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1800: Scottish Literature’s Grand Tour

Tom Hubbard, University of Edinburgh

The décor of the opening scene showed a wild and lonely loch in the Highlands of Scotland, upon whose waters, the Lady of the Lake, faithful to her name, was seen gliding gracefully along, upright beside the helm of a small boat. This set was a masterpiece of the art of stage-design. The mind turned instantly towards Scotland, and waited expectantly for the magic of some Ossianic adventure.

That was the great 19th century French novelist Stendhal (1783*–1842), enraptured by a performance at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, in 1819. He was covering the première of Rossini’s opera La Donna del Lago, based on Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake.

By the beginning of the century, Scotland – culturally speaking – had been taking mainland Europe by storm, and the process was continuing. The year 1800 is a point of both arrival and departure.

The 18th century philosophers and historians of the Scottish Enlightenment, with David Hume and Adam Smith as the foremost figures, were widely translated and respected overseas – even in perhaps unexpected corners. For example, Smith’s The Wealth of Nations appeared in a Portuguese translation of 1811–1812. It is often remarked that the date of the original’s first edition (1776) is that of the American Declaration of Independence: Smith provided the intellectual weight behind the economics of the ‘free’market. However, Smith had a dry Scots wit that somewhat counterpoints America’s self–appointed status as the best of all possible worlds: "The late resolution of the Quakers in Pennsylvania to set at liberty all their Negro slaves may satisfy us that their number cannot be very great."

France and Germany, in particular, responded to the intellectual rigour of the Scottish Enlightenment. However, there existed also a very different overseas interest in Scottish culture. One might well have said, in 1800, that Europe ain’t seen nothing yet; it had actually seen quite a lot, but the scale of Scotland’s impact on the mainland was to become nothing less than phenomenal during the early decades of the 19th century. Europe, and for that matter America, had received the works of these sober, neoclassical savants of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but overseas readers were also delighting in Scottish products that were anything but sober and neoclassical.

The scene is Strassburg – currently rendered as Strasbourg, now the locus of pan-European deliberations which are not generally noted for their intellectual elegance. In the late 18th century it was a German city, and it was there, during the winter of 1770–71, that the friendship grew between Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried von Herder.

Herder (1744–1803) believed in the uniqueness of each country’s literature, having regard to its very particular social, cultural and economic contexts. He saw European literature, by the late 18th century, as afflicted by stuffiness, artificiality, abstraction; he questioned the inhibiting effect of bland neoclassical models that had been assumed to possess universal primacy. He proposed that Europe could learn from its relatively uncultivated margins, such as Scotland. The German love of Scottish folk song and ballad was reinforced by Herder; it had already been nurtured by the vogue for Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Herder translated Burns; his version of ‘John Anderson, My Jo’ goes by the rather boring title of ‘Die goldne Hochzeit’. Burns’s impact on continental Europe cannot be underestimated, and one certainly can’t do it justice in a short general paper like this one. It should, however, prompt us to consider how far this interest extended to the anonymous folk material from which Burns derives. Herder also translated Scottish ballads such as ‘Edward’; later, at Heidelberg, in1813, there appeared a slim volume called Drei altschottische Lieder compiled by Wilhelm of the brothers Grimm: the three ‘Lieder’ in question are actually ballads, printed in Grimm’s German versions, facing the original texts. Beethoven and Haydn, no less, produced settings of Burns and Scottish folk songs.

For his part, Goethe encouraged Herder’s interest in the work of James Macpherson, the translator (so claimed) of the ancient Gaelic ballads supposedly composed by the 3rd century bard Ossian. Macpherson’s first cycle of Ossianic poems had appeared as far back as 1760. Goethe’s German versions of Ossian’s ‘Songs of Selma’ occupy several pages of his The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which became the cult novel of the day. Throughout Europe and as far as Russia, Macpherson’s Ossian was all the rage – it created the overseas image of Scotland as a wild, heroic, romantic place uncorrupted by 18th century over-sophistication. These ancient Gaelic warriors were as magnanimous in battle as they were bold: no macho swaggerers, but noble savages.

Ossian/Macpherson hardly appeals to present-day tastes. There are genuinely eloquent passages addressed to the sun and the moon; our decades of space exploration can hardly obliterate that sense of our transitoriness which poetry evokes when it sets our comings and goings against those of the planets. However, much if not most of Ossian is bombastic, even turgid; often both. We could be forgiven for wincing when we hear that Napoleon carried a copy of Ossian with him on his campaigns; at the end of the twentieth century we know too much about the alliance of romanticism and authoritarianism. Still, we can’t blame Ossian for every excess of Ossianism, and there is something gently resonant in those laments of aged patriarchs whose offspring have perished on the battlefield. It’s well summed up, in effect, by the writer who observed that whereas in peacetime the sons bury the fathers, in wartime the fathers bury the sons.

Burns, Macpherson: primitive, unspoiled Scotland for a continental audience. The third big name here is Sir Walter Scott, who would continue to feed this new European sensibility and in the process create Scotland’s tourist industry.

In a real sense, Scott was repaying a debt to mainland Europe. Re-enter Goethe. In 1799 Scott translated Goethe’s play Götz von Berlichingen, the tale of a chivalrous mediaeval German knight. This was the point of departure for Scott’s own series of narrative poems, historical novels and mediaeval pastiche-romances. Three years earlier, right at the start of his literary career, Scott had made his own versions of German ballads, which (to go farther back) had taken their cue from the border ballads of England and Scotland – thanks, again, to the impact of Percy’s collection. It all amounts to a vigorous to-ing and fro-ing of cultural traffic between Scotland and Germany – a true dialogue, and a sustained one at that.

But we’re not just talking about German reception. Without the example of Scott, the historical novels of Balzac, Dumas and even Tolstoy would not have been written in the same way, if at all. Pushkin, arguably the father of Russian literature, revered Scott – and, by the way, made a Russian version of the ballad ‘The Twa Corbies’, based on a French translation of that poem as included in Scott’s annotated anthology The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Scott’s influence on music, especially opera, was noted at the beginning; much more celebrated than Rossini’s La Donna del Lago is Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). That great French Romantic, Berlioz, confessed in his memoirs that as a boy his head "was full of Walter Scott"; his Rob Roy overture rivals Bruch’s Scottish Fantasia in its deployment of the tune ‘Scots wha hae’.

At the Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation (acronym: BOSLIT), we count Byron as a Scottish author. He grew up in Aberdeen, and it was there that he absorbed the Calvinistic theology and the folk culture of Scotland – specifically the folk culture of the North-east. In Don Juan he declared that he was "half a Scot by birth, and bred/ A whole one"; elsewhere he renounces the "smooth-flowing fountains" of the English south in favour of "the valley of dark Loch na Garr." Like Scott, Byron favoured the long narrative poem. In the likes of Childe Harold and Manfred we have doomed heroes, wandering across the Alps and along the Mediterranean, nursing a Calvinistic sense of guilt and damnation. Via Pushkin in Eugene Onegin and Lermontov in A Hero of Our Time, the Byronic hero (anti-hero?) influences the Russian literary archetype of the Superfluous Man, that oversensitive and often languid soul who doesn’t fit in anywhere.

The long narrative poem, then, is favoured by three of our poets around this time – Burns (in Tam O’Shanter), Scott, and Byron. How different from Scottish poetry in more recent times, except in such deplorably neglected talents as Rayne MacKinnon (b. 1937) (The Blasting of Billy P., 1978).

Lastly and importantly, there is the behind-the-scenes contribution of Gaelic poets and women poets. Those mandarins who dictate the Scottish ‘canon’ usually get it wrong; our cultural establishment, historically, has consistently exalted fashionable mediocrity above solid worth. Anthologies purporting to represent Scottish poetry can somehow exclude the likes of George Bruce and Tom Scott in favour of their editors’ current sidekicks. There’s nothing new about this. Macpherson’s effusions were accepted by an 18th century Edinburgh literati complacently insouciant towards genuine Gaelic work such as that of the Duncan Ban MacIntyre (1724–1812). This man lived and worked in their city, as a member of the City Guard! Not quite the type to be invited to a salon, but one would have thought that his magnificent poem, ‘The Praise of Ben Dorain’ (1768), in its detailed evocations of the landscape, might have appealed to the emerging (pre–)Romantic sensibility. So far I’ve found no German translations of his work. No wonder: the lowland Scottish intelligentsia were not interested in mediating authentic Gaelic poetry to the Germans. (It remains curious, however, that the Germans – so markedly interested in philology – managed for so long to bypass the Gaelic tradition).

Of course, they could be subversive, even treasonable fellows, these Gaels. Around 1800, we’re in the thick of the Highland Clearances. In a poem dated somewhere between 1798 and 1800, Allan MacDougall addresses a ‘Song to the Lowland Shepherds’, who had come up from the south as the Highland crofters were being evicted. The tone is: we have no food, clothes, shelter, but we’re surrounded by sheep and these bloody Lowlanders. MacDougall doesn’t share Walter Scott’s fear of the French revolutionaries. No, rather "We would love the French to come/ to guillotine the Lowlanders". As good post-devolutionary, post-millenopausal Scots, we might be forgiven a little frisson there, some relief from our seemingly terminal political correctness. Even if we are ourselves Lowlanders.

Circa 1800, the Honourable Henry Erskine wrote a poem called The Emigrant:

Go where I may, nor billows, rocks nor wind,
Can add of horror to my tortur’d mind;
On whatsoever coast I may be thrown,
No lord can use me harder than my own.

The moral-political indignation is not unmixed with gentler, more sensuous, concerns: in a poem composed between 1782 and 1791, the Gaelic poet William Ross (1762–c.1791) tells of a ball in Stornoway. It is there that he falls in love – at first sight, of course – with one of the guests. She is utterly ravishing, all the more so because she belongs to a clan which has fought against the hated king from the south (‘Feasgar Luain/Monday Evening’).

Examine Catherine Kerrigan’s superb An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets (1991), and you will find many turn-of-the-century figures whose lines are better known than their names. We’re familiar with ‘Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes’, but not with its author, Isobel Pagan (1741–1821). ‘My Mother Bids Me Bind My Hair’ – that’s by Anne Hunter (1742–1821), whose lyrics were set to music by Haydn. Other luminaries revived by Dr Kerrigan include Anne Grant (1755–1838) (‘O where, tell me where, is your Highland laddie gone’), and Lady Nairne of ‘The Rowan Tree’ and ‘Will Ye No Come Back Again?’.

We should celebrate, too, Anna Gordon, aka Mrs Brown of Falkland, without whom Scott’s Minstrelsy could not have proved such a pioneering anthology of ballad and folk poetry: she was one of its major sources of such essentially oral material. Women are traditionally the sources of folk songs or poems that sound like folk songs, which may explain how Anne Hunter’s work found its way to Haydn. That may sound as if I am validating the women’s work by reference to famous men. Not so: it was simply the reality that the mediation was effected by the latter. The two major women novelistsof the time are Mary Brunton (1778–1818) (Self–Control, 1811) and Susan Ferrier (1782–1854) (Marriage, 1818). It is pleasing to report that soon after the appearance of their works, they were translated into French. It no doubt helped that Ferrier was admired by Sir Walter Scott; his own translator, Defauconpret, introduced her work to French readers.

When one turns from the mainstream, so perceived, of Scottish literature, one may be lucky enough to encounter the dammed–up tributaries. Here and there, a trickle gets through.


Copyright © Tom Hubbard, 2000


Last updated 23 August 2010.