French Les­son: Hip­polyte Taine’s un­shake­able love for Scot­land


SCOTS Heritage Magazine - - Contents -

Whilst we are con­sid­er­ing our cur­rent po­si­tion in Europe, it’s re­fresh­ing to re­mem­ber how pos­i­tively Scot­land was viewed by some of its con­ti­nen­tal vis­i­tors in the past. Hip­polyte Taine (18281893), one of 19th-cen­tury France’s great men of let­ters, and a muse to both Émile Zola and Guy de Mau­pas­sant, was a great Bri­tophile who made at least three vis­its to Bri­tain be­tween 1859 and 1871.

On one of these trips, in 1862, he vis­ited Scot­land, stop­ping off first in Glas­gow, ‘a great hive,’ with a pop­u­la­tion then of 375,000 in­hab­i­tants. From here he trav­elled by steamer along the Clyde and then up the Cri­nan Canal, be­fore tak­ing an­other steamer up past Glen­coe, where he mar­velled at Ben Ne­vis, ‘its peak mar­bled with streaks of snow’. Disem­bark­ing at Fort Wil­liam, Taine then took the Cale­do­nian Canal to In­ver­ness, where he spent a week be­fore start­ing his re­turn jour­ney by train and car­riage through Aberdeen and Ed­in­burgh to England.

Taine found Scot­land in gen­eral, ‘more pic­turesque than England and her coun­try­side, less

Taine found Scot­land in gen­eral, ‘more pic­turesque than England, and her coun­try­side less uni­form’

uni­form and less man­age­able, [she] is not sim­ply a meat and wool fac­tory.’ His jour­ney was made in sum­mer, yet the weather was aw­ful. Of the weather in Glas­gow, he re­marked with some feel­ing: ‘The cli­mate is worse than at Manch­ester. We were at the end of July and the sun was shin­ing, yet I was glad of my coat. For­tu­nately, the hu­man body adapts it­self to its en­vi­ron­ment: I saw fully-grown girls ly­ing on the grass by the prom­e­nade with­out shoes or stock­ings; and there were lit­tle boys bathing in the river.’

In Ed­in­burgh he smiled at the dis­par­ity be­tween the clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture, ‘surely more at home in a warm cli­mate’ and the mis­er­able weather, ‘whipped by the wind, a pale mist drifts and spreads all over the city. The façades of build­ings are drowned in the va­porous at­mos­phere and stand palely forth in the sickly day­light. A wisp of fog or cloud hangs upon the green slope of Cal­ton Hill, wind­ing in and out of the col­umns.’

The Glas­gow cli­mate was worse than Manch­ester’s: ‘We were at the end of July and the sun was shin­ing, yet I was glad of my coat’

In keep­ing with many other com­men­ta­tors of the time, Taine be­lieved that the cli­mate had a pro­found ef­fect on the lives of the in­hab­i­tants of any coun­try. The ‘six or eight de­grees of lat­i­tude’ that sep­a­rated Bri­tain from France was, in his opin­ion, the cause of much ‘bod­ily mis­ery and spir­i­tual de­pres­sion’, yet it also cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment which fos­tered a se­ri­ous tem­per­a­ment and good work ethic.

In Scot­land, the weather and the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the peo­ple were at ex­tremes, ‘The race is lively and more men­tally ac­tive here than in England,’ he en­thused. He noted that in the High­lands, ‘There are books to be seen even in the small­est cot­tages; the Bi­ble first of all, a few travel books, med­i­cal dic­tio­nar­ies, man­u­als on fish­ing, trea­tises on agri­cul­ture, eight to 20 vol­umes as a rule. They were the com­mon peo­ple, but they were ob­vi­ously bet­ter ed­u­cated than our own vil­lagers in France.’

But all was not sweet in Scot­land ac­cord­ing to Taine. The poor weather could also en­cour­age dan­ger­ous plea­sures: ‘The prin­ci­pal temp­ta­tion as­sail­ing men here is to turn drunk­ard.’

Yet, he wit­nessed with ad­mi­ra­tion the work of Scot­tish tem­per­ance so­ci­eties and churches in com­bat­ing the evils of al­co­hol, and was im­pressed with lev­els of re­li­gious ob­ser­vance in Scot­land. Be­tween Keith and Aberdeen, he ‘came across a cheap ex­cur­sion train, its car­riages crammed with peo­ple. They were all on their way to a re­li­gious meet­ing, a re­vival at which a num­ber of fa­mous preach­ers would be speak­ing.’

He went on to com­pare Scot­tish Pres­by­te­ri­an­ism favourably with what he saw as the un­nec­es­sary pomp and cer­e­mony of Catholi­cism in France. In Aberdeen, while stay­ing in a tem­per­ance ho­tel, he at­tended a Sunday ser­vice and was pleased to find ‘no pic­tures, no stat­ues and no in­stru­men­tal mu­sic. The church is sim­ply an assem­bly room, pro­vided with a gallery and rows of benches, very con­ve­nient for a pub­lic meet­ing. The ser­mon was well spo­ken, soberly and sen­si­bly, with­out or­a­tory.’

Whilst Scot­land basked in Taine’s ap­pro­ba­tion, it’s un­likely his commentary found much favour in his home­land. He de­scribes ‘the small towns on the shores of the Mediter­ranean’, for ex­am­ple, as ‘ne­glected and dirty, and with the towns­men liv­ing like worms in a rot­ten beam!’

By con­trast, he found In­ver­ness full of ‘bustling ac­tiv­ity, clean­li­ness, and at­ten­tion to busi­ness.’ Here ‘the win­dow panes shine and paths are washed down; door han­dles are of gleam­ing brass, there are flow­ers in ev­ery win­dow and the poor­est houses are freshly white­washed. Well­dressed ladies and gentle­men in smart suits pass up and down the streets.’

Sur­pris­ingly, per­haps, the prag­matic Taine’s most pos­i­tive com­ments on Scot­land were re­served not for its glo­ri­ous scenery or for the ar­chi­tec­ture of its cities, but for the plea­sures of this ‘lively and at­trac­tive modern town so near the ex­treme of Scot­land, on the flank of the wild High­lands.’

In these tur­bu­lent times in which Scot­land’s re­la­tion­ship with Europe is un­der the spot­light, Taine’s re­spect­ful fond­ness for Scot­land might be a les­son to us all.

He found In­ver­ness full of ‘bustling ac­tiv­ity, clean­li­ness, and at­ten­tion to busi­ness’

Top left: On his visit to Scot­land, Taine stopped off first in Glas­gow, which he de­scribed as ‘a great hive’. Above: Taine was muse to French writer Émile Zola. Left: A French map show­ing Scot­land.

Left: The Broomielaw in Glas­gow. Be­low left: Hip­polyte Taine. Be­low: Taine was also part of Guy de Mau­pas­sant’s cir­cle.

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