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Scottish Thought and Letters in the Eighteenth Century

 Introduction - History and Antiquities - Geography - Travels - Encyclopaedias - Libraries - Society and Clubs - Law - Philosophy and Religion- Economy and Social History - Adam Smith - Education Architecture - Science and Medicine- Literature


[ARBUCKLE, James and GRIFFITH, Thomas]. Prologue and epilogue to Tamerlane. Acted in the Grammar School in Glasgow, December 30th, 1720. By the students of the University.
[Glasgow : 1721]

In 1720 a party of Glasgow University students proposed to produce Tamerlane in the Common Hall, but they immediately met with opposition from the University authorities,who were unsympathetic to play-acting in general, and, in particular,objected to the wearing of women's clothes by male students.In the end the play was put on in the Grammar School, and this Prologue and epilogue were specially written for the occasion by two of the students taking part; The opportunity to satirise the University dignitaries was not missed.


HOME, John. Douglas: a tragedy.
[London : 1757]

The first printed edition of the play, which in the words of Alexander Carlyle 'had unbounded success for a great many nights in Edinburgh, and was attended by all the literati and most of the judges, who except one or two had not been in use to attend the theatre. The town in general was in an uproar of exultation that a Scotchman had written a tragedy of the first rate, and its merit was first. submitted to their judgment.' The play was first performed in the Canongate Theatre, Edinburgh, in December 1756. In the following year it was produced at Covent Garden.

This copy contains an autograph letter from Home to Sir James Douglas, dated 7th March 1772.


WITHERSPOON, John A serious enquiry into the nature and effects of the stage.
[Glasgow : 1757]

Witherspoon aimed in this tract, which was occasioned by the success of John Home's Douglas, to prove not only that it was outrageous for a minister to write a play but that it was "inconsistent with the character of a Christian" to support the theatre by attending one. The author's later career, in America, was spectacular, including the principalship of Princeton College and membership of the congress which framed the Constitution of the United States.


SMOLLETT, Tobias George The adventures of Roderick Random. The second edition.
[London : 1748]. 2 vols
Sp Coll 300

Smollett's first novel, one of adventure and bustling action, containing farce rather than comedy, and peopled with caricatures rather than portraits. It was translated into French, German, Danish and Dutch. The first edition rapidly sold out and was immediately reprinted.

FERGUSSON, Robert Poems.
[Edinburgh : 1773]
Hepburn 18

Fergusson had contributed many poems to Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine (commenced in 1768) and these were now published in book form, price two shillings and sixpence, by subscription and with a dedication - without Permission - to Sir William Forbes the banker. Burns greatly admired Fergusson and was much influenced by him. In a copy of Fergusson's work he wrote:

Curse on ungrateful man that can be pleased, And yet can starve the author of his Pleasure! Oh, thou, my elder brother in misfortune, By far my elder brother in the muses, With tears I pity thy unhappy fate! Why is the bard unfitted for the world, Yet has so keen a relish of its pleasures?


MACPHERSON, James Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic... 2nd ed.
[Edinburgh : 1760]

Macpherson exploited a growing interest in primitive poetry by producing what purported to be translations of alleged ancient epics. At once a tremendous controversy ensued, men of letters taking sides as nationality or prejudice dictated. Macpherson was accused of fraud and for long this was the accepted verdict, though it now seems possible that he may have worked in good faith. He certainly consulted old manuscripts which contained pieces of Ossianic ballads, going back perhaps to the sixteenth century, but of an epic there is no trace whatsoever. However contrived and however turgid, Macpherson's work certainly had an extraordinary vogue and helped to give rise to romanticism.


BURNS, Robert Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect.
[Kilmarnock: 1786]
Sp Coll 21

There has never been a more truly national poet than Burns. Himself of humble origin, he spoke the language of the people and his songs are part of the air breathed by Scots the world over. Burns's lyrics are as full of life as he was himself. They are "the links, the watchwords, the masonic symbols of Scottish life."

612 copies of this Kilmarnock edition of the poems were issued; it was Burns's first published work. The volume circulated mainly around Ayrshire, though the Scottish reviews made Burns's name known to literary folk all over Scotland and there were even a few London reviews.


The BEE, or Literary Weekly Intelligencer.
[Edinburgh : 1790-94]. 18 vols
RB 1503-1519

Edited by James Anderson, whose main interest was agricultural, the aims of The Bee were set out in an introductory prospectus: "to inspire a taste for literary excellence, and to excite exertions for attaining the highest perfection in arts... by a careful selection of elegant dissertations, characteristical anecdotes, entertaining tales, and lively sallies of wit and humour" as well as containing "a concise register" of events, and a plan of prizes - gold medals or guineas - for essays on specified subjects.


HAMILTON, William, of Bangour Poems on several occasions.
[Glasgow : 1748]

These poems were collected and edited by Adam Smith, who wrote the preface in which he states that "this collection is published not only without-the author's consent, but without his knowledge." Hamilton was at this time living in exile-at Rouen because of his Jacobite sympathies which he had expressed in his poem on Gladsmuir. He is chiefly remembered now for what Wordsworth called "the exquisite ballad" of The braes of Yarrow.


BOSWELL, James The life of Samuel Johnson.
[London : 1791]. 2 vols (vol. 1 only on display)

"The life of Johnson is assuredly a great - a very great work. Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets, -Shakspeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, -Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly, that it is not worth while to place them. Eclipse is first and all the rest nowhere. We are not sure that there is in the whole history of the human intellect so strange a phenomenon as this book." T.B. Macaulay, Edinburgh Review, 1831.


THOMSON, James. The seasons.
[London : 1730]

Thomson was born at Ednam, Roxburghshire, the son of a minister (who died while exorcising a ghost), and educated at Edinburgh University. He went to London in 1725 and spent the rest of his life in England.

Thomson's Seasons, like Macpherson's Ossian, was destined to exercise a profound influence on imaginative literature both in this country and abroad (even Goethe being, affected by Thomson's poetry). His poetry, new, fresh, and natural in an age artificial in life, manners and literature, breathed an invigorating spirit through the 'age of reason.'


RAMSAY, Allan Poems.
[Edinburgh : 1721] BD16-b.13

The theme of these poems is the purely natural man, devoid of all movements of soul and mind inspired by the Christian theology. Ramsay treats of men and women - their loves, their pleasures, their backslidings, their adventures, their misfortunes - as any Pagan poet might do. True, he was far from being acceptable to a large section of the community whose conception of life were bounded by the religious creed they had inherited from their fathers. But the significance of Ramsay is that he appeared at the time he did, and that his writings appealed to an educated class which in the latter half of the century was to give Scottish society its prevailing tone.' - P. Hume Brown, Surveys of Scottish history.

CAMPBELL, Thomas The pleasures of hope; with other poems.
[Edinburgh and London : 1799]

Campbell was born in Glasgow and educated at Glasgow University. His association with the University was to continue: in November 1826, he was elected Lord Rector by the unanimous vote of the students and re-elected in 1827 and 1828. The pleasures of hope was Campbell's first published work. Four editions were called for within a year. He had sold the copyright to Mundell for 2l, but Mundell generously allowed him 50 for each succeeding edition. Lord Byron said that The pleasures of hope was one of the most beautiful didactic poems in the English language.