Alexander Thomson 1798-1868
Gentleman — Scientist — Antiquarian — Churchman
Probably most of us can recall hearing some remark by a preacher whose sermons were very forgettable. Forty years ago at an Aberdeen communion the then minister of Rogart remarked that when Paul said to the Corinthian Church that not many mighty men and not many noble are called, he did not say "not any", for, happily, some are.
The comment could be said to fall into the category that R. A. Finlayson was given to describe as "a glimpse of the obvious"; yet at the time, it struck me is as apt and heartening and it still does.
The Free Church in her short history has reflected the pattern of the church universal and if, in her early days, she had her full share of men of intellectual strength and charismatic vigour, men from the aristocracy and landowning classes were less in evidence. Yet there were some and, perhaps surprisingly, several were to be found in Aberdeenshire or thereabouts. Among them was Alexander Thomson (1798-1868), laird of Banchory-Devenick, whose grandmother was a lineal descendant of John Knox.
As a churchman Thomson was a typical in two respects. Firstly, he was one of a relatively small group of laymen prominently identified with the formation of the Free Church; and secondly, his intelectual interests to a large extent centred on scientific pursuits ranging from geology to biology.
Laird of Banchory-Devenick
Bereft of his medically-trained and scientifically-inclined father while only eight years of age, the young laird of Banchory-Devenick was brought up by his mother, a daughter of Dr Robert Hamilton, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, now best known for his seminal Essay on the National Debt. After graduating from Marischal College Thomson proceeded to Edinburgh for legal training and in 1820 qualified to practise at the bar. However, although qualified, he never practised, preferring, in the words of a contemporary, "the life of a country gentleman to the worry and hustle of a lawyer".
Thomson never had cause to worry about making a living. His inherited wealth allowed him to pursue the life of a travelling scholar and indulge his passion for European and Mediterranean culture. He spent several years on the Continent before returning to his Kincardineshire estate, which bordered the South side of the Dee at Aberdeen.
As an "improving laird" he practised an early form of enlightened self-interest. He drew up a plan to reclaim wasteland on his estate by the settlement of part-time crofters who could support themselves with alternative employment in Aberdeen as quarrymen, roadmen or such like, and who could be persuaded by suitable inducements to improve their crofts by draining and fencing. For such a scheme to succeed it was essential to recruit energetic workers who would not end up as feckless paupers and be a liability to the estate. That he made the right selection was evidenced by a six-fold increase in the rental revenue of the estate.
Over an 18 year period, he is said to have planted 1.2 million trees. He was concerned, however, to improve the lot of his tenants as well as the productivity of his estate. Widely regarded as a specially enlightened and compassionate man actively involved in the rehabilitation of prisoners and paupers, he was nonetheless opposed to compulsory taxes for the purpose of indiscriminate poor relief, maintaining that "the Gospel precept that the poor be supported by voluntary charity was violated by the imposition of a compulsory assessment".
This attitude probably had its origin in the character of a rural society where rich and poor were mutually acquainted. In earlier times the same was true of urban society where the wealthy lived on the lower floors and the poor on the upper floors of town centre tenements. But the mutual interest and concern that arose from sharing a common entrance and meeting every day was already disappearing from civic life in Thomson's time. Taxation for poor relief was inevitable.
His friend and biographer George Smeaton of New College does not pinpoint with any precision when the marks of regenerating grace became evident in Thomson's life. From his youth he possessed a temperament which naturally welcomed the ordinances of religion but he was apparently past 30 years of age before the religious moralism of his early life was invigorated by an evangelical apprehension of the finished work of Christ on Calvary. Thereafter his desire to be nourished by the Word loosened his ties with the Moderate ministry in his own parish of Banchory-Devenick and led him to sit under the evangelical preaching of Dr Alex Dyce Davidson the most eloquent and popular Aberdeen preacher of the time.
Later, in 1843, and largely at his own expense, he erected a Free Church in Banchory-Devenick with a preaching station on the other side of the Dee at Cults, which soon became a congregation in its own right. Nearly all the Free Church congregations in the surrounding area had Alex Thomson to thank for practical support and encouragement.
In the course of the ten years' conflict, Thomson had been slow to align himself with the Non-Intrusion party but eventually he parted from Moderatism not just with its preaching but with its patronage policy. From 1840 he gave himself unstintingly to the Free Church cause, using his considerable influence and ability in laying the groundwork for the Free Church's territorial expansion. It was on account of his personal and county links with Lord Aberdeen (1784-1860) that Alex Thomson might have succeeded in altering the subsequent course of Scottish Church history.
Lord Aberdeen, a Parliamentarian of considerable stature — one who had already held the Foreign Secretaryship and was yet to succeed to the Premiership — had his Scottish home at Haddo in Aberdeenshire and in the cosy circle of Aberdeenshire's gentry, Thomson took every opportunity to influence his attitude to and understanding of the Scottish Church Question.
The Earl, true to his class, was never comfortable with the thought of ministers being subject to popular election but at one stage he was willing to concede that Presbyteries should have the power of veto over unpopular presentees. Such a concession would have gone a long way in meeting Chalmers' views and, if enacted, might have averted the Disruption. Thomson urged Aberdeen to incorporate such a clause in the Non-Intrusion Bill that the Earl was then drafting but, unfortunately, the views of another of Lord Aberdeen's ecclesiastical advisers, John Hope, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, who was implacably opposed to any concessions being made to popular opinion in the appointment of parish ministers, prevailed. Consequently the Bill as drafted proved to be a letdown for the Evangelical party. It was rejected by the General Assembly and made no further progress in Parliament. Then with Lord Aberdeen and Dr Chalmers engulfed in mutual recrimination, the die was cast for the Disruption.
Following the 1842 Edinburgh Convocation of ministers sympathetic to Non-Intrusion principles, Alex Thomson was instrumental in proposing and convening a meeting of Scottish heritors, noblemen and gentlemen, having the same purpose in view as the ministers' convocation, that of obtaining a pledge of adherence to these principles. This meeting took place in Edinburgh in January 1843: 49 heritors were present and another 21 expressed their support in absentia. After the Disruption, Thomson also took the initiative in convening in Glasgow a meeting of landowners sympathetic to the Free Church, to bring pressure on the more recalcitrant members of their class who persisted in a refusal to grant sites for Free Church Buildings. In 1844 he suggested to the General Assembly a scheme for providing manses for ousted ministers and a few years later he was responsible (in the face of fierce opposition from Edinburgh) for the erection of the Aberdeen Free Church College. The buildings still stand at the West end of Union Street.
In many such ways Alex Thomson promoted the interests and shaped the destiny of the Free Church, becoming the coadjutor and confidant of its leaders. Dr Chalmers enjoyed the hospitality of Banchory House which Thomson had had rebuilt using the services of the architect of Balmoral Castle, as a result of which the buildings had several features in common. A company of 4,000 gathered on the front lawn of Banchory House to hear Chalmers preach.
In addition to his church interests Thomson indulged in a wide variety of antiquarian, literary, philanthropic and scientific pursuits. He was personally acquainted with many of the notable scientists of the day, among them the chemist Michael Faraday and the geologist Adam Sedgwick and he took a prominent role in the arrangements for the 1859 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was held in Aberdeen. The President of that meeting was none other than H.R.H. the Prince Consort, who gave much satisfaction to Thomson by accepting an invitation to stay at Banchory House, which was only a four mile carriage ride from the meeting place in Aberdeen.
Not surprisingly given the prominence of his position at the 1859 meeting, Thomson made the long journey to Oxford to attend the 1860 British Association meeting, which is now mainly remembered on account of the Huxley-Wilberforce confrontation over the theory of evolution in which Huxley is reputed to have demolished the Bishop of Oxford. Over the years this has been represented as a moment of high drama in evolutionary debate but the received account derives as much from the imagination as from the facts. There is no written record of the proceedings extant and the story is said to have been put together some 30 years later from surviving witnesses no doubt sympathetic to the Huxley standpoint. If so this gives added interest to Thomson's diary entry for that day. "Heard Darwinism debate — pure atheism; Bishop of Oxford splendid; fight with Huxley." Doubtless Thomson could be as partisan as the next man, or for that of it, as any other scientist; but the one-sided account that has entered the history books does less than justice to the truth.
Thomson died at Banchory House on 20th May 1866, while the General Assembly, to which he contributed so much over the years, was sitting. He was laid to rest in a vault in the Free Church burying ground at Banchory-Devenick, which had formerly been part of Thomson's estate. His chief interests and pleasures in life had all centred round his home, his library and his church.
One of his ancestors had considered it his duty not to leave too large a fortune to his children, having, he said, learned from the example of his friends and relatives that achievers were invariably those who had been impoverished in youth whereas those left with ample means invariably squandered their fortune in idle and dissolute living. Whether or not Alex Thomson's patrimony would have registered as ample on his ancestor's scale of inheritance is unclear but Thomson certainly had a very responsible view of his obligation to use it wisely. He himself, however, was not confronted with the dilemma that trouble his ancestor, for he had no family.
In his life he had used his house and estate as a source of social benefit and spiritual blessing to many and at his death he bequeathed his library, his valuable antiquarian collections and a considerable portion of his wealth to the Church's Aberdeen College. Having received much, he had fulfilled his destiny as a good steward of the manifold grace of God.