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A great coloniser : the Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, pioneer minister of Otago and nephew of the poet

Chapter IV. — The Parish of Monkton and Prestwick

page 38

Chapter IV.
The Parish of Monkton and Prestwick.

Lo! there is the scene of his own vision dream,
    The mantle his Coila then wore,
Still flowered with the forest, enstripped with the stream,
    And fringed with the fret of the shore!"

For four years the sturdy minister moved among the farmers and fishing folk of Ballantrae, surrounded by the wonders of natural beauty on sea and land. Sabbath days found him in his pulpit in the tiny parish kirk, preaching with solemn mien his sermons, which were always carefully prepared. From one sacrament to another he fulfilled the duties of his office with that quiet earnestness and thoroughness which characterised the whole of his life. He felt the isolation of his charge at Ballantrae—there is testimony to that fact—but he drew all the sweetness that could be found in the strength of faithful service.

Romance came suddenly into his life. The story is preserved in the memory of Miss Burns, and, like most tales of love, it begins prosaically enough. In the important parish of Monkton and Prestwick, to the north of Ayr, the living was held by the Rev. John Steel Oughterson, M.A. He was the son of the Rev. John Oughterson, formerly minister of West Kilbride, and had been left a widower in 1824. His sister had married an Episcopalian clergyman of the Scottish aristocracy, the Rev. James Francis Grant, whose family held a baronetcy, and had their seat at Monymusk, on the River Dee, in Aberdeenshire. Mr Grant became Rector of Rodness, and Prebendary and Canon of Chichester Cathedral, Sussex, England. Mr Oughterson, bereaved of his wife, and, having no family, wrote to his sister, Mrs Grant, asking her to let page 39him have one of her daughters," the one with the blue eyes and the fair hair" to stay with him and act as the lady of Monkton Manse. To this request of the lonely old widower the Grants acceded, and the fifth child, Miss Clementina, who had just returned from finishing her education at Dunkirk, left London by steamer for Leith. It is stated that this boat was the first to make the voyage under the newly-applied power of steam. At Leith Miss Clementina stayed with her aunt, Lady Grant, whose home was there. Before the young lady left by coach her aunt put a thick blue veil over her head, and told her not on any account to lift it until after she reached Glasgow. The meaning of this became plain ere long. When she reached that city, a waiter brought a tray with a bowl of hot soup for the young lady "in the thick blue veil." Mr Oughterson met her at Glasgow, and accompanied her for the rest of the journey to Monkton. She took charge of the affairs of the manse, and began an apprenticeship in thrifty housekeeping, which was to be her lot for the rest of her life.

At Ballantrae, Lord Eglinton's yacht appears on the horizon. One of the party on board is Miss Clementina Grant, the charming young lady with "the blue eyes and the fair hair." The yacht casts anchor in the quiet bay before resuming the cruise of the western coast and islands. Not unnaturally the young minister of the parish meets the delightful young lady of the Monkton Manse. It was love at first sight. Perhaps the "auld toun of Ayr" became more attractive, and especially the manse of Prestwick and Monkton. Something must be left to the imagination of the reader. Certain it is, however, that on the first day of January, 1830, the Rev. Thomas Burns was married to Miss Clementina Grant, daughter of the Rev.page 40 James Francis Grant, Prebendary and Canon of Chichester Cathedral, England, and granddaughter of Sir Archibald Grant, Baronet, of Monymusk.

Sadness and joy were intermingled at the wedding, for the Rev. John Steel Oughterson had died, and was buried on the day preceding the marriage. The living of Monkton, one of the richest in the rural districts of Scotland, thus became vacant. The heritors of the parish invited the Rev. Thomas Burns to succeed Mr Oughterson, and he accepted the charge. He was inducted to his new sphere of labour on May 18, 1830. His wife always claimed that the living was really given to her, and Mr Burns smilingly agreed with this declaration. The grace and charm of Mrs Burns won all hearts, and enhanced the success of her husband in the work of the pastorate.

The parish of Monkton and Prestwick had history behind it. Walter Fitz-Alan, the Great Steward in the reign of David the First of Scotland, bestowed the old church of Prestwick, along with that of Monkton, on the abbey of Paisley. King Robert the Bruce, whose daughter Marjory became the wife of one of the high stewards, was deeply interested in Prestwick. There is support for the tradition that the lands called "Freedoms" were given for services rendered by the men of this ancient burgh during the struggle for the independence of Scotland. Bruce himself drank water from the well of King-case for the benefit of his health. The well still exists, and bears the old name, which is better evidence than many old legends can furnish for their truthfulness. As a mark of the cure of his supposed leprosy, Bruce built and endowed near to the well a Lazar house or hospital, the ruins of which are still to be seen, and the endowment of which has never died out, being paid nowadays to the page break
St. Nicholas, Church, Prestwick.

St. Nicholas, Church, Prestwick.

Monkton and Prestwick Parish Church.

Monkton and Prestwick Parish Church.

page 41poor of Ayr. King James VI at Holyrood granted a "renewal charter" to the town and burgh of Prestwick, which was then regarded as dating from the tenth century. There are many old links binding Prestwick to royalty, but the continuous one is probably the most interesting to us. The Prince of Wales, as the Earl of Carrick, Kyle, and Cunningham—to give the old style—is the Superior of the burgh. He is also Prince and Steward of Scotland, the lineal representative of Walter Steward, who called Prestwick "my burgh," as it was the capital of his holding of Kyle-Steward. Very interesting old records of the burgh from 1470 onwards exist under the title "Liber Communitatis."

In addition to the work of the surrounding farms, the occupations of the people consisted, at the time of which we are writing, chiefly of spinning and weaving, in which the "bonnie lasses" of the burgh were very proficient. There are references to men's work at coal pits, the cutting of peats, moss, and turf, stone-quarrying, and the working of lime and salt pans. The sea also had its pearls in the shape of salmon and other fish, while the trade in contraband, especially spirits, was a large, although more or less illicit, feature of the place.

Several ruins of old churches are to be found in the vicinity, for the ecclesiastical associations of Prestwick (the abode of the priest) and Monkton, whose connection with monasteries is obvious, are a prominent characteristic of the neighbourhood. The old stones of St. Cuthbert's of Monkton, St. Nicholas of Prestwick, and Lady Kirk—to name but three sites—take us back to pre-Reformation times. It is probable that John Knox visited the parish, for he proclaimed the new faith in the neighbourhood. Protestant doctrines were taken up with great heartiness in the land of Kyle. John Wylie came to Monkton as "minister" about 1562. He may be regarded as page 42the first minister of Monkton, and the predecessor of the subject of our memoir.

The two places of worship at Prestwick and Monkton had services when Mr Burns began his ministry in the parish. This order of things continued until 1837. Dr Hewat gives us a picture of the Prestwick kirk of those early years.

A good many still remember the services in the old church where the minister conducted public worship every third Sabbath, the other two Sabbaths being devoted to Monkton. As the building was narrow, and the gallery ran along the length of the church facing the pulpit, one of the old members has informed us that those in the front seat of the gallery or "loft" could almost have shaken hands with the officiating minister. An open ladder led to this "loft," up which the male section of the congregation alone ventured. "The roof," wrote Dr Mitchell" (Mr Oughterson's predecessor) "in 1794 was made of oak; the floor was earthen, and the seats plain deal." 1

Under such conditions Mr and Mrs Burns commenced life together in their new and important field of labour. To the bride "the little Scottish world" of Monkton and Prestwick was quite familiar. For five years she had lived in the manse, and had superintended its domestic affairs. Now she was its mistress in very deed, and its interests were in safe hands. She seconded her husband's many activities on behalf of the people of the parish, while in no way neglecting her own home. The circumstances of the pair were comfortable, if not affluent, for the living was considered one of the richest in the rural parts of Scotland, being estimated at £400 a year. But there are calls and expenses in such positions of which the outsider knows nothing. The initial cost of furnishing alone would be considerable. Soon a young family was growing up—Arthur John, the eldest and only boy, Clementina, Jane, Annie, and Frances being born in Monkton.

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It was a beautiful home in a delightful part of Scotland—situated three miles north of Ayr across its bridge-spanned river, the western coast sweeping along the bay warmed by the sun; green grass on light, sandy soil (now useful for bunkers in the famous golfing courses), then, as always, giving an air of cheerfulness to the picturesque surroundings; the sea, with purple Goatfell rising grandly on the isle of Arran, limned in many-splendoured hues varying with the seasons, and gorgeous at sunset when sky above and the firmament beneath glow with brilliant crimson and gold; the fields, the woods, the Powburn Stream, the hoary churches of an earlier cycle of faith; the traditions of Scotland's heroes (Bruce and Wallace); the memories of brave martyrs of the Covenant; the later echoes of the roving bard, recalled in living image by many during the pastorate of his more steadfast nephew— such was the scene, such the atmosphere of the parish of Monkton.

But the vigour of Thomas Burns made itself felt from the beginning of his ministry. He set to work to build one large place of worship equally distant from both villages. A noble church, with a handsome tower, reminiscent of the best Norman style, based on the Gothic, was erected; and it stands as a memorial to those who built it only for the glory of God. The edifice was considered one of the finest rural churches in the west country. It was seated for 800 persons, the population of the district being then 2000. Some people, who were slow to appreciate the grandeur of the achievement, dubbed the handsome new building "Burns's Folly," a term of derision, which doubtless gained a certain amount of force after the Disruption. The years have proved that it was a wise accomplishment and a great contribution to the Church of Scotland. The present minister of Monkton and Prestwick Parish Church, the Rev. Luke M'Quitty, B.A., tells me that there are many pages in the Session Minute Book devoted to the closing of the old churches and the building page 44in 1837 of the large new church to take their place. The old pre-Reformation bell, with the inscription "Sanctus Cuthbertus ora pro nobis," which hung in Monkton Church, is still preserved. It is, however, badly cracked, and thereby hangs an old story, which must have arisen before Mr Burns became minister. I tell it in Dr Hewat's words—

It happened that on a Sabbath morning in winter the old bell in the old kirk of Monkton produced strange sounds. The grave sweet melody seemed gone. A message was at once sent from the minister to the beadle, who at the time was very busy pulling the rope, to enquire what was the matter. For a while no answer came from the man of office. With eyes fixed on the ground, his head keeping time to the sounds from the bell, and muttering certain sounds himself, indefatigably he pulled away. The bell, it may be stated, had been injured by a very hard frost through the night. At last, after persistent enquiries from the minister's messenger, the answer came: "The bell's cracked, and the man that's ringing it's cracked, and what they're sayin' is that they're wantin' a change in the ministry her!"

The manse was a fine building dating from 1822, when it succeeded one which was in a wretched state of dilapidation.2 The new residence was much beautified by Mr Burns. The minister brought all his skill as a gardener and farmer to bear upon the fine grounds and the glebe surrounding his home. He delighted in the cultivation of the soil. This proved to be a valuable qualification for a New Zealand pioneer, as we shall have abundant occasion to observe. Thomas Burns preached in the two old churches of St. Cuthbert and St. Nicholas, whose ruins can still be seen, surrounded by their graves, for the last time in May, 1837. On the 15th of that month the grand new church was opened and used for worship. From this period onward his heart and mind were filled with grave issues which were destined to be of vast moment to the world.

1 "A Little Scottish World," by Rev. Dr Kirkwood Hewat, M.A. page 89. The passage quoted was written probably in the nineties.

2 The old manse is described in Dr Edgar's "Old Church Life in Scotland.