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Main page » Non-Fiction » A survey of Scottish literature in the 19th century (with some reference to the 18th) by James Main Dixon

A survey of Scottish literature in the 19th century (with some reference to the 18th) by James Main Dixon


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, owing to various causes, the Scottish capital might perhaps be termed the focus of literature in the British isles. The isolation of the Anglican Church in Europe, its antagonism on the one hand to Roman Catholicism, and, on the other hand, to non-episcopal reformed churches, had a chilling effect on literature. With all his greatness, Samuel Johnson was singularly contracted in his principles of judgment,and prejudiced in his outlook.


Moreover, the English universities were so situated as to be out of the main current of the nation, being at a distance from the capital,and located in suburban towns. The very fact that politics in English life exercised so complete a sway was deadening to literature, for excessive devotion to politics tends immediately to localism and provincialism.
But in the northern  capital, which, as the home of a separate national church assembly and organization and of a separate national law system had never ceased to continue the high literary traditions of the Scotland of the Stuarts, politics had ceased to be a main issue. 

The statesman, Viscount Melville, whose statue on a high pillar decorates one of the most elegant squares in the capital, and who gives his name to other important streets, was all powerful, and carried in his pocket the disposal of all political preferment.   


The thoughts of Scotchmen at this period did not run on politics in any local sense.
Aspiring young men were given a career by being drafted abroad to India and other dependencies of the Crown, whence they usually returned after middle age with fortunes, to spend the remainder of their lives at home. This element has had quite a bearing on Scotch social and literary life. Not to mention others, Laurence Oliphant, diplomatist and writer, and Arthur J. Balfour, statesman and author, come of this "nabob" strain.

There were, then, in the year 1809 four distinct elements in Scotch life, ready to influence thought, society, and literary production: 

    (1) The old aristocratic, Jacobite  stock, associated  with Catholic ideals. To it we owe the survival of ballad literature. The Baroness Nairne was an excellent type of the Jacobite lady, and Sir Walter Scott's sympathies lay wholly with this stock. It represented the hereditary principle in life, the fighting national spirit, and the racetype. 
    (2) The rationalizing clergy and legal fraternity, including university professors and government officials. They were keenly alive to French influences. Dr. William Robertson, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, Dr. Thomas Brown, and, generally, the founders in 1802 of The Edinhurgh Review belonged to this class. They prided themselves on their cosmopolitanism,and freedom from cant and prejudice.

    (3) The militant Evangelical clergy, of the Andrew Thomson type, including some sturdy seceders, like Thomas McCrie and John Jamieson.

    (4) The Highland Celtic population, which, until 1745, was virtually outside the pale of Edinburgh influence, and became specifically Protestant only in the latter half of the eighteenth century.



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Tags: literature, century, Scottish, Samuel, Johnson, survey, Dixon