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Some Nineteenth Century Scotsmen
Being Personal Recollections by William Knight (1903)


In the following Reminiscences of Some Nineteenth Century Scotsmen, who have been distinguished on their country’s record-roll in various ways, I am mainly a chronicler ab extra; neither critic, nor biographer, nor literary appraiser; only a recorder.

No attempt is made to give a full account, or complete estimate, of any one man; but merely to state facts known to myself, or supplied by trustworthy narrators, along with a few letters from those who are characterised.

The publication of such records might have been more opportune some years ago, as many of the friends of those whose deeds and words are here recorded have themselves now “joined the majority.” But it may not be too late to collect them.

I include only the men whom I have known personally, and insert only what has not hitherto been said about them, except in quarters where few persons are likely to see it.

Since boyhood I have endeavoured to take character-sketches, without always writing them down. Some of these have of necessity faded away. When, however, the crypts of memory are explored, reminiscences are often found lying latent and obscure. Things long forgotten rise clear on the inner horizon, and subsequently stand out on the threshold of consciousness. Several of those who are mentioned in these pages have had their biographies already written, some of them at considerable length; but many details have of necessity been omitted, and I have tried to recover — from sources written and oral — both anecdotes and traits of character, which a near posterity may care to know. I say “near,” because almost all biographic records are sooner or later doomed to oblivion; and it is a blessing that whatsoever is irrelevant in literary work—or useless to posterity —is soon thrown aside with unerring justice, and impartial exactitude. Whenever it has been possible I have given extracts from unpublished letters by the deceased. No living men are included.

Some of those chronicled were, and are, well-known Scotsmen: others were not recognised beyond a small circle of friends and acquaintances. This was inevitable, and without wholly endorsing the verdict that

strongest minds are those
Of whom this noisy world hears least,

it may be admitted that many of the noblest souls are least known to fame, even amongst those with whom they live.

It should be explained that facts and opinions are recorded of many from whom I differed widely, as well as of those with whom I was in sympathy.

This has been done from the belief that character-sketches of great men should be preserved, whatever their opinions may have been. It will be seen that several are included who were not “Scotsmen” born, but whose chief work was done in Scotland, and whose career is more distinctively associated with our northern than with the southern realm; Bishop Charles Wordsworth, Mr Hamilton of St Ernans, Dr Alexander Potts, Mr Cranbrook, and Archbishop Eyre are instances in point. For the same reason I am to include reminiscences of such men as Thomas Carlyle, in a subsequent volume of English Retrospects, because their chief work was done in England. The transfer seems reasonable, and it may bring both works into harmony.

It has fallen to me to write a “Memoir,” or “Life,” or “Obituary Notice” of several included in these pages; but little, or nothing, of what has already appeared in print is repeated. In the volume entitled, Principal Shairp and his Friends, I did not include an address delivered to the students of St Andrews after his death. It is placed in this book. In the Memoir of John Nichol I omitted many letters, which now find their appropriate place. In reference to Professor John Duncan a few paragraphs are quoted which appeared more than thirty years ago, but they have been out of print since Colloquia Peripatetica was exhausted; and in the case of Professor Yeitch I have included, along with much that has not hitherto seen the light, a few sentences from what I sent to his Memoir.

The service rendered to posterity by such a work as the “Dictionary of National Biography”—recording, in briefest compass, the career and life-work of all the great men and women of our English-speaking race—cannot be overestimated; but there are many other things, in reference to our national biographic heritage, stories of the life and conversations of the “minor men” as well as of the “immortals,” which may with profit be preserved for posterity; and many a lover of English literature, and of Scottish character, may be glad to have them.

It has become clear to me, however, while writing this book, that some of the most remarkable men cannot be characterised, cither by memoir, or sketch, or by their own letters. Their personality is so magnetic in its influence, and often so illusive in its outcome, that no one can reproduce it. It is sometimes,

A moment seen, then gone from sight,

while it lives to work in a subterranean sort of way. Occasionally its very charm lies in its fragmentariness. Most people have known others, unique in special ways, but whose refined intellectuality, whose moral ascendancy, and even whose erudition cannot be adequately portrayed. Mirrored with intensity at the moment of their first realisation, these things cannot be handed on to posterity because the immediate glamour was too intense. Such were the late Lord Acton, and Mr Thomas Davidson, some things in reference to the latter of whom are recorded in this work.

These sketches are necessarily of very different lengths. In cases in which a man’s biography has been written, and I knew him but slightly— as in that of Christopher North—little is said: in cases in which no memoir has been written, or is now likely to appear—as in those of Sir John Skelton, Patrick Proctor Alexander, Thomas Davidson, etc.,— the notice is longer. I do not think that I can be charged with revealing editorial secrets in reference to my “Philosophical Classics for English Readers,” by including letters from some of the contributors—such as Professor Croom Robertson— referring not only to their own work, but also to that of others.

It will be seen that many of the Scotsmen mentioned were Professors at the University of Edinburgh in Arts, Divinity, or Medicine; that some were Professors in the New College, or preachers in the metropolis; others literary men, lawyers, judges, or physicians; that some were country gentlemen, and a few private friends, little known (as already indicated) outside their own circle, but men of mark in their way. The exigences of space have necessitated the omission of many whom I would fain have included; and I give a list of them, as a later opportunity may occur for their admission. Bishop Forbes of Brechin, George Gilfillan, Dr Watson, Dr

Islay Bums (all of Dundee); Drs Norman Macleod, Pulsford, Service (all of Glasgow); the medical professors James Millar, Hughes Bennett, and Allman, with Dr Warburton Begbie, and Alexander Smith, (all of Edinburgh); Dr Macleod Campbell of Row, the late Bishop Ewing (Argyll and the Isles); Miss Boyd (Pen-hill, Aryshire); Professor Milligan (Aberdeen); Mr John M. Ross (Edinburgh); The Marquis of Lothian; and last, but certainly not least, the late Duke of Argyll.

I have to express my cordial thanks to those who have aided me; to Dr Joseph Bell and Sir William Turner, for their reminiscences of Edinburgh medical professors; to Alex. Taylor Innes, for his note on Lord President Inglis; to Archdeacon Aglen, Alyth, for his memorandum as to Bishop Words worth; to Sheriff Campbell Smith, for his recollections of Professors Ferrier and Spalding, of Patrick Alexander, and of the Scottish Judges; to Dr Steele at Florence, for his reminiscences of old Edinburgh men and days; to Professor Campbell Fraser and Miss Helen Neaves, for their characterisation of the late Principal Sir Alexander Grant; to Mr Oliphant Smeaton, for many notes as to the professors in the New College, Edinburgh; to the Rev. William Henderson, for recollections of Professors Ferrier and Spalding; to Mr Colin Philip, for his memories of Professor Baynes ; to Professor Menzies, for his note on William Mackintosh; and to Mr Andrew Lang, for his kind revision of the proofs. W. K.

You can download this book here

Memorials of Thomas Davidson
The Wandering Scholar collected and edited by William Knight (1907) (pdf)

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