Edinburgh Bookshelf

Kay's Originals Vol. 1


BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. 13 was the eldest surviving son of James Rurnett, Esq. of Monboddo, in the county of Kincardine, where he was born in the year 17 14. His lordship received his initiatory education chiefly at the school of Laurencekirk, and afterwards was sent to King’s College, Aberdeen, where he distinguished himself by his proficiency in ancient literature, the study of which, in after life, became his ruling passion, and engrossed his attention to the entire exclusion of the productions of modern talent. Having been early destined for the bar, he proceeded, after completing his literary education at Aberdeen, to Groningen, where he studied Civil Law for three years. At the end of this period he came to Edinburgh, where he happened to arrive on the forenoon of the day which concluded with the public murder, as it might be called, of Captain Porteous. When about to retire to rest, his lordship’s curiosity was excited by a noiqe and tumult in the streets, and, in place of going to bed, he slipped to the door half-undressed, and with his nightcap on his head. He speedily got entangled in the crowd of passers-by, and was hurried along with them to the Grassmarket, where he became an involuntary witness of the last act of the tragedy. This scene made so deep an impression on his lordship that it not only deprived him of sleep during the remainder of the night, but induced him to think of leaving the city altogether, as a place unfit for a civilised being to live in. From this resolution, however, he was subsequently diverted, on hearing an explanation of the whole circumstances connected with the proceeding. His lordship frequently related this incident in after life, and on these occasions described with much force the effect which it had upoii him. Lord Monboddo passed his Civil Law examinations upon the 12th of February 1737, and being found duly qualified, was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates. In 1767 he was appointed a Lord of Session, and assumed the judicial designation by which he is now best known. It is a remarkable circumstance, that the seat on the bench occupied by his lordship was enjoyed by only three persons (himself being one) during the long period of one hundred and ten years. Lord Aionboddo’s patrimonial estate was small, not producing during the greater part of his life more than SE300 a year; yet of so generous and benevolent a disposition was he, that he would not raise his rents, nor dismiss a poor tenant for the sake of augmentation. It was his boast to have his lands more numerously peopled than any portion of equal extent in his neighbourhood. When in the country, during the vacation of the Court of Session, he wore the dress of a plain farmer, and lived on a footing of familiarity and kindness with his tenantry that greatly endeared him to them. His lordship’s private life was spent in the enjoyment of domestic felicity and in the practice of all the social virtues. Though his habits were rigidly temperate, there were few things he so much delighted in as the convivial society of his friends. He was a zealous patron of merit, and amongst those who experienced his friendship was the poet Burns. Notwithstanding the amiable character of Lord Monboddo, and his many
Volume 8 Page 23
  Enlarge Enlarge  
20 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. excellent qualities, he was not a little remarkable for his eccentricities, and for the strangeness and oddity of some of his opinions and sentiments, The most remarkable of these, as recorded by himself in his celebrated work on the Origin and Progress of Language, is the assertion that “ the human race were originally gifted with tails ! ” It was in allusion to this extraordinary discovery, that Lord Karnes, to whom he would on a certain occasion have conceded precedency, declined it, saying, “By no means, my lord, you must walk first that I may see your tail ! ” The work of his lordship, above alluded to, was severely handled in the Edinburgh Magazine and Ileview, by Dr. Gilbert Stuart, its editor, a severity which is said to have occasioned the downfall of that publication by the general offence which it gave.l Many peculiarities also marked his lordship’s conduct in his oEcial capacity, for he brought them even into court with him. Amongst these was his never sitting on the bench with his brethren, but underneath with the clerks, a proceeding which is said to have been owing to the circumstance of their lordships having on one occasion decerned against him in a case when he was a pursuer for the value of a horse, and in which he pleaded his own cause at the bar.’ Generally speaking, he was not inclined to assent to the decisions of his colleagues. On the contrary, he was often in the minority, and not unfrequently stood alone. He was nevertheless an eminent lawyer, and a most upright judge, and had more than once the gratification of having his decision confirmed in the House of Peers, when it was directly opposed to the unanimous opinion of his brethren. It has been already mentioned that an exclusive admiration of classic literature, which extended to everything connected with it, formed a prominent feature in his lordship’s character. This admiration he carried so far as to get up suppers in imitation of the ancients. These he called his learned suppers. He gave them once a week, and his guests generally were Drs. Black, Hutton, and Hope, and Mr. William Srnellie, printer, including occasionally the son of the gentleman last mentioned, Mr. Alexander Smellie. His lordship was in the habit for many years, during the vacations, of making a journey to London, where he enjoyed the society of some of the most eminent men of the period; then residing there, and frequently had the honour of personal interviews with the King, who took much pleasure in conversing with him: To this work Hume, the historian, was a contributor. This statement relative to the came which induced his lordship to take hu seat at the clerks’ table, is somewhat doubtful ; the deafness under which he labonred affords a much more satisfactory reason. The first time he sat there was upon occasion of the decision of the Douglas cause, when having been originally the leading counsel on behalf of Archibald Douglas (afterwards Lord Douglas), he felt a delicacy in giving his opinion from the bench, and preferred delivering it at the clerks’ table. His speech in favour of the paternity is admitted to have been the most able one on that side of the question. 3 During one of his visits to London (May 1785) he was present in the King’s Bench, when, owing to a false rumour that the court-room was falling, the judges, and lawyers, and visitors, made a rush
Volume 8 Page 24
  Enlarge Enlarge