The History of Leith

February 16, 2005

The Story of John Logan

Born in 1747 at Soutra, in the Parish of Fala, Mid-Lothian, John Logan was the son of a small farmer. His parents, George Logan and Janet Walkerstone, belonged to the denomination of the Burghers.

The atmosphere of the home was pious; and when, after their removal to Gosford Mains, the boy was sent to school at Musselburgh, he was boarded, not with Mr Jefiray, the master, but with an old woman of the same religious persuasion as his parents. He used to send her to sleep by reading the Scriptures to her in the same monotonous voice which was noticed in him afterwards when he began to preach as a licentiate. Fala is an upland parish where the snow lies deep in the winter storms. According to an interesting statement by that learned antiquarian, the minister of Newbattle, and repeated to me by the Rev. W. Marshall Low, long stakes were driven into the hillside paths at intervals, and their tops served as guides to the wayfarers as they plodded through the snow drifts. The observation was hazarded that in the version of the Second Paraphrase included in Logans thin volume of poems, published in 1781, these marked paths suggested the figure through each perplexing path of life
Our wandering footsteps guide.
In 1762 he proceeded to the University of Edinburgh, where he speedily distinguished himself in the Latin and Greek classes, being singled out at Principal Robertsons first visitation as a distinguished student. He also took a prominent place in the study of Rhetoric and Literature. During one summer vacation he read the whole of the Iliad and Odyssey. He was thoroughly at home in the works of Milton and Ossian. It is little wonder that he came under the favourable notice of the well-known Dr. Hugh Blair, and received from him after wards a recommendation which secured him a tutorship in the family of Sinclair of Ulbster. Two other scholarly men early took notice of him Lord Elibank, who gave him the run of his library, and Dr, Main of Atheistaneford. Coming across some of his first poetical effusions Dr. Main was favourably impressed, and gave the lad the benefit of his appreciative and matured critical faculty. He also circulated some of them among his cultured friends in the Lothians. Indeed one of the proofs that the Ode to the Cuckoo is really Logans rest upon this. Falling into somewhat unscrupulous hands, it was sent some years afterwards to news as an original composition. This was immediately challenged in 1774 and was ascribed to gentleman in the neighbourhood Just a year before this incident, Logan had been settled in South Leith. When I read this poem for the first time a few weeks ago, a shock of the most pleasant surprise came upon me. There is nothing else so lyrical so free of the Eighteenth Century convention in all his works. That Edmund Burke, when on a visit to Edinburgh, should have called on Logan to congratulate him is hardly surprising.

The most engaging thing about Logan however, is his capacity for friendship. It is tragic, alas! That one of the shadows across his memory should lie athwart this, for he has been charged with the ignoble crime of enhancing his own literary reputation by borrowings the plumes of his departed friend. The worst of the matter is that, owing to Logans own carelessness, the dispute is not likely ever to be cleared up, the decision of it hanging mainly on the uncertain edge of internal evidence, Michael Bruce of Kinnesswood was Logans most congenial friend, as devoted to the Muse as he was himself. He died of consumption in his 21st year, about 1767,

Led by pale ghosts I enter death dark shade
And bid the realms of light and life adieu.
Elegy of Spring.

It was undoubtedly current in Fife that he, at the invitation of the local teacher of psalmody, had substituted worthy words for the nonsense rhymes which were commonly employed at that time when singing was practised. It was considered almost blasphemous to use the words of the metrical Psalms when practising singing. Almost certainly these single verses at least were written by Bruce for this purpose

When in 1770 Logan published the Memorial Volume of his friend, prefixing a biography to it, he unfortunately added some verses of his own to the volume without specifying what exactly was Bruces and what was his own. It is said that the father of the dead poet wept tears of vexation when he saw the volume, exclaiming: Where are Michaels sacred poems which he wrote? Although he at once called on Logan, he neither got, as is alleged, a satisfactory explanation, nor could he get back the manuscript of his son. If Logan had done no other work marked by excellence, this would be a most damaging statement, but when to the poems, which are undoubtedly his, we add his prose works, we see at once that while he was undoubtedly careless, while he ought to have returned the MSS. to those to whom they belonged, he certainly did not need to steal another mans production through lack of native ability in himself. Is it not just one more proof that with signal talents there may be combined an obtuseness of the finer moral sensibilities Logan ought to have been more scrupulous in separating his own verse from that of his friend. But, just as afterwards he worked over the paraphrases of others, altering, smoothing, improving, so probably he dealt with the literary remains of his dead companion. Was it justifiable ? Not according to our standards to-day, and not according to the complaints of Michael Bruces friends and neighbours.
Returning from Ulbster, where he had not been exactly what was wanted, to the more congenial society of Edinburgh, he prepared himself for the ministry of the National Church. Dr. Hugh Blair, who had recommended him, was disappointed with the reception accorded to his protege, saying, I thought it was a scholar and not a dancing master, they wanted for the young gentleman.The young gentleman after became one of the most public-spirited men of his time, originator of the first Statistical Account of Scotland. Another of his friends was Francis Sherriff, a native of East Lothian, who displayed a marked aptitude for Mathematics at College.

He be came suddenly very serious in his views and strict in his practice, for which a characteristically moderate biographer of Logans finds grave fault with him, and takes it as the only just revenge of nature that the youth should soon after have become a rank infidel. He could not have condemned him more utterly if he had given way, not to religious influences, but to dissipated debauchery. But then it must be remembered that enthusiasm was almost the pardonable of Eighteenth Century culture. He seems to think that Sherriffâs €enserious period did harm to Logan at the time when his father was drowned, or committed suicide on the sands, when returning late one night from the capital. Among Logans other associates were Dr. Robertson of Dalmeny, and Professor Hardie of the Church History Chair in the University. Both, if I mistake not, out-lived him. Robertsons testimony is valuable regarding the authorship of the Ode to the Cuckcoo, as he says that he did not see it among Bruces MSS,

Taking license as a probationer in 1770, it was not long before Logan became known and admired as a preacher. His style of composition was so full, so flowing, so abundant in appropriate imagery, so abounding in musical range and power, that no reader can be astonished that his abilities were recognised al immediately. Sir Walter Scott expressed in after years the warmest admiration for his published sermons. These were issued from the press in two volumes soon after his death, and it is a matter of much regret that they were not prefaced by a biography from the pen of his life long friend, Dr. Robertson, of Dalmeny, as he could have set at rest more authoritatively than any one else the dispute regarding the division of authorship in the poems between Bruce and Logan. But it is a tribute to Logans real abilities to read the following notice in Wards English Poets, by the late Professor Minto, of Aberdeen, a very distinguished and impartial critic.A song writer of wider culture was the Rev. John Logan. minister of Leith, the writer of the most eloquent sermons which the Scotch Church has produced. It is difficult in reading Logans poetry to divest oneself of sympathy with the story of his unhappy life, but there seem to be more in his verse than mere general literary facility. He was a writer of sacred as well as profane songs, but his essays in the latter direction, though they disturbed his relations with his brethren, help to redeem the ministers of the Scotch Kirk from the reproach of having contributed less than any other class in the community to the national lyric movement of the Eighteenth Century.
At that time, and until its abolition in 1872, the second charge of South Leith was filled by a system of election of a complicated description. The Kirk Session and the four Incorporations of the town each elected a certain number of delegates, and these, when they met together, chose the minister. In1771 a vacancy occurred, and the Kirk Session desired a certain Mr John Snodgrass but the Incorporations, and a minority of the Session, thinking other wise, selected Logan. A prolonged litigation in both the Civil and Ecclesiastical Courts occurred, and it was only after the early months of 1773 were over that Logan was ordained to the church. The Kirk Session records, which I have carefully examined, show that for the first ten years of his ministry he was moderating, except at intervals, alternately with Mr T. Scott, then minister of the First Charge. He is believed to have resided in the Kirkgate, in the near neighbourhood of the church. One can without difficulty imagine him, when he could find time, going up the Walk to the City, and there meeting with the leading lights of the Capital, especially Robertson and Blair, who befriended him. The ideal before his mind seems to have been to do all his literary work with such excellence and polish that by and by he would be in the running for a University Chair these, be it remembered, were the days of pluralities. lie must have read so widely and systematically that by 1779 he was able to lecture in St. Marys Chapel, Edinburgh, before a distinguished audience, on the Philosophy of History. Soon afterwards, in 1782, his lectures gaining additional favour, he became a candidate for the Chair of Universal History, but the Faculty of Advocates, who was the patrons, saw no good cause for departing from the custom of appointing one of their own number. His benches being now deserted, Logan ceased to lecture, and in quick succession published the substance of his course in two volumes, entitled Elements of the Philosophy of History, and an Essay on the Manner of Asia. But his defeat in the matter of a cherished ambition must have been a sore blow, and Logans nature was not of that adamantine character which can resist the bullets of circumstance without exhibiting depression. Before this, however, and quite early in his ministry, he was selected, in 1775, by a Committee of the General Assembly, to take part in revising and enlarging the Psalmody of the Church in public worship. his labours bore fruit in two directions. He took up some of the hymns which had been published in 1745, and rendered them more smooth, elegant, and simple. To this class belongs the Second Para phrase, originally by Doddridge. The Eighteenth was also in the collection of 1745 in a rough state. Logan improved it, and incorporated one verse, probably by Bruce, without acknowledgment

The beam that shines from Sion hill Shall lighten every land;
The King who reigns in Salems towers Shall all the world command.

This in all likelihood was one of the verses inserted by Logan for the humble choristers of Kinnesswood.
On the Twentieth and Twenty-third
How glorious Zions courts appear,and Behold my servant! see him rise,he also appears to have laboured with his diamond polish. He took up the Thirty-eighth and gave it a new and much finer form, The centre of the Bruce-Logan quarrel lies in the Eighth and Eleventh Paraphrases. The former begins

Few are thy days, and full of woe,
0 man, of woman born!
Thy doom is written. Dust thou art, And shalt to dust return.
Wherever Scotsmen worship, at home or
on the rolling prairies, those hymns will be treasured, for they add to the grandeur of the message of the Old Testament the sweetness, the pity, the undying love of the New.

Logan was not happy in his attempt to introduce the Paraphrases into his own church. His nerves were probably on edge at the time, for it was in 1782, shortly after he lost the University Chair, on which his heart was set, January 17,1782.The Session, taking under their consideration the intimation Mr Logan made from the pulpit last Lords Day, that the additional Psalmody was to be introduced into the public worship on Sabbath next without consulting either his colleague or the Session, they apprehend this precipitant manner of introducing it will by no means answer the design of the Act of the General Assembly ; the Session are unanimously of opinion that it should be deferred for some time until the congregation are provided with books. The Session appointed the Clerk to write Mr Logan this evening and acquaint him of this their resolution.February 14, 17 Inter alia, at the desire of the members present, the Clerk read Mr Logan s letter to him (he was also precenter) of the 19th January, which they order to be engrossed. The tenor whereof follows
Leith, January 18th, 1782.
I charge you, Mr Alexander Lindsay, to sing the Psalms or Hymns which are to be read out in the pulpit of South Leith to-morrow. As Session Clerk you are to obey the orders of the Session ; as Precentor you are amenable only to the minister who presides in the Public Worship. If you refuse to comply with this order, I Will prosecute you before the Presbytery of Edinburgh for disobedience to the Laws of the Church.
The matter took end here; presumably the Paraphrases were introduced. Shortly afterwards, in 1783, Logan, following in the footsteps of Home, the author of Douglas, sent his new play, Runnarnede, to the manager of Covent Garden Theatre. It would have been produced there but for some supposed political allusions which were scented out by the Lord Chamberlain. It was afterwards produced in Edinburgh, but, naturally, without much success, as the theme was remote from national interests, being wholly English, while the composition itself is not so tragically compelling that it carries either the reader or, presumably, the listener, irresistibly along to the end.
But by this time the strings of late were irresistibly tightening around Logan himself. Disappointments had probably soured him; his constitution does not seem to have been of the best, and it is Jupiter Carlyle, of Inveresk, I think, who says that it was not fitted to stand the conviviality of the times ; his absorption in literary ambitions, and these, too, of a kind which the serious church people of Scotland do not seem even in these indifferent days to admire very much; his frequent absence from duty (he does not seem to have presided over the Session after the end of 1784) : all these combined to make him think it prudent to resign his charge. This he did in 1786. He went to London, a pension of £40 per annum being granted him. I should have said that he never married. There he engaged in literary hack work, his most celebrated writing being A Review of the Principal Charges against Mr Hastings This did much to rehabilitate Hastings in the public mind. An interesting side light on Logans easily moved feelings is preserved in the following incident, which took place shortly before his death. The trial of Warren Hastings was proceeding. He went one day to the House of Commons to hear Sheridan, prepossessed for the accused. At the expiration of the first hour of Sheridans speech he said to a friend, All this is declamation without proof; when the second was finished, This is a most wonderful oration ; at the third, Mr Hastings acted most unjustifiably at the fourth, Mr Hastings is a most atrocious criminal; and at last, Of all monsters of iniquity, the most atrocious is Warren Hastings.
Whether his habit of drinking still prevailed after he went to London we cannot tell; but this is certain, that he gradually sank into an increasing weakness of health, until death took him on 28th December 1788. Isaac Disraeli says,This genius became a prey to that melancholy which constituted so large a portion of it.When the end drew near, and he was unable to hold a book in his own hand, he invited his visitors to read the Scriptures to him.His conversation turned chiefly on serious subjects, and was most affecting and instructive. He foresaw and prepared for the approach of death, settling all his affairs, and gave directions about his funeral with the utmost composure.

From the Commemoration Lecture. South Leith Record 1925

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