- John Stuart Blackie: Scottish Scholar and Patriot
In 1874 Oscar Wilde wrote to John Stuart Blackie to announce a forthcoming visit to Edinburgh and declared that ‘the man who comes to Scotland without scenting the heather on the mountain, or talking to you among your books, misses what is best in the land’ (p. 304). Wilde’s view was not eccentric: Blackie was regarded as the great representative of Scottish culture, his conversation a national treasure. When he died obituaries suggested that the old Scotland itself had passed away: ‘The race of the individual, the original, the vernacular, [End Page 365] ends (does it?) with him’, wrote Mrs Oliphant in Blackwood’s. Stuart Wallace, however, finds the comparisons that were made at the time with Scott, Carlyle and Stevenson ‘excessive’ and not ‘a little odd’, given the nature of Blackie’s career. He was an undistinguished but ambitious scholar of the classics who had gained his Chair at the University of Aberdeen in 1839, at the age of thirty, not on academic achievement but on the basis his family’s political influence: ‘the history of the University may be searched in vain for a more atrocious job’, Alexander Bain (a truly distinguished Aberdeen professor in the second half of the nineteenth century) was later to declare.
He also gained some prominence from his resistance to subscribing to the Westminster Confession – which delayed his taking up his chair in Aberdeen for two years – and for his defence of Free Church professors threatened with losing their posts in the aftermath of the Disruption, but was most famous for his informal and theatrical style of lecturing. Much of his writing had been on German culture, for which, like Carlyle, he developed an early enthusiasm, and his work on Greek consisted mainly of a translation of The Lyrical Dramas of Aeschylus, the virtues of which were not sufficiently obvious to prevent Blackie having to pay for its publication. Indeed, the translations were done in some haste to escape ‘from the isolation of Aberdeen’ (p. 150) by having ‘an early throw at an Edinburgh chair’ (p. 143). In the event he won the chair in another contest rigged by external influences–both the influence of his wife’s family in Edinburgh legal circles and the religious conflicts created by the Disruption. Blackie outlined the nature of the contest in a letter pleading for the support of John Blackwood, his publisher: ‘Will you sacrifice me to an English Independent, to a Whig schoolmaster, to a Free Church gambler after Hebrew sorts–me, not ony a translator, but the translator (by your own testimony) of Aeschylus, a genuine Caledonian with a ‘perfervidum ingenium’ – and – a contributor to the Maga’ (p. 169). Playing the religious card (despite his own uncertain religious beliefs), playing the Scottish card (despite his German commitments), playing on his public role as reviewer (despite the academic nature of the appointment he sought), typified not only the multiplicity of Blackie’s interests but the ease with which he could reshuffle them to suit his audience.
Established in the Edinburgh chair, Blackie could give free rein to a temperament dominated by enthusiasms – enthusiasm for the pronunciation of classical Greek in a manner that accorded with modern Greek; for ‘Italianising’ Latin pronunciation; for Gaelic and its relationship to classic Greek; for acquiring friendships with the leading politicians and literary people in England during the long summer vacation; for university reform; for resisting political reform; for land law reform; for Scottish nationalism. All of this made him a prominent cultural figure – sufficiently prominent to be played in pantomime at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh – but though he played the role of being a great writer and thinker, he was, in Wallace’s view, neither. An influential and charismatic figure in his own time, Stuart Wallace reads him as symptomatic of the decline of Scottish culture from its great eighteenth and early nineteenth-century achievement: ‘That Blackie could seriously be regarded as the successor to Aytoun’s father-in...