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Significant Scots
Patrick Fraser Tytler

TYTLER, PATRICK FRASER.—The rarest, as well as the most valuable inheritance that can be transmitted, is certainly that of a high intellectual organization; and when great mental qualities are continued in their descent through more than a single generation, a family aristocracy is established, with which mere hereditary rank and title cannot compete. The Douglasses of old, the Hunters, Gregories, Napiers, and Malcolms of modern times; are proofs of the assertion. With these can be classed the honoured name of the subject of this memoir. He was the son of Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, whose writings as a lawyer, professor of universal history, critic, and biographer are too well known to require enumeration; and grandson of William Tytler of Woodhouselee, the generous champion of Mary Queen of Scots, and successful investigator of our ancient national history and literature. Thus, for nearly a century, the labours of these distinguished three have followed in uninterrupted succession, and been almost exclusively devoted to the illustration of the annals of our country.

Patrick Fraser Tytler was born at Edinburgh, on the 30th of August, 1791, and was the fourth son of Lord Woodhouselee. His early education was commenced at the high-school of his native city, where he had for his preceptors, Mr. (afterwards Professor) Christison, and Dr. Adam the rector of the institution. On leaving the high-school he entered the university of Edinburgh in 1805, and went through the usual course of literary and philosophical studies necessary for the study of the law, having chosen the Scottish bar for his destination. Besides the eminent public teachers, who at this time occupied the literary chairs in the high-school and college of Edinburgh, Mr. Tytler was so fortunate as to have for his private tutor the Rev. John Black, a highly accomplished scholar, who in 1810 published a "Life of Tasso," and was afterwards minister of Coylton, in Ayrshire.

It frequently happens, both at school and college, that those who afterwards distinguish themselves in authorship, give no correspondent promise of the eminence they are destined to attain; as diligent and ambitious as their class-fellows, they yet pass on without notice, and are little heard of, until, it may be, they burst out in full strength, and take the public attention by storm. In such cases, however, it will generally be found, that the young student has higher aims than those of his companions; that he is silently training himself for a great achievement; and that, in such a process, he does not mistake the gymnasium for the battle-field, or waste his energies upon mere tyro-skirmishing or prize-fighting. Such seems to have been the case with the future historian of Scotland, during the course of his early education. It has been stated by one who was his class fellow for years, that he was of an amiable temper and greatly beloved by all his companions; and that he always held a respectable place in the class, without distinguishing himself in any particular manner.

After having ended his studies at the university, Mr. Tytler underwent his public examinations, and was admitted into the faculty of Advocates on the 3d of July, 1813. In his case, however, the law, as a profession, had few attractions, compared with those of literature and historical research, and therefore, after some desultory practice, he finally abandoned the bar for the more congenial work of authorship. An event also occurred, after he had worn the barrister’s gown scarcely a twelvemonth, that must have had some influence in confirming his choice. This was the peace of 1814, by which the Continent, and especially France, were thrown open to British tourists, and the spirit of travel set free to wander where it listed. Like many of our young inquirers who were eager in this way to finish their studies, Mr. Tytler availed himself of the opportunity, by making a tour through France and Belgium; and the companions of his journey on this occasion were Mr. (afterwards Sir Archibald) Alison, the well-known historian of modern Europe, and the present Lord Justice Clerk Hope. In the year following (1815) a work was published anonymously in Edinburgh in two volumes, small octavo, under the title of "Travels in France during the years 1814-5, comprising a residence at Paris during the stay of the Allied Armies, and at Aix at the period of the landing of Bonaparte." This work was the production of Mr. Alison, and in his acknowledgment, that in preparing it, he was "indebted to the journals of a few friends who had preceded him in their visit to the capital" (Paris), he is believed to have especial reference to the communications of Mr. Tytler. After this modest entrance into authorship, by placing a supply of the raw material in the hands of an able workman, Mr. Tytler made a bolder advance by adventuring original compositions of his own, in the pages of the Edinburgh and Blackwood’s Magazine. Of these anonymous productions, by which he tried his early strength, and put himself in training for higher efforts, two have been mentioned: these were, a "Life of Michael Scott," the Merlin or Friar Bacon of North Britain; and a fragment, under the title of a "Literary Romance," in which as much of a tale was supplied as gave work to the imagination of the reader, and enabled him to form a conclusion for himself.

A mind so well stored could not long remain contented with the transient efforts of journalism; and Mr. Tytler’s first work, which was published in Edinburgh in 1819, clearly indicated the course of his studies, while it gave promise of the historical accessions which he was afterwards to contribute to the annals of his country. This was his "Life of James Crichton of Cluny, commonly called the Admirable Crichton"—a personage of whose learning and varied talents such wonderful tales had been told, that posterity had begun to class him with King Arthur, and the other mythic heroes of old British history, who people the fairy regions of Avalon. This work was so favourably received by the public, that a second edition of it, corrected and enlarged, with an Appendix of Original Papers, was published in 1823.

The next literary production of Mr. Tytler was "An Account of the Life and Writings of Sir Thomas Craig of Riccarton, including Biographical Sketches of the most eminent Legal Characters from the institution of the Court of Session by James V., till the period of the Union of the Crowns." This was published in Edinburgh in 1823.

A third work, also biographical, was published by Mr. Tytler, but anonymously, in 1826. This was the "Life of John Wicklyff," the English Reformer.

These productions, laborious though they were, from the antiquarian toil and research they had occasioned, were considered by him as only light preludes to the far more important work which he now contemplated. The circumstances that first led to such an undertaking are worthy of notice. Mr. Tytler having, during the course of a summer excursion, paid a visit to Abbotsford, was received with that warm-hearted welcome, and ushered into that choice intellectual society, for which the illustrious owner and his hall were at all times so distinguished; and during the hours of that happy evening, tale, and song, and literary discussion, and old remembrances, followed each other in rich and rapid succession. Matters, however, of more lasting moment occupied, as usual, the mind of Sir Walter Scott, and during the evening he took Mr. Tytler aside for the purpose of some bye-conversation. It was to advise him to write a HISTORY OF SCOTLAND. He had long, in common with many of our most distinguished countrymen, felt the want of such a work; [In a letter written upon this subject, A.D. 1823, Sir Walter Scott thus summed up our national deficiency:—"We are still but very indifferently provided with Scotch histories of a general description. Lord Hailes’ ‘Annals’ are the foundation-stone, and an excellent book, though dryly written. Pinkerton, in two very unreadable quartos, which yet abound in information, takes up the thread where Hailes drops it—and then you have Robertson, down to the union of the crowns. But I would beware of task-work, which Pinkerton at least must always be, and I would relieve him (his correspondent’s pupil) every now and then by looking at the pages of old Pitscottie, where events are told with so much naivete, and even humour, and such individuality, as it were, that it places the actors and scenes before the reader. The whole history of James V. and Queen Mary may be read to great advantage in the elegant Latin of Lesly, bishop of Ross, and collated with the account which his opponent Buchanan, in language still more classical, gives of the same eventful reigns. Laing is but a bad guide through the 17th century, yet I hardly know where a combined account of these events is to be had, so far as Scotland is concerned."] and several years before this period he had himself been almost persuaded by the publishers to undertake so congenial a task, and had thought that, by interspersing the narrative with romantic anecdotes, illustrative of the manners of his countrymen, he might produce a work such as the public would gladly welcome. He had, indeed, he added, made a partial commencement, in the form of an introductory essay— the same which was afterwards published in the "Quarterly Review" for January, 1816, as an article upon the Culloden Papers. But on thinking further on the subject, he found difficulties in his way which, in his (Sir Walter’s) case, could not easily be surmounted. He saw that a Scottish history must be something more important than a popular romance; and that although the materials for it were so abundant in the form of national records, old Scottish authors, public and private documents, and other such sources, yet the task of digesting, elucidating, and arranging these materials, would engross more time than he could spare. He also found that the task must be pursued not only in Scotland, but in London, among the national archives, and wherever else such information could be found—a kind of labour which his official duties and other avocations would completely prevent. Perceiving these difficulties, he had abandoned the alluring enterprise, notwithstanding his conviction that a History of Scotland had still to be written, and his own wish to supply the deficiency; and he had at last settled into the purpose of attempting nothing more in this way than a collection of historical anecdotes for the young, such as might impress upon their memories the brave and good deeds of illustrious Scotsmen, and inspire them with sentiments of nationality. [This Sir Walter Scott accomplished by his "Tales of a Grandfather," published in 1827. The precise year of this interview between Sir Walter and Mr. Tytler, has been unfortunately forgot; but as the indefatigable author of "Waverley," was not accustomed to dally with a purpose he had once formed, the conversation probably occurred in the summer of the previous year.]

All this, as the reader may perceive, was preparatory to an advice—a request. It was nothing less than that Mr. Tytler himself should be the historian of Scotland. Here Sir Walter did not fail to urge upon his young friend such motives as might incite him to the attempt. It was one that would be most congenial to his previous studies and pursuits. It would concentrate upon one great aim those efforts which he had expended upon a variety of subjects. It would gratify his patriotic feelings as a Scot, as well as his predilections for historical writing. The work itself would indeed be long and laborious; but then he had the advantage of youth on his side, so that he might live to complete it; and if it were written under a deep conviction of the importance of historical truth, what a permanent benefit it would prove to his country! Finally, Sir Walter finished his persuasions, in his own kind, characteristic manner, by offering to Mr. Tytler all the assistance in his power, not only in obtaining admission to all the repositories in which the materials were contained, but his best advice in pursuing the necessary investigations.

This was a memorable conversation in the life of Mr. Tytler: it was the turning-point of his literary career, the bias by which his whole after-course was directed. Deeply and anxiously he mused upon it, on his evening ride homeward to the mansion of Yair, where at that time he was sojourning; and it was after he had forded the Tweed at Bordside that he gave vent to his imprisoned feelings, by rehearsing to his friend who accompanied him, the whole tenor of the dialogue. On being asked how he liked the suggestion, he replied, that the undertaking had a very formidable appearance—and that though he had always been attached to historical pursuits, and was ambitious of becoming a historian, he had never conceived the idea of writing the history of his own country, from the peculiar difficulties that lay in the way of such an attempt, and in making it what he thought a History of Scotland ought to be; now, however, he felt otherwise, and would lay the suggestion to heart, not only on account of the quarter from which it had come, but the assistance that had been so kindly promised. The resolution on which he finally settled he must have arrived at promptly, and followed up with almost immediate action, by which he stood committed to a lifetime of work in a new sphere of occupation, and to whatever, in the shape of success or failure, it might chance to bring him. The devotedness of a hero who saves his country, or of a legislator who regenerates it, may be matched by the devotedness of him who records their deeds. The historian who evolves the full truth of a Marathon or Bannockburn fight from the remote obscurity in which it is clouded, may have had as hard and heroic a task as he who has achieved it.

It was in the summer of 1828 that the first volume of Tytler’s "History of Scotland" issued from the press. As it was only the first instalment of a large promise, the public received it as such; and while its merits were felt, the language of criticism was cautious and measured, although both commendation and hopeful encouragement were by no means withheld. The rest of the work followed at intervals; and as each successive volume appeared, the general approbation was deepened: it was soon felt and acknowledged that a truly national history was now in progress, to supersede the fragmentary records in which the Scottish nationality had been hampered and confined. At length the whole was completed in the winter of 1843, when the ninth and last volume appeared. His task was ended, and the author thus gracefully bade it adieu in the last paragraph:—"It is with feelings of gratitude, mingled with regret, that the author now closes this work—the history of his country—the labour of little less than eighteen years: gratitude to the Giver of all good, that life and health have been spared to complete, however imperfectly, an arduous undertaking; regret that the tranquil pleasures of historical investigation, the happy hours devoted to the pursuit of truth, are at an end, and that he must at last bid farewell to an old and dear companion." The completed history was now before the world, but it had not needed to wait thus long to establish the lasting reputation which it now possesses. The generous labour, the indefatigable research, and lucid order by which it is so eminently distinguished; the always deepening interest of the narrative, and increasing eloquence of the style, by which the work gathers and grows in attractiveness to the last, were felt not only by the learned and critical, but the reading public at large, so that even those who could not coincide with the author in his views of the Scottish Reformation, and the agencies by which it was effected, were yet compelled to acknowledge the honesty, the modesty, and the disinterestedness with which his statements were announced, as well as the strong array of evidence with which they were apparently corroborated. With his Tory and high church Episcopalian principles, and with the strange documents in his hands, which he had rescued from the dust of ages, and brought for the first time to the light of day, they could not well imagine how he could have written otherwise. Such was the conviction even of those who entered the field against him, armed with opposite views, and counter-evidence to make them good. A sublunary history wholly divested of sublunary feelings would not be worth reading.

Although Tytler’s "History of Scotland" is complete in itself, as far as the original aim and purpose of the author are concerned, yet when the whole was concluded, he felt, in common with many whose opinion he respected, that a still more ample field should have been comprised. Thus, he commenced with the reign of Alexander III., the prelude to the wars of Scottish independence, because it is only from this point that our national history can be properly authenticated. Edward I., who made such wild havoc with the Scottish muniments, so that no trace of Scotland as an independent kingdom should ever be found, was unable to annihilate the memory of the prosperity he had destroyed, the cruelties he had perpetrated, and the gallantry with which his usurpation had been overthrown; these were burnt in, as with a branding-iron, upon Scottish memory to the end of time, and Edward, by his work of demolition, only erected himself into a notorious pillar, to form a new starting-point for the national history to commence its glorious career. Tytler, however, knew that a stirring and eventful era had gone before, and that the early boyhood and youth of Scotland was not only full of interest, but a subject of intense curiosity; and doubly difficult though the task would have been, he had resolved, even long before the history was ended, to explore this mythic period, and avail himself of such facts and probabilities as it afforded, in the form of a preliminary dissertation. Such was his purpose, which his previous investigations had well fitted him to effect; and all that he required was only a breathing interval, after the nine volumes of his history had been finished. But that interval, in his case so needed, could not restore the active brain and buoyant spirit that had already accomplished their appointed duty, and accomplished it so well! He had also purposed to terminate his history, not at the union of the two crowns of England and Scotland under James I., but of the two kingdoms under Anne; but here he found the incidents so voluminous, and withal so difficult to sift, condense, and arrange, as would have formed a task equal to all his past labours, and required a new lifetime for its fulfilment, so that the design was abandoned.

During the long space of nearly eighteen years, in which Mr. Tytler was employed in the "History of Scotland," this, although his greatest, was not his only literary production; and during occasional intervals he published the following works, which of themselves would have been reckoned a considerable amount of authorship:—

"Lives of Scottish Worthies," in three volumes 12mo. Published in Murray’s "Family Library." London, 1831-23. Volume 1  |  Volume 2  |  Volume 3

"Historical View of the Progress of Discovery on the more Northern Coasts of America." Published in the "Edinburgh Cabinet Library" of Messrs. Oliver & Boyd. 1832.

"Memoirs of the War carried on in Scotland and Ireland, 1689-91, by Major-General Hugh Mackay." This volume, which he edited in conjunction with Mr. Hog of Newliston, and Mr. Adam Urquhart, was presented to the Bannatyne and Maitland Clubs in 1833.

"Life of Sir Walter Raleigh." Published in the "Edinburgh Cabinet Library." 12mo. 1833.

"Life of King Henry the Eighth." London, 1837.

"England under the Reigns of Edward VI. and Mary, with the Contemporary History of Europe; in a Series of Original Letters, never before published; with Historical Introductions," &c. 2 vols. 8vo. London, 1839.

The article "Scotland," in the seventh edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica," which was afterwards published in a separate form, as a History of Scotland for the use of Schools.

While Mr. Tytler thus occasionally unbent his mind with what to others would have proved a serious burden, he was also alive to the stir of the world around him, and felt sufficient interest in the passing events of the day. This was especially the case when that important ecclesiastical movement, the Disruption, occurred in Scotland in 1843. As a Christian, a Scotchman, and a historian, it was especially calculated to arrest his attention; while the fact of his being an Episcopalian removed him from the turmoil, and enabled him to regard it with a cool, dispassionate eye. The sentiments, therefore, of one so situated, and so conversant with the historical facts and principles which were appealed to by the contending parties on this occasion, are well worthy of notice. These he fully and distinctly delivered in a letter, dated June 6th, 1843, to a friend, who had abandoned the Establishment, and joined himself to the Free Church. "I do not see," he writes, "how, consistently with your principles, and belief in what constitutes a true Presbyterian Kirk, you could have acted otherwise. In our conversations on the subject, I remember often saying, that had I been a Presbyterian, I must have done the same. Popular election of their ministers, and complete spiritual independence, were, from the first, the two great principles laid down by Knox as the foundation on which their whole superstructure rested, and, indeed, without the last, no church could stand. With the first—the right of the people to choose their ministers—I have no sympathies: with the last, every feeling of my heart and reason is on your side—and no one knows how soon the Church of England may have to contend for it. Let us hope that if it does come to this, there may be as much courage and conscience in England as across the border."

In his mode of study, Mr. Tytler, although so deeply immersed in the absorbing research of history and antiquarianism, was no peevish recluse student, sheltering himself within the innermost recesses of his hermitage, and quarreling with every sound above a gentle whisper: instead of this, his favourite place of work was the parlour or the drawing-room, surrounded by the society of his family and friends; and there he consulted his authorities, arranged his notes, and wrote out his copy for the printer, animated and cheered onward rather than disturbed by the society around him; listening to the music that might be going on, to which he was very partial, and mingling in the subjects of conversation. In this cheerful, genial fashion, he embodied into living form the materials of his anxious research, which he had gleaned among the MSS. of the British Museum, or the State Paper Office. That he might be near these fountain-heads also, he resided for a considerable period during the latter part of his life in the metropolis. During the present reign, he was oftener than once a guest at Windsor, where he was received with honourable distinction; and during the administration of Sir Robert Peel, when literary merit was not thought unworthy of state recognition and reward, his high services as a national historian were attested by a pension of 200 per annum.

In everyday life, unconnected with his intellectual pursuits, the high moral worth, amiable gentle temper, and conversational powers of Mr. Tytler, endeared him to a wide circle of friends, by whom these qualities are still most affectionately remembered. But the characteristic by which he was especially distinguished, was the deep-seated religious principle for which he was noted from his earliest youth, and by which his whole course of life was regulated to the close, both in his private and literary relationships. In subservience to this were his hilarity and wit, which were so pervaded with his own amiable temperament, that instead of repelling, they attracted all around him, and mesmerized the company for the time into happy beings like himself. In this way the historian, amidst the throngs and events of centuries, maintained and preserved to the end his own personal identity, instead of losing it among past ages—a trait of intellectual independence, hard indeed to compass, and very rarely to be found among those who have won for themselves a high literary reputation, especially among the more crabbed and abstruse departments of intellect. In the earlier part of his life Mr. Tytler served in the troop of the Mid-Lothian Yeomanry Cavalry--a corps in which not only the highest rank but the best talent of Scotland was enrolled; and among such congenial spirits he soon took the lead, not only on account of the fascinating wit and cheerfulness of his conversation, but the songs which he composed and sung—for he was also a poet of no common mark; and the lyrics with which he was wont to charm the mess-table, were connected with the military affairs of the regiment, and the duties with which his comrades were occupied. On one occasion, being desirous of retirement, probably for a holiday’s recreation, and aware how his furlough would be apt to be invaded, he stole away to the house of his brother, at Woodhouselee. But his absence was instantly felt in the next merry meeting of his comrades, at their headquarters of Musselburgh, and a corporal’s troop, with a led horse, and a mock warrant for seizure, were despatched to apprehend and bring back the deserter. Tytler, who espied the coming of this band, escaped by a back-door, and took shelter in the wood above Woodhouselee. After he had remained there for such a length of time that he thought the danger must be over, he ventured to return to the house; but ill had he calculated upon the double sharpness of the lawyer-soldiers of the Lothian Yeomanry. He was captured at the very threshold by the ambush that awaited his return, deprived of his arms, mounted upon the led horse, and carried off in triumph to the military encampment. This diverting pantomime, of what in the stern realities of war is often a moving tragedy, so greatly tickled his fancy, that on the same evening he composed a song, detailing, in most comic fashion, the circumstances of his capture, which he sang at the mess-table on the following day, amidst the applauding peals of his companion; who were thus well requited for their trouble. This song ever after continued to be the most popular of all his lyrical productions.

But we must hasten to the mournful termination—"the last scene of all." In 1843 Mr. Tytler had finished his "History of Scotland;" and although he had already written so much, and this, too, upon subjects where the apparent quantity of labour bears but a small proportion to the toil and research that have produced it, he was still earnest to accomplish more, and hopeful, after a period of rest, to be enabled to resume those occupations which had now become the chief element of his existence. But even already his literary life had drawn to a close. Although of a healthy vigorous constitution, active habits, and cheerful temperament, his over-wearied mind and exhausted frame had no longer power to rally; and after wandering over the Continent in a hopeless pursuit of health, he returned home to die. His death occurred on the morning of Christmas Eve (24th December), 1849, after several years of sickness and suffering, and when he had entered his fifty-ninth year.

Mr. Tytler was twice married. His first wife, who died in 1835, was Rachel Elizabeth, daughter of the late Thomas Hog, Esq., of Newliston, by whom he had two sons, Alexander and Thomas Patrick, both in the East India Company’s military service, and one daughter. His second wife, who still survives him, was Anastasia, daughter of the late Thomson Boner, Esq., of Camden Place, Kent.

A Memoir of Patrick Fraser Tytler (pdf)

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