Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Blair, Hugh

BLAIR, HUGH (1718–1800), divine, was born in Edinburgh 7 April 1718. His father, John Blair, was an Edinburgh merchant, son of Hugh and grandson of Robert Blair, 1593-1666 [q. v.], chaplain to Charles I. Hugh Blair was educated at Edinburgh, and entered the university in 1730. An essay περί τού καλού, written whilst he was a student, was highly praised by Professor Stevenson and always cherished by its author. Boswell says (Johnson, 1760) that Blair with his cousin, G. Bannatyne, composed a poem on the resurrection, which was published as his own by a Dr. Douglas. He graduated as M.A. in 1739, and printed a thesis, 'De fundamentis et obligatione legis naturæ.' On 21 Oct. 1741 he was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Edinburgh. A sermon in the West church procured him the favour of Lord Leven, through whose interest he was ordained minister of Colessie, Fife, 23 Sept. 1742. In July 1743 he returned to Edinburgh, where he was elected as second minister of the Canongate after a contest. On 11 Oct. 1754 he was appointed by the town council and general sessions to Lady Tester's, one of the city churches; and on 15 June 1758 was appointed, at the request of the lords of council and session, to the High church, a charge which he retained during life. On 11 Dec. 1759 he began to read lectures upon composition in the university; in August 1760 the town council made him professor of rhetoric; and on 7 April 1762 a regius professorship of rhetoric and belles lettres was founded, to which Blair was appointed with a salary of 70l.

These appointments indicate the general estimate of Blair's merits as preacher and critic. He was one of the distinguished literary circle which nourished at Edinburgh throughout the century. He was a member, with Hume, A. Carlyle, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Robertson, and others, of the famous Poker Club (Tytler's Kames, iii. 78). He was on very friendly terms with Hume, whose house he occupied during its owner's stay in France. Their friendship was not disturbed by Blair's sympathy with Hume's theological opponents, as Hume judiciously avoided discussions of such matters (Burton, i. 427, ii. 116). He defended Kames, his intimate friend, when Kames's 'Essays on Morality' exposed their author to a charge of infidelity, and brought Campbell's answer to Hume's essay upon Miracles under the notice of Hume (Tytler's Kames, i. 198, 266). He was intimate with Henry Dundas, afterwards Lord Melville, and through him had some influence upon Scotch patronage. He declined to use it in order to succeed Robertson as principal of the university, but is said to have been annoyed at being passed over in favour of Dr. Baird. Blair encouraged MacPherson to publish the 'Fragments of Ancient Poetry ' in 1760, and eulogised their merits with more zeal than discretion in 'A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the son of Fingal,' 1763. In an appendix to a third edition (1765) he adduces some external testimony to their authenticity. The essay was much admired at the time; the substance had been given in his lectures. These were not published till 1783, when he resigned the professorship. He states in a note that he had borrowed some ideas from a manuscript treatise upon rhetoric (afterwards destroyed) by Adam Smith, who had given the first lectures in Scotland on the same subject in 1748-51. Smith and his friends seem to have thought the acknowledgment insufficient (Hill, p. 266). The lectures expressed the canons of taste of the time in which Addison, Pope, and Swift were recognised as the sole models of English style, and are feeble in thought, though written with a certain elegance of manner. A tenth edition appeared in 1806, and they have been translated into French. The same qualities are obvious in the sermons, which for a long time enjoyed extraordinary popularity. The first volume was declined by Strahan. Strahan, however, showed one of them to Johnson, who said that he 'had read it with more than approbation; to say it is good is to say too little.' Strahan hereupon bought it for 100l., and upon its success doubled the price. For a second volume he paid 300l., and for a third and fourth 600l. each. The first appeared in 1777; a nineteenth edition of the first volume and a fifteenth of the second appeared in 1794. A fifth volume, with an account of Blair's life by the Rev. Dr. Finlayson, appeared in 1801. A pension of 200l. a year was conferred upon the author in 1780, which he enjoyed till his death. The sermons were translated into many languages, and until the rise of a new school passed as models of the art. They are carefully composed; he took a week over one (Boswell's Tour, ch. iii.), and they are the best examples of the sensible, if unimpassioned and rather affected, style of the moderate divines of the time. They have gone through many editions. Johnson seems to have had a warm esteem for Blair, who had been introduced to him shortly before Boswell's first introduction in 1763, and had been told by the doctor that ‘many men, many women, and many children’ could have written Ossian (Boswell's Johnson,, 24 May 1763). Blair omitted from his published lectures a passage in which he had censured Johnson's pomposity (Boswell, 1777). Blair is described by Hill and A. Carlyle as very amiable, ready to read manuscripts of young authors, full of harmless vanity and simplicity, and rather finical in his dress and manners. He had considerable influence in the church, and was reckoned as one of the leading men amongst the ‘moderate’ divines. But his diffidence disqualified him from public speaking, and he declined to become moderator of the general assembly. He married his cousin, Katharine Bannatyne, in April 1748, who died long before him. He had a son who died in infancy, and a daughter who died at the age of twenty-one. He preached his last sermon before the Society for the Benefit of the Sons of the Clergy in the seventy-ninth year of his age (1797). He died, after an illness of three days, on 27 Dec. 1800. Besides the writings above mentioned, Blair contributed to the short-lived ‘Edinburgh Review’ of 1755 a review of Hutcheson's ‘Moral Philosophy,’ and of Dodsley's collection of poems. His early system of notes led to the ‘Chronological Tables’ published by his relative, John Blair. A collection of the ‘sentimental beauties’ in his writings was published in 1809, with a life by W. H. Reed.

[Life by Finlayson; Life by John Hill, 1807; Burton's Life of Hume; A. Carlyle's Autobiography, pp. 291–4; Tytler's Life of Kames.]

L. S.