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Andrew Donaldson, The fanatic of Fife

Our next two ‘ragged-trousered philologists’ presented themselves in a state of sartorial disarray similar to the ragged Grecian’s. Although neither of them was addicted to drink, they made such a colourful impression on the lives of others that evidence of their unexpected classical abilities has been passed down to us. Their scholarship seemed to run counter to the cultural expectations of their natal class and their outward demeanour and appearance. Most of the information about Andrew Donaldson, the mysterious Dunfermline teacher and casual labourer (1714-1793) was recorded in the Edinburgh Portraits of John Kay, an Edinburgh caricaturist whose bookshop in Edinburgh Donaldson frequented. Kay’s two-volume A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings was first published in 1837-1838. When published posthumously by Hugh Paton, it included both a collection of portraits to ‘gratify and amuse’ the public and a graphic record.19

Born in the tiny Fife village of Auchtertool, Donaldson’s career in the pulpit stalled through poverty. He was academically gifted and so took a post as Master in the Dunfermline Grammar School. Although well qualified to teach Greek and Hebrew

it was not to be supposed, from the state of his mind, that his employment would be extensive, or that he was capable of pursuing any vocation with the necessary application and perseverance.20

In any case, he disliked teaching, remarking that he ‘was sure Job never was a schoolmaster, otherwise we should not have heard so much of his patience’.21 He resigned and took to living eccentrically:

he deemed it unlawful to shave, on the ground that, as man was created perfect, any attempt at mutilation or amendment, was not only presumptuous but sinful. Following up this theory in practice, he increased the singularity of his appearance, by approximating still more closely to the dress and deportment of the ancient Prophets ... He adhered to the strictest simplicity of diet, and preferred sleeping on the floor.22

It was not his beard and long locks alone that made his appearance striking (Figure 15.1):

His usual attire was a loose great-coat, reaching nearly to the ankle. In his hand he carried a staff of enormous length; and, as he seldom wore a hat or any other covering, his flowing locks, bald forehead, and strongly marked countenance, were amply displayed.23

Donaldson’s sister married a respectable local carpet manufacturer, but he lived a single and singular life of unremitting poverty and semi-vagrancy. In 1793 he was buried in Dunfermline Parish Church, where his gravestone simply read, ‘Here lies Andrew Donaldson, a sincere Christian, and good scholar’.

He had suffered episodes of delusional psychosis.

Occasionally, when actuated by some strong mental paroxysm, he has been known to exchange his pilgrim’s staff for an iron rod, with which he would walk about the streets of Dunfermline, declaring that he was sent to rule the nations, “with a rod of iron”.24

Donaldson’s literalist interpretation of the scriptures, especially when he brandished a weapon, could cause serious bodily harm to those with whom he felt righteously angry. He used his rod to beat a vagrant preacher because he would

Andrew Donaldson from the Edinburgh Portraits by John Kay (1877), reproduced by courtesy of the British Library

FIGURE 15.1 Andrew Donaldson from the Edinburgh Portraits by John Kay (1877), reproduced by courtesy of the British Library.

accept a halfpenny fee for a sermon. He found this ‘causeway preacher’ guilty of making ‘gain from godliness’ and struck him while repeating the words ‘Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel’.25 For this crime, Donaldson was imprisoned.

Donaldson was an accomplished classicist, and eventually moved to Edinburgh to work as a private teacher of Greek and Hebrew, but struggled because he lacked interpersonal skills and application. His friends clubbed together to fund his frugal lifestyle, but his scriptural convictions precluded the taking of charity. He chose to abide by the aphorism of Paul the Apostle, ‘if any is not willing to work, let him not eat’ (Thessalonians 2.3:10). He therefore often nearly starved. Donaldson’s biographer, who describes him as ‘anchorite-like’, alluding to his reclusive and devout lifestyle, blames his education for his idiosyncrasies.

He was an ardent student; and it is supposed that too close application, particularly in acquiring a knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew languages, tended to impair the faculties of a mind which might otherwise have shone forth with more than ordinary lustre.26

Nowadays Donaldson would probably be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. His aptitude for language learning may have resulted from his obsessive interest in the single activity of close reading. Intense scholarship was often seen as causing otherwise inexplicable mental maladies.

 
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