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Andrew Young – Minister and Makar

By Kenneth Angus

If one were asked to list the most distinguished Scottish poets of the past century, the name Andrew Young, who was minister in Temple from 1914-1920, would hardly come to mind, yet in its own way his work could easily stand comparison with such luminaries as Hugh McDiarmid, Norman McCaig or Edwin Morgan. Yet, as the writer and critic Professor Philip Hobsbaum has written, “his work figures in anthologies of Scottish verse, if at all, somewhat scantily, as if he was some kind of an afterthought.”

Andrew Young was born in 1885 in Elgin, Morayshire, but the family moved to Morningside two years later. He attended Gillespie’s School, and, on obtaining his leaving certificate, went to Edinburgh University to study Latin, Greek, Physics, Moral Philosophy, Metaphysics and Fine Art. The last-named appealed to him so much that he spent a year starving in a Paris garret. When Fine Art eventually palled he returned to Edinburgh with the idea of pursuing a career in Law, but a scandal in Singapore involving his brother, a physician, led him into theological studies at New College, and in 1912 he was ordained as a minister in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He was first called to assist at the Wallace Green Presbyterian Church in Berwick-on-Tweed, but on May 29th 1914 he was called to the United Free Church in Temple, marrying his fiancée Janet Green in August of the same year. Their first-born, Anthony, was born in 1915.

Young’s flock in Temple consisted of about 150 souls, including a former Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, who was a regular worshipper and who sent a gift of a brace of pheasants to the manse every Christmas. Also in the congregation were Lord and Lady Dundas of Arniston, who drove to the church every Sunday in their coach. The minister found such favour with Lady Dundas that she allowed him to walk in her private woodlands, which were carpeted with wild snowdrops in the winter. Both Andrew and Janet were fond of walking and also cycling along the local country lanes. The manse was described by a contemporary, John Baillie, as “modest enough, but whose interior was a carefully considered harmony of form and colour, the old Sheraton or Heppelwhite furniture blending admirably with the blue-and-white china, the rugs, the hangings and the wallpapers. But in the little bit of ground behind the house there was a pig – introduced to keep them down to earth.”

In a letter to a friend, Janet wrote that she enjoyed playing pieces by “Mr Mendelssohn and Mr Schubert” on her Cramer piano, and she assisted at Sunday services by playing the harmonium.

When hostilities broke out in France Andrew felt that he should enlist, though the congregation, fearing to lose their minister, tried without success to get his call-up deferred. He spent long periods over the next few years helping out in YMCA camps behind the lines, before returning to Temple after the Armistice. During his absence his household tried to offset inevitable shortages by growing vegetables and keeping hens and the above-mentioned pig. Mr Dykes, a local farmer, donated the odd bag of corn for the hens, and “Tom Pringle might throw into the back garden a swede-turnip, their favourite vegetable.” Matters improved greatly from 1918 onwards, and Andrew took to visiting his parishioners, particularly enjoying converse with local farmers, partly because a sumptuous tea was always laid on for the minister, but also out of a genuine curiosity about farming and farm livestock, which formed the subjects of some of his poems.

Unfortunately Andrew found himself unable to settle down in Temple. He was constitutionally abnormally sensitive to cold, not helped by the Temple climate which he described as “nine months of winter and three months of bad weather!” His miserable stipend did not allow them to heat the manse adequately, and Young was almost permanently ill with respiratory problems. A difficult and autocratic man, he forbade Janet, who had an excellent honours degree in modern languages, to take any tutoring assignments to help out, throwing out all her French and German books with the remark “You won’t be needing these any more!” He was constantly keeping an eye open for a chance to move south, and in 1920 suddenly answered a call to a charge in the English Presbyterian Church in Hove, Sussex. After a number of years he actually converted to the Anglican faith, and eventually became a canon. He died in 1971, crippled by arthritis.

Young began to write poetry from the tender age of five, and his first collection, Songs of Night, published in 1910, was well received. Being a keen walker and observer of nature led him to write numerous poems on wildlife subjects: missel-thrushes, beech trees, a dead crab and many others, with a unique incisiveness in which he seemed to see inside his subjects in an uncanny manner. Certainly he wrote several poems during his tenure in Temple, as well as at least three verse-plays, which were highly regarded. Several substantial collections of his work were published during the next thirty years or so.

Philip Hobsbaum writes in 1998: “Andrew Young has been characterised as the last and possibly the best of the Georgians. They are a currently underrated group of poets who may be held to have included Walter de la Mare, W.H. Davies, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and the earlier D.H. Lawrence. It makes more sense, however, to think of him as a metaphysical poet, directly comparable with, if not equivalent to, Donne, Herbert and Marvell.” Representative of Young’s work is the poem “A Dead Mole”:

Strong-shouldered mole
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?

The concept which climaxes in the closing line pulls one up sharply. The style of the poem is typical of Young: the irregular rhyme scheme with long and short lines relieves the poem of any monotony, and sharpens the emphasis.

Despite his calling, Andrew Young was by nature somewhat of a misanthropic disposition who found it difficult to relate to or write about people. This did not mean that he was insensitive to human tragedy. In later life his poems became increasingly metaphysical, as this final example, “Culbin Sands” from his “Collected Poems” (1936) shows:

Here lies a fair fat land;
But now its townships, kirks, graveyards
Beneath bald hills of sand
Lie buried deep as Babylonian shards.
But gales may blow again;
And like a sand-glass turned about
The hills in a dry rain
Will flow away and the old land look out;
And where now hedgehog delves
And conies hollow their long caves
Houses will build themselves
And tombstones rewrite names on dead men’s graves.

Later in life Andrew Young lived quietly as a somewhat eccentric country parson, travelling about the southern counties and indulging his passion for local wild flowers, about which he wrote a distinguished book, A Prospect of Flowers, published in 1945 and which won him the Heinemann Award. Why his wonderful prosody is not better known is not readily explicable. Perhaps, as he wrote in his own valedictory poem, “Twilight” all he wished was that some people:

“ …....may with approval say
His lines were terse."

Last updated: 29 November, 2012 Search This Website © Temple Village Website 2012