James Johnson.

The recess, or Autumnal relaxation in the Highlands and Lowlands; being the home circuit versus foreign travel, a serio-comic tour to the Hebrides online

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and lime works of the flesh.

The dragon simile of the immortal Scott, I do not exactly compre-
hend ; though all will recognize the " general outline," which the
Wizard of the North has sketched. Edinburgh, I would say, resembles
two aged parents, surrounded by a fair and flourishing family of
children and grand-children. The Castle and the High-street may repre-
sent the former the New Town and southern district, the latter. The
ancient pair are eyeing, with something like disdain, if not disgust, the
foppery, the finery, the foolery, and the fashions of their effeminate
offspring: while the young folks can scarcely conceal their contempt
for the narrow prejudices of the wynds, the barbaric hauteur of the
Castle, and the antiquated style of the Canongate. The frowning battle-
ments of that fortress on the rock sigh to every breeze over their fallen
greatness, and their country's degeneracy so rarely do their portals
open to receive a captive prince or a lawless usurper ! Even that awful
symbol of our holy religion in the midst of the city, now seldom ex-
hibits, within its sacred precincts, the animating spectacle of a patriot
beheaded, a chieftain hanged, or a witch incinerated. In the royal
palace itself, a crowned or uncrowned head may repose on its pillow
with safety, if not with contentment a queen may now be regaled
with a conversazione or a sonato, without having her supper seasoned
by a murder, or her Paganini slaughtered by a royal butcher no Por-


terms mob, to poise the beam of justice, when a privy council had
kicked the balance in favour of homicide !

" Mourn, hapless Caledonia, mourn,
These good old times will ne'er return."

It is, indeed, awful to behold that multitude which, in days of yore,
could amuse itself by piercing the " HEART OF MID-LOTHIAN"
shedding the blood of the brave and scoffing at the mandates of mo-
narchy, now calmly enacting laws, or, which is nearly the same thing,
quietly electing lawgivers the Children of the Mist, in fact, and the
great grand-children of Rob Roy and Badenoch, erected into legislators !
If this be not a " glorious revolution," it is, at least, a wonderful one!

The yawning ravine that separates the parent from the youthful city,
is not an impassable gulf. Along those stupendous mounds of earth, or
bridges without rivers, still ebbs and flows the great tide of human
existence. The claymore and dirk have long been converted into the
ploughshare and sickle the plaid and feather into the cap and gown
while the masculine intellect that either lay uncultivated, or was occa-
sionally roused into activity by feuds, raids, and rebellions, is now
directed to mighty exertions in the cause of literature, art, and science,
which flow in all directions from these rugged rocks, to fertilize every
land from the rising to the setting sun.

Those who bask in the sunny bowers of Minerva, on the banks of
the Cam and the Isis, may contemn the peripatetic and uncloistered
philosophy of a Caledonian university ; but those who have wandered
over the world, explored the busy haunts of man, and permeated the
different circles of society, can appreciate the extended sphere and the
powerful influence of that practical information which is inculcated and
imbibed in these humbler emporia of knowledge. When learning is
placed within the grasp of only a few and those the upper classes
much good soil is lost for its culture. It is like sowing grain on the
hills and uplands of a country, while the valleys and plains are suffered
to lie waste. The Nile may be MAJESTIC throughout its whole course
from the Nubian mountains to the sands of the DELTA ; but is USEFUL
only when it ramifies in myriads of obscure rivulets to irrigate the
neighbouring fields. Whether the stream of knowledge always carries
with it happiness as well as fertility, may be fairly questioned. But not
so the right which every one has, or ought to have, of possessing him-
self of this doubtful, perhaps dangerous commodity. Long before foot-
men began to study mathematics, or shoemakers explored the regions
of metaphysics*, the tree of knowledge is said to have produced some

* Drew, who earned his bread by mending shoes, wrote a learned treatise on the
immortality of the soul,


unwholesome fruit for man and woman too ! In ancient times, the
swallowing of this same fruit seems to have sent certain personages from
" easy circumstances," to the drudgery of the plough and the spade;
but in our days, we have reversed the edict of omnipotence, and proved
that the acquisition of knowledge exempts us from the drudgery of
manual labour, and elevates the sordid ploughman or unwashed artisan
into the moral and political philosopher. Who will be so bold as to
gainsay this vast improvement on the designs, or, at all events, the
dispensations of the Almighty mind? Not I, certainly. The great
men of the earth have privileges and immunities enough, without assum-
ing the prescriptive right of monopolizing knowledge. It is very true,
that they had, and perhaps still have, the power of keeping this mono-
poly very much in their own hands. They had and have, the time and
the means of acquiring information, far beyond the time and means of
the IGNOBILE VULGUS; and if they do not avail themselves of the ad-
vantages which they possess, it must be from a conviction (whether wise
or not) that the tree of knowledge is now, as in the days of Adam, a
dangerous tree to climb.

Be this as it may, there are three principles now in operation, which
have a strong tendency to produce a greater equilibrium of learning, or,
at least, of knowledge, than at any former period : 1st, the appetite or
demand 2dly, the facility of supply and 3dly, the cheapness of the
article, in consequence of the extent of the market, and the ardour of
competition. This NISUS or effort at equalization of intellectual pro-
perty is only in its infancy ; but there can be little doubt that it will
progressively strengthen till some strange revolution or unanticipated
condition of society obtains. The middle classes will tread close on the
heels of the upper and the lower classes will strain every nerve to
overtake those who are before them in the march of intellect !

True it is, that the contest will be carried on with very unequal arms ;
but not, perhaps, with such an unequal result, as some may imagine.
Paucity of means will be compensated by exuberance of zeal want of
time, by intensity of application hereditary pride, by plebeian ambition
the power of wealth, by the stimulus of necessity : and, as to native
TALENT, that gift is from HEAVEN ; or, if this be doubted, it is a largess
from the hands of FORTUNE, whose eyes are too closely bandaged to inter-
fere with the dispensation of her favours.

But although a greater equilibrium of information in the different
classes of society may flow from present thirst, and increasing facilities,
the same inequality among individuals, which is now observable, will
ever remain. However we may equalize the demand and the supply of
knowledge, the capacity for that article is conferred on mankind by a


hand unseen, and with a partiality or caprice inexplicable, though, no
doubt, wise.

What is to be the final result of all this ? A revolution, says one,
both of property and rank : a perfectibility, or rather, a perfection, of
the human race, says another, with the maximum of wisdom, and hap-
piness ! The anticipations of both parties will probably be disap-
pointed. There may be a revolution ; but it will be one of opinion
rather than of property or rank. That which is most prized, generally
becomes the standard of comparison among mankind. Wealth is now
the test, by which men are weighed and has long been so. Valour was
once the touchstone of merit and it is just possible that knowledge
(not mere learning) may be so, at some future period.

Should the time ever arrive when men shall be estimated by their
talents and acquirements, rather than by their titles and estates, a con-
siderable revolution will undoubtedly be effected not in the possession
of real property or hereditary rank, but in the reverence, or rather
idolatry, now paid to these last, and in the influence which they exert
over the actions and passions of mankind. And though the possession
of property may not be disturbed by the utmost diffusion of informa-
tion through all gradations of life ; yet the means of acquiring it must
be greatly affected.

Nor does it seem likely that laws will lose either in force or autho-
rity, by the spread of literature and science, even among the minutest
ramifications of mankind. On the contrary, they will gain the addi-
tional force of OPINION, more potent in the prevention of crime, than the
axe and the dungeon, the halter and the scourge. In times of general
information, it is highly improbable that the dregs of ignorance and
vice can ever rise to the surface of society, except as froth and scum,
thrown off by the depurating operation of the ever-active intellect
pervading the general mass. Judgment and good sense, though not
always attendant on individual talent or acquirement, are sure to cha-
racterize the aggregate intelligence of a community ; and the wider the
range, and the higher the amount of this aggregate, the greater is the
chance of wisdom in council and justice in politics. But is there no
background to no drawback on, this prospect ? It may be laid down
as almost an axiom that, in exact proportion as knowledge extends, the
empire of opinion will rise, as a counterpoise to that of physical or
brute /orce. These two great and antagonising powers may now be
considered as in actual conflict ; and the struggle may not terminate in
a bloodless victor}'. Newly-acquired liberty in all ages has broken out
into licentiousness ; and learning is too prone to engender scepticism
among the affluent, and discontent among the indigent while, on the


other hand, triumphant despotism must become the grave, or, at least,
the dungeon of the human mind. Between these two points there
appears, as yet, no safe or certain resting place or if there be, it is en-
veloped in shadows, clouds, and darkness ! Time alone can dispel the
cloud ; but he must be an indifferent or a prejudiced observer who does
not acknowledge an invisible INFLUENCE directing a current of events,
which no earthly power can arrest, though Christian feeling and natural
wisdom may prepare channels for its course, that shall fertilize, rather
than desolate, the lands through which it passes. No human force
could stem the flow of the majestic Nile, from its Nubian cradle to its
Mediterranean grave ; but human wisdom and ingenuity have diverted
a portion of its waters into useful irrigation, and made the irresistible
stream itself subservient to the purposes of navigation and commerce.
The wise men of the earth may profit by this simile and it is to be
hoped they will do so, ere it is too late !

But what have these reflections to do with the romantic city beneath
us? Much. Whether the cultivation of intellect and the diffusion of
learning, among orders of human beings, who have hitherto been doomed
by man, and, apparently, destined by heaven, to ignorance and toil,
shall conduce finally to the increase of happiness or of misery, yon
Modern Athens will have much cause for gratulation or mourning ; for
she has taken an active, an initiatory part in preparing the way for the
struggle that exists, and the crisis that must ensue.

Neither in site nor in aspect does the ancient metropolis of Greece
bear much resemblance to Modern Athens. The placid and tideless
Mediterranean, the almost tropical verdure of the vegetable world, the
balmy air, and the blue skies of Attica, contrast rather than harmonize
with the boisterous Forth, the bare and somewhat barren hills, the frigid
climate, and the cloudy atmosphere of the Caledonian capital. It will
probably be more prudent to rest the analogy on a metaphysical than
on a topographical basis and perhaps wiser policy still, to drop the
analogy altogether. This last thought has sprung from the contempla-
tion of a very remarkable object on the Calton-hill. To build a ruin
there, in imitation of the Parthenon, is certainly an original idea, and,
on that account, most praiseworthy, considering the paucity of such
articles in our days. Some critics might be disposed to say that, to
build a ruin, is nearly the same thing as to ruin a building ! In free
countries, all monuments to commemorate political and military events
or characters should be speedily finished. That a " Modern Parthe-
non," to record the victories of Great Britain, during a long and
glorious war, shall ever be finished on the Calton-hill, is exceedingly
improbable. Nay, I would go farther, and say that, were the monument


of Nelson yet unbuilt, a stone would never he carried to the Calton-hill
hy Caledonian mechanic, in honour of the hero of the Nile and Tra-
falgar ! Never was the difference between war and literature between
physical courage and intellectual talent, more strikingly exemplified
than on that romantic mount. To Burns and Dugald Stewart the
monuments are now rising, and will certainly be completed. As for the
heroes of the revolutionary war, yon twelve columns will long stand as
a memento of the instability of popular feeling in matters of a political
and even national character. On yon tall column " pointing to the
skies," in St. Andrew's-square, a MELVILLE has been raised by grateful
Scots, nearly as high as TRAJAN was by the haughty Romans. Well !
The victorious Caesar has descended from his lofty eminence in the
forum Trajani, and has been succeeded by a priest, with a key, instead
of a sceptre, in his hand. In the revolutions of empire and of opinion,
it would be hazardous to say whose statue may stand at the summit of
the noble column in St. Andrew's-square, some three centuries hence !
Yet would I venture to prophesy, that the monuments erected to Burns
and Stewart will never change their names, while one stone remains on
another, in the edifices consecrated to their memory ! Such, I reiterate,
is the difference between the physique and the morale between the
prowess of matter, and the product of mind !

One word more. Though it cannot be denied that stone is a more
abundant article in Scotland than corn, yet the country that allowed
Burns to want bread can only record its own ingratitude by offering
marble to his memory ! Scotland, however, is not peculiar in this
respect. The same kind of injustice to living merit is recorded in brass
and marble, on every soil from the rising to the setting sun. Athenian
ingratitude is not confined to the Acropolis of Attica and Edinburgh !
These eyes have seen the chariot of a British hero, on arriving at Ports-
mouth, unable to make its way through the countless myriads of his
countrymen, rending the skies with shouts of welcome, and yoking
themselves to the harness of his carriage to draw him in triumph into the
presence of three mighty sovereigns *, who heaped on him the emblems
of military honour and regal esteem. The same eyes have seen the
same people hurl mud, stones, and execrations on the head of this
same hero, in his native land !

Should the intellectual city ever be visited by an earthquake, the
scene of havoc and destruction will be portentous beyond all precedent
in other countries, not excepting the catastrophe on the banks bf the

* Emperor of Russia, Prince Regent of England, and King of Prussia, then on the
Parade at Portsmouth, when the Duke of Wellington arrived.


Tagus. The DRAGON will instantly shake from his flinty sides, and
precipitate into the yawning gulfs below, those stupendous piles of mas-
sive architecture, with their myriads of inhabitants, which now appear
to cling, as if by cement, to his flanks, rather than to rest on solid
foundations. The mighty monster, too, will quickly dash from his craggy
forehead the gigantic mural crown, and hurl its fragments down the
giddy precipices, over which it now frowns in military pride !

The " domestic manners" of Modern Athens I must leave to the
abler pens of Mrs. Trollope and others if the proximity of Edinburgh
does not render a faithful portrait tame, and an overcharged one dan-

In no city that I have ever visited, did I see so remarkable a union
of ORDER and IDLENESS, as in the intellectual capital of the North. I
walked slowly, in the middle of a working day, from the Castle to the
Canongate, and I counted four hundred and seventy individuals (men,
women, and children) completely idle most of them taking snuff, and
some of them whisky. Let any one walk from St. James's-palace to
Leadenhall-street, along Pall-Mall, the Strand, Fleet-street, Ludgate-
hill, Cheapside, and Cornhill and he will not detect twenty idlers, in
all that stupendous tide of human existence ! So much for IDLENESS in
Modern Athens. Now for ORDER. In the evening of the day when
the passing of the Reform Bill was commemorated in Edinburgh, I
perambulated the streets of that city, for two or three hours. It seemed
as if all the wynds, closes, nay, the beds of sickness, had disgorged
their tenants ! I sometimes thought the graves had given up their
dead; for never, in my life, did I see such a multitude of meagre,
stunted, half starved, pallid, and sickly human beings, crowding the
streets. Still, it required no LAVATER to perceive. a transient gleam of
joy in the eyes of all ; even where care had furrowed the brow, where
poverty had sharpened the features, where disease had sallowed the
complexion, and where intemperance had fixed its degrading signet on
the countenance !

Yet, throughout this incalculable multitude of the lower orders this
immeasurable mass of human penury, so well adapted for anarchy,
confusion, and lawless riot, I did not witness a single symptom of
disturbance, or hear an angry expression ! The only breach of the peace
was in Princes-street, where two gentlemen sallied, or reeled out of a
tavern settled their political disputes by the argumentum baculinum
and were conveyed to the watch-house by the police !

I do not think the inferior classes of the Scotch are so very industrious
as the world imagines. They are orderly, systematic, and persevering ;
yet they have not the energetic activity of the Irish, nor the plodding,


herculean labour of the English. But, per contra, their vivacity and
their poverty do not lead them into the excesses, the follies, and the
feuds of their Hibernian neighbours nor into the deep and hardened
crimes of their southern brethren.

If the Scotch do not exhibit the bustling and boisterous labour of
the Irish, they seem to appreciate more justly the- products of their
toil. Frugality is the elder daughter and the best help-maid of in-
dustry. Without the former, the latter can hardly be reckoned a virtue,
and seldom proves a blessing !

I have disclaimed the invidious task of painting the " domestic man-
ners" of the Modern Athenians remembering the words of a cele-
brated poet

" Manners with fortunes, tempers change with climes,
Tenets with books, and principles with times."

But this disclaimer does not preclude a philosophic, or rather a phreno-
logical glance at the interesting people among whom I am sojourning.
I took every opportunity of frequenting the places of public worship,
and the tribunals of justice, where hats and caps were doffed, and where
craniological indications were laid bare. I do not profess to be an
adept in the new science, nor did I venture to manipulate the various
heads which came under my observation an operation that would have
trenched on the principle which I prescribed to myself, and might have
subjected me to some rough remonstrances. The only phrenological
prominences that struck my eye, were four, viz., the organs of caution,
of acquisitiveness, of veneration, and of self-esteem.

All phrenologists will admit that these are excellent organs, and that
the propensities which they represent are calculated, when properly
directed, to elevate mankind in the scale of human nature. But, alas !
organs and propensities may be inordinate, as well as moderate. Thus
CAUTION may, in the extreme, degenerate into timidity ACQUISITIVE-
NESS may lapse into avarice, selfishness, or parsimony VENERATION
for the Deity may pass the salutary point, in religion, and merge itself
in fanaticism or superstition ; while, in worldly matters, it may assume
the form of obsequiousness to our superiors. SELF-ESTEEM, one of the
noblest of our organizations or propensities, may, when inordinate, run
into vanity or ostentation. If I am not misinformed, the truth of this last
proposition was exemplified on a late occasion, when the presence of
royalty in the intellectual city induced many individuals, with large
organs of self-esteem, or perhaps of veneration, to incur expenses that
have proved inconvenient, if not disastrous to their families afterwards.

But this is a digression. The New Town of Edinburgh is beautifully


monotonous, and magnificently dull. With the exception of Hercula-
neum, it is the most silent city I have ever traversed. Pompeii is far
more noisy in the gadding season. And no wonder that New Edinburgh
is noiseless : there is not a door-knocker from one end of the city to the
other ! All access to the interior of houses is gained by the tinkling
of a little bell in some remote region of the mansion, and whose silver
sound seldom vibrates on the ear of the peripatetic passenger in the
street. Nothing surprised me more than this want of knockers. I
well knew that Edinburgh was a highly aristocratic city, and that the
aristocracy distinguish themselves as much by their raps at the doors
as by the crests on their carriages. Phrenology explains every thing.
The organ of acquisitiveness, which is, ex officio, the organ of economy,
protuberates some lines higher in the head of a Scotchman, than in
that of an Englishman (the Irish have a depression on that part of the
skull) hence the Caledonian, in imitation of an invariable law of
nature, never to employ two agents in an operation where one will
suffice, abandons the rapper, as a supernumerary and noisy expense,
forcing the bell to answer all questions, and announce all visiters, with
a republican tone, that makes no distinction between the peer and the
pedlar between the Duke of Argyll, and the fish-fag of Musselburgh !
How is it that our Transatlantic brethren have not adopted this emblem
of equality ? How is it that Brother Jonathan has even fixed a silver
rapper on his door, to announce, by dulcet sounds, the " standing" of
his equestrian visiters ?

No city in Europe can sport such an effective corps, such an imposing
display, of law, physic, and divinity, as Edinburgh. Every second
house can turn out, when required, a member of one of the learned pro-
fessions, or of its collateral branches. Hence another reason for the
proscription of door-knockers. To a people so studious, calculating,
and religious, as the Modern Athenians, the RAT-TAT-TATS of London
would be a serious nuisance. They would perplex many a brief, dis-
turb many a homily, and blot many a prescription. This is the best
spot on the surface of the globe, in which a man can be safely, I had
almost said comfortably, taken suddenly ill. His servant or friend
has only to ring at the door of the house on each side of that where he
lives, and a lawyer and doctor will be instantly in attendance. If the
illness take place in the street, medical assistance will be still more
prompt, since every second man that paces the trottoir is sure to prove
a physician or a surgeon. This is a very pleasant reflection ; and I
wonder that a grand, or at all events, a great duchess in England, who
engaged a doctor to keep always within one hundred yards of her grace,


during the cholera season of 1832, did not go to Edinburgh, where she
would have had some difficulty in getting fifty paces out of the reach
of Esculapian aid, at any hour of the day or night.

The paucity of carriages, carts, cabs, omnibuses, and all kinds of
noisy vehicles and machines, in Edinburgh, as compared with London,
Liverpool, and other large cities of the south, is singularly striking.
Even in the beautiful squares and parallelograms of the New Town,
where, alone, wheels can roll in safety, and where the t?tat major of the
learned professions reside, the most soothing silence reigns. The doc-
tor's modest chariot, without the noisy appendage of a footman, is seen

Online LibraryJames JohnsonThe recess, or Autumnal relaxation in the Highlands and Lowlands; being the home circuit versus foreign travel, a serio-comic tour to the Hebrides → online text (page 5 of 28)