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Significant Scots
Alexander Carlyle


CARLYLE, ALEXANDER, an eminent divine, was born about the year 1721. His father was the minister of Prestonpans, and he received his education at the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Leyden. While he attended these schools of learning, the extreme elegance of his person, his manners, and his taste, introduced him to an order of society far above any in which such students as he generally mingle, and rendered him the favourite of men of science and literature.

At the breaking out of the insurrection of 1745, he was an ardent youth of four-and-twenty, and thought proper to accept a commission in a troop of volunteers, which was raised at Edinburgh for the purpose of defending the city. This corps having been dissolved at the approach of the Highland army, he retired to his father's house at Prestonpans, where the tide of war, however, soon followed him. Sir John Cope having pitched his camp in the immediate neighbourhood of Prestonpans, the Highlanders attacked him early on the morning of the 21st of September, and soon gained a decided victory. Carlyle was awaked by an account that the armies were engaged, and hurried to the top of the village steeple in order to have a view of the action. He was just in time to see the regular soldiers flying in all directions to escape the broad-swords of the enemy. This incident gave him some uneasiness on his own account, for there was reason to apprehend that the victors would not be over kind to one who had lately appeared in arms against them. He therefore retired in the best way he could to the manse of Bolton, some miles off, where he lived unmolested for a few days, after which he returned to the bosom of his own family.

Having gone through the usual exercises prescribed by the church of Scotland, Mr. Carlyle was presented, in 1747, to the living of Inveresk, which was, perhaps, the best situation he could have obtained in the church, as the distance from Edinburgh was such as to make intercourse with metropolitan society very easy, while, at the same time, he enjoyed all the benefits of retirement and country leisure. From this period till the end of the century, the name of Dr. Carlyle enters largely into the literary history of Scotland; he was the intimate associate of Hume, Home, Smith, Blair, and an the other illustrious men who flourished at this period. Unfortunately, though believed to possess talents fitting him to shine in the very highest walks of literature and intellectual science, he never could be prevailed upon to hazard himself in competition with his distinguished friends, but was content to lend to them the benefit of his assistance and critical advice in fitting their productions for the eye of the world.

In his clerical character, Mr. Carlyle, was a zealous moderate; and when he had acquired some weight in the ecclesiastical courts, was the bold advocate of some of the strongest measures taken by the General Assembly for maintaining the standards of the church. In 1757, he himself fell under censure as an accomplice - if we may use such an expression - of Mr. Home, in bringing forward the tragedy of Douglas. At the first private rehearsal of this play, Dr. Carlyle enacted the part of Old Norval; and he was one of those clergymen who resolutely involved themselves in the evil fame of the author, by attending the first representation. During the run of the play, while the general public, on the one hand, was lost in admiration of its merits, and the church, on the other, was preparing its sharpest thunders of condemnation, Dr. Carlyle published a burlesque pamphlet entitled, "Reasons why the Tragedy of Douglas should be burnt by the hands of the Common Hangman;" and, afterwards, he wrote another, calculated for the lower ranks, and which was hawked about the streets, under the title, "History of the Bloody Tragedy of Douglas, as it is now performed at the Theatre in the Canongate." Mr. Mackenzie informs us, in his life of Home, that the latter pasquinade had the effect of adding two more nights to the already unprecedented run of the play. For this conduct Dr. Carlyle was visited by his presbytery, with a censure and admonition. A person of right feeling in the present day is only apt to be astonished that the punishment was not more severe; for assuredly, it would be difficult to conceive any conduct so apt to be injurious to the usefulness of a clergyman as his thus mixing himself up with the impurities and buffooneries of the stage.

The era of 1751 was perhaps somewhat different from the present. The serious party in the church were inconsiderately zealous in their peculiar mode of procedure, while the moderate party, on the principle of antagonism, erred as much on the side of what they called liberality. Hence, although the church would not now, perhaps, go to such a length in condemning the tragedy of Douglas, its author, and his abettors, neither would the provocation be now given. No clergyman could now be found to act like Home and Carlyle; and therefore the church could not be called upon to act in so ungracious a manner as it did towards those gentlemen.

Dr. Carlyle was a fond lover of his country, of his profession, and, it might be said, of all mankind. He was instrumental in procuring an exemption for his brethren from the severe pressure of the house and window tax, for which purpose he visited London and was introduced at court, where the elegance and dignity of his appearance are said to have excited both admiration and surprise. It was generally remarked that his noble countenance bore a striking resemblance to the Jupiter Tonans in the capitol. Smollett mentions in his Humphrey Clinker, a work in which fact and fancy are curiously blended, that he owed to Dr. Carlyle his introduction to the literary circles of Edinburgh. After mentioning a list of celebrated names, he says, "These acquaintances I owe to the friendship of Dr. Carlyle, who wants nothing but inclination to figure with the rest upon paper." It may be further mentioned, that the world owes the preservation of Collins' fine ode on the superstitions of the Highlands, to Dr. Carlyle. The author, on his death-bed, had mentioned it to Dr. Johnson as the best of his poems; but it was not in his possession, and no search had been able to discover a copy. At last, Dr. Carlyle found it accidentally among his papers, and presented it to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in the first volume of whose transactions it was published.

Dr. Carlyle died, August 25, 1805, in the eighty-fourth year of his age, and the fifty-eighth of his ministry. By his wife, who was a woman of superior understanding and accomplishments, he had had several children, all of whom died many years before himself. Dr. Carlyle published nothing but a few sermons and jeux d'esprit, and the statistical account of the parish of lnveresk in Sir John Sinclair's large compilation; but he left behind him a very valuable memoir of his own time, which, to the surprise of the literary world, is still condemned by his relations to manuscript obscurity.


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