Thomas Reid (Fraser)/Chapter I
BOYHOOD AND ANCESTRY: STRACHAN AND THE
VALLEY OF THE DEE
Thomas Reid makes his first appearance as a boy in the manse of Strachan in Kincardineshire, where he entered this world of sense on the 26th of April 1710. His father, the Rev. Lewis Reid, was minister of the parish for fifty-eight years, from 1704 until his death in 1762. The mother, Margaret Gregory, was the eldest daughter, by his second marriage, of David Gregory, laird of Kinairdy in Banffshire. An elder son, David, born in 1705, and two daughters, Isobel and Jane, with Thomas, formed the family at the manse when Thomas was a boy. David was twice married, and died about 1780, without issue; the elder daughter, Isobel, died unmarried, in her stepmother’s house at Aberdeen, in 1770; and the younger, Jane, after a mésalliance, died without issue after the middle of the century. Their mother, Margaret Gregory, died in 1732, when the manse was still the home of Thomas. In 1735, Mr. Lewis Reid married his second wife, Janet, daughter of Fraser of Phopachy in the county of Inverness. Two sons and five daughters were the issue of the second marriage. The eldest son died when a student at Marischal College, in 1758, and the younger, who studied medicine, died in London about ten years later. Of the daughters, one died in infancy, and two others, Elizabeth and Mary, died unmarried—the former in Edinburgh in 1772, and the latter in Aberdeen in 1771. Of the other two, Margaret became in 1763 the wife of the Rev. Alexander Leslie, minister of Fordoun in Kincardineshire, and Grace married the Rev. John Rose, minister of Udny in Aberdeenshire. Mrs. Rose died in 1793, and Mrs. Leslie in 1829, the last survivor of the Reid family circle at Strachan.
It is recorded of the father of this large family that he was respected for piety, prudence, and benevolence, inheriting from his ancestors simplicity of manners, and literary tastes which, without attracting the notice of the world, engaged his leisure and dignified his rural life. Of the two wives, the second survived her stepson, the philosopher.
The remote parish of Strachan is formed by the romantic valley through which the Feugh finds its way from the Grampians to the Dee at Banchory-Ternan—a breezy upland region, redolent of heather and bog-myrtle, apt in its solitude to educate reflective individuality in one so disposed. In those days the road to the south over the Cairn o’ Mount passed through Glen Dye, under the shadow of Clochnaben, a road two centuries ago frequented by robbers, and invested with a halo of romance by tales of marvellous adventures. But Glen Dye has an interest of another kind. Centuries ago it was the home and property of the family of Cant, from whom Andrew Cant, the noted Covenanting preacher, was descended, and with whom the more widely celebrated Immanuel Kant, chief factor in the philosophical thought of modern Europe, claimed connection. Strachan is thus associated in imagination with two of the most illustrious thinkers of the eighteenth century. Thomas Reid is in this way connected locally with his famous German philosophical contemporary, as well as by parallels in their lives which appear in the sequel, and by spiritual analogies in their philosophy. They are moreover united by their common antagonism to the scepticism of David Hume, who also through them is associated with the moorland valley of the Feugh, making it suggest to fancy three memorable intellectual figures. In Scotland David Hume and Thomas Reid are the two greatest names of their century in philosophy.
Imagination is our only guide when we try to picture the boyhood of Thomas Reid in the homely surroundings at Strachan. The one recorded fact about him is, that in his tenth year the home education of the manse was followed by two years spent in the neighbouring parish school of Kincardine O’Neil. Thus far no signal signs of future eminence appeared. He was, it seems, an unprecocious youth, remarked for modesty and patient industry. The insight of the schoolmaster is said to have found in him the rudiments of a man of ‘good and well-wearing parts.’ I wish that some further record could be found of this sagacious prophet of his pupil’s steady mental concentration, and I have not discovered why the boy was placed in the Kincardine school. This dim picture is our only one in the first twelve years of his life.
The lack of personal incident in those years is in a manner compensated by the interest of an illustrious ancestry—Reids and Gregories. He inherited mind through his father, but much more through his mother, with whom he shared the unique celebrity of a family which in successive generations shed lustre on the valley of the Dee—a memorable example of inherited intellect.
In the end of the fourteenth century certain lands of Pitfodels, between the bridge of Dee at Aberdeen and the Den of Cults, became the property of William Reid, a kinsman of the former owner, Alexander Moray, ‘lord of Culboyne.’ The lands remained in the Reid family until the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Marion, heiress of Alexander, the last Reid of Pitfodels, married Thomas, the eldest son of Gilbert Menzies, a burgess of Aberdeen, whose family was known thereafter for three centuries as Menzies of Pitfodels. James Reid, the first minister of Banchory-Ternan after the Reformation, was, it seems, grandson of a younger brother of this Alexander of Pitfodels; and Lewis Reid, the minister of Strachan, was in direct descent from the minister of Banchory. It is told of James Reid that he was ‘a man of notable head-piece for witte, and the most of his children were men of extraordinary qualifications.’ His eldest son, Robert, noted for good sense, succeeded him at Banchory. The second son, Thomas, was one of the numerous Scots famed for learning, who migrated to the Continent in the end of the fifteenth century and after. He was educated partly at Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he was made regent about 1602. He was afterwards in residence at Oxford and abroad: he defended a thesis ‘De objecto Metaphysicae’ at Rostock in 1610. After his return to Britain he became Greek and Latin Secretary to King James, some of whose works he translated into Latin. Verses of his may be found in the ‘Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum.’ Alexander, the next brother, was physician to Charles I., and author of works in physiology well considered at that time. John, a brother of the minister of Banchory, translated into ‘the Scottishe tunge’ Buchanan’s History of Scotland, and this unpublished version is in the College of Glasgow. A second Robert, grandson of the eldest of these four sons, became minister of Banchory at the Restoration; he was a member of the first Episcopal Synod at Aberdeen in the restored Establishment (the Covenanting Alexander Cant was his immediate predecessor); he died in 1682. Thomas, the second son, ‘wadsetter of Eslie in Banchorie,’ was father of the Rev. Lewis Reid of Strachan, by his wife, Jane, a niece of Sir Thomas Burnett of Leys; and thus young Thomas Reid at Strachan was related to the family from which the historian Bishop Burnet was descended. These Reids of Banchory rest in the old burial-ground there, ‘not farre from the banke of the river Dee, expecting the general resurrection, and the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ there Redemier.’But the Gregory connection of Thomas Reid through his mother is, as I have said, more significant than the Reid succession. During the Civil Wars of the seventeenth century, the minister of the rural parish of Drumoak, on the north side of the Dee, between Banchory and Pitfodels, was the Rev. John Gregory, son of an Aberdeen merchant, whose father was a M‘Gregor from Glenlyon. The Gregories of Deeside were thus descendants of the clan Gregor of Glenlyon and Glenstrae, a circumstance referred to by Sir Walter Scott in the Introduction to Rob Roy. The minister of Drumoak married a lady named Anderson, one of a family reputed for mathematical ability in successive generations. She inherited the genius of her family, and transmitted it to her sons. Her husband at Drumoak seems to have steered his cause skilfully in that troubled time, for he bought the good estate of Kinairdy, part of the heritage of the lordly house of Creighton Viscount Frendraught. Alexander, the eldest son of the Rev. John Gregory of Kinairdy, was killed by one of the Creightons in a fray in 1663, and the homicide was the occasion of a cause célèbre. David, the second son, succeeded his murdered brother in the lands of Kinairdy, and shared in the mathematical inheritance of the Gregories. For some reason he sold Kinairdy and became an energetic merchant, spending part of his life in Holland. This David of Kinairdy was twice married, and father of twenty-nine children, which perhaps explains the sale. The wife of the Rev. Lewis Reid of Strachan was a daughter of the second marriage. Three of her brothers were eminent Professors of Mathematics in British Universities—namely, David, first at Edinburgh, and then at Oxford, the friend of Newton; James, the successor of David in Edinburgh; and Charles, who professed mathematics at St. Andrews. David’s son was Professor of History at Oxford from 1724 till 1767, and Dean of Christ Church; and his cousin David succeeded to the chair of Mathematics at St. Andrews. Two other Professors were sons of two of ‘Kinairdy’s’ daughters—namely, our Thomas Reid, and Alexander Innes, who professed Philosophy in Marischal College. These all traced their birth to the minister of Drumoak and his mathematical wife—through their son David. But James, the third son of the Drumoak manse, was not less illustrious in himself and in his descendants. He was Professor of Mathematics, first at St. Andrews and then at Edinburgh, inventor of the reflecting telescope, also Newton’s friend and correspondent, who introduced the science of Newton into the Universities of Scotland. It is of him that Whiston writes from Cambridge:—‘He had already caused several of his students to keep acts upon several branches of the Newtonian philosophy; while we at Cambridge, poor wretches, were ignominiously studying the fictitious hypotheses of the Cartesian.’ His son James became in 1725 Professor of Medicine in King’s College, Aberdeen, a considerable local figure. He had two sons: James, who succeeded his father, and John, a regent of philosophy in his father’s college, afterwards Professor of Medicine in Edinburgh, and remembered as the author of A Comparative View of Man and the Animal World, and A Father’s Legacy, books full of good sense. Dr. John Gregory’s son, James, was Professor of Medicine in Edinburgh from 1776 till 1821, a physician and a metaphysician—in the sequel, the intimate friend and correspondent of Thomas Reid, and the patron of Thomas Brown. Of his family, one son held the Chair of Chemistry in King’s College, and afterwards in Edinburgh till his death in 1858; another, Donald, was an eminent archaeologist, author of the History of the Western Highlands and Islands; a third died in high mathematical repute at Cambridge, returning to the original bent of this extraordinary family, in which the disposition to mathematics had latterly been overborne by medicine and moral philosophy. Even this long list of names omits scientific celebrities who were descended from the minister of Drumoak and his wife, Margaret Anderson, more remotely still from the wild clan Gregor of Glenlyon and Glenorchy.
But the life of romantic adventure did not descend to young Thomas Reid at Strachan. A disposition to look at the world on its moral and religious side, perhaps inherited from the Reids, with a strong bent to mathematics and the scientific side of things, inherited from the Gregories, along with his own patient, concentrated reflection, was the inheritance of the boy ‘of good and well-wearing parts’ who left the Kincardine school in 1722. The long life that followed presents none of the outward incidents that readily touch the popular fancy; but to those awake to the higher problems of human life it touches thought and imagination in another fashion. It has been said that a human life should resemble a well-ordered poem: the exordium should be simple and should promise little. This condition is fulfilled in the life of Thomas Reid, which, to the end, was modestly spent in learned retirement, indifferent to vulgar fame. Its chief interest lies in the spectacle of penetrating sagacity, independent and sincere, steadily devoted to the invisible world of thought and belief, in quest of the ultimate foundations and guarantees of human knowledge. It should attract those who, in an age of sceptical criticism, seek to assure themselves of the final trustworthiness of the experience into which, at birth, they were admitted as strangers, ignorant of what the whole means, like the agnostic in Pascal. Who has sent me into this life, I know not; what the world around me is, I know not; nor what I am myself. I find myself chained to one little planet, but without understanding why I am here rather than there; and why this period of time was given me to live in rather than any other in the unbeginning and endless duration. Life with its memories and forecasts looks like a blind venture. The sum of my knowledge seems to be that I must die; but what I am most ignorant of is the meaning of death. One is drawn to Reid by an interest in final questions like these, which the agnostic spirit is now forcing upon us. It was the sceptical disintegration of human knowledge and belief that was going on in his own time that led Reid, with the patience and persistency revealed in his boyhood, to devote a long life to testing in his own sincere fashion man’s intellectual and moral footing in that world of sense which, all strange to it, he entered in the valley of the Feugh.
- The above from data at Birkwood.
- Scottish Notes and Queries, iii. 84-88; 128.