The James Begg Society

The James Begg Society

Publishers of Protestant, Reformed Christian Literature

Memoirs of Rev James Begg, D.D., by Rev. Thomas Smith, D.D.



N O Scottish biography can be regarded as complete unless it contain a disquisition on the educational system of Scotland, and a tribute of admiration and gratitude to the memory of John Knox, as the chosen instrument in the hand of our God, for the bestowal of that system, and of innumerable blessings besides, upon our land. In no case could such disquisition and such tribute be more appropriate than in the biography of one who, throughout his life, had no subject nearer his heart, or more frequently upon his lips, than the system and the man. And yet the very frequency with which the subject will recur in the course of this biography might justify the omission of any reference to it in this place, in connection with Dr. Begg's schoolboy days, and not only justifies, but seems to require, that it be treated with unusual brevity.

Although the educational system proposed in the first Book of Discipline was never fully established, yet the most important part of it has been in operation from the Reformation downwards. The institution of parochial schools was at once an essential and most important result of the Reformation, and a means of rendering the Reformation more thorough in Scotland than in any other European country. These have put within the reach of the whole body of the people the means of acquiring a sound elementary education, which was designed to be, and in general was, so pervaded by Divine truth as to form an important means of grace. One of the most special features of the Scottish system was its comprehension of all ranks and classes of the community. I have heard a late venerable marquis detail with evident delight his recollections of his attendance at the parish school. I suspect that such attendance on the part of young noblemen was exceptional, as they were generally educated by private tutors. But certainly it was usual for the sons and daughters of shepherds and day-labourers, of tradesmen and farmers, of merchants and squires, to sit side by side on the same forms, and receive in common the same elementary instruction, and be subject to the same discipline. There may have been evils connected with this amalgamation of the classes - as with what human arrangement are there not? - but I am persuaded that the good greatly preponderated.

But the weakness of the system in actual practice was dependent on its non-completion according to its original design. The parochial schools were intended for elementary education alone. Alongside of them there ought to have been secondary or grammar schools in the burghs, or in groups of parishes; but these were very partially instituted. The result was, that the schools which were designed to be exclusively elementary assumed in reality a composite character, attempting to combine the primary education of all with the secondary education of some. The teachers were required to be men capable of conducting this secondary education, and were generally selected on the ground of their scholarly attainments, and their ability to teach the Latin and Greek classics. They were generally men who had attended classes in one of the universities for one or more sessions; and a considerable number were probationers of the Church. To these men it was more congenial to impart the higher instruction to the advanced classes than to undertake the drudgery of primary instruction. They could scarcely be expected to resist the temptation of devoting their main energies to their more advanced pupils, and sacrificing the interests of the many to those of the few; especially as their success was estimated by examiners, and by the public, mainly from the proficiency of the few. I have no doubt that many yielded to this temptation, and purchased the credit of being superior teachers, at the price of neglecting or performing very perfunctorily the work which was properly theirs, that of imparting sound instruction to all the children of the parish. As in the case of other abuses, this partiality was as injurious to the favoured classes as to the unfavoured. The higher classes were of course recruited from the lower, and the boys entered the higher without proper preparation, and often without the habits of attention which would have made the instruction given in the higher classes really profitable to them. Recent changes have gone far to remedy this evil; and of this every one ought to be glad. But they have produced an evil which did not exist before, and for which a remedy must be sought. They have greatly improved the primary education, and so have opened a way to a great improvement of secondary education; but then they have greatly lessened the facilities of acquiring such education. It is to be hoped that this new evil will be remedied, not by an attempt to revert to the annexation of the secondary to the primary, but by the realisation of the original ideal of Knox.

The position of a minister's son in a village school in Scotland used to be a somewhat peculiar, and in some respects a painful one. Accustomed at home to a degree of refinement of manner and language which did not obtain in the homes of his schoolfellows, he was apt to bring on himself ridicule and sarcasm if on any occasion he unconsciously indicated that superiority in school or playground. Considering himself bound by the necessities of his position occasionally to vindicate his rights or his honour vi et armis, he fought with the certainty that victory or defeat would equally subject him to disapprobation on the part of the authorities at home, who were sure to regard fighting as in itself an evil, not to be justified, and but little to be palliated, by the plea of provocation received. Then superiority in scholarship, the almost necessary result of a more intellectual heredity and of the breathing of a more intellect-pervaded air, would lead to a kindlier bearing on the part of the master; and this would be imputed to partiality and favouritism, and would lead in turn to suspicions of "sneaking," and might even brand an innocent son of the manse with the most opprobrious epithet in the schoolboy's vocabulary, that of a "tell-tale." I am glad to believe that these and similar evils are lessened now, if they have not altogether disappeared. But in the days of Dr. Begg's boyhood they were a very real drawback to the great advantages which undoubtedly resulted from the noble system of the Scottish parochial schools, and the association of the juvenile population of all ranks on the same forms and in the same playgrounds.Experto crede.

Local traditions seem to indicate that these evils were not unfelt by the son of the minister of Monkland, and that he strove to minimise them by various expedients. There is, for example, a reminiscence of his having in summer habitually stripped off his shoes and stockings on his way to school. After spending the day on terms of equality with his barefooted associates, on the way home he would abstract the insignia of his social superiority from the hiding-place to which he had consigned them in the morning, and would appear at home attired, in respect of his feet, in the costume appropriate to civilised life. Whatever may be thought of this and similar incidents, and of whatever evils they may be regarded as indicative, it cannot well be doubted that such a training had in it, associated with these evils, elements not unfavourable to the formation of the character of a Christian minister, whose vocation requires him to associate with people of all ranks and classes and characters, and to regard all men as in some respects - and those the most important of all respects - equal, while giving honour to whom honour is due, whether on the ground of social position and influence, or of intellectual, moral, or spiritual superiority. No man in our day more thoroughly than Dr. Begg realised the ideal of a Christian minister as belonging to no class because he belongs to all; and I have no doubt that this was in good part due to the manner of his upbringing.

The age to which Dr. Begg lived, surviving most of his cotemporaries, makes it very difficult to obtain any definite reminiscences of his youthful days. All the more value will the reader put on the following communication, which I have received from my friend the Rev. W. Gillespie, one of the ministers of the Free Church at Airdrie, a large town within the parish of New Monkland. I give it almost entire:-

"FREE WEST MANSE, AIRDRIE, 10th April 1884.

" MY DEAR SIR, - Your request to gather anything interesting regarding Dr. Begg's boyhood, came at a time when I was extremely busy. I had just returned from a month's duties at Geneva, and had a great deal of congregational and other work to overtake. I have now got at most that I think is to be had about the Doctor, and I regret to say that it is not much after all. I have 'interviewed' several of his schoolmates, mainly in the landward part of the parish, and the following is the amount of it.

"His father, the minister of New Monkland, was a man of decided characteristics. He had been a powerful preacher. One of my deacons remembers yet the deep and salutary impression made upon him when a young man by a sermon preached by the old Doctor on Eccles. xi. 9, 'Rejoice, O young man,' &c. His emphatic and frequent repetition of the 'but' seemed sounding in my friend's ears as he narrated the reminiscence at a distance of forty years. 10 The family in the manse were very strictly brought up, and all my informants agree that none of them were given to any vice; James is spoken of as having been always honest and truthful. He was a wild, spirited, 'through-ither' boy, always ready for sport, but with nothing low or cruel in it. On New Year's Day there were usually shooting-matches among the country people, and James has been known to stand at a distance and throw his cap in the air as a mark for the shooters, never blenching while the leaden bullets went over his head.

[Footnote 10: The interval was probably longer. Dr. Begg lived indeed till 1845; but he was little able for pulpit work for several years before his death. - T. S.]

"He was full of lively vigour, and very determined in any project he set his mind on. He and his elder brother John joined frequently in boyish schemes. Once they had watched carefully a partridges nest in the beautiful plantations of Rochsoles, close to the manse. They were anxious to get the young ones and rear them, as soon as it was advisable to take them from the nest. They had arranged with a shoemaker in Airdrie, a great bird-fancier, to take charge of the young birds when they should lift them. The only suitable time to get the fledglings was in the morning before sunrise, and they were anxious to get hold of them unknown to their father. John declared that the birds were lost to them but James resolved to carry out his wishes at any risk. The old Doctor always rose at five o'clock, and whatever was to be done must be all over by that hour. Between three and four o'clock the two boys rose from their beds, dressed, and dropped from their bedroom window, which was on the second floor. They got the young partridges all right. James ran into Airdrie, a distance of two miles, to his friend the shoemaker, delivered up the birds, and ran back again to find John waiting in great terror near the manse. Both sought the house to get into their beds before the household stirred. John's heart fell when he saw that they could not climb to the window by which they had got out, but James soon got hold of a tree which was lying at hand. When both had got up the tree and inside the room, James ordered John to strip, while he did the same, and then he cast off the tree, which fell with 'a thud' that roused the old father. In a few minutes he was in the boys' room, but found them sleeping so soundly that he could not get them to awake.

"The schoolmaster of New Monkland, by whom James Begg was taught, was the Rev. Mr, Watt. He was a licentiate of the Church of Scotland, an excellent scholar, and a very successful teacher. He sent a large number of boys straight to College from his school. He was a fine-looking, gentlemanly man, with an unblemished reputation. His old pupils, to be found in all parts of the world, speak of him with great admiration. A son of his is minister of the parish of Shotts. When James Begg was at school there were no pupil-teachers, but the best scholars were made monitors. He was often put to teach the others, and was wont to make fun at the expense of the country dunces. He was never taken off guard himself, and numerous quick-witted replies are current as having been made by him. Indeed, he gets credit for some that were certainly not his. But this shows the reputation he had gained."

Far be it from me to justify any breach of the Game Laws, farther to make light of the deception of a venerable father by simulated sleep. I am not the apologist but the biographer. Without approving of the transaction, one would have liked to ascertain the fate of the infant covey. This, it is to be feared, is now impossible.

With respect to Dr. Begg's panegyrics on his father's compeers, and on the ministers of a still earlier generation, and his somewhat disparaging remarks upon us of the present time, I may be allowed to remind the reader that they were written at a late period of his life, when it was perfectly natural that he should be laudator temporis acti. I have no doubt that these our predecessors possessed all the good qualities which he ascribes to them, and that we, their successors, are fairly chargeable with all the faults which he ascribes to us. But then I do not doubt that they had demerits conjoined with their virtues, while I hope that we have some merits combined with our faults; and I venture to think that Dr. Begg gives a one-sided view of them and of us. He is "to their faults a little blind, and to their virtues very kind," while he brings his seeing eye to bear upon our faults and turns his blind one towards our virtues. But especially it is to be borne in mind that the men selected by Dr. Begg for special commendation were confessedly exceptional men, the choicest friends and associates of his confessedly exceptional father, or those who had left an exceptionally good repute. I agree with Dr. Begg in lamenting certain tendencies, doctrinal and ecclesiastical, of some of the younger ministers of our day; and I agree with him in believing that many individuals of the past overtopped the average - what he calls the rank and file - of the present. The most strenuous advocate of the present might well admit that Dr. Balfour and others were greatly superior to the great body of the men of this generation. But were they not greatly superior also to the great body of their cotemporaries? I go farther than this, and doubt whether we have any men who are equal to the greatest men of other days. But I believe that the average of the present is higher than the average of the past, of the age of Moderatism. No one can read such a book as "The Fathers of Ross-Shire," by Dr. Begg's special friend and mine, Dr. Kennedy of Dingwall, 11 without being convinced that there were giants in that part of the earth in those days; and there were men of the same breed in the Lowlands. But it is equally evident that their growth was in no small measure due to the existence of dwarfs around them. I do not mean merely that they seem great by contrast with their inferior neighbours, but that one of the elements which materially contributed to their growth was the attitude which they were constrained to maintain of opposition to prevalent evil, and the necessity which was ever laid upon them of doing battle for the truth and cause of God. When our Lord prayed that His disciples might not be taken out of the world, it is obvious that He had respect to the need which the world had of them; but had He not respect also to the need which they had of the world?

[Footnote 11: By one of those coincidences which always seem strange, notwithstanding the frequency of their occurrence, this sentence was written on the 28th of April 1884, within a few hours of Dr. Kennedy's death. - T. S.]