Shaw, William (1749-1831) (DNB00)

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SHAW, WILLIAM (1749–1831), Gaelic scholar, was born on 3 Feb. 1749 at Clachaig in the parish of Kilmorie in the island of Arran (New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1845, vol. v. pt. ii. p. 51). He was educated at Ayr and at King's College, Glasgow, where he graduated M.A. in 1772. On leaving the university he came to London, where he was employed by a merchant in the tuition of his children. He became acquainted with Dr. Johnson, and was one of the literary coterie which met at Bolt Court and Streatham Park. His first work, published by subscription, was ‘An Analysis of the Gaelic Language,’ London, 1778, 4to (2nd edit. Edinburgh, 1778, 8vo). A portion of the ‘Proposals’ for this work was written by Johnson. Shaw also formed the design of making a collection of all the vocables in the Gaelic language. He communicated the plan in 1778 to Johnson, who approved it. But an application for aid made to the Highland Club met with no success. Shaw, out of his own property, mustered between 200l. and 300l., and started for the highlands. Johnson, in bidding him farewell, said: ‘Sir, if you give the world a vocabulary of that language, while the island of Great Britain stands in the Atlantic ocean your name will be mentioned’ (Shaw, Memoirs of Dr. Johnson, p. 152).

Entering the ministry of the church of Scotland, he was presented by the Duke of Gordon, in July 1779, to the parish of Ardelach in the presbytery of Nairn, of about 50l. yearly value; but, being dissatisfied, he resigned the charge 1 Aug. 1780 (Hew Scott, Fasti, iii. 242). After having travelled three thousand miles in Scotland and Ireland he completed his vocabulary, and published it under the title of ‘A Galic and English [and an English and Galic] Dictionary, containing all the Words in the Scottish and Irish Dialects of the Celtic that could be collected from the Voice and Old Books and MSS.,’ 2 vols. London, 1780, 4to. On 20 Jan. 1786 he won an action in the court of session against some of the subscribers, who contended that they were not bound to accept the book because it was defective. It was admitted that he ‘had not fulfilled the terms of his printed proposals.’ The highlanders had refused to give him information unless he paid them for it. Thereupon Shaw proceeded to Ireland, where the peasantry received him with more urbanity, the result being that the work contained an undue proportion of strictly Irish words (Reid, Bibliotheca Scoto-Celtica, p. 56).

Shaw was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries on 17 May 1781. In the controversy with James Macpherson (1736–1796) [q. v.] respecting the authenticity of his Ossian, he sided with Dr. Johnson, and published ‘An Enquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems ascribed to Ossian,’ London, 1781, 8vo (Dublin, 1782); a second edition, with a reply to Dr. John Clark's answer, was published at London in 1782, and also at Dublin, part of the reply being from Johnson's pen. This was followed, in 1784, by ‘A Rejoinder to an Answer from Mr. Clark on the subject of Ossian's Poems.’ He next published ‘Memoirs of the Life and Writings of … Dr. Samuel Johnson, containing many valuable Original Letters, and several interesting anecdotes, both of his literary and social connections. The whole authenticated by living evidence’ (anon.), London, 1785, 8vo, an extremely rare work.

He had been induced by Johnson to renounce presbyterianism and to take holy orders in the church of England. He subsequently graduated B.D. from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1800. On 1 May 1795 he was presented by Sir Charles Kemeys Tynte, bart., to the rectory of Chelvey, Somerset. In 1801 he published at Bath ‘Suggestions respecting a Plan of National Education, with Conjectures on the probable Consequences of non-descript Methodism and Sunday Schools;’ and ‘The Life of Hannah More, with a Critical Review of her Writings. By the Rev. Sir Archibald MacSarcasm, bart.,’ appeared in London in 1802. He died at Chelvey on 16 Sept. 1831, aged 83 (Bristol Mirror, 24 Sept. 1831).

[Biogr. Dict. of Living Authors, 1816; Boswell's Life of Johnson; European Mag. 1782, i. 38; Gent. Mag. 1781 pp. 251, 621, 1801 ii. 1116, 1117, 1831 ii. 378; Halkett and Laing's Dict. of Anon. Lit. ii. 1473; Lit. Memoirs of Living Authors, 1798, p. 247; O'Donovan's Irish Grammar, Introd. p. lviii; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. v. 377, 5th ser. xi. 486, xii. 78, 7th ser. ix. 230, 307, 391, 498; Reid's Bibl. Scoto-Celtica, pp. 51, 55.]

T. C.