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  • "Patron of Infidelity"Scottish Readers Respond to David Hume, c. 1750–c. 1820
  • Mark R. M. Towsey (bio)

On 5 February 1762, the Duchess of Atholl wrote to her son about how much she was looking forward to reading the latest volumes of David Hume's History of England (1754–62). She admitted being "very well entertained" by what she had "already read of his historical writings," and added that the latest releases had been "very well spoke of" in the critical press.1 She was not to be disappointed, reporting back to her son on 2 March: "I am just now reading Mr. Hume's History of England, and am more entertained and more instructed (that is to say, I can form more distinct notions, and retain them better in my memory of what were the transactions, laws and customs of the earliest times of this island) than I ever was by any history of England I have read formerly; were you to read it, I'm persuaded you would think your time very well bestowed."2

The duchess's comments reveal a great deal about what David Hume could mean to Scottish readers. He was not just to be admired for his "very pretty style and fine language," but he was also regarded as an edifying authority in the Atholl household, held in high enough trust by the matriarch of the family to be recommended to the son that was destined to inherit one of the greatest titles in Scotland.3 Even so, there was an important note of caution in her commendation of Hume, for though she admired "his style" greatly, she maintained she "should be still fonder of him, did he not show so strong an inclination upon all occasions to have a fling at the clergy, be their profession what it will."4

Hume was a ubiquitous presence in libraries throughout eighteenth-century [End Page 89] Scotland. His History of England was the most widely distributed title of any work by a Scottish author and performed consistently well at every library for which borrowing records survive.5 Meanwhile, the Essays and Treatises (1752) were among the most readily available philosophical books in the country, offering readers a digest of his most significant writing on moral philosophy, literature, politics, and religion—so that despite the notoriously poor performance of the Treatise of Human Nature, most Scottish readers who were willing to do so could cast judgment on his controversial views for themselves.6 However, it is only through surviving evidence of their reading experiences that we can tell whether they really took advantage of this publishing strategy and engaged with Hume's philosophy on their own terms. Commonplace books, marginalia, journals, and personal correspondence demonstrate what Hume meant to readers, how well his ideas were understood, and why his writings were considered a good use of time by many readers less affluent than the Duchess of Atholl.

Of course, the use of such sources in developing an empirical approach to the history of reading is by no means unproblematic.7 Though they do allow us to glimpse the "hows" and "whys" of individual reading experiences, in Robert Darnton's influential phraseology, they are limited in what they can tell us about the wider world of reading.8 Innumerably more acts of reading have taken place in the past that were never committed to paper, not to mention the written responses to books that have been lost or that still lie undiscovered in the closed collections of private libraries. We must therefore be wary of reading too much into our limited evidence. The variable sophistication of the dozen readers surveyed here, coupled with the small size of the sample, makes it difficult to draw meaningful generalizations about how Hume was read in eighteenth-century Scotland. Nevertheless, the case studies that follow illuminate the ways in which readers in Scotland could respond to Hume, even though we have no way of knowing if their attitudes to his works—which usually ranged from passive suspicion to outright resistance—were representative of the larger Scottish reading public.

Perhaps the best illustration of Hume's impact on the lives and thoughts...


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