Robert Louis Stevenson’s view of the Scottish temperament

22nd October 2022 | Books, Musings, Travel | 0 comments

I’ve been reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Memories and Portraits, published in 1887. RLS, as he’s often referred to, is famous for Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped and a few others, though in my local library the collected edition of his works runs to 25 volumes.

RLS grew up in Edinburgh, as I did. For the sake of his health he later travelled and lived overseas, but the experience of growing up in Scotland in the mid-19th century left a deep impact on him. In Memories and Portraits he writes about the Scottish temperament.

There’s a kind of lazy belief that Scots are reserved and taciturn compared with the English. Yet that’s not how RLS saw it. He thought the Scots – at all levels of society – were more willing to give of themselves in conversation. And actually that matches my own experience of living in both countries.

‘The first shock of English society is like a cold plunge’, he writes. ‘It is possible that the Scot comes looking for too much, and to be sure his first experiment will be in the wrong direction. Yet surely his complaint is grounded; surely the speech of Englishmen is too often lacking in generous ardour, the better part of the man too often withheld from the social commerce, and the contact of mind with mind evaded as with terror. [my italics]

‘A Scotch peasant will talk more liberally out of his own experience. He will not put you by with conversational counters and small jests; he will give you the best of himself, like one interested in life and man’s chief end. A Scotchman is vain, interested in himself and others, eager for sympathy, setting forth his thoughts and experience in the best light.

‘The ego of the Englishman is self-contained. He does not seek to proselytise. He takes no interest in Scotland or the Scotch, and, what is the unkindest cut of all, he does not care to justify his indifference. Give him the wages of going on and being an Englishman, that is all he asks; and in the meantime, while you continue to associate, he would rather not be reminded of your baser origin. … That you should continually try to establish human and serious relations, that you should actually feel an interest in John Bull, and desire and invite a return of interest from him, may argue something more awake and lively in your mind, but it still puts you in the attitude of a suitor and a poor relation.’

RLS was writing 135 years ago, but many of his remarks still ring true to a fellow Scot – to this one, anyway.


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