“Gude” Mr Erskine and his Fiddle

By Dr Jean Barclay

This event took place in the 1740s when strict Presbyterianism held sway and Ralph Erskine and his brethren had just seceded from the established Church of Scotland to set up the Associate Session.

The “Gude” Ralph Erskine of Dunfermline, from an original painting by R Waitt

A poor man, in one of the neighbouring parishes, having a child to baptize, resolved not to employ his own clergyman, with whom he was at issue on certain points of doctrine, but to have the office performed by some minister of whose tenets fame gave a better report.  With the child in his arms, therefore, and attended by the full complement of old and young women who usually minister on such occasions, he proceeded to the manse of ….., some miles off, (not that of Mr. Erskine), where he inquired if the clergyman was at home.  `Na, he`s no at hame yenoo`, answered the servant lass, `he`s down the burn fishing; but I can soon cry him in`.  `Ye needna gie yoursell the trouble`, replied the man, quite shocked at this account of the minister`s habits, `nane o` your fishin` ministers shall bapteeze my bairn`.

Off he then trudged, followed by his whole train, to the residence of another parochial minister, at the distance of some miles.  Here, on his inquiring if the minister was at home, the lass answered “Deed, he`s no at hame the day; he`s been out since sax i` the morning` at the shootin`. Ye needna` wait neither; for he`ll be sae made-out (fatigued) when he comes back, that he`ll no be able to say bo to a calf, let-a-be kirsen a wean`!   `Wait, lassie`! cried the man, in a tone of indignant scorn; `wad I wait, d`ye think, to haud up my bairn before a minister that gangs out at sax i` the morning` to shoot God`s creatures!  I`ll awa down to guid Mr. Erskine at Dunfermline; and he`ll be neither out at the fishin`, nor shootin`, I think`. 

The whole baptismal train then set off for Dunfermline, sure that the father of the secession, although not now a placed minister would at least be engaged in no unclerical sports, to incapacitate him for performing the sacred ordinance in question.  On their arriving, however, at the house of the clergyman, which they did not do until late in the evening, the man, on rapping at the door, anticipated that he would not be at home any more than his brethren, as he heard the strains of a fiddle proceeding from the upper chambers.  `The minister`ll no be at hame`, he said with a sly smile to the girl who came to the door, `or your lad would not be playing that gate (way) t`ye on the fiddle`.  `The minister is at hame`, quoth the girl, `mair by token it`s himsell that`s playing, honest man: he aye takes a tune at night before gangin` to bed.  Faith, there`s nae lad o` mine can play that gate: it wad be something` to tell if ony o` them could`. `That the minister playing!`, cried the man, in a degree of astonishment and horror far transcending what he had expressed on either of the former occasions, `If he does this, what may the rest no do! Weel, I fairly gie them up a`thegither.  I have travelled this haill day in search o` a godly minister, and never man met wi` mair disappointment in a day`s journey.  I`ll tell you what`, he added, turning to the disconsolate party behind, `we`ll just awa` back to our ain minister after a`! He`s no a`thegither sound, it`s true; but let him be what he likes in doctrine, deil hae` me if ever I kenned him fish, shoot, or play on the fiddle a` his days`! 

From `Folio of Oddities`, Vol. 2, p. 26 (from Carnegie Library and Galleries).