Contexts

George Buchanan is one of Scottish literature’s most fascinating characters who lived and influenced events during a turbulent period of Scottish and European history.

He belongs to a long tradition – that of the Scot abroad – which stretches back from the early Celtic monks to the present day. These are thinkers and writers (not to mention businessmen, engineers, soldiers, even footballers) who love and leave their home country, enriching their work – and, often as not, the cultures of their host countries – with fresh perspectives, new insights and a range of erudition difficult to achieve while based solely on home turf.

Buchanan not only wrote predominantly in Latin, he learned it and used it as if it was his native language. He is regarded as the foremost writer in Latin of his day, and for a long time after his death his works were studied in schools, allowing generations of young people to share in his poetry and the ideas he popularised.

Unfortunately, the fact that nearly everything he wrote was in Latin has had the effect of marginalising him in recent years and now he occupies an awkward and relatively obscure place within the canon of Scottish writers. His name fails to appear in many anthologies of Scottish literature, and where he is mentioned it is either very briefly or only in passing. It is difficult for us to imagine the influence his work once had.

Why did he write in Latin? A number of reasons. The international language for the exchange of ideas across Europe was Latin and his facility in it allowed his work to reach a very wide European audience. All kinds of things were going on in Europe at that time. The old ways of life and thinking were being challenged by people like Erasmus and Petrarch and Copernicus – Europe was moving out of the Middle Ages towards a period of enlightenment and Buchanan was at the heart of it. He brought these ideas back to Scotland, added his own, and sent them back out to Europe. Buchanan spent long periods in France (in Paris and Bordeaux) and Portugal and Italy where he studied and taught and his work there helped to keep Scotland on the intellectual map of Europe.

Another reason for the Latin was perhaps because of the on-going antipathy between Scotland and England: Buchanan was unlikely to find a favourable English speaking audience south of the border.

Finally, Buchanan’s choice of Latin above Scots or English is undoubtedly due to the influence of the humanist school of philosophers who were reinvestigating classical writers like Cicero and Plato and seeking to give their work new relevance. Essentially, humanism sought to synthesise the teachings of the classical poets and philosophers with the teachings of the Christian church. At that time, human beings were not considered to have a will of their own – we had God to guide us. The humanists proposed that humankind’s relationship to God was more of a two-way communion. They also asserted humankind’s superiority over nature. Basically, (and really simplistically) they put humankind in the driving seat and made God the passenger.

This was the tradition that Buchanan sided with. By following in this new school of thought Buchanan was able to take these ideas, freshly minted, and take them back to Scotland. Buchanan’s ideas also assisted in shaking up the great institutions of Church and Crown and his work influenced generations of educators.

For the first time, education was not seen as something that was instilled or handed down to young people when they were attending classes, then forgotten when they left. The Humanists regarded education as a continuous process – which involved friendship and play – and through the study of ancient texts pupils learned grammar, literature, history, moral philosophy etc. The aim was for the pupils to develop an inquiring and critical approach to study – and to carry that into their lives. The humanists held that if you could understand the ideas of the past, then the better able you were to understand what was happening in the present day.

When people refer to a ‘classical’ education – this is what they mean. Scotland was one of the first countries to adopt this new mode of education and for a long time it was justly famous for the quality of its teachers and teaching. These days, however, education is seen as a function of the saleability of one’s labour and, one could argue, we are the poorer for it.

Humanism, and the sciences which grew up round about it, challenged a great many of the beliefs the Church had about things (that the Earth was flat, for example). In those days, people who disagreed with the Church’s authority tended to be imprisoned or burned at the stake. Buchanan was never one to keep his mouth shut – he developed a habit throughout his career of deliberately getting on the wrong side of powerful people and institutions by printing slanderous pamphlets and sounding off about his beliefs in his poems and other writings. Not that it did his career any harm.

The first instance of Buchanan’s acid pen getting him into trouble was when he was tutor to King James V’s sons. He published a number of bawdy (i.e. rude) satires against Cardinal Beaton – who was the leader of the Church in Scotland – which led to him being charged with heresy. He fled to Bordeaux where he taught Michel de Montaigne, hero of school pupils the world over, who would go on to invent the essay as a literary form – one of many illustrious pupils Buchanan had in his career.

From Bordeaux he fled – again facing charges of heresy – to Portugal where he continued to teach and write his poetry. The Inquisition finally caught up with him there and he spent a number of years in prison. When he was released he studied and taught in Italy and, again, in France, returning to Scotland in 1561 to become tutor of the young Mary, Queen of Scots.

Buchanan had a very influential role in Scottish politics. As tutor to Queen Mary, and thereafter to her sons – one of whom would become James VI & I – he was in the position to influence monarchs with the fruits of his study, and with his heretical opinions as well as with other aspects of his character. Some blame the crusty pedantry of James VI & I’s writings on his teacher.

It is useful to remember here that Scotland was still a Catholic country and George, ever the radical, was leaning more towards Protestantism, a new form of religion at the time which was given a uniquely Scottish twist from Buchanan’s contemporary, the immortally grumpy John Knox. This didn’t win him any favours among the Scottish Royal court, nor did the accusations he levelled publicly at Queen Mary concerning her involvement in her husband, Lord Darnley’s, death. His alienation from the royal court was complete when he was appointed Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

When Scotland joined in Union with England in 1603 the fame and respect that its scholars had enjoyed in previous centuries began to diminish, as the suffocating effects of English domination and the repressive doctrines of Calvinism began to fracture the local political and intellectual landscape irreparably.

The popular and indelible myth of Scotland possessing an exemplary education system dates back to this time and the foundations laid by Buchanan and his like – a time when the claim could have been made with strong justification.