John Stuart Blackie: Scottish Scholar and Patriot

John Stuart Blackie: Scottish Scholar and Patriot

John Stuart Blackie: Scottish Scholar and Patriot

John Stuart Blackie: Scottish Scholar and Patriot

Excerpt

John Stuart Blackie was one of the most prominent figures on the Scottish intellectual scene during the second half of the nineteenth century. For the English he was the individual who best represented ‘Scottishness’. What he was for the Scots was more complex, but arguably he provided them with a set of reference points associated with the landscape and the culture of Victorian Scotland. Blackie was born on 28 July 1809, the day that Arthur Wellesley defeated the French at Talavera and earned the title Duke of Wellington, and died on 2 March 1895, the year in which Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays and H.G. Wells published The Time Machine. His early years coincided with what has been called ‘the Golden Age of Scottish literature’. As a former student noted shortly after Blackie’s death:

When he first saw the light, Scott had 22 years of life in him. When he
went to the University, Carlyle was beginning to be a great name. He was
still a young man while Thomas Campbell, James Hogg, Jeffrey,
Cockburn and Chalmers were in their prime, so that his death removes
one of the few remaining links which connect our day with that of the lit
erary giants of the first half of the century.

By the time that Blackie settled permanently in Edinburgh in 1852, the ‘golden age’ had long passed. It was no longer the case that a Scottish writer’s ‘reputation in his own country’ would make him ‘a person of more or less distinction in London’, but now rather that ‘his reception in England and its capital’ was a prerequisite for success in Scotland, as the poet W. E. Aytoun discovered when ‘Edinburgh began to think much of him’ only after he had given his lectures in London on ballad poetry. Aytoun had an Edinburgh University chair, but for writers without an assured (if small) income of this kind, a move south was often the choice, following Carlyle who left Edinburgh in 1834. That Blackie could seriously be regarded as the successor to Aytoun’s fatherin-law John Wilson (‘Christopher North’), who had dominated the Edinburgh literary scene from the death of Scott in 1832 until his own . . .

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