Left: James Currie. Right: a portrait of Burns by Archibald Skirving, published in The Works of Robert Burns, by Blackie and Son, Glasgow, 1854.
Date : 15-09-1800
Correspondent : John Ramsay of OchtertyreCorrespondent Location : Ochtertyre
Recipient : James Currie Recipient Location : Liverpool
Subject : John Ramsay of Ochtertyre discusses something of Scottish education and religion a propos Burns.
Dear Sir,
I ought before now to have answered yours of the 9th. of Aug↑t↓. but I delayed writing till I should see a learned friend who could inform me on the single point wherein I wish to make any obervations upon your lucubrations. I have devoured your edition of Burns’s works, with great avidity & no less pleasure with a [?] [?]. When I think of the miserable prostitution of original genius in the latter part of his life. Happy had it been for him in this world, had he been blessed with his father’s piety & virtue which would have rendered the effusions of genius pure and useful, as well as brilliant. Had he been as little potent in the chambers of Venus as Pope or Collins; or had he been put under my excellent friend Dr. Gregory’s regimen (cui valitudinis [inspirito?] debeo luxuriam) it had proved as salutary to his soul as it has been to my tenement of clay w↑ch↓ though I never was very much addicted either to alcohol or luxurious living would probably have been crumbled into dust before this time, had it not been for the good Drs. prescription which I have rigidly observed. Attempt it not, good Dr., in Liverpool or its environs or you will run the risk of being mobbed or hated like Cassandra whose predictions were never believed till they had been verified. So much for egoism, a figure solitary men are fond of. I am exceedingly flattered with the very handsome manner in which you speak of me & my hints, in this work. If one’s name is to be mentioned in print, it is as well it be in a work universally read & admired. It was very kind in you to correct my [?] which are not easily avoided by us domesticated Scotsmen especially when we write currente calamo as is generally the case in my letters, especially when there is a redundance of matter to be compressed & communicated as was the case in my correspondence in this respect. I have certainly scribbled a great deal on subjects too humble for other literati & collected & arranged a number of such relative to the history of private life, & to antiqities connected with manners & customs that are either little known, or likely are long to be buried in oblivion with that mess of unwritten information of which nothing is preserved but a few unconnected gleanings; which are picked up with great avidity by historians & philosophers who would think it beneath them to enter into the pursuits & proceedings of their neighbours &contemporaries. Yet to a man willing to profit from the experiences of others, a town a country or a district of a country may afford ample instruction. Though an inexhaustible theme taken in its various departments, great part of my MSS. are now very much in the form I wish them & as legible as my Runic characters may be made. I have however a sort of hydrophobia at printing & too much sensibility to pass the ordeal of reviewers pro & con &c &c. I have only to say that that in all I have written upon the story of private life, I have forborn to render it a feast for malevolence, without falling into overpraise & panegyric w↑ch↓. are a species of envy. I shall take the best care I can of my MSS: . Perhaps they may be devoted to [MS torn and faded]tions or some such ignoble purpose – be it so. I shall [MS torn and faded] such – I think you lay too much [MS torn and faded] w↑ch↓ was not the first establishment of parish schools in Scotland but only prescribed a method by which they might be endowed with revenues at which an English ploughman or weaver of those times would have turned up his nose. The truth seems to have been, that ever since the reformation we have had admirable school-masters, & never more than in the last century when latin was scientifically taught even to our peasants, many of whom doubtless stopped short. He that learns latin must also read English: and here religion (the lunacy & pride of our fathers) proved more effectual than the love of classic lore, or a desire to write elegantly does now a days. The clergy who had in those days a mighty sway on all men from peers to cottagers strained every nerve to have children taught to read the [MS torn and faded] from the middle of the last century the reading and [MS faded] the assembly’s catechism shorter & larger (an herculean task the last) was an additional motive, My friend was lately here & tells me that the best acc↑t↓. of the origin & progress of our schools is to be found in the Lord advocates case in the appeal about the school of Bothwell, near Hamilton. As it is now reprinting, some of your Ed↑r↓. correspondents could send you a copy. Believe me if our swains were more courteous & civilized, less vitious & ignorant & unmanageable than those of other countries, it was owing principally to religion & the ministers of religion who might sometimes be sorry politicians; but their philosophy (how different from philosophism!) taught men how to live & how to die. Hence those scenes so finely presented by Burns in his cottar’s saturday night, so familiar to every one conversant with our country people. There is an unhappy change, whether owing to clergy or people I will not say. Even Burns who was (as he phrazed it) a rank [?],confessed that when his father changed [MS torn and faded] religious creed he retained his calvinistic manners unchanged [MS torn and faded] had his son led his life of innocence & peace! Burns’s educ[MS torn and faded] are however much beyond common & will I doubt [MS torn and faded] too highly of them. They are no gainers by extending their reading any more than their superiors: certainly the ignorance of the last age (to talk in the cant of the times) is preferable to the learning of the present one. I have given over reading reviews that I may not be crucified (as Dr Gregorys critical letter did Burns) with reading [?] & ingenious nonsense or worse than nonsense. The little I now read was written in more happy times, si bona [?novint] You ask me if I ever make any trips to England: Thither I went in 90 & 91 in quest of health, but if I did not completely succeed in it, I got more of intellectual food. If I shall ever return in times of decemation & extra [?] of posting cease, I will not be again [?] 30 miles of Liverpool without seeing Dr. Currie whom I had rather see than the Docks & wealth of Liverpool: besides what [MS torn and faded] & pulse & [?] fare amid the flesh pots of England. If business [MS torn and faded] ever brings you to Scotland, I will, dum spiritus [MS faded] be good to see you here on the banks of the Nith. Long may you live to befriend the widow & the fatherless who cannot themselves recompense you but – My paper is done.

I am Dr Sir your most obedient humble servant Jo. Ramsay


Notes :

Cassandra: daughter of Priam and Hecuba. When she rejected the love of Apollo he rendered useless the power of prophecy he had bestowed on her by ensuring she was never believed.

William Collins (1721-59): poet best known for his odes. Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, addressed to John Home, was first published in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1788.

cui valitudinis [inspirito] debeo luxuriam: to which I am indebted for the luxury of sound health.

currente calamo: with flowing pen; offhand, of the moment.

[Dr Gregory’s critical letter]: Gregory was a subscriber to the first Edinburgh edition. Burns sent him a copy of ‘On Seeing a Wounded Hare’. Gregory replied, 2 June 1789, thanking the poet but objecting to the coarseness of some of the terms. Burns must have had previous experience of Gregory’s criticism. He wrote to Dugald Stewart, 20 Jan. 1789: ‘The native genius and accurate discernment in Mr Stewart’s critical strictures; the justness (iron justice, for he has no bowels of compassion for a poor poetic sinner) of Dr. Gregory’s remarks, and the delicacy of Professor Dalziel’s taste, I shall ever revere’ (Letters, ed. Roy, I, 356).

[Dr. Gregory’s regimen]: Dr. James Gregory (1753-1821), Professor of the Practice of Medicine, Edinburgh University, 1776. Works include Conspectus Medicinae Theoreticae and 2 vols. of Philosophical and Literary Essays (1792); devised the stomach medication known as ‘Gregory’s Powders’. Corresponded with Currie on a range of medical matters.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744): great English poet and satirist, best known for the Dunciad, Essay on Man, and his translation of Homer’s Iliad. Known for his devotion to study, but had many enemies.

[Happy had it been…or Collins]: the moralistic tone here follows Thomson’s Obituary notice (London Chronicle July 1796) and Heron’s Memoir (Monthly Magazine, June 1797).

hydrophobia: fear of water; fear of swallowing (a symptom of rabies).

[Burns in his cottar’s Saturday night…]: cf. Heron on this poem in Observations made in a Journey through the Western Counties of Scotland (Perth, 1793), II, 349-50).

[the Docks & wealth of Liverpool]: In 1710 Liverpool’s population was 8160; by 1800 it had risen to 77,700. Its merchant fleet numbered 84 ships in 1710and 5000 ships by 1800. The rapid growth owed much to the cotton trade and the accompanying need for ships, the last 15 years of the century showing rapidly increased activity and prosperity.

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