Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forsyth, William (1818-1879)

648398Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 20 — Forsyth, William (1818-1879)1889William Forsyth

FORSYTH, WILLIAM (1818–1879), Scottish poet and journalist, son of Morris Forsyth and Jane Brands, was born at Turriff, Aberdeenshire, 24 Oct. 1818. He was educated at Fordyce Academy and the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh. For some years he studied medicine, becoming assistant to a country doctor, and twice acting as surgeon to a Greenland whaler, but he never took a medical degree, and ultimately abandoned medicine for literature. His first engagement was as sub-editor of the ‘Inverness Courier’ (1842) under Dr. Robert Carruthers [q. v.], and while with him he largely assisted in the preparation of ‘Chambers's Cyclopædia of English Literature,’ a work of high value. In 1843 he became sub-editor of the ‘Aberdeen Herald,’ then conducted by Mr. Adam, and he contributed in prose and verse for several years. In 1848 he joined the staff of the ‘Aberdeen Journal,’ one of the oldest and most influential of Scottish newspapers, and eventually was appointed editor, an office which he held with much honour for about thirty years. Forsyth was in politics a liberal-conservative. He gave his ardent support to all measures tending to the elevation of the people. He was much trusted by his political friends, but he always asserted a certain independence in his action. During the American civil war he stood almost alone among Scottish journalists in advocating the cause of the north. In the famous controversy of Kingsley v. Newman he wrote with much force in support of the former, and received from him a special letter of thanks. In church questions his articles were held in high repute, and Bishop Wordsworth of St. Andrews and Alexander Ewing [q. v.], bishop of Argyle, corresponded with him privately. Forsyth also wrote two pamphlets on Scottish church questions, entitled ‘A Letter on Lay Patronage in the Church of Scotland’ (1867) and ‘The Day of Open Questions’ (1868). In the first of these he indicated the lines on which a true reform of the church might be carried out, and may be said to have paved the way for the legislation which followed soon after in the Act for the Abolition of Church Patronage (1874).

Forsyth rendered valuable services to Aberdeen. The establishment of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor was mainly due to him, and he not only laboured hard as an active member of the managing committee, but for six years gratuitously discharged the duties of secretary. Much of the results of his observation and experience may be found in a paper read by him to the Social Science Congress in 1877, on ‘The Province and Work of Voluntary Charitable Agencies in the Management of the Poor.’ Forsyth was elected a member of the first Aberdeen school board, and did much good work of a general kind, besides serving as convener of a committee that had to deal with certain delicate and difficult questions affecting the grammar school and town council. From the first Forsyth took a warm interest in the volunteer movement, and was chosen captain of the citizens' battery. This appointment he held for eighteen years, retiring with the rank of major. Some of his martial songs obtained a wide popularity. He also took much interest in everything connected with the service, and made some valuable suggestions to the war office as to practical gunnery and the use of armed railway carriages in warfare, a device which was turned to good account in the operations in Egypt. Forsyth's principal literary works were ‘The Martyrdom of Kelavane’ (1861) and ‘Idylls and Lyrics’ (1872). The latter volume contains a thoughtful poem entitled ‘The Old Kirk Bell,’ and several other pieces published for the first time, but it is mainly made up of reprints from magazines. The most finished of these is ‘The River,’ which came out in the ‘Cornhill Magazine’ in Thackeray's time. The most moving is that entitled ‘The Piobrach o' Kinreen,’ the old piper's lament for the clearance of Glentannar, which first appeared in ‘Punch.’ During the last ten years of his life Forsyth suffered from an affection of the tongue, which ultimately took the form of malignant cancer. After a long illness, he died on 21 June 1879. Forsyth married in 1854 Miss Eliza Fyfe, who survived him. Since his death ‘Selections’ from his unpublished writings, with a ‘Memoir,’ have been edited by his friend Mr. Alexander Walker, Aberdeen. This volume is chiefly remarkable as reproducing ‘The Midnicht Meetin',’ a vigorous satire on the promoters of the union of the Aberdeen and Marischal colleges, originally printed for private circulation. The book shows Forsyth's love of animals and his attachment to Aberdeen, where, at Bonnymuir, Maryville, Friendville, Gordondale, and Richmondhill, his successive homes, he spent more than thirty years. He was buried in the cemetery of Allenvale on the Dee.

[Memoir by Alex. Walker, 1882.]

W. F.