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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

John Watson (Ian Maclaren) (1850–1907)

Our Sermon Taster

From “Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush”

A DRUMTOCHTY man, standing six feet three in his boots, sat himself down one day in the study of a West End minister, and gazed before him with the countenance of a sphinx.

The sight struck awe into the townsman’s heart, and the power of speech was paralysed within him.

“A’m frae Drumtochty,” began a deep, solemn voice. “Ye ’ill hae heard of Drumtochty, of coorse. A’ve jined the polis; the pay is no that bad, and the work is naethin’ tae an able-bodied man.”

When these particulars had been digested by the audience:

“It’s a crooded place, London, and the fouk’s aye in a tiravie, rinnin’ here an’ rinnin’ there, and the maist feck o’ them dinna ken whar they’re gaein’.

“It’s officer this and officer that frae mornin’ till nicht. It’s peetifu’ tae see the helplessness o’ the bodies in their ain toon. And they’re freevolous,” continued the figure, refreshing itself with a reminiscence.

“It wes this verra mornin’ that a man askit me hoo tae get tae the Strand.

“‘Haud on,’ says I, ‘till ye come tae a cross street, and dinna gang doon it, and when ye see anither, pass it, but whup roond the third, and yir nose ’ill bring ye tae the Strand.’

“He was a shachlin bit cratur, and he lookit up at me.

“‘Where were you born, officer?’ in his clippit English tongue.

“‘Drumtochty,’ a’ said ‘an’ we hev juist ae man as sma’ as you in the hale Glen.’

“He gied awa’ lauchin’ like tae split his sides, an’ the fac’ is there’s no ane o’ them asks me a question but he lauchs. They’re a licht-headed fouk, and no sair educat. But we maunna boast; they hevna hed oor advantages.”

The minister made a brave effort to assert himself.

“Is there anything I can do?” but the figure simply waved its hand and resumed.

“A’m comin’ tae that, but a’ thocht ye wud be wantin’ ma opeenion o’ London.

“Weel, ye see, the first thing a’ did, of coorse, after settlin’ doon, was tae gae roond the kirks and hear what kin’ o’ ministers they hae up here. A’ve been in saxteen kirks the last three months, an’ a’ wud hae been in mair had it no bin for ma oors.

“Aye, aye, a’ ken ye ’ill be wantin’ ma judgment,” interpreting a movement in the chair, “an’ ye ’ill hae it. Some wes puir stuff—plenty o’ water and little meal—and some wesna sae bad for England. But ye ’ill be pleased to know,” here the figure relaxed and beamed on the anxious minister, “that a’m rael weel satisfied wi’ yersel’, and a’m thinkin’ o’ sittin’ under ye.

“Man,” were Drumtochty’s last words, “a’ wish Elspeth MacFayden cud hear ye, her ’at prees (tastes) the sermons in oor Glen; a’ believe she wud pass ye, an’ if ye got a certeeficat frae Elspeth, ye wud be a prood man….”

It was the birthright of every native of the parish to be a critic, and certain of them were allowed to be experts in special departments—Lachlan Campbell in doctrine, and Jamie Soutar in logic—but as an all-round practitioner Mrs. MacFayden had a solitary reputation. It rested on a series of unreversed judgments, with felicitous strokes of description that passed into the literary capital of the Glen. One felt it was genius, and could only note contributing circumstances—an eye that took in the preacher from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot; an almost uncanny insight into character; the instinct to seize on every scrap of evidence; a memory that was simply an automatic register; an unfailing sense of fitness, and an absolute impartiality regarding subject.

It goes without saying that Mrs. MacFayden did not take nervous little notes during the sermon—all writing on Sabbath, in kirk or outside, was strictly forbidden in Drumtochty—or mark her Bible, or practise any other profane device of feeble-minded hearers. It did not matter how elaborate or how incoherent a sermon might be, it could not confuse our critic.

When John Peddie of Muirtown, who always approached two hours, and usually had to leave out the last head, took time at the Drumtochty Fast, and gave, at full length, his famous discourse on the total depravity of the human race, from the text, “Arise, shine, for thy light is come,” it may be admitted that the Glen wavered in its confidence. Human nature has limitations, and failure would have been no discredit to Elspeth.

“They were sayin’ at the presbytery,” Burnbrae reported, “that it has mair than seeventy heads, coontin’ p’ints, of coorse, and a’ can weel believe it. Na, na, it’s no tae be expeckit that Elspeth cud gie them a’ aifter ae hearin’.”

Jamie Soutar looked in to set his mind at rest, and Elspeth went at once to work.

“Sit doon, Jamie, for it canna be dune in a meenut.”

It took twenty-three minutes exactly, for Jamie watched the clock.

“That’s the laist, makin’ seeventy-four, and ye may depend on every ane but that fourth p’int under the sixth head. Whether it wes the ‘beginnin’ o’ the faith’ or ‘the origin,’ a’ canna be sure, for he cleared his throat at the time.”

Peter Bruce stood helpless at the Junction next Friday—Drumtochty was celebrating Elspeth—and the achievement established her for life.

Probationers who preached in the vacancy had heard rumours, and tried to identify their judge, with the disconcerting result that they addressed their floweriest passages to Mistress Stirton, who was the stupidest woman in the Free Kirk, and had once stuck in the “chief end of man.” They never suspected the sonsie, motherly woman, two pews behind Donald Menzies, with her face of demure interest and general air of country simplicity. It was well for the probationers that they had not caught the glint of those black, beady eyes.

“It’s curious,” Mrs. MacFayden remarked to me one day, “hoo the pulpit fashions change, juist like wemmen’s bonnets.”

“Noo a’ mind when auld Dr. Ferintosh, him ’at wrote ‘Judas Iscariot, the First Residuary,’ would stand twa meenutes facing the fouk, and no sit doon till he hed his snuff.

“But thae young birkies gie oot ’at they see naebody comin’ in, an’ cover their faces wi’ ae hand sae solemn, that if ye didna catch them keekin’ through their fingers tae see what like the kirk is, ye wud think they were prayin’.”

“There’s not much escapes you,” I dared to say; and although the excellent woman was not accessible to gross flattery, she seemed pleased.

“A’m thankfu’ that a’ can see withoot lookin’; an’ a’ll wager nae man ever read his sermon in Drumtochty Kirk, an’ a’ didna find him oot. Noo, there’s the new minister o’ Netheraird, he writes his sermon on ae side o’ ten sheets o’ paper, an’ he’s that carried awa at the end o’ ilka page that he disna ken what he’s daein’, an’ the sleeve o’ his goon slips the sheet across tae the ither side o’ the Bible.

“But Dr. Ferintosh wes cleverer, an’ it near beat me tae detect him,” and Elspeth paused to enjoy the pulpit ruse. “It cam’ tae me sudden ae Sacrament Monday, hoo dis he aye turn up twal texts, naither mair nor less, and that set me thinkin’. Then a’ noticed that he left the Bible open at the place till anither text was due, an’ I wunnered a’d been sae slow. It wes this wy: he askit the beadle for a glass o’ water in the vestry, and slippit his sermon atween the leaves in sae mony bits. A’ve wished for a gallery at a time, but there’s mair credit in findin’ it oot below—aye, an’ pleasure tae. A’ never wearied in kirk in ma life.”