Hugo Arnot, Esq., was, in as far as his person
is concerned, a sort of natural curiosity. He was of great height, but
sadly deficient in breadth ; yet an intelligent friend, who has
contributed some information to this work, and who knew him well,
complains that the limner has made him "really too solid!" If this be
so, it is an error which is corrected in another likeness of him. Mr.
Arnot's person was, in truth, altogether an extraordinary and remarkable
one, and it was in consequence the source of many jests and witticisms.
Mr. Arnot was the son of a merchant and ship proprietor at Leith, where
he was born on the 8th December, 1749. His name was originally Pollock,
but he changed it in early life to Arnot, on the occasion of his falling
heir, through his mother, to the estate of Balcormo, in Fife. He was
bred to the law, and became a member of the Faculty of Advocates in the
year 1772. A severe asthma, however, which was greatly aggravated by
almost every kind of exertion, proved a serious obstruction to his
progress at the bar, where, but for this unfortunate circumstance, there
is little doubt that his talents would have raised him to eminence.
Mr. Arnot published in 12mo, London, 1776, "An Essay on Nothing, a
Discourse delivered in a Society," which was favourably received.
1779, appeared his "History of Edinburgh," which makes, perhaps, as near
an approach to classical excellence as any topographical publication
which has ever appeared in Scotland. The merit of this work is
sufficiently expressed in the fact of its not having been thrown into
the shade, either in respect of information or composition, by any
subsequent production. In 1785, Mr. Arnot published a "Collection of
Celebrated Criminal Trials, with Historical and Critical Eemarks," which
added considerably to the reputation of its author.
Prior to the
publication of this curious work, Arnot quarrelled with the booksellers
; and in December, 1784, he advertised the book to be published by
subscription, adding, "Mr. Arnot printed, a few days ago, a prospectus
of the work, that the public might form some idea of its nature, and he
sent it to be hung up in the principal booksellers in town; but they
have thought proper to refuse, in a body, to allow the prospectus and
subscription papers to hang in their shops. The prospectus will
therefore be seen at the Eoyal Exchange Coffee House, Exchange Coffee
House, Prince's Street Coffee House, and Messrs. Corri and Sutherland's
Music Shop, Edinburgh, and Gibb's Coffee House, Leith."
Mr. Arnot, in
his day, enjoyed an unusually large share of local popularity,
proceeding from a combination of circumstances—his extraordinary figure,
his abilities, his public spirit, his numerous eccentricities, and his
caustic wit and humour. The reverse of Falstaff in figure, he resembled
that creature of imagination in being not only witty himself, but the
cause of wit in others. The jest of Henry Erskine, who, meeting him in
the act of eating a spelding or dried. haddock, complimented him on
looking so like his meat, was but one of many which his extraordinary
tenuity gave rise to.
Going alongst the North Bridge one day, Mr.
Arnot, who was of so extremely nervous and irritable a disposition, that
he appeared, when walking the streets, as if constantly under the
apprehension of some impending danger, was suddenly surrounded by about
half-a-dozen unruly curs in the course of their gambols. This was a
trying situation for a man of his weak nerves; hut he wanted only
presence of mind, not courage, and the latter, after a second or two,
came to his aid. It rose with the occasion, and he began to brandish his
stick; striking right and left, in front and in rear, with a rapidity
and vigour that kept the enemy at bay, and made himself, in a twinkling,
the centre of a canine circle. The resolution, however, which had come
so opportunely to his assistance on this occasion, in the end gave way.
Perceiving a break in the enemy's hues, he bolted through, turned again
round, and thus, keeping the foe in front, retreated, still flourishing
his stick, till he got his back against a wall, where, though it does
not appear that he was pursued by the dogs, he continued the exercise of
his cudgel for some time with unabated vigour, as if still in contact
with the enemy, to the great amusement of the bystanders, amongst whom
recognising a young man whom he knew, he roared out to him in a voice
almost inarticulate with excessive agitation—" W------l, you scoundrel!
why did you not assist me when you saw me in such danger?"
whom nervous disease placed in this grotesque attitude was originally of
an intrepid mind, as is sufficiently proved by several incidents in his
early life. One of them was his riding to the end of the Pier of Leith
on a spirited horse, when the waves were dashing over it in such a way
as to impress every onlooker with the belief that he could not fail to
be swept into the sea.
Another, was his accepting the challenge of an
anonymous foe, who took offence at a political pamphlet be had written.
This person called on him to meet him in the King's Park, naming the
particular place and time. Mr. Arnot repaired to the spot at the
appointed hour; but, though he waited long, no antagonist presented
In his professional capacity he was guided by a sense of
honour and of moral obligation, to which he never scrupled to sacrifice
his interests. He would take in hand no one cause, of the justice and
legality of which he was not perfectly satisfied. On one occasion, a
case being submitted to his consideration, which seemed to him to
possess neither of these qualifications—"Pray," said he, with a grave
countenance, to the intending litigant, "what do you suppose me to be?"
"Why," answered the latter, "I understand you to be a lawyer." "I
thought, sir," said Arnot, sternly, "you took me for a scoundrel!" The
man withdrew, not a little abashed at this plump insinuation of the
dishonesty of his intentions.
On another occasion he was waited upon
by a lady not remarkable either for youth, beauty, or good temper, for
advice as to her best method of getting rid of the importunities of a
rejected admirer, when, after telling her story, the following colloquy
"Ye maun ken, sir," said the lady, "that I am a namesake
o' your ain. I am the chief o' the Arnots."
"Are you, by Jing?"
replied Mr. Arnot.
"Yes, sir, I am; and ye maun just advise me what I
ought to do with this impertinent fellow?"
"Oh, marry him by all
means! It's the only way to get quit of his importunities."
see him hanged first!" replied the lady, with emphatic indignation.
"Nay, Madam," rejoined Mr. Arnot; "marry him directly, as I said before,
and, by the Lord Harry, he'll soon hang himself! "
asthmatic complaint with which he was afflicted, subjected him latterly
to much bodily suffering. When in great pain one day from difficulty in
breathing, he was annoyed by the bawling oi a man selling sand on the
"The rascal!" exclaimed the tortured invalid, at once irritated by
the voice, and envious of the power of lungs which occasioned it, " he
spends as much breath in a minute as would serve me for a month."
following anecdote is told of Hugo Arnot aud Mr. Hill, afterwards
Professor of Humanity (Latin), who was then tutor to the Lord
Justice-Clerk's son. Arnot met him returning from the Grassmarket on one
occasion when three men were executed there, and inquiring where he had
been, Mr. Hill replied that " he had been seeing the execution." "What,"
said Hugo, "you, George Hill, candidate for the Professor's Chair of
Humanity!" "Yes," said Mr. Hill. "Then, by------," continued the
indignant Hugo, "you should rather be Professor of Barbarity; and you
are sure of the situation, for it is in the gift of my Lord
Mr. Arnot's celebrated "Essay on Nothing," so full of
quaint humour itself, and the subject of several good sayings by his
contemporaries, is now, perhaps, only familiar in name to the generality
of readers. As a specimen of the nervous style of the author, the
following quotation from the preface may not be unassuming:—"I do not
communicate this treatise, says Hugo, " to promote directly piety,
morality, meekness, moderation, candour, sympathy, liberality,
knowledge, or truth; but indirectly, by attempting to expose and to lash
pride, pedantry, violence, persecution, affectation, ignorance,
impudence, absurdity, falsehood, and vice. Besides the stilts of Preface
and Dedication, I intended to have procured some recommendatory verses,
which may be called ' Passports for begging civility and favour from the
Christian reader.'' But, as I know no person living (at least in the
British realms), who is endued with any share of poetic fire ; and,
besides, am persuaded, if there were any such, none of them would be so
fool-hardy as to recommend this performance, I hope, instead of these,
the reader will accept the following verses, written in praise of this
performance by myself. This practice, I assure him, has by no means
novelty to recommend it, although it has not hitherto been openly
"Three sages in three learned ages born, Three different
polished stages did adorn. In dreams and prophecies the first excelled;
With pies and tarts the next his pages swelled; His high-dressed dishes
praised in loud bombast; But I, In Nothing, have them all surpass'd."
The publication of the Essay occasioned the following epigram, by the
Hon. Andrew Erskine, brother to the musical Earl of Kelly:—
out where the bent of one's genius lies, Oft puzzles the witty, and
sometimes the wise; Your discernment in this all true critics must find,
Since the subject's so pat to your body and mind."
The Hon. Henry
Erskine was once disputing with Arnot about the disposition which the
Deity manifests in the Holy Scriptures to pardon the errors of the
flesh—the metaphysician insisting for a liberal code, and the wit taking
a rather more confined and Calviuistic view of the case. At last, on
Arnot avowing his resolution to live in the hope of pardon, Erskine
readily conceded that great allowance is made for the flesh; but,
affecting to be doubtful in the peculiar case of his friend, he replied—
"Though bawdy and blasphemy may be forgiven, To flesh and to blood, by
the mercy of Heaven; Yet I've searched the whole Scriptures, and texts I
find none, Extending that mercy to skin and to bone.'"
tenuity of person, as a subject of satirical remark, was not entirely
confined to the learned. One day as he was standing in Creech, the
bookseller's shop, an old woman—a hawker of fish from Musselburgh—came
in to purchase a Bible. To quiz the old lady a little, Hugo said he
wondered she could trouble her head reading such a nonsensical,
old-fashioned book as that. Horror-struck at his blasphemous remark, the
old woman eyed Hugo in silence a few seconds, measuring him from head to
foot with inexpressible amazement. At length she exclaimed—"Gude hae
mercy on us! Wha wad hae thocht that ony human-like cratur wad hae
spoken that way. But you," she added, with an expression of the most
perfect contempt —" a perfect atomy!"
Mr. Arnot was long afflicted
with a nervous cough. He came into Creech's shop one day, coughing and
wheezing at a tremendous rate. Casting his eye on Mr. Tytler, of
Woodhouselee, who happened to be present, he observed to him, "If I do
not soon get quit of this------cough, it will carry me off like a
rocket.'" Mr. Tytler replied, "Indeed, Hugo, my man, if you do not mend
your manners, yon will assuredly take quite a contrary direction."
Arnot had a habit of ringing his bell with great violence—a habit which
much annoyed an old maiden-lady who resided in the floor above him. The
lady complained of this annoyance frequently, and implored Mr. Arnot to
sound his bell with a more delicate touch; but to no purpose. At length,
annoyed in turn by her importunities, which he believed to proceed from
mere querulousness, he gave her to understand, in reply to her last
message, that he would drop the bell altogether. This he accordingly
did; but in its place substituted a pistol, which he fired off whenever
he desired the attendance of his servant, to the great alarm of the
invalid, who now as earnestly besought the restitution of the bell, as
she had requested its discontinuance.
Mr. Arnot died on the 20th
November, 1786, in the 37th year of his age, exhibiting, in the closing
scene of his life, a remarkable instance of the peculiarity of his
character, and, it may be added, of his fortitude. For several weeks
previous to his death, he regularly visited his appointed burial-place
in South Leith Churchyard, to observe the progress of some masons whom
he had employed to wall it in, and frequently expressed a fear that his
death would take place before they should have completed the work.