Northern Lights

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Literature and Gentility in Scotland by David Daiches
    Edinburgh, 114 pp, £6.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 85224 438 X
  • New Perspectives on the Politics and Culture of Early Modern Scotland edited by John Dwyer, Roger Mason and Alexander Murdoch
    John Donald, 340 pp, £15.00, August 1982, ISBN 0 85976 066 9
  • Adam Smith by R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner
    Croom Helm, 231 pp, £12.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 7099 0729 X
  • Sister Peg edited by David Raynor
    Cambridge, 127 pp, £15.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 521 24299 1
  • Boswell: The Applause of the Jury 1782-1785 edited by Irma Lustig and Frederick Pottle
    Heinemann, 419 pp, £15.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 434 43945 2
  • Muir of Huntershill by Christina Bewley
    Oxford, 212 pp, £8.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 19 211768 8

The leading figures in all these books are well-known, and are located in a period of conspicuous intellectual activity in the Scotland of the mid and late 18th century. This was the time when the modern social sciences were created as areas of legitimate study, much of their content for the use of teenage university students. There was also a modest literary revival. The great men of the Scottish Enlightenment, if they wrote at all, for some of them suffered from the academic disease of inability to put pen to paper, wrote in distinguished prose. Boswell was a literary innovator and knew it. Professor Daiches, in his small book, links the poetry acceptable in this period with the rise of genteel expression and shows how, in the pursuit of a language capable of wider circulation than the old vernacular, much of the traditional Scottish poetic inheritance was pushed aside. English English came naturally to Boswell, less naturally but effectively in the sentences of Adam Smith and David Hume, but at the cost of the reservation of the Scottish tongue for casual, domestic or low-life use. Yet, as Daiches reminds us, with an exceptionally happy choice of quotations, the literary endeavours of the upper class were accompanied by a genuine achievement in the vernacular by Fergusson and Burns, even though the prosodic forms available were by then restricted.

The Scottish Enlightenment with its accompanying literary shadow, inevitably raises historical problems of causation. Is there a collection of social or institutional preconditions which may be shown to account for it? If there is, then serious research needs to be done on Scottish government and society in the early 18th century, for the understanding of both of these remains limited. We ought also to be looking critically at the intellectual sterility of the central decades of the 17th century, when such mental exploration as there was in Scotland seems to have been directed almost exclusively at the power politics of theocracy, except for a few eccentrics such as Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty. Theocratic failure and national defeat took place before the first signs of intellectual innovation. The most interesting 17th-century forerunner of the 18th-century efflorescence is Stair, whose Institutions captivate by their simple and lucid style: at the same time, by infusing system and theory into an inchoate and inadequate structure of law, they gave the new and growing class of professional lawyers something to chew on, a starting point in intellectual life. This lawyer group, mostly landholders of medium scale, became a key element in the Scottish Enlightenment, and since there does not seem to be at other times in history any special affiliation between lawyers and gentry, on the one hand, and exploratory thought, on the other, except perhaps in the court of Henry II of England, we need to look closely at the social setting. In a recent collection of essays, New Perspectives on the Politics and Culture of Early Modern Scotland, Hugh Ouston produces work on the institutional changes brought about during and immediately after James VII’s forced cool-off in Scotland in the early 1680s; others of the essays show a willingness to investigate aspects of Scottish society, both civil and ecclesiastical, before the Enlightenment. These voices have mostly not been heard before, and the book is at least one indication of approaches to answers to some of the problems. I suspect that there is still a lot to be done, and that other approaches, based on social structure rather than on the activities of a small élite, will also be fruitful.

How much of the intellectual stirrings can be attributed to sudden liberation? The mid-18th-century Scot had been freed from the risk of starvation, so that peasant culture could be more optimistic; he was freed from the need to accept dogma and the probability of hellfire, though of course this remained deeply disturbing to some. Boswell in particular frequently refers to hell as the means of ensuring morality, and the vagaries of his own behaviour suggest that in this he was doing more than simply mouthing convention. Hume could safely, or almost safely, mock religion, but Adam Smith, who had to earn his living for many years in an institution controlled by churchmen, was more circumspect in his scepticism, and prepared to comment to Hume (how seriously we do not know) on what he called ‘your wicked principles’. It was perfectly possible to be an adherent of Calvinist Christianity and yet to resist the claims of the Church to control public statements and education and limit access to the theatre. Scots were freed also from social and political disturbance, and could look back on the political and ecclesiastical excesses of the 17th century, and their consequent misery, with relief and superiority. It would be ridiculous to assert that these various freedoms, arriving, as they did, very suddenly, were sufficient causes of the Enlightenment, but they may have been necessary elements in the character of the specific Scottish dimension of what was, after all, a general movement of the whole Western world. This general movement had many and varied regional forms, and these have to be seen in the context of the past experience, as well as the current priorities, of the different regions.

As yet, mid-century, there were no serious claims from the lesser ranks of society to political or economic equality, though it is worthwhile to bear in mind that when ‘Sister Peg’ was published, 1761, to many the important event of the previous year in Scotland had not been the Parliamentary movement for a Scottish militia, but the showdown between the Scottish upper class and lesser folk, both in the great row over servants’ vails or tips, and over the strike for higher wages by agricultural workers in the central counties. Certainly the vails issue produced as many county meetings as did the militia, and they sound, from their declarations, much hotter. Another of the new voices, in this collection of essays, that of Richard Scher, is raised to point out that over-ambitious manipulation and political ruthlessness by the Moderates in 1762 produced a reaction uniting, for a while, the middling and lower orders of Edinburgh. Indeed occasionally in the 1760s there can be heard a note of plebeian resentment at the whole world of money, jobs and influence. But it took another generation for this to lead to a demand for political expression. Even when the 1790s movement for political reform got going it did not aim at economic or social equality. The claims for expression by lesser people, particularly by those in the dependent position of service, and of course all women, could usually be ignored by those in positions of independence or power. The society so eager to develop intellectually was a very narrow part of the whole.

The Scottish school of historians, of whom both Adam Smith and David Hume were conspicuous members, developed the idea that society adjusted to its economic base. The development of commerce, so conspicuously the contemporary explanation of what was happening, shifted power away from the landed aristocracy or from an oppressive monarchy, leading to the development of liberty for the individual under the law, and cash rather than service as the basis of transactions. At the same time the economic resources of the aristocracy encouraged the development of skilled manufacturing work, and hence prosperity for many sections of society. It all sounds fine provided you remember the severe limitations of what liberty under the law meant. There was an intrusive church discipline all over Scotland; those trained at sea, and some others too, were at risk in wartime to the press gang, and there was conscription of quotas of men for the army too. An important step in progressive liberalisation was the Union with England, which deflected the ambitions of the aristocracy to London and the court. It is true that the weakening of feudal relationships had laid Lowland Scotland open to invasion by ‘four or five thousand naked unarmed Highlanders’, as Adam Smith called them – freedom from political disturbance was only partial, and never to be complete. But even so, the joint military resources of Britain had been able in 1746 to restore peace. The historians of Scotland could at least set the scene for the Enlightenment, but they did not explain it. Part of it was certainly socially, rather than politically or economically, generated. We can see from Boswell’s diaries the stimulating effect of group life, and it is also shown in the restrained correspondence of Smith and Hume.

An element that is not easy to understand is the force of personal ambition. In Hume’s case, his writings had brought him material comfort, and he was prepared in later life to rest on that. But Smith, long after he had achieved financial security, by publication and by whatever arrangement he had reached over a pension with Charles Townshend, and by his office of Commissioner of Customs, was still working at the revision of The Wealth of Nations, even though ‘I am a slow, a very slow workman, who do and undo everything I write at least a dozen of times.’ For a slow worker, he touched with critical intelligence on a wide range of academic subjects. Boswell was conscious that he had a major contribution to make to literature, and successfully carried through on a large scale a wholly new concept of biography. Political and religious liberty, social stimulation and material comfort might have prevented men from creating these structures, but did not. In all these cases, it looks as if an aesthetic sense, a desire to leave a work properly shaped and finished, inspired action: but it will not explain the personal commitment. Given Adam Smith’s insistence that self-love was a more influential mechanism of social betterment than benevolence, and his scepticism about the probity of officials or the likelihood of a man working as hard for the public as he would for himself, the conscientiousness with which he did his work for the Customs service seems an anomaly. Another anomaly is the fact that the basis of the prosperity of Scotland in Smith’s day was largely attributable to two economic activities, the linen industry and the tobacco trade, promoted by the artificial regulations of that mercantile system which Smith had set himself to unpick.

The life of Smith by Campbell and Skinner investigates carefully what little can be known about a man who carefully arranged for the destruction of his own papers and who, throughout his life, preserved a deliberate policy of self-effacement. The cool tone of the life matches well the coolness of Smith’s own personality, as experienced by most of the outside world. It is clear, all the same, that he had strong affections: the two conspicuous objects of these were his mother and David Hume. It is also clear that he valued the social world around him, so that for a while he seriously thought of settling in London, even though his meetings with the Johnson circle were a conspicuous social failure. There seems some sort of discrepancy between his quality as lecturer and tutor and his response in other than pedagogical relationships, and whether this was because he remained a mother’s boy is obscure.

David Raynor’s edition of ‘Sister Peg’ seems unfortunate in the publishing features that have been attached to it. The pamphlet is a lively, though not particularly profound squib, arguing for the Scottish militia in the early days of George III’s reign. The text, as presented here, is not clearly separated from editorial material: there is a misleading table of ‘principal characters’ inserted after the title page and surely not dating from 1761, since it includes among other later descriptions ‘William Pitt, later Earl of Chatham’, and the cover of the book puts Hume down as author. Well, he may be, and David Raynor thinks he was, but Hume never claimed the work publicly. There is no hard evidence, and the soft evidence is very soft indeed. Traditionally, Adam Ferguson has been promoted as the likely author.

All that seems clear is that it was someone who admired Gilbert Elliot of Minto and was annoyed by Robert Dundas of Arniston, second Lord President. Quite a lot of Scottish writers on politics might fulfil these requirements. The militia was attractive to upper-class society because of the opportunities it gave for the exertion of patronage, to the intellectuals because it reaffirmed Scotland’s equality in the ‘compleated Union’, and when it eventually came into existence, desperately unpopular with the working sector of the population who had to supply the men (another instance of the selectivity of liberty in the 18th century). Enlightenment writers did not expect to find themselves serving in the ranks, and did not pay much attention to the views of those who might.

The Boswell volume is one more than most dependent on supplementation of the diary from the Life of Johnson. Yet partly by skilful editing, more by the harping of Boswell’s mind on particular themes, it has an artistic unity. Death is the dominant concern. Lord Kames is dying in the opening weeks, and full of sardonic comment to the end. Boswell’s wife is reminding him of her likely death by bouts of spitting blood, and Dr Johnson’s death and its anticipation fill the later part of the volume. One of the most moving scenes, the conversation with Dr Adams over prayer and the goodness of God, containing Johnson’s ‘passionate and loud’ statement, ‘Sent to hell and punished everlastingly’, embodies this theme. But there is also a fine collection of subsidiary items. Boswell’s own sexual transgressions, with the inevitable period of medication, are accompanied by the description of Johnson in a state of frenzied sexual anticipation, and a discussion of why married intercourse is chaste in a double bed but not otherwise. Another leading theme is the way in which, against all the advice he goes out to ask for, Boswell is clearly going to move to London. He can’t afford it, it will put stress on his family life and on his enthusiastic acceptance of the role of laird, it makes it likely that he will be away when his wife is seriously ill, in many ways he is a more significant figure in North than in South Britain, but he will go. Boswell had been powerfully drawn by London all his life. To be about to succumb to this pull, against all advice, marks him as unwise rather than selfish. By the standards created by the opportunities for selfishness available to his class and sex he was not particularly sinful in this. It is also clear that he was kind to many, and sympathetic, and that a large number of people liked his company. Johnson loved him, and others accepted his presence with pleasure, even Kames with only a few days left to live. Boswell’s strip-tease technique, by displaying his less attractive motives, never truly manages to represent that he was a kind, affectionate and popular man. Perhaps this volume does not hang together quite so well as Boswell Laird of Auchinleck. It has not the intolerable pressure of the old man’s terminal selfishness and terrors to bind it into one, but it remains one of the most readable and unified of the whole series.

With Muir of Huntershill we move into a different period and a changed political climate. Muir was picked on as fall guy by the political establishment in the scare over the radical movement of 1792-4. He was a young advocate out on a limb, for his family background was not landowning. He was overconfident, indiscreet, and for a lawyer surprisingly unaware of the current mechanisms of suppression. This life shows that even given the repressive climate of 1794 and the available powers, the sentence passed on him was probably outwith the power of the court. It takes Muir on his travels, and relates his escape from Australia, his delayed return to Europe, and his death. Christina Bewley has tracked him through French and Spanish archives, the Home Office Correspondence and the State papers of California, but has not fully done her homework on the Scottish scene.

In describing the county electoral system against which the radical agitated, she says: ‘In the counties the basis of the electoral system was that voters must hold land of the crown valued at 400 Scots pounds. The freeholders met annually to inspect the electoral roll, and would only add or delete a name if paid to do so. The right to vote depended not only on possession of property, but on direct tenure from the Crown.’ Each of these statements is some way off the full truth, and the second sentence wildly wrong. In one sense, this may not matter, for it may be that what she is representing is the popular radical view of the system: but any serious assessment of Muir should be clear about what he lost his career and probably his life in opposing. There is further inadequacy on the Corn Law of 1791 and the issue over the Test Act. Muir’s return from France in 1793 to stand trial was based on over-confidence, but probably, with his Girondin friendships, he would have been as much in danger in that year if he had stayed behind. When he got to France again in 1797 to join the society of British émigrés, it was the France of the Directory, safer if more corrupt than the world of rising Jacobinism.

The early radicalism for which Muir was martyr had severe limitations on its thinking. Like the feminists of the early 20th century, it concentrated on political rights and ignored social and economic inequality. Evidence of the depth of social assumptions is the whole treatment of Muir after his conviction. He and other seditious gentlemen were transported as cabin passengers, with special stores and accommodation, and lots of time for quarrelling. At Port Jackson, labelled ‘Botany Bay’ by the author, presumably to perpetuate the myth that convicts went to Botany Bay, he was allotted two convicts as servants and allowed to buy a farm and lead a life of relative leisure. The treatment of upper-class radicals was rather like that of dangerous revolutionaries by Tsarist Russia: send them far away to experience climatic difficulty, but leave them free to live in what comfort they can devise.

These books thus bring us to the end of a century in which, despite a great deal of probing thought and theorising, basic social assumptions were left untouched. Scepticism, atheism and radicalism did not mean critical thought applied to property and inheritance, gentility and male dominance. When some of these topics did come under fire in the 19th century, Scotland had lost her intellectual lead, and also, on the literary side, as Daiches shows, had lapsed into mawkish self-satisfaction. Is the awfulness of much of the Kailyard school due to the fact that radical thought had by then gone a long way, and to follow it was to head for discomfort, not only in matters of faith and mind, but, if equality was to be taken seriously, in practical life? How much cosier to affirm the existing social system and to find religious comfort in it.