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Breaking with the Past

James Buchan is the author of a large body of journalism, several sparely written and haunting novels, and one of the best works of nonfiction of the 1990s, his brilliant essay on the meaning of money entitled Frozen Desire. His writing ranges widely: his fiction is as likely to be set in Tabriz and Tehran as in London or New York, and the trenchant arguments of Frozen Desire are backed by footnotes in a dazzling array of languages, examples from four continents, and acknowledgments to Marxist intellectuals and members of the British and Florentine aristocracy. Buchan is of Scots ancestry, the grandson of John Buchan, famous in the United States for his thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, but known in Britain as a brilliant and prolific author of history and fiction who also enjoyed a highly successful political career on three continents. Buchan follows in a family and national tradition that is both resolutely Scots and ecumenically cosmopolitan.

This makes Buchan eminently qualified to write a history of Edinburgh in the eighteenth century, for the city was full of polymaths like himself. As a correspondent in The Scots Magazine smugly remarked in 1763, Edinburgh, a capital city which was far from being a metropolis, was “crouded with men of genius in every art and science.” Its greatest ornaments were David Hume, philosopher, essayist, and historian, and Adam Smith, author not only of the foundational work of modern economics, The Wealth of Nations, but of the highly influential Theory of Moral Sentiments. They were not alone. The city sustained a large community of professors, lawyers, clergymen, and doctors whose interests extended far beyond the university, the law courts, the Scottish Church, and the city’s hospitals. They included lawyers and judges like James Boswell, the author of the first great secular biography in the English language, Lord Kames, essayist, philosopher, and social theorist, Lord Monboddo, a classical scholar who wrote controversially on the history of language, and Henry Mackenzie, novelist and essayist, author of the best-selling The Man of Feeling.

Clerics such as John Home, Hugh Blair, and William Robertson wrote plays, literary criticism, and history; professors turned from their lectures in philosophy and doctors from their patients to publish poetry and elegantly turned contributions to Edinburgh’s newspapers and magazines. The sciences also had their polymaths. James Hutton, physician and agricultural improver, laid the foundations of modern geology in his Theory of the Earth. Joseph Black, though he taught and practiced medicine for much of his life, was a brilliant chemist whose pioneering work helped James Watt develop his steam engine and industrialists manufacture dyes, bleaches, and alkalis. Together these remarkable men shaped what Buchan calls “the broad stream of a humane Scots intellect” and what scholars have come to call the Scottish Enlightenment.

It is hard to think of a comparable example of such intellectual riches except perhaps in the fin-de-siècle Vienna of Schnitzler and Freud. For once it seems that the hyperbole liked by book-jacket writers, with their talk of “the first,” “the greatest,” “the original,” “the most remarkable,” is not entirely out of place. But Buchan is too shrewd to take the easy—and lazy—way out by writing a panegyric; instead he wants to excavate the foundations of Edinburgh’s “moment of the mind,” uncover its origins, and reveal its character. One senses his affection for the city but also his troubled sense that its move into modernity, brought about by the very philosophers and critics who have shaped our idea of what it is to be modern, was not without its losses.

As Buchan makes clear in his opening chapters, it was far from obvious that Edinburgh, a city with “a single long street and fewer than forty thousand inhabitants” and a history of religious bigotry and sectarian violence, would come to rival Paris as a center of Enlightenment thought. His account of the early-eighteenth-century city is as bleak as the east wind that still blows down its streets. Buchan’s Old Edinburgh, “Auld Reekie,” is a town of drunkenness, dowdy fashions, musty, dank tenements, and ramshackle public buildings, frozen in a cold moral climate spread by the chilling sermons of Presbyterian ministers whose only pleasure was preaching “the terrors” of the Lord. Economically hamstrung after the Union with England of 1707, which had deprived it of the Scots parliament and depleted its already faltering trade, the city thrived on local litigiousness fueled by religious controversy (lawyers, then as now, lay at the heart of Edinburgh society), and seethed with political hostility to the ruling power in London.

As Buchan points out, the two great obstacles to Edinburgh’s prosperity and cultivation were the contradictory forces of a radically puritanical Presbyterian Church (“the Kirk”) and the hankering for freedom from London, which took the form of a usually lukewarm and occasionally ardent Jacobitism—support for the Stuart Pretenders’ claims to the Scottish (and British) crown. As he puts it,

Edinburgh could prosper only with the political defeat of the Jacobites and the religious defeat of the Whigs [who were identified with the Presbyterian Church]. Only when Edinburgh had abandoned both its theocratic fantasies and its yearnings for a romantic independence could it at last enter the eighteenth century.

The fate of young Thomas Aikenhead, university student and son of a surgeon-apothecary, shows how far the city had to go. In 1696 he was charged with blasphemy for poking fun at the Bible and saying that Christianity would be extinct by the year 1800. Though his alleged blasphemy seems more like a case of sophomoric bravura than considered belief, and though Aikenhead groveled to the authorities, expressing contrition and his faith in the Trinity, the jury found him guilty and the court condemned him to death. In January 1697 he was hanged and his body buried at the foot of the scaffold. This sensational case was the most egregious example of the Kirk and its followers policing the conduct of everyday life. As one minister warned, “A Life spent in innocent Diversions is in itself sinful…. By doing no Good you do evil.” No wonder that, in Buchan’s words, visitors to the city “were crushed by the gloom of the Edinburgh Sunday.”

The Kirk slowly shifted its priorities from a rebarbative puritanism concerned to extirpate sin to a moderate, mild theology that recognized man’s capacity for goodness and benevolence. The Patronage Act passed in 1712 by the Westminster Parliament removed the right to appoint ministers from the militant congregations and placed it in the hands of the moderate lairds and the Crown. By 1750, and despite concessions to the traditionalists, many parishes were served by a new generation of ministers, so-called “Neu-Lights” like Francis Hutcheson and Robert Wallace, who aimed, in the words of one of their supporters, “to make the learned, the rich, and the fashionable part of the community pious and devout without foregoing the pursuits of elegance and eloquence.” Neu-lights were also strongly committed to the regime in London whose policies had helped ease them into power.

But in the 1750s the traditionalists, the so-called “High Flyers,” led by John Witherspoon, future president of Princeton, launched a full-scale counterattack on the moderate wing of the clergy. It had always been their contention that abandoning the strict tenets of Calvinism led clergy, no matter how well intentioned, down a slippery slope that ended in atheism and moral depravity. Accordingly, their targets were David Hume, notorious for his attacks on revealed religion, and John Home, who, though a minister, had the temerity to write a highly successful tragedy for the Edinburgh stage. In one of his book’s best set pieces Buchan vividly describes the attempt to excommunicate Hume and censor Home in the Assembly of the Kirk and the defense mounted by their supporters. Though the High Flyers succeeded in briefly upsetting Hume’s stoical equanimity and drove Home to London (where he became the tutor of the future George III), they did not achieve their goals. The moderates were now not only moderate but mainstream.

The High Flyers won some skirmishes but lost the war. The same could be said of the Jacobites. Buchan’s account of Jacobite successes during the 1745 rebellion is colored by a strong sense of foreboding. His descriptions of the capture of Edinburgh, the wild scenes of support for the Pretender’s son, Bonny Prince Charlie, and the victory over the Redcoats at Prestonpans are haunted by the sense that the rebellion was doomed. This, Buchan implies, is not just a case of hindsight. Once English blood had been shed, the Jacobites knew there would be retribution, though even they probably did not anticipate the wholesale assault on Scottish clan culture launched by the English after the Duke of Cumberland’s victory over the rebels at Culloden.

Buchan sees the effects of 1745 as twofold. On the one hand it led to “authoritarian church and town politics, frantic expressions of loyalty to the House of Hanover, attempts to reform Scottish pronunciation.” The philosophers, moderates, and literati decided that

the best way forward was to forget the past, shed any distinctive Scottishness, unlearn the Scots language, re-forge links with the Continent grown rusty with Jacobite intrigue, and reveal the innate superiority of Scotland by out-Englishing the English.

Or, as Buchan puts it later in his account, “The intention…was not to sacrifice Scottish national culture to southern politics but, by making it general, cosmopolitan, classical, businesslike, polite and loyal, to promote it.” But in turning their backs on the past the citizens of Edinburgh did not forget it. On the contrary, according to Buchan, “the Rebellion left a deep injury, which found its expression in romantic nostalgia and philosophical pessimism.”

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the credulous enthusiasm with which the Edinburgh literati greeted the discovery of the poems of Ossian, ancient Gaelic verses supposedly composed by a blind bard. A pastiche of a dozen Gaelic ballads and two Irish saga cycles stitched together by a well-educated but poor Highlander, James MacPherson, this “vulgar literary fraud,” as Buchan calls it, took Edinburgh by storm. Ossian portrayed an ancient military culture, populated by warriors of astonishing bravery and women of great beauty. The bard’s verses revealed a society which, for all its primitiveness and cruelty, was marked by generous sentiments and tender affections. The poet, his heroes and heroines all displayed what Hugh Blair, their chief apologist, described as “exquisite sensibility of heart.” In short, Ossian and his compatriots combined ancient, heroic virtues with a modern, compassionate sensibility. Like the new men of Edinburgh, they were sympathetic and uxorious.

Buchan writes brilliantly about Ossian’s appeal in the capital. After 1745, when the Highlands were purged of their native culture by the British, the Ossianic poems attempted “to repopulate those wild spaces with something other than disaffected Jacobites and Roman Catholics.” Ossian’s “pale phantoms of boundless chivalry and sensitivity…built a bridge between a brutal and starveling past and a respectable, citified present.” Ossian, he concludes, “permitted Scotland to mourn its lost independence through the medium of the supernatural, the sentimental and the unhistorical.”

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