Beattie, whose father was a respectable Scottish farmer, was educated at the university of Aberdeen. In 1754 at the age of nineteen he commenced the study of Divinity, supporting himself at the same time by teaching an obscure school. Not long afterwards he was appointed one of the instructors in the high school of Aberdeen. In 1761 he published a volume of poems which were then highly commended, but which he afterwards, and perhaps rightly, judged were not worthy of preservation. At the age of twenty-six he was appointed professor of Moral Philosophy in Aberdeen University, and held this office forty years. In 1770 appeared his Essay on Truth, the most extensively popular of his prose works, and a year after he published the first part of The Minstrel. The second part appeared in 1774.
He was unfortunate in his family, whose peace was destroyed by the insanity of his wife; and the last years of his existence were peculiarly calamitous. The loss of his two sons, both youths of extraordinary promise, and one for a short period associate professor with his father, injured his health, and depressed his spirits, even to the temporary derangement of his reason. "Yet amidst the depth of his melancholy he would sometimes acquiesce in his childless fate, and exclaim 'how could I have borne to see their elegant minds mangled with madness.'"
It is upon the Minstrel that the poetical celebrity of Beattie exclusively rests; and this poem displays a sweet fancy, and abounds in passages of great beauty, both in description and sentiment. A vein of pathetic moral reflection runs through the whole of it, which is of the purest kind, and very elevating in its influence. We have a fine instance of his descriptive power in the stanzas upon morning, especially in the line "Down the rough slope the ponderous wagon rings," — a very striking circumstance, and expressed in the most vivid language possible. In the romantic character of Edwin he has exhibited the youthful meditation and fancies of genius, as it unfolds in retirement, and is afterwards strengthened by study, in a manner which is not only interesting but instructive.