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.



T HE parish of Liberton, to which Dr. Begg was now translated, was in many respects one of the most desirable in Scotland. It had all the advantages of a city charge, and all those of a rural parish, without the disadvantages of either. Within two miles of Edinburgh, it was as completely rural as if it had been situated in the remotest Highlands. From the manse is one of the finest views of our incomparable metropolis, while conversely the church and manse themselves constitute one of the most picturesque objects seen from the southern side of the city. It was no exception to the rule of Scottish parishes in the respect that its "living" was no bait to avarice; and, indeed, in accepting it the Paisley minister did not materially increase his income. Still, it was sufficient to enable its holder to live in perfect comfort.

The population was mainly agricultural, but with an important element of colliers and lime-quarriers. At that time, or till very near that time, the coal proprietors of Gilmerton and Niddry, both in the parish, had almost a monopoly of the supply of coals to Edinburgh, while as yet railroads had not given more distant proprietors the power of competition with them. There was thus a large mining population in the parish, and also a special community of "Gilmerton carters," who are often referred to in descriptions of old Edinburgh, and who constituted a distinct race, marked by peculiar characteristics.

The agriculture was probably the best in Scotland, and therefore not inferior to any in the world. I understand that the soil is not naturally very good. But by a long course of judicious culture, and with the facilities which the proximity of Edinburgh affords for procuring manure, it is made to produce abundant crops of the highest quality. The farms were not large as compared with those of East Lothian and Berwickshire, but the rents were much higher per acre, and in some cases the farmer rented more farms than one. It is mentioned in the statistical account of the parish, written by Dr. Begg in 1839, that the average value of the "gross raw produce of the parish," agricultural and mineral, "as nearly as can be ascertained," was upwards of £56,000. The population was about 4,000.

"The number of families in the parish in 1831.........................


Chiefly employed in agriculture..........................................


In trade, manufactures, or handicraft..................................


I should suppose that there must be a misprint here, as the balance, of 576 families, is surely too large to represent the miners and others employed in connection with the mines.

When Dr. Begg went to Liberton, the parish church was the only place of public worship in the parish; but during his incumbency, in 1837, Gilmerton, a village containing 800 inhabitants, was constituted into a parish quoad sacra, and a very handsome church was erected. The parish church was capable of accommodating 1,430 persons. I believe I am correct in stating that the erection of the church at Gilmerton was due mainly to Dr. Begg's zeal in the cause of church extension, although in his statistical account of the parish he makes no reference to his having had anything to do with it. His account of the religious condition of the people is characteristic:-

"Dissenters. - There is no dissenting place of worship in the parish, and the great mass of the people profess to belong to the Established Church. In 1836, 2,873 persons professed to belong to the Established Church, and 689 to be Dissenters of all denominations. But the number of Dissenters has diminished since then, and although some of them are most excellent persons, a few who call themselves Dissenters are in fact heathens, as is also the case with some who say they belong to the Established Church; nor will it be otherwise until the parish is considerably subdivided. There are no Papists in the parish."

The statement that a further subdivision of the parish was necessary in order to the proper pastoral supervision of the people might be true positively; but the state of things in Liberton was vastly better than in very many parishes. After the assignment of a district with 1,100 inhabitants to the minister of Gilmerton, Dr. Begg would have considerably fewer than 3,000 under his pastoral care, just about twice as many as his church would hold; and of these nearly 700 professed, at least, to belong to other denominations. This might not be altogether a "manageable parish," but it approached, within measurable distance, a little to that designation. Dr. Begg was the nineteenth Protestant minister of Liberton. Among his predecessors there were no such notable men as were some of those who had preceded him in Paisley. The most distinguished was Mr. Andrew Cant, who was minister of the parish for fourteen years (I659-1673) He ultimately became Principal of the University of Edinburgh. The seventeenth minister was Mr. James Grant (1789-1831). He was a man of great respectability, and was held in much esteem by the parishioners. But he was not a man of much energy. His views were thoroughly Moderate; and after a ministry of forty-two years he left behind him the repute of an intelligent gentleman, rather than that of an able or faithful minister of the New Testament, and his ministry, which had at no time been very energetic, had gradually become less so with the advance of his years. He was succeeded by Mr. William Purdie, to whose fair promise, and the frustration, by his early death, of the hopes entertained regarding him, reference has already been made. Dr. Begg's notice of his own appointment in the statistical account is as follow: "Mr. James Begg was translated from the Middle Parish of Paisley to this parish, June 25, 1835. He was presented by the Crown in consequence of a petition from the heritors, elders, and parishioners, and is the nineteenth minister since the Reformation, and the ninth since the Revolution." It has been already stated, also on Dr. Begg's own authority, that it was the backing of Sir George Clerk that gave its efficacy to this petition. He was inducted by the Presbytery of Edinburgh on the 25th of June, Dr. John Paul officiating on the occasion, as substitute for Dr. Runciman, who was prevented by indisposition from discharging the duty. On the following Sabbath he was "introduced" to his new flock by his early and life-long friend Dr. Cunningham.

Dr. Begg immediately entered on the discharge of his pastoral duties with characteristic energy. To say that he preached evangelically and energetically were superfluous; for he could not preach otherwise. The impression made on the people generally was that expressed by one of them: "We ne'er kenned what preachin' was, till he cam amang us." And he did not confine himself to preaching and preparation for the pulpit; I have information from one of his parishioners that she remembers his visiting her mother on every day of the week at the close of which she died; and my informant evidently regarded this as his regular habit. He instituted a Sabbath morning school, as attended by about 300 children, of whom my informant was one. He conducted a weekly service in one of the villages in an outlying district of the parish; and it was largely attended, some attending regularly who had previously lived in the total neglect of religious observances. Upon the whole, the good work prospered in his hand; and it was a work specially to his taste. All through his life his ideal of the happiness and blessedness of the ministerial life had in it more or less of the distinctive element of the country parish minister and his relation to the people of his charge. Before this, as a town minister in Paisley, and after this as a city minister in Edinburgh, he did with his might what his hand found to do, and did it not merely as a cold duty but as a work of love; and his people in both these charges knew well the intensity of his interest in them, and his readiness to spend and be spent in efforts to promote their well-being. But it often occurred to me that he spoke as if the circumstances of his Liberton life and ministry were specially congenial to his natural tastes. He entered with great zest into the cultivation of the manse garden, working in it himself almost every morning. Even in his very brief statistical account of the parish, he cannot resist the temptation to record the weight of a monster cabbage of his own growth. And then he took intense delight in the agricultural and the horticultural operations of his parishioners; and not less in the mining and lime-quarrying operations, in so far as these could be observed above ground. Moreover, the rural relations of landlord, and farmer, and farm-servant were entirely in accord with his patriarchal tastes.

But there were serious drawbacks to his enjoyment, sufficient to guard him against the danger of lapsing into idle contentment. There were evils to the cure of which he must energetically devote himself. When he went to Liberton there were 32 public-houses for a population under 4,000, or 1 to every 125 of the people, or every 30 of the families. 55 This was a miserable state of things, and Dr. Begg succeeded in creating a public opinion against it, and in lessening the evil to a very considerable extent.

[Footnote 55: Probably two or three of these houses were on the sides of the public roads, and were supported in part by garters and others passing along. But then a large number of these garters were themselves Liberton parishioners and it may be presumed that they were as good customers to extra-parochial houses as the extra-parochial travellers were to the Liberton houses. - T. S.]

He found also that funerals on Sabbath were the rule rather than the exception, and that the attendants constantly adjourned from the churchyard to one or other of the public houses, all of which were in those times allowed to be open, with no restriction as to days, and little as to hours. Being the only minister in the parish, he could without much difficulty put his hand on this evil, as the people would have been most unwilling to forego the presence of the minister at the burials of their friends. But all the more hardly and heavily the iron hand was to be laid upon the abuse, did it behove that hand to be cased in the velvet glove. There is probably no part of a minister's duty that requires more to be done with all delicacy than one which comes into collision with the funeral customs of the people. I do not know precisely the details of his procedure; but I know that, without giving serious offence to any, he managed nearly to abolish the usage of Sabbath funerals, excepting in such cases as they were manifestly "works of necessity and mercy."

There was another crying evil, over which he could exercise no direct control, but on which he brought all his influence to bear. 'The houses of the farm and mine labourers were in an extremely bad condition, utterly incompatible, in many cases, with health, comfort, or even decency. Now, this was a matter on which he was always insistent to the extent of enthusiasm. By bringing the matter constantly under the notice of proprietors and farmers, he succeeded in many cases in having most wretched huts superseded by neat and comfortable cottages. To few things did he point with greater satisfaction than to a framed drawing on his study wall of a range of those huts, and side by side with it a photograph of the corresponding range of model cottages. The former were more picturesque than the latter; but as places for human habitation, the latter were infinitely preferable. This matter of the housing of the rural population was always very near his heart; and I shall have occasion to advert, at a later stage, to his exertions towards its improvement.

It was not in this way only that he sought to promote the temporal comfort of the poor. He came too late to withstand the imposition of a compulsory assessment for the poor. But he endeavoured to minimise its deleterious influence, and to revive the better way of voluntary contributions in the form of church-door collections. To such an extent did he carry this, that when the Gilmerton church was opened, and while the provision secured for the support of the minister was of the scantiest, and while the church-door collections did not exceed £35 or £40 a year, he took care that a portion of this sum should be devoted to the support of the poor, under the direction of the kirk-session. Not only so; but in the weekly village service, to which I referred a few pages back, he occasionally had a soup-plate placed at the door for a collection, the proceeds of which were distributed among the poorest of the villagers by the most trusted and most trustworthy of the attendants. A biography of Dr. Begg would be sadly incomplete if it did not make prominent reference to his Chalmerian enthusiasm for the charitable as opposed to the compulsory, the ecclesiastical as distinguished from the civil, provision for the support of the poor. He watched with intense anxiety the gradual but constant increase of the assessment after it was legalised, and mourned over the departed days when venerable elders administered the love-gifts of Christian sympathy, and it was esteemed blessed to receive, and more blessed to give - days of which it were vain to sigh for the return.

But it is not only the pauper for whose temporal well-being the faithful minister cares. Such an one is still the counsellor and the friend of all; and it was more so when a simpler order of things prevailed in our rural parishes. If it be the duty of all Christians to bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ, it is of course that no small portion of these burdens must be borne by him who is officially an administrator of the spiritual comfort which best enables the Christian to bear and profit by earthly sorrows; and every faithful and large-hearted minister realises that while there is blessing to himself both in rejoicing with them who do rejoice and in weeping with them who weep, it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting. And it is not only the darkened dwelling of bereavement and mourning that it is good for the pastor to visit, not merely the tear of great and bitter sorrow that it is good for him to wipe away; but there is a blessing also in smoothing the rough way of daily life, and by hearty sympathy and prudent counsel, and sometimes by timely help, heartening the toiler to persevere in the maintenance of his integrity. There is perhaps no higher ministerial quality than the power to do all this judiciously and efficiently. And Dr. Begg had this power in more than usual degree. The secret of it lay in the thoroughness of his humanity. Homo sum might have been his motto;humani nil a me alienum puto.

All this might have been introduced without irrelevancy at any stage of my task. But I suspect that it was in his Liberton ministry that he found the most appropriate outlets for that genuine humanity which was one of his grandest characteristics. And with reference to his sympathy and his helpfulness, I may take occasion to say, once for all, that, while he prided himself rather on carefulness than on profusion, and while he ever regarded indiscriminate money-giving as one of the worst forms of mistaken charity, instances have been brought under my notice for which I was not prepared, of the liberality with which he expended his own means, not so much to help others, as to put them in the way of helping themselves. My informants have been those who were the recipients of his aid; and they have agreed in attesting the delicacy with which the aid was proffered, and the anxiety which he displayed that his left hand might not know what his right hand did. As to the frequency with which such acts were performed, I have, of course, no means of judging I can only conclude that as the instances which have been brought to my knowledge had nothing about them that would indicate them to have been exceptional, they were probably only a few instances indicating a habit.

I have hitherto made no reference to the fact that in all this good work Dr. Begg was not without "an help meet for him." I must now make another extract from that Scottish Guardian, on which I have already drawn so freely. The issue of 25th September 1835 contains the following brief but important notice:-

"At Barnhill, Dumbartonshire, on the 23rd instant, the Rev. James Begg, minister of Liberton, to Margaret, daughter of Alexander Campbell, Esq., Sheriff-Substitute of Renfrewshire."

Thus within three months of his taking possession of Liberton manse he brought to it one who, according to all testimony, was its chiefest ornament as long as he and she remained in it. It is no part of my assigned and chosen task to be the biographer of Mrs. Begg, and from all that I have learned of her I believe that she would have sensitively shrunk from the idea of having her life made public: I shall, therefore, say only this respecting her, that her memory is cherished with great tenderness by the Liberton parishioners, who agree in representing her as having been all that a minister's wife should be. They dwell especially on the assiduity with which she visited the sick when ecclesiastical affairs called her husband away, perhaps too frequently, from home. I shall scarcely have occasion to say more of Mrs. Begg until I shall have to record her premature removal.