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Significant Scots
Hector MacNeil


Hector MacNeil MACNEIL, HECTOR, a poet and miscellaneous writer, was born at Rosebank, near Roslin, in the year 1746. His father had been in the army, where he was patronized by the duke of Argyle, and had mingled in the best company but, having offended his patron by selling out without his advice, he was left afterwards to his own resources. He took a farm at Rosebank; but some imprudences, and the habit of living in a manner above his income, completely ruined his prospects. As his family was then large, it became necessary that the sons should, as soon as possible, be made independent of him. The only expectation for Hector was from a cousin, who carried on a mercantile concern in Bristol. The father, therefore, confined his education to the mercantile branches, dreading, from his own example, the effect of more refined and classical instruction. The youth discovered excellent parts, with an elegance of taste which seemed to mark him for a different destination from that intended. At the age of eleven, he had written a species of drama, in imitation of Gay. His master earnestly entreated to be allowed to give him some of the higher branches; but on this his father put a decided negative. The attachment, however, of the teacher to his pupil, induced him to impart secretly some elements of this forbidden knowledge. From the father, meantime, young Macneil received many anecdotes of the world, a high sense of honour, and the feelings of a gentleman.

As soon as he had completed his fourteenth year, he was sent off to his cousin at Bristol (in his way, he spent some months at Glasgow, where he completed himself in several branches of his education. His cousin was a rough, boisterous, West India captain, who could not estimate the genius of Macneil, but was pleased with some instances of his spirit. He first proposed to Hector an expedition in a slave ship to the coast of Guinea; but was diverted from it by some female friends, who rightly judged this destination wholly unsuited to the youth’s disposition. He was, therefore, sent on a voyage to St Christopher’s, with the view of making the sea his profession, if he liked it; otherwise, he was furnished with an introduction to a mercantile house. On his arrival, being completely disgusted with the sea, he hesitated not in accepting the latter alternative. It is probably to this period of his life, that we are to fix an event of a singular nature which is stated to have entirely altered his prospects in life. His master had married a lady much younger than himself, and of great personal attractions; and young Macneil was upon terms of equal intimacy with both. One day, while he was sitting upon a garden chair with the lady, and reading with her from the same book, the ardent feelings of one-and-twenty prompted him to express his admiration of her beauty, by snatching a kiss. It proved the knell of his departing fortune. Notwithstanding his instant penitence, and entreaties for forgiveness, the lady conceived it necessary to inform her husband of what had happened; and the immediate consequence was, the dismissal of Macneil, and a termination to the prospects that were brightening around him, he continued for many years in the West Indies, but does not appear to have ever after known what could be called prosperity. At one time, if not during the whole remaining period of his residence in those colonies, this hapless bard had to stoop to the ungenial employment of a negro-driver. While in this situation, he became a strenuous advocate for the system of West India slavery, and wrote a pamphlet in its defence. The only thing which he allowed to be necessary to make the condition of slavery agreeable, was an improvement in the moral conduct of the masters: a subsequent age has seen slavery brought to an end before this improvement was accomplished.

When above forty years of age, Macneil returned to Scotland, in a wretched state of health, and without having earned even a moderate independence. In these circumstances, notwithstanding that he had many good connexions, and still preserved the feelings of a gentleman and a poet, his situation was of a truly deplorable kind. He, nevertheless, began to exercise the intellectual faculties, which, though so early displayed, had been kept in a kind of abeyance during the intervening period of his life. In 1789, he published "The Harp, a Legendary Tale," which brought him into some notice in the literary circles. In 1795, appeared his principal poetical composition, "Scotland’s Skaith, or the history o’ Will and Jean; ower true a Tale," followed next year by a sequel, entitled "The Waes o’ War." Its excellent intention and tendency, with the strokes of sweet and beautiful pathos with which it abounds, render this one of the most admired productions of the Doric muse of Scotland. Except for a simplicity, occasionally degenerating into baldness, which characterizes this as well as other productions of Macneil, "Will and Jean" might safely be compared with the happiest efforts of any other Scottish poet. The enchanting influence of village potations and politics—the deterioration of a worthy rustic character by such means—the consequent despair and degradation of an originally amiable wife—besides the distresses of the Flemish campaign of 1793, and the subsequent restoration of the ruined family to partial comfort, are all delineated in most masterly style. About the same time, Macneil produced "The Links of Forth; or a parting Peep at the Carse of Stirling." This is a descriptive poem; but, though not devoid of merit, it is more laboured and less pleasing. He wrote also a number of songs, some of which possess much pathos and delicacy of sentiment. Not being able, however, to find any means of providing a subsistence, necessity compelled him to seek again the burning climate of the West Indies. After a residence there of only a yearand a half, Mr Graham, an intimate friend, died, and left him an annuity of 100, with which he immediately returned to Edinburgh, to enjoy, with this humble independence, the sweets of literary leisure and society. His reputation and manners procured him ready admittance into the most respectable circles; he enjoyed particularly the intimacy of Mrs Hamilton, authoress of "The Cottagers of Glenburnie" and other esteemed works of fancy. He was then a tall, fine-looking old man, with a very sallow complexion, and a dignified and somewhat austere expression of countenance. His conversation was graceful and agreeable, seasoned with a somewhat lively and poignant satire. Having probably found in his own case, that devotion to the muses did not tend to promote his success in life, he gave no encouragement to it in others, and earnestly exhorted all who wrote poetry that appeared to him at all middling, to betake themselves to some more substantial occupation. In 1800, he published, anonymously, a novel, or the first part of one, entitled "The Memoirs of Charles Macpherson," which is understood to contain a pretty accurate account of the early part of his own life. In 1801, his poetical works were collected into two volumes, foolscap 8vo, and passed through several editions. In 1809, he published "The Pastoral, or Lyric Muse of Scotland," in 4to, a work which did not draw much attention. About the same time, he published, anonymously, "Town Fashions, or Modern Manners Delineated;" and also, "By-gone Times, and Late-come Changes." These pieces, like almost every thing he wrote, had a moral object; but the present one was tinctured with his feelings as an old man. It appeared to him, that all the changes which had taken place in society, the increase of luxury, even the diffusion of knowledge, were manifest corruptions; and all his anxiety was to inspire a taste for the old style of living. Wishing to suit the style to the matter, he affected a very homely phraseology; and as this was not natural to him, he overdid it, and disgusted rather than persuaded. Yet he clung very fondly to these bantlings of his old age, and even rated them higher than the more elegant productions of his former pen. Their only real beauty, though he was insensible of it, consisted in a few pathetic passages. Our author also wrote, with the same views, and too much in the same style, a novel, entitled "The Scottish Adventurers, or the Way to Rise," 2 vols. 8vo, 1812. Throughout the earlier years of the century, he contributed many minor pieces, in prose and verse, to the Scots Magazine, of which he was at one time editor.

After a long life of penury, aggravated by ill health, Mr Macneil died of jaundice, March 15, 1818, not leaving behind him wherewithal to defray his funeral expenses.


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