“The Auld Sinner”

Author: John Erskine

Date: 1999

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 7 Wunter 1999


The story of a forgotten novel of the Ulster-Scots community

John Erskine

Half a world and half a century separate the publication of The Auld Sinner from its setting. While the novel portrays the rural, Presbyterian world of the “Craig Valley” in County Antrim at the end of the nineteenth century — as it is seen through the eyes of the young Cowan Harper — the book itself was published on the other side of the globe, in Australia, on the eve of the Second World War.

Although the author is given the name “Cowan Harper”, little attempt is made to disguise the true identity of the writer of the tale: Rev. Professor Samuel Angus. Angus was born in County Antrim in 1881 and, in a distinguished academic career, became Professor of New Testament and Historical Theology at St Andrew’s College in Sydney. Angus was also the author of several academic works and of a volume of autobiography entitled Alms for Oblivion: chapters from a heretic’s life.

The Auld Sinner, his only work of fiction, holds a unique place among Angus's publications. Two pages of dedication and quotation among the preliminaries give a clue to the book’s content and to the intentions of its author. The book is dedicated “in abiding gratitude to a beloved one (named in this story) who first taught Cowan Harper that a boy’s ‘chief end is to glorify God’” (p. v). A further page in the preliminaries (p. ix) contains two quotations from Burns — a couplet from “The Vision” and two stanzas from “Address to the Unco Guid” — as well as a quotation from Thoreau — “Every parable has a moral. But the Innocent enjoy the story.”

And The Auld Sinner is indeed part parable. In it Angus examines the attitudes and mores of his community and, by implication at least, appeals for a revitalized religious outlook.

The story opens on a Sabbath afternoon at the Harper farm in the Craig Valley. “It was a superb Sabbath afternoon in the delectable Craig Valley,” writes Angus at the start of the book, “or rather, it would have been a superb afternoon if it had been any other day of the week than Sabbath.” In this opening chapter Angus appears to unburden himself of all the frustrations, recollected almost fifty years later, of a rural Sabbath in County Antrim. Cowan is at home, learning a Golden Text from the Bible, a prescribed passage from the Shorter Catechism, and a double stanza from a metrical Psalm; and he is then encouraged to read one of the books approved for the Sabbath, like Baxter’s Saint’s Everlasting Rest, although he finds it impossible to share his grandmother’s enthusiasm for the book. And how much better might it have been, speculates Angus, if an earthquake had shattered the hall housing the compilers of the Shorter Catechism once they had completed their “immortal” answer to its “first and most pertinent question”: “man’s chief end is to love God and to enjoy Him for ever.” Those same compilers, the Westminster Divines, had gone on, remarks Angus, to define for him what God is and “for years afterwards I was engaged in discovering not what but who God is.” To the boy Cowan Harper it appeared that the Westminster Divines had never suffered the disadvantage of being young. Imagine his relief, then, on this particular Sabbath when his father suggests they should visit the ailing Davy Duncan, even if it is for Cowan to read aloud to him from Scripture.

The novel centres round Cowan Harper’s gradual discovery of the story and of the character of the community’s “auld sinner”, Davy Duncan. Davy Duncan had left the district many years before, after the untimely death from illness of Jane Stirling, the girl he was to marry. Years later he returned to the district. But Davy, although he lived among them, set himself somewhat apart from the members of the community: he now no longer attended the kirk, although he had been a regular attender in the days of the old minister, Rev. Dr Burns, nor did he observe the religious conventions of his neighbours. Furthermore, he was now known for his profanity which the local boys would often deliberately provoke. And again, he would never reveal what he had done in his years away, something that disturbed a community which considered that it “had a right to know everyone else’s private affairs”.

But, as he learns more, Cowan Harper discovers a greater complexity to Davy Duncan’s life. When he goes to visit him with his father, Cowan Harper discovers to his surprise that Davy knows his Bible well. He sees Davy leave the kirkyard one night and discovers later that Jane Stirling’s grave has been carefully tended. And when he and his mother visit “Weeda Wasson” he discovers the shilling that Davy has left behind to cover the widow’s rent. And when Jock MacClintock gets Kate Manson “into trouble” and fails to stand by her despite protestations by family and minister, it is Davy Duncan who confronts him in the field he is ploughing, and gives him the beating nobody else could manage. And, as the reader later discovers, it is Davy’s money which sees Kate and her son through the future.

Angus’s view of his community is perceptive and affectionate but by no means uncritical. The picture of the Sabbath given in the opening chapter is one aspect of a religious observance which Angus believes to be in danger of ossification. Such an observance is taken from the past but does not move on, and is not lived out. “These godly Ulster Scots,” remarks Angus, “like other Christians, were more anxious to think as others had thought about religion in far-off ages and to be loyal to religious tradition than to test it by the spirit and teaching of its Divine Founder.” When Davy Duncan is dying, the local lay preacher, Albert Millar — known as “Hallelujah Albert” — calls at Davy’s door to demand his repentance. The confrontation between the two men stands in marked contrast to the visit of old Dr Burns in which an unspoken and “mysterious sympathy” draws the two men together. “The auld Dokther,” says Davy’s housekeeper, “wud mak a haithen releegious.” Cowan Harper himself remarks that, when he first got to know Dr Burns, the old minister “appealed to me by his embracing personality — my first instinctive recognition that a man’s message is not his brilliant words in scholastic propositions, but himself.” Hallelujah Albert’s Bible, Davy concludes, is different from other Bibles, for it lacks love. But then, as Cowan’s father observed, “Davy couldna thole the unco guid.”

As indicated by the preliminaries, the work of Robert Burns makes an appearance in this book, so embedded was it within the Presbyterian community. For example, the community’s perception of the Devil, Angus observes, was created from a mixture of images from the Bible and from the work of the Ayrshire ploughman. Following Davy’s death, Cowan’s father quotes from Burns’s “Winter Night” (or “Wunter Nicht” as he calls it): “The heart benevolent and kind/The most resembles God.” Cowan himself comments on his father’s use of both Burns and Scripture:

“… On occasions — sometimes trivial and sometimes serious — my father had a way of delivering the resolving word from either Burns or the Bible. Indeed I learned Burns not from the book, but from hearing him repeated with approbation and gusto by my father. In spite of some superficial resemblance between Burns and the psalmist my mother was not so certain of the inspirational qualities of Burns as she was of the Bible. My father obviously took at least an equal delight in repeating long screeds from Burns as from the Inspired Word …”

Although The Auld Sinner lies outside the high era of kailyard writing, it clearly owes a debt to the kailyard tradition which is reflected, for example, in its use of language. The narrative is in English — with a couple of exceptions — while the dialogue is in a modified Ulster-Scots made accessible to the general reader. All the major characters speak Scots, at least at some point in the tale. Even Rev. Dr Burns, whose “lofty and correct English diction intrigued me in those imitative days as an ideal to be copied,” lapses into Ulster-Scots when, at the auld sinner’s graveside, he speaks with passion in defence of the life of Davy Duncan. The only character not to speak Ulster-Scots at all is, not surprisingly perhaps, Hallelujah Albert. However, Cowan Harper does note one curious feature of his father’s use of language: he always prayed in English:

“… I was always amazed at my father’s prayers, whether before his own armchair at the family altar or in public. He most inconsequently dropped the rich Doric of the first colonists in favour of the English tongue, and he abandoned the careless grammar and solecism of everyday life and intercourse to speak “correctly” to and with the Deity. I never could understand the occasions when and why these bilingual colonists discarded their precious and emphatic Scottish Doric for an alien tongue. My father, like the others, fell back on his English reserves in addressing three very dissimilar parties, the Deity, the Meenister, and the Quality. This puzzled me all the more since I considered the language of childhood the best medium for dealings with God and the Meenister. The Quality, being mostly renegades to Episcopalianism to secure ecclesiastical preferments and political offices to which their modest merits did not entitle them, could not of course be addressed in a language which they pretended to despise …”

At Davy’s graveside Dr Burns (to whose real-life equivalent, surely, the book is dedicated) tells his listeners of Davy’s quiet generosity which it was his privilege to mediate; he reminds them that no man is free from sin; and he assures them that love was “a redeeming quality in this good man’s life.” And at the end of the book, Cowan Harper addressed the memory of the “gracious old sinner” whose life became a reminder to members of Cowan’s generation that “love is the master key to the meaning of the baffling problems of our fleeting existence,” a love seen at work in what, at first, appeared to be the most unlikely of men.

Much more could be said about The Auld Sinner and its author than is possible in this short introduction. A closer examination of Samuel Angus — described in the blurb to his autobiography as “a distinguished Ulster Scot who has adopted Australia as his country” — would relate the details of the story more closely to his early life in the Craig Valley. (His mother’s maiden name, for example, was Harper.) But that is for another occasion.

Some four years before the publication of The Auld Sinner Angus had published a book entitled Truth and Tradition. Its subtitle was “a plea for practical and vital religion and for a reinterpretation of ancient theologies.” The origins of that book, it would seem, may be found fifty years earlier in the valleys of County Antrim.



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