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Traits and Stories of the Scottish People
Chapter IX. - Unfortunate Men of Genius


"Man, whose heaven-erected face
The smiles of love adorn,
Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn."

Burns.

"Neglect stings even more than scorn;
What can he do
But hang his lute on some lone tree and die?"

L. E. Landon.

Calumny has been the scourge of ingenious Scotsmen. Robert Fergusson was eccentric; he was pronounced a drunkard and died insane. Bruce, the Abyssinian traveller, was charged with imposture. Burns, pierced by the shafts of detraction, died at the age of thirty-seven. The genial and loving John Wilson, when a candidate for the University chair, was proclaimed a domestic and a social tyrant. The Ettrick Shepherd was charged with ingratitude, an offence of which he was incapable.

William Ged, the inventor of stereotyping, was a Scotsman. He was a jeweller in Edinburgh. So long as he adhered to his original vocation he was permitted to prosper. When he ventured to exercise his ingenuity by facilitating the printer's art, he was doomed. On his making known his discovery of block printing, the trade deemed their craft in danger, and formed a combination for his destruction. Master printers, journeymen, and apprentices united against him as a common enemy; they assailed him with insult; they loaded him with invectives; they reproached him with ignorance and assumption. The arrows of calumny hit him on all sides. Who could long withstand such an array of hostilities? Poor Ged, who ought to have made a fortune by his discovery, sunk nnder the load of persecution, and died of a broken heart.

Who invented the percussion cap—the application of detonating powder to the explosion of firearms? Few are aware that the inventor was a Scottish clergyman. Who has heard of Mr. A. J. Forsyth, minister of Belhelvie? His name is scarcely known even to men of science; in the catalogue*of discoverers it is unrecorded. Modest and unpretending in his scientific pursmts, and abundantly faithful in discharging the duties of his sacred office, Mr. Forsyth escaped personal reproach, but was gently consigned to the Lethe of oblivion.

James Watt possessed an aspiring nature, which oppression might vex but could not subdue. When he commenced business as a constructor of mathematical instruments, the hammermen of Glasgow determined on thrusting him from the city. In his difficulty he obtained shelter within the walls of the university, where he prosecuted for a time his ingenious labours.

The personal history of Michael Stirling, a Scotsman who invented the method of thrashing corn by machinery, is unknown. When Patrick Bell, a student in theology, invented the reaping machine, he made his experiments by night. He rightly apprehended that should his name, as a candidate for orders, be associated with mechanism and the reaping-field, he would receive no call to a parish. But the discovery did become known, and Mr. Bell was compelled to seek his first professional advancement on the opposite shores of the Atlantic.

Dr. James Anderson, commonly distinguished as editor of the Bee, possessed extraordinary ingenuity. Early directing his attention to social economy, he was one of the first who studied Agriculture as a science. He discovered an efficient method of draining wet lands, and demonstrated the utility of the two-horse plough. He studied Ocean husbandry, and under the direction of the Treasury surveyed the West coast. He abandoned his country farm, and proceeded to Edinburgh, where he expected to obtain the sympathy of the learned and the patronage of the nobility. He was disappointed, and afterwards removed to London, where he died.

James Smith, commonly styled of Deanston, from his long connection with the cotton-mills established at that place, was one of the ill-rewarded of modern Scotsmen. His modes of thorough drainage, and of economizing sewage manure, revolutionized the system of Scottish husbandry. His inventions connected with the mechanism of power-looms have likewise proved of important value. Mr. Smith received public entertainments and agricultural medals, but obtained no more substantial recompence for a long career devoted to the public service.

The constructor of the first steamboat was Henry Bell, a Scottish wheelwright. Abandoning his trade, he devoted himself for many years to the fabrication of a steam-vessel. The entire work of its formation was conducted under his personal superintendence, and chiefly with his own hands. He was then resident at Helensburgh, on the Clyde, and the numerous visitors at that watering-place regarded him with pity or contempt. He was pronounced a species of enthusiast, who might properly be entrusted to the care of his friends. Shipbuilders who had heard the details of his scheme declared his system to be impracticable.

At length, after the anxieties and labours of years, Henry Bell launched his little vessel on the Clyde. He styled his invention the Comet, a name which suggested to the abounding cavillers an opportunity for the indulgence of their rude wit respecting the alleged eccentricity of the mechanic, and the supposed ephemeral character of his discovery.

Contrary to all expectation, the little steamer moved steadily on the river. What the inventor had anticipated was fully realized. The possibility of steam navigation was established. Thereafter steamers were' regularly constructed on the Clyde, and many merchants in Glasgow realized fortunes consequent on their use; but for years the inventor suffered from the pressure of abject poverty. At length some benevolent person brought his claims under the notice of the Clyde Trustees, who settled a small annuity upon him, and thus the discoverer of Steam Navigation was rescued from the workhouse.

William Playfair, brother of the better known professor of that name, was a person of remarkable ingenuity. He invented many important appliances for abridging manual labour in the decoration of silver plate, and a valuable rolling-machine for the use of silversmiths. A mode of telegraphing which he suggested was adopted by Government. He published many statistical and political works of great public utility. Yet this remarkable man had a constant struggle for existence, and died in circumstances of indigence.

The name of Dr. Tobias Smollett is familiar. Descended from an ancient and opulent family in Dumbartonshire, he studied medicine and passed as a physician. He served as surgeon's mate on board a man-of-war, but soon abandoned naval employment. For a period he attempted medical practice at Bath, but his attention becoming engrossed by literary concerns, he resolved to prosecute literature as a profession. He originated and became editor of the Critical Review. He published a "History of England." A succession of novels proceeded from his pen, all of which at once became popular. But his constitution succumbed under the pressure of constant occupation. He tried the climate of Italy, hopeful of benefit from the change. There he died in 1774, at the age of fifty-three. The proceeds of a benefit in the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, enabled his widow to return to Britain, and relieved her immediate necessities.

Mr. Smollett, cousin of the deceased, the opulent owner of Bonhill, had forgotten his relative while he lived, but rejoiced to share in his celebrity when he was gone. He reared a lofty column to his memory in a conspicuous locality of his estate, and was careful to intimate that he had thus honoured the memory of his ingenious kinsman.

Robert Mudie, author of the interesting volumes on the "Seasons," was a teacher in the academy of Dundee. Being an active politician, he joined the town council of the burgh, and there sought to advance the cause of local reform. His efforts were not appreciated by his fellow-councillors, who regarded him as an intermeddler. Those who were more strongly opposed to his views endeavoured to cause him annoyance in the performance of his scholastic duties. This was accomplished. Mr. Mudie resigned his office, and proceeded to London. There he employed his pen with a diligence which has never been surpassed. He laboured at the desk twelve and fourteen hours daily. . At length the exertion overcame a constitution originally robust. Death relieved him from the chilling hand of poverty at the age of sixty-four.

The works of no Scottish writer have been more useful or popular than those of Dr. Thomas Dick, author of "The Christian Philosopher." Dr. Dick attained his eighty-third year. His long career was attended with unceasing privations. He informed the writer that for upwards of half a century his principal meal consisted of bread and milk. The pressure of poverty compelled him to part with his copyrights. He obtained a small civil list pension in his eightieth year.

Scottish poets have been especially discouraged. The Scottish Parliament classed "bards, minstrels, and players," with "strolling vagabonds," and ordered their vocation to be suppressed. Within a comparatively recent period, some of the most gifted song-writers have been left to subsist on charity. William Thom, the Inverury poet, died at Dundee in 1848, in circumstances of the deepest poverty. John Younger, author of the Prize Essay on the Sabbath, and an ingenious poet, was, when unable to work at his trade of shoemaking, left to endure the bitterness of poverty and neglect. Younger died at St. Boswell's, in 1860, at the age of seventy-five. In this same neighbourhood, a brother of Dr. John Leyden, the distinguished poet and orientalist, has, at the age of fourscore, to seek subsistence as a farm labourer, with the prospect of the workhouse.

Mary Pyper, one of the best of living hymn-writers, is, at the age of seventy-two, dependent on the benevolence of a few gentlemen for her support. She is a native of the West of Scotland, but has long resided in Edinburgh.

The authors of two celebrated Scottish ballads, "Symon and Janet" and "The Brownie of Blednock," shared the usual fate of Scottish bards. For Andrew Scott, author of the former ballad, the office of parish sexton was provided. William Nicholson, author of "The Brownie," experienced a worse fate. When he was unable to earn his bread as a travelling musician, he was thrust into the workhouse.

To natives of Scotland in every part of the world the songs beginning "Ca' the yowes to the knowes" and "Owre the muir amang the heather" are abundantly familiar. These simple ditties have awakened in thousands the associations of youth, and enkindled delightful reminiscences. The authors, Isobel Pagan and Stuart Lewis, were compelled to subsist by mendicancy..

Every Scotsman knows the song of "Kelvin Grove;" and those who can appreciate the air are entranced by it. In 1859, Thomas Lyle, author of this delightful composition, and of a valuable work on "Ancient Ballads," passed to his rest in a condition of poverty.

Who has not been moved by the plaintive song of "Wae's me for Prince Charlie"? William Glen, the writer of this and other songs, died in indigence, at the age of thirty-seven. His widow and daughters live at Aberfoyle, utterly uncared for.

"My ain dear Nell" is one of the best esteemed of modern songs. Both the words and air were composed by Alexander Hume, another of the unfortunate bards. He died in 1859, in the deepest penury.

Two of the most accomplished collectors of Scottish song and ballad may be named together. They were brothers in misfortune. Peter Buchan is well known. His services in collecting northern minstrelsy were warmly commended by Sir Walter Scott. He also composed original songs, and published works in general literature. But his country did nothing for him, and he died poor. John Struthers, author of "The Poor Man's Sabbath," an admirable poem, and editor of "The Harp of Caledonia," shared the usual lot. He commenced life as a shoemaker, and like John Younger, laboured hard to overcome the necessity of pursuing this irksome occupation. For a period he obtained literary employment; but when he became old and infirm he was compelled to resume his original calling. He struggled with poverty to the last, and died in 1850, at the age of seventy-seven.

Three poets have lately passed away, whose genius would probably in any other country save that in which they were born—which they loved so well, and celebrated in impassioned strains—have redeemed them from the pressure of continual poverty and constant suffering. Elliot Aitchison died at Hawick in 1858. He was employed in a stocking factory when he was able to work, hut possessing a feeble constitution, he was unable to prosecute his vocation continuously. He composed verses of remarkable power and classic elegance, which, had he been encouraged to publish, would have attracted attention and brought him both emolument and fame. But the bard was diffident, and shrunk from soliciting that patronage which none were found willing to bestow unasked.

Though not more ingenious than the former, Andrew Park is better known. His poem of "Silent Love" is one of the noblest compositions in the language. Published anonymously, it was ascribed to the more celebrated poets of the time. But the genius of Park only secured from his fellow-countrymen a coffin and a gravestone.

James Macfarlane has not obtained even the latter. His poetry is of the loftiest order—deep, sententious, chaste, and highly ornate. His ode, entitled "The Lords of Labour," is, as an incentive to industry, without a parallel in ancient or modern verse. Macfarlane led a life of poverty from the cradle to the grave. He often passed days without food, and occasionally lacked a home. His verses were admired, but the writer was unsought. A few generous persons soothed his last hours. He died in 1862, in his thirtieth year.

The catalogue of neglected genius is closed for the present, and it is hoped that no other name may be added. Some years since, the writer endeavoured to establish an institution for the relief of ingenious Scotsmen who suffered from temporary misfortune. He obtained the support of several influential persons; Lord Campbell became president, and Lord Brougham afforded his ready support. But the administration fell into inefficient hands; the fundamentals of the institution were changed, and the labour attending its formation was lost.

Scotland has been privileged as the birthplace of men of genius, but it has been destined that these should develop on other soils. The Scottish clergyman is expected to attend solely to the duties of his parish. Should he become an author, defects will be sought for in his discourses. The Edinburgh barrister who possesses the love of literature is careful to conceal his tastes till his professional reputation has been secured. The country lawyer who is frequently seen in the village library is not entrusted with the care of provincial suits. A Scottish surgeon who writes books may not obtain patients. No Scottish merchant will employ as clerk one who is known to compose verses, or to indulge in literary aspirations. These restrictions imply narrow views and a shortsighted policy. But a lesson is thereby taught that Scottish enterprise ought not to circumscribe the sphere of its development. Literary and other ingenious Scotsmen, when they betake themselves early in life to other lands, seldom fail to be successful. They reach the highest honours, not only as authors and men of science, but as statesmen, military commanders, and colonial governors. And with all the defects which attach to their native land, they are proud to acknowledge their northern origin. Amidst the prairies of South America, in the steppes of Africa, and on the burning plains of Hindostan, the Scotsman delights to recall the scenes and the customs of the dear old country. As he remembers its mountains and valleys, holms and haughs, carses and corries, and the old folks at home, with "the big ha' Bible," and the decent parish church, he is ready to exclaim, in an outburst of affection, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem! let my right hand forget her cunning; if I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth."


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