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Significant Scots
John Hill Burton

BURTON, JOHN HILL (1809-1881), historiographer of Scotland, was born at Aberdeen 22 Aug. 1809. His father, of whose family connections nothing is known, was a lieutenant in the army, whose feeble health compelled him to retire on half-pay shortly after his son’s birth. His mother was the daughter of John Paton, laird of Grandholm, a moody, eccentric man driven into seclusion by frantic sorrow for the death of his wife, and possessed by an insane animosity towards his own children. The family circumstances • were thus by no means promising. Burton, however, obtained a fair education after his father’s death in 1819, and gained a bursary, which enabled him to matriculate at the university of his native city. On the completion of his college course he was articled to a writer, but, assuredly from no want of industry, found the confinement of an office intolerable. His articles were cancelled, and he repaired to Edinburgh to qualify himself for the bar, accompanied by his devoted mother, who had disposed of her little property at Aberdeen to provide him with the means of study. He in due time became an advocate, but his practice was never large, and for a long time he found it necessary to earn his livelihood by literature. His beginnings were humble. Much that he wrote cannot now be identified, but he is known to have composed elementary histories under the name of White, to have shared in the compilation of Oliver & Boyd’s ‘Edinburgh Almanack,’ and to have furnished the letterpress of Billings’s ‘Ecclesiastical and Baronial Antiquities.’ His ardent adoption of Bentham’s philosophy probably served to introduce him to the ‘Westminster Review,’ from which he subsequently migrated to the ‘Edinburgh.’ He also contributed to the ‘Cyclopaedia of Universal Biography’ and Waterston’s ‘Cyclopaedia of Commerce;’ prepared (1839) a useful ‘Manual of the Law of Scotland,’ afterwards divided into distinct treatises on civil and criminal jurisprudence; edited the works of Bentham in' conjunction with Sir John Bowring; and compiled (1843) ‘Benthami-ana,’ a selection from Bentham’s writings, designed as an introduction to the utilitarian philosophy. About this time he acted for a season as editor of the ‘Scotsman, and committed the journal to the support of free trade. He also edited the ‘Athole Papers’ for the Abbotsford, and the ‘Darien Papers’ for the Bannatyne Club. In 1844 he married, and in 1846 achieved solid literary distinction by his biography of Hume, assisted by the extensive stores of unpublished matter bequeathed by Hume’s nephew to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It was a great opportunity, and if Burton’s deficiency in imagination impaired the vigour of his portrait of Hume as a man, he has shown an adequate comprehension of him as a thinker, and is entitled to especial credit for his recognition of Hume’s originality as an economist. A supplementary volume of letters from Hume’s distinguished correspondents, one half at least French, followed in 1849. In 1847 Burton had produced his entertaining biographies of Lord Lovat and Duncan Forbes; and in 1849 he wrote for Messrs. Chambers a "Manual on Political and Social Economy,’ with a companion volume on emigration, admirable works, containing within a narrow compass clear and intelligent expositions of the mutual relations and duties of property, labour, and government. In the same year the death of his wife prostrated him with grief, and although he to a great extent recovered the elasticity of his spirits, he was ever afterwards afflicted with an invincible aversion to society. Seeking relief in literary toil, he produced in 1852 his ‘Narratives from Criminal Trials in Scotland;" in 1853 his ‘Treatise on the Law of Bankruptcy in Scotland;’ and in the same year the first portion of his ‘History of Scotland,’ comprising the period from the Revolution to the rebellion of 1745. Like Hume, he executed his task in installments, and without strict adherence to chronological order, a method prompted in his case by a delicate reluctance to enter into manifest competition with his predecessor Tytler during the latter’s lifetime. The work was eventually completed in 1870; and a new edition with considerable improvements, especially in. the prehistoric and Roman periods, appeared in 1873. In 1854 Burton obtained pecuniary independence by his appointment as secretary to the prison board, and in 1855 married the daughter of Cosmo Innes. Though no longer necessary to his support, his literary labours continued without remission; he wrote largely for the ‘Scotsman,’ became a constant contributor to ‘Blackwood’s Magazine,’ and edited (1860) the valuable autobiography of Alexander Carlyle. His essays in ‘Blackwood’ formed the substance of two very delightful works, ‘The Book Hunter’ (1860), containing a vivid personal sketch of De Quincey, and ‘The Scot Abroad’ (1862). Burton, who had always been a great pedestrian at home, had now imbibed a taste for solitary tours on the continent, which formed the theme of his latest contributions to ‘Blackwood.’ After the completion of his ‘History,’ he undertook the editorship of the ‘Scottish Registers,’ a work of great national importance, and published two volumes. The task has since his death been continued by Professor Masson. His last independent work of much compass was his ‘History of the Reign of Queen Anne,’ published in 1880. Ere this date his extraordinary power of concentrated application had become impaired by a serious illness, and the book, dry without exactness, and desultory without liveliness, hardly deserves to be ranked among histories. The most valuable part is his account of Marlborough’s battles, the localities of which he had visited expressly. From this time Burton suffered from frequent attacks of illness, and indicated the change which had come over his spirit by disposing of his library, weighing eleven tons, as he informed the writer of this memoir. He continued, however, to write for ‘Blackwood,’ performed his official duties with undiminished efficiency, rallied surprisingly in health and spirits after every fit of illness, and was preparing to edit the remains of his friend Edward Ellice, when he succumbed to a sudden attack of bronchitis on 10 Aug. 1881. Burton’s biographies and his ‘Book Hunter’ secure him a more than respectable rank as a man of letters; and his legal and economical works entitle him to high credit as a Srist and an investigator of social science in historical labours are more important, and yet his claims to historical eminence are more questionable. His ‘History of Scotland’ has, indeed, the field to itself at present, being as yet the only one composed with the accurate research which the modern standard of history demands. By complying with this peremptory condition, Burton has distanced all competitors, but must in turn give way when one shall arise who, emulating or borrowing his closeness of investigation, shall add the beauty and grandeur due to the history of a great and romantic country. Burton indeed is by no means dry, his narrative is on the contrary highly entertaining. But this animation is purchased by an entire sacrifice of dignity. His style is always below the subject; there is a total lack of harmony and unity; and the work altogether produces the impression of a series of clever and meritorious magazine articles. Possessing in perfection all the ordinary and indispensable qualities of the historian, he is devoid of all those which exalt historical composition to the sphere of poetry and drama. His place is rather that of a sagacious critic of history, and in this character his companionship will always be found invaluable. To render due justice to Scottish history would indeed require the epic and dramatic genius of Scott, united with the research of a Burton and the intuition of a Carlyle; and until such a combination arises, Burton may probably remain Scotland’s chief historian. As a man, he was loved and valued in proportion as he was truly known. With a dry critical intellect he combined an intense sensitiveness, evinced in a painful shrinking from deficient sympathy, the real and pathetic cause of his unfortunate irascibility and impatience of contradiction. His private affections were deep and constant, his philanthropy embraced mankind, his gracious and charitable actions were endless, and it is mournful to think that the mere exaggeration of tender feeling, combined with his aversion to display and neglect of his personal appearance, should have obstructed the general recognition of qualities as beautiful as uncommon. His main defect was, as remarked by his widow, an absence of imagination, rendering it difficult for him to put himself in another’s place. In an historian such a deficiency is most serious, and could be but imperfectly supplied by the acuteness of his critical faculty. In biography it was to a certain extent counteracted by the strength of the sympathy which originally attracted him to his theme; and hence his biographical writings are perhaps the most truly and permanently valuable.

[Memoir by Mrs. Burton, prefixed to the large-paper edition of the Book Hunter, 1882; Blackwood’s Mag. September 1881. B. G.]

The History of Scotland
From Agricola's Invasion to the Extinction of the Last Jacobite Insurrection by John Hill Burton, D.C.L., Historiographer-Royal for Scotland in 8 volumes and one Index volume (1873)




First appearance of Scotland in history — The invasion by Agricola—The battle of “The Grampians”—Fruitless search after its site—The name “ Grampius ” an invention of a more recent age—Other difficulties in Roman topography—The accepted Roman geography of Britain founded on a forgery— The name “Caledonia”—Hadrian and the Great Wall—Nature and purposes of the wall—Antonine, Lollius Urbicus, and the northern wall—History of its construction—Feats and character of Marcellus Ulpius—Authorities on the history of the Romans in Scotland—Character of the people given by them —Lupus—March of Severus—Carausius—Constantius—Beginning of ecclesiastical history—Question how far Scotland Christianised under the Romans—Fall of their power—Attacks on the Empire by the northern tribes.


THE ROMAN PERIOD. (Continued.)

Vestiges of the Empire : Popular respect for them—Relics of art and refinement—Relics of domestic luxury—Arthur’s Oon—A Roman town in Scotland—Money—Roman topography—The spurious Richard of Cirencester—Roman warfare—The struggle with the natives—Nature of Roman annexation—Question as to vestiges of Christianity—Legends—St Patrick—Roman camps: their abundance in Scotland—Inferences from the abundance—Roman encamping—Roman roads.



Reaspns for placing this between the Roman part and the continuation — Prehistoric vestiges — How they supersede the fabulous histories—The geological conditions in which they are found—Reason why Scotland is peculiarly rich in ancient remains—Ancient fortresses—The Caterthuns—Dunsinane hill —Other instances—The vitrified forts—Lake dwellings and strengths—The Catrail—The Danish Duns—Eden Hall — Mysterious hill-works—Tapuc of Torwood—The laws in Forfarshire—Picts’ houses and other underground buildings—Artificial caves—Cairns, chambered and unchambered—Maes-howe —Disposal of the dead—Urns and incremation or burning— Reference of incremation to Christianity—Manufactures in Flint—Weapons, stone and metallic—Defensive armour — Question of the stone, bronze, and iron ages—Decorations— Inferences as to art and civilisation,



Objects supposed to be connected with religion—Stone circles— Other untooled monuments—Vastness of the field of the unknown and conjectural—Narrowness of the known—Disconnection of the unworked with the sculptured stones—Inscriptions—The sculptures of the east and of the west coast— Nature of the several kinds of sculpture—Their mysteriousness —Solutions offered from afar—Others nearer home—Characteristics of a school of decorative art—Progress in England—Wider diffusion in the west of Scotland and Ireland—Passes into the illumination of MSS.—Examined as a Scots school of decorative art — Connection with ecclesiastical history — Class of amorphous or chaotic carvings.



The Romanised inhabitants—Their degeneracy—Their disappear^ ance from history—Aurelianus Ambrosius—The romances of King Arthur and his knights—Their connection with Scotland —Incompatibility of their chivalrous spirit with the conditions of the period—The Ossianic literature—Britons of Strathclyde —The Picts—The great Pictish question—Etymological war— Specimens of the victories on either side—What they have gained—What is taught by ancient remains—What we gather from classic authors—Weakness of their contributions to the solution—The painted races — Early influence of Teutonic races—The Scots—Originally a name for natives of Ireland— Came over in colonies—Necessity for remembering the early meaning of the word, and the time when it was transferred to Scotland—Their higher civilisation and influence over other races.



Druidism the popular solver of difficulties—Inquiry how far it existed and had influence—The briefness and uncertainty of Caesar’s account—The importance attributed to it—Faintness of other ancient references—Necessity of helping them by modem imagination—Unknown as opponents to the early saints and Christian missionaries—The Magi as encountered by these—The Magi in Scotland—Domestic revelations about one of them—How far the Mythology of the Norse Eddas prevailed in Scdtland—Its spirit as characteristic of the people—Prevalence of manhood over cunning—Absence of the impurities incident to other Pagan systems—Its domesticity—Its adaptation to the physical as well as the moral conditions of the northern nations—Incompatibility with classical and oriental systems.



St Kentigem and his mission in Strathclyde—Absence of assistance from relics of Roman Christianity—Dealings with the King—St Palladius—Larger position in history of St Columba —Church of the Irish and Albanian Scots—Independent of Rome—Specialties separating from the rest of the Catholic world—Its monasticism—Position and functions of women— Tendency of later ecclesiastical literature to suppress these specialties—Importance of the earlier sources—Personal history of St Columba—His royal rank—Distribution of political'and ecclesiastical power among ruling dynasties—His political difficulties—His mission—Establishment at Iona—The architecture of his monastery—Relics of ecclesiastical architecture separate from the Roman type—Government—Position of bishops— Absoluteness of monastic rule—Abstinence—Independence of the Romish hierarchy.



Columba’s disciples and successors—Adamnan, his biographer— The numerous saints—Constitution of early northern saintship —Prevalence in the Celtic race—St Teman—St Serf and other minor saints—St Cormac and his adventures—St Maelrubha and his northern establishment—The great question of Easter— Communications and contest with the northern English Church —Paulinus—Aidan—Firmian—The question of the tonsure— The Romanist shape and the Scots shape—Pressure of Catholic unity on the Scots Church—Spread of Columbite churches
—Calamities of the central establishment at Iona.



History after the departure of the Romans—Strathclyde and its dynasty—Disappearance from history—Pictland—Battle of Ncchtans-Mere—Its influence on the adjustment of a national boundary—The extinction of the separate Pictish nationality— The Scots—Their Irish origin—CarberRiadha—Fergus—Aidan and the adjustment of the dynasty—Conference of Drumcat— Battle of Moyra, and its epic—Scots claims on Ireland—The chronicles and their import—King Kenneth and the union of the Picts and Scots—Its mysteries—Condition of the Scots Celts—Their high place in civilisation.



The northern Sea-rovers or Vikings—Their migrations dating far back—The cause of their being driven to wander—Fled before all despotic influences—The Romans—Charlemagne—Character and influence of the Vikings—Achievements in navigation— Ragnar Lodbroc—Harald Haarfagre—The race of Ivar—Establish themselves in North England, the Scots isles, and Scotland beyond the Moray Firth—The nature of their marine empire— —The Maarmors and other subsidiary rulers—Relations between the Scots and Saxon kings—Incidents brought up in the question of homage—Legends of the early kings—Malcolm, Duncan, and Macbeda—Poetic and real history of Macbeda or Macbeth—Influence of his reign.



King Malcolm Canmore—His investiture—Effect of the Norman Conquest on Scotland—Special causes of the condition and influence of the Normans — Their organising capacity—King William’s attack on Scotland— The feudal system—Its influence in aggregating and breaking up kingdoms—The system of records : value of, to history—Influence on power and property —How abused—Malcolm’s connection with the representatives of the Saxon line—Political effect of this connection—War with England—Death of Malcolm and his son—His wife, St Margaret—Her inauguration in the Calendar—Her influence on Scotland—King Alexander—Alliance with the English royal family—Troubles in the Highlands—Death of King Alexander.



Dark period after Adamnan and the Columbites—Scanty notices in the chronicles—How Christianity existed in the dark period —Light in the revival under Queen Margaret and her sons— How this found the Church—The Culdees—Their name—The inquiries regarding them—What they were not, more easily found than what they were—Their unconformability with the other elements of the Church in their day—Their irresponsibility—The secularisation of their Church—Ecclesiastical contest bequeathed by them—Their foreign relations—Attempts to prove that they spread a Protestant Evangelical Church on the Continent—Sources of this idea—The Irish missionaries distinct from the Scots Culdees—The great ecclesiastical revival— Notices of a Culdee brotherhood—The millennian crisis—Unfelt in Scotland—Its influence in England—The gradual formation of bishoprics—Establishments of regulars—How the Culdees were pressed out, and the influence of Rome established.



Accession of King David—The condition of his kingdom—The outlying districts—Genealogical influences—Connection of the Scots and English royal family—King Stephen and Matilda— Norman tyranny in England—Castles and forest-clearings— Effect of witnessing the condition of England from the Scots side—No Norman castles in Scotland—Invasion of England— The battle of the Standard—Its historical character as affecting the relations of the Normans with the other races—King David’s services to the Church—Foundation of religious houses—Progress of the Catholic revival—The sanctity attributed to him— Other opinions held about his ecclesiastical munificence—His death—His successor, Malcolm IV.—Cession and rounding off of territory—Raid into England—Capture of Malcolm—Treaty of Falaise.

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Volume 2  |  Volume 3  |  Volume 4  |  Volume 5
Volume 6  |  Volume 7  |  Volume 8  |  Index

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