John Paterson Struthers (1851–1915) was young minister who spent only a few years in Whithorn. His letters, collected and published by his wife after his death, betray an engaging, outgoing character that the community in Whithorn took to its heart.. He was born in Glasgow and educated at the High School and University, graduating in 1873 in Greek, Maths, and Natural Philosophy. He had literally traveled the world before arriving in Whithorn. He set out in 1876 with a small group of friends to circumnavigate the world visiting Europe, Egypt, India, Ceylon, Java, China, Japan, the United States, and Canada at a time when the facilities for travelers were very different from what they are today. Whithorn must have seemed very small but excerpts from his letters talk of Whithorn School, the Galloway Arms, his cat, the manse garden, the church building, the coffee-house and his sadness and reluctance to entirely give up on the town when he was called to be a minister in Greenock.
August 8th 1878… “I got a call to Whithorn (it was to the Reformed Presbyterian Church. The building still stands in Drill Hall Lane but has since been finely converted into a private house) and I must say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by next Tuesday. It is a very small congregation in one of the three oldest towns in Scotland.”
October 4th 1878… “My ordination took place here last Tuesday, and I am thankful to say the day which I feared would be full of sadness to me was full of happiness. It was my wish that there should be no soiree or meeting of any sort. I understood the members of Presbytery would dine together — that is, take dinner before going off by train, and it was thought that perhaps twenty people would sit down, but some of the townspeople kindly wished to be present, and though there was a large company, and though the papers called it an ‘ ordination-dinner-in-the-Galloway- Arms,’ it was the simplest possible affair. There was not a drop of liquor put on the table. There were no toasts, and no sentiments, but just a little quiet chatting. The room we met in was so small, and the whole thing expected to be so quiet, that some who kindly insisted on being present had to place their plates on their knees. No, there was neither drink, nor mention of it, nor apology for its absence, and never shall be, I hope, wherever I have any say.
As you know, there is a pretty seven-roomed manse, commanding views of the English and Kirkcudbright coasts, but it is let, stable (note the word stable) and all, to a doctor, and he holds it till May. Whithorn is not the best place in the world in which to find lodgings, and I have been compelled to take a room in the Galloway Arms, an ordinary country hotel, but with a singularly good character. It is kept by a Miss Gordon and her married sister and her husband. I could not be more comfortable, and unless something very special turns up I shall be glad to stay here.”
October 28th 1878… “For company I have an occasional commercial traveller. They are a strange race, knowing as a rule only one subject, such as leather, or coals, or the insides of watches, or whisky ; and even on these subjects their knowledge is limited to the prices of varying qualities. And although, by their wandering life and frequent dealings with men, they might be supposed to know something of human nature, their sole aim seems to be to find out and recollect ever after what weakness each embodiment of said human nature is most liable to. So to one man they rail at Voluntaryism in a superficial way, to another they narrate the most authentic gossip, to a third they offer ‘a stiff one’ , or, as they facetiously call it, ‘a bottle of lemonade.’ To me, after they have found out my line, they lament the low state of commercial morality, of which their previous revelations of their own business afford as a rule most ample illustration. Some of them are singularly decent fellows, and all have a push and go about them that make me feel very stupid.”
February 6th 1879… “With the severe weather there has been an unusual amount of trouble, and, besides that, I have been hard at work repairing our synagogue. My predecessor forbade the beadle, nicknamed the ‘Hoolet’, to light the stove; wherefore by the space of three years the stove remained in its blackness, and the belief arose that it was irreparably out of order. But I, J. P. Struthers, refused to believe this, and early one morning made experiments — interrogated the stove, in fact, after the advice of Verulam, and having guessed that three years of rain and rust and rubbish and the works of birds could not have left its iron chimney in the best of order, first worked below with crooked instruments of iron, wood, and brass, and next having seized the head of an old kitchen broom and put string around the end, and climbing and descending alternate slopes upon my session-house roof, let down my broom like a sooty imp, and cleaned the pipe.
Once more the old fires blazed anew, once more the smoky rings did curl. After this work was accomplished, there were parts of the walls turned green by the bursting of a ‘rone ‘ in some equinoctial rain. Then did I appear with whitening brush and cleansed the walls. And the worshippers had peace.
I intend, if I ‘m spared, to whitewash the whole hypothec this summer, and therefore even now I am practising on the session-house, and had you seen its wails yesterday morning all black and cob-webbed thick, and again beheld them when the sun went down —Most beauteously painted, red Shoulder high, thence snowy white.” He noted that the Communion cups, plates, and tokens ‘ are all of the year 1827’.
April 25, 1879… “I am now the fortunate possessor of a cat. It is not what Calverley calls an ‘ebon he’, ’tis a white and brownish she, a Muscovite with a distinguished ancestry. Three old ladies — Established Church — own its mother, and they kept, all unbeknown to me, its sweetest kit, ‘thinking it would be a nice companion till I got a better.’ I spend my leisure moments in thinking what I shall call it, and I shall be well pleased to have your advice. My cat, of course, will be no ordinary one. I hope it will be a model cat, gentle yet brave, playful yet sober on occasion, ‘ just as well as generous,’ guided no less by judgement than by feeling ; thus, being true to me as well as to itself, it cannot then be false to any man. “
October 28th 1879… I called at the Manse to-day. The porch is tiled and the inner doors set up. Mrs. Harkiss was in great distress concerning two brace of partridges sent to you by Lord Galloway. They were a week old when they arrived, and that they might be the better preserved, Mrs. H., who had been in good houses, notably a Mr. R.’s — he was married, that’s the way she left — plucked them and steeped them in water, with the result that at dinner time she sent a brace to me because there was nobody Mr. Ritchie respected so much. The birds could in no wise be kept for your coming, unless one were to embalm them, and in that case they could not be eaten, I presume. What with your partridges, and a pheasant and hare I got from Mrs. Stewart, Glasserton, I am in rare feather this week, and am sore perplexed in my mind.”
November 1879…”I preached in the Parish Kirk here last Sabbath, on the kirking of the young minister with his wife. She is a nice lassie, and brought her husband, in addition to much grace, a high musical gift and one hundred and fifty wedding presents. My text was, ‘ This is the Gate of Heaven.’ I have heard of a woman in town talking of it in a shop and saying, ‘I can tell ye it was na the gate of Heaven to me!”
January 27th 1880… “The truth is, two sermons a week, a prayer-meeting, and a class try one a good deal. I have for some time been preparing a final burst of eloquence with which to announce the total clearance of my mental stock. I have not yet quite elaborated it, but some Sabbath, after exposing to view a very thin, wafery idea, I shall suddenly stretch forth my two hands and cry out, ‘ That, my dear brethren, is my last IDEA.’
My life is pretty uneventful: all Saturdays and Sabbaths. I have great difficulty in finding texts, and would gladly welcome suggestions. Sometimes I get on comfortably, but that is when I get hold of a brand new grand idea. I try to keep my mind as fresh and unclerical as possible, in illustration of which attempt you will please to note the unprofessional air of my letters. I like my Bible class and my prayer-meeting. I try to make my prayer-meeting as full of life and humour and common sense as possible — I took to it a Hebrew MS. one night, and a set of phylacteries another — any poor Christian will tell you what they are — and the people were much pleased.
The great form of entertainment in this town is one beginning with high tea at five o’clock, then passing through cards, dancing, music and talk, till it culminates in supper at 10.30. There is a deal of human nature here, and I enjoy watching it.
At such a party I was told there was to be some dancing, and I must not object, ‘ because, you know, dancing was a religious ordinance among the Jews.’ ‘ Well,’ I said, ‘ of course I won’t object, but isn’t it rather rough on a fellow when he comes out for an evening’s fun to treat him to religious ordinances?
May 8th 1880… I am feeling slightly ill-natured to-day — why, I don’t know. It may be the north-east wind parching up all the savoys I replanted last week; or it may be that my little Rufus, the cat, to whom some weeks ago, as a reward of merit, I had presented a little bell, came tinkling into church at the prayer-meeting last evening, and made me and some others, as I was reading a psalm, burst out laughing. At any rate, I rose slightly agee, but am now getting happier. . .
September 1880… “Next week I hope to give another picnic, this time to my Bible class, which means twelve hours’ hard work at the seashore on the day appointed, several days’ anxiety beforehand, and a week’s weary bones after. However, the young folks like them, and they may be remembered perhaps longer than my sermons. Which reminds me, pleasure-seeker, that this is my prayer- meeting night.”
October 4th 1880… Last Thursday I gave my Bible class a picnic at a pretty spot on the shore six miles from here. We numbered about thirty-six or thirty-seven, and what with anxiety as to the weather and the constantly ascending odour, for one whole day, of dumplings and roasts and sweet breads — my house- keeper made them all — I was in a state of collapse on Saturday, and have not yet fully recovered. We were tremendously lucky in the weather, and, indeed, every way. Nevertheless such days put one out sadly for Sabbath, and I am even more ashamed than usual to-day. For the future I think we shall follow the Apostles, and distribute loaves and fishes as soon after public worship as possible, and not immediately before it. I am sadly off for ideas…
I have got two new posts. I give a Bible lesson and Catechism ditto in the public school every day, in the morning, and a singing lesson thrice a week. I am just hurrying away to teach the children ‘ Gaily the Troubadour.’ Who- so wisheth to see modesty, let him turn his eyes hither. The master can’t sing, and our Erastian Government demands eight songs — else grant is withheld. And so I am ‘ An Orpheus, an Orpheus.’ Lamplighters tarry at my approach, and the sun lingereth to do down”
December 17th 1880… “I have been for more than a fortnight taking the head- master’s place in the principal public school — he, poor fellow, being badly ill with bronchitis. I have to be there from 10 to 3.45. With half an hour of interval, in which time I have to go home, gobble my dinner, read my newspaper about Ireland, as also any letters my friends may kindly send me, and then hurry back. I, of course, do not use the tawse. I do a little in the ridicule line; e.g. to-day I made an idle fellow, who is always ‘forgetting’ to do his sums or parsing, come out to the middle of the floor and mention the lessons for to-morrow, and then I solemnly tied a knot on his handkerchief. The poor fellow burst out crying, and I felt myself a hard-hearted wretch. We had twenty minutes singing to-day, greatly to the joy of the children. I announced that we should have another twenty minutes tomorrow if they behaved well, and then they would get a holiday the day after. The little creatures cheered and clapped their hands, and only remembered as they were going out at the door that the day after ‘ the morn ‘ was Saturday.”
February 21st 1881… “The Galloway hills have little patches of snow on them, and the effect of the sun shining on them is very striking. I warrant you there isn’t a soul looking at them but myself. For the moment they are mine. Their spirit suffuses me — cold, hard, indistinct. Humility was ever my strong point, you see… I hope this week to add a cherry tree, and moreover a plum, to my garden. I shall train them up the front of my house. And there shall be roses and jessamine on the gable-ends. Eden outside and within the . . . alias”
May 18th 1881… “It may interest you to know that a little child here has dubbed me Mr. Bothers. (His wife later noted, ‘The name was always a difficulty. One lady went so far astray as to address J. P. S. as ‘ Mr. Scratchers,’ and an Irishman called him ‘ Mr. Trowsers.’!) I have been living for two days on crow pie, kindly presented to my housekeeper by a friend. I think it has a curious influence on the brain. I feel as if I were on the top of a tree, swaying about in the wind and puzzled by the strange existences below me. It ‘s a queer sensation, I tell you… My housekeeper has been on holiday since Friday, and I have been keeping house myself, and in fact doing so nobly that I feel competent to be a wife unto myself. No need for a helpmeet for this son of Adam. I expect Mrs. Stewart home this afternoon, but meantime I have prepared dinner. In a little I shall lay down my pen, and having assumed my old boots by reason of the great rain, shall wield the graip, and having lifted some potatoes for the poor, shall dibble me in a few green kail for the winter of my discontent. If you but saw me in my old light jacket, digging away and prophesying how many potatoes each time shall turn up, you would doubtless say, ‘There ‘s queer folk in the Shaws.’… Potatoes doing well. My bean field, two yards square, is most fragrant. Turnips disappeared. Lettuce and radish, ditto, only from a different reason. Cabbages middling.”
November18th 1881… (He receives the call from Mr. Simpson, Clerk of Session of Greenock congregation, to become the minister there.) “Whithorn congregation has given eight calls in forty-three years, and at present, owing to some of our best members — farmers — leaving for England, the burden, if I were to leave, would fall entirely on the shoulders of two or three who have already suffered more than most men for their principles. You have a splendid session in Greenock — there are but two or three of us here fighting the battle all alone, and I feel I cannot ask others to make greater sacrifices than I am prepared to make myself.”
November 30th 1881… I made up my mind twice about not going to Greenock, and thought, like Agag, the bitterness of death was past, when, in answer to a telegram, I had to go to Newton-Stewart yesterday to meet a deputation. I have had a good many thoughts since — chiefly because I had to put in words the state of matters in Whithorn, and my mind is now inclined the other way. I wish I never had had the call, and am in great misery. Howbeit I must say ‘ Yes ‘ or ‘ No ‘ finally, very soon — in fact I must know before Sabbath.” (He accepted the move with a proviso.)
December 2nd 1881… It may help to put the matter in a clearer light if I state briefly the reasons that made your suggestion about my visiting Whithorn occasionally weigh so much with me. As I mentioned before, there are several things I am interested in here that I would hardly like to cut connection with. As for instance—First of all, my Bible class; I should not like to see it permanently broken up, and I think I could prevent that, at least in some measure, by giving them exercises and seeing them face to face now and again.
Then there is a coffee-house, supported chiefly by a landed proprietor in our neighbourhood, and as I am the only minister who has taken any share in the management of it and am, in one sense, the manager of it myself, it would pain me to bid farewell to it. Whereas by coming periodically to see it I could meet the members, and even add to their pleasure by providing new relays of books for the library. And it would be all the more needful that I should stick by it seeing I have used my best endeavours to keep the proprietor I have spoken of from abandoning his enterprise.”
(This was The British Workman Coffee House in Whithorn whose patron was Johnstone Stewart of Glasserton House. It was a temperance ‘pub’ and I believe situated in St John Street opposite the Town Hall and possibly the building later gifted by Johnstone Stewart for the site of the present library.)
“And further, I have got to know intimately all the children in the chief public school by giving them Bible and sometimes singing lessons. I would like to do my best for them by keeping in touch with them, and a few days with them every little while would accomplish that. I do not think it would do Greenock any harm that I should have a wider experience than I would otherwise have were I to break off the past altogether, and have no print of my three years’ labour here except a memory. The matter of expense would, of course, be left for me to settle, and the question would simply be — that I should be allowed to go to Whithorn once every six or eight weeks so long as should be found needful or advisable.”
Descember 9th 1881… “So, honoured sir, shall pilgrim chronicler in coming age record the emotions of his soul, temple of love, throbbing beneath his emerald belt, as with tear-dimmed eye he beheld the place of Whithorn where fulfilled his first ministry, honoured sir, thy servant’s dust. That is to say, it has been settled to-day that I go to Greenock, probably end of January. The Greenock folk have kindly agreed to let me visit this place, if I wish, for the sake of the school and the coffee-house, etc.”
(Despite being urged to minister in Africa, America, and Australia, Struthers was to remain in Greenock for thr rest of his life. He oversaw the building of a new church there to his specifications – The Struthers Memorial Church. In 1887, he began the publication of a Sunday-School magazine, ‘The Morning Watch’, with illustrations by Annie MacDonald. That working relationship flourished to the extent they married in 1907. He continued to visit Whithorn until he died and one extract from a letter while giving a sermon in Stranraer might show his lasting concern for the poor.)
September 27th 1887… “I preached in Stranraer, forenoon and afternoon. I had dinner and walked to Meoul school-house, and preached there. This is the third time I have preached in the school-house, and I have given two lectures. There is no church within four miles. Then I walked back. The people had two vehicles at church, but I think it wrong to drive if I can walk. I heard a Greenock man say last week when speaking about a string of cabs at a church door, ‘It ‘s fine to see the lapsed masses waiting outside to drive the saved people home’.
In Stranraer it seems that a great many bankers (‘ bankiers,’ they call them here) were in church yesterday afternoon. One of them, an old Whithorn friend, told me he was greatly delighted, said he felt the tears in his eyes, and it was a long time since he felt that way! It cheered me a little — did the man’s tears. One man I called on works at digging drains — and here is the rate of pay. The man starts at six in the morning, and walks four miles, and gets 6d. a rood (20 feet) ; the drain had to be 3 feet 2 inches deep, and he does two roods a day. Total wages 6s. a week. He walks forty-eight miles, and has to keep his tools in repair. It ‘s Lord Galloway’s ground, and labour is scarce, and men plenty. Isn’t that a hard life?”
(Photograph, National Portrait Gallery, 1871.)