Guest post by Pam Perkins
The Edinburgh botanist Patrick Neill didn’t make many friends as a result of his journey to Shetland in 1804. It was a relatively brief visit: he arrived in Lerwick on the morning of 26 August and left again on 6 September, after touring Bressay, Yell, and Unst, as well as the mainland. The fact that he chose to publish an account of the history, botany, culture, and economy of Shetland (first in a series of articles in The Scots Magazine and then as a book) after spending less than two weeks in the islands might not have been a problem in itself, but his harsh criticism of the economic system touched a nerve and placed Neill at centre of one of the more lively pamphlet wars of the era.
Neill’s main opponent was a Shetland landowner who signed himself “Thule” and who was almost certainly Robert Hunter of Lunna, even though Hunter had been one of the few landowners for whom Neill had some grudging, moderate praise. The battle was about pride: the landlords felt slurred by Neill’s description of the lives of the tenant fishermen as a form of “slavery.” It was also about personality. In an 1808 letter, Hunter’s uncle Thomas Mouat of Garth referred to Neill, sarcastically, as “the confident P.N.” and contrasted him unfavourably with another botanical traveller, the “Gentleman like” Yorkshireman Charles Fothergill (Shetland Archives D25/1/7). Thule himself was both more forthright and more public in his dislike of Neill, opening a pamphlet dated August 1806 (Thule’s Reply to Mr. Patrick Neil’s [sic] & Messrs Constable & Co’s Attempted Defences of their Conduct) with a no-holds-barred personal attack. Neill’s book, he proclaims, shows all the “marks of a mind naturally defective, clouded, confused, incapable of any distinct moral perception, and the ruling passion of which was vanity” (2).
Judging by their public exchanges, Neill was just as prickly as Thule, and so it is not surprising that the debate quickly degenerated from high-minded arguments about human rights into a squabble about everything from the shape of the Castle of Scalloway to whether or not there were mice on Unst. When Thule mocks Neill for describing the Castle of Scalloway as square and derides his observational skills, Neill responds with an attack on Thule’s grasp of basic English. “I used the word square as an adjective, not a substantive,” he writes, then advises Thule to spend some time with Johnson’s dictionary (Scots’ Magazine vol. 68 [Feb. 1806], 117). Moving from sledgehammer to rapier tactics, Neill then brings out “great authorities” (117) to support his claims that Unst was mouse-free: Thomas Mouat’s article on the island in the Statistical Account of Scotland. As Neill suspected Mouat of being Thule, this rejoinder manages neatly to combine self-defence with a subtly ironic attack on Neill’s presumed opponent.
Inevitably, the battle petered out after a few months. Robert Hunter planned to write an account of Shetland to counter Neill, but he never completed it. The “gentlemanly” Fothergill got as far as announcing his book on Shetland in the press, but even though some rough sketches for it survive in the Shetland archives, it was never published. So Thule’s best efforts notwithstanding, Patrick Neill’s two late summer weeks in 1804 remain the basis for one of the few significant travel narratives to depict Shetland in the opening years of the nineteenth century.
Pam Perkins teaches eighteenth-century and Romantic-era literature at the University of Manitoba and is currently working on accounts of the North Atlantic islands in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.