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Significant Scots
Robert Heron


HERON, ROBERT, a miscellaneous writer, was born in the town of New Galloway, on the 6th November, 1764. His father, John Heron, was a weaver, generally respected for his persevering industry and exemplary piety. By his grandmother, Margaret Murray, aunt of the late Dr Alexander Murray, he claimed no very distant relationship to that profound philologist. He was early instructed in his letters under the careful eye of a fond parent, and was not sent to the school of the parish until he had reached his ninth year. He soon became remarkable for the love he showed for learning, and the unwearied anxiety with which he pursued his inquiries after every point connected with his studies. This being early perceived by his parents, they resolved to give him the benefit of a liberal education as far as their means would allow. He had scarcely remained two years at school when, at the age of eleven, he contrived to maintain and educate himself by mingling with his studies the labour of teaching and writing. From his own savings out of a very limited income, and a small assistance from his parents, he was enabled to remove to the university of Edinburgh at the end of the year 1180.

His hopes of preferment at that time being centered in the church, he first applied himself to the course of study which that profession requires. While attending the college he was still obliged to devote a considerable portion of his time to private teaching, as well as writing occasional essays for newspapers and magazines, in order to provide for his subsistence. To quote his own words, "he taught and assisted young persons at all periods in the course of education, from the alphabet to the highest branches of science and literature." Being well grounded in a knowledge of the French language, he found constant employment from booksellers in translating foreign works. His first literary production, published with his name, appeared in 1789, "A Critique on the Genius and Writings of Thomson," prefixed to a small edition of the Seasons. It was highly spoken of, and reflected much credit on the judgment and taste of the author. His next work was a version of Fourcroy’s Chemistry, from the French, followed by Savary’s Travels in Greece, Dumourier’s Letters, Gesner’s Idyls in part, an abstract of Zimmerman on Solitude, and several abridgments of Oriental Tales.

In 1790-1, he says he "read lectures on the law of nature, the law of na.tions, the Jewish, Grecian, Roman, feudal, and canon law—and then on the several forms of municipal jurisprudence established in modern Europe;" – these lectures, he says, were to assist gentlemen who did not study professionally in the understanding of history. Though he devoted much time and study to prepare these lectures, he was afterwards unfortunate in not being able to obtain a sufficient audience to repay him for their composition - they were consequently soon discontinued. A syllabus of the entire course was afterwards published. Still the sums of money he continued to receive from his publishers were amply sufficient to maintain him in a respectable manner, if managed with prudence and discretion; but his unfortunate peculiarity of temper, and extravagant desire of supporting a style of living which nothing but a liberal and certain income would admit of, frequently reduced him to distress, and finally to the jail. He might have long remained in confinement, but that some worthy friends interceded; and, on their suggestion, he engaged himself to write a History of Scotland, for which Messrs Morrisons of Perth were to pay him at the rate of three guineas a sheet, his creditors, at the same time, agreeing to release him for fifteen shillings in the pound, to be secured on two thirds of the copyright; before this arrangement was fully concluded, melancholy to relate, nearly the whole of the first volume of the History of Scotland was written in jail. It appeared in 1793, and one volume of the work was published every year successively, until the whole six were completed. During that period he went on a tour through the western parts of Scotland, and from notes taken on the road, he compiled a work in two volumes octavo, called "A Journey through the Western Parts of Scotland." He also gave to the world, "A Topographical Account of Scotland," "A New and Complete System of Universal Geography," "A Memoir of Robert Burns," besides many contributions to magazines and other periodical works. He was also engaged by Sir John Sinclair, to superintend the publication of his Statistical Account of Scotland. By this time he had acquired great facility in the use of his pen, and, being extremely vain of the versatility of his genius, he flattered himself there was no range in literature, however high, that was not within the scope of his powers. Impressed with these ideas, he made an attempt at dramatic composition, and having some influence with the manager of the theatre, he contrived to get introduced on the stage an after-piece, written, as he says, in great haste, called, "St Kilda in Edinburgh; or, News from Camperdown;"—but as if to verify the adage, "Things done in a haste are never done well," so it turned out with St Kilda. Being devoid of every thing like interest, and violating in many parts the common rules of decency, it was justly condemned before it reached the second act.

Our author’s vanity must have on this occasion received a deep wound, being present in the house at the time;—overwhelmed with disappointment, he flew to his lodgings and confined himself to bed for several days. Still blinded by vanity in the midst of his mental sufferings, he imputed the failure of his play to the machinations of his enemies. He therefore determined on "shaming the rogues" by printing. It is needless to say, it neither sold nor was talked of. The most amusing part of this affair was the mode in which he persisted in forcing his production on the public. We shall present our readers with an extract, from his highly inflated preface. It commences with a quotation from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. "The learned bishop Hall tells us in one of his decades, at the end of his Divine Meditations, that it is an abominable thing for a man to commend himself, and verily I think so; and yet, on the other hand, when a thing is executed in a masterly kind of fashion, which thing is not likely to be found out, I think it is fully as abominable that a man should lose the honour of it. This is exactly my situation." In the following he quotes Swift:— "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign—that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." Yet, though blinded by folly and weighed down by distress, still his filial affections were alive, and, although he could not afford his parents any permanent support, he seemed anxious to promote the education of their family; which the following extracts from his letters will sufficiently prove:

"I hope by living more pious and carefully, by managing my income frugally, and appropriating a part of it to the service of you and my sisters, and by living with you in future at least a third part of the year, to reconcile your affections more entirely to me, and give you more comfort than I have yet done. Oh forget and forgive my follies; look on me as a son who will anxiously strive to comfort and please you, and, after all your misfortunes, to render the evening of your days as happy as possible." And again,—"We will endeavour," says he, "to settle our dear Grace comfortably in life, and to educate our dear little Betty and Mary aright." He brought his eldest brother, John, to Edinburgh, to study at the university, with the view of his entering the church; he was a youth of promising abilities, but of weak constitution, and sank into an early grave in 1790. As the other children increased in years, faithful to his promise, he brought his favourite sister, Mary, to live with him in Edinburgh to complete her education. His irregularities, and consequent embarrassments, made her situation in town any thing but an enviable one. Her mortifications, however, in this life were not of long duration, as she died at his lodgings in 1798. To a mind of his quick sensibility this was a dreadful shock. Almost frantic with grief at the loss he experienced, he gave himself up to the wildest despair: every unkind action or word he made use of towards her rushed to his distracted memory, until life itself was almost insupportable. Neither the sympathy of friends, nor the consolations of religion, could mitigate his woes. At the same time his means of subsistence became every day more precarious; his literary labours were ceasing to pay, so that, added to his other misfortunes, starvation and a jail were hourly staring him in the face. Shunning as much as possible all his former companions, he might now be seen wandering about the suburbs of the city, with wasted cheek and sunken eye, a miserable victim of want and care. By degrees, however, he was recalled to a better state of mind, when, finding his views not likely to succeed any longer in Scotland, he was induced to go to London in 1799. For the first few years of his residence there, it appears he found good employment, and his application to study being very great, his profits and prospects were alike cheering. In a letter written to his father about the time we are speaking of, he says -

"My whole income, earned by full sixteen hours a-day of close application to reading, writing, observation, and study, is but very little more than three hundred pounds a-year. But this is sufficient to my wants, and is earned in a manner which I know to be the most useful and honourable—that is, by teaching beneficial truths, and discountenancing vice and folly more effectually and more extensively than I could in any other way. This I am here always sure to earn, while I can give the necessary application; and if I were able to execute more literary labour I might readily obtain more money."

He for a time pursued his literary vocations with an unwearied industry, and there was scarcely a publication then in London of any note but contained some of his fugitive writings. He realized in consequence a good income, but, unfortunately, for no great length of time. His former bad habits returned, and while money continued to flow in, he indulged in the wildest extravagance. Wishing to be thought an independent man of fortune, he would carry his folly so far as at times to keep a pair of horses, with a groom in livery. All this time his pen was laid aside; and until warned of his fate by the appearance of his last shilling, he seemed altogether devoid of reflection. Then he would betake himself to his work, as an enthusiast in every thing, confining himself for weeks to his chamber, dressed only in his shirt and morning gown, and commonly with a green veil over his eyes, which were weak, and inflamed by such fits of ill regulated study.

In 1806, he addressed a letter to Mr Wilberforce on the justice and expediency of the Slave Trade. He wrote a short system of Chemistry, and a few months previous to his death he published a small work called the Comforts of Life, which, it appears, met with a ready sale.

The last years of his life were spent in the deepest misery. His friends and associates by degrees deserted him; some offended at his total want of steadiness, others worn out by constant importunities, and not a few disgusted at the vanity and envy he displayed on too many occasions; added to all this, his employers found they could place no dependence on his promises, as he would only resume his pen when urged to it by stern necessity, so that he found at last, it was with great difficulty he could procure even a scanty subsistence. Deep in debt, and harassed by his creditors, who were all exasperated at his constant want of faith, he was at last consigned to the jail of Newgate, where he dragged on a miserable existence for many months. From that vile prison he wrote the following pathetic appeal to the Literary Fund, which we derive from a most appropriate source, D’Israeli’s " Calamities of Authors."

"Ever since I was eleven years of age I have mingled with my studies the labour of teaching or writing to support and educate myself. During about twenty years, while I was in constant and occasional attendance at the university of Edinburgh, I taught and assisted young persons at all periods in the course of education, from the alphabet to the highest branches of science and literature. I read lectures on the law of nature, the law of nations, the Jewish, the Grecian, the Roman, and the canon law, and then on the feudal law, and on the several forms of municipal jurisprudence established in modern Europe. I printed a Syllabus of these lectures, which was approved; they were as introductory to the professional study of law, and to assist gentlemen who did not study it professionally, in the understanding of history. I translated Fourcroy’s Chemistry twice, Savary’s Travels in Greece, Dumourier’s Letters, Gesner’s Idyls in part, an abstract of Zimmerman on Solitude, and a great diversity of smaller pieces. I wrote a journey through the western parts of Scotland, which has passed through two editions; a History of Scotland in six volumes 8vo; a topographical account of Scotland, which has been several times reprinted; a number of communications in the Edinburgh Magazine; many prefaces and critiques. A Memoir of the Life of Burns, which suggested and promoted the subscription for his family, has been reprinted, and formed the basis of Dr Currie’s life of him, as I learned by a letter from the Doctor to one of his friends; a variety of jeux d’esprit, in verse and prose, and many abridgments of large works. In the beginning of 1799, I was encouraged to come to London. Here I have written a great multiplicity of articles in almost every branch of literature, my education in Edinburgh having comprehended them all. The London Review, the Agricultural Magazine, the Universal Magazine, the Anti-Jacobin Review, the Public Characters, the Annual Necrology, with several other periodical works, contain many of my communications. In such of these publications as have been received, I can show that my anonymous pieces have been distinguished with very high praise. I have written also a short system of Chemistry, and I published a few weeks since a small work called the Comfort of Life, of which the first edition was sold in one week, and the second edition is now in rapid sale. In the newspapers—The Oracle, The Porcupine, when it existed, The General Evening Post, The Morning Post, The British Press, The Courier, &c. I have published my reports of the debates in parliament, and I believe a greater variety of fugitive pieces than I know to have been written by any one person. I have written also a great variety of compositions in Latin and French, in favour of which I have been honoured with the testimonials of liberal approbation.

"I have invariably written to serve the cause of religion and morality, pious Christian education, and good order in the most direct manner. I have considered what I have written as mere trifles, and I have incessantly studied to qualify myself for something better. I can prove that I have for many years read and written one day with another from twelve to sixteen hours a-day. As a human being I have not been free from follies and errors; but the tenor of my life has been temperate, laborious, humble, quiet, and, to the utmost of my power, beneficent. I can prove the general tenor of my writings to be candid, and ever adapted to exhibit the most favourable views of the abilities, dispositions, and exertions of others. For the last ten months I have been brought to the very extremity of bodily and pecuniary distress.

"I shudder at the thoughts of perishing in a jail.

"92, Chancery Lane,
"92, Chancery Lane, Feb. 2d. 1807. (In confinement.)"

His life was now fast drawing to a close. With a mind bowed down by want and despair, and a body emaciated from increasing disease, he was incapable of farther exertion; and being removed to an hospital as his last and only hope, in one week after his entrance there, he breathed his last, on the 13th of April, 1807, without a friend to console or assist him. Thus perished Robert Heron in the prime of life, with talents and acquirements of a very rare description, which, if governed by prudence, were eminently calculated to gain for him an honourable independence in the world. It is difficult to estimate the true depth of his genius by his miscellaneous publications in prose; his style was of a mixed description,—sometimes pompous and declamatory, at other times chaste and elegant. But it must be considered he was seldom allowed the choice of a subject, being all his life under the dictates of a publisher. [A speciment of the writings of this extraordinary genius is given in the present work, under the head "Robert Burns."] He composed with great rapidity, and seldom made any corrections but in his proof sheets. His appearance was at most times impressive and dignified; his figure, above the middle size, stately and erect, and his countenance had a benevolent expression, though pale and care-worn from study and confinement.

With all his faults he had still many redeeming virtues; and above all a strong sense of the respect which is due to religion and morality. In a diary of his life, kept at various times, which contains a free confession of his sentiments, he has recorded, that, in whatever manner he spent the day, he never closed his eyes at night without humbling himself in prayer before the throne of the Most High.

The brief memoir of this accomplished scholar affords another striking instance of the impossibility of shielding genius from poverty and disgrace when blinded by passion, or perverted by eccentricity.


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