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Significant Scots
William Guthrie

GUTHRIE, WILLIAM, a political, historical, and miscellaneous writer, was born in Forfarshire, in the year 1708. His father was an episcopal minister at Brechin, and a cadet of a family which has for a long time possessed considerable influence in that part of the country. He studied at King’s college in Aberdeen, and having taken his degrees, had resolved to retire early from the activity and ambition of the world, to the humble pursuits of a Scottish parochial schoolmaster; from this retreat, however, he seems to have been early driven, by the consequences of some unpropitious affair of the heart, hinted at but not named by his biographers, which seems to have created, from its circumstances, so great a ferment among the respectable connexions of the schoolmaster, that he resolved to try his fortune in the mighty labyrinth of London. Other accounts mingle with this the circumstance of his having been an adherent of the house of Stuart, which is likely enough from his parentage, and of his consequently being disabled from holding any office under the Hanoverian government—a method of making his livelihood which his character informs us he would not have found disagreeable could he have followed it up; at all events, we find him in London, after the year 1730, working hard as a general literary man for his livelihood, and laying himself out as a doer of all work in the profession of letters. Previously to Dr Johnson’s connexion with the Gentleman’s Magazine, which commenced about the year 1738, Guthrie had been in the habit of collecting and arranging the parliamentary debates for that periodical, or rather of putting such words into the mouths of certain statesmen, as he thought they might or should have made use of, clothing the names of the senators in allegorical terms; a system to which a dread of the power of parliament, and the uncertainty of the privilege of being present at debates, prompted the press at that time to have recourse. When Johnson had been regularly employed as a writer in the magazine, the reports, after receiving such embellishments as Guthrie could bestow on them, were sent to him by Cave, to receive the final touch of oratorical colouring; and sometimes afterwards the labour was performed by Johnson alone, considerably, it may be presumed, to the fame and appreciation of the honourable orators. Guthrie soon after this period had managed to let it be known to government, that he was a person who could write well, and that it might depend on circumstances whether he should use his pen as the medium of attack or of defence. The matter was placed on its proper footing, and Mr Guthrie received from the Pelham administration a pension of 200 a-year. He was a man who knew better how to maintain his ground than the ministry did, and he managed with his pension to survive its fall. Nearly twenty years afterwards, we find him making laudable efforts for the continuance of his allowance by the then administration:—the following letter addressed to a minister, one of the coolest specimens of literary commerce on record, we cannot avoid quoting.

June 3d, 1762.

"My LORD,—In the year 1745-6, Mr Pelham, then first lord of the treasury, acquainted me, that it was his majesty’s pleasure I should receive till better provided for, which never has happened, 200 pounds a-year, to be paid by him and his successors in the treasury. I was satisfied with the august name made use of, and the appointment has been regularly and quarterly paid me ever since. I have been equally punctual in doing the government all the services that fell within my abilities or sphere of life, especially in those critical situations which call for unanimity in the service of the crown. Your lordship will possibly now suspect that I am an author by profession—you are not deceived; and you will be less so, if you believe that I am disposed to serve his majesty under your lordship’s future patronage and protection, with greater zeal, if possible, than ever.

I have the honour to be, my lord, &c.,


This application, as appears from its date, had been addressed to a member of the Bute administration, and within a year after it was written, the author must have had to undergo the task of renewing his appeal, and changing his political principles. The path he had chosen out was one of danger and difficulty; but we have the satisfaction of knowing, that the reward of his submission to the powers that were, and of his contempt for common political prejudices, was duly continued to the day of his death.

The achievements of Guthrie in the literary world, it is not easy distinctly or satisfactorily to trace. The works which bear his name, would rank him as, perhaps, the most miscellaneous and extensive author in the world, but he is generally believed to have been as regardless of the preservation of his literary fame, as of his political constancy, and to have shielded the productions of authors less known to the world, under the sanction of his name. About the year 1763, he published "a complete History of the English Peerage, from the best authorities, illustrated with elegant copperplates of the arms of the nobility, &c." The noble personages, whose ancestors appeared in this work as the embodied models of all human perfection, were invited to correct and revise the portions in which they felt interested before they were committed to the press; nevertheless the work is full of mistakes, and has all the appearance of having been touched by a hasty though somewhat vigorous hand. Thus, the battle of Dettingen, as connected with the history of the duke of Cumberland, is mentioned as having taken place in June, 1744, while, in the account of the duke of Marlborough, the period retrogrades to 1742—both being exactly the same distance of time from the true era of the battle, which was 1743. Very nearly in the same neighbourhood, George the II. achieves the feat of leaving Hanover on the 16th of June, and reaching Aschaffenberg on the 10th of the same month; in a similar manner the house of peers is found addressing his majesty on the subject of the battle of Culloden on the 29th of August, 1746, just after the prorogation of parliament. To this work Mr Guthrie procured the assistance of Mr Ralph Bigland. Guthrie afterwards wrote a History of England in three large folios; it commences with the Conquest, and terminates, rather earlier than it would appear the author had at first intended, at the end of the Republic. This work has the merit of being

the earliest British history which placed reliance on the fund of authentic information, to be found in the records of parliament. But the genius of Guthrie was not to be chained to the history of the events of one island; at divers times about the years 1764-5, appeared portions of "A General History of the World, from the creation to the present time, by William Guthrie, esq., John Gray, esq., and others, eminent in this branch of literature," in twelve volumes. "No authors," says the Critical Review, "ever pursued an original plan with fewer deviations than the writers of this work. They connect history in such a manner, that Europe seems one republic, though under different heads and constitutions." Guthrie was then a principal writer in that leading periodical, in which his works received much praise, because, to save trouble, and as being best acquainted with the subject, the author of the books took on himself the duties of critic, and was consequently well satisfied with the performance. In 1767, Mr Guthrie published in parts a History of Scotland, in ten volumes, octavo. It commences with "the earliest period," and introduces us to an ample acquaintance with Dornadilla, Durst, Corbred, and the numerous other long-lived monarchs, whose names Father Innes had, some time previously, consigned to the regions of fable. Of several of these persons he presents us with very respectable portraits, which prove their taste in dress, and knowledge of theatrical effect, to have been by no means contemptible. In this work the author adheres with pertinacity to many opinions which prior authors of celebrity considered they had exploded; like Goodall, he seems anxious to take vengeance on those who showed the ancient Scots to have come from Ireland, by proving the Irish to have come from Scotland, and a similar spirit seems to have actuated him in maintaining the regiam magestatem of Scotland, to have been the original of the regiam potestatem of Glanvil—Nicholson and others having discovered that the Scottish code was borrowed from the English. With all its imperfections, this book constituted the best complete history of Scotland published during the last century, and it is not without regret that we are compelled to admit its superiority to any equally lengthy, detailed, and comprehensive history of Scotland which has yet appeared. The views of policy are frequently profound and accurate, and the knowledge of the contemporaneous history of other nations frequently exhibited, shows that attention and consideration might have enabled the author to have produced a standard historical work; towards its general merits Pinkerton has addressed the following growl of qualified praise:—"Guthrie’s History of Scotland, is the best of the modern, but it is a mere money-job, hasty and inaccurate." It would be a useless and tedious task to particularize the numerous works of this justly styled "miscellaneous writer." One of the works, however, which bear his name, has received the unqualified approbation of the world. "Guthrie’s Historical and Geographical Grammar" is known to every one, from the school-boy to the philosopher, as a useful and well digested manual of information. This work had reached its twenty-first edition before the year 1810; it was translated into French in 1801, by Messieurs Noel and Soules, and the translation was re-edited for the fourth time in a very splendid manner in 1807. The astronomical information was supplied by James Gregory, and rumour bestows on Knox, the bookseller, the reputation of having written the remaining part under the guarantee of a name of literary authority. Besides the works already enumerated, Guthrie translated Quintilian, Cicero De Ofiiciis, and Cicero’s Epistles to Atticus—he likewise wrote, "The Friends, a sentimental history," in two volumes, and "Remarks on English Tragedy." This singular individual terminated his laborious life in March, 1770. The following tribute to his varied qualifications is to be found on his tombstone in Mary-le-bone, - ‘Near this place lies interred the body of William Guthrie, esq., who died, 9th March, 1770, aged sixty-two, representative of the ancient family of Guthrie of Halkerton, in the county of Angus, North Britain; eminent for knowledge in all branches of literature, and of the British constitution, which his many works, historical, geographical, classical, critical, and political, do testify; to whom this monument was erected, by order of his brother, Henry Guthrie, esq., in the year 1777."

Guthrie was one of those individuals who live by making themselves useful to others, and his talents and habits dictated the most profitable occupation for his time to be composition: he seems to have exulted in the self-imposed term of "an author by profession;" and we find him three years before his death complacently styling himself, in a letter to the earl of Buchan, "the oldest author by profession in Britain:" like many who have maintained a purer fame, and filled a higher station, his political principles were guided by emolument, which, in his instance, seems to have assumed the aspect of pecuniary necessity. Had not his engagements with the booksellers prompted him to aim at uniting the various qualities of a Hume, a Robertson, a Johnson, a Camden, and a Cowley, attention to one particular branch of his studies might have made his name illustrious. Johnson considered him a person of sufficient eminence to regret that his life had not been written, and uttered to Boswell the following sententious opinion of his merits: - "Sir, he is a man of parts. He has no regular fund of knowledge, but by reading so long, and writing so long, he no doubt has picked up a good deal." Boswell elsewhere states in a note – "How much poetry he wrote, I know not, but he informed me, that he was the author of the beautiful little piece, ‘the Eagle and Robin Red-breast,’ in the collection of poems entitled ‘The Union,’ though it is there said to be written by Archibald Scott, before the year 1600."

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