For St. Andrews Day: 15 Favorite Scottish Writers and Thinkers

In my post about Billy Connolly t’other day I mentioned that, inconceivable as it may seem, there were some even more accomplished Scotsmen down the years. St. Andrew’s Day is the day to celebrate them! The Apostle Andrew is the Patron Saint of Scotland, just as he is of both Russia and Ukraine (Ye Gods, who’s he rootin’ for, yin a sitchy-ation like tha’?) Andrew was the brother of St. Peter. The Patriarchs of Constantinople are purported to be his successors, just as the Popes are Peter’s successors in Rome. Andrew was crucified; hence Scotland’s flag, The Saltire, or St. Andrew’s Cross.

Having already written about some of the more pre-eminent performing Scots of music hall and vaudeville, and after casually salting conversations with references to my crowned relations (I’m a Stewart) all my life, I thought I would do a little quickie listicle about 15 favorite great Scottish writers and thinkers, some of whom I’ve already written about. I’ll likely do something on most of the others in time. In chronological order, then:

David Hume (1711-1776): The great skeptic philosopher, and the climactic member of the great triumvirate of British Empiricists, who built on his predecessors Locke and Berkeley. Hume is most famous for his doubt “that the sun will rise tomorrow” — not that he believed that it wouldn’t but that he saw no sound logical basis for asserting that it would. I read all of these guys when I was in my thirties, mostly to get a bead on the thinking that informed America’s Founding Fathers and our system of government. Locke was the more pertinent there obviously, but reading Locke leads to reading Berkeley, which leads to reading Hume. I have a fond memory of reading a paperback copy of Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals by flashlight in a tent in the shadow of The Grand Tetons on vacation circa 1992. That’s the kind of honeymoon companion *I* was!

Tobias Smollett (1721-1771): Read about the great comic novelist and editor (who also edited Hume’s English History) here.

Adam Smith (1723-1790): Much praise and blame may be laid at the feet of the founder of the Scottish Science (i.e. economics, or at least capitalist orthodoxy). I read and re-read The Wealth of Nations back when I was an evangelist for capitalism (pre-internet, though you will find evidence of it here in writings about people like Herbert Spencer and P.T. Barnum). Smith’s influence is like the air we breathe, both for good and ill. Of late, I have been probing the history of the New England mill town where I grew up. The Industrial Revolution changed everything there, and everywhere else, and continues to do so with an increasing cannibalistic intensity. At the moment it’s hard for me to regard the philosophy with the same type of optimism I once did.

James Boswell (1740-1795): Chronicler of Samuel Johnson, whom I wrote about here, and an estimable scribe in his own right.

Robert Burns (1759-1796): The National Poet of Scotland. Before I ever write a biographical post about him here, I’m much more likely to perform some of his poetry (or a parody of it) in a video and share it. (I involuntarily parodied it in the first paragraph of this post). I keep planning to do this and kicking the can down the road. Next year!

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832): I’m likely to write about him and screen adaptations of things like Ivanhoe and Rob Roy here at some point, no doubt, but I will definitely be writing about him in an unexpected context. My long simmering book about Hollywood westerns discusses Scott in the context of the Romanticism that produced both himself and James Fenimore Cooper.

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881): A topic too big to summarize. My pathways to him have been Emerson, and his translations of Goethe. Carlyle was an opponent of utilitarianism and laissez-faire, but you would be in error if you think it follows that that made him inimical to the right wing, for he was also a mystic who propounded the Great Man theory of history, and penned the influential collection of essays On Heroes. His writings were later misappropriated by Fascists. Carlyle coined the term “Captain of Industry” and referred to economics as “the Dismal Science” — a very un-Scottish sentiment, you mought think until you remember that Scotland is also a very religious nation. Carlyle also wrote a famous history of the French Revolution, as well as biographies of Schiller and Frederick the Great, and the transcendentalism-adjacent novel Sartor Resartus.

Lord (Thomas) Macauley (1800-1859): Whig cabinet member, historian of England and Rome, biographer of Machiavelli

Andrew Lang (1844-1912): Poet, critic and folklorist who with his wife Nora compiled an amazing multi-volume series of Fairy Books, a constant source of inspiration my wife and I both return to again and again.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894): my post here.

Sir James Frazer (1854-1941): His work of comparative mythology The Golden Bough was a major influence on me when I was in my early 20s; my play Universal Rundle was inspired by it.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930): Creator of Sherlock Holmes, The Lost World, etc.

Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) Creator of The Wind in the Willows, the source of Disney’s Mr. Toad.

J.M. Barrie (1860-1937): Creator of Peter Pan as well as The Admirable Crichton etc

Dame Muriel Spark (1918-2006): author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Did I leave out anyone you think should be included? I’ll respond to you in Scottish: Write yer oon fookin’ list!!