Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA
Clark McGinn is nearing the end of his series on the few men who gathered in the
auld Burns cottage to celebrate Robert Burns a few years after his untimely
death. This small meeting became the first Burns Supper, and I doubt any of the
men ever dreamed what they had birthed. Now thousands of Burns Suppers are held
around the world each year on or around January 25th. I have attended
both large and small suppers and have delivered Immortal Memories from the east
coast to the west coast and many places in the South. I say this humbly but with
pride as I do it to honor the Bard. I have read more about Burns and spoken
about him more than any person in my life.
However, before one begins to boast of his or her (yes, her!) Immortal Memories,
let me mention that Clark has flown around the world over eight times delivering
145 Immortal Memories in 30 cities in 15 countries. My dear old Dad, who passed
away in 1953 when I was 14, would have said, “Put that in your pipe and smoke
it!” Clark would never boast of his accomplishments but I will for him. He is
one of the finest Burns speakers I have ever heard. I have always wanted him to
speak at my own Burns Club in Atlanta and hopefully 2016 has a great chance of
being the year my dream comes true. Cross your fingers with me and maybe, just
maybe, this will be the year he comes our way. In the meantime, build yourself a
fire if you can, get a glass of good wine or whatever your choice of drink is,
settle down and enjoy this chapter on NINE MEN: THE BANKER AND THE PROFESSOR.
NINE MEN: THE BANKER AND THE PROFESSOR.
By Dr Clark McGinn.
chapter in our study of the guest list at the first ever Burns Supper, I want to
look at the intertwined lives of two of the men who attended that memorable day:
David Scott and Dr Thomas Jackson. They shared the friendship and patronage of
Provost John Ballantine and their lives were profoundly influenced by three
local factors: Robert Burns, Ayr Academy and Glasgow University. All subjects
close to my own heart!
We know relatively little about David Scott but we
can assume that he had an enjoyment of poetry and an early interest in Burns as
his name features in the list of subscribers to the First Edinburgh Edition.[i]
Hamilton Paul, in his minute of the first dinner, describes Scott as a ‘banker
in Ayr,’ as at that time Scott was the ‘accountant’, as the senior non-partner
banker was known, in Messrs Hunter & Co. which you will remember was the banking
partnership in Ayr headed by John Ballantine. Some years previously, in that
role, Scott had met the Burns family having been selected as the independent
assessor of John Hamilton of Sundrum’s report into the merits of William Burns’s
counterclaim in the lawsuit brought by the landlord of his Lochlie farm in 1783.[ii]
David Scott appears to have been a trusted colleague of Ballantine’s and as such
he was appointed treasurer of Ayr Academy, one of Provost John’s biggest
projects in the ‘Ayr Enlightenment’.[iii]
Over time he was to become a full partner of Hunter’s (certainly he was a full
partner by the time the retirement of Hugh Hunter of Pinmore in 1814).[iv]
He died at home in Ayr on 8th June 1823,
at the age of 76.[v]
His executors included Quentin Kennedy of Drumellan (who was Primrose’s son and
heir) and Provost William Cowan of Ayr, both of whom were partners in Hunters
(you can see their signatures on the bank note above) and who were also members
of the Allowa’ Club whose Burns Cottage Suppers were now recognised across
Scotland as annual events.[vi]
I have been able to find very little about Scott’s
family life, save that his only son died in Cartagena on 7 September 1810,[vii]
but the interesting connection for this essay is that his daughter Alison
married Professor William Meikleham of Glasgow University on December 30, 1799.[viii]
Let me take a slight detour and talk of that son-in-law.
Bust of Robert Burns on Ayr Academy Building
William Meikleham was the son of a Kilmarnock
dominie or schoolmaster called William McIlwham (a common, albeit rather
uneuphonious, Ayrshire surname which his son transliterated into some form of
Standard English). He was born in 1771 and went up to study at Glasgow
University between 1788 and 1792. After graduating as a Master of Arts, he
remained at the college and acted as a teaching assistant to the Professor of
Natural Philosophy (Professor John Anderson, one of the great – albeit irascible
– characters in Glasgow’s history. He was the friend of Benjamin Franklin and of
James Watt, and was widely known as ‘Jolly Jack Phosphorus.’ His will created
and endowed the precursor to Glasgow’s second University, now called
Strathclyde.) After Anderson’s death in 1796, Meikleham worked briefly for
Anderson’s successor James Brown (who was too ill, or more likely lazy, to
teach.) At the end of that summer, the first session of John Ballantine’s Ayr
Academy was scheduled to commence, having received its Royal Charter from the
King, and the directors were looking for a man to become the first head teacher,
or Rector as the post is still titled today. The generosity of the donors meant
that the position was offered at an impressive salary of £80 per annum, plus
accommodation and the perks of the job (which amounted to some £20 in boarding
out of town boys and on top of that a skim of the class fees charged by the
masters under him).[ix]
Meikleham was a candidate for this plum position, and approached the opportunity
with an impressive testimonial from his University signed by Principal Davidson
and all twelve professors on the faculty.[x]
William removed from Glasgow to Ayr in the autumn of 1796 to take up his
lucrative new position. When settled in that prosperous West-coast burgh, he met
and married Alison Scott and they would go on to have six children. We will have
cause to talk about the eldest son William Junior, in a moment.
Meanwhile, back in Glasgow, Professor Brown
developed little to no interest in teaching his students the complexities of
Natural Philosophy (as Physics was called in Glasgow until as recently as the
1990s), and he chose Thomas Jackson (our second protagonist) as the new
assistant to replace William and teach his classes while he retained the
Thomas Jackson was born on 16 December 1773 in
Waterhead near Carsphairn
in Dumfries & Galloway and was his father’s eldest son and eponym.
The young Thomas was sent to learn his
letters and sums at Tynon village school and from there, he proceeded to study
at Glasgow. Jackson graduated Master of Arts from there in 1794 and then spent
some time reading Divinity.[xi] He
supported the almost absent Professor Brown for a couple of years until in 1799
Professor Patrick Wilson (then Regius Professor of Astronomy in the
University) was seeking to retire and had chosen to nominate the gifted young
scientist Jackson as his successor. The Chancellor of the University (the Duke
of Montrose) was an arch (not to say rabid) Tory, and so vehemently opposed
Jackson on party political grounds.[xii]
Regius chairs are so called because they were endowed by the Crown who (until a
very few years ago) retained the patronage of appointment through the Government
of the day, However, Jackson had been marked and even a personal appeal by
Professor Wilson to the all-powerful Henry Dundas could overcome the opposition
In a great political fudge, Meikleham (supported by the Tory cabal on the
faculty) was awarded the chair and on his resignation from the Academy its
Whiggish directors wrote to the disappointed Jackson inviting him to fill that
Meikleham was to spend the rest of his life working
and living in the University of Glasgow. In time he transferred from the Regius
Chair of Astronomy to the more senior chair of Natural Philosophy in 1803 which
he held until his death in 1846. While he was not a theoretically distinguished
scientist, he was one of the main teachers of James Thomson, Lord Kelvin, who
remains one of the greatest physicists in history. Beyond his teaching,
Meikleham served in the pivotal position of Clerk of Senate twice from 1802 to
1806 and then again from 1828 to 1831. He briefly entered the Burnsian world
again when was responsible for making the arrangements for Robert Jr. to take up
a Hamilton Bursary in 1801 to come and study at the university upon the
recommendation of ‘Orator Bob’ Aiken.[xiv]
Alison Scott died in 1808 after having borne two
boys, and the Professor married again in 1812 and would have two more sons.
Alison’s sons both went to Glasgow to study – the second child was named David
Scott Meikleham after his maternal grandfather at his birth in 1804. He was an
undergraduate at Glasgow from 1817 for four years until he was appointed to the
prestigious Snell Exhibition at Balliol College in Oxford, where he was awarded
both his BA (Oxon) and MA (Oxon) before returning home to Glasgow to train as a
medic. He emigrated shortly after graduating MD and married one of Thomas
Jefferson’s granddaughters, Septima Randolph in Havana, Cuba where he set up
practice before moving to New York where he died suddenly of malaria in 1849.[xv]
However, his elder brother is of more interest to
this particular story. William Meikleham Junior (born in 1802) graduated MA from
Glasgow in 1820 and then LLB in 1839 after practising as a solicitor in the
city. Through his father’s influence, he acted as legal advisor to the
University and became Clerk of Senate in 1831 in succession to his father.
Unfortunately, he lived a double life and fell into disgrace and bankruptcy in
1845. He had just been re-elected as Clerk but when the accounts of the Hamilton
Bursary were examined, the sum of £3,000 was missing from the trust funds.
William Junior as the trustee had embezzled a significant proportion of the
charity’s capital to finance his lifestyle. He fled justice and died in
Milwaukee in 1852.[xvi]
His father died the following year on 7 May having been in poor health for some
time. That is the history of the rise and fall of the Meikleham Empire in
Returning to the career of Thomas Jackson, he was
made welcome in the community as the second Rector of Ayr Academy and during his
sojourn in Ayr, with Hamilton Paul, he became one of the two ‘young members’ of
John Ballantine’s Sunday School which was a dining club at Provost John’s home
of Castlehill every Sunday evening after the long day of Kirk services (which,
even for liberal Whigs and New Licht ministers shows a bit of naughtiness in
openly drinking and enjoying oneself on the Sabbath!)[xvii]
However comfortable Jackson’s life was in that
period, and despite his evident success in shaping the life of the Academy, he
had never given up his ambition to hold a professorial chair at one of
Scotland’s ancient universities.[xviii]
In December 1804, the Principal and Professors of the University of St Andrew’s
met to elect a Professor of Natural Philosophy. As you can expect given the
tussle described at Glasgow, this had already been a partisan campaign centred
on political influence and patronage, abut in this case neither side seemed to
have had the leading edge (these stories of university factions and politics of
the time bring to mind the modern novel, The Masters by CP Snow, or the
famous dictum of Dr Henry Kissinger that academic politics is vicious as the
stakes are so small). By the day of the professorial election, two candidates
were front-runners: the eminently suitable Jackson and a Tory placeman called Dr
John Macdonald (a Church of Scotland minister who had not made any study of
Physics and whose only qualification was having the ear of Dundas, still the
Tory patronage ‘King’ of Scotland). At the university meeting the votes were
cast and tied at four all. Principal Playfair claimed the right of exercising a
casting vote as chairman and thus awarded the professorship to Jackson.[xix]
Almost immediately, the Reverend Dr Macdonald obtained an interdict from the
Court of Session in Edinburgh who on judgement overturned Jackson’s nomination
by ruling against the Principal’s ability to count both his substantive and his
casting vote. Not taking that lying down, Jackson and his supporters fought the
case in the House of Lords in London winning on appeal five years later.[xx]
So in 1809, Jackson resigned as Rector of Ayr Academy (his position being filled
by David Ballingall, a fellow member of the Allowa’ Club), packed his
telescopes, instruments and library and set off eastwards to St Andrews for his
instalment. Talking of instalments, Jackson decided to sue the beaten Macdonald
for the salary and fees the latter had taken between 1805 and 1809 while he was
the de facto Professor, but the Court of Session, no doubt peeved by
being overruled at Westminster, ultimately threw out his claim.[xxi]
That was to be the last move in Jackson’s career.
With the exception of a long jaunt to Italy in 1829-30, he sat in the chair of
natural philosophy in St Andrews until his death in 1837. Along the way he was
awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by his alma mater in 1810,
and was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh as a fellow in 1817 and at
some point also to the fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society. His
teaching at St Andrews was highly regarded, with his only published text book
(other than his contributions to The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia) receiving
special attention, a reviewer calling it ‘one of the best books on elementary
mechanics which our language can boast.’[xxii]
In fact, he seems to have had a reputation as a teacher and scientist who ‘was
highly successful in simplifying the details of abstruse science.’[xxiii]
In what seems odd in today’s highly siloed academic world, for several years in
addition to Physics, he taught the undergraduate class in classical Greek too!
Some student notebooks from his courses still exist and the Laing Collection has
a beautifully illustrated note book which he used in his studies.[xxiv]
‘in harness’ as it were, at his home in St Andrew’s on 17 February 1837 in his
One of his obituaries summed up his character as:
averse was he to all superficial pretensions, that, unlike a great proportion of
those who aim at distinction, and do not in reality deserve one-half of the
merit which they claim, or which they get sometimes, the world might safely give
him credit for one-half more of personal worth and intellectual power and
accomplishment, than what appeared in him outwardly. He had the nicest sense of
honour, and the most refined moral delicacy of any man we have ever known, and
withal he possessed such a fund of native good humour, kindliness of
disposition, and urbanity of manners, as rendered him the most agreeable of
companions in private life.
were characteristics which probably made his an excellent dinner companion for
Hamilton Paul, his father-in-law David Scott and the other six gentlemen of Ayr
on that memorable July day in Burns Cottage.
Poems, Chiefly in The Scottish Dialect, (Edinburgh: William Creech,
Mackay, Burns, pp.113 -114.
For the wider
context, please read Bob Harris, Charles McKean,
The Scottish Town
in the Age of the Enlightenment 1740-1820,
Edinburgh University Press, 2014)
which has a picture of Ballantine’s New Bridge on the cover.
London Gazette May
10, 1814, p.990.
July 1823, p.128.
See also: Will of
David Scott, Banker of Ayr, Ayrshire, National Archives, Kew,
Records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury: PROB 11/1676/162.
Lloyds Banking Group Archives (Edinburgh):
Reference Number: GB
1830 HUN: Records of
Hunters and Company,
Bankers, Ayr (1657-1854).
750 Years of a Scottish School: Ayr Academy 1233 – 1983, (Ayr:
Alloway Publishing, 1983), p.31.
University Archives: Papers of Professor William Meikleham: Letter and
certificates recommending William Meikleham as Rector of Ayr Academy
(1796): Reference: GB 0248 DC 056/2/1.
St Andrews As It Was And Is, (Cupar: St Andrew’s University Printer,
Roger L Emerson,
Academic Patronage in Enlightenment Scotland: Edinburgh, Glasgow and St
Andrew’s, (Edinburgh: EUP, 2008) pp.194-197.
Letter: Patrick Wilson to Viscount Melville, London, 1799. University of
Glasgow Sp Coll MS Murray, 663/18/5.
Catalogue of the Burns Exhibition Held in the Galleries of the Glasgow
Institute of the Fine Arts From 15th July Till 31st October, 1896,
(Glasgow: W. Hodge, T&R Annan, 1898), p.171.
Snell Exhibitions from the University of Glasgow to Balliol College,
MacLehose, 1901), p.106.
Dr Meikleham’s papers are lodged at Special Collections, University of
Archives: MS Gen
1717/3/3 - Papers of Duncan MacFarlan (1771-1857) relating to
Meikleham's Case (Hamilton Bursary fraud), 1844-1848.
W&R Chambers Archive, National Library of Scotland, Dep 341, no 517,
Manuscripts of the Rev Hamilton Paul.
December 1804, p.969.
Playfair and Others vs Macdonald and Others, House of Lord Reports,
26 May 1809.
And while this was wending its way through the legal process, in 1805
Jackson threw his hat into the ring for the Chair of Mathematics at
Edinburgh in 1805, but quickly found he had insufficient patronage at
the Town Council and withdrew.
Macdonald, Court of Session, Decisions of the Second Division, 5
St Andrews University Archives:
GB 227 ms. QC31.J2:
Notes By Henry Ramsay On The Lectures Of Thomas Jackson, 1834-35.
Notes On Natural Philosophy Taken Down By Alexander Mclaren; Possibly
From Lectures Of Professor Thomas Jackson.
Thomas Jackson, Elements
of Theoretical Mechanics, (Edinburgh: Laing, 1827); Review in The
Repertory of Patent Inventions &c.,vol xxxi, January 1829, at
New Statistical Account of Scotland, 15 vols, (Edinburgh &
London: Blackwoods, 1844), vol v: ‘Ayr; Bute; Ayrshire’, Ayr, p.34.
© Clark McGinn, MMDV