LAST week I wrote about the novelist Jane Duncan, real name Elizabeth Jane Cameron, who was born in Renton in West Dunbartonshire in 1910.

By coincidence, today I am going to tell the story of a novelist and poet who was also born in what is now an area of Renton in the Vale of Leven. With all due respect to the Reachfar author Duncan, in the history of literature Tobias Smollett is a much more renowned figure, recognised as one of the pioneers of novel writing in the English language.

It was in this week in 1721 that Smollett was born. Unless I have missed it online, I see no great plans to mark the bicentenary of the birth of a Scotsman who really is worth celebrating. That is a shame, because Smollett is a fascinating character as well as a writer of note – his face is one of just 16 writers and poets depicted on the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.

We do not know the exact date of his birth, but from the fact that he was baptised on March 19, 1721, we can go along with the traditional birthdate assigned to him, namely March 16 – christening ceremonies tended to be much sooner after birth in those times of common infant mortality.

His father Archibald Smollett, laird of Bonhill in the Vale of Leven, was a landowner and a judge who had an imposing residence at Dalquhurn on the banks of the River Leven in the southern part of Renton. His father died when Smollett was just five, and he was raised at Dalquhurn by his mother Barbara née Cunningham.

Smollett attended Dumbarton Grammar School and Glasgow University where he studied medicine. His ambition was to have a career as a dramatist and at the age of 18 he moved to London, taking with him his first play The Regicide, about the assassination of King James I of Scotland. It did not make it on to the stage so Smollett had to find work and he joined the Royal Navy as a surgeon on board HMS Chichester. He saw action in the unsuccessful siege of Cartagena de Indias in what is now Colombia, an experience on which he based part of his later novel The Adventures of Roderick Random.

The ship arrived in Jamaica in 1741 where Smollett met and married an heiress, Anne Lascelles, known as Nancy. After his commission expired, Smollett set up in business as a surgeon in Downing Street in London, but he still hankered after a literary life and in 1746 his first published work was successful – it was a poem entitled The Tears of Scotland, commemorating the fallen Jacobites at Culloden.

Here is the first verse:

Mourn, hapless Caledonia, mourn

Thy banish’d peace, thy laurels torn!

Thy sons, for valour long renown’d,

Lie slaughter’d on their native ground;

Thy hospitable roofs no more

Invite the stranger to the door:-

In smoky ruins sunk they lie,

The monuments of cruelty.

His wife Nancy had stayed in Jamaica because she was unable to gain her dowry as it was invested in land and slaves. She moved to London in 1747 and the couple were unable to gain her inheritance. Needing money, Smollett turned to writing and in 1748 his first novel, The Adventures of Roderick Random, was published.

A semi-autobiographical account of a “north Briton” on the make, it would become recognised as one of the first picaresque novels in the English language, and it was a cause de scandale at first as it addressed themes such as snobbery, prostitution, debt and hinted at homosexuality. Smollett realised he had hit on a winning formula and his subsequent novels were also of the picaresque variety.

In 1750, Smollett gained his MD from Marischal College, Aberdeen, and that year also saw him in Paris where he researched his second novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle. A third novel, The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, followed in 1753 and by then Smollett was recognised as a man of letters, his home in London visited by the likes of Dr Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. He was not ranked alongside the serious novelists such as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson, but the comic adventures portrayed in his novels took a trick with the public, though Ferdinand did not sell well and plunged the writer into debt.

Smollett could be a serious writer, too. He translated Cervantes’ great novel Don Quixote into English and over eight years from 1757 to 1765 he compiled a History of England which he personally considered his best work and which sold sufficiently to make him comfortably off. He finally got a play produced, a farce called The Reprisal or the Tars of Old England, which earned him a tidy profit.

Smollett had a spell as editor of the 58-volume Universal History, and also edited The Critical Review, but then blotted his copybook by using the Review to libel a famous admiral, Sir Charles Knowles, and for that he spent three months in prison as well as paying a fine of £100 – he drew on that experience for his next novel, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot Greaves.

By 1763, Smollett was already ill, possibly with tuberculosis, when his only child, his daughter Elizabeth, died at the age of 15. He promptly retired from the various editorial posts he held, and moved to France and then Italy with his wife Nancy.

He made one more trip home to Scotland which gave him the material for his last and probably finest novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, published on June 15, 1771, three months before his death in Livorno.

There is a magnificent monument to Smollett, a Tuscan column erected by his sister Jean, which stands beside Renton Primary School. It contains a tribute in Latin, partly composed by Dr Johnson.