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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

IV. Enlightenment

22. Scottish Literature, 1781

Texte intégral

1Henry Mackenzie (1745-1831) was a novelist and essayist and one of the leading members of the Edinburgh literati. In 1765 he was admitted Attorney in the Court of Exchequer in Scotland. In 1771, he published The Man of Feeling, a novel which enjoyed considerable success in its day. He was one of the founders of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783, which was established for the purpose of “promoting natural knowledge”.

2In the following letter addressed to William Carmichael, American ambassador to Spain, Mackenzie writes about the “improvement of Scottish literature”.

3Henry Mackenzie, Autograph Letters, Mackenzie to William Carmichael, 1781, National Library of Scotland, MS. 646, p. 3-4.

On the External of Edinburgh there is a wonderful change since you last saw it. The New Town built on the ground to the North side of the North Loch which we used to walk over under the name of Barefoots Parks, Mutrees Hill etc. is covered with regular and splendid buildings; the luxury of living increased in every department is in none so much augmented as in the article of houses. Where you remember our judges and people of the first rank lodged, now you would find shopkeepers and tradesmen.

  • 9 See introduction to text 19.
  • 10 See introduction to text 21.
  • 11 William Robertson (1721–1793) was a Scottish historian and Principal of the University of Edinburg (...)
  • 12 Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) was one of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a signi (...)
  • 13 Hugh Blair (1718–1800) was considered one of the first great theorists of written discourse. He he (...)
  • 14 See introduction to text 26.

I cannot just say so much for the improvement of our Scottish literature. The brilliant era seems rather to be past, tho’ the talent of writing as well as the idea of publication is now become infinitely more universal that it was 20 or 30 years ago. But we have lost D Hume9 and his namesake Kames10; Dr Robertson11 I rather incline to think has now dedicated the rest of his life to ease and will not write. Ferguson12 has given the world lately an important work, a History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic. Of this there are different opinions; but the most prevalent is rather not so high as the former character of the author would have led people to form. He has treated the subject rather in a narrative than in a reflective way and has been sparing of those general and philosophic views of the subject which is a great distinction between modern history, since the time of Montesquieu, and the ancient. His stile in this work is very different from that of his former, being studiously simple and unadorn’d even sometimes to a degree of coarse incorrectness, instead of the pompous rich and sometimes I think bombastic periods of his essay on the History of Civil Society. Dr Blair13 has at last published his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, which I think very good, both in point of criticism and taste, tho perhaps not so original and deep as the metaphysical enquiring turn of this age might have required. This book, however has not had a success equal to the expectations of the booksellers or nearly as great as his sermons had, which run thro’ 9 or 10 editions. Dr Smith14, whom I reckon the first of our writers, both in point of genius and information is now revising both his Theory of Moral Sentiments, and his Essay on the Wealth of Nations, in the new editions of both which (to be published in the spring) there will be considerable alteration and improvements. He has lying by him several essays, some finish’d but the greater part I believe not yet quite compleated, on subjects of Criticism and Belles Lettres which when he chuses to give them to the world will, I am confident, nowise derogate from his former reputation as an author. […]

An event in the literary history of Scotland is the late establishment of the Royal Society at Edinburgh which includes 2 branches a physical for subjects of Chymestry, natural history etc. and a literary for those of Criticism, Philology and Belles Lettres. It includes all the celebrated names of this country in both departments and several illustrious ones of other nations as non resident members of whom your great Franklin is one. The meetings hitherto except the last have only been for the purpose of adjusting the form and regulations of the Society. One or two essays have been read; the society means to give an annual vol. of such of those as are thought best fitted for publication. How they may succeed in this I know not; mean time it brings together the literary men of this country and gives something of an additional energy to the enquirys of the learn’d and ingenious.

Notes

9 See introduction to text 19.

10 See introduction to text 21.

11 William Robertson (1721–1793) was a Scottish historian and Principal of the University of Edinburgh.

12 Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) was one of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a significant member of the Scottish ‘common sense’ school of philosophy and is regarded as a forerunner of modern sociology.

13 Hugh Blair (1718–1800) was considered one of the first great theorists of written discourse. He held the Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh.

14 See introduction to text 26.

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