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PROFESSOR ISLAY BURNS—“ The Pastor of Kilsyth” and “The
Chinese Missionary"_Three Different Characters—A Lovable
If the “ Pastor of Kilsyth” and “ The Chinese Missionary,” are better known than Dr. Islay Burns, this is largely owing to Professor Burns himself. His father and his brother would doubtless have been known apart from him, but it is very largely due to the popular portraits he has painted of them, they are so well known as they are. There have been in the Scottish Church . ministers as faithful as “ The Pastor," and missionaries as zealous as William Burns, who wanting in the one case such a son, and in the other such a brother, as Islay Burns, have passed away and their names and works become wholly unknown. It may have been that the biographer was fortunate in his subjects ; it certainly was for the father and brother that they had such a literary executor. They both did their own work in the world, but he made them what they are known to be.
And how different the three men were. If we did not know they were connected we would fail to discern the
family likeness. The father was quiet and somewhat lazy ; William was impetuous and somewhat eccentric ; and Islay was accomplished and somewhat latitudinarian. If the three men had been generals, and sent to take a city, Burns père would have sat down before it and starved it out ; William would, by intense battering at one place, have made a breach in the walls through which he would have been able to pass. Again Islay would have gone round about it blowing rams' horns, and for all his blowing the walls would not have fallen ! The beleaguered citizens would have bowed to him from the parapets, and he would have bowed back again. The men were of one family, but they were very, very different. The old pastor needed the goad, the missionary the snaffle bit, and the professor, probably, the bearing rein to keep his head up and preserve him in proper high-pacing Free Church ways. The old man was sure but slow ; William was neither sure nor slow. And as for Islay, there were ill-natured people said it was only his slowness you could be sure of. In the matter of piety, the father's smouldered, the elder son's blazed, and the younger's was a pure white flame.
Islay Burns was the best of the Burnses, and withal a singularly pure, cultured and lovable soul. He maintained throughout his life a fairness and candour of judgment which did him eminent credit. That he could see good in men and systems hated by the bigots of his own sect was the cause of much of the snarling which for years went on about his heels. But he went his own way and came by no harm. Islay Burns was by no means a broad Churchman, but his mind nevertheless had a certain marked catholicity. Neither was he an evangelical, and yet he held in warm reverence the simple doctrines of the common faith. He weighed things fairly. He was a truth-perceiving and a truthloving man. He loved the Church of England, and he would have been appreciated there. He was a man of culture and refinement, and on theological questions an unmistakably able writer. Everything he had to say, he said warmly and clearly. He confessed he was no poet. That he knew so much argues the possession of a true poetic appreciation. There is a large class who are no poets, and do not know it. He writes the English language with fine taste, and here and there in his pages we come on little pictures drawn with dainty art. He had a real love of literature. Whatsoever things were lovely and of good report he could follow after, for never was spirit less bound in the fetters of narrow prejudice. To him our Lord was not only a door of entrance as he is to so many. He was also a door of exit. He could go in, and he could go out and find pasture. It is a marvel that he lived through the scenes he did, and stiil kept sweet. It was no doubt hard to see so many of the people of St. Peter's taking their way back again to the National Church after '43, but even in these circumstances there is hardly a word of recrimination. He was held in high esteem by the wise and the good, and he deserved to be, for he was full of charity, and the love that suffereth long and is kind.
Islay was not quite two years younger than William. He was born at the manse of Dun, on the 16th January, 1817. The two brothers grew up together. William was the more impetuous, but Islay was also full of spirit and life. The glory of the Kilsyth manse is its large trees. In front of the dining-room window there is the gigantic leaning plane, and in front of the library window his companion a beautiful beech. In the leaning plane the starlings have built for many seasons, and
in summer days the pair are great domes of murmuring sound. But apart from these, there are in the grounds other eight trees—four beeches, two elms, and two horsechestnuts. And then in the garden there are fourteen. A certain parishioner who died only a short time ago, and who was nearly an hundred years old, said in all his time he knew no difference in them. They appeared to him at the close of his life as they did in the days of his boyhood. When the spring comes the manse is enveloped in greenery. There is little doubt the old trees are as old as the Reformation, and underneath their boughs have walked one after another the whole ministerial succession since the building of the manse. The ministers come and go, but the trees remain to link one generation to another by the cords of tender association. The manses of Scotland are destitute of architectural pretensions, but when embowered like the manse of Kilsyth, the venerable growths confer upon them a dignity which inseparably links them with the old Scottish life.
The manse was the beloved home of the family of Dr. Burns. To the boys the memories of the glebe and the stable, the dovecot and the rookery, remained ever fresh. To the daughters there were the industries of the dairy, and the hospitalities of a home into which there poured a continual stream of visitors, the taxes on its resources only being met, on many occasions, by the exercise of a fertile ingenuity. In the midst of the group the father moved with becoming graciousness and dignity, and the light, nimble mother fitted here and there, the spirit of the home, and blessing it all with her homely and housewifely ministries. The nurture to which the boys were subjected was wholesome, but far from systematic. The pastor was a steadying rather than an
active influence in the manse, and the lads were not so often with him as was desirable. In the dead of night they used to hear their father at prayer in his own room. The ejaculated words of devotion fell on their ears like the sounding of the high priest's bells within the vail.
Like his brother, Islay repaired to Aberdeen and came under the influence of Dr. Melvin. He ever spoke in terms of unqualified praise of the good he received from this famous teacher. He received a love of learning which remained with him to the last. A little work on the “ Latin Syntax” which Islay Burns published for the use of students, is both an evidence of the thorough nature of the grounding he received from his schoolmaster, and a witness of the aptness and diligence of the scholar. Passing from the Grammar School to Marischal College, the young man greatly distinguished himself in both the classical and mathematical departments. He won the highest prize which the university had to offer. His success, however, cost him dear. He lost the sight of one of his eyes. The other was also so irreparably damaged that, in reading, he had to hold the book to within an inch or two of his face. This was a sad trial, but he bore it with unmurmuring patience. Having to carry on ever afterwards his studies amid the consequent labours and difficulties attending his visual loss, the wonder is, not that he did so much, but that he was able to do anything at all. The ordeal of college life and isolated lodgings in a large town, so trying to many a youth, he passed through with credit, and having so many friends connected with the Church, as by a natural course, when he passed from the arts' faculty, he entered the divinity hall. It was not with Islay as with his brother ; in making choice of the ministry there was no spiritual commotion-no night of wrestling and