THEY had been under British rule since the Union of 1707, enjoying freedom of movement and trade within the island, but never reconciled to government by a distant Parliament in whose House of Commons Scotland’s 1,800,000 souls were represented by forty-five delegates against the 513 representing the 10,164,000 population of England and Wales. Of the Scottish members, fifteen were appointed by self-perpetuating and corrupt town councils whose members were chosen by a total of 1,220 electors in all the boroughs. The remaining thirty were elected by the rural counties on a franchise limited to influential landholders; so the county of Bute, with 14,000 inhabitants, had twenty-one voters, and all the counties together had 2,405.1 Most of the successful candidates had been selected by the great nobles of the old and spacious estates. Feudalism had been abolished throughout Scotland in 1748, but poverty remained, since greed and inequality are in the structure of man. By and large, Scotland, like England, accepted this form of representative government as the best that could be established among a people fondly tied to tradition, and too harassed by daily needs to acquire the knowledge and experience needed for voting intelligently on national issues.
Religion was stronger than the state. The Sabbath was a day of somber worship and remembrance of sin; the clergy preached Adam’s fall, a personal Devil, and a vengeful God; and the congregations were more hardened in doctrine and morals than their pastors. David Deans, in The Heart of Midlothian, is sure that a girl who goes to a dance will go to hell.2
Nevertheless Scotland was in many ways ahead of England. She had a national system of really public schools: every parish was required to maintain a school where boys and girls together were taught reading and arithmetic. For this instruction the parents paid two shillings per quarter-year per student; and for two shillings more the student would get a touch of Latin. The children of paupers were paid for by the parish, and when the parish was too widespread to gather its children together, an itinerant schoolmaster brought some schooling to each section in turn. The teachers were strictly subject to the parish clergy, and were expected to help in transmitting a terrifying theology; for the elders had found that Calvinism was an economical way of installing a sheriff in every soul. A goodly number of undaunted spirits survived to produce the Scottish Enlightenment in the generation before the French Revolution, and to continue it, somewhat subdued, in the age of Napoleon.
Scotland was proud of its universities, at St. Andrews (founded in 1410), Glasgow (1451), Aberdeen (1494), and Edinburgh (1583). These considered themselves superior in many respects to Oxford and Cambridge, and some modern scholars admit the claim;3in medical instruction the University of Edinburgh was the acknowledged leader.4 The Edinburgh Review, founded in 1802, was by common consent the most brilliant periodical in Great Britain, and the brave liberal lawyer Thomas Erskine (1750–1823) outshone nearly all other advocates before the London bar. It must be acknowledged, however, that when it came to suppressing freedom of thought—especially when this favored revolutionary France—no English jurist could rival the Scotch. Otherwise the intellectual climate in Edinburgh and Glasgow continued to favor the freedom that had protected David Hume, William Robertson, James Boswell, Robert Burns, and Adam Smith. We are told that not only the students but the entire intelligentsia of Edinburgh were to be seen taking notes at Dugald Stewart’s lectures on philosophy.
Stewart is almost forgotten today outside Scotland; but one of the stateliest monuments in Edinburgh is a small classic temple erected to his memory. He followed Thomas Reid in subjecting the skeptical conclusions of Hume and the mechanistic psychology of David Hartley to the scrutiny of “common sense.”5 He rejected metaphysics as a vain attempt of the mind to fathom the nature of the mind. (Only Baron Munchausen could pull himself up by his bootstraps.) In place of metaphysics Stewart proposed inductive psychology, which would practice patient and precise observation of mental processes without pretending to explain mind itself. Stewart was a man of wit and style, who gave acute accounts of wit, fancy dreams, and the poetic faculty. (His country was still a fount of loving songs, and some of the tenderest tunes that warmed our youth came from the banks and braes of Scotland.)
James Mill—though he surfeited his son with education—was a man of good will and spacious intellect. Son of a shoemaker, he won honors in Greek at the University of Edinburgh. Having graduated, he moved to London, lived dangerously by journalism, married, and begot a son whom he named after his M.P. friend John Stuart. Between 1806 and 1818 he wrote a History of British India which contained so convincingly documented a critique of misrule that it advanced major reforms in the government of India.
Meanwhile (1808) he met Jeremy Bentham, and enthusiastically accepted the utilitarian proposal that ethical and political customs and concepts should be judged according to their ability to advance the happiness of mankind. Overflowing with energy and ideas, Mill made himself the apostle of Bentham to Britain. For the fourth (1810), fifth (1815), and sixth (1820) editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (itself a Scottish enterprise) he wrote articles—on government, jurisprudence, prison reform, education, and freedom of the press—which, republished, won wide circulation and influence. These essays, and his contributions to the Westminster Review, became a force in the movement that led to the Reform Act of 1832. Under such leadership the British radicals turned from total revolution to progressive reform through a government based on a widening franchise and a utilitarian philosophy. In Elements of Political Economy (1821) Mill warned against letting population grow faster than capital, and proposed taxation of the “unearned increment”—the laborless rise in the value of land. In an Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1829) he sought to explain all mental operations through the association of ideas. And in 1835, a year before his death, he published a Fragment on Mackintosh.
Sir James Mackintosh continued the Scottish education of England. After acquiring the tools of thought at the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, he migrated to London (1788). Soon he thrilled to the news that a popular uprising had captured the Bastille; in 1790 he resented Edmund Burke’s hostile Reflections on the French Revolution; and in 1791 he answered that historic diatribe with Vindiciae Gallicae, a vindication of Gallic democracy. The twenty-six-year-old philosopher saw, in the early stages of the cataclysm, the noble voice and fruit of a humanitarian philosophy; whereas the threatened monarchies were not, as Burke supposed, the tested wisdom of tradition and experience but the chaotic residue of haphazard institutions, unforeseen events, and patchwork repairs.
All the governments that now exist in the world (except the United States of America) have been fortuitously formed…. It was certainly not to be presumed that these fortuitous governments should have surpassed the works of intellect…. It was time that men should learn to tolerate nothing ancient that reason does not respect, and to shrink from no novelty to which reason may conduct. It was time that the human powers… should mark the commencement of a new era in history by giving birth to the art of improving government, and increasing the civil happiness of man.6
As the Revolution declined from the ideals of philosophers to the chaotic tyranny of terrified men, Mackintosh revised his theorems, and adjusted himself to the social forces impinging upon him. His lectures on “The Laws of Nature and of Nations” (1799) discoursed, in a way that would have pleased Burke, on how social organization can generate—in the individual’s development—habits of action and judgments of conscience which acquire all the appearance of being innate; so the adult, through civilization, is a product not of nature only but of nurture as well. —In his final years Mackintosh wrote, from original researches and documents, a History of the Revolution in England (1832).
We may judge from these instances that Scottish civilization was not resting on its past glories at the turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth century. Agriculture was prospering, especially in the Lowlands. There, too, the textile mills were busy, and Robert Owen was opening up new visions of human cooperation. Glasgow was proud of its scientists, and Edinburgh was throbbing with lawyers, doctors, and clergymen in the van of their time. In art Sir Henry Raeburn was painting portraits that made him the Reynolds of Scotland. In literature Boswell was publishing (1791) that inexhaustible fountain of delight, The Life of Samuel Johnson; and at Abbotsford on the Tweed, mediating between ancient enemies, singing melodious lays, and writing world-famous novels to pay debts only partly his own, was the finest Scot and gentleman of them all.
Walter Scott was by temperament well suited to be a leader in the Romantic flowering of British literature, for he liked to think of himself as descended from the Scottish border chieftains whose feuds and wars had provided stirring matter for the ballads that were fed him in his childhood. His immediate ancestors, however, were an Edinburgh solicitor and the daughter of a professor of medicine in the University of Edinburgh. He was born there in 1771, one of twelve children, six of whom, after the custom of that time, died in infancy. In his eighteenth month he was stricken with poliomyelitis, which left him permanently lame in his right leg. Byron’s kindred disability may have helped Scott to maintain an undiscourageable friendship with the younger poet through all divergences of morals and belief.
After attending Edinburgh’s Old College, Scott began a five-year apprenticeship in law under his father, and in 1792 he was admitted as an advocate to the Scottish bar. His marriage with Charlotte Charpentier (1797) and a legacy from his father (1799) gave him a comfortable income. He was sociable and likable, and won many influential friends, through whom, in 1806, he was appointed clerk of session at Edinburgh. The emoluments of office, and some bequests from relatives, allowed him to neglect, and soon abandon, his law practice in order to indulge his taste for literature.
A chance meeting with Robert Burns, a fondness for Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, and an acquaintance with the lyrics—especially Lenore—of Gottfried Bürger, refreshed his adolescent interest in old British ballads. In 1802–03 he brought out, in three volumes, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Stimulated by these lively tales, he tried his own hand at the form, and in 1805 he issued The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Its sale was a landmark in the annals of British poetry. When he went to London in 1807 he found himself the lord of the salons. He decided to make literature his profession and almost his business, and began a perilous investment of his time and money in composing, printing, and publishing.
In the rhymed octosyllabic couplets of Coleridge’s Christabel he found an easy medium for his swiftly moving, romantic narratives of love and war, of mystery and the supernatural, in Scottish legend and history. He exploited the new field with Marmion(1808),The Lady of the Lake (1810), Rokeby (1813), and The Lord of the Isles (1815). He did not claim to be a great poet; he wrote to entertain the public profitably, not to entertain the Muses, who, after all, were weary of epics and hexameters. His readers followed him breathlessly from knight to fair lady to heroic fray; and they sang with zest such interspersed songs as “O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west, / Through all the wide Border his steed was the best.”7 Then, in 1813, Byron issued The Giaourand The Bride of Abydos, and in 1814 The Corsair and Lara. Scott saw his audience leaving border for Oriental mysteries and desperate misanthropes; he recognized that the young lord of Newstead Abbey could outrhyme and outpace the laird of Abbotsford; and in 1814, withWaverley, he turned from poetry to prose, and struck new ore.
It was most opportune. In 1802 he had advanced money to James Ballantyne, a printer at Kelso, to move his press to Edinburgh; in 1805 he became privately a partner in James and John Ballantyne’s printing and publishing firm; and henceforth he arranged that his compositions, by whomever published, should be printed at the Ballantyne press. With his earnings and profits Scott bought in 1811 the estate of Abbotsford (near Melrose), expanded its 110 acres to 1,200, and replaced the old farmhouse with a chateau expensively furnished and beautifully adorned; it is one of the showplaces of Scotland. But in 1813 the Ballantyne firm neared bankruptcy, partly due to publishing, at a loss, various projects edited by Scott. He set himself to restore the Ballantynes to solvency with loans from his rich friends and with the proceeds from his writings. By 1817 the firm was solvent, and Scott was immersed in one of the most famous series of novels in literary history.
Waverley was published anonymously in 1814, and earned some two thousand pounds—much of which was soon spent on Abbotsford. Scott concealed his authorship, feeling it a bit unseemly for a clerk of sessions to write fiction for sale. His pen moved almost as fast in prose as it had done in verse. In six weeks he wrote Guy Mannering (1815); in 1816 The Antiquary; in 1816–19 (under the general title of Tales of My Landlord) he presented an engaging panorama of Scottish scenes—Old Mortality, The Heart of Midlothian, The Bride of Lammermoor, and The Legend of Montrose; from one of these Donizetti made another fortune. Scott traveled extensively through Scotland and England and the neighboring islands; he called himself an antiquary rather than a novelist; and he was able to give his stories a local color and dialectic tang that delighted his Scottish following. Ivanhoe, The Monastery, and The Abbot—all in 1820—took medieval England as their scene, not quite so realistically as the Scottish tales had done. In 1825 Scott ventured into the medieval East, and in The Talisman he gave so flattering a picture of Saladin that pious Scots began to doubt the thoroughness of the author’s orthodoxy. When George Eliot was asked what first had shaken her Christian faith, she answered, “Walter Scott.”8
Those of us who relished the “Waverley Novels” in youth are now too fevered with our modern pace to enjoy them today; but even a hurried immersion in one of them—say The Heart of Midlothian—renews our sense that the man who could produce such a book every year for a decade must have been one of the wonders of his time. We see him playing the feudal baron at Abbotsford (he was knighted in 1820), yet meeting all men with kindness and simplicity; the most famous author of the age—known from Edinburgh to St. Petersburg (where Pushkin revered him), but laughing heartily on hearing himself compared to Shakespeare. His poems and novels were potent factors in the Romantic movement, though he harbored few romantic delusions. He shared in reviving interest in medieval ways; nevertheless he pleaded with the Scots to put aside their idealization of their violent feudal past, and to adjust themselves to that Union which was slowly merging two peoples into one. In his old age he warmed himself with a Tory patriotism that would admit no fault in the British Constitution.
Meanwhile his printers, the Ballantynes, and his publisher, Archibald Constable, were both approaching bankruptcy. In 1826 they surrendered their remaining assets to the court, and Sir Walter, as partner, became liable for the Ballantynes’ debts. Now at last Europe learned that the author of the Waverley Novels was the lord of Abbotsford. The court allowed him to keep his home and some acres, and his official salary as clerk of session, but all his other assets were forfeited. He could still live comfortably, and he continued to pour forth novel after novel in the hope that his earnings could annul his debts. In 1827 he sent forth a laborious Life of Napoleon, which a wit called “a blasphemy in ten volumes.” It denuded the Corsican of almost every virtue, but it pleased the British soul, and moderately reduced the author’s debts.
The quality of his remaining product reflected his haste and unease. In 1830–31 he suffered several strokes. He recovered, and the government assigned a frigate to take him for a cruise under the Mediterranean sun; but new strokes disabled him, and he was hurried back so that he might die in his beloved Abbotsford (1832). Another publisher, Robert Cadell, took over his remaining debts (£7,000) and copyrights, and made a fortune out of the combination, for the novels of Walter Scott remained popular till the end of the century. Wordsworth thought him “the greatest spirit of his generation.”9