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Rev. James Gray 1770 - 1830

Rev Gray.png

James Gray was born in Duns around the year 1770 although there is no record of his birth in the Parish Registers. His father was Thomas Gray shoemaker who was prominent in the affairs of the Town and the Guild of Cordiners or Shoemakers, also being a Bourlawman (a person appointed by the Bailie to act as judge or arbiter in local disputes). On 31st. October 1778 for instance we find the following entry:

“The Baillie hereby appoints William Gladstones and William Cleghorn merchants and Thomas Gray leather merchant in Dunse along with the Deacons of the Trades for this year as a Committee for managing the fund belonging to the Town of Dunse arising from the street dung in terms of the foregoing regulations as also the fund belonging to the Town and collected from the inhabitants for paying the person who rings the town Bell and takes care of the Town Clock or any other funds that may accrue or belong to the Town”

His father was also an elder of the Anti-Burgher Church in Easter Street (later the Roxy Cinema) and died before 1823. His mother was Sarah daughter of Robert Norrie. James would appear to have been the eldest of a family of six (three sons and three daughters).

James attended the Parish school where his schoolmaster seems to have had something of a reputation in the infliction of corporal punishment. On leaving school James, very reluctantly it would appear, spent a period as apprentice to his father before attending classes in Arts at Edinburgh University from 1787 to 1793. He is also believed to have studied for the ministry of the Church of Scotland.

After working for a short period as usher at Dunse Grammar School in 1794 James was appointed rector of Dumfries Grammar School.

At Dumfries Gray met up with and became a friend of Robert Burns and also taught his children.

On 30th. November 1795 he married Mary Phillips (1773-1806) daughter of Peter Phillips tenant farmer of Longbridgemoor, Annandale by whom he had five sons and three daughters. Mary Phillips was a sister in law of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd.

In 1801 Gray obtained the position of Classics Master at the High School of Edinburgh where he was a popular and much respected teacher. After his experiences as a pupil at Duns he sought to introduce a new system of teaching known as the Lancasterian or monitorial system, a much less harsh regime based on encouragement rather than punishment, carrot rather than stick. The system also set out to provide a basic education for as many children as possible with the funds available and despite a great shortage of teachers, monitors (older children who had already been taught the ‘3Rs’) taught groups of younger children in turn.

At Edinburgh he mixed with the literati and became a close friend of James Hogg who was later to marry a sister of his second wife and contributed to Hogg’s journal "The Spy" (1810-1811). He was the fifteenth bard in Hogg’s “The Queen’s Wake” the opening passage referring to his Berwickshire birth commencing “The next was bred on southern shore”

Gray wrote vigorously in defence of Robert Burns and in two letters to Alexander Peterkin, Burns’ biographer (1815) and his brother Gilbert Burns (1820) he rebutted allegations of habitual drunkenness made against Burns by his first editor James Currie arguing that it would have been impossible for Burns to have created and composed so much in such a short time span had he been, as was alleged, a drunken debaucher. Gray pointed out the vast quantities of Poetry written by Burns writing “Not many days passed in which he did not composes one piece of poetry or song designed to delight the imagination and soften the heart”.

He also composed and published some much respected work of his own including an edition of the poems of Robert Ferguson (1821), two textbooks on classical subjects and also two volumes of poetry "Cona, or the "Vale of Clwyd" and other poems" (1814) and ‘ "A Sabbath among the Mountains" (1823).

Following the death of his first wife in 1808 Gray remarried Mary (1767-1829) daughter of Alexander Peacock architect Edinburgh. Mary was also of a poetic bent and had likewise been a contributor to Hogg’s Journal, ‘The Spy’. She was a close friend of Agnes Mclehose, Burns’ Clarinda and is often mentioned by Clarinda in her correspondence with Burns or as she referred to him in the correspondence Sylvander.

There were no children of the second marriage.

In 1822 after applying for, but being rejected for, the post of founding editor of Blackwood's Magazine and being passed over for both the position of Rector of the High School of Edinburgh and the Chair of Greek at St. Andrews University Gray accepted a position as principal of Belfast Academy.

He would not appear to have settled into this position and being rather impulsive and unbusinesslike his financial position was probably less than sound (it was said of him ‘no one ever joined so much integrity with so much imprudence’) he changed course and was ordained a Deacon in the Church of Ireland in1823, in 1826 applying for and obtained a chaplaincy in the East India Company.

The following year he was appointed chaplain at Bhuj Cutch in what is now eastern Pakistan where he opened a school and library. There he made the first written vocabulary of Cutchee and began translation of the Gospels into that language but died on 25th. September 1830 from 'water in the chest' before his work was completed. He was buried alongside his wife who had accompanied him to India even although she herself was terminally ill. A monument to his memory was erected by the local prince whom he had taught.


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