When John Cairns entered the University of Edinburgh in November 1834 he passed into a world that was entirely strange to him. It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast than that between the low-roofed village school and the spacious quadrangle surrounded by heavily balustraded stone terraces and stately pillared facades, into which, at the booming of the hourly bell, there poured from the various classrooms a multitudinous throng of eager young humanity. And he himself in some mysterious way seemed to be changed almost beyond his own recognition. Instead of being the Jock Cairns who had herded sheep on the braes of Dunglass, and had carried butter to the Cockburnspath shop, he was now, as his matriculation card informed him, “Joannes Cairns, Civis Academiae Edinburgeniae;” he was addressed by the professor in class as “Mr. Cairns,” and was included in his appeal to “any gentleman in the bench” to elucidate a difficult passage in the lesson of the day.
He attended two classes this winter—that of “Humanity” or Latin taught by Professor Pillans, and that of Greek under the care of Professor George Dunbar. Pillans had been a master at Eton, and at a later period Rector of the Edinburgh High School. He was a little man with rosy cheeks, and was a sound scholar and an admirable teacher, whose special “fad” was Classical Geography. Dunbar had begun life as a working gardener at Ayton Castle. He had compiled a Greek Lexicon which had some repute in its day, but he was not an inspiring teacher, and his gruff manners made him far from popular.
Trained by a country schoolmaster, and having no experience of competition except what a country school affords, John Cairns had until now no idea of his own proficiency relatively to that of others; and it was something of a revelation to him when he discovered how far the grounding he had received from Mr. M’Gregor enabled him to go. His classical attainments soon attracted notice, and at the end of the session, although he failed to win the Class Medals, he stood high in the Honours Lists, and was first in private