Friday, January 07, 2011

More on James Meikle

It's amazing what a bit of expertise can dig up. Thanks to three such people (who'll remain nameless to protect their identities) a lot of fresh information about James Meikle has come to light since my previous post:

#alttext#• he was a friend of Robert Pollok (shown left, 1798 - 1827), the Scottish poet and writer who, among his many writings, authored a series of stories during his time as a theology student in Glasgow. These were republished after his death as a book called "Tales of the Covenanters". After Pollok died, aged just 29, Meikle gave Pollok's brother David much material for this biographical memoir. (Pollok's poem The Course of Time is his most acclaimed work)

• in the Memoir, Meikle is referred to as "a young author of whose talents I had heard him [Pollok] speak very favourably". They visited Burns' country together, along with a fellow student who may have been from Ireland called David Marr (graduated 1824, died 17 May 1834, aged 37. Marr went on to become minister of a Presbyterian Secession church on Lothian Road in Edinburgh). During the trip Marr tried to sell some of Meikle's poems to local people, claiming that they "are all in the Scottish dialect, and said to be as good as Burns". They travelled southwards, eventually reaching the hills above Cairnryan with a view "along the far coast of Ireland. This was a scene that your brother [Pollok] esteemed worth all the fatigue of their journey; and they gazed on it till it became shaded in the dimness of approaching night." The Memoir records that Pollok's g-g-grandfather, David Gemmell, had fled for refuge to Ireland for three years during the brutal "Killing Times" of 1660-1688. Perhaps the view across the water to Ulster, and Covenanter stories along the way, made an impression upon young James Meikle?

• he came to Belfast in the early 1800s to take a position as a teacher at Brown Street Daily School. His lectures were "distinguished by originality of thought, great enthusiasm in the cause, and a peculiar manner of illustration, that stamped him at once as an orator and a man of genius".

• his first book, "Our Scottish Forefathers", is a tale of two Ulster Presbyterian ministers who visit Ayrshire. In the story an old man gives them a collection of rare 17th century manuscripts which had belonged to one of the early Scottish settlers in Ulster, which are first-hand accounts of the major events of the early 1600s.

• When Dr John Ritchie of Edinburgh, "the Goliath of Voluntaryism" came on a speaking visit to Belfast in 1837, it was Meikle who publicly debated him. The debate was recorded in the newspapers of the time. Ritchie (also known as "Potterrow John") had been in Belfast in March 1836 to debate the same subject, that time his opponent was the renowned Dr Henry Cooke. For Meikle to be seen as an able deputy for Cooke gives some indication of his ability and the esteem in which he was held.

• when at home in Scotland, Meikle visited the hillside graves of Covenanters - "bending over the graves of the martyred sires of his country, awaken the sleeping echoes of the hills as they mournfully responded to the names of Hamilton and Guthrie" - presumably the famous Scottish martyrs Patrick Hamilton and James Guthrie.

• he left Belfast for the English Lake District where he became a teacher in the village of Aspatria, and worked particularly for the education of blind people.

• he also became Secretary of the Edinburgh Bible Society, in which role he addressed the 1842 Presbyterian General Assembly at May Street Church in Belfast.

• he died on Tuesday 9th August 1842, his final address being 16 Gilmore Place in central Edinburgh.

To be continued...