Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XVIII - Literary Annals of Edinburgh

MOVING to and fro in Edinburgh we have come on the tracks of many eminent people, some of them great writers. I have picked out for special mention three of them. I here gather into one whole the complete literary story of the capital. The connection of Edinburgh with literature is very close. A long series of writers of the first rank lived and worked here. The story is finished. It is one of the piquant contrasts between the old and the new, and between spiritual splendour and material prosperity, that, spite its wealth and population and culture, New Edinburgh is as nothing to Old. "A hotbed of genius," so Smollett well named that small, quaint, unsavoury eighteenth-century city. No one says that of the caput rnortuum of to-day. The mere fact that a man was a "residenter" does not make him one of the Edinburgh writers. Walter Kennedy, in the words of Dunbar, "brought the Carrick clay to Edinburgh corrse," yet we may safely pass him by. More than two hundred years after a more illustrious figure brought the Carrick, or rather Kyle, clay to Edinburgh, moved like a comet among its fixed stars, but Robert Bums was professedly a visitor, and so was the first James. Thus we cannot credit the Kinges Quair, or Pebles to the Play, and (if he were, in fact, the gifted author) Christis Kirk on the Green, to an Edinburgh man. When we come to James IV. it is quite other. He was much in Edinburgh. Holyrood was his headquarters so to speak, and attached to his Court were a body of poets, the old Makaris, men of genius and learning, whose lines are to us "unsavoury and sour" only because we do not take the trouble to understand them. Three eminent figures rise above their fellows. These were William Dunbar, Gawin Douglas and Sir David Lyndsay. Of these Dunbar is easily first. He wrote much of the highest and most various excellence; he was the poet of love and satire. How often he paced the High Street and noted the busy scenes of city life! He is not complimentary to Edinburgh; he pictures it very much as Fergusson did long afterwards, but not with the sympathy of a native. He was born not far off in the Lothian fields; perhaps he preferred the country to the town. At any rate, in one of his most famous verses he pictures what there ought to be at the Cross, and what in fact there was, and you learn that very early indeed Edinburgh had acquired its evil reputation for uncleanness. In what rapturous strains, on the other hand, did he sing of London in the Guildhall Recitation: "London, thou art the floure of cities all!" In the Thistle and the Rose he carolled love strains on the marriage of Margaret Tudor to his master. But if such things are too much for the modern reader, let him at least try Kind Kittok, a daring Rabelaisian adventure in this world and the next, such as Bums might have written had he been born two centuries earlier. Of Gawin Douglas I will only here recall that he was Provost of St Giles, and Lyndsay’s official position fixed him to the court, and so for long periods to Edinburgh. Lyndsay’s genius is not as great as Dunbar’s, and yet he was more popular. He appealed more to the man in the street, so to speak; voiced the popular discontent against the priests and the Church, and yet died without formally renouncing that Church. He is the link between the Makaris and the reformers.

Edinburgh High Street from Knox's House

As we look back on the time of James IV. it shapes itself as golden age; a brief spell of fine weather when what was always being sown was for once allowed to bring forth fruit. And then came the Reformation and the rule of the Kirk, and there was an end of the Makaris and poetry was banished to the muir and the hillside. Yet two great writers adorned Edinburgh under Mary and her son. These were John Knox and George Buchanan. Of Knox I speak elsewhere. Buchanan was a scholar, and therefore he wrote in Latin, and to the acquisition of Latin verse and Latin prose he gave the best years of his life. He had his reward; he had Europe for his audience, and he acquired the reputation of being the one great scholar his country had produced. It is hard to say how a cultured Roman would judge him or any modern Latin. Of course he is grammatical and all that, yet his History is no more like Livy than chalk is like cheese. How could it be? He wrote little in Scots, and that was his loss and ours; he is a strange, elusive personality. Knox stands out clear and definite; you almost feel you had met him there by the Netherbow, but you never say the last word, even to yourself, about Buchanan. These great figures vanished, and in this chapter, at any rate, I will not dwell on Drummond of Hawthornden and other minors, who might fairly swell the literary annals of Edinburgh. It is said that the influence of the Kirk was unfavourable to literature; it was stem and severe and repressed all human enjoyment. There is some truth in this, but only some. The Presbyterians were but a party in the nation, and in the seventeenth century they were not always at the top. Men had more elemental and more desperate things to think of than literary composition; life is more than letters. In the seventeenth century your life was in danger if you were in great place or in small, from pounds or famine, or civil or religious commotion. Whenever things got a little easier letters revived, and when, after the last Jacobite rising, Edinburgh turned aside from the Stuart dream and the past and began to extend and grow rich, she had, at the very beginning, a period of splendid literary activity.

Allan Ramsay stands at the head of this new era. What an interesting figure he makes, this barber and bookseller and author of gentle blood and small stature, and quick movements and merry eye! Perhaps you must be born in Edinburgh to have that peculiar depth of affection for her that Scott possessed, and Fergusson and Stevenson, but Allan Ramsay came into her so early, and stayed in her so long and knew her so well, that it were hard to consider him other than native. It is not many years since his shop in the High Street, opposite Niddry’s Wynd, was swept away; his still more famous place at the east end of the Luckenbooths, the shop that was afterwards occupied by Creech, went with that historic pile. I will not give a list of his works or tell at length how, in the Tea-Table Miscellany, he half revived and half destroyed many an old Scots song. He could be dignified and proper.

"Dalhousie of an auld descent
My stoup, my pride, my ornament."

And his most famous piece, The Gentle Shepherd, is fit for maidens as well as men; but he was most at home in that dim Edinburgh underworld which rises up before us with a certain unholy attraction, that gross underworld of the tavern, where drunkenness and sculduddery was the order of the day. At what exact spot on Bruntsfield Links stood that long-vanished alehouse, where umquhile Maggy Johnstoun dispensed her treasures to all Edinburgh? An ideal alehouse, though the ideal was purely Caledonian.’

"There we got fou wi’ little cost
And muckle speed."

What a prudence, what an iron will Ramsay possessed! Had he let himself go he had never been out of the tavern; his fall had been swifter and surer than Fergusson’s and a hundred others. But he knew when to stop, not a common knowledge in old Edinburgh. As he was human his prudence or his judgment failed now and again. The theatre in Carrubber’s Close nearly ruined him, but he pulled through, and he kept still through the ‘45, sentimental Jacobite as he was. And so he prospered and gathered money, and died well off and respected, a very human and sympathetic, if not altogether admirable, figure.

Then came the era of the mighty, for there were giants in Edinburgh in those days: David Hume and Adam Smith, and Principal William Robertson, and witty and learned judges, as Kames and Monboddo and Hailes, and lesser figures as "Bozzy," and "Ossian" Macpherson, and "Jupiter" Carlyle, and John Home of Douglas notoriety, and delightful gifted women speaking Scots with elegance and propriety, and prouder of their race than that they had written immortal song; such were Lady Wardlaw and Lady Grizel Baillie, and Mrs Cockburn and Lady Ann Barnard, and Caroline, Lady Nairne. Edinburgh was surely a "hotbed of genius." It held its own with London. Its men took permanent places in English literature. The best blood in England came north to sit at the feet of those Gamaliels! What a delightful place to live in Edinburgh must have been! Great as writers, they were equally great as men. They were contented with small means and simple pleasures; wealth they neither despised nor envied. Without mean jealousies and without envy of each other, they took an honest and unaffected pride in the fame of their friends. A certain gentle and benevolent irony coloured the life of the chief among them. They were brave in life and in death, whatever were their creeds, and the greatest were not merely of Edinburgh or of Scotland, but of the universe. I could tell a hundred stories of those giants, of their wisdom as of serpents and their harmlessness as of doves, but a few words as to one of them must here suffice for sample. In Panmure House, hard by the Canongate Churchyard, where is buried what is mortal of this immortal, Adam Smith lived from 1778 till his death in 1790. Here it was his habit to entertain his friends at supper each Sunday night. We have no record of the feast. You may believe it was the simplest fare in Edinburgh; but you will also believe the claret was good, for to the Scot the "Auld Enemy" was not France and the punch compounded by the hand of a cunning artist. But at the last Smith was sick unto death. He knew the end was at hand and he was prepared, but it was no reason why he should not entertain his friends; he welcomed them as of old, and did the honours as he was wont to do, and then asked permission to retire. "My friends, I fear I must leave this happy meeting, and that I may never see you again." This was Saturday, the 10th June 1790, and before the week had run its course our host was dead. And the historic street missed the carefully-dressed little man with his shambling, "vermicular" walk and vacant stare. To many an old friend it can never have looked the same again.

There was many a scene of less decorum in Edinburgh. Shakespeare, or all tradition lies, followed in practice the theory of his own Autolycus, that "a quart of ale is a dish for a king," a theory and practice that we know found favour in Old Edinburgh; though the climate, it was urged, called for something better than ale. There is so ludicrous a tang about Bozzy’s dissipation, as there was about his other pranks, that it makes us smile rather than sneer. Once he was much "disguised in liquor," quite helpless, indeed. "Drunk again, you dog," as the great Samuel might have remarked—as he, in fact, did remark on one occasion during the tour to the Western Isles; it was an early reminiscence of young Frank Jeffrey, afterwards Lord Jeffrey, that he had assisted the greatest of biographers to bed. Next morning Boswell was duly informed of Jeffrey’s share in the pious duty. He thanked him, patted him on the head as a promising lad, and with that engaging absurdity of which he, above all other men, had the trick, said, "If you go on as you’ve begun you may live to be a Bozzy yourself yet?" Jeffrey himself, as a young advocate pleading before the General Assembly on behalf of a bibulous divine, was guilty of an expression of great absurdity or of great impudence. In either case it showed a very peculiar sense of humour. "Was there," he asked, "a single reverend gentleman in the house who could lay his hand on his heart and say he had never been overtaken with the same infirmity?" The Assembly did not own the soft impeachment; the members showed themselves highly indignant, though they were too easily placated by an apology that reads almost worse than the offence. The orator had his ill-timed jest, if it was one, and Lord Cockburn, who tells the story, omits to record the result to the client.

The name of Jeffrey reminds us that we are in a new era. From October 1822 to January 1829, that is during the brilliant youth and early manhood of the Edinburgh Review, he was editor, though we must make a partial exception as regards the first two or three numbers. I do not put him forward as a link between the two eras; the link, if it existed, was Henry Mackenzie, known as the Man of Feeling, from his chief work. He was born in 1747 in Libberton’s Wynd; he died in 1831 in Heriot Row, and was buried in the Greyfriars Churchyard. He was a W.S. and a shrewd man of business, but his fame in letters was great—even greater than the deserved respect with which he was regarded for his other excellent qualities. He knew all Edinburgh of two great generations, but in letters he belongs to a peculiar phase of the eighteenth century. Of his merits or demerits you cannot judge, for you cannot read him. He speaks an unknown tongue albeit you see it is excellent English. The letters begin to dance before your eyes, your head turns round, and you presently close the volume in despair. But I get away too far from Jeffrey and his Review. When the great men of the eighteenth century died off the end was not yet, even as against London Edinburgh was destined to another period of triumph. If she did not produce as before she held the critical rod; if she could not crush the head she could always bruise the heel of every contemporary English man of letters. The new era was the era of two periodicals and the men who wrote for them; these were the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood. The idea of the first was due to Sidney Smith. The story has often been told how the thing took birth at an evening supper in an upper flat in Buccleuch Place, and how Smith suggested as a motto the Virgilian line—slightly adapted—Tenui musam meditamur avena." "We cultivate literature on a little oatmeal" was the original and felicitous translation. With Smith and Jeffrey were Horner and Brougham and other young men. The eldest was scarce over thirty, and Brougham was but twenty-three. They had little money but plenty brains, and the most absolute belief in their own powers, which their after careers abundantly justified. They came in at the tail-end of the "Dundas despotism." It seemed to them that the life of the country was ground down and repressed, that good and bad were stereotyped in one settled form. Some of the same spirit for good and ill animated them as animated, under different conditions and in different days, Burns and Heine. They were soldiers in the war of liberation, knights of the Holy Ghost, in that strange phrase of the German poet. They scented the battle from afar. As they laid their plans that wild Edinburgh wind, which is a part, and a very impressive part, of the northern capital wailed in one of its fretful fits round the tall land in a nook whereof they sat. It reminded them of the spiritual storm that they were about to create, yet even they took some precautions. The contributors corrected their proofs in Willison’s office in Craig’s Close, and thither the conspirators were wont to repair, singly and by different paths, probably at nightfall, possibly in disguise.

The pay was royal, extravagant for that time; twenty-five guineas a sheet was not unusual. The views were novel and daring, the style firm and confident. Matters were not minced. Jeffrey "went" for the "Lake school" and many other schools and beliefs. The excitement was tremendous. Read English Bards and Scottish Reviewers and you get some idea, though from an enemy, of the strength of the Edinburgh in its youth; better still, take up Macaulay’s Essays (after all, the only piece of the early Review that remains current literature), and think of it as fresh and new, and then you know what that generation was. The publisher was Archibald Constable, surely a prince among publishers, though his end was unfortunate. He was by some named "the crafty," "and he had a notable horn in his forehead with which he ruled the nations." Thus the Chaldee Manuscript. And we are reminded that the Review was not allowed to have everything its own way. When the Whigs came into power at last a chosen band was found ready to assault them in turn, and in Blackwood’s Magazine, of which the first number appeared in October 1817, they found a new organ. The chief of these were Wilson and Lockhart and Hogg. In that same Manuscript they are very admirably hit off. Wilson is the beautiful leopard from the valley of the palm trees; Lockhart was the scorpion which delighted to sting the faces of men; Hogg was the great wild boar from the forest of Lebanon whetting his dreadful tusks for the battle. The first number sealed that Blackwood’s was to be one of the forces of the day, and it did so through this same Chaldee Manuscript, which was simply a brilliant skit on contemporary Edinburgh. You see that Edinburgh was still a world of its own, and a world to which the English-speaking race listened, with dissent and scorn and anger it may be, yet they listened. The Review was Whig and the Magazine Tory; the Review had attacked the Tory poets, the Magazine stuck up for them. In splendid daring, or confident audacity and plain speaking and conceit of themselves, it were hard to say which bore the palm. Of course they were often wrong. Blackwood, in its attacks on the Cockney school, said things about Keats and Shelley that read now like blasphemies, but I cannot trace the various points in their history. London has annexed the Edinburgh just as it did the other day the Encyclopcedia Britannica. Of old Encyclopadias were such a feature of Edinburgh that they might be called the literary staple of the place, and Blackwood is more of the Empire than the Town. The North British Review (1854-1871), notwithstanding its singular ability, I can but mention.

A brilliant attempt was made to revive the critical glories of Edinburgh in the Scot’s Observer, a weekly which by its daring, its learning and its wit deserved a success which modem Edinburgh could not give. The Review and the Magazine leapt into fame at once, but a periodical cannot do that nowadays, and the Edinburgh folk who started it had to go south for their editor. In the late W. E. Henley they found a heaven-born one, but were it fate or too hard conditions the Observer never took the place it so well deserved, and the band of Edinburgh writers, even the smaller fry, have completely disappeared. Dr John Brown not quite unworthily closed the list. Rab and his Friends is his masterpiece, and everybody knows that slight story with what Mr J. N. Millar has well called its "excruciating pathos." It is a gem but not flawless. The subject was difficult and the treatment is perilously near "Kailyard." It was saved by the touch of real genius in its amiable author. When Brown died he had no successor. It is now the night without a star, yet Edinburgh might be supposed to offer every attraction to a man of letters, but the wind bloweth where it listeth, and in that airt it does not to-day even whisper.

Return to Edinburgh and The Lothians index page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus