The following is the second of James Easson’s series ‘Transcripts from Memory’, published in the ‘People’s Journal’ in 1860. In Scots the ‘poopit-fit’ literally means the foot of the pulpit, but in this context refers to the whole institution of the Church of Scotland.
Easson—or ‘the people’s poet’ as he was posthumously dubbed by a reader—wrote many short stories, sketches, essays and poems from 1858 until his death in 1865. In many ways Easson was the sort of contributor that the ‘Journal’ was founded for. He was a painter decorator from Dundee who found an audience in the paper and was loved by its readers. He died in the Royal Lunatic Asylum in Dundee after three weeks of paralysis aged just 31, his only living relative being his Grandmother Betty Easson. Readers donated money to pay for his burial and the support of Betty when his death was announced. His stone can still be visited in Dundee’s Eastern Necropolis and the inscription reads; ‘Erected by the Proprietors of “The People’s Journal” in Memory of a Working Man who had Rare Literary Gifts and Whose Writings are his Best Memorial’. For a full collection of his work and a short biography, see ‘The Life and Works of James Easson; The Dundee People’s Poet’ by Anthony Faulks (Dundee, 2016).
Imagine, reader, that you wander over the wide plains, and through the deep green groves of Canada West; that you feel home-sick and weary, and that roaming there you have chanced to meet with a stranger of European aspect. How high you heart leaps with joy as this thought flashes across your mind—“Perhaps he is a Scotchman, and may have some feelings in common with myself!” Gladly you solute him with words of friendly greeting, and forthwith begin to converse. You go on to speak of many places and about many things, till at length your conversation chances to run upon the church of your fathers. But the stranger turns out to be an Englishman; he knows nothing of the “kirk,” though he recalls with true feeling the memory of the aged curate of his native place, the beautiful prayers of the liturgy; of its old, but to him familiar chaunts, as they used to swell though the ancient chancel, and of the steady, golden voice of the organ. All this is very sweet and very beautiful; but he cannot talk to you of “puir auld Scotland,” of her children, her homes, her pulpits, her ministers, or her “household words.” Again, your yearning heart feels disappointed and charged with chagrin; so, you give vent to a tremulous sigh, and with a faltering “God speed,” you part from you fellow-sojourner, who soon pursues his onward way.
You also wander along till evening approaches, and the fiery Canadian sunset floods all the landscape with burning red—a radiance that causes the lakes to blaze like sheets of bright gold, whilst the woods look black and solemn. Then you see a log-house in the distance, thatched like a Scotch cottar house; a train of blueish reek ascends from it, and latterly your eye can discern a sonsy Scotch gudewife pottering about the door, her broad face florid with the ruddy light. The stalwart gudeman sits at the door-cheek of his log-cabin, and little pawky Johnny, seated on his knee, is pulling away at his father’s beard, or trying vainly to untie his neckerchief. Betimes they notice you; they herald your approach with an earnest welcome, somewhat like this—“Losh, man, but ye are tired-like; ye’ve surely come a far road—sit doon an’ rest ye—sae, sit doon here i’ the arm-chair, an ‘mak’ yersel’ at hame!” When the conversation has advanced so far, the gudewife thinks of supper, and the gudeman suggests the propriety of having a little tea for “a dentis.” It may be that you are no fellow-townsman of your host; but you are a Scotchman, so you speak of the latest news from the old country, and from that you ramble on till you speak to him of the old churches and the old ministers at home. By-and-bye the table is set, the gudewife’s presence graces the homely board, and she also takes up the subject in hand. She laments that they are so far away from Scotland, for she would have “liket the bairns bapteezed at hame,” where she was baptized, and where her “forebears” lived, died, and are buried. Then they talk of the baptisms of their brothers and sisters, and of the beloved pastors who administered the ordnance, and who are also left behind. These and such like memories are all recalled, and recollection lingers in fondest retrospect around them still.
Yes, and it were strange did any emotion, save that of affection, like the affection of those poor emigrants, attach to that familiar “poopit-fit.” As parents, some think, at its mention, of sinless cherubs—upon whom the dew of morning scarce fell, when Death, like a thief, stole silently in, laid his frozen hand upon the young one’s heart, and carried t away, smiling spitefully at their agony, and his own fell triumph; whilst others of us have there received those names which have since become as pleasant to our friends, as they are familiar to ourselves.
But the aspect of the “poopit-fit” has changed very much in our midst during the last eighteen years; and that change has not, we humbly think, been for the better. There is now a straining after effect—an elegance over-much—our pulpits are not “ower braw.” Where are now the fine old wives—the grannies—with their “soobacket mutches,” with the lack silk band; their reverend and kindly-faces, looking up to the minister, with an attention so profoundly respectful? Poor old creatures, we don’t see them now—out carved balustrades and summer-bright carpets have frightened them away! Where is the poor blind man who used to sit at the roadside on the week-days, and who was always so punctual at the “poopit-fit” ten minutes before the minister appeared, so that you often felt ashamed when you thought of your own lax attendance? He can’t see the varnished wainscot and the carved railings, but he feels them; their sharp corners hurt his back, and he must have a lean. And the helpless cripple, too, where is he, and what has become of the “little, wee lassie” who came along with him to carry his Bible, and pick up his staves when they fell down, and he fell asleep? And the “silly woman” who smirked and nodded to the people in the pews, and laughed outright in her own sleeve when the preacher’s words grew “fast and furious?” Where are they now?—few can tell!
Reader, there was One whose order was, to bring in the halt, the blind, and the lame from the highways and byeways, that His house might be filled; but our carved benches, our costly gildng, our gorgeous stained glass, our new-fangled singing, and, worst of all, our new-fangled preaching, all have conspired to convey the notion to those poor ones that our churches are not meant for them at all. The honest, hard-wrought widow, whose limbs are disabled by paralysis, and whose head shakes continually—she hears not in the kindly tones she once did, that blessed invitation, “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Doubtless she does hear it; but it is uttered in that stiff, almost pragmatical manner, to her ears so cold and ungenial. Her dress, too, poor body, is not what it once was;—her bonnet, once black, is now brown with age and long service; her gown, once a “weel settin’” gown, has been out of fashion long ago. And do you imagine that she will come into your grand kirks, to sit before your dandy young lases with their gumflowers, ribbons, and crinolines? Not exactly; she has a spark of pride left yet—and who has a better right? She thinks herself as good as any of them, for “she’s seen the day.” And perhaps she is as good as any of them, morally speaking; most certainly she is more earnest and sincere than many of them by a long chalk.
We will here give, as in the last transcript, a scene taken from our own history; it will embody an account of our first appearance in any church—an epoch of our fourth year in this world.
Clear and dazzling shone the summer sun on that genial Sabbath noon; it laughed down in its gladness upon us, led along as we then were by an aged relative, whose form, years ago, has mouldered in the dust. Yes, a beautiful noon it was as ever shone; the white, feathery clouds skimmed the deep, pure blue overhead; the western gale, warm and balmy, played about our then boyish face, as with easy gait we both sought the hallowed place. The bell sounded its familiar note; the green leaves on the young trees in the grave-yard fronting the church, glistened in the cheering beam, the long grass, gowans, and other wild-flowers, stirred by the wind, emitted a half-breathed whisper over the quite graves—a semi-stillness, scarce broken by the sedate and decorous people who also wended their way toward the “sacred fane.”
When we entered, there was no one within; but by-and-bye the worshippers began to gather. First came the blind man, making, what we innocently thought, a most sacrilegious and impertinent din with his stick as he felt his way along the passage. Presently the congregation began to thicken on all sides—we recognised many well-known faces, but they were every one of a cast so solemn that we were mightily puzzled to think what might be the cause of it. We turned to our aged relative intending to inquire, but a warning shake of the head was all the reply. Just then the cripple entered by an end door, and made a noise ten times more startling than his blind neighbour. He was attended by his little lassie—a fortunate circumstance; for, while he was slowly mounting the pulpit stair, his crutch fell from under his arm with a clatter, an incident with which we were, of course, nothing but amused. Next came the “silly woman,” her psalm-book rolled carefully up in a clean white napkin, herself nodding to all and sundry. At length the congregation was complete. In came the “bethil” and the minister, whose name has since become a “household word” in Dundee.
To us the sermon seemed a dry affair; but then we were too young to know what was the meaning of the sounds we heard, so that the egg-and-dart moulding of the cornice, the round centre ornament of the ceiling, and the hangings of the pulpit, pleased us best. But we remember of the preacher’s mild and pleasant features, of his impassionate gestures, and have still a vivid recollection of the profound silence the reigned in that sacred place from the beginning of the sermon till its close. And we well remember, too, of the many kindly pattings on the head that we got, and the many “sweeties” put into our hand for good behaviour, by good old creatures, also gone to the “land that is a very far off.”
Yes, we have seen many a church, heard many a preacher’s voice, and joined n many a psalm,—but so quiet, mild, and still seems that first and far off time, that we often think we will never see such another. No more will we; at least, in the like circumstances, for those times are gone for ever now—the minister’s pleasant voice is hushed n death—the hands that first led us to church are now in the grave—and the fine old bodies, who used to reward our good conduct—they, together with the blind man, the cripple, and the silly woman, have each and all disappeared and become lost to our sight?
Notwithstanding, in the eyes of Scotchmen the pulpit should be a shrine round which they should rally, for it is the best pillar of our national glory. The Englishman whom we mentioned in the opening of this transcript—his countrymen have fought and will fight for their homes and their altars. Will Scotchmen be behind in the evil hour? Never. But, calling to mind the tender and interesting ideas that cling to its locality, surely the weakest waifs among us will be at hand in the press of necessity, keeping jealous watch and ward around—“The Poopit-Fit!”