John Home

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John Home (1722-1808), Scottish dramatic poet, was born on the 22nd of September 1722 at Leith, near Edinburgh in Scotland. His father, Alexander Home, who was distantly related to the earls of Home, was town-clerk at Leith. Home was a close friend of the philosopher David Hume, to whom he was related. In 1756, while employed as a minister at Athelstaneford, near Edinburgh, his tragedy Douglas took to the stage, attracting public acclaim - but the censure of the Church. As a consequence, he retired from clerical duty to concentrate on his writing. His subsequent plays were greeted unenthusiastically, but he lived a long and happy life, in the close friendship of many of the eminent men of his day, particularly amongst the members of the Poker Club.

"...He seldom errs

Who thinks the worst he can of womankind."

from 'Douglas' by John Home

John Home was educated at Leith grammar school and at Edinburgh University, where he graduated with an M.A. in 1742; he studied divinity, and was licensed by the presbytery of Edinburgh in 1745. In the same year, he joined as a volunteer against the Pretender.

"He was, as were his associates, Whigs, sensible of the value of the new policy which came in with William of Orange. They knew by intuition that with a Romanist King there was bound to be a reaction in politics to absolutism and in religion to Episcopacy. The Presbyterians of that time were near enough the days of Charles II and James VII to understand what that meant. When resistance to the occupation of Edinburgh was hopeless, the ardent Home and his friends journeyed out to Durham to join Sir John Cope. Tradition has it that they visited every tavern on the way to drink confusion to the Pretender."[1]

John Home was taken prisoner at the battle of Falkirk (1746). With many others he was carried to the castle of Doune in Perthshire, but soon escaped.

In July 1746, Home was presented to the parish of Athelstaneford, Haddingtonshire, vacant after the death of Robert Blair, the author of The Grave. There he became close friends with many of the leading intellectuals of the Scottish Enlightenment.

"John Home was an admirable companion, and most acceptable to all strangers who were not offended with the levities of a young clergyman, for he was very handsome and had a fine person, about 5 feet 10 inches, and an agreeable, catching address; he had not much wit, and still less humor, but he had so much sprightliness and vivacity, and such an expression of benevolence in his manner, and such an unceasing-flattery of those he liked (and he never kept company with anybody else), — the kind commendations of a lover, not the adulation of a sycophant, — that he was truly irresistible, and his entry to a company was like opening a window and letting the sun into a dark room."[2]

With the encouragement of his friends, he began his (largely unsuccessful) career as a dramatist.

The Plays

Image of Shakespeare! To this place I come
To ease my bursting bosom at thy tomb.
For neither Greek nor Roman poet fired
My fancy first, thee chiefly I admired.
And day and night revolving still my page,
I hoped like thee to shake the British stage.
But cold neglect is now my only meed,
And heavy falls it on so proud a head.
If powers above now listen to my lyre,
Charm them to grant indulgent my desire.
Let petrifaction stop this falling tear,
And fix my form for ever marble here.

(Lines written after visiting Westminster Abbey after rejection of his first play)

Home's first play, Agis: a tragedy, based on Plutarch's narrative, was finished in 1747. He took it to London and submitted it to David Garrick for representation at Drury Lane, who rejected it. He had more success with his second play, the tragedy of Douglas, whose striking plot was suggested to him by the ballad Gil Morrice. The play tells the story of Lady Randolph and the rediscovery of her long-lost son Norval, the secret child of her clandestine marriage to a scion of the Douglas clan. The young Norval is murdered by a jealous villain, and the devastated Lady Randolph commits suicide by throwing herself off a cliff.[3]

This play was also rejected by Garrick, who thought it "totally unfit for the stage", but his friends resolved that it should be brought out in Edinburgh. It was produced on the 14th of December 1756 at Edinburgh's Canongate Theatre, and was greeted with enthusiasm: one of the audience was apparently moved to shout "Whaur's yer Wully Shakespere noo!" [4]Douglas was subsequently brought out at by John Rich's company at Covent Garden, London on 14th of March 1757.

David Hume summed up his admiration for Douglas by saying that his friend possessed "the true theatric genius of Shakespeare and Otway, refined from the unhappy barbarism of the one and licentiousness of the other." Gray, writing to Horace Walpole (August, 1757), said that the author "seemed to have retrieved the true language of the stage, which has been lost for these hundred years," but Samuel Johnson was less impressed; he declared that there were not ten good lines in the whole play [5]

The Church however took a very dim view of theatrical entertainment, and indeed summoned Home's friend, Dr Alexander Carlyle, to answer for having attended it. [6] Carlyle wrote "Although the clergy in Edinburgh and its neighbourhood had abstained from the theatre because it gave offence, yet the more remote clergymen, when occasionally in town, had almost universally attended the play-house. It is remarkable that in the year 1784, when the great actress Mrs. Siddons first appeared in Edinburgh, during the sitting of the General Assembly, that court was obliged to fix all its important business for the alternate days when she did not act, as all the younger members, clergy as well as laity, took their stations in the theatre on those days by three in the afternoon."[7]

However, in the face of disapproval from the Church, Home resigned his ministry in 1757.

In 1758 Home became private secretary to his patron, Lord Bute, then secretary of state, and was appointed tutor to the prince of Wales. Garrick produced a succession of further tragedies: Agis opened at Drury Lane on the 21st of February 1758, but it closed after eleven days. In 1760 The Siege of Aquileia, was put on the stage, Garrick taking the part of Aemilius. In 1769,The Fatal Discovery had a run of nine nights; Alonzo also (1773) had fair success; but Alfred (1778), was so coolly received that he gave up writing for the stage.

Later Life

In 1778, John Home joined a regiment formed by the Duke of Buccleuch. He was severely injured in a fall from a horse which permanently affected his brain, and was persuaded by his friends to retire. From 1767 he lived either at Edinburgh or at a villa which he built at Kilduff near his former parish. It was at this time that he wrote his History of the Rebellion of 1745, which appeared in 1802.[8] He died at Merchiston Bank, near Edinburgh, on the 5th of September 1808.

The Works of John Home were collected and published by Henry Mackenzie in 1822 with An Account of the Life and Writings of Mr John Home which appeared separately in the same year.


  1. South Leith Records
  2. From the Autobiography of the Rev. Dr Alexander Carlyle, Minister of Inveresk
  3. McGinley KJ (2007) The Two Edinburgh 1757 Editions of John Home's DouglasNotes & Queries 54:71
  4. Freeman LA (2002) The cultural politics of antitheatricality: the case of John Home's Douglas. Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation
  5. (Boswell, Life, ed. Croker, 1848, p. 390).
  6. Carlyle, in his autobiography, complains "Mr. John Home, who was the author of the tragedy, and of all the mischief consequent upon it — while his Presbytery of Haddington had been from time to time obstructed in their designs by the good management of Stedman, Robertson, and Bannatine, and were now preparing in earnest to carry on a prosecution against him, — on the seventh of June that year gave in a demission of his office, and withdrew from the Church, without the least animadversion on his conduct, which threw complete ridicule on the opposite party, and made the flame which had been raised against me appear hypocritical and odious to the last degree."
  7. Cited by Dean Edward Bannerman Ramsay in his Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character (Project Gutenberg)
  8. John Home (1822) The history of the rebellion in Scotland in 1745