Margaret Oliphant’s Memorial: an account of the inaugural ceremony in St. Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh

ON Thursday, the 16th July 1908, there was unveiled in St. Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, a Memorial to Mrs. Oliphant, which takes the shape of a gilt bronze medallion in a setting of pale green marble, and has been placed in the wall at the west end of the Albany Aisle, fronting the monument to John Knox. The work was executed by Mr. Pittendrigh Macgillivray, R.S.A., and presents a faithful likeness of the Novelist. Mr. J. M. Barrie had undertaken to perform the ceremony of unveiling the memorial, and in spite of the wet weather there was a large gathering in the Cathedral. Lord Dunedin, the Chairman of the Cathedral Board, was accompanied to the reserved area by Mr. Barrie, and the officiating clergy were the Very Rev. Dr. Theodore Marshall, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and the Very Rev. Dr. J. Cameron Lees, minister of the Cathedral.

Among others present were Sir Colin and Lady Macrae ; Sir James King ; Sir Arthur Mitchell ; Lady Skelton ; Lady Grainger Stewart ; Miss Oliphant, the Masters Valentine, and Miss Margaret Valentine, Lochee ; Mr. Charles Chalmers ; Mr. W. B. Blaikie ; Mr. William Blackwood ; Mr. George Blackwood ; the Misses Blackwood ; Mr. C. E. S. Chambers ; the Very Rev. Dr. Scott ; the Rev. John Macrae ; Mrs. Munro, Marchbank, Balerno ; The Very Rev. Dr. and Mrs. Mair ; Mrs. Theodore Marshall ; Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bruce ; the Misses Grainger Stewart ; Mr. C. E. Loudon ; Mr. and Mrs. Farmer ; Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Bruce ; Mrs. Hodgson and Miss Nicolson ; Miss Wilson (grand-daughter of ' Christopher North ') ; Mr. and Mrs. Upson, Cairo ; Mr. and Mrs. Graham ; the Rev. J. and Mrs. Bisset, Ratho ; Mrs. Davidson, Muirhouse ; the Rev. Alexander Whyte, D.D. ; Mr. J. H. Millar, advocate ; Mr. John Elliot, Hoy-lake ; Mrs. Maxtone Graham ; Miss H. Neaves ; Mr. and Mrs. Tremtett, Fettes College. Apologies were received from the Lord Provost of Edinburgh ; the Right Hon. A. J. Balfour, M.P. ; Professor Hume Brown ; Mr. S. H. Butcher, M.P. ; the Rev. Marcus Dods, D.D. ; Mr. F. Greenwood ; Mr. A. H. Hawkins ; Mr. C. F. Keary ; Mrs. Rowland Prothero ; Lady Ritchie ; Mrs. Sellar ; Mrs. Humphry Ward ; the Very Rev. Dr. and Mrs. MacGregor ; Sir Robert and Lady Usher ; Mrs. Lauder Thomson ; Miss Loudon ; Mr. and Mrs. Beatson Bell ; Mr. and Mrs. Stewart Clark, Dreghorn Castle ; Mr. C. Whibley ; and many other subscribers to the Memorial.

Dr. CAMERON LEES, in his opening prayer, gave thanks to God for all those who, having accomplished their earthly warfare, were at rest. Especially at this time they gave thanks for her whom they sought there to commemorate. They gave thanks for all that she was in her own life, and for those traits of character that endeared her to all who knew her best. They gave thanks especially for what she did in the great field of service which she made her own, and for her unwearying testimony to those things that were true and honest and lovely and of good report. They prayed that that monument might keep her memory green in the hearts of her Scottish countrymen, and might bear to succeeding generations the praise of her many virtues.

Mr. BARRIE, before unveiling the memorial, said —Ladies and gentlemen, when there is such a function as this to be gone through with in Edinburgh, how you must all miss the presence of Professor Masson. It must come upon all his old students as it has come upon me to-day—Edinburgh, but no Masson. And now Mrs. Oliphant has come back to you. It has seemed good to the people of Scotland that her face and lineaments should be carved upon the walls of their capital. She used to come here sometimes. It was her romantic town too, and now she returns at your request. It is only a few halting words you can expect me to say to you here. I am no speaker at all, and besides we are not met here for speech-making. We admired her as a woman and as a writer. The woman was the greater part of her. Throughout her life she had better things to do than to write, and she was doing them all the time. It was that that made her heart glad or depressed it—never her books, but with that part of her we have little to do to-day. I remember the last time I saw her, very shortly before her death, she said to me, ‘For the first time for fifty years I have nothing on my mind.' She was not referring to her works, but take it at that, and what a mind it was, and how splendidly alive during all those fifty years. One shrinks from using extravagant words about her; to no one could it have been so distasteful as to herself. And we are not met here to compare her with this writer or with that. She took to literature for the most honourable of all reasons—to make a livelihood—but she took to it as some finely equipped ship slips into the water for the first time. I daresay there was some such ship launched on the day the publishers launched Mrs. Oliphant; and however good a ship it was, one may wonder, was its machinery in more perfect order than hers, or was its stored-up energy greater than the energy that was stored up in her? It carried its hundreds of human beings—I do not know how many, but not more, I dare swear, than that human barque was to carry—the men and women of her pen—and however gallantly it fought the elements, not more gallantly, I am sure, than she. If it had come to a fight between the woman and the ship, her force against its force, I believe the ship would have gone down. Which was her best novel? I suppose we all have our favourites. And no one stood out as a pillar among others. It could never have been said of Mrs. Oliphant ' One moment only was her sun at noon.' But I suppose we would all agree that among the best are the various Chronicles of Carlingford, and that Mr. Tozer, the Perpetual Curate, Miss Marjoribanks, and others of Carlingford, are as near to us as some of our friends and relatives. And there is another series destined, perhaps, for a longer voyage than even Salem Chapel—those magical stories of the unseen. She did so much and did it so well. Even put aside the novels, there are biography and history sufficient to keep a reader busy for years. Put that aside, the better to see the very river of essays that flowed from her to the magazines. Put all them aside, except those that appeared in Maga—one of the mothers of literature — and still the record is impressive ; if you have forgotten them, then re-read them ; and she did those because Maga, out of a list of splendid contributors, knew that she would do them best. To her fellow-writers, the sheer quantity of her output is a splendid quality. It does not specially prove her industry—she was industrious, but many writers have been far more industrious. It proved that her mind was splendidly cleared for action and how rich was the soil. The soil was of course her imagination —it was not one of those imaginations that have carried some writers in a single flight to the very vaults of heaven, to play hide-and-seek with the stars, and sometimes to drop them suddenly. It was rather a friendly Familiar that sat with her—sat on the back of her chair—was always waiting for her there, never deserted her once even in the month of May during all these fifty years; watched her grow old, heard the doleful bell emptying her house, lured her back to her chair as if proud of what she had done with him, like one grown to love the old lady in the white cap and the pretty shawl. I am not quite sure about the shawl, but she loved all beautiful things, and I think she wore a shawl. The Familiar grew to love it as he sat on the back of her chair and played with it and the cap, and whispered pretty thoughts to her, like one child left to her when the others were gone. It would ill become me to say much more ; we are here for a special purpose, to do honour to one of our illustrious dead, her task accomplished and the long day done.' It is for the future to sum her up—we at least know that she was the most distinguished Scotswoman of her time, and a steady light among that band of writers which helps to make the Victorian reign illustrious. A national monument in this historic pile means that to another of her children Scotland has said ‘Well done.' By your wish—and it is a solemn thought—Mrs. Oliphant joins the great shades who take care of Edinburgh and patrol the city inaudible.

Mr. Barrie then proceeded to unveil the memorial.

LORD DUNEDIN, addressing the gathering, then said — Mr. Barrie, ladies and gentlemen,—As President of the Cathedral Board, I accept at your hands the monument which you have just unveiled. This Cathedral Church is full of many monuments, and many men and some women are commemorated thereon ; but though their careers have been different, there is one bond of union between them all that we have—that we are their debtors for services to their country. You may serve your country in many ways. When we look at these banners and the brass tablets, we remember that there are many who have given the utmost proof of service by laying down their lives; but there is a service of talent as well as a service of life, and Mrs. Oliphant is among this latter band. Perhaps it is not quite the same direct motive of duty which stirs the effort of talent to devote itself to its country. Who can tell what are the springs which stir the promptings of genius, and, as little, who can tell or analyse exactly what are in literature the qualities of success? But at least, I think we can say this, that no one will be successful in the sense of commanding the general approbation of his or her countrymen unless in literature they have the gift of expressing in apt language what others have often felt inborn in their own mind. That is the peculiar gift of the poet; it is also, I think, the gift of the novelist, and I venture to say that no novelist has ever been universally acclaimed, as was the case of Mrs. Oliphant, unless there has been something in his or her writings which attracts the sympathy of many minds, and which gives us one more lesson upon the kinship of all mankind. Nor must we altogether leave out of view the actual pleasure which the perusal of such writings gives. In this field women are equal competitors with men, and we gladly recognise in Mrs. Oliphant to-day one whom I may venture to call the greatest Scottish female writer since the days of Miss Ferrier. Mr. Barrie, I have much pleasure in accepting the monument, and assuring you that we shall give it our due care.

Dr. THEODORE MARSHALL thereafter pronounced the benediction, and the proceedings terminated. This e-text was scanned, prepared and proofread by me. I would be thankful to receive comments, criticism and/or corrections. Picture likewise taken by me on February 2005.