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Significant Scots
Hector Boece


Hector Boece BOECE, HECTOR, whose name was otherwise spelled Boyis, Boyes, Boiss, and Boice, an eminent, though credulous, historian, was born about the year 1465-6, at Dundee, and hence he assumed the surname of Deidonanus. His family were possessed of the estate of Panbride, or Balbride, in the county of Angus, which had been acquired by his grandfather, Hugh Boece, along with the heiress in marriage, in consequence of his services to David II., at the battle of Dupplin. The rudiments of his education he received in his native town, which at that time, and for a long time after, was celebrated for its schools: he afterwards studied at Aberdeen, and finally at Paris, where, in 1497, he became a professor of philosophy in the college of Montacute. Of a number of the years of his life about this period, there is evidently nothing to be told. The garrulous and sometimes fabling Dr Mackenzie has filled up this part of his life with an account of his fellow-students at Paris, all of whose names, with one exception, have sunk into oblivion. That exception is the venerated name of Erasmus, who, as a mark of affection for Boece, dedicated to him a catalogue of his works, and maintained with him in after life as regular a correspondence as the imperfect communication of those times would permit. In the year 1500, Bishop Elphinstone, who had just founded the College of Aberdeen, invited Boece home to be the principal. The learned professor, reluctant to quit the learned society he enjoyed at Paris, was only persuaded to accept this invitation, as he informs us himself, "by means of gifts and promises; "the principal inducement must of course have been the salary, which amounted to forty merks a-year—equal to two pounds three shillings and fourpence sterling—a sum, however, which Dr Johnson remarks, was then probably equal, not only to the needs, but to the rank of the President of King’s College.

On his arrival at Aberdeen be found, among the Chanon Regulars, a great many learned men, and became a member of their order. From this order, indeed, the professors seem to have been selected. As colleague in his new office, Hector Boece associated with himself Mr William Hay, a gentleman of the shire of Angus, who had studied along with him under the same masters both at Dundee and Paris. Alexander Hay, a Chanon of Aberdeen, was the first teacher of scholastic theology in that university. David Guthry and James Ogilvy are mentioned as professors of civil and canon law; but whether they were contemporary teachers or succeeded each other in the same chair, is not quite clear. Henry Spital was the first who taught philosophy at Aberdeen, and for this purpose he wrote An Easy Introduction to the philosophy of Aristotle. Another of the learned professors was Alexander Galloway, rector of Kinkell, who was author of a treatise on the AEbudae or Western Isles, with an account of the Clag or Claik Geese, and the trees upon which they were found to grow; a work no longer to be found, but the best parts of which are probably embodied in Boece’s history of Scotland. Arthur Boece, brother to the principal, was also one of his assistants. He was a tutor of the canon law, and a licentiate in the civil; a man of great eloquence and singular erudition. Besides these, Boece has commemorated several others, who were his assistants, and reflected lustre upon the dawn of learning in the north. Some of them were, according to the learned principal’s account, men of high eminence, whose influence was great in the days in which they lived, and whose example extended even to after ages. He particularly refers to John Adam, who was the first to receive the degree of Doctor of theology in the University; after which he was made principal of the Dominican order, which, from the vicious lives, the poverty, and the ignorance of its members, had sunk into great contempt, but which he raised into high respectability, both for piety and learning. On the death of his patron Bishop Elphinstone, in 1514, Boece, out of gratitude for his friendship, and respect for his great learning and exemplary virtue, resolved to give to the world an account of his life, in composing which he was so struck with the exemplary conduct of others who had filled that see, that he determined to write the history of the lives of the whole of the bishops of Aberdeen. This laborious undertaking he completed in Latin, after the custom of the age, and gave to the world in the year 1522. It was printed at Paris by Badius Ascensius.

His next, and by far his greatest work, was a history of Scotland, from the earliest accounts. To this work he was probably stimulated by the example of John Mair or Major, a tutor of the Sorbonne, and principal of the college of St Salvadore at St Andrews, whose history of Scotland, in six books, was published at Paris in the year 1521. The Scotichronicon bad been originally written by John Fordun a canon of Aberdeen and continued by Walter Bower or Bowmaker to the death of James I., nearly a century previous to this, as had also the metrical Chronykil of Scotland by Andrew Winton prior of Lochleven, but all of them written in a style beneath the dignity of history, and disguised by the most contemptible fables. Mair was more studious of truth, but his narrative is meagre and his style loose and disjointed. Boece was a man of high talent, and one of the best Latin scholars which his country has at any period produced; but he was credulous in a high degree, and most unquestionably has given his authority, such as it was, to many fables, if he did not himself absolutely invent them; and he has rested the truth of his facts upon authors that never existed except in his own imagination. Of the "Inglis lyis," which Buchanan complains had cost him so much trouble to purge out of the "story of Scotland," perhaps he had not preserved the greatest number, but be certainly had more of the "Scottis vanitie" than even that great man was willing to part with. In imitation of some other historians he has introduced his history with the cosmography of the country, in which he has been followed by Buchanan. Some passages we have selected from this part of the work, illustrative of his taste for, and his knowledge of, natural history. The extracts are taken from the translation of John Bellenden archdeacon of Murray, which was made for the benefit of King James V., who, from a defective education, was unable to read the original. That they may afford the reader a genuine specimen of our ancient Scottish prose, we have given these few extracts in their original orthography. The first is the result of the inquiries of Hector Boece into the claicks or claggeese that were supposed to grow upon trees.

"Sum men belevis that thir claiks grows on treis by the nobbis, bot thair opinion is vane. And because the nature and procreation of thir claikis is strange, we have maid na little laubore and diligence to serch the truth and veritie thairof. We have sailit throw the seis quhare they ar brede, and find by grit experience that the nature of the seis is maire relevant cause of their procreation than ony other thyng; for all treis that are cussen in the seis be process of tyme apperis first worme etin, and in the small hollis and boris thairof growls small wormis. First they schaw thair heid and feit, and last of all they schaw thair plumis and wingis. Finally, quhen they are cumin to the just measure and quantitie of geis, they fie in the aire as othir fowlis. Thairfore because the rude and ignorant pepyll saw oftymes the fruitis that fell off the treis quhilk stude nair the see, convertit within short tyme in geis, they belevit that thir geis grew upon the treis hingand be thair nobbis, sic like as apillis and uthir fruitis, bot thair opinion is nocht to be sustainit." This absurd nonsense is by the vulgar in some places believed to this day. The Barnacle has somewhat the appearance of a fowl in miniature inclosed in a shell, and this they suppose to be the young of the claik-goose. The following will not appear less wonderful to the greater part of readers than the procreation of the claiks. "The wolffis ar richt noysum to the tame bestial in all pairts of Scotland, except ane pairt thairof, named Glenmore; in quhilk the tame bestial gets lytill damage of wyld bestial, especially of toddis. For ilk hous nurises ane young todd certane days, and mengis the fleshe thairof after it be slane, with sic meit as they gif to thair fowlis or uthir small beistis, and sae mony as eits of this meit ar preservit twa months after fra ony damage be the toddis, for toddis will gust na fleshe that gusts of thair ain kynd; and be thair bot ane beist or fowl that has nocht gustit of this meit the todd will chais it out amang ane thousand."

Could the following art be re-discovered it would be a great saving in the article barley, and would besides render the malt duty of non-effect. "In all the desertis and muires of this realme growis an herbe namit hadder, bot (without) ony seid, richt nutritive baith to beistis and fowlis, speciallie to beis. This herbe in the month of Julie has ane floure of purpure hew, als sweet as honey. They Pychts maid of this herbe sum tyme ane richt delicious and halsume drynk, nochtheless the manier of the making of it is perist be the extermination of the said Pychtis, for they schwa nevir the craft of the making of this drink bot to thair awn blude."

The following particular description of gum found among the isles, probably ambergrese, is singularly characteristic of the author. "Amang the cragges of the islis growls ane maneir of goum, bewit like gold, and sa attractive of nature that it drawis strae, flax, or hemmis of claithis, to it, in the samin maneir as does ane adamant stane. This goum is generat of see froth quhilk is cussin up be the continual repercussion of the wavis againis the see wallis, and throw ithand motion of the see it growis als teuch as glew, ay mair and mair, quhill at last it falls down of the crag in the see. Twa yeir afore the cumin of this beuk to light, arriwit ane grit lump of this goum in Buchquhane, ala meikle as ane hors, and was brocht hame by the herdis, quhilkis war kepand thair beistis to thair housis and cussen in the fire, and because they fand ane smell and odour thairwith, they schaw to thair maister, that it was ganand for the sens (insense) that is maid in the kirks. Thair maister was ane rude man, as they war, and tuke bot ane lytill pairt thairof. The maist pairt was destroyit afore it cum to ony wyse maneiris, and sa the proverb was verifyit, ‘The soil curis na balme.’"

Of the miraculous the two following are tolerable specimens. "In Orkney is ane grit fische, mair than onie hors, of marvelous and incredible sleip. This fische, whan she begins to sleip, fesuis hir teith fast on ane crag abave the water. Als soon as the marineris fynis hir on sleip, they come with ane stark cabill in ane boat, and efter they have borit ane hole threw hir tail, they fesne hir to the samyn. Als soon as this fische is awalknit, she maks her to loup with grit fure into the see, and fra she fynd hirseff fast she wrythis hir out of hir awn skin and deis. Of the fatness that echo hes is maid oulie in grit quantitie, and of hir skin is maid strang cabills."

"In Murrayland, in the kirke of Pette, the bains of lytill John remains in grit admiration of the pepill. He has been fourteen feit of hight, with square members effeiring thairto. Sax yeirs afore the cumin of this werk to light, we saw his hansh bain als meikle as the haill bain of ane man, for we shut our arm in the mouth thairof, by quhilk appeirs how strang and square pepill grew in our region afore they war effeminat with lust and intemperance of mouth." Spare diet seems to have been, in the estimation of our author, the all in all of human excellence, whether mentally or corporeally, and its disuse has certainly never been more eloquently bewailed than in the following paragraph:—"I belief nane hes now sic eloquence nor fouth (plenty) of language that can sufficiently declare how far we in thir present dayis ar different fra the virtew and temperance of our eldaris. For quhare our eldaris had sobreatie, we have ebreitie and drunkness; quhare they had plenty withsufficence, we have immoderate desiris with superfluities; as he war maist nobly and honest that could devore and swelly maist; throw quhilk we engorge and fillis ourself day and nycht as full of meitis and drinkis, that we can nocht abstane quhill our wambe be sa swon, that it is unable to ony virtuwous occupation, and nocht allanerly may sufect denners and sowper suffice, bot also we must continue our shameful vorasitie with dubell denners and sowpars, thro wuhild mony of us gangis to na uthir bisines bot to fill and tume our wambe. Na fische in the see, nor fowle in the aire, nor beist in the wood, may haif rest, bot ar socht here and thair to satisfy the hungrey appetites of gluttonis. Nocht allanerly are wynis socht in France, bot in Spayne, Italy, Greece, and sumtyme baith Aphrick and Asya ar socht for new delicious meitis and wynis to the samyn effect. The young pepill and bairnis follow their unhappie customes of their faderis, and gives themselves to lust and insolence, havind all vertewous craftis in contemption, and sa whan tyme of weir occuris, they are sa effeminate and soft, that they pass on hors as heavie martis, and are sae fat and grown that they may do na thing in compare of the soverance manheid of their antecessors. Als sun as they ar returnit hame because their guddis ar not sufficient to nuris them in voluptuous life and pleasure of thair wambe, they are given to all maneir of avarice, and outhir castis them to be strang and maisterful theves, or else sawers of dissention amang the nobyllis."

Perhaps, after all, the last paragraph of Boece’s Cosmography of Scotland might have been sufficient to attest his character: "Thus it were needful to put an end to our Cosmographie, were not an uncouth history tarryis a litill my pen. Mr Jame Ogilby, with uther nobylmen, wes send as ambassatouris frae the masit nobill prince king James the feird to the kyng of France, and be tempest of see they war constrainit to land in Norway, quhare they saw nocht far fra thaim mony wild men nakit and ruch, on the sam maner as they war painted. At last they got advertising by landwart pepill that they war doum beestis under the figure or men, quha in tyme of nicht usit to come in grit companies to landwart villages, and quhan they fand na doggis they brek up doris, and slays all the pepill that they fynd thair intill. They are of sa huge strenth that they pull up treis by the rutis and fechts thairwith amang thaimself. The ambassatrouis war astonist at their monstouris, and made strick watches with grit fyres birnand all nicht, and on the morrow they pullit up sails and depiartit. Forther the Norway men schow that there wes also nocht far fra thaim an pepill that swomit all the symer, like fische in the see, leifand on fishe, bot in the winter, because the water is cauld, they leif upon wild beistis that descendis fra the mountainis, and sa endis here the Cosmography of Scotland." Such are specimens of what passed for veritable history in Scotland scarcely three centuries ago, and such was the weakness of a man who was certainly in his own day, even by foreigners, reckoned an ornament to his country. The truth is, knowledge in those days was most deplorably limited by the difficulty of traveling, and the paucity of books. A geographical writer sat in his study, ignorant personally of every thing except what was immediately around him, and liable to be imposed upon by the stories of credulous or lying travellers, which he had no means of correcting or disproving. The philosophical writer was equally liable to be imposed upon by false and superstitious systems, which the age produced in great abundance.

Boece’s history was published at Paris in 1526, in a folio volume, under the title of "Scotorum Historiae, a prima gentis origine, cum aliarum et rerum et gentium illustratione non vulgari." This edition, which was printed by Badius, contains seventeen books. A second was printed at Laussane, and published at Paris in 1574, about forty years after the death of Boece. In this, were added the eighteenth and part of a nineteenth book, written by himself; and a continuation of the history to the end of the reign of James III., by Ferrarius, a learned Piedmontese, who came to Scotland in 1528, in the train of Robert Reid, Abbot of Kinloss, and afterwards Bishop of Orkney.

Soon after the publication of his history, (1527,) James V. bestowed upon Boece a pension of 50 Scots yearly, which was to be paid by the sheriff of Aberdeen out of the king’s casualties. Two years afterwards, a new precept was issued, directing this pension to be paid by the customers of Aberdeen, until the king should promote him to a benefice of 100 merks Scots of yearly value. By a subsequent regulation, the pension was partly paid by the king’s comptroller, and partly by the treasurer.

As the payment appears for the last time in the treasurer’s books for 1534, it is probable that about that time the king carried into effect his intention of exchanging the pension for a benefice. The benefice so given was the Rectory of Fyvie in Aberdeenshire, which he held at his death in 1536, as appears from the record of the presentation of his successor. According to Gordon of Straloch, the death of the reverend historian happened at Aberdeen; he was then about seventy years of age.

In estimating the character of Hector Boece, many circumstances must be taken into account. It is certainly impossible to read his history without feeling contempt for his understanding as well as for his veracity; yet when we consider the night of ignorance, imbecility, and error, in which he lived, contempt gives place to strong compassion, and we feel disposed to apologize for, rather than to blame him. Lord Hailes has bitterly remarked that the Scots were reformed from popery, but not from Boece, and Pinkerton inveighs against him, as "the most egregious historical impostor that ever appeared in any country!" It is enough, however, for the vindication of this elegant writer, that he fulfilled all the duties that could be demanded from a historian in his own time, and could not be expected, to use a more just expression of Dalrymple, to be a philosopher before philosophy revived. That he was incapable of designed imposture, appears incontestibly proved by the testimonies of his contemporaries; Erasmus, in particular, styling him a man who "knew not what it was to make a lie."

The highest honours have been bestowed upon the learning and genius of Boece. The same distinguished friend says, that he was a man of an extraordinary and happy genius, and possessed of great eloquence. Ferrarius, who continued his history, styles him a man of singular learning and erudition, and one who had transmitted to posterity, in a most decent style, the noble and heroic achievements of our kings and predecessors, and he believes that there is no man on the like subject could have done it more significantly, or to better purpose. Paul Jovius, in his description of Britain, says, that Boece wrote the history of the Scots kings down to James III. "with equal eloquence and diligence." Of his description of Scotland, the very subject upon which we have animadverted, he says that he made it his business, being led on by curiosity and the love of his country, to leave nothing unobserved that was praiseworthy, either in our deserts or mountains, or in our lakes and seas. Joannes Gualterius says, that he was exquisitely versed in all the parts of philosophy and theology, and a most eminent historian. Bishop Lesly affirms that his style has the purity of Caesar’s, and that for the nervousness of his words and reasonings, he seems to have transferred to himself that of Livy. Bishop Spotswood says, that he was a great philosopher, and much commended by Erasmus for his eloquence, and though he has been by some English writers traduced for a fabulous and partial historian, they who take the trouble to peruse his history will perceive this to be spoken out of passion and malice, not from any just cause. Even Buchanan, though he charges him with having, in his description of Scotland, delivered some things not true, and with having drawn others into mistakes, as well as with being over credulous of those to whom he committed the inquiry after many of his matters, and in consequence published their opinions in preference to the truth, admits that he was not only notably learned in the liberal sciences above the condition of those times, but also of an exceeding courteous and humane inclination." Bartholomew Latomas, a well known annotator on Cicero, Terence, and Horace, honoured his memory in a very beautiful epitaph.

To the merely English scholar, the following imitation will give some faint idea of this epitaph.

That in this tomb the never-fading light
Streams bright from blazing torches unconsumed.
Art thou amazed, and would’st thou read aright?
Hector Boethius, know, lies bate inhumed.
He who his country’s hilis and vales illumed
With all the lustre of the Latian lore,
Chasing the shades of darkness deep, fore-doomn’d,
Beyond the freezing pole and Thule’s shore.
For this adorn’d, graceful in Roman dress,
Deserved thanks the Scotian Muses pay
To him who gave them life-decreeing thus
Upon his tomb unfading light shall play,
From torches burning bright, that ne’er shall know decay.


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