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Looking Back

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Looking Back: Some Country Churches

in Which Sir Walter Scott Worshipped

From November 1912


By the Rev D.G. Manuel, Mertoun

That Sir Walter Scott stayed frequently at Mertoun House is abundantly testified by his own writings. From his Journal, of date 21st July 1826, we learn something which is even more suggestive than the many scattered references which are to be found throughout his works. “To Mertoun we went accordingly. Lord and Lady Minto were there with part of their family, David Haliburton, etc., besides their own large family. So my lodging was a little room which I had not occupied since I was a bachelor, but often before in my frequent intercourse with this kind and hospitable family.”

That Sir Walter worshipped in Mertoun church will not be gleaned from any of his published writings. But that he stayed at Mertoun House over many a Sunday is evident. From Lockhart’s Life of Sir Walter we find that the Rev. James Duncan, who was minister of the parish of Mertoun for the long period of fifty-five years, is described as “the present excellent minister of Mertoun.” The inference is that Scott, in all likelihood, had formed the opinion from having worshipped under him. In a book by Miss M.T. Ballie, entitled What I have been told concerning my Great Grandmother and my Great Grandfather, and also my Grandmother, Lady Polwarth, Miss Baille speaks of some reminiscences of her mother with regard to Mertoun at the very time at which Sir Walter stayed at it.

“She used to tell us than on Sundays, after breakfast, her father gathered all his family together, and Mrs Beale , commonly called ‘Too-too’, my grandmother’s English maid, joined them. Then he read the whole of the morning service (Episcopal Church), and then they went off to the parish church, preceded a good while before by all the house dogs, who were found established under the seats in the big square pew (now demolished, alas!). The dogs always slipped away quite early on the Sunday mornings to avoid every danger of them being shut up at church time. They behaved quite well, only coming out to yawn and stretch quite at the end of a long service. Mr Duncan preached in black gloves, with the end of his forefinger of the right glove cut away to facilitate the turning of the leaves. He had several daughters, and could not afford to give each a penny to put into the ladle carried round for the collection, so he kept four farthings which he gave to his four daughters every Sunday, putting a penny into the collection in the vestry and recovering the farthings.”

One can readily understand how a country church, like that of Mertoun, would appeal to Sir Walter. A walk of about two hundred yards from the Mansion House would bring him to a somewhat unpretentious, but yet very quaint and very beautifully situated building. He would miss around it the churchyard, with which the parish church in Scotland is almost invariably associated, for the burial-place of the parish was and still is around an older church about one mile to the east, dating back as far as 1150. But he would find in the church of Mertoun, as it then was, much that was both picturesque and interesting. Leaving the carriage drive by a short pathway, he would see in front of him the east end of the church, with a Gothic window around which a plentiful growth of ivy was beautifully twining. On the south-east corner of the building he would find a sun-dial of ingenuous construction, intended to mark the time as the rays of the sun fell upon either the east or the south wall. On the south wall he would find all that remained of the ‘jougs’ that had once been used in the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline, and beyond the church, as his eye wandered towards the ever striking Eildons, he would see the ‘louping-on stane’ upon which, in bygone days, many a rider had mounted his or her steed, after worshipping within the hallowed walls.  In the beautiful park in front of the Mansion House he would find the ‘Gospel Tree’ under which the Covenanters worshipped when their famous minister, the Rev James Kirkton, had been deprived of his living by the Act of 1662, and where among others the Rev Henry Erskine of Dryburgh, and the Rev John Livingstone of Ancrum, did their best to supply ordinances to the faithful people of Mertoun and its neighbourhood. On entering the church he might notice, in quaint lettering, the date JULIE 1658, as that of the time when the church was built to replace the older one in the churchyard; and perhaps he would be carried by this date back to the times of the Rev James Kirkton, with whose True and Secret History of the Church Of Scotland he was doubtless as its reviewer very familiar. Within the church he would find himself in a quaint, square pew, with a fire-place in it, indicative of the only way in which the church was heated, and in this pew he would worship under the Rev James Duncan, whose picture in the pulpit Miss Baillie has drawn.