History of Leith, Edinburgh

October 30, 2007

John Home, Patriot, Minister, Dramatist.

A man that hath friends must show himself friendly. Prov. xviii. 24.
Two centuries ago there lived in Quality Street Alexander Home, Town Clerk of Leith. He was of honourable descent, being a descendant of Sir John Home, with whom came into prominence the family of which the head is the Earl of Home. His son, the subject of our lecture this evening, was always pardonably proud of his family connection.

I have not been able to find out anything about the town clerk or his wife which would throw light on the talents of their distinguished son. He attended the Grammar School of Leith, then under the charge of the Session of this ancient church. All that we are told of his schooldays by his biographers is that he had a distinguished course in school and afterwards in the University of Edinburgh. How one would have rejoiced to have some anecdotes of those early days, revealing, as they were bound to have done, in an interesting way that the child is father of the man. The art of biography was not understood in these days. Literary men had not taken to heart the example set for all time by Boswell in his Life of John If Boswell had applied his gift to the delineation of the men with whom he was familiar in Edinburgh, what a picture of eighteenth century life we would have had! But as it is, Henry Mac ken2ie, the Man of Feeling, gives us a sketch of his friend which is a good specimen of the work of the time. Sir Walter Scott and others who dealt with the famous men of the time help to fill in many details, for Home touched the careers of so many that reflections of his genial and friendly nature are to be seen in many diaries and biographies.
Fixed in the outer wall of the south aisle of the church many of you have gazed to-day on the simple and unpretentious monument to John Home. It reads thus
In memory of
JOHN HOME,
Author of the Tragedy of Douglas, etc. etc. etc. Born 13th September 1722.
Died 4th September 1808.
These dates differ somewhat from those accepted to-day. He is said to have been born on 22nd September and to have died on 5th September. The first date is evidently the Old Style date corrected for the New Style. The ministers of South Leith at that date were Rev. John Shaw in the First Charge, and Rev. James Stevenson, M.A., in the Second Charge.
It is only when we come to College days that we come upon traces of the circles in which he moved. Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, and Carlyle, afterwards minister of Inveresk, were among his companions. It is a great thing to have inspiring friends. All through life John Home was fortunate in this respect of course there must have been something in himself which attracted others. It was more his ability to admire and to see the best in everybody than his intellectual distinction which formed the magnet, although we are told by everybody that he was a student of distinction. Always he exemplified without effort the words He that hath friends must show himself friendly. If he loved praise himself, he equally loved to bestow it. It was quizzically said of him by Principal Robertson that he never would believe that his friends were ill until he heard that they were dead. His friends were something beyond the level of ordinary mortals I No wonder that he came like a sunbeam into a room, filling all hearts with pleasure ; it was natural that when he withdrew every one began to feel dull. Providence had lent him a gift which the great majority may envy.
He finished the course of studies laid down for the ministry in April 1 74b. Soon afterwards Prince Charlie raised his standard in the High lands and swept down on the Capital, which was filled with unwarlike citizens quite unprepared to face his wild clansmen. Volunteers were mustered, among whom John Home naturally found himself. He was, as were his associates, Whigs, sensible of the value of the new policy which cane in with William of Orange. They knew by intuition that with a Romanist King there was bound to be a reaction in politics to absolutism and in religion to Episcopacy. The Presbyterians of that time were near enough the days of Charles II and James VII to under stand what that meant. When resistance to the occupation of Edinburgh was hopeless, the ardent Home and his friends journeyed out to Durham to join Sir John Cope. Tradition has it that they visited every tavern on the way to drink confusion to the Pretender. It is very amusing to read that the battle of Prestonpans was over before they had risen from their beds in the manse hard by, and had to busy them selves as helpers of the sick in order to escape being taken prisoners after that inglorious fight. Capture, however, came very soon. With some other officers he was seized after the equally disgraceful battle of Falkirk. Imprisoned in Lord Morays castle at Doune, he planned a daring escape and carried it out. Weaving a rough rope of bedclothes, they let themselves down from a window. Long afterwards in 1778, Home revived his military ardour, and enlisted in the South Fencibles, a regiment raised by the Duke of Buecleuch. Unfortunately he fell more than once from his horse, and so injured his skull that his brain never was so clear after wards. He seems to have lost the ambition and the power to produce plays; even his History of the Rebellion written after that date does not display his erstwhile vigour.
About a year after his early patriotic adventures, he took licence as a preacher, and became minister of Athelstaneford being presented to that living by Sir John Kinloch of Gilmerton. He did not live at the manse, but at a house in the village, where he was very fond of entertaining his ministerial and literary friends, among them Jupiter Carlyle of Inveresk, and Robertson, who was then minister of Glademuir. Robert Blair, the author of The Grave, had preceded him in Athelstaneford. His fame may have turned the attention of Home to poetry, but probably it was that innate mysterious spring of genius within which turned the current of his life as he read his classics, especially Plutarchs Lives of famous men in Greece and Rome. Agis, a king of Sparta, was the hero upon whom his romantic fancy fixed. When at last the drama was finished, he saddled his nag Percy and set out for London to interview Garrick, the great actor. He bad good introductions with him, for his Edinburgh friends were very influential, among them one to the elder William Pitt. But it was in vain. He had to return home with his play in his pocket. I have read the piece, and think that it has plenty of life, excitement and movement. When once you have the history of Athens and Sparta as a background, you realise the utter magnanimity of Agis, the difficulties woven by love and friendship which Lysander had to overcome, and the villainy of Amphares. There seems to be a curious likeness among literary villains; witness Homes Amphares here, his Glenalvon in Douglas and Shakespeares Iago the arch villain of literature. In his disappointment Home wandered about Westminster Abbey. An inspiration seized him at the monument to Shakespeare, and he found mental relief for his distress in these lines:
Image of Shakespeare! To this place I come
To ease my bursting bosom at thy tomb.
For neither Greek nor Roman poet fired
My fancy first, thee chiefly I admired.
And day and night revolving still my page,
I hoped like thee to shake the British stage.
But cold neglect is now my only meed,
And heavy falls it on so proud a head.
If powers above now listen to my lyre,
Charm them to grant indulgent my desire.
Let petrifaction stop this falling tear,
And fix my form for ever marble here.
He had then an ambition which might almost be called overweening. It must have been the spur of it which drove him to dramatise the story contained in the old ballad of Gil Morrice. His friends, as before, were consulted at every point. Eventually in 1755 he set out for London once more to try his stage fortune. Garrick was adamant a second time. When flame returned his friends were furious, ascribing the rejection to English jealousy. Have the Southerners not had some cause to be jealous of our invasion of their coasts? From the throne downwards, by way of archbishoprics and the first position in the State, in business and in Society, they have been exploited by the adaptable and persevering Scot. You may be wondering what attention his cure of souls had been receiving during this absorbing literary decade. He wrote many sermons which have not been published. On the back of many of these spiritual productions copies of verses, parts of his various dramas were scribbled down. This shows the strength of the ruling dramatic passion. He was, and could hardly have escaped being, very popular with his parishioners. Copious tears attended the de livery of his farewell sermon after his resignation of the living in 1757. When he built his house of Kilduff after his return from London about fourteen years from that date, his former parishioners insisted on carting and providing much of the stone and other material employed in its construction. It was quite on the borders of Athelstaneford. If clever men are often distant and cold, Homes geniality proved the exception, and won him liking among the simple country folks. On the other side of the account we must reckon that saintly men often do not succeed in preventing their self-discipline revealing its painfulness in a certain sourness of expression. Happy are they who can cover it over and conceal it beneath a gracious manner. But to return to Douglas, for that was the play which had flashed before the mind of the poet when he heard Gil Morrice sung. Theatres were not looked on with favour in Scotland. There was one in the Canongate, tolerated in a shamefaced sort of a way. By the company of English actors who were there Douglas was played before crowded houses. Even some of the ministers were present, some in inconspicuous corners, others like Jupiter Carlyle, where everybody could see them. The first thunders of applause were soon followed by the inevitable downpour of the storm. Church people generally were against the theatre. They do not seem to have thought that it might be elevated. Only short-sighted critics will refuse to understand and allow for their attitude. The Killing Times were not far distant in the past. Charles H., the unworthy persecutor of the Covenanters, patronised a licentious and corrupt stage, and one at least of his mistresses was an actress. Could the Restoration stage find favour with the descendants of men who had suffered so severely at the hands of the tyrannical, the pleasure-loving, the licentious? Simplicity of faith and form tends to austerity, just as ornate ness and ritual tend to an easier dealing with the vital things of character. Until the last fifty years or so, the theatre has never been so much in favour with the churches of simpler form as it has been with those whose worship itself is dramatic in form and intention. Several of the ministers who dared to be present at the first performances of Douglas were dealt with by their Presbyteries. Even the bold Carlyle had to bend before the storm. In the end home thought it best to resign his charge. By this time he had made the acquaintance, through the Duke of Argyle, the virtual Secretary for Scot land, and his factotum, Lord Milton, of the Earl of Bute, who appointed him tutor to the Prince of Wales. So Douglas, after its successful run in Edinburgh, was produced in London, though by the actor Rich, and not by Garrick. It be came the rage. Gray, the author of the Elegy, was so carried away that he said of Home,
The author seems to have retrieved the true language of the stage, which has been lost for a hundred years, and there is one scene (between Lady Randolph and the stranger) so masterly that it strikes one blind to all its defects.We must therefore almost forgive the enthusiastic Scot who, when the curtain had fallen after a London performance. exclaimed Where is your Wullie Shakespere noo ? Home never scored success with any of his other plays. Some of them are quite interesting to read, especially Agis, if the student knows anything about the history of Greece. The Fatal Discovery might have been included in the category, if Home had not been carried off his feet at the close of the first successful performance, thus defeating the strategy of Garrick, who put it on the stage and acted the leading part himself. Knowing how the Scots were disliked in London after the Prime Ministership of Bute, he gave out that the Fatal Discevery was by an Oxford student. But Home unfortunately could not remain behind the scenes when the concluding plaudits burst forth. The appearance of a Scottish author whose love of praise had got the better of his discretion ruined his own chances of popularity It was indeed a Fatal Discovery in more senses than one!
The preacher of this evening has known of Douglas from early childhood. His father, no more a theatregoer than he is himself, loved to quote the lines;
My name is Norval. On the Grampian Hills My father feeds his flock, a frugal swain.
His constant care was to increase his store
And keep his only son myself at home.
But I had heard of battles, and I longed
To follow to the field some warlike lord,
And heaven soon granted what my sire denied.
As compared with the elaborate intricacy of the plot of so many of Shakespeares plays there is a simplicity about Douglas, including a much smaller range of characters, which might attract the modern mind, if the play were to be revived. The reader is carried on with a great rush such as captures you in a good story. The formality of the stilted language of the period is no more wearisome than the rich pictures which Shakespeare compresses into a phrase, entangling the imagination. The villain Glenalvon is easier to follow through his maze of intrigue, than Iago is in the tortuous labyrinth which the poet causes him to construct for his victims. In Norval and old Norval, in Lord and Lady Randolph, when all deductions are made, there are sketched for us characters revealing the heights and depths, the fervours and nobilities, of virtue. It is baffling to think that our fore fathers could find fault with the play. If a formal movement for the purifying of the stage could have been inaugurated in the eighteenth century, Douglas might well have been chosen as a worthy weapon. John Home did not lose anything in the worldly sense by giving up the Church. First of all he had a brief pension from the Dowager Princess of Wales, which was soon exchanged for one of £300 a year worth nearly three times that sum to-day from her son George III. This was soon followed by his appointment to the sinecure office of Conservator of the Privileges of Campvere, then a derelict Scots settlement in Holland. He had a second £300 for this nominal position. Besides, he acted as secretary to Lord Bute when he was Prime Minister. If these things came to him easily, he was well known as a warm friend to all aspiring Scots in the Metropolis. His plays
also enriched him, so that he was able, about 1770, to build the mansionhouse of Kilduff on the borders of his old parish. It was then that he married the daughter of the minister of Polwarth. They had no family. Though she was never very robust, like many invalids she lived longer even than her long-lived husband. here, as afterwards at Hanover Street, Edinburgh, he dispensed a continuous and a lavish hospitality to a large circle of friends, which is amusingly described by Sir Walter Scott, who knew Home well when he was a young man, in his review of Homes Life written by Henry Mackenzie, the Man of Feeling. The only work which he seems to have accomplished in these long years of lessening vitality was a History of the Rebellion of 1745. if he been a disciple of his friends Home and Robertson, he might have written the authoritative history of the period. In addition, the story by an eyewitness and participant might have been fascinating. But by his unwillingness to say anything which might offend the Royal Family the Duke of Cumberland was the Kings uncle he turned his book into a tame and formal story, unless in the parts vivified by his own personal experience.
Friendship entailed no effort on Homes part. His nature was open, genial, with difficulty thinking evil of any one. He lived among his literary friends, not only in Scotland, but also in England. A rapid survey of some of these may be interesting. A friend in the regiment who escaped with him from Doune Castle belonged to Winchester, where Home visited him when on one of his early visits to England. By him Home was introduced to Collins, who afterwards dedicated to him his celebrated Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands. Gray has already been mentioned. Samuel Johnson must often have met him in company with Boswell. Perhaps there was a spice of envy in the old literary dictator, arising from his inability to handle patrons in this a bad second to Homes which led to pass this summary verdict on Douglas There are not ten good lines in the whole play. But a play, like a speech, may be powerful although it has no good phrases. Voltaire knew John Home, and paid him the curious compliment of using his name to cover, as a blind, a work of his own, speaking thus Home, pastor of the Kirk of Edinburgh, already known by his fine tragedies produced in Edinburgh Macpherson of Ossian fame was discovered by Home when on a visit to Moffat, and was introduced by him to his Edinburgh literary set. Through all his strange career Home remained faithful to this manof mystery. F Macpherson made a financial success of life, and at his death left £2000 to Home. Principal Robertson, the great leader of the Moderates in the Church, had been a fellow-student, and was a lifelong friend. Home used to appear in the General Assembly, after his resignation of Athelstaneford, arrayed in the striking uniform of the Fencibles a most unusual thing in those days. He always spoke in favour of Dr. Robertsons policy a policy, I may remark, which was afterwards to have such evil fruits that the Church was rent in twain.
The national poet, on his visit to Edinburgh, is bound to have spoken to Home. In adulatory lines he thus refers to Douglas among others
Here History paints with elegance and force The tide of Empire s fluctuating course;
Here Douglas forms wild Shakespeare into plan, And Harley rouses all the God in man.
But his greatest friend, not even excepting Adam Smith, the absent-minded author of The
Wealth of Nations, was David Hume, one of the worlds greatest philosophers. Apart front his
philosophy, he was probably no more an un believer than the majority of the able men around him, or than, say, the brilliant and subtle author of Philosophic Doubt in our own day. John Home and David Hume were continually poking fun at one another. When John
got married, David said to him,I wonder what made you take her. Johns reply was apt,
though scarcely gallant If I had not taken her, who would have done it? The ladys looks inclined to the plain side evidently. An other story proves that she exemplified the saying, Homekeeping wits have ever homely sense. When he also was very old, Adam
Ferguson paid a visit to the Homes. When he spoke of the Peace of Amiens, just concluded, the lady asked, Will it make onie difference in the price of nitmugs? It was a thinking age. Very few abstained from ale or wine, except me like Black and Hutton the geologist. Adam Ferguson was one of them. Taking a shock at sixty, he lived to the age of ninety-three on vegetables and milk and water, hale and hearty. But John and David differed over claret and port, John preferring the French wine and David the Portuguese. They also constantly deb4ed about the spelling of their clan name. Was it Home or flume? It was pronounced the same way. David wished to settle the variance by drawing lots. Nay, said John, that is an extraordinary proposal for if you lose, you take your own name; and if I lose, I take another mans name I On another occasion the conversation turned on a young man who had gone astray, misappropriating money. Need you wonder said John home. He had only two books in his library. One of these was Bostons Fourfold State (a famous evangelical book of the period), and the other David Humes Essays. On this occasion we are told that David was rather nettled. The controversy about the name and the wines was carried to the very edge of the grave, David getting the last word, for he put it into his will, leaving so much of his claret to Home on condition that he would sign a certificate John Hume that he had drunk a bottle of Humes Port. Adam Smith and John home were on their way to Edinburgh from London in 1776, when they met David Hume at Morpeth making his way to Bath; he was in his last illness. They brought him back at last to Edinburgh to die. l was cheerful and composed to the last as befitted a philosopher. Who can tell what intimate talk concerning a future state the three of them entered into ? From Socrates on it has always been a preoccupation of philosophers as well as of the humble. Sir Walter Scott. in the article referred to, draws an affecting picture of a meeting of the Poker Club, which was held in Homes house either in Hanover Street or Merchiston, at which he, a young advocate, was the only man present under eighty years of age. It was too sad. The former vivacity was gone beyond recall. Home died within a few days of the completion of his eighty-sixth year.

source-South Leith Records

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