Posts tagged ‘The Relief Church Robert Burns’

April 19, 2018

The Buchanites: by a lock of their hair they hoped to fly to heaven

A group of bald-headed women and men clambered their way up Templand hill by Closeburn, Dumfries and onto a platform. With faces turned skyward they waited to be plucked up by their remaining single lock of hair to soar heavenward. They were disappointed when they did not. However, the wind did carry off their wooden platform. 

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These ambitious eccentrics were known as Buchanites. Their leader was a charismatic woman called Elspeth Buchan who explained away their failure to fly by their lack of faith and ordered her followers fast for 40 days and 40 nights then try again. So they did, several suffering badly from starvation, and again they failed to rise up to heaven.

buchan 2

The immortal Elspeth Buchan

 

In 1783 Elspeth Buchan then in her forties had declared herself a prophet and immortal. She regarded herself as the woman in Revelation 12:

“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.”

Elspeth had been born at Rothiemackenzie in the parish of Fordyce in Banffshire in 1738 to a crofter and innkeeper, John Simpson and his wife Margaret Gordon. The young Elspeth married a local potter called Robert Buchan who some years later went off south with Elspeth and their children following. They appeared in Glasgow and Greenock and what happened to the husband after that I don’t know but Elspeth returned for a time to the Banff area where she opened a Dame school (one taught by a woman or dame) where most of what was taught was the catechism. Needless to say numbers dwindled to none at all and so Elspeth, Mrs Buchan, returned to her husband down south, it has to be said their marriage was a loose affair, and by this time she had some strong ideas over who she was.

She claimed her immortality could be transferred to others by her breathing on them, in quite an intimate way, according to Rabbie Burns. She tried to convince several church ministers of her spiritual powers but only the Rev Hugh White, a minister of the Relief Church* in Irvine was won over. By teaching and Psalm singing they attracted a smallish group of followers who came to be known as the Western Delusion and later better-known as Buchanites. His activities split White’s congregation and he and Elspeth Buchan abandoned his church taking some fifty of the congregation with them. They picked up more followers on their travels.

The group’s proselytising though charismatic to some did not find favour with everyone and they were driven from the town, beaten and thrown in a ditch with threats to drown them in Scott’s Loch. What antagonised many townsfolk and others in parts they passed through were the open relationships practised by the Buchanites, communal living with rumours of orgies in forests and group sex and for the sober Christians of the kirk there was little about them to admire.

Mrs Buchan and her following were expelled from Irvine on the Cow Fair in May 1784; driven into the wilderness from the flood was how it struck the Buchanites concerned. They turned up at Closeburn, north of Dumfries, with Elspeth Buchan resplendent in crimson and riding on a white horse. It was there they made their attempt to fly to heaven but before they did Elspeth Buchan, Mother Buchan, persuaded her flock to hand over their trinkets and jewels to her, as she explained this would make it easier for them to rise up.

So the assembled Buchanites waited, expectantly, for the wind to carry them off and away. As well as permanently parting with their possessions they had prepared themselves by shaving their head of all hair except for a single lock which would be used to lift them up and away from the earth; all had cut off their hair except for Elspeth Buchan. They waited and waited. Then the wind blew down their platform.

auchengibbert

Auchengibbert became home to some of the Buchanites

There were other reports of goods and money being appropriated by Mother Buchan. One of the Buchanites, a Mrs Goldie, left the considerable sum of £500 on her death. Her son was a seaman, often away from home, and he had no idea his widowed mother had managed to save so much money so when Buchan and the Rev White took control of Mrs Goldie’s affairs and offered him a couple of pounds the son went away satisfied.

They were expelled from Dumfriesshire in 1787 and from there they went to Crocketford. Mrs Buchan was also known as Luckie Buchan (Luckie being a common nickname in parts of Scotland as a friendly, familiar term for an older woman.) Elspeth Buchan also took on the more formal title, Friend-Mother in the Lord.

The poet Robert Burns had a bit of a run-in with them when one of his bonnie Jeans, the very beautiful Jean Gardiner whom it is claimed was Burns’ heroine in Epistle to Davie and not Jean Armour, became entranced by and joined the sect. Burns working as a gauger in this part of the country was persuaded by the young Jean Gardiner to accompany her to some Buchanite meetings. He did but he was not won over as she had been. Burns wrote in a letter to his cousin William Burness of Montrose –

“About two years ago, a Mrs Buchan from Glasgow [she had been there with her husband] came among them, & began to spread some fanatical notions of religion among them, …till in spring last the Populace rose & mobbed the old leader Buchan & put her out of the town…Their tenets are a strange jumble of enthusiastic jargon; among others, she pretends to give them the Holy Ghost by breathing on them, which she does with postures & practices that are scandalously indecent…”

Another giant of Scottish literature, John Galt, also wrote about the Buchanites. Galt was from Irvine and he had a vague recollection, recorded in his autobiography, of seeing the charismatic sect when he was a very young bairn and he recalled how several youngsters of the town, including himself, were beguiled by the Buchanites – their appearance, singing of the Psalms and general conduct that they followed after them, much like the children in the wake of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – Galt’s mother in hot pursuit succeeded in dragging him back home “by the lug and the horn.” Galt wove an impression of the Buchanites spectacle in Irvine into descriptions of Covenanters in Ringan Gilhaize (pronounced Gillies)

The immortal Mrs Buchan proved she was not when she died in 1791. On her deathbed she remained confident her impending death was only an interlude during which she would go to Paradise, briefly, to carry out some business and return within nine days, or perhaps nine years.

In anticipation of her re-awakening Elspeth Buchan was not buried but placed on a bed of feathers and secreted under the kitchen hearth in the farmhouse occupied by the remaining sect members. The group split up with some moving away to carry on their lives elsewhere including a number who went to America, by ship I understand, not taking to the air.

A few including Andrew Innes and his wife remained true to the so-called prophetess and when they moved farms they took Elspeth Buchan’s remains with them and for the next fifty years the deceased Mrs Buchan clung determinedly to earth. Andrew Innes was the last of the Buchanites and when he, too, was dying aged eighty-two at Crocketford in 1846, he revealed the remains of Luckie Buchan lay in an upper chamber on a bed, wrapped in blankets. And there her bones were found and an abundance of hair. Innes asked that his coffin be placed over hers when they were both interred so that if she rose to heaven he would know about it. They were buried at Newhouse graveyard alongside other Buchanites by the northwest wall, doubtless in the expectation of ascending to heaven at some stage.

And so that was the end of the Buchanites. Well, not quite. A group emerged in the 20th century in Aberdeen not at all in the same league but a quaint grouping who celebrated new years in the old Scottish way, burning a yule log, singing and dancing. In the 1930s around 200 would gather in the Cowdray Hall to mark the Aul’ Eel when they drank copious quantities of sowans** and uttered such momentous phrases as, “Man, that’s gran’, sic fine sowens, that gaed doon fine.” As I said not quite in the league of the woman of the sun and moon and crown of stars, but it made them happy.

*The Relief Church (Presbytery of Relief) was a Scottish denomination founded in 1761 by Thomas Gillespie, a Church of Scotland minister who was deposed by the General Assembly in 1752 when he refused to co-operate in the induction of an unpopular minister to Inverkeithing. Relief in the kirk’s name referred to its independence from the patronage associated with the Church of Scotland of the time and it was more free-thinking than the traditional church. The Relief Church was later incorporated into the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

** Sowans was a cheap and nutritional drink made from soaking and lightly fermenting oat husks.

Dumfries map

The Buchanite stronghold in southwest Scotland