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The Rev. Hugh Blair, D.D., of the High Church, Edinburgh


The author of the "Lectures on Ehetoric and Belles Lettres," and of five volumes of universally admired Sermons, whose life and writings have done so much credit to the Scottish pulpit, was born at Edinburgh in 1718. His father was a merchant, and grandson to Eobert Blair, an eminent Presbyterian "Scots Worthy" of the seventeenth century.

Young Blair commenced his academical studies in 1730; and having been preventedby constitutional delicacy of health from participating much in iho pastimes peculiar to youth, his devotion to the acquisition of knowledge became the more close and effective. His first striking demonstration of talent was exhibited in an "Essay on the Beautiful," written while a student of logic, and when only in his sixteenth year, which, as a mark of distinction, was ordered by Professor Stevenson to be publicly read at the end of the session.

In 1741, he was licensed by the Presbytery of Edinburgh ; and his sermons being distinguished at the very outset for correctness of design, and that peculiar chastity of composition which so much distinguished his after productions, his talents as a preacher soon became the topic of public remark. His first charge was the parish of Collessie in Fife, presented to him by the Earl of Leven in 1742 ; but the very next year he was recalled to the metropolis, by being elected one of the ministers of the Canongate Church. Here, in 1745, on the breaking out of the Rebellion, he preached a sermon warmly in favour of the Hanoverian line, which was afterwards printed, and it is said had the effect of strengthening the loyalty of the people.

Blair continued in the Canongate eleven years, during which period he had the satisfaction of attracting an immense congregation from all quarters of the city, and found himself daily acquiring popularity. In 1754 he was called to the pastorship of Lady Tester's Church by the Town Council of Edinburgh; and again by the same body, in 1758, he was translated to one of the charges in the High Church. About the same period, the degree of D.D. was conferred upon him by the University of St. Andrews. In 1759, Dr. Blair commenced the delivery of those lectures on "Rhetoric and the Belles Lettres," afterwards given to the public in a printed form, and which have since continued to hold precedence as a standard work on literary composition. The lectures were undertaken with the concurrence of the University; and so popular did they at once become, that in 1761 the Town Council procured from Government an endowment of .£70 a year towards instituting a rhetorical class in connexion with the College, of which Dr. Blair was appointed Professor. Hitherto, except in the case of one or two sermons on particular occasions, which were printed, the Doctor had not appeared as an author before the world. The deep interest which he took, however, in the exertions of Macpherson to recover the traditional poetry of the Highlands, led him to publish, in 1763, "a Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian," which was held by the advocates for their authenticity, to be one of the finest specimens of "critical composition in the English language."

Dr. Blair was the first person who introduced the poems of Ossian to the notice of the world; first, by the "Fragments of Ancient Poetry" which he published; and next, by setting on foot an undertaking for collecting and publishing the entire poems. He used to boast of this, but he little dreamed that the lapse of a few years would produce so general a change in public opinion as to the authenticity of these remarkable productions.

Although his style of pulpit oratory had become an object of very general imitation among the young clergy, and although he had been repeatedly urged to favour the world with some of those productions which had captivated so many hearers, it was not till 1777 that he was induced to think of publishing. In that year he transmitted the MS. of his first volume of sermons, through the medium of Mr. Creech, to an eminent publisher in London (Mr. Strachan), with a view to the disposing of the copyright. Strachan, presuming probably on a very general feeling of aversion then existing in the public mind towards clerical productions, sent a discouraging answer to Dr. Blair. In the mean time the MS. had been handed to Dr. Johnson for perusal, who, after Strachan's unfavourable letter had been despatched to the north, sent a note to the publisher, in which he says, "I have read over Dr. Blair's first sermon with more than approbation; to say it is good, is to say too little." This judgment, strengthened by a conversation afterwards held with Dr. Johnson, soon convinced Mr. Strachan of the error he had committed. He therefore wrote a second time to Dr. Blair, inclosing Johnson's note, and agreeing, in conjunction with Mr. Cadell and Mr. Creech of Edinburgh, to purchase the volume for one hundred pounds. The MS. was first submitted to the perusal of Mr. Creech, who was so highly taken with it, that he made an offer off-hand to the author of one hundred guineas. Dr. Blair was so much struck with the amount, as to be almost incredulous of the verity of Mr. Creech's offer. "Will you indeed!" was his exclamation. The popularity of these sermons exceeded all anticipation; so much so, that the publishers presented the author with two additional sums of money, by way of compliment. Not long after its first publication, the volume attracted the notice of George III. and his consort—a portion of the sermons, it is said, having been first read to their Majesties in the royal closet by the eloquent Earl of Mansfield. So highly did their Majesties esteem the merits of the author, that a pension of .£200 was settled upon him. The Doctor afterwards published other three volumes of sermons, all of which met an equally flattering reception, and were translated into almost all the European languages.

Upon occasion of the publication of Dr. Blair's Lectures, Logan the poet addressed a letter to Dr. Gilbert Stuart, at that time editor of the "English Review and Political Herald," from which the following beautiful extracts have been taken :—

"Dr. Blair's Lectures are to be published some time in spring. I need not tell you that I am very much interested in the fate and fame of all his works. Besides his literary merit, he hath borne his faculties so meekly in every situation, that he is entitled to favour as well as candour. He has never with pedantic authority opposed the career of other authors, but has, on the contrary, favoured every literary attempt. He has never studied to push himself immaturely into the notice of the world, but waited the call of the public for all his productions ; and now, when he retires from the republic of letters into the vale of ease, I cannot help wishing success to Fingal in the last of his fields. * * * * Your influence to give Dr. Blair his last passport to the public will be very agreeable to the literati here, and will be a particular favour done to me. It will still farther enhance the obligation if yon will write me such a letter as I can show him, to quiet his fears."

Dr. Blair retired from the Professorship in 1788, in consequence of advanced age, and in a few years afterwards found himself also unable to discharge the duties of the pulpit. Such, however, was the vigour of his intellect, that in 1799, when past his eightieth year, he composed and preached one of the most effective sermons he ever delivered, in behalf of the Fund for the Benefit of the sons of the Clergy, the subject of which was—"The compassionate beneficence of the Deity."

In addition to his acquirements in theology and general literature, Dr. Blair was intimately acquainted with some of the sciences; while it may be worthy of remark, he also indulged to a considerable extent in light reading. "The Arabian Nights' Entertainments," and "Don Quixote," were among his especial favourites. He was also an admirer of Mrs. Anne Radcliffe's talents for romance, and honoured Mr. Pratt's " Emma Corbett" with particular praise. In Church politics, although the Doctor took no active part, he was, like his intimate friend Principal Eobertson, a decided Moderate, and was zealous to adopt any means of improving the worship of the Church of Scotland, where such could be done without an infringement of principle. With this view, during one of his visits to London, he procured singers from the Cathedral of York, by whose aid he originated an amendment in the conducting of the psalmody, which was at first looked upon as a daring innovation, but is now become pretty general throughout the Establishment.

There were some slight defects in the character of the Doctor, which have been admitted by his warmest friends—he was vain, and very susceptible of flattery. A gentleman one day met him on the street, and, in the course of conversation, mentioned that his friend Mr. Donald Smith, banker, was anxious to secure a seat in the High Church, that he might become one of the Doctor's congregation. "Indeed," continued this person, "my friend is quite anxious on this subject. He has tried many preachers, but he finds your sermons, Doctor, so superior in the graces of oratory, and so full of pointed observation of the world, that he cannot think of settling under any other than you."—"I am very glad to hear that I am to have Mr. Smith for a hearer," said the preacher with unconscious self-gratula-tion—"he is a very sensible man."

Dr. Blair's "taste and accuracy in dress," continues our authority, "were absolutely ridiculous. There was a correctness in his wig, for instance, amounting to a hair-breadth exactness. He was so careful about his coat, that not content with merely looking at himself in the mirror to see how it fitted in general, he would cause the tailor to lay the looking-glass on the floor, and then standing on tiptoe over it, he would peep athwart his shoulder to see how the skirts hung. It is also yet remembered in Edinburgh, with what a self-satisfied and finical air this great divine used to walk between his house and the church every Sunday morning, on his way to perform service. His wig frizzed and powdered so nicely—his gown so scrupulously arranged on his shoulders—his bands so pure and clean—and every thing about him in such exquisite taste and neatness."

Upon one occasion, while sitting for his portrait, he requested the painter to draw his face with a pleasing smile. The painter replied, "Well, then, you must $mt on a pleasing smile." The Doctor, in attempting to do this, made a most horrid grin, which, being immediately transferred to the canvas, gave his effigy the appearance of that of a downright idiot. This effect being pointed out to him by a friend, he immediately ordered the painting to be destroyed, and a new one forthwith commenced, the Doctor contenting himself with having it executed without the "pleasing smile."

During the latter part of his life almost all strangers of distinction who visited Edinburgh brought letters of introduction to Dr. Blair: and as he was quite at ease in point of worldly circumstances, and had then in a great measure ceased to study intensely, he in general entertained them frequently and well. On one of these occasions, when he had collected a considerable party at dinner to meet an English clergyman, a Scotsman present asked the stranger what was thought of the Doctor's sermons by his professional brethren in the south. To his horror, and to the mortification of Mrs. Blair, who sat near, and who looked upon her husband as a sort of divinity, the Englishman answered, "Why, they are not partial to them at all."—"How, sir," faltered out the querist—"how should that be?"—"Why," replied the southron, "because they are so much read, and so generallj-known, that our clergymen can't borrow from them." The whole company, hitherto in a state of considerable embarrassment, were quite delighted at this ingenious and well-turned compliment.

Dr. Blair died in the 83rd year of his age, on the 27th December, 1800. He was buried in the Greyfriars' Churchyard—the Westminster Abbey of Scotland—where a tablet to his memory, containing a highly elegant and classical Latin inscription, is affixed to the southern wall of the church. He married, in 1748, his cousin, Katherine Banna-tyne, daughter of the Reverend James Bannatyne, one of the ministers of Edinburgh, by whom he had a son and daughter. The former died in infancy, and the latter when about twenty-one years of age. Mrs. Blair also died a few years previous to the demise of her husband. Dr. Blair's usual place of residence in summer was at Bestalrig—in winter in Argyle Square.


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