Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

Merchiston Castle School 1


The staircase leading to the Napier Room.

The next three posts of this blog relate to Halliday Sutherland’s experiences at Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh. He first went to the school in 1895.  Below, he describes the mathematician, John Napier, who once occupied the room in which he slept, and his first ordeal at the school: the “New Boys’ Concert”:

I was thirteen when I went to Merchiston. This school, established in 1833 by Dr. Charles Chambers was built around Merchiston Castle, which once guarded Edinburgh on the south-west. In the castle, of a date not later than the sixteenth century, were the dormitories. I and three other boys slept in the Napier Room, to which we ascended by a stone turret staircase.


“A stone turret staircase”

When I compare this room with those in the present school at Colinton, I feel mediæval. Yet in this room there had lived John Napier, born 1550, who published his discovery of logarithms three years before he died in 1617, a year after the death of Shakespeare.

John Napier

To gain an essay prize I went to the Advocates’ Library and learnt something of this great mathematician. In life he was  reputed to be a warlock, and as a pet he kept a jet-black cock. Once this cock enabled him to detect a thief amongst his servants. The cock was set on a table, all the servants were paraded, and each was ordered to stroke the cock’s back. All believed the cock would crow when touched by the thief. The cock did not crow, and Napier demanded a show of hands. Only one servant had clean hands. He alone had not touched the back of the cock , which had been sprinkled with soot.

When the pigeons of a neighbour stole his grain Napier sent word that if the pigeons were not kept under control he would poind them – take them as payment for the loss of the grain. To this the neighbour replied that he could take them if he could catch them. The next day all the pigeons were reeling on the ground in front of the castle, having eaten peas soaked in brandy.

Napier was a protestant, and in 1593 had published his “Plaine Discoverie of the Whole Revelation of St. John”, in the midst of that religious controversy that divided Christendom. The book opens with an appeal to the Church of Rome: “O Rome, Thou Whore of Babylon, repent thee in this thy latest breathe.”

In the dedication to his Protestant King, James VI, he also advises the King to reform himself: “Prodeede to the other degree of that reformation, even orderly from Majestie’s own persone til your Highnes familie, and from your familie to your court; til, at last, your Majestie’s whole countrie stand reformed in the feare of God, ready waiting for that great day in which it shall please God to call your Majestie or yours after you, among other reformed princes, to that great and universal reformation, according to the words prophecied, Apocalypse 17.”

In all probability Napier knew how to use the divining rod. Among the papers of the Napier family there exists an original contract between john Napier and Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig, whereby Napier promises to do his utmost to discover the whereabouts of a reported hidden treasure, which had been placed many ages ago in Sir Robert Logan’s mansion – Fast Castle.

Napier as an inventor forsaw chain shot, the armoured tank, and submarines. In 1596 he sent to the English court a memorandum of “Secrett Inventionis, Profitabill and Necessary in theis Dayes for the Defence of this Iland, and withsatnding of Strangers, Enemies of God’s Truth and Religion.”

There were five secret inventions. The first was a large burning mirror by which the rays of the sun should be concentrated to one mathematical point, the heat of which would be so intense that it would burn anything on which it was directed, including ships at sea. The second invention was similar but for use at night, when the heat of a large fire would be concentrated.

The third invention anticipated chain-shot – “a piece of artillery, which shot passeth not lineally through the enemy, destroying only those who stand in its way, but passeth superficially, ranging about within the whole appointed place.” This was to be done by two pieces firing simultaneously cannon balls connected by a chain, so that they would go whirling through the air in circles. His fourth invention was the armoured tank – “a round chariot of metal made of the proofs of double musket. The use hereof serveth to destroy the environed enemy by continuall charge and shott through small holes: the enemy in the meantime being abased, and altoghether uncertaine what defence of pursuit to use against a moving mouth of metal.”

Fifth and last is a casual reference to submarines – “these inventionis, besides devises of sayling under the water, with divers other devices and strategemes for harming of the enemyes, by the grace of God and works of expert craftsmen I hope to perform.”

The New Boys’ Concert

My first ordeal was the New Boys’ Concert. In the Assembly Hall the new boys sat on the front benches, and behind were older boys in order of seniority. The benches rose in tiers, and on the back bench, usually occupied by prefects, were some old Merchistonians visiting the school. To-night the prefects sat on chairs behind the chairman, a master. Each prefect carried a long linen bag, like a pillow-case, in which football clothes were kept. The clothes were now compressed into a lump at the bottom of the bag, which was tied with string. In turn each new boy stood on a kitchen table in front of the chairman, and was asked to recite or sing. This done, or sometimes not done, the door was opened, and the prefects faced each other in double file across the door. Each held a football bag slung across his shoulder. The new boy walked to the end of a gangway, turned, and “ran the gauntlet,” his progress to and out of the door being materially assisted by the football bags. That night in addition to clothes, two of the bags contained boots. In these more enlightened days the ordeal of the New Boys’ Concert has been abolished.

Standing alone on the table, I decided to sing. It was a simple ballad – “O Clementine” – and my rendering brought the house down – in yells of derision. Had I recited I might have appeased those barbarians, although my last recitation in public had not been well received.

At the age of ten, dressed in blue velvet like Little Lord Fauntleroy, because I, like him, had once golden curly hair, I recited to a children’s party in Glasgow, “Mary Queen of Scots.” The last lines are chiselled on the tablets of memory:

Lapped by a dog, the life-blood of a Queen!
Go. Think of it in silence and alone,
And weigh against one grain of sand
The splendours of a Throne.

I bowed to the audience, and there was a moment of silence. This was broken by the acrid voice of a lady: “What a horrible child!”

Now, at the concert, having sung the whole of “Clementine,” I ran the gauntlet and was bagged out. Unfortunately the music master was not present. Had he heard me sing, he would have saved himself much trouble. He had a choral society for the boys, and once a year conducted them in a concert for parents and friends. This concert, always a great success, left the music master exhausted after two hours’ conducting.

In preparation for the concert he held a weekly practice, All new boys had to attend lest perchance there should be music in their souls. At the first practice in which I took part I could see, from a look of pain on the master’s face, that he knew something was wrong. Yet it took him three weeks to discover what was wrong with “Rosebud, Rosebud, in the Heather.” At the third practice he made each bench of boys sing separately. Only when the boys around me sang did the look of pain return to the master’s face The rest was easy. By process of elimination I sang alone, and my services in his choir were no longer required.

From “A Time to Keep”

Next post on 15 December 2014: “Merchiston Castle: Football, Rugger, Athletics, Latin and Debating.”  When Halliday Sutherland devises a way to improve the teaching of Latin at the school, he is soundly beaten for his efforts.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Neil Sutherland for permission to use photographs of the stone turret staircase at Merchiston Castle. Photographs in this article © Neil Sutherland 2016.

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This entry was posted on 30 November 2014 by in Early life, Scotland.

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