embarked in a little steamer on one of the Irish lakes, and were
taking note of the gentlemen's seats, varied with occasional ruins,
which were coming in view on both sides.

"A fine ancient castle," he goes on to say, "surrounded by trees
and almost overhanging the lough, attracted our gaze for some time ere
we passed it. The owner's name and character were naturally brought
under review. 'Is not Sir ---- a Sunday man?' says one of the company
to another. 'He is.' The distinction was new to me, and I inferred
something good, perhaps some unusual zeal for Sabbath observance
or similar virtue. But, alas! for the vanity of human judgments.
A 'Sunday man' in the West of Ireland is one who only appears on the
Sunday outside his own dwelling, because on any other day he would be
arrested for debt. Even on a week day he is safe if he keeps to his
own house, where in Ireland, as in England, no writ can force its way.
Sir ---- was also invulnerable while sitting on the grand jury, where
quite lately he had protracted the business to an inordinate length in
order to extend his own liberty. As the boat passed close beside his
castle, a handsome elderly gentleman appeared at an open window, and
with hat in hand and a charming smile on his face made us a most
profound and graceful salutation. We could not be insensible to so
much courtesy--since it was Sir ---- himself who thus welcomed us; but
as we waved our hats in reply, one of our party, who had actually a
writ out against the fine old Irish gentleman at the very time, with
very little prospect of execution, muttered something between his
teeth and pressed his hat firmer down on his head than usual. Such
landlordism is still not uncommon. The same friend is familiar with
writs against other gentlemen whose house is their castle, and to whom
Sunday is 'the light of the week.'"

The closing period of Dr. Cairns's ministry at Berwick was made
memorable by a remarkable religious revival in the town. Following on
a brief visit in January 1874 from Messrs. Moody and Sankey, who had
then just closed their first mission in Edinburgh, a movement began
which lasted nearly two years. With some help from outside it was
carried on during that time mostly by the ministers of the town,
assisted by laymen from the various churches, among whom Dr. Maclagan
occupied a foremost place. Dr. Cairns threw himself into this movement
with ardour, and although he did not intend it, and probably was not
aware of it, he was its real leader, giving it at once the impetus and
the guidance which it needed. Besides being present, and taking some
part whenever he was at home in the crowded evangelistic meetings that
for a while were held nightly, and in the prayer-meeting, attended by
from one hundred and fifty to two hundred, which met every day at
noon, he must have conversed with hundreds of people seeking direction
on religious matters during the early months of 1874. And, knowing
that many would shrink from the publicity of an Inquiry Meeting, he
made a complete canvass of his own congregation, in the course of
which by gentle and tactful means he found out those who really
desired to be spoken to, and spoke to them. The results of the
movement proved to be lasting, and were, in his opinion, wholly good.
His own congregation profited greatly by it, and on the Sunday before
one of the Wallace Green Communions, in 1874, a great company of young
men and women were received into the fellowship of the Church. The
catechumens filled several rows of pews in the front of the spacious
area of the building, and, when they rose in a body to make profession
of their faith, the scene is described as having been most impressive.
Specially impressive also must have sounded the words which he always
used on such occasions: "You have to-day fulfilled your baptism vow by
taking upon yourselves the responsibilities hitherto discharged by
your parents. It is an act second only in importance to the private
surrender of your souls to God, and not inferior in result to your
final enrolment among the saints.... Nothing must separate you from
the Church militant till you reach the Church triumphant."



It had all along been felt that Dr. Cairns must sooner or later find
scope for his special powers and acquirements in a professor's chair.
In the early years of his ministry he received no fewer than four
offers of philosophical professorships, which his views of the
ministry and of his consecration to it constrained him to set aside.
Three similar offers of theological chairs, the acceptance of which
did not involve the same interference with the plan of his life, came
to him later, but were declined on other grounds. When, however, a
vacancy in the Theological Hall of his own Church occurred by the
death of Professor Lindsay, in 1866, the universal opinion in the
Church was that it must be filled by him and by nobody else. Dr.
Lindsay had been Professor of Exegesis, but the United Presbyterian
Synod in May 1867 provided for this subject being dealt with
otherwise, and instituted a new chair of Apologetics with a special
view to Dr. Cairns's recognised field of study. To this chair the
Synod summoned him by acclamation, and, having accepted its call,
he began his new work in the following August.

As in his own student days, the Hall met for only two months in each
year, and the professors therefore did not need to give up their
ministerial charges. So he remained in Berwick, where his congregation
were very proud of the new honour that had come to their minister, and
that was in some degree reflected on them. Instead of "the Doctor"
they now spoke of him habitually as "the Professor," and presented him
with a finely befrogged but somewhat irrelevant professor's gown for
use in the pulpit at Wallace Green.

Dr. Cairns prepared two courses of lectures for his students--one on
the History of Apologetics, and the other on Apologetics proper, or
Christian Evidences. For the former, his desire to go to the sources
and to take nothing at second-hand led him to make a renewed and
laborious study of the Fathers, who were already, to a far greater
extent than with most theologians, his familiar friends. His knowledge
of later controversies, such as that with the Deists, which afterwards
bore fruit in his work on "Unbelief in the Eighteenth Century," was
also widened and deepened at this time. These historical lectures were
almost overweighted by the learning which he thus accumulated; but
they were at once massive in their structure and orderly and lucid in
their arrangement.

In the other course, on Christian Evidences, he did not include
any discussion on Theism which--probably because of his special
familiarity with the Deistical and kindred controversies, and also
because the modern assaults on supernatural Christianity from the
Evolutionary and Agnostic standpoint had not yet become pressing--he
postulated. And, discarding the traditional division of the Evidences
into Internal and External, he classified them according to their
relation to the different Attributes of God, as manifesting His
Power, Knowledge, Wisdom, Holiness, and Benignity. With this course
he incorporated large parts of his unfinished treatise on "The
Difficulties of Christianity," which, after he had thus broken it
up, passed finally out of sight.

The impression which he produced on his students by these lectures,
and still more by his personality, was very great. "I suppose," writes
one of them, "no men are so hypercritical as students after they have
been four or five years at the University. To those who are aware of
this, it will give the most accurate impression of our feeling towards
Dr. Cairns when I say that, with regard to him, criticism could not be
said to exist. We all had for him an appreciation which was far deeper
than ordinary admiration; it was admiration blended with loyalty and
veneration."[16] Specially impressive were the humility which went
along with his gifts and learning, and the wide charity which made
him see good in everything. One student's appreciation of this latter
quality found whimsical expression in a cartoon which was delightedly
passed from hand to hand in the class, and which represented Dr.
Cairns cordially shaking hands with the Devil. A "balloon" issuing
from his mouth enclosed some such legend as this: "I hope you are very
well, sir. I am delighted to make your acquaintance, and to find that
you are not nearly so black as you are painted."

[Footnote 16: _Life and Letters_, p. 560.]

During the ten years' negotiations for Union a considerable number of
pressing reforms in the United Presbyterian Church were kept back from
fear of hampering the negotiations, and because it was felt that such
matters might well be postponed to be dealt with in a United Church.
But, when the negotiations were broken off, the United Presbyterians,
having recovered their liberty of action, at once began to set their
house in order. One of the first matters thus taken up was the
question of Theological Education. As has been already mentioned, the
theological curriculum extended over five sessions of two months. It
was now proposed to substitute for this a curriculum extending over
three sessions of five months, as being more in accordance with the
requirements of the times and as bringing the Hall into line with the
Universities and the Free Church Colleges. A scheme, of which this was
the leading feature, was finally adopted by the Synod in May 1875.
It necessarily involved the separation of the professors from their
charges, and accordingly the Synod addressed a call to Dr. Cairns
to leave Berwick and become Professor of Systematic Theology and
Apologetics in the newly constituted Hall, or, as it was henceforth to
be designated--"College." In this chair it was proposed that he should
have as his colleague the venerable Dr. Harper, who was the senior
professor in the old Hall, and who was now appointed the first
Principal of the new College.

Dr. Cairns had thus to make his choice between his congregation and
his professorship, and, with many natural regrets, he decided in
favour of the latter. This decision, which he announced to his people
towards the close of the summer, had the incidental effect of keeping
him in the United Presbyterian Church, for in the following year the
English congregations of that Church were severed from the parent body
to form part of the new Presbyterian Church of England; and Wallace
Green congregation, somewhat against its will, and largely in response
to Dr. Cairns's wishes, went with the rest. He had still a year to
spend in Berwick, broken only by the last session of the old Hall in
August and September, and that year he spent in quiet, steady, and
happy work. In June 1876 he preached his farewell sermon to an immense
and deeply moved congregation from the words (Rom. i. 16), "I am not
ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto
salvation unto every one that believeth." "For more than thirty
years," he concluded, "I have preached this gospel among you, and I
bless His name this day that to not a few it has by His grace proved
the power of God unto salvation. To Him I ascribe all the praise; and
I would rather on such an occasion remember defects and shortcomings
than dwell even upon what He has wrought for us. The sadness of
parting from people to whom I have been bound by such close and tender
ties, from whom I have received every mark of respect, affection, and
encouragement, and in regard to whom I feel moved to say, 'If I forget
thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning,' inclines me
rather to self-examination and to serious fear lest any among you
should have suffered through my failure to set forth and urge home
this gospel of salvation. If then any of you should be in this case,
through my fault or your own, that you have not yet obeyed the gospel
of Christ, I address to you in Christ's name one parting call that you
may at length receive the truth."

A few weeks later he and his sister removed to Edinburgh, where they
were joined in the autumn by their brother William. William Cairns,
who had been schoolmaster at Oldcambus for thirty-two years, was in
many respects a notable man. Deprived, as we have seen, in early
manhood of the power of walking, he had set himself to improve his
mind and had acquired a great store of general information. He was
shrewd, humorous, genial, and intensely human, and had made himself
the centre of a large circle of friends, many of whom were to be found
far beyond the bounds of his native parish and county. Since his
mother's death an elder sister had kept house for him, but she had
died in the previous winter, and at his brother's urgent request he
had consented to give up his school al Oldcambus and make his home for
the future with him in Edinburgh. The house No. 10 Spence Street, in
which for sixteen years the brothers and sister lived together, is a
modest semi-detached villa in a short street running off the Dalkeith
Road, in one of the southern suburbs of the city. It had two great
advantages in Dr. Cairns's eyes--one being that it was far enough away
from the College to ensure that he would have a good walk every day in
going there and back; and the other, that its internal arrangements
were very convenient for his brother finding his way in his
wheel-chair about it, and out of it when he so desired.

The study, as at Berwick, was upstairs, and was a large lightsome
room, from which a view of the Craigmillar woods, North Berwick Law,
and even the distant Lammermoors, could be obtained--a view which was,
alas! soon blocked up by the erection of tall buildings. At the back
of the house, downstairs, was the sitting-room, where the family meals
were taken and where William sat working at his desk. He had been
fortunate enough to secure, almost immediately after his arrival in
Edinburgh, a commission from Messrs. A. & C. Black to prepare the
Index to the ninth edition of the _Encyclopaedia Britannica_, then in
course of publication. During the twelve years that the work lasted he
performed the possibly unique feat of reading through the whole of the
twenty-five volumes of the Encyclopaedia, and thus added considerably
to his already encyclopaedic stock of miscellaneous information.
Opening off the sitting-room was a smaller room, or rather a large
closet, commanding one of the finest views in Edinburgh of the
lion-shaped Arthur's Seat; and here of an evening he would sit in his
chair alone, or surrounded by the friends who soon began to gather
about him,

  "And smoke, yea, smoke and smoke."

Sometimes a more than usually resounding peal of laughter would bring
the professor down from his study to find out what was the matter, and
to join in the merriment; and then, after a few hearty words of
greeting to the visitors, he would plead the pressure of his work and
return to the company of Justin or Evagrius.

His three nephews, who during the Edinburgh period were staying in
town studying for the ministry, always spent Saturday afternoon at
Spence Street, and sometimes a student friend would come with them.
Dr. Cairns was usually free on such occasions to devote an hour or two
to his young friends. He was always ready to enter into discussions on
philosophical problems that happened to be interesting them, and the
power and ease with which he dealt with these gave an impression as of
one heaving up and pitching about huge masses of rock. His part in
these discussions commonly in the end became a monologue, which he
delivered lying back in his chair, with his shoulders resting on the
top bar of it, and which he sometimes accompanied with the peculiar
jerk of his right arm habitual to him in preaching. A _snell_ remark
of his brother William suggesting some new and comic association with
a philosophic term dropped in the course of the discussion, would
bring him back with a roar of laughter to the actual world and to
more sublunary themes. When the young men rose to leave he always
accompanied them to the front door, and bade each of them good-bye
with a hearty "[Greek: Panta ta kala soi genoito],"[17] and an
invariable injunction to "put your foot on it,"--"it" being the
spring catch by which the gate was opened.

[Footnote 17: "All fair things be thine."]

Once a week during the session a party of six or eight students came
to tea at Spence Street, until the whole of his two classes had been
gone over. After tea in the otherwise seldom used dining-room of the
house, some of the party accompanied the professor to the study.
Here he would show them his more treasured volumes, such as his
first edition of Butler, which he would tell them he made a point of
reading through once a year. Others, who preferred a less unclouded
atmosphere, withdrew with his brother into his sanctum. Soon all
reassembled in the dining-room, and a number of hymns were sung--some
of Sankey's, which were then in everybody's mouth, some of his
favourite German hymns with their chorals, which might suggest
references to his student days in Berlin or to later experiences in
the Fatherland, and some by the great English hymn-writers. At last
came family worship, always impressive as conducted by him, but often
the most memorable feature by far in these gatherings. It was a very
simple, and may seem a very humdrum, way of spending an evening; but
the homely hospitality of the household--the conversational gifts,
very different in kind as these were, of himself and his brother--and,
above all, his genial and benignant presence, made everything go off
well, and the students went away with a deepened veneration for their
professor now that they had seen him in his own house.

During his first two years in Edinburgh he was busily engaged
in writing lectures and in adapting his existing stock to the
requirements of the new curriculum. Of these lectures, and of others
which he wrote in later years, it must be said that, while all of
them were the fruit of conscientious and strenuous toil, they were
of unequal merit, or at least of unequal effectiveness. Some of
them, particularly in his Apologetic courses, were brilliant and
stimulating. Whenever he had a great personality to deal with, such as
Origen, Grotius, or Pascal, or, in a quite different way, Voltaire,
he rose to the full height of his powers. His criticisms of Hume, of
Strauss, and of Renan, were also in their own way masterly. But a
course which he had on Biblical Theology seemed to be hampered by
a too rigid view of Inspiration, which did not allow him to lay
sufficient stress on the different types of doctrine corresponding
to the different individualities of the writers. And when, after the
death of Principal Harper, he took over the entire department of
Systematic Theology, his lectures on this, the "Queen of sciences,"
while full of learning and sometimes rising to grandeur, gave one on
the whole a sense of incompleteness, even of fragmentariness. This
impression was deepened by the oral examinations which he was in the
habit of holding every week on his lectures.

For these examinations he prepared most carefully, sitting up
sometimes till two o'clock in the morning collecting material and
verifying references which he deemed necessary to make them complete.
His aim in them was not only to test the students' attention and
progress, but to communicate information of a supplementary and
miscellaneous character which he had been unable to work into his
lectures. And so he would bring down to the class a tattered Father or
two, and would regale its members with long Greek quotations and with
a mass of details that were pure gold to him but were hid treasure
to them. His examination of individual students was lenient in the
extreme. It used to be said of him that if he asked a question to
which the correct answer was Yes, while the answer he got was No,
he would exert his ingenuity to show that in a certain subtle and
hitherto unsuspected sense the real answer _was_ No, and that Mr.
So-and-so deserved credit for having discovered this, and for having
boldly dared to _say_ No at the risk of being misunderstood. This, of
course, is caricature; but it nevertheless sufficiently indicates his
general attitude to his students.

It was the same with the written as with the oral examinations.
In these he assigned full marks to a large proportion of the papers
sent in. Once it was represented to him that this method of valuation
prevented his examination results from having any influence on the
adjudication of a prize that was given every year to the student who
had the highest aggregate of marks in all the classes. He admitted the
justice of this contention, and promised to make a change. When he
announced the results of his next examination it was found that he
had been as good as his word; but the change consisted in this: that
whereas formerly two-thirds of the class had received full marks,
now two-thirds of the class received ninety per cent.!

And yet the popular idea of his inability to distinguish between a
good student and a bad one was quite wrong. He was not so simple as he
seemed. All who have sat in his classroom remember times when a sudden
keen look from him showed that he knew quite well when liberties were
being attempted with him, and gave rise to the uncomfortable suspicion
that, as it was put, "he could see more things with his eyes shut than
most men could see with theirs wide open." The fact is, that all his
leniency with his students, and all his apparent ascription to them of
a high degree of diligence, scholarship, and mental grasp, had their
roots not in credulity but in charity--the charity which "believeth
all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." His very defects
came from an excess of charity, and one loved him all the better
because of them. Hence it came about that his students got far more
from contact with his personality than they got from his teaching.
It is not so much his lectures as his influence that they look back
to and that they feel is affecting them still.

When Dr. Cairns came to Edinburgh from Berwick, it was only to a
limited extent that he allowed himself to take part in public work
outside that which came to him as a minister and Professor of
Theology. There were, however, two public questions which interested
him deeply, and the solution of which he did what he could by speech
and influence to further. One of these was the question of Temperance.
During the first twenty years of his ministry he had not felt called
upon to take up any strong position on this question, although
personally he had always been one of the most abstemious of men. But
about the year 1864 he had, without taking any pledge or enrolling
himself on the books of any society, given up the use of alcohol. He
had done so largely as an experiment--to see whether his influence
would thereby be strengthened with those in his own congregation and
beyond it whom he wished to reclaim from intemperance.

When he became a professor he was invited to succeed Dr. Lindsay
as President of the Students' Total Abstinence Society, and, as no
absolute pledge was exacted from the members, he willingly agreed
to do so. From this time his influence was more and more definitely
enlisted on behalf of Total Abstinence, and in 1874 he took a further
step. In trying to save from intemperance a friend in Berwick who was
not a member of his own congregation, he urged him to join the Good
Templars, at that time the only available society of total abstainers
in the town. In order to strengthen his friend's hands, he agreed to
join along with him. This step happily proved to be successful as
regarded its original purpose, and Dr. Cairns remained a Good Templar
during the rest of his life.

While there were some things about the Order that did not appeal to
him, such as the ritual, the "regalia," and the various grades of
membership and of office, with their mysterious initials, he looked
upon these things as non-essentials, and was in hearty sympathy with
its general principles and work. But, although he was often urged to
do so, he never would accept office nor advance beyond the initiatory
stage of membership represented by the simple white "bib" of infancy.
On coming to Edinburgh, he looked about for a Lodge to connect himself
with, and ultimately chose one of the smallest and most obscure in the
city. The members consisted chiefly of men and women who had to work
so late that the hour of meeting could not be fixed earlier than 9
p.m. He was present at these meetings as often as he could, and only
lamented that he could not attend more frequently.

While fully recognising the right of others to come to a different
conclusion from his own, and while uniformly basing his total
abstinence on the ground of Christian expediency and not on that of
absolute Divine law, his view of it as a Christian duty grew clearer
every year. And he carried his principles out rigidly wherever he
went. He perplexed German waiters by his elaborate explanations as to
why he drank no beer; and once, as he came down the Rhine, he had a
characteristically sanguine vision of the time when the vineyards on
its banks would only be used for the production of raisins. At the
same time his interest in Temperance work, alike in its religious,
social, and political aspects, was always becoming keener. He was
frequently to be found on Temperance platforms, and was in constant
request for the preaching of Temperance sermons. Some of his speeches
and sermons on the question have been reprinted and widely read, and
one New Year's tract which he wrote has had a circulation of one
hundred and eighty thousand.

The other question in which he took a special interest was that of
Disestablishment. To those who adopted the "short and easy method"
of accounting for the Disestablishment movement in Scotland by
saying that it was all due to jealousy and spite on the part of
its promoters, his adhesion to that movement presented a serious
difficulty. For no one could accuse him of jealousy or spite. Hence
it was a favourite expedient to represent him as the tool of more
designing men--as one whose simplicity had been imposed upon, and who
had been thrust forward against his better judgment to do work in
which he had no heart. This theory is not only entirely groundless,
but entirely unnecessary; because the action which he took on this
question can readily be explained by a reference to convictions he had
held all his life, and to circumstances which seemed to him to call
for their assertion.

He had been a Voluntary ever since he had begun to think on such
questions. His father, in the days of his boyhood, had subscribed,
along with a neighbour, for the _Voluntary Church Magazine_, and the
subject had often been discussed in the cottage at Dunglass. It will
be remembered that during his first session at the University he was
an eager disputant with his classmates on the Voluntary side, and that
towards the close of his course, after a memorable debate in the
Diagnostic Society, he secured a victory for the policy of severing
the connection between Church and State. These views he had never
abandoned, and in a lecture on Disestablishment delivered in Edinburgh
in 1872 he re-stated them. While admitting, as the United Presbyterian
Synod had done in adopting the "Articles of Agreement," that the State
ought to frame its policy on Christian lines, he denied that it was
its duty or within its competence to establish and endow the Church.
This is, to quote his own words, "an overstraining of its province,--a
forgetfulness that its great work is civil and not spiritual,--and an
encroachment without necessity or call, and indeed, as I believe, in
the face of direct Divine arrangements, on the work of the Christian

These, then, being his views, what led him to seek to make them
operative by taking part in a Disestablishment campaign? Two things
especially. One of these was the activity at that time of a Broad
Church party within the Established Church. He maintained that this
was no mere domestic concern of that Church, and claimed the right as
a citizen to deal with it. In a national institution views were held
and taught of which he could not approve, and which he considered
compromised him as a member of the nation. He felt he must protest,
and he protested thus.

The other ground of his action was the conviction, which recent
events had very much strengthened, that the continued existence of
an Established Church was the great obstacle to Presbyterian Union
in Scotland. It is true that there was nothing in the nature of things
to prevent the Free and United Presbyterian Churches coming together
in presence of an Established Church. As a matter of fact, they have
done so since Dr. Cairns's death, though not without secessions,
collective and individual. But experience had shown that it was the
existence of an Established Church, towards which the Anti-Union
party had turned longing eyes, which was the determining factor in
the wrecking of the Union negotiations. Besides, Dr. Cairns looked
forward to a wider Union than one merely between the Free and United
Presbyterian Churches, and he was convinced that only on the basis of
Disestablishment could such a Union take place. To the argument that,
if the Church of Scotland were to be disestablished, its members would
be so embittered against those who had brought this about that they
would decline to unite with them, he was content to reply that that
might safely be left to the healing power of time. The petulant threat
of some, that in the event of Disestablishment they would abandon
Presbyterianism, he absolutely declined to notice.

The Disestablishment movement had been begun before Dr. Cairns left
Berwick, and he supported it with voice and pen till the close of his
life. He did so, it need not be said, without bitterness, endeavouring
to make it clear that his quarrel was with the adjective and not with
the substantive--with the "Established" and not with the "Church," and
under the strong conviction that he was engaged "in a great Christian



During 1877 and 1878 the United Presbyterian Church was much occupied
with a discussion that had arisen in regard to its relation to the
"Subordinate Standards," i.e. to the Westminster _Confession of Faith_
and the _Larger and Shorter Catechisms_. These formed the official
creed of the Church, and assent to them was exacted from all its
ministers, probationers, and elders. A change of opinion, perhaps
not so much regarding the doctrines set forth in these documents as
regarding the perspective in which they were to be viewed, had been
manifesting itself with the changing times. It was felt that standards
of belief drawn up in view of the needs, reflecting the thought,
and couched in the language of the seventeenth century, were not an
adequate expression of the faith of the Church in the nineteenth
century. The points with regard to which this difficulty was more
acutely felt were chiefly in the region of the "Doctrines of
Grace"--the Divine Decrees, the Freedom of the Human Will, and the
Extent of the Atonement. Accordingly, a movement for greater liberty
was set on foot.

There were many, of course, in the Church who had no sympathy with
this movement, and who, if they had been properly organised and led,
might have been able to defeat it. But the recognised and trusted
leaders of the Church were of opinion that the matter must be
sympathetically dealt with, and, on the motion of Principal Harper,
the Synod of 1877 appointed a Committee to consider it, and to bring
up a report. This Committee, of which Dr. Cairns was one of the
conveners, soon found that, if relief were to be granted, they had
only two alternatives before them. They must deal either with the
Creed or with the terms of subscription to it. There were some who
urged that an entirely new and much shorter Creed should be drawn up.
Dr. Cairns was decidedly opposed to this proposal. The subject of the
Creeds of the Reformed Churches was one of his many specialties in the
field of Church History, and he had a reverence for those venerable
documents, whose articles--so dry and formal to others--suggested to
his imagination the centuries of momentous controversy which they
summed up, and the great champions of the faith who had borne their
part therein. Besides, he was very much alive to the danger of falling
out of line with the other Presbyterian Churches in Great Britain and
America, who still maintained, in some form or other, their allegiance
to the Westminster Standards.

His influence prevailed, and the second alternative was adopted.
A "Declaratory Statement" was drawn up of the sense in which, while
retaining the Standards, the Church understood them. This Statement
dealt with the points above referred to in a way that would, it was
thought, give sufficient relief to consciences that had shrunk from
the naked rigour of the words of the _Confession_, It also contained
a paragraph which secured liberty of opinion on matters "not entering
into the substance of the faith," the right of the Church to guard
against abuse of this liberty being expressly reserved. Dr. Cairns
submitted this "Declaratory Statement" to the Synods of 1878 and 1879,
in speeches of notable power and wealth of historic illustration,
and, in the latter year, it was unanimously adopted and became a
"Declaratory Act." The precedent thus set has been followed by nearly
all the Presbyterian Churches which have since then had occasion to
deal with the same problem.

Except when he had to expound and recommend some scheme for which he
had become responsible, or when he had been laid hold of by others
to speak in behalf of a "Report" or a proposal in which they were
interested, Dr. Cairns did not intervene often in the debates of the
United Presbyterian Synod. He preferred, to the disappointment of
many of his friends, to listen rather than to speak, and shrank from
putting himself in any way forward. He had been Moderator of the Synod
in 1872, and as an ex-Moderator he had the privilege, accorded by
custom, of sitting on the platform of the Synod Hall on the benches
to the right and left of the chair. But he never seemed comfortable
up there. He would sit with his hands pressed together, and in a
stooping posture, as if he wanted to make his big body as small and
inconspicuous as possible; and, as often as he could, he would go down
and take his place among the rank and file of the members far back in
the hall. But he had all a true United Presbyterian's loyal affection
for the Synod, and a peculiar delight in those reunions of old friends
which its meetings afforded. Amongst his oldest friends was William
Graham, who although, since the English Union, no longer a United
Presbyterian, simply could not keep away from the haunts of his youth
when the month of May came round. On such occasions he was always Dr.
Cairns's guest at Spence Street. He kept things lively there with his
nimble wit, and in particular subjected his host to a perpetual and
merciless fire of "chaff." No one else ventured to assail him as
Graham thus did; for, with all his geniality and unaffected humility,
there was a certain personal dignity about him which few ventured to
invade. But he took all his friend's banter with a smile of quiet
enjoyment, and sometimes a more than usually outrageous sally would
send him into convulsions of laughter, whose resounding peals filled
the house with their echoes.

In the spring of 1879 died the venerable Principal Harper.
Dr. Cairns felt the loss very keenly, for Dr. Harper had been a loyal
and generous friend and colleague, on whose clear and firm judgment
he had been wont to rely in many a difficult emergency. Besides, as
his biographer has truly said, "he was habitually thankful to have
someone near him whom he could fairly ask to take the foremost
place."[18] Now that Dr. Harper was gone, there seemed to be no doubt
that that foremost place would be thrust upon him. These expectations
were fulfilled by the Synod of that year, which unanimously and
enthusiastically appointed him Principal of the College. His friend
Dr. Graham, who, as a corresponding member from the Synod of the
Presbyterian Church of England, supported the appointment, gave voice
to the universal feeling when he described him as "a man of thought
and labour and love and God, who had one defect which endeared him to
them all--that he was the only man who did not know what a rare and
noble man he was."

[Footnote 18: _Life and Letters_, p. 661.]

In the following year (1880) Principal Cairns delivered the Cunningham
Lectures. These lectures were given on a Free Church foundation,
instituted in memory of the distinguished theologian whose name it
bears; and now for the first time the lecturer was chosen from beyond
the borders of the Free Church. Dr. Cairns highly appreciated the
compliment that was thus paid him, regarding it as a happy augury of
the Union which he was sure was coming. He had chosen as his subject
"Unbelief in the eighteenth century as contrasted with its earlier and
later history"; and, although it was one in which he was already at
home, he had again worked over the familiar ground with characteristic
diligence and thoroughness. Thus, in preparing for one of the
lectures, he read through twenty volumes of Voltaire, out of a set
of fifty which had been put at his disposal by a friend. The first
lecture dealt with Unbelief in the first four centuries, which he
contrasted in several respects with that of the eighteenth. Then
followed one on the Unbelief of the seventeenth century, then three
on the Unbelief of the eighteenth century, in England, France, and
Germany respectively; and, finally, one on the Unbelief of the
nineteenth century, from whose representatives he selected three for
special criticism as typical, viz. Strauss, Renan, and John Stuart
Mill. These lectures, while not rising to the level of greatness,
impress one with his mastery of the immense literature of the subject,
and are characterised throughout by lucidity of arrangement and by
sobriety and fairness of judgment. They were very well received when
they were delivered, and were favourably reviewed when they were
published a year later.[19]

[Footnote 19: In the following year (1882) he received the degree of
LL.D. from Edinburgh University.]

Between the delivery and the publication of the Cunningham Lectures
Dr. Cairns spent five months in the United States and Canada. The
immediate object of this American tour was to fulfil an engagement to
be present at the Philadelphia meeting of the General Council of the
Presbyterian Alliance--an organisation in which he took the deepest
interest, as it was in the line of his early aspirations after a great
comprehensive Presbyterian Union. But he arranged his tour so as to
enable him also to be present at the General Assembly of the American
Presbyterian Church at Madison, and at that of the Presbyterian Church
of Canada at Montreal. The rest of the time at his disposal he spent
in lengthened excursions to various scenes of interest. He visited the
historic localities of New England and crossed the continent to San
Francisco, stopping on the way at Salt Lake City, and extending his
journey to the Yo-Semite Valley. More than once he went far out of his
way to seek out an old friend or the relative of some member of his
Berwick congregation. Wherever he went he preached,--in fact every
Sunday of these five months, including those he spent on the Atlantic,
was thus occupied,--and everywhere his preaching and his personality
made a deep impression. As regarded himself, he used to say that
this American visit "lifted him out of many ruts" and gave him new
views of the vitality of Christianity and new hopes for its future

After the publication of the Cunningham Lectures there was a widely
cherished hope that Dr. Cairns would produce something still more
worthy of his powers and his reputation. He was now free from the
incessant engagements of an active ministry, and he had by this time
got his class lectures well in hand. But, although the opportunity had
come, the interest in speculative questions had sensibly declined.
There is an indication of this in the Cunningham Lectures themselves.
In the last of these, as we have seen, he had selected Mill as the
representative of English nineteenth-century Unbelief. Even then Mill
was out of date; but Mill was the last British thinker whose system
he had thoroughly mastered. In the index to his _Life and Letters_
the names of Darwin and Herbert Spencer do not occur, and even in an
Apologetic tract entitled _Is the Evolution of Christianity from mere
Natural Sources Credible_? which he wrote in 1887 for the Religious
Tract Society, there is no reference whatever to any writer of the
Evolutionary School. With his attitude to later German theological
literature it is somewhat different, for here he tried to keep himself
abreast of the times. Yet even here the books that interested him
most were mainly historical, such as the first volume of Ritschl's
great work on Justification (almost the only German book he read
in a translation), and the three volumes of Harnack's _History
of Dogma_.

This decay of interest in speculative thought might be attributed to
the decline of mental freshness and of hospitality to new ideas which
often comes with advancing years, were it not that, in his case, there
was no such decline. On the contrary, as his interest in speculative
thought gradually withered, his interest on the side of scholarship
and linguistics became greater than ever, and his energy here was
always seeking new outlets for itself. When he was nearly sixty he
began the study of Assyrian. He did so in connection with his lectures
on Apologetics,--because he wanted to give his class some idea of the
confirmation of the Scripture records, which he believed were to be
found in the cuneiform inscriptions. But ere long the study took
possession of him. His letters, and the little time-table diary of
his daily studies, record the hours he devoted to it. When he went to
America he took his Assyrian books with him, and pored over them on
the voyage whenever the Atlantic would allow him to do so. And he was
fully convinced that what interested him so intensely must interest
his students too. One of them, the Rev. J.H. Leckie, thus describes
how he sought to make them share in his enthusiasm:--

"One day when we came down to the class, we found the blackboard
covered with an Assyrian inscription written out by himself before
lecture hour, and the zest, the joy with which he discoursed upon the
strange figures and signs showed that, though white of hair and bent
in frame, he was in the real nature of him very young. For two days he
lectured on this inscription with the most assured belief that we were
following every word, and there was deep regret in his face and in his
voice when he said, 'And now, gentlemen, I am afraid we must return to
our theology.'"[20]

[Footnote 20: _Life and Letters_, p. 743.]

Another of his students, referring to the same lectures, writes as

"It was fine, and one loves him all the more for it, but it was
exasperating too, with such tremendous issues at stake in the world of
living thought, to see him pounding away at those truculent old Red
Indians in their barbarian original tongue. Yet I would not for much
forget those days when we saw him escaping utterly from all worries
and troubles and perfectly happy before a blackboard covered with
amazing characters. It was pure innocent delight in a new world of
knowledge, like a child's in a new story-book."

When he was sixty-three he added Arabic to his other acquirements. It
is not quite clear whether he had in view any purpose in connection
with his professional work beyond the desire to know the originals
of all the authorities quoted in his lectures. But, when he had
sufficiently mastered the language to be able to read the Koran,
he knew that he had two grounds for self-congratulation, and these
were sufficiently characteristic. One was that he had his revenge on
Gibbon, who had described so triumphantly the career of the Saracens
and who yet had not known a word of their language. The other was
that he was now able to pray in Arabic for the conversion of the

About the same time he began to learn Dutch. He assigned as one reason
for this that he wanted to read Kuenen's works. But as the only one of
these that he had was in his library already, having come to him from
the effects of a deceased friend, it is possible that this was just an
unconscious excuse on his part for indulging in the luxury of learning
a new language--that he read Kuenen in order to learn Dutch, instead
of learning Dutch in order to read Kuenen. However, his knowledge of
the language enabled him to follow closely a movement which excited
his interest in no common degree, viz. the secession of a large
evangelical party from the rationalistic State Church of Holland,
under Abraham Kuyper, the present Prime Minister of that country,
and their organisation into a Free Presbyterian Church.

Other languages at which he worked during this period were Spanish,
of which he acquired the rudiments during his tour in California;
and Dano-Norwegian, which he picked up during a month's residence at
Christiania in 1877, and furbished for a meeting of the Evangelical
Alliance at Copenhagen in 1884. All this time he was pursuing his
Patristic and other historical studies with unflagging vigour,
always writing new lectures, always maintaining his love of abstract
knowledge and his eager desire to add to his already vast stores of
learning. When, a year and a half before his death, a vacancy occurred
in the Church History chair in the College, he stepped into the breach
and delivered a course of lectures on the Fathers, which took his
class by storm.

"His manner," says one who heard these lectures, "was quite different
in the Church History classroom from what it was in that of Systematic
Theology. In the latter he taught like a man who felt wearied and old;
but in the former he showed a surprising freshness and enthusiasm.
It was delightful to see him in the Church History class forgetting
age and care, and away back in spirit with Origen and his other old

These lectures, while abounding in searching and masterly criticism
of doctrinal views, are specially noticeable for their delineation of
the living power of Christianity as exhibited in the men and the times
with which they deal. This was the aspect of Christian truth which had
all along attracted him. It was what had determined his choice of
the ministry as the main work of his life, and in his later years it
still asserted its power over him. Although he had now no longer a
ministerial charge of his own, he could not separate himself from the
active work of the Church--he could not withdraw from contact with the
Christian life which it manifested.

During the winter months he preached a good deal in Edinburgh,
especially by way of helping young or weak congregations, more than
one of which he had at different times under his immediate care until
they had been lifted out of the worst of their difficulties. In summer
he ranged over the whole United Presbyterian Church from Shetland to
Galloway, preaching to great gatherings wherever he went. In arranging
these expeditions, he always gave the preference to those applications
which came to him from poor, outlying, and sparsely peopled districts,
where discouragements were greatest and the struggle to "maintain
ordinances" was most severe. His visits helped to lift the burden
from many a weary back, and never failed to leave happy and inspiring
memories behind them. Among these summer engagements he always kept a
place for his old congregation at Berwick, which he regularly visited
in the month of June, preaching twice in the church on Sunday, and
finishing the day's work by preaching again from the steps of the Town
Hall in the evening. On these occasions the broad High Street, at the
foot of which the Town Hall stands, was always crowded from side to
side and a long way up its course, while all the windows within
earshot were thrown open and filled with eager listeners.

In this continual pursuit of knowledge, and in the contemplation,
whether in history or in the world around him, of Christianity as
a Life, his main interests more and more lay. In the one we can
trace the influence of Hamilton, in the other perhaps that of
Neander--the two teachers of his youth who had most deeply impressed
him. Relatively to these, Systematic Theology, and even Apologetics,
receded into the background. Secure in his "_aliquid inconcussum_,"
he came increasingly to regard the life of the individual Christian
and the collective life of the Church as the most convincing of all
witnesses to the Unseen and the Supernatural.

Meanwhile the apologetic of his own life was becoming ever more
impressive. In the years 1886 and 1887 he lost by death several of
his dearest friends. In the former year died Dr. W.B. Robertson of
Irvine; and, later, Dr. John Ker, who had been his fellow-student at
the University and at the Divinity Hall, his neighbour at Alnwick in
the early Berwick days, and at last his colleague as a professor in
the United Presbyterian College. In the early part of the following
year his youngest sister, Agnes, who with her husband, the Rev. J.C.
Meiklejohn, had come to live in Edinburgh two years before for the
better treatment of what proved to be a mortal disease, passed away.
And in the autumn he lost the last and the dearest of the friends
that had been left to him in these later years, William Graham. These
losses brought him yet closer than he had been before to the unseen
and eternal world.

He was habitually reticent about his inner life and his habits of
devotion. No one knew his times of prayer or how long they lasted.
Once, indeed, his simplicity of character betrayed him in regard to
this matter. The door of his retiring-room at the College was without
a key, and he would not give so much trouble as to ask for one. So,
in order that he might be quite undisturbed, he piled up some forms
and chairs against the door on the inside, forgetting entirely that
the upper part of it was obscure glass and that his barricade was
perfectly visible from without. It need not be said that no one
interrupted him or interfered with his belief that he had been
unobserved by any human eye. But it did not require an accidental
disclosure like this to reveal the fact that he spent much time in
prayer. No one who knew him ever so little could doubt this, and no
one could hear him praying in public without feeling sure that he
had learned how to do it by long experience in the school of private

Purified thus by trial and nourished by prayer, his character went
on developing and deepening. His humility, utterly unaffected, like
everything else about him, became if possible more marked. He was not
merely willing to take the lowest room, but far happiest when he was
allowed to take it. In one of his classes there was a blind student,
and, when a written examination came on, the question arose, How was
he to take part in it? Principal Cairns offered to write down the
answers to the examination questions to his student's dictation, and
it was only after lengthened argument and extreme reluctance on his
part that he was led to see that the authorities would not consent
to this arrangement.

It was the same with his charity. He was always putting favourable
constructions on people's motives and believing good things of them,
even when other people could find very little ground for doing so.
In all sincerity he would carry this sometimes to amusing lengths.
Reference has been made to this already, but the following further
illustration of it may be added here. One day, when in company with a
friend, the conversation turned on a meeting at which Dr. Cairns had
recently been present. At this meeting there was a large array of
speakers, and a time limit had to be imposed to allow all of them
to be heard. One of the speakers, however, when arrested by the
chairman's bell, appealed to the audience, with whom he was getting
on extremely well, for more time. Encouraged by their applause, he
went on and finished his speech, with the result that some of his
fellow-speakers who had come long distances to address the meeting
were crushed into a corner, if not crowded out. Dr. Cairns somehow
suspected that his friend was going to say something strong about this
speaker's conduct, and, before a word could be spoken, rushed to his
defence. "He couldn't help himself. He was at the mercy of that
shouting audience--a most unmannerly mob!" And then, feeling that
he had rather overshot the mark, he added in a parenthetic murmur,
"Excellent Christian people they were, no doubt!"

But not the least noticeable thing about him remains to be
mentioned--the persistent hopefulness of his outlook. This became
always more pronounced as he grew older. Others, when they saw the
advancing forces of evil, might tremble for the Ark of God; but he saw
no occasion for trembling, and he declined to do so. He was sure that
the great struggle that was going on was bound sooner or later, and
rather sooner than later, to issue in victory for the cause he loved.
And although his great knowledge of the past, and his enthusiasm for
the great men who had lived in it, might have been expected to draw
his eyes to it with regretful longing, he liked much better to look
forward than to look back, using as he did so the words of a favourite
motto; "The best is yet to be."

All these qualities found expression in a speech he delivered on
the occasion of the presentation of his portrait to the United
Presbyterian Synod in May 1888. This portrait had been subscribed for
by the ministers and laymen of the Church, and painted by Mr. W.E.
Lockhart, R.S.A. The presentation took place in a crowded house, and
amid a scene of enthusiasm which no one who witnessed it can ever
forget. Principal Cairns concluded a brief address thus: "I have now
preached for forty-three years and have been a Professor of Theology
for more than twenty, and I find every year how much grander the
gospel of the grace of God becomes, and how much deeper, vaster, and
more unsearchable the riches of Christ, which it is the function of
theology to explore. I have had in this and in other churches a band
of ministerial brethren, older and younger, with whom it has been a
life-long privilege to be associated; and in the professors a body
of colleagues so generous and loving that greater harmony could not
be conceived. The congregations to which I have preached have far
overpaid my labours; and the students whom I have taught have given me
more lessons than many books. I have been allowed many opportunities
of mingling with Christians of other lands, and have learned, I trust,
something more of the unity in diversity of the creed, 'I believe in
the Holy Catholic Church.' In that true Church, founded on Christ's
sacrifice and washed in His blood, cheered by its glorious memories
and filled with its immortal hopes, I desire to live and die. Life
and labour cannot last long with me; but I would seek to work to the
end for Christian truth, for Christian missions, and for Christian
union. Amidst so many undeserved favours, I would still thank God and
take courage, and under the weight of all anxieties and failures,
and the shadows of separation from loved friends, I would repeat
the confession, which, by the grace of God, time only confirms:
'_In Te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum_.'"



In May 1891 the report of an inquiry which had been instituted in the
previous year into the working of the United Presbyterian College was
submitted to the Synod. The portion of it which referred to Principal
Cairns's department, and which was enthusiastically approved,
concluded as follows: "The Committee would only add that the whole
present inquiry has deepened its sense of the immense value of the
services of Dr. Cairns to the College, both as Professor and as
Principal, and expresses the hope that he may be long spared to adorn
the institution of which he is the honoured head, and the Church of
which he is so distinguished a representative." The hope thus
expressed was not to be fulfilled.

The specially heavy work of the preceding session--the session in
which, as already described, he had undertaken part of the work of
the Church History class in addition to the full tale of his own--had
overtaxed his strength, and, acting on the advice of Dr. Maclagan and
his Edinburgh medical adviser, he had cancelled all his engagements
for the summer. Almost immediately after the close of the Synod an old
ailment which he had contracted by over-exertion during a holiday tour
in Wales reappeared, and yielded only partially to surgical treatment.
But he maintained his cheerfulness, and neither he nor his friends had
any thought that his work was done. In the month of July he paid a
visit to his brother David at Stitchel. He had opened his brother's
new church there thirteen years before, and it had come to be a
standing engagement, looked forward to by very many in the district,
that he should conduct special services every year on the anniversary
of that occasion. But these annual visits were very brief, and they
were broken into not only by the duties of the Sunday, but by the
hospitalities usual in country manses at such times. This time,
however, there were no anniversary sermons to be preached; he had
come for rest, and there was no need for him to hasten his departure.
The weather was lovely, and so were the views over the wide valley
of the Tweed to the distant Cheviots. He would sit for hours
reading under the great elm-tree in the garden amid the scents of
the summer flowers. "I have come in to tell you," he said one day
to his sister-in-law, "that this is a day which has wandered out of
Paradise." "We younger people," wrote his niece, "came nearer to him
than ever before. He was as happy as a child, rejoicing with every
increase of strength. He greatly enjoyed my brother Willie's singing,
especially songs like Sheriff Nicolson's 'Skye' and Shairp's 'Bush
aboon Traquair.' We were astonished to find how familiar he was with
all sorts of queer out-of-the-way ballads. Never had we seen him so
free from care, so genial and even jubilant."[21] The summer Sacrament
took place while he was at Stitchel, and he was able to give a brief
address to the communicants from the words, "Ye do shew forth the
Lord's death till He come," in a voice that was weak and tremulous,
but all the more impressive on that account. One of his brother's
elders, a farmer in the neighbourhood whom he had known since his
schooldays, had arranged that he should address his work-people in the
farmhouse, and to this quiet rural gathering he preached what proved
to be his last sermon.

[Footnote 21: _Life and Letters_, p, 769.]

He himself, however, had no idea that this was the case; and when he
left Stitchel he did so with the purpose of preparing for the work
of another session. But as the autumn advanced and his health did
not greatly improve, another consultation of his doctors was held,
the result of which was that he was pronounced to be suffering
from cardiac weakness, and quite unfit for the work of the coming
winter. He at once acquiesced in this verdict, and, with unabated
cheerfulness, set himself to bring his lectures into a state that
would admit of their being easily read to his classes by two friends
who had undertaken this duty. This done, he wrote out in full the
Greek texts--some five hundred in all--quoted in his lectures on
Biblical Theology. These two tasks kept him busy until about the end
of the year 1891, when he began an undertaking which many of his
friends had long been urging upon him--the preparation of a volume
of his sermons for the press. He selected for this purpose those
sermons which he had preached most frequently, and which he had,
with few exceptions, originally written for sacramental occasions
at Berwick--some of them far back in the old Golden Square days.
These he carefully transcribed, altering them where he thought this
necessary, and not always, in the opinion of many, improving them
in the process.

He found that his strength was not unduly strained when he worked thus
six or seven hours a day. But he always, as hitherto, spent one hour
daily in reading the Scriptures in the original tongues, in which time
he could get through three pages of Hebrew and an indefinite quantity
of Greek. There was, however, one change in his habits which had
become necessary. He was forbidden by the doctors to study at night.
And so, instead of going upstairs in the evening, he remained in the
comfortable parlour, where he wrote his letters, talked to his brother
and sister, or to visitors as they came in, and regaled himself with
light literature. This last consisted sometimes of volumes of the
Fathers, but more frequently of the Koran in the original. He would
frequently read aloud extracts, translating from the Greek and Latin
without ever pausing for a word; as regards the Arabic, he had Sale's
translation at hand to help him through a tough passage, but he was
always a very proud man when he could find his way out of a difficulty
without its aid.

As the winter advanced he felt that it was desirable that he should
have another medical opinion, so that, in the event of his further
incapacity, the Synod at its approaching meeting might make permanent
arrangements for carrying on the work of his chair. On the 19th of
February he was examined by Drs. Maclagan, Webster, and G.W. Balfour,
who certified that he was "unfit for the discharge of any professional
duty." After consulting his relatives, he decided to resign his
Professorship and the Principalship of the College, and on the 23rd
a letter intimating this intention was drafted and despatched. The
committee to which it was sent received it with great regret, and a
unanimous feeling found expression that, at anyrate, he should retain
the office of Principal. This was echoed from every part of the
United Presbyterian Church as soon as the news of his contemplated
resignation became known; and in a wider circle adequate utterance
was given to the public sympathy and regard.

On the 3rd of March he was able to preside at the annual conversazione
of his students, when he was in such genial spirits, and seemed to be
so well, that humorous references were made by more than one speaker
to his approaching resignation as clearly unnecessary, and indeed
preposterous. On the following Saturday he travelled to Galashiels to
attend the funeral of his cousin John Murray, whose room he had shared
during his first session at the University, and in his prayer at the
funeral service he referred in touching terms to the close of their
life-long friendship. Returning to Edinburgh, he went to stay till
Monday with an old friend, whose house afforded him facilities for
attending the communion service at Broughton Place Church next day.
For although this church, which he had attended as a student, and of
which he had been a member since he came to live in Edinburgh, was
more than two miles distant from Spence Street, his Puritan training
and convictions with regard to the Sabbath would never allow him to
go to it in a cab.

On reaching home next week he resumed his work of transcription, and
went on with it till Thursday, when, after taking a short walk, he
became somewhat unwell. Next day he felt better, and did some writing
in the forenoon; but in the afternoon the illness returned, and he
went to bed. In the early hours of next morning, Saturday 12th March,
his sister, who was watching beside him, saw that a change was coming,
and summoned Mr. and Mrs. David Cairns, who had fortunately arrived
the evening before. His brother William, on account of his bodily
infirmity, remained below. The end was evidently near, but he was
conscious at intervals, and his voice when he spoke was clear and
firm. "You are very ill, John," said his brother. "Oh no," he replied,
"I feel much better." "But you are in good hands?" "Yes, in the best
of hands." Then his mind began to wander, and he spoke more brokenly:
"There is a great battle to fight, but the victory is sure ... God
in Christ ... Good men must unite and identify themselves with the
cause." "What cause?" asked his brother. "The cause of God," he
replied. "If they do so, the victory is sure; otherwise, all is
confusion ... I have stated the matter; I leave it with you." Then,
after a short pause, he suddenly said, "You go first, I follow."
These eminently characteristic words were the last he spoke, and as
David knelt and prayed at his bedside death came.

The impression produced on the public mind by his life and character,
and called into vivid consciousness by the news of his death, found
memorable expression on his funeral day, Thursday 17th March. It
had been the original intention of his relatives that the funeral
arrangements should be carried out as simply as possible, with a
service in Rosehall Church, which was close at hand, for those who
desired to attend it, and thereafter a quiet walk down to Echo Bank
Cemetery, where he was to rest beside his sister Agnes. It was thought
that this would be most in accordance with his characteristic humility
and shrinking from all that savoured of display. But the public
feeling refused to be satisfied with this idea, and the relatives
gave way.

The Synod Hall of the United Presbyterian Church, to which the coffin
had been removed in the early part of the day, and which holds three
thousand, was crowded to its utmost capacity. The Moderator of Synod
presided, and beside him on the platform were the Lord Provost,
Magistrates and Council of the city, the Principal and Professors of
the University, the Principal and Professors of the New College, and
many other dignitaries. In the body of the hall were seated, row
behind row, the members of the United Presbyterian Synod, who had
come from all parts of the country, drawn by affection as well as
veneration for him of whom their Church had been so proud. Along
with them was a very large number of ministers of the other Scottish
Churches, and representatives of public bodies. The galleries were
thronged with the general public. The brief service was of that
simple and moving kind with which Presbyterian Scotland is wont to
commemorate her dead. There was no funeral oration, and the prayers,
which were led by Dr. Macgregor, the Moderator of the Established
Church General Assembly, by Principal Rainy, and by Dr. Andrew
Thomson, while full of the sense of personal loss, gave expression
to the deep thankfulness felt by all present that such a life had
been lived, and lived for so long, among them. One incident created
a deep impression. After the coffin had been removed, the various
representative bodies successively left the hall to take their places
in the procession that was being marshalled without. "Wallace Green
Church, Berwick" was called. Then a great company of men rose to their
feet, showing that, after an absence of sixteen years, their old
minister still retained his hold on the affections of the people
among whom he had lived and worked so long.

Outside the hall the scenes were even more impressive, and were
declared by those whose memories went back for half a century to have
been unparalleled in Edinburgh since the funeral of Dr. Chalmers, in
1847. Along the whole of the three miles between the Synod Hall and
Echo Bank Cemetery traffic was suspended, flags were at half-mast, and
all the shops were closed. As the procession, which was itself fully
a mile in length, made its slow way along, the crowds which lined the
pavements, filled the windows, and covered the tops of the arrested
tramway cars, reverently saluted the coffin. When the gates of the
University were passed, not a few thought of the time, more than
fifty-seven years before, when he who was now being borne to his
grave amid such great demonstrations of public homage, came up a shy,
awkward country lad to begin within these walls the life of strenuous
toil that had now closed. How much had passed since then! How great
was the contrast between the two scenes! A little later, when
the procession passed down the Dalkeith Road, everyone turned
instinctively to the house in Spence Street, where he had lived his
simple and godly life, unconscious that the eyes of men were upon him.
As the afternoon shadows were lengthening he was laid in his grave;
and many of those who stood near felt that a great blank had come into
their lives, and that Scotland and the Church were the poorer for the
loss of him who had followed his Master in simplicity of heart and had
counted cheap those honours which the world so greatly desires.[22]

[Footnote 22: Six years later the sister who had so long lived with him
was laid in the same grave. William Cairns sleeps with his kindred in
Cockburnspath churchyard.]

It is difficult to count up the gains and losses of a life. He had
great gifts,--gifts of abstract thinking and writing, powers of
scholarly research and continuous labour,--but his life had followed
another path determined by his early choice. Was this choice a wise
one? It is difficult to say. But two things seem clear. One is that
he never appears to have regretted it. At the public service in the
Synod Hall, Principal Rainy gave thanks for "those seventy-four
years of happy life." These words are entirely true. His life was
an exceptionally happy one. This surely means a great deal. If he
had missed his true vocation, he could not have had this happiness.

The second noticeable point is, that his choice made the influence
of his personality strong throughout Scotland. He seems to have
recognised that his true home lay in the region of Christian faith
and works, in the great common life of the Church; and so he made his
appeal, not to the limited number of those who could read a learned
theological treatise which the changing fortunes of the battle with
Unbelief might soon have put out of date, but to the common heart of
the whole Church. That great assemblage from all parts of the country
on his funeral day was the response to this appeal, and the best
answer to the question as to whether he had erred in the choice of a
calling and wasted his powers. Waste there undoubtedly was. In every
life this cannot but be so, for a man must limit himself; but, if it
be for a high end, the renunciation will be blessed with some fruit
of good. And so, although the memory and the name of John Cairns may
become fainter as the years and generations pass, his influence will
live on in the Christian Church, to whose ideal of goodness he brought
the contribution of his character.

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