The Rev David Sempill

(creator: John Buchan)

John Buchan
The Rev David Sempell "began his ministry in Woodilee on the twenty-sixth day of August in the year of grace sixteen hundred and forty-four. He was no stranger to the glen, for as a boy he had spent his holidays with his grandfather, who was the miller of Roodfoot." It was just a year since he had been licensed by the presbytery of Edinburgh. He “was young and he was ardent, and his duties were still an adventure .... His active form, his colour, his tangled hair, spoke of the boy, but his face was not boyish. In its young contours there were already thought and resolution and spiritual fineness, and there was a steady ardour in the eyes .... He was strong and buoyant .... His face high-coloured by weather, his cheerful eyes, and his boyish voice and laugh were soon popular in the length of the parish."

John Buchan (1875-1940) had a highly successful literary and public career. He was the son a Free Church of Scotland minister and was raised in Kirkcaldy (pronounced ker-coddy) in Fife. After graduating at Glasgow University he was awarded a scholarship to Oxford where he wrote his first two historical novels while still an undergraduate. Originally trained for the law, he worked for the British High Commission in South Africa at the end of the Boer War, subsequently returning to London where he became a director of Thomas Nelson, the publishers. He worked at the Ministry of Information during the First World War and subsequently became a Tory MP for the Scottish universities from 1927 to 1935, when, as Lord Tweedsmuir, he was appointed to be Governor-General of Canada.

He is best known for his popular Richard Hannay spy thrillers, starting with The 39 Steps in 1915, although in these he has subsequently been accused of expressing anti-semitic and racist views. He wrote as many as 30 novels and over 60 non-fiction books. Witch Wood (reviewed below) was his own favourite amongst his novels.

Witch Wood (1927)
Witch Wood describes how moderate Presbyterian minister, young David Sempill, disputes with the extremists of his faith. All around, the defeated remnants of Montrose's army are being harried and slaughtered by the faithful, and Sempill's plea for compassion, like his love for the beautiful Katrine Yester, is out of joint with the times. But David's first concern is his discovery of terrifying black magic rituals being performed by apparently pious members of his congregation in the ancient Caledonian forest of Melanudrigill Wood, the "wud " as people call it. David is determined to identify and unmask them - which he does, but at great cost to himself.

It makes a lively and interesting story told in a very realistic way, so that you really identify with David as he explores the dreadful wood, and later on has to face the ire of his local presbytery. The self-satisfied surrounding clergy are vividly brought to life. The only really supportive one is the thin and pale Mr Fordyce. It is he who explains, “I have kept ilka tooth I have ever cast, and they will go into my coffin with me that my bodily parts may be together at the Resurrection." But he believes that David “has the makings o' a saint and he has the makings o' a warrior, but a manse is no place for him .... He canna walk doucely as the Kirk ordains. For, if he sees wrang he maun set it richt, though the Kirk tells him to bide still."

The historical background, with its convincing descriptions of the all-powerful, if hypocritical, kirk, of witchcraft and of witch-hunting, of the hard village life, and of the plague, is convincingly handled, although it would have been helpful to have had a little more background information about Montrose (who appears twice in the story and much impresses David). As it is, I had to look elsewhere for an explanation of how Montrose had abandoned the Covenanters (and hence the kirk) to fight against them and for King Charles I.

The Scottish dialect is largely comprehensible, even if it does require a bit of effort as when David's housekeeper Isobel tells him, “There's ill news frae up the water, Mr Sempill. It's Marion Simpson, her that's wife to Richie Smale, the herd o' the Greenshiel. Marion, puir body, has been ill wi' a wastin' the past twalmonth, and now it seems she's near her release. Johnnie Dow, the packman, is ben the house and he has brocht word that Richie is fair dementit, and that the wife is no like to last the nicht, and would the Minister come up to the Greenshiel."

David is at his best when confronted with human need. When he visits a hunched old man whose wife has just died, “He prayed, as he always prayed, not in a mosaic of Scripture texts, but in simple words; and as he spoke he felt the man's shoulder under his hand shake as with a sob. He prayed with a sincere emotion, for he had been riding through a living coloured world and now felt like an icy blast the chill and pallor of death. Also he felt the pity of this lifelong companionship broken, and the old man left solitary.
The old man praises David and tells him, "Ye've done me guid, sir – I think it's maybe the young voice o' ye. It was kind to make siccan haste. I wish – I wish ye'd seen Mirren in life .... Pit up anither petition, afore ye gang – for a blessin' on this stricken house and on an auld man who has his title sure in Christ but has an unco rebellious heart."
Then, we are told, “It seemed to David as he turned from the door, where the shepherd stood with uplifted arm, that a benediction had been given, but not by him."

David proves to be a real hard worker for, in the winter, “There were old women too chilled and frail to kindle their fires in the morning and melt snow for water; there were households so ill provided that they existed largely on borrowed food; there were cots where the weather had broken roof or wall. Isobel in the manse kitchen was a busy woman and her girdle was never off the fire. David had looked forward to the winter snows as a season of peace, when he could sit indoors with his books; instead he found himself on his feet for fourteen hours out of the twenty-four, his hands and face chapped like a ploughman's, and so weary at night that he fell off his chair with sleep while Isabel fetched his supper. Yet it was the storm which was David's true ordination to his duties, for it brought him close to his people, not in high sacramental things like death, but in their daily wrestling for life."

However, David's relationships with his fellow clergy and with the Kirk, grow increasingly strained. He cannot go along with their repeated emphasis on Old Testament teachings at the expense of what he feels to be more enlightened views expressed in the New Testament. "The profession of religion was not the same thing as godliness, and he was coming to doubt whether the insistence upon minute conformities of outward conduct and the hair-splitting doctrines were not devices of Satan to entangle souls. The phrases of piety, unctuosly delivered, made him shudder as at a blasphemy."

David's few friends include the beautiful Katrine Yester, who used to escape to that part of the old wood she called paradise and where he could occasionally meet her, although “No word of love was spoken between the two. They were comrades only, truant children, boy and girl on a Saturday holiday. It was a close companionship, yet as unembarrassed as that of sister and brother. In her presence David caught her mood, and laughed with it, but when absent from her he was in a passion of worship. The slim green gowned figure danced through his waking hours and haunted his dreams. He made no plans, forecast no future; he was in that happy first stage of love which is content to live with a horizon bounded by the next meeting."

In the end, David is accused of having “had trokings with the Wood and the evil of the Wood – and indeed on your own confession we know that you have frequented it when decent folk were in their beds." And he had been “seen to meet a woman". There was also evidence that he had harboured one of Montrose's fleeing man - a charge that he readily admits is true.

There can be no happy ending for David or his few friends - but it makes a memorable story.

The John Buchan Society has its own website.

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Witch Wood cover
Witch Wood cover
The book has often been reprinted. These are two of the more striking covers.
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