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Thomas Dickson LL.D.
In memoriam by J. Balfour Paul


It is only fitting that some notice should be taken in the pages of the Scottish Historical Review of the demise of one to whom all students engaged in the investigation of the political, social, or family history of Scotland owe a deep debt of gratitude. Other men of eminence in the same field have passed away honoured with the usual column in the daily press, but no such memorial has been given to one who deserves in a very high degree to be remembered for his life’s work. It is perhaps only consonant with the character of the man that such should have been the case; but, on the other hand, it is but proper that some record should be made of one who did so much in the cause of historical knowledge.

Dr. Dickson’s career was a simple one, and can be easily told. Born some seventy-nine years ago, he was, as a young man, destined for the ministry of the Free Church; an affection of the throat, however, occasioned it is said by a chill after some athletic exercise, put an end to his hopes of preaching, and led him to turn his footsteps into less declamatory paths. In 1859 he obtained the appointment of principal assistant in the Advocates9 Library, and the literary gifts and cultivated scholarship which he there developed and displayed led him to be appointed in 1867 successor to Joseph Robertson (who himself expressed a desire that he should succeed him) as Curator of the Historical Department in the Register House of Edinburgh. It was no small task to succeed such a man, who had been cut off in the fulness of his intellectual powers, and it says much for Dickson’s ability and force of character that before long he was recognised as a worthy holder of the office. Of a singularly modest and retiring disposition he did not give to the public many results of his labours, but no man was more willing to communicate to inquirers any information which he could supply, and there is hardly a single student of Scottish History, in its various branches, who is not obliged to him for assistance freely rendered from his stores of knowledge. In 1878 he was appointed one of the secretaries for foreign correspondence to the Society of Antiquaries, a post which he held till 1891. Save in the excellent working order in which he handed over his office of Historical Curator to his successor, he left few permanent records of his learning and zeal; but under the editorship of Cosmo Innes he personally superintended the preparation of the fac-similes of the National Manuscripts of Scotland; and, indeed, all the Record publications which appeared during his tenure of office owe much of their excellence to his skilled guidance. The public, too, are indebted to him for one of the best prefaces which was ever written to a volume of the Records. In 1877 he completed his great introduction to the first volume of the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland. He had done the work of editing entirely in his leisure hours, and from pure love of his subject, as he did not receive a penny of remuneration for it from the Government. It is a worthy memorial of the man, displaying not only a great knowledge of Scottish History, but an intimate acquaintance with the social life of the period (1473-98)- Whether he discoursed on costume, military and naval affairs, the sports and pastimes of the people, the price of food, or the rate of wages, he threw an illumination on the subject such as had never been done before. A list of the Heralds and Pursuivants of Scotland, which was appended to the preface, was a valuable addition to a little-known bye-path of research. His merits were soon to be recognised in an appropriate way, and in 1886 the University of Edinburgh conferred upon him the degree of LL.D. For years afterwards he worked quietly but effectively in the office which he loved, and for the efficiency of which he spared no trouble. But at last the time came when, under the regulations of the service, he had to retire and while he twice got extensions of his period of service, he had ultimately to give up what was to him a congenial and absorbing occupation, and in 1895 he finally quitted his post. He felt the parting from his official work keenly—too keenly in fact. His friends tried to persuade him again to take up the editorship of the Treasurer’s Accounts, with which Government had resolved to proceed, but his finely-strung and sensitive nature had received too severe a shock to permit him to undertake it with pleasure, and no inducement could prevail on him to resume work. Very occasionally his former colleagues saw him in his old haunts, but of late years his health gave way, and he led a very retired life. He passed away peacefully on the 16th of November, leaving behind him a memory which will be gratefully cherished by all who knew him, and having worthily enrolled himself in that distinguished band of record scholars of which Scotland is so justly proud.

J. Balfour Paul.


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