William Strahan, the publisher, writing to Robertson the historian in 1759, told him that “‘A History of Scotland’ is no very enticing title;” and Dugald Stewart, commenting upon that expression, adds – “The influence of Scottish associations, so far as it is favourable to antiquity, is confined to Scotchmen alone, and furnishes no resources to the writer who aspires to a place among the English classics. Nay, such is the effect of that provincial situation to which Scotland is now reduced, that the transactions of former ages are apt to convey to ourselves exaggerated conceptions of barbarism from the uncouth and degraded dialect in which they are recorded. To adapt the history of such a country to the present standard of British taste, it was necessary for the author, not only to excite an interest for names which to the majority of his readers were formerly indifferent or unknown, but, what was still more difficult, to unite in his portraits the truth of nature with the softening of art, ‘conquering,’ as Livy expresses it, ‘the rudeness of antiquity by the art of writing.'”1 The elegant and profound philosopher concludes that it is necessary to “correct our common impressions concerning the ancient state of Scotland by translating not only the antiquated phraseology of our forefathers into a more modern idiom, but by translating (if I may use the expression) their antiquated fashions into the corresponding fashions of our own times.”
We cannot doubt that Dugald Stewart expressed the opinion of the literary world of his day. Perhaps he overlooked some of the causes which produced such a state of feeling. It was not merely the dreaded provincialism that was to be overcome – the nervousness which Scotchmen like Hume and Robertson felt in writing English. The educated Scot of the middle of last century had something harder to meet than gives for his misplaced shall and will, these and those. There was at that time a dislike amounting to hatred of Scotland and Scots (not indeed unreturned), which it would be easy to trace upwards through the most popular writers of England – through Johnson and Swift, to Lord Strafford and Clarendon, and back to the fierce ballads of the Edwardian wars. But just then the nation had scarcely recovered its temper, ruffled by the Scotch invasion, when the unpopularity of the Bute ministry re-kindled the feeling, which men like Wilkes and Churchill blew into flame; and perhaps the anti-Scotican rage was never fiercer than when the little band of Edinburgh writers claimed a hearing from English readers a hundred years ago.
Much of the chief difficulty – the winning the ear of an English audience to Scotch history – was overcome by Robertson himself. He was skilful in selecting his period. He was a great master of the dignified style of history; and edition after edition of his History of Scotland was sold,2 until England was saturated with that sweet flowing narrative of the most picturesque and tragical part of our national annals.
Hume and Adam Smith were fellow-soldiers in the enterprise, and many others, whose names would be higher, had they not lived among those giants; until it was no longer a reproach to a book to have Scotland for its subject or “Edinburgh” upon its title-page. Still, it was only the thinking people who were gained. The popular prejudice against Scotland – our condemnation in the world of fashion – lasted much longer. Scotchmen who are still writing, remember how carefully they used to guard against slips in their English – how it fettered their style and even their thoughts. Scotchmen not yet dead old, remember what pain it cost them to mix in English society for fear of the disgraceful detection. What young Scot on first going to public school or college in England forty years ago, had not to endure the suppressed laugh, the little jeer, for his Scotch Greek or his native Doric!
The change in feeling – in kindliness towards us, the rise of a certain enthusiasm for Scotland, had its commencement no doubt in the works of Walter Scott. His national poems first, and still more his prose pictures of Scotch life and manners, won the hearts of Englishmen; and those who remember the feeling of boyish shame of being detected as Scotch, must remember also the marvellous change which a few years of the spells of the great Magician wrought upon the people of both countries – upon the proud, self-confident Englishman, and the sensitive half-sulky Scot.
One other circumstance has tended more than may be at once seen, to turn the tide of English feeling. Along with the Scotch romances which have so imbued the present generation with a kindness for the country that gave them birth, came the rapidly growing taste for Scotch sport – for the adventurous, rough life of the Highland shooting and fishing lodge. Englishmen learnt to love the scene of their youthful sport, and English women could not but sympathize with the scene of that simple, Arcadian life which women of the higher classes can taste nowhere else. And so, from all these causes, I believe it has come to pass that books about Scotland, its history or its manners, even unimaginative serious books, are now read with patience by all but inveterate citizens of London.
It was in that belief that, twelve months ago I ventured, much doubting, to give to the public a volume about “Scotland in the Middle Ages.” A large impression of that book has now been sold; and I am not without hope that the present volume, which comes lower down, and tries to join modern thought and customs to the mediæval, may be as acceptable as its predecessor.
As in that previous volume, the substance of the present has been offered to a small portion of the public before, though not in its present shape. The matter of some of the chapters has been prefixed to works printed for the Bannatyne Club; that of others to Maitland Club and Spalding Club works. As I said with regard to my Lectures, they did not thereby achieve anything to be called publicity. The societies I have named, like the Roxburghe Club of England, undertake chiefly the printing of books which cannot be popular, but which it is desirable to preserve and make accessible to the student. As to numbers, the Bannatyne Club (now defunct) consisted of a hundred members; the Maitland has somewhat fewer; the Spalding Club, a Northern institution, is larger, and reaches about three hundred. Of the members who receive the Club works, perhaps a dozen of each of the first two – it may be twenty of the last – turn over the books, cut a few leaves (though that is rather avoided), and then the large quartos sleep undisturbed on the library shelf. Occasionally a local newspaper, of more than usual intelligence, has dug something out of those square repulsive volumes; but I may say confidently, that to the world at large, to the reading public, even to the class who read history, the present volume is entirely new matter.
I venture to think such a matter is worth knowing, and if the public is of the same opinion I am prepared to go to press with a similar one, embracing (1.) Some information on the old Scotch law of Marriage and Divorce; (2.) A sketch of the state of Society before and after the Reformation in Scotland; (3.) A chapter on old Scotch Topography and Statistics.
I have to express my obligation to the Marquis of Breadalbane, and to my lamented friend the late Earl of Cawdor, for allowing me to make public here the observations I had prefixed to collections of their family papers intended for a more limited circulation.*