Isobel Scrimger is mentioned in Anderson’s Ladies of the Reformation and her significance for the history of Scotland is that she was the mother of James Melville, and the aunt of Andrew Melville. Although she was the aunt of Andrew, she brought him up after his mother died when he was two years of age. Her own son James was only about ten years younger than Andrew, and they grew up as brothers rather than uncle and nephew.
Andrew became the next significant Protestant leader in Scotland after the death of Knox. In addition, he and his nephew were outstanding scholars. Andrew was Principal of both Glasgow University and then St Andrews University, and after he was exiled he taught theology in a French University. He often spoke gratefully of his aunt.
Isobel came into the Melville family when she married Richard Melville, the oldest son of a family in which Andrew was the youngest. Richard initially was a laird near Montrose and after the Reformation in 1560 he became a minister there. His future wife was connected to a prominent family whose lands were near Dundee.
According to Anderson, she was an early follower of the Reformation and was one of the first converts in the area in which she lived. She attended meetings held in the castle of John Erskine of Dun, who became a prominent supporter of the Reformation and a leader of it in the years after 1560. At those meetings, the Scriptures were read and expounded, probably by Erskine, and sometimes there would be a guest preacher. One preacher who helped her greatly was George Wishart, who was a friend of Erskine’s. Apparently, Erskine only escaped having the same kind of death as Wishart because of his rank in society. Wishart, as we know, was put to death in Dundee.
After Isobel married Richard she made a big impression on his family. Her son James records the opinion that his uncles had of her; he observes, ‘I have divers times heard when my father’s brothers, Roger, John, Mr. James and Robert, could not satisfy themselves in commending her godliness, honesty, virtue, and affection towards them.’ Of course, in saying that about her, they were only describing what a Christian should be.
Although she was the mother of James, she died in 1557, a year after he was born, and three years before the Reformation became official. So in literal sense, she played virtually no role in his upbringing, apart from two ways. One of them was prayer. James records in his diary that she saw something special in her nephew Andrew and often prayed, ‘God give me another lad like thee, and syne tak me to his rest!’ It looks as if she knew she would not live long and prayed that she would bear a son like her nephew. She already had two other sons, one of whom died young. But she received her wish when James was born because history tells us he was as devout and almost as gifted as Andrew.
Her second contribution to the development of James was seen in the way she had trained her daughter, also called Isobel, in the Christian faith. Anderson records that Isobel, her eldest daughter, ‘had been trained up under her own eye’, and ‘possessed much of her own excellence of character’. The daughter died in 1574 in childbirth, when James was eighteen. Still, she had taken care of him during much of his adolescence and he recorded her spiritual tendencies. She loved to read and sing the songs of David Lindsay about the final day – the judgement, hell, and heaven.
James also recorded an occasion when she had been reading a song about ministers who gave up their calling because they did not get a stipend. Her response was to weep and wonder what such would say at the Day of Judgement, and then prayed that her father and others whom she named would be kept from such a choice.
James says of her influence, ‘With her speeches and tears she made me to quake and chout bitterly, which left the deepest stamp of God’s fear in my heart of anything that ever I heard before.’ He was eleven at the time.
Here we are, some of the individuals four centuries later who have inherited the cause for which Andrew and James Melville devoted their particular talents. We honour them rightly, yet we should not forget the mother and the daughter who influenced them when they were young and taught them to love the gospel that was recovered at the Reformation and to dedicate themselves to the service of God.
Both the mother and the daughter died relatively young, at least by our expectations. Yet they remind us that it is possible to do a lot in a short space of time. They also tell us that if we do what we should do in our families as far as bringing them up in the faith is concerned God may honour us by using family members to shake the nation for Christ