Sunday 25 January 2009

A Hardy Son of Rustic Toil

Readers of this blog will not need to be told that there was nothing “heaven-taught” about him, however scatter-gun may have been his formal education, and however much of an autodidact he may therefore have been during the rest of his life.

So here are just a couple of thoughts on the great man.

One is that he and Scotland do not quite fit. Or, rather, did not. His sheer genius turned a culture bipolar between Calvinism and Enlightenment rationalism into one conducted within a triangle with the Westminster Confession and its staunchest upholders in one corner, the likes of Adam Smith and David Hume in another, Robert Burns (and also, later, Sir Walter Scott) in the third, and most people somewhere in the middle.

And another is that his writing in Scots identified him in his time as falling within a category mostly comprised of Episcopalians and such Catholics as there were in the eighteenth-century Lowlands. He maintained good relations with both, even if it is true that he had little or nothing in common with either beyond a hostility both to rationalism and to Calvinism (or at least, in the Episcopalian case, to the Westminster variety of it). And those hostilities not only formed his own rural proto-Romanticism, but then went on to inform, not least through him, the Mediaeval and Jacobite nostalgia of the Episcopalian Scott.

Indeed, Burns entered Continental intellectual life via the Scots Catholic seminaries in exile. Such seminaries serving these islands have a great deal to answer for. Among very much else, they also introduced football to the Iberian Peninsula.


  1. Burns was a Calvinist, but he had his sympathies for the Jacobite cause which he inherited from his Aberdeenshire-born father. His father supposedly fled south due to his political beliefs.

  2. Well, he was a member of the Church of Scotland, more or less. But I wouldn't call him a Calvinist!