John Galt.

Annals of the parish; and the Ayrshire legatees online

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JOHN GALT, the future author of the " Annals of the Parish,"
and of other works which deservedly give him a place among
the Scottish Classics, was born at Irvine in Ayrshire, on the
2d May 1779. In his early childhood he was of a feeble and
delicate, or rather sensitive, constitution, although his com-
plaints never assumed any serious form. His earliest instructions
in reading were given at home ; and, until his tenth year, he
was regularly carried with the rest of his family to Greenock,
in which town a part of every season was spent.

When yet a very little child, he became passionately fond of
flowers, and confesses to have felt an inexpressible delight in
cultivating them, and in watching their development ; but this
latterly gave way to a preference for shrubs and trees. His
early aptitude for acquirement was not great, although he ex-
hibited indications of a clear and tenacious memory.

Amongst his earliest reminiscences, he used to relate the fol-
lowing, which gave indication for predilections quite of another
kind. A set of religious zealots having established themselves
at Irvine, under the auspices of a Mrs Buchan from Glasgow,
who had won over a simple-minded Relief clergyman there, of
the name of White, to a belief in the orthodoxy of her raving^,
Ms congregation found themselves so scandalized, that they were


at length forced to dispense with his services. He was not,
however, to be so put down ; and, after his deposition, he con-
tinued to preach to his followers, who were designated Buchanites
from the founder of the sect, from a tent in the open air. This
deluded person gave herself out as the woman spoken of in the
twelfth chapter of Revelations, and Mr White as the man child
she had brought forth ; and public curiosity was kept up by the
believers in her doctrines meeting in the night-time, to be
instructed by their prophetess. The clamour, agitation, and
nuisance became at length so great, that the magistrates were
obliged to interfere, and cause her to be dismissed from the
town, from which she and her high priest were accompanied by
some fifty or sixty people, chanting psalms, and saying they
were going to the New Jerusalem. In the midst of this rabble
rout was our young hero, whose imagination had been captivated
by the strange scene. He was, however, followed on the road
by his mother, who seized hold of him as soon as she could dis-
cover him, and, shaking his idle heterodoxy out of him, reclaimed
him, to be brought up in the common-sense presbyterianism ol
the domestic hearth.

Among recollections, perhaps earlier still, is one of a folio
volume which young Gait saw at Kilmarnock, containing,
among other subjects, an engraving of the Falls of Niagara,
which produced such a vivid impression on his excitable ima-
gination, as never afterwards to have been obliterated ; and
another of a storm at sea, which in after years he so graphi-
cally described in " The Provo?t." From the natural delicacy
already alluded to, he avoided, in childhood, the more bustling
exercises of other boys of his own age ; and was fond of loun-
ging on his bed, surrounded by all sorts of ballad and story
books. When out of doors, and not engaged with his flowers,
he ferreted out the society of some old women, versed in tale
and legend, who lived in the close or alley behind his grand-


mother's house; and took great delight in listening to their
marvellous narrations. The chief among these crones were the
mother of the gallant Lieutenant Gueliland, who was flag-officer
to Lord Nelson, and killed at the battle of Trafalgar; and a
poor widow, bent by decrepitude into a hoop, who, in uncheered
loneliness, earned a wintry living by her spinning-wheel. The
story of her life and privations deeply affected our young
romancist's sympathies ; and, as he sat assisting her to reel her
pirns, a strong attachment was formed for her. These early
humanizing lessons seem never afterwards to have been obli-
terated from his mind; and her character served him in after
years as a model in his delineations of meek and unrepining

From his rapid growth, and consequent tenderness of consti-
tution, it was judged improper to send young Gait at the first
to a public school, and he received private lessons from a teacher
in the evenings. The present Lord Justice- Clerk Boyle left the
grammar school of Irvine in the same year when he entered it ;
and among his schoolfellows, one who afterwards distinguished
himself, was Eckford, the future grand architect and builder of
the American navy. During 1788 and the subsequent season, his
progress was, however, any thing but remarkable ; and about
this period, his father, being in command of a West Indiaman,
built a house for the better accommodation of his family at
Greenock, and the whole went permanently to reside there.
He was there placed at school under a Mr M'Gregor, who is
described as an excellent teacher, but of wayward temper ; and
was by him instructed in penmanship and arithmetic, mathe-
matics, and the French language. From among his classfellows
he selected as his associates William Spence, the future author
of the " Treatise on Logarithmic Transcendents," and whose
biographer he afterwards was ; and James Park, a lad of taste
and talent, who, in process of time, became his literary Mentor,


and between whom continued through after life all that fervour
and cordiality of Damon and Pythias friendship, appertaining",
it is to he feared, only to the intimacies which have heen formed
in the enthusiasm of early boyhood. '

Gait gave early indication of a propensity for rhyming ; and,
when only six years old, had strung together some couplets
regarding the melancholy fate of two young larks which had
been given him. Nursery tales were to him " an appetite and
a feeling ; " and he took great delight in listening to ballads,
especially such as related to the wild and wonderful. When
still a mere boy, Pope's translation of the Iliad fell in his way,
and such was the impression that it made on his susceptible
nature, that, with all the enthusiasm of a young mind, which
feels more than it reasons, he is said to have knelt when he had
finished the perusal of it, and prayed that he might, some day
or other, be endowed with the powers which might enable him
to produce something of a similar kind.

Although our young aspirant never made any particular
appearance at school, but was, on the contrary, reckoned rather
below par than otherwise in his powers of acquiring knowledge,
the bias of his faculties for particular studies began early to
develope itself. We have already alluded to his taste for gar-
dening, to which were added the apparently not very accordant
ones for music and for mechanics. Several of his musical at-
tempts, composed at this time, were in after years published ; and .
one of them, " Lochnagar," adapted to the words of Lord Byron,
attained an extensive popularity. Among his mechanical con-
structions were an Eolian harp, a hurdy-gurdy, and an edephu-
sion, which he got up after seeing Lutherburg's exhibition.

All these aspirations, tastes, and feelings were, however, soon
after absorbed in a passion for reading, which found nourish-
ment in the resources of a public library at Greenock, where,
strange to say, the collection of books was made with a care


that the useful and solid should predominate over the ima-
ginative and the marvellous. This propensity was violently
opposed by his mother, who feared that it might incapacitate
him for the active business of life; and she took every means to
thwart him in its indulgence. In after life she regretted this,
although, at the time, her conduct was far from unnatural. It
arose from her regret in observing the sleepy, meditative, and in-
active disposition of her son ; and she set down the sin at the
door of his predilection for books of which, however, it was the
effect, not the cause. His father was a man of excellent disposi-
tions, but of easy nature and moderate ability; and it would
appear in this, as in most other instances on record if genius
and talent are to be at all considered as hereditary that he
owed these to his mother, who was a very singular person,
shrewd, observant, full of humour, and keenly alive to the ridi-
culous, quaintly original in her powers of expression, and "need-
ing not the spectacles of books to read nature." The writer of
this brief memoir knew her well, and had many opportunities
of witnessing the qualities which he here ascribes to her.

Her son continued to reside with her at Greenock for four-
teen or fifteen years a period of his life, which, to use his own
striking expression, if not the happiest, was certainly remem-
bered as the longest. Park and he proceeded in their education
together the former proving himself the better French, and
the latter the more proficient Italian scholar. They studied
geography on the maps, and land-surveying in the fields ; and,
during leisure hours, vied with each other in poetical composi-
tion. Park was about a year older than his friend, and was the
superior versifier of the two a fact which the other felt deeply,
and was constrained to acknowledge, although less as a source
of chagrin than as an incentive to emulation.

After leaving school, young Gait and his "fides Achates"
were placed in the Custom-House at Greenock a practice there


common for young men who were destined for mercantile pur-
suits, principally with the view of improving their handwriting
by the copying of entries in the books of that establishment.
Here the friends remained only for a limited time, and then
returned to their literary studies. Both became again poetical ;
and Park, whose mind appears to have been one more remark-
able for taste than originality, is acknowledged to have been of
great use in directing his friend in the choice of books. The
latter wisely confined himself to the " Nugse Canorse ;" but, after
some rhapsodical odes and elegies, Gait made a graver attempt to
climb " the steep where fame's proud temple shines afar," in the
form of a tragedy, to be entitled "The Royal Victim," and
founded on the fortunes of Mary Queen of Scots, as recorded
in Dr Gilbert Stuart's history of her times. We shall not
attempt to compare the composition with that of St John,
written before, or that of James Grahame, written after, al-
though the manuscript has been preserved. With some felici-
ties of poetical expression, and some touches of natural feeling,
it is just what might have been expected from its author at the
time a very juvenile and unequal performance.

Our youth was now entered in the mercantile office of Messrs
James Miller and Co. The head of the house is represented by
his pupil to have been rather inclined to the Ercles' vein, pom-
pous and magniloquent, but withal kind and good-natured.
For his nephew, Mr Ewing, he always continued to speak with
a respect and affection, which showed the high place he held in
his regards. Indeed, he thus himself writes in after years of
that gentleman: "In all the vicissitudes of a very varied life, I
have never met with a person of such truly sterling worth. His
talents were not, in a literary point of view, comparable to those
of many that I have seen ; but I never saw in any one such
equanimity of temper, or greater purity of heart."

The attendance of our embryo merchant at the desk was


regular ; and, to all outward appearance, he had enlisted himself
among the votaries of sale and barter. His mind, however,
required some other outlet for its energies, and another new bias
began to show itself. This was in u turn for antiquarian lore,
in which he indulged with much delight; and, at length, he
nursed the wish to expend the stores of knowledge thus acquired
on some fitting subject. The perusal of Pinkerton's " Essay on
the Goths" at length directed him to the choice of one, and he
determined to enwreath " The Battle of Largs" with the flowers
of verse. This poem long occupied his chief attention as a
literary labour ; but lighter topics were occasionally taken up
as by-play, in the intervals devoted to its composition. These
appeared in the shape of contributions to the " Greenock Adver-
tiser" and the " Scots Magazine," and in a life of Wilson, the
author of " Clyde," which, with a few alterations from the pen
of Dr Leyden, the editor, was prefixed to his republication of
that poem.

The speculations and sentiments which had engendered the !
French Revolution, were, at this time, agitating the public mind,
and Greenock did not escape the contagion which emanated
from Godwin, Wolstonecroft, Holcroft, Thelwall, and the writers
of that pestilential school. Most of the sanguine and the aspi-
ring among the young were smitten with the fallacious promises
held out by ingenious sophistry ; but, fortunately, Gait and his
friend remained untainted. They perceived the poison which
oozed out from the " Political Justice," and other works of the
same kidney, and they vainly longed for the development of
powers to expose the hollowness of the philosophy contained in
the defence of hypotheses so foundationless./ What they could
not, however, at this time, do by intellect, they endeavoured to
assist in accomplishing in a different way ; and, to show their
loyalty to the crown, and their veneration for the constitution,
they were actively instrumental in getting up a company or


two of riflemen, who offered their services to government, and
were accepted.

By these and various other circumstances, was the adolescence
of John Gait diversified. With Park and Agnew Craufurd,
another companion, he made pedestrian expeditions at various
times to Edinburgh to Loch Lomond to the border counties,
then becoming famous in song by the Minstrelsy of Sir Walter
Scott and even to the north of England, so far as Durham ;
and with these, and a few other young men, a society was formed
for the reading of essays and the discussion of all things possible
and impossible. Spence's speculations are said to have been
very profound ; embracing not only the favourite topic of Abra-
ham Jenkinson the cosmogony.of the world, but the durability
of matter, planetary motion, and premundane space. Park
wisely took a lower flight, and confined himself to illustrations
of the moral duties, as exhibited in the history of mankind ,
while Gait describes his own essays as rigmarole things, crude
and undigested, yet full of aspirations after something which he
could only then half perceive, and consequently but imperfectly
describe gropings of the Cyclops round his cave. The asso-
ciation lasted for several years ; and as the meetings were held
once a week, were doubtless of some use, not only in stimu-
lating to research, but in developing intellectual powers which
might otherwise have remained latent.

A circumstance at length occurred, which hastened the de-
parture of Gait from Greenock, and was thus eventually destined
to exercise no small share of influence over his fortunes. The
rirst war of the French Revolution contributed to form in Glas-
gow a class of merchants, more distinguished for their wealth
and good-luck than for their education and gentlemanly feelings.
One of this set, it appears, wrote, on a matter of business, in a
most abusive and improper manner ; and Gait happened to be
the person in the counting-office into whose hands the letter


fell. His young blood boiled within him ; and, taking the whole
weight of the house upon his shoulders, nothing would satisfy
him but to set out and demand an apology. He left, accordingly,
early next morning for Glasgow, but found that the object of
pursuit had gone to Edinburgh. Thither was he followed with
the same eagerness ; and, being discovered in one of the hotels,
the door of the parlour was bolted from within, and an apology
not only dictated, but obtained by the volunteer knight-errant.

Instead, however, of returning to Greenock after having ac-
complished the chivalric object of his expedition, Gait diverged
to Irvine, and intimated to his father his design of leaving
Scotland. After remaining at home for a month or two, and
revolving various plans in his mind, he determined upon trying
his fortunes in London. There he arrived in June 1804, ac-
companied by his father, in no very happy frame of mind, and
certainly with no fixed objects of pursuit.

After having delivered a whole bale of introductory letters,
without any practical benefit to his future views, he saw that
every thing was to depend on his own exertions. Day by day he
accordingly looked about for himself, and, meanwhile, amused his
solitary leisure by preparing for the press his " Battle of Largs,"
already mentioned a sort of Gothic epic, and the most impor-
tant of his merely poetical efforts. It is written principally in
the octo-syllabic measure ; and full of Mallet, Pinkerton, and
the Edda, our bard, like Gray and Warton, makes the northern
mythology pliant to the purposes of machinery. The plan is
somewhat daring, nor can it be said to be altogether unfortu-
nate ; and it should be remembered that it was sketched out
before Scott had given any exemplar of his splendidly poetic
narrative. As a composition, however, it is more indicative of
power than taste ; but, unequal as it must be confessed to be,
some of its reflections are vigorous, and many of its descriptive
passages full of an originality and grasp, far beyond the range


of the common-place versifier. The subject is the invasion of
Scotland by Haco, King of Norway, in 1263, and the repulse
of the Danes and Norwegians by Alexander the Third.

Partly, probably, from want of perfect satisfaction with his
own performance, and partly from a latent dread that the accu-
sation of verse might exercise a malign influence over his mer-
cantile prospects, certain it is that the book was suppressed by
its author almost immediately after the announcement of its
publication. It appeared anonymously; but the secrets of the
literary world are not easily kept what from the vanity of poets,
and what from the indiscretion of their friends; and, in this
case, from an extract or two having been previously given in
the Scots Magazine, the whereabouts of the author became less
than problematical.

After a few months' looking about for himself, Gait at length
found a mercantile connexion which appeared suitable to his
views. A copartnery was in consequence formed with a Mr
M'Lachlan, and it was hoped a fortunate one; but, in a little
time, it was found that the affairs of that gentleman had been
previously involved, and bills which were understood to have
been paid off, had been only renewed. This was a sad blight
to his prospects ; but being now involved beyond the hope of dis-
entanglement, he strenuously set himself to battle with these
embarrassments, and they were at length, although only for the
mean time, overcome. The connexion progressed to a duration
of three years, with various vicissitudes of fortune, when the
difficulties of a correspondent involved the house in ruin. A
subsequent connexion was formed between Gait and his brother
Thomas ; but the truth is, that neither had now much liking for
the mercantile profession. In a short time the latter set out to
Honduras, where he established himself, and the former entered
himself of Lincoln's Inn, with the view of being, in due time,
called to the bar. It happened that about the commencement


of 1805, his early companions, Park and Spence, came to London
to see the lions. Gait accompanied them to Blenheim; and,
having remained for a day or two at Oxford to view the col-
leges, it occurred to him, while standing with them in the
quadrangle of Christ Church, that it said little for the men of
that foundation to have so long neglected such a grand subject
as the life of their founder. But it was not for several years
after this, and when a lingering nervous indisposition obliged
him to keep the house about the time indeed that he became a
member of Lincoln's Inn that he seriously commenced pursu-
ing a course of reading, with the view of ultimately taking up
the subject himself. Eany in 1809, he set about the work regu-
larly, and in the summer of the same year had completed the
outline of it. In his researches he had access to the library and
manuscripts in Jesus College, Oxford, where he found many
scarce books and papers, illustrative of his subject, which had
escaped the eyes of Cavendish, Fiddes, and Hume ; and I remem-
ber his relating to me the curious feelings of delight with
which he unrolled documents, to the ink of which the grains of
sand were still adhering, and which consequently could never
have been opened through the long centuries since they had
oeen originally penned. Into whatever the mind of Gait entered,
it did so with enthusiasm and ardour ; but the state of his health
at this time compelled him, after a season, to desist, and, being
obliged to refrain from all study, he went abroad. Afterwards,
at Palermo, when partially recovered, he renewed his researches,
and the Jesuits having given him free access to their superb
library, he seems to have spared no pains to render his account
of " The Life and Administration of Wolsey," at once worthy
of his own powers and of public acceptance.

On the day of his arrival at Gibraltar, our traveller met with
Lord Byron, who was then on that tour with Sir John Cam
Hobhouse, which has been immortalized in the first and second


cantos of Childe Harold. An acquaintance was subsequently
formed, and the three sailed in the same packet to Sardinia and
Malta. The particulars connected with this casual rencontre
with the great poet, were in after years graphically detailed in
a memoir of Lord Byron, which Mr Gait gave to the world,
and which was not more remarkable for the great popularity it
obtained, than for the having called down upon its author a
degree of abuse altogether disproportionate to its real demerits.
That a set of petulant and disappointed scribblers, who envied
yet could not equal the author's fame, should have attacked his
book, is to be pitied, but not to be wondered at ; but, mirdbile dictu,
even Thomas Moore thought it worth his while to join in the
silly assault, and he dealt his particular blow in a set of verses,
not a whit more remarkable for their wit than for their want
of candour. The splendour of Byron's genius none dare dis-
pute ; but they who would lay his moral failings to the account
of his intellectual greatness, certainly do little to elevate the
cause of sound philosophy.

Having resided for a season in Sicily, Mr Gait repaired to
Malta; and, after touching at the islands of Zante and Patras,
paid a visit to Corinth. Proceeding thence to Tripolizza, where
he had an interview with the famous Ali Pasha, he bent his
course towards Athens, to the Waywoda of which place he had
received a particular introduction from the Vizier Vilhi. He
took up his residence in the Propaganda Fide of Rome Monas-
tery, and Lord Byron chancing to be also at that time in the
same city, their acquaintance was renewed.

While there, Mr Gait's health was very variable, at times
obliging him to shut himself entirely up within the walls of his
domicile; nor could this solitude otherwise than have hung
heavy on his hands, had he not endeavoured to while away
ennui by poetical pastimes. One of his effusions he entitled
44 II Inconsueto," being descriptions of scenes in a voyage to


Palestine, written in the Spenserian stanza, and another, " The
Atheniad," a mock epic in heroic verse, relating to the Elgin
marbles, in which the heathen deities are made to avenge the
cause of Minerva. The manuscripts of both were, it seems,
shown to the noble poet ; and the circumstance is here mentioned,
for the sake of pointing out the curious coincidence if nothing

Online LibraryJohn GaltAnnals of the parish; and the Ayrshire legatees → online text (page 1 of 38)