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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Blair, The Rev Dr Hugh (1718-1800)

Burns's Edinburgh admirer, the Rev Dr Hugh Blair, has been somewhat harshly treated by most of the poet's biographers but he was a man of genuine intellectual substance in his day. He was born the only child of John Blair, a merchant who lost his money in the Darien scheme.

The poet Robert Blair, who wrote The Grave was his kinsman. Hugh Blair went to Edinburgh High School and Edinburgh University, graduating Master of Arts in 1739. He was licensed to preach in 1741, and soon after became tutor in the family of Simon, Master of Lovat.

Through the Earl of Leven, he gained his first pastorate, at Collessie, in Fife. From there, he went as junior minister to the Canongate Church, Edinburgh. In 1754, he was called to Lady Yester's and in 1760 to the High Kirk, St Giles. In religion he was a 'moderate', attending and supporting the cause of the theatre, and playing a leading part as defender in the attacks on Lord Kames and David Hume from the narrower section of the Church. From 1762 onwards Blair also held the Chair of Rhetoric in Edinburgh University. His lectures on taste won him wide fame. It was Blair who encouraged James Macpherson to proceed with the collection of his Ossianic Fragments, and Blair who wrote the introduction to the first edition which appeared in 1760. He became the acknowledged arbitrator of rather conservative 'good taste', and as such was on the side of those who, like Adam Smith, were constantly trying to 'un-Scotch' themselves. His sermons were widely read when they appeared, and although Gosse later referred to them as 'Blair's bucket of warm water' and Leslie Stephen wrote of Blair 'mouthing his sham rhetoric', they reveal a greater degree of liberal humanism than is to be found in the sermons of his less moderate contemporaries.

When Burns arrived in Edinburgh, Blair was 2 years off 70. In spite of the disparity between their ages and temperaments, Blair was in the forefront of those who promoted the 'child of nature'. Josiah Walker reports an incident in which Burns unwittingly gave Blair, then his host, some pain. Burns, in answer to a question, said that of all the public places he had seen in Edinburgh the High Church gave him 'the greatest gratification'. He then 'gave the preference as preacher to the Rev Mr William Greenfield' — the colleague of his host. It was a thoughtless lapse which seems to have caused Burns as much pain as Blair, though it reflects the common view that in spite of his literary gifts, Blair was no great preacher.

In his Second Commonplace Book, Burns left a shrewd portrait of Blair.

'I never respect him with humble veneration; but when he kindly interests himself in my welfare, or, still more, when he descends from his pinnacle and meets me on equal ground, my heart overflows with what is called liking: when he neglects me for the mere carcase of greatness, or when his eye measures the difference of our points of elevation, I say to myself with scarcely an emotion, what do I care for him or his pomp either?... In my opinion Dr Blair is merely an astonishing proof of what industry and application can do. Natural parts like his are frequently to be met with; his vanity is proverbially known among his acquaintances; but he is justly at the head of what may be called fine writing... He has a heart, not of the finest water, but far from being an ordinary. In short, he is truly a worthy and most respectable character.'

So worthy, indeed, did Burns think him that the poet wrote to Blair on his departure from Edinburgh, a letter dated 3rd May 1787, thanking him for 'the kindness, patronage and friendship' Blair had shown him, and enclosing a proof of the Beugo engraving.

Burns's alteration of 'tidings of salvation' to 'damnation' in 'The Holy Fair' was made on Blair's suggestion. Blair was at least partly responsible for the exclusion of 'The Jolly Beggars' from the Edinburgh edition, as well as of a poem, now lost, called 'The Prophet and God's Complaint'. Blair always thought of Burns as a great and noble poet who had 'the words of the stable and the politics of the smithy'. (Schmitz — Hugh Blair). He therefore advised Dr Currie in 1797 not to publish too much about Burns's character, and to make the selection of his poems 'with much delicacy and caution', advice, however, which Currie hardly needed.

Blair married his cousin, Katherine Bannatine, in 1748. His son died in infancy, his daughter in her 21st year. His wife died in 1795.

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