The Sage of Ecclefechan
The Dumfriesshire Companion
Haig Gordon



Some Historical Background

The Border

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey -
Thomas Telford

Robert Burns - Doonhamer

The Sage of Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

Other Literary Figures

The Artists

Fame and Fortune

Other Pairs of Eyes

The Sage of Ecclefechan

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), whose complex and eccentric writings on history and society turned him into a colossus of Victorian literature, was the son of an Ecclefechan* stonemason. The property in which he was born - the Arched House, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland - had been designed and built by his father and an uncle. After his father's death he wrote warmly of how 'a portion of this Planet bears beneficent traces of his strong Hand and strong Head...I shall look on the Houses he built with a certain proud interest: they stand firm and sound to the heart, all over his little district'.

Carlyle's parents were pious folk in the Calvinist tradition and when his father insisted that his eldest son should have more than just a rudimentary education, it was of course for the higher purpose of his becoming a minister of the Kirk. From the local parish school Carlyle went on, despite his mother's reservations, to Annan Academy; and at the age of barely fourteen he entered the University of Edinburgh, which he reached at the start of his first term by walking the eighty miles over three days.

His mother gave him a Bible as a parting gift. But her and her husband's hopes for young Thomas's calling were to be unfulfilled. After going through the arts course Carlyle did then attend some classes in divinity but by the time he left the university in 1814 he had not fully completed anything and the only certainty was that he was no longer intent upon becoming a man of the cloth. During a tumultuous bout of self-interrogation he 'entered my chamber and closed the door, and around me there came a trooping throng of phantasms dire from the abysmal depths of nethermost perdition - doubt, fear, unbelief, mockery, and scoffing were there; and I wrestled with them in agony of spirit.' He re-emerged no longer capable of upholding unquestioningly the simple dogmas of the religion with which he had been reared. All he knew for sure was that he now wanted to be a writer - but to write what, and would anyone pay him to do so?

Carlyle remained for some years to come a young man adrift. He tried school-teaching, returning to his alma mater in Annan as a tutor in mathematics. After a couple of years he came to the conclusion that he was in a trap. His escape was another teaching job in Kirkcaldy but this too grew irksome. In 1818 he gave up normal paid employment entirely and returned to Edinburgh, swelled with literary ambition but still unsure of the direction in which to channel it. He read widely, taught himself German and fell under the spell of Goethe, whose philosophy of 'idealism' responded to his own search for some kind of higher thought to fill the void left by his rejection of conventional belief. He kept the wolf from the door with some private tutoring and his first sales of articles and reviews to encyclopaedias and literary periodicals.

During this period Carlyle also became a fully-fledged hypochondriac, a condition he had for the rest of his life, the chronic stomach and bowel complaints almost certainly psychosomatically connected to the tortured state of his soul. Carlyle senior must often have regarded him as somewhat wayward but, as his eldest son would later acknowledge in gratitude, he held back from voicing outright disapproval:

When I declined going forward into the Church (though his heart was set upon it), he respected my scruples, my volition, and patiently let me have my way. In after years, when I had peremptorily ceased from being a Schoolmaster, though he inwardly disapproved of the step as imprudent; and saw me, in successive summers, lingering beside him in sickliness of body and mind, without outlook towards any good, he had the forbearance to say at worst nothing, never once to whisper discontent with me.

Carlyle was stilI struggling to establish himself in the literary world, still at a relatively early stage in his awesome journey of self-discovery when, in 1821, he met the young woman he soon decided he wanted to marry. Jane Welsh lived with her widowed mother in Haddington east of Edinburgh and, though barely out of her teens, was already a cultivated and witty personality with no shortage of suitors. In fact she had been half-expecting a proposal from Edward Irving, another alumnus of Annan Academy, who later became a controversial preacher (see Fame and Fortune). He and Carlyle had become friends and indeed it was Irving who took the aspirant writer to meet Jane. In the end Irving opted to become engaged to a lady in Kirkcaldy, leaving the field open for Carlyle to pursue his interest in Jane.

Jane was fascinated by the learned conversation of this 'genius' but mother and daughter were initially agreed on one thing: a man without a settled profession and with only a small and extremely precarious income was an entirely unsuitable marital prospect for a respectable middle-class girl. Carlyle was not discouraged, however, and after a long courtship conducted largely by letter the two of them were finally married in 1826 in a quiet ceremony at Templand near Thornhill, where Jane's mother had by then moved. Mrs Welsh arranged for them to begin their married life at a house in Comely Bank on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

It was not long before Jane came to appreciate the full extent of her new husband's neurotic self-absorption. Periods of obsessive work alternated with bouts of depressive lassitude and he was forever complaining of headaches. 'Not tonight, Jane' may well have signified 'not ever, Jane'. Successive biographers have been led to suspect that their marriage remained unconsummated, though in fact, despite all the strains and frustrations, it would last until death did them part. The writer Samuel Butler joked that it was 'very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable instead of four.'

In his restlessness and discontentment Carlyle became convinced that a change of air would unlock his creativity and that in particular a rustic setting would be more conducive to his achieving something more than just occasional magazine pieces. The Welsh family owned the remote farm of Craigenputtock (the Carlyles spelled it 'Craigenputtoch') north-west of Dunscore* and Carlyle made up his mind that there lay the solution to his problems.

It was a couple of decades later that Jane finally told the full story of the disintegration of their life at Comely Bank, in an interview she gave to Ellen Twisleton, an American friend in London. 'We hadn't been there two months, before Carlyle grew perfectly frantic with it all, and couldn't support it in any way, couldn't endure his life at all nor get on with the people that were about us - but had it all this time fixed in his head that if he were only at Craigenputtoch he should be well, and everything that was wrong would go right...he took it in his head that if he could go and live there, and have a horse to ride, he was sure he should get well and get on.'

The prospect of being cooped up with Carlyle at Craigenputtock horrified Jane. She had visited the place only once before, when she was very young, 'and had always remembered it as the most dreadful, lonesome, barren of places - and all through my childhood I used to be frightened - it used to be the threat... "if you behave so badly, you shall go to Craigenputtoch"'. Jane poured her heart out to Twisleton: 'It was the dreariest place on the face of the earth...the only wonder is I didn't go mad; the only women that had ever been there before me were four farmer's wives...three went mad, and the fourth took to drinking!' She said her reaction to the plan had been: 'I wouldn't live at Craigenputtoch with an angel.' Carlyle was certainly no angel, but it was what he wanted and so to the wind-swept and often snowed-in wilds of north-west Dumfriesshire they went. 'There was no refusing,' Jane added.

Hanging over the couple were grave financial worries. It was not just Carlyle's paltry income. Craigenputtock, to be habitable, would require upgrading and the current farmer had to be bought out of his lease - all costing money they did not have. They borrowed one thousand pounds from Mrs Welsh, which Jane felt guilty about since her mother's resources were reducing. The whole loan 'was sunk, literally sunk in all that was to be done.'

Part of the plan was that Carlyle's brother Alexander should farm the land and pay rent to Jane's mother. Jane could not stand her brother-in-law: 'a man of the most outrageous, coarse, violent temper', who would go to Dumfries on business and return home drunk. 'At that time he did all the errands of the you may imagine the state they used to come in, the keg of gin broken into the bag of flour...I had to learn to do and undo everything.' To make matters worse, Alexander was unreliable in paying the rent and her mother suffered financially. 'I remember one time, it had not been paid for four months beyond the time, and Carlyle got some money from London, for something he'd written, in a cheque upon the Dumfries bank; I seized the cheque, got on my pony, and rode, all alone, no servant with me, into the town, to the bank, got my money, and off another sixteen miles to my Mother's...and gave her the money.'

Then another in-law whom she did not like arrived, to help fill the gap left by servants refusing to stay in such a desolate place. Jean Carlyle 'was with me 18 months, and those were the worst of the whole - she was a coarse, rude girl and had such a temper, and such a tremendous will as I never met with in any other woman but herself - a will just like Carlyle's, without anything besides to induce you to put up with it.'

During a typical day at Craigenputtock Jane was achingly lonely, for Carlyle was away in a world of his own, working in his room or off on solitary walks or horse-rides. He would re-appear for meals but more often than not, according to Jane, 'there was no freedom of communication' during dinner. If Jane ever tried discussing problems she was having with his siblings or with the servants, he would just say 'My dear, what can I possibly know, or do, about all this?' At about ten at night Carlyle would finally emerge from his private thoughts. 'And then he'd come in, quite tired out with his work, and say, "Jane, will you play me a few of those Scotch tunes" - and so I would sit down and play Scotch tunes till he went to bed - oftenest with the tears running down my face while I played.'

Even Carlyle, despite his craving for seclusion that had propelled them there, felt their social isolation to be at times oppressive: 'not a person to speak to within sixteen miles, except the minister of Dunscore.' The stillness around them was so intense, according to Jane, that when she went out-of-doors she could hear the sheep cropping the grass. Both were sorely in need of external stimulus, just something to lift the cloud of gloom that hung over them perpetually.

We can imagine therefore their delighted surprise when one Sunday evening in August of 1833 there was a knock on the door. Their unexpected visitor was a thirty-year-old American by the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He would later make his name as a philosopher, poet and founder of Transcendentalism. At this time he had just resigned as a pastor, because he could no longer believe in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and he was on a grand tour of Europe in the hope of making contact with his literary heroes. Seeking audiences with the venerable poets Wordsworth and Coleridge was understandable enough but Carlyle was still a virtual unknown. Yet Emerson had spotted from the other side of the Atlantic the Scotsman's contributions to the intellectual periodicals and had recognised a cast of mind with which he could feel a sense of affinity. He was so convinced of a spiritual kindredness that he just had to take a huge diversion in his European itinerary to track him down to faraway Craigenputtock.

The two men certainly had much in common. Both had rejected a clerical vocation because of a struggle with traditional beliefs but were anxious to find some new cause superior to mere materialism; both also had ardent literary ambitions yet to be fully realised. Their meeting was an abounding success and formed the basis of a close friendship over the next fifty years. Jane too was thrilled by what seemed to her like a god-sent visitation.

Emerson stayed with them overnight and their talk barely ceased. Jane later described it as a day of 'enchantment'. Carlyle wrote to his mother about 'the arrival of a certain young unknown friend, named Emerson, from Boston, in the United States, who turned aside so far from the British, French, and Italian travels to see me here!...Of course we could do no other than welcome him; the rather as he seemed to be one of the most lovable creatures in himself we had ever looked on.'

Emerson gave his own account in later years: 'I found the house amid desolate heathery hills, where the lonely scholar nourished his mighty heart...we sat down and talked of the immortality of the soul.' Of Carlyle's appearance at this time he wrote: 'He was tall and gaunt, with a cliff-like brow, self-possessed, and holding his extraordinary powers of conversation in easy command; clinging to his northern accent with evident relish; full of lively anecdote, and with a streaming humor, which floated everything he looked upon.'

After a glorious twenty-four hours for all of them Emerson resumed his journey south. He was intent upon calling in on Wordsworth in Cumberland. Emerson brought up the subject of his Dumfriesshire host. Wordsworth told him that he was aware of Carlyle's work, that he 'wrote most obscurely' and that he 'thought him sometimes insane.'

The Craigenputtock period, for all its disappointments, was not entirely fruitless. Carlyle's first major work, Sartor Resartus, emerged from its long gestation behind closed doors in his upstairs workroom. The strange title - Latin for 'tailor re-patched' - matches the eccentricity of the content, a wildly idiosyncratic blend of philosophy, social comment, comic fantasy and autobiography, delivered in a torrential style of prose so individualistic that it came to be known as 'Carlylese'. In a letter Carlyle said that the book 'glances from Heaven to Earth and back again in a strange satirical frenzy'. But he appreciated that back in Ecclefechan it would probably be seen as just plain daft, the majority agreeing with the critic who dismissed it as a 'heap of clotted nonsense'. He told his mother to 'ask no account of it, for it is indescribable.'

When it was published in instalments during 1833-34 some readers thought it was a hoax. The narrator purports to be the editor of a work by Herr Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, a professor of 'Things in General' (which, through his wide-ranging studies, Carlyle had himself effectively become). In the editor's account of the professor's life, the scenes of an idyllic childhood in Entepfuhl are really Carlyle's own memories of Ecclefechan.

The professor expounds a 'Clothes-Philosophy' through which he strips humanity down to its naked truth:

...when I read of pompous ceremonials, Frankfort Coronations, Royal Drawing-rooms, Levees, Couchees; and how the ushers and macers and pursuivants are all in waiting; how Duke this is presented by Archduke that, and Colonel A by General B, and innumerable Bishops, Admirals, and miscellaneous Functionaries, are advancing gallantly to the Anointed Presence; and I strive, in my remote privacy, to form a clear picture of that solemnity, - on a sudden, as by some enchanter's wand, the - shall I speak it? - the Clothes fly-off the whole dramatic corps; and Dukes, Grandees, Bishops, Generals, Anointed Presence itself, every mother's son of them, stand straddling there, not a shirt on them; and I know not whether to laugh or weep.

Sartor Resartus did not, however, bring any immediate relief for the cash-flow problems at Craigenputtock. Carlyle went to London and hawked the manuscript around the publishers but returned to Dumfriesshire disheartened. Several years were to pass before it came out in book form.

The London visit unsettled Carlyle, as had the Emerson interlude. Rustic seclusion no longer seemed to be the best option after all; closer contact with the literary world was what was now required. In the summer of 1834 the Carlyles moved to Chelsea by the Thames, occupying 5 (now 24) Cheyne Row where they remained for the rest of their days. Carlyle found a renewed sense of purpose and applied pen to paper at a furious rate.

The rest is literary history. When the collected works of the 'Sage of Chelsea' were published towards the end of his life they stretched to over thirty volumes. There were monumental books of polemical history, from The French Revolution (1837) to History of Frederick the Great (1858-65 - six volumes of it!); there were tracts pouring scorn on the evils of Victorian Britain and denouncing, like a Calvin from the pulpit, the shallowness of utilitarianism; and there were his sell-out lectures venerating inspirational men of the past, published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841). The latter found a place, along with the likes of Mahomet, Luther and Napoleon, for Robert Burns: 'a giant Original man; one of those men who reach down to the perennial Deeps, who take rank with the Heroic among men: and he was born in a poor Ayrshire hut. The largest soul of all the British lands [in the eighteenth century] came among us in the shape of a hard-handed Scottish Peasant.'

Jane, meanwhile, occupied herself with letter-writing (she is now regarded as a star of that genre) and with playing hostess to their wide range of influential friends in literature and politics. She was also kept busy coping with the great man's moods. Carlyle became increasingly irritated by the noisy bustle that London's growth had brought to the once quiet riverside suburb of Chelsea. And that was not the only disturbance to send him into a rage. He spent a lot of time and energy fulminating against the cock-a-doodle-doo coming from next-door.

The details of this neighbourly irritant are a hilarious insight into the Carlyles' domestic life. In 1853 he complained in a letter to his brother John about not being able to sleep:

...the poor neighbour, right-hand, has lately been inspired by the Evil Powers to institute Poultry in his premises and even a Cock! Think of that. After sad meditation, and some ineffectual trials otherwise, I called him in last night; spoke earnestly with diplomatic politeness to the poor man; offered him a gold sovereign for the head of this fatal cock, indicating darkly withal that it could not "thrive" in that confined space (Gambardella's gun, corrosive-sublimate, armed fishing rods, and I know not what, having loomed in the distance, as he crowed!), - and, in fine, I hope now the thing is finished in a fairly human manner!

It was not finished, as Jane reported to John four months later: 'the cocks are springing up more and more till it seems as if the Universe were growing into one poultry yard! There is also a Parrot, called Lara, at next door - All that has waked up Mr C into the old phrenzy to be off - "into Silence"!'

A couple of months later, while Jane was away in Scotland, Carlyle wrote to her about his radical plan for eliminating the noise nuisance:

On one point I expect to surprise you: A Cubitt Builder is actually coming give me an exact survey, with exact estimate...of an impenetrably deaf apartment up aloft! I hardly think I shall dare to build just yet, after all. But these summer noises, in some of my neuralgic moods, drive me upon such speculations.

The building of his 'sound-proof' room went ahead. 'Henceforth,' he declared, 'I hope to be independent of all men and all dogs, cocks and household or street noises, - which are waxing every year in this Chelsea with the furious building &c that now goes on!' In fact the scheme was a flop: 'As a room that was to be silent, inaccessible to sound, it is a most perfect failure, one of the undeniablest misses ever made! So that all my labour and suffering, and 200 or more of ready money has been quite thrown away, so far as that grand intention goes.' Carlyle's verdict: 'the "sound-proof room" was a flattering delusion of an ingenious needy builder, for which we afterwards paid dear.' And Jane's: 'the silent room is the noisiest in the house. Mr C is very much out of sorts.' Only the eventual departure of the neighbour and his cock alleviated that particular problem.

Despite the literary eminence he reached and the rarefied mental world which he inhabited, Carlyle never became estranged from his parents and their extended family back home in Dumfriesshire and in some ways he remained - charmingly on the evidence of his prolific correspondence with them all - the uncomplicated son of simple folks. His preferred cuisine was that of his childhood: 'our Annandale oatmeal makes us the nicest supper,' he wrote in gratitude for the latest supplies to arrive in Chelsea.

He returned to Dumfriesshire frequently. In response to the poet Tennyson telling him he would like to see the splendours of the Brazilian forest before he died, Carlyle said that 'the scraggiest bit of heath in Scotland is more to me than all the forests of Brazil.' His parents meant a lot to him. The writer George Gilfillan saw mother and 'her illustrious son' together: 'beautiful it was to see his profound and tender regard, and her motherly and yearning reverence - to hear her fine old covenanting accents, concerting with his transcendental tones.'

The deaths of his parents affected Carlyle deeply. His father was the first to go, in 1832. As soon as he was buried his son sat down and wrote an affectionate account of his life. 'He was to the last the pleasantest man I had to speak with in Scotland,' he wrote. 'I have a sacred pride in my Peasant Father, and would not exchange him even now for any King known to me.' At the same time he acknowledged human failings which, as a son, he had found forbidding:

His heart seemed as if walled in; he had not the free means to unbosom himself...Till late years when he began to respect me more...I was ever more or less awed and chilled before him: my heart and tongue played only with my Mother...Once, and I think once only, I saw him in a passion of tears. It was when the remains of my Mother's fever hung upon her (in 1817), and seemed to threaten the extinction of her reason: we were all of us nigh desperate, and ourselves mad. He burst, at last, into quite a torrent of grief; cried piteously and threw himself on the floor, and lay moaning.It was as if a rock of granite had melted, and was thawing into water. What unknown seas of feeling lie in man, and will from time to time break through?

Carlyle's mother survived for another two decades. In December 1853 he wrote from Chelsea a farewell letter to her as she lay dying at Scotsbrig (the home at Middlebie* to which the family had moved when his father abandoned stonemasonry in favour of farming). It is an intensely moving expression of filial devotion:

Oh my dear Mother, let it ever be a comfort to you, however weak you are, that you did your part honourably and well while in strength, and were a noble mother, to me and to us all. I am now myself grown old [he was writing on his 58th birthday]; and have had various things to do and suffer for so many years; but there is nothing I have ever had to be so much thankful for as for the mother I had...if there has been any good in the things I have uttered in the world's hearing, it was your voice essentially that was speaking thro' me: essentially what you and my brave Father meant and taught me to mean, this was the purport of all I spoke and wrote.

Carlyle made it back to Scotsbrig just in time to speak with his mother before she died on Christmas Day. 'All is over now;' he wrote to Jane, 'and the Weary One is at rest...Such a moment, such a scene, I shall remember thro' Eternity. We all wept.' He described her final night, and his own part in it:

About 11 o'clock, John [one of his brothers, a physician] gave her some few drops of laudanum, which brought some relief, and about midnight she seemed disposed to fall asleep. When I entered the room about 10 minutes to 12, John said, "Here is Tom come to bid you good night." She nodded assent; whispered audibly to me, "I'm mickle obliged to thee!" Those were the last words I ever heard her say.

In 1866 Carlyle made a triumphal return to Edinburgh to deliver his inaugural address to the students of the university who had elected him their Rector. The other candidate had been the politician and novelist Benjamin Disraeli. Carlyle's majority was more than two-to-one. His long speech began on a personal note, harking back to his youthful departure from Ecclefechan:

It is now fifty-six years, gone last November, since I first entered your City, a boy of not quite fourteen, to "attend the classes" here, and gain knowledge of all kinds, I could little guess what, my poor mind full of wonder and awe-struck expectation; and now, after a long course, this is what we have come to [Cheers]. There is something touching and tragic, and yet at the same time beautiful, to see, as it were, the third generation of my dear old native land rising up and saying, "Well, you are not altogether an unworthy labourer in the vineyard; you have toiled through a great variety of fortunes, and have had many judges: this is our judgement on you!"

He was still in Scotland when he heard, just days after his rapturous reception at Edinburgh University, of the death of Jane while being taken for a carriage-ride around Hyde Park. Her suffering was finally over. She had almost overtaken her husband in the scale of her hypochondria. Her ailments seemed like embodiments of her inner turmoils, the multiple frustrations of an unfulfilled literary career of her own, of childlessness and of the solitariness of being married to a monomaniac.

Carlyle himself lasted another fifteen years, not a bad outcome for lifelong sickliness. Much of his old age was devoted, possibly as an act of penance for his emotional neglect, to assembling and annotating Jane's letters for publication. These show that there had been two outstanding talents in this marriage but only one got the public attention.

When Carlyle was approaching death his niece, who had been looking after him, thought she heard him saying to himself 'So this is Death: well...' As he passed away on 5 February 1881 newspaper reporters were waiting outside. The Times reported: 'A great man of letters, quite as heroic as any of those whom he depicted, has passed away amid universal regret. The close has come of a well-ordered, full, stately, and complete life.'

In his will Carlyle had stipulated that 'since I cannot be laid in the grave at Haddington, I shall be placed beside or between my father and mother in the Churchyard of Ecclefechan.' His wish was granted. The body was brought to Ecclefechan on the overnight train from London. The kirk bell tolled but otherwise there was silence. No one around the grave spoke a word. The coffin was lowered without eulogy or prayer. 'He might have laid in grim companionship with poets, statesmen, Generals, and Kings,' wrote an eye-witness from the press. 'Living, he knew that when dead Westminster Abbey might offer to his Executors the silent hospitality of its sacred walls for his last lodging. He preferred to go home to the hamlet in the North, and thus they have lain the body of Thomas Carlyle among his own countrymen, by the side of his parents, and within a short distance of the house where he was born.'

At heart the Sage of Chelsea was ever the Sage of Ecclefechan. The Times obituarist concluded:

There were not many greater pleasures than to sit by his armchair and hear him tell, as he loved to tell, when years came on, of old Annandale folk and ways, in all his varied activity, from first to last, he was something of the inspired peasant. The waves of London life came up to and about him; but they had never overwhelmed him or had power to alter him one jot. With all his culture and nearly 50 years of residence in the south, he was to the end substantially unchanged; his ways were his forefathers' ways; his deepest convictions were akin to theirs; and it needed but a little stretch of the imagination to suppose him a fellow worker with Knox or the friend and companion of Burns.


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

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