- David Allan
Guthrie, William (1708?–1770), historian and political journalist, was born at Brechin, Forfarshire, the son of a Scottish Episcopal clergyman. He was reputedly educated at King's College, Aberdeen, though the published registers of matriculations and graduations do not contain his name. He left Scotland for London about 1730, intending to pursue a life as a man of letters.
Guthrie first emerged as a reporter of parliamentary business for the Gentleman's Magazine, a task in which he achieved real proficiency. But, writing under the pseudonym Jeffrey Broadbottom, he also produced rather more scurrilous material, including the infrequent periodical Old England, or, The Constitutional Journal (1743–6) and the blatantly scatological Serious and Cleanly Meditations upon an House-of-Office (a Boghouse) (1744). Guthrie was rewarded in 1745 with a government pension of £200 per annum from Henry Pelham. Although seemingly an ardent ally of the whig administrations, he was sufficiently influential—and unscrupulous—to receive a renewal of this payment under Lord Bute's administration in 1762.
Guthrie's scholarly interests having quickened through middle age, he had also begun work on a substantial project, the History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to 1688. Published in four volumes in 1744–51, this benefited from his professional experience in that it made unprecedented use of parliamentary papers for the later period. Subsequently he produced several more works. His wider literary interests were also revealed in translations of Quintilian (1756) and Cicero (1744, 1745, 1755, 1758), in a sentimental history The Friends (1754), and in the critical work Essay upon English Tragedy (1757). But his finest work remained historical, Guthrie managing, like his compatriot Smollett, to bring considerable journalistic flair to the contemporary popularization of historiography. His Complete List of the English Peerage (1763) was useful in intent though not always accurate in its execution, containing numerous errors even in relation to George II's very recent reign. More competent and better received were a twelve-volume General History of the World, from the Creation to the Present Time (1764–7), published with collaborators, and a ten-volume General History of Scotland (1767). The latter was particularly intriguing for its exploration of early Scottish history which, in the immediate aftermath of Ossian's spectacular arrival on the literary stage, allowed Guthrie to tap into topical interest in his native country's Pictish and Gaelic past. John Pinkerton, who later made this his own particular specialism, reckoned Guthrie's the finest work on the subject hitherto written.
Guthrie's most successful work, however, was his Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar (1770), in many ways built on the previous two works. It saw several later editions and eventually, in 1801, translation into French. In offering 'knowledge of the world, and of its inhabitants' (W. Guthrie, Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar, 1770, 4), Guthrie developed a fluent simplification of Scottish Enlightenment historical and political analysis. Welcoming the 'rapid progress and general diffusion of learning and civility' which had granted him a privileged vantage point from which to survey the rest of history, he also viewed with great pride what he claimed had been the recent eradication of 'those illiberal prejudices, which not only cramp the genius, but sour the temper of man, and disturb all the agreeable intercourse of society' (ibid., 3). Guthrie's vision of progressive human evolution was also underpinned by the consuming faith in the ultimate triumph of commerce, cultivation, toleration, and liberty in modern Britain which his readers so often shared.
Guthrie's critical stock has subsequently fallen along with the credibility of the assumptions which once sustained it. Yet both Johnson and Boswell regarded him with affection, and he was reputed a serious scholar by his admiring contemporaries. He died in London on 9 March 1770 and was buried in Marylebone.
- W. Anderson, The Scottish biographical dictionary (1845), 398–90
- Chambers, Scots. (1835), 2.186–8
- D. Allan, Virtue, learning and the Scottish Enlightenment: ideas of scholarship in early modern history (1993)
- C. Kidd, Subverting Scotland's past: Scottish whig historians and the creation of an Anglo-British identity, 1689–c.1830 (1993), 239
- Boswell, Life, 1.116–21; 2.52
- P. J. Anderson, ed., Officers and graduates of University and King's College, Aberdeen, MVD–MDCCCLX, New Spalding Club, 11 (1893)
- Officers of the Marischal College and University of Aberdeen, 1593–1860 (1897)
- I. Taylor, line engraving, BM, NPG; repro. in I. Taylor, History of Scotland (1767)