A Probationer by Ian Maclaren
One winter I forsook the cottage at Drumtochty, in spite of the pure white
snow and the snell, bracing wind from Ben Urtach, and took rooms in
Edinburgh. It was a poor exchange, for the talk of professors and
advocates, although good enough in its way, was not to be compared with
the wisdom of James Soutar; but there were more books in Edinburgh than in
the Glen, and it was there that I met my probationer. From time to time we
passed upon the stair, when he would shrink into a landing and apologise
for his obstruction, and if in sheer forgetfulness I said "Fine day," with
the rain beating on the windows, he nervously agreed. With his suspicion
of clerical attire, and his deferential manner, he suggested some helot of
the ecclesiastical world, whose chiefs live in purple and fine linen, and
whose subordinates share with tramway men and sempstresses the honour of
working harder and receiving less pay than any other body in the
commonwealth. By his step I had identified him as the tenant of a single
room above my sitting-room, and one wondered how any man could move so
little and so gently. If he shifted a chair, it was by stealth, and if in
poking his fire a coal dropped on the hearth, he abandoned the audacious
One grew so accustomed to these mouse-like movements that it came as a
shock when my neighbour burst into activity. It was on a Friday afternoon
that he seemed to be rearranging his furniture so as to leave a clear
passage from end to end of the room, and then, after he had adjusted the
chairs and table to his satisfaction, he began a wonderful exercise.
Sometimes he would pace swiftly backwards and forwards with a murmuring
sound as one repeating passages by rote, with occasional sudden pauses,
when he refreshed his memory from some quarter. Sometimes he stood before
the table and spoke aloud, rising to a pitch, when one could catch a word
or two, and then he would strike a book, quite fiercely for him, and once
or twice he stamped his foot almost as hard as a child could. After this
outbreak he would rest a while, and then begin again on the lower key, and
one knew when he reached the height by the refrain, "Abana and Pharpar,
rivers of Damascus." It was an amazing development, and stimulated
"No," explained our excellent landlady, "he's no daft, though ye micht
think sae. He's a minister without a kirk, an' he's juist learnin' his
sermon; but, Losh keep us, he's by ordinar' the day.
"He's my cousin's son, ye see"—and Mrs. Macfarlane settled to
historical detail—"an' his mother's a weedow. She focht to get him
through St. Andrew's, an' hoo she managed passes me. Noo he's what is
called a probationer, an', eh, but he earns his livin' hard.
"His business," continued Mrs. Macfarlane, "is to tak' the pulpit when a
minister is awa' at a Sacrament or on his holiday, and any Sabbath he
micht be at Peterhead and the next at Wigtown. He gets his orders on
Friday, an' he sets aff wi' his bit bag on Saturday, an' a weary body he
is on Monday nicht An' it's little he maks for a' he does, bare twenty
shillin' a week clear; but naebody can stand this colie-shangie,
(disturbance)." For above the landlady's exposition rose the probationer's
voice: "Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus."
What she said to her cousin once removed I know not, but it was not in
vain, for in the evening this was brought by the servant:—
"It affords me sincere regret to learn that you have been disturbed in the
midst of your literary avocations by sounds and movements emanating from
my room. They are unfortunately and unavoidably connected with a new
method of professional work which I have been advised to adopt by
experienced friends. It would, however, be unrighteous that one man should
hinder another in his daily labour, and I would be greatly obliged if you
could indicate any time of absence during which I might be free to speak
aloud and move with energy in my chamber without offence. Apologising for
my unwitting annoyance,
It was written on poor paper and a single sheet, but the handwriting was
that of a scholar, a man accustomed to form Hebrew and Greek characters,
and the very flavour of pedantry was attractive, so that one wanted to
know the writer, and I seized the excuse of a personal answer.
He was quite unprepared for my coming, and upset a Hebrew lexicon and four
German books on the Prophets before he could get a chair in his single
room below the slates; nor had he any small talk to offer, but he was
ready enough to speak about his own work, and seemed anxious to explain
his recent departure. It also occurred to me that he wanted my judgment.
"My work, let me explain," he said, hesitatingly, "is not pastoral or...
devoted to a particular sphere, since my gifts have not yet... commended
themselves to a congregation after such a fashion that they were inclined
to... in short, wished to have me as their minister. Mine is a vagum
ministerium. I am what is called a probationer, that is, I have been duly
educated in profane and sacred learning for the holy ministry, and have
passed certain examinations... without discredit."
"Of that I am sure," I interpolated with sincerity, whereat the
probationer ought to have bowed and replied, "It is very good of you to
say so," but as it was he only blushed and looked as if he had been caught
"And then?" I suggested.
"It remains to discover whether I am... fit for the practical work of my
calling—if it be, indeed, I am called at all.. And here the little
man came to a halt.
"You are examined again," I inquired, tentatively, "or placed under a
chief for a little?"
"Well, no, although the latter would be an excellent way—but it is
not for me to criticise the rules of my Church; if any congregation has
lost its minister, then such as I, that is, persons in a state of
probation, are sent each Sabbath to... preach, and then the people choose
the one who... And again Mr. Clunas came to a stand for want of fitting
"Who comes out first in the preaching competition," I added, and in an
instant was sorry.
"It would ill become me to put the matter... in such a form, and if I have
done so it has been an inadvertence, and indeed I did not mean to
complain, but rather to explain the reason of... the noise."
"Please tell me whatever you please, but it was not noise, for I heard
"The rivers of Damascus? I feared so, sir; that was the climax or point of
repetition—but I will relate the matter in order, with your
"It has been my habit, after I have duly examined a passage in the
original language and the light of competent scholars, and verified its
lessons by my own reason and conscience—collected the raw material,
if I may so say—to commit the same to writing according to my
ability, using language that can be understood of the people, and yet
conforming as far as may be to the Elizabethan standard."
In my opinion, I indicated, he had done well. "I judged that I would have
your approval so far, but hereafter comes in a grave question of
expediency, on which I should like your mind as a neutral person and one
given to literary pursuits. My habit is further to read to the people what
I have written in a clear voice, and with such animation as is natural to
me, in the faith that whatsoever may have been given me by the Spirit of
Truth may be witnessed to the hearers by the same Spirit."
This appeared to me a very reasonable method and a just hope.
"Others, however, acting according to their nature, commit their message
to memory, and deliver it to the people with many lively and engaging
gestures, which pleases the people and wins their hearts."
"And so the groundlings prefer the windbags," I interrupted, "and elect
them to be their minister."
"It is not so that I wished you to infer," and the probationer's voice was
full of reproof, "for I trust my desire is not to obtain a church, but the
confirmation of my calling through the voice of the people; yet who
knoweth his heart?" And the probationer was much distressed.
It was only my foolish thought, I hastened to explain, and besought him to
"A friend of... much shrewdness and, I am sure, of good intention, has
spoken to me at length on my... want of favour with the people, and has
pointed out that the Word must be placed before them after a winsome
"He urged me to choose texts which could be frequently repeated with
effect, and so lodge their idea in the mind of the people, and that I
should not use any manuscript, but should employ certain arts of oratory,
such as beginning low and raising the voice up to a climax where it would
be good to repeat the text with emphasis.
"As an example and... inducement he dwelt upon the case of one probationer
who had taken for his text, 'And there shall be no more sea,' whereon he
composed a single sermon, to which he devoted much pains. This he
delivered daily for some hours in his chamber, and at the end of each
paragraph said in a loud voice, 'And there shall be no more sea.' He was
elected to three churches within a short space," concluded Mr. Clunas.
"You have therefore thought it desirable to amend your habit."
"Well, so far," and the probationer was much embarrassed, "it was
impossible for me to handle what my adviser called 'repeaters,' such as
that I have mentioned, for my mind does not incline to them; but as I had
been labouring the tendency to prefer meretricious and sensational
religion to that which is austere and pure from the text, 'Are not Abana
and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? *
it seemed to me that I might for once... make trial... that is, use the
words Abana and Pharpar as a symbol to... fix the truth, as it were. It is
very laborious and... not grateful to me. Do you think that... I am doing
right?" and my probationer fixed me with an anxious eye.
"Quite so, sir, I understand perfectly," as I was making a blundering
effort to suggest that Providence hardly intended that my probationer
should go round the country like a showman with "repeaters."
"You have confirmed my own idea and... delivered my feet from falling, for
I had come nearly to unreality in a holy thing, besides ridding me from an
irksome task," and he regarded the sheets—the "rivers" standing out
in half text—with strong dislike.
"There is another matter," he continued, "on which I would fain have your
mind, since you have shown so much sympathy. It is now, I regret to say,
the custom for a person in my position, that is, on probation, to print a
number of certificates from influential persons and send them to... the
authorities in a vacant church. This I have refused to do; but there is a
special reason why I strongly desire to be settled... not quite unworthy,
I hope," and a faint flush came to the probationer's face.
"I understand"—for it was natural to suppose that he was engaged, as
many in his circumstances are, which grows into a pathetic tragedy as a
girl waits for long years till her betrothed is approved in his work and
can offer her a home—"and you have got your certificates."
"A few, and it may be that I could secure more; here is one which... I
value deeply... count above gold. It's from Prof. Carphin; you know what
he has done, of course.
"Hebrew scholar"—the probationer rose from his chair and paced the
floor—"that is inadequate, quite inadequate; there are many Hebrew
scholars, thank God, but Prof. Carphin has gone deeper. Why, sir, he has
made a race of scholars, and changed the face of theological thought in
Scotland; he is the modern Erasmus of our land," and the probationer was
"This is what he has written of me, and it is superfluous to say that from
such a man this testimony is the highest praise; I ought hardly to show
such words, but you will not misjudge me."
"I beg to certify that Mr. Hiram Clunas, Master of Arts and Bachelor of
Divinity, late Fellow of this College, is in my judgment fully competent
to expound the Hebrew Scriptures after an accurate and spiritual fashion
to any body of intelligent people.
"Calvin College, Edinburgh."
"Pardon me, it is my foolishness, but you notice 'fully'; this extremity
of language is, I need not say, undeserved, but that Dr. Carphin should
have written it is... a compensation for many little disappointments," and
the probationer's voice trembled.
"No, it will not be of material service in the way of gaining me a
hearing, for it is a... moral disgrace to my Church that the word of this
eminent man carries little weight with... committees and such like, and
that many people in this University city do not know his face when he
walks along Princes Street.
"This is from another kind of man, who is very... acceptable as a
preacher, and has much influence... in vacancies; it was an indiscretion,
I fear, to have asked him for... a certificate, as he has only seen me
once; but when one is pressed he is not always wise."
"I have had the pleasure of knowing the Rev. Hiram Clunas for a
considerable time, and have much satisfaction in recommending him to the
favourable consideration of selection committees of vacant congregations,
He is a ripe scholar, a profound divine, an eloquent preacher, a faithful
pastor, an experienced Christian, with an attractive and popular manner,
and general knowledge of a varied and rich character. Any congregation
securing Mr. Clunas is certain to increase both in number and finance, and
I anticipate for this talented young minister a future of remarkable and
"MacDuff MacLeear, D.D."
"Yes, it is a curious name, and I believe was, so to say, adopted.
Originally he was James MacLeear—MacLeear is his own—and some
years ago he inserted MacDuff, I am credibly informed, and now he has
dropped his Christian name.
"The reason for the change, it is understood, is for purposes of
advertisement in the public prints, where, I am informed, ordinary names
such as James or John are less... striking, so that preachers who desire
to appeal to the people use two surnames, as it were; it seems to me
doubtful in ethics, but one must not be ready to judge his neighbour in
"No, his degree is not from a Scots University, but from a seat of
learning in a Western State of America—Auroraville, I think it is
called, but I am not sure. Yes, he wrote a little book on the Maidens
of the Bible of a popular cast.
"You agree with me that no one could use such a testimony with...
self-respect, and I have resolved to print no certificates or make any
personal appeal; but I do not regret the effort I made, for it has gained
me the Professor's letter," and the probationer folded up the letter
carefully and placed it in his desk.
"I fear that you must think me charged with vain ambition, but... it is
not for my own sake."
From time to time we spent an hour together, and he told me of his
journeys, many and toilsome.
"Of course I am not sent to supply in cities, for they require men of
greater... experience; my allotment is always in the country, and I like
"When my station comes near I begin to look out of the window and see
whether the district is level or hilly—for though climbing tries one
a little, one has a fair view to refresh the soul, and I like woods
because of the mystery and the rustling of the leaves.
"Sometimes a farmer will meet me with a dogcart—and there are no men
so kind as farmers—but mostly I walk, and that is nothing unless the
distance be far and it be raining heavily. No, it may be a weakness of the
flesh, but I do not like a night walk, and yet to see the squares of light
in the cottage windows, flashing across a glen or breaking out of a wood,
is very pleasing."
One snowy morning in February he came into my room in evident excitement,
with a letter in his hand.
"You have taken such an interest in my affairs that I thought you would
like to know... I have received a letter informing me that I am on the
short leet for Tilliegask... just two, and I am one... and I am to preach
next Sabbath... and the farmer with whom I stayed has sent a very
During the week the probationer was much tried on a question of
conscience, whether he ought to act on a suggestion of his friend at
"It happens," he explained to me, "that the people at Tilliegask are very
conservative in their views of the Bible, while, as you are aware, I have
been led to accept certain modern conclusions regarding the history of the
books, and my good friend desires that I should... make no allusion to
them in my discourse.
"Now," went on the probationer, "it was not my intention to do so, but
after this advice am I not bound in conscience to indicate, simply to
indicate, my position, that they may not be deceived, and that I may not
obtain a church by guile?" And he read to me the sentence, which I make no
doubt no one understood, but which was to Mr. Clunas a great relief. He
came home from Tilliegask in high spirits, and speculated every evening on
his chances as against the other man who was to preach on Sabbath.
"No, he was not what you would call a scholar," and then the probationer
laughed aloud—a rare occurrence; "well, it was a translation in the
Latin class; he rendered adhuc juvenis as 'a still youth,' which
was much tasted, and others, too, as remarkable; but it is not generous to
remember such... failings."
The good man was indeed so distressed by this disparaging allusion to his
rival that he searched his heart for the sins of pride and jealousy, which
with envy and worldliness, he confessed to me, constantly beset him. He
also impressed upon me that although Mr. Tosh might not be a scholar in
the academic sense, yet he had such gifts of speech that he would be an
excellent minister for Tilliegask if the choice of that secluded place
should fall on Tosh. But the probationer waited anxiously for the first
post on Tuesday, which would give the result, and I was only less anxious.
When he did not come down with tidings, and only the faintest sound came
from his room as of a chair occasionally shifted before the fire, I went
up, and found my friend very low and two open letters on the table.
"It has not been... God's will," and he signed that I should read the
letters. One was from the ecclesiastical functionary who presides over
elections and church courts, and who is called by the suggestive name of
"moderator"; that the vote had been fifty-two for Mr. Clunas and
ninety-three for Mr. Tosh; that Mr. Tosh had been elected; that on his,
the moderator's appeal, the minority had "fallen in"; that he, the
moderator, was sure that Mr. Clunas would be pleased to know that his
supporters had shown so good a spirit, and that there was no doubt that
the Great Head of the Church had something in store for His servant; and
that in the event of Mr. Clunas applying in another vacancy he, the
moderator, would be willing to give him a strong certificate as to the
impression he, Mr. Clunas, had produced on the congregation of Tilliegask.
The second letter was from Wester Tilliegask, my friend's host, who was
full of genuine regret that Mr. Clunas had not won the poll, who explained
that up to Sabbath his chance was excellent, but that Mr. Tosh had carried
all before him by a sermon on "A Rainbow round about the Throne," with
very fetching illustrations and quotations—Mr. Tosh had also won
several votes by shaking hands with the people at the door, and
ingeniously giving it to be understood that his idea of pastoral duty was
to visit his congregation four times a year; that, notwithstanding all
these Tosh attractions, he, Wester Tilliegask, would have preferred Mr.
Clunas; and that as there was a rumour that the minister of Ballengeich
would soon need a colleague, he would arrange through his, Wester
Tilliegask's, wife's brother that Mr. Clunas should have a hearing. He
added that a certificate from MacDuff MacLeear, placing Mr. Tosh a little
lower than St Paul, had told.
The probationer was very brave and generous, blaming no one, and
acknowledging that Tosh would be a more suitable man for Tilliegask, but
it was evident he was hardly hit.
"It was not to escape the unrest of this life," he said, "nor for the
position, nor even for the sanction of my work; it was for the sake of one
who... has waited long to see me an ordained minister. She may not... be
spared much longer; my mother is now nearly seventy." So it was no
sweetheart, but his mother of whom he thought.
"If I had been elected, I had purposed to start this forenoon and carry
the news myself, and I imagined the scene. I never could reach the cottage
unseen, for there is a window in the gable which commands the road, so
that mother is ever waiting at the garden gate for me.
"Do not count me foolish, but I was to pretend that I had just come to
visit her for a day, and then ask her how she would like to leave the
cottage and live in a manse.
"By this time she would jalouse something—'tis her word—but I
would tell nothing, only expatiate on the manse and her room in it, and...
and... she would suddenly throw her arms round my neck.... Excuse me, sir;
I will come down in the evening, if you please."
Before evening he was hurrying down to the cottage, for after all he had
to go to his mother, and when he came back next Monday she was dead and
"Your sympathy is very grateful," as we sat together, "and it helps me,
but I think my heart is... broken; although I had to live in Edinburgh in
order to accomplish my railway journeys, and we only saw one another at
intervals, we were all in all to one another....
"There were things passed between us I cannot tell, for it seems to me
that a mother's death-bed is a holy place; but she knew that I had lost
Tilliegask, and... she was not cast down, as I was for her sake.
"'Dinna lose heart, Hiram,' she said, her hand in mine, 'for my faith will
be justified; when I gave ye to the Lord the day your father died I was
sure, a' through the fecht o' education I was sure, an' when you got your
honours I was sure, an' when you got no kirk I was still as sure, and now
my eyes are clear, an' I see that God has savit you for a work that hath
not entered into my heart,' and she blessed me...."
From that day he began to fail, and although he struggled to fulfil
preaching engagements, he had at last to give up public work. But he
toiled harder than ever at the Semitic languages.
"It is not that I am deceiving myself with vain hopes," he explained to me
one day, "for I know full well that I am dying, but it seemeth good that
whatsoever talent I have should be cultivated to the end.
"The future life is veiled, and speculation is vain, but language must be
used, and they who have mastered the ancient roots will be of some
service; it is all I can offer, and I must give of my best."
The morning he died I looked over his few affairs and balanced his
accounts, which were kept in a small pass-book, his poor fees on one side
and his slender expenses on the other to a halfpenny.
"The expenditure may seem heavy the last few journeys, but my strength
failed by the way, and I was unable to walk to my destination, but there
may still be enough at the end of the week for what has to be done.
"There will be £9 15s. 6d. when all is paid.
"With the sale of my books it will suffice, for I have carefully enquired,
to buy a grave and defray the cost of burial. It is not possible to be
buried beside my mother, for our ground is full, so let me lie where the
sun is shining on the Grange Cemetery."
Soon after his mind wandered, and I gathered he was in the vestry of
"Lord, be merciful to me and remember my infirmities... deliver Thy
servant from the fear of man and all doubleness of heart... give me grace
to declare Thy truth and to set Thee before me... bless my mother and hear
After a little while he began to preach, but we could make nothing of the
words till he suddenly stopped and raised himself in the bed.
"Thou, Lord," he cried, with great astonishment, "hearing me... Forgive...
I am not worthy to declare Thy Gospel...." What was said by the Master
none of us heard, but the astonishment passed into joy, and the light
thereof still touched and made beautiful his face as the probationer fell
It was a spring day when we laid his body to rest, and any one who cares
can find his grave because a weeping willow hangs over it, and this is the
inscription on the stone:
"It is a very small thing that I should be judged of man's judgment."