The Madras College Archive


Former Pupil Biographies

Professor John Birrell (1836 - 1901)

John Birrell, orientalist, elder of two sons of Hugh Birrell, architect, by his wife Margaret Smith, was born at Drumeldrie, Newburn parish, Fife, on 21 Oct. 1836. His only brother, George, an architect, died in 1876 at the age of thirty-seven.

After attending the parish school and Madras College, St. Andrews, Birrell entered St. Andrews University as first bursar in 1851, and after a brilliant course graduated M.A. in 1855. The next two years, with thoughts of the Indian civil service, he passed at Halle, sojourning with the orientalist, Prof. Roediger. The Indian Mutiny altered his plans, and, returning to St. Andrews, he completed in 1861 at St. Mary's College the training for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. Licensed as a preacher in 1861 by St. Andrews Presbytery, Birrell held the post of tutor at the College Hall, St. Andrews for two years.

In 1863 he became assistant to Dr. Robertson at Glasgow Cathedral, and in 1864 he was presented by the senatus of St. Andrews, then patrons of the living, to the parish of Dunino adjoining that of St. Andrews. He was there able to maintain his hold on academic life. He was examiner in classics in the United College, St. Andrews, in 1862-6, for some years assisted Dr. John Cook, professor of church history, and was clerk to the Senatus Academicus.

In 1871 he was appointed by the crown to the chair of Hebrew and Oriental languages in St. Mary's College, St. Andrews, and proved himself a painstaking, broad-minded, and lucid teacher. His abilities were widely recognised. He received the degree of D.D. from Edinburgh University in 1878, and he was a member of the Old Testament revision committee, 1874-84. He was the first chairman of the St. Andrews school board, and held the position for sixteen years. As examiner of secondary schools in Scotland from 1876 to 1888, he originated and carried out with great success the scheme (afterwards superseded by the system of leaving certificates) of university local examinations at St. Andrews.

On 3 June 1874 he married Elizabeth, daughter of James Wallace of The Brake, Dunino, and had by her three sons and two daughters. Birrell died at St. John's, St. Andrews, on 31 December 1901, and was buried in the cathedral burying-ground of the city, the Eastern Cemetery.

In 'The Madras College' Dr Thompson wrote:

"John Birrell must serve as an example of the churchmen. He moved from his ministry in Dunino to become professor of Hebrew in St Mary's College, finding time for many years to act as a Governor of school."