Gilfillan, George (DNB00)


GILFILLAN, GEORGE (1813–1878), miscellaneous writer, was born on 30 Jan. 1813, in the village of Comrie, Perthshire, where his father, the Rev. Samuel Gilfillan (1762–1826) [q. v.], was minister of the secession congregation. His mother, Rachel Barlas, ‘the star of the north,’ was daughter of the Crieff secession minister. Of twelve children George was the eleventh. When thirteen years old his father died, and he entered Glasgow College, where he became a class-fellow of Archibald Campbell Tait, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. John Eadie, and Dr. Hanna. He profited by the teaching of Sir Daniel Sandford, Robert Buchanan, and James Milne. He went to Edinburgh, and received warm encouragement from the professor of moral philosophy, John Wilson, better known as ‘Christopher North.’ Among his intimate friends, for life, were Thomas Aird [q. v.], Thomas de Quincey, and Thomas Carlyle, each of whom powerfully influenced him, but the last least. When twenty-two years of age, in 1835, he was licensed by the united presbytery of Edinburgh. He declined an invitation from his father's congregation at Comrie, and settled in March 1836 at Dundee in the School-Wynd Church, where he remained till his death.

In 1844 Gilfillan contributed gratuitously to the ‘Dumfries Herald,’ of which his friend Aird was editor, a brilliant series of literary estimates of living writers. These papers he republished under the title ‘A Gallery of Literary Portraits,’ Edinburgh, 1845, with eleven poor lithographic portraits by Friedrich Schenck. The book was instantly popular. Thenceforward literature claimed a large part of Gilfillan's time. During the following thirty years he published a hundred volumes or pamphlets, besides innumerable contributions to newspapers and magazines. But he never neglected his ministerial duties. His congregation increased. He worked hard for the cause of voluntaryism, although maintaining private friendship with episcopalians and state presbyterians; and was always zealous in the cause of liberal and progressive thought. In 1843 he published a sermon entitled ‘Hades; or the Unseen,’ which reached three editions. It was attacked by Dr. Eadie in the ‘United Secession Magazine,’ May 1843, by the Rev. Alexander Balfour, and others. The Dundee presbytery examined it on 25 July 1843, and decided the matter in Gilfillan's favour. In September 1869 he wrote a letter to the Edinburgh ‘Scotsman,’ declaring that ‘the standards of the church contained much dubious matter and a good deal that is false and mischievous.’ In February 1870 this declaration was brought by the Edinburgh presbytery before the Dundee presbytery, who again found there was no cause for further procedure. In 1847 he opposed the ultra-sabbatarianism of those who strove to stop all Sunday travelling or ‘Sunday walks.’ Gilfillan persistently opposed the project of union between the united presbyterians, to which body he belonged, and the free kirk that had seceded.

Gilfillan actively promoted mechanics' institutes, popular lectures, and free libraries. He brought distinguished men, such as Professor John Nicol, the astronomer, R. W. Emerson, and Dr. Samuel Brown, to lecture at Dundee and at mechanics' institutes elsewhere. In May 1841 he himself lectured against the corn laws; in January 1844, at the Watt Institution, on the reconciliation of geology and scripture; in 1846 on ‘literature and books’ and against American slavery. He actively sympathised with Kossuth and Garibaldi, and supported the Burns centenary and the Shakespeare tercentenary. In 1865 he lectured on Ireland, but ‘without hope that it would ever come abreast of Great Britain;’ he had visited it and examined its evils for himself. Lectures on America followed.

Gilfillan generously assisted his fellow-authors, among those he helped being Sydney Dobell, Alexander Smith, and John Stanyan Bigg. As an editor of the old poets, a labour that occupied much of his time, Gilfillan was not very successful. He wrongly disdained the minute rectification of texts by a careful collation of the earliest editions or manuscripts, and his introductory essays and memoirs are not remarkable for accuracy. He died suddenly on Tuesday morning, 13 Aug. 1878, at Arnhalt, Brechin. His funeral, 17 Aug., at Balgay cemetery, was attended by a procession two miles long. Gilfillan's many friends acknowledged that success never spoilt him, and all recognised his generosity and sincerity. Though living so busy a life, he found time in vacations for much foreign travel. In November 1836 he married Margaret Valentine of Mearns, who survived him. It was a happy marriage, although they had no children.

The following are his more important works: 1. ‘Hades,’ already mentioned, 1843. 2. ‘Gallery of Literary Portraits,’ first series, 1845 (Jeffrey, Godwin, Hazlitt, Robert Hall, Shelley, Chalmers, Carlyle, De Quincey, Wilson, Irving, Landor, Coleridge, Emerson, Wordsworth, Lamb, Keats, Macaulay, Aird, Southey, Lockhart, and others); second series, 1850; third, 1854; reissued 1856–7. 3. ‘Alpha and Omega’ (one of his best books), 2 vols. of scripture studies, 1850. 4. ‘Book of British Poesy,’ 1851. 5. ‘Bards of the Bible,’ 1851; 6th edition 1874. 6. ‘Martyrs and Heroes of the Scottish Covenant,’ 1852. 7. ‘The Fatherhood of God,’ 1854. 8. ‘Life of Robert Burns,’ 1856 and 1879. 9. ‘History of a Man; a semi-autobiographical Romance,’ 1856. 10. ‘Christianity and our Era,’ 1857. 11. ‘Remoter Stars in the Church Sky’ (short memoirs of preachers, among whom is his father, Samuel Gilfillan), 1867. 12. ‘Modern Christian Heroes, including Milton, Cromwell, and the Puritans,’ 1869. 13. ‘Life of Sir Walter Scott,’ 1870 and 1871. 14. ‘Comrie and its Neighbourhood,’ 1872. 15. ‘Life of the Rev. William Anderson of Glasgow,’ 1873. 16. ‘Edinburgh, Past and Present.’ His only poem of importance was the volume entitled ‘Night; a Poem,’ 1867, which found favour among his friends. His editions with lives of the poets in James Nicol's series appeared at Edinburgh between 1853 and 1860. Among his published lectures were the ‘Christian Bearings of Astronomy,’ 1848; the ‘Connection between Science, Literature, and Religion,’ 1849; ‘The Influence of Burns on Scottish Poetry and Song,’ 1855; an introduction (and probably much more) to ‘The Age of Lead, a Satire by A. Pasquin,’ 1858; ‘The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ,’ 1851; ‘Christian Missions,’ 1857; and ‘The Life and Works of David Vedder,’ 1878. He had completed the literary portion of a new ‘Life of Burns’ shortly before his death. At that time he was engaged on a ‘History of British Poetry,’ and on a memoir, intended to be his magnum opus, ‘Reconciliation, a Life History,’ a sequel to his ‘History of a Man.’ Selections from the critical and reflective, but not from the narrative, portions of this unpublished manuscript, were posthumously issued at Edinburgh, 1881, inadequately edited by Frank Henderson, M.P., under the title ‘Sketches, Literary and Theological.’

On 25 March 1878 there was signed the deed of investment of the 1,000l. ‘Gilfillan Testimonial Trust,’ the proceeds of a public subscription raised in Gilfillan's honour in 1877. After the death of his wife Margaret the money was to be devoted to founding Gilfillan scholarships for the deserving youth of either sex.

[Personal knowledge of many years; obituary notices in the Scotsman and Dundee newspapers, and his own works as enumerated above.]

J. W. E.