Alexander Duff: a Forgotten Missionary Giant

Today, Alexander Duff is largely forgotten, his memory eclipsed by his younger contemporary, David Livingston.  Yet when Duff died in 1878, the Times contained a long obituary, Prime Minister Gladstone eulogised him and Scotland mourned as a nation that had lost its noblest son.  Few then would have thought it possible that Duff would ever be forgotten, but forgotten he is, and nowhere more so than in the Highlands.

Yet his Highland credentials are impeccable.  Destined to make a historic impact as the Church of Scotland’s first missionary to India, he was born in Moulin, near Pitlochry, in 1806.  It’s hard to imagine it today, but at that time Moulin was a Gaelic community, and Duff’s father, James, was exceptional in that he was also fluent in English.

The parish minister at the time was Alexander Stewart, a noted Gaelic scholar and one of those involved in preparing the version of the Gaelic Bible published in 1807.  It was through Stewart’s preaching that both James Duff and his wife became devout Christians.  Stewart had not always been an Evangelical, however.  Originally a Moderate, the story of his conversion provides a splendid illustration of the way that distant events and distant social circles can profoundly influence Highland parishes.  Stewart owed his own conversion to Charles Simeon of Cambridge, the leading Evangelical in the 18th century Church of England.  Simeon was on his way to Killiecrankie, but had been feeling poorly and his party had gone off ahead of him.  He set off the following day to catch up with them and on his way he called to see ‘a Mr. Stewart’ at Moulin.  Having seen the Pass at Killiecrankie, he returned to Moulin and spent the week-end with Stewart.

The visit changed Stewart’s life, but the wheels-within-wheels didn’t stop there.  What took Simeon to Perthshire was that he was making an evangelistic tour through Scotland with James Haldane.  Haldane moved in very different circles from the Duffs.  He was a nephew of Admiral Duncan, hero of the naval battle of Camperdown (1797), and his brother, Robert, was the Laird of Airthrey, now the site of Stirling University.  Robert had planned to sell the estate to finance missionary work in India, but the East India Company forbade it, and the brothers turned their attention instead to home missions.

Through such a train of events did Charles Simeon arrive at Moulin that day, little thinking that as a result a little boy born in a nearby cottage 19 years later would go to India and take up the work the Haldanes had dreamed of.  Nor could he have imagined that that same boy would one day thrill vast London audiences with his inspiring missionary appeals.

Duff sailed for India in 1830, surviving two shipwrecks before finally reaching Calcutta.  He remained there for over thirty years, and while he loved the country passionately he entertained no romantic illusions.  Dead bodies floated unnoticed down the Ganges, Thugs assassinated thousands in honour of their goddess, Kali, and when a great king died his scores of wives and concubines  were slaughtered so that they could accompany him to the after-life.

But if Duff was aghast, he was undeterred.  His chosen strategy for mission was education and he went about it with determination.  Up to that point, any education of Indians had been conducted in the vernacular, largely from fear that Indians who spoke English might get ideas above their station (India was, after all, a subject nation).  Duff, however, wanted to expose his students to the whole range of truth.  This meant, of course, Western truth, and at first sight it looks blatantly imperialistic, but Hinduism didn’t control only people’s views of the gods.  It controlled their views on everything.  It had its own geography, its own astronomy and its own medicine, but no Brahmin could learn anatomy (and become a doctor) because his religion forbade him to touch a dead body.

The only way to challenge this was to expose India to Western science, but the

vernacular languages could never deliver this.  English had to become the language of learning and perform for Indians the same function as Latin had performed for Scots in the Middle Ages.    This laid the foundation for the place of English in modern India.

Here Duff saw a parallel with his native Gaelic: “As a native of the Highlands I vividly realised the fact that the Gaelic language, though powerful for lyric and other poetry and also for popular address, contained no works that could possibly meet the objects of a higher and comprehensive education.”

Is this a complaint about the limitations of the language or about the lack of resources available in the language?  Whichever, it was not the whole story.  Duff also realised, again as a Gaelic speaker, that English could never have for Indians the emotional and rhetorical force of their native languages; and this was part of a wider realism.  A handful of missionaries could never Christianise India.  That could be done only by native preachers preaching in their own vernacular.

Here again he saw a parallel with Gaelic.  Highland teachers and preachers were educated through English, but they returned “to distribute the treasures of knowledge acquired through English among the Gaelic people.”  But the parallel was not perfect.  Highland preachers preached in Gaelic.  Highland teachers did not teach in Gaelic.

But now, with the advent of Gaelic-medium education, they do; and what a fascinating contrast that presents to the work of Duff in India.  In Gaelic-medium the “vernacular” has become the language of education.  Yet its objective is to promote Gaelic as a vernacular.  It is succeeding brilliantly as the language of the classroom, but it has not succeeded in becoming the language of the playground.

I don’t raise this as an objection: more as a curiosity.  But imagine if 14th century Scots had been educated in Doric and played in Latin.  Which language would have won out in the end?

This is a slightly amended version of an article which first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday, 24 May, 2013.