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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Buchanites, The

Burns referred to the arrival of the Buchanites in the south west of Scotland in a letter to James Burness in Montrose, dated 3rd August 1784: 'We have been surprized with one of the most extraordinary Phenomena in the moral world, which, I dare say, has happened in the course of this Century. We have had a party of the Presbytry Relief, as they call themselves, for some time in this country. A pretty thriving society of them has been in the Burgh of Irvine for some years past, till about two years ago, a Mrs Buchan from Glasgow came among them, and began to spread some fanatical notions of religion among them, and in a short time, made many converts among them, and among others their Preacher, one Mr Whyte, who upon that account has been suspended and formally deposed by his brethren... in Spring last the Populace rose and mobbed the old leader Buchan, and put her out of the town on which, all her followers voluntarily quitted the place likewise, and with such precipitation, that many of them never shut their doors behind them; one left a washing on the green, another a cow bellowing at the crib without meat or anybody to mind her, and after several stages they are fixed at present in the neighbourhood of Dumfries. Their tentets are a strange jumble of enthusiastic jargon, among others, she pretends to give them the Holy Ghost by breathing on them, which she does with postures and practices that are scandalously indecent; they have likewise disposed of all their effects and hold a community of goods, and live nearly an idle life carrying on a great farce of pretended devotion in barns, and woods, where they lodge and lye all together, and hold likewise a community of women, as it is another of their tenets that they can commit no moral sin. I am personally acquainted with most of them, and I can assure you, the above mentioned are facts.'

Burns commented: 'This my Dr Sir, is one of the many instances of the folly of leaving the guidance of sound reason and common sense in matters of Religion.'

According to the antiquarian, Joseph Train, author of the History of the Buchanites from First to Last, Mrs Elspat Buchan was the daughter, born about 1738, of John Simpson and Margaret Gordon, who kept a public house at Fatmacken, between Banff and Portsoy. She contracted a regular or irregular marriage with a working potter called Robert Buchan, who removed to Glasgow, followed by his wife and three children. He was a member of the Presbytery Relief sect, and he and his wife then met the preacher Hugh White (mentioned in Burns's letter to his cousin). At a meeting in Irvine, Mrs Buchan 'gave herself out to be the Third Person in the Godhead, and pretended to confer immortality on whomsoever she breathed; and promised eventually to translate direct to heaven in a body, without their tasting death, all who put unlimited faith in her divine mission'. She also claimed to 'have brought forth the man child' who was 'to rule all the nations with a rod of iron' in the shape of White. She was familiarly called 'Luckie'Buchan, and she gained complete control over the minds of White and his wife and other converts. Such was the Buchanite' behaviour that Mrs Buchan was mobbed and nearly killed by the Irvine rabble. She was formally expelled from the town by the magistrates. The society came to an end when Mrs Buchan shattered the illusions of her followers in 1791 by dying a natural death. See also White, The Rev Hugh; Hunter, Peter and Gardner, Jean.

The Scots novelist, John Galt, relates in his autobiography that, when the Buchanites left Irvine, he 'with many children also accompanied her, but my mother in a state of distraction pursued, and drew m back by the lug and the horn. I have not the slightest recollection of Mrs Buchan's heresies — how could I? — but the scene, and more than once the enthusiasm of the psalm singing, has risen in my remembrance, especially in describing the Covenanters in Ringan Gilhaize' As Galt was born in Irvine in 1779, he can only have been four years old when this event took place.

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