Conclusion, pp.264-271.

[Reminiscences Contents]

N all these details regarding the changes which many now living have noticed to have taken place in our customs and habits of society in Scotland, this question must always occur to the thoughtful and serious mind, Are the changes which have been observed for good? Is the world a better world than that which we can remember? On some important points changes have been noticed in the upper classes of Scottish society, which unquestionably are improvements. For example, the greater attention paid to attendance upon public worship, – the disappearance of profane swearing and of excess in drinking. But then the painful questions arise, Are such beneficial changes general through the whole body of our countrymen? may not the vices and follies of one grade of society have found a refuge in those that are of a lower class? may not new faults have taken their place where older faults have been abandoned? Of this we are quite sure, no lover of his country can fail to entertain the anxious wish, that the change we noticed in regard to drinking and swearing were universal, and that we had some evidence of its being extended through all classes of society. We ought certainly to feel grateful when we reflect that in many instances which we have noticed, the ways and customs of society are much improved in common sense, in decency, in delicacy, and refinement. There are certain modes of life, certain expressions, eccentricity of conduct, coarseness of speech, books, and plays, which were in vogue amongst us, even fifty or sixty years ago, which would not be tolerated in society at the present time. We cannot illustrate this in a more satisfactory manner than by reference to the acknowledgment of a very interesting and charming old lady, who died so lately as 1823. In 1821, Mrs. Keith of Ravelstone, grand-aunt of Sir Walter Scott, thus writes, in returning to him the work of a female novelist which she had borrowed from him out of curiosity, and to remind her of “auld lang syne:” “Is it not a very odd thing that I, an old woman of eighty and upwards, sitting alone, feel myself ashamed to read a book which, sixty years ago, I have heard read aloud for the amusement of large circles, consisting of the first and most creditable society in London? There can be no doubt that at the time referred to by Mrs. Keith, Tristram Shandy,1 Tom Jones, Humphrey Clinker, etc., were on the drawing-room tables of ladies whose grandchildren or great-grandchildren never saw them, or would not acknowledge it if they had seen them. But authors not inferior to Sterne, Fielding, or Smollett, are now popular, and who can describe the scenes of human life with as much force and humour, and yet there is nothing in their pages which need offend the taste of the most refined, or shock the feelings of the most pure. This is a change where there is also great improvement. It indicates not merely a better moral perception in authors themselves, but it is itself a homage to the improved spirit of the age. We will hope that, with an improved exterior, there is improvement in society within. If the feelings shrink from what is coarse in expression, we may hope that vice has, in some sort, lost attraction. At any rate, from what we discern around us, we hope favourably for the general improvement of mankind, and of our own beloved country in particular. If Scotland, in parting with her rich and racy dialect, her odd and eccentric characters, is to lose something in quaint humour and good stories, we will hope she may grow and strengthen in better things – good as those are which she loses. However this may be, I feel quite assured that the examples which I have now given of Scottish expressions, Scottish modes and habits of life, and Scottish anecdotes, which belong in a great measure to the past, and yet which are remembered as having a place in the present century, must carry conviction that great changes have taken place in the Scottish social circle. There were some things belonging to our country which we must all have desired should be changed. There were others which we could only see changed with regret and sorrow. The hardy and simple habits of Scotsmen of many past generations, – their industry, economy, and integrity, which made them take so high a place in the estimation and the confidence of the people amongst whom they dwelt in all countries of the world. The intelligence and superior education of her mechanics and her peasantry, combined with a strict moral and religious demeanour, fully justified the praise of Burns when he described the humble, though sublime piety of the “Cottar’s Saturday Night,” and we can well appreciate the testimony which he bore to the hallowed power, and sacred influences of the devotional exercises of his boyhood’s home, when he penned the immortal words:- 

“From scenes like these old Scotia’s grandeur springs, 

That makes her loved at home, revered abroad.” 

These things, we hope and trust, under the Divine blessing, will never change, except to increase, and will never become a question of reminiscences for the past. If Scotland has lost much of the quaint and original character of former lawyers, lairds, and old ladies, much of the pungent wit and dry humour of sayings in her native dialect, she can afford to sustain the loss if she gain in refinement, and lose not the more solid qualities and more valuable characteristics by which she has been distinguished. If peculiarities of former days are partially becoming obsolete, let them at least be preserved. Let our younger contemporaries, let those who are to come, know something of them from history, as we elders have known something of them from experience. The humour and the point cannot all be lost in their being recorded, although they may lose much. I still hope to see this carried on farther by others, as I am convinced great additions could be made to these reminiscences, which I have endeavoured to preserve. Changes of this nature in the habits and language of a nation are extremely interesting, and it is most desirable that we should have them recorded as well as those greater changes and revolutions which it is the more immediate object of history to enrol amongst her annals. And, whether the changes of which we are now treating mark the deterioration or improvement of manners, useful lessons and important moral conclusions may be drawn from these narratives of the past. Causes are at work which must ere long produce still greater changes, and it is impossible to foresee what will be the future picture of Scottish life, as it will probably be now becoming every year less and less distinguished from the rest of the world. But if there shall be little to mark our national peculiarities in the time to come, we cannot be deprived of our reminiscences of the past. As a Scotchman I am proud of the prestige which belong to us as a nation. I am interested in everything which is Scottish. I consider it an honour to have been born a Scotchman; and one fair excuse I have to offer for entertaining a proud feeling on the subject, one proof I can adduce, that a Scottish lineage is considered a legitimate source of self-congratulation, and that is the fact that I never in my life knew an English or Irish family with Scottish relations, where the members did not refer with much complacency to such national connection. I cherish fondly all Scottish associations. I am grieved to see our nationality fading away. I confess to a strong feeling of regret and indignation when I see the indifference shown by the Government (whatever party be in power) towards the few memorials of that nationality that remain. Witness the condition of Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Chapel and Palace, etc., etc., and the indifference shown at head quarters regarding their preservation and restoration. But I have done. I seem to linger over these REMINISCENCES, which now belong to a past national and social history, with mingled feelings of regret and pleasure. I have, indeed, in collecting these materials, recalled many scenes which partake of that mixed character which belongs to all the concerns of human life. But they are at any rate Scottish materials, and as such they are our common property, and appeal to our common feelings. I should indeed be gratified could I venture to realize the hope so kindly entertained by my good friend Dr. Clason, that these idle desultory pages might in some degree be the means of uniting Scotchmen more closely in the family bond, by showing them a common ground of family interest. For myself, I think I may say, that so long as I have life and any mental energy remaining, I shall fondly dwell on Scottish names and Scottish associations that are past; and that, in looking onwards to future times, I cherish earnestly that wish for a virtuous populace which was once poured forth in the prayer of a “patriot bard”:- 

“O Scotia! my dear, my native soil! 

For whom my warmest wish to heaven is sent; 

Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil 

Be blest with health, and peace, and sweet content.” 

In such wishes let all unite in heart and tongue. In such feelings let our religious and political differences be forgotten. Let all the various names and forms of church government and church services merge for once into the love of country, so that every son and daughter of Caledonia shall cordially join in those beautiful words of the Scottish paraphrase, which have so often risen with acceptance from the lips of crowded congregations – whether assembled on the Sabbath day in the midst of populous cities, or in the retired pastoral districts of the country, or in the wild glens of the Highlands:- 

“O God of Bethel, by whose hand 

Thy people still are fed: 

Who through this weary pilgrimage 

Hast all our fathers led: 

– 

“Our vows, our prayers, we now present 

Before thy throne of grace: 

God of our fathers! be the God 

Of their succeeding race.” 

1  Sterne, in one of his letters, describes his reading Tristram Shandy to his wife and daughter – his daughter copying from his dictation, and Mrs. Sterne sitting by and listening whilst she worked. In the life of Sterne, it is recorded that he used to carry about in his pocket a volume of this same work, and read it aloud when he went into company. Admirable reading for the church dignitary, the prebendary of York! How well adapted to the hours of social intercourse with friends! How fitted for domestic seclusion with his family!

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