Chapter II. At King's College, Aberdeen (1847-1851)
DURING the last sixty years many changes have taken place in the
Old University town
Between the Don and the Dee,
Looking over the grey sand dunes,
Looking out on the cold North Sea.
Both King's College and Marischal College have been enlarged and, the latter especially, much beautified, its noble façade giving it at once rare dignity and a uniqueness in architecture, for there is no such other splendour of carved and sculptured granite in existence. The studies of the University are now apportioned between the two--Medicine and Law at Marischal, and Divinity, Arts, and Mathematics at King's; but in 1847 each College, a University in itself, had its own full staff of professors and complete academic equipment. There was a certain rivalry between the Colleges; there was also a rivalry of a somewhat different kind between their respective students, which now and again led to faction fights and riots on a small scale. Of the two, King's was generally esteemed the better as regarded its educational facilities, and it had larger and more numerous bursaries and prizes in its gift. The buildings of King's were finer, with an atmosphere of old-world romance and charm; they still justified the panegyric pronounced towards the close of the seventeenth century by James Gordon, Parson of Rothiemay--"Scotland does not boast of the edifice of any colledge more stadie or bewtiful."
Old Aberdeen, in which the College stood, was really a small University town, drawing nearly its whole life from King's; earlier it had had a cathedral too, that of St. Machar, reduced in Protestant times to a parish church. The founder of King's was William Elphin stone, Bishop of Aberdeen, a statesman, a scholar, an educationist, and a great Churchman. Having completed St. Machar's Cathedral by the erection of a noble spire, he determined to establish a University. He moved James IV. to obtain from Pope Alexander VI. in 1494 a Bull sanctioning the foundation, and six years later the College was begun, and dedicated to the Holy Trinity and the Virgin; but as the King gave it his special patronage and protection, it came to be called King's College. As a University, it was modelled by the Bishop on that of Paris, with its "nations"--the "nations" of King's being Mar, Buchan, Moray, and Angus, the names of districts in his diocese, which included the North of Scotland as well as Aberdeenshire. At the time Bishop Elphinstone was building his college, he was also contemplating the construction of a parish church in Old Aberdeen, so that the cathedral should be left free for the discharge of its proper functions; but this church was never built. It is highly probable that the young Freshman of King's, Robert Machray, was well acquainted with the story of Bishop Elphinstone, and that it remained in his mind as an inspiration, for he was destined to be just such another ecclesiastical maker and builder, if on somewhat larger lines. The glory of King's is its tower, a massive structure buttressed nearly to the top, bearing aloft a lantern of arches surmounted by an imperial crown with finial cross. A thing of beauty, it has been the pride and the joy of many generations of graduates and students. One of the Principals of the University, the late Sir William Geddes, a King's man, said he hoped that when death was upon him the Crown Tower would be the last thing his eyes would rest upon--"so dear a sight it was."
There were ninety students in the Freshman ("Bajan" is the Aberdeen word) Class at King's at the opening of the session 1847-48; some were mere lads, others were grown men. [In those days Aberdeen students went through the University in a solid "Class," each year by itself; but as now they are allowed to select subjects as they choose, the old Class homogeneity has disappeared, and with it to a large extent the use of "Bajan " and similar terms.] Already depressed by his failure to win a bursary, the sheer number of his competitors somewhat daunted Robert, then not seventeen years of age, and at first he had small hope of beating them in the "glorious strife of academic emulation"--a phrase not seldom on his lips in later years. He had little confidence in himself; and did not read very hard. He prepared the work for the next day carefully, but did not make the notes and revisions necessary for distinction. He always liked to do work with others, and at this time he read with several rather idle young fellows, with whom, however, he only associated in College studies. But towards the middle of the session he was beginning to find himself; and to recognise that he had been under a misapprehension as to his powers; he felt, as he measured himself with his rivals, that he might well look forward to a high place in the class.
The Professors he was under that session were Professor Norman M'Pherson in Greek and Professor Ferguson in Latin, the latter also setting subjects for English Essays. Professor M'Pherson was an advocate by profession, and acted temporarily as Greek Professor for his father, who was too old and infirm for duty. Afterwards he was one of the Professors of Law in Edinburgh University, and Sheriff of Kirkcudbright. He soon came to take an interest in Robert for the lad's own sake, and Mr. Campbell had written to him from Coull to enlist his good offices. Before the close of the session he had obtained a bursary in the gift of Robertson of Foveran for this promising student, whose growing courage was thereby much increased. The money value of the bursary was small; but it had been arranged by the authorities of King's that the smallest bursary should not only pay all fees, but also that some portion of it was to go to the "bursar," as the holder of a bursary is called in Scotland. As soon as Robert understood that he had a good chance of distinction, he put his whole heart into his work, and at the examinations at the end of the session, though he failed in getting a prize, was not far be hind. He was first in the order of merit in Latin, and had a place in the order of merit in Greek, while he was complimented for his English Essay. The top man of the class was John Kelman, who had been Dr. Melvin's best pupil at the Grammar School. A circumstance about this examination which encouraged Robert greatly was that his position in the order of merit was above that of the two men who had won the first and second bursaries in the competition in which he himself had failed, as it proved he had been unduly depressed by his want of success.
It was probably during the earlier part of this first session that he took part in what he characterised as a "rather silly adventure." There existed, as has been mentioned, a species of rivalry between King's College and Marischal College. One day his class unexpectedly found itself in the possession of a whole holiday, and the question arose what was to be done with it. Some bright spirit proposed that here was fit opportunity for making a demonstration against Marischal College, and the idea was immediately taken up by some seventy of the students, who in marching order trooped over to the gates of the enemy.--a walk of over two miles--and no doubt they made their presence known as offensively as possible. As it happened, the Marischal College men did not come out, so there was no scrimmage, which was perhaps as well, for the police had got wind of the affair and were taking notes of the proceedings. The King's men, Robert amongst them, cheered vociferously again and again, but as no response was made, they tired after a time of this way of expressing their feelings, and returned quietly to their own grounds.
Up to this point nothing has been heard in Robert's education of Mathematics, the subject, or series of subjects, in which he was afterwards to do so well. He had been taught Arithmetic at school, but it was not until the summer of 1848 that he began the Definitions of Euclid and the adding of a + b. At that time he entered the First Mathematical Class of the Rev. R. A. Gray at the Aberdeen Mathematical School; there were some fifty undergraduates in the class, mostly from Marischal College, but about a dozen from King's. By way of getting up his Euclid thoroughly, he used to get his mother to hear him go over the propositions. Mr. Mills, the former Lumphanan schoolmaster, was again of service to him, for he frequently went to Mr. Mills's house, in which there was a large blackboard, and with its aid the two did their geometrical work together. One of those with whom he read a good deal was a Mr. Walter Stronach; at first Stronach was ahead, but Robert soon overtook him, doing nearly all the solutions and having to explain them to his companion.
It was also at this time that the lad made the acquaintance of a fellow-student at King's with whom he formed a great friendship, which was to endure for many years and be rich in results--this was John M'Lean, afterwards Bishop of Saskatchewan, one of the first dioceses to be carved out of Rupert's Land. Besides attending lectures at the University, of which he was a high bursar, having taken a good position in both Latin and Greek, M'Lean acted as chemist-assistant to Dr. Balfour, an Aberdeen physician. M'Lean was also a friend of Stronach, and the three had long walks and talks together. Before the public examination of the Mathematical School there was an election of one of the pupils for a Good Behaviour Prize given by the City, the decision being left to the pupils themselves. Mills proposed Robert, and many students, chiefly from Marischal College, as it turned out, whom he did not know at all, supported him. His opponent was a Mr. Alexander Gray, the first bursar of the year at Marischal College, but a man of thirty Mr. Gray was elected by a majority of three or four votes; he was quite a deserving student, but giving a prize for good behaviour to a man of his years seems more than a trifle absurd.
In the examination Robert was first prizeman, a Mr. Youngson, also from King's, was second, while Mr. Gray came fourth. Before the results were known, the students discussed the two papers which had been set, and Robert rather incautiously mentioned that he had "cleared" one and missed very little of the other; then it occurred to him that he had probably made too sure of success--perhaps the memory of his bursary failures came back to him--and he was afraid that he might not get even a place on the list. So much did this fear prey upon him that he absented himself from the proclamation of the prizemen before the City Council, a circumstance which gave great annoyance to his teacher. Doubtless the whole episode taught him more than one useful lesson. But his position at the head of his class made his Mathematical ability manifest. A high prizeman at Mr. Gray's school was always expected to take a good place in the Mathematical Class in the Second Year at King's, and as Mathematics had for some time occupied the premier position in the view of that College, his name now entered into the calculations of his fellow-students for the big College prizes.
Before leaving Coull for the University, Robert had attended Mr. Campbell's class for preparing communicants, but had not become a communicant. During this session at King's he joined a similar class which had been organised by Dr. M'Intosh, the able and much loved Minister of the East Parish of Aberdeen, whose wife was a connection of his schoolboy chums, the Pennycuicks. The Doctor gave out at each meeting of his class a printed slip of questions, the answers to which were handed in to him at the next, when comments were made upon them by him. In the autumn of that year, 1848, Robert received his first Communion, his mother being with him.
At the beginning of the session 1848-49 Robert returned to King's with a fine appetite for work, and a fixed determination to devote himself mainly to Mathematics. Dr. Tulloch, the Professor of Mathematics, was ill, and his place was occupied by Mr. Robertson, the Assistant Professor, for some weeks. There were two large blackboards in the class-room called the Geometric Board and the Algebra Board respectively. Robert had the seat next the former and his friend M'Lean that next the latter, and they were expected to help the weak students over the difficult places in the work being done. Robert had to help, or did help, so frequently that the Professor threatened to move him to another seat. It was a case of the "willing horse," and lazy students probably took advantage of the situation. Nor were they always backward in acknowledging their indebtedness to him, as was shown in one case in a somewhat singular fashion. One day towards the end of the session, an old Highland student, who had been a schoolmaster, invited him and M'Lean to his lodgings, and poured out a glass of whisky for each of the lads as a token of his appreciation of services rendered at the blackboards!
At all events, Robert soon impressed Professor Robertson with his capacity. Once the Professor paid him a compliment in connection with a difficult question which he had offered to solve. Mr. Robertson said that he was quite sure that Mr. Machray could do it, and therefore would not call upon him--he would be glad if any other gentleman in the class would offer himself; and another did, though unsuccessfully in the result, where upon the Professor did the work himself, and then Robert found to his mortification that he had misunderstood the problem, and that the compliment was undeserved, though it proved what was thought of his powers. After six weeks, Professor Tulloch, now recovered, took the class himself. Dr. Tulloch was a "character," and addicted to making sallies of a humorous sort, which were looked forward to by the students, to whom they gave much amusement. The Archbishop was fond of quoting two of these jests.
Dr. Tulloch was a Free Churchman, and held in particular contempt the "parish minister," or clergyman of the Established Church of Scotland--this by way of preface to the story. Among the students that session was a young fellow named Henry Wilson, who was inattentive and gave the Professor, then an old man, much trouble; Wilson's father was a parish minister. One day, when Wilson had been more irritating than usual, Dr. Tulloch stopped the work of the class and remarked, with the stutter that was habitual to him, "Many years hence, gentlemen, two of you will meet, perhaps on the banks of the Ganges, and one will say to the other, 'What has become of that Henry Wilson who used to give old Professor Tulloch so much trouble?' And the other will reply (and here Dr. Tulloch's tones were withering), 'Oh, he's become a parish minister!'" Whereupon the class, largely composed of Free Kirkers, shouted with uproarious laughter. There was a saying in Scotland, not without its close parallel in England, that when a boy was fit for nothing else he was to be "made" a parish minister, and that, too, helped the joyous outburst. On another occasion a student, who had reached man's estate and was accustomed to do evangelising work, was getting on very badly at the Algebra Board, and kept looking at some notes he held in his hand. The thing was so marked that Dr. Tulloch lost all patience with him, and cried out, "Francisce Rae, Francisce Rae, I think I have heard of your preaching without a paper!"
Two episodes which belong to this session throw a curious side-light on the life of a Scottish University at this period. Shortly after Professor Tulloch had resumed his lectures, a great complaint arose from the students of Robert's year that they were having too much work, and they held a meeting with a view to getting less. They had Latin and Greek daily, instead of on alternate days, or Chemistry and Greek, in addition to the prescribed course in Mathematics, the "Regent" or chief subject for the Second Year's men. For the first time there was a choice of either Latin or Chemistry in the Second Year, instead of Chemistry in the Second Year and Latin in the Fourth. All but sixteen chose Latin, M'Lean naturally being amongst the sixteen, as he was already a fully educated chemist. At the meeting of the class petitions were prepared which were signed and sent to Professors Ferguson and Bryce, the Latin and Greek Professors (Bryce had succeeded Norman M'Pherson), asking for a reduction in the amount of work to be done. Bryce consented, but Ferguson only on condition that Professor Tulloch should also do so. Another meeting of the class was summoned, and it was proposed at it to petition Tulloch. A large proportion of the students, however, were Mathematical men, and some of them considered it derogatory to ask for less Mathematics; amongst these were Robert and his friend M'Lean, but on a division they were outvoted by 71 to r8. The dissentients thereupon resolved to send in a counter petition to the Professor, with the result that the matter was dropped altogether by the majority.
The other affair occurred after the examinations at the end of the session. There had been a good deal of copying, and a number of the students formed an association to put it down. Robert was asked to join it, but he never took part in its proceedings; a meeting of the class was called, and this he did attend. It was proposed to elect a committee who should request the Professors to put it to the honour of each member of the class if he had observed any copying, and the idea found many supporters. it was opposed by M'Lean and Robert, who also had many supporters. Mean-while it was agreed by both parties that the motion was not to be persevered with if no one would stand forward to say he had actually seen copying, but one of the students did say he had seen copying. On a division 42 voted for the motion and 42 against it; the chairman then gave his casting vote in its favour. The petition was sent, and when the Professors accepted the proposal that each man should say on his honour if he had seen copying, Robert found himself in the disagreeable position of having to name a certain student whom he had seen in the act--the painful result being that on the delinquent's acknowledgment of his transgression, he was rusticated for a year.
In the prize list Robert cut no remarkable figure, though advance was shown on the previous year. He was third prizeman in Mathematics and second in the English Essay, but failed to obtain a prize in either Latin or Greek. The session over, he went to Begsley, where in two weeks he mastered all the easy formulae of Plane Analytical Trigonometry. He got hold of Cagnoli's Trigonometry in Latin, and never forgot what Cagnoli said of the Differential Calculus, that it was easy, and of the Integral, "Hic labor, hoc opus est." After a short time he returned to Aberdeen, and arranged with M'Lean, who was now in charge of Dr. Balfour's laboratory, to go to him every morning at seven o'clock and do problems in Trigonometry till eight o'clock; this involved a walk of a mile and a half. The book they worked from was Hind's Trigonometry, which had at the end a great variety of examples; each morning they did from six to ten of them, trying who would solve them first, Robert generally being the victor, though the two were pretty evenly matched. The friendship between them grew very greatly at this time; they took frequent walks, sometimes in company with an acquaintance, but usually by themselves.
It was about this time that Robert, now eighteen years of age, took a class in the Sunday School of John Knox Church, the superintendent of which was the Rev. John Massie, and he took his turn in opening and closing the school with extempore prayer, though he did not like it. Mr. Massie assisted him in his studies by lending him some notes of lectures on Moral and Mental Philosophy which he had taken while a student at the University. Owing to Mr. Massie's absence, Robert soon had the whole charge of the school thrown on him, including the examining of it. At this time also he was much exercised as to the choice of a profession. He still was very strongly opposed to entering the ministry of the Church of Scotland. When he discussed his future with Mr. Campbell of Coull, whom he went to see, he said that he only had in view a parish school, though his secret ambition was still to be a clergyman, should the way be opened for him to take Orders in the Church of England. Mr. Campbell was not quite in favour of his taking a parish school, spoke of it as irksome, and advised him to study elocution; then he suggested that it would be advantageous for him to become a private tutor in a good family, as his uncle, Theodore Allan, had been, or an assistant in a large public school, where he would see new phases of life; thereafter, if he continued in the same mind, he might still take a parish school. He said nothing to Mr. Campbell about the Church of England, but it was always in his thoughts.
The third session of his course at King's began in November 1849. He attended the Natural Philosophy or Mixed Mathematical Class, the "Regent" subject for the year 1849-50, under Professor Thomson, the Senior Mathematical Class under Professor Tulloch, and an optional Greek Class under Professor Bryce. There were twelve men in this Greek class, amongst them being M'Lean and Kelman and Cormack--the last-named two had been the winners of the first and second prizes in the examination in which Robert had taken the third prize. Robert devoted himself chiefly to Mathematics. Professor Thomson, in addition to class questions, gave daily two or three optional questions, and Robert solved most of them; they were very helpful questions, and he often regretted afterwards that he did not keep them. Professor Tulloch also set problems and questions daily outside of the routine work, but, after a few weeks, only about six students were in the habit of doing them, or, in fact, were able to follow the Professor, who had soared into a higher and rarer atmosphere.
In this session the students of King's and Marischal Colleges, burying the hatchet for the time being, started a joint College magazine, to which Robert contributed several Mathematical questions and solutions under the signature of Rho (p); if the other contributions were of a similar character, it must have been a somewhat "strenuous" miscellany. There was a debating society in connection with King's which met once a week in the College on Friday or Saturday evenings, and M'Lean, who was an excellent and ready speaker, with something of the gift of oratory, was a prominent member. Mrs. Machray, Robert's mother, lived at this time in North Broadford, in New Aberdeen, and as the walk from her house to King's in Old Aberdeen was rather long, Robert did not often go to the debating society's meetings, but he made a point of being present when his friend M'Lean was a leader of the fray; yet though he voted for him, he never spoke on these occasions, as the faculty of easy speech had been denied to him--indeed, to the end of his days he was never what might be called a fluent or copious speaker. At these meetings he supported M'Lean's motions--(I) in favour of Protection on Corn; (2) against Oliver Cromwell and Puritanism; (3) in favour of Napoleon Bonaparte; (4) in favour of Mathematics versus Classics; (5) against the Union of King's and Marischal Colleges. He attended more frequently the meetings of the Aberdeen Missionary Society, to which he was a subscriber, but he thought its affairs were not well managed, and was much dissatisfied with what went on at the meetings; in the following year (1851) he helped to bring about a change for the better. The usual examinations brought the session to a close (1850). In Senior Mathematics he was third in the prize list, Messrs. Cormack and Kelman being first and second respectively; in Natural Philosophy Kelman was first and he second.
And now there approached the fourth and final session of his Aberdeen University career, 1850-51. King's College had in its gift for its most successful Fourth Year men several large money prizes, the winning of which conferred upon the victors its highest honours. These prizes, such as the Mathematical £60 Prize, the Greek £60 Prize, and others of considerable value, were paid to the fortunate students on graduation, and the goal that rose before the eyes of every "magistrand," as Aberdeen calls a Fourth Year man, was to gain one or more of them, not so much for the actual cash, though that, of course, counted too, as for the distinction achieved. Robert was now nineteen years of age, a tall and thin reed of a young man in physique. He had done well, but had not reached the highest places in his past examinations. The men who had beaten him were older and had read much more, but he had made a far quicker advance proportionately than they.
He resolved to attempt the Mathematical £60 Prize, but his diffidence, partly natural, partly reminiscent of the unforgettable bursary failures, prevented him from having any great expectation of success. The death of Mr. Campbell of Coull, which occurred two weeks after the close of his third session, removed a dear friend and protector and saddened his heart: here was no happy augury. However, he called on Professor Thomson, and asked him for his advice as to the subjects he should take up and the best course to pursue with respect to the big Mathematical Prize, and the advice was readily and cordially given. He discussed the matter with his chum M'Lean, who encouraged him to persevere; M'Lean himself was not going in for this particular prize, but for the corresponding Greek £60 Prize and the Hutton Prize. During the summer he read the usual summer subjects as well as the special subjects for the prize; but he had also a good deal of other work, as he had agreed to act as tutor to several boys who were preparing to enter the University. With two of these boys, Peter Moir Clark and John Clark, nephews of a leading shipowner of Aberdeen, Mr. Benjamin Moir, he spent two hours every evening in Latin, Greek, and Mathematics; to another boy, Charles Shirres, he gave an hour daily. Besides, he coached two students, one of them a parish schoolmaster, during that summer; his time for his own reading, therefore, was restricted not a little; but as his mother, with whom he lived, had a hard struggle to make ends meet on her small annuity as an advocate's widow, and as her other resources were meagre, the fees he received were very welcome.
Perhaps it was because of the limited time at his disposal, or it may have been from his diffidence, but towards the end of the summer he seriously thought of applying for the vacant parish school of Kinellar, which was about two miles from Begsley; he abandoned the idea, however, on learning that Mr. Massie, who had been superintendent of John Knox Sunday School, was an applicant. Had he obtained the position, there would have been an end of his University career, and his whole life would have been changed.
Even after the session had begun (November 1850) he continued to do tutorial work, though it could not but affect his prospects of winning the big prize. All that session he worked prodigiously. He rose at four o'clock in the morning, and read the routine College and the special prize subjects till breakfast time; and thereafter he walked to King's, where lectures began at nine, and went on, with an hour's interval for lunch, till three o'clock. At half-past three he was home in North Broadford, where he dined at once, and read a little. From half-past six till ten at night he was engaged with his pupils; from ten to twelve he was occupied with his own work. The Regent subject for the Fourth Year men was Moral and Mental Philosophy; and this had to be prepared for, as had also Chemistry, another subject set for the last year. With the exception of Sundays, on which he rested from his labours, his working day was one of twenty hours! The strain must have been enormous; happily, it was somewhat lessened by the walks to and Iron King's and to and from the residences of his pupils, and by the complete breaks on Sundays, though even on Sundays he took a class in a Sunday School.
The pressure on his competitors may have been equally great, but at any rate his class at King's held a meeting at the beginning of the session and elected a committee of which Robert was a member, the others including Messrs. Cormack and Kelman, the "favourites," so to speak, for the great prizes, with a view to arranging the hours of work in College on a basis that would be satisfactory to all; this was done, and the Professors fell in with the schedule that had been drawn up.
Dr. Tulloch showed great kindness to him during this session There chanced to be a mistake in a Mathematical paper at the beginning of the term, and he noticed it and pointed it out to the Professor, who was much pleased and even went the length of repeating at a private party what had occurred, adding that Robert Machray had been the only student who had observed the blunder. Tulloch showed his interest in a substantial form by remitting the share of the fee which he received from Robert's bursary. During the session his English Essays were com mended, and two of them, one on Newton and the other on the Use of Games, were read aloud in the class. He also did so many of the chief questions in Chemistry that some thought he would be a prizeman in that subject.
At length this fateful session wore to its end, and then first came the examinations for the Hutton Prize, given for General Scholarship, which lasted for four days, or rather evenings, for each day's examination began at two or three o'clock in the afternoon and lasted all the evening. A dinner, consisting of excellent beefsteak with tea, was served to the candidates while the examination was being held. On the first night there was a long piece of Greek to be turned into Latin, with the aid, if required, of a Greek and a Latin dictionary; on the second night, Pure Mathematics on the third, Natural Philosophy or Mixed Mathematics; and on the fourth, Moral and Mental Philosophy. Robert was first in Classics, Natural Philosophy, and Moral and Mental Philosophy, while he and Cormack divided the honours in Pure Mathe matics; they were the only students of the class who went in for this examination. Then followed the examination for the Mathematical £60 Prize, also known as the "Simpson," as was the corresponding Prize in Classics; papers were set on three evenings, one in Mixed Mathematics and two in Pure Mathematics. Robert was first in Mixed Mathematics, and first in one of the papers in Pure Mathematics, Cormack beating him in the other.
When the results were announced in the Hall of King's by the Principal and the Professors, he was adjudged the Mathematical £60 Prize; and also the Hutton Prize, but had to resign it to Cormack, who was next on the list; and also the Second Prize in Moral and Mental Philosophy, which, too, had to be resigned; and he had a high place in the order of merit in Chemistry. The lad who had twice failed to get even a small entrance bursary by competition, now, after four years of struggle, turned out to be the best man of his year, distancing all his rivals--a remarkable and fine achievement. The Simpson Greek £60 Prize was won by a Mr. Young, who came out ahead of Kelman, who had been first favourite; M'Lean had also gone in for this prize. Much sympathy was felt for Mr. Kelman, who was in all respects a model student and had done very well in his other examinations. Mr. Kelman, afterwards D.D. of his University, became Minister of Free St. John's, Leith; Dr. Kelman, the popular colleague of Dr. Whyte of Free St. George's, Edinburgh, is his son. Mr. Cormack, later, took Orders and joined the staff of a Church of England Clergy Training College. Mr. Young became a minister of the United Presbyterian Church.
Having taken his degree of M.A.--there was no B.A. degree at King's or at any of the Scottish Universities--with so much distinction, he had to face, more seriously than before, the question of his future. What was the next step to be? He was offered, at the close of the session, the charge of a large seminary in England, and was asked to bring a man he knew as his second in command. He considered the offer for some time, and even mentioned M'Lean, who was willing, for the second position, but the matter came to nothing, as the final terms proved to be very unattractive. M'Lean soon after this accepted an important position in one of the greatest manufacturing firms in London, of which an uncle of his was manager, and the association between him and Robert was temporarily broken. At this time the parish school of Methlic fell vacant, and Robert had a notion of becoming an applicant for it; there was some correspondence with respect to it, but the position had been already filled by the appointment of that Mr. Alexander Gray who had been elected to the Good Behaviour Prize three years previously. Mr. Gray had distinguished himself at Marischal College by carrying off the Gold Medal, which was the chief prize awarded at that University for General Scholarship. But Robert was not destined to be a Scottish parish schoolmaster.
Consequent on his success, several of the King's Professors urged him to go up to Cambridge, where his mathematical abilities would tell. But Cambridge meant a good deal of money, and where the necessary funds were to come from was a heavy problem. He had now begun to long to go up to the English University, not, as many Aberdeen high prizemen after him, with the idea of getting a Fellowship--he had not confidence enough in himself to think of that--but with the view of entering the ministry of the Church of England, for Cambridge might very well bring about the realisation of that desire of his heart which he had so long cherished in secret. Dr. M'Intosh, Minister of the East Parish Church of Aberdeen, also pressed him to go to Cambridge, and in co-operation with Professor Thomson and others who had become interested, drew up a plan by which a loan was procured for him from a local Bank, these gentlemen being its guarantors, while he secured them to some extent by insuring his life.
The way thus being open, he spoke of going to Cambridge to Professor Fuller, a Fellow of St. Peter's College, Cambridge, who had succeeded Professor Tulloch in the Chair of Mathematics at King's--the old doctor was dead--and Professor Fuller advised him to apply for entrance at St. Peter's. Robert accordingly wrote, with the necessary certificates, to Mr. Porter, a Fellow of St. Peter's, and afterwards a Judge in India. But Mr. Porter replied that he thought Robert would have a better chance at Sidney Sussex College than at Peterhous, and recommended him to go to Sidney. The result was that through Mr. J. F. M'Lennan, a former competitor for the Mathematical £60 Prize at King's, Aberdeen, but then Scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge (later, an advocate of Edinburgh, a sociologist, and a well-known literary man), he was entered at Sidney by the Rev. W. Scott, Mathematical Lecturer. He spent the summer in private study, Professor Thomson kindly helping him by setting papers and examples. He left Aberdeen for the south on Saturday, October 17, and reported himself at Sidney College on Tuesday, October 20, 1851, though he had arrived at Cambridge on the previous day.