Birnie, William (DNB00)

BIRNIE, WILLIAM (1563–1619), Scotch divine, was only son of a fabulously ancient house, William Birnie of ‘that ilk.’ He was born at Edinburgh in 1563, entered student in St. Leonard’s College, St. Andrews, 3 Dec. 1584, proceeded in his degree of BLA. in 1588, became a ship-master merchant, but sustaining heavy losses at sea returned to his studies, and attended divinity three years in Leyden. He is found in exercise at Edinburgh 25 Jan. 1596, and was presented to the vicarage of Lanark by James YI on 28 Dec. 1597. There had been internecine feuds in the parish for a number of years. But Birnie, a man of commanding presence, was able to wield a sword, and thus ls said to have gradually reconciled parties. He was constituted by the king, 4 Aug. 1603, master and economus of the hospital and almshouse of St. Leonard’s, and appointed dean of the Chapel Royal 20 Sept. 1612. Earlier he had shown sympathy with the brethren confined in Blackness Castle previous to their trial in 1606 at Linlithgow. He appears as a member of the general assembly of the kirk of Scotland in 1602, 1608, 1610. He was nominated ‘constant moderator of the presbytery ’ by the assembly of 1606, and the presbtery were ‘charged by the privy council 17 Jan. thereafter, to serve him as such within twenty-four hours after notice, under pain of rebellion.’ He was also named on the court of high commission 15 Feb. 1610, and presented to the deanery of the Chapel Royal of Stirling, which was ‘to be hereafter callit the Chapel Royal of Scotland,’ 20 Sept. 1612. The acceptance of the ‘constant moderatorship’ showed episcopal leanings. In 1612 he was transferred from Lanark to Ayr, to ‘parsonages prima and secundo, and vicarages of the same, and to the parsonage and vicarage of Alloway’- the scene of the Tam o' Shanter of Burnson 16 June 1614. He was a member again of the high commission 21 Dec. 1615, and one of the commissioners for the suppression of popery agreed to by the assembly in 1616. He married Elizabeth, daughter of John Lindsay, parson of Carstairs. Their issue were three sons and two daughters. He died on 19 Jan. 1619 in the fifty-sixth year of his age and twenty-second of his ministry. A kind of doggerel epitaph runs :-

He waited on his charge with care and pains
At Air on little hopes, and smaller gains.

For generations stories were told of him all over the southern shires of Scotland. One represents him as so agile that he could make the salmon’s leap ‘by stretching himself on the grass, leaping to his feet, and again throwing them over his head.’ He was the author of a prose book entitled ‘The Blame of Kirk-bviall, tending to perswade Cemeteriall Civilitie. First preached, then penned, and now at last propyned to the Lord’s inheritance in the Presbyterie of Lanark by M. William Birnie, the Lord his minister in that ilk, as a pledge of his zeale and care of that reformation. Edinburgh, printed by Robert Charteris, printer to the king’s most excellent maiestie, 1606' (4to). This was reprinted in 1833, in one hundred copies, by W. B. D. Turnbull. Birnie here deprecates interment within the church. There is considerable learning in the book, but its lack of arrangement and an absurdly alliterative style make it wearisome reading.

[Scott's Fasti, ii. 86–7, 306; Reid's History of Presbyterianism in Ireland, i.; Blair's Autobiography; Stevenson's Hist. of Church of Scotland; Calderwood's History; Boke of the Kirke, 318; Orig. Letters; Melvill's Autob.; Nisbet's Heraldry, ii.; Anderson's Scottish Nation, for ancestry and descendants]

A. B. G.