The Reception and Transmission of Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Burns and Walter Scott

In today’s blog, Professor Gerard Caruthers, Francis Hutcheson Chair of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, traces sympathetic interest in Mary Queen of Scots from the antiquarian lawyer and historian William Tytler of Woodhouselee to Romantic poet Robert Burns and writer Walter Scott and discusses the growth of the icon of Mary, in popular culture and in the creative arts in the Romantic period.

William Tytler of Woodhouselee (1711-92) is an important influence on the developing cultural imagination of Scotland in the late eighteenth-century. An antiquarian lawyer with patriotic tastes he was keenly interested in history and archaeology and was part of the circle of painter Allan Ramsay (1713-84), with whom he was a member of Edinburgh’s Select Society founded in 1754.

John Johns after Allan Ramsay, William Tytler of Woodhouselee, 1711 – 1792. Historian, Published 1790, Mezzotint on Paper. National Galleries of Scotland SP IV 139.6. Creative Commons -CC by NC.

Although politics, especially Jacobitism, was banned from the society’s debates, it is clear that bonds of political and cultural affiliation of different types were formed in the society and a number of members including James Boswell (1740-95) had a preferential option for the deposed Stuarts. Famously, Ramsay himself made iconic portraits of both Charles Edward Stewart and Flora Macdonald. Two other members of the Select Society, David Hume (1711-76) and William Robertson (1721-93), would appear on the opposite side of a debate with Tytler on Mary, Queen of Scots which attracted wide interest throughout the British Isles and beyond.

William Tytler, An inquiry, historical and critical, into the evidence against Mary, queen of Scots: and an examination of the histories of Dr. Robertson and Mr. Hume, with respect to that evidence, Frontispiece to Fourth Edition (1790).

Tytler’s Inquiry Historical and Critical into the Evidence against Mary Queen of Scots (1759) opposed the harsher, contemporary judgements of Mary by Robertson and Hume in their histories. Specifically, Tytler, in sharply forensic manner, marshalled the evidence that the notorious ‘Casket Letters’ which had been used as evidence to implicate Mary in the murder of her husband Lord Darnley were most likely fraudulent. Hume although later privately admitting that Tytler had him on a number of important points was so enraged as to opine of his opponent, that ‘a sound beating or even a Rope [is] too good for him. [He is] a Scots Jacobite […] beyond the reach of argument or reason.’

Robert Burns, engraving from A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, 1870. Images

In the 1780s, Robert Burns (1759-96) was so impressed by Tytler, whom he met and with whom he had numerous, long conversations about Scottish history and culture that he is inspired to write a number of texts in sympathy with Mary. This is an interesting phenomenon in a Presbyterian, west-country cradled poet whom we might not expect to sympathise with Mary or the Stuart dynasty. Burns, in many ways the creative father of popular Jacobite song, also wrote that Tytler had made him realise that the ‘Scotish muses were all Jacobite.’

Cover of Sheet Music. Mary Queen of Scots’ lament : written by Robert Burns, composed by H. Brinley Richards. 18–, Lithograph by John Henry Bufford. Boston : Published by Oliver Ditson ; Thayer & Co.Lith. Photo: Boston Athenaeum Digital Collection

In 1791, Burns produced his most famous Marian text, the song ‘Lament of Mary Queen of Scots on Approach of Springtime’ for which Scotland’s foremost living composer James Macmillan (b.1959) provided a beautiful new musical setting in 2008 especially in time for the 250th anniversary (2009) of Burns’s birth.

Burns though was merely one of many who were drawn to Mary by Tytler. James Boswell’s bosom friend, Samuel Johnson (1709-84) applauded Tytler’s findings as did many others in England, perhaps especially those numerous members of the Church of England and Catholics who retained an attachment to the Stuart dynasty. The second edition of Tytler’s Inquiry was translated into French by Father Louis Avril and the consequent continental impact of the work was large. In many ways, then, it was Tytler who brought Mary back in from the cold and who paved the way for the pervasive Romantic iconicity of the Scottish queen.

This is true in the case of The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots, the painting by Gavin Hamilton (1723-98) which is now part of the Hunterian Collection and which was significantly commissioned by James Boswell, Tytler’s fellow-member of the Select Society.

Gavin Hamilton, The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots , 1765-1773, Hunterian Art Gallery

The person most powerfully in receipt of a sympathetic Mary from Tytler, though, following the success of the Avril translation of his work, was Friedrich (von) Schiller (1759-1805).

Friedrich Schiller, painting by Anton Graff, c. 1785.

One of Germany’s greatest dramatists, he was drawn in general to writing about strong women, including also Joan of Arc. His drama, Mary Stuart (1800) properly lit the touch paper for dozens of subsequent romantic portrayals of Mary. Interestingly, Schiller fabricates a meeting for dramatic purposes between Queen Elizabeth and the Scottish Queen, an historical inaccuracy for which the 2018 film (released January 2019), Mary, Queen of Scots (directed by Josie Rourke [b.1976]) was criticised.

Schiller’s drama has enjoyed huge success through the decades down to the twenty-first century, including hit runs on Broadway as well as in Los Angeles, London, and in Europe both in English translation and in its original German.

Through Schiller, Mary finds her way into opera, most especially in Marie Stuart, a five-act work in the grand opera tradition by Louis Niedermeyer (1802-61), premiered to some critical acclaim in Paris in 1844.

In Scotland itself, we find post-Schillerian Marian allure in the work of James Hogg (1770-1835), like Burns, form a Presbyterian background. Hogg’s long narrative poem, The Queen’s Wake (1813) depicts Mary arriving back in Scotland in 1561 and organising a competition of the bards, which is fascinating in a set of cultural politics that traverses the literary inheritance of both Celtic and lowland Scotland.

The text is a sign of Mary finding a place within a reconfiguring Scottish cultural mainstream during the early nineteenth century, something confirmed by the appearance of The Abbott (1820), a novel by Walter Scott (1771-1832), in which Mary is portrayed as an often sympathetically intelligent woman, alternatively lyrical and sarcastically sassy.

Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet. © Images
Sir Walter Scott, The Abbot, 1820. Frontispiece. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The characterisation was a great hit both with critics and the wider reading public, and this might be said, perhaps, to be the moment when Scotland finally reclaimed its most famous queen.

Contrasting with the 1760s when the Hume/Robertson-Tytler debate raged, generally less partial accounts of Mary’s reign appeared from Scottish historians in the early nineteenth century, including dispassionate reclamation by the Scottish Catholic community. This latter phenomenon is exemplified in The History of Scotland during the reign of Queen Mary until the accession of her son James to the crown of England  (1831) by the Kircudbrightshire priest, Father James Carruthers (1759-1832). Nonetheless, as in the 1760s, not so much behind the scenes but at the front of the stage, a pamphlet war again raged over the duplicity (or not) of Mary’s life, and this reached its zenith during the 1820s. In this contest, some of her most doughty, indeed patriotic defenders, were Scottish Presbyterians. The reception and growth of the icon that is Mary, Queen of Scots in popular culture and in the creative arts is a fascinating, multi-channelled story which has never been told in anything like its entirety.     

2 thoughts on “The Reception and Transmission of Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Burns and Walter Scott”

  1. Excellent in information here! As a history researcher (independent) I thought to highlight an excellent book by author A. E. MacRobert, called Mary, Queen of Scots and the Casket Letters, in which the author guides the reader through the twisting labyrinth of Scottish and English politics, examines possible forgery, and rejects Mary’s role in Darnley’s murder. A must read for your project in my view.
    Best Wishes

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