Saturday, 20 February 2016

Forgotten Sons of Angus: In Search of Lewis Spence

James Lewis Thomas Chalmers Spence, journalist, writer and folklorist, is one of those artists whose memory still exists in a kind of limbo, sixty plus years after his death in Edinburgh in 1955.  A prolific author, whose most popular books (though perhaps not his best) are repeatedly reprinted, he remains an elusive figure, perhaps because the concerns of his generation are now mostly ill remembered.  He was born in Darlington Cottage in Broughty Ferry on 25th November 1874, the son of James Edward Kendall Spence and Barbara Charlotte Chalmers. Though this James Spence (born in Edinburgh in 1848) was primarily involved in the insurance business, his father, another James Spence (1812-1882) was an eminent professor of surgery in Edinburgh.  This family tradition perhaps influenced Lewis to study the allied subject of dentistry at Edinburgh University after going to Higher Ongar School in Essex.  On his mother's side of the family (she was Barbara Charlotte Chalmers), Spence was related to that other Angus luminary, James Chalmers (1782-1853), inventor of the adhesive postage stamp.

View of Broughty Ferry in the early 1900s

   But soon the calling of writing made Lewis Spence settle first into a career in journalism, becoming a sub-editor at The Scotsman, in 1899, the year in which he married Helen Bruce (the marriage produced one son and three daughters). The Scotsman years overlapped with a period as editor of The Edinburgh Magazine (1904-1905), then Spence moved on to become editor of The British Weekly (1906-1909), based in London.  It was during this period that folklore and mythology, also with a fascination for some areas of occultism, set his imagination alight. His first published book was Mysteries of Britain:  Secret Rites and Traditions of Ancient Britain Restored (1905).  This was followed by more than forty books, with his studies of mythology alone ranging from Babylonia and Egypt, to the Rhine and Spain and Native North and Central America.  While he was nearly as prolific as his near contemporary and fellow Scot Andrew Lang, this writing of mythology has stood the test of commercial reading taste well while Lang's works on fairies and folklore has largely not .  The incipient mysticism Spence shared with a whole set of other writers including W. B. Yeats, Algernon Blackwood, Fiona McLeod.  Although Spence was a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and Vice-President of the Scottish Anthropological and Folklore Society, he was also given an honorific title as 'Presider' of the Ancient Druid Order. It is important to note that he was probably not a practising druid, let alone an occultist or neo-magician. (Recognition by the druidical order was probably prompted by books such as The History and Origins of Druidism (1938).)

   The classes of Spence's works include several notable firsts, including the ground-breaking Encylclopedia of the Occult (1920) and the first book to delve into the murky world of Nazi fascination with esoteric lore, The Occult Causes of the Present War (1940).  But the fever which Lewis Spence caught most profoundly was the once alluring mystery of the lost continent of Atlantis. Always a left-field area, the allure of Atlantis began to swell in the late Victorian age and flourished in the early part of the 20th century.  Spence jumped into this probably lucrative area of knowledge with both feet and his books on the subject came thick and fast.  There was The Problem of Atlantis (1924, also known as Atlantis Discovered), Atlantis in America (1925), The Problem of Lemuria (1932), Will Europe Follow Atlantis? (1942), and The Occult Sciences in Atlantis (1943), plus his editorship of the journal Atlantis Quarterly (1932).   If Atlantean studies was a niche market during his time, it has shrunk to a very limited stump now, though these works too have been frequently reissued.
   An interesting light on Lewis's studies on Atlantis and how they related to his views on the anthropology of the Scottish 'race' was given by S. B. Tucker in his article 'Warlords of Maclantis: Scottish Nationalism's Undersea Kingdom' (The Fortean Times, 17th September 2015).  This well-researched piece tied in Spence's beliefs that the original stock of Scotland were linked to the lost continent.  This tied in Spence with the wilder fringe of nationalism, not only in Scotland, but also in Europe in the 1930s, though Tucker quite rightly refutes any suggestion that Lewis Spence had fascist tendencies.  In fact he seems to have been an ardent, if moderately right-wing Scottish nationalist of the type which was later cruelly characterised as 'tartan Tory'.  But Lewis Spence was ardent in his support of Scottish home rule and was a founder member of the Scottish National Movement and the National Party of Scotland, the forerunners of the Scottish National Party, serving as vice-chairman of the NPS.  He was this party's first parliamentary candidate, standing at the Midlothian and Peebles Northern by-election in 1929.  But he polled only 842 votes (4.5% of the vote), losing his deposit.  Later disagreements with the redoubtable left-leaning Hugh MacDiarmid and others led to his withdrawal from politics altogether.

First public meeting of the National Party of Scotland in 1928.  Lewis Spence is conspicuous by his absence.

   As well as turning his hand to magazine pieces, plays and stories, Lewis also found time to write poetry in Scots and English, published in volumes such as The Phoenix (1923), The Plumes of Time (1926), and Weirds and Vanities (1927).  Many of his verses celebrated various places and themes concerning Edinburgh, where he made his home, first in Arden Street and latterly at 34 Howard Place (Inverleith Row).  A picture of the writer's remarkable discipline and work rate was given by his friend Charles Cammell in his book Heart of Scotland (1956) [a summary of which,written by Philip Carr-Gomm, can be read at the website.

   In retrospect, Spence's most enduring legacy seems to be his volumes on British insular mythology and tradition.  Particularly good is The Fairy Tradition in Britain (1948), but other admirable works in this category include The Magical Arts in Celtic Britain (1945), British Fairy Origins (1946) and The Minor Traditions of British Mythology (1948) and Fairy Tradition in Britain (also 1948).

   Anyone who has unwanted copies of Scottish Ghosts and Goblins (1952) or any of the above works can readily donate them to me!

   In the end, Lewis Spence, despite his voluminous body of works and 80 years on this planet remains an elusive character these days.  A search of the internet for images of him reveals a scanty few, including the photo below.  Lewis Spence died in Edinburgh on the 3rd March 1955.  Gone but not forgotten.

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