Dr Donald Munro

Dr Donald Munro

Dr Donald Munro was long involved in the structures of the UOS Church. Rather than tell his activities bit by bit as they occurred in regard to the two congregations with which he was especially associated, we are bringing all the material together here in one place.



The records of Glasgow University show that Donald Munro graduated M.D., C.M., in 1888. Notes on his career read: “Pollokshaws (Assistant in Glasgow University to (1) Professor of Chemistry, (2) Professor of Forensic Medicine, 1872-95). Registrar’s Handwritten Roll of Graduates gives the date of birth as 4 September 1842.”

This means he was born on 4th September, 1842, in Govan, Glasgow, the son of John Munro and Elizabeth Golder. He was the eldest child and after him there were James Golder Munro, born about 1846; John Munro born about 1849; Alexander Munro born on 24th August, 1851; Charles Gray Munro born about 1853; and Janet Elder Munro born in 1856.

John Munro, the father, was initially described as a baker and then as a grain merchant. He had his business at 85 Candleriggs, Glasgow. John, the son, disappeared early from the records and may have died young. Alexander married and by 1881 was a widower living with the rest of the family. He was at that stage a baker. Thereafter he graduated M.B., C.M. from Glasgow University in 1885. A Dr Alexander Munro was occasionally mentioned in the UOS church records – in all likelihood he was this man. In 1901 he was living in Dennistoun, Glasgow, with his daughter and his brother James.

Donald Munro’s mother died in 1883 and his father in 1896. After his parents’ deaths, Donald was living with his brother Charles, a ladies’ tailor, and until her death with his sister Janet.


Community Involvement

Donald Munro was a well known man in the community in which he lived. On his death it was said: “A prominent and familiar figure has been removed from among us. He was a member of the Town Coouncil for many years. He also held the office of magistrate and police judge, and, at the time of his death, he was a member of the County Council of Renfrew” (Obituary).

He was a “well known man in the community”. So, for example, we find that his presence was noted at the Master Bakers’ Friendly Society Annual Dinner at which his brother James presided (Glasgow Herald, 5th March, 1880). His presence was also noted at a meeting in support of the Unionist candidate at the forthcoming general election (Glasgow Herald, 30th June, 1892).

His election victories were recorded from time to time: so we are told he stood for the third ward of Pollokshaws in the Municipal Elections of 1895 and gained 120 votes over against 48 for the other candidate (Glasgow Herald, 6th November, 1895). He was re-elected baillie in 1898 (Glasgow Herald, 5th November, 1898).

He was a member of the Glasgow University Conservatice and Liberal Unionist Association (The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 27th March, 1903, p.4).

In his public capacity, he made his opinions known and did so in no uncertain terms. He proposed at a meeting of the Eastwood Parochial Board that a certain person be elected chairman. But another name was put forward and duly elected. Munro then protested on the ground that that candidate was not qualified for the office (Glasgow Herald, 29th August, 1894).

When the Glasgow Trades Hall met on 30th January, 1878, a set of regulations which had been submitted for confirmation, was discussed. The proceedings “were disturbed by the lively eruption of a Dr Donald Munro, who proposed that the words “Sunday” and “Christmas” should be deleted, and “Sabbath” and “25th December” substituted.” He wasn’t slow to substantiate his opinion: the terms objected to tended to bring about “a return to the darkness and ignorance of heathenism and Popery, and the ritual and superstition of prelacy”. The word “Sunday” in particular was “anti-Scriptural, and attacked the wisdom and sovereignty of God, who, being the maker of the ‘Sabbath’ was entitled to the privilege of naming it.” Then to round it off Munro stated that “the heir of the throne had lately insulted the feelings of the Scotch people by landing from the train at a spot saturated with the best blood of Scotland’s dearest sons on a Sabbath morning.” Despite this, the rules were passed as originally framed (The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 31st January, 1878, p.4).

Munro was present at another meeting of the same body on 28th March. He called attention to the alleged attempt at suicide by an ex-cook of the Royal Infirmary. He thought their representatives ought to inquire into the matter. When his motion came to be considered as the last item of business, a Mr Begg moved that Munro should not be heard: the motion, he said, was quite uncalled for; it could not lead to any good result; and it was irrelevant. This was seconded. Munro wished to speak and was ruled out of order. When he persisted the members rose and began to leave the room. Munro then entered his protest against the decision (The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 29th March, 1878, p.4).

Munro was a strong man, determined to carry his opinion whatever the opposition.


The Proprietor

Munro held property in King Street, Pollokshaws, Eastwood, Renfrewshire. The 1885 valuation rolls show that at that stage he had a grass park at no. 16; a house at nos 8, 10 and 12; a shop at nos 14 and 18; and a cottage, a stable and two houses, one of which he occupied, at no.16. Later what seem to be the same properties are recorded with a different numbering.

Two incidents are recorded in the newspapers in regard to these properties. In 1893, Munro appealed against a valuation of £12 being placed on his grass field in King Street – but the appeal was rejected (Glasgow Herald, 15th September, 1893). He appealed again next year – on the grounds that he couldn’t get the ground let – but his appeal was again rejected (Glasgow Herald, 14th September, 1894).

The second incident took place in 1902 and was described in the The Scotsman, Edinburgh, on 26th November, p.13, and on 23rd December, p.8.

The daughter of Matthew Hamilton, fireman, 24 King Street, Pollokshaws, sued Munro for £150 damages for personal injuries. On the night of 13th July, 1902, the girl, Catherine Hamilton, who was 18 years of age, was leaving the house and, on stepping from the common lobby onto the landing of the branch stair, a worn flag gave way, and she fell through the hole thus opened until she was caught at the shoulders by the side flags. Her ankle joint was severely sprained and she sustained a serious nervous shock. Munro himself factored the property and it was alleged that he was aware of the dangerous condition of the flag, and had failed to remedy the defect. Munro denied that he was aware of the condition of the flag, and alleged that the pursuer was guilty of contributory negligence. But when the case was heard, a jury took five minutes to find Munro guilty and awarded damages of £50.


The Professor

We record the following incident just as it came to us: “During the last few days there has been a renewal of the uproarious scenes in the Medical Jurisprudence Class-room at Glasgow University. Some weeks ago the students became so pronounced in their opposition to the lectures of Dr Donald Munro, who was conducting the class in the illness of Professor Simpson, that work was impossible. On that occasion the Principal was called upon to intervene and in response to his appeal a measure of peace was restored. Matters again reached a climax on Tuesday. On Monday the last of the course of lectures was delivered in the face of continuous interruption. But worse was to follow. On Tuesday when the class met to hear the final arrangements for the examination, the disorder and uproar exceeded all bounds. On the lecturer’s desk there were placed a small bottle labelled ‘Hydrocyanic acid’ – one of the deadliest poisons known – and a buttered roll. When the lecturer took his place at the desk he was assailed with shouts of ‘have a drink’, while others invited him to take the roll which was understood to have reference to a lecture which he had recently delivered on starvation. Shuffling of feet, singing of snatches of choruses, shouting, and other noises were kept up without cessation, and eventually the class broke up in a tumult (Birmingham Daily Post, Warwickshire, England, 5th July, 1894).

We know nothing more of this series of disturbances. Perhaps this was a one-off clash between students and professor, but the whole picture of Munro that emerges from his public and professional life is of an able man but also of a man well able to rub people up the wrong way.

The writer of his short obituary comments: “His controversies with the OS Church brought his name prominently before the public … His death took place at the residence of his brother, Dr Munro, of Dennistoun, whither he had gone a fortnight previously, and following so closely on his attendance at work, it came as a surprise to all.

“Of striking appearance and unbending nature, the deceased will be missed by a large circle” (Obituary).

His unbending nature is certainly what emerges from his dealings with the UOS Church, which we will now look at.


Divinity Student?

A student by the name of Munro appeared before the Glasgow Presbytery on 4th February, 1862. He was then in his second year in Arts in Glasgow University. He was examined regularly by the Presbytery till 14th April 1863, when he disappeared from the record – at least in his capacity as a student.

Whether or not he was the future Dr Donald Munro we cannot say at the moment. We can say that since Dr Munro was born in 1842, he could easily have been an undergraduate in Arts in 1862. More work requires to be done on this.


The Title Deeds

From the Presbytery Minutes it is not clear exactly what the problem was, but the Glasgow Mains Street Session had made a decision regarding the custody of the title deeds of their buildings. Munro dissented and brought the matter to Presbytery on 30th September, 1873. The Presbytery instructed the minority to acquiesce in the decision of the majority for the sake of peace. The finding was that the titles remain with the lawyer and that a receipt be given to Murdock, the treasurer. Murdock and Munro dissented from this finding. At the next Presbytery meeting Munro laid on the table his reasons for dissent. But on 24th February, 1874. he stated to Presbytery that the title deeds referred to were now in the hands of the treasurer, and he did not wish to carry the matter further. And there this preliminary skirmish ended.


The Precentor

The Presbytery then heard from him on 30th April, 1878. This time papers were presented regarding his protest about “the informality of the election of the precentor.” Munro himself was not present, so the matter was tabled.

It was again considered on 4th June when a letter from Munro was read which stated that because of professional duties he could not be present until the August meeting. He was told to be at the next meeting or else the Presbytery would decide his case in his absence. He was not present then and his case was dismissed.

But on 24th September he was present and he protested over the Presbytery’s decision. He was heard ex gratia and his protest was left on the table and was dealt with at the next meeting of Presbytery on 15th October, 1878. William F. Aitken, the minister of Mains Street, said that, as the matter which started Munro’s protest had now been settled, he appealed to him to sist all further procedure. Munro refused to do this. The Presbytery then adhered to their previous decision in the matter, so Munro appealed to the Synod.

No more is heard of this matter at Presbytery level. But there are further rumblings. He made a further appeal to Presbytery about some unknown matter but as he was suffering from a poisoned wound he could not transmit papers to Presbytery to support his appeal (8th June, 1880). He complained that the Preses and Clerk of Mains Street Session had not recorded a protest he made at the last congregational meeting. But in defence it was said that no counter motion had been made so a protest could not be made. He had been given opportunity to enter a dissent, Munro said, but he had protested because that was the only way to free him from legal responsibilities – which was his purpose in making the protest (28th September, 1880). All this was just warming up for the big fight. 

“A somewhat selfish, irritable and overbearing temper”

On 25th January, it was reported to Presbytery that, in the Session, Munro had made grievous charges against R.J. Wood who had been elected as an elder. These had been found by the Session to be frivolous and invalid. And Munro had been cited to appear to apologise for this unbrotherly conduct and for wasting the Session’s time and to be admonished. Munro had refused to submit to this and had protested to the Presbytery. This is the “case” that was then discussed by the church courts for a time. But it became mixed with another matter which eventually became more prominent.

Munro appeared before the Presbytery in regard to this case and spoke at length. He used the following words about his minister: “I refer to a somewhat selfish, irritable and overbearing temper.” Other words that were taken down were: “that he [the minister] derived his information mainly from hearsay and that through a jaundiced channel.” Munro was required by the Presbytery to withdraw these remarks before the case could proceed and he did withdraw them, “since the Presbytery found them offensive”. The Presbytery then dismissed Munro’s protest and he appealed his case to the Synod.

The Presbytery agreed to ask Synod to appoint assessors to the Presbytery for the Munro case and to request that the Presbytery should have power to dispose of the matter. The Synod upheld the Presbytery’s decision in Munro’s case. But that was essentially on a point of order and so the Presbytery were appointed to investigate the merits of the case and for that they were granted the assessors requested.

On 31st May, 1881, the matter therefore again came to the Presbytery. But it emerged that in the meanwhle Munro had published a pamphlet in which he had used the expressions which he had formerly withdrawn. It was agreed that he should be asked why he published these; and he was again forced to withdraw them.

It is difficult to know exactly what they were all arguing about as we don’t have the Presbytery papers, nor have we (yet) seen the pamphlet which Munro wrote. We get an impression, both of the complexity of the matter and of the chief difficulty which emerged, from the motion which William B. Gardiner, Pollokshaws, made on this occasion: that the 11th reason for protest, p.28 of pamphlet and the whole of the Appendix to No.3 on page 38 and particularly the closing sentence “should be withdrawn and obliterated as containing injurious charges against Revd Mr Aitken”.

This Munro refused to do. It was moved that judgement be reserved on this matter in the meanwhile and that the Presbytery go on to consider the merits of the “case”. It was also moved that the “case” be not proceeded with. But on the casting vote of the moderator it was agreed to proceed with the “case”. So the comments on Aitken were not to be considered until the other matter had been decided.

Parties were then heard. Munro spoke at length and was “repeatedly called to order for the irrelevancy of the statements with which he was unduly taking up the time of the court.” He was told eventually to bring his remarks to a close, which he did not do without a repeated defiance of the ruling of the chair. The matter was left over to be finalised at the next Presbytery meeting.

This was held a week later. Munro wrote a letter to that Presbytery meeting saying that he absolutely refused to withdraw the words “a somewhat selfish etc.” John Robertson, Ayr, said that the case, which started off the dispute, should be deferred until these and similar remarks, which Munro had made about the Presbytery giving a decision that was “strange and unjust”, had been dealt with. But again it was agreed to proceed with the case.

After much wrangling, it was eventually moved that Mains Street Session be instructed to remove Munro’s name from the roll but this motion was withdrawn in favour of one which required Munro to withdraw his offensive remarks about Aitken before the next Presbytery meeting. At that meeting, on 13th September, 1881, Munro refused to withdraw his remarks.

A small committee was appointed to confer with him. Munro refused to meet with the Committee. Various motions were then made but the one that eventually carried instructed Mains Street Session that they drop Munro’s name from the roll and that he be not admitted to the fellowship of the church until he satisfies the Presbytery. Some however dissented from this finding and Munro himself, of course, protested and appealed as before, and his rights were again pointed out.


The Ongoing Saga

Munro had written to Presbytery: “For the irregular, illegal, and unconstitutional action of the Presbytery, I beg most respectfully to intimate that I hold the Presbytery and those who took part therein with them, liable in all the consequences, civil and ecclesiastical.” It was agreed by the Synod that Munro should be asked to remove the threat of taking this to the civil court (Glasgow Herald, 12th May, 1882).

Munro attended the Synod with a solicitor to speak for him. The solicitor was asked to leave – he refused. The officer was about to go and get a policeman when someone proposed that they meet in private and the solicitor had to leave (The Belfast News-Letter, Ireland), 14th May, 1883).

There followed a running battle between Munro on the one hand and the Synod and Presbytery on the other. His situation was brought to the Synod in one form or another virtually every year until he was reinstated. In general, whatever Munro tried to do was blocked by the Presbytery or Synod on the grounds that he had not “obtempered the decision of the Synod” – he had not withdrawn the threat of legal action and he had not withdrawn his derogatory remarks.

At one stage there seemed to be movement on Munro’s part: he brought a petition before the Presbytery on 4th August, 1885. The Presbytery, he said, had not specified what remarks he had to withdraw. He wished to know what these remarks were so that he could consider how far he might consistently retract the same. A Committee was appointed to draw up a specification.

On 29th September, 1885, the Committee reported in private, specifying the objectionable remarks, the gist of which has been given above. This report was received. Wood, the elder from the Mains Street congregation, complained that Munro had been repeating in the public press matters disposed of in 1881.

On 26th January, 1886, Munro appeared before Presbytery to make a statement. When he began to read the objectionable bits from his pamphlet it was agreed to meet in private. Munro protested and appealed to the Synod. On this being disallowed, Munro left the court.

Meanwhile there was another matter in which he was involved relating to the Pollokshaws congregation which he was attending at that time.


Misbehaviour in Church

Munro had been an elder in Mains Street congregation, but he lived in Pollokshaws and since about 1883 had attended the ministry of William B. Gardiner there. But here too he proved troublesome. The trouble was so severe that Gardiner and his Session took action against him in Paisley Sheriff Court. They asked for an interdict preventing him from entering the church. They did so on the grounds that during the services “he conducted himself in such a manner, by taking notes of the sermons and making audible remarks, as greatly disturbed and annoyed the congregation”. In proof Gardiner said that Munro was very unbecoming in his conduct … “by making derisive coughs and turning around in his place to speak to his sister”. He usually came in in a haughty manner when the Psalm was being sung.

Gardiner found his behaviour at Communion times, particularly difficult to bear. On one occasion Munro had taken him by the arm and said: “Neither Mr Aitken nor you can dispense this sacrament today with clean hands, and I charge you before God and the whole congregation. Remember that.” (Mr Aitken was the minister about whom he had made disparaging remarks which he refused to withdraw.) At the railway station at Pollokshaws Munro had challenged him with being a coward and not a gentleman, and said that there was such a thing as a starving-out process.

In support an elder said Munro had forced his way into Session and refused to leave. Several other people gave witness to similar incidents, including the assistant station master at Pollokshaws who asserted Munro had called Gardiner “nothing but a damnable beast” (Glasgow Herald, 10th March, 1888).

After lengthy explanations from Munro, the Sheriff found that the pursuers had failed to establish their case. He, however, interdicted Munro from distributing pamphlets within the church building, containing statements regarding the church discipline under which he lies or on controversial subjects; further he prohibited him from molesting or annoying Gardiner by addressing comments or protests to him within the church having reference to the services, or his competency to discharge the duties of his office (The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 21st March, 1888, p.6).

It is little wonder if Gardiner seems to be opposed to Munro in the ongoing story of his contendings with the church courts.


Restored at Last

Munro appeared before the Synod in May, 1893. He came attired in the robes of a Doctor of Medicine. This time he claimed that he had never been given a relevant libel and he asked that the case against him should now terminate. This petition was dismissed despite it being acknowledged that there was now a distinct difference in the tone of his speech (The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 24th May, 1893, p.10).

It was not till 1902 that he met with some success. On 11th February, Munro petitioned the Presbytery that he “be re-admtted to the fellowship and communion of the Church”. It was moved and seconded that “steps be taken to terminate this case without entering into details.” It was also moved by William B. Gardiner, Pollokshaws, and seconded that “the petition be dismissed on the ground that Dr Munro had done nothing to obtemper the Synod’s decision.” On a vote being taken, each motion received three votes. The Moderator cast his vote in favour of the first motion. At this, Gardiner dissented. The matter therefore came to Synod in May of that year. The friendlier tone of Munro’s petition was noted and by the casting vote of the Moderator it was decided to receive the petition and a committee was appointed to examine the case and to confer with Munro on the matter. Munro disclaimed the interpretation put upon the language in his pamphlet which was regarded as offensive. It was agreed with one dissent that he be restored to church fellowship (The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 22nd May, 1902, p.8).

I can only offer a couple of comments on this sad episode. When a man shows himself to be of such a temperament that he will kick up a fuss every time he doesn’t get his own way, the natural course of action is to show him the door as quickly as possible. This is what was done in this case: he was told to withdraw objectionable remarks and he was deprived of church membership when he didn’t comply. It would have been much wiser to have asked him to either substantiate or withdraw his remarks – or indeed to show that they weren’t as objectionable as they had appeared to be. If he could neither substantiate his remarks nor explain them away, then the Church could have disciplined him for slander via a libel issued in due form – something that Munro eventually (rightly) complained had not been done. But he was never given the opportunity of substantiating his remarks. After all, what if the minister actually was of “a somewhat selfish, irritable and overbearing temper”? Some careful, fraternal counsel and a little humility could have put things right. Unpalatable remarks cannot be swept aside and the maker of them silenced. The truth of them or their falsehood must first be established.

In the circumstances of the time, given the sort of character that Munro was – “unbending” – then that course of action might not have worked. On the other hand, the Synod eventually did do a remarkable climb down. Remarks which for thirty years and more had been considered so insulting as to warrant an elder being dismissed from church membership were suddenly given a new interpretation so that all objection to them was removed.

The timing of this final climb down is interesting. William F. Aitken died in March, 1901; his son resigned from the UOS Church ministry in February, 1902. Munro was restored a few months later. Are these events connected?


Morton’s Induction

No sooner was Munro restored to membership than he was raising objections again. Mains Street, Glasgow, had asked the Presbytery to moderate a call. (Incidentally Dr Alexander Munro was one of their commissioners on the occasion). A call to Robert Morton, Perth, was duly signed, sustained and accepted. 2nd October, 1902, was fixed for his induction by the Presbytery. On these occasions, objections are always called for – just to ensure that everyone is happy with what is going on. Usually there are none, but on this occasion Munro “appeared and laid on the table a paper in which it was stated that he objected to the induction of Professor Morton on the grounds that two ministers of other denominations had been invited to be present in the Social Meeting of the Congregation that evening and that anthems were to be sung, for which arrangements he believed Prof. Morton was principally if not wholly responsible.” Morton said he accepted full responsibility for the two ministers being present, but not for the other matter. William B. Gardiner moved that “the objections be set aside”. This was agreed to and Munro protested.

Next month, Munro submitted his reasons for protest and it was agreed that these should lie on the table. The Presbytery asked Munro to state in writing to the Presbytery his authority for the charges brought against Prof. Morton at the last meeting. But at the following meeting of Presbytery on 27th January, 1903, Munro refused to give the information requested. Since this was so, the Presbytery agreed to take no further action in the matter. But the matter did not quite end there. On 9th June, Munro wrote a letter to Presbytery on “The Rev. Professor Morton’s Case”. As there was no such case before the church courts, it was agreed not to read the letter.


The End

He died in 1904. The closing words of the obituary which we have already quoted read: “the deceased will be missed by a large circle”. I’m sure his passing was felt with sadness in the UOS Church, but surely a large part of the sadness was that hours had been wasted in fruitless debate over Munro’s doings or that the potential contribution to the UOS Church of such a strong and gifted man had not been realised largely because of his own temperamental defects.