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Significant Scots
Andrew MacDonald


MACDONALD, ANDREW, a dramatic and miscellaneous writer, was born about the year 1755. His father, George Donald, was by profession a gardener, and resided at the foot of the broad way which connects Leith with Edinburgh, called Leith Walk; the place also of young Macdonald’s nativity.

The subject of this memoir received the early part of his education at Leith, and went through the usual initiatory course of classical learning in the grammar school of that town. Having exhibited early indications of superior parts, his parents and friends entertained the most sanguine hopes of his success in the world, and especially anticipated his attaining eminence in literature. With a view to his becoming a minister of the Scottish Episcopal communion, in which he was born and educated, they entered him a student in the university of Edinburgh, where he remained till 1775, when he was put into deacon’s orders by bishop Forbes of Leith, who became also his chief patron. On this occasion, at the bishop’s recommendation he prefixed the syllable Mac to his name, though for what reason is not stated.

Although now invested with the clerical character, there was yet no vacant living for him; but through the interest of his patron, the worthy divine just named, he procured the appointment of preceptor in the family of Mr Oliphant of Gask, as a temporary employment and means of support, until a vacancy in the church should present itself. In this situation he remained about a year, when he was chosen pastor of the episcopal congregation at Glasgow, in room of Mr Wood, who had gone to St Petersburg. His appointment took place in the year 1777. His patron, bishop Forbes, having in the mean time died, he was put into priest’s orders by bishop Falconer. Although much addicted to literary pursuits, Macdonald made no public appearance as an author for five years after this period, when he made a debut in the character of a poet, by publishing a poem, or rather part of a poem, entitled "Velina, a Poetical Fragment." Neither this work, nor a novel which he subsequently published under the title of the "Independent," met with any remarkable degree of success. He therefore resolved to try his talents in dramatic composition; and his first effort was the tragedy of Vimonda, which was brought out at the Edinburgh theatre royal, for the benefit of Mr Wood, with a prologue by Henry Mackenzie, and was received with marked applause by the public, though, like all the other works of its unfortunate author, it is now scarcely known to exist.

In the mean time, Macdonald, who still resided at Glasgow, was making but little progress in worldly prosperity. His fortunes, notwithstanding the success of his play, which does not seem to have yet yielded him any considerable pecuniary remuneration, were rather retrograding than advancing. The episcopal church of Scotland was at this period in a very depressed state. The old members were fast dying out, and there were none to replace them. The result was that Macdonald’s congregation was speedily reduced to a number so trifling, that he could no longer live by his charge. Thus situated, he resolved on resigning it; and as no better prospects presented themselves elsewhere in the Scottish episcopal church, he denuded himself altogether of his ecclesiastical functions, and finally threw aside even the outward sign of his calling, the clerical dress, and became at all points entirely secularized. On throwing up his ministry, he came to Edinburgh, with, it would seem, pretty confident hopes of being able to make a living by his pen; an idea in which he was encouraged by the success of his tragedy. He had, however, before leaving Glasgow, taken a step which his friends thought fit to consider as at once imprudent and degrading. This was his marrying the maid servant of the house in which he had lodged. His reception, therefore, on his return to Edinburgh, from these friends and those of his acquaintances who participated in their feelings on the subject of his marriage, had much in it to annoy and distress him, although no charge could be brought against the humble partner of his fortune, but the meanness of her condition. Whatever question, however, might have been made of the prudence or imprudence of his matrimonial connexion, there could be none regarding the step which he next took. This was his renting an expensive house, and furnishing it at a cost which he had no immediate means of defraying, although with all that sanguine hope which is but too frequently found associated with literary dispositions, he fully expected to be enabled to do so by the exertion of his talents. The result was such as might have been looked for. His literary prospects, as far as regarded Edinburgh, ended in total disappointment. His creditors became pressing, and the neglect of his friends, proceeding from the circumstance already alluded to, and which, in some cases amounted to direct insult, continued as marked as when he first returned amongst them, and added greatly to the distress of mind with which the unfortunate poet was now overwhelmed.

Under the pressure of these accumulated evils, he determined on quitting Edinburgh, and on seeking in London that employment for his literary talents which he could not find in his native capital. Having come to this resolution, he left his mother, for whom he always entertained the most tender regard, in possession of his house and furniture, and proceeded, accompanied by his wife, to the metropolis. Here his reception was such as to compensate in some measure for the treatment which he had experienced at home. The fame of his tragedy had gone before him, and soon after his arrival procured him many sincere and cordial, though it does not appear very powerful, friends. Vimonda was brought out with much splendour by Colman, in the summer of 1787, a short time after its author had arrived in London, and was performed to crowded houses. In the following summer, it was again produced, and with similar success. This good fortune, operating on a temperament naturally sanguine, lifted poor Macdonald’s hopes beyond all reasonable bounds, and filled his mind with the brightest anticipations of fame and independence. In this spirit he wrote several letters to Mr M. Stewart, music-seller in Edinburgh, the principal, if not indeed the only friend he had left behind him, full of the most splendid ideas regarding his future fortunes. Having left Edinburgh in embarrassed circumstances, so that neither his house rent nor his furniture had been paid, he promises speedy remittances to defray all his debts, and amongst the rest that which he had incurred to his correspondent, who seems to have managed all his affairs for him after he left the Scottish capital, and to have generously made, from time to time, considerable advances of money on his account.

"Thank Heaven," says the ill-fated poet in one of these letters to Stewart, in which he announces the good fortune which he now conceived was to be his for the remainder of his life, "thank Heaven, my greatest difficulties are now over; and the approaching opening of the summer theatre will soon render me independent and perfectly at ease. In three weeks you will see by the public spirits, I shall be flourishing at the Haymarket in splendour superior to last season. I am fixed for the summer in a sweet retirement at Brompton, where, having a large bed, and lying alone, I can accommodate you tolerably, and give you a share of a poet’s supper, sallads and delicious fruits from my own garden."

All this felicity, and all these gay visions of the future, were, however, speedily and sadly dissipated. In a few short months thereafter Macdonald sunk into an untimely grave, disappointed in his hopes, and reduced to utter destitution in his circumstances. That he did thus die is certain, but neither the immediate cause, nor the progress of the sudden blight which thus came over his fortunes before his death, is very distinctly traced in any of the memoirs which have been consulted in the composition of this article, unless the following remark, contained in an advertisement prefixed to a volume of posthumous sermons of Macdonald, printed in 1790, can be considered as an explanation:—"Having no powerful friends to patronize his abilities, and suffering under the infirmities of a weak constitution, he fell a victim, at the age of thirty-three, to sickness, disappointment and misfortune." Macdonald died in the year 1788, in the thirty-third year of his age, leaving behind him his wife and one child, wholly unprovided for.

Macdonald made several attempts in dramatic composition subsequent to the appearance of Vimonda, but none of them were at all equal in merit to that performance, a circumstance which affords, probably, a more satisfactory elucidation of the cause of those disappointments which gathered round and hurried him to his grave, and embittered his dying moments, than those enumerated in the extract employed above. For some time previous to his death, under the fictitious signature of Matthew Bramble, he amused the town almost daily with little humorous and burlesque poems, after the manner of Peter Pindar’s (Dr Wolcot) and these were not unfrequently equal in point and satirical allusion to some of the most felicitous effusions of his celebrated prototype.

As a preacher, he was distinguished for neat, classical, and elegant composition; qualities which procured a favourable reception for the volume of posthumous sermons published in 1790. A tragedy, which he left in a finished state at his death, was printed and included in a volume of his poetical works, published in 1791.

On the whole, Macdonald’s literary talents seem to have been of that unfortunate description which attract notice, without yielding profit, which produce a show of blossom, but no fruit, and which, when trusted to by their sanguine possessor as a means of insuring a subsistence, are certain to be found wholly inadequate to that end, and equally certain to leave their deceived and disappointed victim to neglect and misery.

It may be proper, before concluding this brief sketch of Macdonald, to advert to the account given of him by D’Israeli, in his "Calamities of Authors." That account is an exceedingly pathetic one, and is written with all the feeling and eloquence for which its highly distinguished writer is so remarkable; but unfortunately it is inconsistent in many parts with fact. What Mr D’Israeli mentions regarding him from his own knowledge and experience, we do not question; but in nearly all the particulars which were not so acquired, he seems to have been egregiously misinformed. In that information, however, which is of the description that there is no reason for doubting, the following affecting passage occurs:--"It was one evening I saw a tall, famished, melancholy man, enter a bookseller’s shop, his hat flapped over his eyes, and his whole frame evidently feeble from exhaustion and utter misery. The bookseller inquired how he proceeded with his tragedy? ‘Do not talk to me about my tragedy! Do not talk to me about my tragedy! I have indeed more tragedy than I can bear at home,’ was his reply, and his voice faultered as he spoke. This man was Matthew Bramble—Macdonald, the author of the tragedy of Vimonda, at that moment the writer of comic poetry." D’Israeli then goes on, giving the result of his inquiries regarding him, and at this point error begins. He represents him as having seven children. He had, as already noticed, only one. He says he was told, "that he walked from Scotland with no other fortune than the novel of the Independent in one pocket, and the tragedy of Vimonda in the other." The novel alluded to was published four years before he went to London; and Vimonda had been brought out at Edinburgh a considerable time before he left that city. D’Israeli speaks of the literary success which the "romantic poet" had anticipated while yet "among his native rocks." The reader need scarcely be reminded that Macdonald was born in the immediate vicinity of the Scottish capital, and that the whole of his life, previously to his leaving Scotland, was spent in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and great part of it in what has always been considered the profession of a gentleman.


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