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Remembering the Skating Minister... and abolitionist?

Rev Robert WalkerRev Dr Russell Barr considers International Day for the Abolition of Slavery in the light of Advent.

Question:

Which famous Church of Scotland minister is the ‘poster boy’ for the National Gallery of Scotland?

Answer:

The Reverend Robert Walker otherwise known as the Skating Minister.

Robert Walker was one of my predecessors as minister at Cramond Kirk. He had been born and brought up in Holland and he came to Scotland as a teenager to study theology. He was appointed minister of Cramond in 1776 and eight years later he moved from the small village on the banks of the River Forth to become minister of the Canongate in the heart of old Edinburgh.

It was during his ministry at the Canongate that theportrait of him skating on Duddingston Loch was painted by the famous Scottish artist, Henry Raeburn. Although there is some dispute as to whether or not it is a Raeburn, the painting has pride of place in the National Gallery on Edinburgh’s Princes Street where Walker, oblivious to the fuss being made about artist’s identity, glides gracefully across the loch.

A minister, a skater, a poster boy - and it wasn’t until I went to Ghana and visited Elmina Castle that I learned something of real substance about Robert Walker

Elmina Castle was one of the principal points of departure for the slave ships taking people from Africa across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. It is a truly awful place and you cannot begin to imagine the horrors it witnessed. Yet it was visiting Elmina Castle that I learned Robert Walker is celebrated in Ghana as one of the leading abolitionists, a man who successfully petitioned the Presbytery of Edinburgh to support William Wilberforce in his quest to abolish slavery and bring an end to the cruel traffic in human life.

Suddenly my image of Robert Walker was transformed from the poster boy image of the skating minister to someone passionate about justice, a man who refused to walk past on the other side of human suffering and was willing to speak up on behalf of those who had no voice.

A minister, a skater, a poster boy and an abolitionist: from the trivial to the profound the story of Robert Walker is a story for Advent when in all the tinsel and jingle of the Christmas season we are drawn to the deep heart of the gospel and the God who comes among us to set us free.

@ALTYGlasgow

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