In the autumn of 1906 the writer of this biography was delegated to represent Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, at the Quater-Centenary Festival of his Scottish Alma Mater, the University of Aberdeen. No one who took part in that fête can ever forget its brilliance. Luxuriance seemed out of place in the austere surroundings of Aberdeen; but the Aberdonian is not without a modest consciousness of his superior fitness to survive in a stern world. "Tak' awa Aberdeen," he says "and twal' mile roond aboot and whaur are ye?" It took a race of steel to wring bread from that grim "German" ocean with its throat-cutting "haars" and wild storms, and from those peaty moorlands spread thin over the rock. But now the Dorian mood of this hard-living and tight-gripping folk had changed for once to the most Corinthian abandon of lavish gaiety and revel. It was in keeping with their character that their rare Saturnalia should frolic around the knees of Athene. Nothing could be too good for the old University, the mother of their glory and their gain! For her the sacred "saxpences" might well go bang. And so, like an aloe tree, the granite city on the cold North Sea had at last unclosed its slumbering flower after four hundred years of greyness. Colour ran not everywhere in the profuse decorations of the principal streets as well as in the gorgeous robes of academic dignitaries who, to honour this occasion, had flocked from Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.
The summer had been as abominable as only a Scottish summer can be. Fine weather is apt indeed to be rare in Scotland. It is, in the immortal phrase of Andrew Fairservice, one large "Parish of Dreepdailie" where, if ever a dry day happens to stray along, "the Sawbath," or in this case a University Quarter-Centenary celebration "comes and licks it up." The Festival was blessed by the one lucid interval of the year's weather, and at such times the humid atmosphere is not a curse. It gives a glamour of depth and distance to the landscape. Nothing is hard or prosaic; everything seeming to have the gloss and lustre of a pebble under water. Hill and dale are steeped in a transfiguring medium of large soft light and clean bewitching air. When the sun takes the pains to shine in Scotland he has something worth while to illumine. He did shine during all these festival days, whose perfect sweetness was surpassed only, if possible, by the nights when the sullen sea softened into azure and rippling silver beneath the smile of the big benignant harvest moon. The innermost citadel of dour old Scotland's dourness had blossomed into the joy and beauty which is at the heart of that wholesome austerity. It was as if a magician had waved over the drab old town his liberating wand and sung the incantation of the Canticle: "The winter is past, the rain is over and gone. ... the time of the singing of birds is come."
A magician had indeed been at work, an aged Merlin, who looked the part, the Lord Chancellor of Aberdeen University at this moment of its tardy but dazzling apogee, the contemporary of well nigh a quarter of its secular duration. It would have been quite impossible to find a more appropriate or symbolic figure for that high place at that historic hour. The man was in every sense at home there and in his glory.
Some five feet nine of the toughest kind of human stuff, usually with a tall grey hat on top, but now with gold-tasselled trencher-cap matching the purple and crimson robes of the great occasion, a very unassuming and benevolent figure of a man; soft voice with just a lingering suspicion of the original caressing Highland drawl, persuasive and homely yet flowing and musically rounded speech, the express echo of sweet reasonableness, full of a grave and simple courtesy; and then that unmistakable dome of mingled sagacity and power in the massive head bearded and crowned with snow, with the strong straight nose, forehead broad rather than high, and the mild light of forward-looking grey-blue eyes under the formidable penthouse of tremendously bushy leonine white eye-brows. A head for wise counsel and action, both cautious and bold; the right centre for a board of Venetian or English merchants, a group of senators, or the constellation of an Academic Sanhedrim. Such was the impression made upon the eye by this octogenarian Merlin, who almost seventy years before had left Aberdeen a humble peasant lad to seek his fortune in the Canadian wilderness and who was now Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, one of the foremost builders of the British Empire.
On this occasion he performed two deeds that to many of those gathered about him had in them a touch of the miraculous, and that raised this festival to a lustre quite unique among its kind. He had, for one thing, brought the King of England to Aberdeen. His Majesty, was, it is true, in a way an Aberdeenshire country gentleman. His favourite residence, as his mother's before him had been,—it showed their taste,—was in the valley of the Dee with its glorious mountains, the grandest valley in all Scotland. He could, therefore be the more easily moved to confer a special distinction upon the chief city of a district which he and his family had long peculiarly identified themselves. But, we may well suspect, that was not the really determining cause of his presence. King Edward VII was, among his other royal qualities, an infallible judge of men, and had the greatest esteem and even affection for Lord Strathcona. He called him "Uncle Donald." He had found him in time of difficulty a real Pater Patriæ and therefore the right sort not only of "King's Cousin" but even of King's Uncle. For during the trouble in South Africa six years before Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal had for the first time in many hundred years—from the spring of rejuvenation beyond the Atlantic—revived the best feudal traditions of the British House of Peers, and, as a free-will offering to the Empire which he had long served with all his heart and strength, had entirely at his own costs raised and equipped a splendid regiment of Canadian cavalry. That was the kind of man whom the King delighted to honour.
The immediate purpose of the Royal visit was to open certain fine new buildings which now complete the Quadrangle of Marischal College, one of the two colleges in Aberdeen which together make the University, the other being King's College in the Old Town by the banks of the Don. This beautiful façade with its noble towers was of course of granite. But that hard stone has been incredibly spiritualized there into the lightest and airiest tracery—no bad emblem of what the old College has made of the very similar human raw material given to it for shaping. The quadrangle was packed with ladies and academic personages in the full glory of their many coloured gowns and robes, seated on chairs in the brig, soft, mild, autumn sunshine—an assembly of some four thousand, all turned towards the platform which had been raised across the new propylæa, watching for the King's appearance. He came at last, accompanied by Queen Alexandra, who looked the tall graceful young woman which it seemed her inalienable prerogative always to remain. The Principal of the University, the Rev. Dr. Marshall Lang, an orator by profession and endowed with unusual power of elocution, read an address of welcome. Even those who, like myself, sat pretty well forward could not hear the eloquent speaker. Then the King replied. He seemed not to exert himself, but every word he uttered was heard by all present in that huge gathering. It was the voice of one born to rule, not a tall man but every inch a king.
But there was one other unique and almost barbaric dash of splendour that distinguished these festivities, a second miracle which taxed to the uttermost the ingenuity even of the ancient wizard who was the Prospero of the pageant. Those who had long known Strathcona were well aware that his dearest foible was a certain Highland hospitality à outrance. He was, he reflected, the head of this great household. All these distinguished strangers from the ends of the earth were his guests, and all the students and Alumni of the University were his family. He must needs therefore—the inference was self-evident to him—break bread with all of them. Without that crowning festive touch the whole proceedings would have seemed to this artist in hospitality and magnificence to end in an intolerable anti-climax. Accordingly he announced his intention to give a dinner on the required scale and issued orders to send out the invitations. He was naturally told that the thing was a sheer impossibility. His little party would consist of some two thousand five hundred persons and there was no hall in the city of Aberdeen large enough for such a feast. They did not know their magician. Once he had made up his mind that a thing had to be done he did not recognize any more that Mirabeau of Napoleon the existence of the stupid word "impossible." If there was no hall why not build one? Was there no open space conveniently close to their doings which might be utilized for their banquet as well as for the main purpose of the Quater-Centenary? There was in fact just the space required, an ample piece of ground, adjoining Marischal College. In a very few days the needful edifice of wood arose out of the ground, as it were, like Troy Town to the strumming of Apollo's lyre. Most of the larger assemblies, all indeed except the monster one we have seen in the quadrangle, were held there, as well as the Gargantuan dinner party, the last astounding scene of all, in which these academic revels soared to their culminating point and burst in a star-shower of hilarity and effulgence. This memorable banquet, the chef d'œuvre of the host on one very characteristic side of him was of course in every sense the most popular exhibition of the entire series of shows. It was peculiarly the affair of the Alumni and under-graduates, especially of the latter who could not be accommodated with seats at some of the functions. They made up for it now. Their chancellor was resolved that they should have something to remember beyond a mere admission on good behaviour in best bib and tucker to the fag end of the great feast. They sat down there in that vast hall with the best of company to a supper of the pontiffs. The most generous viands were there, the finest vintages in overflowing abundance, turtles shipped from the far Carribees, first exhibited for object lessons in the board-schools before they achieved their final immolation in the sacred cause of learning in that delectable euthanasia. It was a scene over which the imagination of Cervantes of Alexandre Dumas would have gloated. Not only the musicians and the toast-master of the Lord Mayor of London—the finest voice I ever heard, brought down at a higher fee than would have fetched a great physician, and cheap at the price—but also the very waiters, seven hundred strong and all Cockneys, had been spirited up from the vasty deep by this Gaelic counterpart of the Cymric Owen Glendower.
And indeed it was quite true that in his work-a-day mood nobody could inspect both sides of a "bawbee" with a more reluctant circumspection of ceremonious leave-taking than this philanthropist, or defend his old stocking against the blandishments of impecunious plausibility with a more impregnable courtesy. That was just what emboldened him after his country fashion to come out strong on high days and holidays. He had like all true-bred North Britons a holy hatred of small dribbling leakages but was capable when thawed out by the heat of a great occasion of coming down in a highland "spate!" Surely this was such an occasion.
Who was this Count of Monte Christo and Mæcenas in one, so splendidly aware of the dignity and significance of Learning, the friend of emperors and the cynosure of all eyes, who for Queen and country could send in time of peril a regiment of his own equipping from beyond the Atlantic, and feed a sharp-set multitude of poor Scottish scholars at home? In the high place on which he shed lustre that night, reserved as it was by immemorial tradition for the most illustrious figures in the proud Scottish peerage, he was the successor to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon. His Grace while he lived had the clearest titles to that exalted position. He had been the local magnate. His birth and broad acres had made him beyond question the foremost dignitary of the region which owned the University of Aberdeen as its intellectual centre. He was the undisputed "Cock of the North," chief of the warlike clan of the Gordons, the bearer of the most ancient kind of historic name. The present Lord Chancellor too, here in the North had his foot no less firmly upon his native heath. He, if any man, could claim to be bone of the sturdy bone of the people who look to the Northern University as their centre of illumination. But his clan was of the bog-myrtle of the bracken rather than the oak, a sept much more numerous and widely sown than the Gordons. His name was vastly older than the Duke of Richmond's. It was plain Smith, not heightened to Smythe even for patronymic. The personal notches in it, cut by the baptising Highland minister, were the two commonest individualizing marks by which a reverend shepherd could summon one of his Highland flock—Donald Alexander.
At that enormous dinner-table of his which we have seen, there was not a single guest sitting, not the youngest undergraduate there, who owed less to universities than the Lord Chancellor. He was a graduate of the University of Labrador before becoming a D.C.L. of Oxford and an LL.D. of McGill and Aberdeen. The class-room of his many long freshman years had been one of the remotest of the Hudson's Bay Company's Labrador stores, in which he had sold much tobacco and much tea to Eskimos and Naskapi Indians. But he was not one of those rich wiseacres self-made as they suppose and rather botched in bits, who think that because they are coarse men, the muses and their thread-bare ministrants may go hang. He did not bow down before the great god "big business," and sing: "I will have no other gods before thee, radiant being." He knew, to go no higher than the lowest rung of Jacob's ladder, that you cannot have shops or railways or light, heat, and power companies, the improved means by which you march so proudly to your unimproved ends, without mathematicians, and no mathematicians without poor old professors like Euclid, Sylvester, James Watt, David Thompson and Clark Maxwell:—in short, that if the professor does not usually make money himself, being too much engaged with vastly more important and interesting things, he is the milldam reservoir of light, and therefore of heat and power. Lord Strathcona was perfectly aware that his indirect debt to universities was immense. He paid it magnificently like the honest, affectionate Highland Scot that he was.
There was scarcely a family in Lord Strathcona's home country, however poor, some one or other of whose scions had not risen to some fair degree of distinction and the heights where the wider view is possible. It would have been difficult to find a nest so low upon the ground that had not sheltered an eagle, to give the brood that came after heart and hope to soar, when their turn came, with fearless eyes against the sun. No doubt there was something in the firm natural texture of the breed, in the happy blend of Saxon solidity and Celtic fire. But it was Aberdeen University above all that had done it. Its Chancellor, the graduate of Labrador, owed much to it, though he had never sat in its class-rooms. It had done much to create the quickening atmosphere his youth had breathed, to labour and fructify the soil from which he grew, to establish and disseminate the tradition which had given wings to his career. Four hundred years before this celebration in which Strathcona played the leading part, Bishop Elphinstone, prelate and statesman, as zealous a patron of learning as Strathcona, and as liberal, too, had founded King's College with its gigantic crown, on the banks of the Don. The tower of King's College had in truth been what it was meant to be, a Pharos to the North. A steady light of truth and hope and enfranchisement had reached humble homes from there even to the distant Hebrides which had once menaced it at Harlaw, making young eyes glow amid the blue peat-smoke and young hearts beat high. A shrine, too, it had been; rich in sacrifice. Fathers and mothers had toiled and pinched to send their boys there. The boys themselves, who on scant fare had climbed the steep triumphal sacred way to the citadel and temple of knowledge, had been no less lavish of oblation. King's had a "right divine" to wear its granite crown. It had impartially wielded the highest prerogative of royalty—proved a true fountain of honour and ennobled a whole people. Far and wide throughout its sphere of influence the bell-swinging in the crowned tower had proclaimed the evangel which Carlyle says Napoleon's cannon thundered over Europe—"the careers open to the talents," "the tools to him who can use them." Not to deaf ears!
So Strathcona did well to honour the grey Mother on whose breast he himself had not lain. He had set out, an old man's lifetime ago, from Aberdeen, in hob-nailed shoes and hodden grey. He was now in Aberdeen again, in the house of his fathers. He had travelled in a far country and returned, not like the lean prodigal, though they had brought forth "the best robe" for him; still less like a freedman of Egypt loaded with his late master's spoils. Say rather like a wise white-bearded king, bearing gifts of gold and precious stones, aloes and myrrh and frankincense, to do homage at a great birthday piously commemorating the past and hopefully greeting the dawn of a future yet more radiant. He did well to do homage. And they did well to honour him. He was the achieved type of the wandering Scot which was peculiarly their own. There seemed to be a kind of pre-established harmony between the University itself and that noble figure at its head in the mild glory of old age and slowly ripened majesty and power.
It is this man's life story that we are to tell, a story of more vital interest to the ordinary man than that of king or emperor. From the humble home by the Mosset he had gone forth, trusting to his own powers for success. He had achieved his ambitions beyond his most ardent dreams, and he had come home rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.