Walter Birnie, seventeenth-century blind preacher

A guest blog written by Dr Iain Hutchison, Economic and Social History, University of Glasgow

The University Collection holds three Muniments that make reference to Walter Birnie, blind preacher. These are:

A petition from Birnie to the University, presented on 29 April 1674, seeking charitable support in the form of a Bursary in respect of services to the vacant Lanarkshire churches of Lesmahagow, Carmichael and Symington as ‘ther nothing payed unto me of ther prepositions of the bursurie ther’. GUA 58133.

A Precept and Discharge from the College of Glasgow in favour of Birnie for the sum of sixteen pounds and ten shillings Scots and described as given ‘in charitie’ in 1677. GUA44617.

A 1686 entry in Volume 1 of the Munimenta Alme Universitatus Glasguensis (1854), records that, under provisions of the Scots Parliament, allowance of ‘Four hundred Merks to Walter Birnie out of the Vacand Stipends gifted to the College of Glasgow’. 

These three records highlight Birnie as a clergyman living under financial duress, seeking charitable support, and with emphasis placed on his apparent sight loss. These fragments therefore give rise to the question of, not only what was life like for a blind preacher in seventeenth-century Scotland, but what was the extent of Birnie’s sight loss and, if this condition was present in his youth, how did he train to become a clergyman?

A small number of additional references have so far been identified, these casting a little more light on Birnie. In addition to providing information and raising questions on his sight loss, they suggest that he was not reticent at pleading a case for charitable support, and also suggesting that, as a preacher, his role as an established clergyman was fleeting. Yet, he benefitted from higher education, and appeared to live in relatively comfortable circumstances, suggesting that his poverty was relative.

Scotland’s People offers not one, but two, death entries for Birnie in the Old Parochial Records for the Parish of Edinburgh; in reality one of these relates to his death and the other is a record of his interment. These tell us that ‘Mr Walter Birnie, late minister of the Gospell, Dalziel’ died on 19 June 1708, five days after his 74th birthday. The record of his demise provides a useful marker in that it reveals a time line that begins around 1634 – and therefore placing him in midlife in several sources that record his movements, activities, and solicitations for aid.     

The label ‘blind’ has to be treated with caution as many ‘blind’ people have an element of residual vision, such as some perception of light or colour. Additionally, ‘sight loss’ can represent a gradual loss of vision over a period of time. However, one research source, The Diocese and Presbytery of Dunkeld 1660-1689, Volume I (c.1917) gives a summary of Birnie’s career and misfortunes in the 1670s and 1680s and claims that ‘Mr Walter Birnie, “a blind minister” – blind from childhood – received from the Synod of St Andrews, in May 1671, £57, less 6 dollars …’, while volume 1 of Munimenta Alme (1854) cites him, in 1686, as ‘being blind since his infancie’. The entry in the Munimenta Alme arose from a ruling of the Scots Parliament, in response to Birnie’s appeal for aid, and this adjudication, of 15 June 1686, is given in full in The Records of the Parliament of Scotland to 1707. It reads:

Anent the petition presented to his majesty and estates of parliament by Mr Walter Birnie, preacher of the Gospel, mentioning that where being blind since his infancy, yet God having been pleased to bestow upon him education as liberal as to those whom he has blessed with eyes, being bred in divinity at Oxford, after he had passed his course of philosophy and grammar in Scotland, this talent bestowed upon him (such as it is) he lies by God’s assistance these many years past employed in preaching the Gospel in this his native country, and is yet resolved, God willing, to employ it so, but never being endued with a settled stipend, and now grown old and poor, though still able to preach the Gospel if any way encouraged by the bounty of his majesty and estates of parliament; and therefore, humbly requesting and supplicating his majesty and said estates to take his indigent condition to their gracious consideration and commiserate his case so far as to let their poor petitioner have some refreshing taste of their bounty, in ordering such a yearly annuity to be paid to him out of the vacant stipends of this kingdom, as may afford the petitioner a livelihood, and encourage him to deliver his message of the Gospel, in the same manner as he has done formerly in this kingdom, that he may have constant occasion to pray for his majesty and estates of parliament. The king’s majesty and estates of parliament, having heard the foresaid petition, together with the report of the lords of the articles thereon, have ordained and hereby ordain the petitioner to have 400 merks paid him out of the first of the vacant stipends gifted to the college of Glasgow, for his aliment yearly during his life, or until he be better provided, commencing the first term’s payment at Martinmas next, and thereafter yearly and termly in time coming, at the terms of Martinmas [11 November] and Whitsunday [May/June] by equal portions during his said lifetime.

There are many reasons that could have brought about Birnie’s visual impairment, but it does seem that his ‘blindness’, to whatever degree, accompanied him throughout his life. A question concerning the extent of any residual vision arises in connection with the two handwritten fragments held in the University of Glasgow archives collection (GUA44617 and GUA58133); were these penned in Birnie’s own hand, or were they written by someone else?

It is also recorded in the Munimenta Alme that Birnie was ‘bread [sic] in divinity at Oxford after he had past [sic] his course of philosophy and grammar in Scotland’, while Hunter’s The Diocese and Presbytery of Dunkeld quotes him as claiming academic success at Cambridge as well as Oxford. The extent of Birnie’s sight loss and how this might have affected his ability to pursue his studies is challenging to quantify, but later in his life it is revealed that, in addition to his household of himself, his wife and his family, he also employed a reader.

Birnie’s socio-economic circumstances need to be pursued and submitted to scrutiny. He apparently had sufficient resources to raise a family in some comfort, and to enjoy a high level of education. He was recognised as a preacher or clergyman throughout his adult life, yet his career appears to have been blessed with limited success. Although the fragmentary mentions of Birnie across a two decade period, when aged between his mid-thirties and his mid-fifties, refer to him as a preacher, his active service as a clergyman seems to have been fleeting. This was during a period when presbyterianism was proscribed.  One late-Victorian publication, the History and Directory of Motherwell, 1899-1900, records him as ‘a blind Episcopalian curate,’ being appointed in 1670 to Dalziel parish, ‘but did not duty’.

The period during which Walter Birnie was active as a clergyman without a stable charge were years of religious upheaval in Scotland, a protestant church led by bishops in command, while Calvinists were largely forced to the margins to form the Covenanters. It would appear that Birnie took the side that might have best suited his pecuniary advantage, throwing his lot in with the Episcopalians, and directing his appeals for aid to Episcopalian bishops, and indeed gaining his appointment at Dalziel, c. 1670 – perhaps earlier, when the official incumbent, John Lauder, was side-lined for espousing Presbyterianism. The reference to Birnie not doing duty during his Dalziel appointment hints that the dismissed John Lauder was never far away and retained a following in Dalziel. In 1674, Birnie’s name was linked to the vacant rural Lanarkshire parishes of Lesmahagow, Carmichael, and Symington, but his success and adeptness as a clergyman were perhaps exceeded by his prowess in soliciting financial aid from church and other bodies.

Sources

Ecclesiastic Records: Selections from the Minutes of the Synod of Fife, 1611-1687

(Edinburgh: The Abbotsford Club, 1837).Entry for 1681, p. 195.

History and Directory of Motherwell, 1899-1900

(Hamilton, 1899). See p. 47.

Hunter, John, The Diocese and Presbytery of Dunkeld 1660-1689, Vol I (London: Hodder and Stoughton, c.1917), p. 320.

Munimenta Alme Universitatis Glasguensis: Records of the University of Glasgow from its Foundation till 1727

(Glasgow: The Maitland Club, 1854).  Entries for 15 June 1686, pp. lxii, 428-9.

Records of the Meeting Exercise of Alford, 1662-1688

(Aberdeen: The New Spalding Club, 1897). Entry for 1671, pp. 176-8.

Scotland’s People – Parochial Records for Edinburgh

Birnie’s Death and Burial, June 1708 – OPR685_010_0840_0235Z and OPR685_010_0860_0178Z

The Records of the Parliament of Scotland to 1707

‘Act in favour of Mr Walter Birnie’ dated 15 June 1686.

www.rps.ac.uk  Ref: 1686/4/60a

Future possible sources that might be investigated include:

Records of Scottish universities (Glasgow. Edinburgh, St Andrews, Aberdeen) and records for Oxford/Cambridge

Further ecclesiastical records;

Parochial records such as minute books – various Lanarkshire parishes, Alford (Aberdeenshire);

Local archives – Lanarkshire, Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, etc;

Interment/cemetery records, Greyfriars burial ground, Edinburgh.



Categories: Library

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