Philosophy, fishing and shooting

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Between the ages of 13 and 20, Robert Blakey lived in Alnwick.

Here: “My star-gazing passion nearly swallowed up every other. I seldom lay a night in bed; but would have wandered about at all midnight hours to see the revolution of the heavenly bodies. I also studied Ferguson’s astronomy; and found my scanty portion of mathematical knowledge very useful here.

“I became a subscriber to an extensive circulating library in the town; and settled to the consideration of natural philosophy. I began the study of mechanics. I directed my attention also to chemistry, hydraulics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, crystallography, and optics; in all of which I made some little progress.

“I carried books upon these subjects about me at all times, and kept a tinder-box in my room, by which I could strike a light at any time, and enjoy the luxury on a cold frosty morning of reading in bed. My reading took, however, an entirely new direction. I grew enamoured of mental, moral, and political subjects, and devoured every book I could procure which treated philosophically of human nature.

“I likewise tried to put some ideas into shape on morals, and mental subjects. These I laid before my friend David Paterson. My opinions were often very crude, but though we had many fierce contentions, he always rigidly observed the maxim of ‘agreeing to differ’.”

David Paterson was the Secession minister in Alnwick. He had studied at Edinburgh University, and it was through him that Robert gained an entrėe to Edinburgh's vibrant intellectual life.

He had scarcely been to school, let alone university, yet was able to hold his own in conversation with these eminent men.

“My friend was upon a very friendly footing with Dugald Stewart, whose lectures he attended. I had sketched out a series of essays, and he so far approved of them that, in a correspondence with Professor Stewart, he mentioned one of the essays, in which I had ventured to point out an error in his Philosophy of Mind.”

This essay was later published in the Newcastle Magazine. Here is the passage.

“It may be worthwhile to remark, that Mr Stewart, in treating of attention, says he was not aware that any author, ancient or modern, had spoken of it as a separate faculty; but if he will look into Condillac’s Precis de Leçons Préliminaires, vol. 8 of his works, he will find attention not only enumerated among the mental faculties, but an attempt is made to resolve several other faculties into it.”

Then: “Having to be in Edinburgh, Mr Paterson gave me a line of introduction to Mr Stewart, who received me kindly, and I had more than an hour’s conversation with him on matters of abstract speculation.

“Happening to mention the work of Dr Thomas Brown’s Observations on Darwin’s Zoonomia, Mr Stewart kindly gave me a line to Dr Brown, with whom I had the pleasure of conversing for upwards of two hours. The doctor appeared in a very weakly state; and he died, not very long after, of a deep consumption.

“Stewart and Brown enjoyed an unrivalled reputation for mental and moral philosophy. My very brief acquaintance with them both greatly animated me in the prosecution of my own speculations on the topics they had so nobly and eloquently expounded.”

Dr Brown died in April 1820 so Robert was then about 25 and had been back in Morpeth for five years. He had scarcely been to school, let alone university, yet was able to hold his own in conversation with these eminent men.

But his expression “having to be in Edinburgh” has a sad side to it. He tells us that he learnt the trade of a furrier in Alnwick, but then never mentions it again. He was a furrier for more than 30 years, and his visits to Edinburgh were almost certainly to sell rabbit and hare furs to hat makers there. Yet when he came to write his Memoirs, he felt ashamed of admitting to having been in trade.

He was, however, much more than a bookworm.

“I may mention that I spent a good deal of time in angling and shooting, and particularly in the former amusement,” he said.

“The family of the Newtons, nurserymen, made me a comparative proficient in fly fishing. Alnwick River was not then frequented by many rod fishers so that I had most of the water down to Lesbury to range along (but) kept clear of the waters about the parks.

“As to shooting, the old Duke of Northumberland was the most liberal of landholders. A large extent of ground was free for any one to shoot over that chose; and I do not remember a single man in the town that regularly followed the art of poaching.

“The Newtons had rifle shooting in their gardens, which I regularly attended.

“I have imbued that love of outdoor recreations throughout life, which has been prolific of the most rational and refined enjoyment in my earthly pilgrimage.”

And this is how he met Sir Walter Scott.

“I was angling with fly a little below Selkirk Bridge; and a gentleman, accompanied by two dogs, came up and asked me if I had any sport. I replied, ‘Very little’. He said, ‘Perhaps you have not the right flies for this river in its present state: let me look at your tackle’.

“Showing him my flies, he said, ‘I think I can give you two that will likely answer better than those you are using’. He then took out his fly-book, and put two on my own line, taking my own off and presenting them to me.

“He sauntered about two or three hundred yards, when he wished me ‘Good day!’ and hoped I would have better luck down the stream.

“I had not gone far when a countryman came up to me, and said, ‘De’ ye ken now wha was speaking to ye?’ ‘No’, I said. ‘Weel, it’s our laird of Abbotsford, Wattie Scott’. This was some time before he was created a Baronet by George IV.”

For reasons of space, I have edited these passages from Dr Blakey's works.

The Early Christian Landscape of the Wansbeck Valley, 48 pages, illustrated, is a study of the Anglo-Saxon church in Northumberland. Available from Morpeth TIC, Newgate News and T&G Allan. Or email rhcu@btinternet.com, price £6 post free.