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

David Hume
Chapter I Early Life

David Hume was born in Edinburgh on the 26th of April 1711 (old style). The house of his birth is unknown, but his father records that he was born ' within the Tron Parish,' then in the midst of the city. His inheritance was a favoured one. He was a healthy child, of a happy family, the home being in a beautiful district of Berwickshire. He had the companionship of a brother and sister, was in the midst of home comforts, and he had around the house, with its park, its trees, and its banks sloping down to the Whitadder, all facilities a boy can have for the frolics of childhood, and for experiencing the stimulating influences of nature.

His father, Joseph Hume of Ninewells, which is near by Chirnside, was a member of the Faculty of Advocates, who, however, did not practise at the Bar, but led the life of a country gentleman, dwelling constantly in the midst of his family. David's mother was a daughter of Sir David Falconer of Newton, Lord President of the Court of

Session, 1682-1685. Both of David Hume's parents were thus in the midst of associations of the legal profession, and they had free access to the literary life of Edinburgh.

The Humes of Ninewells were a remote branch of the family of Lord Home of Dunglas. In Drummond's Histories of Noble British Families [Pickering, 1846, vol. ii., p. 27. t See also Chambers' Book of Days, April 26.] the Humes of Ninewells are placed along with the Dunbars and Dundases as belonging to the same stock as the Earls of Home. The name ' Hume' is variously written in the old records—Hwme, Huyme, Horn, and Home. Our philosopher stuck to ' Hume,' maintaining it to be the correct form.

In Drummond's work a drawing of Ninewells is given, which shows a house of three storeys and attic. The front door is entered by steps, with an iron hand-rail on both sides. The ground floor is sunk below the level of the front steps, but the slope of the bank towards the Whitadder is such that this storey must have appeared in the rear completely above ground. The old house is a substantial country structure, after the manner of lairds' houses common over the south of Scotland. The present house was built in 1838.

As soon as the family were ready, after the birth of David, for the long journey, they returned to their country mansion, bringing to their home the new arrival, a child of marked individuality, who was afterwards to make a stir in the world. Ninewells was the scene of David Hume's early training, and to this quiet country dwelling he returned again and again in subsequent life, finding its retirement favourable to the abstract thought and the historical studies in which he delighted.

A visit to Ninewells explains this attraction, for it presents a typical piece of quiet lowland scenery. It is reached by rail, on the branch line from Reston to Duns. Chirnside is about a mile from the station bearing its name. On approaching the village its houses are seen in two long lines stretching over the ridge of a steep hill, on the road to Ayton and Eyemouth. Those who dwell on the height have a splendid view across the Whitadder, over miles of country, closed in by ' Cheviot's mountains lone,' a famous portion of the Scottish borders. Before entering the village the road to Berwick-on-Tweed, which is only about nine miles distant, passes off to the right. Hume was accustomed to head his letters, 'Ninewells, near Berwick.' On the first bend along this road Ninewells comes into view. From the road there is an easy descent towards the plateau on which the new house stands. In passing round the present house it is seen that terraces have been formed overlooking the Whitadder. These are obviously accompaniments of the modern house, suggesting that in the surroundings familiar to David Hume a more gradual declivity led the boys to the Whitadder, a stream greatly esteemed by anglers in bygone times. 'Ninewells' has its name from a series of springs a little above the house, forming a burn which runs to the Whitadder. The only feature of the olden times is found in the offices, built to the west, constituting three sides of a square. The steps to the coachman's house are hollowed in the middle, and an old stone vase, set over the water trough, bears tokens of having come from the old mansion house. Around these offices David must often have shared in sport when fun ran high.

Few particulars as to the early life of David Hume are left on record. He early suffered by the loss of his father, who having died when he was still an infant, had not the opportunity of aiding in the mental development of his youngest child. The mother became the sole ruler of the family, and lived not only to train all her children, but to witness the literary success of her youngest boy. She was devoted to the welfare of her children. In My Own Life, written by David Hume when he was sixty-five years of age, he describes his mother as 'a woman of singular merit, who, though young and handsome, devoted herself entirely to the rearing and educating of her children.' That she gained a large influence over them is certain. We cannot determine what was the debt of obligation which David owed to his mother, but, without doubt, it was a heavy one. Before her death occurred he was in his thirty-eighth year and widely known in the literary world. When the announcement of her decease reached him in London, the Hon. Mr Boyle tells that when he entered Hume's room ' he found him in the deepest affliction and in a flood of tears.' These were the tokens of the sacred regard he cherished for her memory, and of his consciousness of the profound influence she had exerted over his life.

One record lingers, which, if it be trustworthy, gives us a glimpse into boyhood's years, and shows his mother's judgment of her younger son. ' Oor Davie is a fine, gude-natured crater, but uncommon wake-minded.' This is delightful; it hardly could be an invention. It is, however, perplexing to Huxley, as, indeed, it must be to those who are strangers to our vernacular. Hill Burton is hardly more successful, however, in supposing that it resulted from observation and his phlegmatic disposition {Life, I., 294.) How could his mother attribute weakness to a son who was 'an intellectual athlete?' This is Huxley's question. Let a Scotchman consider in what sense a Scotch mother would make such an admission. If Huxley had lived in her day, and said to her what he has written, what amusement, indignation, and then amazement would have swept through her mind as she heard his note of bewilderment. Imagine Davie's questioning and doubting when others had no doubt, and it will appear in no way unnatural that she should consider her boy 'fashed wi' a wake-ness.' It is undesignedly suggestive that this story seems to Burton appropriately introduced in relation with the mother's death when Hume is speaking of his religious opinions (vol. i., 294). Go back to his boyhood days. Imagine the childish chatter of her Benjamin, such as would never cross the lips of John or of his sister. In this, I fancy, we find the occasion for her remark on his 'misguided' queries. A mother's affectionate interest is here even when she notes the apparently senseless character of many of his questions. That John kept in the beaten track was to her no proof of intellectual force. But Davie had quite distinguishing marks. He was ' a rale gude-hearted crater;' this a mother could appreciate, and all friends of his later life recognised it; and yet he was but' uncommon wake-minded,' as witness his questions flying around a mother's ears, and needing some kind of answer, though hardly deserving any. Those child utterances, which seem weak when first heard, often testify to a direction of thought not common in child life. This distinction is aptly put by Rousseau, who says, 'Nothing is more difficult than to distinguish in infancy real stupidity from that apparent and deceptive stupidity which is the indication of strong characters' (Rousseau's Emile, Payne's Transl., p. 67). These utterances are seemingly too strong to be attributed to a child. Hume's mother marked the uncommon, and, not unnaturally, credited it to his 'wakeness.' She would have been startled, probably irritated, had she been told that she meant to suggest 'stupidity' as characteristic of her Davie, even when his talk showed a disregard of common sense. His was an uncommon weakness, associated with uncommon acuteness.

Hume's mother was a woman of penetration. How David appreciated her devotion we have seen, and his words tell us how much her children had recognised her ability, as well as her affection. Mr Burton gives us this description of her. ' Mrs Hume was evidently an accomplished woman, worthy of the sympathy and respect of her distinguished son, and could not have failed to see and to appreciate from its earliest dawnings the originality and power of his intellect. Her portrait, which I have seen, represents a thin but pleasing countenance, expressive of great intellectual acuteness' (Life of Hume, I., p. 294).

David Hume owed a large part of his education to his mother. Her power shines through his. During his school training he won no special distinction. His ability was not of the kind that shines in the routine of school work. His progress and his promise were, however, undoubted. He was sent too early to the University of Edinburgh to reap the full advantage of academic study. The disadvantage of this was great, but his was not a mind to be led by teachers, even in philosophy, however much he might have gained by academic discipline. Even at sixteen years of age * he gives evidence of a penetration and acuteness of thought which tell of the influence of philosophy in his early training—his mother's philosophy certainly, with as much of academic influence as he had received. This freely flowing letter is a precious bit of self-revelation. ' I am entirely confined to myself and library since we parted.

Ea sola voluntas Solamenque malt.

And indeed to me they are not a small one; for I take no more of them than I please; for I hate task-reading, and I diversify them at pleasure—sometimes a philosopher, sometimes a poet—which change is not unpleasant nor disserviceable neither. . . . The philosopher's wise man, and the poet's husbandman agree in peace of mind, in a liberty and independency on fortune, and contempt of riches, power, and glory. Everything is placid and quiet in both; nothing perturbed or disordered. . . . My peace of mind is not sufficiently confirmed by philosophy to withstand the blows of fortune. This greatness, elevation of soul is to be found only in study and contemplation—this can alone teach us to look down on human accidents. You must allow me to talk thus, like a philosopher; 'tis a subject I think much on, and could talk all day long of. But I know I must not trouble you. Wherefore I wisely practise my rules, which prescribe to check our appetite; and, for a mortification, shall descend from these superior regions to low and ordinary life; and so far as to tell you that John has bought a horse; he thinks it neither cheap nor dear. It cost six guineas.'

Return to Book 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