Famous Scots
- Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Thomas Carlyle Carlyle was born on 4 December 1795 in a cottage in Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire. After school in Annan he went to Edinburgh University to study mathematics. He had originally been destined for the church but although he never lost the piety instilled in him as a child, he could not accept the biblical foundations of Christianity. He returned to Annan as a schoolmaster and later became a tutor but his monumental intellect and enquiring mind diverted him into the life of an author, initially a number of relatively minor biographies for Brewster's Edinburgh encyclopedia. Carlyle married in 1826. It was to be a stormy relationship due to Carlyle's fiery temper and her quick wit and vitriolic tongue, but they remained close till the end of their lives.

In 1828 the Carlyles moved to a moorland farmhouse of Craigenputtock where for six years Carlyle produced a large number of books (including essays on Burns, Voltaire and Boswell's Life of Johnson) and developed his literary style. In 1834 Carlyle and his wife moved to No5 Cheyne Row in Chelsea, London and he began one of his greatest works "The French Revolution". Carlyle was fanatical about researching original documents and often fought the establishment to be allowed to view these. He worked for a year on his masterpiece and passed the first volume to a friend to look over. But a careless servant then burnt the entire document! Lesser men would have despaired but he set to and wrote it again - the third volume was completed in January 1837 and Carlyle wrote "You have not for a hundred years any book that comes more direct and flaming from the heart of a living man".

While writing his history of the French Revolution he had earned no money for two years and even after publication, it did not earn him much initially. But a series of lectures, organised by friends, diverted him from the idea of seeking his fortune in America. His next great work, researched with the same level of minute detail, was on the letters and speeches of Oliver Cromwell, published in 1845.

A number of other books followed before he embarked on a history of Frederick the Great - a project which was to take him 14 years, published in many volumes between 1858 and 1865.

Carlyle's works were not just well researched histories but full of comment and fierce in their criticism of anything he found stupid or a sham or hypocritical. His philosophical writings were always regarded as stimulating and he cried out against tradition and convention - and this in the age of Queen Victoria.

Return to the Index of Famous Scots

Where else would you like to go in Scotland?

Separator line