Friday, June 28, 2013


William Wilkie

Henry Grey Graham, Scottish Men of Letters in the Eighteenth Century (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1908), pp. 133-134 (footnote omitted):
Born in 1721, Wilkie was the son of a poor farmer in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, the descendant of an ancient Midlothian family. The death of his father, almost in destitution, obliged him to support his mother and sister when he was but a boy. By break of day his dirty, ragged little person was seen following the plough with its team of oxen, or sowing the seed on the furrows from the canvas-bag; and then, after a hasty dish of porridge, he would trudge for miles along the road from Farmers' Tryste to the eight o'clock class at college. At nights, by the glimmering light of a hardly-bought candle, the lad would pore over his classics, philosophy, and mathematics. At the University none was more loved for goodness of heart, none more admired for ability, none more laughed at for eccentricity.

When licensed to preach, to this strange clownish creature preferment did not readily come, and for ten years he had to continue his rustic life—wretchedly poor, ill-fed, and ill-clad. Sometimes he preached for neighbouring ministers and got a trifling fee; but it was by his little farm he lived, and on it he worked, changing energetically the nettle-covered rigs and marshy ground to fertile soil with fruitful harvests. One day Dr. Roebuck, the founder of the Carron iron-works, then travelling in Scotland, passed along the road, near the field where the scholar was sowing corn with a sheet before him, all covered with dirt, clad in ragged coat and breeches, and a dilapidated bonnet. To trick the Englishman, the friend with whom he was riding, who knew Wilkie, cried out, "Here is a peasant; let us call him." They conversed; the talk passed on from manure and turnips to Greek literature. To an observation about husbandry the seeming peasant, in broadest Scots, remarked: "Yes, sir, but in Sicily there is a different method," and he quoted Theocritus to confirm his statement. As he rode off with his friend, Roebuck asked with amazement, "Is it usual for your peasants to read the Greek poets?" "Oh yes," his companion replied; "we have long winter evenings, and how can they better employ themselves than in reading Greek poets?" The doctor went on his way, astonished that the poorest herds in Scotland devoted their nights to Euripides and Homer.

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