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Significant Scots
William Meston


MESTON, WILLIAM, an ingenious and learned poet of the eighteenth century, was born in the parish of Mid-Mar, Aberdeenshire, about the year 1688. His parents were in humble circumstances, but, by submitting to privations themselves, they contrived to give their son a liberal education. Having acquired the earlier rudiments of learning at a country school, he was sent to the Marischal college, Aberdeen, where he made such proficiency, that, on the completion of his studies, he was elected one of the doctors of the high school of New Aberdeen. In this situation he continued for some time, discharging its duties with an assiduity and talent which procured him much respect and considerable popularity as a teacher. While thus employed, his reputation and qualifications attracted the notice of the noble family of Marischal, and he was chosen to be preceptor and governor to the young earl, and his brother, the celebrated Marshal Keith. Of this trust he acquitted himself so well, that, on the occurrence of a vacancy in 1714, in the office of professor of philosophy in Marischal college, he was appointed to it through the influence of the countess Marischal. This office he also filled with great ability, and with universal approbation; but he was permitted to retain it only for a very short time. In the following year, 1715, the civil war broke out, and Meston, adhering to the political principles of his patrons, lost his professorship. To compensate this deprivation, he was made governor of Dunotter castle, by the earl Marischal; a singular enough change of profession, but sufficiently characteristic of the times.

After the battle of Sheriffmuir, Meston, with several others of his party, fled to the hills, where they skulked till the act of indemnity was passed, when they returned to their homes.

During the time of his concealment, Meston composed, for the amusement of his companions, several of those humorous poetical effusions which he has entitled Mother Grim’s Tales, and which were published in Edinburgh in 1767. Steady to his political principles, he refused, after his return, to yield obedience to the new dynasty, and thus cut himself off from every chance of being restored to his former appointment; an event which might otherwise have taken place. In these circumstances, destitute of employment, and equally destitute of the means of subsistence, he accepted an invitation from the countess Marischal to reside in her family, and availed himself of her hospitality till her death; contributing largely to the entertainment of all her guests by his wit, and by the exercise of a singularly happy vein of pleasantry which he possessed.

On the death of the countess, Meston was again left destitute, and for some years continued in very straitened circumstances. At the end of this period he opened an academy at Elgin, in conjunction with his brother, Mr Samuel Meston, who was eminently skilled in the Greek language. For some years the academy throve well, and yielded its teachers a comfortable living. Meston gave instructions in all the branches of learning taught at universities, became popular as a teacher, and by his assiduity acquired the unlimited confidence of his employers. His success, however, in place of operating as an incitement to further exertion, seems to have thrown him off his guard. Always of a social disposition, he now became a thorough-paced boon companion; and betook himself with a devotion and cordiality to his book, his bottle, and his friend, which was wholly incompatible with his success as a teacher. The consequence was, that in a few years the academy fell so much away that he gave it up, and removed to Tureff, a village on the northwest limits of Aberdeenshire, to which he had been invited by the countess of Errol, who knew and appreciated his talents. From this lady Meston received, after his removal, much kindness. She allowed him the use of the family lodging in the village rent-free, and sent him many presents from time to time to better his housekeeping. The academy also succeeded well, and continued to improve during several years, until an unfortunate occurrence suddenly terminated its existence.

Two of Meston’s young gentlemen having quarrelled while playing at shuttle-cock, one of them drew a knife and stabbed the other in the breast. The wound was not fatal, but the parents of the other children became alarmed for their safety; and though no blame whatever could attach to the master in what had happened, they were all removed, and poor Meston was left without a pupil.

Driven from Tureff, Meston went next to Montrose, where he attempted to open another academy, but without success. From Montrose he removed to Perth, and here found some employment in his profession of teaching, but was in a short time afterwards taken into the family of Mr Oliphant of Gask as a private preceptor. In this situation he remained for several years, when, falling into a bad state of health, he resigned it, and removed to Peterhead for the benefit of its mineral waters. The unfortunate poet was now once more reduced to utter destitution, with the aggravation of a debilitated frame and failing constitution. For this luckless hour he had made no provision. With the true spirit of a poet, he had always entertained a most sublime contempt for money, and for all habits of economy; spending to-day what he had acquired to-day, and boldly leaving to-morrow to provide for itself. The comforts, however, which he was unable to procure for himself in his sickness, were liberally supplied to him by a generous friend. His old patroness, the countess of Errol, furnished him with every necessary and comfort which his infirmities and forlorn condition required, even to the fitting out of his apartment. Finding no benefit to his health from his residence at Peterhead, he removed to Aberdeen, where he died in the spring of 1745, and was buried in the Spittal churchyard of Old Aberdeen.

Meston was esteemed one of the best classical scholars of his time. He was also an excellent mathematician. As a poet his fame is now reduced to very narrow limits. His poetry is, we believe, scarcely known to the present generation; and yet it would seem to merit a better fate, were it not perhaps for its grossness and indelicacy. He was a slavish imitator of Butler in style and manner; and it is not improbably owing to this circumstance, which necessarily excluded originality, that his otherwise clever poems have so soon sunk into oblivion. But though a copyist of style and manner, Meston had a genius of his own, and that of a pretty high order. In many instances his poetry exhibits scintillations of wit and humour not inferior to the brightest in the pages of Hudibras. A volume of his poems, containing The Knight, Mother Grim’s Tales, and several other miscellaneous pieces, was published, as already noticed, in Edinburgh in 1767, and this is, we believe, all that remains of Meston, a man of very considerable genius, and "a fellow of infinite jest."


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