Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott Volume VI Part 21

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EDINBURGH, 15th May, 1821.

DEAR WALTER,--I have your letter of May 6th, to which it is unnecessary to reply very particularly. I would only insinuate to you that the _lawyers_ and _gossips_ of Edinburgh, whom your military politeness handsomely classes together in writing to a lawyer, know and care as little about the 18th as they do about the 19th, 20th, or 21st, or any other regimental number which does not happen for the time to be at Piershill, or in the Castle. Do not fall into the error and pedantry of young military men, who, living much together, are apt to think themselves and their actions the subject of much talk and rumor among the public at large.--I will transcribe Fielding's account of such a person, whom he met with on his voyage to Lisbon, which will give two or three hours' excellent amusement when you choose to peruse it:--

"In his conversation it is true there was something military enough, as it consisted chiefly of oaths, and of the great actions and wise sayings of Jack, Will, and Tom of _ours_, a phrase eternally in his mouth, and he seemed to conclude that it conveyed to all the officers such a degree of public notoriety and importance that it entitled him, like the head of a profession, or a first minister, to be the subject of conversation amongst those who had not the least personal acquaintance with him."

Avoid this silly narrowness of mind, my dear boy, which only makes men be looked on in the world with ridicule and contempt.

Lawyer and gossip as I may be, I suppose you will allow I have seen something of life in most of its varieties; as much at least as if I had been, like you, eighteen months in a cavalry regiment, or, like Beau Jackson in Roderick Random, had cruised for half a year in the chops of the Channel. Now, I have never remarked any one, be he soldier, or divine, or lawyer, that was exclusively attached to the narrow habits of his own profession, but what such person became a great twaddle in good society, besides, what is of much more importance, becoming narrow-minded, and ignorant of all general information.

That this letter may not be unacceptable in all its parts, I enclose your allowance without stopping anything for the hackney.

Take notice, however, my dear Walter, that this is to last you till midsummer.--We came from Abbotsford yesterday, and left all well, excepting that Mr. Laidlaw lost his youngest child, an infant, very unexpectedly. We found Sophia, Lockhart, and their child in good health, and all send love.

I remain your affectionate father,



EDINBURGH, 26th May, 1821.

MY DEAR WALTER,--I see you are of the mind of the irritable prophet Jonah, who persisted in maintaining "he did well to be angry," even when disputing with Omnipotence. I am aware that Sir David is considered as a severe and ill-tempered man; and I remember a story that, when report came to Europe that Tippoo's prisoners (of whom Baird was one) were chained together two and two, his mother said, "God pity the poor lad that's chained to _our Davie_." But though it may be very true that he may have acted towards you with caprice and severity, yet you are always to remember,--1st, That in becoming a soldier you have subjected yourself to the caprice and severity of superior officers, and have no comfort except in contemplating the prospect of commanding others in your turn. In the mean while, you have in most cases no remedy so useful as patience and submission. But, _2dly_, As you seem disposed to admit that you yourselves have been partly to blame, I submit to you, that in turning the magnifying end of the telescope on Sir D.'s faults, and the diminishing one on your own, you take the least useful mode of considering the matter. By studying _his_ errors, you can acquire no knowledge that will be useful to you till you become Commander-in-Chief in Ireland,--whereas, by reflecting on _your own_, Cornet Scott and his companions may reap some immediate moral advantage. Your fine of a dozen of claret, upon any one who shall introduce females into your mess in future, reminds me of the rule of a country club, that whoever "behaved ungenteel"

should be fined in a pot of porter. Seriously, I think there was bad taste in the style of the forfeiture.

I am well pleased with your map, which is very businesslike.

There was a great battle fought between the English and native Irish near the Blackwater, in which the former were defeated, and Bagenal the Knight-Marshal killed. Is there any remembrance of this upon the spot? There is a clergyman in Lismore, Mr. John Graham--originally, that is by descent, a Borderer. He lately sent me a manuscript which I intend to publish, and I wrote to him enclosing a cheque on Coutts. I wish you could ascertain if he received my letter safe. You can call upon him with my compliments. You need only say I was desirous to know if he had received a letter from me lately. The manuscript was written by a certain Mr. Gwynne, a Welsh loyalist in the great Civil War, and afterwards an officer in the guards of Charles II. This will be an object for a ride to you.[125]

I presided last night at the dinner of the Celtic Society, "all plaided and plumed in their tartan array," and such jumping, skipping, and screaming you never saw. Chief-Baron Shepherd dined with us, and was very much pleased with the extreme enthusiasm of the Gael when liberated from the thraldom of breeches. You were voted a member by acclamation, which will cost me a tartan dress for your long limbs when you come here. If the King takes Scotland in coming or going to Ireland (as has been talked of), I expect to get you leave to come over.--I remain your affectionate father,


P. S.--I beg you will not take it into your wise noddle that I will act either hastily or unadvisedly in your matters. I have been more successful in life than most people, and know well how much success depends, first upon desert, and then on knowledge of the _carte de pays_.

[Footnote 125: The Rev. John Graham is known as the author of a _History of the Siege of Londonderry, Annals of Ireland_, and various political tracts. Sir Walter Scott published _Gwynne's Memoirs_, with a Preface, etc., in 1822.]

The following letter begins with an allusion to a visit which Captain Ferguson, his bride, and his youngest sister, Miss Margaret Ferguson, had been paying at Ditton Park:--


EDINBURGH, 21st May, 1821.

MY DEAR LORD,--I was much diverted with the account of Adam and Eve's visit to Ditton, which, with its surrounding moat, might make no bad emblem of Eden, but for the absence of snakes and fiends. He is a very singular fellow; for, with all his humor and knowledge of the world, he by nature is a remarkably shy and modest man, and more afraid of the possibility of intrusion than would occur to any one who only sees him in the full stream of society. His sister Margaret is extremely like him in the turn of thought and of humor, and he has two others who are as great curiosities in their way. The eldest is a complete old maid, with all the gravity and shyness of the character, but not a grain of its bad humor or spleen; on the contrary, she is one of the kindest and most motherly creatures in the world. The second, Mary, was in her day a very pretty girl; but her person became deformed, and she has the sharpness of features with which that circumstance is sometimes attended. She rises very early in the morning, and roams over all my wild land in the neighborhood, wearing the most complicated pile of handkerchiefs of different colors on her head, and a stick double her own height in her hand, attended by two dogs, whose powers of yelping are truly terrific. With such garb and accompaniments, she has very nearly established the character in the neighborhood of being _something no canny_--and the urchins of Melrose and Darnick are frightened from gathering hazel-nuts and cutting wands in my cleugh, by the fear of meeting _the daft lady_. With all this quizzicality, I do not believe there ever existed a family with so much mutual affection and such an overflow of benevolence to all around them, from men and women down to hedge-sparrows and lame ass-colts, more than one of which they have taken under their direct and special protection.

I am sorry there should be occasion for caution in the case of little Duke Walter, but it is most lucky that the necessity is early and closely attended to. How many actual valetudinarians have outlived all their robust contemporaries, and attained the utmost verge of human life, without ever having enjoyed what is usually called high health. This is taking the very worst view of the case, and supposing the constitution habitually delicate. But how often has the strongest and best confirmed health succeeded to a delicate childhood--and such, I trust, will be the Duke's case. I cannot help thinking that this temporary recess from Eton may be made subservient to Walter's improvement in general literature, and particularly in historical knowledge. The habit of reading useful, and at the same time entertaining books of history, is often acquired during the retirement which delicate health in convalescence imposes on us. I remember we touched on this point at Ditton; and I think again, that though classical learning be the _Shibboleth_ by which we judge, generally speaking, of the proficiency of the youthful scholar, yet, when this has been too exclusively and pedantically impressed on his mind as the one thing needful, he very often finds he has entirely a new course of study to commence, just at the time when life is opening all its busy or gay scenes before him, and when study of any kind becomes irksome.

For this species of instruction I do not so much approve of tasks and set hours for serious reading, as of the plan of endeavoring to give a taste for history to the youths themselves, and suffering them to gratify it in their own way, and at their own time. For this reason I would not be very scrupulous what books they began with, or whether they began at the middle or end. The knowledge which we acquire of free will and by spontaneous exertion, is like food eaten with appetite--it digests well, and benefits the system ten times more than the double cramming of an alderman. If a boy's attention can be drawn in conversation to any interesting point of history, and the book is pointed out to him where he will find the particulars conveyed in a lively manner, he reads the passage with so much pleasure that he very naturally recurs to the book at the first unoccupied moment, to try if he cannot pick more amusement out of it; and when once a lad gets the spirit of information, he goes on himself with little trouble but that of selecting for him the best and most agreeable books. I think Walter has naturally some turn for history and historical anecdote, and would be disposed to read as much as could be wished in that most useful line of knowledge;--for in the eminent situation he is destined to by his birth, acquaintance with the history and institutions of his country, and her relative position with respect to others, is a _sine qua non_ to his discharging its duties with propriety. All this is extremely like prosing, so I will harp on that string no longer.

Kind compliments to all at Ditton; you say nothing of your own rheumatism. I am here for the session, unless the wind should blow me south to see the coronation, and I think 800 miles rather a long journey to see a show.

I am always, my dear Lord,

Yours very affectionately,



Illness and Death of John Ballantyne. -- Extract from his Pocketbook. -- Letters from Blair-Adam. -- Castle-Campbell. -- Sir Samuel Shepherd. -- "Bailie Mackay," Etc. -- Coronation of George IV. -- Correspondence with James Hogg and Lord Sidmouth.

-- Letter on the Coronation. -- Anecdotes. -- Allan Cunningham's Memoranda. -- Completion of Chantrey's Bust.


On the 4th of June, Scott, being then on one of his short Sessional visits to Abbotsford, received the painful intelligence that his friend John Ballantyne's maladies had begun to assume an aspect of serious and even immediate danger. The elder brother made the communication in these terms:--


EDINBURGH, Sunday, 3d June, 1821.

DEAR SIR,--I have this morning had a most heart-breaking letter from poor John, from which the following is an extract. You will judge how it has affected me, who, with all his peculiarities of temper, love him very much. He says,--

"A spitting of blood has commenced, and you may guess the situation into which I am plunged. We are all accustomed to consider death as certainly inevitable; but his obvious approach is assuredly the most detestable and abhorrent feeling to which human nature can be subject."

This is truly doleful. There is something in it more absolutely bitter to my heart than what I have otherwise suffered. I look back to my mother's peaceful rest, and to my infant's blessedness--if life be not the extinguishable worthless spark which I cannot think it--but here, cut off in the very middle of life, with good means and strong powers of enjoying it, and nothing but reluctance and repining at the close--I say the truth when I say that I would joyfully part with my right arm to avert the approaching result. Pardon this, dear sir; my heart and soul are heavy within me.

With the deepest respect and gratitude,

J. B.

At the date of this letter, the invalid was in Roxburghshire; but he came to Edinburgh a day or two afterwards, and died there on the 16th of the same month. I accompanied Sir Walter when one of their last interviews took place, and John's deathbed was a thing not to be forgotten. We sat by him for perhaps an hour, and I think half that space was occupied with his predictions of a speedy end, and details of his last will, which he had just been executing, and which lay on his coverlid; the other half being given, five minutes or so at a time, to questions and remarks, which intimated that the hope of life was still flickering before him--nay, that his interest in all its concerns remained eager. The proof sheets of a volume of his Novelists' Library lay also by his pillow; and he passed from them to his will, and then back to them, as by jerks and starts the unwonted veil of gloom closed upon his imagination, or was withdrawn again. He had, as he said, left his great friend and patron 2000 towards the completion of the new library at Abbotsford,--and the spirit of the auctioneer virtuoso flashed up as he began to describe what would, he thought, be the best style and arrangement of the bookshelves. He was interrupted by an agony of asthma, which left him with hardly any signs of life; and ultimately he did expire in a fit of the same kind.

Scott was visibly and profoundly shaken by this scene and its sequel.

As we stood together a few days afterwards, while they were smoothing the turf over John's remains in the Canongate Churchyard, the heavens, which had been dark and slaty, cleared up suddenly, and the midsummer sun shone forth in his strength. Scott, ever awake to the "skiey influences," cast his eye along the overhanging line of the Calton Hill, with its gleaming walls and towers, and then turning to the grave again, "I feel," he whispered in my ear, "I feel as if there would be less sunshine for me from this day forth."

As we walked homewards, Scott told me, among other favorable traits of his friend, one little story which I must not omit. He remarked one day to a poor student of divinity attending his auction, that he looked as if he were in bad health. The young man assented with a sigh. "Come," said Ballantyne, "I think I ken the secret of a sort of draft that would relieve you--particularly," he added, handing him a cheque for 5 or 10--"particularly, my dear, if taken upon an empty stomach."

John died in his elder brother's house in St. John Street; a circumstance which it gives me pleasure to record, as it confirms the impression of their affectionate feelings towards each other at this time, which the reader must have derived from James's letter to Scott last quoted. Their confidence and cordiality had undergone considerable interruption in the latter part of John's life; but the close was in all respects fraternal.

A year and a half before John's exit,--namely, on the last day of 1819,--he happened to lay his hand on an old pocketbook, which roused his reflections, and he filled two or three of its pages with a brief summary of the most active part of his life, which I think it due to his character, as well as Sir Walter Scott's, to transcribe in this place.

Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott Volume VI Part 21

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