The History of Leith

March 7, 2011

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 aling, attended the Grammar School of Leith, then under the charge of the Session of South Leith parish Church. All that we are told about his Schooldays by his biographers is that he tad a distinguished course at School afterwards in the University of Edinburgh.
How one would have rejoiced to have some anecdotes of those early days, revealing 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
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 Mackenzie, 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
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 fterwards minister of Inveresk, were among his companions. It isFerguson, William Robertson, and Carlyle, a 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! 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 1745. Soon afterwards Prince Charlie raised his standard in the Highlands 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 came 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 understand what that meant. When resistance to the occupation of Edinburgh was hopeless, the ardent Home and his friends journeyed out to Dunbar 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 themselves 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 Moray’s 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 Buccleuch. Unfortunately he fell more than once from his horse, and so injured his skull that his brain never was so clear afterwards. 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 Gladsmuir.
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 Plutarch’s 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 ” Piercy ” and set out for London to interview Garrick, the great actor. He had
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 Home’s Amphares here, his Glenalvon in Douglas, and Shakespeare’s lago, 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 arid 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
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.

To be continued

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