WHAT I write here is for the glory of God. For more than twenty years have I been urged to record my story as a missionary of the Cross; but always till now, in my sixty-fourth year, my heart has shrunk from the task, as savouring too much of self. Latterly the conviction has been borne home to me that if there be much in my experience which the Church of God ought to know, it would be pride on my part, and not humility, to let it die with me. I lift my pen, therefore, with that motive supreme in my heart; and, so far as memory and entries in my note-books and letters of my own and of other friends serve or help my sincere desire to be truthful and fair, the following chapters will present a faithful picture of the life through which the Lord has led me. If it bows any of my readers under as deep and certain a confidence as mine, that in “God’s hand our breath is, and His are all our ways,” my task will not be fruitless in the Great Day.
On the 24th May, 1824, I was born in a cottage on the farm of Braehead, in the parish of Kirkmahoe, near Dumfries, in the south of Scotland. My father, James Paton, was a stocking manufacturer in a small way; and he and his young wife, Janet Jardine Rogerson, lived on terms of warm personal friendship with the “gentleman farmer,” so they gave me his name, John Gibson; and the curly-haired child of the cottage was soon able to toddle across to the mansion, and became a great pet of the lady there. More than once, in my many journeyings, have I met with one or another, in some way connected with that family, and heard little incidents not needing to be repeated here, showing how beautiful and tender and altogether human was the relationship in those days betwixt the landlord and the cottars on his estate. On my last visit to Scotland, sixty years after, I drove to Braehead in company with my youngest brother James and my cousin David,—the latter born the same week as I, and the former nearly twenty years my junior; and we found no cottage, nor trace of a cottage, but amused ourselves by supposing that we could discover by the rising of the grassy mound, the outline where the foundations once had been! Of ten thousand homes in Scotland, once sweet and beautiful, each a little possible Paradise in its own well- cultivated plot, this is true to-day; and where are the healthy, happy peasant boys and girls that such homes bred and reared ? They are sweltering and struggling for existence in our towns and cities. I am told that this must be—that it is all the result of economic laws ; but I confess to a deepening conviction that it need not be, and that the loss to the nation as a whole is vital, if not irreparable.
While yet a mere child, five years or so of age, my parents took me to a new home in the ancient village of Torthorwald, about four and a quarter miles north from Dumfries, on the road to Lockerbie. At that time, about 1830, Torthorwald was a busy and thriving village, and comparatively populous, with its cottars and crofters, large farmers and small farmers, weavers and shoemakers, doggers and coopers, blacksmiths and tailors. Fifty-five years later, when I last visited the scenes of my youth, the village proper was literally extinct, except for five thatched cottages where the lingering patriarchs were permitted to die slowly away,—when they too would be swept into the large farms, and their garden plots ploughed over, like sixty or seventy others that had been obliterated ! Of course the Village Smithy still survives, but its sparks are few and fading,—the great cultivators patronizing rather the towns. The Meal Mill still grinds away,—but nothing like what it did when every villager bought or cultivated his few acres of corn, and every crofter and farmer in the parish sent all his grist to the mill . The Grocer’s Shop still recalls the well-known name of Robert Henderson ; but so few are the mouths now to be fed, that his warm-hearted wife and universal favourite, the very heroine of our village life, “Jean Grier,” is retiring from it in disgust, and leaving it to her son-in-law, declaring that “these Tory landlords and their big farms hae driven our folks a’ awa’, and spoiled the Schule and the Shop, the Kirk and the MilL” And verily the School is robbed of its children, and the Parish Church of its worshippers, when five families only are reared where twenty once flourished I Political economy may curse me, if it will ; but I heard with grim satisfaction that this system of large farming, which extinguishes our village homes, and sends our peasantry to rear their children in lanes and alleys, in attics and cellars of populous towns, was proving ruinous at length to the landlords and factors, who had in many cases cruelly forced it on an unwilling people for mere selfish gain.
The Villagers of my early days—the agricultural servants, or occasional labourers, the tradesmen, the small farmers—were, generally speaking, a very industrious and thoroughly independent race of people. Hard workers they had to be, else they would starve; yet they were keen debaters on all affairs both in Church and State, and sometimes in the “smiddy” or the “kiln,” sometimes in a happy knot on the “village green.” or on the road to the “kirk” or the “market,” the questions that were tearing the mighty world beyond were fought over again by secluded peasants with amazing passion and bright intelligence.
From the Bank Hill, close above our village, and accessible in a walk of fifteen minutes, a view opens to the eye which, despite several easily understood prejudices of mine that may discount any opinion that I offer, still appears to me well worth seeing amongst all the beauties of Scotland. At your feet lay a thriving village, every cottage sitting in its own plot of garden, and sending up its blue cloud of “peat reek,” which never somehow seemed to pollute the blessed air; and after all has been said or sung, a beautifully situated village of healthy and happy homes for God’s children is surely the finest feature in every landscape! There nestled the Manse amongst its ancient trees, sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly tenanted, but still the “man’s-house,” the man of God’s house, when such can be found for it There, close by, the Parish School, where rich and poor met together on equal terms, as God’s children ; and we learned that brains and character make the only aristocracy worth mentioning. Yonder, amid its graves, that date back on crumbling stone five hundred years, stands the Village Church ; and there, on its little natural hill, at the end of the village, rises the old tower of Torthorwald, frowning over all the far-sweeping valley of the Nith, and telling of days of blood and Border foray. It was one of the many castles of the Kirkpatricks, and its enormous and imperishable walls seem worthy of him who wrote the legend of his family in the blood of the Red Comyn, stabbed in the Greyfriars Church of Dumfries, when he smote an extra blow to that of Bruce, and cried, “I mak’ siccar” (=sure). Beyond, betwixt you and the Nith, crawls the slow-creeping Lochar towards the Solway, through miles and miles of moss and heather,—the nearest realization that I ever beheld of a “stagnant stream.” Looking from the Bank Hill on a summer day, Dumfries with its spires shone so conspicuous that you could have believed it not more than two miles away; the splendid sweeping vale through which Nith rolls to Solway, lay all before the naked eye, beautiful with village spires, mansion houses, and white shining farms ; the Galloway hills, gloomy and far-tumbling, bounded the forward view, while to the left rose Criffel, cloud-capped and majestic; then the white sands of Solway, with tides swifter than horsemen ; and finally the eye rested joyfully upon the hills of Cumberland, and noticed with glee the blue curling smoke from its villages on the southern Solway shores. Four miles behind you lie the ruins of the Castle of the Bruce, within the domains of his own Royal Burgh of Lochmaben ; a few miles in front, the still beautiful and amazing remains of Cacrlave- rock Castle, famous in many a Border story; all around you, scattered throughout the dale of Nith, memories or ruins of other baronial “keeps,” rich in suggestion to the peasant fancy! Traditions lost nothing in bulk, or in graphic force, as they were retold for the thousandth time by village patriarchs around the kindly peat fire, with the younger rustics gaping round. A high spirit of patriotism, and a certain glorious delight in daring enterprises, was part of our common heritage.