"This was James Boswell, a young Scotch Lawyer, heir to an honorable name and a fair estate. That he was a coxcomb and a bore, weak, vain, pushing, curious, garrulous, was obvious to all who were acquainted with him. That he could not reason, that he had no wit, no humor, no eloquence, is apparent from his writings."

Macaulay's Essay on Johnson (first published 1856)

Tory and Whig were the opposing political parties in England throughout most of the eighteenth century.

"Tory" is an Irish word that was originally applied to outlaws; however, during the English Restoration period (1660-1688) it became the nickname for supporters of the Duke of York's bid for succession (there was strong opposition to having the openly Roman Catholic James as King of England). After 1689 (James ruled from 1685-1688), the Tories were openly sympathetic to the Stuart cause. By the time of the accession of George III (who ruled from 1760 to 1820), the Tories had developed into a conservative party bent on upholding the Established Church and state and opposing liberalism.

"Whig" is an abbreviation for "Whiggamore," the name first given to raiding parties in Western Scotland and then to Scots Presbyterians. During the English Restoration it became the nickname for those opposed to the succession of the Catholic Duke of York. Again, by the time of George III's reign, the Whigs had developed into a liberal party who stood for liberalization of religious and governmental regulations.

Scottish Poetry

(from The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics)

A brief description of Scottish poetry can be most clearly indicated with the year 1603 in mind. That year took Queen Elizabeth from the English; it also took James VI from his throne in Auld Reekie to sit as James I in Whitehall. The departure of James signified the end of Scotland's identity as a kingdom and the loss of her individual culture. It also closed the first volume of Scottish poetry.

Long before 1603 a Scottish tongue had developed slowly from Northumbrian English to the point where it was regarded as literary. As early as the thirteenth century poets like Rhymer and Huchowne had left their names linked with metrical romances, ballads, and songs. And out of those beginings three figures had emerged to fix in verse-history the national pride of the Scots: John Barbour, author of The Bruce; Andrew of Wyntoun, author of a rhymed chronicle; and Blind Harry, author of The Wallace. Barbour (ca. 1357), first and foremost of these poet-chroniclers, is remembered by Scotland today chiefly because he remembered the men of the Scottish War of Independence as heroes and patriots in such lines as "and certes, thai suld weill hawe pryss / That in thair tyme war wycht and wise, / And led their lyff in gret trawaill, / And oft, in hard stour of bataill, /Wan eycht great price off chewaly, / And was woydyt off cowardy."

In the fifteenth century, when Blind Harry composed his eleven books of heroic couplets on Wallace, James I of Scotland, the reputed poet of The Kingis Quair, was living out his eighteen years of imprisonment in England. Knowledge of Chaucer and Gower gained through these years spread in Scotland upon James's return and became an important stimulus for Scotland's richest body of poetry.

This Renaissance poetry was the work of the Scottish Chaucerians or makars--Henryson, Douglas, and Dunbar--who, like James, held Chaucer and his English imitators as their "maisteris dear." The makars borrowed from Chaucer as he had borrowed from the best in medieval poetry; of such, for example, was their use of the rhyme-royal stanza. More or less on their own, they completed the development of a literary language (Middle Scots) so fully sophisticated and metropolitan that it remained adequate for expressing Scottish culture until English was substituted for that purpose in 1603. Robert Henryson (1425-1503) opened this memorable period with a retelling of the Troilus and Criseyde story, a number of moral fables after Aesop, and Robene and Makyne, perhaps the earliest pastoral in British poetry. Bishop Gavin Douglas of Dunkeld (1474-1522) followed with the first translations of a classic into Scots (Eaneados) in which the prologues, notably that for Book VII, reveal an able poet with the typical Scots poet's eye for the natural scene.

William Dunbar (1463-1535) most severely tested the capabilities of Middle Scots in poems like The Golden Targe (for many his masterpiece), The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, and Ane Ballat of Our Lady. Never long, his poems are often pessimistic, free and brilliant after Horace, forceful, coarse, and sententious. Dunbar employed a variety of metrics (he was the first to write blank verse in the Scots vernacular), a variety of tone--now religious, now violently satiric, now bawdy--and a variety of diction.

The last of the notable figures in this period was Sir David Lyndsay (1490-1557): an early defender of writing for Iok and Thome in the maternal language, the most popular Scots poet before Burns, and the tutor of James V, Lyndsay is known primarily for his Ane Pleasant Satire of the Thrie Estaitis, striking out against the corruption of the clergy and nobles.

With the poetry of the makars and anonymous pieces like Rauf, Coilyear and The Bewteis of the Fute-ball; with the lyrics of poets like Scott and Montgomerie; and with the manuscript collections of Maitand and Bannatyne, which show lyrics and ballads to be the staples of Scottish poetry, national Scotland approached the year of Elizabeth's death and the subsequent loss of its own court and independent life. This loss and the prolonged dissipation of intellectual efforts in theological speculation and controversy make it impossible to name a Scottish poet of high distinction during the entire seventeenth century, not excluding William Drummond, who showed with some success what a Scotsman could compose in English.

Scotland's great corpus of folk poetry, a major part of what is now known as "the Ballads," coexisted with and even predated the court poetry of the makars. These vivid verse narratives, whether of national history (The Battle of Otterbourn), of legendary local feud or farce (Jock o' the Side; Get up and bar the door), or of doomed romance and the supernatural (Edward; Thomas of Ersseldown), reveal constant techniques of dramatic immediacy and economy. The language, stark and nonliterary except for a few often repeated epithets and "kennings," acquires a dynamic urgency from the relentless beat of the ballad rhythm: "At kirk or market where we meet, / We dare nae mair avow"; or evokes "the abomintion of desolation": "Ower his white banes, when they are bare, / The wind sal blaw for evermair"; or freezes us with the shudder of mortality and the unknown: "The cock doth craw, the day doth daw, / The channerin' work doth chide." In their dramatic intensity, their laconic understatment, and their pervasive undertone of grim humor, the ballads come nearer than almost any other literary form to expressing the elemental values of a rugged people for whom struggle was the basic condition of life.

From 1603 to the present day Scotland has produced a number of excellent poets who chose literary English as their medium because they thought it was impossible to write in Scots and yet write seriously. James Thomson (1700-48), poet of The Seasons, Robert Blair, Alexander Ross, James Beattie, and John Home used standard English for the works by which they are remembered. Byron and Campell were Scotsmen, but hardly Scots poets. Sir Walter Scott's long poems are in English, so are such later works as James Thomson's (1834-82) The City of Dreadful Night and Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses.

Modern Scottish poetry--to be distinguished from that of the makars and of those poets coming after them who wrote principally in English--had rather inauspicious beginnings in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as literary jokes like Semple's Epitaph of Habbie Simpson, and Allan Ramsay's burlesque elegy on John Cooper, a kirk treasurer who could smell out a bawd. Because of the vogue of pastoral poetry, Ramsay selected Scots also for his poetic drama The Gentle Shepherd and by so doing increased the growing sentiment that Scots with its rural origin and popular character encouraged a homely directness of approach and was well suited to express simple ideas.

Ramsay, Robert Fergusson, and Robert Burns all were discontented with the lowly state of Scottish verse during their time; yet all three, the only Scotsmen to write significant Scottish poetry in the eighteenth century, were fully aware that exclusive use of Scots had become the mark of the vulgar. Ramsay's poetry became the principal source of Fergusson's, whose poetry, in turn, became the principal source of Burns's. The types which all three favored were the epistle, ode, elegy, and satire--Ramsay and Burns being interested, moreover, in the song. All three poets relied heavily upon four verse forms: the octosyllabic couplet, the standard "Habbie," the heroic couplet, and the Christ's Kirk Stanza. Fergusson and Burns were successful also in the Spenserian stanza, introduced to Scottish poetry by Fergusson.

Such poetry as Fergusson's gave to Burns the example of completely free self-expression in Scots--something unknown to Ramsay. But the poetry of Burns is most easily distinguishable from that of Fergusson by its power of concentrating thought upon theme. Not only such powers as this, but also Burns's wisdom in staying away from standard English or using it sparingly for a particular effect is evident. . . .

Natural Poets

Periodically during the eighteenth century, so-called natural poets--sometimes called primitives or peasant poets--were discovered. The list is long, even when naming only a few: Mary Collier, the washerwoman poet; Robert Dodsley, the footman poet; Stephen Duck, the thresher poet; Henry Jones, the Irish bricklayer poet; James Woodhouse, the poetical shoemaker; Ann Yearsley, the Bristol Milkwoman poet. These poets were touted as self-taught versifiers who brought the nobility of "nature" to their poetry. In fact, most of these poets had a strong basic education. Their telling feature was not their unlettered backgrounds, but rather their lower-class and, most often, rural backgrounds.

Infatuation with primitivism and the cult of "the noble savage" is typical of the eighteenth century. Primitivism took the form of revolt against luxury; accordingly, there are poems throughout the century that celebrate the "simple" life. The writings of Rousseau were especially influential, prompting debate over the natural goodness of man and the inevitable corruptions of civilization.

In many ways, Robert Burns can be seen as the greatest of the natural poets. By virtue of the quality of his verse, he certainly stands apart from the others.

The Scottish Enlightenment

(adapted from The Oxford Companion to English Literature)

The Scottish Enlightenment is a phrase used to describe an intellectual movement originating in Glagow, Scotland in the early eighteenth century but reaching its fruition mainly in Edinburgh between 1750 and 1800. Several threads are traceable in the attitudes of the scientists, philosophers and literati associated with the movement, although no single tenet was held by all: a deep concern for the practical implications and social benefits of their enquiries (proclaimed as leading to 'improvement'), an emphasis on the inter-connection between separable human practices, and an interest in the philosophical principles underlying them.

The political, economic and social thought of Hume, Adam Smith (Boswell attended his lectures as a student at the University of Glasgow), and Ferguson was particularly influential in France and America, and the works of Reid and Steward played a central role in the development of American college education. Scotland also gained an international reputation for the intelligence of its scientists and the skill of its physicians.

Although steeped in the same cultural current, Boswell and Burns are not usually considered as part of this movement. Their religious beliefs and their typically eighteenth-century views on science and philosophy align them with an older well-spring of traditional thought.

Coll & Simson

Coll, whose name (not ancestral title) was Donald Maclean, was the young Laird of the Island of Coll. James Brady, writing of the events immediately following the storm, describes both island and Laird.

Coll, safely reached, turned out to be one extended low-lying rock, covered with sand and heath. Persistent bad weather kept them there ten days. Fortunately, they took to young Coll, a Highland chief of the best new kind. He was small, brisk, and shockingly informal with his people. He was also determined to import the new crops and farming methods he had learned in England. Already he had introduced turnips, despite local scepticism, and the natives had learned, as Johnson puts it, "that turnips will really grow, and that hungry sheep and cows will really eat them." Johnson and Boswell found him independent, good-humoured, and unfailingly helpful. His island was less attractive. They quickly exhausted its antiquities and curiosities, not overlooking two rocks which a giant and his mistress had thrown at each other. (Frank Brady, James Boswell: The Later Years 1769-1795, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1984, p. 76)

Simson, Boswell relates, was a gentleman from Islay who happened to harbor at Armadale at the time when Boswell, Johnson, and Coll wanted to sail to other islands. He obligingly agreed to take them to their destination.

Plausible Themes

In a general sense, the themes that can be identified in these works depends on the reader. Someone will see great similarities between the pieces and label the profound ideas as themes; someone else will only see four works related in time, but little else.

We offer a few plausible themes. You may not find them readily apparent in the works; you may see others.