>Battle of the Pens in the late 18thC

>The final years of the 18thC attracted a sudden surge of learned visitors to, & commentators upon, the Western Isles.

John Knox, John Lanne Buchanan and Robert Heron each wrote of their experiences whilst John Pinkerton (aka another ‘Robert Heron’) embarked on a spirited attack upon all things Gaelic. We shall, however, start with a private letter between two other men of letters and learning:
Letter from Jospeh Ritson to Mr George Paton
Gray’s Inn, 5th March 1794
Dear Sir…
…Pinkerton seems busy in his intended History of Scotland. Whether it is to be the same with that advertised under the name of Robert Heron,*I cannot learn. His treatment of the “Celtic savages” is to be speedily resented in print by the Reverend John Lane Buchanan, nominal author of ” Travels in the Western Hebrides,” who seems, in fact, to be as very a Celt as his antagonist could possibly wish for. I am sorry to find so good a cause in the hands of such an incompetent advocate.
I indulge myself at present with the hopes of seeing you in the course of the ensuing summer: and in the mean while, request you to believe me,
Your sincere friend and faithful
Obedient servant, .
An explanatory note is provided in the book:
*Pinkerton brought out his ” Letters on Literature” under the fictitious name of ” Robert Heron.” It singularly happened that a ” Robert Heron,” a man of some literary acquirements, did then exist, and that he was about to publish a History of Scotland. Pinkerton was also at the time engaged in his History of the Stewarts, and thus the puzzle which perplexed Ritson arose. Of the unfortunate fate of the real Robert Heron, a very interesting account will be found in Murray’s valuable, but undeservedly neglected, literary History of Galloway.
Source: ‘Letters from Joseph Ritson, Esq to Mr George Paton. To which is added, a critique by John Pinkerton, Esq upon Ritson’s Scotish Songs’ Edinburgh 1879
Pinkerton appears to have previously attacked Paton in his trademark intemperate manner but clearly Ritson was less than enthusiastic that it was Buchanan who had mounted a speedy rebuttal to Pinkerton’s latest attack on the Gaels. Paton was employed at the Custom House in Edinburgh and was an amateur student of Scottish antiquities. Anyone with such an interest and who dared to suggest that Gaelic culture might have an ounce of value would be a target for Pinkerton’s outrageous vitriol. Ritson had previously exposed a set of supposedly ancient Ballads that Pinkerton had championed but were in fact forgeries, including some from Pinkerton’s own hand.
The reason why Ritson would consider Buchanan ‘an incompetent advocate’ was simple. Buchanan had been a Missionary minister on Harris between 1782 and 1790 but had been found guilty of conducting unbecoming his position. He had been caught ‘in flagrante delicto’ in the bed of a servant of the Tacksman of Luskentire and also accused of the attempted rape of another tacksman’s wife. His subsequent sacking and disgrace mean that his writings regarding the island inevitably open themselves to questions of credibility: Were the tacksmen really as appalling as he suggested and were the Harrismen as keen to become fishers rather than remain being farmers as he insisted?
Buchanan wasn’t universally critical of the tacksmen but, even if those at Luskentire and elsewhere on Harris at the time weren’t as terrible as he suggests, one of their successors in the form of Donald Stewart most certainly was! It is also worth pointing out that the comments made in the Statistical Account of 1794 by the Rev John Macleod reinforce Buchanan’s view of the Tacksman class in general and this despite Buchanan accusing the Established Church of either ignoring, or even collaborating, in the tacksmen’s persecution of the people.
Regarding the fishing, even if the relatively small population of Harris (2536 souls in 1792) wasn’t too keen on going fishing themselves, that is in no way the same thing as suggesting that Tarbert was indeed an obvious site for the British Fisheries Society to develop and should have been included as such in John Knox’s recommendations.
At the risk of becoming an apologist for Buchanan, I humbly suggest that, whilst he may well have overstated the situation and his writings be seen as polemical and therefore without academic value, he should be given some credit for having an intimate knowledge of the ways of Harris having lived amongst the people there for nearly a decade and, unlike some of his his detractors, never hiding behind a nom de plume nor sitting in silence at the injustices he perceived around him.
He also greatly irritated the Tory’s at the time, exciting vitriolic attacks from the pages of
‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ of May 1794 and ‘The Critical Review’ of 1795.
Neither of the authors of those particular pieces provided their name…
Further reading:
JLB & ‘Piscator’ (aka John Knox?)
I have not read the Harris Kirk Session records themselves but Buchanan’s crimes & their repercussions are described here:

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