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Significant Scots
George Thomson


THOMSON, GEORGE.—Independently of the merited reputation he acquired for his successful labours in Scottish music and song, he will go down to posterity as the "friend and correspondent of Burns." In the very brief sketch which he has given of his own life till 1838, written for "The Land of Burns," a valuable and well-known publication, he states that he was born at Limekilns in Fife, and, as he supposes, about 1759, at least he was so informed; for at the time of writing, although touching on his eightieth year, he found himself so hale and vigorous, that, as he playfully adds, he could scarcely persuade himself that he was so old. His father was a teacher at Limekilns, and afterwards in the town of Banff; and at this latter place George was taught by his parent the elements of education, and afterwards sent to study Latin and Greek at the grammar-school. From Banff his father, who had been struggling for some time in vain for a moderate livelihood, removed to Edinburgh, and here his son, now seventeen years old, soon obtained a situation as clerk in the office of a writer to the signet. In this situation he remained till 1780, when, through the recommendation of Mr. John Home, author of the tragedy of Douglas, he was appointed junior clerk to the honourable Board of Trustees, and soon after, on the death of the principal clerk, he was promoted to that vacant office. Here he found himself so comfortable in worldly circumstances, and so highly esteemed by Mr. Robert Arbuthnot, the secretary of the board, and afterwards by Sir William, his son and successor, that he had no desire to risk his present happiness in search of more, and accordingly he continued in this situation until the close of his long and well-spent life. On having thus established himself in comfort, Mr. George Thomson performed what he calls the "wisest act of his life," for at the age of twenty-five he married Miss Miller, daughter of Lieutenant Miller, of the 50th regiment, a lady who made him the happy father of two sons and four daughters.

The tastes of Thomson from an early period were those that are best qualified to foster such a happy contented spirit. He saw that there were other aims in life than that of seeking adventures, and purer pleasures to be enjoyed than that of making money. In boyhood, a love of the beautiful led his heart to the study of music and painting, and these attractive pursuits he continued to cherish in the society of their ablest professors. It was a most unwonted occupation, as some can still remember, for a young lawyer’s clerk in the city of Edinburgh, in the latter part of the 18th century; and in Mr. Thomson’s case, no small amount of devoted enthusiasm must have been required to meet the ridicule of his companions, or resist their invitations, that would have drawn him from his path. But he persevered in his own way, and soon found that the fine arts, like virtue itself, are their own reward. As one of these is generally found sufficient for the final occupation of one man, music obtained the preference, and his retrospections, in old age, of the musical evenings of his early days among those who were of kindred spirit with himself, in some measure serve to redeem even the Edinburgh of that period from its notorious grossness. "Having studied the violin," he tells us, "it was my custom, after the hours of business, to con over our Scottish melodies, and to devour the choruses of Handel’s oratorios, in which, when performed at St. Cecilia’s Hall, I generally took a part, along with a few other gentlemen—Mr. Alexander Wight, one of the most eminent counsel at the bar; Mr. Gilbert Innes, of Stow; Mr. John Russel, W.S.; Mr. John Hutton, &c.—it being then not uncommon for grave amateurs to assist at the Cecilia concerts, one of the most interesting and liberal musical institutions that ever existed in Scotland, or, indeed, in any country. I had so much delight in singing those matchless choruses, and in practising the violin quartettos of Pleyel and Haydn, that it was with joy I hailed the hour when, like the young amateur in the good old Scotch song, I could hie me hame to my Cremona, and enjoy Haydn’s admirable fancies:--

‘I still was pleas’d, where’er I went; and when I was alone
I screw’d my pegs, and pleas’d myself with John o’ Badonyon.’"

Although music was his recreation, not his profession, George Thomson could not long content himself with being merely a musical dilettante. Like Burns, he resolved to do something for "puir auld Scotland’s sake," in the way that nature and training had best qualified him. Might he not make a national collection of our best melodies and songs, and obtain for them suitable accompaniments? With this patriotic ambition he was inspired by the arrival of that celebrated musico, Signor Tenducci, into Scotland—the first man of his kind, be it observed, who had ever visited the country, and who brought to Scottish ears a style of singing of which they previously could have little or no conception. The enterprise which Mr. Thomson thus contemplated was one of the most daring and self-denying description. There was the toil of collecting, arranging, and improving to be undergone; there was the expense of publishing such a costly work to be encountered. If it succeeded, there was no hope of profit to be obtained from it, or, at least, of profit adequate to the toil; and if it failed, he was certain to be buried in the ruin of the downfall, amidst the jeers of those who would wonder that a lawyer should have embarked in such an undertaking. But it was now the great business of his life, and he was ready to stake life itself upon the issue.

At the very commencement of his labour, he was confronted by difficulties under which most persons would have succumbed. "On examining with great attention," he says, "the various collections on which I could by any means lay my hands, I found them all more or less exceptionable; a sad mixture of good and evil, the pure and the impure. The melodies in general were without any symphonies to introduce and conclude them; and the accompaniments (for the piano only) meagre and common-place; while the verses united with the melodies were, in a great many instances, coarse and vulgar, the productions of a rude age, and such as could not be tolerated or sung in good society." He first obtained the melodies themselves, both in print and manuscript, and after comparing copies, and hearing them sung by his fair friends, he selected the copy which he found the most simple and beautiful. His next work was to obtain accompaniments to these airs, and symphonies to introduce and conclude them; and for this purpose he applied to Pleyel, at that time at the height of his musical popularity. As the collection grew upon his hands, Thomson found that more extensive aid than that of Pleyel was necessary; and accordingly, after dividing the numerous airs which he thought worthy of preservation into different portions, he transmitted them to Haydn, Beethoven, Weber, Hummel, and other musicians, at that time the most distinguished in Europe, to whom his commission was a welcome one—for they at once appreciated the beauties of our national melodies, at that time little known beyond the boundary of the Tweed, and composed for them such rich original accompaniments, as have imparted to them all the superiority as well as permanence of an established classical music. It was, indeed, a glorious achievement that made such hits as the "Broom of the Cowdenknowes," "O’er the muir amang the heather," or "Logan Water," become almost as much at home on the banks of the Seine, the Rhine, or the Dneiper, as they had hitherto been among their native streamlets. From the Grampians to the Himalayas, every mountain was thenceforth to re-echo with the music of Scotland.

The poetry, which was the last, was also the greatest of Thomson’s difficulties. It was needful that such lays, now so beautiful and adorned, should be "married to immortal verse;" but where was he to find the Cupid of such a Psyche? Some, indeed, of the old songs were every way worthy of the music with which they were embodied; but these were so few, that while of the Scottish muse it was too justly said,

"High-kilted was she
As she gaed o’er the lea,"

our worthy countryman felt that in such a trim she could not be allowed to go inland, to provoke the scoff and merriment of proud conceited foreigners. But the hour brought the man—the soul of Scottish song to the body of Scottish melody--the Promethean fire to the beautifully modelled clay. Burns was living, for whose poetry no loveliness or grandeur of music could be too much; and when Thomson, in a happy hour, applied to him for co-operation, and unfolded to him the nature of his work, the great bard threw himself into the undertaking with all his characteristic enthusiasm. It needed but this to make the work perfect, for when has the world ever seen such a song-maker? It needed also a noble occasion like this to make Burns put forth his uttermost, and surpass all that he had as yet accomplished, for by far the choicest of his poetry is certainly to be found in Thomson’s Collection. The correspondence between the musical lawyer and the poetical ploughman, which extended from 1792 till the death of the latter in 1796, while it is full of wit, vivacity, and hearty patriotic ardour in the good work in which they were engaged, reflects high credit not only upon the critical taste and vigorous intellect of George Thomson, but also upon his affectionate feelings, and honourable upright disposition. It is the more necessary to announce this fact, as, after the death of Burns, certain anonymous biographers presumed to state that Thomson, after securing the services of the poet to a large extent, had churlishly and unjustly refused to refund them. A single glance at the correspondence between them, which was published by Dr. Currie, is sufficient to refute this odious calumny, independently of the subsequent attestations of Thomson himself. It will there be seen that the latter, although engaged in so precarious and costly an undertaking, invited the assistance of the bard with offers of a fair remuneration; and that although Burns gladly embarked in the enterprise, he sturdily stipulated that his contributions should be accepted gratuitously, or not at all. It will also be seen that, after some time, Thomson, impatient at receiving such rich donations without requital, ventured, in the most delicate manner, to transmit to the poet a sum of money, at which the latter was so indignant, that he vowed, if the offence was repeated, he would drop the correspondence at once and for ever. It is well known that Burns entertained, among his other peculiarities, such lofty notions of independence as would have stopped all reciprocity in the interchange of favours, and thrown an impassable gulf between giver and receiver, or even debtor and creditor. He would bestow, and that largely and freely, but he would not for an instant stoop to receive; his songs must be considered as either beyond price or not worth purchase. Had he lived in the present day, when genius and poetical inspiration are as marketable as the commodities in the bakehouse or shambles upon which they are nourished; and had he seen, not starveling threadbare authors, but highborn dames and mighty earls, haggling about the price of their productions, and stickling upon a few shillings more or less per sheet, against the calculating and demurring publisher; he would have learned, that even poetry has its price, and that a Milton himself might exact it to the last doit, without impinging upon his dignity.

Of these matchless contributions which Burns transmitted to Thomson, it is enough to state, that during the course of four short years, they amounted to more than 120. He also fully empowered Mr. Thomson to make use of all the songs he had written for Johnson’s "Scots Musical Museum." But during the lifetime of Burns, only six of his productions appeared in Thomson’s collection. On the death of the poet, Mr. Thomson, had he been avaricious, might have turned the rich contributions which he had on hand to his own account, by publishing them as a separate work; for they had been unreservedly given to him, and were his own unquestionable property. But on learning that the poetical works of his friend were about to be republished in behalf of the poet’s family, he transmitted the whole of these contributions to Dr. Currie, as well as the correspondence, by which the value of the publication was immeasurably enhanced, and ample profits realized for the bereaved survivors. Little, indeed, did Burns imagine, that such a controversy would ever have been raised; and still less would he have thanked the ill-advised zeal of those who endeavoured to heighten the public sympathy in behalf of his memory, by traducing the character of a man whom he had so highly and justly esteemed.

After the completion of his great national work, little remains in the life of George Thomson that is of public interest. He left the Trustees’ office in 1838, after a long course of usefulness in that department; and on the Septemher of that year he went to London, where he took up his residence, and afterwards to Brighton. In June, 1845, he returned to Edinburgh, and three years afterwards went again to the British metropolis; but after little more than a year of residence there, he came back at the close of 1849 to the city in which all his early affections were enshrined. He was now so old that it seemed as if the day of his death could not be distant; and as he trode the streets of Edinburgh, now one of the oldest of its inhabitants, he must have felt that this was no longer the world in which he had once lived. But still his cheerfulness was unbroken, and his enjoyment of happiness undiminished, and his letters of this period, written in the regular formal text-like hand of our great-grandfathers, are as juvenile and buoyant as his productions of a former century. In this way the "time-honoured" lived till the 16th of February, 1853, when he was gathered to his fathers after a few days’ illness, and with a gentle departure, in which he suffered little pain, and enjoyed the full possession of all his faculties to the last. Independently of his invaluable services to Scottish Song, his name will go down to posterity from being associated with that of Burns, whose memory ages will continue to cherish.


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