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The Scot Abroad
Chapter 1 - The Scholar and the Author - Part 2


By the law of association we are thus brought from the schoolmen to the historians, who have a still more significant place in the specialties of the influence of the Scottish mind abroad, since they carried with them not only their own specific learning and genius, but were the interpreters and representatives of the nation whose glories they recorded.

Hector Boece, professor of the College of Montacute, published his History of Scotland at Paris in the year 1526. This exuberant narrative thus burst forth on the world four years later than the decorous and colourless work of Major. It is observable, too, that it came just nine years after the not less renowned British history of Geoffry of Monmouth issued from the same great fountain of the fashionable literature of the day. Wondrous as the story told by the Scot may seem to modern readers, it contrasted favourably with the incoherent marvels of the Welshman — with the wearisomely grotesque prophecies of Merlin—the story of the dragons which shook the foundation of the tower, and the dancing giants, which, after capering away on the Curragh of Kildare, were consolidated on Salisbury Plain, where they are known by the name of Stonehenge. In the artistic consistency of his narrative, too, there is something far more reasonable than the egregious Irish legends long afterwards collected by Dr Keating. Boece does not attempt, like them, to get across the Flood, whether by hiding the Firbolg in the Ark or giving him a boat of his own. He adheres to the simple story established by the monks before him—how Gathelus, a prince of Greece, left that country in an unfortunate family difference with his father, Miol, and seeking refuge in Egypt, there married Scota, the daughter of that same Pharaoh who was drowned in the Red Sea. Wandering through Europe by the great peninsula, where on the way they founded Portugal—so named as the port of Gathelus—they reached Scotland, bringing with them the fatal stone yet to be seen in Westminster. Their descendant, Fergus, "Ither of a hundred kings," founded the monarchy of Scotland. Boece had two veracious authorities to whom he referred in all matters hard of belief; they were named Veremund and Campbell; and never did unsuccessful efforts by detectives to find the referees of any noted rogue approach in diligence and duration the search after these respectable authors.

So it came to pass that Boece has been one of the most successful of impostors. He took the world by a kind of calm insolence essential to great success in the function called humbugging. He found in the arid pages of his predecessors the raw outline of a fabulous history of Scotland, and he filled it up with so much life and character that the world could not help believing in it. Even the sarcastic Erasmus’ put faith in Boece, and Paulus Jovius thought him equally eloquent and erudite. He abounded, no doubt, in the supernatural, but it was in the manner suited to the age. To its aptness there is this supreme testimony, that Shakespeare wove the threads of his weird narrative into the tragedy of ‘Macbeth.’ His influence on our history has been wonderful. As we shall see, Buchanan adopted his luxurious pictures, chastening the language in which they were narrated, and adapting them by an occasional twist to the exemplification of his own political and ecclesiastical doctrines. This fictitious history found its way into all foreign works of historical reference, when the fictitious histories of other nations had been curtailed, and it came to be the fashion that Scotland was looked on as the most ancient of the European nations, carrying the dynasty of her kings, and a connected series of political events, far before the birth of Christ.

After Boece, the next obvious step is to the illustrious name of Buchanan, whose works, issuing in numerous editions from the presses of France and Holland, were in every library. He studied at Paris, and became a professor of the College of St Barbe. He resided in France during several of his early years of obscurity and study, as the tutor and companion of a fellow-countryman, the young Earl of Cassius. The flattering attentions of James V., whom he met in Paris, whither the Scottish monarch had gone to bring home his bride, Magdalene of France, induced him to return to his native country. But he had accustomed himself to intellectual luxuries such as Scotland could not then effectually furnish, and he soon went back to the Continent. He was fifty-five years of age before he again resided in Scotland. He was for several years Professor of "the humanities" in the College of Guienne, at Bordeaux, where he had for his pupil the essayist Montaigne, who spoke Latin as the language of his childhood, and afterwards learned his native tongue as an accomplishment.

Here Buchanan was the neighbour and friend of the elder Scaliger, who was fifteen years older than himself; and saw Joseph Justus, destined to the throne of European scholarship, a child in his father’s house at Agin. The younger Scaliger was probably not uninfluenced by his childish recollections of his father’s friend, when he maintained Buchanan’s superiority over all the poets of the age who wrote in Latin. Buchanan appears to have remained longer at Bordeaux than in any other place; but the vagrant habits of his class took him, after a few years, to Paris, and thence from place to place in France, where his biographers with difficulty trace him by the offices held by him in the universities.

He was about forty years old when he appeared to have finally established himself in life as a professor in the newly-founded University of Coimbra, in Portugal. He had then as his fellow-professor his brother, Patrick Buchanan, unknown to fame. The state which is generally reputed to be among the most restless in Europe offered to the two Buchanans, and several other scholars who accompanied them, a retreat from the conflicts then shaking the other European nations. But the tranquillity of Portugal seems to have been more inimical to the body of men who went to constitute the university than the turbulence of other places. Buchanan was subjected to inquisitorial coercion to an extent not precisely ascertained, though there is no reason to believe that he was under any of the horrible tortures always associated with the word Inquisition. Yet, were we to accept a belief popularly entertained, the Inquisition had inflicted on him a punishment as potent as it was original, in compelling him to write his renowned translation of the Psalms.

We know little of his true position in Portugal, save that he was actually there, occupied in his translation, and that in leaving the country he considered that he had accomplished an escape. He afterwards sojourned in the family of the Marshal de Brissac (le beau Brisaac), one of the last of those great French captains who held their batons as sceptres, and stood on a rank with princes. The young Prince Henry said that, if he were not the Dauphin of France, he would choose to be the Duke de Brissac; and when the King desired promotion in the army for a favourite, he had to put his request to Brissac like one gentleman to another.

The Scottish historian must have seen much to teach him real history under such a roof. Yet it is not easy to suppose that so close a contact with a formidable opponent of the Huguenots, and a colleague of the Guises, could have been very gratifying to Buchanan’s Protestant predilections. Such was the varied and stirring life led by this great man before be devoted his services to his own country; and we cannot doubt that in those days, when no newspaper’s "own correspondent" made people familiar with the daily proceedings in distant courts and camps, the wide practical insight into human affairs thus acquired by him must have given him a great superiority to the world of provincial statesmen in which he found himself.

It has sometimes been regretted that Buchanan did not give his great powers to the beautifying of his own language; but the regret is useless. If he was to speak to an audience worth collecting, it must be in Latin. It is a question whether the language of his youth was Gaelic or Scots. It is equally dubious whether we have a fair specimen of his Saxon style in ‘Ane Detectioun of the Doingis of Marie Quene of Scottis twitching the Murther of hir Husband.’ It is certain, however, that had he attempted to appeal to an English audience in what he had at his command of the language of the Anglo - Saxon race, he would have been received with ridicule, instead of the homage he achieved in the language of the leaned world.

A free access to this great medium for the exchange of thought was indeed one of the compensating benefits which the Scots derived from the contest with England. The exclusion of the Scots scholars from English ground only prompted their aspiring spirits to seek a wider arena of distinction, and they found it in securing to themselves as an audience the learned men of all the world. When there arose two distinct languages, an English and a Scottish, the latter afforded a far too limited intellectual dominion to satisfy the ambition of Scottish men of letters. Hence they had recourse to Latin; and Buchanan, as the first among them in the use of this language, was at the same time the first of Latin narrators throughout the world since the days of Tacitus. It is not correct to speak of the Latin as a dead language among Scots scholars. They did not, perhaps, treat it with the strict accuracy which English scholarship had attained; that would, indeed, have been to treat it as a dead language, which cannot move. Buchanan, Bellenaen, and Johnston had their provincialisms and peculiarities, as Livy the Paduan, and Sallust the Sabine had; and in the same manner they could afford to have them, since, instead of adjusting their sentences to the precedents laid down for them by the sentences of other authors not like-minded with themselves or living under the same mental conditions, they drew, in their own way, on the resources of the language used by them, adapted it to the purposes of a new order of society, and made it the vehicle of original and striking thoughts.

The Scotsmen who wrote much, and had a large foreign correspondence, overcame the great barrier to the free use of a foreign tongue by actually thinking in Latin. We find it manifest that they did so, by the greater freedom with which they are found to write when they abandon the vernacular and adopt the ancient tongue. One may find them, in their familiar epistles to each other, running into Latin as a relief, just as any one when speaking a foreign tongue rests for a moment on a sentence of his own. True, they were not so familiar with the language in which they composed as those to whom the colloquial language is also that of literature; but were the authors of Rome in any better position? Have we any reason to suppose that the plebs spoke in the streets of Rome in that form of speech with which our youth try to be familiar through the exercises in their grammars? Can we, indeed, believe that literary Latin could ever be a common colloquial tongue, or anything more to the Roman historian than it became to the Scottish—the language in which he marched, with solemn stride, through great events, announcing the moral as he went in well-poised sentences?

There are not, perhaps, above three or four other names holding so proud a place in the homage of his countrymen as Buchanan’s. His, indeed, is the only one among the learned names in Scottish literature which has got a place in the familiar memory of the people, unless we may except the wizard Michael Scott, whose memory can scarcely be said to stand in good esteem. The traditional fame of Buchanan, though kindly, is grotesque. He is the parent of a multitude of witty and proverbial sayings—a sort of Lokmam or Aesop; but a still better type of him may be found in the Eulen-spiegel or Owl-Glass of the Germans. Among his other services he caused a reformation in the prevailing dramatic literature, which would have been of more mark than it retains at the present day, had it not been immediately obliterated by greater changes. He had a mastery over the Greek language very uncommon in that age, especially in Britain; and this, co-operating with his versatile power of Latin versification, enabled him to charm the reading world of the day with delightful translations of the choice works of the Greek dramatists. Spreading over Europe in the common language of the educated world, these would have superseded the remnants of the old religious mysteries, had not a greater change been at hand, in the rise, in England, Spain, and ultimately in France, of a vernacular dramatic literature, which, in its sturdy home vitality, was to outgrow all foreign exotics.

His rich genial mind was coated with a sort of crust of austerity. It was not in his nature to be a fanatic, but he took to the Presbyterian side as the opponent of royal prerogative and a vainglorious hierarchy. He was much about courts and royal personages—so close was his contact with them, that he was reproached with the personal chastisements which, after the manner of ordinary pedagogues, he had inflicted on the royal stripling committed to his charge—but his nature assimilated very little to the courtier’s. He was full, indeed, of the proud consciousness—more rife in the days of Erasmus and the Scaligers than in later times—that an intellectual supremacy like his was something to which the compliments and distinctions at the disposal of princes could add no lustre.

Like all men who are great masters of their matter and their pen, he could adjust the nature of institutions and the tenor of history to his preconceived notions. When there is one able to take rude inconsecutive events, and half-formed institutions still liable to the action of caprice and accident, and to present these in a complete symmetrical form, with a prevailing theory or cohesive law throughout, sufficient to explain all their phenomena, it is difficult to contradict his conclusions. The tone of Buchanan’s mind was in everything to level factitious and social distinctions and over-ruling individual powers. Hence, by manipulating the incoherent history and half-formed institutions of his country, he made out a powerful case for fixed popular rights vested in the people of Scotland, and the spirit diffused by his writings had a visible influence in helping on the great popular conflict of the ensuing century. The luxurious and portly narrative of Boece afforded him materials which he could cut down into anything he liked; and when he produced out of it a fluent symmetrical history, it was fashioned after his own taste.

The long array of supernumerary kings was especially adapted to his purpose. Where no authentic records could be brought to check him, the most fluent and polished narrator, the best historical artist, of course had the ear of the world; and it was useless to contradict what Buchanan said about them, until these kings were knocked off the historical stage in a bundle. Each of them had his moral. If he misbehaved and turned tyrant, he came to grief and ignominy; if he were liberal, enlightened, and just, he was equally certain to come to glory and success: it was all as infallible as the fates in the Minerva Press novels and the good-boy books.

His celebrated History thus exhibited to the world two grand features: one was the story of an ancient nation, going back into the very roots of the world’s history, and passing onwards century after century in continuous lustre and honour, until an envious neighbour, far humbler in historic fame, but better endowed with the rude elements of power— more populous and more rich—endeavours by sheer force and cruelty to tread down and extirpate the ancient nation. The next story is that of triumph, when the high spirit, nourished by centuries of glorious recollections, arose in its true majesty, and cast back the gigantic oppressor crushed and bleeding into his own den.

The use of Buchanan’s works as text-books gave thus a vitality to the teaching of the Latin language in Scotland which it could not easily achieve in other countries. Taught to consider his Latinity equal to that of any of the ancient classics, the schoolboys of a naturally patriotic race could read in him the stirring story of their country’s foul wrongs and glorious retribution. Another thing made his works useful in education. In his version of the Psalms, he supplied the demand for something of a religious tone to modify the mythological tendency of classic poetry. In the intellects of those who were so taught, something else, too, was modified— the lumbering vernacular version of the same sacred lyrics which the young scholar would hear aggravated by every form of dissonance in his parish church on Sunday.

The position of Scotland among eminent nations was now safe. No foreign writer spoke about history or politics at large without giving a large place to our country, and paying due respect to her eminencies. Still, however, her own sons were not inclined to leave the world unreminded of her claims, and there is throughout all their literature a sort of fidgety anxiety to keep her distinctions continually in view, which might argue a misgiving about their own sufficiency to support themselves. It was all along the same old influence—that of the English claims and quarrel. Scotland, the poor relation, was braving it to the world against the rich oppressor, and fighting for a position as great as his. But that it had a patriotic spirit at its foundation, the tone of these Scots authors might be termed arrogant assumption; and it must be admitted that on some occasions, the patriotic enthusiasm was overdone.

Among these patriotic historians, Leslie, the good Bishop of Ross, had his History of Scotland printed for him in Rome in 1578, and another edition followed a century afterwards. Though, like Boece’s work, it was translated, yet, printed abroad, and written in the Latin tongue, it appealed rather to the general scholarship of Europe than to the author’s own country.

There is a Scotsman named Robert Johnston of whom little is known beyond two facts. He was one of George Heriot’s executors, and exerted himself bravely to get the old jeweller’s bequest and project for the maintenance of an hospital carried into effect. The other fact known of him is, that he wrote a history of Britain from the year 1572 to the year 1628, in which his own country holds a fully more prominent place than "that part of Great Britain called England." It rendered the position of his native country all the more important, that from it as a centre he took a general survey of human affairs. He published a portion of his book during his lifetime, but the completed edition came forth from the press of Eavesteyn of Amsterdam in 1655. Our old friend Monteith of Salmonet did not fail to dedicate the territorial title he had so ingeniously achieved to the glory of his country. The title-page of his book is indeed a very fair display of the spirit which actuated his literary countrymen. He is on the same cavalier side of the great question which Clarendon held, but that does not hinder him from bringing the English historian to task for injustice to the weight and merits of Scotland—thus: "The History of the Troubles of Great Britain, containing a particular account of the most remarkable passages in Scotland, from the year 1633 to 1650, with an exact relation of the wars carried on, and the battles fought, by the Marquis of Montrose (all which are omitted in the Earl of Clarendon’s History), also a full account of all the transactions in England during that time, written in French by Robert Monteith of Salmonet." The same specialty of giving mark and emphasis to the particular affairs of Scotland characterises a book still later in literature—the ‘History of Great Britain from the Revolution of 1688 to the Accession of George I.,’ by Alexander Cunningham. Little is known of the author, except that he was a Scot by birth, and the representative of Britain at the Venetian republic. He wrote his book in Latin, and a translation of it was printed in London in two quartos.

The same tone of feeling can be traced through smaller channels of literature. In 1579, a David Chalmers or Chambers published in Paris an abridged history of the kings of France, England, and Scotland, in chronological order. He also brings in the successive popes and emperors; but a stranger to the European history of the time would come away from the little book with a decided impression that Scotland was the most important among the powers with which it deals; and to keep her claims all the more fully in view, there is an express discourse about the Ancient League. This David Chambers had to do with affairs less innocent than the exaltation of his country. He was a fast friend of Bothwell, and though a judge of the Court of Session, he was much more likely to break the laws than justly to enforce them. When placards were set up about the murderers of Darnley, and the voices which the widowed Queen would not hear denounced the murderers, the name of Chambers was among the foremost.

Of nearly the same period, and not to be confounded with this man, is another David Chambers, who lived a quieter life—so quiet, indeed, that there is nothing to identify him, save what may be inferred from a book which he wrote on the bravery, the learning, and the piety which distinguished his countrymen before they lapsed into the prevailing heresy. His mind seems to have been coloured with the stoicisms and asceticisms of the Spartan and Roman heroic periods, and he enlarges on the temperate and hardy habits of his countrymen—how their mothers do not, as in other lands, give their infants to be fostered by others—how their clothing is systematically limited to what decorum requires, and they eat and drink not for luxury, but for strength and warlike spirit. One can find the district to which he belongs, by the weight of his eulogiums gravitating as it were to Aberdeen. His account of the university there is rather flagrant. He multiplies the two colleges into six, and gives a swollen account of King’s College, just as a specimen of their character, and not as constituting, along with the meagre shell of the other, the whole of the university edifices of the place. He makes his four supernumerary colleges out of the classes for medicine, law (of which he has two, canon and civil), and divinity. This book is a sort of small calendar of the saints special to the Church in Scotland, and contains some curious biographical matter about them: of course all those of Irish birth are duly claimed.


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