Annals of the Parish by John Galt – part 2

published 1821

Miss Sabrina, who was always an oddity and aping grandeur, it was found, had made a will, leaving her gatherings to her favourites, with all regular formality. To one she bequeathed a gown, to another this, and a third that, and to me a pair of black silk stockings. I was amazed when I heard this; but judge what I felt, when a pair of old marrowless stockings, darned in the heel, and not whole enough in the legs to make a pair of mittens to Mrs Balwhidder, were delivered to me by her executor, Mr Caption, the lawyer. Saving, however, this kind of flummery, Miss Sabrina was a harmless creature, and could quote poetry in discourse more glibly than texts of Scripture—her father having spared no pains on her mind: as for her body, it could not be mended; but that was not her fault.

commentary: My second post on this book – a classic of Scots literature, perhaps, but very much below most people’s radar I think. The earlier piece appeared yesterday, and introduced Sabrina to the village, as well as explaining that the book has news from each year of the incumbency of the Rev Micah Balwhidder – the Presbyterian Minister - at a small village in Ayrshire between 1760 and 1810.

I loved the book, with its beautifully drawn picture of the Minister. As Ursula Le Guin says, in the online review that brought me to the book, Galt defies every modern rule of writing, and tells without showing: and yet that makes for an engrossing and wonderful story.

And the Minister is a great character. There’s his cavalier attitude to other religions – he takes his own very seriously but, talking about a young couple's marriage:  
Some in the parish objected to this match, Mrs Desmond being a papist: but as Miss Caroline had received an episcopalian education, I thought it of no consequence, and married them.
(not at all a proper view at that time, for those of you who don’t know because you consider all this to be flummery… )

But at the same time he is actually very anti-Papist:
How he had the impudence to set up that memento of Satan, the crucifix, within my parish and jurisdiction, was what I never could get to the bottom of; but the soul was shaken within me, when, on the Monday after, one of the elders came to the manse, and told me that the old dragon of Popery, with its seven heads and ten horns, had been triumphing in Cayenneville on the foregoing Lord's day!
I loved his comments on 1796:
In this year nothing more memorable happened in the parish, saving that the cotton-mill dam burst about the time of the Lammas flood, and the waters went forth like a deluge of destruction, carrying off much victual, and causing a vast of damage to the mills that are lower down the stream.
In 1782, there is a naval victory (I think the Battle of the Saintes, against the French, part of the Revolutionary war), but one of the boys of the Parish is killed:
All the weans were out parading with napkins and kail-blades on sticks, rejoicing and triumphing in the glad tidings of victory. But when they saw me and Mrs Malcolm coming slowly along, they guessed what had happened, and threw away their banners of joy; and standing all up in a row, with silence and sadness, along the kirkyard wall as we passed, showed an instinct of compassion that penetrated to my very soul. The poor mother burst into fresh affliction, and some of the bairns into an audible weeping; and, taking one another by the hand, they followed us to her door, like mourners at a funeral… 

When I thought of him, the spirited laddie, coming home from Jamaica with his parrot on his shoulder, and his limes for me, my heart filled full, and I was obliged to sit down in the pulpit, and drop a tear.
He has a lovely turn of phrase. I liked the new partner coming to the mill which has brought industry to the village:
But although Mr Speckle was a far more conversible man than his predecessor, and had a wonderful plausibility in business, the affairs of the company did not thrive in his hands.
A whole story, and a man, in two lines.

When he finally retires, the villagers mark it well, including an inscription
written by a weaver lad that works for his daily bread. Such a thing would have been a prodigy at the beginning of my ministry; but the progress of book-learning and education has been wonderful since, and with it has come a spirit of greater liberality than the world knew before, bringing men of adverse principles and doctrines into a more humane communion with each other.
The Minister is forever moaning about change (as in the previous entry) and is conservative and old-fashioned by anyone’s standards, but he can see that progress is a good thing, and he always wants the best for his flock. The final pages, dealing with his retirement are simultaneously funny, and immensely touching, and occasionally unexpected – a fair description of the whole book. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be affected by his slide into retirement even as he tells us that people still ask for him for weddings and christenings, but
I sometimes wander—pronouncing the baptismal blessing upon a bride and bridegroom, talking as if they were already parents.
I sincerely hope that this book is a cherished work of literature in Scotland, and maybe will become better known elsewhere.

You can find both free and very cheap versions of the book for Kindle.

Throughout the book I was so hoping that the Minister would go skating at some point so I could use one of the most lovely pictures ever painted: well, he didn’t venture onto the ice, but I decided I had to use it anyway, as it is of the right era, and the Minister is surely wearing black silk stockings. It is

The Skating Minister (also known as Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch) by Henry Raeburn, 1795, from the Athenaeum website.

The other picture is a Scottish picture called Minister at the Table, by George Reid, and is also from the Athenaeum website. It would be from later than the date of the book, but seemed to have a look of our hero.


  1. The Minister certainly does sound like a really interesting character, Moira. I like the way he's depicted without a lot of recourse to endless narrative. And his views are interesting, too. I really do need to try this book, I think.

    1. I know you hardly have enough to read Margot! But maybe one day this will be the book you fancy, and I do recommend it (as is clear, I think!).

  2. "One of the most lovely pictures ever painted" - it is! The Hind's Daughter, in her cabbage patch, might fit in here too.

    1. Oh I just went to take a look - not one I knew, and it is both lovely and appropriate.

  3. Moira: I can see why you were smitten. The character of the minister and a very well written book. As I look at the books around me I doubt I will read it.

    Now a will that bequeaths a pair of black stockings is unusual. I encourage testators not to make such modest bequests but simply make a list, kept separate from the will and updated as needed, of modest items. It is a list that express the wishes of the testator but is not binding on the executor.It was clear the maker of the will in the book had but one pair of black silk stockings. It could cause a little grief today if the deceased owned multiple pairs.

    1. Good sensible legal advice Bill! That's the way to do it. I think the woman was probably poor, as you say, but leaving something to the Minister made her feel important and gracious? A shame it didn't work.
      And I love your word 'smitten' - that is exactly how I felt about him and the book.

  4. I love the skating minister. Considering your praise and Le Guin's, I will put this on a list to consider, especially since it is shortish and not expensive...

    1. Might it come under one of your categories? European, Classic? Anyway, is a nice book. And giving me the chance to share that picture makes it all worthwhile...

    2. I do intend to get a copy, but when I last looked all were too expensive or had other qualities I did not like. And I want it in hardcopy. But I will find one someday. Hopefully this year.


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